Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

June 10, 2013

Old songs, steel towns: Days on the road spur appreciation for history

When I told Matt Valo that my dad was born in Donora, he said that his family was originally from Monessen, which immediately triggered my mind to sing the lyrics to “Monongahela Gal,” a song my brother and I sang years ago. I sang back-up on the chorus when I could make it back in off the road in time to perform. I made most of the Saturday night shows and some of the Wednesday night shows. Of course, moving freight was my priority back then so I missed a lot of Wednesday shows. All distances seemed relative and irrelevant.

The song goes like this: “She was born in an old Monessen alley. Her Ma and her Pa, they called her Sal. She grew up to be the pride of the valley. A typical Monongahela gal.” And the chorus went like this: “Roll on, roll on, Monongahela. Where the catfish and the carp played long ago. You used to be so pure; But now, you’re just a sewer; Smelling up the Gulf of Mexico.” The song includes a myriad of verses and several variations of the chorus.

That entire song is funny. It’s author, Robert Schmertz of the Pittsburgh suburb, Squirrel Hill, who recorded “Monongahela Sal” in 1947, had a way with words. The song tells the story of Sal, a young lady who wasn’t wise to the world and her brief encounter with Moat Stanley, the pilot of a river boat, the “Jason.” The song describes Stanley as being, “Tall dark and handsome and manly, Slickest pilot ever steered a boat.” Stanley seduces Sal and dumps her in the river, but the girl is resourceful and survives the episode. In the song, Sal swims to Sewickley, secures a gun, catches the Jason and dispatches the scoundrel, Moat Stanley.

I have to laugh now when I think of all the river towns I passed through hauling steel out of Pittsburgh for nearly five years. In the early 1970s, Pittsburgh was supplying steel to customers throughout the eastern United States. I hauled out of huge steel mills that covered many city blocks and picked up light tonnage loads out of small specialty mills that created unique components that connected the cogs of industry and kept the wheels of progress spinning.

I grew up on a farm, and as a result, I was more familiar with putting up hay, spreading manure, worming sheep and gathering eggs than I was with rivers, tug boats and 40,000-pound steel slabs. However, because my vantage point was approximately 10 feet above the surface of the road when I was behind the wheel of my Freightliner, I had a totally different perspective. I wasn’t aloof, and I never felt that the physical height of my position in a Bostrom air-ride seat put me at a higher station than anyone else. However, I had a broader sense of vision from the cab of a truck.

In truth, most truckers enjoy a certain separation from the rest of the world and well, steel haulers in steel country did enjoy a pretty cool reputation. In the Dave Dudley song, “Six Days on the Road,” when he talked about pulling out of Pittsburgh, heading down the eastern seaboard, he wasn’t talking about hauling steel. He was probably hauling packs of ketchup or light bulbs. Steel haulers leaving heavy out of Pittsburgh couldn’t make music at that tempo. Greentree Hill slowed you down too much coming out of the Fort Pitt Tunnels, and every other mountain between there and somewhere else, slowed you down even more.

The whole network of steel mills back then — Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Allentown, Cleveland, Youngstown, Dayton and beyond — was all like a living history book for me. When I met Matt Valo in Bramwell, and got to talking with his four-wheeling family and friends, one of his pals — Sean Gallagher — had to remind me where Hopwood was. It’s just north of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield. That battlefield was as close to my home as Pipestem is to Bluefield.

When I was in high school, I was so deeply immersed in American history that I barely noticed it. I was too busy being a typical teenage boy with typical teenage boy motivations that I didn’t spend as much time learning about the world around me as I should have. Trucking sapped some of that vinegar out of me, but it took age to really make me stand back and marvel about world around me.

I once had a friend who said that you know a community is in trouble when it pays more attention to its past than to its future, but I don’t subscribe to that belief at all. I think all people are attracted to stuff that is of interest to them. I think that when you blow the dust off of history and let it shine under a bright light, it can be pretty attractive. Being a trucker helped me appreciate history.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

 

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