Category Archives: Days and Nights

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.”

Bang a Gong

By Ed Staskus

The first day of spring will officially arrive in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, in about six weeks, on Friday March 20th, shortly after noontime. The sun may or may not make an appearance. Whether Dawn Schroeder will be in her backyard practicing yoga depends more on its unofficial than official arrival. It can and will be cold cloudy wet in March April and into May.

High temperatures slowly go up to 51°F by the end of the month. How often the sky is mostly cloudy or completely overcast actually goes down from 62% to 56%. The chance of a rainy day over the course of March, however, goes up, starting the month at 23% and ending it at 30%.

It’s not that Dawn is a fair-weather yogi practitioner sadhak. She cleaves to it all year round, especially since she teaches the practice, too. But living in C-land is living four seasons, and some of those seasons are lived indoors, for the most part, for good reason.

Snowstorms in March and April are not uncommon in northern Ohio. The snowfall in April 2005 set a record at 19 inches. Two years later more than 13 inches fell in April. All the green and budding growing things had to take a break and wait it out, waiting for life.

“Yoga and meditation have served me well as I navigate and embrace my life,” says Dawn.

She describes herself as “an experienced vinyasa and Kundalini Yoga teacher, with over two decades of active teaching, a wife, mother, sister, friend, gardener, nature lover, curious seeker, and a gong and sound enthusiast.”

The gong is a metal disk with a turned rim, a large percussion instrument played by hitting it with a mallet. It makes a complex resonant echoing sound.

“The gong is the first and last instrument for the human mind,” said Yogi Bhajan, the man who brought Kundalini Yoga to America in the 1960s. “Vibrate the cosmos and the cosmos shall clear the path.”

Banging a gong is a kind of sound practice that involves using specific tones and vibrations to facilitate healing. It is sometimes called a gong bath, like being bathed in meditative sound waves. The goals of gong meditation are therapeutic, healing the mind and body, and expanding one’s awareness of the present.

“Becoming a certified and registered yoga teacher saved me when I was a stressed-out bond futures broker at the Chicago Board of Trading in the mid-’80s,” said Dawn. “It healed my body, soothed my soul and ignited my spiritual path. It is my faithful companion.”

Bond trading isn’t for everyone. It’s demanding and stressful, personally emotionally intellectually. There are times when you are on top of the world and other times when you’re the worst trader in the history of capital markets. It’s tough being a Bond Girl, especially when the action goes against you. It can be a lucrative job, but it can also be a job that drives you unglued out of your mind.

“There is only one thing that can supersede and command the human mind, the sound of the gong,” said Yogi Bhajan. “It is the first sound in the universe, the sound that created this universe. It is the basic creative sound. The sound of the gong is like a mother and father. The mind has no power to resist a gong that is well played.”

Dawn received her first yoga certification in 1986. “I have been learning ever since,” she says. Learning every day is living like what you did yesterday isn’t going to be enough for tomorrow.

“I completed my first Yoga Teacher Training in 1985 and being a life-long student, I continue to train today. I have been a Level One Kundalini Yoga and Meditation teacher since 2011, and I train with prominent teachers, attend immersions, retreats, and have begun my Level Two Training.”

Ten years later, she left Chicago, moved to Cleveland, able to spend more time with her family. and stepped into teaching yoga professionally.

“I actively study many styles of yoga by attending teacher trainings and workshops,” she said. “I am a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance at the E-RYT 500 level, a KRI Certified Kundalini Yoga teacher, and I am trained in YogaEd. As Adjunct Faculty, I teach Yoga for Educators courses and Yoga courses at Baldwin-Wallace University.”

She is also an avid gongster.

I am a Gong Meditation Enthusiast.”

She and her husband Mark host Triple Gong and Mantra Meditations on weekends at the Unity Spiritual Center in Westlake, not far from their home. Get it on, bang a gong, or more.

A Roman gong from the 2nd century was excavated in Wiltshire in England and they were known in China since the 6th century. The word gong is Javanese, where they were used from the 9th century onwards. Flat gongs are found throughout Asia and knobbed gongs dominate in Southeast Asia.

On Thursday nights the Schroeder’s host yoga, pranayama, kriya, meditation, and gong savasana at the Schroasis. The Schroasis is at their house. In the winter the oasis is indoors, while in summer the oasis is outdoors.

“We absolutely love how the Kundalini Yoga and Meditation Immersions have grown and connected us,” she says. “It’s a way to practice consistently with a fun, welcoming group of yogis. The immersions and offerings are always open to students of all levels, true beginners to seasoned yogis,” she said.

“Filling ourselves up from the inside grows our gratitude. Choose to fill yourself up intentionally with meaningful experiences that create sustaining fullness, curiosity, growth, and contentment, while relying on both established experiences like on-going yoga classes and new experiences to fuel your inner glow.”

The gong is used in Kundalini Yoga as an instrument of healing, rejuvenation, and transformation. The sound waves ostensibly stimulate our cells. The idea is to increase prana, the vital life force, release tension and blocks in the body, encourage the glandular and nervous system, and improve circulation. It is also thought to work on the mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies, quieting the mind in the long run.The idea is to take the listener to their non-judgmental neural mind, to a state of quiet, of stillness.

“I see my dharma as sharing what I know, and supporting growth, expansion, connection, truth, and unity in this world,” said Dawn. “This clarity in my purpose led to the creation of our PranaVerdana, hosting, co-creating, and facilitating events that are joyful, uplifting and inspiring, creating vibrant life force energy, prana. Moving our prana toward a green, lush heart-centered world is what I generously offer.”

In Sanskrit, prana means primary energy. It is sometimes translated as breath or vital force. Although prana is the basic life-force, it can be considered the original creative power. It is the master form of all energy at every level. It has also been translated as bio-energetic motility, alive and moving, associated with maintaining the functioning of the mind and body. Kundalini, in its form as prana-kundalini, is identical to prana.

“The gong is very simple,” said Yogi Bhajan. “It is an inter-vibratory system. It is the sound of creativity itself. The gong is nothing more, nothing less. One who plays the gong plays the universe. The gong is not an ordinary thing to play. Out of it came all music, all sounds, and all words. The sound of the gong is the nucleus of the Word. “

In the beginning was the word, a sound, a vibration.

“The way I play it is my pleasure,” he added. “The gong is not a musical instrument, nor a drum. The gong is God, so it is said and so it is. The gong is a beautiful reinforced vibration. It is like a multitude of strings, as if you played with a million strings. The gong is the only tool with which you can produce this combination of space vibrations.”

Dawn teaches yoga at the Inner Bliss studios in both Rocky River and Westlake and freelances around town. She has completed Advanced Chakra Yoga Teacher Training and Lotus Palm Thai Yoga Massage trainings. “I am a polarity practitioner, and bring my exploration of Ayurveda, Reflexology, energy work, and essential oils to my client wellness services.”

She facilitates a variety of workshops, events, retreats, and trainings. “I have a playful, mature, empowering, eclectic style of teaching influenced by my trainings, personal experiences, and practice,” said Dawn. She inspires energizes networks collaborates. She fires it up.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Cher Lukacs, founder and director of Sat Nam Studio. “Dawn Schroeder, my teacher, had been working tirelessly to bring the first Kundalini Yoga teacher training to Cleveland. After her Saturday morning classes, she would regularly report her steady progress toward making this dream a reality.

“A year earlier I had rented the space next to my law practice, planning to sublet to like-minded professionals. Despite some interest, it was not jelling. It was as if the space was quietly waiting.  One day when Dawn announced that a new space was needed for the training, I suddenly heard myself telling her, I have a space.”

“The studio was born as a school of Kundalini Yoga.”

“Gong is the only instrument that can create the vibration of affirming,” said Yogi Bhajan. “Life becomes yes to you and the word no is eliminated from your dictionary.”

Gongs are an integral traditional aspect of Kundalini Yoga. Every Kundalini ashram and yoga center and ashram is supposed to have a gong and use it faithfully., since it is felt to be more than a musical instrument, more in the realm of a healing tool. There are several mantras practitioners often chant out loud as a class before the playing of the gong. One of them is the Bhakti mantra and the other one is the Mangalacharan mantra. The one shows an appreciation for the moment and the gong while the other signals peace and centeredness.

“A gong bath truly is a transformative experience,” says Bridget Toomey, who teaches Kundalini Yoga at Heartland Yoga in Iowa City.

“To get a taste, start by imagining yourself lying in a dark room, on top of a yoga mat, covered in a blanket. The teacher directs you to relax each part of your body one muscle at a time, from your toes to your tongue. The sound begins quietly at first and then slowly becomes louder and more rhythmic and trance-inducing. The vibrations wash over your body. Time seems to slip away and what feels like five minutes can really be 30. That is the power of a gong bath.”

At about the same time Dawn Schroeder was transitioning out of bond trading in Chicago, the Philadelphia rock ‘n’ roll star Todd Rundgren was headlining the charts with his hit single ‘Bang the Drum All Day.’

“I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day, I don’t want to play, I just want to bang on the drum all day, I can do this all day.”

“You have no resistance against this sound, the gong,” said Yogi Bhajan “It is the master sound. Everything you think becomes zero. The gong prevails.”

“I am so grateful I found yoga and I love sharing it and watching students grow,” says Dawn. “I came to the mat seeking ease in my body and had no idea it would change my life. Yoga is the perfect complement to our hectic, stressful lifestyles.”

Dawn Schroeder isn’t a headbanger, but when she bangs her gong, she’s got her head in the right place.

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.”

Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   When my father died the funeral service was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Lithuanian church on Cleveland’s east side, the memorial service was at the Lithuanian Club up the street, and he was buried on the grounds of All Souls in Chardon, forty miles farther east, where many Lithuanian Catholics ending their days on the south shore of Lake Erie end up.

   All Souls Cemetery covers some 250 acres, features over 109 developed acres and 7 mausoleums, and could be a golf course if it wasn’t a boneyard. If someone’s got the blues, it’s where to go. It’s the place to bury your troubles.

   Two years later, paying my respects on a sunny summer day, visiting my father in the mausoleum where he is interned, and later wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled on the burial place of Antanas Smetona. The name rang a bell. When it came to me, I remembered he was the first and last president of Lithuania during the inter-war years.

   Walking back to my car I passed a headstone 50-some years old. Red and white artificial flowers lay on the ground. Engraved on the stone was a man’s name, his date of birth and death, and the inscription “He Done His Damnest.” It wasn’t the kind of epitaph I expected, which would have been more along the lines of “Always in Our Hearts” and “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Had the man gone to Heaven or Hell?

   Antanas Smetona did his damnest, too. 

   He was born into a family of farmers, former serfs, the eighth of nine children. Their homestead was near a small lake, almost dead center in the middle of Lithuania. His father died when he was eleven, making a last wish that his youngest son be sent to school. He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to ever get an education. The instruction was in Russian, because the Russians were in charge and Lithuanian talk was forbidden. Lithuanian literature was closed down. Lithuanian history was closed down.

   He was a top student and won a tuition waiver. He supported himself by superintending his dormitory and giving private lessons. After graduation he made his way to Latvia, got involved with the Lithuanian National Revival, got into trouble, made his way to St. Petersburg, got involved in the February 1899 student protests, and got deported back to Lithuania.

   After he was allowed to return, he got involved with Lithuanian book smugglers, got arrested, got thrown into a castle that doubled as a prison, somehow got acquitted, cracked his books, graduated university, and made his way out of Russia. He never went back. He went back to the homeland.

   Russia was like a cemetery with a big fence around it. Those inside couldn’t leave unless they were thrown out. Those outside didn’t want to scale the fence to get inside unless it was a matter of life and death.

   Antanas Smetona got married and went to work for the Vilnius Land Bank. When he wasn’t working, he was working with several Lithuanian nationalist groups and writing editing publishing circulating news and editorials advocating national unity and independence.

   When the First World War started, he chaired the Central Committee Relief Society and pressed demands on the Germans, who had pushed the Russians out of the country in 1915, that Lithuania be granted its independence. A year later he began editing and publishing the newspaper Lithuania’s Echo. His message, stated in the first issue, was the speedy establishment of an autonomous and sovereign Lithuanian state.

   Russia didn’t like that, since they had controlled the country for more than a hundred years, but they had their own problems, namely the Eastern Front, where they were busy suffering six million casualties and three-and-a-half million captured. On top of that more than a million civilians were dying of war-related causes. Adding to the anvil chorus, the Bolsheviks were breathing down their necks.

   When the Council of Lithuania was formed, Antanas Smetona was elected Chairman and in February 1918 he signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania. The next year he was elected the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. His tenure didn’t last long. The next year a new man was elected, and he was out. He taught classes at the University of Vilnius and got involved with the paramilitary group the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.

   Five years later he led a coup d’etat, deposing the then president and seizing the office for himself. A year later he suppressed the parliament. Two years later he assumed dictatorial powers. For all his editorializing about autocratic czars, he became an autocratic czar. For the next nine years he ruled by decree, his own new constitution vesting in him both executive and legislative powers. Whenever there were new elections he ran as the only candidate.

   He added his name to the rise of totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 1930s, joining Benito Mussolini, Francesco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He went from idealism and high-mindedness to cynicism and the inside track. Realpolitik is not about democracy and human rights. It is the struggle for power. It’s like Adolf Hitler said, “It is not truth that matters but victory. If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain.”

   Although there aren’t many children nowadays who would accept guidance counseling from Adolf Hitler, there were plenty of men and women eighty and ninety years ago who were all ears. That’s why cemeteries by 1945 were overflowing with indispensable people, not including the dictators. They make their own beds.

   Antanas Smetona may have been a patriot and a loyalist, doing his best to restore Lithuania to nation statehood, but he was nonetheless a dictator. He may have repressed the Iron Wolves, a radical rightist movement led by his former Prime Minister who he had earlier removed from office, but his own Lithuanian Nationalist Union took part in the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference. He may have believed in political parties, but his was one-party rule and he was the host boss ringleader of the party. He styled himself as the Tautos Vadas, or Leader of the People.

   Under his rule Lithuania “moved decisively towards a dictatorship of what might be termed the ‘fascism from above’ variety,” according to Martin Blinkhorn, British historian and author of “Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919 – 1945.” The Russians, the Muddy Mississippi of Fascism themselves, said he was trying to “adapt Italian Fascist concepts to Lithuanian conditions.” He was more centrist and moderate in his authoritarianism than many others, but he also believed he was the most qualified and experienced person to run the country, and he rigged the elections to make sure it stayed that way.

   Not that it did him any good. By 1938 he was being squeezed by Nazi Germany and the Commies. He had never been able to get Vilnius back from the Poles. Now he had to surrender Memel to the Germans. When the Russians presented an ultimatum to his government in 1940, he urged armed resistance, but nobody agreed that Lithuania’s armed forces, numbering some twenty thousand, was up to the task of going toe to toe with the five-million-man Red Army.

   “I do not want to make Lithuania a Bolshevik country with my own hands,” he said from the steps of the Presidential Palace in Kaunas and left the country. A month later Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He wasn’t on hand to try to stop it.

   When he got to the border Antanas Smetona and his bodyguard waded across the Liepona rivulet into Nazi Germany. When he did, he went from lightning rod to lightning bug. The next day his family convinced the Lithuanian crossing guards to let them go, too, since the big fish was already gone. The provisional government wanted him back, but what could they do?

   The Germans put him up in a hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District. From there he was moved to Berlin, then traveled to Bern, Switzerland, and lastly to Rio de Janeiro. He finally landed on his feet in the United States where four hundred guests greeted him at New York City’s Pierre Hotel for dinner and an evening function. He briefly lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before finally settling down on the east side of Cleveland.

   When I grew up on the east side in the late 1950s and 60s, Eastern Europe was right across the street. There were Serbs Slovenians Croatians, plenty of Poles, and lots of Lithuanians. Everybody had their own church and their own watering holes. Everybody had their own talk in their own language about the mother land and their new place new lives new future in the USA.

   Antanas Smetona and his wife Sofija moved in with their son Julius on Ablewhite Avenue on the northeast side of the city, off Eddy Road, near Lake Erie. Julius worked as a grinder for Standard Tool and was married to Birute Nasvytyte, a former concert pianist, raising their two children. The self-styled President-in-Exile worked on his memoirs and visited Lithuanian communities across America speaking about the plight of the mother country and his hopes for its post-war independence.

   “What the Magna Carta was to the English, what the rights of man of the French Revolution were to personal liberty, the Atlantic Charter is to nations, especially small nations like ours,” he said.

   When my parents bought a two-and-a-half story duplex with a backyard big enough for a pack of kids, their first house in the United States, doubling up with my father’s sister and her family in 1958, all of us recent immigrants, it was about a mile from the exile’s residence. When I attended the Iowa-Maple Elementary School my first school year in Cleveland I sat in a classroom a stone’s throw from the house. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that the ex-president of Lithuania died in that house less than twenty years earlier.

  The day he died, Sunday January 9, 1944, he and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom relaxing. It had snowed lightly on Saturday and the windows were frosty, below freezing. They smelled something foul and saw smoke oozing into their room from under the door. 

   The furnace had been acting up lately. “The night before yesterday coal fumes made me dizzy. I could not think clearly. Now I have completely recovered,” he wrote in his journal two months earlier. This was worse. His thinking days were soon going to be over.

   The overheated furnace caught fire, leapt up the chimney, and swept through the house. The man and wife bolted out of the room and down the stairs, but he turned around, stepping back into the bedroom, grabbing a fur-lined overcoat to throw over his head. By the time he turned again to flee his wife was in the front yard. He never made it out of the house alive.

   Fire Battalion Chief Tom O’Brien said afterwards the fire had a “head start,” making it difficult to fight. The coal room was red-hot. By the time they extinguished the blaze and accounted for everyone, they went looking for Antanas Smetona. They saved the house but found him face down in the second-floor kitchen dead of suffocation. Police outlined in chalk where his body was found, and other policemen carried him out on a stiff board.

   The pull out the stops funeral was at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and was presided over by Bishop Edward Hoban. The Cleveland Police Mounted Unit saluted as his coffin was carried out the front door. He was buried in Cleveland’s Knollwood Cemetery but in 1975 was moved to Chardon, next to his wife, who died in 1968.

   Although the inter-war years in Lithuania are often referred to as the Smetonian years, there is no monument to the man in Vilnius. “I really wouldn’t want to say whether I’d approve a monument to Smetona, or not,” Remigius Simasius the mayor of the city said. In the end he didn’t say. There is still some bad blood about the putsch and his authoritarianism.

   “Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” said Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.

   When I went back the next summer to visit my father, I walked to where I knew Antanas Smetona was six feet up. The polished granite slabs are on a wall above Grace and Philip McGarry and below Michael and Anna Pula. Someone had fixed fresh flowers to both Antanas and Sofija’s facings. The sepulchral stone was spic-and-span.

   I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean.”

   No matter what, whether he had done the best he could, or not, whether he was a statesman or a tyrant, whether he was in Heaven or Hell, the earthly remains of the man were beyond reproach in his neat as a pin final resting place at All Souls. 

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.”

Kid Blast

By Ed Staskus

   I knew some bits and pieces about Dennis Kucinich, even though I had never met him. I knew what I knew because I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and he was the mayor. He was the youngest mayor in the history of the city. He was the youngest mayor of any major American city. He was 31 years old but still looked milk-fed.

    I hadn’t voted for him. I never voted for anybody. I thought of myself as an anarchist. I wasn’t the bomb throwing kind though. I liked the idea of anarchism more than the risk-taking of anarchism. I wasn’t ready and willing to end up behind bars.

   The new mayor was born and bred in Cleveland, the oldest of seven children in a Catholic family. He was 23 years old when he won a seat on Cleveland’s city council. After he got a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, he ran for mayor in 1977. He surprised himself and everybody else when he won. When he did his troubles started and went on and on.

   Cleveland was a mess in 1977. A year earlier The Cleveland Plain Dealer splashed “Bombing Business Booming Here” across its front page. The old-school Italian families and the new-school Celtic Club were fighting it out for control of the rackets. Car bombs were the preferred ways and means of debate. All the evidence was usually blown to bits, which suited everybody involved, since they were all in. It didn’t suit the police, who were left out in the cold.

   The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms set up a new headquarters in town. When asked why they said since Cleveland was “Bomb City USA” they were obliged to do something about it. Within a year they doubled their staff.

   It wasn’t just bombs, either. Trash collection and street repairs were slipping fast. The parks were more litter and dopeheads than fun and games. Corporations and manufacturers were pulling up stakes. Racial polarization was staying put. Whites hated the busing that was coming and made sure everybody knew it. “We Say, No Way, No Bus for Us” is what their banners said. As the 1970s kicked off murders in the city set a record with 333 of them. Ten years earlier there had been 59. Environmentalists declared the Cuyahoga River dead and Lake Erie not far behind. The city lost a quarter of its population during the Me Decade. 

   The city didn’t lose me. I moved back to Cleveland after growing up in North Collinwood and Euclid. My parents didn’t like it. They believed in the American Dream and thought I was back tracking. They told me so from their suburban home. They thought the metropolis was a nightmare.

   I lived a block from Lakeshore Blvd. and two blocks from Lake Erie. Bratenahl was three blocks west. I rode the 39B bus through the posh village Monday through Friday on my way downtown to Cleveland State University. I always sat in the last row so that nobody could sit behind me. I didn’t have to worry about the swells, since they never rode the bus, but the same wasn’t true of some of my east side neighbors.

   Dennis Kucinich got started with a bang when he was elected in November. He championed the public good and made sure everybody understood he wasn’t going to auction off the city’s assets. He was sick and tired of corporate collusion and tax abatements. Everybody was sick and tired of the old mayor Ralph Perk. Dennis Kucinich was a breath of fresh air.

   It was snowing when he was inaugurated in January. It kept snowing and the new leader of the pack was forced to declare the metropolitan area a “disaster zone.” Before the month ended the city was hit with the worst blizzard in its history. Things went from bad to worse when he fired his police chief two months later.

   Dennis Kucinich had appointed Richard Hongisto, a former San Francisco sheriff, to be chief of police as soon as he became the mayor elect. It seemed like a smart choice, especially after the head honcho in blue saved a man from a snowbank during the Great Blizzard of 1978. He was acclaimed by the press and public as a man’s man.

   The mayor didn’t see it that way. When the police chief wouldn’t go along with his plans, which included rewarding his supporters with jobs, he charged him with insubordination. The chief responded by saying he wasn’t going to commit any “unethical acts.” On Easter weekend in front of live TV cameras the mayor fired his top cop. One thing led to another, and even though he was in a hole, he couldn’t stop digging. When business and civic leaders lost confidence in him, momentum grew for a recall election. When they started calling him Dennis the Menace the momentum became the real deal.

   I didn’t meet Terese Schaser until the late 1980s. It happened soon after I met her daughter, who was going to become my wife-to-be, although none of us knew it at the time. In 1978 Terese was living in Park Centre. She had left her husband and was making her way as a restaurateur. The twin 23-story downtown towers were less than ten years old, built with raw cement features in a Brutalist style, where the best people lived. Richard Hongisto lived in the same building as my mother-in-law in the making.

   She was in her mid-30s and getting on a roll. When she heard about the recall effort, she got behind it and helped roll the ball forward. She wasn’t much older than the boy mayor but believed he was an upstart, his inexperience getting in the way of his governing ability. Her friend the ex-police chief agreed with her. Neither of them gave a hoot about his populist philosophy.

   Cleveland was on the verge of default. Dennis Kucinich did the best he could to fend off his naysayers, but he was a Democrat, not a member of any intelligible political party. He shouldn’t have been allowed to deal with the devil in the first place. He was taking his lumps from all sides. Even his own city council was at his throat.

   He called them “a group of lunatics” and “a bunch of buffoons.” He said, “it’s hard to believe that so many people can be so stupid.” He added insult to injury by saying, “if they’re not stupid then they are crooked.” That summer he ordered more police patrols in the projects to counter rising crime. The police department refused to obey the order. Thirteen police were disciplined and suspended which led to a police strike. Among other things it was another first for the city.

   The Kucinich administration was making history right and left.

   When the weather warmed up Terese was in summer dresses and flat shoes helping with the recall petition. She had great legs from her dancing days. Towards the end of May the effort was short of the required signatures. She threw herself into the work explaining cajoling and demanding. She never got tired and wore people out. She had a big personality. Ten years later she wore me out. Her children ate cold cereal in the morning and cold leftovers at night. By the deadline of June 1st more than enough signatures had been gotten. 

   The mayor refused to resign, saying “Bring on the recall.” He handed out bumper stickers saying, “Support Kucinich, the Peoples’ Mayor.” The people would have their say soon enough. Terese’s kids breathed a sigh of relief, but the hot meals didn’t last long. The recall election was scheduled for mid-August. The canvasser redoubled her efforts.

   She had pizzazz to spare and didn’t spare any of it during the recall campaign. She didn’t just rub two sticks together. She made sure one of them was a match. The lady lit a fire under everybody she talked to. Working on a political campaign means about half the electorate is going to hate you day in day out. She didn’t let it get her down. She had an agenda and a bogeyman. At night she made her plans for the next day while singing along to lurid Italian operas. 

   “My mother was an enthusiastic but terrible singer,” her daughter said.

   When Dennis Kucinich stalled on demands to sell Municipal Power, the city’s publicly owned electric utility, not only did lawyers get involved the Cleveland Mob got involved, too. They brought in a hit man from Maryland to shoot him during a parade. Nothing came of it when the mayor was hospitalized for a few days and missed the event. He never really liked parades, anyway. 

   As the recall campaign got into full swing, Council President George Forbes and Dennis Kucinich argued about the merits of building a new ore dock for Republic Steel, except their arguments had nothing to do with the ore dock.

   “Stick to the issue,” George Forbes said.

   “Mr. Chairman, I determine the issue,” Dennis Kucinich said.

   “Not in this chamber,” George Forbes retorted.

   “You will permit me to continue my remarks,” Dennis Kucinich said.

   “Just one moment,” George Forbes complained. 

   “You have no ability to censor my remarks,” Dennis Kucinich explained.

   George Forbes didn’t like that. His dark face got darker. He ordered the mayor’s microphone shut off. Dennis Kucinich and his aides stormed out. When all the hot air was said and done, Republic Steel walked away from Cleveland and built a new ore dock in Lorain.

   “The best and longest running show in town isn’t at Playhouse Square,” Roldo Bartimole, who wrote the newsletter Point of View, said. “It’s at Cleveland City Hall. The admission is free.”

   When recall day arrived more than 120,000 Clevelanders voted. Dennis Kucinich took a nap. He knew staying up wasn’t going to change the result if he lost. He also knew if he won, he had another tough day in front of him, and needed the rest. He prevailed by a margin of 236 votes. Terese’s kids ate well the next day when it was all over.

   Towards the end of the year Cleveland s banks refused to roll over the city’s debts. They assured the mayor it would be business as usual if they could do what they wanted with Municipal Power. He refused, and the city went into default, the first city since the Great Depression to find itself unable to meet its financial obligations.

   He lost his reelection bid in 1979. It was one and done. He wasn’t going to be the jackass in a hailstorm anymore. Everybody was sick and tired of confrontational politics. George Voinovich took his place. He got Cleveland going on the road to ‘The Comeback City.’ When the century came to an end historian Melvin Hollis put Dennis Kucinich on his list of ten worst big-city mayors of all time in his book “The American Mayor: The Best & Worst of the Big-City Leaders.”

   Terese remarried and moved to a corner apartment on an upper floor of Park Centre. The family barbecued on the balcony and watched the air show over Lake Erie every September. The Blue Angels cut the corner across their roof pirouetting back to Burke Lakefront Airport. She gave up governmental enthusiasms, concentrating on foodstuffs. She opened a restaurant and then another one. She worked as a pastry chef on both sides of town. She catered weddings and served food at funerals.

   At the end of the day, kicking back, she liked to paraphrase Mark Twain. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a politician, but I repeat myself.” It always got a big laugh over dessert, especially when she added, “Put them in charge of the Sahara Desert and in a couple of years there will be a shortage of sand.”

   I moved to Lakewood, Cleveland’s second-oldest suburb on its western border. The town’s mayor kept his nose to the grindstone, focusing on safety, schools, and city services.  They weren’t running out of sand anytime soon.

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.”

Ice Age Afternoon

By Ed Staskus

   “What are those for?” I asked watching my father-in-law pull two chunky copies of the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer out of a plastic bag.

   “These are to sit on,” he said. I didn’t bother asking. I was going to find out soon enough anyway.

   It was December 15, 1991, and the temperature was somewhere in the mid-20s inside Municipal Stadium. Outside the lakefront stadium Lake Erie wasn’t frozen solid, yet, just frozen. The wind was brisk in the 25-mile range and the wind chill was too much to talk about. It was a quarter to one in the afternoon. Even though the sun had risen five hours earlier, it still hadn’t made an appearance. The Houston Oilers were warming up to play the Cleveland Browns. The home team was already warmed up. They knew what they were in for weatherwise. The Browns weren’t going anywhere behind Bernie Kosar, but the Oilers were going to the playoffs behind Warren Moon.

   Playoffs or no playoffs, they were all war horses. They were going to raise Cain to get the job done, no matter what. They put blinders on the minute they stepped on the field. The Oilers did their best to ignore the Dawg Pound.

   Dick Parello my father-in-law wasn’t a talkative man. His wife filled the silence. He was good at crosswords, doing them every day with a ballpoint pen, and devilishly clever at Scrabble. He scored points even when he had nothing, and I had all the good tiles. The Sunday newspaper was a good idea. I tossed the sports section down to put my day-to-day shoes on and fight off frostbite. Otherwise, my feet would have spent three and half hours on rock-hard ice-cold unforgiving concrete.

   The newspaper John Kupcik’s father-in-law brought to the game suffered a different fate. “He would tear off a page of the paper, crumble it up, and light it between his feet to keep warm. He did it the whole game, section by section. That and his homemade brandy kept us warm enough.”

   Even though I had lived in Cleveland since before the age of ten, watched NFL games on TV on Sundays and read recaps in the newspaper on Monday, I had never been to a Browns game. I had been to the stadium many times to see baseball games. The Indians were bad but tickets for day games were cheap, and the ball games were fun. We paid bargain basement prices and then sat wherever we wanted to. We liked sitting behind the dugouts, to encourage Chief Wahoo and abuse the other guys.

   Municipal Stadium was built in the early 1930s when the city was run by city managers. Walker and Weeks designed it and the Osborn Engineering Company built it. The stadium featured an early use of structural aluminum. Two days after the ballpark was dedicated on July 1, 1931, it hosted a boxing match for the World Heavyweight Championship between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling. There were 37,000 fans in attendance for the slugfest. Schmeling held on to the title by technical knockout in the 15th and last round. When it was all over Max sat back and lit up a cigar while Young spent days feeling years older than he was.

   The Cleveland Indians played their first game there on July 31, 1932, losing 1-0 to Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics, attracting a then-major-league-record crowd of 80,184. They played the rest of their home games at the ballpark the rest of the year and through the next year. But none of the Tribe players liked Municipal Stadium. They complained about the vast outfield and pulled muscles trying to muscle home runs over the faraway fences.

   It was 435 feet to the far corners of the stands in left-center and right-center, 463 feet to either corner of the bleachers, and 470 feet from home plate to the bleachers in straightaway center. No player ever hit a home run into the center field bleachers. Fly balls choked and died trying. 

   The team went back to the smaller League Park in 1934 and stayed for several years. They returned in 1937, playing some Sunday and holiday games at Municipal Stadium. League Park didn’t have any field lighting, so when night baseball got going in the 1930s and lights were finally installed at the stadium in 1939, the Indians started playing most of their home games there. They abandoned League Park entirely after 1946.

   Dick was from Rochester, New York. He grew up there and enlisted for the Vietnam War there. He was a stolid burly man. After he finished Charm School and got his legs under him as a military policeman, he kept things quiet in his neck of the woods. He didn’t mix it up much with Charlie, assigned to III Corps in the Saigon area where the fighting was spare, but never went anywhere without his Colt .45 Government sidearm.

   “Never trust a gook,” he said. He meant Charlie and ARVN and everybody in between.

   He came to Cleveland in the early 1970s with three friends who were putting a new restaurant together in Park Centre, which later became Reserve Square. When the Firehouse was ready to go, he became the bartender, and after that the manager. When he married Teressa my future mother-in-law in 1981, they set up shop in a three-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of Park Centre. Dick and Teresa built the Park Pub, last call at the Firehouse having come and gone. They served food and drink. Teresa was a self-taught pro in the kitchen. She had the paring knife scars on her hands to prove it. Dick worked nights behind the bar and had the bags under his eyes to prove it.

   Even though Municipal Stadium was built for football as well as baseball, it was built for baseball. The football field was an awkward fit on a field designed for America’s pastime. Nobody wanted to sit on the home plate side. They were the best seats during a baseball game but the worst seats at a football game. The far end zone couldn’t have been farther away.

   As sparse as crowds were at Indians games was as big as crowds were at football games. When I looked around there might have been an empty seat somewhere. Otherwise, it looked sold out. The best seats were at the 50-yard line, but we sat in the bleachers. Going to the game was a last-minute idea, not mine, but Dick’s, who got free tickets from a barfly.

   I hadn’t been to Municipal Stadium for almost ten years. When we walked inside, I thought, “This place is a broken-down dump.” It looked bad. It smelled bad. There was a raw feeling in all directions.

   We sat behind four guys who had smuggled a keg of beer into the stadium. They were drunk as skunks sooner than later and spent the second half throwing things at Oilers players whenever they came within range. Their aim was bad, though. They hit more fellow fans than anybody else. A baldheaded older man behind us wearing a scarf smoked fat cigars all afternoon. Thank God the steady wind blew the smoke to the side. When I was tempted to tell the four guys with the keg to stop standing up towards the end of the tight game, Dick told me not to. “You’ll get a cup of hot piss thrown at you and told to get the hell out of our section.” We bought dirty water hot dogs smeared with Bertmans Ballpark Mustard. They were delicious.

   A tarp at the top of the bleachers was flapping mad as a hatter in the hard wind blowing in off the lake. “I sat second row from the top of the bleachers, next to some east side old timers who brought their own pulled pork sandwiches in foil and a thermos of special coffee,” said Todd Rejna. “Season ticket holders had the top row. As soon as they got there, they pulled out a cordless screwdriver and a rolled up blue tarp from under their bench. They screwed the tarp up to the bottom of the giant scoreboard as a wind block. When the game was over, they took it down, rolled it up, and stuffed it under the bench for the next week.”

   The Browns scored first when Leroy Hoard corralled a duck from Bernie Kosar and went eight yards for a touchdown. Matt Stover kicked the point. The Oilers came right back when Ernest Givens took a seven-yard pass from Warren Moon in for the score. Al Del Greco kicked the point. After Brian Brennan caught another eight-yard pass from Bernie Kosar for a score, the stadium shuddered with cheers whoops clapping seats being slammed up and down and stamping shoes and boots. “We’re done for sure,” I said to Dick, the concrete shaking beneath my feet. “This place is going to collapse any minute.” The feet were stamping to stay warm as much as they were to show appreciation for the offensive showing. Nobody worried overmuch when Del Greco kicked a late field goal. The Browns went into the locker room ahead 14-10.

   I headed for the bathroom, along with thousands of other men all at the same time. The bathrooms didn’t bother with urinals. Instead, there were troughs. By the time I found a spot they were overflowing. The sinks were overflowing with urine. The floor drains were fair game, too. Many of my fellow men were trashed on beer. The man taking a leak next to me was one handing his business and singlehanded rolling a joint. Everybody went with the flow. The only thing that saved the day was that many kidneys had frozen up and shut down. My shoes were sticky when I walked out of the bathroom. After the game, walking up East 9th St. back to the Park Centre on East 13th St. and Superior Ave, I could still smell pee and beer.

   The stadium was on the south shore of the lake and cold, even on the best of days. The wind never stopped whipping off the lake. Other than the bleachers, which were wide open, there were huge beams that blocked the view from many of the seats. The color scheme inside the stadium was gray under a gray sky. The grass on the field was mostly dirt and weeds. It looked like it was painted green. There were old bedsheets with bad words scrawled on them hanging over the rails.

   Both quarterbacks had aired the ball out in the first half, but ball control and field position became the name of the game after halftime. The third quarter was either a defensive struggle or it was getting darker colder windier and nobody wanted to be on the field too long. Browns coach Bill Belichick and Oilers coach Jack Pardee played it close to the vest. It was one punt after another. When the fourth quarter started it was back to the air. Bernie Kosar and Warren Moon both put the ball up 40 times that day. They both threw an interception. When Bernie Kosar did it an 80,000-man groan went up. After the turnover some guy dropped stink bombs from a catwalk. For a few minutes the stadium smelled like rotten eggs.

   The game went down to the wire, the Oilers finally winning when Warren Moon flipped a two-yarder to Haywood Jeffries for a 17-14 win. The air went out of the crowd. It all smelled flat and stale when the hands of the big clock spelled out the final score.

   The first Cleveland Browns game at Municipal Stadium was on September 6, 1946. They hosted the Miami Seahawks. The game drew 60,135 fans, at the time the biggest crowd to ever see a professional football crowd. It was a laugher. The Browns won 44–0. The bleachers became the Dawg Pound in the 1980s. Fans wore dog masks, barked and howled, and threw dog biscuits at opposing players. There wasn’t a lot of barking when Dick and I left the stadium after the loss, although stale biscuits were still flying high.

   Dick cleared off a table at the Park Pub, made hot toddies with whiskey lemon juice and cinnamon sticks for both of us, while Teresa came down and made grilled cheese sandwiches. We made small talk about the game, although to Dick a win was a win, and a loss was a loss. I found out later he had money on the Oilers. I didn’t have money on anybody because I didn’t have much money. The lowest paid player on both football teams was a rich man. The highest paid man on my one-man payroll was me, but my bank account was stuck in neutral. Teresa was a good egg and made me another sandwich.

   Five years later the stadium was torn down. The team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. The Browns bided their time. The debris from the stadium was dumped offshore to create an artificial reef. All the games the Indians and Browns played at Municipal Stadium for more than sixty years became food for the fish. The losses left a bad taste, but the wins were like yellow perch to the local walleye who fed on them.

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.”

Wheel of Fortune

By Ed Staskus

   It was 10 minutes before 5 o’clock on a Friday that Dave Myers asked me to come into his office. I knew his intention was to get rid of me. Efficient Lighting was going downhill fast. There wasn’t much that was efficient about it anymore. I also knew I wanted to stick it out before it all went to hell and the doors closed for good. There was still some blood in the turnip. All I had to do was somehow convince Dave to let bygones be bygones.

   That was going to be easier said than done. Dave was a soft-spoken son of a gun whose bite could be worse than his arrogant bark. When I walked into his office and saw him with his Daschund in his lap, sitting behind his St. Bernard-sized desk, I thought if I played my cards right, I might have a chance. Dave was high-handed but he could be flighty, too.

   Efficient Lighting was the parent company of several children. We sold commercial lighting of all kinds for all kinds of uses, from illumination to heat to disinfection. Our big seller was Light Sources tanning bulbs. We sold them by the boat load, although the boats had been getting smaller and smaller since the late 1990s, after tanning beds got mixed up with cigarettes. It was a slow death, but it was the kiss of death. Fewer and fewer people wanted to risk cancer for a drop-dead tan.

   The first time I met Dave Myers was at the Light Sources offices and factory in Connecticut. Our sales guys were there for a tour of the plant, to see how fluorescent UV bulbs were made. When we were introduced to him, I couldn’t help noticing his office was spacious, something on the order of ten times the size of my cubicle. He was some sort of engineer executive in charge. It seemed he was close to Christian Sauska, the grand poohbah of the operation. I found out later he was married to a gal from the Sauska clan.

   Light Sources went back to 1983, back to Hungary, when Christian and some long-gone buddies got the company off the ground. All the top guys in Connecticut were Hungarians. Dave Myers was enough Hungarian to count as one of the guys. When Light Sources engineered a takeover of Ultraviolet Resources International, the top dog child of Efficient Lighting, they sent Dave Myers to Brook Park, Ohio to run the show. He became our Dutch uncle.

   Doug Clarke was the owner operator of Efficient Lighting. He had built a state of the art 45,000 square foot warehouse and offices in Brook Park at the turn of the millennium, across the street from the Holy Cross Cemetery, after more than fifteen years in the light bulb business, most of them in Lakewood, next to the I-90 highway. When Light Sources took control of Ultraviolet Resources everything stayed the same for a while. Everybody stayed right where they were. I stayed in my cozy cubicle where everything was at arm’s reach. The only change was that Doug was kicked upstairs and Dave took over Doug’s ground floor office and day-to-day operations.

   I was a jack of all trades, working general lighting salt-water fish lighting and tanning bulbs. Everybody was the boss of me at the same time nobody knew what to do with me. I kept my head down and kept moving through the weeds. I went to all the meetings and tried not to doze off. I had trouble concentrating on the blather.

   The second time I met Dave was at a trade show in Las Vegas. By the end of the day I thought, “This guy must get the same briefing the President of the United States gets every morning.” He seemed to know everything about anything and everything. I never ventured an opinion in his presence after that. I didn’t need a downpresser man turning me over every chance he got.

   I was civil to Dave from the day he showed up to the day he left for greener pastures with Beavis and the Buttheads. The family firm were splitting up and the day they would split up for good was fast approaching. Kathy Hayes, Doug’s wife, had brought her brothers and sisters into the business one after the other. They were all on the verge of jumping ship and boarding the USS Traitorous.

   Patty Hayes was our sales manager for the moment, but she was too mild-mannered to last and didn’t last. John Hayes, Kevin Hayes, and Maggie Hayes ran the show. They were mean-spirited and fit the bill. They rotated who was Beavis and who were the Buttheads on a near daily basis. Maggie did her best to be Beavis as often as possible. She took the trophy home more often than not. Kevin took personality lessons from Dave. John handled big accounts and tried to look too busy to care about trophies. What he cared about was his super-sized paycheck. Kevin’s wife was our long-time bean counter. There was no rolling the dice with her. She controlled the bones.

   Dave and the B & B crew were on the verge of leaving Brook Park and buying a bigger building in Westlake. They were dreaming up a new business venture with Wisconsin-based Tan-U, a regional distributor in the upper Midwest. They had plans for the top of the world.

   “As the indoor tanning industry evolves into a more mature market, consolidation makes a great deal of business sense,” Dave said. “I can’t think of another company which could result in a better fit and look forward to cementing the new company’s position as a major player in the market.” Dave could be blunt when he was doing his maven man song and dance, but he was a big fan of corporate snake oil, too.

   He started by asking me if I liked my job.

   “Sure,” I said.

   “Are you satisfied with how things are going?”

   “Sure,” I lied. 

   “What are your goals?”

   He was getting to be too much with his business school questions, but I played along. I made up some goals. Dave liked the sound of his own voice far more than he liked the sound of anybody else’s voice. I kept it short. The less said the better, unless I wanted to be treated like a country cousin.

   He nodded, looking down, stroking his dark brown middle-aged wiener dog, thinking my goals over. I knew it was in one ear and out the other. The dog was recovering from hip surgery. One of my middle-aged hips hurt. I was taking yoga classes. I was taking two three a week.

   He started explaining how the business world works. He was oily and patronizing while talking at me. He told me that to understand how business works, you must have a firm understanding of how people think and behave, how people make decisions, act on those decisions, and communicate with others. At its core, every enterprise is a collection of people whose work and processes can be reliably repeated to produce a particular result.

   “Do you understand what I’m getting at?” he asked after tossing me his guidance counselor crumbs.

   “Sure,” I said. “How is your dog doing?”

   “Much better,” he said. “Thanks for asking.” He described the limp the dog had had to live with, the operation, his recovery, and the first day the purebred had stepped out on grass and run a few steps, wagging its tail. He brought the animal to work every day. He slept in a custom-made bed in the corner. He ate a special diet catered to him in special doggie bowls. Dave encouraged the dog to follow at his heels whenever he went anywhere in the building to build its strength back up.

   “If there’s one thing that man loves without a shred of contempt, it’s that dog,” I thought.

   We talked about pets, animal cruelty and animal rescue, the companionship of dogs, the loyalty of dogs, and whether dogs were better people than people. By the time he was done, since he did most of the talking, it was past six and he said he had to pack up for a weekend trip. He gave me a bottle of fancy wine from the 100-or-more bottle custom-made walnut wine rack in his office. 

   “Thanks, Dave,” I said, hefting the bottle like a trophy. It was probably worth more than my paycheck that week. Maybe I could sell it on eBay. Maybe I would just pour it down the drain.

   He had forgotten to fire me. I tiptoed away to my cubicle got my stuff and left. In the parking lot I saw Dave’s luxury four door ride and his natty ragtop sports car. They were parked on either side of my Saturn. I made sure to not dent scratch or otherwise molest one or the other. The last thing I wanted was another lecture from a clubhouse lawyer.

   When Westlake was ready for Ultraviolet Resources International, Dave, John, Kevin, Maggie, Kevin’s wife the cagey accountant, somebody’s dodgy sister-in-law, and some others of the sales force went to the outer-ring suburb. Our building felt half-empty after that because it was. We were going to struggle for the next three years until all the downsizing that could be done was done and the building had to be sold. I was one of the last to be laid off, but I didn’t mind. There was hardly any work left for me to do, anyway.

   The next thing I heard through the grapevine was that my Dutch uncle wasn’t with Ultraviolet Resources anymore and wasn’t anybody’s trick cyclist anymore. He was up to his own tricks. He had set up an ISO Italia office near the Chagrin Highlands, with a full-time secretary and part-time warehouseman, selling high-end Italian tanning beds and shoddy Canadian-made Sylvania tanning bulbs. I was sure he could explain away the performance problems of his UV bulbs.

    The following year I heard he had been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with insider trading. He had always been bullish about the stock market. I wasn’t so sure he could explain that away. The cops didn’t usually like it when their suspects talked down to them.

   “Baltimore-based consultant Brett Cohen received coded e-mails from a fraternity brother about two biotechnology companies and passed the information to an uncle, David Myers, of Cleveland, Ohio who traded on the tip,” the SEC said.

   The fraternity brother got the information from his real brother, who was a patent agent for California-based Sequenom, which made genetic analysis products. The patent agent passed along non-public information about the company’s plans to acquire Exact Sciences. Dave bought 35,000 shares of Exact Sciences on the sly before the acquisition was announced.

   The news sent Exact Sciences’ stock up 50 percent, setting Dave up to pocket first class profits by selling most of the stock over the next few weeks. “David Myers garnered more than $600,000 in profits trading on the inside information,” the SEC complained.

   The patent agent also passed on tips about an up-coming announcement that investors should no longer rely on Sequenom’s data about its Down syndrome testing. Dave bought Sequenom options just before the announcement, which caused a 75 percent drop in the company’s stock, according to the SEC complaint.

   “Myers later sold that entire position for illegal profits of more than $570,000,” the SEC reported. Dave knew how to put his nose to the grindstone when he had to. He knew how to generate cold hard cash out of nothing and spend it on himself, no problem. 

   On top of everything else, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California filed criminal charges against Brett Cohen and Dave Myers. The Dutch uncle was going to have to spend some of his moolah on a mouthpiece. They both pled guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud. 

   “Holy Moses,” I thought, putting down the news and shutting off my Apple iPad. I didn’t wish Dave any real harm, but it was a relief to know he didn’t know everything after all. I had forgotten the wiener dog’s name but wished him the best, on and off the leash, although I thought he would be better off if he made a break for it, so long as his new hip was good to go. No good dog wants to end up a bad to the bone jailbird.

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.”

Three Blind Mice

   By Ed Staskus

   Monday morning, the 1st day of October, the weather was good, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week in the Ohio Valley or on the East Coast. In two weeks to the day, it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day, it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday. The presidential election was coming up next month. “We Like Ike” was the word of the day.

   By the time the sun was up and running Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They arrived at the underground Union Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, riding a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The Terminal Tower office complex foundations were 250 feet deep. More than a thousand buildings were demolished finding space for it in 1924.  When it was done in 1927 it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. The first Nickel Plate Railroad train pulled into the station two years later to hurrahs.

   The station was in the prime of its life, but President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its kind, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.

   “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he explained, without a doubt in his mind about the right-of-way of his road project. It had been in the back of his mind since the Louisiana Maneuvers before the war. It was when his U. S. Army trucks got stuck all over the place because of the country’s bad roads that he said to himself, “We need better roads.”

   The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had spray cleaned the monument over the weekend, showering it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime. The hometown vermin didn’t appreciate it, but what could they do?

   The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft on top of a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with all the names of the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who were shot dead during the war by Johnny Reb.

   “Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said again, turning to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor. The Hotel Cleveland was shaped like an “E” opening onto Superior Avenue. Mr. Brindle’s mouth puckered like an “O” when he said “morning.” The one thousand rooms were built in 1918 by the Van Sweringen brothers, who built the Union Terminal Station ten years later.

   Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, meant the keys to the federal purse-strings to him. He was going to try to loosen those strings. He knew how to roll with the punches if he had to. He knew it was a rat race.

   The mayor’s father had been a shepherd in Italy, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he emigrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out for peanuts in bitter undercards.

   Dwight Eisenhower was giving a speech in the hotel to the faithful, taking a short break, and then giving a speech in front of Higbee’s beside the monument to friends enemies passersby loafers and the lunch crowd. Downtown Cleveland was spic and span. The commander-in-chief liked what he saw. The dummies in the window of a clothes shop on Euclid Ave. came to life and waved when he and Mamie passed by. Ike tipped his hat smiling broadly.

   It was noon on the dot when he greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and tossed at look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He strode up some stairs to the speaker’s platform. He was giving his speech at twelve-thirty.

   He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving the same stump speech. His mouth had gone dry, and palms rubbed chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits. He rubbed somebody’s dandruff out of his eyes. When he looked, a dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.

   Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument to the roof and to the base of the polished black stone column. The three rats could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough. 

   Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.

   “The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd. 

   “That’s right!” a loudmouth yelled from the crowd.

   Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution floating up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores. 

   The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out. 

   His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits. Thank God for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thought, basking on a day off.

   Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. He didn’t know where he came from. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse, even though he was a rat. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the rodents couldn’t contain their curiosity.

   “This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”

   “That’s what they all say, “somebody bellowed.

   Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument an all-day dream diner for rats. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.

   The pickings today were going to be out of this world.

   In the wild they were vegetarians, but city life was different. They ate almost anything they could get. None of them liked cheese. No rat they knew liked cheese. They laughed at the traps filled with shavings of it. They weren’t looney tunes. Besides, they could smell the hand of the craft of man on carefully prepared cheese and knew to beware.

   “The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”

   “What about the Bonus Army?” a harsh voice called out. “Whadda ya got to say about that?”

   Luke had recently chewed up a front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed a feature article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.

   “The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them earnestly proclaimed “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost-of-living increase was twenty times as great.”

   Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying grift of the campaign trail wash over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three rats stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.

   President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.

   The rodents ate almost anything but avoided ice cream. They loved Canadian bacon more than anything. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes all rolled up in one, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, taking their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company. 

   She brought them bits of bacon mixed together with nuts.

   The nut lady worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and oily rich walnuts. Morrow’s Nut House was on the corner, on the intersection, at a CTS bus stop where passengers lingered waiting for their ride. The shop pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.

   Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for her today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man? They were ready to vote for Ike at a minute’s notice.

   But they had better things to do with their time. They were their own men. The three rats had girlfriends, Mary, Suzy, and Perla waiting in the wings ready to make nice.

   “Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.

   The crowd had dispersed. The lunch time crowd went back to work. The shoppers went back to the stores. The loafers went back to loafing.

   Eaka Mouse knew exactly what Bert meant. It was juice it up and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.

   “Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

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.”

Law of the Land

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved from the near east side of downtown Cleveland to Carpenter, Ohio the post office there had been gone more than ten years. The Baptist church was still standing, but the minister didn’t live in the whistle-stop. He drove in on Sundays, performed his mission, and drove away after shaking a few hands. I went to the service one morning, but the minister looked like the talent scout for a graveyard, and it was the last time I went. The general store had closed even before the post office, which was good for Virginia Sustarsic and me, because that is what we moved into, staying the spring summer and into the early fall.

   The post office was opened in 1883 and stayed there until 1963. Nobody knew who the town was named for, although three men who had been natives of the place took credit. There was Amos Carpenter, an old geezer who talked too much, Jesse Carpenter, a farmer who hardly ever talked, and State Senator J. L. Carpenter, who only talked when it counted. He brought tracks and a railroad station to the town. Those were long gone, too.

   It wasn’t my idea to go live local yokel on the banks of Leading Creek, but Virginia argued living in the country was the way to go. She was a hippie and wore its ethos of going back to the roots on her sleeve. I countered that the hippies happened in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, flowered in college towns like Austin and Ann Arbor, and were trucking along in cities like Omaha, Atlanta, and Cleveland. We were both from Cleveland, born of immigrant stock, she Slovenian and me Lithuanian.

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

   A friend of ours with a van drove us and our stuff to Carpenter, dropped us off, and waved goodbye. I had never been there before. Virginia had been there twice, having a friend who lived in that neck of the woods. It took less than ten seconds to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. We stashed everything away in the sturdy but dilapidated 19th century-era store and walked up Carpenter Hill Rd. to Five Mile Run, detouring down what passed for a driveway to a small house where Virginia’s friend and his bloodhound lived.

   He was somewhere between not young and middle-aged, lean and scraggly, literate and friendly. He was the kind of man who was a hippie long before there were hippies. He read lots of books and smoked lots of weed. There was a Colt cap and ball pistol on his coffee table, laying there as relaxed as could be. It was a Walker .44. It was big, old as dirt, spic-n-span workable. 

   “That’s an imposing handgun,” I said.

   “They call it the Peacemaker,” he said. “Even though it can get you into a load of trouble the same as not. I call it the Devil’s Right Hand.”

   He shot rabbits with it for his stew pot. The large percussion revolver could have taken deer in season. He let me shoot it at a tree later that summer. It was heavy when I lifted it. I shot it stiff-armed expecting more recoil, which turned out to be modest. What I didn’t expect was the “BOOM!” at the end of my arm. I was glad I missed the tree. Even though it was a full-grown maple the ball hitting it might have put it on the woodpile.

   We spent a week sweeping dusting cleaning arranging the ground floor front room of the general store. There were two storerooms in the back and an upstairs we didn’t mess with. Two long broad oak tables served as platforms for working and preparing food. We ate in rocking chairs we set up at one of the windows. We found a braided round rug in a closet, beat the hell out of it, and rolled it out in the middle of the floor.

   After laying in a garden, we stuck a scarecrow of Grace Slick on a stick to guard the plot. The scarecrow, however, fell down on the job. Birds shat on her and rabbits ran riot. We ended up hunting and gathering.

   A kitten walked in out of the blue one morning, worn out and hungry as a horse. He was white with a black blob on his chest and a masked face. Virginia gave it a bowl of water, but we didn’t have cat food. “We should go into town, get some, and some food for us, too,” I said.

   Virginia was a genius at living off the land, but we still needed some store-bought stuff, salt pepper coffee pasta peanut butter and pancake mix, as well as toilet paper. The outhouse was bad enough without the comfort of Charmin.

   There were two municipalities within driving distance, Athens, which was 15 miles northeast of us, and Pomeroy, which was 17 miles southeast. Ohio University was in Athens, had several grocery stores, and plenty of citizens our own age. Pomeroy was on the Ohio River, was notorious for being repeatedly destroyed, and there was nobody our age there. We never went to Pomeroy except once to look around.

   The town was consumed by fire in 1851, 1856, 1884, and 1927. The floods of 1884, 1913, and 1937 were even more disastrous. 1884 was an especially bad year, what with fire and flood both. Why the residents kept rebuilding the place was beyond us, although we speculated they must have been plain stubborn.

   We stopped at the courthouse to lay eyes on the excitement. We had read in “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” that there is a ground floor entrance to each of its three stories, the only one of its kind in the world The sight of the phenomenon wasn’t all that exciting. A plaque explaining that the courthouse served as a jail for more than 200 of Morgan’s Raiders after their capture in the Battle of Buffington Island during the Civil War caught our attention. It was exciting to learn that Ohio boys had gotten the better of Johnny Reb when they ventured north.

   The county seat of Meigs County is mentioned in Ripley’s a second time for not having any cross streets. We took a stroll and didn’t see any. It didn’t seem deserving of mention in Ripley’s, but what did we know?

   Once he had a steady supply of food, out kitten got better and bigger. He spent his days outside and after sunset inside. He learned fast there were plenty of hungry owls, racoons, and coyotes in the dark. At first, when he was a tyke, he slept on top of my head at night. As he grew, I had to move him to the side. It was like wearing a Davey Crocket racoon hat to bed. 

   Meigs County, in which Carpenter lay, is 433 square miles with a population of around 20,000, or 54 people per square mile. Where we came from, Cuyahoga County, it was more like 3,000 people per square mile. At night in the middle of Meigs County it often seemed like 2 people per square mile, Virginia and me.

   There wasn’t much crime in the county, thank goodness, because the law enforcement amounted to one sheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six deputies. We had been in town a week-or-so when the sheriff stopped by to say hello. He was a pot-bellied man with fly belly blue eyes. He made sure we had the cop and fire department phone numbers even though we didn’t have a phone. He warned us not to mess around with the marijuana market. Virginia made roach clips for sale in head shops, but only smoked so much, and said so. 

   “No, I don’t mean that girlie,” he said. “I don’t care what you do on your own time. What I mean is, don’t mess with the growers. They’ve got it tucked in all around here. Some of them have been to Vietnam and back, and they learned a thing or two from Charlie. Even the DEA is careful when they chopper around these hills spraying their crop.”

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

   Meigs County is on the Allegheny Plateau. It is especially hilly where we were. The soil isn’t the greatest. The top crop by far is forage, followed by soybeans and corn. Layers and cattle are the top livestock. The marijuana growers hid their fruitage in corn fields, where it was hard to spot.

   Moonshine was made from the first day Meigs County was settled, for themselves and for whenever a farmer needed hard cash in a hurry, as long as they were near water and could haul a barrel of yeast and a hundred feet of copper line to the still. The yeast is stirred with sugar and cracked corn until it ripens. When the mash is ready it’s poured into an airtight still and heated. When it vaporizes it spirals through copper pipes, is shocked by cold water, returns to its original liquid form, and drips into a collection barrel.

   After that it is ready to go and all anyone needed was a fast Dodge to get it to market.

   The marijuana growers were mostly young, a loose-knit group known as the Meigs County Varmits, which was also the name of their championship softball team. They drove Chevy and Ford pick-ups. They stopped by and said hello, just like the sheriff. One of them told us to keep our heads down the middle of October.

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

   “That’s when we harvest our green and that’s when the state cops and Feds get busy. You’ll see their cars and spotter planes. They ask you any questions, play dumb. You hear any noise, ignore it.”

   They had a hide-out in the woods where they had private stoner parties. Hardly anybody knew where it was, although everybody called it Desolation Row. It was some bench car seats thrown down on the ground and a rude shelter.

   Meigs County Gold was high quality highly sought weed. It was the strain of choice for the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson when they toured Ohio and West Virginia. Meigs County folk learned to not lock their cars and to keep their windows partly rolled down when they went to the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus or Kings Island near Cincinnati.

   When I asked why, a man said, “Because people see the Meigs County tag and it’s almost for sure you’ll have busted windows if you don’t. They will be looking for your pot.”

   Our pots and pans were always filled with grub Virginia gleaned in the forest lands where she found nuts greens fruits and tubers. She collected walnuts chestnuts papaws raspberries blueberries and strawberries. She dressed up salads with dandelions fiddleheads and cattails. In the late summer she hunted for ginseng, selling it to a health food store in Athens.

   She kept two goats in a shed. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They were more trouble than they were worth, especially after one of them head butted the minister who walked over late one Sunday morning inquiring about my spiritual frame of mind. The goat lowered his head and got him from behind, in the butt, knocking him down. He scuffed up his hands breaking his fall and got mad as the devil. He told the sheriff about it and the sheriff had to stop by and warn us to keep our goats civil.

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

   Carpenter was the kind of place where tomorrow wasn’t any different than a week ago. But it had its moments. A week-or-so after the sheriff paid us his official visit, we watched him drive slowly past our grocery store summer home on State Route 143 dragging an upright piano on rollers behind him, chained to his rear bumper. A deputy was walking beside the piano trying to keep it from falling over. It looked like a bad idea on the way to going wrong. We waved but didn’t ask any questions.

   Our nearest neighbor was Jack, his two brothers, and their mother, on the other side of Leading Creek, a quarter mile down the state route. Velma looked like she could have been their grandmother, but Jack Jerome and Jesse called her mam. It was a one-story house with a front porch. They had running water and a bathroom, but no cooking stove or furnace. Velma did the cooking in the fireplace and they heated the house with the fireplace and a cast-iron potbelly stove. It was more than we had, which was just the potbelly thing.

   “Food cooked in a fireplace tastes better than food cooked any other way, including charcoal grills,” Velma said. It was big talk, but she backed it up. She might not have been able to whip up a cake or a souffle, but she made just about everything else. We never turned down an invitation to dinner.

   There were always half-dozen-or-more barely alive cars and trucks in their backyard, which was more like a field. There was a chicken house and a pen for pigs. They slaughtered and smoked their own pork. There was a big deep pond near enough to the house and they let us go floating and swimming in it whenever we wanted. They had an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, even though they didn’t mess around with marijuana. Moonshine might have been a different matter. 

   “How come you’ve got all those guns?” I asked Jack.

   “That’s how our daddy raised us,” he said.

   They were born and bred right there. The folks in the ranch-style houses up Carpenter Hill Rd. avoided them. Sometimes when we went swimming the sheriff’s car was there. I had the impression he wasn’t there on lawman business, but rather visiting.

   By the end of summer, we realized we couldn’t stay. The Velma family already had enough cords of dried wood beside their house to keep themselves warm if winter went Siberian in Ohio. We didn’t even have a pile of twigs. We could have ordered coal, which was plentiful, but neither of us had ever started and stoked a coal furnace. We didn’t know anything about air vents. All we knew was dial-up thermostats for gas furnaces.

   Our friend returned with his van and helped us move back to the Plaza Apartment in Cleveland. Prospect Avenue was the Wild West, but winter was coming, and it would be quiet for a while. We wouldn’t need a Peacemaker. We said goodbye to Virginia’s hippie friend and his bloodhound, and to Jack up the hill. Jerome and Jesse had gone hunting waterfowl, the first day for it. Velma gave us an apple pie for the drive home.

   The cat, who was left-handed and so went by Lefty, decided to stay. He wasn’t a city boy. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Lefty had made friends with all the cats and dogs a half-mile in every direction, knew how to sneak into the grocery store closed doors or no doors, and had grown up enough to take care of himself. We slit open the 20-pound cat food bag and opened it like a book. We left it on the floor so he and his friends could have a party.

   When we drove away, he was sitting on his haunches on the gravel in front of the store’s double front doors. I watched him in the rearview mirror and Virginia waved goodbye through the open passenger window. The last I saw of him he was sauntering into the high Meigs County grass.

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.”

Flower Power

By Ed Staskus

   My father was a firm believer in the harder you work the better your station. He meant better car better house more money in the bank better everything. He was a refugee from Lithuania, getting out of Europe in 1949 with a duffel bag and twenty-five dollars in his pocket. By the time he got to Sudbury, Ontario, he was down to five dollars, but found employment at a cement factory the next day. Even though I wasn’t sure the long march to better was better, I was barely 15 years old the summer of 1966 and not about to argue with him.

   When I came home from the two-week Lithuanian boys and girls summer camp on Wasaga Beach I was immediately put to work. My father got a job for me on the chain gang of a landscaper who was redoing the grounds at Mt. Sinai Hospital. We trimmed trees, ripped out dead shrubs replacing them with new ones, buried bulbs and planted flowers.

   Mount Sinai Hospital began in 1892 as the Young Ladies’ Hebrew Association “caring for the needy and sick.” It opened as a hospital in 1903 on East 32nd Street, catering to east side Jews, then moved to a bigger building on East 105th Street in 1916. In time it became the healthcare provider to Cleveland’s urban poor.

   My number one assigned thankless chore was helping unload soggy clods of rolled-up sod and laying them down to make new lawns. That meant removing the old grass and some of the worn-out soil beneath it, preparing the ground with a bow rake, breaking up large chunks, laying the sod, neatening the edges, and finally watering it. Handling the hose was the easiest best part of the job. By the end of the first day, I was damp dirty tired and underpaid. 

   I got a ride every morning from Val, a Lithuanian American like me home from college. He drove a 1960 Plymouth Valiant with push-button transmission shifters. There was no button for park, but there was a lever for it. Moving the lever to the end put the transmission into park and popped out whatever button was in gear. It was for laughs watching him smack the buttons from first to second to drive.

   We hopped on I-90 at East 185th St. and took the Liberty Blvd. exit, driving along the winding road through Rockefeller Park to the work site. The 200-acre park was given to the city by John D. Ruthless in 1897. Four stone bridges carried traffic and trains over the road, there was a lagoon for rowing fishing and ice skating at the end of it, and a couple dozen Cultural Gardens down the three-mile length of it.

   The gardens are a series of landscaped green spots honoring ethnic communities in Cleveland, set up from the south shore of Lake Erie to University Circle. The first one was the Shakespeare Garden in 1916, which later became the British Garden. The Cultural Garden League carved out the next one, the Hebrew Garden, in 1926. After that they were off to the races. In the next ten years 14 more gardens were created, including the Italian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian. The idea was to rave on the city’s immigrant groups, which at the time made up about a third of the population.

   In 1936 the city unified the gardens with bordered paths. Busts and statues were installed in many of them. The first One World Day took place in 1946. A parade of nationality floats and bands blaring old hometown tunes started downtown at Public Square, crept six miles along Euclid Ave. to the Cultural Gardens, where there were speeches and a ceremony. Afterwards there was food, souvenir stands, strolling around the gardens, hobnobbing, and dancing to more music. By the middle of the day, it sounded like the Tower of Babel.

   We were listening to ‘Hanky Panky’ by Tommy James and the Shondells on the car radio one Wednesday, curving down onto Liberty Blvd. on our way to work, when we were brought up short by a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back. It was blocking the road. There were more Jeeps scattered in the distance. A line of cars was backing up and going the way they had come. Val pulled over to the side until a National Guardsman walked up to our car. 

   “Turn around fellas,” he said. “The road is going to be closed today, maybe the rest of the week.”

   “Why, what’s going on?” Val asked.

   “The niggers are raising hell, busting into stores, burning them down.”

   “What about the parade?” I asked. One World Day was scheduled for the weekend. My parents, brother, sister, and I always went. All my friends went. It was a big thing.

   “I don’t know about no parade, but there ain’t going to be one until things cool down.”

   “One of the Jeeps had a plastic lei hanging down from the .50 caliber gun,” said Wayne Baker who lived in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.

   The street fighting had started Monday when a black man walked into the white-owned Seventy-Niners Café at Hough Ave. and East 79th St. He asked for a glass of cold water to cool down. It had been a hot day in a hot summer. The café said no, get the hell out of here. Somebody posted a sign. “No water for niggers.” 

   One thing led to another and before long the Cleveland Police Department had a riot on its hands. The more cops who showed up the bigger the mob got. By the next day there weren’t enough policemen in the city to handle the uproar. Mayor Ralph Locher asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send in the National Guard. They showed up through the night and deployed in the morning.

   Helen Provenzano’s father got a call early that morning that all the windows in his restaurant on East 97th St. and Euclid Ave. were broken, and he should bring plywood. The eatery was the family’s bread and butter. By the end of the day there was a run on sheets of plywood at hardware stores.

    “Why are you home so early,” my mother asked after Val dropped me off. “Did you do something wrong?”

   “No, the colored people did, there’s a riot going on and we couldn’t get to work,” I said.

   In the mid-1960s 60% of Northern whites agreed that Negro students should be able to go to the same schools.70% agreed with residential integration. 80% agreed that they should be able to get the same jobs as white folks. 90% agreed that they should enjoy public transportation just like everybody else. 100% of Lithuanian Americans didn’t care what bus Negroes rode to whatever job, but the same 100% was opposed to colored kids in their schools and colored families moving into their neighborhoods. When the moving started was when the white flight started.

   My parents weren’t any different than any other Lithuanian I ever heard say anything about it. They hated the Russians, disliked Jews, and looked down on Negroes. Their culture was one of nationalism religion property and community. They thought Negroes were bad Americans, slow-moving and shiftless, belonged to the wrong religion, and didn’t respect private property.

   Where we lived there were none, at all. I delivered the Cleveland Press afternoon newspaper door-to-door six days a week and collected money for it once a week. I knew the faces of who lived on our street of 90-some houses. There weren’t any black hands on my route handing me their payment of 50 cents and a tip if they wanted their rubber-banded paper to land on the front porch the following week.

   Our high school, St Joseph’s, was the same as my paper route. I might see a black face once in a blue moon, but not in any of my classes. They were the janitors. There were lots of big Catholic families in our neighborhood of North Collinwood, and they were a solid block of European stock.

   After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the emerging Civil Rights movement, the times were slowly changing, but it was a bumpy change. Integration meant ill will and uproar. There had been a couple of incidents at Collinwood High School, a few miles southwest of us, the year before. “With the passage of each year, the western fringes of the Collinwood area are being occupied by the Negro overflow from Glenville,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the morning paper.

   The Five Points riot happened four years later. Four hundred white students and their friends milling around Collinwood High in the morning started throwing rocks, smashing more than 50 windows. The 200 newly enfranchised colored students attending the school fled to the third-floor cafeteria. When the mob stormed into the building the Negroes blocked the stairs to the third floor with tables and chairs, breaking off the legs to arm themselves. Cleveland police from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Districts poured in, forming a cordon to keep the whites from attacking the blacks who were boarding buses. 

   “Always be careful around them,” my mother said, meaning Negroes. “They might have a knife.”

   My mother and father believed African Americans went nuts at the drop of a hat. I took my parents at their word. It was always touch-and-go messing with their point-of-view. They survived three invasions while growing up in Lithuania, were in Germany during the convulsive last months of the Third Reich, emigrated to North America with just about nothing except willpower, and worked their way up to be tax-paying property-owning Republicans in the New World. They were short-tempered about anybody questioning their beliefs.

   Once, goofing around, I said, “And in this corner, still undefeated, my mom and dad’s long-held beliefs.” That was a big mistake, especially since they were within earshot.

   Hough was a powder keg the summer of 1966. Downtown was white, University Circle to the east was white, and in the middle was Hough, which was black. The housing was substandard and overcrowded. The area stores were crappy and overcharged for their wares. The cops were surly about who they were serving and protecting. When the race riot got rolling, there was rock throwing, looting, arson, and some gunfire. Four people were killed, all four of them Negroes. Two were caught in crossfires, one was killed by a white passerby while waiting at a bus stop, and one was shot by a Little Italy man who said it was self-defense. More than 30 were injured, close to 300 were arrested, and 240-some fires were set. There was an estimated $2 million in property damage, homes burned to the ground, most of them in Hough. 

   Philip Yarish’s grandmother, born at the turn of the century in Lithuania, was upset and wanted to go home to “my own place,” her home on White Ave. north of Hough Ave. She was staying with the family for the duration. The big houses all around her small house had all been made into boarding houses. It was overcrowded, but what could anybody do short on hard cash?

   Real family income rose rapidly in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1970, median family income, adjusted for inflation, rose to $20,939 from $15,637. It did, at least, if you were white. It didn’t if you were Negro. It went the other way.

   “It is a stark reality that the black communities are becoming more and more economically depressed,” Bayard Rustin wrote in 1966. “There has been almost no change or change for the worse in the daily lives of most blacks,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote in 1967. “Although it is true that the income of middle-class Negroes has risen somewhat, the income of the great mass of Negroes is declining,” Martin Duberman wrote in 1968.

   You can only do so much with less. It’s smooth sailing when there’s money in the piggybank. It’s a hard slog when the piggybank has been smashed to pieces. Living on bits and pieces is bitter and maddening.

   “The white man is reaping what he has sown. He is learning you can’t push people around. The trouble is here because the white man won’t treat the black man right,” the owner of a barber shop in Hough said. 

   A grand jury later concluded that the Communist Party, outside agitators, and black nationalists organized the haphazard uprising, but the finding was laughed off. No Communists had been seen in Cleveland for years and not even outside agitators nor black nationalists wanted to be caught dead in Hough, fearing for their safety.

   An angry crowd started a big fire at Cedar Ave. and E. 106th St. at the start of the weekend, burning down most of a block of stores, but that was the high and low point of the disturbance. Life in the ghetto returned to normal on Sunday and the next day merchants started reopening. The National Guard was released from duty. Val and I went back to work mid-week.

   From where we stood on the grounds of Mt. Sinai Hospital, it looked like nothing had happened. But there were two Cleveland Police cars parked at the front, and one near the back, that whole week. There had always been police cars around the hospital, but those three stayed around the clock.

   Nobody talked much about the riot, except to say, “those spades are crazy.” My parents and their friends said, “it’s a damned shame about the parade.” Val and I shouldered on for another two-some weeks. When the project was done, we were sent out to Bratenahl, mowing lawns for the millionaires who lived in the east side lakeside mansions.

   Our last day, which was payday and Friday, driving home on Liberty Blvd, the Cultural Gardens looking great in the full summer sun, Val said, “Have you noticed there isn’t an African American garden?”

   “No,” I said.

   “They were some of the first immigrants, not that they wanted to come here, but still, you would think there would be a garden for them, especially since this is all in their neighborhood.”

   “I guess so,” I said.

    Val was five years older and wiser than me. He was going to an east coast college, majoring in philosophy. He wore his hair long. Some Lithuanians called him a dirty hippie, even though he worked like a sharecropper.

   The idea of building a garden for Cleveland’s colored community was brought up in 1961 by Cleveland councilman Leo Jackson. He proposed a “Negro Cultural Garden.”  The mayor supported the proposal, but it was voted down by his finance committee. In 1968 the idea came back, including a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated that year, to stand in the middle of it. Nothing came of the comeback until 1976, when Congressman Louis Stokes brought it to life again. Ground for the garden was broken and dedicated in 1977, but the project remained unfinished until 2016, almost forty years later.

   When we turned off Liberty Blvd., curving onto the entrance ramp to I-90, Val punched the spunky Valiant’s push buttons through its gears, and we rode the current of rush hour traffic back to North Collinwood. The weekend was tomorrow. We were both ready as could be.

   “I’m glad to be going home,” I said.

   “It’s shelter from the storm, man,” Val 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.”