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As I Look Back

by John Malone

A couple of years ago I made a business trip to Pittsburgh, where my family lived for many years. The surviving members of the family all live elsewhere these days, but there is still a Malone burial plot with six graves in Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh’s East End. Finding myself at loose ends on a warm autumn Sunday afternoon, I decided to visit it before catching my evening flight back home to the mountains of Western North Carolina .

The cemetery is a peaceful green oasis in the middle of the noisy city. It blankets a tree-shaded hilltop adjacent to Frick Park, crisscrossed with a complicated grid of access roads leading to its hundreds of graves, tombs and monuments. Fortunately I had a map giving directions to the final resting place of my family, or I would have become hopelessly lost, for it had been many years since I last visited those graves. Turning the rental car off Dallas Avenue, I drove through the main gate and swung left along the tall iron fence that separates the cemetery from the street. A short distance farther on, I found the way in to the family plot and parked the car.

Walking along the row of small headstones lined up in front of the massive, gray granite centerpiece, marked only with the word “MALONE,” I stopped at the newest grave, that of my older sister Emily, a psychiatrist, who died of lung cancer in 1991. Right next to my sister’s grave are the two oldest graves in our family plot, those of Thomas James Malone and his wife, Roxa Powell Malone. They were the first of my ancestors to come to Pittsburgh, arriving in 1880 with two small children from Antiquity, a tiny Ohio River village almost exactly midway between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The next two generations of my family grew up and grew old right there in Pittsburgh, and it was my sisters and I that first left Pittsburgh and ventured forth to follow our careers and start families of our own in the east.

I watched and listened with morbid fascination as the talking heads on the cable news networks discussed all the demographic reasons for Barack Obama’s defeat by Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary. I actually am from Pennsylvania myself, although I left way back in 1961, just married, to seek my fame and fortune elsewhere — anywhere but Pittsburgh. It seems that other Pennsylvanians are now known for their “aging in place,” as well as for living in small towns where the jobs have all left, being bitter and clinging for comfort to their guns and religion. Why, then, were my sisters and I so determined to leave our Pennsylvania home and travel the world, instead of “aging in place” like everyone else?

Seven years ago, a month after nine-eleven and having just moved with my wife from the Washington, DC area to our peaceful retirement spot in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I had a brush with death. Apparently my thirty years of abusing alcohol and strong, black coffee from 1951 to 1981 had inflamed the lining of my esophagus to the point that, twenty years later, it finally developed cancer, a disease that is usually fatal in that vital part of our anatomy. I was lucky, however. The cancer was diagnosed early enough, and I was able to get myself down to Durham and have my entire esophagus removed by a team of surgical miracle workers at the Duke University Medical Center.

Over the next year, as I gradually recovered from the six and a half hour operation, I began to think more and more about my eventual, inevitable demise and what I might want to do before finally reaching it. I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and take up creative writing, having spent most of my career as a technical writer and mid-level manager at the World Bank in Washington.

I began to write historical fiction based on the stories of my paternal ancestors’ coming from Ireland in the 1840’s and settling in Western Pennsylvania . After finishing two novels about the “old ones,” I started writing short personal stuff about my family, my friends and the people and places I had actually encountered in my own life. At the same time, after years of staying away, I began traveling back to my roots in Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley to promote the sales of my two books. Then, two years ago, I was recruited by a non-profit in Pittsburgh that was searching for board members. The GOAL Project is devoted to “global outreach for addiction leadership and learning” by helping to spread twelve-step recovery programs in countries overseas. I am now their vice president, traveling back to the place where I was born several times each year to attend board meetings. I love these trips back to my Pennsylvania roots, and, as I make them, I am remembering lots of things to write about.

As I look back on my early life from the vantage point of my seventies, the memories are legion, more every day crowding their way into my writing and filling up a growing collection of personal essays that is beginning to look like the makings of another book. Is this perhaps just a case of the criminal returning to scene of the crime? Or am I searching for answers about the real meaning of my life — the good, the bad and the ugly?

In one such memory, I am driving through Pittsburgh on a muggy Monday morning in August 1956 from my parents’ home in Sewickley on the Ohio River to a construction site in Rankin, on the Monongahela. The building will be a new warehouse for my father’s industrial supply company. I was hired by the contractor as a favor to my father, who thought a healthy outdoor summer job as a construction laborer might help me get my life back in order.

As usual on a Monday, I am hung over, the light hurts my eyes, my stomach is curdled, and my head is throbbing, even after a triple Bromo Seltzer. I hate this summer job, but after getting the boot from Yale for the second time, I can’t be picky. Besides, I really need the money. My parents have stopped my allowance.

The temperature and humidity are both in the nineties. The steamy morning passes slowly under the unrelenting heat of the sun, and I survive, sweating out rivers of last night’s beer. I work off my hangover digging deep trenches and footers with a long handle round point dirt shovel, a skill I possess by virtue of my DNA, passed on to me by generations of Irish dirt diggers.

Just as I am about to topple into one of my ditches from heat exhaustion, I hear the noon siren on the roof of the Rankin Borough Building. It is lunchtime at last. I run to the tavern across the street and buy a Polish sausage on a crusty bun smothered with sauerkraut and — get this — a nice cold quart bottle of Iron City Beer. Finding a little shade, I sit down and eat. My bottle is covered with beads of condensation, which coalesce on the brown glass and run down my blistered hand as I hoist the precious liquid to my lips and gulp it. I can feel the knots in my stomach beginning to loosen. Another hangover in the making.

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