I want to share a story with you about my employer, Euclid Beach Park. I worked at the Park in Cleveland during the summer of 1948. I sold cotton candy and popcorn balls. After I graduated from college in 1952, I was hired into a full-time job. I worked my way up in management until I was appointed as the Manager of Operations ten years later. Little did I know how events at the Park would totally shape my life. Think of what occurred as a sort of slow-motion alien invasion.
My position in the Park management was somewhat unusual because I am a Black man. There were always special policies there for Black customers. They were admitted to the Park only on certain days of the week. A special police force was employed to remove guests who were causing a ruckus. This policy was frequently applied to my people who were thought to have a tendency to indulge in alcoholic beverages and raucous behavior.
There was one special ride in the Park, the Tunnel of Love. It was a horseshoe shaped, rock-lined tunnel with a shallow stream running through it. At the entrance, customers would step into a wooden boat and get comfortable on the seats. The boats were pulled slowly through the water by a submerged chain. After about five minutes, the boats would emerge at the exit. As the name suggests, there were always rumors of some high jinks occurring during these rides in the dark but I can't comment on that.
The most interesting chapter in the ride’s history began in 1941. As a thank-you to our men in military service, on leave and visiting the Park with their wives, such couples were admitted to the ride free of charge every Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. However and on one special August night, the unthinkable happened. At the end of each of the rides, every couple emerged from the dark tunnel with a newborn baby in their arms.
I used to show up at the Tunnel on these nights to gawk. It was crazy. Couples would board the boat at the entrance, sitting side-by-side and often embracing as they embarked. They were always “plus one” at the end. Anticipating the good news, relatives of the couples would surround the exit to the ride and cheer the new arrivals. The babies were uniformly beautiful, healthy, and fair-skinned.
Birth announcements for these new babies would appear in the newspapers the next day. They began to be referred to as “Tunnel of Love Kinder.” This term quickly took hold and but was abbreviated to TLK infants and then to TALKs. This term was then applied to this entire group of children and, soon, adults, as they grew up in the city.
In retrospect and in light of today’s science and ethics, all of this TALK business must seem odd to today's readers. All that I can say in response is that I was well aware of what was happening and the whole thing was viewed as a minor curiosity. Perhaps because it was a seen as a benefit for our servicemen. There wasn’t a hint of criticism or disbelief within the Park management or in the city.
What, you well ask, motivated these couples to seek this alternative to the more demanding nine-month pregnancies? For the military husbands, the thrill was to be able to spend time with their infants before quickly shipping out after a short leave. Other men viewed it as a rapid and joyful event for them and their wives. Some confided in me that they were afraid their wives were playing around in their absence and wanted a baby to occupy their wives’ “spare” time.
Fast forward now about three decades from the 1940’s to how the TALK community evolved over the years. The children were uniformly attractive with an even split between boys and girls. They were soft-spoken, affable, successful. Many were outstanding athletes. In fact, they were viewed with almost a sense of awe. Starting in the 80’s, both the mayor and police chief in Cleveland were TALKs as well as many others in key positions in business and politics. Truly a remarkable and rapid success story for them.
If there was any beef against them by Clevelanders, it was that they were slightly stand-offish, living exclusively with each other in residential pods around the city, men and women together. To the best of my knowledge, none of them ever married and none bore any children. Gossip said that they were totally uninterested in sex.
Another unusual aspect of their lives was that they never participated in what you would call mainstream religion. As soon as the first of them reached adulthood, they formed an organization called the TALK Benevolent Society (TBS).
The TBS held weekly meetings to which non-TALKs were usually not admitted. They wee sometimes referred to as services. The gossip train in town said that there was never a mention of God but rather praise for the orderliness of the universe and for TALK achievements. A tithing system for them was also a requirement so TBS emerged as a major economic force in the city, holding millions of dollars in investments, including local real estate.
When Euclid Beach Park closed in 1969, an item appeared on the city council agenda describing the Tunnel of Love as having “lapsed into a state of disrepair, thus posing a threat to public safety.” I was at the end of my career of 19 years at the Park and had been working on some ride maintenance issues, including the Tunnel of Love. It continued to be in tip-top shape. This language in the agenda surprised me but did catch people’s attention and caused some concern. The distressed property was soon purchased by TBS.
A high wall was placed around the ride. I was able to meander over to the ride and observe it by peering through gaps in the wall after the rest of the Park was shut down. It continued to operate but now under TALK management. Positioned in each of the boats was a male and female mannequin. The ride ran day and night. At the exit was a set of nurses and doctors who took care of the babies who emerged. They were taken to some special but unknown residential facility, apparently to be raised to adulthood.
I had mentioned that the Park had closed in 1969 and I was out of a job as manager of operations. However and in April of 1970, following the Tunnel of Love takeover, I received a telephone call from an assistant to Ralph Westover, President of TBS. He was the “head honcho” of all things TALK. I had never met him nor did I know anything about the inner workings of the TBS. He asked if I could meet with him urgently but gave me no hint of what the meeting was about. The next day, I was greeted by his assistant outside his office and ushered inside at the appointed hour.
He did not mince words from the start. “We could use your help. Our image in town is getting tarnished, partly because of our purchase of the Tunnel of Love. We had no choice in this matter. The Park was shutting down and we had no other option as you can appreciate in terms of our future. It was an absolute necessity for us on the population side of the equation.”
“Frankly, however, we have a bit of a public relations problem that I think you can help us with. People are saying that we are not supportive of diversity in town. However and as you may well know, this is far from the truth. Both directly and on the basis of companies in which we have a controlling interest, we are the largest employer of Blacks in the city. We are also a major contributor to Black charitable organizations such as the NAACP. At a recent TBS social event, we featured soul food during the dinner hour.”
“Mr Westover, I am very aware of all of the TALK contributions to the welfare of the various minority groups I the city,” I responded. “I know that you already employ the best public relations firm in the city. They should be able to ramp up these efforts to highlight all of your charitable efforts.”
“Fred, we are doing all of that but I think that we need the additional efforts of a person like yourself to represent us with the Black folks in town. A kind of ambassador if you will or perhaps, as I might say in a jocular vein, a consigliere for us. It’s a totally new position. We would start you at, say, a salary of $100,000 per annum.”
“I gladly accept your offer, Mr. Westover.”
And so I became a full time TALK spokesperson, almost unique in that I was never really a part of the group. My main job was to give talks around the city and to represent TALK interests. I was essentially the Black ambassador to all of the non-TALKs in the city.
In April, 1975, I was having a discussion with the TBS Board members in my official capacity about some real estate transactions that they had undertaken, adding to their already downtown holdings. One of the members of the Board started coughing in spasms. Two other members of the Board were physicians who immediately took care of him. He recovered quickly and little thought was given to the matter in the ensuing two days. However, a few other TALKs at the same meeting also began coughing and running high fevers a couple of days later. The contagion spread to many of the other TALKs. Standard and even advanced medical treatments were ineffective. All of the Community began to panic.
Then the impossible and unthinkable happened.
In a matter of a mere two weeks, every TALK in town died because of the infection that was spreading among them. Early on, there was uncertainty about its cause. About 15,000 of them passed — no member survived. Shortly afterwards, the infection was claimed to be a new variety of common seasonal flu to which the group seemed to be vulnerable. No vaccinations were available.
The city and county public health officials faced an unheard of disaster that no one could have anticipated. The most urgent problem was how to dispose of about 15,000 bodies. To make matters worse, all of the TALKs lived together in large, often luxurious high-rise apartment buildings scattered across the city. They turned overnight into death towers. The National Guard was called out and all of the bodies were carried out of these apartments to Army trucks by soldiers wearing haz-mat suits and masks.
How were these thousands of bodies to be disposed of safely? The city had a 100-acre plot of wasteland along the lake and all of the bodies were placed en masse into large pits that had been dug for the purpose. A large chain link fence was erected surrounding this land and there was an armed guard placed around it for years because of the risk of infectious disease and potential grave robbers.
The site of the original Tunnel of Love, after the demolition of the ride, was used to erect a large condominium complex. All of the TALKs, at the direction of the TBS, had left wills leaving their total estates to this organization. Since none of them survived and the TBS ceased to exist, all of the hundreds of millions of dollars of TALK wealth ended up in financial limbo and ultimately in the coffers of the city, state, and federal governments. There is some remaining litigation about all of this inheritance even today.
These days, few in the city remember the “rise and fall” of our TALKs. A small brass plaque was installed on the property where the Tunnel of Love ride once stood and in their memory. I think that part of this amnesia has been, in part, intentional. They now existed only as a small blip on the tape of history but that was not always the case. They were the best people I had ever known and loved.