Monday, November 27, 2006


(December, 2001) “You got the day off for what?!”
Yes, once again I had to explain to someone not of this area why I get a day off to chase deer through the woods (if the school district and state hadn’t crossed wires this year).
I have mixed feelings about this business of hunting down Bambi’s extended family. On the one hand, I don’t have a lot of personal interest in hunting. The prospect of getting up early in the morning so that I can go out and crouch in the woods, cold muscles bunched up and cramping, waiting for the small chance to blow a hole in a furry woodland creature that is about as threatening as Big Bird—well, I can’t say that the whole thing has a lot of appeal for me. On top of that, I’m not a big fan of veal (though deer baloney is pretty tasty stuff when prepared properly).
Of course, I’m not the one to point fingers at odd recreational activities. I spent the summer getting up early so that I could start the day by seeing how fast I could run a few miles in order to end up, sweaty and sore, exactly where I started. Really, there are plenty of sports that don’t hold up well under close, rational observation.
I don’t buy the “logical” arguments in favor of hunting. My favorite is the old “thinning the herd” idea. Not that I disagree with the need to control the deer population, but if that were really our goal, there are better ways to pursue it. A few well-placed patrols of off-season snow-plows could control the herd size pretty efficiently.
No, “controlling deer population” is an argument designed to appeal to city folks. It encourages them to think of deer as giant rats, or cockroaches, only with big round eyes.
City dwellers reject arguments like the idea that hunting is a sport that brings humans into a sort of connection with nature. How can that be, they ask, when the whole object is to kill an animal?
That’s the kind of question that you get from folks whose understanding of nature is based on the work of that great naturalist, Walt Disney. In nature, violent death followed by the chewing and digesting of one’s fellow creature is a fairly normal occurrence. In fact, oddly enough, the novel that Disney’s Bambi is based upon features violent death in the animal kingdom prominently.
At least some animal rights activists are consistent. People who oppose the “brutal and barbaric” sport of hunting but still enjoy chowing down on a hamburger confuse me. What exactly is the belief system here? Killing a captive animal is more humane than killing one that has a chance to get away? Beef and pork are okay because they come from animals that are not very cute? Perhaps they just don’t know better, and assume that Big Macs come from a happy tree somewhere. After all, we’ve never actually seen Ronald McDonald butcher a cow.
But even though other animal rights supporters are more consistent in their opposition to eating anything that ever had a pulse, I still can’t really get on their side of things. Animals are not people; people are not animals. This seems pretty simple to me. And while I’ll admit that, philosophically, I’m not quite ready to say exactly where that line between human and animal should be drawn, I have no doubt that I’m on one side of it and Bambi and Bossie are on the other.
I like the idea that hunting cuts the middleman out of the food chain. So few of us actually gather our own food any more. Once upon a time, collecting enough food to avoid starvation was a major human activity. Nowadays too many humans don’t even know where their food comes from. So I think hunting keeps an important chunk of human experience alive and in the world, like continuing to perform the works of Mozart long after his death.
Yes, I know. Some “hunters” misrepresent the sport terribly. When I think about hunting in its best sense, I’m not imagining a dangerously drunk city dweller with a firearm in his hand. Not everyone plays Mozart well, either, but that doesn’t mean his music stinks.
Animal rights activists seem to accept the modern misconception that humans are not part of nature. I think hunting in some small way helps correct that misconception. My grandfather was a hunter. Late in his life, hunting for him meant traveling to places accessible only by seaplane, hunting animals bigger than SUV’s, guided by men who had only vague knowledge of things like indoor plumbing. Seems to me that it was better tonic for him than any trip to Disneyland would have been.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


I turned up another blog loosely related to Venangoland. David Lavery is an Oil City native and a Venango-Clarion product who is now a professor of Media Stuff in London. His recently-launched blog includes some reflections on his English teachers over the years (not happy times at OCHS, sad to say). He has an interesting publishing history as well.

You can find him at

Thursday, November 23, 2006


(News-Herald, November 23) Thanksgiving is a special holiday. It is one of the few holidays that is truly American and totally devoted to our national heritage; at the same time, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect and appreciate the many gifts for which we should be grateful.
But most of all, it’s a chance to eat.
Fourth of July and Memorial Day are for parades. Christmas is for presents, and New Years is for drunken excess (or solitary sulking). Easter is still blessedly religious and Halloween is for teaching small children the fine art of extortion. The rest of our holidays are either mired in controversy (Columbus—hero or imperialist running dog?) or neglect (Presidents Day is in February, right?).
Only Thanksgiving is devoted to eating. So let’s do it properly. Here are your basic Thanksgiving meal instructions.
Turkey only for Thanksgiving dinner. Type is unimportant—you can serve a farm-bred mutant bird with a pop-up thermometer surgically implanted in its side, or some free-range anti-establishment hippy turkey that never held an honest job. You may not serve ham. And some kind of not-meat substitute tofu turkey is also forbidden. I realize that vegetarians, vegans, semi-veggies, and anti-meatites have the best of intentions, but I personally am proud to live at the top of the food chain, and on Thanksgiving I intend to honor my Puritan ancestors who managed not to get eaten. (Lets give thanks for the top of the food chain.)
You may warm up for dinner with a parade, though it’s advisable to watch with the mute button handy. Parade announcing is a difficult art to master. At least, I assume it’s difficult, because hardly anyone can do it well. One would think that high-paid network professional talking heads would be able to master this simple formula: 1) Give name of group. 2) Mention one useful fact. 3) Shut up. And especially be quiet when it’s time to hear the marching bands (Let’s give thanks for the marching bands.)
The turkey should be accompanied by some foodal accessories.
Stuffing is a must. Storebought mixes are allowable if you mix in your own fresh onions, a little garlic, and assorted herbs. I don’t see the need for anything nutlike, but it’s allowable. You can do the whole thing from scratch if you like—bake your own stale bread and rip it up personally. Just do it discretely; nobody likes a show-off.
Just about any vegetable is okay, even those funny mixed vegetable conglomerates. Potatoes can be little baked ones or all mashed up—my own family tradition is to make almost-mashed potatoes (boil potatoes, dice, start mashing, quit two minutes before they would actually be smoothly mashed up). As much as I like rice, it has no place at this dinner.
Dinner should include Something Special. My family is fond of cranberry relish, made of cranberries and various other vegetable matter run through a hand-cranked meat grinder quite possibly used by the original Pilgrims. The taste runs from slightly sweet to so tart it makes people in the next room go “ewwwww!” It must be lumpy. And as for cranberry jelly—well, I don’t even know what that’s for. Decoration? Gluing together your mixed vegetables?
Then there’s the matter of squash. Squash is like arena football, the Home and Garden Channel, or Paris Hilton in a bikini—I can kind of understand why it appeals to some people, but personally I don’t want to have to look at it. (Let’s give thanks for not having dinner with Paris Hilton.)
Then it’s time for dessert.
Dessert should be primarily composed of pies. My Grandmother Binmore made roughly six hundred varieties of pie; all participants were required to have one slice of each, which stretched dessert out for the rest of the day. Outside of my sister-in-law’s clan, I knew few families that can manage that standard.
However the Special Occasion Pie is mince. Mince pie is made, as I understand it, out of mince meat, although mince meat contains no more meat than a tofu turkey. I have no idea what a mince is made of, and I suspect I’m happier that way. I believe the current cost of mince meat is roughly $650 per can-- apparently wild minces are rare and elusive. My grandfather taught me to eat it with a slice of cheese. (Let’s give thanks for the cheese.)
Dessert should be rounded out with a cookie. My cookie experts Thomas and Barbara insist on those holiday favorites, Frosted Fingers. Care should be taken with the Frosted Fingers as they come covered with little flavor jimmies that will roll off and attempt to escape into the carpet where they hope to run free like a tofu turkey or a wild mince. (Let’s give thanks for fingers.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006


(July, 2002) I’ve been working for years on a history of the Franklin Silver Cornet Band. We turn 150 in 2006 and it would be nice to have a reasonably large chunk of our story assembled by then.
In the process of working on the history, I meet lots of interesting people from our community’s past. This week let me introduce you to John E. Butler.
It appears that John was born in the 1850’s. The first trace of him appears in records of the pre-war orphan trains.
The orphan trains are an interesting little footnote in American history. Big eastern cities (primarily NYC) would take their excess orphan and homeless child population and ship it by the trainload to the Midwest, hoping that there would be more families willing to take in these foundlings.
John was born in Galway, Ireland, where his father died. His mother brought him to this country in 1854 and delivered him to an asylum for homeless children. He was loaded onto one of the orphan trains, and it would appear that he never saw his mother again.
John settled in Princeton, Indiana, either in 1857 or 1859. When the Civil War broke out, he was only eleven, too young to enlist as a soldier, so Colonel John T. Wilder recruited John as a drummer boy. His foster father in Princeton had taught him to play the drum.
John served with the 17th Indiana Regiment, which became part of Wilder’s famous “Lightning Brigade.” (As an odd side note, one company of the 17th was the first military group formed in Franklin, Indiana.) They pioneered the use of Spencer rifles in the war; the 17th fought at Shilo, Chattanooga and Chickamauga.
After the war, John eventually settled in Franklin, where he lived for years on the 1100 block of Chestnut Street. In 1897 he founded Marvin Manufacturing Company, and he was the president and general manager of that concern for many years. He also worked on occasion as an oil scout for Standard Oil.
He joined the Franklin Band when he was in his early twenties, probably in 1870. When the band was first officially chartered in 1873, John’s was one of the names on the articles or incorporation.
John was married twice (not uncommon back in the days when people frequently died young). He had a son from his first marriage, John E. Butler, Jr., who moved to Liverpool, Ohio, where his own wife had grown up.
John’s second wife was Cora Rodgers. The same year John started Marvin Manufacturing, they had a son named Willis, who enjoyed a brief career in baseball. Willis played under the name Kid Butler for the St. Louis Browns (who would one day be the Baltimore Orioles). His one professional season was 1907; he played seventeen games out of 155. His batting average was a mere 220, but he played short stop, second base, and third base and had just three errors in his short career.
Willis continued to play minor league ball for several years (he had to take a break while playing for Memphis to recover from malaria); it was during that period that he met a grandson of Confederate General Forrest. Forrest’s grandson, upon learning about Willis’s father, gave Willis a medal to pass on to John. John was proud of that, as he was proud of a photo taken of Willis and pitching phenom Rube Waddell together.
The local paper called John a self-effacing man who preferred to keep his good deeds and honors secret, but against his wishes they published a full account of his return to Princeton in 1916. John was welcomed back to town with a parade and a banquet, and school children turned out in force to see Princeton’s own little drummer boy. The local Sons of Veterans camp changed their name to Camp John E. Butler, and at a reunion of old soldiers, John met a man whom he had taught to play drums while in the army.
In 1917, John’s old commanding officer, John T. Wilder died. That same year Willis enlisted in a unit of athletes and cowboys known as the “Grizzly Bears.” Willis survived the war and lived in California until his death in the 1960’s.
John died in Franklin in May of 1927. He was remembered as a band member, a soldier, and a man who had quietly given much to his community. His is not the sort of life that is celebrated in books, but I have to believe that one could certainly do worse than to live a life like that of John E. Butler.
A PS to this column from a few years back-- while completing the book about the band, I heard from a lady in Princeton who was in the process of writing a children's book about John. Turns out that they still have his drum out there, with a note from him saying that it was the drum he used to play wih the Franklin Silver Cornet Band, "the best band in all of Pennsylvania."

It's some kind of law of historical research-- after you go to press, some really cool lead or bit of information will surface.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


(April, 2002) My attitude about mission statements has been changing.
If you’ve never gone fishing for a mission statement, you’ve really been missing out. Mission statements are frequently generated by some extended group process; Really Important Executives can often milk a mission statement for a full weekend somewhere warm and cozy.
Nowadays the vogue is to start with a vision statement, which is your picture of where your organization would be in a perfect world. It should sound vaguely noble and somehow related to what your organization actually does. “I see us making the best darn widgets in the world for happy, satisfied customers who pay us well” is a good vision statement. “I see myself cashing in some fat stock options on my way to a beach in Bimini” or “I see myself never having to sit through a meeting like this again” are not.
Once that end is in sight, we craft the mission statement. The mission statement tells what your organization is actually supposed to do. “We will serve good inexpensive food cheerfully” is a fine mission statement, as is “We will make cars that don’t suck but cost less than the GNP of Botswana.”
In other words, the mission statement is usually what your customers thought you were supposed to be doing in the first place. A good mission statement is a blindingly clear expression of the obvious. “We will print what happened in our area quickly and accurately in a newspaper.”
True, not all missions are what the customer imagines. For instance, only the na├»ve would continue to believe that the mission of health insurance companies is to help keep their customers healthy, when in fact it seems to be to keep their customers’ money.
I have sat through a few mission statement meetings in my life, and it is hard to escape the feeling that they were, well, kind of dopey. But most organizations really do need a mission statement, because a business of any complexity at all will always have a Department of the Clueless.
The Department of the Clueless is that wing of the organization that just plain does not know what the organization is doing.
In any school district you can find a knot of people who have no idea that schools are made to teach students; these folks find the whole school-teacher-student thing really annoying. If those darn teachers and kids would just stay home, the district would flow much more smoothly.
Business and industry have them, too. In industry, the Department of the Clueless used to commonly reside in the Human Resources department. A good HR department could suck up days of valuable employee time on all sorts of bonding and facilitating and communication enhancement empowermentization that had nothing whatsoever to do with building widgets.
Nowadays the Department of the Clueless may be found in the legal office, where they are convinced that the company’s business is to not do anything that might get them sued. This is why so many customer service departments can’t answer questions; their mission is not to serve customers, but to avoid saying anything that might reappear in court.
The Clueless are the IT people who wish employees would stop trying to use the computers to DO stuff, or the accountants who wish people would stop using office supplies. There’s no shame in a supporting role; not everyone works directly on the front lines. But the best support personnel figure out how they can make the front line workers’ jobs easier; the Clueless ask if you would mind being paid just once annually to streamline their paperwork.
The Clueless can rise to the highest echelons. I’m guessing Herb Baum never glances at a mission statement. The mission of modern execs is not to make oil or toys or soap, but to squeeze money quickly from the company.
Are the Clueless denser than the average bag of rubber mallets, or have they simply forgotten? It can be easy, I suppose, to have your vision narrow to the point that you are no longer aware of anything outside your office. Eventually your personal mission statement can become “I will get rid of whatever is stacked on my desk and make the next person who darkens my door go away as quickly as possible.”
So as silly as the mission statement business is, I have to admit that there are people who need to be reminded on a daily basis what the heck they’re doing. I used to think that mission statements were best written on nice fresh quilted Northern, but maybe a rolled up newspaper would serve better.

Friday, November 10, 2006


(Nwes-Herald, November 9)This year there’s no excuse.
Veteran’s Day is an unusual civic holiday because it comes attached to a particular date, instead of a particular weekend. So mostly it falls in the middle of ordinary workaday stuff. That, as it turns out, is no accident.
It started, of course, as Armistice Day. In 1919, the President declared a holiday on the 11th. In 1920, he called for Armistice Sunday. In 1921 it was an un-named holiday marked by the burial of an unknown veteran of The Great War in Arlington National Ceremony. Similar ceremonies were held by other Great War allies, scheduled to commemorate the end of fighting in 1918 on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In 1926 Congress officially named it Armistice Day and then, in 1938, they made a holiday out of it. That was just before war broke out in Europe and the war that Armistice Day commemorated, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, acquired its roman numeral.
Ike officially changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954. And effective 1971, Congress attempted to change the holiday to “the fourth Monday in October.” But an unusual and amazing thing happened—Americans largely nixed the chance for a government-sanctioned three-day weekend, and opted to keep Veterans Day on its traditional date. States opted to hold the observance on the 11th. By 1975, only for states followed the “fourth Monday” rule. In 1978, Congress put the holiday back where Americans said it belongs.
Veterans Day suffers from an unfortunate tendency to be mixed up with Memorial Day. Memorial Day, intended to honor those soldiers who have passed away, is often generalized to make mention of all soldiers past and present. It’s a nice thought, but it renders Veterans Day a bit redundant. It can also deliver the unfortunate and unintended message that live veterans aren’t that different from dead soldiers.
Veterans are a special breed, and never more so than in the 20th century. Up until then, a man’s military service became part of who he was. A military rank was important enough that it became a permanent part of a man’s name; it had enough status that some men added an unearned military title just to give themselves some more clout.
But with WWI, we see a new era in military service. We have repeatedly asked men to travel around the world, risk their lives, and learn how to act outside the boundaries of regular civilized behavior. Then after we have asked them to leave home and family, risking life and limb and spirit, we ask them to come home and behave as if it never happened.
America has always depended upon citizen-soldiers. But in an earlier time, we counted both equally as part of a veteran’s identity. In modern times, we expect the citizen to dominate. Most of us know veterans, but often if we were asked to describe those people, we would call them “teacher” or “doctor” or “musician” or “neighbor “ and their military service would appear way down the list.
My point is this. We haven’t just asked veterans to leave home and family behind to risk life, limb and spirit. We haven’t just asked them to endure hard training to learn skills that they will never use in civilian life. We have also asked them to come home when it was all over and behave as if those years were spent doing nothing more exceptional than mowing the lawn or studying accounting.
We owe them. Even if we disagree with the causes that sent them abroad, even if military service never put them in harm’s way. Nobody enters military service thinking, “Maybe this will make me rich and famous.” Military service, voluntary or drafted, is service to the rest of the citizens of this country, and even if we disagree with the situation in which it is given, we can and must respect the spirit and sacrifice involved.
If you see a veteran Saturday, thank him (or her). You still have time to drop a note in the mail to a vet.
And the Oil City VFW and American Legion are throwing a parade. At 10 o’clock on Saturday morning it will step off from the VFW post, march across the Center Street Bridge and end in Justus Park, where there will be an 11 o’clock ceremony. The Venango Vets Honor Guard and the Oil City High School Band will be included.
The very least we can do on the 11th is pause at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour and remember. It would take only a little more effort to stop by Oil City to attend the parade and ceremony.
This year it will be Saturday. We have no excuse.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


(May, 2002) One recurring issue for school systems in small areas such as ours is the matter of whether we want our young people to stay or to go.
Why don’t more of our young people stay here? Wouldn’t it help us revitalize the area if we hung on to our best and our brightest? Maybe the best thing to do, for all of us, is help our young people realize what a treasure they have here.
Who among us doesn’t know a tale of some young person who left the area and was dismayed to discover a world where they can’t just walk to the store after dark or where they are surrounded by a crowd of strangers that never resolves itself into even a handful of familiar friendly faces. Or they discover the world where an apartment the size of their old bedroom rents for more than their parents’ monthly house payments.
And doesn’t Venango County need, deeply and desperately need, a large, steady infusion of fresh young blood. No more of these drive-by trainees from far away places, but folks who call Venango County home.
Why not prepare them to bring something back into our community.
On the other hand, what can we offer our young people. If a young person isn’t going to do something medical, legal or servile, what is that person going to do here. Sure, low cost of living is nice, but only if you have actual income.
Should we not prime our young people to go out into the world and enjoy the vaster, wider range of possibilities that await them there?
Why not prepare them to find more choices than they’ll ever find here.
There’s no doubt that life in a small town world can be a mixed bag. The cost of living is low, but so is the level of job choice. It’s a good place to raise kids, but a hard place to find the partner to raise them with. On the one hand, there are so many people that know you; on the other hand, there are so many people that know you.
Is an education supposed to be a young person’s ticket out of here, or the community’s investment in its own future?
This argument tugs continuously at our local school districts. “Why’re we wasting money on that ?!” complains one set of taxpayers. “We ain’t never needed any fancy calkoolus around here.”
“I’m so outraged,” comes the cry from another quarter. “How can Eustace hope to get into Hahvahd if you won’t offer quantum physics in seventh grade?”
There are so many things that we need here—not just doctors and lawyers but mechanics and welders and accountants—but nothing that a young person couldn’t make more money doing somewhere else. So our school districts stay perched on the fence.
I don’t see an easy answer, but I do think that some of us need to get over our regional inferiority complex. Something in the cries of “Help our young people get out of here” makes me bristle, a suggestion that somehow we’re living on a mound of toxic waste set atop a sinking barge. I don’t buy the notion that there’s anything so awful about this place; I think, in fact, that there are quite a few things good about it. I’m quite certain there’s a world of other opportunities out there, but I don’t buy the notion that the only healthy thing a young adult can do is move far away from home.
Cute little “great city” competitions notwithstanding, and despite our national preoccupation with winners and losers, I don’t think any place is “best.” When you look for a mate, you don’t search for the best person—you search for the best person for you. I think it works the same way with places.
If you want metropolitan hustle and bustle, Venango County is not for you. But not everyone is cut out for small town life. If you hate crowds and commotion, New York City will make you miserable. One size does not fit all people at all stages of their lives.
I prefer that we give our students a background that helps them know and pursue the lives that best suit them. If they want to stay, I think it’s a mistake to talk them into going; if they want to go, there’s no point in trying to make them stay. We should never be ashamed to let them stay close to home, nor too proud to let them leave. And a school system should never be too rigid to prepare for both options.

Friday, November 03, 2006


(News-Herald, November 2) I still have to make some election decisions. Hutchison vs Hutchinson contest—I know both the candidates and they’re both good guys. I also struggle with the Swann-Rendel contest. I don’t know either one of those guys, but I don’t like either one.
But when it comes to national races, I know what I’m doing. And since everybody else is telling you how they’re voting, and why, I might as well join the party. At least I’m doing it here in print, instead of calling you with one more recorded message. If you’d rather, you can stop reading now, and I’ll see you next week, with something non-political.
My own voting history is splotchy. I registered independent for years, until I realized that, locally, primaries are the main event. So I registered Democrat, on the theory that my vote would have more weight in the tiny crowd of Venangoland Dems.
I never vote straight party. The two political parties are a shameful mess, stumbling dinosaurs who have outlived their value. And they know it, too—that’s why they spent the last decades rewriting election laws to make it harder for any third parties to crack the Dempublican monopoly.
I like strong effective local government, and I prefer the feds be as ineffective as possible.
For that reason, I don’t like entrenched power. Years ago I was happy to help chase the Democrats out of power; they were fat, happy and out of touch. And I think we’ve come back to that place.
These guys just don’t care.
This is what I hate worst about the partisanship in DC. Not the struggle strictly along party lines, but what ignorance it indicates. These guys battle as if what happens in Congress is personal, only about them, as if they and their opponents are the only people in the room. Their first loyalty is to their party, not the people who elected them. And they dismiss the opposition as if those guys did not represent citizens back home.
This Republican administration has grasped one of the important lessons of the previous leaders—it doesn’t matter what you do, only what you say. As long as you say what people want you to say, you can go ahead and do whatever you want.
Republicans made a promise to go stamp out gay marriage and funnel money to religious groups. Then – they did nothing. And then, just a few weeks ago, Condoleeza Rice swore in new Global AIDS coordinator Mark Dybul. With Laura Bush as a witness, Dybul’s gay partner held the Bible, and Rice recognized the partner’s mother as Dybul’s “mother-in-law.”
I’m not a fan of the theo-con agenda, but I’m impressed at the brass it takes to ignore so many people who help get you elected.
But then, Congress is pretty well ignoring all of us. Accelerating a trend started Dems when they were in power, Congress discusses and debates almost no bills that come before it. Perhaps that how, here in the USA, we’ve ended up with a law that says the President can grab anyone he believes is giving aid or comfort to an enemy of the State and throw that person in a prison for as long as he wants, without a word of explanation to anyone.
It is a conservative dilemma. Conservatives would like to see fiscal responsibility in DC; conservatives would like to see a federal government that didn’t try to stick its nose into every school or bedroom in the country. When a secretary of defense takes us into war with a flawed Plan A and no Plan B, you’d like someone to hold him accountable. But what do you do—vote for a Democrat? If you can find a Democrat with anything resembling a clue, he isn’t likely to be promising to stand up for conservative values.
But if elections are good for anything, it is for reminding the bozos in DC that they are, in fact, elected. The way I see it, there are only two possible outcomes for this election.
Those in power remain in power, and they conclude that even after every kind of betrayal, failure, corruption, and lie, they really are elected for life and need never listen to regular citizens. Or a bunch are sent home, and those that remain suddenly develop a new interest in paying attention to the citizens of this country. Then, after two more years of fumbling around, we might have an election in which candidates actually listen, and we can get a Congress that is slightly less useless than this one.
Vote against the incumbents in DC? Darn right—if I could, I would vote against the whole of Congress. These guys need to go.

From my Flickr