Feeling the tug of Western Pa.

I've lived away for half a century but family roots keep calling me back, writes author GEORGE FETHERLING

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I wish I were a Yinzer but the simple truth, sadly, is that I don't have the vowels for it. So I am a Yinzer wannabe. Or perhaps, just possibly, a quasi-Yinzer. Let me explain.

For what will soon be the past 50 years I've been living outside the United States in cities such as London and Toronto, traveling from one place to another, sometimes for long periods, often for briefer ones, but usually taking up residence in each spot more than once. This is the way authors often are these days, at least those not permanently tethered to universities. We beat a well-worn caravan route, a kind of Silk Road, that includes New York, of course, but also Britain, Canada, Australia and so on -- wherever English is published and written (rather than simply read). But if I had never become one of these roaming novelists and poets, I would probably be living right here in Pittsburgh. This despite the fact that, when I was in fact here, I was usually dreaming of escape. That's what children do.

I remember how as a kid I'd look up at the dirty Gothic architectural furbelows atop the Union Trust Building and think to myself: "This is the nearest thing to a Medieval cathedral I'm ever going to see." Fortunately, this wasn't to be the case, and now, in my senior years, I feel a great emotional tug toward Pittsburgh. This may sound overly dramatic or farfetched to you real Pittsburghers going about your daily lives, but I get an emotional lift whenever I step off the North Side and move south across any of the Allegheny bridges to the skyline on the opposite shore.

Yet Pittsburgh makes me sad as well. There's at least one spot Downtown (I'll let you figure out the coordinates) where I can stand still and see the sites associated with my clan's rise and fall. The story isn't unique. It's probably not even all that unusual, for there must be many decidedly non-prominent families like mine that flourished at some point in the story of Pittsburgh's heavy-industry age but never rose up again. A comparative-rags-to-comparative-riches story -- then back to rags again.

The Fetherlings have been loitering around Western Pennsylvania for quite a while, beginning with the admirably long-lived Jacob Fetherling (1805-1897) who was born in Washington County. Some moved westward just on spec, as people did in those days, but almost as often popped up again in the historical record later on. The kind of ordinary middle-class lives people led in the 19th century, skipping from one profession to another as well as from place to place, seems to be coming back into vogue now.

My great-grandfather, Jacob's son Cephas Fetherling -- Cephas is the Aramaic version of Peter -- was variously a door-to-door salesman, a grocer, an elementary school teacher and lastly a local school board trustee. All of these despite having been severely deafened in both ears during the Civil War when, as he rightly put it, he "went off to help free the Negroes." He died in Ohio (where his name is misspelled FEATHERLING on his veteran's gravestone) after a spell back in Pittsburgh where his son Herschel lived.

Herschel, born in 1868, part of the postwar baby boom, was the first in our family to earn a university degree. By becoming an electrical engineer he got in near the ground floor in one of the still-new technological fields: electric lighting. He seemed to have been almost everywhere at one time or another but Pittsburgh was his home as well as his home base. After all, it was the head office of Westinghouse. And General Electric had a big presence here as well.

He had one big financial strike in his life -- which is one more than most of us have. In 1910 the capitalist Ernest T. Weir, one of the country's most notorious union-busters, was building a company town, modestly named Weirton, to support the steel mill he was putting up on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. Everything in the community was owned by the company, including the hydroelectric system -- a turn-key operation that my Grandfather Herschel sold him on commission.

Suddenly flush, Herschel then became an avid clubman and kept offices in the Oliver Building. He settled into a nice Pittsburgh house where he installed his own private intramural telephone exchange and began collecting murder weapons -- that is to say, weapons that had been used in murders, which, in that simpler time, it was said, he was able to purchase from police officers, coroners or bailiffs once their value as evidence had passed. My father, also named George Fetherling, spent his boyhood in this odd environment before the bottom fell out.

Like most people, Herschel didn't see the stock market crash of October 1929 coming. He must have had every cent he possessed or could borrow in margin accounts, for when the crisis hit it wiped him out. He lost his income, his savings, his house, even the furniture. He was left with a large hogshead of fine brandy that he had acquired several years earlier from a well-respected local bootlegger. He would make withdrawals from it on a regular basis as he sat in the dark contemplating his condition. One Sunday morning my father found him sitting upright in the chair next to the barrel. The death certificate gave "heart" as the cause of death. "Broken heart" would have been more specific.

My father, a gentle, talented man, had the misfortune to graduate from South Hills High School in the spring of 1933 when the unemployment rate in Allegheny County reached a terrifying 40 percent. He wanted to be a writer and could have been; he possessed that special gene. There was no possibility of a college education for him. Even if this hadn't been the case, aspiring writers in that generation knew that they got their training as newspaper reporters. He would tell me how he practically laid siege to the Post-Gazette and the old Sun-Telegraph, but of course they had no work for him.

No one else did either. He ricocheted around the country as a working stiff until Pearl Harbor, then found a job in defense work, downriver in Wheeling. He spent the rest of his short life as an assembly-line machinist at Blaw Knox Corp. He didn't live to see his two sons grow up to be writers.

Because he couldn't afford to help her much, his mother, my widowed Grandmother Fetherling, stayed in Pittsburgh, in a slummy one-room apartment on East Carson Street. She was a Londoner, a perfect tiny specimen of the English middle-class who nonetheless failed to prosper in the New World once Herschel was gone. She once took me aside by her hotplate and, in that voice I always associate with the wisdom exclusive to grandmothers, told me how to determine the correct amount of uncooked spaghetti to serve two people. "You take it in your hand and form it in a circle, dear. Like this, you see. The circle should be slightly bigger than a shilling but quite a bit smaller than half a crown."

She labored in the steam laundry in the sub-basement of the William Penn Hotel well into her 70s. When she died I had to intervene to save her from potter's field. I make a point of staying at the William Penn whenever I revisit Pittsburgh on literary business of one sort or another. That way I feel that I'm somehow avenging her ghost.

George Fetherling is the author of "Walt Whitman's Secret" and other novels (georgefetherling@outlook.com). He is now living in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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