Elmer Backlund

I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.

Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.

Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).

One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.

Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.

These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.

Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.

Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was  used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.

The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new  documentary.

Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.

Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”

Posted in Ashtabula County History, Ashtabula County, Ohio, Filmmaking, The Feather Cottage Tagged , , , |

Joe College, you were so cool

My brother-in-law from my first marriage died early this morning. Robert N. College.

Most people just called him “Joe College.”

Joe came into the family shortly after I and Barb married. Her older sister had met him while working in the Beltway. He was quite a bit older than Jane, I’m guessing something like 20 years, and the family was aghast. He’d been married a couple of times before, and that didn’t fly so well with the straight-laced Yankees, either.

Joe was a character. He’d been in the Air Force Band and seen the world. After retiring from the military, he got into banquet management. I think he managed an officer’s club in the D.C. area.

Whenever we went out to eat with Joe, he  critiqued the operation, the staff, the food, ambiance. Of course, in most cases he was certain he could do a better job.

Fact is, he probably could have.

He dabbled in the ownership of a liquor store for a while, then settled into retirement.  He and his wife had one child, Stacy, just a year younger than my son. They grew up together in Conneaut. He was a good father, very protective. When she got cancer, he became angry with God and his faith seemed to end. Some people say that its wrong to get mad at God because he allows bad things to happen to us. Maybe Joe was saying how much he loved his daughter, who suffered through a year of chemotherapy. It is human to hurt when someone we cherish is suffering; each of us expresses that disappointment with life, or God, in our own way.

And so God answered the prayers of the rest of the family. And Joe, well, he just became more Joe with each passing day.

Always one to have an opinion about any subject, Joe probably went through a few barrels of printers’ ink in his lifetime as the presses churned out his letters to the editorsof the Conneaut News Herald and Ashtabula Star Beacon. Always signed them “Robert N. College.”

He reminded me of Jack Benny, he didn’t walk, he sauntered with dignity. And the way he stood with his arm across his chest, well, Joe even looked like Jack Benny, come to think of it.

He grew up in the era when people listened to old-time radio, and I always chatting about OTR and big band music with him. He had a bunch of open reel tapes he’d recorded, and we always talked about putting them on CDs. I guess that was in another life.

I always tried to get Joe’s name for the family gift exchange. He was easy to buy for. There was this certain brand of pants, with the elastic waistline, that he liked. And so I’d get him a pair or two of those, and a CD or DVD of some obscure program. I always looked for the Air Force Band broadcasts, hoping that I’d hit upon a recording of a performance in which he played.

Did I mention that he played trumpet? He did. He loved the trumpet, and as his years grew to a close he found purpose in being a volunteer who played Taps at the funerals of veterans. I wonder if there will be someone to play for him?

Joe liked Cadillacs. He had one that must have been 25 years old. It was a money pit. But he loved the thing. I don’t know if it was a status symbol or he just liked big, solid, American-made vehicles. None of that matters now, except it is one of those things likely to trigger a memory of him.

Joe and Jane were married more than 35 years, I’m guessing. It took him a few troubled marriages to find one that would stick, but when he found it, they made it work. I remember him saying, and there was a plaque that hung in their kitchen to this effect, “If a man has enough horse sense to treat his wife like a thoroughbred, she’ll never turn into an old nag.”

I guess it worked, at least I never heard much nagging. And Joe would call his wife “Babe,” I’m pretty sure I remember, that.  Yeah, she’d get disgusted with his beer consumption and complaining, but she tolerated it and loved him all the same. You got to do that in order to stay married. In the end, they both got a good deal.

Joe had lung cancer decades ago. They removed a big section of the lung and he promised to stop smoking. Worked for a couple of months; I think he blamed the cancer on playing the trumpet in the band. Could be, I suppose. Who am I to say? Sometimes, what happens to us is our fault; other times, it’s just the roll of the dice. No sense giving it much thought. I just remember what a scary time that was, what with having an infant and all.

Later, he had blood clots that brought him within an hour of so of losing his leg. By golly and prayer, he survived and walked around on both legs for quite a few years after that, but had to take blood thinners, which limited him to a beer or two a day. Talk about a tough decision, mobility or beer when you are in your 60s.

So now Joe is gone, just like my first marriage and the one after that. As I am grieving the loss of loves and the loss of Joe, I realize that I never really got to say goodbye to him. I’m guessing the last time I saw him was, what, four years ago? A  quick nod, I was going through a divorce then, and the family wasn’t thrilled to see my face. A quick nod. I guess sometimes that is the best way to exit this place.

 

 

Posted in Baby Boomers Tagged , , , , , |

‘Finnished’

The past three months I have been involved in a documentary film project about the immigration of Finnish workers and their families to Ashtabula Harbor.

It’s been a grueling task, particularly the past two weeks as I’ve edited hours of interviews and B roll down to one hour. Being a one-man production, I’ve had to shoot, record, edit and even project the film, which could have been twice as long and still just begun to scratch the surface.

There were great stories that didn’t make the cut because of the lack of supporting B roll, that is the stuff that gives viewers a break from the talking heads that we’ve all come to expect from documentaries. But overall, I feel the film does a good job of telling the big story and sharing some of the anecdotes that illuminate the corners of the massive tale.

I was particularly fortunate to connect to Sue Benedict, a fifth-generation “Finndago,” that is half Italian and half Finnish. That is a pretty common combination in Ashtabula Harbor as the Finns lived on the west side and the Italians on the east. And occasionally they crossed the bridge, fell in love and there you have it.

Back to Sue. She had wonderful photographs of her family, was a great interview on camera and assisted me in the midst of her mother’s radiation treatments. She even cranked up her late uncle’s Victrola and played one of the 78 rpm records of a Finnish song her great grandfather used to sing to her.

I also was able to get May Colling to agree to an interview. May is the official historian of Ashtabula Harbor and has lived on West 8th for most of her life, more than 90 years! She’s sharp as a Finnish knife and helped give the film a solid foundation.

I’ll never forget the evening I spent in Lauri Maki’s sauna. I filmed Lauri originally because he and his wife owns the fish market and restaurant. But when I heard he has a sauna (pronounced sow-na) in his garage, my ears really perked up. Would he allow me to film it? Yes!

The star of that section of the film is the Maki’s cat, Daisy, who has the most expressive face and movements of any cat I’ve ever met. Love it!

Making a film is incredibly hard work. I have probably put in 80 hours of comp time and holiday time from work in the past week. My computer equipment simply is not up to the task of rendering HD video, and it has been a really painful, sleepless week of getting this thing to a point I can present it publicly. So many times the rendering has crashed five hours and 55 minutes into a six-hour render.

Those things waste valuable time when you are deadline. Only someone who has slept in two-hour shifts while babying a render only to find out that there was a mistake in a title card or a misplaced clip knows what I’m talking about!

There are many things I would have done differently, if I had the time and resources. There were midnight computer crashes when I lost hours of work (never trust Premiere’s backups) and I felt like just forgetting it all. But I remembered the SISU segment, the guts and determination that the Finns had and that enabled them (with a little help from beer) to work at the docks and on the railroads and build a community, harbor and life for themselves.

I’m not Finn; mostly German, some French, Swiss, too. But thanks to self discipline and determination, “We Lived on Oak Street” will be screened on Wednesday. It is about their SISU, and mine, and the way we somehow get things done with the resources we have and make the most of life, regardless of what it hands us.

I was handed some great stories, and I hope the “Finnished” product does them justice.

You can order a copy of the video on DVD and support my purchases of hard drives, cine lenses and microphones by sending $15 for each DVD to Carl Feather, 1355 Sherman St., Geneva, OH 44041. Honestly!

Posted in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Filmmaking Tagged , , , , |

Illegal pursuits

 

Shenandoah River, Harpers Ferry, WV

Shenandoah River, Harpers Ferry, WV

What I did was illegal, but the misty river was sublime.

And so on the morning of October 14, 2016, I pulled off the side of Route 340 in Virginia, attached my Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 lens to my D800, and took a hike along the insanely busy highway.

I’d just crossed the Shenandoah River after spending the night in a Victorian home in Harpers Ferry W.Va. I was heading to the Potomac bridge below Harpers Ferry, where a pull-off is provided. But the Shenandoah was even lovelier with the sun starting to burn through the bank of fog that hugged the town.

So I dodged the morning commute traffic, scrambled over the concrete barrier to the bridge, walked out over the river and began shooting, all the while wondering if my car would be towed or what kind of fine I would face if tagged.

This was a labor of love. As a child I recall crossing the Shenandoah on this very bridge, my father driving, and being so impressed with river’s rugged beauty. It was nothing like the rivers back in Ohio, muddy, narrow and prosaic. Here was a river with rocks like fans, broad and dotted with islands and diverted for power. A river with a history, flowing through one of the most beautiful valleys in the East.

I returned to Harpers Ferry several times as an adult, but I never was happy with the images of this river that I captured. They never matched the magnificence of that memory from 50 years ago.

This morning, however, was different. This morning was it.

And I took the chance. I risked losing my car, a fine, embarrassment, even personal injury as I dashed through the traffic.

Those are kinds of things you do for love. When you finally find that which measures up to your memory, you risk it all.

And sometimes, some sublime moments, it is  worth it all.

I made it back to the car unscathed. About a quarter mile up the road, a Virginia State Police trooper was doing speed patrol. I am glad the officer was preoccupied and didn’t notice my illegally parked car.

What we do for love, we do for beauty, we do for memory.

And sometimes all we end up with is the memory.

 

Posted in Photography, West Virginia Tagged , , , , |

Sorghum

Sorghum harvest,
Wellsburg, W.Va.,
October 2016

The day we harvested sorghum
it did not matter if the sorghum
grew on red or blue land.
The cane was green,
the community a rainbow
of calloused hands and smiles.
The sky voted for life,
the sun for abundance,
the sap for a sweet finish,
its excess cooking off
over the wood fire, late into the night,
our differences as steam
rising to the October moon.

Posted in Americana, Goldenseal, Photography

A veteran for peace

Walter S. Nicholes slid into the school bus seat next to me, nodded and asked me where I was from.

Walter is from Shaker Heights. He is a World War II veteran. He served in the Merchant Marines; entered the academy in July 1942. He saw the world but not much of the war. When the D-Day landing was going on, Walter was in the Mediterranean.

View a slide show of the D-Day Conneaut, Aug. 19, 2016, morning events.

That’s one of the reasons he and his son came to Conneaut on Friday morning, Aug. 19, 2016. Walter wanted to experience the war he had “missed” as a Merchant Marine. The re-enactors, the machinery of war, the uniforms, the invasion – they would all serve to give him a taste of the fighting to which he and other Merchant Marines had been party by supplying and transporting the troops.

Walter also wanted to bring a message to this event.

“To reveal to the public the full costs of war, and to end the use of wars as U.S. foreign policy,” Walter tells me.

He gives me his business card with contact information and the website and mission of the group to which he belongs, Veterans for Peace.

Five minutes later, the bus arrives at Conneaut Township Park, and Walter and his son are soon lost in the interpretive signs, the encampments, the souvenir stands and the events. I don’t see him again.

Some might say Walter is an anomaly in this place, just as much as the World War II equipment and soldiers are anomalies and anachronisms in a place where people come to relax and have fun.

There is tension in this park when D-Day Ohio brings its D-Day Conneaut Invasion to Conneaut every summer. There is the tension of facing down the enemy, of seeing the Germans as humans just like you and me. Of looking at the bayonets, and tanks, and guns that claimed the lives of Americans and made mothers weep rivers of tears and fathers grieve alone in the barns and pubs of our nation for decades to come.

There is tension in making the transition from talking to re-enactors who are bankers, teachers, machinists and engineers when they are not in uniform, to the real soldiers, the World War II veterans who come on canes and in wheelchairs, with wives and sons by their sides, to be honored, remember, let their stories mingle with the other billions of words that have been spoken about this war.

Walter hopes war will never happen again, at least not for money or power. He is not a pacifist, but he is no lover of war, either. And as a veteran, he has every right to speak his mind on the subject. After all, Walter S. Nicholes put his life on the line to defend that right.

He did his duty back in 1942; and 75 years later, is still doing it.

Thank you, Walter S. Nicholes. Thank you for serving; thank you for sitting next to me on that bus. I am honored to meet you.

Posted in Americana, Ashtabula County History, Ashtabula County tourism Tagged , , |

July 4, 2016

antenna 2The fireworks in the neighborhood didn’t keep me awake, much.

I was tired. I am tired. Working on a 100-page book about the county where I live and work is a wearisome, worrisome task. It has consumed me for three months now, and it will continue to consume me for the next six weeks, when finally I turn over to the printer the data that will become a book.

My summer will begin when that project is done.

Researching, writing and photographing “Ashtabula County: A Field Guide to Where Great Things Happen” has forced me to revisit the places I thought I knew and rediscover them again, to update my mind and points of reference even as I update a book.

Kelloggsville house

In Kelloggsville, there is a fine field of wheat. And the old tire swing in the yellow house at the crossroads.

Hearing protection suggested.

I had not been to Raceway 7 in Monroe Township in 30-some years. Not much has changed. It’s still dirty. Noisy. People eat unhealthy food there. Drink beer from cans. Make their little ones wear big ear muffs, the kind I should have worn when those hoodlums tossed the firecracker into the concrete porch and destroyed much of my hearing.

Camping with mobile gear.

The campground at Pymatuning State Park is beautiful. For a brief moment, very brief, I thought I’d like to try camping again. Then I remembered that thunderstorm at 4 a.m. and sleeping in the car … besides, most folks there my age had their faces in an LCD screen with their black Lab by their side. I can do that home.

DrawbridgeRichard Gillespie has a good sense of humor. Put up a sign on the road at Penn View on Pymatuning Lake: Drawbridge Ahead.

pumpThere is a hand water pump in the town square at Andover.

video shelf

The old bank building is home to a video rental store.

Yes, you can still rent DVDs and Blu Ray discs in Andover.

And they were quite busy.

Andover website (1 of 1)

And there also is a real movie theater on the square. A single-screen, digital theater. 138 seats, and most are filled on Thursday nights when admission is just $3.

chop sueyAnd a Chinese restaurant that serves chop suey as late as 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening. A young Chinese boy of about 12 or 14 takes your order. He is very polite. I dare say he is the most polite and courteous young person I have met in years. His sister was very sweet and polite, as well. I assume the petite lady who served my meal is their mother. And she was very polite.

And the food, it was good. Steaming hot. Perhaps too many onions for my taste, but at 9 p.m. in Andover, Ohio, on July 2, a vegetarian cannot be choosy about his meal.

I do regret eating when I did, for while consuming chop suey and reading one of those free magazines that are stuffed with pictures of used cars, trucks and industrial equipment from the tri-state area, the sky pulled a fast one on me.

What a sunset. I should have positioned myself across the lake, in Pennsylvania. It would have been a gorgeous shot.

silosRed reflections on grain silos and the Congregational church’s steeple were my lot. Sometimes, even after working all day, all life gives us are the reflection of a sunset and a plate of chop suey.

And I am grateful for both, and the freedom to enjoy them.

 

Posted in Ashtabula County tourism, Ashtabula County, Ohio Tagged , , , , , , |

Scars

scar carl feather photoI have two rather prominent scars on my face, both of them acquired in my early years and both of them of my own stupidity.

There is one above my eye and one on my chin, both of the same side of my face. Both came when my parents were living in an apartment on Priest Street in Kingsville. I was only 2 or 3 years old when they happened, so my memories of the incidents that caused the damage are formed from hearing my mother talk about the trauma, blood and drama of the incidents.

One of the cuts came from jumping off my father’s lap and landing onto a metal toy truck. Back then, they made toys that could harm the body rather than the mind. The sharp metal ripped a hole in my face. My parents rushed me to the town doctor, John O’Bell, and he sewed up the damage and sent a bill.

The good doctor also repaired my face when I decided to ride my toy tractor down a flight of concrete steps. Something like 13 stitches sticks in my mind.

Nearly 60 years later those scars are still there. They will go to the grave with me.

I have other scars that people usually don’t see, including ones that mark the self-inflicted lacerations on my legs and arms. The cuts are there because of anxiety and depression, the dark nights of the soul.

We all have scars. Sometimes, like the scars on my arms and legs, they are reflections of even deeper cuts and bleeding inside us.

Three years ago this month I cut my heart and soul very deeply by divorcing. The scar will be there for the rest of my life; it is scabbed over, but there are times and situations that pick the scab off like a four-year-old who finds fascination in peeling off the crust to see if the pink skin below will still bleed.

It does. Mom knew what she was talking about when she said “don’t pick at it, it will become infected if you do. Your body knows what its doing and the scab will fall off when it is ready.”

A book I read said that a piece of our soul dies every time we break a vow, every time we divorce.

Scars disfigure us. If they are in the right place, we can hide them with clothing, revealing the wound to only those with whom we are most intimate or feel most comfortable around. Other scars, like the ones on my face or those on a tired professional boxer, define us.

I find it interesting that Jesus, when resurrected in what we assume was his immortal, eternal body, retained the scars of the crucifixion. As my Savior, his scars define him. I wonder if there is any other deity in the universe of religion who bears scars that resulted from my sins?

God  forgives sin, through the blood of his Son, but the scars remain with us. They are like the marks left behind by the branding iron: HUMANITY.

For all their ugliness, a scar indicates that healing has taken place. I wonder if the wounds Jesus suffered on the cross were healed and scarred over when he stated “It is finished?” If not, three days later they were; if the translations we have are correct, the disciples saw scars, not scabs; healed-over holes, not open, infected wounds.

Not so fast for us stuck in these mortal bodies. Healing of our cuts usually takes weeks, even with help from antibiotic products. The pain can be alleviated by balms applied to the source of pain, but bump or brush the wound in the wrong way, and it’s like having the trauma all over again.

The emotional pain from loss, betrayal or destruction of a relationship can be numbed by counseling, diversions, alcohol and anti-depressants. But healing takes time, there are no shortcuts, only scars. If only there were a “brush” in our toolkit would allow us to “Photoshop” the scars my soul.

I’d like to think I could be smart enough, wise enough in the first place to avoid the wounds that result in scars. You’d think that a kid who got a dozen stitches after after jumping onto a piece of metal would not try to ride a metal tractor down a flight of concrete steps, but he did. You’d think that someone who suffered the pain of a long-term relationship falling apart would be smart enough to avoid relationships altogether, but he didn’t.

The longer we live, the more scars we seem to collect.

People seldom ask me how I got my scars. I think it is probably impolite to ask someone that. Perhaps we ought to ask it more often, however.

The scars that reside on our hearts and souls, while invisible, are actually the ones hardest to hide. The eyes are not so much windows to the soul as they are windows to the scars that reside there. The scars are cataracts that diffuse and dim the beauty behind the scar tissue. Eventually, so much tissue accumulates, nothing of the soul can be seen.

This is my great fear of slashing my soul once again with the sword of divorce; more bleeding, more pain, more scabs, more scar tissue that obscure the person behind the scars. The question becomes if prefer one large scar or thousands of little ones.

 

Posted in Baby Boomers, Christianity Tagged , , , |

Eternal separation

carl feather glasses

A thought for Earth Day

I wonder if the miner,

the industrialist,

the driller,

the builder,

the demolitioner,

the sawyer,

the re-arranger of creation,

worries that

God’s punishment

for creating this mess

will not be fire

but what Mom

so sternly said:

“Put it all back the way you found it.”

 

 

Posted in Poetry as such Tagged , , |

Good music passing through

John Lilly at Mary's Diner in Geneva, Ohio.

John Lilly at Mary’s Diner in Geneva, Ohio.

Sometimes good things come out of the blue. Such was the case Saturday when John Lilly stopped by in Geneva to have lunch with me at Mary’s Diner.

John was editor at Goldenseal Magazine for the entire time I wrote for the magazine. He was a nurturing, kind and encouraging editor, adjectives seldom attached to that title. I loved working for John and especially appreciated the freedom he gave me in the development of the Back Roads feature, which I still write.

John left Goldenseal last year to embark upon his lifelong dream of being a full-time songwriter and performer. John has been called Hank Williams with a sunny disposition. His voice is rich, authentic and filled with life’s hardships and rare joys. His lyrics are real and probe the complexity of our emotions and relationships, with some yodeling and Irish and Scottish elements thrown in for good measure.

John played in Fairview, Pa., Friday night and was heading to another house concert, in Streetsboro, this evening. Another musician, Artie, a guitar player from Baltimore, joined us for melts and memories amid the 1950s diner’s decor.

John’s latest project is to record all of the state songs of the U.S. He recently did a online funding project to pay for the studio time that will require.

Last year, John released his solo acoustic CD, “Thinking About the Weather.” John’s great sense of humor comes through in “She Talks to Me,” a song about the woman’s voice on his GPS, while we can all identify with someone who has hurt us in “Do What You Do Best.” And he questions how it is that even though we get hurt by it, we still manage to fall in love again in “How’d You Steal My Heart?”

John loves singing his songs, whether in the studio, in a small house concert or on West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage. But he admits it is a very financially challenging life, even more so than he’d originally expected. It covers the very basic necessities, but the big items that hit us out of the blue can destroy the dream and send the musician back to the day job. How sad, but tragic, that for many of us Americans in this land of opportunity, where supposedly we have the freedom to follow our dreams and be that person we were born to be, economics and a playing field that is owned by corporate interests make the decision as to whose dreams come true.

Hearing, quite by accident, the untalented, cacophony called “hits” today, and thinking of how many millions these flash-in-the-pans, cleavage stars are making for screaming into a microphone, makes me wonder about our values as a nation when it comes to art. Perhaps it is because we are raised on noise that we are so quick to accept anything that is loud and irritating as “music.” Or perhaps it is because our culture is in love with eye candy. Whatever, true artists like John Lilly can still write a song that has lyrics that go beyond a single word and a tune that haunts you long after it has faded into the night ether.

Read more about John on his website and support his work by purchasing his CDs. Hopefully, John will be coming back up this way later in 2016 and we’ll have him in concert.

John Lilly web

Posted in Baby Boomers, West Virginia Tagged , , , |