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I grew up in a town that’s famous in the way that Jack the Ripper and Son of Sam are famous. A steel town—Donora, Pennsylvania. In October of 1948, a massive blanket of cold air settled over the entire Monongahela Valley. All the pollution stayed right where it was, right in Donora—it had nowhere to go. It went dark in the middle of the day. People got lost on their way home from work. Eighteen people died that week. They called it the “killer smog.”
I was just 2 years old. When I got older, I didn’t know any of this. Nobody talks about that kind of fame. We left Donora when the mill shut down, as did half the town. We went to Pittsburgh.
I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, and that’s where I learned about the pollution. I was flabbergasted. I came home that day and I said to my mother, “Is there another Donora?” I really thought she was going to tell me there was. After all, there’s another Pittsburgh—it’s in Kansas. There are a couple of other Allentowns. We were having tea. We were sharing a tea bag. In my family, you get three cups of tea out of every bag.
She said, “Remember how we used to drive with the headlights on all day in the fall? Remember how you used to get to help clean the walls of the house?” I remember her saying, “Well, I guess today they’d call that pollution. Back then it was just a living.”
There’s a section in my book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, where I talk about how you grow up really liking the things that are familiar. Even today, when I go into factories or past places with billowing clouds of smoke and fire, there’s a kind of excitement for me. It smells like home. ?