It’s been 47 years since I lived in what the realtors called a ‘charming bungalow’ in Mentor, Ohio. Of course, the Mom, Dad, and the four Bowden kids never saw it as anything but Home.
We sold the house in 1993 after Mom and Dad died. They had bought it in 1945, escaping east Cleveland with their two daughters Pat and Lindy– two boys came later. Mentor was, at the time, far out of town in rural farm country with Mr. Jewel’s cornfield as our backyard; his cornstalks made great forts. The creek (is it creeeek or crick?) was another source of excitement, catching polliwogs, crayfish and, of course, poison ivy.
“Bored” was a word that never seemed to come up.
Black swallowtail and monarch butterflies, grasshoppers, and electric red beetles were everywhere and we made a game of knowing their names. We returned to the house only to scarf down a quick meal. Years later at Mentor High School, all the Bowdens’ insect collections were stellar and graded not with one ‘A’, but two. Leaf collections were equally praised.
The creek has since been erased from view with culverts and other suburban coverups, but on those miserably hot summer days, we sought out the muddiest puddles, climbed through culverts and covered ourselves with sticky seed pods, chasing bugs and rabbits through the woods. We built forts there too, the usual ‘boys only’ kind with appropriate signs and secret passwords.
We climbed every tree in the woods, including the Big Tree. It was a sugar maple, perfect for climbing, with stout limbs branching far out to allow ‘annexes’ from the main trunk. We hauled up rope to weave rather uncomfortable and rickety rope chairs at the top, a handy place to disappear when Mom hollered your name. We hid there when it was time to visit Dr. Damloss, the dentist we feared more than Satan himself or the barber, who was just getting his license. The barber was cheap, but he shredded the back of our necks with twitchy clippers.
We raced to see the Sealtest milk man and the ice cream man. That is, if we had the nickel. And we ran inside to shut the windows and doors tightly when the mosquito sprayer hit the neighborhood.
Our hand-me-down bikes (mine was a Stelber) were alternatives to the field and stream. Friends Johnny and Poncho Wolf and my brother and I would race around the ‘block’ like a Nascar track. We usually stayed upright, but loose gravel sometimes slid the tires from under us, and we limped home for yet another Band-Aid breakout. Knees and elbows still bear the scars of turns taken a bit too tightly.
It’s actually pretty remarkable that we survived those years. We bounced our noggins off a few tree limbs on the way down during a fall, could have drowned or worse yet, drank some of that awful gunk in the nasty Lake Erie (about a mile away, and very, very polluted then). From the bedroom window, I shot my brother in the butt with a BB gun, and we shot each other with arrows made from dead goldenrod bushes, the bows made of sticks from our forts. We swung from the very top of trees, and some
snapped. Well, a lot did. And there was the driver who slid to an icy stop as we jet-sledded across the road in front of him. We even ran with scissors.
In this end of the snow belt, sleds were everywhere, despite not have many hills around. Kids can make a hill out of anything. But Bolton’s Hill hosted hundreds of sledders during the typical winter weekend and kids were careful to watch up and down the hills for runaway toboggans, sleds or inner tubes. Don’t remember anyone getting badly hurt, but apparently, someone did. The insurance company forced the owners to close it off and make this just a fond winter memory.
Back to the house.
The house just pretty much a shell when they moved in during the final months of World War II. They added everything, including a garage, utility room, screened-in porch, plumbing, electric and masonry. Mom and Dad’s bedroom was under ours, and they heard everything. It might have been planned that way. We’d start bouncing on beds early on Saturday morning and Mom and Dad didn’t have a chance to sleep in. But on Sunday, we tried to stay silent until 11 a.m.– by then it was too late to get dressed and off to church at Mentor Plains Methodist. Most of the time, silence didn’t happen, we woke them up, and we trotted off to church. In summer, the upstairs heat drove us out of bed anyway. Fans circulated the air but didn’t cool it.
Being a volunteer fireman for thirty years, Dad installed an emergency ladder outside our bedroom. For years, we thought that we snuck out silently to visit girlfriends or Lucio’s Pizza, only to be told later that the ladder echoed like a drum against Mom and Dad’s bedroom wall. They heard it all. But they let us go, maybe as an escape from the summer heat. Maybe just to let us try out our independence.
Winter was either 1) miserably cold and snowy or 2) wonderfully cold and snowy, depending on your perspective. Winds blasted snow across Lake Erie and right into our front yard and through the storm windows– or at least, that’s the way it seemed. Monstrous drifts piled up to the second-floor window, and we tunneled to the street. Just kidding. But when you’re four years old, a foot of snow becomes a frighteningly tall snow drift at the back door. We’d take the dogs, Lassie and Sally, outside for a break and they dove into the snow like it was something to be conquered, certainly a pre-video-worthy scene. And wrapped up, looking like a cross between a stuffed pillow and Humpty Dumpty, we joined in.
Waking up on a January school day was a chilly adventure. There was heat only on the first floor, and gravity allowed some warmth upstairs. We kept the doors open. Uncle Jack had given us cozy Army surplus blankets, and we all owe our intact fingers and toes to these scratchy gifts. Frost on the windows provided pretty, almost lacey pictures by themselves, but we often drew our own artistry in the icy glass.
Our plain wood floors eventually gave way to the modern linoleum, but it wasn’t any warmer on the feet. Steamy footprints showed on the floor, and we each took turns flying downstairs to the only bathroom and then to vegetate over the hot air register in the dining room. Yep, it was one of life’s 13 finest feelings. When all six had used the bathroom, we grabbed something from Mom’s breakfast smorgasbord and hit the road for school.
Dad drove a school bus for nearly 30 years and parked it in the side yard (a house has since been built there). The bus (#26 for a long time) was the subject of many ‘beatings’, including when someone tossed a pumpkin through the windshield. This after Mom and Dad gave away hundreds of candied apples for Halloween. Some neighbor kids– with names like Pikarsky, Wolford, Emery, Perry, Wolf, Valentino, Brooks, Klawon and Cavallaro– made annual pilgrimages for the sweet cinnamon-red masterpieces.
Dad’s bus nearly always got through rain, ice and snow. But before most of Cleveland began moving to the burbs, spring roads in Mentor were dirt. Or rather, mud. Buses bounced over the nature-made speed bumps, and the back seat was where everyone wanted to sit. With luck, you could be launched to the ceiling. The spring thaw caused mini-trampolines and underground mud pies, and we’d jump on them to squirt mud up and out of the ‘fissures’.
Occasionally the road would be so rutted and muddy that it would be closed. Imagine a fleet of kids on a closed, muddy road on bikes, trikes. Or playing football. Oh, yeah, now that was a game. It took weeks to wash mud out of places you didn’t know could get muddy.
As we got older, our neighborhood opened a series of sand-lot football games against the newbies who lived in the new housing development which was Jewel’s field. It was typical neighborhood football, with few rules, no refs, little equipment and no knowledge of the game, to speak of.
Games were held behind the house in a few lots on which houses hadn’t been built yet. I don’t remember who won, or even the names of most of the kids who played. But I remember that “Tank” Marthey was the toughest kid I ever met.
It’s funny, the things you remember, the things that stick in your brain after a half-century.
It wasn’t a ‘bungalow’. It was Home.