Pittsburgh Years

Settling In

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E

ach weekday afternoon after finishing work I walked a block on Sixth Avenue to Liberty Avenue and then on that busy street a few blocks more or less west—nothing here obsessively conforms to the compass—toward the Monongahela river where my bus picked up its passengers for the fifteen minute ride to our house in “The Rocks”, as McKees Rocks is familiarly known by Pittsburghers.  This was a busy time of the day; if I was lucky, I could find a vacant seat, otherwise I had to stand in the aisle hanging onto the overhead, stainless steel bars that ran the length of the bus for that purpose.  When the bus stops quickly to avoid some hazard, all the standing passengers lean to the front of the bus in synchrony, while hanging on, a jerky ballet that one soon gets used to.

The point map.jpgOutbound, the bus shoots across the Fort Pitt bridge (now route 279), so named for the fort (now a museum) just below the onramp in what is now Point State Park.  There are no fearsome Indians to be seen now of course and the French have by now raised passivity to an art form.  But it was not always so.  This secure, armed enclosure had once controlled access to the three rivers at The Point, the pre-revolutionary “highways” to all the frontier settlements of the area.  The Ohio, in its usually placid meanderings, carried settlers, trappers, hunters and a colorful array of miscreants smoothly into what have now become the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and yet others downstream and to the west.  Pittsburgh was the place where these strong willed people coalesced from all over the more settled east, gathering tools and supplies, foodstuffs and armament here.  Then they set out in canoes, and on long boats and flatboats built in Pittsburgh for the arduous downstream float.  Virtually all major cities in the world have become so through the benefits brought to them by waterways of one sort or another. 

On the bridge proper, bus always rushing, it picked it way south-west, lane-by-lane through the echelons of traffic working their way outbound across the “Mon”—as the Monongahela river, a tongue-twister of an Indian name, is familiarly known.  Just before the bus would have plunged through the dim and noisy tube of the Fort Pitt tunnel, it instead turned right to an off-ramp and merged into the traffic on Carson street, speeding north-west now, the Ohio river just alongside.  After ten minutes or so it takes a sharp left through the shabby center of the “business district” of McKees Rocks, a collection of small storefronts, fast food places, bars, clubs, secondhand stores, a movie theater and other scruffy little businesses, even a drugstore which, on entering it for the first time quite startled me: 

Prominently displayed at the drugstore’s checkout counter was a very large glass jar of live leeches for sale.  These annelids clung to the glass of the jar with their suckers in precise, almost military, formation; it was nearly filled with water.  This made the business end of these animals very clear to the lookers-on at the counter.  The theory that the White Russians next door to us on Railroad street gave us with unquestioning confidence was that, when sickness struck, a leech or two could be applied to some artery or vein of one’s body, from which an if the leech would proceed to happily suck out a fair amount of your blood, thereby facilitating the purging of one’s disease.  Thus sayest the Russians.

Almost at the end of the business district on Carson street the bus tucked under the great black girders of a railroad bridge while turning right onto Island Avenue.  Then, only a block or so farther west, I got off at the stop just across the street from Rudy's Bar.  This bar, I had come to know, was run by an uncle of Jimmy Gerger who was a fellow draftsman working in the same department as I at Blaw-Knox; and another of his uncles owned the grocery store on Railroad street that we patronized.  Jimmy had been raised on Railroad street and retained a certain fondness for it, but had decided to move away to another borough when he was married.

Rudy’s was my first real introduction to Pittsburgh’s multitude of bars.  It is the kind of bar I am now quite fond of: not fancy, but well-patronized, and with the smell and feel of decades of relaxation and inebriation.  There was always a baked ham standing on the counter behind the bar on a little wire base.  From this provision they would, on order, thinly slice a very generous portion of ham and serve it on Mancini’s Italian bread that had been baked early that morning.  I have found this careful attention to more than merely one’s liquid requirements, even if it is only pro forma, to be a sign of a good neighbor­hood bar.  The addition of even a little good food does a lot in my view to change the ambiance of what might otherwise be a cold and inhospitable bar, though I only appreciated these finer points of bar life later.  I was quite a novice at this time—I have now attained expert class—and my stops at Rudy’s then were usually limited to a Friday night when I might go in simply to get a six pack of beer to take home.  Coffee had become my ordinary drink of preference, supplanting Coca-Cola.

On foot now, and carrying a small briefcase for the night’s reading, I began the long climb up the wooden stairs to Railroad Street and home, only a block or so from the head of the stairs.  When I got home supper was usually in progress.  I would play with the kids for a little while as dinner was being finished and laid out on the table—then, most probably, a card table with folding chairs. 

Since we, and especially Nola, felt rather isolated here we became tightly focused on our own small family.  It was so very different here and this was really the first time that we had been unequivocally separated from our extended families and from the friends and relatives we had grown up with.  We became a complete and pretty self sufficient unit.  Except for me going to work each weekday, we rarely ventured out since, for the first time in our adult lives, we had no car.  Even our oldest child, Marcia, was not yet in school and Lynne was still a baby.  Nola ventured as far as one or the other of the small markets that we had available nearby, and she sometimes chatted with our White Russian neighbors, but that was about the only contact she had.  Characteristically, I was pretty indifferent to all of this because I had become largely focused on work, and of course I did get out.

A short while back, on a quick trip to Naperville, we had managed to assemble and pack up odds-and-ends of furniture, plates and dishes, pots and pans and other household items scrounged from our previous homes and from the donations of family.  Then we consigned all this to a moving company—fortunately paid for by Blaw-Knox—and forwarded it on to Pittsburgh so that it would arrive a few days after we returned there.  This final trip to Pittsburgh was not uneventful.

While in Naperville, just after returning from California, we had bought a used car from some vague relative or friend—I can’t remember which.  It was a rather nice blue Pontiac of some not-too-ancient vintage.  The Pontiac in fact seemed to us a step up from the 1949 Plymouths that we had driven for many years.  Setting out from Naperville in this car, bound for Pittsburgh with our small family, we got as far as Indiana, or some western part of Ohio, when something about the engine or the transmission went wrong.  I managed to get the car to the side of the road and, in those days, long before those oh-so-convenient cell phones, I then had to walk to a gasoline station some few miles up ahead.  They drove me back to the car, looked it over, and said it was serious.  They couldn’t fix it, but would call a tow truck to come and get us. 

Some hours later the tow truck arrived, and now, still in our car but canted upward at about a 20° angle, our family was taken on a scenic trip behind the tow-truck, to a place somewhere well off the main highway, over a country road, and finally into a small and grimy garage with a car hoist , on which after only a short time the Pontiac was pronounced dead. Morte

We had very little money.  We huddled, assessing our cash and the situation.  It seemed grim.  They offered us an old Mercury that was sitting out in their yard.  It looked dusty and dirty and inauspicious.  They said it belonged to one of their employees and that he would be willing to part with it for $50.  We looked it over pretty carefully trying to guess whether it would make it through the long state of Ohio and on into Pennsylvania.  It seemed doubtful.  We didn’t know these people and though they seemed nice enough, we wondered…  Our normal Midwestern trust and faith in our fellow man quickly began to melt away.  We looked at the heap of the Mercury and back at our nice blue Pontiac; we looked at our two small children standing around looking glum.  Though they didn’t understand the details, our indecisiveness and angst had been transmitted wordlessly to them.

Maybe the guys at the filling station were in cahoots with the garage people.  Or maybe the garage people knew that our car wasn’t as dead as it seemed and they just wanted to trade up: fix our nice Pontiac and get rid of the clunker of a Mercury that we looked at skeptically.  We explained our situation to the manager: the new job, the bad car, the little money, the lack of alternatives.  He looked grim too, and sympathetic.  He seemed to want to help these fledglings but the choices didn’t seem many.  We looked the Mercury over again, both of us quite innocent when it came to judging automobiles.  We asked him, “Did it run?”  He said it did.  Could it get us to Pittsburgh?  He shrugged his shoulders, “Probably.”  

Gradually, and out sheer necessity, our viewpoint now shifted due to the weight of the facts and the lack of alternatives.  Our Midwest temperament then reasserted itself and we began to trust this fellow.  We saw him and the car as a potentially frayed lifeline to our new existence, but a lifeline nevertheless.  We made the leap to faith and drove off in our still questionable mobile acquisition, all of us, with both fingers and toes crossed.  Riding slowly, very tender with the spurs, our trepidation building with each new and unfamiliar noise and vibration, we coaxed the Mercury on through Ohio and western Pennsylvania.  Finally we pulled her thankfully into the garage of our newly rented house, let out our collective breaths, and never once exercised the old mare thereafter.

When finally arranged in our new home, the furnishings, which had seemed quite a truck full, now looked very meager indeed; it seems to me now that we might even have slept on mattresses on the floor for a while.  But no matter, Nola always kept it clean and neat and orderly.  We still had a few dollars left and I was making new money now—$675 a month seemed quite a bit then, certainly more than I had ever made before.  So, little by little, we supplemented what furniture we had brought along with a few cheap things bought locally in The Rocks. Of course none of the furniture matched in style or quality, but that was not important to us.  Youth has many underappreciated benefits.

 

A

fter I had been at Blaw-Knox a year or so, I had begun to see that the so called “architectural” part of their business was as nothing when compared to the process engineering, mechanical, structural and electrical work which was the meat and potatoes of all of Chem-Plant’s projects.  I had always liked architecture, and design in general, but here at Blaw-Knox, architecture involved almost no design at all, and for me that had always been its main attraction.  The most important function of the department I had landed in was the supporting of all the strangely arranged equipment.  Hundreds of people worked together on these complex projects.  All its elements had to fit together like a Swiss watch.  Here, architecture, so-called, ordinarily involved merely defining the siding, the roofing, the gutters and the flashings, the windows and doors and suchlike of what were just large industrial buildings—and then only if enclosures were necessary at all for the process.  As a consequence, work on the structural steel and the concrete foundations, and the general complexity of the whole, began to appeal to me; it began to seem somehow more substantial and important than the trivial architectural design that we in that small sub-department performed.

Text Box:  
Complexity
Little by little, the feeling grew on me that my hiring by Blaw-Knox had been mainly for the large office building that the Hooker Chemical project required, a project that I could now see was unusual work here.  When I was finished with that office building I was put to work doing some other mundane architectural tasks, but they seemed boring, and at some point even this minor work slowly dried up.  I thought I might be laid off.  I under­stood by now that this laying-off of unneeded people was pretty routine in businesses that regularly had to cope with famine as well as the occasional feast.  Yet it seemed that they liked me, and that they thought I had done a pretty good job so far.

So I wasn’t “cut”, and my “year in Pittsburgh” went on.  I still remembered vividly all the job hunting I had undertaken in Chicago and in Southern California.  It had left a bad taste in my mouth.  So I was not really anxious to start all over again “back home” now that I seemed to have a tentative toehold here in the old east.  I also began to see certain aspects of Pittsburgh that, in my initial concentration on the work itself, I had not noticed very much.  Among other things that I found different and interesting here was what today would be called ethnicity, though it did not then seem to be distinguished by that term.  

Everyone at work and everyone in our new neighborhood (except us of course) seemed to have  some kind of immigrant background, whether of their own or of their parents’.  It didn’t seem to me that I qualified because my grandmother was brought to this country at the age of three in the late 1800s and spoke only a few words of German.  This seemed to put me over some intangible line making me a white-bread American.  But gradually, here, in this urban place, ethnicity now began to reveal itself clearly to the young man from the Midwest, to whom this aspect of the world had formerly been quite opaque, and now it intrigued me.

At Blaw-Knox we had Germans, fresh from Germany, South Americans—even a Peruvian-Indian engineer who in stature was just about as big around at the chest as he was tall (he was from high in the Andes)—Chinese, Italians, Indians (those from India), Turks and others.  Even those I had originally considered to be normal, everyday Americans, gradually showed themselves as having strong Croatian, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Lithuanian or any of a number of other international backgrounds.  I learned, for example, that Serbs and Croats (of whom we had both), for peculiar reasons of history, often dislike each other in a strangely intense Balkan manner.  Though one can read these things in history, here they seemed real; they had substance.      

Little by little, architectural work became scarce, and one day they asked me to do some “structural” drafting.  Surprisingly, my background at the shop and in building the quarry house helped me in this.  This project concerned both structural steel and concrete.  And these things that I had learned when young—while not really thinking that I had learned anything—helped me to conceive the reality that the drawings were to represent.  I could understand how things actually fit together.  I remembered the reinforced concrete that I had helped to pour at the quarry.  I knew precisely what welds of different types looked like; I had, after all, been raised in a welding shop.  In some amorphous way I was a Steel Man; perhaps something from the long line of my blacksmithing heritage had kicked in.  And all of these things helped in a subtle way in this new endeavor.

The hierarchical organization and the elaborate, shared-responsibility, checking system that had bruised my ego when I first came to Blaw-Knox was, I came to see, an immune system for the organization.  It was aimed at preventing expensive, and perhaps even dangerous, events in the field during or after construction.  And this same system now enabled the young man from Naperville to try the new things asked of him; all his work would, after all, be checked.

My first effort in this new field intrigued me in a way that I had not expected.  It was, as I recall, an unloading pit for the rock salt required to make brine at a chlorine plant, which facilities were one of our major lines.  A railroad car would be stationed over this pit and empty its cargo of rock salt through a hopper in the bottom of the car.  The pit itself was made of reinforced concrete, but integral with it was heavy sheet steel to be welded in the form of a bin that funneled the salt into a screw conveyor of some sort.  It was a pedestrian sort of undertaking, but it was very complicated for a draftsman because of all the angles involved and the intimate connections of the steel sheeting with the concrete under heavy loads.  I had to brush up on the trigonometry that I knew in order to define all the angles and dimensions correctly.  It was a challenge and it took several weeks to complete this set of drawings.  But when they went to the checker, they came back mostly yellow; he had found no errors.

Eventually I left architecture behind, unmourned. 

There are two main aspects to structural work: structural steel, and the reinforced concrete that is always used for foundations and sometimes for floors.  Now began a recurring, and by now familiar, process in which, for different projects, I would get design notes from an engineer and use them to make a set of dimensioned, scale drawings that would specify precisely how the elements of some structure was to be arranged.  It specified the sizes of the steel columns, girders and beams; and, as well, the concrete and the reinforcing that was to be used to support them. 

As I routinely became exposed to these so-called design notes, or calculations as they were sometimes called, they interested me more and more.  As at Quilty’s, these notes contained much more than simply instructions about what to put where; they told the story of how the engineer had calculated the loads and determined the stresses in the various components of the structure.  I had not forgotten what I had learned when studying my Parker’s Strength Of Materials book at Quilty’s and I brought it in to work, stashing it with my other books.  I began to understand these design notes even though these industrial structures were naturally more complex than the simple commercial buildings that had been designed at Quilty’s.

Increasingly, I began to understand how engineering itself was done.  For me the design notes became like the interpretation of hieroglyphics: opaque at first, but as time went on, and as I studied more, the clouds lifted until I pretty much knew most of the methods used in the everyday part of the design profession.  Compared to going to school, a notion which still put me off, I much preferred this way of learning.  And I began the habit of studying engineering at home, after work.

Text Box:  
Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie, who had his autodidactic start here in Pittsburgh, and progressed from poverty to become the richest man in the world, had seen fit to found numerous libraries in his old age, first here in Pittsburgh and later all around the country, even some few overseas.  Carnegie was in many respects the Bill Gates of his time: libraries in his day were viewed as a primary information resource not completely unlike the way in which computers and the Internet are seen today.  Among other things they were places where a young man with ambition could get all the knowledge needed to do just about anything, which I am sure was exactly what Carnegie had in mind.  Yet he was often mocked for what seemed to many as the “buying of goodwill for sins committed.”  Pittsburgh was, and remains, a center of the union movement and susceptible to the natural enmity that this seems to foster between labor and management.  This unionization also reinforces this distinction between the two which today, in other professions, such as software development, has become blurred.

I was told that there was a technology section on the second floor of The Carnegie library of Pittsburgh.  It is a very large library located in Oakland, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh dedicated, even then, mainly to schools and hospitals, and of course to the bars and restaurants and shops that invariably accompany this heady concentration of learning.  I managed to find a way to get there on the bus.  Busing, in this city of convoluted roadways, is in some ways the easiest way to get from here to there.  One has only to make sure to get on the right bus and then to be careful to get off of it at the stop closest to one’s destination.     

The huge second floor of the library did indeed seem to have every book ever printed on the subject of technology, and it included an extensive collection of books on structural engineering; the city has been a center for the design of bridges, steel mills, glass manufactories, process plants and similar industrial and commercial structures.  I began to make regular trips to the second floor of this library.  A side benefit was that the library itself was directly connected with a very interesting museum filled with, among many other things of interest, dinosaur bones that had, through Carnegie’s largess, been collected from tar pits out west.  and which had been carefully reassembled here, by the curators.  All of this was completely free.  I certainly could not have afforded to buy all these books at that time.  And besides, it had a very nice cafeteria, not free, but cheap and good. 

I now settled into a routine of doing my normal drafting work, and in the process studying the design notes for the structure I was working on.  Then, after taking the bus home at night, playing with the girls for a while and having supper—which by now, in yet another urban transformation, was gradually becoming “dinner”—I would study structural engineering until late, when Jack Parr and later Johnny Carson, would help get my mind away from calculations, and thus to sleep. 

I took my time in this effort, making side forays into relearning algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and the other subjects I had slid through in high school simply to get through them.  Now I knew why I needed them.  I even took time out to learn the basics of differential equations which I had not before been exposed to.  Now it all seemed fascinating.  During this time my brother, a mathematics whiz, came to stay with us for a few weeks—I don’t now recall just why.  We had a rather large blackboard mounted on the wall of the kitchen and from him I got instruction in the finer points of this and that, concerning the mathematics I thought I needed.

 

W

illy Reasner was generally acknowledged by everyone in the Structural Department to be the most talented of the engineers.  He was probably then in his late thirties.  I want to say he was a small man but it would be closer to say only that he was compact and not large.  We were all habitual smokers then, but Reasner typically lit a new cigarette only seconds after the previous one had been snuffed.  He had a “suffer no fools” attitude about him and though he could smile on occasion, he exercised this potential with a spareness that corresponded to the design notes that he produced, remarkable for containing not a single superfluous pencil mark.  In his calculations he carried this idiosyncrasy so far as to omit the horizontal line traditionally separating the numerator of an expression from its denominator, his penmanship so remarkably even and legible that he felt it unnecessary to use this otherwise universally observed notation.  And no one challenged this idiosyncrasy.

Whenever something out of the ordinary had to be designed, Reasner was often the one chosen to do it.  Every engineer was expected to be able to design anything that might be required when, and if, called upon, but common sense went against the notion of having some average person flounder about, studying for weeks trying to design some unusual structure.  Personnel were assigned to tasks with efficiency in mind, not merely professionalism. 

A junior engineer would often be assigned to check Reasner’s work; no supervisor was too worried about the correctness of his calculations in the first place and the new fellow might actually learn something from having to parse through them.  This checking of things was often performed by pairing a senior man with a junior, and either could be assigned to the checking role: the senior, as checker, made sure that the junior committed no serious error, while the junior, as checker, might learn something new; either way an effective coupling.

Several times I’d had occasion to study Reasner’s design notes because he had done the design for some structure that I was to draw.  His notes were an artwork, a model not only of handwriting, sketching, organization and succinctness but, as well, in their logic.  His calculations leapt surely to their conclusions, and occasionally to a rather unusual and unexpected design.  And they did this with unusually large deductive leaps between steps, logical omissions that were expected to be intuited by the checker, as though these gaps were so obvious that they ought not to be noted and certainly not challenged.  And indeed, a checker taking exception to these lacuna was at some peril of ridicule for being so naïve as to expect them to actually need to be spanned by written figuring.

This general style became my model for design.  I aspired to this level of professionalism, though never quite able to acquire the near-artistic handwriting and sketching I so admired.  Another aspect of his work that appealed to me was that he brought the same level of competence to mundane work that he brought to truly difficult projects.  In the kind of work we did, a multistory structure, a tunnel, a small bridge, the support of a particularly heavy load, some unique design, is the cream, while everyday things like supporting piping and small equipment, designing stairways and small foundations is the everyday milk.  Giving as much thought to the dull as to the challenging might, in the economical sense, be counterproductive for the company, but if one is an artist, one is an artist, and a still-life can resonate as vividly as a complex landscape when viewed in this manner.

 

O

ne day at work—I don’t remember exactly the circumstance—I started to make calculations myself.  I suppose it was a case of being assigned to draw something before a designer was available to do the calculations for it.  No doubt it was something pretty routine, and I had studied routine structures in depth and by that time understood very well just how they were designed and what calculations had to be made, so I just made the design notes myself.  When the group leader for the project came over to see just what it was that I was drawing—sans engineer—I handed him the design notes I had made and said something like, “You probably want to have these checked.”  He did—perhaps, since they were simple, he checked them himself to see just what this draftsman might actually know, if anything, about designing.  Since I didn’t hear anything back from him I guessed that they were OK. 

The fact of the matter is that 60 or 80 percent of everyday “structural engineering” is pretty routine once one gets the hang of it.  It is the other 20 to 40 percent that can be tricky, and this part gets difficult very fast.  There are indeed aspects of structures that are quite difficult to design, and that occasionally require subtle engineering judgment, from which very unpleasant consequences can flow if wrongly judged.  But now the camel’s nose was under the tent and the next time they were short a designer for something kind of easy, they asked, “Bill, can you do these?”  Over time I became their first dual designer and drafter and, as their confidence in me grew—since everything was checked anyway—the things they gave me to design were more and more challenging and interesting. 

It is worth stressing that it was certainly the ubiquitous checking process that existed here that made it possible for an unschooled novice to insert himself into the system; the risks to the organization were mitigated by the thorough checking that was routinely performed.  But neither is it quite right to say that I was unschooled: more accurately, I was “home schooled”, though that doesn’t count for much in the engineering business.  And certainly I was not pushed to attempt things beyond my capabilities at the time.  In fact I was not pushed at all; it was always me attempting to go on to the next level of difficulty. 

Actually doing design at work animated me to study more deeply at home.  My day work and night study fed on each other; the more I designed the more I was energized to study, and the more I studied the more I was then able to design, a virtuous circle.  I maintained a separation between my daily work and my nightly studies; rather than simply performing my “day work” at home I used what I was doing at work as a springboard to learn something more theoretical about the general subject.  And I didn’t have to waste time—which was the way I thought of it—on all the other things one is required to learn in the normal academic environment: literature, politics and the full range of subjects that permeate collegiate learning.  As I saw it, on my own I could indulge myself in the laser approach. 

I have always had my doubts about the fundamental notions of traditional schooling, while fully aware now of the drawbacks of the method that I stumbled into.  It could be said, and not unreasonably, that had I chosen traditional studies in a scholastic environment that I might then have been guided to a suitable, and perhaps different, field earlier.  In that way I might have had more time and more capability to contribute, if only modestly, to the world’s well-being.  But the fundamental notion that seems to operate in the academic world, that a little exposure to a lot of different things when students are young offers a useful overview from which they can then choose in an informed manner, put me off somehow and I willfully resisted it.  Traditional learning seemed to me to resemble an art class that begins by teachers squirting out a palette of rich colors and suggesting that students dab them on canvas.  I first had to answer for myself the question: Why should I learn this? Only then could I mobilize the energy to do so.

There seems a natural progression of interest and thus ability in most people—politics, for example, is ordinarily one of the last fruits of the mind to ripen.  I doubt that very many students have the requisite knowledge base for such subtle themes at the early time when they are sequestered to attempt to begin its understanding.  I believe it to be true that, regardless of schooling, many of us, perhaps most, find it an agonizing search to uncover an occupation that provides both interest (that invaluable aid to effort) and income (a crude measure of utility, yet probably the best we have).  On top of that, there just seems a cussed difficulty to the natural and necessary process of finding an occupation; nature seems to delight in defying traditional search methods here.  However these arguments may play out, I seemed at this point to have found my métier and I immersed myself in it happily, and with a vigor that I had never before brought to learning.  

 

U

Text Box:  
My Second Bottle
ntil I was seventeen or so and began to like coffee, I was addicted to Coke.  I doubt there’s any truth to the often-voiced speculation that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine, but I wouldn’t put any serious money against a few coca leaves, an incestuous cousin, having fluttered into the original secret formula in one form or another.  And those tantalizing, small, blue-green, 8oz. bottles, fitting so perfectly to one’s hand, were in themselves addictive.  I drank roughly a case of Coca-Cola, 24 bottles, everyday for many years.

The progression of my oral fixations was from Coca-Cola to coffee, then finally, and apparently permanently, to beer, and the occasional touch of booze.  I here exclude baby formula of which I was no doubt fond.  My mother was a modern woman and apparently thought breastfeeding something of a bother, which may, Freudianly, explain my entire history of oral obsession.  In addition to a tendency toward modernity, my mother also had a nursing degree and some speciali­za­tion in dietary matters, but she was not a stickler for cleanliness, either of the housecleaning variety or of personal hygiene.  My brother and I bathed once a week (on Saturday night), and the notion of brushing one’s teeth seemed to be completely optional.  Certainly we had toothbrushes, but I can’t recall using them much.

As a consequence of this slackness, my acquaintance with dentistry has been a full and intimate one.  Fortunately (perhaps) one of my uncles was a dentist, and my parents probably got a break on the bill—though perhaps not; he was known to be a pretty tough guy.  He was in fact an army dentist during WWII.  He was a Major I believe, and most of his patients were certainly grunts.  From this fact I think flowed his seeming disdain for Novocain.  One had to take it like a man, like a grunt.  Once in the dentist’s chair the reward to the young patient for not yelling or crying too much during treatment was a piece of candy at the end of the session from a tantalizing and attractive five-drawer chest always in sight just alongside the dentist’s chair; it’s closeness subtly reminding you, as the peculiar intimacy of pulling teeth turned from merely an unpleasant closeness to pain, that there would be a reward at the end if you could stick it out.

Let me say here that I absolve Coca-Cola and my mother and my uncle completely and take on my own shoulders the ordeal of that painful weekend during a dentist’s convention when not a single dental soul was available to extract one of my rear molars.  This memory, still vivid, is located in my cerebral neurons right ‘longside an earache at age three.  My father said at the time that he could extract the tooth—and that it had once been done for him—with a string hitched to an open door and to the tooth.  When the door was slammed shut your tooth was out.  But after reflecting on both options I chose to wait the convention out with generous doses of aspirin, which didn’t seem to do a thing for me.

Though some prolongation of the inevitable was then available, by the drilling out of cavities and the filling of those voids with gold or silver, the everyday remedy for dental problems in those early times was extraction, and it was expected, and indeed calmly accepted by all, that somewhere in the range of age 40 or 50 one would “advance” to false teeth.  In this dental regimen, as in a few other unsavory areas, I was precocious: round about the age of 26, living in McKees Rocks, I had to bite the bullet by getting both upper and lower dentures.

I located a dentist using the yellow pages.  His office was on the sixth floor of the Park Building on Fifth Avenue not too far from where I worked; I still remember it well.  Since I was classified as a salaried employee at Blaw-Knox, I could take time off for dentistry when required and still get my regular pay.  After a dental session I went back to work with a semi-frozen and slightly lopsided jaw. This routine went on for some weeks. 

I wish I could remember my dentist’s name; he was a grandfatherly old guy, and Jewish—both of which I counted as a plus.  He seemed to have postponed retirement indefinitely.  But, no matter his age, he was delicate and he wielded a Novocain needle deftly.  This was an unexpected pleasure, after my earlier experiences with my uncle, who had viewed this instrument as a frill in the real business of dentistry.  With my new dentist I never felt anything after that first little prick of the needle.  After repeatedly applying it here and there around the site of battle, he might test the tooth, “Did you feel anything?”  If you did, even the slightest little pain, he went back to the needle until you felt precisely nothing.  He was a true craftsmen; in the profession of dentistry, he was to my uncle as a Biedermeier chair is to a three legged milk stool.

My new old-dentist claimed to have invented the method of replacement that I now underwent over a period of a couple of months: first of all the rear teeth were pulled, one or two a visit, leaving the appearance of a full mouth, at least until one opened it too far; then impressions were made; the teeth were fabricated at a lab; and one day you came in and all your front teeth—relatively minor affairs—were yanked at one crack and the newly made dentures put in immediately.  He told me to take them out occasionally and brush them (they were at first gunky and smelly with blood and gore).  But in no case was I to leave them out for more than a few minutes—even at night.  The theory was that the dentures themselves would prevent the gums from swelling and at the same time stanch the bleeding.  But even on a long-term basis he cautioned me to leave them in all the time, even at night, except for a good cleaning at bedtime.

After the final visit my mouth felt terrible, as though it contained a roomful of furniture.  Eating was difficult—even with Tylenol.  Cottage cheese and hamburger as I recall.  At work, a senior guy, Jack Fitzgerald, always called “Fitz”, seeing my discomfort came over and told me quietly that he had false teeth too and that I would get used to them.  That meant a great deal to me at the time because I certainly couldn’t then imagine a day when I would get used to them.  This thoughtfulness that older men often show to younger men was something that I experienced, and benefited from, over and over in my slow climb to maturity, and not only with respect to dentistry; I think it’s something built into human nature.