March Confessions

This is NOT my high school marching band. This is a photo that I took when I was learning how to use a camera. So, don’t blame this photo on Jonathan. Buckingham Palace, London.

I marched with my high school’s marching band for four years.

However, I learned about the existence of football game halftime shows on the first day of band camp in my very first season of marching band, in the ninth grade.

See, I never cared about the actual sport of football. Up until the ninth grade, I never actually watched an entire football game. Not a single pro game, college game, or high school game. None.

Then, I started to play the clarinet in the fourth grade. My parents and I planned that I would study the clarinet in school until I qualified for the elementary concert band. Then, I would play for the junior high concert band. Then, I would participate in the high school marching and concert bands. This way, I would have an extracurricular to pad my applications for college scholarship money.

By junior high school, I wanted to quit the clarinet. My parents and my music teachers always had to get on my butt to practice. I did all of my required weekly practice in one bulk, pain-filled session, the night before each weekly lesson.

(I’ve since learned that playing the clarinet is A LOT like writing.)

My parents by that point had invested so much money and time in my music (see my post about terrible, painful Christmas concerts ) that they needed me to just power through with the band thing. They reminded me that the only way that I would be able to visit Disney World is if I visited it with the high school marching band. See, my parents had no money or interest for a family trip to Disney World. However, the school marching band traditionally visited Disney World once every four years.

So, I stayed with the clarinet. (Note that on the year that it was “my turn” to visit Disney, the decision makers determined that such a trip would be too expensive and require too much fundraising. Our marching band travelled to Hershey Park instead. We marched in a parade in Harrisburg and ate at a dinner theater.)

Our school district’s elementary and junior high school bands joined the high school band by performing at the opening ceremonies of one home football game each fall. We “helped” the high school band play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterward, we elementary and junior high musicians received free admission to that night’s football game. However, each year that I performed such in elementary and junior high, I headed to the concession stand as soon as my musical duties ended. As soon as I finished my hot chocolate and nachos, I went home.

So, even when I “performed” at football games during elementary and junior high school, I never saw a single football game halftime show. I didn’t know that the high school band even had to put on a show at halftime.

On my first day of band camp in ninth grade, we started learning the choreography for that year’s halftime show. I said to another musician halfway through that morning, “Do we have to practice stuff like this often?”

My band classmate said to me, “This is our halftime show!”

I said, “What’s a halftime show?”

I learned that week at band camp what a halftime show looked like. So, the very first marching band halftime show that I ever saw was one in which I personally performed.

I have another marching band confession. A few weeks ago, my husband Jonathan and I had a short discussion about school music programming and the purchase of sheet music for such programming.

I told my husband, “Mr. B. (my high school band director) had a very close friend who also taught music in schools. This friend got busted by the FBI for photocopying sheet music. He had to go to prison for it. In fact, he had to teach Monday through Friday, and then every Friday night, he had to report to prison until Monday morning.”

My husband gave me that look that he gives me when when I repeat a made-up story as if it were true.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s an urban legend, isn’t it?”

My husband confirmed that this was indeed an urban legend.

I complained above that I “stuck with” playing the clarinet for years so that I could go to Disney, and instead I went to Hershey Park. However, I’m grateful that my parents pressured me to stick with the clarinet. During the last two or three years of high school, I listed my band participation on applications for non-band-related opportunities. I “won” some of these opportunities. I have no idea if my time in the band made me a strong applicant for these. I bet that it didn’t hurt me. (See here about the award that I “helped” our band to win.)

I was a mediocre musician. The girls from my elementary school who started to play the clarinet at the same time that I did were all better at it than I was. (They practiced more than I did!) We had to compete each year for “rows” and “chairs” in concert band, just like a real orchestra. I was last row – last chair. The other girls from my grade quit the clarinet at the end of junior high so that they could be cheerleaders and majorettes. I stayed. I learned about the existence of halftime shows.

So, I have another confession. For the past month or so, when my husband leaves the house, I sometimes put together my old clarinet and I play it. I don’t actually play songs, unless you count “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (That’s one of the first songs in one of the first lessons in the instruction book that I had in the fourth grade.) No. I pretty much just warm up, and then try to hit a bunch of high notes that I struggled to play in high school. I stop when I get tired or when my husband gets home. (I don’t want to torture Jonathan.)

On that Saturday back in January when I first picked up the clarinet, I had to take a two hour nap after trying to hit high notes. I had forgotten how to breath!

It’s actually pretty freeing to play a musical instrument for which I never excelled. I can sound like crap and not let anybody down. Present Jenny doesn’t disappoint Past Jenny.

Back in the pre-Covid days, I worked in downtown Pittsburgh. (I guess that I still do. The City still taxes me for Emergency Services as if I still do.) I worked directly across the river from PNC Park. On the days of Pirates home games, this one busker always stood on the Roberto Clemente bridge and played the theme song from “The Flintstones” on his saxophone, over and over. I listened and missed my clarinet.

Now, I miss the saxophone guy.

I could busk when this Covid mess is all over. I carried my clarinet to school for a decade, and I marched with it for four years. I can take it downtown on a PAT bus. I know how to play “The Flinstones.” I know how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I am learning how to hit the high notes in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that I couldn’t hit very well in high school. I would give any money that landed in my case to the saxophone guy. I just think that it would be funny if I went from playing “last row – last chair” in a school band to busking downtown.

I wonder how many ex-marching band kids miss it the way that I do now?

Overcome by Engagement Photography

Gristmill and Covered Bridge at Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. This is the one-lane road on which we walked from the parking lot. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

So, just as a heads-up, you are not going to see any engagement photos in this blog post.

Yesterday, my husband Jonathan drove to Butler to run an errand. I came with him and we brought our cameras along so that we could take photos if we saw anything scenic.

After Jonathan finished his errand, he drove us to McConnells Mill State Park. The park has a mailing address in Portersville, Pennsylvania. However, the park is surrounded by woods and includes woods and hiking trails. The park features an 1860’s-era gristmill next to Slippery Rock Creek.

The mill sits at a small waterfall.

Next to the mill sits a covered bridge built in the 1870’s. The bridge crosses Slippery Rock Creek at the bottom of the waterfall.

Here is the park’s official website.

A ghost story exists about the gristmill. So, if you want to conduct a ghost-related internet search, there you go.

The park includes very limited parking between the mill and the covered bridge. However, I don’t think that I have ever actually visited the park when any of this parking was available to me. A majority of park visitors have to park on the hill above the park. A one-lane road leads from the two parking lots on the hill above, down to the mill. You can have a shorter walk (instead of walking from the parking lots down the one-lane road to the gristmill) if you use a “multi-floor level” set of wooden steps from one of these parking lots, down the extremely steep hillside, to the mill.

Now, when Jonathan first suggested that we visit the park yesterday, I got nervous thinking about the ice.

Serious accidents happened on the hillside and also on Slippery Rock Creek. In fact, one of my former classmates was involved in a fatal accident at this park shortly after we graduated. For this reason, even though I visited this park with my parents when I was a kid, I get nervous about safety (mainly, falling over the hillside or into the creek) at McConnells Mill.

However, we both brought spikes to wear on the bottoms of our boots. We agreed to not use the hillside steps. We decided that if we could not find a place to safely park, we would give up on the visit.

Also, of course, we brought masks and agreed that we would leave if we weren’t able to social distance. The inside of the mill building is currently closed for the winter and also for Covid-19.

We did park in one of the parking lots at the top of the hill. That parking lot was pretty empty. We walked down the one-lane road to the mill. We saw and heard people “ice climbing” on the steep hillside (which, by the way, is actually a cliff).

I felt more confident about the ice than usual because I wore the spikes on my boots. Still, I stayed pretty close to the mill. I did cross the road in front of the covered bridge at one point for a photo. However, I didn’t walk through the bridge for a look at the mill from the other side of the creek.

Gristmill and Covered Bridge at Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. The covered bridge was directly behind me. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Jonathan trekked more adventurously than I did for his own mill photography. However, he told me that for some of the shots that he wanted, he had to wait for other visitors to get out of the way. Then, he had to get the shots that he wanted and get out of the way of other photographers.

Looking through my photos of our trip, I don’t have that many people standing in my shots. Maybe that’s because all of the people were over with Jonathan, trying to take photos from the same vantage point as him.

Covered Bridge. Slippery Rock Creek. McConnells Mill State Park. February 20, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

At the mill, I saw a young woman wearing what looked to me to be a “winter engagement photo outfit.” You know, boots with jeans. But not the type of boots that one wears to shovel a car out of snow. The type of boots that one wears when trying to look cute. A cute top. A cute coat. Red lipstick. The entire look was the look of a woman trying to look cute.

Jonathan and I never actually had our own engagement photos taken. However, Jonathan took the engagement photos for several of our sisters. I acted as his “photographer’s assistant” for these events. That is, I held Jonathan’s lighting equipment where he needed me to hold it. (So, I guess that I was actually a human light stand.) I served this same function for several other photography sessions that Jonathan did for other people’s senior high school photos and engagements.

It’s been several years since Jonathan’s last customer contracted him for a photography gig. At one time, Jonathan looked into the possibility of swapping his day job for the life of a professional photographer. However, then a completely different job opportunity presented itself to Jonathan.

I should also mention here that I took my sister O.’s senior high school photos on my own. On the day that I did this, Jonathan rested from a sprained ankle and thus he wasn’t around to offer assistance. I am flattered that O. asked me to do this.

Here’s the tl; dr to all of this: I like to scout out tourist attractions for spots to take portrait photography. When we visit parks and other attractions, I like to detect which people are part of a high school senior or engagement photography session. Obviously, at least one person in the party has to have at least one camera. Sometimes, the people in the group carry multiple cameras and / or lighting equipment.

So, anyway, I saw this woman at the mill who looked as if she was dressed up to have her engagement photo taken.

Jonathan showed up. Jonathan offered to walk back to the parking lot himself, then drive to the mill and pick me up. I accepted Jonathan’s offer.

I waited at our agreed-up pick-up spot directly across the road from the front of the mill. I saw the “cute engagement outfit” woman, accompanied by two men and a woman with a camera.

The woman with the camera directed the “cute engagement outfit woman” to pose with one of the men. I assumed that the “cute engagement outfit woman” and the man with whom she posed were an engaged couple. The woman with the camera posed them in front of an ice formation.

The woman with the camera then asked the second man to get out of her shot.

Then, the woman with the camera posed the “engaged couple” in front of the mill’s front woodwork.

The woman with the camera again berated the second man to get out of her shot. Actually, I think that her exact words were, “Get the hell out of my shot.”

To be honest, I kinda got the impression that the second man was the photographer’s significant other or else some other man with whom she was extremely familiar. She spoke to him as if he was on this trip specifically to accompany her. Maybe he was even supposed to be her photographer’s assistant. Except, he was a photographer’s assistant who annoyed the photographer.

I heard the photographer say to the engaged couple, “Now, show us the ring.”

Just then, Jonathan drove up to me. I jumped into his truck. I was pretty cold.

“Hey, I think that somebody is getting engagement photos,” I said, pointing to the group.

“I saw them earlier,” said Jonathan.

Jonathan then said, “I think that the photographer brought her guy along as an assistant, and he is in trouble.”

Jonathan explained that he heard the photographer ask the guy, “Did you bring it?,” apparently referring to a piece of equipment. Then, she said, “Oh, nevermind,” as if she were already upset at him.

Then, Jonathan told me that he got the vibe from observing this group that the man in the “engaged couple” was in trouble with his woman as well.

I mentioned before that Jonathan and I didn’t get engagement photos. Jonathan proposed to me on a cold December 22 at night at Pittsburgh’s West End Overlook, on the mountain above The Point- the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Jonathan brought his camera in order to photograph me as he proposed. However, when he went to take my photo, his camera’s batteries were dead. He looked through his pockets for fresh batteries. I was sick with an earache and infection and in no mood to pose in the cold. The morning after our engagement, I visited my doctor and got a prescription for antibiotics.

A few months after our Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve engagement, we road tripped to Toronto for a long weekend. We stopped at Niagara Falls on the way up AND on the way home. We watched the icy Niagara River flow over the icicle-covered ledge of the Falls. I pressured Jonathan to get down on one knee with my ring in front of the Falls for me to take a photo. I intended to tell people that it was a photo of Jonathan proposing to me at the Falls. I don’t know what happened to that photo. I don’t know how I managed to keep from scaring Jonathan away.

I’ve been to other parks where I’ve watched other couples as they pose for photos. Sometimes, the couple seems happy. Sometimes, the couple seems unhappy. For instance, the man seems unenthusiastic about posing for the photo, and the woman seems unhappy about the man being unenthusiastic.

This other time, Jonathan and I picnicked at another park and a bunch of people showed up and held a wedding at a pavilion near our picnic table. We overheard the entire ceremony. The couple wrote their own vows. The bride said to the groom, “I’ve loved you ever since the day that you ran up the wrong set of stairs and knocked on my door.”

On the drive home from our picnic, Jonathan said to me, “Poor girl. She had to marry a guy who couldn’t figure out which stairs to use.”

I am glad that Jonathan put up with me when I made him pose on one knee in front of Niagara Falls.

Girl Scout Confessions

My niece is selling Girl Scout cookies right now. I ate an entire box of thin mints by myself this past week. That’s not my real confession today, though.

I was a Girl Scout for years. My school district didn’t have a Girl Scout troop for high school kids, which is pretty much why I stopped being a Girl Scout. (That’s okay, though, because I was busy with marching band by then.)

Anyway, I attended two different Girl Scout camps: Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp in Meyersdale, and Camp Conshatawba in Summerhill. I also went cabin camping with my Girl Scout troop at a state park. I was kind of a brat at all three of these places.

(See my post on my other blog about the Girl Scout Mother’s Day cabin cooking adventure. Apparently, I had a real problem with learning to not talk about other people behind their backs.)

The Maple Valley camp was actually held at a public park (Maple Valley Park) in a wooded area outside of Meyersdale. The park had a swimming pool open to the public back then. The Girl Scouts only occupied one section of the park for one week each year. The Boy Scouts had their own week and their own camp at this same section of this park.

The Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp was held one week in August from Monday – Friday. A school bus picked us up in Berlin each day, and took us the ten miles to Meyersdale. Other Girl Scouts from all over Somerset County also attended this camp with us.

Once we arrived at camp, we were assigned to a temporary Girl Scout “troop” and we did most of our activities with that troop all week. The troop usually included other girls around our same age who attended our same school, if possible. (So, our “troops” often included the same girls who belonged to our “school year” Girl Scout troop.)

We went swimming each day if the teenaged lifeguards who supervised Maple Valley’s public pool didn’t hear thunder.

We sang songs when the camp leaders wanted to keep us busy and tire us out.

We learned how to prepare food in the woods so that we could camp by ourselves and still be able to eat. One time, we mixed up instant pudding in plastic resealable bags just in case we needed to make pudding and didn’t have any spoons or bowls or something. One of the plastic bags burst all over one girl’s jeans. In my adult life, I have never mixed up food in a plastic resealable bag, even when I was in the woods. I think that my Girl Scout camp experience turned me off from ever preparing food in plastic bags.

We played in the small creek that ran through Maple Valley Park. Then, one day, a camp leader approached our “troop” and told us that we couldn’t play in the creek any more because one of the other “troops” just saw a snake in the creek. Looking back, I think that it’s just a pretty good decision to not let large groups of pre-teen kids play in creeks that aren’t pre-inspected for broken beer bottles and discarded fishing hooks. (That’s actually how my sister K. later cut her foot one time when she was on a trip with just me and our dad.) Also, I have feared snakes my entire life. (In fact, my dad kept me out of his woodshed and also the upper loft of our garage for DECADES by telling me that snakes lived there.) However, on this particular stint at Girl Scout camp, I was PISSED that an adult told me that I couldn’t play in a creek “merely” because somebody saw a snake. I was convinced (with absolutely no basis for my reasoning) that the Boy Scouts were totally allowed to play in the creek, and that I was only told to not play in the creek because I was a Girl Scout.

The “snake incident” is not my real confession, either.

Despite its name, the oldest kids at Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp actually camped at the park on Thursday night into Friday morning.

We had to “put up our own tents,” even though I am pretty sure that the adults did most of the real work.

Looking back, I wonder how much “fun” the adults had with this.

Anyway, one year, I was in the same “troop” as a girl that I shall call Padmé.

Now, Padmé and I were both from Berlin. We went to the same school and she and I had been in the same “school year” Girl Scout troop. However, Padmé was actually a grade level above me in our school. Our “school year” Girl Scout troop had thirty other girls in it. Padmé and I were not really friends during the school year.

However, during that week at Girl Scout camp, Padmé and I became best buddies.

On Thursday night, Padmé told me that I could “sleep on one of her pillows.”

Guys, this was all pre-Covid.

Also, just for the record, I did bring my own pillow.

However, I accepted Padmé’s offer. I slept on one of her pillows that night.

However, I also fell asleep that night with chewing gum in my mouth.

I woke up the next morning to discover that my chewing gum now covered one side of Padmé’s pillow.

I picked some of the gum off of Padmé’s pillow. The rest of the gum stayed on Padmé’s pillow.

I chose not to cop to Padmé about getting gum on her pillow. When I returned her pillow, I turned the “gum side” so that it faced away from her.

We said our good-byes. I stared at the gum side of her pillow.

I don’t think that Padmé and I ever had another conversation . As I said above, she was a grade ahead of me in school. I don’t think that we were together in Girl Scouts again. Years later, I saw her often in the hallway of our high school. I don’t think that we were in any of the same high school activities.

I wondered now long it took Padmé to see the gum.

I wondered now much trouble she got into with her mom.

I don’t think that I ever again fell asleep with gum in my mouth.

We Met Tonto, the Ohiopyle Cat

Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania. February 6, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

We drove to Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park today for a short walk.

Ohiopyle State Park sits on the Youghiogheny River. There is a story of some historical significance from the 1750’s involving George Washington as a young British officer. This blog post is supposed to be about a cat, though, so I won’t bother telling the George Washington story. You can Google it.

Ohiopyle features several rapids and waterfalls. I myself have gone whitewater rafting on the Youghigheny River (“the Yough”) at Ohiopyle. I shared a raft with a girl who wore her contact lens on the trip. After each time that we fell out of our raft into the water, she panicked that she had lost her contacts. She kept asking her boyfriend to check to see if her contacts were still in her eyes.

(I don’t have room to make fun of this girl. I once went white water rafting on the Cheat River in West Virginia in April. I wore my glasses instead of my contacts. I fell out of the raft several times, and on the rapids known as the Big Nasty (or maybe it was the rapids known as the Coliseum), my glasses swam off of my face. I grabbed them, but I lost one of the lenses out of them.)

The bicycle and walking trail known as the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) runs through Ohiopyle State Park. The Ohiopyle trailhead and restroom is actually right across the road from the main falls and almost right next to the Falls Market. (More on the Falls Market in a little bit.) I have personally biked to the Ohiopyle trailhead from the trailheads in both directions. However, this blog post is about a cat, so I will write about the GAP some other time.

We did not visit Cucumber Falls because the Cucumber Falls parking lot was completely packed when we drove past it. Not only that, but there was a truck sitting in the parking lot entrance with its engine running, waiting for a parking spot to open up. There was no place to (safely) park alongside the road. Finally, we realized that even if we were to snag a parking spot, we would have a very difficult time trying to social distance on the narrow trail that leads from the parking lot down to the bottom of Cucumber Falls.

So, no Cucumber Falls for us today.

We did visit the main waterfalls, though. I took the above photo with my new camera.

The Cat

Tonto, the Ohiopyle cat. Ohiopyle State Park. February 6, 2021. Photo: Jonathan Woytek

When we were at the main falls, an orange cat came over and sat down on a retaining wall in front of us. Next to the snow.

Jonathan petted the cat and read the tag on the cat’s collar.

The tag said:

I am Tonto. I live here.

We said hello to Tonto.

Then, after we both backed away from Tonto, some other people came over and said hello to Tonto.

Tonto stretched.

Tonto sat in the sun for a few more minutes.

Then, Tonto ran off.

So, I Googled “ohiopyle” and “cat.”

Almost everything that I found on my Google search was hidden by some media website’s paywall. Some of these paywalls had “free trials” if I gave them my email address and agreed to let them spam me until the end of my days. Still, I didn’t feel like putting forth any extra effort to get behind any of these paywalls.

So, I learned from the non-paywall content that Tonto was one of several cat siblings that a heartless person dumped on the grounds of Ohiopyle State Park.

The owners of Falls Market Restaurant & Inn adopted Tonto.

Falls Market sits directly across the road from the main falls at Ohiopyle. Tonto likes to cross the road and visit the falls. Tonto is quite social and he poses for photos.

Falls Market, Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Home of Tonto the cat. February 6, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

The Facebook page for Falls Market Restaurant & Inn asks viewers to post photos if they have the opportunity to meet Tonto.

So, I posted this above photo that Jonathan took of Tonto.

Nice to meet you, Tonto.

Redux: Punxsutawny Phil Tribute

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Circa early 1990’s. (Photo: Shirley Gaffron)

Groundhog Day is February 2.

My sister blogged about our family’s trips to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (Punxsy) and about her own meeting with Punxsutawny Phil.

Here you go: Happy Groundhog Day! My Brush With The Prognosticator of Prognosticators (Updated)

Mysterious Unsolved Ghosts

Lamy, New Mexico. June 2009. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

I watched a lot of the original series of Unsolved Mysteries this past month. Just to clarify, I am NOT referring to the recent Netflix reboot. I am talking about the original episodes hosted by Robert Stack (and still later, Dennis Farina). These are currently available to watch for no additional charge on Amazon with an Amazon Prime membership.

My favorite episodes are the ones about ghosts and urban legends.

Now, hold on to what I just told you. It’s going to sound as if I am now changing the subject, but I’m not.

I blogged last summer about my newly found love for Adam Selzer’s Facebook page for his tour company, Mysterious Chicago. As I explained on that blog post, Selzer is a Chicago-based author and tour guide who stopped giving live tours last year when Covid became a thing. Selzer pivoted to virtual tours that he makes available for free on his Mysterious Chicago Facebook page. He provides links to his online tip jar so that anybody who enjoys his virtual tours can pay what is within their means to help him keep his lights on. For now, Selzer livestreams his tours and keeps the video archive available to watch on Facebook later.

I enjoy Selzer’s tours about ghosts and urban legends.

(See a pattern?)

Now, from what I learned from watching Selzer’s virtual ghost tours, he started out working as a ghost tour guide for companies owned by other people. Selzer received local folklore from these companies. He researched the stories himself and found that many of these stories:

  • weren’t true;
  • weren’t completely true; or
  • didn’t have documentation to back up the story

In some cases, the stories were just completely fabricated, presumably by somebody else in the ghost tour industry.

So, in the Mysterious Chicago virtual tours that I have watched, Selzer pointed out what the local folklore said about a story and what other Chicago tour guides said and what documentation he actually uncovered about the story.

So, now back to Unsolved Mysteries.

The ghost of Julia Staab, a Jewish German American who died in 1896, allegedly haunted an upscale hotel (La Posada) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Julia died in the Santa Fe mansion that her husband, the merchant Abraham Staab, built for their family. She was 52 years old and the mother of eight children. Her youngest child passed away a few years before Julia’s own death. Julia allegedly spent a significant part of the end of her life shut up in her bedroom. She did not attend her own daughter’s wedding.

Decades later, this mansion became the La Posada de Santa Fe, a hotel and spa.

In the 1970’s, a La Posada hotel employee reported seeing a ghost. More ghost claims followed. Rumors and local folklore spread regarding Julia’s “real” cause of death and her existence in the spirit world.

From what I understand, Santa Fe’s own local ghost tour industry included stories about Julia’s alleged ghost.

The Unsolved Mysteries‘ Season 7, episode 2 (which aired October 2, 1994) included the story of Julia’s haunting. (In my opinion, the description of this episode on Amazon didn’t do a very good job of confirming that this story exists on this episode, but it’s there.)

The show included coverage of an actual “scientific” ghost hunt, complete with EVP recordings! 

Here’s the thing that I want to point out, though: this Unsolved Mysteries episode included an interview with a woman identified as on the screen as Betsy Sollitt, a “Local Folklorist.”

I Googled “Betsy Sollitt” and “Santa Fe.” According to her October 2016 obituary, she was born in Chicago. After several moves, she ended up living in New Mexico and she was highly involved in the arts and humanities scene there. (She also apparently lived and worked for some time on a tall ship. My husband will be excited when I tell him about that.)

Based on the obituary, I am under the impression that “local folklorist” Betsy Sollitt was a highly educated, well-meaning woman.

(The obituary also identified her under a different name. When I Googled her under this other name, I found several letters that she wrote to local newspapers regarding environmental concerns. Again, she comes across to me as a highly educated, well-intentioned woman.)

However, a little bit over a year ago, I read the family memoir “American Ghost” by Hannah Nordhaus. (This book was first published in March 2015.)

The author Nordhaus is Julia Staab’s real-life great-great-granddaughter. (Note that Nordhaus referred to Julia Staab throughout her book as “Julia,” which is why I chose to do so as well.)

Nordhaus researched family documents, letters, immigration records, etc. She interviewed family members who had personally known Julia and her children. Nordhaus is a direct descendent of Julia’s daughter, Bertha. Nordhaus obtained Bertha’s diary from the private collection of a cousin who was also a direct descendent of Julia and Bertha. Bertha wrote this diary during the final years of Julia’s life.

Nordhaus travelled to Santa Fe and to Julia’s childhood home in Germany.

Nordhaus discovered that some of the “local folklore” surrounding Julia Staab, as presented in this Unsolved Mysteries episode as well as stories shared by other local “folklorists” and ghost tour guides, wasn’t actually true. Including some of the more unsavory rumors about the events leading up to Julia’s death.

Here’s the blog post that I wrote previously about Nordhaus’ “American Ghost.” This other blog post includes my personal experience on my only trip to Santa Fe.

Now, after I read “American Ghost,” I asked myself:

What “right” did a self-appointed local folklorist have to appear on primetime television to promote a story that wasn’t fully verified from a historical perspective? Was this story even “hers” to tell?

Now, in the folklorist’s defense, this Unsolved Mysteries episode aired in 1994. Nordhaus’ “American Ghost” was published in 2015. From my reading of this family memoir, significant parts of Nordhaus’ research was based on records to which she had access (or at least, EASIER access) because she was a family member of her research subject. For instance, Nordhaus obtained Bertha Staab’s diary because she reached out to a family member with whom she had an existing relationship, and that family member reached out to a different family member.

Also, to be completely honest, would the book-buying public actually be interested in Julia Staab and her incredible real-life story were it not for the efforts of ghost tour guides and also “local folklorists” who promoted the tale of her ghost?

Would Nordhaus have even researched this particular great-great grandmother if this ancestor wasn’t already famous in her paranormal afterlife? (I have 8 great-great grandmothers and 8 great-great grandfathers. So, I assume that Nordhaus also has 8 great-great grandmothers and 8 great-great grandfathers.)

So, perhaps the ghost tour guides and the “local folklorists” did the Staab family (and their extended family) a favor by generating national (international?) interest in Julia Staab.

I am sure that I am not the only person who felt at times as if this January was endless. We are going into February in a few days. I intend to watch many more old Unsolved Mysteries episodes. However, I will do so while keeping in mind the lessons that I learned from Mysterious Chicago and American Ghost.



(Also, as a sidenote, Nordhaus mentioned in her book a few “rumors” about Julia Staab’s ghost story that weren’t presented in the Unsolved Mysteries episode. These rumors were reportedly told at some point by either Santa Fe ghost tour guides or by local people on a message board, or perhaps both. In my own personal opinion, some of these “rumors” in the Julia Staab ghost story were problematic for their anti-semitic tone. Nordhaus didn’t express this opinion in writing in her book. To reiterate, this is my personal opinion. In my mind, this is another reason to think critically about folklore before one regurgitates it.)

My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

I Helped to Win a Music Award on a Technicality.

This photo is NOT a photo of the Mighty Marching Mountaineers.

This post is in honor of the postponed Grammy Awards.

When I was in high school, I played the clarinet in the high school marching band.

I was really bad at playing the clarinet because I very rarely practiced on my own initiative. One time, our band director, Mr. B., listened to me play and then all that he said was, “I am losing patience.”

I was really bad at marching because I am uncoordinated.

However, I showed up for every band practice. (Well, except for that one time when I decided to go to Pizza Hut in Somerset with my mom instead.) My rural school district was three buildings connected by a tunnel. My high school graduating class had less than 100 students. The band needed every warm body willing to show up.

Just for the record, my K. sister was much more dedicated to the marching band than I was. She started off in the fourth grade playing the clarinet. However, in high school, K. switched to the trumpet because our band desperately needed members for its brass section. Our school’s music department lent her a trumpet rent-free for several years. Mr. B. gave her special lessons so that she could learn the trumpet from scratch. K. actually practiced the trumpet at home a great deal. She was one of the band members who played “Taps” at a local cemetery every Memorial Day.

Since I was in the marching band, I attended every single home and away football game in which my high school participated for 4 years. So, that was 40 football games.

So, at one of these 40 football games, a bunch of us got bored or something. My sister and my best friend weren’t around. I sat with a bunch of kids that I had known since elementary school but with whom I didn’t have a close relationship. We decided to make fun of the cheerleaders. We made fun of the cheerleaders loudly. We had a pretty loud discussion about how terrible the cheerleaders were at being cheerleaders.

Well, here’s the thing:

One of the cheerleaders had a father who sat on the school board.

And this father who sat on the school board happened to sit pretty close to the band that night. He sat close enough that he could hear us.

It doesn’t help at all that I, personally, have a pretty loud voice. Pre-Covid, my husband Jonathan used to have to tell me to use my inside voice in restaurants. Back in high school, I didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me to use my inside voice. I also didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me not to talk trash about Somebody when that Somebody’s influential father was sitting next to me.

So, from what I understand, this father of a cheerleader who was also a school board member asked our high school administration why the Berlin Brothersvalley Mighty Marching Mountaineers looked and sounded so terrible.

The next week, the entire band and the band director, Mr. B., had to meet with our principal and explain to him why the school board now complained about how we looked and sounded.

We had to come up with an action plan for how to better represent our community. We had to have extra practices in order to improve our marching.

I think that the administration or the school board also told Mr. B. that we had to participate in a band competition in the next season. They might have even told Mr. B. that we had to win a trophy in at least one competition.

So, when we showed up for band camp that next summer, we had to prepare for football games, parades, and also for a band tournament.

Now, this band tournament was held about an hour or two north of our high school. Mr. B. scheduled extra practice sessions for this tournament.

When we arrived at the tournament, we learned that all of the bands were grouped into classes based on either the total population of our high schools or else the sizes of our bands. Either way, our band qualified for the class designated for the smallest schools. We learned that there was only one other high school band that would compete with us in our class. The competition awarded 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies to each class.

So, regardless of our final score at the end of this competition, we would take home at least a 2nd place trophy for our class.

We took home the 2nd place trophy.

Our only real “competitor” – the school that took home the 1st place trophy for our class – had a marching band so small that we joked that they could all fit on one of those miniature school buses. Looking back, I think that this school’s entire marching band was about the same size as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I don’t know if Mr. B. entered us into this particular competition knowing that we had an excellent chance of bringing home a trophy. Maybe this was just a lucky break.

The morning announcements in school that next Monday included our “second place trophy at a band tournament.”

For every performance for the rest of my career in high school marching band, we marched in to the introduction of the “Award-Winning Mighty Marching Mountaineers.”

For the rest of my high school career, every time that I applied for something – be it a scholarship, college, etc – I mentioned my involvement in an award-winning marching band.

I don’t know if this “achievement” actually helped me to get accepted to college or to win any of the scholarships that I won. But, it sure as heck didn’t hurt me.

So, the pissed off school board member actually did me a favor when he decided to teach us a lesson.

I was supposed to learn not to talk about other people in public. However, I learned instead that many “professional achievements” are actually the result of dumb luck.

Gingerbread House Demolition Day

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I woke up this morning and realized that today was THE DAY. Today was Gingerbread House Demolition Day.

Here in New Kensington, officials mark unsafe and abandoned buildings with a red “X.”

Upon inspection, I was forced to mark the Gingerbread House with a red “X” for the following Code Enforcement violations:

1.) A critical load-bearing wall leaned.

2.) The structure had no actual means of ingress or egress. I noted that all “doors” and “windows” were actually painted on by icing. This presented a fire hazard.

3.) It appeared that the lower body of Santa Claus was stuck in the chimney.

4.) The Gingerbread House was constructed in mid-December 2020. Since today is January 3, 2021, the Gingerbread House was at increased risk for hardening and cracking. Thus, it was imperative that the Gingerbread House be demolished this weekend.

The demolition crew arrived in time for an aerial photo. Flying conditions in the Gingerbread House’s neighborhood were NOT optimal for drone photography. So, I had to improvise for the below photo:

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. Aerial View. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Now, literature and folklore claim that the fork ran away with the spoon. I maintain that the fork did NOT in fact run away with the spoon. The fork participated in the Gingerbread House demolition crew.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

As we removed the roof, we confirmed our statement that a load-bearing wall leaned.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Unfortunately, upon the removal of this same load-bearing wall, we discovered the decapitated remains of a missing local Gingerbread Man.

It was necessary for us to summon the coroner of North Pole County. An investigation determined that the Gingerbread Man suffered decapitation when Jenny Woytek accidentally dropped him.

Gingerbread House Demotion. Coroner’s File. January 3, 2021.

After we completed the demolition, we took a final aerial photo of the site.

Gingerbread House Demolition. January 3, 2021. Jenny Gaffron Woytek Aerial Photography.

This dining room table real estate is now available for a new project. Contact Jenny Woytek. Serious inquiries only, please.