Jan 25, 2009

Blowing Up Cleveland

I've never been to Cleveland, and I wish I could say I was sorry about that, but, I'm not. My father grew up there, a teenager during the Depression years when everyone was moving West, including my grandfather. Grandmother refused to follow him and stayed in Cleveland to raise five young children with her sister's help. The youngest of the family, dad would work evenings in the local theater as an usher for a few hours. The meager pay would help the family and still leave him time for school.

He was not made for school, however. Being deserted by one's father was an unfortunate status that made him a target for bullies and he was never one to back down. He was excommunicated from the parish church for accidentally punching a nun who got between him and his tormentor. It took a mother's pleading tears to get him back into the good graces of the Monsignor, but he was done with school by eighth grade and dropped out to get a job. Many years later he would learn that his IQ was very much higher than most, but that's for another story.

Now, being smart wasn't the same thing as knowing everything , but it was a resourceful sort of mind that enjoyed building 6-foot tall kites, only to have them snap the heavy twine and end up in Nebraska still plastered to the front of a train car. Or that would take an entire Saturday to team up with an accomplice and place tiny little limestone pebbles down a mile's worth of railroad tracks leading into the main station. Why little chips of rock instead of the popular penny? Why, to have the big, proud, shiny black diesel from some better town come roaring in, all full of itself and engineered by some imagined nemisis go flying over those itty bits of limestone. The goal was not to derail or harm the train but to merely pull it down a peg before it arrived in town. For a mile, those tiny flecks, pounded by tons of steel, exploded into a fine white powder that would coat the sides of the train, turning it a dusty gray before it got to the station. Of course, young Robert would be there at the station, too, awaiting the satisfactory sight of the engineer huffing and cursing at the insult.

But experience is still the better teacher, so when my then-young father and his band of friends discovered the dryer areas of the city's sewer system, they were unaware of the finer chemical attributes of same. It became their hideout and fortress against the oppressive heat of summer, providing the perfect hideaway from the city streets, hovering moms and fussy aunts. A place where boys could try out new vocabulary, vices and vanities, a Man Cave. As the months rolled by and the Autumn chill set in, a thought occurred to the boys that it would be grand to build a bonfire on some future night, there in the seemingly forgotten arm of the underground system. For weeks, scrap board was hustled into the tunnel, and hard-earned pennies went toward the purchase of what would prove to be an astonishingly effective amount of accelerant.

Now, because I am the youngest of my father's tribe it could be that my memory of his telling this story is faulty, but to best of my understanding they had a roaring big fire that jumped up pretty quickly to a startling ferocity. As they stood admiring their handiwork they could feel a breeze rushing up behind them as the fire's growing hunger started pulling in air from the vast sewer network. A little too much air, maybe. A bit too grand of a fire, don't you think? What's that smell? Holy cow, Am-scray!!

They poured out of their hideout like they were Chicago mobsters caught in a shakedown raid and scattered down the back alleys toward home and alibis as the street beneath them began to rumble slightly.

Ka-pow! Ka-Boom! shattered the early evening air as smoke and fire blew out of the nearest manhole covers. Maybe that was the worst of it? Ka-blams sounded as clanking manhole covers went up brightly and came down heavily in every block for almost half the city. Firetrucks would rush to one area only to have more reports in three others. In the end, it was a busy night for the cops and firefighters but no lasting harm to persons or property. It was the equivalent of lighting a very big fart, I guess.

It might have been about that time that he decided to quit school and follow his father's trail to the west. He traveled by tying himself to the top of a box car and braving wind, rain and Dust Bowl weather and being shot at and quite a few other adventures. But blowing up half of Cleveland?



mushroom said...

That is a great story.

I have been to Cleveland many times. For a rustbelt city, it isn't too bad. I have friends there and the Jake is nice. The Browns stadium looked pretty cool while it was under construction, but I haven't been back since it was finished. All in all, you haven't missed anything.

julie said...

Awesome. I lived near Youngstown, OH, for a couple of years, and can only agree with what Mushroom said. You haven't missed much.

Robin Starfish said...

Agreed. Chicago, however, has soul and is in mine.

Why the hell are you looking for a job? Write, dammit, and get published.

[wv: unconing]

pamibe said...

I agree; write! This story was all one could ask; it kept me riveted while relaying a true event. I laughed, I reflected. In short, I was hooked.

More, please? [just imagine my little bowl thrust out]

Joan of Argghh! said...

Aw, pshaw, ya'll. Your kind encouragement can only lead me to a life of penury, you know.

Besides, I don't drink enough to write really well.


Sal said...

Really good writers who were not drunks:
Flannery O'Connor
Emily Dickinson
The Bronte sisters

That's enough to start..
and this is why blogging is dangerous.

wv: lose weight fast with dieta!

QP said...

"They poured out of their hideout like they were Chicago mobsters caught in a shakedown raid and scattered down the back alleys toward home and alibis as the street beneath them began to rumble slightly."

I love this raw imagery and truth. The paths to our future are not found, we create them along the way...

C.S. Perry said...

Well...that settles it. I'm by-God blowing something up.

Jean said...

I still like Ohio. Sometimes I miss it.

This is brilliantly... brilliantly done, Joan. Your genius does not need alcohol fuel. Already full to overflowing with heart/soul/talent.

Joan of Argghh! said...

A'ight, all youse guys, don't encourage me! LOL! Thanks for all the sweet words.

I am in the midst of a 40-hour State Licensing Course that I must complete by Weds evening. I started mid-morning today. If you don't see me for a few weeks, you'll know I passed the pre-lims and am in training. Then the State Exam. Then more training.

PeggyU said...

Your kind encouragement can only lead me to a life of penury, you know.

No, not penury ... do this on the side and in between. And some day, like J.K. Rowling, you will strike gold.

Irrelephant said...

Damn. Wow. DamnWow. *lol* Darlin', that was extraordinary! And to think he lived through it all. *shaking my head* Makes me wish I'd lived a more dangerous life, just to see if I'd end up tied to the top of a boxcar headed West.

Best of luck with the exams, dear. ((hugs))

OMFG! Proof that you MUST become a writer? My word verification, and I kid you not, is "proust."

Jean said...

What kind of State License??
ohgoodgawd... you're not gonna be a prison guard, are ya????

wv: vermand

Irrelephant said...

A prison guard? Our Joan? Oh that'd be RICH! *lmao*

Joan of Argghh! said...

OMG! You have to study to be a prison guard? One can only imagine what sort of course that would be!

No, it's much worse... insurance.

Not gonna do the 220 this time around, (oh how I hate hurricanes!) ;going for the 215 Life and Health.

Nobody's safe...


ZZMike said...

That's a great story. The delights of methane ....

Some of your other commenters have noted a certain facility with the written word, a good grasp of detail, and a judicious use of vocabulary.

You don't have to worry about being a writer - in the words of the immortal bard, "you is one".

I trust that by the time you get back to read these comments, you'll be a State Certified [Whatever].

Remember also another insurance salesman, from Connecticut, who had a sideline as a composer: Charles Ives.

One of the maxims of Life is to find out what you're good at, then study and train to get even better.

That little slice of your dad's life is a wonderful celebration of it.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent! Riveting! In between the insurance gigs, you can always write! :^)