Where the Hell are the Trick Or Treat Urchins?

Come and get it kiddies! The Woopie Cushion is waiting for you, candy in hand.

So, five years ago when I moved into my house, I was covered in little kids wanting candy at Halloween. I estimated there were close to 300 of them and I was giving slices of bread at the end.

That has reduced annually and last year, there were about eight. This year, one family with three kids. ONE! Is it my breath? I have candy (left over from last year) and plenty of attitude.


Liz Long Ascends to the Editor’s Chair at Roanoker

Liz and me at the 2017 Roanoke Regional Writers Conference.

I’ve known for a while that Liz Long was getting ready to assume the editor’s chair at the Roanoker magazine, so it wasn’t surprising to see the announcement today that she will take over–mostly–from the not-yet-retiring Kurt Rheinheimer with the January/February issue.

Kurt and I are the same age and have the same attitude about retirement. No, thanks.

I’ve worked on and off for the Roanoker (sometimes for free in the early days) since the first issue when I helped out founder Richard Wells in the office and wrote a few pieces here and there, either with no by-line or using a pseudonym. I was working in the sports department of The Roanoke Times at that point and would have been fired had I been exposed. Richard and I had worked at The Times together, joining the team there from our  home town of Asheville, where we both started.

I was on the most infamous cover in the nearly 50-year history of the magazine, posing as a City Market flasher while Santa Claus stuffed porn into his bag. The Times didn’t know about that, either. I had my back to the camera.

Kurt (right) and me (green) co-teaching a writers conference class a few years ago. It was less teaching and more journalism-war-story-telling.

I’ve known all four of the Roanoker’s editors since 1974 and I think I appreciated Kurt Rheinheimer most. He’s an even-handed, competent pro who can also write quite well. I think Liz will fit that mold. I have known her for a few years through her affiliation with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, which I founded 10 years ago.

I liked the way she worked with me and with other writers so much that I asked her to become the director of the conference beginning with the next one. I stepped back to become her aide de camp. Liz is thoroughly competent, but more than that, she puts forth the effort needed for excellence.

Since I sold my half of the business magazine I co-founded, FRONT, a couple of years ago, I have regularly contributed a lot of fun stories to the Roanoker, usually with Kurt as editor, but lately with Liz handling my copy. Both are the kind of editor I hope I was: thorough, giving good instructions, asking the right questions, keeping me from embarrassing myself.

Liz will do well in this new role and my guess it will expand a good bit beyond the Roanoker.



Local Businessman Attacks Trump Critics

Skip Tharp

It would seem to me that the owner of a large funeral home would resist the temptation to post a vicious political screed on Facebook, but this is a political climate the likes of which I have not before seen.

I have lived through the McCarthy Hearings, the Johnson/Nixon Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, Civil Rights, several other optional wars and political scandals, two stolen presidential elections (Kennedy, Bush II),an impeachment and George Bush. Twice. Nothing, however, comes close to the division we see with the Trump election.

Skip Tharp, CEO of one of the region’s biggest funeral homes (Tharp Funeral Home and Crematory), is apparently a Trump supporter and he posted this a couple of days ago. I have been considering ignoring it, but I thought I’d put it up to show you where we are when a respected business professional turns his attention to defending the indefensible. Here’s what he posted (unedited):

“I offer no apology for what I am posting for this is truly how I feel. Please know this is my opinion and not open for debate. If you disagree or find my position offensive, that’s your problem.

“I have lived through a Lot of United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, humiliated by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, lied about, threatened with death, threatened to rape our Beautiful First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated. The man turned down his paycheck as President and is working for free to make this country better.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country.

“I am ashamed of the ruthless, hating, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the reporters who feel they have the right to carry on with lies and say the things they do for the purpose of furthering to divide this country. The immense display of disrespect is intolerable. Every other President before he was elected, took the oath of office was left alone, especially children, they weren’t on the news 24/7 being scrutinized by their every word. While failing to report the truth in real and important events affecting this country.

“This has been the Jerry Springer era of “news media “. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED to do this or that and never given the time to take care of the important work this country really needs. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH, LEAVE THE MAN ALONE AND LET HIM DO HIS JOB FOR GOD’S SAKE! Our future and freedom depend on it.”

Let me mention one little item: Jerry Springer (a Democrat and former mayor of Cincinnati) Tweeted during the election that “Hillary Clinton belongs in the White House. Donald Trump belongs on my show.”


Roanoke’s Rife + Wood Firm Purchased

My old buddy Richard Rife at the Roanoke Regional Airport. No, he’s not flying away (despite the winged head).

My old friend Richard Rife and his partner Jeff Wood have sold their architectural firm and Jeff is turning to a new venture while Richard joins the purchasing firm, IDG.

Rife + Wood has been the architect for many major projects in the Roanoke Valley over the years (including the city’s two new high schools and their football fields) and my guess is that you’ll see Richard’s and Jeff’s imprint on more in the future.

Here’s the press release:

Several months ago, Bill Hume, President of the Roanoke architectural firm Interactive Design Group (IDG), approached us with an offer to acquire Rife + Wood. Jeff Wood and I have known Bill for many years as he worked for Rife + Wood prior to leaving in 1997 to start IDG. Confident that IDG would provide high quality service to our clients, Jeff and I decided the time was right for us to try something new and we accepted his offer.

As part of this transaction, I will be joining IDG on November 1 as Senior Project Manager and will continue to serve Rife + Wood’s clients. I am looking forward to again working with Bill and Stephen Feather and the very talented staff that IDG has assembled. I have been very impressed with the advanced digital visualization technology utilized by IDG and I am excited at being able to share this capability with our clients.

Jeff Wood will follow his interests in architectural design, project visualization, travel, renovation, and housing in a new business form: Jeff Wood Designs, LLC.

Rife + Wood Architects will formally close its doors on October 31.

Liza Mundy’s “Code Girls” Helps Open Up History

Liza Mundy

Roanoke native Liza Mundy’s new book Code Girls tells the story of the 10,000 or so mostly young women who played a vital World War II role in breaking the Axis codes for the Allies. They were instrumental in winning a war we could not afford to lose, but until now nobody really mentioned them because their story was hidden in the dark and dusty halls of D.C., where almost nobody went looking.

This is the latest–and maybe the best–examination of women as warriors, not just people who kept the home fires burning during times of national catastrophe. Mundy’s narrative is intelligent, probing, revealing and, frankly, encouraging. Hollins University’s theater department is in the middle of a play run, “Men On Boats,” that deals harshly with the way history has been written–mostly by white men.

Mundy, a former Washington Post award-winning reporter and author of several best-sellers, grew up in Roanoke, daughter of prominent attorney Marshall Mundy. She has become recognized as an expert on women’s employment issues.

Mundy’s book and several other books and movies dealing with codes, front-line nursing, African-American women and NASA, among other things have become big hits. I’m not surprised. In a country starving for heroes, men have pretty much worn out their (our) welcome and women are left to fill the void and maybe even to save the country.

History, for the most part, has been written by men and that is limiting. When you add in “men who won,” it becomes even more narrow. I find it fascinating, for example, to stream Netflix and Amazon TV series made in other countries on topics where Americans were involved (WWII, for example). I get a view I can’t find here. And it makes the view I keep much more relevant.

Mundy’s book is gracious in that it doesn’t take cheap shots at some of these blockhead men, that it credits those who actually helped push women forward and that it tells the truth, as far as that can be determined. Mundy’s effort to discover the role African-American women played hit wall after wall and the information she came away with was insignificant, though those women’s role was not.

History is imperfect, but fortunately, we’re dealing with its shortcomings in a positive way that can make us all smarter and help us to appreciate what was and what wasn’t. We’re better for that.

Folklife Festival: Commercial Free and Fun

The crowd for the draft horse pull filled the bank overlooking the course.

Preparing fresh walnuts the old way.

After 44 years of baying hounds, leaping mules, straining draft horses, belching antique tractors, hammering blacksmiths, baking bread and dripping moonshine, the Blue Ridge Institute’s Folklife Festival has remained relatively commercial free. Sure, you can buy lunch and a few genuine locally-made artifacts, but this isn’t Gatlinburg, nor will it become that.

Object of the hounds’ blood lust.

If anything, the festival is becoming a victim of its own purity, its own success. Ferrum is a short drive from Roanoke–maybe 40 minutes. Yesterday, the final three miles took 40 minutes, traffic backed up that distance for most of the day. Parking is primarily on green hills around the Ferrum College campus, meaning a brisk walk through thousands of people to the festivities on the BRI 19th century farm.

If you want commerce, you can stop at any of the 35 or so yard sales between Rocky Mount and Ferrum, many of them permanent. You can get fairly decent barbecue and hot dogs at the yard sales, too, if you don’t want to wait in a Kings Dominion-length line at the festival to eat. Warning: the buns are strictly white-bread. On the way out there’s an extra inducement: a radio station that plays old-time country and bluegrass music, based in Rocky Mount.

The festival’s top draws are mules that jump, draft horses that pull 2,000-pound iron sleds and hound dogs that chase a dead raccoon across a pond, and “tree” (actually telephone pole) another coon, howling unmercifully the entire time. If the hound’s baying is music to your ears, this is Emmylou Harris in concert.

The most obvious element in its absence, though, remains booths of ticky-tack, “crafts”

Big horse, big tack.

that aren’t crafty and fried junk food. I’m sure festival organizers have been tempted to open up to those vendors and they are to be commended for not doing so. There are some genuine crafts available: I bought a knife that had been hand-made Friday (and was dated on the blade) and a beautiful leather hair clip, which promptly fell out of my shirt pocket as I was taking photos and became an unexpected find for some lucky young lady. Enjoy it, dear girl.

This festival belongs to those attending, as it should. Here are some photos of those lucky people. And critters.

Hounds jump from their cage, chasing the dead coon …

There they go, howling and baying …

What happens if they catch it? Well, they don’t.

Nice horsie.

Waiting for the hounds.

Little girls love horses, even the huge ones.

A flock of Canada geese just passing through.

Yes, their toenails were painted pink. Sigh.

A view through the fence.

Old farm implements on the log cabin.

Hey, tattoos are antiques, too.

Kids will find a way to see.

Want traffic jam? Go to the festival.

Yard sales lined the route to Ferrum.

Waiting for their turn to pull the sled.

A fall afternoon in Ferrum.

Best friends forever.

Want some second-hand smoke, buddy?

Ran into my old buddy Keith Ferrell first thing.

Cricket and Jeff Maiden and their sweet kids.

These big boys pulled 2,000 pounds six feet, which isn’t a lot.

Pampa’s lunch (from a yard sale).

Pampa eating Pampa’s lunch. Note homemade bib.

Fall in Ferrum: a view from the hill.

“Men on Boats”: Nice Job with a Difficult Play

My first impression of Hollins University Theatre’s current production of Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats” last night was that Ernie Zulia’s name was nowhere to be found in the Playbill. Not a word. That gave me enough concern to ask about him. He’s on sabbatical, his first, I’m told, in his 11 years at Hollins.

Ernie is the guru of theater at not only Hollins, but also in the Roanoke Valley, raising the level of quality here immeasurably during the past decade-plus. So, how would his kids do with a complex, sophisticated and difficult-to-swallow work? The results were mixed.

“Men on Boats” takes on the topic of white men writing history (to boil it waaaay down) with an attempt at comedy by shaking up the historic formula and turning it on its head. All this is accomplished by recreating an 1869 western river expedition for “the government,” in what became part of the effort to claim land that didn’t belong to all these white men running said government.

The Hollins play casts women–white, black, brown–in all the parts, exaggerates the macho demeanor of these white men and makes them ridiculous, though not very funny (in my opinion as a white man of limited sophistication). I get the point, but I don’t think Backhaus’ play is anywhere subtle enough to be effective except to a narrow, specialized audience. The play, which was just published this past summer (Hollins had been working with it for some months by then), is apparently quite a success off Broadway.

There is good reason to see “Men on Boats,” mostly the co-direction of Hollins graduate Rachel Nelson (2007) and Hollins grad student Susanna Young (2009). Susanna serves as choreographer, this version of the play’s strongest statement. Both have considerably more experience than their short careers would suggest because Hollins–and Ernie–provide that. Hollins Theatre students get a workout.

The directors explained, in their playbill notes, that “Men on Boats” asks us “complicated questions: Who does history belong to? At what cost do we see our white ancestors as only adventurers and heroes, rather than allow them to be complex people who also participated in violent and systematic racism?” That pretty much indicts all white historians and I will take exception to it, having read a good bit of history (including the brand new “Code Girls,” which is written by a white woman and is extraordinary).

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? As I said, Susanna Young’s choreography was simply superb. I got the distinct feeling that this dance major (who directed me in an Overnight Sensations at Mill Mountain Theatre over the summer) has been on a whitewater raft at some point because the scenes depicting the boats roaring through difficult rapids–and especially those demonstrating capsizing–made my stomach churn. I’ve done a good bit of rafting, falling out regularly, often in hydraulics, and when these actors hit the deck squirming and fighting against the imagined current, I felt it.

Susanna’s and Ms. Nelson’s direction of the 10 actors assuming roles of tough guys with myriad personal problems was even, consistent and served the writer’s intent well. Although I didn’t especially like the play’s statement, I do appreciate tackling difficult issues (there is courage involved in that, something the men in the boats didn’t strongly demonstrate in this play).

Ernie would be proud of the women handling this play. They’ve done some good work. The play itself is not my favorite, however.

The play runs through this weekend and you can get $10 tickets by calling  (540) 362-6517. Plays at Hollins tend to sell out, so get your tickets ahead of time if possible.

Mary Ellen and the Traveling Wedding Dress

Mary Ellen and the magic dress.

My good friend Mary Ellen Apgar is getting married to Josh Oertle a week from tomorrow and she’s doing it the very modern way: backwards. But that’s not the story here.

The story is about a magic dress, one that didn’t come to the front immediately, but waited until both it and Mary Ellen were ready for it to appear. It’s such a good story that I’ll let her tell it, since it’s hers. Here goes:

Mary Ellen’s son, Bennett, anticipating the blessed event.

“Josh and I first got engaged in June 2013 shortly before he left for Afghanistan. In the last four years we have been engaged, we have endured a deployment, successfully bought our first house together and had the privilege of bringing life into this world with our son.  After all that, we thought this is the perfect time to get hitched.

“Perfect, don’t you think?! We did things a little unconventional, backwards, and nontraditional.  Some people have not agreed with it (my folks have been so very supportive), but it’s what worked for us.

“Over the past four years, I have gotten three different wedding dresses. It has been quite the saga. I got all of them from Newfangled Bride in Salem, a consignment shop.  For one reason or another, the first two dresses just didn’t suite me anymore.  I didn’t realize how much I wanted to sparkle!  The first two dresses did not sparkle.  The dress I have now totally sparks.

“The dress I bought two weeks from my wedding has quite the story.  If I recall correctly, I am the fifth bride to wear this dress.  It was originally either $4,000 or $2,800 (I can’t quite remember).  Newfangled Bride sold it to me for a teeny, tiny fraction of that amount.  Totally affordable for me.

“Newfangled Bride calls the dress I bought the ‘traveling dress.’  Not only has it been worn by so many brides, but it’s been worn in weddings at a vineyard in California and at a castle in Scotland and another in Slovakia. This dress’s destiny is to be worn by many amazing women and worn all over the world.  I am so honored to wear this dress at Hollins University for my wedding.

“Because of the dress’s destiny, I will return it to Newfangled after my wedding.  I can’t wait to learn who will wear it next.

Mary Ellen and me at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference this past January.

“Because this dress is magical and could potentially bring happiness to another bride (affordable happiness) and because it is about a locally owned business, I just had to share the story.”

I probably don’t need to say it, but I will: I’m thrilled for Mary Ellen’s wedding, her  child, her dress and mostly for her friendship. She has been of enormous value to me over the years both personally and professionally and her happiness simply delights me. Although I don’t usually do weddings unless I’m the groom (and there have been plenty of those), I’ll be the one at in the Hollins Talmadge Recital Hall Saturday with the biggest smile.

Give Your Body to Science? Not So Fast

Oakey’s manager Jon Wilson pushes a body into the cremation furnace (which is over 1,600 degrees).

I spent a little time at Oakey’s Funeral Home in Salem this morning and in the course of a conversation with manager Jon Wilson, I asked a question about what happens to bodies.

John says the split between burial and cremation is about 50-50 and those who give their body “to science” comes in at about four percent. But giving the body away is not easy. The state, for example, wants pretty much pristine bodies (that could still be alive), no scabs, cuts or obvious medical problems.

Some bodies go for experimentation outside medicine. Virginia Tech, for example, used bodies in its football helmet safety studies recently, Jon said. The military likes to test ammo on dead bodies. And, of course, there are medical studies for specific diseases.

Here are some ideas, including  the ever-present “body brokers” who find a place for the dead that is not in a hole and might even be able to help save some people in the future.

But to just say, “Hey, boys, take my body for science,” won’t work. You’ll need to do a little studying ahead of time to see what your options are. If you don’t mind getting shot at, going through a windshield of a car or using your dead noggin for football tests, then go to it.



A New Friend, Instantly

Beauty and the Beast.

Every once in a great while, I will meet somebody, sit down to chat and find that we’re picking up the conversation in the middle from about 30 years ago. The familiarity is eerie.

That happened today when I met my new friend Lisa Thompson at Panera for lunch. I mean, we went straight into it, nodding and expressing and questioning and offering up what we knew. The conversation was probably far more wide ranging than either of us expected and that relaxed confidence came about in the first 20 minutes of a 90 minute chat.

Lisa, an ad exec at Wheeler Broadcasting and a native of Mississippi, is a refreshing middle-aged woman (looking like she’s maybe 30-35, but to my surprise is considerably older) who is bright, eager and thoughtful. She may look like somebody from “Dancing with the Stars,” but she sounds like my mom, full of wisdom, understanding, compassion and humor.

Like Mom, she smiles easily and laughs heartily. She  understands important human issues with the grasp of an old soul.

I like her. She’s going to be a good friend and I am pleased by that turn of events.