It was another sultry summer evening in Berea, Ohio. I sat perched in a sturdy maple tree in the backyard where I could survey my kingdom. Everything was mine when I was 10 years old, including the future. Through the fine screen of the porch, I could see my dad’s crossed legs on the lounge chair, his back to me, his head resting as he dozed. Occasional breezes blew through and lifted the sounds of the Cleveland Indians’ play-by-play man from a transistor radio that sat on his lap. Next to the porch, I could hear the water turn on and off through another window as Mom scrubbed and rinsed the dinner dishes.
Occasionally, two pots would clank together, and the rings on the pan’s handles clanged. To this day, that sound reminds me of home (try listening to it someday--you‘ll agree, I’ll bet). My dog Scruffy--a mixed breed we got from the pound--sat under the tree, gnawing a stick about the size of a building rafter. He was small, but he thought big. A muffled voice rang out intermittently from across the back field where the schoolyard always hosted kids for baseball, kickball and evenings of “kick the can.”
Burnt Wicks And Roasted Hot Dogs
Patrick came over from across the street, and without a word, scaled the tree and sat on the branch across from me. He produced two pieces of Bazooka Bubble Gum and gave me one while he chomped the other. It was warm from his pocket, so it loosened up enough to blow a bubble right away. I reached over and tried to press the cowlick of hair that always stood up on Patrick’s head, but it came right back. I laughed and he swatted my hand away. People were always doing that to him.
He took a pack of ladyfinger firecrackers and matches from his pocket and smiled at me. We hopped down from the tree, and crept around the side of the house. My sisters were washing their bikes and using S.O.S pads to shine the chrome wheels. I held the crackers, and Patrick lit them. I tossed them just beyond where the girls were working, and when the firecrackers went off, the girls screamed even louder than we’d hoped for. My younger sister went right in to tell on me, and my older sister just shook her head. We were scolded through the window, but nothing more than that. Pat said, “Do I have to go home?” Mom never answered, which we took as a “no.”
The air was heavy that night, and the scent of burning charcoal wafted through the neighborhood. Most charcoal grilling was done by the dads, and the excuse from the moms was, “Who wants to heat the kitchen up on a night like this?” “What did you guys eat,” Pat asked. “Hot dogs and burgers,” I replied as I knelt to pick up a caterpillar. He nodded slowly and said, “Any left?” I looked in the “icebox” and found at least six uncooked dogs. Since we had no buns, we just took the loaf of Wonder bread and a bottle of ketchup with us. The coals were still hot, so we put four dogs on and sat at the picnic table, flicking ants off into oblivion. We’d both eaten a huge dinner, but were at that age when we were never full. With four dogs cooking, that left two raw, which we ate like pieces of thick baloney. Pat had eaten a big dinner, too, but there was never a time when something like a hot dog didn’t sound like a good idea.
Syrupy Soda Pop
As we polished off the last of the dogs, our buddy Greg came walking up the driveway. He could walk on the tips of his Red Ball Jet sneakers and balance his body like he was on stilts. It produced the oddest-looking walk, and for some reason, it always cracked me up. When he saw me notice him, he went right into “that walk,” and by the time he reached the table, I had tears in my eyes from laughing. Greg reached into his pocket, produced three dimes, and asked if we wanted to walk to Spafford’s corner store for a Vernor’s. I hollered in the window, Mom said OK, and as we ambled down the street, Scruffy tagged along. Patrick found an old stick and dragged it along the fences. Scruff stopped to relieve himself about every three feet, so he lagged behind. I sat outside the store with Scruff while Pat and Greg got our sodas. Mr. Griffin walked by. He owned the hardware store in town. “Hello, young Ronnie,” he said. “Your momma know you’re out so late?” It was around 7 p.m. “Yes, sir,” I said. “We’re heading right back home after we get our drinks.” Mr. Griffin said, “Well, see that you do--and tell your daddy his storm door is all fixed and ready for him to pick up.” I said I would as my buddies came out of the store and handed me that ice-cold Vernor’s. Man, nothing was as good as that first sip.
As darkness approached, we heard parents throughout the neighborhood hollering for their kids to come in and get their baths. Pat and Greg split off for their homes. I walked my bike up the driveway, the baseball card clothes-pinned to the spokes, tick, tick, ticking away, and parked it on the side of the garage. I dropped the empty pop bottle into the wooden case so that it could be returned with the others the following week. Scruff followed me into the house and went to his bowl where Mom had enhanced his dinner with some leftover gravy from last night’s meatloaf--he definitely appreciated that. My sisters had already been tubbed and scrubbed, and were on their bellies in front of the television. Dad sat at the dining room table with a screwdriver, trying to fix the minute-hand on the bedroom clock--he was late for work last week when it failed.
Talk Is Curious
I went upstairs and filled the tub with bubbles, and plopped down in the hot water. I worked up a lather of suds, and started writing words on my arm with my finger. A few of them were words I’d heard while I was in the poolroom with my dad the previous Saturday. I didn’t know what they meant, but I heard them consistently whenever I was there. Dad was a quiet man, so I didn’t get those phrases from him, but the guys he shot pool with, wow, they said that stuff in every sentence. Looking back, I recall how manhood was more a series of injections than it was daily medicine--there were more jolts than there were realizations.
I heard Mom lean in the door, and I quickly erased my arm. “‘Bout done,” she asked. “Pretty near,” I said, my mind still drifting to the smells, sounds and smoky sights of Skip’s Pool Room. Skip had given me one of those promotional plastic change-keepers that prevented loose change from rattling around in my pocket. The lettering in lines read, “Stop and see, Ziggy and Skip, Wine, pool, beer. Not fancy, just friendly.” I kept that item until I was in college some eight years later.
Skip had a great set of pinball machines, and I could play on a dollar for hours, while Dad shot snooker and nine-ball. A steady diet of pretzel rods and Dad’s Root Beer kept me happy all day. The owners seemed to welcome the sons of the regulars, and were collectively engaged in reminding us of what was important. “You do your chores for momma and keep good grades, Ronnie?” I’d nod, “Yes, sir, I do.” They’d smile at each other, “Well, good, good, that’s good to hear.” Most of them would finish the conversation by pressing a quarter into my hand. One fellow in particular, called “High Pockets,” wore his pants almost around his chest; he always gave me butterscotch discs, which I really liked. He smelled of tobacco and peppermint, and had an easy laugh and long, long legs. I recall seeing him walk down the street, and the stride of his gait was easily twice mine.
As I dried off, I put on light, clean, bleach-smelling, fresh pajamas. I looked in the mirror, combing my hair to the left and to the right. When it was wet like that, it looked like Hitler’s haircut. I held the comb in front of my nose like a mustache, and studied the image for awhile. I snapped off the light and went into my warm bedroom.. In the window, the seasick-green, dual-blower fan hummed and buzzed and brought in more of the warm summer air, but the breeze was welcome. I lay atop the sheets rather than under them, and my folks came in to say good night. Mom turned off the fan so I didn’t “chill.” It was 83 degrees. After they left, I turned it back on, which my dad knew I would do. I slept the peaceful sleep of a child with no problems, no worries and happiness all around me. I awoke, as always, just before sunrise, and could hear the sounds of the highway, railroad and airport in the distance. It made a collective hum, and until the year before, I just thought that was the sound the Earth made when the sun came up, like a collective groan of wakening. When Mom finally informed me what comprised that sound, I wasn’t so much embarrassed as disappointed; I liked thinking I awakened the same time as the Earth.
Little Minds And Full Figures
I dressed and filled my bowl with cereal. Reading the funnies from the morning paper that Dad had already been through before he went to work hours earlier, I also checked the weather and the date. There were still 52 days left before I had to go back to school, plenty of time to do so much more.
I made a peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped it in foil, and put it in a paper bag. I cut a hole through the bag and threaded it through my bike’s handlebars; I slung my baseball mitt on the other handle. I slid onto my banana seat, and pedaled to Patrick’s house. He was standing next to his bike, waiting for me to head to baseball practice at the local field. As we rode, he pulled a folded-up magazine page from his pocket and smiled at me. “Whatcha got there?” I asked. “From the new National Geographic,” he smiled. “Naked aborigines.” We pedaled on.
Welcome summer--good to see you again.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail email@example.com