When I was in high school I couldn’t wait to get out of this region of the world. I knew there had to be something else. I watched that picture box in the living room and there was just something different about those places. It seemed like there was never nothing to do. The winter was ugly and cold and everything seemed dirty. I wanted to spread my wings and get out of this dirt hole. So I took my last paycheck at my summer job and said goodbye to Mr. Hardy at Nemacolin Woodlands and headed south. I arrived at Hilton head Island South Carolina a day and half later. I was absolutely in love with what I saw. I saw the ocean for the first time. Everything was so clean and people seemed to have a good attitude.
I ran out of money staying at the Motel 6 and going to clubs. I had never been to a club before this and as far as I was concerned I would never live anywhere where there was not a club again. I made my way out to find work and had two job offers on the first day. Now I knew I wasn’t in Pennsylvania anymore, this was unheard of there. I took a job working for Domino’s pizza and it was awesome. I went into exclusive places, met celebrities and ate all the free pizza I could eat.
I didn’t have a place to live yet. I had to wait for my first paycheck. I found a catamaran on the beach that I stealthily approached and slept on every night for almost 2 weeks. Every night I would lay there listening to the waves, looking at the stars thinking about how much I missed Pennsylvania. Yeah right! I don’t think so! I had it made. I lived on an island. I drove around six hours a night meeting celebrities, eating free pizza, listening to music and partying while people gave me money. Then I went to clubs till 2 o’clock in the morning. Then slept on a catamaran on the beach listening to the waves. Got up the next day and started all over again.
So so what happened? What turn of events could cause you to be a guy writing about how much he loves Southwestern Pennsylvania?
As the days got shorter and moved into winter on this tiny slice of paradise called Hilton head Island I became restless, feeling the confines of an island. So I decided to go to the big peninsula where I could spread my wings even further. On my way there I heard so much about the place, I felt like I was in one of the “Lord of the Rings” journeys. I had high expectations and headed straight for the heart of Florida, Orlando. There was so much to do and see it nearly exhausted me to the point of collapsing (or maybe that was the heat). On my second day there I declared as if I had just arrived on the moon, that this would be my home forever and ever (pinky swearing with myself and everything).
Jobs were very plentiful with many of the marquee signs displaying positions available. I worked many of the hotels and motels along Route 192 in the Kissimmee area as a maintenance person, houseman and maid. Soon I discovered I wasn’t really good at one thing but many different areas. This eventually led me to working my way up to Maintenance Supervisor in some of the largest apartment building complexes in Florida.
Florida is the melting pot of misfits. That is the best way I can describe it. Everybody’s from someplace else looking for a place to fit in and that’s the way I felt. I don’t regret going to Florida because I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t appreciate what I have now without the experiences I had there. I must say I grew up as a child in Southwestern Pennsylvania but I grew into a man in Florida. Let me also say I never felt at home there and the first time I saw Santa Clause with sunglasses and shorts on a billboard at Christmas time I nearly hurled.
Little Dougy was born. A couple years later in Vero Beach Florida Abigail Grace was born on May 16, 2001. A couple months later we were hit with a cat 3 hurricane. I will say this about hurricanes because I’ve been through a lot of them. Hurricanes can be exciting as a ride at Kennywood but the aftermath is hell. This was the worst I have ever been in and my eyes couldn’t believe what I saw when the sun came up that morning.
The National Guard was called in, President Bush’s wife and daughters showed up (who we met). No electric, no stores, no water (except for what the National Guard gave you), no gas, no air-conditioning and no mercy. Everyone had to be off the streets and in their houses by 6:00 PM curfew. The apartment complex I worked in was no longer livable and I lost my job. Someone hit our van while we were sitting in a two-mile long gas line and totaled it. Our children were okay and so were we but we were told by the police not to go to the hospital unless we had injuries that were life threatening because the hospital wouldn’t see us. After two weeks the electric started coming on sporadically in different areas. We got our electric on and two days later we were hit by another hurricane and went through the whole thing all over again. These were hurricanes Jeane and Frances.
One day shortly after the second hurricane my wife was preparing a (MRE) Meals Ready-to-Eat (given to us by the National Guard daily) and she said in a whispering kind of fact stating voice, “We ought to just go to Pennsylvania.” I jumped up off the chair like someone who just got on a plane and remembered they forgot the shut the iron off and said, “I’m going home I have been here long enough!” The very thing we wanted to do we were forced to do. We immediately called U-Haul for a reservation and was told that it would be at least three months. We took the reservation and waited with all of our things packed in the living room for 3 months. We were all excited to get to see Grandma and Grandpa. I would reminisce and tell stories till my kids fell asleep about growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The day arrived and we picked up our U-Haul with a car tow. Now was time to click my heels together and close my eyes and say “There’s no place like home.”
We left on the day George Bush was re-elected President for a 2nd term almost exactly 3 months after the first hurricane hit. We sat 4 in the front squeezed in real tight. We packed the car on the hitch with plastic bags and put the cat in between all the bags and cracked the windows. We never really realized until we got to Pennsylvania how much noise those bags were making. The cat never was right again but she is still here.
As we entered the Northeast we could start to see that the leaves are becoming less and less. By the time we got to Pennsylvania the leaves had all fallen off the trees but there was a smell in the air I hadn’t smelled in years. It was that crispy cold, give me a hot chocolate kinda smell. It immediately ushered me into memories I had not thought about in a long time.
We unloaded the U-Haul and started off to my mother and dad’s house with our derelict cat. We started on 79 and I knew if we didn’t get gas soon we were going to run out. By the time we found an exit with a gas station we started running out as soon as we start going down the ramp. I could see the gas station but I knew we were going to have to walk or push. As the car came to a complete stop about an eighth of a mile from the gas station we were completely surprised as three young men out of nowhere pushed us to the gas station. I yelled thank you as loud as I could but they just turned and walked away teasing each other about how weak the other one was. Before I stepped out of the car to get gas I turned and looked at my wife and said in the best Clint Eastwood/Jack Nicholson impression I can muster up,” Welcome to Pennsylvania.“
Many people have abandoned this part of Pennsylvania. Many have stayed. My brother doesn’t live a rocks throw from where he grew up and he likes it that way thank you very much. Many have left to do great things in other places and many like myself come full circle back home. Whatever the situation I still believe there is something magical about growing up here. I haven’t put my finger on it yet but maybe I don’t want to know because then maybe it would be so magical. Much more to come soon.
Thank you to the many people who have made our cookbook an overwhelming success. I have received hundreds of e-mails and I will answer each one of them individually as time permits. My hunch was right when I wrote this book. People of Southwestern Pennsylvania are proud bunch and I am more proud than ever to be part of this bunch. With permission from the authors I will be posting some of these e-mails and recipes. Thank you so much from myself, Doug Jr. and Abby.