Horns in the Hollows

Some mornings, I still hear the horns. I’m hundreds of miles away, but I swear I hear the air horns from the trains and the factories in Western Pennsylvania, echoing along the creekbeds from the Ohio River. Maybe it’s just the wind whistling through my woodshed, but it’s the same howl that invaded the bedroom I shared with my two brothers.

Even the slightest cues can take me back to what seemed like an ordinary youth in an extraordinary place.  I now know how singular Ambridge, Pennsylvania is because I have traveled from one side of the earth to the other and found nothing like it. Even the most similar places, the other river towns surrounding Pittsburgh, lack an ineffable quality Ambridge possesses, a feeling that may come from its setting – a perfect plateau running south to north along what the French called le Belle Riviere, with hills rising in the east and steep cliffs to the west, across the river.

Apart from its topography and the river, though, the graces of nature do not come to mind when laying eyes on Ambridge for the first time. But, at one time, its setting was enough – to make its meadows sacred to mound-building Indians, to bring together disparate tribes seeking refuge from arriving Europeans, and to repeatedly draw visionaries who would employ everything from silkworms to pig iron to make this a place of idyllic spirit and international consequence.

Like most kids growing up in the industrial heartland, as the children and grandchildren of immigrants in the 1960s and 70s, we could sense the future.  We could see the beautiful West Coast booming and the South rising again while recognizing that the foundry in which we lived was slipping away and dying out, melding our towns into a swath of national neglect and insignificance.

But, if the forces of nature and history teach anything, they confirm that everything is temporary. As a young man, I could only sense that the shithole where I lived was once a Shangrila.  Its surface obscured the past.  It took years for me to scrape away the slag and cinders directly beneath my feet.  Two important discoveries made my judgment of insignificance look silly: first, the surprising facts of history; and second, that while I and everyone I knew may have seen life in Ambridge as ordinary, the fire in the night, the pervasive metallic racket, sulfurous fumes, nattering languages and ghosts of mad prophets all proved striking and unimaginable to outsiders.

I set out, then, armed with crumbling archives and bothered by cues and triggers to explore the astonishing history buried beneath the industrial ruins as well as the sensory record of my days in Ambridge and Pittsburgh. I do this by weaving, something like a drunk on his way home, through time and space.

winter on the Ohio

Hearing those horns, I picture workers rolling through the mills and barges pressing upriver, boxcars clattering alongside. At twenty-one, I joined those workers, shuffling into Armco Steel, a factory that ran around the clock. Men and women filed in and out three times a day, seven days a week. When the mill was busy, they humped for the money and thought of nothing but work. When the mill was slow, the work felt like a rut, too few hours, but too lucrative to leave. What could be better?  Nobody talked about change and nobody encouraged it, not bosses, wives, pastors or friends. Like the rivers and rails, with no room for deviation, we rolled along, punching in and punching out.

Outside the mill, our elbows resting on the edge a bar, the old guys winked at an inside joke and the smokers rocked back and closed their eyes at the end of a long drag on a Marlboro. Smiles reflected in the neon of an Iron City Beer sign, incisors capped with gold, perfect dentures, or ragged choppers like my own. In the quiet moments, though, I noticed how the family men sank into a worried hunch while picking at a longneck label, staring at nothing but a wooden chit that indicated the immediate future: someone had bought them another beer. They looked like they were taking cover, the way a boxer does against the ropes.

After all, this would be the final round for the steel industry in America. We all saw it coming – written in yellow crayon, usually in Asian characters–on the imported billets stacked in the shipping department.

As always, bars and churches held us together, and the streets of Ambridge were thick with both. Every ethnic group had at least one church: Russians, Greeks, Italians, Croatians, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, Scots, Czechs and Slovaks, Germans—Catholic and orthodox mostly, but Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians too. A bigger, modern synagogue replaced the old one in the 1960s. Belief in God and country, family and football, preserved the hopes of 16,000 souls crammed into Ambridge.

When faith faltered, we had taverns—hundreds of them in every neighborhood and lining Merchant Street. Even legendary boozehounds who began a pub crawl anywhere on Merchant, drinking a beer in every joint, would cover no more than three blocks before collapsing on the sidewalk. In those days, Ambridge had more bars and clubs per capita than most anywhere in the nation: Manhattan had one for every six hundred residents, Philadelphia had one for every five hundred, Pittsburgh had one for every four hundred, and Ambridge had twice as many: one for every two hundred.

Bars, like Maxims directly across the street from the mill gates, stayed open all day and night. They served workers who were mostly tired and harmless but were not always friends. Some brought axes to grind, bones to pick, and hairs to split, simmering beneath the surface or looking for a fight, if only to feel more alive.

Toby Schmidt had that hateful look on his face, sitting across the horseshoe-shaped bar one morning, boring a hole straight through me. I hadn’t noticed him sitting there until I dropped onto a stool, beat after an eleven-to-seven shift. Sunlight knifed through the tiny windows and bounced off the pool table, adding a green cast to Toby’s wavy black hair, still slick from his shower. The wiry Carl DeLessio sat next to him, puzzling over dollar bills, steadily losing at liar’s poker to the smooth coot at the end of the bar. I looked around for my pals—guys I grew up with—through the dust of the sunbeam in front, down the hall toward the cigarette and pinball machines. They’d be in soon, I figured, so I dug into my jeans for money and caught Toby still staring me down.

The bartender, wearing a peasant blouse that set off the freckly tan on her shoulders, stepped between us and smiled. She placed a shot glass in front of me and filled it to the very top with Imperial, cheap whiskey I found far too penetrating for a summer morning. “It’s from Toby,” she said. I could hardly hear her; my ears still ringing from working a jackhammer. I read her lips and followed the jerk of her head to the jerk across the bar.

“A bottle of Iron, please,” I fairly shouted, sliding a few bills toward her. “And return the favor, okay?” She swung around the island and the cash register and filled his glass. He lifted the shot toward me and stretched a rotten grin across his face. I acknowledged the gesture, threw back the whiskey and chased it with cold beer.

Where were Jack and Lenny? They should have showered and been here by now. Toby hadn’t bought me a whiskey to be friendly, quite the opposite. He was inexplicably pissed off, or so I heard in the locker room, and Imperial was his way of settling the score. I felt a pang of wishing I were back in a Pitt college bar, where nobody threw gauntlets all too common in bars like this one. The goal was to force me to drink or refuse his generosity, which he would take as an insult. He was older, about thirty, heavier, a big drinker with high tolerance. I was a stringbean kid, just twenty-one. Going shot-for-shot, I’d fall off my stool before he caught so much as a buzz.

Toby’s ire arose seven hours earlier, as Emil Sammartino and I stood before a mound of curly steel shavings that were congealed in oil, waste created by cutting threads in the ends of pipe. We were shoveling it into a crane bucket, a steel box half the size of a dumpster. Each shovelful weighed about fifty pounds. Emil and I held the lowest status of the roughly 2,500 workers at Armco and we often laughed out of disbelief at the tasks faced. We paced ourselves, knowing we’d be at it all night.

Toby, whose job elsewhere in the mill had been cancelled, appeared in the shadow of a foreman who didn’t like him. He had a reputation for sucking up and slacking off. Until he could be reassigned, Toby was told to help Emil and me.

Fuck this, he spat, after lifting two shovelfuls. And he headed off to take a leak. We figured we’d seen the last of him for a while, and we were right. Before lunchtime, the foreman came by looking for Toby to give him a different job. Not finding him, he ordered me back to the shop to sign out a small jackhammer. For the rest of the shift, I lay inside a machine used to squeeze 3,000-degree billets into shape. This chore, intended for Toby, was the most hellish work I’d ever done. Wedged in a dark, cast-iron hole, I chiseled caked grease out of the machine’s innards, striking metal against metal, a racket I thought could shake my skull right off my spine.

Enviable, I know. But Toby didn’t know nor care where I had gone, only that I’d left him with Emil and a ton of nasty waste. So now he wanted to poison me with whiskey. He left me with two choices: to stay and let him keep buying me shots until I was drooling on the bar, or leave as if he were driving me out, giving him a victory. It never occurred to me to decline his offerings, because the moment I waved one off, he would have shouted, “What?  You too good to drink with me?” And our beef would move out to the blinding sidewalk, his friends following, and my friends—where the hell were they?—following me.

Fine, I thought, I’ll take another shot from this prick. The first one hadn’t even soothed me. I had grown more agitated as the summer went on and my bosses started telling me that I could stay at Armco indefinitely. That would have made most guys happy, but letters kept coming from the registrar at Pitt asking about my plans for senior year, and, for the first time in my life, I was torn about my future. I had gone to college with a single goal: to become a lawyer, fight for justice and make a decent living. But two years as an intern at a law firm had only convinced me that I had been carrying a romantic and unrealistic view of the profession. I faced three more years of school and a lifetime of chipping away at massive loans, arranging wills and mortgages. I was tired of being broke.

Without the goal of law school, why even bother with senior year, especially when the mills, hurtling toward extinction, were paying insanely high wages? I could pay off my undergraduate debt in a couple of years. If I went back to Pitt, I’d come away with a degree in English Literature, which I loved, but would prepare me for nothing but teaching. And I had no interest in teaching.

On his way to the toilet, Toby passed behind me and made a crack, but I didn’t catch it. I sipped the rest of my beer and considered having another round, until I realized that my buddies were probably not joining me after all. Toby returned to his seat and prepared to order round three. He left me no choice.

At such times as this, I parted company with the braver men I knew growing up. I am part coward and part sensible. I’d seen blood and battle in schoolyards and bars, on sidewalks and in parking lots. One stupid remark led to another, then another. It was pointless and harrowing. I preferred making peace, which often called for backing away. So before he could order, I left Maxims without looking back, leaving Toby to think he’d taught me a lesson. I could live with that.

to be continued…

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