Monday, August 13, 2007
Where the houses turned black
Welcome to nowhere, chapter 1
By Scott Beveridge
Our new home in Webster was a short walk across a bridge from Donora, a bustling steel mill town in Southwestern Pennsylvania with city water, public sewers and a downtown lined with sidewalks and ornate buildings. There were squatters living in creepy old black houses on our new street. At night, my down-on-their-luck neighbors burrowed into rags stuffed into corners to keep warm because they didn’t have enough beds to go around. In no time, a boy over there whose father had run off welcomed us to town by sharing his head lice. The culprit was corralled, dunked into a metal tub filled with hot soapy water and disinfected from head to toe with a scrub brush by men who lived across the road. Thank goodness we had two parents, a coal furnace and a bathtub connected to piping-hot water, as well as warm blankets on our beds.
The Beveridges included my older brother, Skip, who was 6 when we moved and mad as hell about leaving Charleroi. That was a borough founded in 1891 by Belgium glassmakers. It was about 10 miles down the road, and known in the 1960s as one of Pennsylvania’s richest retail districts, thanks to the steelworkers and coal miners and their paychecks. Charleroi had attractive houses along tree-lined streets, and many adults who planned wholesome activities for children. They buried us in huge piles of leaves in the fall and ran sprinklers above the brick streets to cool us down on muggy summer afternoons. Our other brother, Kelly, was 2 and ornery as a catfish. He never seemed to care much about how the teachers and richer kids at our grade school up over the hill in the village of Fellsburg poked fun at Webster children for coming to class with dirty ears. As the middle child, I often had to make more noise to be heard at home. But outside, I made every effort to steer clear of the many bullies in town.
(Kelly with Spot on the street outside our house about 1965. He is on the far right in the group photo beside Skip, center, and Scott)
The first thing that I remember asking our mom, June, was how to find the playground. She attempted a smile and said, “Go play on the hill.” There was no ordinary hillside out back, or a grassy area with swing sets and a sliding board, either. You had to walk a half-mile to find a clump of sickly-looking trees if you wanted branches to climb. The yards had no topsoil. Instead, they had shale and clumps of crabgrass that you had to chop with a sickle as if you were giving the weeds a crude haircut.
Our father, Jim, was a hard-working and beer-guzzling pipefitter in a wire mill in Monessen, another industrial town three miles to the south and around a horseshoe curve in the river. Smoke from its steel and coke mills blew our way, too, making the air even harder to breathe and the houses all that more black. Some guys tried to paint the clapperboards, but a fresh coat never seemed to adhere to them, even if they died trying.
After stepping foot for the first time in our two-story, six-room Victorian on Webster’s top street in October 1960, I was frightened out of my mind. “Who’s upstairs?” I whispered upon hearing hollow-sounding voices. An adult who was helping us move into the drafty place laughed and said the sounds were echoes of our own voices bouncing around the empty bedrooms. I was convinced there were ghosts up there.
Mom loved Webster and the old house because it had been in her family for two decades. She was a self-taught, under-paid bookkeeper whose earnings were needed to keep us fed and clothed. But our new house smelled of death. Mom’s mother, Iva Dail Hart, had died too soon of cancer and a heart failure a year earlier, having never recovered from the heart attack she suffered during the killer smog of 1948. And the memory of mom’s sister, Nancy Muia, never seemed to fade. Aunt Nancy turned up pregnant at 17 and married the child’s father, Paul, a two-bit crook from across the river. She was overweight. She also lacked self-confidence and was easily manipulated. The newlyweds skipped town in 1957 for California because Paul Muia had stolen bank checks from a relative and was about to be arrested. Aunt Nancy returned home a short time later with barely a dime to her name. She died at 20 of a broken heart, starvation and influenza in the bedroom at the top of the steps that led straight to our front door. Paul Muia disappeared, only to return in the 1980s and boast about spending time in the Folsom and San Quentin prisons. He later went to a Pennsylvania prison for shooting a man in the leg in a Donora bar, and died of cancer after an early release. It was easy to meet up with the wrong crowd in the Donora area. A Webster woman and her husband would fall victims to murder at the hands of her crazy lover a year after we unpacked our belongings.