Sunday, May 1, 2011

Remembering Clairton

I have a hard time letting go...

Clairton will always be my hometown: I was born during World War II… you remember that era; it was in all the papers. I grew up in Clairton during the 1940s and 1950s and as my not-so-stellar high school career was winding down I yearned to be ABC; Anywhere but Clairton. College was not in MY plans, but I did not make the plans, my father did. And he decreed that despite my desires (which did not factor into the decision) and my disdain for post-secondary education, I WOULD attend college. Thus, when a classmate told me about her plans to attend college some 2,000 miles away from the City of Prayer, I decided to apply to the same school. The only thing I knew about the school was its name was 22 letters long (Brigham Young University) and that Provo, Utah was far away from Clairton, PA.

Four years on the Wasatch Front: BYU is located between two mountain ranges. There is a giant block letter Y halfway up the mountain that freshmen are required to whitewash each year. The campus is beautiful as is the surrounding area. I did not come home the summer after my freshman year and came home only briefly the summer after my sophomore year as I prepared to attend a semester at a small sister college of BYU located in Laie, Hawaii. After college I spent a few years in Idaho and Utah before settling in Las Vegas in the late 1960s and have lived there ever since.

The romance of living away: My three sisters attended college in Eastern PA. One settled in Hershey and the other two in the greater Pittsburgh area so when I returned home to visit I had many tales to regale the family with of my adventures out west. One time, while living in Pocatello, Idaho I drove back for a visit. By this time I’d gone western complete with boots, jeans, and a shirt that snapped instead of buttoned.

During the 1950s and 60s if one did not have a car several means of transportation were available: shoe-leather express, the bus, or thumbing a ride. As I was driving through McKeesport en route to home I saw a classmate hitch-hiking on the corner so I stopped for him. He looked at me and said, “Andy... is that you?” I nodded and he asked where I’d been for the past several years and I replied that I was currently living in Idaho. To which he replied, “IDAHO!!!? Where the Hell’s Idaho?” It was always fun to return to visit family and friends but I was “an easterner by birth but a westerner by choice.

The price of living away: As I aged and matured, reared a family and settled into my life in the west, and became my own person, I felt comfortable. The air was clean, the weather was warm, opportunities abounded that would never have been open to me had I stayed in Clairton. Life was good. But there was a downside. My children would never get to know their cousins, family matters were generally decided without my input, and simple things that one takes for granted such as stopping by the home of a family member for coffee and a chat were impossible. As my parents aged my concerns about things like my elderly father driving and the safety of my parents in the old neighborhood weighed heavily on my mind. I began to return home more frequently to visit them and reassure myself that everything was ok. First the cross-country trips took place every six months, then every other month, and eventually two or three times per month.

The decade of the 2000s were the worst. Six months to the day after 9/11 my 87-year old father passed away on my grandson’s birthday. Two years later my daughter passed away unexpectedly and two years after that my mother died during her 91st year. It was during that time that Clairton began tugging at my soul and I began to write this blog.

Blogging as therapy: Writing about my hometown was cathartic. It somehow atoned for all the time I’d spent away while my community of birth was losing its soul. Time had not been kind to Clairton. The once proud, bustling community of 20,000 and home to four movie theaters and a dozen or so car dealerships, the only area high school with a swimming pool, a top notch education system, good paying job opportunities for its citizens, a football team, and award-winning band that were the envy of the Monongahela Valley was dealt blow after blow. Mills closed cutting off the economic lifeblood of the area, businesses closed, those who were able left, and the population dwindled. My efforts were intended to keep the memory of the halcyon days of Clairton alive while respecting the community that still exists.

Down but not out: Clairton was deeply wounded by socio-economic changes but it simply refused to die. The Chamber of Commerce found creative ways to provide help, community members continued to serve on City commissions and school boards, and the football team rose from the ashes like a phoenix to become a state powerhouse. My most recent involvement was to help spread the word that the school needed to raise money to purchase championship rings for a team that had won unprecedented back-to-back state titles. My blog readers answered the call for help and in a short amount of time had exceeded the fundraising goal by more than $3,000.00; no easy feat especially in these difficult economic times.

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Time flies: Just as the past 50 years since I left Clairton has flown by for me so has the past year flown by. On this date one year ago I wrote the following:

“The year 1917 is ancient history to most of us. U.S. enters World War I, the U.S. bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million, San Francisco launched its streetcars, illegal immigration bill was fought in Congress (regarding Chinese), Russian Revolution begins, Congress passes excessive profits tax on corporations, Raggedy Ann doll invented, women given the vote in New York, Father Flanagan forms Boys Town, and most members of the Clairton High School class of 1935 are born.”

Jennie Peterson, with the help of daughter Diane, helped to organize a 75th high school reunion of the class of 1935. My classmate, Anna Marie Bochter, a crucial component of the annual Clairton reunions, sent the photos of those proud lads and lasses who at age 18 could not envision celebrating their 75th reunion.

A little blogging music Maestro... “My Hometown,” by Bruce Springsteen

Dr. Forgot

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