Saturday, July 12, 2008

I Had Ants in my Pants at St. Therese School

When I look back on my formative years, it's a wonder I wasn't completely bald by the time 8th grade rolled around. You know, from all of the "stress" I endured at the hands of our devoted faculty. To this day I am convinced I would have never survived Catholic school if it weren't for escaping at least three major incidents.

On top of a hill named Granger, in a city called Garfield, less than 4 miles from our beloved Cleveland, sat St. Therese Church and School. The church is still around, but the school has been renamed John Paul II Academy as part of a merger with nearby Sts. Peter & Paul. And if you're taking notes, sports fans, they are no longer the Wildcats but are instead the Panthers. I believe someone at the Lions Club came up with the name?

St. Therese is the second oldest Catholic parish in Garfield Heights, having been established in 1927. Don't quote me on this but I firmly believe the very nuns of those early days were still teaching there when my parents enrolled us in the late 1970s. These were the days when Catholic schools featured habit-wearing nuns toting wooden rulers, in the likely event some form of corporal punishment had to be administered.

We moved to Garfield Heights during the Blizzard of 1978. I know this because Dad kept getting the U-Haul stuck in 18" snow drifts on the way to our new house, not that it was coined the Blizzard of 1978 yet. Even though we could not see more than 10 feet in front of us, we somehow managed to get the truck out each time, and would continue to do so until reaching the apron of our new driveway where we finally got stuck for good.

We had left our home in Twinsburg, which was hard for me to swallow. I was not quite 11 and had gotten used to playing in the woods all around me on Mortus Drive. Garfield Heights, from what people were telling me, had cleared away all of their woods during the Eisenhower administration.

Another culture shock was being informed by Mom and Dad that we would now be attending Catholic school. This, after years and years of getting away with murder while attending public schools in and around the mean streets of Twinsburg. I had no choice but to rebel. I would devote the next four years to seeing just how far I could push the collection envelope. And with a little bit of luck I might be excommunicated from St. Therese and sent back to live in the woods on Mortus Drive.

Making the transition from public school to Catholic school in the dead of winter had to be done and done fast. My brother and I had to undergo complete transformations practically overnight. That meant school uniforms with navy ties having the insignia STS (acronym for St. Therese School) and haircuts buzzed so short you could rub ArmorAll on the "whitewalls" that now surrounded our ear lobes.

When we arrived at school on the first day, we noticed something unusual. There was not a single remnant of playground equipment in the schoolyard. No swings, no slides, no nothing! I wanted to run off to the woods and hide, but again, there were no woods. We saw a few kids positioned about a hundred feet from each other standing military style, motionless and with their arms at their sides, against the chain-linked fence that separated the school from the street. We found out later they were caught playing ball on school property during recess, an infraction punishable by up to seven Hail Marys and some time to reflect in "solitary confinement." To this day, no one knows whatever became of all the balls and childhood dreams confiscated by the nuns over the years. My guess is they were donated to the missions.

In class we were taught to memorize and recite many prayers. Although it wasn't school policy to openly brag about St. Therese being a special kind of school, I knew of at least two nuns who would have enacted into law the "Wildcat Creed" given half the chance. We believe that the St. Therese Wildcats are the chosen ones. We believe that public school kids are on drugs and are destined to spend an eternity in Purgatory. We believe that paying $400 a year ($250 for the 2nd child) for tuition is not enough considering attendance at this fine institution is a privilege and not a right.

The first incident that nearly sent me to the chain-link fence happened on Ash Wednesday when I was in the 6th grade. Once a week and on holy days, the student body got out of class for an hour so we could attend mass at the church. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics receive ashes on their forehead to signify personal repentance and kick off the first official day of Lent.

On this particular Ash Wednesday sitting in the pew amongst friends, I could not help but notice how somber the mood was. Students, nuns, lay teachers, and nearby parishioners walking down the aisle after getting their ashes looked like they were sporting brand new shiners. I imagined in my tiny little head that while they were up on the altar with the priest, they said something so horrific the priest had to haul off and slug them right in the middle of their foreheads. A funny enough thought to make me burst out loud and get yanked out of the pew by the talon-like claws of Sister Mary Hubert. After thirty seconds of her face-to-face screaming and going into great detail about everything that is wrong with me, she stopped yelling and relinquished her stronghold on my limp and temporarily paralyzed right arm. I would not be punished, but I did have to return to my place in the pew using every ounce of my being not to shed any tears.

Incident number two happened shortly before serving mass one evening. As an altar boy, I was permitted to enter the church through a side door that led right up to the altar in front of the first row of pews. One night my friend (let's call him Stanley) and I arrived early and entered the church. It was unusually dark inside, and not even the luminated wall of donation candles could have forewarned us what was about to happen. We could barely make out the shadowy statue of Christ which hung high above the altar, but nonetheless His presence was evident. Stanley and I thought it would be funny to salute Christ instead of genuflecting like we were taught. I think one of us may have even said, "what's happenin'" out loud, I can't remember.

Thinking we were the funniest act since Rowan and Martin, we continued on when all of a sudden the roof above us opened up and a loud, stern voice bellowed, "how dare you come into the House of the Lord and mock him with such tomfoolery!" In an instant my heart began to race, my legs shook and trembled, and my jaw dropped to the ground with an enormous thud. I looked around frantically for a sign, any sign, that would indicate that if this is indeed God calling, he would take pity and show mercy on us. I soon realized that my second brush with religious authority belonged to the voice of Father Blinn, our fearless pastor. Still trembling from all the guilt, we casually slid into a pew and spent the next few minutes in deep thought until it was our time to serve mass. Thanks to the dark church, I don't think Father Blinn ever got a good look at us. I stared punishment in the face once again, but narrowly escaped the wrath of the dreaded chain-linked fence with just a minor accident in my pants.

The third and final incident also happened inside the church. We were sitting according to class during an all-school mass one afternoon when I noticed an ant crawling on the back of the pew in front of me. Not thinking anything of it, I returned to my missal where I was intently following along with the First Reading before being distracted by the ant. (Honest, Mom, I was following along with the missal!) Taking one eye off the missal, I noticed the ant had been joined by a friend. Make that two friends. I buried my nose deeper into that missal because I was determined to be good and follow along for the duration of at least one reading before graduation rolled along. Off in the distance I heard a girl say, "look at all these ants!" By now there was a long row of ants marching on the back of the pew in front of me. I was starting to wonder where in the state of unholy limbo they were coming from. I felt something tickle me on my stomach, near the inside of my coat pocket. Seeing an ant, I quickly brushed it off and watched it land on the kneeler below. I decided to go deep pocket diving to make sure that one particular ant was an isolated case and that I didn't have an entire colony of holy crawlers hanging out inside my coat pocket. What I discovered next immediately sickened me and made the pit of my stomach ache with so much worry I began sweating bullets by the bucketful. There were dozens, perhaps millions of ants feasting on an old peanut butter on cheese cracker I had left inside my coat pocket weeks earlier. With students all around me stepping on ants and causing a commotion, I went ahead and prayed my seven Hail Marys, hoping this act would bring about a miracle, or at the very least make it darn near impossible that the ant trail be traced back to me. When mass let out, I bolted for the school dumpster (aka the "Red Monster" in those days) and furiously emptied out my pocket full of ants. To my surprise, no one, not even a nun, ever discovered where all those ants came from. I was able to crawl away from this one with my dignity still in tact.

Before long, 8th grade graduation came and went without further incident. I never realized my goal of getting excommunicated and sent back to the woods. I even discovered that life at St. Therese wasn't so hard after all. Even for a public school kid like me.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bowling for Cleveland

A bright new future with swanky apartments and condominiums is finally coming to Cleveland. Census trackers get ready to type in 30,000 downtown dwellers instead of 10,000 in the coming decade. Developer Scott Wolstein is also working on a $500 million flats renovation project that may turn the east bank of the flats into the place to work, live, and play within the coming years. Over on Euclid and Chester Avenues, picture a baseball stadium and College Town living quarters on Cleveland State's campus. Add to this a newly-completed Detroit Shoreway project, and you have the makings of a good, ol' fashioned Cleveland comeback!

Despite the dismal economic climate, investors still seem willing to put their money towards revitalizing Cleveland. With a recession looming, many may back out for the time being. Some risky developers who stick around could encounter some political red flags along the way. Sad for these visionaries, and sad for us, considering our city's need to move forward and play a more active role in the "new economy."

Quick, when you think of political red flags, what three words which begin with Cuyahoga and end with Commissioners come to mind? If you answered Cuyahoga County Commissioners, you are correct. I would have also accepted Hagan, Dimora, and Jones, but I suspect there are more than three people pulling the strings in that office. When moving ahead on county improvements, our commissioners stall more often than my broken-down 1973 lime green Chevy Nova did in all of 1987.

Here's another one-liner to chew on. If you truly want to know the best way to spend way too much time on securing a location for Cleveland's medical mart, ask the Cuyahoga County Commissioners. Their sole purpose for existence is to exhaust your patience, and sometimes your tax dollars, in their quest to put Cleveland back on the road to recovery, only to stop just short of getting things off the ground. Sometimes they don't even want your multi-million dollar bid, even if you are the only public bidder on a building they themselves purchased with taxpayer money and did nothing with. I am referring to the eventual K & D Group's purchase of the vacant Ameritrust Building on East 9th and Euclid which the developer intends to create housing, offices, and a restaurant in. This developer had to bid twice, both times against itself, because the commissioners could not decipher what the better deal was: letting an eager developer invest in a building for the purpose of bringing potential dollars to Cleveland or letting the building sit vacant for another 30 years. Maybe someone at the commissioners office heard that asbestos is making a comeback.

Despite these red flags and enough waffling to put IHOP to shame, Cleveland is poised and ready to reinvent itself. Perhaps the most apparent change downtown in recent years is what is taking place on East 4th and Euclid. Almost overnight, venues have popped up like weeds in a rain-soaked forest. Over on 4th Street they have The House of Blues, a large walking terrace, retail shops, housing, and a healthy combination of fine dining and bowling at the Corner Alley.

Maybe it is time for the Cuyahoga County Commissioners to adopt the line, "If you build it, they will come," from the movie Field of Dreams as their new slogan. Cleveland is indeed on the right path to recovery, and perhaps more streets like East 4th will follow once the Euclid Corridor Project is completed. But how do we get people to drop everything they are doing in the suburbs and come to Cleveland? The answer is simple. Put Bowling for Dollars back on TV.

That's right, Bowling for Dollars. A game played by ordinary, hard-working folks who may just be willing to represent Cleveland by knocking down some pins on local TV, maybe even Sports Time Ohio.

Unlike the first couple of times Bowling for Dollars swept through Cleveland and took dozens of viewers hostage in the 1970s, this brand of Bowling for Dollars should be taped before a live audience at the Corner Alley on East 4th. It should also coincide with the completion of the Euclid Corridor Project.

To stay in sync with Cleveland wanting to develop sustainable neighborhoods, free of cars and congestion, contestants should be bused in from the burbs and surrounding neighborhoods via the Regional Transit Authority (aka the RTA). Potential winnings would be set according to the average price of gasoline in Cuyahoga County that day. In other words, for every pin a lucky bowler knocks down, he or she would get $4 by today's prices. Get two strikes in a row, win $80!

Now instead of hopping on that bus and heading home, contestants should be strongly encouraged (with coupons and rebates) to head down the Corridor and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Euclid Avenue's seven great wonders (culturally rich neighborhoods) along the way. Like the Playhouse Square Theatre District around East 14th. If you haven't blown your 80 bucks by now, head down to 21st Street and grab a slice of pizza at the Rascal House. Or maybe you'll want to save your money for the end of the route by visiting a museum in University Circle, followed by a nice meal in Little Italy.

By the time you loop back towards East 4th, you'll be so exhausted you'll want nothing more than to get a room at the Old Arcade's Hyatt Regency Hotel for the night. Your 80 bucks are long gone by now, but you won't mind dipping into your own pockets because you are having so much fun in Cleveland. And you will be contributing to YOUR northeast Ohio economy!

Sometimes the answers to life's most complicated questions can only be found in something simple, like putting Bowling for Dollars back on TV. It sure beats waiting for our county commissioners.

p.s. ...this blog was not paid for, endorsed by, or subscribed to by any political party or collection of bowling aficionados. Just an ordinary Mike who wants to make some extra cash so he can buy a crisp, new tee shirt he's been eyeing at Daffy Dan's.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Duane Kuiper*

As a kid growing up in Cleveland during the 1970s I dreamed of two things happening. One, the Cleveland Indians would make it to the World Series, and two, at the very least, my favorite player would make the highlight reel of "This Week in Baseball."

Well, the Indians never made it to the World Series, but one of the club's most popular players, a slap-hitting second-baseman named Duane Kuiper, was featured on "This Week in Baseball" more than once. "Another caper by Duane Kuiper," is what they used to say, referring to his diving plays, backhanded stops, and running catches that foiled base hits and sent potential base runners crawling back to the pine.

Kuiper wasn't a shabby hitter either. He once hit two bases-loaded triples in a single game and spoiled three potential no-hitters by Ron Guidry, Andy Hassler, and the great Nolan Ryan. And if it weren't for that ONE home run he hit on August 29th, 1977, he'd have a perfect record of no home runs in 3,379 major league at bats.

I often wonder if that one home run jinxed Duane Kuiper and has prevented him from making the Hall of Fame as the only player in major league history to go homerless in 3,379 at bats. Baseball has seen some of its greatest players fall victim to gambling and cheating, making it virtually impossible for them to get inducted into the Hall. But keeping Duane Kuiper out because he made one stinking line drive travel just a little too far one night is both a travesty and an insult to Duane Kuiper and the city of Cleveland.

Alright, perhaps I am being a tad bit extreme. Kuiper himself would never take an induction into the Hall of Fame seriously. He still jokes to this day that he stopped hitting home runs after the first one because he didn't want fans to expect them all of the time. But I will continue to lobby for his induction because with that single home run, he is officially (be it at the bottom) on the all-time home run list - more than 700 away from the likes of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.

Without that home run, he would be at the top of a unique list of players with no round trippers in a career's worth of plate appearances. Perhaps we can induct Kuiper into the Hall with an asterisk? He can have a special category: the only player to almost never hit a home run in 3,379 at bats and would be a shoe-in for the Hall if it weren't for the wind blowing like crazy at his back one night.

Now I've done some thinking lately. Maybe his not being in the Hall of Fame runs deeper than his "tainted" record. For example, did anyone ever check his bat to see if he corked it on August 29th, 1977? Does anyone have any surveillance of Kuiper (or members of his posse) sneaking into the ballpark before the game and physically moving the wall closer to home plate? Was there a second baseball? These are tough questions, but nonetheless worthy of consideration.

What's the big deal surrounding Duane Eugene Kuiper you ask? Kuiper played in Cleveland at a time when the community needed a hero it could identify with. The city was in default, its river had the annoying habit of catching fire, and the home team was the butt of jokes everywhere. Kuiper, the unlikely hero, was small and powerless, but capable of handling whatever pitch was thrown at him. A drag bunt here, a bloop single there, a triple in the right field gap. He was scrappy, much like the city he represented. A city in decline, but trying to get on base.

He hailed from Racine, Wisconsin. Born June 19th, 1950, he graduated as a Saluki from Southern Illinois University. He was drafted in 1972 in the first round (21st pick) by the Cleveland Indians. He made his big league debut wearing #18 on his back near the end of the 1974 season. He clubbed 11 hits in 22 at bats for a .500 average. Indians fans (I for one) said, move over Ted Williams, a pure hitter is destined to unleash his wrath on all of your records one day.

Well, he ended up his 12-year career (8 with the Indians) with a .271 batting average, a far cry from the modern single season batting record of .408 set by Ted Williams. Numerous at bats will do that to a hitter's batting average. Kuiper had one season of 610 at bats, the same year he was named the Indians "Man of the Year" with a sizzling .277 average, 50 runs batted in, and 8 triples. Like I said, he was scrappy.

Other teams may have had George Brett, Rod Carew, and Steve Garvey - a worthy collection of .330 hitters. The Indians had Kuiper. There was a special place for him in the hearts and minds of Clevelanders. Aside from riding the Big Dipper at Geauga Lake, nothing made a young fan's heart pound faster with excitement than witnessing one of those diving catches or clutch singles by Duane Kuiper down at Municipal Stadium.

So go ahead and not induct him into the Hall of Fame you select group of baseball writers who spend your days scouring record books in search of profound statistics and lifelong accomplishments. But just remember there is a full grown adult here with enough money in his wallet to buy two...make that one...admission ticket to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I am taking this money out and putting it into a 6-month CD, and will keep rolling it into more CDs as terms expire until Duane Kuiper is inducted. Then I will see you in Cooperstown.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

2008 Marks the 10th Anniversary of Yankovic's Passing

From the shores of Lake Erie to the church halls of Garfield Heights and Parma, thousands of Clevelanders love to get down and polka. Cleveland-style Polka, that is!

Cleveland-style Polka, or Slovenian-style Polka as it is also known, is deeply rooted in the folk music of Slovenia. So how did it get way over here? Grab a plate of pierogies and sit back in your chair as I try to explain at least one reason why Cleveland is considered the Polka capitol of the world.

Cleveland is a land of many ethnic enclaves, each of which has etched their own mark on the culture and history of Cleveland. Slovenian immigrants, for example, settled into their neighborhoods, worked in the factories, and instilled in their children the importance of maintaining the traditions of the old country. Who would have thought their children would grow up and take the Slovenian folk music they learned as kids and mold it into something new and original. The formula: translate the old songs from Slovenian to English, add your beloved accordions and throw in an electric guitar, saxophone, banjo, bass guitar, and some fast-kicking drums.

After deciding which instruments sounded good together, the younger Slovenians had to find people who knew how to play them. That was easy. The ethnic clubs and dance halls were loaded with plenty of talent. One such artist was Frankie Yankovic, undoubtedly the most popular Cleveland-style Polka artist to amass commercial success and help make Cleveland the Polka capitol of the world.

According to Frank Smodic, Jr., in his 1990 book "Through the Years," Yankovic grew up in Cleveland, having moved here from Davis, West Virginia in the early 1920s as a young boy. Thanks to Prohibition and his father not being West Virginia's most discreet bootlegger, Frankie and his family fled the Mountaineer state and headed north to our city. They settled in the central Collinwood neighborhood, a community where many Slovenians lived and worked.

Smodic writes in his book that Frankie's father worked as a crane operator and dabbled in the hardware business. Both of his parents also opened their home to as many as seven or eight Slovenian boarders at a time. One of them was a guy named Max Zelodec who played an instrument called the button box (aka cheese box) accordion. The button box has a smaller footprint than a piano accordion and is generally less expensive. With Max on the button box and the other boarders singing old Slovenian songs, dinners at the Yankovic house were about more than just food and drink.

Frankie was fascinated with Zelodec and the way the other boarders flocked to his lead. He asked him for some lessons and Zelodec obliged. Soon, nine-year old Frankie was entertaining his family and all of the boarders with his own brand of button box music. His interest in Slovenian folk music grew, and by his teens Frankie was entertaining people in the lodges around town.

By 1938, Yankovic was a hit in Cleveland but wanted to branch out nationally by getting a major record deal. He approached Columbia Records, and after they said no, he produced a couple of records on his own. His records were selling like crazy but he wasn't making any money because he was putting it all back into making more records.

Digging into his own pockets to cut albums was wearing thin on Yankovic. His immigrant parents had always taught him that you have to provide for your family first. Part-time jobs like accordion teacher did not get him ahead financially.

Yankovic, always a risk-taker, saw an opportunity to invest in something he felt strongly about. Since Prohibition ended in 1933, he decided to open a tavern. It was legal and it offered some extra security. I'm just guessing that it also gave him an outlet to rack up some fresh new lyrics, since Polka music and beer go together like the "chicken dance" at weddings.

So at the age of 26 Yankovic opened the doors to his tavern. It just so happened to be on December 6th, 1941 - the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For over a year, Yankovic would run his tavern and build his music career. All along he kept asking himself why hasn't the draft board contacted him yet?

Even though he was married with children he wanted to fulfill his duty. He enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1943 and off he went to the battlefields in Europe, making sure to bring along his accordion. Just like Max Zelodec had done for him years before, Yankovic entertained the men in his barracks. He brought a little Slovenian all the way from Cleveland, if only to help his comrades make it through another night. Years later, Yankovic was quoted as saying, "Polkas make you forget your's the happiest music this side of heaven."

The harsh, cruel reality of war did silence the music for Yankovic briefly. During the Battle of the Bulge he suffered severe frostbite to his hands and feet. Doctors had discussed amputating them, but Yankovic being the survivor he is, insisted they do whatever it takes to stop the spread of gangrene and save his hands. Polka fans, or at the very least, thirsty patrons at Yankovic Tavern needed all of him back home and soon!

When the war ended, Yankovic and all ten fingers and toes came back to Cleveland. Yankovic Tavern was pulling in some great business while he was away. This enabled him to dive right back into his band. He marched back to Columbia Records and demanded they let him record the Sheldon Brothers song, "Just Because." When they refused, Yankovic offered to buy the first 10,000 records himself. His refusal to take no for an answer resulted in his first popular hit and put him on the road to becoming America's Polka King. The undisputed leader of Cleveland-style Polka had gone national!

Thus began a career that would span five decades with numerous hits and appearances. His unique sound that meshed traditional Slovenian melodies with pop and swing created mass appeal. Even in his later years, following health setbacks which made it hard for him to move around like he used to, he never disappointed his fans. One such "fan" from New York City named Johnny Koenig got to play on stage with a near 80-year old Yankovic when he was just a 7-year old Polka phenom. Now in his twenties, nationally-acclaimed Polka star Johnny Koenig recently left the Big Apple to settle in Cleveland so he can be close to the roots of Slovenian-style Polka and continue his career from the city by the lake.

Because of Frankie Yankovic, people of all ethnic backgrounds share a music they can embrace and maybe even dance to like a happy, drunken fool at weddings. For this partially Slovenian, partially Polish guy from Cleveland, I listen to Polka music because it makes me wonder what my father's childhood was like. I picture Grandpa Felix (the Slovenian) and Grandma Jolenta (the Pole) arguing with each other in their native tongues when all of a sudden someone bursts out, "hey, let's Polka!" And just like that, everything is better. Until someone steals the kishka.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Memoir of a Rascal House Pizza Junkie

I started on the easy stuff - a slice of pepperoni pizza to go, please. Within days I was ordering the goods - two slices of pepperoni, a heaping cup of fries, and a lemonade. This is the story of a man and his 22-year love affair with Rascal House Pizza. This is my story.

It all began in the fall of 1986. The aroma of pizza sauce wafted through the foyer and smacked me in the face as I entered the establishment on Euclid and East 21st, across the street from "The Cage" at Cleveland State. I had a good feeling about this place.

In those days there were only 4 places to grab a bite on the campus of CSU: The Shire, Fat Glenn's, the cafeteria, and the Rascal House. The Shire was located in the basement of The Cage and seemed like a nice place. Fat Glenn's was near Mather Mansion but looked like a speakeasy, at least from the outside. The cafeteria was on the third floor of The Cage overlooking a deep vertical drop down to the wide open floor below. Not a good situation for someone who possessed a fear of heights and a craving for hearty meals like bacon & eggs. The Rascal House seemed innocent enough. I'll just grab a quick slice and be on my way.

I had heard good things about the Rascal House long before my first visit. "Pizzavores" migrated there from the suburbs for food, drink, and festivities during Cleveland State's magical NCAA Sweet 16 run just months before. It was a place where you could hang out in front with friends eating pizza, or head out back to drink and dance to INXS and Echo & The Bunnymen.

The Rascal House opened its doors for business in 1980. Downtown would be its flagship store. The recipe, student atmosphere, and reasonable price caught on quickly. The Plain Dealer dubbed Rascal House Pizza "Cleveland's Best Pizza" by the mid-eighties.

But for many years if you wanted Rascal House pizza you had two choices. Go downtown or go hungry. By popular demand in 1994, Rascal House opened a second store, in Euclid, then added another one near John Carroll University. Soon, Rascal House Pizzas were popping up like dough in 600-degree ovens. Franchise owners brought the great taste once reserved for CSU to friendly neighborhoods near you. There are now restaurants in University Circle, Seven Hills, and Maple Heights.

Even though Rascal House Pizza grew and grew, making the world a better place, I still eat Rascal House Pizza the way it was meant to be enjoyed - downtown at CSU. And even though I am now grown up and married, I bring my wife and kids to the Rascal House every time we visit campus for basketball, soccer, and volleyball games. We ask for the Belly Buster loaded with pepperoni and three cups of fries. I order small fountain drinks but end up with cups the size of 10-gallon hats. Not wanting to offend, I indulge in the unlimited refills like a child who's just swallowed an entire bag of giant pretzels. More pizza means more pop and more pop means more pizza. It's an endless cycle.

I pass the time waiting for our number to be called by sharing with my family an appetizing collection of personal Rascal House stories. Like the time I bumped into Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka (literally) as I exited the men's room on the morning of the 1987 Cleveland Revco 10K. I told him I was sorry. He said no problem and gave me a stiff pat on the back that nearly sent me through the wall and into the kitchen.

The Rascal House was my destination for lunch practically every day of college. It felt good being a regular ordering my usual. Then off to a booth I went to read the lastest issue of The Cauldron and gulp down my food before heading back to class. Later that evening there was a good chance I'd be back in that booth with teammates from the cross country team, or to re-write my notes from history class. I once had a stockpile of yellow legal pads coated with pizza stains and greasy fingerprints, courtesy of the Rascal House and my compulsive need to brush up on the teachings of Professor Campbell, Cary, and Drimmer while eating a late meal.

Soon graduation came, and with my departure from downtown Cleveland came a brief hiatus from Rascal House Pizza. Every now and then I would come back and see some of the changes taking place at my favorite hangout. Like sand volleyball in the alley next door. And pick-up basketball on a make-shift court in the bar. I think I even saw a Rolling Stones concert, previously taped, at the Rascal House. But that was it for a while. From what I heard changes took place often at the Rascal House over the years, not so much at the restaurant, but inside the bar.

Then I started watching college basketball a couple of years ago with my brother who was bed-ridden for a time. I started wondering how Cleveland State was doing. I woke up one weekend and told my wife I wanted to go downtown to CSU to see what's new. We could take the kids and grab lunch at the Rascal House.

When we got downtown the Euclid Corridor project was transforming Euclid Avenue right before our eyes. Cleveland State was in the early stages of its campus expansion. Lucky for me the Rascal House was right where I left it. What would it be like after all these years? Would they even remember me? And would I still like their food?

They had me back at "can I help the next person in line." We immediately placed our order and found a familiar booth nearby. A song by A Flock of Seagulls was playing in the background, making it all the more easy for stories from the 1980s to gush out for my family's amusement while we waited for our pizza.

Thus began my new era of enjoying Rascal House Pizza, this time with my hungry family right there with me. A major difference this time around is that I am surrounded by so many young customers. I'm betting these young people will be back in 22 years with their families. I wonder where I'll be eating pizza 22 years from now?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Look, It's A Car...It's A Movie...It's A Drive-In Movie!

My parents started a family tradition a few years ago called Backyard Movie Night. They hire a movie-showing company that comes to their home to play a movie. Yes, my parents do own their own DVD player, and yes, they do know how it works.

You see, this isn't just any movie-showing company. For starters, they encourage customers to schedule their movie on a warm summer night when the air is still, the sky is dark, and the stars are many. They recommend that you have lots of hot dogs and hamburgers on hand. And if you plan on making out during the movie, make sure to bring your own blanket and sit in back because there will be plenty of kids in the front row.

This year's big night will take place on June 27th, weather permitting. The movie-showing staff will show up about thirty minutes before showtime to put up a large white screen on the side of the garage. My parents will have the task of choosing the movie ahead of time, a flick that must appeal to the interests of movie lovers 3 and up. That means something along the lines of Disney's "The Wild," not to be confused with "Wild Things" which stars Denise Richards, Nev Campbell, and a swimming pool.

The kids think Backyard Movie Night is a modern invention, the result of too many years watching indoor DVDs on a couch while eating stale potato chips. But we adults know better. Backyard Movie Night takes us back to a simpler time when the best way to truly enjoy a movie was outdoors under the stars.

Growing up during the 1970s, the only way to watch a movie with Mom and Dad was in the back seat of Dad's Ford Maverick at one of Cleveland's many drive-in movie theatres. Going to the drive-in was more than just about the movies. There were the gravel-lined playgrounds that my siblings and I spent practically every moment leading up to the movie skinning our knees on. And there were the miles and miles of open space we could run around squealing like banshies as the sun was setting while many of our counterparts were at home getting ready for bed. Wasting energy wasn't a problem because the concession stand had hot dogs, chili dogs, burgers, and fries so we could refuel during the main event.

The drive-in movie experience did have its stressful moments and they usually happened at the beginning of the movie just as the opening credits were starting. We could see the frustration on Dad's face as he tried his hardest to position the car ever so carefully next to the speakers to get them to sound better. And of course there was always at least one speaker that did not work and Dad usually found it. Embarrassed, we slid down in our seats while he started the car back up and began the slow crawl ten feet over to the right or left to another speaker, hoping not to disturb the other movie-goers and run the risk of getting pelted with popcorn and slushies.

With hot dogs and pops in our laps, we were finally settled and ready for the opening movie. If we were lucky it was a kids movie, like Herbie the Love Bug, or even a cartoon. Whatever it was, I watched until I drifted off to sleep, not even the caffeine in my cola could keep me awake for the second movie. One time, however, by the almighty power of some unknown force I remained awake for the nightcap of a cinematic doubleheader. The movie was the adult classic Shampoo, starring Julie Christie and a handful of meaningless other actors. Her long, shapely legs, soft lips, and a timely case of insomnia kept me awake long enough to see my first unrated movie at the tender age of 9. Yes indeed, the drive-in movie was indirectly responsible for my first crush on an older woman I had absolutely no chance with.

I'm quite sure that filling my head with impure thoughts while viewing movies like Shampoo was not the intention of one Richard Hollingshead, the inventor of the drive-in movie theatre back in 1933. In his own backyard in Camden, New Jersey he simulated an actual movie theatre, even going so far as to see what the experience would be like in the rain by turning his water sprinkler on. He loved hanging outside in his car and he loved movies. Why not combine the two and see what happens!

The idea caught on. By the summer of 1937 Ohio opened its first drive-in called the Starlight Auto Theatre in Akron. Cleveland got its first one a year later in the vicinity of Thistledown Race Track on Northfield Road. The real boom across America took place in the ten years following WWII as the number of drive-ins climbed from 155 to over 5,000 nationwide.

But as competition from indoor theatres, Beta machines, the VCR, and currently the DVD enabled people to come in from out of the rain to watch movies, the novelty of the drive-in waned. By the 1990s for every new drive-in that opened, dozens more closed. Fifty years ago Ohio had nearly 200 drive-ins. Today there are about 40, preserved and operated by die-hard fans of the venue.

My personal favorite growing up was the Cloverleaf Drive-In, located in Valley View. Some patrons may recall this drive-in having a large clock on the back of its screen with Coke bottles for hands. I just remember that we did not have to drive very far because Grandma and Grandpa lived at the top of the hill. Even when we weren't at the drive-in, we could still get a glimpse of what was playing because the screen was so huge and could be seen from Granger, Canal, and Warner - the three main roads nearby. This fact sparked controversy from the local do-gooders who felt the youth was being corrupted whenever R-rated movies were going on and families were idling their cars out on the street waiting for the lights to change. "Elmer, the light's green." "Don't rush me darling, my favorite part is coming up!"

The Cloverleaf Drive-In closed for good back in 1984. Ironically, the owners became born-again Christians and tried showing Christian-themed films their last season of business. The idea didn't save their drive-in, but their days were numbered anyways. Nearby Garfield Mall was drawing many customers to their indoor theatre, and you could always catch a flick for a dollar at the warm and cozy Mapletown a few miles up the hill.

Clevelanders ages 40 and up can now only look back with great fondness upon the drive-in theatre as they plop another movie into their DVD player and tear open a bag of stale chips. Depending on how much gas money you've saved up, you could always take a trip out to one of the last few remaining drive-ins northeast Ohio has to offer. Chardon's Mayfield Drive-In is still open for business and is showing Iron Man as of this writing. Or you could just hire a movie-showing company and simulate the drive-in experience by hosting your own Backyard Movie Night. Just make sure to check the timer on your automatic sprinkler before the guests show up!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gone But Not Forgotten

To my wife's surprise I just finished reading a book. A big book called The Men of Oregon, written by marathon runner and Sports Illustrated reporter Kenny Moore. The book is a biography on the legendary University of Oregon's cross country and track coach, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman produced countless All-Americans and Olympians for nearly a quarter-century before retiring in 1972. The renowned distance running tradition he established at Oregon remains today. (By the way, he also helped founded a tiny shoe company called Nike.)

I was able to finish a big book like this because it honed in on a guy who did so much to advance the sport of distance running in America. It was a page turner because I was able to recall some of my own experiences running cross country and track in college. Recalling personal experiences is something that I am fortunately able to do but potential runners currently attending my alma mater cannot. You see, I graduated from Cleveland State University in downtown Cleveland, Ohio nearly 20 years ago. I finished my studies three years before the school pulled the plug on men's cross country and track. CSU still fields a women's cross country team which competes in the Horizon League. But due to state budget cuts in the early 90s and being compliant with Title IX which requires NCAA schools have an equal number of female athletes as males, Cleveland State stopped competing in men's cross country and track after 1993.

Keep in mind that I love my alma mater. I attend at least a dozen athletic events on campus a year and I proudly wear my forest green and white CSU sweatshirt to every one of them. This past year Cleveland State, as a small Division I school, compiled an impressive list of accomplishments like sending their women's volleyball and women's basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament. And the men's tennis team went to their NCAA Tournament as well. Sure they all lost in the first round, but it may take a few more years before David is able to beat Goliath. Let's also not forget that the men's basketball team played in their first Horizon League Championship final and made it to the NIT for the first time in two decades.

Win or lose, I am there for my Cleveland State Vikings. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to represent them as a cross country and track athlete back in the 1980s, but saddened that a program with such a rich distance running tradition was canceled.

I started running cross country and track when I was a freshman in high school. I stood 4' 10" and weighed 74 pounds (84 if you count running with ankle weights). Despite pressure from the football coach to join his team and become his star linebacker, I opted for cross country instead. Before long I was winning some races and started making a name for myself. Which was a good thing because guys my size run the risk of getting stuffed in lockers every day. My running talent "bought" me protection from school bullies. They thought my head was not screwed on right because every time they saw me I was logging some serious miles. "Don't mess with that guy - he's crazy," said the school bullies.

Soon I shot up to 5' 9" and was a few pasta dinners away from 120 pounds. I continued to excel in cross country and in the 2 mile in track for my high school. To maintain a competitive edge I entered many 5K and 5 mile road races throughout northeast Ohio. It was at the road races where I got my first glimpse of where I wanted to one day go to college if I were ever going to amount to a true distance runner after high school. Members of the Cleveland State cross country team were dominating the road racing scene all around me and taking home all of the shiny trophies! I did some investigating, which in those days meant going to the library and looking at old sports page clippings from the Plain Dealer. I had to become part of this tradition and prayed that one day their coach would recruit me.

Senior year of high school was exciting. Coach Dave Burger of Cleveland State was finally recruiting me, but so were many other schools. This made it difficult. One day I was going to one college, the next day I was going somewhere else. One thing is for sure, Coach Burger provided the most interesting campus visit. One that included a 10 mile run dowtown and around the flats with a member of their team; followed by a trip to the infamous Chinese restaurant Chins on St. Clair Avenue for some Chicken Chow Mein; and concluded with a tour of his office adorned with pictures of many CSU runners past and present. Runners like two-time All-American cross country runner Marc Hunter, All-American Don James, and local road racing heroes Ted Rupe and Dave Brehmer. And a future Hall of Famer named Corey Frost.

Despite the enjoyable campus tour of Cleveland State, I ended up at cross-town John Carroll University for my freshman year. My brother was a student there, my grandfather went there, and my parents liked the idea of me going there. We are Catholic and all of my siblings were attending Catholic schools and I did not want to be the one to break tradition.

I immediately embraced my new role as a college student-athlete. I trained hard and competed in cross country and track for the John Carroll Blue Streaks. School was going well, running was fun, but something was missing. And it did not feel right competing against Cleveland State at the City Championship Meet either. After a year at John Carroll, I cautiously walked up to my parents and informed them that I wanted to transfer to Cleveland State, that is, if it was okay with them. I told them John Carroll was nice, but I felt like I would fit in better at Cleveland State. They are Division I and my friends were going there. They questioned my reasons for transferring but gave me their blessing anyway.

So after a slight detour I entered the very college I had wanted to attend since the 10th grade as a full-fledged college sophomore. For the remainder of my college career I would run lots of road races and even spend some time as a proud member of Coach Burger's cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams.

I would never become a Marc Hunter, Ted Rupe, or Corey Frost, but I had the experience of a lifetime. Something you would not expect to hear from a serious cross country runner attending an urban campus surrounded by so much cement. I mean, come on...cross country Cleveland? Where are all the corn fields, the woods, and the marshy areas? How can anyone become a true cross country runner at Cleveland State?

Simple. You fall in love with the streets and bridges of downtown Cleveland. You embrace that pungent smell from the fish factory on the west bank of the flats because to CSU runners THIS IS altitude training. You learn to accept that running for your life from large stray dogs when getting temporarily lost in one of Cleveland's many fine neighborhoods is simply called speed work.

The fact of the matter is, I don't know how Cleveland State built such a fine distance running tradition, but they did. The program was started by Coach Burger in 1965 shortly after Fenn College became Cleveland State. The program ended after the 1993 track season. In between many great things happened under the tutelage of one coach.

The "dynasty" era of those 28 years took place during the 1970s when Cleveland State was ranked in the Top 20 three times. The "Running Boom" was spreading like wildfire throughout America but nobody expected someone from Cleveland State to make it big on the national scene. But make it big someone did. CSU's Marc Hunter ran his way to a 4th place finish at the 1977 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship, just seconds away from Kenya's national champion, Henry Rono from Washington State. The University of Oregon won the team title that year but Marc Hunter beat all seven of their runners including somebody by the name of Alberto Salazar. The same Alberto Salazar that would go on to win the New York City and Boston Marathons and set an American record of 2:08.13 in the marathon a few years later.

The prominence of Cleveland State's distance program enhanced its recruiting clout and annual schedule. Runners from my generation got the chance to compete in prestigious meets like the Notre Dame Invitational, Drake Relays, and LSU Relays because runners like Marc Hunter put Cleveland State on the map. The very successful and world-class Cleveland Revco 10k and Marathon started and ended at Cleveland State University throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Distance running at Cleveland State was a staple on campus, much like Rascal House Pizza.

It was only fitting that Coach Burger was able to capture the Mid-Continent Conference (formerly AMCU-8) cross country title in 1992, the last year of the program. I was not around then but I can only imagine the mood. Do all good things have to come to an end? Or is this merely a break until Cleveland State reinstates the program. Until then, runners of the CSU community should check out the Hall of Fame plaques of Coach Burger, Marc Hunter, Don James, Ted Rupe, and Corey Frost the next time they visit the Wolstein Center on campus. And never forget that men's cross country (and track) used to exist at Cleveland State. Maybe someone will blog about it one day.