We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.
My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him. It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books. Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.
After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate. The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree, they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.
The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries. Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid. It had a very strong alcohol smell. We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for this task was that when the polka band had played “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine, he took a big swig, and then seemed struck speechless.
The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP, so for about 10 minutes, Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.
My father seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly threw out some pumpkin seeds and the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.
Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter. He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids played on it for years.
The backyard also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees. The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.
Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley. This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler. There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of blood stains on it. Once when I was sent to buy ribs, he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.
My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.