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Ohio’s past reminds us of possibility

Jean Gianfagna

Jean Gianfagna

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:34AM

‘Hey mister — ain’t you from Ohio?”

I looked at the boy who had called to me — bowl haircut, tortoise frame glasses, brown corduroy Mighty Mac jacket, straddling a green Schwinn Typhoon with double newspaper boy baskets.

Not real, of course — virtual me, circa 1970, calling faintly across the decades.

Maybe because it was a Thursday — the Berea News Sun was a weekly paper, delivered every Thursday, by me — geez, just 10 and already tied to the newspaper biz. Waking up at 4 a.m.; God I hated that alarm clock — a square, electric GE, delivering a nasal “naaaaaaanngggggggg” until I pushed the metal tab in back — prodding me to deliver to my 60 customers, later carrying the big metal ring of worn oblong cards, yellow for those I had to collect from every other week, purple for those who subscribed by the year.

I spent Thursday’s train ride into Chicago immersed in the newspapers, which focused on Ohio, the linchpin, Ohio, the fulcrum on which Tuesday’s election, if not the future of the country, if not the world, teeters. Round on the ends and high in the middle, Ohio.

What is this Ohio they’re all talking about?

It isn’t all factories and foundries, never was — Ohio not only invented heavier-than-air flight, remember, but kept at it. Both 1960s astronaut heroes, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, were born in Ohio. The NASA laboratory beside Cleveland Hopkins Airport employed thousands of people, including my father, who designed nuclear reactor cores. We lived in Berea, just west, “The Grindstone Capital of the World” — you can’t make that up, can you? A team of poets couldn’t imagine a more succinct expression of defunct technology and hard work. The grindstone capital of the world. I’ll say this about Ohio, it’s no mystery why people leave.

Though at the time, Berea was lush, booming. Sure, the sandstone quarries were long gone, turned to brackish green lakes by the time I showed up. But you could swim and fish in them, and we did.

Nostalgia is a lie too easy to slip into — in truth, I’d never use the word “ain’t” as a boy — too much Straight A pride. But looking back at my Ohio from the perspective of this election, what stands out is there was a kind of economic parity that’s harder to find today. Richard Coreno was my best friend; his father worked the line at the Ford assembly plant. The boys I played kickball with on my block were Ricky Johnson, who lived two houses over, and Danny Malloy, next to Ricky. Mr. Johnson was a fireman. Mr. Malloy was the janitor at the hospital.

Yet not only did we live on the same block, our houses were identical — each house a mirror image of its neighbor, to give the illusion of variety. All built by the omnipresent developer Bob Schmitt. Not the best-constructed houses, perhaps — my father joked that if there was a fire, we could kick out the wall to escape. But my family lived in ours for 27 years. When I went back two years ago, the Malloys and Johnsons were still there.

I don’t get back to Berea much, and when I do I think of that Pretenders song, “I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone.” Like Cleveland, Berea was walloped by the recession. Houses on nice streets — streets like ours — have plywood on the windows now. Foreclosed. Empty stores. Whole schools are shut down. The movie theater is long gone.

It’s that Ohio called upon now to pick the next president. I don’t think they’re going to be swayed by any promises to lead it back to the glory days of the 1960s. Ohioans may be dreamers, but they’re grounded dreamers. The Wright Brothers, remember, ran a bicycle shop, and used their two-wheeler savvy to reach the clouds. My father patented a device to make sure fuel rods within nuclear reactors were absolutely straight; it was basically a fancy carpenter’s level bubble.

It won’t be easy to fool Ohioans. Nostalgia is a trap — the past doesn’t exist. All this talk of taking America back, and returning to our glory, and such, is just that: talk, designed to fool the gullible. When you look hard at the country now, when you shear away all the culture war distractions, you are left with an ever widening gulf between rich and poor, with a game that is more and more perversely rigged, not to help struggling workers, but to coddle those who are already rich, who want to take more for themselves while ridiculing the very idea of society benefitting anyone else. They don’t want to go back to a country where atomic scientists and hospital janitors and firemen lived on the same street.

I live here now — I can’t use “we” when talking about Ohio anymore. My new book is about Chicago (I’ll be speaking to the City Club about it Nov. 7, if you can imagine life beyond Election Day). But you can be both proud of where you are and proud of where you came from, and I’ve always said Ohio was a great place to grow up. If one state, alone, has to decide this mess of an election, I’m glad that it’s the Buckeye state.

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