By: Madison Jackson
There are some things I’ve known my whole life, thanks to a 3D framed picture my mom got as a gift and hung on my childhood bedroom wall. The words “Your Birthday” stand out at the top of the picture, and pink and purple teddy bears color the page. I know that the temperature in Pittsburgh was somewhere between 50- and 60-degrees Fahrenheit on the day of my birth. I know that on the news, the Supreme Court decided over the long-standing dispute between New York and New Jersey about who would have control of Ellis Island. Everybody Loves Raymond, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and something called Suddenly Susan were the top shows playing on television across the state that night. Yet, my favorite thing I know about my birth date, is something not recorded on the picture frame: on that day, I was almost a Tunnel Baby.
My mom’s knuckles turned white, she gripped the side of her seat tightly as she closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and grimaced. My dad had one hand on the steering wheel, his right hand hung down by his side, his eyes distracted watching my mom.
“Keep your hand on the wheel!” my mom scolded, each word falling out between big gasps of breath.
“Watch… the… road!” she slowly added.
I imagine the thoughts that must have been running through my mom’s head: What happens if I’m stuck here? If a car crashes at the exit, we can’t leave. We could be here for hours, waiting for the police and firemen and ambulances to show up. I’m not even going to be able to see my child’s face when they are born because it is so dark in here.
But my mom didn’t talk much at all. She didn’t say much of anything. All she wanted was to hurry up and get to the hospital, and for my dad to drive faster.
My parents were on their way to UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital in Oakland. What should have been no more than a 30-minute drive from Upper Saint Clair, a town about 8 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, likely seemed like a rollercoaster ride which never ended. Bumps, twists, and all.
My mom placed her hand on her belly, rubbing it around in circles. Although there was barely anyone out at 2:30 in the morning, my dad might have contemplated honking the wheel, something he didn’t believe in. It would have been a cry for help.
“Ohh, I’m going to have a baby in a tunnel,” my mom moaned.
I’ve heard this story more times than I can count.
“You were almost born in a tunnel,” my mom always says.
“You were persistent and impatient to live life even then,” my dad adds.
Before I was born my dad spent his time travelling back and forth between Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. In March 1997 he had gotten a new job at Medical Mutual, a health insurance company based in downtown Cleveland. Months before my birth he had moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Cleveland, hopeful that his wife and daughter would be able to join him in the coming months once the market was better and they could sell their Pittsburgh house. Each weekend, my dad drove the two hours back to Upper Saint Clair.
The weekend prior to my birth was no different. He drove home on a Friday evening, with plans to return to Cleveland around 6:00 am Monday morning. His plans were foiled when my mom went into labor that Sunday night.
Some people hate the Pittsburgh tunnels for the traffic jams they cause. But for me, the tunnels have always been an iconic sign that I am in the city of Pittsburgh, that I am home, that I am near my family’s history. The tunnels were built to accommodate Pittsburgh’s growing suburban population. The Fort Pitt tunnel specifically is considered “the gateway to the city.” At the northeast end of the tunnel a beautiful panorama of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline emerges. Then there are views of the Heinz History Center with the large ketchup bottle, PNC Park with the bright yellow stadium seats, and of course, the three rivers. As a child, during trips with my family from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, it was that view which drew a calming sigh of relief.
The journey to the hospital involved traveling through the tunnel which connects the West End region of Pittsburgh on the southwest side to the South Shore neighborhood on the northeast side. Fort Pitt, the tunnel my parents drove through on that momentous morning, is the third-longest automobile tunnel in Pittsburgh. Each day over 229,000 people drive through the four major tunnels that pass beneath Mount Washington. That is 107,000 vehicles per day. The Fort Pitt tunnel is 3,614 feet in length and 28 feet wide. If the same number of cars were to go through the tunnel each hour, and every car was the same length, approximately 74 cars would travel through the tunnel each minute. Even when there isn’t traffic, it can take some time to drive through the tunnel. To a pregnant mother, that time can feel like an eternity.
On September 29, 1997, the golden tunnel was empty of late-night travelers and the highway was relatively quiet. An hour earlier, my mom had made a call to her doctor.
“I felt funny,” she tells me, as we sit around the wooden kitchen table in my parent’s kitchen. “I wasn’t in pain, but something was off. When I told my OBGYN that your older sister came fast, she told me to come into the hospital.”
My parents called my grandparents, Gummy and Papa, to come from Mount Lebanon and watch my sister who was sound asleep at the hour way past a two-year old’s bedtime. By the time they arrived, about 25 minutes later, my mom was screaming and leaning on her maroon Chevy Lumina van parked in the driveway, barely able to stand on her two feet.
People like to tell me I’m not really from Pittsburgh.
“You only lived there for two months,” they say.
“You weren’t old enough to remember anything.”
But less than two hours after my parents emerged from the Fort Pitt tunnel, at 5:03 am I emerged into the world. Much like the way the Fort Pitt tunnel connects downtown to the south hills, my near-birth experience in the tunnel forever connects me to Pittsburgh.