Sled Riding the Pipeline in West Mifflin

And though he never would wave goodbye
You could see it written in his eyes
As the train rolled out of sight
Bye-bye

In this cold snap, I drive to my cat colony even though it is faster to walk. Not so much faster now sliding on the snow and exerting myself to get the gate unlocked and open. It is usually empty and silent and definitely cold. Sometimes after saying hello to the cats, I am silent while I go about my tasks. I miss that short walk, but I’m not a kid any longer. And that gate is hard to maneuver in the snow.

When I was a kid, West Mifflin had dozens of neighborhoods and most had their own little playground. Ours was at the end of the ‘Dead End’ of our street. It had a pavilion, a heavy picnic table, two sets of swings, a metal sliding board with flaking paint that tore up your hands if you held onto the side. There was also a little pony on a spring to bounce on if you liked. It was probably like thousands of playgrounds in the 60s-70s-80s in blue collar  neighborhoods.

This is where we road our sleds. The hill from the street to the swings was steep, a bit rocky, and had a few trees. But it was a hill and if you had enough momentum, you could cruise across the flat part and down the second smaller hill, even into the woods.

At least half the neighborhood smashed into the tree or hit the rock wrong or otherwise joined the walking wounded for awhile. If they were dazed, bloodied, or couldn’t walk right – someone ran up to Mrs. Storer’s house to get help. She would call the appropriate Mum. Otherwise, we walked them home and even kindly carried their sleds. Everyone came back at the next snowfall, so I assume there were not permanent injuries.

If we wanted more adventure, we walked through the woods to “The Pipeline” – they were used primarily to carry cleaned Coke Oven Gas from USS Clairton Coke Works to the USS Edgar Thomson Steel Works for use as a heating fuel for the blast furnace there. We didn’t know this as kids, just that they had something to do with gas. And it was a huge downhill ride minus rocks and trees. I felt like I was flying and sailing at the same time, bits of snow flying into my face and the cold air turning all extremities slowly numb.

What goes down requires kids to go back up when the streetlights were due to turn on and dinner would be ready. It was a long walk back up that hill, then another walk through the darkening woods, and finally up the playground hill to the street that was a slight hill – enough to feel impossible by the time you reached it in the winter.

And cold weather brings out the cruelty in kids. The boys sledded first. Sometimes I was the only girl. I was the last one down. And sometimes they didn’t wait for me before they went home. So I have these memories of trudging up the hill, dragging my wooden and metal sled by a piece of clothesline strung through the blades. I wasn’t afraid, but I was acutely alone. I was often so cold that I was sure I couldn’t make it. But I had no choice but to keep trudging home. Often the boys would be hurling snowballs at each other toward the end of my journey. They looked a little sheepish, but the only real acknowledgement of their decision to abandon me was that they didn’t pummel me with the icy hard balls. I went home, stripped off my winter gear, and collapsed. I was cold, a little sad, but euphoric with that rush of going down the hill.

I always meant to go back. By high school, we stopped sledding and did big kid things. When I was in college, we would slide on the cafeteria trays down the hill of the country club golf course next to our college. It wasn’t anywhere near as exhilarating – it felt like rich kid fun. I always intended to go back and see it again. But I was always busy. Or just forgot.

But on days like this, I’m transported back in time 40 years to my younger self. It was occasionally bitter cold and we would beg my mother to let us go for just one ride. She would give in, but my father would not. So our winter fun all depended on the vagaries of his steel mill schedule. I didn’t know it at the time, but he worked in the desulphurization unit of a coke plant in Hazelwood. I wonder why he never told us what was in that pipeline? Or why he let us sled near it when he was so hard about other environmental issues – no contact ever with the nearby Monongahela River, no Styrofoam, etc. He wasn’t being feel-good, he knew what was in those things.

That might be a different post – a childhood literally with the emissions of a coke plant always framing my experiences. But also there is the fusion of exhilaration and loneliness that was a common refrain of my life, especially my younger years. Years that were framed by the legacy of Big Steel.

To be honest, I don’t know where the Pipeline runs – my perception was go down the hill, make a left and keep walking until the Pipeline hill. I think it was leading from Bost playground down to New England Hollow. I looked at some maps, but couldn’t make it out. Now I’m curious …

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