Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Paddlefest 2012

Paddlefest 2012
This past Sunday in Cincinnati, over 2200 people took to their canoe, kayak or other non-powered mode of transportation and paddled down the Ohio River from Coney Island to the Public Landing -- a trip of eight miles.  Unfortunately, no matter what I did, I couldn't capture it as I would have liked because I needed a telephoto lens.  Just take my word for it -- it was fantastic. One of the stated purposes is to celebrate the resource that the Ohio River is to our community.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The East End - Guest Author Dorothy Weil

Several years ago, I read a book The River Home by Dorothy Weil. It touched me.  In the process of writing this blog, I've repeatedly recalled some of the images of the East End and the Ohio River that Dorothy so poignantly described. One chapter, in particular, discusses the educational experiences of the so-called "River Rats" from one Cincinnati neighborhood.

Today I wrote to Dorothy and asked permission to share one chapter with you.  She graciously agreed to allow me to do so. If you love her writing as much as I do, take a few minutes to visit her website, to learn about her and the books she has published. She has also assisted in the production of several videos about life on the river and in the East End.

So with Dorothy's permission, I share with you "The East End."

The East End
School was a big Victorian building between Eastern Avenue and the railroad tracks. It was the oldest school building in the city, with wooden beams in the gym and chutes to slide down as fire escapes. We all longed to try them, but fire drill was just a march through the halls and onto the playground.

The playground was only ten feet from the trains that chugged through regularly, throwing soot over everything. When we kids played kickball we came away looking like end men in a minstrel show. Also in the blacktopped yard were the "shacks" where the "dumb kids" went. These were separate barracks manned by the strongest and most fearless teachers and populated by the hopeless.

There were smart kids and dumb kids, fat kids and skinny kids, bad kids and good kids. One of the boys in my sixth-grade class was a Down's syndrome child; the other children called him Dopey after the dwarf in Snow White and teased him without mercy. Howard, a tall, handsome boy, had a horrible smell, a smell so bad no one would be his buddy in line or take his hand. No one did anything to help these children. Our teachers were old maids, usually with iron-gray hair. They dressed in subdued colors and sensible shoes. They loved their subjects and encouraged the alert and motivated. They had no interest in social problems or the unprepared. Howard probably never knew what was wrong.

Every kid had a nickname, usually based on his or her worst feature: there was "Tits," a boy who had pronounced breasts, and "Wharthog" and "Meatface," both struggling with pre-teen acne. I was dubbed "BBD" for "Big Butt Dorothy."

We were seated by level of achievement. I was soon competing for the first seat in the first row by the door. Poor Howard brought up the rear in the last seat in the last row by the window. In between were rows of dozing kids as the teacher lectured on the Constitution and "Initiative and Referendum."

Even singing class was hierarchical: the sopranos were "Bluebirds," the altos and tenors were "Robins," and the basses and lower-voiced were "Crows," a nomenclature that obviously favored the higher registers.

In spite of my standing in the class, or maybe because of it, I felt out of place. I was a new kid on the block once again, a kid who talked like a book.

Though I might have been smart, I was still a "River Rat." I hated writing down my address: "Boat, Foot of Donham Street." I wanted a house number and a street name, something solid and respectable. Everyone else lived in secure homes that stayed put on the small, shady streets of the East End, while I hiked up to school from the river. 

I spent hours in the library at the corner of Donham and Eastern reading Louisa May Alcott and the Brontes. The Brontes gave me romance, but Alcott gave me more solid dreams. I wanted to have a family like Jo's: intelligent, peaceful, loving and living in New England in a shingled house with lilac bushes and apple trees. Half headachy from print (I was always suffering various aches and itches) and due for dinner at the yacht club, I would walk a block down Donham, then often be held up by a stalled freight train. To get by, I would climb under a coupling or crawl under a car, fully prepared to hit the dirt and lie flat if the train started.

The kids of the East End were quite aware of the area's low-class reputation and soon taught us not to mention where we were from if we went outside the neighborhood, to the skating rink or downtown: "Just say you're from Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout." 

In spite of the neighborhood's lack of wealth, the part of the East End around McKinley School was quite pleasant, like a small river town. There were shade trees along Eastern and some houses with historic charm. I was chosen to appear on a radio program featuring school children from various neighborhoods, and learned that the East End was originally called Columbia and was the first community in the city to be settled. The riverfront was once the town of Fulton, where steamboats were built. We had a pioneer cemetery near Lunken Airport and historic residence built by Benjamin Stites, an East End founder.

Clustered around the school on Eastern Avenue were a supermarket, a beauty parlor, a clothing store, a bank, a movie theater, a post office, a diner, several bars, a chili parlor and an old-fashioned notions store with pull-down stools. Everything families needed could be found there.

In the days we lived there, people paid little attention to the river, unless it flooded or gave up a dead body or did some other asocial thing. We roller-skated and hung around in the school yard. There were parks in the lower East End, toward town, but we never went to Turkey Ridge or below because the kids there were rumored to be really tough. 

Mom warned us to stay away from tough kids and told me not to let the older boys get me alone anywhere: "They may have desires you younger children don't know about." True, there were a couple of boys in the school who shaved or had chins black with stubble, but they could be avoided. We ran pretty free in our nearby streets, never worrying about bad areas or hoodlums. We went to the movies, Jim and I, at night, along with some kids who lived right next door to the coal yard near the tracks.

Back down on the river, I practiced kicking the kickball in the field above the marina. More than anything, I wanted to be a good player, but I was never more than a bunter. Occasionally, I wandered over to the woods where the shanty boaters lived. Nettie and Annie went to McKinley, and their brother "Pig Iron" was receiving his education in the shacks. Their boat, an old scow with no motor, was moored among the willows. Their bathroom was a seat over the water and a bar of soap on the rope.  The family grew their own vegetables on the small bit of land where they moored, and they kept chickens. Clarence, the father, fished for their dinner and made his own "raisin jack." He and the other shanty boaters "rolled coal" for their stoves from barges that were tied off across the water. The minute a tow boat left a barge full of coal on the ice breakers -- to be picked up later -- and puffed out of sight, an armada of small boats surrounded it. Clarence, along with his cohorts, was out in his skiff filling it with chunks of coal. He would come back from a raid so weighed down, the oarlocks of his boat were at water level.

Mom though shanty-boaters interesting and colorful and encouraged me to make friends with them. But when Daddy got wind of my visiting them, he forbade me to go back. To a steamboat man, the shanty boaters were thieves, riff-raff, no-account.

As usual, I depended on company from Jim, who was willing to let me tag along with him until more interesting male companions came along. Mom needed my services to help cook. Chopping cabbage for coleslaw, our usual salad, and frying pork chops were chores I enjoyed. I hated trying to make "oleo margarine" look palatable, like butter. We squeezed a tiny glob of red dye into a pound of white lardy stuff and kneaded it in. We did everything to the accompaniment of the radio, our one link besides school with the world beyond the river. We sang along with the endlessly played soap ads: "Rinso white, Rinso bright / Birdies sing all day long." We would never forget the slogans: "Ipana for the smile of beauty, Sal Hepatica for the smile of health."

Soap operas played constantly: "Backstage Wife," "Lorenzo Jones," "Just Plain Bill," "Life Can be Beautiful."   I believed in the last one, utterly.

Dorothy Weil, Author

Note: I would love to read your comments, as I am sure Dorothy would, too.