Wednesday, February 18, 2015

MELHORN'S CORNER

      The Four Tops' "Same Old Song" blared from the jukebox in the corner while the four of us puffed away on Old Golds, blowing smoke so thick you could have cut it with a knife pawned at Richie Wallace's.  We were nursing our bottles of Coke, about 15 cents a bottle and deposit- worthy those days, when suddenly Lou Melhorn swept his arm from his side toward the exit.  "All you boys do is come here to smoke behind your mothers' backs," he cried in that reedy voice of his.  "Now get the Hell out of here."
      Hell was a smokey place we had heard, perhaps not so smokey as the ledge upon which we were now smoking outside Melhorn's overlooking the sidewalk.  We were somewhat critical of Lou's entrepreneurial skills.  How could any T-town businessman risk losing such big and influential spenders to perhaps Happy's up the other side of the block or even to Rudy's near the high school.  Crossing over the north end boundary of Cleveland Street was akin to scaling the Berlin Wall because a few north end toughies always seemed to materialized out of the Ohio Valley pollution and participate in their favorite pastime: rearranging your face simply because they didn't like your looks.
      Me, Tim Maple and the two Jocko twins would take our 27 cents elsewhere and tell Lou where to stick his Popsicle sticks.
      Back then tobacco companies like Lucky Strikes, Marlboro, Winston and Old Gold advertised on television how relaxing, soothing and James Dean cool cigarette smoking was.  The only side affects that we knew of was that smoking stunted your growth.  So whenever a faintly familiar car would approach along Trenton Street, we would deftly cup our mouldering smokes inside the palms of our hands because we did not want the Red Knight coaches thinking the next Don Sutherins and George Deideriches were going to develop into some puny weaklings good for only practice dummies.
       Coming from the direction of Lenny's Sunoco down our side of Trenton was Doughnuts, stooped over as though looking for money, hands folded behind his back.  Occasionally, he stopped inside Melhorn's to drink tea from a saucer.
      A cocker spaniel yapped along the white picket fence two lawns above us.  Doughnuts slipped a hand into a pocket of the baggy hobo jacket he always wore--even in the dog days of summer as was this day--and stuck his hand inside the fence, the dog licking the treat from his hand and Doughnuts's face.
      One of us, probably a Jocko, would have asked Doughnuts how he was doing, but Doughnuts would have most likely told us "None of our God-damned business" as he did the day before.  We watched Doughnuts shuffle down Trenton Street onto the overhead bridge, only seeing his blue ball-capped head appear as he ascended the summit of the bridge.
      We knew any moment Lou would beg us to go back inside to spend the 27 cents remaining amongst us.  Five, six…15 minutes later we were still awaiting the apology when Bill Jaco came lumbering toward us toting a black umbrella with a wooden hook despite the cloudless sky.  Bill was making his early evening rounds and we could tell by the pizza sauce and chocolate on his white sleeveless T-shirt he had already made his stops at Johnny's Pizza and the Dairy Aisle.
      "How's it hanging, Bill?" one of the Jockos asked.  I couldn't tell which Jocko; they both looked the same that day.
      Bill stuck out that footlong pointer finger of his and poked Jocko right in the stomach.  "Whoops!" Bill said.  His voice sounded as though it trumpeted through an elephant trunk.  To us, his shoulders were as broad as an elephant's.
       A white Ford Fairlane rolled to a stop at the corner.  "Ford junk," Bill tooted as though he were reading a fact from the Encyclopedia Britannica.  "Ford junk.  Hit a bump and the seat falls down."
      The driver rolled his window down, asked Bill, "Can you tell me where Clarke's Funeral is?"
      The man was obviously from out of town.  Only out-of-towners got lost in this town of 7,000 residents or stopped for the stop sign at the bottom of the overhead bridge.
      "Up bay," Bill trumpeted, "Up bay."  Toot fix Fords.  Fix junk.  Clarkie's goosey.  Clarkie's full of stiffs."
      Bill was talking talk only T-towners could interpret while the out-of-towner just shook his head from side to side.  Bill must have seen the guy's wife in the car and said, "Man marries woman something loose--something loose."
       Finally, the man poked his head out the window and shouted, "Man, you are completely nuts!"
      Bill merely eyed the man as if adding another nut to a town already full of nuts and then said," "Not lost."
      The man peeled rubber onto Trenton, smoke fountaining from his wheels still crossing Findlay.  Bill philosophically said, "Town's full of nuts" and then lumbered his way toward downtown.
      The four of us figured we would let Lou off easy and returned inside, lit up four Old Golds while we listened to "The Same Old Song."
   

Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE BEST THERE NEVER WAS

     When a few old sports veterans get together in the Gem City, the topic of Toronto High School's greatest athlete arises occasionally.  Names such as Chip Coulter, Clark Hinkle, George Deiderich, Don Sutherin and Otis Winston are always mentioned, but one name I always bring up won't be found in any of the record books.
     You see, a classmate of mine, Harold "Oink" Coulter, played basketball only his freshman year.  Had he continued to play--that includes any sport--I am certain he would have been crowned the best.
     Oink possessed the hand-eye coordination of a magician.  He wasn't the tallest, fastest or strongest athlete in our class, although he was gifted in all these attributes.  What he possessed was way above what everybody had and that was coordination.
      Playing Little League for Cattrell's during the early 60s, I had heard all about the legend way before I encountered him  He was rumored to throw the only curve ball in the entire league, and to an 11-year-old batter during those days to face that kind of skill was akin to confronting someone with supernatural powers.
       I recall the fateful day when we were finally going to face Oink on the mound.  We were undefeated, with Oink posing as our last obstacle to remain unblemished for the 20-game season in a league consisting of twelve teams.  Our strategy was to step up in the batter's box when Oink started hurling curves, an approach enabling the hitter a good shot at the slower pitch before it broke.  Oink recognized this plan immediately and reared back and blew his lively fastball by us.  So--we moved back in the box and he curved us simple.  The game was our only loss of the season.
      I recall another time when we were in seventh grade playing pick-up football at S.C. Dennis School.  Oink was passing by on his bicycle and stopped.  I never saw him play football before, or even hold one in his hands for that matter, but he asked for the ball and promptly punted a perfect spiral 45 yards.  "Let's see you do that again," everyone said, knowing football was our rare chance to embarrass Oink.  He duplicated more kicks, all going 40 to 50 yards--all perfect spirals.
      Another time I recall sitting in sixth grade at St. Francis School.  For some reason the public schools were off that day and we weren't.  I was daydreaming out the window when I saw Oink approaching on his bicycle.  At the corner of Grant and Euclid, he popped a wheelie and pedaled right by the sixth grade windows, the seventh grade windows, the eighth grade windows and continued, reared back in the banana seat, hands braced on the handlebars, churning the pedals until  turning the corner on Daniels Street, two blocks away, out of sight.  The first flight by the Wright Brothers could not have covered the same distance.
       Basketball was by far his best game.  He could do anything with a round ball except make it talk.  Oink was the only ball handler I had ever seen being guarded by defenders with their legs crossed.  Nobody wanted embarrassed by having the ball dribbled between their legs by anybody.  And Oink could turn an opponent's face redder than a Red Knights jersey.
      The best way to defend Oink was to stand under the basket and bet him he couldn't make a shot from half court, and maybe his heel would accidentally touch the mid-court line so that you could get him on and over-and-back violation.  Oink was the only kid I knew who practiced shots from half court, and he made a good percentage of them.
      He was the last guy you wanted to challenge in a game of H-O-R-S-E.  Besides being able to rainbow shots from various distances, he could bank a ball off both walls on the northwest corners of the Franklin School building and swish it through the hoop.
      As I mentioned, Oink played only one season at the high school level, most of which was on junior varsity, although everyone in school and in the stands knew Oink was the best player on the varsity.  A few times the coach would put Oink in the varsity game.  I remember one time Oink was dribbling about 20 feet from Toronto's basket, an opponent between him an the hoop, arms raised high, knees bent in defending position.  Oink nonchalantly dribbled behind his own back and then around the defender, a complete 360-degree sweep and then swished the ball through the net.
      This wasn't exactly the type of tactic coaches in those days had in mind regarding fundamental basketball and was probably the main reason Oink spent most of his varsity tenure on the bench.  The coach tried to make Oink play basketball the way the coach thought basketball should be played.  Oink could achieve greatness and lead the Red Knights to the state title someday, only via the way of the head coach.
      But sports was not about titles, the state and the greatest--certainly not about pressure.  If he could not have fun, he wasn't going to play.  He never shot his majestic arching set shot in a Red Knights uniform again.
      Looking back, Oink was right all along.  If anything motivates you in sports other than having fun, you are participating for all the wrong reasons.  Coaches and athletes work themselves to the brink of exhaustion.  Heck, Oink was good at what came natural to him.  He was the best that never was.
 
Harold Coulter, shown on THS 1967 squad, was the only guy who could have wore a name like Oink gracefully