I am the son of a steelworker.
Of course I always knew what my father did for a living. But it took my sons to make me appreciate it.
They are of an age in which they are intensely curious about their family’s history—where we came from; how we got where we are; the aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents they never knew. I could fill in some of the blanks, but after taking them through the first set of great-grandparents, it all would become lost in the maze of Time.
So this past summer, the three of us took a road trip home. The main purpose was to see my father, but more important for them, it was for him to fill in the blanks, to show my sons the life he lived. He had moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from New York, at age 12—just as my sons had moved from London to New York when they were 13 and 6, respectively, a fact that formed a unique kinship with their grandfather. The three of them knew what it was like to grow up in one city and then get plunked down in a completely foreign one—no friends, little family, and strange accents. On my father’s first day at school, he turned up in short pants—because that’s what they wore in New York—only to be ridiculed mercilessly.
The tour began with my father taking us along the winding, hilly route he drove to work for more than thirty years. He would rise at 5:30 to start at 7:00, or even earlier when it snowed, and I, still in my pajamas, would have to get up, pull on my rubber boots, and push him out of the driveway.
There is no mill anymore—not even the blast-furnace chimney—just almost-empty space for acres and acres. Even the taverns and bars that would be filled with steelworkers after the 7:00-to-3:00, 3:00-to-11:00 or 11:00-to-7:00 shifts are shuttered. We drove past them all, past the Serbian churches, to the Gautier, where, in 1977, my father, by then a foreman, chained his Volkswagen to a steel post so the rising floodwaters wouldn’t wash it away.
The stories flowed—some I knew, most I didn’t. How my father met my mother and where they would go on dates; the teeny house where my father lived when he, his mother, and his brother first moved to town; how my uncle—his older brother—once ran away from home for three months, and later, as a young man out of the Marines after fighting at Guadalcanal and elsewhere in the Pacific (until he got sent to Washington state with malaria), got arrested with a friend for drunkenly climbing a church steeple one night and had to be bailed out; how my father got sent to the brig as a skinny, baby-faced 18-year-old Marine for mouthing off not only to the sergeant but also to the battalion commander. Three days on bread and water. “The other guys in there told me how to do it: You save the crust, because that fills you up, and then you dip the center into the water and eat it.” Now I knew.
Where we used to stop for freshly baked bread, in Cambria City, after church every Sunday and almost devour the still-warm loaf on the car ride home; the site of my one grandfather’s house, and how he walked more than a mile to work at the mill every day, and a mile home, because he was too cheap to ride the trolley; where my father and my mother lived when they first got married; and the four-family house we lived in when my sisters and I were born, before we moved to the suburbs as young children. We stood at the top of the Inclined Plane and marveled at the steel cable that pulled it, my father saying with pride that it was made by Bethlehem Steel. How the mill began putting workers’ names on their hard hats but some of the Eastern European surnames were so long that they literally wrapped the whole way around.
I kept glancing in the rearview mirror to see if my sons were bored, but they were hanging on every word. My younger son was recording my father’s conversation, and both of them kept asking questions. They could have gone on for another hour or more, but we’d seen pretty much all that was left of the town, and my father was getting tired. So we headed home.
I’ll probably forget many of the stories, but never the day. We seem to live in a world, or at least a city, Manhattan, where everyone is reinventing themselves at every moment. Backgrounds become irrelevant—it’s the now that is the reality.
That day this summer made me realize something: I am the son of a steelworker. To the often-quoted Thomas Wolfe phrase “You can’t go home again,” I would add a caveat: But always remember where you came from.