I never went to Case Western Reserve in University Circle. But my girlfriend did. This is how we got acquainted in August 1968.
The US Junior Chess Open was held at Case Western Reserve that year, and our Latvian chess coach insisted we go. It was an hour’s journey from Perry in eastern Lake County, so we stayed at the dormitory on campus and competed in Thwing Hall. Twenty-one years prior, the tournament had been won by an upstart named Bobby Fischer. For a prize, they gave him a portable typewriter. We were high school juniors from a small town, and this was quite an adventure. Anything seemed possible. There were ninety-two competitors from across the country with four in our own group—three boys, one girl, with no chaperone.
We had quite a chess club in tiny Perry. A year later, we would place second at the state team championship for high schools. But in this tournament, up against the top young players from across the country, we were taking our lumps. The tournament lasted four days, but chess became a lesser highlight. There was a Howard Johnson’s on Euclid across from Wade Park and the Holy Oil Can, and that’s where we went for black fudge sundaes. The days were consumed with chess, but in the evenings we were on our own. The Republican National Convention was going on and, being wonky kids, that’s what we watched in the TV room of the dormitory. There were Rockefellers and Romneys in the mix as thousands of convention-goers in Miami waved signs and stayed up past their bedtime. On the second night of our tournament, she and I outlasted the others in the TV room and somewhere between the failed nominations of Howard Stassen and Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, we hugged and began a four-year on-again, off-again relationship. I did not excel at chess that week, but I always thought I fared better than America, which ended up with Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew.
By the next evening, because of my new friendship, I became the object of ridicule among my roommates. They took my Hai Karate aftershave (I had no reason to own aftershave) and threw it around the room, breaking it against a wall. We all reeked of Hai Karate. Then they kidnapped me, ostensibly to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Hippodrome downtown. Our female competitor declined, or was not invited, I cannot remember, but what we ended up seeing was 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, a life-changing experience in itself. We were a bunch of out-of-town kids traveling the nighttime sidewalks and buses of Euclid, but we never once worried about our safety.
She and I had lunch one day at an Italian place on Euclid Avenue near Little Italy. It may have been called the Aurora Room. She was small and perky. At one point she put her hand to her chin and leaned her elbow on the edge of the small round table, tipping it, and sending the salt and pepper shakers to the floor along with the parmesan cheese. Ultimately, during that week, she became the US Junior Woman’s Champion.
After high school, she went to Case Western Reserve, and I went to Ohio State. I visited her whenever I could get home. We loved movies and plays in the grand theaters around town, staying out late. Many times, I thundered home along Liberty Boulevard (soon renamed MLK) in my parents’ Dodge Monaco station wagon with imitation wood panels on the side. For several years, University Circle became the cradle that nurtured us. Not far from the Hough riots in 1966 and the Glenville shootout in the summer of 1968, we took quiet walks around the campus and Wade Park. The guards at the Cleveland Botanical Garden ushered us out for smooching more than once. (Unlike the Vietnam War that was going on at the time, there was very little escalation in our relationship.) She became an usher for the Cleveland Orchestra and got me into Severance Hall for free. We haunted the art museum.
Despite the chaos and suffering and violence going on around us, it was a magical time in Cleveland. We saw Simon and Garfunkel at a sold-out Public Hall. There was a fancy restaurant atop a tall motel on the Shoreway where we stopped for ice cream after dates. We competed in many tournaments at the Cleveland Chess Club in the attic of the giant Masonic Temple near Euclid and East 40th.
Eventually, sadly, inevitably, we drifted apart, married others, moved on to different all-consuming lives. She became a vegetarian and a Buddhist. I became a Republican, but once demonstrated against Spiro T. Agnew when he visited Columbus. Perhaps it was the chess experiences, but we both became CPAs and worked downtown for major firms at various points. We met for lunch once at Earth by April, a vegetarian place out by Cedar and Lee. Even today, we continue to correspond, although neither of us visit our chess boards very often.
We grew up and Cleveland grew up in unpredictable ways. Life intervenes.
Years later, still living in Perry thirty-five miles to the east, my wife and I enjoyed special evenings at Top-of-the-Town at Erieview, the Watermark and Sammy’s in the East Flats. We miss the New York Spaghetti House on East 9th and Frank’s Frontier Restaurant on East 13th. We have watched and participated in the rebirth of Playhouse Square. Sadly, the grand old Hippodrome Theater on Euclid Avenue was eventually knocked down for a parking lot.
Do the downtowners realize how important Cleveland is for all of us in Northeastern Ohio?
We are all Clevelanders. We all share in the joys and the magic and the sorrows of this vital nexus. Our city remains a place for hallowed memories, countless lives and loves, as new generations forge fresh connections and limitless dreams.
Mark Gilson is a retired nurseryman and former CPA with many fond memories and work experiences of Cleveland.
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