Cleveland, Ohio

Tuesday, January 13, 1970.

It’s 7.30am and the first glimpse of gloomy daylight is creeping over the snow-covered Central Central Police station at E.21st St and Payne Ave. The night shift is ending. Police officers are gathering their coats, greeting their arriving colleagues and saying their farewells.

I am at a table in a little office used by my new employer, looking over the first of a number of overnight ‘reports of interest’ from the police logs that might make a story or two for that day’s newspaper. A growing hubbub of noise just outside the entrance attracts the attention of both myself and Hilbert (Hil) Black, the paper’s chief police beat reporter,

I put on my coat and go to see for myself. Stepping around huge piles of plowed snow I see fingers pointing skywards towards a barely-visible, half- naked body draped over the telephone and electric wires that run down the street. The frozen body of a woman, legs on one side of the wires, her dress hanging over her torso dangling from the other.

My first homicide? So soon? Not quite. It transpires that this is not a vicious crime, a gangster’s warning to the police, or anything more than a homeless vagrant who has died during the night in an upstairs floor of the run-down “flop-house” across the street. With no intact windows in this decrepit, five-storey commercial building her fellow vagrants have thrown her body straight out of an upstairs window, because they don’t know what else to do with her.

Welcome to Cleveland, Ohio, and my first story for The Cleveland Press; indeed, my first newspaper story in America. Seven months earlier, when I was reporting for the Yorkshire Evening Press in York, England, a story like this would have made the front page, alongside public cries of anguish about who this woman was and how dreadful the condition of the homeless had become.

Instead, I get the wisdom of Bus Bergen, veteran Cleveland Press crime reporter, who sticks his head round the corner of the door, greets Hil Black, then calls out to me: “You’re the new kid from England? You got the dame on the wires?”

“Yes. Writing it now.”

“You might make Metro (edition), but I wouldn’t sweat it. Happens all the time.  See ya.”

It didn’t happen all the time, says the kindly Mr. Black, but the grizzled, tough-talking Buster B was right. I think my story merits a paragraph inside the paper that evening, though I don’t think the poor woman had yet been identified.

I walked “home” that night from the police station to my ninth floor room at the YMCA hostel on Prospect Ave., dug out some old sandwiches and fell asleep on my bed. It was not a fun night. The rising heat in the old “Y” – was so strong I had to open the window – and directly caught all the sounds of Cleveland night life:  an argument on the street below, the constant sound of traffic through slush, one police car siren or fire truck after another blasting me awake time after time.

Over the next few days – and an eye-goggling night-time ride with the police around the East Side, including Cleveland’s Hough area, still devastated from race riots of 1966 – I started to wonder if I had made a Big Mistake coming to Cleveland.

Not that I wasn’t warmly welcomed by the senior staff of The Press. Dick Campbell, the managing editor who had hired me, had invited me to dinner the evening before, the day I first appeared in the office. And Jim Frankel, his assistant who had shepherded my pending immigration visa around the world, had invited me to his home for a ‘birthday tea’ the day before that – on my actual 24th birthday, Sunday, January 18. Within a week I was propelled out of the YMCA to lodge with City Hall reporter Al Horton at his parents’ home in ritzy Shaker Heights. Al would go on to be a very senior editor for the whole of the Scripps Howard newspaper group (though all I can remember of that time was his constant replaying of the Yale Fight Song, his alma mater – Something to do with Bulldogs and bow-wow-wow).

But then I hadn’t been aware of Cleveland’s national reputation as the ‘Mistake on the Lake,’ an industrial city where, six months earlier, oil on the surface of its main river caught fire and burned a railroad bridge. Cleveland would have more than 300 murders in 1970.  Resentments between races were still simmering in all-black areas riots of Hough and Glenville, and the Ohio National Guard seemed constantly on standby for a call to return to the city’s streets..

There were gangsters and Mafia men with names like Angelo “Big Ange” Lonardo, and Leo ‘Lips’ Moceri.  And I quickly learned this was the town of Eliot Ness, Cleveland safety director in the 1930s but better known internationally as the Treasury Department’s most famous anti-prohibition investigator and Mobster-catcher.

Tough town. I instantly thought of comparing Cleveland to somewhere like Liverpool – or possibly the smaller steel city of Middlesbrough – in north east England, where I had started my journalistic career over five years earlier. But Middlesbrough was just a sad town that most people wanted to leave if they could. There was NOTHING like Cleveland in my background. Nothing for me to compare it to. I knew no-one here, or anywhere else in America. I had left my mother, father, sister and even my wife – whom I had married only two weeks earlier in a beautiful little 11th Century church in the ancient city of York – to work in a city, state and country I had never visited.

Cleveland wasn’t even my first choice among American cities. It was 19th.  I had written to 22 US newspapers, starting with the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times., which produced positive responses from only the Columbus Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Press – all in Ohio. I had chosen the latter only because it was the biggest city of the three, and paid slightly more.

‘$150 a week and you cut the red tape.’ was Campbell’s exact written offer of a job as a ‘rewrite man’ – taking reporters’ phoned-in copy and turning it into passable English.   And he had sent that to me 18 months earlier. That’s how long it took me to get my immigration visa, it seems, because the US government changed its immigration rules to make it fairer for nationalities they really wanted to get in, such as the Vietnamese.

The system worked on the basis of the national origins of those citizens already in the US, including the largest group, the British. But in recent years the Brits had rarely used all their allocation, while Vietnam – for which American soldiers were fighting and dying in thousands – had almost no immigration quota.

I knew about the Vietnam War, of course. It was on the news globally every night, along with  the anti-Vietnam protests across the US.  Only two months before I arrived the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history had been held in Washington.  But I hardly thought it had anything to do with me. The British Army was not in Vietnam, and besides, I wasn’t American. But by the end of my first week in Cleveland I discovered that six weeks earlier the US government had held the first Vietnam draft call – and my number was on it. Any young male with a number of 195 or lower was to be drafted.

My number was 140.

The strange thing is I was far from downhearted. I was excited. Dramatic change, positive or negative, did not faze me. I was born to a military father, and moved house, schools and friends frequently.  I didn’t even think it odd that Anna and I would spend Dec 28, 1969 – the day after our wedding – in the US Embassy in London filling out forms and waiting for her to be presented with her visa directly that day to join me in Cleveland.

On January 30 she duly arrived at Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, and we would start our married life together, in a foreign country, in a rented flat on E.9th St, a hundred yards from my new office. As I look back now, in my 70s, I see clearly that the next 12 years we spent in Cleveland were the best in our lives. Sure, I would win journalism awards, go on to be a Journalism Fellow at Harvard, work in Washington DC and Cold War Europe, be shot at in Beirut, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, and travel with Margaret Thatcher to Moscow to hear her speak of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: “This is a man we can do business with.”

I would fly in a dozen combat aircraft, write two aviation history books, walk 1,250 miles with my dog from one end of Britain to the other, and freelance news and company reports from one continent to another. I’d even get into the movies as an Extra.

But Cleveland and The Press were different. They had a heart, soul and color that l found nowhere else (unless I wore rose-tinted glasses). The city had no airs and graces in the 1970s. Its people were open, genuine and hard working, and we made a lot of friends. Even when it was broke and struggling and its politics and sports were knocking the hell out of each other, Cleveland had an air of dynamism, displayed in its labor force, institutions, churches, and ethnic and racial cultures.

During my 12 years there I won a dozen local, regional, and national journalism awards, spent six years covering the schools desegregation case, watched on TV Mayor Ralph Perk setting his own hair afire with a blow torch, and read about his wife declining an invitation to a White House dinner in December 1972 because it was ‘her bowling night’.  I watched ‘boy mayor’ Dennis Kucinich leading Cleveland into bankruptcy – the first city in the US to do so since the 1930s.

Anna and I bought a house in the near suburbs, where we raised two adopted American kids – and a dog. She developed her own career as a hospital nurse, mother, homemaker and later as a care manager for chronically sick young people. My career in Cleveland involved wearing a steel helmet for labor riots, investigating the area’s chief federal judge for criminal connections, getting state workers compensation laws changed, interviewing the Rolling Stones at Municipal Stadium, investigating creation of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, buying a 1968 Ford Mustang convertible (which I WISH I’d kept), making some life-long friends, playing rugby and running the Washington Marathon – and canoeing the gorgeous Mohican River in central Ohio.

Oh, and teasing Anna that the end of a Browns football game was nigh because there were only two minutes left to play!

As this memoir will hopefully show, I have plenty of stories to tell from the thousands of sepia-colored pages of The Press I still have in cardboard boxes stuffed in a cupboard of my London home. One that I treasure, and may be unique, hangs on the wall of my small, messy office: a rubberized matrix used on a Cleveland Press printing press. It is dated November 2, 1978 and marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of what was originally called ‘The Penny Press’.  Its type is set in old fashioned seven columns with a lot of flowery headlines, a la original. This copy is a Metro two star, an early edition for that day’s news. My by-line graces the second story on the left.

This is a real story, and tells of the travails of John E. Gallagher Jr., president of the Cleveland School Board, who was arrested for ‘mooning’ his brother from a moving car on the I-271 freeway southeast of Cleveland. John was a major education source for me, but where I come from, sticking your naked bum out of a moving car would get you fired – especially if you were president of a school board.  But John was young and popular – and an anti-establishment figure. He admitted making a mistake, was fined $100 and vowed to stay on as president of the school board.

Opinion polls showed the public loved him because he was one of them. So he kept his job.

It was that kind of town. The Press matched its people perfectly, creating a local family newspaper that I have not found anywhere in the world since. The Press died in 1982, killed mostly by TV news, but it lives on in the hearts of very many.  


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From Across the Pond by Peter Almond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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