Writer chronicles growing up in '60s Ambridge
Ambridge was once a center of industry, home to steelmakers American Bridge Co., Armco and A.M. Byers, and a diverse community where bars and churches were bastions of fellowship. Today, with big steel gone for three decades, Ambridge is often viewed as a dying town, its abandoned buildings the predominant takeaway by visitors.
Paul Hertneky, the author of “Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood” (Bauhan Publishing, $21.95), rails against the idea that his hometown and other communities that lost the economic engines of big industry have been served death sentences.
“Every once in a while, I'll snap a picture of a very beautiful and tidy neighborhood,” says Hertneky, who is making a series of appearances in the area. “A lot of these towns are sort of in patchwork. They're still intact and readjusting, trying to find their way back. They'll never be back to what they were because of change, but when I see (newspapers) refer to these places as dying, I bristle at that. I like to see them as surviving, and in some cases, flourishing.”
“Rust Belt Boy” is a series of linked essays about growing up in Ambridge during the '60s, an idyllic era when jobs were plentiful and home life stable. A 1973 graduate of Ambridge High School, Hertneky considers Ambridge to be a border town, an outpost between Sewickley and its New England ethos and the massive Conway Yard, the second-largest railway yard in the country.
“I felt as if Ambridge was this stronghold in the middle that still had the ethnic variety of New York, of the Northeast, and was only a few miles from the border of Ohio, where the land tended to flatten out and everything became more of the Midwest,” says Hertneky, who lives in New Hampshire and serves on the faculty of Chatham University.
Growing up in a Slovak household, Hertneky was fascinated by his heritage and even devotes one chapter to “The Prurient Power of Pierogi.” But his parents, grandparents and their peers had no interest in history. In Ambridge's schools, the proximity to Logstown, a significant 18th-century Native American settlement, or the historic site Old Economy Village were barely mentioned.
For the generations that had escaped dreadful conditions in Europe and survived two world wars, it was more important to look forward than back.
“They were making a new life,” Hertneky says of his parents and grandparents. “That whole Manifest Destiny idea, I think, was more important to them than what had been. In many cases, looking back was painful. … And unless you had a specialized interest in (Logstown or the Harmony Society), they were widely ignored by our educators.”
After his junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, Hertneky was offered a full-time job at Armco, where he had worked for the summer. He turned that job down, flirted with law school after graduating from college, then took a job at a trucking company before moving to Massachusetts to establish himself as a writer.
While he was growing up, Hertneky's grandmother always said her grandson “has the luck.” Good fortune was attached to him at an early age, and it seemed to fit. Unlike many of his high-school classmates, Hertneky got a college education. He avoided becoming a victim of the steel industry's collapse, instead forging a writing career that sustains him to this day.
So the question must be asked: Does he, as his grandmother said, have the luck?
“I think it's an advantage to go through life with the feeling that you might be lucky,” Hertneky says. “I think some people might say you make your own life, but what my parents and grandparents gave me was this feeling that things could turn out well for me. … That even if you had lemons, you could feel lucky for having lemons. They approached life with a great deal of gratitude, and it's hard not to feel lucky when you've had a reasonably good and safe life, and you're taught to be grateful for it.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.