In this newly curated and edited collection of "Field Notes" columns, Anson award-winning author John B. Marek offers an evocative glimpse into his early years growing up on Ohio's Lake Erie coast. With his trademark mix of humor, nostalgia, curiosity, and life lessons, he crafts a compelling picture of life in a tourist town during the '60s and '70s. From thoughtful essays on the transcendent nature of friendship, work, and mortality to a piano-playing chicken and a discussion of pre-historic cooking techniques, you never know what lurks on the next page... or in the green-black depths of the Sandusky Bay.
On a sticky July afternoon in the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I was reading a book under the leafy maple in my parent's backyard when my mother stuck her head out the kitchen window and yelled, "phone for you." Then added in a tone that expressed equal measures of resignation and trepidation, "it's Carl."
"Hey, what's up?"
"I was thinking about riding every elevator in town; you in?"
I looked down at the exceedingly mediocre novel in my hand, thought about my other non-existent prospects for the evening, and readily agreed. Thirty minutes later, we were walking toward the entrance to the Ottawa County courthouse.
The term "one-story town" is often used in literature to describe a place so small the buildings are literally on street level, and the inhabitants are trapped figuratively in a story without options. While my hometown of Port Clinton had plenty of two-story buildings downtown, there were few elevators in those days before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Carl had been considering this fact for some time because he had compiled a list. The first two buildings on the list would be simple to access, the courthouse and the hospital. After that, things could get... interesting.
The Ottawa County courthouse anchors a tree-lined block just south of and across the railroad tracks from downtown Port Clinton proper. It is a three-story sandstone structure with a prominent central bell tower. Like all good townies, I had visited there on school field trips but hadn't needed to enter it since. The elevator was a simple, practical model, standing in stark contrast to the elaborate mural depicting Oliver Hazard Perry's victory in the naval Battle of Lake Erie that dominates the lobby interior. The battle was a turning point in the War of 1812, and by all rights, our town should have been called Perrysburg. But it was named instead for Dewitt Clinton, a New York politico who proposed it as the northern terminus of a canal connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Had that canal come to fruition, Port Clinton would likely be one of Ohio's largest and most prosperous cities. Because it did not, Port Clinton is a place where you can ride all of the elevators in less than an hour.
Our second stop, Magruder Hospital, was uneventful. I had been on that elevator many times, most likely for the first time shortly after I was born.
The third stop was The Island House, a restaurant/hotel that had once been fashionable but by the mid-'80s was showing its age. We approached the front desk and inquired whether it would be okay to ride the elevator. The desk clerk looked up from his paper, gave us the once-over, and said, “knock yourselves out."
Our fourth and final stop was a condominium complex called, somewhat pretentiously in hindsight, The Admiralty. It was brand new at the time, occupying the site where the bowling alley of my youth, Riverlake Lanes, had been demolished a couple of years earlier. At six stories, it was by far the tallest building in town. Built to attract wealthy retirees and second-home buyers from Cleveland and Toledo, it was also arguably the fanciest. Since it had only been open for a few months, it was still sparsely occupied, and the beautifully-appointed lobby was deserted. We walked quickly to the elevator and pressed the up arrow. Instantly, the doors opened, and we headed for the top floor. The doors opened again a minute later onto a lushly carpeted hallway with doors to the left and right. At the far end of the hall, one of the doors was open. The last condo on the floor was still under construction, and we entered and walked around. The rooms were small, and the drywall and flooring were unfinished, but the view of the sun setting over the lake from the balcony was spectacular.
"What are you guys doing up here?"
We turned in unison to see a huge man wearing a black tee-shirt with the word SECURITY stretched tight across his weight-lifter chest.
"We were just checking out the view. It's nice, but honestly, we thought the living room would be bigger for the money," Carl said in a mock-serious tone.
"If you clowns can manage to get back to your car and off this property before I can get to my desk and call the cops, you'll save us all a lot of trouble."
"Yep, I think we can do that," I said as we made a break for the elevator.
I headed back to Ohio University two months later, where I moved into a new dorm, the "College Inn." The CI was a former 9-story hotel that had been converted to student housing. My room was on the 8th floor, which offered a beautiful view of the campus but had a severe drawback. The building was served by twin elevators that were glacially slow even under light use. When hundreds of students were trying to get to their classes in the mornings, a long wait followed by a ten-minute ride, as the car stopped at every single floor, was to be expected.
I'm not sure who figured it out or under what circumstances, but someone in my group of accomplices discovered that if you depressed the Emergency Stop button, then quickly pulled it back out as the car began to slow to stop at a floor, the elevator would skip that stop. (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, IT MAY BE A FELONY) Thus, we had our own "express elevator" service direct to the ground floor. At first, the kids waiting to ride the 'vater on the other floors must have been perplexed why it wasn't stopping for them, but eventually, they figured it out, and we were treated to a serenade of threats and obscenities wafting through the twin metal doors as we made our descent.