My TRUE Parade Hero (It’s NOT Who You Think!)

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

This blog is “The Parnassus Pen.” Parnassus is the oldest neighborhood of New Kensington, so here’s a New Kensington update.

Scroll to the end of this post to learn who I nominate as the TRUE hero of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

Super awesome REVITALIZERS – that is, people who poured time and money into fixing up downtown New Kensington – rolled out the first “Fridays on Fifth” this July, which was last month. These super awesome folks intend to celebrate “Fridays on Fifth” on Fifth Avenue on – wait for it – the last Friday evening of each month. Well, each month when we don’t freeze off our dupas from standing outside on Fifth Avenue.

Here are photos that I took of last month’s inaugural Friday on Fifth.

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

When you look at my below photo, you will see a red brick wall directly behind a food truck. You will see that the building to which this wall belongs has a verticle sign that includes in white the letters “EGE.” This building housed the former Bloser’s Jewelers in downtown New Kensington. Fun fact: Crews filmed a scene from the 2019 movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” at this building.

(Confession: I read Maria Semple’s 2012 fiction novel upon which they based this movie adaptation. I haven’t yet watched the actual movie. Have you read the book or watched the movie? Just a heads-up: the story takes place in Seattle and the dad in the movie works for Microsoft. That’s one way that the book lets readers know that this family is FANCY and SPECIAL. The movie producers used Pittsburgh and the towns around Pittsburgh (such as New Kensington) as a stand-in for Seattle. Pittsburgh’s a less expensive city. One can live quite comfortably in Pittsburgh and still maintain an inflated sense of importance. Just saying.)

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

So, now I want to share an observation. I live within walking distance of the blocks where the “Fridays on Fifth” events were held. In fact, my husband walks from our house to downtown New Kensington twice a day. I could have walked to this event from my house. I should have walked to this event.

However, the evening of this event – July 23 – was really hot and muggy. I’m lazy and I’m out of shape. So, I drove to this event. However, I showed up about an hour after the event started. I drove past THREE full, generous-sized parking lots before I found an open parking spot.

As soon as I finally parked, I took a photo of a building because I liked the way that the setting sun hit the building. Here is the photo:

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, had I posted this photo by itself with no context, I just KNOW that I would have received comments to the effect of, “That’s so sad! I remember when downtown New Kensington THRIVED. Now all of the streets are so empty! Just look how empty everything looks in that photo!”

You can’t tell from just looking at this one photo that just one block away, the street was closed and PACKED with people.

So anyway, the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association held its 2021 convention and parade in New Kensington on August 7. Jonathan is a volunteer firefighter in New Kensington, so convention events busied him that entire weekend. I watched the parade and I posted about a hundred parade photos here on my Facebook page.

Now, I want to say something about my parade photos that relates to something that I just said. On more than one occasion, after I posted New Kensington parade photos, a commenter would post something to the effect of, “Look at that empty street in the background! I remember that when I watched parades in New Kensington back in the day, the streets were PACKED with people!”

So, I want to point out several things about my parade photos:

1.) I don’t watch parades near the grandstand. Even pre-Covid, I chose to not be around huge crowds of people. I choose less popular blocks when I watch parades. I usually sit on Fifth Avenue for most of the New Kensington parades. The grand stand usually sits on Fourth Avenue. (New Kensington parade routes often use both streets.)

2.) I burn VERY easily. So, sit in the shade when I watch parades. Fifth Avenue is very narrow. The sun usually hits at an angle so that one side of the street is shady and one side of the street gets all of the sun. I sit on the shady side. So do a lot of other people. Not many people chose to sit out in the sun, on the opposite side of me.

3.) I get paid $0 to take parade photos. The most that I ever made from taking a photo was $15 and a ribbon when I was ten years old and I won second place or something in the juvenile landscape division of the photography competition at the Berlin, Pennsylvania Community Fair. (I look a photo from a scenic viewing platform on top of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh.) So, I don’t sit out in the sun in order to take parade photos that have more people in the background.

So, here’s the thing. You know how I just mentioned that I’m lazy? Well, when Jonathan and I go out and have mini photography lessons, Jonathan tries to encourage me to switch camera lenses during our photo shoots. I usually refuse because I’m lazy. Also, because I’m clumsy and I’m not confident that I can switch out camera lenses “in the wild” and not drop one or both of the lenses.

So, at this month’s parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association, I borrowed Jonathan’s fairly new, fairly expense (for us) special camera lens. I switched camera lenses several times during the parade. I DID NOT drop any camera lenses.

However, I lost the the screw-on plastic hood for Jonathan’s special camera lens. I figured this out about an hour after I got home from the parade. I drove back to the parade route and I retraced my own walking route, looking for said hood.

I did this during a thunderstorm and a torrential downpour.

I did not find the hood.

I jumped on the internet. I found a replacement hood from a photography supply shop for $29.99 and free shipping.

So, it actually costs me money to take photos at parades.

I was really excited to see Somerset represented in this parade. I grew up in Somerset County. My dad retired from teaching at Somerset Area High School. I grew up in the next school district over, Berlin Brothersvalley. I belonged to Berlin’s high school marching band for four years. I marched in Somerset’s own Summerfest parade every July for four years. The Summerfest parade always happened the same week as my birthday. So, here’s Somerset’s fire truck as it appeared in New Kensington’s parade.

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for:

Here’s my personal HERO of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

It’s this woman:

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I don’t know this woman’s name. She pushed a wheelbarrow behind the parade’s horse partcipants. I didn’t personally witness this woman shovel horse dung off of Fifth Avenue. However, I assumed that she shoveled horse dung off of Fifth Avenue and into the wheelbarrow that she pushed.

Now, all of the men and women who volunteer for the fire service are heros. My own husband belongs to New Kensington’s volunteer fire department. I know that he worked off his butt during convention time.

However, I nominated the horse dung shoveler as my personal parade hero for this reason:

As I mentioned above, I marched in Berlin Brothervalley High School’s marching band (the Mighty Marching Mountaineers) for four years. I marched in many a parade BEHIND horses. On streets COVERED with horse dung. Apparently, cleaning horse dung off of streets during parades wasn’t a thing when I was a teenager in Somerset County? (Were the parade organizers in Berlin, Meyersdale, and Somerset a bunch of uncouth barbarians?)

For instance, I mentioned above that I marched in the Summerfest parade in Somerset every July for four years. It happened the same week as my birthday. One year, the parade happened ON my birthday. I marched on a horse dung-covered street in downtown Somerset on my fourteenth birthday.

So, as a former marching band kid, I’m really happy to see that New Kensington parades include horse dung shovelers.

My runner-up for parade hero is the New Kensington parade organizer who made sure that the horse group brought their own horse dung shoveler.

As Seen From the Boat Deck of the SV Pinniped

Off the Coast of Presque Isle State Park (Coming into the Passage to Presque Isle Bay), Erie, PA. Lake Erie. As Seen from the Deck of Our Sailboat, SV Pinniped. July 31, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

My mom, Shirley, was extremely gifted in the textile arts. Everyone who knew her well knew that she was really, really good at knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, sewing, and quilting. Anything that involved fabric or yarn, really.

One of my earliest memories involves a pink rabbit costume. Mom was under the impression that the town’s trick-or-treating would be held on Halloween night. Well, about a week or so before Halloween, she walked to the post office. She learned from a postal employee that our community’s Halloween parade and designated trick-or-treating hours were actually planned for THAT VERY EVENING. So, she booked it home and got to work on finishing the rabbit costume. It was ready for four-year-old me to wear just before the parade started.

Around this same time, Mom made me a pink (see a theme here?) quilt. She entered said quilt in the community quilt show. She took me to view this quilt show. I threw a temper tantrum when I saw “my” quilt in the exhibition, complete with a tag. How dare Mom attempt to sell “my” quilt!

I didn’t legitimize my own mother’s hand crafts. I don’t excuse myself for this, but I think that this was because a lot of my mom’s work fell into the arena of stuff that they did on “Little House on the Prairie.”

You know – “Women’s Work.”

(By the way, I loved both the “Little House on the Prairie” books and the television show. Mom sewed me and my sisters bonnets and ruffled dresses so that we could be just like Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

But – Mom was an artist. Several years ago, Mom and I visited the Carnegie Museum of Art (in Pittsburgh) while my dad went hunting back home in Somerset County. Mom specifically requested that we view a special exhibition about the hand crafts of women around the world. A lot of the art in this exhibit were the exact same mediums that Mom had created for the people that she loved for decades.

That being said, in the last year or so of Mom’s life, she decided to learn how to paint landscapes. She picked out painting supplies as her Christmas gift from my dad for from Santa Claus or whomever. She watched Youtube tutorials on landscape painting. She painted seashores. This was during the same year that she battled cancer.

Jonathan gives me photography lessons. Our photo outings got me through the chaos of the past few years. When I take photos of boats and birds and water, I feel the peace that I imagine that Mom felt when she painted beaches a few summers ago.

I and my two youngest sisters celebrated a June birthday by going to one of those places where you pay a flat fee to paint a sign. You know, where you can bring your own wine and charcuterie board, or your own beer and nachos, or whatever food and drinks make your own life worth living. It was fun. It reminded me of eighth grade art class.

I’m so grateful to my mom for teaching me to survive through life’s rough patches by clinging to anything that gives me joy. Also, for finishing my pink rabbit costume at the last minute.

Did Confederate Soldiers Climb That Haunted Circular Staircase? Also, Watch Me Use the Phrase “Convicted Polygamist” in a Blog Post

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s residence on Pittsburgh’s North Side. This particular neighborhood is now branded as Allegheny West. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” at this residence. (Photo: Dennis Woytek)

Confederate soldiers climbed the circular staircase that inspired “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery novel about a haunted house.

Maybe?

Who is Mary Roberts Rinehart? And who cares?

Well, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was a mystery fiction novelist born and raised in Pittsburgh. I care because my late mother-in-law, Fran, enjoyed reading Rinehart’s books so much that she read excerpts of them to me shortly before her own death in 2016. Fran and I actually got to tour the Pittsburgh house where Rinehart wrote her novel “The Circular Staircase.”

Also, in full disclosure, I am a dues-paying member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of “Sisters in Crime,” a club for writers (and readers) of crime fiction. The Pittsburgh Chapter is officially the “Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter,” in honor of this local mystery writer. (Also, pre-Covid we met at the Carnegie Library in Oakmont, not in Pittsburgh.) But the true reason that I cared enough about Mary Roberts Rinehart to blog about her several times was that Fran was a true fan of Rinehart’s work.

One year, Fran took “The Circular Staircase” with her on vacation. Then, she downloaded a Rinehart travel memoir onto her tablet and read that during the same vacation. She paused multiple times to tell my husband and myself about the her favorite parts of the Rinehart memoir.

Fran read us a page in which Rinehart talked about the household staff that Rinehart brought along on an African safari.

Fran said, “Can you imagine? Bringing servants with you? To go camping?” She laughed. She got quiet and read more for a little bit. Then she told us about another story in the Rinehart memoir that tickled her fancy.

(I do the same thing every time that I blog here about something that I just read that excites me. You are all excellent people for reading the little tales that I recount from other people’s books.)

Oh, let me mention this again – “The Circular Staircase” took place in a haunted house!

So, as I just mentioned a few paragraph’s ago, Rinehart grew up on Pittsburgh’s North Side. For those of you from out of the area, the North Side is the part of Pittsburgh on the North Side of the Allegheny River. Rinehart trained as a nurse in a Pittsburgh nursing school. Through this profession, she met her physician husband. They lived together on the North Side in the house pictured at the top of this blog post. This house sits in the portion of the North Side now branded as Allegheny West. (The neighborhood even has its own website!) Now, Heinz Field – the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home stadium – sits on the North Shore of the Allegheny River. Allegheny West sits behind Heinz Field.

Allegheny West’s neighborhood preservation group sells tickets to various tours throughout the year in order to raise money. Jonathan and I toured Allegheny West during several of its Victorian Christmas-themed house tours. Jonathan’s parents joined us during several of these tours.

I personally cannot afford to live in this particular neighborhood. It’s directly across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. One year, one of the homeowners featured on the tour told our group that he walks to Pittsburgh Steeler games because he lives so close to Heinz Field. However, I enjoy seeing all of the loving work that the homeowners put into preserving these homes built in the 1800’s.

The houses featured on the Christmas house tours change each year. One year, the featured houses included the house photographed above – the one where Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase.”

So, that’s how Fran and I and our husbands got to tour the house.

Now that I’ve toured the North Side house, I can tell you that this particular house DOES NOT have its own circular staircase. We were told that a completely different house – a house somewhere in a rural area, a house where Rinehart stayed once on a vacation – possessed the circular staircase that inspired the novel.

Which begs the question:

Where is the haunted house with the circular staircase?

So, I have in my possession a self-published book titled “History of Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg” by Rev. Reid W. Stewart, Ph.D., Point Pleasant Ltd. Lower Burrell, PA 2005.

Just to clarify any confusion, the word “Allegheny” in reference to place names comes up A LOT in this blog post. The reference to “Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County” in this particular book title has NOTHING to do with the Allegheny West neighborhood of the North Side of Pittsburgh – except that both of these are on the Allegheny River. I wanted to clarify this because the North Side of Pittsburgh ALSO includes a section that was called “Old Allegheny” because, again, ALL of these are located on the Allegheny River. (Also, to make things even more confusing, the “Old Allegheny Township” referenced in the book title is in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, including the North Side where Rinehart lived, is along the Allegheny River in Allegheny County.)

Now, the North Side of Pittsburgh (in Allegheny County) – where Rinehart lived – is VERY CLOSE to what Pittsburghs call “The Point” – the Allegheny River’s confluence with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River.

On the other hand, the geographic area referenced in this book title – Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg – is actually the area where I live. (Again, this is along the Allegheny River in Westmoreland County.) This referenced geographic area is a pretty large area. The places mentioned in this book title are approximately 20 – 40 miles UP RIVER from Pittsburgh’s North Side where Rinehart lived.

Jonathan and I live in New Kensington because this is where he grew up from the age of 12 onward. Fran – Jonathan’s mom – also grew up in New Kensington. This self-published book copy that I just referenced came from Fran. She lent this copy to me. Or, somebody gave this copy to me after she died and they cleaned out her book collection. Anyway, I have no idea where Fran acquired this copy of this book. Local fair? History talk? Booth at a parade?

Anyway, this history book includes a “Chapter 9 – Legends and Stories of the Area – Ancient and Modern.” The second story in this chapter cites a “local tradition” that a local mansion included “divided staircases” which inspired “The Circular Staircase.”

Per Stewart’s History of Old Allegheny Township, this house “stood toward the southern end of River Forest Golf Course.” Stewart noted that Duncan Karns built the mansion in the 1870’s. Stewart also noted that Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” in 1908. The mansion later burned down. Per Stewart, Rinehart visited the house as a young woman.

This history book provided no citation for the claim except for “local tradition.”

In full disclosure, my sister-in-law – Fran’s daughter – got married at the banquet hall at River Forest. I pedaled past River Forest on a bike trail once. Also, Jonathan and I drive past it several times a month during each of the summer months. River Forest is near Freeport, PA. I had never heard of the former Duncan Karns mansion until I read this chapter in Stewart’s book. I figured out the approximate location of the Duncan Karns mansion based on my (limited) knowledge of River Forest. The site of the former mansion is near a four-lane highway and a major intersection. I mention all of this because – in my opinion, at least – the former Duncan Karns mansion does not live on in regional memory as a beloved landmark.

By the way, the site of the former Duncan Karns mansion is approximately 35 miles up the Allegheny River from the North Side of Pittsburgh where Rinehart lived.

This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.
This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.

Steward also claimed in his book that Duncan Karns never got to live in his mansion because he lost all of his money in speculation. So, if the Duncan Karns mansion wasn’t haunted, I guess that at the very least, it was cursed.

What does this all have to do with Confederate soldiers?

Well, here’s the thing. I wrote this blog post in April 2018 speculating on the “true” location of The Circular Staircase inspiration. I included much of the information that I just included here.

Crickets.

Yesterday, I received a comment on my blog post about the claim that the Duncan Karns mansion inspired “The Circular Staircase” from a “Mary.” Mary’s comment read in part:

This is not that house. Melrose Castle Estate in Casanova Northern Virginia is the house that inspired Sunnyside the haunted mansion in The Circular Stair.

Well, I had never before heard of Melrose Castle Estate. So, I Google researched the place. Here is part of my response to Mary’s comment:

I see that the Wikipedia entry for this structure claims that it inspired “The Circular Staircase.” Wikipedia includes the following source for this claim: Heincer, Amanda (May 24, 2017). “Historic castle for sale in Warrenton”. Fauquier Times. Retrieved 2018-10-13. However, the article as it is currently available online doesn’t actually provide any sources to cite this claim.

When I Googled this today, the first page of results include a link to this article on http://www.virginialiving.com. This article also claims that Melrose Castle is the inspiration for “The Circular Staircase.” But I don’t see any information in this article to back up that claim.

Per my quick Google research, it appears to me that Melrose Castle is in fact a beloved local landmark for the people of Casanova. I even located a Facebook page for “Fans of Melrose Castle.” I have a sibling who currently lives in Northern Virginia. Perhaps I will visit Casanova when I visit my sibling. Per my Google search, it doesn’t appear to me that Melrose Castle is currently open to the public. Do you know if the building is viewable (and photographable) from a public street?

In my reply to Mary, I listed two media sources that claimed (without citation) that Melrose Castle in Virginia is actually THE INSPIRATION for “The Circular Staircase.”

Here are the other claims that these two sources made for Melrose Castle:

Confederate Hospital during the Civil War

Union Headquarters during the Civil War

Home to a Large Angus Cattle Herd

Thoroughbred Horse Farm

Home of the Racehorse “Noble Quest, who won multiple French prix before being retired as a highly sought-after stud

Site of Many a Breakfast (Fancy Society Breakfasts, I Guess)

Site of Garden Tours

Site that Still Needs a “Final Phase of Renovation” (Note: Since I own and live in a house built in the 1890s’s, whenever I learn of an old house that “needs work,” I yearn to run screaming in the opposite direction.)

Home of William Weightman III, a “Polo Player” and also a Convicted Polygamist

So, it looks as if Melrose Castle in Northern Virginia, former home of the “Convicted Polygamist” William Weightman III, might have actually inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart to create her haunted house in “The Circular Staircase.”

Maybe MULTIPLE houses inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart. Finding the Muse is not a zero sum game.

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Since it’s almost my birthday, I’m going to end this blog post with a little rant. I really wish that the settlers who named everything for their settler maps hadn’t given everything the same name. I got exhausted just trying to explain the differences between all of the places that all had “Allegheny” in the title. Also, I grew up about 70 miles west of the Pittsburgh area in the Allegheny Mountains. My mom graduated from a community college that had a branch in our area (Somerset County, Pennsylvania) called Allegany College of Maryland (yes, different spelling), but there is also a very expensive, private liberal arts school called Allegheny College about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Thanks for reading my blog!

That Time When I Almost Cut Off My Finger

Thank you to everybody who read last week’s blog post. An extra thank you to everybody who reached out to me after I posted it.

I forgot a pretty major part of last week’s story about my struggle to learn about photography.

I forgot to tell you about how I almost cut off my finger.

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that I took a course on photojournalism during my final semester of college.

I NEEDED to pass this class in order to graduate. Saint Vincent required this class to graduate with a degree in Communications. Also, Saint Vincent charged tuition by the credit back then. I purposely took the absolute bare number of credits that I needed in order to graduate in order to reduce my student debt. So, I needed the three credits from this photojournalism class just to meet the minimum credit requirements for a bachelor’s degree – any bachelor’s degree.

I had a pretty eventful final semester of college. My youngest sibling was born less than two months before I graduated from college. (March 20, so happy belated birthday, Little Sister.) Now, my parents had FIVE children, not four children. I am the oldest of their five children. I absolutely could not just move back home with my parents for the next year or two until I found a well-paying job.

I worried about the photojournalism class until it made me sick. I KNEW that I would fail the class and NOT graduate on time.

Anyway, for our final photography project, we had to crop our photos and mat them for an exhibit to be held during finals week in Saint Vincent’s student union, which we called “The Shack.”

We held at least one workshop during class time to mat our photos. We each purchased Exacto knives and photography mats ahead of time.

Now, I will out myself about what a big idiot I can be. I don’t have a very good track record with knives. When I was a kid, my dad gave me my very first Swiss Army Knife. The VERY NEXT MORNING, I watched a videotape of the musical “The Sound of Music” as I played with my new knife. I closed the knife on my hand. I cut myself. I didn’t show my parents. They would take my knife away from me. I just grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and pressed it against my bloody hand as I continued to watch “The Sound of Music.” I quietly waited for my hand to heal.

Apparently, I didn’t get any better with knife safety after I became a legal adult. I screwed up an entire bulk foil package of ketchup when I worked at Wendy’s (next to the PA Turnpike in Somerset) the same month that I turned 18. I was supposed to cut it out of a cardboard box with a box knife. I used the box knife to slice through the bulk ketchup’s foil container instead. The manager was pissed. She had me transfer all of the ketchup to another container so that most of it could be saved. I kept my job because apparently Wendy’s Next to the Turnpike desperately needed employees.

Anyway. I know – NOW – that I must never, ever, ever cut towards myself when I cut something with a knife.

I apparently did not know this when I was a final-semester college senior.

I cut towards myself with the Exacto knife.

I sliced through the tip and side of one of my fingers.

As soon as I cut myself, I knew that it was bad. I sliced though the top of my finger and along the side a bit.

My finger bled.

I ran out of the classroom without speaking to anybody.

My dorm was connected by a walkway with the room where we held the photography mat workshop. The workshop was on the same level as the walkway, as was my dorm room.

I ran into the hallway of my dorm and showed my finger to my very good friend, “Saoirse.”

Saoirse said, “I’m driving you to the hospital.”

Saoirse drove me to the Emergency Room at the hospital in Latrobe.

We got to the ER. We arrived at pretty much the same time as a woman who came into the ER on a stretcher.

The medics said that the woman had just gotten hit by a car.

The woman said, “I can’t feel my legs.”

The ER triaged me ahead of the woman who got hit by a car.

That’s right. I cut myself. At the hospital, I got to cut the line ahead of a woman who got hit by a car.

The ER sewed my finger back together. My finger eventually healed, just like my hand eventually healed that time that I closed a Swiss Army Knife on it.

Nobody in my photography class realized that I cut myself. Not the instructor. Nobody.

I returned to the classroom later that day and picked up the rest of my stuff. It was all still there. Even all of my photography workshop stuff. It was all exactly how I left it. Including the Exacto knife.

I got a B in the photojournalism class. I don’t know how that happened, because my final project looked pretty terrible.

I will forever be greatful to Saoirse for driving me to the ER that day. Saoirse, if you are reading this, thank you.

After this incident, I dreaded ever matting anything again. So, maybe my fear and anxiety of photography actually all came from the day that I almost cut off my finger.

Years later, my husband Jonathan walked me through how to properly mount a photo – you know, how to do it without ending up in the ER. He helped me to mat a photo that I actually like for an exhibit that I actually wanted to enter.

So, maybe my key take-aways from this story is that I have a gem of a friend in Saoirse and I have a gem of a husband in Jonathan.

Also, be careful with knives.

Photography Blog Confession

Here is a photo that I took of my husband taking a photo at Phipps Conservatory

I enjoy spending significant amounts of time in pursuit of a skill that other people had already written me off as unable to learn.

I’m talking about photography here.

Just as a background, I have a strabismus. I can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time. I don’t remember ever being able to see out of both of my eyes at the same time, so perhaps I was born this way. I don’t know. However, in kindergarten or the first grade, I had a lot of trouble learning how to read. We had to sit at tables with other kids in our class, and take turns trying to read words. Then, we all got moved to tables based on which words we could read.

I got moved to the table with all of the rest of the kids who couldn’t read any of the words.

I resented my classmates who were moved to the tables with the kids who COULD read words. I thought, “Oh, hey, I bet that they think that they are better than me!”

Then, when the teacher tried to teach me how to read, I got pounding headaches. I got sent home on more than one instance due to my headaches.

My mom took me to my very first of many eye doctor appointments. The doctor determined that I had trouble with my vision.

(One time that I was in college, I told this story to some of my friends. They told me that this was the plot of a “Little House on the Prairie” television episode. Well, that may have been the case, but it also happened to me in real life.)

At the age of six, I ended up with my first pair of bifocals. At this point in my life, my mom also drove me an hour or so on several occasions to that I could visit a specialist in regards to my strabismus. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere, these visits to the specialist were a major trip for me. During each visit, I had to do eye exercises that involved trying to focus on an object tied to a string.

(I know a lot of parents who brag that their four-year-old child can read. If you are one of those parents, good for you! I could NOT read when I was four years old. When I was six, I had to sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. And look how I ended up. Tomorr0w – March 18 – is the third year anniversary of my blog here.)

I’ve seen it suggested on the internet that Hitler and various serial killers such as H.H. Holmes had strabismuses. (Strabismi?) Well, I have one as well, and I haven’t killed anybody yet.

(Also, in the past five years, I visited a new optometrist AND a new PCP, and they both asked me whether I could actually see out of both eyes. Then I had to explain to both of them that I visited a specialist for my strabismus when I was younger, but that I still can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time, and I have to switch back and forth.)

I mention all of this because I still struggle with my depth perception.

I mean, I can drive a car and dress myself. However, my depth perception issues frustrate me in learning new skills such as, you know, photography.

So, I didn’t really learn much about photography when I was a kid because I’m old and there was a larger barrier to entry back then in regards to equipment and technology. Smartphone with cameras weren’t a thing. Neither were DSLR’s. We had point-and-shoot cameras that required film in our house. However, my parents had four kids at that time. (It was later five kids because my youngest sibling was born when I was in college.) Camera film was expensive, and so was the cost of having photos developed. So, for instance, if I wasted an entire roll of film trying to photograph an inanimate object in an artsy way and then my mom paid to have the film developed, she wasn’t very happy to get the photos back from the developer and discover that an entire package of newly developed photos were just of the sky or a tree or a building. If I wanted to take a photo, it should be of a person or people, and they should be photographed head-on as they posed.

I had access to ONE film camera that wasn’t a point-and-shoot when I was in high school. It was the camera that belonged to the school newspaper, and I wrote for the school newspaper in 12th grade. However, I didn’t understand how any of the settings worked on this camera, so I happily passed all of the photography duties off on a classmate who actually knew how to use the camera.

So, anyway, fast-forward to my years at Saint Vincent College. I switched my major from accounting to Communication Arts, but my heart wasn’t in it because multiple people had made it very clear to me that I was destined to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of my life. (I DID work at Wal-Mart after college – for three months! Then, I moved on to something else. I ended up finding better-paying jobs. Majoring in something “unworthy” is NOT a moral failing that automatically consigns one to a lifetime of being a Victorian chimney sweep or something.)

So, my heart wasn’t really in my Communications classes because multiple people told me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in the field. Saint Vincent College’s poor quality video equipment also frustrated me.

Looking back, I’m sure that my history of depth perception problems also caused me trouble with the one or two college video classes that I took. This didn’t occur to me at that time, though. I got B’s in video production, and I was more than happy to just take my B’s and just forget about the shame that I felt at struggling with all of it.

Anyway, for my final semester in college, I took my only still photography college class, which was called “Photojournalism” and was cross listed in the course catalogue for both Communications and English. It was required for my degree program. I had to pass this course in order to graduate. I didn’t have any background in still photography and the only camera that I owned at that time was a point-and-shoot. I didn’t understand still photography or camera use very well. I felt that the instructor was frustrated with me the entire time. I honestly worried all semester that I would fail the class and that I would not be allowed to graduate or walk at the end of the semester.

I finished this photography class with a B. I’m not at all sure how I got a B in the class. My final project was total crap. I think that the instructor just wanted to get me out of his hair.

So, as a result of these college experiences, I left school with a very bad taste in my mouth for video and still photography.

I ended up working in the financial services industry instead. I didn’t do anything creative for several years after college because I was made to understand that creativity didn’t pay the bills. And the people who told me this were right to tell me this. I still work in financial services. I can afford camera and blogging equipment now because I work in financial services.

I eventually met and married Jonathan Woytek. Jonathan enjoyed photography when he was in high school and college. He took photos for his high school yearbook. He drifted away from it. Then, on the way to our honeymoon in South Carolina, we drove off of the interstate at a very specific shopping center in North Carolina because Jonathan had learned that this shopping center included a very specific camera store. You see, Jonathan’s Best Man gave him wedding gift money specifically to use for the purchase of a new camera. Jonathan bought that camera on the way to our honeymoon.

Jonathan restarted his own love for photography.

A few years after this, I became interested in blogging. I told Jonathan that one of the things that I didn’t like about other people’s blogs were poor quality photos. Jonathan told me that if I wanted to create a decent blog myself, then I would have to learn how to create my own photos for it.

Then, Jonathan spent hours giving me photography lessons. We had to start pretty much from scratch because I had such a bad taste in my mouth with my prior experience trying to do photography. I cried more than once when Jonathan tried to get me to understand such concepts as Depth of Field.

Now, I might not be the best photographer in New Kensington or even in my own household. However, I consider it to be a very big accomplishment for me to go from “I don’t think that I am going to graduate from college because I can’t figure out this photography thing and I can tell that the instructor hates having to explain things to me,” to this: Last summer, my dad’s neighbor got socially-distanced married, and I took a photo of the bridal party’s socially-distanced car parade as it drove through my rural hometown. I emailed the photo to my aunt because she went to the same church as the bride, and a few weeks after this, I learned that MY photo had appeared in my childhood home county’s only daily newspaper as a “Photo of the Week.” Somebody had decided that MY photo was good enough to forward on to my childhood hometown newspaper.

Now, I mentioned that in the past, one of my barriers to entry to photography was my lack of equipment and technology. I have a lot more resources now. Heck, I use a program called Lightroom to straighten every single photo that I take because all of my photos are crooked when they come off of my camera’s memory card. (See above re: strabismus.) But I would argue that it’s pretty snobby to suggest that I shouldn’t enjoy or work on a discipline just because I need specific equipment in order to do it now. Ever since the 1800’s, photographers have taken advantage of the most high tech equipment to which they personally had access at that time.

I say all this, because I was thinking about all of the times in my life when I have observed people shutting other people down in particular disciplines. I thought about all of the times when somebody told me that I “wasn’t any good” at a skill, so I stopped trying to be good at the skill. I thought of the times when I observed the same thing happening to other people.

Heck, I STILL remember that time when I was six years and I had to go sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. This ceased to be a problem shortly after I got my first pair of glasses. So, now I feel terrible if I ever made any of my classmates feel this same way. I hope that I didn’t shut down any of my classmates for trying to get better at school themselves.

I wrote this post because I wanted to share my experience about how I believed for YEARS that I was really terrible at a particular discipline, and that I would never improve at it, but now that I have fewer barriers to entry, I really enjoy this discipline as a hobby. I will probably never make a living doing photography. However, photography and blogging (and going on long walks to find things to blog and write about) significantly helped me get through my mom’s death in 2018 and also the past year of Covid-19 stress.

Happy third-year blog anniversary to me.

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.

Harry K. Thaw’s Grave

Grave of Harry K. Thaw. Henry Kendall Thaw. February 12, 1871 - February 22, 1947. Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Harry K. Thaw’s Grave, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA. May, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

A few months ago, I blogged about the time that Harry K. Thaw shot Stanford White over White’s relationship with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. (Thaw was from Pittsburgh, and Nesbit was born in Tarentum, PA, although the two of them met in New York City.)

I visited Thaw’s grave in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh.

I didn’t put the rosary on this grave. I don’t know who put the rosary on the headstone.

Here is the marker for the Thaw family plot:

Thaw Family Plot, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA.
Thaw Family Plot, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA. May, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

If you want to hear a podcast or two about Evelyn Nesbit, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” and Thaw’s murder of White, check out these podcast episodes:

1.) Criminal (hosted by Phoebe Judge), covered this in episode 91The “It” Girl.

2.) Then, an episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder talked about this in episode 136 and heavily “cited” Criminal. (In my opinion, the bulk of the My Favorite Murder host’s “research” consisted of her listening to the Criminal episode! This is merely my personal opinion, though.)

Thaw Family Plot, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh PA
Thaw Family Plot, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
William Thaw Grave, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
William Thaw Grave, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh PA. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Tintern Abbey, Iron Maiden, and Jane Austen

Once upon a time, I followed my husband Jonathan on his business travel to London. We rented a car. We drove to Tintern Abbey, in Wales, on the River Wye.

Well, Jonathan drove our British rental car on the left side of the road. Jonathan maneuvered the traffic circles (roundabouts). I navigated.

Here’s the first road sign that we saw after we crossed the line into Wales. Note that the first three lines of this sign are in Welsh and the final three lines are in English:

PAN FYDD

GOLAU COCH

ARHOSWCH YM

WHEN RED LIGHT

SHOWS WAIT

HERE

We almost didn’t tour Tintern Abbey.

The government runs this landmark as a day-use attraction, so it closes before the sun sets. The staff ends ticket sales 30 minutes before the attraction closes for the day. We got lost and then we arrived at Tintern Abbey about an hour before it closed.

But we made it!

Cistercian monks established and maintained Tintern Abbey between 1131- 1536. Tintern Abbey closed in 1536 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Here are some of the things that happened:

1.) The monarchs in England used to be Roman Catholic.

2.) The Protestant Reformation began in Saxony (Germany) in 1517.

3.) Henry VIII of England wanted to end his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533 so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

4.) Henry VIII rejected papal supremacy. Parliament passed a law establishing Henry as the head of the Church of England.

5.) In the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry closed all of the monasteries, including Tintern Abbey.

6.) Henry’s agents stripped the monastic property of anything and everything valuable, including the lead roof.

(In Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness, one of the main characters lived as an English monk in a different Catholic monastery. Henry VIII also closed this monastery during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The novel detailed how Henry VIII’s officials plundered that monastery of its valuables and banished the monks. At least one of these monks fled to France. Many of them remained in England but hid from the Protestants during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The King’s officials grew their own wealth by closing the monasteries. See my prior blog post about Anya Seton.)

The band Iron Maiden filmed their music video for “Can I Play with Madness” partly at Tintern Abbey.

Jane Austen shouts-out to Tintern Abbey in her novel Mansfield Park.

Wikipedia taught me that Allen Ginsburg tripped on acid here in 1967 and then wrote his poem Wales Visitation.

William Wordsworth also wrote a poem about Tintern Abbey.

The Wye Valley Railway established a station near the Abbey in 1876. Though prior tourists visited Tintern by boat, fashionable Victorians could now access it by train.

We left the Abbey and grabbed dinner at a local pub. Other patrons spoke Welsh to each other.

We drove through the rural darkness back to London.

Watch for my upcoming blog posts about my adventures in travel.