Steel Town Girl Prologue

Steubenville,_Ohio,_Fort_Steuben_Bridge
Photo by Doug Kerr

The rickety old bridge was the stuff nightmares were made of. The two-lane bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk to one side was a huge silver steel contraption marred with rust streaks and black skid marks down its insides. It was the Steubenville Bridge and you had to cross it to get from Ohio to the northern panhandle of West Virginia. It was an industrial town whose main source of industry was steel and was where I mainly grew up as a kid.

If you got caught at the red light at the end of the bridge, there was a sign that said, “Welcome to Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.” I can’t tell you how many times in my life I looked at that sign as we sat and waited for the light to turn green and wondered, “What the hell makes this place so wonderful?”

The see-through metal slats that formed the bottom of the bridge pulled your tires back and forth making a humming noise as you drove. You had to steer with both hands, and the slight back-and-forth motion from the pulling of the tires made it look like the overly dramatic steering you see in movies.

My mom told me that once when she was a young girl, my grandma Edith, who was four foot nine, misjudged her car and scraped the side of her big gray Oldsmobile down the entire length of the bridge, metal screeching and sparks flying the whole way on the passenger side where my mom sat.

If you look out the window and over the side, you see the murky brown water below. If you are unlucky enough to get stopped by the light that sends you out onto Route 2, you sit feeling the bridge swaying back and forth. I swear the timing of the light was just long enough to let you conjure up the notion that at any moment you’d go over the edge, hit the cold, brown water like a rock, never to be heard from again.

I’d cross this bridge so many times with my parents and later alone as I learned to drive myself, and each time I still had the same reaction to it. Trepidation. Wonderment.

When I was little and asked about the movement of the bridge my dad would say not to worry, that bridges needed to sway to stay strong. He pointed out, that if it were rigid, the bridge would collapse under the pressure of the water and cars.

If you turned left off the bridge, coming from Ohio, you headed toward Weirton. If you turned right off the bridge and followed Route 2, you snaked along the Ohio River that divides Ohio from West Virginia.

First up, the city of Follansbee. You’ll know you’re there when you see the coke plants off to your right. The tall smokestacks billow large white clouds into the air that make the area smell like rotten eggs and covers everything in a thin dusting of gray powder. They have a Dairy Owl, a baseball field, gas station, a middle school, and three traffic lights.

When the street becomes a four-lane highway again, you’re on your way to the city of Wellsburg. And although I moved a lot, it’s the city in which I grew up the most until my mid-teens. At the time, there was Kroger’s grocery store, a drugstore called Super X that sat in the same plaza, the tail end of Rabbit Hill, a gas station, the West Virginia State Highway Patrol, and the dirt patch where the carnival was held each summer and the start of Washington Pike to your left. When I was twelve, we finally got a Pizza Hut and the town about shit itself with excitement. But, if you go past Washington Pike, there on the right, you’ll see DiCarlo’s Pizza, home of the hot pizza with cold toppings you can buy by the slice for just a few cents. It’s still the same pizza joint it was in the ’70s and they still use the same old payphone attached to the wall to take incoming orders for pizza. It’s the best damn pizza you will ever eat.

 

If you take this book with you the next time you visit, you’ll see that with the exception of a few dollar stores, and a Dairy Queen now, my description of the city and the surrounding areas haven’t changed much and is why the place is referred to as, “the town that time forgot.”

I learned to drive up and down Washington Pike and Rabbit Hill like all kids did. We didn’t have Driver’s Ed in school; our parents had to teach us. And because my dad was my dad, he was giving me the keys to the Nova at age fourteen to drive out to pay his bill at the water department located in the little white building that still exists at the end of Manner Ridge Road today.

If you learned to navigate the roads without going over a hill, you easily passed your driver’s test given by the West Virginia State Highway Patrol in downtown Wellsburg. At age sixteen, a state trooper, or a “Mountie,” as my Dad called them, sat in the passenger seat of your car in their intimidating gray uniform, and large black-brimmed hat, while you parallel parked next to where they held the carnival every August. How any of us passed with that kind of intimidation is beyond me now, but we did.

I practiced for weeks leading up to my test. Practice made perfect, my dad said. I got so good at parallel parking that I could do it in less than thirty seconds from start to finish. I know because my dad timed me. And because I was already so used to using the car, I remember at least once during my test, the Mountie reaching for the dash, telling me that I could take my time and reminding me that there were no deductions for going slowly.

I can remember when they handed me my new license. It was still warm from the laminating machine. There it was, a shiny plastic card that meant I had graduated from maneuvering a fifteen-pound ten-speed to handling a three-thousand-pound car around West Virginia’s mountainous terrain. I opened my blue Velcro wallet that had a rainbow cloud design on the front so many times to admire it, that I nearly wore the Velcro right off.

I was sixteen in the summer of 1983, and I drove my dad’s ’79 silver Nova. The burgundy red plastic interior got scorching hot in the summer and would burn the faux weaved pattern of the seats into the back of your legs if you wore shorts. Sometimes, we’d pad the seats with our wet towels from the swimming pool and wear just our bathing suits while driving around town. Our hair would blow wildly around our faces in the fresh mountain air that was occasionally laced with the strong scent of fresh lilacs, honeysuckle and wild onions that grew off roadsides.

We were all dolled up, smoking, laughing and singing to the radio, not a care in the world on our way to the Fort Steuben Mall that day.

It was my friend Annie who spotted the police car behind us. She tapped me on my shoulder to look in the rearview mirror. I turned down the radio and pulled to the side of the road in front of Follansbee Middle School and we both mashed out our cigarettes in the ashtray. My heart was in my throat as I reached for my purse, doing everything my dad taught me to do in case I was ever pulled over.

 

The gray uniform and big hat appeared at my window.

“Where ya goin in such a hurry?” he said as he bent over to talk to me in the window.

“Um, nowhere special, just to the mall,” I said as I handed over my license and registration.

“I clocked you going 52 miles an hour in a 35, young lady,” he said.

He scanned the documents and looked back at me.
“Um, I’m really sorry, officer… I didn’t realize —”
“You sit tight and I’ll be back in a minute,” he interrupted.
I could see him in my rearview mirror talk on his police radio.

We didn’t move a muscle or say a word.
After a few minutes, he reappeared at my window.
“You Harland Jessup’s daughter?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, I am. Why?” I asked.
“Uh… no reason… uh… you go on and git outta here, but beeeee careful. You’re a new driver and you both know what happens to a lot to new drivers around here if they’re not careful, don’t ya?”

We knew.

We’d hear the adults talking about how some new driver got seriously injured or even killed in a car accident on those dangerous roads that these damn kids just weren’t experienced with enough yet.

 

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” I said excitedly.

I waited for him to pull out from behind me and drive away. Then I did the same. I was careful to use my turn signal and keep a close eye on the speedometer. Annie and I didn’t say a word to each other for what seemed like forever.

And then she spoke.

“Oh my God, I felt so bad for you back there, but you handled yourself like a champ!” she said as she slapped at my shoulder.

“Thanks,” I said as I laughed, “but I was sooooo scared!”

“You sure didn’t show it! I would have cried, I just know I would have!” she said. “And,” she added, “he didn’t even give you a ticket!” “Yeah, I know! I guess it pays to grow up the daughter of one of the most hated, feared men in town,” I said. “If I can handle living with my dad, I can handle a god-damned West Virginia State Trooper.”

We quickly fished our mangled cigarettes from the ashtray, straightened and re-lit them. I turned up the radio and we sang to the top of our lungs “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel as we approached the Steubenville Bridge. And with a racing heart and sweaty palms, I drove us across the bridge that nightmares were made of, and made our way to the mall.

Like nothing ever happened.

 

*If you are interested to read more, and would like to support an Indie author, you can buy a paperback copy of my memoir Steel Town Girl here.

Or the Kindle e-book here.

Thanks for stopping by my blog,

~ Robin Donnelly

 

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