Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blackberry Winter?

When I lived in Kentucky I would occasionally hear terms for various "winters" that interrupted the springtime. I can't remember all the terms, but "blackberry winter" was one of them. I guess this means a cold snap after blackberry blossoms have emerged. Well, our blackberries have not yet bloomed, but we are having something like sarvis (seviceberry) winter, or redbud winter, daffodil winter, dogwood winter, Cleveland pear winter, tulip winter--some kind of winter! This is typical for our spring, the fits and starts, always maddening and always there! Let's hope that our fruit trees and crops are not damaged and that the great Lake Erie doesn't sweep in "12 inches of partly cloudy" (as Dick Goddard, the local weather god, says.).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lost Friends

In an earlier post, I talked about friends and family members who have died. This time I'd like to briefly mention friends who have disappeared from my life. The last time I saw some of my high school friends (from St. Joe's in Cleveland) was graduation day of 1966. I particularly think of Pete Gasper, a bright guy, Beatlemaniac, fine poet, who grew up in Eastlake. I wonder if Pete ever did anything with his gift for poetry.

On June 11, 1970, I graduated from the University of Notre Dame. I have seen some of my old college friends at reunions, weddings, funerals, and football games. But I never again saw Carol Handley (a St. Mary's College girl who lived in Selma, Indiana). What did Carol end up doing? What kind of life did she make? Some other St. Mary's girls I remember: Kathy Breitenbach of Pepper Pike, Ohio; Julie Castrop, of Columbus, Ohio; Rene Mirro, of Merrillville, Indiana. Where are they now? What kind of lives?

After Notre Dame, I made some new friends in Cleveland. What ever happened to Gene Killeen, the operator of "Terminal Parking" (W. 6th and Superior). What a great guy with a great family. We had the best-educated parking lot attendants in Cleveland! Gene, Earl Hurd, and me--all Notre Dame grads (and I earned $2.50 an hour with my ND degree!).

When I moved to Cincinnati in 1971 I began working at the 12th Street Clinic. What ever happened to my colleagues there? Dale White DDS; Becky Meyers RN; Charles Couch, health educator and sanitarian; Moscoe Hendrickson; June Miehle, health educator; Joseph Alter MD, clinic director; Ernie Mynatt, consultant to the clinic.

In Cincinnati I was introduced to some of the greatest people I had ever met--Peacemakers and Catholic Workers. Where is Denny Ryan, Joel Stevens, Ruth Wynkoop (who might be known as Ruth Horne or Ruth Gorsuch), Bonnie Tompkins, John Luginbill? Where is Patrick Fanning, who worked with Urban Appalachians in Lower Price Hill?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Poem about Euclid in the Spring

Euclid in Late April

I walk down this humble street in Euclid,
“Sycamore Street,” not a sycamore in sight--
(Every tree cut down here in ‘51
Only to build a neighborhood of streets named after trees).

Dozens of crabapple trees
Planted by people long gone
Shade the sidewalk,
White, pink, and red blooms:

The wind blows a shower of petals down on me,

Perfectly gratuitous grace.

(Robert M. Coughlin
April 23, 2008)

Where Are They? People In and Out of Our Lives

People move in and out of our lives all the time, and sometimes it is very painful. Think about the huge losses when family members and friends die! I think about my Mom, my Dad, my mother-in-law, Ruth Sanders, my father-in-law, Art Sanders, my Gramma, Cora Bowers Coughlin, and so many uncles and aunts. Then there are my cousins, Tommy Fitzpatrick, killed in Vietnam in 1969; and his brother Jack, murdered while waiting in line with his children to see Santa Claus in 1971; and Tim Coughlin, dying early from brain cancer. And there have been friends: Kenny Przybylski, Jack Shereda, Chuck Matthei, Ernest and Marion Bromley, Maurice McCrackin, Steve Shields (Vietnam 1972), and others.

My Gramma Coughlin and her sister Edna Bowers Rosenfelder lived into their nineties, and by the end had lost so many people. Gramma even buried 2 of her own children: Fran ("Connie") and Jack. Mom lost her own mother when she was 16, and then lost her twin brothers, Dick and Don Fitzpatrick, when she was in her 30's. My family has accepted death, and they have never been destroyed by it--but that doesn't mean it isn't always hard! [Next blog entry will be on people still living who have moved in and out of our lives.]

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"So Early in the Spring"--Homage to Skunk Cabbage

[See an image of skunk cabbage at this address:

Anyone who sings the praises of Skunk Cabbage must be crazy, right? But hold on a second. The harbinger of earliest spring in Northern Ohio is a lot like us--a survivor of terrible winters, something deep-rooted in the area, shaped by the Lake Effect, and overall a tough hombre! And, yea, like us doesn't always smell too good. One of America's greatest poets, Mary Oliver, grew up in Maple Heights, just southeast of Cleveland. Mary Oliver has written many wonderful poems over the years ("Wild Geese"--one of the greatest), and below is her homage to Skunk Cabbage:

Skunk Cabbage

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches of leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again - a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.
Mary Oliver

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Robert P. Coughlin--My Dad

This past week was the 11th anniversary of the passing of my Dad, Robert P. Coughlin, known, like me, as Bob. My Dad was actually baptized in 1922 as Paul Robert, and some official documents (like his Navy papers), use that name. But some time early on, the name was flipflopped and he was known as Bob and presented himself formally as Robert P. He was the third child of Cornelius Francis ("Connie") Coughlin and Cora Bowers Coughlin, after Francis Cornelius ("Connie") and John Anthony ("Jack"). After my Dad there were two more children: Bill and Bernice. I think all the Coughlin kids were born in Cleveland, probably around E. 87th, but were raised mostly in Willoughby, Lake County, Ohio--about 20 miles east of Cleveland.

Dad was our hero, for so many reasons: he was our protector and defender; he was our provider and advocate; he was a Navy combat veteran from World War II. And he was a good and kind and loving man. And he did all of this in spite of some heavy burdens. One burden he carried was severe asthma, which was very serious at times in his childhood and adolescence and prevented him from being accepted into the Navy before the war broke out (after Pearl Harbor, it was another story--"Sure we'll take you! Welcome aboard, sailor!"). In his late 50's Dad suffered from heart problems. He had bypass surgery around age 57, and suffered from congestive heart failure and diabetes in the last years of his life. These last illnesses were debilitating to his great energy and spirit. Along with these illnesses I think he suffered from some level of depression. Maybe that was a consequence of the medicines he had to take as well as the weakness caused by the heart failure. Still, the image I have of my Dad is of the guy in his thirties and forties, with his black hair, drop-dead good looks, broad shoulders, with forearms and biceps like Popeye-the-Sailor. Dad was strong! A nice trick he could do was to rip the Cleveland yellow pages (about 4 inches thick) in half! It was part technique, but part brute strength. Dad could also run very fast and hit a baseball a mile. We enjoyed watching him play softball at Mudville (officially, "Willow Playground"), with his tremendous hits and great defensive play. One time he hit a home run at Mudville and as he stepped on home plate, he broke his foot! I wish we had had the chance to see him play fast pitch baseball when he and his brothers tore up the Lake County leagues. Dad hit a famous home run at Painseville Township Park on a very muddy day. When he circled the bases, he avoided the incredible mud puddles around the bases (thinking that it was no big deal because the ball went out of the park, into Lake Erie). Well the other team pulled the appeal play saying he missed a base, and Dad was called out. He and his brothers were great ballplayers, but any chance for a career in professional ball was halted by the war. One brother, Connie, did get a tryout with the Cleveland Indians, and we have the letter sent to Connie offering the try-out. Their baseball careers were in the tradition of their father, Connie, my grandfather, who was one of the great ballplayers to come out of Cleveland in the early decades of the 20th Century.

My Dad's life surely was shaped by the bittersweet years of the Great Depression and then by World War II. From the time my Dad was seven years old to the time he was in his mid twenties, the world was in chaos, depression, and war. So you can imagine how wonderful it was for him around 1946 meeting Margaret Ann Fitzpatrick (of the locally well-known Fitzpatrick family). What Dad probably wanted more than anything was a life with Margaret Ann, a family, children, and a job that paid the bills. There had been so little of normal life that he was ecstatic about settling down to this kind of life. He married Margaret Ann in August of 1947 at Immaculate Conception Church in Willoughby (the reception was above the fire station in Willoughby-on-the-Lake). Ten months later I was born, the first of 5 children. [More coming on Dad infuture blog entries.]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tommy Fitzpatrick, Died in Vietnam April 18, 1969

[Tommy is shirtless, on left, standing on the armored vehicle]

[In the photo at the top of the page, Tommy is standing in the center, flanked by 2 of his army buddies]

Thomas Michael Fitzpatrick, my cousin, was killed near Long Binh, Vietnam on April 18, 1969. He was only 21 years old. We still think of him often and still miss him. We thought of him last month at the funeral for his sister-in-law, Mary Finnegan Fitzpatrick (Mary was the widow of Tommy's oldest brother Jack).

Tommy was born on December 18, 1947, the youngest child of Albert and Catherine Fitzpatrick. Al and Catherine has three other children: Jack, Jerry, and Sheila. When we were growing up, Tommy lived on Shoreview in Euclid, Ohio, across from Upson School. When he was quite young, the family moved to Eastbrook Drive on the Euclid-Willowick border, about a block from Lake Erie. Tommy went to St. William's School. His dad, Al, was an engineer for the New York Central Railroad, and his mother, Catherine was at home. I believe Tommy started at St. Joesph High School and then transferred to Euclid High School, graduating in 1966 or '67. He was a bit of an Elvis, with his full lips, his intense eyes, and the wavy blond hair. Tom was also a fine football player and played at St. William's and at Euclid (and of course the playground tackle football that we all played).

Tommy was much beloved by his large extended Irish-American family--uncles, aunts, cousins, second-cousins, shirt-tail cousins, and by his many friends. It's odd that 39 years after his death he is still so missed. Maggie Brock, Ellen McHugh, and I have written poems about Tommy, and I'll post one or more of those below:


(A poem for Tommy Fitzpatrick, killed in Vietnam April 1969)

I have run hard & straight
into the black break-
wall of memory. I have
crouched before it & once
when we were young, when we
were given the earth, handed
the world & now at this wall, Tommy,
I still remember you, fearless
in water, out in the deep, over
the waves, where I said
I couldn't swim, but you
believed otherwise —& you
were twenty-one in Vietnam’s
trash heap of beauty
when they killed you
on some river the day
after you arrived, when
you could have gone
on loving. You did
love & later
what was lost
that beautiful May
Monday in Ohio when
guardsmen, no older than
you, stood on the edge
of the green looking
up toward the sound
of helicopters whirring
low, over a field of dust
& flowers, everything
we would come to say
it was: a hell and not
spring—maybe it is
never spring. Yet
sometimes in summer
I dream of you
diving through
the break wall blue-
green Erie waves –-& now
I can swim, but
the waves are wild &
they carry me
away from you
toward shore, to safe
shallows & endless

(Ellen McHugh, based on Maggie Brock's writings)

"Tommy, we hardly knew ye." But we honor your life, your courage, your great sacrifice.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

St. Colmcille of Ireland

One of Ireland's greatest saints is Colmcille (also spelled Columbkille, Colum, Columba, and a half dozen other ways), who lived in the 6th century of the Christian era (born c. 521 in Donegal, Ireland; died 597 on the island of Iona, now Scotland). This period in Ireland is marked by wondrous stories of magic and miracles, and Colmcille is no exception. One legend says that the fingers of his left hand gave off light so that Colmcille could copy manuscripts in the dark. Below is a poem that I wrote about the great saint:

"St. Colmcille’s Illumination"

In medieval Ireland
The miraculous happened every day:

St. Colmcille loved books so much
He “borrowed” his master’s illuminated psalter,
And in the dark began to copy it
By hand, ink against vellum.

Starlight, moonlight, and the
Five fingers of the saint’s left hand glowed--

Illuminating his right hand as he copied down,
In his beautiful Irish hand,
The precious psalms.

Brought before King Diarmait
For this little indiscretion, the King ruled:

“To every cow her calf . . .

To every book its copy.”

(based on a passage from Thomas Cahill’s
“How the Irish Saved Civilization”)
The image at the above-left is of the monastery at Iona, founded by Colmcille. The image above-right is a Celtic Cross at Kells in Ireland.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

40 years Ago Today: April 4, 1968, MLK RIP

My roommate Brian Wilson and I got on a ferry boat at Piraeus, Greece, just outside of Athens the evening of April 4, 1968. We hadn't seen a newspaper in days and were far from any televisions or radios--blissfully cut off from the Vietnam slaughters and the American race wars. The ferry was heading overnight to Iraklion, a city on the northern coast of the island of Crete. It was a very crowded boat, not luxurious in any way (and that was fine with us). Overnight some of the Cretans were playing a wild music on some sort of folk instrument played with a bow. Brian Wilson met a girl on the boat from Eastlake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb just miles from my home in Euclid. I actually knew some of her relatives and had shopped in her family's little clothing store in Euclid. A young mother in my quarters pulled out her breast in public and began nursing her baby. I was astonished beyond belief, never having seen anything like that back home. I slept a little that night in the crazy cacophony, in a setting where Zorba the Greek would have felt quite at home.

In the morning we arrived at port in Iraklion. We hitched a short ride up a hill on the back of a moped and then began walking. We had only a vague clue where we were headed. Somewhere we had heard a vague rumor about a place on the south central coast of the island where we could live free in caves. The place was called Matala, so we decided to head there. When we got out of Iraklion, we began hitchhiking. Unfortunately for us, there were hardly any cars at all on the roads. Finally a truck came by carrying a full load of gravel and stopped. I hopped in the cab, but there wasn't room for Brian and his guitar. The driver signalled for Brian to get up on the load of gravel, which he did. We began driving over the incredibly bad roads of Crete, occasionally passing by areas where the road had been utterly ruined by earthquakes. I passed the time trying to talk to the driver. I only knew a few words and phrases of Greek, but I discovered he spoke some German--apparently useful in Greece during the World War II era. And that's when he told me: that Martin Luther King had been murdered. His German was shaky enough that I wasn't sure exactly what he was telling me: that the king was dead, was shot. The driver was deadly serious about this and he certainly communicated to me that something very serious, very terrible, had happened.

We had a few more rides that day and walked a great deal. We walked right past one of the most historic archaeological sites in the world: "Phaistos," an ancient civilization, almost a birthplace of the world I lived in. The final 10 miles or so of our journey was on foot. There were no cars, no buses, and very primitive roads to Matala. I do remember one beautiful moment. A Greek man noticed Brian's guitar and invited us into his home. He spoke a little English and introduced us to his family, told us of relatives in America. He brought out his pride and joy, a magnificent bouzouki, one that must have cost him a year's wages, and played it for us. I took a photo of that scene, inside this Cretan house, the man holding his bouzouki, his wife and children by his side. About 4000 miles away in America, all hell had broken loose. The grim tide of blood and chaos that WB Yeats had spoken of had been unloosed. Evil and hatred had its day in America, while Brian and I were so blessed by this man and his family in Crete.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Remembering Cincinnati's "12th Street Clinic"

In the early 1970s, I worked at Cincinnati's "12th Street Clinic," known bureaucratically as the "Pilot City Health Service." This was an experiment in medical care, a precursor to Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO's)--but far better than what they turned out to be. This clinic was led by a fantastic person, Dr. Joseph Alter, a local Quaker. I worked with Charles Couch, Moscoe Hendrickson, and June Miehle in the health education program of the clinic. The dental clinic was second to none and featured the work of James Dale White DDS, who I think currently practices dentistry around Wilmington, Ohio. There were wonderful internists and general practice physicians at 12th Street Clinic. One was Dr. Goldberg (possibly Leonard Goldberg). There was also a crew of visiting nurses associated with the clinic. One name I remember is Linda Olberding--I heard that she is a professor of nursing at the University of Cincinnati these days. A nurse I worked with was Becky Meyers, a wonderful person and fine nurse (and yes, a pretty girl). I helped Becky Meyers with a program she developed teaching young mothers and mothers-to-be how to take care of themselves and their new babies. There were also some fine social workers at the clinic. Two names come to mind: Tom DiFalco (he was thinking about becoming a priest), and Mark Baker. I think Shirley Gallahan was also one of these social workers. Two other names of Clinic associates come to mind: Maureen Sullivan (of the HUB Services), and the legendary Ernie Mynatt. They weren't employed directly by the clinic, but were connected with the work of that institution. I think Maureen might have gone to work for the Urban Appalachian Council. I wish I knew if Joe Alter is still alive; and what Becky Meyers, Charles Couch, Dale White, and June Miehle are doing. This was a wonderful place to work and a model of what our medical system should be. It dealt with the whole social and medical context of the residents of Over-the-Rhine, a poor neighborhood of Cincinnati. It will be a long time before the likes of the 12th Street Clinic is seen again!

[The photo above is of the Germania Building at 12th and Walnut Streets in Over-the-Rhine, a few blocks from the 12th Street Clinic. Photo source: http://queencitysurvey.blogspot.com/2007/11/queens-crown-jewels.html]