Category Archives: Accidental Realism

Escape Velocity

By Ed Staskus

   Before Agnes ever went to the Surprise House at Euclid Beach, the city fun park, she went to Holiday Sands. It was her little brother and her friends. It was her mother Eva and their neighbor Anna MacAulay. It was old times and new times all mixed up together. Years later she thought they might have been the best times she ever had in her life. 

   They went from when she was a small girl, right after Sammy was potty-trained and she was five years old. They car-pooled with the MacAulay’s since they had a summer pass and an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser that fit all of them. Olds called the car the “Escape Machine.” Eva made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it early in the morning. She baked Texas sheet cake with buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Anna brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes they had barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and Eva’s new drink, Diet Pepsi. 

   She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made her husband Nick mad. “You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he complained. She popped a can open as soon as he went to work. Eva Giedraityte knew when to stay behind Nick Goga’s back. It hadn’t always been that way, but that’s the way it had gone.

   Anna was Eva’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. They lived across the street from one another on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas. Nick called their telephone the blower. “All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said. Eva didn’t like that. She wanted to call him a blowhard but bit her tongue.

   In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and they were ready to go they ran to the yellow car, begging Eva to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place Eva called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Agnes’s best friend Marcia and she sometimes lost track of where they were because they sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.

   Anna and Eva sat in the front talking non-stop, Eva’s arm stuck out the window, Anna steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Sammy wriggled to get next to one of the windows so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle. They were the other MacAulay girls. Marcia and Agnes watched the road going backwards. When they heard gravel crunching, they knew they were finally there and twisted around towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’ and the run-down guardhouse leaning sideways.  

   Once they got there none of them could remember getting out of the car or into their bathing suits, only the next thing they knew they were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. They drank water at the frog fountain and ran to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while their mothers spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table. 

   Their day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where they were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when they stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.

   They ate lunch and dinner like fattening calves at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. They weren’t allowed back in the lake for sixty minutes. Otherwise, they might get cramps and drown. Sometimes they would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time they never slept until the end of the day riding home on the darkening road.

   Marcia was Agnes’s bosom buddy and barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of her. She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were rusty red white and blue, striped, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were sketchy trying get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water. 

   Nobody could logroll Marcia off them once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the stuck-up east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a squid on a skateboard.

   Almost a year older than Agnes she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off the line into the water.

   “When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” she asked her mother.

   “You never will,” Eva said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”

   “How can that be?”

   The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked whenever anybody let a breath out. Agnes climbed up the twisting steps grimly holding on to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was her turn to go Marcia had to give her a shove, even though Agnes knew she could never go back down on the stairs, anyway, because with every step she would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. She slid down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning her legs as she pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch, finally heaving herself, after a dead stop at the bottom, into the water with a plop.

   Marcia put her arm around her shoulders. “If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” she told her secretly when everybody laughed about her slowdown ride. Marcia always raced it, though, scared or not.

   Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off but throwing her head up and back, she would straighten out and cracker down like a rocket.

   Whenever she felt more daring than concerned, she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down, but not Marcia, who came down slick like clean underwear.

   Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers “Water safety check, water safety check, please return to the shore” and everybody had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes. After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again. “Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system, never swim alone.” 

   Only after the safety check did everybody get to go back on the barrels and slides and diving boards. One day a boy who had been in the water didn’t make the count, and everyone thought he might have drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth, and children circled the lake, craning to see underwater, their mothers hovering over them. Finally, the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like all the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one blamed him about causing so much trouble, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out. 

   “Let’s go drift to the back of a window,” the bigger boy said smirking.

   Agnes liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was almost impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. They flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, dark gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.

   “See the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it. There’s an hourglass in his other hand. Time’s running out, let’s go play.”

   A submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch beside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind them, separated by low cypress hedges. They rode the swing at twilight in the shadows. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together her friends and she arced up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. A boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point, he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on a bare spot.

   “Oh, my Goddamn, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his cracked arm and cradling it.

   Agnes’s favorite was the corkscrew. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. She called it the peanut butter maker, although she couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The runts got on first and the rest turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until they jumped on, and the bigger boys kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest boy was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.

   The wheel started spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some crouched inside the frame, while others dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging on they were pulled parallel to the ground as the peanut butter maker spun downwards, and one by one they lost their grips and were sprayed out in all directions screaming and crying. The white sand was soft enough, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for small fry flying at them like ballistic missiles.

   “Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a dirty man lying under a tree said, his lips like pink goo, watching them, smoking a dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.

   At the end of the day, they trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. They had ice cream cones and played their favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox, drowning out the bug zapper with a pile of dead bugs under it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete. 

   “When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re frontpage news, not your steppingstone not your steppingstone not your steppingstone.” 

   They bought pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped it out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on, they cozied into the warm vinyl seats of the station wagon, wrapped in beach towels, sad that their day was over, but glad since they had been in the sun all day.

   Sometimes they were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times they stayed up and sang songs. Their favorite songs were tunes from TV and the movies. “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Sammy whooped, believing he could sing, and squirted pretend webbing at them from his wrists through the haze of Anna’s cigarette smoke. 

   Agnes loved movies like “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Dr. Doolittle.” They sang ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and ‘Talk to the Animals’ and all the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” songs since they had seen it at least three times. “You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Sammy while Marcia and Agnes finished the stanzas from the third seat. “And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”

   “Can’t you girls keep it down for a minute, just one minute,” Anna barked at them. 

   Nick never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time Eva got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser broke down, so Nick took everybody in his Buick Riviera, piling them in one on top of the other, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped them off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing Eva’s Coppertone and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course. 

   He was crazy about golf. Nick had heard talk about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it. They watched him drive away.

   “It’s not fair,” Agnes complained when he picked them up after his golf game and they had to leave early before sunset. “I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”

   “Your father had a bad game, and he wants to go home and have dinner,” Eva said in the car, her arms wrapped around Agnes while she sat on her lap. She felt cold, even though she had been in the sun all day. Nick steered fast that night, complaining about Sunny Hill, and they got home in record time.   

   Eva had pale Lithuanian skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat and globs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. Sammy and Agnes sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they ended up littering the room. Anna brought hand towels, soaked them in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.   

   Whenever Nick wasn’t working or at home eating or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than they loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes Eva said he loved golf more than the three of them. Agnes hoped it wasn’t true. She knew it was true.

   “Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he said, tapping the space between his eyebrows. “It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”

   Eva liked telling everybody her husband had great legs, and he did, too, because of the thousands of miles he walked on all the links he went to with his clients and friends.

   “I don’t play cart golf,” he declared with pride. 

   Nick always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand. He wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He fought Golden Gloves when he was young and once made it as far as the main event at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down about him from the fighting, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat slick and dark, like a street man’s.

   “How do you like your old man now?” he asked Agnes, who was watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open. 

   Eva hardly ever called him by his given name, which was Nicolae. She called him Nick when they were happy. To her children she always said he was their pop, and that was what they called him. When Sammy was a toddler, he called his father poppy, but after he started walking, he started calling him pop just like his mother and sister did. 

   Nick nicknamed his wife daughter son the Three Musketeers because they did everything together, which they did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time. He didn’t punch a clock at work but did at home. He left first thing in the morning, like clockwork. He went home only when the golf game or dinner with clients was over. 

   He never went back to Holiday Sands with them, with his wife and kids, and never became the Fourth Musketeer. Instead, inside of a few twisting and turning years, he became the Count of Monte Cristo, when the dream machine between Eva and him came slowly rolling tumbling down on all of them.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Hanging Tough With Mr. T

By Ed Staskus

   The Saturday morning that I played a racquetball match against Dick Stager for the first time was at a tournament in Cleveland Heights. I had beaten a so-so player from Akron the night before and was in the second round. Watching Dick warm up I could see he had good direction on his shots. He was a target shooter rather than a cannon blaster.

   My first impression of the stockbroker was that he wasn’t an athlete, but I had long ago learned to beware of first impressions. Even though he looked more suited to golf than the pinball of racquetball, I later learned that as a teenager growing up in Kent, he was a whiz at baseball, football, and basketball.

   Once our match started, I quickly found out he was fiendishly clever, never overhitting the ball except when it suited him. He played the long game, running me back and forth. He believed racquetball wasn’t a game of power, but one of mental chess, harking back to an earlier era when Charlie Brumfield ruled the roost. He played patiently efficiently taking few chances, always looking for the next sure opportunity to close out the point.

   “Crushing the ball with all your might will usually not beat someone who knows how to play the angles,” he liked to say. He smiled when he said it. It wasn’t a friendly smile.

   He was infuriating, slowing down the action, wiping up every drop of sweat up from the floor, discussing the fine point of a ruling with the referee, and getting in my way. He did it slyly, so that it was a hinder but wasn’t a hinder. He was hardly ever penalized a point because of it. He always apologized effusively so that it seemed like it was my own fault for needing so much space in which to take my swing.

   I barely won the match. He was several years younger than me and more talkative by a long shot. Getting a word in edgewise was like trying to squeeze past his hinders. He invited me to play at the newish 13th Street Racquet Club sometime. He worked downtown and the club was downtown. We set up a lunchtime match a few weeks from then.

   The club was on the 5th floor of the Dodge Building on East 13th Street, around the corner from Euclid Ave., the city’s main thoroughfare. It bustled with lawyers and businessmen. The courts were built of panel walls instead of concrete. They sucked all the power out of power racquetball. The floors were cheap parquet and already warped. Dick knew where all the dead spots were. I was thoroughly vexed by the end of the second game, which I lost just like I lost the first one.

   He treated me to lunch and a beer afterwards. We sat at the bar and watched a squash match going on in one of the two glass back-walled hardball courts. Everything about the courts was better than their country cousins, starting with the floors. They weren’t cheap and they weren’t warped. I was aware of the game but had never seen it played. Watching it I saw right away where Dick Stager got his approach from.

   I was introduced to Vaughn Loudenback, the club pro, who specialized in squash but dabbled in racquetball, too. We played a friendly match, my Ektelon composite racquet against his no-name wood racquetball paddle.  His shots were even slower and better placed than Dick Stager’s. He was like the Invisible Man, never hindering, somehow always right there where my shots were going and returning them. After he made mincemeat of me, I determined to never hit a lob serve or ceiling shot or anything at moderate speed when playing him again. 

   I asked him if he would teach me how to play squash. He gave me one free lesson, about how to hold the racquet, how to swing, and the rules. He told me to make sure to dominate the T, the intersection of the red lines near the center of the court, shaped like the letter “T”, where I would be in the best position to retrieve an opponent’s next shot. I continued to play racquetball, but less of it, and played more squash. 

   Squash has a long history in Cleveland with the first courts built in the early 1900s. 

   “I started the 13th Street Racquet Club in 1979,” said Ham Biggar. “It became one of the top squash centers. We hosted the nationals as well as the North American Open. I met my wife on a squash court.” Ham was a Cleveland, Ohio native whose great-great-grandfather Hamilton Fisk Biggar, who was a pioneering homeopath, ministered to John D. Rockefeller Sr. and golfed with him.

   “I opened the Mad Hatter, Cleveland’s first disco, in 1971 and the Last Moving Picture Company in 1973,” he said. “We were ahead of the curve. We ended up with 11 discos across the country. I had 10 years of starting work at 7 PM. The Mad Hatter had a Drink and Drown Wednesday. You could come in as a woman for $2 or a man for $3 and drink all you wanted for a penny a beer. Mixed drinks were a quarter.”

   Squash got its start as a game called rackets played in London’s notorious prisons in the 19th century. The first squash court in North America was at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 1884. The earliest national association of squash in the world, the United States Squash Racquets Association, was formed in 1904 in Philadelphia. 

   In 1912, the Titanic had a squash court in first class. A tournament was organized. Nobody got to the finals.

   I met Kurt Otterbacher, whose Burbank-area family owned a concession business catering to fairs and festivals around Ohio. They fried funnel cakes, spun cotton candy, and popped homemade caramel corn. His father ran the show while he and his brother put on the show. We started practicing together, even though he was far better than me. I learned by trial and error. One of the trials I had was learning to not hit the tin, which meant side out and the other side got the serve.

   Not being able to hit kill shots gave me the blue johnnies. Kill shots are winners in racquetball, hit so low they are either difficult or impossible to return. The shot was useless on squash courts where a 17” high tin stretched the width of the front wall up from the floor. Hitting the tin was out of bounds. Hit the tin and everybody knew it. The ball didn’t just thud, it clanged. 

   Kurt was a grab bag of shots. He could hit the ball with pace, and the next shot take all the pace away. He was not above trying a drop shot from anywhere on the court. He wasn’t a magician, but every time we played some of his squash magic rubbed off on me. I finally got over the kill shot shakes and learned to keep the ball at least an inch or two above the tin.

   The hardball squash court is about as wide as a racquetball court but eight feet shorter. Racquetball rallies are short, and the better the players the shorter they are, four five six shots before somebody hits a winner. Squash rallies are long, and the better the players the longer they are, thirty and forty shots before somebody mercifully hits a winner. I ran more and sweated up a storm on the smaller court more than I ever did on the bigger court.

   “The healthiest sport in the world,” is the way Forbes Magazine put it.

   Jahangir “The Plumber” Khan, considered by many to be the greatest squash player of all time, was unbeaten in competitive play for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986. He recorded 555 straight wins in competitive matches. Not only is this a squash record, but it is recognized by Guinness World Records as the world record for a winning streak by any athlete in any sport. The longest rally ever officially recorded was between Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad. It lasted 7 minutes, hundreds of every kind of shot imaginable, and ended in a let. They had to replay the point. The same match at the 1983 Chichester Festival was also one of the longest ever, going to a tie breaker. Jahangir Khan was noted for his exceptional stamina. Gamal Awad was a broken man after the match, and his career never recovered.

   The day came when I stopped playing racquetball and stuck to squash. I practiced by myself. I ran the club’s indoor track to build endurance. The club’s squash players were generally disdainful of racquetball, and I had some trouble scratching up games. I played Kurt and Bob McLean, a converted racquetball player like me. I played softball squash with a South African on the only international court at the far back of the club. I had seen him train by going at a speed bag and heavy bag. After he was done with me, I was done with the international game, played with a ball that had to be microwaved beforehand to warm it up so that there would be some bounce to it. 

   When Gul Khan became the squash pro at the Cleveland Athletic Club, he moonlighted at the 13th Street Racquet Club. He was a small man with a big smile, a free-spirited member of the Khan clan. He had been a junior champion in Pakistan before spending ten years as a pro in Boston and New York City. After he moved to Cleveland, he lived in an apartment on East 30th Street. He didn’t own a car. Whenever he was at the club late, and I happened to be there, I always volunteered to drive him home, in exchange for 5 minutes of advice. Instead of giving me any coaching, he told me stories about his brother Mo and first cousin Shariff, about giving lessons to Senator Ted Kennedy and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, and about busting it up with the artist Frank Stella.

   “Control the T,” he told me, which was about all he ever told me. 

   He was great fun to watch at pro hardball tournaments. He had wizard-like racquet skills, speed, and power. He had a crowd-pleasing style with a flair for the dramatic. He was like Mr. T in more ways than one.

   “Gul had a heart of gold,” said Sharif Khan. “He lived large. He knew politicians, lawyers, wheeler-dealers, baseball stars, famous artists, and they knew him. But he also knew the guys at the local bar, the maintenance man in his apartment building, and the people who needed a helping hand on his block in Cleveland.”

   Gul got some of the guys at the club to play me, and one day one of them suggested I try out for the club’s “B” traveling team. The “A” team featured the best players. The one and only way to get on the team was to play your way onto it. I played half a dozen matches and made the team. I was bottom man, but I was on the team.

   We played home and away matches with the Cleveland Skating Club, University Club, Cleveland Athletic Club, and Mayfield Racquet Club. I learned more on the road than Gul ever taught me, but I continued driving him home, especially when there was a thunderstorm. He didn’t like getting wet. 

   I played more guys at 13th Street and found out that even though squash is a gentleman’s game, not everyone who played squash was a gentleman. It was Jekyll and Hyde when they stepped on the court. They were more conniving and aggressive than the racquetball players I had known. Two bounces were two bounces, and a kill shot was a kill shot in racquetball, no argument. What was an honest save, whether it was a let or not, and whether getting in the way had been on purpose or not, was often open to interpretation on squash courts.

   I played Mike Shaughnessy, a stocky big shot printing company executive, several times until I didn’t. The last time I played him, after giving him as good as I got, he was determined to not let me hit any passing shots whenever he left the ball doing nothing in mid-court. The rule is you must allow your opponent straight access to the ball. As the non-striker, you generally are supposed to move back to the T in a curved line. If your opponent is moving straight to the ball, and there is interference, it is your fault.

   Mike was in a surly mood, and it was no good calling foul. He seemed to think interference was a judgment call, even when I was clawing my way around him. “Pity the fool who tries to take the T,” he muttered, smirking. We spent more time jockeying for position than making shots. We got into a squabble that came to nothing. It was the last time I played him. I never called him Mike again, either. From then on, I called him Mr. Trouble.

   My “B” team was at the Mayfield Racquet Club the night the Gulf War broke out. Everybody knew it was coming but it was still surprising to see it happening in real time on TV. All the televisions in the lobby were tuned to the action when we walked in. For 42 consecutive days and nights starting on January 16th, the coalition forces subjected Iraq to one of the most intensive air bombardments in history, flying more than 100,000 sorties and dropping 88,500 tons of bombs. 

   It was run up and salute the flag. It was weapons of mass destruction, real and unreal. It was rocket’s red glare galore in the skies above Baghdad.

   We stopped and glanced at the mayhem, but since we knew the Mayfield team was warming up for us, we continued to the locker room. There was no sense wasting time on something we couldn’t do anything about. The jarheads and towelheads were going to have settle their religious ideological and gasoline supply differences themselves. Besides, we were in second place in the league. We had our own business to take care of, our own gold prize to keep our eyes fixed on.

Photograph by Ham Biggar.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Way of the Salty Dog

By Ed Staskus

   A pro football team can have the best running backs linemen and defensive backs but if they have a goat taking the snap instead of a GOAT, they are unlikely to make it to the Super Bowl. If they have competent role players and a Greatest of All Time spiraling TD passes here there and everywhere, they are not only likely to get to the promised land there’s a good chance they will be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy and going to the White House to be hosted and boasted by POTUS.

   Tom Brady has proven that to everybody’s satisfaction and Bill Belichick’s discomfiture. Nobody needs the best coach of all time. They need the best QB of all time.

   Almost everybody develops osteoarthritis sooner or later, even the GOAT’s and POTUS’s of the world. Live to be a hundred and the chances are you will have it. Live to be two hundred, like the ageless Tom Brady will probably do, and you can absolutely bet the family farm on having it.

   I knew my hip replacement surgery scheduled for the third day of spring had been coming for ten years. What I didn’t know was that Light Bulb Supply, a commercial lighting distributor in Brook Park I worked twenty-five years for, was going to go out of business as fast as they did. When they did my blue-chip health insurance disappeared in the blink of an eye. Without it I couldn’t afford the surgery. I pushed the idea to the back of my mind. It stayed there for a long time.

   I started walking more, flipping upside down on a Teeter, taking supplements, taking yoga classes, and ignoring get-healthy-quick claims, but not before trying some of them. I might as well have set fire to my paper money. I waited to get on Medicare. Two years ago, I fell down walking on a beach when my hip gave out. It was a warning shot. I kept limping along, but my mind was made up. When the 19 virus made its appearance, the flat tires in the Oval Office ignoring it, the ineptitude screwed everything up, but eventually I went to see Dr. Robert Molloy, who had been recommended to me.

   I had never been operated on. I wasn’t looking forward to it. But there was no going back because there was no future with the osteoarthritis I had, unless I was up for crawling.

   “How are you walking?” he asked after looking at my x-rays.

   “On one leg, more-or-less,” I said.

   If Dr. Molloy didn’t have a stubble beard, he would have looked like Doogie Howser, maybe younger.

   “Let’s get you on two legs.”

   Five minutes later he was done with me. One of his team walked in and made an appointment for the procedure. Five minutes after that I was in my car driving home. After that it was a matter of waiting. The week before surgery was a long week. I wasn’t allowed to take Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory. Until then I hadn’t realized what a nitty-gritty role the drug played in keeping me on my feet. I barely made it to the Cleveland Clinic’s Lutheran Hospital.

   A surgical team is like a football team. It is made up of many moving parts. The surgeon is the top dog but unlike teams that throw catch kick balls, he is less the star of the show and more the lead man of the ensemble. He doesn’t spit snort chaw or scratch his balls while at work. The surgeon the team the operating room all of them have to be as sterile as possible. He doesn’t pretend what he does matters, like pro athletes do, because it does matter. He doesn’t throw interceptions because what he does is a matter of life and death.

   Dr. Robert Molloy doesn’t earn the kind of the pay Tom Brady does, although if it was a left-brain world he would, and more. But it isn’t, so sports heroes are who have the key to Fort Knox. He doesn’t do hip replacement surgeries in front of 70,000 crazy cheering fans, which is probably a good thing. What if they were cheering for the other side? When Tom Terrific does something stupid, he gets a do over the next time the offense takes the field. That isn’t necessarily the case with surgeons.

   “While I’ve done over 10,000 operations and invented devices that are used every day in surgery, the joy I receive from watching even one person take back their health just can’t be surpassed, and certainly can’t be measured monetarily,” Steve Gundry, a heart surgeon, said.

   In the meantime, Tom Brady has $4 million dollars parked in one of his garages, including a

Rolls Royce Ghost, 2 Aston Martins, a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, and a Ferrari. “Moderation in everything,” he once said was his mantra. Hip, hip, hooray for moderation.

   Hip replacements got started in Germany in 1891. Themistocles Gluck used elephant ivory to replace the ball on the femur attaching it with screws. The cement he used was made from plaster of Paris, powdered pumice, and glue. He might have added some spit to the mix. I’m glad I wasn’t the patient. He couldn’t have lasted long. Molded-glass implants were introduced in the 1920s but were mechanically fragile. Metallic prostheses started to appear in the 1930s.

   The first metallic total hip replacement was performed in 1940 at Columbia Hospital in South Carolina ushering in a new age. Modern technological advances spare surrounding muscles and tendons during total hip replacement surgery. The surgery protects the major muscles around the joint and the surgeon can see that the components fit just right. It allows the patient under the knife to take advantage of better motion and muscle strengthening after surgery. About 400,000 of the procedures are performed annually in the United States, making it the most common of joint replacements.

   Once I was checked in, checked out, and fitted with a one-size-fits-all gown, I was wheeled to the staging area, the pre-op room. It looked like the deck of the Starship Enterprise. There were computers and flat screens everywhere. The body shop nurses and doctors came and went, some of them dressed like spacemen.

   Two nurses were attending to somebody next to me. I could hear them on the other side of the curtain.

   “I don’t know how Amazon does it,” one of them said. “You order what you want and it’s at your house the same day, the next day at the latest.”

   “I know,” the other one said. “It’s like a miracle.”

   When I looked around, I thought, Amazon puts things in boxes, puts the boxes in trucks, and then puts the boxes on your front porch. It doesn’t seem like a miracle by any stretch of the imagination. The miracle is this pre-op room.

   An anesthesiologist with a Brazilian nametag and face asked me some questions. “We’ll have you up and dancing at Carnival sooner than later,” he said. He asked me to sit up and hug a pillow, hunching over it. I felt a cold solution being rubbed on my lower back. The next thing I knew somebody was waking me up. I was in the recovery room. There was a small group of men and women standing around and looking down at me.

   One of them reminded me of Doogie Howser. “It went very well,” Doogie said. Whoever he was and whatever he was talking about went over my head and I instantly fell back asleep. The next time I woke up I was in a different room, cold and shivering. My left side felt like I had fallen from a ten-story building and landed on that side. When I gingerly felt for the soreness, my hand landed on an ice pack. That explained the shivering. I drew my blanket tighter around me and fell asleep again.

   The night nurse came and went, taking my vitals. I tried to explain to her how vital it was that I sleep, but she woke me up with her thermometer and blood pressure gizmo every couple of hours. I was hooked up to an IV. She told me it was for my own good, full of anti-inflammatories and pain killers.

   “It still hurts like hell,” I said.

   She brought me a small white pill that she said was Oxycodone. It did the trick. I fell asleep and stayed asleep, at least until she came back to get more vitals. It was two in the morning when she woke me up with a walker beside her.

   “It’s time for you to take a short walk,” she said.

   I patiently explained that I had come out of major surgery just a few hours earlier and that there was a foreign object made of ceramics and plastic, titanium alloys, and stainless steel inside of me. Nurse Ratched shrugged it off and before I knew it, I was out of bed and plodding down the long hallway. She made sure I stayed on my feet and got me back into bed safely. She gave me another small white pill and I went back to dreamland, which was nothing if not wide-screen technicolor.

   When breakfast arrived the next morning, I wolfed it down like I hadn’t eaten anything for nearly two days, which I hadn’t. Its tastiness belied its reputation for blandness. When the lady who delivered the breakfast came back for the tray, she asked me how it had been.  

   “Better than hospital food is supposed to be,” I said. 

   “That’s good, honey, that’s good, got to keep your strength up,” she said.

   After breakfast the day nurse strolled in and stuck a memory stick into the flat screen on the wall at the foot of my bed. It was a 45-minute Cleveland Clinic video about what recovery was going to encompass.

   Halfway through the video a troop of nurses walked in to check on the Palestinian in the room with me, and me. I paused the video. He had been there when I arrived and was still there when I left. He had a Frankenstein-like incision on one side of his Adam’s apple. “They dd surgery on my neck, on some herniated disks,” he said. All that morning a nurse had been trying to get his medicine to go down, but even when they crushed and mixed it with apple sauce, he couldn’t swallow it. His throat was so swollen he couldn’t swallow anything. After a doctor showed up with something new, he was right as rain an hour later. When his wife came for a visit, they called their children to let them know how it was going. They toggled their phone to speaker. While they talked to their kids in all-Arabic their kids responded in all-English.

   When the troop was done with my roommate, they turned their attention to me. One of them asked what I thought of the video. “It’s good,” I said. 

   “She got off to a slow start, sort of fumbling around, but got her footing and some spice soon enough. I liked the part about doing recovery the Cleveland Clinic Way and not the Burger King Way.” The narrator meant don’t do it your way, do it our way. “She’s a Salty Dog, that one,” I said.

  “Meet the Salty Dog,” one of them said, motioning to a woman at the back of the pack. It was Karen Sanchez. She was the leader of the pack. She shot me a tepid smile from behind her mask.

   One day after entering the hospital I was on my way home. I said goodbye to the Palestinian. The day nurse wished me luck and called for transit. “Ron will be up in ten minutes,” she said.

   The last person I saw before leaving my room was the Salty Dog. She came alone and gave me a stern talking to about what to do and what not do the next few weeks. By the time she was halfway through I was convinced. She wasn’t convinced and continued her lecture. When she was done, I gave her a thumb’s up. She gave me a warm smile from behind her mask.

   Ron put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me to an elevator. My last look back was of the Salty Dog admonishing somebody trying to get out of bed on his own. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Get back in bed and buzz for your nurse.” She was as much a mother hen as anything else.

   The pre-op and post-op teams, the check-in and check-out teams, had done their jobs. The transit team was Ron. He sported a jet-black Elvis pompadour and asked if I liked rockabilly. I couldn’t have gotten into my car without him. My wife watched while he showed me the tricks of the trade. If I had tried to do it myself, I probably would have dislocated my new hipbone and he would have had to wheel me right back inside. Karen Sanchez described that kind of thing happening as “excruciating.”

    Surgical teams need a top dog, but unlike fun and games in colorful shorts and jerseys, they need a team as good as the surgeon to get the patient to the operating table and afterwards get the patient back on his feet. The goal isn’t to kick a field goal and win the Super Bowl, while the other guy slouches away disappointed. The goal is for one and all to win the Super Bowl. The day after the surgery I went home. When I got there, it took me five minutes to get up to the second floor, steps that my grade school niece and nephew barrel up in less than five seconds, scaring the bejesus out of our cats.

   It was a cold and rainy day. I got into bed and slept for thirteen hours. The next day was cold and sunny. My aftermarket hip needed breaking in. I broke open the recovery book Karen Sanchez had given me, flipping to page one, and got down to business. 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Thrills and Spills

By Ed Staskus

   Two days after we got married in the Lithuanian Catholic church on Cleveland’s east side my wife and I drove over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It used to be called the Honeymoon Bridge, but it collapsed in 1938. When the new one opened in 1941 a quote from the Book of Genesis about a “bow in the clouds” was engraved on the side of the bridge. Forty-eight years later the span was still standing.

   We must have looked happy as larks when we got to the other side of the crossing. After paying the toll, and showing the border patrol our driver’s licenses, we were told to join a line of cars off to the side. Ten minutes later German Shepherds and their handlers showed up, sniffing the cars up and down for drugs. One of the uniforms used a tactical mirror to inspect the underside of the cars. When it was over and done with and they told us we were free to go, I said, “Love is the drug, man.”

   The lawman at my driver’s side window didn’t like it and scowled but Rin Tin Tin gave me a forty-two-tooth smile. He was glad to be going back for grub. We were glad to be on the lip of the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

   After lunch we went to Goat Island, bought tickets, got outfitted in bright yellow ponchos, and were elevatored 18 stories down to the Niagara Gorge. The Cave of the Winds started life as a rock overhang that was like a cave. It was an overhanging ledge of Lockport Dolostone at the top of the gorge which stuck out more than 100 feet. The overhang wasn’t there anymore but the Hurricane Deck was. We followed a guide on a series of wood walkways to it, stopping standing staring at the thundering water 20 feet away. It sprayed us in the face. There was a rainbow right there. We could almost touch it.

   “Did you bring a camera?” my wife asked.

   “No,” I said.

   “That’s all right, better to remember it the way we want to,” she said.

   Since we were soggy as all get out, we decided to go to the Journey Behind the Falls. An elevator whooshed down 13 stories through bedrock to tunnels that led to the Cataract Portal and the Great Falls Portal. We walked to the Lower Observation Deck at the foot of the Falls and watched one-fifth of the world’s freshwater crash down at 40 MPH into the basin below. We left dripping freshwater.

   There was still some daylight left in the day, and waterlogged as we were with nothing to lose, we boarded the Maid of the Mist. The first boat in 1846 was called Maid of the Mist and the name had never changed although the ships had. The first ones were steam powered. Ours was a diesel-powered vessel put into service in 1955. It was two years after Marilyn Monroe cuckolded and tried to murder her husband Joseph Cotton in the movie “Niagara.”

   The first Maid of the Mist was a barge-like steamer that was more ferry than anything else. It was a 72-foot-long side-wheeler powered by a wood- and coal-fired boiler. The ferrying only lasted two years, when a suspension bridge opened and slashed the traffic. Not knowing what to do with the boat, the owners finally decided to make it a sightseeing wheeler.

   We took the Incline Railway from street level down to the boat dock. The new Maid was looking good, having replaced the old Maid in 1983. The old namesake was plying the Amazon River as a missionary ship under an assumed name. She had been a trooper in her day. In 1960 the Maid wheeled to the starboard and the crew rescued Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old who became the first person to survive going over the Horseshoe Falls wearing only a life jacket.

   Getting on the boat we were both handed blue ponchos and advised to wear them, or else.

   “Or else what?” I asked. 

   “You’re free to not wear it and soak in the experience,” the man said.

   We both put our blue ponchos on and cinched the hoods.

   The boat chugged to the base of the American Falls. It started to rock and roll. We kept our balance hanging on to a rail. I never knew water droplets could pummel or that half a million gallons of water pouring out of the faucet at once could be so loud. We should have worn flip flops. The Maid went on to the basin of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. We stood at the front of the boat on the upper level up close and personal. The captain took her closer and closer. We got as close as it gets. The waterfall was in our faces. We could barely keep our eyes open. It might as well have been raining, even though the sky was sunny and blue. When the boat turned to go back, she spun around in place, spray coming at us from every direction.

   There was a full moon that night. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

   The next day we went high and dry. We were done with getting wet and took a helicopter ride. The chopper was an Enstrom, operated by Pan-Air. They had a “Chapel in the Sky” service although since we were freshly minted, there was no need for more vows. The helicopter sat six, but my wife and I and two Japanese men were the only ones on the flight. We sat in the front with the pilot and the Japs sat in back, where they took a million pictures. The front of the chopper was plexiglass. When I looked down the sky was right under our feet. Rainbows shot up at us from the rapids and falls.

   The ride was only ten or fifteen minutes long, but we got a bird’s eye eyeful. The view was nothing if not breath-taking. We saw the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Whirlpool Rapids, the Rainbow Bridge, and Queen Victoria Park.

   “Ooh-wee,” we both said when the helicopter landed. We got our land legs back and went back to the Howard Johnson’s for a nap and dinner.

   The next day we left Niagara Falls, messed around in Toronto, and drove to Ottawa in our VW Golf. The city is the capital of Canada, on the south bank of the Ottawa River, straddling the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It’s been there since 1826 and by 1989 was the fourth-largest city in the country. A big part of it burned down in 1900 and had to be re-built for the better. We stayed at a small motel near Pig Island. The drive to Byward Market, and Lower Town was a short one up Colonel By Dr. along the Rideau Canal. We discovered a Portuguese bakery in Lower Town and pigged out.

   We visited the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Parliament Hill, the neo-Gothic home of the law of the land, checked out the Centennial Flame and the statue of Queen Victoria, took a stroll through Major’s Hill Park, and had dinner two nights at two terrific restaurants near Confederation Park, walking the food and drink off afterwards, tossing a Loonie in the fountain, the one-dollar coin introduced two years earlier.

   One afternoon we were standing on the Mackenzie King Bridge watching boats going to and from the locks when we noticed a houseboat coming our way. The canal was built starting in 1826. More than a thousand Irish, Scottish, and French laborers died of malaria digging it out. It opened in 1832. The idea behind the canal was a lifeline between Montreal and the naval base at Kingston in case Canada went to war with the United States. 

   The Pumper was the first steamboat to make the trip, carrying Colonel By and his family. John By was the man who made the canal happen. Canada and the USA never went to war and the canal became a major way for shipping grain, timber, and minerals from the hinterland to the east. Immigrants used it moving westward. After railroads appropriated the shipping trade, the canal was mostly used by pleasure craft.

   It was a pleasure watching the houseboat approach. A man was sitting in a folding chair at the bow. His legs were crossed, he was reading a newspaper, and smoking a cigar. A woman was standing at the stern with a long pole. She was slowly leaning into the pole and pushing the forty-foot flat bottomed houseboat forward. She kept her push pole lined up with the center line of the boat to keep it moving in a straight line. I could see they had an inboard motor but weren’t using it. Smoke from her husband’s cigar drifted back to her. She waved it away.

   “Take notes,” I told my new bride. 

   “That’ll be the day,” she grumbled.

   After we got home from our honeymoon, we often went back to Canada, to Montreal and Quebec City, up the St Lawrence River, and to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We never went back to Ottawa, not for any especial reason. One morning while I was looking out our living room window at yet another winter storm blowing through town, my wife asked me if I had seen the news about the protests in Ottawa. We didn’t have cable TV, never listened to the radio, but read the New York Times online. I flipped an iPad open and read the news. Sure enough, protests were roiling the capital.

   A convoy of truckers had descended on the city three weeks earlier protesting a regulation requiring drivers moving goods across the USA Canada border be vaccinated against the 19. Other truckers were blocking bridges between Windsor and Detroit and another bridge linking Alberta to North Dakota. The federal police had already arrested more than a dozen drivers out west and seized all their guns and ammo. They had been planning on ambushing and shooting down law enforcement officers.

   When the Ottawa camel train pulled into town to throw gasoline on the fire they rumbled straight to Wellington St. and Parliament Hill and surrounded it. Their $100 grand travel trailers, $150 grand recreational vehicles, and $200 grand heavy trucks brought traffic to a standstill. Businesses shut down for the duration. There wasn’t any money coming in, anyway. Flatbed trucks became stages. Organizers clapped themselves on the back and made misinformation speeches. DJ’s spun rap cranked up so everybody within miles could hear it. Bouncy castles were plopped down in the streets for kids playing hooky. Some drivers had brought their children with them. An inflatable hot tub was pumped up and set up for rest and recreation. They flew QAnon and Confederate flags, even though QAnon is a Whac-A-Mole, and Johnny Reb got his ass kicked a long time ago.

   Who flies slaveholder-or-die flags to prove how virtuous they are?

   Drivers put their air horns on autopilot 24/7. It didn’t take long for everybody living nearby to get sick of it. “You just got vehicles laying on their horns for hours and hours and hours at a time,” said Peter Simpson. “We don’t even live on Parliament Hill. It’s very difficult to work or relax or to do anything. All you can do is focus on calming yourself down.”

   The morning I read about the protests was the morning things were coming to a head. The police sat on their hands for weeks until the mayor got tired of it, fired the police chief, put a by the book man in charge, and a few days later the cops were showing up in force. “It’s horrific,” said Dagny Pawlak, a protestor spokeswoman. “It’s a dark moment in Canadian history. Never in my life would I have believed anyone if they told me that our own Prime Minister would refuse dialogue and choose violence against peaceful protesters instead.”

   When I was student at Cleveland State University, we went marching from our campus down Euclid Ave. to Public Square every spring to protest the Vietnam War. We never marched in wintertime because it was too cold and snowy. Nobody wanted to be plowed under by a snowplow. We wore buttons saying, “How ManyMore?” and “I’m a Viet Nam Dropout” and “Ship the GI’s Home Now!”  Most of the GI’s shooting it out with Charlie were true believers who volunteered, and the rest were unlucky trailer trash. We were college students with draft deferments and wanted to keep it that way.

   We carried banners and damp handkerchiefs in our pockets. Everybody wore sensible shoes. One springtime I noticed two coeds next to me wearing pumps with two-inch heels and straps that looked like they would snap at the slightest provocation.

   “You might want to change into flats,” I said. 

   “Why would we want to do that?” one of them asked.

   “In case you’ve got to run.”

   They giggled and skipped away. The last time I saw them they were skinning their knees trying to run and getting themselves easily arrested.

    When we got to the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, firebrands made fiery speeches, we chanted slogans, listened to more speeches about justice and freedom, half of us high on weed, and waited for the cops to show up. When they did and ordered us to disperse and we didn’t, they lobbed tear gas at us. We gave them the finger. They beat us with rubber batons. We threw cherry bombs at them. They sent in the mounted police. Nobody wanted to be trampled by a horse. We usually ran for the train station in the Terminal Tower trying to lose ourselves in the workaday crowd.

   I never went on a Civil Rights march. They had it worse. Vigilantes and police used whips, Billy clubs, guns, dogs, Cossack-style horses, fire hoses, and tear gas. When we were protesting the Vietnam War, we were white kids being corralled by white policemen. They didn’t like us but weren’t trying to kill us. Even Women’s Liberation had it rough when they started marching and demanding equal rights.

    The Freedom Convoy in Ottawa had plenty of banners and slogans. Reading them was like trying to find meaning in a bowl of alphabet soup. Mandate Freedom 4 All. He Will Not Divide. Hold the Line. Take Back Our Freedom. We Will Not Acquiesce. Were they trying to dam up Niagara Falls with toothpicks? One of the signs said they were willing to take a bullet for their country. What about taking a shot for your neighbors?

   Matthew Wall, an electrician from Manitoba, joined the Freedom Convoy after popping psychedelics and having a vision. “I’m here for the rights of our kids, for parents’ rights, for everyone’s rights,” he said. “It is so kids can live in a future where they don’t have to have something covering their face, lose emotion. You don’t have the human connection, don’t see them smile anymore. It’s dehumanizing. They’re taking away the love!”

   Many of Ottawa’s residents had their own slogan: Make Ottawa Boring Again!

   “I wonder what would be going on if it was the 1340s and 1350s?” I wondered aloud to my wife.

   “What do you mean?” she asked.

   “I mean, I wonder how long the lines would be to get vaccinated against the Bubonic Plague if it was the plague instead of the 19,” I said.

   Five years into the pandemic at the beginning of the Middle Ages almost 50 million Europeans were dead, more than half of the population. They called it the Great Pestilence. They didn’t have vaccines. They resorted to mixing tree resin, roots of white lilies, and human excrement into a porridge and slathering it all over themselves. If you caught the Black Death, your chances of making it back alive were almost zero. Nobody died peacefully in an ICU. There were no ICU’s. They got crazy feverish, their joints like a ten-alarm fire. They broke out in buboes, oozing pus and blood, vomiting non-stop, and got non-stop diarrhea. The suffering went on non-stop for a week-or-so. When it was over, they fell down dead in the streets, glad it was over.

   “I bet the spaghetti o’s with their portable spas in Ottawa would be the first ones pushing their way to the head of the vaccination line while crying there is a conspiracy to push them to the back. They would be going 100 MPH to get somewhere anywhere to snag a shot, not complaining about government overreach.”

   “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re on the far side of the Middle Ages.”

   “Hats off to that, sugar, although now and then when there’s a full moon it’s back to the Dark Ages,” I said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Ground Zero

By Ed Staskus

   The General Hospital of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened in Sudbury on Paris Street in 1950. It was the first English speaking not just French hospital in northern Ontario. It had a brick façade with a steel beam grid system. The parking lot was close to hand right at the entrance, which was handy if you were dragging a broken leg behind you.

   Nobody needed to speak English or any other language to get around. “They used to do this cool thing,” Ginette Tobodo said. “On the walls they painted certain colors, one color for the lab, another color for the cardiac department, and you just followed the color to where you needed to go. It was easy to find your way around.”

  Susan Cameron was the lead blast off. “The hospital was not officially open, but my mother was in labor,” she said. It was unofficial but necessary vital time sensitive. When it’s your time to be born, it’s your time, no matter what anybody officially rules on the matter.

   When I was born the next year in March 1951 everybody was already calling the hospital the ‘General.’ I don’t remember a single second of being in my mother’s womb. The next thing I knew there were bright lights, voices, a pair of scissors, a slap on my butt, and I was being held up for inspection like a hunk of ham. I couldn’t make out what was happening. Everybody was wearing clothes and I was naked as a jaybird. It seemed like I had come into being not knowing anything.   

   The whole thing was such a shock I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it for almost two years, by which time nobody wanted to hear about it.

   A man wearing a mask counted my toes and fingers and pinched my arms and legs. He stopped when he seemed satisfied. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but didn’t know how to talk. That month’s issue of Sudbury’s Inco Triangle newsletter had a poem called “Man’s a Queer Animal” on one of its inside pages.

   “With a lid on each eye, and a bridge on his nose, with drums in his ears, and nails on his toes, with palms on his hands, and soles on his feet, and a large Adam’s apple, that helps him to eat, with a cap on each knee, on each shoulder a blade, he’s the queerest thing made.”

   I looked myself over. I didn’t seem queer, but what did I know? I checked the other newborns but couldn’t see any difference between them and me. Were we all off the wall? I was reassured when I heard a nurse say, “They are all such little miracles.”

   Inco was the corporation that ran most of the mining in Sudbury. Its head man died a month before I was born. Robert Crooks Stanley was a mining engineer who patented many new refining methods including the Stanley Process. He became president of Inco in 1922, when the company was at a low ebb. He had to close operations owing to a loss of war orders. Six years later, recovering his poise, he launched a $50 million dollar building and expansion project. 

   When I came down the chute the mines were booming. My mom was getting her bag ready for the hospital the day Len Turner and Nifty Jessup arrived at the Bank of Toronto in the Donovan neighborhood, one of Sudbury’s oldest neighborhoods, with Inco’s weekly payroll. Going up the steps of the bank, the pay clerks were suddenly brought up short by two men armed with revolvers.

   “Let me have that case,” one of them snarled.

   Len made a grab for the man’s gun. The gun went off, the bullet slamming into the bank building. The bank was unharmed. The gunman grabbed the payroll case and the thieves drove off in a stolen car towards North Bay. For all that, they made a wrong turn, got trapped on Fir Lane and the Sudbury police, more of them and better armed than the bandits, rounded them up.

   “A little of that excitement goes a long way,” Len said to Nifty after they got their company’s payroll back.

   Sudbury came into existence in the early 1880s as a construction site for Canadian Pacific Railway that was laying tracks for a transcontinental line. It was a company town and all the stores and boarding houses and everything else were operated by the company. W. J. Bell cut down every tree he could see to supply the railroad, at least until the day the railroad was done and left town. It looked like the end of Sudbury.

   It was saved from stillbirth by prospectors who found vast mineral deposits, what became known as the Sudbury Basin. It is the third largest impact crater on the planet, when something big from outer space crashed there about 2 billion years ago. “By 1886 we knew Sudbury was going to be a mining town,” Florence Howey wrote. In that year mining and smelting was started by Copper Cliff. Seven years later the town incorporated itself.

   Meanwhile, Sam Richie formed the Canadian Copper Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which was an unknown place to me in 1951, although by 1959 I was finding out all about it since my parents, with my brother, sister, and me in tow, migrated there. At the turn of the 20th century Canadian Copper was merged with International Nickel, controlled by J. P Morgan, and moved to New Jersey.

   Sudbury’s nickel plating on warships helped win the Spanish-American War for the United States. Afterwards, the British and their international military cousins sat up and took notice. The arms race was on, and Sudbury was rolling in dough.

   Even though my mother and I had been inseparable for nine months, the next thing I knew I was being separated from her. I was carried to a nursery and spent the next week in the company of a gaggle of strangers. Half the time half of us were crying. The rest of the time we were sleeping or looking around for food.

   The boy next to me seemed to be hungry 24 hours a day. Whenever anything edible was within reach, he reached for it. “He’s a nice boy but he’s got more nerve than a bum tooth,” I thought, even though he was far off from cutting his teeth. A girl on the other side of me wiggled her legs and giggled. She started wiggling her arms, too. 

   I couldn’t take my eyes off her, baby fat and all. “That girl is fidgety as a bubble dancer with a slow leak,” I tried to tell the hungry boy beside me, but the words wouldn’t come, and besides he was eating again.

   The nurses gave us a bath every morning and fed us every three hours. The nurse who scrubbed me from tip to toe was all business. She tested the temperature with her elbow, soaped me up, and I went gently down into the water. One day something scared me, and I jumped like an electric eel. I was crazy slippery from the soap and slipped out of her hands. I landed face down in the baby bath. The commotion I caused would have made anyone think she was trying to kill me.

   When we were done with breakfast lunch dinner and goodies, which was all the same mush, they bubbled us, changed us, and put us back to sleep. I wasn’t fussy or gassy and slept like a log. As soon as I woke up, I was hungry again.

   The boys took it easy in blue beds and the girls in pink beds, what the bosses in white uniforms called cots. My mother got to stay in a room with another woman, chatting it up, eating in bed, and reading Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. I saw her twice a day for a few minutes for some real food. One day my dad showed up.

   “Who’s that?” I wanted to ask.

   My cot was near a window. When I looked out all I could see was ice and snow. More than a hundred inches of snow had fallen that winter and there were snowbanks as far as the eye could see. The month before the thermometer had gotten stuck between 30 and 40 below for a week. It was still bitter cold. I pulled my blanket tight around me when I heard one of the nurses say, “It’s too bad we can’t take them out for a little airing.”

   The minerals in the Sudbury Basin had a high sulphur content and needed to be roasted before smelting. The open pits burned for years. The roasting yards puffed yellow gray clouds all around the compass. There were slag and mine tailing piles, soil erosion and blackened hilltops. When I was born Sudbury was largely barren and treeless. Everybody said that was the way it was. Everybody cashed their paychecks and got on with it. Tourists on their way somewhere else called the Sudbury Basin the Canadian Death Valley.

   I was an infant and didn’t have a clue that engineers and corporate executives can be a burrito short of a combination plate. The executives were sly dogs, though. What their mines paid in taxes was the equivalent of about one-half the revenue that Sudbury would have gotten if it had been any other heavy-industrial city in that part of Ontario. The national press was always saying my hometown was a “slum” or “a smaller version of Katowice, Poland.”

   My dad belonged to Local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. It was the biggest trade union in Canada. Local 598 and Inco hated each other’s guts. The local built union halls and a children’s camp where we went to hear music and see movies. I saw Walt Disney’s “Treasure Island” and “The Littlest Outlaw.”

   It wasn’t like I needed a day off like my father and godfather, who worked long hours miles down in the ground. One day my godfather walked up to me at the camp and said, “What are you doing here relaxing? You haven’t worked a day in your life.”

   “You’ve got to love livin’,” I said.

   He coughed up a mouthful of mine dust and cigarette smoke and laughed. “If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t living, my baby boy,” he said, reaching for his Export A’s when my dad walked up, so they could kick back together for ten minutes.

   My baby days were behind me, but I let it slide.

   My parents didn’t live in Lively or Onaping Falls, where class and race paid the bills. Little Warsaw was where the Poles lived. Little Italy was under a line of smokestacks and the Italians lived there. I ended up living in the middle of town where the East Europeans and Finns lived. The Finns liked to wrestle and ski, although not at the same time. My parents and their friends liked to play cards smoke drink and dance. They worked like Puritans, though, saving their money, so they could get ahead. They left the DP camps of Europe in the late 1940s on separate freighters with a duffel bag and enough cash to buy a snack.

  When it came time to pack up, I wasn’t ready. I had gotten used to the nursery and had made friends. I learned soon enough that all good things come to an end. It was a sunny day towards the end of the month when my dad gathered my mom and me up and took us home. There weren’t any crocuses showing, but most of the snowpack had melted away.

   The General did fine work by me. I was hale and hearty when I got to what I found out was home. I had been living on the bottle, but my mom switched the menu up, feeding me herself. My parents lived in a small, rented house on Pine Street. My father was working in the tombs of outer space, taking all the overtime he could get, and was planning on buying a house on Stanley Street, just down the street.

   Sometimes the hospital couldn’t get it done and people took matters into their own hands. Edmond Paquette, an Inco pensioner in his 80s, had suffered a paralytic stroke that left him unable to walk. He vowed an act of penance, building a built-to-scale church inside a five-gallon glass carboy. When he was done, he stood up and walked across the room to tell his son-in-law Dusty that he had accomplished his mission.

   “You’re walking unaided,” Dusty exclaimed. 

   “It’s a miracle,” Edmond said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Tracks of My Tears

By Ed Staskus

   I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.

   At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.

   Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.

   My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode. 

   I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.

   At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.” 

   When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.

   It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.

   The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

   The idea behind the show was simple and savage. 

   “Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win. 

   “I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.

   A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.

   “On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”

   “My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”

   “Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.

   After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.

   “I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”

   Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.

   My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.

   She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.

   One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”

   Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.

   “I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”

   She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.

   She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that. 

   “Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”

   He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.

   “Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”

   We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop. 

   None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Blood in the Aisles

By Ed Staskus

   The last summer we lived in the jam-packed immigrant neighborhood around Eddy Rd. was the last year my friends and I took Cleveland’s Rapid Transit downtown every Saturday to mess around and go to the movies. It was 20-some years after the city-owned bus and train system, what everybody called CTS, got rolling. It was 1963. The news was all about civil rights and Vietnam, two issues we barely knew anything about and cared about even less. What we cared about were slot cars, riding our bikes, and summer camp.

   Stevie Wonder released his first live album, “The 12 Year Old Genius.” We were all 12 and 13 years old. None of us were geniuses, not by a long shot, although some of us went on to be able to think more or less clearly.

   Push-button telephones were new, 1st class postage cost 5 cents, and President John Kennedy visited West Berlin, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We went around calling each other Berliners and saluting Nazi-style. All of us had voted for JFK in a mock election at St. George’s Catholic School. Our nuns told us to stop saluting and focus on JFK’s good deeds, but they need not have. He was young energetic handsome while Richard Nixon had been shifty old with a five o’clock shadow. 

   The Rapid Transit was a light rail system, what we simply called the train. Tens of millions of riders rode it every year, especially on Saturdays, when it seemed like all of them were riding it at once. We had to stand most of the time. Even when we got a seat, we had to give it up to pregnant women, crippled men, and old folks. Standing and swaying and holding on to a pole didn’t matter. We had ants in our pants for roaming around downtown and seeing a big-time movie.

   All we had known in our earlier years was the Shaw-Hayden Theater, which we could walk to. They showed monster movies, cowboy movies, and space adventure movies on Saturday afternoons. Cartoons and a double bill cost 50 cents. We ignored the newsreels. Popcorn cost 15 cents, and since we were chronically short on hard cash, we brought our own in paper bags hidden under our jackets. Sometimes we stopped at Mary’s Sweet Shoppe and bought penny candy.

   There was a playground behind the neighborhood fire station with Saturday Sandbox contests, but we never went, being too old for sandboxes. There were dances at the Shaw Pool every Saturday night, but we never went to those either, being too young to care about girls.

Before the matinee there was a drawing for prizes. One of my friends won two thousand sheets of paper on a winter afternoon. He was beside himself hauling the reams home in the snow. He complained about frostbite, but he was a whiner at school and in our scout troop, so we ignored him. The theater was big, more than a thousand seats. We usually went early so we could sit in the front row, stretching our legs out, horsing around, kicking each other.

   Going downtown we barnstormed from where we lived off St. Clair Ave. down East 128th St. to Shaw Ave. to Hayden Ave. and followed an unnamed unmapped foot path to the CTS Windermere station. We scrambled up the embankment, crossed the tracks at the rear of the station, and waited on the platform for the downtown bound train. Windermere was the end of the line for the Red Line.

   When the rails rolled into home plate, we dusted ourselves off and ran upstairs out of the station, running through the Terminal Tower lobby and bursting outside, rain or shine. We made tracks around Public Square until we were tired. We liked walking to the movies on one of the three main avenues, which were Prospect, Euclid, and Superior. Our parents warned us about staying away from Prospect Ave., where there were prostitutes, smut stores, and burlesque houses. It was because of their words of wisdom that we took Prospect Ave. to East 14th St. most of the time, although we never talked to the whores and never went into the sketchy bars and clubs. We weren’t interested in smut and besides we didn’t have the money to pay for cheap thrills. All the money we had, we hoarded for the train, the movie, and snacks.

   There were five theaters clustered between East 14th and East 17th. Four of them faced Euclid Ave. while one faced East 14th St. The three blocks were known as Playhouse Square, although none of us knew that. We didn’t pay attention to signs unless they had something to do with food or the movies. All of us had our own money, cobbled together from stingy allowances, paper routes, altar boy service at weddings, and even thievery, if push came to shove and our Saturday was threatened.

   The Ohio and State theaters were built by New York City plutocrat Marcus Loew in the early 1920s, followed by Charles Platt’s Hanna Theater. It was named for Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s big-time wheeler-dealer senator in Washington. The Pompeiian-style Allen Theater opened a few months later.

   The last theater opened at the end of the next year in the Keith Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. The biggest electric sign in the world was fabricated and turned on the night of the Palace Theater’s opening. The movie house was billed as the “Showplace of the World.” The opening night entertainment was headlined by a famous mimic. Everybody said it was “the swankiest theater in the country.” 

   It wasn’t swank anymore when we started going to matinees, but we didn’t notice. It had wide seats and a gigantic screen and that was all that mattered. The movies cost 75 cents and we were glad to pay it. It was where we saw “Son of Flubber” and afterwards pretended to defy gravity like Fred MacMurray. We saw “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and laughed until we cried. We loved stories about buried treasure. It was perpetual motion and shouting. Ethel Merman was the most likable loudmouth we ever heard. We saw it three times and it seemed new every time.

   We saw “Cleopatra,” but agreed afterwards that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to be first fiddle so bad we got sick of her. “Why is she even in the movie?” we wondered. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were more like it. Thousands of Romans with swords and spears fighting among themselves was even more like it. Swords and sandals in banshee mode were what we had paid to see.

   We wanted to see “Psycho” but weren’t allowed to buy tickets. We were warned it was too intense and inappropriate for boys our age. We were offended, but when we heard what it was about, we asked each other what all the fuss was. It sounded like a sicko stabbing people, which was right up our alley. We had all seen plenty of horror movies, like “Carousel of Souls” and “Village of the Damned.”

   When “The Raven” was playing we saw it right away, even though none of us knew Edgar Allen Poe from the Man in the Moon. There’s a black bird. There’s a tapping at the door. The night is dark and howling. When the door is opened there’s nobody there.

   “Watch your back,” we yelled at the screen.

   The Big Three in the movie were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, even though Peter Lorre was a midget. He had a sinister voice, hooded eyes, and a dodgy way about him, which made up for his lack of height. Vincent Price was disappointing, even though he was the tallest. He spoke and acted like a sissy Gentleman Jim, even though he was supposed to be a big bad magician. In the end the whole business was disappointing. It was more funny than scary, and once we realized how it was going, we enjoyed it for the laughs. The Big Three turned out to be the Three Stooges in disguise.

   We took a chance and asked for our money back, which we hardly ever did, but a grouch in a blue suit ushered us out and told us where to go.

   We heard about “Seven Wonders of the World” on the radio, on WERE-AM, before we ever saw it on the marquee of the Palace Theater. We didn’t go see it, even though we saw it on the marquee week after week and even though it was in Cinerama. We saw everything in Cinerama, anyway, since we always sat in the front row. A wide screen made a bad movie twice as good.

   Our own hometown was where we went to see the wonders of the world. We wandered around in the Flats amazed, stargazing up at the steel plants, looking down on the greasy Cuyahoga River, watching the up and down bridges go up and down as freighters hauling ore slowly made their way upstream. Six years later the river caught on fire, flames and plumes of black smoke turning day to night. We walked along the shoreline of Lake Erie where fishermen pulled perch and walleye out of the dirty water.

   We snuck into Municipal Stadium, called The Mistake on the Lake, whenever we knew the fire-balling lefty Sam McDowell was pitching. He was 20 years old and tall as a tree. Hardly anybody went to see the middle to back of the pack team and we often had most of the 81, 000 seat stadium to ourselves, whooping and hollering it up. When ushers asked to see our ticket stubs, we hemmed and hawed and changed sections. Whenever we ended up in the bleachers there were never any ushers to roust us. If it was hot, we pulled our shirts off. We threw popcorn to the pigeons and pebbles at them when they stooped over their free goodies.

   The movies were magic to us. They were like a dreamland in waking life. It didn’t matter if the story was real or unreal. We were dazzled by the moving images and the music. It was disorienting coming out of the dark auditorium after a matinee into bright sunlight, like after a midday nap when dreams come fast and furious.

   The weekend before our summer vacation was done and we had to go back to school we saw our last movie at the Ohio Theater. It was “Lord of the Flies” and was about boys our age who were marooned on a desert island. We thought we were experts about everybody like us and didn’t know anybody who ever did what they did. We suspected movies were some kind of art form but didn’t like grown-ups making up art about us. We appreciated great trash but not great art. We wrote it off as highfalutin science fiction.

   Going home on the train we saw a fight break out. Two men had been talking, then shouting, then shoving each other in the aisle, until one of them pulled a knife and stabbed the other one in the arm. Real blood gushed and stained his clothes. A real woman screamed. Two real men grabbed the knifer and held him down, while another man took his tie off and tied a tourniquet on the upper arm of the stabbed man. When we got to Windermere there were police cars and an ambulance there. We watched, fascinated, until a policeman told us to “break it up and go home.”

   We went home more marveled breathless than any movie had ever made us.

   John Kennedy was shot and killed that fall, which put a pall over everything. A fire broke out in the Ohio Theater the following year and the other theaters were hit by vandalism. All of them closed between the summers of 1968 and 1969 except the Hanna. We were juniors and seniors at St. Joseph’s High School, and the only pictures we went to were at the LaSalle Theater in our North Collinwood neighborhood. But by then when we went to the movies, we were more interested in our girlfriends than whatever was playing, although we found out horror movies were the way to go. 

   There was never any doubt about what to do with your hands when you were out with your main squeeze and the scary parts started.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Swimming With the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   There are thousands of restaurants in Cleveland Ohio. Captain Frank’s isn’t one of them. It used to be and when it was it was one of the best places to eat if you liked seafood and Lake Erie waves and wind and waves shaking the building on the East 9th St. pier. Every so often somebody full of cheer and careless after a hearty meal or drunk as a skunk drove off the pier into the lake. 

   “It was my last stop after a night of drinking in the Flats,” said Nancy Wasen. “Every night I was surprised no one fell off the pier and drowned.” It wasn’t for want of trying.

   In 1964 Mary Jane Jereb was 16 years old. She was in a car with her cousin and a neighbor and a driver’s ed instructor. “He took us downtown, to prepare for city driving. I wasn’t driving, my neighbor was. He directed her to this particular parking lot.” It was Captain Frank’s parking lot. They drove straight to the edge of the slick slimy pier. Spray from the Great Lake spotted their windshield.

   “The instructor told my neighbor to turn around and head back to Parma. My short young life flashed before me as she pulled into a parking space and backed out and headed home.” They slowly carefully left the dark deep behind.

   Captain Frank’s was a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House” depending on the signage of the year. It changed now and then. There was a panhandler who called himself Captain Frank who hung around outside the restaurant day and night, his hand stuck out. Demoted cops who kept quiet about hidden rooms in gambling joints and pocketed cash in job-buying schemes were assigned to seagull patrol on the pier, always in the dead of winter. They ignored the panhandler and did their best to walk the chill off. Sometimes they helped the innocent just to stay on the move.

   Francesco Visconti was the Captain Frank who ran the restaurant. He was a Sicilian from Palermo whose parents beat it out of Europe the year World War One started. At first, as soon as he could handle a horse, he sold fish from a wagon. After that he operated the Fulton Fish Market on East 22nd St. He was 40 years old in 1940 and lived with his wife, Rose, a son, as well as three daughters.

   He bought a beat-up passenger ferry building on the East 9th pier in 1953 and opened Captain Frank’s. I was a baby living the easy life in Sudbury, Ontario at the time and missed the grand opening. Kim Rifici Augustine’s grandfather was the original chef at Captain Frank’s. “The wax matches he used for flambé caused a fire back in the late 1950s,” she said. The fish shack burned down in 1958. Frank Visconti built it back bigger and better the next year.

   By the late 1950s my family had emigrated from Canada to Cleveland Ohio. We lived nearby, but never went to the restaurant. My parents were Lithuanians and ate bowls of beetroot soup and plates of potato pancakes and zeppelins at their own table. They didn’t know a Mediterranean Diet from Micky Mouse.

   In the Old Country they had feasted on pigs and crows. My mother’s father was a family farmer who kept porkers, slaughtering them himself, and smoking them in a box he built in the attic of the house, the box built around their fireplace chimney.

   “It was the best bacon and sausage I ever had in my life,” my mother said eighty years later.

   They hunted wild crows. “Those birds were tasty,” my mother said. The younger the birds the better. Those still in the nest and unable to get away were considered delicacies. Their crow cookouts involved breaking necks and boiling the birds in cooking oil over a bonfire, serving them with whatever vegetables they had at hand.

   Since I was part of the family, I ate with my parents my brother and sister. My mother prepared every meal. I ate whatever she made, even the fried liver and God-awful ethnic headcheese, although we never, thank God, had carrion-loving crows. Even if I had wanted to go to the Lobster House, I didn’t have a dime to my name

   Captain Frank’s boomed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were views of the lake out every window. There was an indoor waterfall. If you had water on the brain, it was the place to be. The food was terrific. Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, and Flip Wilson ate there whenever they were in town doing a show. The Shah of Iran and Mott the Hoople partied there, although not at the same time. They weren’t any which way on the same wavelength, other than under the spell of Frank. He never asked them to leave, no matter how late it was.

   There was a luncheonette behind the restaurant that doubled as a custard stand in the summer. When the Shah or Mott the Hoople stayed later than ever, they could sit in the back in the morning in the breezy sunshine with a cup of custard while lake freighters went back-and-forth. “I never went inside Captain Frank’s, but I remember the ice cream shop in the back well,” recalled Bob Peake, a homegrown boy who was a frozen sweets connoisseur.

   Frank Visconti was a made member of the Cleveland Mob. His criminal record dated back to 1931, including arrests for narcotics, bootlegging, and counterfeiting. The restaurant was frequented by high echelon hoods and politician pals alike. Many family meetings were held there. 

   “It was the hangout for Cleveland Mafia Enterprises,” said Tom James on Cleveland Crime Watch.

   Longshoremen went to Kindler’s and Dugan’s to drink before and after work, but between their double shifts went to Captain Frank’s for power cocktails. When they were done it was only a short walk back to the docks. When the weather was bad, they were warmed up and sobered up by the time they clocked back in.

   The restaurant was a football field’s length from Lakefront Stadium, where Chief Wahoo and the Browns played. The ballpark sat nearly 80,000 fans. The Indians were always limping along, their glory days long gone, but the Browns were exciting, and on game day crazy loud cheering rocked the windows of the restaurant. Cold biting winds blew into the stadium in spring fall and winter. In the summer under the lights, swarms of midges and mayflies sometimes brought baseball games to a standstill.

   In 1966 the Beatles played the stadium and after that the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones showed up to rock the home of rock-n-roll. In the 1980s U2 brought its big show to town, raking in millions singing about lovesickness.

   Even though I was grown-up by the 1970s, I still didn’t dine at Captain Frank’s. I was living in a rented house in a forgotten part of town, and it was all I could do to feed myself at home. I didn’t have pocket money to eat out. When I finally joined the way of the world and could afford to go whenever I had some spare change and wasn’t too tired from working with my hands all day long, I ate out. Most of my friends were racing to the top. I was starting at the bottom.

   There was a kind of magic eating at Captain Frank’s at night. I watched the lights of ships making their way slowly into Cleveland’s harbors while munching on scampi and warm rolls swimming in garlic butter. They served steaks the cooks seared, but the seafood was usually just threatened with heat and served. That’s why it was good. Students from St. John College on East 9th and Superior Ave. walked there to have midnight breakfast because it was good.

   The Friday night in September 1984 my friend Matti Lavikka and I treated my brother to dinner on his 31st birthday at Captain Frank’s was almost the last birthday he celebrated on this earth. We didn’t know Frank Visconti had died earlier that year, but in the car on the pier after dinner we thought my brother was dying. He was choking for air. The dinner had been very good, but he looked very bad. We were afraid he might end up swimming with Frank.

   He was getting over a marriage to a Columbus girl that had lasted 56 days. We picked him up in Mentor, where he was living alone, and went downtown. It was a starry late summer evening. We ordered a bottle of Chianti, some pasta, and lots of shellfish. We didn’t know, and he didn’t know, that he was allergic to shellfish. 

   “I don’t know why, but I hardly ever eat fish,” he said. “It doesn’t usually agree with me.” Our dinner at Frank’s that night included scallops, oysters, shrimp, and lobster. He might not have been allergic to all of them, but he was allergic to one of them, for sure.

   Halfway through coffee and dessert, which was sfogliatelle, layers of crispy puff pastry that bundle together in a lobster-like way, he was itching wheezing and his head was swelling. His lips, tongue, and throat were like silly putty. He was breaking out into hives. He was getting dizzy and dizzier. It was like he had eaten a poisoned apple.

   Shellfish allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to proteins in all manner of marine animals. Among those are crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with the allergy react to all shellfish. Others react to only some of them. It ranges from mild symptoms, like a stuffy nose, to life-threatening.

   Matti was a fireman and paramedic in Bay Village. Looking at my brother he didn’t like what he was seeing. We frog-marched him to the car and made a beeline for the nearest hospital. Matti put the pedal to the metal. The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t far, and we had him at the front door of the emergency room in ten minutes. Five minutes later a doctor was injecting him with epinephrine and a half-hour later he was his old self.

   “Thanks, guys,” he said when we dropped him off at his bachelor pad in Mentor.

   After Frank Visconti died the restaurant limped along. The service and food got worse and worse. The tables and chairs and walls looked like they needed to be scrubbed down. Fewer and fewer people went downtown for any reason other than work. I was working downtown near the Cleveland State University campus, where Matti and I had started a small two-man business. One evening when I got off work, I called my girlfriend fiancée wife-to-be, who was living in Reserve Square, and invited her to dinner at Captain Frank’s.  I had seen her eat buffets of seafood. She had a hollow leg. I knew she wasn’t allergic to any of it. When we got there, however, the pier was dark in all directions. There were no parked cars in the lot and no lights in any of the windows.

   Rudolph Hubka, Jr., the new owner the past five years, gave up the ghost and declared bankruptcy in 1989. Nobody said a word. Hardly anybody noticed. The building was demolished in 1994. The only thing left was litter blowing around in the wind.

   We drove to Little Italy and snagged a table at Guarino’s, a woman out front pointing the way. Sam Guarino had died two years earlier, but his wife Marilyn was carrying on with the help of Sam’s sister Marie, who lived upstairs and helped with the cooking in the basement kitchen.  “Marilyn sat in front, and she was like the captain on a ship, making sure everything was just right,” said Suzy Pacifico, who was a waitress at the eatery for fifty-two years.

   We had a farm-to-table dinner before there was farm-to-table, red wine, and coffee with tiramisu. Mama Guarino asked us how we liked the cake. We didn’t see any fishy characters. When I drove my gal home, we were both happy as clams.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Feed Your Head

By Ed Staskus

   I was in my early 20s in 1973 the first time I visited Lake View Cemetery. I was in the back seat of a 1964 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88 convertible. Bill Neubert was driving, and his wife Bonnie was beside him. Everybody called Bonnie Buck, although I called her Bonnie. It was a mid-summer day, warm bright breezy. The top of the car was down. Bill stopped in front of an old headstone. We got out of the car and walked up to it.

   The name on the grave was Louis Germain DeForest. The dates were 1838 – 1870.

   “He was the first guy buried here,” Bill said.

   Captain Louis Deforest was from Cleveland, one of ten children, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and went home after Johnny Reb gave it up. He married Theresa Luidham before the war, got her pregnant during the war, and again after the war. Back in Cleveland he went into the jewelry business. The sparkle didn’t last long. He died at the age of 31.

   Two sites in the graveyard were on the National Register of Historic Places, the second one added that year. I didn’t know much about places with a past. I had enough trouble making sense of the present. Bill filled me in, even though he wasn’t interested in historic places. He was more interested in the flow of history.

   Bill and Bonnie were mimes clowns comedians, putting on shows around town, working out of town when they got offers. They were a few years older than me, friends of my roommate Carl Poston. That Saturday morning Carl begged off messing around town, leaving me the odd man out. Bill and Bonnie made me feel at home. Bill didn’t act or look anything like Humphrey Bogart, but he talked just like him. We drove to Little Italy and had pastries and coffee. Back in the car they both dropped acid and asked me if I wanted to try it.

   “Sure,” I said.

   They didn’t call it LSD. They called it Uncle Sid. It was the first time I took acid, and a half hour later was finding it and everything else incredibly interesting. Everything seemed fresh and bright. Uncle Sid wasn’t the disheveled uncle with yesterday’s stogie trying to take your picture with his $5.00 Instamatic. He was my best friend that day.

   The Jefferson Airplane released ‘White Rabbit’ in 1967. “One pill makes you large and one pill makes you small, feed your head, feed your head,” Grace Slick sang her eyes full of stars.. My head was full to the brim the rest of the day. Everything was freaky but beautiful. No matter what it was, it all felt looked smelled sounded new. My eyes stayed wide open like a baby’s all day long.

  “What’s it like to be a child?” asked Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College in London. “That sense of wonder, that sense of awe is what you certainly see with psychedelics. Sometimes it’s framed in a sort of mystical or spiritual way. But it’s interesting if you look at some literature, someone like William Wordsworth, who talks about the infant state as being a kind of heavenly state where we’re closer to what you would call God.”

   LSD was first synthesized in 1938 in Switzerland. It was introduced as a psychiatric drug in 1947 and marketed as a psychotropic panacea, “a cure for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, sexual perversions, and alcoholism.” The abbreviation LSD is from the mouthful of the German word lysergsäurediethylamid. The drug was brought to the United States by the CIA. The spy agency bought the world’s entire supply for a quarter million dollars and promoted its use in clinics, research centers, and prisons. They administered it to their own employees, soldiers, doctors, prostitutes, the fruity, the mentally ill, the down and out, and plain folks to study their reactions, usually without those given the drug knowing what they were taking. The idea was that LSD is like psychoanalytical Drano.

   Lake View Cemetery is a garden graveyard straddling Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights. It was founded in 1869. It was where the city’s wealthy buried themselves during the Gilded Age. There are many lavish funerary monuments and mausoleums. Little Italy up and down Mayfield Rd. was settled by stone masons from Italy who came to America to make monuments for God’s 280 acres. Many of the monuments they made were symbols. It’s better to be a symbol than a monument. Pigeons do bad things to monuments.

   In the 1960s Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary got their hands on LSD and started advocating it to the counterculture. It was supposed to be the drug of choice for consciousness expansion. Owsley Stanley got the blotter rolling in San Francisco. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters popularized it during their road trips, giving it away to anybody who wanted it. Nick Sands created Orange Sunshine, the most pure, highest-quality LSD made at the time, better than the CIA’s. In 1966 the Psychedelic Shop opened, selling acid over the counter. It was legal as cookies and milk. If you were a gal, wearing a pants suit was problematical, but not downing the hallucinogenic.

   Bill drove his Olds 88 to Section 9 on Lot 14, to the marble gravestone of Francis Haserot and his family. The bigger than life tomb marker was “The Angel of Death Victorious.” The angel’s wings were outstretched, and she held an extinguished torch upside-down. I stepped up to her and saw what looked like black tears dripping from her eyes and down her neck. I wasn’t unnerved, but rather impressed with the sculptor’s skill, until I realized it was a result of rain and aging bronze.

   W. H. Auden wasn’t impressed with LSD. “Highly articulate people under it talk absolute drivel,” he said. After he tried it, he reported, “Nothing much happened but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.” The Beatles jumped on the bandwagon with ‘Day Tripper’ in 1966 and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ in 1967. “The first time I took LSD, it just blew everything away,” said George Harrison. “I had such an incredible feeling of well-being.”

   Not everybody was all in. “We don’t take trips on LSD in Muskogee, we are living right and free,” Merle Haggard sang on ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ Living free in the home of the brave is one thing. Living right is in the eye of the beholder. The city is on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. It is home to a museum of Native American history and the USS Batfish, a WWII submarine with an onboard museum. Between 1858 and 1872 the Texas Rangers and U. S. Cavalry battled Creeks Kiowa Comanche Native Americans in more than a dozen major engagements, eventually wearing them down, rounding them up, and telling them to stay the hell on the reservation. In the 1970s the Batfish stayed becalmed bewildered on the river, many miles from its native ocean hunting grounds.

   After we left Haserot’s Angel we drove to the Garfield Memorial. It’s the final resting place of assassinated President James Garfield, who was from nearby Mentor. The memorial is built of Ohio sandstone in a combination of Gothic, Byzantine, and Romanesque styles. It took five years to build and was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1890. James Garfield, and his wife, Lucretia, are entombed in the crypt.

   The circular tower is 180 feet high. We stood on the broad front steps and looked up. Before we went in, we gave the once-over to the bas-reliefs depicting President Garfield’s life and death, which included more than one hundred life-size figures. Inside was a gold dome and a statue of the main man. Below the Memorial Hall were two bronze caskets and two urns, the urns holding the ashes of the presidential couple’s daughter and her husband. I followed Bill and Bonnie up a stairway to a balcony with a view of Lake Erie. We stayed for a half-hour, taking a long gander at the downtown skyline before we left. It was like IMAX a year before IMAX happened, but without the motion sickness.

   “My feelings about LSD are mixed,” said Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. “It’s something that I both fear and love at the same time. I never take any psychedelic, have a psychedelic experience, without having that feeling of, I don’t know what’s going to happen. In that sense, it’s fundamentally an enigma and a mystery to me.” 

   “The function of the brain is to reduce available information and lock us into a limited experience of the world” said the Czechoslovakian psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. “LSD frees us from this restriction and opens us to a much larger experience.”

   When he was dying of cancer Aldous Huxley asked his wife to inject him with LSD. The drug has analgesic properties for the terminally ill. When the acid trip was over so was his trip on earth. He died that night. The doors of perception closed on the man who wrote “The Doors of Perception.” Two years later Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek named their new band The Doors.

   In no time LSD was scaring the bejesus out of Washington D. C. They thought it was undermining American values and undermining the war effort in Vietnam. The Air Force might have dropped puff powder bombs of it on Charlie instead of napalm to keep the dominoes in place, but they didn’t. It was made illegal in the late 1960s. It was classified as a substance with no legitimate medical use and a lack of accepted safety. The DEA said it had a high potential for abuse. Although the drug had never caused any documented deaths, that was that. If you wanted to be in the sky with diamonds, once you landed your next bus stop might be prison.

   After we left Garfield’s Memorial, we left the Olds 88 where it was and set off on foot. The memorial is on a hill which is the boneyard’s high point. We rambled downhill in the sunshine, making our way on twisty paths, stopping at the graves of Charles Brush, Elroy Kulas, John D. Rockefeller, and Garrett Morgan.

   Charles Brush was an inventor with fifty patents to his name. His arc lights were the first to illuminate Cleveland’s Public Square. When he later sold his company, it merged with the Edison Electric Co. to form General Electric. Elroy Kulas was the president of Midland Steel from the day it was organized in 1923 until his death in 1952. He was one of the driving forces behind the city’s steelmaking. During World War Two he built hulls for tens of thousands of M4 Sherman Tanks. The Nazis had a low opinion of them, but in the end the Sherman’s played chin music with the Panzer’s, blasting them to kingdom come. The Kulas Auditorium at the Institute of Music is named after him.

   We found John D. Rockefeller’s grave without any problem. It was at the base of an almighty obelisk. We didn’t stay long, only long enough to pay our respects to the Age of Oil. John D. was a son-of-a-gun, bleeding anybody everybody who crossed him bone dry. It was how he made it to the top of the world, making himself the richest man in the world. He gave it away at the end so no one would spit anymore when they heard his name.

   Garrett Morgan founded the Cleveland Call newspaper for the Negro community. He patented a breathing device that was used in 1916 during a mining disaster in gas-filled tunnels under Lake Erie to rescue workers and bring back those who died. Twenty-one men died. He and his brother rescued two of them and recovered four dead. He developed the modern traffic light and was the first black man in town to own a car.

   We went full flaneur hoofing it around the garveyard, spending all day there. By early evening we were dog tired and coming down fast from the LSD. We needed bread and water. We hopped into the Olds 88 and drove down to Little Italy. Instead of bread and water we had espresso, ham sandwiches, and biscotti.

   When Bill and Bonnie dropped me off back home it was nighttime. I ignored the mail, fed Ollie my Siamese cat, who was meowing up a storm, brushed my teeth, and got into bed. Ollie jumped up and got comfortable beside me.

   I had spent the day with the dead but felt incredibly alive. More than one hundred thousand men women and children are buried in Lake View Cemetery, their eyes closed forever. My eyes had never been more open. I didn’t drop much acid after that, and when I did, stuck to small doses. I didn’t think it was especially dangerous, but it is unpredictable stuff that can go wrong, like kids one minute are laughing their heads off and the next minute bawling their eyes out. 

   I thought maybe I would take it again when I was dying, like Aldous Huxley, and go out on a high note.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Splat Shot

By Ed Staskus

   I started playing racquetball in my mid-20s, at Cleveland State University, while taking my mandatory physical education class. I got good enough to play on an intramural team, then the school team, and finally small tournaments around town. By the time I had played enough and worked my way up to the Open division, I was too old to play in the Open division. It took a year-or-so of beating my head against the wall, but when the pain in my neck finally went away, I started playing in the 30-plus division.

   Racquetball is played with a hollow blue ball on an indoor 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-long court. The walls, floor, and ceiling are legal playing surfaces, with the exception that the ball off the racquet must not hit the floor first. Hinders are out-of-bounds. It happens when somebody gets in the way. Unlike tennis, there is no net to hit the ball over, and, unlike squash, there is not an out of bounds tin at the bottom of front wall to hit the ball above. 

   It is similar to handball and Squash 57, a British game often called racketball. Joe Sobek invented the modern sport in the USA in 1950, adding a stringed racquet to the game of paddleball to increase velocity and control. He called his new idea Paddle Rackets. He was the first person to ever be inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

   When I started playing, the school supplied racquets, warped wood frame models from the 19th century that generated no velocity and could barely be controlled. Playing a game took forever because nobody could score points, unless it was by accident. Fortunately, Ektelon was on the way with 20th century models.

   Founded by Frank “Bud” Held, it was one of the first companies to go big in a still small sport. Working from his garage in San Diego, he is credited for a clever patented design for a racquet stringing machine. In 1970, Ektelon introduced their first experimental racquetball racquet. The next year they made the first racquet of high-strength aluminum. Six years later they pioneered hand-laid composite racquets, and six years after that the first oversized racquets. They were first in the hearts of racquetball players for a long time.

   Ektelon racquets made a fast game even faster. The leading amateurs and top pros regularly hit drive serves in the 130 to 150 MPH range. Even less-renowned players hit serves and set-up shots at 120 MPH and better.

   Not only is it a greased lightning game it works every muscle group known to man. The arms and upper body are involved in hitting the ball, legs involved in getting to faraway spots on the floor where the opponent is spreading the ball around, and the core for balance and stability. The more I played the better my balance became as my hip and leg strength improved. I became more flexible, too, stretching before and after matchesso I could contort and lunge for difficult shots. My hand-eye coordination got better and better.

   They weren’t classic life skills like reading writing and arithmetic, but they were classic skills for staying relevant on the racquetball court. The game is tops for staying trim, too, since it is aerobic involving constant movement, burning up to 800 calories an hour. Burning a boatload of calories isn’t so terrific at tournaments, which require not only playmaking to get to Sunday’s semi-finals and finals, but stamina to endure the Friday and Saturday matches and make it to payday.

   I asked Danny Clifford, an Open player from Cincinnati, how he did it weekend after weekend working his way to Sundays. He was about the same age as me. He didn’t look the worse for wear. Whenever I made it to Sundays, I looked worn down and out for the next few days.

   “You don’t want to see me Monday mornings,” he said. “I usually have to fall out of bed and crawl to the bathroom, where I run a hot bath and soak for as long as I can before I go to work. If I didn’t have a cushy enough job, I wouldn’t be playing in tournaments.” 

   Playing in an age division was the best thing I could have done. It wasn’t that anyone’s shot making was any the worse, but they were slowly and surely becoming slower like me and got sore and achy just as fast as me. They recovered slower, too. They didn’t party hardy Saturday nights anymore, opting for a good night’s sleep.

   Dave Scott was the undergraduate at Cleveland State University with whom I started playing racquetball. I was an English and film major, and he was in the accounting program, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He wore his clothes disheveled and his hair long and smoked pot like he owned stock in the farm. By the time we started playing doubles together

racquetball was the fastest-growing sport in America. Entrepreneurs around the country were busy building courts. Back Wall clubs popped up like mushrooms around northeast Ohio. The sport expanded internationally thanks to its fast pace and high intensity. The first world championship was held in 1981.

   “It’s the hottest recreational sport in America, spearheading the whole fitness craze,” said Marty Hogan, the world’s top-ranked player.

   We didn’t know it was happening, but something happened to the sport of the 1980s in the 1980s. Even though there were more than 12 million participants in 1982, the boom was over. 

Aerobics and body building “had a definite impact” on racquetball, says Chuck Leve, editor of National Racquetball Magazine. “You have to understand that a lot of people do things that are ‘in.’ There was a time when racquetball was the thing to do. But the people who played racquetball because it was a fad are gone.”

   The springtime Sunday morning Dave Scott and I were scheduled to play a semi-finals doubles match at the Hall of Fame club in Canton, it was a men’s Open match. I parked on the street and knocked on his back door. By the time we got into his big blue Buick it was 9 o’clock. The match was scheduled for 10 o’clock. The club in Canton was an hour from Cleveland Heights.

   “Don’t worry, we’ll be there with time to spare,” Dave said. When we pulled onto the highway, I found out what he meant to do. First, he lit a Jamaican-style joint. “No thanks,” I said. I had enough trouble hitting shots straight without getting looped. Second, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator and sped to Akron at 90 MPH. He slowed down going through Akron, but once we were just south of it, he picked it up a notch, hitting 100 MPH an hour. Even though there were few cars on the road that early in the morning I gnashed my teeth and hung on to the Oh God! handle above the door. We walked into the club with time to spare.

   The Hall of Fame was a big club with 25 racquetball courts, among other things, like tennis courts, basketball courts, and a swimming pool. We were at one of the glass back walled courts ringing the lobby, putting on our headbands and gloves, when Kelvin Vantrease strolled in. He had two blondes with him, one on each arm. Heads swiveled as he walked towards the locker room. Only Kevin Deighan, a cold sober Open player who hit line drives and nothing but line drives, kept himself to himself. He was getting married soon.

    Kelvin Vantrease looked like he had been up all night. He was scheduled to play on one of the two center courts at the same time as us in an Open semi-final singles match. He looked ready for a long nap. He didn’t look like he was going to unleash his vaunted forehand firepower anytime soon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was bliss in his shot-making that morning and it was all over before anybody broke a sweat.

   I played Kelvin once in an Open quarter-final match. He crushed me in the first game. I eked out the second game, partly because he was horsing around. I scored the first point of the tie breaker, feeling my oats. I served again, we rallied, with Kelvin hitting the ball harder and harder. I don’t know what got into me, but I started diving for the ball whenever I couldn’t save it and stay on my feet. I finally left a weak floater that hung around the front of the court. He attacked it, taking it out of the air hip-high, hitting a splat shot, screaming, “Get that!”

   I didn’t get it and didn’t score another point.

   A couple of years later the four-time Ohio junior racquetball state champion and 1984 national doubles champ needed surgery. “When I had back surgery for a ruptured disc, the doctor told me I`d never play sports again,” Kelvin said. ”I had never planned to go pro or even play much on the amateur open level, but when someone tells you that you can`t do something, it makes you want to do it more.”

   He bought a motor home and supported himself giving lessons, churning out up to 40 of them a week. ”I`m like a rat,” he said. ”I can adapt. If I can live in a motor home for three years, I can live anywhere.” Half-Dutch, half-Cherokee Indian, and a full-time beer drinker, he trimmed his Samson locks and cut down on the cornpone, like playing with a frying pan instead of a racquet and wearing swimming flippers instead of sneakers. He started playing tournaments again and by 1986 stood second in the men’s Open national rankings.

   Our doubles match turned out to be the match of the day. The men’s and women’s finals were scheduled for the early afternoon. Other matches were going on, but ours went on and on and finally drew a crowd, in part because of the shouting.

   Our opponents were a lefty righty team, making it tough on us. We played from behind from the start, and from the start Dave did not like the lefty, who was a walking rule book. Hinders are inevitable when playing doubles, and the rule book and his partner were no exception to the rule. They were worse. They were both hefty men and phlegmatic. They had no problem with never giving way. There were hinders galore. At first Dave seethed and smoldered. Then he went off. He argued with them and started harping on the referee about blown calls. The referee put up with it for a while but finally ripped up the score sheet and tossed the crumbs down on the court, walking away. Another referee was rustled up.

   Refereeing was voluntary although the losers of the previous match on the same court were required to referee the next match. The second referee did the best he could but wasn’t able to control or put up with the repeated flare ups, by now involving all four of us on the court. The crowd grew when a third referee had to be recruited. It was standing room only. There was cheering and jeering, huzzahs and catcalls.

   We went to a tiebreaker, playing some exciting racquetball, finally losing by two points. The rule book was smug about it. Dave was gracious except on the ride home when he vented spleen for a half-hour before lighting up again and calming down. I drank a bottle of Gatorade to keep from cramping up and even took a toke to be companiable.

   I continued to practice and play and got a job at a club as an Activities Director so I could practice and play for free. I met others around town who were willing to play practice matches with me. The three brothers Dieghan and Gaylon Finch played in Mentor. Bobby Sanders and Jerry Davis played in Cleveland Heights. Steve Schade and Dominic Palmieri played in Middleburg Heights. I drove to Solon to get my ass kicked by Doug Ganim, who was half my age and twice the playmaker. His t-shirts were emblazoned with “Eye of the Tiger” on the back. His backhand was a rally killer. The only time I ever scored any points was when he committed a youthful indiscretion. 

   That didn’t go on for long. Moving forward, over the years he reached the finals of the U.S. National Doubles Championships eight times with four different partners, winning the national title four times. He is considered one of the best right-handed left-side players to ever have played the sport, all the while promoting the ballgame as an executive for HEAD/Penn racquetball for 28 years and as the President of the Ohio Racquetball Association for almost as long.

   I played racquetball through most of the 1980s, although not as much and not as many tournaments as I had earlier in the decade. I was riding bikes and thinking of trying yoga. I started playing squash and one day put my racquetball gear away for good.

   I got married, bought a house in Lakewood, and put my nose to the grindstone. I spent my days on Main Street. I played squash evenings at the 13th Street Racquet Club in downtown Cleveland and found all the competition I wanted because many of the better players in the city played there. It was only a 10-minute drive instead of driving all over town looking for a tug-of-war. They had a Nautilus circuit and a running track. They had a sauna. They had food and drink at the bar. 

   The only thing squash didn’t have was a kill shot or rollout. It was a burrito short of a combination plate. A racquetball kill shot is hit low and bounces twice in the blink of an eye coming off the front wall. It is nearly impossible for an opponent to return. The perfect kill shot is a rollout because the ball is hit so super-duper low that it rolls back flat after hitting the front wall, never bouncing at all.

   Although gentlemen with squash racquets can be crude at the drop of a top hat, it is a gentleman’s game. Some quiet gentlemen are patient wolves, the most dangerous kind in the animal world. Many of them live on Wall Street. The game of squash has its own pleasures but nothing like the pleasure of ending a hotly contested match with a splat kill shot like shooting a fish in a barrel.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”