Talk of The Town: 1981

Hey, ho, way to go, Ohio…..

It was early evening on the Ohio Turnpike, and the sun was getting in our eyes.

My sister Joni was behind the wheel, taking me from our hometown in western Pennsylvania to her new home near Medina, Ohio. We were cruising along in a light blue Datsun that sounded like a music box every time you opened the door.

Joni was a competitive driver, playing Tic Tac Toe with the eighteen wheelers on the road. The trucks were so tall that sometimes, they plunged us into darkness when they towered around us.

I’d been a sheltered kid. By the time I was 12, I’d only had three or four long trips away from home. Now I was going away for the whole summer.

This might sound like the beginnings of some Huck Finn-like tale, a coming-of-age story, the tales of a seventh-grade nothing that Judy Blume forgot to write.

But the reason for this new adventure, this new chapter in the book wasn’t as sunny as all that.

A few weeks earlier, on a Sunday afternoon, my mother had put on a blue muummuu with big red Hawaiian flowers, draped a cross held together by beads around her neck, locked the door to my parents’ bedroom, crawled into bed, took a handful of pills, and rested her hands on her chest.

That’s how she was when we found her, still breathing.

I remember standing in the doorway while my father and the ambulance workers tended to her.

I couldn’t look at her. They were saying she was going to be fine, but I couldn’t look. So I turned to face the wall. And that’s when I saw her artwork.

She’d moved the dresser away from the wall to block the door. She hadn’t written us a note, but instead, in the space where the dresser had been, she drew us a picture, in crayons.

She’d drawn the word “goodbye” and a grave with the name “Elizabeth,” an older sibling who had died before birth.

My mother had been physically ill, in some fashion, since I was a young kid. But since I was only a kid, I didn’t understand the scope of it all. I never knew her frustrations were anything more than an Erma Bombeck column full of sarcasm and fatigue.

Clearly, it ran deeper. She’d had a full breakdown. She was admitted to an inpatient mental health program. As the only kid still at home and under 18, I had to go somewhere. So off I went to Ohio.

Joni and her husband lived in a small town called Chippewa Lake. The town used to have a thriving resort town feel, and had been a popular stop on the nearby railroad. It even hosted an amusement park for many years. (YouTube has footage from the abandoned remains of the park.)

I was staying in the cottage where they lived, literally hundreds of feet from the lake. The cottage sat on the grounds of the huge, elegant restaurant where they worked. It had once been part of a grand estate.

The restaurant was owned and operated by two men. Outside of playground namecalling, they were the first two men I’d ever met, or ever heard of, who were publicly gay — and a couple, even, which seems astonishing in early 1980s rural Ohio.

On some days, I’d visit my sister at work and walk through the grand rooms, helping to roll silverware into napkins, or sipping an iced tea in the sunny grand room, while the other waitresses waved and walked by.

Other days, I’d walk a half-mile or so to the small store nearby, to pick up The Plain Dealer or Akron Beacon Journal — because I was a nerd and a news junkie, even then — and maybe an ice cream from the cooler.

I remember so much about the new sights and new sounds of that summer.

The strange old lady with the bright red hair — Dorothy Fuldheim — who did commentary on the noon news.

The noise that Joni’s dog Lady, an Irish Setter with a lot of energy and no common sense, made when she ran headlong into the lake and chased the ducks.

The snorting laughter from the backseat — from me — when my sister and her friends took me to the drive-in to see Caddyshack and History of the World Part I (my first “grownup” movies).

I should not have been enjoying myself, but I was.

I was worried about my mom, of course. But while it made me feel tremendously guilty, I was also enjoying the experience. It was all new for me, at a time where I really needed to break out of my cocoon and out of my own head.

When I hear The Pretenders, especially early Pretenders, it often reminds me of Ohio and of that summer. I heard Talk of the Town almost constantly that summer. (Was it WMMS? Another station? I don’t know.)

The Pretenders’ music always reminds me of Cleveland, of Pittsburgh, of my home. There’s some sort of unexplainable connection. Chrissie Hynde had left Akron for London and the rest of the world long before I ever heard her music, but there’s still something in it that makes my ears twitch.

It has a grittiness and uncompromising attitude, but a heart underneath – a description that fits many of us from that region perfectly.

I always remember the big clouds and the blue sky I’d see on the road while listening to Message of Love, or Back On The Chain Gang. It was a sure sign we were getting closer to Lake Erie, which Chrissie mentions in a few Pretenders songs.

When I went away to college six years later, it was another Pretenders song, My Baby, that was on the radio as we pulled up under those big clouds campus, watching the seagulls soar over the campus mall.

The summer in Chippewa also brought an awakening of another kind.

There was a picnic one evening late in the summer, not long before I went back to Pennsylvania.

I was with my sister and brother-in-law, and a few dozen of their co-workers. That evening, I had a great evening with a few of the guys at the party, who were joking with me and with each other.

It was a pretty remarkable thing, since I was a pretty socially awkward kid – or as the lingo of the day would put it, a total spaz.

The guys were talking about music, and while my sister’s crowd was more Rolling Stones and Eagles, these guys loved the Pretenders and Blondie, even some disco (a bold thing to admit in 1981).

There was a moment of recognition that night for me, the first time I was in a space where I could tell that someone else on the planet, someone who was an adult, was like me. That stayed with me for a long time after that.

The brotherhood between the men and the feeling of open affection and warmth, was something I would recognize and find again when I came out as a gay man. That night was my first inkling that it even existed.

The source of my mother’s physical illness, one that required surgery, was finally pinpointed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she was a brand new woman after surgery and recovery. She fought other physical and mental illness during her lifetime – the road was never easy for her – but her recovery signaled the beginning of some good times for her.

There’s one more Pretenders song that reminds me of her when I hear it.

I still have a warm spot in my heart for Chippewa Lake. We all went back to visit a few times; my mother came with us the following summer, when Joni’s first child was born.

I’ve been back to visit it as an adult a few times over the years. Like anything you see as a kid, it never quite looks the same when you’re grown. But like the memory of music, the memory of being there makes it worth the journey.

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