Two Sweet Reviews

“A good, sympathetic review is always a wonderful surprise,” Joyce Carol Oates once said. To have two in one week feels like Christmas.

Thank you Renee K. Nicholson, of The Los Angeles Review, for understanding how Ambridge made me who I am and how my story grew out of leaving.

 

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And thank you, too, Allyson Hoffman, of NewPages. You show insight in the way you recognize beauty in “the dirty and exhausting labors” of a steel town.

Back to the Belt – Buffalo, Erie, and Cleveland 9/21-24

I would like to thank Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, Werner Books in Erie, and Mac’s Backs Books in Cleveland for inviting me to these three great cities on the lake. If you’re anywhere nearby, I’d love to meet you, and have you join us for the events. Please note that the actual readings in Buffalo and Erie will be held at larger venues — that’s good news!

Here’s a rundown:

Hope to see you!

 

The Burgh and the Big Apple

Carnegie, Frick, Warhol, the connections between Pittsburgh and New York City form a long list. As a result, I’ve noticed New Yorkers take an interest in Pittsburgh. RUST BELT BOY recently captured the interest of the producers of The Leonard Lopate Show, on WNYC. Lopate, the lion of public radio talk masters, peppered me with questions last week and you can hear the WNYC interview right here.

Find all the RUST BELT BOY public radio interviews here

Women Who Mow – by request

Note: Announcement at the bottom of the page. Now this tribute to summer…

When I do yardwork, I mutter. I’m usually cursing the grass or the leaves as if they are enemies hiding in foxholes. Take that… Get over here you rotten bastard… hey, where do you think you’re going… you can run but you can’t victa-lawnmowerhide… On the other hand, my heart sinks when I behead a daisy or a violet that couldn’t get out of the way. I apologize. I try to go around the rest of its family. Sometimes I can’t. So my muttering deepens.

Fortunately, my wife mows. Coming home to a lawn she has just mowed offers no satisfaction greater than the image of what I missed. I conjure it: the posture, the pace, the rhythm, the sweat, the flattening calves, the pivoting, the woman directing the roaring beast and killing vegetation all at the same time.

When I drive through the suburbs, I see plenty of women mowing. They wear headphones and listen to songs that were hits at a time when they never could have imagined wrapping their tender hands around such a mundane vibration. Some of them ride, which does nothing for me, unless they’re riding a combine or a hay rake.

On a hot day, a mowing woman will stop for a drink of water, and any passing man will melt at the sight. Exhausting the tank, she stops in her tracks, uncoils her fingers from the handle, yanks off her cap and either reaches into her back pocket for a kerchief, or, if you=re lucky, grabs the hem of her t-shirt to mop her forehead.

With each blade of grass freshly severed and bruised, the bouquet rises by the acre, dancing with the lethal sweetness of gasoline fumes. Even the worst, weediest lawns glisten with grooming, beg for bare feet, and reveal the color of envy, complementary to any shade of flesh. Across the flat expanse, up the gentle slope, around the muscular roots, the blanket settles in a sigh of silence as soon as she kills the engine.

Men have denied themselves this pleasure for too long. But I have fallen in love with women who mow. All my life, I had seen it as men’s work, since my mother never mowed.  Now, I think of what my father missed. I never saw dad pouring fabric softener, and I never saw mom tipping gas into a mower.

I ask women about mowing. Most say they’d rather mow than vacuum, or do any of the household chores. They like what men like: the verdant aroma, the trim tidiness. Some like the sweating. But one woman told me: I don’t pump gas and I don’t mow grass. That was before her divorce. Another woman snarled at the idea that it was men’s work.  She said, there is no men’s work and women’s work, only work that needs to be done.

With summer upon us again, growth knows no bounds, but it is brought under the whirling blades to please us. And, once again, nature serves in perverse, useful, empowering and     unexpected ways.

 

Amazon Ran Out!

The Good News: Buy directly from Bauhan Publishing with a discount and free shipping through May.

Thanks to all of you, Amazon can’t keep up. Click on the link above to get RUST BELT BOY at a price that beats Amazon’s and free shipping. If you’ve already read and enjoyed the book, let Amazon know. Please, pretty please, go to the RUST BELT BOY page and rate or review it.

Today’s our Day

RBB shelfOnly cicadas have waited longer to emerge than the book that gestated in this blog, and, if you’re getting this via a newsfeed or email, you’ve been around through that period. But you’re more than a witness. You’ve had a hand in bringing RUST BELT BOY: Stories of an American Childhood into bookstores today.

Ten freakin years ago, almost to the day, as I prepared to leave for a week at a cheap hotel on a beach south of Boston and begin work on the only book I ever felt compelled to write, I fell out of my woodshed and broke my right wrist. It may have been a sign. This might be a long, rutted, monster-infested road.

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I refused to give in. Patched up with a cast that allowed my fingers to wiggle, I bought magic markers and flip charts, an ergonomic keyboard, and set out to wrestle the essays, stories, memories, and characters cluttering my files and dreams onto paper.

I faced two tasks: historical research and personal memories. I love research, and I could have lolled as I might have with beautiful, insatiable bedmate who made me never want to leave. But I had to push on to memories, peeling away the onion of repeated stories that, upon reflection didn’t ring true until I hit the core. I’ve learned since that science says we change our memories every time we recall them.

Ultimately, the truth is a hole in the ground around which the dogs bark, and I was barking alone. I started this blog to see if other dogs would join me. And you have.

Ambridge, Pittsburgh, and most of the places around and between them are tough towns. I worried about straying too much into my own memories and too far away from the common experience of those places. I was afraid of being called out on my version of the truth. So, I offered my drafty stories to readers of this blog, and you have been remarkably generous.

All of you have kept me going. You’ve offered me your own stories. You’ve surfaced out of my past to enlighten and encourage me. I’ve never known most of you, yet you’ve taken the time to know me, my Ambridge, my Pittsburgh, my little journey.

Others, I’ve known well at one time or another. My best pal, Rege Ryan, is here, and brought in his family. Lots of Bridgers, and Burghers, or as we’re now called – Yinzers. Kevin Joyce, a bright, intense, fun college friend, logged in years ago and promised to host a publication party at his famous restaurant (see Carlton Dinner – you’re invited – at www.paulhertneky.com, under events). Far be it from me to decline such an offer. It’s going to be a blast.

In the end, after struggling to explain this book to dozens of snotty agents, Bauhan Publishing, a venerable New England firm, recognized something special, and placed their faith in me, you, and our stories. Recently we’ve been rewarded by good reviews. Soon, I hope to have a chance to meet all of you at reading or signing and thank you personally.

As I head out on the road, on and off for the next few months – first to NYC, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, the new homes of many Rust Belt runaways, then many days around Pittsburgh – I’ll try to keep you up on the antics, places, and characters I meet. I hope you will be among them. Look for me later this month in Ambridge, Sewickley, the North Side, and, away from home at your favorite Steeler bar. While remembering that I have two wrists but only one (slightly abused) liver, the shots and beers will be raised to you, with gratitude.

Ambridge Goes to Oregon at Carlton Event

You’re not at Stubby’s anymore. In downtown Pittsburgh, The Carlton restaurant’s chef Simon DeJohn and proprietor Kevin Joyce have joined forces with Oregon’s Henry Heller of Heller Estate’s Organic Vineyard in designing a knockout menu to celebrate the publication of RUST BELT BOY on Friday, May 20th.

I’m already blown away by the thoughtfulness of The Carlton staff and the friends and family who are responding to this invitation — and everyone within the reach of this blog is included. The menu will transport us away from pierogies and stuffed cabbage and into the wilds of Oregon. We’re talking scallops and salmon and elk and more — 5 courses, 5 wines. Reserve a seat now. 412-391-4099. See the details here – RUST BELT BOY-Carlton Launch Dinner.

And the people you’ll meet, reunite and hang out with will be another treat I can guarantee.

As of now, appearances in the Pittsburgh area that weekend include:

Saturday, May 21 – Signing at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley — Noon. Reading at Laughlin Memorial Library in Ambridge — 2:30pm

Monday, May 23, 7pm – Reading at Sewickley Public Library

Tuesday, May 24, 7pm – Reading at City Books, North Side

See a complete tour listing and more at www.paulhertneky.com

I hope you’ll join Robbie and me at one of these places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NH Debut May 5 & 7 Readings

Please mark your calendar and join me in Keene and Peterborough.

Thursday, May 5, 6-7pm, Keene Public Library, Keene, NH

Saturday, May 7, 11 am, Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH

Keene friends, I know, at 6pm on Thursday, you’re likely looking for a drink, a hike, a way to wind down. Why not come take a snooze at the library? Drag along some friends. Never been to a reading before? I don’t blame you, but it’s very easy and you can heckle me without being punched in the face. Probably. Can’t wait to see you.

On Monday, May 9th, I’ll be in NYC — Irish Exit, 52nd and 2nd… a pub, how appropriate. More on that later.

 

Confused re: previous post?

If you’re confused about the info in my previous post, I’m not surprised. Just embarrassed.

The Launch Dinner is on FRIDAY May 20th. Apparently, I was so excited I wanted May 20 to come a day earlier.

And the PHONE # for The Carlton is 412-391-4099. Sheesh.

Thanks to my reliable friends Terri and Lori for alerting me and having my back.

More (erroneous) posts to come!

 

 

 

Pittsburgh Launch Dinner – May 20th

PITTSBURGH LAUNCH DINNER

The Carlton Restaurant

Friday, May 20, 2016 – Public invited

Kevin Joyce, a friend from my college days at Pitt, owns this DiRoNa Award-winning downtown restaurant, and is creating a special dinner menu for the event, including a copy of RUST BELT BOY.

Please join Kevin, me, my family, and friends at what is sure to be a fun evening and memorable dinner. The Carlton is one of my favorite restaurants — anywhere in world. Exquisite food, impeccable service, a beautiful dining room, and get this — casual attire — Kevin welcomes you to come as you are!

Through my years as a writer for Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, I gained an appreciation for well-run restaurants, and nobody does it better than Kevin Joyce and his easy-going, brilliant staff. I am blown away by his offer to host this event.

For reservations or information, call The Carlton at 412-391-4099 or email kjoycethecarlton@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

NYC Reading May 9th

IrishexitlogoThe Irish Exit, Manhattan’s #1 Steeler Bar, has graciously invited me to read from RUST BELT BOY on Monday, May 9th at 7 pm. Looking forward to seeing my New York friends and displaced Burghers and Bridgers. But if you’re from anywhere in the Rust Belt–Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee areas–and have a short story you’d like to tell or read, come and share the audience with me. In Midtown, 978 2nd Avenue (52nd & 2nd)Irishexit

Kind Words, Welcomes, and News

Looking forward to May 3rd, the publication date for RUST BELT BOY, I’m feeling grateful for testimonials from advance readers and invitations to do readings. You can check out those testimonials at www.paulhertneky.com and I hope the faithful readers of this blog and those who alight here will find me at one of the readings listed below the news. Please come; I’d love to meet you.

Some news:

–  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has let us know it will be running a review. Yay! Crucial. Phew.

– After unanimous advice to narrate it myself, I’ve been working on the audiobook, which will be available on Audible.com. If you cringe at photos of yourself, try listening to yourself for hour upon hour.

–  Publicity wizard Scott Manning and his team at Scott Manning & Associates are working with big-time Steeler bars and nearby bookstores to set up Rust Belt Reunion events. The plan: I will read and invite other writers, storytellers, sundry bullshitters from the Rust Belt to recount their favorite stories. If you would like to host or help set up one of these events at a watering hole frequented by runaways from Buffalo, Duluth, Detroit, or any where in between, please leave a comment on this blog or contact me through the email on my website.

Events are in the planning stages for Pittsburgh, New York, Ft. Worth, Houston, Tampa, Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington DC. We’re also eyeing Phoenix, Denver, LA, and San Francisco — stand by for updates.

The following events are set:

May 5, 2016 (Thursday), 6pm, Keene (NH) Public Library

May 7, 2016 (Saturday), 11am, Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH

May 21, 2016 (Saturday), 2:30pm, Laughlin Memorial Library, Ambridge, PA

June 9, 2016 (Thursday), 7pm, Hancock Town Library, Hancock, NH

 

Reading Tour News: Kickoff May 7

With the book arriving in stores on May 3rd, my favorite local independent, The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, NH has kindly invited me to read on Saturday, May 7 at 11 a.m.

More to come. If you would like to host a reading at a library, bookstore, or another venue, anywhere in the U.S. please leave a comment or email me.

Scott Manning & Associates is setting up a tour schedule, which will include events we’re calling Rust Belt Reunion Readings at Steeler bars nationwide. If you have a favorite watering hole frequented by Rust Belt runaways, by all means, let me know. At the moment, we have interest from the following: (stay tuned for exact dates)

Irish Exit – New York, NY

Triple Crown Sports Bar – Houston

Woody’s Tavern – Ft. Worth

The Rusty Bucket – Denver

More info at: www.paulhertneky.com

 

 

 

Coming to Bookstores!

EK comp of coverThank you, Sarah Bauhan and Mary Ann Faughnan of Bauhan Publishing for seeing promise in my manuscript and setting a publication date of May 2016. We will be taking the book on tour throughout the Rust Belt and to selected cities around the U.S.

I would also like to thank all of you who have followed this blog and offered comments. You kept me going along the way. If you would like to set up a reading near you (a joint Steeler bar/bookstore event, local library, university, Sons of Italy, Polish Falcons… you get the drift) please let me know.

Sanctuary

As a child in the 1960s, I knew Ambridge to be jammed with pedestrians and big, new cars, morning and night. On most evenings, Merchant Street, lined with shops, bars and restaurants drew families that walked arm in arm, as they might in Naples or Athens. Clusters of clean-cut men stood on corners, smoking and waving to their friends, teasing or belting a few bars of “O Solo Mio” for the women leaning out of third-floor windows.

We spilled into public out of necessity. Families were growing faster than company housing could accommodate, with three generations occupying tiny apartments and houses built with full knowledge that immigrants demanded little in the way of personal space. These houses still stand, and are about the size of today’s utility sheds.

In my family’s house, we did homework at the kitchen table with my mother ironing behind us. When the session broke up, if I wanted to read, I retreated to the basement, amid the laundry, casks of fermenting wine and crocks of sauerkraut, my father running a jigsaw and listening to a ballgame on the radio.

The togetherness sometimes overwhelmed me. Craving solitude, I sought out havens—the woods or the cool order of an empty church. But my favorite sanctuary was the most richly endowed and widely ignored building in town.

As I climbed its granite stairs, I passed under tall bronze lanterns that told me the Laughlin Memorial Library occupied a higher plane than the street out front. Thousands of steelworkers, six times a day, marched past the library and onto the bridge to Aliquippa. As they crossed, they surveyed their destination on the bank ahead, a continuous massive building that stretched for six miles downriver, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill — J&L to locals—a hulking, fire-breathing monster, bound by railroad tracks to the riverbank.

I seldom noticed a mill worker stop into the library, or hang out there before or after work. They headed home, but not before filing into back door of the saloon at the end of the block. Inside ran a long bar with no stools. The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner, where their wives picked them up, efficiently juiced to face domestic life in close quarters.

The library rose above the herd. In addition to its elevation, its brass doors demanded that a skinny twelve year-old had to plant his back foot to pull them open. “There must be something really good in here, something important, like a treasure,” I thought. When I entered, another world opened before me, as if I had been transported far away and into a refreshing, invigorating, and oddly familiar dimension in time. Apart from the matron at the front desk, who greeted me with a pressed smile and a nod, I was often completely alone.

Alexander Laughlin, no relation to the owners of J&L, built the library in memory of his son, who had served heroically in the first World War, only to return home to die in a dentist’s chair. Laughlin, an Ambridge industrialist and owner of Central Tube Company, took his cue from Andrew Carnegie, sparing no expense in building this public temple of erudition, right up to the vaulted ceilings, cherry tables, shelves, cabinets, Italian marble floors and columns, leather chairs and an endowment that has kept it in sweet condition.

I took my pick of seats and views. Near the windows, sunlight warmed me. Facing the corners, I fell back into a wing chair and lost the world behind me. My family’s house, the Catholic school and church, our neighborhood and the houses of relatives all made me feel at home and part of a community, but the library made me feel whole, as if I could explore every corner of my own universe and the places I had never seen. The populace of books and the millions of ideas they contained set loose my dreams.

Drowsiness never threatened my quest. Instead, something I read while doing my homework had formed a question that nagged me, and I knew it could be answered by peeking in the reference section. The flat metal drawers of the card catalog spoke to me, promising entire volumes on the migratory fish of the Mississippi delta or the first closed sewage system. How could I resist?

I liked the way every step sounded important against the marble floors as I imagined myself pursuing knowledge and culture. In reality, I was simply scratching an itch, one after another. Chasing leads, I piled up fat books until I found one to take back to the table for closer inspection only to get waylaid in biography, following a thread from encyclopedia to compendium. Absorbed, like a miser with his ledgers or an archaeologist on his knees with his brushes, hours rushed by on a current of curiosity.

During hot summer days at home, my friends and siblings grumbled until one of the mothers took them to the Ambridge pool, a massive cement playground of chest high water. Mayhem ruled, pitched with peer pressure and wet, snotty, kid-on-kid cruelty. I was afraid of the water and wore a bathing suit the way a Chihuahua wears a tutu, so I begged to be left at home or taken to the library. In winter, movies offered escape from the busy house and family, but the library allowed me to direct and star in my own movie – a Fellini-esque chase, streaked with impressions, foreignness and startling facts.

Left undisturbed among maps and magazines, I investigated far-flung nations, their mountains, shores and people, their dwellings, their towns, leaders, legends and heroes. Connecting the word “culture” to the mold growing in Petrie dishes in science class, I slipped places under a sort of microscope and found the languages, arts, innovations, and literature feeding off the surroundings, climate, and history.  New smells seeped out of the pages of Conrad, new fears out of the caves of Twain and I swam in all of it without bearings or sense of time.<!–[if gte mso 9]>

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds–I remember as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Novels were best for borrowing, so I went to the desk and checked them out. Finally, I savored one last exhilaration—walking away from the mess I left behind. The librarians insisted on re-stacking every book, so I felt like a rock star leaving a trashed hotel room.

Out on the sidewalk, nobody asked me what I had been doing there. I held my affection for the library privately, because what I did there felt illicit and indulgent. I could pretend there, to be purposeful and scholarly; the librarians probably giggled. The act came easily, though, captivated as I was by the excursions, stories, facts, no-shits and ahas. I wanted to do it forever. But, as far as I could tell, the hours led to nowhere in particular, no purpose – an admission that made me feel guilty, because every educated person I had met had become useful: accountants, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and teachers. Me? I was just feeding my fascination.

I hustled off to the Tick-Tock Dairy, a soda fountain, where I could call for a ride home and watch the workers get off the shuttle bus that carried them across the bridge  from J& L. Their hair shined and their faces still glowed from the showers. They wore clean clothes and carried empty lunch buckets. Watching them, I pictured myself among them, one of the guys, joking, prosperous and woven tightly into the community. But as soon as I looked back into my milkshake, I dreamt of other places or another kind of life. I noticed the owner of the Tick-Tock, drying his hands on his apron while standing at the front window waiting for the guys to come in and buy cigarettes. He had found another way to live and work outside the mills and I admired him. Yet, I figured a time might come when I would join the boys outside.

Welcome

Here you will find drafts of sample chapters from a work in progress. Over the past year, interested publishers (bless you!) have convinced me to redirect the narrative, more toward myself, which I accepted reluctantly at first. By now, I’ve embraced that request and am at work on a more straightforward memoir.

I am grateful for all the comments, questions, observations and words of encouragement. Until such time when I can promise publication, I hope you will enjoy the chapters here.

Building Bridges Through Smoke and Glory

photo: John Vachon

continued from the previous post…

By sending their sons to war and their daughters to the mills, immigrants saw themselves as full-fledged Americans. And those who packed into every square inch of Ambridge began calling themselves “Bridgers.” As such, they did more than build spans that allowed Americans to cross rivers, bays and chasms; they completed their own crossing into American life. As much as the steelworkers, tradesmen, and teamsters may have derided those outside their own ethnic groups, they wanted to believe in the “melting pot” and they began to see how a nation succeeded when people of all ethnicities worked together. It was an ideal, like that of being a good Catholic, which meant you maintained a charitable attitude, helped the poor and the sick, regardless of their origins.

New River Gorge Bridge

Sports helped Bridgers transcend their ethnic rivalries and class jealousies. The Catholic churches made Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball an institution, a training ground for boys who would become professional stars. The Sokol, an Eastern European athletic club, turned out Olympic gymnasts (and operated card-playing, whiskey-slamming social clubs to supply the funding). The mills sponsored baseball leagues, their teams playing in the park along the river, flanked by homes of executives and railroad tracks. Teams came from the ethnic and religious clubs, but just as the men had fought together in foxholes and on beaches, they played together, adding to their identity as Americans and Bridgers.

Bartender at Sokol -- by John Vachon

New rivalries pitted one town against another, most viciously in football. Although Ambridge High School had fielded a team since 1906, it became a dominant force with the arrival of a diminutive coach in 1928. Maurice “Moe” Rubenstein had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He nearly dropped out of Fifth Avenue High School until a coach there recognized his speed, skill and determination on the basketball courts and sandlots. Sports helped Rubenstein focus on his studies and stay in school, ultimately earning him a scholarship to Geneva College, a teachers’ college in Beaver Falls. He came to Ambridge for his first teaching and coaching job, brimming with gratitude for the coaches that had molded his life. He vowed to do the same for the scrappy kids in Ambridge.

Moe Rubenstein and his 1941 coaches

 

Rubenstein couldn’t rely on the best athletes coming to tryouts, so he walked all over town, watching kids play ball. He learned their names and found out where they lived, and then approached their parents. George Corey, now a lawyer in California, lived in Anthony Wayne Terrace in the 1940s. He remembers walking home from a pick-up football game when a friend came to him with the news that Moe Rubenstein was at his house, talking with his mother. The coach had already established himself by that time, and Corey tore for home. “I went batshit. I couldn’t believe Moe Rubenstein came to my house.”

George Corey

Corey weighed ninety-five pounds. “And there were smaller kids. But he specialized in undersized kids,” Corey said, “maybe because he had been one himself.”  Those who knew Rubenstein say that the coach usually found smaller players easier to coach: they had more motivation, more energy, more speed, and their confidence grew quickly every time they outplayed a bigger guy. “We were fast and we believed we could beat anybody,” Corey says. “Size didn’t matter. And the smaller players believed it more than the bigger ones.”

Though Rubenstein stood only five feet-seven inches he commanded respect by listening and speaking with careful authority. “Every word he said, we listened to,” Corey recalled. “He said ‘no girlfriends,’ and we obeyed. He forbade us from walking home down Merchant Street where there might be gamblers and temptation, and we obeyed, finding another way home.” Composed on the sidelines and nattily attired, Rubenstein handled his players with subtle manipulation. “He never yelled. Never.” Corey says. “If I blew a play or missed a block, he’d just look at me and hold his head, saying, ‘Why do you do this to me, Georgie, why?’”

Other players commented on the certainty of Rubenstein’s authority, testifying that he drove through town after curfew on Thursday nights, and if he saw a player out late, that player didn’t start on Friday, no matter who they were. If he saw one of his players walking with a kid who was smoking, he told that player he didn’t want to see him with that kid again.

Maurice "Moe" Rubenstein

Moe Rubenstein’s methods found traction immediately. In his first season, the team won six games and lost only two. In his second season, the team went undefeated through eleven games, scoring 180 points and allowing zero. The streak continued into the following season as his team won twenty consecutive games without giving up a single point. In his first six years, his fast, gritty teams would win two championships, scoring a total of 890 points to the opponents’ 113. The Bridgers suddenly dominated Western Pennsylvania football – the most competitive and fertile football breeding ground in the nation.

The legend grew as the years rolled on. Hobbled by the Depression that began in Rubenstein’s second year, the fans felt the sting of mass layoffs and deepening poverty, but his teams gave them something to cheer about every week through football and basketball seasons. When players’ parents despaired that their boys would never find work after high school, Rubenstein set his sights higher for his players. “The greatest pleasure I got in coaching,” he told a reporter in 1997, “is that I could sit down and write a letter to recommend a kid to college.”

And he did. Dozens of players went to some of the best schools in the nation. George Corey went to Michigan, and Len Szafaryn, the man who would become his brother in-law, went to the University of North Carolina. According to Corey, Szafaryn (pronounced zafrin) played in the band as a freshman in high school, and Rubenstein noticed that the kid stood taller than the rest and moved gracefully. He located the Szafaryn family house and found Len’s parents sitting on the porch. Rubenstein introduced himself and asked if they would consider letting their son play football. Szafaryn’s parents spoke and understood only Polish, but they knew the word “football,” and they didn’t like it. Not for their son. It was too rough. Rubenstein accepted their decision, but asked if he could try to talk to them again in a few months. Fine. That’s fine.

Steelers' Michelosen and his staff

After three months of tutoring from a friend, Rubenstein returned, and this time, he spoke only Polish. Len Szafaryn went on to become an All-American and was drafted by the Washington Redskins. He started for the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. He was one of many young men Rubenstein sent to stardom. Another, quarterback John Michelosen, led the Pitt Panthers to two national championships and became the youngest coach in the National Football League when he took over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In his later years at Ambridge, Rubenstein became the dean of coaches in Western Pennsylvania. Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, kept in touch and made regular visits to consult with Moe. Paul Brown, the coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Browns, conferred with Rubenstein every week during the season, devising plays that the Bridgers would try on Friday nights. Rubenstein then reported the results and suggested refinements for Brown to try the following day.

Paul Brown

Much has been said and movies have been made about the supremacy of football around these parts. The names of local boys line the Hall of Fame – Unitas, Blanda, Namath, Ditka, Montana, Marino, Lott, and one whom I (very briefly and badly) played against, Tony Dorsett. Football and other sports had a way of unifying us, of giving us an identity, of placing our town on a map, even though—if  NASA had taken pictures from space back then—the town would have been invisible under their perpetual layer of smoke.

Rubenstein retired a few years before I was born, but he planted football squarely in the psyche of every kid growing up in Ambridge. Over his twenty-two year career, his teams scored nearly four times as many points as they allowed. The high school stadium had become a shrine to Rubenstein’s excellence, and it bears his name today.

From my earliest days I can remember my parents bundling us up in more layers as the season went on, to cheer for the Bridgers at the stadium on Friday nights. Two bands would play; the stands would be full, and when the Bridgers in garnet and gray took the field, we threw confetti that we had made ourselves out of shredded newspapers. We saw everyone we knew. On the track that surrounded the field, politicians shook hands, and the small-time Mafiosi strutted in front of the grandstands, wearing topcoats over their shoulders like capes and smoking fat cigars. The public address announcer identified every player who carried the ball or made a tackle, and those names became household names. Every young boy I knew wanted to become one of those football heroes, and we chased our dreams through backyards and empty lots.

Ambridge Icons -- the Economy steeple, an old factory, and football

In a place where schooling was seen as a compulsory American process, academics took a back seat to other accomplishments in life. In fact, educated people aroused suspicion and petty jealousy, while the faults and even crimes of athletes only added to their status. Those who knew Moe Rubenstein emphasize that he never granted nor sought special treatment for his athletes, but they got it anyway. George Corey said, “I didn’t deserve to be on the National Honor Society, no way, but somebody got me on—all because I was a football player.”

The toughness and work ethic required of football players drew unmitigated respect in a culture that esteemed two aspects of life above all others: working and fighting. During recess at Divine Redeemer, we were called to the playground by air-horns that marked the shift changes at American Bridge. Footballs filled the air over the playground. For every football star, hundreds of hopeful and competitive boys trained to work together and fight to win. As for the girls, they were taught to admire or at least tolerate men who worked hard and fought well.

My heroic fantasies went beyond saving the timid churchgoers at Divine Redeemer from imaginary vandals or saving their souls with inspiration from the pulpit. I wanted to become a sports hero, too. I studied athletes as closely as I had studied priests and nuns. As early as first grade, I knew that piety and cleverness could work for me, and sports could make me an icon.

Another young man with an immigrant’s name fueled the fantasies of my generation—the Baby Boomers—and breathed new life into the smoky towns surrounding us. On Tuesday, October 13, 1960, while Betty worked at the stove, I sat on the kitchen floor, peeling potatos with a sheet of newspaper between my legs, listening to the radio. The slight lisp of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, articulated every curve ball and pop-up of the seventh game of the World Series against the mighty Yankees. With the score tied at nine in the bottom of the ninth, number nine, Bill Mazeroski lifted a homerun over the head of Yogi Berra. Betty slapped her spatula on the counter and covered her gasp with her hands, spun and hoisted me in the air, peppering me with kisses. Neighbors had already begun banging pots in their front yards and we grabbed spoons and saucepans and went out to join them.

Maz after his homer -- photo JG Klingensmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Polish, pierogi-eating hero from the coal fields of West Virginia, whose footsteps I could easily imagine following, knocked his name into the national consciousness. Mazeroski made Mickey Mantle cry. “Maz” and his recently immigrated teammate, Roberto Clemente, made me want to play baseball and work my way onto Forbes Field.

coming:  a thrilling ride from parochial to public