Little Miami (Part I)

imagesCA9MAUNKThere I was, one muggy August evening in 1965, sitting with Robbie Corval (RC, to his friends) munching Fritos and watching “Hogan’s Heroes.”  RC’s mom had not yet ordered us to bed, so I was still in a state of pubescent bliss simply being in close proximity to  the most popular soon-to-be eighth-grader at St. Peter & Paul Elementary School. :

Anyone who knew RC (I have changed his name, but if you attended St. Peter & Paul School  the same time I did, you will know who I’m talking about.) can truly appreciate why a sleepover with RC was such a big deal, At a shade over six feet tall, which in elementary school was a very big deal (except. of course, if you were a girl). RC was a triple threat: star halfback and forward for the St. Pete’s football and basketball teams, respectively; and home-run-hitting center fielder for the Morris Funeral Home Tigers of the Norwood Little League.

My school had its cliques, of course, I wanted to think of myself as a “Jock,” because I was a passably good first baseman on my little league team.  In truth, I was a “brain,”  a designation earned by any student who could make it through the academic year without flunking anything. In order to avoid being bullied, or worse, “ganged up on,” by members of the more elite cliques, Brains had to learn the art of negotiation; to wit, “How can I write your ‘Five Virtues of a True Christian Citizen’ essay if both my arms are in casts?”

You could do worse than being tagged a “Brain.” You could be a “Hillbilly” or “Retard,” (both sexes), a “Slut,” (female) or a “Homo,” (male). Needless to say, “Jocks” were the elite clique, and by all rights, RC was king of the Jocks. Yet, although RC associated with Jocks on the playing field or on the court, and generally sat at the Jock table during lunch hour, RC often hung out with Keith Shankhouse, Joey Fiorito and Steve Molloy. These kids were “Greasers,”  a clique that didn’t lend itself to easy categorization. Greasers were the kids who lived in apartments or two-flats; the kids with dads who closed down bars — on weekdays; the kids who boasted, “One day I’m going to punch my mom back!”

By the same token, Greasers cultivated a “Cool”  that the rest of us could only marvel at. You had nothing to gain by offering your skills as an essay writer to a Greaser — he could care less about grades.  Only a bona-fide Greaser earned the right to don the greaser uniform– pegged black chinos, white Converse sneakers  with black socks, Banlon shirt with an empty box of Marlboros rolled up in the right sleeve; topped with a Brylcreem-enhanced duck-tail ‘do. And man could Greasers fight! In fact, a grade-school Greaser’s true mission in life was to ride his bike down to the Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant just outside Norwood on Friday and Saturday nights to participate with their high-school Greaser brethren in “rumbles.”

As a guy who moved easily between Jocks and Greasers, RC obviously did not go out of his way to seek out my company. He occasionally showed up at the pick-up games initiated by what you could call “The Second Tier” — the couple of dozen boys, including myself, who merited a degree of status by virtue of being class clowns, of having high-status older brothers, of having somewhat affluent parents, or of having a father who was vice mayor of Norwood (me).

The sight of RC sauntering toward the ball diamond would charge us up, as though his presence instantly validated that day’s game. At bat, he would hit line drives to all three corners of the outfield on the first pitch. In center field, where he liked to play, he would casually lope toward fly balls and snag them one-handed, or he would scoop up shallow line drives and rifle the ball back to some hapless infielder, who, more often than not, was too inept to tag out the base runner.

When these games were over and we all headed to Gribble’s Cafe for twelve-cent sodas, RC hardly ever spoke to me. So, why was I RC’s sole guest at a sleepover? The most logical explanation was because over the past week. I had been talking up my invitation to fish a prime stretch of the Little Miami River, a scenic tributary of the Great Miami River (which, in turn, flowed into the Ohio River).   “The Beach (as this stretch is still known) marks the point where a broad, silty pool enters a small canyon. Suddenly constricted, the river now flows briskly over a bed of smooth, round “river rocks.”  The river broadens a couple-hundred yards downstream, just beyond the “No Trespassing” sign, gauging a deep channel in a bed now composed primarily of sand and clay.  This is the “honey hole,” about thirty yards of clay-tinted green water featuring numerous deep holes and wide eddies.

The Beach was the on the property of a Catholic men’s retreat house, which meant that even though most of us were well aware of its existence, and had, at one time or another, made the one-and-half bike ride to fish its productive waters, we would be lucky to get in 15 minutes of fishing before being chased off by the Franciscan brothers who resided at the house.  My dad, who was friends with the Jesuit priest who ran the retreat house, had wrangled the invitation. Consequently, RC was quick to realize that I was in possession of a valuable asset — permission to fish The Beach without fear of harassment.

Back to the previous night: RC and I lay on the living room floor, he in his old Cub Scout sleeping bag, me in my dad’s canvas surplus Army sleeping bag.  Our only real conversation occurred while playing”First Base-Second -Base-Third-Base” challenge, in which one of us would name a female classmate  and then ask the other whether he thought she’d let him get to first base, second base or home plate.  As I remember, we both were under the erroneous assumption that if a girl, having already welcomed you to second base, decides to wave you on,  you need only make a beeline straight to home plate to claim the goodies. Let me put it in Freudian terms: Picture the realm of third base, in all its earthy glory, as a steam roller; now, picture the infantile ids of RC and myself as a couple cartons of eggs.

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When RC started snoring, I recall thinking,”What a lucky dog. On top of everything else, he goes right to sleep.” I sensed a long night ahead. Couldn’t quite figure out why RC invited only me to his sleepover. His company would have been welcome on any outing by pretty much anyone in the school. And yet he asked me .RC’s mom was nice, though. RC’s father had died a long time ago, I wasn’t sure how he died, but the few people with whom I felt comfortable enough to ask (my parents, my sister, my longtime friend Gary, who lived less than a half-block from RC but didn’t know him much better than I did), either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me This meant RC’s mom had to raise RC, along with RC’s older brothers, Jimmy  and Greg, RC’s older brothers.

I was finally drifting off. A dream image of The Beach materialized in my mind, the blue- tinted water flowing languidly over the smooth river rocks.Something was pulling me back to the waking world. Something was kicking my feet,not particularly hard, but with command, rhythmically — one, two, kick; three, four, kick.

RC was kicking my feet. “RC!” I hissed. No response. “RC!” I repeated, considerably louder. The kicking did not cease. I scooted  away from him. After a brief respite, I again felt RC kicking me on my feet. I endured this weird, inexplicable pummeling for maybe a few more minutes or maybe for another hour. What really sticks in my mind, though,is that I thought RC might never stop. And never once did he  appear to be awake.

I must have finally fallen asleep because I briefly did not know where I was when the voice of RC’s mom intruded upon whatever murky dream I was lost in.

“Can you make us breakfast? ” RC asked his mom, who was dressed in the signature red-and-white-checked uniform of an Early Bird Cafe waitress.

“Honey, I have to be at work in 20 minutes, she pleaded.

“My mom makes the best scrambled eggs in the world,” RC informed me with a wink.

While RC’s mom was trying to  start  the ’57 Impala formerly driven by RC’s dad, he and I were digging into a bowl of his mom’s renowned scrambled eggs. After a long, strange night, I felt re-invigorated, fortified. It was a new day. We were less than 20 minutes away from teaming up with the other six members of our fishing party and making the trek to the Little Miami River.

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