When Steel Began to Sag
My grandparents survived immigration only to suffer through the Great Depression, making them careful with abundance and watchful for harder times. Their worries seemed quaint in the 1960s, but I took their attitudes to heart because my family lived paycheck-to-paycheck and I learned to worry about money, too.
Financial insecurity plays out in different ways. Steelworkers were getting fatter paychecks; some bought new cars every other year, went farther afield for vacations, and exhibited their status by installing fountains and statuary (think Manneken Pis and reclining lions) in their front yards. Others stuck to the old frugality: rebuilding their own transmissions, making their own wines, growing vegetables and hunting for meat, stashing pocket change for an eventual week of fishing at a lake less than an hour away. Our family lived like the latter group, which gave my parents a way of coping with persistent rumors about layoffs and shutdowns. The more profligate shrugged off the doomsaying, either out of denial or confidence that they knew how to succeed and would always find a way.
For those who listened, the rumblings portending the collapse of the American steel industry began in the late 1950s, with steelmakers facing almost no competition and the demand for consumer goods on the rise. Because profits were rolling into all the steel-related factories around Ambridge and around the nation, unions were happy to win higher pay rates and the companies bought them off to keep them from poking their noses into everyday operations. Managers wanted peaceful relations with labor and total control of the business.
In this arrangement, as industry reporter John Bodnar writes, “labor and management constructed a rigid, legalistic industrial relations system that, in a sense, ignored the outside world. It tended to alienate workers and could not adjust readily to changes in technology, geopolitics and international trade.”
The Vietnam War temporarily retarded the rust at the aging Jones & Laughlin works, at American Bridge, and at the Armco plant in town. Those of us who opposed that war, even in our squeaky high school demonstrations, did so at peril, because war meant jobs. When my brother Mark graduated from high school in 1970, the war and the draft threatened his future, so he tried to avoid the jungles by enlisting in the Navy. But he had a bad back, and before he could finish basic training, he was sent home with a medical discharge.
I hoped to hide behind a college deferment, but by the time I was eligible for the draft, deferments had lost their exemption and were replaced with a birthday lottery system. My birthday came up twenty-second out of 365, and nineteen year-olds with my birthday were called, but I was only eighteen, and soon thereafter the war and draft ended. But for a few fearful months, I read National Guard recruitment brochures and pored over maps of Canada.
During dinner-table conversations, Milt explained why he felt the earth crumbling under American Bridge and the whole steel industry. He knew the structures he drew were being made from imported beams; he felt the pressure of tighter timetables and paranoid managerial tactics; and he whistled in disbelief when he sipped his coffee, lit a Viceroy, and announced, eyebrows raised, that the union scored another big raise for him and his fellow steelworkers. His common sense and Depression-born pragmatism made him distrust an unsustainable windfall. His hunches led him to bring home moonlight jobs, assignments he worked on in the basement, where he had turned the ping-pong table into a drafting setup. After dinner most evenings, he went to the basement in an effort to avoid disaster when American Bridge shut down.
The sleazy politicians and the corrupt patronage system I observed during my summer as a page in the Senate set me firmly against the established order and intensified my ambition to practice law, to get involved in politics, to bring youth and fresh thinking to government, industry, education and the arts. I had ideas for every institution I encountered, including the Catholic church. Living alone at the YMCA in Harrisburg allowed me to scour the streets every evening, drop into coffeehouses where I found musicians and poets, introduce myself at a friendly pool hall, and make some extra cash working at La Scala, the Italian restaurant across the street. Tommy, the owner, let me wash dishes and bus tables on Wednesday nights and prepare food—roll meatballs, fry sausages, that kind of thing—on Thursday nights.
During the brief summer session, I perched on the steps of the Senate rostrum, dazed by the dull, pontificating Senators who had no humility and even worse oratorical skill than the priests in church. Once the budget session ended, most of the Senators went home and the rest stayed to prove themselves as scumbags and hypocrites, summoning pages to deliver bottles for their water coolers, then shamelessly leaving doors ajar so I could see them making out with secretaries and aides under the glossy portraits of their families on the bookshelves. A couple of these Honorables dispatched me to the nearby Holiday Inn to deliver envelopes to “legislative assistants” who met me at the door wearing bathrobes, standing in bare feet with curlers in their hair. One of them blushed when she opened the door just wide enough to take the note. Her name was Anne-Marie and she looked only a couple of years older than me. She sticks with me because I would see her several times at La Scala on the arm of a mobbed-up hack from Philadelphia.
A feeling of independence and freedom set up shop within me. I knew how to meet people, learn a job, and find my way around a strange city. In the capitol’s law library and state archives I rarely saw anyone else under thirty and those I did, I admired. I had the freedom I had always wanted. I knew it, as did my parents. I had become my own (impressionable, idealistic, and ambitious) man, as green as springtime.
Freshly outraged by the Watergate scandal, I started my last year of high school determined to reform government and fight corruption. I had campaigned for George McGovern, applied to the University of Pittsburgh to prepare for law school, mediated racial conflicts in school, and arranged an event for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Any remaining notion to enter a seminary and take the spiritual route toward justice or inspire the masses through religious practice and the priesthood faded behind my newfound fascination with the legal system, and disappeared entirely with the crushes I had on girls.
They all fascinated me. I wasn’t having sex, but the notion of leading a celibate life became unthinkable. Italian girls knocked me silly, but I also thought Croatian girls looked like angels, and, while trying to understand my relationship with Mimi Lacarno, I dated a sweet Ukrainian, a stunning Pole, a translucent Swede and the only Jewish girl in the school. She broke my heart when her mother demanded that she stop dating a Catholic.
The Vietnam War continued throughout that year; it’s hard to estimate its effect on my classmates. The protests, the alienation of veterans, race riots, assassinations and corrupt leadership dragged an idealistic youth movement into apathy. My peers made me class president because nobody else wanted it.
After being introduced at commencement, I removed my mortar board on the way to the microphone, made a point of tucking away the approved speech, and extemporaneously addressed matters nobody spoke about in public—overt racism that divided the town, cronyism, and the rigid leaders of unions and mills who refused to look ahead. The speech easily went over the top.
That summer, knowing the State Senate had passed the budget and ended its session, I dreaded the boredom of running errands as a page again. My connection, Senator Laughlin, sent me to the highway department where I got a job counting cars by the side of the road. The crew stayed in hotels, lounged around pools, perfected the ratio of gin to tonic, and lapped up the privilege of a patronage job. I soothed my revolutionary spirit by pledging that, one day, I would bite this hand that fed me. But that could wait.
At the end of that dreamy summer, my cousin, Mike, asked me to ride shotgun in his Austin Healy for a road trip and a week in Massachusetts. A few years earlier, his brother, Tom, had married Carol Antonucci in a big Italian wedding in Steubenville, Ohio, and their small family now lived in a beach town south of Boston. After thirteen hours of hard driving, the top down all the way, I saw the ocean for the first time.
Still reeling from my introduction to the sea, Mike and I discovered that Carol’s younger sister would also be crashing at their tiny house. I remembered Liz as a bridesmaid in Carol’s wedding—a tall goddess I couldn’t stop watching. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, she made me want to know all about her. I wrote to her soon after the wedding, and she wrote back, sending me her senior picture. Like me, she also had wild, curly hair she tried to tame and straighten to fit the styles of the day. Our correspondence had ended after two letters, but suddenly, here she was, welcoming us to the house.
Every morning just after sunrise, I would run out to the jetty where Liz would find me later. I peppered her with questions, wanting to know how she survived Catholic high school and why she had chosen Ohio University, where she’d be going at the end of the month. I couldn’t believe my good luck. We cooked meals together and babysat. She explained the tides, showed me where to find sand dollars. At night in the surf, she wowed me with the magic of bioluminescence. Under the spell of an enchanting teacher, I was putty in her hands, hands that held mine on beach walks by the end of the week.
If Liz and I hadn’t been starting college days later, we might have never left Massachusetts. We had begun to fall in love. But plans had been set—she would be leaving gritty Steubenville for bucolic Athens, Ohio, and I was diving into the urban noise and concrete campus at the University of Pittsburgh.
Coming… College, Springsteen, and enlistment in a Revolution