Editor’s note: I apologize. Really. It’s the least I can do.
I am guilty. I am guilty of too many things. As far as this journal goes, I am guilty of inexcusable lapses. I am guilty of bracketing long periods of inactivity around a flurry of stories that jump all over the place with a dizzying disregard for the dictates of time and place. One minute I’m in western Pennsylvania in 2002, the next Havre, Montana, in August of 2013.
It makes no sense at all. I know this. I have few enough readers as it is without trying to chase off the stalwarts with an inscrutable, infuriating penchant for chaos.
It is my mind, sadly. Disorder is the order of the day in my unkempt cerebral cortex. It’s a mess up there.
This story stretches back to December 2002. After a whirlwind, unconventional courtship, Becky and I set out across the country to start our new life on the shores of Dyes Inlet. We were lured into Windber by a sign touting it as Johnny Weismuller’s hometown. And so we went. We’ve never totally left.
We returned to Windber two weeks ago. We will always return to Windber. It is enmeshed in the narrative of our journey.
Thanks for your patience.
Dec. 3, 2002:
Welcome to Windber.
Windber, Pa., is in Somerset County, just south of Paint, which sits just south of Scalp Level.
Last night Becky and I stayed at the Twin Pines Motel in Indiana, Pa. In the parking lot. In the car. We tried to sleep, but mostly we just stayed awake. We twisted and turned and groaned in hopeless search of a comfort which would encourage sleep.
Turns out sleeping two to a packed Plymouth Neon is not all that viable.
As consequence, we spent most of the day wandering semi-conscious in metropolitan Johnstown.
At Johnstown, we paid $8 each to tour the flood museum. Can’t say it wasn’t worth it. What a timeless, amazing American story, the great Johnstown flood of 1889.
Steel barons from Pittsburgh, fabled names like Carnegie, Frick and Mellon, flocked here in search of a leisure befitting their social status. They lolled about a rich man’s playground they called South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, never bothering to worry about the decrepit old dam which kept Lake Conemaugh in check.
The dam, originally built as part of Pennsylvania’s canal system, had been finished in 1852. Long before the calamity, the drainage pipes which allowed the water level to be lowered had been removed and sold for scrap.
They lowered the road at the dam in order to widen it and allow two carriages to pass at one time, alleviating the need for pastoral days sullied by idle waiting. They stocked the lake, buying 1,000 bass at a buck a pop. They installed screens to keep the fish in, screens that clogged the spillway.
On May 31, 1889, after several days of rain, the dam busted, spewing 20 million gallons of water into the valley.
By the time it got to Johnstown, 14 miles to the southwest, Lake Conemaugh had formed a roiling mountain of woods and houses and train cars and personal belongings and flesh and bone and hopes and dreams. An hour after the dam gave way, the 40-foot-tall colossus hit Johnstown with the fury of a petulant god. When it was all over, the Johnstown Flood had washed 2,200 people from the face of the earth.
The museum? Disappointing, inevitably, but nonetheless illuminating. We were a party of two occupying a tour-guide named Sally, a fourth-generation Johnstowner whose grandmother and her great-grandparents survived the flood.
The highlight of the day was found at Sam Stevens shoe repair shop, 2010 Graham Ave., in the heart of Windber’s Little Italy. As Little Italys go, Windber’s is, well, little.
We found our way into Windber early in the day, lured by a sign on Highway 56 touting it as the home of Johnny Weissmuller, i.e. Tarzan the Ape Man.
Peter Johann Weissmuller gets lost in this narrative, which is kind of a pity. He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and died in Acapulco. In between he found time to win five Olympic gold medals in swimming. He won 52 U.S. national championships and set 67 world records. He even won us a bronze medal in water polo. Oh, yeah, he starred in 20 Tarzan films.
Somewhere along the way he spent some quality time in Windber. I’d be remiss not to give Johnny a shout-out:
Johnny Weissmuller, for all his old world charm, was eclipsed by Geno Stevens. What can I say about Geno Stevens, son of Sam “Salvatore” Stevens (who opened the shoe repair shop back in 1915)?
Not much now.
But this: Geno, now 73, is a genuine fucking lunatic. A lovable lunatic, though. The plastic, life-size signs out front celebrating Windber prep football legends caused our eyes to bulge. Ron “Link” Younker. Nunzio Marino and Walt Cominsky, aka the “Touchdown Twins.” Bud Bossick. And Frank Kush, who would become the most famous of them all. The gang’s all here.
A sign above the door bills the shop as “the Las Vegas of Windber.”
Becky asked what that meant. Geno said, “Well, I put that there.”
Inside, the environment is an intoxicating brew of shoe polish and oil and grease and the decay of the ages. In other words, wonderful.
Clippings line one wall, ancient shoe-saving machines line another. I’m not sure if Geno even repairs shoes anymore, or ever knew how. His dad died in 1983, and Geno was left to keep the old place alive. He lives in a duplex next door. He stands about 5-foot-4. Round in the middle, his brown eyes shine with a luminous hint of schizophrenia. Short fingers are stained with the residue of shoe repair.
Maybe he is a shoe man after all.
Sam Stevens shoe-repair emporium is a one-man love letter to a dying town. It is a living relic, a wildly eccentric Windber High School football hall of fame.
Geno Stevens says some curious things. Most of them are unprovoked.
“If you get a chest cold, and it goes up into your head, and then back down into your chest, go to the drug store and get the name brand, the good stuff,” he said with an avuncular tone. “Robitussin is what you need.”
But our favorite was his patriotic endorsement he delivered for the good, old U.S.A.
He had been talking about the great Nunzio Marino when he paused over a photocopy of a newspaper story from 1943, looked up and said, “America is strong; like a mixed drink.”
Geno Stevens will always be Windber to us. Poor Windber. It’s nestled on a plateau 1,853 feet above sea level and ringed by the forbidding ridges of the Alleghenies. The population hovers right around 4,000, less than half of the 9,000-plus who lived here in 1940.
The ambiance recalls the hometown of Stefan Djordjevic, Tom Cruise’s character in “All the Right Moves” (the movie, it turns out, was filmed in Johnstown). Depression, frustration and hopelessness line the cracking streets and grimy storefronts.
It wasn’t always thus.
In 1897, coal kings Charles and Edward Julius Berwind came here from Philadephia, reversed the syllables of their surname and found themselves a new gold mine in the guise of a thriving little town. Windber sprang to life as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Berwind White Coal Company.
Miners came here from all over eastern Europe. They scratched out lives in typically hazardous conditions, rented company homes and fell into debt at the company store. Those were the good old days. When Berwind evicted them during the 1922 strike, miners lived in tents on the hills outside of town.
As was custom then, and now seems to be regaining favor across the land, the Berwinds were flinty, cold-hearted bastards. Nowadays E.J. Berwind lies just 20 miles from where I sit now. I hope he is comfortable.
Back to Geno. Geno was genial. Geno was happy to entertain. Geno was happy to share. Geno was unable to answer a single question directly.
Asked about the gridiron stars out front, Geno turned on his heels and shuffled to a back room, returning soon with a stack of newspaper clippings touting the exploits of Windber’s boys of yore.
Geno, like his beloved town, mostly lives in the past.
He is an eccentric, an indefatigable talker. It is difficult to make sense of just what he is on about at any given moment. Mostly he talked Windber football, but at any moment he might slip into a brief diatribe about windmills or I-bonds or pharmaceutical remedies or basketball strategy or dietary requirements or just about anything else under the goddamn sun.
“My father died of excessive water retention,” he said. “He was 101. Why’d they give him diuretics? What’s a diuretic? Tea.”
“Heinz Field? Like I told you, they should dig it up and … I think they should use the sponge.”
He stopped long enough to put inner soles in my shoes, free of cost and free of ask. He just did it. My feet feel 100 percent better today. Thank you, Geno.
Geno is a whirlwind of nonsensical verbiage. Yet he is oddly captivating. Note to self: Get a video recorder, return to Windber and film Geno. He kept piling clippings on me as I scribbled illegible notes on the back of his business cards.
It all came at me too fast, impossible to record. He asked where we were from.
Philadelphia, you say? What newspapers do they have there?
Becky named the Inquirer and Daily News, for starters. Geno urged us to take these clippings to the respective editors in charge and tell them to print them. He kept saying he hopes USA Today does the story. Said he’d send them off tomorrow.
We were captivated by his goofy smile and amiable nuttiness.
We’d lost track of the time when a stranger walked through the door.
We excused ourselves, thanking Geno for his time.
Outside on the sidewalk with the Touchdown Twins gazing in our direction, Becky smiled. She couldn’t help herself. She was laughing, in love with oddball America.
“Does this happen to you all the time?” was all she could say.