Coming of age and raising a family during the Depression era in rural Pennsylvania wasn't easy.
Rising at dawn to milk the cows, clean the chicken coop and "freshen up" the outhouse seems unthinkable today, but it was simply a fact of life back then -- and those were often just the chores to be completed before a hard day's work on the railroad or at the mill.
During this time baseball as our national pastime provided welcome relief from the daily struggles. A love for baseball and the hometown Pirates grew in many families in the region, to be passed down from generation to generation.
Three generations later, I'm a living example of that, and that's why I was compelled to think often of my great-grandfather during 2013's magical Pirates season and playoff run.
It's often said that tough times reveal character, not build it, and one example was my great-grandfather Dutch, who lived northeast of Pittsburgh in Clearfield County. He labored on the railroad, mined coal and worked construction, sometimes all in the same day.
He was fearless and fought hard for everything he got. My grandmother and her siblings never had much growing up, but they were happy and learned important life lessons from their father -- known officially as Maurice Charles Haney -- that they would pass down to all of us, mostly by example.
Great-granddad was a comparison in contrasts. It was well known around Clearfield that you didn't want to cross him, or you might end up with his sledgehammer-sized fist upside your head. He also was a very generous man who would give you the shirt off his back, even though that might be all he had to give.
He was a simple man who loved nothing more than a boilermaker after a long hard day at the worksite (sometimes before and during, too). That was life back then.
Among my vivid memories of him are of hot summer nights in the late 1980s spent sitting on the front porch listening to the Pirates on the radio. Retired by then, he would sit in his rocker with a cold Iron City in his gigantic fist. By the fifth inning, he would usually be sawing logs and drowning out the radio, but he earned that right and none of us were dumb enough to bother him.
He had especially loved Roberto Clemente and would talk nostalgically about that "throwing arm" out in right field. Unlike some of my siblings and most of my cousins, I am old enough to remember these scenes with Dutch from my childhood. He was an intimidating figure to a young boy, and I was often afraid to approach him. But he was a kind soul, always greeting me with a headlock and a "Dutch rub" on the top of my head.
Then one day, when I was 10 years old, things changed. My father was late to pick me up after work from my friend's house. This was unusual because my father knew I had a Little League game to get to and that I could never miss batting practice.
My mother phoned to tell me that my father was rushing to the hospital and she would be on her way to get me. Great-granddad had suffered a stroke and was fighting for his life. He would pull through, but would struggle from that point on with most basic daily functions. Dutch died in 1999, but his stories have grown in lore at each family reunion, and his ties to Pittsburgh baseball live on.
When PNC Park was built, my uncle learned that we could purchase a brick with an inscription to remember someone special. Our families all chipped in and bought a brick for great-granddad, and we often visit it outside the home plate entrance next to the Honus Wagner statue.
In October, we found ourselves there after Game 3 of the National League Division Series. It was dark and quiet; the crowds had finally started to disperse after a great win. There I was with my cousin asking our great-grandfather in a quiet moment for one more favor -- to do anything he could to help the Pirates beat the Cardinals one more time to advance in the postseason.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals would take the series and march on to the World Series, but now, next year has turned into this year, and hope springs eternal. Without a doubt, we'll be back at Dutch's brick again, remembering him while hoping for his and our Bucs to do even better.
Brian Shirey of Ross, an IT professional, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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