Friday, July 24, 2009

Olden Days and School Daze

The Days of Wine and Roses and Runny Noses

One must be “of a certain age:” Today’s blog is designed to stir the memories of those of us who, shall we say, are sufficiently ripe to remember them. From running boards to bushel baskets to washing and ironing, many tasks and icons once considered matter-of-fact are totally foreign to less senior generations. The first memory, hanging clothes out to dry comes from a blog reader in Western Pennsylvania. She reminds me that the first step, running a damp cloth across the clothesline was of utmost importance lest some of the grime from steel mills become a part of the laundry.

Airing your not-so-dirty laundry: Eleven easy (?) steps.

1.Before hanging wash, you had to walk the entire lengths of each line with a damp cloth or sponge around the lines to prevent dirt marks on clothes.

2. You had to hang the clothes in a certain order; always hang "whites" with "whites," and hang them first.

3. You never ever hang a shirt by the shoulders -- always by the tail! What would the neighbors' think?

4. Wash day on Monday! Never hang clothes on the weekend, or Sunday.

5. Hang the sheets and towels on the outside lines so you could hide your "unmentionables" in the middle (perverts & busybodies, y'know!)

6. About to rain -- or presently raining -- was the best time to have clothes on the line since they would become "rain fresh." So what if it was lightning while hanging out clothes?!

7. It didn't matter if it was sub zero weather . . . Clothes would "freeze-dry."

8. If you were efficient, you would line the clothes up so that each item did not need two clothes pins, but shared one with the next washed item.

9. Always gather the clothes pins when taking down dry clothes! Pins left on the lines were "tacky" and wooden ones would mildew and leave marks on clothes.

10. Clothes off of the line before dinner time. Never leave clothes on lines over night!

11. Remove clothes from line, shake hard, "watch for forgotten pins that could put an eye out!" and fold them into the clothes basket. Now they are ready to be ironed.

- IRONED?! Well, that's a whole other subject! And you think that hanging clothes took time, not as long as ironing; and unless you did put your eye out with a clothes pin, ironing was far more dangerous!

Health Care; a hot topic: Today the national debt just passed a trillion dollars and the geniuses in Washington are trying to figure out a Health Bill that will be revolutionary. Well, here is a suggestion, follow the model set by Dr. Booker, Dr. Rascatti, Dr. Cutuly, et. al. in Clairton in the old days. An office visit was five bucks. Home visit? Five bucks also, and no extra charge to come by and hang a “Quarantined” sign on your front door. Ok, inflation has decreased the dollar’s value so instead of $% charge $25 per visit. No office staff needed since there are no insurance forms to be completed and the nurse can set appointments.

School days, school days, good old Golden Rule days: A recent study listed the top seven discipline problems as: drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, assault, and guns in the school. Way back when Moby Dick was a sardine, the same list might have included: talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothes, and not putting paper in wastebaskets. I remember a veteran teacher reflecting on his first day at a rural school in Montana. He was sent down to see the math teacher who was also the wrestling coach. As the fresh-faced teacher walked into the room he saw the veteran teacher had a male student pinned to the floor and wrapped up like a pretzel. He finally lifted the kid up and said, “Don’t ever do that again.” After class the newbie screwed up enough courage to ask what rule had caused the discipline, and without blinking an eye he said, “He came in late.”

Hire the best and the brightest: A recent teacher interview was completed and the potential teacher was asked if there were any questions. The prospective teacher said:

"Let me see if I've got this right.

'You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning...

'You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

'You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

'You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.

'You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

'You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps..

'You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . . I CAN'T PRAY?'"

A little blogging music Maestro... From the 1958 movie of the same name, Doris Day sings “Teacher’s Pet.”

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unsung Hero, Clairton Boy

First Across the Rhine

Allow me to introduce you to: My good friend and blog reader Lawyer Bob recently told me a story about a couple of war heroes. Bob was chatting with an old friend named Warren who had landed at Normandy on D-Day plus two weeks and had fought his way across France and Germany with the 83d Infantry. He had shared with Bob a TV interview he had seen during the D-Day festivities. The interview focused on another war hero, Col. David Pergrin who had led the 291st Combat Engineers from the Normandy beachhead to Germany and the Rhine River. After doing some research on his own Bob told me that I might find his story and history interesting. I did.

Growing up Clairton: David Pergrin was born in Clairton, PA in 1917 as the “War to End All Wars” was winding down. As a child he could not have known that the war of his youth later renamed “World War I” would be the precursor to the Second World War two decades later. David was popular, handsome, and a star athlete on the Clairton Bears football team. He graduated with honors in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression and with the help of a local philanthropist, attended Penn State and majored in Engineering. There he played football as well as working as a dishwasher, furnace attendant, librarian, and delivering the midnight edition of the newspaper. His finances were exhausted after two years so he returned home to Clairton and worked as a surveyor for U.S. Steel for a year then returned to complete his education.

David was senior-class president when he graduated from Penn State in 1940. He and Bob Baird, the student All University President led the class that presented the Nittany Lion Shrine, a 14-ton limestone monument symbolizing Penn State tradition. David made the official presentation to the trustees as Bob Baird looked on in pride. Bob would return to Clairton and become its mayor. David completed his engineering degree with the help of an ROTC scholarship and entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant.

After D-Day: America recently celebrated several historic landmarks. July 4 was Independence Day and one month prior, on June 6 many old soldiers gathered in Normandy, France on the windswept hill above beaches that were code-named Utah and Omaha. As cameras watched, presidents and heads of state honored the brave soldiers who had climbed the cliffs and changed the direction of the war more than 60 years ago. Those who are not history buffs often think of D-Day as a signal to the end of the war, but for many soldiers including the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, it was just the beginning. The 291st literally paved the way for other Allied soldiers from Normandy to the Rhine River and beyond.

Summer of ‘44: It had been two and a half years since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into the war. America and her allies staged the largest air, land, and sea operation ever attempted, code named “Overlord.” More than 150,000 troops, 5,000 ships, and 800 aircraft invaded occupied France to fight the German army. The victory came at a heavy cost – 4,000 killed, 6,000 wounded. Prior to the assault the 291st was part of Operation Bolero, a huge massing of troops and material designed in part to fool the Germans into thinking the assault would come from Southern England and a different venue. The ruse, along with several other decoy activities worked as the German Army was caught by surprise.

Beach secured; Roads and bridges needed: Once the D-Day landing was completed the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion led by Col. David E. Pergrin landed in France. It was their job to repair, maintain, and build roads and bridges so the Allied forces could advance and when required, retreat. The engineers were also combat soldiers. They spent much of the fall and winter of 1944 in the Belgian village of Malmedy. The 291st. created roadblocked, blew up bridges, and otherwise blocked the passage of German tanks and equipment. The bravery of Col Pergrin and the 291st was recognized as again and again they spurned the advances of the German Army. But as they say in Vaudeville, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Battle of the Bulge: In late December, 1944 some of the most vicious fighting of the war took place against the Germans in the village of Malmedy, Belgium. Pergrin and his company were understaffed, overmatched, and primed for a sure defeat, but they refused to accept that fate. They held off numerous attacks from Hitler’s finest Panzer Tank divisions and eventually wore them down. This despite Nazi massacres of American prisoners, a crime for which dozens of Nazis would be tried after the war.

In one particular skirmish a Nazi SS officer led one of the armored columns racing toward the Meuse River. His route took him near the village of Malmedy. Colonel David E. Pergrin, the 27-year-old commander of the 291st continued to organize its defense. He ordered his engineers to set up roadblocks and destroy bridges. The frustrated Germans decided to not attack Malmedy but headed for a nearby village, but Pergin sent reinforcements to that village as well and stymied the Panzers once again. By blowing up bridges and otherwise harassing the crack Panzer Division, they eventually stopped and destroyed one of Hitler’s most vaunted divisions in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Col. Pergrin and the 291st Combat Engineer’s initiative and training in defensive operations were a major contribution to the outcome of an important campaign. Col. Pergrin was awarded numerous medals by the French government as well as a Silver Star. A post-war housing development in Clairton was named "Malmedy Village" in honor of this campaign.

Humble War Hero: Like so many heroes of that so-called “Greatest Generation,” Col. Pergrin quietly went home to his family after the war to work as an engineer for the railroad. As the 50th anniversary of the war neared he was encouraged record his war experiences and he did a first-hand account entitled, “First Across the Rhine,” which describes, among other things, the 291st, selected to build a bridge across the Rhine River in Germany while facing enormous resistance. The bridgs was longest combat bridge and was build in record time. It laid bare the German heartland to advancing Allied troops. Colonel David E. Pergrin, war hero, engineer, and Clairton boy.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Amazing Lancasters of Clairton, PA

Insanity is hereditary – you catch it from your kids

Every community has one: You know the family. They don’t have too much in the way of material goods but they have each other. You don’t see Pops very often because he works overtime in the mill and hustles on days off to do what he can. Mom is the room mother and during PTA meetings when the principal says, “Please stand if you have a child in grade...” she stands and remains standing until all grades have been introduced because there is one of her brood in every grade. A few blue noses in town look down their eyeglasses at the family and mutter, “Tsk, tsk, all those children. I wonder how many will go wrong.” But although every one of the children might not have new clothes, they always have clean clothes, their manners are impeccable and they’re all popular with their peers. Such was the Lancaster family of Woodland Terrace, Clairton, PA.

Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster lived in a tiny house and had ten children without a multiple birth. They are Ron, Jean, Allen, Marvin, Carol, Bill, Betty, Dorothy, Janet and Shelby. Life has not been kind to the male Lancasters. Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1999, Allen in 1990 and Marvin in 1993. Bill remains the only male in the family but he has all six sisters and enjoys the good fortune of the company of his 91 year old Mom.

A Family Dynasty Begins: The Dad, Elmer Rowan Lancaster, was one of seven children. He grew up in nearby Uniontown, moved to Clairton and was a steelworker for more than four decades. Elmer loved his family and brought the kids’ favorite, jelly candies called Peps, from work. This devoted family man passed away at age 83.

Dorothy Pauline Lancaster, nee Cooley, was three years younger and hailed from Fairchance, PA. She grew up with eight other siblings so large families were nothing unusual to either spouse. Although no photos exist of Mrs. Lancaster in a Superwoman outfit, she not only bore and reared 10 young ‘uns, and prepared their daily school lunches, she attended every athletic event, play, choral recital, majorette activity, and other school event in which her peeps chirped. In her spare time The Incredible Woman served as a “Lady cop,” school crossing guard, and worked in the local Murphy’s 5 and 10 cent store. In her other spare time Mrs. L. belonged to a ladies card club. After her kids left home she continued with her civic activities, rarely missing a Clairton High School football game and even into her 80s served as a Senior Home Companion. Dorothy made most of her children’s clothes including some wedding dresses for her girls.

Dorothy finally moved out of her tiny home (see above) and into a senior citizen high rise condo but continued to be active, serving as president of the tenant council and of course attending Woodland Terrace annual reunions. Now in her 92nd year Mrs. Lancaster attends school events for her 18 grandchildren and 21 (perhaps by this writing 22) great grandchildren.

The Little General: Ron Lancaster was the firstborn. He was a quiet lad but exuded leadership and loved sports. Ron had the personality and wherewithal of a quarterback. Problem was, at 5’5” in his spikes he lacked the size. He was great at pee-wee football and outstanding in junior high but people were surprised when he actually started at quarterback and led the Clairton High School Bears to a Championship. Even more surprising was that he was offered a college scholarship. After earning “Little All American” honors (for the size of his college, not his size) he was given a tryout by a Canadian football team and was a star for the next 19 years winning multiple championships. He ranks third in passing with over 50,000 yards and has earned more awards than can be listed in this space. Afterwards Ron became the fourth winningest coach in Canadian football history. Oh, did I mention that he also had time to marry, have three children, teach high school, do color commentary in Canada and at the Seoul Olympics and be awarded an Honorary Doctorate?

To picture Ron Lancaster, imagine Joe Namath without the arrogance, Doug Flutie without the Boston media, John Madden without the pomposity, and for good measure throw in the benevolence of Andre Agassi. Ron passed away last fall leaving huge shoes for his daughter, two sons and younger siblings to follow. His kids called him Digger – maybe because an entire country digs him.

The caretaker with a heart of gold: The second of the Lancasters is Jean. If there is a special room in heaven for those whose deeds surpass other Heavenly residents, Jean and her fellow hospice nurses will get a golden key to it. She graduated from Clairton High School while her little big brother Ron was filling the air with footballs. It seemed natural then, that she joined the Air Force. After her hitch was up she landed back home and was soon swept off her feet by Sav Angotti and got hitched. The 3-decade plus marriage produced a daughter who produced Jean’s first granddaughter. Jean started her nursing career late in life but immediately knew she’d found her calling. She was well into her 40s during college and became a nurse at age 47. She specialized in palliative and hospice care which she continues to this day. This writer has observed Jean in action disseminating hospice care with the skill, grace, and caring that proves it was what she was meant to do.

Football star that might have been: When third child and big little brother Allen played halfback in high school he seemed destined to surpass his brother Ron’s gridiron achievements. He was bigger, faster, stronger, and a definite big time college prospect. Frank Kush snatched him up to play for Arizona State during the school’s glory years, but it was not to be. A knee injury ended Allen’s football career and he returned home then joined the Army. He and brother Marvin served in Germany together. Afterward Allen completed college, married, had a daughter, and became vice president of Stouffer Hotels. Allen moved to Ohio but stayed in close touch with his siblings. Allen’s body began to betray him in his 40s. Despite a liver transplant he perished in 1990 at age 47. But the story that tells the most about Allen is the day after his surgery, a relative overheard a woman crying. It was the custodian who was cleaning his room. When the relative approached, the custodian said Allen was very, very ill and that made her sad. The two sat down for coffee and the woman composed herself and said that Allen would come by the laundry each day to say hello. He knew their names, their children’s names and even their birthdays. Cancer had ravished his body but his heart remained kind.

The third son and practical joker: Marvin came along a year or so after Allen. He was the practical joker of the family. After high school and the Army he enrolled in college and earned a degree in Business Management. Marvin married and had two children and followed his father’s footsteps into the steel mill where during a 30-year career he rose from foreman to supervisor of a chemical plant. Three years after the death of his brother Marvin was diagnosed with lung cancer. He did not live to see his fiftieth birthday.

During his convalescence the family planned a big party for their mother’s 75th birthday. It was March and the weather was nice. Marvin was sitting up in his hospital room and said to one of his sisters, “There’s going to be a blizzard tomorrow for Mom’s birthday.” When the family drove to the hospital the following day to see him, two things happened – Marvin passed away and one of the biggest blizzards in recent memory hit the Pittsburgh area. Marvin, ever the practical joker was apparently able to conjure up one last trick to keep the family smiling.

Far from home – for a while: The fifth child and second daughter in the Lancaster household was Carol. She, like her older siblings, was popular in school and heavily engaged in school activities. Carol married and moved to California where she made a home, had a daughter and worked for 20 years. Upon returning to the Clairton area Carol lived and worked in nearby Washington County while her daughter attended college. Carol decided to change professions and locations after working 33 years. She now works as an unpaid nanny (as so many of us do) tending her grandson Jacob at her daughter’s home in Louisiana.

Last man standing and on a mission: Bill was the sixth bundle of joy brought into the Lancaster home. His birth made it four boys and two girls but he was to be the last male born, and ironically, is the only male member of the household still alive. Bill grew up in a different era than his older brothers. He served in Viet Nam with the Air Force and upon being discharged headed north to study and watch his now-famous brother Ron play football in Canada. His degree in business paved the way for a career as a contract negotiator. Bill married a Clairton girl, Sheri, and was blessed with two sons who gave them 2 ½ grandchildren – soon to be three. Bill currently serves as a college counselor and is a devout Christian. He shares his testimony at every opportunity and asked that his bio conclude with the question, “Where will you spend eternity?”

Not at a casino, lucky number 7: Elizabeth, not Betty, is a community across the Monongahela River from Clairton. Betty, not Elizabeth, was the seventh little Lancaster. Betty went directly from high school into the work force. It was the era of the Beatles and the country was changing, but Betty stood fast. She lived locally, focused on life, and worked her way from supermarket cashier to secretary while being a Mom of two. Betty the McSurdy (nee Lancaster) moved to Elizabeth the community where her son played high school football against his first cousin, Dorothy the next daughter’s son (see below). Although their high schools were rivals, any rivalries were left on the football field as the families often spent Sundays together enjoying each other’s company. Betty and Chuck hold the Lancaster record at the moment with six grandchildren.

The perpetual optimist: Her siblings call her Doe though formally she shares the name Dorothy with her Mom and the protagonist in “Wizard of Oz.” She says she was called Wyatt Earp at Easter in her big Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it. That cured her of wearing hats but thankfully not of her sunny disposition. Without her help I could not have completed this post. By the time she was a senior in high school, Doe had followed in the giant footsteps of her siblings – attending football games. It was in fact the Homecoming game when she was stricken with appendicitis and rushed from the football field to the hospital. Being taken from the football field by ambulance was a first for Doe as well as for Mrs. Lancaster who had four boys play football with nary a scratch. Since Doe and Allen were the only two lefties in the family Doe did things backwards. She recovered from appendicitis, became a medical secretary, married, and had two sons. As her sons grew, she and sister Jean, both well on the other side of 30, went to college together and both became nurses. Doe has worked in Home Health and is currently a Care Manager working with Post-Acute patients. Doe does not have grandchildren yet but admits to using her sibling’s grandkids as surrogates.

Join the guy who joined the Navy: Her parents were almost finished having children when Janet came along at number nine. Still the standards were high and she touched the bar. She sailed through school and married her high school sweetheart who promptly joined the Navy - the sweetheart, not Jan. That gave Janet a different view of the world than her siblings had. She and hubby have lived in Florida, Maine, across the Atlantic River in London, California, across the Pacific River to Hawaii then on to Japan. Along the way they had two children, one of each stripe. After 27 years of sailing into major world ports Jan and the Lt. Commander settled in Maryland, close enough to enjoy their four grandchildren and visit family in Clairton. Janet is a retired secretary and when she’s not reading, computer surfing, or being a grandma, can be found hiking.

One more nurturer in the group: Fourteen years and ten children later, Mrs. Lancaster hung up her maternity smock for good. Shelby was the last of this amazing family of overachieving siblings. She worked as a grocery store cashier after high school then took a job helping the mentally challenged. Shelby married and had two sons and recently had her first grandchild whom she insists is the most beautiful grandchild anywhere. She also has two grandpups, as her family is partial to dogs. As did her sisters, Shelby went to college after her kids flew the coop. She earned a degree and worked as a unit clerk in hospitals - in the operating room, recovery room, orthopedics, and emergency room. After 20 years of caring for people Shelby retired and so did hubby Bill. They then took a dream trip – from York (PA, not New) to California. It lasted a month as they logged 8,000 miles on the family jalopy while seeing America’s treasures. Shelby Rae Siler is the last of an era.

The Amazing Lancasters. A Clairton family

A little blogging music Maestro... “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Hey Buddy, Do you have anything to stop this coughin’?

An old but timely joke: The Pittsburgh Steelers are so named because of the steel mills that lined the rivers of the area. For the better part of the twentieth century black smoke residue from the mills belched into the sky and fell back onto the earth changing everything to a soot color. Even the snow turned a sooty color shortly after it hit the ground. Greenery that surrounded the rich fertile area had a fine black covering. Roofs of houses were all the same color – black within several weeks after colorful shingles were attached. Boston writer James Parton dubbed Pittsburgh “Hell with the lid off.” The acrid air was difficult to breathe but the mills were our livelihood.

What happens to those who don’t make it: There is an old joke about a man who worked in the Clairton Coke Works, a mill along the Monongahela River that provided coke from coal. Coke is a crucial ingredient in the making of steel. Gasses emitted in the process of baking the coke are particularly pungent. As the story goes the old Italian immigrant died from inhaling too much of the residue for too long. As the hearse was just getting to the top of Maple Avenue, one of the steeper hills in Clairton, the back of the hearse popped open and the casket fell out onto the street and began sliding down the long hill. Cars from the funeral procession swerved to miss the out-of-control casket and others honked at the traffic disarray, but the coffin continued down the steep hill going ever faster. At the bottom of the hill the hearse jumped a curb, crashed through the front window of a pharmacy, and came to rest in front of the startled druggist. The lid popped open and the corpse sat up and said, “Hey Buddy, you gotta anythin’ to a stop this coffin?”

The more things change the more they stay the same: Much has changed in the Greater Pittsburgh area since that joke was first told. The 1980s saw the decline of the steel industry in general and of United States Steel in particular. Steel mills up and down the rivers have closed. Homestead, McKeesport, Dravosburg, Munhall, and many more towns have been impacted by having their lifeblood eliminated. Few mills still operate outside the Clairton Works. But most Clairton residents worked in other neighboring mills, since closed, and most Clairton Works workers live outside Clairton city limits, so economic hardships have struck Clairton just as it has its neighbors. But at least the Clairton Works is operational, right? And that is a good thing, right? Well, yes and maybe.

A billion dollar boost: Last year U.S. Steel announced a $1 billion investment in Clairton Works to reduce air pollution by nearly 1,400 tons per year. The Allegheny Health Department fast-tracked U.S. Steel’s 310-page permit application to replace three old batteries which contain 192 ovens that produce coke, with new cleaner batteries containing only 84 ovens. County officials anticipated the permit would be issued within six months. The battery replacement was a core part of the $1+ billion investment in Clairton Works. Things were looking up for the area.

A billion dollar bust: Several weeks ago a follow-up announcement was made to delay the highly-touted plan to invest more than $1 billion in new coke batteries and refurbishment of older ones. U.S. Steel idled three of its 12 batteries and announced plans to idle another four soon. They blamed the global recession and projected layoffs include 230 of the plant’s 1,155 workers. The original plan for replacement and refurbishment was designed to reduce air pollution but some say the closure of the batteries will serve the same purpose. The upgrades were necessary to reduce pollution in Clairton, Glassport, and surrounding areas. Pollution readings from the area have prompted the American Lung Association to consistently rank the Pittsburgh area one of the sootiest in the nation.

My favorite dentist: Blog reader, dentist, doo-wop junkie and sometime skydiver Dr. Ron, who years ago made his assistant Adele an honest woman, forwarded the latest “State of the Smog” report from Clairton. The Clairton High School Bears football team was able to shout “We’re number 1” last season, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clairton-Glassport duo ranks third and fourth respectively in risks of getting cancer from bad air. Out on the left coast the greater Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos lies between two major freeways and ranks #1 with 1,200 toxics per million in their air – and that is even before all the pot smokers show up for Michael’s funeral. Madison County, IL, near St. Louis, ranks second with 1,000 toxics per million, Clairton is third at 762 per million, and across the river, Glassport comes in at fourth with 700 toxics per million. That means breathing in Clairton and Glassport increases the risk of cancer by 20 times over the average American who inhales about 35 toxics per million. The only sure solution to avoid the health issues in these areas is the same advice I give smokers... try not to inhale, and do not exhale.

Over my shoulder a backward glance: From the Clairton Progress February 21, 1939 edition, courtesy of Jim Hartman at the Mifflin Township Historical Society comes the news of a new housing development called “Colonial Village.” Seventy homes have been sold and half are already occupied. Homes in Colonial Village started at $3,990 with $513.36 down and monthly payments of $23.83. Features include 50X100 foot lots, all hardwood floors, concealed radiators, and a modern porcelain sink with spray attachment. Families who have already moved in include Hafner, 613 Grandview, Blackburn, 105 Constitution Circle, Cooley, 558 Independence Drive, Elkovitz, 262 Shaw Avenue, Phillips, 874 Craig Street, Taylor, 861 Bessemer Avenue, Wiley, 600 Lafayette Drive, Shreck, 544 Thompson Drive, and Fedor, 506 Independence Drive. Times seem simpler then. Patriotism was paramount as evidenced by some of the street names. Perhaps we should take a lesson from history and support our president and country instead of taking daily pot shots.

A little blogging music Maestro... “The Air that I Breathe” by the Hollies.

Dr. Forgot

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Fourth, Clairton!

Don’t drink a Fifth on the Fourth

Long may she wave: The Fourth of July, of course is Independence Day in the U.S. It is the 185th day of the year and is generally considered the halfway point of the year as well as summer vacation for schoolkids. It is often a day for family picnics and outdoor barbecues or “cookouts” as they are called in Pittsburgh. According to those who track such things, some 37 million travelers are projected to drive more than 50 miles from their home town this holiday. While that number may seem large, in context it is about 700,000 fewer travelers than last year and 4.5 million fewer than in 2007. Maybe the Fourth is morphing back into a stay-at-home holiday. Or maybe not. The Fourth of July is typically the largest car travel day of the year.

The Fourth in small town America: We have written often about our hometown of Clairton, PA in the 1950s. It was a great place and a great time to grow up. Summertime was a time for not wearing shoes, catching lightning bugs, and spending days at the municipal pool at Clairton Park. Of course, July Fourth was special because there were picnics during the day and fireworks at night. Our favorite vantage point for watching fireworks was the end of Tenth Street. We lived nearly at the end of St. Clair Ave. The house should have been on the corner of Ninth Street but for some reason Ninth Street did not go through from the next block. It ended at Waddell Avenue. On July Fourth we’d walk the half block to Tenth Street where St. Clair Avenue ended, and down the unpaved Tenth Street for a block and a half until it ended at the woods. The railroad tie fence at the end of Tenth provided a great vantage point.

The many fireworks displays to enjoy: In the 1950s US Steel and related plants paid most of the property taxes. That meant individual taxes were low and services were outstanding. Each village along the Monongahela was equally prosperous in a blue collar way and each village had a fireworks display to boast on the Fourth of July. Since it was summertime and daylight did not go to sleep until well after 8:30, fireworks did not begin until 9:00 or so. But when they did, WOW! Of course from where we sat we were able to see the Clairton display but we were also able to see that of Glassport and parts of McKeesport and even West Mifflin. The trees were too dense to see the Elizabeth displays and we did not want to run back to St. Clair Avenue to see them and risk missing out on what we were watching and of course, giving up our prime seat.

More Clairton reflections: It has been nearly a half century since I left Clairton but the memories are as crisp as though it were just last week. Of course, age does dim the outside edges of the memory first and I frequently research and do fact checks before writing about the area. One resource I stumbled upon is the Mifflin Township Historical Society and their monthly newsletter called “Portal to the Past.” Founder and President Jim Hartman includes historical data from the entire area including Baldwin, Dravosburg, Duquesne, Hays, Homestead, Jefferson, Pleasant Hills, Mifflin Township, Bedford, Clairton and many more surrounding communities. This month’s issue contains excerpts from the Clairton Progress, the local newspaper published from 1925 to 1967.

Clairton Progress December 2, 1954: Large Distillery To Become Bus Garage. Large is the name of a village in Jefferson Borough that borders Clairton. It is named not for its size but after a family of the same name. The distillery was built in the 1700s and was part of history in the Whiskey Rebellion, one of George Washington’s first challenges. Noble J. Dick was the owner of the local bus company during the 1950s. The purchase was completed for an estimated $150,000 and included several large brick buildings and 11 acres. Once the deal was done the buildings were leased back to the Westinghouse Atomic Reactor Division. The property was originally sold to Revolutionary War hero Col. Joel Feree in 1793 for the sum of two pounds, 14 Shillings, and 10 pence, or about $ 5.60. John Large was a whiskey maker using a tea kettle in his cabin as a still atop nearby Mount Washington. His son Jonathan Large learned the fine art of whiskey making and built a gristmill and the distillery that would remain active for some 75 years. As an aside, my mother worked in the Large Distillery bottling division. She tells the story of a fellow worker who placed her wedding and engagement rings in one of the bottles of whiskey and set it aside; as she believed the whiskey would clean the rings. When the worker left for a potty break a supervisor walked by, saw the bottle and placed it back on the assembly line for packaging. I don’t remember if the rings were retrieved or they became a surprise gift to an innocent purchaser of a bottle of whiskey.

Shopping in the 1950s: Payday’s offered a 3 lb. can of Spry lard for $0.69, eggs $0.59/dozen, and center cut veal chops for $0.65/lb. Joe’s Texaco offered B.F. Goodrich tires for $14.95 each, a lube, oil change, and motor flush for $2.98 and Texaco oil for $0.24 per quart. Livingston Manor homes near the county airport were available for $75.00 per month. The 3-bedroom brick and stone homes cost $11,800. The Dairy Delite on the corner of Miller and Mitchell offered hamburgers for $0.15 but asked for orders to be placed by adults only. Finally, the Ankara on Route 51 advertises Businessmen’s Lunches for $0.85. To find out more about the “Good Old Days” of Clairton and vicinity, contact the Mifflin Township Historical Society at

A little blogging music Maestro... “As Time Goes By” by the Jimmy Durante.

Dr. Forgot