Thursday, August 22, 2013

East Coast At Last

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Tuesday August 18 – Ft. Loramie, OH-Latrobe, PA
Leaving Ft. Loramie, I drive a variety of Ohio state roads for a few miles each. The landscape is still primarily agricultural and it is still mostly corn. No surprise, not only is corn the biggest crop in America, we are the largest producers in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the 2013 yield will be 13.8-billion bushels, up from 10.8-billion in 2012.
Not unlike Ohio, the many small towns along the way show their age with the classic colonial buildings along their main thoroughfares. There is so much history here. I wish I had time to stop and soak it all up. This was the post-revolutionary “Northwest” as those New Americans began to explore their continent. Not only did they explore and build overland, they built canals to move their goods and they fought Indian Wars to establish new territories. Many of these towns – and their buildings – date from the early-to-mid 19th Century.
Finally I am on U.S. 33 North, a four-lane freeway, and the scenery starts to change. The number of farms diminishes and at first there are more groups of trees and those groups soon become forests. As agriculture fades I begin to see more – and larger – manufacturing plants. The biggest one so far is the Honda plant in Marysville, OH. It was the first Japanese auto plant in America (1982) and has its own interchange. Forty two hundred people work there.
Finally, I become slave to I-70 east. There is nothing but thick forest on either side and the land begins to roll as I near the Pennsylvania State Line. I cross into Western Pennsylvania. After more than 5,000 meandering miles and 11 states across the middle of America I am on the East Coast. I am reminded this used to be Steel Country as I pass through Bethlehem, PA. Those days, and many of the mills, are gone changing the economies here forever. Some towns haven’t fully recovered yet.
I am north of the Allegheny Mountains but still, the terrain becomes rockier and I notice the overloaded Jeep is slowing more often as it climbs the grades. I exit the freeway at New Stanton. U.S. Rtes. 119 and 30 will take me to Latrobe.
Some people here pronounce it LUH trobe while others say LAY trobe. Arnold Palmer always called it LUH trobe so that’s my preferred pronunciation. I chose this city of 8,235 people (down a little over one percent from the 2010 Census) for several reasons. Aside from its proximity to camping in the beautiful Keystone State Park, Latrobe is the hometown of two people for whom I have the greatest respect.
While I am certainly not a golf fan, I’ve always been an Arnie Palmer fan. Don’t ask me why. Latrobe is also the boyhood home of Fred Rogers, the famous kid show host Mr. Rogers. While I found his style somewhat unctuous, I liked the positive and empowering messages he had for kids. But, neither Arnold Palmer nor Fred Rogers are the most famous thing to come out of Latrobe, PA. That honor goes to the banana split!
In 1904 23-year-old David Strickler was an apprentice at Latrobe’s Tassel Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. Strickler enjoyed making up new ice cream combinations for customers and one day came up with the banana-based triple scoop sundae. Tassel’s charged 10¢ for the new concoction, twice the price of a regular sundae. Word quickly spread by word-of-mouth and in print until everyone in America knew about it. Latrobe celebrates its most famous export every year in August with Banana Split Days. I missed this year’s bash by a few days.
Carpenter Steel Mill
Only 43 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Latrobe still has a very rural feel to it. Rolling forestland surrounds the city. Steel used to drive the town’s economy. Now, there is only one large mill remaining, Carpenter Steel and a few smaller mills. It is not even the largest employment sector in Latrobe. Three local hospitals employ more than 1,000 people between them.
David Cullaney is 49-years old. His family has owned and operated the town’s largest bakery for 65-years. “This has always been a distressed area,” he tells me. The numbers bear that out. Per capita income is only $21,393, $6,500 less than the entire state.
Unemployment figures and the housing market show the recession hit Latrobe the hardest in early 2010 and into 2011. Cullaney says, “At worst our business dropped about 20 percent. We provide baked goods for a lot of restaurants in town and along the highway; people just weren’t going out to eat anymore. Our business was never threatened, though; weddings, baked goods for homes and fundraisers got us through.”
Throughout my journey I’ve been looking for a law enforcement perspective. Other than my near apprehension and almost interview in the Missouri Ozarks, no police officer would talk to me – until I met Sgt. Nunzio Santo Columbo walking a beat in downtown Latrobe. At 30 years on the force he is the senior cop in the city. This is clearly his town as evidenced by the way he stops and talks to people in a personable and low-key manner. He certainly has a good perspective on the entire community.
“In 2009 you started to see the decline in business,” he says. “The steel mills started cutting hours. The largest hospital had to sell out and the new owners cut a lot of services. They went from about 1,200 employees to about 500 now.”
I asked Sgt. Columbo (He was NOT wearing a rumpled trench coat) what he saw as a police officer. “It kept me busy, I’ll tell ya that, lots of overtime. We had a lot more property crime, people stealing from the cars, a lot of bad checks, drug abuse went up and we had a lot more alcohol related calls.”
“More violence?” I ask.
“No, not really,” Columbo replies, “we don’t have a lot of violent crime here but people were taking what they needed.”
Luckily, he tells me, only one position was lost in the department and that due to attrition. Before letting the good Sargent continue his rounds, I get his recommendation for the best Italian restaurant in LUH trobe.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting Small

©2013 by LeeZard
Thursday August 15 – Springfield, IL-Delphi, IN via Monticello, IN
My itinerary to date has been delightfully random and intentionally shortsighted. I usually select my next destination a day or two before leaving my current one. I look for smaller cities and towns, do some initial online research on those I like and throw my digital dart at the map. It’s worked very well so far.
Yesterday, however, the request line rang and I had to answer; it was my brother Steve. His life is another book entirely but he won’t let me write it. I pressure him relentlessly. 
Steve’s story includes his devotion to family, his phony gruff exterior, our shared terrible sense of humor and his generosity to those he loves. He is brother, hero and friend so when he calls and asks me for a very personal favor, one that will divert me more than 100 miles from my planned route, I cannot say no.
The drive from Springfield, IL to Monticello, IN is unremarkable. I have little choice but to drive I-73 East for about 100 miles with mostly cornfields on either side. Exiting to U.S. 24 East the drive is more interesting and the pace slows as I drive through small town after small town, their populations ranging from a low of 650 to an average of about 2,500-3,000.
Agriculture still reigns. I am struck, however, by the many older buildings I see in every town. Not surprising really; in post-revolution days this was the Wild West. I notice also a new crop, a more modern crop. I am seeing some of the largest wind farms to date and I wonder why and how the locations are selected.

Sidebar: A Stone in Monticello
Monticello, Indiana is a city of about 5,400 in north-central Indiana. It is a tourism destination because it is home to the Indiana Beach Amusement Park, Lake Shafer and Lake Freeman. It is also the ancestral home of my brother Steve’s ex-wife Judy.
I won’t pierce their veil of privacy other than to say they did not communicate after their 21-year marriage dissolved but when Judy died suddenly in 2002, Steve travelled from his Brooklyn, NY home to her funeral in Monticello. Today, at my brother’s request, I am looking for the Riverview Cemetery to visit Judy’s grave.
This is no small thing for me. I don’t visit graves; to me, they merely contain what remains of the carbon-based unit that carried the person’s life and soul, neither of which is present at the grave. I honor in my heart my people whom have passed from this life. I only do cemeteries when it is absolutely necessary and I’m not certain I ever want my remains to end up in one. But, I never say no when my brother asks a favor, so here I am.
Riverview Cemetery is at the eastern edge of Monticello. It sits alongside the Tippacanoe River, a tributary to the Wabash. Cornfields surround it. Even though it is 6:30PM local time, the cemetery gates are open and, with the gravesite ID provided by Steve, I begin my search.
There is a brick home on the premises (haunted?) but it looks like nobody is home. In fact, it looks like nobody is home in the whole place except for the bones and me. Surprisingly, I don’t find it creepy to be alone in a bone yard. I do a couple of laps around the noted section before locating the grave right along the fence and across the road from a large cornfield. I get out of the Jeep and wonder, “Is it just me or does the silence in a cemetery ‘sound’ different to everyone?”
Steve asked me to more than just visit Judy’s grave, he also asked me to perform an ancient Jewish ritual, the placing of a simple small stone on the gravestone. He surprises me sometimes; neither of us are what you’d call practicing Jews but we both retain strong cultural ties. Still, this seemed out of character but it is obviously important to him.
I bend in the pathway looking for an appropriate stone. Having never performed this ritual before I’m not quite sure what is appropriate so I look for something unique. Nothing, they all come from the same gravel pit so I just pick up the largest one.
I walk over to the grave and stand for a few seconds. Steve, my brother the heathen, actually asked me to say a brief prayer. I do pray in a manner of speaking. It is part of my ongoing recovery and sobriety and my prayer is spiritual, not religious. Not knowing what to pray for in this instance I decide to just silently say “hi” to Judy, or at least to her bones.
Side Sidebar: What’s With the Stone on the Gravestone?
Now I am curious; how did that stone-on-the-grave ritual come about? It turns out there are several explanations depending upon which rabbi you consult. This is not uncommon in Judaism, politics or economics.
The explanation that makes the most sense to me comes from Rabbi Tom Louchheim at Temple Emanu-el in San Jose, CA:
“In former days one did not mark a grave with marble or granite with a fancy inscription, but one made a cairn of stones over it. Each mourner coming and adding a stone was effectively taking part in the Mitzvah of matzevah ("setting a stone") as well as or instead of levayat ha-meyt ("accompany the dead"). Of course, the dead were often buried where they had fallen, before urbanization and specialization of planning-use demanded formal cemeteries. Nowadays one can no longer bury a relative in the back garden, or on their farm, nor may a deceased traveler be interred by the roadside.
Therefore in our day one tends to stick a pebble on top of the tombstone as a relic of this ancient custom, and it is still clear that the more stones a grave has, the more the deceased is being visited and is therefore being honored. Each small pebble adds to the cairn - a nice moral message. This has become slightly spoiled by the cemetery authorities clearing accumulated pebbles off when they wash down the gravestones and cut the grass.”

After fulfilling my familial responsibilities in Monticello I head for Delphi, IN, a small town nearby in which I will continue my research.
Delphi is the Carroll County Seat and checks in with fewer than 3,000 residents. It is located about 20 minutes northwest of Lafayette and West Lafayette, home to the Boilermakers of Purdue University.
Downtown Delphi is dominated by County Courthouse Square. Most of the town’s businesses form the outer square of the square. I notice three women sitting on the courthouse steps taking a cigarette break. My first “victims.”
Fifty-six year old Kathy is the zoning clerk for both Carroll County and Delphi. During the recession her staff was cut in half, leaving her as the only employee. Her job was secure but her son, upon leaving the military, had trouble finding work.
She calls Delphi a “bedroom community;” many of its small population commute to work for large manufacturers in nearby Lafayette. All three women tell me there were budget cuts and no raises for the last three years.
Thirty-nine year old Mary Ann, the deputy county clerk, tells me her husband lost his job as a welder and metals fabricator. “It used to be a big industry here but not anymore,” she says. “He worked for the oldest manufacturer in Indiana and was low man on the totem pole. They’re still in business but there aren’t many people left working there. It took my husband a year and a half to find a decent job. Now he has to drive 45 miles to get there.”
Forty three year old Laurie Brown is a secretary at Purdue University. Her husband works for the state. While neither was threatened with losing their job things have tightened up. Laurie hasn’t had a raise in two years, her husband in four. As a result, they’ve had to slim down their living expenses and that meant eliminating non-essential luxuries.
Perhaps the hardest hit in the Brown family is their 15-year old daughter. She is an elite softball player. That means in addition to playing on her high school varsity team she also plays during the summer on a so-called travelling team. These teams are for the serious players and they travel to tournaments all around the state and sometimes further. It’s also a major investment for mom & dad.
“She didn’t get to play travel ball last year and it was very rough for her; it’s her thing, it’s what she does,” Laurie says. “It’s $600 just to get on the team and that doesn’t count hotels, meals, gas and all the other travel expenses.”
While the people I spoke with say the recession didn’t slam Delphi, the housing market took a major hit. In 2010 there were about 60 home sales with a median price of $110,000. In 2012 the number of houses sold was only 35 and the median price dropped to $70,000.
Another affect is the ongoing deterioration of downtown Delphi. One man tells me it began – as it did for so many small towns in America – with the coming of Wal-Mart and other big box stores. “There used to be 40 viable businesses in the square; we had traffic control and you couldn’t find parking. The recession accelerated the process. Today I’ll bet there aren’t five viable businesses.”
Oh, and a side note; the nickname for the athletic teams at Delphi High School? What else – The Oracles.
Friday August 16 – Delphi, IN-Fort Loramie, OH
Indiana State Road 26 is a two-lane highway that runs in a straight line through cornfields and small towns again, with many beautiful old buildings on their main thoroughfares. Driving into Central Ohio, the scenery is mostly unchanged.
My destination is the Village of Ft. Loramie, OH, with a population of 1,478. It began as a trading post in 1769, set up by Pierre Loramie, a French-Canadian trapper and explorer. When construction began in 1836 on the Ohio Erie Canal – connecting Akron with the mouth of the Cuyahoga River at Lake Erie – many of the German canal workers stayed in Ft. Loramie.
With the coming of the railroads the canal flowed into history, leaving behind a beautiful lake originally created as a canal feeder reservoir. Today it is part of a 407 acre state park, including a campground for your humble author.
Small as it is, Ft. Loramie is replete with beautiful old colonial style homes and buildings.
With the exception of the housing market, Ft. Loramie seems to have escaped The Great Recession. Several large manufacturers, including Dannon Yogurt’s largest plant, surround the village. While hours were cut, few lost their jobs.
What puzzles me then is the flop in the local housing market. Home sales dropped from 160 in 2011 to 80 in 2012. The median price likewise fell by 50%. There are price reduction notices on almost every For Sale sign. Twenty-eight year old Derek Pruder explains why.
Three Generations of One Family
Live on This Block
Derek lives in a row of old homes just off Ft. Loramie’s Main Street. He is a Loramie native and, in fact, lives on a block with three generations of his family. “Do you have a permit to walk on this sidewalk?” he jokingly asks me.
He turns serious when talking about home sales. “This house to my left has been on the market for four years,” he says. “The information is out there, that with price reductions in Dayton people can get the same size house for $10,000 less.”
There are signs of a turnaround. Out near Lake Loramie there is new construction of large homes that will sell for $200,000-300,000.
Sidebar: The Good and the Ugly
In my travels I’ve noticed the culture of RV travel. These often huge rolling condos bring all the creature comforts to the so-called camping experience. I even saw a long, long trailer which had one outside wall turned into a large TV screen.
By and large, while wave-at-you-from-a-distance friendly, RVers rarely congregate far from their campsites unless they are travelling with friends, as is the case with the three sites next to my little domed tent here at Lake Loramie State Park.
These neighbors have RVed together for years and for the first time are enjoying it sans kids. All three families kids are the same age and they all recently sent their last one off to college. After almost 5,000 miles and countless campgrounds, nobody but the person who took my money has said, “boo,” to me, until now.
On my second night here, one of the women from next door parks her car on my side of her trailer and comes over to pet faithful canine companion Trooper. Crazy as he is at home – barking and jumping on anyone who enters the house – Trooper is the model of decorum on the road. Comments like, “Oh, he’s such a good dog,” and, “My, what a calm, well-behaved dog,” proliferate. I just shake my head. 
He and Shelly from next door bond immediately. “Oh, we have one just like this at home,” she says. And, in the next breath adds, “Would you like to join us for dinner? We have plenty of food.”
I glance over at their raging campfire with row upon row of sizzling chicken quarters and a large ring of Brats. Reluctantly and with a watering mouth I reply, “Sorry, my coals are almost ready and the meat is out (my two scrawny hamburgers). That’s awfully kind of you, though”
“Well c’mon over after you eat and get acquainted,” she bubbled. Which I do and enjoy a very pleasant evening of company and conversation.
Behind my campsite, though, is the dark side, a pickup truck with one of those pop-up campers. It’s a family of four although I’m not sure if it’s mom and dad or grandma and grandpa.  With them is a pair of beautiful Huskies and two small kids. The boy looks about six or seven, the girl four or five.
The first thing I notice is that the adults talk nicer to the dogs than to the kids – all lovey-dovey with the hounds, they virtually growl at the youngsters. OK, it’s none of my business.
Last night – Sunday – the campground was almost empty and much quieter. Sometime after lunch I hear the little girl behind me crying. OK, it’s none of my business – that is until I hear the woman scream at her, “Stop your fucking whining. Your not a baby, stop acting like one.”
Well, first of all, the girl isn’t far from being a baby and dropping an “F bomb” on a four or five year old bothers me. “Isn’t that a form of emotional abuse,” I think to myself? I am sitting and reading alongside my tent and I can surreptitiously glance sideways and observe what happens next.
What happens next is that the woman grabs the girl by the wrist and drags her, still crying, into the pop-up. I quickly hear a quick series of 5-10 skin-on-skin slaps. It could be an over the knee spanking, or something else. I have no way of knowing. Some people spank their kids; I didn’t. But, it is still considered legally acceptable discipline and not abuse. What follows is more troublesome.
“Get into bed, put your head down and take a nap,” the woman angrily commands.”
“I don’t want to take a nap,” comes the plaintive, teary response.” The next thing I hear is one sharp, very loud slap.
“Take a nap!!”
Now, I make it my business. I can’t for certain claim it is child abuse but I decide to report it nonetheless. It seems to me that last slap wasn’t on the tush but, again, I can’t be sure. I decide to let the park rangers decide; I tend to err on the side of the potential victim in this circumstance.
I wait a few moments – I don’t want to arouse their suspicion – then casually rise from my beach chair and slowly walk to the gatehouse about 100 yards from me. There are no rangers on site but the staffer calls one on his mobile phone and hands me her phone. I make my report and surprisingly get a concerned, caring response.
“I’ve dealt with this before,” the young-sounding ranger says, “and, I have two kids of my own. I’ll head over there now and stick around for the evening. I often do walk-abouts and talk with campers. If I see any welts or red marks on that girl, I’ll step in.”
“Thank you, Ranger.” There is nothing more for me to say or do. Interestingly, upon my return, the two adults have turned their beach chairs around so they are facing me. Intimidation? Perhaps.
I casually walk to the Jeep and take out the baseball bat I carry, not for baseball, and I put it on the picnic table. There are no further incidents.