Monday, April 11, 2011

Oops I did it, the end

Some of you may have caught my last post on this blog.  It was here for a minute and then gone the next.  If you caught it, good.  If you didn't, good.

All I'm going to say here is that if you enjoyed reading any of my spasms, you may want to take a look at the new blog, "Pittsburgh Sermons". 

Most of what you'll see is not about Smock, but more the rantings and ravings of that same Smock kid who wishes that he could live life over again in that tiny town.  But since I'm not a fugitive from justice, I'll just have to visit in my dreams.  The new blog is sermons.  Meanderings from my tiny brain on things that I usually wish were different.  So go ahead and check it out.  Just turn the lights out when you're done.  We don't work for West Penn Power.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Fond Farewell and update

So it's been a good run, this little blog. And since my last "spasm", I must tell you that I think that I've told you pretty much all that there is to say about my little town of Smock, Pennsylvania.

But instead of saying goodbye and slamming the door, I'll tell you a few more things before I go.

Just this week, a friend and neighbor, Rich Constantine passed away from a personal invasion of cancer, the equal opportunity destroyer. I really never got to know Rich personally but every time I spoke to him, he always had time to speak back. That was a quality that Rich and so many others in Smock had. I'll miss him.

My old friend John Hovanic, whom I've spoken about so many times, is starting to, well..., fade. Age is catching up with him as it is with all of us. I don't even think that John dug a garden this year. And that's serious news. I'm glad his kids are well and able to look after him. And if you're traveling down Route 51 South and you've just passed the I-70 intersection, look to your right for Grille 51. That's Dorothy Hovanic's lovely restaurant. It has a bar made of poured concrete and there's something to be said for that. And Dorothy.

I couldn't say goodbye without mentioning my dear friend Marian Senker. She and I are the same age. Her Mom, Mary, is hanging in as best she can but she, like John (they are related) is fading a bit too. You may remember the news of a daughter stabbing her Mother in the heart about 2 years ago who lived in Smock. The victim was Marian's sister Theresa. Despite that, Marian goes to visit her niece every week at prison. There's a life lesson to learn there.

Two months ago, I was asked to speak at the Smock Reunion. I declined. I initially was asked how long of a talk I would give. I answered "maybe 10-15 minutes." I was then asked if I could make it 5 minutes. When asked why, I was told that no one will listen beyond 5 minutes because they will want to be talking and catching up on the news from their friends. When I said that I would probably hold their attention, I was told "I don't think you can". I then politely said "no thanks". Some might say "typical" and I would agree. The only time that the people of Smock allowed themselves to be lectured to was on Sunday mornings, and this was on a Saturday night.

So what's left? The church now only has Mass about 2 times a week. The old bathhouse from the Smock Colonial #1 mine still stands, and for many years, became the Franklin Rod & Gun Club. Granted, you could sight in that .243 or 30-ought-six hunting rifle, but you could also get a drink on Sunday, which was its main popularity. The ball diamond is still there, one of the only really "FLAT" ball diamonds in the area. The Colonial School is now the Volunteer Fire Department. And, if you look close, there are still remnants of some of the old outhouses and coal shantys.

But if you listen really hard, you can still hear....nothing. That blessed silence that is only punctuated by the occasional automobile, bird, or wind. And if you're like me and you've lived there once upon a time, you can hear Mr. Florek pop the clutch as he rounded the top of the street where I used to live. And you can hear Mrs. Dubos almost constantly calling for one or more of her 9 children, all living in HALF of a Smock company house. The Angelus still rings at noon and 6:00 PM but Kuba doesn't pull the rope on the single bell which has been replaced by a loudspeaker.

It is simply not the same, no matter how hard I close my eyes and try to resist the changes.

As Eleanor Vrabec once wrote in a high school essay, climbing the hill from Route 51 was like taking a trip to Heaven. All of the craziness would fade away and be replaced with the radio sounds of The Johnny Sims' Polka Party.

But that's all gone now. Smock has changed, but I fervently pray to Almighty God that I haven't.

So please, would the last person out please turn off the lights? We don't work for West Penn Power.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Remembering William Flanagan

When I was a lad of 10 years old, William Flanagan died. (That's not his picture over there on the left, but he probably looked like himself) When I looked at him lying there in his coffin which was placed in the living room of his home, he looked like he was a thousand years old. OK, a YOUNG thousand years old.

And, thanks to Bill Flanagan (I hope you don't mind me calling you "Bill"), I was able to get a half day off from school. You see, I went to first and second grade in the school three doors up from St. Hedwig's Church and right across the street from John Hovanic's home. Younger people would know this place today as the Parish Center, a place to go to catechism and summer school. Mrs. Butler was my first grade teacher and Mrs. Diehl taught me in second grade.

Third grade saw me become a first class commuter so I rode the bus to Keisterville (no, I'm not kidding about the town's name) and sat in Mrs. Sanner's class. I loved third grade because I got to sit next to Connie Hoyock, my first love. (It was unrequited). But Mrs. Sanner used to take us out for nature walks and since I spent most of my time outside anyway, it felt good to "take the air" with my class.

Fourth grade caused me to commute even further to the Menallen Elementary School which was on Route 40. The cool thing there was that this school was BRAND NEW. My teacher, Mrs. Eleanor McMaster, wasn't so brand new. I remember her husband Eugene used to work at the Company Store in Smock. The one funny thing was that Mrs. McMaster used to pronounce the word "food" differently. The way she pronounced it made it rhyme with "good" or "hood".

William Flanagan died and needed to be buried and so he needed a priest AND he needed some altar boys. That's where John Michael Hovanic and I came in. The funeral Mass at St. Hedwig's was at around 9:00 AM and so we needed to not go to school. At that time, I wish that all of the old people died, once a week, and on a Monday. And if anyone who reads this knew of Bill Flanagan or his relatives, please tell them thanks. It really made my day in so many ways.

First, there was the trip to Mr. Flanagan's home. He lived on "the other side" as we Smock Hill natives would call it, up by the other Smock school. I never attended this since the Redstone Creek was the dividing line between Smock Hill and the "other" side. It also divided Franklin Township from Menallen Township. So we go into Bill's home and there he is. All decked out in a suit he probably never wore with those two floor lamps on either side of the casket. You know, the ones with the glass lamp shade that was pink at the top and got redder as it got closer to the bulb. I never knew until much later that these lamps were owned by the Haky Funeral Home to make the dead seem more "lifelike". I thought that it just made Bill look pinker. But to get to Bill's home, we rode in Father Oris's behemoth of an Oldsmobile 98. We were both scared to ride in the front so we rode in the back. That car was so big that I could stretch out my legs and not touch the back of the front seat!!!

Then there was the Mass, and then off to some cemetery but not St. Hedwig's. It was some other place. Then, because the Irish followed the funeral customs of other European cultures, we went back to old Bill Flanagan's house where we ate like pigs. And on top of this, we were each given.....oh my......wait for it.........FIVE dollars. I said to myself that more people have to start dying around here.

I don't know what made me remember William Flanagan through the years. Whether it was the fact that he wasn't a "Hunky" or the fact that his family really put on the "feed bag" that day? Or maybe it was the money? Or the fact that I missed a half day of school without being sick?

But to this very day, at every Mass I attend, when the lector says during the petitions to remember those who have died or when the priest says "Lord, remember those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith...", I always remember William Flanagan. And I cannot tell you why.

I just know that Bill had to die in order for me to remember him. And now, I hope you remember him too. And everyone who made my little town so unforgettable.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Inside Influences

Some time ago, I had written about the influences that surrounded the children of Smock, PA and called it "Outside Influences". This is not a repeat of that but rather, a look on what is created on the inside by living in a tiny coal mining village.

Each year when Memorial Day comes around, I tend to be nostalgic about the men and women who went to war that lived in Smock. When I was a kid, the wars that our neighbors fought in were World War I, II, and Korea. Things were different then and those that fought and survived did not complain about why no one recognized their efforts or understood their "battle fatigue" or "shell shock". They just endured without complaining like my dear and beloved grandfather, Andy Ponzurick. Sure, the old campaign hat of World War I sat on the back porch shelf right next to his boater, that straw hat with the wide circular brim and the 2 inch black hatband with the red stripe. Oh sure, your grandpap had one too.

But it was that inner peace that he had which confounded my senses. How could he have gone through so much without one war story or one complaint? He never blamed anyone or anything. He didn't even use the Veteran's Administration Health System. And yes, your grandfathers did the same. You need not remind me. They were just like Andy.

Was it faith in God or faith in Iron City that helped him cope? Or during his one week per month trips to Bortz's Tavern, was it his chance to talk with people of similar experiences? We all know that some of the horrors of the coal mine were almost as dangerous as Peleliu or Belleau Wood. We all knew the bitterness of the joke that went "Widow Brown?" "What, I ain't no widow." "The hell you ain't." Some families saw their dead fathers and grandfathers transported to their homes in a wheelbarrow. Some heard about the deadly fires and rigging that took lives in Clairton.

But why were we so calm about it all?

I think I know why. It is in our genes. It was passed to us from our grandparents both genetically and by example. We did not shirk away from adversity. We never turned our back on hardship. Some of us thought that hardship was God-given. Some of us thought it came from H.C. Frick or George Westinghouse. But wherever it came from, we shouldered it like a roof timber or Number 2 shovel and went on.

Dear reader, do you realize the legacy that our families handed down to us? That beautiful but stiff upper lip that never quivered when the doctor emerged from a room and said "I'm sorry". We have a legacy that we absolutely must pass on to our children. We WERE as tough as nails. Some of us still are. Some of us should remember and get, as the military states, "squared away". But we cannot let 2010 catch up to us.

Back in the Smock of the 1950's, many people, even as close as Uniontown, used to say that Smock was 20 years behind (or "behint") the times. To my ears back then, that was both good and bad news. Today, it is the best compliment I could hear.

I firmly believe that strength comes from two places; inner strength that we develop as children watching our parents cope with adversity which is sometimes translated to you and me, and the strength that comes from the conversion of knowledge to wisdom. This comes from watching life unfold around us and our reactions to it.

So who are the lucky people that "get it"? Get the opportunity to be born in a small coal town and you get it almost automatically. You don't need to steal when you can work for something you want. You don't need to cheat when your wife or husband shares the same simple ideals as you. You don't need to be jealous. The person across the street probably works at the same place you do. And the government doesn't "owe" you anything. YOU owe the government for taking in your grandparents when they came here from Slovakia or Poland or Hungary. And you know it.

The inside influences that you were born with are still there, nurtured by the experiences from your parents that you had as a child.

When you made a phone call, it had to be local or you just didn't do it. And, the phone was bolted to the wall and had a dial. Nothing in your house needed recharging. And if you wanted a car, Mom and Dad said "Sure, now just go out and earn the money to buy one." It was simple. When we were kids, we worried if we'd have someone to take to the senior prom. Today, the only worry is what color limousine that is going to be rented.

Do you see the differences? Nowadays, many Smock people are "foreigners". Not from other countries but from other lifestyles. Lifestyles that were literally unheard of when we were kids.

So, call me a nostalgic old man who yearns for the past and sometimes lives life back there. That's fine. But if you come to my door and knock, you won't be welcomed by the long barrel of a shotgun, but by someone who is going to ask "what can I do for you?"

We have to hang on to those inside influences. We simply must.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Know your station

Its just funny how things change. And for those of us who still have the coal dust on our shoes, we know that when change comes, it isn't always the best. Not that we all feel that we should lead a life of oppression or dismay, but we do come from a place where complaints usually follow with a "be glad you got what you got and shut up". It's that simple.

I have this friend who works in a very responsible position. And his work is seen by millions of sets of eyes. Thanks to a stern and straight upbringing, he has a work ethic that is seen as normal in our little town, but is far from it when you move just 50 miles away from the "Smock 1" sign on Route 51. We were taught to be the best that we could possibly be. Our parents tried to instill this in us so that we didn't end up like them. I don't have to tell you this because readers of this blog know it. Our fathers and mothers weren't rocket scientists nor did any of them work in the White House. They were simple and proud people that wanted something better for us. You can't blame them for that.

Today, I can see changes that have happened for me, my friend, and others that I know. And despite our efforts, we do not always get the reward we're searching for. Instead, we are looked upon as those who try but will never "rise" to the top like those who view us have. The sad truth is that if those who are viewing us look around, they will find that they are looking up and not down at us.

And so, where do we go from here? Sadly for many, we maintain our station in life and do the best we can without reward or recognition. But our parents did not teach us to be recognized or how to handle accolades. We were taught to accept who we are and where we came from. And if that's not enough, well, too bad.

But revisiting that place so many times, I have personally come to know that this is not where we must always stay. By sheer perseverance combined with a good attitude toward work, family and others, we will eventually rise above those who think that footprints all over our clothing is normal. It is not.

Spring is here and Summer fast approaches, my favorite time of the year. And with the passing of each day, the sun stays up in the sky just a minute or two longer. What this should tell the casual observer who was born and raised in our little town of Smock is that we should never be happy with the status quo. We will work and break our backs to be better than the next person. We saw our fathers do that in the mines and the steel mills. And now that brilliant attitude lives inside every person who has the coal dust on their clothes. Spring is a time for renewal.

My prayers go out to the families of the miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. And also, we should remember the families of the miners who were NOT involved in this accident. They know the reality of the dangers down deep in the mine. They are the ones who will rise up in the morning and go back to the pit, despite the new graves that have resulted from that very workplace just a few weeks ago.

They know their station. And they will go back. Just like me and my friend who feel that sometimes life simply isn't fair.

What will we do? We lace up the boots and put on the pit belt and we go to work. Mom and Dad would be proud.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bob is happy

There is this friend of mine named Guy. And over the course of about 5 years, I have watched him evolve into a most excellent husband, father, and friend. I remember that he used to have an e-mail address that read "Guy is happy". When I first met him, he was happy, but not to the expectation of the e-mail address. He was a somewhat happy man but today, he's a shining example of those three words that describe him to others.

Back in Smock, I remember that when our parish priest used to go on his annual vacation, we'd get this guy from St. Mary's in Uniontown named Father Drab. Yep, I'm not kidding. And Father Drab lived up to his name in many ways. The clearest example I recall is when, at the Preface in the Mass, he'd turn to the people (this was when the altar was against the back wall of the sanctuary) and say in his middle-European voice "De Lard be wit choo". English has just taken over from the Latin but it hadn't quite taken over Father Drab. Then he'd say "Leeft up yore hearts" in the most somber, dour tones imaginable. Like as if someone just ran over his dog. SO sad. And even as a kid, I used to think HEY, isn't "Leeft up yore hearts" supposed to mean "be HAPPY????"

One of my friends totally insisted that Jesus never smiled. He would have bet his life on that. And when I'd ask him if what we may be eating was good, he'd always answer "It's all right". WHAT? Commit!!! Be more emphatic. Say it like you mean it. But I was one of the few people in Smock that could make him smile. Or laugh out loud. I usually had to do something stupid, but he'd laugh until he lost his breath. And that WAS great.

I often wondered what Johnny Sims, who would broadcast the Polka Party from Latrobe, used to mean when he'd say "Happy music for happy people" when everyone around me acted in some ways like they were just handed their airline ticket to hell.

Legend has it that after the great flood, Noah's relatives scattered to the far corners of the Earth. And God (Bo'je) asked each of them what they wanted, which was granted to them. When they got to the Slovak people, God said that he ran out of "stuff" and said "I'll give you a language that when spoken, will sound like a song and a place to live in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains." I would have said "HEY, where's the holupki and the happy music for happy people?" which would have guaranteed me a First Class ticket on that airplane to hell.

Those of you that know me also know that times have been more than "interesting" in a rather negative way. But thanks to God's timing and intervention, things actually appear to be changing, which is what boys and girls from Smock pray for. My changes are coming through knowing someone named Debbie who hails from exotic Steubenville, Ohio. And the changes haven't gotten me a job, but they have allowed me to better understand my station in life and what absolute bliss may be in store.

So to the children of Smock, do not be dismayed. There is hope, but you may have to wait 60 years to find it. But when you do, life will be so much sweeter. Johnny Sims' will not have any static or interference on the radio, every day will be like Sunday after the Forty Hours we had in May at St. Hedwig's, and God's graces will literally overwhelm you. For THAT is the gift that is reserved for those little urchins that roamed the streets in Smock so long ago. That's your reward because you're minds aren't cluttered with great piles of garbage. Father Drab used to say "Wait...your reward is coming." Well, mine just pulled up driving a grey Ford Windstar.

Leeft up yore hearts? Absolutely.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why aren't we all in jail??

So you had a rough upbringing? Got hit with the "korbatch" one too many times? Too many trips to the woodshed or the basement? Oh yeah, we've all been there and done that. Or have had it done to us.

We watched our parents disagree to the point where they needed armor to defend each other. Or how we watched the dog or cat go sailing over the back porch railing when they decided to "christen" the new living room carpet.

And kids are supposed to emulate their parents, right? They're supposed to be like Mom & Dad? So why aren't we in jail by now for crimes of spousal, child and animal abuse?

I'll tell you why. Reverse psychology. "If you take up smoking, I'll beat you to within an inch of your life", spoken by a concerned Mom with that Lucky Strike hanging from the corner of her mouth. Or, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it", spoken by a father after 5 rounds of a "beer and a bump" down at Bortz's. Do as I say and not as I do. But how do you STILL explain the "I wanna be just like my Old Man"?

Even in a child's tender and mixed up mind, we see things that impress us and we see things that scare the pants right off of us. We knew that our parish priest didn't need to be married to have kids to slap around. But we knew that if we went home and told Mom or Dad that Father Steve gave a little "size 12" discipline or that Mrs. Butler cracked us with a paddle, we'd get twice as much for just saying so.

So where's our own Easter Rebellion or Tea Party? Why haven't we gone back and beat the living daylights out of Mom, Dad, Father Steve, and Mrs. Butler? Why don't we we just snap when we've heard "Why can't you act like Piwowar's kids?" for the nine hundredth time?

Maybe there's a reverse psychology going on? We had front row seats to our own special brands of discipline. But we're missing the point. We WERE disciplined. We were threatened with death. OR WORSE. "You just wait until your Father comes home". A minor stay of execution.

In my own case, my parents did not set a good example. But they TAUGHT one. And those of you who are reading this can probably say the same, unless your name is Beaver Cleaver or you're one of those "Three Sons". Man, they had it good. Or did they?

Most importantly, even though we were threatened with death and dismemberment, we survived without too many physical scars. Or even without too many emotional ones. I find that the typical Smock kid who is now in his or her 50's or 60's is well grounded, fair, and genuinely loving toward any offspring they created. It's love. But where in all of that violence did we find love?

It was there. We just chose to look at the bad side. We just chose to concentrate on the welts on our collective dupetchkas. But somewhere beneath the curse words and threats, there was love. True and honest love which stays with us to this very day. Love that causes us to stop short of things that would possibly land us in prison. Love that is taught by a coal miner with a 5th grade education.

Why aren't we all in jail? Because if we were, Mom or Dad will find us and boy, we'd have hell to pay.

We aren't perfect. Unless you asked our parents about us when we weren't around. Then suddenly, we'd grow a halo.

Go figure.