It begins with burning leaves on the street. Every fall someone always seemed to start a small fire on Edgewater Drive in Lakewood, Ohio. A simpler time, perhaps, but it didn’t seem so then. After all, those leaves would only have become significant a pile for burning after carefully raking much of the front yard. There is a leaf sweeper with two wheels and brushes that work on loose leaves that blow onto the open areas. Vigorous raking is still necessary to get those leaves that collect between bushes and up against the chain link fence.
Just before dusk it seems safe to start those leaves smoldering. By tending the flames the fire never rages. It crackles a little as the smoke rises. Yours are not the only leaves on the street burning. But the smoke signals at 15106 Edgewater Drive are fragrant and a celebration of a seasonal tradition. The lawn will be ready for mowing in a day or so. We’ve got two mowers, no waiting. One of the Morgan boys will be coaxed into that chore. It doubles as the touch football field and as such should be ready for action by Sunday.
Dad is always quarterback and chief referee. An arrangement that never gets challenged except for a few extra-familial players. Tom Murphy is notable among those guests who wants to play but never fully appreciates the law of the land. Argue with the referee and he will likely step off a penalty for which there is no review and no recourse. That referee also reserves the right to point his finger in the air and pronounce the game over with a “BANG!” The game is over because without a referee, however unjust, the contest has no structure.
Our parents were in charge. There appeared to be no indecisiveness. And most rules were not the kind worth debating -- Catholic dogma mixed with Marshall Law on Edgewater Drive. The outcome would be resoundingly clear and the challenge would be a wasted effort. “You aren’t going to be one of those kids hanging out on the street corner,” (Whatever that means). An older brother broke enough rules and was sufficiently old enough make accurate accountability impossible. As near as I could tell, his biggest crime was not living up to his potential. An older sister was anxious to achieve emancipation at the legal age of 18. A teen pregnancy accomplished that but eventually made her more dependent on the nest than I’m sure she ever dreamed.
In the birth order, the four remaining boys would “fall in” in a way that might suggest that the parents sort of figured out how to manage a household with a more temperate demeanor. They, with age, possessed mellower attitude toward family car fender benders and curfew forgetfulness. The result perhaps – those governed least were governed best.
Mom suggested that I was the oldest of the four boys – denying me any claim to middle child syndrome but in later years causing me to want to understand the circumstances of my older siblings. I never really did. Their stories seemed too incredible--their times too turbulent. The accounts of tumult were never reconciled even as we gathered as a family to mark their passing --. Mom first, after years of advancing Altzheimers and few years later Dad who remained a sharp mind but became a lonely heart without the woman he married when she was just 20 years of age and he was a young serviceman of 24 in the Army Corps of Engineers. Their remains eventually earned their way to Arlington National Cemetery.
2. Kiss me, I’m Irish
St. Luke School is named for the Evangelist – one of the guys who wrote the new testament. It was a church parish and home base for probably no more than 200 or so learners in grades one through eight. We were the Crusaders in CYO sports, the most notable of which was our lightweight football team. I was co-captain of the team that lost in the championship game but more importantly beat the cross town rival St. Clement in the Rosary Bowl, along with the infinitely more gifted athlete Daniel Caine, our quarterback. The supporting cast at St Luke school was, of course, the standard fare of clergy. Nuns taught us to respect and fear authority. Priests were on hand to officiate at Masses of which we would serve as altar boys.
It has been said that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but at St. Luke it seemed the most righteous celebration of big catholic families. The names McDonnell, Lamb, Fayen, Walsh, McGuire, Donnelly, McGorrey, Flynn, Morgan, Caine, Graham, Welsch, Murphy, Sullivan, Reilly, Keating, Kennedy on an on -- All boasted of some heritage from the Emerald Isle. Erin Go Bragh. Mom was a Lawton and very proud of her country of origin (albeit by way of ancestry fleeing to Canada before coming to New England.) Her parents were, she said 100% Irish – the breadwinner a stockbroker who moved to the Cleveland area from Boston to open an office of Hornblower & Weeks.
Dad offered that he was more of a mutt but, he said, with a fair dose of Scotch, Irish, English, Welsh, German and French. His father was a Doctor who left the small Illinois town of Kinmundy to study at St. Louis University and earn a degree that entitled him to practice Medicine. He graduated in 1910, even before that school adopted the Billikin as a mascot. He was offered a position in Cleveland and that is how my grandparents settled in the West Side Suburb of Lakewood.
So it was mostly the force of Mom’s personality and the receptivity of all things Irish at St. Luke that may have influenced us to wear green, seek our parades and eventually find ourselves on barstools drinking green been at places like the Tam O’ Shanter, Flanagans, and the Brass Bell even before we were old enough to legally enter such establishments. The training for such rights of passage would be hours of consumption of 3.2 Stroh’s Beer near secluded places at Lakewood Park or adjacent to the Railroad Tracks.
“Lukes Pukes!” was once a pejorative phrase heard from the competitive bench of our CYO opponents. Later, though, with the help of Stroh’s Beer it was more a rite of passage. By the time we reached the upper grades in High School (St. Edward, St. Ignatius, St. Augustine, Magnificat, or Lakewood High School) we would master the art of 12 oz. curls.
3. Winterhurst and the Brass Bell
Blake has six beers stashed in the snow bank outside of the Winterhurst Ice Rink. Winchester Cathedral is playing as the announcement “all skate” comes over the speakers. “You are a wild man, Blake. What made you stash six beers out here in the snow?” His response is part laughter and part matter-of –fact as we crack a couple open – Stroh’s of course. I let the pull tab ring slide onto my pinky finger out of habit -- tracking consumption by loading up my pinky finger.
6-7-8 tabs were on that pinky the night at Brunners when I tried to ride my bike home. Bad Judgment maybe – but in Lakewood the ride from the other side of the tracks to Edgewater is almost always a breezy downhill glide. Not that night. I made it home eventually though.
On this night I am driving the family Oldmobile Cutlas Supreme. It is not a drinking night and I gotta get home. Tomorrow I have to be at Lakewood High School early to take my SAT college entrance exam. But Blake can be persuasive. We head to the Brass Bell. He’s just shy of legal age of 18. I have already passed that milestone. Blake boasts bogus ID ownership since age 16 – so to the Brass Bell we go. We are there in time to get our hands stamped and catch Ida Red’s last set before closing. The encore set concludes with Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode as a finale that assures another round before closing. Blake offers to buy Katy a drink but she’s good. Sipping through the stir straw her Sloe Gin Fizz before she leaves with one of her girlfriend in her gently used Mustang convertible.
So the next morning in the High School Cafeteria the proctor is reading the instructions before testing. Blah Blah Blah - something about number 2 pencils and being sure to fill the circles on your answer sheets that corresponds with your answers. I don’t have a very good attention span anyway word problems are sure to put me to sleep.
“I fell asleep during the test! In retrospect I don’t know if it was for 30 seconds or half an hour. I was out like a light.” Blake laughs apologetically saying, “Well I guess you are fortunate that you weren’t drinking Sloe Gin Fizzes last night,” adding ”I wonder if the College Board offers those tests on Saturday mornings for a reason. That just ain’t right.”
Needless to say the combined score for my SAT test was in the mid 900s. Good enough for Syracuse University and the University of Miami. I was accepted into the BFA program at Syracuse after a portfolio review but since my brother was heading to the University of Miami and my uncle was head of the art department there it seemed like a good idea to pack up the Oldsmobile Cutlas Supreme and go to Coral Gables, Florida. Go Canes.
The Truth is stranger than fiction. This is a work of fiction that borrows liberally from things that really happened. I hope the real people and places featured in this story don't minimize my fond affection for them. I recall with a flawed memory of course. As one puts distance between ordinary events, revisions need to happen to assure a better storytelling. This story, while it has autobiographical tendencies, will be careful not be overly obsessed with accuracy. Windy exposition and explanations are boring. The juxtaposition of Blake, Beer, Winterhurst and the Brass Bell are (for example) a composite of several separate typical evenings in Lakewood, Ohio in the 1970s.
Future chapters are in development. This blog series (maybe a book) -- working title Edgewater may or may not include chapters with titles like Watergate and Joe Cocker, Beer Cans and Bottle Caps -- Found Art, South Beach Geriatrics, High School Guidance Counselors Marine Science and 108 other majors, How Kurt Vonnegutt changed everything for me, The Morgan Studio Legacy and the Ad Biz.