2021 to-do list

1. Resume using this blog…

2. Don’t just take pictures out the window and sit in the kitchen watching your beard grow.

Posted in Uncategorized

Where did 2020 go?

I’m afraid my Facebook habit, with a bit of Twitter on the side, and my other blog, all conspired to keep me from writing anything here for a long time!

After seeing it on Facebook, a friend has told me that this photograph of mine, of the New River Bridge in Radford, Virginia, should be on the cover of something…

The Radford New River railroad bridge and an October sunset, by Bob Stepno, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved, etc etc.
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Posted in Uncategorized

March-April 2020 memories

The first-Saturday in March Floyd Radio Show is the oldest picture in this batch, followed by weeks of solitary walks off the Blue Ridge Parkway, whimsical experiments with homemade masks, and watching for signs of normalcy. All thanks to a world pandemic that hasn’t made many people sick and this corner of Virginia, but has inspired music venues, schools, colleges, restaurants and more to close doors, don masks, and figure out a new way of getting through the weeks for a while. Take out food, walks in the woods, and music for the living room furniture are my plan, such as it is.

As April ended, I wrote this in a Facebook discussion of mask-wearing and mask-resistance:

Just back from having my car serviced. Customer area inside is closed… You have to wait at well-spaced chairs and benches outside… Customers, while I was there, were mostly older guys like me with bandanas around our necks, where they could be pulled up over the mouth and nose if needed… you know, to hold up a stagecoach or something.

Staff members at the dealerships were standing in groups of three or four talking, no masks. Some had gloves on.

When the car was finished… The guy bringing out the clipboard with sales form to sign was also unmasked. The dealership says it is “sanitizing” cars before and after service. But with no one on the staff actually wearing masks to talk to each other or customers, we customers looked silly with our bandanas. One white haired customer out of a half-dozen did have a serious-looking medical face mask and kept it on while sitting on one of the more isolated outdoor chairs.

Important to note, the dealership is in the New River Valley four-county (184,500 pop; 1,461 sq mi) health district that by late April had only 8 hospitalizations and only one covid-19 fatality. For comparison, that land area is larger than Rhode Island, with less than one-fifth the population.


This post is also an experiment with uploading a batch of photographs from my phone to WordPress without compressing them or doing anything special with the page layout. The display may work better on some browsers, worse on othersuntil I tweak it from a full size computer.

Posted in 2020, Appalachia, hyperlocal, personal, photography, Radford, Stepno, Virginia

Sunset moon and venus above

Friends liked these shots of mine on Facebook… The poor little smartphone crashed a few times trying to get them… Click either picture for more detail.

This post is also an experiment with internet idiosyncrasies. Those two photographs were actually downloaded from Facebook and upload it to WordPress. Now I’m going to add the originals below, directly from my phone to see whether there are noticeable differences in the detail or resolution…

On first attempt, the smaller Sunset and Moon image uploaded okay, but the taller one including Venus was just too large a file to upload from my phone with its WordPress app and timed out during the upload process, leaving a “broken image” icon on the screen.

I will come back to this later with my laptop and see whether I have forgotten something about image file size, storage or upload limitations in my WordPress account. Meanwhile, filing under “making the hours go by during pandemic social distancing.”

Posted in 2020, personal, photography, Radford

Coronavirus escape into 1920

With a combination of LibriVox and Project Gutenberg editions, I have just finished my first Coronavirus isolation novel… That is, the book I started reading at bedtime around the same time the virus alerts began… turning back the clock an even century.

And it coincidentally is about a woman practicing a certain amount of social distancing herself… In a New York garrett a century ago, leading a double life as a costumed crime-fighter, of sorts. She learned to use a revolver from her father while they were in South America and he was a mining engineer. Her “costume” is really just an added veil to keep her face hidden. She does more dressing-up in her secret identity disguise, as Gypsy Nan, member of an underworld gang.

The fact that the book was published in 1920 and had the word “white” in the title had me a bit concerned that I was about to enter a world of anachronistic overt racism…

But, no, “The White Moll” — a social worker style do-gooder turned armed vigilante — gets her name from the era’s colloquial use of the word “white” — as dated as saying “You can look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls”, instead of telling someone to do a Google search.

Of course I just happened to have a 1918 Funk & Wagnalls handy, so I did look it up:

“White: (Pop.) Fair and honorable, straightforward, honest.”

<<“Meet de moll I was tellin’ youse about, Mag. She’s white—all de way up. She’s white, Mag; she’s a white moll—take it from me.”
The White Moll!>>

So, at first she becomes what a police officer derisively calls…
<<“The White Moll, the Little Saint of the East Side, that lends a helping hand to the crooks to get ’em back on the straight and narrow again!”>>

Coincidentally, our heroine’s real name is Rhoda Gray, and she was created by the same author who created another New York underworld vigilante with a dual identity, called The Gray Seal, a pre-1920 precursor of The Green Hornet.

I have been falling asleep to a chapter or two a night of the LibriVox audio book version, 21 chapters worth. Being able to search for text in the one big page Project Gutenberg text version provided a great supplement at the breakfast table when I was trying to make sure I had fallen asleep during anything important!

The writing is a bit florid at times, but Librivox reader Rowdy Delaney is very good and saves you the trouble of being distracted by the slang spellings with all those “de moll I was tellin’ youse about” constructions intended to convey the uneducated under classes. The world of dimly candle lit tenement apartments, filthy alleyways and predatory crooks with colorful slang names was a great escape. It really picked up speed toward the end, even including a dramatic car chase! It is a shame the silent film version, which also came out in 1920, is on the Lost films list!

The novel also gives the impression of having been serialized in a magazine, because there are occasional passages that remind you of what has gone before in ways that work very nicely with the audiobook format.

The book was made into a now lost silent film… Or at least partly lost. It has an IMDb entry (where I swiped this poster) but its summary there includes a plot spoiler that I was sorry I had looked at before I got to that part of the book.

I’m fascinated by Packard’s decision to create a female character who is a bit like his previous male hero, Jimmy Dale, The Gray Seal. I wonder if Hollywood inspired him to create a vehicle for Pearl White? According to what I have seen online both the book and the film were released in 1920, although perhaps the book was serialized in magazines or newspapers before the single-volume publication. Packard was good at keeping the story moving along, and while the dialogue does get a bit thick, I liked it better than the last Jimmy Dale that I read. By the way, I got into Jimmy Dale after doing some research on old time radio shows including the Green Hornet. The “Gray Seal” clearly inspired the “Hornet seal” (a calling card left at the scene of the crime to tease police or rival crooks) , and the idea of a masked hero as wealthy playboy with a secret identity that the police think is a crook, but who really is fighting crime in ways the police cannot. He also has a utility belt that may have been part of the inspiration for Batman’s counterpart. But his is mostly lock picking and safe cracking tools.

One huge difference from all subsequent characters, the Gray Seal actually took his orders from a mysterious woman… blackmailing him into doing one good deed after another, and as much of a leader of a double life as he was. But even more mysterious about it.

The White Moll also has a mysterious male Adventurer in her underground life, so I was half expecting do you have the book morph into another Gray Seal sequel. But he is not Jimmy Dale.

These books are certainly not great literature, but they are the kind of entertainment people could turn to before the days of comic books, radio and television.

Posted in 1920s, fiction, Librivox, literature, media studies, movies, popular culture, Project Gutenberg, writing

JFK: A president who read Dante

On this day in 1963 we had half-day sessions at my high school, and I headed home with a last-minute stop at the drug store across the street from the house. The radio was on in the store; I don’t think I heard a whole broadcast, just a “headline” about President Kennedy being shot in Dallas. Both my parents were home when I walked in — dad worked at the Roger Smith Hotel right down the street — and I told them my news:

“Did you hear President Kennedy has been shot?”

I’ll always remember my father’s reply:
“OK, what’s the punchline?”

(Unfortunately, one of my favorite books at the time was an anthology called Sick Jokes, Grim Cartoons and Bloody Marys. Not the best start for an eventual journalism career.)

But I pretty quickly convinced my folks that this was not another sick joke, and we turned on the TV. It feels like we never turned it off.

While we watched, my dad remembered meeting JFK just before his election, when he arrived at that Waterbury hotel after midnight on a cold, rainy November morning, delayed hours after his scheduled arrival, and was greeted by a crowd of 40,000 or 50,000 on the city green. The election was in two days, and that 3 a.m. crowd in a blue-collar factory city was later taken as a sign that we were about to get one of the most-loved presidents in history.

“I want to see us build here in this country a strong and vital and progressive society,” he said, “that will serve as an inspiration to all those people who desire to follow the road that we have followed.”

In his speech that morning he quoted Thomas Paine and FDR and Lincoln, but also Dante:

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the coldblooded and the sins of the warmhearted on a different scale. Better the occasional faults of a government living in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

I didn’t get to meet JFK that night, but my dad did, as “resident manager” of the city’s biggest hotel, the one whose second-floor balcony Kennedy spoke from that cold morning. Dad had the candidate autograph a photo to my mother and me. But not to himself, since, as a World War II Army veteran and Eisenhower Republican, he felt he had to support Nixon. (I was immensely proud of him in ’72 when he voted for McGovern.)

Kennedy also promised that, if elected, he would come back to Waterbury to say thanks — and dad smuggled me and a friend into the hotel to see him that time, Oct. 17, 1962. He called the 3 a.m. 1960 visit the high point of his campaign, and he promised he would be back in ’64. His brother Bobby came instead. There’s a plaque in front of the old hotel building.


Posted in Connecticut, Government, History, memories

Remembering a personal Way Station

I just stumbled on a NetFlix press release saying that the late Clifford D. Simak‘s novel Way Station may be a movie someday. That may be just the push I need to go back and re-read it for the first time in decades, and reflect on how important it was to me.

Way_StationI remember when the book arrived in the mail, with its collage cover of clockwork gears, an amoeba-like shape and a rustic shack with a warped clockface. I was a junior in high school and a proud member of the Doubleday Science Fiction Book-of-the-Month club. And I loved that novel… enough to propose it as a term-paper topic to an English teacher who had, for the first time in my school career, offered the class the opportunity to choose our own books to report on. It was the 1960s, and I had to use pre-digital library resources, such as the New York Times index, Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, and Facts on File, to find reviews of the novel and learn more about the author — who turned out to be a Minnesota newspaperman. I don’t think I found any major reviews of the book, and certainly no academic essays about it. I was 16 or so, and on my own, summarizing and evaluating a work of imagination!

I remember that I had to argue the case for reviewing a new book, one the teacher hadn’t heard of, and a science-fiction novel at that. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember spending some serious time at the library, and I’m pretty sure I got an “A” for the project. And that I was very proud of myself when Way Station won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel later that year. I think Simak was already one of my favorite writers, right up there with Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny and Robert A. Heinlein. I forget whether I had already read his Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) and They Walked Like Men (1962) or backtracked to read them as part of my research.  And just maybe the fact that he was a newspaperman — and that I wrote a paper about his book well enough to get an “A” — led to my seriously considering a newspaper career, or at least to being copy editor on a college paper a couple of years later. In fact, Simak’s Wikipedia bibliography reminds me that the plot of They Walked Like Men features a newspaper reporter

Simak certainly joined other role models like real-life columnist Art Hoppe, the first newspaper byline I remember looking forward to in the Daily Hampshire Gazette I delivered (other than Dear Abby or Ann Landers), and fictional journalists like the inevitable comic book or TV characters Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson and (although he wasn’t a writer) Peter Parker, and the heroes of whatever old “newspaper movies” I’d seen with the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant playing reporters or editors. (For some reason I also remember seeing newspapermen played by Donald O’Connor in “Francis Covers the Big Town” and Peter Lawford in “Dear Phoebe” even more than I remember more serious dramatic productions.)

Who knows what leads us to become what we become?

Obviously the real star of this reminiscence is that English teacher back at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Conn., and I will be back to edit this when I have dusted off the old high school yearbook and double-checked the spelling of his name.  He would appreciate that. So would Roger Whitehead, college newspaper editor and a Protestant minister’s son, who offered me a job, saying, “You went to Catholic school? That means you can spell! I need a copy editor.”

Posted in comics, editors, fiction, film, Journalism, jpop, Libraries, literature, memories, Newspapers, personal, popular culture, students

Ancient history

Darn. Distracted by making music and shopping for a new car, I missed my own 50th anniversary! I missed two of them, actually.

Sometime in late May or early June, 1969, I skipped my graduation ceremony at the University of Connecticut, went to Hartford, applied for a job at the Hartford Courant, and started work the next day. That is amazing on so many levels.

I was reminded of that when a friend posted a note on Facebook saying that today was his “50 years today” Courant hiring anniversary. I don’t have a record of my own hire date, alas. (“If you can remember 1969, you weren’t there,” might be a good slogan.) I do remember the phone call from editor Bob Eddy, saying, “I talked to Professor Hill at UConn. You will start tomorrow at 2 p.m.; report to Mr. Reid MacCluggage on the state desk.”

But I do know the day the newspaper published a story with my name on it for the first time. I searched the Courant’s old Proquest online archive some years ago, collecting headlines and lead-sentences of my earliest stories, thinking they might amuse my students. I don’t think I ever actually used that lecture idea, but I still had a copy of the search file on my computer when I looked today.

The date of my first byline was July 2, 1969. The headline, on the local news page for the Willimantic area in Eastern Connecticut, was, “First Selectman Finds First Office Day Busy.” Obviously, no shouting of “Stop the presses!” was involved. But in retrospect, I thought it was a fine coincidence that my first day in the news office I would be writing about the chief executive of the town’s first day in office. I think he had been a barber previously.

(About 20 years later, when I started writing waterfront news for Soundings magazine, I made it a point to interview the new Harbormaster of Newport Rhode Island on my first reporting trip.)

Back in 1969, I had spent a few weeks as a copy editor on the Courant state desk before going to the Willimantic Bureau, where I wrote that story about the first selectman on assignment for interim bureau chief Bill Perez. Willimantic had the odd arrangement of being an incorporated city inside a town, in a state that had long before eliminated the county governments. So the city had a mayor, but the town had an old New England style executive board of three selectmen, headed by a first selectman.

Until July 1st, I don’t think I had ever heard of a “selectman.” So I my first interview question began, “Mr. Lariviere, let’s pretend that until today I had never heard of a first selectman…”

As a reminder of what newspapers were like in those days, the local-section page my story appeared on is listed in the archive as “page 58d.” The story was 391 words long. The first sentence was, “Windham First Selectman Eugene Lariviere is just getting settled in the first selectman’s office on the second floor of Town Hall.” Not a Pulitzer winner, and what a journalism professor might call a “soft lede,” but I remember being quite pleased that my story ran the way I wrote it, without much editing by Bill or the state desk at the other end of our teletype machine link. And I had a byline on my first day!

I stayed at the Hartford Courant for 11 years, and a couple of months ago finally started receiving retirement checks from the company that bought the company that bought the paper just before I “retired” in 1980.

Those retirement checks are helping pay for that new car I spent the month shopping for. I have always liked wrapping up a story with something I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Posted in Journalism, Newspapers, personal, The Hartford Courant

The Archive and the Library meet in online film


Click to view “Library of Congress,” a 1940s film by the National Archives and Records Administration… 20 minutes of history in black and white, including a few moments of folksinger Woody Guthrie recording what a friend describes as a “cowboy anti-fascist song” for the LOC archives.

Screen Shot 2019-12-19 at 2.52.26 PM

This note is part of an exercise in making sure I post things to the open web via my WordPress blog, not just to the closed but huge community on Facebook… where this film was mentioned by a Library & Information Science friend.

Librarian, archivist, historian, folklorist and ethnomusicologist friends… Have you seen the film linked above? The Internet Archive copy could use some comments adding more searchable keywords, but it’s a fascinating slice of history… including an old fashioned look at copyright law before it turned into the protectionist mess it is today.

An excerpt from it at YouTube sent me off looking for the original. That clip had Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as an example of the field recording efforts of The Library of Congress. But there is much more in this 20-minute film from 1968, a guided tour of the work of the library back in the days of cardboard index cards and international mail as information sharing devices, just before the dawn of the digital age…

Original title if you just share the Archive webpage: “LIBRARY OF CONGRESS : National Archives and Records Administration : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive”

Posted in ethnomusicology, folklore, Internet Archive, Libraries, Library of Congress

Once we set the software world on fire

Things you find in the bottom of a box of old computer disks. In its heyday when I worked there, 1984-87, “MultiMate Word Processor” was not only international, it was a best seller and, you might say, almost matchless.

Its biggest selling point was that it allowed the earliest IBM PCs to take the place of much more expensive WANG office word processing systems, popular with insurance companies, law firms and other high-volume purchasers of software. It was designed for typing pools, not creative writers or computer hobbyists, so it didn’t get a lot of love from the geekier computer magazines. But for office typists, the stick-on labels for computer function keys and thorough user manual “documentation” were selling points, its fancy padded binder full of heavyweight pages, a veritable “what to do until the doctor comes” security blanket for nervous users.

My biggest contribution to the East Hartford, Conn., company was probably telling Tina, the product manager, how to get the documentation for version 3.3 into ring binders and slip cases originally measured for a previous version that didn’t have as many pages.

My solution was to make two spiral-bound smaller books out of the beginners section and most advanced/technical section, and only use the three-ring binder for the main reference pages. The smallest spiral booklet fit inside the binder and the beginner/tutorial fit alongside it in the slipcases, of which we apparently had a warehouse-full.

The product manager left for another company and launched a new product… called Microsoft Word. (It, unsurprisingly, successfully made the transition from Microsoft DOS to Microsoft Windows; MultiMate, sold to Ashton-Tate, didn’t.)

With my 11 years’ experience on a newspaper and some accidental computer documentation experience while writing and rewriting a 300-page anthropology/ethnomusicology master’s thesis, I had come to MultiMate to add some technical expertise to the public relations department. They thought I would be good at talking reviewers through the program and writing how-to articles for a user’s newsletter. Within a few months, I was drafted to edit and rewrite parts of the user manual after badly timed company cutbacks removed key technical writers and others quit, just when the slipcase crisis arose.

When the company was sold, I didn’t particularly like the new management and left to finish a second Master’s thesis, which was loosely about the future of writing with computers and a new technology called hypertext, which I thought showed a lot of promise. Two years later an Englishman in Switzerland figured out how to use hypertext to interconnect documents on the Internet and call it the World Wide Web… a sign that I had to go back to grad school again.

Posted in Computers, Connecticut, History, wesleyan, writing
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