A Steel Family Story
SHOULD WE SEARCH THIS MAN’S FACE, we would look much farther back in history than it would seem a mere 75 years could actually take us. I have little doubt his eyes saw things we would consider medieval.
It might merely have been slitting the throat of a pig or a goat outside the kitchen door. In town. In broad daylight. Only yards from the neighbor’s. To the sound of squealing and struggle that would make our own blood curdle just to hear it, most of us.
When in July of 1938 he stood for this portrait, most likely with great reluctance, my mother was nine-years old and only a few blocks away. I can locate her with such confidence because, back then, there weren’t that many blocks in Midland, Pennsylvania to begin with. So I’m not just trying to be a sharp wit when I say that, strangers though they may have been, I know they were close.
My Poster Child
I believe that for my mother, such pressing physical proximity combined with an existential one–the claustrophobic geography of that Ohio River Valley mill town–left a deep impression. You could see it in her, in that way that you can see straight inside someone to their greatest fear, because on the outside they’re working so hard to cover it all up. She hid it so well and tried to run from it so far, it became the impetus for my entire family story.
Joanie wanted to be a singer. Not only wanted to be, but deserved to be. She was gifted and beautiful, but something made her choke. I guess you could say that in a way it was the smoke pouring from the tall stacks of the steel mill and the red dust billowing above the boxcars that hauled iron ore into town, blocking off the sun, convincing her she would never escape.
But she came close.
Photo: Steel worker, Midland, Pennsylvania, July 1938
(Arthur Rothstein, 1915-1985)
Library of Congress,
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information