2019-03-01 / ReBooted

Home is Where the Heart Is

By Jill Gleeson

Photo courtesy explorealtoona.comPhoto courtesy

Although I was born in Queens, New York, I am the product of Pennsylvania. I grew up in State College and have lived here off and on my entire life. My very cells belong to these mountains and valleys, this landscape. Pennsylvania is home, in a way I suspect nowhere else could ever quite be, even though my mother is now gone. We lost her in mid-November to a ruptured aortic aneurysm. She died in her bed. It was not an easy thing to witness, but I’m grateful I was with her.

My parents were both born and raised in Altoona, that scrappy little blue collar city to the west of State College. My time there has always revolved around holidays, spent with my grandparents on my dad’s side and at my mother’s brother’s house. I’ve long found Altoona slightly lacking, a judgment born in teenage arrogance. But I recently spent a few days there as a kind of detective, eager to discover bits of my family’s history, all too aware of its rapidly dwindling membership.

Some of the places I visited I have a glancing familiarity with, like The Dream, known to locals as Dave’s Dream, in Hollidaysburg. I’d never been there, but for years my aunt and uncle have been bringing my parents and me their eclairs and coconut cream pie — the best baked goods I’ve ever had in my life — when they visit. The Dream has expanded over the years, but back in the 1950s it was a diner. My dad used to go there with his high school buddies, and he took my mom to The Dream after he got out of the Army, though he says, “It wasn’t really a date place. It was a hangout place, in the best sense of the word.”

Tom and Joe’s Diner, where my dad says he and my mom “would eat every Saturday night after the bars closed — everybody did,” looks like it probably hasn’t changed a lot since the 1930s when it opened. I bet much of the menu is the same as when my parents frequented it, with big helpings of greasy-spoon favorites like chipped beef and hot turkey sandwiches, along with Pennsylvania Dutch goodies, including scrapple and ham pot pie. Like The Dream, it’s the real deal — incredibly good, down-home food served by friendly folks who hip millennials might call “authentic.”
I also visited Horseshoe Curve, a railroad curve that’s been called one of the world’s most incredible engineering feats. It’s spectacular: 2,375 feet long, 1,300 feet in diameter, a 1.8-percent grade and a degree of curvature of more than 9 degrees. It looks like it would be impossible for a train to make it around the track without tipping over, but make it they do — sometimes, if you’re lucky, while you’re watching.

Horseshoe Curve, which is a National Historic Landmark, is a companion site to the Railroaders Memorial Museum. The museum is dedicated to commemorating and exploring the lives of American rail workers, 15,000 of whom were employed in Altoona in the 1920s. That number includes Alton Shroyer, my father’s father. He began working at Altoona Works, for many years the largest railroad shop complex in the world, right after the Depression. Grandpap was a blacksmith on Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives, a position he held until the early 1970s.

The Railroaders Memorial Museum is beautifully designed, with three floors of fine exhibits, but the highlight of it for me was tracking down a plaque my grandma had purchased for my grandpap after he died in 1989. It’s simple, engraved with just his name, position and the years he worked for the railroad, but it still brought tears to my eyes, this little reminder of my grandpap’s hard work, preserved for the world to see.

My visit to Altoona comforted me, wrapping me in thoughts and memories of the people I’ve lost, bringing them close to me again, if only for a precious few days. I’ll be returning to seek out more places entwined in my family’s history, and when I do I’ll be bringing with me newfound affection for the pleasures of this city that remains absolutely — to coin a much-overused word — authentic. •SCM

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