a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Three weeks in Vietnam; 2004

By Scott Beveridge

(Note: The following excerpts are taken from a journal I kept in Vietnam while there as a temporary correspondent for the Observer-Reporter newspaper, working under a 2004 World Affairs Journalism fellowship. The program was administered by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. This journal has been tucked away in a drawer where it has rested, unread, for the past decade. To start at the beginning of this story scroll to the bottom of this blog post.)

Ancestor worshippers at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi in 2004. Scott Beveridge photo

July 3, 2004

This morning I was on my own, without a guide or translator, with plans to tour the Temple of Literature in Hanoi dating to 1070.

The day began with a hotel breakfast featuring a weird fruit the size of a large cherry. It's covered with hard bumps and had a mildly sweet, jelly-like center.

I made a note to find out its name before hailing a cab, shortly after blowing out an electric fuse by using the wrong electrical adapter in my hotel room to recharge my camera's battery.

Soon I was hovering over a crowd of Vietnamese visitors who were pushing and shoving their way to the booth to purchase a ticket to visit this temple. Frustrated, I did the same until I had my pass purchased.

People everywhere were burning incense, play money or paper replicas of cell phones in communal burn pits to send smoke and messages to the heavens and their departed ancestors.

Others leave fruit, money and gifts at the feet of the many statues there of Buddha. Rows of visitors also rub large statues of turtles at shrines to revered deceased educators.

Youngsters laugh at me sweating like a pig. Some reach out to rub my Buddha beer belly for good luck.

Later my guide escorts me to the home of a New York physician, Dan Rapoport, who's living in the upscale foreigner's district of Hanoi. He's expected to coordinate the first-ever scientific analysis that meets medical standards on Agent Orange contamination. He wanted to test the blood of women with children to compare their dioxin levels.

I received another tip that afternoon from an American transplant in Hanoi that a few children had recently been injured by U.S. ordinance discarded during the war, a small bomb that had exploded while they were playing in a dirt pile in Danang. He handed me a newspaper clipping explaining the tragic story in Vietnamese. I packed it in my camera bag.

It became my goal then to find these children in the city in Central Vietnam, once a U.S. military stronghold, where I'm expected to arrive the following day.

July 2, 2004:

A polio survivor works in a Hanoi clinic run by an American Vietnam War veterans group that is removing old, deadly bombs in Vietnam. (Scott Beveridge photo)
HANOI, Vietnam – It was a pleasant surprise to have found a Vietnamese woman and her two young children waiting for me in the hotel lobby, a U.S. employee who had already prepared for us a busy agenda that day.

Our first stop was a tour of Bach Mai Hospital, much of which was destroyed in the U.S. 1972 Christmas bombing raid over North Vietnam.

The patients here on this July 2004 day shared dingy wards with muddy yellow-painted walls in a building without air conditioning and dating to 1911. They hour away the time on cots beside windows without screens on a day when the temperature outside neared 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heat and humidity, "It felt like hell," I penned in a journal I kept on this journalism assignment to report on the charitable work of Vietnam Veterans in Pittsburgh.

I was here, though, with Nguyen Thu Thao, a program officer for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that had a clinic in this hospital.

The VVAF was founded in 1980 by Bobby Muller, a U.S. Marine who was paralyzed in the war and among the first Americans to return to this country during peacetime. Its work then involved getting medical treatment to Vietnamese citizens who have lost limbs in accidents and eventually removing unexploded U.S. ordnance left behind from the war.

We rounded a corner and stepped inside the clinic, whose walls had been freshly painted white. Those without portions of their limbs were receiving massages while children waited to be seen by the staff.

Two young men were nearby finishing work on artificial legs and arms. One of them was a polio survivor while the other one suffered nerve damage when a physician injected a needle in the wrong place when he was 3 years old, my guide explained.

They were happy to be working there, earning 700,000 Vietnamese Dong a month, the equivalent of $58 in U.S. currency. That was $18 more than the average, semi-skilled Vietnamese worker was earning here at the time.

In a country with many contradictions, we later shared tea at a lunch of fresh banana flower salad, seafood, sauteed beef and vegetables over fried rice, and fried fish with five spices in a trendy restaurant. 

July 1, 2004, continued:

Malcom Zelenick displayed his musical talent while seated next to his stepfather, Regis Comer, circa 1962, in a photo likely taken in their home in New Eagle, Pa.

HANOI, Vietnam – Malcom Zelenick accompanied me to Vietnam in the summer of 2004 if only in a photograph of him as a smiling teenager seated beside his stepfather.

I leaned that image against a bud vase holding three freshly-picked red roses on the desk in my room after checking into the French-Colonial-style Hoa Binh Hotel in Hanoi.

It honored a boy I once admired, one who would enlist in the Army in 1965, only to die two years later by enemy fire in the Vietnam War.

Malcom was intertwined in this story in uncanny ways. His death still haunted me when I arrived in Vietnam as a temporary correspondent.

My immediate task, though, was to find out if any children had recently been unintentionally injured by exploding U.S. ordnance left behind by U.S. soldiers, and if any of the victims qualified for assistance from Vietnam War veterans in Pittsburgh.

While I had prearranged for a driver to meet me at the airport, he didn't show up as scheduled and I nervously hailed a cab.

The cabby soon shot down a dirt road, dust flying behind the taxi's wheels, while Soviet-era trucks and modern motor scooters competed for space on the ancient, narrow roads.

My driver soon pulled into a decrepit building, leaving me to fear I would be robbed and dumped on the berm. Later I would learn taxi drivers here were poor and only purchased enough gasoline for their vehicles to drive from one location to the next.

"I can't wait to explore," I wrote later in a journal I kept on this journey after safely arriving at the hotel.

The clerk behind the desk confiscates my passport to alert the state police that a foreigner has arrived here.

The first thing that struck me here was the smell, an odor similar to the interior of a sauna room, only one where monsoons repeatedly drench old wooden buildings that steam dry under the next scorching sunshine.

After having not seen a sunset in the past two days, by then it was nearing midnight and I had a 6 a.m. wake up call to hit the streets running on this fellowship.

"They say when you travel to exotic places you can sleep when you get home," I penned in my journal.


July 1, 2004:

A photo I snapped in Hanoi in the summer of 2004 upon meeting Thao Griffiths, a woman who would send me on a journey south to Danang in search of children recently injured in an explosion while playing with U.S. ordnance dating to the Vietnam War. 

APPROACHING SEOUL, South Korea – The Korean Air flight attendants sounded as if they were part of a small chorus as they conversed with passengers, who unlike me, understood their native language.

With sleepy eyes, I thought it was odd when their tone turned soft and monotonous while they spoke familiar words to the U.S. passengers on the plane that had departed from Chicago.

"The flight attendants worked nonstop," I jotted down in a journal I began that July 1, 2004, afternoon following a turbulent flight and while awaiting a connection to Hanoi.

"It was weird to hear them sing-song their pretty language to the many Korean passengers (onboard) and speak to me in a dull English prose," I noted that day.

It was more than 18 hours after I had left my hometown near Pittsburgh on an all-expense-paid fellowship awarded to me by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., for having a compelling story with a local angle to report from abroad for my employer, the Observer-Reporter.

I was en route to Southeast Asia to investigate the work of the Friends of Danang, a group of Pittsburgh-area Vietnam War veterans who had been raising a lot money then to build schools and medical centers where they once served during battle in Danang.

That day I somehow managed to set aside my fears and anxiety about traveling to a country where I narrowly missed serving my nation in war, one where I didn't understand a lick of its language.

I was confident after having spent the past year researching the war and Vietnamese history as an unconventional graduate student at Duquesne University, and felt up to the task before me.

"Anyway, I'm chugging back a beer waiting for the 4-plus-hour flight to Hanoi," I wrote in the diary, where I would pen a second entry later that evening in Hanoi.

"I can hardly keep my eyes from sealing shut," I noted, heading into Vietnam with a tourist visa that could land me in Vietnamese custody for being there illegally under the guise of a journalist.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 30

By Scott Beveridge

As this 30-day photography project evolved this month at historic Mount Zion Church, a few people who care about this place urged me to go in search of the old log building where its congregation formed in 1800 in nearby in Fallowfield Township, Pa.

The Internet is littered with with information about the historic Lutheran congregation, some of which inaccurately indicates the original church still stands and is rumored to be one of the oldest such structures in Pennsylvania.

That church building, which hosted the first conference of Lutheran ministers west of the Allegheny Mountains on Oct. 18, 1812, was dismantled in recent years on what became the Ivill Farm, said Sandy Mansmann, coordinator of Washington County History & Landmarks Foundation. She said there is a monument regarding that conference near where that church once stood off Kevech Road.

One of the first settlers in this area, Christopher Stacker, sold an acre of his property in 1800 to the Societies of the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, Washington County deed records show.  Each society built a log church there. Neither of the buildings survive, but there is a cemetery on the site that contains the graves of many former area residents, Mansmann said.

The Lutheran group took sole ownership of the acre of property and sold it in 1857 to Alfrey Rial, and it stayed in his family for several generations, according to records at the Washington County recorder of deeds office. 

The congregation relocated to the small redbrick Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township about 1846, and it has remained vacant for about two decades.

(The name of the Stacker family shows up in local records with different spellings and it's is listed on a tombstone at Mount Zion's cemetery as Stacher)

The marker on Kevech Road in Fallowfield Township, Pa., commemorating the first conference of Lutheran ministers west of the Allegheny Mountains. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 29

The long shadows of a spring sunset tonight give a glorious appearance to the closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 28

There isn't any running water at the nearly forgotten Mount Zion Church or its cemetery in Nottingham Township, Pa., requiring mourners to bring their own to plant and refresh flowers on graves.

The property along Cracker Jack Road doesn't even have a trash can, leaving the wind or human hand to toss to the side artificial graveyard decorations.

Visitors, including those who were not invited here, have also left behind beer cans and bottles, car tires and a lot of other trash in the weeds and bushes that hug the property.

And just a few hundred feet away a newer illegal garbage dump holds a mattress among other ugly things that spoil the landscape.

This is how we live in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 27

As Wednesday will bring an end to this 30-day photography project I think I'll miss these daily visits to the historic, closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Today, I packed a short step ladder in my car in order to peek in that back window there, a photo of which was posted here yesterday. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 26

This closeup of a window serves as another example of the neglect historic Mount Zion Church faces in Nottingham Township, Pa., as April draws closer to May when this 30-day photography project is completed.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 25

The most handsome tree at Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Mount Zion Church Day 24

There are unusual finds in the cemetery behind Mount Zion Church and you can find some of them by scrolling through the archives of this 30-day photography project.

Here's another one: This random unmarked boulder apparently sits atop a grave in the Nottingham Township, Pa., cemetery on Cracker Jack Road.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 23

The grave of Janet Gricar Zelensky at historic Mount Zion Church Cemetery in Nottingham Township, Pa., suggests she had a fondness for a black cat before her death in 1995 at age 42.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 22

A view of the side entrance to Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa. That is one spooky tree. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 21

A graveyard daffodil processed with Flickr's new newsprint filter at Mount Zion Church Cemetery in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 20

Peeking through the window next to the side entrance to historic Mount Zion Church it's plain to see the last people who worshiped here walked away two decades ago leaving the cross on the alter wall behind the pulpit.

Later the building in Nottingham Township, Pa., was rented to someone who used it for storage, and he left behind a mattress leaning against a wall, among other things. A small part of it can be seen in the lower, left corner of this photograph.

For more information on the history of this Lutheran church, whose founding members were among the first settlers in the Ginger Hill area of Washington County, click here. Some of the information there proved to be incorrect. Refer to Day 30 of this project.

It's interesting that the First Conference of the Lutheran Church west of the Allegheny Mountains was established at the original log Mount Zion Church, which was built nearby. The congregation relocated to this brick building in 1846, the attached article states., and the old church was converted into a home.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 19

Phillip Seighman is the gravedigger at Mount Zion Church cemetery in NottinghamTownship, Pa.

Today he finished a burial by covering with funeral flowers the grave for James E. Rice, a New Eagle mason who died Wednesday at age 80. 

Seighman said he performs about six burials a year in the small cemetery along Cracker Jack Road.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 18

Happy Good Friday from historic Mount Zion Church cemetery in Nottingham Township, Pa.

This sculpture of Jesus adorns a tombstone on the grave of Sgt. Randolph Wayne Metz, who died in 1998 just shy of his 77th birthday.

He served in World War II in which he became a prisoner of war. 

Despite those obstacles, the tombstone is etched with this epitaph: "I never had it so good."

Have a nice Easter.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 17

Viewed from the lens of a smartphone camera aimed through a window into the interior of Mount Zion Church, the rural building almost appears as if its congregation was just there last Sunday for services.

Upon closer examination, though, the broken light fixture and peeling paint on the wall indicate the small, plain house of worship has been abandoned in Nottingham Township, Pa.

The details that are unique to the interior are the box pews, which are more prevalent in England and New England, and a rarity in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The paneled walls eliminated winter drafts in unheated meeting houses

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 16

It's your turn to write the caption for this photo of a grave in Mount Zion Church cemetery in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 15

For several days now I've been attempting to photograph images without much luck through the windows of Mount Zion Church.

While the building in Nottingham Township, Pa., is old and seemingly abandoned, it has modern, double-pane windows that pose a problem for cameras.

The inner panels of glass reflect surreal images of my camera, fingers and face over top of those of the pews, which are of a style that is rare to this part of the United States.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 14

It's interesting how someone anonymously decorates random graves in the cemetery behind Mount Zion Church on Cracker Jack Road in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 13

An older woman showed up today with two others as I was ready to leave Mount Zion Church.

She looked at me when we passed each other, smiled and said, "Isn't it beautiful here?"

"Yes, but it's a bit neglected," I replied.

She introduced herself as Betty Baxter as she walked with a cane to a family grave. I told her my name and mentioned something about this photography essay.

It's the first day this month that I have seen more than the occasional woman with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth and walking her dog in this cemetery along Cracker Jack Road in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Mrs. Baxter went on to say the caretakers of this historic property once took good care of the small brick church that, today, needs restoration work.

"How long has it been closed?" I asked her.

"Oh about 20 years," she said. "It would be nice if they could get someone in there."

My sentiments, exactly.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 12

The grave of John Keeney, a veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic, is in need of some attention in the cemetery behind Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 11

In a show of disrespect for the dead, people decided this week to do some "parking" in the cemetery behind the old Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

And, they left behind the evidence of that as litter in the form of a used condom, empty pack of Camel Menthol cigarettes and a plastic bag containing more than two dozen empty laughing gas cartridges.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 10

Burials are still being performed in the small cemetery behind the closed and seemingly abandoned Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Heavy equipment arrived this week to bury Ronald M. Hostovich of Carroll, who died December 30, 2013, at age 71.

He has been interned beside his wife, Ann Dolly Hostovich, who preceded him in death in 2009, according to their tombstone.

The cemetery association is separate from the nonprofit organization that once held services in the church.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 9

The Weygandt family has an old name in the Monongahela, Pa., area as some of its members were among the earliest settlers of Washington County, Pa., following the American Revolution.

But unfortunately for Cornelius Weygandt Sr., he only lived to be 25 years old and was buried under an elaborate white marble tombstone behind the now-closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township.

Above his name on the relatively-intact tombstone was carved a beautiful rose to mark his 1869 death, noting he survived for 5 months and 22 days beyond his last birthday.

Below his name was set in stone the inscription, "In a full age like as a sholk of corn cometh in his season."

The phrase is loosely taken from Job v. 26 in the Bible as a reference to a holy man who reaches his death at a full age as does a ripe ear of corn.

It's among a number of antique inscriptions and symbols on graves here, including one on the heavily-weathered tombstone, at rear, right, which displays a hand, palm forward, fingers and thumb directed to Heaven.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 8

The fallen tombstones appear to be more a victim of time rather than of vandalism at the closed and historic Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

The building along Cracker Jack Road, however, is a victim of neglect.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 7

Here rest the remains of Sarah and Joseph Agostoni and Frederick Pfau at an old tombstone being swallowed up by two large pine trees in the cemetery behind the closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 6

The grip of the Earth appears to be eager to pull down the old, closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

A wild grapevine crawls up a scraggy tree there, and the weed has also climbed onto the church's roof and down the brick toward the front door to the building dating to the mid-1800s along Cracker Jack Road.

Another ignored vine has spread up and across the back of the building, and it has encircled the entire roofline.

I should take a pruner with me when I stop by the place tomorrow to take a photo of another interesting tombstone.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 5

The activity at the closed Mount Zion Church dating to the 1800s in Nottingham Township, Pa., has been limited to a few new burials over the past winter at the cemetery to its rear.

But the church property has been encroached from all sides by the modern world.

Across Cracker Jack Road from the church, a Marcellus Shale natural gas underground pipeline has been under construction, requiring the company to stack large bales of hay on the ground, material needed to reclaim the property its scarring.

To the left of the church's facade sits a new fenced-in pad containing machinery needed for the booming gas industry in Washington County.

And older fenced-in yard to the church's right appears to date to a closed coal mining operation.

Trespassers who illegally ride all-terrain vehicles often visit those areas, while the busy Route 136 cuts across the property to the rear of the church, near where that two-lane road intersects with the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 4

The small cemetery behind the old, closed Mount Zion Church on Cracker Jack Road in Nottingham Township, Pa., is a great place to stroll and admire the creative ways people decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 3

Judging from the color and style of the carpeting inside this double-door outhouse, it appears the 1970s was the last time the congregation spruced up its relief station behind the now-closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa.

It also looked today with the outhouse doors wide open as if many years have passed since anyone has needed to use its facilities.

As someone who grew up in an area when people in certain places still relied on outdoor plumbing, this is the first outhouse I've seen with indoor commode seats.

Stop back tomorrow as this 30-day photography project continues at this church dating to the mid-1800s.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 2

To the back of left side of Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa., a two-door outhouse survives not far from the first grave in the cemetery.

Signs above the doors label which door the men and ladies were to use when nature once called at the closed church built in the mid-1800s along Cracker Jack Road.

Tomorrow, as this 30-day photo series at the church continues, I hope to wiggle open one of the doors to show those following this project what the inside looks like.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mount Zion Church Day 1

For many reasons the closed Mount Zion Church in Nottingham Township, Pa., keeps luring me back there to take photos and walk around its small, ancient cemetery.

That said I am going to make every effort to return to the property on Cracker Jack Road every day for 30 consecutive days this month to photograph something that catches my eye.

I don't know anything about church's history other than it was built in the mid-1800s, and do expect its story will be revealed here as this series plays out.

But most importantly, I want to draw attention to the building's deteriorating condition in hopes something will be done to preserve the redbrick structure before it disappears from the landscape.

                                                                                                              Scott Beveridge

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The tale of two John Harts

The final resting place of John R. Hart in Congruity Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)
By Scott Beveridge

There is an oral history in my mother's family that her father was a descendant of the John Hart who signed the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey.

Unfortunately a primary source document has never surfaced to confirm the Hart side of my family descended from this obscure American hero whose story has mostly been lost to history.

What is known involves two John Harts being among the first settlers in Westmoreland County, Pa., in the 1780s, and that both of them claimed to have been sons of the signer of the document that launched the Revolutionary War.

It's been well document that the signer's son did relocate to Westmoreland County after the war ended. The other "John R. Hart" was either the signer's illegitimate son or an impostor.

At least one confirmed descendant of the signer is certain those who believe John R. Hart was the man's son are making a "grievous mistake," according to an email I received from her.

John R. Hart's family was certain the story was true and went as far as adding a plaque to his tombstone in Congruity Presbyterian Church Cemetery in New Alexandria, Pa., commemorating his service in the war and listing him as a son of the signer of the Declaration of Independence.

One descendent of John R., James W. Hart Jr., also seemed to have been as confused as other Hart genealogy buffs who have attempted to solve this mystery, according to 1981 notes he deposited in a file on the family at the Historical & Genealogy Society of Indiana County Pennsylvania.

He noted he found "sometimes contradictory information" among the documents he researched and nothing to substantiate additional claims that John R. Hart's wife, Martha Taylor, came from a family of early Virginia settlers who were the "forebears of two U.S. presidents."

And yet there is another John Hart - my ancestor -  who shows up in Westmoreland in the late 18th Century.

Just how my great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Hart of Westmoreland County, ended up in this story is anyone's guess.

He received on brief mention on a mostly blank sheet of paper someone slipped into the John R. Hart file at the historical society in Indiana, Pa.

Born in 1791 in Westmoreland, he married Elizabeth Wheaton in 1813, and possibly was related to the signer of the Declaration of Independence, the unsourced record states.

That John Hart's birth year, however, doesn't match up with the official children of the real son of the signer or the other one with the tombstone at Congruity. Every John Jr. and nearly each of their many siblings appear to have named a son John, further complicating this research.

It has also been documented he had a son Jacob who produced my great-grandfather, Mack Kelly Hart. Mack Kelly's father, Jacob Hart, was a blacksmith and he suffered an untimely death in 1871 after he relocated his family from Connellsville, Pa., to Abilene, Kansas. My grandfather, Howard, was Mack Kelly's son.

My late mother, June Hart Beveridge, lived most of her life in Westmoreland County, and had an aunt who once warned her not to dig too deep into the family history because was liable to "find some things out that you don't want to know."

My mother drew the conclusion before her death that the John Hart she chased for so many years was an illegitimate child.

She probably was right about that.