This section of the Mahoning River in Western Pennsylvania is deserted on a Monday in the middle of summer. Along the bank to the left willows stretch out to the water with their delicate leaves rising with the gentle breeze.
Aged eight I’m enjoying time with my teenage sister. We jump off the dock and climbing on to inflatable tubes that bounce in the water. We paddle and return to our dock, only to jump off once more in a loop, repeatedly.
We’re hoping to see our father, who has developed the habit of swimming further upriver. If he swims back in the current, letting the current pull him, and we catch him circling his bend in the water, we leap from the water towards the dock and begin screaming as loudly as we can “Hey, Pop! Pop!” He is asleep and we think it’s our responsibility to wake Pop before that next turn downstream. Sometimes, while we are able to keep up the yelling, we can see Pop turn over on his stomach before beginning another strenuous climb upriver. Sometimes, he disappears downriver and we wait around the bend to see if he will return.
We trust him, whether or not our intervention, to wake up and swim upriver long enough to disappear. If he wakes up we’ll be prepared to yell again.
It’s the way it is. The telling of my family’s background often starts with this story from my father’s time as a renowned sleeper. If ever an unbeliever thought that my father’s floating could have been pretending to sleep I have responded to the doubter with a strong shaking my head.
I am sure that my father’s capacity to fall to sleep so quickly and rest so well was real because his skill was passed on to me. For the majority of my life, I’ve been proud when the topic of conversation turned into insomnia. I can think of a many times my sleep has been disrupted and even when I was a newly-wed mother, I was unable to hear my infant son’s cries to me. I was in a state of utter coma when my husband would yell “Mommy!” night after night. For a long time, I believed that this was a gift from Pop as a legacy, one that promised me a peaceful sleep beyond any fantasies.
This has always been the tale and it’s a great one. However, I’m not the first time if I was old enough on that particular day in the 60s or whether I was with my father or close friend that was in my presence. The thing I’ve always referred to as being the Mahoning River may actually have been Mahoning Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny. My siblings each relate their own versions of the story however, no one actually knows for sure whether Pop was actually asleep when floating along the river during the summer days.
A factory worker who lived in a tiny row home with a six-member family to provide for, he was given a an excellent reason to seek for a bit of solitude. The afternoons spent floating along the river that we cherish and reminiscing about were rare to my dad. He was 14 when he left school to begin his many years working as a laborer and his stroll was just as deliberate as his tough-minded, pragmatic approach. Being called tough was to have earned him the most acclaim.
Another memory: I’m fourteen and my dad is few months away from obtaining an income retirement pension as well as Social Security. Pop’s lunch box is set on the counter in the kitchen. It’s a hot summer day and Pop is packing his lunch for his night shift in an industrial glass plant that is located near the Allegheny River. As the thin strip of microscopic glass, as long as the arms he has outstretched upwardly leaves into the “tank,” he will cut off one sheet of scored glass after another , and then pile them up. This is an occupation for a young man and something he had done in the past, but it is not it’s the only option for him today. The temperature in this part in the tanks is more than 90 degrees throughout the year. If the glass has a crack the glass will shatter when Pop carries it, and then slice through his clothing. In the house, even during the hottest temperatures, Pop refuses to wear shorts. The shins of his feet are covered in marks.
That’s what I’ve learned in the present, and years after his demise and even decades later, it’s a decent enough tale to be told.
In the summer, Pop swam upriver as the majority of his life. However, the first time, on those glorious summer days, he would flounder. While we were watching, he let the current carry the float away from him.
Katrine Watkins grew up in New Kensington and lives in Stanton Heights.