My family’s holiday was the same every year. On December 23 or 24th, we would drive from our home in Kenmore, N.Y., to spend Christmas Eve at my father’s parents’ house in Salamanca. This was in the early 1950s, and there were no superhighways; from Kenmore we drove into downtown Buffalo, where we picked up State Highway 62 for the trip south.
Being too young to read, I passed the time by looking out the window, probably kneeling on the back seat for a better view. The weather, as I remember it, was always gloomy. It was either snowing, and threatening to strand us, or dripping wet, with gray skies, black roads and dirty snow banks.
The only color in the trip was early on, as we drove through Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo that was home to Bethlehem Steel. There the gray and black of winter gave way to a shade of rusty orange which coated everything. I was used to green trees and houses in different colors. In Lackawanna, anything that held still – the mill, houses, cars, signs, snow banks – was the same orange, painted by the belching open hearths’ flue dust and airborne iron oxide. Even the sky was orange.
It was my first glimpse of air pollution and its effects, and I knew I didn’t want to live in Lackawanna, ever. But for me, there was something more frightening to come.
South on the two-lane road we traveled, through Hamburg, and as we approached Gowanda, there it was: the Gowanda State Hospital, the insane asylum. Dark, ominous, set back from the road. Not a soul was in sight, but within those dark walls lived 4,000 inmates under lock and key. I imagined them shackled, moaning, eyes wide, dressed in straightjackets or long gray robes. Santa Claus was the farthest thing from my mind when we drove through Gowanda.
To native Americans, “Gowanda” means “beautiful place among the hills,” but to me the word sounded like a cry echoing down a darkened hallway. The bridge over Cattaraugus Creek, a looming steel cage, was the next landmark, and no help at all.
Gowanda haunted me all the way to Salamanca. But a year later, I was glued to the car window for another long look.