Building Bridges — In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

This originally was written for Common Ties, a story blog. It also appeared on my now-defunct Website.

Camp Cleveland was a place we could go for a couple of weeks in the summer to get away from the gritty environment of the inner city. The camp was nestled in the scenic hills of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, between the workhouse and a tuberculosis hospital.Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.01.42 AM

Orientation included a warning to secure any toiletries containing alcohol because the inmates from the workhouse would come into the camp and drink them. As jaded as we might have been at the age of 9 or 10, none of us really believed that someone would be desperate enough to break out of the workhouse, sneak into our cabins and drink our Brylcreem. But then, maybe it was the counselors they were worried about.

For most of us, Camp Cleveland was our first prolonged exposure to kids of another race. The city was highly segregated in the early ’60s. The Cuyahoga River served as a divide between the East Side and the predominantly white West Side.

It took us a while to get used to each other. The black kids and white kids stayed to themselves at first. But, little by little, we intermingled — a passing conversation here and there, an impromptu game of catch, comparing notes on our respective vices.

With the help of my black friends at Camp Cleveland, I quickly mastered the proper pronunciation of “muthafucka.” Or so I thought. When I returned to my Caucasian environment, I couldn’t wait to impress my cousins with my mastery of the black dialect. But my bubble was burst when their mother overheard me. She took me to task, not for swearing, but for failing to achieve the proper intonation.

“Those black kids can say it a lot better than you can,” she told me.

Somehow, it wouldn’t have hurt as much if she had just slapped me instead.

The sexes were segregated at Camp Cleveland. There were about 10 cabins, equally divided between the boys and girls. Each cabin had its own counselor.

Our counselor was a jazz musician named Jim. At night he would pull out a black instrument case from under his bed, take out his trombone and play old blues songs. In this unfamiliar environment, surrounded by trees and open fields, there was something strangely reassuring about hearing strains of urban music in the night.

Besides, it beat the hell out of sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbayah.”

I enjoyed music, but baseball was the only thing that really mattered to me. In spite of my inability to hit or throw a baseball with any degree of accuracy, I grew up believing that I would someday be a Major Leaguer. I was sure that I was going to be the next Tito Francona. 

Tito Francona played for the Cleveland Indians. He was a standout player, even made the all-star team one year. And, even more remarkably, he was around for five seasons before they traded him to a better team. For some reason, he was squinting when they took the picture for his baseball card. I thought it was kind of cool, so I tried to emulate that look when I posed for the group picture with the other kids from my cabin. I had a butch haircut at the time. So, between that and my sorry attempt at a Tito Francona squint, I ended up looking more like the banjo-playing geek from the movie “Deliverance.”

There were woods behind the cabins. We didn’t go back there much. Most of our activities were on the ball fields or a man-made pond where we splashed around in the stagnant water on days when it wasn’t raining.

One day, Jim took us hiking in the woods. We made our way to a clearing at the top of a hill overlooking the workhouse. In the distance I saw what looked like a small pond. I pointed it out to Jim, but he explained that it was just a parking lot and what I was seeing was sunlight reflecting off the car windows.

I didn’t want to believe him. But why would a guy who could play trombone so beautifully lie?

Twenty years later, I returned to Camp Cleveland. I was taking classes at the Cuyahoga Community College campus where the TB hospital used to be. I wandered over to see if the camp was still there. It was, except the name had been changed to Camp Hope, presumably after comedian Bob Hope, who grew up Cleveland.

Or maybe they had renamed it after his father, William Henry Hope, a stonemason who worked on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge when they built it in the 1930s. They renovated it 50 years later and renamed it the Hope Memorial Bridge in his honor.

The bridge was built to span the Cuyahoga River and link the East Side to the West Side — something Camp Cleveland had accomplished far more effectively.

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