Binghamton Mine

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

The whistle sounded at noon on the dot to signal lunch, two miles below the surface in the Binghamton Mine. The continuous coal machine screeched to a halt as the operator powered it down. The handful of workers in the far section of the mine set down their tools and walked to the end of the line where the train waited for them. As they walked the only source of light in the dark abyss came from their headlamps, their beams bouncing off the reflective tape on their suits. They hunched over to keep from hitting their heads on the low ceiling.

No one spoke as they piled in the roofless train, the only sounds were of the coal in the walls popping and cracking under the immense pressure of the ground weighing down upon it. The train operator turned on the engine and it began the fifteen-minute haul back up to the lift. Its engine churned and the wheels clapped against the rail as it wound its way through the vast network of caves and tunnels. Coal dust filled the air in a fine hazy like the black mist of forest fires. The miners joined in a cacophony of coughs and wheezes, the thick mucus of their throats adding a guttural weight that spoke to years of inhalation of coarse particulate matter.

The train slowed to a jerking stop at the origin of the tracks just a few feet from the lift, lit brightly by industrial lights on stands. One of the senior workmen pulled open the heavy metal door, and his coworkers piled in, packed like sardines in a matchbox.

“Lamps off,” he said, a dim sadness coloring his words as the room went pitch black with the clicks. With a jolt the elevator started its trip up through the millenniums of rocks and minerals. Each man stood quietly, some with eyes closed, others simply in a malaise. Only seconds after a vague light entered from the shaft above, the lift crashed to a stop and the doors slid open. The brightness of the gloomy day assaulted their eyes. The older workers squinted and managed the transition with experience, but the younger men covered their black smeared faces with their hands.

It was Ben’s first day working in the Binghamton Mine, and only his second full day in Binghamton. Somehow he felt even more alone back on the surface than he did tucked away deep in the manmade cave. From his designated locker he pulled out his lunch pail and his thermos and set them down on the only remaining empty table. He found the sink and stopped over to wash his hands and face, which proved to merely be a waste of water. When Ben returned he found the table full around his lunch.

“Have a seat kid,” one of the men said. “Break may be an hour but you only get twenty minutes to eat. That hour is on the clock once the whistle blows.” Ben sat down and mouthed hello to the group as he unhinged the lock and pulled out his tinfoil wrapped peanut butter and jelly.

“You must be one of the new kids? My name’s Charlie, and these here are Alan and Mr. Dodge,” the man continued. Ben just nodded in recognition so Charlie added, “You have a name?”

“Ben,” he answered.

“You talk too much, Ben,” Mr. Dodge said as he took a bite from his sandwich. There was a brief pause, and Ben wasn’t sure how to react. The three men broke out in laughter sprinkled with horse coughs. Ben smiled as Mr. Dodge patted him heartily on the back. “Lighten up Ben, it’s too dark around here.”

“Yes sir,” Ben answered with a smile.

“What brings you to O Little Town of Binghamton?” Charlie asked sarcastically.

“I got in a bit of trouble back home and my parents sent me out here to ‘reform’ me,” Ben said employing air quotes.

“So whereabouts were you thrown from?” Charlie asked.

“Pittsburgh.”

“Jesus. That’s not much better than here,” Mr. Dodge said seriously.

“I wanted to get out of there, and I figured out the most exciting way to get that to happen was to make some trouble. Besides I wanted to know what it was like here. I heard stories,” Ben added.

“Did you do any mining back there? I noticed you didn’t hardly need any instruction this morning,” Alan asked before taking a sip of Diet Coke.

“Yeah, after I finished high school I started in a mine, worked a little less than a year before I was shipped here. I just got in two days ago.”

“What do you think so far?” Charlie asked.

“It’s… different here. I guess it’s a little early to say much more than that,” Ben said.

The men nodded in agreement as they continued to pick away at their lunches and enjoy their time above ground. A curt toot from the whistle indicated the men would need to return to the lift in five minutes to start the trip back to the Binghamton underworld. The sound was met with sighs of discontent.

Ben wondered if Charlie, Alan, or Mr. Dodge remembered what they looked like beneath the layers of grime painted heavily on their faces. He wondered if they even bothered to clean themselves anymore. Mining might be the kind of work that puts hair on a man’s chest, Ben thought, but it also makes him feel as though it was growing in his lungs. Even at nineteen, the work was taxing on Ben, and he knew as time went by it would become impossible to differentiate night from day, his dreams filling with what awaited him in the waking hours.

“Hey Charlie,” Alan said getting his attention, “how bout one of your jokes before we head down?”

“I’ve got one. A man who was recently divorced meets his friend at the bar for a beer, and his friend asks him, ‘What’s the difference between being married and being divorced?’” Charlie paused as the men looked to him anxiously. “And his friend answers, ‘I wanted to get married, I needed to get divorced!’”

When Charlie reached the punch line he broke out into laughter and Alan and Mr. Dodge followed suit. Ben snickered at the joke but recognized he was too young to fully appreciate its message. But seeing the men chuckling together, who were to that point more somber than he, lightened Ben’s spirit. Ben understood the good a joke could do for guys stuck in a place like Binghamton, and he was glad for the reprieve.

Then the whistle gave two blows. The train was ready to descend. Ben and his tablemates closed up their lunch pales, tightened their thermoses, and rose to return their belongings to their lockers.

“You know, Ben, it can get awful lonely out here. Why don’t you join my wife Betty and I for dinner tonight?” Charlie asked.

“Thanks, Charlie. I’d really enjoy that.”

“Betty’s a great cook. In fact, if I’m being truthful, she’s the best damn cook on the whole planet, and good food is near impossible to find around here.”

“I look forward to it,” Ben answered as they climbed into the elevator once more.

The doors shut and a man called out, “Lamps on.” The men obliged. Through the slits in the door, Ben saw a storm brewing far off in the muggy, clay-colored sky. As the elevator descended, a strong gust blew by and kicked up a cloud of red dust, covering the billboard for the Martian Mining Corporation before everything around him went dark.

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El Capitan

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artwork by @lylahrose

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Monica secured her right hand on a lip of the granite face and moved her feet, gloved in thin climbing shoes wrapped generously with rubber soles, until they too reached satisfactory resting places. Feeling relatively comfortable, she released her left hand and twisted her body away to see the valley filled with its thick carpet of foliage below, where the meandering rocks and cliffs used the changing sunlight to throw shadow puppets. In the hour since the sun moved on from The Nose, her selected route on El Capitan, she hadn’t had a chance to appreciate the performance, and at that moment the sight relaxed her.

Monica concentrated on her pulse, bringing down the palpitations by controlling her breathing. Facing the rock in front of her, its age lines snaking unpredictably, subdued hues melding together from countless bouts with the environment, Monica closed her eyes and cleaned the busy slate of her mind. She tried to block out the sensation that her entire body was engulfed in flames, her muscles calling for respite, and she stopped listening to the screaming tendons in her fingers. It was the only way to keep going up.

Once she successfully tuned out the pain, Monica conjured up an image she had perfected through weeks of visualization. She imagined herself atop El Capitan, hands fixed on her hips, her chest rising and falling rhythmically as her lungs welcomed in and said pleasant goodbyes to breaths of accomplishment. From behind her sunglasses, falling just shy of the sweat-saturated bandana around her head, Monica opened her eyes with renewed confidence.

Monica reached into the nylon pouch of chalk powder clipped firmly to her belt-loop and coated each hand in succession. Her position was a familiar one, but one that she had failed to progress past on all previous tries. Earlier, with the kind of bull-headed confidence that often proved fatal, Monica decided, against the advice of her peers, to make a free solo attempt. She hoped the real and present possibility of death, more tangible than ever before, would propel her beyond her limitations.

El Capitan did not make the trip easy for the bold, carefully selecting only the worthy to conquer it. To Monica, the more the odds stacked against her, the greater the appeal. She was an adventurer through and through, and irrational decision-making was a key tenant of her life-model.

The outcrop hanging just a few feet beyond Monica’s grasp, previously stimulating tremendous angst within her, stirred up a drive. The feeling pleasantly surprised her, like reaching for a glass of gin and instead tasting the refreshment of glacial water. She moved her right foot into a small niche like a puzzle piece, and relocated her left to a scarcely noticeable notch. As she straightened her legs her body unfurled, making her look more like an inchworm than an agile climber.

To her side Monica noticed a patch of the dark lichen that littered the stone façade, and in that spot she saw an image of herself caught in a fatal free-fall, its realism unsettling. It was like an organic Rorschach test playing devilishly with her imagination. But it’s just moss, she told herself, nothing more. Shaking her head, she erased the image and extended upward for the quarter-sized hold just within reach. Her next move came naturally and unconsciously, moving her ever closer to her granite Achilles heel.

Her right foot progressed without trouble, but the shelf upon which she placed her left turned to a rubble, causing her leg to drop and forcing her to dig in to her three remaining anchor points. Monica let out a cry that pooled frustration and desperation as she found another place for her dangling leg. The cry was the first instance that reminded her she had no lifeline. Normally, she was able to calm herself by looking at the hex clamps, threaded by a rope attached snugly to her harness, which would catch her if she fell. But there were no hexes, no ropes, no harness, no safety. If she made a mistake like that again she would become the falling woman in the lichen.

Monica knew her greatest chance of survival stemmed from her ability to focus. So she dug into her reserve of concentration and eyed the ledge. She found solid footing a few inches higher and hugged her weight against The Nose. The lone way forward was to find a hold, latch on, and hang suspended almost 3,000 feet above the earth until she could grip with her other hand. Warning signals called out from every part of her body begging her not to continue, but she knew the sole option was up.

Monica bit her bottom lip and yelled, “Come on!” With the sum of her might she heaved her hand at the ledge and found a sill on which to clasp. Like a Christmas ornament placed precariously near the end of a branch she hung, her weight supported by a single limb. Quickly she flung her other hand to the same height, her fingers scraping and searching for something to grab, but it slipped.

Though in real-time only a fraction of a second, like Wile E. Coyote after the ground beneath him vanished, Monica hung motionless, completely unattached to anything but the air around her. She noticed her hands, mere centimeters from the ledge, though effectively miles away. As she fell she watched the ethereal clouds brushing the crystal blue sky above and the majestic face of the cliff, standing more kingly than ever before.

Connecting with the ground was not as painful as Monica had imagined, it felt almost like landing on a soft hotel bed.

“Ah Monica! You almost had it that time!” a man wearing a Cali Climbing Co. t-shirt said, extending his hand to help her off the padded blue mat. Monica looked at the tin ceiling, sighed, and grabbed the man’s hand as he pulled her up from her vivid fantasy.

 

921.5

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

921.5…. 921.5… 921.5. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes wide, staring at the ceiling but seeing nothing. There was no amount of sheep I could count to take my mind off that number. It was seared into my brain like a brand on a cow. Despite its persistence, I couldn’t determine its significance. What did 921.5 mean?

Perhaps it was something I had come across in the last few days, seen in a passing glance. I tried to think back to what I had done and where I had been the week before, but after jogging my memory for a mile or two, I was still left wanting. It has always amused me that the simplest of things are often the hardest to decipher. Ask me to explain partial derivatives, and you would think I had a Ph.D. in mathematics, but ask me to define love, humor, or 921.5 and you’d be severely disappointed.

As I continued to psychoanalyze myself, I sat up and took stock of my studio apartment, shrouded in the uniform darkness of the night. I could only make out the larger shapes like my kitchen counter, my desk, and my dresser. The exposed brick wall was revealed by its mortar, which held a subtle glow. The wall was a reminder of what once was, a factory long gone, machines removed and replaced with hipsters. It’s all very “circle of life,” but I couldn’t help but feel the textile workers that filled the building over a hundred years ago would disapprove of my French press and I.

A shot of moonlight filtered through my blinds and fell upon some books trying to sleep on an upper shelf. I could make out the title of one of the larger books, War and Peace, and in a failed test of my vision could almost make out the library number affixed to the spine. It was then that the light bulb flicked on in my head. 921.5. Was it a Dewey Decimal number? But to what book and where? In the age of technology in which I find myself, mastery of the library catalogue system is not as high a priority as it once was. Even if I was wrong, I thought pursuing my idea might lead to an answer, and it seemed the best option for salvaging what little sleep remained within grasp.

With sharpened curiosity, I summoned the strength to get out of bed. I walked to my desk and accidentally kicked over my trashcan along the way, a casualty of my temporary blindness. When I opened my laptop, I was greeted with the “Welcome Peter Anderson” message on my background. With the cursor blinking on the search bar, my brainstorm grew disappointingly quiet. How was I to go about searching for 921.5 when every library has its own unique codes? I sat looking blankly at the screen before becoming, for the first time, consciously aware of the time: 11:45. If I had any hope of solving the riddle before the clock tipped over to March 23rd, I had to start thinking faster. What library would 921.5 be in? Would it be open?

A quick search informed me that only one library within ten miles was still open: The Richard L. Tattinger Library. Fortunately it was also the closest of all the establishments, located only a few blocks away. But with only fifteen minutes to spare until they too closed their doors, time was of the essence.

After a brisk five-minute walk I arrived at the foot of the marble steps to the temple of the written word. The edifice’s six Doric pillars, reminiscent of the cult structures found readily in Greek antiquity, guarded the front in a, “Enter if you think yourself worthy,” kind of way. The doors were glass, frameless, and bearing brushed stainless steel handles. They contrasted with the classical style in the same way the glass pyramid does the Louvre, which is to say, strongly. When I opened the door it let out a creak like Windex quickly wiped away from a drying window. The security guard, a gray-mustached man of considerable age awoke from his light slumber to examine me.

“Library closes in eight minutes at midnight,” he said in a tone that made it seem more like a question than a statement.

“Yes, thank you,” I replied as I followed the star-speckled, navy blue carpet train into the reading room. The space was ornate, a significant change from the gutted factory building from which I had ventured. Sturdy, mahogany desks stood three by three leading up to the librarian’s desk, which possessed impressive floral carvings. Rows of matching shelves filled the remaining space with long-unpolished bronze numerals and letters, the Tattinger code. A further two levels of shelving along the walls on all sides were outlined with hip-height railing. The highest level ran directly to the elaborate crown molding encircling the room, transitioning to the pearl white vaulted ceiling. Artistically concealed behind hand-carved wooden posts were the access roads to the upper floors, tightly wound spiral staircases of wrought iron poised to uncoil if provoked.

Having completed my architectural assessment of the Tattinger, I proceeded to the librarian’s wooden nest, past the large Grandfather clock in the center of the room showing 11:56. As no one else was present in the library at the time, I thought the man would look up on his own volition. However I managed to toe the front of the desk without him so much as throwing a glance in my direction. The deep folds of skin on his face, unkempt white hair, and cartoonish small stature made him look like a Claymation character.

I was about to ask where I could find the book corresponding to 921.5, but before I could, he pointed and said, “Second floor, section seven dash Z, third row from the top.”

“But I didn’t even…” I started to say. After a few seconds I accepted that he had little interest in me, and I proceeded to the staircase nearest the direction he had signaled.

I reached the second floor and looked back to examine the reading room from my new perch. As my eyes scanned the path I followed to enter, my gaze darted to the librarian’s desk. He was gone. A moment of concern overcame me as I wondered to where he could have disappeared. I hadn’t noticed any other doors in the library save for the entrance, and it seemed unrealistic, for more reasons than one, to think he sprinted out of the building without a sound. My consuming quest coupled with a week of sleep deprivation seemed to be getting the better of me.

I about-faced to the bookshelves in search of a section 7-Z. The floor creaked painfully as if it hadn’t been asked to bear weight for decades. I arrived at section 7-Z, counted three rows down, and locked in on the code pasted on the first book: 921.1. My body froze, and I found my extremities tingling at the sight. This was the row on which the book bearing my number would be found, but how could the vanishing librarian have known?

In autopilot, my finger found its way to 921.1. I slowly dragged over the subsequent spines of 921.2, 921.3 and 921.4, feeling each pore of their worn leather covers. Finally my finger came to rest on 921.5. My eyes scaled cautiously up like someone climbing the ladder to a diving board for the first time, reticent to proceed.

N O S R E D N A R E T E P

Like an impressionist painting, overly close examination revealed little, but I brought my gaze back slightly, and the book’s title stopped my heart beating in its tracks: Peter Anderson. My hand shivered, as I timidly unshelved the book bearing my name. Holding it in my still wavering hand, I unhinged the cover to reveal a blank page. I carefully peeled back the emptiness to unveil the next. Printed in its center was one short, horrifying phrase, “In memory of Peter Anderson, November 16, 1989 – March 22, 2016.” Then the clock struck midnight.

END

Anatomy of a Groundhog Day

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Entrance to Gobbler’s Knob, named for God knows what. Photo by Stuart Rowe

“Phil! Phil! Phil!” roared the mass of thousands blanketing the frozen hillside of Gobbler’s Knob as the leader of the Inner Circle, clothed in top hat and tails, reached down to open the door on a fake tree stump inside which was a pudgy groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil preparing to live out his destiny and make a rough prediction of the upcoming weather. For those unfamiliar, or more accurately, not indoctrinated, this is not some strange Latvian children’s story from the 1800s. It is the culmination of the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year, on February 2nd, the celebration reached its 132nd year, a feat that seems as unlikely as a soothsaying marmot. And while the prognosticating from the “prognosticator of prognosticators” only occurs at sunrise on the 2nd, the excitement starts a great many hours before.

 

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Two people who didn’t freeze in Punxsutawney on February 2nd.

I have always loved the movie, Groundhog Day, a 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis. In brief, Bill Murray plays an egocentric weatherman from Pittsburgh who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day and ends up reliving the day over and over until he completely changes into a good person. Full disclosure, as a kid I had a huge crush on Andie MacDowell’s character in the movie, which on my most recent viewing still holds up. But while I may have always enjoyed the film, I never once thought of the festival as something to attend. Groundhog Day was always just fine print on my calendar like Boxing Day or one of the Equinoxes. Whatever Phil’s prediction, I heard about it through the grapevine or I didn’t hear about it at all.

 

 

My interest in the holiday took off in December of last year when I boldly viewed a map, an activity that is surprisingly enlightening. Nestled just northeast of Pittsburgh was a town whose name I recognized immediately for its Dr. Seussian lyricism: Punxsutawney. The town was remarkably close to my new home, Cleveland, Ohio, and when I looked at another antiquated document (a calendar) I realized Groundhog Day was just over a month away. No matter the means, I decided I was going to attend.

Luckily for me, I mentioned it off the cuff to Akash, a friend of mine here in Cleveland and classmate from my UNC days.

“Wait, are you serious?!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, why?”

“A group of us are going! We’ve been talking about it for like a year. You’ve got to go with us.”

“That’s wild. I’m in!” And just like that I signed on to join the entourage for what was already feeling like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

A few weeks later our group of eight brave, young souls split into two cars and headed to western PA under the darkness of the first night of February. Somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, on the winding wooded roads, the snow began to fall. In the light cast from the headlights into the night, the snowflakes glowed and looked like stars whizzing by. It was as if we were flying through space, the first of many clues we’d left Earth. We made it to Punxsutawney, or Punxy as the locals lovingly refer to it, behind a salt truck, which served as our slow, blinking escort.

The clock was approaching 11:00PM, 8.5 hours until Phil was scheduled to look for his shadow. The parking lot at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, our designated rendezvous point, was nearly empty, with a few RVs pulling in to set up camp on the periphery. To one side of our car was the giant Wal-Mart, open 24hrs every day, and to our left was a Taco Bell, open 24hrs for Groundhog Day only. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, one thing became abundantly clear: it was cold. Even with the residual heat from the car, the wind briskly whipped up the thin sheet of snow and ice on the ground and drove the real feel of the temperature down from its mercury reading of 15 degrees.

“It’s supposed to get colder,” Matt said.

I winced at the thought.

“Where should we go tonight?” Leo asked the young girl manning the Taco Bell counter.

“The Borrow.”

“Where’s that?”

“Take the hill down to the Rite Aid, then take a right at the red light…” Through the landmark directions we gleaned that The Borrow was the place to be, and as midnight was nigh, we finished our Miller Highlife cans and called an Uber. Actually it was not an Uber but the Uber.

“I’m the only Uber in Punxsutawney,” the driver told us. It didn’t seem like he was bragging or complaining. His commentary was what I would come to expect from the generally pleasant locals, a statement of fact. When we walked through the doors and paid the mandatory donation to the bar, we were blown away.

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Our group at The Borrow with a few of Phil’s faithful in custom attire. Photo by John Wetzel

“Now this is Punxsutawney!”

There was live music playing in the back corner, an eardrum banging combination of guitars, pianos, and twangy vocals. The crowd was a blend of characters ranging from tattooed motorcycle gangs to Penn State students to people wearing homemade Phil themed costumes. None of the oddities seemed out of place in the crowded bar, where all were gathered for one purpose: to drink to a groundhog. In talking to the people we learned the depth of the insanity surrounding the event, with claims of, “this is our 15th year coming,” and “we drove from [city way too far away to be considered close enough].”

When The Borrow closed we made it across the street to a place called “ISDA Bar” which I guessed was not an acronym but something to be pronounced, a mumbling of “it’s the bar.” The Punxy locals were easy to spot. They were the ones that seemed unfazed by the strobe lights, dancing, and Jell-O shots, content to stand on the sidelines and observe the humanity the festival imported. We were starting to recognize people, an astonishing trend considering we’d only been there just over four hours.

It was too early to go to Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s hillside retreat, so we needed to get back to Wal-Mart. “You’re not going to get the Uber,” one of the local women told us. “But school buses are coming for Wal-Mart.”

“Why would school buses be coming?” I asked.

“I’m from here! Don’t make fun of my town!”

“No, I’m not. I’m just wondering why a school bus would come by this bar at three in the morning to take us to Wal-Mart.”

“Because, it’s Groundhog Day!”

Finding no holes in her logic, I accepted the answer. With no buses in sight, we were able to nab an Uber, though it was not Punxsutawney’s own but instead an out-of-towner. After the requisite Taco Bell and Wal-Mart stops, we split into two groups. Three of us, Matt, Anshu, and myself, took off for Gobbler’s Knob determined to get a good spot. The other five retreated to the car to get some rest. It was 4:00AM, three hours to Phil.

“You can’t drive past here without a permit,” the officer told us at a roadblock. “You’ll have to walk from here.” It was evident moments after we started our ascent up the steep, icy mountain with only feint moonlight and the occasional streetlamp to guide us, that we had been dropped off at the wrong place. Just under a half an hour later, the lights and sounds emanating from the Knob signaled we’d arrived. As we crossed the threshold I was unaware that I was, at that moment, the warmest I was going to be. The frigid temperature had fallen as Matt predicted, and the ground was solid ice. This permitted me the chance to skate on my boots and fall hard on my elbow, a severe point deduction in nearly every one of the upcoming Winter Olympic events. It was 4:30AM, three full hours until Phil.

Two members of the Inner Circle in their top hats and tails, lead the stage in song and dance. There was call and response, generally “groundhog” themed, and a variety of fanfare. It was the Inner Circle’s time to shine, and for a group of people with nicknames like Iceman, Thunder Conductor, and Sky Painter, they earned the right. We made a few treks to the bonfire, which was dozens of stumps piled high and fully ablaze. The fire provided momentary, skin-searing relief from the bone-chilling weather.

“Hey, you’re on fire.”

“I think your jacket is melting.”

“Excuse me, your backpack is burning.”

These and other phrases people called out nonchalantly with the same urgency one might employ when pointing out spinach in someone’s teeth. Each time I heard it I knew it was time to rotate out of the fire and back into the cold. But the warmth from the fire was ultimately a tease, and a return to the crowd was necessary. A couple standing in front of us held up a sign: “We’re getting married at 11:00AM!”

“Hey,” a man called next to us, “I’m an ordained minister. Why don’t I just do the ceremony now?”

“No, we aren’t ready. The mayor is going to perform the ceremony.”

I wondered if their nuptials depended on Phil’s prediction, an unsettling thought. Suddenly, through the darkness, some of the most incredible fireworks I’ve ever seen began firing off. They were a spectacular and remarkably close sight. There was an element of dangerous proximity, like a forest fire might ignite, that made the experience somehow more Punxsutawney. In a nice, epic touch, the rockets exploded to blaring John Williams scores.

“Ok!” yelled one of the Fred Astaire’s on stage. “Fifteen minutes until Phil!”

“Phil! Phil! Phil!” the chants rang out.

Then the stage broke out into a few songs, which can only be described as painful. The first song was the insufferable tune, “This train is bound for Punxy, this train,” to bluegrass accompaniment. The second song repeated the line, “don’t matter what day it is, put on your Sunday finest and party like it’s Saturday night,” despite the fact that it exclusively mattered what day it was as the event only occurs on a specific day once a year, and it was a Friday.

With the real feel hovering at 5 degrees, the ringleader called out, “Send in the top hats!” As fanfare music started to play, a bobbing mass of black headwear made their way

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Members of the Inner Circle doing what they do best: circling around a groundhog. Photo by Stuart Rowe

through the crowd. According to the Inner Circle, Punxsutawney Phil is the same groundhog that made the first prediction 132 years ago, which is amazing considering the lifespan of animals in his species is only about six years. It was no wonder he was reticent to come out of the stump in the conditions, even taking a bite of the new handler in protest. As tradition dictates, when the sunrises, which was around 7:20 that morning, Phil looks for his shadow and then conveys, to the President of the Circle, his prognostication in “Groundhogese.”

 

From a scroll which began, “Here ye, here ye, here ye,” the President read. “Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators,” it continued. The anticipation, which had been building for more than eight long and bizarre hours, was finally coming to a head. “I see my royal shadow, six more weeks of winter to go!” Earlier cheers for Phil turned to jeers, as his prediction was pretty much universally ill received. But then how long can you really stay mad at a shivering groundhog well into his second century of life? Despite factual evidence to the contrary, the Inner Circle claim that Phil’s predictions are correct, “100% of the time, of course!” Perhaps the study was done by the same people who declared The Human Centipede, “100% medically accurate.”

It was difficult, however, to dispute Phil on the nearly two-mile hike up and over the hills back to Wal-Mart, as the wind blew and shivered the ice from the trees and my fingers from my hands. Punxsutawney is a small town that turned itself into the “weather capital of the world,” and in a stroke of genius manages to draw a crowd of untold thousands, one day a year, to stand in the cold on a hill called Gobbler’s Knob and listen to a groundhog do Al Roker’s job. I’d lived through Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, one of the most unusual and fascinating slices of Americana I’ve ever come across, but unlike Bill Murray, I only had to live through it once.

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Our group (John, Stu, Alex, Anshu, Akash, Leo, me, and Matt) beneath a sign that asks an unanswerable question. Photo by John Wetzel

A Brief Oral History of the Life of Arthur Watts Clark

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Last year I conducted an interview with one of my heroes, Arthur Watts Clark, which was recently archived with the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at the UNC Chapel Hill Center for the Study of the American South. I have known Mr. Clark for over a decade and feel very privileged he agreed to share some of his life story with me. Mr. Clark was born in 1922 in Seattle, Washington and is a retired Air Force major general, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, living in Chapel Hill, NC. His work in the civilian sphere took him to the chairmanship of the Home Security and Peoples Security life insurance companies. During the course of the interview, Mr. Clark provides a great overview of his storied life, including his family, experience in the military, and a glimpse into his wealth of travel adventures worldwide. Included here is both the edited version of the interview which is on YouTube and a link to the unedited (audio only) interview with accompanying Abstract and Field Notes on the SOHP archival site. I am very excited to share this piece of history and hope more people will get to hear his story!

SOPH link:

Southern Oral History Program: Interview B-0086 with Abstract and Field Notes

Contigo

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Zinnfandel Films is back! It has been over a year and a half since I last posted a video, so I am very happy to bring you all Contigo. This is my newest short film, which has been in the works for almost a year (from first draft to final cut). The entire story came to me after reading a quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Cien Años de Solidad. Márquez was a beloved and critically acclaimed author from Columbia (known lovingly as Gabo) who died earlier this year. I feel it is important to apologize to Sr. Márquez and his estate for taking a few quotes from his novel out of context and using them for my own story. Márquez’s incredible words do a phenomenal job of conveying ideas that I could never even dream of expressing on my own. His words are italicized and in quotation marks to distinguish them from my own.

I don’t want to talk about actual plot details of Contigo because I don’t want anyone to go into it with any preconceived notions. However there are a few more elements I want to discuss here. First of all, the dialogue is entirely in Spanish (with subtitles in English of course!). Spanish was really the only way I could make this film in order to preserve the beauty of Márquez’s words, and I realized it is the best language for what the film looks at. Also, I use three songs in the film from famous Mexican trios: Trío Los Galantes, Los Panchos, and Los Tres Ases. These songs are also in Spanish, and I toyed with the idea of putting subtitles for the songs as well but decided against it because I want the focus to be on the visuals. Interestingly, due to copyright laws to some of the music, my short film has been banned in Germany (my first banned film!).

This project was a great opportunity to work with a variety of new people. First of all my younger brother James did the camera work. He had never done anything like this before, and I think he did a great job! I also had the fortune of working with a former sitter of my younger siblings, Hildy Donner; she really fits well in the film. One of my roommates, Bradley Saacks, both helped in the translation and did a good job in his role in the film as well. Finally, I brought a very good friend of mine, Ryan Beale, on board to produce. I also want to thank the Media Resources Center at UNC from which I rented the equipment and edited the film (and all of my previous projects).

I hope you all enjoy Contigo, and I look forward to feedback!

Jerry

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Sweet Smell of Success

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“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” – J. J. Hunsecker

“In the swift, cynical Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster stars as the vicious Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the unprincipled press agent Hunsecker ropes into smearing the up-and-coming jazz musician romancing his beloved sister. Featuring deliciously unsavory dialogue, in an acid, brilliantly structured script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and noirish neon cityscapes from Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, Sweet Smell of Success is a cracklingly cruel dispatch from the kill-or-be-killed wilds of 1950s Manhattan.” – The Criterion Collection

1.  Meet Mr. J. J. Hunsecker, a man who can make or break you just by snapping his fingers. The picture is telling; Falco looks at him with jealousy and disdain, but only because he is behind his back. Of course the moment he comes into Hunsecker’s sightline, Falco puts on one of his “forty faces.” In this frame, Hunsecker is dishing out harsh criticism (a common occurrence) to a philandering senator, though not in the typical overt fashion. As the most powerful person in the microcosm of this film, he is too good, strike that, too great a man to engage in such petty exchanges. Instead he coats his message in a drizzle of linguistic maple syrup; sweet and complex, but sickening in high doses. I also want to call attention to the lighting in the frame. The film does a truly masterful job of depicting the sleaze and immorality of its characters through very high contrast, and indeed noirish, lighting.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 2.48.42 PM2.  There are a lot of things being said in this frame, and I’m not talking about the dialogue. Four faces, each strong and calculated, shoot daggers at Sidney Falco as he takes it all in his usual, manipulative stride. Falco is placed under similar fire in more than one other occasion in the film, as he tries to wheel and deal his way up the ladder of “success.” One of the films minor characters tells Falco that he has “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” It’s an amusing if not entirely accurate picture of a man who smiles only if it can get him somewhere.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 3.28.48 PM3.  This image tells the whole story of J. J. Hunsecker. A domineering character that looks down upon the city and everyone in it, for he knows and truly believes himself to be God. We only see this shot for a short time, maybe less than 5 seconds, and so it can easily be overlooked. It is for that very reason that I have included it here; in reality it is one of the most essential shots in the whole film. Rarely are we afforded the opportunity to see J. J. alone, and even less are we shown his point of view. Here we get to see inside his head, through his eyes, and feel what it’s like to be “successful.” The feeling we are left with is not one of inspiration or admiration but of pity.

The Credits: It could be noted that the film seems to overexaggerate the inhumanity of Falco, Hunsecker and the rest, but that’s simply too naïve an observation. The truth of the matter is, many people equate power to success, and don’t care what it takes to get there. Sweet Smell of Success is an incredibly appropriate title for the film. Success, when viewed in this way, surely can smell sweet, but it tastes bitter. Sidney Falco is a warning to us all what can happen when we lose sight of ourselves. Hunsecker is meant to represent the type of empty success that so many strive for, and when (as Falco illustrates) you hate the man you want to become, where does that leave you? I’ve seen this film three or four times over the years and it is one of my all-time favorites. The acting is superb, the dialogue sharp and intelligent, and it puts life into perspective. This movie is often overlooked, which is unfortunate, but at the same time it provides us all the chance to see a hidden gem.

Reel Rating: 9.4