From our vantage point in our 1956 Plymouth, the mills were black monsters, dinosaurs lounging along both sides of the river, coughing smoke and flames. My memories of them, and of this period of life with my family, are mostly black and white, with shades of gray in between. Almost never in color. The river is wide and black, with white fringes along the shore where ice has formed, and silver where light glances off its surface. The river oozes through a wide valley with trees that look like victims of a nuclear blast. They are black and leafless, ashamed of their nudity on the steep hills that roll down to the water. Only a few patches of white snow cover their feet.
We are on top of the river now, our Plymouth passing over a bridge that connects one steel town to another. As we slow down for traffic, I can feel the bridge’s spine of black metal and concrete tremble under the rumbling of giant machines. Dump trucks carry equipment and raw materials into the mills and tractor trailers haul newly made steel beams out. I hold onto the seat. Above us the sky is a gray metal lid, the sun too weak to muscle its way through the winter firmament made even thicker by the soot that the mills belch into it every day and every night of every year. The monsters never sleep. The inside of our car is black and white. Us four sons. My father at the wheel and my mother in the front seat, my youngest brother, Robby, sitting between them. We are all the color of a photograph from a time long ago. My mother’s imitation leather coat, which I know is the yellow of daisies, appears black and white in this memory. Her earrings, a shiny stone mounted in a leaf of gold-colored metal, are ashen.
“See that smokestack with the fire?” our father pointed as our car passed. A red and yellow flame, the only thing of color in this memory, licks the gray sky. “That building is where your father works.”
(Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, Aliquippa Works. Photo Courtesy Beaver County Industrial Museum)
NOTE: This excerpt is one of a series preceding the release of my upcoming memoir. The manuscript is sub-titled, “A True Story of War, Love and Rock & Roll.” Read more when the book is published.