The New Town Crier

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A human town crier was fine in the colonial days, but this modern replacement in Woodstock, Vermont is a lot more convenient — and doesn’t require a salary or benefits, either. It announces the time, tells the temperature for the weather-obsessed among us, and allows everyone to announce their upcoming events.

Every town should have one.

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On The Woodstock Village Green

20140807-114356-42236323.jpgAt the recommendation of the Retired Wolverine Kish and I have stopped for lunch in Woodstock, Vermont — a pretty colonial-era town with a nice, grassy village green. It’s a testament to the solitude of the last few days that this town and its two-lane traffic seems like a teeming metropolis by comparison. The fact that a steel drum band is getting ready to play probably has something to do with that perception.

Needle In The Arm

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead yesterday in his Greenwich Village apartment. According to reports, he was found in his bathroom, with a heroin-filled needle in his arm. It was an ugly, grisly death for someone so talented.

Unfortunately, Hoffman’s death is just a very visible sign of the significant drug problem in the United States. At the same time some states have moved to decriminalize recreational drugs like marijuana, cheap and powerful strains of heroin are producing new legions of addicts — and overdose deaths. In January, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State speech to what he called the “full-blown heroin crisis” in that state, where deaths from heroin overdoses are soaring and addiction to heroin and opiates is skyrocketing. Heroin plagues cities like Cleveland, and this year in the Pittsburgh area a new blend of heroin has been blamed for 22 deaths.

Of course, overdoses are only the tip of the iceberg. Heroin use is directly associated with theft and violent crime. Addicts steal from their families and loved ones. If you know anyone who has dealt with a family member who is a heroin addict, who has seen their child or sibling turn into someone they no longer recognize, and who has exhausted their retirement savings trying to treat the addict, you’ve gotten a brief glimpse of the anguish and heartbreak heroin is causing. It is a terrible drug.

It’s tragic when a great talent like Hoffman dies so senselessly, but it’s also tragic that it takes the death of a celebrity for many of us to focus on the very serious problem of growing heroin use and opiate addiction.

Clever Convicts

Haven’t people in the Vermont prison system watched The Shawshank Redemption?

In Vermont, prisoners are responsible for producing the decals that are attached to the sides of the patrol cars.  The decals include some snow-capped mountains, a cow, and a pine tree, among other items — about what you would expect for Vermont.

One enterprising prisoner — perhaps named Andy? — decided it might be a good jest to tinker with the design.  So, he went into the computer file from which the decals were printed and changed one of the cow’s spots to give it a distinctly porcine appearance, no doubt humming Piggies from the Beatles’ White Album as he did so.  The State Police used the cars with the decals for months before somebody noticed the unwanted modification.

In view of this incident, the Vermont prison system might want to check to be sure that no prisoners are performing bookkeeping services for wardens or asking for a rock hammer and posters of Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch.

Working On The Water

Living in land-locked, lakeless Columbus, Ohio — with only the muddy, barely ankle-deep Olentangy and Scioto Rivers in the vicinity — Kish and I view every visit to a substantial body of water as an adventure.  So it was with great anticipation that we looked forward to a trip on one of the ferries that cart passengers and cars across Lake Champlain, to and from various locations in Vermont and New York.

One of the Lake Champlain ferries

Being Midwesterners, we were blissfully unaware that the rotten, wet weather of the spring was devastating for this region of the country.  There was massive flooding along Lake Champlain and its environs, the signs of damages were ever-present as we drove along the lakeside, and even now one of the ferry runs is not operating due to the damage caused by the flooding.  As a result, it took a while to find an operating ferry.

Our second surprise came when we boarded the ferry and realized that, for everyone else on board, a trip across Lake Champlain on a ferry is a ho-hum, everyday, no-big-deal affair.  Some people didn’t even leave their cars to admire the view on a beautiful, blue-sky afternoon, and we were the only “foot passengers” on board.  It turns out that the ferries really aren’t a tourist attraction so much as a basic, hard-working element of commerce.

The view from the bow of our ferry, looking back

The ferry ride we took was about 12 minutes in duration, and on our trip back and forth the ferry carried a tractor-trailer, a huge mobile home, and dozens of cars and motorcycles.  The ship had a captain and two young crew members — probably college students home from school for the summer — who directed traffic and lowered and raised the gangplank that allowed cars to enter and exit.  The passenger area was no-frills, with no snack bar or other amenities.  There were three ferries in operation so that no one on either side of the lake had to wait more than 15 minutes for a ride, and they stuck to their schedule.

In this part of the country, ferries and water-crossing jobs have been an important part of the economy for as long as people have lived here.  For the captain and crew members who make dozens of trips across the lake every day, and for the occupants of the cars and trucks who regularly use the ferry, the romance of water travel has long since disappeared.  What is exotic for us is just part of their daily routine.

On Stone Walls And Robert Frost

The Lake Champlain region of upstate New York feels, to me at least, more like New England than like the mid-Atlantic states.  It is separated from rustic northern Vermont only by the blue waters of the lake, and the signs of a New England approach to life are everywhere evident.

For example, you cannot take a walk on a country lane without seeing many stone walls, in various stages of repair and disrepair.  Some are clean and sharp-edged, some are rambling and covered with flowers, and others are vine-covered, weedy, and completely unattended, only a year or two away from full-scale collapse and a wholesale return to nature.

And who can see a stone wall without thinking of Robert Frost?  His wonderful poem of ruminations on stone walls, their inevitable decline and decay, and his annual meeting with his neighbor to replace the stones in their common wall, Mending Wall, begins as follows:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The poem is full of Frost’s curiousity and impishness.  It is too long to reprint in full in this post, but it is available here.  The poem famously concludes:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.