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  • Writer's pictureThe Rough & Tumble

Steel in my Blood

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced you to Great Uncle Bob, my (Mallory's) maternal grandfather's brother. We told you a little bit of his life, and then about the car accident he and his wife Joanne were in, and the two caskets that rest in Alabama because of it. We also alluded to some family secrets he told us before the accident.

Unfortunately for you, our lips are still sealed on those ones. For now.

But here are some things we learned that aren't so secret while we sat on the shag carpet of Bob's living room-- him smoking Freedom cigarettes and Joanne working out a crocheted table doily with our names on it.

Uncle Bob and my grandfather (Pap Pap), Jim, had a brotherly bond worth noting, but also, the normal kind you find in books and movies. The kind where they see each other on more occasions than family reunions and holidays. The kind where they make plans-- big plans-- to get to Wyoming to catch the big fish. The kind where they've swapped their war stories so frequently, they occasionally forget which of them was stationed at sea and which was quietly installing wire taps across China. The kind that could be anyone, but no one else, for the specifics tie so tightly into the generic blanket of familial love.

When Jim got sick, Bob told us, he called his brother. Their plans for Wyoming-- the ones where they would go for at least a week, maybe two, just to sit on the rivers and the lakes and bring home the really worthy catch-- it was more urgent.

"We'll get there," Bob had said, "we'll make it happen." They made plans. They set a date.

Bob remembered getting the second phone call a too-short time later. Wyoming would have to wait. Jim was leaving for a different place, and soon.

"I hopped into my car," Bob said, "I did it right away. And I just drove. I drove the whole night. I hardly stopped at all-- from Alabama to Pennsylvania in one night. But when I got there, I was still too late. No matter how fast I could've gone, he had already left before I got there. And I told him while he was laying there at the funeral, I told him I was sorry we never made it to Wyoming."

This is the kind of story that puts a pang of guilt in your stomach for having ever left home at all. It's the kind of sadness that pulls you back to a place where you believed you'd always live-- the place you were born. It pulls you to an alternate reality where you'd never miss out on a birthday or holiday or, most difficult, the death of your favorite brother. For me, it was a story of the irreversible step I took away from Western Pennsylvania when I moved away a decade ago. It was the succinct metaphor of what I was leaving behind, a story encapsulating the choice I was making.

And the choice I was making, was Wyoming.

Not exclusively, of course. But as metaphors go, I didn't want to tell anyone, or have to tell anyone, I was sorry we never did it. Sure, it's giving up a whole mess of familiar. It's slowly losing the inside jokes, and creating small gaps of memory in the family tree. In exchange for what? Wide blue skies and a couple of road stories?

"Steel in my Blood" was written in about 30 minutes after our trip back from visiting Uncle Bob. The stories he told me lingered, and I was picking over my own choice to leave. I was wrestling with where my home was-- recently divorced, living with two cool dude roommates in Nashville, and no real career or game plan in sight. Just me, my dog, some loose ends, and a few songs were persisting. My other friends had their nostalgic stories of the homes they grew up in-- running through corn fields or orange groves. Places they could return to. What did I have?

Turns out, I have steel.

The vagueness is already setting in the harder I try and remember it, but Uncle Bob was able to hand over names and dates that I was too careless not to write down. And it traced me back on my maternal grandmother's side to a great-times-many grandfather who hopped off the boat from Wales. And, like a lot of immigrants nestled near Steel City, he found a job in steel. And he, being a prized worker, was the first one to successfully engineer the seamless steel pipe. You won't find his name hanging around in history books, mind you. He isn't the one who invented it. But he was the first one that took it from a couple of marks on a piece of paper, cranked the machines, and produced an idea into reality. Seamlessly.

"Yeah, he got the raw end of the deal," Uncle Bob had said, "he got a worker's wage for changing the course of the industry."

If you've never been to Western Pennsylvania, you've never seen anything like it. Sure, you can come pretty close in the Adirondacks. And Virginia and West Virginia have a similar, mystical quality with a bit more banjo. My Great Uncle Pete, who still lives with my Aunt Mildred across the driveway from my folks, would want me to tell you that Pennsylvania, named by William Penn, literally means "Penn's Forest Land." It was aptly named for the variety of trees that cover the state. Uncle Pete would also want me to tell you that Penn's Forest Land contains more variety of trees than any other state in the United States. And he would tell you that with hand motions that illustrate every word. With hands that are missing partial fingers due to a couple accidents in the steel mill he worked at before they all shut down in the Great Depression.

Turns out, I also have trees.

Just as we've made ourselves a home when we didn't know, we also made ourselves families-- like Joanne, a master fiber artist that spent her last days crocheting the names of her loved ones into doilies. Or like some of those road friends who became our real friends over time and the repetition of our wheel rotations. We could live happily this way. But even still, something still calls us home-- where we were born. Where we came from. A curiosity pulls us-- we want to see why we are the way we are. We want to see if there's something wrong with us, or if there's a family history that explains us to ourselves. We want to make the choice to go to America and make a living wage as a steel worker-- or to Wyoming and make a living wage as a musician-- and even if we don't make our family line famous for it, we at least hope that they'll claim us as their own. Even if we never come back again. And we hope that the trees will be as beautiful as we remember, and the stories as rich, even if we never see them again.

And here's our weekly playlist, Even Though They Call Me Home. Give it a listen, no matter where you call home.

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