Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013

Cab ride part of drama of old Lagonda Avenue

By Tom Stafford

Staff Writer

All that’s left now is a small patch of blacktop striped for parking spaces at Job & Family Services of Clark County.

But in the 1950s, Fire Station 4 stood at that spot on Lagonda Avenue between what then was the office building for Robbins & Myers and the St. Raphael Cemetery.

And come weekends, the firemen hated to go to bed at night for fear they’d miss something.

Daytime was predictable, with its traffic jams when shift change came at the now vanished International Harvester plant, at Robbins & Myers, Ohio Steel Foundry and at the host of machine shops and tool & dye places that fed the mainstays of East End manufacturing.

The jams persisted even though many worked in the neighborhood or rode in and out on buses. As Anita Martin, who grew up at 1036 Lagonda Ave., recalled, cars weren’t used nearly much as they are now.

“You might have taken a ride on a Sunday afternoon,” she recalled. “But if they had a car, they had (only) one. And if they had one, the man was probably the only one that drove.”

It’s the kind of little detail that makes life even a few decades before us seem nearly as odd as postage rules of the time.

Explained Martin, “It was three cents if you sealed a letter. But it was only two cents if you didn’t.”

Even the daytime provided some drama.

Retired firefighter Eldon Freeman and Martin both remember the day a despondent man first tried to kill himself by filling his home with natural gas, then grew impatient with the process and ended up blowing up the gas-filled house with a spark from the shotgun he discharged to hasten his end.

Still, it was on Fridays and Saturdays after the workers poured out of factories and into neighborhood bars that drama arose more regularly.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Pinewood Cafe became Gene’s Hacienda, where the patrons would greet the occasional power outage by filing outside, setting up their chairs on the sidewalk and continuing their evening.

As Freeman recalls it, the proprietor was famously interested in the.38-caliber Smith & Wesson and would occasionally discharge it through the wall that connected the Hacienda with a barber shop and former beauty shop next door.

Freeman was at another station the night he was called to a fire at the Hacienda and learned that firefighters had walked across the street to battle the blaze, found the proprietor asleep at the top of the stairs, brought him down, then fielded the rescued man’s request for a cigarette.

But early television was involved in one of the more interesting stories Freeman remembered.

Martin provides the context.

“In 1950, when I was 6, we got a Midwest TV. It was made in Cincinnati. I did have the receipt for that when my grandfather bought it.”

As Martin recalls, the total bill was near a whopping $1,000.

That investment led to one their extended family’s weekly rituals: migrating from various spots in the neighborhood to the front of that television to hear Omar Williams’ color commentary for what properly would be called “rasslin” rather than wrestling.

Martin has particularly vibrant recollections of Bouncing Beulah not only bouncing up and down but pounding the mat as a prelude to the treatment she doled out to her opponents.

For Walter, an older man whose home shared the corner of Sherman and Lagonda Avenues with the Standard Oil station and Brinsley’s Supermarket, the coming of television’s small screen brought a feeling of nostalgia.

Freeman said Walter and some of the other older residents talked about an theater that had stood at James Street and Lagonda Avenue.

Perhaps slipping into early dementia, when Walter finished his lunch each day, he walked down to Fire Station 4 and took a seat in front of the television there, ready for a matinee.

In inclement weather, Walter would arrive, then “take off his outer garment and fold it and sit down,” Freeman said.

He’d then stay for a half hour show, “get his garment and go on down the street.”

This arrangement usually worked well. But one day the firemen had to attend a meeting elsewhere, which required them to lock up the firehouse and interrupt Walter’s routine.

Thinking he was being asked to leave before the matinee was over, “he didn’t understand,” said Freeman, “and we didn’t know what to do.”

The “we” in this instance involved Freeman and fellow firefighter Burt Blocher.

“We didn’t want to pick him up bodily and put him out,” Freeman said. And they were considering just what they might do when Chief Joe Heinzen backed his chief’s car along the side of the station.

“Joe was one of those guys you didn’t talk to, you listened,” said Freeman.

Having endured periods of 24-hour captivity in fire stations, Freeman and Blocher were well trained in the impromptu hatching of devious plans. They decided that in one deft act, they could rankle the chief and get Walter out of the station.

“I said, ‘Walter, did you call a cab?’” Freeman recalled.

The mostly agreeable Walter agreed that maybe he did.

“We walked him to the door. At least we had him out of the house,” Freeman recalled.

Their minds were working on persuading the often unreceptive Heinzen to be Walter’s cabbie when “the chief looked over and said, ‘Why, my God, I haven’t seen you in years.’”

“You know him?” Freeman asked.

“Oh, yeah, he designed half the buildings at the IH,” the chief said. “He’s a well-known architect. I caddied for him over at Beaver Valley (Golf Club).”

A check of the Springfield City Directory confirms all this. Walter did live at the corner of Sherman and Lagonda. He had been an architect and later a building inspector.

That made him a man the chief not only was fond of but would love to take home in his duty car.

In the end, Freeman and Blocher had succeeded as Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz so often did in “I Love Lucy”: despite themselves.

It was all part of the daytime drama along Lagonda Avenue.

 
 

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