Rough and Tumble

By Ed Staskus

   I’m on the shorter side, not too short, on the lean and mean side, but not too mean. I can be short-tempered when I have to be, but I am more friendly than not. I didn’t get it from my stepmom, for sure. I don’t get much from her. I go through doorways easier than most. I could probably go down a rabbit hole if I drank what Alice drank. That would be some kind of out of body out of my hometown on my street in my backyard in my mind adventure! I like running around with my bro’s. On the sports side of life, I run cross-country.

   I have freckles, like my dad, blue eyes, and brown hair that I keep trimmed. I keep it aerodynamic. I keep it regulation for school. I don’t change it all year. But next summer when my baptism of fire is over and done, I’ll get a full cut, grow it out, and let it flow chop until school starts again in the fall. Flow chopping is when your hair is in a circle. It’s all about letting your life flow. It’s all about being on the go with the boys.

   I’m stronger than most guys my size, but not super muscular. I’m more like lean meat. Keep your body slender and your mind sharp. My dad used to be that way when I was a baby, but he’s bulked up since then, gone big-chested. He’s not as sharp as he used to be, either. He repeats himself. He’s gone the way of pay me in full and I’m full satisfied. He’s gone grown-up.

   My middle name is Sebastian. St. Sebastian was a bodyguard for the Roman emperor. He was a tough dude, fee fi fo, walking to Detroit. St. Sebastian was bigger than me in his bodyguard days, before he got cut down to size. I’ve been doing push-ups lately. I hit the weight room after track practice and get on the bench. I do all the machines and I’m up to 85 pounds. I’m on the dumbbells, too, but I only do fifteens. My forearms aren’t that strong, yet, but they will be.

   St. Sebastian was the man, until he got on the wrong side of the boss man and got hacked to pieces. He was shot to death with arrows after he became a Christian. But they couldn’t kill him, so the emperor’s flunkies clubbed him to death, chopped him up, and threw his parts into a sewer. He was buried in France, after they found the parts of him, but later Protestants looted the church and tossed his bones into a ditch. He couldn’t catch a break. After they found most of him, they sent him to a church with locked doors so it wouldn’t happen again. 

   He’s the patron saint of sports. I wear a sacramental medal of him. I kiss the medal right before races. I was good at football when I was young, but I was never big enough. When I got big the other guys got bigger. I was a crash test dummy. No matter how many times I kissed my sacramental medal it didn’t help. Now I love running. I’m not an all-star athlete, but I’m more physically fit than most guys. I’m more than fit enough to be on the cross-country team, so I’m absolutely in the better half.

   Many guys at St. Ed’s are physically fit because they’re in sports. They’re all jacked to begin with, or they’re good at something, like soccer or football. There are others who don’t play any sports, not at all. At St. Ed’s you’re either fit or you’re unfit. The ones who are unfit are usually the ones who don’t play sports. They either don’t want to be told what to do or they are slackers who don’t want to exert any effort towards anything.

   Whenever I’m running, I feel totally free. It just flushes everything out of me. That’s when I do my best thinking, bright and bushy. But race day is different. It’s like running across a frozen lake with the ice breaking behind you, the ice-cold water reaching for your legs. It’s time for getting it on fast. I don’t think much during races.

   My teeth are close to perfect. I’ve only ever had two cavities, but I did have one tooth pulled. I was in 5th grade. One day I woke up and it hurt bad. It wasn’t even loose. There was something wrong with the nerve and I had to get it pulled that same day. It was so horrible it was horrible. The dentist gave me a shot of Novocain, but it wasn’t enough. When he pulled on it the first time it hurt bad, and he had to stop. He gave me two more shots and after that it was all right.

   I hate pain, even though I can take a lot of it, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Mr. Rote, our religion teacher, says we measure our pain by God, whatever that means. A lot of my prayers are thanking God I’m mostly healthy. We talk about evil in class, but I think the worst thing is pain. When my grandfather got old, before he died, he was in pain all the time. He was always hunched over, but he never complained. He could hardly walk. Dad said he just had to accept it. It sucks to be old. When you’re a grown-up it’s right around the corner. You might as well brace yourself for it.

   I’m allergic to dust mites and pollen. I get itchy eyes from them, sneeze a lot, and feel like crap. I had to get special microfiber covers for my mattress and pillows. If I eat nuts, I feel sick and then get sick. My throat hurts, it’s hard to swallow, and my stomach gets upset. It’s deadly, so deadly I need EpiPens, two of them, just in case. They pierce your skin. A needle shoots out and epinephrine makes it all go the way of the saints, so I don’t have to go to the hospital.

   Thank God my dad has a family insurance plan. The pens cost an arm and a leg, but they don’t cost us anything. If I was on my own, I would have to rob a bank. I would have to bushwhack a doctor. I would have to improvise, for sure.

   My left thumb is different than my right thumb. It happened three years ago when I was eleven. My dad and I were buying a massage for my stepmom. We parked in the Beachcliff Mall shopping lot in Rocky River and when I got out of our Toyota van, I slammed the door shut, except I slammed it on my own thumb. My hand was still in the door. I slammed it on my own thumb, where it got stuck!

   It was terrible. I couldn’t make sense of it. “Open the door, open the door!” I screamed. When my dad finally jerked the door open my nail came off. We had to get x-rays at Lakewood Hospital. My thumb was broken and when the nail grew back it grew back different.

   I have a scar on the left side of my neck. It happened last summer when I was playing Nazis and Jews at summer camp and got whiplashed. It was my own fault, but it was the fault of the jerk who was chasing me. I told him he wasn’t a real Nazi, and I wasn’t a real Jew, and did he have to barrel after me like it was life and death? The doctor says I’ll probably have a tattoo of it on my neck for the rest of my life.

   I have a good personality. It’s better than most, for sure. I am definitely smooth to the touch. I’m just being who I was made to be. I think it’s better to be yourself. Don’t try to be anybody else, even though they might be smarter or more successful. Even though my personality is my personal property, it seems everybody, especially my parents and my teachers, and all the grown-ups are always trying to change it.

   I like to think I’m brave. I’d like to be a hero. Everybody knows I don’t have a quiet personality. I never look behind me or to the side. That’s not me. I don’t want to know who I used to be. That’s over and done. I’m only interested in who I am now. The past is where I grew up, and I liked living there, but everybody knows you can’t go back to yesterday.

   I’m nice to everybody, unless they’re a jerk. Then I’m not going to be nice to them. I don’t mind what some guys think of me because I know there are other guys who don’t think that, not at all. There are many nice people like me, who are kind and considerate. You can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s what a lot of people do. I don’t do that. I’m open-minded, but I don’t like it that grown-ups always try to stick things I don’t want into my open mind. I don’t like it, at all.

   I’m not too emotional. I’m more of a happy person, not a crazy high and low guy. I know everybody gets sad and depressed. I try to give them a smile. I like doing that. It’s right under your nose and it’s better than being mean. Everybody looks better when they smile. Some of my teachers smile as though they just want to get it over with. It’s like they’re visiting a disaster site. I get ticked off if people never smile, or if they smile only with their lips, not their whole face.

   It’s sad when people die, but I feel they wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. You obviously can’t be happy, but don’t be depressed. That’s how I feel. It’s not worth the effort to be so sad. I might be down about something for a few hours, or even a whole day, but then I’ll just forget about it. When you smile, you forget. When you remember, you get sad. Never look back is what I say. I take it smart.

   Some of the guys at St. Ed’s are so emotional it’s like a weepie movie. And it’s all a gang of guys, not even any girls. They don’t know that no one wants to hear their sob stories. They talk about how someone stole their girlfriend, how their parents are control freaks, and how their teachers don’t understand them. They want emotional support, like an IV pumping it. I’m not like that. I only tell my close friends what I honestly think. I’m not going to blab it out like a sob train to the whole school. 

   Those guys put it all on Facebook. They tell everybody what happened, when it happened, and why it happened. It’s not worth it. Who cares? Nobody cares. They think they have a lot of friends on Facebook. They couldn’t be more wrong. That is the biggest joke of all time. The Facebook gang is laughing all the way to the bank. Don’t be waiting for a friend request from any of them! Twitter has wiped out Facebook, anyway. I’m done with it, although I’m still on Facebook all the time.

   There are a butt load of jerks and more at St. Ed’s. There are tools, cocky guys, and whores. A tool will say they are your best friend. You are friends with them, you talk to them, but they go right behind your back and tell other people. So, they are tools. A cocky guy is someone who thinks they are the best at everything, even though they aren’t. Even if they are good at something, they are so cocky about it they are annoying. The whores are just sad kids, all lonely. They’re never who they really are, letting themselves be who they are, so they can’t be a real friend. A friend to everybody is nobody’s friend.

   Who upsets me more than anything else are the attention seekers. They want attention over the dumbest things. It makes me pissed off. One guy who is in one of my classes is always raising his hand to say something dumb, or if we have to do something, he asks the teacher to come check this or that. He says he just wants to make sure he’s on the right track. He goes on and on. He wants all eyes on him, since being the poster model is what he does. He needs to shut up!

   I just don’t like to hear their voices. It’s totally annoying. The guys who make me upset are the queer bags. They’re the guys who will try to get with anyone. They’re just thirsty for a partner, anyone who will pay attention to them. They would probably even steal from bullies to attract a little attention.

   Bullies rattle me more than most. I was bullied a lot in middle school. It was horrible. My dad would call the school, and tell them about it, and even go to the school. They would say, “We know, this kid, he’s a bully,” but nothing would ever happen. Nothing ever got done, no whipping, no hanging, no change.  At St. Ed’s it’s different. They don’t tolerate it, at all. But guys still get bullied. It rubs me the wrong way. I know how it feels. It sucks, so it ticks me off a lot.

   I’m popular at school because I know how to make friends with my classmates, and sophomores, too. I don’t try to win any popularity contests. That’s just how it is. I’m not modest, but I’m not conceited, either. I don’t try to be popular. I try to be nice and that translates into popularity. Not with everybody, for sure, because there are plenty of scrubs and haters in the hallways.

   The only dogs who bite me are people. Dogs never bite me, although Scar almost bit me once. I barged into my bedroom, and he was sleeping on the other side of the door. My hand was in his mouth before I knew it and even before he knew it. When he looked up it was a toss-up who was more surprised. Was it him or was it me? His tail was wagging, and he was snarling at the same time. He left teeth marks on me, but no bloodshed.

   Scar is jumpy about water. A neighbor sprayed him in the face when he was a puppy to keep him from barking when we were all in Michigan for a long weekend. She did it a bunch of times. When my older sister Sadie and I found out we waited until she flew to Las Vegas with her friends to lose money and we broke all the windows in her new Audi with baseball bats.

   He has personality, like me. Sometimes I think I might have been a dog in a past life because dogs will sometimes do a double take when they see me. I think they can see the inside of you. Scar always knows when I’m coming home, even though I might only be turning the corner up the street. He runs to meet me. No one else even ever knows I’m home until I come through the door and ask what’s for dinner.

   It is fun running up and down the street and in the park with Scar. Dogs are fit and fast. Dogs are my favorite people sometimes, definitely at my house. Scar is short and sweet, like me. Nobody thinks cats and dogs go to Heaven, but I think animals were there a long time ago, before any of us, no matter what the holy roller Mr. Rote says, who doesn’t even have a dog. What does he think he knows that he doesn’t know?

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Staying Alive at the Armory

By Ed Staskus

   One of the concerns of Cleveland’s early settlers was that Canada might invade at any time. They were just on the other side of Lake Erie and they had plenty of boats. They might land their Canuck army somewhere off the beaten path and lay siege to the city. Nobody knew what they would do if they captured Cleveland, they being foreigners who lived on poutine and littered their mother tongue with ”eh?”, but everybody was convinced it was going to happen soon. 

   The Canadian Rebellions of 1837 were in full swing. When the city fathers acted they formed the Cleveland Grays, a volunteer military company, to protect themselves from Canucks on the loose. They weren’t called the Grays at first. At first they were called the Cleveland City Guards but since their uniforms were gray from tip to toe they changed the name the next year. They wore Queen’s Guard bearskin hats that made them look a foot taller than they really were. They adopted “Semper Paratus” as their motto. Nobody knew what it meant because it was in Latin until the man upstairs finally explained it meant “Always Prepared.” Everybody liked that. There were 65 of them.

   The Cleveland Grays stayed busy even though the Canadians eventually decided to stay on their side of the border. In 1852 they put down a two-day riot at Cleveland’s Medical College. A mob bearing clubs and cleavers attacked the school, protesting the work of Resurrection Men. They were men who robbed graves of the recently deceased for dissection lectures. The crowd broke into the college, the doctors, teachers, and students fleeing, and destroyed all the furnishings and equipment. They ransacked the lower level looking for the body of a young local woman who they believed had been body snatched. The Grays restored order, but the next day the mob was its way to burn down the house of one of the anatomy teachers when they had to save the day again. The rabble saw their bearskin hats a mile away and ran away.

   In 1861 they were the first militia in the country to form a company and respond to the call for Union soldiers. They fought at the First Battle of Manassas. They hauled the first ever captured Johnny Reb cannon of the war from the Cheat River battlefield back to Camp Cleveland in Tremont. The troops called it ‘Cannon Sesech’ after the secessionists. They fired it after every Union victory. They whooped it loud and clear every hour for 24 hours on the day the war ended. Nobody complained about the noise. Over the years, after a Gray had been a member for twenty-five or more years, he was entitled to be called a “Pioneer” and to wear a leather apron with his uniform. He was also entitled to carry an axe when on parade. Nobody messed with them when they were on parade. They fought in the Spanish-American War and World War One. After that the Militia Act proscribed them and their like from fighting in wars anymore on their own initiative. Uncle Sam still wanted them but only if they wore his regulation uniform. The Cleveland Grays lasted as a “Businessmen’s Camp” into the 1990s.

   They first set up shop on the fourth floor of a building called the Mechanics Block. Thirty years later they needed more space. They moved into a former fire station. Ten years later they moved into the newly built City Armory, sharing it with the Ohio National Guard. Soon after that a fire destroyed the building. They decided to build their own place that would stand the test of time. 

   A three-ton block of sandstone was set in place in 1893 where Bolivar Rd. meets Prospect Ave. for the foundation of the Grays Armory. It grew to be three stories high with a five-story tower on the northeast corner. It was built as an urban fortress. There is a black iron drop-gate and iron barriers in front of the solid oak front doors. Iron rods were bolted to the brick walls as window protectors. 

   The armory was built to store weapons and ammo. The drill room, which doubled as a ballroom, was where the Grays marched up and down in tight formations. But it wasn’t long before it became a kind of community center. The Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert in 1918 was staged there. The first time the Metropolitan Opera came to town they sang songs of doomed love and hellfire there. When John Philip Souza first marched into town his band played there. The first home and garden show and the first auto show in Cleveland were held there.

   Even though in the early 1970s I was living on Prospect Ave. near Cleveland State University, and later in nearby Asia Town, I didn’t know the first thing about Grays Armory. The few times I saw it I dismissed it as an old ramshackle castle with a cool-looking tower. I did, at least, until Joe Dwyer invited me to his new digs there.

   Joe and I went to St. Joseph’s High School the same four years in the 1960s and for a few years in the 1970s lived a street apart in Asia Town. Many of the suburban kids who went beatnik and hippie in those days moved downtown like us. Many of us lived in reduced circumstances, trying to keep our heads above water, living catch as catch can in our counterculture world. Joe was living rent-free in the caretaker’s quarters on the top floor of the tower. He was keeping a part-time caretaking eye on the armory.

   He showed me around the building. He told me it had just been added to the National Register of Historic Places. It looked like a forest had been chopped down for the floors, doors, stairs, and wainscoting. It was a sunny day and sunlight poured in through the windows. Everything was old but gleaming like new. We played a game of pool in the Billiard Room. We peeked into the basement where there was a 140-foot-long shooting range. We played some haphazard notes on the Wurlitzer pipe organ that had been installed a couple of years earlier. It came from a silent movie theater in Erie, Pennsylvania. It sounded creepy in the empty ballroom. Three or four concerts a year were being sponsored by the Western Reserve Theater Organ Society.

   Twenty years later my wife and I were living in Lakewood when we received a friend’s wedding invitation. The reception was being held in the main ballroom of Grays Armory. We checked the box saying we would be attending the festivities.

   We parked on Erie Ct. alongside the Erie Street Cemetery on the day of the big day. It was where Lorenzo Carter, the first permanent settler of Cleveland, was buried. It was where Chief Joc-O-Sot, who fought the first settlers, was buried. It was where almost a hundred Civil War veterans were buried, including General James Barnett, who was a commander of the Cleveland Grays. After the war he served on the commission that got the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument built on Public Square. We walked to the end of the block to the armory. The lobby was carpeted in red. There was some kind of ancient ticket booth off to the side. There was a grand staircase. The posts and railings were carved from a single slab of wood. The posts were engraved with ‘CG’ for Cleveland Grays.

   After toasts, dinner, and some dancing, we were standing around when somebody in our group said the armory was haunted. “Lots of people have seen ghosts here,” the man in the know said.

   “Like who?” I asked. 

   “Plenty of people,” he replied.

   “I saw a handsome young man with light brown hair, parted on one side, with a crown imperial goatee,” said Chris Woodyard, who has written a series of books about haunted places. “The spirit was wearing a Cleveland Grays woolen jacket, decorated with a glockenspiel pattern down the front, formed by braids and buttons.” Staff and visitors say a woman wearing white often appears at the armory’s piano. She doesn’t play it but no matter where it is moved to, she’s always there. She wants to dance but doesn’t have a partner. Day and night doors lock and unlock themselves and disembodied voices whisper in the shadows. Ghostly footsteps were forever setting off security alarms.

   One day the spirit of a soldier walked through a wall to get into the ballroom. A cleaning man was mopping up after a party. He watched the spirit watching him. A woman spirit wearing a party dress appeared and walked up to the man spirit. When the cleaning man coughed the spirits melted away. Another day a maintenance man was working at the back of the ballroom when a glowing green hand closed the door. He ran to the door, and opened it, but there was nobody there. The door knob oozed wormwood.

   After another drink my wife and I went looking for spooks. “Don’t bother looking for Lou,” we heard a voice behind us say. “He’ll find you.” My wife didn’t like the sound of that, but she was game and went with me.

   Lou was a caretaker who once lived at the top of the tower in the same quarters Joe had lived in. He died of a heart attack making his rounds. He still made his rounds. Most ghosts are about unfinished business. He often walked behind people in the ballroom. When they heard his footsteps they turned to see who it was, but there was never anybody there, although they could smell the aroma from his cherry-vanilla pipe. Whenever there was a meeting in the first-floor tower room, where there was an oversized potted plant, he liked to shake it violently until it fell over.

   “Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked my wife.

   “Not during the day,” she said.  

   “How about at night?”

   “I’m a little more open-minded at night.”

   It had gotten to be night when we went on our self-guided tour of Grays Armory. We went upstairs. We stepped into the Club Room where the Grays used to sit around and puff on stogies. There were comfy leather sofas. The mahogany was dark and the atmosphere cozy. We stepped into the Billiard Room where Joe and I had shot pool years earlier. There were antlers of long dead deer on the walls. We peeked into the rooms on the upper floors. One of them was a smaller ballroom for meetings. Back in the day folks wanted to be high up so they wouldn’t have to smell the horse shit in the street. There were unlit fireplaces everywhere. We found cupboards in the Mess Room where members used to hide their booze during Prohibition. There wasn’t a drop left.

   With every step we took we had the feeling somebody or something was behind us, but every time we looked around we were alone. After a while being alone got scary. It’s better to be alone than to be in bad company, I reassured myself.

   “Maybe we should go back,” my wife suggested.

   “We’re not after fish but let’s do a little more fishing,” I said.

   We went up and down the tower. We stepped into the ground floor room. The lights went on by themselves. We heard footsteps and bumps in the night. A big dusty potted plant that looked like it was a hundred years old started to shake. It fell over.

   “That’s enough fishing for the day,” my wife said, backing up.

   In the end we didn’t see any ghosts, except for maybe Lou, which wasn’t to say we were ready to say there weren’t any. The Ghost Hunters, a paranormal team on the TV show SyFy, rooted around Grays Armory one day and found evidence of hauntings. Every time they left a room something closed the door behind them. When they investigated the basement they heard an unseen somebody say “Hello.” When they left the voice said “Goodbye.” They concluded there were spirits, but they seemed to want to have a good time more than cause a ruckus. Ghosts just want to have fun.

   “Have you ever noticed that ghosts are always wearing clothes?” my wife asked.

   “I’ve noticed without really noticing it,” I said.

   “How do their clothes get into the other dimension with them?” she asked.

   “That’s a good question,” I said. “If you ever get the chance, ask one of them.”

   “There’s a fat chance of that ever happening,” she said.

   We hadn’t seen anything substantial but we had seen enough. We had felt the presence of spirits in the shadows. We went back to the wedding reception in the ballroom. The bride and groom were the life of the party on the dance floor. True love is like a ghost. Everybody talks about it but not many have ever seen it. They were doing the hustle to a Bee Gee’s tune being spun by the DJ. The Lady in White, the lonely dancing spirit who had long haunted the armory, was nowhere in sight. Disco is a surefire remedy for ghost sightings.

   “Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’, and we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.”

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”