Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rest Of The Story

As I mentioned in my last entry, those responsible for the 1981 murder of Dawn Rene Backes back weren't identified until nearly 20 years later.

It turns out that the culprits were two brothers who were also responsible for the brutal murders of at least 8 other people.

Most of those people were killed in or near the neighborhoods where I spent the first 20 years of my life. Although I can't prove it, it seems highly likely that my path crossed those of the murderers and their victims many times.

I do know that our paths crossed at least several times.

The earliest known victim was Vicky Small, a 22-year-old woman who lived about half a mile away from me. On a cold December night in 1973 just a few months before I took the pictures of The Big House that was being demolished across the street from me, Vicky's car got stuck in the snow at the corner of Mark and Cherry a few blocks to my south. While I slept, a man stopped to help her. Vicky's badly abused body was found the next day in Ottawa Park.

I was a freshman in high school at the time. The bus I rode to and from school took me up and down Cherry past the site of her disappearance twice a day.

The area of Ottawa Park where her body was found is across the street from St. Francis High School, a place I played chess at with my high school team - just as I played chess at the high school close to where Dawn's body was found.

Three years after Vicky's murder, I moved to an apartment quite close to Ottawa Park. I walked through that park - once - completely ignorant at the time of her murder. While on a trail that went through the woods, I noticed a branch a few yards off the path shaking wildly. I stopped and stared. There wasn't any wind. There weren't any birds or squirrels or other animals to be seen. There was just this bush or tree branch rustling crazily, then stopping, then going crazy again. I thought at the time that someone must have tied a hard-to-see fishing line to the branch and was fucking with me - maybe trying to distract my attention so they or an accomplice could attack me from behind, or maybe in an attempt to lure me off the path. I quickly walked on. I was glad I did at the time. I'm even gladder now....

The murderers seem to have struck next in May of 1980. That's when Tom Gordon and his girlfriend were targeted just two blocks east of Cherry not far from the Moose Lodge I've written about before here and here. It was an area just a few blocks away from where an aunt of mine used to live, an area I'd visited often. Miraculously, Tom's girlfriend survived being stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick but Tom's body was found near Central and McLean. During junior high, my class traveled right by that site once a week as our school bus took us to a school that had the shop and home economics facilities that our home school did not....

In January, 1981, the murderers targeted Connie Sue Thompson, a 19-year-old girl who was hitchhiking along the same area of Cherry St. where Vicky Small had last been seen alive trying to get her car out of the snow. Connie's brutalized body was eventually found in a culvert in western Lucas County.

In February, 1981, Dawn was brutally murdered at The State Theater (as previously detailed in my last entry). It turns out that she was snatched off the street near the University of Toledo while trying to walk home by herself at night from Westgate (probably following a route that I myself had taken while learning how to drive).

In the winter or early spring of 1977, I attended an evening banquet at the University of Toledo with a teacher and a few of my peers from high school. When it was over, I was disturbed to discover that our teacher-driver wouldn't drop me off at my home a few minutes away by car to the north. I seriously considered walking the mile or so by myself in the dark. Had I done so, I would have crossed the path Dawn (and her murderers) would take a few years later. Instead, I allowed the teacher to take me along with my peers back to our school in a near-downtown urban wasteland. That teacher quickly abandoned us. As most of the others scattered, I was offered a ride home by my sole remaining dinner companion - a companion whose wreck of a car refused to start the first ten times he tried. I honestly never expected to get home again. I was surprised back then that I actually did. I'm even more surprised now.

In August, 1981, Stacey Balonek and Daryle Cole were attacked on Doyle Street. Stacey and Daryle were exactly my age. Doyle Street is only about twice as far east of my old Central home as The Ohio Theater and quite near Woodward High School (which my mother graduated from). I can just make Woodward out in the top center of the aerial view I posted here. (Woodward is straight up from where I have The Ohio marked.) Doyle Street runs left to right about where the top of the photo cuts off. Stacey and Daryle were beaten to death with a baseball bat. Their bodies were found by the railroad tracks that run under Central - once again, the same general area that my school bus took me past week after week during junior high....

It was during a September, 1981 attack on three people that one of the murderous brothers slipped up badly and was caught. That attack was one of the few that occurred in a part of town I had no connection with.

In the late 1990s, the development of DNA testing allowed authorities to re-examine the evidence and connect the dots in a way that hadn't been possible in the 1970s and 1980s. The murderous brothers struck a bargain: We'll confess and reveal how we killed all these people if we're only charged with killing Tom Gordon. Prosecutors agreed. The details and impact of this deal can be found in a set of stories that were published by the Toledo Blade on April 7, 2000.


What conclusions do I draw from all this?

1) The world is not only a dangerous place - it's a more dangerous place than we realize. Is that ignorance a good thing? If we had it within our power to discover *everything* that has ever happened in *every* house on our street, would we want to use it or would we quickly come to the conclusion that a certain amount of ignorance is necessary to preserve our sanity?

2) When the horrible becomes a regular occurrence, we adjust and forget just how horrible it really is. I am reminded of the story about the frog that jumps out of hot water when dumped into it but calmly allows itself to be boiled to death in a pan of slowly heated water. I first read that story in Thomas Friedman's book, From Beirut To Jerusalem. For him, it summed up the situation of people during the Lebanese civil war. At first, people in Beirut were shocked to know that fighting was occurring anywhere in the country; in the end, they only sat up and took notice if the gunfire was occurring in their own building. Growing up in Toledo now seems uncomfortably similar to having grown up in Lebanon. It's only after having lived for many years in neighborhoods where murders almost never occur that I realize just what a violent place Toledo really was - and remains. (This webpage sharpens the point.)

3) One small neighborhood can give rise to both very good and very bad people. We as a society don't seem as interested as we should be in finding out what factors are responsible for creating the good and the bad and then doing all we can to increase the former and reduce the latter.

(SIDE NOTE: The murderers were black; all the victims were white. The police investigators seem to believe that race played a role in who was targeted. The sort of racial hatred that seems to have motivated these attacks is the same sort of racial hatred I sensed existed in the black man who casually attempted to run me down one morning when I was attempting to cross Cherry. [For more details, see the entry I posted here. For all I know, the driver might have been one of the serial killers.] In retrospect, it's clear that Toledo was one of the most racist and racially tense cities I've ever lived in. As long as such racial tensions exist, Very Bad Things are bound to happen.)

4) Mental illness needs to be treated, not ignored. According to a book written by the lead police investigator, the main culprit in these murders attempted suicide when he was 16. In the 1970s, that culprit was diagnosed as schizophrenic. While in prison for armed robbery, he does not seem to have received the treatment he needed. As has happened many times before and since, our society ended up paying a terrible price as a result.

5) Poverty breeds killers. The brothers responsible for these terrible crimes grew up poor in a family of 9 kids being raised by a divorced mother. Is anyone surprised to discover that these killers weren't millionaires - or even from the middle class? Healthy, happy people generally don't go on killing sprees. Money increases the odds that people will be healthy and happy. It seems to me that it's an extremely short-sighted society that tolerates pockets of extreme poverty. (And it's an extremely confused and self-destructive society that simultaneously tolerates pockets of extreme poverty AND demonizes contraceptives and abortion.)

6) Not all murders are granted the same amount of attention. New York's David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") killed 6 people and got a lot of publicity. The two men I've been writing about killed more people, yet I've only recently realized the extent of their crimes despite being a native of the very area where they committed their awful deeds. WTF? How is that we we often hear more about a killing in Iraq or Afghanistan than we do about a killing in our own town?

7) Not all murderers are punished the same way. Some kill a single person and are executed; some kill many people and aren't. In this case, one of the culprits is scheduled to be released in 7 years (at which time he'll be about 60). How is justice served by such wild discrepancies? How can anyone claim that the death penalty serves as a deterrent when its application seems so inconsistent and random?

All of which leaves at least one issue I haven't been able to come to any conclusion about yet: Was I cursed by Fate to have had to grow up in such a violent and dangerous world or have I rather led a charmed existence because I've managed to make it past the age 50 relatively unscathed? Have I been shadowed by evil or blessed by luck? Or both? I guess my answer depends on the mood I'm in at any given time.

When you review the events of your own life, how do YOU answer those sorts of questions?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Evil Takes Center Stage

It was 30 years ago today that Toledo police discovered a body in The State Theater that I wrote about yesterday.

The body belonged to Dawn Rene Backes - a 12-year-old seventh grader who had disappeared 4 days earlier.

Dawn was last seen with some friends at a pizza parlor at Central and Secor. When a mix-up left her stranded there without a ride around 10:30 PM that Saturday night, she attempted to walk home on her own.

She never made it.

Her frozen body was discovered in a basement corridor leading to the lounge and the dressing rooms once used by the stage performers.

Investigators say she had been brutally raped and tortured for an undetermined length of time before having her head crushed with a cement block.

An anonymous caller had told the police where to find her in the abandoned theater.

It would be nearly 20 years before her killers would be identified....

I don't recall reading any of this story when it first hit the presses in 1981. At the time I was in college, some 20 miles away. I think I was still getting and reading the Toledo newspaper every day, but it was only while I was recently researching my old neighborhood that the story really jumped up and slapped me in the face.

It was only then that I realized that this was the theater my sister and I had walked by about 15 years earlier.

It was only then that I realized that this was the theater that my then 13-year-old sister had walked by twice a day for 180 days while she was a freshman at our nearby district high school.

Although I never met Dawn (and most likely never would have even if she had lived), it seems as if she easily could have been my own sister - my own sister being one of the meekest people I've ever met and hardly a match for anyone intent on committing such an utterly evil crime.

Chilling, to say the least.

And the more I learned and thought about this crime, the more chilling it became.

I knew the area where Dawn had apparently had her last meal well. It was a major shopping center called Westgate - one of the places we shopped when I was a child and we weren't in the mood to shop downtown.

Just 2 or 3 years before Dawn disappeared, I myself had been stranded in that area at night because of a mix-up with a ride - and I had almost decided to try to walk home on my own before deciding to try to call a cab one last time instead....

And just a very few years before that, I had been stranded after dark near The State itself. The team chess tournament at the nearby high school that I briefly referred to in my last entry had ended late and for some reason I was left without a ride a home. I still lived on Cherry St. at that time and seriously thought about walking home by myself - a walk that would have taken me right by The State. I decided to head in the other direction instead and try to catch a bus....

Had things played out just a little bit differently, it could have been my body that ended up in the bowels of The State.

Needless to say, this is not the way things ought to be.

It certainly was not the way things were when The State Theater first opened back on November 29, 1927.

A Toledo News-Bee story published the next day tells me that "Capacity crowds were in attendance at three performances marking dedication of the new Fleischman-Kroetz State theater on Collingwood avenue Tuesday night. Everyone present was lavish in praise of the new theater and the excellent program presented. The house is without exception not alone the most beautiful neighborhood theater in Toledo, but excels in many ways a majority of like size theaters in the country. Beautifully appointed and decorated, it at once offers the ultimate in luxury and restful atmosphere. This is enhanced by a system of indirect lighting. Featured in the opening program were the new State orchestra.... The vaudeville specialty offered was the Rega and Teddy Caruso varieties, an act containing six experts in the realm of singing and the dance. Two short reels of color and comedy, together with the feature picture, The Cheer Leader, with Ralph Graves in the featured role, filled out the bill. The policy of the new house will be a tri-weekly change of pictures and vaudeville acts. The State orchestra and the new $25,000 organ with elevator console will be featured at all performances.... Shows will be continuous from 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. Sunday and holiday matinees will be from 1:30 p.m. continuously."

A story in the October 25, 1933 edition of the Toledo News-Bee tells me that hundreds of under-privileged kids up to the age of 12 would soon be enjoying a free performance of "The King of the Golden River" at The State. The young people putting on the show had come all the way from New York City.

How in the world did a place of such beauty and vitality become an abandoned eyesore in just 50 years? By what fiendish process are palaces devoted to comedy and song and dance transformed into the dilapidated haunts of child killers? Exactly what kind of universe allows the pleasant chatter of professional clowns and musicians and children getting ready in their dressing rooms to be replaced by the screams of a young girl being raped and tortured to death?

In an attempt to glean some deeper understanding of what is going on here, I've collected and studied the following series of photos:

Circa 1935

Circa 1945



No matter how long or hard I stare, understanding of any kind continues to elude me....

And of course there's more - there's *always* more.

On September 30, 1991 - some 58 years after young people performed and enjoyed a fairy tale play on the stage and a decade after Dawn's body was discovered in the basement - a 16-year-old student from nearby Scott High School was stabbed to death in front of The State while his friends watched helplessly....

After numerous attempts to restore the theater to a usable condition ended up going nowhere, The State Theater was demolished in 1995. The site is now an empty lot.

Circa 2007

There are worse things in life than empty lots, of course.

Still, I can't help but feel that such a place with such a history deserves much better than this.

If people have been moved to erect a huge church on the site where they believe Jesus was crucified, why haven't they been moved to erect even a small memorial on the site where a 12-year-old girl suffered what seems to have been an even worse form of death?

If 2000 years haven't been enough to erase the brutal demise of Julius Caesar from the mind of man, why have a very few years apparently been enough to erase the brutal demise of an innocent child?

An aerial view of the area reveals that a path has been worn across the empty lot, perhaps by students taking a short-cut from Collingwood to the nearby high school.

How many of those traveling this path have any inkling that a man-made hell existed there, just a few feet beneath their feet, in the not-so-distant past?

In the final analysis, perhaps ignorance and forgetfulness are for the best. Indeed, perhaps they are the only things that allow us to keep going. A world full of markers commemorating each and every act of fatal violence might soon become a world in which movement is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If that's what you believe, by all means please feel free to unread this entry.

If you'd rather ponder the extremely problematic and fragile nature of life on this planet instead and then share any insights you might have, please feel free to do that, too.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Life Sandwiched Between Two Theaters

In retrospect, one of the neat things about my first neighborhood was the way so many of the things one might need in life were within easy walking distance of my front door. Virtually everything else was downtown - a simple 10-minute bus ride away.

In these days of huge malls and discreetly tucked away bedroom communities, it takes more than a bit of effort for me to recall how tightly integrated commercial and residential areas used to be. Often the two areas could be found under the very same roof (as was the case with the building I lived in). Cars were nice things to have but hardly essential to one's survival. Perhaps that's why I've never been comfortable with them and wish I lived in a place like Denmark where cars seem to continue to be much less important than in the US.

Among the businesses that existed on just my half of my first block were a hardware, a grocery, a paint store, a drug store, a barber shop, two restaurants/bars, a TV repair shop, a shoe repair shop, a Chinese laundry, an upholstery shop, an appliance store, a car repair shop, a gas station, a dry cleaners, a beauty salon, a typewriter repair shop, and a carry-out. (For a brief time there was even a costume shop with a full ape suit in the window that I used to keep an eye on while waiting for the bus.)

The adjoining blocks contained two more restaurants/bars, three fast food restaurants, a florist shop, a library, a bank, a bed-and-breakfast inn (then called a tourist home or a traveler's home), another gas station, another carry-out, a donut shop, another appliance store, and a doctor's office.

Beyond those blocks but within easy walking distance were two hospitals, a laundromat, a funeral parlor, a nursing home, a candy store, another gas station/auto repair shop, and another carry-out. And a lodge. And a pet store. And a few things I'm probably forgetting because I never had any use for them.

I never thought about it before, but when I recently sat down and calculated the furthest I've ever traveled from home on foot in all the cities I've ever lived, I kept coming up with about the same figure: 1 mile. On most days in my youth I traveled less than half a mile. Somewhat amazingly, the vast majority of my life has been lived within 2 or 3 miles of wherever my home has happened to be. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the typical urban squirrel or sparrow has a greater home range than I have ever had. I am in awe of those delicate hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies that allegedly migrate thousands of miles every year.

Oddly enough, the eastern and western boundaries of my first home range were delineated by theaters.

On Lagrange Street, the next major thoroughfare past Cherry and just over a half mile to my east, was The Ohio Theater.

You can actually see The Ohio Theater in the aerial photograph that was taken from right above my old residence back in the mid-1950s (and that I've previously explained in some detail here):

I can recall walking to this theater with my sister one nice day in the summer of 1964 or so. I think we saw Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in The Comedy of Terrors. And a Three Stooges short in which they played auto mechanics (perhaps Pardon My Backfire from 1953, though that's just an educated guess). I can't recall anything about the theater itself. It seems to have been much plainer and less impressive than any of the six theaters we visited downtown over the years. (Oddly, my mind insists on placing The Ohio to the south of the Lagrange-Central intersection rather than to the north where it actually exists. I cannot explain this discrepancy between memory and reality, but it serves to remind me of the flaws that can easily creep into recollections. And it makes me wonder what I'm misremembering without even knowing it....)

About 8/10ths of a mile to my west-southwest was The State Theater.

Collingwood Boulevard was the first major thoroughfare to my west. The State was at 2472 Collingwood - about 8 blocks away from my home and just one small side street and two lots to the north of my district high school, Scott (which you can just barely see under the tree at the right edge of the photo). That was the school where my sister spent her freshman year (1963-64) but I only set foot in once (circa 1975) while a member of another school's chess team.

My sister walked by The State Theater twice a day on her way to and from school. She walked me past it at least once, circa June 1964 - I don't know why anymore. Most likely, she wanted to show me the school where she'd spent some 180 or so of her days. I know we didn't attend any shows. The theater seems to have been mothballed at the time. It nonetheless attracted my attention as we walked by. I'm sure I tried to imagine what the interior was like as the hot sun beat down upon its highly reflective front walls and we lazily neared our turning-around point a few paces to the south....

I'm told that The Ohio Theater opened in 1921 and has been undergoing restoration work since 2008. The people in the long-standing Polish neighborhood surrounding it seem to have supported its preservation in a way almost no other theater in Toledo has enjoyed. (When one of the downtown theaters was demolished in the late 1960s, its classic pipe organ found its way to The Ohio.) I wish everyone involved in preserving The Ohio Theater all the best.

The State Theater (opened in 1927) has had a much more troubled history. Although it's probably overstating the case to say that I could sense this as a young child just walking by, the fact remains that the theater and the surrounding area were markedly different than the other areas I knew. The road was busier, yet the neighborhood seemed more deserted - almost haunted. The houses were bigger, yet the likelihood of being mugged seemed higher. The churches were far more numerous (with the huge Rosary Cathedral, headquarters for the 163-parish Catholic diocese and the site of my mother's first wedding, being almost right across the street from The State), yet the morality level seemed lower - the dangers greater, the discrepancies between rich and poor more acute.

It was only recently that I learned just how awful the history of The State ended up being....

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Five More Moments In Time

5:38:02 PM - Feb 17, 2011

5:46:30 PM - Feb 17, 2011

5:54:22 PM - Feb 17, 2011

6:00:34 PM - Feb 17, 2011

6:04:24 PM - Feb 17, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Like Maps...

... in part because they create the comforting illusion that I know where I am.

And where I once was.

Here's a map of my old Toledo neighborhood that shows how some of the places and events I've talked about in this blog relate to each other:

Red Dot 1 is where I lived from early 1960 until August, 1968.

Red Dot 2 is where I lived from November 1970 until August, 1976.

Red Dot 3 is where The Big House with The Tower stood.

Red Dot 4 is where the woman jumped out of the attic window, circa 1964.

Red Dot 5 is where the 12-year-old boy was run over by a semi truck, circa 1963.

Red Dot 6 is where 4-year-old Dolores ran out into the road and was struck and killed by a car in 1953.

Red Dot 7 is where I almost roller skated out into traffic, circa 1964.

Red Dot 8 is where I saw Nick run out in front of a car and get hit.

Red Dot 9 is where Nick lived.

Red Dot 10 is where my friends Rick and Tim lived. They're the ones who were chasing Nick when he was hit.

If there was a Red Dot 11 to show where I saw my first dead squirrel in the road, it would be a block or so north of Red Dot 8.

It all seems so clear and obvious when plotted out on a map and then explained in a few simple words.

Then I realize once again that everyone who ever lived on my first block could probably come up with a map like this - and every map would be radically different.

And this is just one block in a city full of them.

And Toledo is just one small city....

The world really is full of stories, isn't it?

Thank goodness I'm under no obligation to remember any of them - not even my own....

Monday, February 21, 2011

It's A Dangerous World

I don't know how old I was when I first heard someone claim that this world must have been designed by a higher intelligence because it's so perfectly arranged or ordered. Whenever it was, I'm pretty sure that I thought they were joking and laughed hard. Whenever I realize that the people who make this claim aren't joking, I want to cry instead. It's like coming face to face with someone seriously trying to claim that terrible diseases and painful accidents and the death of children are all good things we should just lay back and enjoy, or maybe even go out and increase. If that's not madness, it's the next closest thing.

I'm not sure exactly when I first realized that this world wasn't merely imperfect but dangerously so. Whenever it was, it must have been very early on.

Maybe that realization came when I was a young child suffering through my first bout of stomach flu. Suffering from a high fever made worse by hot summer nights without air conditioning and an inability to sleep, an inability to keep even water down, an inability to understand what was happening to me, an inability to do much of anything but beg my powerless relatives to take me to a hospital they couldn't afford, I felt permanently trapped in utter agony. It is impossible to square that never-to-be forgotten agony with the claim that this world is good let alone perfect.

A few years later I nearly choked to death while eating a piece of fruit. A few years after that, my mother almost choked to death while eating dinner. It's an experience I suppose we all experience and witness at some point, thanks to the human body's extremely unfortunate commingling of our eating and our breathing tubes. (The New York State Department of Health website says that at least one child in the US chokes to death on food every five days. It also says that choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death in children under the age of 5.) Perfect bodies living in perfect worlds wouldn't choke. Ever.

It was more or less the same year that I almost choked to death that I fell down a flight of stairs. It was Halloween night and I was on my way out to trick or treat. The Quick Draw McGraw cartoon show was big at the time and I'd sent away for a Quick Draw McGraw mask. It turned out to be a huge cardboard thing that completely enveloped my small head. The eye holes weren't even close to where my eyes actually were, and the only way I could keep it on at all was to hold it firm against my shoulders with my hands. I never should have worn it at all, but I actually insisted on putting it on before setting out from our second floor apartment. I immediately lost my bearings and my footing the second I opened our top door and faced our front stairwell. I spent the next ten seconds or so somersaulting down an uncarpeted flight of 23 hardwood steps. I suspect a fall like that today would kill me several times over. I was lucky enough at the time to have suffered only some minor bruising, but the experience taught me how quickly and easily a common, every day activity like leaving my home can turn deadly. (Especially when leaving that home involves using stairs without a railing. We didn't have one the night I fell - and we didn't get one afterwards, either, even though our landlord was wealthy enough to have had one put in and probably had the skills necessary to put one in himself had he been so inclined. I'm sure he felt himself to be a good and compassionate Christian man. How he squared that belief with these obviously unsafe stairs, I don't know. But it makes me wonder how many lives have been saved by secular government regulations that force Jesus-loving landlords to do the right thing.)

The dangers of the world were brought home once again the day a 12-year-old boy was run over by a semi less than half a block from my home. Although I didn't walk over to see what the commotion was all about off to my east, my landlord did. He came back grim-faced and saying that it was a terrible thing to see. Thanks to the solid line of buildings that extended down my street to the intersection where the accident happened, I could only see the back tenth or so of the stopped truck, but that was enough to leave an indelible impression. It was a situation impossible to reconcile with the otherwise picture perfect day....

I don't suppose I thought about that boy *every* time I crossed the same street he tried to as I went to catch a bus or run an errand over the course of the next 10 years, but I'm sure I thought about it the morning I myself almost got run over. The guy who almost hit me was driving a big dark car, not a silvery truck, and he was making a left turn, not going straight north, but I suppose I was more or less in the same position the boy had been when I realized that the guy wasn't going to yield to me even though I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. If I hadn't been alert and started to run out of the way, I'm sure I would have been hit - hit by a black man wearing a beret, sunglasses, and a deadly cold expression directed my way. If I had to guess what he was thinking as he attempted to complete his turn without swerving or braking or even slowing down, it would be, "Huh, looks like I might actually get the chance to kill a white kid today."

It was sometime between these last two incidents that I saw my first dead squirrel in the road. It was the road that ran along the west side of my block, not the east side, however, and I didn't see the vehicle responsible, but the results were undeniably gruesome. I was still young enough to stare and stare and stare some more as I tried to will a miraculous resurrection. I don't think I succeeded in getting even a bit of fur to catch the wind....

It was near the southwest corner of my block, perhaps halfway between the spot where the squirrel had lost its life and the 12-year-old boy had lost his, that I first donned a pair of old-style roller skates - the metal type that you slipped on over the bottom of your shoes and then tied. I was in front of a friend's house at the time. We were playing on the sidewalk that ran along the busy street we both lived on. As soon as I stood up, I was completely out of control. Only a hard fall to the walk prevented me from rolling right out in front of the cars and trucks going by. I haven't tried to roller skate since....

That incident came back to my mind recently when I was researching the history of my old neighborhood and came across a front page news story about a 4-year-old girl who had been killed by a car just a stone's throw away from my friend's house about 10 years earlier in 1953. She had lived in the corner house just across the street from my block - which is to say, across the street that I saw my first dead squirrel on. Apparently she'd been playing with and chasing a neighbor's dog when she ran out into the street from behind a parked car and was hit by a 19-year-old driver. Her mother had been inside ironing at the time. The story went on to say that less than a year earlier, both the girl and her mother had almost lost their lives in a boating accident on the Maumee River. Although I passed her old home often when I was a child myself and had long made it a habit to stare at everything I could see and milk everything I saw of all the information I possibly could, I can't recall ever seeing anything that indicated that such a tragedy had happened there. No cross marked the spot, no blood stains remained, whatever wails her mother may have let out when she first got the news had long since faded away. All that remained was a spot on the brick road indistinguishable from all the other spots. No lingering trace of tragedy was to be found. And no signs of any possible future tragedies were to be gleaned. The sad fact of the matter is, untold numbers of such tragedies have occurred all around us, and untold numbers of such tragedies remain to unfold on spots that look as normal today as all the others....

In 1967, some 14 years after 4-year-old Dolores had lost her life at the corner of Central and Cambridge, I was walking south on Cambridge with two of my friends, Tim and Rick - twin brothers a year older than I was. We were about a block and a half north of Dolores's old home and perhaps a block south of the spot where I saw my first dead squirrel. We were on the west side of Cambridge when Tim and Rick spotted Nick up ahead. Nick was a year or two younger than I was. I don't know why Tim and Rick hated Nick, but they took off in pursuit the moment they saw him. Panic-stricken Nick darted between parked cars into the street to get away from them and was immediately hit by a car headed south. Although the car was only going about 25 mph, it was more than enough to send Nick somersaulting up into the air and across the hood, then against the windshield, then forward onto the brick. As the horrified young accountant-type male driver stopped and got out to check on Nick, I faded away to the north. Tim and Rick likewise decided that the best thing to do was to make themselves scarce, though I'm not sure exactly how they did so. When I alone drifted back some minutes later, I saw Nick's mother running frantically to him as he still lay sprawled in the middle of the street. I suppose she had run all the way from their home less than a block away. It was a pathetic scene made chilling by his mother's loud condemnation of my friends by name for their long-time stalking of her son. A small crowd seems to have gathered by then - but no emergency vehicles. Birds sang. The sun still shone. Ants crawled as oblivious as ever across the sidewalk. If the universe gave a shit about poor Nick, it hid the fact very well....

Remarkably, Nick survived. Maybe his young bones saved him just like my young bones had saved me when I fell down the stairs. In fact, he seems to have been out and about again in fairly short order. It was his mother who ended up dying - of cancer, I believe - just a few years later. In the meantime, cancer claimed the life of the mother of the friend I'd tried to roller skate with. Nick's mom had dark hair and looked vaguely like an eternally unsmiling Cher. My friend's mom had blond curly hair and looked more like an always smiling female Harpo Marx. It's odd now to realize that both of them died before they were 50 despite their many differences - and odder still to realize that my own much-poorer mother nearly made it to 80 despite smoking a pack-a-day for nearly 60 years. (And when she did die, it wasn't of cancer.)

Such is life. You're born; long stretches of boredom are interrupted by random moments of sheer terror and agony; and then you're dead.

Babble about perfection and intelligently-designed order just makes things worse by gratuitously adding insanity to the mix.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Practice Makes Perfect

Malcolm Gladwell tells me that we need to work at something 10,000 hours before we get really good at it.

Here's the sort of thing you can hope to accomplish after doing it every day for a few billion years:

5:39:56 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:42:00 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:44:10 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:46:36 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:50:00 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:53:40 PM - Feb 16, 2011

5:58:32 PM - Feb 16, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Yesterday... And Today

5:44:58 PM - Feb 13, 2011

5:46:12 PM - Feb 13, 2011

5:57:46 PM - Feb 13, 2011


5:27:40 PM - Feb 14, 2011

5:46:08 PM - Feb 14, 2011

5:47:54 PM - Feb 14, 2011

5:48:50 PM - Feb 14, 2011

5:53:28 PM - Feb 14, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Leopold & Trudy

A few days ago I posted an entry in which I listed some of the things I learned by reading a newspaper from 50 years ago.

I neglected to mention one of the most surprising stories I found in that newspaper.

That story was headlined "Parolee Leopold Marries Widow" and went on to tell me that "Nathan Leopold was married last Sunday to a San Juan widow who runs a flower shop. The bride [the former Mrs. Trudy Garcia de Quevedo] said yesterday that she is 'very, very happy.'"

I found this rather discombobulating.

The Leopold they're talking about here, after all, was the most notorious Leopold I'd ever heard of - the Leopold of Leopold & Loeb, two of the most famous American murderers of the 20th century.

I'm way too young to recall the OJ Simpson-like circus their trial generated in the 1920s - but I *do* remember watching on TV the 1959 movie entitled Compulsion that they inspired. Maybe you remember it, too. Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell played the murderers; Orson Welles played their defense attorney (based on Clarence Darrow).

I guess I just naturally assumed that Leopold and Loeb had both died in prison. It was a shock to learn that Leopold was actually released in 1958.

And then even more of a shock to learn that he'd found a woman willing to marry him.

I'm not sure how that happens.

"So, Leopold, I hear you once killed a 14-year-old boy just for kicks."

"Yes, Honey, it's true. But that was a long time ago and I promise that I'll never do it again."

"Oh, how nice! I'm not ashamed to say that I really admire a man who's willing to reveal he's no longer a cold-blooded murderer. Let's go meet my folks!"

Leopold was working at a hospital in Puerto Rico as a lab and X-ray technician at the time, so I suppose that made it a bit easier for everyone involved.

Still.... Learning that Loeb had been killed in prison in 1936 made perfect sense. Learning that Leopold's life had taken a much different turn was like reading that John Wilkes Booth had eventually settled down and become a country veterinarian, or that Charles Manson now has a wife and six kids in Cleveland.

Even if stories like Leopold's don't offend one's sense of justice, they do have a way of making life seem more random and dream-like than I'd like.

POSTSCRIPT: Leopold died of a diabetes-related heart attack in 1971. He was 66.

Charles Manson - now 76 - remains incarcerated in California's Corcoran State Prison.

He made the news himself last week when it was reported that an illegal cell phone had been discovered in his cell.

For the second time.

Authorities say he used his first illegal phone to make calls (and send text messages) to people in California, New Jersey, Florida and British Columbia. No word on who he may have called more recently, but....

I've been using an answering machine to screen my calls for a long time now because of annoying telemarketers. Stories like this make me want to get rid of my phone altogether.

After all, if Leopold's story makes life seem uncomfortably dream-like, the mere possibility of getting an unsolicited midnight call from ol' Chuckie Boy makes it seem like a nightmare just waiting to happen.

Isn't that what presidential election years are for??


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Four More Moments In Time

Maybe if I hadn't had such a sunset-deprived childhood, I'd be much less interested in sunsets now.

There *were* sunsets out there when I was growing up, of course. It's just that I didn't live in a home with west windows until I was 11, and then the western horizon was cluttered with trees and houses to a much greater extent than is the case now....

5:41:58 PM - Feb 10, 2011

5:43:50 PM - Feb 10, 2011

5:48:12 PM - Feb 10, 2011

5:55:40 PM - Feb 10, 2011

Just for the record, sunset officially occurred at 6:01 PM the day I took these photos. The first photo was taken about 20 minutes before that. That's about the smallest gap between my last sight of the sun and actual sunset that I'm likely to experience all year.

I'm not sure that I've ever actually seen the sun disappearing below the natural horizon. I suppose I may have during some long ago visit to the southern shores of Lake Erie, but... I think clouds or fog or haze have always ended up blocking at least the last few minutes.

What I need is a good artificial sunset. Years ago I read about how they were working on turning whole walls into a light source thanks to some sort of light-emitting paint. Maybe they can figure out a way to program the light on those walls to imitate a sunset.

As much as I love nature, I love the idea of tweaking it even more.

If I had my way, there'd be at least two sunsets a day - and no more need for the big cats to chase down gazelles. Those big cats would be more than happy to settle for tofu "gazelle" burgers instead.

Or maybe we could train them to chase down flu bugs instead....

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Darwin Day!

Yeah, I know - Darwin Day isn't until tomorrow, but I thought I'd beat the rush and send my best wishes tonight.

Hope you have a GREAT time dressing up like Darwin and fingering your fossils (or doing whatever else you might be moved to do in celebration).

Did you hear that Rep. Pete Stark's way of celebrating included introducing a special little resolution in Congress?

Here's how the Oakland Tribune reported the details yesterday:

Stark, D-Fremont, introduced H. Res. 81 on Wednesday. It praises Darwin's theory of evolution and the "monumental amount of scientific evidence he compiled to support it," which "provides humanity with a logical and intellectually compelling explanation for the diversity of life on earth."

The resolution goes on to state that "the advancement of science must be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change," and that "the teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States' education systems."

Stark on Thursday explained he's "just trying to get people to understand that we're trying to get our kids to be scientists, were pushing for green jobs and green development, and you can't stick your head in the sand and not recognize that we're in a modern age. To get there, it seems to me, we have to understand that science is all part of what we're doing.

"I'm sure there are people out there who'd say I'm the devil's advocate, but I'll give the devil as much chance as any god that people choose to deal with," he said. "To say some unknown god up there in the stratosphere directs all of our lives and our development is naive.

Of course not everyone is as happy about this as they should be.

The Oakland Tribune went on to describe the thinking of one of these party poopers:

Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the conservative Family Research Council's legislative action arm, said after reading Stark's bill he "had to look at my calendar to see if it was April 1. If he really thinks this is a priority, I guess it shows why he's not in the majority anymore.

"I don't think he gives a good reason of why someone like Charles Darwin needs to be celebrated and recognized by the federal government. It's a waste, I think, of taxpayers' time," McClusky said, asking why Congress shouldn't instead honor someone like Booker T. Washington or Thomas Edison "who actually invented things, not just threw out theories."

"There is a distinct war on science, it's just not coming from the direction that Democrats say it is," McClusky said, citing climate change as an example of where Democrats have let politics trump science. He said U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., correctly has steadfastly rejected much of the prevailing wisdom on climate change, and he also cited the "Climategate" e-mail memos of 2009, which actually later were found not to have cast much doubt upon predominant climate change theory.

Oh well. I guess there's no pleasing some people.

And of course by "some people" I mean religiously deluded ideologues who think the US can continue to do first-rate scientific research while blindly embracing first century superstitions.

Alas, such people seem terribly over-represented in the new Congress, so don't expect Stark's resolution to pass any time soon.

At least Stark (the only self-proclaimed non-theist in Congress) had the courage to try.

Let's hope that many others evolve towards his enlightened views in the years and decades ahead.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Shocking Discovery

It was way too cloudy here on Feb 5, 6, and 7 to see the sunset.

When the clouds parted again on Feb 8, I was shocked to discover that the sun had shifted far enough north to disappear down my neighbor's chimney.

5:42:26 PM - Feb 8, 2011

5:53:08 PM - Feb 8, 2011

6:04:30 PM - Feb 8, 2011

If this keeps up, I estimate that the sun will have drifted out of the right frame of these photos by the end of the month.

Maybe I should try to put a tag on it before it wanders away entirely....

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

All The News That's Fit To Remember

Here's some of what I learned by reading the Feb 9, 1961 issue of the (Toledo) Blade today:

----- The new president, John F. Kennedy, sent to Congress a plan to provide health care benefits to 14.2 million Americans over the age of 65. These benefits were presented as an expansion of the Social Security program. Kennedy stressed that this would be a self-sustaining program that would be paid for by a tax increase of 0.25% on one's first $5000/year of income (an increase amounting to less than $20 a year for the average worker). "This program is not a program of socialized medicine," Kennedy declared. "It is a program of prepayment of health costs with absolute freedom of choice guaranteed." A companion story reported that "Arrayed against the program and still crying 'socialized medicine' are nearly all Republican members of Congress, the powerful lobby of the American Medical Association, and a substantial number of conservative Southern Democrats. This combination of forces showed its muscles last year when the health insurance plan... was killed in the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee, 17 to 8." That's the way things went, year after year, ever since the first such plan was submitted by New York's Sen. Robert A. Wagner back in 1938. (Medicare was finally signed into law on July 30, 1965 by President Johnson.)

----- Kennedy also proposed the creation of a new national institute of child health and human development. He pointed out that in the last decade "our country has slipped from 6th to 10th place among the advanced nations of the world in the saving of infant lives." (In 2006 the UN ranked the US 33rd; in 2009 the CIA World Factbook ranked the US 46th. See Wikipedia for the details.)

----- In London the British Parliament was wrestling with its own health care problems. The House of Commons "broke up in disorder" as Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillon's government proposed raising the cost of prescriptions from 14 cents to 28 cents! (There were other issues, too, but that seems to have been one of the biggest.)

----- Back in the US, people were alarmed by a recession that sent the unemployment rate above 6%. A Labor Department spokesman declared the situation to be the "worst since early World War II."

----- In Ohio, Republican legislators pledged to cut $150 million from the state budget that Governor Michael DiSalle (a Democrat) had wanted to spend on education, mental health, and welfare.

----- President Kennedy started his day by going to a prayer breakfast and declaring that "Each of the nation's presidents has in his own way placed a trust in God. Those presidents who were strongest intellectually were strongest spiritually. The guiding principle of this nation has ever been, is now, and shall ever be 'In God we trust.'" (No word yet on where God was on Dec 7, 1941. Or Nov 22, 1963, for that matter.)

----- Although original reports said that President Kennedy's sister, Patricia, and her husband, Peter Lawford, had suffered a loss of $31,000 when their New York City hotel suite was burglarized while they were away in Washington for the recent inauguration festivities, the Manhattan district attorney now reports that the loss amounted to no more than $2000. Among the items taken: $1100 in cash and a watch that had been purchased for $800 several years earlier.

----- New York Hospital reports that Marilyn Monroe was admitted four days ago for "an illness of undetermined origin" and is now in "satisfactory" condition. Monroe had divorced playwright Arthur Miller just two weeks previously due to "incompatibility of character." (Monroe and Miller married in 1956. According to Wikipedia, Monroe was admitted to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in Feb 1961. Former husband Joe DiMaggio secured her release.)

----- Twelve Ohio cities are among 130 across the US suing major electrical manufacturers for rigging their prices. A Blade editorial on the subject makes for interesting reading: "When virtually the entire heavy electrical equipment industry pleads guilty or enters no defense to charges of a criminal conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids, when large fines are levied against dignified corporations and some of their second-echelon executives are jailed for these offenses, a shock wave runs through the business community. And loud are the cries that the temple of free enterprise has been besmirched. There is no leg for apologists to stand on. The case was clean-cut. What has been admitted, without recourse to the usual tedious appeals, is secret collusion that has cheated utility customers, state, federal, and municipal governments. A profiteer's tribute was levied on the American economy and taxpayers when this country bore the weight of heavy domestic and foreign burdens.... As embarrassing as this affair is for business partisans in the political and economic wars, it could and should have a healthy purgative effect. It should replace with honest self-appraisal the false piety that spokesmen for big business too often assume in treating of the lapses of others. It is not only politicians, public officials, and union leaders who go astray. All virtue does not repose among the men who make the wheels of industry turn. More important still, perhaps the heavy electric industry standing sheep-faced before the judgment seat will prompt all of us to take a shrewder look, adopt a more candid attitude toward the way our free enterprise and competitive economy operates. Our thinking has been muddled, our propaganda given a hollow ring, and our practical difficulties in conducting America's business increased because our practices do not jibe with our slogans. We tread our way through a complex, highly industrialized, and extensively regulated economic life while giving loud lip service to cliches that no longer entirely reflect the realities of our system...."

----- And speaking of that economic system.... An ad on page 5 tells me that you could get a new muffler in 1961 for $5.88 - with free installation. Or you could get 2 dresses for $5 even at Penny's. (I'm told they make fabulous Valentine's Day gifts.) Looking for something a little bigger for your sweetie? How about a 1961 Dodge Lancer - just $1756. Put $156 down and agree to pay $12.64 a week and it's yours!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Biggest Sale Of My Life...

... and I missed it!

The (Toledo) Blade - Friday, Feb 8, 1963

I'm not sure if I mentioned it before or not, but 3027 Cherry was the address of The Big House that I posted pictures of here, here, and here.

Alas, I can't recall what I was doing 48 years ago today, but I'm sure I was doing it within sight of this sale.

If only I had known, maybe I could have toddled over and sucked on the legs of that Mason-Hamlin power grand piano - after discreetly scooting up the stairs to The Tower, of course.

Ah, well.... At least I can take solace in the fact that I'm able to suck on my very own Casio keyboard for as long as I want today!

(And I bet people back in 1963 would have paid big money to see that, too!)

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Clouds Make The Sky

Here's proof:

5:39:58 PM - Feb 3, 2011

5:54:48 PM - Feb 3, 2011


5:35:18 PM - Feb 4, 2011

5:39:34 PM - Feb 4, 2011

5:44:40 PM - Feb 4, 2011

5:49:42 PM - Feb 4, 2011

I bet a few well-placed clouds would do wonders for my complexion!

To Infinity And Beyond

On January 28 NASA, newscasters, and many others noted the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

It's hard for me to believe that it's really been 25 years already.

Of course it's also hard for me to believe 25 minutes have passed since I first sat down intending to write this entry.

I guess it's just hard for the skeptic in me to believe much of anything... but anything dealing with the passage of time is especially difficult for me to process and draw accurate conclusions about. I seem to exist in a permanent state of Now while various things come along and change it. As far as I'm concerned, they can stop anytime now... but probably won't.

Do you remember how you heard the news? I got a call from my Significant Other. "Haven't you heard? Something bad has happened." I've gotten a number of phone calls like this over the years. I have yet to learn how to enjoy them. When the call came 25 years ago, I immediately thought of the ships Reagan had positioned off the coast of Libya as part of the steadily escalating crisis with Muammar Gaddafi. I expected my Significant Other to tell me that Gaddafi had used a nuclear weapon to sink a US aircraft carrier. When I was told instead that the Challenger had blown up, it didn't make any sense because I hadn't expected it to blow up. After thinking about it for a few seconds, though, it made perfect sense. In retrospect, the wonder shifted to the fact that so many millions of pounds of rocket fuel had ever been successfully ridden into space by anybody.

As you probably know, it wasn't the first or last disaster for NASA. Seven more lives were lost when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry almost exactly 8 years ago. Three other lives were lost on Jan 27, 1967 when a fire claimed the Apollo 1 crew during a launch rehearsal. All in all, it's been a bad time of the year to be an astronaut.

I don't recall the Apollo 1 accident at all - which is a bit odd, since I closely followed the earlier Gemini missions on TV - but... I simply don't. Perhaps the death of three astronauts got lost in all the casualty figures coming out of Vietnam, week after week after week.

What I do remember only too well is that I myself almost became a casualty of NASA's space program years before Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

I was maybe 4 years old at the time. It was a nice day outside, perhaps in the early spring. My mother let me out on the back porch to play (yes, the same back porch that had previously been the stomping grounds for the Man With The Monstrous Face). Before she went back inside, she gave me strict orders to stay put. And I fully intended to.

Then I spotted the boys.

Our second floor back porch overlooked a dead-end alley that allowed vehicular access not only to our building but to about 8 nearby businesses. Behind one of those businesses was a cement-floored area that I suppose had at some point been a garage. The roof and sides were gone, but the back of the businesses on either side extended as far as what had been the hypothetical garage's outer edge. The space that remained was therefore enclosed on three sides. The open fourth side was perfectly situated for me to see into, being perhaps 60 to 100 feet off the northeast corner of my porch.

What I saw this particular day as I surveyed the scene was unique in my experience: Two boy playing with an old refrigerator.

After watching them for no more than a few minutes, I decided to slip down the back steps and join them.

One boy was older than the other, and both were somewhat older than I was. Despite the age difference, they welcomed my arrival. At least the oldest boy did. He seemed to be all grins and enthusiasm as he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride in his space ship.

How could I refuse?

Before I knew it, I had slipped inside the rack-less refrigerator.

And less than five seconds after that, my new best friend had eagerly slammed the door shut on me.

It was not what I expected.

Dark, yes - I'd expected it to be dark. But not quite *that* dark. The refrigerator was facing south and a full sun, after all.

What was completely unexpected was the utter silence.

And my complete inability to breathe.

I was old enough to know I had to breathe, and old enough to know that there wasn't enough air in a closed refrigerator for me to breathe for very long, but... what came as a shock was my inability to breathe at all. The moment the door slammed shut it was as if someone had put a hand over my nose or my lungs had become paralyzed. I couldn't take even half a breath.

So I immediately began pounding on the mechanically-latched door instead.

My new best friend opened the door in two or three seconds, but they were (and remain) two or three of the longest seconds of my life.

I immediately jumped out and marveled at the extreme difference between Outside and Inside.

My liberator seemed bizarrely amused by my panic and astonishment. I think he wanted to play some more but I preferred to run back to the calm and the shade of my own back porch.

It seems that I was no sooner back up there than my mother came out, saw the boys playing with the refrigerator, and gasped. "Those kids are going to end up dead if they aren't careful!" I think she exclaimed. I maintained an innocent silence that turned out to be convincing enough to spare me a beating.

My mother went back inside - apparently completely free of any impulse to protect the boys from an early demise that she seemed certain was right around the corner.

The boys themselves seem to have disappeared soon after this. I have no idea where they may have gone - just as I had no idea where they may have come from. I suppose I went inside for a drink of water or some such thing and discovered them gone when I returned. If any images of them being stuck and dying inside the old refrigerator floated through my mind, I kept them to myself.

I never saw those boys again.

The refrigerator disappeared within days, never to be seen again, either. The fact that no bodies seem to have been discovered in it probably came as a relief, though I suppose it's possible that it was taken to the dump unopened.

It all seems a bit dream-like at this point - but that's the case with so much of life. I clearly remember what I remember, but much of the context now eludes me. My sister now thinks it may all have been an actual dream, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't. As was so often the case, she was otherwise occupied at the time and thus in no position then (let alone decades later) to say what may or may not have happened. And the sensation of not being able to breathe at all once the door was shut was *very* vivid and has never really left me. It's a detail I've never heard mentioned by anyone else when these situations have been talked about.

Sadly, there have been hundreds of reasons to talk about them over the years.

Here's how one site describes the situation:

Although the story has obviously gotten a little garbled over the years, refrigerators manufactured prior to 1958 were potential death traps--they really were impossible to open from the inside, not because of anything silly like pressure differences but because of the mechanical latches on their doors. Kids playing hide-and-seek would climb into an abandoned fridge in somebody's basement, pull the door shut, and realize too late they were trapped. The door seal prevented air from getting in and the kids' screams from getting out, and in a short time they'd suffocate. In 1956 the New York Times reported that during the previous decade 115 children had died in this way.

Some local jurisdictions passed ordinances requiring owners of old refrigerators to remove the doors or latches before discarding them, but eventually federal legislators decided the time had come for a national solution. Manufacturers balked, saying the technology wasn't available, it'd cost too much, blah blah blah. Congress finally said screw it, you guys figure something out, and in 1956 passed the Refrigerator Safety Act, which required that the doors on all fridges sold after October 30, 1958, be capable of being opened with a 15-pound push from inside. Miraculously, a practical, inexpensive technology immediately appeared--a magnetic door seal. Truth was, the new seal had been developed some time earlier by General Electric, which offered to license the system to other manufacturers, but industry experts caviled that it still needed work. Faced with a deadline, however, pretty much everybody adopted magnetic seals, which in the event worked just fine, and we still use them today.

Problem solved, eh? Not exactly. Plenty of old refrigerators, presumably bought in the first flush of postwar prosperity, were still out there, and as time went on and they began to be discarded, suffocation deaths rose. In 1961, after an 11-year-old boy died in a refrigerator in Brooklyn, hundreds of New York health inspectors prowled the city's vacant lots, yards, and cellars looking for old fridges and smashed the locks or removed the doors on 554 of them. Despite such efforts, at least 163 deaths were reported nationwide between 1956 and 1964, all in old-style fridges, and 96 between 1973 and 1984. The problem hasn't entirely disappeared--two kids in Guyana died in an old fridge in 2003. Though the press account is sketchy, odds are the thing had a mechanical latch.

That adds up to some 376 deaths. It's sobering to realize that I could have easily boosted that number to 377 had I not been rescued from the "space ship" by a scrawny little kid whose name I never learned.

Truth be told, there are times when I think that I never really was rescued and everything that I believe has happened in all the decades since is nothing more than the wild imaginings of a young brain rapidly succumbing to oxygen deprivation. There's just something about life as I have known it that aligns perfectly with the imaginings of a 4-year-old's mind - something that's intrinsically irreconcilable with any sort of sane reality worthy of the name.

Disco? Gary Coleman? Monica Lewinsky? Sarah Palin?

I rest my case.

Or at least I would if novelist William Golding hadn't taken the basic idea and written an entire book about it. I haven't read this book myself, but I'm told it's called Pincher Martin.

Do you suppose Golding pinched the idea from Ambrose Bierce's short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge? Or is it just one of those ideas that almost everyone comes up with and ponders at some point?

Granted, my version may be a bit darker than most in that both Golding and Bierce cast grown men as the dreamers of life and I find it far more consistent with the absurd imaginings of a very young child, but... that fact in and of itself hardly constitutes a disproof.

Hell, for all I know, reality may be darker yet. We may all be nothing more than the fevered imaginings of those doomed Challenger astronauts as their brains struggle to escape the reality of a 2 minute and 45 second plunge into the Atlantic.

Whatever the case may be, I hope you're enjoying the ride (whatever its exact nature may be, and for however long it may last).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Unexpected Groundhog Day Visitor

5:36:06 PM - Feb 2, 2011

5:37:06 - Feb 2, 2011

I was so busy looking down for groundhogs that I almost missed the sun popping in overhead at the very end of an extremely cloudy day.

Who knows how many times the same trickster sun may have made a surprise appearance in the middle of the night while I was busy pursuing groundhogs in my dreams?

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Moose With The Blueless Blue Room

It's amazing what you can find in the forgotten corners of the Internet if you poke around long enough.

Here's a photo of the room in which a woman accidentally burned me with the tip of her cigarette some 45 years ago:

I included the story of the woman and her cigarette in the entry I posted back on Dec 21. I won't repeat it now.

That entry also included a good shot of the outside of the windows. Here it is again (just because it's so easy to do):

About 25 years separates the inside photo and the outside photo. Is it obvious?

Just for the record, the first photo above appeared in the Toledo Blade back on Feb 3, 1942 (exactly 69 years ago yesterday). It was part of a large ad that the Moose Lodge took out to announce the opening of their new Toledo headquarters. You can see the entire ad for yourself here. I'm guessing that the "10 Reasons Why You Should Be A Moose" had a great deal of appeal back in those pre-TV, pre-Medicare days. And you could get a full membership for just $14 a year! Of course that's the equivalent of about $185 today, but still... a pretty small price to pay for a guaranteed burial benefit of more than SEVEN times as much. (I wonder how many people joined on their deathbed?)

For what it's worth, this is one of those rare cases where the room I knew as a child actually looks to have been much larger than I remember it as an adult. Even allowing for the fact that a bar area with counters and stools seems to have been installed in the back left quadrant by the time I came along, the room seems much less intimate than I recall.

I also have no idea why the ad refers to it as the Blue Room. What looks black in the photo was shiny jet black in real life. The lighter streaks between the black bands were a metallic golden yellow - what mother-of-pearl might look like if it were crossed with gold coins. There's certainly a name for that slick, glassy covering. Vitrolite maybe? Anyway, it was kinda pretty - but definitely *not* blue.

Had this newspaper photo been taken at the right time, it might have captured the instant that cigarette tip met tender young flesh. If I had to guess, I'd say that the meeting occurred about one inch up and one inch over from the lower right corner of the shot....

I can't recall the jukebox - but I can recall the windows. As neat as frosted block glass may have seemed to my young mind, I was more than a little disappointed that I couldn't look out and survey the scene. The windows faced south and I thought that if they weren't frosted I'd be able to see the Maumee River, and maybe even the ships that used it to bring in coal or take away grain. Ha! Fat chance of that. The river was 6 blocks away. And each of those 6 blocks were studded with buildings of their own. I would have needed X-ray vision and probably binoculars to see the river. No matter. My young mind focused on the immediate problem of the frosted glass. Had I been left unsupervised, I probably would have tried to bust one out with a hammer, then blamed the results on a passing bird if asked.

And not that it matters, but... I think the door that one can just barely see in the far back wall is the one my guardian for the afternoon and I went through to deliver the liquor to the President's Private Office. Judging from the number of liquor violations that other old newspaper stories tell me the Moose was hit with in subsequent years, cheap liquor may have been a more successful membership lure than even burial benefits.

Of course I also came across a few gambling investigations, too. In one, the Moose people tried to pass off the slot machines as unused decorations - as proven by the dust on them. Oddly enough, the investigating officer couldn't recall seeing any dust at all.

Another investigation turned a bit ugly when an investigator allegedly tried to shake them down for some cash if they wanted to avoid a citation. Apparently state officials from Columbus had to be brought in to settle the matter. Alas, the exact nature of the settlement doesn't seem to be part of the online record. I read enough to know that Moose officials seem to have been active leaders in the local Republican Party, though, so maybe politics played a role. Or simple moral hypocrisy. It's hard to tell with stories that get printed now, let alone decades ago.

Our schools really ought to do a better job teaching us to read between the lines, don't you think?

Suffice it to say that at the time I had no idea I was visiting such a Den of Iniquity and Sin. Or such a socially responsible club, as the case may be. I just liked the moose logo. And the atmosphere of the empty ballroom.

And who knows? Maybe someday I'll even completely convince myself that I really couldn't have seen the river no matter how crystal-clear the glass in the windows may have been.

It's convincing myself that I actually survived Reagan's eight years as president that's gonna take the *real* heavy lifting....