Horns in the Hollows

Remembering how to temper a bad attitude in a rust-belt steel town.

  • This chore, intended for Toby, was the most hellish work I’d ever done. Wedged in a dark, cast-iron hole, I chiseled caked grease out of the machine’s innards, striking metal against metal, a racket I thought could shake my skull right off my spine.
    Photo by Elliott Brown

Maybe it’s just the wind whistling through my woodshed, but some mornings I swear I hear the air horns from the trains and factories in the Ohio Valley, echoing through the hollows and the decades that have passed. They greet me at the gates of Armco Steel, running full tilt when I turned 21 and joined thousands of men and women who filed in and out of the mill three times a day, seven days a week. Throughout the valley, all the mills’ horns had a way of keeping time in close measure for those of us working 60-hour weeks. Like the rivers and rails that hemmed us in, we had no room for deviation and rolled along, punching in and punching out.

Outside the mill, our elbows resting on the edge of a bar, the old guys winked at an inside joke and smokers rocked back and closed their eyes at the end of a long drag on a Marlboro. In the quiet moments, I noticed how the family men sank into a hunch while picking at a longneck label, transfixed by a wooden chit that magically turns into another beer. They looked like they were taking cover, the way a boxer does against the ropes.

This would be the final round for the steel industry in America. We all saw it coming—written in yellow crayon, usually in Asian characters—on the imported billets stacked in the shipping department.

As always, bars and churches held us together, and the streets of Ambridge were thick with both. Every ethnic group had at least one church: Russians, Greeks, Italians, Croatians, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, Scots, Czechs and Slovaks, Germans—Catholic and orthodox mostly, but Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians too. A bigger, modern synagogue replaced the old one in the 1960s. Belief in God and country, family and football, preserved the hopes of 16,000 souls who were welded together by the business of steel and crammed into Ambridge.

When faith faltered, we had bars—hundreds of them in every neighborhood and lining Merchant Street. Even legendary boozehounds who began a pub-crawl anywhere on Merchant, drinking a beer in every joint, would cover no more than three blocks before collapsing on the sidewalk. In those days, Ambridge had more bars and clubs per capita than most anywhere in the nation: Manhattan had one for every 600 residents, Philadelphia had one for every 500, Pittsburgh had one for every 400, and Ambridge had twice as many: one for every 200.

Taverns, like Maxim’s directly across the street from the mill gates, stayed open all day and night. They served workers who were mostly tired and harmless but were not always friends. Some brought axes to grind, bones to pick, and hairs to split, simmering beneath the surface or looking for a fight, if only to feel more alive.

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