Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Revisited

Last year, I made a poor attempt at describing what Father's Day meant to me. And predictably like always, my mind drifts back to a more gentle, uncomplicated time.

You may ask, what are the fathers like in Smock? They are quiet. Reserved. Reluctant to accept any accolades bestowed upon them on this or any other day. And if you walked up to most of them saying "Happy Father's Day", you might get a smile or a wink and that's about it.

Most of the fathers in Smock on a day like today pause to remember their fathers. Those guys who left an entire country and along with it, relatives, friends and a way of life. They came here, many would say, to make a better life for their own sons and daughters. Boy, did they ever. And how.

But they don't expect to have a whole day set aside for making such a big sacrifice. I think that the only thing that they do expect is that we, their kids and grandkids, just do well. Just be happy. And they don't even expect a simple thank you. The thanks is in the doing, just like it was for many of them.

Our fathers came from places and towns that we had to practice to correctly pronounce. They had brothers and sisters that they will never again see this side of heaven. And mothers and fathers who broke their backs to save up enough for a one-way fare on a steamship to America.

And so what did they do when they arrived in places like Smock? They had little crib sheets that had small phonetic phrases such as "Hi boss, you have verk for me?" The boss was usually either a pit boss in the coal mines or a labor gang supervisor at the steel mill in Clairton. And their future bosses would respond favorably and send them out to do some of the most back breaking, lung destroying, ear shattering work, all for about a dollar and change per day.

They managed to save money from that meager wage to buy half a house with a paper thin wall so that you could sit up at night and hear what gossip is going on or who is getting their young buttocks fanned for not behaving well in church that morning.

The term "wait until your father gets home" took on a frightening and all too real meaning back in Smock. We feared Dad in a certain manner, but we respected him. And when, after a few Iron City beers, he would begin telling stories of the "old country", we sat there and were riveted to hear this same guy who was usually quiet create vivid images of friends, family and even fun in this foreign land where class and status meant nothing. A place where butchering a chicken or a pig would have made the front page.

Our fathers were like icebergs; you only saw the 10% that was above the water line. But their upbringing, values and faith ran deep. And for most, those admirable values fortunately trickled down.

So for Andy and John and Fred and Teddy and Joe and Mike and Ed and Tom, Happy Father's Day and thanks for being just who you are.

Since words on Father's Day don't come easy from a Smock kid, just remember that we owe you more than you will ever know.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"You better"

Three weeks ago, Heaven gained a saint and Smock lost one of it's most beloved people. Dorothy Hovanic was married to her husband John for 61 years. Now that she's gone, I miss her. I visited with her just 3 weeks before she died, which once again proves that no one knows when it's time to say goodbye.

But I'd like to dwell on the living and tell you about Dorothy's husband John. I've mentioned him several times in my meanderings here but I really want you to know more about this man.

First, he had a son who he also named John who is my age. We went to school together, were altar boys at St. Hedwig, engaged in the seasonal tomato and crab apple wars, and played football and baseball. John raised a fine man who today still lives in Smock with his wife and next door daughter and son-in-law.

Two years ago, my Delaware best buddy Brian and I rented a couple of very large Harley Davidson motorcycles and roared through Smock. We parked the bikes and started walking around that single block of streets that were all too familiar. I saw John trimming the hedges in his yard and introduced him to Brian. In less than 30 seconds, John offered to fill Brian's saddlebag with tomatoes. What Brian thought was rather unique was just normal for me. It was John being John. No frills. Nothing fancy. Just a man offering another man something that he grew in his garden.

Do you see the importance in this? Do you really see it???

John Hovanic goes to church rather often. Every day. And its not because the church is only 100 yards from his house. He takes that religion stuff seriously. And he lives it seriously. Both in his actions and even in the wonderfully simple Bible based rhymes he still can recite since he was in the third grade.

Today, I visited John, thinking that I could do something for him by spending some serious quality time with this great man who just lost his wife only weeks ago. Instead of feeling like I accomplished something, I came away feeling that I have been given something much more than I expected. The genuine thanks and love from a genuinely solid man. When we were saying our farewells, I told John that I'd be back soon. His response was "You better." Two words that spoke volumes.

This is why I write this stuff. I want to do my best to insure that you, the reader, never forget these people in my little town. Because if us kids, like John Michael (John's son) and Johnny, and Pickey and Junie and Tommy learned anything, we learned to be.....real. And we learned it from our parents and from neighbors like John Hovanic.

It is never too late to put a little love in this world for our families and those around us. Some of us, like me, learned this lesson rather late in life. Others learned many years ago. But the bottom line is that we learned respect and admiration for people who are the true saints that still walk the earth.

John Hovanic would agree that we need to yank out the I-Pods and Walkmen and stereos and spend some time appreciating the people and things around us. We should all promise ourselves to open our ears to non-electronically generated sounds once in a while.

If we don't do this, we'll end up being no better than last month's tomatoes.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Many people have to resort to elaborate computer searches to find family. Or some go to their local Latter Day Saints church where they can find an incredible resource to track down their prior generations. Some hire folks to do this work and others have the time to do it on their own.

I feel that a lot of what is to be said about one's roots can be found in the place where they were raised up from childhood. That place for me is Smock, as if you couldn't figure that one out.

Over the time that I have done this little blog, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the occasional surprise by hearing from a relative or friend that I spoke of here. And the one thing constant is that they always dedicate a few lines or a paragraph to "the way it was". It is a constant in these lovely e-mails.

Could it be because they think that reflecting in the past would be appropriate since I do it all of the time? Or are they being polite?

It is my opinion that they do this because they, like me, realize that the past was just simply better than it is today. Oh sure, we know that we cannot change the past and that's good enough for us. And we CAN change today, but the change that we are looking for would take a Biblical force to make things better, so in reality, it would be next to impossible to do that.

All one has to do is leaf through the cable news channels to see how the world is doing today, and if you are from a small town, you would quickly begin to think of better times and invariably, those times are well behind us. Gone with the wind.

Reflecting as I and my readers do on stuff that is well over one's shoulder is sort of a coping mechanism that we use to deal with the things of the present. We all say "Boy, I wish things were like they used to be" but in reality, we know very well that they are not. But we can wish, can't we?

What is beautiful and lovely about these people and their rather skewed backward/forward outlook is that they appear to be able to deal with the present BETTER than those who, for some unfortunate or catastrophic reason, cannot or will not look into the past.

Those of us who cannot reflect on the "good old days" dwell on current events which can then result in fear and anxiety. They have no historical point of reference.

For me, my point of reference is St. Hedwig's Church, a sulphur creek, lots of woods, kids who have dirty faces, Florek's store and Andy Ponzurick, my grandfather. Some say "Bob, you should not live in the past". My advice to them is that they should join me, if but for a little while, and go to that place that means the most. It most certainly helps me deal with the economic and political insanity that we see on the seven o'clock news.

Sir Isaac Newton said that we stand on the shoulders of giants ("nanos gigantum humeris insidentes"). He was referring to the blind giant Orion who carried his servant Cedalion upon his shoulders. My mental image conjured up by this quote shows a much different picture.

We should not live in the past, but we should never forget those latter day saints who have made the past a worthy reflection and point of reference in which to view our present day circumstances.

Thanks Andy.