Monday, August 14, 2006


Downtown Johnstown as seen from the top of the inclined plane; Point Stadium to the left

Dad, brother Bob and I in a light moment on my trip

Last week when a friend asked me where I was going on my vacation, I had a simple one word answer ready: “home.” Although I’ve lived in Albany longer than anywhere else in the world, like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I’ve always believed that there’s no place like home. In my case, I was born and raised on a hilltop near Johnstown, a small city in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Rolling Rock Beer is bottled on the other side of Laurel Mountain, the ridge formed by glaciers that lies just to the west of my home town and which runs hundreds of miles from New York State south through West Virginia all the way to Tennessee.

Two movies have been made in Johnstown, both about sports, one a hilarious film starring Paul Newman (Slap Shot in 1975 ) and one starring a very young Tom Cruise (All the Right Moves in 1983). Both movies had a central theme tied to the reality of my home town after the 1960's- the mills are closing, it’s time to get out of town. Both movies featured gritty steel workers and blue collar athletes- professional hockey players in Slap Shot, and a high school football team in All the Right Moves.

There is a 500 foot hilltop to the west which overlooks the city in the valley below, and the house I grew up in is about two miles west of that, heading towards Laurel Mountain. At the edge of the hill, an inclined plane connects the city below with the suburb above. It’s has two large railroad type tracks, side by side, that are tilted 45 degrees. The tracks have two large cars on them- one on the top, the other at the bottom, and when the ride starts, the top car goes down as the bottom comes up, and they pass each other in the middle. Each car can carry dozens of passengers and one or two vehicles.

. The All American Amateur Baseball Association holds an annual tournament that features the finest amateur baseball in the country, and last week was tournament time. Last Saturday night I stood at the observation platform at the top of the inclined plane. Looking down, I could see tiny baseball players hundreds of feet below at the Point Stadium, built where the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers meet to form the Conemaugh, which flows into the Monongahela, which meets the Allegheny River and forms the Ohio River at the Point in Pittsburgh, about 75 miles to the west.

The night I watched the baseball game, our local team was featured. It already had one loss in the double elimination tournament, and it went down to defeat that night to New Orleans 9-2. That second loss put Johnstown’s squad out of the tournament, but the players on both squads had to know that there was more than baseball which bound them together. In 1889, the Johnstown Flood destroyed the city and killed thousands. Johnstown came back from that devastating disaster and survived two more less serious floods in 1936 and 1977. After every flood the city was rebuilt, usually better than before. At some point in the near future, New Orleans will do likewise.

My journey home last Thursday, which was supposed to be fairly routine, became a bit more eventful as the terror plot uncovered on August 10th made commercial flying totally chaotic and unpredictable. I had to cancel my reservations and drive the 950 mile trip. That wasn’t totally a bad thing, although I am not a fan of long treks. Contemplative thought, which is almost impossible in a modern life that is dominated by ringing phones, e-mail, and a barrage of other media, is mandatory on long trips such as this. Geography and culture change as the miles roll by. Georgia gives way to South Carolina, which transforms to North Carolina, which leads up to the mountains in the northern part of the state (on I-77) and southern Virginia. The Roanoke Valley in southwestern Virginia (I-81) is the most scenic part of the route, although once I hit central Pennsylvania and headed west, the scenery was just as exhilarating.

There is one mountain that is about 20 miles southeast of Johnstown- we call it Pleasantville Mountain after the town just south of it, but it’s real name is Babcock Ridge. The view from the top is breathtaking, and the winding, switchback road up it is one of the steepest climbs a driver can experience on a highway. When I cross that ridgetop and head northwest to Johnstown, I always have the feeling of home. I’m still about 20 miles away, but all of the places there are familiar from growing up. As I crossed the top, my radio search found an Oldies station, and eerily I found myself listening to the songs of my high school years as I came back to the place where I was formed.

I try to make the trip every year, spend a few days golfing with my Dad, and see some of the places of my youth. I always drive by our old house, marvel at how the trees have grown up around it, and remember what a safe cocoon we all grew up in living near the safest city in the nation (FBI stats had it ranked as having the lowest crime rate every year.)

Living in Albany, where a friend and near neighbor (a few blocks away), City Attorney Nathan Davis, had to confront an armed robber- the third such incident in Lake Park over the last several months, I have to be thankful that I grew up in a suburb so safe that I never owned a house key because our house was never locked. Where wiffle ball games went on in the yard behind the house across the street every summer evening, and I would bolt my dinner to make sure I got there in time for the first game. In the Fall touch football games replaced wiffle ball (I had no speed, but throw a pass in my direction and it was mine), and in winter, we went sled riding as youngsters and as we got older played street hockey.

I knew growing up that I had to leave if I wanted to make my mark in the world. I knew I would never appreciate the greatest things about my home town unless I left it. But that makes it all the more special when I do get to go back, to revel in green grass on which one can lay without fear of fire ants, to enjoy crisp air and temperatures with highs of 75 to 80 degrees in the daytime, to see the most honest, straightforward human beings in America, children and grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, to visit the Temple where I had my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, to hear the “grown-ups” of my youth, now white haired, still address me as “Jimmy.”

But when I pull back into the driveway of my home in Albany, when I see that mischievous Golden Retriever wagging her tail at me as I pull into the carport, when I put my suitcase down in my bedroom and collapse on the bed- I know that Johnstown is the memory and Albany is the reality.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, "Jimmy", that was your best column ever! You had me fully aware of your surroundings back in PA and your prose was exceptionally descriptive.

10:12 AM  
Blogger April said...

From a Johnstowner.......thank you so much! Awesome!!

6:55 PM  
Blogger April said...

From a Johnstowner........awesome! Thank you!!

6:58 PM  

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