Sunday, September 26, 2010

Guest Post by Photographer Kevin Scanlon: Train Chase

Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

[I’m pleased to host a guest post by Kevin Scanlon this week. Kevin has spent the past three decades documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. His work has been published in magazine articles and literary journals, on the covers of books and journals, and exhibited at various museums and galleries, including a solo exhibition at the O. Winston Link Museum (“The Outline of Metal Against Sky”) in 2008. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.]

Train Chase

I had driven this road maybe 200 times, a sweet half-hour trip following the abandoned Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Loup Creek Branch down the hollow to Thurmond, West Virginia in the New River Gorge. This was a prime area for someone interested in taking train pictures. I loved looking at the little hamlets along the way, the waterfalls in the creek, the remains of the railroad branch with impossibly photogenic scenes that I would never hope to photograph with a train passing through them. Then a few years ago something unheard of happened, the branchline reopened! A local guy made a go of it with some little engines, but then he died and a bigger shortline operator took over. Even more surprising, a coal mine up on the mountain reopened so the little railroad found itself hauling large coal trains down to the mainline connection.

Late on a warm August afternoon in 2007 I was driving down to the road in hopes of seeing a train moving on the branch or on the mainline tracks at Thurmond. I rounded a curve just a half-mile from the river and found myself face to face with a hopper train headed up the branch to the mine. I quickly turned around, excited at finally getting the chance to photograph a big train at all of those beautiful spots I’d been picking out over the years.

It was an easy, slow chase and I was able to catch the train at several spots. One location I always had an eye on was a small board & batten cabin with an old car out in the yard. I pulled into the yard and was surprised to see an old man sitting on the cabin porch.

“Mind if I take a picture of the car and the train?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” he replied.

I got the shot as the train passed, then walked to the porch to thank him before taking off for the next spot. My plan was to follow the train all the way to the mine; there were a lot of great locations still ahead.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to take a picture of that car for years.”

“Yeah,” he said. “A lot of people stop to take a picture of it. Still in pretty good shape for a 1959. I have the owners manual inside, but I’m not interested in selling her.”

“Don’t see many Edsels like that,” I said. “She’s a beauty!”

I couldn’t leave. The man started telling stories, his life story. The train was long gone, but it didn’t matter. There would be other trains. He told me that he had hired out on the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1946. He went to high school while working for the railroad until he earned his diploma. In 1949 he married his sweetheart and they raised three kids. The little cabin was their homeplace. One son has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and does research for Temple University. The other son works in real estate in Charleston and a daughter lives not far away in Beckley.

He told me about the cabin next door, where an earlier family kept chickens in the crawlspace underneath and used a kerosene heater to keep the hens warm until they burned the place down. He told me about his job for the C&O working out of Thurmond, Hinton, Quinnimont, Raleigh and Montgomery.

As the darkness settled over the valley I listened to the stories, smiled at the sweet remembrances and came to realize that I came home richer for not bolting off to take even more train pictures. The best picture I got that day is the one in my mind, of my new friend sweeping through the curves of WV Rt. 41, rolling down Batoff Mountain toward his job at Quinnimont Yard in a shiny new President Red Edsel.

(This piece was originally published at The Photographers’ Railroad Page)

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nothing Left To Burn

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited about a new book as I am for Jay Varner’s memoir Nothing Left to Burn. I was eager to read it after seeing Sal Pane’s review in Pank, where I first learned of the book and discovered that it was by a writer from my hometown of McVeytown in central Pennsylvania – and I was not disappointed reading this fascinating story of a family consumed by family secrets and an obsession with fire. Varner, who earned his BA in creative writing at Susquehanna University and his MFA at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, crafts a compelling narrative about growing up terrified by his grandfather’s fire fetish. I honestly had trouble putting the book down until I reached the end – and as soon as I finished it, my husband picked it up and also read it in record time.

Farms at the edge of McVeytown, PA
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

McVeytown was actually the nearest town to where I grew up. Both my family and Varner’s family had homes in what was known as R.D.#1, outside the village of 400-or-so residents. That area remains fairly ru
ral with lush hill farms nestled between the ridges of Jacks Mountain along the Juniata River. I’ve yet to meet Jay in person, but in such a small community there is only about one degree of separation between everyone. I’ve discovered we have many connections in common, which added a layer of spookiness to reading the book for me. I’d grown up hearing rumors of the fires Jay’s grandfather, Lucky Varner, had set – including the arsons of two homes of his own which burned to the ground.

Fire connects the Varner men. Lucky Varner (Jay’s grandfat
her) was a pyromaniac and serial arsonist. Lucky’s son, Denton Varner (Jay’s father) became the local fire chief. And after Jay grew up, he became a reporter on the local newspaper covering fire and accident reports and writing obituaries.

McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Nothing Left to Burn is filled with twists and surprises and interesting characters. I was curious to learn the inside story about Lucky’s fires, and it was fascinating for me to read Varner’s description of an area I know well. I do not quite see the town as he does, but realize that he experienced life there a generation after me. I’m of his father’s generation, so my experience of living there is probably closer to Denton Varner’s than to Jay’s. No matter which city or state I’ve lived in over the years, I’ve always carried that home place inside me and missed the rhythms of the seasons as marked by the planting and harvesting of crops on the neighboring farms. I haven’t resided there since the mid-1970s, so I still see the town as a charming old village of mostly well-tended lawns and homes, some of which are large stone and brick houses that date to the 1800s. There are hints indicating that things are getting a bit run-down, such as the sign on the post office that is becoming an eyesore (please, someone, restore the missing letters), but the landscape is one of rural beauty. There’s no question about it now being an economically depressed area since many of the long time industries have closed down, including the farm machinery manufacturer where my dad worked his entire life (the same factory that I learned from the book that Denton Varner also worked at for a time).

Post Office, McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Algonquin, the book’s publisher, issued a newsletter with an interview with Jay about the writing of his book. When Varner was asked how his hometown would react to his book, he responded, “. . . I hope they would be happy that a native son has managed to tell this story. I was careful not to sugarcoat things – I deeply love the town, but leaving out the negatives would do the area an injustice. There are many problems – economic strangulation, educational shortcomings, drug abuse – that must be addressed. However, there are a lot of things that are right and distinctive about the area. And I hope that I have rendered both ends of that spectrum truthfully.” He goes on to say, “My biggest fear is that a protective shroud will befall the town and residents will go on the defensive.”

When asked about his mother who did not want him to write this book, he said, “I’ve done my best to be true to the characters and events. . . . I understand the hesitance not to want this story on bookshelves, but in my hometown, most everyone already knows part of this story to begin with, so I’m not sure much is lost in telling this. . . . However, just as this is my story, it’s also hers, and anyone certainly has the right to be protective of such a thing.” He went on to say, “But in my eyes, it only makes my father a greater man. He gave an awful lot to that town and never asked for anything in return.”

Jay writes of how as a young boy he yearned to spend more time with his father, who was always rushing off to answer fire and ambulance calls. Even though Denton was the fire chief, it was a volunteer position in a volunteer fire company, and he worked a fulltime job as a laborer in a factory to support his family. To young Jay, it seemed that his father was always gone – either at work or at the firehouse. He tells of how his dad was often the first responder to an accident or emergency call, arriving in his pick-up truck even before the ambulance arrived on the scene (he was also certified as an emergency m
edical technician). When I read that, I remembered how when my dad suffered a massive heart attack one Sunday afternoon there was an EMT who arrived in a pick-up truck who came in carrying an oxygen tank even before the ambulance arrived. I’ve since learned that man was Denton Varner.

Jay credits his stint as a reporter for the local newspaper as helping him distance himself enough to tackle difficult topics, saying: “That forced me to hold every story at arm’s length and approach topics with an i
mpartial view . . . to teach me to tackle these memories without such emotional attachment. I was still connected, obviously, but I almost had to look at these events and people as though they were from the life of somebody else before actually understanding how they related to me.” But it was as an undergraduate in creative writing at Susquehanna University, prior to working as a reporter, that he first learned to craft stories. Varner said, “That’s when I saw people could actually examine and confront issues in their life. And I realized that to really understand who I was going to become as a man, I had to examine all that had happened in the past.”

In Nothing Left to Burn, Varner confronts that past – the good and the bad. About his grandfather, Lucky, Jay says: “It’s hard for me to call him simply bad. I think the man had a genuine mental illness with pyr
omania. He may have well been a sociopath too. To me, it was a sickness, not a badness.” About his father, Denton, Jay says: “He was a good man, but ultimately deeply conflicted about the roots of his values. He tried his best but made some poor decisions. Both men were incredibly complex and wrestled with much of that internally. My father wasn’t really torn between becoming a bad or good person, but his priorities were sometimes jumbled due to what he’d experienced as a child. In his heart, he wanted to do what was right.”

Jay’s book has me thinking about communities and our perceptions of home, and about how things constantly change – even in places like McVeytown. It’s true that people there can sometimes be very clannish, separated by geographic, religious and political divides – obstacles any outsider would have difficulty breaking through. It’s interesting that Lucky Varner remained part of that community even though it was common knowledge he was a danger to people’s lives and property – something that would not have been condoned of an outsider. Only an insider could have told this story as Jay has, and he has told it well. He builds a powerful story from ashes by piecing to together what remained – memory, artifacts, and the accounts told to him by others.

Author Jay Varner

• Be sure to watch the book trailer, which is nicely done.

• For a taste of Jay’s writing, read “Farm Machines” online at Quicksilver.

Jay Varner will be appearing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh on October 6th at 7 PM. Check out his schedule for appearances in other locations at his website.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Railroad Noir

"Engine House, East Ely, Nevada"
copyright by Joel Jensen, all rights reserved
Used by permission
(click on images for larger view)

To say that writer Linda Niemann’s background is diverse may be an understatement. She earned a PhD in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and then spent twenty years working as a brakeman for the railroad. She now teaches writing and literature at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Niemann’s latest book, Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press, is collaboration with photographer Joel Jensen. Niemann is also the author of Boomer (University of California Press, 1990; later reissued as On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey by Cleis Press, 1997), and Railroad Voices along with photographer Lina Bertucci (Stanford University Press, 1998).

As one of the first women railroaders hired in the 1970s, Niemann trained and worked in Watsonville, California. But as railroads merged and rail yards closed not long after her hire, she spent much of her railroading career as a boomer, traveling to where the jobs were that she could bid on since she was low in seniority rank. She worked rail yards in Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as in her hometown of Los Angeles, California. In a career that spanned several decades, she worked as a brakeman, switchman, and later as a conductor.

"Container Train Crossing Dry Lake Bed, Amboy, California
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved
Used by Permission

Linda Niemann writes some of the best narratives of place I’ve read. Through her descriptions of the southwestern desert, I can almost feel the dust, hear the rattlesnakes, and see the heat waves (a few drops of my own sweat may have even fallen onto the open pages as I read). She writes with passion about the land and the people she worked with, and she is not fearful about delving into difficult topics or showing the loneliness and isolation that go with the itinerant lifestyle of the boomer.

Niemann does not romanticize the railroader’s life, and Railroad Noir is sometimes a tough, gritty read. This is not Kerouac’s “Railroad Earth” (although I’ve read reviews making such comparisons – possibly because she sometimes worked the same routes along the peninsula south of San Francisco and Watsonville as he once did). It is, however, an honest story about a dangerous and physical job with a grueling schedule (sometimes twelve hours on, eight hours off – essentially working two shifts per day for twenty days straight, and always tethered to the telephone which could ring at any time to call workers in for a shift) that allows no sense of home or family life. In the introduction, Niemann writes: “I called the book Railroad Noir to borrow some of the dark, alienated, and hard-boiled elements from the cinematic term. A certain romance attaches to the railroad, but I wanted to signal that these stories give it a twist. Railroad workers often feel a sense of betrayed romance as they confront the realities of their lives . . . a part that is often omitted in railroad literature.”

"Abandoned Depot, Currie, Nevada"
Copyright by Joel Jensen, All Rights Reserved,
Used by Permission

The essays in Railroad Noir are indeed dark. Beautifully written, they provide an unflinching look at the hard desert landscape of the southwest and railroading during the 1990s when the Southern Pacific Railroad was in decline. Joel Jensen’s photographs were hand-selected by Niemann after she traveled to Ely, Nevada to meet with him and view his prints. Of his images, she writes: “The photographs showed extremes of weather, camaraderie, night work, solitude, bars, decrepit motels, and stark western landscapes. I immediately connected with them emotionally. They all took me back to specific places and states of mind I had been in working as a brakeman in the West. This is why I think of our work as having a shared vision. Joel knows the loneliness of the job and the place.”

Readers new to Niemann’s work may want to start with her first memoir, On The Rails: A Woman’s Journey (originally published under the title Boomer), as it gives a more chronological history of the beginning of her career and experience, particularly when she was learning the skills and craft of working on a switching crew from the “old heads.” While all of her books include a glossary of railroad terminology, Boomer provides the reader a good grasp of how the railroad systems work and what the various jobs entail. It also provides a more comprehensive understanding of Niemann’s railroad work in context to her personal life, including romantic involvements, family issues such as her mother’s slide into Alzheimer’s dementia, and Niemann’s own battles with alcoholism. The essays in Railroad Noir focus more on the later portion of Niemann’s railroading career, including her bout with breast cancer.

Railroad Noir is a complex and beautiful book -- part memoir as told in a series of essays, part coffee table photography book with pictures that tell a visual narrative of their own. Long after you close this book, the stories and images will linger in your brain like an afterimage and may even haunt your dreams.

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