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Larry Rochelle

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Memories of Toledo
9/14/2005 6:00:38 PM

I grew up on the west side of Toledo, near Upton and Bancroft. At that time we had Fairmont Pharmacy, a barber shop, a meat market/grocery, a bakery, Ottawa Tavern, a shoe store and a sundry store on that corner, along with Stutz’s gas station. My friends and I worked on that corner, picking up our bundles of TOLEDO BLADES outside Fairmont Pharmacy and delivering them to the neighborhoods to the north of that corner. Tom Lewandowski had the “Blue Streak” edition and I had the 4 p.m. regular home edition.

My interest in writing blossomed at Gesu School where we were taught by Notre Dame nuns and some very talented lay teachers as well. The nuns read to us constantly, sometimes early in the day or after noon recess. They read entire books to us, and we all hushed as the next chapter was read. The school itself worked on our imaginations as well. Many of us participated in plays in the old church/gym, while above in a large room the Woman’s Club would meet for lunches and coffees. My urge for coffee spiked each time they met, for the aroma permeated the entire school.


My first tennis practices were against the wall on the east side of the Ottawa Tavern building. This brick wall was not forgiving, and my serve and forehand were grooved hitting each evening. At the time I didn’t know that Mrs. Hoxie up in Hamtramck, Michigan, had a tennis school which made walls like these the major component of her teaching. Many great tennis players were turned out up there in Detroit. My skills were honed enough against my red brick wall, so that I could play tennis on St. Francis’ first tennis team with Reverend Robert Hurley as coach. Later, I went to Toledo University and played varsity for three years under Art Leighton, head coach.


My street, Freeman Street, was not very wide, but wide enough for the game of gutter tag. On one side of the street would be Denny and Doug Spencer, Joey Greenberg and his cousin, JoJo, Speedy Rudolph, Bob Greenberg, my sister, Barb. I would be ‘it.’ Seven against one. Until I tagged someone, it would be chaos. They would all be trying to outrun me, or whoever was it. Eventually it was seven against one. Then the game was over when the last guy was tagged. Game over, another one would begin with the first one caught being ‘it.’

Ottawa Park was less than a block away from 1924 Freeman where I lived on the lower duplex with my parents, my brother Bob and my sister. Dad had an old Willys with the driver’s side window out. He covered it with part of a rug. It drove nice. Blue in color, it was about a 1939 model. We’d go for rides in the evening out west to the railroad tracks, sit on the hood of the Willys until a train came by. It was our biggest thrill at that time.

When I was about ten, I got my first bike, red naturally, from Western Auto on Sylvania Avenue. Dad couldn’t get it inside the trunk, so I rode it home. It seemed a very long ride. My hands turned black from the nervous sweat wearing away the rubber handles. Later, after it had been in the weather many years, I painted it yellow using house paint. It was a mean machine, leaning against the house near the side door.

Denny Spencer was always a more dedicated golfer than other neighbor kids, even more than his brother Doug. We’d practice putting near the S. P. Jermain statue in the middle of the putting green at Parkside and Bancroft, and then tee off at Ottawa Park, hitting the ball across the park road directly at the bottom of the first tee. A good drive avoided Ten-Mile Creek, but a slice would lose you a ball. Denny always hit practice balls, dead serious about his game. I think he was the only one of us that would go to the park with a bag of balls just to practice. The rest of us liked to play. At that time it was twenty-five cents for eighteen holes during the week. One time an older guy played in our foursome. We all knew who he was from television sports news, but he introduced himself anyway. He said, “Hello. I’m Frank Venner.”

My father, Palmer Sheldon Rochelle, was a very good athlete. He pitched for the Plaskon fast-pitch softball team, throwing sinkers, curves, innies and outies, and not using a mitt to field the balls coming back at him. He also played a nifty game of golf, batting cross-handed. His softball games often were played at the CYO field across from the golf course. I watched him many times and got to know some of the players, Jerry Cousino, and another pitcher, a big Greek named Gene Provonsha. The team was very good, and played at least once against Eddie Feigner’s four man team.

We protected our Freeman Street neighborhood from other strange kids. If some kids rode by on their bicycles, we might holler at them. Sometimes they’d stop and we’d have a big fight. One day I was sitting on some guy’s chest, hitting him in the face till he got bloody. I felt bad. I didn’t want to do that any more. Still, if someone picked on a smaller kid, I would often step in to battle it out with the bully. Luckily, most of these fights were broken up by adults walking by.

My mother, Clara Krause Rochelle, was a real battler. After she had us three kids, she went back to work for the Lucas County Welfare Department. She was a case worker and visited homes every afternoon to see if the people qualified for welfare payments. She got very close to some of these people. Some gave her vegetables, fruit, in appreciation. She took her lunch breaks at home so she could fix us our lunch. At Gesu School on Parkside, we were allowed to go home for lunch. We watched Soupy Sales on a Detroit station and ate bologna sandwiches with tomato soup before we’d walk back to school. I loved the names of the streets in Detroit: Gratiot, Livernois.

I also liked the name of our street: Freeman, FREE MAN. “I am a free man,” I’d say to myself. I was completely free and courageous, I thought. The name was very symbolic, and it fit in with some of the films of the 1950s we all saw at the Colony Theater: THE THREE MUSKETEERS was a big one. When it came out, the whole neighborhood of kids found swords made out of small tree limbs, stripped off the bark, and made weapons. We never hurt each other, but we staged many sword fights. Dying, of course, was a practiced art form.

Denny and Doug Spencer lived in a house next to our duplex. Our side yards touched, so we spent much time there playing games. My dad taught us many games. One was called “nigger baby,” a very horrible name but one we gave little thought to as kids. Later, I recognized the racism involved in the game. Each kid would dig a small hole, large enough for a tennis ball to roll into. One kid was it, and rolled the ball down the line of holes. Each of us had one of our feet next to our hole. As soon as the ball was rolled, everyone took off running, except for the kid who owned the hole where the ball stopped. That kid would slam his foot down on the ball and yell, “Stop.” Everyone had to freeze and not move. Then the kid with the ball would throw it at the nearest person. If he hit you, you received a very small stick to place in your hole. The stick was a “nigger baby” and you were then “it” and had to roll the ball. Whoever got three nigger babies first would be out. It went that way until there was just one player left. The symbolism of this game touches upon many of the white prejudices against blacks: having babies out of wedlock, receiving welfare, driving around in Cadillacs. All these canards were lingering over this childhood game, teaching us prejudice.

After World War II, airplanes flew over our neighborhood dropping information flyers about the end of the war. My family and I were on Freeman Street that day, watching the papers flyers float to earth. I don’t know if we picked any up. I was only five-years-old at the time.

Behind our duplex at 1924 Freeman were two former city dumps. One was between Freeman and Macomber. The other was between Macomber and Milburn. We called these dumps the “first dump” and the “second dump.” The first dump was right across the alley from my back yard. It was all filled in, but had small hills of trash covered over by high grass. City mowers would cut this grass in the dump maybe two times a year. When they did, we played softball in the first dump, using the fences behind the Spencers’ home and the Rogers’ home as homerun fences. Funny to think of this now, but Mr. Rogers (yes, we had a Mister Rogers) had a wonderful garden and he patrolled it when he was home. Then it was dangerous to hit a long ball. Bobby Greenberg was our biggest hitter, and many times we tried to get his homeruns back. After a homerun, we would have to sneak into the garden. However, when Mr. Rogers was there, he would confiscate our softballs and never give them back. When he died many years later, I visited my old home and went to his Estate Sale. There in his garage were all of our old, moldy softballs, about ten, that he had confiscated. It was like a scene out of the movie BIRDY, when one of the characters played by Matt Modine is tempted out of his mental illness by the delivery of old softballs kept by his mother.

Sometimes we neighbor kids would spy on each other. One of our victims was Denny Spencer, who along with his golf also had a big interest in gardening. He would plant vegetables, weed and water his garden, and talk to his plants. I don’t think he ever noticed us, but we would creep up on him and listen. We had to stifle our laughter as we spied on him from behind the bushes and listened to his plant encouragement.

My sister, Barb, was an animal lover before she became city tennis champ. She’d always bring home some disreputable mutt. I believe her all-time favorite was a black mongrel she named “Pancho.” Sick and demanding, this dog hung around our house and Barb fed it table scraps. Of course, all of us loved animals and soon we adopted another dog named “Ace.” It was a traveler and would follow us everywhere, even on the golf course as we played. We finally gave this dog a longer name, “Ace the Friendly Dog,” because wherever he went, he made friends. There was no leash law back then. Another dog named “Ace” belonged to our neighbors and was kept in a pen. It was a hunting dog and used to chasing and pointing. However, one day it escaped the pen and took off after us, growling. We all ran away, and only I was left to outrace this dog. I made it behind our garage to the tree with a low limb, but as I climbed up, the hunting dog Ace bit my butt. Not too pleasant.

When the big fire started in the bakery basement near the corner of Upton and Bancroft, I was just getting up from sleep. All the sirens woke us, and my parents let us go watch the fire. Fairmont Pharmacy, the sundry store and the bakery were heavily engulfed. At first, we watched from a distance, but as the flames were put out, we got brave. Walking on the slick, icy sidewalk, we picked up items frozen on the ground. I got some earrings, other neighbor kids plucked up toy cars. I went to the broken front window at the sundry store where a huge, toy, fire truck was imbedded in ice. I tried to get it out, but a fireman came over and told me that “I had enough loot.” I returned home with many trinkets, but sadly did not get that truck. Only much later did I realize I had been a common looter, and might have been shot in more modern times.

One memorable tennis match occurred when I was a freshman at Central High School, the year before I transferred to St. Francis to become a member of the first graduating class of 1958. There was a tournament at Jermain Park, and I drew Jim Tenney from Ottawa Hills H. S. in the first round. Within a half hour, I had lost, 6—0, 6—0. During breaks, Tenney would juggle tennis balls for his own amusement to my chagrin. It was the only time I played Tenney. Later at St. Francis when we played Ottawa Hills, our coach switched our line-up, playing me at number three singles and another weaker player was sacrificed against Tenney. I won my match, but we still lost to Ottawa Hills, 3—2. Not playing the number one player embarrassed me. It’s not considered sporting to adjust a tennis team line-up that way.

The numbers 21—20 are burned into every St. Francis graduate’s brain from 1958. That was the score when Ottawa Hills beat us at football, and later that night, students from Ottawa Hills painted that score on the front of our school. Even after the paint was taken off, we could read that fateful score as we drove by on Bancroft.

One summer day, Doug and Denny Spencer, Joey Greenberg and I took off on our bikes for an adventure. We were all between eight and eleven years old, and not too skilled in bike-riding. Somehow we got the idea to ride down Bancroft to downtown, and then ride over the “high-level” bridge to the east side. All went well until our trip back, when Doug’s bike tire got caught in one of the many sewer openings on the bridge, delaying our arrival home. No adults had given permission for this jaunt and all of us received verbal abuse and groundings from our parents. I don’t know if Mrs. Thelma Spencer ever forgave me, since I was the oldest and should have known better.

My dad’s tennis game was a thing of exotic beauty. A chunky 5’ 8”, dad was very muscular, but had a finesse game. He undercut the ball on most of his strokes, giving the ball tremendous torque. He could spin it to either side. His regular serve was adequate, but his underhand serve was sheer terror. Most tennis players avoid the underhand serve (thinking it’s underhanded?), but dad perfected it, moving the ball to left or right or to an almost dead stop. A very effective serve in doubles, and he was the Industrial League champ. We played at Jermain during the time Rollie Boldt was the manager there. Dad was also excellent at horseshoes, and Jermain had the soft, wet clay necessary for good play. Rollie Boldt tended that clay, and dad pitched ringers and taught us the game. It’s hard to find good clay horseshoe courts like that today.

My mother’s family lived near St. Anthony’s Church and her dad, Joseph Krause, was the organist there. She had four sisters (Rosemary, Florence, Theresa and Margaret) and four brothers (Tony, John, Joe Jr. and Bob). Rosemary and my mom played tennis, too, and mom met her future husband on those Jermain Courts. Of course, dad was a divorced man, so his marriage to mom was not welcomed in her strict Catholic family. All of her family suffered under the pall of non-acceptance. Dad always stayed home when we walked to visit my grandparents’ home, mom pushing the youngest in a stroller all the way to Vance Street. There were no sleepovers, no hugs, and no game playing with the grandparents. I often wondered if they knew my name.

Near the corner of Upton and Milburn was an old garage. Each time I went past there, I got a shiver. According to dad’s recollection, there had been a big shoot-out there between the cops and an organized crime gang. A few were killed, and in my imagination I could see them crouching beside that garage, firing their pistols.

I participated in the “duck and cover” drills during the early 1950s at Gesu School. Atomic warfare was in the news every day, and my imagination was horrified by the huge mushroom cloud I had watched on TV. The cold war was very real. Each night I looked up at the sky to the west, and if dark clouds rose up, I feared the atomic bomb was on its way. I had persistent nightmares of destruction, often measuring the miles to Detroit, to Cleveland, to Chicago, wondering if Toledo would be hit by bombs in those cities. Radiation was also a constant fear. Little did I realize that our own atomic tests on the Yucca Flats might be depositing Strontium 90 on Toledo. Friendly fire.

Father O’Neill assigned us WAR & PEACE at St. Francis, a truly awesome book. Just the heft impressed me. Each of us was required to write a book report, including extended character sketches of all major persons. I think I received a B+, not bad for me, but Father O’Neill was the person who influenced me to become an English teacher.

While spending most of my afternoons and evenings at Jermain Park, I came to respect the good tennis players there. Both Dan and Vic Braden played there, and Vic gave lessons long before he became the famous TV professional. An older player also haunted those courts. Dick Querl would always be looking for a game of singles after he got off work, and if I could finish my paper route quickly, I could just get down there to play him. He still war those long, white or tan pants from the 1930s tennis era with a regular short-sleeved white shirt. His style very smooth, his backhand still the best on those courts even if he was losing some steam. Some of the younger players teased him, especially after they learned to beat him. He had an utterly fascinating way of looking at you when you hit a winner, and then he’d say, “I don’t believe it.”

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