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.


* * Margie Lee’s Lynch family

My new friend Professor Margie Lee recently attended a gathering at the Avoca Museum in Altavista, Virginia, of descendents, both slaves and slave owners, of the Col. Charles Lynch Jr. family. Her family was mostly slaves.

“Weird,” she said to me about it, over and over. When I pressed her to articulate her feelings, she said, “If you want to understand, we’ll need to go there.” So we did, she driving her classic Thunderbird convertible, wind whipping her curly black-to-grey hair.

We met curator Michael Hudson in his office in the upstairs of an outbuilding alongside the courtyard of the Fauntleroy mansion built in 1901 at the home site of Revolutionary Patriot Colonel Charles Lynch. He told us, “This was the second ‘Gathering at Avoca.’ The first in 2013. The original Lynch family came from Galway, Ireland in 1725. Charles’ father, Charles Sr., was a runaway who stowed on ship of indentured Irishmen that brought him to the New World.”

The term, “lynching,” the often indiscriminate hanging of black men, originated from this family. But Hudson was careful to explain that that was a bastardization of Col. Charles Lynch’s actual actions. Instead, Lynch, as a patriot, defied colonial governor Thomas Jefferson’s order to gather but not punish loyalists to the crown, strapped many of them to a tree and struck them with 39 lashes. “He never hanged anybody, much less any Negroes,” Hudson said.

Charles Sr. died and left land to his four sons, William, John, and Christopher who settled along the James in Lynchburg, and Charles Jr. who moved 20 miles south to current Altavista around 1755.

Long story short, Charles Jr. established a plantation and become wealthy and politically active. He joined the patriot movement to have his colony split from England. He amassed many slaves to work his land. Negroes had no identity other than a given name, were not allowed to marry, and were bought and sold like any property. Negro women were repeatedly raped and impregnated by their white owners. Thus, thousands of mulattos, mixed race people, were spawned throughout the South, with pigmentation in a variety of shades.

So part of Margie’s family was illustrious Virginia patriots. Another part was their chattel. While Col. Lynch was helping to create our new nation, his slaves were working the tobacco fields, tending the garden, cooking the food, and caring for the horses.

Margie is head of a department at the Vet School at Virginia Tech. She said, “I have done lots of genealogy research, but I have not been able to determine any definitive presence of the black side of my family until a hundred years later, around 1870. Blacks were essentially invisible.

“I’m assuming that slaves took the surname of their masters. Everybody in my family seems to have taken the name of the people who owned the land where they were enslaved. My family traces back to one of Col. Lynch’s grandsons.”

Lynch, a Quaker, manumitted many of his slaves, meaning he freed them before a government-forced emancipation. All of his slaves were freed by 1796 at his death. However, the state of Virginia passed laws prohibiting freedmen, and the former Lynch slaves were re-enslaved by his son soon thereafter.

Margie indicated that many of her family members, as well as many other local blacks, owned land, due to the generosity of their former owners. The Lynch family sold land to their freed slaves after the Civil War. Most other freed slaves throughout the South weren’t so lucky.

About the gathering, she said, “There were black people, there were white people, and every shade in between. I was conflicted. Others there were conflicted, too. A group of people, related by blood, returned to a place where, ‘My people owned your people and I hope they were nice to you.’ It makes people uncomfortable.

“The history we’ve been talking about was my family history, but not by my family’s choice. Lots of blacks in America today have white blood. I was shocked to learn that my family’s whites were prominent. Attending this event, for the first time I grasped the full range of what that meant.

“I am from the first generation of African Americans in my line to achieve the American dream. I grew up in a house on a dirt road in rural Virginia and became successful. I have two doctorates, a PhD and a DVM. The 1970s was like the second wave of release from the plantations; it was part two in America, the land of opportunity.

“Your people have history. I have almost no knowledge of my family history. We had no documentation. I’ve been holding this at arms length all my life. The whites were living this Leave it to Beaver life and all of a sudden, they were treating us like part of the family. ‘Come on over!’

“I am angry at how my people were held back by government policies. I could make an argument for reparations, and I would never have considered that before. It is absolutely calculable what economic gains my family has been deprived of.

“The first slaves were brought over in 1619. Not until my generation were blacks afforded the American dream. I grew up in that little sliver, that golden period of possibilities that almost defies logic, where we could be successful.”

On our way home, she asked rhetorically, “Why were my cousins and I doing so well, advancing in the American dream when the generations before us were incapable? All of us who went to college not only did well; we did really well. Affirmative Action opened some doors, but we had to do the performance part ourselves.

“They didn’t hire me at Virginia Tech because I’m black.”


* * Emily’s resist

The first thing you think when you sit down with Emily Satterwhite, the woman who chained herself onto a piece of pipeline construction equipment for 14 hours on the Mountain Valley Pipeline corridor last month, is that she doesn’t fit the look, the stereotype, of an eco-warrior. She’s a tall, thin, light-complected woman with a gentle demeanor, comfortable in business/professional attire, an associate professor at Virginia Tech for 13 years. But her apparent equanimity belies a steely resolve.

We sat to chat on an outdoor bench in downtown Blacksburg, safely in the shade, as she said, “I got enough sun in those 14 hours to last all summer!

“Citizens from around the area went through all the regulatory and legal processes to protest this project,” she said, “and we failed. The system has failed us. The MVP is being built and nobody wants it or needs it other than investors.”

It passes through four Virginia counties – Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Franklin – and all their boards of supervisors, plus the town of Blacksburg, passed resolutions against it. To deaf ears.

“I had participated in rallies, protests and marches before,” she admitted, “but had never deliberately undertaken illegal direct action as a means of exercising my First Amendment rights. What led to my decision was my alarm that the fight against it, and the numerous filings of violations of water quality violations, had generated no response from the state DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality). The state Water Control Board didn’t even seem to know there had been 20 citizen-documented violations of the permit they approved.”

I said the whole process seemed surreal to me. Meeting after meeting presented sentiments and votes against construction, and then if by magic it got approved and moved forward anyway.

She and her family have not been directly affected, like Peter Montgomery whose story I wrote about a few weeks ago here. But, “The pipeline route is about 5 miles from downtown Blacksburg, and if it blew up, it would be devastating.”

The possibility isn’t remote. A newly constructed 36” pipeline blew up in northern West Virginia last January. The MVP is 36% larger by volume. Luckily, nobody was killed, but, she said, “Even the company admits that a swath as wide as three football fields would be incinerated. It may be as much as 2 or 2.5 miles in the incineration zone.

“We understand that there is an 80% chance that it will blow rather than merely leak when it fails. And newer pipelines have been more likely to fail.”

Residents and neighbors along its path face the immediate nightmare of construction noise, pollution, and lifestyle disruption. Ongoing is diminished property values, diminished stream and drinking water quality, soil erosion and sedimentation, and then there’s the constant real fear of being incinerated in an explosion or resulting forest fire, either through shoddy workmanship, earthquake, or terrorism. Remediating drinking water quality and enhancing emergency services falls to us taxpayers while the investors reap the benefits.

“The DEQ, the State Water Control Board, and Governor Northam have the power to stop the pipeline and should stop the pipeline because that is what is in the best interest of Virginians.”

Emily decided to take direct action. She climbed upon an earthmover and chained herself to it.

“I have been an advocate for Appalachia for decades now. I have watched as mountaintop removal mining has blasted the (coal) region to smithereens. It’s been not only the mountains and water and lives, but the corruption of democracy that has been devastating. While I was earning my PhD and raising my daughter, it was frustrating not to be on the front lines. Now was the time not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. I needed to show how strongly I believe that this is wrong on every level. So I chained myself to an earthmover.

“I’m in trouble. I face two misdemeanor charges, each with a potential for $2500 fine and a year in jail. If I spend much time in jail and can’t do my job, I could risk (losing) tenure and be fired. I’m generally a rule follower. But I’m at a point where I think we can’t continue to go ‘business as usual’ and keep our heads down. Otherwise all is lost.

“Friends through all walks of life and co-workers in many disciplines at Tech have been mostly supportive. I hope it inspires more people to show up. I would like to see other people at the construction route saying, ‘This is wrong; it is not okay with me.’ It’s a travesty in our own back yards and it deserves attention and action.”

Emily has obtained legal representation and has a court date in August. My guess is that we’ve not seen the end of her activism.



* * The creeping insidiousness of stuff

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it – George Carlin


There’s a cartoon floating around the internet these days that shows two men, standing abreast in front of an open double garage door, with stuff piled to the rafters. The older man, leaning on his walker, says to the younger man, “Son, someday this will all be yours.”

Two events in my life have spurred introspection on the creeping insidiousness of stuff.

First, my father died a year ago and my mother recently relocated to Maryland to be closer to my younger brother who is fighting cancer and my younger sister. The house in which she and dad lived since the mid-1950s and in which I was raised needed to be vacated. A lifetime of stuff needed attention.

Second, we’re remodeling our kitchen, and everything that was once in it is now stored elsewhere within our small house.

I’m not going to be critical of my parents, because they were/are wonderful people with an abundance of fine, admirable qualities. But I will say that the house was far more crowded with the two of them in it than 50 years ago when six of us occupied it in the 1960s.

And I won’t be critical because most Americans, even poorer ones, are overwhelmed with stuff.

And I won’t be critical because I’m seeing the same thing at my own place.

Can we categorize this stuff?

  • ·       First, there are heirlooms, which fall broadly into three sub-categories: Stuff we’ve made ourselves, such as my stained glass panels and lampshades, and grandfather clocks, and my wife’s artwork and knitted clothing. Then there are family heritage items, like grandmother’s fine china and silverware. Then there are family history items, like school annuals, photo albums, and scrapbooks. There are framed photos on my wall of ancestors who died before I was born. I don’t even know their names. Wait; maybe they were my wife’s ancestors.
  • ·       Second, there are daily items, housewares, beds and bedding, clothing, shoes, appliances, cookware and dinnerware, couches, chairs, and so much more.
  • ·       Third are entertainment and enrichment devices, things like televisions, stereo systems, books, computers and the like.
  • ·       And then there’re

What this stuff seems to have in common is that it’s excruciatingly difficult to get rid of.

As the years go by, moderation tends to get annihilated. For example, at my house, we have 14 pairs of scissors. I recently threw in the garbage over 100 coat hangers. We have hundreds of ink pens, some operable and some not, and enough scratch pads to last my lifetime. I wear out three or four pairs of walking shoes annually, and the old ones are painfully difficult to throw away. I have T-shirts that date back to my decade in Seattle (I moved from there 27 years ago.). With the addition of two I recently inherited, I now have five staple guns. Two dozen screwdrivers. Five hammers. Twenty retired toothbrushes. Outdated technologies like film cameras and cassette players. My wife and I have 2 smart phones, 3 tablets, 3 laptop computers, and 2 desktop computers, and I have another in my office.

I sense that I’m not alone in this. Donald Trump’s second wife Ivana, said “I go to Bloomingdale’s, to the fourth floor, and I buy 2,000 of the black bras, 2,000 of the beige, 2,000 of the white. And I ship them around between the homes and the boat and that’s the end of it for maybe half a year when I have to do it all over again.” Lessee, 6000 bras over 180 days, that’s 33 per day, 1.5 per waking hour, worn only once. Tough life.

Put a million psychologists in a room and they’ll tell you that material wealth does not create happiness (Nor, now that I think of it, would being Donald Trump’s second wife.). But that hasn’t stopped most of us.

The options for ridding oneself of this stuff include: throwing it into the landfill, giving it away (so it becomes someone else’s burden), recycling it, or selling it. Craigslist and eBay are active sites indeed. All take effort.

I hope to have at least a couple more decades on this blue planet, and I can’t know when my final days approach. But I’m determined not to burden my only child with my stuff, as she’s already got more stuff than she can fit into her own current living arrangement.

My kitchen remodel will be completed soon (please, please!), and those mixers, blenders, spatulas, saucepans, spices, plates, soup bowls, and will find new homes. A group yard sale is coming soon and I’m determined to sell more than I buy.

What’s the stuff situation at your house?



* * 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.