There is a star painted gold and black on the highest circle of bleachers at Veterans’ Stadium marking the spot where Willie Stargell sent the longest home run ever hit in the city of Philadelphia. As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I knew I walked among the lowest of the dead in that ancient city, and so that star burned especially brightly for me. Do not forget where you are, it said. Those words meant something entirely different to me than to Phillies fans.
Philadelphia of the 1970s always put on its best face. The ready second son of the East Coast manor lord relished his easy girth and rugged polish and sat not uncomfortably between smooth white Washington and bold New York. But there was a madness in these bloodlines, we all knew. An ancient spirit path crept out through a hidden exit facing westward, winding its two-hundred-mile course to the indefinite boundaries of the East, to Pittsburgh—estranged brother, necromancer, prophet, slave—tending the black cauldrons at the crossroads of the rivers, turning earth by air and fire into steel. The daylight never knew just where the trail went, but at night it was marked by dragons. The bessemer forges, standing on dinosaur legs, held the bulging kettles as big as houses, whose throats could swallow ten tons of iron and coke and turn out the precious metal with a single twelve-second gulp of air. The communities tucked into the valleys that form Pennsylvania’s ventral artery proclaimed their relationship to the bessemer forges though they never really saw them, places like Carbon County, Steelton, and Ironton. Where the bessemers actually stood on dinosaur legs, however, no signature was needed to seal the pact. On the high hills over the three rivers in Pittsburgh, smoke from the forges turned day into night. And on South Mountain over Bethlehem, where the world’s first I-beams—the bones of the twentieth century—were poured, the sky burned until dawn with the scattered ashes of vaporized stone. But Philadelphia showed only the steel, rolling in neatly from Reading.
My father’s house in the Edgeborough of Bethlehem stood in a row of three others just like it. A slice of green grass separated that row from an identical row, four of which went into a block, one hundred of which went into Edgeborough. Within the dark brick house, six people could sleep comfortably in three upstairs bedrooms. In a time that had little appreciation and few resources for celebrating the basic life processes of a household, the bathroom of this house must have seemed an impossible luxury, with a window looking out over the neighborhood, a full-sized radiator warming a closet full of towels, and a bathtub standing on curling brass lion’s feet. From the base of the stair below this proud room, the living area spread into three equal parts. The kitchen commanded the most important space, with its heavy counters of Pennsylvania slate. It even had two doors leading outside, and in it, six could sit at table with four standing by in conversation. The house, on the end of a row on the end of a block, possessed a yard of its own. It must have been, in 1918, the realization of many, many dreams.
When my father and his new wife purchased the house in the late 1970s, it was the realization of a different kind of dream. An end to that particularly groveling sort of loneliness that attends the person left—left by a spouse, left with questions and doubts, left with houses one could neither afford to maintain nor fill with chairs or children. He married a woman he had met in church. Her father had been a minister, her husband had been a homosexual. Each impressed her with a resentment only an unremitting passion for the normal could sublime into hope. Their marriage was elegant in its Protestant way, and when they entered the house they brought a stove and a simple brass cross for the kitchen.
Whatever utility they sought in their marriage was never mine to judge, and even the judgments I might have made anyway compromised in no way the grace of this wonderful house. Against its facade my brothers and I watched Whiffle Ball home runs cascade. Through its narrow yard, we ran the bases. From its concrete steps, a child, alone, with only a tennis ball and a glove could make pop-ups and grounders, and, if he could place the ball exactly on the lip of each step, he could make the ball go deep. And when our father came home we would all play pepper until dusk every evening before adjourning to the porch to listen to the crackling broadcast of Phillies baseball and drink iced tea from unbreakable plastic cups.
When the lights were turned out in the bedroom I shared with my older brother, we could see the Bethlehem of sleepy porch lamps descending into the Lehigh River. But beyond this, in the rumbling glow of the bessemers, South Mountain spread its never-resting arms around us all. Somewhere, beneath the footprints on Moon, below the orbits of the satellites, inside the patrol routes of ships at sea, behind the perimeters of riflemen and cannoneers, before even the plodding steps of police carrying clubs on horseback, there is a ring of fire. Fires on the mountain. Children watching the flames trace their obscure shadows on the backs of the men who feed them. Things cooking, primeval warmth, darkness defined. The white noise of hammers and shovels that let our thoughts turn to sleep.
Since winning the World Series in 1979 things had not gone well for the Pirates, and Eastern Pennsylvania rejoiced as the team crumbled under weight of rule changes and drug offenses. But there were other problems. With the collapse of the steel industry, Pittsburgh watched a third of its inhabitants wander off looking for jobs in other cities. That was a reality we understood in Bethlehem. Big Steel’s only operation had dwindled to the supervision of its incremental shutdown. A workforce of thousands was paired by half annually. In Pittsburgh, it was the same on a larger and more complicated scale, and everything in Western Pennsylvania seemed to mirror the tragic plot. The Pirates were bankrupt, and Willie Stargell remained only to plug his way, through empty seats and charges of sexual impropriety and cocaine traffic, toward the five-hundredth home run he would never hit. I recall the day, sitting alone on the porch when the drinking of iced tea from an unbreakable plastic cup was interrupted by the early arrival of the afternoon paper, that oracle of a world languishing in its last slow evening before the dawn of the information age. Summer was ending, my older brother was gone, his college orientation had begun, and my younger brother was working down South. “Stargell’s 475th home run ties Musial,” it read. I informed my stepbrother in terms he might appreciate, and he might have known it was important. It was the last home run Willie Stargell ever hit.
I was in college when Pennsylvania stopped making steel altogether, but in a New England grown fat with defense contracts and technology jobs, that fact belonged to someone else’s dismal reality, and the prospect of re-encountering it was not at all appealing. But as special occasions tended to oil the raspy gears of family gatherings, and as the occasion of my birthday gave me some control over the events that might proceed from the weekend, it seemed an auspicious moment to check the box of family obligation. When I arrived in Bethlehem, I asked my younger brother how the tub was.
“It’s waiting for you.” My father still does not have a shower in his house.
We walked through the living room into the kitchen and rehearsed the old theatrical gestures. Imploring hands asked the cupboard why it held nothing to eat. Solemn, monkish scowls regarded the bare white walls and the thin brassy cross. My brother groped toward the sacred piano keys with pantomime chocolate covering his fingers. Our laughter fell like plaster from the ceiling.
“Josh,” I began, with a pretended eagerness appropriate to nothing I was about to say, “You know what I could use? A good hot bath.” Without hesitation, he coiled his lip and replied, “Adam, you know hot water is very expensive, and we have to save money. What if, after all, the roof blows off the house?”
We sat and smoked and talked until he affected his postal clerk voice, the one in which he couched very serious things.
“Say, Ad,” he said.
“Yes, Josh,” I answered, still in character.
“I got you this Pirates hat,” he said, methodically producing the object from a bag, “But I want you to pretend you just bought it.”
He handed the hat to me. It was the new, old-fashioned design I recognized from photographs in which Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and other Pirates who played before I was born stood frozen in the moment of their greatness.
“Dad got you a Pirates shirt for your birthday,” my brother explained. “He told me, ‘I know he doesn’t really care about the Pirates anymore, but these shirts were the only ones the store had, just Pirates shirts, here in Bethlehem.’ I think it would be important if he thought you wanted it.”
I wore the hat when I opened the gift amidst my father’s apologies and qualifications.
“Everyone says they will be the team to beat next year or the year after,” he said.
“I heard that,” I said. “It’s good to see, after all their troubles.”
Driving westward from New England to Philadelphia, one becomes aware of America, but not the whistling America of tri-cornered hats and Liberty Bells that exists in the imaginations of children, nor the clanging America of pistons and steam that exists in the memories of those growing old. Rather it is an America that stands upon an ongoing past, a having been, not a has been nor a was. Bricks having been laid, steel having been poured, forever changed and forever changing. The arching windows of textile mills in Lowell and Worcester disclose computer stores and exercise equipment. Signs discuss rents and services, papaya drinks in trendy red brick bars. Waterbury forges optical equipment in the old brass factories. Scranton digs for limestone instead of coal. Allentown and Bethlehem fill old Steel with other things. The temptation is, of course, to believe the ancient fiction, to see, in change, decline. We love the idea of ancestral giants and the paradise we somehow bit in half. But we have a role in all this, all this change. There is an energy in these oldest three-hundred miles of America; if you put your hands on the road you can feel it. A harmonic. The ghost of a sound, the whisper of a coal-fired steam engine, the spirit of the mines, iron conspiring with coke in the mountain halls of steel in voices only the steel understands. Here there is possibility.
When I first met my father in Veterans’ Stadium, where I now meet him once a year without fail, I was struck with the smallness of the man. He was wearing a gigantic shirt and a hat he had closed to one of the narrowest adjustments. When we met my arms shut around him and stopped only when I felt the tiny cat bones of his back. We arrived early, in time for batting practice. We looked for the black and gold star, high in the upper deck. It always seems different, depending on where you sit. It mattered little that the Pirates and the Phillies were the National League’s worst teams, that they no longer played in the same division, or that they only met a few times each season. We called balls and strikes, as always, and ate cheese steaks and did not leave our seats until the aisles were clear. When we parted, I held my hand embracing his, allowing him to release it when he was ready, allowing him to turn away from me to form the words that meant Good-bye.
I had never seen my wife read a museum placard with much interest, but after two baseball games in two days—with only a third one to look forward to—anything was a relief. Her colleagues told her she was an exceptional person. “There is no way my wife would ever come with me to Pittsburgh to watch three baseball games in three days, and there is no way she would ever let me go by myself!” her friend Mike said. “And Pittsburgh? Why don’t you just go to Baltimore?”
“He’s a Pirates fan,” she told him.
“Why doesn’t he just go see them in Philadelphia?”
“Because he thinks he has to help save the team. I guess they are going under, or something.” My wife laughed when she said this, even when she related the story to me, because she needed people to believe—and to believe herself—that I was a lovable eccentric and nothing worse. Marriages survive on sacrificing what is convenient for what is important. It is a responsibility we cherished. But there was no baseball tonight, and I thought that was a good thing.
We had just crossed the Fort Pitt bridge to Station Square, where an old ferry dock harbored gourmet foods, expensive accessories, and specialty beers. We sampled all. Passing through the chatter and the late summer night we found ourselves leaning strangely against dinosaur legs, not certain how we arrived.
“What is this stupid thing?” she said in her best incredulous Pollack voice.
“It’s a bessemer forge.”
“It looks like a big, fat pig.”
. . . it could reduce ten tons of ore in one ‘blow,’ and from the end of the First World War through the late 1960s it was the workhorse of the American steel industry.
My wife paused, rereading the sign. The empty bessemer let me turn it into a big fat pig whose bulging snout seemed to beg snacks from strolling tourists. I laughed with it, a big, good laugh, and I heard my wife join in. Behind us, the mountain rang with laughter and glowed with the neon tracks of sightseeing trains. When I placed my fingertips on the ancient furnace, the pig hummed with the voice of a dragon and spoke in words only the steel can hear. Fires on the mountain, a ring of fire, and before us, across the river, Pittsburgh turned its thoughts to sleep.