The Hippo


Jul 5, 2020








Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood,
by Paul Hertneky (Bauhan Publishing, 222 pages)

By Jennifer Graham

 It’s been four decades since the U.S. steel industry melted, giving rise to the Rust Belt, the collection of hollowed-out cities that have yet to recover from the loss of manufacturing plants and the resulting exodus of workers. 

Places like Pittsburgh, Toledo and Youngstown may never regain the population they boasted when the region was called the Steel Belt and immigrant workers helped to forge iconic structures like the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower and the Astrodome.
After the jobs left, so did hundreds of thousands of the workers, accompanied by rich memories of idyllic childhoods in the once thriving towns. 
Hancock resident Paul Hertneky shares his in Rust Belt Boy, Stories of an American Childhood, a warm and elegant memoir of growing up with two parents and four siblings in a steel town scented with brisket, cigarettes, hairspray and sweat. His was a Leave-It-To-Beaver sort of existence, made even more perfect by the fact that Hertneky’s hometown is in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Truly.
It was a place where families walked arm-in-arm down the main street for pleasure, men congregated on street corners to smoke; where families of wildly diverse origin “spilled into public out of necessity” and where children made baseballs out of crumpled tin foil and played basketball without baskets. 
It may not have been the America where you grew up, but it was the America a lot of people wished existed today for their kids.
And there was the steel. “Our lives were filled with discarded molten material — ash used for traction in the snow, nuggets of pig iron, sharp metal sheets, iron filings we gathered with magnets, mercury we kept as a treasured plaything, pipes welded together for the batting cage and plates walling our steel dugouts, corrugated sheets we learned to cut and bend into sleds and shields.”
Like any good memoir, the deeply personal stories find an audience beyond the family’s dinner table because of their universal themes: love, loss and longing. There are no hurricanes, no zombies and no terrorist attacks in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, nothing to build the page-turning tension that Hollywood craves (but for the occasional loss of limb and life at a neighborhood factory).
There’s just a boy growing up amid the “Bridgers,” with parents named Milt and Betty, who presided over their household like amiable royalty, he arriving home from his factory shift at 5:15 sharp every day, always cheerful and smiling; she a mom who “put out” like others of her generation: meaning, she put out platters of food when a visitor arrived. It was the plainest kind of blessing, but perhaps the best kind, Hertneky writes.
“These evenings followed each other like waves on a beach, and from the moment I gained any perspective on them — probably during my first summer living away from home — they supplied my earliest sense of empathy for all the kids and mothers who were treated with indifference and cruelty. … Because I can still draw into my chest the daily anticipation and joy at my own father’s arrival, planted there by reliability, repetition, and rhythm, I can at least imagine life without it, life with an equally predictable sense of terror.”
The characters of Ambridge are memorable. There is the football coach who would follow nimble kids from the playground home so he could extol the value of team sports to skeptical parents. Who spent three months learning Polish so he could charm a family that didn’t speak English. 
There is the uncle so enamored of the ocean that he siphoned 10 gallons of seawater from the Massachusetts Bay, lugged it to a closet on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and drank a few ounces every morning, convinced that it was the ultimate elixir of well-being. “His wake,” Hertneky writes, “was wet with reverence.”
There is the mother of a girlfriend, one of the “moms who put out,” who would be pulling baked ziti out of the oven when Hertneky would bring his date home close to midnight. “She never left the kitchen, canning tomatoes or beans, sweating through August afternoons, or perched on a stool at night, smoking Larks and listening to talk radio, ready with an apple or ricotta pie.” 
Amid this luxury of personality, Hertneky matures, from the blond and blow-tied 5-year-old that beams from the book’s cover to a lawyer saddled with so much student-loan debt (a figure “that darkened the entire room. More than my parents’ mortgage.”) that he decides to return to Ambridge for a steel job. In the mills, he got a dose of something every worker needs. “As a result of working for O’Leary, no boss would ever scare me again. I could fear losing a job, but Jimmy made me afraid of losing blood and teeth.”
Rust Belt Boy is a coming-of-age story, minus the modern genre’s staples of excessive profanity, lechery and pain. It is a PG-rated reminiscence of a G-rated time, startlingly lovely at times, and deeply wise. It benefits from knowledge of a Steel Belt city, even more from knowledge of Pittsburgh, but that is not necessary to appreciate its loving treatment of an important corner of American history. A — Jennifer Graham
Paul Hertneky will speak at the Hancock Library, 25 Main St. in Hancock, at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9. 

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