ALONG THE WAY

By John Thomas Tuft

I am reaching the age where looking back is at least as interesting as looking forward. Not in a “Longing for the good old days” sensibility, but rather in the sense of wonder, wondering what made me who I am today. And, who had a hand in making me who I am now. Fred Rogers used to ask folks to pause for a minute of silence to contemplate who you wanted to thank for being in your life. For this particular moment, I would like to thank a place, a city in western Pennsylvania, namely Beaver Falls. If you did not know it already, at the confluence of the Ohio River, the coming together of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, the waters first flow north. I raised my three children within spitting distance of the Ohio, and I’ve anchored my novels in its flow. At the apex of where it takes its big turn west, the waters of the Beaver River empty into it. Six miles north of where the Beaver River meets the Ohio is the city of Beaver Falls.

In 1954 (you do the math) on Thanksgiving Day, I was born to Irena Lawson Tuft of East Liverpool, Ohio and Hurricane, WV, wife of Thomas Davies Tuft of Washington, DC. They met in DC during the Second World War, a time of conflagration and compassion, a time of mass death and uncertainty, fortitude and the fortunate meeting of a young Naval officer and an 18-year-old secretary at the Pentagon. By the time I arrived, the sixth live birth of eight pregnancies, Thomas was the pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation gathering at the corner of 33rd and 6th in the College Hill section of Beaver Falls. At that time, the Armstrong Cork Works and the Ing Rich Plant making enameled porcelain were the big employers and the smell of the Cork Works is second only to a paper mill. Not to be outdone, College Hill boasted of being the home to Geneva College. And an up-and-coming young quarterback named Joe Willie Namath. To the west, along the Ohio, was Midland with its giant Crucible Steel Plant, where my grandfather Pap took his metal lunch pail to work on rotating shifts, a simple fact of life in those days.

I grew up surrounded by the promise of higher education and the humility of people who worked with their bodies and hands to make a living. George Long, a mill hand, used to sneak us butterscotch LifeSavers in the back of the sanctuary after worship. I knew by the age of four that I was destined to be with the beautiful choir director, galloping off into the sunset on Trigger, borrowed from Roy Rogers, of course. We, (Sue, Dan, and I) went next door to Janey Mumford’s house on Saturday mornings because they had a television. Carol Stewart, whose dad built houses, young and beautiful, was severely injured in a sledding accident out in Chippewa or Darlington Township and she still had the best laugh. The Dennisons, over on 7th Avenue had almost as many kids as us but I bet we could have taken them in football. Ruth Schrader, rest her soul, used to pack us little ones into her car to give my mother a break and take us on rides where we coasted down the hills with the windows wide open, and always ended up at the ‘Cow Place’ for ice cream. She worked at a bookstore, which is just this side of heaven. Heaven was the De’Angeli’s Donuts store on 8th. Priorities.  East Liverpool was a distant land where our grandmother lived, she of the magical chocolate pies and sharp tongue. Priorities again…

And always the constants of the rivers and the mills and hills. The rivers and hills are still there. The 37th Street Elementary School welcomed me into the world of nuclear attack drills and learning to print my name left-handed because I broke my right arm on the last day of vacation at family church camp at Camp Lambec on the shores of Lake Erie. I revisit it often in my novels; the camp, not the broken arm. I cried in kindergarten when Miss Masel said she was going to call our parents. I was sure I was a sinner in the hands of an angry God and nothing good would be reported. I was inconsolable until she called me over and whispered in my ear that I was a good boy. The memory of the scent of her perfume and her grace still brings tears to my eyes. I sat and waited in the waiting rooms as my father visited parishioners in the hospitals and nursing homes.  Ruth M. had severe rheumatoid arthritis and I still can see her misshapen fingers taking my hand in hers. I never imagined that I would one day live among them as I wrestled with my own demons. Or knowing what my father knew about asking me to wait….just wait.

After a much-convoluted journey, my parents ended up back in Beaver County, in a facility in Darlington. They are laid to rest in Hopewell Township. We moved from Beaver Falls when I was 6, journeying to a far land in Allegheny County, out of Beaver Falls to where I was supposed to finish growing up. Still waiting on that one…  Living on dimes and nickels, one summer before we moved, my parents could not afford to go anywhere during my father’s vacation. So, every afternoon we went to Brady’s Run Park for a picnic. Up on the hill in Shelter #6, an Army surplus thermos filled with KoolAid. I’ll leave you there, floating balsa wood airplanes on the breeze, farther and further. Laughing, eating, enjoying living. The Beaver River to the east, the Ohio to the south, pushing on as though they don’t have a care in the world…

For my money, gratitude and humility are the marks of a life well-lived. Thank you and Peace as you find your way…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.