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27 July 2018

Thirteen Revisited


In my 2016 essay for Hungarian Review,Black Land”, I mentioned the coal camp once owned by my Hungarian grandfather, Stefan Révay (in the US he became Steve Revy). The place was called “Thirteen”; an unlikely name (in American folklore, thirteen is the most unlucky number). As of when I wrote “Black Land”, no member of my family had revisited the site since my Uncle Charlie Revy died in the mid-1980s. Family knowledge about the location of Thirteen died with him.

In my poem, “Thirteen”, which is included in “Black Land”, I imagined the place, partially based on things I had heard long ago from my father and uncle: foundations, an abandoned railroad, a flat place in the Pennsylvania mountains.

Like many children of immigrants, I am determined that my children should learn about their backgrounds; that they should understand from where, in an extended sense, they come. I had already taken my daughter, Lindley, to see western Pennsylvania many years ago and, in the summer of 2016, I took my son, Ian.

Not knowing when I might return again – it was the first time in thirteen years I had visited my father’s boyhood home – I was determined to find Thirteen during this visit. What surprised me most about finding Thirteen was not that we did locate it, or what it looked like, but what my son and I learned about changes in our society, and our world, in finding it.

I had tried to locate Thirteen when our family last visited the area, in 2003. This time, as before, I used the Internet to seek information. There was basically nothing useful on the Internet for a search such as this in 2003. This time, Google Earth and Google Maps were available, as were a number of websites about abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania. I focused on a site, Virtual Museum of Coal Mining in Western Pennsylvania, edited by Ray Washlaski.1 Mr Washlaski’s email was accessible from the site. I contacted him, and he put me in touch with people living in Northern Cambria (also known as Spangler and Barnesboro) and Bakerton (Elmora), Pennsylvania.2 One of these correspondents gave me the location of Thirteen, which I was then able to locate on Google Maps – although not by the name Thirteen. In short, the Internet has transformed our world, in much the same way that telegraphy, radio and then television did many years ago. We are still too close to this change to see all of the ramifications, be they good or bad.

More relevant to interactions between Hungary and the United States were two things we learned by visiting western Pennsylvania in the summer of 2016. Western Pennsylvania, as I mentioned in “Black Land”, was historically dependent on the coal mining, lumber and steel industries, all extractive; and the residents who remain are often retired from these industries. Campaign signs for presidential candidate Donald Trump, almost non-existent in Durham, North Carolina where we live, were everywhere. It was then that Ian and I realised that Trump might win the election; a judgement that the intellectual elite of our country did not come to until late in the evening on Election Day 2016. Obviously, with his administration’s views on trade, extractive industries, climate change and many other issues, the largely unexpected election of Donald Trump as the President of the US has transformed our country’s relationship with the world, including its relationship with Hungary. Again, in this observer’s view, we are still too close to these events to be able to see many of the outcomes. Of course, one immediate result of the election is an increase in coal production in the US, but this increase will likely not help former deep mining areas like western Pennsylvania, whatever voters there may hope.

Tied to the area’s support for Trump was the lacklustre economy of western Pennsylvania. The economic issues were obvious, especially to observers, like Ian and me, used to Durham, North Carolinaour area is one of the fastest-growing places in the United States. How do those more advantaged give people in western Pennsylvania, and areas like it, hope? What can we do to help? Why do areas like this, obvious beneficiaries of transfer payments for health, retirement and other governmentally supported services, vote for candidates who obviously plan to reduce those services? We were left with important questions, but no answers. The need for these answers for places like western Pennsylvania, Michigan and much of Ohio impinges on the welfare of Hungarian-Americans, many of whom live in those parts of the United States.

One change that we expected, since it has been going on for a long time, but that still saddened me, was the decline of obvious Central European cultural referents in western Pennsylvania. The names we saw, like Washlaski, which are rare in North Carolina and the American South, made many of the residents’ Central and Eastern European roots obvious. But the restaurant in each little town was a pizza place; Hungarian or other types of Central European restaurants are very uncommon in the US, even in communities with a strong presence of those ethnicities. And my father’s family, at least the relatives we are aware of, has largely abandoned western Pennsylvania. They have left for areas with more economic opportunity, and also because they did not want to work in the mines or the steel mills. One family member returned to Nanty Glo in retirement, but she is a notable exception. More questions – can a workable knowledge of one’s roots survive in the United States? What does Hungarian/Central European ethnicity, especially if it is more than one generation back in your family history, really mean in the United States today? Again, Ian and I saw difficult questions, but do not know the answers.

What of Thirteen? On a road running from Northern Cambria (Spangler) to Bakerton (Elmora), there is a crossroads. To the left, at the crossroads, as you go towards Elmora from Northern Cambria, a gate blocks your way; this is the access to a closed mine, the mine once worked by those who lived in the coal camp, Thirteen. You cannot get to the mine without trespassing.

To the right at this crossroads, Thirteen Hill Road, a fairly well-graded dirt road3 turns off, crosses an abandoned railroad and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, and runs about two miles over a low mountain to another road. The site of the boarding house and miners’ homes, Thirteen, is to the left of this road, just across the vanished railroad tracks. You reach it by turning off onto a bumpy dirt road that is obviously little used. It is a flat spot, speckled with bits of slate and railroad ballast, just as in my poem. There are a few foundations, but they are hard to see in the summer, overgrown by grass. The major difference from how I imagined Thirteen and the reality is about 100 yards down the bumpy road. To the side of the road sits a pile of dirt, rocks, lumber, roofing tiles – the mouldering remains of what must be the buildings of Thirteen, bulldozed into a pile, probably decades ago, when the mining camp was no longer needed.

Again, questions. How could an immigrant like my grandfather afford to open or buy a mine and build a mining camp? Why did he sell it in about 1920? What coal company bought it and when was the camp bulldozed? How long has the pile of rubble been sitting there, alone?

There was not much to do in Thirteen. Ian and I drove the length of both dirt roads, got out and walked around the site, picked up some pieces of slate that must have come from the mine there. I wrote “from Thirteen” in indelible marker on the slate shards, kept one, gave one to Ian, one to Lindley, and one to my father, Bill Reevy (born Stefan Révay). My father and my mother both died in 2017. When we cleaned out their last apartment, I found Dad’s piece of slate from Thirteen. Now I have two.

 

THIRTEEN


Some say it was a trolley stop
thirteen halts out of Barnesboro –
others tell of a shaft
between mines Twelve and Fourteen.

 

Uncle scouted out the foundations –
the long, narrow one a boarding house,
the squat squares miners’ homes –
and flat slip of vanished railroad
speckled with ballast stones.

 

It was his last hunting trip
to the old homeplace
before black lung and cigarettes
cut him down.

 

He couldn’t find the mine,
its black mouth gaping
for men to enter.

 

When November mist rises
in those Pennsylvania hills
it can still seem that
something’s there.


 

Notes:

 

2 Notice how the names of immigrants, and of the places they lived, can be unstable. Révay, Reevy, Revy; Bakerton or Elmora; Barnesboro and Spangler become Northern Cambria.

3 In the US what we call dirt roads are usually gravelled roads.




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