Goals for 2021: Make It Better Than 2020

The first goal on my annual list is what the headline says: “Make it better than 2020.” That’s a pretty low bar, but then Trump won’t be president, and it’s is one that can be achieved. If we can get him indicted and sent away (with his family and “friends”), all the better.

Last year, several of my most important goals were to lose weight, eat healthy foods in proper amounts, and to exercise. I lost 35 pounds during the Covid-19 pandemic (gained 5 back, but am maintaining that weight), was informed by my primary care physician that I’m no longer diabetic, and am eating fresh, healthy foods daily. The emphasis is on fruits and veggies with some lean meats. The special emphasis in 2021 should be on quantity.

There were other goals, met and unmet, some probably a bridge too far (world peace and the like), and those lead us into 2021. So here goes.

  • I’ll be 75 in late July and am still practicing my journalism profession after 57 years. I’d like to keep going, but that depends on the market. As long as editors want me to write for their publications, I’m here to do it.
  • I’ve been pecking around with my second novel, NEWS!, and it feels pretty good. I’d like to progress with it. I’m also writing some short fiction, a genre that I haven’t dealt with in the past. I’d like to get something published.
  • Helping young writers has always been a joy for me and I hope it continues.
  • I am hoping that should we finally get a grip on the pandemic and return to some semblance of our previous lives, Hollins/Mill Mountain Theatre’s Overnight Sensations will return and I’ll get to act in one of its short plays with my grandgirl, Madeline, who has developed an intense interest in the theater (mostly the technical side) and is studying it in high school. We were all set to act together in 2020, but, of course, were sidelined.
  • I will strive to live safely and with consideration of the health and safety of others by wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance until the “all clear” siren goes off for the pandemic. That could be a little time or a long time, depending on the vaccine, the competence of the government (the medical community’s competence is clearly high), and the willingness of our people to act responsibly.
  • I will continue to take a daily accounting of the myriad blessings I enjoy and will attempt to learn from my mistakes. I will promptly apologize when I am wrong and will not gloat when I am right.
  • I will continue to speak out when I see injustice and to act upon it when the opportunity arises.
  • I will continue to enjoy the Virginia forests, lakes, and rivers on a daily basis, walking for both physical and mental health. If I can get my weight down another 10 pounds, my bicycle and I will renew our long, but suspended, relationship.
  • I will treat Margie as the special person she is.
  • I will wake each morning looking forward to the possibilities of the day and will affect all that I can with a positive and hopeful outlook.

Another Memorable Christmas Morn

Here’s Roanoke in the Christmas snow.

Christmas with my friend Susan is always such a joy and today’s was no exception. She came over for breakfast and upon arrival walked in on me talking Facetime with my son and grandkids. They opened my presents to them and that compounded the good feeling.

Oz was over the moon over his laser tag set and Maddie really liked her bomber jacket.

Usually, Susan and I take off for the woods on Christmas day, but it was so cold outside (30 degrees with a brisk wind and frozen snow) that we decided to drive up to Mill Mountain and shoot some photos of the rare Christmas snow. Good move, as you can see.

Hope you have had as good a Christmas as we have.

The Mill Mountain star in the snow.
Susan and I at the Mill Mountain overlook.
This was breakfast.
I’m holding Susan’s stocking.
My modest little tree is fine with me.
Coffee and a view.
Pampa at the stove: a common scene.
Susan and I ready to dig in.
Susan gave me these wonderfully appropriate messages.
I really should decorate this Japanese cherry tree. Maybe next year.
Pampa Claus.
“Susan, my butt’s cold. Shoot the picture.”
Loving the snowy woods.
Susan strikes a rocky pose.
A walk in the woods.

The Opening Chapter of My New Novel

Here it is. Let me know what you think. It is my Christmas gift to you. Hope it is not the written equivalent of coal.



A Novel

By Dan Smith


“The tiny pink ear, a child’s ear, rested on the broad leaf of the mature fiddle fern, about six inches off the forest floor. It was streaked with fresh bright crimson blood, which glinted in the morning sun. The ear looked like a presentation piece, lovely in the abstract.”

Managing editor Nat Osborne looked up from the four-page story into the ashen face of young Eb McCourry, the boy he’d sent to write about this major airline disaster only hours ago. Nat’s brow was wrinkled, his blue editing pencil poised and scribbling.

“Nearby a man’s arm, sleeved in an expensive charcoal wool suit, its stiff white shirt cuff pushed up, lay at the base of a large pin oak. A white tan stripe around the wrist showed where a watch rested before someone stripped it and ran away.

“At a distance of nearly 50 yards, the small white board and batten cabin appeared to have two chimneys. One was a chimney. The other was the lower half of what must have been a Piedmont stewardess in a straight navy skirt, hose and glossy black high heels. Her legs reached straight for the sky as if she were posing in a water ballet. She had been thrown from the falling, gutted airplane through the roof of the house head first and buried up to her waist.”

Nat stopped again, shaking his head and he emitted a sound … a groan, Eb thought. He made several sharp, swift marks across the page.

“All around there were bodies, most of them not whole, none of them alive, some piled on top of one another, several strapped into airplane seats, one tangled hopelessly in a barbed-wire fence, a fence used to keep the cattle in. Curious cattle sniffed at the body.

“The acrid air was filled with the smells of motor oil and burning tires, jet fuel and death. The air burned eyes and nostrils. The emergency workers—firemen and policemen—wore aqua-colored surgical masks. Newspaper and late-arriving TV reporters, huge cameras atop their vans, covered their faces with whatever they could find. A photographer moved in close to bodies and workers, getting shots of emotion, chaos, swirling smoke, desperate searches for life, aftermath.

“It was a scene of war …”

Nat Osborne, the veins in his brow swollen and red, picked up the pages and slammed them down on his large green metal desk, looked straight into Eb McCourry’s vacant eyes and shouted, “You stupid sonofabitch, we can’t run this shit! What the hell do you think we have here? It’s a goddamn newspaper and it’s read by people who don’t want to get this close to anything in their lives.”

Nat, a World War II Marine who knew war looked like this, threw the four-page story—one he specifically ordered in the morning rush to get a team on the scene—into the gray metal trash can beside his desk. With police response codes toning on the newsroom scanner at 9:30 that morning, he had instructed Eb to “get in that van and write what you see when you get to the crash site. I want it clear and plain and I want detail. Your skinny young ass is the best writer we have and I want that crash on paper so everybody can see it. Capiche?”

Eb didn’t know what “capiche” meant, but he figured it out quickly. He wasn’t sure whether to be mortified, terrified or flattered. He was a sportswriter, a rookie sportswriter who had never covered anything more violent than a football game. He had no idea how to cover a real news event, no hint of what questions to ask, what details to gather, whom to approach, what to say, what to report. And for gruff, crusty Nat Osborne to call him “the best writer we have” when he’d only been a newspaper man—a sportswriter—for six months was hard to chew at this moment.

“Get your ass back to your desk and rewrite something I can run,” Nat barked to the shellshocked 21-year-old whose nose was still covered with freckles and whose short red hair and muscular body said “jock”. “Now, kid! We’re on a deadline here; this is not an annual.”

Eb’s knees were on the verge of buckling. He turned away, a hangdog posture outlining him, and trudged slowly toward the close-quarters sports department and his 1917 Remington typewriter, the oldest one in the Depression-era building, the one always assigned the rawest rookie. He had put plastic racing stripes on the back of the old machine and called it his “Remington GT,” his youth and enthusiasm spilling into even the most mundane.

Eb didn’t know what else he could write, how to approach an event of this magnitude: 97 people dead, all those families missing loved ones, a story of huge national significance, one that won small papers Pulitzer Prizes. He wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to have even the most cursory understanding of its width, breadth and depth. And Nat Osborne was demanding an account. Right now. This minute.

His heart was smashed on that paper now in the trash can and his stomach was in his throat, filling his mouth with acid. His hands shook uncontrollably as he recalled the scene’s gruesome details. He wanted to throw up again, as he had several times at the scene. There was nothing left in his stomach except bile.

Eb had never seen a dead body before 10 o’clock this morning and now he had seen an entire acre of them, mostly dismembered. He hadn’t known the smell of death, the horror of seeing people’s lives suddenly and violently erased.

The baby’s ear folded him up, as he sobbed and vomited until gangly 6-foot-7-inch photographer Hanson Pinder grabbed him by the right arm, pulled him to his feet and said, “Get to work, rookie. This ain’t no fuckin’ pajama party. We got stories to tell, not bawling to do. Save it for later.” Pinder ran his fingers through a mop of scraggly hair, combing it off his face and put the Nikon eyepiece in place. The camera snapped and whirred, its motor advancing the film instantly. His long fingers constantly adjusted the f-ring as he shot, bracketing for light, not wanting to take time to use his light meter, lest he miss something—a vital instant.

Eb  was working with experienced professionals, some of them award-winners. They were covering the biggest story of their careers. He was attempting to type a coherent sentence through the overwhelming emotion of the moment.

Eb McCourry sat at the Remington and wiggled his fingers on the keys for a moment, like a piano player warming up. Then he began to type:

“At 9:30 on a steamy Thursday morning in the western North Carolina mountains near Hendersonville, a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 was split open along the belly like a gutted rainbow trout by a two-engine Cessna 310. Ninety-seven lives ended and many hundreds more were transformed in that instant. It was a savage moment, one far beyond the comprehension of all but combat veterans …”

“No, Eb, my name’s not ‘E-L-L-A,’ it’s ‘E-L-O,” she said sharply, leaning into him, shaking her finger. “It is pronounced ‘Ella,’ though because the root of it is pronounced that way.”

Eb looked at her for a moment, confused. “What the hell is ‘Elo?’” he said without even the attempt of delicacy, mispronouncing it, and looking into a long, thin face framed with dark hair, fully explained with brown eyes that left no doubt.

“It’s ‘Eloise,’” she said, “Ella-Weeze’, and if you ever call me that, I’ll cut off your balls and call you ‘Elbert’ until your head explodes. Deal?”

“How’d you know my name’s Elbert?”

“Everybody knows it. When something is that ridiculous it gets around.” She grinned, flashing big teeth as he turned scarlet.

“Deal.” He was embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said, meaning it. “I’ll forget Eloise even exists, but you’ll need to turn back the clock to before you ever heard ‘Elbert.’”

Elo smiled. Their eyes shook on it.

She spun around to go back to her desk and Eb looked at her round bottom, tiny waist, dancer’s legs and feet that turned slightly outward. He almost said something else, but knew she wouldn’t hear it. Boy, she’s pretty, he thought. Then he caught himself. She’s not Lizetta.

Executive Editor Dick Chapman had received orders from the publisher nearly a month ago, dictating a plan of action for integrating the staff at the paper. He was all over it because he believed in creating a workplace that mirrored the community he lived in. It would lead to a better newspaper, he insisted, if a wide variety of communities was represented among the 400 people who worked at the Citizen. Chapman was an old-line Democrat, a war veteran and a Southern Liberal, the kind that acted more than it talked. Southern liberals were real, not the bullshitters who told you what you wanted to hear if you were a different color, ethnicity or from another community. They didn’t patronize, didn’t talk down and would fight for you when they weren’t fighting with you.

He’d been on the road three days a week looking for recruits and on his trip to D.C. the first week after he got the memo, he found Elo at Gallaudet College in D.C., the only college for the deaf in the United States. She’d been pointed out to him by an Asheville used car dealer and long-time Citizen advertiser who had a son at Gallaudet. Chapman played golf with Rex Belmont and the last time they were on the course, Chapman brought up the memo. Belmont told him straight-out, “There’s this kid in my son’s class in college—you know he’s deaf—who is a whiz of a journalist. She’s editor of the newspaper at Gallaudet and the Washington Post has picked up several of her stories and they even had her work with their reporters on one of them; story about a girl who got raped at the school. She did some incredible reporting. Embarrassed hell out of the school, but made quite a name for herself.”

Two days later, Dick Chapman offered Elo Sikorski a job. He didn’t even have a job to offer her, but he placed her awkwardly into the Society Department where she couldn’t possibly be anything but unhappy. He made a promise that she’d get the first newsroom vacancy. He wanted her that much.

She was born deaf in a poor family in New York City. Her early life was a struggle with poverty, neglect and abuse, but she educated herself–all informally–and is one of the brightest, most creative and resourceful people I’ve ever met.

She talks like a deaf person who’s had extensive speech therapy–she has–and a lot of people mistake her deafness for not being bright. As she says, “I’m deaf, not dumb.”


The Wintry Mood of Roaring Run

The color and the light were glorious today at one of the lower “falls.”

Roaring Run in Botetourt County, just north of Roanoke, is one of my favorite hikes. It’s a bit on the short side, but every step is a visual feast and a clinic in relaxation.

This feeder stream usually flows like a water fountain, but the recent snow and rain has made it a mini-waterfall.

Regardless of the day, the month or the season, RR always fascinates me and I simply cannot hike it without a camera. There is always something different to see even when I’m shooting the same basic photographs. I mean, we’re only talking about a mile of trail each way, but this rapid stream always holds fascination and joy for me.

This was it today.

A big of a somber look on a joyful day. No explanation.
Self-portrait: the photographer’s shadow.
This is my yoga rock. Thought I’d sit on it for a bit of a change.
Think winter is dull and gray? Think again.
This progression is one I call “the steps” because it climbs to the fall and has a great sliding rock.
The falls at the top and the runoff going down the hill.
The distinctive split of Roaring Run Falls.
Looks like Pampa cheered up once he reached the falls.
The sun peeks over the falls.
I love the long view of the flow of the falls.


MMT Announces 2021 Season

Mill Mountain Theatre, always optimistic, has just released its schedule for the 2021 season. It will have to be considered tentative because of the Coronavirus, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Tickets may be reserved at 540-342-5740.

“We have been hard at work developing safety protocols while selecting these special upcoming shows in order to welcome our patrons back to their seats in 2021,” says MMT Producing Artistic Director Ginger Poole.

“Many people have reached out to me throughout the year wondering how they can help, and my response is to spread the word about our upcoming season, any donation is greatly appreciated, and to take advantage of our current free digital programming. Live theatre needs an audience. Mill Mountain Theatre needs you.”

The schedule features three Main Stage and three young audience productions, a single production for the Waldron Stage’s alternative “Fringe” programs, and one music concert.

On the Main Stage, July 28-August 22 will be Million Dollar Quartet, a musical inspired by the early icons of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and country music. The second featured production has not yet been decided (September 22-October 17), but the December 1-19 production will be the classic A Christmas Story with Ralphie and the “You’ll shoot your eye out” BB gun, Scut Farkas, the school bully, the Bumpus hounds, Flick licking the frozen lampost and the stockinged leg lamp. Fun stuff.

The young audience production (which is outdoors May 8-16) is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and two other productions of interest to the young will be Tomas and the Library Lady (June2-July 2) and Write Stuff! 2021 (April 17).

The Fringe show June 11-June 12 is Elephant in the Room is “unapologetically Indian” and looks at “the desperation of not belonging anywhere.”

The Music of the Crooners is the concert feature October 29-30, featuring the music of Sinatra, Cole, Bennett, and more.


Trump and the Evangelical Preacher Crooks

With the news that Donald Trump has raised $170 million since he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden comes the logical question: How is he different from the evangelical preachers who have been fleecing the ignorant and gullible for a very long time?

Jimmy Swaggart

Consider that he sent an Oral Roberts type of beg following the election (“If you don’t contribute, god will call me home”) and the beg-athon brings up recollections of a rogues gallery: Jimmy Swaggart, James Bakker (I’ll forgive Tammy), Jerry Falwell Sr., Aimee McPherson, Pat Robertson, Ernest Angley, and Billy James Hargis to name a few. There are a lot of others.

They used the money to further their mission, which was to get rich and stay rich, all the while influencing American politics (negative for us, positive for them). Trump already has some horrendous legal bills, which grow daily, and the banks will call in loans often estimated at nearly $1 billion within the next two years. He could well be facing criminal charges in states like New York (and federally if the new AG has the guts to do it).

Will poor Southerners who can’t afford health insurance or formula for their babies contribute to fund this sick sonofabitch?

The simple and easy answer is “yes.”


A Nice Find at Mountain Pond (Lake?)

There were several spots where longs impeded progress on the War Spur trail.

My hiking bud Susan and I discovered a trail that had been right before our eyes over the weekend at Mountain Lake (Virginia’s only lake, though it is disappearing).

Susan works her way through and over a blasted open tree.

“Dirty Dancing” was filmed at Mountain Lake, so you know it, but I’ll bet you didn’t know it is honeycombed with hiking trails, some easy, some extremely steep and difficult. One of the trails is the Appalachian Trail.

The one we hiked Saturday was War Spur, a loop with a nice view of the mountains halfway through. My guess is that when the leaves are full, there isn’t much of a view because the woods are dense here, but with the leaves on the ground, there was plenty to see. Here are some photos of the hike.

This is the old boat house with what’s left of Mountain Lake behind it. It’s more Mountain Pond these days. And it’s Virginia’s only natural lake.
Susan unloads lunch so we can eat on these stones.
Susan loves reading the directions. I leave that to her.
The trail is not nearly as lonely as this black and white photo makes it look.
That’s us, all safe, sound, distanced and masked.
No need to wonder where we were.
Susan crossing a stream.
This is the first glimpse of the best view. Not exactly imposing, but promising.
This is Susan’s superhero look.
This is my “I’m so lazy I can’t enjoy the view by standing up” look.
Susan climbs like a three-year-old: everything.
The eagle has landed.
The old man finally works up enough energy to look at the view.
Susan had a good time. Look at that smile and that dance across the rocky stream.
This was a bonus at the foot of the mountain on the way to Mountain Pond (uh, Lake).
I can’t resist shooting covered bridges.
Susan likes the bridge, too.
OK, so now, it gets to the “ham” stage.

A Steep Hike with Waterfall on the Parkway

Falling Water falls was a real beauty today.

My pal Susan and I hiked Falling Water trail, a bit north of the Peaks of Otter and a steep descent with a steeper ascension. It was tiring and beautiful.


250,000 Covid-19 Deaths: A Perspective

We have now surpassed 250,000 deaths from the Covid-19 virus and for a little perspective, consider the following.

  • America lost 620,000 soldiers from the North and South (combined) during the Civil War.
  • We lost 405,399 military personnel during World War II.
  • World War I was an ironic amalgam: 116,516 total American military dead, 45,000 of them from the Spanish Flu.
  • Korea: 36,516.
  • Vietnam: 58,209.
  • American Revolution: 25,000.
  • Mexican War: 13,283
  • Spanish-American: 2,446
  • Gulf War: 294.
  • Iraq/Afghanistan: 6,626).

Adventure at Bottom Creek Gorge

Meghann found this lovely little creek hidden beside the main hiking trail.

Bottom Creek Gorge is one of the popular hikes in Western Virginia, primarily because the payoff is a 1,000-foot tall waterfall that in times of heavy rain becomes a majestic view. We have had that heavy rain recently and when Meghann Garmany (Margie’s daughter), her partner Rachel Pitkin and I tackled the hike yesterday–in a high wind–it was something of an adventure.

Bottom Creek Gorge waterfall at full pond.

The wind was so strong and the trees so baren of leaves that the swaying boughs had their own distinct soundtrack, including a loud “CRACK!” when one of the old trees came down as we watched. A couple of small limbs fell in my path, barely missing me, and Meg kept saying, “Watch out!” as the wink cranked at about 25 mph high in the trees.

Still, the hike was all but uneventful until we got to the falls and saw its magnificence. I had never seen it so full in the dozen or so hikes I’ve taken at Bottom Creek over the years and I was glad it saved its best for Meg and Rach.