Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Flour and Feed - Mystery Photo

So ... in the process of re-doing bits of my house, I found a small box of old family photos I've never sorted. I've posted one of these below. Other than somewhere in the United States, I have no clue where this was taken. The sign is out of focus, and I cannot read all of it. If you're a super detective, maybe you can figure out the location. ...

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Just the start ....

            County Road 6 does not exist. It’s not on any map published since 1954. But it’s there, a ribbon of decayed asphalt stretching upland along the basalt and granite ridges above the Susan River’s west bank. Poachers walk it occasionally, though the hunting isn’t good there.       
            A crumbling, thick concrete platform is the grave marker for a school. They found a poacher’s body there once, about three years ago I think. He was impaled on rebar, and bits of him were nibbled by the small things that make their home in the tall grasses. His eyes were gone, pecked out by sparrows or crows.
            No sign of that is left; no bloodstains; no gore. Nothing at all tells of a once violent act.
            The road swerves left for no apparent reason, probably to follow a property line that no longer exists or matters. It reaches a basalt wall about two miles further onward and is forced to descend the upland into Susan Valley. The drop is not great, but the grade is steep. Near the end of that decline the ghost of County Road 6 disappears into the wide pool formed behind Castleback Dam. But there are other ghosts there – Ghosts of things drowned and buried. A village died when the pool rose. You can see its bones at low water. There is a cemetery out there somewhere. None of the graves were moved. Near the end of February, when the pool’s at its lowest, you can see the tombstones.
            Willow and birch line the banks, growing around basalt boulders. The bank is swampy and stinks of a dozen of kind of rot. Scoop a handful of the gray sand and poke it with your fingers and you will find it full of squirming, pink nematodes, creatures who vacuum the sand for food.
            There are no local legends about this place, at least none I’ve heard and I have asked. But people tend to avoid this pool of drowned hope and drowned graves.
            “Pretty poor fishing there,” an old timer told me. But I’ve sat on the rocks watching salmon jump. The water is clear, and you can see the fish. No-one fishes here. They all drive down to the old Highway 10 Bridge and fish there.
            They don’t come here because ... well, let me put it this way: I first came here because I was afraid. I was running, and the scrub trees that fill the valley seemed a good place to hide. Now I only come here when I am fearless and my curiosity bests my good judgment.
            My mother preached “common sense” to me. Her pithy and judgmental remarks have never left me: “God gave you a brain. Use it.”

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

At the risk of offending all my conservative readers ...

Why pixies like their pet dragons. Censored for this mostly PG blog:

My pet, shape shifting dragon is away on business. Home in about a week.

Closer and Closer

Probably everyone who bothers to read this blog is tired of my redo the house photos. But ... it's my blog and I get to post what I want. Herewith is progress to this date.

The white cabinet in the foreground was a barn find. It's about 140 years old. I was going to strip and refinish it, but I'm going to yard sale it.

These shelves are almost totally as I want them.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Remember the first project photos ...?

I've made some progress in that area. Scroll down for the earlier photos. They make these look much better than they appear to be ...

The antique folding chair will stay. Trunk and most of the junk on it will not.

Framed photo is daughter #3 by age. Young woman now. Sorry for the bad photo. I don't take swell photos.

Still shuffling books.

What this pixie reads ....

O. Reader's curiosity knows no bounds ... which makes him interesting. In the comment trail he suggested he wanted to know what's on the shelves in a previous photo. Herewith are samples ...

The Perils of Research

Writing partner and I depend on original sources. We keep copies for future reference. If you're a serious historian and perusing original research, that's what you do. These are the binders and files containing the source material for our work in progress.

O. Reader's Journey

I went for a walk today.

            That is not quite as strange as it may seem. I have been known to do considerable exercise, albeit when a little shorter in the tooth. (Is that an expression they use in the US?) And my father was a fitness freak who walked thirteen miles for charity at the age of 95. I must hasten to add that his demise the same year was totally unrelated.
            At the back of where we live are a series of lakes and cascades, built on the site of three former coal mines. A little over twenty years ago with masses of money from Europe, the eyesores were all taken away, around a hundred thousand native trees were planted and the river was raised and lakes created. Previously it had been covered by spoil tips. Now it is a Mecca for tourists. The lakes are used by canoeing clubs, model boat clubs, fishermen, and a variety of wild life. Perhaps the only blot on the landscape is the need to regularly rake out a foreign weed. Some incontinent Canadian goose apparently deposited the seeds a few years back and we are stuck with it. At one end of this special park is the largest natural filtration system in Europe - reed beds that clean the water coming up from old mine workings before it is put back in the river, along with an international climbing center, and then at the other end near us a roaring cascade through a series of descending small pools.
            The walk was to show us what had been done in the last year. The cascade is designed in steps so that salmon and other fish can scale it and reach the lakes. I would have thought they would need to be particularly energetic fish, but apparently they can jump in these stages without trouble. A sea trout has been found in the lakes, which must have made an adventurous journey, twenty five miles inland and up some steep gradients. And they have recently created a walkway under the main road at the bottom where the cascade thunders through to the main river, for the benefit of otters whose encounters with traffic were somewhat prejudicial.
            But now they have put in a hydro-electric plant, which is hidden away. And that is what we were taken to see. Water is taken from the river through a very fine mesh, designed to prevent even very small bits of debris going through. It is taken from the top of the cascade, and as it responds to gravity, is compressed into smaller pipes and powers a generator before going back into the river at the bottom of the cascade. Although it cost about half a million GBP to build, the electricity sold back to the national electric grid raises one hundred thousand GBP per year. On that reckoning the whole thing will be paid for in five years, and then it is all profit. And the profits don’t go to the local council - who might waste it on “expenses” at the other end of the borough, they all go back to the park for maintenance, extra wardens and the like.
            I have to say I was impressed. Both with the design of something that is completely hidden from view, and the plans for the wild life, as the park and lakes get increasingly more colonized.
            Another local initiative for generating electricity is food waste. We sometimes grumble when we have to put out four different bins for recycling each week, plus an extra one for non-recycled rubbish. Some local authorities will give you just one bin to fill and then hire people to sort it out. But with the massive unemployment in our area since the industry went down the tubes, the local council is always strapped for cash. So it is Do-It-Yourself time. But the food caddy goes out each week, with biodegradable bags full of dead teabags, peelings, and the results of me putting too much on my plate to begin with. It all gets taken to a farm nearby, where I know the people quite well.
            They have what is called an anaerobic digester - which sounds painful - but this produces methane. Rather than being a pollutant this is then used to generate electricity. When they first started they immediately produced enough electricity to run the total needs of several thousand homes, and that figure has obviously risen. The farm makes good money, dead food doesn’t go into landfill and since (hey-ho for all these regulations) it can’t be recycled as animal feed, everyone gains. Now if only they could harness the methane given off by flatulent cattle someone would make a fortune.
            I guess it wouldn’t work if we all lived in cities, but these different initiatives do contribute. And you know, when I tap my waistline and decide not to eat that last potato, and scrape the remains of my dinner into the caddy, I feel rather virtuous. You see, I’m helping to save the planet.
            Well, sort of...

Minor progress...

This bit is almost as I want it. Third shelf down has two rows of books, one behind the other. Some will move to the new bookcase when it is installed.

The lamp shade isn't stained. The oddly discolored area is from the flash.
O. Reader is curious about what I read. These are all history books. Big green thingies are part of my Germany stamp collection.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The madness of Pixies

So ... Since I’ve been too sick to work, I’ve been selectively destroying parts of our house. Call it rearranging. I’m not exaggerating. Herewith are two photos of the Northwest corner of the family room.

My working library spilled over into it a couple of years ago. It was nice and neat and presentable until last month. Now everything is piled in places they do not belong. Dust is settling on everything.

You’ll see the mess. The trunk is from the 1870s and accompanied a distant relative to America. It’s full of hand-sewn children’s clothes. It won’t stay in this alcove, but for now it sits where it sits. You see the light fixture? That goes up behind the white beam. Now that beam is a pet peeve. When my gramps built this house that was varnished, highly polished ash wood. The last tenant before I inherited the house painted it white. It’s one of many things left to be restored. The beam extends into my library-workroom, but there it is as originally built.

The small table will go into my workroom soon. It replaces an 1850s drop-leaf table. When this space is back in order, the drop leaf will be in the center. There are days I regret starting this project. Parts of my house are terrorized ... and I did it myself. Damn pixies!

When the light fixture is up and the space cleaned out, I’ll rearrange and dust all the books, putting them back in order. Sigh. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gone Wrong by O. Reader


My mother, who is now 97, was a real thespian in her time.

Her parents had been involved with theatricals, which was how they met - her mother as a singer and her father as a director. So it was not surprising that she took to the boards whenever she could. My natural father had similar inclinations, and I still have a collection of his press cuttings. When my parents were together, they did an act impersonating Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth, who were a very popular singing act in the UK during and just after World War 2. My father in drag would play Ann Zeigler and my mother would do a Vesta Tilley as Webster Booth. (Google ‘Vesta Tilley’ if the reference means nothing).

Anyhow, I might do a post on my father at some future time - this one is about my mother, who we will call Joan.

One of the religious meetings I attended with her for decades was called a school, and even with modern rebranding is still that. People rehearse before an audience how they might approach different sorts of people with their message in such a way that they may get a hearing ear.

One person will play the part of the messenger, and the other the householder who receives the call. They are given a theme and a specific time limit before a bell or buzzer tells them to stop. Timing is of the essence.

But my mother was never content with just doing it straight. She would dress up for the part. I actually met someone two days ago who remembered her from many decades past in another part of the country. What did he remember? Yes - her dressing up and playing the part for all it was worth. That chance conversation awakened my own recollections, and moved me to write this post.

As a little lad I remember that she had one special friend who we shall call Eve. Eve had first contacted her in real life in this kind of dialog, so they were often put on together. The congregation loved it. You never knew what you were going to get.

Of course intent was one thing, but quite often things didn’t quite go to plan.

My early life took place in Ruislip, now swallowed up into Greater London. The group we joined obtained their own Hall, formerly a welfare institute for railway workers. Using what was already at hand, the hall had quite a high raised platform at one end, and the backdrop was three large panels. The middle was brought forward about three feet. It meant that you could enter from the rear, either stage left or stage right, walking around the middle panel, rather than the modern system of clambering up from the front of the Hall. (Where I go today, as with many places nowadays, there is a ramp in place for the elderly and infirm. I’m not quite there - yet...)

Anyhow, imagine the scene. Joan appears from rear stage left and sits at a table with her props. She is shelling peas or something, wearing an apron and humming a nameless ditty. Everything is lining up for the Oscars. She is method acting for all it’s worth. Eve is supposed to mime knocking on a door so that Joan can rise and greet her, invite her inside, and then to be disarmed by Eve’s presentation. Perhaps they had some illustration set up that would fit the scene. Who knows. But it doesn’t quite happen that way.

Joan sits there, humming away while miming with the vegetables, but starts looking less than pleased as long seconds go by. There are appreciative titters from the audience. We’ve no idea what this is about, but it looks like it will be a lot more interesting than the previous part of the program. Joan frowns and in the loudest stage whisper known to the hard of hearing, mutters out of the side of her mouth - “Eve....Eve... Come on, come on...”

Nothing happens. Joan scowls. Now I know this is my mother, but she could really scowl with the best of them when she had a mind to. She could stop a naughty boy in his tracks at a hundred paces by a glance. So she gets up from her table and with a look like thunder goes to investigate rear stage left.

The split second she disappears rear stage left, Eve bounds into sight from rear stage right, to be faced with a totally empty platform - no Joan and an audience now in hysterics. The look of surprise and then panic that covered her face has stayed with me down through the years.

I suppose they did finally sit down and get through a bit of their piece in what time was left before the bell went.

What subject were they discussing when they did finally muddle their way through it?

Do you know something - I have absolutely no idea.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Little Cup Cakes - From O. Reader

Pets and rock and roll              

When my daughter was small we decided that a small pet was in order - heartlessly, one that wasn’t going to live so long we would still be looking after it when she was grown up and gone. We settled on a Syrian Hamster. All Syrian hamsters around the world apparently come from one litter discovered in the wild in 1930 - (you see, the real purpose of my posts is to educate...) - although there are bigger and smaller varieties in the wild. Hamsters can be tamed after a fashion and apart from vigorous and repeated acts of procreation much prefer their own company. So they make an ideal small pet, although many a hamster purchased has been secretly gestating and turned into a family. (One later replacement did just that).

My daughter named it after a school friend, K.  We purchased a cage - all tubes and paper bedding, and waited for it to wake up at night, having slept like a log all through the day. The main thing we learned was that hamsters like to escape. Forget all those POW escape films, K was the master.  If a tunnel could be dug, he/she/it would dig it. If something could be scaled and with knotted sheets a descent made, then K was your man or girl or whatever.

We had my wife’s grandmother living with us at the time. She was in her nineties and her bed was in our former living room downstairs, which now also contained a hamster cage and hamster. Fortunately the hamster didn’t smell and Nana was stone deaf, although her eyesight was very good. We got quite used to midnight ructions as she rang her bell and hollered as a little face was seen myopically peering up at her. K’s greatest adventure was to escape from the cage, travel through several rooms to the kitchen, scale the vegetable rack, and purloin a whole carrot. It was a very large carrot - several times the hamster’s size in length. K munched away a bit at the middle, so that he/she/it could get a mouthful with several inches of carrot either side and then made the long march to home. Unfortunately scaling the precipice to get back into its own bed proved too much, and next morning we found a very grumpy very tired hamster, still clutching its prize, and extremely reluctant to let go of it.

Now why on earth did I suddenly think of K and a chortling daughter after all these years? I guess it is because Mrs O had an email yesterday from Amy Goddard, who we know well, to inform us that she has just obtained - not a hamster - but a pygmy hedgehog. She sent us a photo. Think cute, and intelligent comments like aaah and oooh. Amy and co. had a Labrador dog for many years that sadly died recently, and only because there was now no longer a dog to take an unhealthy interest in a rodent rival did they agree to take on this spiky little creature from a rescue center. Apparently they act very much like hamsters, and can be given exercise in much the same sort of ways.

All those years ago, our daughter called her hamster K. Amy has called her pygmy hedgehog, Heggie-Sue. It probably comes from having parents who almost go back to the era of Buddy Holly and Holly’s group the Crickets. (I know they won’t mind that being said). Holly and his drummer Jerry Alison wrote the song Peggy Sue to impress Allison’s high school sweetheart Peggy Sue Garron. The subsequent marriage went down the tubes, and Allison spent the rest of his career therapeutically thumping the hell out of a drum kit each night in a hymn to his ex-wife because the world wanted to hear that distinctive song.

I remember I saw a version of the post-Holly Crickets on tour with Nanci Griffith. Very good they were too. And lead singer Sony Curtis (fine songwriter himself) introduced the song -

“Here’s a song our drummer wrote about his first ex-wife...  (pause)   ...she gave him some of the best weekends of her life...”

Then Wham, Bam, “If you knew Peggy Sue, then you know why I feel blue...”

And Curtis did a good impersonation of Holly as he hiccupped and gargled and burped his way through the song.

So I suppose this rambling post is about rock and roll classics and pets and pygmy hedgehogs. I understand that Amy - songwriter herself - has now resorted to plagiarism and has been heard wandering through her kitchen:

Heggie-Sue, Heggie-Sue, Prickly, prickly, prickly, prickly, Heggie-Sue...

I suggested that she may like to consider it for her next album. However, for some unfathomable reason, she doesn’t seem all that keen...

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mystery Photo - 1950s - Uncertain Location

I don't have permission

I don't have permission to post any of her work. So I won't. But you should explore it ...!/page/367366/art

Rhiannon Logsdon is a photographer from Austin, Texas. She specializes in maternity, newborn and child fine art portraiture. “Children grow and change so quickly. I love to capture not just what they look like on the outside, but who they are in that moment.” Logsdon wrote in a post on Bored Panda. “Their favorite toys, books and dreams inspire each session. From riding dinosaurs to fighting dragons, finding inspiration in child photography is easy, you just have to listen.”

Whimsically Pensive by katlienc on Devient Art

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

O. Reader on Democracy

Let the people speak

            Democracy was described by Plato well over two thousand years ago as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” More acerbic was the Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw - “the incompetent masses choosing the corrupt few.”
            Whatever your view, you have to admit that with democracy you do sometimes get unusual results.       
            Here are three from the UK.    
            The Referendum on whether or not to stay as part of the European Union. The EU did have some unusual laws imposed on the UK, like what sizes and shapes of vegetables shops could sell, and we must note that (while I personally don’t do politics) there were other issues that exercised the minds of a few.
            BUT - it was put to the people. Here in Wales there was a resounding vote to LEAVE. Wales is traditionally a Labour stronghold, and Labour had advised the people to vote REMAIN - albeit not very loudly. But the main thrust of the REMAIN campaign came from the Conservative leaders. And Eton-educated “posh boys” never did sit well with the working class Welsh. So - TO SHOW THEM - and for many, with no more complicated a motive than that, they voted and brought down the Prime Minister. What many may not have thought through is that Wales has been transformed in the last 25 years. Industrial scars have been removed, beautiful parks have been built, and the whole infrastructure is in the process of being transformed. Where has the money come from? Europe. Lobbing money to deprived areas is part of their remit, and Wales was somewhere in there with Bulgaria and Romania. So, the Welsh voted to LEAVE. It will be interesting to see what happens when realisation dawns that a government based in London may not feel quite so inclined to lob millions their way.
            Then there was the new Polar Research vessel. Let’s ask the people to choose a name. So Shackleton Endurance, Polar Guardian, RRS Endeavour, and other worthy epithets were suggested. Some mischievous person suggested Boaty McBoatface. It took off. The nation voted and voted, and overwhelmingly, Boaty McBoatface won. Of course, the powers that be had to say that the decision of the people was not actually binding - so much for democracy - but the damage was done. It will always be known as Boaty McBoatface to the public.
            And finally - most serious of all - there was the popular UK TV show Strictly Come Dancing.  Each week a group of people would compete and the numbers were gradually whittled down as the public made its choices in sufficient numbers to overrule the official judges. So the participants would include professional dancers, celebrities who had done some dancing on the sly, and - just for a laugh - they would put in someone so hopeless, it made the others look good.
            A news reader and reporter, John Sargeant, was entered into the last category.  Two left feet would be a compliment if applied to John. But the public warmed to him. Week after week, skilled dancers were unceremoniously bounced, and John kept on coming back - to shamble his way around the dance floor and tread on the toes of the luckless professional assigned to work with him. He became a national treasure. The whole program became a laughing stock because there was a very real possibility that the public would make him win the whole competition. Eventually, he thought about his serious career, his wife and family, and jumped ship - to collective national disappointment.
            But yes - democracy. It’s a funny old world.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Return of Fitted Wardrobes. I Wish. by O. Reader

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post here on the earth-shattering subject of Fitting Wardrobes. I ended that post talking about Murphy’s law... But I never honestly dreamed it would turn out like that.

We’d cleared our bedroom for a carpet to go down, and the fitted wardrobes that served us for over thirty years had been rendered into little bits (well, sufficient to pack into the car for five journeys to the municipal skip). All was then waiting for a company called IKEA to come and fit new wardrobes up to the ceiling and around the corner of the room, and then, surrounded by luxury, we would recline before starting on the guest bedroom next door.

Nothing could go wrong, could it? Well (using my best Jane Austen impersonation) dear reader, IT JOLLY WELL DID!

The men came and started unpacking and re-measuring and pronounced that we were one lousy centimetre (half an inch) out. It was sufficient to abort the whole installation. It appears that corner units require a fraction more space than it says on the box, and anyway, a miner’s cottage that is over 130 years old is not blessed with straight walls. Now I knew the latter from my early futile attempts to paste patterned paper on the walls. But this was disaster.

Had I been a bit younger I would have taken a lump hammer and knocked off some plaster, and hammered the wardrobes into place. I kid you not. Something like that was done in the spare bedroom... But this did not make for a very happy Mr and Mrs Occasional.

So the men departed and the next day we travelled down to the IKEA store and organised the redesign, which sort of takes out some sliding doors and puts extra mirror doors in, so our bedroom will now resemble the last scenes from Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai - and will leave a 50 cm gap at one end. Actually if it leaves a 50 cm gap I will spit! - because that would mean the original plan would have fitted. So, presumably a 49 cm gap, which we can plug with a clothes stand or Mrs O’s guitar or my Laurel and Hardy DVDs - or something.

But IKEA’s special deal of building things for just 25% on the price is heavily oversubscribed. So the first date they could return to do the job was about six weeks away. Actually you would not believe it, but on the same day my daughter and son in law are arriving to stay for a few days. They are basically coming to take us out for a meal and a folk music concert for our anniversary.

You just would not believe (I’m repeating myself) how much stuff came out of our bedroom. I try and remonstrate with Mrs O, but there’s a saying about people in glass houses not throwing stones... So a mountain high of bedroom contents is currently piled up in the guest room, apart from what is covering the living room floor. Because now of course there are no wardrobes to put it all in. I have rustled up a wonky rail used when camping, but we’ve had a month of stumbling over boxes, not finding any clothes, and - until we struggled to get our bed back amongst the boxes - sleeping on blow-up beds on the living room.

So there will shortly come a day when the workmen will arrive and build our cupboards. Assuming nothing goes wrong - (insert maniacal laughter) - they will finish about 4 pm. We then have to clear the other bedroom floor and fill our wardrobes before the family arrive that same night. And I’m supposed to be speaking at a meeting that night too. I think we are going to need that special meal and show the next day. And a stiff drink. Or two.

The Brits use a slightly cruder expression to Murphy’s law, with an extended meaning. Murphy’s law suggests that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The Brits expression carries the idea that it will ALWAYS go wrong and at the worst possible time.

Still, I’m not a fatalist. And even if I were, what could I do about it...?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

No-one will miss it.

Russian trolls were using a blog post from May 2010 as an entry point to this blog. I've taken it down. It was so old, no one will miss it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

CGI and the art of imagining


            I’m fascinated by CGI videos and artwork. I have no talent in that direction, and I have no time to learn the art. But I like the concept. I admire well done computer generated artwork. Some of it is story telling at its best. I use an occasional piece as a story prompt or to illustrate story telling. Children are visually oriented, far more than they were when I was nine or ten.
            One of those I use is a short film titled “Soar.” I identify with the ‘large size’ girl. I’d have been a pilot if a health issue hadn’t stood in the way. I wanted to soar, even if only a few feet off the ground. Alas it didn’t happen

            I use a game video in my high-school writers’ class. The game itself, League of Legends, is a shoot-em-up adventure filled with trolls and insult. It’s not a fun game, and the graphics are poor. But the CGI videos based on the game are good. The best of these is New Dawn. It tells a well-crafted story. The characters are cartoon realistic, if you know what I mean. I ask my class to observe the details, quizzing them about them after viewing the video. We relate what we see to story writing. There are others I like to, but probably they’re stand alone subjects.
            One of my friends sent me a link to work by someone (dunno if it’s a guy or girl) who publishes online using a nickname. I’m not posting the name on this blog. We’re mostly PG here, and some few young people come here. Curiosity would lead them where they probably should not go. SLE (we’ll call the artist that.) has posted work for about ten years. One can see his work go from fairly crude to pretty damn good. His best work involves fantasy creatures, bunny people.
            He hasn’t mastered the art of flexi hair, but he knows how to make an engaging face. Edited from one of his CGI videos is this face. It’s not the entire screen shot. I censored it for this blog. Besides, while he does butts well too, that’s not the point of this post

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Vacation ... from Harry

(But not horseflies)

My wife had promised the twins a vacation at the beach this year before school starts. So a week ago we drove to the Eastern Shore. The Eastern Shore is a peninsula that starts in Maryland, but is mostly in Virginia. On its east coast is the Atlantic Ocean and on the west is the Chesapeake Bay. At one time you either drove down through Maryland or took a ferry from Norfolk. Now the trip is quicker, crossing the bay on the 17-mile long Bay Bridge Tunnel. Two tunnels allow shipping to sail unimpeded into Hampton Rhodes and up to Baltimore.

We rented a cabin at a RV campground where we have a membership, but have never been to before. The first evening we had a tremendous storm that we rode out in comfort. The next day we went to the pool. The twins loved it. We stayed in the water despite its temperature being less than one would expect in August. What finally drove us out were the midges, or black flies.

Simulium callidum are known by many names, but I swear they are minions of the elder God Cthulhu sent to torture and torment man, biting him fiercely with razor sharp mandible and drawing blood before the pain begins. They swarmed our car and us. Once we got into it, we frantically tried to get them out. They were fast and agile. Demons that materialized, drew blood, and vanished before you could strike back. The second day I finally dispatched one back to the hell that spawned him and I felt I had won a fight with a bear.

And the black flies,
the little black flies
Always the black fly
no matter where you go
I'll die with the black fly
a-pickin' my bones.

"The Black Fly Song" by Wade Hemsworth, 1949

We didn't just battle black flies on the second day. We drove north along the coast to Wallops Island, which is the site of a small, but important NASA launch facility. We toured the visitor center and bought freeze-dried "Astronaut" Ice cream.

Other than the black flies our only disappointment was that the campground had no beach. We were surrounded by mud flats. Maggie wanted to build a sand castle and play in the ocean surf. So on our third day my daughter and I took Maggie to Chincoteague Island, home to the ponies made famous by the book "Misty of Chincoteague". Wild horses have populated the barrier island of Assateague since the 1600s. Their ancestors were believed to be cargo in a Spanish galleon that shipwrecked off the Virginia coast. The Chincoteague volunteer firefighters hold an annual roundup of horses and auction a number as a fundraiser every year. The pony penning dates back to the early 1800s, but it became an annual fundraising event to the firefighters in 1924. The herd now is own by the fire department and lives protected on the National Wildlife area on Assateague.

We went to the beach and Maggie started her sand castle, but the allure of the sea was too strong. She spent the next hour playing in the surf and having the time of her life. I sat in my beach chair and got more sun than my bloated, pale body can handle. Before we left, Maggie got to ride a pony and her mother promised her riding lessons in the future.

Well that was our vacation. We packed up that night and checked out in the morning, but not before one final swim in the pool with the twins. We had one last stop planned, but the traffic was horrible once we reached the mainland so we slowly drove home. School starts after Labor Day and new adventures await Corbin and Maggie.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Aberfan by O. Reader


Click this for the music:

            This is not a humorous post. This is the story of one of the biggest peace-time disasters in the recent history of the UK that occurred close to where I now live.
            Most people of a certain age can remember where they were when certainly key events happened - the shooting of John F Kennedy in Dallas is an obvious example. Here in Britain, many of a certain age can remember where they were when they first heard about the Aberfan disaster, 50 years ago. A huge tip of mining waste suddenly slid down a mountainside and engulfed a junior school and nearby houses, killing over a hundred small children.
            The news broke when I was living in the English county of Berkshire, sharing a trailer with a work colleague in a religious ministry. My colleague (I should say friend - we are still in touch) came from Wales, and that week his parents were visiting and staying with us. We saw the grainy images on the TV and black and white photographs in the newspaper. Aberfan? I’d never heard of the place. Eight years later I was married and living only three miles from where the disaster happened.
            The South Wales valleys were slaves to iron and steel and particularly coal. Frankly in the great scheme of things in the British Empire, the people who dug it out of the ground were expendable. There were plenty more where they came from.
            Shortly after I came to Wales I was living in the capital, Cardiff. Cardiff is a pleasant city, quite small by my standards since I come from London, but well designed with good parkland. Just a few miles north the mining area started. It was another world. It could have been on Mars as far as native Cardiff people were concerned. No-body in Cardiff went north unless they had to, and when the valleys folk came south on various railway lines on Thursdays (because that was half-day closing for valleys shops) to their shame Cardiff people would snigger at them. That is probably an unfair generalization, but the attitude was certainly common.
            The mining areas were a mess. The tops of valleys still had a few farms from the old days, but the actual valleys were ruined by the industry. All along the sides of the valleys were great huge mountains of mining waste. Reportedly the largest man-made “mountain” in the world at one time was in Bargoed, just two valleys over from the Merthyr Valley and Aberfan. These huge spoil heaps just kept on increasing from all the waste that was left after the coal was extracted in the bottom of the valleys.
            So Aberfan was no different to most other places. There was a huge colliery that joined up underground with numerous other workings. It was a typical village of drab, mean little houses, poor essential services, miners’ social clubs, and various chapels now in decline. For much of Welsh mining history it was a tale everywhere of poor wages and very dangerous working conditions. What it did do was forge very close communities. Education was the only escape from working underground. No doubt this same scenario also played out in other mining areas both in England and America.
            Of course, the huge ugly mounds of debris on the mountainside had been known to slip a little. A road got damaged in the Aberdare valley in the 1930s. But no-one got hurt, so why worry? And of course, they were supposed to watch the tips and monitor them. But here at Aberfan it was so high up it would never crash down the hillside to get anywhere near the village. It couldn’t happen.
            Well, of course it did happen. And anyone with a basic knowledge of Welsh will know that the very name of the village refers to a watercourse. And in their “wisdom” they put this tip on top of a spring and kept adding to it year after year after year.
            So, finally, on the morning of 21 October 1966, when the children had just started school, it slipped. It was foggy in the village and no-one had a chance of seeing it coming. It rumbled down the hill at terrifying speed. Even if the warning telephone from the top had been operative, which typically it wasn’t, they couldn’t have warned anyone in time. It smashed into the Pantglas Primary School and many surrounding houses. What made the tragedy even worse was that just above the school was the path of the old Glamorganshire canal. It had been sold to the Water Board years before and they used it to run a water supply for Cardiff in two huge pipes all the way down from the reservoirs in the Brecon Beacons. The thundering mass ripped open the pipework adding millions of gallons of water to the mix. The slurry that hit the school at high speed was an estimated 12 meters (39 feet) deep. And the water from the pipes just kept on coming.
            The time was 9.15 a.m. Fifteen minutes earlier most would have been saved. Another few hours later it would have been the same. This was the last day of term and they only had a half day timed for school.
            One hundred sixteen children between the ages of seven to ten perished. The final death toll including older children and adults was 144. I won’t go into the attempted rescue attempts. You can read about them online if you have a mind to. The miners came up from the pit and used their expertise to do what they could. Most died instantly from drowning or being crushed. An elderly man who is a patient of mine (and who incidentally got the MBE for his life’s work) was on his way to conduct a First Aid examination near the school and was one of the first there, but could see immediately where it was hopeless and where hope may still exist. He spent several days with his team of stretcher bearers working around the clock recovering little bodies and taking them to the temporary mortuary in a local chapel. To this day he is saddened that he only rescued one person alive, and that was a woman in one of the nearby houses. When the force of the landslide demolished her home, a metal fire grate came out of the wall and pinned her down, but somehow created a pocket that allowed rescuers to get her out in time. His haunting memory is of a neighbour whose boy didn’t want to go school that day. She insisted that he went, which as a parent is what you would naturally do. But, however irrational, imagine living with the consequences of that decision for the rest of life.
            And now comes the angry bit. However, you cut it, the National Coal Board was responsible for what happened. They ignored warnings and viewed their workforce as unimportant other than as tools, and then after it was all over, they tried to wriggle out of blame. The chairman of the Coal Board didn’t go to Aberfan immediately - he had a prior engagement elsewhere to receive an honor, so chose to do that instead. Faced with the responsibility of removing the debris and potential further disasters from other unstable tips all along the valley, they didn’t want to pay up. A huge fund for survivors and the village in general was raised from a generous public throughout the British Isles. It was insisted that £150,000 from THIS fund should be used to help take away the remaining tips, which they pontificated were “safe”. And they got away with it too! It was only in 1997 that the money was finally returned to the relief fund by the British government of the day.
            At the end of the day, no-one was disciplined; no-one lost their job or even just got demoted. The official enquiry balked at using phrases like “callous indifference” but settled on “bungling ineptitude” instead. Engineers had only bothered with conditions underground, not on the hillside. Their evidence was likened by the tribunal in a memorable phrase, to that of “moles being asked about the habits of birds”. The Coal Board ultimately made an offer of compensation - £50 per child. They were forced to increase it to £500. A damning memo that came to light (after what in Britain is a 30 year rule before classified documents are released) was the suggestion that, if in interviews parents appeared to be not that close to their dead children, maybe they could get away with paying less.
            So they cleaned up the valley; in fact they cleaned up all the valleys. There is now a leisure center in Aberfan - paid for from the relief fund - and while other similar centers in other villages have closed in recent years, directing attention to the larger towns for such facilities, they will never be able to close this one. I have been to children’s parties there, my daughter had her wedding reception there, and Mrs O goes swimming there. And there is a memorial garden with little walls set out in the shape of the classrooms of the doomed school that is immaculately kept.

 The tips have gone now. There is an occasional grassy hill that looks a little unusual in shape, but basically, all the tips have been removed. Trees have been planted, grass has grown, and millions upon millions of GBP have been spent on South Wales from European money. Where once there were collieries, now rivers and lakes and country parks flourish. And people from Cardiff? Now many want to live in “the valleys” - the title has taken on a whole new meaning - now it means living in the countryside - being only half an hour from the city (traffic permitting) and even nearer to the Brecon Beacons National Park. The little homes have been brightened up, and new estates (think Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes) have sprung up where once there was industry. Of course, there is very little work, but most of those who do work just commute down the valleys to the cities, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.
            It has been an interesting time to live in an area. When I was sent here by the religious organization I worked for it was grim. You had to wash your front doorstep and not leave the washing out too long because of the dust from the pits. Now, with a country park outside the back door, and the innate friendliness of local people that fortunately still survives, I don’t think I would want to be anywhere else.