On Not Writing

Kind of weird but this blog post is about not blogging. Not writing…anything…since June…except liner notes for birthday cards. Besides that…nothing. 

Oh, I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve collected articles and things that I thought would make good fodder for a post. They’re collecting on top of the spare bed in my “office.” In piles of like interest. Kind of. 

Kind of like my mom’s piles of articles, some fairly recent and most from long, long ago. They, with old photos, are part of the items that she shuffles around from place to place in her home before she puts them back in a drawer or an envelope to “discover” later.

But every time that I try to sit down to write, I get attracted to something else and crawl down another rabbit hole. Maybe online. Maybe from a drawer. Or closet. 

And then, when I do have an idea, I come up with a myriad of other things that “must be done” first, like…cleaning…or exercising…or rearranging…or cleaning. 

And even right now, writing about not writing, I have the urge to get up and go brew some hot tea even though I made a latte’ not thirty minutes ago. Still, the urge to get up and go…

…And, now I’m back with a hot cup of tea…that just proves my point.

I don’t know why I do this. But I’m reminded of Ed Norton, the character on “The Honeymooners” from way back in the day. He made the process of getting ready to do the simplest of things, like signing a piece of paper, maddening for his buddy, Ralph, and endearing and hilarious for the audience. “Alright already!” Ralph would scream after he exercised his limited amount of patience. 

Anyway, you got the picture of me getting ready to get ready. Is it procrastination? Is it ADD? Is it lack of direction? I don’t know. I guess it’s part of the work that hopefully leads to the discovery of something worth reading. You’ll have to tell me. I have no idea.  

I actually enjoy writing. I enjoy having a reason to write even more. I also apparently enjoy over-writing even more than that. 

I do have a list of things that I have given thought to write about and share with you. As I look back, I promised more about West Virginia and The Farm, although my desire to write about West Virginia is tainted by the efforts of Joe Manchin, one of the state’s U.S. senators, standing in the way of the passing of some key pieces of legislation.  

I also have some thoughts about birthdays, how some perceive them as little cause for fanfare, and others go all out. 

Then, there’s COVID19, one of the real incentives to my uptick in postings dating back to March 2020. Unfortunately, COVID is still here in the form of the delta variant, despite the ready availability of multiple vaccines. No, it didn’t go away overnight, as we were once told. And I now know people who have had the disease. It’s not pretty.  

And, there’s one of the joys of our lifetime; we became grandparents thanks to the birth of Hazel Marjorie Riley. 

So many things to write for and about. 

What’s standing in my way? Nothing but, well, me. And a bottle of tequila cause today is Tequila Friday. 

Writer’s note: The tequila did its work and that is why I’m publishing today, Saturday, November 13, instead of Tequila Friday.

Linda and Me

If this were a movie script, it would start like this:

Open fade up on the place and date in white type over black, center screen:

June 15, 2021, Durham, NC

Audio up, you hear a woman speaking, “I first met Linda…”

Cross fade from date to wide shot of a room full of people.

Cut from close-ups face to face to face of those sitting and standing, listening to the speaker…building the awareness that someone has died, and this is a service celebrating their life.

Cut to medium shot of the speaker continuing to tell her story about her friend, this remarkable woman, friend, sister, aunt, daughter, artist and successful business woman…Camera dollies around the speaker at the podium to behind her, revealing the crowded room she is addressing.

Audio begins to drift off as the screen dips to black. Sound up on birds chirping.

Fade in on type reading “Summer 1960”,

Cross-fade to an extreme closeup of big eyes, staring into the camera, but obviously looking beyond the lens. Camera pulls out enough to reveal a young girl, seven or so years old, watching something intently through an open window, the bug screen mesh adding texture to the image. She is leaning on the sill, arms crossed, chin on her interlaced hands. Her big eyes blinking. 

The camera dollies out more to show the window on the side of the white siding and pans 180 degrees, revealing the small well-kept lawn and lazy summer neighborhood street at the corner of Englewood and Carolina Avenue. Aside from the chirping birds it has been whispery quiet up until now, but timed in front of the camera pan, the sound would raise and introduce the clickity-clack cutting sounds of an old reel push mower, in fits and starts, brought into view as the camera completes its 180 degree pan.

A skinny young boy is struggling with the mower, pushing it through the thick grass of the small, tight lawn across the street. 

Video showing the camera pan from the Carolina Avenue side of the McGill’s former home to the Glymph’s side yard.

That boy mowing her neighbor’s yard, the focus of her interest, is wearing what looks like an animal on his head. She realizes that it is a coon skin hat, with the ‘coon tail flopping around on the back of his head as he pushed a few feet, then pulled the mower back to clear the blade reels of grass caught in the cutter bar. Then pushed again, gradually making headway. 

She couldn’t take her eyes off of this sight of the young boy, curiously wearing an animal skin hat, mowing the lawn in the growing heat of the summer morning. 

That boy was me, mowing my grandmother’s grass, wearing my cherished Davy Crockett coon-skin cap. I could obviously care less that it was way too hot a day for a fur cap. And, I had no idea that I was being watched by those big eyes next door.

The young girl at the window was, of course, Linda, when the McGills lived across the street from my grandparents, the Glymphs.

I had no idea that such a girl lived across the street, let alone was watching me struggle with the mower. And, I only know this story because, years later, Linda revealed her first memory and early interest in me…and my cap.

My early recollections of Linda are from the teenage dances held at Willowhaven Country Club when we were early teens. Although I was going to the new Carrington Junior High in the  county school system, many of the kids at the club went to Brogden Junior High in the city. I’m sure that Linda and I danced a time or two then but it was really just a fun time dancing to a live teenage band playing early sock-hop rock songs. Not serious dating stuff. Just getting the moves down and the nerves up enough to break away from the wall and turn from a watcher to the watched. We also hung around some at the club pool, catching rays and playing Fox and the Geese. I mean, she was so cute, how could I not want to tag her before she reached the other side of the pool when she was a goose and I was the fox.

So, suffice it to say, we had made our acquaintance but weren’t close friends. That would come later.

Fast forward to 1969 when I transferred from Northern High to Durham High School for my Junior year. I quickly fell into a circle of people that I already knew from Willowhaven, Asbury Methodist Church and from basketball at the YMCA. That initial group included Linda, Bob Umberger, my cousin, Gary Pope, Susan Nelson, Karen Tilley, Andy Swindell, Ann Freeman, Bill and Ben Wilson to name a few. 

This was a very heady time for all of the normal reasons, like hormonal changes in teenagers. And it was also a major time of unrest. The Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, along with the explosion of Rock and Roll music all intersected in our high school years. 

It was a time in which most of us were not sure who we were, but we were sure that we were not happy with who we were NOT. The story of Linda and me was that early-in-life love story, a story that had a beginning, a middle, an end followed by a reconfiguration from lovers to lifelong friends. 

It was that time when we found in each other someone in whom to just let go, and in doing so, lost ourselves in a world discovery. If you will allow, I’d like to share some of that story.

Early in our senior year we dated a couple of times. You know, to football games or a movie. We were both “available” for the most part. She and my buddy, Bob, had gone steady for a while, but when they were unsteady, Linda and I went out on a couple of dates. We had fun. We were great friends and I remember us working our way through the friend thing to something different.

The Note

I’m a little fuzzy on this but some time had passed after our last date and she came up to me near the Durham High smoking corral. She handed me note, smiled, and then walked off. I opened it and it read something like this: “I don’t know if you want to, and I understand it if you don’t, but if you do, I would really like to go out with you again. I leave it up to you. Yours, Linda”

That note was so Linda. Honest. Strong enough to be vulnerable. Vulnerable enough to show some lack of confidence. 

Something about it touched me so deeply. I felt that there was more to peel back here. That there could be something special if we both just let go. And we did. With that, she captured my heart. From that day forward, I was all in. We both just let ourselves go in our commitment to one another for almost four years. 

Her artistic flair began to really flourish into true talent.

Freshman year, Linda went to Goucher way up north in Maryland while I went to UNC. That didn’t stop us from being together. I drove up almost every other week, borrowing cars from whomever would loan theirs to me – my old sports car wasn’t trustworthy for that kind of travel. 

Through it all, I had a front row seat to witness the growth of her artistic talent at Goucher and UNC-G as she experimented in different mediums of expression — through brush, pen and knife with oil, acrylic, water color and clay…until she found her element in metal. First big steel plates and gears, then tiny wax sculptures turning gold and silver, stone and jewels into wearable art.

Seldom satisfied with the results, I believe her inner battle between vision and capabilities drove her to always keep pushing for better work. 

Through it all, I loved her then like I had never loved anyone before. Linda was both the joy and the sorrow of my life at that vulnerable and impressionable time of high school and college.

Our love of each other was strong enough to last through breaking up. Strong enough to forgive. Strong enough to care, overcome distance and time and become the friendship that lasted to the day she died. 

I am so thankful for the many pieces of her spread throughout my family and her community of customers. Through that, she will live on, continuing to bring joy through each individual treasure. One of the early rings that she made at her first shop in Lakewood Shopping center in 1977 was for me at my request. She crafted it from silver with an onyx stone for me to wear on my right fourth finger.

True to form, she grew to dislike it…until I showed it to her one final time when she lay dying. 

She pulled my right hand towards her face, holding it tightly and turned it to “see” the ring from all sides. Then, she smiled and said, “It’s beautiful.”

I leaned over and whispered something that only she would know about us in her ear and asked if she remembered. I watched the memory cross through her gaze, she smiled a knowing smile, looked at me, still holding my hand and said, “Oh yes. I remember.”

That’s all that I needed to hear. And those were the last words I heard her utter.

“Oh yes…I remember.”

Two weeks later, on June 4th, Debbie called to tell me that Linda had died that morning just before the dawn. Through my sobs and tears Debbie offered a consoling truth, “You know…you were her first love, Steve. You know that.”

I told her what it meant to me, all of these years later, to hear that, even as if I could ever have forgotten.

Who would ever believe that that vulnerable, impressionable girl would build and leave behind such a thriving business of artists and jewelers as Jewelsmith. What a precious gift. A place for her family of designers to keep her spirit alive. And I, like all of you who love her, can still go there and in doing so, stay close with her memory. It wouldn’t hurt to buy something. Just saying.

Of course there are many stories I’m skipping over. Stories that require a bit more time. I’ll save them for later. They involve a red 1959 TR3, lost driver’s license, brief jail time, a hocked watch, and a pet pot plant that ultimately short-circuited Linda’s application for Trusted Traveler. Oh, and there was the hashish Bob and I buried in the McGill’s backyard on Wilson Street.

I remain forever grateful to have had Linda in my early life. I learned so much about the joy and adventure of love, the sorrow of losing it, the healing nature of forgiveness, and, how opening your heart to finding love again pays the greatest respect to love lost by finding it once again. 

I end for the moment with a poem I wrote to Linda in 1974 after our breakup. At the time that I put pen to paper I was inconsolably lost. I don’t think that I’ve ever been so succinct before or since.

It was published in the Charlotte Observer three years later. It’s called,

The Pre-Heart Shake Holiday (or the St. Valentines Day Blues)

With lines and curves 
I tried 
But couldn’t,
And now with lines and words 
I try 
But can’t
Present
The feelings 
Of a heart 
That’s bent 
And a mind 
That’s spent 
From loving you. 

Farewell my dear and forever friend.

Linda on our 1974 scuba diving trip to Florida over winter break with the crew of David Katzenmeyer, Chris Osborn, Wally Diehl, Bob Umberger, Liz Greene, Dena Thompson and Curtis Brooks.

Remembering Homer and his day

I woke up this morning before dawn knowing that today isn’t your average Tequila Friday. Today is May the 7th. Two days after Cinco de Mayo. It’s a day that has been sneaking up on me hour by hour, minute by minute until, while I was sleeping, May the 6th turned into May 7th. 

And now, after waking early, I’m ticking the clock down to 10:45 a.m., the time, six years ago, that my dad, our dad, stopped. 

And so, today, at 10:45 a.m., I will stop, pause, and let him wash over me. 

Like you who have lost someone who means so much to you, to your life, to who you were, are and will continue to become…who you are in this day, and who you were a half-century ago, we remember them.

My folks were present my life, shepherding me with gentle nudges that I didn’t realize, and, sometimes, with the blunt force of a baseball bat – figuratively, not literally. No one had more influence on me than my parents.

I’ve written quite a few posts and poems and stories about my dad over the years, while he was alive and after he wasn’t. Today, I’ll honor his life, not with a story, but with a riffing, stream-of-consciousness nod to his ever optimistic view of the day, from its dawning to its setting, and what he will or did accomplish in the time allotted by the clock. For the day belonged to him. That clock felt by many as handcuffs, as some form of constriction, as it mercilessly ticked forward, tightening the deadlines, putting them further behind in whatever their pursuit. 

Dad never looked at it that way. He was one of those people who owned the clock and he used it to his every advantage to DO. DO something. By the way, if you’re going to “do” something, DO something important. 

What made something important in his view?: it was something needed, necessary, both remarkable and unremarkable. It might be something of importance to only one person, or to a crowd, or to his home, wife, child, sister, mother, family, company, community, county, state…or country.

When he did it, he did it full bore, like his smile, his handshake, his greeting…”Hi, Homer Riley. Top of the morning!” He said it with a thrill of what’s ahead, of what could be made of the time. What could be planned. Built. Engineered.

Dad was a mover, shaker and instigator. His language was filled with various ways of saying, “Let’s go.”  

Although he’s been gone for six years, he stays present in my day in tiny little ways. Starting with taking my pills in the morning. I hear him say, “press the top of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to swallow a pill without choking.” This advice from someone who, in he’s later years, had to swallow a horse pill or two.

When I’m walking, I hear him nudge me to “walk with a purpose. Know where you going to get there.”

Or, one of his quirky suggestive remarks, “Don’t be stupid.” Like when he and his good buddy, Mack Hales, painted themselves into the deep end of the pool and couldn’t get out…at least for a short while. “Don’t be stupid.” Granddaddy’s rule for playing golf as well, shared frequently with his children and grandchildren while they learned the everlasting lessons of the game. Golf is a game of getting into trouble and getting out of trouble.

I mean, “Don’t be stupid” works for almost any act on the consideration table. It was a rule of thumb that could save a teenager from embarrassment, or a business person from ruin.

I constantly hear him whispering in my ear, “What’s next?” instead of “Let’s go.” That’s what Dad began saying in the last months of his life, when he was fighting off an infection that would ultimately be the beginning of that cascading of events that ended his life. It was a time when I really saw his character, his faith in so many things revealed as he shed, piece by piece, his ability to lean in on his own, because he had lost the ability to get up and go…do, on his own.  

“What’s the plan, son?” was the first thing that he said to me in the morning when I entered his hospital room, right after, “Good morning, sport!” In deference to his plight at the time, while he was trying to get well, he knew he was in the hands of others and he wanted reassurance that there was a plan for the day…a goal in mind for what he, we, were going to accomplish. Knowing there was a deliberate plan gave him faith that the day would be well spent, not wasted. Even when he didn’t have the strength to walk, he had the desire to make today important.

You know that I can go on and on like this all day. Part of that comes from him. As deliberate as he was about doing, he loved remembering things done, by him, by us, by those he admired, and, by those he didn’t. He loved to remember those jewels of moments, and tell about them, like a banker enjoys counting his money. He had his classics that became part of our family’s legend and lore. But, as long as he was getting up and doing, he was making more memories.

As much as he celebrated the beginning of the day, he memorialized its ending, recognizing what he or those he was with, got done that day. 

You could say that Dad was a closer because he put a period on things at the end of every day. Unlike his children who seemed to try and milk an extra minute out of the clock, he went after it until he was done. Then, he pronounced it over and closed it out. I think that came from the Marines, the War, and seeing the ephemeral nature of life and how quickly it can be snuffed. He maintained the general wonder of the world and of life as a counterpoint to the death and suffering that he was forced to witness from inside of a fox hole.

So, he enjoyed the day, what he accomplished, even if that accomplishment was solving an issue that got in the way of the overall goal. Working through challenges was part of the purpose of the doing. Things that complicated the plan, that often frustrated others, just added a new, perhaps unforeseen, dimension of the goal for him. And it was how he and others turned negatives into positives that were his favorite stories to tell. It was his perspective that allowed him to own the narrative, both of the individual stories and the sum total of his life. 

Anyway, it’s time to put a period on this. Thanks for spending a few moments of your day with my thoughts, remembering Homer Lindell Riley, Sr. 

Hey Dad, what’s next? Let me take my pills first! (tongue to roof of mouth)

What’s the plan? 

Don’t be stupid.

Let’s go do something!

Love ya man. I miss you at the start and the end of every day.

After Dad retired, he ran for Durham City Council. He lost, but that’s another story.

Letting Go

“Ole Roy ain’t that good,” he has said about himself.  

Well, the statistics, and there are a lot of them, speak for themselves and they beg to differ. What they say is that this man, this coach, built a record that only a precious few have or will attain over a career in college basketball coaching. 

But the numbers don’t tell the story of how they came to be, how Roy came to be the right man for whom the floor of the Dean Smith Center is now named.

For the longest time, way before Roy left Chapel Hill for Kansas, while he was still coaching the Carolina JV squad and studying as an assistant coach under Coach Smith, I loved his story. 

Roy grew up the way many did. Hardscrabble. His alcoholic father was tough on his mom until they separated. After that, his mom continued working in the factory and started ironing shirts and pants for 10 cents each after she came home to try and make ends meet. Roy hated that she had to do that, and he never forgot how she faced adversity to raise him and his sister. 

Here’s a link to an article written in 1997 when Roy was coaching Kansas. I really hope that you will read it, even if you think you know the story. And, especially if you don’t like Roy, maybe because your team lost to him…often. I think you’ll get a sense of the goodness in the man even if you dislike him for his consistent winning ways.

I just finished reading it and I’ve gotta be honest, even though I know the story, I just wiped tears from my face. 

That early life set his future in so many ways, from valuing hard work, loyalty to people, sacrificing for others, revering the women in his life, loyalty, humility, honoring his dream, and, of course, the joy of opening a bottle (or can) of Coca Cola which, at one time, cost what his mother made ironing someone else’s pants.

A little personal aside, Roy was a senior at UNC when I was a freshman. We never met. We just shared the same campus for a year and then he graduated. He was just one of those gym rats; a good, but not great, basketball player who came to know very early in his life what he wanted to do. Coach. For him, basketball was his pathway to coaching. And his fierce desire to coach was a reflection of his relationship with his high school basketball coach, Buddy Baldwin. Through Buddy’s example, Roy learned how much a coach could matter in the lives of their players. For him, Buddy became the father he didn’t have in his life. To him, his coach meant the world. Roy wanted that kind of connection with players. It was never the money. In those days, coaching wasn’t the best way to put cash in your pocket. It was a thankless, low paying job. It was always the players and the game that drew them together to build lifelong connections through a shared experience that required hard work, facing adversity, always striving to improve for the good of the team. To play better together. To know a plan and to execute that plan, together, and make it become a winning plan. 

After he graduated from Carolina, Roy set about putting his plan into action. He landed the head coaching job for basketball and golf in Black Mountain, NC, near his hometown of Asheville. Those players on his first team carry in their hearts the same feelings for Coach Roy as he does for them to this day, like the feelings that Roy carries for Buddy. 

Then, Coach Smith called him about an assistant coaching job. He told Roy that he didn’t have a salaried position available yet, but, if Roy really want it, Coach Smith offered him some ways to earn money for his growing family. That’s how Roy began selling annual team calendars and driving the video tape of Coach Smith’s weekly coaching show around to the TV stations in North Carolina that carried it.

And the part of that story that I loved the most was that he arranged his route so that he always ended with the Asheville station. Once he completed his business at WLOS, he would swing by his mom’s and they would share a Coca Cola at the kitchen table. 

So, Roy earned his way, in a sense, paying for his time with Coach Smith in his own form of ironing shirts and pants to make ends meet. Selling the calendars and driving the coach’s show tape from town to town helped put food on the Williams family table while granting his further education as a coach, going to school through team practices and time on the bench during games and learning from the dean of the game. Finally, Coach Smith was able to actually pay him for his work as an assistant coach. By then, Roy had turned his calendar sales into a real moneymaker…because that is just what he did with any project. He turned it into a winner.

Fast forward. Roy’s retirement press conference made the end all so real. We experienced it in our home with feelings worn on our sleeves watching him fight back tears addressing his passion, compassion and joyful adoration of everything Carolina. He leaned in heavily on his mistakes and failures along the way in these last two very difficult years. He never blamed the difficulty of those two years on the players or on COVID19. The failures were always on him. And, like golfers addressing the last round or so of competition, if only that ball would have dropped, or, I didn’t tell the guys to call a timeout…or, I called a time out that didn’t work out either. He put a lot of that second guessing on display all to legitimize his decision. He also revealed the anguish he felt in doing so.

It was rough. Watching him beat himself up in order to explain why now, and not later, he was retiring. 

I guess it needed explaining. I guess he is the type of person who, even ranked at the tip top of success in his court, felt compelled to reflect on where he was now with a deeply honest critique like it was an open wound. 

I remember when Coach Smith said that he knew it was time for him to retire when he didn’t have the fire to return for the next season. He knew that he would not be giving the team what it deserved from him. And, Coach Smith couldn’t do that to his players, be less than what they needed or expected. 

This was Roy’s way of saying the same, of following his mentor’s example, but with more self admonishment. Whatever the reason, he felt it time for him, for the program and for the players to hang up his shoes. He felt that he was “no longer the right person for the job.” 

And speaking of hanging your shoes up, all through this year Roy wore an amazing array of old Air Jordans…all Carolina Blue of course, during games. The broadcasters caught on and featured the new “old” pair he was sporting for that game. 

 Looking back, was that a signal? 

Anyway. Yes. I bleed Carolina Blue. And for all of his mistakes, Roy Williams did what a protege’ should do; he took what he learned from Coach Baldwin, Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge, built on that to reboot the program at Kansas, until he received Dean’s call. “Roy,” Dean said, “We need you. Carolina basketball needs you.” All he did was come back to Chapel Hill and save Carolina basketball. He righted the ship and spent 18 years piloting that ship, making all of us, the fans, the media and the nation, expecting Carolina to play in the Final Four every year. We didn’t always make it, of course, but we came to expect nothing less than success. Nothing less than measuring up to and going beyond the legacy started by Dean Smith. 

It’s true. Ole Roy was not Coach Smith. But he became everything that the team needed from him and more. 

For folks like Roy in jobs like his, the hardest part is letting go. Letting go of the strings you had both pulling at you and those you pulled to get what you needed to accomplish the goals in front of you. 

Letting go the daily embrace of people who you put in place to help you and the team succeed, people you’re devoted to and engaged in their personal and professional success. 

Letting go the love of that work which binds you together. Letting go of winning together…and even letting go of losing together. 

That was what was bubbling through Ole Roy’s final press conference as Head Coach of The University of North Carolina Tar Heels. That’s what he was expressing through watery eyes and slow, thoughtful words often challenged by his own emotion. 

One thing he will never let go…his love of everything Carolina, from the place to the people, to his time there and his time not there…and most importantly, he will never ever let go of his commitment to his players, his coaches or his staff. 

Nor will we, the Tar Heel Nation, let go of Ole Roy.

He made us too proud, too happy for so long that we expected nothing less than the best. 

We owe him such a debt of gratitude. And a Coke anytime he wants one. Because, like his favorite drink, Ole Roy “is the real thing.” 

“Coke is the real thing”

West Virginia Part 2. Heaven…almost

West Union, WV.

June 1972

I woke up with my eyes and nose just peeking out from under the covers, feeling the cool of the West Virginia summer morning on the top of my head, and the warmth of the handmade quilt on top of me, calling me to stay put. Dawn had not yet broken but a dim light came through the windows. I could smell the gas heater in the room. My brother, Lin, was stirring in his bed next to mine. I rolled over, pushed back the covers, stepped out on to the hardwood floor, wandered through the grayness into the hallway and down to the end of the long walk to the bathroom. 

As I walked back to our room at the front of the house, by the stairway, I heard Bob and Gary starting to move around in the large bedroom they shared. Lin and I passed each other as he headed to the john. 

“We gotta go,” he chided, ever the timekeeper for this bunch. 

It was 5:30 a.m. and if we were going to grab a hot breakfast before reporting to work we needed to head out soon. That was enough incentive to get us all going.

I put on a fresh pair of underwear and socks, pulled up my jeans, grabbed a shirt, jean jacket and my steel-toed work boots. It was almost like a firefighter’s drill, all the clothes laid out from the night before so I could jump right into them with little to no thought. 

The others all took their turns hitting the lone bathroom.

Lin, once again, pushed us to get with the program. Other than that, we spoke little as we gathered at the top of the stairs, trying to make as little noise as five guys in work boots could manage, stepping down creaky wooden stairs. As we walked by the kitchen we saw Mrs. Nutter already busy. “Morning Mrs. Nutter,” Bob said. “Have a good day, boys,” she answered, keeping her head down, focused on what she was preparing for her and Mr. Nutter’s breakfast.

It was May of 1972. We had found the Nutters through our search for a place to stay when we came up to work on Nello L. Teer Company’s new road job in Wolf Summit. Frankly, none of us remember exactly how we learned that they rented out three rooms on their second floor for $7 a person per week, a whooping $48 a week for the four of us for two large rooms with two beds in each. You couldn’t beat the price and it was just 21 miles from the job, and, importantly, only 12 miles from The Farm in Pennsboro. More on that later. 

Mrs. Nutter cleaned the bedrooms, the one bathroom on our floor, and changed the sheets and towels each week. She didn’t provide meals, which was too bad because she was a great cook. The draft of her cooking floated out of the kitchen and up the stairwell, especially when we had the windows open later in the summer. I recall, as they got to know us, that she did invite us to share supper or a pie with them on occasions, but not regularly. 

They also allowed us to use their one phone on a limited basis. Mrs. Nutter didn’t want it to turn into a nuisance and insisted that we were respectful. We only gave out the number to our folks, girlfriends, the office manager at the job and the Wallers. 

It was a beautiful old home built at the turn of the century, putting it at least 70 years old. The front porch was deep and stretched three quarters of the way across the face of the house. It’s where we would find them rocking when we came home from work each afternoon. Inside, throw rugs protected and quieted the creaky old oak floors. The second floor porch curved out over the first. The rooms, including the bedrooms, were heated by individual free standing ceramic natural gas heaters in each room. There was no air conditioning. Just windows and the cool porch off of the front of the second floor that we used a lot to wind down at night. The furnishings were also turn of the century. Well loved comfy chairs. Victorian style side tables. Beds that were more than comfortable.

The stars of each bedroom were the beautiful quilts on each bed cut and stitched by hand by Mrs. Nutter and her quilting family and friends. I remember her showing us a book of patterns that they had put together over the years. Patterns like Wedding Ring, Star, Fresh Diamonds and Bear Claws. Just beautiful, warm and soft as a baby’s face. 

We walked out the front door onto the wraparound porch, down the steps to the front walk, and down more steps to where we parked off to the side and well below the house. We all got into Lin’s 2-door, blue with white roof, 1969 Chevy Nova. It was a sweet ride with a Hurst 3-speed stick shift in the floor. He had it equipped with an under-mounted air-conditioning unit added on by the dealer. Lin and a friend installed the “coolest of cool” in technology for the times: a 45 RPM record player, also mounted under the dash. You could stack multiple 45’s to play back-to-back songs. It only skipped on the hardest of bumps in the road.   

Clouds hung in the air and fog wrapped the low lying areas as we traveled to the two-lane State Route 18 that followed and curved along Middle Island Creek to the four-lane Route 50. Lin drove while the rest of us fell instantly back asleep, leaning our heads against the window, for the 15 minute ride. The air inside the car quickly became thick and humid with the breath of four people. Lin cracked his window drafting in cool, but pre-dawn humid morning air.

He turned off of four-lane into the village of Salem and parked in front of the breakfast diner.

He shut off the car and as he opened the door he said, “Okay boys, let’s get some breakfast!” We all woke up again, fell out of the car and dragged ourselves into the diner. 

In a very short time, we had become regulars at the busy little diner. We knew the owner and the waitresses and they knew us, what we liked and how fast we needed to eat. My order was classic, two eggs, over easy, grits, bacon, toast and a big glass of OJ. It required zero thought. 

I have a very vivid memory of dropping a quarter in the jukebox almost every morning that we ate there. That 25 cents bought three selections. Selection #1 was the current hit “Rocket Man” by Elton John. It seemed to fit. Ethereal. Eternal. Galactically provocative. Cool but warm at the same time. Importantly, not too bright to overpower the morning and the others eating breakfast. Anyway…

We made haste and were out of there in under 30 minutes. The job was just six more miles up the road heading East to Wolf Summit which is on the West side of Clarksburg. That’s where the four-lane squeezed down to a two-lane, which was the point of our work; to complete the remaining few miles of the overall 73 mile project connecting Clarksburg to Parkersburg, changing the two lanes into a modern, straighter, smoother four-lane highway.

At the job site, Lin pulled off onto a small patch of land scratched out by a motor grader and topped with a layer of stone to stabilize it for parking. Other workers leaned against their cars and pickup trucks, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and waiting for their foreman to pick them up just before 7 a.m. Lin popped the trunk and we snatched our hardhats. Teer used a color-coding system to identify the “pay-grade” level of folks on the job by their hats. Ours were red signifying that we were hourly workers, grunts on the scale. Foremen wore yellow hats and white, well, white meant “the man” and covered superintendents and visiting VIPs. Cam=white. Steve=red. The red hats generally became scarred and smudged with dirt and grease by the hands-on work. The yellow and white hats remained pretty pristine and shiny over time.

This was my second year working for Cam, who continued to run the Burnsville job which was winding down, while opening up this new job. And, this was to be my opportunity to leap from the fence crew to running a piece of real-man equipment. Cam had as much said so before I came up. What he hadn’t mentioned before was what piece of equipment. It was a mystery he created purposefully, to tease me and show me who was in control. He wore the white hat and he never let me, or anyone else, forget that fact. 

I allowed myself to dreamed of running a scraper, the coolest of the gear on the job if you asked me. A scraper did just that, scrape up dirt from the “cut,” the area that needs to be lowered, and then haul and dump it in the “fill,” the area that needs to be raised to flatten the road. To me, the guys operating scrapers were like bronc riders, bouncing along the haul road in a sort of controlled yet chaotic ride, hanging on and kicking up dust that made them look like they were moving faster than they were.

Here’s a photo showing a D8 bulldozer pushing a scrapper through the cut. Mind you, we didn’t have cabs back in 1972 to keep you warm or cool or out of the dust like you see here. It was all open-air. Thankfully, OSHA had mandated a protective roll bar for protection if you turned over.

If not a scraper, then maybe a D9 push-Cat bulldozer. That is generally the largest bulldozer on the job and it pushes the single-engine scrapers through the cut. Here’s a video on how they work.

When we all showed up for our first day of work in mid-May, I couldn’t wait to find out what Cam had in mind. He personally drove me on to the job. We came upon a team of scrapers where he stopped, got out of the car, so I followed suit. He walked over to my side and barked a “Good morning, Jim,” at the yellow-hatted foreman who had walked over to the meet him.  Jim quickly, respectfully, replied, “Morning Mr. Waller.” 

I was thinking, this is it. He’s going to assign me to a scraper. 

“Jim, where’s that new vibratory roller that just came in?” he asked. Jim answered, “Down yonder,” and pointed down to the fill area. 

“Okay. Jim, now, this is Steve Riley, Homer’s other boy. He’ll be running that for you this summer. Steve, this is Jim Carson, your foreman.” Jim and I shook hands, “Nice to meet you Mr. Carson,” I said. He gave me a quick look over and nodded, “Nice to meet you son.” 

Cam turned to me and said, “Let’s go!” 

We got back in the car, Cam stomped on the gas and left Jim in a cloud of dust and rock spray heading down to the fill. And, there it was, the aforementioned vibratory roller, sitting there quietly waiting for me. It had a big steel drum in the front with two very large rubber tires in the back. Nothing, and I mean nothing, looked exciting about this piece of equipment. 

“Well, son, I promised you a piece of equipment and you got the newest piece on the job. Let me show you how it works.”

We got out of the car and climbed up to the cockpit. I tried to hide my disappointment, but I wasn’t very successful. Cam said, “Hey, I promised you a piece of equipment. And, believe me, it’s a whole lot better ‘an the fence crew. 

“Let me tell you how important it is. This roller vibrates, compacts and helps binds the fill dirt together so that we meet all of the state requirements for compaction with each layer of material we lay down. If we fail the state’s test, well, oh brother, we got ourselves a mess that will set us back a half day or more redoing what we already done. So, it may not look like much, but it is just as important as any other equipment on the job…and you get paid the same as all of the other operators. Now, let’s see…here’s how you start her up.” 

Cam turned the key, throttled it up, put it in gear, pulled the lever that engaged the front steel drum to vibrate, then reversed gear. The basic task of the vibratory roller was to wait until a new layer of fill dirt had been brought in by the scrapers and smoothed out by a D8 dozer tending the fill. Then run over all of it compacting the dirt for stability. Essentially, it was like mowing the grass. It didn’t take much skill. You go across the fill one way, then reverse and start a new row going the other way. Back and forth. Back and forth. Vibrating all the way, which was particularly jarring when you went over rocky terrain, which happened quite often as you could imagine. 

“Now, you wait until the there’s enough new fill dirt in here to get going,” Cam instructed. “I don’t like anything running when it doesn’t have to. Any questions, flag Jim down. I’ll check back by later.

“Also,” he got my attention one more time, “Stay away from the edge of the fill. It could give way on ya and you could roll off and over.” He gave me a stare. “You got that?” I answered with a “Yes sir” and gave a hard nod to assure him that, yes indeed, I got that. 

Understanding that I could compact the area of the fill way faster than the scraper team could add another layer, I spent most of my time sitting, watching the scrapers come and go. Watching the wizened dozer operator named Titty Pie run the fill, directing the scrapers where to dump, then expertly spreading their load, keeping it a pretty even three feet or so high all across the fill. I tried to look attentive while working hard not to fall asleep in the 80+ degree heat. I had completed a few passes and was sitting, waiting to start another round, when I saw a trail of dust and then Cam broke over the hill in his company car. He skidded to a stop and the dust cloud wrapped around me. Cam waited for the cloud to roll on by, climbed out, boots first, pulling on his hard hat as he walked over to me. He leaned on the side of the roller, then pulled his hand back as he clapped the dust off in slight disgust. 

“Son, you’re going to have a lot of down time…but I don’t like seeing anybody just sitting around. I want you to use your time in between runs to keep this new piece of equipment clean as a whistle.” He walked over to his car, popped the trunk and pulled out some old white towels. 

“Here, you keep these and I want you to wipe your roller down after every round. I’ll check in later. I don’t want to see a speck of dust or grease. Spick and span.”

Off he went in a cloud of dust leaving me holding the towels and feeling like the lowest of lows. Like a freshman pledge to a fraternity. All the while I wanted to be recognized as, well, a man. That, my friends, was going to take a lot of vibrating back and forth. And, every time a scraper operator blew by me to dump their load, I could feel them laughing at me, the rookie, and the ridiculousness of me trying to keep anything clean while engulfed in the prevalent dust on a construction site. I started to think that maybe they were smiling about whatever crazy assignment they were given before they’d earned their stripes. And once, when I vibrated my way by Titty Pie while he was marshaling the material dumped by the last scraper, I caught him eyeing me. When I met his eyes, he cracked a slight smile and, maybe, flashed a quick wink. I’m not 100% sure because of the dust. But I think that salty old fella knew exactly what I was getting, and what I was giving, to join this club. I’m not saying that he was showing me much respect for anything more than the slight connection that this was hard work and everyone had to earn their place.

Apparently, I had a lot more to learn about road building and part of that learning was a continuing lesson of humility along with graduated responsibility. 

Next up, a day on the job, a great blend of sweet tea, bologna sandwiches and Ritz peanut butter crackers. Plus, The Nutters of West Union and The Farm in Pennsboro. 

West Virginia. I hear her voice…

I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning thinking about West Virginia. I could not go back to sleep. The more I didn’t sleep, the more I thought about it. And I thought about it in dreamy, misty, almost spiritual ways, about the people and the life of living there. People that I knew, and the faces of people I did not know but had seen, driving by their home maybe sharing a glance. This meandering post came out of that sleeplessness and waves of imagery that floated in my head in the darkness of our bedroom in Atlanta. 

Most people experience the state driving on the way through it to somewhere else. They can sneak a peek of the beauty from these interstates, cruising along at 70 miles an hour, when the road isn’t bending madly around hilltops, blowing by the farmland, mountains and valleys. Occasionally, if your dad drives close enough to the bridge railing, and you’re sitting on the right side of the car, you strain your neck and look way down to a speck of river hundreds of feet below. You can even imagine being down there on that river looking up at the bridge. Then, you’re gone. Gone to wherever you’re going, but not here. 

Life in West Virginia is not lived on these highways. Life here, the living that John Denver memorialized in “Take Me Home Country Roads,” is lived deep in the ancient crevices cut out by running water flowing through high ground. It’s lived up dirt roads cut out of these hills over a hundred years ago by men with mean tools, horses, mules and will. These roads crawl, twist and turn like the stream beds they follow. Coming around a bend might reveal a house on the other side of the crick, but it seldom uncovers people. People are sparse and hidden in the mists constantly hanging in the air, guarding the hollers like a blanket. These folk are hangers on. Hanging on to a living long past. Hanging on to life by a thread. Hanging on to a memory of the energy fueled by mining the bituminous coal that long ago left town, leaving the poorest conditions in the country. 

If energy drives riches, poverty drowns the fire like a bucket of water.

Living is slow here because there’s little where to go, and even less to do. Unless you farm. But farming is a rugged and meager livelihood. West Virginia isn’t called The Mountain State for nothing. It’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain region.  

So what got me thinking of West Virginia when I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning? A recent phone call with my friend, John Waller, a proud West Virginian. Determined. Hard working. Smart. Oh, and stubborn. Did I mention that? S-t-u-double b-o-r-n: Stubborn.

He was not happy that President Biden had cancelled the permit for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline by Executive Order, reversing Trump’s Executive Order issuing the governmental approval. John said that Biden killed over 8,000 jobs with that pen stroke. He said he was now “waiting for the windmills to show up.” 

I guess that I should also have said that John can be pretty witty, an only slightly veiled cover for sarcasm with his “waiting for the windmills.”

I realized how little I knew about the pipeline outside of it having been highly controversial for over more than a decade and I said so on the call. I agreed that, on its face, losing any jobs today is not good. I promised to dig into it some. Which I did. More about that later.

Then John asked a question that at the start I thought was more sarcasm until I realized that he was being very serious. 

“Where are the reparations for those generations of hard working West Virginia coal miners who worked those mines at the cost of their health and lives? Where are the reparations for the families that owned the land but not the minerals in the ground?” he asked. He continued to reflect on how all of that coal that powered America and the World, pulled and stripped out from underneath these hills made a lot of people, mostly people not from nor living in West Virginia, rich beyond imagination. “They took the coal, the money and left West Virginia the second poorest state in the country, ranking only slightly higher than Mississippi. 

I had no answer to that. I had never thought of it that way nor heard it put in the form of reparations. And, frankly, it hurt my heart. 

That’s why West Virginia was on my mind. 

John and I go back a long way. He’s been a best friend for 52 of the 53 years I’ve known him. Somewhere in there we took a break. Of course it had something to do with a girl. We met when we were 14 and, believe me, there’s a ton of stories to share about our times together…later, but not now. My dad and John’s father, Cam, worked for the same company. Because of their work in West Virginia, I know something personally about this vast state. I’ve not just seen it from off of the highways, I helped build the highways where there were none. I mean, in a very minuscule way, I did, just as John, my brothers and some close friends of ours did as well. 

There are several major highways that flow through the state of West Virginia today. Interstate- 77 and 79 run North and South. I-64 runs East and West and they all converge on Charleston, the state capitol and largest city. It’s home to 46,536 residents (2010 Census.) And that is the state’s biggest city!

The time that I spent there, the really formative time in my life that I spent there, were the summers jacked in between my college years. Starting in the Summer of 71, following my graduating from Durham High School until I finished at UNC-CH in 1975, I worked on road jobs in Burnsville and Wolf Summit, WV, and lived in West Union. I also spent a lot of time on the Farm in Pennsboro. Look these places up. “Town” is too big of a name for them. They were villages and hamlets by size.

My dad was an executive for Nello L. Teer Company, a Durham-based international construction company. They built roads, highways and dams. We talk today of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, but it was Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act that is the MacDaddy of the U.S. government investing in infrastructure, the largest American public works to that time.  This act, justified as a national defense program tied to the need to be able to evacuate cities in case of attack, became the source that spurred so much more. It redefined travel and shipping from rail to car and truck. It made travel safer, cheaper and more convenient. It created a whole industry of service centers along the way. It also bypassed small towns, stealing their commerce from travelers, broke up farms, led to the flight from cities to the suburbs. It also created more carbon pollutants as a by-product to increased automobile traffic. 

But, for me, it fueled the growth of Teer Company and my dad’s career. It also provided jobs for me, my brothers and sisters, whenever we wanted them. And, once we turned 18, we were old enough to work in the “field,” meaning that we could work on a construction project and make triple the pay of office work. 

So, that’s what I did, joining my older brother in West Virginia. And, that’s how I know villages like Burnsville, West Union, Wolf Summit and Pennsboro. Places that number in the hundreds of citizens, not thousands or hundreds of thousands. Places that are even smaller today than yesteryear, when I lived in them working on I-79 and on U.S. Route 50. 

That’s what took me to Burnsville, my first highway job, halfway between Charleston and Morgantown, the whole way into the middle of nowhere. 

Cam was the superintendent of this job and another operation an hour away. John worked on the job on the pipe crew. My brother, Lin, came up later in the summer too. 

I do have a sidebar to inject here, sort of deep background. 

I had convinced two high school buddies, John Katzenmeyer and Bob Umberger, to join me working on the job, for the money and the experience. Then, at the last moment, I backed out for the love of a girl, my high school sweetheart. I deservedly took a lot of crap from Bob and John. They went up without me anyway. I started the summer working on Teer’s Durham Roads and Streets division, mostly laying curb and gutter on new roads in town. The long hot days left me too spent to spend time with my girlfriend, and I was making a half the wages my buddies were raking in West Virginia. Plus, they were egging me on to come up, telling me how much fun they were having being on their own for the first time.

After just a few weeks, I changed my mind. I moved in with them in a small home they were renting with John on the main road of running through Burnsville. Carl, the elderly landlord, lived in the back room with his own back door entrance, leaving us two small bedrooms, a living area, a one-butt kitchen and one bath. We could occasionally hear the old man but we almost never saw him.

I did not serve in the military, but the Summer of ‘71 became my boot camp and Cam was my drill instructor. He seemed to take personal pleasure in making me miserable, assigning me to the fence crew instead of operating equipment like my brother. He also kept John and me apart on the job, probably so we wouldn’t stir ourselves into trouble together. He was, like the mission of every DI, going to make a man out of me if it killed me. 

Cam said, “If you shake it more than once…”

My first morning reporting to the job, we road with John Waller in his 1966 Thunderbird the few miles over to the parking area at the job site. At 6:45 a.m. I met the other three guys on our crew and we all crawled into the bed of our foreman’s company pickup for the ride up to the day’s work site. As we were pulling out, one of the guy’s started putting something in his mouth and offered it to me. I told him the I didn’t chew tobacco. He smiled and said, “This ain’t tobacco. It’s marijuana. And you don’t chew it. You dip it like snuff, just a pinch between your lip and gum.” 

I thanked him and, surprisingly, declined his offer. Why? Well, “A,” I’m the son of the vice president of the company. And, “B,” well, how about just “No.” The idea of it was too weird. So, weird that I’ve never forgotten that adaptation of getting a buzz.  

We turned off of the hard surface road on to a trail road that dipped through a rocky creek bed, crawling up and over rocky terrain, grinding and bouncing up the steep grade, the engine straining until eventually we climbed to where the cleared land ended and that Ford couldn’t go any farther. 

We jumped out of the back and Bob and I turned away to take a leak over the ridge. Water had just started to flow when I heard Cam’s voice. “Boys, if you shake it more than once, you’re playing with it. Now let’s get going!” 

Caught by surprise, I laughed, put things in their proper place, zipped up and turned around with a smile on my face, to see Cam for the first time since I’d arrived. He…was not smiling. He was serious and stern showing no indication that we even knew each other. “Come on, now. Let’s get going,” he added, all business-like. 

We did.. And I knew things were different on the job between Cam and me. I wasn’t the VP’s son. I was nobody special. Damn it! And, man was I glad at that moment that I hadn’t accepted that dip of marijuana. Would have been a major buzz-kill. I realized later that Cam’s point was to let the other guys on the job also know that I wasn’t getting special treatment.

Our foreman started handing out the tools we’d need for the work ahead: standard issue shovels of different shapes and pick axes for digging. It was also when I first met the spud bar. That thick steel rod about six feet long, one to two inches in width, weighing 15-20 pounds, with a chisel point on one end and sharp point on the other. It’s used to bang and pry through rocks while digging a hole. I grew to hate that bar until I understood it and stopped fighting it. 

If and when you do drive through West Virginia I challenge you to look for the fences on the side of the highway that were mandated parts of the Interstate plan, put there to keep animals off of the highway. In the hill country, those fences tended to be way up the side of the hill around which the road was being cut. We often had to portage our tools, fencing wire and posts up the hill when no truck or bull dozer could make the climb. The worst was carrying mixed concrete in 5 gallon buckets used to secure “pull” posts – the posts that took the most tension in the fence. One full bucket weighed 100 pounds! I only weighed in then at 125!!! 

Needless to say, it was an experience in my life like no other. I learned very quickly just how hard work could be, where everything that you get done goes through your hands, your arms, your legs and your feet. How you felt it in each muscle until you were stretched so far you could no longer feel. I learned how important it was to protect your hands and to watch your step. I found out too quickly how little my work in the flat land of Durham had prepared me for working in these hills. And I wondered if I was a match for it. 

I just realized that I have not properly introduced you to our foreman. His name was Everette Dodson. Everette was a very fit middle-aged man with a big chest and strong, deliberate arms. His hair was cut high and tight like a military crew cut hidden underneath his hard hat. He had clear eyes and a clean spirit. He showed up every morning dressed in crisp work pants and clean boots, ready for the day ahead. 

Bob reminded me that Everette had once run a hardware store in Pennsboro that folded. That’s when he began working for Cam and Teer Company. He also had driven a bus for Greyhound at one point in his life, and was the first to drive a commercial bus across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel when it opened. So, he’s in a record book somewhere. 

Everette was not the smartest person we would ever meet, and he certainly gave us plenty of reasons to laugh about things he did or said. But there wasn’t a mean bone in that man’s body. Looking back, I think about the position he was in, running this small crew mostly made up of local young men, with the added and possibly dicey responsibility for me and my friends.

To his credit, Everette took Cam’s lead, and treated us like we were nobody special in any way other than we were on his crew. His team. And I think he was proud to lead a team, even if it was just the fence crew, to wear a yellow hat identifying him as a foreman, driving a company truck. He enjoyed it. It was hard, honest work.

As affable as he was, he didn’t mince words if we were a minute late for our 6:45 a.m. call time. Even though our shift started at 7 a.m., we had to be present, accounted for and in his truck by 6:45 a.m. in order for him to have us on the job by 7. And when we completed a good hard day’s work, he showed his appreciation as he dropped us back in the dirt parking lot with a “Thanks for the good work today boys. I’ll see ya tomorrow if the creek don’t rise.”

Memory is a funny thing in that sometimes what you remember are the silliest and unimportant moments, like snapshots. Everette had been giving us city boys some good-natured shit about our hair for sometime. One hot day, while we were eating lunch way up on the hill in woods, sitting down around the fence holes we were digging, Everette stared at me for a minute. Then he said, “I bet I could braid that hair of yours.” I laughed, eating my bologna sandwich and said, “Well, give it a try.” He sat on a big rock behind me and commenced to braiding, and by the end of lunch I had two very imprecisely braided pig-tails hanging out of my hard hat. It makes me laugh to this day thinking about what this small town, ex-military fella whose own hair had never been more than a quarter inch in length felt doing that.  

The stars of the show on the job operated the heavy equipment. These were the skilled players running bulldozers, scrapers, motor graders or Gradall backhoes. So much of the work they do from atop these huge pieces of equipment was by feel and instinct because they couldn’t see exactly what their blade was doing. They had to feel it and know it based on experience. They were able to move earth with the precision of a surgeon. Cam, a former operator himself back in the day, loved to say that he could “scratch your back” with Gradall. These men were cultivated by the company and they tended move from job to job with Cam. They lived out of campers that they parked on the job near the parking lot or rented a room with other guys, leaving their families “back home,” wherever that might have been. They didn’t want to drag their wife and kids all around, uprooting them every couple of years.

They had names like Roger Goodnight, Willie Be and Flavius Haynes. And, of course, there were the popular Red, Whitey and Shorty. My favorite nickname was Titty Pie, an older bulldozer operator and one of the best in the business. A quieter man you have never met. He pretty much spoke with his work, and he was very, very good.  

The manual laborers, like the fence or pipe crew, came mostly from local hires, and tended not to have nicknames or legendary stories behind them. They worked hard, but with shovels, picks and spud bars, known more for their strength than skill. They came out of the villages and hollers nearby the job, the job that was cutting their land apart and running civilization right through it.  

I did finally work my way up to running equipment. Here I’m standing next to the D8 Caterpillar bulldozer I ran in 84, PA in 1975-1976.

Us boys from Durham made for a real topic of conversation for the good folks of Burnsville. To them, we were city slickers coming from the big city as we paraded up main street from our house to use the pay phone across from the one restaurant/cafe in town. Our hair and beards were starting to grow out meet the 70’s. We talked and dressed different…when we weren’t working. And, by the way, we knew we were different and we swaggered maybe a bit much.  

It was like living in another country in another time. And, we knew that with the end of summer, we would go back to college. They would not. Not then. Not ever.

So that began my relationship with West “By God” Virginia. I have so many more stories to tell, about working there, yes, but more about living there. The Farm, the Wallers, my buddies. I think it will be a good time. So, I’m going to do that in segments, sort of continuing episodes as they come to me. At least, that’s my plan. None of it is written yet. It’s a kind of a living writing experience. I hope you’ll stay in it with me. 

Back to Keystone XL pipeline. Turns out, I learned what many of you may already knew. There is already a Keystone pipeline that originates in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. The XL version will be a larger pipe that runs a straighter route to Steele City, Nebraska where it would tie into the original Keystone pipeline. This BBC article explains why it has been so controversial. 

According to this fact-check article from the respected source of the Austin American-Statesmen, the jobs lost by Biden’s pen stroke were temporary jobs, most only on paper, not hired and working yet. Most would only last four to eight months, and, all would end after the pipeline would be finished. After finishing the pipeline construction it would on produce 35 full time jobs to keep it maintained and flowing. Oh, and much of that small number would be in Canada, not the U.S. 

This is when “what is a job” matters and one piece of that definition lies in how long a job lasts. The government counts full time jobs a year at the time. Even if the pipeline does employ 11,000 different workers over the short duration of the project, since they are temporary, it would boil down to 3,400 jobs, not 11,000. And, after the work is done, the company is done with the workers. 

It’s very different than killing full-time jobs that could last decades and provide a career for someone. And, it “killed” jobs “planned,” not jobs of people working right now. It didn’t send thousands of workers to the unemployment line. 

Also, if you have any interest left in you for West Virginia, here’s a very good NYT’s article on how important it has become now that the Democrats have won the House, the Presidency and, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate. And how West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin holds a lot of power that could prove very beneficial for the state. At long last, it might actually get a form of reparations. 

Just for fun, here are the lyrics to John Denver’s famous song that just celebrated its 50th anniversary since Denver released it on his album, “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” Side note, it almost was written, not for West Virginia, but for Massachusetts. Here’s some cool background info on how it became the hit of 1970.

Take Me Home Country Roads – by John Denver, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert Danoff

Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

All my memories gather ’round her

Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky

Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me

The radio reminds me of my home far away

Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’

That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Take me home, down country roads

Take me home, down country roads

Two Marines landed on Iwo Jima 76 years ago today. One lived. One Died.

Today is the 76th anniversary of the day the Fighting Fourth Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima. My father was part of that landing. Eleven years ago he sent me an email that began the the following story which I re-share with you as I have done multiple times over the years. I share it because it makes me feel better re-reading and re-living the story. Maybe you will find it brings you a little joy as well, even though at the heart of it all is tragedy.

Sharing this with you helps me pay tribute to my dad who left us almost six years ago. Also, several others who are named in the story have died since 2010, namely Betty Sue Hutchins Lockhart and her sister, Ophelia. So, now I’m remembering them with this republishing as well and thinking of our dear friends, Dave and Vicki Lockhart, and our connection to Iwo.

Anyway, I just cut and pasted the original into this post so please keep in mind that it was first written in February of 2010. So, instead of “65 Years Ago” it is 76.

65 Years Ago He Was Staring at Iwo – Revisited 2012 

FIRST PUBLISHED February 20, 2010

I was upstairs last night in between a late Friday night dinner and a movie that Julie and I were about to start up. I hadn’t checked my personal email all day and did a quick scan on my iPhone. I saw the message from “Homer Riley” with an scanned attachment. 

Now, Mom and Dad live in a retirement community in Durham, NC. The whole place has been under quarantine for weeks after an outbreak of a virus hit 85 or so of the residents, including Mom and Dad. So an email from them grabbed my attention even more than usual. 

The email subject line read, in all lower case, “iwo jima”. I opened it, thinking the old marine and Iwo veteran had passed on someone else’s pass-along about that historic battle. So I opened it. Written in all caps were these words:

IT WAS 65 YEARS AGO, FEBRUARY 19, 1945. I WAS STANDING ON THE STARBOARD SIDE OF AN LST WHEN I FIRST OBSERVED THE SILHOUETTE OF THAT PACIFIC ISLAND KNOWN AS IWO JIMA. WE HAD COMPLETED SIXTY-FOUR DAYS SAILING THE PACIFIC SINCE DEPARTING PEARL HARBOR AND WERE ANXIOUS TO COMPLETE OUR MISSION … 

THE SCHEDULE INCLUDED CHOW DOWN AT 0300, AMPHID TRACTORS IN THE WATER AT 0600 AND FINAL RENDEZVOUS AT 0700. THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS’ FIGHTING FOURTH DIVISION WAS PREPARED TO MAKE PERMANENT FOOT PRINTS IN THE BLACK SAND OF AN AREA KNOWN AS BLUE BEACH AT 0800. THE AMPHIDS CHUGGED ALONG WITH HER PASSENGERS WHO WERE SEASONED MARINES MOST OF WHOM HAD EXPERIENCED ACTION AT ROI NAMUR, SAIPAN AND TINIAN. THIS FOUR SQUARE MILE, HEAVILY FORTIFIED ISLAND WAS OUR NEXT STEP ON THE ROAD TO TOKYO.

WE FELT FAIRLY SECURE KNOWING THAT THE AIR FORCE AND THE PACIFIC FLEET HAD BEEN BOMBARDING THE ISLAND FOR FORTY-FIVE DAYS. BASED ON THIS FACT, OUR MISSION WAS SCHEDULED TO BE COMPLETED IN SEVEN DAYS. AS WE APPROACHED THE ISLAND, ONLY A MODEST AMOUNT OF ENEMY FIRE WAS ENCOUNTERED, BUT WHEN WE TOUCHED THE BEACH ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. 

THERE WE FOUND AN ENEMY FORTIFIED IN CONCRETE ENCASEMENTS PREPARED TO FIGHT UNTIL THE LAST MAN DIED. 

TWENY-SIX DAYS LATER THE ISLAND WAS DECLARED SECURE AND THE ENEMY HAD BEEN DEFEATED. HISTORY TELLS THE REST.

No attribution. No explanation. Just a scanned document from Dad.

I had little sense of Homer’s narrative writing style since he rarely writes more than a few paragraphs at a time, but I felt in my bones that he had written this. 

I stood in the bedroom, stuck in place, reading it over again. I was struck with the immensity of meaning lying in wait inside of each short sentence. The opening put me standing on the side of that ship in his place. I felt the incredible sense of mission and duty which he stated in such a matter of fact manner. Its poignant but clipped ending summed up the force, courage, fear, death, survival, and victory, almost as if to say, “That’s all there is to say about that.” 

Almost as if on queue, my phone rang. It was Dad. I told him that I had, at that moment, just finished reading his email. 

“Well,” he said, “Today is the 65th Anniversary of Iwo. No one has mentioned it anywhere; not on the TV, not in the papers or radio, so I just decided that I would write about it.

“There are more details that I could put in there but I decided to leave them out. It might be too much for most to read.” And then he went on to tell me more.

“One thing I remember was what the captain said that morning before the assault. ‘Men, we’re serving you steak and eggs for breakfast today. You might wonder why steak and eggs. Well, for many of you it will be your last breakfast. We want it to be a good one.’ 

“How’s that for optimism?,” Dad chuckled. 

“Dad, I can’t tell you how glad we are that it wasn’t your last breakfast,” I countered. 

“Well, I just wanted to make sure that you got it because I was getting a kickback on your email address. I tried your .mac account, then your gmail, then Julie’s.”

“I didn’t know you could scan stuff,” I said. 

“Never have, but I wasn’t sure how to get the document into the email, so I printed it and scanned it. It seemed to work.”

That’s my dad in a nutshell. When he needs to, he figures stuff out because he’s just built that way.

I told him how much I loved him and appreciated what he and his fellow soldiers did to save the world. He said, “Well, I just thought someone should write something and maybe it was my turn.” That’s a Marine for you. They don’t wait around for others to act. They “do”.

We hung up. I couldn’t move. For years Dad would not raise the subject of the war. He talked only about the Corp, the unity of mission, the boot camp hard lessons learned that he’s lived by for the rest of his life. But not about the war, not until he’d been retired for a while and was given more to reflection and storytelling. That’s when I heard about his friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in a foxhole a 100 yards away from him. 

And now, he’s writing about things. And I thank God and Country for him every moment, and for the 65 years of sunrises he’s witnessed since then. Maybe it’s that appreciation of living that gets him up so early every morning. Or maybe he’s just built that way. Whatever. History tells the rest of the story. 

Then, the night that I posted this story, the phone rang. It was our Atlanta friend, Vicki Lockhart. She’d just finished reading it. She knew who Hutch was!

The Coincidence of Living and Dying

It was one word  in the very last part of the Saturday, February 20, 2010 posting about the 65th anniversary of Iwo Jima that sparked a connection that raised Dad’s remembrance of the day to a new level of “small world inside of the biggest of wars”.

For years Dad would not raise the subject of the war. He talked only about the Corp, the unity of mission, the boot camp hard lessons learned that he’s lived by for the rest of his life. But not about the war, not until he’d been retired for a while and was given more to reflection and storytelling. That’s when I heard about Dad’s friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in his foxhole 100 yards away from him. 

I sent out the email link to my posting at 5:59 p.m. on a self-imposed deadline to get it out that day, one day after Dad reminded me of the anniversary. Julie and I were rushing to leave for a charity event in town, but I kept working the effort it takes to publish to the website in between showering and shaving. 

I verified that it was up and all square even while Julie waited with a slight amount of impatience, sent the link to my blog list of semi-subscribers/conscripted list of friends and colleagues, and off we went. 

Two hours later Julie saw that she had received a voice mail from our friend, Vicki Lockhart. Julie listened to it as we walked to the car on our way to the second event of the night, Val Ashton’s surprise birthday party. 

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “You’re not going to believe this but Vicki read your blog and says that Hutch was Dave’s uncle! We’ve got to call them.” We jumped into the car and I quickly checked my email before we pulled out. There were two from Vicki. 

7:58 p.m. Hutch is David’s Uncle (his Mom’s brother)! His last name was Hutchins.  All the Marines called him Hutch.  He died at Iwo.  His brother (another Hutchins) was on the ship as well.  He survived.  The family is from Hillsborough, NC – they had 10 children.  Betty Sue Hutchins is David’s Mom. 

7:59 p.m. David’s Dad was on USS Fayette.  They have been trying to find out what ship Hutch was on.  See if your Dad knows.

I can’t begin to describe how excited the prospect of this connection made us all. If it turned out to be true, it would make Dad’s remembrance even more special. We called the Lockharts. Vicki’s husband, Dave, got on the phone and retold the small fragment of information that has become the family lore of Hutch’s death in combat. 

Hutch and his brother were both Marines and in the attack on Iwo. All the family knew about how Hutch died was that “he got it” on Iwo. Dave couldn’t wait to call his mother to tell her. He said that we needed to get her and Dad together. 

After I got home I checked a newspaper article from the Durham Herald-Sun paper on Veterans Day 2008 in which Dad told of the loss of his buddy. The article used “Hutchinson” as the last name, not “Hutchins.” And it said that “Hutchinson” was from Durham, not Hillsborough. Too close not to be the same young man, but still, I wasn’t completely convinced. Not yet.

With some mild feeling of disappointment I sent an email to Vicki copying the information from the article with the seeds of doubt.

Sunday morning I found more emails from Vicki. She had been working it already. 

7:44 a.m. His first name WAS Lewis – the other brother was Herbie.  At first I was writing Hutchinson as Betty Sue’s last name – then David reminded me it was Hutchins so that is an easy mistake to make.

A call to Dad erased any doubt. First, I told him that I had shared his memory in my blog and that it taken quite an interesting turn. I asked him if Hutch’s name was “Hutchinson” or “Hutchins.” Dad said that the newspaper got the name confused. His buddy was Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins. That’s when I told him about the direct link to Hutch’s family and our friends, the Lockharts. He remembered that Hutch had a little brother serving as well who was in the battle but Dad couldn’t recall his name. I asked if “Herbie” rang a bell. “Yep! That’s it all right. Herbie Hutchins.” 

“Well,” he said. “My little story has unraveled something hasn’t it.” 

“Yep, it sure has,” I replied. “Dave wants you and his mother, Hutch’s sister, Betty Sue Hutchins, to get together.”

“We’ll have to do that,” he replied. 

“I’ll let you know what develops next,” I said. “Meanwhile, check your email and read the blog.”

We hung up and I started to write this update to, as we call it at Channel 2, a developing story. 

Then, the phone rang and it was Vicki.

“You are not going to believe what I just found out!” she said. 

Shink, Joe, Hervey, Hutch & Homer

“Remember that Dave’s mother, Betty Sue, is one of ten children in the Hutchins family,” said Vicki. “She and Hutch have a sister who lives here in Atlanta and I just got off the most amazing phone call with her. Her given name is Ophelia, but everyone has always called her ‘Shink’.

“I phoned her this morning and before I could  begin to tell her about your father’s story and Hutch, she told me that she was watching Clint Eastwood’s film, ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, on AMC. She always watched anything that was about Iwo Jima because of her two brothers, Hutch and Hervey, even something from the Japanese point of view. 

“She said that watching that movie made her remember her brother, Hutch, and, are you ready for this? His best buddy in the service, Homer Riley!

“I about flipped when she said that,” Vicki exclaimed, so totally caught up in how this whole story continued wrapping around our families. “I was writing down everything Shink said on scraps of paper, napkins, anything I could find, just to keep up with her conversation. I’ll type it up shortly and send it to you, but I just had to call,” Vicki said like a full pot of coffee.

And now I was the one scribbling down everything Vicki was telling me. I was also fighting back the tears that welled up the instant she said that Shink was thinking of my father. It was like a cosmic connection between people going on without any of them knowing…until now. All that I could muster was a sobby, “You’re kidding me.”

“And,” Vicki continued, “Shink said that hearing about this old friendship so many years later was just a treasure. She repeated it, ‘Just a treasure’ as if she was saying it to herself deep in thought. She often wondered how Homer and Martha were doing. 

“Steve, Shink is just so sweet, so calm, so Southern, with so much to share,” Vicki reflected. “I just loved listening to her talk. Your dad must call her. She remembers your mom and worked with her at Duke Hospital in Durham during the war.”

From what Vicki said, Shink clearly remembered that Dad had returned to his hometown of Durham after the war to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Martha. They had married before he shipped out.

Then Vicki told her all about the story that Dad had written to recognize Iwo on its 65th anniversary and how the brief mention of Homer’s friend “Hutch” who “got it” on Iwo caught her attention, how she and Dave knew Julie and me, of our friendship over the last decade, and that I was Homer’s son. Vicki read the information from the 2008 Durham newspaper article detailing Dad’s life to Shink. 

“That’s so nice,” she told Vicki, “So nice to know that he was able to go on and live such a wonderful life, and to know that he’s still alive and well.”

She said that she had always worried that Homer would not have forgiven her for an act of a teenager. The reason boiled down to a change of heart.

“After my brothers had left for the Marines, I started dating a young man named Joe Cassidy,” Shink explained to Vicki. “Joe was from New England. He was a medic in the Marines and our paths crossed at Duke Hospital. He was very interesting. I liked him but I was too young to really know my feelings. All of those boys wanted a sweetheart or someone back home who would care. We dated until Joe shipped out to serve in the Pacific. 

“One day in the Philippines, during R&R, Joe was showing some service buddies the photograph that I had given him to carry and remember me by. Someone said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with a picture of my sister!’ Joe, who was all of five foot seven inches tall, looked up and met my brother Hutch for the first time. Hutch, a strikingly handsome fellow, 6’ 2” tall, towered over Joe and I don’t think Joe was quite sure what would happen next.

“‘Well, your sister is my girlfriend,’ Joe said. Hutch flashed that smiled that we all loved so dearly and said, ‘Well now, if you’re my sister’s boyfriend, you’re now one of my best buddies.’

“From then on, Hutch included Joe in his circle of friends and that’s how my Joe met Homer Riley,” Shink continued, reaching back into the story she had thought about so many times over the years, remembering just how small a world at war could be. “Those boys watched out for each and did everything together.”

“And that’s why Homer comes to mind when I think of Iwo. He and my brother were such good friends.”

So why would Homer harbor a grudge against Ophelia? 

“We were just kids,” she told Vicki. “Teenagers. And while Joe was overseas I broke up with him. I sent him a “Dear John” letter. I don’t think Homer appreciated the fact that I would treat his buddy that way. I still have a little charm bracelet tucked away in my jewelry box that Joe sent to me from Iwo Jima. I see it each time that I open up that box.

Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins was 19 when he signed up.  He was 6’ 2”, kind of thin and very handsome. He was known as an exceptional young man. The family expected great things of him because he was so highly regarded.  

Shink remembers him as seeming to never make a mistake. He was always caring and thoughtful. Hutch performed a lot of military service before he went into combat. He was chosen to represent the Marines in recruiting and at funerals.  

The family remembers with pride that he was one of the men raising the American flag on Saipan. He was 23 when he died on that first day on Iwo Jima.

Hervey, Hutch’s younger brother, signed up for the Marines when he was only 17. At first his father refused to sign the papers since Hervey was underage. Eventually he relented to his son’s insistence that he was going to serve with Lewis. 

So Hutch, Homer, Hervey and Joe became tight friends as they served in some of the roughest battles in the Pacific together, until Iwo took their strapping brother and brother in arms from them. 

“As the story goes, Hervey was wounded that first day on Iwo,” Shink recounted. “Recovering on a hospital ship just off of the island, the word got back to him that ‘Hutch got it.’ Hervey immediately left his ship against protocol and went back to the island to find his brother.  While he was wandering amid all of the chaos of battle looking for his brother he ran into Joe Cassidy. Joe convinced him to let the medics take care of things and that he needed to get back to the hospital ship.  Hervey’s original ship was headed back to the States with the wounded but he missed that one. He later boarded another hospital ship that stayed in the Pacific until it eventually sailed home to California. 

The Marines offered to give him a medical discharge and he refused it.  The family is not sure of any wounds but believe it was shellshock/trauma.  Hervey stayed in the Marines and was in the reserves when he died.”

This was the only account of what happened to Hutch that the family ever knew. It was all by which they were given to remember their son and brother; a lifetime boiled down to three words that have lasted 65 years. “Hutch got it.” 

It was years later, but the men reunited briefly after the war when Hutch’s remains came home to North Carolina. 

“It meant a lot to my family,” Shink remembered to Vicki, “that Homer and Martha, Joe Cassidy, and another friend in the service, Billy Dickerson, all attended the memorial service at Pleasant Green.” It meant enough for her to carry that memory for 60 some years.

I called my dad again later that Sunday afternoon and told him about Vicki’s conversation with Shink. He remembered meeting her at the funeral. He thought it sweet that she remembered him and Mom. After a quiet moment on the phone he broke the pause, “Hey, I’ve got a funny story about Hutch. We were on liberty in Honolulu, and a bunch of us went out to have lunch. The little girl at the soda shop said they had really good apple pie.

“So I ordered the apple pie a la ode. All of the other guys said they wanted the same. Hutch was the last to order and he said, ‘I would like that apple pie too but would you add some vanilla ice cream on top of mine?’” 

I thought, what a bunch of cut ups, out for a burger in a diner in Hawaii. All just being the young men that they were. All thinking about something as American as apple pie, and laughing at a silly joke a la Mode. None knowing what was to come, but each one knowing that hell lay 45 days away from Honolulu on a seemingly insignificant island call Iwo Jima.

As Vicki suggested, Homer and Martha put in a call to Shink. Dad called me afterwards to say that he’d completed the circle. “She was very sweet,” said Dad. “We enjoyed a pleasant conversation remembering old times. 

“Hey, I just might write something else,” he said and chuckled. “That first one worked out pretty well.”  

Now, two years later, this piece of history rings as true a bell of American fortitude and courage as anything with which I’ve been personally associated. I’m reposting the full story, now 67 years after the invasion on that little island, 650 important miles away from Tokyo. Even if you have read it before, read it again. Not because I wrote it, but because of the debt we owe today to those men and women who saved our country for us and reading and imagining this real account in honor of those who served, lived and died. They are dwindling in number. My dad lives on to carry on the flag. It will be raised today at 16 Aldersgate Court, in Durham, NC. Of that I am sure. And of that I am surely proud. Thank you Mom and Dad.  

     Steve, Sunday, February 19, 2012

Post Script: Dad called me this afternoon, checking to see if I knew what day it was. I answered the phone with, “Do you know what day today is?” He chuckled. “I know. I just wondered if you remembered. I see that you have.” He hadn’t yet seen the email notice of this posting.

We laughed. Then he said, “I woke up at 2 o’clock this morning. The first thing that came to me was that today was the day we hit the beach at Iwo. So, later this morning I called Shink.”

“How is she doing?” I asked.

“She’s fine. We had a nice chat. I told her that Martha and I are thinking of her, her family, and of Hutch. She said that she was thinking the same of us.”

The Story of Tom Brokaw…and Me

Tom Brokaw announced his retirement from NBC News after 55 years on Friday, January 22, 2021. It was a big announcement in so many ways. It brought to a close a long and stellar career of a youngster from South Dakota who made it to the highest position in his field…and held that position for over two decades. Brokaw became one of a triumvirate of big hitting network anchors at the time competing with ABC’s Peter Jennings and Dan Rather at CBS. Back then these men wielded quite a lot of editorial power in their national newsrooms. They had a very hands-on approach, deeply involved in the story selection, story telling and the direction of the coverage, down to the words they spoke introducing the story coverage. In other words, their fingers touched almost every part of the coverage. And they were each exceptional writers in their own way. 

Brokaw’s retirement announcement caught me by surprise. I actually thought he had already retired back in 2004 when he departed the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News, turning it over to Brian Williams. Despite the fact that he was often on NBC and MSNBC after 2004, I figured those were guest appearances in post retirement “special assignments” that tapped his long lens of political and historical context. Which, they were, but he just hadn’t retired yet.

That said, Brokaw’s announcement and subsequent reviews and appreciation for his career reminded me of my one experience with Tom. And, since this blog is “The Life of Riley,” I want to share my experience of one full day once upon a time in the mid-90’s in my life as the director of creative services for WPXI-TV, NBC’s local affiliate in Pittsburgh.

Since it occurred 25 or so years ago, I reached out to the key people involved in the project to corroborate my memory and add other color to the story. I wrote to our news anchors, David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan, our general manager, John Howell, Howard Zeiden, director of sales, Mark Barash, programming director, and, of course, Karen Lah, my promotion manager.

NBC News execs had reached out to the local affiliates saying that Brokaw wanted to get into the markets in a more personal way. They invited us to pitch a reason and a plan for why he should come to our city and broadcast NBC Nightly News from our location. 

At Channel 11, we were already in the throes of producing a project on crack cocaine, which was devastating the city of Pittsburgh, particularly the African American neighborhoods. NBC responded with interest on the topic and asked for more details. 

The station put together the plan that would weave Tom into our coverage: Channel 11 News would produce a series of special reports on the highly addictive and debilitating drug and how it was ruining people’s lives and communities in Pittsburgh. These reports would run over a week leading up to a live town hall. To heighten the awareness of the project, Brokaw would co-host the live, one hour prime time special with Peggy and David. We called the project and live town hall “Pittsburgh Crackdown.” Of course, my team was in charge of marketing the expansive project and taking full advantage of the cache that Brokaw brought to it.

NBC confirmed his involvement. Our team turned to pulling the plan together, from the news, programming and overall marketing strategies. It became a major station project that required all hands on deck. 

Obviously, bringing the attention of NBC Nightly News to Pittsburgh was a big darn deal for the station, the city and for bringing attention and understanding to the horrors this drug was bringing into our communities. It was the opioid of its time. 

From the moment that Karen and I met him and his assistant at the gate of the Pittsburgh airport we could tell his mind was somewhere else … 

When the big day arrived, it started early. Karen and I waited at the airport gate as the first ambassadors for the station and the day ahead. Shortly after the plane docked at the flight ramp, Tom was the first passenger to walk out of the gate door carrying a light book bag over one shoulder. He saw us without “seeing” or really acknowledging us, but he walked straight over to us and our welcoming smiles. He saddled up next us, turned back to the gate door. Without introduction, because, well, he could tell we were there for him, and he knew that we knew who he was, he said, “My assistant was sitting back a few rows in coach so she’ll be a minute. We didn’t check any bags so we’ll be ready go when she gets off.”

Quite a few passengers deplaned before his female assistant came out.

“There she is,” I remember him saying and then I understood how he was traveling so lightly. She was carrying a fairly potent but overhead appropriate suitcase in which I’m sure she had everything he needed for the road trip. Her name escapes me now but she was cordial as we introduced ourselves. I offered to help her with the bag but she declined.

The only other thing I remember about that early morning was the four of us riding in the limo to the station. Karen and I were riding backwards, facing Tom and his assistant. Most of the conversation was about the day ahead of course, but Tom did mention that he had just helped his daughter move in to her college dorm…at Duke. 

Aww crap, I thought. Really? Duke?

I swallowed hard before saying, “That’s great for her. I grew up in Durham about a mile from Duke campus.” 

“Really,” he said matter of factly. “Where did you go to college?”

“Carolina.” 

“Oh.” 

Then he turned to his assistant and moved on with the business of the day. 

Tough start.

I don’t remember what was going on in the country and world at that time, but Brokaw’s mind was always on the upcoming NBC Nightly Newscast. His 6:30 p.m. deadline pressure was always there. Although we had our huge list of deadlines for the day as well, we could readily imagine the gravity of difference between doing a live remote national news broadcast and a local newscast. It was a notch or two or three higher than the daily pressures our local news team faced. 

In thinking back, David put it this way. Brokaw “had to do an interview with us, a photo shoot…plus a big speaking engagement, and THEN, he had to anchor the Nightly broadcast live from our mezzanine,…THEN that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.

“So, a VERY busy day. I can understand why he was a tad grumpy. Mr. Friendly though, he wasn’t. I do wonder if I’d met him under less trying circumstances how it would have gone.”

Bearing all of that in mind, I would describe Brokaw’s demeanor that day as all business. As David said, he certainly wasn’t warm and friendly, but he wasn’t hurtful, just very matter of fact, to the point and very aware of the ticking of the clock in his day. He wasn’t on an ambassador of the network mission. He was on a let’s get her done and get out mission.

All in all, the occurrences of that day added three memorable moments to the legend and lore of the TV station. Things that we share and laugh about through the misty eyes of the past whenever we get together. For the Brokaw and Pittsburgh Crackdown day I would parse them into “The Big Window,” “The Photo Shoot” and “Live Almost Mayhem.”

The Big Window

Days before Tom ever set foot in the station, an NBC advance crew came to town to spec out the best location from which to anchor the show. They were very impressed as most are with the view from our second floor lobby of the city, the rivers and Three Rivers Stadium. It was a view that I never tired of seeing. Channel 11 was situated then high atop Television Hill on the Northside of town. A bitch to get up or down when it snowed, but one of the best views for a TV station in the country, a view perfect for Tom’s background.  

They decided, why fight it. They wouldn’t find anything better, or more convenient for the efficiency of the day. There was only one problem and that was the reflection off of the window glass that stretched floor to ceiling and twenty feet wide. They determined that the window needed to come down for the show. Now, the glass was over an inch thick, and like I said, about twenty feet wide by nine or 10 feet high. The crew asked us if they took care of removing and replacing the window at NBC’s expense would the station be okay with it. 

Sure. Why not.

Well that spread throughout the building like the new variants of COVID19. It was all our crews could talk about for days on end. The decision showcased the bigness of the network. Huge plate glass window twenty feet up in the air on the front of our building causing reflection! No problem. Just remove it for the day. Spare no expense if it was for the good of the show. Damn, they’re good.

So, the morning of the big day, local crews came to the front of the building with their truck cranes and for hours worked on taking this huge plate glass window out. Turns out it was in sections, but still each was immense. 

That was already underway when Karen and I arrived in the stretch limo with Tom at the front entrance. We escorted him past all of the commotion, into the building and introduced him to our management team. Then we showed him to an office all set up and wired for him to to communicate with NBC News, read and write scripts and keep up with the day’s coverage. 

I didn’t see him again until early afternoon when we had scheduled David and Peggy’s interview with him. Following that, we would take photos of the three of them. Our video and still photography crews had pre-lit their positions in our second studio and were ready and waiting at the scheduled time.  

The Photo Shoot

At the appointed time, Tom and his assistant came to the studio. After their brief interview, we moved on to the photo shoot. Peggy recalls, “The still photographer, Bob Suder, was trying to get a shot of the three of us. And, as Bob was prone to do, he was taking quite a long time and making micro adjustments; ‘Chin up Peggy.  Slight tilt right Mr. Brokaw. David, lean in an inch to the left….a little more.’ Mr. Brokaw eventually got impatient.”

David added, “Bob didn’t understand that you don’t make the network anchor wait for you to take a million Polaroids before you actually start shooting real film.

“I think you’ve got it.” The cover of our magazine, “Inside 11” and the infamous photo, pieced together.

Eventually, as David tells it, “Tom stood up, said “I think you’ve got it” and just walked away!”

We were all left standing there looking at each other thinking, did that just happen? And wondering if we did, in fact, ‘have it.’ 

“But Bob DIDN’T have it” David added. “And the best shot of Brokaw had to be superimposed between me and Peggy for the magazine cover!” 

The final photo was used as the cover photo on our station magazine, “Inside Eleven,” that we direct-mailed to over 250,000 homes in our market. It was pretty important for us to get that. And, to get it right. Thanks to the new digital technology of the time, our graphics designer was able to piece together the best shot of each person and made for a great cover. 

That five word statement, “I think you’ve got it,” has lived on ever since. It’s a memory that stitches us together all of these years later.

Live Almost Mayhem

“THEN,” David continued, “that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.”

We had put a lot of work into gathering a diverse audience that mixed in station people, local leaders, VIPs and community activists involved in fighting the spread of crack cocaine in their communities. We had secured the auditorium at the historic Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood for the live telecast. 

Howard volunteered to head the station’s security side of the event, collaborating with local police. He had performed this role in quite a few projects at his prior station in Baltimore. I contacted Howard to see how much he remembered. He wrote me back saying that he “remembered that evening like it was last night” and he gave precise bullet points on his responsibilities and actions:

  • Coordinate all access points with the Pittsburgh Police prior to event to limit access to the venue and review their procedures and who would be there…Uniform and undercover.
  • One hour before the doors opened, we had a walk through with the Police and the dogs to check for explosives.
  • And close and lock doors so we only had one open entrance, but doors still had to be able to open from the inside for the fire code.

So, per Howard, we were very buttoned up for almost any occasion. And then…

“Approximately 30 minutes before the start,” Howard said, “one of the sales people acting as security, contacted me on the two way radio, saying that a lady saw a man with a gun sitting in the front row. I immediately went to the lead detective in plain clothes and gave him the information.

“We (he) took two uniforms and I just followed.  We went to where the young man was sitting.  The plainclothes cop asked him to take his hands out of his pockets slowly… and to follow him.”

They went into a room off of the auditorium. It turned out that he did, indeed, have a gun and it was loaded. He also had a couple of joints. 

“He was arrested for the marijuana and given a summons for carrying a concealed weapon without the proper permit,” said Howard.

And that was before the telecast had even begun. Rumors of this circulated between us all as we counted the clock down to taking the air. By the time it circled through it had spun into “Howard brought a gun.” Of course, he did not. Needless to say, we were on edge.

The town hall was produced with all of the best intentions: 1) Define the Crack problem for the TV audience. 2) Discuss solutions with experts, and 3) Open up the floor to the community to comment. 

We were in control of the intentions #1 and #2. It was the “open up the floor to the live audience” that got more than uncomfortable. GM John Howell remembers, “One woman wouldn’t give up the mic.  She was pissed!” As she talked about the way crack was killing people in their community, the anger steamed up. It was very real. For us in charge of the event, it was becoming too real and very scary. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And, of course, we were in charge. WE had invited everyone to be there, including our special guest, Tom Brokaw. 

Backstage, our concern grew as the hour ticked towards a close. We snatched Tom off of the stage and led him out of the back door to a waiting limo. As he left he deadpanned, “Well, there’s your town hall!” He didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the station team. He and his assistant hopped into a waiting car with John and zipped off to the airport to catch the flight home to New York. 

Meanwhile, Dave and Peggy landed the show, the crowd calmed down and dispersed as did we. 

I’ve wondered since what Tom said the next day when he reported back to work at NBC HQ at 30 Rockefeller Center. Who knows how he answered when someone asked how it went in Pittsburgh. I’m hopeful that he said something like, “They really have their shit together at WPXI. They had it well organized, everything came off without a hitch. Oh, and I thought I was going to die thanks to some guy who went to Carolina.”

But, more probably he answered, “I think they got more than they wanted” and moved on with his day. 

As I read back through this it doesn’t paint a great picture of Brokaw that day. It doesn’t square up with the many wonderful things that people have been saying. But, we all have days, and I don’t mean at all to say that this was what he has been like every day. I can’t believe that to be true. But it is an honest depiction of that day. 

I will say that I have a deep respect for him and the work he did over 55 years in a business that I loved, and one that provided information to the American public at large, reporting what was going on at the time while innovating with new technologies to bring that information to the air as fresh, accurate and as close to the action as possible.

I think about what this story means to me and why I spent so much time remembering, writing, rewriting and sharing this with you. Well, it turns out that it gave me a reason to get up with some great friends and former colleagues, and join together again in memory of one day in our lives as broadcasters. Brokaw’s retirement was just the catalyst. And, when you write these things down, they are immortalized in some way. I guess that I wanted to do that, more for me than you. But, hopefully, it was worth your time.

Since I finished my career with 20 years at WSB-TV here in Atlanta, I would like to add that Tom got his first big break when the news director at Channel 2, then the NBC Affiliate, recruited and hired Brokaw back in 1965. “It was a transformational moment for me,” he said of the experience, “because it was all hell breaking loose in the South.” It’s a fact for which the station remains very proud of to this day to claim Tom Brokaw as an alumnus in our long history. 

Here’s a five minute interview with Tom as he describes the importance of that opportunity in his career. He speaks about what it was like for a young man who had never been to the deep South to get a call to come to “one of the best TV stations in the country.”  How he took that leap against the advice of others, packed up his car and jumped into covering the very heady stories of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights movement. The stories he covered for WSB-TV brought him to the attention of NBC News and he was off to New York within two years.

Tom has been honored many times over during his career. Here’s a link to a video of the night he received the “Great Americans” award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Go to 4:30 minutes into the presentation and you’ll see the video that they prepared to introduce Tom. It’s formidable and worth watching. 

I close with this note. In 1998, when Tom published his book, “The Greatest Generation,” I was given a chance to snatch a few copies from NBC. Tom was gracious enough to autograph three copies, one for me and Julie, one for Julie’s mom, and one for my mom and dad. I had let him know our parents were that generation. They had lived through the Great Depression and WWII, and Dad had joined the Marines and fought in some of the fiercest of battles in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima. Tom wrote an extra personal note for them, thanking Dad for his service. 

We’re very proud of those books and his autographs.  

As always, thanks for reading. Hope that you enjoyed the time you spent.

I stayed up to watch history in the making

Forward note: I was writing this post the morning of Wednesday, January 6, 2021. It was the morning after a long day into overnight of the runoff election for Georgia’s two seats in the U.S. Senate. I planned to publish around noon. I got behind in my deadline as I fell into watching coverage of the races still underway and the run up to the Congressional joint session to certify the election of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Slated to start at noon, it got underway around 1 p.m. 

Then, after 2 p.m., Trump’s orchestrated rally turned into a march and assault on the Capital. 

But, I’m not going to write about that. Even though the resulting violence stormed over what was the major story of the day and night: Georgia’s historic and game-changing election of two Democratic senators, I still wanted to share with you my story about Election Day. 

I invite you to go back to a simpler time with me, that time before the Insurrection and read it as I wrote it, naive of what was to come: 

The line inside of Marietta’s East Cobb Government Center as seen on MSNBC, Tuesday, January 5, 2021

I stayed up to watch history in the making 

I stayed up. I couldn’t go to bed although my retirement bedtime is 10:30 p.m. 

After the polls closed and the early returns began dripping in, the two long-shot Democrats jumped out to a commanding lead of five and even 10 percentage points. But it was very early. One large dump from a Red County evaporated those leads and put the Republicans ahead by a percent. The first couple of hours rolled by quickly and before I knew it, it was beyond bedtime. Julie was running down and left for bed. I had put too much time into phone banking for the runoff not to stay with it. I was in it.

So I stayed up. The numbers continued to roll in, swinging one way and back the other. At some point, it felt like it was settling in with Perdue and Loeffler in the lead. Not by much. But leading. Leading is generally better than not.

Trump tweeted something about watching the Georgia senate race returns and see if a bunch of votes for the Dems magically appear after they know how much they need to win. He continued to sow doubt on another free and fair election.

I was watching Steve Kornacki on MSNBC almost all night. Overtime I had checked out the other networks, switching from FOX News, CNN and ABC. I found that the details of the race that I wanted were on MSNBC and I eventually stopped switching. 

Around 11 p.m., with Republicans maintaining leads, I was feeling like it was going their way until Kornacki reviewed the bubbles of remaining votes across the state. Without making a numerical prediction, he did say that Democrats had a path to victory considering the real firepower left from the big Blue counties. 

I cross-checked with the New York Times election page of charts and graphs that was showing the same thing.

I got mesmerized in the possibilities and stopped writing down much, like being in class and forgetting to take notes. 

Just before 1 a.m., Kornacki outlined the numbers lining the road ahead; the counties left to report were those that highly favored the Democrats and they contained large reservoirs of game-changing votes: DeKalb with 20,000, Fulton with 7,500 and Chatham with around 3,000. The votes left were mostly mail-in, a perceived good sign for the Democrats. Conventional wisdom held that Democrats voted by mail or absentee ballots in greater numbers than Republicans. And now, with COVID19, mail or absentee voting was, hands down, the safest and easiest way to vote because it was hands off. Plus, no waiting in lines. 

Republicans, on the other hand, encouraged by President Trump, held out for in-person Election Day voting. Plus, Trump had told his followers that mail-in ballots opened the door to massive fraud. He tried to ruin the reputation of the USPS by casting shade on its reliability to deliver on time as his administration cut the department’s resources and efficiency back and drastically slowed the flow of mail. 

If conventional wisdom held true, as Kornacki pointed out, then even in Red counties, the Democrats should do better as the mail-in votes are counted. They will still lose the county, but not by as great a percentage. So, not great news for Loeffler, who was falling significantly behind, nor for Perdue who held on by the slimmest of margins. Unfortunately for the two Republicans, the first counts tallied and reported came from their strongest voting method – in-person election day voting.

I took to my pencil and started scratching out Kornacki’s estimated remaining votes in the bubbles. I multiplied by the percentages of votes each candidate was winning to get at the potential final tally. 

I added the projections to the current amount of votes the leader in each race had. It became clear that Warnock’s lead over Loeffler was poised to climb to over 50,000. Ossoff, behind by 1,322 votes, would soon leapfrog Perdue and eventually garner at least a 14,000 votes victory. I felt reassured of potential wins by both, but I wasn’t sure if I missing something that could turn the projection to the Republicans. And, I have lived in Atlanta long enough not to get my hopes up for victory in sports or in politics.

And, of course, there were the military and provisional ballots left and they would be processed last. They too, tend to lean more Democratic, but I didn’t use them to project.

So I stayed up. I desperately wanted to witness DeKalb’s roll in. Those poll workers were diligently continuing to count. I continued to watch. Anxiously looking for the movement I expected.

Around 1:30 a.m., James Carville came on and my ears really perked up. Carville had correctly predicted Biden’s victory in November before Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia were called. He seems like a kook, but he’s a very straight shooter and a hell uv a strategist. Tonight, he said he loved where the Democrats stood in the race. With Warnock up by 20,000 votes over Loeffler, he believed he would just increase his lead, and that Ossoff, down 1,322 votes at the time, would soon move ahead when DeKalb began reporting the more than 70% of votes left to be tallied. Carville said that Georgia was going to finally earn an important place in history by electing its first African-American to the U.S. Senate, and, on the same night, elect a Jewish man who was the son of immigrants. Carville was down right giddy.

I listened hard. I cross-checked the numbers. I wondered and hoped, doubted and hoped again.

I don’t have the time noted, but sometime after 1:30 and solidly in the lead, Warnock posted a live stream in which he happily, but humbly, claimed victory. A bold move because the networks were yet to call the race. He thanked the voters for showing their trust in him and paid tribute to his mother, saying that as a teenager “the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton,…went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”  It was a historic moment for the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Then, at 1:48 a.m., after a small drop of 6,000 votes from DeKalb came in, MSNBC made it official and called Warnock the victor. His lead had grown to over 40,000. 

Ossoff, as Carville predicted, leapfrogged Perdue, and now led by 3,560 votes.  

Kornacki revealed 90% of this batch of mail-in votes had gone to the Democratics!!! Ten points higher than the DeKalb early and same-day vote. Ten points higher than I had used in my projection! Ten points higher building the lead and a new expectation driving forward. I let out a whoop like I was watching a UNC basketball game, but keeping in mind and in check that there was a long road ahead.

Another drop from DeKalb. The Democrats’ leads grew again. Ossoff jumped ahead to over 14,000. Warnock went up to over 50,000. The roll was on. Victory felt assured. 

Loeffler’s campaign responded, not with concession, but by stating their belief that there was still a path to victory. 

And then…nothing. Tick tock. I stayed up. All of the house lights on timers had long gone dark. Our automatic thermostats had dropped by four degrees. My grandfather’s clock chimed 2 a.m., then 2:30 a.m. I was almost lying down horizontally in the recliner, covered in an afghan. My eyelids were drooping. My brain was wired but over-tired. I wasn’t processing much, just hypnotized by the TV.

Still, I stayed up. Nothing changed. All of the reporting just repeated itself as if in rerun.

When I heard the chime toll 3 a.m., I realized I was spent. Nothing was happening. We were in a stall much like the November election. Reporting from DeKalb was stuck at 95%. The networks continued to hold the Ossoff/Perdue race in the “Too close to call” category. As much as I hated to, I went up to bed, but not before seeing a text notification that Perdue’s spokesperson issued a statement. In the dark I opened it and read that they would “mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted. We believe in the end, Senator Perdue will be victorious.” 

It rang hollow. If not a concession, it certainly revealed that the campaign saw it had little, if any, hope for a win. If you’re already saying you’ll “exhaust every legal recourse” it certainly signals slight hope to win by votes alone. Winners don’t need to exhaust legal remedies. It sounded remarkably Trumpian.

With that I tried to self-wind down and snuck into bed without disturbing Julie. I couldn’t help but think that the unheard of was happening. I practiced a meditation technique of counting backwards from 10,000 to fall asleep. I got further along in that countdown than I expected, but somewhere around 9,900, 9,899, 9,898, I lost count. I woke up and it was 7:30 Wednesday morning. I needed more sleep but couldn’t “not” check in. Finding things still stalled I also was found that I was wide awake. There was no turning back. Maybe a nap later in the day. Heck, I’m retired. I can sleep when I want or need to. This is history in the making. Sleep can wait. So, I got up and wandered downstairs to the kitchen and found Julie making coffee.

There Kornacki was in front of the big board as I left him. Presumably in the same khaki pants. Slightly refreshed hair. Same numbers to report and same pathways to describe. Even he had taken a 75 minute nap so I didn’t feel too badly for abandoning my post. 

By 11:55 a.m. Ossoff’s lead climbed to 17,446, which is still 0.4%, just inside the 0.5% margin that triggers a recount. That’s a recount. Not another election.  

Warnock led by 54,602 votes, 1.2% ahead of Loeffler and beyond the margin for a recount.

George Sterling, the much berated Georgia election official by President Trump, briefed the press on the remaining numbers, all of which will come out of Democratic counties. If you give 80% of the remaining votes to the Dems it breaks out like this:

  • Warnock’s lead grows to 82 thousand.
  • Ossoff’s lead grows to 45 thousand. 

Both clearly beyond the 0.5% recount trigger point and poised to make for a Democratic sweep…in GEORGIA!

And, on this very same day, the U.S. Congress is set to begin its job to certify the states’ electoral votes. In normal times, this process does not make it to live TV, except on C-span. There have been objections in the past by both parties. Those were generally raised by members of the House who were not enjoined by a member of the Senate and are gaveled closed by the president of the Senate.

But, in one more nod to how “not normal” this era of Trump has been, today’s formality will be covered live on most networks. Why? Because of the number of House and Senate Republicans who have stated that they will object to the Electoral votes from the so-called “battleground states.” And, they had turned in the required objection letter and had secured members of the Senate to join members from the House in their objections. 

They are doing so under the clear pressure of an aggrieved and vengeful President. They are putting his willful attempt to overturn the election above the voice of the American citizens. They have organized their “Caucus of Sedition” and have publicly stated that they will object to the electoral results in key states pointing to unsubstantiated fraud and voting irregularities. The very same claims made in 62 lawsuits that court after court has thrown out with the admonition that those bringing the suits had “no standing.” 

One major irony in this play lies in soon to be “former” Senator Kelly Loeffler’s plan to join in this challenge. In doing so Loeffler will vote to nullify the votes and thereby disenfranchise her own Georgia constituents. She proudly made this a part of her platform to maintain her seat this week at the Trump rally the night before the runoff election. It may have cost her the election instead of win it.

This should be Trump’s final curtain call of a show he created by his very willful lie that the race was “stolen” from him. 

Trump, in fact, has become the great defrauder.

He is the “Fraud in Thief, operating out in the open, debasing the vote of the American people. He’s defrauding us of our vote, defrauding the Biden/Harris ticket of their rightful and lawful election, defrauding them of their legitimacy and defrauding the United States of a peaceful transition of power.

Under his watch, his party has lost the House, the Presidency, and now, the Senate. 

Under his watch over 350,000 Americans have lost their lives due to COVID19. 

Millions of Americans are out of work, out of money, out of food and soon, out of their homes.

America has lost its standing among the world order.

Iran is more dangerous. 

An embolden Russia grows its aggression against our country by the minute.

Donald Trump is a fraud, a loser and he will be branded so for the rest of time. 

We cannot let him bully his way back into our country’s psyche. We cannot ever let him run for another government office again.

Ever.

It is disgraceful. His reign has been inhumane and unconstitutional at every turn.

To borrow the characterization of where we stand with regards to defeating COVID; There’s light at the end of the tunnel. But we’re still in the tunnel. 

That tunnel is the darkness of Donald Trump. The light is the hope of the Biden/Harris leadership. Hope that can emerge once Donald J. Trump is gone from our body politic. 

…And then: Inciting an Insurrection.  

Footnote: As of today, Thursday, January 7, 2021 at 4:20 p.m. Warnock wins by 76,000 votes, and Ossoff wins by 38,000. It was a good day for the Democrats in Georgia.

Kelly Loeffler pulled out of objecting to Georgia’s certified election results and conceded her loss.

Perdue has gone silent apparently pursuing all legal avenues.

The Recounts of Recounts

First, having volunteered for a shift of “get out the vote” phone banking prior to the November 3rd election, I am now on a list of people who volunteered and showed up. This is as close to politicking as I’ve come outside of marching in anti-war protests in the 70’s.

Being on the list gives you ample options for putting shoulder to the cause, mostly from the safety of your home with phone banking or texting. 

When President Trump asked for the second recount, the call came via text and email for observers to represent the Democratic Party of Georgia again. When I saw that there was a slot open for the Cobb County recount, I volunteered. I thought you might find this process interesting so here’s how it worked. 

I immediately received a link to a virtual training session on Zoom. When I joined the appointed time I was greeted by a young man and woman who were the trainers. Together they laid out the goals: 

  • Monitor the county staff as they tabulate. 
  • Monitor the GOP observers and note whether they appeared to be intentionally slowing the process or causing disruption. We were instructed not to deal directly with the GOP observers rather, bring it to the attention of the election supervisor or director. 
  • Monitor the Vote Review Panel if it meets during our shift.
  • Overall, protect the voting rights of all people through observation. 

We also were alerted not to speak to the recount workers. 

Oh, and dress business casual and wear some blue for the party colors. 

With that, I filled out a form and then received an official PDF certifying me as a registered observer for the party. I printed that out and, as required, made my own name tag identifying me as an official observer for the Democratic Party of Georgia. I  took a pen and pad for note taking and Monday morning drove to the recount center at Jim Miller Park for my 9 a.m.-1 p.m. shift. 

It was the closest thing to going to work that I had experienced since January 1, 2019. 

Jim Miller Park is a huge facility which hosts the county fair and where the county built a very large meeting center in which the election team was working. Each meeting room was the size of a large airplane hanger, readied for large meetings of all kinds. For now, Halls B and C were reserved for election work, the majority of which was, surprisingly, not for the recount, but the preparation of mail-in ballots for distribution to voters. The recount team occupied one half of Hall C. The ceilings were 40 feet high and certainly helped airflow in the pandemic world.

I checked in, underwent COVID19 prescreening formalities including temperature check, then walked down the large, long hall to the recount room, through the door marked “Observers” and entered a cordoned off area. This was a limited access space with a dozen chairs reserved for both party affiliated observers and the public. I immediately met Wendy, Amy, Clement and Gail, the rest of my party’s shift of observers. After a brief discussion with them, I presented my credential to Janine Eveler, the director of elections for Cobb County. She took my letter and reviewed the rules: masks on at all times, no cell phones out of your pocket, maximum of three observers on the floor from each party at one time, no speaking to workers, maintain social distancing and direct all questions or concerns to her.

With that, I was on the floor, walking among the “re-recount,” carrying my notepad and figuring out what I was there to do quietly sharing details with my cohorts about what was the process.

I have since found out that according to the Associated Press, there have been 31 recounts in statewide elections since 2000. That’s 31 times in a little over 1,000 elections or 3%. So, I was experiencing very rare ground here in Ground Zero Georgia. Also notable, only three recounts, or 0.3% of the 1,000 elections, have changed the outcome of an election.

Understanding just how rare it is for a statewide recount and even rarer for two recounts, that this the first time in my life to do something like this, and, only on this one 4-hour shift, imagine my surprise when I recognized four people that I knew personally! Even through the masks! Two fellow golfers were GOP observers, one neighbor is a recount worker and one, Ross Cavitt, is the communications director for Cobb County. Ross and I worked together at Channel 2 where he was the reporter for our Cobb County Bureau. Who would a thunk it? Of all the gin joints…

That’s how I got there. Here’s what I observed.

GOP observer stands outside the ropes

Janine really knew her stuff. She was patient, fully engaged, answering, I’m sure, the same questions over and over again. I think that that is her life, especially right now. She gave quick, exacting explanation to what the workers were doing, say, in duplicating a ballot, or cleaning the scanners, or what was in the boxes on the rolling shelving and why are those two boxes labeled in green?

She said that approximately 394,000 people voted in the 2020 Presidential election in Cobb County and this group was recounting all of those votes by running the actual ballots through scanners.

According to Cobb County’s Election website, of those voting, 44% voted in person in advance, 38% voted by mail/absentee and only 18% voted  in person on Election Day.  

I learned that all of the election workers were being paid and that the expense of the recounts would be born by the counties and the state of Georgia. “It’s just the price of doing business,” she said. 

She described the process of the recount for me…

All of the ballots are contained in boxes from the county precincts and are categorized as to whether they were advanced, mail-in or election day voting. 

Each box is coded and sealed with special election tape. That tape has now been sealed, opened, and re-sealed with different colored tape with each recount. 

There were eight scanning stations with teams of three workers assigned to each scanner. They scan the ballots in batches of 50 or less. Each batch is coded with a number that matches it up to the actual scanner. They do this to minimize the number of ballots effected if there’s a failure in the scanning process requiring a fix and rescan.

Another team supported the scanning team by delivering the heavy boxes from the “in-bound” cart to them, one box at a time. Once the scanning process is complete, the batches checked off and returned to the box, the delivery team carries the scanned boxes to workers across the aisle who take the batches out of the box and enter the batch codes onto a form, by hand. They place that completed form on the top of the batches of ballots back inside of the box, re-seal it for the workers to place on the “out-bound” cart. When these carts filled up they were rolled across the room in a secure storage location. 

All of these workers continued their tasks in a precise, methodical, measured and consistent pace. Checking and rechecking. The occasional question was signaled by a raised hand to which Janine or the supervisor would attend. 

It was as quiet as a library. There was no idle chatter, no playfulness, just a straightforward orderly march to the finish line.

All the party observers had full access to walk amid the workers while keeping socially distant. 

The only issue that I witnessed was that a GOP observer was not properly wearing her mask by not covering her nose. Janine fixed that very directly. Cover it or leave. 

You don’t mess with Janine. She was there to protect her staff, and our votes. No BS. 

Before my shift was up I spoke with Janine one last time. I told her how much I appreciated the dedicated work by all in what was clearly a very important yet tedious task and that I had learned a lot just by being there. I asked her if there had been objections or criticism from the GOP side to which she replied, “No objections or criticism, just questions.” Also, there were no ballots that required the meeting of the Vote Review Panel

She added that they had experienced no problems, nothing inappropriate, fraudulent or irregular. Just the boring, dutiful, responsible counting of ballots. 

For the last time! We can all hope. 

Me, Janine hiding behind me, and Ross Cavitt, former Channel 2 reporter, now Cobb Co. communications director

This morning I logged on to a virtual “Georgia Recount Thank You” call with Jill Biden. She offered her profound thanks to the over 400 attendees for voting for Joe and Kamala and for joining in to protect the vote. She was especially moved that we did so in mid-pandemic. 

And now, amazingly, we have a chance to put two great Democratic candidates in the senate and replace two major Trump supporters. In case you missed it last post, here are links to ways you can contribute either time or money or both to turn Georgia Blue!

Georgia on my mind

I am back. Back from the swirl of the times. I know. I know. I slammed you with posts running up to and including Election Day and since then, crickets from me. I spared you the anxious writings as the six or so states continued to count and we continued to wait. Most of us, patiently. One individual in particular, not so much.   

North Carolina. Arizona. Nevada. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. Michigan. And, who would have guessed it, Georgia. All hanging in the balance. All working hard to count the surge of absentee and mail-in voting caused by the Pandemic. 

Slowly, step by step, inch by inch, like a molasses drip, Arizona, Michigan  and Wisconsin were called for Biden by the afternoon on November 5th, giving him 264 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 214. That left both candidates with viable paths to victory, albeit a very narrow path for Trump. Biden just needed six electoral votes to get to the magic 270.

Still counting were North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada. And they counted and counted until one by one they fell. North Carolina went Trump.

On Saturday at 11:25 a.m., with enough of the vote count reported, AP called Pennsylvania with 20 Electoral votes for Biden. That was the show stopper. Driving Biden way past the 270 mark. That was the presidential race, Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat. Fittingly, Biden ultimately carded the same number of electoral votes as Trump had garnered in 2016, a victory that then President-Elect Trump had self-proclaimed to be a “massive landslide victory” and contended that the size of his victory was historic. It wasn’t. That was typical Trump hyperbole substituting his fantasy for facts. Here’s a fact from real history: of the last 58 presidential elections, 37 were won with more Electoral votes than Trump’s. It wasn’t massive. It wasn’t historic. But, it was surprising.

Biden’s victory, on the other hand, was historic on multiple levels:

  • Biden ran with an Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris will be America’s first woman, first woman of color and South Asian heritage to be chosen for national office.
  • Biden/Harris received the most votes for any presidential candidate in U.S. history.
  • Biden became only the tenth U.S. presidential candidate to defeat an incumbent president making Trump only the tenth incumbent to lose his re-election bid. Trump also made history by receiving the most votes for a losing candidate. 

Immediately following the news that Biden had won, people all over the country and the world took to the streets, in mass and in masks. They sang. They danced, waved flags, clapped and generally and politely just went happy. Outside of the U.S. people were saying, “Welcome back America! We’ve missed you.”

That day I was playing in a golf event with phone on silent when I noticed that Julie had texted that Biden had won. I didn’t jump up and down, hoot nor holler. One of my partners was a Trump supporter. I learned long ago in sports and life not to rub victory in the face of the loser. I held my joy and relief inside but quietly signaled the news to my other partner who shares my political view. My heart swelled up and a smile spread across my face before it was my turn to tee off on the next hole. I tried to focus on the difficult drive on the hole in front of me, but the news danced across my brain as I started my swing. I promptly duck-hooked it into the creek coursing down the left side. 

I laughed as I thought, “Who cares where that ball went. Biden did it. We fired Donald Trump!”

That was my quiet celebration of the moment. 

Still you heard nothing on “Life of Riley.” Not a chirp. Not one word clap. As the days passed, I even got a few emails and text messages from some of you saying, “Hey! Did I miss something? Where’s the election results blog?” 

Honestly, I didn’t know where to start. There were too many issues and aspects on which I could and wanted to comment. Trump’s continuing stream of virulent conspiracy claims turns weirder and weirder as the days go on. His voting fraud, cheating, scamming, dead voters voting, documents shredded, election stolen whine-fest has defined the non-concession Trump defeat. 

Georgia – Ground Zero

And, since you have to start somewhere, I decided to focus first on right here and now in Georgia. 

As the old Hoagy Carmichael song goes, “Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through,” all the talk is about Georgia for two reasons. First, all are still awaiting the results of the second recount of the Georgia presidential election to see if it falls in line with the initial election count and subsequent hand count showing the state turned blue for Biden. The first two counts showed Biden winning by just under 13,000 votes. Watch this Georgia website for the numbers as the counties report. Currently at 1:20 p.m. on Thursday, December 2nd, Biden leads Trump by 27,411 in reported votes.

Right now, Rudy Giuliani is in Atlanta talking to lawmakers about the Georgia election’s integrity. Appearing for Trump, he’s asking the Georgia legislature to overturn the election and select its own electors.

Second, our special election for the two Georgia U.S. Senate seats in January will decide if Mitch McConnell holds on to his stranglehold over the Senate or if a Democratic victory creates a pathway to bipartisanship. 

What’s on the line? Nothing but saving the American people from COVID19 and the U.S. economy at the same time. That requires a willing Congress which we will never have as long as McConnell has his foot on our necks. Even if you’re a Republican, electing these two Democrats will even out the Senate in a way that will make bipartisanship possible again. Democrats won’t be able to strangle the Senate as Mitch has for far too long. 

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock run to replace Republican Senators David Purdue and the appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler.

That’s where my mind and efforts are directed between now and January 5th lending my full support to Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for Senate. I hope that you will do the same. Join me. Even if you don’t live in Georgia. Donate to the Democratic cause. Give of some of your time to get out the vote. Make calls, send texts. Volunteer. You better believe that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are bringing in money and horses from out of state to support Loeffler and Purdue. Karl Rove (see “Karl Rove, GOP building money machine for Georgia runoffs”)  is moving in to lead the GOP charge. 

We need all of the help that we can muster. Here are a few websites that will help you DO something for the cause.

Stay tuned tomorrow for what I saw as a registered observer of the Georgia recount in Cobb County, my home county and Georgia’s fourth largest county by population with almost 698,000 residents.   

As always, thanks for reading. I welcome your comments. You can post them on the site or send to me. 

The Pandemic

But First, Election Day – Change is in the air

It’s 37 degrees and sunny. So, chilly, but not imposing enough to effect the turnout. 

This morning I drove around my area and checked out two polling places, my normal polling place and the larger voting place at the county’s East Cobb center. Neither had visible lines outside although there were cars parked in the lots. I wonder if the massive early voting reduced the Election Day turnout. We’ll find out as the day progresses, and whether this is a local or national phenomenon. 

Yesterday, I volunteered with the Democratic Party of Georgia to take a shift calling local voters. Very interesting experience. I’ve never done that in my life. The virtual training was on Zoom. The trainers were volunteers and appeared to be in their twenties. Extraordinarily friendly, likable and knowledgeable. Once trained, I signed onto a system online with my identification code. It presented a page with the name, gender and age of a registered voter in North Georgia who had voted in the Democratic primary before, but not consistently, or they had not voted recently at all.

Our job wasn’t to try and convert them to the Democratic ticket but to remind them to vote on Tuesday. The system dialed for me and I spoke using the computer’s mic like an online call. It was easy to fill in what took place on the call. For instance, was the number no longer in service, or the wrong number, or no one answered. Once I completed the call and typed in info about the call, the system automatically presented a new person, I clicked the “Call” button and it dialed the call. 

I made over thirty-five calls, reached three live people, just under 10% completion rate. Each of the three had voted early and volunteered that they had voted for Biden/Harris and for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Democrats running in the U.S. Senate racing in Georgia.

I plan to take another shift today. I wish that I had done this sooner, but at least I feel like I am doing something. 

Pandemic: A dereliction of duty 

Trump had a real opportunity to do good for the country, take the reins and lead us through this pandemic. 

President Trump publicly denied it, called it a hoax by the Democrats, downplayed it, mocked it, predicted it to end by Easter, politicized it, whined and complained about it, while doing next to nothing to marshal the forces of the country to fight it. 

His go-to point in defending his response to coronavirus is that he saved millions of lives when he banned travel from China. In fact he didn’t ban travel. He imposed porous restrictions, as did many other countries. There is zero proof that his action saved millions or even hundreds of thousands of lives as he claims. 

He could have listened to the early warnings in December and January, reviewed the in-depth playbook left from the Obama administration on the lessons learned fighting HIV and H1N1. Although this virus is a totally new strain, the playbook gives the U.S. government proven steps to take. If he and his team had read the information, he could have taken immediate steps from the start to mobilize U.S. manufacturers and produce the PPE, ventilators, masks and other items that would be needed to contain the spread and treat the sick. 

He could have quickly marshaled our troops into this new and different battle to provide boots on the ground support as hot spots developed around the country.

Instead he turned it into a political football and continues to witness the most dramatic loss of American lives in such a short period of time on his watch. These lives are on him. His magic wand waving didn’t do the trick. 

Even today he says, “We’re turning the corner.” He’s not wrong. We are turning another corner as the graph of new infections has turned up signaling our third wave leading into the winter.

He showed us all that he was not the man to lead us through the pandemic. He admitted to knowing more about the virus in the beginning than he let on, and ultimately lied to us about its deadly potential from the beginning.

He lied to us about why he lied to us, saying later that he was protecting us from the truth to prevent us from panicking.

He made it a partisan fight instead of a United States fight.

He failed to listen to scientists while bragging about his ability to understand the complexities of epidemiology in an unmasked visit to the CDC. 

He berated governors for actually trying to adhere to the guideline set forth by the CDC and his own Coronavirus Task Force. 

He threatened to withhold aid to states governed by Democratic leadership.

Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of Americans were filling up hospitals, morgues and graveyards.

Knowing that the best tool in our arsenal to stop the spread was wearing masks, he flouted them, didn’t wear them because he didn’t like the image, mocked those who did and turned masks into a political statement. His job was to lead by example, even if he lived in the safe bubble of the president…and his example encouraged people to NOT WEAR masks in public as a sign of unity with the president and to demonstrate their right to exercise their individual freedoms.

The one thing Trump did show us; even he could be infected by COVID19.

After three days of hospitalization cloaked in secrecy, he made his first public appearance after leaving the hospital early and against his doctors’ advice. He appeared on the balcony and, in a theatrical display, removed his mask, saying to his public, “Don’t let the virus take over your life.”

That prompted Alice Roberts of New Jersey to write an op-ed entitled, “My husband died of COVID19 and I have just one plea to make of you.

I urge you to read her tragic story if you have any doubts as to the seriousness of the virus and your and your family’s susceptibility to infection. 

He ultimately turned on his experts, the career doctors and scientists on staff trained and accountable for the health and safety of Americans, bullying them in public the same way he has bullied everyone else who is not Donald J. Trump because they dared to speak the truth which countered with the narrative he wanted. 

Just this week, while stumping on the election trail, Trump hinted that he will probably fire Dr. Fauci after the election. Fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most trusted doctor in America! Sadly, the president’s “hint” excited those attending the mask-less rally to chant, “Fire Fauci, Fire Fauci…” reminiscent of the mob-like chant from 2016, “Lock her up!” 

It is all the theatre of the unimaginable brought to life, right here and now in the reality of the United States of America in 2020. Please, please, please vote to make it stop!

As always, thank you if you made it this far. 

I also invite you to read this AP FactCheck article. Although it is from the distant past of July 2020, it reveals the many untrue statements made by President Trump on a variety of topics including his travel “ban” with China, tariffs, immigration, Hunter Biden, hydroxychloroquine, what he claims Biden has said and will do and more.