Monday, October 31, 2005
Strange things that appear in the night in places with dusty histories have filled the imaginations of Beaver County residents for centuries. Unexplained occurrences still make some residents squirm a bit.
In Baden, some say Captain Calvin Blazier's house on State Street is haunted with echoes from its past. Located at State and Bryan, the house was built by in the 1870s and sold in about 1890 to Blazier, a riverboat captain. For the past 20 years, the house has been home to Old Economie Financial, a financial planning firm owned by Rick Katterson and John Toth. Gaylin Katterson, who has worked at the office for many years, says many eerie things have happened there.
Thirteen years ago, Gaylin was doing some filing late one night at the house, while simultaneously watching her children, who ranged in age from twelve to six. The children were running around the big house, playing and chasing each other. Finally, the horseplay got to Gaylin, and she put down her work and stood up from the desk and snapped: “Would you please stop!” to the child who was skipping by. To her surprise, the child looked like he was from the turn of the century, wearing a stiff white collar and knickerbockers, his hair parted down the middle.
“There was shock on his face, as there probably was on mine. He was about as old as my oldest… The picture of him was almost etched as he came through the door,” she says.
People in New Brighton talk about the doughboy soldier ghost that is occasionally seen on the steps of the borough building. At the Merrick Art Gallery in New Brighton, at least one member saw the portrait of the museum’s founder smile during a concert, gallery director Cynthia Kundar says. In such charmed locales, historic incidents sometimes are replayed, like ripples in a pond going back inward, after going outward.
Many of those contacted about hauntings wouldn’t be quoted for this story. Given the creepiness of some of the local folklore, it may be that they’re just too spooked.
Many local creepy tales often involve tragedy, and the tragedy that befell a woman on Summer Cut Bridge in Beaver Falls is the type that befits a ghost story. Legend has it that a woman's car went off the bridge one rainy night, killing her. It is said that if you go late on a rainy night down onto the train tracks where her car landed, you can see her walking the tracks in a white dress, according to an account submitted to Dave Juliano, Director of South Jersey Ghost Research and Founder of The Shadowlands, a web site dedicated to ghosts and hauntings.
This story previously was published in Pittsburgh Magazine's Beaver County magzine.
Monday, October 24, 2005
I’d been avoiding this obvious fact for a while, living the freelance life and growing my hair. I felt it helped my creativity, though others didn’t appreciate my cavalier look. They preferred that I just resembled a member of the Western World. But I wanted to let my freak flag fly, everyone else be damned if they didn’t care for it.
Unfortunately, the rebellious attitude is exactly what some people felt when they met me, with my Renaissance-length wavy hair and smirk on my face. My mane was so disconcerting that people I knew sometimes didn’t recognize me with it. A while back I was at the retirement party of one of my editors, a fellow who I didn’t see regularly because I work from home. This was a man for whom I’d written hundreds of stories, many of which I had conferred with him on. When I walked up to him to congratulate him, he looked startled, and didn’t know me at first.
“You were a lot more clean-cut last time I saw you,” he said, sizing me up. It was clear he wasn’t sure what to think of me.
I was making an impression, indeed. But it was not the right one.
These days I’m working on making a more positive impression, and I’ve been keeping my hair short for the past several months. I have actually shocked my barber (OK, she’s a hairdresser) by making it for a haircut every several weeks or so. I used to only see her a couple times a year for a light trim, but these days I am wearing my hair prep school short. From the back, I might pass for one of the kids on the cover of “A Separate Peace.”
“You can see your face,” my wife reassured me after one of my first haircuts. “You look so much better.”
My female friends and neighbors appear to agree. A week after my first “real” haircut, my dog-walking neighbor Allison called out as she walked by the house: “Your haircut looks good, Jon. Curly.” She smiled at me like I’d done something right, when all I’d done was go to my old hometown of Bellevue to get a quick cut. I was a bit taken aback, but it still felt good to be complimented.
A while later, my wife’s old friend Jill saw my shorn self for the first time. She got a big pie-eating grin on her face, and said; “Now that’s a haircut. Not like before the wedding.”
I was married in a classy ceremony, and Jill was one of my wife’s matrons-of-honor. Jill was calling me out on my wannabe haircut before the wedding, when I got my long hair trimmed enough to make it sit down for about a half an hour. I still believe that the ceremony was not particularly marred by the fact that I was wearing a quasi-mullet. The wedding pictures, though, may tell the true story.
A day or so after Jill’s comment, my neighbor Leah called out her approval while we were both in our front yards. I was trimming the 7-foot-high privet hedge out front. “I like the cut, Jonathan! The bushes and your hair,” she said, touching her head and grinning.
I really knew I was onto something when my next-door neighbor Donna, a genteel woman with an immaculate home, patted me on the head, saying, “The haircut looks good.”
If I’d known I was going to get so much positive attention, I might have gotten a real haircut years ago.
An American male can test the short-hair-equals-positive-attention-hypothesis by growing his hair long, and noting how others treat him. If he then cuts his hair short and notes the reactions of those around him, he’ll see that he is receiving better treatment with short hair. In contrast, the cutting remarks and dismissive attitudes of others toward a man with long hair seem harsh.
They say appearance is everything. I like to look a bit deeper than the surface, and I sometimes expect everyone else to do so, too. In these conservative times, though, keeping up appearances is more important than ever. One must be aware of how one looks, or suffer the consequences.
Sometimes a simple visit to the barber provides the kindest cut of all.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
The NYT has an op-ed today exploring the issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/23/opinion/23silberschatz.html?th&emc=th
The free flow of information afforded by the Internet should not be left up to some international consensus. Because if it is left up to international control, more and more censorship ultimately will worm its way into the World Wide Web.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Monday, October 17, 2005
Pittsburgh Diocese could sell St. Nicholas to cultural group
The Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese is considering selling the landmark St. Nicholas Church in the North Side to a group that wants to preserve the building as a shrine and cultural center.
Members of the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance have offered to buy the building, which was the first Croatian church in America, from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese for an undisclosed sum. The preservation group expects to have a decision from the diocese within a couple weeks, said Dr. Marion Vujevich, a member of the three-year-old group.
Diocesan officials closed the church last December because of costs and maintenance problems, including a leaky boiler emitting carbon monoxide. Diocesan officials merged the church’s small congregation with St. Nicholas Church in Millvale. The two churches were part of the same parish. The Millvale church was formed a century ago when members of the North Side church started their own church. The buildings are both architecturally unique. Seven types of Italian marble grace the North Side church, and the surreal murals of Maxo Vanka decorate the walls and ceilings of the Millvale church.
Early this year, diocesan officials said they would give $50,000 to install a new boiler in the North Side church. At that time, the diocese also named a committee to consider the possibility of converting the building into a shrine. The committee is chaired by diocesan spokesman Rev. Ron Lengwin and includes Dr. Marion Vujevich, honory consulate of the Republic of Croatia in Pittsburgh; Bernard Luketich, president of the Croatian Fraternal Union of America; Donald Langenfeld, a member of St. Nicholas Parish; Msgr. John Kozar, a Pittsburgh priest; and Rev. Gabriel Badurina, pastor of St. Nicholas parish.
Dr. Vujevich, a Mt. Lebanon dermatologist, said it would take a lot of money to convert the building into a shrine and cultural center. “It’s going to take $1.1 million to repair it, and $1.6 million to restore it to its original beauty,” Dr. Vujevich said. He added that the foundation started to raise funds for the preservation effort last year. “Our mission is to recognize and promote the unique artistic and cultural contributions of people of Croatian heritage,” he said.
Approximately 200,000 people in the region have some Croatian blood, part of two million nationwide with some Croatian heritage.
About 9,600 Croatians and 4,600 Bosnians visit Pittsburgh each year, and St. Nicholas Church in the North Side is one of the places that these visitors want to see, Dr. Vujevich said. His group is negotiating with a professional fundraiser to work on a campaign for the planned cultural center, to be named the St. Nicholas Croatian Shrine. Louis Astorino, of Astorino Architects, has designed the renovation plan for the century-old building.
The diocese is considering a request “by one of the Croatian organizations” to purchase the building, Rev. Lengwin said. “We’d like [the sale] to happen as soon as possible,” he said. Rev Lengwin laughed at rumors that the diocese wanted $6 million for the building--$2 million of which supposedly would be for an endowment for the building. “I would say that’s purely a rumor,” he said.
In the future, former parishioners of the closed church could again have the opportunity to worship there. If the diocese agrees to sell the building to the cultural group under the terms it is considering, the building would be used to celebrate one worship service per month, Dr. Vujevich said. The basement social hall of the building would house a gift shop, and would be rented for gatherings. The building also would host regular lectures, he said.
The Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, a group that has been at odds with the diocese over the fate of the church building, is supporting the effort to buy the building, Dr. Vujevich said. “It would be good for Pittsburgh, not just Croatians. It would be a visitor’s center and something for everyone to see... It’s going to be a beautiful thing,” he said.
In my college fiction classes, my professors would point out the use of three related incidents in a story that tied it together. Something would happen three times in the story, giving it a more powerful effect. Three was the magic formulation.
Thanks to luck and the wonder of being a freelance reporter, I have my own story that is tied together by a trilogy of incidents. Over the past 22 months I have written three stories about churches that are tied together. The members of the congregations likely don’t know it, but I got the inspiration for the first story in early January, 2004.
It was a cool, clear, sunny day, almost fall-like. I was in downtown McKeesport, poking around for stories. Mostly I was wandering around checking out the buildings, seeing if anything had changed that I hadn’t noticed before. While looking around, something bright and shining in the sky caught my eye. I took a second look, and realized it was the blue domes of Holy Virgin Dormition Church, though I didn’t know the name of the place at the time.
I headed uptown to check out the church, whose cupolas I’d noticed many times before, but had never inspected. They were so bright blue in the clear January sky that they seemed to have been painted the day before. Walking up to the Orthodox church, I was struck by its immaculate white façade. The church was closed, but I peaked through the glass front doors and marveled at the gorgeous iconography inside.
As I scribbled notes in my notebook, I saw a bulletin posted on an exterior wall of the church, listing upcoming Christmas activities. I was not raised Orthodox and I had forgotten that though Roman Catholics and Protestants had already had their Dec. 25 Christmas, Orthodox Christians were still looking forward to their Christmas. Sometimes a story’s timeliness is its angle, and I noted the upcoming celebrations the church had listed, thinking it’d be a hook to sell the story.
I wandered around the church, like a photographer considering every angle, trying to see if I learned anything new about the building. When I walked around the back of it, I noticed the old First Baptist Church (a name I didn't know at the time), a block up the hill. The large Gothic brownstone was impressive, though it was enmeshed in a tangle of scrub trees, brush and vines. Its roof sagged and it was missing every window, but the church still had a grandeur that could not be overtaken.
Feeling like a 12-year-old back in my old hometown of Bellevue, when we kids would snoop around in vacant buildings, I walked up the stairs of the church and into the place. The building was a mess, with the floor wobbly, ceiling collapsing and the stink of rot and decay. It made me sad and reminded me of the lost dreams of former church members, and of the vanished hopes of some in the once-bustling city. Years ago, one city official had suggested demolishing the building and using its stones to build monuments throughout the city. I walked around the outside of the building, and it seemed to be built solidly, and was perhaps salvageable, I thought.
A few days later, Roger, my boss for the Post-Gazette South zoned edition, called me to see if I had any stories I could come up with. I’d had a busy week, and I had forgotten to pitch him the story about Holy Virgin Dormition, so I pitched the idea. He gave me the OK to do the story.
I got a little prosy with the story, because I was so taken by the church. Maybe it was the charm of the holiday, because the piece worked: Church's blue domes remind city of rich religious tradition
I must admit that I was raised by evangelical Presbyterians, but I no longer attend church regularly. I also inherited a Catholic sense of guilt, maybe in part because my mom was raised Catholic, and she’s Irish. So when I do a story on a church or other religious institution, I try to bring a sense of understanding to the story, and maybe even some reverence.
Several months after writing the Holy Virgin Dormition story, I heard that a congregation in McKeesport wanted to buy the old First Baptist Church from McKeesport Redevelopment Authority, which owned the building. It would cost millions to rehabilitate the circa-1820 building, and the Zion Baptist Church congregation was a samll one, and not wealthy. Still, McKeesport officials approved the sale in the hope of getting the building back into shape.
It seemed an insurmountable task. On the Sunday morning that Bob, a P-G photographer, and me went down to interview and photograph Zion Baptist’s Rev. Henry Billingsley and check out the old church, we both shook our heads while walking through the deteriorated old building. From a practical standpoint, it didn’t seem possible to renovate the place. But I still wanted to believe that it could happen. Perhaps in part because of that belief, the story turned out well: Church hopes to renovate McKeesport landmark for its valued space
The story made an impression on members of a Monroeville congregation, who decided they wanted to help Zion Baptist members with the project. Susan Muttart, wife of Hillcrest United Presbyterian Church’s Rev. Dan Muttart, contacted me through the P-G to ask permission to reprint the Zion Baptist story. She told me folks in her church were moved by the story, and they were planning a benefit concert for Zion Baptist. This led to an article on the concert: Church plans concert to aid another church
It also was the third incident in my own personal story. In my profession, a reporter doesn’t often feel like his stories have much of an impact. Occasionally we get to see the fruits of our labor, when people are changed by our stories. The First Baptist church story had an impact on members of Zion Baptist and Hillcrest United Presbyterian. But I also received blessings through my work on those three church stories.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Ten years ago today, 31-year-old Jonny Gammage was killed while being stopped by police in Brentwood. Several officers, including Pittsburgh Police officers, were involved in trying to apprehend Gammage, who died from “positional asphyxia.” That’s a fancy way of saying the police officers suffocated him.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and the ACLU won a class action suit alleging police misconduct by city officers. A consent decree was signed and followed by the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, and officials from the department and the ACLU now have a working relationship. Some of the old-school tough cops have been replaced with younger officers, and the members of the department have received more training to deal better with the public.
Still, more black men have been killed since Gammage died following a traffic stop. But this is nothing new in Pittsburgh, and had long been a pattern before Gammage died. In one of the more disturbing examples of this trend, on Nov. 20, 1993, 23-year-old Maneia Bey was killed when Pittsburgh police officers shot him 16 times. Fourteen of those shots hit him in the back. The desire for the civilian police review board grew out of Bey’s death.
While three of the officers involved in Gammage’s death were charged with involuntary manslaughter, none was found guilty. Brentwood officer Milton Mulholland now is retired, and his co-worker John Vojtas still works with the department and was promoted after the killing.
Back in 1996, I did some coverage of this issue for the Pittsburgh City Paper. I reported on a Feb. 10, 1996 conference on police brutality at Carnegie Mellon University. Speakers included city councilman Sala Udin; Stevenson Stone, the father of Maneia “Little Stoney” Bey; Narves Gammage, the mother of Jonny Gammage; and others. These folks didn’t pull any punches.
“The only gun powder that they found on my son was on his back,” Stone told the crowd of 400 packed into CMU’s Gregg Hall. “The cops shot him 14 times in the back, though he didn’t even have a gun. There was no gunpowder on his hands, and no prints on the gun that [the police] found. My son was shot 14 times in the back, plus two other times, and they said it was justified.”
Amid a chatter of camera shutters after the conference, Narves Gammage talked about her son’s death. “It was just a tragic thing to think that someone could take my son’s life over a traffic stop,” she said. “We’re all human, and none of us is above the law. No one should get away with murder. If my son killed someone, he wouldn’t be out free getting paid for what he’s doing.”
Looking back now at comments made by Udin at that time, I am saddened to consider their added relevance, given his loss. Udin also recently lost a son to violence. Patrice Amilcar Howze was shot to death the other day. He was 29.
“A man was slaughtered that night, and there was nothing involuntary about it,” Udin said of Gammage’s death.
Young black men being killed, by each other or by the police, cannot be allowed to stand.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
“Because of cats’ independent nature, people sometimes don’t put the time into training them as they do with dogs. People don’t spay and neuter their cats and they let them outside. That’s why we have kitten season six months a year. It’s irresponsible pet owners,” said Mark Berton, communications director of Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.
Animal Rescue League officials are looking for some good homes for the 300 cats and kittens that they have in their East Liberty shelter and in foster care. Currently, about half of the cats are in foster care and the other half are in the shelter. The cats in the shelter don’t have a drop-dead date by which they must be adopted before they are put down, but suffice to say that an animal that has been in the shelter for two months is considered old by shelter standards.
“A couple of months is a long time for a cat or dog to be in the shelter. We usually get them [adopted] within eight weeks,” Berton said.
To help encourage more adoptions of cats, ARL has reduced the price of adoption through the end of the month. Cats that have been in the shelter for a month or more can be adopted for just $35. Other adult cats are available for adoption for $50, and kittens are available for $75.
ARL workers vaccinate and microchip felines before adoption. Last year, ARL successfully found homes for 3,500 dogs and cats. Many others did not get homes and were put down.
These days, shelter officials still are getting kittens to be adopted. Things were worse in the beginning of the summer, Berton said. “We were up to almost 300 [in the shelter] at the beginning of the summer,” he said.
Adopting a cat today will save that kitty’s life, Berton added.
For more information or to adopt a cat or dog, call Animal Rescue League at 412-661-6452, extension 215.
I was a bit nervous as I approached the gray box of a building. The place didn’t look inviting, with no windows on the first floor. I forced myself to get out of the car and go inside and up to the front desk. After asking about a membership, I was led upstairs by a manager of the place, to sign up. As we walked slowly up the stairs, several Adonis-like men and Zena-like women strode up and down the stairs around us, glistening with sweat and reeking of confidence. I felt a small knot tighten in my stomach. What am I getting myself into, I wondered. I followed the manager to her office and the next thing I knew, I was giving her my personal information.
“I need to get the name and phone number of another relative. In case you drop a weight on your head or something,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and laughing.
I gave her the number of my sister-in-law, who probably wouldn’t be home if I dropped a weight on my head, so the manager would have to decide whether to resuscitate. I pictured myself with a busted crown, sprawled across the floor of the gym’s weight room, my askew shirt revealing my colorless belly—at the mercy of muscle-bound strangers.
Until recently, the idea of joining a gym was too horrific for me to consider. I’m approaching 40 and have the corresponding paunch, so I liked to putz around with the free weights in the basement and take the dog on extended walks, rather than face the ignominiousness of going to a gym and being known to be as weak as a 12-year-old girl. That disgrace is too much for me to bear, because I vaguely recall a time when I was strong like bull. When I played high school and college football, the weight room was my home-away-from-home, and it also was my sanctuary within my home, since I worked out in gyms and at home. I was used to grunting and pushing up impressive amounts of weights. I liked to flex my muscles back then, to impress the girls.
But that was close to twenty years ago. The Mr. Moose days of my youth have been buried under pounds of ugly white fat. My pectorals look adolescent compared to those I cloudily recall.
Starting out at the new gym, I was more of a doughy Mr. Muskrat. I was not of the same species as these Greek god types who are regulars at the gym, which is part of a national chain with a name that sounds like a resort. Despite the friendly sounding name, the place has the ambience of a concentration camp for fat people and girlie men.
After signing up, I took the weekend off, promising myself I’d hit the gym on Monday. Monday came and I didn’t make it, but on Tuesday I made it. Once I got there, I mindlessly headed to the treadmill and started going, keeping a small towel handy to mop up the sweat. I was about 10 minutes into it when I was approached by an older man of retirement age. He was wearing a golf shirt and pants, looking like he was about to do some putting.
“Excuse me, but did you sign up for this treadmill?” he asked me. For a minute I thought he was an employee of the place, and I looked around and saw that only half of the treadmills were in use.
“I have to sign up to use this machine?” I asked.
“Yeah, you have to sign up first. They have a sign-up sheet at the desk,” he said, stepping onto the machine as I stepped off. I had committed gym faux pas number one. I was out of my element.
After working out on the treadmill, I went into the main workout area and started to exercise on the weight machines. I got winded fast. I stood huffing and trying to read the small print of the instructions on the machines, to decide what machine to try next.
An older, beefy fellow came bounding up from downstairs, about to start his workout.
“You look like you don’t know whether to workout on or eat one of those machines,” he said, laughing.
Maybe he sensed my discomfort, and he wanted to rip on the nervous fat boy. I didn’t appreciate it.
I wasn't the same person who once felt at home at these places. I was totally different, seeing the world through a fat person's eyes, because I'm fat. As I walked downstairs to leave, I saw an obese lady being led through exercises by an attractive young blonde personal trainer. On the other end of the room, several heavy men and women pushed away at the bicycle machines, fighting the odds that genetics and lifestyle had given them. They were all fat, just like me.Writer’s note: I wrote this story about a year ago. I’m still fat, with some more muscle packed on.
With the leaves starting to turn and the cool weather telling us it’s autumn, I am reminded again that every thing has its season. Some plants bloom early and furiously, while others bloom continuously. In my garden, some of the plants seem to have more than one season, blooming in early summer and late summer. Some bloom throughout the season, while others, like the Mums, are late bloomers.
During growing season I sometimes feel that many of the world’s problems could be solved if everybody gardened as a hobby. The relaxation that gardening brings to a person, as well as the physical benefits and the literal fruits that come from the labor of gardening, could create a world with more physically fit, mellower, better-fed people.
I get such naïve feelings when I’m working in the yard. Maybe it’s the scent of the flowers, or the perfect connection that I feel when I have my hands in the dirt, but things often seem to have a greater clarity in the garden. And while I’m busy planting and transplanting, landscaping and pruning, I find small lessons in the garden. The plants show me the way.
“Move me over there,” a half-baked Astilbe seems to whisper to me, urging me to move it to a shadier spot. I obey, moving it to the shade of a privet hedge.
“Get me some light!” a misplaced, yellowish Yew appears to snap at me. I dutifully move it out from under the spruce, around the corner and into the sun.
Many people talk to their plants, but how many listen to them? If I obeyed my wife as I do my plants, she’d think I walked on water.
Even as many of the plants are packing it in for the season, others are pushing forward, like the late bloomers. I liberally categorize Spiderwort as a late bloomer, because Spiderwort seems to die back during the summer, then comes back with a vigorous blast of flowers in late summer and early fall. Golden Sedum comes back with a flourish later in the season, and some of the roses also bloom late in the season, shocking in their brightness.
The perennials give me occasional reality checks, and they also ground me with their unquestionable routines. With its rebirth and prolific blooming, the Spiderwort appears to remind me: “I do my own thing.” After I transplant it, the ornamental grass stands up straighter, seeming to say to me: “We’ve got a place for our feet, thanks.”
The half-light of fall’s overcast days make the colors in the garden brighter than usual. The yellowing and browning of some of the foliage provides a stark contrast against the green foliage of plants that continue to grow this late in the season. The late bloomers delight with their flowers of purple, white, rust and pink. We never think to question when they bloom. We know that they bloom in their own season, and we would never expect anything different. But we are not always so understanding with each other.
If we all paid more attention to some of the plants around us, maybe we could be kinder to each other. Just like plants, people need encouragement and nourishment. We all could use some more light, a better footing, or more time to grow. And like flowers, people also bloom “late.” We have our own schedules, and live according to our own seasons.
Is your child taking more than four years to finish college? Does your spouse seem to want to do things at his own pace? Consider the Spiderwort, Grasshopper. Remember that it is important that a person blooms, but it is not as important when the blossoming happens.
“Life began in a garden,” is a phrase that is inscribed in rocks and sold to gardeners, who place the ornamental rocks in their yards. The saying reflects the Biblical Garden of Eden, where life is said to have begun.
I think the roots of the saying go deeper. Gardeners have a connection with plants and with the soil that occasionally seems to transcend time, despite the routines of the plants. That connection can sometimes bring us back to our most natural selves, and remind us of fundamental truths, if we pay attention.
Life didn’t just begin in a garden. Life is a garden.
This article previously was published in Gist Blackridge.
I live in Blackridge, a community of about 600 homes that falls on the borders of Wilkinsburg, Churchill and Penn Hills. I've come to really love this community, with its quaint brick and stone homes and friendly neighbors. I have found that many of my essays are partly inspired by the community, and the people in it.
So I recently started a blog, Gist Blackridge, to write about this neat little bedroom community, which many of us call Pittsburgh's best-kept secret. You can check out Gist Blackridge at http://gistblackridge.blogspot.com.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
(I wrote the following story for the 9/25/05 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)Fast meets fancy at flashlight drags
Saturday afternoons bring gear heads, speed demons and those who are just looking for some good, old American fun to a gathering that has become part car cruise, part drag race and part vehicle lovers' paradise.
The Flashlight Drags at Zelienople Municipal Airport fill the air with the smell of burning tires, car wax and barbecued food.
What began as a mellow gathering has turned into a racer's delight. Michael Schindel, who works at the Society of Automotive Engineers in Marshall, started a car cruise for his organization several years ago.
"A car cruise is nice, but it's kind of boring. So we added the races," he explained on a recent Saturday, amid the roar of dragsters. The event has evolved over the years into its own enterprise. Altered Gas Performance Events holds the legal Flashlight Drags each Saturday afternoon through summer and fall at the airport in Franklin, Beaver County.
When the event started four years ago, it was held at night, with a flashlight turned on to signal the start of the races. The neighbors of the airport didn't like those hours, so the races were moved to the afternoon, Schindel said.
"We still do an old-fashioned flashlight start," he said. "We call it street racing without the jail time."
The drags draw a diverse crowd, from car buffs to families to former racers and future speedsters. Most of the visitors come just to watch the drag races that run for four hours down the airstrip. The racers drive everything from souped-up Novas and old Mustangs to high-performance newer cars.
After paying an entrance fee, drivers can get in line to race the driver that the line opposite them offers, or they can wait on the side of the road for the car they want to race and then challenge the driver to a grudge match.
Whether it's sunny or overcast, hundreds of racers and fans show up, Schindel said. "On a good night, we could have 270 racers," he said, noting that racers cycle through to race about every 15 minutes. "Some people here race only friends, and some will race anybody."
Valencia resident Tom Napierkowski, a co-founder of Flashlight Drags, said the event provides young people with a much-needed place to channel their desire to race.
"A lot of society frowns on a young kid using his car. But this gives them a safe outlet," Napierkowski said. "It's a good, clean sport. It's just the all-American thing."
On a recent Saturday, John Beatty rolled up in his banana yellow car, a remnant from a ride at the now-closed West View Park. The small replica Model A is outfitted with a leather top, aluminum chasis and MG motor. Though it's not street legal -- Beatty transports it in the back of his pickup truck -- he likes to take it to the races.
Beatty, of McCandless, watched his son, Steve, race down the airstrip in his 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass. "He won two so far," he said.
Butler residents Paul Bowser and John Penrod watched the races from the comfort of a golf cart, cheering on Bowser's son, Shawn, also of Butler. The younger Bowser in his 1970 Nova, equipped with a custom big-block motor and parachute, easily outpaced the driver of a '73 Nova.
"He spun [his tires] all the way down the track," Paul Bowser said.
Tweaking his car after the race, Shawn Bowser said one of the best parts of Flashlight Drags is that drivers can race all day.
"Other places only give you one or two runs. Here, anybody can grudge anybody. You just come out and run your car and have fun," he said. "It's the cars, the speed and the people."
The activities at the race can change from week to week. Some days, a race of remote-controlled model cars might precede the actual races. Or a local radio station may be there, announcing some of the races and playing tunes such as "Low Rider" and "Little Red Corvette."
On other days, a race sponsor, such as custom carmaker Redline Performance Motorsports in Marshall, might be showing its wares. The eye-popping cars that the company recently displayed at the drag race included a $165,000 1956 Oldsmobile 98 and an apple-green 1961 Ford Starliner.
Visitors strolling through the display area of the parking lot next to the airstrip, where classic car owners show their rides, can see mint condition Volkswagen Beetles, antique Ford pickup trucks, classic Camaros and more.
Charlotte Fuechslin, of Cranberry, leaned against the trunk of her red 1965 Plymouth Barracuda.
She and her friend, Kim Pegher, who left her 1971 Charger at home, were in a festive mood. Fuechslin pointed out her husband's 1967 Barracuda, parked next to her car.
"My husband and I, our first date was a drag race," she said.
(I wrote the following story for the 10/7/2005 online edition of ENR magazine.)
With Proposed Fines of $127,000, OSHA Targets Pike Electric
Federal safety officials have tagged Mount Airy, N.C.-based Pike Electric Corp. as a repeat violator of safety regulations, proposing fines of $127,000 against the contractor. The proposed fines came after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently cited the company for using defective equipment and failing to use safe practices at four of Pike’s jobsites in Florida and Georgia.
The alleged violations involved four jobsites, three of which saw workers sustain serious injuries, says Benjamin Ross, OSHA’s assistant regional administrator for enforcement programs.
OSHA officials say they are trying to get their point across that safety procedures must be followed. "Whenever OSHA fines in excess of $100,000, we consider that a significant enforcement action. These cases are an indication that we are very serious about getting Pike’s attention," says Cindy Laseter, regional administrator of OSHA’s Atlanta office.
The company may contest the proposed fines. "It’s too early for us to have much of a comment and we’re working on our response [to OSHA] right now," says Barney Ratliff, vice-president for Pike Electric.
The alleged violations occurred during a three-month period from March to June, and OSHA issued the citations last month.
In a March 24 accident at a Sunrise, Fla., a journeyman lineman sustained serious electrical burns that required the amputation of both his feet and one arm. The lineman was in an aerial basket, drilling holes in a concrete pole, when an exposed screw head on the boom came in contact with energized lines, causing an electrical current to flow through him, claims OSHA.
OSHA’s Ft. Lauderdale-area office cited Pike, and proposed a $35,000 penalty, for allowing employees to work too close to power lines. Pike had been cited previously for a similar violation. Two citations also were issued for allegedly using inappropriate equipment to move energized distribution lines and for failing to provide and assure that workers used proper tools and protective equipment. Those citations include proposed penalties totaling $12,000.
OSHA claims that a similarly dangerous situation occurred with Pike workers on March 30, along U.S. Highway 80, near Tybee Island, Ga. At that time an OSHA inspector from the Savannah office saw workers in two aerial baskets that OSHA claims were too near to power lines. OSHA issued a repeat citation to Pike for allowing equipment and personnel to come within the minimum approach distance of energized lines and for failing to provide workers with adequate protective equipment. The citation carries with it a proposed penalty of $35,000. A second citation with a $5,000 proposed penalty was issued for using defective personal protective equipment while working on energized power lines.
On May 13, another serious accident, this time at a Melbourne, Fla., residential project, resulted in a Pike employee’s hands being severely burned. The accident occurred when the worker, allegedly working in an aerial basket without proper protective equipment, came in contact with an energized overhead distribution line. The Tampa OSHA office issued a repeat citation with a proposed penalty of $35,000.
On June 28, the Ft. Lauderdale area office initiated an inspection at a Hobe Sound, Fla., job site, after an employee sustained second and third degree burns in an accident there. OSHA cited the company for permitting an employee to work without flame retardant clothing in an area where flash fires or electrical arcing were known to occur. The agency proposed a $5,000 penalty.
Pike Electric has 15 days to contest the OSHA citations and proposed penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
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I've got this old football injury from high school that still nags me on cold, rainy days or when I work out particularly hard. It throbs a little or stiffens up, making me think of the old days on the football field, when I craved the rush I got from knocking a guy on his back or sacking the quarterback. My shoulder reminds me of the brief moments of glory that I shared with my teammates on my high school football team and all the fun, and pain, that went along with those small victories. I think of pre-season football camp, with two-a-day and three-a-day practices in full equipment on hot-as-griddle August days, when we players would lie on our bunks in between practices and gasp for air. I fondly recall the lacerated hands, black-and-blue forearms, and the occasional broken finger that we all suffered. And I'll never forget the headaches that often didn't abate until the Monday after a Saturday game.
Lately I've been thinking about those days more often because of the new film, Friday Night Lights, which is set in Texas. I'm not likely to see the movie, though it's supposed to be good, because I'm a little biased. I like to think that our region has the proudest, and longest, football tradition, since it is the birthplace of football and home of the Super Bowl Steelers. So I prefer to remember my family's tradition of Friday night football games.
Dad would bundle all of us younger kids in caps and scarves. He'd load us down with a couple of pairs of binoculars, while he carried coffee, hot chocolate, munchies like Ginger Snaps, and a few Mexican ponchos that were thick as horse blankets and a welcome buffer from the cold, splintery wooden bleachers at Bellevue Field. We'd head up to the field and grab a seat, Dad talking with the neighbors and joking about the other team's poor prospects of beating the home team -- first the scrappy Bellevue Bulldogs and in later years, the Northgate Flames. The cool autumn air and the bright lights illuminating the field, coupled with the jumpy and loud high school band and cute cheerleaders, made for a festive atmosphere. Even now, when the leaves start to change and there's a certain clean crispness to the air, I inadvertently remind myself that it's football weather.
It was intoxicating watching my older brothers excel on the field, catching the proud look in Dad's eye and the joy on everyone's faces as they cheered for the perfect block, tackle, or catch that my brother had made. It inspired me to want to play as well, or better, than them. As I got a little older, Dad would let me run around with my buddies during the game. We'd play pick-up tackle football games in the grass near the end zone; little squirts mimicking a game we didn't fully understand, but still loved.
My first year in peewee football, where you played on a team according to your age and also according to your weight, I didn't get much playing time in games. I was 12, I had not yet reached my big growth spurt, and I didn't really know the game yet. I was just learning to get used to crouching down into my stance. Partly because I wasn't a standout player and also because I wasn't related to any of the coaches, I hardly played a down during my first year, and it shamed me. I would walk home from the game in my sparkling white football pants and shirt, embarrassed that I'd obviously been sitting the bench the entire game. I'd grab a couple handfuls of grass and rub them on my pants and shirt, to make it look like I was falling in the grass during the game. My older brother Clinton called me on this one day.
"So how'd the game go?" he asked.
"Good. We won," I said.
"How many tackles did you get?"
When I failed to respond quickly, he knew I was lying to him -- he read it on my face.
"What'd you do, rub grass on your pants to make it look like you played?" he asked, and burst into laughter. I hung my head in shame.
But just a couple of years later, I was playing all the time in the games. I was in middle school, in eighth grade, one of only a few eighth graders who saw playing time on the junior high team. I played nose tackle, because I had a savage streak that made it fun for me to knock centers onto their backs or into the quarterback.
We were playing an away game on a Saturday afternoon, which was when nearly all of our games were played. The game was into the first quarter, but I hadn't seen my dad on the sidelines. He said he'd make it to the game, but it was far out in the country, and when I didn't see him on the sidelines, I thought maybe he couldn't make it for some reason or another.
So I concentrated on my task of knocking out the lineman in front of me and trying to kill the quarterback. I had been taught to "kill" the quarterback since I first learned a football stance a few years before. In the Bellevue Colts peewee football league, our coaches tenderly molded our young minds with clear direction. They pointed out the finer aspects of what to do during an "Oklahoma" drill:
"When he gets the ball, you try to kill him!" they would yell at us, their rage-filled voices echoing across the fields, like Spartan coaches of old.
Our team, Northgate Flames Junior High football team, was making progress after a lackluster possession and a punt. We'd pinned the opposition down behind their 10-yard line, and they were failing to get out of their territory, so they started to pass.
Next thing I knew, I was chasing the quarterback, bull-rushing my way through a couple of lineman, and then I wrapped my arms around my prey and tackled him. The crush of my shoulder pads against his mid-section and the low thud of us hitting the ground all flowed together gracefully and felt like winning. A bunch of my teammates piled on top of me, and being at the bottom of a dark pile of players, I couldn't see what they were yelling about until everyone had peeled off of me. As I got up off of the quarterback, I saw that I had tackled him halfway into the end zone.
"Yeah! Safety! Two points!" my teammates all cheered, pointing at the end zone line.
My teammates all clapped me on the back and things seemed to move in slow motion. I looked over to the sideline and I saw my dad and my brother-in-law, cheering and clapping for me, wild grins on their faces. I felt lightheaded and tingling with the unexpected praise, and every little pain I'd suffered to get that point was forgotten.
I was always a lineman when I played football in school and when I played for a year in college at Carnegie Mellon University. And though I made some good plays over the years, that safety in junior high was the only time that I ever scored for the team.
I hurt my shoulder in my final year of high school football, probably from sheer abuse. I played the entire game at that time, with the exception of kick-offs, so when I initially hurt my shoulder, it didn't really have a chance to heal, because I kept banging it up on the field. The fact that I lifted heavy weights throughout the season also aggravated the injury, but I felt I had to lift because I didn't want to lose my strength, which invariably happens as the football season progresses.
The shoulder seemed to have a will of its own, and I'd be knocking over some benchwarmer lineman one moment, and the next moment my shoulder would just give out, and the scrub would get around me. When it first happened, Coach Wachter called me out of the game and our physical trainer, a guy who'd been an assistant trainer for Notre Dame, took a look at the shoulder and asked me a bunch of questions, quickly ascertaining that I probably had some kind of ligamentitis. From then on, whenever the shoulder acted up during a game, he'd pull gently on my right arm, explaining that he was stretching out the ligament. My shoulder would immediately feel better, and I'd head back onto the field.
At Kiski School, the boy's boarding school I attended outside Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, we didn't have lights on our football field, and we had no band and no cute cheerleaders. We didn't have thousands of fans -- usually barely hundreds, or far less than a hundred. And they generally weren't the raucous variety that you find at games closer to the city of Pittsburgh. Almost all of our games were played on sunny or overcast afternoons, with the rare exception of a Friday night away game at a public school. But we played tough, and we won a lot.
Back then I felt that the game was somehow purer without all of the hoopla that surrounded the typical Friday night high school football game. Part of me still feels that way. Without all of the distractions, the game was just clean, hard-fought football. No Friday night lights -- just a Saturday afternoon contest of muscle, brains, and will.
Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Barnes
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
As the temperature begins to drop into the cool of fall, some might forget that many of the local farmers markets are going strong, and will continue to be open through the end of the month. My community’s market is Wilkinsburg Farmers Market.
No bunch, bushel, or bite is sold at the market until Mr. McKinney, of J.J. McKinney Farms in New Brighton, blows his start whistle at 3 p.m. From 3 to 6 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays in the summer and fall, it’s market time in the Ross Street parking lot behind the church in downtown Wilkinsburg. Many of the vendors at the market have been coming for years, as have Cindy Craig and her husband Richard, who drive their Haas Farm Bakery van full of goodies from Slippery Rock on both market days in the summer, but only on Thursdays in October. Cindy and Richard are usually so busy selling breads, pies, donuts, nut rolls, lady locks, turnovers, gobs and other treats that you might not hear a lot out of them. But if you catch Cindy at the right time, you could learn something.
“We’ve been coming to this market since it opened, in the mid-70s,” she said. “We had more vegetables for sale then, and I started baking bread at night in my kitchen. And it just kind of grew.”
Cindy began baking because she didn’t want her four children eating bread with preservatives, she explained to a visitor on Thursday. After seeing her bread sales grow, she decided to buy a new, larger oven. She went to Bellevue to buy an oven from an older Italian woman. “’You bake-a the bread, but let me tell you, the money is in the cookies,’” Cindy said, laughing as she recalled the woman’s advice.
Next to the Haas Farm Bakery stand, Paul’s Orchard owner Mark Zubritosky pushes free samples of his apple cider. “Have you tried it? Would you like to?” he asks nearly everyone who ambles up to his stand. In addition to cider, Paul’s Orchard offers several types of apples, including Honey Crisp, Cala, Jona Gold, Pippin and other types. The Burgettstown grower will be one of the last to stop coming to Wilkinsburg this season, and will likely be offering goods through November.
Zubritosky has been coming to the market for 25 years, and he’s seen it become a more intimate group. “This parking lot was full with farmers. There’s more competition from other farmers markets, now,” he said.
Next to Zubritosky’s stand is the J.J. McKinney Farms stand. McKinney, of New Brighton, will be coming to Wilkinsburg through mid-November. The farm is still selling green peppers, hot peppers, green beans, cucumbers, potatoes, other vegetables and hardy mums. McKinney Farms is not a particularly talkative group, but Harold is the exception. He’ll chat pleasantly with you some, and if you buy enough stuff, he’s likely to give you a deal on it.
To the right of the McKinney stand, South Avenue United Presbyterian has a small stand where members of the congregation sell hot dogs, hamburgers and other prepared foods and drinks. To the right of the church stand usually is the stand of McElhinny Farm, of Evans City. Though the owners of farm usually bring a truck full of sweet corn down from Butler County, last week was their last visit to Wilkinsburg for the season.
Next to McElhinny’s stand, closer to the church building, is Somerset-based Hi-View Gardens. Sara Stahl and Todd Wetzel are the no-spray growers of the market, and regularly specialize in greens and collards, but also offer jalapeno peppers, garlic, basil, heirloom tomatoes, kale and other vegetables. Hi-View will offer goods at the market through the end of the month.
Henry Naznazarian's stand is one of the newer members of the market community. Situated to the left of Hi-View’s stand, North Braddock-based Najat’s Cuisine offers Lebanese and Mediterranean prepared foods. Najat’s sells tasty baklava, spinach and cheese pies, hummus and other Mediterranean specialties. Henry also takes his stand to the Friday afternoon Forest Hills market, but he said he likes to sociability of the Wilkinsburg group. “There are 25 vendors at Forest Hills—this is a small market,” he said. “All of the vendors here know each other, and there’s more friendship.”
To the left of the Najat’s stand is Joyce’s Greenhouse and Produce. Joyce and Jesus Jannos are Punxsutawney growers who these days are selling cucumbers, onions, apples, cider, hot peppers, green peppers and other vegetables. Joyce’s will be coming to the market through Halloween. “My father used to come to here many years ago,” she said, smiling at the thought.
Jesus sticks out a bit in the group of farmers, since he is darker-skinned, and Mexican-American. His warm grin welcomes shoppers to his stand. “We have to follow the people. They’re not coming to us,” he said, smiling.