Friday, October 31, 2008

Road Trip Wrap-Up (Voices of America)

Steve Riddle and his dog Rerun move sheep trio at Cumberland Gap demonstration. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)

Five-state ramble comes to end,
but fortunately the nation hasn't

Our two-week road trip touching five states in southern Appalachia confirmed to us a confused and troubled nation.

We found people who are living in the past because they haven’t adapted to change, or grown beyond cultural prejudices, hatred and fear. Others we met re-enact the past – the parts that are heroic and demonstrate the great strengths on which this nation was built.

There are folks who embrace dialogue, others who hear only the voices they agree with.

And there are clearly folks who are facing harder times.

The American economy is so bad that even shepherd Steve Riddle is facing a layoff.

A shepherd. That’s right – the guy to whom “crook” takes on a whole new meaning is a victim of downsizing.

Riddle, 44, from Worden, Illinois, was running some sheep with his talented sheepdogs for a re-enactment of the pioneer era held at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky. A little toot on Riddle’s cow-horn whistle, and his 9-year-old pooch partner Rerun was on the move turning the sheep toward a log pen.

An Illinois state employee for 19 years, and just a year before he might have been eligible for an early pension, Riddle said he’s been given notice that his job at Cahokia Mounds Historical Park is being eliminated at the end of November.

Except for anything related to Abraham Lincoln -- whose bicentennial is being celebrated in 2009 – the State of Illinois is cutting back on its parks and recreation staff to save money, lamented Riddle, who sadly doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the nation’s 16th president but makes a fantastic late 18th Century shepherd.

Riddle and his wife, who does spinning, have a small farm and three children, ages 21, 16 and 14, so he’ll be looking for work. Judging by his demonstrations at Cumberland Gap, he’s great with animals and kids, so give him a call.

The shepherd was among dozens of people we met across a road trip of nearly 2,000 miles. Stories about some of them made it into my two weeks of daily blogging, while those of others – like Steve Riddle – did not. So he and his picture, taken by Bonnie, lead the road trip wrap-up report as I turn through the pages of a couple of filled notebooks.

There were plenty of memorable words spoken by folks we talked with, some of which we recounted in earlier blog postings. Here’s a mix:

“You know the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A violin has strings; a fiddle has strangs.”

– Michael Delp of Elk Creek, Va., playing his fiddle at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

“If I breathe my last breath right now, I will be happy that I shared their story with you.”

– Kitty Wilson Evans, 69-year-old slave re-enactor and retired elementary school teacher who is the oldest of 14 living children in her family, telling an entirely white audience at Cumberland Gap of the hard lives endured by her ancestors who also were among the nation’s pioneers and how they dealt with adversity. No family’s story should ever be lost, she said, imploring the people around her to talk with parents and grandparents about their lives and experiences. “Know where you came from so you know how far you’ve come.”

“Right now, we are at least civil in our hated. We at least talk to each other.”

– “Deacon” Jones, a retired deputy police chief who portrayed a freed slave at the re-enactment and was expressing fear at the thin veneer separating racial harmony from violence in today’s America. It is a fear that tempers his joy at the possibility of Barack Obama becoming president.

“I just hope that this will be a healing process for the United States.”

– Richard Allison, white 72-year-old educator, sexologist and Florida-North Carolina Democrat, on the prospect of an African American president. He was out promoting the candidacies of several local Republicans in Bryson City, N.C. – clearly an involved citizen with friends on both sides of the aisle.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

– Breakfast hostess at a West Virginia motel, looking at my Annapolis Unitarian Universalist Church sweatshirt and trying to ascertain what it meant. My answer: “As the son of God, not really – but if there is a God, aren’t we all God’s children?” Her response: “You don’t believe in God?”

“I don’t know if Jesus could straighten this mess out.”

– Barry Strong, a 61-year-old retired juvenile prison educator, on the presidential debates.

Gasoline price conspiracy fails?

As we drove through Appalachia, we watched gasoline prices steadily decline. Our first fill-up, on the road in southwestern Virginia, cost $2.99.9 a gallon (you’d think we could dispense with that nine-tenths of a cent and just round it off!). Our last, on road back through middle-western Virginia, was $2.32.9.

A week before the Nov. 4 election, the price of gasoline had vanished as an issue – almost as if it were planned that way, to help the Republican cause.

Unfortunately for the John McCain cause, the economy plunged right along with it.

Say it ain't so, Joe

And after two weeks in the hinterlands, Joe the Plumber is still being invoked. Except he’s become Joe the Political Scientist, saying Barack Obama’s plans “sound like Socialism to me.”

But remember – he’s not even Joe the Plumber. He’s Joe the Plumber’s Helper. And his kind of thinking is taking people right down the political toilet.

Coming attractions: A visit to Great Falls of the Potomac, and comments from Real Muck readers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Political Homecoming

Back from two-week road trip,
blogger tries on role as activist

Heading north through the Virginia countryside on Wednesday, we had a close encounter of the metaphorical kind – seeing John McCain’s Straight Talk Express campaign bus on the other side of Interstate 81.

Not surprising that we were going in opposite directions – McCain’s bus heading south (the direction his presidency would take America, I fear). We didn’t turn around to check it out; the candidate was elsewhere, and the bus evidently being driven to Ohio to meet him for his next-day campaign drive-through in the battleground state.

Returning home to Maryland after two weeks on the road in traditionally Republican territory, I jumped at the chance to help Barack Obama. It came in an email – a last call for help – from, a political action group organizing grassroots support for the Illinois Democrat. Its volunteers were holding telephone-calling parties aimed at states still up for grabs in Tuesday’s election, recruiting other volunteers to make get-out-and-vote calls and knock on doors this weekend.

I signed up for the party at Cindy Barracca’s house (more about her name later) in a suburban neighborhood near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Fifteen people were sought to make calls, and 14 had already signed up. But only eight actually turned out, some bringing snacks like chips, salsa, veggies and sushi.

Not that there was much time to eat. We were handed “Recruitment Calling Training Key Points” advising that many of the people being called will appreciate the offer to get involved, if they aren’t already booked for the effort. It also emphasized that callers should “sound natural,” “make it fun and easy,” “make it concrete” and “be confident.”

I rehearsed the calling “script” with another calling-party newcomer, including what was described as “the hardest and most important part” – “The Ask.” That is, asking a stranger to take action to get out the vote for Obama.

Then we all got to work with our cell phones, each of us handed three sheets of names and phone numbers of people who have supposedly in some way already supported Obama, 14 calls on each sheet, a total of 42 names.

Most of my 42 did not answer, and we were not leaving messages for their answering machines; a few numbers were wrong or disconnected; half a dozen of the people said they were already signed up for Obama volunteer efforts this weekend; and a young woman named Jameel was walking her dog when she answered. And after we chatted briefly, she wanted to volunteer – and all I had to do was call her back in 20 minutes with the details of the time and place for her at a Raleigh, N.C., field office.

After completing the calls, we dialed in to a headquarters automated recording system to report results on each person who answered – indicating “no” for those who could not volunteer or were already participating this weekend, identifying wrong numbers or people who did not want to be called again, and identifying those who would come out Saturday or Sunday and the time slot each would fill.

Of the 42 calls I made, one volunteer signed up -- for a Sunday shift.

The others at Cindy’s party also snagged a couple. And across the country, there were countless other parties with volunteers recruiting other volunteers to go door-to-door or make calls aimed at getting out the vote.

It was like tossing a stone in a pond, and seeing the ripples spread in all directions.

In 40 years as a journalist, I’d never been able to get involved in politics – only observe and report. And there I was on the edge of the pond, and sensing how deep the water, how deep the determination to change the direction of our nation.

Cindy Barracca said it was the fourth party she has hosted – and that she found great personal satisfaction in doing what she could for Obama.

In one session, she noted with amusement, a woman she called asked, “Are you the candidate’s wife?” Between the Cindy and the Barracca, the woman just got a little politically mixed-up by the names.

I mentioned my passing encounter with the McCain bus, and Cindy also had one to tell – from a Tuesday three weeks ago when she found herself following it in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. “It was going slow,” she said, offering that as “a metaphor for something.”

After emerging from the tunnel, Cindy said, she passed the bus “so they could see my Obama stickers.”

About this blog

If you’re new to my blog, and unlikely to be reading back to its earlier (but very entertaining and worth-the-time) entries over the past four weeks, I’d like to re-introduce myself – David Ettlin, sunk to this opinion game after 40 objective years as a reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun.

Since retiring in the Buyout Class of 2007, I’ve written half a dozen pre-season baseball stories for the competing Baltimore Examiner, filled in as an editor at the Baltimore Business Journal and Maryland Daily Record, written the cover story for the inaugural edition of the latter’s free monthly publication Exhibit A, and contemplated getting off my duff and writing a novel.

You can turn me up through a Google search doing a YouTube video about the first real tragedy I covered as a young reporter; telling tales at Stoop Storytelling (in June 2007 as Audience Storyteller No. 2, and as a featured speaker in that December’s annual “Holidays from Hell” spectacular); as a byline on a bunch but nowhere near all of the news stories I’ve written; and in tales of past lives by people who knew me back when.

I’m aiming to produce original material here, rather than (allowing for occasional exceptions) reporting what others are writing on the Web, and occasionally sharing the space with my wife and best buddy Bonnie Schupp, whose photographs grace many of the postings.

And I hope, if you enjoy this blog, that you send the link to your Web pals:

Thanks for visiting!

Coming soon in The Real Muck: Voices of America

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Road Report, Part 14 (Bonnie Goes Blogistic)

Lawn ornaments displayed outside a Tennessee antique store. (This photo, blog posting, and all pictures below, by Bonnie Schupp)

Bonnie Plays Guest Blogger
With Her Own Top 10 List

Top 10 Reasons We Knew We Weren’t Home

David and I have been traveling in the southern mountain areas of our country – mostly small towns in the Appalachians of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. I’ve always thought them to be close to home, but this trip made me realize some big differences within my own country.

Here are the top 10 reasons I knew we were in different territory:

(1) We could guess the denomination of churches (which were abundant) before we could read the sign in front of them. Baptist! We never saw a synagogue, or even a Unitarian Universalist Church.

(2) McCain/Palin signs far outnumbered Obama/Biden signs. And McCain signs were planted on lawns in extra-large sizes. I guess something in the area provided good fertilizer for Republican signs.

(3) It was a challenge to find a National Public Radio station on the car radio. However, there was no trouble finding a religious station or a right-wing political talk show. One caller on a conservative talk show said, “It doesn’t bother me if you call me prejudiced but you can’t call me anti-American.”

(4) Drive-ins. The last drive-in restaurant I noticed must have been decades ago. When I saw the first one in North Carolina, I asked David to stop the car so I could take pictures of this retro scene. Little did I realize that it wasn’t so unusual in this area. We passed quite a few drive-in restaurants and drive-in movies in two weeks. For those of you who are too young to remember, drive-in restaurants had pull-in places for rows of cars, each spot with a menu and a speaker for ordering. When the order was ready, a waitress would bring it out to your car. Drive-in movies had places for each car with a speaker that attached to your car window. It didn’t matter, though. People (usually teens) in the cars were making out.

(5) American flags flew in many places next to the Confederate flag. If you missed it, read David’s blog posting about his conversation with Sons of Confederate Veterans members.

(6) The Ten Commandments (the first 'Top 10' list?) are prominently displayed on a large plaque next to the entrance doors of the county courthouse in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

(7) Frequent religious road signs and billboards such as, “After death what?” Or a billboard, “God please send us someone to cure Aids, cancer and all these awful diseases. - I did but you aborted them. – God.” (But David especially liked the simple roadside sign declaring, “God Bless You Enormously.”) In-your-face religion seeps into even casual encounters in restaurants.

See David’s blog about such a conversation in a low-end Chinese restaurant.

(8) Assumptions that all white people think alike. In this area, strangers often think that if you look like them, you think like them. It reminds me of the time I first drove south and stopped in a restaurant in Georgia. A man with a strong southern drawl began bragging about the smart German shepherd he had... how his dog could tell the difference between white people and “colored.” And how his dog hated colored people. How he had to hold his smart dog back so he wouldn’t attack “them colored people.” He looked in my direction for affirmation that his dog was a really smart one. You would think that we’ve come a long way since the 1960’s, but David wrote in a recent road trip blog about an 81-year-old Georgia man we met at Davy Crockett’s birthplace – a man, living in the past, whose bigoted feelings about Barack Obama began with how he would “never vote for a black Muslim.” And that was about the nicest thing he had to say about the prospect of an African-American in the White House.

(9) The absence of black faces. African-Americans seemed few and far between as we visited scenic areas, national parks, hotels and restaurants. We did find two, however, at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, at a re-enactment event. They were playing roles of former slaves. Excellent, passionate acting.

David wrote about a conversation with one in a recent blog.

(10) Bathroom stall graffiti. In-your-face jingoism and proselytizing permeated our trip daily. While sitting on a toilet seat, I read this (picture) : “Dear God, Why is there so much violence in school? Signed – a concerned student.” “Dear Student, I’m not allowed in school. – God”

After our recent travels, I better understand Sarah Palin’s comment, “The election is in God’s hands.” But, as David observed, God isn’t registered to vote.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Road Report, Part 13 (Meeting Mr. Lincoln)

Dennis Boggs, as President Abraham Lincoln, signs a copy of the Gettysburg Address for a young visitor to his field tent at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Cumberland Gap reenactment

brings pioneers, president to life

Abraham Lincoln sat at his field tent writing desk and motioned to a young boy aiming a camera.

“If you’re going to shoot me,” the president said, “come sit over here.”

It was an odd juxtaposition in time, as Lincoln impersonator Dennis Boggs brought the slain president to life for an historical reenactment staged at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

The occasion this weekend was the park’s first celebration of “Pioneer Roots of Our Nation’s destiny: The Lincoln Family Moves West.” While the trailblazing through the gap has been largely the story of Daniel Boone, Lincoln’s grandfather brought his family through as well – and so the former president was invited.

Lincoln was out of synch with time in two directions – from the vantage point of being surrounded by 21st Century tourists, and joining an encampment of re-enactors, some of them actual descendants of the early pioneers, depicting life in the late 1700s when Boone cut the trail westward through the mountains here.

Less than 100 yards away from Lincoln, Kitty Wilson Evans, a retired elementary school teacher, was portraying a slave and recounting the children’s games, folk tales and hard work of the older era, and exhorting her growing audience to make sure the stories of their own families are passed down across generations.

Nearing 70 and the oldest of 14 living children in her family, Evans stressed the importance of knowing “where you came from so you know how far you’ve come.”

It was no stretch to apply that mantra to the reality of here-and-now, with an African-American as the leading presidential candidate ( so the polls indicate) less than two weeks before the election.

That’s how far.

Leonard R. “Deacon” Jones, who told of his “memories” as a slave child being suspended over the plantation owner’s dinner table to fan away flies and later as a freed man helping in the westward passage through Cumberland Gap, was keenly aware of how far – and expressed both elation as an African-American and fear.

The elation was that an African-American could run for and have a real chance at winning the presidency.

The fear was of what might happen if that candidate should win, and the worst crime imaginable follow that victory.

Jones said he was shocked at the vile threats heard in national television news coverage from voices in the crowds at John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign appearances, expressions of the hatred that still hides beneath the veneer of American life.

“Here we are the most civil we’ve been as a nation, and people are talking like that on national television,” said Jones, a commercial photographer and retired police official who feared “the potential for violence, for upheaval.”

“‘Right now,” he added, “we are at least civil in our hatred – we at least talk to each other.”

But except for our conversation, the day was about history, about costumed people acting out roles like sheep herder, weaver, wheelwright, salt maker.

“Salt was more valuable than gold,” an authentically clad Charles S. Brown said of the migration years dating to the 1760s, because it was the only way to preserve food. It was brought out in 50-gallon pots from natural salt licks hollowed out by animal tongues – and the pioneers taking it had to fear attacks by Native Americans for whom the area would be a rich hunting ground.

“The most laborious task was keeping the fires going,” said Brown, standing over a bubbling pot of brine and noting that the salt cut out from the lick would be only about 7 percent pure and needed to be boiled down for use. It would take hundreds of gallons of brine to produce 50 pounds of pure, dry salt, he said.

A paint salesman in his 21st Century life, the 60-year-old Brown said he dresses in his frontiersman garb on long hunting weekends, even makes his own knives. “I carry green coffee beans and roast my own coffee.... I’m kind of hard core. I just believe if you’re going to do it, do it right.”

Michael Delp had an easier role – playing a fiddle, an instrument he took up just two years ago. “But I don’t know many songs,” he laughed.

In his reality life, Delp said, he produces the socks worn by re-enactors – so being there is both hobby and his living. “I’m really fortunate to do what I like to do, and make a business out of it.”

So, too, is Dennis Boggs, who says he loves portraying Abraham Lincoln, which has been his profession (Meet Mr. Lincoln) for nine years – ever since he was acting in a community theater and a director offered him the role. He just had to do a little studying, and memorize excerpts from a dozen speeches.

But it became much more for Boggs, who has studied book after book on the life of the nation’s 16th president and even puts an eerily familiar autograph on copies he hands out of the Gettysburg Address. He spins tales about his childhood pranks for youngsters in his audience, and just as quickly explains for an adult questioner his personal thoughts about emancipation for the slaves and the timing of his announcement.

For another adult, the ersatz Abe recalled how he was opposed in the 1864 presidential election by former Union Gen. George McClellan, whom “I fired.” McClellan, he noted, ran as the “peace candidate.”

Then he invites a young boy or girl to take the seat at his side, picks up his black top hat, and plops it onto the child’s head. It drops all the way over the youngster’s face, and then the president lifts it up slightly, and gives a broad smile.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Road Report, Part 12 (Confederate Encounter)

Commander James Young (left), with James “Hawk” Hawkins, at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ flea market booth. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

In Tennessee,
Old Times Not Forgotten,
Particularly if it’s the Civil War

Call me crazy – and maybe inspired.

Why else would I walk up to the Sweetwater, Tenn., weekend flea market booth of The Sons of Confederate Veterans and ask: “Anybody here voting for Obama?”

“I’d just as soon slit my own throat,” replied James Young, commander of the Sons’ Gen. John C. Vaughn Camp # 2089 in nearby Tellico Plains.

Considering that introduction, and the Obama picture button pinned to my shirt pocket, Commander Young and I embarked on a very civil conversation in which we agreed on just one thing: We love our country.

Oh. Two things. George W. Bush has done a terrible job as president.
Oh. Three things. John McCain is too old to be the Republican nominee in this election – although Young and his companion manning flea market Booth No. 391, Sons’ camp Adjutant-Treasurer James “Hawk” Hawkins, said they will be voting for McCain.

“What choice do we have?” Young said.

They were selling a variety of merchandise at the booth – bumper stickers, replica Confederate currency and coins, and the item I bought for a dollar: a booklet explaining the flag associated with the South and the Civil War, which raises a ruckus anytime it is flown over a public building.
Proceeds from the flea market booth support the cause of resetting Confederate soldiers’ tombstones, Young said.

Speaking of the Civil War, Commander Young and I also agreed that Gen. Robert E. Lee was a great man and general – but he would not come around to my view that Lee chose the wrong side.

As far as Young was concerned, the conflict – still the deadliest in United States history – was “Lincoln’s war.”

And that harked to the 1960s for me, when folks thought that way about Vietnam and President Lyndon B. Johnson. As a young reporter then, I was assigned to write a story on Johnson’s son-in-law Charles Robb, then a Marine Corps officer, making a recruiting visit at the University of Baltimore.

“How do you feel about people calling this your father-in-law’s war?” I asked the future United States senator. He replied that it was America’s war.

Lincoln’s war? I don’t see the war between the states that way. (Although I see Iraq as Bush’s and Cheney’s war – a conflict that should never have become America’s quagmire.)

Young also took issue with another U.S. war – the one waged against Native Americans, who were slaughtered and forced from their lands. And that makes sense, since he claims ancestry that is mostly Cherokee with a mix of German-Irish. And on the matter of how America’s Indians were robbed and murdered, he and I also found agreement.

Amazing when you talk to people in a civil, respectful fashion, you can find common ground in the unlikeliest of places.

As for the flea market, where a purported 800 vendors seemed mostly to be selling knives and stuff that nobody really needs, we made one other purchase: a large U.S. flag for $3.

God Bless America.

There are Democrats in Tennessee

A little earlier in the afternoon, we stopped in the tiny town of Loudon in Bonnie’s quest of photographic subjects for a travel magazine. There wasn’t much – the depressed town only recently received a grant of $2 million to boost a renewal of its ghostly downtown that is just underway.

But it had a Democratic headquarters, up a tall wooden stairway around the corner from a closed ice cream parlor. The side wall of the building was decorated with an assortment of Obama posters facing passing traffic along Route 11 through town.

Presiding over the office was artist Tom Roberts, a Knoxville native who lived up north for awhile but has resettled in Loudon and invested in real estate. He owns that building where he is turning the Obama office space into a residence (with a beautiful century-old wooden-plank floor).

“It’s a pleasure to own this building and put up all these Obama signs – a beacon in a Sea of Red, said Roberts, who estimated area voter registration as 80 percent Republican.

I’d been wearing Bonnie’s Obama button since the beginning of our trip almost two weeks ago, so we bought three more buttons to update our political wardrobe.

Roberts led us on a walking tour of the town, including its oldest building – once owned by a Cherokee Indian who operated a general store until being forced out on the grounds that Native Americans were not allowed to own real estate.

As we headed back to the car, Roberts pointed out his favorite sign on his building. It reads:

Bluegrass Legend
Ralph Stanley
Barack Obama

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Road Report, Part 11 (Sweet, Sweet Music)

Cherith Millar stands with some of the instruments at the Wood -N- Strings Dulcimer Shop. Appalachian dulcimers made by her father line the back wall.
(Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

The simple pleasure of music

brightens a miserably rainy day

Into each Road Trip, a little rain... actually, it poured for much of our Thursday wanders, limiting the adventure – but not so much that it lacked a great discovery.

This one was musical, as we headed from our overnight in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – yes, that’s native soil to Dolly Parton, and now a miles-long strip of hotels, fast food, souvenirs and entertainment spun off from her singing fame and busty frame.

But it was miles from Dollywood where we noticed on the side of U.S. 321 – locally known as Lamar Alexander Parkway in Townsend, Tenn. – the Wood -N- Strings Dulcimer Shop.

For an hour, we admired, plucked and gently hammered on the merchandise, which included a marvelous instrument for adults and children alike: a beginner’s steel drum. It comes with instructions, a play-along CD, and the notes marked on each little metal hump. I called it a Christmas Contender at $199 plus shipping.

But we did not go away empty-handed, as I bought for Bonnie (OK – I charged it on our collective credit card) a laptop dulcimer, with case, stand, picks and a couple of collections of Irish folk and Celtic sheet music inserts that slip right under the 15 strings. It all came to less than a hundred bucks.

The shop was full of music, as folks like us – and even a guitarist who knew what he was doing in checking out a fine six-string mode – played and toyed with strings of all sorts.

Presiding over the shop was Cherith (pronounced Ker-ith) Millar, whose father, Mike Clemmer, makes the beautiful Appalachian dulcimers sold there. You can check him and store out at this link:

It all kind of made me wish I had learned to play music. But just tapping the sticks on the steel drum and picking at the laptop dulcimer turned up sounds to produce a smile on a rainy afternoon.

And then I had a bad idea

Leaving dulcimer paradise, I suggested heading 20 minutes in the opposite direction of our next photographic travel destination to check out historic Cades Cove, an early homestead area for Tennessee settlers now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We had visited the place about 17 years ago, and shared one vivid memory of crazy tourists getting out of their cars and vans and campers with their cameras to take pictures of some cute little bear cubs crossing the road (and ignoring the menace posed by Bear Mom maybe 50 yards away).

This time, we were crazy to even go there on a rainy day. Lots of other people had the same idea, and the nearly 15 miles we traversed over its one-way, single-lane loop road turned into a nightmarish traffic jam cruising along most of the time at less than 5 mph. And it was just plain soggy weather.

We escaped in time for an early dinner at the Friday night Shoney’s special all-you-can-eat steak buffet in the city of Maryville, and moved on to our intended destination of Loudon, for which a travel magazine editor was seeking photos. In the drizzle and mist, we didn’t see much evidence of this being a tourist draw, but we’ll be back in the morning.

Seems like every town we visit has at the least a neat old courthouse and a couple of antique stores. And after a good night’s sleep, I have no doubt we’ll find another tale from the road for tomorrow.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Road report, Part 10 (Amazing Turns)

Detours can turn up

some crazy encounters

That bastard Lincoln!

Often for us, the best moments on a road trip are unplanned – and so it was yesterday when we turned a corner in Bryson City, North Carolina, and discovered 72-year-old sexologist Richard Allison pedaling an exercise bike in the bed of a red pickup truck.

Bet that got your attention, too.

It was, in fact, a crazy day from start to finish – also featuring the formerly drug-addicted counter woman at a two-bit Chinese restaurant grappling with religious concerns, and a vision of beauty in a sunless sunset at the top of the Smokies.

And who would have guessed that Abraham Lincoln might have been a real bastard?

We’ll take it from the start, as we changed direction leaving Cherokee after a night in a Sleep Inn (a chain that moves well south on our list of future choices), and headed away from Great Smoky Mountains National Park so Bonnie could check out photographic possibilities in the town of Murphy for a travel magazine.

The route took us through Bryson City, where Dr. Allison (doctorate in psychology, specializing in sexology, earned at age 70) was pedaling away at a strategically well-traveled intersection while reading a copy of the Smoky Mountain Times in his Dodge Ram 4X4 pickup displaying campaign placards for three local Republican candidates.

We did a double-take passing by, and turned around 100 yards down the road to check him out. And we found that Allison is a Democrat and can’t even vote in North Carolina because of his registration at his other home in Vero Beach, Fla. He just happens to like the folks he was promoting – John Odom for insurance commissioner, Susan Pons for state Senate and Dodie Allen for the House.

“We need more estrogen in the legislature,” Allison said of the women.

And he knows a bit about estrogen. A former elementary school teacher who developed a business in Florida called the Reading Skills and Counseling Center, Allison said his psychologist wife’s work in sexology got him to exploring the field and pursue his doctorate – and enjoying the opportunity to “go to class and talk about sex for six hours.”

“We’re made up of a lot of hormones – men and women hormones,” Allison said.

Well, enough about sex already. I wanted to know about his politics – particularly his leanings in the presidential race. He managed a delicate strip-tease of a dance in avoiding a full-frontal answer, allowing only that he had cast a write-in vote in the Florida primary for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Obama would be good – if he turned out to be like Kennedy - in bringing people black and white together. I really believe he could be part of a healing process.... I just hope that this will be a healing process for the United States.”

Somebody call Oprah – gotta turn this Allison fella into the Dr. Phil of politics.

First intermission (rest stop)

We stopped at a roadside rest area, where I did a double-take at a car with a Texas license tag and an Obama sticker in the window. I confronted the 60-something driver as he stepped out, pointed out the contradiction of tag and sticker and asked: “Fleeing Republican country?”

“I’m from Alaska,” he replied. “It’s a rental.”

Palin country, huh? And this guy wearing an Obama T-shirt on a cool, barely 60-degree day.

“It’s winter up there,” he said.

Yeah, I thought, and if Palin wins it’ll be a very long night for the liberal soul.

Second intermission (restaurant stop)

Arriving about 1:50 p.m. in Murphy, we saw a $4.95 Chinese buffet sign near the end of a declining strip of retail stores and decided it would make for a quick lunch stop.

As we sat in a window booth in the tiny restaurant, the young lady behind the counter spoke up, telling us about the two preachers who had been in for lunch shortly before us, and how one of them wanted to cast out a couple from the church because “they were not saved.”

She was greatly bothered by this, questioning how a preacher would want to ban people from the church rather than offer them his religious help and counsel, and rambled on about what happens after you die, and whether there is a heaven and a hell, and what they say heaven is like, and how there’s a room for you and a better place.

She told us she was a mother of five, had come to the area from Texas 10 years ago to help her parents, and how she got into trouble with drugs and only recently managed to overcome addiction with the help of her church and religious beliefs, how she had been hired by the restaurant owner just three weeks earlier (“There are no jobs in this town!”), and how it was her 31st birthday, and she loved watching horror movies.

“You’re from Maryland? Do you know where that movie was filmed?” she asked.

“You mean ‘The Blair Witch Project?”

“Yes, I just love watching that movie.”

“Burkittsville. We’ve been there. It’s a pretty little town.”

Then her husband and a friend stopped by, and the boss arrived so she could leave – her lunch shift ended. I offered her a little advice, to try her best to make herself happy and how that would spill over and help others find happiness. A nice thought, given her relatively bleak life and worries pitting the here-and-now against the hereafter.

She was gone before we got her name.

“You know,” I told Bonnie, “we just met the most ordinary woman on the planet.”

As we were leaving, I told the owner that she was a very nice employee and doubtless would work very hard there. And I thanked him for her presence.

It just wasn’t the kind of place where such things are commonly said. But maybe tomorrow, he’ll see her, remember the words and give her a warm smile.

Memorable Murphy and the Lincoln Myth

The town of Bonnie’s photographic endeavor has a lovely courthouse, with a decorative eagle mounted above the blowing U.S. and North Carolina flags on its soaring rooftop. (The eagle blew off during a deadly 1974 tornado, and was found bent and with bullet holes long after and miles away. This year, the restored bird and the flags were restored to the lofty perch.)

In history, Murphy was a way station for the region’s native Cherokee Indians on their deadly “Trail of Tears” forced march into Oklahoma exile. Some of that unfortunate history is told in the town’s county historical society building just down from the courthouse. It also had some excellent displays including a log cabin constructed of logs from a dismantled early 19th century cabin, an old-fashioned classroom with authentic old desks and other furnishngs, and huge cases with hundreds of children’s dolls dating from more than a century ago to the more modern likes of Princess Di and Dolly Parton.

Across the street was a cemetery chapel donated to a local church well over a century ago by a chap named Harshaw, for whom it is named – and whose walled family plot outside was badly in need of some yard work.

A typed sheet of paper taped inside a window listed a few of the notables resting in the graves, including Abram Enloe – by one account the father of Abraham Lincoln.

Seems that Nancy Hanks was a house servant to the Enloe family and managed to get pregnant. This very much annoyed Mrs. Enloe, who wanted poor Nancy gone. And the story continues that Abram Enloe may have paid Thomas Lincoln to marry her.

The newlyweds then moved away, presumably to Kentucky where Abraham Lincoln was born.

And this is all recounted in the window of a chapel, the narrative concluding: “This has been disputed by many but proven false by none.”

So we bought half a pound of fudge at a corner candy shop and fled.

Smoky Mountain Memories

The side trip to Murphy delayed our planning crossing of the parkway through Great Smoky Mountains National Park until very late afternoon, as clouds began to take over the sky. We had to drive all the way back to Cherokee, and stopped at a few overlook sites along the parkway before turning onto a seven-mile dead-end road up to Clingmans Dome.

“At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi,” says the National Park Service’s Web page on the site.

It was also likely the coldest spot in Tennessee or North Carolina at the moment of our arrival – a breezy 41 degrees that was being braved by a good dozen other photographers including a trio who mostly spoke Chinese. (One of them has been in the U.S. for a decade, having had jobs as a sushi chef and delivery man, and lives in Atlanta – and brought his visiting son and a friend to a spot he visits every year to see the autumn spectacle).

They were shooting pictures, as were Bonnie and a line of other photographers waiting on an appearance by a reluctant sun whose presence was only hinted at by brighter patches behind the clouds.

Still, it was beautiful there – the hazy mountain peaks stretched out in panorama, the colors muted by the waning light. And just as Bonnie began packing away the camera and tripod, and my new Chinese friend was walking toward his car, the clouds exploded into a brilliant pink.

It was a stunning sunless sunset.

I wish we could have shared it with our restaurant lass. It was just heavenly.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Road Report, Part 9 (Stories to Tell)

Linda Poland begins her ghost tale in the Tuesday evening storytelling program at The Cranberry Thistle. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Jonesborough has tales to tell,
and storytellers eager to oblige

Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town, and for all its many charms must be a well-kept secret. True, we visited at mid-week, but this is the middle of the Southern Appalachians with trees still showing the glorious colors of autumn – and you’d think it would be hard to find a room for the night, much less a parking spot here on Main Street.

We came because of a brochure picked up from a rack at our last hotel stop, promoting its claim as the world storytelling capital. Well, I’m a storyteller (you can hear me telling a couple through the links below), and since it was just half an hour or so up the road from our last stop in Greeneville, Tenn., it was awarded a big yellow Sharpie smear on our map.

We found a parking space on Main Street, right outside the International Storytelling Center (, which from June through October presents matinee shows by an ever-changing lineup of guest tellers-in-residence and in the first week of October hosts the annual National Storytelling Festival.

We missed the matinee, but caught some of the action a few hours later and a few doors away at The Cranberry Thistle coffee house and cafe ( – where an evening program included a local ghost story by Jonesborough’s “resident storyteller” Linda Poland (explaining why a bony woman in a muddy wedding dress tends to float out of the mist up the road at Rotherwood Mansion in Kingsport).

Also featured was this week’s international center resident teller, Jennifer Armstrong of Belfast, Maine, who wove a spinoff Cinderella tale about a boy who magically learned to play the bagpipes. (The multi-talented Armstrong( accompanied her own story by playing the boy’s tunes on her own bagpipes.)

Close to two dozen people sat around the cafe’s informal performance room for the evening show, sipping 50-cent-a-cup coffee, slightly costlier latte or soft drinks, or maybe heavier fare like the $4 combo of beans, greens and a hoecake (make up a story about that – I dare you!) The establishment presents storytelling on Tuesdays, and live music on weekends.

The Cranberry Thistle is operated by sisters Nancy Colburn and Jo Storie, who came home after living for several years in – of all places –my ancestral homeland of Baltimore! (Nancy’s husband Joe does the baking.)

Jonesborough has lots of other reasons to visit – what with buildings dating back as far as 1797, some fascinating antique and retail businesses, a county courthouse with The Ten Commandments on a big metal plaque alongside the entrance (attention ACLU), 10 area bed-and-breakfast choices, and one chain hotel, the more modestly priced AmericInn Lodge.

Tough choice, you know – with tax, maybe $140 for the B&B, or the tad-less-than-$90 AAA/AARP rate of the hotel. (All right, sometimes I splurge – but not this time.) I called ahead from a quarter-mile away to check on availability of a king-bed double, nonsmoking, and arrived two minutes later to claim it.

I love room upgrades. Turned out all three regular king-bed rooms had been left uncleaned by the housekeeping staff, so the clerk apologetically offered the king room with the double Jacuzzi tub “if that would be OK.”


Reminds of that master storyteller Shakespeare, something like “Bubble, Bubble, toil and trouble, sit back, relax, enjoy the tubble.

Anyway, after you’ve checked out Jennifer Armstrong and maybe sampled some of her recordings, you can hook up to my tales at Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling series at: (as a featured teller last December at the annual Holidays from Hell show) and (chosen for an impromptu audience cameo slot six months earlier).

Bonnie also had a crack at storytelling, having been chosen (names are picked out of a hat or more comical container) to follow me for a cameo tale:

The difference between our tales and those we heard this week in Jonesborough is that our stories were absolutely true. Linda Poland allowed as how her ghost story was not entirely factual – just 90 percent.

She didn’t say which 90 percent, however. So maybe next trip we’ll check out Rotherwood Mansion. There’s plenty about it online, including this link which basically presents the tale spun so dramatically by Poland Tuesday evening:

Tomorrow: Crossing the Mountains

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Road Report, Part 8 (Presidential Visit)

The 17th president (left), and his bedroom with hat and chamber pot. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)

Turns out that Andrew Johnson
wasn’t as bad as they say

The nation was in a deepening crisis, and the leading candidate for the presidency was an Illinois legislator with just a few years of experience on Capitol Hill.

Nope, his name wasn’t Barack. We’re talking about Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig who won the Republican Party nomination and went on to become, many say, the best president in history.

That’s the easy part. Now shout out the name of his running mate.

It took a three-hour visit on Tuesday to the Andrew Johnson home and historical site in Greeneville, Tennessee, to return to those thrilling days of nasty yester-year politics. And no, his running mate was not Andrew Johnson – not in 1860.

It was Lincoln’s run for reelection in 1864 when Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was dumped in favor of southern Democrat Johnson, a U.S. senator and appointed federal military governor of Tennessee who was one of the most admired men in the still-divided nation.

He was ill and nervous, and had a few too many drinks (ostensibly served to him by Hamlin) before taking the oath in the Senate chamber and giving a rambling, incoherent speech. Then Lincoln took his oath outside, delivered his famed “With malice toward none...” speech – and five weeks later, mere days after the Civil War had ended, was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

So the “drunken tailor” from Tennessee, as some called him, took another oath and became the nation’s 17th president.

History should have been that interesting back in junior high and high school – or maybe it was, and I just wasn’t paying attention.

Any similarities between then and now, well – history tends to be repetitious, and has its ironies.

Andrew Johnson grew up poorer than Barack Obama, and had a lot in common with slaves after his widowed mother apprenticed him to a tailor as a young teen-ager in his native Raleigh, N.C. Forget about child labor laws – Johnson was indentured for seven years, and became a fugitive when he ran away to Tennessee without completing his servitude.

Yet he became a slave-owner himself, even buying two half-sibling black children, after becoming a successful tailor in Greeneville. Self-educated with help from his wife, Johnson became deeply involved in local politics and won election to a succession of offices including the U.S. Senate.

After Lincoln sent him back to Tennessee as military governor following the union army’s capture of Nashville, Johnson decided to declare an end to slavery there – but first set an example by emancipating his own longtime household slaves.

He was a man of principle, and in the end that was what sullied his reputation because of unyielding defense of the U.S. Constitution in the face of post-war disputes with Congress and eventual impeachment for refusing to recognize a law enacted over his veto. He survived the Senate trial by a margin of a single vote of not guilty – and was the only president to be impeached until Bill Clinton “didn’t have sex with that woman.”

How complicated could a nation’s politics get? The strict-constructionist Johnson fought moves by the post-war Congress to help the freed slaves and deal harshly with those who had joined the Rebellion – not that he did not want to help the nation’s large black population, but he felt strongly about state rights and healing the wounds of war.

Unable or unwilling to seek compromise, Johnson became a failed president – likely in the lower 20 percent of all who have held the nation’s highest office.

During our memorable tour of Johnson’s two surviving homes and tailor shop in downtown Greeneville, our National Park Service guide Daniel Luther allowed as how Johnson would have been looked on with far greater admiration in history had he not become president. “But then, we wouldn’t be here on this tour,” he added. “People don’t generally visit the homes of the vice presidents.”

Our guide also noted that Johnson’s first speech after being succeeded as president by Ulysses S. Grant was made in Baltimore, where he declared: “My deliverance from office is the greatest case of emancipation since the Rebellion.”

Much of Johnson’s history and possessions in Greeneville are preserved. On the tour of his post-presidency home, you touch and hold the same banister as he did going up the stairs. The side-by-side portraits of Lincoln and himself that he treasured still hang above the mantel. His nightshirt lays across his bed. On the floor sits his empty chamber pot, and on the dresser rests his black top hat.

You can buy a replica of the hat in the Visitor Center gift shop for 12 bucks. The label says “Made in China.”

In the film there, the words of Andrew Johnson are spoken by an eerily familiar voice – that of Fred Thompson, the Tennessee actor-turned-U.S. senator and wannabe Republican president. Fortunately, playing stand-in for Andrew Johnson was as close as he would come.

King of the Wild Frontier

Driving north out of Greeneville along Route 11E, we are detoured by a roadside sign indicating that just 1.9 miles away is Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park.

Growing up as an adoring fan of the Disney-made Fess Parker-portrayed life of the early 1800s Tennessee frontiersman, congressman and eventual Alamo martyr, I just had to check it out.

I started whistling the theme song, ‘Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, the greenest state in the land of the free, raised in the woods so’s he knew ev’ry tree, killt him a b’ar when he was only three, Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.”

At the visitor center, a TV was showing a biographical video interspersed with scenes from Fess Parker’s series and John Wayne’s movie “Alamo.” You could buy a tacky Davy Crockett park T-shirt for $10, but the only coonskin cap (as worn by the Fess Parker version of Davy) was part of a display and not for sale.

For one thing, Crockett probably didn’t wear one himself.

And the park literature readily acknowledges the obvious when you look around the topography: He wasn’t born on no mountaintop.

So what did we gain by the little roadside diversion? We met a Georgia cracker – a crazed 81-year-old Republican veteran of World War II whose attitudes seemed straight out of the Ku Klux Klan.

Well, I didn’t know he was crazed right away. He seemed normal enough visiting the re-created Davy Crockett log cabin with his wife, daughter, and two sweet young grandchildren, and told me how he was from Georgia, he’d been there once before, 40 years ago, when the way in was a dirt road, the original cabin was still stood there, and the only amenity was a small refreshment stand.

I was curious about his politics, asking what he thought about the presidential election, and in an inspirational act to see how he’d react, opened up my Orioles jacket to reveal my Obama button.

Talk about an explosion of mouth. The short version is that he is less than happy about that black Muslim trying to become president. It got rougher, but I won’t go there. And he was gone a minute later, heading back to the car with his otherwise idyllic family.

There was an amused witness: A retired New York social worker and Vietnam vet, like us on a meandering drive in search of America. He winked and flashed his own Obama button.

Can’t help but wonder what Disney will make of Obama someday. Hope there’ll be a nice song to whistle, and a happier ending.

Tomorrow: A visit to the storytelling capital

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Road Report, Part 7 (Adult Swimming)

David and Bonnie take a campus ‘Swim’
and all they get are these lousy T-shirts

We checked out of our luxury room at the Virginia Tech campus hotel in late morning Monday and headed back to the Drillfield for Bonnie to take more photos of the massacre memorial and attempt a 360-degree panarama with multiple images while rotating her camera kept level on a tripod.

Interesting to me? Not really. That’s way too technical for this word manipulator, so I wandered across the grassy expanse to investigate what appeared to be a small carnival.

Talk about juxtaposition: On one side of the Drillfield is the memorial to the 32 victims of last year’s mass killings here, on the other a one-day carnival promoting the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim.”

Of course I hauled Bonnie over there to enjoy the human circus as it was opening at noon. We got in line early and only had to wait half an hour for the Adult Swim T-shirt giveaway – you pick the shirt and any of several designs to be imprinted on the fabric while you wait. So we picked these messages: “Free Shirt Limit 1” and “I Will Rock Your Face.”

I’ll leave it to my blog fans to guess who got which shirt.
The 20-something gal handing out the newly-minted shirts eyed the latter design, and smiled at this 60-something.

“You’re never too old to rock,” I said.

She laughed.

So nice to help folks laugh – although having a job on the road setting up one-day campus carnivals for Adult Swim must have its moments.

We tried out the Peep Show, in a row of booths equipped with flat-screen video monitors showing mundane video clips of a bunny, baby chicks, an underwater swimmer, interspersed with quick-hit images of some weird-professor dude. But as a grouping, it elicited smiles. If it had anything to do with the Cartoon Network show, I haven’t a clue. I’ll confess to never having watched more than five minutes of it. (And that purely the result of late-night channel surfing.)

Not that I am totally unhip. Just that there’s only so much time in a day of time-wasting to choose your mental poisons. My current addictions include the AMC network’s sophisticated soap opera “Mad Men” and HBO’s vampish “True Blood.” Plus baseball and football, and entirely too much CNN.

Before we left, we checked out the Sleeping Clairvoyant Cat (remember the fortune telling machine in the movie "Big" -- substitute a curled-up kitty, and fortune cards that all say the same thing: "Many years ago today, something grew inside your mother."

I also cajoled Bonnie into yet another couple of silly photos of me – one sticking my head into a cutout cartoon character (and I took a similar shot of Bonnie), the other with my arm around a gal in a bunny suit in front of the Heavy Petting Zoo.

So very collegiate.

Then we hit the road, out of Blacksburg, Va., and onto some blue highways to enjoy fall foliage, lush countryside, and the snaking-for-miles Wolf Creek. At one point a huge wild turkey ran across the road, prompting me to stop briefly (until two vehicles speeding up behind us nearly rammed our Toyota – mea culpa!).

We ended up for the night on the outskirts of Kingsport, Tennessee, in a $65-a-night (AAA/AARP rate) Comfort Inn. We walked to the chain Perkins Restaurant & Bakery on the opposite side of the parking area, and pigged out on the 55-Plus seniors menu, which was unexpectedly very good.

And for some reason, I ordered the turkey.

Tomorrow: Maybe we’ll search for President Johnson (Andrew, not Lyndon)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 6 (Healing after Horror)

A semicircle of 'Hokie Stones' is heart of memorial at Virginia Tech. Other image shows Barbara Lockee (left) of VT and Rhonda Robinson of Northern Illinois University. (photos by Bonnie Schupp)

Project in healing, hope

unites schools hit by shootings

You can’t visit Virginia Tech without noting what happened here on the leafy Blacksburg, Va., campus some 18 months ago.

Virginia Tech was host school to this weekend’s annual conference of the International Visual Literacy Association, which included an exhibit Saturday on a project in its early stages of development aimed at bringing together VT and Northern Illinois University in their common bond of grief and recovery from mass killings.

On April 16, 2007, a deranged student killed 32 people and wounded a reported 17 others on the Blacksburg campus in two separate attacks before taking his own life. It was the deadliest mass murder in United States history.

It was followed on Feb. 14 of this year by a mass shooting by a former student at Northern Illinois University who killed five and wounded 18 others in a large lecture hall on the DeKalb campus and then committed suicide.

I guess you can’t define two such incidents, coming 10 months apart, as a pattern. Yet they are part of a troubling history in a nation where violence is a daily reality, and multiple killings are not uncommon. We are inundated with violence, in both the news and what is termed entertainment.

How to cope, how to assuage the grief, to embark on a path toward healing are at the root of the project shown in a formative stage Saturday by faculty members Rhonda Robinson of Northern Illinois and Barbara Lockee of Virginia Tech. They titled the presentation – photos of the grieving, memorial displays and expressions of caring – “Symbols of Hope: Huskie and Hokie Visions of Recovery.”

With photographs taken on both campuses in the days and weeks after the killings, the effort builds a bridge of empathy between schools 700 miles apart but drawn close in spirit by the horrors they suffered.

Robinson and Lockee said they plan to seek contributions of images from their university communities that will enlarge the scope of the project, whose final form is yet undetermined.

Lockee led a walking tour from the conference center to Virginia Tech’s eloquent April 16 Memorial – a semicircle of 32 “Hokie Stones” (the type of stone incorporated in buildings across the sprawling campus), each engraved with the name of a victim of the massacre. It is modeled on an impromptu memorial of stones assembled by a student volunteer group hours after the shootings.

As we arrived, other visitors were placing fresh flowers across the name on each stone.

There’s a brochure explaining the memorial, with photos and short biographies of the 32 victims in the same order they appear, from left to right, in the procession of stones.

Walking along the path, you inevitably take a deep breath at the stunning reality: “There’s so many of them.”

But there were 33 dead, and one remains missing: The killer.

Perhaps that’s because he may be the hardest to forget.

Nearby, tucked around the corner of the administration building, is Norris Hall, where the bulk of the killings occurred in second-floor classrooms. While there was some thought to demolishing it, Lockee said much work would have been lost because of equipment installed in first-floor laboratories that could not be moved.

Instead, walls are coming down on the second floor to create space for a new Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. It is to be directed, Lockee said, by Jerzy Nowak, the horticulture professor and department chair whose wife, French professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, was killed in Room 211 along with 11 of her students.

Stitches across time

The ‘Visions of Recovery’ exhibit was paired with a display by Lucinda Willis of “healing quilts” – family heirlooms and her own, each laced with deep meaning.

In a summary of her exhibit, “Healing Quilts: A Visual Display of Emotions and Strength,” Willis explained: “Healing quilts have, for generations, been a way for women to express themselves when recovering from a devastating episode in life. Various forms of healing quilts have been created over the centuries, and even today, quilts are made which gently show strength and determination in the face of adversity.”

Many have seen quilts memorializing victims of disease, war or violence. The display of five quilts brought to the conference by Willis, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, included one that, according to the story handed down with it across generations, was hastily made with available scrap fabric by a mother to keep her son safe and warm as he went off to war as a Confederate soldier. It and he survived.

Of the designs that emerge, Willis wrote on a display card, “Healing quilts don’t get planned, they evolve, and with each stitch, some comfort is gained.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 5 (The Poster Boys)

Reinventing wheels
in political postering

Who's on First?
Of course, it's America!

“Country First” – nothing new about John McCain’s slogan.

Warren Harding used a similar one in 1920: “America First.”

Who would have guessed? Well, if you’re keeping up with the work of Steve Seidman, you’d see the poster politics of 2008 in a whole new (or old) light. Seidman – Dr. Steven A. Seidman – is associate professor and chair of the Department of Strategic Communication at Ithaca College.

And in a bit of wonderful timing, his four years of research produced just a month ago his book: “Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.”

While the book doesn’t quite make it to 2008, Seidman looked at the current campaign in a presentation this weekend on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., at the annual conference of the International Visual Literacy Association (

There really isn’t much new when it comes to the art of political postering – for example, the use of “gazing into the future” poses by both the McCain and Barack Obama camps.

Seidman compared an Obama “gazing” pose, powerfully angled from below in front of a flag background of red, white and blue, to the pose of President Gerald Ford on a black/dark background for his (doomed) 1976 campaign. Ford’s face was the only color in his poster; Obama’s face, though not brought up by Seidman, was in shades of black and white against a U.S. flag background.

At the bottom of the poster was the colorful Obama campaign logo, built on circles with a blue ‘O’ for Obama and a rising ‘O’ sun at its center – suggestive, Seidman says, of “a better tomorrow” and a symbol similarly used in election posters in many nations.

There is also an array of “guerilla marketing” posters springing up, sometimes illegally plastered atop others’ posters, around the nation – and being marketed by their creators. Among them is the popular “Abraham Obama” design by painter Ron English, combining the features of Abe and Barack and easily found online.

“The last time artists became so enthusiastic for a candidate was 36 years ago for [George] McGovern,” Seidman observed.

Among the images Seidman displayed in his PowerPoint presentation was a side-by-side comparison of an Obama poster for his July appearance in Berlin and a 1933 poster supporting the Social Democratic Party of Holland – both in what the professor said was the Bauhaus style.

“These styles always reemerge,” he said.

Seidman noted a recent story in the New York Times on campaign typography, and showed the McCAIN/PALIN poster design you see on lawn signs, bumper stickers, T-shirts and buttons. Its font, he said, is Optima bold – and described in the NYT article as “classic, elite and old-fashioned.”

The font is also used in the national Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Seidman said, “a strong, tough typeface.” And he pointed out the “very military” presence in of a gold star and braiding in the campaign design.

As for “America First,” the Warren Harding poster showed the 55-year old Republican in front of a billowing Old Glory with his right hand in a powerfully tight fist, and his left hand with thumb and two forefingers outstretched in what has become a recognized peace symbol (this campaign coming soon after the Great War). The slogan appears to the lower left.

Harding won, but died of a heart attack two and a half years after taking office and was succeeded by another, to put it gently, lightly-regarded president, Calvin Coolidge.

I noticed in checking out Warren G. Harding online that he seems not to have made much use of his middle name – Gamaliel. That’s a tough one. Hussein is a lot easier on the tongue.

For more on the art and design of political posters and propaganda, check out Steve Seidman’s blog at:

His book is available in paperback ($33.95) and hardcover ($109.95) from Peter Lang Publishing USA (phone 212-647-7706), or through Amazon where the paperback can be had a few bucks cheaper.

Tomorrow: Healing after campus tragedies

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Road Trip, The Bizarre Part 4

Virginia is
for wackos

Elephants, dinosaurs and Bibles, oh my!

The craziness and wonder are unmistakable along Virginia Route 11, approaching tourism-rich Natural Bridge.

On the west side of the road, there’s a menacing green dinosaur standing on a broken-open shipping crate atop an old red pickup truck. It’s a promotion for the Dinosaur Kingdom attraction a few miles further south.

But strangely, it’s sitting on the small gravel parking lot for what seems another sort of kingdom, hinted at by the Ten Commandments posted on one door of the padlocked double-gate entrance. The other door has an ironically similar message: “No Trespassing.”

Well, forgive us this little trespass – we peeked through a hole and saw a sight that would positively enrage a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Fake Animals: Life-size replica denizens of Noah’s Ark littering the ground of the enclosed yard like so much junk. There’s a damaged elephant, a giraffe, animals as far as the eye could peek, all doubtless in need of a flood outta there.

Glancing at the giant plastic pharaohs lining the outside of the fence in this ersatz Valley of Kings, we headed off the parking lot and saw a billboard looming over the east side of Route 11 proclaiming the Dinosaur Kingdom and yet another wonder ahead – FOAMHENGE.

Little more than a mile south, there it was on a plateau up a small hill, looking very much like another “henge” we’d visited years ago in England. Not stone, but foam – a life-size rendering of Stonehenge, free for the visiting but with signs warning against vandalism.

Unlike the real thing in England, which is surrounded by a fence to keep people outside the great circle, Foamhenge (shown in wife Bonnie Schupp's photo, top, as is the roadside dinosaur in silhouette) is fully accessible. You can stand under it and pose for photos, but please don’t chip the paint or team the foam material. It’s already chipping away.

The creator of Foamhenge (and Dinosaur Kingdom, which we hadn’t the time to seek out) is Mark Cline. And after encountering Foamhenge by the chance of getting off Interstate 81 for the “blue highway” joys of Route 11, I did a Google search and found plenty about him – including a marvelous 2006 Washington Post story on his creations headlined “Jurassic Lark.”

Check it out at

From the story, I gather that the fenced enclosure that so Biblically mystified us is the Enchanted Castle headquarters of the artist, who had crafted critters for all manner of theme parks. So it was a shame he wasn’t around since, as fans and members of the American Visionary Art Museum, Cline is our kind of artist.

A sign at the foot of the path leading up to Foamhenge (which the Post story says was unveiled on April Fool’s Day 2004) offers comparisons between it and the English inspiration:

“Stonehenge took 1500 years to complete... using stones weighing as much as 50 tons. An estimated 600-1000 men dragged the stones from Marlborough Downs 20 miles north. Perhaps used as a temple, observatory, or tomb.

“Foamhenge was completed in six weeks using beaded Styrofoam blocks weighing up to 420 pounds. Delivered on 4 tractor trailer trips from Winchester, Va. 100 miles north. It took 4-5 Mexicans and one crazy white man to construct. It’s main purpose is to educate & entertain.”

Bless you, M. Cline – it did just that! (Though I thought Stonehenge was completed a few centuries quicker.)

Joe the Plumber’s Helper

As it turns out, the story keeps growing – Barack Obama knocked on the guy’s door, John McCain made that encounter a big deal in the debate, the media surrounded Joe, and all the suggestions and assumptions that had arisen took on the wispy quality of smoke in a variable breeze.

So the media finds he doesn’t have a plumber’s license, isn’t about to buy the company from his boss, has a lien on his house for state tax delinquency in Ohio, and is just the kind of not-poor, not-rich white guy who would be better off with Obama as president but will vote for McCain.

Just another meaningless distraction along America’s Road to Ruin.

Coming tomorrow: The art of political postering

Friday, October 17, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 3

"I don’t know

if Jesus

could straighten

this mess out."

--Barry Strong,
retired educator
Searching for the
reel America:
pay dirt at the drive-in

Not every day do you meet an educator who can laugh about slapping handcuffs on his students.

That’s Barry Strong, a retired teacher and principal we found Thursday in about the unlikeliest place – a drive-in movie theater, in broad daylight.

We’d been driving south on Interstate 81 from Harrisonburg, Va., and turned off on what you might call a blue highway in search of some real America. We found it a bit past noon along Route 11, on the outskirts of the town of Lexington.

The marquee said it was closed, the season ended, but there was a pickup truck parked inside the fence and no barricade at the entrance lane, so we rode in hoping for my wife Bonnie to get some pictures of the empty place that might be symbolic of a dying but of Americana.

The truck belonged to the 61-year-old Strong, who was methodically waving a fancy metal detector over the dirt and grass in a back parking row searching for stray coins. Not that he needed the money for gasoline or anything; it was just a little pastime that sometimes turns up an old silver dime or half-dollar, but more often worthless debris.

“It’s been metal-detected before, but nobody gets it all,” he noted. “The trouble with metal detecting in a place like this is there’s so much junk in the ground, like pop tops. But it’s like fishing – you never know what you’re going to catch.”

Strong said he’s a Hull’s Angel – a member of a group of supporters and helpers at the drive-in, which remains a popular place around Lexington on warm summer nights. “They bring their blankets and get out on the grass. It’s a family-oriented place.”

The conversation quickly turned to politics, as I asked his views on the campaign. He says he expects to vote for John McCain, despite -- not because of -- his selection of Sarah Palin as his running-mate. For Strong, the choice is because he sees McCain as the most experienced candidate for president.

“I watched most of the debate last night,” he said. “I think McCain did a little better.”

But he acknowledged that “I got tired of hearing Joe’s name,” a reference to now-politically ubiquitous Ohioan Joe the Plumber, and lamented of that profession that “they won’t come out to see you for less than a hundred.”

“I read the Roanoke Times – I read the editorials every morning. They said they ought to vote all the incumbents out and start over. They couldn’t do worse than that. I don’t know if Jesus could straighten this mess out.”

Now about those handcuffs:

Strong said he started his career in 1970 as a sixth-grade teacher at Hartman Elementary School in Clarksburg, W.Va., at a salary of $6,000 and a classroom of 46 children. (Bonnie noted she had started her career in Baltimore in 1967, at then-Ben Franklin Junior High, making all of $5,800.)

Strong had some wonderful tales of those early days, like teaching the twin brothers Neil and Don, and the hot day in the un-air-conditioned school when Neil fell asleep at his desk and was directed out into the hall for the then-customary punishment: a paddling.

“He was crying and said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Strong. It was hot, and we just ate....’ And he was right. So we went back in the classroom and I apologized to him in front of all the other children. And I handed him the paddle and told him to paddle me.”

Did he? You betcha.

“He reddened my ass,” Strong chuckled.

Later in his career, Strong said he became a teacher and administrator in juvenile detention facilities, including an assignment as assistant principal at the juvenile correctional prison in Beaumont, Va., where some of the students “were murderers.”

And that part of his career pretty much explains why “you could handcuff the students.”

Coming tomorrow: Outrageous roadside attractions

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 2

Cemetery dust-off

trumps debate for this blogger

Something you didn’t know: There’s folks who travel around the country spending their valuable free time cleaning up old tombstones.

We met two of them Wednesday in the bury patch high above historic Harpers Ferry, W.Va. – women ignoring a late run of biting flying insects to get down on their knees, gently brush dirt off and rub a length of chalk across time-weathered names and inscriptions.

Their T-shirts bore the name of their organization, Cemetery Surveys Inc., which is endeavoring to document online the names and histories gleaned from this painstaking work. The chalk makes the names and at least some of the old inscriptions a little more visible, enabling the women to record them with a digital photograph.

The Harper Cemetery had plenty of work for them, with burials dating back two centuries.

Nema Mobley (shown in Bonnie’s photo above) was one of the volunteers, a retired middle school teacher from Cherokee County, Georgia, who probably got no more appreciation from most of her students than she received from those long dust in the ground beneath her aging knees.

You can check out the organization’s Web site at It has information on thousands of the documented departed, but talk about an uphill struggle – they’ve probably got millions to go before they sleep.

Other sights along the way

As I noted, the cemetery is high above the town – and climbing the many steps up the hillside was the biggest ordeal of the day aside from swatting away the gnats and biting bugs awakened by a warm October.

I hadn’t been in the streets of Harpers Ferry for 40 years, and was impressed by restoration work that has kept the nucleus of the waterfront town alive and the friendly and informative National Park Service staff.

I asked, in the old general store, about one of the items in a display case labeled as a piece of the rope used to hang John Brown – the leader of an anti-slavery band that staged the ill-fated raid for which Harpers Ferry draws its most lasting fame.

A young Park Service guide on duty there noted an old history of the event written by a resident from that era, which pointed out that if all the purported pieces of the rope sold as souvenirs were authentic, it would have been long enough to hang John Brown from the moon. (The author, it was also said, was also a bit of an Irish drunk whose accounts may have been... well, embellished is a kind word.)

After nearly four hours in Harpers Ferry, we headed south through Front Royal and along about 75 miles of Skyline Drive – which on weekends is packed with visitors gawking at views of fall foliage. There was little traffic on a Wednesday, however, but foliage at the lower elevations had not yet peaked.

Still, it was a nice drive that got us within a 150-haul of our next destination in Blacksburg, Va., and to a decent Comfort Inn at Harrisonburg well in time for the Great (Last) Debate of the presidential campaign. So, it’s on to....

McCain v. Obama, Opus Three

Cut the crap, you Republicans. McCain got clobbered again.

For one thing, maybe I missed it somewhere, but I thought Palin had an infant with Down syndrome, and McCain kept talking about her expertise with autism. A little forgetful? I'd hope that Palin is expert in all manner of developmental disablities, particularly Down syndrome, and that she and her family do a great job in raising their newborn to achieve all that is possible.

And I hope she does it without ever having to leave Alaska.

Obama, meanwhile, missed a great opportunity when McCain told him if he were running against George Bush, Obama should have run against the president four years ago.

McCain’s comment was facetious. And Obama should have retorted: “Why didn’t you run, John?”

Speaking of John, let’s talk about Joe – the poor plumber guy from Ohio.

I don’t feel a whit sorry for Joe if he can’t get a loan to expand the business where he puts in 12-hour days of labor. Plumbers bill 100 to 200 bucks an hour, and I’m sure Old Joe is making a tidy sum off hapless homeowners like me. He's doing just fine compared to many Americans, and will get all the money he needs once the Bush administration's banking meltdown ends.

He’s Joe the Plumber in my book, not Average Joe Sixpack.
(I know, I shouldn’t have said that. Next time the toilet goes blooooey, I’m gonna pay bigtime.)

Which reminds me, it’s time to get the septic tank pumped out.

Politics has filled it to overflowing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 1

This voter, politically,
has been all over the map

First day on the road and it didn’t take long to find an oddity – a guy named Steve whose claim to Real Muck fame is having voted for both Barack Obama and John McCain.

By way of introduction, we met Steve at our first overnight stop – Bonnie didn’t want to plan ahead, but to head off in the way we used to, without any idea where we’d land.

So we were off on a sunny afternoon drive west to Antietam National Battlefield (where just as we arrived, clouds moved in and blocked most of the rays, so only a few photos were taken), then along the old Harpers Ferry Road.

We found lodging in a hostel on the Maryland side of the Potomac – first hostel we’d stayed in since a drive through Holland nearly two decades ago – and met Steve, whose resume likely will list his job here as “plant manager.” He was very happy with the job he’d just finished fixing up the compost pile out back.

Steve’s an independent, and a traveler. He noted having voted for McCain eight years ago in the North Carolina presidential primary (mostly out of principle against George W. Bush), and to put Obama in the U.S. Senate four years ago in Illinois, where he went back home to help care for his folks.

Now he’s registered to vote in West Virginia, and Obama’s getting his nod this year. Steve allowed as how he wouldn’t vote again for Ralph Nader for president (yup, he even voted once for Nader!), and wonders what would happen if “none of the above” appeared on the ballots across the nation – and won.

Conservative byways

Most of the political signs along our drive were McCain/Palin, which was not surprising given the conservative bent of this stretch of the Sixth congressional district. I kind of love the Sixth, if only for its bizarre political history.

You can be a Democrat here and win a seat in Congress – but don’t be too liberal. Goodloe Byron (whose parents both had also represented the district) was seeking his fifth term in the 1978 elections, a Western Maryland hometown favorite who wasn't too liberal and seemed so unbeatable that no Republican even bothered to seek the nomination.

None, that is, save a semi-homeless, mentally unstable but very opportunistic Baltimore bum named Melvin Clifton Perkins. He didn’t even live in the district, not that anyone would know where (or if) he hung his hat most nights. Perkins ended up unopposed in the Republican congressional primary, and thus was on the general election ballot running against Goodloe Byron.

Imagine the shock when, less than a month before the election, Byron dropped dead of heart attack – if I recall, it came while he was jogging along the C&O Canal trail. Ten days before the election, the party named his widow, Beverly, to replace him on the ballot.

We used to have a traditional election night “ghoul pool” in the Baltimore Sun newsroom, and I was its keeper and creator. That November, the tie-breaker question was the number of votes that homeless bum Melvin Perkins would garner in the Sixth District contest.

For the record, it was close to 14,000 people who didn’t care whom they voted for – as long as it was a Republican. Perkins then claimed that Bev had been illegally put on the ballot, and filed a protest – and even took a seat on the floor of the House of Representatives until the matter was settled in Byron’s favor. Finally Melvin was given what he deserved: the bum’s rush by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

The district these days is securely in the hands of a conservative Republican named Roscoe Bartlett – and he’s probably the only Roscoe on Capitol Hill. Bartlett, who is in his eighth term, lists on his congressional Web site this resume: professor, research scientist and inventor, small business owner, and farmer.

He’s also 82 years old, and there’s no indication that his hobbies include jogging.