a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bad boys of Webster

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 7

By Scott Beveridge

As curious kids, we often sneaked into the abandoned two-story redbrick schoolhouse across the alley from our new home in Webster. It was a breeze to get inside because the rotten kids in the neighborhood had smashed many of the building’s windows and pried the padlock off the side door before we got there.

Inside, forgotten children’s books were scattered about the hardwood floors of the four empty classrooms. Plaster was peeling off walls that had been layered with many coats of green World War II Army surplus lead-based paint. Each night at dusk, bats circled the sky above its chimneys and, in circular formation, they dipped toward the streetlights.

When winter turned the corner, we grabbed our sleds and steered them down the snow-covered hill beside the school that was a perfect double for some of the creepy buildings in Alfred Hitchcock films. When spring turned the corner, we played hoops on the crumbling asphalt paving of the basketball court with some of the strongest kids the steelworkers produced in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The boys talked tough and played tougher, sometimes too tough.

On A hot summer afternoon in 1967, when I was a chubby 10-year-old, one of the roughest kids in our poverty-stricken village came running, out of breath, to the schoolyard to announce that a street brawl was brewing.

“The niggers are coming across the bridge. Let’s go. There’s gonna be a fight,” the boy yelled.

You were taught early in that part of the Mon Valley steel belt to put yourself above black people. There were no black kids in my grade school, or living in our neighborhood.

I didn’t like to fight, either, and was afraid of most of the kids from across the Monongahela River in Donora, regardless of their color. But on Webster’s scrappy streets, you’d get your ass kicked for sure if you didn’t stick with your kind in times of trouble. So I trotted along with the crowd, barely able to keep up with legs that were shaking with fright.

We stood our ground at the foot of the sidewalk that followed the steep ramp up to the camelback spans that supported the Donora-Webster Bridge deck. A small band of angry black kids made their way across the line that separated our towns, hoping to reclaim the stolen bicycle that started the mess. To my surprise, they took one look at us and ran home.

They obviously knew it was a bad idea look for trouble in Webster. There had been too many crosses burned on starless nights on the barren hillsides above our village.

Some of the fathers on my street even flipped the channel on their television set when a black person appeared on a show. The homes were where these lessons began, ours included.

A few years earlier, our mom, June, and her live-in mother-in-law had one of their legendary arguments after a black woman spent the afternoon at our house. Mom had taken a low-paying job as a clerk at a scrap yard five miles upriver in Monongahela, where she befriended a black coworker who labored among the discarded automobiles that were being scrapped there for steel. Mom soon invited the man’s wife over for lunch while my two brothers and I played Army on the hill out back with the black woman's two sons who were close to our own ages of 7, 5, and 3, with me in the middle.

When the yell came out from the kitchen to eat, I blurted, “The last one down the hill is a nigger.” Mom wanted to crawl under the table, and would later give me the dickens for being so stupid.

Meanwhile, Grandma Madge Sine Beveridge maintained her cool over lunch, even though she grew madder by the minute about who was at the table. She had always paraded herself as a blue-blooded Johnny Bull with ancestors from the House of Stuart of the Kingdom of England. In reality, she came from a poor hillbilly family in Mt. Morris in Greene County, Pa.

Her mother was half Indian and her father a drunken Englishman who only came around long enough to create another baby. Even so, Grandma Madge didn’t think there was a woman good enough for her oldest son and our father, Jim.

Blessed with movie-star good looks, black curly hair and deep blue eyes, Jim didn’t deserve a wife who entertained “colored people” in her kitchen, grandma protested. Moments after our company left, grandma stormed to the kitchen sink, drew out the plate that mom’s guest had used and dropped it in the trash. Mom reached into the garbage, grabbed the plate and placed it back in the sink in a show of defiance. Grandma, who was big boned and bossy as hell, took back the plate and slammed it to the floor in shards. The words got louder between the two women who often vied for control of the house.

It took many years before I first heard the word "racism" used in a sentence. But on that day in 1962, I understood the concept and knew it was wrong.

The same year, U.S. Steel Corp. announced the permanent shutdown of the mill in Donora, where just about everyone depended on the steelworkers’ paychecks for survival. While most parents scrambled to put food on the table, their kids found themselves with twice as much time to make trouble.


Chapter 8

(Captions, from the top: Our cousins from the Webster area playing King of the Hill behind our house in 1967; Grandma Madge Sine Beveridge with her oldest grandson, Skip, during Christmas of 1954. A glamor photo of our mom, June, is in the background; and Jim Beveridge on his wedding day in July 1952)

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