The New Yinzer
Home |  Contributors |  Letters |  Submissions |  Archive |  Books |  Radio |  Events |  About
Twenty-four Hours to Cross the World
Will Drosendahl

My trip home from Kuwait reminded me how great it was to live in Pittsburgh. On the Lufthansa flight out of Kuwait City, I found myself discussing great beers with my German seatmate, drawing on my experience with the offerings at Penn Brewery and the Oktoberfest celebrations there. When I mentioned the place to him, he said he'd actually sampled their wares at a festival somewhere.

He pronounced them, “good beers...better even than some of my German ones.”

Our friendship was cinched when I regretted that they did not have a Radler—a half lemonade and half beer concoction that I'd enjoyed elsewhere. It turned out that this was his favorite summertime beverage, and he was extremely impressed that I would know of such a thing—my being an American from the land of the watery mass-produced beers. When the flight attendant approached us about a beverage, I used my limited German to ask for “ein biere.” Flights leave the Middle East after midnight to take advantage of cooler temperatures, and to get passengers into Europe first thing in the morning. Our flight attendant was rather surprised to have this request so early in the morning. When she doubtfully repeated my request, my seatmate leaned over and in very stern German requested—no order is more accurate—that she immediately go and get two of the beers from first class for both of us schnell. As I sat there in shock at his taking charge so forcefully, she spun on her heel, raced away and returned seconds later with two beers and stammering apologies. We wanted for nothing the rest of the flight. To this day I have no idea what his title or position was, but I'm eternally grateful for the first taste of that beer.

I later thought about how cool this was while waiting in the Frankfurt airport. I cracked a big smile and started laughing. This prompted someone sitting across from me to ask what was so funny, and after I related the story she agreed that Penn Brewery had great offerings. As I sat there stunned that people all over the world knew about this place, she explained that she was also from Pittsburgh. As natives do, we asked where each other lived and related details down to the specific street address, giving directions that included the phase, “where [landmark] used to be.”

We talked about home and our travels. I described how odd it felt to eat at Western restaurants serving the same food as at home, but being unable to read anything on the menu and having to order by pointing at pictures. For example, my second night in Kuwait found me sitting at a TGI Friday's restaurant, similar to home, except it was called Friday's there, no TGI in the name. On my table was a plate with an old-fashioned hamburger and Heinz ketchup for my fries, a Coke to drink since there is NO alcohol allowed anywhere in that country, and the usual red-and-white-striped table covering. A nearby television was tuned to sports of some sort, and I was surrounded by American-looking bric-a-brac memorabilia on the walls and ceiling. Outside the window on my left was a parking lot crowded with cars, many familiar nameplates from home with a few fancier BMWs and Mercedes mixed in. It felt perfectly normal, until I looked at the reflection in the window across from me. Instead of maple or oak trees, palm trees were swaying in the breeze, framing the well-lit water towers of Kuwait City. Shaped like upside down golf tees with a goiter, these two structures had been burned into my mind's eye by CNN during the 1990 Gulf War. It seemed so exotic, so far away back then, while now they were just down the road from where I sat eating a burger. The juxtaposition of the familiar and the foreign shocked me for some reason, and I conveyed this to my new travel companion. She laughed and said that had also happened to her when she was first traveling, but she was quite used to the sensation after being out of the country so many times.

As we sat there chatting about our experiences overseas, we looked out the window and saw a plane with US Airways in big letters along the side near the painted American flag. I overheard someone in the terminal say, “hey yinz guys, there's our plane.” I finally began to relax, believing that I would indeed make it home.

We boarded and took off without incident into unusually clear skies. After clearing German airspace, I was eventually able to pick out England and Ireland off in the distance, where the other side of my family had originally emigrated from decades earlier. I fell asleep to the muted roar of the engines and woke up many hours later when we were less than an hour from Pittsburgh International. I peered out the small window in an attempt to find where we were, and immediately recognized the lush green ground below as though I had a map before me. Turning and twisting like a spring gone haywire, the Allegheny River flashed as sunlight reflected off a stretch or two among the bends and curves of its wanderings far below us. I knew exactly where we were, for I had grown up spending every summer weekend and summer vacations at an old farmhouse on that very stretch of river. From high above, it was easy for me to pick out the uphill slant of the bridge that marked the town of Parker, while by mashing my nose against the cold plastic I could spot the faded yellow bridge that carried Route 68 into the town of East Brady downstream.

As soon as I recognized the Brady bridge, the hum of car tires crossing its see through metal grating flashed into my mind as clearly as if I were again down there riding across it on the way to the little grocery store right off the bridge. I closed my eyes with a smile as I remembered the mural honoring the local boy made good—Welcome to East Brady, Home of Jim Kelly—painted onto the drab concrete wall just off the end of the bridge. From up above it was easy to understand why canoe trips from our place to East Brady always took so long. The twisty turning river backed onto itself to squeeze fifteen miles into an area that was three miles from side to side. I strained unsuccessfully to pick out our place nestled in one of many steep valleys on the tree covered hillsides, the green terrain looking soft and comfortable along the folds and ridges like a blanket tossed aside after a nap. On foot it was a different story, of course; monster moss-covered rocks dropped by Ice Age glaciers nestled among green ferns, resting on the black-soiled hillsides that angled steeply towards the sky, hidden by trees that crowded out most underbrush. It belied the fact that this had all been farmland somehow early last century. Those Germans, who now rested beneath their age blackened headstones which overlooked the land, would have been stunned at the short time it took for me to retrace their journey this day.

The announcement to fasten seatbelts interrupted my reverie as we began our descent into the Pittsburgh airport. I gazed out the window, mesmerized by the carpet of green foliage that flowed underneath us gradually giving way to signs of suburbia. As we made the usual approach over the North Hills, I spotted the malls of McKnight Road surrounded by seas of paved parking lots, including the sight of TGI Friday's near the small office complex. Soon I picked out my 1830s stone farmhouse next to a bridge near the Parkway North. I loved seeing my house from the air, because it thrilled me to actually see that my home was still standing and to know I'd be there shortly.

After retrieving my luggage I passed through customs and even got a “welcome home” from the inspector there, just before reuniting with my family. On the way home, a rainstorm combined with heavy traffic led me to take the back route—another true hometown tradition, the advantage of having multiple ways to get from one place to another. I marveled at the usual road signs, reveling that I could read them in measured miles, not kilometers. No signs stating in Arabic and in English, Speeding leads to prison or death in ominous lettering, no roundabout warnings, no overhead exit signs in incomprehensible Arabic, just familiar green signs with white lettering with English exit names to mark my path home.

As I told my travels to my family, the road weaved along the ridge tops before plummeting down into a valley to meander along the small creek at the bottom. Brown dirt that tracked onto the blacktop road showed where new construction was going in, while a few blocks further older homes right up against the street showed that this pathway had once been much quieter and narrower. After turns so sharp that I looked out the side window to see oncoming traffic, and a steep uphill and downhill twist, it was time to cross one of the rivers. My young daughter piped up that this was the stretch of river where I'd water-skied years before, which proved my wife's point that I had been repeating this statement far too often. “It's tradition,” I said as we crossed the bridge whose architectural design gave homage to its creakier and less sturdy predecessor.

The rain stopped and the sun peeked through the disappearing clouds as we headed towards home through the different neighborhoods. Here were stately old homes with towering trees whose dense leaf canopy cast the road into green shadow. There were smaller, darker homes pressed against each other like a tired old couple propping each other up on a rambling walk. Finally, we passed the stretch of eateries which included the ubiquitous Eat'n Park, where a zig and a zag put us on a steep brick street, the car tires rumbling and grumbling as they climbed the worn surface. The high school football field slid past our windows, deserted now, just slumbering until the action of fall Friday nights under the lights could resume. Past the churches of varying faiths we went, climbing upward through the various lights and intersections, until we rounded a curve and saw the stone walls of the house peeking over the bushes and small trees. It was but a moment to pull into the driveway, to unload my bags and drag everything to the door. How satisfying it was to hear the snick of the key entering the lock, and feel the bolt release and know that the wide door was now open. Twenty-four hours after leaving the hotel, I was home. Home, where family and friends, history and tradition, terrain and topography, all mixed together and made me proud to proclaim the world over that I am from Pittsburgh.

Respond to this story at HOME | NEXT ARTICLE »
Home |  Top of Page |  Copyright TNY 2003  | About The New Yinzer |  Contact