Monday, August 31, 2009

Bad Timing

Driving home from work on Route 119 in Littleton MA one warm March afternoon, I passed a slow moving car in a legitimate passing zone. I stepped hard on the gas to complete the pass before the broken line turned solid. As I pulled back into my lane, I met a police cruiser traveling in the opposite direction. I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw his brake lights come on, so I made sure I stayed under the speed limit.

A short way down the road, the cop passed the same car and came flying up behind me with his blue lights flashing. I pulled off the road, took out my license and registration and rolled down the window. I watched in the mirror as the officer carefully donned his Stetson when he exited his vehicle.

He walked up beside my car and asked the usual questions. “May I see your license and registration please?” followed by “Do you know why I stopped you, Mr. Johnson?”

He had just finished the second question when a large truck roared by a few feet behind him. “Oh, shit,” he cursed under his breath as the immaculate Stetson blew off his head and tumbled into a mud puddle.

Have you ever experienced one of those times in life when you know you shouldn’t laugh at something but you can’t help yourself? Seeing this big burly cop chasing his hat into a very large puddle was too much for me. I couldn’t stifle a chuckle.

Unfortunately, he heard me.

My insolence was rewarded with a citation for speeding and passing on a solid line handed to me without a word. Since I wasn’t speeding and didn’t pass on the line, I decided right then to file an appeal.

Four weeks later, I went to the Ayer District Courthouse at the appointed time. The officer and I were called into the Clerk’s office for a hearing. I brought along a diagram of where I was when I passed and snapshots of the road.

I must have been convincing because the Clerk found in my favor. The law allowed the police officer to have the case reheard by a judge, and he requested it. As we walked out of the clerk’s office, the bailiff stepped up close.

“Just repeat what you said to the judge. This guy has a reputation as a hothead,” he whispered.

I walked down the hallway a short distance behind the officer, feeling pretty confident about the hearing. With my hands behind my back, I strolled toward the door to look outside. Suddenly, a security guard dashed over, grabbed me by the arm and yanked me away from the door.

“Where do you think you’re goi . . . oh, I thought you were cuffed,” he exclaimed.

“I’m only here for speeding,” I replied. We both saw the humor in the situation and exchanged smiles.

Fifteen minutes later, the police officer and I were standing in front of the judge, The cop went first and described what sounded almost like a high speed chase. I followed with my explanation of the road and my diagram and photos. The judge found in my favor, and the case was dismissed.

I was a very cautious driver in Littleton, Massachusetts for many months afterward.

Democrat or Republican—it doesn’t matter

A narrow group of interests control our government by virtue of their financial support of both political parties. The reason that Barak Obama and the Democrats will not champion real financial or healthcare reform is because they need the financial support of Wall Street and the insurance, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries to get re-elected. Like the Republicans, they know where the money comes from.

Universal healthcare and re-regulation of the financial industry may be in the best interest of the public, but they’re not in the best interests of corporate America. These modern-day robber barons depend on the obscene profits generated by the current system. They will withdraw their financial support from any politician who champions real reform; and they’re the ones that fund political campaigns, not the public.

So, from the President on down, can we really expect any of them to champion real reform? Of course not. They'll talk a good fight and then cut deals that keep their campaign war chests full of cash for the next election. It's silly naiveté to think otherwise.

The Democrats used the progressive left to get elected in 2008 just like the Republicans used the religious right in 2000. Ideology is not important. Political control is what counts.

The only hope for any real change is for the public to stand up and demand it. Unfortunately, we’re all too busy trying to make ends meet. And they're counting on that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

New England Covered Bridges

Covered wooden bridges were not invented in New England. They had been used in central Europe for several hundred years before they were built here. The ingenuity of six New Englanders, however, launched a whole new era in bridge construction.

In the late 1700s, America was growing. Rivers were a major obstacle to communication and land transportation. Bridges were needed for commerce and military protection, but deep water and spring flooding made low, piling-supported bridges impractical.

Haverhill MA (click on photo for larger view)

About this time, Timothy Palmer of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Theodore Burr of Torringford, Connecticut adapted European designs and became the first, successful builders of large wooden truss bridges in America. Both of these men were self-taught craftsmen who built numerous covered bridges all over the northeast. Old growth forests provided them with an abundant supply of large timbers.

Once the viability of large wooden bridges was proven, towns, toll-bridge companies and the infant railroad industry began building them in great numbers. By the early 1800’s, contractors were competing for a boom in building contracts.

Ithiel Town of New Haven, Stephen Long of Hopkinton, New Hampshire and William Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts came up with new truss designs that were easier to build than Palmer’s or Burr’s designs. All three patented and then licensed their designs to builders who used them all over America.

Taftsville VT

The unpatented Paddleford Truss was designed by Peter Paddleford of Monroe NH. About 1846, he remodeled the Long truss by replacing the counterbraces with a stiffening member fastened to the inside of the posts at points near the top and bottom chords. This resulted in an unusually strong and rigid structure.

Even with proven designs, bridge building was as much art as science. Bridge builders were ingenious and skilled craftsmen with little formal education. They relied on their training under a skilled master craftsman and their own experience. They knew the characteristics of the materials they worked with — not only how to cut and shape the timbers, but what the load bearing strength was. If there is such as thing as folk engineering, this was it.

Narragansett RI

For me, the most fascinating aspect of New England covered bridges is the superb craftsmanship. Because a wooden truss bridge’s strength comes from being under constant compression, every timber and joint in the timber frame must precisely fit to evenly distribute the load. And a typical 100-foot lattice type bridge could have almost a thousand hand-cut, hand-pegged joints.

There have been numerous stories about why these bridges were covered, but the real answer is simple. They were covered to protect the trusses from the weather. If water was allowed to settle into the joints and rot the wood, the life of the bridge would be short.

The fact that wooden covered bridges built nearly two hundred years ago are still in service is a testimonial to their design and the craftsmanship with which they were built. With good supervision and maintenance many of these will last for years to come.

W. Stewartstown NH

Townshend VT

New Sharon ME

Friday, August 28, 2009

Grim predictions come true

President Dwight Eisenhower understood war and the military industrial complex as only an experienced warrior can. In his last speech as President in 1961, he warned us about the United States in which we now live.

1. He warned us that our country’s prestige could be lost:
“We yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

2. He warned that an overly powerful military industrial complex could lead the country into unwarranted wars:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

3. He warned about an imbalance between private and public interests:
“But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”

4. He warned about plundering the earth’s resources:
“As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

5. He warned about getting caught up in fear and hatred:
“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

Very insightful for a President mostly remembered for his golf game. Maybe that's why we didn't listen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

I never met Ted Kennedy. I voted for him in my first election after moving to Massachusetts and every election after that until I moved out of the state forty years later.

As my senator, I was always proud of his stand on the issues. I was less proud of his private life when he was younger, but I saw him grow and mature into a person I could admire and respect in all ways.

He was a champion of the common man even though he had no reason to be and a hard worker though he had no need to be. He was the surviving son in a wealthy family who could have easily spent his life dabbling in business, playing polo and sailing on the family yacht.

I never understood the hatred that many conservatives had for him. It was like he stood for everything that was wrong with the federal government, politicians and America in general.

I still remember a bumper sticker I saw on an Arizona pickup truck in 1989: “The only good Kennedy is a dead Kennedy”. The driver didn’t look like he was into punk rock bands.

We would all be more fortunate if there were more politicians on both sides of the aisle in the Senate who were as committed to American democracy as Ted Kennedy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julie Y. Baker Albright --Still Life Painter

Julie Y. Baker Albright is a 6th generation Vermonter. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Vermont, Julie started in the arts as a potter. From clay, she moved on to watercolor and then to oil painting.

Julie paints in north light from life in the classical style. Her strong drawing skills were developed through years of drawing figure studies and her children.

She finds beauty in man-made objects and often includes pieces made by fellow artists in her still-life paintings. Julie also uses organic objects from her garden and from the fields near her studio. While the objects she chooses to paint are often common, she captures an uncommon beauty from the cool north light and the warmth of the shadows. She masterfully uses her paint to create the 3-dimensional illusion.

Landscape paintings have become an increasing part of Julie’s work in recent years. She travels the state’s back roads looking for small family farms and says Vermont offers all the inspiration she needs.

Julie’s paintings are available from her studio as well as from galleries in Boston, Vermont and Pensylvania. Her work has been exhibited in over 40 juried exhibitions across the country. She’s a member of the Oil Painters of America, The Copley Society of Boston, Academic Artists Association and the Hudson Valley Art Association.

Julie lives and works in Essex VT with her family. You can see more of her beautiful work at her website: You can reach her by phone at 802-878-0644 or by email at


The recent 40th anniversary of Woodstock brought back memories.

I bought our tickets in advance. On Thursday evening, I dropped the kids off with my mother for the weekend; and on Friday morning, my wife and I left from our apartment in Lincoln MA.

We were in central MA on Route 117 in our trusty Volkswagen Beetle when some kids ambushed the car with green apples. I stopped the car, but the boys ran into the orchard. I knew it was pointless to chase them.

One apple had shattered the windshield, making a golf ball-sized hole and leaving it so concave that the windshield wipers wouldn't make contact. We continued on, determined to get to the festival.

It started to rain. I couldn't see the road. Rain poured in the hole in the windshield. The radio said that the NY Thruway was already closed.

We turned back.

I’ve often wondered if my life would have been in any way different but for that one green apple.