My Dad Works in the Golf Ball
I left Ohio, the state where I was born, when I was ten. I should say my parents moved our family out of Ohio in 1978. I don’t recall having much say in the matter. My father left Ohio for a job. He was an electronics technician by trade and was heading to a Federal Aviation Administration radar site in the Allegheny mountain range of central Pennsylvania. This was a new facility at that time and the only radar device tracking airplanes between Cleveland and New York City. Prior to 1978, I guess they just hoped for the best. The odd thing about the actual facility itself is that it really looks like a giant white golf ball on a tee. It could be seen from certain vantage points in the valley below, and carried a certain air of mystery since most people didn’t know what it was. This was useful in those conversations boys have about what their dads do.
Jeff: “My dad works for the Post Office. They have a machine on the wall that dispenses salt tablets for when it’s hot in the summer.”
Bill: “Yeah? well my dad is a dispatcher for Butler Trucking Company. He gets to talk into one of those old-fashioned microphones and tell people where to go.”
Me: “My dad works for the government. Yeah, he’s a G-Man. And he works up there in that thing on the mountain.”
In silence we all gaze at the mysterious giant golf ball in the distance.
Jeff (incredulous): “Your dad works in the golf ball? Cool!”
Bill: “Wow! What do they do up there? Some kind of funky experiments?”
Me: “Sorry, guys, but that’s classified information. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say it’s a matter of national security.”
They didn’t need to know that more often than not, my dad was up there doing absolutely nothing, as far as I could tell. If something broke, he’d fix it. One perk to the job was that the radar tracked not only airplanes (which looked like little green Tic Tacs on a black background moving slowly across a grid) but also weather. It was not uncommon for Dad to call the house and say, “Batten down the hatches, there’s a big one comin’ through!” Eventually, I learned that the equipment did require a lot of regular maintenance and monitoring, but I still wondered if he wasn’t maybe working on some secret government project. He has long since retired and I have yet to ask him about it.
The Middle of Nowhere
The town we moved to so my dad could be a G-Man was called Clearfield. When explaining to people where Clearfield is located, it was always useful to say “Exits 18 and 19 on Interstate 80.” But then all the exits were re-numbered to match up with the mile markers, so now it is exits 111 and 120 on Interstate 80, which doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well. This re-numbering of exits on interstates and turnpikes has been happening all over the country. The rationale for spending upwards of $8,000 per sign has to do with emergency response teams finding accidents in a more timely fashion.
People who don’t know my hometown inevitably try to place Clearfield near some other well-known metropolitan area in Pennsylvania, which is an exercise in futility because Clearfield is in the middle of nowhere. Someone will say, “Oh, so you must be near Pittsburgh.” Nope, Clearfield is about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Pittsburgh. “Then you must be near Erie.” Nope, Clearfield is about two hours southeast of Erie. “Okay, then you must be somewhere near Philadelphia.” Nope, Clearfield is nearly six hours northwest of Philadelphia. “Harrisburg?” Nope, Clearfield is about three hours northwest of Harrisburg. Trust me, Clearfield really is in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it’s hard to convince people that Clearfield actually exists even though thousands of people drive right by it every day on I-80.
Don’t Set the House on Fire
We arrived to Clearfield on a crisp fall day in November 1978. We had a map of the town produced by the Chamber of Commerce to help us find our new street, Collins Avenue, but quickly discovered that the street on the map bearing that name was actually Boyce Street, not Collins Avenue. As we drove around, bewildered, we eventually came across the township fire department and asked them where Collins Avenue was located. To our dismay, they had no idea. Things were beginning to look bleak. After a little more wandering, we did find it, and it was less than a half-mile from that fire station we stopped at. We all experienced a sort of sinking feeling as we realized that, should we happen to set our new home on fire, the local fire department would have no idea how to find us other than seeing the smoke rising into the air. At least they were nearby.
Welcome to the Nut Ward
Then there was the matter of starting school. It was a bizarre time for me. I went to three different fifth grades that year. We had just spent the summer in Oklahoma City, where my father received his latest round of G-Man training. They started school so early down there that we ended up attending for a short time. The strange thing was that they combined fifth and sixth grades for certain subjects, so I had Math and English with my brother Joe, who is 18 months older than me. When we returned to Ohio, it was back to our regular K-6 elementary school. I was shocked to discover that in Clearfield my brother Joe and I wouldn’t even be in the same school building! Joe was whisked off to a mysterious place called Middle School, for grades 6-8. I, on the other hand, would be attending one of several elementary schools in the area. Mine was called Third Ward, which sort of made me feel like I was being shipped off to a state mental hospital. This may explain why I did so poorly on the reading test they gave me to figure out which group to put me in. There were two fifth grade classes at the school, and it was clear to me that I ended up in the less-smart class. And the building was pretty awful. It had no gymnasium, so physical education in the winter consisted of tossing the blackboard erasers around the room for a few minutes each day. There was also no music room, so every couple of days Mrs. Owens would come in with a not-so-portable keyboard to teach us some songs. Everything took place in the same classroom, and everything seemed very shabby. When I finished fifth grade I think the building was condemned as unfit for public use.
The Downward Spiral
Clearfield seemed like a bustling little town when we first moved there. It was built on the industries of mining, logging and brickyards. We arrived just as the area was beginning to decline. The brickyards all closed, the forests that could be logged were, and just about every hilltop had been stripped of its precious coal. Strip mining, even more than logging, is the industry that has left the land in and around Clearfield deeply scarred. Strip mining is, in a word, an indecent way to get coal. The top of a hill is literally stripped off, the coal removed, and then the dirt put back in place, minus the ecosystem that was there before. In some cases, pathetic attempts at what the coal industry calls “reclamation” were made, which consisted of plating neat rows of scrappy little trees where the mining had taken place. Needless to say, those areas don’t resemble anything like the rich forests that preceded them. Many of them ended up being stripped a second time.
For a time, as the mining, logging and brick companies closed, they were replaced by manufacturing companies, none of which lasted very long. As a result, unemployment rates in Clearfield have been consistently higher than the rest of the state, and population has declined markedly. When we moved there in 1978, I think there was something like 10,000 people. The population now is just over 6,000, and projected to continue its downward march.
No One Tarries Here Willingly
One day Joe came home from middle school excited about an assignment he had been given. He had to do some research on the origins of our new town. So off we went to the public library. We went into a special room there where they had a collection of local town histories. What we learned that day would set the tone for our lives in Clearfield. We quickly discovered that the name Clearfield was derived from early settlers who noticed that grazing bison had made many clearings or wallows along the area’s creeks and streams. But then we read about the Native American name for the area: Chinklacamoose. If there was any doubt in our minds about our new hometown, it was firmly dispelled right there in the public library as we read about the rough translation of Chinklacamoose: No one tarries here willingly. That pretty much says it all. The name came from a legend about a crazy old Native American who used to dress up in frightening costumes made from animal skins. As the French fur trappers came through with their pelts, he would jump out from behind a tree and scare the trappers so badly they would drop all their stuff and run, and he made out like a bandit.
It was my fate to tarry there for eight rather long years until I went to college. I go back several times a year to visit my parents, but to be perfectly honest I find being there somewhat depressing.