Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * Doug Smartt’s military life

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That same day, Doug Smartt turned 20 and I turned 15.

Those five years between us birthday-buddies may have greatly influenced our lives and career paths. Doug and I chatted about that after a recent Rotary Club meeting, where we’re both long-term members. 

“I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee,” Doug said, “where my dad was the alumni director for the University of Tennessee.” He had a nurturing upbringing where he flourished, competing in swimming and getting good grades. As a high school freshman, he worked as a congressional page on Capitol Hill. His achievements, that experience, and his family connections, helped him receive a nomination to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which he accepted. 

Mind you, his action was at the height of the Vietnam War. 

About working in Washington, he said, “It was an interesting time. It was fun to have been a part of getting things done for the betterment of our society. It’s one of the reasons why I went into a life of public service.

“There were anti-war marches in Washington. I had a brother who was deeply anti-war.” 

Acceptance at the Naval Academy commits students to a multi-year commitment, so Doug set himself up for a military life. About the US involvement in the Vietnam War, he said, “I remember the strategy of the ‘Domino Effect,’ where we’d potentially lose countries to the Communists, to the Soviet sphere, unless we took action. 

“I was assigned as the missile fire control officer on the USS John S. McCain (DDG-36), named after Senator John McCain’s granddaddy. We were sent to Southeast Asia in 1972.”

His deployment lasted 6-1/2 months. He was never hurt, but he does wear the combat action ribbon.

“Because we were off-shore, we didn’t see any casualties. It’s somewhat antiseptic relative to the typical Army or Marine Corps experience. We often had an air spotter for our Naval Gunfire Support Missions. Out of the 17,000 rounds we fired, we only know of one confirmed KIA (Killed in action). There was cheering that went off in the combat information center for the KIA. I didn’t feel that way. My emotion, I didn’t release until we came back from the deployment and I was with my fiancé. With her, I bawled like a baby. I’d been a part of a man’s death during wartime.” His eyes moistened.

“The Navy is constantly in service around the world, protecting our national interests, where there is hostile action, and sometimes there is ‘violent peace.’ We’re on location quicker than the other services for many actions because of Freedom of the Seas. I did five more major deployments of at least 6 months over my 24 year naval career.” Doug was Captain of the USS Francis Hammond during Operation Desert Storm.

“After my Vietnam experience, I reconsidered the Navy for a full career. But then I thought, ‘Who better but me?’ I wanted to serve. I want to contribute.

“Looking back on it, Vietnam was not a just war. America shouldn’t have been involved in it… but we were.”

I told him about my experience growing up, where few boys I knew wanted to go. My dad had spoken about his upbringing during World War II, when every boy wanted to go, because they perceived the Germans and Japanese as existential threats. In my day, teenage boys had no such fears about the North Vietnamese. “I’m always deeply conflicted on Memorial Days and Veterans Days,” I admitted. “While I’m deeply appreciative of those people like you who serve, I’m anguished that we send you off to fight and kill and die in needless wars.”

“War is a complex issue, much like our country is complex,” he said. 

Doug ultimately got a position at Virginia Tech in the Naval ROTC program as the Professor of Naval Science and Commanding Officer and moved to Blacksburg. He retired from the military in 1995, and then took a second career in banking from which he just retired again. 

“The man, our confirmed KIA – to this day I don’t know whether he was a North Vietnamese regular, an active Viet Cong, or a civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the antiseptic part of the fact that it’s ‘an unknown.’ I went to my Lord and Savior and said, ‘Please forgive me for what I did. I was doing my duty for my country.’ He has forgiven me. But that’s where the complexity comes in. If you have a strong sense of ethical morality and emotion, which I like to think I do, then there are times we are ordered to carry out things we ordinarily wouldn’t do. Let’s make sure we don’t get involved in major conflicts unless we need to.”


* * Cheating death on my motorcycle

I own four motorcycles and I ride a lot. So it was completely ordinary for me on this Sunday morning to roll my 1981 Honda CBX out of the garage and prepare it for a ride.

It’s a classic machine, produced in limited numbers, and now a collector’s item. But it’s not a museum piece. I still like to ride it, and although it doesn’t have the performance of newer machines, it still thrills me, much the same way people like to drive their antique cars.

I left my neighborhood with a heavy heart, as one of my brothers in motorcycling had died the day before.

I rode through Christiansburg, happily getting greens at most of the many traffic lights. On this warming summer Sunday morning, there weren’t many cars around, even at the town square.

I rode up the hill on South Franklin, past the cemetery where many of my childhood friends’ parents are buried.

I picked up some speed descending into Rogers and leaned the bike gracefully into the sweeping turns over Pilot Mountain and into Pilot. It was a beautiful day, with the sun in my eyes and all manner of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks seemingly wanting to play dodge-ball with me. Once, on a country highway in West Virginia, a squirrel in front of me started to react, I thought he would zag so I zigged, and he zigged instead, and I nailed him. I was depressed about it the rest of the afternoon.

But it’s the bigger critters that are a concern. Dogs. Deer. Especially deer. They’re big, unpredictable, and not as soft and cuddly as we’d like. I know too many people who have hit them, with unhappy results.

It’s a bit like Russian Roulette out there; you never know which chamber will have a bullet in it, or in this case, which bend may have an obstruction. I always wear protective gear: jacket, padded pants, gloves, and a full-face helmet. This stuff really works (Ask me how I know.), but it only goes so far, depending upon the specific accident.

I reached the outskirts of Floyd and turned right towards town, probably only a few miles west from where my friend died on US 221. He made a mistake, a terrible, tragic mistake, that cost him his life. According the news article, he was behind a string of cars inching along the highway, with a farm tractor ahead. My friend decided that with everyone moving so slowly, he could easily pass them all, even though it was a double-yellow zone. And I’m sure he would have been fine… except the tractor turned left, right in front of him. He died on the scene.

I rode past the only traffic light in Floyd, where 18 months earlier a pedestrian was killed crossing the street, and continued southwest on US-221.

I had ridden a longer ride the day before, and with chores to do, I headed home on Alum Ridge Road, a wonderfully scenic and curvy affair that leads back to Riner.

I’m sure everyone who has ever driven a car or ridden a motorcycle has made a mistake or two (or dozens or hundreds). Here’s my worst. My wife and I were touring on a borrowed motorcycle in Ireland, the same model I was riding today, for a few days after a rally. Our daughter was a teenager, elsewhere at a horse camp on the island. Traffic was busy on the two-lane highway. I wanted to pass a slower car. The road markings aren’t the same as ours, and I thought I was in a legal passing zone. I moved right to pass (remember, they drive on the left), and faced a panel truck speeding towards me in the other lane. I hit the brakes and dove back behind the car, just in time. I nearly had a coronary, had nightmares for months. I don’t think my wife had any idea how close we’d come to disaster.

So imagine this scene if I’d not been able to get back into our lane. My wife and I would both have surely died. The borrowed motorcycle would have been destroyed. Our daughter would presumably have been informed days later as authorities figured out who we were and that she was elsewhere on the island, far from home, and now an orphan. Not good.

Alum Ridge is a beautiful place, with vast views to the south over bucolic farm fields and low, forested mountain. I turned left on SR-8 and approaching the Little River Bridge, saw a deer munching greens beside the road. He spooked as I rode by and leapt down the embankment.

I arrived home, another safe and thrilling ride on my amazing motorcycle through heavenly countryside.


* * Welcome to Peter Montgomery’s nightmare

You see the destruction before you even arrive at Peter Montgomery’s pleasant ranch home on Mount Tabor Road. There’s a linear swath of devastation painted on the slope of Brush Mountain to the north. At the famous hairpin turn, the guardrail is bent and broken. And there is mud all over the road. Peter lives at ground zero in pipeline hell, adjacent to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the massive project that has overwhelmed so many of our neighbors.

I met Peter in his detached workshop where he makes an entrepreneurial living as a custom woodworker. He was refinishing a solid chestnut door from an historic 1827 local church, while a steady industrial cacophony wafted through the air.

“It has been the shock of the century,” he said. “Who would have ever dreamed in this pristine place they would bring this atrocity?

“I’ve been here for 30+ years. I’m five miles from downtown Blacksburg. Across (Mt. Tabor Road) is all national forest. It’s been okay out here.”

He thought it would miss him, but it landed 100 yards away.

“Two neighbors already moved due to proximity of the pipeline. It’s affecting another one and me the most. It’s not actually on my property, so I get no compensation whatsoever. There’s constant heavy equipment traffic on a curvy country road. There’s a flagger at the end of my driveway, and I never know when I’ll face delays leaving or coming home. The other day, I had to wait 30 minutes to enter my driveway. My car is filthy with the mud on the road. There’s noise from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, and they want to go from 5 until 10. It may last for the next six months. I’m in the bull’s-eye, but my neighbors are all affected. It couldn’t be any worse.”

The primary contractor, Wisconsin based Precision Pipeline, has been slapped with multiple safety and environmental violations and paid tens of thousands of dollars in penalties.

 “The company is incompetent,” claimed Montgomery. “They called me to arrange a ‘pre-blast inspection’ of my home and workshop. By law, they’re supposed to give me five days notice; they gave me one. They’re digging a 10 by 10 foot trench, through solid rock, so they dynamite to loosen it.

My dogs are traumatized by the noise and blasting. I’m trying to go on vacation, but I can’t leave them now. I’ve not been myself. My blood sugar is up. I’m deeply stressed. I’m not sleeping well. My work has suffered. I need to get away, but if I’m worried about them blowing the place up, I can’t leave.”

Peter has gotten lots of help and support from local law enforcement, including county deputies who have stepped up their presence to address his concerns. But of course, you and I are paying those people.

“The sad thing is that the government allowed this to happen in the first place. A friend drives a school bus on this road and he got run off the road by one of these thugs in their trucks. Every vehicle I’ve seen is out of state.”

Here’s what makes Peter and so many local people upset. He gets no compensation because they didn’t actually take his land. The county and state get no compensation. There are no taps where we could use the natural gas it will carry. Succinctly, the corporation has privatized the profits and socialized the risks. If this pipeline were to explode near him – and this is by no means a distant possibility, given that a smaller, 36” pipe, only installed six months ago in West Virginia did exactly that early this month – he’d be instantly annihilated, along with his entire property. This pipe, by volume, is 70% larger.

His drinking water comes from a well. “The chemicals they use might contaminate my well and the blasting might ruin the capacity. If there is a problem, what then? I don’t know.

“The most stressful aspect is not knowing what will happen next. The unpredictability.”

I took a break and walked up the road past the flaggers to see for myself. On the north side, was a 100-foot wide path of mud, with various construction vehicles. On the south was a massive drill with an upright derrick, flying at the top was not an American flag but a flag that said, “TRUMP, 2020, KEEP AMERICA GREAT.”

When I returned to say goodbye, Peter said, “At 68, I need to be seriously concerned about my stress. Stress can take you down. People need to come here and see it. We thought we lived in a democracy. My psychic counselor said, ‘Your soul had no way to know something like this would ever come, much less how to deal with it.’”



* * Novel graduate program at Virginia Tech builds citizen scholars

Bill Huckle is a busy guy, one my smartest friends. He’s an Associate Professor in the Biomedical Sciences department at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. So much of the stuff he studies and teaches goes way above my head. But in a conversation recently, he spoke about a class he’s just taught that I did understand and have long had an interest in: how technologies impact societies and the planet. 

He said, “As of last August, I still devote 40% of my time to the Vet School, but now 60% is devoted to Virginia Tech’s Graduate School. The grad school manages admissions, monitors student progress, and awards Masters and Doctoral degrees. Tech has over 100 individual graduate programs now, and nearly 7000 grad students.”

Bill is from Charlottesville. He got his bachelors degree from Williams College, his Masters at Tech in biochemistry, and his PhD in pharmacology from the University of Iowa. “My research is broadly in the realm of cardiovascular biology. We are interested in the heart, but our central focus is in blood vessels – their formation and repair and diseases that involve too much or too little circulation.”

That’s the part that swoops over my head. Here’s the good part:

“I’m now teaching a course called Citizen Scholar. It’s housed in the graduate school as part of a larger imitative started a number of years ago by our Dean, Karen DePauw, called Transformative Graduate Education. It’s an opportunity for students who have the interest to engage in other types of educational experience beyond the immediate focus of their degree: how their scholarly efforts can be harnessed to the benefit of their communities. In addition to Citizen Scholar, other parts of the TGE initiative focus on effective communication and being a successful academician.

“Most graduate students, like me when I was in grad school, keep their noses to the grindstone, working to finish their course work and research projects. If a program like this had been available to me, to be honest I’m not sure I would have been drawn to it. But some students clearly do want to take a broader view.

“For the dozen or so students who take this elective course each year, it helps them feel more connected. For example, early in the course we talk about the Land Grant concept that led to the creation of Virginia Tech.”

Imagine this: President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of our Civil War, envisioned the establishment of colleges throughout the country to teach practical things, especially agriculture and engineering, to everyday citizens. Prior to that, most colleges and universities were solely educating the elites in classical fields like languages, philosophy, religion and art.

Bill said, “There was also a military focus. Schools supported by the Land Grant concept and particularly the Morrill Act, were expected also to teach military tactics. The Civil War showed Lincoln that the nation needed to be better prepared militarily for hostilities and defense. So we talked in class about how this came to be and the ways it may still be relevant. The Land Grant model is predicated on outreach, providing more practical educations so students can take their knowledge into the workplace. 

“The course gives students today the opportunity to think about not only the personal value of their education, but its larger value to society, and why society –  in the form of state or federal support of universities, for example –  is willing to invest in them.”

Bill said one student in Civil Engineering was interested in how bridge construction would impact local communities. “This person was already well tuned in to far more than the immediate project at hand. It’s a self-selected group, so students already have recognized their openness to experiences they’ve not had before. For me, doing research in the life sciences, when seeking funding for our work, it’s vital to be able to communicate its possible value to society. I ha never undertaken a community project like these students do, engaging with their neighbors. They get very creative.

“I try to stress to my students that they need to be cognizant of the groups their work might benefit or affect. We all want to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

“Most of all, I was struck by the passion of the students, and not just the relatively extroverted . Even those less inclined to discuss in class blossomed when describing motivations for their work. This particular set of students represented a remarkable range of disciplines, and their enthusiasm adds life to the academic enterprise. I think every student could truly benefit from this experience.

“Hopefully what students come out of this with is a broader awareness or “raised consciousness” about the value and the costs of what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”



* * JAM keeps our Appalachian music tradition alive 



Banjos. Fiddles. Guitars. Flatfoot dancing. Reels. These are the mainstays of traditional Appalachian music. I often joke that we Southwest Virginians think culture is something other people have. But locals and visitors alike find much to enjoy and be proud of in the maintenance of our heritage music. Like any aspects of the culture, for it to endure, it needs to be passed on to our youth. That’s the focus of JAM, the Junior Appalachian Musician program, and its newest affiliate in Christiansburg.


According to director Sidney Hollandsworth, JAM is a series of local affiliates throughout Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. Begun by Helen White in Independence, Virginia, JAM’s mission is working to provide communities with the support and tools they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music.


Hollandsworth told me, “JAM is a program for children in grades 4 through 7 to learn a traditional instrument and learn about Appalachian culture.” Sessions are held at the new Great Road On Main, the concert, education, and event center in the newly remodeled and reopened Main Street Baptist Church building. “We begin each session with an enrichment lesson, where we tell about toys and games, or perhaps a dance. Then the kids split into fiddle, banjo, and guitar classes, where they get instruction on the instruments.


“We’re in our first semester, which started in January and will be wrapping up soon. We have 17 kids. We hope to expand in the fall, to perhaps two classes per instrument.”


Floyd County has had a program for several years. Lisa Bleakley, the tourism director for Montgomery County, was eager to start a program here. Sue Farrar at the Montgomery Museum and retired executive Dave Reemsnyder were instrumental (pardon that pun!) in getting things going, and they decided that the Christiansburg strand of schools would be the best place to start. So the local JAM program was a cooperative venture between Montgomery County Public Schools, Christiansburg Elementary School, the Montgomery Museum, and Great Road On Main.


When I asked Sidney about her involvement, she said she was a piano teacher, and was approached about being the director. Sidney’s parents, John and Kathie Hollandsworth, are musicians (and incidentally, fellow Christiansburg High School graduates with me), so she was brought up around traditional music. John plays and builds autoharps and Kathie plays bass and hammered dulcimer. Sidney was a voice major in college, but “my primary instrument is piano,” she said.


“I was brought up in the music. Many of our students are newer to it. We asked early on whether kids and parents listened to this type of music or went to festivals. Overwhelmingly, they said they hadn’t. Not many were really enmeshed in the music or culture. So it’s been neat to see that sort of experience for them for the first time. Class instruction on playing a stringed instrument isn’t super common. They’re at the age when private lessons may not be the right first step. The parents may have suggested it, but the kids won’t be successful unless they’re motivated. I’m sure lots of them go home and practice on their own. Some come from musical families. 


“Some kids who are very focused. They take it seriously and want to be good at it.”


To recruit students, the incipient JAM program gave information to Angie Hagwood, music director at Christiansburg Elementary School, who shared it with children and parents last fall. In January, the students were accepted and the program began. “None of the kids had had any prior experience. For the most part, teaching is ‘by ear.’ They do some rhythm notation and tablature. (Tablature is a simple form of musical notation indicating where the player is to place his or her fingers on the strings of a stringed instrument, rather than actual notes.) We work with them to match what they hear with the fingering on their instrument that produces that sound. Youth seem to pick it up faster than adults.


“We have one teacher now per instrument: fiddle, guitar, and banjo. The program is tuition based, on a sliding scale, with students who qualify for free or reduced lunches also getting reduced tuition. So if they don’t have a lot of money, we don’t turn them away. We’re hoping for donations to go to scholarships.


“It’s been interesting every single week. The kids are into it, they’re really excited. I’ve been surprised at how much they enjoy the dancing and learning.”


Donations for instruments or scholarships can be made to the “Montgomery Museum,” with “Montgomery JAM” in the memo line, and mailed to 300 South Pepper Street, Christiansburg, VA  24073, website: https://greatroadonmain.org/ or to Lisa Bleakley at Montgomery County Tourism. 


“This is a good thing for our community,” Hollandsworth said. “The kids are learning, having fun, and building skills and self-esteem. Parents have thought it was worthwhile. Parents and students both think it’s worthwhile.”