Odd Man Out: Nature Boy

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Editor’s Note: This was originally published in the May 2010 issue.

For some of us, music is the thread that seems to stitch the highs and lows of our lives together. For others, it’s family gatherings or movies or current events. For me, it’s our city and county parks. In my life they have been a steady, invigorating, character-shaping presence—one that, paradoxically, I only recently came to recognize. As another spring settles in and soothes our cabin-fever-weary bones, and the parks come alive again with walkers, bikers, and bench sitters, I feel compelled to write this ode to our green spaces and all that they have taught me—from the versatility of the female breast to why smoke jumpers need excellent eyesight. Sound strange? Let me explain.Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki

I grew up in the 1970s, just a short walk from Rapid Run Park in Price Hill. Its hilly topography made for excellent sled riding in the winter, and its two-foot-deep concrete pond made for some treacherously fun bike riding in the summer. My friends and I would remove our socks and gym shoes and pedal around in the pond, laughing as, inevitably, our tires lost traction on the scum-covered bottom and we slid into the water. Good times, to be sure.

Being a city park, Rapid Run also had ball fields, playground equipment, and a small swimming pool. On the baseball diamond, I learned definitively that I couldn’t swing a bat and hit anything as small as a softball. Mad about striking out for the umpteenth time, I once took a swing at the trunk of a mature oak tree. And missed. On the playground, I learned to play tetherball, my sport of choice for several summers. I am not ashamed to say that I played with all the enthusiasm of Napoleon Dynamite, with even less grace. In the pool, I learned to swim, earning my “green duck” beginners patch, which Mom sewed on my swimsuit. I also swam on the swim team, earning a couple of construction paper ribbons, mostly for just making it across the pool without drowning.

This being the ’70s, before anyone seemed to pay a lick of attention to water-borne pathogens, Rapid Run’s pool didn’t have a filtration system. Instead, every afternoon at 1 o’clock, the lifeguards blew their whistles signaling everyone to get out. Then they would pour chlorine powder directly into the pool and blow their whistles again. This, we knew, was our call to sit on the pool’s edge, dangle our tan legs in the water, and begin kicking as if we were throwing tantrums so as to dissolve and disseminate the chlorine. We would kick for about 10 minutes straight. I assumed that this is how all pools worked. On a rare visit to Sunlite Pool at Coney Island, I was surprised to learn that there was no group kicking session. Perhaps it was just my imagination run amok, but from that point forward, it seemed that all the kids in my neighborhood had larger thighs than the kids from, say, neighboring Delhi.

Whenever my friends and I were bored and looking for a little adventure, we would walk the mile and a half to Delhi Park. It had a covered wooden bridge that spanned a crawdad-infested stream, and a snack shack with my favorites: Mounds candy bars and cherry Slush Puppies. We also enjoyed the large, fenced-in playground with all the equipment painted in happy primary colors. It made the bare, rusty metal swings and slides at Rapid Run seem, well, sort of depressing. It was an early lesson in economics: The people in Delhi were better off than the people in Price Hill. Not only were the houses bigger but they could afford to paint their playground equipment. Playing there was a nice change of scenery, I’ll admit, but Rapid Run was still my park, despite its lack of paint, candy shacks, and filtration systems.

No matter what other parks had and had not, visiting them was always a welcome treat since they each had their own personality and charm. A one-time visit to Sharon Woods really wowed me because of the cascading tailwater of the lake; compared to the mostly stagnant streams I was accustomed to, it seemed like a wild, raging river. And one of the more memorable park experiences of my childhood was traveling with my dad on his Kawasaki motorcycle to the Winton Woods campground, where we pitched a pup tent and camped out under the stars.

Out of all our local planned green spaces, Eden Park always felt particularly exotic. That’s partly because of Krohn Conservatory, the old reservoir wall-turned-climbing wall, and the Natural History Museum that used to stand nearby. But for me, the main appeal of Eden Park was boobs. I was completely enthralled by the Romulus and Remus statue, with the two boys crouched beneath their wolf mother, mouths open, ready to latch on to a teat. I didn’t take this for mythology but fact. Why would anyone bother to make a statue honoring something fake?

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a number of “hippie festivals” in Eden Park where a collection of artisans and merchants sold their wares around Mirror Lake. I remember rock music, vegetarian food, and lots of people with flowers painted on their arms and faces. I also remember the boobs. Though I was too young to understand the socio-political act of bra burning, I was old enough to tell that a lot of ladies weren’t wearing any under their T-shirts. At one such festival, my mom lost track of me and later found me in one vendor’s “booth”—a tepee. Inside, a woman was giving breast-feeding demonstrations. According to Mom, I was all too eager to be a part of the appreciative audience. These days I’m more of a leg man than a boob man. Perhaps I was overexposed at a tender age.

In my teens, our parks were the scene of both triumph and heartbreak. As a skinny, uncoordinated kid, I figured the only chance that I had at athletic success, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, was running cross country. My line of reasoning went something like this: I may not be able to swing a bat, but by golly, I can put one foot in front of the other. As it turns out, I could do that rather well. I not only made Elder High School’s cross country team but won more than a few races. Our home course was situated over the hilly terrain in my old stomping ground, Rapid Run Park, which is where I won the Greater Cincinnati League championship as a freshman and a sophomore. Eventually, I ran races in parks all over town, including Mt. Storm, Lunken Airport Playfield, and French Park. I came to view my medals and trophies as redemption for my pathetic performances at home plate and at the hands of girls half my age around the tetherball pole.

Thanks to this athletic success, my legs and lungs felt liked they owned our parks. My heart? Not so much. Several attempts to score my first real kiss while walking hand-in-hand through a park failed. I thought the fresh scent of flowers and pine would make my advances more welcome. I guessed wrong. In hindsight, I think the natural, romance-inducing scents of Mother Nature were overpowered by the Aqua Velva that I doused myself with, thinking it could magically make me as sexy as Burt Reynolds. Like I said, it was the ’70s.

As a high school sophomore, I felt for the first time the head-spinning, stomach-churning, world-changing thing called love. Her name was Marilyn, a blonde, blue-eyed cutie who was near the top of her class at McAuley High School. I was turned so inside-out emotionally that even as a horny teen it took me a good month to build up the nerve to try and kiss her. To increase my odds of winning her over, I chose not to wear my glasses in her presence, afraid that I looked dorky and un-kissable with them on. Thing is, sans glasses, I could barely see anything near, and any meaningful detail beyond a seven-foot radius was reduced to a troublesome blur.

The perfect set-up for a charming walk in the park, no? While taking a stroll through Mt. Airy Forest with Marilyn on a dazzling bright October afternoon, I spotted a dozen or so small fires about 100 feet away.

“What are all those fires about?” I asked Marilyn.

“What fires?” she said, sounding alarmed, since “fire” isn’t a word you typically want to hear in a forest.

“Right over there.”

“What are you pointing at?”

“There,” I said, pointing again in the same direction. “Don’t you see all that orange?”

“Uh, those are flags.”

Marilyn spoke the truth. As we continued walking and came within a few steps of what I thought were fires, even I could see that they were bright orange survey flags flapping in the wind, all aglow in the afternoon sun. Within a week of that walk, Marilyn dumped me.

If only I could have seen that coming.

Over the years I have experienced many, many wonderful park days: Spotting a newborn deer while trail running in Shawnee Lookout; learning the art of casting a fly rod on the grassy lawns of Ault Park; family camping at Winton Woods and Miami Whitewater Forest; attending fall festivals at Mt. Airy Forest; skipping stones on the Ohio River from Fernbank Park; watching the sun rise over the city from Mt. Echo.

One of my fondest memories to date involves my two oldest daughters, Maggie, 15, and Gracie, 12. When they were each around 5 years old, I would enjoy some father-daughter alone-time and take one of them for a walk on a wooded trail in Sharon Woods. I had convinced Maggie (and later, Gracie) that I had befriended a bear in the woods, one we might encounter on our walk if we were lucky. We never did, of course, but on each hike—wouldn’t you know it?—the bear was always kind enough to leave candy for us on a log or on the handrail of a wooden bridge.

The girls loved it and would squeal anytime I told one of them that we were going to see my friend the bear. They talk about it to this day, just as I continue to talk about Rapid Run, which I had the chance to visit not long ago.

The place had definitely changed. The jungle gym sagged like an old man bending over to pick up his cane. The basketball rims drooped like the halos of fallen angels. And the pool where I learned to swim and appreciate that which is tanned and bikinied was no more. It had been filled with dirt, which was now covered in crabgrass and cigarette butts. I stood where once only mayflies and Jesus could—on top of the deep end—and soaked myself in memories, glad to be a park kid then and now.

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