By Ed Staskus
The Saturday afternoon the Cleveland Guardians made short work of the New York Yankees at Progressive Field was the afternoon Oliver’s dad took him and his sister to Grays Armory when the game was over. The baseball stadium was on East 9th St. The Lake Erie Cemetery, where nearly 8,000 early settlers were buried, was across the street. On the other side of the boneyard, where Bolivar Rd. and Prospect Ave. meet before ending up at East 14th St., was Grays Armory.
Oliver was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County and his older sister Emma was his right-hand man. They were a half hour west of home, downtown in neighboring Cuyahoga County, and Oliver was technically off-duty. His dad, however, had promised a friend to bring his son to the armory to see if he could do something about Lou the Caretaker, the only ghost still hanging around.
The Cleveland Grays got started when the Canadian Rebellions of 1837 got into full swing. The city fathers acted, forming a volunteer military company, to protect themselves from Canucks on the loose. They weren’t called the Grays at first. They were called the Cleveland City Guards but since their uniforms were gray they changed the name the next year. They wore Queen’s Guard bearskin hats that made them look a foot taller than they really were. They adopted “Semper Paratus” as their motto. Nobody knew what it meant because it was in Latin. The man upstairs finally explained it meant “Always Prepared.” Everybody liked that. There were 65 of the Grays.
They set up shop on the fourth floor of a building called the Mechanics Block. Thirty years later they needed more space. They moved into an old fire station. Ten years later they moved into the newly built City Armory, sharing it with the Ohio National Guard. Soon after that a fire burnt the building to the ground. They decided to build their own place that would stand the test of time.
A seven thousand pound block of sandstone was set in place in 1893 for the foundation of Grays Armory. It grew to be three stories high with a five-story tower on the northeast corner. It was built as an urban fortress. There is a black iron drop-gate and iron barriers in front of the solid oak front doors. Iron rods are bolted to the brick walls as window protectors.
The armory was built to store guns and ammo. The drill room was where the Grays marched up and down in tight formations. But it wasn’t long before it became a kind of community center. The Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert in 1918 was staged there. The first time the Metropolitan Opera came to town they sang songs of doomed love and hellfire there. When John Philip Souza first marched into town his band played there. The first home and garden show and the first auto show in Cleveland were held there.
Oliver looked the building up and down. It was Romanesque, built of brick and sandstone. It wasn’t an armory anymore, but a museum preserving local military heritage. Nobody drilled in the drill room. It had been converted into a ballroom. When boys and girls got married they sometimes had their wedding receptions in the hall.
“That’s the problem,” Oliver’s dad explained. “The wedding receptions help keep the building afloat, but Lou is always shouting something or other and slamming doors, not to mention crawling under the tables. It freaks people out. One bridesmaid got very upset when she felt a hand on her ankle.”
“Dad, did you say he’s the only ghost here?”
“Yes, all the others have long since gone. He’s the last ghost standing.”
“Why didn’t he leave with the others when they left?” Oliver asked.
“Nobody knows, although I think it’s because he was the man who kept the armory spic and span for many years. He’s been here a long time. He doesn’t like it when it gets messy. When it does he gets right to work, which is a big help to the maintenance man. He and Lou get along just fine.”
Lou had been the caretaker at the armory from its earliest days, living on the top floor of the turret tower. He never married. He liked to read private eye pulps and drink beer at night, stretched out on his sofa. He dropped dead of a heart attack in the meeting room on the ground floor of the turret tower. After he was buried he snuck out of the graveyard, went back to Grays Armory, and had not left since then.
“Lou is always walking through closed doors. Museum visitors can hear his footsteps but none of the motion sensors ever pick him up. Whenever anybody starts talking about him the flags in the ballroom start falling off the walls. One night in the middle of the night an alarm went off. When the police got here they didn’t see a thing. When they checked the security camera footage they saw what looked like fluorescent mist in the room the alarm went off in. Everybody knew it was Lou.”
“What did the police do?” Oliver asked.
“They said, case closed, and went away.”
“Do you want me to get him to go away and not come back?”
“But it’s his home.”
“When your day is done, son, you can’t go home again.”
“Didn’t your friend say Lou drank apple cider vinegar for his health every day?” Oliver asked.
“Yes, every morning. He drank beer at night.”
“All right, then. I need a bottle of apple cider vinegar. And, even though I don’t know if we’ll need it, get a bottle of beer, too, just in case.”
Oliver’s dad walked to the Heinen’s Supermarket on East 9th St. and Euclid Ave and bought a bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar and a bottle of Broken Skull IPA. He was back in 20 minutes. He and Oliver stepped inside the meeting room on the ground floor of the turret tower. Oliver poured a glass of the vinegar and set it on a side table. A big potted plant in the room began to shake. Lou the Caretaker walked in. He walked to the glass of apple cider vinegar and took a sip. When he saw the bottle of beer he took a long pull on it.
“That hit the spot, believe you me,” he said.
“I’m glad it did Mr. Lou, but now we’ve got to talk about your new home.”
“What new home? I’m happy here.”
“I have got to ask you to leave,” Oliver said.
“You scare the daylights out of living people, for one thing. Another thing, your time is done here. It would be best if you joined the other ghosts who used to be here. It’s best to be among your own kind. They probably miss you. This will just take a minute, but I have to recite something official.”
Oliver stood back and concentrated.
“By the power of all my good karma, direct connection to the source, agape love, and selfless acts, I ask the universe to please remove all spooky entities from this place,” he said in a baseball announcer’s tone of voice. “You are not welcome here, so please go to where you are welcome. Over and out and batter up.”
“If you’re going to put it that way, all right already,” Lou said.
Oliver’s dad walked Lou to the supermarket. He bought two more bottles of apple cider vinegar and a six-pack of beer. Outside, he handed them to Lou. When he did Lou became invisible with a poof, even though he was still there. The shopping bag of vinegar and beer floated hip high across Euclid Ave and down East 9th St. towards Lake Erie. Every single person who saw the doubled-up blue plastic bag going past on its own nearly jumped out of their skins. The only person who didn’t was a duty-bound policeman who stopped traffic at St. Clair Ave. so the bag could go by in safety. He had seen more unexplained bumps in the night than he cared to remember.
It wasn’t long before the bag was a speck in the distance. Oliver’s dad turned back towards Grays Armory. Oliver and Emma were sitting on the front steps. Dusk was going dark. He flashed a thumb’s up taking the stairs and joining his children.
“Where’s Lou?” Oliver asked.
“Looking for a dead-end street,” his father said.
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”