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.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.