Author John Stark Bellamy II, Cleveland’s master of mystery and mayhem, comes by his taste for the sensational honestly, having grown up reading stories about Cleveland crime and disaster written by his grandfather, Paul, who was editor of the Plain Dealer, and his father, Peter, who wrote for the Cleveland News and the Plain Dealer. In the excerpt below from Bellamy’s newest book The Last Days of Cleveland (softcover / $14.95 / 256 pages), the author shares his own personal disaster story from his boyhood in Cleveland Heights.
My First Disaster: How I Got to Be “The Cleveland Historian Your Mother Warned You About”
During my two decades as a purveyor of Cleveland woe I have frequently been asked why I have spent so much of my life immersed in the details of murder and catastrophe. I have given several different answers to that question, and all of them are true. A strong family background of colorful journalists, a lifelong curiosity about the wellsprings for motives of heroes and evildoers, and a general passion for Cleveland history have all contributed to my obsession with stories about Cleveland’s most violently memorable moments. But there are other, more personal reasons for my peculiar preoccupations, most of them stemming from a number of childhood and adolescent episodes, episodes which I am mostly saving for my interminable autobiography in progress, Wasted on the Young. In the meantime, what follows here may at least explain my interest in loud explosions and death-defying acts . . .
Looking back from the vantage point of almost half a century, it’s clear to me that it was all Steve McQueen’s fault. Steve McQueen? I hear you thinking. Steve McQueen, the badass cop of Bullitt, who single-handedly made cardiac car chases de rigueur in action films forever and ever, amen? That Steve McQueen? No—the Steve McQueen I’m thinking of played Virgil Hilts, the insouciant American prisoner of war, five years earlier in the best World War II film ever made, The Great Escape. Long before he became iconic by laying serious rubber in a snazzy 1968 Ford GT Mustang, McQueen looked incredibly cool astride a big-ass motorcycle as he fled from hordes of evil Nazis. Now, it’s true that when The Great Escape was released in the summer of 1963, my brothers and I were too young to torque around Cleveland Heights on snarling motorcycles. But we weren’t too young to do the other thing we saw during multiple viewings of The Great Escape, which was to dig our own escape tunnel in our own backyard.
I know what you’re thinking: how could we possibly confuse the half acre of my parents’ house lot in suburban Cleveland Heights for the menacing prison camp of Stalag Luft III, deep in the malignant heart of the Third Reich? How could we possibly have deluded ourselves into the fantasy that we could dig a functional tunnel the length of our yard, some 200 feet? Well, I suppose you could put it down to the power of adolescent imagination, but there was more to it than that. After all, it wasn’t as though we lacked the know-how for the job. For some years we had tirelessly explored the vast underground storm-sewer system of Cleveland Heights, and only come close to drowning once or twice. And at least four or five times that summer we had watched our heroes, supermen like Charles Bronson and David McCallum, burrow their way past barbed-wire fences and Nazi goons to freedom, again and again and again at Loew’s State Theater on Euclid Avenue. Indeed, we considered ourselves practically postdoc tunnel escape scholars, having also seen other tunnel films like Escape from East Berlin and The Password Is Courage. Given this wealth of expertise and the smarts to profit from the mistakes of our movie heroes, it was obvious that our Kenilworth Road tunnel was going to be a piece of cake.
Nor was it hard to keep the project a secret from my parents. Although the remotest corner of their large lot was nominally my father’s compost pile, he never actually visited it from one summer to the next. And I don’t believe my mother even knew its location, as it was partially screened from her ruthless scrutiny by a large garage. So we knew from the outset that we had a free hand and soon made the most of it. One sunny morning, after enlisting the participation of our chum Butchie Green, we swore each other to secrecy in solemn blood oaths, assembled our tools (shovels, ropes, buckets, and a supply of wooden slats), and set to work on our own Great Escape.
It didn’t take many minutes in that hot August sun for us to discover that the creative minds behind The Great Escape had made tunneling look deceptively easy. Perhaps, too, we had failed to adequately note that the Great Escape tunnelers numbered some hundreds, whereas we comprised a mere quartet of pathetic suburban striplings. Then there was the soil itself, which we immediately discovered was not anything like the loose sand underneath Stalag Luft III but solid, unyielding midwestern clay. But we stoutly persevered, impelled ever onward by the hormone-driven power of adolescent fantasy. After all, we figured, if we were willing to risk digging our tunnel under the very noses of our fiendish Nazi captors, we certainly weren’t going to let a little marbleized clay compromise our powerful blow against the Axis powers.
So the secret work went on as, day after day, stripped to the waist under the pitiless sun, we bored deeper and deeper into the earth. Six feet down in a three-by-three-foot shaft after a week, we switched to the horizontal phase, pushing a tunnel westward toward freedom, or at least in the probable direction of the Cedar Road-Fairmount Boulevard intersection. And say what you will of our childish lunacy, that tunnel wasn’t just a hole in the ground. Thanks to the technical expertise of my elder brother Stephen, it boasted nearly all of the fancy refinements of tunnels we’d seen in the movies: functional ventilation pipes, sturdy wooden slats to support the tunnel roof (daringly filched from the back stoop of a local furniture store), and a reinforced wooden cover that cunningly camouflaged the opening to the vertical shaft from any potential airborne surveillance. My memory is that brother Stephen was actually preparing to install electric lights in the tunnel when the great catastrophe struck . . . but I get ahead of myself.
In retrospect, it is clear that if we had been paying closer attention to our movie tunnel models, we might have also noticed the obvious fact that all the movie tunnels had begun in sheltered, dry, indoor sites. Situated as it was in a reeking compost heap, our tunnel decidedly did not—which meant that it was, notwithstanding its wooden cover, pretty much open to the elements. Those elements duly arrived during the third week of our labors, in the form of torrential rains, which promptly flooded the entire tunnel and stopped all digging. More mortifying to our self-esteem, the rain also brought home to us the realization that the flooding issue might have been avoided, or at least mitigated, had we not carelessly demolished virtually all the backyard drain tile in the careless enthusiasm of our initial excavations.
Well, the rain finally stopped after five days, and it was precisely at this juncture that our already demented enterprise graduated to the supreme level of total, self-destructive insanity. Time was of the essence, for we were but two weeks away from the beginning of school, and an exhausting marathon of bailing had left us with a stubborn foot of water still on the tunnel floor. What to do . . . what to do . . .
I’d like to be able to say that it wasn’t my idea—but, mercifully, I don’t really remember who first thought of the deranged plan. But I do remember that I heartily agreed to the concept, which was simplicity itself. Indeed, why hadn’t it occurred to us sooner? Since we couldn’t bail the water out, we decided we’d burn it off instead. Anyone who has ever watched the sun burn a puddle of water away knows that heat causes evaporation. So a few minutes later, Butchie and I were at Gene’s Sohio station, where we pumped five gallons of leaded, 33-cent gasoline into a can. Lugging it home, we trucked it out to the compost pile, removed the shaft lid, poured the gasoline down . . . threw a lit match after it, slammed the lid down, and ran like hell.
Two minutes passed. Nothing. Another minute elapsed. A lot more nothing. Butchie looked at me—I looked at Butchie. It was time to step up and be a Man, and I’m sure we were thinking the same thing: What would Steve McQueen do? Exactly, no doubt, what we now did. Gingerly creeping back to the lid . . . we carefully opened it. Nothing. There was only one thing left to do—and we did it—which was to trot back up to Gene’s Sohio, pump another five gallons of gasoline, and go through the whole harebrained sequence again.
Our second try was more successful, and, I must confess, far more exciting. Again pouring the gasoline down the shaft, we lit a match, slammed the lid down, and ran for cover. A minute went by. Nothing. Shrugging our shoulders, we walked back toward the lid . . . and got there just about the instant the ground underneath us erupted with a mighty roar, hurling us into the air, along with smithereened fragments of the tunnel cover, wooden slats, several hundred pounds of Cleveland Heights clay, and about a ton of muddy water. Perhaps the only one more surprised by the explosion than Butchie and me was my mother, who just happened to look out her kitchen window in time to see the two of us actually flying through the air. We were still on the ground, stupefied, singed, wet, and scared, when she arrived on the crime scene, demanding to know what in holy hell was going on. I don’t remember what we told her, except that it sure wasn’t the truth, which—aside from the potential consequences—was simply too embarrassing to admit. She made us fill in the ruined tunnel that very afternoon—but she never did learn the true facts behind the Mysterious Compost Pile Catastrophe of 1963. Fortunately, that deranged episode proved to be the end of our tunneling escapades—but our memorable summer mishap was to yield unforeseen fruit in my later and enduring love affair with lethal explosions, catastrophic events, and the heroes and heroines who rise to their occasions. Tragically and ironically, Butchie Green, my brother Steve’s best friend and a young man beloved by all, was killed in an inexplicable industrial accident at Nela Park in February 1967. Then again, that very day, just hours after his death, his U.S. Army draft notice arrived in the mail . . .
Currently living in Vermont, John Stark Bellamy returns to Cleveland Heights to give a special presentation based on his new book. Bellamy will appear at the Coventry Branch of the Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library; 1925 Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights on Saturday April 16, 2011 from 3-4 pm. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the library at 216-321-3400 or visit Gray & Co.’s web site.
Excerpted from the book The Last Days of Cleveland © 2010 by John Stark Bellamy II. This text may not be reproduced in any form or manner without written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.