Down to the Waterline

By Ed Staskus

   The summer Jeff Saghy and I went to New York City for a working weekend it is doubtful we would have gone to see the Twin Towers. They were just two more office skyscrapers in skyscraper city. We would not have gone to eat at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, either. But we were staying next door, at the Marriott, it had been a long Saturday, so we walked over and took one of the jumbo elevators up into the sky.

   The hotel had been collateral damage eight years earlier. Diehard towelheads parked a rental truck loaded with 1,500 pounds of explosives in the North Tower’s parking garage below the ballroom. They weren’t interested in being martyrs, so they set the timer and left for their jihadi snacks of halvah and qahvah. The explosion mangled the lower and sub levels of the World Trade Center complex. It was more than a year before the Marriott reopened. 

   The restaurant opened 25 years before we ever set foot in it, in 1976, as a private club. Everybody not a member had to pay $10.00 in dues on the spot before eating there. New York magazine called it the “most spectacular restaurant in the world.” They put the food makers on a pedestal and gushed about the view.

   “Every view is brand-new, a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below is all of Manhattan. Everything to hate and fear is invisible.”

   We were wearing pressed slacks and our monogrammed trade show shirts. The slacks were OK, but our shirts sans jackets were verboten. The maître d’ rustled up spare sports jackets for both of us. Mine was several sizes too small. It was loud checked, the kind a burlesque comedian might once have donated to Goodwill.

   “All you have to do is wear it walking to your table,” the front of the room man said when I gave him an unhappy look. “Once you’re in your seat you can take it off and your server will bring it back to me.”

   I squeezed into it, enduring the local yokel looks on the way to our table. It was set inside a curved half wall. The waiters wore white jackets and black pants. They were polite. The dining room was large and fancy. The charge we put on the company credit card would have paid most of my house mortgage for the month back in Lakewood, Ohio.

   We ordered a bottle of expensive wine and stepped over to the nearest window to take in the vaunted view. There wasn’t any panorama, however. All we saw was the inky sky above us and thick gray clouds below us, down ten-or-so floors. There wasn’t a gap in them for us to see any part of the world. We ate and drank. Jeff did most of the talking. He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, although he was ladylike about it.

   I woke up in the middle of the night with an upset stomach. The booze at Windows on the World had been good, the dinner better, and dessert even better, but something wasn’t agreeing with me. It might have been something greasy I grazed on at the trade show. I dressed and went downstairs, where I drank a ginger ale. I went for a walk. It was big-city lukewarm dark. The streets smelled bad, but I felt better. I walked down to the waterline on Liberty St., ending up at Pumphouse Park. 

   It wasn’t listed in my New York City Parks Department guidebook. It was just there, next to a marina, lots of trees and flowers around an oval-shaped lawn. I walked to where there was a grove of shrubs and birch trees. I kicked back on one of the benches. In a city of eighteen million people, I didn’t see another person for the next hour, although a mean-looking black and white cat limped past without even giving me a sideways glance.

   Jeff and I and Chris Hayes and Doug Clarke, who was the big cheese at Efficient Lighting, landed at JFK International Airport in Queens on Thursday. Construction of the people-mover system was still going on, three years along, so we walked. We checked into the Marriot and took a cab to the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen. It was enormous, more than three million square feet of floor space. We had come to New York City for the annual International Beauty Show.

   “Stock up on all your salon needs at show-special pricing. Top notch education to boost your skills and business. Products and tools that will boost your business and streamline your craft. Network with like-minded colleagues and professionals,” was the way the razzmatazz went.

   We were there to showcase a new tanning bed the branch of the business under the name of Ultraviolet Resources International had developed. Chris Hayes was the nominal brains behind the Sunsource. Doug Clarke was married to Kathy Hayes, second-in-command. She was the louder by far of the couple. Her other brothers Kevin and John Hayes, and sister Maggie Hayes, were the rest of the in-charge team. Maggie was sneaky mean and always bore watching. Some more brothers and sisters from the family of thirteen came and went, hardly making a dent, except when they were at each other’s throats.

   Doug Clarke had built a state-of-the-art 45,000 square-foot multi-million-dollar warehouse and offices on nearly three acres in Brook Park, next to Holy Cross Cemetery, the year before, after ten years of leasing and outgrowing space in the Lake Erie Screw building in Lakewood. It was a new building for a new millennium. The enterprise sold lots of stuff under lots of names, commercial lighting to restaurants and municipalities, saltwater fish lights, sign lights, disinfectant lighting, but its bread and butter was tanning bulbs. We sold gazillions of the fluorescent tubes every quarter, to dealers and end users. The phones never stopped ringing. Doug and Kathy built a McMansion in North Ridgeville on the back of the bronze look.

   Doug’s wine cellar at his mansion looked like it was worth more than he was willing to pay me in my lifetime if I continued working for him the rest of my life. I didn’t like it, but I bit my tongue. I was surprised the wine he poured wasn’t better. It tasted bitter to me.

   The trade show boomed, although we didn’t. Our last-minute space was near the back of a dead-end walkway. We spent more time talking to the other vendors around us than we did talking to prospects. The end of the day Friday didn’t come soon enough. Jeff could talk all day and night, but I had long since run out of anything to say to our neighboring nail and hair folks, who weren’t selling anything, either.

   Doug and Chris were busy with other big shots, the guys who called the shots at Wolff and Light Sources, so Jeff and I went to dinner in Greenwich Village by ourselves. We didn’t know one place from another. All of them were busy. We found a table at Pico, a Portuguese eatery. The inside of the place was exposed brick and beams. We sat next to a six-foot tall wire sculpture of a rooster. Our waiter told us it was a Portuguese good luck symbol. 

   We were staring at our pemeiro prato, which included bacalao cakes with blood orange-radish salad, steamed cockles, and foie gras, when our waiter came back. He asked if we would mind sharing our table with two young women, since space was at a premium. Jeff said he didn’t mind and the next thing I knew there were two more chairs squeezing in at our table. 

   The women were in their mid to late 20s, both blonde, one of them from London and the other one from South Africa. We shared our appetizer with them while we got acquainted. The gal from London was working in NYC and living at a YWCA and the other one was visiting her friend. The South African’s family had emigrated to Savannah, Georgia from the dark continent after the Afrikaners lost their argument with the African National Congress.

   The London native had been to Pico before and recommended the Segundo prato. I ordered the dish. It included duck braised in terra cotta and roast saddle of rabbit with chickpea cake. Our newfound friends told us more about themselves, and Jeff told them all about himself. Even though he and I had worked in the same office for about ten years some of it was new to me.

   We ordered another bottle of wine midway through dinner. Before I knew it, it was after eleven. We ordered coffee and sonhos, miniature doughnuts, cinnamon-dusted puffs of dough dipped into molten chocolate and fruit fondues, for dessert. Sonhos mean “beautiful little dream” in the lingo. Nobody needs to speak Portuguese to describe their goodness.

   Jeff had been looking and talking up the cutie-pies non-stop. I didn’t like the gleam in his eye, wondering if he was angling after a farmer’s daughter in the city that never sleeps. I wasn’t a back door man, though. Besides, tomorrow was another working man’s day. I hailed a cab and coaxed Jeff into the back seat. 

   Saturday was more of the same at the trade show. We finished up mid-afternoon on Sunday. We had brought our suitcases and were ready to go as soon as soon as the whistle blew. Unfortunately, everybody else had the same idea and by the time we were out the door the plaza in front of the convention center was swarming with people. There wasn’t a cab to be had for love or money.

   We were standing around like orphans when a black man with bloodshot eyes and wearing a black suit approached us. He was wearing a white shirt, a black tie, and a black newsboy cap. He was a gypsy cabbie, driving a four-door black Volvo. 

   “Airport?” he asked.

   “JFK,” I said. 

   “$50.00,” he said.

   “Let’s go,” I said, dragging a protesting Jeff behind me. He didn’t like the black man, the black car, and the black hole of no license no regulations no insurance of the pirate transport. The man was from Nigeria. “They call our kind of driving kabu kabu there,” he said. He drove more than sixty hours a week and drove fast. He stopped some distance from the cab stand at the airport and helped carry our bags. 

   “I got to be careful about the medallion guys,” he said.

   It was just getting dark when we took off, circling northwest back over Manhattan, the lights of the city twinkling in the dusk. We flew through a booming thunderstorm that had rumbled over Ohio hours earlier and landed at Cleveland Hopkins, where our wives picked us up.

   The summer heated up, getting ungodly hot and humid on Lake Erie. I went to the office Monday through Friday and did my service work catch-as-catch-can. I would have quit my day job long since if I could have, but I needed both jobs. The office work was easy enough, and so long as I kept to myself, I could put up with my salaried co-workers. The rest of the guys and girls who punched the clock were no problem.

   My job wasn’t especially high paying since I worked for a family firm, but it was steady. Their motto was “Family First.” We had first-class health insurance, though, and I was socking money slowly but surely away in a 401K. I got two weeks paid vacation. We went to Prince Edward Island in late August, chilling out on the north coast. Manhattan is 96 times smaller than PEI, but the borough is home to 12 times as many people as the province. We didn’t have any trouble keeping ourselves to ourselves on the ocean shore.

   We got back the second weekend of September. I took Monday off to unpack and unwind from the 22-hour drive home. The next morning, I was in line at a Drug Mart cash register when I looked up and saw the Twin Towers on a TV mounted on the opposite wall. One of the buildings was gushing smoke and the newscaster was gushing alarm.

   “Christ,” I thought. “How did that happen?”

   By the time I got to work everybody was crowded into the lunchroom eyes glued to the flat screen mounted on the wall. We found out what happened was that passenger jets slammed into both buildings. We watched the 110-floor towers collapse. The Marriott Hotel where Jeff and I stayed disappeared into a pile of rubble. It looked surreal to all of us, even those of us who didn’t know what surreal meant.

   Doug walked in looking somber and told everybody to go home. It was just after 11 o’clock in the morning. The last fires at the World Trade Center site were finally extinguished in December, exactly 100 days after the terrorist attacks.

   It was a sunny day, mild and pleasant. My wife and I watched the grim news on TV the rest of the day. We had never seen anything like the Twin Towers disaster happen. Even Snapper our cat sensed something wasn’t right and spent the day in the basement.

   The next day I rode my mountain bike on the all-purpose trail in the Rocky River Metropark. The only people I saw were an older couple chatting strolling aimlessly. There were no fitness walkers, baby carriages, rollerbladers, runners, or any other bikers besides me. There were no cars on the parkway. I could have ridden down the middle of the road blindfolded. I saw flashing red and blue lights of police cars on every bridge I rode under. There were military jets screaming overhead, not that it mattered. The horse was out of the barn.

   I stopped on the far side of Tyler Barn, on the other side of a small bridge, where I spotted a fisherman going after steelhead trout. I rode through the parking lot to where he was walking out of the river. He was wearing flesh-colored waders and carrying an eight-foot rod. I could see some big fish in the creel bag slung over his shoulder. He sat down at a picnic table and started cleaning them on yesterday’s newspaper. He was wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses, and a week’s worth of whiskers. We shot the bull for a minute and talked about the terror attacks in New York City. I told him about having stayed at the no more Marriott.

   “I’ll tell you what partner, if folks concentrated on the important things in life, there would be a shortage of fishing poles, not no shortage of skyscrapers,” he said, sucking on a Lucky Strike without taking it from his lips. An easy breeze wafted the ash into the sky of the suddenly early end of summer.

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.”

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanging Tough With Mr. T

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Ham Biggar.

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

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.”