Memories of Tremont Avenue
by Ken Scigulinsky
During the fall and winter, because of early darkness and the cold, my friends and I no longer played on Tremont Avenue or on the playground. In our homes after school, we read comic books or listened to serial radio shows that seemed to be attuned to kids. Jack Armstrong was one of my favorites. I also occupied my time playing at my friend’s house or visiting the Jefferson Library.
Merrick House, a huge community asset, provided some fun in the winter as well as the summer. There was an inner area on the Starkweather side of the Merrick House that was flat and paved (that configuration no longer exists). It was hosed down during freezing weather to provide a large ice-skating area for casual skating as well as ice hockey. Boundary lines were painted on the ice to define the cage area for the goalie position. My friend, Andy became an oddity among my group when he was hit in the mouth with a puck while playing goalie. The puck chipped three front teeth in a staircase pattern, giving him a very distinct appearance and a badge of toughness.
I never played hockey and the skates I used were handed down from my cousin with blades rounded over. I never got them sharpened since that would have cost $.75, way beyond reasonableness for my mom. Later, however, I did convince my mom to give me $.25 to buy a bleacher ticket (tickets for the lower stands were $3.60) to watch the Cleveland Browns play on Sunday at Lakefront Stadium.
My friend, Red, and I took the 2-cent bus to town and walked down to the stadium. We knew the names of a few of the Browns players but the one most noteworthy to me was Otto Graham. He seemed to be mentioned everywhere. There was always hope that a field goal would land in the bleachers where we sat, but that never happened.
After the game I saw a large red flower that had been discarded so I picked it up and brought it home. My mom was thrilled with my thoughtfulness and thought it was a good return on the money she had given me.
Of course, as soon as the snow fell, we brought our Flexible Flyer sleds up from basement storage to go “belly slamming” on Tremont Avenue. Sometimes sledding on the irregular sidewalks was possible, but as soon as there was compacted snow, concerned residents would spread ashes from their stoves over the snow to allow safe walking, thus making it impossible to sled.
The absolute best sledding was down the hill south on W. 11th Street, past the Ukrainian Hall where all you had to do was sit or lie on the sled and accelerate down the hill. That hill disappeared when Interstate 490 was created, demolishing houses and the entire hill. I moved from the South Side in 1948—and never saw a snowplow on the South Side—but my brother-in-law says the historic Thanksgiving blizzard of 1950 brought out many plows for days.
During cold weather, my parents required me to wear a set of long underwear, neck to ankles. They were a part of the mandatory apparel I detested. Not many of my friends wore them and I was embarrassed because occasionally my pantleg rode up exposing the “gachi’s,” as they were called in Polish. “Kenny’s wearing gachi’s,” was the taunt I occasionally heard. They kept me warm though, especially sleeping at night when our coal stove started cooling down.
When the snow fell, and we went sledding for many hours my gachi’s and two pair of pants were great protection from the cold. My dad always reminded me that he was protecting me because my immune system was weak due to having double pneumonia as a baby.
Tremont School was closed for the holidays after all the classes traditionally gathered around the 3-story decorated pine tree singing Christmas songs and receiving candy (There used to be an opening outside the administrative offices that spanned all three stories of the school).
After-school activities available at the school, usually crafts or model airplane assembling, would cease. Also unavailable was the school gym where we could play basketball—shirts vs. skins.
If you walked the streets of the South Side in December during the early 1940s, there would be little indication that Christmas was approaching. Wartime precautions dictated there be no outside lighting displays, although I doubt that many families in the area could afford to spend money to do so. You could see a few single electric candles centered in a wreath in windows and you might get a glimpse of a lighted tree. I remember only a couple of local store windows that had a small string of lights.
After the war ended, with relaxed conditions, outdoor lighting displays began to emerge and I was invited to travel with my friend when his mom and her boyfriend drove to Seven Hills, a place I had never heard of, to view some outdoor house lighting displays. Post war, the Cleveland downtown area saw a resurgence of lighting such as the May Company showed.
For things to do, visiting some of Cleveland’s department stores was the most fun before Christmas. The only stores that received my attention were May Company, Baileys and Higbee’s. They each had some type of Christmas handout for kids, such as candy or a comic book version of A Christmas Carol, plus there were toys to view and sometimes play with.
The absolute best store was The May Company where I could roam around the entire 7th floor of toys without receiving scrutiny for my activity. The staff always seemed to be very indulgent towards kids’ playfulness.
My sister thinks we bought our Christmas tree somewhere around Lincoln Park. I recall trees cost $.75 to $1.50 and we always shopped at the last minute so my mom could haggle and get a good deal. Without a family car, my sisters and I would travel with our mom pulling either a wagon or a sled to transport the tree home.
It would remain on the semi-enclosed porch, sides protected with temporary wooden panels, until my dad came home from the steel mill to carry it inside.
He would always cut branches so the tree could be placed directly against a wall, far enough away from the coal stove for safety. Decorating the tree always required finding the one burned out bulb that prevented the lighting of the entire string of lights. It was strange that we used little cloth Santa’s as ornaments that were made in Japan while we were at war with Japan.
With the tree decorated and the coal stove heated, my mom would place tangerine peels on the stove to create a festive aroma. Afterwards we might have popcorn or, as my mom called them, Chinese apples (pomegranates). They only seemed to be available in the fall.
Just as the Jews have a ritualistic celebration for Passover, similarly the Carpatho-Rusyns, also known as Rusins, celebrate their religious roots at Christmas.
My father, a Rusyn born in Czechoslovakia, assured we respected some of those traditions in our home. Holy Supper, on the eve before Christmas, was traditionally a very special family meal, full of meaning and symbolism. It is called Velija. Our table was set with twelve meatless foods, symbolizing the twelve apostles of Christ. I can’t say all the foods were tasty. I especially remember eating a raw clove of garlic dipped in salt, for good health and to chase away evil spirits. Stewed prunes and a cooked mix of sauerkraut and peas certainly promoted intestinal health.
In the center of the table was a large round loaf of bread symbolizing Jesus as the bread of life. A lighted candle in the center of the bread symbolized the Star of Bethlehem. It was not especially meaningful for my sisters and I but I now realize it was important for my dad to resurrect fond memories of his history, traditions and customs.
Christmas presents were not unique or expensive. My sisters usually received dresses or dolls and some playing-house items such as a toy baking oven. One Christmas I knew exactly what my youngest sister was going to receive: a doll. Why? Because of my insatiable curiosity, I had weeks earlier taken a hammer to her doll’s head to investigate what made the doll’s eyes open and close. She was almost inconsolable until my mom promised to replace it.
My dad’s brother owned a house in Brooklyn, OH, and if they visited us after Christmas, we were guaranteed to receive some expensive and welcomed gifts. They had money and grown kids who knew what would please my young sisters and me.
Although long past, I still cherish my simple Christmas experiences when I lived on Tremont Avenue.