My daughter and I were going to show at the Beachland Ballroom. In my usual way I drove right past the street we were looking for. I found myself on Lakeshore Boulevard and pulled into a driveway to turn around. I looked up to see a very familiar sight - an archway - and said, "Oh, we're at Euclid Beach!" That prompted me to ask my dad about spending his summers in the tent city at Euclid Beach as a boy.
"Did you really ride your bike down the Flying Turns after the park closed?" I thought maybe I had misheard the familiar story in my own childhood, because it now seemed implausible.
(The Flying Turns was a slalom sled-like ride)
"No...(whew)... I had a sled with wheels for that," Dad answered, "I rode my bike down the Racing Coaster . . . but only once."
"How do you ride a bike down a roller coaster?"
"On the wooden slats between the rails," he replied, as if that would be obvious to anyone.
In 1933, when my dad was 10 years old, he contracted osteomyelitis, which is an inflammation of the leg bone caused by an infection. He almost died from the fever and was packed in ice, while in a coma, to bring it down. The treatment was to remove part of the bone and, (the details are a little vague now) pack the leg with some type of material until it healed. He was bedridden for a year and a half of his boyhood.
Dad's lower lip trembled as he told me of a nurse who came to his home to help take care of him. She was also a certified teacher and was soon to be married. The family wanted her to be Dad's teacher, so she asked her fiance' to delay the wedding for five months so Dad could finish the school year. Years later he would graduate from Cleveland Heights High School only a half-year behind his classmates because of her generosity.
When Dad was able to leave his bed, the doctors told my grandparents that he needed as much exercise as possible. There were not many opportunities for sports on the busy side streets of Cleveland Heights in the 1930's, so they rented their house to a professional golfer for the season, and took up residence in a tent on the grounds of Euclid Beach Amusement Park. The tents had electricity, but no running water. There were communal pumps and bathrooms. There, my dad played baseball and tennis, and roller skated everyday. There were other children to play kick-the-can and badminton, swimming at the pool in the mornings and access to the pier and the beach in the afternoons. They lived there from April to October for seven years.
When I was growing up, no matter what sport or game was being played, everyone wanted to be on my Dad's team. He was good at everything, and now I understand why. I always knew he was a champion Skee-ball player too. When he was 11 years old, the man in charge of the Euclid Beach Skee-ball gave him the job of retrieving balls thrown out of the alley. If he would crawl in the dirt and dust to get them, he was allowed to throw for free. When he was 15 he got the job of running the Skee-ball alleys. Dad claims to be the reigning Northeast Ohio Skee-ball (long alleys) champion to this day because he won the title the last year the contest was held.
"Because of the osteomyelitis I was behind in school, and then I was deferred stateside in the Navy during World War II. If you had the disease they wouldn't let you lead a battalion because they thought your leg would break. Now it would be different ... now they would know better..."
"But Dad , if it weren't for that disease you never would have had that magical childhood at Euclid Beach. And if you'd gone overseas and not returned like half of your buddies, maybe I wouldn't be here," I said, grateful in my heart for having this wonderful man for a father.
Of course, like so many Clevelanders, I have my own memories of Euclid Beach Park: the custard and popcorn balls, being terrified of Laughing Sal, the old-fashioned calliope music filling the park, riding the Racing Derby horses with my grandma. My grandparents took my brother Jimmy and me there for a last visit in 1969 before it closed down. I could have never know then how connected I would feel to a place that no longer exists, a place that helped to heal my father.