On a sunny, cool Saturday I drove an hour or so into Ohio, at the invitation of some old high school classmates, to witness a football match between my old home town team and the team of the high school of a formerly smaller neighboring town.
The scene was about the same as it would have been 50 years before. It resembled a sort of down-market version of the high school football rally scene from "The Dead Poet's Society." The stadium, unroofed and without lights, for want of money -- put down to "tradition" -- was full on both sides of the field with cheering fans from both towns. (I noticed that the ones I knew strangely all had gray hair.)
The setting of the field was different. It used to be that in back of the visitors' side of the field were tenements, along an unpaved street called Ramcat Alley, inhabited largely by African-Americans. On a hill above the field was still a nice house, with lawn chairs out in front, from which the residents could see the game free.
Off one end, where the flagpole stands, what used to be the Imperial Glass Co., a major employer in the town, had been replaced by a gravel parking lot and a modest strip mall. The other glass companies, the steel mill across the bridge on the other side of the river and the enameled-ware company where my father had made most of his career were also gone, as are most of the people of the town.
I could see that the school system had retained its traditional set of priorities, even though responsibility for its finances has been assumed by the state of Ohio. The football uniforms looked good. The majorettes and cheerleaders were still charmingly decked out in brief, shiny costumes. The band had uniforms and instruments, paid for by the band mothers selling hot dogs ($1.25 each) and coffee (50 cents a cup), even though they still don't play very well. (It's early in the school year, I note.) My musician grandfather's test of a band was, if it is impossible to tell what it is playing from behind, it isn't any good.
The game was pretty good football. The two teams were reasonably equally matched, even though in the end my team lost by 19 points. The Red and Black had a decent passing game, but couldn't stop the Orange and White's running game. My theory of why was unfortunate. The Red and Black players looked to me to be thinner and smaller than the team from the more prosperous Orange and White town. Two Orange and White louts, basically, were able to run right through the hungrier-looking Red and Black defenders. The two high schools are of comparable size.
The population of my hometown was 16,000 when I was in high school. Now it is less than 4,000 and the place is truly rundown. My friends told me an illustrative story. One small house of their acquaintance served as home to one employed man in his 40s, his unemployed ex-wife and her boyfriend in his 20s and the ex-wife's three children, a dog, a cat, a snake and a lizard.
We went to see my parents' graves, on a hilltop overlooking the river. In spite of what is euphemistically called "perpetual care," paid for in advance, the grass was badly in need of cutting, some of the roads in the cemetery were overgrown, the lock on the door of the mausoleum was gone and, for want of a vault, the grave of my grandmother, who died in 1937, was subsiding. Nonetheless, the view from the graveyard is easily the best in town, one I probably won't pass up at the end of life's game.
There is no point in wailing and moaning about how these ex-steel river towns deteriorate. If there is no work people leave. Those who stay are more and more pinched for money for maintenance, including of the cemetery. If stone ever became as expensive as copper pipe and wire, the gravestones would undoubtedly disappear, to be sold for drugs or to play the lottery. Who can argue with priorities?
In the meantime, it is hard to beat a high school football game on a nice fall Saturday afternoon for entertainment. Heinz Field and PNC Park concession greedheads should note the $1.25 hot dogs and 50-cent drinks. Band mothers are still angels. The zest and enthusiasm of the players, supporters, parents and grandparents is infectious and glorious to watch, even in a town that is going to pieces.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is an associate editor for the Post-Gazette and writes a column that appears on Wednesday's Midweek Perspectives page (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).