Tag Archives: fathers

The Backstory: Light Fading, Darkness Closing

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

We just celebrated Father’s Day, and I loved seeing all the photos of everybody’s dad popping up in my Facebook feed.  It reminded me that I promised y’all way back that I’d finish telling my dad’s story…. but I haven’t.  Most of it has been told, at least as a story arc, up through my early years. What remains is a sketch of what were to me the most vivid memories of my life intertwined with his.
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To recap:  My dad was the son of an Italian immigrant and he grew up in a poor immigrant section of Connellsville, Pennsylvania – a town that existed to feed the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh via coal, coke, and glass. My dad survived his childhood, impoverished and terrible as it was, and did a stint in the Army before settling in for a 30-year career in the world’s longest steel mill. (Really!)

He met my mom when she was the single mother of two teen boys and fell in love. Along the way, he became a Christian and they got married, touching off a firestorm in their small church. But my dad was stubborn, so he stuck it out in the pew Sunday after Sunday, growing angry that he’d been pigeonholed as an unrepentant “adulterer” (because anyone who marries a divorcee is breaking the Bible’s commandments, right?) and sidelined from doing anything more at church than warming a seat. Meanwhile, they’d built a house and manufactured a daughter, and so the set pieces for my young life were all in place by 1980.

I imagine if my dad were to list the critical moments of his life, a fateful Sunday morning on a lovely October day in 1981 would rise to the top of the list.

He got up and dressed for church, as he always did. There was a funny foggy spot in his vision in his right eye, but he assumed it would go away eventually; if not, the eye doctor would be open on Monday and he could get it checked out.  The church lights really bothered him that day.

Monday morning found my father, who was almost never sick and certainly never in the doctor’s office, sitting in the chair of the town’s optometrist. Our town was small and our doctors not exactly cutting-edge. Anything “fancy” happened down in Pittsburgh, more than an hour away. My dad always wondered if perhaps a better doctor would have saved his sight, but “what if’s” do nothing but stir up dissatisfaction.

A few routine tests indicated that something – a rogue blot of calcium perhaps? – had hemorrhaged my dad’s eyeball, not the big inside part but the small area between the lens and the cornea. The fluid was 90% gone, meaning the growing grey spot which had eaten my dad’s vision in his right eye was permanent.  The eye itched and burned and ached and he was able to see only at the very top of the field of vision.

At first, I think my dad had a little bit of hope that perhaps they could find a solution, and a great deal of gratitude that the chunk of calcium or whatever that had floated around in his head chose to lodge itself in a blood vessel in his eye rather than in his brain to cause a stroke. But it was a cold comfort for a man who’d spent 50 years working with his body.

I was too young to process much of what was going on, other than the fact that my dad was home a lot more and not going to work as much.  I imagine those were deeply disappointing weeks for him.  He talked to his bosses and US Steel offered him sick leave and eventually a new job: dipping disks (of some kind) in acid (for some reason I don’t remember). Dad was quite offended that this was his option. I’m not sure if the job was demeaning (to him) because it was a huge demotion from his previous work driving big dump trucks and bulldozers, or if he felt it was unsafe for a half-blind man. Either way, he was rather indignant and walked away from the offer.

Fortunately for our family finances, dad had just completed his 30th year at USSteel-ClairtonWorks, meaning he was eligible for a small company pension and continued health insurance coverage. It was a massive pay cut, offering about 40% of his former salary. But it was something.

I remember a few of dad’s mill buddies stopping by to see him during the year that followed. His personal misfortune was soon gulfed by the widespread collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in 1983-84. Ironically, many of his friends who stayed at the mills to try to squeeze out any final months of work were rewarded with less than what my dad got from his pension.  If he’d stayed at Clairton, as he’d intended, he probably would have been in the same position…. along wit the 25% of people in Fayette County who were unemployed by 1983. (!)

*****

Life for my dad form then on was a lot more bitter. He still played Johnny Cash tunes for me at nap time, fiddled around the house with building stuff like our back deck, and cut wood to burn for heat in the winter.

Dad was a very skilled man, really, considering his aborted acquisition of a college education. He could figure out how to build nearly anything — but now he couldn’t see well enough to hit the nails squarely.  The constant watering and pain in his eye made going out in bright light nearly impossible, made reading very difficult, made driving dangerous (though he still drove), made everything harder.

So at 50, my father wrestled with God over what to him were the worst possible questions: What had he done to deserve this? What sin had he committed that brought upon him blindness, uselessness, encroaching poverty, inadequacy? As he said it (many times), “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t run around, I don’t gamble. Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

I don’t think the answers ever came.

We continued on as a family, cutting expenses and tightening our budget, eliminating household utilities that others probably considered necessities.  My dad cooked (he was an amazing cook) and did laundry and met me at the bus stop after school.  He still mended his own socks (as he’d been taught in the Army) and picked away at songs on his guitar or harmonica and wielded his chain saw with mastery. We listened to Pirates baseball games together on the radio or TV on hot summer nights as tree frogs and crickets created such a chorus from the trees around us that we had to put the volume on high. I was daddy’s girl, just as I’d always been.

But my dad wasn’t the same anymore. That gregarious, talkative, personable man shrunk down into his shell of pain and irritation and bitterness and darkness and watched as many of the bright spots of his life faded before his eyes.

By the time I was a teenager, the marital strain was painfully obvious. It was joint blame for sure, for my mom’s loyalty to her older children above her current husband led to bad fights and a lot of screaming and a hateful anger which took up residence in our house and didn’t leave. Their intimacy crumbled, their working lives crumbled, and their drive to be something useful to the world fell apart as well.

By the time I went to college, I’d learned to appreciate the love and energy my parents had poured into me – on that score, they were still united. But my dad’s bitterness and soul-darkness did not break until my mom died.

That’s probably a story best left for another day. 

The Backstory: The Pig and I

I have a full series of biographical posts here, if you wish to attempt some armchair psychoanalysis on RameyLady. 
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I have only a few rules that I strive to follow at work (in addition to the basics of human kindness):

1. Don’t be too loud.  
The struggle is real, y’all.  I work at a rather quiet place.  I think my laugh carries all the way down the hall…. to like the second floor…

2.  Don’t be too weird.
If you’re reading The Backstory series, you understand: When I went off to college and spent some time with people from all around the country, I realized just how odd I am.  I blame this on being raised by a struggling working-class family living on a mountain in Appalachia, raised by parents a full generation older than any of my friends, as an only child whose primary companions were a few of the dysfunctional neighbor kids, our 10 cats, whatever came over the airwaves on the TV or local radio, and thousands of books.

3. Don’t say the F-word. 
…without having *very* good reason.

Three rules.  Should be simple.

You’d be amazed though.

So at lunch yesterday, when the talk of the table had turned – twice – to the subject of pigs …..hunting wild hogs ….. eating wild hogs [not as much meat as you’d think] ….. pet “comfort” pigs [I don’t know, I didn’t ask]) … plus pet pot-bellied pigs had come up in conversation before that as I was walking to lunch — I had the momentary thought of telling this story to the table.

Until I did a reality check, and decided the necessity of explaining my entire background before the story could even make sense probably took me past the boundaries of rule #2.

[I made the right call, I think.  Moments later, when I suggested that cauliflower tastes delicious roasted in a very hot oven with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, they all looked at me like I had 4 heads.  *shakes head*  People shouldn’t abuse food the way they do, like by not roasting cauliflower and eating that amazing caramelized toasty goodness on a cool winter evening. I digress.]

So here, dear reader, is the story that came to mind when the talk of the table turned to the pigs.

*****
I don’t know why my parents started to acquire large and small animals on our 12 acres of land, but they did.

I don’t have any actual memories of this, but family lore confirms that as soon as my family had settled on the mountain  in a little cement block house built by the previous owner (our temporary dwelling while my dad and brothers constructed our house), my brothers managed to talk my parents into letting them get a horse.

I’ll have to share the horse story some other day.  He didn’t last long with THAT attitude….

Over the course of my life, we had – in addition to the horse – two pigs, many chickens, two dogs, and a multitude of cats….. plus my brother’s beehives (for a time)…. which led to a few visits by a hungry black bear (and the end of several of the beehives). Oh, and fish.

When I was a preschooler, we had two hogs.  My dad and brothers constructed a pig pen a ways down into the woods from the house – to prevent our yard from smelling like a farm – and split trees into a fence.

The sow, black and pink and rather grouchy, bore the name Sarai for no reason that I can explain. I was probably 4; every part of the world made as much sense as anything else, no matter how bizarre, though I’m sure I asked why.   Sarai had a piglet (hers? not sure) that we called Rudy.  I don’t recall Rudy’s end, but I’m *pretty* certain a large wild animal feasted on him before we could do anything else with him.  Like serve him for supper.

I was daddy’s girl and followed him pretty much everywhere.  We took vegetable scraps and leftover food down to the pig trough for them to devour.  I learned how much fun it is to torment pigs – they glare at you with beady eyes. And they’re hella intelligent. It got to where they’d always stay across the pen from me if I was outside.  Inside the fence, I found them large and terrifying.  All that bulk and snuffling.  And mud.  *ew*  [insert Jimmy Fallon voice here]

Then one day in the golden autumn, my dad fired up his 1960-something Ford pickup truck, which had a rebuilt bed of wood with tall sides made of slats, and drove it and my brothers down to the pigpen. It took all 3 of them and maybe a neighbor too to pin down Sarai – who was huge and unhappy – and wrestle her up into the truck, tying her down.

The boys stayed in the back; my mom and dad flanked me on the red truck seat in the cab as we drove across the mountain to a barn-like building with a name something like Sonny’s or Sam’s or Harry’s.  That’s where the men dragged Sarai squealing off the truck and then disappeared into the building for quite a long time.

I was furious at being stuck in the truck cab with my mom.  Livid.  My dad had left no opening for disobedience here; he was clear that I was to stay put…. plus my mom wasn’t going to let me do anything more than stare through the back window of the truck cab.   So I waited. And stared.

And that was my family field trip to the slaughterhouse. 🙂

I’m sure I was given a basic explanation that Sarai had served her purpose and it was time for her to go … and that we would be able to eat bacon and pork chops and roasts all winter thanks to her sacrifice.  I remember when the truckload of white-wrapped packages came back from the butcher, labeled in black sharpie.  (The bacon was especially tasty.)

I don’t recall being particularly traumatized by the realization that the animal I’d helped raise was now part of supper.  I don’t know what that says about my psyche, but it was normal for mountain life.  We buried many pets while I grew up, lots several chickens to a hungry possum, and got rid of the troublesome horse.

Death is always near in the Appalachians.  It just is.

The Backstory: Memorial Day, America, God, and Country

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
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Memorial Day was never complicated when I was a kid.

We lived on top of a mountain in Appalachia in the middle of the woods. Flagpoles weren’t part of the natural landscape, but my mom had inherited her mom’s 48-star American flag (so – pre 1950?) and bought a bracket for it one year.  Dad found a pole, strung up the flag, and installed the bracket on a tall tree that flanked the gravel pathway from our circular driveway up to the house.   It was a huge flag and I don’t remember how it came into our family. I’d guess it could be from World War 2.  I wish I’d asked.

But it was cool to see that huge flag wave in the breeze among the trees.  We eventually stopped putting wear and tear on the 48 star specimen and switched to my maternal grandfather’s funeral flag, with its crisp white edges and all 50 stars.

Dad was a Korean War era vet, so he was particular about the flag’s handling — he never left it out in the rain or overnight and folded it carefully back into its triangle at the end of Memorial Day and 4th of July.

the original RameyDomus. This is either my dad's flag or my grandfather's - I'm not sure when this shot was taken. My guess is that it's 1999 or 2000, and that would make this flag -- which is nearly as big as our first house! -- my dad's honor flag.
The flag tradition continued at the first RameyDomus. This is either my dad’s flag or my grandfather’s – I’m not sure when this shot was taken. My guess is that it’s 1999 or 2000, and that would make this flag — which is nearly as big as our first house! — my dad’s honor flag. Oh, and Coart had to climb onto the roof to hang it up.

I always liked the rhythmic visual symmetry of the 48 stars even though the flag was technically “out of date.”  A holdover from when life seemed simpler, to my young mind wrestling to pin definitions on the words my dad used when ranting at the news about “commies,” “pinkos,” Democrats, Reagan, union-breakers, and Japanese steel imports (which to his mind were entirely responsible for destroying the Pittsburgh steel industry, not the failure of the unions to negotiate within a realistic understanding of a global economy.

But church on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day always themed around America, blending together Jesus’ sacrifice and the soldier’s.  We sang the Battle Hymn with no sense of irony:

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I met anyone who even began to question the easy elision of Christ and Country. Early in our dating days, it came up that Coart would not sing the Battle Hymn out of principle – not a Southerner’s simmering rage at the War of Northern Aggression, but because he could not sing words that suggested America’s bloody history of war and violence were the same as Jesus’ work of redemption.

Honestly, I’d never even realized what the hymn was saying, linking the Union war against Southern slavery to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.  Or that God would judge people based on how they reacted to “his contemners.”  It was awkward and uncomfortable and eye-opening.  If you have to kill 700,000 of your own citizens to bring them God’s Kingdom, you might be doing it wrong.

I was raised in a Christian school and community and household that thoughtlessly linked America and God, placing us without question on the same side of all issues.   I’ve since come to realize that the landscape is more complex.

It wasn’t until I got to Presbyterianism that I discovered people who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  In fact, I taught in a school where no one said the pledge ever, it seems.  We experimented with pledging to the American flag and Christian flag at some early assemblies and ceremonies, but that fell aside quickly. Presbys understand that we are citizens of another country, and they mean it enough to risk (or enjoy) being “unpatriotic.”

But I’m not really happy with that approach either.  Is the Pledge really that big of a deal?  My dad and hundreds of thousands of other men and women have dedicated themselves to preserve an idea of an America where freedom matters, where people have chances, where democracy takes root and thrives.

It’s not an accident that I was born in the United States and not Zimbabwe, Peru, Denmark, or Thailand.  God placed me here, in this nation, to be good at both Kingdom work and civic virtues.

American Christianity, at least the Evangelical flavor, could use a dose of wisdom and discernment to separate their American ideals from what the Bible teaches. With no apologies to my friends, I cannot see Capitalism as a biblical virtue. (I’m not saying it’s evil; I’m saying it’s a system that’s just as broken as the humans who inhabit it.)  War is not a virtue either — it’s the last resort of sinful, broken people in a world that’s so twisted by sin that we couldn’t find any better solution. So we kill people.

I’m tired of conservative mantras showing up in Sunday sermons as truth, as middle class Christian Evangelicals adjust to living (once again) in a country where immigrant culture, changing demographics, and a shifting economy threaten to disrupt their traditional values. (America’s been through this before.)

But — all that aside —

My father, January 1953, Fort Hood, Texas (US Army)
My father, January 1953, Fort Hood, Texas (US Army)

I’m proud of my father, my grandfathers, and the friends I have who served proudly in the US Armed Forces.

I’m thankful for the many who have chosen military service (or were drafted but served anyway, even when they disagreed) because they see value in trying to give people the gift of self-direction.

I live too far away from my home to visit my dad or grandfather’s grave today for Decoration Day.  I know the local VFW has placed a flag and maybe a wreath on their brass military plaques.   And that’s the right thing to do.

1 Peter 2:17:
Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.

The Backstory: Winter nights, snowy days, and an Appalachian woodcutter

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
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My parents relocated our family to the top of an Appalachian mountain by the time I was 3.

One wall of our living room, 7 feet tall by 16 feet wide, was solid Pennsylvania field stone, handpicked by my dad and brothers for the stone masons to set into a wall for that end of the  room. (Still the coolest part of the house IMHO. I love it.)

A huge slab of hand-cut cherry formed a mantle, where stood some of mom’s treasured ceramic and metal pieces of art, and hung with a powder horn in honor of the pioneers and Indians who’d lived in these hills before us.

Beneath that was set a black steel wood stove, offering a shelf of hot metal perfect for a pot of soup that might serve as supper. And stretching the width of the wall on either side was a built-in stone hearth, a foot or so out into the living room, making room for piles of the wood that kept us warm. [And a pair of wagon wheels, one on either side, gathered by my mom during her antiquing trips.  But that’s a different story. ]

I grew up on top of a “mountain.” Granted, this was in Pennsylvania, so it wasn’t a mountain by Western standards. (We once drove from 100 degree Phoenix to 40 degree Denver in one long shot, crossing Wolf Pass in Colorado shortly after midnight where — I kid you not — it was 32 degrees and there was snow in the ground, in late June.)

But for the East, it counts.

Rich Hill probably doesn’t show up on a map. It’s not really the name of the place, just a local appellation for a general area, a peak among peaks, a hill that rose above others to provide some wonderful vistas as you were driving into town.  And on top of Rich Hill you would find 12 acres of trees, with a small clearing and our house.

The outdoor temperature always registered 10 degrees cooler at home than “down in the city” (a town of <10,000). In the summer, that meant cool breezes filtered through the shady canopy of hardwoods that surrounded our house.

In spring and fall, a thick blanket of fog might sit on top of our mountain all day, never relenting.  You could drive ½ mile down the  road and find that a cloud had snagged on the peak, leaving us smothered in white while the rest of the world carried on its business underneath a relatively normal cloudy sky.

In the winter, we caught brutal snows and wind that befit the first real range of mountains as you head from west to east from Pittsburgh into the interior of the state.  A freight-train wind made your insides feel cold, regardless of the thermostat reading.

*****
I’ve always hated winter. It’s dark; it’s dead; it’s cold. Depressing, really.  Nothing sounds as despairing as the wind howling around a house in a fierce snowstorm.

And it was in that cold that my dad trudged through the thick snow several times each night to make sure all the home fires were burning, that no pipes were freezing, that we weren’t freezing.  I slept through his nocturnal watchings, burrowed under 2 blankets and on top of a 3rd. (Sheets are way too cold when your household temperature overnight is a chilly 55.)

*****
Snow laid out on a field under a full moon is probably the most beautiful sight God ever created.  Even when the bitter cold leaked through the very molecules of a windowpane (you could feel the cold on your face, inches from the glass), the beauty of unbroken snow took me back.  It was so …. perfect.  Untouched by human hands. Maybe the tracks of a freezing songbird, squirrel, cat, or fox.

*****
We heated our house with wood.  There’s a longer explanation, tied to my dad’s partial blindness,  unemployment, and resulting financial crisis for our family. The short answer is this: We lived on 12 acres of trees. Hard to beat “free” when it comes to fuel for heating.

It took a tree — an entire 90 feet of gorgeous oak or maple or cherry  which had probably stood since before airplanes existed to fly over its head — an entire tree a day to keep our house warm on the coldest days.

Each winter day, once things had thawed a bit, my dad began his  ritual:   After breakfast and his Bible study, he doubled up his socks, put on a third shirt (above the t-shirt and flannel he was already wearing), and laced up his steel-toed work boots.  Over the layers of shirts, he buttoned an undercoat and then a dingy yellow work coat with flashes of reflective tape (leftover from his days in the steel mill) and wrapped a scarf tightly to keep his neck warm. He stacked a couple hats on his head, put on a pair of work gloves, and headed to the basement to fire up the Stihl chain saw.

If I happened to be at home – perhaps a rare snow day, triggered because below-zero temperatures made it too difficult to clear the roads enough for the mountain kids to get to school? — I’d hear the thump of the cellar door as he went out to find a dead hardwood he’d marked on his mental map back when the leaves were there to tell the story of which trees still carried life, and which were ready to fall.

If I stood near a window I might hear the hum of the chainsaw cutting through a trunk, first notching the tree in the direction he wanted it to fall (you had to work all this out before you began cutting), and then around the other side to sever the tree low at the stump.  If all went well, the tree fell without taking any others with it.  If he was unlucky, the tree might catch on other nearby branches, refusing to fall.  Or tilt backwards on its stump, pinning the chainsaw. Bad.

But on the easier days, an impressive crash and thud from a felled tree echoed …. unless the snow hid it.  Snow has an incredible insulating property, the ability to absorb sound out of your very skull so that nothing seemed to make noise ever. Eerie, in fact.

This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.
This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.

Once the tree lay on the ground, Dad cut the limbs from the trunk so those could be gathered later. Thick limbs might be useful for the wood fire; the thin ones were basically just kindling or “along-siders,” my dad’s name for the smaller logs needed to support a good fire overnight alongside a giant piece of oak or cherry.

He’d segment the trunk down into 6 to 8 foot sections and then — this is just crazy! — somehow he’d manage to single-handedly lift a full length of tree up onto his shoulder.

I wish I had a photo of this.  You probably don’t believe me. I hardly believe it myself, but it was a simple quotidian memory:  Dad emerging out of the woods bearing a massive log balanced on his left shoulder.

I think in the early days he used to cut up the tree and then haul the logs out by hand using his wheelbarrow. Ideally, we would have used a pickup truck, but his  50-something Ford died when I was very little, and we had to sell the Ford 150 trucks when he lost his job.  So no engine power; all manual labor.  And it’s hard enough to drive a wheelbarrow on level ground. Murderously hard on a wooded path covered in inches of snow.

You can drag logs, but that’s backbreaking work.  Easier to balance it and walk it up.  So he did. Somehow.

My dad wasn’t a huge man. He was around 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered, thick necked, large hands.  He wasn’t as muscular at the mill. But those shoulders and hands grew to fit the work in the woods that kept us alive from September through early May, kept us warm.

If all went well, he’d have the tree felled but uncarried by lunchtime. A quick sandwich or bit of leftover soup, a bit of respite, and then back outside, hauling up the logs  to be cut into 2-foot portions, then  splitting some by hand into manageable pieces for our wood stoves.

The rhythm of an axe makes its own melody on cold crisp air.
Chnk Chnk Chnk Crack Thud
A steel wedge made the job a little easier ….  Tap the wedge into a giant piece of oak, creating a small crevice. Pound the wedge into the hunk of tree, forcing it to give way. Hard work. Practiced swings.  A beautiful arc.  Then the log gave up, falling into halves or thirds, better for burning.

Armfulls of fresh and fragrant wood kept us warm, cooked our food, made the Pennsylvania winters in the isolated mountains bearable.

There was a rhythm to Dad’s steps, too, as he finished his woodcutting for the day, usually around 3 or 4pm.  I’d hear his feet crunching the snow outside as he walked around the front of the house with a load of wood for the upstairs wood stove.   The front door opened directly into the living room, which housed the hearth and the wood stove.

He’d stop outside the door to kick the snow off his boots — less watery mess to clean up afterward.  Thump-thump. (Right foot.) Thump thump. (Left foot.) The door opens, Dad walks in, arms full of wood.  The pieces crash down onto the hearth. Back out for another armload. Had to stock up enough for a full night’s burning.

The darkness would come by 4:30 in the dead of winter.  Woodcutting done, dad would mop up the snow-water from the floor, sweep the chips, hang up his coat and gloves to dry.  A warm fire made the house really pleasant.  He’d start on supper.  Mom wouldn’t make it home till 6:30 or later but she’d appreciate something good to eat after a long day of work.

On the best days, supper was already bubbling away in a pot on the living room stove: minestrone, perhaps.  You’d try to eat the air, it smelled so good.

*****
“Pssssh. This isn’t cold! You wanna see real cold? Well, when I was in Pennsylvania….”

I guess it’s by the grace of God that transplanted Northerners aren’t murdered in droves every winter by the Southerners who put up with their constant derision at definitions of “cold,” “snowy,” “winter,” “storm,” or “you really should wear a coat.”

I’m sorry y’all.  We can’t help it.  Your snow days are so adorable. 🙂

The Backstory: The Wee Sma’s

I’ll pick up more of my dad’s story in future posts, including how he met my mom and my childhood.

Somewhere I’ve got a photo of my dad in his “work clothes” (actually, he wore this all the time) – a pair of brown Dickies work pants and a solid color Hanes pocket T-shirt, often in black. A ball cap (nearly always black or navy blue), his black-rimmed safety glasses, and a deep tan (I didn’t get his flawless Italian complexion) completed the look.

His wedding ring sat unworn on his dresser – not a slight to my mom; a practical concession to the dangers of working at the mill. He’d seen several men lose their fingers or whole hand when their wedding ring caught in a piece of machinery. So a watch (that probably spent time in his pocket rather than his wrist) was the only jewelry he wore.

For now, let me jump to my toddler years.  Dad worked swing shifts – spending a week or so on “days” (7am-3pm) then a week or so of 2nd shift, and occasionally working 3rd / nights. Eventually he was able to pull seniority to get a daytime schedule nearly all the time. Clairton is a good hour’s drive from where we lived.  So to get there by 7am and avoid the rush hour traffic, he tried to be out the door by 5:30am. That meant he got up at 5 or earlier on workdays.

One of my sweetest toddler memories happened on the occasional morning when I’d hear him get up, and I’d crawl out of bed to see what he was up to. I learned his routine and it’s sounds– he had his own bathroom at one end of the house (I’m not sure why, but I think  years of trying to share one bathroom among 10 people turned my dad into a man who wanted his own bathroom and wanted everyone else to have the same, so we had 3) and he’d spend a short while down there showering and shaving. I’d hear him come into the kitchen, where he’d turn on the light at the far end of the house so as not to disturb mom or me and read his Bible while drinking a cup of coffee.

I’d toddle out and find him reading under the bare light bulb (I’ll talk about this later, but he built our house himself, and some of the finer details – like light fixtures – didn’t get finished for a while).

He’d scoop me up for a kiss and some father-daughter time, then scoot me back to bed so he could leave on time and hit the road for another 8 hour day at the mill.
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I picked up “the wee sma’s” phrase from the Anne of Green Gables books – one of the older ladies that Anne knew used this colloquialism for the “wee small” hours of the morning. It’s always been one of my favorites. 

Of Snow. And Fathers who go out in the cold

It’s been cold around here, or so my Facebook feed keeps reminding me.  Anything below freezing seems to be an event in these here Southern parts, and I resist the urge to laugh out loud.  I mean, just because I grew up on top of an Appalachian “mountain” doesn’t mean I get to make fun of the Southern response to any hint of winter storm.

Real snow!  In Pennsylvania.  In late April. (not lying. But this was a while ago)
Real snow! In Pennsylvania. In late April. (not lying. But this was a while ago)

Before all my Southern friends get their panties wadded: calm down. I’m actually here to reminisce about my dad.   That, and everyone I know from the West is already pointing and laughing at my reference to an Appalachian hill as a “mountain.”

I grew up in a house heated by wood.  It wasn’t my parents’ original intention; when they built the house in the 70s, having bought property for the first time in both their lives, they installed an oil furnace (heating oil). And a big ol’ tank for it under the back yard.  Living the big life.

Then the Oil Embargo and The Seventies and The Carter Administration and Inflation got all up in there and messed up oil prices for everybody forever.  Or that’s how they told me.

I think my dad started building the house sometime in 1977 — in fact, if I’m getting the story correct, the house (which was actually one of those Sears House Kits … I am not making that up….) came in a pile of building materials during The Great Winter Storm of ’77.  Something like 30 feet of snow dumped in a short time (ok, I’m exaggerating, but I was a toddler and I don’t remember, ok?)

The idea was, you ordered your house via floor plan through Sears (was this a catalog item? I bet it was!) and somebody would show up at your land with a big truck full of trusses and shingles and timbers and wiring and everything you need to Build Your Own House.  Because that, my friends, is the American Dream™!

The Great Blizzard of ’77 was on its way, and my dad called Sears to get them to delay the delivery.  Who wants a delivery on top of a mountain in a blizzard?  Well, Sears didn’t believe, so some poor lackey of a driver found himself climbing treacherous hills in thick snow, racing to get the stuff delivered before he was stuck.  And his method for “unloading” was (according to my dad) to back the truck up to the top of our driveway, pull the “dump” lever, and drive away. My dad and mom (and maybe brothers?) hand-carried as much of the lumber and materials down onto the build site, what they could.  Since all the snow dumped on top of what remained, my dad had to wait till the spring thaw melted the snow drifts to discover just how much of the building materials were damaged. (Answer: a lot, including windows and roof trusses.)

But I’ve digressed.

We tried the oil furnace thing, but the house was chilly around all the edges in the winter.  And it was hella expensive.  So they decided to switch to wood. (We lived in 12 acres of hardwood forest, and plenty of people sell firewood.)

my front yard, on a snowy day
my front yard, on a snowy day

Our roaring living room fireplace (an entire wall of the living room was field stone picked up from our property and mortared in place – it’s the best feature of the house) accepted a fireplace insert which was truly the hub of our house in the winter.

The wood stove kept the house between a chilly upper 50s (in the wee morning) and very cozy mid-70s (especially if my mom was badgering dad to warm things up).   Dad became the chief fireman of the house, building expert fires and keeping them blazing.

The rule of winter heating by wood stove is tyrannical.  You can’t leave for more than 3-4 hours; you can’t stop cutting trees (or buying wood); you can’t fail to attend to keeping your firewood supply dry and accessible.

To make matters even more interesting, my parents utilized the water well drilled on the land by its previous owner. He had built his little cement block cabin on top of the pump house so he could keep it heated in the winter (to avoid the pipes freezing). And he heated with wood too (potbellied stove).  When my parents bought the land, it would have been really expensive to re-drill a well closer to our new house, and they didn’t want to use the “cabin” for our house.  So they dug a pipe safely underground (below the frost line) from the cabin to our basement. And thus began my dad’s life of tending fires.

When the temperature drops below zero, you can’t rely on anything except a true heat source to keep those pipes form freezing.  So dad had to heat both our house (because we lived there) and the cabin (to keep the water running and the pipes from breaking).

All winter long.

My dad kept a nightly vigil of banking fires, restocking fires, tromping through cold and snow and wooly winds and below zero temperatures every 4 hours to tend both fires (actually 3; we eventually added a second wood stove in the basement to help keep the house warm on the coldest winter days).  Every four hours.

All those fires demanded wood, and at one point dad had to harvest whatever we needed for winter fuel from our own forest. For reasons I don’t fully understand, he didn’t cut wood in the summer; he cut trees each day in the winter, hauled them up, chopped them down to size at the block by the basement door, and stocked the wood piles.  On the coldest of days, we burned a tree a day to keep everything warm.

I know this sounds cliche, but honestly – though I’m sure he was tired of the unending watch – he never complained.

*****
One of my very favorite poems about wood stoves and winter cold is Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden.   Give it a read.

*****
You have never eaten minestrone until you’ve had it cooked all day on top of a wood stove, from 7am till 4pm.
You’ve never smelled such heaven as walking into a house wafting that smell of The Best Supper Ever For A Snowy Evening.

The house I grew up in, built pretty much by hand by my dad and brothers.
The house I grew up in, built pretty much by hand by my dad and brothers. The window you can see clearly was my bedroom growing up.

The Backstory: Army, Steel, and Tornadoes

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

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My dad during his Army service, probably around 1954
My dad during his Army service, probably around 1954

Eventually my Dad made it to graduation – I don’t remember how he scrounged up a suit for graduation, but he did.  He shared a nerve-wracking group dinner with his principal and faculty (he told me), who seemed to like him and encouraged him to pursue further education.

College was out of the question for a poor son of an immigrant, so he tried to sign up for the Marines.  It was 1950 and the Korean War had drummed up patriotism and enlistments.

Dad by this time was working at one of the Pittsburgh steel mills for good money and supporting the remainder of his family since his dad had basically abdicated that role. Entering the Marines would mean trading that paycheck for a military pay, but Dad was ready to sign up.

He went to the recruiter with a friend (Harry, perhaps?) and was told he couldn’t enlist till he hit the 120 pound weight minimum. (Bear in mind, my dad was a shade short of 6 feet tall, so to weigh 117 pounds at age 18 and that height is really sad.)  The recruiter suggested that my dad eat bananas to bulk up.  He did.

Three days later, when he headed to the station to finalize the deal, his friend had decided to skip out altogether.  So dad left too.

I don’t know a lot about his early adult years, but I heard a lot of stories involving his good friend  Ellsworth (who died of cancer when I was very little) and adventures.  Like trying to navigate the unnavigable Youghiogheny River rapids above Connellsville on an Army surplus raft.  Or the time they raced a “woodie” station wagon (wood paneled sides) so fast that splinters were blowing off the side. So the story went.)

Two years later, Dad was drafted, given a waiver because he was considered the primary breadwinner for his family (I think his dad had basically abandoned them financially by this point despite holding a pretty cushy job).  Finding out he had been waived, Dad angrily demanded to enlist since he wouldn’t be set aside as a “4F draft dodger.”

Dad’s military stories boiled down into two epochs:

1. Texas, where he did his basic and advanced training.  I think he was at Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston.  It was in Texas that my father, the only Pennsylvanian in a company full of Texans, made a few judgments about his new surroundings:

a) “There was nothing so small as a Texan with the wind knocked out of him.”
b) Chiggers were hell
c) The South sucked. (His opinion, not mine.)

In fact, when he finally got to leave Texas and make his way back home for leave after completing his training (on a hellish DC-9 plane ride in the middle of a storm), my dad vowed he would never set foot in the South again. And he kept his word – skipping even my college graduation.

2. Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  As an MP, my dad was assigned to gate duty . Aside from arresting drunk enlisted men and guarding prisoners, he was part of General Montgomery’s honor escort when “Monty” visited the base, I assume in 1953 or 54.

The Aberdeen years were good ones, it seems. I think my dad liked the experience there, and he was close enough to hitchhike home for regular visits.  But the Army didn’t promote him quickly, and he decided to leave once his two years were up.  Still, the marks of military discipline were stitched into his behavior: his shoes were perfect straight tucked under his side of the bed; he did all of his own mending or button-sewing; his schedule was dependably consistent.

Clairton Steel Works, Clairton, PA (part of US Steel)
Clairton Steel Works, Clairton, PA (part of US Steel)

Coming home after his military service, my father fell back into a regular job at the Clairton Mill, the longest steel mill in the world (4 miles of continuous industrial facilities along the bank of the Allegheny River, south of Pittsburgh).  He moved through various jobs, working his way up to running bulldozers, driving buses around the mill (delivering skilled laborers like bricklayers to their jobs around the plant), and a lot of big truck driving. It gave him the ingrained habit of always driving any vehicle with his right hand at rest on the gear shift, even if the car was automatic.

I know he experienced one of the major steelworker strikes of the 50s, and spent his earlier years as a devout Democrat and supporter of unions.  By the end of his career, he’d decided the union bosses were just as greedy as the management of USSteel, and he had little use for either side. But he raged at Ronald Reagan (his first Republican vote) for “breaking the unions” when he ended the air traffic controllers strike.

Dad watched the steel industry transfer from the older methods of steel manufacturing to the computer age –but he spoke with reverence about the almost mystical knowledge that “old-timers” had for looking at the molten steel in the crucible and being able to tell by its color and appearance exactly when to “tap out” the steel – pour the giant bucket of molten metal down the channels into the rolling mill.

In August 1963, a major tornado whipped through the mill, tearing up the steelworks and sending my dad and some of his buddies into a concrete block washhouse to cower in a shower stall.  He said the tornado forced water through the concrete blocks in the shower block. Red lightning (his term for lightning so close that you couldn’t see it) struck all around them.  Though far from God, my dad said he prayed more in those 10 minutes than he had at any time before.

More to come….