Death in Donora

The Monongahela River meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where it joins the Ohio and Allegheny rivers in a famous confluence called Three Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and lonely.

Donora along the west bank of the Monongahela

Along one of those curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, lies a a town called Donora, an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana industrialist, William H. Donner, had decided to build a series of zinc and steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.

The plants employed thousands of Donora residents, supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town that all was not well.

On Tuesday October 26, the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”

On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, two brave volunteer firefighters, Bill Schempp and Jim Glaros, worked their way around town, each feeling his way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. The firefighter placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what they called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, the firefighter then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.

So it was that two firefighters, men who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as they shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. They had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then these volunteers had to walk away knowing they might never see their friends alive again.

All told 27 people would die over that five-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.

Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”

The Peaceful Transfer of Power and Hope

Inauguration Day for Donald J. Trump is in three days, and we will watch again as the transition of power from one party to another occurs peacefully and completely in a single day. Quite a remarkable occurrence.

An occurrence, in fact, that forms the bedrock of a true democracy. I look forward to that peaceful transition of power this inauguration as I have every one I’ve been old enough to understand.

What I am not as sure of this time is the peaceful transition of hope.

I hope the new president and his team allow themselves to moderate over time, to to take into consideration all segments of society, and to compromise on the small issues so they don’t get in the way of the bigger ones.

I hope the new president and his team can learn to work collaboratively with those who disagree with them.

I hope the new president and his team can find their way through the many foreign policy challenges facing the nation.

I hope above all that the new president and his team really can bring the nation together more than it is now and can provide some kind of hope for us where there is none now.
There are numerous parallels between Andrew Jackson
and Donald Trump. Jackson turned out to be a
horrible president. I hope Trump will do better.

It’s a big job, and I truly hope the new president and his team are up to the task.

Like millions of Americans, I don’t think they are, but I’m willing to give them a chance, and I believe most people are as well.

I hope they use that chance wisely.

It’s Semi-Official: I’m Writing a Book

Hemingway (certainly not McPhee)
at work

Well, I am semi-officially writing a book.

I say “semi-officially” because I’m in the early stages of research and development and I don’t have a publisher yet.

I decided first that I did not want to self-publish. I’ve worked in publishing for many years and have gained an enormous amount of respect for all the things a good publishing team can bring to any project. I want to avail myself of that help, so I’ll work hard to find the right publisher for this particular book.

It then took me a while to find the right subject. I had four main goals in mind. I wanted to find:

David McCullough
  1. A subject with the potential for at least a little commercial success. For instance I considered for a time a biography of Benjamin Rush, one of the Founders I think has been underrated. I finally decided that a Rush biography wouldn’t sell well enough for the amount of work it would require.
  2. Something reasonably limited in scope. I’ve thought for quite some time that I should take a cue from David McCullough, my favorite biographer, and start with something manageable. While working at American Heritage he decided to write about a disastrous flood in 1889. The result was The Johnstown Flood, a wonderful book that garnered McCullough wide praise. He wrote about the people in and around Johnstown, not just about the flood, and told the tale with clarity and elegance. I can’t hope to touch his greatness, but I can tell a similar story in my own way, and that’s what I’m going to do.
  3. Something relatively close to where I live, to make onsite research easier.
  4. A story that hasn’t been told yet or one told so long ago or so poorly that a new one would be welcomed.

I finally stumbled on a subject that met all four goals, a mid-twentieth century environmental disaster in Eastern U.S. I’m currently researching the various aspects of the event, compiling a timeline of what happened when and who did what for whom, and beginning to organize the research so I can find information quickly later.

Sample Aeon Timeline screen

I’m using Aeon Timeline 2 to build my timeline and will be using Scrivener to write the manuscript. Both applications are industry leaders and are tailor made for writers.

Soon I’ll be scheduling a visit to the area to get a closer feel for the story, the event, and, most important, the people. I should be able then to begin work on a proposal, one that will look at what the story is, why it needs to be told, why I’m the best person to write it, how it will be organized, what resources I’ll use, and roughly when it might be finished.

Then I’ll identify potential publishers and agents, and begin the work of getting a contract to tell the story.

All of which is to say that in my retirement yes, I’m working on a book, and no, don’t ask me where you can run out and buy a copy. Let’s save that for later down the road.

(But yes, please DO run out and buy a copy when it finally does publish!)

Goodbye, 2016. Hello, 2017

We’ve had quite a divaricate year, all in all, one with a split personality, one that feels differently to me depending on whether I think about what happened in my personal life or what happened in the nation and the world.

Perhaps it is always that way, but 2016 certainly feels different.
Personally I had a lovely year. My incredible wife and I enjoyed good health, a great deal of happiness, and the frequent company of our wonderful friends and family. We welcomed a beautiful new granddaughter, and I retired in the fall and have been busy with our new puppy since then. I’ve been playing better golf, on the whole, and have had many fun rounds with great friends.
Our children have largely been healthy, though there have been instances here and there of less than stellar health. But no one has been seriously ill, and there have been no deaths in the immediate or extended family.
All to the good.
Nationally it has been a time of enormous upheaval, culminating with the election of the worst candidate for president since at least Andrew Jackson and quite possibly since the founding of our nation. We elected a racist, misogynistic, narcissistic sociopath the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since, well, I don’t know when.
We’ve seen the ugly racism that has been hiding just beneath the surface of too many people’s consciousness explode into overt and vicious racism. It’s as if all the grotesque biases lurking in the shadows have been given expression and general approval in the name of “making American great again.” Far too many people are saying, We’ve finally rid the White House of that blackie and have installed our very own white supremacist in his place. Hooray!

Sickening. Disgusting. Abhorrent.
Internationally we’ve seen atrocities in Aleppo, Russian interventions in Syria and Ukraine, and horrors committed by the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Horribly sad.
I will remember 2016 like I remember 1968, as a tumultuous, life-altering period in our history and my own life. We all will emerge from 2016’s grip, without question, and we will survive as a people the next few years, but we will not be the same. We weren’t the same after WWI, nor after WWII, nor after Vietnam and the Nixon years, and we will be forever changed again after we push through this current period. 
I know not what 2017 will bring, inwardly or outwardly, but I know that we as a people, and I personally, will work through our issues as best we can, day in and day out. For in the end, that is all we can do.
I wish us all a healthy, happy, and meaningful new year.

Wishing Us a Better 2017 Than Our Hellish 2016

We lost far too much and far too many this past year.

We Mourn

We mourn so many people who gave so much to all of us:
(L. to R, top to bottom) John Glenn, Muhammed Ali, Gene
Wilder, David Bowie, Gwen Ifill, Leonard Cohen,
Toots Thielemans
  • Alan Rickman
  • Alan Thicke
  • David Bowie
  • Gene Wilder
  • Gordie Howe
  • Gwen Ifill
  • Harper Lee
  • John Glenn
  • Jon Polito
  • Kevin Meaney
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Muhammed Ali
  • Patti Duke
  • Prince
  • Robert Vaughn
  • Ron Glass
  • Sharon Jones
  • Toots Thielemans
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • … and to many more

We Lost or Are Losing

We’ve lost or are losing:
  • Our collective minds
  • Some of our humanity
  • Our hope
  • Distinction, professionalism, compassion, elegance, competence, and intelligence in the Oval Office
  • Some freedoms
  • Some privacy
  • Some independence

Wishes and Hopes for 2017, in No Particular Order

One of too many imbeciles
  • I hope our new president starts no new wars.
  • I wish for a few common sense laws being passed.
  • I wish we could find common ground on critical issues.
  • I hope our president-elect doesn’t say and do too many stupid things. What “too many” means will, I’m sure, change over time.
  • I hope we continue to fight for what we believe is right and to step up when we see imbeciles acting intemperately, crassly, meanly, or just plain cruelly.
  • I wish the world cuts us a bit of slack and understands that the absurd buffoon in the Oval Office doesn’t represent us as a people.
  • I wish my family and friends experience good health all year through.
  • I hope our children can find happiness, comfort, and peace now and always.
  • I hope to continue to watch my grandchildren grow bigger, stronger, and more intelligent with each passing day.

And I wish you and yours a happy, healthy, prosperous, and conflict-free 2017.