I took the above photograph nearly two weeks ago, on the day we rolled into Berwyn at 4 in the morning after nearly half a year wandering America.
That was Aug. 29. I had planned to write a quick “we’re home” note and then get to work on an intimidating collection of back stories.
Alas, our return to the old home did little to stimulate my productivity.
I am a mess. A shambles, almost.
How bad is it?
In the space of a few hours Saturday I lost our cell phone and misplaced my digital recorder. The former is still at large. My sister discovered the latter in a wicker basket full of dog toys at the house she shares with my mom.
How bad is it, really?
Now it’s Thursday, Sept. 12. Chaos dogs my every step.
This morning I squandered a good hour ransacking Max’s room in search of notes I scribbled on either side of a receipt while chatting with chef Bill Dressick at D’Arc’s Pizza Shop in downtown Windber on the final night of our odyssey. Bill makes a hell of a pie, and he tells an even better story. Both his dad and grandfather having labored in the mines here, Bill served up a healthy dollop of history laced with piquant asides.
Well, I didn’t find those notes. Not yet. I’m lucky to have remembered Bill’s name.
I did stumble on a bag of memorabilia from a bygone era. Can’t find notes from two weeks ago but I found ticket stubs from four decades ago. I even found a third-place ribbon I received at an elementary school track meet in 1975. All I can say we must have had some slow-ass sons-a-bitches in our school.
That’s not all I found. There were other ticket stubs, notably one from a Ted Nugent concert in 1981. Chagrin. I also found a business card for a blues harmonica player from St. Louis named Big George. Big George billed himself as “King of the Blues.”
We ran into Big George on the streets of Clarkesdale, Miss., in the autumn of 2003. I remember the intoxicating haze of barbecue smoke. What I recall most was the scraggly ghost in the wife-beater who sat on an overturned milk crate and played guitar behind Big George Brock.
Later I was stunned to learn the humble figure on the milk crate was Jimbo Mathus, who only a few years before had been living large as the driving force behind the ragtime revival sensation Squirrel Nut Zippers. Hard to fathom. It’s a long way from the Tonight Show and the U.S. Capitol to Delta Street in Clarkesdale.
But Clarkesdale is Mathus’ home, and Jimbo Mathus is not a man to piss on his roots.
So, things are bad, but they’ll get better. They got better for Max on Tuesday when he finally made his kindergarten debut.
I guess the notion of school is incommunicable to a 6-year-old kid who’s never been to school. The approach of school mushroomed into ominous specter that preyed on his mind.
I felt bad for him. We all felt bad.
I am haunted by the freakish way time washes over us, yet the fortnight leading up to Max’s first day at Devon Elementary seemed to pass with the torpor of the Behemoth struggling up Echo Pass in the Sierra Nevada.
It was nice, for a change. Now that the anxiety is past and he is comfortable in kindergarten, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a senior in high school by the time I finish this post.
Now that he’s on the bus, he’s become a staunch supporter of our embattled public school system.
“I thought it was going to be learning, but it was playing,” he said. “Public school rocks! Charter schools are a tool of corporate chicanery, a poorly veiled scheme to funnel public money into private hands for the further enrichment of our economic overlords. Ah, the cupidity!”
Well, he did say that part about learning and playing.
We’re holed up at Chez 531, aka the Breslin family home. My in-laws are the best, though I imagine even they will come to regard my presence as noisome.
Because right now even I find myself objectionable.
I know Becky found reason to object during the tail-end of the trip. We had a nasty spat on our way out of Chicago on Sunday night. I had been on notice for about two weeks, with Becky reminding me that she was done with this journey. Silence fell over the Behemoth and held sway until we stopped for gas outside Gary.
I wanted to take a couple days to cover the 750 miles to Berwyn so I might attempt to bring the narrative home with a more graceful arc. Max and Becky wanted to be home then.
Sweet girl that she is, she relented and gave me an extension.
I don’t deserve her. Not at all.
Now that we were leaving Windber, Becky drove all night. She wasn’t taking any chances. She guided the Behemoth down the steepest grades we’d encountered in more than 20,000 miles. We thought the 7- and 8-percent grades in the Rockies were something. We never saw a 10-percent descent until we got to Pennsylvania.
We’d gone to Windber to chase the ghost of Geno Stevens, the very first road-trip eccentric we encountered together. Geno died in 2009, but he’ll always be special to us.
I had a notion to run down some of his old buddies or acquaintances and give him his due. Doesn’t seem like Geno will ever get his due in his beloved Windber. That greedy bastard Charles Berwind got himself a brick in the town’s wall of fame. Not so Geno.
The Geno Stevens mission fizzled out quickly. In the library, I read an obituary or two and scoured the Internet for names and numbers. Then I went out to the camper to get the phone. Goddamn. No service. Yet again.
It’s one thing to have no service in Montana or South Dakota, but we got the damn phone in this state.
I dragged Max back inside and asked the desk librarian if I might use her phone.
No, she said. For library business only.
A toxic brew was bubbling up. As I walked toward Becky, Max blocked my path. He turned his back to me, extended his arms and did a pretty nice job of boxing me out, the little imp. He wanted to go back to the camper.
I asked him not to block my path. He persisted. Again I asked him to cease his delaying tactics. He refused. After a third request was ignored, I snapped into my Father-of-the-Year routine.
I grabbed the back of his neck with my right hand and jerked him toward his mother.
Goddamn, this parenting thing is never as easy as it looks. Or maybe I’m just a terrible dad. His face crumpled into mask of betrayal. Tears flowed. He ran to his mother, placed both his hands around the front of his neck and wailed, “Daddy squeezed my neck.”
I was too distracted by a mix of annoyance and guilt to notice the horror with which Becky received the news.
When we got back to the Behemoth, I couldn’t help but notice the cooling trend which had transformed her mood. She thought I’d given Max the old Homer Simpson treatment. It was bad, but not that bad.
And so we were stuck in Windber with the no-phone blues again. I decided to knock on Patty Shaffer’s door. Patty’s a local historian who’s intimately involved with the Windber Area Museum. Patty, the Internet informed me, lives outside the Windber borough on Shady Lane.
That sounded promising. In a few minutes we pulled up in front of the Shaffer house. I left Becky and Max in the Behemoth to consider my flaws, walked up the driveway and knocked on the door.
A woman fitting at least one of several possible descriptions of Patty Shaffer that mingled in my head answered the door. I was in the right place.
I introduced myself then stood there dumbly. She wavered. It was her husband’s birthday, she explained. I stood unmoved.
She blinked first and invited me in. We spent the next hour talking about Windber. I overcame her resistance and steered the conversation toward her story. Her dad was a coal miner who became disabled in a shaft cave-in.
You can’t swing an ax in Windber without hitting someone whose father, uncle or grandfather worked in the mines. Sometimes all three.
I’d share a little of what Patty told me, but that conversation is on that digital recorder that my sister so recently fished out of the dog basket.
After about an hour, I summoned Becky and Max from the camper. We had a nice visit, took a couple photos and gave Patty and David Shaffer their house back. The family was coming for David’s birthday celebration.
We went to the Windber Hotel, which was a delightful shambles during our magical 2002 visit. Back then, Becky ordered a glass of wine, and the bartender poured Mogen David into the tumbler until the wine reached the brim and threatened to flood the decaying bar. A full tumbler of wine went for $1.50 in 2002 Windber. That’s a 1940s price, bro.
We fell in love with the Windber Hotel as it threatened to fall on top of us. Later we were invited into the back room to watch a musclebound biker feed a mouse to his ball python.
Sad to report the Windber Hotel of 2002 is dead. It succumbed to the one-two punch of condemnation and gentrification.
To be fair, the new Windber Hotel is quite nice. All sorts of great beers on tap, craft brews that wouldn’t have wandered within eight miles of this joint in 2002. I ordered a Weyerbacher XVIII, the Easton brewery’s anniversary weizenbock. Damn, those Weyerbacher boys have a thing for high-alcohol beers.
I admit it was wonderful. Still, I felt a little guilty drinking such a fine beer at such a solemn occasion. RIP, Old Windber Hotel.
We chatted with the two sisters who dined in the booth next to ours. Dianne Kozdron and Susan Brown had come for poker night. They got poker night now. And a website. Their dad, Edward Kozdron, worked underground. So did his dad, Joseph Kozdron. They didn’t know their grandfather. The dreaded black lung killed him at 42.
Dianne said I should make sure to investigate the Windber Hotel’s reputation for paranormal activity. She herself once encountered a ghost on the third floor here. A fellow named Tommy who took his own life.
Perhaps she was talking about the Grand Midway Hotel, where 17-year-old Martha Cerwinsky was killed by a piece of shrapnel during a fireworks display on July 4, 1911. I’m not sure.
We wished Dianne and Susan luck at the poker table, paid our bill and headed out into the street. I gazed up the incline of 15th Street to the high ground where Berwind-White housed its important folk. I was distracted by the yellow neon of the Dollar General. In 2002, we had a brief conversation with a woman at the cash register who told us she’d had a “yinkling” that we were from out of town.
We laughed about that one for a long time, as smug assholes will.
On a tip from one of the nice, clean bartenders at the new Windber Hotel, we walked Graham Avenue in search of a dive which promised to satisfy our nostalgia for the old Winber Hotel.
We went the wrong way and wandered into D’Arc’s Pizza Shop instead. I was pulled inside by a collection of atmospheric photos of the D’Arcangelo family. Back in the fifties and sixties, before poverty and drugs swallowed up Windber, D’Arcs was a hangout for teens on Friday nights.
Mr. D invited them in for a slice and a pop, and they were allowed to congregate upstairs. Nowadays, the kids hang outside the Sheetz, smoking cigarettes and showing off their new tattoos.
I immersed myself in the D’Arcangelos. Now I remember nothing. Or almost. I think Mr. D’s name was Peter D’Arcangelo.
I chatted up Cindy Decewicz, who’s a real sweetheart. When I probed deeper into Windber history, she summoned Bill Dressick from the kitchen. Bill’s grandfather came here from Poland.
His father mined the rich bituminous seams hereabouts for a half-century.
His grandfather died of black lung disease. Bill never knew him.
Bill’s my kind of guy. He has a firm grip on Berwind/Windber history. When the subject turned to Berwind, an amused scorn slipped into his tone. The miners, he said, had it rough.
“They were virtual slaves,” Dressick said. “White slaves. But they were ‘paid.’”
When the miners struck in 1922, Berwind sent in club-swinging goons on horseback to drive them from company-owned homes. The Berwinds had the whole town locked up tight, from the mines to the company store to the timber on the ridges outside of town.
“Just like Tennessee Ernie Ford,” Dressick said. “If you bought your groceries somewhere else, you didn’t have a home. You didn’t have a roof over your head.”
We were the only people in the joint. Mostly out of guilt, we ordered a pizza. When we returned to the camper, guilt turned to gustatory pleasure. The pie was damned good. Best pizza I’d had in a long time.
Well, Bill said he’d be at the Eureka Coal Heritage Foundation in the morning. He offered to give me a tour of the old company store.
I wanted to meet up with Bill and mine his stories in the morning. I also want to stay married to Becky. And she didn’t want to spend another night in Johnstown.
Alas, it was time to go home.
For now, I’ll leave you with a posthumous word from Mr. D: