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Steve Cruea - Got Your Back

by Marc Jennings

In the eighth grade at Fairview Elementary my home room and math teacher was Miss Ellen Hambush. My assigned seat in Miss Hambush’s math class was in the very back corner of her third floor classroom. This was actually a strategic spot since from my seat by the windows I had a good view of the playground outside and the city park next to the school.

In this park were two cylindrical water tanks, painted green, in an area enclosed by a tall chain link fence with barbed wire at the top. At some point in the fall, work crews began erecting a new water tank many times larger than the first two. The crews would hoist in place and weld together huge steel plates that had different curves, and eventually one could see the tank taking form. It was to be a giant mushroom shape with legs extending down from the periphery for support. It was fascinating to watch this huge structure slowly come into shape. By the springtime it was complete and was getting its coat of green paint and some lights installed. The nice thing was that the work went slowly enough that I did not have to risk being reprimanded for staring out the window instead of being attentive in class. A couple of brief inspections each day were all I needed to keep track of progress.

By unspoken consent, this new tank became the “water tower” among all my friends, and remained so throughout our time at FHS. I did not realize it at the time I watched its construction, but a curiosity was forming in my mind about what was up there, on the tower. I may be a little off, but I would say that tower was 130 to 150 feet tall. It was an imposing structure. It had a ladder that led up to a catwalk that extended around the widest portion of the tank. There was even a ladder to climb to the very top.   

One warm spring evening three years later a large group of my friends had convened an informal get-together to pass the night away. At this particular gathering there happened to be a substantial amount of liquid refreshment in case anyone got thirsty. As I remember it, we somehow started out in two separate groups, looking for something interesting to do. The group I was with had very little success finding an interesting activity, but we did manage to quench our thirst. The other group found themselves in the vicinity of the Holiday Health Club which was on the corner of Salem and Elsmere, or maybe Malvern; anyway, this establishment, which was closed for the day, had a pool in back surrounded by a tall privacy fence. Someone suggested going for a swim and they all climbed over the fence, took off their clothes and jumped in. Apparently, they managed to swim, dress and get out of there before someone called the police.

A large portion of our time at Fairview, it seems to me, was spent looking for other people. It was like we were lost without each other, so we could spend whole evenings going to Parkmoor and Goody’s and places where we might find each other. Even though we might be in a group of four or five, we weren’t happy unless we found everybody else. Part of this was to see and to be seen, but part of it was really like a “pack” instinct. I know in my case, as an adolescent, I was so unsure of myself that I was only really comfortable around my friends—my own kind. Sometimes we found someone interesting that we had not expected. Sometimes we found people we didn’t want to find—but that was the exciting and unknown element to a high school evening. After a while we developed sort of an ESP-radar that generally guided us to a bunch of other classmates. I can’t imagine how different cell phones, had they existed then, would have made our lives.

On this evening our two groups got together somewhere. We talked about what was going on, what we had done and seen, maybe exaggerated a little. We marveled at the creativity and daring of the Holiday swimming adventure, and I think this inspired the rest of us to think “out of the box”, so to speak. Finally someone said, “Hey, let’s climb the water tower”. This insane suggestion was met with universal approval and enthusiasm, despite the fact that many of us were drunk enough that just crossing a busy street was dangerous.

So we parked our two cars close to the park. The fenced area in which the water tower was located was pretty close to the back of a row of houses. It was night and we were not exactly talking in whispers. Thank goodness this was before 911, when people actually had to look up the phone number of the police department. That might have saved us from an unpleasant outcome, like having your parents come down to the station to pick you up.

Who was in this intrepid group of explorers? To be honest, I don’t remember everybody that was there. I think Bruce Trowman was, and I think Scott Kelso was, and I think Dave Todd was, and I think Tom Kender was, but I can’t be sure. I was with these guys all the time in high school so it is very possible I’m confusing this with some other adventure. If anybody reading this was there and I left you out, or if you weren’t there and I said you were, please contact me for a full apology and retraction.

I know Jim Swanson was there and I know Steve Cruea was there and I know I was there. And, I suspect there were others who, even though the statute of limitations has expired, prefer to remain anonymous.

When we reached the chain link fence, we just started climbing. This thing was seven feet tall, plus another foot of barbed wire on top. I don’t think it slowed us down a bit. If we were scraped, scratched or cut; or if our clothes were torn, we didn’t pay any attention at the time. (The next morning we would wake up and wonder: “how did this happen?”) Once inside the enclosed area, we took another look at the water tower from a closer perspective. It was really massive and really tall when you were up close. Of course, there was no backing out now, even if we had had enough sense to quit while we were ahead. Anyone who did would never be able to show his face again. It just wasn’t done.

We walked over to where the ladder was attached to one of the perimeter supports. Climbing a ladder up to the catwalk around the tank would be a piece of cake, I thought. But the ladder didn’t come down to the ground. In fact we couldn’t reach it. We had to devise a way to climb up to the first rung maybe 10 feet off the ground. This wasn’t too hard and I believe Kelso took the lead and figured it out and we all followed. Scott was a gymnast and they hadn’t made anything that he couldn’t figure how to climb up.

This steel ladder went up maybe 110, 120 feet. It did not have that circular steel cage around it that might allow you to maybe save yourself if you fell. It was just a ladder going up into the night sky. We all climbed up. No problem that I recall. I do remember all of us relaxing on the catwalk, leaning on the rail, feeling a gentle, cool spring evening breeze blow in our faces. The view was fantastic, especially on the southeast side facing downtown. The lights twinkled in the distance. It was nice.

The climb up had sobered me a bit. I saw the next ladder leading up the curving top of the water tank. At that point, you know, my curiosity, which began back in the eighth grade as I watched this thing being built, had been satisfied. I had no desire to go on up to the top, especially since you would have had to climb a ladder that started vertically, and gradually curved over to a horizontal position. It just looked too risky to me. I think somebody tried it but didn’t go all the way.

By mutual consent we started down. We were a little less inebriated but still had enough alcohol in our systems not to be scared to death, which is what we should have been. Except for Swanson:

Jim Swanson was a good friend. He was reserved and deliberate and his nickname was Turd. It wasn’t what you think; Scott Kelso had begun calling him “the turtle” in grade school and the turtle gradually became turt, turd, or turtsie-poo Swanson. But with Jim it was a term of endearment. Jim was always even tempered, never got excited; he was a guy you could depend on always. Always. After lunch he would always go to his locker where he kept a supply of Canoe, and liberally apply that stuff until he reeked of it. He drove a ’55 Chevy Bel Air (265 cu. in. V8) that was dark gray and pinkish salmon. It was his father’s car, technically, but he had it all the time, and I remember on more than one occasion sitting in the back seat behind Jim, leaning up and covering his eyes as we drove down Philadelphia or Frederick Pike with the radio loud, laughing it up. Nothing fazed him; he just kept driving until the rest of us got scared. I spent a lot of time in that car. I don’t know of a person that didn’t like Swanson. He was always a straight up guy. No one that I remember ever was mad at him, the way friends sometimes have differences. As I think about him now that he is gone, I think we all loved him.

How many beers you could drink was a big deal, to the point that it wasn’t unheard of for someone to pour some on the ground when no one was looking to enhance ones’ total for the night. Swanson was a genuine drinker. He could drink more than most of us and still function. We envied him that talent. But on this night he had eclipsed his limit. We didn’t notice because Jim was not a demonstrative person, typically. So we began the climb down the tower. I was one of the first to go back down. Meanwhile, Jim was just beginning to really get the full effects of the alcohol. Although normally quite reserved, Jim could become boisterous when drunk (or, k’nurd, as Jim called drunk spelled backwards).

Still on the catwalk, Jim began to be a bit boisterous, to the point that the guys still left up there feared he might have an accident on the way down. So what do you do in a situation like that? Our friend could not be left to negotiate that long climb down the ladder in his condition—or so it seemed at the time. Somebody stepped up. And that somebody was Steve Cruea.

Cruea somehow managed to carry, or guide Jim while holding on to him. I don’t know precisely since I wasn’t aware of what was going on at the top and didn’t observe this two-man descent myself. But there were plenty of witnesses to confirm the heroic story. I say heroic because Swanson was a load. Anything could have happened on the way down and there could have been two teenagers killed in a fall instead of one.

Cruea was kind of a Steve McQueen guy, only he smiled most of the time. Like Swanson, he was very even tempered, not subject to being up sometimes and down others. Also, like Swanson, if he had something, he’d share it with you, no questions asked. He laughed a lot and could take a joke and give as good as he got, but never in a malicious way. He was just a great guy to have as a friend, and when Swanson needed him, Cruea was there and did what he had to do. I know I could not have made it down holding on to Jim, and I’ll bet Steve got mighty tired before they reached the ground. But they did reach the ground. I didn’t say so then, but I was pretty impressed with what Steve did.

One other time a bunch of us were in a canoe in the river at Triangle Park. The canoe sank and we had to swim the width of the river. We were in the water under less than ideal conditions and although I was a decent swimmer, this time I was having some trouble; to the point that I was beginning to panic. And, of course, if you panic, you are really in trouble. Steve noticed me, didn’t hesitate, swam over and grabbed me long enough for me to settle down, and we got to the other side.

After we graduated Steve and I were attending a pretty wild party at Miami University one evening. I remember very little and what I do remember is better left undisclosed. But, I was a mess and if it hadn’t been for Steve, well, something bad was likely to happen. If he remembers this he may not realize he helped me, but he did.

I don’t want to give you the impression that Steve Cruea was running around in high school saving people all the time. I’m just telling you what I saw and what I know. He was not only my friend, but he had the unusual ability to remain calm in a crisis and the willingness to take decisive action, even at risk to himself.

Most of us didn’t come out of FHS fully mature and ready to enter the world. Yet, we did a lot of growing up while we were there. That growing up was influenced to a degree by the character and values of the friends we spent so much time with. Later in life I found myself in crisis situations, and I would like to think I met those challenges as well as Steve Cruea did when we were buddies at Fairview.