In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
As autumn begins in the Rust Belt, I'm always reminded of these sentences written by James Wright, a poet, who was raised around the factories in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Yes, many of the mills are long gone, but the ritual is largely the same. Of course, then, it was many a-player's dream to have football be his way out of a life working at the mill; today it's an escape from the night-shift at Walmart or days spent behind the counter ringing up bargain bleach at Dollar General. Truth be told, the steadiness of the mill life never looked as good as it does now to many of these kids.
In Western Pennsylvania towns like Aliquippa, Ambridge and Clairton, high school football is one sure thing that will make a celebrated return once summer has passed.
I wasn't one of the kids who bought a ticket and rooted for the local team. My friends and I tended to be the guys standing outside the gate, cigarettes in our hands and Schlitz Malt on our breath, just waiting for something, anything, to happen. We couldn't appreciate the ritual, as we were too obsessed with making sure it wasn't our future we were seeing.
Of course, the future has a funny way of working out sometimes.
In Butler, Pennsylvania, one of the two large mills, Pullman Standard, made railroad cars. (The other was Armco.) Across the street and down a bit from the mill was the high school stadium. I had a friend who lived on top of a hill directly across from that factory. All through the night, large, loud noises would emanate from Pullman: the sound of materials being moved from one place to another and the dumping sound of those materials landing and loading. Those noises that echoed through the 3 a.m. air became a comfort to most that I knew. It was the sound of production and the pulse of the living.
I remember well, standing outside of my friend's house across from the mill during the dead of night, winding down from whatever action we had found and staring out across the way to the clouds of smoke billowing from the factory's stacks, which during the colder months, would move slowly, almost as if frozen, into the winter skies. We would listen to the workers plow on through the night -- a precision and procession that seemed like a life-cycle all its own.
Within a couple of years that plant was shuttered. A few smaller, more minor, industries tried to utilize some of the old facilities, but they never really took. Finally, they came in and simply flattened the land where the mill operations use to be.
Autumn suits these scenes from the Rust Belt. While, in truth, it's a matter of decay falling upon the decayed, the season, to me, always brings back the focus of the communities and their rituals. It also conjures up those long-ago thoughts about "futures" and just how messy life can truly be. Days and nights that seemed endless, only to come to realize they're a thing of the distant past and aging by the second.
Please visit Randy Fox's website for more Rust Belt photography. Fox also manages the American Elegy website, which features the interviews and work of some of our greatest photographers, well-known and emerging.