RUST BELT BOY:
Stories of an American Childhood
by Paul Hertneky.
Bauhan Publishing, 222 pages, $21.95 (trade paperback)
Author Paul Hertneky’s new memoir is a graceful accounting of a young life rich in its preservation of memory and its recall of loss. It is evidence that while you can go home again, no matter Thomas Wolfe’s words many years ago, you may well find the twist of the past and the present escorting you on an unexpected journey of discovery, a journey of often bittersweet delights.
Hertneky, who now lives in Hancock, is hardly a native New Englander. He grew up in the heart of America’s rust belt: Ambridge, only a few miles from Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. It was a town and a region built on steel mills, the racing pulse of the nation’s industrial might for decades. Until it wasn’t any more starting in the ’70s and ’80s, and the mills shut down and the cities died and the people left.
The book is about some of them, yes, but that isn’t really what this memoir is about. No, its heart is centered on the people who stayed, how they got there and why they chose not to leave. The view is an affectionate, perceptive one, but it is clear there were some wounds in the processing, too.
Hertneky’s book relates his stories and those of Ambridge past and present in a series of brief chapters that range from a historical narrative to personal memories of family, food, friends, girls and jobs. And if some of these moments evoke universal strains of familiarity, they also have a freshness, reminding us of a unique immigrant experience and growing up in the midst of it.
Working in a steel mill left indelible imprints. Listen to this passage: “Our lives were filled with discarded molten material — ash used for traction in the snow, nuggets of pig iron, sharp metal sheets, iron filings we gathered with magnets, mercury we kept as a treasured plaything, pipes welded together for the batting cage and plates walling our steel dugouts, corrugated sheets we learned to cut and bend into sleds and shields. Aluminum, steel, tin, and iron: scraps of it and lengths of it were lying around everywhere.”
It is a most muscular memory.
The author was young then. And it took some doing to shake him out of his “monumental self-importance.” The Franciscan teachers helped. So did food: In a chapter cleverly titled “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” he writes of how a rapturous taste sealed his consciousness with a power not even kisses could conquer. But there were girls, some that got away, one that didn’t. Their stories are vividly, pleasurably remembered.
Hertneky did get away, eventually. Maybe it was that first sight of the Atlantic Ocean from a Massachusetts beach that did it. Maybe it was Boston and Cambridge that sealed it. But whatever, it was firmly grounded in the hills of Pennsylvania with a deep love that distance could not alter. And sharing that with readers is itself an act of love for the author, clearly.
Author Paul Hertneky will talk about his book and sign copies on Thursday, May 5, at 6 p.m. at The Keene Public Library, 60 Winter St., Keene.