A Conversation with Hartley Johnston | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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A Conversation with Hartley Johnston 

Born in Cheswick, Hartley Johnston left the Allegheny Valley at age 17 to join the Navy. He now lives 10 blocks from where he was born, having returned home by way of Korea, North Carolina, and various other far-flung places to marry his high-school sweet

What was it like growing up here?

I was born in Cheswick in 1932. It was Jan. 1, 15 minutes after midnight. I won all the prizes; there were newspaper stories about the first baby born in the New Year. My father had three daughters first, and when I came along, my father is reported to have gone up to the neighbors' doors and said, "This one came with a handle."

In 1934 my father lost everything. He and his father had a construction business and they lost it all. So we traveled around a lot, looking for work. When World War II broke out, he took a job building a naval air station in Trinidad, and he was killed in an automobile accident in 1942. The best way to put it was that we were in abject poverty. But I didn't know it; I was a kid, and I thought it was fun to work.

What kind of jobs did you have?

I delivered papers; I worked with horses, cleaning out a stable. In eighth grade I worked setting pins at a duckpin bowling alley. I was fast; to set them up would take 15 seconds. You sat back there with your legs up, and you could see the guys bowling but they couldn't see you. So if they got a 1-5 split, the ball would hit the 5 and throw it up at you. And you'd catch it and then scream: "Ahhhhhhhhh!" And the guy would come running down the alley to see what had happened.

What'd you do for fun?

There were coal mines everywhere, and they'd be deserted. You'd wander into the mine as far as you could get. We'd take a rope and we'd tie it around a post. We'd go up the mine a bit and yank like hell until the post came out. Then we'd listen -- no crash. So we'd go to the next one and yank it. Crash! Yaaaaaayyy. That's what we did for entertainment.

We swam in the Allegheny near Cheswick, down by where the sewer dumped into the river because it was warmer there. There was a glass plant I played in too. It was out of business, but full of dangerous places.

So you grew up playing around broken glass and industrial waste; it's amazing you're still with us.

I'll tell you what: The fastest way to learn not to do something is to get hurt a little bit. Used to be you constantly saw kids on the street -- learning how to get along, how to win battles. Without adult supervision. I see waaaay too much supervision of children, waaaay too little trust. Parents are protecting these kids and they're going to have major problems when they're older. They won't know what hurts until after they do it.

What should people know about the history of the Alle-Kiski Valley?

It's representative of the finer things that happen in the United States. So many people have come through here -- and unfortunately so many of them have left -- but they came through here looking for a better life and they got it.

[Points to a sign in the historical society collection.] Penn Salt was one of the first companies here. It was founded in the 1850s by Quakers. This side of the river has one commodity that everybody had to have: salt. They built a little village here called Natrona. You have these little towns around here all dealing with salt -- Saltsburg, Salina, Natrona and so forth. Later on, Penn Salt became the manufacturer of [insecticide] DDT. They're long gone now.

What's your family's history here?

My family goes back here to a Revolutionary War veteran who got a chunk of depreciation lands here. I'm Scots-Irish, German and Welsh. There were two brothers in my family who were in the British Army and they were sent to Ireland to quell the uprising there. Then they got captured, and they were given the choice of going to jail or going to the colonies, so they came here. My great-grandfather and his brother were musicians in the German Army, and they deserted and came here.

So your ancestral line is made up of people who were trying to stay out of jail or the military?

Yeah, and I picked up a little bit from all of them.
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