Natural Manure

A new Springfield Armory exhibit examines the controversial Shays’ Rebellion and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Aaron Dwight Stephens was born in Connecticut in 1831. As a young man, he ran away to join the army and served in the Mexican War — until he was sent to jail for threatening the life of an officer. Stephens escaped from prison, however, and relocated to the Kansas Territory during the violent pro- versus anti-slavery pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas. There he joined up with abolitionist John Brown. Later, Stephens traveled with Brown and his band to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia) and participated in Brown’s failed attempt to take over the arsenal and end slavery in the United States by distributing weapons to slaves throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

Brown and his men were famously defeated by troops led by soon-to-be Confederate war hero Colonel Robert E. Lee. Despite being shot four times during the raid, Stephens survived the battle — only to be sentenced to death by hanging.

Today, the rifle Stephens used in the attack at Harpers Ferry sits behind a glass case in the Springfield Armory, part of the new exhibit Arsenals Under Attack! Daniels Shays’ Assault on Springfield and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, which runs through March 22, 2015.

“Stephens survived just long enough to get hanged,” Springfield Armory curator Alex MacKenzie tells me as we look at the glass case. Below his rifle, Stephens stares back at us from an old, black-and-white photo.

Arsenals Under Attack! explores the controversy and impact of both raids, not just through objects and images, but also via period quotes responding to each event. The space in the armory occupied by the exhibit is small — a mere 250 or so square feet — but the information contains much to digest and ponder.

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SceneHere: Signs of Ferguson

As media members from The Republican, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, ABC 40 Springfield, and CBS 3 Springfield waited under a wintry noonday sun, 200 students walked out of class to the applause of a handful of older activists and gathered at the entrance to Amherst Regional High School. After thanking a dozen or so students from the middle school who had joined them, they stayed silent for four and a half minutes — to represent the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body lay on the street after he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Students bowed their heads. Newspaper photographers snapped pictures. Kathleen Anderson, president of the Amherst chapter of the NAACP, raised her right fist. The American flag flapped gently at the top of the school’s flag pole in the chilly December breeze.

When the long moment was over, the march began. The students headed to town at a brisk pace, past the school’s football field, then down Lessey Street, holding signs that read among other things, “Being black isn’t a crime” and “Would you shoot me?” and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go!” The elders lingered behind.

Walking up Main Street along the sidewalk, the students passed Pasta E Basta and Amherst Books. As police officers stopped traffic, the students crossed the downtown intersection without breaking stride and rallied at the steps of the Jones Library.

Motorists turned their heads as they drove along the busy streets. A few honked supportively. A man in a New England Patriots jacket recorded the marchers with his cell phone. Two others lingered on the sidewalk, listening as students spoke through a megaphone. A woman in Amherst Coffee stepped outside to photograph the crowd.

Standing on a truck parked in front of the library, Amherst School Committee representative and UMass professor Amilcar Shabazz led the crowd in chants of “No justice, no peace!” (Or was it “Know justice, know peace”?)

As the students applauded, a moment of strange serendipity: a man drove by, largely unnoticed, in a company truck labeled Ferguson Signs.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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The Other John Hodgman

In his new comedy show, the part-time Western Mass. resident plays himself

As a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, John Hodgman plays the Deranged Millionaire and the Resident Expert, the latter of which grew as an extension of his first book, The Areas of My Expertise. On Bored To Death he plays Louis Greene, the nemesis to Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames. As Judge John Hodgman, he adjudicates on issues such as “is chili a soup or a stew?” in a regular column and podcast for the New York Times Magazine. And, perhaps most famously, he was the PC opposite Justin Long’s Mac in a series of Apple computer television ads.

So I am a bit surprised when Hodgman answers the phone as himself — or at least, as the character purporting to be John Hodgman — to discuss his new one-man comedy show I Stole Your Dad, which he performs this Friday at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

“Doing comedy alone on stage,” Steve Martin wrote in his autobiography Born Standing Up, “is the ego’s last stand.”

Hodgman seems to agree. “It’s more personal than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, “a stripping away of all of my personas.”

In I Stole Your Dad, he talks about 24-hour surf shops, cats watching public television, his experimentation with marijuana (as a 43-year-old), and “the lamest DJ battle” he’s ever been part of. He also transforms into Ayn Rand to read selections from the film criticism he imagines she would write for Parade Magazine.

The show deals with several adult themes, Hodgman says, though they are decidely un-sexy, PG-13 adult themes, like “neurosis, and the fear of irrelevance.” Regardless, it still is a comedy show. “I will be telling jokes,” he says.

I Stole Your Dad explores some of the same themes Hodgman discussed in his Mayan apocalypse-themed comedy show Ragnarok, which brought him to the Calvin Theater stage in 2012.

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SceneHere: Where the Good Cars Go

Abandoned cars sit sprawled out in a patch of woods in Pelham. Windshields smashed in, windows missing, headlights gone, metallic bodies rusted and decaying; they lie motionless, a demented traffic jam on that slow but inevitable road of erosion back to the earth.

One lies at an angle, resting against the stump of a tree. Another is overturned, one tire remaining, the others long gone. The axle of a third drives deep into the soil.

Autumn leaves fall gently on the wrecks, while shrubbery grows defiantly up through them. Several car seats are strewn about, their metal springs remaining where vinyl covers and cushions no longer do. Bullet holes riddle a driver’s-side door. Oak leaves and pine needles settle onto a dashboard.

All together, half a dozen or so automobiles—stripped down skeletons from another era—dot the forest floor like some long-lost, off-road auto wreck.

Only, there’s no road to be seen.

A thin path—not marked by blazes—leads to the cars from a trail about the width of an old logging road to the south. That larger path might have been wide enough to drive the cars along, but the thinner trail leading to the clearing is not.

On the other side of the cars is a larger path—likewise not marked—running up and down the hill. If the cars traveled this way once, the woods have since made their path unrecognizable.

Nearby, a no-trespassing sign straddles a swath of chain link fence, discouraging the more adventurous from exploring deeper up the wooded hillside.

Regardless of the route one follows to the abandoned automobiles, it takes at least 30 minutes on foot. Although the paths surrounding the automobiles are well-worn, it is common to explore the wreck without seeing another soul.

These woods have a labyrinthine quality. What seems to be the most direct trail one day inevitably misleads on the next. As the sun travels across the daytime sky and alters its path from season to season, the route to the cars in the clearing seems to shift as well, making exploration all the more enticing.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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Seventy Year-Old Ski Bum

Going into the backcountry with Chip Smith at East Longmeadow’s Competitive Edge

About a mile past the X on Route 83, after Donut Dip and Pasquale’s Restaurant and Tavern, just over the Springfield city line into East Longmeadow, next to the Pride gas station, is Competitive Edge Ski & Bike.

It’s not the typical location for a ski shop specializing in backcountry gear. And East Longmeadow isn’t the place most think of when searching out a ski gear salesperson with an extensive knowledge of telemark and alpine touring equipment, but that’s where Chip Smith is anyway.

Smith stands six feet tall and speaks with the sort of enthusiasm a young man or woman from the East might use in anticipation of experiencing the majesty of the West for the first time. He says he’s 70 years old, but an athletic 60 would be more believable.

If you contact Competitive Edge inquiring about gear that would hold its own on a mountaineering trip in the Alps or a heli-skiing excursion in Alaska, you will be referred to Smith, their backcountry ski guru.

Smith grew up in the Springfield area. He first skied the famed avalanche-prone headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire at age 16. He and his brother — who went on to captain the ski race team at Syracuse University — made the pilgrimage to Tuckerman’s every year before he moved out to the fabled West.

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Million Dollar Man: UMass basketball coach Derek Kellogg now the state’s highest paid employee

The University of Massachusetts recently announced a new contract extension for men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg, who, with an annual salary of $994,500, is set to become the highest paid state employee in the Commonwealth.

The new contract comes immediately after the program’s most successful season in over a decade. The Minutemen were nationally ranked for much of the year, and made the NCAA “March Madness” Tournament for the first time since 1998. The deal extends Kellogg’s position through the 2018-2019 season, and replaces his previous contract, which had two years remaining. A native of Springfield, he played for Cathedral High School, then at UMass under John Calipari in the early 1990s, the glory days to which the state university’s most prominent athletic program has been trying to return ever since.

“I’m grateful to the university, and their commitment to the men’s basketball program,” Kellogg told the Advocate, adding that he believes his contract brings greater stability to the team, which will help keep it on the national scene.

“It’s tough to put a price tag on happiness,” continues Kellogg. “I’m ecstatic to be here, and I think the contract reflects that.”

Massachusetts now joins 40 other states whose highest paid public employee is a college coach, according to an article on Deadspin. Of those 40 employees, 27 are football coaches, 13 are basketball coaches (including University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma), and one (at the University of New Hampshire) is a hockey coach.

“He has built a solid foundation for the future,” UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon said in a statement. “We felt it was appropriate to put something together that the university and he are both comfortable with in terms of the extension to keep him here for a long time.”

The new contract raises the inevitable question: are highly paid college coaches worth their salaries? Do they offer a return on investment?

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Another Normal: Ultra runners race distances of 30, 50, even 100 miles at a time

Amy Rusiecki laces up her running shoes one foot at a time, just like us mortals. She makes her way to the trailhead, then heads off at a gentle gait. And I follow.

We’re at the Notch Visitor’s Center on Route 116 in the Holyoke Range. The autumn leaves, just past peak, are scattered about the forest floor. The sun plays hide and seek behind the ridge. It is late afternoon. It had rained earlier, but now the sky is clear. Still, the tree roots and rocks that dot the trail are slippery, especially under cover of the leaves. We don’t gain too much elevation, but the route is not flat either. A few minutes later, we’re on a section of trail I never knew existed.

Stumbling along, I try to negotiate the multiple tasks of breathing, talking, and staying upright at the same time. Rusiecki is barely breaking a sweat, conversing easily while running. She doesn’t slip once.

“What gear is this for you?” I ask.

“You mean, like a car?”

“Yes.”

“First,” she admits. “Well, maybe not even first.”

Eyes focused on the ever-changing landscape, I wipe the sweat from my forehead quickly, careful to do so on a section of trail where a momentary decline in sight won’t result in another stumble. Taking a deep breath, I struggle to keep pace.

 –

People kept asking if I knew Amy Rusiecki.

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