Mermaids and chemical warfare at Yeehaw Junction

It was hot as steam pipes outside the car and though we’d just stopped for a pee break, the building-cum-roadside-attraction was so cool I was wandering around taking pictures.

“Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom.” I’ve explained to him for more than 20 years that it just has one syllable. Say it the one time and see what happens. Maybe he’ll get there. In the meantime: “Mom! Did your bathroom have a naked mermaid? Because mine had a naked mermaid.”

It’s what you’d expect an establishment at a crossroads that was in the early 20th century a “supply and recreation centre for cattle drovers,” which is a nice way for a big historical marker to say: “brothel.”

The Desert Inn was a gathering place for local farmers near Yeehaw Junction — also called Jackass Junction because patrons rolled up on their burros — with separate rooms for African Americans and Seminole aboriginals. There are hundreds of crossroads like this in America. A few dozen have historical markers.

I turned to Google for more because I intended to write a fluffy post about the brothel, and discovered that Yeehaw was exposed to a lot more than pioneer-era bosoms. It was exposed to biological warfare.

Secret tests were performed here in the 1960s, and the government would maintain — will maintain — that the chemical agents sprayed on the area were harmless. At least two sets of tests were conducted over Yeehaw during the Cold War, as Project 112 sought to find ways to stunt the growth of Russian wheat. The trials were secret till 2002, when a senator demanded an inquiry into decades of rumour after revelations by CBC Evening News.

Puccinia graminis tritici, or TX, was sprayed from F4 fighter jets over Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Britain and Canada — off the coast of Newfoundland and “southwestern Canada,” which probably referred to Suffield, Alta. — during the joint U.S., UK and Canadian program. TX is toxic to plants and can spark cancer in animals but the government said it was harmless to humans over the long term. But anyway, the point of the tests was to see whether the chemicals would kill plants, not people. People were secondary, and anyway there have never been more than around 240 in Yeehaw.

TX is wheat rust, “a fungus which kills wheat, and is an offensive test if you want to take the breadbasket away from the enemy,” Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s director for employment health support, told the Sun-Sentinel soon after the news broke in 2002.

There’s big sky out here on the flat land where a fighter jet would look out of place, now or in the 1960s. It’s incredible to me the testing was kept secret for so long. But I can be naive that way.

You can find food and drink at Yeehaw Junction, which is along old Highway 60 between Orlando and Tampa, but if you find special companionship you’ll have to take them somewhere other than the now-shut-down motel out back.

My bathroom didn’t have a naked mermaid, by the way.

My bathroom mannequin scared me so bad I nearly peed on the floor, which clearly defeats the entire purpose the of thing.


Tagging Centralia’s boulevard of broken dreams

CENTRALIA, Pa. — The first thing friend Ginger and I did when we finally arrived was turn our noses up at half the graffiti.

“If people are going to go to all the trouble of getting here,” I said with my nostrils pointed skyward, “they could at least entertain us with a something more creative than their tag.”

“Or at the very least learn to spell,” she agreed.

It had taken us several tries to locate the graffiti highway in the first place, so our expectations were high. A white plastic bag knocked against Ginger’s knee, making a musical, metallic knocking. Inside it were three cans of spray paint hastily purchased at a local dollar store.

We were at the head of Route 61, here in the tall hills of mining country where a coal vein beneath the nearly-ghost town of Centralia has been burning for more than 50 years. The fire keeps the land hot and burps up noxious gases and cannot be put out. Most residents were forced from their homes decades ago, and this small stretch of road, on which trespassers can sometimes see trails of steam from the fire below, was barricaded and abandoned. In theory, it’s not safe here. In practice, it’s canvas for taggers and spray-paint philosophers.

All forms of graffiti were represented, from the tags we scoffed at to juvenile obscenities to pieces of art upon which nature was encroaching.

Nature is the forgotten partner along this stretch of blacktop. The road is lined with scrub and mature trees and even in the brutal early spring some hardy weeds pushed through the rocks in the asphalt. And always the fire—one of 38 active mine fires in Pennsylvania—burns under this land. Some say it is heading like a night stalker toward the town of Ashland, though perhaps it will change course and threaten a town with a more fetching name, like nearby Locust Gap, Shenandoah or Laurel Run.

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The heat has buckled and broken one entire section of road, exposing layers of asphalt like a blackened croissant. We walked past that deepest wound to a bend from which we could almost see the end of the road.

Nineteen-year-old Trevor took a can of red spray paint and shook it uncertainly.

“Have you ever used one of these?” I asked incredulously. He had not, which I’ll take as a parental badge of honour.

After a few false starts, he got in touch with his inner graffiti sage: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” and “Fear is the mind killer.”

The rest of us, including 3-year-old Jilly and Aaron? We tagged the ground with our names and called it a day.

As we wandered back to the van, Ginger shook the empty red paint can and said regretfully, “Ah, man. We could have used this to correct everyone else’s grammar.”

Centralia graffiti highway14

The ghost of the Plaza Theater

ERIE, Pa. — “He’s going in!” I said, scrambling down the snowbank. It was filthy, nearly one storey high, and I’d been up there taking pictures of the old Plaza Theatre. I jumped back into the car and said to Zon in a loud whisper, “I want to go in, too.”

I probably wouldn’t have had the balls if she hadn’t been with me, but I’m very courageous when a friend is leading the way.

Two summers ago I’d stopped in this same place to photograph the Plaza Theatre. This time, I stopped to photograph its ghost. The signage had been stripped, the box office boarded up, the poster board disappeared.

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It was dim inside the 1950s cinema and smelled musty. The contractor I’d watched go inside was leaning against the concession stand, looking perplexed. He didn’t exactly give us the okay to take pictures, but he didn’t run us off. We must have looked a heckuva lot like a lawsuit about to happen, so we didn’t go farther than the front door.

So you’re rebuilding?” Zon asked him.

Oh, no. It’s all coming down.”

Plaza Theater Erie Pa5

A mirrored wall made the lobby seem larger. A Dolby sign on the back wall looked new, though this place shut down just after Christmas in 2008. Big round lights gave it a disco flair.

One of the last movies shown here was Twilight, the contractor told us. Maybe that’s what did it in.

We slipped out as smoothly as we’d slipped in and the door clanged closed behind us. Next time we’re in Erie, even its ghost will have been exorcised.

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Lunch with the dolls at Avalon Restaurant

ERIE, Pa. — The plan was to see the Erie Art Museum exhibit that honoured one of Erie’s favourite sons, Wilbur Adams, an architect, industrial designer and drunk known for dreaming up some pretty slick tractors and some pretty sexy skyscrapers.

But in the end (and thanks to a preschooler who doesn’t really appreciate the whole museum experience yet) I didn’t get to spend a lot of time checking out Adams’s work.

Instead I stumbled after Jilly, stammering when she, while standing in front of some post-apocalyptic dream in oil on canvas, said: “Tell me the story of that picture.” And I ducked in and out of a bizarre tunnel made of squares of pulsating light with an undertone of white noise combined with a whistling that wasn’t quite high enough for only dogs to hear. And I frequently said, “Don’t touch that! Look with your eyes!”

erie art museum

And then, thankfully, I laid my eyes on the Avalon Restaurant.

Now, I love a good diner at the best of times, so imagine my relief when, at one of my worst times (this whole parenting thing is really hard, you know), I stumbled upon this snapshot of diner life lovingly sculpted by dollmaker Lisa Lichtenfels.

Each figure, at one-third of life-size, takes about one month to create. Lichtenfels starts with a wire skeleton and builds on it till she makes it to the nylon body and handpainted eyes, fingernails that are real enough you can imagine them scraping along a chalkboard. In this permanent exhibition, the Erie native has re-created a scene from her time as a (not very good, she admits) waitress.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 1


There is a woman in too-small shorts leading her beau to a table in the back. There is an exhausted mom, too tired to stop her son from bothering a customer while her baby sleeps on the table. There is an eager watch salesman who doesn’t look too honest, and a guy farther down the counter who might be a labourer or might have just gotten out of prison. There is a Mennonite man with his daughter and a lady in her housedress overwhelming the entire diner with her big mouth.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 4

And there is the artist herself, having just spilled coffee grounds behind the counter. Dolls in the likeness of her former bosses—a husband-and-wife team that ran the now-closed Avalon beside the Erie bus station—are exasperated, but that’s what they get for hiring an artist anyway.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 2

It’s worth the admission ($5-$7) just to see the Avalon Restaurant tucked away on the second floor. Go without kids and see the rest of the museum, too, including the Adams exhibition (but hurry, because that ends in a couple of weeks). The ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum is just around the corner.

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A relaxing afternoon of guns’n’beer in Erie

floor gun raffleERIE, Pa. — To get to the gun raffle, one drives past the cemetery, through the trailer park and into the abandoned amusement park.

It’s hard to find parking—is every pickup in Pennsylvania here?—but though the air is thick with fog, it’s not too cold or wet for the quick walk to the Rainbow Gardens.

This whole idea, when my good friend Zon invited me to tag along, seemed just crazy enough to be the highlight of my spring. For the rocking low price of $10, one gains entry to this giant community event held in a building large enough to host a 4H competition. You also get all the sausages, ox roast, chips and beer you can consume and the chance to win one of 20 shiny new guns, from a Remington 700 SPS Stainless 270 cal. to a Mossberg 835 ulti-mag 3 1/2” camo.

Those chances not good enough for you? There were ladies weaving among the long tables with tickets for floor guns, three for $5. Fill one of the holiday-themed pitchers with frothy beer from one of the dozens of kegs and you didn’t have to leave your seat for hours at a time.

The main prize winners had names out of comic books: Mike Fails, Tom McFate, Danny Kay.

Most of the men had beards, and not in that ironic, hipster way. Half of them were wearing plaid, most were sporting ball caps with the bill perfectly rounded and worn right way forward. The women at first glance fell into two categories: those who were trying really hard and those who were not. I only saw one mullet—but the guy who committed it also had frosted tips.

“You ever shoot trap?” asked Gene, the guy sitting across from us at the long, wobbly table. He was wearing a blue t-shirt under red plaid that was soft and slightly fuzzed from years of use. He had short grey hair and large square glasses and rough wrinkled skin that was used to the outdoors. He didn’t need another gun for home defence, he told us, but was on the lookout for something he could hunt with.

Zon said no, she didn’t shoot trap, and he asked what she needed a gun for. We were tourists at this gun raffle—that much was pretty obvious (and therefore probably a blessing that we didn’t win anything). She admitted to him that she couldn’t ever hurt an animal.

“You don’t need to shoot ’em,” he laughed, miming shooting into the air with his three-fingered right hand. “You just need to scare ’em.”

waldameer park rainbow gardens

Long Island mystery: Who is Catherine M. Walsh?

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — There were just two things I really wanted to do while stateside for March break: drive the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel again, and visit a few thrift shops. Here we are tripping through the tunnel:


Circumstance and bad timing kept me away from thrift stores in North Carolina and Virginia, where they are plentiful, but our host in Long Island had just the place for me. I spent a gleeful 45 minutes at Unique and unearthed a mystery.

Flipping through the handbags in my never-ending search for the perfect purse, my fingers lighted on a small leather billfold. It was structurally sound, the plastic envelopes for displaying photos just barely yellowed. And it was empty, except …

walsh wallet

I put the treasure in my basket.

I have since discovered just enough about Catherine M. Walsh to drive me mad. She was born in 1917 and died in 1982, and seems to have lived most of that time in Long Island. But what about the empty plastic envelopes? Whose pictures did she cut out and place in there?

I can only imagine. And so imagine I have.

* * *

My Catherine—never Kate, never Cathy—was the fourth of five children born to Irish immigrants who staked their claim to a potato farm on Long Island, back when potatoes were what grew there, rather than subdivisions. Her brothers were nearly grown when she arrived, followed two years later by sweet Alice.

What their father lacked in riches he made up for with a sense of adventure. When my Catherine was 10 and sweet Alice 8, he borrowed a friend’s truck (he was one of those people who, always the first to step up and help out, could ask a favour of anyone and be met with a slap on the back) and loaded the sisters into it for a drive to nearby Garden City. They parked on a dirt road near Roosevelt Airfield and he lifted them into the bed of the truck excitedly. He thrust a newspaper at my Catherine and said, “Read that, Baby. Read what that man there said.”

Their father could read, but he was slow at it, so it was my Catherine’s job to read aloud when he asked. She cleared her throat. “’What kind of man would live where there is no danger’—”

“Right enough!” their father interrupted, laughing, barely containing his excitement. “I face danger every day, sure ’nuff. Nearly split me ankle just yesterday on a stone big as me heart. And how big is that, Baby?”

“Big as Paris!” yelled sweet Alice.

“Big as Paris, Baby. Big as Paris.”

My Catherine gave him a stern look and continued reading. “’Nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all,’ he said. Mr. Lindberg makes his attempt for the Orteig Prize on May 21’—papa, that’s today!—’aboard the Spirit of the St. Louis. Several lives have been lost already in pursuit of the $25,000 award offered to that airman who completes the first non-stop transatlantic flight’.”

“That’s right, Baby!” their father laughed, pointing at the airfield. “I got a good feeling about this guy. I got a good feeling about St. Louis.”


That was the day my Catherine fell in love with aerospace. Her passion for planes and the romance of the open skies would be her welcome shadow throughout her school and teaching-college years. She would become known for using flight analogies in her classrooms and she would—of course—fall in love with a pilot. How could she not?

He was a dashing test pilot for Republic Aviation and he dashed her heart into a million pieces when she caught him kissing a girl outside the robotics pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York City. His buddy Rory Walsh drove her home and didn’t say a word as she sat in the passenger seat and sobbed.

long island women library of congressBespectacled Rory Walsh had a name far more extravagant than his personality, which was cautious and whisper-quiet. My Catherine’s father and brothers were slightly suspicious of that deep stillness, but her mother and sister liked him right away. They were married within the year and would have honeymooned in Paris if it were not for the war.

It was sweet Alice, after all, who married a pilot, then stood helplessly by as he was called to war. Rory was blessedly not called up, because of his poor eyesight and because his position as a parts manufacturer at Republic made him valuable to the war effort on home soil. Sweet Alice came to live with them in their newly built Northport home so she wouldn’t be alone.

My Catherine and Rory were eager to start their family, but the first baby born in their little home was sweet Alice’s Colleen. Ah, how they loved her! The house was filled with sweet Alice’s singing. My Catherine sewed little pinafores, and though her stitches were atrocious—she never had any patience with needles—Colleen only cooed and eyed her adoringly. Rory fashioned her little airplanes from spare parts and bits of metal at Republic, and told her stories of faraway places. When letters from her father were delivered, my Catherine and Rory shared secret glances, guiltily hoping the war would last a little longer so they could keep Colleen just a few weeks more. They could not meet each other’s eyes at all when they learned he had been killed in action.

When it was time for kindergarten, my Catherine walked Colleen to her classroom each day. As time went on, Colleen helped with lesson planning and my Catherine helped with homework till they became one unit of education, teaching each other with every step.

Everyone commented on how alike they were. It was her greatest joy and deepest heartbreak.

republic aviationRory held her tighter on the nights she cried into her pillow, but they never spoke about the cradle that was empty but for Colleen’s dolls and metal airplanes.

They planned to go to Paris the year Colleen turned 10, but Rory was offered a golden opportunity with Grumman Corp. and he had a feeling they were going places. He couldn’t even imagine how far they would go, but that was years away and in the meantime he and my Catherine lived a blessed life, with Colleen and sweet Alice and a ginger cat named Moses.

Rory made a mark on Colleen’s doorframe for each of her birthdays and when he took her measure the day she turned 18, they all cried and wondered at what a lovely young lady she had become. To celebrate her coming of age, she and her mother took a two-week holiday in Paris, a gift from Rory and my Catherine.

Things were changing in the world and in Long Island, and Colleen was in the middle of it, bringing the future to the Walsh household via a record player and tales from the city, where she had a job answering phones in a lawyer’s office. If my Catherine wished she’d become a teacher rather than a switchboard operator, she kept her own council.

She wore short skirts and high boots and showed no interest in the patriarchal idea of marriage and motherhood. Rory clucked his tongue like a disapproving old woman, while her mother and aunt smiled behind their hands and did what they could to encourage her, secretly hoping they’d get to burn their damn bras in the back yard.


The day Kennedy was assassinated was already dark in the Walsh household, as Colleen had just announced she moving in to the city, sharing an apartment with her lover. For the rest of her life she would credit poor dear Kennedy with protecting her from an old-fashioned strapping from sweet Alice or my Catherine, who giggled at the prospect of bra-burnings but had to draw the line somewhere.

They said they would turn her room into an office or a sewing room or a library, but it was never changed. Everything remained as she had left it. Rory was too busy to start building a library or otherwise converting her room anyway, once Grumman won the contract to help build lunar modules. He came home late each night, tired but oh so excited about their progress.

long island home library of congress“The moon, ladies!” he would say, and they would look at each other and smile, and remember their father and his excitement. “We’re going to land men on the moon!”

My Catherine added space-themed projects to her curriculum and won an award for her ingenuity in teaching. She bought a dress for the awards ceremony that she would repurpose for the grand party Grumman put on for the lunar landing. Sheathed in silk but wearing practical black pumps, she stood close to Rory, holding his damp hand as they and dozens of others watched a blurry, monochrome Neil Armstrong descend the craft’s ladder and misspeak what would become one of the most famous sentences in human history.

One perfect tear escaped the corner of Rory’s eye—the enormity of the moment was too much to bear. My Catherine wiped the tear away before anyone noticed and thought about the Spirit of St. Louis, whose journey had seemed impossible 40 years before. And she smiled at Rory and thought about how impossibly deeply she loved him, to the moon and back.

armstrong moon nasaTheir friends became grandparents throughout the 1970s, but Colleen showed no interest in bringing a new baby into their lives. When their family changed again, it was a great surprise—sweet Alice announced her heart had at last softened and she was to marry. Her new love’s feet were firmly planted on the ground—he was the owner of a drive-in theatre in Nassau county.

It was the first time my Catherine and Rory had lived alone. While they giggled like newlyweds, they were of course completely thrown off and wandered about some nights marvelling at how quiet and empty their home had become. They ate their dinners on the couch while The Waltons and Quincy played in the background. They used the dining-room table to spread out travel brochures. Their long-overdue Parisian honeymoon was planned for the summer.

That was the spring she found the lump.

Rory was paralysed with terror, but my Catherine calmly put the brochures away and said they’d go the next summer instead and stop fretting darling, I’ll have to be better by the time school starts. She was back in class the following Christmas, though her doctors advised against it. She needed children to live, she told sweet Alice, who already knew.

highland school long island library of congressShe spent the next summer recovering from disfiguring surgery. My Catherine had never been in a hospital, had rarely visited her family doctor, and had never been away from home for more than a weekend. She hated the white walls and nurses’ soft footfalls. Hated them enough that she was back in her home weeks before her doctors predicted.

It’s not that the fight went out of her. It’s that when the cancer came for her a third time, her battlegrounds had changed. She had watched the landscapes of her loved ones’ faces change and she wanted peace for them. Her tiny family had given her more than a lifetime of joy. (If she had carried on just a few months, that joy would have doubled, but no one knew just then—not even Colleen—that the next generation was starting to develop.)

She let the illness take her quickly, for Rory’s sake. His heart was broken and it couldn’t heal while he hurt for her. Their love expanded, became a living, breathing thing over their home, a membrane that coated visitors when they crossed over their threshold.

Rory’s tears at the end were hot on my Catherine’s cheeks. “I never took you to Paris,” he apologized over and over. “I never took you to Paris.”

She held his hand as firmly as she could, more firmly than her illness should have allowed.

“My love,” she said to him, “You took me to the moon.”