Poles Apart

Chanel High School R.I.P.

A strange memory from the past popped into my mind this afternoon as I was heading for the exit of the Century City parking garage. I thought back to our old high school cheer, which was openly contemptuous of Poles. Chanel High (later renamed St. Peter Chanel High) belonged to the North Central Athletic Conference, which consisted of a handful of Catholic high schools, including St. Edward, Elyria Catholic, and—most particularly—St. Stanislaus. I say “most particularly” because we had chosen St. Stan’s to be our official enemy. It was only a few miles away and located in a largely Polish Catholic neighborhood.

When our cheerleaders revealed the following chant, there were a few hard feelings:

OOH sah sah sah!
OOH sah sah sah!
Hit ’em in the head with a BIG KIELBASA!
Put ’em in a barrel
Roll ’em down the street
FIREBIRDS, FIREBIRDS
Can’t be beat!

We, of course, were the Firebirds. Fortunately, during my years at Chanel (1958-1962), we mostly prevailed over St. Stan’s. And it didn’t keep us Hungarians, Slavs, and Italians from enjoying Kielbasa sausages.

Back Then, All Our Cheerleaders Were Male

Once I graduated from Chanel, big changes happened. The biggest of them was the admission of girls. Then, there were a number of black students. Finally, the school was ceded to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and was no longer controlled by the Marist order of priests. Around the same time, the name was changed from Chanel to St. Peter Chanel.

Unfortunately, it’s all moot now, as Chanel closed its doors a few years ago and has, I believe, been subjected to the wrecking ball. Sic transit gloria mundi!

 

Favorite Films: A Christmas Story (1983)

Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie

It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.

The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.

Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa

There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)

If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.

 

Memories of Cleveland

The Cleveland Museum of Art

When I was growing up on the East Side of Cleveland, there were some areas that I really grew to like. Probably I was most drawn to the area around the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. I used to take the 56-A bus from home to East 105th Street, where I transferred to another bus that took me to Euclid Avenue. There was a drugstore at the corner of 105th and Euclid that featured a drink at their soda fountain called a “fresh lime rickey.” I would eat lunch there and walk over to either the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Western Reserve campus (it had not yet merged with Case Institute of Technology).

I would take art appreciation classes on Saturdays at the art museum, afterwards walking around the collections of medieval armor and 19th century art, including a Van Gogh that became my favorite painting: “The Starry Night.” I wonder if Cleveland still has that painting.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

After I had started at Dartmouth College, I took a course on tragedy in literature at Western Reserve University by a professor named, as I recall, Tom MacDonald. At times, I would walk over to the Museum of Art after classes before getting on the buses home.

Other than the “University Circle” area that I frequented, I was not overly impressed by Cleveland. The Downtown area was rather grim. I had saxophone lessons near the center of town. The only places there I felt I could hang out were the Public Library on Superior and Schroeder’s Bookstore on Public Square. To the west were the Flats with their large factories, through which flowed the Cuyahoga River. It was this river which had made news once for being so polluted that it had caught fire.

 

My Early Career

Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

Now that you’ve seen me without a stitch of clothing on, and facing you with the situation, I thought I’d bring you up to date about the second home of my young life. When I was only a little over a year old, my Mom, Dad, and I moved to Lake Worth, Florida. As I was much too young at the time, I have no memory of my first trip to the Land of Sunshine. My Dad worked for the city, which is a southern suburb of West Palm Beach, and my Mom had her hands full with the above illustrated hedonist.

Unfortunately, my father did not have the best of times in Florida. His job was to remove the bodies of dead and rotting alligators. Now Dad had a tricksy stomach, so instead of job satisfaction, he was mostly involved in projectile vomiting at the time. The move to Florida was declared a failure, so Dad insisted that the family relocate to the Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland, on the East Side’s Buckeye Road. Which is what we did.

My third home was the second floor of a duplex at 2814 East 120th Street. I was able to put down some roots there, as we were to remain there until 1951, after my brother Dan was born. Since I didn’t know a word of English, Mom and Dad figured we should relocate to the suburbs, a few miles east of Buckeye Road. It was time for me to learn English and become a red-blooded American. Which I proceeded to do, with such dispatch that after three more years, I was no longer regarded as a problematical retard with a funny accent.

BTW: My Mom adored the above picture. She showed it to all my girlfriends….

 

A Budding Artist

My Oldest Surviving Kid Drawing

The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.

At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?

I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”

My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.

 

Loser City

Clevelanders Parade, Flaunting Their NFL Team’s 0-16 Record

It was almost always thus. In most years, Cleveland teams piled up a dismal win/loss record. Not that I give a fig for professional sports, but while I was living there, I would have given much for a winning season. In 1959 the Indians won the American League baseball pennant (but lost the series ignominiously to the White Sox). And in 1964, the Cleveland Browns shut out Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0. That was when Frank Ryan was quarterback and Jim Brown was at fullback and gary Collins and Paul Warfield were the ace receivers. After that, it was not until 2016 when a Cleveland team, the Cavaliers, won the NBA championship.

I actually had a personal stake in the Cleveland Indians doing well. As a straight-A student, I received seven pairs of free Indians tickets every summer—mostly to see them go down to defeat. Acutely, I felt that Seymour Krebs’s “The Monster That Devoured Cleveland” from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis had struck. I was in a major dudgeon until I could leave “The Mistake on the Lake,” which I did in 1962, when I went to college in New Hampshire. Thereafter, when I came home from Dartmouth, I could watch my father stew in his juices as his teams traduced his efforts at fandom.

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower (How Appropriately Named!)

Sometimes I think my great love of travel comes from feeling stuck in Cleveland and wanting to get out at any cost. It’s a pity, because at one time it was a fairly nice place. It did not, however, fare well economically and demographically. When I was in the lower grades of grammar school, it was the seventh largest city in the U.S. Now it ranks fifty-first, behind Oakland, Tulsa, and Wichita.

Sigh!

 

“A Hundred Windows Opened on All Sides of the Head”

Old Building on Buckeye Road

Old Building on Buckeye Road

This morning, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, and it set me to thinking. I thought it would be fun to put all my earliest memories in one place, lest I forget. Chesterton had it right:

What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I really recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling. This is where it differs from the other great thrill of the past, all that is connected with first love and the romantic passion; for that, though equally poignant, comes always to a point; and it is narrow like a rapier piercing the heart, whereas the other was more like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.

I was born in a house on East 177th Street, a few houses north of Glendale. Because we moved shortly after I was born, all my earliest memories are tied up with 2814 East 120th Street, just off Buckeye Road. We lived on the second floor of a duplex. I remember lying in my crib. One of my first memories was of an argument between my mother and father about money. Both were working, my father at Lees Bradner & Company, my mother at the Cleveland Woolen Mill.

Like most toddlers, I was fairly rambunctious. Mrs. Nebehaj kept shouting from her first floor rooms, “Missus, the ceiling is coming down!”

From a very early age, I was cared for by my great grandmother Lidia and great grandfather Daniel. As Daniel died when I was one, I do not remember him. I was always told he wanted to live long enough for me to buy pipe tobacco for him at the grocery store on Buckeye Road. It was not to be.

My oldest friend was Joyce. Now for the sex: I was fixated on the crook of her knees, which to me was smooth and lovely. There wasn’t too much I could do about it, but I remembered it nonetheless. Once, when I was playing with her, I lost control of my bladder, and the pee ran down my leg. My landlord saw me and asked why I was dripping. I said I stepped in a bucket of water, and it was running down my leg. Was that my first lie?

On Buckeye Road, near East 120th, there was a ramshackle old building that sold furnace pipes and such like. I remember playing in the small yard that fronted the building. There were a number of tree stumps on which I could play with my toy soldiers.

Of course, everybody spoke Hungarian. So did I. It was almost a 100% Hungarian neighborhood, and we didn’t have a television set until 1949. Broadcasting would begin around 4:00 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed by the Howdy Doody Show, which I watched religiously.

Once, I remember going with my father to pick up Mom at the Woolen Mill, and there was a big fire in a nearby building.

My life changed when I attended kindergarten beginning in January 1950. Trouble emerged at once when my teacher, Mrs. Idell, refused to understand my Hungarian. My friend András, who was similarly afflicted, and I began kicking her shins. Also, my brother was born in April 1951. It was time to move, and that signaled a new epoch in my life.