Sympathy for Rusting America
There’s a new TV series with Jeff Daniels playing a sheriff with tangled loyalties, in a faded steel town in the Mon Valley of Pennsylvania.
As soon as I heard about it, I said, “Hey, wait, I know that place.”
I came to know it, and root for it, in 2009-10, when I was working on the biography of Stan Musial, the great star of the St. Louis Cardinals, who grew up where the Monongahela River twists between the hills and fading towns and dormant steel mills.
Humankind has since screwed up a lot more places, probably irrevocably.
The Mon Valley was a signpost, a warning, of what we were doing. After the steel mills and coal mines were played out, some people were still living in, essentially, the ruins.
That is the site of the new series, “American Rust,” from the book of the same name, by Philipp Meyer, which had just come out in 2009, when I began my research on Musial and his roots. Musial’s dad had migrated from Poland to work in the mills, joined by immigrants from Europe and Africa and the east coast.
I read that the new series was filmed in studios in modern high-tech Pittsburgh, but some of the exteriors were shot in Monessen, just across the Stan Musial Bridge from Donora, where Musial grew up. He played basketball and baseball for Donora High, but his first baseball tryout was conducted in Monessen, where the St. Louis Cardinals had one of their many farm teams.
From what I read, Daniels’ TV town is as gray as the smoke-filled skies from the 1948 Halloween killer smoke cloud, known as “The Donora Smog.” (Stan Musial’s dad, Lukasz, breathed too much of that smog, trapped under an inversion on that October night, and was dead two months later – too much American rust in his lungs.)
Musial was no longer capable of giving interviews when I worked on the book – he would die in 2013 -- but other people took me around the valley.
One of my tour guides was a local hero named Bimbo Cecconi, a former Pitt football star and coach, now living up near Pittsburgh, who walked the hills of Donora and told me about the athletes from his hometown – Deacon Dan Towler of the Los Angeles Rams and Arnold Galiffa who played at West Point, and three generations of ball-playing Griffeys – Buddy and Ken and Ken Junior.
Bimbo escorted me to the Donora Public Library where Donnis Headley became a helpful source. When the Donora microfilm machine was out of commission, she directed me across the river to the Monessen library, where I read old clips about Musial and the two towns.
My other guide was Dr. Charles Stacey, who had been the superintendent of schools, and still lives on the main street, McKean Ave. Dr. Stacey gave me a black T-shirt with the legend Donora Smog Museum, which he had opened in the shell of a former Chinese restaurant.
Dr. Stacey was also a mentor to Reggie B. Walton, once a football star on the verge of gang trouble, who willed himself to a historically Black college and a federal judgeship in Washington, D.C. Judge Walton is a Republican who has delivered decisive and apolitical rulings.
As I walked around with Dr. Stacey, I expressed interest in talking to Judge Walton A week later, my home phone rang and a man said, “This is Reggie Walton….” He said Charles Stacey had asked him to call me – one of the honors of my working life. I wonder if this new series will take note of this accomplished judge who came out of the American Rust.
I learned other things from my days in the Mon Valley.
-- “Monongahela” is of Native American origin, meaning “river with the sliding banks” or “high banks that break off and fall down.”
--A young surveyor from Virginia, George Washington, was an aide to Gen. Edwin Braddock who was killed in action further downstream in the French and Indian War in 1755.
-- The names of Monessen and Donora are both amalgamations.
--- Monessen’s name is a salute to the German emigrées, from the industrial town of Essen.
-- Donora was named by industrialist Andrew Mellon of Pittsburgh, who built a new steel town at the end of a freight line. Mellon honored W.H, Donner, an executive who had made a lot of money for him, and also honored Mellon’s young wife, whom he had brought over from Europe -- Nora McMullen. The Mellon marriage did not last long but the odd mixture of names survives in a gritty town with memories.
I came away from my visits to Donora and Monessen with the same rooting interest I have for Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, further down the Appalachian chain, where I used to work. I cringe when I hear about the rampant use of opioids, the crime statistics, the dropouts, in Appalachia, and I gather that is the backdrop to this new series.
I’ve seen a few of Jeff Daniels’ interviews on TV, and he always stresses that while he works in Hollywood or Broadway, he always goes home, to Michigan – “Fly-Over Country,” I heard him say, using the ironic term midwestern people use for their part of the country.
Maybe I’ll catch some of “American Rust” sometime; (I don’t have Showtime on my cable package.) Some of the reviews I’ve read are not ecstatic, but I wonder: is Appalachia just not sexy enough for Americans?
After all, “The Sopranos,” in tense urban New Jersey, was the best TV series I have ever seen, and “The Wire” made people pay attention to inner-city Baltimore.
I just hope the writers – and the viewers -- do right by the Mon Valley.
9/14/2021 01:47:28 pm
george-one of my old buddies sent me stan musials autogragh.he was always availibli in his resturant to sign or talk baseball regards,ahron
9/14/2021 03:39:31 pm
Dear Ahron: That is true. Musial considered it a privilege to sign for people. (while his wife waited, after a game)....He felt the same way about the restaurant....he learned about meat, about finances....and worked the room. They wanted Stan the Man, they got Stan the Man.
9/14/2021 01:52:37 pm
9/14/2021 03:45:01 pm
Maury: You've been there? I am impressed. There is now a modern express toll road from near Pittsburgh to the top of the high land west of the Mon, cutting the drive time. Donora had nothing....I recall the superintendent telling me about a Greek restaurant, now gone. Monessen seemed more active....but I was directed to a pretty grim mall on an old strip mine above Monessen....a luncheonette there was not exactly Queens Blvd. I'll ask one of my people about the Italian restaurant. Best to you both, G
9/14/2021 02:02:18 pm
George, I don't have Showtime either, but the soft and sensitive message you delivered so gently about Donora Smog and the local population who suffered is far more meaningful than any new TV series. Thanks, too, for mentioning Stan Musial, a great athlete and very decent human. I thought of him, you and your fine biographical portrait of Stan the Man when his picture and stats (7 time National league batting champion, .331 lifetime BA [I'm going from memory, so I hope I'm not too far off) popped up on the TV screen this past weekend. We are all grateful you continue to share your experiences and emotions with all of us.
9/14/2021 03:48:58 pm
Chief: thank you for the compliment. As you know, writing can be a joy as well as a compulsion. I couldn't write for two weeks, what with the storm and Afghanistan and the pandemic empowered by the murderous scoundrels in many states But seeing Jeff Daniels be so nice on the TV made me want to write my memories of the region.
9/14/2021 02:14:40 pm
Dear George: It is interesting synchronicity (Thanks to Carl Jung). In an interview with Rich Eisen, actor Edward Norton said the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) helped him with the accent from Kentucky, the Appalachian Region for the movie Primal Fear (1996). Because of that, he received his first nomination to Best Supporting Actor from the Academy Awards. And now your wonderful text about the region. Thanks for sharing it.
9/14/2021 03:58:55 pm
Dear Altenir: Muito obrigado. I don't know if I ever told you that I was so afraid Hollywood would turn Loretta's story into the Beverly Hillbillies Part II. But when I went to a private screening, I watched and listened for five minutes and relaxed They got it right, Michael Apted and crew.
9/14/2021 07:32:07 pm
9/14/2021 08:11:37 pm
George: I presume it was a relief to know Mr. Apted has chosen the right way to materialize the work that you had created inside your mind.
9/15/2021 08:57:14 am
George, two nights ago while hanging out with my brother, I mentioned you and your writing of Loretta Lynn’s autobiography. This occurred because I was then watching a series I’d just come across, “Homecoming,” starring Julia Roberts. Her character’s mother is played by the equally terrific Sissy Spacek. Sissy = Lynn.
9/15/2021 09:39:34 am
Hillel: My theory is: Great Minds Think.
9/15/2021 10:35:21 am
American Rust is a great walk down memory lane for me. I received a BS 57 and MS 58 in Metallurgical Engineering at Lehigh University and had liven in Bethlehem, PA for about six years.
9/16/2021 04:53:38 pm
GV, thanks for the trips down memory lane. I have mentioned this before, but what the hey….in 1946 -49 I went to many Dodger games at Ebbets Field, earned money for “setting pins” in a bowling alley, caddying, etc.
9/16/2021 06:22:44 pm
9/17/2021 09:12:09 am
My belated responses to a few of our regulars:
9/17/2021 03:05:30 pm
Our daughter Jen took an Appalachian semester during her senior year at Dickinson College. It was at Union College in southeastern KY near where the western tip of VA touches TN’s northern border.
9/18/2021 09:10:06 pm
I’ll read anything George Vecsey writes. Thank you!
9/22/2021 11:31:17 am
Estimada Marcela: Gracias, colega.
9/21/2021 08:49:20 pm
George, I can't think about this region - western PA, the Ohio River Valley, etc -- without thinking about the opioids crisis. The region has been hit really hard and preyed upon by both big pharma and the illegal drug trade. There are some communities that I just can't see how they dig out of the depths.
9/22/2021 11:45:32 am
Dear Alan and Josh: Great to hear from father and son.
9/22/2021 07:12:49 pm
Josh, Alan and George,
9/22/2021 10:27:24 pm
Although there is a real blue state/red state divide, there are so many caring people in all areas of our country who quietly do the right thing. Many conservative communities have welcomed displaced immigrants, etc.
9/23/2021 06:14:06 am
Comments are closed.
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.