Everyone called it the swamp. To the kids in the neighborhood, it was an oasis. It was a mysterious green place where we could get away from our urban environment and the prying eyes of our parents.
The swamp was a no man’s land situated between the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company substation behind Buckley Playground and the point where the Nickel Plate and New York Central railroad tracks merged. It was in a low spot in a small valley, some of which had been excavated to lay the tracks below street level, so there was always standing water there. Hence the name.
It wasn’t much of a swamp, though. Just some bottom land with crap trees, mostly box elder and tree of heaven. There was some wildlife, including some huge rats and, on one occasion, a white-tailed deer.
Don’t look for it now. The Ohio Department of Transportation deforested the swamp when I-90 was built through the neighborhood. It had been just east of where the West 41st Street exit is now.
There were two ways to get to the swamp from our side of the tracks — which, actually was between both sets of tracks. The direct way was to cut through a vacant lot off of Palm Road. It wasn’t an attractive alternative because of the human element.
On one side of the lot was Cleveland Electro Metals, a small smelting plant where they recycled aluminum, brass and copper. The workers hanging out by the furnace door on West 38th Street gave us the creeps.
Mrs. Quince lived on the other side of the vacant lot. We thought of her as the wicked witch of Palm Road. Her name wasn’t really Quince. No one knew her name. We just called her that because of the quince tree that grew in her yard. She guarded it with her life. She harvested the quince apples and hated us because we’d pluck a few off the tree from time to time.
Once you made it through the gauntlet of smelting plant workers and Mrs. Quince, you had to work your way down a steep bluff. The preferred method was sliding down on your ass, but you had to watch out for broken glass. I still have a faint scar on the palm of my hand where I sliced it open while sliding down the hill. The cut wasn’t deep enough to require stitches, but God knows what kind of toxic crap I got in there.
The long route to the swamp was by way of what we called the coal hill. I think we called it that because that was the road they used to haul coal down to the power company substation.
We mostly had the swamp to ourselves, but occasionally we had to deal with teenagers going down there to neck or harass us. Sometimes we’d run into hobos. The hobos were harmless as far as anyone knew. But they would curse at us and try to run us off.
Still, some of the kids were afraid to go down there because of the them.
The hobos intrigued me more than they scared me, probably because I was given to wanderlust.
One day I found a dog hide hanging from a tree in one of the hobo camps. It made me sick to my stomach. But, for some reason, it didn’t dampen my fascination with hobos and their lifestyle. Or the swamp.