All posts by Edward Staskus

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

Jesus and Mary Chain

By Ed Staskus

   Steve De Luca and Maggie Campbell’s neighbors who have passed away and are like as not in Heaven lived in the house on the driveway side of them. The woman who was horrible to all the neighbors lived on the other side of them. The Romanian man and wife who loved them and their dogs lived behind them.

   Mary and Josephine, who were sisters, lived together in the two-story brick bungalow on the east side of West Park for 62 years. Neither of them ever married. Josephine cooked hot dogs, brought them to the fence, and fed them to Steve and Maggie’s dogs every day. They hardly ever saw Mary. She hardly ever came out of the house.

   After they died Steve fixed up a timer and security light in their living room and mowed their lawn every Saturday. He parked Maggie’s Honda Element in their driveway to make it look like it wasn’t vacant, at least until the house was cleaned and sold. It wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where vacant houses were safe. If they stayed vacant too long their world went tumbling down.

   The angel sky was only so good for so long.

   There were statues of Jesus and Mary in front of a red hydrangea. They stood in Mary and Josephine’s front yard for an eternity. There were chains attached to the bases of both statues. The chains were buried beneath woody mulch and led to a bolt fixed to the side of the house. Mary and Josephine were determined to keep the holy family where they were. They didn’t want them carried away from here to a sinful place.

   Dawn lived with her husband Chuck on the left side of next door. She was a cankerous woman. She was all about nine million rainy days. Chuck bought his house long before Steve and Maggie bought theirs. He had been a confirmed bachelor until he made a mistake and got married. He was a calm polite man. When Dawn moved in Chuck was their nice neighbor. She was not so nice, disagreeable, and noisome.

   “She’s from New Jersey,” Maggie said. “She started in on us right at the start. Whenever we waved to her, she would never wave back. If she caught Chuck talking to either of us, he had to pay the price. He would sneak over to say hello and chat. The things she says to him about us I don’t even want to imagine.”

   “All my time in Hell is spent with her,” Chuck said.

   Dawn called the dog warden on them every other week, even when the dogs were on vacation. It was always about their dogs barking. It didn’t matter that they hardly ever barked. What she didn’t know was that the dogs were licensed, all of them, all the time.

   “Here’s the thing,” the Cleveland dog warden finally told Dawn. “Their dogs are licensed, and everyone’s dogs bark sometimes, so stop barking us up.” She finally got tired of her fun and games.

   “Most of the rest of our neighborhood loves it when our dogs are out,” Maggie said. “It is Dawn who gives us the most trouble. I don’t care if you’re from the bottomless pit, or not. It doesn’t give you the right to be a son of a bitch. That’s all changed now that she needs me. When she couldn’t afford to have her hair done at the Charles Scott Salon anymore, I became good enough for her.”

   “Chuck doesn’t pay for anything for the kids,” Dawn complained bitterly. She had two children from an earlier marriage. Her ex-husband had killed himself. “Everything falls on me. I have to pay for their school.” They went to the West Park Lutheran School, even though Dawn was an atheist. She didn’t have much money of her own anymore. She had blown through the life insurance in Atlantic City. She depended on the good graces of Chuck.

   Then, when Maggie started doing her hair, knowing that she didn’t have kids herself, it was kids in her chatterbox all the time. “Do you think you could come over and watch them for a few minutes?”

   “No,” Maggie said. “That’s why I don’t have kids of my own. I don’t want to sit yours.” She might have done it to be a good neighbor, but she knew Dawn would have started taking advantage of her, so she put a stop to it.

   The old Romanian couple behind them bought their house the year Maggie was born. That was almost fifty years ago. They were straight out of Transylvania, which was part of Romania. Steve and Maggie could hardly understand a word they said, her more than him. His name was Anthony, but they had never been able to understand what her name was. They always just called her Mrs. Anthony.

   Everything in their back yard was a farm. They grew everything they ate, except for animals, in the big back yard during the summer. When Steve and Maggie first moved into the neighborhood, they had grandkids who fed their dogs doggie cookies.

   They would hear the pack of them while sitting on their back porch. “Can we go see the dogs?” they asked.

   The children had become teenagers, but they still came to visit their grandparents. The dogs always ran to the back fence and lined up, waiting. “You can’t stop the feedbag. You have to keep giving them cookies,” Maggie told the teens.

    Steve used to show the dogs the lay of the land every day. He stopped and talked to their neighbors. They asked him about the dogs, so a lot of them found out they rescued dogs, finding them better homes. “That is so cool,” some of them said.

   That’s how they came to be called the Dog People. That’s what they’re known as. One day a distraught lady was walking up and down the street looking for her lost Dachshund.

   “Did you try the dog people,” everybody asked.

   “Have you seen my dog?” she asked Maggie.

   “No, but I’ll keep an eye out for the wiener,” she said.

   Sometimes neighbors donated dog food to them. They found 40-pound bags of it left on their front porch. It was nice to have a little community support.

   They started taking their tail-waggers to the dog park in the Rocky River Metropark instead of walking them because their Husky was a screamer. The second they put a leash on him the screaming started. It sounded like somebody was ripping out his toenails. He screamed the whole way on the way. Neighbors came out to make sure they weren’t beating their dogs.

   Explaining got to be so embarrassing, Steve put their excursions to a stop. He drove them to the Metropark. Maggie’s Honda Element was the ticket.

   But the Husky hated the dog park, too. He didn’t like other people or other dogs coming up to him, or even up to his folks. One day they thought they would hide from him so he would learn to run around with other dogs. They hid behind a tree. But what happened was unsettling. He ran around like a madman looking for them.

   “Steve, we can’t hide from him,” Maggie said. “He’s never going to relax.”

   When they came out from hiding and he saw them he ran over right away. “He’s back to guarding us again,” Maggie told Steve. “He’s giving us his warm glow.”

   One of their neighbors fell in love with Grayson, their silver Lab, after he sniffed out who had bolt cut the Jesus and Mary statues and stolen them. Steve set them in cement so it wouldn’t happen again. Grayson had a great nose and was a cutie patootie, too. The neighbor lady did everything she could to get them to give Grayson to her.

   “He’s not for sale,” Maggie said. “He’s my dog.”

   “But I love him,” she said.

   “We love him, too,” Maggie said.

   One morning they took Grayson to Project Runway on Whiskey Island to a fundraiser for dog shelters. From there, later in the afternoon, they did Doggies on the Patio, another fundraiser. It was a long day. Afterwards they took him out for gelato. He loved it, the whole day, and the gelato. Maggie could never sell him. She couldn’t see that happening. It didn’t matter that he kept trying to sneak upstairs to sleep on their bed.

   Besides, Grayson had issues with Dawn, and was their early warning system, barking up a storm whenever she was in sniffing range.

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

Thrills and Spills

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

   “No,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Or else what?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Take notes,” I told my new bride. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “In case you’ve got to run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “What do you mean?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling the Corner Pocket

By Ed Staskus

   There were two snooker tables, two billiards tables, six 5 by 10-foot pool tables, a beat-up ping pong table, mismatched beat-up stools, and a beat-up front counter at Joe Tuma’s Billiards. There was a seven-foot eight ball table in a corner for tourists. All the tables were clean as a whistle. The floor was swept nightly but never washed. The front windows were filthy. The bathroom was sketchy at best. There was no bathroom for women. Nobody ever saw a woman inside Joe Tuma’s anyway, so it didn’t matter.

   The pool hall was on the south side of Euclid Ave. at East 19th St. on the second floor of a two-story building. Pool halls were often in basements or on second floors to save on rent. The Morse Graphic Art Supply Company was on the ground floor. As many times I went to Joe Tuma’s was as many times I didn’t go to the art supply store.

   Cleveland State University was two blocks up the street. It was where I was student, until I dropped out instead of getting flunked out my freshman year. I spent more time at the pool hall than I did attending lectures in the humanities and sciences. My teachers were always asking me who I was and if I was in the right class.

   I wasn’t the only one. Ron Mabey graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, lost his student deferment, and was waiting to be drafted. He and a friend with the same 1-A ticket to Vietnam rented cheap office space in the nearby Corlett Building, doing odd jobs. “We started going to Joe Tuma’s and spent less and less time at the office,” Ron said. “We were killing time waiting for our letters from Uncle Sam. The billiard club was more enjoyable than the 3rd Platoon, D Company, 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade, where I ended up.”

   Joe Tuma’s called itself a “Billiard Club” and advertised “Bowling and Billiard Supplies” on its front window. I never saw anybody wearing a monogrammed club sweater and never saw supplies of anything except cue sticks and chalk. I never saw Joe, either. After a few months I stopped looking for him. 

   His club didn’t have slot machines, darts, or foosball, staying true to pool billiards snooker. When my dad found out I was playing pool he said it would only lead to gambling, laziness, and philandering. He said it was a “social ill.” I told him I didn’t have any paper money to gamble with, learning to play was elbow grease not laziness, and I didn’t know what philandering meant. My mom had just seen the movie “The Music Man” and referred me to the song “Trouble.”

   “You got trouble, folks, right here in River City, trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool.”

   The Cuyahoga River was right around the bend, and it was always catching fire, which was trouble enough. My dad was an accountant and said it was the price of progress. My mom didn’t say much. She was a cashier at a Pick-N-Pay supermarket, racing home to make dinner for my dad, brother, and sister, hoping to not burn it. I had already moved to the bum and beatnik neighborhood around Upper Prospect Ave.

   The front door of Joe Tuma’s was at the side of the building and the front stairs were lit with a single 40-watt bulb. Inside, most of the lights were over the tables. It was usually quiet, except for the clicking clacking sound of balls hitting each other. There were no radios and no TV’s. Balls used to be made of stone, back in the 14thcentury when high society played a game that was a cross of croquet and billiards. When the game evolved onto a table, balls were made of wood and clay.

   When the makers of balls discovered ivory, they started making them out of ivory. It was a slow go, though. One elephant tusk yielded only five or six of them. They were prone to discoloring and cracking if struck with too much force. Europeans hit the mother lode when they developed a resin and plastic combination called phenolic resin. They were the Saluc’s and located in Belgium. They started in hide tanning way back when and are the largest manufacturer of billiard balls in the world.

   Nobody ever argued anything or cheered anything at Joe Tuma’s. They didn’t give a fig about politics. “Less talk and more chalk,” is what they said. Somebody might tap his cue stick on the wood frame of a table to show appreciation for a shot, but that was about as demonstrative as anybody ever got.

   Whenever he was there one of the soft-spoken men was Baby Face.

   “I was given the name Baby Face when I was 15 years old,” he said. “I had just played Buddy Wallace right here. Buddy played straight pool in some championships where he ran large numbers to beat some world class players. I played him for money to 50 points and won decisively.”

   Life is a game and money is to keep score. It’s draw for show and follow for the dough.

   “As I was going out the door the man who covered the pool tables for Joe, who was named Butch, asked, ‘Who’s the baby face?’ When I got into my 30s, I was on the road playing everyone I ran up on. I busted Reid Pierce at the Office Lounge in Mississippi. I busted Tommy Sanders and Gabby in Texas. I busted Rich Geiler in Washington.”

   “Who in the hell is he talking about?” I wondered, even though I knew he was talking about Minnesota Fats kinds of guys.

   “I was pretty much undefeated except when I ran into Mike Siegal. He showed me what a world champion could do. I played him on the big table. It was painless. He only gave me a couple of opportunities. I started stalling with him the first rack out and he hit me with a 4 pack. I never came out of it.” 

   “The easiest way to win is to not let the other guy shoot,” is what road players say.

   I didn’t know much about pool when I started playing between classes. I had played eight ball on coin-operated bar tables with my friends, but it meant nothing except some fun. When I first saw the tables at Joe Tuma’s I knew for sure I knew nothing. There were always local geezers hanging around, playing an occasional game on their welfare and social security money. One of them, Brooklyn Bob, who lived in Old Brooklyn near the Cleveland Zoo and took the bus downtown, helped me. He taught me how to play straight pool. I learned how to play billiards and snooker later. I didn’t take to billiards, but I liked snooker.

   The first thing Bob told me was to “stroke it, don’t poke it. The ball will go where you look, but you don’t have to aim straight if you stroke straight. Let your cue stick do the work. Take what the table offers. Don’t try to get perfect shape when good shape will do.”

   The rules were simple enough and keeping score was even simpler. Every table had sliding scoring beads on a wire perpendicular to the table, using the light centered over the pool table as the middle string mount. The beads were made of wood. Fifty of them were dark and the other set of fifty were light colored. First one to fifty wins.

   At first my shooting was like I was shooting with a rope. I lost more games fifty to zero than I could count. I was on the hit and hope bandwagon. After I got a little better my nickname became One in a Row. It got so nobody wanted to play me, so I practiced by myself.

   “It’s not the cue, it’s you,” Bob said. “Hold the stick like you’re shaking a lady’s hand. Don’t crush it, but don’t be limp, either. Don’t cry in your beer about it, though.” Bob always had a lukewarm bottle of Blatz in his hand and a cigarette burning down in a tin ashtray on the table beside his stool. 

   The big open room stank from years of incessant smoking. Everybody drank beer and smoked. I didn’t drink but started smoking some to keep up. I never hit the pack a day habit. They all smoked Camels and Lucky Strikes and it was strong stuff. After a while I had a pool hall tan like everybody else.

   The fewer classes I went to at CSU and the more I practiced at Joe Tuma’s the better I got. I started picking up games. I never played for money because the only loose change I ever had went to pay for table time. “Never gamble with a man named after a state or a city,” Brooklyn Bob told me. When he tried to get me to play for money, I followed his advice.

   Some of the town players and lots of the road players had nicknames, all of them more flattering than mine. There were Frisco Jack, The Rocket, Handsome Danny, Cadillac Ed, and Cue Ball Kelly. Before the movie “The Hustler” came out Minnesota Fats was Fats and New York Fats and Double Smart Fats, even though his real name was Rudolf Wanderone.

   “Perhaps the most striking aspect of the pool hustler’s argot is the use of nicknames. My impression is that the percentage of them who have nicknames is not only higher than among either professionals or hustlers in other sports but is higher than in any other adult group in America,” Ned Polsky wrote in “Hustlers, Beats and Others.” 

   Oklahoma Flash sounded good, and he was a good shooter, but his handle had nothing to do with pool. “I had a friend who started calling me that when we played softball together in Oklahoma,” he said. “Every time I ran to first base, he said a dust cloud could beat me there.”

    I learned how to handle the cue and how to stand in the right stance, keeping my head down on the ball with the cue below my chin. I got in the groove of gradually approaching the cue ball keeping my follow through straight and relaxed. I stayed down after the shot. I hit thousands of practice shots, then tens of thousands, until I realized getting to the level of guys like Baby Face was going to take hitting a million practice shots. I didn’t think I had it in me.

   One afternoon after an occasional class I stopped at Joe Tuma’s. A crowd was gathered around the only ping pong table where a man was playing all comers with a small rusty battered garbage can lid. His off hand was tied behind his back. Nobody was having any luck scoring any points, even when he played two opponents with two balls in play at the same time. It was Danny Vegh, who was from Hungary, where he had been the country’s boy champion, junior champion, and adult champion. 

   He came to the United States after the Hungarian Uprising. “The border opened up and I ran like hell!” he said, landing at Camp Kilner Air Force Base in New Jersey. “I knew no one in this country.” Somebody on the base told him many Hungarians were going to Cleveland. He and his wife packed up and went to Cleveland. Four years later he was the USA Singles and Doubles Table Tennis Champion. It didn’t pay the bills, though, so he opened a ping pong center.

   “The business was a complete failure,” he said.

   Since he was a good pool player, too, he moved to the Hippodrome Building just west of East 9th St. and opened Gaylord’s Pool Hall. It was a big success. He added four ping pong tables “just because I loved it.” He started staging pool tournaments with 600-and-more players competing. The entry fees went to the Cleveland Plain Dealer Charities “so we had a lot of publicity.” 

   Kids played in age divisions. “I was in the 9- to 10-year-old group and my cousin John was in the 8 and under,” said Tim Goggin. “He could barely see over the top of the table, but still made it to the quarterfinals.”

   Now and then, somebody would blow into town, give a demonstration at Gaylord’s, give some lessons, play whoever was up to it, and blow out of town better off than the day before. They didn’t usually come to Joe Tuma’s, but one morning when I walked in a road player was showing off trick shots. Jew Paul was from the Rack & Cue in Detroit. He looked like he had been up all night. There were dark circles under his eyes.

   “He was here all night and he’s still here,” Butch said. “He ordered breakfast for everybody, should be here soon. Make sure you stay.”

   His real name was Paul Bruseloff. He was there with a friend of his, Cornbread Red, whose real name was Billy Joe Burge. Jew Paul was from East New York City. The first time he played pool in 1939 when he was 12 years old was the first time he gambled on the game. It was for five cents. He won enough nickels to come back. He needed three cents for an 8-ball rack and twenty cents for an hour of straight pool. He won enough to play all he wanted.

   He made a white-collar living selling kitchenware and a no-collar fortune betting on his cue stick after he moved to Detroit. He preferred one-pocket on a snooker table but played anything and everything, including heads or tails with pennies.

   I found out later what he “liked most to do was come out a few games behind but win all the money. One day he’s doing just that, betting $300.00 a game in the center and $8,000 a game on the side. But his hapless opponent was running out of dough, so Paul ‘accidentally’ dropped a couple of thousand on the floor so the guy could keep playing.”

   After breakfast somebody tried to take his picture with an Instamatic. He pushed the man away. “Pictures are for movie stars,” he said.

   “Jew Paul don’t let nobody take his picture,” Butch said.

   He wasn’t the only one. I had started taking artsy black-and-white pictures, guided by Virginia Sustarsic, a friend of mine who was a hippie photographer and some-time writer. She had access to a dark room where we developed the film and pictures ourselves. I borrowed her 35mm Nikon camera and brought it to the pool hall, but was firmly not-so-politely told, “No pictures.”

   When I went back to school after dropping out, I dropped playing pool. I couldn’t do both. I was majoring in English literature and going to all my classes, reading and writing at night, and working part-time to keep the wolf away from the door. It took up all my time. Playing pool would have snookered me. 

   “All gents know how to play pool,” Butch told me later when I was messing around with a friend during spring break, showing him how to put English on the ball. “But any gent who plays too good, he ain’t no gentleman.”

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.”

Bumping Into Bigfoot

By Ed Staskus

   The week we went to our last Boy Scout camp at Lake Pymatuning State Park wasn’t any seven days longer than any other summer camp we had gone to, but since it was going to be our last camp, my friends and I were determined to make the most of it, stay up most of the time, lengthen the days and nights, mess around in the woods and water, raid the girl’s side, and play mumble the peg.

   We weren’t supposed to, even though all of us had jackknives and some of us had fixed-blade sheath knives. “No mumbledy peg,” our scoutmaster told us in no uncertain terms, in uncertain English, in his strong Lithuanian accent, speaking through his Chiclet teeth.

   One way we played mumble the peg was to first pound a twig, a peg, into the ground. We threw our knives at the ground, flipping from the palm, back of the hand, twist of the fist, and every which way. Whatever the other scout did, if he threw it backward over his head, and it stuck, you had to do it, too. If you failed, then you had to mumble the peg. You had to get on your hands and knees and pull the twig out of the ground with your teeth.

   The other way we played was to stand opposite each other with our legs shoulder-width. Taking turns, we would flip and try to stick our knife into the ground as close to our own foot as possible. The first toss was always in the middle, but when the other guy got closer, you had to get closer, and the closer and closer it went. Whoever stuck his knife closest to his own foot, and the other guy chickened out, was the winner.

   If you stuck the knife into your own foot you won on the spot, although nobody ever wanted to win that way. It was why everyone who had not gotten their first aid merit badge and was going to get in on mumble the peg at camp, took the class at the park ranger cabin a half mile away. It was taught by an older scout who wore leopard-print camouflage pants and shirt. One of us read from the only available Red Cross manual, while he was the hands-on guy.

   It was the only book-learning merit badge on the program. Sticking our noses in a book at summer camp was the last thing anybody except the bookworms wanted to do. They read what somebody else dreamed up about fun. We dreamed up our own fun.

   We were going to look for Bigfoot and nab him if we could. He was the hide and seek world champion, but we knew he was somewhere around the lake. What we were going to do with him once we got him, none of us knew. We thought, if we did find him, and he was friendly, we would ask him where he lived and what he did all day. 

   “His name is Sasquatch,” the cammo-clad scout told us, looking like he thought we were retards.

   There were more of us than Bigfoot, or whatever his name was, for sure. There were seven of us, first-generation immigrant children like all the boys and girls at the camp, and we were all Eagle Scouts. None of us had earned any Palms, though, since none of us had gotten more than the twenty-one merit badges needed to get to Eagle, but all of us were going for twenty-two, since Ginty’s dad had brought two canoes. We were looking forward to it after we heard what getting a canoeing badge was all about.

   What it was about was getting out of a canoe in deep water and getting back in without capsizing, then performing a controlled capsize, and swimming, towing, or pushing a swamped canoe fifty feet to shallow water. In the shallow water, empty the swamped canoe and reenter it. Back in deep water, rescue a swamped canoe and its paddlers by emptying it and helping the paddlers reenter their boat without capsizing.

   We were all about that.

   We had searched for Bigfoot at camp before, but sporadically, never having a plan. This time we had a plan. We brought flashlights, we had a map of the landscape north of our camp, and a compass, and we made sure all of us had sharpened our knives just in case Bigfoot tried to mess with us.

   It would put Troop 311 on the map.

   Seven years earlier Bigfoot had terrorized a weekend Cub Scout camp at the park in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster was jolted out of a sound sleep by the screams of his boys. He stumbled out of his tent to find the 11-year-olds crying and running around in circles. Using a whistle and a flashlight he got them to stop and form a line. He then asked them what was going on.

   It turned out four of the boys had been woken up suddenly by a loud noise. Their tent started to shake. They thought it was a prank being played by their friends, until the tent was ripped from the ground and thrown into a tree. A creature bellowed at them. It was Bigfoot. Two of the boys immediately shut their eyes. The other two were mesmerized by its glowing eyes. They couldn’t look away.

   The beast was satisfied with scaring them and left. The scoutmaster searched, but only found the tent high in the tree. He built a fire and gathered all the boys around him. In the morning he cut the camping weekend short.

   Troop 311 was the Lithuanian American scout troop on the east side of town. Our headquarters was the community hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, just off East 185th Street, the principal road, and the spine of Lithuanian life and culture in Cleveland. Our group was all 15 and 16 years old, and scouting was phasing out of our minds and lives. 

   The younger kids didn’t know anything. The older guys who were still scouts were Explorers, in it for life. We knew this was our last camp at Lake Pymatuning. Next year we were hoping to go out on a high note at the 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in the Rocky Mountains.

   “I will bust a gut if we make it there,” said Linas, our camel train’s crack wise.

    The first thing we did when we got to Lake Pymatuning late Sunday morning was haul our stuff, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food and supplies out of the fleet of Ford station wagons, Chevy station wagons, and Pontiac station wagons our parents had driven us in to the camp site. We set up our tents in a perpendicular line to the lake, hoisted the communal tent, dug a fire pit and a latrine trench. We built a 30-foot-high abstract frame sculpture out of dead tree branches. Everybody went for a swim when we were done.

   The lake is partly in Ohio and partly in Pennsylvania, on land that used to be a swamp. It is named for Pihmtomink, the chief of the tribe who lived in the swamp. When the Indians were pushed off their land, and told to go somewhere else, the first farmers had a hell of a time. The swamp was infested by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Farm animals were eaten by bears and mountain lions or sank in quicksand. There was a massive flood in 1913. Finally, the Pymatuning Land Company bought all the land, thousands of men worked from 1931 to 1934, and built a dam. The lake they made is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide.

   There’s a spot called “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish,” where people throw bread to thousands of carp and Canada geese and birds of a feather rush around on top of the fish to snag their share of it.

   Our scoutmaster’s tent was nearest to the lake. Vytautas Jokubaitis was a short barrel-chested man with blondish hair and a red face. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, the same kind that Robert Baden-Powell wore, to keep the sun off his face. But he usually had the front brim pushed up. That wasn’t why his face was red, anyway. He wasn’t a bad man, but he had a bad temper that boiled over at the drop of a hat. Nobody ever wanted to get on the wrong side of the scout oath, or scout motto, or scout code with him. 

   There was the devil to pay when that happened.

   He was our Scoutmaster, or Scouter, so we called him Scooter since we couldn’t call him Vito. He didn’t like that. He was a grown man, and we were kids. He didn’t like us calling him Scooter, either, but what could he do? Besides, we never called him that to his face. He was a “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” kind of man.

   He was from Alytus, the same town where my mother had been baby-sitting when the Russians stormed into Lithuania in 1944. She got out in the nick of time with her aunt and her aunt’s four kids on a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. By 1966 it had been 22 years since she had seen anyone from her family, who were all stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

   When he was young Vito weightlifted and wrestled. Nobody picked on him, but he beat it out of the Baltics when the Commies showed up like tens of thousands of others, met his wife Onute in Germany, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. They had three children, Milda, who was older than us and ignored us, Ruta, who was our age and eye-catching, and who we pretended to ignore, and a boy who was small fry and ignored by everybody except his small fry friends.

   Vyto Jokubaitis organized Zaibas and the Lithuanian American Club in Cleveland, and had gotten medals, although he never wore them to camp. The CYO gave him the “Saint John Bosco Award.” We all went to Catholic schools, but none of knew who John Bosco was. He sounded like chocolate syrup.

   Ona was just as industrious, and not about to be outdone by her husband. She ran the camp as much as he did, although she stayed on the girl’s side. She was the head of the Parents Committee of Zaibas, raised mounds of money for the Lithuanian Relief Fund, and was Outstanding Citizen of the Year in 1960. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher gave her the award and a handshake in person.

   They talked about Lithuania at the night-time campfire like it was the best place in the world, but none of had ever been there. Lithuania was like Bigfoot, something we heard about, but didn’t know if it was real or not.  When they talked about the Baltic and the dunes, all we could picture were the dunes at Mentor Headlands State Park on Lake Erie. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know Lithuania from the man in the moon.

   We got up early every morning, raised our flags on poles we had brought, did exercises in a field, made breakfast, and took a break after that. We washed out clothes in the lake and dried them on our tent lines. Scooter was focused on physical fitness, so before lunch we had to go on a forced march. We wore Lemon Squeezer campaign hats and uniform green knee socks and were burdened with backpacks full of responsibility. Our only consolation was being let loose afterwards to run and dive into the lake.

   The younger scouts worked on merit badges in the afternoon. We were free to drift off, which we did, fooling around, exploring the shoreline, and mumbling the peg in secluded top-secret spots.

   We did service projects, planting seedlings, and raking out the beach. We climbed trees and had our own “Big Time Wrestling” match with a Negro Scout Troop from Louisville. We went on more hikes before dinner. They were supposed to be short, two to three miles, but Scooter always took us out four and five miles. We hiked every day, rain or shine. We went on a night hike and got lost every which way.

   “It’s like training to be a mailman,” Linas grumbled.

   The last night of camp started after the campfire and lights out. A half hour later we snuck out of our sleeping bags, out of the campsite, and to the grove of crabapple trees on the other side of the girl’s side. There were plenty of last year’s old hard two-inch crabapples littering the ground that squirrels hadn’t gotten, and we filled our pockets with them. When we got close to the girl’s tents, we unleashed our barrage of missiles. They thunked the canvas and the girls woke up screaming. The next second, though, they were screaming mad. As soon as we were out of ammo, they rushed from their tents, led by the irate Milda, followed by the captivating Ruta, picked up the sour fruits, and started throwing them at us. We scattered and they ran after us, pelting us, but stopped when they ran out of fireworks. 

   Algis had a lump on his head where he got hit. We rubbed it to rub it away, but he said, “Cut it out, you’re making it hurt even more,” and that he was good to go. We went looking for Bigfoot, following the beams of our flashlights. We thought he had to be somewhere in the woods, away from the water, where there were tents and trailers all summer long. 

   Bigfoot was beyond any doubt a loner.

   We knew he was going to be hard to find in the dark even though he was probably nine feet tall. He was covered head-to-toe in swarthy hair. We were hoping to find footprints, which had to be enormous. We tramped around for hours looking for him, but all we found was a skunk, who raised his tail before we backed off, and two racoons on their hind legs, peering at us from behind their masks.

   “Maybe he avoids white people, since they chased off his ancestors,” Gediminas said.

   “You think he’s an Indian?” Andrius said . We called him Andy since calling him Andrius annoyed the crap out of him.

   “He’s got to be. Why would he live in the woods, all naked, no furniture or TV? Only Indians do that.” 

   “That makes sense to me,” Linas said.

   Looking for Bigfoot turned out to be a wild-goose chase. We stumbled into tree branches, tripped over roots, looked high and low, left no stone unturned, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. We trudged back to camp, tired and disappointed.

   I don’t know what got into us. One minute we were sneaking back to our tents and the next minute we were sneaking up to Scooter’s car. It was a four-door Ford Country Sedan. After checking the driver’s door, it was unlocked, and quietly opening it, putting the manual gear into neutral, the next minute we were all at the back pushing the car down the slope toward the lake.

   Nobody said a word when it got stuck in the muck. The water slurped up to the front bumper. Nobody said a word when we slouched back to our tents and threw ourselves down on our sleeping bags.

   The next morning, we were woken up by ferocious bursts of anger and dismay. We were bum rushed out of our tents and lined up in a row. We could see the shipwrecked Ford down the bank. Scooter read us the riot act. 

  He gave each of us the third-degree, face to face, glaring, but nobody was talking.

   “I will give you one last chance,” he finally said. “Whoever did this step forward, apologize, know that you broke the code of scouting, and we will forgive.”

   We all knew that wasn’t possible. Scooter wasn’t one to ever forgive and forget. His face was getting redder and redder. It looked like he might explode. Then Linas stepped forward.

   It was hard to believe he was going to spill the beans. He was the least tame scout among us. He was no chicken, either. He proved that every day. He had thrown down the mumble the peg gauntlet the first day and fended off all challengers. Playing the peg was forbidden but he played it more than anyone else and played it best, yet there he was, ready to tell all about pushing the car into Lake Pymatuning.

   “Yes?” asked Scooter.

   “I think it was Bigfoot, sir,” Linas said.

A version of this story appeared in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

Sheik of Smackdown

By Ed Staskus

   When I went to work for Gene Weiss in the 1980s all I knew about him was that he owned a racquetball club in Euclid and that he was a famous wrestler. The club was Racquettime, which also went by the name of Gene Weiss’s Place for Fitness. It was a boxy two-story building on Lakeland Blvd. with a big sign clearly visible from I-90.

   The front doors were on the second floor, the front desk was just inside, and the locker rooms were downstairs. There were lots of racquetball courts and a fitness room. Gene sold workout equipment on the side. His other enterprises were top secret.

   I got the job because I had worked for the Back Wall, a Beachwood-based chain of clubs that had transformed its customer base into a cash cow by selling what they touted as lifetime memberships at a ridiculously low price. There was an initiation fee and monthly payments for a while but after that it was the gravy train for the member. At least, that was the pitch. After everybody’s money was safe and secure, they went out of business and closed all their clubs.

   My job was to reproduce the cash cow. I got an office just inside the front door and was expected to sign up as many members to the new plan as possible. What Gene didn’t know was that I was only a tolerable salesman. My job at the Back Wall had sort of involved sales, but my aim wasn’t true that way.

   Gene went to Shaker Heights High School and won the state wrestling title. After he graduated, he won gold and silver medals for the USA at the Maccabiah Games. In 1961 he was named coach of the United States wrestling team. Four years later he was flag bearer for the USA at the opening ceremonies of the 7th World Maccabiah Games in Israel. He was named Ohio Amateur Athletic Union coach of the year and continued to coach with the United States wrestling teams. In the meantime, he became National Wrestling Chairman of the Maccabiah Games and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. Gene was inducted into the Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977 and in 1980 was inducted into both the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the Shaker Heights High School Hall of Fame. He started and was running the Ohio School of Wrestling when I went to work for him. 

   He introduced himself and his accomplishments at some length. I listened dutifully, an attentive expression on my face. When he came up for air, I thought, I hope there isn’t a quiz on this tomorrow. I hadn’t taken notes and most of it went in one ear and out the other. I had gotten the gist of it, though. He was great guy.

   Everybody loved Gene Weiss.

   “Gene is tough as nails on the outside, but a softie on the inside with a big heart of gold,” said Don Roskoph. “He’s a tough guy with a big heart,” said Bill Turk. “A friend like Gene comes along once in a lifetime. He’s always for the underdog and will give you the shirt off his back in a second,” said Angelo Amato.

   “Gene is a bad dude. He could grab you and he could hurt you.” said Ryan Peters, the athletic director at Beachwood High School. At the same time, he’s a teddy bear, he hastily added. “You can’t help walking away from a meeting with Gene and not give him a big hug. He’s one of these guys that when you meet with him, he’d tell you a story that would change your life.”

   He never hugged me but was always punching my upper arms and slapping me on the back. Thank God he pulled his punches. I loved Gene for a few months until the day after day glad-handing got to be too much while his promises got smaller and smaller fading away to nothing.


   Gene was the owner operator of Racquettime, although he wasn’t in the club overly much nor did it seem like he did over much. When he was there, he mostly mixed with the members and checked with the staff about how things were going. Several young women worked at the front desk and his right-hand man Katherine the Great was in some sort of supervisory position, although whether she was the manager or assistant manager or simply the all-seeing eye for Gene was never clear to me. What was clear was that everybody did what she told them to do, except me. 

   I knew Kathy Roach from racquetball tournaments. She was a good player, athletic fast strong. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. I don’t know why, but there it was. As much as Gene led with smiles she led with scowls. I was forced to play racquetball with Gene every so often which was literally a pain. He was a human hinder. He hated letting me hit open winners and would do his best to obstruct me. He was a man-sized slab of iron. I wasn’t. Running into him meant bouncing off him, while the ball went bouncing away and he won the point. 

   If I complained about it, he explained on and on, explaining why how where I was wrong. On top of that, he signed my paycheck, so I didn’t complain. Besides, his takedowns were accompanied by a full mouth smile full of sparkling Chiclet teeth. I wondered what candy store he got his choppers from.

   Sometimes in the locker room after games he talked about wrestlers, bringing up the names of stars, Mr. Fuji, Tarzan Tyler, Andre the Giant, Killer Kowakski, and the Iron Sheik. I didn’t know anything about wrestling and didn’t know them from the man in the moon. He seemed to be on a first name basis with the torso twisters.

   Kathy was a better player than Gene. However, even though Gene won every game we played, she never won a single game. I disliked her so much my goal was to always shut her out, which I did. I slowed my serves and shots down against Gene but sped them up against Kathy. After goose-egging her several times she stopped asking me to play. I never asked her, so we stopped altogether, although she never stopped shooting me dark looks.

   She fawned over Gene as though he was the Great Sugar Daddy. After a while I looked the other way. It wasn’t any of my business anyway. I was after Emily, a pretty girl who worked at the front desk. Despite my best efforts, including charming her parents, I never got anywhere.

   I saw Gene mornings because he was there more-or-less every morning. I started work at 11 o’clock and worked until 7 o’clock. Gene was gone most afternoons and came back as the after-work surge was starting. I made sure I was gone at seven, no matter what. By then I had learned that going the extra mile for employers was giving up my time in a losing cause. When push came to shove it would mean nothing.

   Gene was paying me more than the Back Wall had, said he would spring for health insurance, and promised me a bonus when all was said and done. At first, selling the dream team memberships was easy. I sold them to the tried-and-true members, everybody who loved the club and loved Gene. After that the going got harder, especially to members who only came to the club occasionally sporadically. They wanted to pay for court time or workout time and leave it at that. They didn’t want to sign any contracts. They didn’t want to give me their bank account numbers for monthly withdrawals. It was even harder when it came to first timers. They always asked for a free one-time pass and usually never came back a second time. I was expected to get their phone numbers and follow up with them. I learned quickly enough what it felt like to have one person after another hang up on me.

   The work wasn’t hard, and I kept plugging away.

   One day at my desk I started experiencing discomfort in my right side. By the end of the day the discomfort had turned to pain. Gene noticed I was squirming during our morning meeting the next day and asked me what was wrong. When I told him he took me to the locker room and said a session in the whirlpool would take care of business. I said maybe I should go see a doctor. He said no, I didn’t need a doctor. He was big on saunas steams and whirlpools and insisted I stay in the hot water tub until I couldn’t stand it anymore. After I got out, I felt better all over except for the pain in my side. It felt worse. That night I couldn’t sleep.

   The next morning, I went to Lakewood Hospital and found out I had kidney stones. The ER doctor gave me a small allowance of morphine-like pills and told me to drink as much water as I could stomach. “The pain of kidney stones is right up there with giving birth,” he said. I didn’t go to work that day and that night slept like a baby. In the morning I felt like a new man.

   When the bill for the hospital visit came a few weeks later I left it in Gene’s in-tray, which is when I found out I didn’t have health insurance after all. He had never signed me up and never paid any premiums. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I confronted him about it, he might put me in a headlock. I heard through the grapevine that nobody, except for maybe Kathy Roach, had health insurance. 

   The last couple of months I worked at Racquettime I stayed busy discovering things weren’t going my way. I had been promising new members we were going to be putting an Olympic-size swimming pool in soon. When I pressed Gene about it, since members were pressing me about it, he hemmed and hawed. I thought, there isn’t any pool on the way.

   Gene wanted me to start giving racquetball lessons, but I didn’t want to. I had done lessons at the Back Wall. No matter how many times I told men women teenagers to hit a thousand forehands backhands ceiling shots and to practice their serves, they never did. What they wanted to do was hit the ball around with me while I tried to correct their swings. Everybody thought there was one sure way to become a winner. When I tried to explain that everybody good went at it in slightly different ways, and what they should do is discover what worked for them, all the while grooving their swings, they weren’t interested.

   When I asked Gene about my bonus, the bonus he had promised me for selling his new memberships, he said I hadn’t sold enough of them to make paying me a bonus worth it. On top of that he was so disappointed in my performance that he was going to have to let me go, starting right now. It didn’t take me entirely by surprise, but it took me by surprise. I hadn’t planned on it and hadn’t gone looking for anything new. I didn’t bother arguing with him. I knew when I was down for the count.

   On my way home I reminded myself, never trust the big cheeses. They didn’t get to be wealthy by giving anybody anything unless they absolutely had to. They got rich by pinning suckers to the mat until they squealed. The only people they respect are others like them, and even that respect is provisional.

   They always say they got where they are through hard work. They wrinkle their noses when asked whose hard work. They don’t care if they are rich, so long as they have a boat load of money, no matter where it came from. Top dogs make the rules. It’s the law of the land. My rule of thumb was to keep my distance, since when the mondo hammers make trouble it’s always the small fry who get beat on the anvil.

   I had been thinking about going to work for myself. Nobody ever got much satisfaction by being a wage slave for their boss. I wasn’t going to make it to Fort Knox with the modest plan I had in mind, but I moved the thought from the back of my mind to the front. I might still have to work part-time for somebody to stay afloat but I would never again trust whoever it was.

   Nobody quits when they’re wrestling the Iron Sheik and gets tired. You quit when the Iron Sheik gets tired of you.

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.”

Waking Up on Wasaga Beach

By Ed Staskus

   There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.” Traditional Camp Song

   My brother and I both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after we had grown older than the age limit. When that happened there was no love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for camp, while we ate crumbs at home.

   Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to fellow campers felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July. We ran around in the woods like knockabouts, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with our friends. We would have traded any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.

   Austra was a summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk. Americans, Canadians, and anybody who had a drop of Lithuanian blood in them was good to go. After the first year we never wrote letters home. The first year we weren’t allowed to be campers anymore we wrote letters asking for an exemption.

   Founded in 1957, Ausra was a sports culture religious boy and girl runaround camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.

   The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any sedan. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.

   The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone on the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock paper scissors with us, since she was so bad at it. My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.

   We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father had stuck a globe-like compass on top of the dashboard next to a plastic St. Christopher figurine staring straight watchful ahead. When he started chain-smoking was when we knew things were getting sketchy.

   When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs. 

   The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire. Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my brother said. “They only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”

   Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a checked kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a full box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.

   Everybody cheered when the whoosh happened.

   The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean and full of life, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night.

   Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him into the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.

   One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

   The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

   Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.

   In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into clean shirts, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags, sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night, we raced to breakfast.

   We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else. The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If the spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.

   After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for services. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.

   “I was about 12 years old and drank it with a girlfriend,” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us along with the stars that night.”

   She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again. “Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he probably had to turn his head to the side.

   Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.

   Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline. Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and snuck into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.

   Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.

   Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

   “You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.

   What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played. Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the pretty goggle girl.

   Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

   Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.

   Going swimming on the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.

   He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.

   Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.

   That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards, shook and shuddered, plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.

   Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz of the camp for days. The girl with goggles under her pillow was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots had been her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.

   Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

   Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

   There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain. Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

   “I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

   My nephew goes to Kretinga and eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles. I asked him if he was going back next summer.

   “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year. We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”

   He had already made his plans for when the talking was over.

   “After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”

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.”

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

By Ed Staskus

   Maggie Campbell was a Bay Brat, which means she grew up in Bay Village, Ohio, where the well-off live west of Cleveland, while the not so-well-off live east in Cleveland. She lived there her whole life until her father died. When she was a girl, she picked up every lost bird and squirrel, every lost cat and dog, and every injured anything alive she found and brought it home to protect it.

   She was an animal lover from the get-go. She got it partly when she was born, in the blood, partly from her dad, Fred, but not from her mom. Alma her mom never liked any of the animals they ever had in the house basement garage backyard.

   Her parents met at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a few hours from Philadelphia. Her grandparents on her dad’s side had moved from Ohio to Philadelphia a few years earlier and he enrolled in college there after high school. Alma was working in the town library, which is how they met. He fell head over heels for her, swept her off her feet, or at least he thought so, and they got married.    

   “We’re out of here,” is what Fred said the minute they got married. They moved right back to Cleveland. Even though they were married for more than forty years it might have been the worst thing either of them ever did. But Fred was stubborn, and Alma could be mean as a junkyard dog.

   Maggie had a mom who didn’t love her dad, and a dad who was frustrated about it, and the way he tried to make his wife happy was to rough up their kids. So, it was a tough childhood. Either you were being totally ignored or you were being roughed up.

   There were four of them. First, there was Elaine, then two years later Maggie, and then Bonnie hard on her heels, and last, five years later, Brad. Alma always said Fred tricked her four times. He zipped it up and from then on kept his thoughts to himself.

   He was from Cleveland, from the west side of town, where he grew up almost rich for his time. Alma was from Jersey Shore, just a few miles from Williamsport, where she grew up poor for her time. Jersey Shore isn’t anywhere near New Jersey, the Jersey shoreline, or any big shoreline of any kind. There used to be silk mills and cigar factories in Jersey Shore. Later, factories made steel rails for train tracks there.

   During the Depression Maggie’s grandfather was the only teenager in his high school who had a car. He used to follow her grandmother down the street trying to get her to come in his car with him, saying he wanted to help carry her books, so along the way what happened was they got snug and got married.

   Her grandfather in Jersey Shore had three jobs the minute he stopped being a teenager. He was a coal miner, a school bus driver, and a milkman, but they were still down in the dumps. Even though they were always short on everything they built their own house on the Susquehanna River. Maggie didn’t know how they ever got it built since they were strapped for hard cash most of the time.

   The river was their front yard. Susquehanna means Oyster River and it was on the Susquehanna where the Mormons say they got their holy orders delivered to them by divine beings. It was a beautiful comfortable house. It’s still standing, although it’s not been taken care of, so it’s falling apart fast.

   Her grandmother lived in the house into her 80s, but then sold it and moved into a trailer, in a trailer park in the mountains above Jersey Shore. She started believing people in the other trailers were trying to shoot her with laser guns. She slept wrapped up in foam rubber holding an umbrella over her head for protection. Alma never wanted to talk about her mom because she thought she was crazy, and a Jesus freak, too.

   Maggie never knew her Jersey Shore grandfather. He died young. He had arthritis from tip to toe, and it finished him off. It didn’t help working in the damp underground looking for coal. She knew her grandmother well enough. Whenever her sisters and she visited her in their big house she taught them how to pull taffy and fudge. They played with her paper dolls. She didn’t have any real dolls. They sat on the front porch in the afternoon and waited for the bean truck.

   “Before dinnertime she sent my older sisters to the side of the road. When the bean truck, or sometimes the vegetable truck, went by on the unpaved pavement beans would bounce off the back of it and they would run and gather them up. My grandmother cooked them for dinner. If no beans fell off the truck, there was no dinner, although she usually had a little something else in the house.” Most of the time it was something cold she had canned months earlier.

   Fred went to Upper Darby High School, starting when he was a sophomore. His parents moved him to Philadelphia from Cleveland, and he never stopped saying he hated it. He was a Cleveland Browns fan and wore their colors, so he got into fights every day with the other kids who were Philadelphia Eagles fans.

   “My dad liked telling us stories when we were growing up, like the one about how one day he and his friends went to the second story of their high school and jumped up and down all at once all together until the second floor fell in on the first floor.” The school’s mascot is a lion, but when Fred was there it was a court jester.

   Fred’s parents were from Akron, and lived in Lakewood for a long time, but had to move when the new I-90 highway was being built. It was called the “Main Street of Northern Ohio.” When they were growing up Fred would drive them to a bridge over the highway and show them the exact spot below the bridge where their house used to be.

   It was when they had to sell the house to the state that they moved to Philadelphia. After Fred and Alma came back, they lived in Lakewood in a rented house for a few years. Maggie and her sisters were born there. By the time Brad came along they were living in Bay Village. The family moved to a short cul-de-sac street, five blocks south of Lake Erie. Her dad designed the house, and it was built just the way he wanted it. Maggie lived there on-and-off until the day he died. She was thirty-three years old. The next thing she did was get married.

   They all had our own rooms, although Brad and Maggie shared a room because the house was a room short. Her sisters had separate bedrooms down the half-story stairway from them, and her parents were at the other end of the hallway. They lived in the crow’s nest until Elaine moved out and got married and Maggie finally got her own room.

   It was at that time Brad brought hauled home a drum set somebody had thrown out on their tree lawn and set it up in the basement. He taught himself how to play. He called himself Ginger Boom after Ginger Baker, his favorite drummer. He had thrown down the gauntlet. After he did no animal nor human would go down to the basement. It was too damn noisy.

   It was in the crow’s nest where Maggie grew close to Brad, who when he was a small fry looked just like Bamm Bamm in the Flintstones cartoons. They even called him Bamm Bamm, although after he got his drum set, they called him Boom Boom. Maggie was his number one protector when he was growing up, like she was with all the neighborhood’s lost cats and dogs.

   But she could never protect him from Coco, their poodle, who bit and tore off his diapers when he was little. Brad could never crawl away fast enough, no matter how fast he scurried on his hands and knees. The dog was quick as the devil and cut him off.

   Sometimes Maggie didn’t try to stop Coco, even if she could have. She had some of her mom’s tough love in her. Other times Brad had done something she didn’t like, and it was just his too bad tough luck that Coco was on the rampage.

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

Hanging Tough With Mr. T

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   It was run up and salute the flag and rocket’s red glare galore.

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

Photograph by Ham Biggar.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Stairway to Heaven

By Ed Staskus

   Zenius Petrauskas would have traded any day in the real world, whether it was reheated meatballs with his folks the slow drumbeat of his sophomore year at St. Ed’s or hanging out with the boys doing nothing special nowhere special, for five minutes of summer camp. After the next two summers were come and gone, after his last year in Cabin 6, when he couldn’t be a camper anymore, he was determined to go back as a counselor. 

   “That’s a sure thing,” Zen said. “I’ll be on my way to being a senior by then and I’ll know a thing-or-two. I’ll be older and wiser. I’ll know how to handle the boys who are on track and off track, no wool over my eyes.”

   Camp is different than being at home. There are fewer grown-ups, which is a good thing, and nobody’s parents are there, even better. The teenage counselors are almost like the vassals. They let them run amok and hope no one dies. Everybody’s friends are together again and there are more of them than anywhere else. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors don’t like it if somebody does something stupid, but nobody gets yelled at for doing something wrong just by mistake.

   “Even when it happens, it’s all over in a minute, not like back home, where it never ends,” Zen said, looking glum. “No sir, it never ends, it just goes on and on. You’re on the bottom, mom is on top, and you’ve got to keep your trap shut.”

   The summer sky at camp is big and fresh and windy. It’s a bird in the hand. There are swallows, thrushes, woodcocks, and buffleheads. It’s in Canada, on the Georgian Bay, at Wasaga Beach, the world’s longest freshwater beach. It takes all day to drive there from Lakewood, Ohio, across the border at Buffalo, through Toronto, and to Barrie, where you take a sharp left at Lake Simcoe.

   It was never spic and span, not like the Dainava summer camp in Michigan where the Lithuanian righteous gather on their bantam pond, but clean enough. Some boys didn’t shower when they were at Kretinga and that could be disgusting, although nobody cared too much about it. 

   Somebody’s parents wouldn’t let their boy in the car when his two weeks were over, and he hadn’t showered even once. “No, go back, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother coughed through her nose. “What is wrong with you?” The Kretinga summer camp used to be the Ausra summer camp. In the pioneer days there were latrines but no showers. After two weeks everybody had to use a hose.

   Kretinga is named after a city of the same name, where Franciscan monks first hunkered down in Lithuania. At the time the natives were pagans. The camp is owned by the religious order. It includes a small chapel and a pet cemetery. The Franciscans have a habit of keeping a pet in their monastery in Toronto and the camp is where their dogs and cats are buried after dying.

   One year Zen’s cabin had bedbugs. The boys caught them with scotch tape and pushed them into a glass jar. Zen tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked blood, they left itchy clusters behind, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. They shrugged the poison off. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a sniffing dog.

   It was a Beagle, just a little bigger than Rufus, Zen’s Beagle at home. The scent hound was lean, with floppy ears and a loopy smile. He knew what was up, though, stepping into the cabin Chuck Norris in his eyes.

   He was a scent dog, not like Rufus, who was a hearing dog. Rufus heard all, searching out BS wherever it was, like up in Jack’s room. Jack was Zen’s older half-brother who thought he knew everything and talked down to him. The family lived on a better-off street in Lakewood, wide tree lawns and a concrete roadway, but Rufus still stayed on his haunches on the front lawn looking both ways, ready to bark. He knew the future might not be what it used to be. 

   The search-and-destroy flea bag was so good he sniffed out a bedbug hiding behind the plastic cover of an electric outlet. The next day everybody stuck their stuff into big black garbage bags and threw them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. 

   All the bugs died. They didn’t get buried in the pet cemetery. Zen set fire to some of them and scattered their ashes.

   He and his friends were in the smallest of the nine boy’s cabins. The only free floor space they had was just enough to shuffle back and forth to their beds. Matias was number one with Zen. He had shiny blue eyes like buttons and was stick slender. They liked to run around, not get too uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. They had roomed together in the same cabin for seven years.

   Lukas was Zen’s second-best friend. He was a little taller, all funny smiles and chunky. He chewed green frog gummies and spit them out on the cabin floor where they got squashed flat like pancakes. By the end of camp, the floorboards were dried goo. He was strong as a bull, but not loud or belligerent. He suffered from in-grown toenails. 

   “Don’t step on them, or else!” Zen explained to newcomers. “It can be big trouble. One night he punched somebody who accidentally stepped on his bad toe.”

   They were at the ‘Night of the Super Starz’ in the mess hall. They were sitting there watching the show when the misstep happened. Lukas stood up and pushed the boy. “Watch out, dude!” He got punched in the stomach for it. He punched him back in the face. The goat started bleating when Lukas did him. He had a bruise on his cheek and a black eye.

   There was a special midnight mass after the show, but Lukas wasn’t allowed to stay. He had to go back to his bunk, although all that happened the next day was the counselors made him sweep the mess hall. The camp commander noticed Lukas waving a broom and thought he had volunteered. He came back to the cabin with serious points pinned to his chest.

   Lukas liked being hip hop rundown. He was from Toronto and lived uptown, although Zen didn’t know where that was. He said he lived in a neighborhood of chinksters. He smoked weed sometimes, even though he wasn’t good at it. He and his dope friends went to a creek on the far end of camp one night and smoked some. He got funky and dreamed up disasters.

   “I thought I was going to die,” he said.

   Story time with Lukas at the head of the cabin was always gut-busting. When he spit out a gummy, ready to go, it was a high old time. He knew a lot of dirty jokes, too. At night they talked about movies, TV shows, and their favorites on YouTube. They talked about girls, some of them more than others. They talked about video games a lot, even though they didn’t have any at camp. They weren’t allowed. The one boy in their cabin who didn’t talk much was Titus, who they called Tits. 

   “He just sits in his corner all secluded,” Zen said. “He does play some kind of video game, so I talk to him about that, sometimes, but not much.”

   Nobody knew what was wrong with Titus. “We love Tits, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re all laying around in our cabin he’ll start crying. His eyes get soggy, and his hair tuft goes limp. He will just sit teary-eyed on his bed, looking at the floor. When we ask him what’s wrong, he says, ‘I don’t know. My head hurts.’”

   They didn’t ignore him all the time, and they never did much of anything to him. “We punch him sometimes, but not hard, just on the arms. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he’s not looking.” He got pinkeye every summer. They didn’t make fun of him about it, though. But then he got double pink eye. That was too much for everybody. They were all, “Damn it, Tits!” Everybody made fun of him, and he cried and got mad.

   The girl cabins were on the other side of the flagpoles, up a sandy hill. Amelia, who was part of Natalie’s tootsie tribe, had a reddish birthmark on her face, in the shape of a dog. Zen thought she was self-conscious about it because she always turned to her left whenever anybody took her picture, away from the birthmark.

   They never said anything about it to her. They dabbled the birthmark in their own cabin, but nothing bad, although sometimes somebody said, “What’s that thing crawling on her face?” One night, Titus was laid out on his bunk in the corner while everybody was telling home stories when out of nowhere, he said, “Did somebody have their period and rub it on Amelia’s face?”

   Everybody stopped dead quiet for a minute. Who says that? Matias looked embarrassed. Then he got mad. “Shut up!” he yelled. Zen knew his best friend had the hots for Amelia. It was a brutal thing to say, especially coming from Tits. Everybody called him that because he had them. He had always been flabby and lately was getting flabbier. 

   “He doesn’t play sports or chase girls, that’s his problem. He’s going to grow up a fatso.”

   Kajus slept in the corner opposite Titus. He thought he could play guitar, but all he did was play the same part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over. Everybody except Titus was always yelling at him to stop. Zen and Lukas finally took matters into their own hands and broke his guitar. The rest of the cabin blew off the commotion. They all knew it was a piece of junk, anyway.

   They broke the new fan his parents got him, too. Lukas was frustrated, and angry, his toes hurt, and he started taking it out on the fan. They took it out behind the cabin and beat it with a hockey stick. It was hanging on a paper clip when they were done. The spiny part was smashed, chunks were missing, but they just kept beating it. They threw bottles of water at it. Kajus wasn’t happy when he found out. He complained and gave them a sour look. He pushed the busted fan under his bed.

   When his parents came mid-week from Toronto, they asked him what happened to it. He told them Zen and Lukas did it, but they didn’t believe him. When they left, he tipped a Mountain Dew over on Zen’s bunk. Zen grabbed it and poured the rest on Kajus’s bed, pushing and shoving started, Kajus elbowed Zen, he elbowed him back harder but not crazy hard, and they both stopped when they got tired of it.

   There was a food-eating contest every summer after the ‘Counselor Staff Show.’ The small fry had to go to bed, but the boys and girls stayed up late to play the game. Whoever volunteered was blindfolded and had to eat whatever was on their plate. Everybody had to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up like a dog. Sometimes the others puked, but Zen never did.

   There were bowls of moldy Rice Krispies with ketchup mustard strawberry jelly lots of salt and all mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. It was like eating last place on one of his stepmom’s cooking shows on TV. Everybody cheered the belly brave and they had to eat as fast as they could if they wanted to win.

   The counselors woke the camp up every morning at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They marched everybody to the sports field and made them do a butt load of jumping jacks, push-ups, and crunches, and the boys and girls had to run the track, even though the sun was barely breaking the tops of the trees. The small fry got to do their own thing, whatever that was.

   If the counselors saw somebody was slacking, they made them do more. Everybody jumped on the used tire jungle gym and messed around whenever they could, having fun. The counselors made whoever overstayed their welcome do pull-ups on it, but it was a small price to pay.

   “We get up every morning to music,” Zen said. “It’s always Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the big cheeses want, played from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Sometimes I don’t hear anything because I’m dead asleep. The counselors carry water blasters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start spraying you. They shake your bed and jump on you, but they’re always on the way to the next bed, so it doesn’t last long.”

   After they were done exercising, they went back to their cabins, cleaned up, and raised the flags before breakfast. There are three flags, American, Canadian, and Lithuanian. “But sometimes we’re too tired to clean up and instead fall back asleep in our cabins and are late for the flag-raising. When that happens it’s time to swallow the pill. Whoever is late has to step into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance. All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means. They all do it, and the girls stand there watching. Then they do their own dance, like cheerleaders, except they aren’t cheering for you.”

   All the cabins had to keep a diary for the two weeks of camp. Everybody got graded on it every day. If anybody wrote something stupid, like “Ugi Ugi Ugi” or anything that didn’t make sense, they got a bad grade. The counselors told them to “Be yourselves, be sincere.”

   “What does that mean?” Lukas asked, but they just laughed.

   Matias always wrote their diary because everybody agreed they were all retards. Titus wrote something dumb once, even though he said it was sincere, and at the flag lowering that night they had to do the Rambo, running down the slope to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “Cha Cha Cha” while everybody did the chop. That night, in the middle of the night, they rolled Tits down the same slope wrapped up in a scratchy old blanket.

   They wrestled in the oldest boy’s cabin. It was the biggest cabin, too, so it had space for fighting. They moved the beds and duct taped a sleeping bag to the wood floor. There was no punching allowed, no hammer blows, but kicking and throwing each other on the ground was fair game. They weren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commander didn’t like it, but everybody wrestled and got poked bruised blooded.

   One night at their Wrestlemania, Donatas and Arunas were locked up when Donny grabbed Arnie’s head and flipped him over. Arnie slammed hard into a bedpost and got knocked out. They let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up, even though they screamed in his face, they threw wet dirt on him. He jumped up and was fine after that.

   The next day they were walking to New Wasaga Beach, which is where the whole camp went every afternoon for a swim, and Arnie jumped on Donny’s back and almost cracked it. But they didn’t punch each other. It was just a couple of seconds of retaliation. They weren’t haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble. They always said, “Only we can get physical.” The grown-ups stood near and far in the water and made sure nobody drowned. The boys and girls and small fry never noticed. They were busy splashing swimming splurging in the sunshine.

   Every year another year went by and when Zen was back at camp it was like he had never left. As soon as he got there, he unloaded everything he’d brought, his clothes flip flops sleeping bag. All his stuff had his initials written on it with a Sharpie. Everybody found their cabins and claimed their beds, and then all the parents were gone before anybody knew it. 

   They saw their friends again, everybody in their cabin, and everybody they had ever camped with. “What’s up dude!” There were high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. They fake punched each other and laughed it up.

   They reunited with the girls and got overdue squeezes from them. When all the moms and dads that nobody in his right mind thought about from that moment on were gone, they had sandwiches in the mess hall. The priest said a prayer and the camp commander made a speech. He wrote the camp rules in big block letters on a chalkboard.

   He was big on shaming boys but not girls when his rules were broken. There was a bonfire most nights. They acted out skits, sang songs, whooped it up, but if you were on his list, he called you out in front of everybody and you had to try to explain why you did what you did when you did it. Most of the time the explanations were lame as diarrhea. Zen believed in never explain, never complain, although it was hard facing a determined grown-up.

   The best night of summer camp was every night, but the best night was the night they played their manhunt game. Sometimes it was called ‘Fugitive’ or ‘Stealing Sticks’ or ‘Capture the Flag.’ It was always the same, although it was always different. Lukas told everybody he saw a movie about Jews battling Nazis in Warsaw, chases in the dark ghetto and shoot-outs, but nobody could understand what he was talking about. Nobody else had seen the movie. 

   Lukas said, “Let’s play it that way.” 

   Everybody said, “OK, that’s what it is.” They were the good guys, and the counselors were the bad guys. Some of the counselors thought it was sketchy but didn’t disagree. It was as much fun as ever. It was like ‘Bunnytrack’ with no holds barred. 

   Tits never played, and he didn’t play ‘Nazis and Jews,’ either. He said it was wrong and started explaining about Lithuania, where their parents and grandparents were from, and how terrible things had happened there. He said it was a holocaust, not a fun run around, but they told him to shut up, and he got sulky. Nobody knew what’s wrong with Titus. Zen knew what was wrong with him. 

   “Titus knows he’s low man on the totem pole and nobody cares what he says.”

   The game started when the counselors led them to the mess hall. They turned the lights off and made everybody sit on the damp concrete floor. After they left it got super quiet. It was eerie. When the counselors came back, they were dressed in black, charcoal from the cold bonfire rubbed on their faces. They split everybody into groups and spit out the rules. They had to find books and save them from being burned. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more papers they dug up the more Liberty Dollars they got for the next day’s auction. The more of them in their group who got caught the more their Liberty Dollars were taken away.

   The papers were scattered around the camp in the hands of three counselors, who were hidden in the woods, and who kept moving around. They had to find them and when they did, they were supposed to hand over the prize. But sometimes they had to beg them for it. Other times they had to fight tooth and nail for the paper.

   If the counselors who were the Nazis caught anyone, they took their papers away, ripped them up, and it was back to square one. Many of the boys and girls hid them in their shoes, or their underwear.

   “It gets dirty, in more ways than one,” Zen said. “The dirtiest I got was when I was by myself, not far from the sports field, but on the edge of the woods. One of the counselors came walking past and I dropped flat fast. I lay in a bunch of leaves, twigs, mud, bugs, worms, and moldy stuff and he just walked right past me.”

   Anybody could try to get away when the counselors caught somebody, but it’s hard to do because the ones who catch you are the strong ones, while the other ones can’t catch a breath. The strong ones don’t like it when anybody makes them look bad by breaking away. It doesn’t matter what the other ones think. The bold could try to break free when no one was looking, but if they were captured, they had to stay even longer in the lock-up. The more sitting the less chance there was to win Liberty Dollars.

   Matilda, who played for a college basketball team, decked Zen, blind-siding him out of the blue, just when he thought he was home free. At first, he wasn’t sure what happened. When he got up, he tripped her, and started running away. When she caught him, he fell on the ground like he was wiped out. She was forced to drag him by his arms and legs. While she was dragging him, he noticed a large lump on her chest. When he asked her what it was, she gave him a sly look.

   “It’s a tumor,” she said. “I have cancer.” 

   “I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do. Was she going to die? Then, just as we walked into the lock-up, her baby gerbil poked its head out of her bra.”

   One summer the lock-up was inside the art house, where supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla was the guard, and although she wasn’t musclebound, she was strong and determined. There were two rooms. She had to patrol them by herself.  She carried a broom, pacing back and forth, her head swiveling in all directions. Everybody had to sit in straight chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to stay longer. If you got up from your chair you had to stay longer. If you messed with her in any way at all you had to stay longer.

   Campers could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not hard, but hard enough. She hit everybody with her broom, although usually with the soft twine end. But when anybody got nervy, she jabbed the broom handle down on them and yelled, “Shut the hell up!”

   It was not a good idea to try escaping too many times, because if anybody tried a couple of times and they caught you both times, they would kick you out of the game. It wasn’t fair, but that’s what they did if they got annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly and sweet-talked Makayla, “I’ll be good,” she would smile and let you out before the others. 

   That’s what Zen did. “I was good. I play it smart. It’s the only way.”

   He broke off from his group right away. He had planned to run with his Cabin 6 friends, anyway. They made it to one of the storage sheds and hid there, catching their breath, and then started running around. They searched for the counselors with the scraps of paper and dodged all the others.

   “The counselors are fast,” Zen said. “Make no mistake about it. They aren’t sludges and even the sludges have some fast up their sleeves. The girl counselors can catch you if you don’t see them right away and they are sprinting straight at you. You can push them away, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can help you, and if the counselor is alone, you have a good chance of getting away. He can’t catch both of you at the same time, no matter how big and fast he is.”

   The counselors tackle hard when they want to. They can be bottle rockets and they don’t mess around. If somebody is your cabin’s counselor, they’ll cut you some slack. They’ll use you as a distraction. The trick is to act like you’re getting caught when somebody else is walking by, yelling, “Help me!” Then your counselor will throw you to the side and get them, instead.

   Another summer the lock-up was the boy’s bathroom. They took out the light bulbs. It was dark dank soggy clammy. There was only one door, so it was hard to escape. They had to sit in there with the bad smells and daddy long-legs crawling all over them. Titus stayed snug in the cabin with a package of Oreos.

   The summer they played ‘Nazis and Jews’ the lock-up was on the edge of the sports field under a pole lamp. It was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. The box wasn’t big, the size of a dining room table, but high and deep going backwards. The counselors squeezed them in, and then made more of them stand in the middle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so they wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed in like rats. Somebody could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then, dragging you back.

   All of Cabin 6 escaped when counselors nabbed a pack of new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any space because it was so crowded. They got pushed sideways to make room. They had a couple of seconds of daylight. There weren’t enough counselors to grab everybody, so they ran into the woods to the Hill of Crosses.

   It was on a sandy knoll modeled after the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. One of the crosses was the Ateitininkai symbol and one had fallen over. Nobody knew what the other ones were about. Everybody’s parents knew all about the crosses. It had something to do with their past, the old country, where there are tens of thousands of them on a big hill in Siauliai. 

   They went there sometimes at night for horseplay. It was secluded and private. Everything has its good points, Zen thought. When some of their dry as tinder crosses caught fire the Wasaga Beach Fire Department had to drag their spray hoses to the knoll and take care of business.

   They were cutting through, talking about what they were going to do next, when Lovett the Loose Goose, who was fit and fast, jumped out of a sand dune. He was waving a flashlight like a crazy man. Somebody smashed into him. He singled out Nojus for it, running after him. Everybody flipped, scattering, none of them going the same way.

   Dovydas sprinted to the border of the camp where there was an old crappy barbed wire fence. It was his first year at camp and he didn’t know it was there. When he tried to jump it, he got tangled. He ended up stuck, his t-shirt ripped, and his hands scratched. He couldn’t get off the sharp wire.

   After they found each other, they saw Lovett again with his flashlight. He was still looking for Nojus. Everybody lay down in the sand, quiet as moles, and he ran right past them. They stayed behind a little hill where they usually hung their clothes after coming back from the beach, and later snuck back into Cabin 6. All of them were sitting on their beds, laughing it up in the dark, when Nojus started freaking out.

   “See what happens,” Titus said.

   Nojus was so worked up and down at the mouth he got on his knees, put his hands together in front of his bunk bed, and started praying. He was praying out loud, crying, and saying “I don’t feel good” when the Loose Goose walked in with the flashlight stuck in his back pocket.

   “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.

   “I don’t feel good,” Nojus said, walking outside the cabin and throwing up. He tried to throw up in a bin, but his aim was way off. The next morning, everybody heckled him about it, but all he wanted to say was he just didn’t feel good during the manhunt and didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

   Zen almost broke his neck playing that night. It happened when Big Al started chasing him. He was ripped out of his mind and jacked up. He climbed trees and survived out on the tundra. Zen had been jogging lazily away from Ned, who was a lard and slow, when Big Al jumped him. Zen screamed and went into adrenaline mode. When he saw Big Al’s even bigger girlfriend waiting at the fork in the path, he sprinted the other way into the woods.

   He got away clean, but it was when he lost them that a madman came out of nowhere and found him. Ginty was wearing a bandana and waving a basketball in his hands. Zen knew he was going to throw it straight at his shins, because that’s what he was doing to everybody. It was a basketball he had inflated crazy hard. He could sling it like a lightning bolt. It smashed boys on the legs. Runners were face planting and giving up.

   Zen was running all out and jumped when Ginty threw the ball. He jumped right into the low-lying branch of a pine tree. It bruised him, a branch raking across his neck. It felt like his main man artery was going to pop.

   “That really hurt!” Zen cried out. “I kept running, but I was suddenly scared, so I stopped. My neck was gashed and bleeding, but not gushing blood, thank God. When Ginty found me, he took his bandana off and wrapped it around my neck.”

   “You’ll be fine,” Ginty said.

   “Then he grabbed me and tried to drag me to the lock-up. You can always trust a counselor to be a sly dog. But I got away. I kept the bandana wrapped around my neck so he couldn’t track me down by any drops of blood. I made sure the Liberty Dollars I had collected were still in my pocket. I slept with them curled up in my fist and my fist tucked under my pillow.”

   The next morning, he ran to the front row of the manhunt auction. The camp commander stood at a podium with a wooden mallet. There was a pegboard behind him full of a boat load of the things everybody might get, and everybody started bidding. There were t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and true-blue God-fearing counselors having to clean your cabin.

   There was stargazing with a girl cabin of your choice.  But Zen put everything he had on the first shower of the night. It was the day of the big night at the end of camp dance in the mess hall and he wanted to look his best for it. He made sure nobody outbid him because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

   You got to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you wanted. The camp commander posted a counselor to stand guard at the door and they didn’t let anyone in except you. It was only you and a bar of soap, and you could gush as much of the hot water as there was. There was only so much of it at camp, the tanks not being the best or biggest, and you could take it all. Everybody else was left with cold leftovers.

   “Oh, yeah, that’s what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.”

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.”

One Way Ticket

By Ed Staskus

   “I don’t like this jacket,” I said. “I don’t want to wear it. Do I have to?”

   “The first communicant has to wear special clothing,” my father said. “It’s white to symbolize purity.”

   “That’s right,” my kid brother piped up. “At least you’ll look like a saint.”

   I gave him a look he knew meant we would settle that crack later, when our parents were out of range of his cries for help. His time would come.

   First Communion is a big deal. Girls wear dresses passed down to them from their sisters or mothers. They sport a veil or a wreath. Boys wear a suit and tie, their Sunday best, or national dress, with embroidered armbands and white gloves. Thank God all I had to wear were a sports jacket and a pressed pair of clean pants. A folk costume and white gloves in front of a church full of my kinsfolk would have been unbearable, especially if they nodded approvingly at each other. In front of my friends, it would have been mortifying.

   My father was a true believer, and my brother wasn’t far behind, even though his guile was legendary among everybody except grown-ups. I was sure he would find some grody jacket to wear the day of my First Communion, just to mess with me.

   That is exactly what happened. I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to keep my JFK-styled hairdo in place. Even though my parents voted Republican like playing Whac-A-Mole, my mom thought John Kennedy the envy of the Western world, new, vibrant, handsome. She wasn’t going to vote for him, but that was beside the point.

   We lived on Bartfield Ave. at East 129th St. and St. Clair Ave. in the Forest Hills neighborhood. There were no hills and no forests. Lake Erie wasn’t far away. Our church was St. George on East 65th St. and Superior Ave. During the week my brother, sister, and I took two city busses, transferring halfway there, a half-hour ride to get to school, but on Sunday mornings our dad drove the ten minutes there.

   After the church ceremony a photographer took portraits of us, a prayer book and rosary in our hands, looking pious and proud in soft focus. Gifts were parceled out. Some parents gave holy cards, religious statues, and daily devotional books. Thankfully my father and uncle were both accountants and handed me envelopes livened up with cash money.

   The next day at school was Jesus Day. We took a prayer walk around the school grounds, which was a big asphalt parking lot, were led on a tour of the church, which I knew full well, training to be an altar boy, created a personal bookmark, and sat through a special liturgy. We were reminded that Holy Communion was special, a matter of life and death.

   St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality.”

   The first dead man I ever saw was soon after my First Communion. It was on a Sunday morning, before we went to church, when one of my friends ran past our front porch shouting something about life and death. I took off after him to St. Clair Ave, where on the corner stood a Gulf gas station and car repair shop. Three police cars were scattered along the street. Their lights were flashing, policemen standing around doing nothing, one of them writing in a notebook. In the gutter a man lay akimbo all sprawled arms and legs. 

   We walked up to him and looked down. He was missing a shoe. There was a crusty puddle of red goo on the front of his white t-shirt. He looked asleep, except his head was bent crooked sideways in a way I had never seen before. A violent purple gash was open on his temple.

   “Run along boys, there’s nothing for you to see here,” a policeman prodded us.

   “Did somebody shoot him?”

   The policeman gave my friend a kick.

   Less than a year earlier I saw John Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency in Cleveland, smiling and waving from the back of a convertible crawling along Superior Ave. It was a cool sunny early fall day. A little more than two years later I saw him get killed in a convertible on TV. Flags went half-mast. One of his kids saluted his fallen father.

   There were five houses on the north side of Bartfield Ave. where it met Coronado Ave. My friend and I ran home. Our house was the second from the corner. A family of hillbillies who had migrated to Cleveland from West Virginia lived in the corner house. A boy my brother’s age and he were always fighting, wrestling, slapping each other. They were on the sidewalk waving rakes at each other.

   “Stop that!” I yelled. “We have to go to church.”

   A colored boy from South Carolina lived in the two-story brick apartment building on the corner opposite the Gulf gas station. We played together but didn’t always get along. One day he called me a dirty DP. My parents had come from Europe after World War Two. One thing led to another, and I smacked him hard on the ear. He lunged at me and when I put my hands up, he clamped his teeth onto my right thumb. He wouldn’t let go no matter what. I had to say I was sorry. When he finally let go, he ran away up the back steps. My thumb hurt like the devil and I had to wipe tears out of my eyes.

   When John Kennedy debated Richard Nixon in late September 1960, it was the first televised presidential debate in the United States. The CBS man Howard Smith moderated the debate, with a pack of journalists facing off with the candidates. My mom and dad watched it that Sunday evening, so we watched it. My brother, sister and I were mad about missing our favorite weekend nighttime shows. We complained but our parents were long on civics and short on stir-crazy children. John Kennedy looked good. He had style and charisma. Richard Nixon was sweaty, shifty, and no match for his young competitor.

   “He should have shaved,” my dad, a lifelong Republican, lamented. “He looks bad.” He looked pasty and haggard is what he looked like. John Kennedy looked fit and self-assured.

   After the debate JFK left Chicago that night and flew to Cleveland. His plane landed at Lost Nation Airport at two in the morning. Students from Western Reserve University turned out to greet him and provide an “Honor Guard.” In the morning his motorcade rolled down Euclid Avenue and around University Circle to a cheering throng.

   On the way to a rally in Lorain Stadium, the motorcade wound its way west along city streets. Vic Baroni, Jr., 9-years-old, stood on the corner of Ida Ave. Rick Green, 10-years-old, stood on the corner of East 69th St. I was going on 11-years-old standing on Superior Ave. We all got one good look at JFK. I was behind everybody, trying to find a hole in the crowd to squeeze through to the front, when there he was, in a convertible, sitting on the back of the car with his feet on the seat. The crowd swayed and parted. He was waving. I waved back and cheered. He wasn’t the only grown-up I had ever seen, but he was the youngest-looking best-looking grown-up. He looked like a movie star minister war hero all rolled up in one.

   After the rally in Lorain, and lunch at the Moose Hall, he went to the annual Democratic steer roast at Euclid Beach Park. More than 125,000 people heard him speak, more people than had ever assembled at the amusement park. Lakeshore Blvd. was a mess of cars and busses going nowhere, smoke from the roast inviting them in for a bite.

   “The forgotten man of 1960 is the American consumer,” he said. “The forgotten woman is the American housewife. In 1952 they were promised lower prices. They heard endless Republican commercials about a stable dollar and a cheaper market basket. But under 8 years of Republican rule, the cost of living has gone up and they have done nothing about it. Families are concerned about the missile gap, but they are equally concerned about the gap between what they earn and what they have to spend.”

   It struck a chord with my mom and dad, but they still voted the GOP slate top to bottom. Richard Nixon would have had to shoot the Pope stone cold dead in the face in front of the Vatican’s Easter Sunday crowd to get my Catholic parents to vote for the Catholic on the ticket. He wasn’t a Republican, and that was that.

   Halloween was a month later. Time is candy was our motto. We knew our neighborhood forward and backward. We knew who handed out old fruit and who handed out new chocolate. We knew what houses to avoid because the householders were mean stingy or simply slow, and which houses were gold mines. My brother and I never wasted time with costumes, simply dressing like bums. The freeloader look was best because that is what we were.

   Once back home my sister hid her candy in the attic. The third floor was as empty as the day we moved in. My parents were immigrants and still scraping by, still buying only what we needed and were going to use, not things to forget about in the attic. My sister found a loose floorboard in a corner and hid her candy there. My brother had a sweet tooth and wasn’t to be trusted. No one knew or ever found out where he hid his candy. He believed loose lips sank ships and never told anybody. I hid mine in the basement, on a shelf behind a box of summer fun beach gear. 

   The next week John Kennedy won the White House, although he did it without winning Ohio. Tricky Dick defeated JFK, 53 percent to 47 percent, in the Buckeye State. He took all but 10 of Ohio’s 88 counties. John Kennedy won in the Cleveland area, to the discomfiture of my Lithuanian flesh and blood.

   That winter was cold although not a lot of snow fell. When it finally did, we built snow forts on Blind Man’s Hill. The hill was the side yard of a house on the other end of our short stretch of Bartfield Ave. A blind man lived alone in the house. We had an arrangement with him. In return for keeping an eye out for anybody messing with his house, he let us mess around on his side lawn. It was a knoll, although not much of one, inclining to about four feet, but it was enough for us, especially when we were behind the walls of our fort hurling snowballs down on our enemies.

   The next summer on the rainy afternoon Romas Povilaitis and I almost killed my brother in the attic of our house it wasn’t our fault, but after my sister raised the roof there was no explaining it and we just had to take our lumps. We heaved a sigh of relief when my brother exonerated us, even though wrath then fell on his head, too.

   Romas lived in Chicago with his small-fry brother Viktoras, his mother Irma, and father Vytas. His father was muscular and handsome. He had wavy blonde hair. He was better looking even than his wife. Irma said she was glad he worked in a factory and wasn’t trying to better himself, because if he did, she was sure he would leave her. Even though he was blue collar, they lived in a big house in the Marquette Park neighborhood.

   Chicago has the largest Lithuanian community outside of the old country. It is known as Little Lithuania among those in the know. Lithuanian Americans in Chicago say it is the second capital of the homeland. Whenever we visited, we saw plenty of the clan. Whenever they visited us, we ran around like 10,000 maniacs.

   Romas was enamored of Spiderman that year, a new Marvel Comics superhero. He scuttled around our house pretending to squirt web fluid from his wrists. He tried to cling to walls but tumbled to the floor. We were in the attic arguing the merits of Superman Batman and Spiderman when my brother insisted for the last time that Superman was the best of the three.

   “He could crush Batman and Spiderman with his little finger and besides only he can fly,” he said.

   It finally drove us to distraction. We put a cape on him and hung him by his heels out the third-floor window. He was all for it, except when the cape went draping over his head and he complained he couldn’t see. It was then my sister walked through the door. We almost flaked out and he almost nose-dived when she screamed. We were pulling him back inside when our mother burst in.

   She dropped a dozen eggs and bum rushed the three of us downstairs. Thank God my father and Vytas Povilaitis were out. As it was, we had to listen to Irma and my mother lay down the law of the land. They seemed deadly serious, so we listened with grim attention.

   “Don’t ever do that again!”

   There were only two bedrooms in our Polish double on Bartfield Ave. Our sister shared a bedroom with my brother and me. Vytas and Irma slept in the living room when visiting. Romas and Viktoras slept on the floor between our beds on sleeping bags. That evening we read comic books by flashlight long into the night. We kept our sister up, but she had the good sense to keep her sleeplessness to herself. 

   She knew she was no match for Superman Batman and Spiderman.

   The Friday JFK was assassinated I was in my eighth-grade classroom at Holy Cross School in Euclid, where I transferred after we moved from our old neighborhood that had gone civil rights to the ethnic white community of North Collinwood. The loudspeaker unexpectedly crackled to life. It was the principal on the school’s broadcast system.

   She said President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

   “Here is a flash from Dallas: Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds suffered in the assassination attempt today,” reported NBC Radio. “I repeat, a flash from Dallas, two priests say President Kennedy is dead of bullet wounds.”

   We were struck dumb stunned. It wasn’t something any of us had ever thought about or expected to happen. Nobody knew what to do or say. Our teacher nun asked us to stand and recite the rosary. We did until the principal came back on the PA and told us all to go home. Kids were crying as they went through the door. 

   Everybody stayed glued to their TVs at home, watching the news. There wasn’t anything else to watch, anyway. The networks suspended their commercials and regular programming for the first time ever and ran coverage on a non-stop basis. The assassin was caught, but a few days later was shot in the stomach in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters. We saw it happen live on TV. It was unbelievable. Even more unbelievable was that the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald was an exotic dancing nightclub man who went by the nickname of “Sparky.”

   “What is this country coming to?” my father asked. There was no love lost for the president in our house and neighborhood, but nobody wished him dead. They may not have believed in the man, but they believed in the institution.

   I started to wonder about God. Why did he want John Kennedy dead? Did he have a plan or was he just flipping coins? When I asked our teacher why God had given JFK a one-way ticket, she started into chapter and verse, but then sent me to the parish priest who told me God always has a plan and to not use words like one-way ticket.

   “Keep your mind clean,” he said.

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