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ArchiveOCTOBER 2020


When I was a child, my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my father was born.
There's a backwards old town that's often remembered,
So many times that my memories are worn.
Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?

If I were to sing these words, I'd be referring to the Green River town of Livermore, where my father was born on this date in 1909.  It's actually in McLean County.

But when John Prine sang these words on his first album in 1971, he was recalling another town 28 miles upriver from Livermore.  It had ceased to exist in 1967.  Ironically, the town was called Paradise.  The songwriter confessed that “until I was 15, I didn't know that the word ‘paradise’ meant anything other than the town in Kentucky where all my relatives came from.”  Here is his tune as he performed it last year.

• Surrounded by old strip mines, Paradise was torn down due to health concerns about the nearby coal-burning power plant.

• Hospitalized at the age of 73 on March 26, 2020, John Prine died 12 days later due to COVID-19.  Half of his ashes were spread in the river.

When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River.
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam.
I'll be halfway to Heaven, with Paradise waiting
Just five miles away from wherever I am.



I've always been too timid to become politically involved, as can be discerned from observations I wrote during an earlier era.

But not everyone is so withdrawn.  For example, there's 26-year-old Rachel Miller.  Like me, she studied physics in college.  We've never met, but now I learn that she lives four blocks east of me.

Earlier this month there was a MAGA caravan in our area, so Rachel organized a pro-Biden event.  As she explained to the Valley News Dispatch, “I wanted people to feel like they weren't alone in this community.”  On Saturday, about 140 vehicles gathered at Harrison Hills Park, paraded, and returned for a socially distanced rally.


U.S. Representative Conor Lamb was on hand.  “What we're seeing more of this year,” he told the newspaper, “is people just doing it for themselves, these independent groups — especially the ones that are led by women in these suburban communities.  They're not waiting for leadership from the campaign.  They're doing what they want to do because they feel a responsibility for it.”

The preceding images are from Facebook, but from a safe distance I too photographed the honking procession which passed within a block of my apartment.

“There's a lot of silent Biden people in Harrison Township,” said township commissioner Charles Dizard, “but today people came out, it was wonderful.  This group was phenomenal, and to be pulled off in a week's time?  Unbelievable.”




I don't often turn on my porch light.  It might attract trick-or-treaters.  Also, the lamp gained an upstairs tenant this year,

when a robin family moved in.  I wasn't allowed to get close enough to get a good photo at feeding time,

but if you've forgotten what a robin looks like, avian photographer Bill Shissler captured this example.


OCTOBER 21, 2020    5+7+5 MANIA

Japanese verses known as haiku often describe a lovely scene from nature.  English imitations, however, lack musicality.  Their only claim to being haiku is mathematical:  there must be three lines of five, seven and five syllables.  Once I actually wrote one myself.

Though life is unjust,
we can increase the justice.
         We can do something.

A computer has parsed a large body of text, finding many sentences that can be made to fit this arbitrary pattern.  Some might aspire to poetry.  I've collected more than two dozen of these Found Haikus. 


OCTOBER 18, 2010 flashback   NOW I GET IT

STARVING FOR RELEASE  I never really understood why a prisoner would go on a hunger strike.  He has already lost his freedom; for what purpose would he then refuse to eat, thus losing his health as well?  Is he merely trying to be a martyr to draw attention to his cause?

Perhaps, but he might also be trying to get out of jail.

The current edition of Old News tells of the WSPU, a group of English women who agitated for the right to vote under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst a century ago.

On July 2, 1909, a suffragette “named Marion Wallace Dunlop, who had been arrested for defacing a wall, decided on her own initiative to go on a hunger strike.  After refusing all food for 91 hours, she was released from prison.  Emmeline Pankhurst was delighted by this result, and she encouraged all WSPU members to imitate Dunlop by staging hunger strikes whenever they were imprisoned.

“For several years, the hunger-strike tactic made it difficult for the authorities to jail any WSPU member for longer than a week.  Prison authorities, reluctant to let them die, always released the hunger strikers as soon as their health seemed endangered.  Christabel Pankhurst wrote:  ‘We are feeling proud of having destroyed the government’s weapon of coercion.  ...We have now learnt our power to starve ourselves out of prison — and this power we shall use — unless, of course, the government prefer to let us die.  I hardly think however, that even they would adopt so extreme a course, if only for the reason that it will not pay them politically to do so.’”

However, every tactic has its countermeasures.  The government had refused to give women the right to vote.  The women countered by destroying property; the government countered by jailing them.  The women countered by starving themselves.  Now it was the government’s move:  prison wardens were ordered to force-feed hunger strikers.

Later the government passed the Temporary Discharge of Prisoners for Ill-Health Act:  starving inmates were to be released, but once their health improved, back to jail they went.  Over 18 months in 1913-14, “Emmeline Pankhurst was released and re-arrested on nine occasions.”

The WSPU’s tactics generated publicity, but not legislation.  The cat-and-mouse game ended only when World War I began and Pankhurst turned her organization’s energies to that struggle.

The good will engendered by the women during the war effort proved more effective than their earlier civil disobedience.  At the end of the war in 1918, female property owners were given the right to vote, and the WSPU was dissolved.

UPON WATERS   “Cast thy bread upon the waters:  for thou shalt find it after many days,” we read in Ecclesiastes 11:1-2.  “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.”

This made little sense to me when I was a little boy.  The only time it seemed practical to throw bread into the water was when my mother took me to Richwood Lake to feed the ducks.  Now that I think about it, there were usually seven or eight ducks who swam up to get their portion of the bread crumbs.  But we never miraculously found those crumbs again many days later.

Sometimes preachers use “bread” in its Sixties hippie sense of “money” to arrive at an allegorical interpretation.  “Give your money indiscriminately to the poor.  Many days later, Karma will reward you for your good deed.”

In other verses, the Bible frowns on alcoholic beverages.  “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle,” commands Leviticus 10:9.  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise,” warns Proverbs 20:1.

We know what wine is, but what does the Bible mean by “strong drink”?  In the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael M. Homan explains that the Hebrew word shekar really should be translated “beer.”

In the ancient world, he writes, “beer was often produced by creating a bread or cake made from malted barley or wheat.  The bread was then placed in water, forming a sweet liquid known as a wort.  In a few days, after adding yeast, the carbohydrates would be converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.”

This leads to a totally different interpretation of the passage from Ecclesiastes.  “I believe this is a reference to the cakes of bread used in ancient beer production,” writes Homan.  “Cast your bread upon the water and it will return as beer.  Much like the phrase carpe diem, the author advises making beer and drinking it with friends, because you don’t know what evil might be coming.”



A “sensitive” airline pilot is convinced his plane is being shadowed by SOMETHING directly below.

His only bit of information?  An improbable reading on one of his instruments.

I have related his Close Encounter of the Imaginary Kind.










But, come to think of it, owls are stupid.

It’s insane to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

If you didn’t hear what I said, I should not merely repeat it in exactly the same way.










The debate between the Vice-Presidential candidates last night attempted to deflect the coronavirus with Plexiglass screens beside each podium, which were 12 feet apart.  Was that enough?  Should something similar be used for next week's Presidential debate?

Tuesday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included a letter to the editor from Tom Donatelli of Mt. Lebanon.  His concept: “a rotating carousel divided in half by a wall, with only one candidate on each side of the wall.  A question would be asked to the candidate facing the audience.  After his allotted time is up, the carousel would rotate to expose the other candidate to the audience.”

Mr. Donatelli continued, “It is easy to envision Mr. Biden answering a question while muffled shouting is coming from behind the wall.”  Here's how I imagine that scene.

Some have gone further to suggest that the candidates be isolated in separate studios.  There's actually precedent for that.

As I'm sure you recall, during the campaign of 1960 there were four debates between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy, with no studio audience.  For each question, a candidate was allowed 2½ minutes to answer and his opponent received 1½ minutes for a rebuttal.  Displays atop the cameras kept track of the time.

I remember watching in black and white as the candidates disagreed about one topic in particular:  Should the U.S. military block China's Mao Tse-tung from taking over Quemoy and Matsu, just off the Chinese coast but loyal to Taiwan?  Nixon said we must fight the advance of communism at every step; Kennedy said these little rocks weren't worth risking American lives.  (As it turned out, Taiwan still holds the islands.)

For the third debate, through the magic of television, the podiums were more than 12 million feet apart on opposite sides of the continent.  It took place on October 13, 1960, sixty years ago next week.

The telecast began with a split screen.  Nixon and Kennedy were in identical studios, alone except for TV technicians and a few photographers and journalists.

Then, for the rest of the hour, we saw the candidates only one at a time.

Questions were posed by a panel of newsmen in a third studio in Chicago.  Everything was smooth and decorous.

No one was rudely interrupted, except for a late dropout of Nixon's video from Los Angeles which he never noticed.  And no one was infected by a virus.



So you want to challenge the incumbent dogcatcher.  Why should we replace him with you, Mr. Howdy Doody?

I discovered years ago that when inexperienced candidates run in local elections, they often have no platform and no ideas.  For what reason should we vote for them?  They can offer no reason except “It's time for a change!”

That's the universal slogan for a challenger running to unseat an incumbent. 

Almost all voters have some sort of gripe against the current government.  Many will agree that “it's time for a change.”  They trust that a new officeholder will fix their pet problem — regardless of whether the candidate actually has any insight on how to do so.

This month's “100 Moons” article includes examples from the 1970s.



When my father passed away in 1999, I became the executor of his estate.  His post office in Ohio notified charitable organizations which he'd supported that their letters should henceforth be directed to my address in Pennsylvania.

Twenty-one years later, his mail is still arriving, now with my updated apartment designation and Zip+4 code.  On July 15 and September 16 of this year, Vernon M. Thomas received solicitations from the American Cancer Society.  At some point a nonprofit included a sheet of 80 “Vernon M. Thomas” return address stickers.  On August 4, there was a notepad from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  On August 11, Easter Seals sent a nice 2021 calendar; I'm going to hang it in my kitchen.  And on September 22, there was an Important Notice addressed to the nonexistent Ms. Geri Thomas, offering to replace a window in this rented apartment (plus another for 40% off).

Yes, my letterbox receives mail for the whole Thomas clan:  Vernon, Geri, and Tom.  Only one of us has ever resided here.  And only one of us has received a mail-in ballot — which I filled out on October 1st and mailed back.

As you can see, I've received an email notifying me that the Postal Service promptly delivered it to its destination just two days later.



Ah, October!  The stores are full of candy and decorations for the upcoming Great Pumpkin celebration on the last day of the month.  It's not my favorite holiday.  It's not even an official “holiday,” because employees don't get time off from work.

This year, of course, will be different.  Many workers do expect to stay home, big parties are discouraged, and everybody should be wearing masks — even on the job.  A Pittsburgh comic featured a 2003 image of Dr. Fauci in her video warning that this will be “the scariest Halloween of our lifetime.”

Eleven months ago on his “News from ME” blog, Mark Evanier expressed his own distaste for October 31.  I've imagined a conversation with him, using excerpts of what he wrote.

So, Mark, I understand you've never liked Halloween.

“For one thing, I'm not a big fan of horror movies, or of people making themselves up to look disfigured or like rotting corpses.  Ray Bradbury said people parade about like that to celebrate life by mocking death.  Maybe to some folks it's a celebration of life — but to me, it's just ugly.”

Also, churchgoing people are uncomfortable when kids pretend to be Satan or his demons and witches.

“I've also never been comfy with the idea of kids going door-to-door to take candy from strangers.  Hey, what could possibly go wrong with that?  I did it a few years when I was but a child because it seemed to be expected of me.  I felt silly in the costume, and when we went to neighbors' homes and they remarked how cute we were ... well, I never liked to be cute in that way.  People talk to you like you're a puppy dog.”

Same here.  Once when my family drove to Kentucky to visit my grandparents, we parked down the street and I was instructed to announce our arrival by putting on a mask and knocking on the door.  “Who's this?  Doesn't look like any of the neighborhood kids.  Oh, my goodness, little Tommy is here!  All the way from Ohio!  What a surprise!”  I too felt silly, Mark.

“And when I got home, I had a bag of ‘goodies’ I didn't want to eat.  Some of it, of course, was candy corn.  Absolutely no one likes candy corn.  No one, do you hear me?”

The only time I actually went door-to-door was one year when our church collected donations for the United Nations Children's Fund.  In a small town around 1960, it wasn't considered necessary for parents to accompany us.  Walking the sidewalks with another kid and knocking on strange adults' doors was a little scary for me, but it was for a good cause.

However, “trick or treat” was originally an extortion threat, wasn't it?  “If you don't want me to play a trick on you and vandalize your house, you'd better give me a treat!”

“I never much liked pranks.  There were guys at school who invited me to go along on Halloween when they threw eggs at people and overturned folks' trash cans and redecorated homes with toilet paper.  One year, two friends of mine were laughing and bragging how they'd trashed some old lady's yard and I thought, ‘That's not funny. It's just being an a-hole.’”

So you don't like the holiday.

“I'm fine with every other holiday, just not this one.  I do not believe there is a War on Christmas in this country; that's just something the Fox News folks dreamed up because they believe their audience needs to be kept in a perpetual state of outrage about something.  But if there's ever a War on Halloween, I'm enlisting.  And bringing the eggs.”

What do you recall about October 31 last year?

Going to a party disguised as myself.  Getting there was horrendous.  On major streets, it was bumper-to-bumper. When we got to residential streets, it got worse. We were in an area heavily peopled with little people in dark-colored costumes who didn't know you just don't walk across the street without checking to see if my car is coming.”

But 2020 will be different.

“I have already decided I'm not leaving my house.  It's a leap year, and they're always a little weird.  Halloween falls on a Saturday, so it will be rowdier with more parties and people partying 'til late in the night.”

I'm with you, Mark.  I always stay home with the lights off.

“And there will be a full moon that night, so there will be real werewolves prowling about.  And it'll be a night when we set the clocks back, so the debauchery and mayhem will last for an extra hour.

“And, most frightening of all, it will be only three days until this country votes for President, so there will be last-minute rallies and much screaming and yelling and charges and counter-charges and predictions that we will all die if the wrong person is elected, and everyone will be crazy anyway.

“If you need me that day, I'll be under my bed shivering.”