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Where Stories Went to Die

December 28, 2010

Bessemer converter in action

Looking back at Washington’s mission, his enlistment of Tanaghrisson and the ultimatum he delivered to French commandant, Tanaghrisson’s complaints about the young speculator become clear to me. I imagine the futility the Indians felt in trying to stem the ambitions of the French, the English, and the Spanish, too. With acquisition in their eyes and entitlement in their hearts, these European invaders could not be stopped.

We were among them: my grandparents and parents, my friends and their families. We felt the moral imperative to tame nature, plunder bedrock for coal and oil, and make the most of an abundant land and all the freedom it had to offer.

I thought the Indians had been pagans, people who vested their belief in rising suns and raptors, who fought against progress, God, and democracy. That was the company line. Nobody mentioned that these people lived in harmony with nature and were overwhelmed by newcomers who felt they had a mandate from the divine. Our teachers made “manifest destiny” sound like the noble thing.  Righteous authority entitled every fortune seeker and prophet, from Dinwiddie to Carnegie to a Hungarian coal miner to advance straight through mountains in a parade of acquisition. Exploitation? The word never came up, but every corner of Ambridge bears its stains.

That morning behind Armco I had lost my sense of purpose—no sun setting in the west or flickering buoy on the horizon helped me set a course. I had long ago given up on mandates from the divine, waiting and praying, as the nuns advised, for a clear tap on the shoulder from God, summoning me to the priesthood. Deciding how to fulfill my personal destiny, or at least the next step, confounded me. I was drifting, staring at my feet and the cinders, the jagged lumps of waste left over from steelmaking, smelting, processes that formed and re-formed steel. We called them ashes; they were everywhere, filthy and sharp. They were spread on our wintry roads for traction, turning cars black in February.  Useful in pursuit of progress, the ashes covered the tracks of the past, darkened memory and buried stories that I wish I had known.

I followed the railroad tracks behind the mill, striding from tie to tie, high above the river where I and a gang of other laborers had driven spikes and bent rails to curve along the river two weeks earlier. The tracks led to sidings behind the A.M. Byers plant, an iron mill with two brick smokestacks towering above it.

From the time I was a toddler, my father slowed the car on the opposite side of the mill as we passed Byers’ twin Bessemer converters that were open to Duss Avenue. I would stand on the back seat and watch the giant thermos-shaped smelters tip skyward and shoot flames, sparks, and gobs of molten iron into the night air. Thirty feet tall and girded with heavy iron, these twin behemoths exhaled a sulfurous cloud that bathed the Ford in a warm wave. Two of my uncles worked in the Byers plant, making wrought iron under the protection of a union originally known as The Sons of Vulcan.

The Byers iron mill opened in 1930, directly atop the remains of Logstown.  I can only assume that the Daughters of the American Revolution found the sale and placement to be an affront, because, soon after the mill opened, they erected a 15-ton granite boulder near Duss Avenue, with a plaque that described Logstown’s history, concluding wistfully:  “The importance of these events belongs wholly to the past.”

That statement ruled local understanding of history, not only American history, but our family histories. Recent immigrants resisted or downright refused to talk about their lives before they crossed the Atlantic. They told few stories. “I don’t like to talk about the Old Country,” my grandmother said, in broken English. The very word “communist” rattled her. Her immediate family back home had become victims and refugees, and she could find no way to help them other than through her daily prayers.

My most palpable sense of the Old Country came from an embroidered perrina, a down quilt that, by its smell and feel, conveyed details of the past, which my grandmother kept locked in a cedar chest. Every family, social, and religious ritual carried a tradition but the roots of that tradition fell behind a veil stitched tightly by the crossing of steamer ships filled with hopefuls who were trying to forget the past. I pleaded with the elders to tell me about coming to America, and when they did, their jaws tightened as they looked down at their folded hands and said “I work. I know machines. I grow food. I can dig and drive horses. I can work all day. I’m strong.” That’s all they gave me, no matter how many questions I asked—skills that would allow them to stay, looking ahead, trying to forget the pain of poverty, oppression, war and corruption in Europe.

As for stories nobody wants to tell:  steel and its attendant industries would crash in the 1980s, creating a swath of unemployment and desperation in what became known as The Rust Belt. Today, obsolete industrial centers like Ambridge and Akron, Toledo and Allentown, fall into the sad category of predecessors like Lowell and Waterbury, Worcester and Fall River. For those of us who grew up there, the stories stick in our throats.

Surrounded as I was by silent immigrants and wildly exploited landscape, I knew nothing of how this place, its people and resources had made a real difference in America.  Few artists or writers emerged from the ranks of steelworkers.  We left our portrayal up to outsiders, observers, photographers from the Works Progress Administration, industrial and union newsreel shooters, journalists from national newspapers who coined descriptions of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off.” Every depiction, from the mythical steelworker, Joe Magarac, to The Deerhunter, is shot through the same lens, portraying blue-collar stereotypes with detached, sympathetic reverence, usually in as simple terms as possible. Novelists and filmmakers came to blue-collar towns like Ambridge looking for characters, but, with few exceptions, warped them into caricatures.

Several times every week for the first twenty-two years of my life, I watched those enthralling Byers’ furnaces send flames into the night as they converted iron into steel with extreme heat, driving out carbon and “impurities” — ancient remains within the ores — and blast them into dark clouds of smoky particles.  We now know that the smoke did not simply ascend into heaven; it settled in our lungs, our hair and eyes, our soil and our children.

Events never belong wholly to the past. Stories and human experience, like the earth’s hardened elements, impurities included, can be dismissed, ignored, annealed with suffering and buried, but wherever we go, we carry them within us.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2011 3:09 pm

    With God on Their Side. The exploitation of “endless” resources; land, minerals, people. I’ve always been interested in the early settlers mind set and their backers in Europe. The enormity of the landscape and the perceived impossibility of limits. One just could not imagine this huge land mass ever having limits. I initially thought these were concepts of a long ago past but….the buffalo will always be here, real estate values will always increase, the stock market will always go up, more technology will save us from our exploitative consumerism, China will always have cheap labor and the Amazon goes on forever. We’re OK (and you’re not) because of course we have God on our side. God is Great…BOOM!

    • January 5, 2011 4:50 pm

      Greg — You’re right. How many delusions are built on claims of an alliance with God? As you know, John L. Sullivan, a New York journalist in the mid-1800′s coined the term “manifest destiny” in his essay “Annexation.” Here’s a snippet:

      “The expansive future is our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Untrodden? Oh, right, NATIVE Americans don’t count.

      He says Americans are destined “…to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High — the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere — its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood — of “peace and good will amongst men.”

      Sounds just like today’s USA, doesn’t it? Maybe Glenn Beck finally has a movie role. O’Sullivan lived the life of a bombast, blowing in political winds, (Franklin Pierce’s Ambassador to Portugal) and died in obscurity.

  2. January 6, 2011 8:08 pm

    i like it

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