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I am eight years old when my father saves himself the first time, by moving us from a rambling Craftsman in a leafy Pittsburgh suburb to the squat clapboard box three hours north on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest.
Dad is thirty-one at the time, and he is having his midlife crisis early. What he tells us kids is that he isn’t comfortable with the ethics of his successful career as a young stockbroker. He also tells us that he doesn’t want to be one of those dads who miss their sons’ little league games because they are stuck at the office downtown in Gateway Center. He wants to spend time with us, and what better place to do that than in the woods that surround his and my mom’s small hometown of Kane, Pennsylvania? We will be safe from the dangers of urban life and will thrive in the clear, brisk air of the Allegheny Mountains, he promises us.
What Dad tells his friends but doesn’t tell us kids—and what I will only learn thirty-five years later, on the day he dies—is that he has always wanted to retire to Kane, but he knows it is unlikely he will make it to retirement age. The diabetes he has been living with since the age of thirteen means if he wants to spend time clambering through the woods with his three sons, he’d better do it while he’s still young.
A sensitive boy, effeminate and a bit snobby, I am not at all sure that this move is a good idea. I feel plenty safe in Thornburg, where oversized Arts and Crafts bungalows dot a wooded hillside five miles out from downtown Pittsburgh. We have plenty of woods to play in, sloping sharply behind our houses down to the railroad tracks and the muddy Chartiers Creek below. We also have frequent trips into the city, exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnel to the sudden, magical vista of the Golden Triangle’s metallic towers, and then down the river and up the hill to Oakland, where we can walk among the bones of ancient dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and select that week’s new books to borrow at the Carnegie Library.
But Dad decides we will move during the summer of 1973, and Mom agrees, despite her own deep attachment to Thornburg. The five of us traipse around the Kane area, looking at potential new homes, and I am decidedly disappointed by the local housing stock. Just a few houses in town are built from brick or stone, and none of these is up for sale. All the houses we look at are eighty-year-old two-story clapboards with narrow windows and utilitarian trim, the only significant architectural variable being whether or not a house’s original clapboards have been covered by aluminum siding, which tries but fails to mimic the wood underneath.
We are beginning to despair when someone tells Dad we should go check out the old Riegel house in Sergeant, a tiny village four miles outside of Kane. We drive out Route 321, passing several clumps of modest “factory houses,” which my mom explains were built for workers in factories that have long been shut down. With some difficulty, we find the unmarked dirt road “after the three houses on the left and just before the three houses on the right.” After a brief descent, we cross a gurgling stream on an earthen bridge before the road curves back deeper into the woods. To our left is a deep, dark forest of towering evergreens. On the steep grade to the right, a canopy of delicate green maples and beech allow dapples of late-day sunlight to filter down to the riotous understory of ferns and moss and baby trees. About a quarter mile farther, we park in the gravel lot in front of the house.
The house is a large, squat rectangle with white clapboard walls and a green-shingled hip roof. The roof has a narrow brick chimney and a single narrow dormer that houses not a window but rather permanently closed shutters. Tacked to the front of the house is another rectangular box, a porch of dark green wooden shingles. The porch has been closed in by one of the house’s previous owners, white clapboard filling the area above the shingles, except for one squat window on each side and a simple wooden storm door in the middle. The main body of the house has uniformly narrow rectangular windows placed at rather large intervals from each other, their wooden frames painted black. Everything about the house seems designed not for any kind of aesthetic interest but instead with the dogged, single-minded determination to keep out cold winter air.
By the time I have decided the house is not interesting enough even to be ugly, Dad is walking back up the hill, saying, “This is it. This is the house.” It turns out the gurgling stream we had crossed on the earthen bridge continues parallel to the road and flows right through the yard of the house, and Dad is sure that the stream is full of trout. Mom protests quietly that we haven’t even seen the inside of the house yet, but she is weakening under the infection of my father’s enthusiasm, and she begins peeking in windows to see if the house might have a little more character on the inside than it has on the outside (it doesn’t). Meanwhile, my younger brothers are already down in the stream catching crayfish, and I know then that this is where we will live.
Dad and Tommy and I move first, so that we can start the new school year at Chestnut Street Elementary, while Mom stays back in Thornburg with toddler Pete to sell the old house. Dad has traded in his racing green Mustang fastback for a beat-up Econoline van so that we can move our belongings one weekend at a time, and we spend the first month sleeping bachelor-style on two twin beds pushed together in the dining room, I in one and my dad in the other, with five-year-old Tommy sleeping lengthwise across the bottom of both beds.
Dad is a man of many enthusiasms, and in these early years in Kane most of those enthusiasms take us even deeper into the woods than the dark hollow where the sturdy, dull clapboard house sits. We fish for elusive brook trout in the spring, pick blackberries in summer, collect and identify colorful leaves in fall, and cross-country ski in winter from our car left near the top of the mountain to a backwoods tavern at the bottom.
Most of Dad’s enthusiasms involve food in one way or another, which leads to a few culinary mishaps along the way, like the time he is inspired by natural food guru Euell Gibbons to experiment with edible wildflowers. The violets he adds to the fancy omelet have little effect on the flavor but turn the eggs an electric purple. When a suicidal pheasant flies smack into the window above the kitchen sink, Dad says he will make us pheasant under glass, but by the time he meticulously plucks the healthy-sized bird, he realizes that its carcass is so small that it will be more like pheasant under martini glass. Then there is the winter he invests in all the equipment needed to tap maple trees, including an antique gas stove so that we can slow boil the sap down in the dark basement. After weeks of plodding through muddy melting snow to collect our harvest each day, and after days and days of watching the sap boil, we learn that the maples on our property are not in fact proper sugar maples and that we kids much prefer the smooth blandness of Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth.
Through all our adventures in the muddy woods, I can’t help but notice the stone and metal ruins that seem to lurk everywhere beneath the fern-carpeted understory, evidence of some sort of mysterious earlier civilization. The largest and most noticeable ruin is the red clapboard structure leaning perilously onto the railroad tracks a hundred yards farther down the unnamed dirt road from our house. Peering through the dirty windows of this crooked depot, we identify a huge, decommissioned meat cooler and an old-style general store with a bank of postal boxes labeled “U.S. Mail.” More mysterious is the wood-paneled office with the sign “Otto Chemical Company” hanging outside. How, we wonder, does one make chemicals in the middle of the woods, and why is there no factory visible anywhere?
Amateur archaeologists, we learn to identify industrial and domestic ruins in our wanderings through the woods: Half-buried railroad tracks lead us to a large tin shed where a perfectly preserved steam engine is parked for posterity. A rainbow glint in the mossy concrete under our feet might signal a half-buried glass brick or electrical insulator, remnants of the glassworks closed long before we were born. Rusty metal can appear anywhere: ten-foot-diameter tanks, pipes to nowhere, antique oil wells that are still pumping away.
The domestic remains feature stone steps to nowhere, or perhaps to a crumbling, half-buried stone foundation. They tend to be lined up in rows, not unlike the rows of still-extant “factory houses” scattered here and there throughout Sergeant. Clues to a domestic past can also be found in signs of flora inappropriate to the overgrown forest: a wormy apple tree here, a German Iris there, a patch of foxglove or brilliant blue lupines never seen in wilder parts of the area.
My personal favorite ruin is a magical stone pool on the hillside above the glassworks, whose solid walls dam a cold stream from higher up the hill. We climb the uneven concrete steps, pass through the unlocked chain-link gate, and come upon clear, cold water in which darts the brown brilliance of a school of brook trout. Dad doesn’t let us fish in this pool, though, telling us it would not be a fair battle with the fish, who are trapped here and have not learned how to protect themselves from various types of predators, unlike the wilder trout in the streams. Fishing here, he explains, would be a kind of cheating on our part; we could not be proud of catching a fish in this pool because doing so would not demonstrate any particular skill or smart strategy or dogged persistence on our part.
Concurrent to my growing awareness that the nature surrounding us is not quite as pure and unspoiled as Dad has advertised comes the gradual realization that small-town life is not always as safe as it claims to be. To his friends in Pittsburgh and other cities, my dad is fond of reciting the local police report, identical almost every single day in the Kane Republican newspaper and on radio station WKZA: “The police report that they have nothing to report.” Kane residents shudder at news reports of muggings, murders, and auto thefts in places like New York City, and they brag of leaving their houses unlocked when they go on vacation, their keys in the ignition while they sleep at night.
But as I lurch from sissy-boy childhood toward awkward adolescence, I find myself lying awake for hours each night, vigilant to the threat of monsters who lurk in the huge closet in my tiny bedroom. For the first year or so, I see shadows of vampires waiting for me to drift off so that they can sink their barbed teeth into my delicate neck. Then there’s the brief period when the shadows take the form of John Wilkes Booth, sneaking up from behind to assassinate me in the Ford Theater of my bedroom. Scariest of all, though, is the few years after I spend a lazy summer afternoon thumbing through photos in the book Helter Skelter, which my older cousins have left casually on the floor of the back seat of Aunt Gay’s Pontiac Bonneville. By the end of elementary school, I know that vampires don’t exist and that presidential assassins do not set their sights on small town sissy boys, but serial killers like Charles Manson and his followers are real; they can appear anywhere, following a logic that only they understand. One could be right there in my closet, waiting until the moment just after I have fallen asleep to strike.
By seventh grade the locus of my fear is no longer what I imagine at night in my own bedroom but rather what I experience each day in Kane Area Junior High School. What had earlier been casual disdain for the ways in which I did not live up to local standards of masculinity hardens into something more vicious and more unrelenting. I make the mistake of hanging out with Fred Leseker, the school’s most notorious sissy boy. My classmates—mostly the boys but some girls as well—fall into the ritual practice of shouting out “Davey boy! Faggot!” each time they see me, followed invariably by what is known locally as a “growler”: They grip my downy chin in their tightened fist and twist as hard as they can.
The growlers and the faggot chant follow me everywhere through the waxed linoleum hallways and the lunchroom and study hall, most often when teachers are not around but sometimes when they are. (They do nothing.) It happens every day, multiple times per day, until one day in May when I just can’t take it anymore and I knock Sean Lindstrom’s fist off my chin, and that is the last growler. I also dump Fred Leseker as a friend, and I resolve to do everything in my power to muzzle those parts of me that my classmates find so offensive. I chant to myself: I will become…I will become…I will become…a normal boy…a normal guy…a normal man.
By the time I lead the graduate procession across the stage of the Kane High auditorium, I have learned to repress the most stigmatized of my predilections, but I can’t wait to get out of that town. My first steps of freedom take me to preppy havens in Upstate New York, but then I transfer to Harvard and discover that city life is most definitely the life for me. The lessons of Kane Junior High and the growlers are hard to unlearn, so it takes about five more years for me to find my bearings, but once I lose my virginity at twenty-two to a pretty white boy from Tennessee, there is no stopping me. I live in gay ghettoes, I study queer literature, I fall in love with a few men and in lust with many others.
In this new, adult life, I live in eight cities on three continents, from Cairo to Los Angeles to São Paulo to my long-term home in Jersey City, straight across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. I get mugged a few times, but in all these cities put together, I am called “faggot” fewer times than in a single lunch period at Kane Junior High. I feel safe, and I do not miss the mud.
To save himself the second time, my father must retrace his steps in the opposite direction, traveling this time from the house in the woods back into the heart of Pittsburgh. By 1994, Dad is in his early fifties, and his kidneys have been ravaged by forty years of living with type 1 diabetes. A transplant seems the only way to give him more time with us, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is on the cutting edge of transplant science. When he finally gets the call, Dad rushes to Oakland, where surgeons wait with not just a kidney but also a pancreas harvested from the abdomen of an unlucky motorcyclist.
The salvaged kidney saves Dad’s life and grants us ten unanticipated years with a relatively healthy father. His body rejects the pancreas, though, so Dad continues the familiar ritual several times a day of pricking his finger, testing the blood on a hand-held monitor, and sticking an insulin syringe through his loose khaki pants straight into the flesh of his bony thigh.
By the summer of 2008, Dad’s “new,” recycled kidney has itself been ravaged by his disease, and complications from a second failed pancreas transplant attempt have made things worse. Now all of us are called back to Pittsburgh to see him through open heart surgery, progressive amputations, and, worst of all, weeks at a time in a smelly old mansion in Shadyside repurposed as a renal care nursing home. Almost always my mother is at his side, and Tommy is often there as well, while I check in daily from Jersey City. However, the week when I would normally be celebrating Gay Pride in New York, Mom and Tommy have other things they need to take care of, and so I head to Pittsburgh to look after Dad.
My week at the renal care center with Dad is a quiet one, with none of the major setbacks we have all become so used to. I sit there with him, helping him when he needs it, and we send each other silent messages as he improves slowly day by day. The message from me to my Dad is simply that I am there. He is in a bad place, and I have left my life to come and take care of him. This lets him know what perhaps neither he nor I had been sure of before: that he is one of the most important men in my life, maybe the most important. The message Dad sends to me is that he appreciates this, that he is happy to learn it, or at least to have it confirmed. He is proud that I have become not just a principled and respected academic but also a caring person who will look after his sickly father for a week in a smelly nursing home in Pittsburgh.
That summer, as my father is dying, I spend more time with my family than I have since I left Kane twenty-six years earlier, and, in particular, I get to know my brother Tommy better. Tommy and I talk about his work as a forester in the Kane area, unusually slow in 2008 as the local economy shifts from timber to the rapidly expanding fracking industry. “It’s a real shame,” he tells me, “that the timber market is collapsing just when most of the forest around here is coming to maturity. Since the whole area was basically stripped to nothing by the time the National Forest came in in the twenties, all the timber is coming of age at more or less the same time, about eighty years later.”
I ask Tommy what he means by everything being stripped, and he tells me that, yes, the timber and chemical industries basically clear-cut the entire Allegheny plateau region in the years leading up to 1930. When the Forest Service came in and bought up half the area’s land on the cheap in 1923, there really was no forest to speak of, just a wasteland of stumps and scrub and hardly any deer. The forest we know—both the Allegheny National Forest and the privately owned mountainsides that surround it—has all grown up out of that brush heap over the past eighty-five years. The profitable hardwoods like black cherry and red maple that the timber industry so prizes have only been able to thrive due to the open sunlight of the widespread clear-cuts, creating a new, carefully cultivated generation of trees that bears little resemblance to the aboriginal forest of hemlock, pine, and beech.
The more I learn about the Allegheny brush heap, the more the forest residues of my childhood start to make sense, and the more I feel like I have caught my dad in a big lie. Yes, one can manufacture chemicals in the middle of the woods, but only by devouring those very woods. The forest I had grown up in isn’t so “natural” after all. It is hardly unspoiled, if the whole region had been reduced a hundred years ago to an industrial brush heap. It is hardly wild, if the make-up of the forest has been intentionally manipulated to favor species that had been only minor players in the “original” woods. It is all a big fraud: I hadn’t grown up in some kind of virgin wilderness, but rather in the middle of a giant tree farm that worked to mask a history of massive environmental destruction.
By the middle of August, I am back in Pittsburgh one more time, staying in the UPMC Family House with my mother and helping her keep track of Dad’s constant redeployments between the various hospitals and units that cling to Pitt’s steep Oakland hillside. One quiet afternoon, I am alone with Dad in the medical ICU, feeding him the last slice of a homemade blackberry pie dropped off by good friends. I cut off each bite carefully for him, wanting to make sure that the last bite would be what my friend Jack refers to as the “choice bite”—that one (last) bite that includes the perfect mix of one’s very favorite parts of a particular meal or dish. Dad notices that I am doing this, and it delights him as only the carefully calibrated appreciation of good food can. We discover that even though we don’t like our pie made the same way (he prefers it bitter, and I like it sweet), we have exactly the same idea about what makes for the choice bite of a piece of pie: a tiny piece of the crisp outer crust drenched in the mush where the filling meets the lower crust, with one single berry thrown in the mix.
Dad dies a few nights later while Mom and I are sleeping at the Family House. After I call my brothers and a few close friends, Mom and I pack up her SUV and I drive her home to Kane. There, before doing anything else, I rampage through the old clapboard house, grabbing every medical supply and device I can find and banishing them to the dark back corner of the basement. Then I step out into the brilliant cool sunlight and look up at the towering spruce and pine, and I cry and cry and cry.
On a brilliant August afternoon one year later, the whole family gathers on the bank of Wilson Run, the cold stream that had made my father so certain this was the house for us thirty-six years earlier. While the rest of us watch from the mossy stone ledge that protects the yard from the stream, my brothers walk solemnly through the woods and then down to the large, flat rock under the old steel bridge that connects to the pine forest on the other side. Honoring Dad’s aspiration that he be reincarnated as a brook trout, they unpack the plastic bag of ashes from its neat cardboard box and then cut the bag open with one of his good cooking knives. Both holding a corner of the gallon-sized bag, they dump the ashes into the fast current and then stand there silently as the ashes head downstream.
I am surprised by how voluminous the ashes become once they are in the water. I didn’t even think they would be visible by the time they traveled the thirty yards to where we are sitting, but I am wrong. The narrow flow spreads into a wide cloud of dark gray presence, which then flows downstream like a sky-cloud on a clear but windy day.
|© 2023, David Blackmore||Go to top