Storytelling: Speak to strangers and you might find a familiar surprise

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I talk to strangers. Unlike little children whose mamas discourage this, I don't believe I'm in any danger of being abducted or used in weird ways, especially since I'm in my late 70s. I've met a lot of interesting folks this way, and I probably won't quit the gabbing.

On one visit to Williamsburg, Va., I chatted with a gentleman from Richmond who worked for the power company about the past storm damage he'd dealt with; with a man from Mexico City, using my high school Spanish; with a group of Germans, whom I welcomed to the USA; and with four couples driving RVs from Texas, whom I directed to my favorite places to eat.

Back in the Pittsburgh area, I was once waiting at my favorite garage as they serviced my car, a Japanese model that another customer began teasing me about. I introduced myself, and we found that the Gulf Lab where I had worked was also where his nephew was employed.

The garage customer's name was Lou, and he had come to the area to work in the Harmar coal mines. As a young man he had worked the mines in the St. Mary's area. I told him my dad was from Falls Creek, near Du Bois, and had worked in the mines digging a 3-foot seam on his side at age 13.

"I know Falls Creek," he exclaimed, "the pottery and the glass factory!"

I told him my father had worked in pottery in his late teens and my grandfather was a glass cutter.

He told me of helping a young couple whose car had broken down on Route 28. They were on their way to the old Columbia Hospital to see the man's dad and the car had just stopped.

Lou told them of a good mechanic and said if they couldn't get help right away, they could stay at his home overnight. It turned out the couple was from Falls Creek. Lou told them he had worked in the mines at St. Mary's.

"The young lady said her father and her uncle had owned a mine there," Lou explained to me. "Then she told me her dad's name. It was the mine where I had worked!"

See, everybody knows everyone else or knows someone else who does. Lou told me he had been walking through Oakmont one day and noticed a man staring at him. Lou walked on, but stopped because the man was still staring and following him. Lou confronted him, asking, "Do I know you?"

"I don't know," the stranger answered, "but I think I know you."

Lou asked if he had worked in the mines, and the man said he had not.

"How about the service?" said Lou.


"Were you in Italy?" Lou asked, but the answer was no.

"How about Normandy?"

"Yes, Utah Beach!" the man responded. "I was wounded and waiting to be evacuated."

"We were the Rangers," Lou offered. "We were working with the wounded and moving them to a hospital ship offshore."

The stranger stared a second, then exclaimed, "I remember! You had a little black cigar butt in your mouth and you held me, kissed me on the cheek and told me not to worry, that everything would be OK. And you know, you were right! I never forget a face!"

Fifty-three years had gone by since the two of them were kids in a war far from home. To meet again in Oakmont, virtually in their backyards, was truly amazing. The two of them became fast friends, Lou told me. Unfortunately, his new friend passed away a short time later, but while they were both living they enjoyed each other's company.

Everyone knows everyone else. It's been scientifically and numerically proven that if you speak with five people, you'll find that by the fifth one you'll know the same person or know someone else who does. They say it works.

It's been that way for me. After all, I talk to strangers!


Wallace E. Covert, a retired graphic artist from Penn Hills, can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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