Sunday, February 16, 2014

“Conch Shell Conversation, Revisited”

c. 2014 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is a story that could well be true but is not, in the literal sense. Yet in the use of fabrication, it is more genuine than false. Real in fantasy instead of hollow with authenticity. Do not be alarmed. Read and be happy.

My friend Ezekiel Byler-Gregg is editor of the Burton Daily Bugle. Lately, his absence from meetings of the Geauga group of newspaper writers has produced some speculation and worry. Rumors have persisted about what happened to this local iconoclast of Mennonite and Yankee heritage.
Yet with sub-freezing temperatures descending over Geauga County, I did not think only about Ezekiel. Instead, I pondered the happier life of his brother Lemuel, who long ago moved to the Virgin Islands.
While looking out my window, over the snow drifts, I searched again for his number. It had been hastily written on a business card made of brown, shopping-bag material.
The line crackled as I punched in his number. Then, a series of distant tones echoed in my ear, with static for good measure.
Finally, he answered. “Byler-Gregg here!”
“Lemuel!” I cheered. “How are you, friend?”
He paused for a long moment. “Rod? From Geauga County??”
“That is correct,” I said. “How have you been?”
My erstwhile cohort had to compose himself. “I was just drinking a coconut sprtizer. What possessed you to call St. Croix?”
“It is eleven below zero right now,” I observed. “Ohio is locked in a deep freeze. The ‘Polar Vortex’ as they call it here.”
Lemuel sighed loudly. “I don’t miss that kind of weather.”
“But what about the thrill of Cleveland-area journalism?” I wondered aloud. “Doesn’t that make you long to be back on the Northcoast?”
“We have plenty of excitement here,” he guffawed. “Last week, Mayor Nobota got caught in a compromising situation with his secretary. She had left a conch shell on her desk. The mayor’s wife remembered giving it to him on their anniversary. That started quite a scandal...”
I bowed my head. “Okay, Lem, I actually called to ask about your brother. He has disappeared in recent weeks. We have become concerned.”
Laughter sounded in my ear.
“Rod, you are a worrier,” my friend laughed. “Zeke is on vacation with me. I have been showing him around the island.”
“Really?” I coughed.
“Yes,” he replied. “I have been trying to convince him that Burton is no place to retire.”
“Retire?” I shouted.
“Zeke is in his 60’s,” my friend explained. “So am I, after all. When you reach this age, there ain’t much gas left in the tank. Winter don’t look so pretty. I’d rather lay on the beach. You know? There are plenty of stories to write on the island.”
“But what about your activism?” I asked.
“I have to admit that things seem dubious back on the continent,” he reflected. “In 2008 I was excited about having a new president. But now, he seems a lot like everyone else.”
My eyes went wide open. “Is that a hint of apathy I hear? Becoming jaded?”
Lemuel groaned, audibly. “Not at all! I was just reading this – ‘Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor.’ That was from John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. I want to put it on my blog. Did you know that I get over a thousand clicks per day?”
“Will have to look that up,” I cheered.
“So,” he said quizzically. “What about you? Still writing for the Maple Leaf?”
“Sixteen years,” I answered with satisfaction.
“Not feeling jaded about that?” he chortled.
“It is a journey in print,” I declared. “A long, strange trip to quote the Grateful Dead. Two marriages, six jobs and a period living out of my pickup truck.”
Lemuel snorted. “Now that sounds like a novel!”
“But nothing so interesting as moving to the Virgin Islands,” I confessed.
My friend finished his coconut spritzer. “I think Elvis Costello put it succinctly. ‘Everything means less than zero.’ That is literally true of business conquest and political gain. Other things mean more... family and fun. A warm wind in the afternoon. The smile of a growing child. A beautiful sunset. That is real living.”
“Indeed,” I said.
Lemuel cleared his throat. “Okay, I have to get another spritzer. And a plate of steamed fish with rice, from the island buffet. Be good, Rod. Call me again sometime!”
I had more questions for my vagabond pal, but the phone line went silent before a suitable protest could be lodged. An irritating buzz filled the earpiece.
Our ‘conch shell’ conversation was over.

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Write us at: P.O. Box 365, Chardon, OH 44024

Sunday, February 02, 2014

“One Fan’s Opinion”

c. 2014 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

After another dismal season for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and the firing of Coach Rob Chudzinski, team owner Jimmy Haslam took it upon himself to write an “open letter” to fans. It was the sort of exercise CEOs often undertake to appear “in touch” and relevant to employees and shareholders.
Reading his statement made me recall that, when I was Sports Editor for another newspaper, I used to compose a weekly column about such things. It helped personalize my section with a bit of humor or pondering-out-loud.
I decided to revive this bygone tradition, in order to reply with a personal note to the franchise owner, himself:


Dear Mr. Haslam,

I am a resident of Geauga County, and a long-term fan of the once-and-present Cleveland Browns football team.
I have been through all of the iconic happenings that have beset this club since winning the 1964 league championship, 27-0, over the old Baltimore Colts. These include “Red Right 88” along with “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” Not to mention “The Move.”
I have a #13 Frank Ryan jersey. And of course, #19 for Bernie Kosar.
Your recent letter to the fan community made me think a lot about the modern era of NFL football. With your indulgence, I would like to offer some of my own observations.
First, the “old” Browns were a rival to the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers franchise. But in current terms, as with so much of life in Northeastern Ohio, our population has been overrun by the city-on-the-rivers.
To be blunt, I am the only resident of my neighborhood who is not a Steelers fanatic.
My daily routine includes taking money from my account at PNC Bank, then going to shop at Giant Eagle where I buy Yuengling or Duquesne beer. In each instance, I have submitted to a new paradigm ruled by Pennsylvania, not my native location.
National City Bank, Stop n Shop supermarkets and working-class brews like P.O.C. are long gone from Lake Erie. We are now more of a western suburb of “Da Burgh.”
So struggling to maintain my identity as an Ohioan is a proposition with diminishing returns. I continue to preach about the 80’s Browns teams and the eight championship rings held by the franchise. (Four AAFC and four NFL.)
But, as Hillary Clinton once asked, “What difference does it make?”
Second, in your letter, you say “We believe it is very important to stay disciplined in this process.” Sir, with all due respect, fans have long since decided that you do not possess much “discipline” of any kind. Firing Rob Chudzinski after eleven months only added to the perception that you and your organization’s leadership acts without a great deal of forward thinking. If this perception is untrue, I apologize. But in terms of team history, it has seemed to continue the awful tradition of hapless NFL football in Cleveland, since the Browns returned in 1999.
You also say “We believe the head coach of the Cleveland Browns to be a very attractive position.” Again, speaking respectfully, I think that point has been proven beyond any doubt to be an assertion clearly up for debate. The search that eventually made Mike Pettine your new head coach became a national story. Not because of any agenda in “the media” but because, in your short tenure as franchise owner, we have already gone through three men chosen to steer the team.
Third and perhaps most importantly, there is one quality which is most valuable for you to instill in the franchise.
If you did a business-level analysis of successful league organizations, that one characteristic would shine out beyond all others. It is the reason that Pittsburgh can boast of six Super Bowl trophies. It is why Bill Belichick devotees can make a convincing argument that he is one of the league’s greatest coaches. And it is what we have lacked in Cleveland for generations.
Just since 1999 we have seen Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski come and go without much success.
In that same period of time, the “Old Browns” franchise which operates in Baltimore, thanks to Art Modell, has won two Super Bowl trophies.
One could convincingly posit that residents of the greater Cleveland area have become used to the idea that they live here under some sort of “curse.” In a sense, this has become part of the native identity. Businesses, politicians and sports franchises of all sorts seem doomed to life in a twilight world of crushed dreams and misery.
It was expertly voiced by comedian Mike Polk Jr. when he shouted at the stadium “You are a factory of sadness!”
Yet people on Lake Erie are gritty folk. They cling to the idea that deliverance can come through hard work and endurance. In a sense, football itself is a metaphor for that lifestyle. From Paul Brown to Vince Lombardi to Bill Parcells, that sense of discipline and shared sacrifice has been a common theme.
When you consider the Browns future, sir, I ask that you do so in a new light. View the team not as a business asset, or as a way to join the exclusive club of NFL franchise owners. Not even as a conduit to achieving a sense of victory and accomplishment. Look upon the team as what it is for many here on the Northcoast.
Our identity.
Good or bad, glorious or tragic – this is Cleveland, Ohio.

Sincerely, Rod Ice

Comments about Thoughts At Large may be sent to:
Write us @ P.O. Box 365 Chardon, OH 44024

“Fat Guy with Guitar”

c. 2014 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

My brother used to say that there was only one group left in America that could be criticized unmercifully without fear of retribution – namely, overweight people. His assertion came from having traveled across the country as a professional driver.
“Little Bro” was in fact not small by any measure. His considerable girth inspired fear and respect in the trucker community, plus a fair amount of verbal abuse from regular citizens.
I remembered his observation as recent stories broke about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the infamous “Bridge Scandal.”
Political correctness has dictated that any kind of public comment must be framed with a proper amount of care to avoid causing undue offense. But this protection does not extend to those of a generous physical size.
Completely separate from scandalous details about Christie’s administration were crude jabs about his weight. They came from headline writers and pundits across the spectrum. People that would normally be expected to display a proper amount of decorum and self-restraint.
The New York Daily News, for example, pictured him dreaming of the White House with the banner “Fat Chance” underneath. Meanwhile, a personal contact on Facebook, someone with a long history in the media, tagged him as being a BFF (Big Fat Friend) with political opponents.
New Jersey hero Bruce Springsteen even helped mock the governor on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” although he avoided any mention of Christie’s weight. That task was left to a skit that lampooned the politician for “working out five times a year” in an interview with Piers Morgan.
At any rate, the “weightist” nature of some anti-Christie sentiments made me recall my brother’s observation. While race, gender, sexual preference, ethnic background, financial status, political philosophy, religious affiliation, tattoos, piercings and mode of dress would be off-limits, physical girth was still a characteristic open for attack.
Big people still made for a big target, it seemed. Especially those with the stereotypical habit of being loud and confrontational.
This plus-sized episode made me remember a happier time for large people, when I was a kid living in Virginia.
CBS debuted a Quinn Martin detective series called “Cannon” in 1971. The main character was portrayed by William Conrad, who had been famous as the voice of Sheriff Matt Dillon in the radio version of “Gunsmoke.”
Frank Cannon was a private detective in California. His tastes were first-class in every respect. The series showed him driving Lincoln automobiles, dining on exquisite meals and smoking fine cigars. Attractive women sought his company and somehow overlooked the fact that he appeared to be someone’s overweight, middle-aged father, with thinning hair.
Indeed, much like my own, for example.
The character was undeniably appealing to a chubby, young kid from Ohio. I often imagined wearing suits to work as he did, and chasing evil-doers. Cannon moved with a level of agility never displayed by my own dad. He could run through a junkyard, or an inner-city alleyway, without getting winded.
His other talent was silencing suspects with wit and candor.
“OK sir,” he once observed to a prospective client. “I’ll take your case and investigate what happened. But just remember, the truth is like rain – it doesn’t care who gets wet.”
Cannon’s coolness seemed to overwhelm lingering sentiments that he was too heavy to be a star of prime-time television.
Only on the “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” series did he receive jabs for being out of shape.
Years ago, inspired by this childhood hero, I envisioned a music release called “Fat Guy with Guitar.” It was to be the story of a fellow from Geauga County, offering lyrical discourse on his life in Northeastern Ohio.
I reckoned that depicting the main character as a heavy-set, regular man from the Midwest would help make the recording “real” in marketing terms:

“Fat guy with guitar
An average Joe, a neighborhood star
Fat guy with guitar
A lonesome loser with a three-chord barre.”

Friends like Cleveland Rock & Roll hero Dennis Chandler or California guitarist Davie Allan looked much more svelte in their physical makeup. Both as disciplined in life as they were in making music. My own personal style did not have this kind of natural grace. Instead, I was more like William Conrad exploring a new role:

“Fat guy with guitar
On the road, going near and far
Fat guy with guitar
Drop your change in the Mason jar.

Conrad went on to other productions like “Nero Wolfe” and “Jake and the Fatman.” Governor Christie’s future has not yet been decided. But my own path was not hard to predict. A continued battle with the scales and more writing projects for this newspaper.

Comments about Thoughts At Large may be sent to:
Write us at: P.O. Box 365, Chardon, OH 44024

“Pizza Proud”

c. 2014 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

An old joke about Chardon used to be that the locale had a limited mix of for-profit businesses. Namely, banks and pizzerias. Both of these institutions were plentiful to a fault in Geauga’s capitol city. But for a genuine mix of other venues, one needed to visit Middlefield or Mentor.
Those days are long gone, of course. But my personal indifference to the opening of a new pizza parlor in Chardon has remained strong.
After living in New York for five years, I became something of a “pizza snob.” The style of flavor-rich pies available in the Empire State literally overwhelmed my taste buds. So eating the sort of everyday creations that appeared at home always seemed less than appealing.
Still, Guido’s in Chesterland was an early favorite. Yet the influx and exodus of similar restaurants in the county did nothing to help hold my attention. Only a few like the late, lamented Patrick’s, or Chardon Pizza left a lasting impression.
There were lots of good alternatives. But not many with staying power.
Some were mentioned here, literally days before they closed. It was embarrassing to have readers relate that such food depots had expired before their time.
Eventually, I simply stopped paying attention.
My brother-in-law helped combat this inclination by consistently ordering pizza from each new spot that appeared. Though frequently his tastes did not match those of the greater family.
So when Congin’s opened across from PNC Bank, just off the Chardon Square, I barely noticed.
In the back of my mind, I remembered that the spot had been Village Gas when I first moved to town in the early 80’s. It was across from BancOhio which later became a National City Bank. I remembered getting fuel for my Volkswagen there, when I worked for American Seaway Foods. Later, after the tanks were removed, that same building housed a tanning salon.
At work, a lady named Lynn talked about growing up in Collinwood. Her favorite place for pizza pies was the original Congin’s, located nearby at Nottingham and St. Clair.
The name struck me with familiarity. Was it worth trying?
Lynn knew nothing about the Geauga location. I observed seeing it closed on Mondays when I made day-off visits to town. Since pizzerias came and went so frequently, it seemed likely that the business had already gone away. However, she assured me that this was not the case. Monday was their traditional day of rest. Again, she related stories of delicious, circular crusts heaped with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, sausage, peppers and onions.
I was spellbound. My stomach was ready for a genuine, homemade pizza!
Foremost in my thoughts was Napoli’s Pizzeria, in Ithaca, New York. It had been founded by two brothers who came directly from Italy. To this day, it remained my favorite above all others. The very yardstick by which I judged the dish itself.
Lynn assured me that a trip to her own favorite place was in order. My quest began with a simple phone call, in November. But the owners were on vacation.
Since Monday was typically my day off from “real” work, I missed several opportunities to visit. Then, I made plans to buy a sheet pizza for the family as we celebrated New Year’s Eve. But the weather did not cooperate. Conditions southeast of Thompson were dicey as I made a late run home, after work. I decided not to travel any farther.
Finally, once the holidays were past, I reached a point where time off was more plentiful. With playoff football on television, this seemed a perfect chance to try Congin’s at last.
It seemed surreal when I called in my order.
Vibes from Pudgie’s Pizza, another chain located in the Finger Lakes region of New York, were palpable. And Perrywinkle’s, a pizzeria I remembered from Pennsylvania, known for their sourdough crust.
Standing at the register, I noticed a selection of business cards under their glass countertop. One in particular was for the Chardon Polka Band.
When I mentioned this to the clerk on duty, she explained that a member of the group actually worked at their sauce-and-cheese pie emporium.
It was impossible not to be impressed. She smiled when I explained that my nephew was a member of the band when they were all students at Chardon High School.
After the short drive home, my dinner commenced. The pizza pie was flavorful with a crunchy and chewy crust, made perfectly in the Italian tradition. Meat and vegetables covered a bed of fresh mozzarella cheese, melted over simmered tomato sauce.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the aroma.
The pizza carried homemade warmth not found in generic, big-chain offerings. I felt gifted while taking my first slice from the box.
The first sample was followed by another. And another. And another!
I wanted to Facebook message Lynn, my friend from work. It was a genuine culinary celebration!

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