Tonight I went to my dad’s hometown: Hillsville, Pennsylvania. (It’s so backcountry, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.) It’s just across the Ohio/Pennsylvania border — one of the places you can stand with one foot in Ohio and the other in Pennsylvania. The two bars we went to, Nite Trax and The Finish Line (formerly known as Chief’s), both had one half decorated in Steelers gear and the other half decorated in Browns gear. (But everyone wearing sports gear was repping the Steelers, duh.)
Nite Trax is so named because it’s right across from the railroad tracks that used to take the limestone mined in the quarries there at Carbon Limestone to wherever it needed to go in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and beyond. When my great-great-grandfather, Nikoli Zahaczewski (aka Nikolai Zohoševsky), moved to the United States in 1907 from Galicia, he worked at Carbon Limestone. Then, his son, my great-grandfather, John Dunchak, worked at Carbon Limestone. And my grandfather, Johnny Dunchak, worked at Carbon Limestone his whole life, too.
Somehow, miraculously, mysteriously, and somewhat sadly, my dad escaped having a Pittsburgh accent. Everyone we talked to tonight, including a few high-school friends of my dad’s, all had the accent to varying degrees. Since he grew up there too, he really should have one!! A few choice OHs:
- “People kep’ thinkin’ I was Messkin ’cause I got dark skin, so I made sure I said ‘yinz’ a lot so dey knew I wasn’.” – patron at Nite Trax
- “I couldn’ find ma Stillers lighter, and I go, ‘War’d I put it?’ An’ den I fahn it in my purse! Hah!” – bartender at Nite Trax
I always thought the town my dad grew up in was mostly Hunky, but I learned tonight that I was wrong — it’s overwhelmingly Italian. Eye-talian. Roman Catholic Italian. With lots of bathtub Madonnas (and my dad said he and his brother used to call them that). Nite Trax has homemade Italian food every Tuesday — the owner Gino’s mom comes in once a week and makes cavatelli, ravioli, meatballs, and her special spaghetti sauce. I got the cavatelli, and it was the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, hands down. After dinner, we went on a little driving tour of the area and went through the cemetery — there was pretty much one Hunky name among the hundred-some Italian ones. (Though the family history goes that my great-great-grandfather Nikolai is buried in this cemetery, too, but no headstone remains.)
And more on the loophole in the PA smoking ban — you’re allowed to smoke in Nite Trax, in Pennsylvania, but not in Chief’s, a few miles down the road across the Ohio border. (Incidentally, Chief’s is a bar my mom and dad used to hang out at a lot when they were dating. Aww!) As the bartender at Chief’s explained, if you’re an eating-and-drinking establishment in Pennsylvania and more than 80% of your sales come from liquor, smoking is still allowed. This has been a death-sentence for Ohio bars, she said, especially ones in borderlands. (Indeed, we were the only people in Chief’s, wheras Nite Trax was packed.) A direct quote from her: “Smokin’ an’ drinkin’ — it’s the American way. It’s like peanut-butter and jelly.”
Whew. It has been a whirlwind week+ here in the Mahoning Valley. I’ve reminisced, reconnected with my past, gotten pretty nostalgic, and learned things I never knew. It has been a good trip. I like my roots.