There is a saying, “He can’t see the forest for the trees!” It implies that one is unable to see the importance of the “big picture” because of a focus on the (less important) details. Applying that as a metaphor to the challenges in our COVID economy I offer that there is no “forest” (economy) without the “trees” (small business).
We have been at our vacation home in Colorado since shortly after Christmas attending to a myriad of projects while embracing “real winter” at 10,300 feet above sea level. 2 miles to the north of us is the town of Alma with Breckenridge a 20 minute drive over Hoosier Pass. 5 miles south of us lies Fairplay where the nearest services are found. Gas, Prather’s Grocery, Ace Hardware, Fairplay Auto Supply, just to name a few.
Fairplay (pop. 800) is the Park County seat of government, a geographically large county (2,211 sq mi) with a population of about 19,000.
As such this surprisingly small county seat features a surprising array of dining and beverage purveyors… some 20 in all. Among our favorites are South Park Brewing (of course!), Java Moose Coffee House and Deli, and Millonzi’s Restaurant.
A couple of nights ago I stopped by Millonzi’s to purchase a gift certificate. For reasons of COVID safety and our focus upon home projects Christine and I have been absent from the dine-in scene during our current stay. Groceries, outside coffee (32°f with still air and a bright sun is very pleasant!) and a near daily visit to Ace Hardware has defined us.
As I waited for the gift certificates I was struck by the adjustments made in Millonzi’s since we were here during warmer weather. The outside dining option that we had enjoyed was of course gone.
A bar that could have seated at least a dozen was arranged for 2 sets of distanced couples.
The tables were well spaced, easily reducing seating to less than a third of former capacity.
We elected to return the following night for an early drink and dinner.
Upon our return we were greeted as old friends and quickly learned that the meticulous attention to detail, the topflight service, and excellent food remained unchanged. No wonder that a film crew was on sight in September to film for a feature of “Restaurant Impossible” which will air on Discovery Plus on January 22nd, and the Food Network in February.
Frank at the bar made an exceptional Manhattan garnished with a candied Hibiscus for me and a perfect G&T for Christine. Dakota, who was to wait upon us later at table, shared her joy and expectation of coming motherhood while Krishna looked on and added to the natural feeling of a family reunion.
Inevitably, conversation turned to the impact of COVID upon them and Millonzi’s. The temperature of discourse became more serious by degrees. They were all making it, but the difficulties are very real. Millonzi’s has a good carryout trade, but the bread and butter for any restaurant and its staff are patrons at the bar and at table.
In addition to presenting us with an excellent dining experience our evening gave us an insight into the economic pain of the pandemic at full magnification. We were staring at one “tree” instead of just hearing about the “forest” as part of a 2 minute national news update.
The trees are everywhere. They are favorite diversions for us in Kansas City such as Aixois, a neighborhood French restaurant, and the upscale modern American “Restaurant At 1900”.
Most folks have such favorites that are locally owned. These establishments do not have the same resources as regional and national “corporate” dining to weather this COVID storm. The storm will pass, however if our favorite “trees” are to survive it is incumbent upon us to care for them as we are able.
We left Millonzi’s with the warm glow of having enjoyed excellent food, drink, and a very satisfying evening attended to by a staff that cares. We also left with carryout dinners for the next day… got to take care of the trees.
This past week a number of events seem to converge into a single message for me. Early in the week I hosted a video chat with a group of old friends. We came to learn that every one of our families have been touched by COVID-19. Fortunately with no fatalities. My daughter (a nurse) continues her recovery from the struggles of a COVID infection that occurred nearly a month ago. A younger (very athletic) friend had gone silent after indicating that he had become infected. I learned that he had landed in the ICU, struggling for his every breath. He very nearly fell over “the edge“. Thankfully, he is now on the road to recovery and has been transferred to a regular ward. One of his observations was the extreme stress carried upon the shoulders of the hospital staff. The hospital is over capacity with no end in sight.
Also this week I received communications from folks who persistently deny that COVID-19 is real. People who maintain a belief in some grand international conspiracy. I had enough, and on my Facebook account I “unfriended“ them. In my pique I shared these things with my Facebook community without identifying those who had been “unfriended“. I also added, “…did I miss anybody?“. My daughters applauded my actions, understanding how very reluctant I have been over the years to exercise the “unfriend” button. A couple of people took umbrage with my post and asked that they be “unfriended“ as well. Still others found sadness in these personal interactions. For reasons I will explain, I am not one of them.
I originally resisted joining Facebook. However, I found that I could learn more of the day-to-day events in my children and grandchildren’s lives through Facebook than I could in a telephone call or a discussion over coffee. I joined. Soon I had a fairly large Facebook community that showed interest in our family and our travels. In turn I have enjoyed glimpses into the lives of my friends as shared on FB.
Many of my dearest friendships predate Facebook. Many friends do not participate in Social Media. I do not measure friendship by one’s presence or absence in my Facebook community. Facebook is merely a convenient forum for sharing.
I received some private expressions of regret from others at what had transpired between “friends”. I have come to believe that while social media provides a convenient forum for social exchange there is a darker side. We have come to take too seriously being a “friend“ or an “unfriend“ on social media.
Friends often have disparate views in matters of politics, religion, and socioeconomics that do not threaten friendship. However, in the realm of social media those distinctions, especially when extreme, may rendered it inappropriate for there to be participation in one another’s social media communities. We choose who we invite to Thanksgiving dinner. We choose who attends graduations, weddings, and birthday celebrations. We choose who is on our Holiday card list. Most of the time no offense is taken by those who are omitted.
Friendships may be a reflection of our work, our neighborhoods, where we worship, together with when and where we went to school. Social media does not and should not determine our relationships. I merely invite you to consider your own view of Social Media friendship and “unfriendship“.
Peace to Everyone. Please stay Safe, Happy, and most of all Healthy in this Holiday Season. Pete
PS. Speaking of Holiday Cards: Disaster has again befalling me in my best efforts to send out cards! After handwriting and addressing over 500 cards… even including a $10 bill in each one to make up for the past years’ omissions, I placed the cards in the oven. I had thought it would be a harmless way to sterilize them and avoid any risk of virus transmission.
Unfortunately, I became distracted by doing the laundry, washing the dishes, scrubbing the floors and washing the windows. In my neglect the cards and their contents perished.
Oh well, perhaps better luck next year. Pete
It has been a while since I shared my “Thoughts”. Most of my musings are the product of inspiration, travel, and occasionally the “news cycle”. Unfortunately, these days the news is largely COVID-19 and election drama, both of which are incessantly pondered and frequently divisive. I don’t wish to publicly contribute to the noise.
This last week my daughter Alexis shared a vignette concerning her 12 year old son Kane and one of his teachers. Before I share it I want to place it in context with two other student-teacher interactions that involved my family in years past:
In 1989 we had moved from our home in central Kansas City to 20 acres located in rural Clay County. The children had been attending an urban parochial school that was very diverse. The early days in their new rural public school setting were an adjustment for both of us our children. Our son Peter and daughter Renee’ which were in the 5th grade, and Alexis was in 2nd. “Dad, where are the black kids?” was a question that our son posed at the end of his first day in the new school. Most of Peter’s friends in the city were children of color… indeed, in first grade the children had been urged to bring baby pictures to class as part of a contest to see who could most accurately associate the baby pictures with the first grade classmates. Peter wanted a picture that would be a real challenge for his peers. I pointed out to my son that since he was the only Caucasian boy in the class that really wasn’t going to work very well. Proof that we are born “colorblind” until trained otherwise by the adults.
Peter came home one day excited to begin work on a class assignment. That got our interest, “Peter, excited by homework?!?” I inquired. Grandparent’s Day was approaching, and the teacher asked the students to write about their grandparents. Peter asked his teacher if the story could be fictional. She said yes, without taking into consideration the workings of a boy’s pre-adolescent mind. Peter set to work, skipping afterschool television.
Later, he shared his effort with us. After reading his story, which was about my father (also named Peter) I again asked Peter if he was sure that fictionalizing his grandfather was OK. He assured me that he had cleared it with the teacher. Peter was off to school, excited to turn in his assignment.
A few days later Peter came home from school crestfallen. He handed me a note from his teacher requesting a private parent/teacher conference.
Arriving for the meeting I squeezed into a too small desk and was mentally transported back in time to my own less than endearing experiences as a 5th grader. The teacher towered over me and placed Peter’s essay on “my” desk. “Have you read this?” It was more an accusation than a question. “Why, yes. It is quite creative.” To which she replied, “WELL, what are you going to do about it Mr. Schloss?” If I recall correctly, my 5th grade teacher had a habit of calling me “Mr. Schloss” when I was in trouble. Some things never change.
I asked her if she had given Peter permission to write a fictional account of his grandfather. “Yes, BUT NOT THIS!” Again she wanted to know what I was going to do about it. “Nothing” was my reply. He completed the assignment as instructed, and in fact was more excited to do so than I had ever seen him be about homework. No doubt the teacher now considered young Peter to be the acorn that had not fallen very far from me, the tree.
She refused to accept his work and required that he do it over. It fell upon our shoulders to praise our son for his creative effort and to explain that perhaps the teacher just could not appreciate his talent.
Peter wanted to know if he could send his essay to his grandfather. I discouraged this and in light of his teacher’s reaction Peter seemed to better understand that his grandfather would probably not fully appreciate the skill with which he had recounted grandfather’s fictional life as a Nazi war criminal.
Fast forward to 1997. Renee’ was living in France, a year long placement as a high school foreign exchange student. She wrote a letter to her former French teacher in America. As it happened, that teacher was then Alexis’ second year French teacher. In her letter (proudly written in French) Renee’ had shared with the teacher some of the details of her new life and also suggested that perhaps her classmates in France and the teacher’s students could begin exchanging correspondence… becoming class “pen pals”.
We knew about Renee’s letter as she had shared with us her intention to write to the teacher. We did not expect what next occurred. One afternoon Alexis came home from school hopping mad and on the verge of tears. The teacher had read parts of the letter out loud in class, criticizing and correcting Renee’s grammar as she read. She failed to include in her recitation Renee’s class pen-pal suggestion. Now I was mad.
I requested a parent teacher conference. Because of the “heat” of my request, this was arranged to include the school’s principle. I verbally let her have it with “both barrels”. “A great teacher is one who recognizes and seizes upon teaching opportunities that are not found withing the pages of a textbook. You may be a teacher, but your conduct demonstrates that you are one in name only.” The principle sat silent while I continued to dress her down.
Now to my grandson Kane and his 2020 COVID-19 virtual class experience:
Approaching Thanksgiving, Kane’s class was given the assignment for each student to write an email to someone they are thankful for. Kane’s teacher expected the students would be addressing their words of gratitude to a parent, relative, or friend. He did not expect Kane’s take on the assignment or the initiative that would be required to executed it.
Kane, like most 12 year old boys, loves fast food. For him McDonald’s is the best of the best. It seemed quite natural to him that his “thanks” should be directed to someone responsible for that little bit of culinary joy in his life. Kane’s research resulted in an email that he addressed to the CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation.
Kane’s mother (our daughter Alexis) is the school nurse where Kane is a student. His teacher shared with her his surprise at Kane’s interpretation of the assignment. A week later he shared his shock that Kane had receive a personally written reply from one of McDonald’s executives, thanking Kane for his email which had been circulated among staff. In appreciation for the bit of happiness that Kane’s email brought to McDonald’s, a gift certificate was included.
Kane’s teacher told Alexis that the next email assignment would be for each student to write to a company whose products they appreciate. To Alexis the teacher shared his intention to participate, “Do you think the Fender Guitar Company gives out gift certificates?”
The finest teachers are those who remain willing to be students.
I have put my “partisanship” on hold long enough to write this piece. Please pause yours before reading…
Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution provides in part:
“… and [the President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, Judges of the Supreme Court…”
In 2016 Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow the hearings required to provide President Barack Obama the “advice and consent“ of the Senate with regard to his nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. Garland received bipartisan Senate approval in 1997 and since then has been a sitting Judge on the United States Court of Appeals. The justification given by McConnell was that the appointment occurred in an election year and the voters deserved the right to determine who as President would make the nomination. The nomination occurred on March 16th of the election year.
Now, on September 26, 2020, Mitch McConnell commits to press forward with all due haste to provide the Senate’s advice and consent to President Donald Trump‘s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Court. Judge Barrett received bipartisan Senate approval in 2017 and since then has been a sitting Judge on the United States Court of Appeals. This nomination comes within weeks of the upcoming presidential election. Senator McConnell‘s justification for this about face is that both the Presidency and Senate are in the hands of the same political party.
Without question, in 2016 and 2020 a sitting president nominated a qualified jurist to become a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The Constitutional requirements were in place on each occasion for the Senate to undertake its duty to give “advice and consent“.
Senator McConnell‘s conduct in 2016 was nothing but transparent hypocrisy. There is nothing in the United States Constitution to support the position that he took as Senate majority leader. It is unnecessary for him to advance any justification for granting Senate hearings in 2020. He is merely trying to “put lipstick on a pig” of his own creation.
Voices raised in righteous indignation are justified. However, calls to obstruct the 2020 nomination process or (worse yet) take action such as “packing the court“ (the appointment of additional Justices solely for the purpose of swinging the courts ideology) are the pursuit of a wrong in furtherance of a prior wrong.
There is nothing in the United States Constitution that qualifies the appointment of a jurist based upon his or her ideology or religion. Article 6 provides in part that all officials:
“…shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Like it or not, Amy Coney Barrett deserves hearings to confirm or deny her appointment to the United States Supreme Court. That is what the United States Constitution provides.
The denial of hearings in 2016 was inconsistent with Senator Mitch McConnell‘s oath to support the United States Constitution. Therein lies one wrong that for those on the left demands justice in the form of another wrong, obstruction of the appointment process. The legitimate remedy in 2020 is McConnell’s defeat at the polls.
You may now restore your partisanship. Peace Everyone. Pete
Most of my life is an open book not only on social media but on my website and among my friends and acquaintances. I suspect that my “politics“ are well-known.
What is less well known is that for 25 years I was the prosecuting attorney for two municipalities in metropolitan Kansas City. I worked closely with scores of officers in those police departments. Those officers were dedicated, hard-working, fair minded, and held the interests of their communities paramount in the performance of their duties. Every day they put their lives on the line and embraced the commitment to “serve and protect”. They also enforced the law… not something popular with those who break the law.
Early in my legal career I also was a Public Defender. For years I also had a private criminal defense practice. There was disparity in the way that people of color were commonly approached by law enforcement. In the 1980s there was a well know euphemism in the County Prosecuting Attorneys office that “NNR“ was probable cause for a law enforcement stop. “NNR“ stood for Nxxxx North of the River. ”North of the River“ was the predominately white area of Metropolitan Kansas City Missouri. My parents never had to caution me about random law-enforcement contacts. Sadly, that is a common conversation in families of color. Happily, attitudes are changing. Attitudes need to change more and perhaps the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, among too many others, are getting the notice and action that they deserve outside of minority communities.
Perfect? Hardly. Police, like each of us, are human beings. The code of silence hurts good officers and the rest of us.
Over the years I encountered a (very) few who were not suited to wear the badge. They were usually weeded out by the command staff.
What makes headline news is not the good police officers or the peaceful protesters. What makes headlines is the “bad cop” and the rioters/looters all of whom have an agenda that is separate and apart from any argument for public service or social/racial justice.
I am a believer in social justice, racial justice, and that “Black Lives Matter”. Those beliefs are not exclusive to the support of good police officers and good law enforcement. Indeed, I find the beliefs wholly consistent.
When somebody says “Blue Lives Matter”, I say yes they do. When somebody says “Black Lives Matter“ I am just as enthusiastic. What I do not agree with is the use of one of those statements as a reply or response to the other. Embrace one statement and/or the other but not one in reply to the other.
We rode out of Miami on the morning of September 2, 2010.
Key West, Florida lay 160 miles south and west at the end of a string of island pearls known as the Florida Keys. We would overnight in Key Largo and on Marathon Island, before riding into Key West, our final destination, on September 4th.
Traveling the length of the Keys was extraordinary and at times even magical. We shared the road with motor vehicles, but we had long grown accustom to the risks. If anything, Highway 1, the thoroughfare that has connected the Keys since 1935, was quite bicycle friendly.
However, there were exceptions.
The ride was at times leisurely, allowing us to stop roadside for pictures and to just take in the sights.
In Key Largo Christine and I, in the company of riders Tom and Lissa Whittaker, sought out a well regarded local restaurant. “Tasters” was an exceptional find both for its cozy and intimate island atmosphere and the excellent cuisine. We were treated like valued local patrons by the owner/chef, Thomas Smith. We enjoyed his personal attention and also delightful conversation with another diner, Christi Allen Franchini, owner of the local Pilates studio.
We returned the following morning with rider John Mocella to pick up a souvenir t-shirt and this time met Thomas’ young son.
At a nearby dock we found the original “African Queen”, the famed steam vessel from the 1951 movie of the same name that stared Humphry Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Now in “retirement”, this 35 foot steam powered vessel, originally launched the UK in 1912 as the “Livingston”, plied the waters of the Ruki River in the Congo for over 50 years. She was shipped to the United States in the 1970’s, refurbished, and was added to the US Register of Historic Places in 1992.
She has continued on in Key Largo as a tourist boat, undergoing her most recent restoration in 2012.
Our evening in Marathon was equally pleasant with drinks and some dockside contemplation.
As is to be expected, the sunsets in the Keys were stunning.
Our ride into Key West from Marathon was rain-delayed by a strong early morning thunderstorm with accompanying rapid-fire air to ground lightning. The storm gave us a pause for breakfast and fortunately passed quickly. Back on our bikes we covered the last 50 miles, entering Key West shortly after noon.
We were greeted by a contingent of family and friends.
There was an overflowing of emotions and Champaign.
We posed for pictures.
We embraced, and we gave thanks that the 16 of us had safely made it across the United States without a serious accident or injury.
The following day Father Matt said Mass for the gathered friends, family, and dignitaries.
Hors d‘oeuvres, drinks and an emotional celebration followed.
The evening capped off with another spectacular sunset that lacked only“The End” followed by the list of cast and credits scrolling across the sky.
I know what we did, but the answer to what we accomplished is more elusive.
We bicycled over 5000 miles across the United States.
We carried the message of the problem of poverty in America.
We attended rallies, and we visited facilities that attend to the needs of the underprivileged. We lent a hand now and then along the way.
Certainly, we raised substantial funds for poverty related programs in Kansas City and in other communities that hosted us. While we may have touched some lives in a way that brought change, perhaps most important was the change that occurred within each of us.
For 100 days we were dedicated bicyclists. For 100 days we were a tight-knit family. We became disciples in a cause that did not end on the 100th day. It is not hyperbole to say that this was a life-changing experience. When I am engaged in conversation with a new acquaintance it is natural that the topic of “what did/do you do” comes up. After all, that is the fast track question to learning about one another. I am a husband of 43+ years, a father, a grandfather, a retired lawyer of 40+ years… and I bicycled over 5,000 miles across the United States as part of a commitment to the mission of Catholic Charities. It is telling that I mention those 100 days as a member of C4C with the same level of pride and accomplishment as other aspects of my life that are measured in decades. I suspect that the other 15 members of C4C are equally gratified with the part that they played.
I am proud to have been part of Cycling for Change. I am honored to call the other members my lifelong friends. I am especially grateful to Father Matt Ruhl, S.J. for the passion that he carries for the plight of the poor and underprivileged. Matt not only turns words into deeds, but he moves others to act, we of Cycling for Change among them.
On the morning of August 15, 2010 we assembled to continue our journey east and south.
Ahead of us lay the final 1,150 miles, allocated between 18 riding days. Nearly 1,000 of those miles would be ridden in Florida. Certainly, we were not on the “home stretch”, but something had changed. We were excited, suffused with an optimism that had not been present over the last few weeks.
Perhaps it was the transformation that included palm trees and seashore vistas.
Perhaps it was the cooling offshore breezes that replaced the inland swelter that we had endured.
The roads had become pool table flat, except where the sea causeways arched to accommodate commercial shipping.
The sun shone brightly upon and within each of us.
However, all was not paradise in those coastal waters.
40 miles offshore from where we rode the largest marine oil spill in the history of the American petroleum industry was unfolding. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile oil rig, had been drilling an exploratory well in 5,000 feet of water. On that day the wellhead violently blew out, taking with it the lives of 11 workers whose remains were never recovered. The rupture caused the release of an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil that continued unabated well into 2012. In Louisiana alone, nearly 5 million pounds of oil impregnated material was removed from the coastline. The direct environmental and economic damages were felt over 68,000 square miles, an area as large as the State of Oklahoma and easily visible from space.
Oil contaminated the beaches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and extended along the coast as far as southern Florida.
As we rode we saw cleanup crews at work and witnessed the black corruption washing ashore.
What was hidden from us was the devastation to the flora and fauna. Thousands of species were impacted. The health and livelihood of millions of coastal residents were threatened, impacts that continue to be felt more than 10 years later.
Deepwater Horizon did not dampen our spirits.
Over the next 6 days we would pass through Biloxi, Mississippi, Dauphin Island, Alabama, and into the Florida panhandle: Pensacola, DeFuniak Springs, Marianna, and riding into Tallahassee we would enjoy a “rest day” on August 21st.
Between Marianna and Tallahassee we passed from Central Standard into the Eastern time zone, 4 time zones east from where we started on the Pacific Northwest coast.
It was one of a series of milestones that were reminders that the conclusion of our quest was drawing near.
On August 17th we were joined by Mark Dufva, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida. Accompanied part of the way by a few co-workers, he rode with us for 4 days and over 300 miles from Mobile, Alabama to Tallahassee, Florida.
Mark was not a veteran cyclist, but what he lacked in experience he more than made up for with enthusiasm and determination.
On the 18th, a day that was scheduled to cover about 90 miles, Mark joined me for an extension that would take the day’s ride over the 100 mile mark, a significant accomplishment known among bicyclists as “riding a century”.
Mark was also largely responsible for the explosion of publicity that we enjoyed.
There was a media event and mayoral proclamation ceremony in Pensacola, hosted by the Honorable Michael C. Wiggins.
En route to DeFuniak Springs we were hosted at a BBQ lunch in Ft. Walton Beach where another proclamation was made on our behalf.
Father Matt and Mark were interviewed via telephone on Christian Talk Radio.
Mark worked to make other connections for our meals and lodging. The most notable was the “Cycling for Change – Homeward Bound Rally” held in Tallahassee.
This was a festive family event that featured food and entertainment.
Tallahassee Mayor, John Marks, proclaimed “Poverty Solutions Week”, and County Commissioner Akin Akinyemi was not to be outdone by proclaiming “Poverty Awareness Day”.
We were treated to lodging in Tallahassee courtesy of the Newman Center of Florida State University and the endearing hospitality of its Director, Sister Christine Kelly, SSJ.
It is hard to imagine that after 10 years I could hold any regrets from my participation with C4C, but there is at least one. Over the years I have learned that I am fairly accomplished at beginnings, but quite deficient when it comes to conclusions. The child-like enthusiasm that I can barely restrain at the start of an “adventure” is balanced by my tendency to withdraw into myself when the finish line comes into sight.
As we lingered in Tallahassee, 86 days in the constant company of 15 extraordinary people were behind me. We had shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could not shake the thought that in 2 weeks it would end and we would go our separate ways. There would be memories to last a lifetime, but it would never be the same as when together we rode across America.
I wish that I had not become so self-absorbed. I wish that I had been more gracious and grateful to those with whom I shared the experience. To paraphrase a line from a popular song, “Regrets, I’ve had a few… but then again just one to mention.”
Have you ever walked into a room that was exclusively designed to take a life? A room where fewer living beings exited than had entered? Until August 8, 2010 I had not.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest maximum security penal complex in the United States.
It covers over 28 square miles and currently houses over 6,500 inmates and 1,800 staff. It is naturally secure in that it is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and the inhospitable insect, snake, and alligator infested swamps that precede the river’s edge and surround the prison. As we were to learn, over 95% of the inmates inhabiting Angola will not live to see freedom.
Angola was founded in 1830 as one of 6 plantations owned by Isaac Franklin. Franklin’s wealth came from his establishment in 1828 of the firm Franklin & Armfield, the largest slave trading company in America. Angola remained a plantation until 1880 when it was sold to former Confederate States of America officer, Samuel L. James who had been leasing prison labor in Louisiana since 1869. James was unable to run the plantation profitably with paid labor, but he could do so by utilizing leased prison laborers (mostly Black) from the State of Louisiana.
Post-Civil War Louisiana and other Southern states found that they could recreate a slave labor force by implementing a convict leasing program which was primarily targeted at the Black male population. Arrested for minor infractions, a defendant who could not pay the fine was pressed into convict servitude. Plantations and businesses leased the inmates for a fee and became responsible for the convict’s housing and necessities. At one point in the late 1800’s, over 70% of the State of Alabama’s annual operating revenues were derived from this system. Convict leasing was abolished in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Samuel L. James’ extensive use of leased convicts in the late 1800’s effectively created the Angola Penitentiary. This was formalized in 1901 when the plantation was officially acquired by the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
We 16 members of “Cycling for Change” arrived in St. Francisville, Louisiana on August 8, 2010. Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, including David Aguilard and Ms. Tonna Fournet (who graciously hosted us for lunch) were instrumental in obtaining access to Angola for a lengthy and unique tour that included the “Red Hat cellblock” and the State’s current lethal injection chamber. Our tour guide was the prison’s youthful Chaplain, Brad Delaughter.
Brad provided insights into the history of Angola from its early days as an abusive and corrupt system through the reform efforts of then Warden Burl Cain. Cain served as Warden from 1995 to 2016.
Our tour included the Reception Center…
The inmate cemetery…
The inmate rodeo facility where an annual event is held by the inmates that is attended by up to 10,000 paying members of the public…
… And a “road trip” that provided us with views of the various maximum security compounds that are located throughout the 18,000 acre grounds.
Photographs of the interiors of facilities then in use were not allowed. Fortunately, I was able to photograph the infamous “Red Hat” cell block which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003. I have also supplemented this post with images from the internet which are in the public domain.
The “Red Hat” cell block stands alone among open fields as a somewhat non-descript one story concrete building.
It was created after the bloody 1933 escape engineered by Charlie Frazier of George “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s gang. After Frazier’s recapture he was placed in the end cell of Red Hat and his cell door was welded shut. He remained entombed in that cell until near the time of his death 7 years later. Red Hat was finally taken out of service in 1972.
Red Hat derives its name from the red cone shaped hats that its residents were required to wear as they worked the surrounding fields. Guards were under orders to “shoot to kill” any Red Hat inmate who removed their hat outside of their cell.
The building consisted of 30 cells that measured approximately 5×7 feet. Red Hat had no heating system. The cells lacked plumbing. Inmates were each provided with a steel bucket for use as a toilet. The buckets were emptied once a day. Ventilation to each cell was a small 1×2 foot steel grate located near the top of the high cell wall. A solid steel shutter was controlled by the guards who could foreclose even that minimal inmate access to fresh air. There was no view to the world outside the cells. The building was stifling in the oppressive Louisiana summers and frigid in the winter.
Adjoining Red Hat was the former death chamber, home to the electric chair known as “Gruesome Gertie”. The chair currently in place is a replica, the original is on display in the prison museum.
As seen today…
… and when it was operational:
Outside of Red Hat is the generator that gave life to “Gruesome Gertie” thus enabling her to take the lives of 87 condemned, including Elmo Patrick Sonnier who was chronicled in the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking”, and Willie Francis who is the only man to ever survive his “execution” in an electric chair. Willie, convicted at 16, was 17 at the time of the failed 1947 execution. He was successfully put to death in that chair one year later.
Angola is a working farm. Inmates provide the labor. It is known for the quality of the beef that is raised but not available for inmate consumption. It is also known for the husbandry and training of horses used by law enforcement throughout the United States.
The somber “highlight” of the tour of Angola was our admission into the Louisiana lethal injection chamber. It is currently in use and has seen the demise of 8 convicts. 69 inmates currently await execution in Angola on Louisiana’s death row. In the post-1976 “modern era” of capital punishment Louisiana has executed 28 people. Below is my 2010 reflection on our experience in the present execution chamber.
Our visit concluded with Mass and dinner, both attended by selected inmates.
Next: On to New Orleans.
Peace Everyone. Pete
“Seven Seatbelts for Angola” (August 10, 2010)
At 3 p.m. on August 9, 2010, the Cycling for Change contingent arrived for our tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Our group was augmented by representatives of Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, the bus driver (Mr. Washington), and Brad the prison chaplain.
It is 100 degrees outside. Factor in the humidity and that number exceeds 110. The sun is relentless, coating its unshaded victims like molten glass. Our bus briefly stops under a corrugated canopy, and after a guard takes a headcount and examines our picture ID’s the gate opens and our bus proceeds onto the prison grounds.
Angola is unlike any other prison. It was created from former antebellum plantations and encompasses an area that is roughly the size of New York’s Manhattan Island. The Mississippi River, which is nearing the end of its 2,500 mile journey forms an imposing natural barrier on three sides of Angola. The fourth side lacks a perimeter fence, but the dense mosquito infested swamp is considered an adequate deterrent to escape attempts. Brad comments that the last fellow to try his hand at “the swamp” emerged to surrender himself after 5 days, nearly eaten alive by the insects.
There are no imposing walls, and no medieval looking stone structures. Located here and there in Angola are razor wire enclosed “camps”. These are self-contained penal complexes of varying size, each one holding a portion of the total inmate population. Brad tells us that the camps are designated by letter: Camp “A”, Camp “B”, and so forth. We learn that Camp “J” is the discipline Camp, a jail within the Prison housing around 600 offenders who present special problems and risks.
If Louisiana’s prison needs grow, it is a simple matter to build additional camps in Angola. The spacious grounds look vacant, each camp appearing as a distant community separated by flat expanses of farmland. Angola is one of only three agricultural prisons in the United States. There are miles of row crops, vegetable farms, 3,500 head of cattle, and one of the largest horse husbandry stables in the Country. Inmates are the sole source of labor on these grounds. With the exception of the medically, mentally, or behaviorally unfit, every inmate has a job. The grounds are impeccable. There are decorative flower gardens, neatly trimmed right-of-ways, and pristine white cattle fencing. This could easily be Churchill Downs if there were only more trees and a racetrack.
Brad conducts our driving tour of Angola, directing Mr. Washington on where to turn and when to stop. Brad is a curiosity in his own right. He is a man/boy of 27, married and father of two small children, his baby face and soft eyes seem ill-suited for a chaplain who ministers to the spiritual needs of one of the “hardest” of congregations. Brad is a very big man who turned down a major college football scholarship in favor of the seminary and God’s calling. He Brad talks about Angola and its residents with love and respect.
Brad speaks of the reforms that have occurred at Angola over the last 30 years. Gone are the days of the “hot boxes”. Inmates are provided with a well-conceived system of freedoms, privileges, and incentives. He reports that prison gang activity has been largely eliminated and serious inmate on inmate violence has been reduced from over 500 incidents per year to less than 100 annually. Offenders have opportunities to advance their education with GED classes and college courses taught by volunteers from local colleges and Loyola University. Inmates eagerly seek to take advantage of those programs, even if they will never have the opportunity to use the knowledge in the free world.
As we proceed down one of the flat ruler straight roads Brad instructs Mr. Washington to stop at the small one-story concrete structure ahead on the left. This is the “Red Hat Cellblock”.
Angola’s Warden, Burl Cain, is credited with many of the reforms and improvements at Angola. Red Hat was closed by a prior Warden in the 1970’s. Rather than level this structure, Cain had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a monument to a penal system of abuse.
The grounds surrounding Red Hat are desolate and forsaken. At the rear of the Red Hat cellblock is a large rusted electric generator. Wires still run from the generator into a side room of Red Hat, the sole purpose of those wires being the delivery of a massive surge of electrical energy into the hand and feet restraints of a stout wooden chair. Within that room is also the original, but now rusted, three blade switch that delivered the lethal current of electricity to end the life of the chair’s occupant. Except for the wires and wooden chair the place is more like a room in a long-abandoned farmhouse; holes in the walls and ceiling, cobwebs, and mud wasps flying about. Returning to the bus we leave Red Hat, but the images of Red Hat will never leave us.
We arrive at the last stop of our tour. The bus pulls into a parking lot. In contrast with our experience at Red Hat, there is a well-maintained parking lot. The grass is trimmed with the precision of a golf course putting green. Flowering shrubs abound in front of and on the sides of the newer single story white building. There is no fence, but the pastel colored doors have curiously large locks, the kind that take keys which are the size of those made for a toddler’s play. We are greeted by uniformed prison staff, and Brad is addressed by name. We proceed into a group room that has 5 or 6 large round tables. The brightly painted cement block walls are decorated by two large murals. They are well executed paintings of Biblical scenes from the Old Testament; Daniel in the den of lions, and Elijah riding a chariot to Heaven.
Brad gives us brief instructions before leading us down a corridor and through another steel door. We enter. On my right is an opened door through which I see two small adjoining rooms which are separated from each other by a sliding wood paneled door. Each of these two rooms has two rows of short but comfortable leather chairs, the kind that might be found around an office conference table. One of these two rooms is slightly smaller and contains fewer chairs than the other. The chairs in both rooms are arranged to face large picture windows that look into our destination room, the lethal injection chamber.
We enter the death chamber in silence. The air is emotionally pulled from our lungs. In the center of the ceramic tiled floor is a single cruciform table secured upon a white enamel steel pedestal. Thin black vinyl pads cover the top and the arms of the table. Without instruction we arrange ourselves around the perimeter of the room which measures approximately 14 feet on each side. Near the head of the execution bed is a small window of one-way glass which conceals its interior and the identity of the executioner. The only connection between that room and the chamber in which we stand is a circular 4-inch port. On the wall near the left arm of the bed are two red telephones. We are told that one is connected to the State Superintendent of Corrections and the other to the Office of the Governor of Louisiana. At the right arm of the bed are the two viewing windows. These windows are crystal clear and provide the witnesses an unimpeded view of the execution proceedings. High above the bed the room’s lighting is furnished by 4 fluorescent fixtures. The light is harsh even though the fixtures’ lenses have browned with age. For some occupants of the bed the light might have been easier to gaze upon than into the eyes of the observers in the adjoining rooms. A large round clock is located ominously above the two red telephones.
“Let those who enter here abandon all hope.”
This is a foreign place. It is a place where few have been. It is a room where fewer have left alive than have entered. We are given 5 senses to know our surroundings, but here our nature resists the use of our senses. The only sounds in this place are those that we make by our presence. There are no smells. There is nothing within for the preservation of life; nothing to taste, nothing to drink. None of us touch the bed even though there is nothing to prevent it. What we know is delivered in stark clarity by our eyes. What our eyes disclose is strange, unfamiliar, not a part of our prior experiences… except that lying upon the cruciform bed I see seven common but out of place objects, and I understand the irony:
About 20 years ago, somewhere in this country there was a factory. Within that factory a worker stood at his or her duty station. It might have been a day like any other for that person. Perhaps the worker took pride in the knowledge that the simple task being performed would result in the saving of lives, the avoidance of serious injury, the enhancement of safety and security for thousands of people. On that day the worker carefully selected and packaged 7 seatbelts, addressing the shipping label: “Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola”.
In the course of our bicycle journey across America it was inevitable that we would encounter others who knowingly or unknowingly were traveling their own life pilgrimage. It was our mission to bring awareness to others of the problem of poverty in America. Yet one does not learn by speaking. It is in listening that we find enlightenment. It is in being connected to the moment that we are opened to appreciate what that moment had to offer.
Sometimes a “message” hangs in the air waiting to be heard… just as every miracle has two parts; that it occurred and that it was noticed. A lesson unheard, a miracle unnoticed, are each in their own way a little tragedy.
It is with this in mind that I pause to share two encounters. I recall them today as if they were yesterday and I believe that each of them nudged the course of my life in a small but meaningful way. This post is the reflection of my meeting with “Steve”. My next post will be of my meeting with John Bodie.
July 31, 2010
On the night of July 30th, in Dyersburg, Tennessee, I walked past one of our two support vans. These vans prominently display our “Cycling for Change” logo, and sponsorship by Catholic Charities. Next to the van was a man who sat astride a tired looking adult tricycle. His baskets held an assortment of “odds and ends” which appeared to be a mixture of personal items, random finds from a tour of roadside parks, and maybe almost every possession that he could lay claim to. The man, perhaps 40 years old and of African-American descent, wore a turban-like head covering and robes made from rough-spun cotton or burlap. Our eyes met, and without hesitation “Steve” (his real name is unknown to me) asked me if I knew who owned the van. I acknowledged my connection and we spoke briefly of the mission of Cycling for Change. As I left, he asked if he could leave some information on the windshield. I saw no harm and told him that it would be “ok”. I thought nothing more of the encounter that night.
The next morning as Christine was unlocking the van she called my attention to a sheave of folded papers under the windshield wiper. I then remarked that it must be from the man that I came upon the prior evening. Together we leafed through the papers… “Steve” had left us a tract on poverty in America, a handwritten note, and two dollars. He thanked us for our work, and for caring. Steve asked for nothing from us.
At breakfast I shared my encounter with “Steve” to our group. One of the riders remarked in humor that maybe he was a “guardian angel”. Throughout the ride that day the irony of “Steve’s” kind wishes and his donation occupied my thoughts. He lifted my spirits and the spirits of our group. He gave us perspective for the day and a greater sense of the meaning of our mission. In this way he truly was a “guardian angel”. The impact that he had on us was disproportionate to his humble contribution. A $10,000.00 donation from a wealthy benefactor would not have eclipsed the value of “Steve’s” gift.
My brief encounter with “Steve” has also given me pause to consider the other “Guardian Angels” who have eased our burden with kind words, encouragement, prayers… my Mother, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, our segment riders. You keep an eye on us and you care. I would list your names, but the peril of an innocent omission is too great. I trust that you know who you are and that I am thankful to you from the bottom of my heart.
The Great River, Old Man River, The Mighty Mississippi… At 2,202 miles from its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it is the second longest river in North America. The Missouri, deemed a “tributary” that discharges into the Mississippi at St. Louis, is the longest at 2,341 miles. The Missouri/Mississippi system ranks as the 4th longest river in the world after the Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. While deemed “mighty” in its length and breadth, its average discharge is only one-twelfth that of the Amazon River in South America.
Cycling for Change had reached the Mississippi at St. Louis on July 25th. After a “rest day” we turned south and loosely followed the course of the middle and lower Mississippi to New Orleans.
With the St. Louis Arch looming over our shoulders we navigated our exit of the urban sprawl into the river lowlands and rich bottom lands of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. I and segment rider Ben Harring made a brief afternoon foray into Arkansas on August 2nd which was otherwise a “rest day” in Memphis.
Six riding days to Memphis, 400 miles, an average of nearly 70 miles a day. The cool dry air of the western mountain states was a distant memory. The order of the days had become pre-dawn starts to beat the heat. Unfortunately, the morning air was dense with humidity that condensed like rain on our bikes, clothes, and goggles in those early hours. Humidity was the lesser of the two evils which by late morning gave way fully to the heat.
St. Louis to St. Genevieve, Missouri…
St. Genevieve to Cape Girardeau, Missouri where a bike mechanic at Cape Bicycle rescued me from the near disaster of a frayed cable that had tangled and wound within the precision mechanism of my shifter. He worked hours after closing time, refusing to give up on the bicycle disabling and potentially ride-ending mechanical failure. Eventually successful, he then declined payment for the hours of his labor.
Cape Girardeau, Missouri, through Illinois, a crossing of the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois and on to Hickman, Kentucky…
Hickman, Kentucky to Dyersburg, Tennessee…
Dyersburg to Covington, Tennessee…
Covington into Memphis, Tennessee where the early Sunday morning streets, including the iconic Beale Street of Blues music fame, were barely waking to the day.
Along the way we enjoyed brief moments of notoriety as a local radio station in Cape Girardeau began interrupting its broadcasts to report on our mile-by-mile progress through its listening area. One dedicated listener left her home and waited in a convenience store parking lot hoping to see us. She waved us down and was thrilled to join with us for a photo-op and autographs.
Breakfast diners in Hickman Kentucky similarly found fascination in our exploits.
Matt gave a television interview upon our arrival at Christian Brother’s University in Memphis…
…and even Memphis’ Mayor, the Honorable A.C. Wharton, Jr., headlined a “meet and greet” event in our honor.