Archive for July, 2014

Two years of telling stories in my new Kentucky home

Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm

On an unusually cool July morning, the sweet scent of whiskey mash hangs heavy in the air over Bardstown. I used to think the aroma was from a former bakery downtown, until the proprietor told me what it was.

Today it smells like home.

It was two years ago this week that I moved here from Winchester and started working for The Kentucky Standard as a reporter, photographer, copy editor and columnist.

That summer wasn’t mild like this one. Temperatures topped 100 degrees, and I looked forward to swimming at night at the Bardstown Parkview Motel, which was my residence for the first month. The vintage motor inn is in a leafy neighborhood that includes My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

These days I live in an efficiency behind the newspaper office and above one of the downtown businesses. It’s close quarters, but a good location. I can walk to the office, restaurants, the bank and the Episcopal Church.

I suppose if I were here for 20 years instead of two, I would still be a “brought in,” because Bardstown is traditional that way, and family ties in this old town are important. But it’s also a progressive small city in many ways, and one that exudes hospitality.

In my 30 years as a community newspaperman in Kentucky, I’ve felt welcome almost everywhere I’ve lived, but I’ve never felt more appreciated than during my time here. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they liked something I wrote, or that they read my Sunday column every week, or that they’re pleased I’m here and hope I’ll stay. For an introverted and sometimes insecure writer, that kind of affirmation means everything.

This has been a pleasant place to live and work, and I’ve done some of my best and most interesting work here (interesting to me, and I hope, to our readers). That was especially true of that first splendid summer and fall.

My first front-page story was a “special report” on the uninsured in Nelson County, in which I interviewed Jan Tronzo and Linda Simms. I now serve with them on the board of Nelson County’s free community clinic.

That summer I met some of the Sons of Bardstown, members of the local National Guard artillery unit who survived a horrific battle during the Vietnam War that claimed the lives of several of their brothers in arms.

Although I’m not Catholic, I was fascinated by the history of the Kentucky Holy Land and enjoyed writing about the Abbey of Gethsemani, the mission work of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the 220th anniversary of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Fairfield.

I’m also not a bourbon connoisseur, but I was intrigued by the bourbon lore of Bardstown and its environs, and enjoyed my first Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

I also had fun at my first Buttermilk Days, though I’ve never had a taste for wild game, and I’ve always preferred dry red wine to the sweet, heady homemade stuff offered there.

Inevitably, there have also been tragic stories that I would rather not have had to write about, most notably the murder or Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis. But even in that case, it was inspiring to see an entire community honor a fallen hero and show solidarity with his family, fellow officers and one another. It shows how strong are the ties that bind us.

That kind of kinship is part of what attracted me and keeps me here.

This is my declaration of independence

Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 11:52 am

Come all ye conservatives and liberals who want to conserve the good things and be free— Wendell Berry

These lines of verse, which have stayed in my memory for years, are from “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union.”

Wendell Berry

It was first included in Wendell Berry’s “Entries” in 1997 and was recently published in paperback in “The Mad Farmer Poems,” a collection featuring Berry’s memorable character, as well as contributions of other writers in whose work the barmy farmer appears.

When I visited the Morrison Book Shop in Lexington last Sunday after church, I bought a copy of “The Mad Farmer Poems” and have been enjoying revisiting those verses.

The older I get, the more I relate to the contrariness of the Mad Farmer, who seems eccentric only because he is a voice of sanity in a world gone round the bend.

The poem from which the lines are taken is not about seceding from the republic, which some malcontents were seriously advocating some years ago. Rather, it is about seceding from the madness of a modern society in which we’ve forgotten traditional virtues that are the bedrock of our civilization.

Berry calls for us to secede from the union of power and money, power and secrecy, work and debt, work and despair. He implores us to look beyond ourselves for our own good and that of others.

From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,

secede into care for one another

and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.

Wise words we would do well to heed in this nihilistic age.

Although this poem isn’t overtly political, it resonates with me on that level.

I am dismayed by our current hyper-partisanship, which is exacerbated by the endless echo chamber of social media and by the removal of limits on money in politics.

I’m sickened by bile I read every day on Facebook, and so should we all be — regardless of whether it’s directed against child refugees from Guatemala, the poor of Appalachia, a mentally troubled Marine, the wife of our current president, homosexuals or evangelical Christians.

My personal beliefs and values don’t align perfectly with the dogma of the Democratic or Republican Party. That’s why, for most of the past decade, I have been a registered independent.

That doesn’t mean I vote for independent candidates; I usually don’t because they almost invariably play the role of spoiler in our two-party system. What it does mean is that I believe in bipartisan cooperation and don’t unquestioningly swear allegiance to any faction.

If this country had a political party that protected religious liberty, respected people of faith, affirmed the sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage, upheld traditional standards of sexual morality, treated the working class with dignity and fairness, demonstrated compassion for the poor, the aged and those with disabilities, respected thrift and effort and avoided the temptation to confiscate the wealth of those who create it, welcomed immigrants, treated human trafficking victims with humanity instead of contempt, guarded the environment, guaranteed equality for women and minorities, protected children from evil influences, valued civility in discourse and compromise in decision-making, and worked for freedom and opportunity for all, I might join it. But there isn’t a party like that and hasn’t been in my lifetime. Therefore I strive to maintain a degree of independence while working for community on a scale small enough to make a difference.

In the unending war of partisan rancor, I am a conscientious objector.

Like the Mad Farmer, I walk quietly away.

In the time of the tiger lilies

Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm (Updated: June 28, 12:23 pm)

The forecast had been for hot and horrid conditions with temperatures in the upper Hades. When I walked out of my air-conditioned studio, where the thermostat is almost always set at 70, the steam hit me like a sauna, and I knew I was in trouble. I was going to be out in the sun all day, so I went back upstairs and got a bandana and a bottle of water.

Those who know me know I don’t like heat, humidity and other pestilences of summer — sunburn, pollen, mosquitoes, tornadoes, drought, biting flies, stinging nettles, noisy drunks and noisome lawnmowers.

I’ve often said that if I had my way, it would be April or October all the time. If it weren’t for winter and summer, though, we wouldn’t appreciate spring and fall as much. And to be truthful, every season has its charms.

There’s something magical about a heavy snowfall, although I’d prefer it come at Christmas instead of Valentine’s Day. And what would Fourth of July fireworks, carnivals, county fairs, barbecue, bluegrass and blues be without a little heat?

Last Saturday morning, runners who are made of sturdier stuff than I were out competing in the HeartChase for the American Heart Association, and Civil War re-enactors were sweating in woolen clothes at Old Bardstown Village. I took some photographs in town and bought some garden tomatoes at the Farmers Market before going to the Fairfield Homecoming. There I got to enjoy some old-fashioned gospel music, met some friendly folks like Tom Watson, a former AP reporter and history buff, and Buddha (Ricky Lewis), who was grilling hamburgers for the guests. I had some brown sugar pie and an ice-cold Pepsi, and I wished I’d had more of an appetite because the fried catfish and macaroni salad looked delicious.

On the way back to Bardstown, I was taking in the dark greens of summer, the cottony clouds against an azure sky and the beautiful orange tiger lilies that grew along the roadside when, suddenly, there was a flash of bright orange as a bird rose and dove in front of my car as if leading me forward. I don’t know if it was an oriole or a tanager, but it was gorgeous.

This is my third summer in Bardstown. I came here during one of the hottest summers ever, when the mercury rose to 100 day after day. Fortunately, I was living at the old Parkview Motel, across from My Old Kentucky Home, so every night at dusk, I’d enjoy a swim and drink a couple of cold ales.

If I ever move on, I’ll associate my time in Nelson County with that first scorching summer when heading west to bourbon country seemed like discovering a land of milk and honey where even a man in his 50s could make a new beginning.


That first summer, I visited the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth for their last picnic, and ever since, I’ve been coming back to that heavenly country in the evenings to walk its leafy paths.

On June 11, I was going past the big pond at Nazareth when I noticed circles on the water and knew it was raining just a few yards away. And as I came over a hill, I witnessed a wondrous rainbow. I had no camera to capture it, so I tried to do so in words:

Against a slate-gray sky,

A kaleidoscope of colored light

High above a hunter green forest

And amber waves of grain.

First freedom trumps other rights

Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 11:55 am

The United States Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby isn’t about whether women have a right to birth control. They do.

It also isn’t about whether employers may discriminate against workers who don’t share their religious beliefs. They may not.

What it’s about is simple, really. By a majority of one, the justices said family businesses don’t have to pay for contraceptives for employees if it violates their moral convictions.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, made it clear the decision has nothing to do with other obligations employers have under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and it does not allow companies to deny coverage for other procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations. He also said that if the government wants to provide free contraceptives, there are other ways to do so.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., owned by David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma City and their family, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of East Earl, Pa., owned by a Mennonite family, had no objection to 16 of the 20 contraceptives covered under the federal mandate. But they balked at paying for two drugs they say are drugs that induce abortions, Ella and Plan B, as well as two intrauterine devices that prevent fertilized eggs from attaching themselves to the uterus. Proponents of these “emergency contraceptives” say they work by delaying ovulation or making it harder for the sperm to reach the egg.

It doesn’t matter which side is correct because the court’s ruling applies to all methods of birth control. It would protect “closely held” Catholic corporations from paying for birth control pills, for instance.

Despite the ruling’s narrow scope and the court’s laudable attempt to balance employees’ interests with the rights of business owners, the outcry from feminists and pro-choice activists was shrill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the decision “outrageous” and a “dangerous precedent.” One of my Facebook friends said women need “protection from religious fanatics.” I suppose her definition of a religious fanatic is anyone who puts faith first.

Barbara Green underscored what religious freedom means to evangelical Christians in her response to the ruling. “Today the nation’s highest court has reaffirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s highest principles,” she said, calling the decision “a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith.”

That’s an important distinction. When I asked Sen. Mitch McConnell about the ruling last week, he said liberals believe the First Amendment guarantees Americans the freedom to worship; conservatives believe it means the right to “practice their faith.”

Conservatives have the better understanding of the Bible.

Being a real Christian means your life is no longer your own, you have surrendered it to Christ, who guides everything you do. You know he is Lord of all, and in the fullness of time, he will bring everything under his authority. Jesus told his followers faith isn’t something they may keep to themselves if they want any part of his kingdom.

“Our religious convictions aren’t reduced to mere opinions we hide in our hearts and in our hymns. Our religious convictions inform the way we live,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But this isn’t only a Protestant understanding. Pope Francis said, “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life.”

It is this freedom to practice one’s faith that is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, upon which the justices based their decision. It bars government from unduly burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling interest; and if it must intervene, it must do so in the least restrictive and intrusive way.

The court did not have to decide the case on constitutional grounds, but the Constitution informs the statute. Secularists think freedom of religion must take a back seat to every other right, real or imagined, but there is a reason the founders of our republic made the First Amendment, and specifically the freedom of religion, first — it is because it is first in importance.

Why Paul Revere isn’t revered in Penobscot

Paul Revere

Thursday, July 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

If you’ve read any of Bernard Cornwell’s books, you know he’s probably the foremost author of historical fiction in the world today. His research is meticulous.

Cornwell’s Revolutionary War novel “The Fort” is about one of the greatest American catastrophes of the war for independence: the Penobscot Expedition in July and August of 1779.

In what was this country’s greatest naval disaster before Pearl Harbor, we lost nearly 40 ships and failed to take a fort the British were building at the mouth of the Penobscot River in what is now Maine.

The disaster has been largely blamed on Commodore Dudley Saltonstall for failing to engage the enemy until it was too late. But Saltonstall wanted Gen. Solomon Lovell to first take the fort, because he feared the British cannons from the high emplacement would rain down heated shot onto his ships, turning them into infernos. And Lovell refused to attack without the support of Saltonstall’s Continental Navy.

There was plenty of blame to go around, but one character that comes across as particularly contemptible is the arrogant Lt. Col. Paul Revere. He insists on going his own way and living in relative luxury and safety aboard ships while his troops sleep on the ground. At the end of the book, Revere abandons his cannon to the British —  against orders — then packs up and leaves.

One of the true heroes of the story, Gen. Peleg Wadsworth, notices men on a schooner in the river pleading frantically for help while Revere floats by on a barge. Wadsworth orders Revere to rescue the men, but in a final act of defiance, Revere says he had no room for them because of his baggage.

Besides, he’s no longer under Wadsworth’s authority, he says.

While the general is screaming at Revere, warning that he’ll have him arrested, Revere makes a dismissive gesture and tells his men: “Keep rowing.”

The incident really happened, although according to some accounts, Revere’s crew went back and rescued the men on the schooner with only moments to spare before the British arrived to seize the ship.

Cornwell writes in his historical notes at the end of the novel that, to this day, people in that part of Maine don’t  revere Paul Revere because they know the rest of the story.

Revere was court-martialed, but only mildly reprimanded.

Gen. Artemas Ward described Revere’s actions as “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice,” which is not the portrait we’ve had of the patriot since the days of McGuffey’s Readers.

What Revere is famous for is his midnight ride, in which he warned that “the British are coming!” But it turns out that the story of Revere’s famous ride has been embellished. He did ride that night to warn the Americans, but so did other men, and Revere didn’t complete his mission because he was captured.

Revere’s great reputation is mainly the result of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, in which the poet singles him out among several couriers for special treatment. Revere, as everyone my age and older was taught, told his friends to signal by lantern from the tower of the Old North Church how the British were to arrive —

“One, if by land, and two, if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

What Cornwell, an expat Englishman now living on Cape Cod, found to be the “supreme irony of the story” was that the poet Longfellow was the grandson of Wadsworth, Revere’s nemesis and the general who threatened to have him arrested.

As the author shows, historical truth is often stranger than fiction.

Should rural residents pay for city services?

Friday, June 20, 2014 at 6:06 pm

A curious thing happened on the way to passage of a city budget. Bardstown’s council deadlocked 3-3 on the first reading June 10 with the naysayers expressing concerns about salaries and spending.

If the stalemate extends to the second vote this Tuesday, Mayor Bill Sheckles will likely break the tie.

At the June 10 meeting, Tommy Reed and Sheckles got into a row over whether $25,000 should be spent on merit raises. Councilmen Bobby Simpson and John Royalty took Reed’s side against using part of the salary money for merit, and Francis Lydian, Roland Williams and Joe Buckman sided with Sheckles. After the meeting, Simpson told me the bigger issue for him is the $3 million increase above last year’s budget. Late that night, Royalty texted me that he hadn’t gotten a good answer about why the budget has risen more than $6 million in four years.

He probably hadn’t read my analysis of the budget increase, which was published online an hour before the meeting. But the mayor gave a short answer: “We’ve grown.” Personnel and insurance costs have gone up, he said, and utility increases are “the cost of doing business.”

True, the wholesale costs of electricity and cable television programming have risen, but as I reported last Sunday, about $700,000 of the $7.5 million general fund comes from utility transfers.

The common wisdom, said Bardstown’s CFO, Mike Abell, is that “you’re not supposed to transfer from utilities to general fund.” But he thinks there is a “legitimate dividend to the owner of the utilities.”

This practice raises significant questions: Is it fair for residents in Botland or Fairfield to pay higher water or cable rates so Bardstown can hire more police officers or improve its historic preservation program? How does that benefit those residents?

Nicholasville has a rule against using utility income for general government. Utilities Director Tom Calkins told me it’s an agreement between the city and the buyers of its bonds. And Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner said that, except in rare situations involving specific projects, Winchester Municipal Utilities does not shift funds to general government.

Bardstown, however, has been doing it for years. Last year, the council made it a practice to transfer 2 percent of revenue from each department to the general fund.

I learned this week that when the city changed its half-percent occupational tax in 2011 — to remove the exemption for the first $15,000 of income and raise the cap from $75,000 to $100,000 — one reason was to transfer less from utilities to other services. So I read stories in our archives about the debate over the tax, and found that Reed and Simpson were then making the opposite argument — that utility transfers should be used to avoid raising the occupational tax.

In 2011 the city was trying to erase a projected deficit of $285,000, including shortfalls in utilities. The mayor suggested raising the tax to 1 percent. Fred Hagan, who was on the council then, suggested a compromise: Keep the rate at .5 but broaden the base by adjusting the floor and ceiling.

“We don’t have good long-term plans,” Hagan said. The council was transferring half a million dollars from utilities to general government, he said, but had no policy on “whether we should keep doing that.”

City governments should tax those who use their services enough to pay for the services while being frugal in spending the revenue. Raising property taxes is restricted by state law, so adjusting payroll and net profit taxes is a better way to bring in additional revenue without hurting those on fixed incomes.

Many who work in Bardstown don’t live in the city, but they benefit from its services during the hours they’re here, and from having jobs here.

Bardstown has one of the lowest occupational taxes of any city in Kentucky. (For a comparison, go to and click on the link on the home page that says Occupational tax listing 2014.) The typical city tax is 1 to 2 percent.

An alternative to moving money from utilities might be to exempt the first $15,000, raise the cap to $150,000, adjust the rate to whatever it needs to be to fund services and gradually wean the general fund from depending on utility “dividends.”

That way, the city could afford to run its government like a nonprofit entity and not like a business.

‘In all things, charity’ — a church’s legacy

Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm (Updated: June 5, 2:43 pm)

Since moving to Bardstown two summers ago, I’ve learned that in the Kentucky Holy Land, mainline Protestants are as scarce as Sikhs. You could fit all the Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans into a chapel and still have room for most of the Methodists.

I’m being facetious. But it is true that if you’re a church-goer in Bardstown, you’re probably a Catholic, a Baptist or a member of a nondenominational church.

It’s ironic that nondenominational groups usually end up as denominations. That’s true of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was an early attempt at ecclesiastical unity.

During the early 1800s, the region around Lexington was ground zero for the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Two hundred thousand souls gathered to worship at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County when Kentucky’s largest city had only 2,000 people. It was there that Barton Stone, a signer of “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” decided religious structures were unnecessary, so rather than be Presbyterians, his parishioners would simply be “Christians.”

About the same time, two other Presbyterian preachers from Northern Ireland, Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, had a similar idea and made a case for “a complete restoration of apostolic Christianity.” They called their flock Disciples of Christ.

When the two groups came together on New Year’s Day in 1832, they couldn’t decide on a name, so they kept both. The new Disciples agreed they didn’t need a creed because the Bible was easy enough for the common man or woman to understand. As long as members affirmed the fundamentals, they could differ on the details. The Christian Church, which numbers only about 625,000, still has an open approach to theology and an ecumenical spirit. Its motto is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

The Disciples’ influence has been disproportionate to its size. It was a charter member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Renowned Disciples have included President Ronald Reagan, Coach John Wooten, Kentucky Fried Chicken originator Col. Harland Sanders, Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller and Don West, a prophet of the social gospel and co-founder, with Myles Horton, of the Highlander Folk School.

In Kentucky, institutions affiliated with the Disciples include Lexington Theological Seminary, Midway College and Transylvania University, where I worked for a season.

I’ve never been a member of the Christian Church, but as a young seeker in the early 1990s, I was attracted to the denomination because of its open-mindedness and strong commitment to social justice. It seemed the Disciples were into everything I was — from Habitat for Humanity in Central Kentucky to liberation theology in Central America.

In Bardstown, the denomination is represented by First Christian Church, which is celebrating its 120th anniversary this weekend.

Pastor Rick Loader thinks the Bardstown church is newer than our other Disciples churches in Bloomfield, Boston, Botland and Chaplin.

According to a history of the local church written by Joseph B. Fitch, pastor from 1943 to 1946, there were “Reformers” in Bardstown going back to 1834 — two years after Stone and the Campbells came together. But First Christian marks its establishment in 1894, when a brick veneer building was erected at the corner of Third and Broadway. It shared its building with the Church of the Ascension for a couple of years, until 1992, when it moved to 175 E. John Rowan Blvd., near U.S. 31E, leaving the old building to the Episcopalians.

Beginning at noon Saturday, everyone is invited to join the congregation for its 120th anniversary festivities, including live music, reunions and children’s activities. There will be a worship service at 4:30, a spaghetti supper at 5:30, sponsored by the youth, and a raffle at 7.

On Sunday, there will be special worship services in the morning, at 8:15 and 10:30, and followed by a potluck dinner. It will be a good opportunity for spiritual and bodily nourishment.

Come hungry; leave filled.

July 2014
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