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 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.


Representing the First Amendment: Two Slimebags

Larry Flint outside the Supreme Court in 1987.

The Trump Administration’s charge of violating the Espionage Act against Julian Assange is reminiscent of a number of efforts by a sitting administration to shut down the press’ ability to report the news.

The example that first occurs to me is the case against porn producer Larry Flint. We have the much more serious Pentagon Papers, among many efforts, but Flint and Assange both fit this description from First Amendment lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous Jr.: ““The calculation by the Department of Justice is that here’s someone who people don’t like. There’s a real element of picking the weakest of the herd, or the most unpopular figure, to try to blunt the outcry.”

No, we don’t like Assange. He’s likely a sexual predator and a man who can be blamed for elevating Donald Trump to the presidency. But that’s not the point. He’s also a publisher–as was Flint, though his “sin” was porn–and is in the big mix of a profession that includes Fox News and the New York Times, as well as Bob Guccione’s entire empire that included both Penthouse magazine and Omni (the great science mag edited by my friend Keith Ferrell, a true and fine journalist).

In 1983, Flint’s Hustler magazine parody of Jerry Falwell Sr., led to a lawsuit by the Moral Majority leader from Lynchburg, but the Supreme Court decided in Flint’s favor in 1988. The First Amendment Encyclopedia writes, “The decision demonstrated that the adult entertainment industry is frequently in the vanguard of free speech court battles that affect the wider culture.” If porn is legit, I suspect so is political tale-telling, which is one of the primary reasons journalism exists at its highest levels.

You might also remember that Flint offered $1 million to any woman who would come forward with tales of sexual encounters with members of Congress, during the lead-up to the Clinton impeachment. That led to the resignation of a powerful Republican legislator named Robert Livingston. Flint later, unsuccessfully, challenged a military ban on interviewing combat troops, citing press freedom.

So, is Flint a Hero of the Revolution and, more important at this moment, is Assange?

This one sticks in my craw. Neither Flint nor Assange is a hero in the small book I keep, but there’s a good case to be made for both in keeping the press free and effective, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s full-on effort to destroy the press (“enemy of the people”) in general and press freedom in particular. The case against Assange would have been a certain defeat before Trump’s courts were packed with far right-wing Republican activists, but it is, maybe, 50-50 now, if that close.

Former Justice Department (under Obama) spokesman Matthew Miller is quoted by the NYTimes as saying, “The Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and non-journalists. If you can charge Julian Assange under the law with publishing classified information, there is nothing under the law that prevents the Justice Department from charging a journalist.”

A dangerous time for the American public just became more so and the defenders of the flame are hardly role models.



Don’t Piss Off Formable Grabber!

These Gauntlett competitors get a financial boost from the Advancement Foundation’s competition.

My friend Annette Patterson is at it again–for the fifth year in a row. Annette, whose goal in life is to help every living soul on the planet at least once–has just finished her Gauntlet competition, which gave a bunch of money to small business people with good ideas.

Formable Grabber, a Covington company that invented a “grab” tool for auto mechanics, won the recent Fifth Annual Gauntlet Business Competition in a beginning field of 122 entrepreneurs and 84 businesses.

The Formable Grabber company literature says, “We’ve re-invented the idea of a mechanic’s grabber, fixing everything that pissed us off about the ones on the current market.”

The competition, which represented the Roanoke Valley and Alleghany Highlands is sponsored by the Advancement Foundation, based in Vinton and run by (founded by, as well) Annette. The foundation presented substantial cash amounts to its top 12 finishers, including $21,095 for Formable Grabber.

The entries in the competition participated in 10 weeks of training and then 50 of them proceed to the business competition portion. All 50 businesses won prize packages based on their needs for their startups or expansions to further advance their business goals and strategies.

The top 12 companies are:

12th Place-Valley Cryotherapy, Roanoke County, $4,575.00

11th Place (tie)-The Foundry, Roanoke City, $9,380.00

11th Place (tie)-The Harvest Collective, Roanoke City, $9,245.00

10th Place- Born Again Custom Woodworks, Alleghany Highlands, $6,399.00

9th Place- Keely Massie Photography, Alleghany Highlands, $6,595.00

8th Place (tie)- Advanced Racking, Botetourt County, $9,745.00

8th Place (tie)- Downshift Outfitters. Roanoke City, $7,245.00

7th Place- Accelerated Academics, Roanoke County, $10,145.00

6th Place- Honeycomb Grove, Alleghany Highlands, $14,045.00

5th Place- Quest Knight Enterprises, Alleghany Highlands, $7,845.00

4th Place- Why Knot Boat With Us, Roanoke County, $11,929.00

3rd Place- Easy Workings, Alleghany Highlands, $17,345.00

2nd Place (tie)- IVO Limited, Alleghany Highlands. $18,845.00

2nd Place (tie)- Roanoke Neuromuscular, Roanoke County, $18,185.00

1st Place- Formable Grabber, Alleghany Highlands, $21,095.00

To the Boats, My Boys! It’s Spring!

I like this shot a lot and it is natural, no fiddling with PhotoShop.

This is me shortly before I pushed off the island and went straight into the cove, head first.

OK, I get it. It’s May 21 and I’ve just unpacked my kayaks from a looooooong winter’s nap. But, boy, did I pick a day to paddle the cove! Warm, breezy, busy, bright with wondrous clouds and I even got to turn over my boat and take a good soak–first time that’s happened in years.

Paddler hugs the bank on the far side of the cove.

I packed a full-sized Nikon–for the first time–and was bright enough to have stored it in a drybag, which I don’t generally do with my point-and-shoot cameras (and I’ve lost two that way). When I went over, it simply floated back to me. Wish I could say the same for my paddle, which I had to swim out away from the island to retrieve.

But what’s a day without an adventure? Wet pants, rocky shoes and a big smile tell the story.

So do these photos (I didn’t get any shots of me falling over. Wish I could have). But I did get some pretty good photos of other stuff. The picture at the top is one of my all-time faves.

These Canada geese objected to my presence. They always do, but they didn’t attack.

Sometimes the most beauty is in the simplest things.

I never get tired of taking this picture.

This young woman has discovered the key to successful work (that’s a laptop she’s working on).

The beauty beyond my toes. (That’s my drybag, which saved my Nikon.)

I won’t say I wasn’t warned.

25 Years Sober: A Time to Celebrate

This evening at about 7:10 in the basement of a church in the Raleigh Court neighborhood of Roanoke–where it started in earnest–I will be given a bronze medallion emblazoned with XXV, signifying 25 years of sobriety.

My prize and me.

I’ll be at the first AA meeting I’ve attended in a while and I’ll be picking up the symbol I never expected to see in my hand. I’ll likely drill a hole in the top of the delta on the face of the medallion and hang it from the mirror of Daisy, my yellow VW Bug. That way, I can daily see both the reminder of who I am and that it doesn’t have to kill me.

These 25 years have been an accounting, I suspect, for the 23 that preceded them when I knew I was an alcoholic and tried oh-so-hard to be something else. I collected a fist full of white chips, signifying my commitment to a sober life, but I could not make it to that one-year chip in all that time.

Finally, one day I wanted to be sober more than I wanted to drink. It was that simple. I began to understand what the lovely people in AA had been trying to tell me for all those years and I went to a lot of meetings (about 180) in the first three months following what I hope was my final commitment. My sponsor at the time told me, “There’s a reason behind the 90 meetings in 90 days suggestion. You will likely be confronted with everything you need to know to get sober in those meetings. It won’t take immediately, but it will be in the back of your mind for reference.” So I doubled up, often taking my lunch hour for a meeting, then catching another at night.

I was working with Jim Lindsey at the Blue Ridge Business Journal at the time and when I told him what I needed to do, he didn’t hesitate before saying, “Do whatever you need to do. We’re behind you 100 percent.” And he meant it and delivered it.

Getting sober, in my experience, is a team effort. I thought for a long time that I could do it by myself and for a dozen reasons other than that I needed to do it for me. Once I figured that out, the path was cleared.

Being sober is more than I ever–in my wildest imaginings–thought it would or could be. My life has been full and complete and my initial fear that I would be both bored and boring proved to be simply silly. What in the hell is interesting or entertaining about a drunk? What does a drunk accomplish; whom does he help; what mark does he leave when he finally leaves this mortal coil?

Twenty-five years later, I know the answer to those questions and quite a few more.