In celebration of Scoundrel Time’s second anniversary, our editorial team is excited to announce the winners of our second annual Editors’ Choice Awards. David L. Engelhardt’s “Born & Raised: Learning to Leave Steel Country” is the award-winner in essay.
Here is what Editor Paula Whyman says about “Born & Raised: Learning to Leave Steel Country”:
In vivid prose that twists and turns with humor and pathos, David L. Engelhardt relates the compelling story of how he beat the odds and escaped a community that clung to its ignorance like a badge of honor. The author grew up in Easton, PA, and paid for college by doing punishing work in an iron foundry. His extended family and community tried to convince him that hard work didn’t pay, that it was always okay to quit school and quit your job and take the path of least resistance, and if he thought differently he was probably a chump. Not until he saw with his own eyes that a different life was possible did he imagine himself living that different life.
Born and Raised: Learning to Leave Steel Country
Trump thanks God for the uneducated. I thank the uneducated for chasing me out of my dead end of Pennsylvania before it was too late, even if my exile made mockery of a Springsteen song: I had no hemi-powered drone screaming down the boulevard, but a Plymouth Volare shaking apart at every bolt; no chick named Mary in the opposite seat, but a jumble of eight track tapes; and no guitar to play in the promised land, but $625 of college graduation money tucked in my gym shorts, in bills that ranged from fifty singles to a single fifty, to stake a life in a big city of random selection. It took me until now to formulate my motivation: I could not exercise my mind until I hauled my ass. I funded my college education by working in an iron foundry, where many of my supposedly tougher, more athletic relatives did not last a week. When my pulmonologist recently asked how a Georgetown lawyer got himself a lung scan that looks like this, I told him it was not a conscious bargain, but a good bargain, all the same. The money I earned in the dust and heat bought a college education that I only knew to pursue after making hard-partying friendships with my high school’s children of the professional classes. They assumed college, followed by a career elsewhere, as lightly as they assumed new skis for Christmas, and I followed closely behind, without benefit of skis.
Recent correlations of data describe entire precincts with virtually no college graduates left on their rolls; these were Trump’s best precincts. My relatives populate a few of them, and since the election, I have been trying to look back without looking down. I am seeing a generational concentration of hostility to the fundamental benefits of education. I am not referring to the acquisition of degrees, which can be as empty as a letterman’s sweater. I am referring to the habit of critical thinking, which requires good faith more than good grades; having driven out so many of those who acquired the habit, steel country thought it was smart to vote itself a man who buys his steel in China.
My working-class community is more than a century deep and traceable to two city blocks on opposite sides of the Lehigh River, which brought the canal to the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. My Irish forebears drove the mules; the Germans brewed the beer. I have known five generations who lived within walkable radii of one or the other of those blocks, in concentric successions of relations and neighbors: born, raised, and confirmed a Catholic; graduated by 17 or 18, married by 18 or 19, divorced by 25 or 35, and once again by 45; rarely jailed, not so rarely bankrupted, cyclically unemployed; and with any luck at all, retired before buried: in witness of one another across school auditoriums, church basements, VFW posts, and undertakers’ parlors. My grandparents and parents, uncles and great uncles, and cousins of countless remove, as doubled and redoubled by marriage and remarriage, include: a printer, bartender, and card sharp. A fireman, a washerwoman, and a nun. A fireman descended from the fireman. A baker of Wonder Bread, a driver of the Wonder truck, and a baker descended from the driver. A daycare provider; a caretaker for the parish; and a utility lineman who grew so obese the poles trembled, and the disability company paid. A single carny; a number of teachers; and one runner of numbers who shot himself to avoid testifying, and survived to see another Christmas Eve in another kitchen crowded with cigarettes and highballs.
They gave me unconditional love, on condition that I did not “turn queer” or marry a “boog.” They taught me unconditional American freedom, on condition that I did not exercise it too far from home: with enough luck or pluck, or grit or gumption, or whatever it was that you were going to need, anyone could become anything. But they could cite few instances of anyone or anything. Lincoln, for sure. And maybe that guy who opened the Burger King on 25th Street. Teachers were our only examples of advancement by education, but their summers were too long, their benefits too rich, and their salaries better spent on potholes. People with better jobs were worse people, mostly speaking. Men learned this in the service, where many did their bit, but no one advanced a bit, because becoming an officer was desertion from your kind. As free as this great country was, or as great as this free country was, it never made much sense to change circumstances.
From ’62 to ’75, I was the third generation living in unchanged circumstances on Hay Street in Wilson Borough, which is a separately incorporated quadrant of Easton, with one hundred square blocks of tidy row homes built at nearly the same time and to nearly the same specifications. Uniform prices attracted uniform incomes, which were somewhere below middle, but well above “colored.” Tack on the Borough’s higher taxes for our smaller, better funded school district, and in eight years, I saw exactly two dark-skinned students. One was from India, and one was from the orphanage. For most of our parents, the taxes that supported the schools were their final contributions to our futures. None of us would need a degree, because none of us had a degree, and yet, we were already living in the Borough. What more could we want?
When I was in the first grade, my teacher scheduled me for a day of special testing. My parents returned from the resulting conference with faces so troubled, I thought I must have scored what we called “mongo.” But it was worse. The special doctor was advising a special track, with programs and enrichments and time in classrooms several grades up. My parents swore to keep me normal, whatever that might take, which mostly took shrugging off the nosy advice about saving for college. Wilson was a happy place for a kid. Where the demographic was tight, the expectations were slight, and there was little chance of failure. The highest expectation was staying away from the cops, whether by good behavior or fast feet; beyond that, we played football in the alleys, rode bikes in the streets, and knew every inch of the sidewalks that connected us.
Our family found a little something more to want and paid a price that made old neighbors wag tongues. At the start of eighth grade, we moved into a barely larger house in a suburb halfway to Bethlehem. It had the same inadequate number of bedrooms, but upgraded the five of us to one-and-a-half baths and a yard with two trees. The mortgage reminded my father monthly of our sin against the communal faith in the Borough. He was betting reluctantly, and badly, on steady increases in income, even as a changing economy began stripping the white collars off men with high school diplomas. When the steady increases started to look more like downward spirals, he blamed my mother for wanting more than what was good enough. She blamed him for delivering less than that. At an ugly cost to their marriage, I acquired unintended experiences that expanded my future.
My new Bethlehem school district embraced the entire city, with derelict row homes built for steelworkers who no longer worked much steel, more prosperous neighborhoods on the better side of the Lehigh, and miles of budding suburbs. I discovered that there was something beneath the working class, and not all the kids eating free lunch were black or Puerto Rican. More disconcertingly, there was something above the working class, which included sneakers that had three stripes and a European name. I was tracked into their classes, but I was not of their class. Their parents were professors, steel executives, engineers, doctors, doctors married to lawyers, and owners of eponymous businesses. These kids wore goose-down parkas on even the warmest days, because their zippers dangled something called “lift tickets.”
We had a typing class. It was not for secretaries, as it would have been at my old school, but for college. Everything was for college. Algebra got us ready for the math that would get us ready for the math. English, for the difficult readings. “College Guidance” was a scheduled enrichment. As I made new friends, my mother quizzed me about their homes, their carpets, their furniture, for which I had no eye. The differences I saw were harder to explain: they lived here, but without extended family; a friend could not understand how I missed pickup basketball for a great aunt’s funeral. I had to explain what a great aunt was. These friends never met my relatives, never saw the blocks from which we sprang, never knew there was such a community on the other side of the country club, where I cleaned their fathers’ golf clubs. Their families were here for something called careers. Someday, my friends would leave for their own. They said the word with their own mouths. I surmised that a career included doing something for yourself, like affording coats that dangle lift tickets, but also, doing something with yourself, which implied some value higher than money, which only someone with money could afford to ponder. They were lighting me along a different path, which was both circular and transporting—perhaps because their light was on the end of a joint that was always going around and coming back. We styled ourselves as the school’s intellectual burnouts, because we had good grades and bad homegrown. Which some of these families condoned.
Families like mine could not afford to condone anything. They honored the values that kept them one rung above poverty for generations running: They demanded abstinence until marriage, which meant a boy must marry the first waitress he knocked up. They demonstrated their pride, which meant a man must take his unemployment like a man, which was on a bar stool facing the ballgame, whenever his boss needed to be called a fucking asshole for reasons that were not subject to questioning. They accepted without appeal the judgments of housewives, who pronounced husbands and sons unemployable lay-abouts or self-centered workaholics with no time for her side of the family, based on that week’s developments. They practiced the science of financial management, according to which last month’s bills were for this month’s bickering; bank loans were for cars that mostly ran; credit cards were for tow trucks when they mostly didn’t; folding money was for lottery tickets; coins were for cigarettes; and saving something for the future was definitely something to think about in the future.
No matter how close I stayed, my family wanted me to know that I could always call’er quits, no questions asked. Good examples abounded. My mother lasted one week at a teachers’ college all of thirty miles away. She cried hysterically to my grandfather by nightly long distance until she got her way, which was her mother’s cooking. He fetched her home without demanding even one sacrament from the American catechism: Effort. Courage. Forethought. That happy horseshit was what made her cry in the first place.
Not even football could rally the locals to tackle the world. The disabled lineman once had a scholarship to play for Penn State, after starring as a lineman for Wilson High. He quit during the first summer of practices, without having seen the inside of a classroom, so he could re-tie himself to his mother’s apron strings, within the reaches of which he slept and supped until he married my mother’s cousin, who wasn’t even knocked-up yet, as far as I can remember from my vantage point as their ring bearer. Feeling swell in my rented tuxedo, at the worldly age of kindergarten, I stole half-empty drinks from the edges of the dance floor and mixed them into a giant birch beer to share with one of the flower girls, who was my neighbor and classmate. She so appreciated my gallantry that she offered to let me marry her when we finished high school, provided I played football.
There would be no football scholarship for me to quit in demonstration of my love for home cooking. I ran cross country, rather slowly. My scholarship would be based on demonstrated need, which my father refused to demonstrate. Why should he admit that he could not afford something? And who was anybody else to try to cover for him? Each year, in the months before the Fall semester, the aid application lay near the microwave in its unopened envelope until the deadline had long passed. Only then, with pride proven, he worked beneath a cloud of cigarettes to enter the numbers that he mostly made up. After grants, the maxed-out loans that I was taking in my own name, and work study, the family’s cash obligation was $2,000, estimated to be coming in equal shares from my “summer earnings” and my “parents’ resources.” We were advised that my parents’ resources included loans they could take in their names, but they preferred to tap my father’s boss, who put me in the foundry. Even though the boss soon needed one of my father’s fucking-offs, he kept me on after he booted my father’s ass.
The summer before college, I was dating the daughter of two of my mother’s classmates from Wilson High, a girl who’d recently graduated from Wilson High herself. Her father had strict rules for educational advancement. His son would go to college; his degree would be in business; and his daughters would marry a man with such a degree. My girlfriend wanted to attend a fashion school in New York, but lived meekly within her father’s limits, even though she was “free, white, and eighteen,” as the free white folks liked to say. I was learning that their freedom did not travel far. I was oddly grateful to be recognized as odd, and therefore unsuitable. I was planning to study literature. I talked vaguely of living abroad, like the writers in the 1920s. One time, I said the words, “Writers in the ’20s.” I made a sincere effort not to wince when the mother wondered how people so young as that were given permission to live in crazy places like Paris. Such efforts were becoming too frequent, and too frequently insincere.
I was not yet enrolled, but I was already missing the recommended trick to a good education, which was to get through it without being changed by it. They had professors who tried to put ideas in heads, which was not right. I was born and raised: Sunday school, Little League, Boy Scouts, gun safety courses, fishing trips. In the summer after sophomore year, my father warned me that I would learn a hard lesson about stupid ideas if I thought I was going to be a writer in a room with a bare light bulb, after all this expensive education. His mood did not improve when I reminded him that I was covering the expense for my own fucking self. Tensing muscles in bare arms said he wanted one more provocation to bash me in the face, as the common locution warned. Our elders had many such locutions: Break your teeth. Your arms. Your freaking neck. I failed to find the nerve to force a locution into operation; it would have pushed me outside their limits a year or two sooner.
Only one of my mother’s dozens of cousins finished college, and it turned him so queer, he had to move to San Francisco. Only my maternal grandfather recognized that an education was supposed to change you. Not long after arriving from Ireland, his parents died on consecutive days in the flu pandemic at the end of the War. His father was a member of the Loyal Order of Moose, which was duty-bound to raise the orphans in the Mooseheart Home in Chicago. When my “Pappy” finished the Order’s high school, he had the smarts to attend Notre Dame at their cost. But it was the Depression. He had an offer to become a printer’s apprentice back home in Easton, and he could not trade a job in hand for the chance of a better job later, even with the degree that was to be in engineering. He liked to say that a man’s first obligation was to get himself a pot to piss in, then find his way up from there. His pot was back home, in a boarding house where my future grandmother did the cooking and cheated the men at cards. He spoke of the passed opportunity only once. He had no regrets. If he had gone to college, he probably would not have returned to Easton. “Because after college it is a world of choices.” He rubbed my head to tell me of one lucky implication of coming home before creating those choices for himself.
Even so, most parents were generous beyond their means. A Christmas wish was as Holy as the Night. I had stacks of books; a microscope, telescope, and chemistry set; a cheap manual typewriter that I pounded to pieces to fill my pages of the high school’s newspaper, and then a superior electric machine; baseballs, basketballs, footballs, cleats; a bicycle upon every spurt in growth. The family came to Washington in large, happy number, once I was an acknowledged success. For my wedding, they hosted the rehearsal dinner in a fine restaurant in sight of the National Cathedral; but delicacies were to be tasted only once, with self-conscious smiles recorded in photographs of the time when they lived like the better half. It was too much Goddamned work to join that half for good, and more work was what more education got you. My books and scientific equipment were for a child’s fantasies, like my Eagles helmet and my model race cars. Making myself a success in Washington was as unlikely as making the Eagles.
I was nearly alone among my working class peers in daring a private university with tuition as high as Ivy. But many of us made a thoughtful attempt at moving beyond our families’ historical limits. There was vocational training; the community college; and the nearby state colleges. The old limits still tripped many. To our parents, the value of education was grubbing your way through it without any support: a semester at school; two semesters at the Burger King. They did not seem to know that a dead-end job is not a path forward; its contributions run out during quarter-beer-night. Or perhaps they knew too well. To those who completed their programs, there were wary congratulations; to those who did not, there was unconditional readmission to the ranks.
I had the luck of the foundry. It molded me a new self in front of a furnace pouring streams of iron that burned the hairs off my arms and darkened my face. My wage was triple the minimum. That was more than beer money. I discovered its value one muggy morning arriving home off an overnight double-shift, with black dust in the sweat on my neck and black boogers in the corners of my eyes, black snot hardened on my chin and black hacking in my throat, with a helmet deformed by the heat and singed laces in my boots. A crew was installing a swimming pool of the above-ground variety on the pad where I normally parked. I stomped in my filth to the kitchen, where the aid application would sit unsigned for months each year. Instead, in its ceremonial place, there was a sales contract, assignment of security, a bill of sale, and a loan agreement, bearing each parent’s signature wherever indicated. Even an English major could trace the dollars that were leaking out of my education and into that pool. I was not angry. I had myself one mighty big pot to piss in before I hauled ass for good.
Feature/in-piece Image (center): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/50/Lehigh_Canal-Glendon.jpg/1024px-Lehigh_Canal-Glendon.jpg
In-piece Image (top): https://pixabay.com/en/steel-mill-worker-foundry-metal-616526/