My trouble-making brother, Bob, drove the tour train at the Cleveland Zoo every summer during college.
This open-air vehicle brought the public close to un-caged animals. Cleveland had the first zoo without bars–deep ditches surrounded the open-air “cages” that contained the animals. Both the animals and the visitors were supposed to be happier with this arrangement.
Bob acted as a tour guide as he drove the train. He used his microphone for education, entertainment and picking up girls.
It was picking up girls that got him into real trouble.
She was a beautiful debutante from the right side of the tracks. She didn’t just live across the tracks; she was so far above us socially that she lived way across town. In fact, she was a neighbor of our rich uncle. With his Elvis Presley haircut and bedroom eyes, Bob could talk girls into anything … even sailing our small boat into a storm.
Dad had social ambitions that included sailing, so he bought a 19′ Lightning. He took us out just a few times before letting us sail alone. We moored the boat at the base of the cliffs that form Rocky River, and we sailed on Lake Erie.
The problem with sailing on this particular lake is that it is shallow and prone to surprise storms. The other problem is that when there is no storm, there is no wind. We didn’t have a motor because Dad called powerboats “stinkpots,” so we had to push the rudder back and forth to move the Lightning when we were becalmed.
We finally learned that the best time to sail was when the Coast Guard raised the flag signifying an incoming storm. We had a small window of opportunity for fun during these storm warnings. Of course, we ran the risk of crashing into the cliffs along Rocky River, but Bob and I considered that part of the trip. I loved that boat and sailed it with my steady boyfriend until the day that Bob changed everything for all of us.
Bob convinced this debutante to sail with him. He must have looked more competent at sailing than he actually was. But then, girls’ brains turned to mush when he focused those blue eyes on them.
When I came home from work at Manner’s Big Boy in the afternoon, there was a wet girl sitting in our kitchen. Her blond hair was stuck to her head and she was shivering … in my bathrobe. I knew immediately that Bob was in trouble, so I hid in my room.
The next morning, Mother told me that Bob had picked up not just any girl but a debutante from Shaker Heights. He sailed while the storm warnings were up and crashed on one of the steepest cliffs. Mother fumed that he had endangered the life of someone in the society pages. As always, when Dad suffered the most from his children, he glowered silently for days.
Slowly, details emerged. You can’t sink a sailboat because of its construction, but you can smash it to smithereens, which is exactly what they did. They then faced the sheer cliff in the cold wind and driving rain. I don’t know how Bob climbed it with a panicky young lady in tow. She had no experience with boats, and she succumbed to fear.
When Bob reached the top, he called the Coast Guard. I don’t know how he did it in a residential neighborhood before the days of cell phones; he probably begged a homeowner for help. Even soaking wet and shivering, he could charm his way into anything. He asked the Coast Guard to pull what was left of the Lightning out of the water.
The incensed Coast Guard shouted, “What are you doing out in this storm? Why do you think we raise storm-warning flags? Go raise your own damn boat!”
After decades of writing and practicing in the financial world, Deborah Weir is now preserving memories of growing up in Ohio during the time Erma Bombeck wrote her columns about the foibles of family life.