The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, and other fading memoriesMy Aunt Helen grew up between League Park and East Cleveland in the period 1925 to 1964, then she followed her employer out to Jefferson, in Ashtabula County. Three years ago she fell and now lives in an assisted living home in Mentor. The only family she’s ever had were me and my siblings, her only brother’s kids, so I visit her twice a week.
During one visit last spring, she remarked that there was a book she'd read decades ago and wanted me to find and read to her sometime, as macular degeneration prevents her from reading any more. She couldn’t recall the title, but it was about a boy and his wagon and the “big fire or something, in Cleveland.” Helen has always been a bit vague about details and in the past year, as she approaches her 91st birthday next month, her memory of the past has almost completely vanished, except for some key family people and events. Fortunately I was able to make a lucky guess and identify that “big fire” as the East Ohio Gas Company explosion, probably because the 60th anniversary of that tragedy was coming up on October 20th and it was on my mind. But beyond those details, I was stumped.
Doing what most everyone does these days, I fired up the computer and Googled “East Ohio Gas” and “boy” and “wagon,” and got several hits. One turned out to be the Past Winners page for the Cleveland Arts Prize, but that didn’t seem promising for some reason, so I moved on. I shouldn’t have, as the book turned out to be The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a novel by former Cleveland Press writer, Don Robertson, who won the prize for literature in 1966. This is a largely forgotten book today, but it shouldn’t be and I’ve been plugging the story for the past few months, in the News from Cleveland Memory e-newsletter and anyplace else I could. I’m doing it again here.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, is the fictional account of young Morris Bird III and his expedition across Cleveland’s east side to visit his friend Stanley Chapulka, who’d recently moved from the old neighborhood to one next to the gas company plant. Morris has several adventures along the way, which don’t begin to compare with what happens as he reaches his friend’s house in time to witness the explosion of the company’s huge liquefied natural gas tank, the part of the story which is not fiction.
Each time I visited Helen last fall, I’d get the book off her shelf and put it on the bed, where I could later reach it from the couch. Then I’d read a dozen pages and we’d journey together with Morris Bird III (Don never shortened it or use a pronoun for his hero) from East 91st Street and Hough to East 63rd and St. Clair, as he dragged his kid sister in a red wagon across city block after block. It’s not a long book and we finished all too soon. Helen’s memory of the details has faded again, but she regularly looks at her bed and asks what was it about her bed that she’s trying to remember. It’s the anticipation she’d feel last fall, looking at the book on the bed and knowing I was going to read it to her before much longer. We’ve since tried The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and M*A*S*H, but nothing satisfies like Morris Bird III and his wagon, on the way to adulthood.