Labels dehumanize people, justify hatred

Our “traveling road show” culture loves to put labels on people, especially people who refuse to buy a ticket to their show.

As a retired reporter, I understand the value of tagging people. Labels make it possible to study and write about wide swaths of the population as if people were chemical compounds that act predictably under given circumstances. They also dehumanize subjects, fracture the nation and make implications that are often untrue and seething with hate.

The media would tag me a “white, evangelical voter” who, purely by having the label pinned upon me, means I also am fiercely pro-gun, pro-Trump and pro-Republican.” In fact, if one listens to them, I am to blame for Donald J. Trump being in the White House because I am white, male and “religious.” Accordingly, every societal woe and governmental failure since January 2017 has been heaped upon my back.

Truth is, I voted independent in 2016 and, given the pathetic options offered by the two major parties in 2020, I will vote that way again. I hate guns, regard Donald Trump as a dangerous narcissist and threat to our national security. And, while I once considered myself a Republican, I swore off the party after daddy Bush and his son took us into wars we could not win and racked up huge debts we’ll never be able to repay. The last straw was working for and being unfairly dismissed by a sneaky, all-Republican board of commissioners.  Therefore, I give my apologies to the researchers and journalists who are counting on me to vote like their label insists I will. This white, evangelical will never fill in another “Republican” oval unless it once again becomes the party of Lincoln.

Imposed labels cannot reveal the complexities of the human below the adhesive, and they are almost always derogatory. Accordingly, in a kind, all-inclusive culture like our own, they ought not be applied recklessly, but they are. Conversely, self-imposed labels carry positive connotations about the adopter while hinting at deep disdain for those who cannot claim the tagline, such as “feminist,” “university-educated” and “activist.”

Some labels, on the surface, ought to come with no hidden connotations, such as male and female. Unfortunately, because our culture has embraced transgenderism, one can get into trouble for calling a male a male when she (or he) thinks himself/herself a female. The omnipresence of transgressing transgender labels makes me thankful I am retired and don’t have to worry about misidentifying someone in print and thereby face possible dismissal and labeling as a “transphobic.” Nevertheless, I find it difficult to follow news stories that speak of a woman having a wife. I am left to wonder if the reporter got something wrong. But then I remember we are living in a new age to which my old brain has not adjusted.

Indeed, I have been labeled “homophobic” because of my antiquated Christian views on homosexuality. I want to be clear about this: I have no “phobia” of LBGT folks and, frankly, what people do in their bedrooms is between them, their partner(s) and, most importantly, God. One can dislike the LBGT lifestyle and still not have a “phobia” about it. I am not a fan of Lake Erie and don’t fish in it or boat on it, but I can’t deny it is there and I don’t  have “hydrophobia” in the sense that I won’t go near it or have an unhealthy fear of it. I can’t swim and, thus far, I’ve not been stupid enough to wade into it during a storm; I choose not to immerse myself in it, except to take a shower, but does that make me hydrophobic? According to Wikipedia, it would if the same broad “phobia” concept applied to transgender people were applied to water.

“Transphobia can include fear, aversion, hatred, violence, anger or discomfort felt or expressed towards people who do not conform to social gender expectations,” explains the Wikipedia entry on the topic.

Wow! What a huge, all-encompassing swath!

Likewise, that same source states that homophobia “encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LBGT). It has been defined as a concept, prejudice, aversion, hatred or antipathy, may be based on irrational fear and ignorance, and is often related to religious beliefs.”

That description covers a huge range of attitudes and infers that people who hold religious beliefs are driven by “irrational fear and ignorance.” A bit judgmental and, once again, assigns a given set of negative attributes to a person without even having a conversation with him or her. Yet, label makers hand out these titles like first-grade teachers pasting sad-face stickers next to the names of ornery students who don’t conform to the classroom di rigueur.

This culture, which uncomfortably feels more communistic than democratic, gives citizens little latitude for opinions that run counter to those embraced by the label makers. A slip of the tongue or poorly worded social media post, and you can end up being branded a “racist,” “sexist” or “misogynist.”

I’ve been accused of being the latter—hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women and girls (ever notice how rarely you see the word “misandry”—hatred of, contempt for or prejudice against men and boys?). This, despite being married and adoring my wife, who happens to be a woman.

My accuser was a porn shop/strip club owner responding to my objections to the proliferation of strip clubs and porn shops in the county. Ironically, it was my disdain of the way pornography treats women that motivated me to stand in front of that shop night after night and beg people not to patronize the place. It is still in business, and women continue to be degraded in this manner. Yet, the feminist movement, which evidently own the label maker that prints “misogyny,” “sexist” and SCUM labels, blithely ignores this injustice as a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body, even to the point of killing her own baby.

If one steps back and takes a panoramic view of the cultural insanity, a trend become apparent: the culture police find a cause, usually rooted in a single event of discrimination or injury, and run with it to the media. Before the pandemic, the #MeToo movement embarrassed and disgraced many high-profile males with accusations and labels that led to job loss, reputation damage and shame. Certainly, males who make uninvited remarks or touch women in appropriately ought to be called out. However, no one seems to notice the hypocrisy of this lopsided movement. Why is it that when a man inappropriately touches a woman, he is breaking the law, but when a woman puts the moves on a man, he “gets lucky?” The answer, of course, is found in feminism’s extreme hatred for the male and disdain for normal sexual intimacy.

This focus on sexism and #MeToo has shifted, however, since the tragic deaths of several Black men, allegedly at the hands of law enforcement (the officers in the cases have not had their days in court, so I must use “alleged,” although cell phone and media trials have already found them guilty and ready to hang). The label makers have descended upon the scene and whipped up protests, looting, fires and even more deaths. The hunt is on for racists, dead or alive. We’ve not experienced this level of rooting out of societal evil since the McCarthyism era of the late 1940s, when a witch hunt (probably can’t use that term because it is sexist, but I will), led by US Senator Joseph McCarthy (who should be labeled “fruitcake”), tagged hundreds of otherwise productive and respectable Americans as communists or communist sympathizers. Careers were destroyed and the world deprived of the work and contributions of these Americans, many them falsely accused. Of course, we would not allow that to happen in our enlightened times.

However, the label-keepers in our universities, media and BLM movement are hard at work researching the lives of many well-known and honored Americans, dead and alive, in search of some writing or scrap of evidence that can be used to label them “racist” and thereby provide fresh targets for their educated hatred. The degree to which these excavations are going reminds me of the German Nazis’ efforts to track down any person with a drop of Jewish blood in their veins. Such efforts deeply trouble me, but the media and Democrats are drinking it up, providing great B roll as the monuments are toppled and centuries of history abolished.

US Civil War soldier monument in western New York town square
Monuments are erected to imperfect people who accomplished amazing things, but behind every monument’s story are the stories of many other people who made the honored one’s story possible. When we tear down a monument because that person’s life no longer measures up to modern standards, we destroy all the stories and sacrifices behind it. Cancel culture’s quick willingness to apply labels to people without really knowing their stories, is destroying our stories.

Skeletons galore are being pulled from the closets of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, necessitating reassessment of their contributions to our nation’s journey. Just this week, the Capitol of Ohio, Columbus, removed a statue to its namesake. The weak leaders’ willingness to bow to the voices of a few and slay the town’s eponym without taking a vote of the people is a metaphor for the loss of freedom in our nation on this Independence Day.

Ignorant of historical context and the incredible odds against these fallen heroes, the label makers insist upon dropping these great men and women into the court of our post-modern culture. Judged according to prevailing standards, the anachronisms have no chance of a fair trial. If time ran backward, how much chance would our monuments to feminists have surviving the world of the pioneers, explorers and antebellum times?

Hatred toward the living is understandable and predictable, but this culture’s disdain for historical figures is inexcusable. We do not have a right to posthumously excise one inappropriate thread from a deceased person’s life and spin it into a monochromatic burial shroud. Nor should we trample the revered fruit of their lives under our revisionist feet, ferment the resulting juice with hate and bottle it to intoxicate the next generation.

While politicians pull on the chains that bring down these statues and monuments, they forget that their ancestors were part of these stories, as well, from the people of color who labored on their plantations to the soldiers who lost limb and life under their command. I find this offensive and disrespectful to all who gave their lives so that, ironically, the label makers have the freedom to destroy their stories. George Washington’s story is my story because my great-great-great-great grandfather served under him in the Revolutionary War. And the Civil War is my story because several of my ancestors served in and were among the 828,000 Union casualties of the war that eventually brought freedom to the enslaved, a fact conveniently ignored as monuments to these men and women are being vandalized.

sidewalk art, "tell your story"
Cancel culture ought not steal our stories, replete with bad and good. To do so is to dehumanize us.

Curiously, there are calls and plans to replace these destroyed and defaced monuments to imperfect people of the past with more monuments to flawed humans. Perhaps our generation can save future generations similar offense and trouble by insisting that monuments be raised to only perfect people, whose morals and actions will stand the test of time and moral vicissitudes. That search ought to keep the academics busy for a long time.

Two hundred years ago, society labeled and condemned the blasphemer, adulterer, drunkard, prostitute, drug addict, infidel, sluggard or murderer. All of these have taken a back seat to the labels of racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist, male, right-wing wing nut or simply being white and of European descent. Our postmodern label makers are quick to point out the blind spots of others and award their labels with impunity and a gross ignorance of history.  They fail to see that each incarnation of progressive culture is blind to something huge, some unforeseen consequence of its activism, that one day will sully their story, as much as they would disgrace mine. Six months ago, our nation was woefully blind to the possibility of a pandemic, but here it is, sucking the life from our spirits and economy. We had a huge preparedness blind spot, and our culture has equally huge moral blind spots.

Our postmodern label makers are quick to point out the blind spots of others and award their labels with impunity and a gross ignorance of history.  They fail to see that each incarnation of progressive culture is blind to something huge, some unforeseen consequence of its activism, that one day will sully their story, as much as they would disgrace mine.

I am reminded of a stanza in Bob Dylan’s prophetic song, “The Times They Are A Changing.”

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Let me suggest the label makers’ blind spot may be the transgression of using labels to justify their own moral failures and hatred toward all who do not subscribe to their agenda. For example, the same label police who are outraged by the death of Black men at the hands of law enforcement dismiss the 295,000 abortions by Black women in 2017 as “a woman’s reproductive right.” Why did those lives not matter?

No one in the movement dare raises that question, but a future generation may look at the hypocrisy and finally mourn for the aborted lives, as well. The blind spot reveals a commonality shared by the pro-choice/pro-abortion devotees and 17th century racists that exploited the Blacks. In both cases, they used language to dehumanize the objects of their scorn so they could own a more convenient, comfortable lifestyle. The unborn, according to the abortionist, is not human, just tissue, just as Blacks were declared something less than human, mere property to be sold on an auction block and treated as any other chattel. The atrocities that the abortion doctor performs against the unborn are no different than those that were applied to the backs of the enslaved. But we justify the injustice because we label them differently. This is not a racist issue, however. It is one of the human heart, the times we live in and the people we empower to create labels.

All this labeling creates a false sense of security and righteousness that grants license to hate the racist, homophobic, pro-lifer, misogynist and transphobic, all the while presenting an outward appearance of inclusiveness, love and equality for all, except the unborn, the evangelical Christian, heterosexual, traditional marriage partners and white male. The application of labels assuages our disdain for the inconvenient truths of our times, which, if otherwise exposed, would reveal gross hypocrisies.

It is every bit as dehumanizing to reduce a person’s life, being and experiences to a single label as it is to be a racist; both transgressions ignore the sacredness of human life in all its glories and failures. Why is this glaring hypocrisy being missed? Why are the label makers not being called out, like Jesus did in his Sermon on the Mount?

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

(Matthew 7:1-6, The Message paraphrase by Eugene W. Peterson).

History is unkind to label makers. I am unaware of any monuments to Joe McCarthy. There are, however, many statues of Jesus Christ and buildings that honor the one who revealed mankind’s collective and personal “lost” and “sinful” condition. He came to show us the way to true peace and unity, died so we might have it, and gave us the sweetest labels of all: “redeemed” and “children of the Father.”

The ephemeral labels and accolades assigned by culture are fickle; the glue that holds the stickers to our names eventually dries out and the label falls off. The monuments are torn down. Only God knows the heart, and only God has the right to judge people’s motives and lives in total. And only God gives the label that will matter in eternity.

“What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God!” (I John 3:1, The Message).

apple blossom on cut section of apple tree log

Mourning a tree in blossom

Its five main limbs resembled the biceps of a circus weightlifter. They emerged from the low-set trunk just a few inches above the former orchard’s soil; twenty-inches in diameter at their widest, the limbs rose like a worshiper’s arms and terminated with scores of vertical, whip-like fingers on which grew the fruit. Pocked by the work of woodpeckers and bearing the scars of previous encounters with disease, chain saws, nails and dry rot, the limbs’ tight, gray bark encased golden sapwood that surrounded a dense core of decades-old, rust-hued heartwood.

It stood in my neighbor’s yard, but its branches overhung mine, as well. Every August, it dropped hundreds of small, orange and red orbs onto both yards to the delight of ants, bees, deer and this neighbor.

I am a lover of the Malus tree and its fruit; at a prior residence, in another phase of life, I aspired to be a backyard orchardist and had some 15 varieties growing, but rarely producing. There were no apple trees at the next house, but my relocation to Sherman Street Extension in 2015 brought me full circle to cultivating Malus domestica.

Man sitting in paneled room.
The late Clarence Helwig built The Feather Cottage from rocks he collected from the fields that became an apple orchard. He is sitting the knotty-pine paneled room that is now Carl’s office. Photo courtesy of his daughter, Rogene Helwig Lockwood.

Although once an apple orchard, the two acres on which The Feather Cottage stands were given over to red oak and brush when I arrived. The apple trees, I understand, grew on the acreage to the south of the farm. This entire area was once a huge apple-producing region, and at one time there was talk of designating the main road through this area as “The Apple Highway.”

The old orchard on Sherman Street Extension eventually gave way to subdivision and the ranch and bi-level homes of the 1960s and ‘70s.  Among the few artifacts of the old orchard is the cold storage room that Clarence Helwig built to the rear of our home’s stone garage. The six-inch-thick door with “COLD STORAGE” stenciled on the garage-facing side was a portal to the harvested bounty. Former residents tell me that Clarence ran a self-service apple sales operation in the room; customers left a dollar for each bag of apples they withdrew from the shelves.

Some of those apples came from the artifact in my neighbor’s yard, the magnificent Malus with 20-inch biceps. It was the last surviving apple tree in my neighborhood, and although decades old, it still bore a heavy crop without fail.

Its yellow-and-red fruit, although blemished with scabs, worms and rot, delivered more flavor to the bite than an entire bin of perfect Northwest Red Delicious shipped 2,000 miles to the supermarket. I looked forward to early August, when the heritage tree released its fruit and I could once again nibble on childhood’s apples while going about my yardwork. Bites were strategically selected to avoid the scabs, bruises and wormholes; the resulting wound inspected before the bite was swallowed. The sight of severed worm dangling from a brown burrow in the white skin necessitated expectoration and moving on to a less-infected specimen–all part of the adventure of traveling yesterday’s gastronomical highway.

The tree was an old variety. I am guessing Gravenstein, popular in cold-temperate regions such as ours. Producing tangy, sweet, flavorful fruit, the heirloom’s North American heritage has been traced to the West Coast, where it was a favorite with commercial growers in the Sonora Region of Calafornia. Wine grapes eventually replaced Malus there, much as grapes, and houses, have replaced apples in this region.

But my neighbor’s tree was the rare survivor. Either through fate or indifference, the tree remained, continued to grow and dutifully produced and dropped its crops as offering for years after its peers were dragged off to make way for Little Boxes of all different colors.

Desiring to pay homage to my property’s heritage, the first fall I lived here I planted 10 apple trees on a sunny, low section. One does not know land until a year of rain, snow and sun have had their way with it, and in the spring, the parcel’s former life as a pond revealed itself following the cloudburst. Apples, as a rule, do not like wet feet, and in time that disdain turned to death. Many of the trees had to be replanted, on higher ground. Last summer, we enjoyed our first four apples from the orchard of mostly disease-resistant varieties.

On several occasions, I thought of taking a few scions from the heritage tree and attempt a graft onto the semi-dwarf rootstock. I even inquired of a couple local orchardists about having them attempt it, but I learned that commercial operations rely upon the nurseries to prepare grafted stock. With all the drama, work and vicissitudes of those years, the project remained a thought, nothing more.

A week ago, I heard my neighbor’s chainsaw growling in his backyard; time had run out for my grafting plans and the tree alike. The stout limbs fell that morning and throughout the afternoon as he labored against their heritage and girth. He eventually became frustrated with the struggle, knocked on our door and asked if I was interested in completing the job for the firewood.

It could not save the tree, but I could determine the wood’s fate. For the next two days, between installing a new kitchen sink and all the joys of plumbing that go with that, I worked on what amounted to “butchering” the artifact. The work was heavy, in both the physical and emotional senses, and overall bittersweet. The aromatic sap, bleeding from scores of fresh wounds, tinged the early-May air as I went about my work. Infant red blossoms, still tightly wrapped, spilled from the shaking, crashing branches. Another week or so, and the tree would have been a bouquet of hope and harbinger of harvest, but the harvest this year would be of Mallus wood, not fruit.

Wanting to preserve the straight sections of the large limbs, I chose not to reduce them to standard fireplace lengths, rather retain them as logs in the event a sawyer could make planks for some rustic project. Other pieces were cut with an eye to making doorstops or other useful items that will remain with the cottage as mementoes of this heritage. I stacked them on pallets on which to dry, next to the smaller sections of branches awaiting the splitter and, ultimately, cremation in the hearth. The wood is dense, patterned and colorful. I study it with an eye to more practical and long-lasting applications: décor, furniture or treenware. A woodturner has already accepted my offer to take some of the wood for bowls, one of which will stay with The Feather Cottage.

stack of apple firewood
Applewood is highly desired as a firewood because of its sweet aroma and excellent heat output. But this wood is too special to burn; it must live on in lumber, bowls and other items that will recall the heritage of this place.

My heart is not into burning the old tree, no matter how sweet its smoke on a December night or reliable a comfort its coals as slumber approaches. I am not one to burn history; I have spent much of my life attempting to record and preserve it, and a tree so magnificent, its branches so bowed with stories, ought not be reduced to common fireplace ashes and carbon emissions. I detest the endowed task of deciding when natural objects must give way to human fancies; I would rather God make such decisions. But my free will extends to planting, and I wait for the mail truck to deliver young Gravenstein, Cortland, Williams Pride and winesap trees. I will plant them on the high ground near the stump where withered apple blossoms mingle with spring violets and apple sawdust.

I will not live to see any of these youthful trees to mature to the fallen tree’s proportions or distinction. God be willing and merciful, I will live long enough to see their youthful branches become bouquets in the spring and flex with fruit in September. Should my years be cut short like the old tree, I pray that the next person who holds title to this land has the pleasure of eating their fruit, of watching branches become limbs, and explaining to the curious why the previous owner choose to plant Mallus rather than a swimming pool.

Mail Pouch barn detail

Mail Pouch

It was the summer 1985. I was in my second year as a photographer and occasional writer for the Ashtabula Star Beacon while, when searching for feature art in the Rock Creek area, I came across a barn being painted.

Mail Pouch barn, Rock Creek, Ohio
The “Mail Pouch” barn, Route 45, Rock Creek, Ashtabula County, Ohio, as it appeared several years ago. The lettering has faded significantly since then. Photo by Carl E. Feather.

The barn was just north of Rock Creek, on Route 45. The painter was Harley Warrick, of Wheeling, W.Va., an American treasure.

Harley began painting barns at the age of 21, in 1946. Two days home from the Army, a Mail Pouch team came into the area and painted two ends of the Warrick family’s barn. Harley got to talking to the painters and got interested in joining a crew. Facing the task of milking 26 Jerseys every night and morning if he stayed on the farm, Warrick joined a painting team. Lacking any civilian clothes, he wore his Army uniform during his first week on the job.

Warrick worked 13 states, Michigan to Missouri to New York. He painted some 4,000 barns, and not just once. Every three or four years, the signs had to be repainted.

He usually worked with a helper, who filled in the background around the letters. All work was done free hand. Warrick’s preference was to start with the “E” in CHEW and then add the “H” and “W.” The reason? Those were his initials.

He’d been known to repaint six signs in one day and two new signs a day. He had a sense of humor, occasionally purposely misspelling a word to see if the tobacco company would get any calls.

It was a hard life. Warrick was on the road weeks at a time, often sleeping in his truck or a cheap motel. His first marriage suffered from the long absences, and his wife gave him the ultimatum. Warrick chose his work, but for his second marriage, he agreed to gone but one week at a time.

He might have been unemployed by the 1965 Federal Highway Beautification Act had it not been for the fact that the existing signs were grandfathered and therefore exempted from the new restrictions on highway advertising. Mail Pouch discontinued the painting program in 1969, but Warrick’s signs got an extension on life when the signs were declared National Landmarks. Mail Pouch continued to support the program until Warrick’s retirement, at which time he was the last of the barn advertising sign painters.

The last barn that Mr. Warrick painted was at Barkcamp State Park, Belmont, Ohio, Warrick’s hometown. He’d originally painted the 150-year-old barn in the early 1980s.

I recall Harley as a fascinating, witty Yankee with a penchant for smoking a pipe. He told me that he’d once gone through a box of matches lighting his pipe for a National Geographic photographer who was trying to the perfect flare on the match tip, puff of smoke and expression in one frame of film.

Harley died Nov. 24, 2000, in Wheeling.

Mail Pouch barn, Aurora, West Virginia. Route 50. October 1982. Photo by Carl E. Feather
Several years before artist Harley Warwick painted the barn in Ashtabula County, Ohio, I was photographing this one along Route 50 in Aurora, West Virginia. This image was shot on a beautiful Sunday morning in October 1982.

Although the Mail Pouch barn he painted in Rock Creek 30 years ago is showing its age, the lettering is discernable and the weathering adds to the nostalgia of the structure. The negatives I shot that day were destroyed years ago, and I’ve always regretted having not taken color transparencies of the artist at work. But every time I pass the barn I recall how a chance discovery along the rural highway enriched my life as much as the red and yellow sign embellish the landscape.

Cemetery at Gould, a ghost town in Ashtabula County, Ohio

Gould

Folks came from all over Ashtabula County, Ohio, to the hamlet of Gould to have their teeth pulled, filled, poked and fixed by Doc Everetts.

Doc charged 25 cents for a filling and 50 cents for an extraction. He used oil of cloves to numb the pain and was skillful in his use of the tools of the trade. Patients liked Doc Everetts’ prices, chair-side manner and skills, even though practiced way out in the boonies.

In addition to its dentist, Gould also had a store, two churches, hotel, horse race track and covered bridge. The lumber business had literally built the town, but when the forests were cut and the land offered only stumps, the residents started to move away. In the 1920s, Gould got its death blow when the highway was rerouted out of the hamlet. Route 167 bypassed the settlement, located just south of that road on Stanhope-Kelloggsville Road, east of Pierpont.

Only the cemetery remains as testimony to the hamlet’s former existence. Most of the burials here are from the latter half of the 19th century and first couple decades of the 20th. After that, if someone was laid to rest here, it was because their spouse had gone over yonder back when the hamlet still had some life left in it. Odd as it is, death has assured Gould a bit of recognition after the hamlet died.

There is still a road sign for Gould off Stanhope-Kelloggsville Road. It should say “Gould Cemetery,” for that and a woodlands, the kind they cut a century ago, is all that’s left. Other signs warn that the road is not maintained in winter. More accurately, it’s simply not maintained, save for mowing the grass that has reclaimed what was once a road. You can find it off Stanhope-Kelloggsville Road, just south of Route 167.

Old photo of wood bridge at Gould, Ohio.
Gould once had a lovely covered bridge, the abutments for which can still be seen in the stream valley. For more information about the Gould and other lost covered bridges of Ashtabula County, Ohio, read The Covered Bridges of Ashtabula County by Carl E. Feather, available at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street, Ashtabula, Ohio, and amazon.com. For information on other Ashtabula County ghost towns, read Ashtabula County: A Field Guide, available in our website store.
frugality, using a pencil to its very end

The lost skill of frugality

Frugality. There’s a word you rarely hear on YouTube or see on electronic screens these days.

With the alleged booming economy, I suppose most Americans don’t have much need for frugality in 2020. But it hasn’t been that many years ago when being frugal was a way of life, and I’m not talking about The Great Depression.

Back in the 1980s, when unemployment in my home county was around 20 percent and we depended on my wife’s $2-an-hour job to purchase the groceries for our family of three, frugality was a way of life. There was a year or so when I was counted among the 20 percent, and we had to figure out how to live on less than $200 a week. When the unemployment benefits ran out, we had to scrape by on even less. Getting a job that paid $6.50 an hour and required use of my personal vehicle, compensated at a rate of 9 or 10 cents a mile, didn’t do much to relieve our dependence on frugality. But at least food stamps were not putting the meals on our table.

We became so adept at frugal living I wrote a newspaper column as “Frugal Feather.” One strategy of frugality was to use manufacturer’s coupons inserted in the Sunday paper. I kept my eyes out for those inserts that made their way into the newsroom trash and thought I’d hit the mother lode of savings when I found a stack of them discarded. I recall one time getting something like 10 bags of noodles free using the BOGO coupons. But that was back before Aldi, which is where the frugal shop. Even with coupons, national brands cost more, and these days the frugal use of manufacturer’s coupons is for lighting the wood stove.

Back in the days of frugal living, we recycled most everything, and by recycling, I mean we used it more than once. Aluminum foil used to cover a dish in the oven got reused for wrapping up leftovers and storing in the fridge. Plastic food storage bags were rinsed and reused. We had more empty butter and sour cream bowls than we could ever possibly use for leftovers, but they found secondary purposes as dog water bowls, seedling pots, sandbox toys, parts containers and paint-brush holders.

We purchased only used vehicles and, to minimize fuel usage and wear and tear on the cars, we carefully planned trips and combined errands into one journey. We saved our money rather than make car payments and went into debt for a vehicle only when necessary and interest rates were low. Double, triple payments were made to eliminate debt and reduce interest expense. My father took care of all repairs.

Our old dog went to the vet only when she was ill and got her vaccinations from a dog breeder friend. I went years without going to a doctor because of high insurance deductibles. Fortunately, I didn’t have any chronic issues that required prescriptions. A medical emergency stressed the budget for months because our health “insurance” had high deductibles, but we always paid our debts.

My wife made her own clothes and kept mine in good condition. My clothes, for the most part, came from the “men’s shop” at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. My wife cut my hair, baked most of the bread we ate and canned hundreds of jars of tomatoes and sauces. “Going out to eat” involved buying a cheap pizza and taking it to a lakefront park. We called these mini-vacations “pizza picnics” and set a place at the table for Clifford, our golden mix, who enjoyed the outings as much as we did.

Our annual vacation in September or October was always a working one for me, built around a list of four to six stories that I would do for Goldenseal Magazine while staying in West Virginia for six days. The money from the stories paid for the travel. I lived for those simple but fulfilling journeys.

Frugality gave us some latitude with our passions–cameras, slide film and multi-image gear for me, sewing machines for her. The equipment was almost always used and rarely of “professional” caliber. Our pastimes had to pay for themselves, and by the time we had made enough to buy what we needed, we were too tired to enjoy it for ourselves.

We saved our all our paper bags from the grocery store. The small bags could be re-used for packing lunches and the large ones were terrific for holding the folded bags and lining the kitchen trash can, unless coffee grounds were tossed in with the “dry” waste. I miss getting groceries and other purchases in those bags.

My frugality stopped short of recycling the envelopes in which junk mail arrived, although I’ve received more than one letter in one of these repurposed envelopes with the credit card company’s return address scratched out and a piece of paper taped over the cellophane window. And I learned that frugality is no excuse for being “penny wise and pound foolish,” as with buying bargain house paint that required three coats versus a quality product that covered with one coat.

Being “retired,” I find myself once again migrating to a life of frugality. Being thrust into early retirement was one factor; I am discovering why older folks always complain about being on a “fixed income.” It is especially difficult when you spend your life planning for things being a certain way and then a box full of monkey wrenches is tossed into those plans just a few years shy of reaching the goal. Accordingly, I’m grateful I mastered money-management tools like saving, frugality and contentment way back when. I’ve learned to appreciate the capabilities of existing technology possessions rather than focus on the latest offerings and, since I rarely leave the house, familiar clothes do just fine and the old car with 100,000 miles on it still gets me where I need to go, which is not very far. There’s a garden in the side yard and we heat with wood, supplemented with space heaters buring natural gas, the bill for which I just received and gave me sticker shock. Time to get out the sweaters.

But the real budget killers are taxes: federal, state, city and school income taxes; real estate property taxes; sales taxes. It is impossible to be frugal with these items. You owe them and they take precedence over all other expenses. It is no exaggeration when I say that we are facing a 12-percent increase in taxes this year thanks to a new school district income tax and the generous voters in our county approving a bevy of property taxes for services and amenities we don’t use.

It takes a lot of frugality to make up for those increases, but since government and schools have not mastered the skill of frugality, it is up to the taxpayers to implement the frugal lifestyle. After doing all the taxes, my wife and I concluded that we can’t afford either The Feather Cottage or living in northeast Ohio much longer, but neither of us has an idea where we want to go. Ohio has some of the highest property taxes in the nation and is not particularly friendly to retirees. And the nation’s $20 trillion debt suggests to me that this un-frugal federal government is not going to be very tax friendly, regardless of your residence. I don’t see a single presidential candidate talking about reducing taxes for regular folks, and the Democratic Candy Men and Women are promising gifts that are sure to increase the tax bill until the republic collapses under the burden.

I predict, regardless of who is in the White House, that frugality will return out of necessity, although to the detriment of the Dow and amazon.com. Consumers may eventually be forced to “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” as “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge suggested when things got tight (wouldn’t it be great if we once again had a president who could earn the “silent” nickname and suggest frugality?). It would be a tough order for consumers today, for our economy is fueled by excess, wastefulness and indebtedness for things we really don’t need. We are still driving automobiles to the poor farm, and many of those “in poverty” carry their iPhone 11s in designer bags and wear team-logo jackets while waiting in line at the Social Security office (yes, I’ve been there and seen it).

A return to frugality would be good for the soul, planet and our bank accounts (do people still have savings accounts, or just lines of credit and credit cards?). And it need not mean that we reduce our standard of living, which has become woefully interconnected with excess. Both the stock market and our lives would benefit from a good purging. However, just like the task of cleaning out the garage, no one knows where to start and it is easier to close the garage door and go shopping.

Looking back on those days of 1980s frugality, I realize that we both survived and lived well. We had no shortage of problems, but also no shortage of laughter. Much of the distress we felt was driven not by our actual circumstances, but by the advertising that suggested we were unhappy because we lacked something. There was, in fact, much to keep us occupied and happy, had we only taken the time to avail ourselves of it. But we often were too busy getting the next thing that was sure to make us happy, really happy.

And that brings us today. Are we happy yet?

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not,” suggested Marcus Aurelius. “Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Christ’s body and quid pro quo

Quid pro quo basically means that “if you this for me, I’ll do this for you.” It is what elected officials practice from the day they announce their candidacy; they promise to lower taxes, provide free medical care or higher education, increase employment opportunities jobs and spend more on the military in exchange for our vote and their job and the power, prestige and perks that come with it.

So it was that Donald J. Trump in 2016 promised white Christian evangelicals that he would stock the federal courts with conservative judges, better position the Supreme Court to rule in favor of pro-life litigants and “make America great again.” And the Christians responded, with some 80 percent of white evangelicals voting for Trump, choosing to overlook the candidate’s weak moral track record, foul language, propensity for exaggeration/boasting (aka lying) and overall disrespect for women, the poor and “foreigner.”

If there were no quid pro quo coming to the evangelicals, if Trump had been blue rather than red, it is likely Christians would have found plenty of reasons to vilify this candidate. But he offered quid pro quo, and much of the American church embraced both the candidate and the idea of being “in bed” with his power and the GOPP for the next four years.

History teaches us that these kinds of deals never work out well for Christ’s body, the church. If the church becomes so inseparably aligned with a man of power like Trump, it risks going down with the ship when the captain rams into the iceberg. To the unbelieving/skeptical population outside the body of Christ, US Christians are responsible for Trump being president, and if Trump has embarrassed nation, he has embarrassed the church, as well. Like it or not, secular media conveniently pigeonholes Christians by color and theological bent; in the mind of the media and its consumers, if the majority vote a certain way, they represent the entire body, and each and every American who calls himself “Christian” is therefore responsible for the state of things caused by the evangelicals.

Disclaimer: I did not vote for Trump, and I did not vote for Clinton. My disdain for both parties is strong enough that, unless I feel strongly about the candidate’s qualifications and character, I don’t vote for a major party candidate. Yes, that is essentially “throwing away the vote” when it comes to selecting a president. Hopefully, if enough of these votes are “thrown away,” the parties will realize there is a group of Americans who are tired of the Electoral College, the mudslinging and time and money wasted on political battles while the nation burns. Hopefully.

In November 2016 it was business as usual, however. The evangelicals apparently won the election and have received their quid pro quo. Last month, Franklin Graham and hundreds of other evangelical leaders enumerated those benefits as they stood behind their man following publication of Christianity Today’s op-ed piece questioning Trump’s morality. The president was quick to marginalize the magazine, its editor and readers.

Thus, the body of Christ in the United States has become further divided —not over doctrine, Biblical interpretation or liturgy—but whether or not a man whose entire life has been focused on acquiring worldly riches and power is saint or devil.

From a scriptural standpoint (1 Timothy 2:1-2), we are to pray for our president (“kings and all who are in high positions”), whether he is saint or devil, Republican or Democrat; regardless if a quid pro quo was won for the church (not that God really needs the actions of Donald J. Trump to accomplish his will). Further, as Christ’s representatives on this planet, we are called to be peacemakers and not give special attention to the wealthy and powerful. But the church has broken with these practices by entering this quid pro quo. And this alliance between the president and evangelicals must remain strong; Trump and his party absolutely must have a majority of the evangelical vote to win in November. But what happens after November, especially if Trump loses?

As one who has been through trauma of narcissistic abuse and emotional manipulation, I can confidently predict that the American evangelical church has positioned itself in a lose-lose situation. As I argue in my upcoming book, Compelled to Love, the relationship between the emotional abuser and his or her victim is a unique one, based entirely upon the quid pro quo agreement that forces the victim to “fall in love” with the abuser in the first place. The abuser studies his or her potential victim, makes entry into the secret places of the heart and mind and thereby reveals the deepest desires that, until meeting the narcissistic, went unfilled. Miraculously, as if an answer to prayer, the abuser sweeps into the victim’s life, bearing gifts, love, understanding, compassion and a “soul-mate” relationship. The victim is compelled to love through the abuser’s charisma, charm, promises and love.

The emotional abuser then strikes the quid pro quo deal: “Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. And I will keep my part of the quid pro quo.”

“Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. ”

Except it never works that way. The narcissist eventually finds a reason to devalue his partner and discard him or her. Trump has effectively already done that by discounting the critical reporting of a highly respected voice in the evangelical community, Christianity Today. If the evangelical vote fails to re-elect him and his party, the church will be blamed for losing the soul of America to liberals.

And what if he wins? What if evangelicals renew their quid pro quo agreement for another four years? For one thing, the unbelieving world will be driven even further away from the body of Christ and its blatant hypocrisy in condoning the morals of a man who is quick to dismiss political opponents as “human scum” and has a penchant for falsehoods. History has shown that whenever the body of Christ goes to bed with the Harlot Politics, the church’s message and witness suffer greatly and the blood of many martyrs is spilled in the streets.

The other fear, and I hope I am wrong on this one, is that a president acquitted by a friendly Senate and reinforced by the votes of evangelicals, will keep pushing the boundaries of the power that he imagines comes with his office. The defense that he and his GOP supporters has put forth is that no impeachable crimes were committed. If this becomes the new standard for conduct in America, if we look to a liberal interpretation of The Constitution for our new definition of morality in the land, we will have ultimately destroyed a tenet long held by the evangelicals, that there is a higher law, a God-given law, that ultimately governs us.

Evangelicals have relied upon this argument when fighting for the lives of the unborn. While our laws allow abortion and give women control over their bodies and the lives of their unborn, the evangelicals have argued that God’s law clearly states otherwise:, “Thou shalt not kill (war and slaughtered animals used to supply church dinners and Chick-fil-A restaurants, exempted, of course).” God also has a lot to say about lying and kings who abuse power for their personal gain, not to mention humility. But evangelicals still believe that legislation can change hearts, a dangerous supposition that results in strange bedfellows and dangerous quid pro quo agreements.

The narcissist lives by a personal code of ethics that floats one atom above criminal activity. The narcissist is never wrong, and he or she will have a team of followers whose whole purpose to defend that false image. The church has signed on to that team, but it has yet to realize is part of the deception.

Truth is, the narcissist loathes people who have character and morals, and the abuser takes great pleasure in manipulating them to the point that they break their personal moral code and side with the abuser’s free-wheeling attitude toward absolutes. To the narcissist, the only absolute in the moral universe is what assures his or her superiority. The narcissist is never wrong, never apologetic, never the loser. And he or she needs a cadre of followers who will support that false view no matter what the cost to this faithful following.

This is the moment of decision that the evangelical church finds itself at today. Will it continue to honor its quid pro quo with the GOP and hope that any damage done due to its image will be mitigated by victories in the courts and Senate? Or will the church have the courage to stand up and demand accountability from its leader and the rich and powerful who enable behavior that otherwise would not be tolerated by the church, behavior that necessitated the crucifixion of God’s Son as payment?

Sadly, only those who have been in and escaped a relationship with a narcissist are likely to understand just how lethal this quid pro quo is to the future of our Christianity in a nation founded on principles of justice and freedom from tyranny.

American Penmanship’s father had a famous daughter, too

Ellen Spencer Mussey: The Father of Penmanship’s Trail-Blazing Daughter

Ellen Spencer was but 12 years old when she went to work in the penmanship school of her famous father, Platt R. Spencer of Geneva. She was the youngest penmanship teacher in Ohio, and her father, 62, was the oldest.

Following the death of her father in 1864, Ellen could have drifted into marriage, motherhood and obscurity. But the same penchant for excellence and accomplishment that marked the lives of her father and his business-college founder son, Henry, was endowed upon Ellen, a lawyer, educator and pioneer in the effort to open legal education to women and give them full legal rights apart from their spouse.

Born in 1850 in Geneva Township, Ellen received her early education from her father at the Jericho School on what is now North Myers Road (the Spencer home there is owned by the P.R. Spencer Historical Society). She studied at Rice’s Young Ladies’ Seminary in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., following her father’s death. Further education was obtained at Lake Erie College and Rockford College, Rockford, Ill.

Her brother, Henry, founded the Spencerian Business College of Washington, D.C., and at the age of 19, Ellen moved to D.C. to lead the women’s section of the college, which trained students for jobs in government and business. Her Washington presence connected Ellen to Reuben D. Mussey, who had served as a colonel for the Union Army and had a law practice in D.C. A New Hampshire native, Reuben had campaigned for Lincoln and joined a militia company led by Cassius M. Clay, an abolitionist. Initially charged with guarding the president and White House, Mussey eventually became captain of the 19th U.S. Infantry Regiment. As captain, he helped recruit African-Americans to serve as Union Army soldiers.

Ellen and Reuben were married in 1871; a woman far ahead of her time; she had the word “obey” omitted from the wedding vow. Nevertheless, in her actions she demonstrated a commitment to both matrimony and motherhood while blazing a trail for equality.

She bore two children, Spencer (1872-1891) and William Hitz (1874-1939), and was stepmother to Reuben’s two daughters by his first wife. Ellen also took an interest in her husband’s profession, worked in his office and studied law under him. She applied to the law schools of National University and Columbian College but was denied access. Just five years into their marriage, a huge burden was shifted onto her shoulders when her husband contracted malaria while campaigning for Rutherford B. Hayes. Reuben became an invalid, and Ellen, 26 and with four children and an invalid husband, moved the family to a building in downtown Washington near the law practice. With Reuben’s assistance, the practice remained open.

Lady in graduation robe
Ellen Spencer Mussey was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C., after an oral examination. She went on assist many other women enter law school. Photo from Wikpedia Commons.

Ellen was not a member of the bar, however, and her husband’s death in 1892 jeopardized her livelihood. Several Washington lawyers lobbied to have special consideration given to her, and in March 1893, Ellen passed the bar by oral examination. She was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1896.

That same year, President Grover Cleveland signed into law legislation drafted by Ellen and giving women of the District of Columbia the right to their own earnings and custody of their children. Prior to the law, a father living in the district, even if he was a criminal, could claim custody. Her fight for a woman’s independent legal status culminated in 1922 with passage of a bill that permitted an American female citizen who marries a foreigner to retain U.S. citizenship rights. As a result of this bill, Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of William Jennings Bryan and the wife of an Englishman, could serve as a US Representative from Florida’s 4th District from 1929 to 1933. From 1933 to 1936, Bryan was US Ambassador to Denmark.

Like her father and brother, Ellen had a strong interest in education. She was a member of the Columbia Board of Education and worked to establish kindergarten as part of the district’s program. And she pioneered the effort to establish retirement benefits for public school teachers.

Her greatest accomplishments were in the area of providing legal education for women. An aspiring attorney, Della Sheldon Jackson, in 1895 requested an apprenticeship under Ellen. With assistance from a colleague, Emma Gillett, Ellen opened, on Feb. 1, 1896, the first session of the Woman’s Law Class. Jackson, Nanette Paul and Helen Malcolm were its first students.

The program grew with assistance from several prominent Washington, D.C., attorneys. The students planned to take their final year of law education at Columbian College, but that institution rejected them on the grounds that “women did not have the mentality for law.” That closed door resulted in the founding of the Washington College of Law, incorporated by Emma Gillett and Ellen Mussey in April 1898.

The college, since merged with American University, was the world’s first law school founded by women. Ellen Mussey served as dean until her retirement in 1913.

In her retirement years, Ellen founded the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia and was elected its first president. She also was involved in the founding of the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1919 and was first chairwoman of the Women’s City Club of Washington, founded the same year. And she was among the founders of the American Red Cross.

Ellen Spencer Mussey died April 21, 1936, in Washington, D.C.; she is buried in the district’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Clifton Brooks

Visiting with West Virginia’s last living Tuskegee Airman

You can trust a secret to Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

Information that Clifton decoded back in the 1940s remains known only to Clifton, a resident of the county seat of Mineral County, Keyser, and West Virginia’s last surviving Tuskegee Airman.

Clifton is getting up there in years; he was 97 when I visited him in the spring of 2019. He has some memory lapses, but one suspects that if he were placed in front of a US Army SIGABA machine, Clifton could still operate the keys and lever that enabled cryptologists to do their vital work during World War II. Indeed, both the machines and the personnel who operated them were so discrete in their duties, the US code was never broken. Even after the war, Clifton was so secretive about his wartime work, it has been only in the last decade or so that the full story of his military service became known to his eight children.

“He never talked about him being a cryptologist during the war,” his son, Mickey “Mick” Brooks, told me. “He would tell me nothing about what he did. When Dad was told a secret, he kept it a secret.”

As far as Mick and his other siblings knew, their father was a mechanic in the Army Air Corps during World War II. It was only after the movie “Top Guns in the Sky” and accompanying media coverage brought attention these airmen that Clifton confirmed his participation in that select group and cautiously shared his story. Mick and his siblings worked with West Virginia congressmen to secure the recognition his father deserved, including the Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Medal received by Clifton and his children: Jacque Washington, Apryl Smith, and Mickey, Clifton E. Jr., Rick, Victoria, Brenda and Tim Brooks.

The airmen were “the men and women, African Americans and Caucasians, who were involved in the so-called ‘Tuskegee Experience,’ the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft,” states tuskegeeairmen.org. The airmen of the “experience” included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and maintenance and support staff such as Clifton. His late brother, James, also was an airman and flew in a fighter group.

Prior to 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the US military, and it was only through the pressure exerted by civil rights groups and the black press that the all African-American squadron was formed in 1941. Cadets lived on the Tuskegee Institute campus and trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

As the nation’s first black military pilots and support personnel, they both proved their capabilities and helped the Allies win the war. There were 992 black pilots who were Tuskegee Airmen; the first wave of them were assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, which deployed to North Africa during April 1943 and flew its first combat mission June 2, 1943.

The 332nd Fighter Group was the first black flying group. It was activated at Tuskegee Army Air Field on Oct. 13, 1942, and included the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Clifton was a member of the 332nd, which deployed from Michigan to the mainland of Italy between Dec. 22, 1943 and Feb. 3, 1944. Their missions included patrolling shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Sea, supporting ground forces in Italy and escorting bombers. All told, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,491 missions.

Service photo of Clifton Brooks
Very little memorabilia and paper has survived from Clifton Brook’s WWII years. This worn photo is among the few artificats.

Clifton, born March 22, 1912, enlisted September 28, 1942, at Charleston, where he was a student at West Virginia State College. Mick says his grandmother, Nellie, had saved money so his father and Uncle James could get a higher education. Mick says education was a family value for the Brooks, who had both teachers and pastors in their ranks.

Mick says his father never shared with him what his career plans were after college. Mick just knows the story of his enlistment, which Clifton shared with me during a visit at a family member’s home.

“Here comes this man to see me,” Clifton says. “He asked, “Are you Clifton Brooks Sr.? If you are Clifton Brooks Sr., you are the man the government is looking for. Now don’t you try to get away. You need to go with us.’”

Clifton says he wrapped up his work at school and let his mother know that he was joining the Army because he had the skills the government needed. He and James stayed together throughout the war years. “Wherever he went, I went,” Clifton says.

According to his enlistment record, Clifton went into active service December 2, 1942, and held the military occupational specialty of cryptographic technician. He arrived in North Africa February 3, 1944. His experience included Rome, Arno, North Apennines, the Po Valley, northern and southern France, Central Europe and the Balkans.  He received the Good Conduct Medal and European African Middle Eastern Service Ribbon and Distinguished Unite Badge.

Mick says that while his father did not speak of the work he did during the war, he did talk about the discrimination and segregation the airmen experienced, including “colored” facilities in Alabama.

“One time he went to town in a bus and had to walk back to the base because he was not allowed to get on the bus (with the white passengers),” Mick says. “He also told about how the black officers were treated and were not allowed to use the same mess hall as the white officers.”

Clifton returned to the United States Oct. 17, 1945, and, after being discharged from the Army, came back to Keyser and married Bessie Reva, who’d been his classmate at the segregated Howard High School in Piedmont. Clifton graduated in 1940 and Bessie in 1942. Mick says his mother was widowed during the war, and his father and she married in 1947 or ’48.

Mick’s Uncle James, who was a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen, joined the US Navy and lived in Portsmouth, Va. He is deceased.

Clifton chose marriage over completing his college degree and got a job with Kelly Springfield in Cumberland, Maryland, as a tire builder. He worked there four decades and was a quality control worker when he retired in 1982. His employer named him the company’s “Man of the Year.”

The couple raised their eight children in a modest home on Locust Street, across the highway from South End Park. Mick says the park was simply a corn field when he was growing up and the entire neighborhood was farms. It is now all residential and commercial.

“We grew up in that park,” Mick says. “It had a pool, and I spent almost every day down there. There was an airfield right next to the park, and the planes would fly over it.”

To circumvent their mother’s rule that they were not to cross the highway to get to the park, the children crawled through the culvert under the road to reach the recreation spot, which now bears the family’s name.

Mick says the family had a tradition of vacationing at Atlantic City, where an aunt lived and provided lodging.  even in those relaxed times on the boardwalk and beach, Clifton didn’t share his war stories. Indeed, unknown to his family, during those post-war years, government employees were monitoring Clifton’s associations to determine if Clifton was sharing cryptology secrets he’d acquired during his time in the Army. The secrets were safe with Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

The fact that he was a World War veteran was no secret, however. Even before retirement, Clifton gave freely of his time to the American Legion’s Washington Smith Post 152, of which he served as post commander and district chaplain. He’s been a member 72 years. Clifton also served as treasurer and lay speaker of his church, Janes United Methodist, and was a Mason and past grand master of Potomac Lodge 41. He was often called upon to speak at Memorial Day services and to school children during Black History Month. On Martin Luther King Day, Clifton recited King’s “I Have a Dream”
speech wherever he was invited to speak.

“He stayed busy all the time,” Mick says.

Once the full story of his service with Tuskegee Airmen was known by the family and community, Clifton kept busy sharing that aspect of his life, as well. Mick says one of the most memorable stories that his father shared was of having a bomb and suicide pills in his room where the cryptology work was performed. If the base were overrun by the enemy, he was to use the incendiary bomb to destroy the machine and associated documents, then consume the suicide pill so he could not be captured alive.

Clifton Brooks holds his Congressional Gold Medal.

In April 2006 the US Congress voted to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the approximately 350 surviving Tuskegee Airmen or their widows. A bronze replica was presented to Clifton in 2010. His receipt of that honor drew community recognition that led to the park and the bridge being named in his honor. TJ Coleman of the Aubrey Steward Project spearheaded the effort.

“Don’t wait until people pass to recognize them,” Coleman told Elaine Blaisdell of the Cumberland Times-News in September 2018. “Let’s do this while we can so he can appreciate it.”

The Brooks children grew up playing in South End Park, which was named in honor of Clifton Brooks. His son, Mick, stands at the new sign in the spring of 2019.

On November 26, 2018, the sign designating Keyser’s South End Park as Brooks Park was unveiled. Clifton attended the ceremony, at which Keyser mayor Damon Tillman declared, “Today is a great day for the City of Keyser. It is a day we as a city can give back to a hero,” reported Liz Beavers of the Mineral Daily News Tribune. “Finally, we get to give back to somebody who is so deserving.”.

“Mr. Brooks, when everyone comes across that bridge, it will be your face they see,” Coleman told Clifton at the November ceremony.

It is a kind face. A face that smiles often yet conceals secrets; a face full of stories that will never be shared. Every question about his service is answered with his anecdote about the man coming to the West Virginia State College in September 1942 and looking for Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

So, I ask Clifton what the other men who served with him would tell me about him, and he says, “If you go that way, I guarantee that they will know Clifton Brooks,” and falls silent. I ask him what he thinks of all the attention he’s received, and Clifton looks around the room and says in a soft but strong voice that he is humbled to “see you all sitting here to find out something about me, to see a white man coming here and looking for a black man boy like me,” perhaps not still not able to comprehend just how far these airmen’s flights have taken us in our battles both overseas and at home.

This article appears in the Winter 2019 Goldenseal magazine.

Ashtabula stockholders invested in Normania

The shipping season of 1909 delivered nothing but progress to Ashtabula Harbor.

The first four of eight Hulett electric unloaders went online that summer at the Lake Shore’s (New York Central) Superior extension docks on the river’s east side. As the operators became comfortable with the behemoths’ controls, ore unloading records began to fall. Meanwhile, nearly 250 men worked on the Lake Shore’s docks that would accommodate the ore shipments for Jones & Laughlin mills.

In their haste to unload and drive the hundreds of piles required to create the slip, Frank Ferguson, a foreman, was nearly killed in October. A piling, thrown out of a rail car, struck Ferguson on the side of his head, knocked out a few teeth and dislocated his jawbone. The timber hit O. Else, a worker, in the chest and knocked him 10 feet. A couple of days later, Antonio Pondico, 45, was crushed between a rail car and clam bucket filled with coal and being swung into the hold of a vessel. He died on the way to the hospital and left behind a wife and seven children, still in Italy. He was saving his money to bring them to the United States, where a daughter and son already lived.

Such was the nature of work and life in The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

Also in 1909, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated on the west side, announced an investment of $100,000 in its Ashtabula docks at Ashtabula; the work would be done during the winter of 1909-1910. That August, a steam shovel devoured slices of Point Park, “what was once the pride of the north end,” as the prime real estate was removed to make way for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks to the lakefront. The dirt thus removed was used to fill low spots where the coal and ore cars would terminate their journey to the docks.

Mean, the pay cars of both The Lake Shore and Pennsylvania railroads delivered glad tidings to workers; in August, 1909, the biggest pay day in two years put extra dollars into the railroaders’ pockets and Ashtabula economy.

A deal between the city and Great Lakes Engineering was signed that summer, as well. Although the shipyard failed to bring the touted economic boom to the city, it built Liberty Ships during World War I and provided drydock facilities for smaller lake vessels for several decades.

Port lists attest to the volume of bulk carrier business handled at The Harbor. On a typical day, a dozen ore boats arrived at The Harbor and as many cleared the port.

The steamer Normania was among those received in August. Its arrival was received with much fanfare, for the Normania had a strong hometown connection: Many of its shareholders were Ashtabula investors, who came to The Harbor the afternoon of August 15 to see what their $300,000 had purchased.

Normania was built the prior year at the St. Clair, Michigan, works of Great Lakes Engineering. She was 420 feet long, 52 feet wide and drew 24 feet. Gross tonnage was 4,871; net, 4705. The steel hull was number 39 for the shipbuilder.

There is no explanation for its name, but the owners were incorporated as the Ashtabula Steamship Company. The Normania appears to have been the firm’s only project. Pickens-Mather & Co. managed the vessel, which  was skippered by Captain Oscar Olesen of Ashtabula.

He welcomed 15 of the shareholders onto the vessel that evening as its cargo of iron ore was unloaded. The tables were set with “a lunch that would have done credit to the swell hotels of New York city.” The owners then toured the vessel, which, according to the Ashtabula Beacon-Record, was “a model of utility, convenience and comfort. … The cabins are neat and commodious, affording ample accommodations for the crew and officers. Each department is provided with private bath rooms and each gang-way has a separate shower bat equipment. The passenger rooms are elegantly appointed, with their tall, brass bedsteads, chiffoniers, private lavatories, electric lights and fans.” The rooms compared favorably to those in “leading hotels.”

After eight years of ownership, the Ashtabula Steamship Company sold the vessel to the Ottawa Transit Co. of Mentor (Lake County). An act of the 64th Congress, June 22, 1916, approved changing the vessel’s name to William F. Stifel. It retained that name when it was sold to Columbia Steamship Co. in 1921 and to Oglebay Norton Co. in 1958.

By then, the 420-foot-long vessel was too aged and inefficient for the lake trade, and she was sold through Marine Salvage, Ltd., of Port Colborne, Ontario, to Italian shipbreakers. The Normania, which had proudly sailed into Ashtabula Harbor, her colors floating in a stiff breeze, to meet her owners some 51 years prior, arrived in tow at Savona, Italy, Dec. 27, 1960, for scrapping.

Such was the way of life and work at The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

A castle, commissioner & cemetery

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year (2016) I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.

Wheeling’s castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.

Author’s note: This blog was originally published in March 2016; it has been re-published as part of the site’s redesign in 2020.

My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.

The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.

Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers’ home.

The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.

Read more about them at the website.

I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:

Garter snakes enjoying the spring warmth.

Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)

It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).

From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.


Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.

They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.

Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.

After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.

Old cemetery on a hilll in Wheeling, WV
The “rural” Mount Wood Cemetery overlooks the city of Wheeling, W.Va.


Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.

Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.

Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.

The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.

I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.

The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.