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.