Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ken Heckler

Yesterday I began an account of my Saturday in Huntington from a few weeks ago.

By the time I left off, I had spent a couple of hours in the Library and had drifted into musings about young couples and vampires.

Perhaps the more thoughtful among you noticed that the noon hour had passed without me reporting the slightest hint of hunger or taking time for a nosh.

— And what actually happened?

I forgot to eat and by the time I felt my stomach rumble a bit it was already early afternoon. Might as well wait for dinner….

So I focused on my maps and telephone books and the next thing I noticed was a not particularly loud loudspeaker announcement that “Former congressman Ken Heckler will deliver a lecture….”

Dr. Heckler was running for the Senate to replace Robert Byrd, who had died at age 92 after 50 years as one of West Virginia’s Senators. Senator Byrd had managed to travel the long path beginning as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and filibustering against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and yet somehow by 2001 he had rejected his previous views. Of course he also voted against Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court…, but I can imagine all sorts of not-racist reasons for that decision…, believing that Anita Hill told the truth being one…. And, anyway, Byrd played bluegrass fiddle, so he couldn’t be all bad…. Right?

I wandered up to the 3rd floor where I found Dr. H (PhD from Columbia University in History and Government) hosting perhaps a dozen listeners. I slipped into a seat and listened as he discussed his primary topic - the one he based his campaign upon - the removal of mountain tops to pull out coal and other minerals. His point is simple. You can’t reclaim such an insanely radical operation. As he says, (I’m paraphrasing…) ‘Once you have the ground saturated with acid, reclamation becomes impossible.’ And you get acid run off from ALL mountain top removal operations. So reclamation is a fantasy….

Since I now live in Ohio I can’t vote in West Virginia. Although when I was a lad, the motto in WV was, ‘Vote Early. Vote Often.’ And both parties enjoyed a strategy by which they voted the graveyards, an actual procedure that swayed more than one election. More sophisticated techniques included driving potential voters to a polling place and accompanying them into the booth to ‘assist’ in filling out the ballet. Afterwards, the voter would either received a pint of some liquid refreshment for his/ her efforts or move on to the next polling place and vote again. It all depended upon the contract previously arranged between the contractees.

But as I say, things have changed. There are fewer dead people still on the polls and voting more than once is frowned upon in most areas of the state. Had I tried to vote I might even have been challenged, although I suppose I might have given my address from 35 years ago - might have worked….

Anyway, I listened with awe to Dr. H’s speech and went up after to introduce myself.

Some 45 years ago I had participated in one of the good Docs Week in Washington programs, although in typical fashion I had managed not to win the essay contest and rather than an actual week I received a Day in Washington (which included a fascinating train ride from Huntington to Washington).

Toward the end of the day, irritable and tired, I was ‘rude’ to Strom Thurmond asking him about racial relations in his state (South Carolina) and making noises indicative of disbelief when he told me there were no problems. Of course, in this one case I was right and Strom was wrong… but I still should not have been rude…. I hoped Ken had not received any difficulties back from my misdemeanor. He said it hadn’t.

I really wanted to talk to Ken (I guess I’m a fan boy…) and somehow the conversation looped to history and Ken told me that during his ramblings over West Virginia during this campaign for the Senate he had met the last surviving American who had served in WWI, one Frank Buckles, now living over in Charles Town, WV in the Eastern edge of the state. Not knowing how to respond (a not untypical thing for me) but not wanting to show my ignorance I muttered something about the longevity of Civil War vets vs WWI vets and made the mistake to suggest Civil War vets had survived longer than WWI vets.

Without any rancor, Ken corrected me, explaining that the last confirmed Civil War vet had died in 1956 at about 108 or so, more or less the same age as Frank B (he’s 109 now). The point being that maximum longevity didn’t seem to have changed over the past 150 years or so.

Ken added that he figures he should manage one, maybe two, terms in the Senate before he has to retire.

(Regrettably, in the 28 August 2010 special election, the democratic party of West Virginia decided they wanted the present governor to run for the Senate in November ‘10 rather than Ken. However, some 17.3% voted for Dr. Heckler. Not bad for a guy who would be 96 by the time they swore him in….)

Afte Doc H finally peeled myself away from me (he had to return to the capital for an evening campaign activity), I returned refreshed to my cubby hole where I transferred from my telephone books to newspaper archives.

Interesting how little news one actually found in newspapers back then…. But actually the ads and prices grabbed my interest more than facts - except for a few curious events including a murder outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan which may (or may not) have been a serial killing. I scanned quite a few papers, but had to leave of with the police looking for ‘a young man on a motorcycle.’ Friends reported last seeing the deceased young woman boarding the young man's bike and the couple zipping off.

And then at 5 the library closed without me finding out the conclusion of the story. Luckily I don’t have to know the ending. I know enough to use the outline in my next NaNoWriMo story - although it is a bit grimmer than I like….

Jim FitzPatrick, 2010 01-29

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