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Blairpen House Turns Twenty

By Ed Staskus

It isn’t hard finding many first-rate inns, hotels, and bed-and-breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But, finding one in the heart of Old Town less than a five minute walk from all the Shaw Festival’s theaters, as well as the shopping and restaurant district, is a little harder.

Finding one whose roots are as deep in the town as the Blairpen House on Davy Street, whose innkeeper bakes the bread and makes the yogurt, mixing in seasonal blueberries, for the European-style breakfasts is even harder.

“My father, who was going to become one of the town’s two doctors, bought this building in 1946,” said Tim Rigg of Blairpen House, a cozy and charming six-room inn a block-and-a-half from the Festival Theater.

“He and his brother renovated it and it became their office. The dining room today was their waiting room then. They practiced medicine together.”

Blairpen House, which turns twenty this year, was originally built as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s high school gymnasium in 1909. The high school, built in 1875, stood at the corner of Castlereagh and Davy Streets.

“They closed the high school during World War Two,” said Tim Rigg. “All the men were away and after the war there were very few children in town.”

Tim Rigg’s grandfather was the town doctor until 1939, and his father, Bruce Rigg, practiced medicine in Niagara-on-the-Lake until 1990, when he retired.

Bruce Rigg was a painter as well as doctor. In 2009 the Niagara Historical Society Museum hosted a retrospective of local art in the period 1929 – 1973 titled ‘The Forgotten Years’. Along with works by John Shawe and Mary Jones were exhibited several paintings by Dr. Bruce Rigg.

Two of his paintings depicting the town in the late 1940s hang on the back wall of Blairpen House’s dining room, including one of fishermen hanging their nets to dry. They are windows into a place that doesn’t exist anymore.

After his father’s death Tim Rigg, who had grown up in Niagara-on-the Lake, but was working in real estate in nearby St. Catherine’s, returned and took over the building.

“It was close to the theaters so it made sense to try to convert the building into an inn,“ he said.

The conversion from small town medical center to country inn included adding a second floor, a gable roof, and a suite to the back of the building.

“We updated the mechanical, electrical, hydro, and put in fire-rated drywall,” he said. “The footprint is the same, it’s just that everything is new, brought up to modern building standards.”

The ensuite queen rooms on the ground floor look out onto a brick patio, while the three rooms on the second floor have balconies. There is a guest lounge, a library, wi-fi and computers, as well as private parking. Sofas and chairs front a gas fireplace in the guest lounge, looking through sliding glass doors out onto the deep, backyard garden.

“It’s immaculately clean and yet welcoming,” said Julia Richardson of Toronto. “It’s quiet and literally a short walk to downtown.”

The patio and garden, with its masses of pots, plants, and thick bamboo, look like they might have come from southern France, not the Niagara Escarpment.

Along with the Shaw Festival the region’s more than eighty wineries dotting the landscape attract taste testers as well as cognoscente.

A couple from Scotland commented on their comfortable room, and especially appreciated how their used, by which they meant recently emptied, wine glasses were replaced daily. The guest lounge includes a wine cooler for convenience and an ample supply of stemmed glasses.

Growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake Tim Rigg attended both grade and high schools in town, and lived two blocks from the Royal George Theater, originally built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War One.

“It was much different then, much quieter,” he said. “There’s always been tourism, but before the Shaw Festival people often came for a few weeks and sometimes an entire month.”

Trains brought summer people up King Street and returned to Toronto and Buffalo loaded with fruit. Large trees lined Queen Street. Their canopies overlapped across the middle of the road.

But, the sleepy summer town began to change in the 1960s with the launch of what was then called ‘Salute to Shaw’. Since the 1970s the town’s many landmarks have been restored and in 2003 the Old Town was designated a National Historic District.

The Shaw Festival is what draws many theatergoers to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Blairpen House.

“We have people who come here for seven or eight days,” said Tim Rigg. “They like it here because they don’t have to drive anywhere. They try to see everything and then they go to Stratford for Shakespeare.”

In the winter book clubs come for a weekend of getting together, talking, and drinking wine.

“It’s an easy walk to the shops and restaurants,” said a book lover from Toronto.

Occasionally some reading gets done, too.

Although the inn’s great location in the Old Town is a plus, it is old-fashioned service that keeps Blairpen House humming summer and winter.

“The real value of staying with Tim and Sharon [Tim’s partner] is the service,” said Mike Scullen of Alpine, New York. “Like a Continental hotel they provide nothing short of true concierge service.”

From dining establishments to wineries to local outings the innkeepers are a wealth of information. Between them there is little they don’t know about Niagara-on-the-Lake. They even make sure there is hot milk at breakfast for anyone who might need it.

”The inn is fun. I’m up at five in the morning every day,” said Tim Rigg. “We get people from all over the world, Australia, Great Britain, all over. You meet a lot of interesting people.”

Those people include composers of movie music, former premiers of Ontario, and a scientist from the Livermore National Lab in California.

“He would sit on the patio writing poetry. His wife and he would drive up from Cornell and I always wondered how on earth they got here in a car, since they were both such very small people. I resolved to stay off the roads until they left town.”

The inn is closed for several weeks at the tail end of winter while Tim and Sharon recharge in Spain. But, even then, with their laptops and Skype at hand, they are never really closed.

“It works remarkably well.”

When asked what lay in store the next twenty years at Blairpen House, Tim Rigg had an easy answer.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing this. Our guests are on holiday. Everybody’s happy and it doesn’t seem like hard work.”

“They’ll probably have to carry me out,” he concluded, laughing wryly.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Working Up an Appetite

By Ed Staskus

   New York City’s George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. More than a 100 million cars and trucks cross it every year. The double decker suspension bridge spans the Hudson River. It opened in 1931, was widened in 1946, and a lower deck was added in 1962. Since then, billions of drivers have sat on the overpass, chewing the cud, their engines idling.

   The speed limit on the bridge is 45 MPH. During rush hour, when my wife and I drove across it, on our way north from Virginia to Cape Cod, it was 0 MPH, or less. There are innumerable stops and starts that stretch time out like silly putty and test a man’s patience. We were glad we had empty bladders, a full tank of gas, and weren’t on any kind of schedule.

   We were on a 2-week end of summer road trip. We first drove from Cleveland, Ohio to Chincoteague Island, planning on Cape Cod the second week. Chincoteague is a barrier island, floating on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline due east of Richmond. We did it in one day, leaving early and getting there late. All the roads in town have signs saying “Evacuation Route” in capital letters and red arrows pointing one way. When we pulled in the lady at the front desk of the Waterside Inn told us the only place still open to get a bite to eat was the Ropewalk. When we walked up to it most of the wait staff and some of the kitchen staff were on the front steps kicking a group of unruly patrons out.

   We waited for the fuss to die down and found a table. It was a sports bar with flat screens everywhere. We had walked in blind, and it looked like we were going to be blind-sided. Our waitress was from New Jersey, there for the summer with her boyfriend. She was friendly enough but hard to see, hidden behind tattoos and piercings.

   “I might stay here,” the young lady said, “except nobody can live here. It’s too expensive.” She lived on the other side of the causeway near Wattsville on Route 175. She wasn’t the first or last person to tell us there wasn’t enough island housing, and what there was of it was too expensive. There were plenty of retirees who had cashed in and old hippies who had cashed out. They had snapped up the real estate from Archie Cove to Hammock Point.

   Ropewalk was on the water. “How cute it would be to sit by the bay,” my wife said, pointing to the side deck. “The deck is closed,” our waitress said. We ate at a table next to a window. Our pints of eastern shore IPA were good, and the appetizer crab egg rolls were tasty. It went downhill from there. “This poke bowl tastes like nothing,” my wife said. Our poke bowls were tuna, corn, rice, and avocadoes. “The corn looks weird, too.” It was about as bland as could be, which was surprising in the home of cornpone.

   We went to Assateague Island the next day. My wife went running on the Wildlife Loop that goes around Swan Goose Pool while I walked some of it. I was breaking in an after-market hip and could only go so far. “No running,” my surgeon had told me. The next day, when we went back, somebody warned us not to hike on the Marsh Trail. “Too many bugs,” he said. While my wife went back on the Wildlife Loop for another 3-mile run, I tried the Marsh Trail. That was a mistake. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I didn’t know one hundred mosquitoes could land on a human being’s arms and legs all at once and all start biting at once. I didn’t know I could walk back to our car as fast as I did, hop-a-long hip and all.

   We went to Captain Zack’s that night. Their motto is “Yum Yum Getcha Some.” The deck was full of diners, so we stepped to the side where there was a take-out window. The kitchen was behind the slide-to-the-side glass. The man in line in front of us said, “Honestly, everything is good.” An older woman in a Mother Goose dress took our order. “I’ll call your cell phone when it’s ready,” she said. We waited at a picnic table on the dark side of the gravel parking lot.

   The soft-shell crabs were good. The sides were too much, literally. There was enough to feed a troop of marching men. We nibbled on some of it, although most of it was disappointing. They had somehow messed up the hush puppies. “How can something soggy be so dry?” my wife asked, adding, “They are supposed to be crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”

   We ate at Bill’s on Main St. two nights later. It’s been there for more than sixty years, a squat brick building with windows on three sides and raised slightly up from the sidewalk. The tablecloths and napkins are cloth and the waitresses come dressed in black and white. Our waitress had apple cheeks. “I’ve worked here since I was 21-years old, which was 21 years ago,” she said. She was a single mother and lived on the other side of the causeway. 

   We had oyster stew soup, which was oysters, country ham, butter, and heavy cream. The heavy cream set the tone. The richness of the food on Chincoteague Island was by now not a surprise. It may not always have been tasty, but it was rich, for sure. My wife had crab imperial stuffed shrimp and I had flounder. The crab died drowning in the mayonnaise. The waitress brought twice as much tartar sauce as I needed. By the time we were done and looked around we discovered we were the last patrons still in the restaurant. We waddled back to our lodgings.

   We spent the next afternoon on the beach at Tom’s Cove. The parking lot butts up to the dunes and the dunes slope down to a long beach. We eventually went for a walk, picking up rocks and spiral seashells. We met a German lady from Hamburg who had moved to Virginia forty-some years earlier. “The beach is washing away,” she said. “It’s the storms. The park service brings sand in on barges most years now to keep it from disappearing.”

   Before we left, as we were brushing sand off our feet and getting into our car, a seagull walked up and started squawking. It sounded like maniacal laughing.  We had a half-bag of waffle cone bits and pieces in the back seat, and I emptied them in front of the bird. When I did the food fight was on. Twenty or thirty more birds swooped in out of nowhere and the waffles were gone in seconds. The gulls were crying for more as we drove away.

   We had coffee and croissants several mornings at the Amarin Coffee Shop on Maddox Ave. The other thoroughfare on Chincoteague Island is Main St. The coffee shop was where the causeway from the mainland joins the island. At the other end of Chincoteague Island is another causeway that leads to Assateague Island, which is mostly a sanctuary for migrating birds, wild ponies, and a standing army of mosquitoes. We were sitting on the front deck of the coffee shop when a fit trim man in his 50s sporting a couple weeks’ worth of beard asked us how we liked the coffee. He turned out to be the freeholder.

   His name was Bernard and he had been in the armed forces, specializing in counterterrorism, until he retired. He served in the Middle East and the Far East. “I was in the swamps in the south of Iraq for a while,” he said. “Our job was nabbing foreign fighters trying to sneak into the country from Iran.” He spoke fluent Arabic and knew full well how to say, “Hands up.”

   He met his wife-to-be in Vietnam, got married, and went into his new family’s coffee-growing business. It’s labor-intensive work, grown from seed. Trees take about 5 years to bear fruit. The family grew beans in the Central Highlands, north of Ho Chi Minh City. The French introduced coffee in 1857 when a priest brought one arabica tree into the country. After the Vietnam War ended the newly unified nation became one of the world’s largest coffee producers.     

   Bernard was from Grand Rapids, but when he came back to the USA he settled in Virginia, working for NASA near Chincoteague Island. When he and his wife started importing the family’s coffee beans, he set up a roasting operation. They had a food truck, too, parked in a gravel lot behind the coffee shop. Oz made the Vietnam-themed sandwiches.

   Oz was a stocky man in his 40s who had lived in Vietnam, where his father went to run a furniture factory. Oz had advanced degrees in philosophy and history. “What that means is I know all about unemployment lines,” he said. He taught English as a second language in Vietnam until the 19 virus and his impending divorce back in the homeland brought him back home. He was pining to return to Southeast Asia.

   “It’s my beautiful place,” he said, bringing us spring rolls and a crispy pork belly sandwich on a ciabatta roll. The sandwich was the best food we had in the land of cotton, even though it was the land of corn and crabs. There wasn’t a road without a field of corn planted alongside it and there wasn’t a pit stop without crab cakes.

   The food in the south wasn’t bad, except when it was, but it was too rich for our northern palates. Everything seemed to revolve around butter and mayonnaise. When we went to Steamers for our last supper, we knew enough to split the plates. 

   Steamers wasn’t anything to look at. The front of the house had a hostess station and some desultory tables. Farther inside was a bar and lots more tables. It sounded like a party was going on back there. We sat outside on a slab of concrete surrounded by aluminum fencing. Our waitress was a middle-aged black woman who had lived there her whole life. “I live across the causeway,” she said. We had littlenecks on the half-shell with breadcrumbs and bacon. Then we had flatbread topped with clam dip. We took the waitress’s recommendation and finished up sharing deep-fried rock fish. 

   The day we left Chincoteague Island we saw a Mennonite woman in a cape dress ride by on Main St. on a bicycle. We had seen them every day here and there, usually with a civilian husband in tow. Three of them with digital cameras and long lenses were on Tom’s Cove taking pictures of the surf one windy afternoon, tugging on their haubes to keep them in place on top of their heads. The weather was the same the day we left as it had been the past six days, 80 degrees, sunny, and humid.

   When we finally crossed NYC’s George Washington Bridge the traffic jam didn’t get any better. There were too few lanes and too many cars. We inched forward like snails. I started seeing pairs of Central American-looking women on the shoulders on both sides of the roadway hawking mangoes in large, lidded plastic cups. They had coolers at their feet. When our turn came, we got a cup of them. They were the right refreshment at the right time.

   Mangoes are the national fruit of India. Apples are New York’s official fruit. We didn’t see any apples in the Big Apple. Mangoes are a stone fruit. The name comes from the Portuguese word manga from back in the 16th century. The ones we ate were red, although they also come in yellow and orange.

   “Don’t sit at home and wait for the mango tree to bring mangoes to you,” Israel Ayivor once said. “It won’t happen.” He was right. We had driven a long way to get our mangoes. The Central American women had gone far out of their way to sell their mangoes. They stood on the sides of the road breathing in rubber tire fumes and exhaust fumes and dealing with tempers fuming.

   A few months earlier, on Mother’s Day, a woman by the name of Maria Falcon was arrested for selling mangoes in a New York City subway station. She didn’t have a permit to vend. “She’s served her customers for more than 10 years,” her supporters said. “Those permits can be near impossible to obtain. There’s even an underground market where permits go for up to $20,000 each.” The police threw her fruit away and let her go. “She took a few days off to recover from her ordeal but is back out there today, because she can’t stop working,” said the Street Vendor Project.

   It was sunny and cool when we pulled into North Truro on Cape Cod. We stopped at a fish shack and bought a pound of scallops. We cut corn kernels off the cob, sauteed them in olive oil with diced Portuguese sausage, added seared scallops, drizzled squeezed lime juice with maple syrup over the top, and sat down to eat. We had white wine with dinner. The next night we boiled a pot of fresh linguine, sauteed a bag of clams, and tossed the linguine, sliced garlic, and a handful of parsley into the frying pan with the shellfish. The following night we had pan-fried cod filets with redskin potatoes. We didn’t mix up any fat-based sauces of any kind that week. We didn’t even have salad so that we wouldn’t have salad dressing. We had cleansed our palates on the George Washington Bridge and were keeping it that way.

   We had been swimming upstream like fish out of water down in Dixie but were back in the Yankee groove. When the red sky sank into the bay that night, we went to bed snug as fishermen pulling into harbor with their holds full to the gills with fruit of the sea. 

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

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Escape Velocity

By Ed Staskus

   Before Agnes ever went to the Surprise House at Euclid Beach, the city fun park, she went to Holiday Sands. It was her little brother and her friends. It was her mother Eva and their neighbor Anna MacAulay. It was old times and new times all mixed up together. Years later she thought they might have been the best times she ever had in her life. 

   They went from when she was a small girl, right after Sammy was potty-trained and she was five years old. They car-pooled with the MacAulay’s since they had a summer pass and an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser that fit all of them. Olds called the car the “Escape Machine.” Eva made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it early in the morning. She baked Texas sheet cake with buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Anna brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes they had barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and Eva’s new drink, Diet Pepsi. 

   She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made her husband Nick mad. “You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he complained. She popped a can open as soon as he went to work. Eva Giedraityte knew when to stay behind Nick Goga’s back. It hadn’t always been that way, but that’s the way it had gone.

   Anna was Eva’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. They lived across the street from one another on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas. Nick called their telephone the blower. “All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said. Eva didn’t like that. She wanted to call him a blowhard but bit her tongue.

   In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and they were ready to go they ran to the yellow car, begging Eva to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place Eva called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Agnes’s best friend Marcia and she sometimes lost track of where they were because they sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.

   Anna and Eva sat in the front talking non-stop, Eva’s arm stuck out the window, Anna steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Sammy wriggled to get next to one of the windows so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle. They were the other MacAulay girls. Marcia and Agnes watched the road going backwards. When they heard gravel crunching, they knew they were finally there and twisted around towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’ and the run-down guardhouse leaning sideways.  

   Once they got there none of them could remember getting out of the car or into their bathing suits, only the next thing they knew they were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. They drank water at the frog fountain and ran to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while their mothers spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table. 

   Their day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where they were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when they stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.

   They ate lunch and dinner like fattening calves at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. They weren’t allowed back in the lake for sixty minutes. Otherwise, they might get cramps and drown. Sometimes they would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time they never slept until the end of the day riding home on the darkening road.

   Marcia was Agnes’s bosom buddy and barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of her. She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were rusty red white and blue, striped, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were sketchy trying get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water. 

   Nobody could logroll Marcia off them once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the stuck-up east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a squid on a skateboard.

   Almost a year older than Agnes she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off the line into the water.

   “When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” she asked her mother.

   “You never will,” Eva said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”

   “How can that be?”

   The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked whenever anybody let a breath out. Agnes climbed up the twisting steps grimly holding on to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was her turn to go Marcia had to give her a shove, even though Agnes knew she could never go back down on the stairs, anyway, because with every step she would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. She slid down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning her legs as she pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch, finally heaving herself, after a dead stop at the bottom, into the water with a plop.

   Marcia put her arm around her shoulders. “If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” she told her secretly when everybody laughed about her slowdown ride. Marcia always raced it, though, scared or not.

   Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off but throwing her head up and back, she would straighten out and cracker down like a rocket.

   Whenever she felt more daring than concerned, she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down, but not Marcia, who came down slick like clean underwear.

   Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers “Water safety check, water safety check, please return to the shore” and everybody had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes. After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again. “Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system, never swim alone.” 

   Only after the safety check did everybody get to go back on the barrels and slides and diving boards. One day a boy who had been in the water didn’t make the count, and everyone thought he might have drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth, and children circled the lake, craning to see underwater, their mothers hovering over them. Finally, the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like all the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one blamed him about causing so much trouble, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out. 

   “Let’s go drift to the back of a window,” the bigger boy said smirking.

   Agnes liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was almost impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. They flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, dark gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.

   “See the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it. There’s an hourglass in his other hand. Time’s running out, let’s go play.”

   A submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch beside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind them, separated by low cypress hedges. They rode the swing at twilight in the shadows. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together her friends and she arced up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. A boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point, he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on a bare spot.

   “Oh, my Goddamn, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his cracked arm and cradling it.

   Agnes’s favorite was the corkscrew. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. She called it the peanut butter maker, although she couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The runts got on first and the rest turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until they jumped on, and the bigger boys kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest boy was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.

   The wheel started spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some crouched inside the frame, while others dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging on they were pulled parallel to the ground as the peanut butter maker spun downwards, and one by one they lost their grips and were sprayed out in all directions screaming and crying. The white sand was soft enough, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for small fry flying at them like ballistic missiles.

   “Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a dirty man lying under a tree said, his lips like pink goo, watching them, smoking a dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.

   At the end of the day, they trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. They had ice cream cones and played their favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox, drowning out the bug zapper with a pile of dead bugs under it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete. 

   “When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re frontpage news, not your steppingstone not your steppingstone not your steppingstone.” 

   They bought pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped it out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on, they cozied into the warm vinyl seats of the station wagon, wrapped in beach towels, sad that their day was over, but glad since they had been in the sun all day.

   Sometimes they were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times they stayed up and sang songs. Their favorite songs were tunes from TV and the movies. “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Sammy whooped, believing he could sing, and squirted pretend webbing at them from his wrists through the haze of Anna’s cigarette smoke. 

   Agnes loved movies like “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Dr. Doolittle.” They sang ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and ‘Talk to the Animals’ and all the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” songs since they had seen it at least three times. “You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Sammy while Marcia and Agnes finished the stanzas from the third seat. “And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”

   “Can’t you girls keep it down for a minute, just one minute,” Anna barked at them. 

   Nick never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time Eva got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser broke down, so Nick took everybody in his Buick Riviera, piling them in one on top of the other, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped them off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing Eva’s Coppertone and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course. 

   He was crazy about golf. Nick had heard talk about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it. They watched him drive away.

   “It’s not fair,” Agnes complained when he picked them up after his golf game and they had to leave early before sunset. “I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”

   “Your father had a bad game, and he wants to go home and have dinner,” Eva said in the car, her arms wrapped around Agnes while she sat on her lap. She felt cold, even though she had been in the sun all day. Nick steered fast that night, complaining about Sunny Hill, and they got home in record time.   

   Eva had pale Lithuanian skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat and globs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. Sammy and Agnes sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they ended up littering the room. Anna brought hand towels, soaked them in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.   

   Whenever Nick wasn’t working or at home eating or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than they loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes Eva said he loved golf more than the three of them. Agnes hoped it wasn’t true. She knew it was true.

   “Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he said, tapping the space between his eyebrows. “It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”

   Eva liked telling everybody her husband had great legs, and he did, too, because of the thousands of miles he walked on all the links he went to with his clients and friends.

   “I don’t play cart golf,” he declared with pride. 

   Nick always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand. He wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He fought Golden Gloves when he was young and once made it as far as the main event at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down about him from the fighting, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat slick and dark, like a street man’s.

   “How do you like your old man now?” he asked Agnes, who was watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open. 

   Eva hardly ever called him by his given name, which was Nicolae. She called him Nick when they were happy. To her children she always said he was their pop, and that was what they called him. When Sammy was a toddler, he called his father poppy, but after he started walking, he started calling him pop just like his mother and sister did. 

   Nick nicknamed his wife daughter son the Three Musketeers because they did everything together, which they did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time. He didn’t punch a clock at work but did at home. He left first thing in the morning, like clockwork. He went home only when the golf game or dinner with clients was over. 

   He never went back to Holiday Sands with them, with his wife and kids, and never became the Fourth Musketeer. Instead, inside of a few twisting and turning years, he became the Count of Monte Cristo, when the dream machine between Eva and him came slowly rolling tumbling down on all of them.

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

Theatre PEI

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Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

   Everything happened when Eva and Nick got out of whack and the adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when Eva Giedraityte, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married Nicolae Goga, a handsome Romanian man. She turned 18 the day of the wedding. He was 28. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up roadside Indiana town.    

   Afterwards, the day after the fire, Eva and Sammy and Agnes walked to Euclid Avenue and flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar ice cream. When the skinny black man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. Agnes made sure she ate all of her ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Sammy and she stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of the upstairs front bedroom, she remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Sammy and Eva and she looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.

   They didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when Eva showed them a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

   Agnes snuck a peek at her mother getting out of the car across the street where she had parked and let them out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving them towards the house with black shutters and red front door where she and Sammy had grown up. Eva wanted them to talk Nick into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a thousand times. She wanted to marry somebody else, an ex-military policeman from Rochester who was their father now, more-or-less.

   Eva’s grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of Nicolae from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie’s in Korea. That’s why Eva and Nick had to elope. Grandma and grandpa were stern and unforgiving. When they made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets hunger exhaustion, they made it. They never talked much about it, about the hardships they faced. They stayed stone-faced about it.

   When they were growing up, Agnes and Sammy didn’t see their grandparents for a long time. They had disowned Eva. Even when they were finally allowed, they hardly ever saw them because they still didn’t want to see their faithless daughter. It didn’t look like their new man was in the running either, even though he was Catholic instead of Lutheran.

   “Come on, bub,” Agnes said, starting up the walk.

   “Don’t call me bub,” Sammy said, slouching behind her with a long face.

   “I told you I don’t like you doing that,” she said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.

   “You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.

   “What does that mean?”

   Agnes was upset when she thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to her stomach when she remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when she was ten years old but closed for good. She found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and Eva told them, and later said they would go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

   But they didn’t go to Williamsburg, so they never saw the reenactments she heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like they never went back to Euclid Beach Park. They went to Fredericksburg, instead, where Nick played golf at the country club while Sammy and she dragged after Eva sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

   When Sammy complained the long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, Eva pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high window.

   “Lay down for a few minutes,” she said.

   When Agnes and she got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.

   “Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” Agnes said as they walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said.

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Sammy was born her mother told Agnes she was making a little friend for her to play with. By the time summer came she was ready to tell her mother he wasn’t what she really wanted.

   “I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?”

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

   “I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Sammy said.

   “Your father told you it’s too far,” Eva said.  

   Agnes remembered thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?

   Eva was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after her parents made their getaway from Lithuania. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. Their grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. Their grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia in the middle of the retreating Red Army, and from there found a boat to Sweden.

   When the family got to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. Grandpa got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked days there the rest of his life. Grandma got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked nights there the rest of her life.

   One of them was always at home to watch the kids.

   Nick worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was vice-president of sales, which meant he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch most days on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on all three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with their neighbors. 

   He said they were different, the neighbors. Eva didn’t know what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner, either.

   By then Eva’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited them over for picnics or holidays. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her. They had four children, all around Agnes and Sammy’s age. They hardly ever saw them. One day Eva went to their house to pick something up and she took Sammy and Agnes with her in their Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride, the ragtop down. Their aunt made them wait in the garage, shuffling in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be a Lithuanian relic she wanted Eva to deliver to an old lady who lived near them.

   When Agnes saw her at the door, Eva handing her the box, she thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Eva got married on the first day she could, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959. She and Nick met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts but got each other.

   She got hitched because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed in the kitchen, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from it all. She meant away from her stiff-necked mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore.

   Sammy and Agnes hardly knew their grandparents, although they knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was top-secret, and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central.

   Eva loved Nick the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one minute older than she had to be to get married. She wanted her own bed in her own room. She wanted her own family.

   Nick’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His father was shot dead by robbers and his mother died after Eva put her foot down and she had to move out of their house to an old folk’s home. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where Nick left plastic flowers every spring.

   The summer Sammy and Agnes started going to Euclid Beach Park, their grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, Eva volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day. One day her older sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. Eva chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. Her parents didn’t speak to her even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.

   When they went to Euclid Beach Park, racing down Lakeshore Boulevard since Eva had a lead foot, she dropped them off, and told them exactly when she was going to be back. They were to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick them up without having to get lost in the parking lot.

   The arch was underneath an old dusty giant pin oak tree. They knew it was an oak because acorns littered the grass, and knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Sammy said it was five hundred years old, but what did he know?

   Admission into the amusement park was free. They just walked in, like magic. Eva always gave them enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave them bananas, too.

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into their pockets with quarters dimes nickels.

   The first thing they did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, they could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath the second-floor platform.

   “Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Sammy always said.

   The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Sammy said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but Agnes wouldn’t ride the silver ships because she heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake.

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

   After Sammy was finished flying around and cooling himself off, they rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, Agnes was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took them to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, it’s not the giant slide,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, and that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like a Zen pop. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”

   The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. They could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before they tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep they couldn’t help not standing up as they careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of boys and girls got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. Sammy and Agnes found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything bad had ever happened. 

    The more Agnes rode the coasters the more she liked them. They were like the peanut butter maker at Holiday Sands, twisting in the sky but bigger. She loved the sound of the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though she thought the riding might take her somewhere, it only ever took her back to where she started.

   The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and there were two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as it slowed down.

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. The trains were freewheeling. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Sammy liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

   The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two rode in any one car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” they rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other any minute, but always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day Sammy found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if they had found anything.

   “It’s my happy weed,” he said when Sammy handed it to him.

   Walking around the park they munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of their favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. They yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.

   They steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was bloodcurdling, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laughing talking.

   She had blazing red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. They tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.

   The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It glowed lurid-like in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. They had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them.

   Once they walked in, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while they searched for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around them it was baffling.

   When they found the right one, they walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as they struggled to not fall down, much less walk.

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When they got to it a spotted snake sprang at them from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing they had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.

   Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so weirdly slanted sideways that just standing was all-in-all defying gravity.

   Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit them in the face coming around corners, and they never knew when a wind gust would blow up their shorts from the floor.

   At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When they stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in their faces. When they stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not them, jumping back in alarm. At a wishing well when they looked down into the water, they could see themselves as though they were looking at themselves from behind. 

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze they had to find their way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed them like screwball bubble gum.

   After all the strange moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what they had just been through. Sammy and Agnes were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

   When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the beach palisades, hard on their heels, eating the litter and discarded goodies. They threw banana peels at them and watched the skunks drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   They didn’t know the last time they stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed their leftovers away as they walked to the arch and Eva’s convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. They didn’t know Eva was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   She and Nick started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got worse. After that it never got better.

   “Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family, for Christ’s sake.”

   But Eva was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but for everything, for her clothes, nice things for the house, and just everything. She got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and over dinner and late at night when the Sammy and Agnes were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument in the living room because Eva had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

   “We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where Nick and Eva had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took Agnes’s hand when she saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” Eva said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at their house afterwards, talking.”

   “Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Nick went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.

   He thought Eva had done something behind his back. He didn’t say what, although Sammy and Agnes could tell from his face it must have been wrong. When Eva went into the kitchen Nick followed her.

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

   Their father said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. He just left the hole to fester. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when Nick was at work. She always just walked into the house. Nick hated that. She and Eva talked for a long time. When they were done talking Eva packed her bags.

   Looking up across the sidewalk at their house on Christmas Eve, Agnes thought she had probably known all along that her mother was going to leave her father, but back then surprises still upset her. Eva was going to marry the new man from Rochester, one way or another. There was no surprise about that. Agnes was going to do her best to help out.

   “If I can get my divorce,” Eva said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” Agnes hated her junior high and was sure she would hate high school. One of her aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios, the Lithuanian high school in Germany.

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” her aunt Banga, Eva’s youngest sister, said. “She enjoys bringing food to the table. She’ll fatten you up a little. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”

   She could go to summer camp the talk of the town, not a nobody, not like the first time, when they told her to leave. Agnes knew she would keep her word. She was her favorite aunt. She was her mother’s favorite sister. Banga means “Little Wave,” washing over you but not knocking you down.

   Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise Agnes could handle.

   “Come on, bub,” she said, taking Sammy’s hand when he reached for hers, and they started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

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

Theatre PEI

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Public Enemy No. 1

By Ed Staskus

   There were five of us on the big elevator going up to the 4th floor of the Global Center. One of us asked the others if we were all on the way to jury duty. All of us said yes, or something along those lines. “This is a pain in the ass,” one young man grumbled.

   “Better to be on this side of things than the other side,” the man next to him said.

   “You got that right, brother,” another man said.

   The Global Center is at the corner of Ontario St. and St. Clair Ave. It is across the street from the Justice Center. It is part of the Medical Mart and Convention Center that made history in 2011. Six buildings were demolished to make way for the development. Half a million tons of debris were removed, and more than 12,000 tons of new steel was used to create the infrastructure of the new complex. It was the most steel used on any one project in Cleveland’s history.

   When we got off the elevator I immediately regretted being on time. The line snaked from the elevators backwards then forwards to the sign-in tables. It looked like everybody was in line all at once. I took my place and shuffled forward like everybody else. If I need to come back tomorrow, I thought, I’m showing up late. The next day, when I did arrive late, there was hardly anybody in line.   

   The Global Center is mostly about conventions and industry conferences. It was the media center for the 2016 Republican National Convention, held in downtown Cleveland, when the far-right spun fantasies and the fantastic happened. The Grand Old Party put a bunko artist at the top of its ticket. The 4th floor is where those called for jury duty report every Monday morning every week of every month. The pool of jurors is usually between 300 and 400 people.

   Before I went through the full-body scanner, I told one of the policemen, “I’m breaking in an after-market hip, so I’m going to set off your fire alarm.” He said all right and told me to go ahead. When I did, nothing happened, except the light blinked green for GO. The high-tech scanners are supposed to detect a wide range of metallic threats in a matter of seconds. “Essentially, the machine sends waves toward a passenger’s insides,” said Shawna Redden, a researcher who studies the devices. “The waves go through clothing and reflect whatever might be concealed, and bounce back a signal, which is interpreted by the machine.”

   “Do you want me to try again?” I asked. 

   “No, go ahead,” the policeman said, barely paying any attention to me.

   Six feet apart and masks were back in effect, even though there was no official ruling in the city, where hardly anybody was paying attention to the pandemic anymore. Only the odd man and woman wore a mask in the lobby or anywhere else. All the hard-backed chairs in the big room were in rows a social distance apart and everybody wore a mask. You can’t fight City Hall. Almost everybody kept their heads down looking at their cell phones. Some people read books. A few went to sleep on the sofas lining the walls.

   When the jury pool bailiff stepped to the front of the room everybody perked up. The boss lady looked casual but was anything but, even though she sprinkled in some stale jokes. She wore a short-sleeved blouse, and her forearms were tattooed. The first thing she did was thank us for coming.

   She explained since we were on the voting rolls we had been randomly selected. She thanked us for opting into our civic duty. She showed a video about the history of juries and what jury duty amounts to. A judge from Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court showed up and thanked us some more. She was wearing a dark skirt. I didn’t know judges could be so friendly and good-looking. When she was done everybody went back to their cell phones and books. The sleepy heads went back to their napping.

   The bailiff said she would be calling groups of 8 for civil cases and groups of 20-and-more for criminal cases. I didn’t mind serving on either kind of jury but was hoping I wouldn’t be called to serve on a criminal case. I didn’t want to be on the jury that was going to convict Tamara McLoyd for shooting and killing Shane Bartek, a Cleveland policeman.

   What would be the point? She seemed to be as guilty as Machine Gun Kelly. Somebody matching her description had been caught on surveillance video pulling the trigger. Her DNA was on the .357 Magnum. She confessed to the crime after being arrested. Why she pled not guilty and was demanding a jury trial was beyond me.

   I brought my Apple tablet with me and read “Empire of the Scalpel” on it all morning. It was about the history and advancement of surgery. No matter their newfound skills of restoring life and limb, there was no bringing Shane Bartek back to life. He was gone to stay. Several groups of jurors trooped out when their names were called. When lunch was announced, I went for a walk on Lakeside Ave.

   The criminal complaint against Tamara McLoyd said she walked up to the off-duty Shane Bartek on Cleveland’s west side on New Year’s Eve and robbed him at gunpoint. He was outside his apartment on his way to a Cleveland Cavs game. When he tried to take her gun away, she shot him twice during the struggle. After the shooting, she stole the policeman’s civilian car and fled. Shane Bartek was taken to Fairview Hospital and pronounced dead. He was 23 years old. She was 18 years old.

   Tamara McLoyd gave the stolen car to a no-good companion of hers who was hunted down later that night by a swarm of suburban police. After a high-speed chase he lost control of the car and slammed into a fence. He didn’t bother saying he was innocent. The police didn’t bother being polite. They tracked the shooter by following videos she was posting on Instagram. She was nothing if not clueless about crime and punishment. She was run to ground, doing her best to curse her way out of capture, and was hauled away to a jail cell. Her handgun was found hidden in the back seat of the not so joyful joy ride. 

   She was Public Enemy No. 1 for a day. The next day she went back to being just an enemy to herself. She never interrupted that side of her whenever it was making a mistake.

   The young woman had been on a crime spree most of the year. Two months earlier, five days after she was sentenced to probation in Lorain County on firearms and robbery charges, she and two accomplices robbed a man in Lakewood, robbed a woman in Cleveland Heights, and robbed Happy’s Pizza in Cleveland. They had worked up an appetite robbing people.

   City Hall and the Cuyahoga County Court House are both on Lakeside Ave. I took self-guided tours during lunchtime and walked around Mall C. I looked down at the Cleveland Browns gridiron and the Science Center across the railroad tracks on the other side of Route 2. There are small parks beside both City Hall and the Court House. I checked out Claes Oldenburg’s rubber stamp sculpture in Willard Park. I checked out John T. Corrigan’s statue in Fort Huntington Park. The over-sized stamp sculpture is whimsical. The life-sized Corrigan statue is stone-faced.

   Tamara McLoyd made her first court appearance on murder charges two days after New Year’s Day. “I didn’t know he was a cop,” she explained, even though nobody was asking for explanations. The cops are like the armed forces, who don’t leave their wounded or dead behind. Killing a policeman is a one-way ticket to the Big House, if not Old Sparky. A city prosecutor read into the record her admission to shooting Shane Bartek. The judge set bail at $5 million dollars and told her to find a lawyer. She hadn’t stolen enough money to make bail. She stayed locked up in the Justice Center the next seven months.

   While there she talked to her friends and mother by jailhouse phone, telling them exactly what happened, and saying she expected to be famous for shooting a policeman. Her lawyers tried to suppress her original confession, but after hearing recordings of her phone calls, nixed the idea. “After consulting with our client, she has authorized and instructed us to withdraw the motion to suppress,” her lawyers said at a hearing.

   John T. Corrigan was Cleveland born and bred, graduating from a local high school and university and law school. He served in the Army during World War Two, losing an eye during the Battle of the Bulge. He was elected Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor in 1956 and re-elected repeatedly, serving for thirty-five years. “It is a large office with more than 300 employees. It’s the second largest public law firm in the state of Ohio,” said Geoffey Means, a former federal prosecutor. John T. was a stern man when it came to law and order. He sent his former law partner to jail. Hoodlums knew there wouldn’t be any sympathy coming their way from the one-eyed legal eagle.

   Nothing had changed since his retirement. When murder was the charge, the office was no-nonsense going forward. When the murder of a policeman was the charge, the office was bound and determined to get it done.

   Tamara McLoyd was bound and determined to say it was an accident. “This shit wasn’t no aggravated,” she told her mother after she was charged with aggravated murder. “This shit was an accident.” Later in the month she told a friend, “We was tussling, he reached for the gun, he fell, and then pow.” She made it sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

   When Monday came to an end at 3 o’clock and I went home, well more than a hundred of us had been picked for actual jury duty. The rest of us came back on Tuesday. More of us were picked, lunchtime was again announced, and I went for another walk. We filtered back at 1 o’clock. I dove back into my sawbones book. A few more of us were picked for a civil trial. Just after 2 o’clock the bailiff cleared her throat.

   “The last judge has just sent word that his trial has been postponed until next week,” she said. “Thank you for coming and you are free to go.”

   We all cheered, collected our certificates of appreciation, and marched away to the elevators. I walked to the lot on W. 3rd St. where I had left my car. It was a cloudless day. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks. The tables and chairs of downtown’s Al Fresco dining were empty. Everybody had gone back to work after eating.

   Al Fresco comes from the Italian and loosely means “in the cool air.” Unlike everybody else, Italians don’t use the term for eating outside. In Italy it means “spending time in the cooler.” When they say cooler, they mean jail.

   Tamara McLoyd was found guilty of theft, grand theft, aggravated robbery, felonious assault, murder, and aggravated murder. It didn’t take the jury long. The courtroom was packed with Cleveland police officers and Bartek’s family. Some of the dead man’s relatives broke into tears. Tamara McLoyd turned 19 during the trial. She was a cold fish, standing unblinking when the verdict was read. 

   “What would you think after being found guilty of aggravated murder?” her lawyer Jaye Schlachet offered up, even though she didn’t seem to be thinking about anything special. Shane Bartek was probably the last thing on her mind.

   “The tragedy is that this individual who committed this crime was on a spree of violence through our community,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said. “We see it every day in our county. She had opportunities to get on track. At every crossroad she could have turned her life around. She declined that opportunity. She was a terrorist on our streets, and for our community’s sake she is going to face the music for all the crimes she committed over those several months.”

   A sheriff’s deputy put the convicted killer in handcuffs. She was led away. She was facing a life sentence. The judge would decide at her sentencing the following month whether there was going to be the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years, or whether it was going to be life without parole.

   “We are quite confident that the only thing she will see for the rest of her life are bars,” police union chief Jeff Follmer said.

   Tamara McLoyd tried to explain away the shooting of Shane Bartek. I was glad I wasn’t there to hear it. After a while it’s sickening having to listen to lies. Murder is inherently wrong. She thought she was just offing somebody who was getting in her way, like brushing away a bug. She didn’t realize she was committing suicide as well as murder. She was 1-2-3 down for the count. She was going to Marysville Prison where nobody cared whether jailbirds lived or died, where she could kill time day-in and day-out.

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

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Mexican Stand-Off

By Ed Staskus

   My nephew Wyatt was smart enough to get admitted into St. Edward High School and scatterbrained enough to get suspended. He made it to graduation day by the skin of his teeth. He wasn’t so lucky at Cleveland State University. After one thing and another they told him he had to find another school. When he left, he forgot to take his “Get Out of Jail” card with him.

   St Ed’s is a Catholic high school in the Holy Cross tradition in Lakewood, Ohio. Thousands of young men apply to get in every year. A couple of hundred make it. Cleveland State University is a state school. So long as your high school grades make the grade you can get in, no problem. After he left, leaving his student housing apartment a disaster relief scene, he started looking for another place to live.

   He camped out at his sister’s apartment until she said he had to go. His father suggested an uncle. He stayed with his uncle until he told him he had to go. He stayed at my mother’s house, throwing parties for his friends whenever she broke a leg or had a stroke and was recovering at the Welsh Home in Rocky River. 

   When my brother asked me to throw some work his son’s way, I was of a mind to say no. It was almost the first thing I said. It was what I should have said. I had agreed to hire him to waterproof our basement walls and repaint the concrete floor a few months earlier. In the end it was such a makeshift effort that I spent almost as much time in the basement as he had patching things up.

   Every time I looked, he was easing himself down onto one of our lawn chairs and lighting up. He liked to smoke weed and cigarettes rather than attend to the work at hand. When he wasn’t blazing, he was talking on his cell phone. When I was done taking care of the splats runs and misses, I thought, that’s the last time.

   What I said, though, when my brother asked, was OK.

   I worked more-or-less full-time for Light Bulb Supply in Brook Park. There were no brooks or parks anywhere. The biggest greenspace was Holy Cross Cemetery, 240 acres of it, across the street. I went there for walks instead of taking lunch sometimes when the day was warm dry and sunny. The office work more-or-less paid the bills. It was a family business, however, and I wasn’t a part of the family. I wasn’t going to get anywhere by relying on their good will, of which there was little. It was like my paycheck, on the stingy side.

   I got ahead by repairing tanning equipment part-time, on my own time, stand-ups and beds at tanning salons, beauty salons, gyms, and people’s homes. Tanning was booming. I taught myself how to do it. My hourly rate was more, by far, than what Light Bulb Supply paid me. If it was an insurance job, I raised the price.

   Allstate Insurance sent me to Dearborn, Michigan to inspect a tanning bed that had been under water for a few days in a family’s basement rec room. They found out their sump pump had failed when they got home from vacation. I drove there on a Saturday, since it was going to be an all-day job getting there and back.

   Dearborn is just west of Detroit. and home to the most Muslims in the United States. It is also home to the largest mosque in the country. I got my signals crossed, missed the turn-off off I-75., and missed the mosque. When I got to Detroit and saw an exit for Dearborn St., I took it. When all I saw were bars churches funeral parlors beauty shops empty littered lots more bars and no white faces, I parked, found a phone booth, and called the folks with the soggy tanning bed.

   I told them where I thought I was.

   “Get back in your car and drive away from there right now,” the man of the house said. “It’s not safe.” There was no sense in tempting fate. I got back into my car, counted my blessings, and followed the Rouge River to Dearborn.

   I had a job at a big tanning salon in North Royalton south of Cleveland. There were some repairs involved and re-lamping 9 or 10 tanning beds. It was going to take Wyatt and me two or three days and nights. It took me closer to a week of nights and the weekend. Wyatt was supposed to re-lamp during the day while I did the repairs at night, except he only showed up once and didn’t finish even one of the tanning beds.

   One day he wasn’t feeling well. His stomach hurt. Another day his garage door broke with his car inside it. Another time he said he needed a mental health day. The last day before I told him not to bother anymore, an asteroid smashed through his roof. In the end I chalked it up to experience.

   “Nobody wants to hire me,” he complained, one of his many Millennial complaints. He thought he could get the job done without going to work. He liked to say, “I don’t want to be tied down.” He didn’t want to be another cog in the wheel. There was little chance of that.

   My mother and brother both asked my sister to let him move into her house. They knew well enough to not ask me. She had the space but was reluctant. She and her husband had split up. He moved out and stayed out on the road working as a long-haul trucker. Her daughter had left for Miami University and after graduation struck out on her own. There were two empty bedrooms.

   She told my brother she had reservations, especially since everybody knew Wyatt wasn’t just popping pills and smoking weed. He was selling pills and weed to anybody and everybody. She didn’t want a drug dealer in her house.

   “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” my brother said.

   “What about your house?”

   “Sharon doesn’t want him in our house.” Sharon was my brother’s wife, Wyatt’s foster mother. She was a schoolteacher. Wyatt had been in her class during middle school. She knew what he was up to.

   Wyatt was arrested in 2015 strolling down Detroit Rd. on the Cleveland side of the border in the middle of the night. He was puffing on a stogie-sized spliff. He was packing pills in his pockets and having a high old time. A year later he went to court and was rewarded with intervention instead of jail time. My brother spent a fortune sending him to assessment counseling treatment and prevention classes. I drove Wyatt to the classes now and then. He was as repentant as a cottonmouth.

   When he moved into my sister’s house, he brought clothes, shoes, and a safe. He moved into one of the vacant bedrooms. My brother paid his $200.00 rent occasionally. He kept his clothes within easy reach and his shoes on display.

   “He thought nothing about buying $150.00 tennis shoes,” my sister said.

   She didn’t ask what he kept in the safe. She didn’t want to know. One day she noticed one of the floorboards had been pried up and put back in place. When she looked under the board, she saw a stash. She put the board back in its place. Boys and girls drove up to her curb day and night. When they did Wyatt ran outside, handed them something through their open car window, and they gave him something in return.

   He texted his girlfriend a photograph of tens twenties fifties fanned out across his bed cover. “Top of the world,” he seemed to be saying. When he was done, he neatly packed the dough up and put it back in his safe.

   My sister had told Wyatt, “No friends in the house.” A week later, pulling into her driveway after work, she saw more than twenty boys and girls on her front porch and front steps. Two of them were sprawled across a railing. They were waiting for Wyatt. My sister called my brother.

   “Get over here and tell your son’s friends to leave.” 

   I happened to be driving by and stopped to see what was going on with the crowd on the front porch. When I asked if they were waiting for somebody, one of the youngsters on the railing said, “We are the ones we’re waiting for.” I assumed it was a smarmy Millennial trope and left when I saw my brother’s car coming down the street.

   When Wyatt came home, she asked him, “What do you not understand about no friends?”

   He was terrific about explaining and apologizing. Before he was done my sister cried uncle. “Just don’t let it happen again,” she said. It happened again and again. Wyatt was sincerely insincere when he had to be.

   The driveway was defined by the two houses on its sides. It wasn’t a wide driveway by any means. There was a grass strip on the neighbor’s side but no buffer on the other side. Fortunately, Wyatt drove a compact car. Unfortunately, he had forgotten what he learned in driver’s ed. He bounced off the house several times, denting his car, and ripping siding off the side.

   He liked to text my sister, asking if she needed anything done around the crash pad. When he mixed up the driveway and house he texted her, promising to fix it right away. He never did. He never did anything else, either, except breaking in through the back kitchen window whenever he locked himself out. Every time he did my sister had to replace the screen. One of the neighbors called the Lakewood Police Department when he saw one of the break-ins, but Wyatt was able to explain it away.

   After the intervention went bust, Wyatt was arrested again and charged with drug possession, possessing criminal tools, and a trafficking offense. He pled guilty since the cops had the goods on him. His charm good looks and a sharp enough lawyer carried the day. He was ordered to be drug tested on a week-to-week basis. It was what saved the day for my sister.

   She wanted Wyatt gone but didn’t know how to get it done. He was a blood relative and needed a place to live, even though he wasn’t willing to do what it takes to possess an apartment and stock the shelves. It was a stand-off. My mother and brother insisted there wasn’t anywhere else he could go. He had burned one bridge too many. She bit the bullet, but it tasted bitter.

   The magic bullet turned out to be the court-mandated drug-testing Wyatt was obliged to undergo. When spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, Wyatt fell over his tennis shoe laces and tested positive. It might mean the slammer. It meant he was packing up, shoes and safe and all. It meant my sister could slam and lock the door the minute he left, which is what she did, for good reason.

   Ohio law enforcement has the power to seize cash and property involved in drug trafficking. Asset seizures and forfeitures are a crime deterrent and a tool to take down drug trafficking, policemen say. “We generally seize assets that are believed to be the fruits of drug trafficking or used to facilitate the crime of drug trafficking,” Paul Saunders, a senior police official, said. “The courts have a litany of rules that are applied to each case to determine whether assets will be forfeited.”

   The last thing my sister needed was to have her home taken away from her because of somebody else’s bad behavior. Fortunately, no searchlights were searching for her. She went back to watering her lawn, walking her dogs, and watching “Law and Order” on TV. When the crime drama wrapped everything up on a happy note, she went to bed snug as a bug with nobody to bug her.

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

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Law of the Land

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

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

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

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

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

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Over a Barrel

By Ed Staskus

   The summer day in the late 1960s when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge was stormy. I had gotten there by leaving the driving to Greyhound. The driver wore a uniform. It made him look like a mix of state trooper and doorman. Since the bus had no acceleration to speak of, he drove all-out all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. We passed sports cars and muscle cars.

   The driver sat high up with a vista vision view of the highway. The transmission was a hands-on four-speed. There were four instruments on the other side of the steering wheel, a speedometer, air pressure gauge for the brakes, oil pressure gauge, and a water temperature gauge.

   When I stepped foot on the Canadian side it wasn’t raining, yet. The Border Service officer asked me where I was from, where I was going, for how long, and waved me through without any more fuss. I found the bus station and bought a ticket for Toronto, where I was going. I was going to visit a girl, Grazina, who I had met at Ausra summer camp on Wasaga Beach a couple of years earlier.

   It rained hard all the way there, past Hamilton and Mississauga on the Queen Elizabeth Way, until I got to the big city, when the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Everything smelled clean. I picked up a map of the bus and subway system and found my way to my friend Paul’s house. His family was friends with my family.

   The Kolyciai lived in a two-story brick row house off College St. near Little Italy. I was polite to his parents and ignored his two younger sisters. I roomed with Paul, but ditched him every morning after breakfast, hopping a bus to Grazina’s house. It wasn’t far, 5-or-so minutes south near St. John the Baptist. Lithuanians bought the church from Presbyterians in 1928 and redesigned it in the Baltic way in 1956.

   Grazina met me on the front porch and took me on a guided tour of Toronto. We went by foot, red and white streetcar, and the underground. We looked the city over from the observation deck on top of City Hall and went to the waterfront. We strolled around Nathan Philips Square. We had strong tea and scones at an outdoor café. Grazina popped in and out of shops on Gerrard St. checking out MOD fashions. At the end of the day, I was so tired I begged off a warmed-over dinner back at my home away from home and fell into bed.

   The next morning Grazina had a surprise for me. We were going to a funeral. 

   “Who died?” I asked.

   “Nobody I know and for sure nobody you know,” she said.

   She was dressed for death, all in black. I wasn’t, wearing blue jeans and a madras shirt. We stopped at a second-hand clothes store. I bought a black shirt, so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

   “Why are we going to this funeral?” I asked.

   “Because it’s Friday and it’s a Greek funeral.”

   I was an old hand at funerals, having doled out incense at many of them when I was an altar boy at St George’s in the old neighborhood in Cleveland. I had only ever been to Lithuanian services. Because it’s a Friday and a Greek funeral were obscure reasons to me, but I was willing to go along.

   Toronto was full of immigrants. Immediately after the war war-time brides and children fathered by Canadian soldiers showed up. Post-WW2 DP Italians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Central Europeans poured in. In 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, Hungarians came over. During the next decade there were many family reunification arrivals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the old-stock British-Canadianism of Toronto was being slowly transformed.

   The church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, in the former Clinton Street Methodist building, was back up Little Italy way. We got on a bus. A priest sporting a shaggy beard, Father Pasisios, was at the helm. He wore a funny looking hat. The church was small on the outside but big on the inside. We sat quietly in the back. When it was over, I finally asked Grazina, “Why are we here?”

   “For the repast.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Food, usually a full meal.”

   “Doesn’t your family feed you?”

   “It’s not that,” she said. “I went to a Romanian funeral with a friend a few months ago, and they served food afterwards, and it was great, food I had never had before. After a while I started going to different funerals whenever I could, always on Fridays, Sicilian, Czechoslovakian, Macedonian, so that I could taste their national food.”

   “How do you know where to go?”

   “I read the death notices in the newspaper.”

   I had heard of wedding crashers, but never a funeral crasher.

   The repast was at a nearby community hall. When asked, Grazina told both sides of the family she was distantly related to the other side, speaking out of the side of her mouth. “Memory eternal” is what she said next, shaking a hand. She knew the lingo. The lunch was delicious, moussaka, mesimeriano, and gyros. We had coffee and baklava for dessert. By the time we left we were loaded for bear.

   We went to Yorkville and hung around the rest of the day. There were coffee houses and music clubs all over Yonge and Bloor Streets. The neighborhood went back to the 1830s when it was a suburban retreat. Fifty years later it was annexed by the city of Toronto and until the early 1960s was quaint quiet turf. Then it morphed ed into a haven of counterculture.

   “An explosion of youthful literary and musical talent is appearing on small stages in smoky coffee houses, next to edgy art galleries and funky fashion boutiques offering trendy garb, blow-up chairs, black light posters and hookah pipes, all housed in shabby Victorian row houses,” The Toronto Star said.

   It was fun roaming around hopscotching ducking in and out, even though a police paddy wagon was parked at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville. There had been love-ins, sit-ins, and so-called “hippie brawls” in recent years. Some of the town’s poohbahs were up in arms. The politician Syl Apps said the area was a “festering sore in the middle of the city.” There were wide-eyed teenagers and tourists, hippies and bohemians, hawkers and peddlers, and sullen-looking bikers.

   A young man was slumped on the sidewalk, leaning dazed against a storefront. An old woman wearing a babushka and walking with a cane walked slowly carefully past him. I couldn’t tell who was more over a barrel.

   We weren’t able to get into the Riverboat Coffeehouse, which wasn’t really a coffeehouse, but a club with the best music. We peeked through the porthole windows but all we saw were shadows. The Mynah Bird featured go-go dancers in glass cases outside the second floor. We saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins do back flips across the stage doing guitar solos at Le Coq d’Or.

   Starvin’ Marvin’s Burlesque Palace was somewhere upstairs, but we didn’t go there. All the clubs were small, and most of the doors open. We sat on curbs and heard a half-dozen bands. We stayed until midnight. By the time I got back to Paul’s house I was dead tired again and fell into bed.

   The sky Saturday was clear and bright over Lake Ontario, so we went to the Toronto Islands. We took the Sam McBride ferry and rented bikes. There were no cars or busses. We stopped at the new Centreville Amusement Park on Middle Island and rode the carousel. When we found a beach we changed, threw down a towel, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun. We had bananas and threw the peels to the seagulls, who tore them apart and downed them like it was their last meal.

   Grazina invited me over for dinner. She told me her mom was a bad cook, but I went anyway. She set the table while her mom brought platters of cepelinai, bacon and sour cream on the side, serving them piping hot and covered with gravy. They were fit for a king.

   The next morning was Sunday. After going to mass with Grazina and her family I caught a bus for home. At the border I waited my turn to answer the Border Patrol man’s questions. I had all the answers except one. When he asked me for I. D., I said I didn’t have any.

   “How did you get into Canada?”

   “I walked over the bridge.”

   “Didn’t they ask you for I. D.?”

   “No,” I said.

   “Jesus Christ! Well, you can’t come into the United States without identification.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and had been to Canada many times since for summer camps. But I never concerned myself with the legalities. I left that to whoever was driving the car, my parents, or somebody else’s parents.

   I was speechless. Distress must have showed on my face. The Border Patrol man told me to call my parents and ask them to bring identification. It sounded like a good idea, except that it wasn’t. My father was out of town on business and my mother worked at a supermarket. Even if she was willing, she had never driven a car that far alone in her life.

    “Is there any place I can stay?”

   “Do you have any money?

   “Just enough for a bus ticket home.”

   He said Jesus again a few times and finally suggested what he called a “hippie flophouse” on Clifton Hill. He gave me directions and I found it easily enough. I used the pay phone to call my mother, reversing the charges. After she calmed down, she said she would send what I needed the next morning by overnight mail. I was in for two nights of roughing it.

   The flophouse was an old motel advertising “Family Rates.” It was next to a Snack Bar selling hot dogs and pizza by the slice. There were young guys and gals loitering lounging smoking pot in the courtyard. One of them offered me a pillow and the floor. I accepted on the spot before he drifted down and out. It was better than sleeping in the great outdoors.

   I spent the next day exploring Niagara Falls. There were pancake houses and waffle houses. There were magic museums and wax museums There were arcades and Ripley’s Odditorium. I took a walk through the botanical gardens and to Horseshoe Falls.

   The Horseshoe Falls were tilting water over the edge like there was no tomorrow. The American Falls had been shut down by the Army Corp of Engineers to study erosion and instability. They built a 600-foot dam across the Niagara River, which meant 60,000 gallons of water a second were being diverted over the larger Canadian waterfall. It was loud and mist floated up into my face. 

   The Niagara River drains into Lake Ontario. We lived in Cleveland half-a-block from Lake Erie. If I threw myself into the river, I would have to swim upstream all the way to Buffalo before I could relax and float home. The practical side of me discarded the idea.

   Lots of people go over the falls. The first person to not do it was Sam Patch, better known as the Yankee Leaper, who jumped 120 feet from an outstretched ladder down to the base of the falls. He survived, but many of the daredevils didn’t.

   The first person to successfully take the plunge in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Taylor in 1901. Busted flat, she thought up the stunt as a way of becoming rich and famous. The first thing she did was build a test model, stuff her housecat into it, and throw it over the side. When the cat made it unscathed, she adapted a person-sized pickle barrel and shoved off. It was her birthday. She told everybody she was 43, although she was really 63.

   After she made it with only bumps and bruises, she became notorious, but missed out on riches. Everybody said she should have sold tickets, but it was Monday morning quarterbacking. She never tried it again. Two years later the professional baseball player Ed Delahanty tried it while stinking drunk and died.

   About thirty people perish going over the falls every year. Most of them are suicides. 

   The last person by 1969 to go over the falls with the intention of staying alive was Nathan Boya in 1960 in a big rubber ball nicknamed the “Plunge-O-Sphere.” When it hit the rocks at the bottom it bounced and bounced, but he was uninjured. Nobody but the absolutely serious about ending it all had tried it since then. 

   I got my official papers on Tuesday, dutifully displayed them at the border, and walked into the United States. I sat in the back of the Greyhound bus and stretched my legs out. When it lumbered off, I took a look back, but it was all a slow-motion blur.

   Grazina and I wrote letters to one another that winter until we didn’t. We slowly ran out of words and by the next summer were all out of them. She was enrolled in university full-time while I was working half the year and going to Cleveland State University the other half of the year. She found a boyfriend and I found an apartment on the near east side of town.

   It was a few years later that Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck, and friend Frank Lucas went across the Niagara River near the downstream whirlpool on a motorcycle, riding the cables of the Spanish Aero Car. The friend piloted the motorcycle while Henri and Janyck balanced on attached perches. Since they didn’t have passports, when they got to the far side, they hauled the motorcycle and themselves into the aero car and rode back in comfort.

   The police were waiting. They were arrested for performing a dangerous act, but formal charges were never filed. They were free to go. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere after that. Getting stuck in no man’s land is captivating for only so long. 

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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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 edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Age of Discovery

By Ed Staskus

   I was nearly three years old before I got my first good look at Sudbury. My brother had been born the year before, and lately had been crying at night, keeping us all awake. My father was a miner, working day shifts for two weeks and then night shifts for two weeks. He was one of the explosives men, setting black powder charges a mile down. He needed his nerves rock solid. He needed to sleep like a baby. He didn’t need the echo of crying in his brain.

   At first, my mother thought it was a passing thing. When it didn’t pass, she took to sleeping in the living room, on the sofa, with my brother on the floor beside her in a wooden rocking cradle. Whenever he started crying, she reached down and rocked him, settling him down. She didn’t get much sleep, although my father and I got all the shuteye we needed.

   One day, when my father was at work, and my mother had an appointment with their doctor for my brother’s one year check-up, my godfather Juozas Dzenkaitis showed up to babysit me for the afternoon. He was on the night shift in the nickel mines and had time to kill. He showed up on a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

   “I borrowed it from my neighbor,” he explained.

   Most of the Lithuanian immigrants who came hat in hand to Sudbury in the late 1940s and early 1950s worked in the mines. They got out of the black hole that Europe was for them and ended up in another black hole. Most of them were saving every penny they could so they wouldn’t have to work in the mines a minute more than they had to. Most of them owned their homes, but didn’t own a car, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.

   The Vincent had a black tank and black frame. The chrome pipes were nickel chrome steel. The nickel came from Sudbury. The small city south of North Bay in Ontario sat on top of a big hole in the ground overflowing with ore. Some people called it the ‘Valley.’ Others called it the ‘Basin’. An asteroid or comet smashed into the spot in Canada hundreds of millions of years before with a payload of vital metals. Nickel took the first prize.

   During the Korean War, which ended the year before, nickel was regulated. Whenever there was combat anywhere in the world Sudbury boomed. Nickel was vital for making modern mechanized warfare. When the ripping and snorting stopped Sudbury went back to scuffling. It wasn’t boom or bust, but it was a one-basket economy, so it was boom or bust.

   After World War Two the open pits were almost exhausted and new underground mines were being dug. Nickel was being used for more and more civilian purposes. More technologically advanced smelters started seeing the light of day. While Sudbury slowly progressed from being the most polluted city in the country, starting to clean itself up, I was just getting my legs under me. My friends and I played on the black rock outcroppings all the time and never noticed the ever-present haze of ash and smoke.

   When I was born in 1951, I didn’t see much of my hometown at first. I was homesick for my old home. I saw a lot of my crib, the kitchen and living room, and my parents and their friends when there were kitchen parties at our house. I only spoke Lithuanian until the spring of 1953, when I started meeting kids my own age on the street. They all spoke English and French although none of them spoke French among themselves. English was the language out on the street.

   The Vincent my godfather was riding was plenty fast enough, but it wasn’t the Black Lightning, which was the racing version of the Black Shadow. Every steel part on the Lightning that could be remade in aluminum was remade in aluminum. Everything not essential was removed, reducing the weight by almost a hundred pounds. It had a single racing seat and rear footrests.

   In 1948 Rollie Free broke the North American motorcycle land speed record riding a Black Lightning on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did it wearing a bathing suit, laying prone like a swimmer flat on his stomach, his legs dangling off the back end, hanging on to the handlebars for dear life. He took a deep breath when it was all over.

   I sat on the motorcycle behind my godfather, who I called Uncle Joe. I couldn’t get my arms around him and had to hang on to his shirt. He burped the bike down Stanley Street to Elm Street and took a left towards downtown. We lived on a new stretch of Stanley Street. Houses were being built as fast as could be because Sudbury was the most congested city in Canada. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics reported there were “42, 410 people jammed into 9, 450 units.”  More than a third of the housing was officially designated as “overcrowded.”

   We glided past the Regent Theatre where my parents went to see movies on weekends. My father learned to speak English in Lithuania, but my mother lived on an out-of-the-way family farm of sugar beets and pigs near the East Prussian border. The movies were a way for her to learn English. A twin bill was showing, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

   The movie house was operated by Herbert Sutherland. Three years later it became home to a colony of rats. It got so it was hard to tell if somebody was screaming because of the monsters on the screen or because of a rat nibbling on their ankles. Herb Sutherland found several homeless cats and invited them to make the theater their home. The city sent him a letter saying, “We do not feel the use of cats is sufficient to eliminate the menace.” He threw the hired guns out and set out poison instead, making the problem disappear. 

   We went past the new Sudbury Arena which replaced the old Palace Rink the year I was born. Uncle Joe rode carefully, watching for mud, threading the needle. The Junction Creek overflowed its banks every year, flooding the northern and central parts of Sudbury. We rode around the General Hospital where I was born. Outside the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes we stopped for ice cream cones.

  Frederic Romanet du Caillaud, known as the Count of Sudbury, had a six-foot tall 1500-pound bronze statue of the Virgin Mary erected at the mouth of the grotto in 1907. “Queen of the Gauls” was inscribed on the statue. At first, an Italian family by the name of Drago took care of it, wiping off grime and bird shit. In the 1950s the Rosary Club was formed and with Omer Naqult. a local barber and devout Catholic, watched over the pilgrimage site.

   One year earlier almost 10,000 people gathered at the site, coming from all the various parishes of the Sault-Ste-Marie diocese. New lighting was installed to light up the shrine at night. At the start of summer more than 10,000 residents of Sudbury took part in the moveable feast of Corpus Christi procession that ended up at the grotto. My parents weren’t able to go to the parade and so I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

   The statue was an inch or two shorter than Uncle Joe, who wore his hair wavy and was strong as an ox. He could bend nails with his hands. He and his wife Brone didn’t have any kids, but I saw plenty of them, anyway. My parents had the biggest living room among their Lithuanian immigrant friends and our house was where card playing, dancing, and eating and drinking happened on many weekends.

   We set off for Ramsey Lake. Before there ever was a Sudbury the natives called it Bitimagamasing, which means “water that lies on the side of the hill.” Everybody agreed Ramsey was easier to pronounce and that is what everybody called it. Everybody also agreed the lake was dead. Sewage from Minnow Lake drained into Ramsey Lake. Open roast emissions had been going on for so long and led to so much pollution that the lake, which has few water flow outlets, had given up the ghost. Even though it was still the largest lake in the world located entirely within the boundaries of a single city, it was a shell of its former self.

   There weren’t many fish in the lake. By the 1950s, despite three decades of stocking, angling was bad. Besides the pollution, fishermen had long since been dynamiting for fish, wiping out some species like bass. When Lands and Forest biologist R. E. Whitefield went netting it took him four full days to catch five pike and one yellow perch. Lake trout were re-stocked in 1952, but that was the end of stocking for the next twenty-five years.

   Before my father showed up to sweep her off her feet, her Canadian boyfriend often took her out on the lake in his speedboat, until the day he started showing off, racing and zig zagging, and she fell off the back of it without him noticing. An evil-looking northern pike watched her bob up to the surface. By the time her boyfriend looked for her she was floating on her back waiting for him, hoping the weight of her wet clothes wouldn’t drag her under.    

   The lake is named after William Ramsey, the chief of a survey party in the late 1800s who got lost in heavy fog. After finding himself he named it Lost Lake. Others decided it would be better to name it after him but misspelled his name, calling it Lake Ramsay. Somebody finally noticed the mistake forty years later and corrected the spelling.

   When we got to the lake, I begged Uncle Joe to let me go swimming, but there was a purple-red greasy substance on the surface of the water as far out as we could see. “It’s probably some poisonous waste, or something Inco is up to,” he said. I had no idea what Inco was, but I had heard “What are you up to?” from my mother often enough that I knew it couldn’t be anything good. We went for a walk instead. When I got tired my godfather carried me sitting on his shoulders, my fingers grasping his thick head of hair.

   It was an early fall day and trees were starting to change color. There weren’t many of them, but the yellows and reds got me going and I begged Uncle Joe to take me to a forest. He said there weren’t any, but finally relented when I wouldn’t leave it alone. We roared out of Sudbury on the Vincent and into the countryside.

   It turned out my godfather was right. There were hardly any trees anywhere, at all. The first thing to happen to them was the Great Chicago Fire. Lumber camps popped up all over providing wood for the American city’s reconstruction. Then the ore discoveries and smelting got rolling, releasing sulfur, which combined with water forms sulfuric acid leading to acid rain. Saplings struggling to reforest the landscape didn’t have a chance and died by the millions. The hinterland of Sudbury looked like a wasteland. 

   Our street in the city had trees and grass and gardens but the only vegetation I saw outside the city was wild blueberry patches and paper birch. What other trees there were, were giving it their best shot against long odds. They were like the crippled kid on Pine Street we sometimes played with, although never for long. He couldn’t hop skip or run. He couldn’t keep up.

   When my godfather checked his watch, he suddenly said we had to go. We raced back to Sudbury, to Stanley Street, to our house. My father wasn’t home from work, yet. Neither was my mother.

   “When she asks you what we did today, just tell her we went sightseeing, OK?” Uncle Joe said.

   “OK,” I said.

   After my mother came home, I told her we had a great time, and while she and my godfather had coffee on the front porch, I watched my baby brother crawl around in the back yard. Our lot dead-ended in a face of dark pitted rock. I wasn’t allowed to climb it because it was steep, even though I had already gone up and down it with some of my friends.

   When they ran across the street into our yard after dinner and asked me where I had been all day, I told them all about it, all the places I had been to, and how Sudbury was bigger, better, and more exciting than I had ever imagined. Stanley Street was our world, but we couldn’t wait to see more. We ran around the back yard pretending to be riding motorcycles. 

   The sunset was a livid orange that evening. When my mother put me to bed, saying I looked tired, I slept like the rock of ages.

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

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