Each installment of this series is presented as a snapshot of a specific recollection involving the Cleveland Indians, along with thoughts on what (s)he was driving and the music (s)he was listening to.
Today, the discussion with Greg Popelka is eschewed as we go long-form with long-time WFNY commentariat member, Harv.
Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was the get-psyched tune for B and me, cranked its entire glorious 17 minutes for our 12 year old air drumming. But only when his house was empty and his older brother was unlikely to come home and threaten us for touching his “stuff.” And only this summer, when our neighborhood stood on the cusp of a seismic shift no pre-teen could imagine.
Game day was adventure day in 1972 and attending an Indians game sans adults was standard stuff. B was the impulsive risk-taker in the way of youngest children. I was more risk-averse but happy to be led into edgier stuff. Rounding out our group that day was Joel, a meek Sancho Panza-type. This hot Sunday was to be a great day. Someone said you could write to the Cleveland Indians box office and order their “best seats.” I did that and enclosed cash (this was a thing, kiddies) and a few weeks later I tore open an envelope with a Chief Wahoo logo and 3 upper deck tickets inside. B’s mom drove us downtown in style, in her newish Buick Electra 225, the “deuce and a quarter,” maybe the largest sedan ever made. So wide, Joel and I couldn’t kick each other from opposite sides of the back seat.
This was both the height of the Vietnam War and the generational music wars, where parents griped about the “that’s-noise-not-music” kids listened to, and we in turn made retching motions at the “Muzak” from their car radios. Muzak was saccharine orchestral versions of popular old songs, or even newer pop ballads that should have been totally inoffensive in the original. (Imagine the perceived need to protect listener sensibilities by orchestrating the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”). Actually, I was not immune to horrible pop favs like “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family, hardly protest-era stuff. And, I didn’t yet have the guts to tell my peers that I was smitten with my sister’s James Taylor album, Mud Slide Slim, with its inscrutable, personal lyrics about yearning and loss and war that meant “whatever you think it means.” I intently studied album covers where artists helped sell their wares by donning costumes from past eras to reference a longed-for authenticity, a rural simplicity or western outlaw look, suspenders and fringed vests and peasant blouses. JT was a doctor’s kid from Boston and Dylan was a Minnesotan, but only later would I figure out that the costuming was posing. Only later did it matter that Carolina was a figment of the Sensitive One’s mind and Dylan did not hop trains with Woody.
B’s mom drives right up to Gate A and dumps us. We’re pumped, striding with our mitts up the slippery, blackened ramps, up and around and up and around, inhaling the smell of 40 years of greasy hot dog water, popcorn, stale beer, and faint urine wafting from the walls of peeling paint. We’re not kids in this moment. We find our section and holy ____, this must be a dream. The usher leads us down to the very front row, and with a filthy rag drops and wipes our seats. Pay dirt: we are almost right above home plate, twelve year old kings, sitting on top of the press box, nothing but a 3 foot fence and a long drop in front of us. It’s almost too much. We stand up and point at things to make sure everyone notices us.
In the second inning, B points down to the lower deck and says “Hey! There’s the hawk.” Not Hawk Harrelson, who briefly collected a last hefty paycheck for the Indians at career’s end a few years earlier. This hawk is a nasty old usher with the large beak, the vision and instincts of a bird of prey. Normally, we bang the gen admission seats next to us during rallies and then, with practiced stealth and nonchalance, move up and up as our new seat neighbors and availability permits. Hawk’s specialty is spotting us, screaming “Hey you” and demanding to see our stubs. Hawk is our nemesis, our adventure buzzkill. In my young imagination he’s a sad man with the stupid job of making sure the best seats stay half empty. He enjoys busting children a little too much.
B, holding a large coke in a stadium cup, still untouched and protected with its cling wrap, poses a question: “Should I throw this on him?” To my eternal shame I shrug and reply, “I don’t care.” Not one second later B is standing and heaving his drink, far as he can, at this innocent man in the wide main aisle 60 feet down and easily 200 feet away. The throw isn’t even close. Time freezes: the coke in space against the tops of the heads of people in the lower box seats. Then it strikes a blue railing separating sections of seats and explodes in a spectacular brown spray that glistens in the sun. I am registering what just happened when, from behind, the largest hand in mankind’s history grabs my neck and half my shoulder. It’s attached to a cop in sunglasses who is maybe 8-foot-6, 425 pounds of chiseled granite. His other hand is on B. Joel’s face is an Edvard Munch painting. “I saw you do it,” Goliath rumbles. “Don’t even say you didn’t do it because I saw you do it.” He hoists us up and we are going somewhere quickly, up the steep stadium steps and into the concourse, walk-running beyond sections where anyone sits. Goliath is speaking but I hear nothing. Does he think I threw it? Did “I don’t care” mean I did it too? We are guided into a doorway above which is a corroded sign that reads “Auxillary Police.” My stomach is in my throat; I’m supposed to be the good kid and I’m being arrested.
We’re handed off to an old school cop: brylcreem hair, nauseating old man cologne. He seems to know B actually did the deed. Maybe I can cut a deal. No luck: “Boys, you can think about what you did in the sweat box.” And then Goliath opens a door to a windowless brick room. There’s a ceiling bulb without a fixture but no table, no chairs, no nothing. The door closes behind us. We say nothing, just stand there for a while. The “sweat box” is actually cold. Joel starts tearing up and sits down on the floor. And then B, the spunky and brave one, starts banging his head hard against the brick wall, despondent. At that moment something changes for me. B is losing it and I am not. He is now unfit to lead. Joel is hopeless. I am the one holding it together.
Eventually, the door opens and brylcreem escorts us to his metal desk. He asks how we got to the stadium. He orders B to sit down in the one chair, slides the rotary phone toward him and orders him to call his mother. But B is sobbing, he cannot talk, cannot dial, can barely hold the receiver. So I am ordered to call his parents. I dial. One ring, two, three, fo – that’s enough. I hang up and say “they’re not home.” (This is a decade before middle class folk had anything resembling an answering machine). I can look the cop right in the eye now. Our pack has re-ordered and I’m the alpha. Until he says “Ok, call your parents.” This I absolutely cannot, will not do. Me in a police station does not comport with my family universe. Better that an asteroid immediately destroy the earth. I pick up the receiver and slowly dial, and after the last number casually drape my left hand over the cradle, secretly holding down the disconnect button. Now I pretend to let it ring and ring, then give shrug #2. “Not home, I guess” and put down the phone. The cop looks satisfied. I secretly burst with James Bond pride.
From an adult perspective this scene never fails to tickle me: my delusion that the cops didn’t see what I was doing, that these solid pros let it go because sufficient punishment had been meted, terror registered, lessons learned. And that in their kindness they held their snickering until later.
We weren’t quite done. Goliath says that if our ride isn’t here we can return to the game – it is now the 7th inning – but forget your good seats, we’re going someplace else. He leads us to a section behind the left field fence, maybe 20 rows back, where we three shorties can see virtually nothing. His parting warning: “Don’t move. Don’t walk around, don’t buy anything. Stay right here until the game is over.” We swear each other to silence – B’s mom would be no more pleased than mine. Then a batter yanks a long drive and I stand up as it twists toward us. B yanks me back into my seat, yelling “He said DON’T MOVE.”
Twenty minutes after the game our chariot home arrives, as planned. We slide into the Electra 225, grim-faced and silent. B’s mom is immediately suspicious. I can still see her narrowed eyes in the rearview as she asks how the game was. “Fine!” we say before Muzak fills the silence.
That type of Muzak will soon be gone. So will B and his family. So will nearly all my friends, as my junior high demographics shift from 90% white to 70% black within two years. I hadn’t understood the implications when that summer a real estate agent, standing in my former neighbor’s back yard, called me over to the fence, handed me a business card and told me that a black family was moving in, and he could help my folks sell. My interpretation: I was mature enough to be handed my first business card. Soon Al Green and Marvin Gaye and the O’Jays would be the predominant sounds blaring from neighborhood radios.
The basketball court in the park across the street from my house would now only be available to me early on weekend mornings because it was now hosting what looked to a young, white kid like NBA games: black men who dribbled with both hands, behind their backs and through their legs. The old wire mesh nets were immediately torn by dunks and rim hangers. I was obsessed with a light-skinned skywalker with a huge afro who went by the name “Onion.” Games were ferocious and profane, and only the best players on the Heights varsity team could get “next.”
I wouldn’t hear much rock music again until I got to high school which was fed from different neighborhoods. But, it was easy. I’d already seen some stuff and survived the sweat box.