a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Come as you are......


Sheep-man in blue skirt, originally uploaded by Bergius.

By Amanda Gillooly

That summer, the nights could be both hot and dangerous. The college experience wasn’t that extravagant when you lived in a crappy apartment building with no air conditioning, afraid to even leave your ground-level windows open because of a criminal who had become known as the East End Rapist.

One Friday, as friends and I lounged on one of our second-hand couches, pounding beers (to keep cool), one of our most audacious acquaintances came in with his usual flair.

“OH MY GOD, you guys,” he exclaimed. “You will NEVER believe what just happened to me.”

If past experiences – and the peasant skirt Derek was wearing – was an indication, he was probably right. We probably DIDN’T have any idea what just happened to him.

For the sake of clarity, Derek is one of my more outrageous gay friends – the kind of guy who had no qualms wearing a skirt in public. He wasn’t a transvestite; he just wanted to be cool and comfortable.

All Derek’s friends, myself included, warned him about wearing women’s garb, all for the sake of his safety an not for the sake of someone else’s idea of masculinity. Yeah, we went to Point Park College, and there was a substantial gay and lesbian community there. But we always tried to explain to him that although we knew he looked fabulous in that particular pattern, other people may not be so accepting of his, well, style.

But he never listened to us. Not when it came to fashion. And not when it came to comfort.

And so his story began:

“So the PAT bus pulls up and I get on and show my pass, right? Then I look up and OH MY GOD, all these, like, really burly mean dudes are sitting there, staring at me. I was, like, so scared.”

At that point someone asked the inevitable question: “Well, what did you do.”

He paused for a minute as if he didn’t know how to respond. He looked serious. Then he said very simply.

“I did the only thing I could,” he answered us helplessly. “I worked it!”

He then snapped his fingers and sashayed fiercely across the living room floor, showing us his best catwalk.

Indeed, he had worked it.
So as you get buzzed and ponder your New Year’s resolution, I suggest you emulate Derek. It doesn’t involve wearing a skirt.

Eric Clapton said, “It’s in the way that you use it.” Tom Petty said, “Think of me what you will, I’ve got a little space to fill.” Derek said, “Work it, girl.”

I think all three men will agree that maybe that maybe this year, the best resolution is to simply be you.

Unapologetically.

Happy New Year.

Amanda

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Among the weirdest products of 2008

The wearable blanket called a Snuggie is the kookiest new invention that I've seen since the tin foil alien deflector beanie.

This blanket might be a perfect late-Christmas gift for a Tibetan monk with poor circulation who can't seem to stay warm under the Eastern sun. But hopefully, it's packaged with a warning for wearers to keep back from camp fires to avoid setting the long, draping sleeves afire.

If you've missed the TV commercial, it's a hoot.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Marching to your own guitar hero


By Amanda Gillooly

Forget the commercial with Victoria’s Secret babe Heidi Klum dancing Tom Cruise-style, the one I’ve come to respect is far less cheeky.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. An uptight, WASP-looking family is jamming to some song featured on the hit video game “Rock Band.” I’m not sure if it was Fleetwood Mac or some other such band, but my first reaction to their “Yeah, I'm a rock star” facial expressions was a killer smirk.

Some part of my psyche that I couldn’t control thought: “Oh my God, what a bunch of tools. I have not, in the past several days, seen anything so dorky.”

But then I stopped myself. To make fun of some middle-aged mom in a sweater-set trying to get a guitar riff down would be just as bad as snickering at the overweight guy getting red-faced on a treadmill while working to depork at the local YMCA.

It’s just not cool, dude. For real.

Here I am judging this poor pretend family because it didn’t look the part of a rock band. And I felt ashamed of myself. A quick recall of the Middle School Years and even some of the High School Years was enough to remind me how terrible it is living your life afraid of what other people are going to think about you.

I doubt I was the only awkward teenage girl consumed with trying to act cool instead of acting like, well…myself.

It’s a tragic thing – I’m sure you’ll agree – when you base such things as leisure activities, hairstyles and off-color jokes simply on how you feel someone else will react.

So there I was watching Sweater-Set Lady doing her best Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix and I finally smiled, remembering an adage that my uncle shared with me. Despite my awesome Internet research skills, I was unable to find the exact quote, or who its should be attributed to.

I was just glad I saw the commercial, and that I wouldn’t have to wait until I’m eligible for a senior citizen discount to learn the lesson.

“When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you care about what other people think of you. In your 40s and 50s you stop caring about what other people think of you. And in your 60s and 70s you realize they were never thinking about you anyway.”

So, to you Sweater-Set Lady, I extend a gracious “thank you” and a healthy “rock on.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A new glimpse into the Donora story


August Chambon, the mayor of Donora, Pa., during the infamous smog of 1948, said he expected his borough to someday become a city.

But he couldn’t have been more wrong because the former steel town, today, is a third of its size six decades after it experienced the nation’s deadliest air pollution disaster. The smog is among the many reasons Donora’s mills became the first in a long line of these factories that permanently shut down in America from Philadelphia to Chicago.

Fortunately, for the sake of history, California University of Pennsylvania has preserved a tape recording of a short speech Chambon gave the year of the smog. It’s among a new digital file of old photos and other documents the university created on the rise of Donora and the smog that helped to bring about the nation’s first clean air laws.

The new exhibit has been assembled by Nick Roberts, a Cal U. instructional specialist who helps local schoolteachers gain access to the National Library of Congress' digital files in developing their lesson plans. Click here to sort through the new Donora files.

(The photo of the wire works at American Steel & Wire Co. in Donora, taken in July 1925, and the one of Chambon are courtesy of the Donora Historical Society and California University of Pennsylvania)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Finding the bright places

“When you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Unslumping yourself is not easily done.” – Dr. Suess



By Amanda Gillooly

This is when winter starts to really suck.

Our beloved Steelers are headed into their last regular season game against the hated (but wretched) Cleveland Browns, and after that there are only a few more precious weeks of football left.

No more quarterbacks getting jacked up by James “Silverback” Harrison. No more diving catches by Santonio Holmes. No more little prayers that a third-and-long will be somehow converted.

Nah, this is the time of year that Dr. Suess described in all his work (and one of my favorite books) “Oh the Places You’ll Go” as The Waiting Place.

That’s not a good place to be, surely, but here I am: Waiting for the New Year, waiting for March Madness, waiting for spring to emerge from the gray that pervades this part of the country for a few miserable months each year.

Suess advised that to combat The Waiting Place trap, we must “find the bright places where boom bands are playing.” I’m not sure what a boom band is, or where they might be playing (I check Mayrz Inn, no dice), so I’m thinking that place might be different for everyone. Some sort of metaphor or other literary measure.

So, I guess I could grumble and whine and wait for any number of adventures to come my way. I could stay in, wrap myself up in an afghan, read some books and wait for the sun to come out sometime in March (hell, this is Pittsburgh. It might not be ‘til April).

Or I guess I could press up, and try to find those bright places for myself. So before New Year’s, before Levance Fields affixes his “I’m ready to tear it up” headband and kicks ass for his Pittsburgh Panthers, I’ll have to combat the winter yucktasticness and get my fun on.

For me? My bright places include my sister’s house for SpongeBob and beers (to clarify, I watch SpongeBob with my nephew before he leaves for Grandmas’s house, then drink my brother-in-law’s microbrews). And visits with my pals at our college bar being served refreshing adult beverages (not Beveridges) by renowned mixologist, Sir Harold, is always a bitchin’ time.

Yeah, there’s no more football, no more Steelers Huddle, no more Uncle Billy and Tunch. But there’s still fun to be done, I suppose, with or without James Harrison.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The hottest new actress on the planet

Freida Pinto is reason enough to drop everything and see the new movie, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Indian actress is gorgeous in her starring role as Latika, the love interest of the main character in the Danny Boyle movie that is showing on just two screens in this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Take the drive because this is the smartest movie of the year, one that is sure to be among those with Oscar nominations in 2009.

The movie is brilliantly shot and has a great soundtrack, as well. Its story touches on many of the problems facing India’s orphans who face anti-Muslim terrorism and grow up in garbage dumps, as does Jamal Malik, the story's hero.

As a young man, he is arrested after being one question shy of winning the Hindi television game show version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The authorities are suspicious because he correctly answers so many questions as someone who is lacking a formal education.

In his defense, Malik explains to the police chief how his life’s experiences ironically provided him with the answers to the questions. The story unfolds after he survives extreme police brutality in an effort to force him to confess to cheating.

As it turns out, Malik had rescued Latika after she was kidnapped into life of prostitution. During their escape, Malik’s brother shoots her keeper with a Colt revolver. As fate would have it, that gun tips off Malik to the clue he needs to answer a question on the show seeking the identity of the inventor of the revolver. Pinto then disappears into another mysterious life as a kept woman. She is a goddess. She doesn't need a strong story line to steal her scenes.

She is central, though, to this amazing and riveting story built around the traditional theme of boy meets girl, boy loses girl and boy gets girl in the end. What could be a better ending for this mild-mannered hero? He dances off with a relatively unknown journalist (in real life) who, because of this gem of a movie, is now worth a million bucks as the world's newest sex symbol.



(Photo: Reuters)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Stalled by biscotti

Nothing can delay your holiday shopping plans on a morning free from the office quite like homemade triple chocolate biscotti.

We tried this recipe and it turns out some mighty fine Italian biscuits. To make it ours, we added chopped pecans and drizzles of white chocolate and caramel.

This post also serves as a cheap promotion for my friend's bar, Tim's Corner Bar in West Elizabeth, Pa. If you're in the area and looking to loaf, he serves up the best chicken wings in the Pittsburgh region.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This radio station is the icing on the cookie


PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Dr. Craig Smith apparently knows a lot about gender’s affect on sub-cellular brain activity through his experiments involving brain injuries in rats.

But when the physician at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh isn’t taking life so seriously, he transforms himself into one mean rock-and-roller.

Smith commanded the stage Thursday at the city’s independent radio station during its holiday party with his high-energy rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He sounded something akin to a perfect marriage of the vocals of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello at WYEP’s Holiday Hootenanny.

Pittsburgh is lucky to have the listener-supported 91.3fm. I was drawn to its music about 10 years ago at the suggestion of a former co-worker. My need for alternative radio happened when I tuned into Pittsburgh's venerable rock station, WDVE, only to hear it playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” again for what seemed to be the tenth time in two days.

While I love that band, DVE's format still remains pretty much the same since I was in high school and its then-disc jockey, Midnight Marcy, and her sexy voice kept boys like me in the 1970s awake well beyond our bedtimes.

A simple switch to WYEP introduced me to such great acts as Citizen Cope and Ray LeMontagne. It also has given me the pleasure to hear on the air during my commutes to work the fantastic music of Irene Kelley and Donora.

Meanwhile, the station passed out free beer Thursday, along with over-the-top butter cookies covered with white icing, coconut and red shoestring licorice at the free party for the lucky 100 or so people who signed up for it in advance on the Web.

The show also featured Donora’s lead singer, Casey Hanner, with her soulful rendition of my favorite Christmas song, “O Holy Night,” one that can’t be easy for any vocalist to pull off. And there also was a bearded guy named James who belted out a cool and bluesy version of “Baby Please Come Home” and make this an excellent show.

It’s times like these that make it a no-brainer why I tune in to WDVE now only when I’m on the road and it’s broadcasting live the Pittsburgh Steelers games.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Direct Fire


Direct Fire
Originally uploaded by RugNug
Live from Afghanistan.....

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A hero rises from the smog

Donora fireman Bill Schempp was a gentleman who defined volunteerism. This is his obituary from the pages of the Observer-Reporter:

Bill Schempp emerged as a small-town hero, going door-to-door as a volunteer fireman with oxygen in Donora, Pa., during the nation’s deadliest air pollution disaster.
This week Schempp, who died Sunday, December 14, 2008, at age 91, is being remembered as a father figure to young firefighters whom he trained over the years.
“He always welcomed us at any time to his home and loved to talk to us about the olden times,” said Casey Perrotta, 27, a borough fireman and local code enforcer.
Schempp was just 31 when he answered a call from his fire chief, Charles Cumberland, to take an 18-inch oxygen tank to offer fresh air to people who were gasping for their breaths during the Donora smog of 1948.
It took him nearly an hour to walk up Donora’s steep Sixth Street with the tank in one arm and using the other to feel his way through the thick smog linked to stagnant air and pollution from the local steel and zinc mills.
The nation’s first clean air laws were spawned from the event that claimed at least 20 lives over that Halloween weekend.
And through the years, reporters from all corners of the United States have called on Schempp to retell his story about the disaster.
On the famous mission, he offered an oxygen mask to the sick to take just two or three breaths before he had to move on. The calls just kept mounting. At some houses, people clung to him or shouted to keep him from leaving.
“There wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it,” Schempp told a reporter with Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service for a story on the smog’s 50th anniversary.
“There were too many calls to help everyone,” said Schempp’s friend, Paul Brown of Donora. “I worked in that mill. I know how bad it was, so I know what he went through.”
Schempp went on to work for 23 years as Donora postmaster. He was known to tinker with his antique red fire engine that bore his name, and often drove it through local parades.
He granted his final interview last summer to a producer of The Weather Channel’s docudrama, “Killer Smog,” that premiered in November.
Donora firemen gathered last night beside his coffin in James A. Rabe Funeral Home in Donora for a firefighters memorial service.
“He is a hometown hero,” said Perrotta, who portrayed Schempp as a young man in the Weather Channel show.
Schempp is survived by his wife of 67 years, Gladys Balmer Schempp, and a daughter, Annie Schempp of Donora. He will be buried Thursday in Monongahela Cemetery.

(Caption: Donora fireman Bill Schempp about a decade ago in the passenger seat of his antique fire engine.)

This is just crazy rich


The forecast for trade-and-banking-rich Dubai: Blistering hot, but cool and breezy at the refrigerated beach.

This is just crazy news from the Persian Gulf.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The color red means the beer is waiting


GREENSBURG, Pa. – Red Star Brewery & Grille’s name spells great beer in more than one way.

In old Bavaria, a barkeep would hang a red star outside his business when the beer was done brewing and ready to tap. And, at Red Star in Greensburg, Pa., the large beer tanks inside the glass enclosed foyer serve as another reminder to those in the know about that tradition that this establishment takes brewing seriously.

I won’t pretend to be a beer snob because, once at the bar, I order a glass of India Pale Ale, thinking it will be on the light side. It arrives dark yet mellow enough to not qualify it as Guinness, one of the few beers that I hate more than Iron City.

So then I decide on the New England lobster salad arranged on a bed of thin-sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise dressing. It comes with a small loaf of bread and honey-flavored butter. The sweetness of the butter, combined with the beer and lobster, make for a palate pleaser unique to this fantastic bar and restaurant.

Suddenly convinced that this is my new favorite beer, I turn to the drink menu to read its description. It turns out that India Pale Ale was developed to preserve beer for long voyages from England to British troops stationed in India. To survive the three-month trip, it had to have a lot of hops and extra alcohol.

“Ours has enough hops so you can’t really tell how malty it is and enough malt so you can’t tell how hoppy it is and an extra dash at the end of hops to push the balance right over the edge,” the menu reads.

The extra hops cannot be in the mix to preserve the beer because this is one busy restaurant in a 98-year-old beautifully restored train station at 101 Ehalt St. The last two times that I stopped by this year there wasn’t a seat to be found.

The business has survived the test of time, though, because it is celebrating it 10th anniversary in a Victorian ticket room beside a rail line where trains still stop to pick up passengers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

All Big Girl wants from Santa (is this shirtless man)


Matthew-McConaughey-fl03, originally uploaded by yourillusion2002.

Dear Santa,

I know you’re supposed to have the whole “naughty or nice” list going, but because I doubt those documents are considered public under Pennsylvania’s open records laws, I really have no way of knowing which one I’ve landed on.

One of my podmates, Scott Beveridge, alluded to the fact that I may have been more “naughty” than “nice” this year. OK, yeah, maybe I was a little harsh this year to people such as Pamela Anderson and Howie Mandel on this blog. But I swear, I didn’t mean to be mean!

I’m not going to lie to you, Santa: I think I deserve some presents this year. And because people everywhere are scaling back on their Christmas wish lists, you may notice that I’ve been more conservative in my requests this year.

Here goes:

1. A pimped-out Escalade. I’m not gonna be picky – I don’t care what color you pick out. While I own a fuel-efficient Toyota Yaris, I think a big honkin’ SUV would really give me more street cred. When I make my drive from my humble abode on Neville Island to my humble cube in Washpa, I can’t help but notice all the Herculean vehicles rolling by me. My driving instructor taught me to signal my intent to turn, stay a few car lengths back and check my blind spot before changing lanes, but I’ve begun to notice that the bigger the car, the less you seemingly have to obey these traffic rules. So, I figure if I can procure a badass Escalade, I would be a lot less stressed on the road because I wouldn’t have to bother with such things as “turn signals” and “giving the finger” because I would finally be one of the Big Girls on the road! And with gas prices back at a “reasonable" level, I can afford to be less thrifty, right? It’s the American Way, after all.
2. My own reality show. Hey, Andy Warhol did say something about everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame, eh? I can’t act, dance or sing. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a triple threat in my own way, right? After all, I CAN swear like a sailor, be sarcastic and start drama. And if THAT doesn’t qualify me to star in my own series, I really don’t know what other criteria there is. Sure, there would have to be some awesome stunts, guest stars or world travel for me to get a deal with one of the big three: ABC, NBC or CBS. But like I said, I know that America is in a recession, and I’m trying not to ask for anything extravagant. I’m talking more “Flavor of Love” than “Survivor.” I would suggest a working title if I could, but “Gillooly of Love” just doesn’t make any sense…
3. Matthew McConaughey. I know he’s a babydaddy to some Brazilian goddess, but surely, you’ve pulled off more tricky Christmas miracles, right? It’s not like I’m trying to be a home-wrecking wench. If that was the case, I would have certainly asked for Ben Affleck to be placed strategically in my bed…er…under my Christmas tree this year. But I don’t want to be that girl, as it were. So I’ll settle for Matthew. I can almost see him running shirtless on Grand Avenue now…but he’d have to start drinking better beer. I can stand for a lot of things, but not Budweiser. It’s Blue Moon, Sam Adams Summer Ale or no dice. Sorry, but that’s a deal breaker for me. Even if he is one of the hottest guys in the universe. Hey, a girl’s gotta have standards.

That’s it, Santa. I hope I didn’t ask for too much. If you need any clarification on the gifts, just give me a ring. I’ll be around.

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “who needs a white Christmas?” Gillooly

PS – If some dude calling himself The Old Man contacts you about any reported “mooning,” please be advised that this allegation has never been proven in a court of law. I know you live on the North Pole and everything, so I’m just really hoping you dig our whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A little magazine that rocks


With covers like this one, it’s no surprise that our newspaper took home a first-place journalism award this year for having an outstanding niche publication.

The current issue of the by-monthly magazine, Living Washington County, features an illustration by Observer-Reporter photographers Jim McNutt and Greg Tarr for a story about Christmas train displays in this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania. This geek likes it even more because we used for a prop my Mike’s Train House train set. Call me a geek for playing with trains, and also digging MTH over the more-expensive Lionel toy train sets.

The cover jumped to this story about these rather cool miniature train displays:

In the glory days of model railroading, all the downtown department
stores had miniature train displays at Christmastime.

And it was a big deal to pack up the family and take the streetcar to
Pittsburgh to see the model railroad villages and purchase a train set
for Christmas, said Scott Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Arden.

"That was the whole idea when we first started," said Becker, while discussing the museum's holiday train display, which turns 15 this year.

The children who visit love the trains, Becker said, but their parents seem to enjoy them even more.

"They get nostalgic and remember their dads setting up trains around the Christmas tree," he said.

To complete the experience, visitors get to take a ride on an old-fashioned trolley operated by volunteers in period costumes.

The train exhibit is among two that are open to the public this holiday season.

Retired railroad worker Joe Jack and his friends are taking at least eight toy train sets to Canonsburg and setting up a village in the Rakoczy Building.

Jack, 66, has been toying with trains since he was a kid.

"I don't do the normal things like hunt and fish," he said. "It's a natural thing for me as a retired adult to go on with the hobby and show the kids ... the little kids just go crazy."

Jack, who retired as a clerk in a Norfolk Southern freight yard, became hooked on trains at a time when much of the nation's goods were moved by rail.

The toy versions when Jack was a boy "were as common as computers are now," he said.

In Canonsburg for a third consecutive year, the display will include a large canyon, town, modern rocket site and a circus.

"Many of the children's favorite cartoon and storybook characters will fill the display also," Jack said.

At the trolley museum, the train village is staged low enough for children to see it while standing, and they have a chance to operate the controls.

"Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a train," said David Woods, 61, of Washington, who puts the museum's display together.

"I'm into model trains," he said. "I call myself the toy train engineer."

People Woods' age make up most of the business these days at the dwindling number of stores that sell trains in America, said Sonny Russo, owner of Trainland in Charleroi.

Russo said children and young adults would rather play computer games than take the time to put together a miniature train and village.

"Sales are down everywhere," he said.

He said stores like his mostly deal with "serious-minded, middle-aged" collectors or grandparents who have a notion to purchase their grandson his first train set.

"They want to remember the good old days," Russo said.

Canonsburg Christmas
Railroad and Village

Rakoczy Building, 102 W. Pike St.

Open: Dec. 6 through Christmas from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free; donations will be accepted for the Greater Canonsburg Library construction fund.

Pennsylvania Trolley
Museum Trolleys and Toy Trains

1 Museum Road, Washington

Open: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Monday through Friday

Dec. 12, 15, 19-22, 27-30 and Jan. 3, 4, 10, 11

Admission: $8 adults, $5 children, $7 senior citizens

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Howie = not funny


Howie Mandel and the Fab Five, originally uploaded by attit.

Dear Howie Mandel,

My favorite part of the movie “Bruce Almighty” was when Morgan Freeman’s God character was telling Jim Carrey (who played the poor schlep who couldn’t get a break) about his “divine spark.”

“You have a gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world,” he told him.

Now, I’m not God. Hell, I’m not even Morgan Freeman, but I can tell you Howie Mandel it doesn’t take a deity to know you don’t have the spark, my man.

While I loved your work with Fred Savage in “Little Monsters” (gimme a break, I was like, 8) you’re recent stint on the hit game show “Deal or No Deal” is just a little too much.

Sure, the show has a mindless appeal, but you don’t. I’m just one woman talking, Howie, but I’ve gotta tell you that your jokes are flat. Busted. Beat. Old.

I didn’t know the exact word for your brand of humor until seeing a plug for your newest venture with NBC. The unscripted show will be titled, “Howdie Do It.” Really, Howie? You identify yourself as a comedian and then sign on to do a show with that much of a shameless pun?

Oh my! That kind of cheesetastic humor might be OK on a game show – it seems like all the hosts have their own brand of creepy cheerfulness – but don’t bring it into the comedy realm, please.

Another one of my spiritual advisers, Neil Young, once wrote: “You were born to rock, you’ll never be an opera star.”

So I’m writing to let you know: You were born to give away money in briefcases, and you’ll never be a comedy star.

Just so you know.

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “keep your puns to yourself, please,” Gillooly

Monday, December 8, 2008

Groovy dinos spark thoughts to render Mellon Arena extinct


PITTSBURGH, Pa. – A fourth-grade field trip to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus four decades ago at the Civic Arena was the last time I sat in one room with thousands of sugared-up kids until Sunday.

So with mild hesitation, I accepted a friend’s invitation last weekend to accompany her to what is now known as Mellon Arena and witness “Walking With Dinosaurs,” a spectacular show based on an award-winning BBC television series.

But, this crowd of boys and girls sat mesmerized for nearly two hours at one amazing show that mixes strobe lights, scientific knowledge, puppetry and animatronics to bring ancient creatures to life. I was equally as impressed by the production.

“That was awesome,” an 11-year-old boy within earshot exclaimed during the curtain call.



In all, 17 "creatures" glide across the floor at various intervals while a paleontologist sidesteps being trampled by them as he explains life on earth some 65 million years ago. The Brachiosaurus, which stands 36 feet tall and measures 56 feet long, is the biggest of them to roar.

However, baby T. rex steals the show as it screams for attention, dwarfed by its overprotective mother, before they disappear backstage and a giant meteorite slams into the Gulf of Mexico to render dinosaurs extinct. The lights glow red, then flicker into blue circles that hover above the room to mimic flocks of birds, animals that are the only descendants of the dinosaur era.

The light show serves in my head as a sober reminder of the days when clouds of marijuana smoke accompanied Pink Floyd or Charlie Daniels concerts at this landmark in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa.

The place has seen its share of stoned stars since Judy Garland opened the stage Sept. 17, 1961.

But like many a pop star, time has taken its toll on the almost-iconic building that looks like an upside-down, shiny silver metal bowl planted in the center of the city. The rest rooms, for example, smell as if 10,000 too many Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fans peed on their floors, creating urine stenches that long Clorox baths couldn’t erase.

The orange seats sag in the igloo. There are many places where overhangs obstruct the views of the floor. Basically, the place has become a dump. Maybe it is time for the building to take its final curtain call after the Penguins' new home down the street opens in two years.


(Caption: Mellon Arena can be seen in the photo, above, in the distance when Duquesne University built a new campus bridge in 2006)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Donora makes inaugural visit to Donora



Casey Hanner and her brother, Jake, of the Pittsburgh band oddly named Donora, shown above, stopped by the Borough of Donora Saturday to play a few songs to mark the 100th birthday of the Donora-Webster Bridge. So did Bob Menzler of the new Donora duo, Rhyme and Reason, to sing a few cover tunes. (He's in the video clip, below)

Unfortunately, bitter cold weather forced part of the celebration from the bridge to a fire truck house at Rostraver Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 in Webster. But these are talented, dedication musicians who proved to be troopers for a worthy occasion.

In previous years, folks in Donora and Webster dressed up in frumpy period clothing to celebrate milestones on the bridge.

“Let’s start our own traditions,” said DeAnne Pavelko, an organizer of the birthday party, reacting to the notion to celebrate the bridge anniversary with music that appeals to today’s generation.

Here’s an excerpt from a story about the bridge program in today’s Observer-Reporter:

The rusting Donora-Webster Bridge was built a century ago within seven months at a cost $200,000, connecting a borough with hulking steel mills and a village rich with coal.

"That wouldn't be enough to paint the bridge right now," said Charles Stacey of Donora during a ceremony Saturday to mark the span's 100th birthday.

Yet this bridge remains special to residents of these two towns, so much so that two couples stood in a light snowstorm to renew their wedding vows at the rededication service.

"It was exciting, something everybody else doesn't get a chance to do," said Kathie Chadwick of Donora after exchanging vows with her husband of 41 years, Ron.

The Chadwicks and the other couple, Thomas and Carol Stoffel of Monongahela, arrived at the bridge in a horse-drawn wagon to exchange vows before Donora Mayor John Lignelli.

"We were really happy to be here," Carol Stoffel said. "I'm a Donora girl."

Weddings have become a tradition on the bridge, dating to its opening Dec. 5, 1908, when Webster resident John Witherspoon married Harriet Binley before an overflowing crowd. Two other local couples were married on the span Dec. 5, 1986, when it reopened after extensive restorations.


Saturday was the first time the Hanners made a trip to Donora, and they drove around town after singing with plans to shoot some promotional photos there.

“We’re Donora and so are you,” Casey Hanner said before leaving.

Expect big things from her band.

Donora is set to release its first album, one that is self-titled and produced by Rostrum Records, at a party about 8:30 p.m. Dec. 19 at Rex Theater in Pittsburgh’s South Side District.



Last, but certainly not least, the Observer-Reporter's online editor, Harry Funk, braved the light snow storm to introduce the program on the bridge. I'm sorry that I didn't get the chance to run a clip of the entire song.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Single lady skit raises the bar on SNL


I haven't been able to get that new Beyonce song, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)," out of my damned head this week, thanks to another brilliant Saturday Night Live moment.

The skit last week that also features Justin Timberlake is funnier than those featuring Tina Fey portraying the bubbly moose-hunting 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This SNL season is off to one of its best starts in years.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A brightly colored media


Members of the media are required to become a bigger target on federal highways for people who like to throw things at reporters and photographers.

They are among ambulance workers, firefighters, police and others who are under a federal mandate, effective Nov. 24, to wear safety vests at highway emergencies on interstates and other roads that are repaired with U.S. money.

A couple weeks into the rule, I have yet to see anyone wearing these vests at the appropriate times. Yet the responsible-minded editors where I work at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., this week passed around bright orange vests in the newsroom that are identical to the one worn by the model in the photo, above.

This fashion statement sort of reminds me of a silly notion someone had at the newspaper 15 years ago to require reporters and photographers to wear hard hats at spot news assignments. And, then someone else decided it was necessary to waste money to buy us all yellow strobe lights to pop on the roofs of our vehicles when we got on the road to an accident or fire. No one ever used these things.

The vests, though, are a good idea for those of us who want to stay alive on interstate highways, even though I strongly believe that photographers can best do their work when they blend into the background.

More than 100 workers are killed each year in the highway construction industry, the federal government reports. At least 50 firefighters were killed when struck by vehicles at accident scenes between 1996 and 2006, The Altoona Mirror reported in May. That newspaper also claims the uniforms with reflector tape that firefighters have been wearing do not meet the new law’s requirements.

With the country in a recession and fire departments in rural Pennsylvania struggling to raise money to meet expenses, it’s going to be a burden for some of them to buy these vests.

If the state and local police are not now wearing these vests, it’s doubtful that anyone is going to enforce this law. I envision my new vest becoming crinkled, rolled up in a ball and growing dust balls behind the passenger seat of my trusty Ford Ranger.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Couples to renew vows on Donora-Webster Bridge


Two couples will renew their wedding vows on the Donora-Webster Bridge Saturday during ceremonies to mark the span’s 100th birthday.

Ron and Kathie Dickie Chadwick of Donora and Thomas and Carol Giuffrida Stoffel of Monongahela will exchange their vows after the bridge party begins at 3 p.m.

“Oh, I think it’s going to be nice,” said Carol Stoffel, a native of Donora.

Marriages are nothing new to the gray, steel camel-back span that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Witherspoon, a mine boss for Pittsburgh Coal Co., and Harriet Binley, both of Webster, were married on the bridge when it opened Dec. 5, 1908. An overflow crowd turned out that day to celebrate the first toll-free bridge across the Monongahela River.

A double wedding was performed when the bridge reopened Dec. 4, 1986, after it had been closed for repairs. That day, Thomas Giuffrida and Janine Conroy were married along with Marvin Sechrist and Audra Sadler.

“It goes back to the opening and it’s just a tradition that has been carried on since that time,” said Charles Stacey of Donora, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent.

“I think it’s a good idea, calls attention to this important artifact we have linking this town with Webster,” said Stacey, who will serve as master of ceremonies for the bridge rededication.

The Chadwicks were married Nov. 18, 1967, in Emanuel Baptist Church in Donora, and are the parents of two sons. The Stoffels were married Dec. 3, 1960, at the Eighth Street Presbyterian Church in Donora, and went on to have three sons.

“I give Donora a lot of credit,” Carol Stoffel said. “Of all the little towns, they work the hardest to keep themselves going.”

The Stoffels and Chadwicks will arrive on the bridge on a horse-drawn wagon. Donora Mayor John Lignelli will perform the ceremony.

The event also will include an appearance by Santa Claus, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and performances by Harry Funk, Rhyme & Reason and Donora.

The bridge will be closed to traffic from 2 to 7 p.m., with a detour to the Donora-Monessen Bridge.

Observer-Reporter

Dear sourpuss: Be of good cheer!


El Grinch, originally uploaded by Lilis_.

Dear Mr. Grinch, et all:

Get over yourself, and smile for goodness sakes.

And you know I don’t mean the literal Mr. Grinch (and yes, Grumpy Old Editor), I do mean literal). I’m talking about all those bitter, miserable peeps out there who don’t give a damn that Santa Claus is coming to town.

You know who you are. Male or female, you’re “that guy” – the one who zips through traffic on Interstate 79, cutting people off at 80-plus mph only to get a car-length ahead at the onramp. I saw you today, Mr. Handlebar Mustache With the Ugly-Ass Taurus.

You’re the woman with the designer boots and Coach handbag who doesn’t even make eye contact with the dude outside her local supermarket, bundled up and waiting for someone to drop a few coins (or by God a dollarini or two) into the Salvation Army bucket he’s ringing a bell for.

You know who you are. You’re the one who gives dirty looks to babies cooing at church because you can’t hear the sermon. And you’re also the one who can’t make a joke unless it’s at the expense of someone else’s intelligence.

Screw all you guys. It’s almost Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate). And damn it, I know you are idiots all year round, but I thought that with the arrival of December, maybe you’d pipe down and try to be a bit more…well…noble. A bit more caring. I was hoping that people would loosen up those bowties, get the right size bra for their puppies and dislodge the rather sizeable sticks up their derrières.

But hey, it’s only the first day of December. We still have a couple dozen days to invoke the spirit of Cindy Lou Who, Cousin Eddie or more importantly, perhaps, my own personal hero: George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame.

I don’t mean to rant (it’s just not in my nature. OK. That was a joke). I just know that this is the time of year where I try (more than usual) to center my Chi and get my Karma in order. Whatever you want to call it, I guess this time of year helps me try to see the best in others, and even in myself.

So the Grinches and Scrooges out there, I may have started out saying, “Screw you.” But that’s just not nice, and what kind of example would I be setting anyway?

I’ll just end with this, a few words of inspiration from one of the Great Writers. If he can’t help us all understand what a special time we have before us, I don’t know who can.

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” ~Charles Dickens

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “bring on ‘Garfield’s Christmas’” Gillooly

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This bourbon is too smooth to waste in the oven


This post started out to be about a recipe for ham glaze containing apricot preserves and bourbon. However, my stop at a liquor store detours this story to Labrot & Graham and its Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select bourbon.

The brand stands out on the shelf over its competitors that include Jim Beam and Old Crow. Woodford’s thin, round-shouldered bottles are classy and manly, a reminder of a classic black-and-white movie scene with Humphrey Bogart pouring goblets of bourbon to share with a beautiful dame behind a piano. This isn’t the cheap stuff, either. Brewed near Versailles, KY, since 1812, Woodford is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Simply speaking, Woodford defines top shelf.

So back here in shot-and-beer territory south of Pittsburgh, Pa., it’s a miracle that my bottle lasted long enough to make it this week into Thanksgiving dinner.

That glaze recipe yanked from a page in the latest issue of GQ magazine calls for four tablespoons of the above-mentioned preserves and a cup of bourbon or rum warmed together over a stove and set aside while the ham cooks for about an hour. A sober cook should then apply this mixture to the ham before returning it to the oven until it reaches the right temperature.

This recipe will fail you. Instead, spoon an entire small jar of preserves into a sauce pan with about a half-cup or less of bourbon to ensure a thick dressing to dribble over the ham to counteract with all that salt it holds. A full cup of whiskey will just result in a runny glaze.

Aside from that, it would be a shame to send too much smooth Woodford to the drippings in a roasting plan. Save the rest for a day when your personal Ingrid Bergman stops by to lounge around and watch “Casablanca" one more time for good measure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You're no one unless you brine that turkey

It’s an appropriate time for me to confess to following the trend of brining the Thanksgiving turkey.

The technique of soaking meat in salt water to preserve it and draw out bacteria is as old as the hills. But, the practice fell out of style after modern refrigeration gave us a safer place to store tomorrow's dinner.

Now, foodies are taking another stab at brining as a way to add flavor to any number of cuts of boring meat. I was on to this last Thanksgiving, but gave it a halfhearted attempt because it seemed dead wrong to add too many unfamiliar flavorings to a meal for my waspish relatives to handle in one sitting.

Yet my then-11-year-old picky-eating nephew who usually wants pizza exclaimed at the dinner table that that was the best turkey he had ever tasted. While he had no idea who prepared that bird, he has put in a request now for one “just like we had last year.”

So to satisfy a kid like him, you’ll need a vacation day and 12.7 oz jar of Victoria Taylor’s Traditional Brining Blend. It contains two cups of California sea salt, demerara sugar, spices, Malabar black peppercorns, citric acid, garlic and orange peel.

Blend this aromatic spice kit into two cups of boiling water and then cool it with three cups of ice. If you are really smooth in the kitchen, you will have a giant airtight Zip Lock Bag to use to soak the bird overnight in the fridge in the brine and two gallons of cold water.

Wake up early Thanksgiving to pop that Tom into the oven resting in white wine and vegetables. Don't forget to tie up its legs and cover the breast meat with cheesecloth to keep the white meat moist. I stuff mine with one pear to sweeten the stock for the gravy.

Next up: a recipe for ham glaze.

Drool baby drool.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A sheet cake that spits in the eye of Wal-Mart

That's your loss....

My sympathies go out to those of you who don’t live near me and cannot purchase one of these sheet cakes.

Each time a staffer says goodbye to the Observer-Reporter newsroom, or celebrates such as milestone there as having a baby or turning 60, my coworkers cry out for a cake from Valdiserri’s Bakery to mark the occasion.

The standard order from the shop in North Belle Vernon, Pa., is a marble cake with raspberry apple filling and buttercream icing. It has no rival, unless your mother is Martha Stewart wannabe. If that’s the case, my heartfelt sympathies are extended to you once more.

This bakery is found in a nondescript storefront along a main street that is alive with business, even though it’s just around the bend from a Wal-Mart. Tell that to all the big-box store opponents who claim those retail giants kill off local business.

Valdiserri’s, which has been around for decades, can teach small business owners facing overwhelming competition something about quality products, friendliness and staying power. And, it makes a mighty fine fish hoagie bun to boot.

On top of that, the place at 513 Broad Ave. is doing just fine without a Web site to boost its sales.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sit down girls, Annie is in the house

Annie Lennox takes center stage over the younger competition, including Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, with her performance tonight at the American Music Awards.

Unlike the others in a long and showy lineup, the audience can actually understand each and every word sung by the 53-year-old Scot as she accompanies herself on a grand piano. She doesn't need glitz, backup singers and spiffy background dancers to sell that voice.

Lennox’ range is incredibly intact while belting out her signature song, “Why.” She finishes with a soulful emphasis on this stretch of the lyrics: “Do you know how I feel? 'Cause I don't think you know how I feel.”

‘It’s been an incredible journey,” she said, thanking her fans for receiving a special merit award. She also acknowledges former Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart for her success while accepting the trophy from a gracious Justin Timberlake.

We may never know what stirs her imagination, but should forever be grateful that she’s still around to attempt to explain herself in song.

The Los Angeles-based show's producers attempt in this program to appeal to younger audiences, but the older diva gives them the only performance worth remembering. Take a lesson from the best Queen Latifah.

(Photo: The Associated Press)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Care to get married on this old span?


A Party to mark the 100th birthday of the Donora-Webster Bridge

WEBSTER, Pa. - This grainy scan of photograph of the Donora-Webster Bridge under construction in 1908 comes to us today from a reader in Aurora, NY. It’s posted because it’s a rare photo and a timely one because a celebration is being planned to mark the 100th birthday of this span in southwestern Pennsylvania in two weeks.

There will be politicians, speeches, live music, food and souvenirs – just like there were when the bridge opened Dec. 5, 1908. So far, what is missing from the Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, party is a wedding.

Harriet S. Binley of Webster married John Charles Witherspoon on the span when it opened. She was a daughter of a family with old money in the small farming and light manufacturing town that had become overshadowed by its neighbor, Donora, and its then-new, prosperous steel mill. Witherspoon was a newcomer who was dispatched to Webster by Pittsburgh Coal Co. to oversee its developing coal mines.

The wedding attracted a stupendous crowd. The nuptials were delayed, though, because another main attraction at the accompanying parade, the Monongahela Ku Klux Klan, had missed the train to Donora. That tidbit was proudly noted in the local newspaper.

Webster folks hosted that banquet, but they didn’t prepare anywhere near enough food for the guests, many of whom went away from the ox roast gnawing on bones. Another large crowd turned out in the 1980s to witness two weddings on the bridge when it opened again after undergoing renovations. Once again, there wasn’t enough food.

It’s not too late for a couple to volunteer to exchange their wedding vows on this aging bridge for the upcoming party. The day’s events begin at 3 p.m. and will feature a performance by the popular Pittsburgh band, Donora. Drop me an e-mail to get in touch with the appropriate party planners to arrange a quick wedding on this bridge. It might be wise to pack a lunch before you turn out for this excitement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comb-over questions


Donald Trump Signed Photo, originally uploaded by trishautographs.

By Amanda Gillooly

It was more than a comb-over. It was more like a swirl-over. Think Donald Trump, minus the millions.

Clearly balding, the gentleman in question was apparently trying to hide the shiny spot by parting his remaining strands severely to the right, swooping it up and around.

Yes, I was definitely staring, mouth wide open. But I swear my gaze wasn’t as much critical as it was quizzical.

As I watched the dude, a number of valid questions came to mind. I hope that any comb-over enthusiasts will kindly e-mail me so I won’t lie awake each night, pondering the majesty of the ‘do.

Here goes:

1.) How long does it take to construct those things? I have no idea how early one would need to wake up to for a properly coiffed comb-over. Does it take 30 minutes? Twice that long? I also can’t help but wonder what type of styling products need to be employed to achieve the necessary bald-spot coverage, and what the lifespan of the ‘do is. Do the men sporting this look have stock in Aquanet? Dunno.
2.) Very much like many men wonder what PA pop princess Christina Aguilara looks like when she wakes up in the morning sans-makeup, I need to know what comb-over aficionado’s look like when they get out of the shower. Considering that one side of their hair has to be much longer than the other, I can’t image it being a pretty sight.
3.) What are the ethics involved with this hairstyle? Don’t these guys have any friends? Wives? Girlfriends? They do? For real? Because I’ve seen way too many wilting comb-overs to believe that for a second. Friends shouldn’t let friends have a pile of hair sliding unctuously down their foreheads. Much like I would expect one of my close friends to tell me if my fly was down or if I had some sort of food product between my teeth, I’d think these men in question would want someone to say: “Uh, dude? You’re hair has become undone. You might want to give that hair awning a little volume.”
4.) What kind of conversation do these poor bastards have with their stylists? Enough said.

So please, if you are a man trying to cover up your receding hairline and you are privy to the answers to any of these questions, please leave me a comment. You can do so anonymously and it would really be helping a sister out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Donora, the music

Really, there is a band as well as a borough named Donora.
The band, though, isn't from the town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Its members just likes the name.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hey, I'm not done with that plate


Yummy!, originally uploaded by valalikb.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The server at Pittsburgh’s version of an Italian wine bar took one gander at my finished plate and giggled.

“It looks like you really liked that a lot,” she said, after taking away a white piece of china from me that appeared as if I had licked it clean. The only think it held was a thick pork chop bone stripped of its meat at Dish Osteria and Bar in Pittsburgh’s South Side District.

Truth be told, I had to restrain myself from gnawing on that bone to get from it every last morsel of pork before she left with that plate.

That’s the real way to judge a good meal and identify a redneck from a not-so-cosmopolitan bend in the middle Monongahela River valley in southwestern Pennsylvania.

From the small menu, I selected the Costata di Maiale Ripiena in bold print and thankfully above its English translation: pan roasted pork chop stuffed with prosciutto, truffle cheese and basil served with a parmesan mashed potatoes and broccolini.

I was drawn to this corner bar at 128 S 17th St. after smelling good grub cooking while walking along the inner streets of the South Side Flats. I looked in a window and decided to take a seat at the copper bar just after dusk on a Saturday night and before the crowds arrive in this bar-filled party town.

Foodie reviewers have been good to this restaurant since it opened in 2001. Believe what they have said about the quiet little place that is a perfect destination for a great romantic meal.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Introducing the "next" secretary of state


Hillary Clinton probably has the job lined up. She is shown here at California University of Pennsylvania in advance of the 2008 spring primary, before she suspended her race for the White House.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pioneer dude with spikes


WEST NEWTON, Pa. – Those who use a popular hiking and biking trail should be glad it got a rifleman from the quirky sculptor Bill Secunda instead of the giant steel cockroaches he crafted for Texas.

The self-taught Butler, Pa., artist designed 12-foot likenesses of those pesky bugs for the ABC Pest Control building in Dallas. Secunda also planted a giant fire-breathing monster in a swamp in Alabama, his Web site indicates.

His new statue at the Yough River Trail entrance along Route 136 in West Newton, Pa., seems tame in comparison. It’s an odd caricature of a squatty pioneer man forged in railroad spikes.

To earn the commission, Secunda had to come up with a piece that is reflective of the heritage of this small town along the Youghiogheny River.

His subject apparently pays tribute to a band of pioneers under Gen. Rufus Putnam that briefly stopped here in 1788 to build boats before continuing on to explore the Northwest Territory. The rusting spikes Secunda used to build the guy speak to the abandoned rail line that was ripped up to create the 43-mile trail that is among the best sections of the Great Allegheny Passage.

We’re so lucky to have this trail in my part of the woods. I guess we’re lucky to have the Secunda statue, too, but it kind of reminds me of Big Jim, the giant folk art cowboy in Bentleyville, Pa.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

President and Mrs. Cardboard


I have a new conspiracy theory: President and Mrs. Bush have already left the White House. Truth be known, the Obamas were actually greeted Monday at the front door to the presidential mansion by life-sized cardboard likenesses of the first couple.

Much to the surprise of the Obama posse, this is how it found the keys on the computers:


(Presidential photo: USA Today, Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

A sea of blue


WASHINTON, Pa. - South Strabane Township Police Officer Nathan M. Burnfield was remembered Monday for his humor and compassion at his funeral a week after the 27-year-old man was killed in a freak accident on a Pennsylvania interstate.

"He loved what he did ... whether it was a burning building or flying bullets," the Rev. Gary A. Gibson said while giving the officer's eulogy in Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Washington.

Burnfield was struck and killed Nov. 4 while attempting to remove a loose tire from Interstate 70 near Bentleyville. More than 175 police cruisers joined the funeral procession from as far away as Philadelphia, Aberdeen, Md., and Brooke County, W.Va., city police said.

"He truly saw himself as a public servant in every sense of the word," said Gibson, pastor of pastor of North Buffalo Presbyterian Church.


(Captions: Nathan Burnfield's coffin leaves Immaculate Conception Church in Washington Monday after his hour-long funeral. Canton Township fireman Joe Lucas leaves church Monday with the jacket and hat Burnfield wore as a volunteer fireman.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tribute to Veterans Day

War stories from two veterans:

SANTO CHIMENTO, POW

Under orders to take a hill and move up the Ruhr Valley in Germany during World War II, Santo Chimento heard bullets and fell to the ground for protection.

“The Germans had us surrounded,” said Chimento, 84, of Canonsburg, recalling the day in September 1944 when he became a prisoner of war.

“I felt a gun on my back. I put my hands up. That was it,” he said.

The rifleman with Company B 180th Infantry would spend the next nine months in a prison camp, working for the enemy clearing bomb craters or laying railroad tracks.

“It was up and down. The food wasn’t good at all, enough to sustain us. They worked us very hard.”

Prior to being taken prisoner, Germans surrounded his unit in Italy, forcing Chimento to survive by spending an entire month in the same foxhole.

“The only time we could go out was at night,” he said.

But by early May 1945, the situation began to improve after German forces surrendered in Italy. The same German command operated the prisoner camp near Salzburg, Austria, where Chimento had spent the past month.

“We liberated ourselves,” he said. “We took over the camp. We started disarming Germans and they became our prisoners.”

Chimento turned 18 his senior year at Canonsburg High School and immediately volunteered to join the U.S. Army. He was discharged honorably before his 21st birthday.

“We should make it known that freedom is not free. Thank a veteran. We’d all be speaking German or Japanese if it weren’t for us. They were good fighters.”

LT. GEN. WILLIAM "GUS" PAGONIS

Retired Lt. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis was far from being a media sensation during the first Gulf War.

The Charleroi native worked behind the scenes to supply more than 500,000 U.S. Army troops while Gens. Norman H. Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell faced the cameras.

“The troops loved getting their pictures taken with Schwarzkopf and Powell,” the 67-year-old Pagonis said. “The kids would actually line up 100 deep.”

One particular photo op stands out as his favorite story from America’s six-month conflict that freed Kuwait from the grips of Saddam Hussein.

While in the shadows of those generals that day, Pagonis felt honored when a young soldier from his hometown area asked to stand beside him for a photograph. Somewhat surprised, Pagonis asked the man for an explanation.

“The kid looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Your line is a lot shorter.’ He gave me the straight-ahead, honest truth.”

Commanders of that 1990-91 war broke military tradition by mingling often with soldiers in the field.

“These generals, including myself, went out with the troops all the time. Everybody had a camera. It was just one of those things. Every war has its funny little traits.”

Pagonis became highly respected for his ability to maneuver supplies, especially during Operation Desert Storm. Another story has him sleeping two nights in the back seat of a rental car when he first arrived in Saudi Arabia in advance of the military strike because he couldn’t find a hotel room.

He later wrote a book, “Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War.” In it, he describes his mission that has been likened to relocating the entire population of Alaska to the other side of the globe.

He retired from the Army in 1993 and worked 11 years directing logistics for Sears.

Today, Pagonis works for his wife, Cheri, who decided to purchase an Arabian horse farm in Butler County “after following me around,” he said.

Observer-Reporter

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A slam dunk for newspapers


With all the newspaper doomsday talk, Obama's win is a fundamental victory at The New York Times and for the print media in general.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Aiming in the right direction


We need more people like Kathy Leonardi in this part of town.

The assistant librarian in Washington, Pa., gave up her time Saturday to reach out to some of the poorest kids in this small city.

A Citizens Library employee, Leonardi went to Washington’s Hill District to launch a story hour for the Washington County Literacy Council. Just two kids showed up at the LeMoyne Multicultural Center that morning for the family reading program that received little advance promotion.

Six-year-old Justin Gilbert didn’t mind one bit. He had her undivided attention. More children are expected at 11 a.m. Saturday at what is expected to become a weekly event at the center at 200 N. Forrest Ave. that opened in 1956 to offer black families hope for a better future. The place, though, has fallen on hard times in recent years.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The original Donora smog service


A small service was held a year after more than 20 people died over two days in October 1948 from breathing zinc mill fumes that were trapped by stagnant weather in the Donora area.

Fewer than 50 people gathered in a Webster, Pa., schoolyard to commemorate the deaths in a service dominated by church hymns and prayer. Someone painted a memorial on a sheet of plywood containing 26 names of people whose deaths locals attributed to the smog. It the focal point for the audience that afternoon in this southwestern Pennsylvania village that was downwind of the smokestack pollution.

It’s a bit surprising that so few people came to recognize the casualties of America’s deadliest air pollution disaster. This was an area where more than 16,000 people lived at the time.

But then again, most of these folks depended on the culprit, American Steel and Wire Co. of New Jersey, for paychecks. And this service was sponsored by the newly formed Society for Better Living in Webster. The word was spreading that its members were urging folks to file federal lawsuits against the mill to put an end to the poisonous air they were breathing.

Dr. J. B. Laughrey of nearby Sutersville delivered the key speech, according to a type written program book covered with a black folder. I’m going to dig into some old newspaper files to find out more about the guy, and ask around to see if anyone knew what he said that day.

These photos are among of the papers of Allen Kline of Webster, who was a leading member of the society, talented newspaperman and local expert on the smog.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Old bridge having a birthday


The folks who are immediately joined by the Donora-Webster Bridge in Pennsylvania are going to come up with something to celebrate its 100th birthday next month. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here is a story about its inspection this year reported by the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa.:

DONORA, Pa. – James Hibbs and his crew of four suspend themselves under the old steel bridge on a plank for an eight-hour shift, hooked to ropes and cables high above the Monongahela River.

They are inspecting the century-old Donora-Webster Bridge in Pennsylvania, using hammers to pick away rust and chipping gray paint to look for fractures in the metal.

"We take a picture of every little defect we find," said Hibbs, a subcontractor carrying out the work for the state Department of Transportation.

And these men are facing many challenges while going over this historic span, inch by inch, to help determine how much longer it'll be strong enough to bear the weight of cars.

Inspectors typically haul a supercrane onto bridges to carry out an inspection while safely standing in a moveable bucket at the end of the crane's arms.

But the tight, criss-crossing of steel that makes up the arches above the Donora-Webster's deck would get in the way of a supercrane. Worse yet, the bridge has a three-ton weight limit that makes it impossible to drive such a vehicle onto its deck.

"Anytime that you inspect a bridge that is this large and this complex, the size of the bridge itself makes it a time- consuming project," said Don Herbert, PennDOT's district bridge engineer.

The arches that span the river channel are the tallest, rising seven stories above the deck. Workers with good balance and nerves as strong as steel have to climb to their highest peaks during the inspection, with nothing more than a rope to hold onto.

In case of a fall, the company has to post a rescuer in a boat to circle the river under the bridge, 67 feet below the deck.

This bridge connecting Washington and Westmoreland counties must be inspected annually because of its age and lower deficiency rating. Regardless, it's been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places because of its age and style, but that distinction isn't enough to protect it from being demolished.

PennDOT wanted to demolish the span in the 1980s, but the plan changed after residents demanded that it be saved.

The place has a special significance to local residents, partly because it's been the site of three weddings, and another may be arranged this summer to mark its 100th birthday. Children also have been known to lull themselves to sleep at night by counting the hums each time a vehicle's tires roll across the open grating.

"Number one, it cuts down the travel time to Pittsburgh," said Dr. Charles Stacey of Donora, a retired school superintendent.

"The people from Webster who don't have all the ... facilities that Donora has can get over here," Stacey said, adding that people in his town use the bridge as a shortcut to Pittsburgh.

The day the bridge opened proved just how much these two towns wanted to replace the wooden ferryboat they were using to cross the river.

At least 15,000 people converged in the two communities on Dec. 5, 1908, to welcome the toll-free bridge across the Monongahela. They also came to attend the wedding of John Charles and Harriet S. Binley Whitherspoon of Webster.

The businesses of the tiny village catered the affair, preparing an ox roast and 4,000 buns for sandwiches. However, more than twice that many people were turned away when the food ran out.

"Those who were unable to get a sandwich, begged a bone and many went away gnawing at a hunk or rib," the Donora American newspaper reported at the time.

Donora was a boomtown because of a new U.S. Steel mill that opened here in 1901. By contrast, Webster was an aging farming and steamboat-building center that was quickly becoming overshadowed by its industrial neighbor.

But the bridge offered Donora quick and easy access to Webster's coalfieds, which supplied the fuel to heat the many new homes in the area.

As a tribute to both towns, the bridge was painted gray for the smoke created in Donora and black to symbolize Webster's coal.

PennDOT no longer uses black paint for bridges because the steel would fade into the night and increase the chances of vehicle accidents, Herbert said.

He declined to predict the life span of the bridge, and will await the findings of the week-long inspection before making any recommendations.

It could prove too costly to rehabilitate the bridge, and tearing it down and not building anew is always an option, Herbert said.

"I think that would be terrible," Stacey said, when confronted with the possibility of the bridge being eliminated from the landscape. "It would be a great mistake."

No decision, Herbert said, will be made without PennDOT first holding public hearings.