Mondays with Mike: Mystery of Pittsburgh

June 27, 2016 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized by

For the sake of convenience, I usually tell people my parents were from Pittsburgh. But really, they were from a tiny hamlet called Denbo, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. To put a finer point on it, my mom grew up in a company town, and the patch of row houses took its name from the local coalmine—Vesta 6. Her dad worked in that mine. The company owned their home, and they shopped in a company store and paid with company-issued scrip.

I remember our family visits when I was a kid as exotic—driving in from Illinois, the serpentine roads through the hills and valleys were like a roller coaster. We stayed in the house my dad grew up in, very near the Monongahela River. My uncle George lived there, and sometimes there would be an open fire roast of multiple chickens on a spit, as well as a lamb. It’s the first time I ever ate lamb, wouldn’t have touched it before then. But that lamb was different.

George always kept an ancient family tractor operable, and he had a trailer that he’d transformed from a defunct truck. He’d hitch that makeshift trailer up and take me, my sister and our cousins on a twilight ride along the river and then to the entrance of an abandoned strip mine. It was spooky in a Ray Bradbury way. There’d be talk of the old days, when my dad and his brothers swam in the river, sometimes hitching onto barges for a ride. It was impossible to comprehend, but kind of electrifying.

We only went every few years, but the whole place seemed never to change. It was like going back in time.

Of course, everything does change.

I was reminded of that this past weekend when I made a sojourn to western Pennsylvania.

Not your typical cemetery setting.

Not your typical cemetery setting.

I hadn’t been to the cemetery at St. George’s Serbian church in nearly 25 years, when we buried my father there. Saturday I drove in around 11:00 a.m., somehow managing not to get lost. As I approached, the memory of my dad’s funeral day began materializing. It’s a beautiful drive, really, and then all of the sudden these enormous cooling towers from a power plant come into view. The church and cemetery are very nearly in the towers’ shadows.

That’s the kind of imagery that sticks with you.

It’s a very small church, and the cemetery is unassuming. No tombstones, just markers. Nearly a third of them also had a medallion indicating the deceased was a veteran.

I was utterly alone on a sun-soaked day. As I walked the grounds, the number of markers with names ending in ovich kept fooling me. But it being a Serbian cemetery, well… .

Then I saw a cluster, and there he was—with his veteran’s marker. And I remembered his funeral, the flag-draped coffin graveside, and the paunchy troop from the American Legion playing taps and firing their rifles in salute. And just bawling. Twenty-five years later, it was as clear as day.

I spent my time with memories of my dad—and uncle George and Aunt Bert and her husband Uncle Hunch, one of the all-time characters of all-time characters, who are buried steps away. And then I headed to Bert and Hunch’s daughter’s house.

Cousin Linda lives in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill surrounded by woods in Brownsville, Pa. I was treated to scrumptious homemade stuffed cabbage and fried chicken and pogacha, traditional Serbian bread. And to conversation with Linda, her husband Rich, and my cousin Johnny—Linda’s brother. We caught up on children, grandchildren, cousins, family dramas, and the cacophony of cicadas that had only recently subsided at their house. And it was wonderful.

A gem of a stadium in a gem of a city.

A gem of a stadium in a gem of a city.

From there, it was back to my hotel in Pittsburgh for a nap and then a trip to PNC Park, home of the Pirates, who hosted the Dodgers that night. Decades ago I’d gone to Three Rivers Stadium with another uncle and cousins and seen the great Roberto Clemente play. Clemente played the game with a kind of artistic grace, and with flair. He has remained an all-time favorite.

The new stadium is splendid, the best baseball park I’ve been to—and the Pirates won in convincing fashion, with Andrew McCutchen hitting two homers. I had a kielbasa.

I spent Sunday walking downtown Pittsburgh, where a whole lot of construction is going on in some blocks, with other blocks and grand old buildings still suffering by comparison.

I felt a little empty all day, which I sort of expected. It’s a lot to reconcile. All those people and times gone. Poof.

But still somehow more vividly alive than ever.

It’s a mystery for which I’m grateful.

piwright04gmailcom On June 27, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for your vivid description of Western PA – definitely a land in transition.

Mike On June 28, 2016 at 8:31 am

See you soon!

Lois Baron On June 27, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Very nice piece, Mike.

Mike On June 28, 2016 at 8:34 am

Thanks, and thanks for reading, Lois.

Mel Theobald On June 27, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Thanks Mike. Very moving and richly told. I’d like to think everyone has a place like that, a place for reflection.

Monna Ray On June 27, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Mike, you so evoked those feelings of going home or places we call home.


Annelore On June 27, 2016 at 4:23 pm

Thank you Mike, I love the way you mix emotions, history and food! Now I am off to get a cabbage – for tomorrows stuffed one.

Brian Boyer On June 27, 2016 at 9:05 pm

I always enjoy the blogs from Beth and Mike, but I especially like this one, since I am from the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And Mike does a great job describing the tableau and feelings. I, too, grew up with Roberto Clemente as my favorite ball player. Well done!

Mike On June 28, 2016 at 8:34 am

Brain, thanks–and thanks for the FB travel posts, which allowed me to enjoy vicariously.

Benita Black On June 28, 2016 at 8:53 am

Wonderful piece. Thank you for your lovely recollection.

Carey Sullivan On June 28, 2016 at 9:05 am

My parents are from Bridgeville, PA. It’s interesting to hear the stories of the company-owned towns they lived in. One set of grandparents opened a grocery to compete with the company store. I haven’t been back in years…

Mike On June 29, 2016 at 10:25 am

Carey! Great to hear from you. I’m kinda remembering us talking about the company store stuff. Hope all is well.

Bev On June 28, 2016 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

Cousin Linda On June 29, 2016 at 9:01 am

Mike probably doesn’t know it, but the Knezovich family from Illinois was considered royalty by the rest of us who offered Pennsylvania another generation of Serbs. Mike and Kris’ dad (Uncle Chooch) was well respected by his siblings and their families. Chooch was the first to attend college, and venture out into the world outside of PA, leaving behind a community that was about to be reduced to ruins. Brownsville was a booming town once, and now the dilapidated buildings are deserted. Mom and Pop stores are competing with a local Walmart, and they are losing. Many are waiting for coal to return, even though every mine within a 50-mile radius has closed its doors. Our home is indeed lovely, but its value is questionable. The only bright spot is that toll Road 43 has given quick access to Pittsburgh and Morgantown from our front door.

We enjoyed Mike’s visit so much. It was like coming home again, even for me, Rich and Johnny, who never left. The royalty title still applies.

Mike On June 29, 2016 at 9:23 am

Thanks for all that Linda (not to mention the lunch!). Yeah, on my walk in downtown Pittsburgh, I went past the abandoned Kauffman’s building. Kauffman’s was a classic department store. Pittsburgh has reinvented itself after steel and attending industries faded, but that was a reminder that it’s taken a long, painful time to do that–and it’s still a struggle. Mining is dangerous, hard, dirty work–but at least it’s work. I think a lot of the angst in this election is pent up anger and resentment over how the forces of change–especially technology–just sort of bulldoze things, offering no alternatives. It’d be nice if we could find a way to ease the transition a bit, and I believe there are ways to do that. One thing, though–Linda said during our visit that the Donald tells people around there that coal’s coming back. Bald-faced lying isn’t a good approach.

Cousin Linda On June 29, 2016 at 9:58 am

You got that right, Mike. But bald-faced lying is what many want to hear. Hillary told the truth about West Virginia coal, and it cost her the state, big time. Trump was here in Monessen yesterday, invitation only, giving a speech on economic policy. There is nothing left in Monessen except a cosmetology school. Both candidates are spending time here. Promises to bring back coal might just win Trump the state. Heavy sigh.

Anne Hunt On July 1, 2016 at 6:02 pm

Bruce and I have visited some of the places we’ve lived in when we were growing up. Things do change…. We like capturing and sharing our experiences growing up in the memoir groups with Beth… We hope our children and grandchildren will carry these stories with them for years to come.

Janet On July 3, 2016 at 8:35 pm

Really loved reading this post, and all of the comments, too.

Nancy Sayre On July 5, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Beautiful piece, Mike. (From Nancy, Anna Perlberg’s editor).

Mike On July 5, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Thank you very much, Nancy, that’s high praise coming from you.

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