All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

One Life of the Snapper

By Ed Staskus

   After we got married my wife and I bought a house in Lakewood four houses up from the Rocky River Metropark and set up housekeeping. It was the early 1990s. We tore all the lime green shag carpeting out, tore all the false ceilings out, and tore all the wallpaper off the walls, painting them white. We purged the original bathroom. The house was built in the late 1920s and the bathroom had to go. It was only the beginning, but at least it was a start.

   After a few years we thought we would get a cat. My wife wanted a dark long hair. I wanted an orange short hair. We got an orange Maine Coon. He was a half-breed, but well bred. The few times he misbehaved it was mostly because we hadn’t made it clear to him that some behavior, like scratching the furniture, was out of bounds. After we let him become an inside outside cat, all the scratching he did after that was outside. We never asked the local trees shrubs or fences whether they minded, or not.

   He stayed mostly indoors winters, except for when it was above freezing, as well as those times he was simply close to the side door and I tossed him outside, which I did whenever there was a snow mound just outside the door. If the snow was fluffy enough, he sank into it up to his eyeballs, looked helpless for a second, scrambled to get out of the snow, and gave me a dirty look coming back inside. Maine Coons have a reputation for enjoying snow. Our cat didn’t live up to the reputation. He was good with rain, tolerated snow showers, but not blizzards or northern Ohio mid-winter cold.

   We named him Snapper after I movie we had recently seen, “The Snapper,” which is about a big family in a small house in Dublin whose oldest daughter has gotten pregnant, but won’t tell anybody who the father is, because it happened after a wild night at a pub with a man who is her father’s friend, and her father’s age. She tells everybody it was a Spanish sailor passing through town. The family calls the baby in the belly the Snapper.

   I called our cat Bud. My wife called him Snaps, Snapper Doodle, Kinney, Lambkins, and Goose. He didn’t answer to anything unless he was hungry, wanted to go outside, or wanted to come back inside. He didn’t like to be bothered when he was sleeping, which was more often than not.

   Snapper never told us who his parents were. He never said a word about his brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. He didn’t tell us where he was from or how he had gotten to the Cleveland Arcade. He was vocal enough when it came to food and creature comforts, but didn’t say much about himself.

   It was Christmas time. I was downtown to pick something up from a store in the Cleveland Arcade. It was dolled up for the holiday. It used to be called the Crystal Palace. I parked near the Main Library and went in through the Superior Ave. doors. When I did, I noticed the Animal Protective League had taken a vacant storefront for the time being and was peddling dogs and cats. When I looked around, I spied Snapper in a cage at eye level in the middle of the store. I extended my index finger into his jail cell, he took it into his mouth, and bit me. He was a kitten less than 12 weeks old. He might have been able to puncture paper, but not me.

   “You’re for me, bud,” I told him.

   I told the man behind the sales counter I was going to my car to get money to pay for him. When I got back a young lady had him in her hands and was walking to the counter. I stepped up to her, tapped her on the shoulder, took Snapper away from her, and said, “He’s spoken for.”

   The Maine Coon is one of the oldest breeds in the United States. Nobody knows exactly where they came from, but many believe they are related to both Siberian and Norwegian Forest cats. They are the official state cat of Maine. Down Easters say the breed originated in their state.

   The origin story I like best is that when Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated Queen of France, was trying to beat feet out of the country, she enlisted the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded his ship with all her favorite stuff, including six of her favorite cats, Siberians and Turkish Angoras. Her luck was bad, though. The Gendarmerie Nationale dragged her back to Paris before the ship could sail. When the ship shoved off the six cats shoved off with it. After they reached the town of Wiscasset, Maine they went ashore for shore leave, living it up with other cats and developing into the modern breed of the Maine Coon. 

   My mother-in-law was owning operating a deli takeout on the ground floor of the National City Bank building on East 9th St. My trip downtown had also meant picking up dinner. I parked on Short Vincent. I didn’t want to leave the cat in the car, so I snuggled him down into the pocket of my winter coat.

   “What’s that wiggling in your coat?” my mother-in-law asked handing me a bag full of food. 

   The cat stuck his head out of the top of my pocket sniffing at the bag.

   After oohing and awing at the furball she gave me a wicker basket for him to sleep in. He slept in the basket that night and for years afterwards. He never suffered from insomnia. Even when we bought a bigger better basket for him, he continued sleeping in the original until he couldn’t fit into it anymore. When he grew up, he had a ruff on his chest and a two-layered coat, a silky undercoat under longer guard hairs. He wasn’t as big as a purebred Maine Coon, but more than hunter savvy enough. He was more than sociable with us.

   At first, we thought we would keep him indoors, but he was as much dog as cat and had to go outside, no matter what. When spring came, we started letting him out and teaching him to stay away from the street. I let him wander, following with a squirt gun, and whenever he drifted down the driveway to the apron squirted him in the face. He didn’t like it and learned his lesson, at least until he got older, when all bets were off. Our backyard was fenced and raised above Crest Lane behind our house, and there were enough neighbors on both sides of us that it was as far as he ranged sideways. 

   I was watching him walk up the sidewalk one day when a full-grown cat came sauntering his way. They sniffed at each other. Snapper made a sudden movement and the other cat swatted him. When he went running the other cat followed him. He jumped and I gathered him up in my arms. The neighborhood bully sat at my feet watching while Snapper made faces at him, throwing caution to the wind, snarling, and showing his claws. He could be sassy.

   Cats fight all the time. Even when they are playing, they get scratched. That doesn’t keep kittens from happening. They are both wild and domestic at the same time.

   Over time he learned and remembered what our cars sounded like and hearing my wife or me pulling into the driveway ran out of the backyard to see us. I didn’t like him doing it and blared my horn to make him stop doing it, but he never did. He went his own way.

   We lost him one day long into the night when he got trapped inside a neighbor’s garage after the man unwittingly closed the door on him, but he was such a loudmouth that his cries alerted everyone to where he was. He could have been a civil defense siren. He knew to come inside at sunset, but sometimes forgot, sitting under our window in the middle of night meowing until we let him in the house. He slept on our bed with us, taking up a third of it. He liked his space.

   Snapper was a mouser, bringing half dead mice to the door for our approval. He messed with anything that moved. Since we lived on the edge of the Metropark, there were plenty of squirrels rabbits possums and racoons. He never caught a rabbit, but one day a racoon caught him. We were searching for him the next day when I found him curled up in the back of a closet. There were gobs of dried blood on his face and puncture wounds on one side of his mouth.

   “It looks like a racoon hooked him,” the vet said, sewing him up and shoving an antibiotic down his throat. “Give him one of these every day for a week.”

   He was a birder, too, although birds were usually too fast for him. One day a pair of blue jays were in our backyard bird feeder when he went after them. That was a mistake. One of the birds flew away but the other one circled back and started dive bombing him. Snapper had no answer for the loud jeers and attacks of the big bird and ducked under a hedge sulking. The rest of the summer he scanned the sky and made sure there were no blue jays in his neck of the woods before he went exploring.

   By the time his second summer rolled around he could jump to the top of any fence, climb any tree, and even make his way to the top of flat-roofed garages. He came down from trees backwards, but I usually had to get a step ladder to get him down from roofs. He often bit off more than he could chew. I kept him in shape by holding him upside down and tossing him up in the air. He twisted at the top of the arc, aligning himself head up feet down, landing on my open hands. He rarely misjudged it, nailing the landing. It stood him in good stead his long lifetime.

   Indoor cats live about 12 to 17 years. One way or another outdoor cats live about 2 to 5 years. Maine Coons live about 10 to 13 years. Snapper was half Maine Coon and half who knows what. He spent half his life indoors and half his life outdoors. The more time he spent in the great outdoors the more wary he became of the animal kingdom, especially people and their ways. He always had the same expression on his face, whether it was a June bug or an ax-murderer coming his way. He was able to snap to attention out of a deep sleep in a split second. Snapper never let anybody get near him unless we were nearby. He was smarter than he knew. He lived to be nearly 18 years old. 

   We fed him wet food in the morning and kibble the rest of the time. We started him off with top shelf wet food until he made it known that anything with gravy was his favorite. After that Purina One, Iams, and Science Diet were out. Cheap-ass Friskies were in. He might have lived on gravy alone if we let him. We didn’t let him, but we tried to keep him happy.

   “When my cats aren’t happy, I’m not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even,” the writer Percy Shelly once said.

   As much time as he spent outside, he was a homeboy at heart. When we went on vacation, whether it was for a week or a month, the minute we got back he started complaining about our absence and stayed close to us for days afterwards. After that it was back to his gravy and his basket.

   He got slower towards the end of his life. When winter came, he slept near the furnace registers. His kidneys started going bad. We added a second litter box so he could pee the second he had to. 

   One summer day coming home from work I turned into our street behind another car. Snapper was across the street from our house, on the Anderson’s front porch. Hearing my car, he jumped up and started running across the street. He was still fast enough for his age, but not fast enough that day. The front tires missed him but when one of the back tires struck him, he went up into the air, landed with a thud, and rolled over. I watched the car not stop. I stopped in the middle of the street. He was still alive when I ran to him, but just barely.

   He was spasming and crying. He was broken. He was choking on blood, and I forced his mouth open so he could breathe. He sucked on my finger and died. He wasn’t the kind of cat who had nine lives. Snapper had one life and his life was over in the blink of an eye.

   I wrapped him up in that week’s issue of the Lakewood Observer and took him down Hogsback Lane to the Metropark, burying him on the banks of the Rocky River. He had never been to the park but lived on the edge of it. He saw it every day of his life from our second-floor porch.

   Two years later we got another mixed Maine Coon. He was a black classic style tabby. My wife named him Gladwyn but called him Baby Wodin, after the pagan god of the Anglo-Saxons. I called him Gaylord, after the crafty old Cleveland Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry. When spring came, he liked sitting on the cat perch on the porch and looking out on the park going buds and blossoms.

   Every spring I went to where I buried Snapper and sat by the river in the sun watching ducks take their young out on the greenish-brown warming water.

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.”

Hole in One

By Ed Staskus

   When Hal Schaser met him at the Kenwood Village Apartments, Wade Riddell had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. The burly man had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Hal that in all that time he only drew his service handgun a handful of times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

   He had bad knees from playing handball at the downtown YMCA.

   “I probably never should have played that game, but I loved it, although it and my job cost me my legs and my marriage,” he said.

   Hal met Wade after his own marriage fell apart and he lost his house, which was a lot like what happened to his new pal. They met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd St. in Euclid, where they both lived, when Hal saw him messing around with golf clubs on a warm spring day. The ex-cop was retired and living alone.

  Hal wasn’t retired, not exactly, but he lived alone, too.

  They played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend Hal ever had, even more than the Jew, even though he ended up doing more for Hal later. Wade was affable and did things for him that he never even asked him to do. After Hal moved to Lakewood, Wade got him a car, convincing his lady friend to give him the old Ford she was planning on trading in when she got her new car. He later mailed a check to him for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing Hal was strapped for cash, knowing his ex-wife had taken him to the cleaners.

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in the middle of nowhere. His son-in-law picked him up, driving him home, but wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

   “Fixing it will cost more than the car is worth,” he said. “You’re better off sending it to the scrap yard.”

   He knew he was right but knew at the same time his son-in-law didn’t want to lend him even one dollar. He could tell he didn’t trust him, even though he had always been an honest man. All his friends said so. He wasn’t sure what his daughter thought, whether she was just backing her husband up, or not.

   He junked the Ford and got a hundred bucks for it.

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wade blew his head off, and the next spring until Charlie Taylor died and left him a hundred thousand dollars. The trust sold the dead man’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. They converted his bonds and insurance to cash. Hal was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

   When his wife Teresa walked out on him, and took all the money out of their joint accounts, swooping up the kids and talking him into taking a second mortgage out on their house so she and her new boyfriend from Rochester could open a restaurant, and Palmer Bearings went bankrupt, putting him out of the only work he had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, it was then he played more golf than he ever played in his life, and waited to be thrown out of his house.

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to the flatlands, he was in his late 50s. “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Hal had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down. He didn’t hate Charlie Taylor, but he could do without Jews.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I made the day for them. I made them rich. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. They broke me and my wife broke me down.”

   When he moved to Euclid he moved into a no-rent apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who he met through Stan, a Pole he often had breakfast with at a railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for him when he was hired to be his helper.

   “Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends, even though he was a thick-headed Polack. He was a hell of a bowler. He was good enough to bowl in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was hop, skip, and glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes. It got old, though, and I stopped going, except when the drinks and pretzels were free.”

   Angelo was from Texas and was a Korean War veteran, like Hal. He talked to the man who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring him. Hal didn’t like the man, didn’t like his thin shrewd face, but kept his mouth shut.

   “That’s who runs the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.”

   He shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. He cleaned apartments when they went vacant and got paid extra whenever he had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away spoiled food. He made a few bucks here and there, one way or another. He stayed sharp on the uptake whenever it was there. He kept his head above water.

   The apartment complex had been built during World War Two for government workers. It was built like a tank, sturdy as a fort. The brown brick buildings were three stories with garages in the back. Fox Ave. intersected the complex and ran all the way to Babbitt Ave., where there was the Briardale Greens Golf Course. Wayne and he shuttled to it on good days, getting in eighteen holes. 

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked. That way there wouldn’t be any problems about where they lay.”

   Wade worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horse racing track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and Hal were able to go golfing together whenever Hal was free to go. They went to tournaments in Akron, to watch the professionals. Stan went with them once, but he wasn’t used to hiking around anywhere wider or longer than a bowling lane and got worn out.

   After Hal didn’t have a car anymore, Wade always drove the two of them. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

   When Hal moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to the no-frills Elbur Manor apartment building across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wade visited him a few times, even though he didn’t like Hal’s small apartment. 

   “It’s a dump,” he said. It wasn’t the apartment’s fault. Hal wasn’t a tidy man. He hoarded whatever came his way

    Hal took Wade to McDonald’s for breakfast. “I could tell he was suffering. It wasn’t just his knees. He had prostate cancer and was hurting. It was just a matter of time. I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.”

   Wade’s son was a pre-law student at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. That fall he saw playing time as the team’s back-up quarterback when the starter was injured. “He was a hell of an athlete,” Hal said. He drove to Euclid from Oxford to see his dad the Christmas weekend. Wade told him all about his new Mercury.

   “Take my car and give it a little ride,” he said. “I haven’t driven it for a while. It needs to be out on the road.”

   His son got the car and drove it up and down Lakeshore Boulevard. It had snowed overnight, but not much, and what snow there was had been plowed to the side. When he got back, he found his father in bed. Wade had put a pillow over his head and a gun in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, it was the first and last time he ever shot a gun at a living human being.

   After the funeral Hal hoofed it around Lakewood until summer, when Charlie Taylor, his golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything else the doctors could do, they moved him to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

   “Charlie was a great guy and great friend of mine, my other best friend for a long time. He was on our golf team in the Cleveland Metropolitan Golf Association. We had about ninety members and most of us were friends. We played golf until it was too cold to walk the courses. After that, any of us who could afford it went south to play. I went to sunny parts of the country to play golf many times, when I was married, and in the clover, and even afterwards, until I couldn’t afford to go anymore.”

   Charlie Taylor passed away in his sleep and a month after his funeral Hal got a registered letter from a lawyer saying he had been included in the will. “He left me his house. It surprised me but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he lost track of his train of thought, who waited for him to reminisce about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later, even though it was a lot of nothing. After the house was sold, I got a check for a bundle.”

   He bought his new car, paying cash for it. He paid off his credit card debt, the plastic he had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so he didn’t have to always go to the library to work on his get-rich schemes. He stopped sending e-mails to his son-in-law when he exploded about them one day, saying he was sick of the Ponzi schemes. He told Hal he was never going to buy in to any of them, so don’t bother.

   “I was always a good friend with different people, including Wade and Charlie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with the good guys. Otherwise, you end up with duck eggs. My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Suzuki in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter. I’ll play golf in the sunshine again.”

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Charlie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his grandson and granddaughter, even though he hardly ever saw them, and when he did see them, hardly paid any attention to them. He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He carried the certificates for the two holes in one he had made over the years in his wallet. He went to both Wade and Charlie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends, joining a coffee klatch at the new McDonald’s on Detroit Rd. across the street from the Lutheran church that was closing soon. They sat around shooting the bull and drinking free re-fills. “Don’t play too much golf,” he told them. “Two rounds a day are plenty.”

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.”

Rolling With the Punches

By Ed Staskus

   I was surprised and dismayed the day my father told me that, other than Ausra, the two-week sun and sand Lithuanian camp in Wasaga Beach, and our one-week boy scout camp, I would be working at the newspaper Dirva the rest of the summer. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since my father believed in the work ethic and worked like a dog himself, but I was. He gave me a grave stern annoyed look when I blurted out it would screw up my time off from school. 

   He and I weren’t on the same page, so I kept my dismay to myself.

   It wouldn’t have helped, anyway. I knew once he told me, I would be working at Dirva from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Thank God it was only part-time. I would be home by three o’clock and didn’t have to work on Fridays. I was going to be getting three-day weekends before I even knew what three-day weekends were.

   Before the newspaper Dirva, which means field, was Dirva, it was Santaika, which means peace. Kazys Karpius was the editor, and stayed on the job for thirty years, from the end of World War One through the Great Depression to the end of World War Two, getting the weekly editions out without fail. The paper was anti-communist, pro-democracy, and true-blue the homeland.

   Kazys Karpius wrote poems, plays, and histories about Lithuania, especially about beating off the Vikings and Teutonic Knights back in the day. The Teutonic Knights were always tramping into the Baltics for plunder and conversion, not their own conversion, but that of the natives they regarded as pagans. The Lithuanians didn’t see eye to eye with the Germans about it, insisting it was none of their business. They fought with longswords, battles axes, crossbows, maces, picks and war hammers, knives, clubs, slings, and hand-to-hand.

   The first day I slouched into work was a brisk early summer morning. I was down on Dirva but resigned to my new job. I rode the CTS bus from St. Clair to East 105th Street over Liberty Boulevard down Superior Avenue. It was the same bus and same route I took going to school, to St. George’s, on East 67th and Superior.

   Lithuanian immigrants came to Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, in two waves, the first one in the late 19th century. They were cheap labor for emerging industries. They needed their own newspaper and church. At the turn of the century Father Joe Jankus threw up a small wooden church near downtown. The next pastor bought the land St. George’s was going to stand on and after it was built Father Vincent Vilkutaitis ran the parish for forty years. His last year was my first year of five years there.

   The church was on the top floor of the 2½ story brick building, the grade school on the middle floor, and the community hall on the ground floor, which was partially below ground.  Since it was the Atomic Age, and the Cold War was in full swing, the hall doubled as a Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Every few months we had a Civil Defense drill and had to file out of our classes and down to the hall, where we shuffled around until the drill was over.

   If we had somehow survived the blast, even though we all brought our own sandwiches in Flintstones and Dudley Do-right and Jetson lunch boxes, we would have all slowly starved to death trying to live on crumbs and apple cores. Dudley wouldn’t have helped, snug in his bunker under the White House.

   Jonas Ciuberkis was our neighbor two houses down from where we lived at the corner of Bartfield and Coronado, in a Polish double my mom and dad had bought with my dad’s sister and her family, all of us getting started in the United States. He was the editor of Dirva, in a small office at the front. A quiet man, balding, careful in manner, he was married to a woman fifteen-some years his junior, a woman who had given him three children, and who was fleshy vivacious gregarious.

   Regina Ciuberkiene had an opinion about everything and could talk your ear off. It didn’t matter that we were just kids. We avoided her. My mother never called her Regina. She called her Ciuberkiene, even to her face. Many of his friends called Jonas Janis, which is Latvian for Jonas. He had studied law in Lithuania and worked in Latvia before the war. Their two daughters were either too old or too young, but their son, Arunas, was just right, and we played together.

   Dirva was in a one-story brick building on Superior, next to the haunted house that was next to St. George’s. The Lithuanian Hall Society was next door. It was where all the civic and cultural business was done. It was also where there were dances and heavy drinking. Jonas Ciuberkis wasn’t sure what to do with me, so the first few days I didn’t do anything. After that I started cleaning up the mess, starting with the bathroom. After that I helped with the press and folding and mailing.

   My job was to do this do that, whatever I was told to do.

   The printing press looked like it belonged in a museum. It worked, sort of, but it was my archenemy, always threatening my mitts. It was a hand-fed flat-bed cylinder press. There was metal type for headings and an intertype machine for news and features. When the paper was ready for print, I got the machine rolling, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. As the copies came off the belt, I changed hats, becoming the press-boy who checked for defects. If and when the press got everything done, I became the mail-boy, wrapping the papers in bundles. Then I became the push-boy, carting them to beside the back door for pick-up.

   I was always amazed that the week’s news always fit exactly into that week’s edition.

   By World War One there were almost ten thousand Lithuanians in Cleveland. St. George’s was their church. Dirva was their newspaper. It was put out by the Ohio Lithuanian Publishing Company, which was run by Apdonas Bartusevicius. In 1925 Kazys Karpius gained a controlling interest.

   He was involved in Lithuanian projects all his life, including the Unification of Lithuanians in America and the Lithuanian National League of America. He helped found the American Lithuanian Cultural Center. After World War Two boatloads of displaced Lithuanians made it to Cleveland. Dirva published local, national ,and international news, as well as keeping everybody informed about what was going on back in the land. We sent the paper to Detroit and Pittsburgh and other places wherever there was a church or a bendruomene.

   Our editor went out most days for lunch and sometimes came back smelling like whiskey. One day he was walking out the door, I was sitting on a crate doing nothing, when he waved at me and said, “Ateik.” I must have been daydreaming, because he had to say it again before I realized he wanted me to go with him.

   He usually wore a white shirt and brown pleated pants. His thin hair was gray brownish. He drove a brown car. The interior was tan, clean, and anonymous. No one would ever have suspected he had a wife and three kids. He turned right on Norwood Road, six blocks later turned right on St. Clair, past the Slovenian National Home, to the Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern. It took five minutes. He parked on the street, and we went in.

   Nothing was going on in the bowling alley, but he wasn’t going to the bowling alley, anyway. He walked into the bar, checking to see that I was trailing him, and took a stool at the bar.

   “Atsisesk,” he said, adding, “Don’t tell your mother.”

   I sat down next to him. The bartender stepped up. He was wearing a bow tie and looked like as big as a new mattress wearing a bow tie. I couldn’t see around him.

   Jonas Ciuberkis ordered a shot and a water back and asked me what I wanted. I wanted an ice-cold Coca-Cola. It was in the 90s and humid. There was a big glass jar of pickled eggs at his elbow. He took one out for himself and nodded at the jar, looking at me. I said aciu, but no thanks.

   Pickled eggs are eggs hard boiled, the shell removed, and submerged in a solution of vinegar, salt, spices, and seasonings. The eggs are left in the brine anywhere from one day to several months. They get rubbery the longer they are in the pickling solution.

   “They’re Pennsylvania Dutch,” my boss said. “Try a bite.”

   Pennsylvania Dutch style means whole beets, onions, vinegar, sugar, salt, cloves and a cinnamon stick are used as the brine. The eggs look pink purple from the beets and have a sweet and sour taste.

   I took a bite, gingerly. It wasn’t bad. It was actually good, far better than the koseliena, chopped meat in cold aspic, like headcheese, my mother was always trying to get us to eat. Some food from the old country should have been left in the old country, dead and buried.

   When the bartender moved to the side, I saw the painting. It was on the wall above the paneling and top shelf of liquor bottles. It was of a half-naked woman reclining on her side on a chaise, her head up, looking down on the drinkers, her long golden hair hanging loose. Her eyes were wide set and her lips pouty luscious red.

   It was Lili St. Cyr, a burlesque dancer forty-some years ago. She was a pioneer in the striptease trade, known for her cutting-edge performances. One of her most famous tricks was ‘the Flying G.’ While she was doing her burlesque striptease, the lights slowly going down, just at the instant when everything went completely dark, a man in the wings with a fishing pole would snag her G-string and pull it off. Even if you didn’t blink it looked like it had disappeared just like that.

   A man who had seen her perform many times painted the mural in 1954. Maple Lanes paid him off in beer. Above the burlesque queen’s legs in the painting was an English proverb, “A woman is an angel at ten, a saint at fifteen, a devil at forty, and a witch at fourscore.”

   Jonas Ciuberkis flicked his eyes at the painting ten twenty times, while I narrowed my St. George altar boy eyes. Some gals are like the highway from Akron to Cleveland, no curves. She wasn’t one of those gals. I was an altar boy at St. George’s on the side. The boss had another shot, this time with a beer chaser. My mother always told us an apple a day, not a bottle of pop, kept the doctor away, so, I turned down more Coca-Cola.

   He talked about the “Great Books,” one of his favorite subjects, so I didn’t tell him about my reading habits, and about Lithuania, his other favorite subject, its history, the commies, and how to restore its freedom. I didn’t tell him it was going in one ear and out the other. He talked in a gloomy milk and water way. It was hard to pay attention, so I gave up, and set my sights back on Lili St. Cyr.

   She started looking familiar. I finally realized, if she were wearing clothes, she looked just like Regina Ciuberkiene, wide set eyes and full mouth, buxom, calves of salami.  She wasn’t a spitting image but as close as spit got.

   I noticed the TV on the wall in a corner was re-run broadcasting a boxing match. The two men were jabbing hooking punching but not landing much of anything. When one threw a punch the other one rolled with it.

   My boss had to drag me away and never invited me to Maple Lanes again. Mondays through Thursdays the summer crawled by, while Fridays through Sundays flew by. I messed around with my friends, rode my bike, and played a boatload of pick-up sandlot baseball.

   By the time my employment was coming to an end, Labor Day fast approaching, I had come to an accommodation with my job. The printing press and I were on speaking terms. I was no longer down on Dirva. I almost enjoyed it. I asked about my paychecks. I hadn’t seen a single one of them.

   “I gave them to your father every two weeks,” Jonas Ciuberkis said.

   “Oh,” I said.

   I didn’t ask my father about the paychecks. My mother and he were fanatical savers, putting every spare penny in the bank. I knew what he was going to be doing with the money, which was clothes and tuition for school.

   By the next year we had moved past Five Points to the Lithuanian neighborhood on the farther east side. Everybody was moving there because, with urban renewal in full swing, black people were slowly steadily shifting east, moving into our neighborhood. “We like them less than the Americans,” my mother told me. “They’re lazy.” If you weren’t a workaholic my parents thought you were lazy.

   The first Lithuanians in Cleveland lived near downtown, but fifty years later were relocating to the Superior-St. Clair area around St. George’s. The new community emerged in the Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood, near the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Neff Road off East 185th Street. Most Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, although some are Jews, and a few are Lutherans. A small group of Cleveland’s Lithuanians broke off to live among working-class Poles on the south side, even though there is no love lost between Poles and Lithuanians.

   I enrolled in St. Joseph’s High School where the main road, a couple of miles of every kind of shop and store, intersected Lakeshore Boulevard. It was an all-boy’s school. It was still summer, the next summer, but fall was coming up. I looked at Dirva now and then, but when classes started all I read were my schoolbooks and Doc Savage adventure books from the library. I read them on weekends. There were twenty-four of them in all. I read them all. My favorite was “The Secret of Satan’s Spine.”

   Jonas Ciuberkis was fired from his job and Vytautas Gedgaudas took over. I didn’t know him and nobody I knew ever told me anything about him. He expanded the publication schedule to three times a week, but it went back to its original weekly frequency soon enough. Working that much must have driven the printing press crazy, and driven whoever was operating it crazy, too.

   Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern was sold that same summer of 1964. Ann Abranovich and Josephine Reeves, sisters and working mothers, bought it so they could make more money and spend more time with their sprouting growing families. Josephine lived a few blocks from the bowling alley and walked to work. Ann moved her family into the apartment upstairs. The noise downstairs was money in the bank.

   When I heard the St. Joseph’s bowling team was going there for a tournament, I told them I knew all about the bowling alley and they let me tag along. Everybody asked me about the painting, which the new owners hadn’t messed with. I told them I knew everything about it.  I didn’t know bowling from polo, although I knew you rolled the ball trying to knock all the pins down, so I sat in the back and watched. The St. Joe’s and Padua and Ignatius teams rolled the worst scores of their lives.

   The kingpin kids from upstairs were the pinsetters. You had to be careful not to roll while they were still setting up. They screamed and sent pins flying at you if you did. The alleys weren’t even and smooth. They were wood, not laminate, old wood, and there were warps bumps gouges divots waves from one end to the other. It was hard if not impossible to tell what your ball was going to do. The talk was that no one had ever rolled a three hundred score perfect game at Maple Lanes, and that no one ever would, unless they made a deal with the devil.

   That was unlikely to happen, because everybody in that old neighborhood neck of the woods went to church on Sundays. There weren’t as many churches as bars, but it was close enough. There would have been talk, the news would have spread like wildfire, and there would have been hell to pay if you did roll a perfect game.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Altar Boy ABC’s

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had betrayed me, I realized.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   Jon Krokey, a fellow traveler at Holy Family, dropped the Roman Missal, after which there was hell to pay. It is a large heavy book that includes all the words and prayers the priest uses during the mass, except for the readings. 

   “I was low man, so I got to get up in the middle of the night to serve at 5:30 mass,” he said. “While transporting the giant book I dropped it and it bounced down the stairs all the way to the communion rail. Father Andrel chewed me out in front of the congregation, which was ten elderly women in the front pews, all wearing babushkas. When he was done spewing, I quit. After that all the nuns at school mean mugged me like I was the Antichrist.”

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator. I was glad to be flying kites in the park.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls to our ranks. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice and sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that. There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Privacy Fences

By Ed Staskus

   “We’re going to have to get out of here or I’m going to kill him,” Maggie Campbell said.

   Steve De Luca her new husband didn’t say anything. What could he say? Fat Freddie was his older brother, and they were living in Fat Freddie’s house in Little Italy. The house was small and cramped. Freddie made it worse than it was.

   He wasn’t just their landlord. He was an annoying brother-in-law with coleslaw for brains. He stayed up late listening to heavy metal. He had sketchy friends. He stuck his used-up dirty food wrappers into Maggie’s make-up bag when she wasn’t looking because he thought it would be funny when she found them. It wasn’t funny. She told Steve there was going to be trouble. There was going to be blood. They started looking for a house of our own.

   They discussed argued prayed about the kind of house they wanted. Maggie prayed in English and Steve prayed in Italian.  He told his wife Italian was God’s native language and had the Big Man’s ear. “The USA is God’s country,” Maggie countered. “The Pope isn’t even Protestant, for Christ’s sake.”

   They wanted central air, three bedrooms, and a dry basement. They wanted a fenced-in backyard. They searched for a long time and finally their prayers were answered when they found a two-story house in West Park. They were one of the first people to see it, put a bid on it right away, and got it.

   They got everything they wanted, basically. The kitchen was large enough, the basement was waterproofed, and the back porch covered, although the backyard wasn’t dog friendly the way they wanted it, not at all. It needed a fence.

   The first two years of living in the house they had a backyard of mud. It was because they had up to 4 dogs at any one time, some theirs, some rescues. The lawn grass didn’t stand a chance. When the dogs came into the house a lot of mud would track in with them. Since Maggie was a clean freak, it freaked her out.

   “It’s a shame we can’t cement in the whole backyard,” she said to Steve.

   “I’ve got a guy for that,” Steve said. He had a guy for everything. Steve’s guy put up a fence and laid down stone stamps in the patio. They laid in river rocks, large ones around the small patio, and small ones in a big bed next to the garage where the dogs could go potty.

   That made it easy to clean up. Steve hosed down the patio, hosed down the river rock bed in the back, and picked up every day. He put it all in a garbage bag and tossed it in a garbage can. “What else am I going to do with it?” he asked their neighbor Dawn when she wrinkled her nose.

   Even though they liked their new house right away, which made their realtor happy, it was awful. It was decorated like an old man’s house. The outside clapboard was painted dingy yellow and brown. Inside the woodwork and walls were painted a vague gray. Maggie was not a gray person.

   They painted everything, the outside of the house, and all the inside, too. Maggie had lots of design ideas and a lot of ideas about new colors. They ripped the shag carpets out right away. Then they re-did the hardwood floors. Maggie swore to herself she would never have the house carpeted again. 

   Except the next two winters in Cleveland happened. Lake Erie froze over solid as a rock. “What happened to global warming?” Steve asked. It was winter for a long time for two straight long seasons. Getting up every morning, tramping on the cold hardwood floors first thing, one morning Maggie finally said, “We’re not doing this anymore. We’re getting carpeting for our bedroom.” There were two bedrooms. The other one was for junk and friends.

   Steve was against putting in new carpeting. He could be against anything, especially if he didn’t want to do it, but he never said a hard no way.

   “Do what you want,” he said, scowling.

   Maggie did what she wanted. “Of course, now he loves the carpet. He drags his big bare feet through it. Stop rubbing your gross feet in my new carpet I tell him, but he never listens.”

   The dogs were not allowed upstairs. They were not allowed beyond the kitchen. The rules were posted and stated they could be in the kitchen or in the basement. A gate was set up at the dining room doorway. Even so, just after they had the carpets laid down, Grayson their young Lab got through the Berlin Wall, went right upstairs, and peed on Maggie’s new carpet. 

   Maggie posted a sheet of paper at the base of the stairs. “No dogs upstairs, especially no Grayson.”

   They let their dogs into the living room sometimes. That’s why there were always hooked blankets stacked near their sectional. They let the dogs jump on the sofa so they could sit and snuggle with them. “Only Captain Hook, our Husky, is not a snuggler. He’ll cuddle for five minutes and then he’s done with you.”

   There was another living room in the basement. There was a television, bistro table, and another sectional. All the dog food and water bowls were in the basement, too. Captain Hook always slept in his dog bed, but the others lay out on the couch. It was completely chewed up. They pawed it and dug into it when they were settling in. “I don’t know what the digging thing is all about, but it’s their couch,” Steve said. “They can do what they want, destroy it if they want. Only, when it’s completely gone, it’s gone. They’re not getting another one from me.”

   The biggest troublemaker was Pebbles. They called her Steam Shovel. “She’s the one who truly wrecks the sofa,” Maggie said. “She is my digger. She’s the reason we used to have a nice living room in the basement until it all got destroyed.”

   Even though Steve and Maggie decided they weren’t getting any more sectionals, no more couches, or anything else new in the basement, Christmas was ridiculous at their house.

   “Steve and I buy our dogs lots of gifts,” Maggie said. “I start buying presents for them right after New Year’s when everything is discounted. Towards the end of summer, I start buying dog treats whenever I see them on sale. It’s not good if I buy them any earlier than September. Steve finds them and gives them to the dogs. So, I always start that later in the year.”

   The dogs got stockings full of toys on Christmas Day.  They ripped into their gifts in the morning. Then the mess started for real.

   The toys were in stockings stuffed with stuffing, just like pillows. The dogs took their stockings outside and tore them apart to get at the squeakers inside of them. By the end of the month the backyard was full of dull as dishwater white stuffing stuck in the ice.

   “It looks like a hillbilly backyard until I can finally get out there when winter is changing to spring and chip it out of the melting ice,” Steve said. “I don’t like it that it looks so bad all winter long, but what can you do?”

   “Thank God we have a privacy fence on all three sides of our backyard,” Maggie thought, waiting for springtime.

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.”

Scouting Out Campfires

By Ed Staskus

   “Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.”  Robert Baden-Powell

   My father was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The small city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual statement and folk-art site of about one hundred thousand Christian crosses.

   Siauliai goes back to 1236 to the Battle of Saule against the Teutonic Knights. The merciless war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first Christian church was built in 1445. Until then Lithuanians were steadfast pagans. They believed Hell was a fine place to end up, if it came to that, since Lithuania was cold, and Hell was warm.

   In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go to Lithuania for its entrée and their prosperity. The city was majority Jewish by 1910. Šiauliai was famous for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there. A battleground during both World Wars, it saw tens of thousands run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.

   My grandfather was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. My grandmother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. They met when he was stationed far southeast of Moscow. “In those days drunks went into the navy and dimwits into the infantry,” he said. He thanked God every day he had been impressed as an officer by Lithuania’s overlords.

   Vytas Staskevicius was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, Antanas Staskevicius, back from the Russian badlands, involved his son in scouting as soon as he grew to be school age.

   I found myself a Boy Scout in the early 1960s in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio troop my father became Scoutmaster of. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on our belts. We hiked trails through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find our way.

   Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote “Scouting for Boys.” That same year more than ten thousand Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.

   The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and another for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60,000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among youth culture at that time. In 1939, just before the start of World War Two, there were 22,000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.

   Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was later Scoutmaster at. They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

   Winter Blasts were camps in thin-skinned cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges. We were reassured that exploring outdoors in December was fun. We always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long night.

   In the summer a grab bag of Merit Badges was up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly knot a tie, even later in life, when my wife always helped me with it.

   My father was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading my mother to repair rips in canvas. He told us sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

   He led us searching for adventure in duck puddles. He had a maxim that a week of camp was worth six months of theory. To this day some of his former scouts are lousy at theory but always vacation in either the woods or at the seashore.

   It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts, either.

   For many years he was the boss at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Franciscan-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although the campers did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever they had to, what we actually did most of the time was run around in the woods like madmen, play tackle football in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfires.

   Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.

   When Vytas was nine years old he was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.

   He never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion. “He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” he said.

   The scout founder’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.

   Five years later Vytas was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

   Things change fast, though. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed. During the war and successive occupations, first by the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

   In 1ate 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced people. He met his wife-to-be in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and he was being operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

   He found passage to Canada in 1949, married Angele Jurgelaityte, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a black powder blaster and then as an ore hauler, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator for seventy-five cents an hour, less than half of what he had been making in the mines, swept floors stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck, and took classes in accounting at Western Reserve University at night.

   While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting.

   “There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies,” my mother said. “All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up to scouting age.”

   Robert Baden-Powell always counseled that Bot Scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens,” he said. By that guiding light scouting stood my father in good stead through the 1940s.

   When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm. He was 17 years old. When he fled their farm in 1944 with ten minutes notice about the Red Army being on the horizon, he barely crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were twenty dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had five dollars left when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

   In Cleveland, living in a Polish double he bought and shared with his sister’s family, who had also fled Lithuania, he found work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, went to school at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder, finally managing his division’s financial operations in South America.

   After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was in his 80s. He believed the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work. He believed work without effort was valueless.

  Because of World War Two and its dislocations, living rough and subsequent emigration overseas, as well as the demands of rebuilding a life and building a family, he didn’t participate in scouting for many years. But once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

   When he took over from Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Vyto Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994.

   My father worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although even after giving up scouting, until his death in 2011, he never really stopped scouting. While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening up camping and jamboree venues, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide. In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they ever experienced.

   “Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother Rick, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style fires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flags.” When asked what bonfires meant to him Vytas said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

   Although they never exactly warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking to his troop, even encouraging them to try snowshoes. “I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes,” recalled one of his scouts. “But he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.”

   He stressed achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and taking your chances. “One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” my brother said. “We were supervised, but only given a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without any help. They told us it was both a duty and a challenge to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”

   In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see what girl they will land near, which is old-school marriage-making..

   Another annual event he was invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.

   Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them. “When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.

   “There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”

   Gintaras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was Vytas Staskevicius. “Brother Vytas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong, he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”

   After World War Two the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

   In 2014 Gintaras Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.  “Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

   “I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President of the Boy Scouts of America.

   The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting was celebrated in 2018. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he had since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a celestial bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

The Big White Out

By Ed Staskus

   When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, Ontario it started snowing the last day of summer, snowed through Halloween Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then got down to business on New Year’s Day. The next day it snowed some more. It kept up its business until April with a fire sale now and then through the month of May. All told between 100 and 140 inches of snow fell every winter during my childhood. 

   My father built an igloo in the back yard so that when we were snowballing, we would have someplace to shelter if a blizzard suddenly roared down from the Northwest Territories. My brother sister and I sat inside on crates looking out of windowless windows as dark heavy clouds put the boom on us. When Canadian Pacific trains hauling nickel rumbling past on top of the cliff face behind our house on Stanley Street wailed, we wailed right back. 

   Snow cover in Sudbury starts to build in December and remains deep through most of January to mid-March. By the end of April, the snow is usually gone. The city is free of snow every year during July and August. Extreme cold and winter storms kill more Canadians than floods, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes combined.

   A year before I was born the Great Appalachian Storm in November dumped nearly a foot of snow on my hometown every day for a couple of days. A blustery wind made sure everybody got their fair share. Ramsey Lake froze solid. My father who wasn’t my father yet went skating. He wasn’t able to get to the INCO mine where he worked as a blaster, but he was able to get to the lake. When the snowfall was finally cleared, it was December.

   After we moved to Cleveland, I sent a postcard to my friends back on Stanley Street saying Americans were snowflakes. “They complain about a couple of inches. Most days there isn’t nearly enough snow for decent sledding.” In general, snowfall in northern Ohio is about 50 inches a year. Twenty years later I had to eat my words.

   The Blizzard of 1978 started in Indiana near the end of January. The Hoosiers might have kept it to themselves, but they didn’t. The day after the storm buried their state it buried Ohio. More than a foot of snow fell in one day, on top of a foot-and-a-half that was already on the ground. The wind huffed and puffed. Snowdrifts buried cars trucks homes businesses. The wind chill made the outdoors feel like 60 below zero. East Ohio Gas pumped record amounts of natural gas to hungry furnaces.

   My parents were living in Sagamore Hills. When the weather cleared up, they called me about the snow on the roof of their ranch-style house. My father was afraid the snow load would damage the roof, maybe even make it cave in. I thought he was exaggerating, until my brother and I climbed a ladder to see for ourselves. The roofline was long and low-pitched. We found ourselves thigh-deep in thickset snow. We spent the rest of the day slowly pushing it over the side of the overhanging eaves.

   “My dad made me shovel a path out the back door for our dachshund so he wouldn’t do his business in the house,” Joe Bennett said. “I got about two feet out and called it a day.”

   The storm was characterized by an unusual merger of two weather systems. Warm moist air bumped into bitter ice-cold air. “The result was a very strong area of low pressure that reached its lowest pressure over Cleveland,” the National Weather Service reported. That day’s barometric pressure reading of 28.28 inches is the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest readings in American history.

   By the end of the month, a few days later, Cleveland tallied 43 inches of snowfall for the month, which is still a record breaker. It was called “The Storm of the Century” or simply “The Superbomb.” The wind averaged nearly 70 MPH that Thursday. Gusts hit 120 MPH-and-more on Lake Erie. Ore boats coming down from Lake Superior hunkered down, and crewmen stayed close to oil heaters. “I was a deckhand on a lake freighter,” said August Zeizing. “We were stuck in ice about 9 miles off Pelee Point when the storm hit. We had steady 111 MPH winds gusting up to 127 MPH for about six hours. Our orders were to stay below decks and keep our movements to a minimum.” 

   More than 50 people died, trapped in dead cars and unheated houses. A woman froze to death walking her dog. Over $100 million in property damage was estimated, what many said was a conservative estimate. The governor called up more than 5,000 National Guardsmen, who struggled to reach the cities they were assigned to. The Guardsmen used bulldozers and tanks outfitted with plows to clear roads streets highways and rescue the stranded.

   “My dad and I drove down I-71, which was closed, to get to our farm in Loudonville,” said Paula Boehm.  “We had chains on all four tires of our Buick station wagon.” The only other traffic was National Guard M113 personnel carriers. “We made it.”

   Car owners stuck homemade signs saying “Car Here” on top of mounds of snow. It alerted snowplow drivers to what was under the big pile of white. Motorists abandoned their cars and pick-ups helter-skelter style. There was often no visible sign of a car. It was a three-dog Siberian day night and the next day. In some places it went on and on, often in the dark, as power wires were blown loose or sagged off poles from the weight of ice.

   I was in Akron the morning the storm struck. I had no idea what was on the way. The forecast the night before didn’t sound awful. “Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries.” I was visiting a friend, had stayed overnight, was driving my sister’s 1970 Ford Maverick, and needed to get the car back to her that day.

   National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Alto got to work at six in the morning Thursday at the Akron-Canton Airport. He didn’t go home until Sunday night. “Nobody could get in and nobody could get out,” he said. “The roads were all closed. There were three of us and we had to ride it out there at the airport.” Cessna and Beechcraft two-seaters were flipped over on aprons and tarmacs like paper airplanes.

   Meteorologists didn’t call the storm a “Superbomb.” They called it a “Bombogenesis.” It was their term for an area of low pressure that “bombs out.” 

   I got up early and got going. When I did the temperature started falling fast. By the time I got coffee and an egg sandwich and got on I-77 to go home the temperature had fallen from the mid-30s to the mid-teens. The rain turned to ice and snow, snowing like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t see any lane markers and could barely see the road. The Maverick was a rear wheel-drive with no traction to speak of. I kept it at a steady 25 MPH unless I slowed down, which I did plenty of. Spun-out cars and jack-knifed tractor trailers littered the interstate. One truck and its trailer were flipped over on the shoulder. When I passed the Ohio Turnpike, I saw it was closed, the first time it had ever happened. I found out later that I-77 was the only highway that didn’t close. 

   Marge Barner’s husband-to-be drove a yellow bus full of kids to school as the blizzard set up shop. He dropped them off. Not long afterwards he got a call saying the school was closing. He went back and that afternoon started plowing parking lots. “He was out for 13 hours in an open tractor and ran out of gas several times. He didn’t have a radio to call for help.” He had to help himself, walking with a can to gas stations. “He lost feeling in his arms when he got home, which finally came back as he warmed up. His ears were frostbitten.”

   I kept on slow poking north. I had plenty of gas, having filled up the tank the night before after noticing I was driving on fumes. When I spotted a station with cheap gas, I pulled in on the double. The car radio was no help, broadcasting the same bad news over and over. The car heater wheezed and groaned but stayed alive. Driving in the swirling snow hour after hour straining to see and stay on the road was nerve-wracking. I kept my gloves on and my eyes glued to the road.

   “I was 7 years-old and we lived in a drafty, old farmhouse in Fremont,” said Susan Beech. “The power went out, so the furnace went out, but our oven ran on propane, so it still worked. My dad set up cots and sleeping bags in our kitchen, and stapled blankets over the doorways. We ran the stove around the clock, leaving the oven open so the heat filled the room. It was like winter camping in the kitchen.” 

   After I passed the overturned truck I thought, if that happens dead center on the road somewhere in front of me, I am a goner. I am going to end up in a miles long traffic jam. ODOT’s plows won’t be able to get around the mess. Wreckers won’t be able to get to the wreck to move it out of the way. We will all be at a standstill and run out of gas and either freeze or starve to death. I saved half my egg sandwich for later. I checked my gas gauge and was relieved to see I still had near a full tank.

   “I was a teenager living four miles from the nearest town during the 1978 Blizzard,” said John Knueve. “We lost power the first night and had to rely on a small generator, which could power just one appliance at a time.” They fed the generator drops of gasoline at a time. “A two-lane state highway ran in front of our house, but even when they finally managed to clear it an 18-wheeler would pass by, and we’d never see it for the thirteen fourteen-foot drifts which encircled the entire house. We were trapped for most of a week before my brother-in-law made it down with his tractor to break through.”

   In some parts of the state massive snowdrifts as high as 25 feet buried dog houses sheds garages and two-story homes.

   I got close to Cleveland before nightfall. I-90 looked closed, so I took St. Clair Ave. to Lakeshore Blvd. to North Collinwood. I lived two blocks from Lake Erie. When I pulled into my not shoveled out driveway the Maverick got stuck. I didn’t try digging it out. My sister would have to wait for her car. Spring was only two months away, anyway.

   It was even windier and colder in our neighborhood than the rest of the world. The furnace was trying, but the house stayed cold no matter how hard it tried. I wrapped myself up in a comforter. The windows rattled and the house shook whenever a hurricane-force blast of wind hit it. 

   “Oh, that was awful,” Mary Jo Anderson said about the high-pitched howl of the wind. “Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house rattles and squeals.” Her husband, Rich, set off in his Ford Pinto for work that morning. The Pinto wasn’t the ugliest and most unsafe car ever made, but it was a close call. The seats made for sore asses after an hour-or-so and God forbid getting rear-ended. The gas tank had a design flaw that made it liable to explode on impact and incinerate everybody in the car. Two years earlier news had broken that Ford’s policy was that it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits of fire victims rather than fix the car before production. After that there was hell to pay.

   Rich was about a mile up the road in his Pinto when he was brought to a standstill. He couldn’t drive any farther because the wind was so ferocious. The car was a lightweight, barely breaking two thousand pounds. “The ice was on the window of his car, and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off,” Mary said. “He opened the car door, and the wind almost ripped it off. The car spun around in a circle. The door wouldn’t close. He had to hold it shut and drive home. He was happy to make it back.”

   That night I watched the WEWS Channel 5 news show. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the storm even though a film crew had gone searching for news on deserted downtown streets. “It was impossible to see. Wind howling. Bitter, bitter cold,” Don Webster the weatherman said. “They couldn’t shoot anything because of the cold and wind. I couldn’t even talk because I got so cold. I couldn’t say anything.”

   When I changed the station to WJW Chanel 8, Dick Goddard called it a “white hurricane.”

   The 4-speed Chevy Chevette was a basic reliable car that wouldn’t kill you if you got into a fender bender or a hurricane. It was what Susan Downing-Nevling drove to work. Her boss was mad because she hadn’t made it in on Thursday, even though she told him people couldn’t get to their cars because the wind was blowing them down as they tried to walk to their vehicles. 

   “So, Friday I got up, dug my car out, and drove to work on W. 44th St. and Lorain from Middleburg Hts. I didn’t stop once but it still took me four hours. When I got there, it was closed. A couple of others who made it and I went to the Ohio City Tavern for the afternoon.”

   When the storm moved on that weekend it moved northeast, hooked up with a nor’easter, and walloped New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Instead of “Superbomb” it was called “Storm Larry.” Philadelphia saw 16 inches of snow, Atlantic City 20 inches, and Boston was buried by 27 inches. The ice snow wind killed almost 100 people and injured about 4,500. It caused more than $500 million in damage.

   Once it was all over local stores started selling t-shirts that read, “I Survived the ’78 Blizzard!” I didn’t buy one. What would have been the point? It wasn’t going to keep me warm and dry if the blizzard came back. I was hedging my bets. The Blizzard of 1978 might have been “The Storm of the Century,” but there were 22 more years left in the century. I wasn’t expecting to see it’s like anytime soon, but you never can tell. 

   If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Palace on the Prairie

By Ed Staskus

   I wasn’t a sports photographer or a sportswriter, but I had a media pass in 1980 so I saw more Cleveland Cavalier games at the Richfield Coliseum that year than I had ever seen in my life. I saw them from a better seat, too, even though I didn’t have a seat. I sat stood or knelt courtside under the baskets at the base of the stantions or beside the benches and pretended to be doing something other than cheering on the action. Nobody questioned my Kodak Instamatic Point & Shoot camera or schoolboy spiral notepad, even though the camera was rarely loaded with film, and I usually forgot to bring a pen.

   I got the pass from my brother, who was a student at Lakeland College in Kirtland and who worked part-time for the school newspaper. He was the media man. I had it laminated and wore it clipped on my belt. Whenever anybody bumped me jostling in and out of the arena, I checked to make sure the pass was still on my belt. It was worth its weight in gold, getting me in to see the wine and gold whenever I wanted.

   The Cavaliers weren’t good in 1980. Mike Mitchell was their best player. It was straight downhill from there. Bill Musselman the coach didn’t have much to work with and it showed on his face game after game. The drive to Richfield Township twenty-five miles south of downtown Cleveland was long and longer, especially whenever they were playing a league-leading team like the Celtics or 76ers. I soon enough learned to go early or get stuck in traffic. Richfield was Larry Bird’s favorite basketball arena, but he didn’t have to drive there for every game. An interstate and a turnpike dumped cars onto a two-lane road. It was a snail’s pace at the best of times. Attendance was sketchy because of the traffic issues, especially rush hour and if the weather was bad. The single level concourse made for massive congestion among the fans, and nobody liked that, either. I had to pay for parking, too, although none of it mattered when I flashed my pass and strolled in without a hitch.

   A lot went on in Richfield, including concerts, truck pulls, rodeos, circuses, ice shows, wrestling, hockey, and indoor soccer. It hosted a championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in the mid-70s. The fight went to the bitter end, the human punching bag going down nineteen seconds before the final bell, losing in a TKO and inspiring Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award-winning movie “Rocky.”

   The Cavaliers weren’t the first pro team in Cleveland. The first three teams starting in 1924 were the Rosenblums, the Rebels, and the Pipers. When the “Miracle of Richfield” happened during the 1975 season, the Cavaliers advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, everybody forgot about the team’s basketball pioneers if they had thought about them in the first place.

   The Richfield Coliseum opened in October 1974 with Frank Sinatra doing the honors. When he sang “My Way” the sold-out crowd roared. “My friend, I’ll make it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I am certain.” Nobody roared louder than Nick Mileti. He had been a prosecutor in the inner-ring suburb of Lakewood, but then got the bug. “I want to have fun, make some dough, and leave a few footprints,” he told sportswriter Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times. “Nick could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, whether you wanted it or not,” said Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers coach from 1970 to 1979. The new arena was the immigrant Sicilian son’s Brooklyn Bridge to glory.

   “My daddy was a machinist who came over as a teenager and had a dream that I was to wear a white shirt.” 

    He owned the Cleveland Arena and the hockey team when he got rolling. He owned the baseball team for a while and then the basketball team. It wasn’t his money, but he doctored it up to look like it was his. After he took a good look at the 30-plus-year-old Cleveland Arena with bad plumbing and a seating capacity of only 11,000 all he saw was money flying out the window. The players called it “The Black Hole of Calcutta.” They called the new arena “The Palace on the Prairie.”

   “We met with the guy running the old arena,” Nick Mileti said. “On the wall, there was a calendar, and I said, ‘Why is it all white?’ They said, ‘Because we don’t have any events.’ It was an incredible situation. I bought the Barons and the arena, and after that, the first call I made was to Walter Kennedy, the commissioner of the NBA, and said I wanted a franchise. And two years later, I got one.”

   When in the early 1970s he decided on moving the basketball team halfway to Akron to do better business, every Cleveland politician and businessman was against the idea. They wanted to revitalize downtown. They wanted the cash flow of twenty thousand fans driving in forty fifty times a season. They wanted the countless concerts and circuses the venue would host. They wanted the tax revenue. They didn’t get what they wanted. It wasn’t the way Nick Mileti wanted it.

   I didn’t get to know any broadcasting folks doing the games, but I got to know the writers and candid cameras well enough to say hello. They were guys like Bill Nichols, Chuck Heaton, and Burt Graeff. One or the other of them was always giving me the fisheye. When I saw it happening, I pretended to be taking a picture with my Instamatic. The only newshound I was on more than hello and goodbye terms was Pete Gaughan. He was a sportswriter for the SunMedia suburban papers, writing about golf, high school college pro sports, and anything else that involved hitting kicking throwing catching a ball. I met him while refereeing flag football Sunday mornings.

   My brother had started a flag football league at Lakeland College with four teams. By 1980 he had two fields and fourteen teams. The teams were made up mainly of former high school players. He and I were the only two refs at first, but as more teams joined, he needed a second and third two-man crew. He paid $20.00 each ref each game, but still had trouble recruiting and keeping crews for the Sunday morning games. When Pete Gaughan volunteered and my brother took him on, it was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He may have known all about local sports, but he didn’t know how to be on time nor overmuch about the rules.

   The first time I met him was when he misjudged a parking space and brought his rust bucket to a stop on the wrong side of the curb. When the driver’s door swung open, the car still running, a half dozen empty cans of beer rolled out, a leg flopped out, and he finally staggered out of the car in a cloud of funny-smelling smoke. He looked like hell, like he hadn’t slept in a month. I turned his car off while my brother got him into ref’s clothes, gave him a whistle and a penalty flag, and decided he would work with me, while he handled the other field.

   “Thanks, bro,” I said.

   Pete worked behind the offensive line while I worked the field. He didn’t blow his whistle or throw his yellow rag once, not even when there was blood. One of the teams was made up of former Mentor High School players, and unlike most of the flag football teams, they ran the ball more than they threw it. They were the number one team in the league because they had played together in school and knew how to execute. One guy on the opposing team got tired of being battered by the relentless running attack, and when the halfback came through the line one more time the ball tucked under his arm, the other arm swatting hands away, he didn’t bother trying to reach for either of the flags on the runner’s waist. He raised his forearm head high and let the halfback’s nose run right into it. He went down like a shot and blood gushed out of his nose. Pete spotted the ball at the spot and stepped to the side, lighting up a cigarette. We called 911 and when an EMS truck showed up, they drove off with him, telling us his cheekbone was fractured along with his messed-up nose. We called the game. The Mentor boys were up by eight touchdowns anyway.

   By the 1980 season the “Miracle of Richfield” was five years in the dustbin and Nick Mileti had given up his title as president of the Cavaliers, sold his interest, and control of the team went to Ted Stepien, the King of Errors. There weren’t going to be any miracles under his reign. The NBA stayed busy writing rules addressing some of the crazy things he was prone to doing. He traded away five consecutive first-round picks. The Stepien Rule states that no team can trade consecutive first-round draft picks.

   In the meantime, I tried to see all the games involving the better teams in the league. The Cavaliers were a half-good team who could keep up with other half-bad teams. They had trouble with the cream of the crop. That year they went 1 and 4 against the Celtics, 1 and 5 against the Bulls, 0 and 5 against the Knicks, 0 and 6 against the Bucks, and 0 and 6 against the 76ers.

   The Philly team was my favorite team. They were always in the hunt for the title. Maurice Cheeks and Doug Collins were the guards. Bobby “The Secretary of Defense” Jones cleaned up around the basket. Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Daryl “Dr. Dunkenstein” Dawkins led the scoring parade. When the doctors were in the house, they were good for almost fifty points. Julius Erving was menacing enough, but Daryl Dawkins was a menace.

   A year earlier in a game against the Kansas City Kings in KC, dunking the ball with enthusiasm, Daryl broke the backboard, sending both teams ducking. Three weeks later, he did it again at home against the San Antonio Spurs. The next week the NBA wrote a new rule that smashing a backboard to smithereens was wrong, so wrong that it would result in a fine and suspension.

   Daryl named his backboard-breaking dunks “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jams.” His other dunks earned their own names, like the Rim Wrecker, the In-Your-Face Disgrace, the Spine-Chiller Supreme, and the Greyhound Special, for when he went coast to coast. “When I dunk, I want to go straight up, and put it down on somebody.” His nicknames were Sir Slam, Chocolate Thunder, and Dr. Dunkenstein. He told the Cleveland sportswriters he was an alien from the planet Lovetron, where he spent the off-season practicing “interplanetary funkmanship” with his girlfriend Juicy Lucy. The reporters scribbled it up like it was sirloin.

   One of his coaches asked him to tone it down. “All the talk and bravado, enough.” The next day at practice he told his teammates, “I’m not talking today. Coach made me Thunder Down Under.” It didn’t last long. He went back to talking the next day.

   Daryl Dawkins was in his mid-20s, six foot eleven, and 260 pounds of beef brawn and swagger. The Cavalier centers were Kim Hughes and Bill Lambeer, both six eleven, but both slower and skinnier than Daryl. He wore gold chains during games. One of them had a cross while another one featured his nickname Sir Slam in gold script. Sometimes, he would shave his head and oil it, along with wearing a gold pirate’s earring. The year before he averaged almost 15 points and 9 rebounds, helping the 76ers to the NBA Finals, which they lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.

   I watched him go coast to coast against a back-pedaling Bill Lambeer one night. If it had been Kim Hughes, about 50 pounds lighter than Daryl, he wouldn’t even have tried. His fellow center was more stubborn. All the way to the inevitable slam dunk Daryl’s gold chains swung one way and the other slapping at Bill’s face until he finally ducked and covered. The next year the NBA forbade the wearing of any jewelry while playing.

   The last three games I saw at the Richfield Coliseum were the last three games of the season. The Cavaliers lost by 26 to the Bucks, by 21 to the 76ers, and by 35 to the Bullets. It had been a long year. The opening game of the next season boded another long year when the wine and gold lost to the 76ers by 24. But before that game was even played, I didn’t have a media pass anymore and wasn’t planning on going back to the Richfield Coliseum anytime soon. I didn’t have a dependable car and God forbid I break down in the cow pastures of Summit County in the middle of the night.

   I missed going out there, missed the lights and noise, groaning and cheering, being on the floor, the coaches cursing and players calling out venomous fans sitting behind them. After flaking on a dunk one night, Daryl Dawkins drop-kicked somebody’s extra-large Coke off the floor into the seats, sticky sweet soda spraying all over the place. He didn’t look back and didn’t apologize. I kept a firm grip on my can of bubbly water.

   When the Cavaliers returned to downtown Cleveland to a new arena the Palace on the Prairie closed, and the parking lot went to the weeds. I drove to games downtown a couple of times, but the atmosphere was more corporate than cutthroat and I didn’t go back. Besides, they were charging corporate prices for the tickets, and I wasn’t used to busting open my piggybank to cheer on grown men in shorts bouncing a ball from one end of a hardwood floor to the other end.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Poor Little Retard Kid

By Ed Staskus

   After Maggie Campbell was born family vacations became a sore point. “I have to drag those two around?” her mother Alma complained, pointing to Maggie and her older sister Elaine. Fred her husband took a slurp of his Manhattan. The day Bonnie and Brad came on board vacations came to a dead stop, except for once. When Elaine had been the one and only, she went all the time, mostly to Florida to see their grandparents, where she would ride fan boats and go fishing, and all her other fun stuff.

   Maggie screwed up the scheme of things, but still had her summer fun. When Bonnie and Brad rounded out the family her mother blew her top. “Too many kids,” she complained after they were born. “I never wanted you kids. You are all your father’s idea,” Alma told them their entire lives. She meant the children were a bad idea since they were her husband’s handiwork. “Why are you even here? You’ve ruined my life!”

   Her mom never wanted any of them, so she was sullen whenever one of them was in the house. Anytime one or the other of them walked into a room where she was kicking back she got irate that they wanted something. Whenever all of them walked in all at once she hit the roof, exasperated. 

   “It’s a good thing she doesn’t have a gas chamber in the basement,” Maggie told her brother and sisters. She didn’t know gas chambers were frowned on in Bay Village, Ohio. Even so, knowing wouldn’t have helped.

   Later, when they got older, Elaine was ostracized from the family, and Bonnie cut herself off. Elaine locked herself in her room and never came out. Bonnie was always fuming if she was within a mile of the house. 

   Whenever Brad made his parents mad, Maggie would jump in and take his punishment. She couldn’t stand to see him get it. None of them wanted to get hit. But the sisters were always throwing each other under the bus. “The bad part is your sisters then grow up hating you.” That’s how there was the mess between them and Maggie, a mess that wouldn’t go away. She wasn’t saying there weren’t good times, but it was tough sledding.

   The one and only all in the family vacation they went on her whole life was to Disneyland. Her mom was sullen about it, complaining that it was like corralling cats. One morning Maggie was with her. They were out searching for breakfast. No one knew where Elaine was. She had just walked off by herself. Bonnie took Brad with her, and their dad went to find tickets to see the Country Bears Jamboree.

  That’s the only reason he had agreed to go to Disneyland to begin with. He was a stockbroker and vice-president at Prudential Bache in downtown Cleveland where moneybags went every day but loved the Country Bears and couldn’t get enough of them. He laughed ear-splittingly at the mention of them.

   When her mom and she finally got trays of breakfast for everybody they couldn’t find anybody, so they sat down on a curb. A minute later, sitting on the curb, looking up, they saw Bonnie and Brad go slowly past, leaning back in a horse-drawn carriage, waving at them like movie stars

   Alma and Maggie looked at each other. Where were the rest of the lost and found? Their food was getting cold.

   They saw the Bear Jamboree later, and the next day Maggie spotted Donny Osmond riding the same monorail with them out of their hotel. Her sisters loved Donny Osmond but wouldn’t go up to him. They were scared skittish. Maggie was gun-shy, too, but her dad pushed her in Donny’s direction, anyway.

   “Go get his autograph,” Fred said.

   “No, no, no,” she said.

   Fred pushed her forward. She got a push in the small of the back running start, and the next thing she knew was standing in front of Donny Osmond. Maggie was just flabbergasted. She had seen him on TV and now she was standing less than a foot from him. She stammered and bumbled fumbled with her hands. She got his autograph, although she didn’t know how. Maybe he felt bad because he thought she was special needs.  

   “Poor little retard kid,” he probably thought and gave her his autograph. When it stopped, she ran off the monorail car as fast as she could. One of her shoes went flying. Donny Osmond ducked. It hit Micky Mouse behind him.

   “Why would you do that to me?” she asked her dad. “Why me?”

   After the vacations stopped Maggie went to Bay Village High School. She was a lifeguard at the Bay Pool and a Bay Rockette on the kick line for two years. She had many friends growing up, but hardly ever had them over to her house. She went to their houses. She was always leery of having them over because she never knew if her dad would out of the blue lose his temper or her mom would out of the blue start something disastrous.

   If anybody liked something Alma was always going to find a way to not like it. After Maggie moved away, her sister Elaine, who had long since moved away, wanted a family heirloom their mom had, a bench that had been in their great grandparent’s house, but Alma wouldn’t let her take it.

   Her parents had the bench in their split-level family house in Bay Village, at the end of their bed, but when Fred passed away and Alma re-married in the blink of an eye, marrying her old high school sweetheart from Jersey Shore, and moving to a new house in North Ridgeville, she put it away in her garage.

   Elaine wanted the bench bad. Maggie told her mom over and over that she wanted it, but Alma said, “No, she can’t have it, and that’s final.” It was like talking to a blockhead of wood.

   “What are you doing with it?” Maggie asked. She knew the answer, which was nothing, but wanted to hear Alma say it. “No, no, no,” was all she said. It was because she knew Elaine wanted it that she wouldn’t give it to her. That’s the way Alma was. If someone loved something, then she hated it. She had always been like that. Their dad could be cool sometimes, at least. Maggie knew, even though he beat the tar out of them, that he cared about them. But, their mom, not so much, if at all.

   Maggie had a Rockette party at their house before her senior year, at the tail end of August. The party came out of left field. They were at practice and their coach said the first football game was coming up soon. It was on September such-and-such, but they didn’t have a place scheduled for their potluck, yet.

   “We can have it at our house,” Maggie blurted out. Just like that, thirty high school girls were going to be coming over to their house. She called her dad at work. He sounded happy to hear from her.

   “Hey, dad,” she said. “I just invited all my friends over for a potluck.”

   “Sweet,” Fred said. “We’ll make it work.” Maggie was amazed and hung up before he could say anything else. She didn’t say anything about the potluck party to her mom. It would have been like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick.

   Her dad came home early from work the day of the party, brought all the hot dogs hamburgers buns and pickles, and enjoyed having her friends in the backyard. He was all over the place with his camera and took a ton of pictures. It was a good time. Her mom stayed in the house and never came out. Fred loved it, but Alma was angry and sulking that her daughter had all her friends over.

   Maggie loved being a Rockette. She was one of the in crowd during her sophomore and junior years in high school until the night not long after the party when she tore her hamstring in three places. It was an act of God, but a misadventure that was going to take three or four months to mend. She had to give up being a Rockette her last year of high school because of her leg.

   It was terrible, like she had lost something special, something she could never get back.

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.”

High Octane

By Ed Staskus

   The brightest OM I ever heard was the one Kristen Zarzycki began and ended her ‘Follow the Yogi’ at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what was the biggest and most popular class of the week. It didn’t hurt that the class only cost $5.00 in a world where classes started at ten bucks and up. Kristen was a young teacher with a voice like the Queen Mary steaming into port through a fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being an ancient vibration was all about. I could feel the old-school buzz in the room, and I wasn’t even chanting.

   I began thinking about yoga in my fifties when arthritis had gotten so my bad hip either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried it at home, checking out videotapes about one style and another, checking the tapes out from our local library. I even bought a mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of studios and thought professional instruction was a good idea. But I was reluctant to go because of my impression classes were chock-full of lissome women who could do the impossible and the certainty I would be the oaf in the corner.

   One afternoon towards the end of summer, lounging around our company’s lunchroom, waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to free up the stove, yoga somehow came up as we talked. I was surprised to find out she not only practiced, but taught yoga part-time, as well. For the next several months she never tired of leaning into my cubicle and encouraging me to take a class.

  I finally did, partly to appease her, partly because I didn’t see any other way to learn more, but mostly just to do it, at least once. From the end of my first class on a Saturday morning, slapping my hand to my temple in the car as I drove away, surprised it had taken me so long, I was attracted to the practice, simply because I felt surprisingly good afterwards.

   The first two years I went at it was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I noticed our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I opened my mouth, which wasn’t often, it was with a small voice from the back of the room.

   After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking more physically challenging classes, time-distorting vinyasa practices with unnerving names like ‘Hot Power Yoga Challenge’. One evening near the end of an especially hard class, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.

   She gave me a dirty look but was kind enough to say it was.

   I began to buy into the spirit of yoga, reading about its principles and way of life, and listening to our teachers with a newfound openness. I took a workshop about meditation and another about the chakras – to which I reacted with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a small voice.

   When I began to OM with more than less frankness it was at the end of the first class that Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, into trying new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s inaugural class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.

   On the way to the studio that evening, storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the setting sun over the lake slanted between the houses across the street onto the asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building. The studio was on the second floor. There wasn’t much to it other than lots of empty space. Inside, I unrolled my mat, facing across the wide room towards the dusk. As we started our practice, I was quickly thrown off balance by the unfamiliar sequence and difficulty of the exercises. Then the noise started.

   First one and then another double-stacked freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks on the abutment behind the building east towards Cleveland. At both public grade crossings, one block to the west and four blocks the other way, the diesel’s compressed air horns let loose blasts of 15-second warnings.

   When the trains were come and gone two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a Godzilla-style Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they weren’t closed at all. No sooner had they finished than the hard wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through a long series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.

   Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, our windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OMs, the poses all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the soupy air when we finished. It was the first time I did OM with any sincerity.

   The loudest OM I ever heard was the one Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon, in Chicago, in what turned out to be the unlikely tropics of Lake Michigan.

   Kristen described her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they were, so much so I nicknamed her Kirby, after Jack Kirby, the Marvel Comics artist who created Sgt. Fury, the snarling but tenderhearted NCO who led the First Attack Squad known as the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960s comic book series. Although a head shorter and smaller by far than the cigar-chomping Sgt. Fury, she morphed into him as she led her classes centering on core poses, for what she insisted was our own good, and watched over us so we survived her ruthless boot camp approach.

   At the end of her classes Kristen always invited everybody to a “big and huge” OM to seal the deal. That Sunday afternoon somebody impulsively interrupted and said, “Let’s chant for Kristen running the marathon next week.” So prompted the whole class did. The OM was loud and long and heartfelt. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath. Kristen was flushed with emotion when we were finally done.

   The next Sunday she ran in record-setting heat and smothering humidity. More than ten thousand of the thirty-five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut the event down twenty miles into it. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the OM we chanted for her.

   The car repair OM happened on a mid-summer evening as we sat cross-legged at Inner Bliss, palms together, thumbs at the heart center, at the tail end of Tammy Lyons’s hot flow class. The casement windows overlooking the flat roof and cords of seasoned firewood stacked against the outside wall of Mason’s Auto Body were tilted open, and I could sense a breeze. We chanted OM once, breathed in, and chanted OM a second time.

   “There they go again,” said a body shop man unseen below us, taking a break at the umbrella table between our two buildings, more than loud enough to be heard throughout the studio.

   “Whatever floats your boat,” a second man said, louder.

   Tammy Lyons paused and paused again. She had the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner, namely the yoga studio. When she paused, I waited for the response. I reckoned it was inevitable, human nature being what it is. We chanted OM a third time. When the class over she thanked us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everybody on the studio’s schedule.

  Then she said in a clear firm voice more than clear firm loud enough to be heard outside, “Yes, it does float our boats.”

   Later that night, nursing a can of cold PBR in my backyard, I thought about the sarcastic guys at Mason’s. They weren’t really all that different from Tammy Lyons, although maybe they thought they were. Just like she worked on our bodies by leading us in yoga sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.

   Motor city and human bodies are not only in and of themselves, but they are carry-all’s, as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of your car, both with the same idea in mind, so our bodies and our cars will be better able to take us where we want to go, whether it’s a yoga studio or the corner bar. But, if the body shop men were different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.

   The 4th OM unfolded on a Sunday afternoon when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he were what I expected, even though I couldn’t have said what I expected. Dressed all in black with a grayish ponytail and a gregarious manner, Max was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up exercises and moving around now-and-then, we sat on our mats, and he devoted most of the sold-out two-hour workshop to breathing, both explaining his ideas about it and leading us in elements of it.

   He seemed to think yoga exercises alone were inadequate as a way of making a spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought yoga work outs could and did serve a purpose, but to arrive at some meaning beyond simple exercise the next step was to connect with one’s breath.

   He said the practice seemed to be mostly physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and mind. The mind was our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit.

   We did a slew of breathing exercises, breathing fast, and breathing slow, holding our inhales and then our exhales, alternate nostril breathing, bellows breath and breath of fire, and long slow breathing until I ran out of breath. Max instructed us to breathe into the heart center, to breathe in the present and breathe out the past.

  After a break, when we were all back on our mats, he unfurled a 10-minute OM. He explained we were to all start together, but as we finished our own personal OM to go on to the next one, not waiting for the others in class. He said in a minute or so we would all be intoning separately, but it would in the long run resolve itself into a single continuous chant, which is exactly what happened. It turned into a long rolling OM with no beginning and no end.

   As we chanted, I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the chanting I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt any kind of hunger or was filled with yearning. I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed like I was hollow shell lit up from within by a bright diffuse light.

   I was conscious that my heart was beating slowly steady, and I was breathing rhythmically, and that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, but for all that it was a remarkable sensation. I didn’t feel better, or worse, I just felt light and lit up. It was an experience that lasted about a minute.

   Max’s message at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on our way with a goodbye namaste and ringing endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.

   Since then, I have never again felt the same bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result added some breath training and meditation to my increasingly stay at home practice. What surprised me in the long run is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of anything something nothing, and breathing mindfully.

   There is no blowing the man down with OM. It is more like the hum of a supercharged V6 sipping on high octane, rolling down a freshly asphalted country road, a ragtop on a bright summer day with no deadline on the bench seat. It is the flow of old-school energy.

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.”