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Sue's Views

 Listen to Sue Henry weekdays from 9 - Noon.


New York City

     Forty eight hours in New York City is like three years to me. While many people stare slack jawed at the magnitude of its scale and savor its loud volume, I believe you can keep it. There’s nothing like random sirens bellowing in the night and traffic roaring non-stop to make you appreciate the relative silence of a house full of pets and kids dropping in and out back home in bucolic Pennsylvania.
     I took three students to the city for the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System conference. Although it has an unfortunate acronym, the mission of this group is decades old and concerned with protecting the integrity of student broadcasting, a mission I share with them. At King’s College where I spend “the other half” of my work life, we’ve been preaching the gospel of protecting the professionalism and ethics of our craft. Radio has always meant so much to me that I sometimes feel that it’s the only thing I understand. That’s why I like to see students excel at the thing that I love and value. Our radio station at King’s, WRKC, won four first place awards and seven other finalist trophies in the national IBS contest. While that was certainly the highlight of the trip, the lowlights were everywhere else. The traffic to enter the city was unreal on Friday afternoon. Finding a parking garage for the car was expensive. Our hotel had no heat.
     I could put up with all that, but New York was coarse and depressing last weekend. Beggars are brazen, with one holding a sign stating that whatever you gave him, he was going to buy dope and booze. While you might want to applaud his honesty… really? There were people down on their luck wherever you went and I commented that I had never seen so much open poverty and what appeared to be mass homelessness in a city I’ve been visiting since childhood when my mom  took us on the bus for the day. An article in the March 4 edition of The Wall Street Journal backs up what I had suspected. According to the WSJ, more than 50,000 people slept in NYC’s homeless shelters in January, joining a growing trend of homeless individuals and families in the U.S.
     The topper came for me when we were walking one of the students across Times Square and to the train station. There are many characters inhabiting Times Square these days. Some are known, like the Naked Cowboy, who now has a lady friend. Some appear to be rogue. A case in point was a “Mickey Mouse” character who was there Sunday morning. In the high pitched squeal we all know and usually love, this “Mickey Mouse” appeared to proposition a young lady. “C’mon baby!” he squealed. Yuck.
So, although New York has an awesome theater district, great shopping and palpable energy levels, it feels good to leave all that behind for the next group of tourists. I’m sure I’ll go back soon because the students love it and it’s so close, but I am thankful to live elsewhere.
     Because it was spring break, I had the chance to go see my dad’s friend, Trapper, in Fleetville this week as well. He takes about 20 minutes to tell you a story, mostly because he’s an engineer and very detailed oriented. He told my son and me a long, rambling account of being gifted a channel cat in a bar one night, which he held in the bath tub for safe keeping until he could properly deal with it the following morning. It made me forget all about New York and reminded me why my dad and he were such buddies. It was also about four gears lower than the activity level in Times Square. Goodbye, city life! 
 
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Locations : FleetvilleNew YorkNew York CityPennsylvania
People : Trapper


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Fanging Around

     The prospect of a real vampire among us probably seems far-fetched. After all, we may know people who can suck the life out of a situation, but they’re not normally hanging off the nape of the neck; they’re hogging the left lane on the way to work or telling us a tedious tale when we’re trying to eat a sandwich.
That’s why the announced appearance of Father Sebastiaan van Houten at the Everhart Museum in Scranton seemed so promising. The museum, hosting an exhibit called “The Blood is the Life,” invited the self-proclaimed vampyre (his spelling), impresario and host of the Vampire Ball in NYC, Paris and New Orleans to our town to discuss his unorthodox lifestyle.
     Turns out vampires are a lot like the rest of us. Instead of sporting slicked back black hair accentuated by a widow’s peak, Father Sebastian looked like a roadie for Poison. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You certainly can’t judge a book by its cover, except in the case of books about vampires. I just checked a bunch on amazon.com quickly and they were all pretty lousy. The books remind me of the countless unsold romance paperbacks I used to dispose of in the book department at Kmart every few months, featuring some shirtless dude and a needy concubine in a flimsy corset. But, I digress.
     The reason I went to this lecture was to learn about elegant and refined aristocracy with peculiar traits associated with lonely nights on the plains of Transylvania that culminate with an upended casket and a stake dripping with blood. Instead, I have the feeling that today’s vampires are busy watching “The Matrix,” gyrating to Lady Gaga at a trendy disco and considering the religious symbolism of Star Wars and “the force.”  Vampires seem to enjoy the nightlife, but it’s more about partying on the graveyard shift instead of creeping around in one.
Father Sebastiaan explained there were vampires and non-vampires in the audience of his lecture, a point never demonstrated by anything tangible like tiny flapping wings or a sore throat. He discussed the three types of modern day practitioners of vampirism: Blood drinking vampires, psychic vampires who feed off of other people’s emotional energy and living vampires, embracing  a philosophy and spirituality that is both ancient and modern.
Father Sebastian pointed out the blood drinkers think they need to quench their thirst for life in this bizarre fetish that lacks any sort of scientific validity.  It also sounds pretty gross and is known to be dangerous and icky.
Psychic vampires are the most believable type of creatures to me. In the regular people’s world, we call them “social murderers.” They literally suck every ounce of energy out of the room and make you run the other way when you spot them at a distance of 100 yards. Or, you allow them to sap all your energy by recounting details about all nine innings of a t-ball game or what’s so great about the new episode of “American Idol.” Here’s my advice to you to avoid psychic vampirism: Run. Away. Now.
     The living vampire sounds a lot like a club hopping hipster who enjoys black clothing because it hides red wine spills and makes you look thinner.
     Eh, to each his own.  At the end of the day, we learned Father Sebastiaan is pretty much like that effete  college prof who wears groovy boots and an ankh, and is a master of the non-sequitur. Although you expect Dracula, turns out you’re the sucker.

 
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Locations : New OrleansParis
People : Lady GagaSebastiaan van HoutenSebastian


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Stake Out at The Everhart

A tip of the cape must be given to Scranton’s Everhart Museum, which has assembled an exhibition that will get people of all curiosities back to a place they really should visit.
As a child, I went to the Everhart many times with my grandfather. Since my parents both worked, I spent countless hours with this man, a diminutive and lively guy with a twinkle in his eye and a series of powder blue cars with a tissue box always available near the back windshield. Although he only made it to the eighth grade, his thirst for knowledge and boundless spirit may be the genetic reasons that I enjoy reporting.
He took my brother and me on many fine adventures that are probably not understandable to today’s society. By his modest house in North Scranton, we would walk across a sewer pipe that ran over a creek and bound up the coal heap, our destination in our grasp.
My grandfather loved to go to the dump, which was then located within city limits. It may have been an area where people simply discarded their belongings and not a sanctioned dump, but we loved it and often found stuff there to take home, like 78 recordings and books.
The other crown jewel of our travels was Nay Aug Park and The Everhart Museum. The park was a fascinating place, with its tiny zoo and little amusement rides. The museum’s lure was three-fold: The bees, the mummy and the shrunken head.
The bees have apparently been gone for some time due to a collapse in the colony.
The mummy is in storage, and there is a chance it will be “repatriated” to the museum in the future, which would certainly bring me back, dragging my brother. So, there’s two tickets sold.
The shrunken head, the cause of endless childhood fascination, is no longer on public view. Whether this is based on sensitivity or some questions about its authenticity, I am disappointed. I remember the grimace of the petite woman with dark hair displayed in the center of a small room at the museum and I never turned down a chance to see it.  If anyone has a photo, please send it as the museum no longer displays it, mainly because they are tormenting me. Believe me, I’ve asked.
Despite these setbacks, the Everhart has something for everyone in your life, from the creep to the scientist, with their exhibition “The Blood is the Life.” This is a look at vampirism in society, from the creatures with blood lust to the lunatic fringe element of society that did some pretty crazy things, like digging up their loved ones and burning their hearts. There are some exquisite vampire killing kits on display with fancy daggers and little grains in bottles that would stop a vampire in his tracks because they are apparently obsessed with counting. That’s how The Count on Sesame Street was devised. Clever, no?
There is also a photo about the moving story of Dick Smith of Honesdale, a man who came down with a disease that separated him from society called tuberculosis. In those days, tuberculosis removed a man from society, and, in Smith’s case, sent him to the West Side Sanitarium in the godforsaken upper hinterlands of Scranton. Despite the grimness of his surroundings, his sickness and its fatal outcome, he somehow penned the Christmas classic, “Winter Wonderland.” If that’s not making the best of a bad situation, I don’t know what is. Smith was long dead when the song became a perennial hit.
There are paintings done with cow blood, repulsive and fascinating. There are bats of all sorts. There’s the goblet from the goth 1960s soap opera, “Dark Shadows.” There’s a cutout of the guy from “Twilight.”
As part of this exhibition, the Everhart hosted Father Sebastiaan van Houten on Friday, fangsmith and bon vivant of the vampire lifestyle. Since this deserves its own assessment, I’ll save that for next time. If you want to return to the Everhart, “The Blood is the Life” will be there through July with some special guests lecturing about a variety of topics, including vampire folklore. Get out of the house and get your blood flowing. You won’t be sorry.
   
 
 

 
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People : Dick Smith


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Pretty Boy Fred

 
Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

-Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd”

The mission statement on the web page of the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit says it’s a service agency with a goal to “educate all students through education, collaboration, and innovation.”  Educating students through education sounds a bit redundant. However, students should study the textbook case of its former director, Dr. Fred Rosetti, who could give a primer in the finer points of Entitlement 101.
Sarah Hofius-Hall of The Scranton Times-Tribune has written some of the most eye-opening accounts of Dr. Rosetti’s penchant for the finer things in life, ill gotten gains enjoyed on the aching backs of the area’s taxpayers. “Dr.” Rosetti racked up $18k in phony travel expenses, threatening to fire employees who wouldn’t play along. Hofius-Hall reported these records only show five years of malfeasance, due to the fact other records were destroyed.
But, Dr. Rosetti didn’t stop there. He thought nothing of mailing out packages on the taxpayer’s dime, using the school’s American Express card for unauthorized purchases of $2k and buying gift certificates for his NEIU favorites.
Dr. Rosetti went on golf retreats to help these children, and off to Gubbio, Italy, where he reportedly racked up a charge of $117.25 in a bar, perhaps while trying to get a good deal on art supplies.  
Dr. Rosetti’s final exit from the NEIU may have been the log that broke the taxpayer’s eye socket, however. He requested a $623,000 (you read it right) payout, including a request for $480,000 in unused vacation and sick time.
Enter “No Nonsense” Louise Brzuchalski of the Abington Heights School Board. A trained accountant, Brzuchalski read a letter at the AH Board meeting when Rosetti’s retirement was announced, openly questioning the validity of the posh payout. Needless to say, Brzuchalski faced demonization and intimidation for speaking truth to power. Rosetti’s henchman also tried to shut some other people up too, with threats to sue them. Cough, cough.
Many thought Rosetti was set to skate through a cushy plea agreement, with the government consenting to a 12 to 18 month prison sentence in exchange for sparing the public the expense of a good old fashioned trial, which probably would have caused blood pressure medicine sales to spike but would have had a predictable conclusion. So, the stage was set for a sentencing, until Judge Robert D. Mariani rejected the plea on Friday, calling Rosetti’s white collar crime spree “longstanding, pervasive and wide-ranging.”
To hear such an outstanding and accurate choice of words to describe this well-heeled thief does one’s heart good. At the top of the page are the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s often covered ballad, “Pretty Boy Floyd.” That bandit reportedly got his charming nickname from  an eyewitness to one of his numerous bank robberies, exclaiming the criminal was “a pretty boy with apple cheeks.”
The same kind of language could be used to describe Pretty Boy Fred Rosetti. Who would suspect this cousin of “The Prince of Peckville,” Bob Mellow, of being anything but a stand up guy whose main concern was to make sure kids with special needs received all they could get from the system?  Pretty Boy Fred is the kind of wolf in executive’s clothing that might make a nice poster boy for just punishment.  
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Try Freedom

From the swelter of summer to the shiver of winter, it remains a constant to those of us who follow the news.
I say “those of us who follow those news” not to condescend to the Honey Boo Booists who dwell among us, but to tell you what it’s like to hear of an injustice, feel a emphatic sense of outrage, make phone calls and seek clarity and then wait, oftentimes in frustration and silence, for the issue to reach its deserved conclusion.
I remember this vividly before the fall of the judges in Luzerne County. There was a whisper of “something big” coming. Time slowly stretched from Memorial Day to the end of the following January, waiting for the noose to tighten and the bad guys to be formally charged. Finally, a long awaited beginning of the breaking of the bondage and patronage that binds our area to its political hierarchy. This was the chance for freedom, and many people who bore the scars and stories may have felt vindicated, and a lot of us shared I their success, hoping that better days were ahead.
The big question now is: Are they? We’ve had judges go to jail. We’ve had county commissioners, sitting and post-term, sent to the big house. The most powerful and influential state senator from our area, the longest serving member of that body in history for crying out loud, is incarcerated.
We cannot be satisfied, however. A state senator, defiantly demanding his “day in court,” has a defense strategy that has prolonged the moment. A well-known developer’s obligation to pay society back for his misdeeds still walks free, albeit trying to make up for his role in this mess through contributions to heal the community and charitable endeavors. A vendor for the City of Wilkes-Barre appears to have violated the terms of his towing contract, re-victimizing those whose cars were stolen and charging them to retrieve them, against the ink he signed on the paper. A Lackawanna County Commissioner who says he is misunderstood when he told a constituent not to participate in the changing of Lackawanna’ County’s form of government, because said commissioner helped the constituent’s son obtain a $30,000 a year job.
Let’s get to the last one: I spoke about this on Friday, ripping the shameful nature of “public servants,” who dangle these jobs in front of people like they’re giving them the keys to the kingdom. I said if these leaders were more savvy in the arena of economic development, no one would want their crumbs when they could be pulling down $70 k in private industry.
A texter to the station said I was being “arrogant,” insulting all the people who make less than $30 and listen to our station. The person said they would be turning off the show. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, these listeners subscribe to the philosophy that’s trending in our society that Big Daddy Government is doing just fine as the entity that puts bread on the table and gas in the truck. It’s time to realize this kind of dependence is what keeps us indebted and beholden to people who are no more deserving of accolades than the guy who makes payroll at the plant. You don’t see that individual getting a building named for him, do you?
My point is that people here have been conditioned to shut up, pay out, humbly beg for crumbs from the table of patronage, and retain the status quo on behalf of those who possess the power. That’s how Luzerne County got in the mess that it did. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you see an injustice, think about saying something. You don’t have to tell your next door neighbor, but the F.B.I. in Philadelphia might be keen on finding out.
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Locations : Luzerne CountyPhiladelphiaWilkes-barre


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The Culture of Silence

Bill Ecenbarger’s message stung more than the bone-chilling temperatures that his audience endured on the night of his remarks in Wilkes-Barre.
Ecenbarger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, certainly saw his share of cover ups, lies and bureaucratic incompetency while covering the Three Mile Island disaster in Harrisburg. His  journalistic work on that scandal merited a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Now, this reporter, who watched the progression of thugs and gangsters in the streets of Philadelphia, was delivering the hard truth to the people who call this area their home. Our residents have lived through the hierarchy of the mining era, where few reaped the privilege and most bore the pain. When that industry ended in a watery calamity, the next logical way to maintain power over the people was to put them into the next industry: Government.

Ecenbarger, the interloper in our world, was called to Luzerne County four years ago to cover the Kids for Cash scandal as a happenstance. Some other reporter couldn’t make it, so Ecenbarger answered the bell. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
Viewing the world through someone else’s glasses can be very eye opening. Something can be blurry or maybe magnified, depending on the impediment. In Ecenbarger’s view, the people of Luzerne County can’t see straight. And, he’s right, of course.
His truth is probably too difficult for many people to bear. Exhibit A is former President Judge Mark Ciavarella, a player in a scheme federal authorities detailed in their filing of charges against him four years ago. Even as a jury decided his fate, Ciavarella, who had been reduced to sidekick to a Wilkes-Barre tow truck driver, courted reporters on the floor outside the courtroom, explaining his sick premise that “it wasn’t kids for cash.” Even after a jury rendered a guilty verdict on 12 of the 39 counts, Ciavarella and his attorney all but declared victory on the steps of the federal building in Lackawanna County. Their celebration was cut short by the angry tirade of a mother whose son eventually took his life, years after his initial introduction to the judicial stylings of Ciavarella.
Ecenbarger went straight for the part of the story that baffles those who live outside the county lines: The open secret that he claimed we knew all along. Ecenbarger recounted that the story of Ciavarella’s heavy hand in court was lauded by the locals, going as far as to remind the audience the former jurist was once named “Man of the Year” by an Irish society group and his deeds were extolled by our former congressman in the congressional record. His retelling of the patronage and “family tree” of those who ascended to power is enough to raise the color in your face, but, deep in your heart, you know it’s true. This job trading and back slapping is not tolerated in other areas of the country, Ecenbarger insisted.
Another panelist remarked about one of the pictures in Ciavarella’s office. It showed grime covered young breaker boys in Pittston, lorded over by a supervisor with a stick. One would have to wonder if Mark Ciavarella ever viewed that image and fancied himself as the man with the stick. He would probably insist it didn’t resemble him.
“The culture of silence” is a scar that runs through the valley as deep as a mine vein. As much as other speakers discussed the reformation of the courts to a reasonable level and a county code that calls for discipline in the event of wrong doing, there’s still a nagging feeling that runs through the cynics and seekers of justice that something is still quite wrong here. That feeling whistles through your ears even worse on a mid-winter January night when you hear a painful truth spoken by an outsider who calls it the way he sees it.  
Bill Ecenbarger’s message stung more than the bone-chilling temperatures that his audience endured on the night of his remarks in Wilkes-Barre.
Ecenbarger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, certainly saw his share of cover ups, lies and bureaucratic incompetency while covering the Three Mile Island disaster in Harrisburg. His  journalistic work on that scandal merited a Pulitzer Prize.
Now, this reporter, who watched the progression of thugs and gangsters in the streets of Philadelphia, was delivering the hard truth to the people who call this area their home. Our residents have lived through the hierarchy of the mining era, where few reaped the privilege and most bore the pain. When that industry ended in a watery calamity, the next logical way to maintain power over the people was to put them into the next industry: Government.
Ecenbarger, the interloper in our world, was called to Luzerne County four years ago to cover the Kids for Cash scandal as a happenstance. Some other reporter couldn’t make it, so Ecenbarger answered the bell. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
Viewing the world through someone else’s glasses can be very eye opening. Something can be blurry or maybe magnified, depending on the impediment. In Ecenbarger’s view, the people of Luzerne County can’t see straight. And, he’s right, of course.
His truth is probably too difficult for many people to bear. Exhibit A is former President Judge Mark Ciavarella, a player in a scheme federal authorities detailed in their filing of charges against him four years ago. Even as a jury decided his fate, Ciavarella, who had been reduced to sidekick to a Wilkes-Barre tow truck driver, courted reporters on the floor outside the courtroom, explaining his sick premise that “it wasn’t kids for cash.” Even after a jury rendered a guilty verdict on 12 of the 39 counts, Ciavarella and his attorney all but declared victory on the steps of the federal building in Lackawanna County. Their celebration was cut short by the angry tirade of a mother whose son eventually took his life, years after his initial introduction to the judicial stylings of Ciavarella.
Ecenbarger went straight for the part of the story that baffles those who live outside the county lines: The open secret that he claimed we knew all along. Ecenbarger recounted that the story of Ciavarella’s heavy hand in court was lauded by the locals, going as far as to remind the audience the former jurist was once named “Man of the Year” by an Irish society group and his deeds were extolled by our former congressman in the congressional record. His retelling of the patronage and “family tree” of those who ascended to power is enough to raise the color in your face, but, deep in your heart, you know it’s true. This job trading and back slapping is not tolerated in other areas of the country, Ecenbarger insisted.
Another panelist remarked about one of the pictures in Ciavarella’s office. It showed grime covered young breaker boys in Pittston, lorded over by a supervisor with a stick. One would have to wonder if Mark Ciavarella ever viewed that image and fancied himself as the man with the stick. He would probably insist it didn’t resemble him.
“The culture of silence” is a scar that runs through the valley as deep as a mine vein. As much as other speakers discussed the reformation of the courts to a reasonable level and a county code that calls for discipline in the event of wrong doing, there’s still a nagging feeling that runs through the cynics and seekers of justice that something is still quite wrong here. That feeling whistles through your ears even worse on a mid-winter January night when you hear a painful truth spoken by an outsider who calls it the way he sees it.  

 

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Oh look, a bug!

These days, I worry.
While I was navigating through the streets of Wilkes-Barre tonight, a person wearing dark colored clothing emerged from a dark vehicle and into my lane of travel. Did this person think about the potential outcome of his/her exit from a vehicle and into the path of a moving car? Eh, not so much.
Every week I go to the grocery store, where wide-eyed shoppers stand, mouths agape, in the middle of the 9, which is already cluttered by a giant cereal box display and an occasional “junior shopper” with a tiny cart overflowing with bananas and Gatorade. Some people are swimming in a sea of self, overwhelmed with waffle choices and wondering if they should get one or two Chunky Soups. Their self-awareness is so slight that they could be anywhere in the world at that moment, but to other shoppers, they’re in the way. I know that hurts, but it’s also true.
Have you been to the donut shop recently to grab a quick Double D on the way to somewhere? The person in front of you dwells painstakingly over a dozen donuts while all you want to do is keep moving. It’s a mind-numbing exercise in self restraint.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I recently had the opportunity to see two movies that demonstrated the value of heightened awareness and critical thinking (gasp). “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was a spellbinding tale of the two-fisted detective and his doctor friend working feverishly to overcome a fiendish professor who engages in war mongering in his spare time. This Sherlock Holmes is much more animated and punchy than the one I remember from “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in junior high. The one thing that’s constant regardless of who’s visioning Holmes is his keen sense of observation and ability to make split second decisions when danger is grave. His analytical skills are always in play and he is always two steps ahead of the jailer. Although the movie seemed too contemporary for the 1890s, I marveled at his problem solving acumen. The film engages the audience, and makes them focus more keenly on their own detective abilities.
The second film, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is also about problem solving, though the audience is put through a much starker and violent experience before its muted conclusion. In this thriller, a disgraced journalist joins forces with a disturbed young computer savant to solve a 40 year old disappearance case that has played on the mind of one of her relatives. Old methods of discovery, like going through stacks of photos, meld with modern techniques, like hacking. Together, the older writer and young sleuth come to the same conclusion about a suspect. The movie runs almost three hours and the audience believes it’s over about 45 minutes before it actually ends. Once again, there’s a chance for viewers to think about the possible scenarios before the author’s vision is revealed.
It’s time the real people of the world embrace some of the traits of characters like the ones Arthur Conan Doyle and Stieg Larsson’s books embody. Is it too much to ask that we actively pay attention to the world around us, no relying on someone else to swerve out of the way when we enter their path? I say this because I’m floored by the lack of paying attention people do to things that can really impact their lives. Last year, I asked listeners to spend five or ten minutes a day reading before the election in November, where citizens picked Luzerne County’s new council, a slew of judges and commissioners up north in Lackawanna County. Some people said they would make their decisions while standing in front of the ballot on Election Day. Terrific. You’re never going to be able to solve the mystery of what’s best for your future if you operate this way. Put some stuff under the microscope and examine it. That’s my New Year’s resolution for you, navel-gazers.
 
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A girl and her uncle

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see
Blue birds
Singing a song
Nothing but blue skies
All day long
_ Irving Berlin
Bill McDonough slipped into my life, and he slipped out of it in August.
During the course of his colorful, no-holds barred journey, Bill had a habit of disappearing. If he felt like moving to Florida, he did. Colorado? Not too far. Old Forge? Why not?
He would depart a gathering suddenly, a family tradition that was called “pulling a McDonough.” He was here, then he was gone, but when we got back together, it seemed no time had passed. 
The McDonoughs have been part of my life for many years, and I consider them my family. Macaire and Sean, Bill’s niece and nephew, were both my roommates. When I met their Uncle Bill, he became mine. It was like passing down a treasured family heirloom. Of course, the heirloom was transported in a well worn blue pickup named “Desperado,” replete with a Grateful Dead license plate.
Our first meeting, as Bill reminded me on August 9 during my notation of the death of Jerry Garcia, was after a group of my friends traveled to Buffalo for a concert featuring Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Dead. It was post July 4, 1986. When you meet a guy who drives with his real nephew and college friends to a Dead show in a vintage Volvo station wagon, it’s the start of a great adoption. And, oh, the lessons.
The caper grew thicker when Uncle Bill opened a deli, Culinary Adventures, in Wilkes-Barre’s East End. It became the place where college kids went to learn a life skill. Many of us cut our teeth under the knife of Billy, way before cooking became a television drama industry. We made things from scratch, including salad dressing and clam chowder. A fanciful chef (he had the checkered pants), Billy would quietly seethe when some East Ender on a bender wanted hot dogs instead of Chicken Gumbo Ya Ya or any of the other specialties he planned for the more highbrow crowd. After we threw out the customers and cleaned the pots and pans, we were allowed to drink Rolling Rock. We listened to The Kingston Trio, The Dead, The Pogues, The Ramones and Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.” That’s the cassette I associate the most with Billy, hence the above Irving Berlin song that Willie so masterfully covered on that standards record.
There were evenings spent at McKenna’s, owned by Billy’s brother Ed and his wife, Colleen. Ed McKenna was another larger than life figure who left earth way too early. He was known for his annual Irish wake, a tradition that involved keening over the “deceased, “Steve O’Donnell, and more Rolling Rock, sometimes with a sidecar of scotch. My birthday is March 16; St. Patrick’s Day is March 17 and Billy’s birthday was March 19, so you can do the math on that shift.
On May 20, 1989, Billy drove me to St. Gregory’s Church in Clarks Summit. Since I was getting married, I’m pretty surprised that my dad didn’t pay him to bypass the church for the turnpike. Not ready to let go, the McDonough/McKenna clan spent "our" wedding night in the Radisson Lackawanna Station with the couple, dancing to Blue Sparks from Hell and raising considerable cain until the hotel staff insisted it cease.
Billy left for Florida again after that. He did spend an engaging Sunday afternoon in the Bahamas the following year with the Henry's. I was gifted with “the book,” Billy’s family recipes, which I brought safely back to Wilkes-Barre. Thankfully, I photocopied every last one, even the heirloom chili sauce recipe.
Billy eventually returned home, settling in Old Forge, where he would host intimate group dinners with random members of our extended family. He loved to not only cook, but would order everything on the menu from soup to nuts, demonstrating that living well was the best revenge.
On May 30, 1999, I called Billy to ask him what he was doing. “Looking at your father’s picture in the obituaries,” he replied. We made a pact that no one would ever get taken by surprise like this again.
Billy did the most of the calling, unfortunately. There were calls about his brothers. The cruelest blow came on Christmas Day of 2005 in the early morning hours when he called with the news that his beloved nephew, Christopher, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage after a family gathering on Christmas Eve.
When I had phone calls on my caller I.D. from Billy’s sister Teresa and sister-in-law Colleen waiting for me on August 27, I could only assume the worst. Billy slipped away on us again at the age 55, gone much too soon.
The wave of sorrow that followed was indescribable. Heavy rain fell that night, but it paled in comparison to the tears shed by real kin and those of us who didn’t need a blood bond.
I went back over the text messages and emails.
Here is our birthday exchange:
Uncle Bill,
Happy Happy Happy Birthday!
I often think about how lucky I've been to have your family as my family.
Also, I have challenged a student to a reuben making contest and will kick his (butt) thanks to you!
Love,
Sue
 
Su, Su,
Thank you. Let me know if the student wants to make a wager. You'll kick his (butt) like you did Tony (Bartocci of Entercom) at air hockey. Just saw that there will be a "Super Moon"tonight. Best time to see is near sunset. Kiss the chitlins for us.
Love, Uncle Bill
 
Uncle Bill,
These punk kids just don't get it. They have no idea what kind of training I went through during my youth.
Love!
Sue
 
(Sue),
Thanks. Tell them you lived through "The Great Cheese Steak Caper" and nothing was a challenge after that. I know you are not partaking, but will still appreciate this.  Scotch in glass, Sarah Vaughn's "Send in the Clowns" playing, candles burning. Uncle Bill Happy!
 
So, when I cry these days, which isn’t as much, I cry tears of gratitude for having such an uncle. And, when I have to wait weeks during a relentless time frame that included half a semester of school, work and a large flood, I needed to tell you the story of my uncle. I know he’ll understand. Heck, he’s probably busy at the eternal family reunion. 
 
 
                 
 


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New flood, same feelings

During the all too brief time I knew my mother-in-law, I learned what flooding could do. I realized it could take your home, but I didn’t understand the way it could overcome your spirit.
In 1972, my own mother was overseas on an extended vacation to see her brother, so my dad and grandfather watched us. My grandfather rode us around in areas I can’t name and we saw people’s possessions piled up on the sidewalk, including a beautiful piano which was decimated by the immense power of raging Hurricane Agnes. It pained by grandfather to see this beloved instrument cast to the side of the road by the forces of nature.
When I got to know my mother-in-law many years later, the imagery of that storm became a lot more clear. She discussed what it was like to return home to Oxford Street in the Lee Park section of Hanover Township that summer in June. She described the the water rising up the staircase as it threatened to make the second floor and the unforgettable odor of the flood mud. The pain of this event was evident in her storytelling of the long road back, where family memories were carried in salvaged photographs.
In 1996, the snow fell and the rain followed near the end of January. I was working for The Citizens’ Voice when I called her to utter the “e” word. Residents were told to leave their homes on a Friday night. Gathering the photos and little else, my mother and father-in- law sought refuge with us in Hanover’s higher ground. I could tell she couldn’t bear the thought of living through another Agnes. Thankfully, there wasn’t one and my in-laws returned to their home about a day later. Less than two weeks later, my mother in law died, succumbing to ovarian cancer at the age of 55. In the back of my mind, I blame that scare for shortening her life. The thought of another round of flood mud and a long road back clearly took their toll on her.
In 2006, the rain fell hard in June, flooding our basement. I looked through the window wells and all I saw was water. It eventually poured down the walls and settled wherever it wanted. The following morning, I left for my regular shift at WILK, beaten and exhausted from bailing a soggy basement. Hours later, the “e” word was uttered and the valley was emptied. The following day, the levees held and the threat subsided. Once again, the day was saved, thanks to savvy engineers from the U.S. Army Corps and the vision of Jim Brozena, a Luzerne County engineer to whom we owe much gratitude.
Wednesday, that vortex of unhappy memories planted itself in my brain as I watched the men and women of the Luzerne County EMA struggle to re-assure callers to their rumor hotline about a mass on a weather map that looked as dangerous as any red menace can. Plopped smack dab on the Susquehanna River was a storm with voluminous amounts of rain from Pennsylvania to upstate New York. Words like “catastrophic” and “record breaking” were pronounced. Darkness Wednesday into Thursday gave way to a deluge of water. At times, it seemed like someone was tossing buckets of water from the sky. Predictions grew dire, as the National Weather Service declared there was “no end in sight” for trouble. The “e” word was back and the window of time to get out of town was shortened by four hours as officials tried to move as many people away from the swelling Susquehanna as humanly possible. Hour after hour, the water level rose by ¾ of a foot. That didn’t stop the levee system near the Market Street Bridge from turning into a cross between “A Clockwork Orange” and a cable tv show, as odd looking onlookers came out to gawk at Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel.  In news that seemed good, a river crest was predicted Thursday night into Friday.
That crest was announced with great relief at 38 feet and change, and it looked good for most, but not all. Communities like Pittston, West Pittston, Shickshinny and the Brookside section of Wilkes-Barre took it on the chin. U.S. Senators Casey and Toomey came to tour West Pittston, where a wheelchair bound woman insisted the flooding was worse than ever, prompting some to point to the new and lowered Eighth Street Bridge as a possible culprit.
After lunch on Friday, a wave of uncertainty washed through the E.M.A. building. Small discussions began about broken gauges, higher numbers and compromises in the levee system. Officials hastily called a news conference and said there was a crest, but it was much higher than previously reported. In fact, the new number stood at 42.66, higher than most were lead to believe the system could endure. “Worse than Agnes” summed it up right. The ashen faces told the story and their strong insistence that people not return home and get away from the levees was forceful. Further strong messaging came from Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett, who bluntly told people to stop gawking and start listening.
The threat of the flood ended early Saturday afternoon, right before the Penn State game. Residents were told they could return to their homes. Some found them just the way they left them, others found nothing at all.
So now, that same old feeling is back for the families who know too well the odor of flood mud and understand their lives will always contain a chapter about that early September in 2011 when it kept on raining. Thinking of my mother-in-law, my heart goes out to them and I pray that the strong hands of Wyoming Valley uplift them in this time of immeasurable heartbreak.
 


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