Friday, September 28, 2007

Dirty Pickles dilled & chilled at Roadhouse Theater

Gazette Newspapers

ERIE, PA – When they appeared at Conneaut Days in June, Matty B and the Dirty Pickles gained a new west-of-the-border audience in Ohio.

Yet on what was to be their final night performing as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, this raucous rockabilly trio discovered something new.

New York had dipped a toe into the brine barrel.

A talent scout from the Empire State was on hand to evaluate Matt Boland and his group with an eye on future projects that might develop.

Valerie Niebling, Boland’s mother, called it “an exciting opportunity for the boys.” She confessed to being nervous with anticipation.

At Erie’s Roadhouse Theater for Contemporary Art, devoted fans have seemed to gather in greater numbers as the combo became a post-modern entertainment phenomenon.

Their Buddy Holly revue interspersed commentary from an on-stage disc jockey, with live renderings of classic recordings by the late artist. It provided not only a portrayal of the icon as he was, but also highlighted the sense of loss felt by fans when he perished on February 3rd, 1959.

The production has proved able to excite audiences of a widely mixed variety. Those old enough to have appreciated Charles Hardin Holley as a new artist, have joined others who share the youthful exuberance of Matty B and his group from a contemporary perspective.

Undeniably, Boland portrayed the notable, southern character with skill.

He played a sunburst Fender Stratocaster guitar, that was a perfect component of the authentic ‘Holly’ persona. Yet beyond having the garb of that era, he also exuded the energy that typified a real performance by the late rock progenitor.

In a sense, he did more than simply ‘act’ in the role.

He appeared to channel the spirit of Buddy Holly from a far-off point in oblivion, into a current setting.

With such intensity on display, no one was surprised when a theater spokesman announced that after a weekend hiatus, ‘Buddy Holly: The Day the Music Died’ would be extended for three more weeks.

A brief interlude allowed Matty B and his fellow ‘gherkins’ to catch their breath, and mingle with guests. Yet the night had only begun.

An after-show celebration was scheduled in the Roadhouse lounge. There, the Dirty Pickles appeared for extra hours, swimming in the potent brine of their own identity. Tobacco-laden air quickly charged with electricity as this young trio ripped through a set of classic compositions, and Picklebilly originals. Their thumping, stage-shredding, pedal-to-the-floor interpretations of Bobby Fuller, Gene Vincent, and the heroic Link Wray soon heated the room like a blast furnace.

Revelers took turns sneaking out the back door for a cool moment in the alleyway before diving back into the Vlassic-rock marinade. But Boland and the band seemed unaffected. They glowed white-hot, while cheerfully assaulting the musical continuum. Yuengling beer flowed freely, as shoe leather slapped the floorboards.

It might well have been 1957, or 1977. Typical chronology didn’t matter any more.
When a member of the audience kept shouting “Stray Cats! Stray Cats!” Matty B finally paused at his vintage microphone.

“Do we look like the (expletive) Stray Cats?” he laughed.

It was a moment when the true nature of his band connected directly with revelers around the club.

While the ‘Cats’ were a successful 80’s detour from more pervasive heavy metal and pop-synthesizer themes that ruled the day, they only imitated the beauty of a lost tradition.

The Dirty Pickles have proved able to expand upon that theme by crafting a new creation from the ethos of rock’s golden age, and the rebellious authenticity of punk.

In a sense, their performance once again demonstrated rock’s ability to reinvent itself for a succession of new generations.

As Pete Townshend once observed for Cleveland radio powerhouse WMMS, “Rock ‘n’ roll will always, always, always overcome… eventually!”

Predictably, Matty and his ‘dill detail’ had little time to rest after the raucous evening. This salty singer and guitarist literally slumped outside of the men’s restroom after his last tune on stage.

He panted for breath while sitting against the wall. “That’s all I’ve got,” he pleaded.

At his side, Niebling seemed glad to know that her son had finished his show.
She explained that the group was already focused on upcoming exhibitions of Pickledelic prowess.

The outfit would soon play at Mohawk Place in Buffalo New York, on Saturday, September 29th. They were slated to open for the Koffin Kats, a horror-rock revival ensemble from Michigan.

An Ohio date was also being arranged, at Peabody’s Concert Club in Cleveland, on October 19th. They were signed to open for the Misfits, a band long-heralded by fans of alternative culture.

Niebling confessed to being a ‘cool’ parent, who schooled her son in paradigms of rock with authentic love for the genre.

“He listened to all those old records,” she said, proudly. “Punk, country, everything. I guess was a cool mom!”

Still panting for oxygen, Boland agreed, with a grin.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Neighbors can ‘bee’ frustrating

Gazette Newspapers

Note to Readers: This is the first installment of a new column series for The Conneaut Courier. Sincere thanks to Editor Martha Sorohan for making it possible to begin an exciting new tradition, here!

Once upon a time, taking up residence in a community meant living in harmony with those who shared the soil.
For generations that inhabited our neighborhoods during the mid-twentieth century, this idea was instilled soon after birth. Basic civility was the norm. Few needed instruction in the idea of cooperating with fellow citizens. The common-sense logic that inspired this lifestyle justified its inception.
Getting along meant basic tolerance, and respect. It was a useful habit, practiced openly across the land. The notion of neighborly goodness served us well.
Until bees became part of the equation.
I considered such thoughts recently, as summer days drew to a close in the county. Our socially challenged neighbor to the west had spent the season with a colony of stinging insects building a hi-rise condominium in one of his outside walls. The nest grew frighteningly large as holiday cookouts passed. We began to fear for the safety of children that used our yards as a cut-through to a nearby playground. Our daughters avoided the green space on that side of our home, altogether.
With a good measure of willful ignorance, he simply ignored the infestation.
I reckoned on spraying the vertical hive at night. But my spouse vetoed the plan as being predicated on an illegal trespass.
Soccer Fairy, our nine-year-old, agreed.
“You can’t spank somebody else’s bees, Daddy!” she observed.
Instead, Liz took a full-page newspaper article next door, to provide information on having these wayward nests removed professionally. She reckoned that it would provide a no-cost solution for the problem.
By August, it was clear that our neighbor had decided to embrace his ignorance with conviction.
The bee swarm continued to grow!
Finally, there was action from our hermit-in-residence, after a flurry of local complaints. He plugged the hole that had served as a point of entry for his uninvited tenants. But the hastiness of this plan made him block the opening during daylight hours. This sent the colony into a frenzy of homeless agitation.
Amazingly, he had no fear of bee stings while accomplishing his project. The fellow spooned out a patch of discount-store goo with critters nearly dancing on his nose.
The entire street was astounded!
Now, the bees were circling our deck lights in the evening.
Mowing on the west side of our house became a tricky task. I wore bright clothing, and dodged the hive’s aerial maneuvering while on lawn-care patrol. .
Eventually, the swarm massed near it’s original portal in our neighbor’s abode, and began a new construction project. They were undaunted by his crude plug of caulk.
Liz cried out in disbelief. “Why didn’t they call that telephone number?”
I responded in kind. “Can’t we call it ourselves?”
She was puzzled. “I gave them the article. We don’t have the number… anyway, it’s their property!”
We had arrived at an impasse. Only one solution seemed obvious.
In September, I went into ‘Commando Mode.’
Soccer Fairy protested as I tiptoed into the falling shadows of a Friday night, with an extra-large can of bee spray.
“Mommy!” she protested, with a flip of her blonde curls. “He’s going to spank the bees!”
“Hush!” I said, cautiously. “This is important work.”
I disappeared into the darkness with purpose as my guide.
The hive was huddled along the siding, under its erstwhile front doorway. I smiled while assessing the clump of insect bodies. It provided a perfect target.
My index finger paused over the can. It was a moment of battle and glory on a civilian scale.
I crossed myself, then emptied the container of poison in a dramatic, foaming spray!
My pulse quickened with success. A mass of bees dropped to the ground, still thick with residue. The rank concoction ebbed along the siding, and filled every crack. Bee-agony was palpable in the air.
When I returned to the kitchen, Soccer Fairy was silent. She had lost interest in the raid, and turned her attention to Spongebob Squarepants.
My wife folded her arms as I poured a cup of coffee. “Are you happy now?”
“It had to be done,” I answered in a whisper. “I was protecting my homestead.”
The coffee was refreshing - with a dash of victory for good measure.
Liz stifled a giggle.
“Thanks for cleaning up this town, Sheriff Rodney!” she said.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

“Spirit Jam”

c. 2007 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Readers of this column have become very familiar with the developing story of ‘Tim’s House’ since last fall. It has been a privilege to witness the birth of this idea, and document the stamina and conviction of founder Carol Brazis. As a safe haven born after the tragic suicide of her son, the organization was designed to help others who have survived such desperate circumstances. That plan will come to fruition when the ‘House’ opens on September 29th.
Many who knew Tim Weed in the local community have been touched by the appropriate design of this group. Because he was a companion and healer by nature, the healing home seemed a perfect way to continue his mission.
Yet for myself, the spiritual nature of ‘Tim’s House’ has proved to be most incredible of all. From the beyond, Tim has continued to heal hearts and touch lives here on Earth.
Such thoughts resonated during a recent ‘jam session’ on Court Street in Chardon, with Robin Echols Cooper.
In my own life, she was always simply ‘Bruce’s Mom.’ We connected at local retail stores in the area. Yet when I heard of her achievements, a shift in perceptions occurred:

“Robin Echols Cooper was born in Cleveland, Ohio and educated in the Chardon public schools. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in communications, with minors in art and theatre, from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio in 1980, and has been telling stories professionally since 1992. Robin's unique style takes you on an animated journey as she weaves tales from around the world, and her family stories bring you home. She performs in a variety of venues including schools, child-care centers, libraries, museums, senior citizen's centers, and hospitals, and she presents creative specialized workshops in the art of storytelling. Whether at home in Ohio, or traveling throughout the country, Robin is an ‘all ages’ favorite.” (From the Morley Library, Painesville)

I wanted to brainstorm with her for several years about creative projects. She displayed proficiency as a playwright, performer, musician, author, and poet. Her resume intrigued me greatly. I frequently spoke to her son about my own experiences in New York, and promised to find a moment to share our visions. Meanwhile, I continued to read of her endeavors:

“Robin Echols Cooper, joined the (Women in History) organization in 2000. She presents Fannie Lou Hammer, civil rights activist, Mary Fields, stagecoach driver in Montana and will soon recreate Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Robin is a storyteller, performing and visual artist. Robin grew up on a small farm in Chardon, Ohio where she enjoyed listening to songs and wonderful stories. She has been writing and sharing stories all of her life. Robin received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with minors in art and theater from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She has been telling stories professionally since 1992. Ms. Echols Cooper’s unique style takes you on an animated journey as she weaves tales from around the world. Her family stories bring you home. She has performed in a wide variety of venues. She presents creative specialized workshops in the art of story telling. Her affiliations include Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland, Inc., The National Association of Black Storytellers, The Cleveland Association of Black Storytellers, Inc., and Western Reserve Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, Puppetry Guild of Northern Ohio.” (From W. I. H.)

In addition, Robin offered the collective a personal moment that demonstrated her potent ability to portray characters with realism:

“I was performing at Urbana College as Stagecoach Mary. When the narrator completed my introduction, I entered the room carrying a rifle and shouted, ‘Where is Junior? I’m looking for that scrawny polecat that owes me money. I gave a menacing look at a male student who looked like he could be a line backer on the football team and snarled ‘ . . .and you look just like him.’ I will never forget the look on his face. For a moment I thought he might jump up and run from the room. I suppose I have to remember to tone down my acting in the future.”

Career demands kept me from reviewing her plays when they were offered locally. Our opportunity to commiserate never arrived. But then, Tim’s spirit reached out with purpose.
I met Robin at the Court Street oasis, and we enjoyed an impromptu session of music. With Carole’s blessing, the episode inspired another installment of Thoughts At Large. I reckoned that it was a happy coincidence that served my journalistic needs.
Yet in the weeks to come, I found that there was more to the experience we had shared. A spark from eternity quickened our hearts. We met again at Tim’s House… and again! Each jam was more productive than the one before. My affinity for guitar experimentation returned.
We began to write songs from the jam session activity, with help from Carole and my wife, Liz. Improvised chants became useful ideas. Then, our kindred spirits became white-hot with inspiration.
Suddenly, the random notions yielded an unexpected product – meaning.
Robin called it ‘Healing through music.’ A gentle process of self-expression and renewal. “I think it would be wonderful if Tim's House could offer ‘Heart Songs’ or songs of healing,” she said. “People could write songs or poetry set to music. They could pick the style of music that could go along with the work they create. The song could be recorded on CD and given to them. There could be musicians who could help with adding flavor to the piece.”
Diverse elements seemed to connect as we played. Undeniably, a pattern emerged from the intellectual fog. I struggled to comprehend what was happening. But my helpmate used her faith to witness, and accept the reality.
After an evening session, we carried equipment to the parking lot. My wife was brimming with thought as we loaded her car.
“All this is evidence of God in our lives,” Liz observed. “We were meant to be here. Carole, Dan, Robin, and everyone, with the two of us. This is a gift.”
I couldn’t disagree.
She patted my chest. “There’s something in here that keeps you going. You might put it aside for awhile, or forget its presence in your life. But that spirit is your identity. When we get together, those energies boost each other. It makes light in the darkness. We see that light as a dream. But really, it is a manifestation of… of who we are on the inside. For that moment of togetherness, we are plugged in. To the cosmos, and God, and… Tim.”
My jaw dropped open.
“Woww,” I exclaimed. “That is very deep.”
“Yes,” she replied, after a deep breath. “But also very real.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s like Tim has brought us… together?”
“Stop thinking so hard, Rodney!” she admonished. “Believe in miracles. Look toward the horizon. Be thankful for what you have!”
I nodded. Having the chance to finally work with Robin was a blessing.
“You’re the one with enduring faith,” I said. “My heart depends on yours, sweetie…”
She laughed at the comment.
“I depend on you, too,” she said. “You’re the one with a dream. I want that hope to be fulfilled. It can happen. I know it! If only we believe.”
I looked upward, toward the moonlit sky.
“Show us the way,” I said silently. “We are ready… to sing!”

Sunday, September 16, 2007

County Culture

One of the great things about working in Ashtabula County was having the ability to soak up local culture, directly. An example was provided by this big-tired Chevrolet. It didn't appear at a bar, truck stop, or a racetrack. Not even at a Country Music concert. No, the vehicle here was present in the parking lot of a newspaper where I worked.

In New York or Los Angeles, political correctness and environmental awareness might hold sway over public opinion. But in the heartland, concerns are much more closely related to everyday needs. Sure, Gas may be hovering around $3.00 a gallon. Yet a real asphalt cowboy can't pilot a Yugo. Americans still need honkin' massive machinery to dominate the landscape.

A Hyundai just wouldn't fit the bill.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Passing the torch is part of sporting traditions

Note to Readers: This was my last sports column for Gazette Newspapers. They chose not to publish it in their September 12, 2007 issue.


One characteristic that defines humanity is our pursuit of competitive sports.
Mankind has sought to attain excellence through gaming since the very dawn of our existence. We use sports activity to measure endurance and skill in a way that can be effectively conveyed to others. Our fascination with statistics, standings, and athletic histories reflects an inner need to know how good we can become.
This inherited discipline has translated into our culture at all levels. Those who excel at sports typically find that they also have a gift for business, leadership, or public service. Rules that govern team efforts on the field of play are nearly universal.
In many ways, our love of sports simply reflects a mortal passion for life itself.
Part of any athletic career is passing the torch. A player may receive instruction, guidance, and training from seasoned veterans as their odyssey begins. Through such conditioning, their fate may be tilted toward betterment. Basic physical abilities can be nurtured. Good mechanics, and solid a work ethic are often instilled.
Our spirits grow stronger by facing the challenge of sports interaction.
This process is repeated when this cycle nears its conclusion. Those with years of persistence and performance give their knowledge and intensity to the next generation.
Passing the torch is more than an action between long-distance runners. It is one of the traditions we use to identify who we are as a civilization.
When I began a long-ago internship at the Ithaca Times in Ithaca, New York, I was one who inherited the spirit of service-through-writing from the older generation. Interest in the craft was magnified by the conviction of my tutors. Their zeal became my own. Soon, I found myself looking for story opportunities around every corner.
I inherited a new perspective on the world.
In more modern terms, leading the sports department at Gazette Newspapers has also reflected that age-old tradition of passing the torch.
My mission here was simple, but important – to develop these pages to their ultimate potential. Accomplishing that goal has involved developing lines of communication, fostering a climate of mutual respect, and opening avenues for our talented participants to step forward with their contributions.
Meanwhile, I worked to reach out to our community in a spirit of cooperation. Because no methodology to serve our audience could be complete without input from the people, themselves.
In a sense, I was very much like an athletic coach. My work focused on drawing the human potential out of our crew through motivation and positive reinforcement. And on making our newspaper ‘real’ for our readers.
The plan I used was largely based on habits from my tenure as a retail manager. Yet it was implemented with the careful eye of a creative writer. I felt a personal sense of passion for the work at hand, and pride in our accomplishments on the printed page.
The result was thrilling, and intense. Our team chemistry made great things happen. In the end, we have been able to function as a group. Everyone involved has responded with enthusiasm. It was wonderful to witness such a change.
Now, my turn to pass the torch has come.
Like a swift-footed courier in a relay event, I’ve completed my own portion of this race. Another soul is about to take up the flaming scepter, and continue the journey.
In this instance, the next runner will be a familiar soul - Dave Jividen.
Dave has become well known around Ashtabula County - as a friend, father, mentor, coach, and store manager.
Through his public service, stewardship, and work for Gazette Newspapers, he has helped enhance the quality of life in our corner of the world.
Dave covered many different sporting events in these pages, with enthusiasm and skill. While working as a reporter, his intent was always the same. He wanted to compose good material for our readers.
That upbeat attitude caused me to respect his work from the very beginning of our journalistic partnership. We were cut from the same cloth, and shared a philosophy of positive thinking about the newspaper business.
In recent months, he provided invaluable help as my full-time assistant. I have learned to depend on his advice about coaches and athletes from Geneva to Williamsfield, or Windsor to Pierpont.
In short, he has proven to be someone who was truly dedicated to the cause.
Now, he will bear the torch for this department.
“The players change – but the game itself goes on.” That is a truism that has never lost meaning.
So I am glad to be at this point in the relay. And humbled to consider what we have been able to do in this department.
Sincere thanks to you for letting me participate in such an incredible adventure.
Let the torch go forward!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

“Melonhead Mysteries“

c. 2007 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was just after daybreak, in Thompson.
I had been on the computer for half an hour, while lazily enjoying my first cup of coffee. Donut crumbs were sprinkled across my desk. They hinted at a long-standing household tradition – sweet treats on Saturday morning.
This ritual had begun when our young daughter professed a need for something special to celebrate the weekend. Soccer Fairy struck a mother-child bargain that lasted through the seasons. We would share sugary snacks together on that appointed day of the week. I agreed, while hoping for occasional diversions to the Waffle House in Concord. The lure of country ham, eggs, and grits still held a powerful attraction that chocolate hoops could not overwhelm.
Liz, my wife, slumbered as I researched a persistent bit of Geauga folklore. Columns I’d written about the county’s 1957 UFO incident had inspired many local comments. But the Corvette Guy himself offered an angle that was most appealing. Since I had completed the mission of investigating his alien encounter story, my friend wanted more. He called to ask a profound question: Since I had been so taken with the story of extraterrestrial visitation, then why not look into the legend of Doc Crow(e) and his Melonheads?
Mr. Corvette had started wheels turning inside of my brain.
The Melonheads were a local fixation for many of us in Chardon, during the 1980’s. Stories circulated widely about sightings along Wisner Road. At the time, I frequented a free-flowing spring that was along this rural thorofare. It was in the area where strange creatures were said to have been sighted.
Liz woke as I was sorting through cyberspace entries about the legend.
“Working already?” she said with a groggy smile.
I nodded. “The Corvette guy called me at work. He had this great idea to follow my columns about the Huntsburg UFO…The Melonheads!”
“I know,” she responded. “He got your number from me.”
I paused at the computer. “Well anyway, look at these stories…”
Liz rubbed her eyes. “I need coffee before hearing about these Honeydew People. Will you read the stories to me, please?”
With drama in my voice, I began to repeat what had been discovered:

1.) “The Melon Heads are most strongly associated with Wisner Road, near Chardon. They are also often sighted on King Memorial Road, especially in or near the King Memorial Cemetery there. (When the road enters Geauga County it becomes Mentor Road, and the graveyard commonly called King Memorial is technically named Larned Cemetery.) Why they like it here, I have no idea. Maybe Dr. Crowe and his wife are buried there, and they come to visit the graves...hey, I just made that up, but it sounds pretty good. Anyway, to find the cemetery, take I-71 north to I-271, toward Erie. Get off on I-90 East. Take the Mentor/Kirtland exit onto SR 306 North. Turn right onto SR 84 for about five miles, then right on King Memorial. About half a mile down look for the Melon Heads' woods and then the cemetery.”

1.) “On Chardon-Windsor Road on a section that was described as wooded, teenagers would stop on the road and if the moon was full, out of the forest would come small men with extremely large craniums who would amble toward their cars with a teeter-totter gait. Of course the teenagers would peel away frightened and tell their schoolmates about the men with the big heads. The rumor was that the men had come from a nearby insane asylum which had long since been burnt down.”
2.) “I used to live by the woods on Wisner Road near the Lundgren barn. When I was ten years old I had a brief encounter with a Melonhead. It was an early autumn night around 10:00pm when I heard my dog bark and I ran outside to see what was going on. When I went outside to see what the commotion was all about I found my dog lying there bleeding. I looked towards the woods and saw what I believed to be a small figure with very pale skin and a large head. When the creature saw me it ran into the woods. I went out the next morning and followed the tracks but they stopped near a creek. I am now older and very skeptical about events like this…”

1.) “For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard tales of strange creatures that inhabit the woods in a few of the towns in this area. I’ve always been told to be careful when traveling down Chardon-Windsor Road in Chardon, Wisner Road, and near the area surrounding the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland. There are supposed to be deformed humans living in the woods with tiny bodies and large round heads. They’re known as the Melon Heads, and it is said that they hate all human beings and will kill and eat any they encounter. The reason they are filled with such hate towards humans is because of one sick man, Dr. Crow. It is because of his twisted work that they are in the physical and mental condition that they are. Dr. Crow was commissioned by the government shortly after World War II to treat children who suffered from a rare condition known as hydrocephalism, which causes large pockets of water within the brain. Crow ran a small institution of sorts for these kids, and donated not only his services, but his own land, for the venture. The government sent him these kids, thinking he was doing a good deed and a great favor to society. Little did they know what evil acts were actually occurring in the woods of Northern Ohio.”

Amazingly, there were even reports of the Melonhead legend being told in the state of Michigan:

1.) “I live deep in the Allegan Woods of Michigan, about 1 mile away from an abandoned insane asylum. The legend around here is that the melonheads used to reside in this building after it was no longer being used. They are said to be dark creatures that come out only at night, and do not usually interact with humans. They are very fast and can jump in a way that seems to defy gravity. Although I have never encountered any of these Melonheads, they still make for a great story!”
2.) “The story is true of the Melonheads but the version of everybody’s stories are wrong. The Melonheads live in Bridgeman Michigan next to the Cook nuclear power plant. Shortly after the plant was built there was a radiation leak that deformed all these people and also gave them enlarged heads. The government gave these people their own community and they are not allowed to leave. They will chase you out and yes I have witnessed one and it is the scariest thing I have ever seen.”

I finished as my wife returned with coffee and powdered donuts. Her mood brightened with each sip of Java.
“There is also a collection of fantastic material in ‘Weird Ohio’ by James A. Willis, Andrew Henderson, and Loren Coleman,” I explained.
Liz sat on our bed. “Those tales give me the Watermelon Willies!” she smirked. “Don’t tell me you saw one yourself…?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No, I can’t make that claim. But my brother, Bubba, went on a Melonhead expedition once.”
She was intrigued. “Really? And he saw them?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “He and a friend went to Wisner Road after dark. They intended to search for unusual creatures. But after hunting through the woods, they returned to the road, empty-handed. Then, they noticed a car parked in the grass. Only a single occupant appeared to be inside. In the moonlight, Bubba and his partner both caught the silhouette of a raised firearm through the driver’s window. That ended the hunt. They scrambled for my brother’s vehicle, and drove away.”
My wife giggled. “So what’s next? A column about Bigfoot?”
“Don’t laugh!” I said. “Someone at work passed along a homemade book about beast sightings in Ashtabula County…”
Liz sighed. “Send a message to Agent X. I’m going to the kitchen for another cup of coffee!”


Thursday, September 06, 2007


Football fever spans the generations

Gazette Newspapers

Football fever is here again.
Let a cheer go up from across the Northcoast – hoorah!
There is literally nothing like high school football. It remains the most pure form of the game we love.
The pros have long since lost much of that ‘authentic’ feel for our beloved sport - the sort of dedication and spartanism that Vince Lombardi used to speak of in team meetings. Or that Paul Brown evoked from his men.
Their outlook on football has inspired every generation that followed. What a pity to consider that they have sometimes been eclipsed by stardom and fortune.
The spirit of such early league pioneers was incredible. They labored without the glory of baseball stars in the early era of American sports. Their accommodations were not lavish. Many had to mend their own uniforms while traveling on the franchise bus. They played brutish, hard-edged matches in dirt and mud. Their cooperative fervor won trophies without complicated offensive schemes. They were selfless, and united.
Truly, their ‘team’ identity was everything.
And their faith created icons like Lombardi and Brown, who gave us football as it developed in the golden era.
Today, many professional athletes have become a different breed. Yet the spirit of those bygone warriors has not disappeared. The gridiron philosophy of our forebears has only strengthened over time. Their concepts have been proven, and tested, by fire.
The ‘fever’ lives today, on local football fields across the nation.
For this writer, such thoughts appeared last week, while reflecting on high my own scholastic experiences.
At Valley High School, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, I felt the ‘fever’ rise with each fall sports season.
Though I was a transplanted ‘Buckeye’ the thrilling nature of local competition could not be denied. We debated the virtue of Browns vs. Steelers match-ups with colorful adjectives. But our passion for the school knew no division.
We were all Valley Vikings.
In my junior year, the varsity football team distinguished itself as being one of the state’s worst. By the final weeks of that season, the Vikings record stood at a humiliating total of 0-8.
Playing Connelsville in week nine seemed like a pointless chore. But the team rallied around their coach. A defiant, but losing effort ensued, into the fourth quarter. Our opponents had ruled the field on both sides of the ball. They were able to run at will on the Vikings defense, and amassed a lead of multiple touchdowns in front of their home crowd.
Then, a bit of football magic touched the field. Connelsville fumbled near the twenty-yard line.
The Vikings scored immediately. This gift-touchdown provided a shot of adrenaline, and a whisper of yonder days:
“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
There is no animal more hungry than a team without a victory. So the Vikings suddenly found themselves burning up with the ‘fever.’ They held their opposition to a four-and-out series, followed by an aerial explosion. Another score went into the visitors column.
The game announcer was nearly hoarse with irritation. “Touchdown New Kensington!”
Connelsville was completely befuddled.
Fans who had already headed for the parking lot spun around, and raced back to the stands. Swirls of old gold and black began to fly.
A chant thundered from the seats. “Let’s go, Vikings! Let’s go, Vikings!”
Feet stomped, hands clapped, and fists jabbed the air.
The Valley gridmasters were rabid from a long, unsuccessful season. They literally had no reason to hold anything in reserve. Sheer inertia and will carried them thus far.
They had arrived at a defining moment for the program.
With under a minute to go, the Vikings scored again. They were up by one point as the seconds elapsed. The defensive squad took over with a chilling mood of determination in their eyes.
No longer was it a game of points scored or allowed – it had become a moment to experience ‘football fever’ in all its glory.
The Vikings formed a human wall of defensive bodies that smothered Connelsville where they stood.
It was done.
The team finished that year at 2-8. It sounded like a losing campaign to those who were unaware. But for the Vikings, it provided a pivotal experience that brought focus and direction.
In the seasons to come, Valley rose to levels of state competition. That experience was made possible by a fumble in the mud… and a bit of old-fashioned teamwork.
Though my recollection was of a distant, Pennsylvania school, the team might well have been Harvey, Grand Valley, Madison or Lakeside.
What we experienced was the magic created by hometown competition. In any sport, this exuberance is the same. When young performers are driven to test their own physical limitations, the results demonstrate excellence in action. They indicate our capabilities, and shortcomings, with clarity.
Many find that their capacity for endurance is greater than anyone might have imagined. Typical rules and norms of humanity may seem to be suspended in the midst of athletic exhibition.
In that moment, we are greater than ourselves. As a team, we become more powerful than the sum of our membership.
Special things can happen when you’ve got the ‘fever.’

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

“Tim’s House – Moving In”

c. 2007 Rod Ice a
All rights reserved

One of the most enticing things about professional journalism is being able to observe a wide variety activities without needing justification.
It is a realm for those who are naturally curious. Stories are everywhere. One needs only to have a clear mind and open eyes to discover inspiration.
Such thoughts echoed recently, as Liz and I enjoyed a behind-the-scenes preview at the new 'Tim's House' oasis in Chardon. Our tour guide was Carole Brazis, founder of the organization.
The local group was born after her son committed suicide. He had friends across the county, yet felt a sort of emptiness and pain that could not be dispelled. After repeated attempts to find assistance failed, he ended his life in 2006.
The loss was overwhelming for Carole. Yet, she channeled her agony into a positive force. Even in the midst of mourning, she began to envision a way that the darkness could yield light. Her dream had been to buy Tim a home where he would always be safe and secure. In his memory, 'Tim's House' began to take shape.
As a writer and friend, I had been privileged to observe the development of this incredible idea into a full-scale operation. Over a course of months, Liz and I attended different benefit events for the ‘House’ that Carole, Dan and their volunteers made possible.
Yet, nothing could prepare my senses for the experience of visiting this spiritual sanctuary for the first time.
We toured the 'Tim's House' facility at 150 Court Street, in Chardon. Originally built as a residence, the location once held 'Big Brothers-Big Sisters' of Lake & Geauga County. Its family-inspired design seemed perfect to house Carole's leading-edge concept. In every way, it truly felt like a home for those affected by the grief of suicide. Not a clinic, or a counseling center, but a safe haven from anguish and hurt.
Carole explained that generous donations had made it possible to sign a two-year lease on the property. Included would be a craft room, library, reading room, meditation room, kitchen and computer stations.
"People sometimes get confused," she said. "Suicide victims are those who chose to end their lives. Suicide survivors are those who are still here. I'm not a victim, I am a survivor."
Carole spoke about her plan for the future with clarity and conviction.
"We've got to get good at self--support groups," she said. "Then, we'll add other services. We will be able to refer people to help, when needed."
Her outlook was bright, but realistic. "I've got to write grants," she said. "And, stay busy!"
We were discussing the 'House' as an important component of Geauga when Robin Echols Cooper joined our conversation. The playwright, musician, author and mother brought an expressive dimension to our meeting.
She invited us to join in a 'Tim's House Jam,' with festive musical tools from her personal collection. It was a gesture that Tim himself would have appreciated and endorsed.
We assembled in the craft room and picked out our instruments. She played a tall drum adorned with natural colors. Liz and Carole each took a washboard. I played a thumb piano.
The exercise calmed my spirit by opening a pathway for expression. Robin, Carole and I traded improvised lyrics in a call-and-response about the 'House' that grew more emotional with each stanza:

Tim's House
Out of the dark
Tim's House
Into the light
Tim's House
Only the day
Tim's House
No longer night.
Tim's House
Your heart is broken
Tim's House
But the door is open
Tim's House
Come for the healing
Tim's House
We are singing.
Tim's House
Across the nation
Tim's House
From station to station
A beautiful spirit
Tim's House
We won't forget.

Suddenly, I felt connected to another time - July 29, 1980.
I was nearing my 19th birthday then, in central New York State. Among my circle of artistic friends was a former college student named Mark Lebowitz. He had written for the theater and composed rock 'n' roll songs of an odd, creative nature.
Mark had been admired by every-one. We envied his experience as a broadcaster and street poet. Our hope was to, in some way, emulate his example.
Yet, a streak of darkness touched his psyche with invisible power. He became erratic and changed his appearance. Then, a radio news report announced that he had chosen a final exit from humanity.
We were stunned and unprepared. His family cloaked the event in silence and buried their son at an undisclosed location. There was no official farewell for us or opportunity for public remembrance. His passing was observed by a toast of Guinness Extra Stout on a hill outside of Ithaca. We smashed a full bottle that would have been his to share. In the time that followed our pondering continued.
No closure or comprehension of the sad moment ever appeared.
Yet, in the room at 'Tim's House' I began to feel changed. We sang in tribute to Tim and of hope born in his name. While rocking in my chair and trading vocalized emotions, I felt something unexpected fill the room.
It was a sense of joy.
Tim's life was a gift to those who shared his earthly journey. A sort of irony echoed with the end of his voyage here, because he had helped so many to find comfort in themselves.
Unbelievably, the peace he brought to others escaped his own existence.
But in that room, he had again found a method to stir us toward happiness - by singing our love for him in spur-of-the-moment, melodic verses.
My eyes were wet by the time we had finished. Workplace duties called with persistent determination. Liz and I promised to return.
Driving back toward Thompson, I chanted to myself. My fingers tapped the steering wheel in a syncopated rhythm.
"What's playing in your head?" Liz inquired with a grin.
I went red with embarrassment. "Was it that obvious?"
"I know my husband," she said.
"That jam session touched some-thing in here," I confessed, while thumping my chest. "Wish I didn't have to work the weekend."
"Why?" she purred. "What would you do instead? Write at home instead of… writing at work?"
I took a deep breath. "It's been a long while. But I think the time has come to dig out one of my guitars!"
Liz flushed with pride. "I've been saying that for ages. Don't stay long at the office, tonight. You've got your groove back, I think."
I nodded, while considering our day. It had been a moment of re-awakening.
"Thank you, Brother Tim," I said with wordless praise.


Monday, September 03, 2007

1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

I've passed this gem recently, at Great Lakes Chevy in Jefferson. With only four days left on my tour of duty in the Ashtabula County capitol, I decided that a closer look at the vehicle was in order. It turned out to be a pristine example of 70's mobile architecture. I was flooded with memories while caressing the car with my eyes.

The curvy chariot was made only three years after the dreaded 'Oil Embargo.' In its day, the car reflected how independent we were in the US from changing ideas of fuel economy and automotive design.

Vehicles manufactured here today are more aerodynamic, efficient, and world-wise. Yet they are something else as well - stale. Only the new-generation Mustang or Chrysler 300 C reflect days of artful yore.

The Monte in Jefferson offered a connection to that past glory. And an idea - style in a modern context! Think of a new-age cruiser like this... one brimming with character...

Chevrolet, are you listening?