Friday, May 30, 2008

Joy in Mudville (Willow Playground in Euclid, Ohio)

"There is no joy in Mudville, Might Casey has struck out." So goes the famous poem "Casey at the Bat." But I am here to tell you that there was plenty of joy in Mudville when I was a kid. "Mudville" is what we called our playground, a small undeveloped area, perhaps 15 acres, bounded on the west by E. 272nd Street, and on all other sides by the semi-circular Willow Drive. To the west was the ticky-tacky bungalow homes built by Marvin Helf (homes that cost $11,900 in 1951 when my family moved in); and to the east, north, and south, by brick ranches, the "F & S Homes." The only thing I can figure is that they couldn't decide out how to develop this little semi-circle of land, and thought they would be "magnanimous" and donate it to the city of Euclid. We never ever heard any official name for this piece of land, and so we (and everyone!) called it Mudville--for the astonishing quantities of mud that covered part of the area.

I would guess that from about 1955, when I was 7 years old, until my mid teens, I spent most of my life at Mudville playing baseball. Much of the time the baseball involved pick-up games, and for 3 years I played organized Midget League baseball. Later, I played softball with the Farringdon Avenue men's team--an incredible spirited kind of ball.

I played with some great players in Mudville and learned to play a very high quality, very competitive (and at times ferocious) brand of baseball. Some of the great athletes I remember include the following: Tony Severino (for 25 years the head football coach at Rockhurst High School, the Jesuit Prep School in Kansas City; Rockhurst was state champs in football last year). Tony was the best young hitter I had ever seen. As a 12 year old, he could hit the ball over the fence--sometimes hitting the roofs of homes on Willow Drive. Tony was a dark-skinned, tall Italian. I'm pretty sure that Italian was spoken at his home on Briardale Avenue. Tony went to Cathedral Latin High School from St. William's and starred in many sports. He eventually got a football scholarship to Kansas State University, and afterwards made a career as a high school teacher and coach. I remember Tony vividly, admired his athletic skill tremendously.
[more coming very soon]

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ruth Sanders, Requiescat in Pace

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the death of Ruth Sanders, my mother-in-law. The death certificate and other documents say she died on May 24, 2007, but we know that her death happened on May 23, but wasn't officially certified till early in the morning on May 24th. Ruth apparently had a sudden and massive stroke and died very quickly. Linda and Marianne had been calling her all evening, and we grew ever more worried that something was wrong. Finally, Marianne and Todd went over to her house late on Wednesday, May 23rd, and found her deceased.

Everyone given the precious gift of life has to die. But sometimes the death is stunningly sudden and unexpected. The odd thing is that you can be 100 years old, and yet your death will be perceived by some of your family and friends as unexpected. Ruth was 82 years old, with some minor physical complaints, but still very sharp and very vigorous. In fact, she was indefatigable, a force of nature.

Ruth had been married for about 46 years to Art Sanders, who died in April of 1996. They had 5 children, Linda, Steve, Bruce, Marianne, and Paul. She devoted most of her adult life to homemaking and raising her children. Who was better at this than Ruth Sanders? Her five children and thirteen grandchildren are all extraordinary, productive, loving people, and that is to no small extent the fruit of Ruth's (and Art's!) efforts.

Ruth was extremely intelligent, disciplined, and hard-working. You might say she was a bit stubborn, too. But stubbornness is often a virtue that the best and most accomplished people possess (I think of Maurice McCrackin, Ernest Bromley, Marion Bromley, James Ricalton, Daniel Berrigan--the likes of them!).

When you lose your father and then your mother (or your father-in-law and your mother-in-law), you feel like an orphan. And it doesn't matter how old you are. We felt orphaned when Ruth Sanders died a year ago.

Ruth Sanders: An amazing person, a force of nature, one who took the vocation of homemaker and motherhood to the highest levels, to the level of Art. Requiescat in Pace.

[The photos above were taken in the park at Put-in-Bay, Ohio (South Bass Island), in June 2002 and show Ruth, Linda, and Emily. Ruth accompanied us often to Lakeside and Put-in-Bay.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

May--The Month of Mary, Mother of Jesus

When I was a kid at St. William's School in Euclid, Ohio in the 1950's and early 1960's, we had a "May Crowning" every year to honor Mary, the Mother of Jesus. A flower crown was woven together and placed on the head of the statue of Mary while students and teachers sang beautiful Marian hymns. I loved those songs and still catch myself singing them to this day: "Bring flowers of the rarest, bring flowers of the fairest. . . ." and "O Mary we greet thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May."

There are a number of May Crowning videos on if you want to see what they look and sound like. Here is a link to the tune and lyrics of "Bring Flowers of the Rarest":

I will attach the lyrics of one of my favorite May Crowning songs,"Bring Flowers of the Fairest." As with many folk songs, there are multiple versions and the author is not known.

A shortened version:

Bring flowers of the rarest,
Bring blossoms the fairest,
From garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest flower of the vale.

Chorus: O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May,
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

Their lady they name thee,
Their mistress proclaim thee,
Oh, grant that thy children on earth be as true
As long as the bowers
Are radiant with flowers
As long as the azure shall keep its bright hue.

Chorus. O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May,
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

Sing gaily in chorus,
The bright angels o'er us
Re-echo the strains we begin upon earth;
Their harps are repeating
The notes of our greeting,
For Mary herself is the cause of our mirth. Chorus.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Denny and Bobby Coughlin Invent Hair Gel

Denny and I invented hair gel in the summer of 1961--a hot muggy Sunday in July. At the time Denny and I sported what was then called a "butch" or "flattop" hair cut (you probably couldn't or wouldn't call it that any more!).

We wore our hair that way because Dad was good at cutting our hair short: it was quick; it was easy; and it was cheap. It was even, believe it or not, sort of cool--so many of the World War II GI's and sailors wore butch or buzz cuts, and we wanted to be like them (of course a few of us wanted to be like Elvis--Jim Talty and Tommy Fitzpatrick of St. William's, for example). To make your butch haircut stand up just right, you had to use some thick substance called "Butch Wax"--a kind of "pomade," it was a pinkish color and thicker than vaseline. And it smelled . . . good!

That particular hot July Sunday we were fresh out of Butch Wax--so Denny and I improvised. What would be the approximate consistency of Butch Wax? Well, why not try Crisco? I tried a dab of Crisco--and voila, it worked perfectly. Unfortunately, I used the last of the Crisco, so Denny decided he'd use a dab of oleo-margarine. And it too worked just fine!

That day Denny and I went to a hot 9:30 mass at St. Williams. This was before the era of air-conditioning, and the church was hot, stuffy, and very crowded that day. We came up the middle aisle and found the only seats left. It turned our that the seats were right in front of the family of the prettiest girl in St. William's. During that mass, flies discovered our criscoed and buttered hair-do's, and buzzed our heads for the entire hour. I was so mortified I hoped that I would die right there.

The crisco and butter idea was stolen years later by the hair gel people, who made a fortune on it. But let it be known for now and forever: Denny and I invented that awful stuff!

The product called "Butch Wax" does not seem to be availalbe anymore. So if you are unable or unwilling to go the crisco/butter route to make the front of your flattop stand up just so, try the product called "Stix Fix," available at That's a free advertisement!

One little postscript: another unique use of crisco and butter that Denny and I invented was to polish shoes. It works just fine in an emergency.

POST POSTSCRIPT: I talked to Denny on the phone [June 1, 2008] and he told me he remembers where the idea of crisco/butter as a substitute for Butch Wax came from. He remembers watching Davy Crockett, the Walt Disney production starring Fess Parker. One day Fess needed some "pomade" for his hair. All that was available was axle grease from the covered wagon or horse cart. Denny translated that into modern (as in 1950-modern) times and came up with the crisco/butter alternative. So Denny is the real inventor!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

May 20th, 1956: First Communion

On my wedding day, I told Linda, "This is the second happiest day of my life!" Linda was a bit startled by that remark, to say the least. "What was the happiest?" she asked.

The happiest day of my life was my First Holy Communion, which took place at St. William's Church, Euclid, Ohio, on May 20th, 1956. I was at the end of second grade. We had huge classes at St. William's, almost 60 kids per class. There were two second-grade classes at St. William's and probably another 100 kids from Upson School, the nearby public school, all making their First Communion that day. The boys and the girls were in line separately, and since I was one of the shorter boys, I was near the front, fourth in line. Randy Wohlgemuth was my partner that day. The boys were dressed very smartly, but nothing like the girls. They were dressed in beautiful white gowns, with white veils, and white gloves on their hands. They looked like little brides.

I think Sister Ruth Marie Behrend and probably my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bartrum, among others, helped prepare us for First Communion. And an entire convent of Ursuline nuns prayed that we would have a fine May day for the event. My cousin Tommy Fitzpatrick also made his First Communion that day at St. William's (Tommy would die in another springtime, thirteen years later and 12,000 miles away in Vietnam).

Father John Flemming celebrated the mass (the ancient and beautiful Tridentine Mass, almost totally in Latin). At the Preface, he sang out, in Gregorian Chant, the ancient prayers: "Per omnia saecula saeculorum . . . . Dominus vobiscum." And then proceeded with the Preface chanted in Fr. Flemming's beautiful Irish tenor. A little later, Fr. Flemming sang the Pater Noster and then moved on to the "Domine non sum dignus . . . ." and we would strike our breast as we said, "O Lord I am not worthy," three times, in Latin. And then it was time. Lines of boys on the rights side of the church and girls on the left proceeded to the communion rail. And Fr. Flemming proceeded to give us the transformed bread, the Body of Chirst, as we stuck out our tongues, the golden patent placed under our chins by the altar boy, and a sentence of Latin spoken very quickly by the priest.

I was in stark terror as I awaited the reception of the Creator of the Universe. My heartbeat was surely visible through my white shirt. My hands sweated. I was almost swooning from vertigo. And then the host was on my tongue. Following Sr. Ruth Marie's instructions, I silently said, "My Lord and My God," then proceeded back to my pew. I closed my eyes as I knelt down and wept for this wondrous gift.

My First Communion took place 10 days after the birth of my brother, Kevin Gerard. That middle name came from the patron saint of difficult births (and difficult kids!). Kev almost spoiled my First Communion party by being the star of the show! But we still had a great time. All the neighbors, aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. Denny and Mary Ellen were there (only Jimmy didn't show up! He was born a couple years later). My Gramma and Grampa Coughlin were there. The grownups drank beer, laughed, and told stories, and we kids drank "Little Toms" and played tag, keep-away, and baseball--a perfect party in Euclid in the halcyon days of being a kid!

And that was the happiest day of my life!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Cinco de Mayo--Happy 30th Anniversary!

May 5th is the Mexican festival "Cinco de Mayo," a celebration of a military victory from the mid 19th century. And this Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of our wedding: Linda Rose Sanders and I will be married 30 years. We were married in the presence of our family and friends in a mass and ceremony presided over by Fr. Harry Meyer at St. George's Church in the Corryville neighbohood of Cincinnati, right near the University of Cincinnati. This was a different kind of wedding, so different that a co-worker of Linda asked afterwards if we were really married! Fr. Harry said a regular wedding mass, but I made a loaf of whole-wheat bread that was used for communion. Linda and I made up our own wedding vows, and we pushed the boundaries of ecumenism forward a couple hundred years when Quakers, non-believers, fallen Catholics, Protestants, and Jews received communion. The door on this kind of progressive church, the Church of the Holy Spirit, semed to close not long after our wedding.

As the saying goes, there's been a "lot of water under the bridge" in the past 30 years. St. George Church is no longer an active Catholic church (not our fault!) and this past year suffered from a devastating fire to its two steeples (again, no blame on us!). Many family members and friends who attended our wedding have passed away--my Mom and Dad, Linda's Grandma Hoffman, her Mom and Dad. Most of our aunts and uncles that attended are gone: Aunt Dudie (Julia Brock), Aunt Mary, Uncle Skip. Uncles Tom and Howard Sanders and our friend Kenny Przybylski are gone (as are Ernest and Marion Bromley and Maurice McCrackin). These family members and friends are written deep in our hearts, carved into the palms of our hands. We are grateful for Uncle Bill and Aunt Kay Coughlin, and Aunt Grace Sanders, who are still with us, still vital! And our best man, Chris Cotter, and maids of honor, Mary Ann Hageman and Jan Shepherd, are all doing well. Our brothers and sisters are also doing well: Denny and Sher, Mary Ellen and Ed, Kevin, Jim and Jodi, Steve and Sue, Bruce and Christina, Marianne and Todd, Paul and Linda--and a whole slew of children and even grandchildren!

The entire wedding cost a few hundred dollars. Linda's wedding dress cost $30 for materials--which she sewed into a beautiful gown. My wedding shirt, one of those peasant cotton shirts (made in Mexico, I think--perfect for Cinco de Mayo!) cost about 10 dollars. We rented a shelter in Mt Airie Forest for the reception--that was a little over a hundred dollars. The food at the reception was potluck, brought by the guests. Our photographer was Linda's brother, Bruce. Our "limo" was an old Chevy, driven by Linda's brother Steve. My friend Clare Weinkam and I made the wedding cake, garnished by purple lilac blossoms. Our parents provided a keg of beer. A square-dance caller spun records and called dances at the reception. Alas, no chicken dance or electric slide! But everyone still had a great time!

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Happy Anniversary to us! God Bless our family and friends who've supported our marriage and family all these years. Bless our children, Julia, Carolan, and Emily. I hope our life together has, at least to some extent and for some people, reflected the Grace of God and the Power, Light, and Love of the Spirit.