One day in the winter of 1953 my Dad decided that he had had enough of being poor. He had grown up in Dublin Ireland in the 1940’s and during that era, in that country, you grew up to do whatever it was that your father did. When my dad was 15 years old his father was killed when a ditch that he was digging with a hand shovel collapsed, burying him and leaving his wife and ten kids penniless. My father, being the oldest child, dropped out of school, hopped a boat to London, and worked piecemeal as a longshoreman, sending whatever money he could back home to his mother. This kept everyone fed, more or less, but there was no reason for hope. There would never be a connection to employment in Ireland and in London he was treated as a second class citizen. It seemed he would indeed follow in his father’s footsteps and scramble to scrape together survival wages until his own death occurred. There really wasn’t a way out in sight…until he heard about Cleveland.
Dad had an uncle who had come to Cleveland a few years before and he sent my dad a loan to buy a plane ticket. He was promised that there was so much work in Cleveland, in fact in all of northeastern Ohio, that no more advanced planning than this was necessary. He turned out to be correct. Dad got a job at the Ford Motor Company plant in Brookpark and, six months later, sent a ticket to his girlfriend, who joined him and they married later that year. Dad went on to work for other companies, finished school, became a tooling engineer, and eventually moved half of his Irish family to Cleveland where they similarly prospered.
We love to tell this story at family reunions but the truth is that the story is not even remotely unique or even particularly interesting to those outside our immediate family. By the 1950’s Cleveland had been a city of dreams for over 150 years. Untold thousands of immigrants came to Cleveland and flourished. Oil, steel, tooling, shipping, salt, and dozens of other industries flourished. Wealth was created and shared. Generations lived and died in this place of ample opportunity.
By the 1960’s things began to change. Unemployment was rampant, industry was dying out and a sort of hopelessness had enveloped the city. I was five years old in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I remember almost nothing from that year but I do remember starting kindergarten and I remember the moon walk and I remember the fire… or maybe I don’t. Do I actually recall it or do I think I remember because as a Cleveland native I was never allowed to forget?
Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970’s I learned to love the city the way one loves an abusive relative. I was always cheering for it. I was always hoping that Cleveland would win but I was always also being told that it was no good. I hated it for the bad things but I also saw the good parts and wondered why no one else could. The stand-up comics on television had only just begun to get warmed up on the river fire when Mayor Ralph Perk set his hair on fire while giving a fire-safety demonstration downtown. The critics never stopped for a breath. “Of course Cleveland’s football team is called the Browns; the sky is brown, the water is brown, the buildings are brown, so why not the football team?” they said. The city appeared to be dying. Even Cleveland’s tallest building, they pointed out, was “Terminal”. The basement of Terminal Tower had homeless individuals living in it and outside on Public Square storefronts were boarded up. Mayor Dennis Kucinich (yes, he was Mayor of Cleveland after Perk) battled to keep the city from bankruptcy. Shipping slowed and the once busy docks in the flats were now places where the Mafia dumped bodies. Crime was rampant; domestic violence and drug use were up. The Browns lost the AFC Championship in heartbreaking fashion three years in a row, Cleveland State was denied a trip to the NCAA final four when David Robinson tipped in a last second shot for Navy, the Cavs were chronically in last place, and the even the free tickets that the Indians gave to schoolchildren went unused for lack of interest.
This was when I discovered running. We used to run through the metroparks for miles and miles and wonder why no one else could see the beauty. I won’t speak for Joe Jurczyk but I remember Joe from high school cross country meets. He went to school in Brecksville, just a few miles away from me. He must have seen all of this as well.
In hindsight the tower wasn’t really terminal and neither was the city. You don’t take the hardest working and most diversely talented gene pool ever assembled on this planet and hold them down for long. These folks were of good stock. Their work ethic and ingenuity created a rubber industry in nearby Akron, a collection of Universities and museums unrivaled outside of New York City, and a faith in their ability to succeed fueled by the stories told at their own family reunions. If they could dig the canals they could dig out of this mess as well.
And they have.
The basement of the Terminal Tower now boasts ‘The Galleria’ one of the most beautiful shopping malls in the country and the only people sleeping in the Tower these days are paying top dollars to The Ritz hotel to do so. The flats are now the place to experience the city’s night life. The Lakefront boasts parks and athletic facilities that are the envy of nearly any city and just try getting a ticket to a Cavs game these days to see LeBron!
The jokes still remain though and they have become annoying in their inaccuracy. When the time came for Joe Jurczyk and friends to put together the first one-hundred mile trail race in the region they decided to call it “The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” and gave it the motto “eracing the past. Moving forward.”
To me the name issues a challenge: “Hey funny guy, haven’t been paying attention?...you should see us now! The Cuyahoga River Valley is now a NATIONAL PARK, and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Care to join us for a little jog? We’ll arrange to have some of our local runners show you around…they are, after all, one of the most talented and decorated communities of ultra runners in the United States and you can just entertain them with your little jokes for as long as you can keep them in earshot. OK?” And one more thing, “In case you have heard that Clevelander’s are rude, we are going to blow you away with our goodwill and hospitality”.
A few days after my DNF at Mohican I knew it was time to return home. I may or may not have another ultra in me, I figured, but if I had one left I wanted it to be Joe’s race. Besides, if Dad got a second chance, and Northeastern Ohio got a second chance, and the Cuyahoga River Valley got a second chance, well then why not me?
I’ll talk about the race in the next post, I promise.