Morrisdale and Me

©2000 by John P. Hewitt

Seen in an aerial photograph, Morrisdale, Pennsylvania is a blur of buildings strung along several intersecting roads atop the Allegheny Plateau northwest of State College. With concentration, the photo yields the ghostly remains of railroads and hints of what were thriving underground coal workings a century ago. This is bituminous country. The coal is soft and near the surface, and Morrisdale Mines, as it was known in the late 19th century, was built around "slopes" inclined downward into "drifts" of coal. Underground mining became unprofitable and gave way to surface mining, especially after World War II ended and railroads began to run on diesel fuel. Thus one can also discern thousands of acres of land raped by strip miners starting in the 1940s and 1950s, and imagine the farms and forests, now destroyed, that nourished the loggers and farmers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

My eye is a child's eye, the genetic and cultural gift of immigrant German farmers, of New England Puritans whose noble errand in the wilderness had devolved to the woodsman's work of cutting trees, and of generations of English, Welsh, and Irish Quaker coal miners. And so I look for Maxton Slope, where my father toiled each day when the mines were working, though in truth I am not certain where it is, nor was I as a child. I search for and find a horse chestnut tree at the foot of schoolhouse hill, perhaps the descendant of the tree I passed each morning on my walk to school in the late 1940s and early 1950s, perhaps the very tree itself. I see the remains of rails and roadbeds that carried the Pennsylvania Railroad steam locomotives that I used to watch with my cousin Don. From where they came or where they went we did not know, but we stood close to the tracks to catch the noise and steam. My eye finds the Morrisdale Coal Company Store, and then the reservoir in which I swam as a child and where my beloved Grannie drowned a few years after we had left Morrisdale for good.

Roads. Mine ran through "the blocks," the part of Morrisdale where we lived. It left the "state road" (Pennsylvania Route 53) near the Company Store, ran north past our house and then branched, one part swinging left to rejoin the state road, the other continuing up "schoolhouse hill." I was born in 1941 in a house on that road, spent part of my infancy in Ohio, and returned in 1943 to the house in which I would live until 1953. It was a duplex, clad in yellow asbestos "brick" siding, owned by Bob McClelland and his wife, who lived in the south half. It faced a weathered and unpainted wooden house across the road, where "old man Sabo" cut my hair for twenty-five cents. Next door to the Sabos lived my friend Bobby Mondock, whose father could drive better with a beer or two in his belly than without, he told me once. My Grannie and Grandpap Hewitt lived in the house next to the McClellands. Behind our house was a hill and our outhouse, and beyond that and still higher, the Chilcote farm from whose wagons we children stole field corn in late October, to be stripped from the ears and thrown noisily at houses on Halloween night. In the house immediately to the north of us the Lloyd family, who gave me fireworks every 4th of July, lived in vaguely Appalachian disrepute. Further up the road, paved in "red dog" (the nature of this substance still unknown to me) lay more houses and then my chestnut tree and schoolhouse hill. The houses were mostly clad in shingles or in weathered wood, and many were double houses built for miners and their families. Down the road from our house lay the Company Store, and beyond that, on Route 53, the reservoir, and then smoking and steaming mining operations and coal tipples, and then the sulphurous waters of Moshannon Creek.

Sometime during 1943, I emerged into consciousness of self while standing in the middle of our road with my brother Bill. Here was the site of my personal sipapu, to steal a Hopi word, the passage through which I entered a world that I would share with him, my parents, my grandparents, and my friends for the next ten years. Morrisdale was a ragged and wooden place, in fact, but in my mind it was made of concrete. Whoever created the place where I suddenly found myself present amidst friends and family had finished it, I felt, and then set it, small and finite, in stone and mortar and red dog, and had no plan to change it. There was an outside world, perhaps, but it was uninteresting and mostly unknown, except for a few islands, places equally finished and finite where we would sometimes go. Lock Haven and Jersey Shore and Williamsport, where relatives and friends lived, were on some distant spot down the Bald Eagle Valley and along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Between them and me were more roads, with their own small landmarks (a blue and yellow keystone-shaped sign no doubt still announces the "Site of Historic Martha Furnace" ) and horizons defined by Bald Eagle Mountain and the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. To the north of Morrisdale lay Ridgeway, where my Uncle Paul lived his bitter life with my Aunt Madeline, crippled in a car accident, and my retarded cousin Carol, deprived of oxygen at birth, they said, endlessly rocking in her chair. The words we used freely then, crippled and retarded, conveyed a finality and a factuality that our contemporary euphemisms do not. Theirs was to me an island of disappointment that simply was. Somehow it had got itself made, just like everything else, and stayed the way it was. The road that took us there ran past Clearfield, another known place, and then traversed what we called the "deep woods." It was a wilderness, not in the current sense of a place wherein lies the salvation of humankind, but a dark place whose margins we did not penetrate.

For a small child emerging into the light of self awareness (had I been able to think in such terms) this world was all the world there was and all the world there ever would be. There was no talk of genealogy, nor ethnicity, nor even very much of religion. "The other," as we would say now, was scarcely present. There were Roman Catholics, to be sure, some of them friends and even cousins, but they were not us. We - my family and others like us - were the natives, "the people," and such "others" as there were we regarded mostly with the curiosity with which natives often regard anthropologists. "They" had strange customs and beliefs - "How can there be original sin?" we theologically naive Protestant children wondered about Catholic dogma. There were Slavs and Hungarians, and in Phillipsburg a few stray Jews and blacks, but not enough to cause us to construct ourselves an ethnic group. We were "our people" as the need arose for reminders of difference and boundaries, but mostly we were just the people who live in this world. Powerless and impoverished as we were, we felt like owners. I have come to understand my family's lack of any significant narrative of origin and ancestry not as a failure of memory or will, but mainly as lack of need. "Our people" had always been there, and so beyond a generation of two there was no keenly felt desire for a deeper narrative. This place belonged to us and we to it, and it would ever be so.

During the summer months my daily life centered on the quest to swim at the reservoir, the "rezzie," we called it. I had and have no idea of its origins or purpose. It was just there, a mostly clear and cold body of water a few acres in extent, with submerged dead trees at one end (I did not go there) and a dam and highway at the other. In my father's youth, and even before, it was a lively park, filled with music and weekend visitors who came on the trolley from nearby Phillipsburg. Time - enough for two World Wars and the Great Depression - bequeathed to my childhood the reservoir itself, two outhouses, a rusty set of swings, and a barely functioning merry-go-round. Bob McClelland ran a gas station and store by the highway, where you could buy an Orange Crush or a candy bar, or even risk an investment in the punch board. Older and braver boys ran past the outhouse where girls changed their clothes and flung open its door to reveal the mysteries known to lie within. Neither a flinger nor a viewer be, my parents wordlessly commanded, but I looked when I could. I begged my mother to let me go to the reservoir, and there I learned to swim in its cold water. We swam and muddied the water near the small beach while the sun and sexual plans of older brothers and sisters warmed the air.

We played cowboys and Indians, watched Gene Autry at the Friday night serial movies, and persuaded our parents to allow us to spend warm summer nights sleeping outdoors in our Red Flyer Wagons. With friends I once penetrated through the "first woods," as we called it, that lay behind the houses on the state road, and came to a dirt road, on the other side of which lay the "second woods." Perhaps there was a "third" and "fourth" even further away. We headed back to find anxious parents concerned that we were lost. We found abandoned strip mines filled with water where we swam naked, and during one memorable summer discovered a cave where we were convinced a dangerous vagrant lived. Innocent of Huck Finn, we incited one another's fears and bravery, but no one ventured past the scraps of food and clothing we found at the cave's mouth. As we grew toward pre-adolescence, boys and girls found secret places in which to educate one another about anatomy and destiny.

In all seasons there was the Company Store, with its shelves of canned goods and cigarettes and toilet paper. On its wooden floor were a few bicycles and wagons, to be sold to miners for their children when good times came, as they occasionally did. My first bike came from there, a Schwinn. My parents ordered it in red, and small enough to fit my frame, but it arrived a full twenty-six inch big kid's bike, blue and with a light and horn. It cost $52.50, practically a fortune, to be deducted from my father's pay envelope, like everything else purchased at the store. Some weeks there was not a dime in the envelope, nothing save yellow receipts for purchases. One time the deduction included perhaps twenty-five cents for a pack of Lucky Strikes I had bought, under the ruse that my father had sent me for them. Corn silk was unsatisfactory, I had decided, and my Dad smoked Luckies. For other purchases we shopped in Phillipsburg, and for truly important things such as the Lionel trains I craved, we went further afield, to Altoona. But, day to day, the men at the company store filled our orders in a building that stood just off the highway, ordinary as daylight, with no Garrison Keillor to make it seem quaint.

Fall meant a return to school and a daily trip through the blocks, up schoolhouse hill, and across another road. In winter, the walk involved cold and wind and snow drifts that seemed monstrous to a first grader. The world of school, I came to understand, lay in making steady progress from one end of the U-shaped building to the other, from first grade to twelfth. The several parts of this world were symbolically marked off from one another by the corners of the "U." I started at the northwest end and worked my way south down the hall to Mrs. Walker's combined fourth and fifth grade. Her corner room looked in one direction back to the warmth of Miss Holt's first grade hugs, and in the other toward the seventh and eighth grades that lay to the east. Around the eighth grade corner was high school, ending at the northeast end's graduation exit. Bill was around that bend and nearing graduation, and though he told of Molly Maguire and her terrors, I was preoccupied with surviving Myra Flegal¹s third grade. I was perhaps the brightest child in the school, and she lay in wait for me, ready to cut me down to size. I more or less made it past her. Except for my handwriting, which still displays the neurotic scars of her strident voice and wooden paddle. In six years of schooling, I never visited the last hallway. After three weeks at the corner, in seventh grade, fate plucked me from that place and gave me a new school building with an infinitely more complex geography.

As I progressed from first to seventh grade, I began to think of what lay ahead, and formed an inchoate wish not to accompany others on the paths I sensed they would take when they reached the end of the hall and graduated. I do not know how I formed such feelings - and they were feelings, not thoughts - within a landscape that had so comfortably embraced me. But they were there even before fate removed me from Morrisdale and put me where I stood a better chance of shaping them into words and plans. I did not fear overtly that I might someday end up tired and helpless in a dead-end world. Nor did I think explicitly that having made my way north to graduation I would then surely turn south again to the blocks. Nor did I think, either with eagerness or dread, that I might one day be a miner myself. Yet there grew in me an unrecognized aversion to this place that had formed me, given me consciousness, and defined me to myself and others.

Perhaps it was the school itself that first whispered alienation in my young ears. The building was immutable, I thought, just as everything else in my world. I remember feeling greatly surprised one summer, between which grades I do not remember, when its foundation was re-excavated to create a basement that could house a cafeteria. The school, like the chestnut tree and the trash pile behind our neighbor's house and the road to Phillipsburg, was a previously fixed part of my world, and now it had changed. And in that change was some hint that other parts of my world might change, or that this world was not all there was. I learned to read quickly, and I read as voraciously as one can in a place largely devoid of books. My mother read to me, of course, and in school I learned to read words that I had never heard nor would I ever hear spoken in Morrisdale. I was bright, and perhaps I saw something in my teachers' faces, which conveyed not only approval of one who learned quickly and eagerly but fear that their fate might also be mine. Only years later would I think that perhaps some of them would have gladly left Morrisdale and hoped I would have a chance they never had.

There is no easy way to experience alienation from such an enclosing world or to express a wish to be elsewhere when one is scarcely aware there is an elsewhere. In that world men like my father naturally came home from their jobs in the mines black with coal dust and men like my grandfather died early and painfully of lung diseases. Strikes and layoffs and being unable to make ends meet and occasional reliance on government surplus foods were part of my understanding of how things were. Moshannon Creek ran orange with sulphur and I thought nothing of it. It was the way it was. Dick and Jane had nice houses, but they lived in the books with which I learned to read, not in a real place like Morrisdale. I never thought to be envious of the Bobbsey Twins; like me they lived in a given world, only theirs, not mine. They had ice boats on the lake and hot chocolate in their houses. I had my Grandma Davidson's house in New Liberty where I could help behead a chicken or watch my Grandfather push a wheeled cultivator through their vegetable garden.

Television arrived on the scene around 1950 or 1951, broadcast from Johnstown and later Altoona and captured by immense rooftop antennas, but at first it seemed more a curiosity than a source of disruptive information about other worlds. Sounds had been coming out of radios for my whole life, but that too seemed natural, something to take for granted and not to question or to incite alienation or longing for release. Yet perhaps television deserves some blame or praise. I remember watching the 1952 Democratic National Convention, and at ten going on eleven I could thrill to political combat and to the words of Adlai Stevenson, whom I would revere for years. I remember Arthur Godfrey scouting talent, though I had none I thought worth offering. I am sure there were several programs portraying ways of life that were new and intriguing to me, but the only one I remember was "The Goldbergs." Perhaps that one sticks in mind in part because during the years it was on TV my mother worked for Mr. Jaffe, a beer distributor in Phillipsburg. She would come home telling me of the Jaffe family's trips to Pittsburg, the closest place to get food for Passover. Perhaps the combined knowledge of the Jaffe's quest and the Goldberg's lives opened my eyes, previously closed to such sights.

It may have been my father's quasi-Marxism that set me at odds with my world. Having left school at fifteen to help support his brothers and sisters, a fact I learned about early on, he made little of his own disappointment but much of economic injustice in general. Yet I sensed something of his personal bitterness, and I heard phrases from the Communist Manifesto - "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," he lectured - long before I ever read them or knew their source. Later I would rebel against this dogma, but in my early years it formed me in ways I could not then recognize.

It may even have been my Uncle Paul, who on visits from Ridgeway would sometimes tearfully express his pain. And his anger, especially when urged to keep his faith and accept God's will. Then he would rage and ask what God could have done this to his wife and child and to him. I felt his bitterness, and though reassured by my Grandma Davidson, who usually was the person who spoke of God and roused his anger, I was quietly on my Uncle's side in the argument. Surrounded by pious Christianity, I sometimes joined the sanctimony, but increasingly rejected it. Something in me knew it was nonsense.

Whatever the roots of my alienation, it was real enough, though still unnamed. When the time came to leave for Buffalo, New York, I was ready, if also reluctant. No doubt I cried when I left, though I remember only looking out the rear window as Morrisdale receded. My first and only childhood dog, Skippy, whom my parents rescued more than once from farmer Chilcote¹s shotgun, remained behind with my Grandma. I saw him on one return visit, then never again.

Having left the known world behind and journeyed to a new one where I would have to make a place for myself, I came to see the closing of the mines and my father's painful struggle to support a family in a dying northern industrial city as my salvation. For me, the rust belt held more promise than the coal belt. I came to understand Morrisdale as a closed world from whose clutches I had luckily escaped. Now I wonder about childhood friends and if the road that opened briefly for me closed again and kept them there. A few now lie in Emigh Cemetery, amidst their families and mine, bound forever to Clearfield County¹s tortured soil.

A little more than ten years after our 1951 Frazier took us on the 200 mile move north to Buffalo, New York, I returned to show Morrisdale to my wife, Myrna, and to visit my Grandma Davidson, who now lived in a small apartment near Phillipsburg. I had been back previously for family visits and for the deaths of my Grandpap Davidson and my Grannie Hewitt. But this was my first return visit with adult eyes. Myrna knew that I grew up in a small town, a coal-mining town, and her eyes anticipated a pretty village with white churches and their spires. I do not know what I expected at that point - perhaps the same place I had always known, for I was only four years removed from my last visit.

There were no white steeples, of course, nor much of anything that gleamed or reached for heaven. The swings and merry-go-round at the reservoir no longer functioned, and McClelland's store was closed. The air was cleaner, perhaps, than when mining was in full swing, but the sky seemed even darker, the atmosphere more gloomy on that March day. My house, and my Grannie's, and others were still there, perhaps not much changed over a decade but seeming more grim to the adult than they did to the child. Buildings were smaller and closer together than I remembered, schoolhouse hill not nearly so intimidating, and the Morrisdale School itself was headed for closure, its children to be shipped off to a consolidated building someplace else. Mostly it seemed like a darker and colder place than it had a decade earlier when I was twelve years old. I had no urge to stop or to seek out people I had known, but only to retreat to my new life.

On a subsequent visit, over forty-five years after I left the town, I found the place changed still more, though perhaps not as cheerless as it had previously seemed. I learned that I had lived on Church Street all those years ago. Someone had erected street signs, perhaps craving a respectability not easy to find in a hard-scrabble town of wooden houses reluctantly accepting modernization or making way for newer cottages and for a few double-wide trailers. The street was paved -paved! - and no doubt this was a boon to its inhabitants, though I felt a bit let down, as if their world, no longer mine, should have remained set in the same concrete in which I had left it. Morrisdale School had gone from closure to outlet mall to deterioration. There was a convenience store where you paid at the pump and connected to the same computers as everybody else in the world. McClelland's store was obliterated, and there was scarcely space at the edge of the road to pull off and park where once gas was pumped and candy sold. The strip mines had claimed all of Chilcotes' farm and their advance had stopped less than a hundred feet from our back porch. The outhouse was gone, and I hoped the current occupants had an indoor toilet.

Perhaps most important, Interstate 80 could now whisk us to within a few miles of Morrisdale and carry us as swiftly away from it. You can see it in the aerial photograph, four lanes of concrete that dominate the landscape and point to a larger world extending from New York City to San Francisco. My ancestors came to that land a hundred years ago and more, and most of them resolutely stayed, as if all roads led into Clearfield County and none led out. The roads that defined my youthful world now seem to lead to the interstate, not from it. I hope that today's ten year old Morrisdale child, beginning to feel an alienation that he or she cannot name, will, like me, someday make an escape.

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