Saturday, March 23, 2013

“Geauga News, Reviewed”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

The habit of pursuing historical research is a natural activity for any writer. And in personal terms, this life-mission is seemingly programmed into the family DNA.
A vast reserve of newspaper archives can be found in cyberspace. As one might expect, the great bulk of these documents come from population centers like New York City, Boston, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. But even small-town America is represented in this mix of verbiage.
During a recent search, Geauga County stories were everywhere. They offered a glimpse of life as it used to be in yonder days among our forebears.
I had written before about our local connection to the ‘push button’ telephone. But another story appeared that offered greater detail about this technical innovation from yesterday:

The Miami News, December 18, 1962

“NEW YORK – The era of push button telephone moved a little closer today. The Chardon Telephone Co., of Chardon, Ohio, put into service its first push button model and offered others to subscribers in the northern Ohio community outside Cleveland. The instrument, manufactured by Stromberg – Carlson division of General dynamics, has 10 push buttons on its face in place of the customary dial – three rows of three buttons each and a single operator button centered below. Push button phones, more accurately called ‘touch tone’ dialing, have been under test by various U.S. telephone companies and equipment manufacturers for some years. The Bell System has been market testing them in Findlay, Ohio, since November 1960 and in Greensburg, Pa., since February 1961. Some 2,200 push button phones are in service in these communities. The extensive cost of the new type set, which must be used with electronic controls at the telephone exchange, has been the main reason holding back general introduction of the new type phone, engineers say. Chardon Telephone Co., a subsidiary of Mid-Continent Telephone Corp., Elyria, Ohio, said this will be the first use of the push button unit on a commercial, non-testing basis. Subscribers desiring the new unit will pay an extra fee. Mid-Continent said the telephone also will be available early next year to subscribers of its Kenton, Ohio operating affiliate. The push button unit uses electronic tone signaling rather than the electro-mechanical signaling system used by current models. At Chardon the telephone company will use new, transistorized electronic switching equipment in conjunction with a conventional electro-mechanical central office. Mid-Continent said this will be the first marriage of the two in commercial service.”

In modern terms, religious speakers have taken on dramatic social and political overtones. But I discovered another story about Geauga that offered a pithy portrait of preaching from the past:  

Youngstown Vindicator, July 6, 1941

“CHARDON, O – Rev. Cromwell C. Cleveland, ‘alliterative pastor’ of Chardon’s Christian Church, is resigning, effective Oct. 1. Rev. Mr. Cleveland says he has no immediate plans, but folks in Geauga County think he is going on a hunt for bigger and better alliterations. He has sprinkled his sermons with them. The pastor says it’s just a gift – the accomplishment has run in his family. The alliterations just come spontaneously, he says. That recalls his description, in a sermon, of the prodigal son: ‘This loose, lavish, lustful lad had lost his love for the Lord and all things lofty, and was living in luxury; but now at the length of his lilting lark, being listless and lank, he longed for at least a little lunch, for he at last languidly limped to a loathsome level that was lamentably lousy and low.’ That is only one of the accomplishments of the 30-year-old pastor. Failure of the church organist to appear is no inconvenience for him. He is an accomplished organist and pianist. He has been pastor here for three and a half years.”

Sometimes, stories uncovered with a local slant simply make the reader smile. A report about the postal service shipping one-brick-at-a-time did just that, with powerful prose:

The Telegraph-Republican February 21, 1913

“Ben F. Pease of the Chardon Brick & Tile Co., sent Friday morning by parcel post a brick of local manufacture to be used in building a brick house at the Coliseum, Chicago, during the Clay Produce Exposition there February 26 to March 8. This brick is one of 25,000 sent by parcel post from every brick plant in the United States, to be used in the construction of this house, which will be given away and re-erected after the exposition, says the Geauga Republican. The idea was originated to test the merits of parcel post system. A record of each brick is kept from the time it is mailed until it is delivered in Chicago, in order to see how speedily Uncle Sam can deliver a brick house by mail. It is probable that Uncle Sam’s mail carriers will not be overly enthusiastic for this method of delivery of a brick house. While the brick fire-proof home is becoming more and more popular because of its permanency, economy and superiority, it is not probable that they will be delivered by mail to any alarming extent. At any rate Chardon will have a brick in the first house ever sent by mail.”

An editor from my past used to say that as writers, we were composing the reading material for historians of a hundred years forward. While reading such text from bygone days, it is pleasing to think that some researcher in the future will enjoy the same habit I have pursued, today.

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“Royko, Remembered”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” – Mike Royko

Grade-school teachers often ask their students about future endeavors that might seem appealing. In response, those young minds typically imagine becoming a doctor, firefighter, soldier, music star or even an astronaut. A few might choose to imagine life as a priest or public servant. But few if any dream of being a newspaper columnist.
For this writer, a childhood habit was reading the creative work of wordsmiths like Jimmy Breslin, Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, Andy Rooney, Ann Landers and Jack Anderson. Though I yearned for a career in radio broadcasting, the idea of penning a regular column always seemed tempting.
Perhaps my strongest influence in that direction was the iconoclastic Mike Royko. A native of Chicago, he spoke with authority as a champion of working-class, everyday people. He was the son of a Ukranian father and Polish mother.
Royko began writing while serving in the U.S. Air Force.
His words flowed with the simple elegance of one who learned their craft as a beat reporter and in the newsroom, rather than the artificial confines of a classroom. He wrote with the naked honesty of an old soul, avoiding too much self-analysis or worry.
Often, Royko said what his readers were thinking, in silence. He embodied the gritty spirit of a truly American city. He was an old-school voice. Yet his observations were on-target and precise. Like a favorite uncle or grizzled neighbor, he always approached each subject with courageous indifference to the feelings that might be bruised. 
Sometimes, Royko allowed his inner muse to wander. In these moments he seemed most human, like a friend from yonder days offering surreal thoughts over a cold beer in a neighborhood tavern.   
Most journalists seem to remember Mike Royko in one of two ways: either as a liberal icon, or as a cynical curmudgeon brimming with old-school wit.
Moreover, he will forever be famous for angering legendary performer Frank Sinatra, by complaining that Chicago police were too busy protecting him during an appearance, to catch criminals in the city.
Sinatra’s reply was newspaper “gold” – it ran in a Royko column shortly afterward, in 1976:

“Let me start this note by saying I don’t know you and you don’t know me... quite frankly, I don’t understand why people don’t spit in your eye three or four times a day.”

In personal terms, Royko’s greatest influence for myself was the use of fictional characters in his columns. Slats Grobnik and Dr. I. M. Kookie were frequent companions. I marveled at how these imaginary voices spoke with such realism. He used these whimsical voices to debate real-world issues and poke fun at those in positions of authority.
After a long career opining satirically about the lives of everyone from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to President Ronald Reagan, he passed away in 1997. But the legacy he bestowed upon those pursuing the craft of writing endured.
It was with an echo of Mike Royko in my ear that I began “Thoughts At Large” one year later.
My own ink-slinging odyssey eventually included characters like Carrie Hamglaze, an erstwhile elected official and journalist. Along with Ezekiel Byler Gregg, editor of the fictional Burton Daily Bugle. And Archer, an unemployed biker-musician-philosopher.
Royko had created the LaSalle Street Rod & Gun Club. It was a creative device that allowed him to poke fun at city officials, and eventually produced the character of Mr. Grobnik. I echoed this with the Geauga Writers’ Roundtable, meeting at a local fast-food emporium.
Though my own wordsmithing career has been much less notable in character, I owe him a genuine debt of gratitude.
Royko was the sort of gifted everyman that we may never see again. His talent was a magic spell that can’t be taught in conventional terms. It can only be learned in the process of living life and experiencing the human journey from birth to oblivion.
Recently, I read that a professor of journalism lamented the fact that her students were unfamiliar with Mike Royko, or any of the other classic wordsmiths. Indeed, newspapers themselves have begun to fail with frightening speed. Our time has brought new challenges to the industry. We do not yet know where the future is leading.
Yet the value of good writing, even from a faraway place like Chicago, remains undeniable.
Especially here at home, in Geauga County.

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“Pickup Truck Parade”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

When I was a kid in the 1960’s, almost no one in the family owned a truck.
Our neighborhood in southeastern Ohio boasted more farm animals than human residents. But my father drove a Corvair van.  People at church depended on an assortment of Ford Fairlanes, Dodge Coronets and Chevrolet Impalas for transportation. My grandfather lived on a farm in Columbus, but drove a two-door Falcon.
Only one uncle near Gallipolis had a weathered GMC pickup. It was dark blue. I never saw it move because by day, he sold Buicks for a living. But the “Jimmy” was waiting for duty when he returned to his few-acre spread.
Trucks were workhorses in that era. Not stylish. Not likely to increase one’s social standing. People owned them out of need and not for any other reason.
I grew up lusting after British sports cars and motorcycles. My favor also tilted toward air-cooled Volkswagens, the only kind in existence at that moment in time. Yet in the back of my mind, there was a sort of fascination with these heavy haulers. They were minimalistic and useful, like a Jeep.
After a Beetle and a diminutive Chevette, I bought an Econoline van. Strangely, that vehicle made me want a pickup truck.
The Ford was set up to move cargo, with seats in the front and nothing behind but space. It carried a one-ton suspension package and rear axle. Though decent in winter months, thanks to its weight, the vehicle made me wish for better snow-going traction.
Soon afterward, I bought a 1979 F-150 with a 351 V-8 and four-wheel drive. It was a step I took with great determination.
Because I lived on a dirt road in Munson Township, the pickup proved to be invaluable. No longer did I worry about getting to work in the midst of Mother Nature’s wrath. “Ol’ Blue” stayed in motion even with snow packed in its radiator grill and chunks of ice pelting its windshield.
During one particularly violent winter storm, my wife and I set out to do grocery shopping in Chardon. We met up with friends who had a ’69 F-250. They were out enjoying a similar bad-weather jaunt. After trading stories about the road conditions, we decided to share dinner. Our meal was soft-shell tacos and Guinness Extra Stout.
The ’79 F-Series was followed by a green 1978 model, with the extra-cab and eight-foot bed. It handled like a school bus, but tracked freight-train sure in slippery driving conditions.
Next, I bought an ’85 Ford Ranger. The little mule sipped gasoline with a stingy appetite, but felt undeniably small. I often bumped my skull on the headliner. My knee always rested against the window crank.
I did lots of traveling in the new-size Ford. It was easy on my budget with the 2.8 liter V-6 motor. Yet that truck never truly felt comfortable. My heart was set on going back to an F-Series.
Ironically, a 1996 Ranger 4X4 appeared at Classic Chevrolet, in Mentor. It carried the 4.0 liter V-6 and a 5-speed transmission. The price was $10,000 under list, even though it only had 16,000 miles on the odometer. With air conditioning and a CD player, the truck was a bargain.
I swallowed my pride and bought the black beauty.
We nicknamed it “Eight Ball” because of its dark color and round rear fenders.
I bought a set of air fresheners that matched the theme, at Kmart. They hung from the inside mirror.
After being promoted to Co-Manager at my retail business, I decided to step up to F-150 ownership, once more. I bought a brand-new 2005 model from the Classic dealership in Chardon, where Lawson Ford-Mercury had been.
The truck was an STX, black with gray interior. It had 4wd and the 4.6 liter V-8 engine, plus the extra cab with a half-size door behind the regular one. At the wheel, it felt like a combination of my ’79 F-150 and the ’78. The truck proved to be useful for hauling family and friends. Plus, my dogs loved riding in the back.
The economic meltdown of 2008 took its toll on the family, however. I was out of work and struggling. Literally putting ten-dollars-worth of gas in the tank at a time, to look for employment. Before finding a solution to the crisis, my F-150 got repossessed.
A heavy pall of sadness hung over my empty driveway.
Rescue came in the form of family assistance. I scraped together pennies to afford a low-mileage 1998 Ranger that appeared in Madison. It was a cheap 4wd model with the 3.0 liter V-6 and no cruise control, CD player, or air. Just right for the budgetary needs of a life wrecked by the Great Recession.
I received it with endless gratitude.
The perky little Ford got me to work through the wintery chaos of life in Geauga County’s eastern badlands. Even with snow up the sides of its doors, the truck kept going.
When financial needs caused me to close the family storage space in Montville, it served usefully to haul many loads of boxes and furniture. And it kept me on the road for three years that followed, until today.
After six 4wd trucks in a row, I pondered quietly. “What next?” My automotive life had been a pickup parade or sorts.
A return to the F-Series seemed likely. Or perhaps, in a moment of wild abandon, a Chevrolet Silverado or Dodge Ram for variety. But most certainly, not a Toyota Tundra, Honda Ridgeline, or vintage VW Rabbit pickup.
As an old-timer once exclaimed: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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