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Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference.

The Bonnie Nobody Knew

This was my young friend Bonnie Pivacek about 20 or so years ago.

Bonnie, who’d be about 40 now, was a baker at my pal Steve Hartman’s On the Rise Bakery on Roanoke City Market and was looked upon as something of a wafish ragamuffin.

After these photos, people tended to see her differently with the classic East European profile and elegant neck. A real beauty. And an excellent photographer in her own right, as well (she took the shot of me for the cover of one of my books).

These were taken in an old junk yard–one with four steam engines–across the street from where Virginia Tech Carilion now sits. They are part of an album I rediscovered last weekend.

Plan B: A Photo Walk Along the River

I don’t like to fish, but I love photographing it, especially fly fishermen, as this guy is.

The idea today was to troop down to the River’s Edge Greenway in Roanoke and take some photos of the big rubber duckie festival (wherein thousands of duckies are dumped into the Roanoke River and boaters retrieve them), but guess what? Must have been yesterday.

My favorite ex-wife once called me “the most calendar-challenged man I’ve ever known.” It’s still working.

I had to punt the duckies and make the best of the situation, so I went walking (wound up with 10,000 steps) and photoing. Got some interesting shots that you get to see here.

This Presbyterian church youth group seemed to be having a good time.

These Hispanic kids play soccer every day in Riverside Park. They have a pretty good following and they can damn well play the game.

This is a father-daughter duo, discussing running as they passed me.

Mimosa is one of my favorite flowering trees, but I can never get it to grow.

Shells–mussel, I think–along the bank of the Roanoke River.

Pink and blue, boy and girl flowers.

One more of the fisherman, this one with another sharp reflection.

Happy Father’s Day to My Boy

Evan, Oz and me about seven years ago.

Ev loved the snow as a little boy.

I went searching for photos of my son yesterday, so I could post a Happy Father’s Day card this morning and I came up with some pretty good ones.

Here you go and Happy Father’s Day to the best Dad I know: my son Evan.

Ev getting one of his first haircuts. He had curly ringlettes that disappeared.

Ev with his mom, Chris, and sister, Jenniffer.

Ev did some theatrical stuff pre-middle school.

Evan has always liked to cook.

What is it with little boys and tractors?

Evan adored his sister, Jenniffer, as a little boy.

Ev, Emmitt Smith (the boxer, named after Emmitt Kelly, the clown, not the football player Emmitt Smith) and me at McAfee’s Knob. He was about 14.

Evan, Emmitt and me out in the woods.

I have no words.

The Baseball Draft: Dashing Dreams

The Salem Red Sox of the Class A Carolina League play in an often idyllic setting, but how many of its players go on to baseball fame and fortune? Not many. (I shot this photo about 10 years ago.)

Writer Jim Collins’ 2004 book The Last Best League is a look at low minor league baseball that opened my eyes to what I believe to be feeding false hopes among amateur baseball players, often teenagers.

Just last week, major league baseball teams drafted more than 1,000 amateur baseball players to fill the rosters of all their levels, from Rookie Leagues to AAA. Some players–a very few–get huge bonuses in the multi-million dollar range. Most of those players will sign for very little money, will earn less than enough to live on as their summer jobs and will see their dreams of big money and fame wither as they age beyond their teen or early 20s years.

There are 30 big league teams and they carry 25 players each until Sept. 1 of each year. That’s 750 players. After Sept. 1, as the playoffs approach, rosters expend to 40 players, 1,200 total. Some of those additional players are brought up from the minor leagues, mostly players who have been there for a while and are having good seasons.

There are 6,500 minor league players spread among 244 clubs (including teams in Salem, Lynchburg and Pulaski in this area). That’s a lot of hope and most of it will be dashed eventually. (The Pulaski rookie league team plays in a 1930s-era atmospheric stadium, Calfee Park, which is a delight to visit, by the way.)

Collins’ book is about a quasi-amateur collegiate rookie league on Cape Cod and he looks closely at the recent college players banking on getting a break. The league features teams from small towns in a remote location.

Time was when baseball teams from small towns–playing in leagues that went all the way from A to D–were popular representatives of the towns, playing in rivalry games against neighbors. Playing in the low minors was something kids happily did. Now it’s all about stepping stones in a sport where a 25-year-old in the low minors is done.

It is the very definition of false hope, given to youngsters in their formative when they could be concentrating on their educations and their careers afterward. Just how many of these kids are dispatched to lives of unrealized potential is not known. But I’d bet it’s a bunch.

 

Looking for a Flea Market; No Success

This display tells you all you need to know about the “new Happy’s.”

Wanna slice somebody up? Here’s how.

Yesterday, Margie and I spent a good part of a beautiful Saturday looking for a flea market where I could sell some stuff and we had–at best–marginal success. We found two and discovered a third no longer operates, or at least didn’t yesterday and showed no signs of recent activity.

The ones we actually found were hardly worth the effort. There’s an old one in Buchanan (just before you hit town, coming off I81) that was recommended by a colleague who lives in Botetourt County. We got there a little late to really make a determination about its quality, but the vendors who were left didn’t inspire. They told me the crowds had not been big, nor those selling impressive during the course of the day. I asked an antique dealer in town about the flea market and she said it had wildly varying quality.

These old boys were talking Trump and tools.

What I found unacceptable, though, had little to do with the flea market itself. It was the bugs. I could not see standing in that grass being eaten alive by tiny bugs while selling my goods.

We drove out to Montvale to try to find a flea market I’ve seen on occasion while driving to Bedford or Lynchburg. It was closed and the big field where it rested didn’t appear to have been used lately.

Then there’s the flea market that has sprung up next door to where the old Happy’s once pulled in thousands of people and many vendors (some of them professional, a large number weekenders) on a typical weekend. This was the flea market I liked because it had such variety and a lot of amateurs simply cleaning out their basements, offering a wide assortment of good, bad and indifferent offerings. I always enjoyed engaging the people and taking pictures at Happy’s.

This man and his small child seemed out of place at the cosmetics counter.

The latest incarnation is the worst of Happy’s, mostly professional flea market vendors selling cheap new goods, rather than good used junk and collectibles. I noted two different vendors selling Trump paraphernalia and the cigarette smoke was often heavy. There were a number of chances to buy implements of destruction and cheap clothing (Wrangler jeans for $12, about the same as what I pay at Northwest Hardware). Nobody seemed happy, so to speak. I always detected a level of joy at Happy’s, even on bad days.

So, my conclusion: Move along, nothing to see here.

Vendors wearing their Trump gear. I wasn’t buying.

Hmmm. Who goes to a flea market to buy cosmetics?

Cheap jewelry on display.

No, these are not real, illegal guns. They shoot some kind of plastic slug. I asked the guy selling them if I could get a real one. He frowned at me, thinking I was a narc, I guess.

Author Rod Belcher Needs Your Help

Rod Belcher

My good pal Rod Belcher, one of the country’s most successful writers of fantasy and sci-fi, is settinghis next novel in southwest Virginia (he lives in Roanoke). He needs your help and here’s his note being more specific.

“Hello social media fam, I’m starting a new novel that will be suspense/ horror. It is set in south-west Virginia. Most of it is in and around the Roanoke / Salem/ Vinton area, but not exclusively. At this point, anything goes.

“I am reaching out to folks to get your freaky / weird / scary / messed-up / supernatural and paranormal stories and urban myths to possibly include in the novel. It will all remain confidential.

“Some folks I know may very well end up as characters in the book, but I’ll clear that with folks beforehand and names can always be changed to protect your privacy. I grew up around here and I’ve heard scraps of stories for years:

  • Why the Native Americans were hesitant to stay overnight in the Roanoke Valley,
  • That there is a secret society of some kind in Salem,
  • Stories of ancient spirits, haunted strip clubs, ghosts of railroad lantern men,
  • Conspiracies and secret societies.

“Hell, we have a giant, glowing five-pointed star on top of a mountain here. It kind of writes itself…

“These are all things I’d love to hear more about, and more—or find out if they are just bullshit rumors. I would love to hear more about the ‘underworld’ locally (criminal and supernatural) again, full confidentiality.

“I’m not judging, I’m not looking to get anyone in hot water. I’m trying to tell a story and I’d like to make it as realistic as possible.

“I reached out a while back to—and was awful at following up with—the local tattoo artist scene. I’d love to send you folks a brief set of questions, or interview you in person about what you do, how you got started and about your experiences and war stories. Any tattoo folk are welcomed to reach out.

“I really, really appreciate it. So please PM me or email me at rsbelcher@hotmail.com if you have anything you’d like to share. It would be most welcome. This isn’t the kind of stuff you can find in most history books.”

So now, the ball is in your court. Rod is awaiting your bell.

Photography: An Anniversary

It occurred to me only a little while ago–like five minutes–that I have now spent half my life, 36 years, as a photographer for fun and profit.

I picked up a camera while at the very depths of my alcoholism (and 11 years before I put down the bottle) while working for a tiny weekly newspaper where I had to do everything that needed to be done to produce the paper.

I knew nothing of photography, save for the occasional pictures I took–and enjoyed taking–with a point-and-shoot camera. I had never released the shutter on a 35mm and here I was, suddenly, trying to figure out the difference between the f-stop and the ASA,  depth of field and backlight, Kodachorme and Tri-X, macro and zoom.

This was the December entry in a Roanoke City calendar a few years ago.

Let me say that it took a while to learn, that I made every mistake possible to make with a camera, that–like the blind hog and the acorn–I occasionally found a shot that was worthwhile. I won awards long before I should have and made stupid mistakes long after that should not have happened.

All the while, I loved my newfound craft and made it part of both my professional and personal life. All the while, I asked questions of people who could provide answers and I was a sponge for their advice and council.

Today, I shoot confidently, enthusiastically and with a style of my own. I don’t always get what I see, but with photo technology what it has become, I come close.

Photography has always been more difficult and more rewarding to me than writing and I think you know how much I love writing.

Say “photographer” and smile.

 

 

A (Fun) Memorial Day Reflection in the Woods

Who could resist being peaceful in this setting?

Susan finds the proper yoga post in the creek.

Memorial Day represents a time of reflection for me, one where I question the costs of war, the illogic of going to war, the lost lives of young people spent preserving the fortunes of American oligarcs.

In my 72 years on earth, America has been at war upon 14 different occasions, not a single one of them necessary or justifiable. You can argue that the incursion into Afghanistan following 9/11 was justified for a brief time, but that turned into the longest U.S. war and an invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.

As with so many holidays that fall on Sunday, the traditional American day of reflection and spiritual renewal, I went to the woods with my friend Susan yesterday to be surrounded with the wonder of our country and not its failures.

Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way (about being in the woods, not necessarily about war), judging from the size of the crowd at Camp Alta Mons and Stiles Falls in Shawsville. This is a relatively brief hike–maybe 3.5 miles round trip–but it has a good bit of climbing and negotiating of rocks when crossing the stream to get to the falls. It is a beautiful hike, even when crowded, and the payoff at the falls is impressive and refreshing to those who get in the water. Stiles Falls and its pools simply invite a swim (which I have done naky-naky in the past), but not Sunday when there were more than 25 people crowded onto the rocks during the time we were there. They didn’t need to see a fat old man in all his lost glory.

The forest offers lovely sculptures, some nude.

Even with the crowds of happy people, the hike and the falls provided the deep spiritual lift I needed and I think Susan would agree.

We topped the hike off with a picnic that I put together, featuring new creations (for me): a corn chowder, roast tomato-julienne cucumber-sweet onion salad in agave vinaigrette, sweet potato Waldorf salad, spinach-red bell pepper humus and watermelon/cantaloupe. It was chilly, healthy, light and delicious.

The photos are by Susan and me. I took the naked woman tree. You likely would have guessed that.

There is a smidge of triumphalism in all this.

The crowd ignored instructions.

Wildlife was everywhere.

And here, ladies and gents, is Stiles Falls.

Pampa celebrates celebrating by celebrating the celebration.

Susan’s impression of the falls.

My view of the falls.

And a meal at the end of the hike. Yum. (Note the lovely dinnerware.)

Who the Hell Are These Guys? (Hint: Presidential Candidates)

Here are the candidates. You figure out who’s who. Or is it “whom”?

By my rough accounting–and frankly, “rough” is the only way you can count it–the Democratic presidential field is up to 24 and falling or rising fast, depending on where you look. (You can look here and get my point. It’s all of them and what they stand for.)

There will be a winnowing process–which has already begun with the departure of former West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda, whom I suspect most West Virginians have never heard of–but I want to begin that right away and I have a suggestion. Georgia’s Stacy Abrams and former Secretary of State (and ex-presidential candidate) John Kerry are mulling runs, but likely won’t. They both lost their last elections.

We can quickly dispose of 15 candidates that almost nobody knows (one of them is among my favorites) and who have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of winning the nomination, about the same as Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Donald Trump had at this point in the process.

There are, obviously, exceptions to the name recognition mantra, but not many. So here are the people I’d like to see dip back into obscurity or wherever it is they came from:

  • Andrew Yang, a tech businessman who wants to give all Americans (including Trump) $1,000 a month walking around money. (Not related to Andrew Young, whom I once interviewed.)
  • Marianne Williamson, a self-help author I heard speak on Public Radio. She needs to stick to writing because she sounds like a self-help author.
  • Eric Swalwell, a California congressman in a heavily Democratic state that nobody on earth, save for his family has ever heard of. I mean Swalwell? Who are you kidding?
  • Tim Ryan, a congressman from Ohio who was elected when he was 29 (17 years ago), same as AOC (but she has him by a couple of months for the record). That seems to be all they have in common.
  • Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts congressman, who, I’ll bet, can spell his state’s name without having to look it up. I can’t.
  • Wayne Messam, the mayor of 140,000-population Miramar, Fla. That’s not as big as the Roanoke Valley, but you gotta give it to him: he has brass.
  • Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who is one of my Top 5 picks, but who has about as much chance as I have.
  • John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor who is much like Inslee in his politics, but with a name that would bring roars of laughter at a Trump rally.
  • Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska, who likely knows Sara Palin, but probably can’t see Russia from his back porch.
  • Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu and native of the Solomon Islands, both firsts for a congressional member (Hawaii), but no, not a chance.
  • John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman and now a rich business dude, who was the very first person to enter the Democratic field (back in 2017).
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. He’s not even especially popular in New York and he’s as divisive as Hillary Clinton.
  • Julian Castro, former HUD secretary and tell me true: would you vote for a guy named Castro for president of America?
  • Steve Bullock, Montana’s governor. Who? You’re kidding, right?
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. Flyover Mike is what Trump would dub him, I suspect.