A little boy in Cleveland
He’s merely a small child… Reddish-brown hair, freckles, and a quick grin
On West 30th Street, he sits near the curb…
He enjoys watching his younger brother play baseball.
The roadways are brick and crimson with rounded curbs. He is surrounded by a large tree.
There is a front yard, a street lawn, and a sidewalk. The driveway is made up of gravel, grass, and muck. The house could use some paint, but it has everything it needs to be a home. There’s a side porch with his Army men strewn about, and artillery shots are served by puffs of cotton balls. The scent of Ronco lighter fluid wafts lightly across the battlefield that has been left behind.
The tall white pillars that support a strong wire fence, a fence that would imprison him in the soft snow one winter in the future when it broke in the cold with a loud “snap.” He’d only be found by accident and a cigarette… just in time before he froze. Nobody on his street had a true “garage,” instead opting for a shed. It was going to be their hidden hideaway. I’m hiding in plain sight.
Mr. D’s grape vines and trellis allure him and his young pals too much, forcing his father to lower his belt and Mr. D to smile. Even though he was in second grade, most people mistook him for a kindergarten student as he strolled up to the old organ factory on West 30th Street and Meyers Avenue. He gathered bits from the wood waste and created futuristic small cities out of the various shapes.
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His father had told him about a city he admired. The blush obliterated his freckles.
He used to trek all the way to West 14th Street to stand outside the house of the most beautiful girl in the world when he was nine or ten years old. Yourik, Marcina. On school days, he carried her books in his other arm, which was stuffed with his own books. One hand holds a battered plaid lunch box and a thermos. He’d be older, but not much taller, in a few years. It was now sixth grade.
He’d find himself… again… in front of the mansion of the world’s most gorgeous girl. This time, though, her name was Elaine Washington. They were both in fifth grade at the time. He ran into her in the alley behind her house and introduced himself. Why? Because her house faced West 25th Street and her dad and uncle ran a hardware store on the ground floor. In the third story, Uncle and his family, as well as her cousin Alice, lived. Alice was in fifth grade as well.
The West 30th Street little redhead would comb her hair with brylcreme until the wave was just right. Then he smothered himself with Aqua Velva, despite the fact that shaving was still a decade away. He’d march over to Scranton Avenue to grab Nick, who was likewise slathered in hair crème and aftershave, and their best Sunday shirts… to go… together… to Elaine’s Alley. Elaine preferred the redheaded kid she towered over, and Alice liked Nick.
Her mother would let us sit at the backyard picnic table. She would occasionally bring out iced tea and sweets. Elaine would give me a bashful glimmer behind her glasses as she smiled at me:
“This is puppy love,” according to my mother.
Nick and I would bark at each other and roll around on our backs. Elaine and Alice would applaud and giggle with delight. Nick kissed Alice on the lips right there on the picnic table in full daylight. When Alice’s mother appeared, the backyard was declared off-limits. Our hearts were young, and our tears dried quickly. We walked down to the zoo and Brookside Pool, leaving our puppy love days in the alley, stopping to grease our hair and perfume our skin. Swimming and baseball, with their smells of chlorine and glove leather, replaced the scent of eleven-year-old Puppy Love Sicks in the early summer days.
In our kitchen, I learned to dance by watching my older sisters perform the jitterbug. We even had a few of those “footprints” that you use to learn new dances on the floor. We had a record player and albums with 45s, each with one song on side “A” and another on the “B” side. You changed the record player to 33 1/3d for LPs. Everyone would polka, waltz, and jitterbug at weddings and holidays back then, because everyone from all generations attended.
With the exception of Saturday Morning Cartoons and the odd Disney Sunday Night… or weekday: M.I.C.K.E. Y…M…O…U…S…E, club (I had a love for Annette Funicello-but who didn’t?) We didn’t watch a lot of television. We’d much rather be out causing mayhem.
If you watched the movie “Christmas Story,” you may have seen some of the streets and houses where the little redheaded kid wandered. The steel mills served as a type of playground. Nobody realized how dangerous it was to climb the massive mountains of ore and coal placed close to the lake steamers that delivered supplies from as far away as Minnesota and Upper Michigan. Concerned adults chased us out, worried for our safety.
We had bands and hierarchies among us small inner-city kids, just like in the movie. There were quite a few of us. We had 10 children; the Sheehans had nearly doubled that. On the street, I only knew two families with fewer than three children. At least four were present in the majority of cases. I wasn’t going to encounter an “only child” until I was in eighth grade. A family with no children was more common than a household with an only child.
When he could, the tiny redheaded youngster hung out with his big brothers, occasionally minding his little brother, and occasionally hung out with his sister, who was as close to him as possible without being twins. Every day, he would go for a walk. He would occasionally go out to Brookside Park to the Little League grounds, where his brother was a star… and he was only there to make sure there were enough players. On other occasions, it was also with his best buddies, Roddy, Mike, Billy, and Nick. We knew just where to go.
We used to walk all the way downtown to the Maritime Museum to view the old World War II submarine and the massive Ore Hauler. Alternatively, we might go to Halle’s, Higbees, or the May Company and gaze at toys we could never afford… or have. We took the escalators up to the seventh floor toy store, which became narrower and narrower as you progressed. Higbee’s Window served as a hope and dream harbor for all of us during Christmastime.
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We used to trek all the way to Clark Recreation Center… or perhaps to the Police Athletic League headquarters on West 25th and Althen Avenue. There was a box there that belonged to one of my brothers. We were all playing pool, basketball, or checkers. It was something to look forward to. We hopped from garage to garage, knowing every roof in every alley as far as 42nd and Sackett Avenue. We were aware of when we could leap and jump and when we needed to clamber down.
His sister Kay discovered him cold in a blizzard on Clark Avenue. In a snowfall, he had walked back from downtown. The snow was blowing so fiercely that he missed West 30th Street on the other side of the road after turning into Clark Avenue from West 25th Street. When his sister discovered him, she wrapped his coat around him and sat him in her lap as she rushed to the hospital. That little redheaded youngster can still recall the smell of her jacket and the sweet song she sang to him to distract him from his fright to this day.
He was comfortable and secure.
Only once in eight years has Halloween been ruined… by a bully who took his candy. When he returned home and informed his brothers, two things happened: his brothers went on the hunt for the thief, whom they would have beaten mercilessly. The second part was sharing, which is something that only brothers and sisters go through. Yep. Janie, Mike, John, and even tiny Timmy gave the little redhead a piece of their riches. He came away with quite a haul.
Mom had to get us all enormous dishes to put our treasure into because the previous Halloweens were so wonderful. In one tub, you’ll find full-size candy bars, while in another, you’ll find small sweets. Money was either put in your piggy bank, saved, or given to Mom. We despised money and yearned for candy. Giving away pennies, pickles, dimes, and even the occasional quarter wasn’t a huge issue. Because no one could eat more than two candied apples, Mom and Dad were given sweets as well.
Mom liked Heath Bars, so it was an unspoken rule among us kids that she got every Heath Bar we brought in. We kept her in snacks till Easter, I believe.
Every year around his birthday, a young boy in Cleveland contracted croup, and worried adults and older children took turns checking on him outside the oxygen tent to ensure he was still breathing. As small fists realized, it was better to make them laugh. He developed the customary inner-city type dark eyes and fat lips. He suffered three concussions, one of which was caused by a bully. He claims there will be no long-term consequences.
As a crossing guard for his school, he saved a child’s life and received a tiny medal for it. He read a thousand books in a summer and received a commendation from the Mayor. He dug up an old set of glasses from first grade and proudly wore them to school. When he firmly refused to accept that they weren’t his, his elder sister Sheila was called out of her Senior High Class by Sister Mary Vanita (the School Principal). As she accompanied me home with a note from the nun, Sheila laughed and grinned.
There are so many memories…
It was a happy upbringing for the little redheaded boy. He continues to do so.
By Kevin Hughes
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