Bracing for Covid-19 in Moundsville — U.S. Rust Belt Towns Face Big Risks With Aging Populations, Hospital Bed Shortages — ‘I Know I’m Vulnerable’

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“I know I’m vulnerable,” said Rose Hart.

I’m worried about my friends in Moundsville. We spent a whole year working together to tell the story of their town in a documentary headed for PBS this spring, and I think of those we worked with as extended family.

Like thousands of American towns left behind by globalization, Moundsville (pop. 8,000), and surrounding Marshall County, are full of old people and don’t have the resources to cope with a global pandemic. The brain drain to the bigger cities has left these towns undermanned and underfunded in a way that is going to be badly exposed by the sweep of the Coronavirus. The light of truth is about to shine on America’s abandoned towns, rotting infrastructure and scattershot health care system.

Twenty-two percent of Marshall County’s population of around 30,000 is over 65, compared to 16% in the general population of the U.S., and 13.7% of those under 65 have a disability, compared to 8.6% in the rest of the country. Local newspapers have been pared down, meaning it’s harder for people to get accurate information and help each other.

West Virginia was the final state to record a case of Covid-19, which it finally did this week, and it’s now proceeded to shut down schools. More closures are planned, and Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency, and is asking for federal help.

As a state, West Virginia has the highest percentage – 51%, compared to a national average of 41% — of inhabitants vulnerable to infection from the disease, according to study by the Kaiser Foundation. It’s older, and has high rates of diabetes, black lung disease from coal mining, obesity, opioid addiction, and smoking.

To be sure, its towns and hollers are more disconnected than cities like New York and Washington, so the disease will spread more slowly. But over the next few months, it will extend its reach, as it has in rural communities elsewhere.

The upshot, as gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith put it to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, will be “an inequality of pain.”

The Moundsville area has a few hospitals, but in September, one of them, the Ohio Valley Medical Center, announced it was closing. The hospital, which opened in 1914 and had 200 beds, employed over 1,000 people, who were laid off.

For a while, West Virginians weren’t worried. Somebody printed a T-shirt that said: “West Virginia: COVID-19 National Champions, Self-Isolating Since 1863.” Moundsville city councilman and former mayor Phil Remke, when I emailed him a couple days ago, dismissed worries as “panic” caused by “the media, all media.” Remke is a Fox News watcher, and that had been the network’s tune, echoing President Trump’s before the real damage caused by the virus made confronting its reality inevitable. When I texted him back today, he wrote: “Live and learn, politics aside, it’s time we all work together, Democrats and Republicans, instead of criticizing each other.”

Everybody in Moundsville “is taking this very seriously,” said Susan Board, who works at St. Francis Xavier, the town’s Catholic church. “Everything’s getting canceled. The fish fry. Even the bingo.”

People are worried, said Board. “While they might not have paid too much attention when it was on the West Coast and the East Coast, now they are because there are a lot of cases in Ohio. It’s coming closer and closer.”

Stores in Moundsville have sold out of toilet paper. “We’re like the rest of the country,” said Board.

“We’re distancing and isolating ourselves, but we’re not really ready,” said Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguyen, who’s cancelled mass. “It’s mostly elderly people. That’s why it’s worse for us.”

If a person is sick, he would visit them. “I’m not worried about my own health because I’m young, I think I would make it, but 75% of our parishioners are elderly.”

Steve Hummel said he’s keeping his museum, Archives of the Afterlife, open for now but is using hand sanitizer and keeping his distance. I asked about his grandfather, Les Barker. Both are stars in the movie. Les even has my favorite line (“What do you want out of this world? You wanna set the world on fire? Or do you want enough for a weenie roast now and then.”)

“Well, he’s recovering,” said Steve. “We went fishing today, and he slipped in the mud.”

Rose Hart, a retired mail carrier featured in the film, is in the middle of moving her Appalachian Outreach charity, which helps poor people in the state, to an abandoned furniture store from an abandoned supermarket.

Hart had to cancel her April fundraiser, which was to bring in $12,000. “That’s a big hole to plug,” she told me. “I’m trying to get people to commit to quarterly donations but it’s tough.” In addition, other charities she works with around the region, including one fixing homes damaged by the 2016 flood, have had to cease activities, she said.

You can contact Rose or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.

She’s most worried about her three female employees, all of whom have children. “With the schools closing, that means they have to find child care if they want to come to work,” she said.

Rose said she’s been battling a sinus infection but doctors told her it wasn’t Covid-19 and gave her antibiotics. “I had an infection from a surgery last year,” said Rose. “I know I’m vulnerable.”

John W. Miller

STAY-AT-HOME SALE: Rent ‘Moundsville’ Documentary for $2.99, Buy for $5.99

 

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Coronavirus quarantine means we’re all prisoners.

If you haven’t seen Moundsville yet, or want to show your support for independent filmmakers during a difficult time, we’re making the film available to rent ($2.99) or buy ($5.99) at a reduced price.

Just click on this link.

We hope you enjoy the movie, the biography of a classic American town, and that things get back to normal for you soon.

John W. Miller

‘We Don’t Even Make Baseballs’ Anymore — New Political Opera ‘The Last American Hammer’ Nails Working-Class America’s Pain

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Timothy Mix as Milcom Negley, and Antonia Botti-Lodovico as Dee Dee Reyes in the Pittsburgh Opera production of ‘The Last American Hammer’

What to do in America when the America you know vanishes?

That’s the question posed by Moundsville (still available here), and by The Last American Hammer, a 2018 opera that made its Pittsburgh debut Saturday night.

I checked out the show and chatted afterwards with librettist Matt Boresi about its origins. Boresi, who describes himself as “one of the only full-time opera librettists,” is the descendant of Italian immigrants from Coal City, Illinois (pop. 5,400), near Chicago, a Midwestern town that, like Moundsville, has fallen on hard times.

Boresi said he had the idea for an opera before the 2016 election, and teamed up with composer Peter Hilliard to write The Last American Hammer. “We could already see the civil disruption, things falling apart,” he told me. During the Trump presidency, it seems even more topical, he conceded: “People ask me if I wrote it this morning.” It’s smart, provocative political satire, an opera easily digestible at 90 minutes, and I recommend seeing it at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, where it will play February 25 and 28, and March 1.

Boresi set the opera in a small town near Akron, Ohio, and made his hero an angry would-be right-wing militant vigilante named Milcom Negley. The sense of place is strong, especially in the language, for example when Negley croons, in perfect Ohioese: “This is some bullshit.” There are jokes about sauerkraut balls, a local delicacy.  The characters describe a downtown hollowed out “by big boxes”, and a geography of taverns and dollar stores. “There are no more dances at the VFW.”

Negley used to work at a hammer factory. (Last year, I profiled one of the actual last hammer factories in the U.S., in Wheeling, WV, for Postindustrial Magazine.) Negley’s plant is closed now. He’s holed himself up in a museum full of old ceramic jugs shaped like people, conversing with the owner Tink Enraught, herself a left-wing domestic terrorist in the 1970s. She built the museum with money her dad got from selling the hammer factory. Negley’s behavior is alarming, and Enraught has called the FBI. Agent Dee Dee Reyes arrives, and the three archetypical characters carry on a poetic, poignant, and often very funny conversation about the state of America, which includes quips about TED Talks, and Google and Youtube. The libretto would work as a play.

At the heart of Negley’s frustration is the decline of the factory job. “We don’t make a goddamned thing in this country anymore.” Not even baseballs. “Little red wagons get put together by tiny yellows hands in big red countries.” The root cause of Negley’s pain is economic: Losing his job has unmoored him.

“You’re wounded because you’re falling through the cracks of society,” agent Reyes tells Negley, who hits back with pained pantings. “The American dream is the most powerful myth in history,” he sings. “The idea that anybody can do anything. How appealing. You’d trade an awful lot to keep a dream like that alive.”

In a clever twist, Negley the militiaman complains about foreign interference — at a time when most right-wing libertarian types find themselves cheering Russia’s support of President Trump. More specifically, Negley’s conspiratorial beef is that the country abandoned an earlier version of the 13th amendment, which would have banned “any American citizen from receiving any foreign title of nobility or receiving foreign favors, such as a pension, without congressional approval” on pain of losing citizenship. There really are 13th amendment truthers, Boresi explained.

As an America based on a post-World War Two prosperous middle class and solid democratic habits transitions into something else, we’re facing no small amount of chaos and pain.

So what is next for the Negleys of this country?

In Moundsville, and as James and Deborah Fallows describe in their book Our Towns, the landscape vacated by one kind of society has opened opportunities to build another. There is hope. And life after the factory; it’ll just be a lot different.

But in Negley’s world, as he puts it: “When you’re holding the last American hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

John W. Miller

‘American Factory’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary – The Rust Belt Doc’s Essential Lessons About America, China, Unions, and Global Capitalism – Why We Need To Keep Telling These Stories

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‘America Factory’, the 2019 documentary about a glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, won the best feature documentary award at last night’s Oscars.

The film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground company and available on Netflix, is a masterpiece in observational journalism. It’s the second year in a row that a documentary about the Midwest got nominated for an Oscar, after‘Mind the Gap’ in 2019, a stunning skateboarding memoir by Bing Liu.

The success of both movies, like the acquisition of ‘Moundsville’ by PBS distributor NETA, and James and Deb Fallows’ “Our Towns” book and coming HBO film, shows the appetite for reported storytelling — not related to presidential campaigns and elections — about former industrial America as it transitions away from lucrative manufacturing toward an undetermined future — both promising and scary — that is not as industrially wealthy, has lots of opportunities for life and rebirth, and is challenged by automation, aging population, brain drain and opioid addiction.

I had seen it before but I watched ‘American Factory’ again on Monday during my lunch break. You should, too.

The backstory is the winds of global trade and capitalism. For over a decade, Chinese investors have been shopping in Europe and the U.S. for companies to acquire so they could manufacture closer to the markets where they were selling.  Since Beijing embraced state-sponsored capitalism after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, it’s invited integration with the industrial West. When I reported for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels, I accompanied a Chinese CEO on what was basically a shopping trip. Over a meal, he casually mentioned he would be happy to spend tens of billions of dollars on buying a “top-three European food company.”

The particular incarnation recounted in ‘American Factory’ is the fate of a glass-making plant in Dayton, Ohio. It used to belong to GM. Now it’s been acquired by China’s Fuyao.

What makes the film so great, I think, is the access Bognar and Reichert negotiated with Fuyao, with the help of Chinese filmmakers. In the manner of prize-winning journalism, it channels a lucid, conscience-raising vision of what’s actually happening.

GM can’t make money off the factory. Chinese investors think they can. The workplace cultures, forged by history and business practice, are radically different. The Chinese firm pays its employees under $15 an hour, half the GM rate, and expect total unrelenting devotion. They dismiss concepts like work-life balance and fight unions.

Below the forces driving investment and acquisition of capital are people doing their best to survive. Just like in ‘Moundsville’, the characters in ‘American Factory’ are surfing forces beyond their control.

In China, companies and workers were formed by authoritarian socialist rule, followed by a giant leap into capitalism, managed by the state. Western companies were happy to come calling, helping Beijing negotiate trade deals and join the WTO, and jacking up profits by moving their production to China.

In America, business culture was formed by a post-World War Two boom that invited unionization and lifted generations out of the Depression into the middle class, followed by a sharper focus on profits and returning value to shareholders.

As in any colonial enterprise, cultures clash. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” an American manager tells workers, as he offers three shifts, with a “30-minute unpaid lunch” and two paid 15-minute breaks.

The Chinese manager lecturing his Chinese charges who’ve moved to Ohio to work educates them.  “America is a place to let your personality run free,” he says. “You’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” Other lessons: “They are very obvious.” “They don’t hide anything.” “Everything is practical and realistic.” “They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.”

There is sweetness in these efforts to understand, and the best attempts at connecting, like when an American worker invites Chinese migrants to his house to check out his handguns and eat turkey with all the trimmings.

In Ohio, they’re enduring the reality that their slice of the planet has become a little bit poorer, and that the 1950s are not coming back. What’s next for Dayton and other similar places in the Midwest? Universal Basic Income? Tourism? Tech? Stronger unions? I don’t know but everything needs to be on the table and the truth must light the way; we need to keep sharing stories like ‘American Factory.’

John W. Miller

Moundsville 2020: “We’re Doing Great, Thanks to Trump” — Former Mayor Remke Loves the President, Fox News, and Supports “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson” in 2024

As “Moundsville” heads to PBS stations around the country, we’re starting a new series of features on this blog around the election. We don’t talk about politics in the film, but it is an election year, and Moundsville is a good place to check in on Trump country, with, hopefully, as much accuracy and nuance as possible. We’ll talk to characters in the film and others, on all sides of the debate. First up is Phil Remke, who opens and closes the film. Remke is no longer mayor, but he’s still on city council and he was keen to show off new construction. We met at Bob’s Diner, and then he drove me around town. 

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Phil Remke

Underlying the Senate’s certain acquittal of President Trump is a floor of support from Republican voters around the country that seems impossible to erode.

Phil Remke is one of them. He’s not changing his mind. “The president is a businessman and he’s doing a great job,” he told me when we sat down for coffee. “This impeachment thing is ridiculous. I haven’t seen any facts.”

Phil gets most of his national news from Fox. He also watches NBC, CBS and ABC, but not CNN, which “needs to look deeper into the issues as I believe Fox does.” Until Fox changes its approach or other media companies figure out ways of reaching people like Remke, Trump will reign in Moundsville. (In 2016, 73% of voters in the county voted for the president, compared to 23% for Hillary Clinton.)

Remke’s perception of good times rolls on two things: the stock market, and shiny new local construction. Moundsville has a new Holiday Inn with 123 rooms, its second chain hotel. The market for beds is strong, thanks to the gas industry and a possible plastic-making plant that might get build across the river in Ohio. The other is the Sleep Inn, with 75 rooms. If the plastics plant gets built across the river in Ohio, a new Marriott will get built, too, said Remke. There’s a new bank under construction. And a spectacular new high school football stadium that cost over $5 million. 

“We’re doing well, thanks to Trump,” said Remke. “He’s doing everything he said he would do, and everybody’s doing better in the stock market, everybody’s saying that.”

No president should be above the law, said Remke, “but I don’t think Trump has broken any laws, at least not that I’ve seen from watching the news.” The former mayor believes in democracy. “I believe everyone has the right to their own opinion without fighting,” he said. “That’s the way it should be in the greatest county in the world.”

You can’t overstate the role Fox News plays in the cultural and political lives of people in Moundsville. With newspapers shrinking in their availability and influence, it’s Fox, almost alone, that feeds people the national narratives they carry to their dinner tables, commutes, golf courses, voting booths, and reporters who show up at Bob’s Diner asking questions. The loop doesn’t crack.

On a big screen in the McDonald’s where sources often ask to meet me for coffee, the station plays all day. “You go into people’s homes and they’re always watching Fox,” Father That Son Nguyen told me when I stopped by the town’s Catholic Church, where Remke worships. (He also attends a nondenominational church on Sunday mornings, which “works hard to bring God into the picture for the younger people”. In a follow-up text message, Remke wrote that he is “a Catholic and always will be” although he doesn’t “believe everything that is done in the Catholic faith is correct.” Without God, he wrote, “we are nothing.”) Fox “validates what people believe, especially religious beliefs,” said Susan Board, who works at the church.

Here’s how powerful Fox is: Remke speaks of its anchors as if they were national leaders. When I asked him who he would support in the 2024 election, Remke said he would like “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson”. Of the other Republican politicians, Remke said “they just don’t have the guts, the toughness we need right now.”

Remke’s boosterism lies on top of some harsh realities Moundsville still faces. The population is still aging. Opioids are killing people. Facing low prices, gas companies have been laying off workers. The hotels are owned by out-of-town chain operators and will create mostly low-paying jobs for people in Moundsville. The town’s unemployment rate is 6%, higher than the national average. There are 30 gambling joints in Moundsville, with slot machines and other games. Remke is trying to shut them down: “People don’t have the money to spend on that stuff, and we need to help people.”

And then there’s the demographic challenge. “We need more young people down here,” said Board. “It’s still a great community for people to live.”

John W. Miller

‘Moundsville’ Acquired by PBS Distributor Ahead of 2020 Election — Will Screen On Up to 338 PBS Stations Serving 100 Million Viewers

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Moundsville was a dream that Dave Bernabo and I had to tell an inclusive story about America after the 2016 election. We got a small grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council and spent 2018 traveling to Moundsville, shooting and editing. From start to finish, it was a two-man job. The film got great reviews, and we spent much of 2019 promoting and screening the movie everywhere from Moundsville itself and WVU in Morgantown to America Magazine in New York and United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and talking and writing about it. This blog, with stories on George Brett, Lady Gaga and Brad Paisley (all with roots near Moundsville), economic development, Appalachian books, characters in the movie, and much else, attracted a following of over 50,000 unique visitors and 65,000 views.

We weren’t sure what would happen next. Last month, we got a call from Angee Simmons, the new director of content at NETA, an organization that supplies 338 PBS stations around the country. Moundsville, she said, was in a stack submitted almost a year ago. It had fallen through the cracks. But she had watched it and loved it, and now she wanted to screen it on PBS.

Finally, we had a next. It’s not clear how many stations will pick it up, and how many people will watch it over the next three years. It could be hundreds of stations and millions of people. Or zero. But I’m beyond thrilled and proud that our little project is finally entering the big ring, and will have a shelf life in the culture of this country ahead of the 2020 election. Simply, I hope it helps people understand and listen to each other better.

Below, I’m pasting the full press release that’s going out to media this week.

John W. Miller

PRESS RELEASE

MOUNDSVILLE ACQUIRED BY PBS DISTRIBUTOR NETA

–        SCREEN ON UP TO 338 PBS STATIONS OVER NEXT THREE YEARS

–        PLAY FOR AS MANY AS 100 MILLION VIEWERS

–        AVAILABLE ON PBS YOUTUBE CHANEL

–        AHEAD OF 2020 ELECTION, MOUNDSVILLE STIMULATES BETTER CONVERSATIONS AROUND ECONOMICS & POLITICS

–        “FRESH AND VALUABLE” – JAMES FALLOWS, THE ATLANTIC

PITTSBURGH, PA– The National Educational Telecommunications Association and filmmakers David Bernabo and John W. Miller have reached an agreement to distribute the feature documentary film Moundsville to 338 PBS stations around the country over the next three years. The film will be cut to 57 minutes from 74 minutes and close-captioned to suit PBS standards.

Moundsville is the biography of a classic American town, Moundsville, WV, told through the voices of residents. It’s a Trump-supporting town, but there is no mention of Trump or any other national political leader in the film. The story told is a bigger one, from the native American mound the town is named after, to the arrival of the world’s biggest toy factory, to an economy based on Wal-Mart and fracking and a new generation figuring it all out. The goal of the film is affirm the community-building and healing value of shared narrative.

After premiering in Moundsville in December, 2018, the film in 2019 was distributed online, on Vimeo, and screened publicly in New York City, Pittsburgh, and various locations in West Virginia.

Moundsville is an excellent addition to our catalog,” says NETA vice president for content Angee Simmons. “NETA’s program service celebrates local voices and stories from all corners of our country.”

Moundsville “just happens to be home to my favorite childhood toy, The Big Wheel, and unbeknownst to me the largest indigenous burial mound in the country,” says Simmons. “But more importantly is told with a lot of heart from the people who call it home.  After watching, I knew I wanted to share it with public television audiences.”

“We’re thrilled to find a wider audience for Moundsville,” says co-director John W. Miller. “We want to share the story of a place in a way that affirms the dignity and purpose of all communities in this country, free of the poison of national politics and propaganda.”

Miller and Bernabo filmed Moundsville in 2018 with a grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council

For more information or receive a digital copy of the film, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391 or jmjournalist@gmail.com

John W. Miller

John W. Miller is an award-winning journalist with over 20 years experiences in print, radio, TV and film. As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Miller reported from 45 countries and covered global mining and global trade, elections, trade negotiations, the World Cup and Tour de France. Miller has also reported and written for Time, America, Heated, NPR, Buzzfeed, the Baltimore Sun, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and serves as chief economic analyst of Trade Data Monitor. Moundsville is his first movie.

David Bernabo

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull, Watererer, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger. Bernabo’s films have screened at the On Art Film Festival, JFilm Festival, Re:NEW Festival, Afronaut(a) Film Club, the Foodable Film Festival, and on WQED’s Filmmakers Corner.

The National Educational Telecommunications Association

The NETA Program Service distributes quality documentaries and specials to 338 public television stations across the country. With our member stations and independent producers as our partners, we celebrate diverse voices and unique perspectives representing every state in the country and share those stories with a national audience.

 

World Series Special: George Brett’s West Virginia Birth and the American Dream — Moundsville and Glen Dale Claim “Throwback” Hall of Fame Third Baseman

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It’s day one of the World Series, one of this country’s superior inventions, a good time to remind you that one of baseball’s greatest ever players was born in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the hamlet that forms a twin town with Moundsville. (Movie still available here.)

George Brett is the most accomplished of the 120 Major League Baseball players born in West Virginia, who include Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski and Toby Harrah, and a couple of 19th century greats, Jack Glasscock and Jesse Burkett.

The Hall of Fame third baseman played 21 years with the Kansas City Royals. In 1993, he retired with 3,154 hits, most ever by a third baseman, and 317 homeruns. In 1980, Brett hit .390, flirting with a mythical .400 batting average. Maybe even more impressive: He homered 24 times and struck out only 22 times. He won a World Series with the 1985 Royals, and famously beat the Yankees in 1983 with a game-winning homerun with a bat loaded with pine tar.

“A throwback to an earlier time, Brett favored pine tar over batting gloves, chewing tobacco over bubble gum, and cold beer over weightlifting,” reads his Society for American Baseball Research bio.

How Brett came to be born in West Virginia reflects the prosperous movement of Americans in the 20th century, from war to peace and play, cities to suburbs, and toil in the crowded east to comfort in the big western sun.

George Brett’s father Jack was born in Brooklyn in 1923. His dad worked on Wall Street. Jack “quit high school and went to work in a factory in a very large machine shop,” he told Brett biographer John Garrity, author of The George Brett Story.

And when I was eighteen the war came along and I joined the army, and I was in the army until 1945. I had been wounded– shot in the leg in France. They said, ‘What you should do is go to school and learn something.’ So I went to Pace College in New York and got a degree in business administration. Got through by the skin of my teeth.

“George was born in West Virginia,” Jack Brett said. “Two towns claim George. We really lived in Glen Dale, West Virginia. The next town down the road, about two miles, was Moundvsville had the daily newspaper. But he was really born in Glen Dale.”

Shortly after that, the family moved to California, where Brett played football and baseball at El Segundo high school in suburban Los Angeles. (One teammate: future Baltimore Orioles lefty Scott McGregor.)  The Royals selected him in the second round, with the 29th overall pick, in the 1971 draft. According to SABR:

Because Brett still had some baby fat around his midsection, many scouts passed on him. Even some of the scouts for the expansion Kansas City Royals were skeptical. However, scouts Tom Ferrick and Rosey Gilhousen saw Brett as a diamond in the rough. Gilhousen pushed the hardest for the Royals to draft Brett, basing his assessment on the intangibles of desire, instincts, and aggressiveness. He persuaded the Royals vice president for player personnel, Lou Gorman, to see Brett in action during a high-school game.

In California, the family lived at the ballpark. “With all four of them playing baseball from Little League on to high school and American Legion ball, his dad always followed Ken more,” his mother said. “If there were conflicting games, I always followed George.”

Brett’s dad was a tough customer, according to Garrity:

More than once, George has told this story: how he struck out twice in one game, and endured that short but painful drive up Mariposa Street with a silent, furious Jack Brett behind the wheel. “I remember I got out of the car in my uniform, my head banging,” George says, “and the next thing I felt was a foot coming right my ass! For embarrassing the family.” Brett shakes his head and smiles wanly. “That’s probably where I got my hemorrhoids.”

Of his father, Brett says, “he used to steal cars. He used to get in a lot of scrapes. I think he just didn’t want us to be like him.” As Garrity describes, Brett senior mellowed, the relationship healed, and George grew up to become one of the game’s all-time greats.

The book, published in 1981 and hard to track down, is a spirited trip through 1970s and 1980s baseball. Garrity relates the anecdotes of Brett’s mom visiting and doing “fifteen loads” of his laundry, and the ballplayer’s legendary carousing as one of America’s most famous bachelors with teammates Jamie Quirk and Clint Hurdle.

One night, the three bachelors went partying in Kansas, all in the same car– unusual, Hurdle says, because, “You don’t wanta depend on one of those guys for a ride” — and Brett found a date and went off with her. Hurdle and Quirk got back to the house at four in the morning, drunk, and discovered they had no key to the front door. And Brett was not at home, either. “We said, the hell with it,” Hurdle laughs. “I put my shoes up on the doorstep and slept on the lawn. A neighbor lady came out at about six thirty in the morning and asked if we wanted to come in the house.” Hurdle snorts. “There was dew all over us.”

Did such antics constitute a public nuisance? Did the neighbors complain? Hurdle shakes his head. “Everybody loved George.”

Brett was also famous for this incident, related in the SABR bio:

On May 15, 1980, Brett’s 27th birthday, the Royals were 16-14 while enjoying an offday. In lieu of a ballgame it was the nationally televised Miss USA Beauty Pageant that had fans in Kansas City cheering. The contest’s “Miss New York,” Debra Sue Maurice, informed host Bob Barker that she was dating George Brett. Brett, who tried to downplay his long reputation of being a ladies’ man, was caught off-guard by her statement. He acknowledged having had a few dates with Miss Maurice but nothing more serious than that.

Brett, now an older and wiser married father of three, remains beloved in Kansas City, where his number is retired, he’s still involved with the team, and he can look back on a great and colorful American life that started in the West Virginia northern panhandle.

John W. Miller

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Burning Under: Why You Should Read Tom Bennitt’s Grisham-Style Coal Mining Thriller to Understand Rust Belt Geography

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Tom Bennitt

Last month, I was driving by White Whale, Pittsburgh’s best independent bookstore, noticed a sign for an author reading, parked, and walked in to listen to Tom Bennitt, a young Western Pennsylvania novelist reading from his first book. (Bonus: Stewart O’Nan, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame novelist and a mentor to Bennitt, moderated.)

Burning Under (which you can buy here) is a 182-page thriller about a young lawyer — Bennitt’s alter ego — who investigates a deadly accident at one of his company’s coal mines. In his fight for justice, he faces down the miner’s evil tycoon owners and allies himself with coal miners and their families.

What I loved about the book was — and why it’s worth mentioning on a blog about a movie about a small town — is how precisely Bennitt nails all the different geographical spaces of this part of the country, from coal mine and decaying industrial town to gentrifying city street and rich suburb.

Bennitt is from Butler, PA, a town of roughly 13,000, much like Moundsville (and you can still see our documentary film here), and the writer is sensitive to the tapestry of towns, cities and suburbs, interstates, rivers and two-lane roads, and farms, mines and gas wells that covers America between New York and Chicago.

Pitch-perfect descriptions serve the telling of the story, as characters drift from one locale to another; as the 2020 election evolves, they’re a valuable addition to the conversation about so-called Trump country. The hinterlands are not a monolith. There’s endless variety out here, in places and in people.

Visiting his hometown, based loosely on Butler, Simon, the protagonist, drives “past the empty Woolworth’s building, Phat Matt’s Tattoos, the Elks Lodge, and Thompson’s Funeral Home.”

Once a vibrant town of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, today it was a strange mix of churches and bars. Another notch along the rust belt. Some meth house had sprung up on the edge of town. There were a few Amish communities in the western part of the county, but they weren’t hardcore Amish: you’d see them at Wal-Mart, or eating Blizzards outside Dairy Queen.

The suburbs are endlessly diverse in income and appearance. Simon visits a friend who works at The Parlor, a high-end furniture store in a sprawling McMansion neighborhood: “Framed by large white columns, the store’s exterior had a Southern antebellum aesthetic.”

These were not homes, they were estates, flanked by mature trees and big yards. Some orthopedic surgeons lived back here. She wanted to peek inside their homes and see what happiness looked like. On Saxonburg Road, more modest ranch houses. Steeler flags on porches and Support the Troops ribbons on mailboxes. She passed that creepy old house on the bluff with the basement window light one. Home to a squatter, maybe, but she pictured something more depraved, like a surgeon cutting up young girls.

On one trip out of town, he drives through another kind of suburb.

He gazed out the window as the bus chugged up Route 8, past a glass factory and The North Park Lounge, once a great watering hole before it turned into another cheesedick sports bar. They passed Hilliard’s Truck Sales and the Chevy dealership, owned by the McConnell Brothers: two high school football legends who played at Notre Dame. Almost home, he thought, as the bus raced down Armco Hill and crossed Hansen Avenue Bridge.

Big cities are prospering again, thanks to hospitals, universities and tech companies.

Pittsburgh: The Steel City. The City of Bridges. The Paris of Appalachia. During the French & Indian War, it was a tiny frontier outpost called Fort Duquesne. When British troops invaded, the French decided to burn their own fort, rather than surrender it to their enemy Simon admired the purity and passion of their hatred. But Pittsburgh today looked far different. Since the turn of the century, the city had greened itself – cleaning rivers, erasing industrial blight – and transitioned from a blue-collar steel town to a center of finance.

Young, wealthy white-collar workers are moving into offices and buying real estate, a gentrification Bennitt captures in a succinct paragraph, when a character cuts

through East Liberty. A century ago, home to steel barons. Now Section Eight housing and vacant buildings. Recently, they’d built a Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, part of the urban renewal project, and a row of colorful town homes. On Negley avenue, church was letting out. Black families, dressed in colorful suits and dresses.

And outside the city, there’s also the farmland, whose soil is plowed, mined or fracked, depending on current technology and the demands of the global economy.

Passing into Seneca County, she whizzed by the mushroom farm, picking up the same foul odor that clung to her skin during the summer she worked there. She remembered the cold dark tunnels and helmet lamps, crouched over the mushroom trays, slicing the stems with a paring knife. She crested a hill and glimpsed a fracking well above the tree line.

And finally, there’s the coal mine — an economic engine of towns for the last 150 years.

The Sarver Mine was one of the last underground mines in Pennsylvania. Most companies had switched over to strip mining, using machines – rippers and hydraulic shovels – instead of human labor. Sometimes the land above would subside, and some old farmer would have to be compensated for the damage, but this method was still cheaper than underground mining. And while strip mining could not be considered eco-friendly, it was child’s play compared to the mountaintop removal mining – scalping the tops of mountains with gigantic dozers and front-loaders – done in West Virginia and Kentucky. Down there nothing was sacred.

In an interview last year, Bennitt describes his emphasis on place:

I think setting is an underrated craft tool in fiction, and I admire writers who describe place with vivid, sensory details. Burning Under is firmly rooted in western Pennsylvania. It’s a unique ecosystem, physically and culturally, that includes the Rust Belt, the coal mining region, rolling farmland, mountains, and deep river valleys. I grew up in Butler, a steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, in the eighties and early nineties. I also lived and worked in Pittsburgh for six years (2004-09.)

Most people know about the new-and-improved Pittsburgh, yet the Rust Belt is misunderstood. There’s a pretty sharp divide. If you drive along the Ohio or Monongahela Rivers, you still see a lot of empty Main Streets and rusted-out mills. In the novel, the (fictional) town of Millburg captures the pulse of the Rust Belt, or I hope so.

The changing geographic quilt Bennitt describes is the result, mostly, of forceful economic change that lies beyond the control of people doing their best to earn their bread, enjoy their ballgames and beer, and rear their families. We’d all be well-deserved to be as careful and precise as he is in noting the reality of, and differences between, all these different places.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Taj Mahal of Appalachia’ — West Virginia’s Hare Krishna Temple Named To National Register of Historic Places Has Crazy, Fascinating History– Known for Drugs and Murder in 1980s

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Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban, near Moundsville, WV

A Hare Krishna temple in the hills of West Virginia?

When people see Moundsville (which you can here), the Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban always surprises. Last week it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Hare Krishna site, a few miles from downtown Moundsville, is one of the more extraordinary you’ll see in West Virginia, well worth making part of any trip to the area, , and still a sacred space for Krishna followers. Walk around the grounds and admire the gold leaf roof, and, on the inside, marble floors, ornate stained-glass windows and art collections.

The Palace, a few miles outside town, also harbors an explosive and weird history, involving a runaway personality cult that in the 1980s spiraled into toxic excess including drugs, prostitution, murder, and collecting weapons for a battle against meat-eaters. (We didn’t have time in the film to tell this part of the story, but it’s nutty and fascinating, and worth digging into.)

In 1970s hippie America, Krishna devotees embraced the religion’s principles of abstinence from worldly pleasures, community and vegetarianism. Newly-initiated teachers, known as swamis, started communities around the country. (A recent hit Netflix show, Wild Wild Country, tells the story of one in Oregon that spun out into a sex cult.)

Swami Bhaktipada — born Keith Gordon Ham, son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in upstate New York — went looking for a bucolic hidden kingdom near the East Coast to start a temple and community. He found available land in West Virginia, raised money, some of it fraudulently, and ordered that his followers build a temple for the movement.

Devotees flocked to this pristine retreat on top of a hill in this quiet corner of Appalachia. By the 1980s, New Vrindaban had over 500 followers– and an elephant. Tourism boomed. It was working. Heaven on earth.

Things fell apart.

According to former members, Bhaktipada slowly built a personality cult, funded by illegal activities including alleged drug running and prostitution, and enforced by violence. Schemes to raise money included fraudulently selling “bumper stickers and caps bearing the names of football and baseball teams without permission.”

The wider Krishna community blacklisted New Vrindaban. Things were getting crazy. As the 1988 book Monkey on a Stick, by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, recounts:

[Bhaktipada]’s devotees carried him on a jeweled palanquin, knelt when he passed and, while he barked orders, worked 14-hour days without pay to build him a temple of marble, onyx and 24-karat gold leaf. They also built an arsenal of illegal weapons to defend the community from attack by karmis (meat-eating barbarians – i.e., anyone who was not a member of the movement).

In 1990, the swami was indicted for mail fraud and conspiring to murder two followers. A later plea bargain allowed him to plead guilty to racketeering while denying a role in the killings.

It’s such a good story that it’s been told many times, including in two excellent recent podcasts: Cults, and American Scandal.

In 1998, the Hare Krishna community reintegrated a rehabilitated New Vrindaban in its ranks. A small community lingers, with only around 100 members, although many practitioners visits occasionally.

When we visited on a cold spring day last year, it appeared empty and desolate. Members declined a request for an interview.

Its dark history aside, it’s a lovely, peaceful place, which has inspired generations of pilgrims.

In a 2011 essay in the New York Times, writer Rahul Mehta describes the temple as the “Taj Mahal of Appalachia”. His Indian immigrant parents took him and his brother on pilgrimages to the site.

At the commune, we saw white women wearing the very saris I begged my mother not to wear to my school functions. We saw Americans chanting ecstatically in the same Sanskrit I deliberately garbled and mumbled under my breath during my family’s weekly pujas at home. When my parents tried to send my brother and me to summer camp there, we refused. When they considered renting a cabin by the commune’s lake, we protested. Our classmates spent summers inner tubing on the river. Why couldn’t we do that? Why couldn’t we be more like them?

Although they hated it — they wanted to become more American, not wax nostalgic about India — Mehta describes softening his views about those family visits.

It makes me smile now to remember how miserable my brother and I were at New Vrindaban. We might not have even gotten out of the car were it not for one thing: the gold leaf that covered the palace. We’d heard it was real gold. So we would walk around staring at the marble floors, hoping we’d glimpse a glimmer, a flake forgotten somewhere in a corner, something precious we could secret into our pockets and take back home. We weren’t so different from our parents, then, after all. What the temple gave them wasn’t much, a day trip, now and then. But at a time when there was so much about America to make them feel lonely and insignificant, New Vrindaban made them feel rich.

Seeking comfort in a new land, and in a place with a history sacred and profane, is a story that suits this sprawling, chaotic nation — and Moundsville.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

Why Lady Gaga in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ Musical Would Be Perfect Homage to West Virginia/Appalachia Roots

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Lady Gaga

The news that Lady Gaga is being considered for the role of Audrey in a new Hollywood remake of Little Shop of Horrors should delight her fans in West Virginia. (A quick reminder: Gaga’s mom Cynthia Bissett grew up in Glen Dale, Moundsville’s adjacent twin town. You can still watch our film Moundsville here.)

Little Shop is one of the greatest musicals ever made. The Great American Musical, maybe; the story of a lonely loser named Seymour who works in a flower shop in a downtrodden American city (New York City in the film– but these days, maybe Butler or Wheeling?), and dreams of a romance with a goofy blonde named Audrey — who Lady Gaga would play — who dreams of living “somewhere that’s green.”

A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link, 
A grill out on the patio 
Disposal in the sink

That possibility becomes real when Seymour discovers a carnivorous Venus flytrap-like plant that feeds on blood and flesh– and talks and sings. The smart plant becomes a sensation, attracting crowds and TV crews, and making Seymour rich and successful.

But this money-spinning natural resource can’t be contained; Seymour must feed the plant human flesh to keep it alive. In the Broadway ending, the plant wins and plots to take over the earth. (The movie version has a happier ending, where the plant dies.)

The show began as a low-budget 1960 cult horror film, then became  a huge hit as a Broadway musical in the 1980s. Frank Oz remade it into a movie in 1986, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, which is how I discovered it.

80sThen80sNow@80sThen80sNow

DEVELOPING STORY:
Lady Gaga Rumored For Audrey Role in WBs Remake of “Little Shop of Horrors.”@ladygaga

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Lady Gaga’s luscious mezzo-soprano tones make her perfect to incarnate Audrey– but also because it would also suit her West Virginia origins. The show is a parable for American capitalism, and for the Mountain State and its complicated relationship with exploiting natural resources, about lower-middle class people striving to achieve escape velocity from their humble roots, and dreaming of white-picket fence material prosperity.

On their way up, they have to confront the price of their ascent: The path to riches is exploiting a natural resource — the plant — which is destructive, and potentially murderous. Can they get there without losing their souls?

As Seymour sings:

My future’s starting, I’ve got to let it
Stick with that plant and gee
My bank account will thrive
What am I saying? No way! Forget it!
It’s much too dangerous to keep the plant alive
I take these offers
That means more killing
Who knew success would come with
Messy, nasty strings?
I sign these contracts
That means I’m willing
To keep on doing bloody, awful, evil things!

The tension between material riches and their cost underlies our economy and the choices we make as a society. It’s also the story of America, a vast land colonized, cleared, farmed, mined, smelted and manufactured into the world’s richest-ever superpower– at a price.

(Also, most importantly: Little Shop has the best tunes!)

In any case, I can’t wait for this movie to be made — hopefully starring Lady Gaga!

John W. Miller