Saturday, October 22, 2011

#371: Homecoming Part 2: At the Confluence

Pennsy at "The Confluence"
There are some words in our language that are so loaded with meaning that they carry their own context with them.  "Harbinger" is one. When you hear "harbinger," you think of robins heralding spring. If you're a football fan, "confluence" is another one of those words. There's only one reason for any sports announcer to use the word in a sentence, and it goes like this...
This evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, two teams will meet at the confluence of the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers in a battle for AFC supremacy as the Baltimore Ravens visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football!
We called it "The Point. I doubt if any of those sportscasters even know what a confluence is. They certainly never know how to pronounce "Monongahela," but they are right about one thing... This is a place where giants meet. And last Sunday, I got a chance to walk among them.

The alarm went off at 5:00 AM. For a 1:00 kickoff. And I was already awake. Mrs P groaned softly, mumbling something about driving carefully and having a good time. I pulled on my black and gold turtleneck and hooded sweatshirt, then made my way down the steep steps of Mum's house to the kitchen. Coffee. Poppy seed cake. English muffin. I looked up at the clock over the sink and tried to do the math. If I left now, I could be at Skip's house by 7:00 AM. For a 1:00 kickoff. What the heck. I had nothing else to do.

The road to Gramma's house
It was pitch black, country black outside when I steered my little Honda down the two lanes of state route 66 toward New Bethlehem. The GPS chattered helpfully, but I didn't need it. I've know these twists and hills since before I could talk. We would drive up into the mountains on Friday and visit with Gramma and Grampa Cole till Sunday after the noon meal that they called "dinner." Then we'd pile into the station wagon, Mum would cry, and we would head back home to Pittsburgh.

Unless the Steelers were on TV.

If they were playing, We would settle down in the living room, Grampa in his big vinyl recliner with the little round burns in the arms and a pack of Camel cigarettes. Dad sat on the couch with his Bel-Airs. My sister and I rolled on the floor, usually arguing about something, while the little men on the black and white console TV ran around losing football games to teams led by players like Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Namath. Grampa would joke about how bad we were. The Pirates were the only decent team in town. Gramma and Mum would sit in the dining room with Aunt Grace or Aunt Marylin playing cards or gossiping. After the game, which the Steelers always lost, we said our goodbyes and Dad steered the big Pontiac Tempest wagon down state route 66 toward home.

So, yeah. I knew the way.

Skip playing college ball at Davidson... not too shabby
When we were in high school, our basketball team made a rare appearance in the WPIAL tournament downtown at the Civic Arena. The Pittsburgh Press interviewed our coach, and he talked about our star, "Downtown Skippy Brown." He was trying to coin a catchy nickname, but I don't think it ever took. The nickname I remember was "Wilhelm." Don't know if that's right or not, but in German class, Frau Grubesky gave us all German names like "Max" or "Friederich." Mine, oddly enough, was "Robert." If I remember right, Skip's was "Wilhelm." He was a hard kid to ignore in the halls of Keystone Oaks. When I had my growth spurt, I shot up to 6'-3" over the summer. Skip kept going till he hit 6"-10". When pestered about it, he always claimed to be 5'-8". He still does. He was a skinny, gawky kid, like most really tall teens, and the day the class bully, who had some success in the Golden Gloves took a poke at him in gym class, it didn't take long for word to spread around the school that skinny Skippy Brown had kicked the lunk-head's ass. He may have looked like a toothpick, but he was tough as re-bar. Still is.

"It's in your blood..."
Skip has been a volunteer fire-fighter for over 30 years. His grandfather was a city fireman, and use to take him down to the station house to climb on the truck and meet the rough men who risked their lived to keep the smokiest city in the world from bursting into flame. "It's in your blood," he says. He always wanted to be a fireman. I can't imagine a more reassuring figure coming through the smoke to rescue me than this gentle giant. His heart is even bigger than he is.

So it was not really surprising when I got the message on Facebook. He had Steeler season tickets. If I agreed to beat cancer, he would take me to a game. I called cancer and let him know that the deal was done. I had better things to do than die this year.

I arrived at Skip's front door around 7:45 AM. For a 1:00 kick-off. After a decent interval, I called and Karen answered the phone. Skip was in the shower. I told them I was about half an hour away, and drove off for a little tour around the neighborhood. The South Hills of Pittsburgh are like nowhere else I've ever been. Houses aren't built on these hills, they are carved into them. Here, you might have to climb 10 steps to get from the street to the ground floor. My dad grew up in a five room shot-gun house on the South Side and none of the rooms was on the same level. He knew people with coal mines in their basements. In their basements! As I drove the perennial lousy pavement of Pittsburgh, I fell in love with my hometown all over again. It is not a pretty town, not by a long shot. But it is a beautiful one. This city makes you tough. You learn to climb up the mountains and to enjoy sliding down the other side in the snow that never seems to go away. The city was built by entrepreneurs and union workers and robber barons and immigrants who were willing to dig in and make a life for themselves in a place where a lot of sensible people would stop, enjoy the view, and then move on to flatter, friendlier places. In my heart, Pittsburgh is the capital of Pennsyltucky. Coal and steel. That's who we are.

Pennsy and the Chief... No, I don't mind if you smoke...
When I finally got up the nerve to stop in front of Skip's house, he was coming out the front door to greet me, wearing Antonio Brown's #84 on a black Steeler home jersey. He extended his hand, and I plowed right past it, offering him one of my patented Pennsy welcome hugs. I'm sort of used to wrapping people up in my arms. Hugging Skip is like being embraced by a grown-up when you're 8 years old. It wasn't to be the first time I'd feel that way. I spent a lot of time that day following his footsteps and peeking out around from behind him to see what was going on. We went inside and I met their handsome pit-lab mix whose name I seem to remember was Winston, but I'm not sure if that's right or not. Karen introduced herself and welcomed me. Then we went downstairs into what Skip calls his "museum." First thing you see is his handsome son, in annual 8x10's lined up on the wall. The school pictures show a boy growing into a man who mercifully favors his Momma. Skip's office is a shrine to Pittsburgh sports. The walls are covered with autographed photos and memorabilia from the Pens, the Bucs, and the Steelers, as well as trophies his grandfather took from the Germans in WWI and a collection of fire-fighter collectibles. A bushel of Terrible Towels hangs from the rafters. The chair is a handsome black leather number with you-know-what emblazoned on the back. This is not the home of a "fan." This is the home of a devotee, a lover of tradition and greatness. It is a little nook in what they call Steeler Nation. It's a great place to hang out.

All the way from Mexico City...
Steeler Nation knows no boundaries.
We shared a few stories as I thumbed through a couple of albums filled with autographs, photos, cards, tickets. I showed skip the Terrible Towel I had tucked into my sweat shirt pocket. We said good bye to Karen and Winston, and hopped into his SUV for the drive through the Liberty Tubes and into town. Skip's family has had Steeler tickets for 50 years, so he has the routine down. Just over the bridge a man greeted us and waved us into a small parking lot outside of a business that was closed for the weekend. Skip introduced me as his old friend who was seeing his first Steeler game today. The man wished me well, took Skip's $30, and sent us on our way up the hill toward Heinz Field. We walked through the parking lots filled with tailgaters. The air was filled with the smells of burgers, keilbassa, brats, and fried onions. One table was laden with about 20 gallons of top shelf liquor. Next to it was one covered in home made brownies and cans of pop. Black and gold were the only colors. Except for the Mexican flag flown by two fans who had flown up from Mexico City to see their first game at Heinz Field. They had been fans for years, they said. I took their pictures with my big friend, and we made our way to the Great Hall. Here, beneath the bleachers, all the greats are enshrined, from Ernie Stautner to Ron Woodson. Giant replicas of the six super-bowl trophies line the center of the hall, and the place is filled with parents and kids passing the stories down.
Canton? Go north and turn left.

The first glimpse I got of the field took my breath away. Heinz field is supposed to be the worst surface in the NFL for visiting players. Just like the streets of Pittsburgh, you have to live here to love it. I looked out from the North end zone, the open side of the stadium, the side that cost Jeff Reed his job, and felt my eyes mist over. Heath Miller and Heinz Ward ran routes toward the end zone as Charlie Batch lofted rainbows to them, one after another. Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley ran sprints toward us under the cool gray sky. If you want to know the truth, I could have left right then and been happy.

Skip's seats are ridiculous. 25 yard line. Behind the Steeler bench. 10 rows back. to get much closer, you'd have to put on a helmet. Everybody seems to know him. That's because Skip treats everybody like an old friend. He knows their names and their kids names. He always introduces me. Everyone is glad to meet me and knows I'm going to have a great time. We stand and I sing the national anthem, our black and gold caps over our hearts. This is not the kind of stadium where people mill around chatting during the anthem. When the young woman finishes, my neighbor says admiringly, "That was a great job. She didn't junk it up." We know steel in Pittsburgh, and we know scrap. The came begins, and it becomes obvious to me that there's going to be a problem. When I raise my arm and twirl my towel, it is just about level with Skip's head. I whack him in the back of the noggin with nearly every wave. He never says a word.

Skip knocking the lid off of Pennsy's bucket list...
And yes, we are both standing...
At half-time, I am frozen in my seat. I contemplate the possibility of actually sleeping here tonight. This is something like Skip's 500th Steeler game. "I wish there was some way for me to tell you what I'm feeling right now, Skip." He grins, "I can see how you're feeling." "I'll remember this day, as long as I live."

And I will.

By the way, We beat the Jacksonville Jag-offs 17-13. Icing on the cake.



  1. Awesome post Bob. I adore Pittsburgh but your words make me fall in love all over again. And what a cool wager. Cancer never stood a chance!

    Oh, and we had a coal room in our basement on Espy, does that count?

  2. Wonderful story Bob! Did I tell you that my mom was hit by the rudder of a plane at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongalhela, and Ohio Rivers? Pittsburgh makes 'em tough!

  3. Kim, a coal room is pretty cool. We had some mysterious rooms in our basement, but I'm not sure which one was for coal.

  4. Anon, I remember hearing the story, but I don't remember who told it. Remind me. Let's catch up!

  5. Guess I'll have to catch u at the Y since we aren't on the same Sunday schedule anymore. Congrats on the New Job! Best of Luck!


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