Saturday, May 17, 2008

On the headmaster's passing

Headmaster. Pidgeon. El Grande Pajaro.
Just knowing he's gone, I really miss him. I hadn't seen my former headmaster from Kiski School, John Anderson Pidgeon, in many years, though I had spoken with him on the phone over the years.
Each time he'd invited me to visit: "Get your ass up here sometime," he'd say. Now he is gone, at 83, and I missed my chance.
I had mixed feelings about Kiski and Jack, which isn't the worst thing because I also had mixed feelings about my late father, and Jack Pidgeon was one of the greatest father figures America has seen. This ambivalence about my old headmaster and prep school in Saltsburg explains why I've been back to the school only a few times since I left it 23 years ago.
I sometimes thought fondly of the place and of Mr. Pidgeon, grateful for what they taught me. When he'd drilled us on Emerson in his honors English class, we students learned why Kiski gave two grades for English: It was the most important subject in the tradition he had inherited. In English, we were graded on both grammar and content because Mr. Pidgeon made us write, and he made us read, and he expected us to accept his challenge to better ourselves.
After Mr. Pidgeon retired years ago, there seemed no real reason to go back to Kiski, since the man who was the heart of the school was no longer there. It would be a different place -- the whole tenor of the school would have changed, I reasoned, so I stayed away.

For a while after graduating, I wouldn't consider stepping back on the old campus. And being so much of Kiski, Mr. Pidgeon played a part in my alienation from the school.
My ambivalence toward him was largely due to the fact that he was so tough on us. My dad had 12 kids to keep in line, a great task to be sure, but Jack Pidgeon had to keep in line a few hundred boys at once.
Tall, broad-shouldered, with an aquiline nose and confident bearing that made him seem patrician, Mr. Pidgeon was far from it. His mother was a cleaning lady at Phillips Andover, he would remind us, with the admonition that we should treat everyone with respect.
"Those snotty kids would spit on the floor, and my mother had to clean it up," he said more than once. "If I hear about anyone spitting on the floor ... "
Jack Pidgeon was the commandant of Kiski. He would ride his golf cart to the dining hall for dinner, one foot hanging jauntily out to the side. Then he'd saunter into the building, and everyone would stand nearly at attention. In springtime, if the student body had been well behaved, Mr. Pidgeon would reward us. He'd gather the students and teachers in the basement of the dining hall, which was a serious place, as we had our SATs and dances there.
You could hear a pin drop before the headmaster would render his verdict. When he'd announce that we were getting spring schedule, the place would break into applause. Students and teachers alike were all smiles, because spring schedule meant the usual class schedule would be shortened, with classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Those of us who were part of his honors English class saw a different side of Mr. Pidgeon -- a man impassioned by the written word. He made us consider who we were. We learned that "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," and that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
He so thoroughly drummed into our heads the last passage of "The Great Gatsby," that I still remember much of it:
Most of the big shore places were closed now, and there were hardly any lights except for the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the sound. And as the moon rose higher, the inessential houses began to melt away ...
He made us memorize the passage to teach us the need for beauty, imagery, rhythm and song in language. It is fitting that he would pick a fellow Irish-American writer to teach us. The Irish, as every scribe knows, are among the best writers.
I once told him that I am about one-quarter Irish. "Not enough," he responded.
"Gatsby believed in the green light ... " and Mr. Pidgeon believed in it, too. His job was to educate us and make sure that we could pursue the future he knew we could have if we worked hard. He taught us about the American dream.

When I was at Kiski planning on college, I applied to Carnegie Mellon University and was worried that I wouldn't get in. So I went to talk with Mr. Pidgeon about my grades and his recommendation, which I knew could put me over the top and ensure my admittance.
I went into his office and sat, hemming and hawing about my worries, but I really wanted to see the recommendation. He got tired of my pussyfooting.
"You want to see your recommendation?" he said, obviously irritated, pulling open a desk drawer, yanking a piece of paper from it and setting it on the desk in front of him. "There it is."
Then he proceeded to read it, and by the end, I was embarrassed. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever written about me, absolutely full of praise.
I thanked him, shamefaced, and walked out of his office, humbled and grateful.

Jonathan Barnes, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance writer living in Wilkinsburg (
This story was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Photo of Jack Pidgeon by Bob Donaldson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gift To America

Mary Petrich, Diane Novosel and St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, Millvale
(photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Quarterly)

Passing the little yellow Romanesque church next to Rt. 28 outside Pittsburgh, many drivers don’t give it a thought. Perched on a hill overlooking the highway, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale is not grand—its pews seat 350 worshippers—but it has been the center of community life for generations of immigrants. Entering through a side door of the church, a visitor ascends a set of stairs and sees a painting of Christ on the cross being bayoneted by a World War I-era soldier. Christ wears a crown of barbwire. A picture next to the warlike Crucifixion depicts Mary grabbing the bayonets of two soldiers on a battlefield.
Croatian immigrant artist Maxo Vanka painted those and many other scenes on the walls and ceilings of the church in 1937 and 1941. The murals are a vivid mix of religious and cultural themes and commentary depicting the struggles of Croatian immigrant workers in America. The murals also represent Vanka’s hatred of war and his disgust at the human toll taken by industrialism. The artist considered the murals he created in the church dedicated to the gift-giving saint to be his “gift to America.”
Not so long ago, some parishioners didn’t recognize the wealth they had, until David Demarest learned of the murals. The Carnegie Mellon University English professor and booster of Pittsburgh’s industrial history helped to generate interest in the artwork by preaching of it to students, friends, and those in the art, education and labor communities around Pittsburgh. The Society for the Preservation of the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka was a by-product of a historical play, “Gift To America,” that was written by Demarest and originally staged at the church in 1981.
Demarest learned of St. Nicholas in the 1970s, when a friend invited him to check it out.
“We came into the church and it was really something else,” Demarest said. “It was just beautiful, striking, and surprisingly enough, quite unknown.”
On May 7-10 at 8:30 p.m., “Gift To America” will be staged at the church. Demarest, who is now retired from Carnegie Mellon, will again witness Carnegie Mellon drama students and faculty helping to produce the dramatic reading.
The one act, hour-long play is a fictional walk through the church and discussion between Maxo Vanka, the Croatian immigrant artist who created the murals, and Father Albert Zagar, the priest who commissioned the murals. The two characters discuss the meanings of the murals, as theatrical lights brighten the paintings. Two unnamed female supporting characters also are part of the play, which is accompanied by Tamburitzan music. The play will launch a campaign to restore, illuminate and preserve the murals.
Organizers of the event timed it to coincide with Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary celebrations. They hope the play enlightens the public to one of Pittsburgh’s greatest cultural treasures.
Vanka was commissioned to decorate the church by Zagar, who sent for the artist when he heard he was in New York. Vanka had married an American and had recently moved to this country, and he hoped to make his name here with the church paintings. Zagar allowed the artist to illustrate his political views, and Vanka understood the opportunity he had. “Father Zagar was one priest in one hundred thousand courageous enough to break with tradition, to have his church decorated with paintings of modern, social meaning,” Vanka said.
He was not a religious person, but as Vanka labored nearly round-the-clock on the murals, the vision he illustrated revealed a deep spirituality. Working from 7 a.m. to 2 or 3 a.m., he was accompanied at night by Zagar, who prayed as the artist painted.
“It was well toward the end of May before the final murals complementing these on the back walls took shape and made the women on their way out after mass stop and weep and burn candles,” wrote Louis Adamich, a Slovenian immigrant writer and friend of Vanka.
In addition to writing the play, Demarest also wrote the text for an illustrated guide to the murals that is free to people visiting the church. His literary contributions have changed perceptions of the artwork, said Diane Novosel, head of the Society for the Preservation of the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. “Ever since Dave’s play, awareness of the murals has increased. Once we started to tell the stories, the parishioners who didn’t like the murals recognized it was something special,” she said.
The murals express a passion that is universal and uniquely Croatian. After seeing the paintings, Talking Heads rock musician David Byrne called Vanka “The Diego River of Pittsburgh.”
While the murals are somewhat known around Pittsburgh, on many Sunday mornings after Mass, visitors will stop into St. Nicholas to see them. Many will express amazement that more people don’t visit the dramatic cultural site, while others will be visibly moved. One of the people who sometimes lead the way is Charlie McCoelester, a professor of labor relations at IUP.
“The church is unique in that it provides a vision of heavenly beauty and a stark vision of earthly greed and violence,” McCoelester says. “I took a group of Polish filmmakers there and they were shocked and amazed at seeing that kind of vivid depiction of violence in a church.”
Chatting in St. Nicholas Church after a post-Mass tour, Novosel nodded in understanding at the bewildered look on a visitor’s face as he scanned the paintings of a Croatian mother grieving over the corpse of her miner son, the Holy Spirit depicted as an eye with the dove of peace as a pupil, and other images.
“It’s an overload,” Novosel said.
Novosel and Mary Petrich, both lifelong parishioners (Mary saw some of the scenes being painted), lead tours of the murals and spread the word about them through their contact with the public, the media and arts organizations.
Lacking the finances to preserve the murals, the society and church members must witness their slow destruction. Some of the murals have been damaged by water leaking into the building. Some were repaired in the past, only to be damaged again by water seeping through the walls of the church.
Petrich would like to see the church’s brick exterior re-pointed and waterproofed. “That must be done first before we do anything with the murals. I’d also like better lighting installed,” she said, adding that all of the work could cost $1 million or more.
Without help from many more supporters, Vanka’s gift could be destroyed as time wears on. Fans of the murals don’t want to see that happen.
“It’s one of the historical/artistic treasures of western Pennsylvania,” Demarest said. “It’s the repository of real history of people who lived in that valley, and the artwork they allowed to commemorate their lives.”
To learn more about the murals or to contribute, write to 151 Stonegate Drive, Leechburg, 15656; or call Diane Novosel at 724-845-2907.

A version of this story first appeared in Pittsburgh Quarterly.

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fear Of Falling

As an adolescent growing up in Bellevue Borough, just beyond Pittsburgh’s North Side, I would go with friends to climb the superstructure of Jack’s Run Bridge, known by locals as Bellevue Bridge. I shake my head at the thought, because the bridge traverses a ravine between Bellevue and Brighton Heights, and the deck of the structure is 150 feet tall, supposedly eight feet taller than the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not a safe climb.

We’d climb to the very top of the superstructure (without any climbing equipment, of course), all the way up to right beneath the roadway. Sometimes we would drink beers up there, then we’d race each other down the bridge, shimmying around the sides of the huge pillars and sprinting down the ramps between them. We acted as if we had no fear.

From the age of 12, I grew up working in landscaping and construction. Occasionally I’d have to climb a tree to prune it, or work on a ladder or on a roof, and it was just part of daily life, like when my brothers and I helped my Dad re-shingle the house. When I was 17, though, I got into a brawl at a party in the lower North Side of Pittsburgh, and I was pushed down some outside cellar stairs. Trying to catch myself in the 8-foot-fall, I stuck my left arm out and it went though the window in the cellar door, disfiguring my upper arm, severing the artery and causing me to nearly bleed to death. Ever since, I’ve had a healthy fear of falling.

Growing up in heavily working class Bellevue, I was occasionally reminded to hold onto that fear. In 1983, a friend of one of my brothers was killed on the job. Dan was working on a roof and he accidentally touched his measuring tape to a “hot” electrical wire, and was electrocuted and fell off of the house. They said he was dead before he hit the ground. He was 21, and left behind a wife he’d married months before.

Nineteen years ago, while I was working my way through college, my neighbor Doug, a guy who was all shoulders and arms and a favorite of the girls, was working for a contractor when he stepped through a hole on a roof where a skylight had been removed. The fall permanently disabled him, putting him in a wheelchair. He was about 25 when he was crippled.

Doug’s accident hit close, because that summer I was working for Kenyon Roofing, whose family was from the neighborhood, and I had my own job hazards to navigate.
We were working on a smaller airport in one of the suburbs that summer, and we had to tear off the roofs of several airplane hangers, in the humid Pittsburgh sun. Before we got onto the first roof, the owner’s son Brian, our foreman, instructed us: “Walk where the nails are. That’s where the trusses are.”

There was no plywood decking on the hangars’ roofs, and the only things keeping us from falling to the concrete floor below were good footwork and the prefabricated trusses. The roof we were replacing was a thin layer of corrugated material that was just rigid tarpaper a few sheets thick; step through it with one foot and you could fall.

The combination of the intense summer heat, the scary conditions and the realization that I could fall and become crippled, like Doug, got to me. I acted unsure while working up on the roof—not cocky, as some of the other guys did. After watching me working nervously up there for a while, Brian switched me to the job of carrying sheets of plywood and pushing them up ladders for the guys atop the hangar to nail down before shingling the roof. I was relieved.

I think about these and other unnerving work experiences when I write for Engineering News-Record. Injuries and deaths resulting from falls are among the most common accidents in the construction industry, and I often cover safety issues for this magazine. When I see contractors fined for fall safety violations, I think of the workers who made a mistake that could have been avoided, like Doug, who has the mentality of a child and is still in a wheelchair. Easter Seals pays for his apartment.

Doug came to mind when I noticed recently that several companies across the country had been cited for fall safety violations. In a one-month period, five contractors were slapped with a total of $777,300 in proposed fines for alleged violations. And on Apr. 2, OSHA issued $224,000 in proposed fines to a Carbon Cliff, Ill. company for safety violations after an Oct. 10, 2007 accident in which an employee was killed when he fell through a skylight.

My old neighbor Doug apparently absentmindedly stepped through a hole where a skylight had been. I imagined the Illinois worker doing the same thing. The similarity of some of these accidents, and the seeming inrease in such accidents, is troubling.

Ironworker Harold Billingsley, who died on the job on Oct. 5, 2007, is one of the statistics. Laboring on the construction of the Las Vegas City Center, Billingsley was about 60 feet up, walking in his steel-toed boots on uneven decking and going for some extra bolts, when he stumbled and fell through a 3-by-11-foot hole in the decking. Billingsley’s harness wasn’t connected to a safety cable he should’ve been tied to, and he fell to his death. The hole in the decking shouldn’t have been there, OSHA officials said.

These accidents made me wonder why the fear of falling and dying doesn’t stop contractors and workers from getting too comfortable on dangerous jobs? The answer is simple: Workers and owners aren’t afraid because tragedy hasn’t happened to them or someone they’ve known. Or if it happened, it was so long ago that nobody remembers.

But you don’t even have to fall very far for it to lead to your death. Eleven years ago my Dad, who had been a civil engineer for U.S. Steel and American Bridge, was standing on a ladder scraping paint from the woodwork on the porch, when he fell into the sloped concrete driveway below, hitting his head. He went into the house and laid on the sofa. My brother Pete came home and Dad asked him for a wet towel for his head, and said: “I hit my head. I feel sick.”

He seemed a bit out of it and went to the basement bathroom and after a moment Pete thought something was wrong, and went down to check on him. He found Dad lying on the floor of the bathroom. Dad, who had heart problems and hypertension for years, had brain damage. He was rushed to the hospital where they did emergency brain surgery, removing a piece of his skull to relieve some of the pressure on his brain. On life support, doctors weren’t sure he’d make it.

He did make it back—sort of. He made a fairly miraculous recovery, and eventually came back home. But my Dad, Harvey Lea Barnes, with his square-shouldered commanding presence, his booming voice and intensity that could focus a roomful of people (a good skill when you’re the father of 12 children), wasn’t really there.

Dad still had the wonderful vocabulary of his formerly inveterate reader self, but it was like he was somewhat retarded, or stoned beyond recognition. About 10 months after his fall, Dad fell again while at home, breaking his hip. The subsequent hospital stay was his last, as his condition slowly worsened and he died several weeks later.

If he’d not fallen, old Harve would’ve lived to tell me I was writing for the best engineering and construction magazine around. “You have a natural inclination for engineering,” he would’ve said. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Harve had worked as an engineer on projects in Africa, Europe and Asia, and had regularly inspected steel mills in Birmingham, Gary and elsewhere, but he wasn’t working on a hazardous site when he fell. He was working at home. But many workers also labor as casually as if they were doing home repairs.

Why do we climb to dangerous heights so carelessly? Climbing the bridge as kids, we scaled the height to prove our manliness. I wonder if the blasé attitudes that some of us show when working up high might be machismo in the face of potential calamity? Or is our boldness just feigned bravery masking denial of our own mortality? Even when our subconscious tries to broach these questions, we sometimes ignore the warnings.

In the weeks leading up to ironworker Paul Corsi, Jr.'s death, he had dreams of falling and premonitions that something bad would happen. On Feb. 11, 2002, the day before his death, Corsi called his girlfriend from work to tell her he didn't feel right about being there. She told him to come home, which he did, but she couldn't convince him not to return to work the next day. He was killed the next day when the truss on which he was working, the 13th of 15 trusses being erected at the David. L Lawrence Convention Center, fell and crushed him.

I was contacted by ENR to cover the coroner’s inquest into the accident, which killed Corsi, who was 38. It was my first story for this magazine, and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said Corsi and other ironworkers caused the accident by using the wrong nuts to secure connections on the structure. But the D.A. found no one criminally responsible for the accident, which also injured two other ironworkers.

"If you're going to climb the steel, then you've got to see that the connections are made properly," Zappala said.

Connecting the recognition of our own mortality with the best methods of work might seem simple, but it’s not always easily done. The ironworkers at the Pittsburgh convention center thought they were using the correct nuts, and no one told them otherwise. Matthew Abate, a fourth generation ironworker who was injured in the truss collapse, was saved from falling with the truss because his lanyard snapped and he was able to scramble to safety as the truss fell. His lanyard was meant to save him in a fall, but it would’ve helped to kill him if it hadn’t broken.

One could argue that the ironworkers were careless, but all of the men had been climbing the steel for years. It would perhaps be more appropriate to blame the inspectors who were paid to ensure that the job progressed according to the specifications for the project. Maybe there’s plenty of blame to spread around in this sad case.

To remind contractors and workers of the danger of fall hazards, OSHA steps in. Large fines remind business owners that they can’t ignore the rules. For some, such fines also replace the lack of fear of tragedy with an apprehension about losing money for not having adequate safety protections. Even so, people make mistakes. But in construction, a mistake can be fatal.

Sixteen years ago, I was working as a carpenter’s helper for a contractor, building a large home in a Pittsburgh suburb. The head carpenter/owner of the company was a drinker and a hothead, and he would fly into rages over the simplest things, throwing the other workers off-kilter. Bill was flipping out one day, screaming at me and another laborer about needing a power saw, and I scrambled over to him with the saw in my hand.

In my haste I stepped onto the corner of a piece of plywood that we had placed, un-nailed, over the floor joists of that area of the second floor. The plywood slipped from under my feet, falling through the joists, and I fell too, still holding the saw. Luckily, I caught myself between two joists, saving myself from falling about 20 feet to the concrete garage floor below. My left side got the brunt of the fall, landing hard on a joist. My back hurt for weeks.

Jonathan Barnes is Engineering News-Record’s correspondent in Pittsburgh. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in Engineering News-Record.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Politely Speaking

I am shamefaced at the thought of what a knucklehead I’ve been. I’ve been discourteous. Even worse, I know better, and still, I’ve acted poorly. I’d blame it on the Internet, but technology could only be partly at fault.
For weeks I have had the phrase “Mind you Ps and Qs” in the back of my mind, reminding me to behave. As a freelance writer, I count on people calling me back so I can interview them for stories. Sometimes, particularly with cold contacts, I won’t get a return phone call saying they’re not interested. But very often, they’ll return my call, even though they don’t know me. The help of these people, though, contrasts greatly with the behavior of others.
Maybe I’m cranky, but I’m sick of the lack of professional courtesy that I encounter. I regularly try to contact people who don’t respond to emails, or don’t return phone calls, or fail to return calls in a timely fashion. But what got me thinking about the lack of courtesy that the Internet has helped to engender were my recent attempts to network with a group of young people who have a marketing firm. These folks are friends of a friend of mine. I had expected a good response, and after speaking with one of them and emailing three of them (one of whom I’d met in the past), I’d received no reply.
You could blame their unresponsiveness on being green, but these folks have had major successes. Which gets me back to “mind your Ps and Qs.” The phrase is an instruction to mind your manners, or to behave properly. But it also can mean be on your toes, be alert.
It dawned on me recently that I needed to remember to mind my manners and to be on my toes. A while back I ran into a local merchant with whom I’m acquainted, who recently tried to connect me with a small business owner who employs freelance writers. I was shocked to see Gail at a local grocery store—I said "Hi" and then turned to walk away. I was embarrassed, because I’d been too rushed to follow up with the friend of hers, who I’d contacted for work. As I turned to flee, Gail said, “Wait, hold on.”
I went over to explain that I hadn’t followed up with a resume after talking with her friend, Harriet, because I’d been busy with work. I felt like an idiot. I knew this woman, and she’d tried to help me, and I‘d blown it. I finally did follow up with Harriet recently, and she was kind and easygoing and I may work with her yet. But the recognition of being confronted by Gail on my bad behavior stung for a while after our grocery store meeting. I realized I’m as inconsiderate as the unmannerly people who annoy me.
These days of email have created a netherworld of dissociated feelings, where people often don’t recognize their rudeness. With email, the lack of a response is a de facto negative response, and many people don’t think there’s anything wrong with such indifference. But responding to an email is as simple as pushing a few keys, though that often is too much trouble for many of us. The lowest common denominator seems to be decreasing, and we’re all being pulled down. It’s tough to fight. You have to concentrate on behaving properly, because there’s no one around to remind you every minute.
Back in prep school, our school had a director of etiquette. This faculty member ensured that everything in the dining hall went according to the rules. Food was to be served to the tables in a certain order, and the rulebook governed behavior at those tables. “When I’m finished with you, you’ll be able to dine with the Queen,” the pursed-lipped Director of Etiquette would tell us.
Dine with her, yes, but would we return Her Majesty’s call? These social niceties are the lubricant of 21st century society, just as they were in previous centuries, yet we often forget them. Maybe we could learn something from cultures that have different ideas regarding polite behavior.
I recently contacted some Japanese guys for a story. Unlike many of my countrymen, the Japanese responded to my emails very quickly. One of the guys responded with an email in which he referred to his friends and me with the suffix –san, as in “Jonathan-san.”I looked up the meaning of –san and I was pleased to see it is a title of respect. Honorifics in Japanese are referred to as keigo, or “polite language.” But I could tell from the context that the “san” was meant to be polite, so the meaning was immediately clear.
Our society could use more polite language and more polite behavior. Most of us know how to behave properly, yet we often behave boorishly. We work to earn a good professional reputation, yet we forget the social graces that are only elective rules because the people who created them were polite. Many of us need to work on keeping our commitments—even the small ones, like replying to emails, returning calls, and following up. So I ask your forgiveness, Gail-san. And I appreciate your understanding, Harriet-san. I have been busy, and disrespectful. I’m working on it.

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer.