a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the papermill

Havoc on the hill

Click on the photograph to view a promotion for a series of articles that will begin Sunday in the Observer-Reporter about Detroit drug dealers and how they have infiltrated Washington, Pa. (video produced by Harry Funk, online editor at the O-R)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Trim your beer belly here

The Yough River Trail is the greatest stress reliever that I have found since kicking cigarettes.
Within a few minutes after hitting the hiking and biking path along an abandoned rail line due south of Pittsburgh, my nerves settle into a tunnel of green and all the nature it affords. The quiet is occasionally broken by the exciting shrill of an Amtrak train that follows the rails on the opposite side of the Youghiogheny River.

We are fortunate in Southwestern Pennsylvania to be home to this park, which is part of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 316 mile trail that connects Cumberland, Md., and Pittsburgh. A newcomer should expect adventure, especially in the remote sections. One day, a squirrel fell out of a tree and landed in the spokes of my bicycle’s front tire. He was stunned, but his injuries did not appear to be life threatening. Another time, I had to turn back after scouting a rabid red fox about 50 yards ahead of my handlebars. You also can explore the village of Whitsett, where there are ancient Anica Mine and Coke Works buildings. One is surrounded with poisen ivy and leads to a scary, dangerous portal into the deep mine that should have been sealed a long time ago to keep out the kids.

This place, meanwhile, is home to wildflowers and butterflies in their natural settings rather than in some habitat garden built in a city park.

A dad sporting a mullet can take his son here to bond over some fishing.

You never know, you might even encounter a cowboy out of his element.

But, the best part.....

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The hills are green and gray

The landscape of Southwestern Pennsylvania can be described as a bit schizonphrenic.
On one hand, it offers scenic views of rolling hillsides and pastures like this:

And, there are well manicured gentleman farms hugging country roads.......

Almost out of nowhere appears a giant, contrasting image of the coal industry that, in many ways, drives the local economy. The state Department of Environmental Protection requires coal operators to develop these slurry ponds to recycle water they use to wash coal as it leaves their mines. In grand scale, gray mine waste is built up to create a dam wall to hold back this water and allow sediment to fall to the bottom of the pond before the water goes back to the coal-washing plant.

It's nearly impossible to take in the region's natural resources and not-so-natural resources unless they are viewed from a low-flying airplane. We passed over these areas on a newspaper assignment this week in a Piper aircraft to take a look at the poorly-designed Interstate 70, especially its Bentleyville interchange, portions of which predate World War II. One highway entrance ramp there is heavily traveled by tractor trailers, but the road is too short for even cars to get up enough speed to compete with the ever-increasing traffic. Here's a kooky two-leaf I-70 cloverleaf in nearby Somerset Township:

(Photography copyright: Observer-Reporter)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Celebrity soldier

By Scott Beveridge

In one letter home from the Civil War, Union Army Capt. David Acheson wrote about seeing President Lincoln sweeping by his camp on horseback to survey the troops.

Another letter from the Washington, Pa., officer made note of women who sneaked to his camp to take a peek at soldiers, and how much he missed their company.

In the last letter home, dated June 28, 1863, five days before he was gunned down at Gettysburg, Acheson informed his parents that he suspected he was heading into the “campaign of the war.”

The soldiers in his command were terribly worn down from marching 23 miles a day north by the time they reached Uniontown, Va., in advance of fighting at Gettysburg. Along the way, they slept in puddles of water, Acheson wrote.

“I never knew what a man was able to endure before,” noted the 22-year-old son of a judge who was among four brothers who served in the war.

Acheson was a charming, naive man who loved gardening, not one who would have enjoyed the limelight, said Ellen Armstrong of West Middletown, Pa., a descendent of the Achesons who inherited some of the soldier’s belongings.

“He was not a show-off,” Armstrong said.

But Acheson has emerged today as somewhat of a local war celebrity through his death and the lengths his comrades went to ensure him a proper burial. He’s been the subject of at least two books, as well as numerous articles in local newspapers.

And, Acheson’s story was featured last month in a WQED
documentary, “Stone Soldiers: Saving the Gettysburg Monuments,” about problems the Gettysburg National Military Park
faces in preserving the many monuments at the 6,000-acre battlefield, including a crude marker bearing his initials.

“There was never more of an unlikely (hero) that you could ever find,” Armstrong said.

At 3:30 a.m. on July, 2, the second day of battle, Pennsylvania’s 140th Regiment, Co. C., was called to arms before Acheson and his men had time to eat breakfast.

The events of the day would be told in a letter written by the unit’s adjutant, William A. Shallenberger, and reprinted in the 1991 book, “Inscription at Gettysburg,” by Sara Gould Walters.

There was a temporary halt to the fighting, allowing the regiment to nap in the afternoon, before it would come to be surrounded by Confederate soldiers. Rebel sharpshooters had taken aim under the cover of large boulders in a line of woods above a wheat field, where the Union troops had settled.

“Tighten your belts, boys, our turn is next,” soldier John Paxton related in another letter from the war and reprinted in Walters’ book. Nearly 500 soldiers followed the 140th into battle, making up the largest regiment in the brigade. Acheson’s unit carried 38 men into the right flank of battle, the most dangerous position and one of honor.

The day had quickly turned dark under heavy smoke from “shells smashing into trees, the rattle of enemy musketry,” Walters wrote.

In no time, Acheson was downed by two shots to the chest in a line of fire released by soldiers from South Carolina. Dead bodies and horses littered the battlefield as the Pennsylvanians retreated in defeat. Of the 38 men with Acheson, seven were killed, 22 suffered injuries and two were captured before more Union troops arrived from the rear and pushed back the rebels.

The following day, Acheson’s friend George Laughlin, went in search of his body. Laughlin, who went on to become a partner in Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. of Pittsburgh, had to turn back under Confederate fire. He and Acheson were classmates at Washington College before it became known as Washington and Jefferson College.

The identities of the soldiers who buried Acheson in a shallow grave beside a boulder were unknown. Using a nail or other sharp tool, they carved his initials into the rock so that his family would know where to find the body.

“It’s absolutely fascinating,” Armstrong said. “I just became so in love with these people.”

News of the ill-fated battle soon reached Washington County “like a thunder peel from a clear sky,” Waters wrote. After losing a hand in battle, Lt. Isaac Vance of Amity broke the story in a note he sent that contained some of the names of the dead.

“No one was able to stem the current of sorrow ... the village was quiet as a grave, except the outburst of anguish from some broken-hearted mother, wife or friend,” a newspaper reporter noted in an article.

Acheson’s first cousin, A. Todd Baird, and schoolmate James Blaine Wilson had the gruesome task of retrieving the captain’s body 10 days after the battle. Wilson uprooted a geranium from a nearby garden to take home to the fallen man’s father, Washington County Judge A.W. Acheson.

Wilson then sat atop the “rude coffin lined with zinc” in a wagon that carried the party through the night in a steady rain from Gettysburg to Harrisburg. Armstrong said a train likely carried the crew to Pittsburgh, where another wagon finished the trip to Washington.

Baird would fall ill for many days with typhoid fever after walking through the heat and stench in the battlefield that was still piled with decaying horses, Walters noted.

Acheson was reburied July 15 on a soft hill overlooking the Civil War section of Washington Cemetery. An aging white marble tombstone bearing crossed swords marks the grave, which is planted with flowers each spring by a person unknown to Armstrong or her relatives. More people ask for directions to the grave each year than any other in the cemetery.

In Gettysburg, the National Park Service does not draw attention to Acheson’s temporary grave marker, or the many others like it “off the beaten track,” to ward off vandalism, said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for the park.

“They are very, very important. They represent such an enormous loss for this country,” Lawhon said. “It’s one isolated example about how important that loss was to them, and then kind of magnify that ....,” she said, adding that 52,000 men were either killed, wounded or captured in the historic battle.

Civil War pals
Capt. David Acheson, far right, with his friend, George Laughlin, at left. The other Union soldier was Alexander Sweeney, another member of the 40th.

(This story first appeared in the Observer-Reporter)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

City safari

There is a tireless way to tour downtown Pittsburgh these days, one especially designed for those who are short of breath. Segway in Paradise of Cranberry is offering two hour tours of what it considers to be the most interesting sites of the city aboard self-balancing electric scooters. You can “treat yourself to the glide of your life” while wheeling past PNC Park, Heinz Field and the Cultural District, the company’s Web site indicates. All this excitement without so much as breaking a sweat. People will stop in their tracks and stare, giggle, roll their eyes or turn up their noses at these lazy safari hunters. The hats that come along with the ride are a hoot. For a chuckle, check out the comments on this photograph at my gallery.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

These grandmas are hot property

(Miss March, Dot Krol, poses for a calendar featuring mature women from the Southwestern Pennsylvania. Photo by Chris Grilli/Grilli's Studio)

Grandmas in Monongahela, Pa., are becoming a media sensation after making local headlines two weeks ago for dropping some of their clothes for charity.

“Tonight Show” host Jay Leno poked fun at them last night during his monologue, suggesting that people might want to donate to the cause, rather than look at their slightly naughty 2008 calendar.

Comcast TV’s “Retirement Living” has offered the “pinup girls” an all-expense trip to Washington, D.C., for a taping. That will have to wait because the models promised an exclusive national debut to ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“Everyone wants us,” said Lorys Crisafulli, 80, who coerced 11 of her friends to pose and raise money for the financially strapped local historical society.

Even a Canadian pharmaceutical company has joined the fun, offering the girls a good price on Viagra.

“Everyone is laughing,” Crisafulli said.


(Former nightclub owner Be Be Bell Barantovich at her photoshoot for a calender featuring the spunky ladies, the youngest of whom is 68. Photo by Chris Grilli of Grilli's Studio)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Downtown deserted

Checking into the old Donora Hotel is impossible these days, as many of the buildings in this old steel town in Southwestern Pennsylvania see little, if any, traffic.
The stores began to close after the borough became home in the 1960s to the first major steel mill to be idled in the United States. Many mills would follow its lead, leaving behind a string of brownfields across the Pittsburgh region.
Donora’s furnaces began to dim after a 1948 smog lingered over this bend in the Monongahela River Valley for days, making history as the nation’s worst air pollution disaster. It paved the way for groundbreaking U.S. clean air legislation that made it more costly for steel giants to do business.
Now, at night, Donora's main drag looks akin to an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bang along

Jaggerbush Junction
This is what happens when a bunch of creative types paint an old Dodge Ram pickup truck comic book white and turn the beast into a musical instrument.

Its members go by the name of Unicorn Mountain and they showed up last weekend at the Pittsburgh Arts Festival, parked at the city’s slightly hip Market Square district.

Two guys made noise in the truck bed, while another moved about playing an electric guitar on its roof, turning a radiator hose into a kazoo or honking the horn to drive an oddly enjoyable hypnotic beat.

Children took turns clanging on a detached muffler while logo dads got their groove things going with whatever else they could rattle. It was cool. Everyone was smiling to one of the most creative installations I have seen at this festival in decades.

The artists are striving to keep young adults like them in Pittsburgh as the region still struggles to move beyond the death of its steel industry. Their engines appear to be working. USA Today's’ trendy blogger, Whitney Matheson, is among those who have taken notice of their art.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

What are the odds?

There is a photographer in Eastern Pennsylvania who goes by the screen name, 51 eggs, and does an outstanding job of documenting the end of the Industrial Revolution.
His shot, shown above, looks like something pulled from the archives of the historical society in Bethlehem. However, it depicts the city today, how it looks 12 years after Bethlehem Steel Corp. idled a hulking steel mill that defined the area. Those of us living to the west in the Pittsburgh region can sympathize with Bethlehem, as many of us watched the steel industry collapse here three decades ago. The stores close, towns crumble to pieces and populations dwindle. That’s the legacy of big steel. Bethlehem seems to be frozen in time, but that is about to change with a dramatic plan to convert the old mill into a sparkling casino. Take a minute and look at this video:

Thursday, June 7, 2007

New age "pinup girls"

Lorys Crisafulli of Monongahela at her photo shoot for a 2008 calendar featuring a dozen women, the youngest of whom is 68 years old. (photo by Chris Grilli of Grilli’s Studios, New Eagle, Pa.)

MONONGAHELA – As Miss January, Lorys Crisafulli is bearing “some of it all” inside a black convertible GT, dripping pearls with a bottle of champagne.
Miss October, Kathleen Bordini, is seated in a coffin beside a black cat and pumpkin in the risqué 2008 calendar featuring a dozen different “pinup girls” from the Monongahela area, the youngest of whom is 69.
“Every one of them was intimidated at first,” said Crisafulli, 80, who is hoping to put her home area on the map with the idea. “There is a lot more giggling going on.”
She was inspired to do the project after seeing the 2003 movie “Calendar Girls.”The film starring Helen Mirren revolves around the true story of a group of Liverpool women who became a media sensation after posing nude in a calendar for a charity.
Crisafulli, a retired owner of a New Eagle antiques shop, first approached the Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce to sponsor the calendar. But its board politely declined, thinking the project didn’t stand a chance to raise money, she said.
“The initial response is, ‘Oh, no,’” said Claudia Williams, a local furniture store owner who volunteered to sell advertisements to pay the printing costs.
“My sons kind of laughed, really. I don’t think they’re overly surprised by the things I do,” said Bordini, 74, a nutrition supervisor for Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services/Aging Services in Charleroi. The photograph of her in the casket appears beside the caption, “Get the best for the rest of your life.”
“At least I got out on my own,” said Bordini, who cast a ghostly smile in the shot. “It’s better than going in there and staying.”
None of the women took off all of their clothes, but gave the appearance that they might be nude. Such props as a car door or a vase of flowers are strategically placed to hide certain body parts that, if shown, could give the calendar an R rating.

New age "pinup girls"

Sally Stephenson, 84, shown above, second from right, appears in the calendar beside the Monongahela River wearing what appears to be only a Navy collar and saluting behind a lectern.
“If anyone asks if I was nude, I’m going to say that only the riverboat pilots know,” said Stephenson, a retired California University of Pennsylvania social studies professor.
She also was among 1,000 females in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services during World War II who taught instrument flying to male pilots.
The profits from the sale of the calendars will go to the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which found the project to be a “daring idea,” said its president, Sue Bowers.
“It had been done before, but not around here,” Bowers said. “It was a wonderful surprise that this spunky ladies were willing to do this ...”
In its first printing, 500 calendars will be sold for $10 apiece.
“I anticipate selling 2,500,” Williams said. “I have classmates out of state who can’t wait.”

The calendars will be published in mid-July 2007, and sold in local stores, as well on the City of Monongahela’s Web site.

Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

California glitter

A traveler to the U.S. West Coast in the early 1900s could have stumbled on this postcard of the “Belles of California.” These Indians were over the age of 100, if you believe the publisher. The postcard has glitter glued across the skirts and hats, as if that was how they dressed. Today, however, we know that such photographs were staged in ways that portrayed Native Americans in scenes that did not represent their culture.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Ducklings in the news

When schoolteachers contact the newsroom where I work, they often do so to complain that our reporters or photographers missed their assembly, book reading or tea party. So it was a cool surprise to receive an email a few weeks ago from a third grade teacher in Canonsburg, Pa., who used a story that I wrote as a teaching tool in her classroom.
Kathleen Durko and her students at Canon-McMillan School District’s South Central Elementary School were reading a Japanese story about the rescue of ducklings at the same time that I was assigned to write a corny little story about construction workers freeing baby ducks that had become trapped in a storm sewer in Washington, Pa.
Mrs. Durko’s class was reading about a photographer, Sato-san, in Chiba, Japan, who stopped traffic to allow a mother duck and her 10 ducklings to safely cross the street to reach the emperor’s garden.
At the same time, my duck story appeared in the “Observer-Reporter” about stonemasons who took a break from building a new pharmacy to remove a drain cover and reunite ducklings that were waddling in sewer water with their mother.
Mrs. Durko did not hesitate to incorporate both stories into her lesson. She then assigned her children to draw pictures of the ducklings in Japan and Washington with colored pencils, and write a story comparing the two good deeds.
A copy of their project landed on my desk the other day. Children’s art is always sweet, and their creations often look good enough for a frame. It’s also reassuring to hear that teachers who are keen on current events still use newspapers to encourage their students to pay attention to the world around them. Thanks.

The duckling story from the Observer-Reporter is below:

A family of baby ducks were lucky to have union builders looking out for their safety Friday.

Stonemasons, carpenters and laborers took a break from their jobs building a Walgreens in Washington to pull the 10 tiny chicks from the base of a street sewer, where they had become trapped.

"The mother flew and came to them once she heard the squawking," said carpenter Randy Rouse of Uniontown, who was among those involved in the rescue.

Washington firefighters also were called to the sewer at the bottom end of East Beau Street after a woman discovered the desperate ducks about 12:30 p.m. The fire department turned back after realizing the workers had the situation in hand.

The ducks were of such small size that they apparently fell through the steel grating covering the street drain, Rouse said.

When the stonemasons broke for lunch, they brought heavy equipment to the drain powerful enough to hoist the grating and free the ducks. Rouse said he supplied the strap needed to connect the drain cover to the heavy equipment's front claw.

Once free, the baby ducks waddled off with their mother.