Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the tag “Hills Station Pennsylvania”

Growing Up Republican

I still remember the day that I found out I was a Republican. It was November, and in school we were learning about the electoral process. It was very basic, so I think I was in the third grade. Mrs. Spellman told us to find out tonight whether our parents were Republican or Democrat. We would share our family affiliation in class tomorrow. Finally, I had a homework assignment that I could share with my parents. Momma only had a fourth grade education and my schoolwork was starting to get too advanced for her to assist me. Daddy couldn’t read nor write, so I never asked for his assistance. But today I could!

“Daddy, are we Republican or Democrat?” It was 1964 and Daddy had recently retired from the Montour 4 coal mine. Even though he was retired, he remained active in our small community. On Election Day, Daddy had mimeographed sheets of paper with the names of all of the registered voters in Hills Station. I had glanced at the list of my neighbors and the parents of my friends, with an “R” or a “D” after each name. I knew that my parents were on the list, but I didn’t recall which letter followed their names.

Some of the names had notes next to them, indicating the voters who needed a ride to the polling place on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Momma wrote the notes for Daddy, her contribution to his Election Day assignment. Even though I considered Momma unconcerned with community work, I knew that she had been very active in the past. In the forties and fifties, she had been President of the local Hallie Q. Brown Club, a civic organization of African American women. She had even been featured in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important “colored” newspapers in the country. I had also seen the clippings describing her political fundraising efforts for local candidates.

I waited for Daddy’s reply. “We are Republican; just like Abraham Lincoln,” he said proudly. I couldn’t wait to share this information with my classmates.

At school the next day, Mrs. Spellman asked for the results of her parental survey. It didn’t take me long to notice a pattern – all of the other black kids were Democrats. My heart sank. I was already adopted, left-handed and Catholic; I didn’t need another attribute to separate me from my black friends and classmates. But Momma and Daddy taught me not to lie. When my turn came, I told the truth.

“Republican.” I heard the other black students start to laugh. I wondered if I could run all of the way home after school without encountering any of them. I lived across the street, so if I could get past the schoolyard, I’d be safe.

No such luck. “Marvella, why are you a Republican? You trying to be white?”

“Why you always gotta be different?”

After a few days of teasing, the survey was forgotten, but I wanted to know more. Why were my parents Republican? Like most things in my young life, it had to do with their age. Years later I learned that after the Civil War, many emancipated African Americans registered as Republican, the party of Lincoln. To my adopted parents, who were born in the South in the1890s, Lincoln wasn’t a historical figure. He was the good President who was assassinated less than thirty years before their births. Former slaves raised both of them – my mother by her grandparents, Isaac and Amanda Harper, and my father by his mother, Sally Hogg. My parents grew up believing in the promise of the Republican Party and moved north to escape the Reconstruction backlash of white Southern Democrats. Around the time of the New Deal, the demographics and ideals of the parties switched, but my parents remained party loyalists.

My mother died during the first Nixon administration. Even though I didn’t talk much about politics with my father as a teenager, I knew that he liked Johnson, disliked Nixon and was ambivalent about Ford. He died in December 1975, so he never got a chance to vote for Carter or Ford. I wondered if he changed his party affiliation in his later years. I doubt that my strong, obstinate Daddy ever strayed from the Republican rolls, even though the Republican values strayed away from him.

I can honestly say that I have no idea who my father would have voted for in the most recent presidential election. He might have been enamored of the Republican candidate’s promise to bring coalmines back, or he might have seen through the empty rhetoric. He might have been disgusted at the ways of a noted philanderer or he might have overlooked them, having made a few indiscretions in his own marriage. He might have agreed with the ideas of the Democratic candidate, but his misogynist beliefs might have deterred him from voting for a woman Commander-in-Chief.

But I’m proud that my parents were active in their community. Besides his Election Day activities, Daddy was also a volunteer fireman and auxiliary policeman. In her church, Momma had been a Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. Even though I registered as a Democrat, I wouldn’t have become an involved, aware, and civic-minded person without the guidance, love, and support of two Republicans.

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The Color Wheel

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

This is an excerpt from “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a 4,500-word essay about Christmas in Hills Station. This is one of my favorite sections of the essay. Merry Christmas to Marvellaland followers and to everyone else who enjoys this essay! (Sorry it is so long!)

 

In the sixties, when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania, I loved Christmas. Until I was five, we had a live Christmas tree. But after Daddy retired from Montour 4 mine, it was difficult for him to carry a real tree, as black lung disease made it hard for him to breathe. He went to Pete’s Dairy Bar, the local store that everyone called “Angeline’s,” and bought an artificial tree. Angeline, the owner of the store, could get anything and everything that her customers needed. If she didn’t have an item in stock, she was glad to make a special order, for a special price, of course. This included Christmas trees.

One December afternoon, Daddy came home with a large white box. On the front of the box was a picture of a Christmas tree.

“What’s in the box, Daddy?”

He smiled, showing the gold cap on one of his front teeth. “It’s our new Christmas tree. Now every year, we’ll just take this one out of the box and put it up, instead of going out lookin’ for a tree.”

I frowned, because that didn’t sound like a good idea to me. I liked live trees, with their pine scent filling the house. I kept staring at the box. It wasn’t a very big box. How could it hold a Christmas tree?

“Let’s set it up.” He headed toward my playroom, the room where we always placed the tree. “You carry the other box,” he added over his shoulder.

There was little white box on the floor. It read, “Amazing Color Wheel.” What was a color wheel? The picture on the box showed was a round wheel next to a tree. The box was lightweight and the contents rattled. Was it broke?

I picked up the box and gingerly carried it into the playroom. Daddy had already opened the tree box. It was filled with red paper tubes, which looked like giant versions of the tubes that Daddy rolled up change in. A piece of something silver stuck out from each tube. Daddy was twisting together two long wooden sticks that were painted silver. Each stick had lots of little holes in it. I didn’t see anything that looked like a tree. I put the box down and sat on the floor to watch Daddy. Momma stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

I picked up one of the tubes. It was even lighter than the color wheel box. “What are they?”

“Those are the branches of the Christmas tree. This is the trunk and those three metal things will be the base. Once I finish putting the base together, we’ll put on the branches.”

“But they’re silver. Christmas trees are supposed to be green.” I was worried that Angeline had taken advantage of my father and sold him a defective tree, just because she knew that he couldn’t read.

He looked up and nodded toward the little box. “That’s what the color wheel is for.”

“Huh?”

Three lines formed on his forehead when he looked over at me. “The color wheel will turn the tree different colors. Just wait and see, you’ll like it.”

I looked up at Momma.

“Your Daddy knows what he is doing.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Let me know when it is all set up.”

I wanted to leave too, but I knew that Daddy expected me to help with this tree. We used to put lights and popcorn balls and even apples on the heavy branches of the big green trees that we used to get. What could we put on this flimsy thing?

Once Daddy had the trunk set up, he picked up one of the tubes and pulled off the wrapper. The branch in his hand looked liked cut-up pieces of aluminum foil attached to a metal stick. He stuck the branch in the hole at the top of the trunk. He stood back to look at it. “The branches go into those little holes.”

I assumed that was my cue to help. I picked up a tube and pulled. The branch was even thinner than aluminum foil. Would we be able to even put ornaments on this tree? I found a hole and inserted the metal stick at an angle.

I added the bottom branches while Daddy took care of the top ones. I could see my reflection multiplied in the tiny strips. It didn’t take long to fill the tiny holes with shiny bristles.

Daddy and I looked at the tree. “Don’t it look nice?”

I didn’t like it. It didn’t look like a real Christmas tree. It looked like something that I would have made in art class with pipe cleaners. But I nodded anyway. “Uh-huh.”

While Daddy went upstairs to get the ornaments, I sat on the floor looking at this contraption that would be my holiday tree from now on. I missed the smell of pine. This aluminum tree had no scent. It was cold, shiny, and foreign.

When Daddy returned, we started taking the ornaments out of the box and tying them onto the branches with string. The branches reflected the colors of the bulbs―gold, green, and red―turning them into rainbows.

Momma came back into the room to check on the progress. “It looks nice.”

Soon all of the branches were filled with ornaments. The tree looked pretty, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Daddy opened the color wheel box. Inside were four colored pieces of plastic that looked like sections of a pie with a bite taken out of the small end. Besides the plastic pieces, there was a round black lamp with a circle attached to its big round face. Daddy attached the pieces to the circle with metal clips, turning the pieces into a even larger circle. As he plugged in the lamp and switched it on, the circle started to rotate.

The room changed colors as each plastic piece passed in front of the light. Cool blue room. Now warm yellow room. Soothing green room. Hot red room. Entranced, I watched the tree as it changed colors too.

Daddy smiled. “See, I told you that it would be nice.”

I sat in a chair across from the tree so I could watch the display. I had to grudgingly admit that the color wheel was nice and the tree was okay.

Putting up the aluminum artificial tree became one of our Christmas rituals. After a few years, I could hardly remember ever having a real green tree. And I grew to love the color wheel.

I Wish They All Could Be Carolina Girls


Carolina girls grow up proud of their state. July 8 is the birthday of my cousin Kathryn Shade Davis. Cousin Kat was proud to be from Lenoir, North Carolina. She made me proud to be from the Tar Heel State too.

Cousin Kat was an ever-present force of nature when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania. She lived at the end of our street with her husband, Cousin Bill, and my cousin Darrell, who they raised as a son. Darrell’s actual mother, Barbara, lived in Cleveland, but Cousin Kat raised him from the time he was three years old. She helped to raise me, too, from the time I was adopted and brought to Hills Station from Greensboro, North Carolina. Next to Momma, Cousin Kat was the most influential woman in my life as I grew up.

Cousin Kat was a privileged preacher’s daughter and the beloved only sister of a handful of brothers. She knew she was something special. I have a photo of Cousin Kat as a young woman with her parents. She stands between them, wearing a stylish dress and a determined look. She was a short, round, walnut-brown woman. She was a hairdresser and her own thick black hair was her best advertisement. She had an energy about her that lit up a room. That energy must have been concentrated in her right foot, because she was the fastest driver I knew. She drove an aqua blue Chevrolet and her head barely cleared the dashboard. When she drove by, all I could see was the top of her perfectly-coiffed head, and even that was a blur. I’m not sure how we were related, but I think her mother and my mother’s grandmother were sisters. I don’t know how she ended up in Hills Station, either. Maybe she came up from Lenoir to visit my mother.

But even though I didn’t know her personal history, I learned a lot from Cousin Kat. When I was little, she was my babysitter. During the few times that my parents went somewhere without me, I stayed at Cousin Kat’s house, spending hours playing with Darrell, who was three years younger, and looking at Cousin Kat’s magazines. She did my hair, giving me my first perm and accepting my first Afro. When I started school, she helped me with my homework. I spent hours with her, learning fractions and the capital cities of Europe. Her magazines taught me about life. Besides sharing her copies of Jet, Ebony, and Sepia, she also shared issues of True Stories and Secrets, magazines filled with stories of women, love, and trouble.

Long before I became a woman, I learned about trouble. My parents were older and not in good health. When both of them went to the hospital at the same time when I was thirteen, I stayed with Cousin Kat. When Momma died in July of that crucial year, Cousin Kat took me to the store to find a dress for the funeral. She did the same thing when Daddy died five years later. When I graduated from college, she drove me to the ceremony and cheered from the stands. I still have her graduation present, a gold necklace with a Capricorn goat. Over the years, we spent a lot of time together, as she helped me grow from a girl into a woman.

Cousin Kat made the best sweet potato pie in the world. I also loved her potato salad and her pecan pies. I tried to make the potato salad once, but it tasted nothing like hers. I never even attempted to recreate her pecan pie. She had a Betty Crocker cookbook filled with her favorite recipes, written on slips of paper in her loopy cursive writing. She loved to set a nice table, which she did every holiday – getting Cousin Bill to add the extension to the dining room table and using her best china, along with her nicest tablecloth and matching napkins.

After I left my first full time job and moved to California in 1988, Cousin Kat developed Alzheimer’s disease. Each time I saw her, she remembered less and less about our lives together. It was hard to see the woman who once knew everyone’s business not able to remember who I was. On a visit home in 1994, I took one last photo of her, with Cousin Bill and Darrell. But she no longer looked like my Cousin Kat. A confused countenance had replaced the warm, smiling face I was used to seeing. In May of 1995, Cousin Kat died. I couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral, but I talked to Cousin Bill on the phone hours after her funeral. “I’ve lost my heart,” was all he could say. Less than a year later, he was gone, too, following His Heart. In 2009, her beloved Darrell died. With the three of them gone, I feel like part of my childhood is missing. I wished that I could have gone home for her funeral. I wish that I could have gotten my hands on that cookbook. There is no one left to remember the happy and sad times that we shared over the years.

No one but me. I’m reminded of her when I hear a warm western Carolina accent. I think of her whenever I see a red and white Betty Crocker Cookbook. Or an aqua blue Chevy Impala. I’m thinking of Cousin Kat on this anniversary of her birth. I can still feel the strong spirit of that quintessential Carolina girl, captured in a faded photograph so many years ago and in a photo of the two of us, together with proud, happy smiles.

Artifacts

Some artifacts have the power to keep us connected to those we have loved and lost. They may look like useless items from another time, but they contain the essence of those who have touched our lives. Just one touch can activate many memories.

Gold Ring

I keep Daddy’s union ring in a small jewelry box. The gold is tarnished with age, but the words “U.M.W. of America” can still be deciphered on the front. Daddy was a proud member of the United Mine Workers of America. He worked in coal mines for many years, from eastern Kentucky to western Pennsylvania. Each month, he would peruse the UMWA Journal, even though he couldn’t read or write. Coal mining was the portal to a good livelihood, giving him the means to take care of his family. And the Union made it possible. Before I knew who George Washington was, I knew the importance of John L. Lewis.

Black Hat

Daddy was a volunteer fireman in my hometown of Hills Station. When the siren pieced the air, he would grab his black hat with the big “1” on the front and head for the fire hall. A few minutes later, I would see the white fire engine racing down the street with Daddy on the back. Hours later, he would return with stories about the blaze he helped to contain. I display the hat in my living room, a reminder of Daddy’s bravery and sense of duty.

Gray Camera

 Daddy loved gadgets, especially instant cameras. I have one of his Polaroid Land cameras from the fifties, still in its original gray box with matching flash, as well as a box camera from an earlier decade. One afternoon, Momma and I stood outside for hours while Daddy took pictures of us. We stood around watching as the images developed slowly in black and white. Once it was ready, he would smooth the emulsion over the photo, preserving the image. But Daddy was always the photographer, as he rarely allowed others to touch his expensive equipment. I still have some of his photos in an old black photo album.

Silver Whistle

Daddy was also an auxiliary policeman. When on duty, he wore a navy blue uniform with a badge on the front and another badge on his hat. I thought he looked very handsome in his uniform. The silver police whistle was used to direct traffic during parades, funeral processions, and at Halloween. I keep the whistle on a keychain with my keys. It makes me feel like Daddy is still protecting me.

Brown Bat

When he was young, Daddy played baseball in one of the local amateur teams. Over the years, he never lost his love of the game. When I was young, he attended Pittsburgh Pirates games at Forbes Field with his best friend. As he got older, he never missed a game on KDKA, whether it was on the radio or on television. A slender, light tan Louisville Slugger kept vigil in his closet for many years. When I moved to California, I left the bat with my best friend, who kept it near her bed. Each time that I go back to Pennsylvania, I hold the bat in my hands, feeling the roughness of the black tape that Daddy put on it to improve his grip. One day, I’m going to bring that bat to California, if I can get it on a plane.

Even though Daddy has been gone for almost thirty-seven years, these keepsakes remind me of the man who taught me how to tie my shoes, ride a bike, and persevere in spite of obstacles. I celebrate the legacy of John Hogg on this Father’s Day.            

Waiting for the Beer Man

This is the opening essay in my memoir Montour Four.

 

In Hills Station, Pennsylvania, there were more places to drink than there were places to worship. This coal-mining town, with a population of around 500 people, had four streets, four alleys, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge, and no sidewalks.

Three bars, two clubs, and three speakeasies served miners thirsty for secular invigoration. After a week spent hundreds of feet underground, separating coal from rock and breathing the deadly air, a man deserved some liquid recreation. Babe’s Bar, owned by Babe Carlini, and Hills Tavern, owned by Tom McVerry, were near each other on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Forno’s Bar, owned by Pete Forno, was located on the other end of the road, a few doors away from the Catholic church. Most men had a favorite bar, which they frequented regularly with their friends.

Since the early 1900s, Hills Station had been a company town. The houses had been built by the Pittsburgh Coal Company to house its miners. Most were identical two-story duplexes, with a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms on each side. But even within that limited space, several people found room to sell a little alcohol. These informal speakeasies were mostly frequented by black townspeople. Mr. Jenkins ran the most popular one. He lived on Third Street, directly across from the Baptist church. Behind his house was a garage with a jukebox and a small concrete floor for dancing. While the adults sat in the kitchen enjoying drinks and gossip, the kids danced to the latest records out in the yard.

Mr. Wilson, who lived two doors from my house on First Street, sold alcohol in his kitchen and ran numbers. At his place you could get a shot of booze and a shot at a jackpot. Townspeople were willing to pay a small fee to drink a few shots of liquor at the home of a friend. Spirits were expensive at the local State Store. In Pennsylvania, liquor could only be purchased at government-run stores. The nearest one was six miles away.

But beer was a different story. A man did not have to leave home to get his favorite brew. Beer was no farther away than the front door, thanks to the Beer Man. Years before Hills Station had pizza delivery service, there was beer delivery.

The Montour Four Mine was one of the largest mines in Washington County, a county southwest of Pittsburgh. It had been producing coal for over seventy years. By the early 1960s, many of the town’s miners, including my father, had retired. Old mine injuries and the coal dust coating their lungs were starting to wreck their bodies. They were ready to rest and spend their summers sitting on the front porches of the houses that they had bought from the coal company. They wanted nothing more out of life than a comfortable chair, a good meal, good friends and a cold beer.

Without fail, the Beer Man, Tom Cushey made his rounds every other Friday. He was a stocky florid-faced Irishman, with huge biceps, developed by years of hauling cases of beer throughout Cecil Township. In Hills Station, he had a lot of customers. He always had a friendly word and a smile for each of them.

Once he entered the town limits, Tom methodically went from house to house, picking up empty cases and depositing full ones. Each case held twenty-four bottles of beer and each bottle was sixteen ounces. His truck was laden with cases. Tom knew what brands to leave at each stop. Most people liked Iron City, the local Pittsburgh beer and official beer of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Some preferred Rolling Rock, which came in shorter green bottles. Carling’s Black Label, Keck’s, and Stoney’s were also popular selections.

In the summer, the retirees sat on their porches, straining their necks for the first glimpse of Tom. They had already stacked their empty cases by the front door. As Tom got closer, the rattle of the empty bottles being loaded onto the truck grew louder and louder.

Everyone liked Tom, even the church members who didn’t believe in drinking alcohol. He was a hard working man making a living for his family. Every retired miner understood the value of hard work. And Tom understood the balm that the golden liquid provided to men who had given their best to the Company, only to spend their final years coughing up black tar. Every now and then, Tom had to leave extra cases for funerals and wakes. Friends would toast the memory of a retiree who had lost his battle with the poison settling in his chest, weighing him down like a ton of fine-grade coal.

Hills Station was a town with four streets, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge and no sidewalks. It was a town built from and by coal. By the 1960s, the industry was dying out, and so were its workers. But until he was permanently returned to the Pennsylvania soil, a man could still sit on his porch, listen to the Pirate game on the radio, and wait for the Beer Man.

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