I can’t say we took any great American road trips when I was a child — mostly 200-mile jaunts to visit family in the Altoona area of Pennsylvania or rare shorter ones to local attractions like Niagara Falls or Letchworth …Continue reading →
(The title is from The Thief of Bagdad. Grand Vizier Jaffar, played by Conrad Veidt, dramatically summons the sea wind to do his evil bidding.) I was living with my parents in a trailer in a sweet location, probably with …Continue reading →
December 27, 2017: After seeking elk in the outlying areas of Benezette, we found a little herd at the campgrounds in town, which they favor. I handed my phone off to my cousin, who was in a better position to capture them. Benezette is part of the area that’s been rebranded “Pennsylvania Wilds” to attract adventurous tourists of the have kayak, will travel variety.
Today is the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth. I discovered this delightful clipping about a hike to a farm and a picnic with storytelling under a big tree she helped to organize. It could be straight out of Anne of Green Gables.
I love finding these blurbs. This and others are giving me new insight into my parents’ early lives pre-me.
As a child, I didn’t think about water until I started visiting a friend whose family drank well water that smelled and tasted of sulfur. The odor permeated their house. “You get used to it,” she said. Accustomed to the tasteless taste of “city water,” invariably I felt thirsty the moment I arrived. I never got used to it.
Forty-five years ago the typical person didn’t carry a water bottle or buy bottled water. We drank whatever came out of the tap. Unswayed by Dr. Strangelove or decades of bottled water marketing, I still do, and that’s what I fill my insulated water bottles with when traveling.
On our annual pilgrimage to Pennsylvania in the 1960s and early 1970s, we used to stop at a couple of roadside springs and fill a jug or two with spring water. We didn’t need to. Our “city water” in New York was fine with us — well, as fine as any water in our polluted world can be. There didn’t seem to be any objection to our hosts’ water, either. By the time I was sentient, we were no longer staying with anyone who lacked indoor plumbing. My guess is my parents liked the idea of getting water from a roadside spring and preferred it as a rare treat. I did too. Water straight from a spring — as nature intended. (We didn’t boil it, either.)
Later we stopped at the usual places and found signs indicating the water was too contaminated to drink — the effects of coal mining. My heart broke a bit at the loss of a tradition and the sense the earth itself was dying one roadside spring at a time. After all, I was being raised in the era of the fiery Cuyahoga River, algae-choked Lake Erie, and the horrors of Love Canal.
I wish I could remember where those springs were and find out if anything has changed.
According to findaspring.com, which seems to be defunct, Pennsylvania leads the U.S. in the number of listed springs with 84. New York is second with 59, while Illinois lags behind with only 17 shown.
When I was visiting my cousin for Christmas 2018, I found out they’ve taken to collecting and drinking spring water. My cousin hinted, however, that the spring is far from picturesque. In my mind’s eye, I saw an ugly, chipped-up plastic pipe protruding from an ugly, denuded hillside in town. Something like that.
The spring is south of Tyrone, so we used a visit to Village Pantry as an excuse to get some water. It’s on a lightly traveled road paralleled by a stream, Elk Run, that seems to cross back and forth under it in several places.
My cousin and his wife quickly set up an efficient two-person jug-passing and -filling operation while I meandered back and forth across the road, drinking in (so to speak) the sights and sounds of the spring and Elk Run on its journey.
When a house buyer sees a stream, he pictures flooding, damage, and dollars. I picture myself at a church picnic at Chestnut Ridge, a lifetime ago, walking on 18-Mile Creek, listening to its gushing and trickling, soaking in the sight of countless tiny drops, waterfalls, and eddies, and hoping to spot tadpoles, frogs, minnows, and fish in the clear water reflecting a perfect summer sun filtered on the edges by healthy trees. I had no way of knowing how ephemeral that experience would be.
I don’t know how clean or safe the water from this spring is. As I said, it’s south of Tyrone, whose paper mills wafted their distinctive odor through my aunt’s screen door seven or eight miles away in Bellwood. I’ve seen a discussion about agricultural runoff in the area as well, although many think it’s insignificant.
Elk Run appears to be a tributary of the Little Juniata River. I once told my dad I’d seen a leopard frog in the Little Juniata as it runs past Logan Valley Cemetery in Bellwood. He made a wry comment about it, perhaps “How many legs did it have?” Now he and my mother are buried in Logan Valley. Cemetery, within earshot of the Little Juniata. Water, however clean it is or is not, connects us — all of us. We shouldn’t forget that.
Poor scans of photos taken in 1988 remind me of my dad’s move to Pennsylvania. We had visited family there at least once a year during most of my childhood. As my dad got older, my parents and their family members started to have health issues, people died, and I went to college, we stopped going. By the time I returned to the Altoona area, it seemed strange, yet familiar. What felt oddest was getting there mostly by Amtrak vs. wending our way through southern New York and Pennsylvania on Rte. 219. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, with my mother and many of her family already gone.
Since it was one of my first visits in a long time, my dad’s sister took us to several area attractions. I’d never seen Baker Mansion. The kitchen trough for fresh fish fascinated me. I also recall servants’ quarters at the top of the house. I imagined helpless cooks and maids trapped in the attic while fire raged below, the small windows useless for escape.
We also went to an overlook, but I paid little attention to the name (if it was mentioned) or the location. We didn’t have Google Maps in our pockets for reference 30 years ago. I remember only the loveliness of the view — and that when I went to look over, I slid on shale or gravel and tumbled partway down the hill, my fall slowed, then stopped by a tangle of brush. I laughed, but wouldn’t be surprised if this was how my fear of falling down hillsides began.
During my Christmas visit in December 2018, I mentioned the photo to my cousin and his wife, who agreed I must be talking about “Wopsy” (Wopsononock Mountain). It’s directly across from Pinecroft.
From the top of Wopsy, we could see the housing development that replaced the woods on their hill, the old landfill, and perhaps a corner of their house or garage. I realized that the towers I see from their road are where we were standing on Wopsy.
Where once there were wooden fence posts there’s a long, high guardrail covered with grafitti; my cousin feels the area’s not that safe. Devil’s Elbow, which we may or may not have passed, is supposedly haunted by the “White Lady of Wopsononock.” If you don’t believe in the White Lady, you can check out Mindhunter on Netflix about the murder of Betty Jean Shade, whose body was found in an informal trash dump on Wopsy.
What made the death of Betty Jean Shade so different was the violence to her body, and in an effort to determine who killed her, investigators, through the aid of former FBI Agent Dale Frye, who served the Altoona area, turned to the fledgling FBI effort at its Quantico, Va., facility, which was attempting to perfect psychological profiling.
Phil Ray, Altoona Mirror
Betty Jean Shade was found in 1979, nine years before my visit. If I had known that, I don’t think I would have smiled so broadly. But the overlook is still beautiful.
A few years ago I did a search on my dad’s name and found an old auction for V-Mail (“Greetings from Britain”) from Private Ralph Schirf. I hadn’t known about the auction, long since over, in time to bid. Here are the clues that it’s from my dad:
Ralph Schirf is a unique name. Schirf is rare, and we’re all related. Ralph Schirf is one of a kind.
He was from the Altoona, Pennsylvania, area.
He served as a private in the Army Air Forces during WWII in England (artillery, I believe, although he didn’t talk about it). He was honorably discharged as a corporal.
That’s his block printing.
His beloved sister Marjorie married a Way (Ellis G. in the obituary of one of their children).
He once signed a birthday card to me “Father Ralph.” It’s not a stretch to imagine him signing “Brother Ralph” to his sister.
I would love if the buyer found this post and offered to sell me Dad’s V-Mail, but in lieu of the physical pieces I’ll have to be content with small digital photos.