a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Santa switcheroo

                                                                                      Scott Beveridge photo
 
Great. Even Santa Claus went to the mall to make an exchange after Christmas. The round jolly fellow, above, is seated at The Mall at Robinson, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No Austrian blown-glass ornaments for us


By Scott Beveridge


Looking back I can't help but think my parents were insane for the way in which they orchestrated Christmas for their three kids in the early 1960s.

And it’s a wonder we kids even survived into adulthood, given the way in which we celebrated the holiday.

Dad, a steelworker, always selected the tree in advance of the big day and it would remain on our front porch until we were sent to bed on Christmas Eve.

He and mom, who worked full time then as an office clerk, would decorate the tree -its needles already falling by then - while we slept to fool us into believing in the morning it had been decorated and laced with gifts by Santa Claus.

It had to be a struggle for our beered-up dad to untangle those strands of electric lights, which were already old with frayed wires by the time they were passed down to us. Each socket held a blue bulb that became sizzling hot when illuminated.

The traditional red and green Christmas would never become our style.

Mom insisted on draping the tree with silver tinsel one strand at a time while dad likely popped another nerve or six until he exploded over the stress of assembling that new bicycle or mini tool bench.

She would finish the tree by hanging on its branches a bunch of cheap white Styrofoam ornaments. Our budget could not afford German blown-glass ornaments.

In short order the blue lights would smolder and melt into many of the her while Santas, snowmen, stars and balls.

It gave our living room the scent of burning plastic for the holidays. It was a miracle the tree didn’t catch fire and destroy our house and its dry-rotted wooden clapboards.

The destruction of the ornaments didn't matter so much to mom because they were cheap and easily replaced at the local five-and-dime store.

Under the tree went a miniature village we all helped to create using milk cartons cut in half to resemble the shapes of houses with pitched roofs.

We’d cover them with a layer of “stucco” made from whipped hot wax “snow icing” spread with butter knifes. Then we’d cut plastic in the shape of doors and windows and attach them to the buildings, which also were dusted with glitter before the wax dried.

Yes, mom even found a way to burn her fingers and those of her children with hot wax in advance of December 25th.

Yet, to mom’s children, nephews and nieces, her holiday trees were astoundingly beautiful, unlike any other in our circle of friends, neighbors and relatives.

How one of her Frosty the Snowman ornaments, shown above, survived such torture is anyone's guess.

But I'm glad it did because that's my favorite holiday decoration, something priceless to me, despite its odd red belly button.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Boarding up a shopping mall wing


Another wall rises to block off a vacant department store at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. – A gigantic retail mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh shouldn’t have lasted more than a year had widespread rumors of a tragic nature been accurate when it opened three decades ago.

The one I heard involved a New Year’s prediction by astrologer Jeane Dixon about people being crushed on escalators during a mall collapse along America’s East Coast. Many of her fans were sure the then-new Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa., was doomed, including some of my relatives in Rostraver Township, a 20-minute drive south of that shopping Mecca.

It was 1979. I was my early 20s, and was convinced that story had been invented by any number of small shop owners who were struggling to survive new mall competition.

The owners of mom-and-pop stores had plenty to fear, as most of them between Charleroi and Monongahela and Pittsburgh’s South Side and Brentwood wouldn’t survive into the 1980s.

Charleroi, which had one of the busiest retail districts in Pennsylvania, was known for its many shoe stores, yet its chamber of commerce would quit advertising the borough’s annual Shoeleroi Sales Days before that decade was out. The biggest mall in Pittsburgh – Century III Mall and its whopping five anchor department stores – had by then cornered the local shoe and clothing markets.

Purchasing new clothes in the hinterlands at Tars Romito and shoes from Mr. Pagano in Charleroi – where personal attention from familiar faces was paramount – was suddenly within reach of such fine, established Pittsburgh stores as Kaufmanns, Gimbels and Joseph Horne Co.

And then came Internet shopping followed in 2008 by a deep economic recession, which lifted the big mall collapse from urban legend status.
A string of small mall stores were closing. The Gimbels, Kaufmann's and Hornes had already disappeared from Pittsburgh’s landscape, leaving Century III with just three two-story departments stores - a Macy's, JC Penney and Sears.

Yet, the hub of the mall looked more festive and alive with shoppers this Christmas season than it had in recent memory. People are spending money again.

Even so, the mall just closed off a second wing with a new high wall of dry wall – one that had led to a Macy’s scratch-and-dent furniture warehouse. Other high-end retailers have been replaced by such businesses as hip-hop discount clothing stores or even a tattoo parlor.

Meanwhile, trash containers sometimes double as buckets to collect dripping water from the mall’s leaking roof.  Pittsburgh’s transit authority also began two years ago to reduce bus routes to the area, vehicles that had brought to the stores inner city customers who scared away many country racist redneck shoppers.

If nothing, maybe this trend could lead local investors back to such places as Monessen, Donora and Charleroi, towns with an abundance of vacant and decaying historic storefronts in need of care.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My ghosts are shy around people


 By Scott Beveridge

It appears the ghosts that follow me around only come out when I am alone, if one can believe the new app downloaded on my Droid X.
 
Ghost Radar Classic’s green tracker is showing nothing as I write this in a newsroom, where the police scanner is jamming and reporters voices are raised while they conduct telephone interviews.

 
The green radar also came up empty Tuesday at a local pub where a friend, Val, tried to explain to me how this device works. Val is a true believer in ghosts and the radar on her BlackBerry registered them all around her.

 
I felt left out, ignored and thought about calling a séance to lure spirits to my smart phone. Now that really would have drawn stares from the otherworld from my bar wife across the room at Beer Belly’s in West Elizabeth, Pa.

 
Given a U.S. copyright in 2009, one Jack Jones of Spud Pickles offers this free app, which supposedly uses a “proprietary algorithm to analyze quantum flux,” his website indicates.

 
Ghost Radar Classic occasionally blurts out words it interprets from ghosts while using a variety of smart phone sensors, like those on traditional equipment ghosthunters use to detect sound, vibration and electromagnetic fields.

 
It’s been 15 minutes since I activated the radar this afternoon and I’m still sitting in a roomful of somewhat normal reporters void of paranormal activity around us.

 
But, as I earlier turned off Interstate 70 into Washington, Pa., alone in my Ford sedan, a few blips of red and blue appeared on the phone as signs of ghosts along with the words “find” and “George.”

 
“Who in the hell is George?” I asked myself. And then it dawned on me that the phone’s global positioning system might have given Ghost Radar a hint that I was entering a city named after President George Washington.

 
Hey, it’s a logical explanation from a nonbeliever in ghosts.

 
They also came out yesterday while I was alone again in my car, offering an assortment of words that made no immediate sense at all. 

 
Another 15 minutes have rolled by here at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., in a century-old building where any ghosthunter with credentials would surely expect to find paranormal activity. The ghosts still are not talking.

 
While an online poll at Spud Pickles indicates 75 percent of the people who use its radar apps believe they work, the company makes no promises.

 
What the readings mean and how they are interpreted are “up for debate,” the website states. “You be the judge.”

 
Now does anyone out there in the real world know where I can find a good app to direct me to the best India Pale Ale in town?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You served me well Box 12


 By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – Box 12 had become an old pal at my post office.

That address delivered both good and bad news and would remain loyal and dependable as years rolled into decades. It became the kind of best friend few would ever want to part with.

“It feels weird to give you this. I mean my family has been using that box for so long,” I said the other day while forever returning the key the Box 12 to the postmaster in my southwestern Pennsylvania village.

I’d carried that key again on my key ring after dad’s heart gave out in 2007 because mom was too weak to pick up her mail until she lost her life in May to cancer and emphysema. Losing that box gave me a sense of finality that was difficult to wrap my head around after having used it off and on for 50 years.

The former Webster Post Office in a tired old clapperboard was retired about 30 years ago, replaced by a tiny redbrick shell of a building without much personality. The old one had a wall of boxes, each opened with combination locks as if they were safes holding precious jewels.

It was where I sobbed privately in the sixth grade after opening a letter informing my parents that I was about to be transferred to another school, yanked away from long familiar classmates.

Later, it would bring gifts of free food samples delivered from big food corporations, thanking me for writing them to endorse their products. It was all part of a silly sibling rivalry to see who could generate the most mail and free stuff.

Box 12 would later deliver my college diploma because I hadn’t attended my winter commencement in 1978 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Four years later it’s emptiness would become a reminder that once again my unemployment check was late during a recession in which the national unemployment rate grew higher than it ever did under the one ushered in by President George Bush. The unemployment lines were even longer here as the region’s steel industry collapsed, but we didn’t have 24-hour television news then to constantly remind everyone how bad things were on Wall Street.

I depended on the post office to distribute my resumes, and then Box 12 to deliver the job rejection letters.

Saying goodbye to that box was symbolic of many changes. It reminded me about how little I have been making use of the post office now that bank statements arrive home via the Internet.

It’s become a time when I get most of my news from Twitter, where I learned this week a Google executive I follow there won’t be sending Christmas cards this year to help the environment.

Meanwhile, handing over that key also felt like the final gesture in accepting the fact that this has become the first holiday season without mom, and realizing new traditions should be created.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Glass luminaria


What you can do with a bit of imagination, a canning jar, watered-down Elmer's Glue, a paint brush, some tissue paper, scissors and a candle when you have too much time on your hands and the weather is nasty.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Mon City Renaissance Man

 
Plumbers advertise their wares on Main Street in Monongahela in a photo in the Taylor collection at the Monongahela Area Historical Society.

By Scott Beveridge

MONONGAHELA, Pa.  – William Playford Taylor could have been called the Renaissance Man of Monongahela a century ago, having been a dental surgeon, inventor, traveler, stage show producer and collector of everything.

And he wanted to make sure his legacy was remembered through 42 large scrapbooks he assembled over his lifetime in a fashion only he could have understood at the time.

“I thought I was a collector of useless things,” said Noel Sawyer, vice president of the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which owns the Taylor collection.

The books for years were rarely shown to the public for fear the pages would fall apart. That day has come as the paper holding the collection disintegrates while the society attempts to duplicate in a digital format the rare documents, which define the historic city through the eyes of its upper class.

“There was a lot of idle rich in Monongahela and they got around,” said Charles Talbert, a program director at the society. The local wealthy, he said, contributed to Taylor’s collection as people learned about what he was creating.

Taylor went as far as to clip and save mundane local newspaper advertisements, including one announcing the January 1919 showing at the Anton Theater in Monongahela of the movie “A Hoosier Romance,” starring Thomas Jefferson and Colleen Moore.

However, he also kept old photographs that are important to American history, including one of Benjamin Parkinson, whose uncle of the same name was indicted for high treason for his participation in the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 1700s. Beside the photo is a copy of a document signed May 3, 1797, by President George Washington pardoning the elder Parkinson for his role in the farmers’ revolt on a national tax on the whiskey they produced.

The rebellion was quelled in Monongahela in 1794 on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River where the Parkinsons once operated a ferry.

“It’s just like opening a time capsule,” Sawyer said of the books prepared between 1902 and 1954.

“This is like a pictorial history of everyone and everything that went on in Monongahela during that time,” added society President Susan Bowers.

Taylor was born in Washington County January 19, 1882, and went on to earn his degree to practice dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He married Delnorta Frye in 1903, and they had two children, Harold and Mary Virginia.

A few years after his marriage, U.S. Patent Office records indicate he invented a roller coaster powered by gravity. He also collected more than 20,000 advertising cards that came with packs of cigarettes or in cans of coffee, according to an old story in a Rotarian publication. Later in his lifetime he became a public speaker on the evidence he collected to support his belief of life on other planets.

“Something strange has invaded our atmosphere,” he was quoted as having said during a speech on flying saucers at the Charleroi American Legion.

Unfortunately, Talbert said, the books were not organized neatly and have no table of contents. Many of the photographs only carry a name, leaving the society questioning their connection to the local story.

Sawyer said he is considering placing copies of the photos in the storefront windows of the society’s museum at 230 W. Main St. beside a sign asking for help in identifying the people in the images. He said he also wants to offer Ringgold High School students extra credit for helping to copy and input the scrapbooks into a searchable computer database.

“What good are they sitting in a box?” Bowers said.

The society has expanded its museum hours. It is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.


Click here to see two more photos from the collection.

(This story first appeared in the Observer-Reporter  newspaper in Washington, Pa.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Polo trendsetters



MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Designers today for Abercrombie & Fitch of New York have nothing on those who came up with these uniforms worn by the Monongahela Roller Polo Team of 1907 in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Well that's the opinion of a volunteer at the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which houses this photo in its rare archives.

Meanwhile, take a look at an old photograph of the packet boat, "Columbia" docked along the Monongahela River in North Charleroi, Pa., on one of its runs between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W. Va.



These photos are part of the William Playford Taylor collection at the historical society. Click here to read a story about Taylor.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Ware potter

SCENERY HILL, Pa. – Artist Phil Schaltenbrand does some kooky things with clay, including this jug art sculpture in progress of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The retired California University of Pennsylvania professor is celebrating his 35th year in business as owner of Westerwald Pottery, a North Bethlehem Township, Pa., studio reproducing pottery hand-thrown in the early-American gray stoneware style once heavily manufactured along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania.

You can find out more about Phil in Sunday's edition of the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.

Until then, consider attending his book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Bradley's Book Outlet at 1368 Mall Run Road, Uniontown, Pa. He will be there promoting his third book, "Big Ware Turners."

Monday, November 29, 2010

One of Those Days



012009_Layoffs, originally uploaded by skuhll.

By Ryan Mooney


    It’s one of those days. 
    You know the ones. 
    A day when you wake up, shower and drink your coffee.  The day when you get dressed in your Tuesday’s best and drive the thirty minutes to work. A day where you’re supposed to sit behind a fifteen inch monitor typing up customer reports until your eyes are oozing out of your head,  but when you walk in the receptionist tells you that the boss would like to see you in his office.
    It’s also the day after you just signed your name on the line for your latest big purchase. 
    A new, used car. 
    A two thousand and something shiny red, bright door coupe. The insurance will be higher and it’s sporty and fast,  and the insurance will be higher.  It wasn’t cheap,  and still,  the insurance will be higher.
    Your boss,  he tells you to take a seat.  He’s a large man,  a Boss Hogg type. The type who buys his suits at the Men’s Big and Tall or the place where that guy guarantees you’ll love the way you look. 
    You know the place. 
    His elbows are propped on the desk,  his hands in a steeple.  It’s the pose of someone who’s thinking or has something important to say.  So,  you sit,  wearing your Tuesday’s best and you cross right leg over left,  adjusting your tie.  Then,  your boss,  he looks at you and releases the steeple.
    You bought gifts last week,  too. 
    It’s December. 
    Gifts for mom,  dad and sister.
    Gifts for your co-workers. 
    Gift’s for Boss Hogg. 
    The Christmas party,  it’s on Friday and the tie you bought Boss Hogg has little golf tees on it and you don’t know if he plays golf,  knows how to golf or even likes golf.  It was an impulse buy.
    You know the kind.
    Your boss,  he tells you about the bad economy and downsizing. Layoffs and personnel changes.  He tells you he empathizes with you and says he’s sorry.  You tell him you don’t understand.  You remind him you’ve been here longer than most.  Boss Hogg though,  he tells you he understands that you don’t understand.  He also tells you that most will be let go,  too.  Certain jobs will be replaced by computer programs and one of those jobs,  incidentally,  is yours.
    You have ten thousand five-hundred dollars,  probably more,  worth of student loans to pay off.  Student loans for four years of schooling to land you the job which,  in turn,  has landed you in the large leather chair across from your boss.  Cell phone bill,  car payments,  groceries,  Christmas gifts,  gas and the list goes on.  Expenses that need paid and your bank account,  it reads damn near empty.
    It’s the day where you scour the office for cardboard boxes.  Jean and Joe and Jamie each give you one and they ask questions.  They want answers. 
    What happened? 
    Why’d they let you go? 
    Will they let me go? 
    And all you can do is smile,  packing your stuff into their boxes.
    Packing your shit,  they ask.
    No, packing my stuff,  you say.
    Pictures,  photo copies,  positive affirmations pinned to the inside of your cubicle and snow globes.  It’s your globe.
    Take it. 
    The coffee mug with the picture of your dead German Sheppard is also yours.      Take it. 
    You even think about folding up the cubicle and taking it too,  but you know it won’t fit in the back of your new,  used shiny coupe.
     Should have bought an SUV,  you think.
    Rollo.
    That’s what you named him.  Rollo and you taking walks through the neighborhood.  You and Rollo playing Frisbee in the park.  Then one day Rollo got old and Frisbee was out of the question.  Rollo,  he got even older and walks through the neighborhood were out of the question.  Rollo,  he goes blind and walks into walls.  Then,  Rollo is being put to sleep by injection from some random veterinarian and it was sometime between Frisbee and the injection that you took the picture of him,  immortalized on the mug. 
    Then,  you put the mug into the box and Jean,  she picks up one of the printed affirmations and reads it aloud. 
    You must do the thing you think you cannot do. 
    She asks who wrote it and you don’t remember.
    You walk through a maze of cubicles with their boxes holding your stuff between your arms. 
    Mark,  Maddie and Melinda watch. 
    Adam,  Anabell and Addison wave goodbye. 
    Frank,  Fran and Fred wish you the best and you keep walking,  a faux smile plastered across your face.  You smile because they are part of the most and only you know that soon they’ll be making the same march down the same hallway to the same elevator.  They’ll have their stuff,  which to you is shit,  packed into someone else’s boxes underneath their arms.
    Doug,  Dean and Dina. 
    They want to know what happened. 
    They ask one,  two,  three too many questions and you keep walking.  Walking down the long hallway to the same elevator where it’ll drop you four floors to the main lobby.
    In the lobby,  Marcus the security guard mumbles something incoherent and you just nod. 
    Marcus,  who smokes too many cigarettes. 
    Marcus,  who calls cabs and limos and calls you when your General Tso’s arrives from the Chinese restaurant. 
    Marcus,  who says goodbye then picks up the ringing phone and you hear him say, Yes sir.  He’s leaving the building now,  and you know that of all the people employed here,  Marcus will keep his job. 
    Marcus with his GED and no loans,  he gets to stay.
     Marcus,  who gets paid hourly,  not salary,  will stay and he’ll still call for cabs and limos and General Tso’s.  You realize then,  that you’ve wasted four years and a butt load of money.  And you realize,  too,  that you hate Marcus for being so stupid that he’s actually smarter than you.
    You pack their boxes of your stuff into the backseat of your red sporty coupe with the too high insurance. 
    You know the one.
    Just yesterday you were so proud of your sporty car.  Jean,  Dean,  Marcus and everyone had commented on it. 
    Look at that , they said,  what a beautiful car, and they  put their hands around their face,  onto the glass,  peering through the windows.
    Someone asked about the gas mileage. 
    Someone else asked about the stereo system.
     And someone else asked if they could drive it.
    At home you leave your stuff in their boxes in the backseat of your coupe.  You open the front door and it still smells like dog.
    Rollo’s food dish, it still sits in the kitchen,  half full with Kibbles and Bits.  Rollo’s water bowl,  it’s still full of water.  And Rollo’s leash still hangs on the hook by the door, but you,  you’re all alone.

***

    Later that night you‘re hungry. 
    Pizza. 
    You want pizza,  but not just any pizza. 
    DiGiorno’s pizza. 
    You know the one. 
    The one that’s so good you’ll think it’s delivery. 
    Those yellow caution signs are posted in the frozen food aisle. 
    Wet floor. 
    And you walk,  past frozen peas,  waffles and T.V. dinners.  You make your way past ice cream and frozen entrees.  Then,  there,  behind three doors is the pizza. 
    Four cheese,  pepperoni,  vegetable and sausage. 
    There,  behind those doors,  is supreme and meat lovers. And there,  in the glass you see the reflection of those yellow caution signs. 
    Caution,  they say. 
    Achtung,  they read in German.
    And they’re donned with a picture of a little man slipping and falling and you look around. 
    You look up. 
    You see no cameras. 
    You think of the possibilities.
   
***

    The next night you go to the same grocery store and you’ve filled an empty bottle of honey with water. 
    You know the one. 
    The bottle shaped like a bear,  like Poo Bear.  You walk to an empty aisle and you take Poo Bear from your pocket,  squeezing a small puddle onto the floor.
    You walk to the next aisle,  picking out a box of croutons for a salad you’ll never eat. 
    Baco-Bits and Italian dressing. A green pepper and onion. 
    Then,  you walk around the corner,  the puddle waiting. 
    One step.
    Two steps.
    Three steps and…

***

    The store agrees to a large,  out of court settlement. Your student loans will be paid off. 
    The shiny,  red sports coupe,  it’ll be paid off. 
    Rent for the next six months,  that’ll get paid too. 
    You even think about buying a new cell phone. 
    Maybe an iPhone. 
    You consider an Android.
    The next day is Friday and you know every one at the office is exchanging gifts so you take Boss Hogg’s tie with the golf tees on it back to the store and exchange it for the cash you paid for it. 
    You know the one.
    You return the gifts you bought Dean and Jean.  Return the gifts for Maddie and Jamie. 
    You buy the Android. 
    Merry Christmas.

***

    It’s one of those days. 
    You know the one. 
    The one when your new cell phone rings while you’re eating the store’s complimentary salad and when you answer the man on the other end says something about being a lawyer.
    It’s the day when you’re going through your stuff in their boxes and he says something about the slip and fall. 
    You know the one.
    He says something about a cell phone video and he says lawsuit.
    And you know…
    It’s going to be one of those days.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Milky Way pecan pie


By Scott Beveridge

BELLE VERNON, Pa. – You can thank my new Droid X by Motorola for this especially rich pecan pie for Thanksgiving dessert.

I turned to the smart phone after realizing yesterday in the syrup section at the local Shop 'n Save that it was out of dark Karo. It was about 2 p.m. The store clerk said to come back after 5 p.m. when a new shipment was due.

As if I was going to make a second trip there on a busy shopping day, especially because motorists outside in the parking lot had been driving as if their heads were under their car seats when I arrived. I mean I witnessed some old guy nearly back over a man walking to his car after a woman nearly crashed into my Ford as she stupidly crisscrossed around traffic.

The recipe in my hand never seemed to produce a pie that tasted right, either, no matter how many times I tweaked it before giving it a rest about 5 years ago. Then I remembered having once seen a pecan pie recipe calling for molasses after noticing a few bottles of that dark stuff on the same store shelf.

So I pulled out the Droid, hopped on the web, found one at SimplyRecipes.com and decided to make it my own by adding and dropping some ingredients for the pie, shown in the photo, above. The killer ingredient would be the Milky Way Simply Caramel Bar. The recipe follows:

8 oz of pecans, chopped
1 cup of light corn syrup
1 Tbsp molasses
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1.91 oz Milky Way Simply Caramel bar, cut into small chunks

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Form one pie shell into a 9 inch pie dish. Layer the bottom with the pecans and candy bar pieces. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl by hand, and then pour the mixture over the pecans. Bake 40-45 minutes, making sure to tent the crust edges with aluminum foil after 20 minutes of baking.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The village of Webster before steel killed its dreams


WEBSTER, Pa. – Few people in my hometown of Webster, Pa., could relate to stories told by local old timers about their memories of the village when it was beautiful before America's Industrial Revolution turned it into an environmental disaster zone.

Well the photograph, above, recently discovered at the nearby Donora Historical Society has finally vindicated those folks who remembered the small southwestern Pennsylvania village along the Monongahela River in its heyday. Their memories were drawn from an era predating the strength of US Steel, which, in 1901, expanded a sprawling steel mill and later built zinc smelters across the Mon in Donora, creating pollution that killed most of the vegetation in Webster and contributed to the infamous smog of 1948.

The photo was taken when residents of the village had planted lush gardens behind clean picket fences, as well as a new Presbyterian church next to a Victorian apartment building. They had big dreams and houses by the river where their children could walk to its shores for a swim. Tree shade was abundant.

Click here to view a larger version of the photo. Click here to read a story written in 1908 by a Webster woman about the history of the town.

(Allow me a day or two to take a photo from a similar vantage point of how things look here today)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A keepsake calendar of the old Mon


CALIFORNIA, Pa. – Nowhere in the Monongahela River Valley is there a more-beautiful vista than from High Point, which overlooks the small southwestern Pennsylvania towns of California and Newell.

It's no wonder the California Area Historical Society chose the old photo, above, to the promote sales of its 2011 calendar. The 19th century image shows half of a horseshoe bend on the Mon, when its hillsides were dominated by farms, and two steamboats provided a hint of what would become of America's Industrial Revolution that forever changed Pittsburgh-area riverbanks.

The calendar features a dozen other frame-worthy photos, including: a saw mill along Lilley Run; coal miners' houses in nearby Daisytown; and Lewis Morgan's first general store in California.

The fundraiser supports the society's museum and genealogy center in an historic house at 429 Wood St. For information, call 724-938-3250.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A display of faith

A visitor pauses before a reproduction of Michelangelo's 1499 Pieta on display at Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center, Pittsburgh (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Artists debated for 20 minutes about how to cast a plaster mold of Pope John Paul II’s hand without dirtying it before his death.
 
They discussed slipping a thin plastic or light cotton glove over his right hand before slipping it into wet plaster until the pope intervened, said Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli, curator of the “Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art” traveling exhibit at Sen. John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh.

“He said, ‘I might be old, but I still know how to wash my hands by myself,’” said Zagnoli, who also is Vatican curator. 

The October 2002 bronze cast of the pope’s hand is one of the most special artifacts in the display, Zagnoli said, and the last thing visitors see after touring the exhibit of items collected over the centuries by Roman Catholic popes. It’s also the only artifact visitors are permitted to touch among the more than 270 rare works of art and other objects in the exhibit.

The collection, which includes the works of Michelangelo, Bernini and Guercino, is designed to tell the story of Christianity, faith and Jesus over the past 2,000 years. Also on display is a shrine containing the remains of Saints Peter and Paul that has never before left the Vatican.

“I think people will be making pilgrimages here over the holiday season,” said Andy Masich, president and chief executive officer of the History Center.

The tour begins at a walkway to the “tomb of St. Peter,” where objects are displayed that were left behind at his burial site in Rome. The ancient basilica would later be built around the tomb.

“The shrine soon became a place of public worship,” said the Rev. Charles Hilken of St. Mary’s College of California, Moraga, Calif.

Also on display is a crude sixth-or seventh-century reproduction of a gold votive plaque bearing a cross and two large eyes that had been placed on the tomb. Nearby is a cast of a sarcophagus sculpture of Mary holding her child to be venerated by the Wise Men of the East bearing gifts.

“The Roman style of art becomes Christian,” said Hilken, while leading a group of writers through the exhibit before it opened.

A mosaic of St. Peter dating to about 700 hangs from an opposing wall, showing him in the Byzantine style of art with a white beard and hair. He also is depicted with three fingers raised to symbolize the Trinity, Hilken said.

The mood switches to about 1506, when the church began construction of the new basilica, of which Michelangelo was among the architects involved in the building of the shrine over the course of a century.

The focal point here is an exact replica of the artist’s Pieta, a sculpture completed in 1499 showing Mary at the same age as her son, Jesus, when his body was lowered from a cross into her arms.

“It’s the only piece Michelangelo signed,” Hilken said.

The exhibit also includes art showing Christ as Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese as the popes’ taste for art evolved and the church expanded across the globe in the 13th century.

Further ahead is a room lined with large paintings of various popes completed in the 20th century by unidentified Franciscan nuns.

Around the corner Pope John Paul’s portrait hangs above the display of the cast of his right hand, extended as if about to shake the hands of visitors. 

The exhibit at 1212 Smallman St. is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Jan. 9. The exhibit will be closed Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day, and open New Year’s Day.

A crude 6th or 7th century reproduction of a gold votive plaque bearing a cross and two large human eyes that had been placed on the tomb of St. Peter.

(This article first appeared in Living Washington County Nov./Dec. 2010 issue, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The search for US Colored Troops' graves

Jeff Burton of Rankin, Pa., dressed as a Union Army officer from Pittsburgh, goes in search today of the forgotten graves of black men who served in the Civil War and were buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Please scroll down to watch a short video of a re-enactment by the Soldiers and Sailors Museum Drum an Bugle Corps. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Many children of America's Southern slaves were born free blacks before the Civil War, and surprisingly, some grew to volunteer on the side of the Confederacy, a Pittsburgh historian said today.

Those men needed to protect their jobs in a slave-dependent economy as blacksmiths, carpenters, miners and boatmen when the war to end slavery broke out in 1861, said John Brewer, a member of Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center's black advisory council.

"The Confederate negro served on the other side of the mountain," Brewer said at a service to find and honor the graves in historic Allegheny Cemetery of black veterans who served in the war between the states.

It was a dilemma faced by those southern blacks because their "whole world turned upside down" and they needed to make choices for self preservation, Brewer said.


It's possible a number of them relocated to Pittsburgh after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. No doubt some of those black men were also buried in since-forgotten graves in this, the sixth oldest rural cemetery in the United States.


The history center joined with local black veterans groups in a wreath-laying ceremony in the 166-year-old cemetery as part of Pennsylvania-wide efforts to mark the 150th anniversary of the state's role in the war.


Many famous people also were buried in this cemetery once visited by President Ulysses S. Grant, who sat among the Civil War graves and wept, said Andy Masich, the history center's president and chief executive officer.


Industrialists and many Pittsburgh mayors were buried here, as was the godfather of pop music otherwise known as Stephen Foster.


But, the time has come to "honor the forgotten people" who were buried here," Masich said.

This event grew out of efforts by the history center and Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development and Quest For Freedom project to hold a series of ceremonies over the next four years to mark the war's anniversary, he said.


"The unrecognized role of African American soldiers during the war is an important thing for us to remember," Masich added.


Major Martin Delany was the best-known black veteran of the Civil War to have been buried in the cemetery. Delany was superintendent of the Underground Railroad's western route through Pittsburgh to Canada, and the highest ranking black officer in the war, said Jeff Burton of Rankin, who portrayed the veteran at the service.

It was a challenge for volunteers at the event to locate and mark the 132 graves of known black Civil War veterans who were buried there because so many names had been smoothed over on the small, flat tombstones, Burton said.


While this cemetery at 4734 Butler St. has been well maintained, nearly 100,000 other unmarked, abandoned burial grounds holding the graves of black Civil War veterans have been documented in the United States, said Marlene Bransom of Greene County, a member of the African American Genealogical Society.


Bransom urged members of the small crowed gathered before the massive stone 1937 war memorial overlooking the veterans' graves to get involved in efforts to locate such lost graves to preserve black heritage.


"As historians and preservationists we must not allow this to continue ... so they will know who, what and where we came from," she said. 

 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Greeting her admirers on Veterans Day


May Brock, a member of the American Gold Star Mothers, appears today in the Washington County Veterans Day parade in Charleroi, Pa. (Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter)

By Scott Beveridge

CHARLEROI, Pa. – May Brock looks a bit like a star of the silver screen as she rides today in a pickup truck bed in the Washington County Veterans Day parade.

Brock's gold-trimmed hat, long white hair, white pant suit, matching gloves and shoes and big dark sunglasses give her the look of an actress. However, she earns her star status for something that is far from glamerous.

The 88-year-old Washington, Pa., woman is featured in the Charleroi parade because her son, Glenn Smith, died in the Korean War. She belongs to the American Gold Star Mothers organization, whose members lost sons or daughters in battle and appear around the country wearing white at memorial events.

Brock brought with her a small plastic replica of Mount Rushmore mounted on an old metal high chair.

"What is that?" I ask between attempts to take her photo for the Observer-Reporter newspaper on a beautiful autumn day as the sun casts long shadows.

"Look," she says, before pressing a red button at the base of the toy, prompting it to play a patriotic song, the melody of which is drowned out by people loudly cheering her along the parade route on McKean Avenue.

"I think they like you," I say.

"I think they do," she replies, wearing a broad smile. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Welcome home


Phone Box, originally uploaded by [Nocturne]. 

By Ryan Mooney

The phone rings. 
Once.
Twice.
No answer.
Still nothing on the third and I begin to feel the panic rise through my stomach into my throat. It rings a fourth time and the knot swells. Shit, she’s not home, I’m thinking, then…
“Hello,” she says.  Two syllables, so simple, so real, so American.  My knees buckle, I catch myself. 
“Hey baby,” I say.
With each step the sidewalk, it lengthens and a few hundred feet feels like a few million miles.
“Hey you! How are you?” the tenor, the love, it resonates through my heart, shaking me to my very foundation.
“I’m good.  It’s hotter than hell here, though," my voice cracks like puberty,  "and I miss you.”
“I miss you too,"  she says,  " What time is it there?”  It’s beyond cute how she always asks this.
“It’s O’ three hundred hours.”
“Three O’clock,"  I can feel the dam holding me back beginning to crack, the river beginning to brim,  "Ha! I’m getting good!”  she says.
I laugh,  almost cry at this,  thinking,  Jesus, I am so crazy in love with you.
“How’s my baby doing?”  I ask taking the first step onto the porch.
“Great. I saw there was heavy fighting in Pakistan. Are you still stationed there?”
The front door is larger than I remember. A dark stained oak with a flowered wreath hanging from a nail.  This wasn’t here two years ago.
Step two onto the porch.
 I notice the faded paint;  chipped away from two years of weather and I find it unbelievably refreshing.
“No. Amer-,"  I slip up,  waiting for her to recognize the waver in my voice,  "-Afghanistan. It’s North of Pakistan.”  My heart is drumming loud in my ears.  I swear a boxer is in there trying to uppercut his way out.
“Oh good”,  she says,  “I was worried.”
Step three.
I pull a small velvet box from my pocket, open it and a small rainbow casts itself across the siding of the house.
“It’s ok,”  I say,  “Nothing to worry about.”  Looking at the diamond, the spectrum fractured into millions of pieces colors the drab browns and tans of my fatigues,  I forget that the door I'm standing in front of is part of my home.
I pick a weed from between the cracks of the porch;  American soil, so beautiful, so free.  Nostalgia coursing through me like a broken faucet.
I ring the doorbell.
“Oh shit.  Someone’s at the door.” she tells me, unaware.
The heavy drumming,  it continues and I’m dizzy with nerves. Trembling, my vision blurs and a wetness forms in the corners of my eyes.
An eternity.
I lower myself.  The reflection in the storm door reveals a man with fuzz covering his face, blue eyes set against a faux-vacation tan and all I can think is, I really should have shaved.
An eon.
This is how long it feels before the door...
It swings open.
I’m on one knee.
Car bombs, land mines, gunfire. The total and utter silence of walking into an abandoned building, weapons trained on nothing, eyes focused on everything and brain expecting anything, is nothing compared to the nerves surging through me right now.
And then, she’s there.
My porch, my house, my yard, my country;  it's all miniscule compared to her brilliance.
The phone drops.  Plastic and wire scatter into the foyer.
The box drops.  Velvet and diamond scatter across the porch.
 American flags, Crackerjacks and Ford's.  Apple pie and baseball.
American.
Standing just beyond the storm door she’s wearing an old shirt of mine.  It’s too big and lazy on her, but it doesn’t matter.  Her brown hair is now a fake red.  And it, too,  doesn’t matter. 
I gasp and forget what I’m about to say.  It still doesn’t matter though, because look at her.  Jesus, take a good, hard look at her.
She's gorgeous. 
She is my Americana.
I remember.
“Will you marry me?”  I ask.
A smile.
A tear.  A flow of tears.
She gasps.
“Oh my God!” she exclaims, throwing open the door, “yes!”
I faint.
Welcome home...