11 January 2018

a poetry project—"the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county" & an adieu to news, not blues.

by jennifer hetrick

when i created news, not blues in 2010, it came out of the need for better days in my own life in hard times and me realizing the world and its people outside of me needed this, too. once in a while, people who didn’t know me in-person would figure out that i was the soul behind this publication and would tell me how much they loved scooping it up in public at the handful of distribution sites which kindly offered to carry it. that helped my heart tremendously, and it also helped me to understand that my pursuit carried a necessity.

the blur of my obligations began to take away more time from this community contribution which is finalized at everything printing in bechtelsville. by 2015, i couldn’t keep up anymore, and being literally too busy to live prevented me from updating our community sooner. one of the major endeavors which contributed to my dwindling life-minutes for this is what i’ll be using these final publishing moments to explain.

positive news publications and online outlets are thankfully popping up here and there in the community, including the visitboyertownpa.com (searchable as visit boyertown PA on facebook) and visitpottstownpa.com sites, which i co-manage with rachael kehler, the owner of the peppermint stick candy store in boyertown, and pottstown-based website designer raymond rose of CWT websites. but my hope is also that more people will recognize the untapped inner-drives within themselves to be the go-getters for good around us because more will only benefit us, unlike negativity lacing traditional news venues.

thank you tremendously to everyone who kept up with this publication for as long as they did, probably wondering where they heck it went for the past few years. you have been an integral part of heart-energy and pushing the good around us forward, which is vital.

and now onto what i’ve been doing since 2015, besides attempts at authentic living, working many jobs, pulling relentless and determined sidewalk weeds while not in job-mode, and sprawling in the grass, under the sun (my absolute favorite practice in warm weather—i highly recommend it).


a poetry project—the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county

in 2015, i started a three-year poetry project on the manufacturing history of berks county after i applied for grant funding from the pennsylvania council on the arts through the berks arts council.

the project is called the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county. through it, i interviewed more than 70 seniors around our region who had worked in mostly long gone factories and mills in their earlier days, some spanning their job history back into even the 1940s.

i hunted down seniors through word-of-mouth across my own jobs and connections, and i also hosted presentations in retirement and assisted living homes to gather my poem-sources.

in 2015, 2016, and 2017, i interviewed at least 25 seniors each year about their memories in manufacturing and crafted poems from what they recalled, including stories stemming from places like knitting mills, metal-casting foundries, and candy factories. bulletproof vests, underwear, chocolate, trucks, goggles, sweaters, and kitchen stoves are just some of what the poems dive into across the first, second, and third volumes published through foothills publishing in rural new york.

while i sell the books, which are pictured above, i also donated copies to the seniors who are in a particular volume as well as historical societies and libraries in berks county. the final kind of donation was offered so that those who can't afford to purchase the books can still appreciate them through requesting them from their own library, if the volumes are not already on the shelves there. and this is because i know very well what it is like to scrape by in life even while working hard and living frugally with a fierce pennsylvania dutch cheap gene.

i received state arts grant funding for all three years of the project, and community support and business sponsorships as well as book sales were a big part of helping this work which has taken a hardly measureable amount of hours to complete. it is one of many reasons i've been off the radar. i also began teaching poetry as a visiting artist in schools and state parks in 2016, and i teach a traveling poetry class, too. but doing poetry readings to share these writings around berks county as well as a few in chester county added up to more than 40 in total. my brain is a little too tired to do more math and see if the genuine final number is higher, in typing this at 12.56 a.m. before another early day of work. yet the poetry readings are worth mentioning because of their part here and also because they began to literally change my life, as i'd only mostly participated in open mics before this. as a writer, i've always enjoyed the comfort of hiding behind my words à la the wizard of oz. but in time, i felt the this work, my question-asking, the writing of these poems, and the poetry readings changing me while also bringing honor and a newfound dignity to seniors in a way which is often just not in the cards in our culture. it meant so much to them to have someone, a young person, a stranger, a female poet—sit down, ask them about their lives, document it all in line breaks, and stir forgotten glimmers of mattering in the world versus a sometimes lower self-worth tugging at the center of one day into the next. i felt humbled yet empowered to be the one ensuring that this handful of seniors would not have the significance of their contributions left out of sight.

at the bulk of my poetry readings, which were in art galleries; museums; libraries; retirement and assisted living homes; senior centers; historical societies; schools; cultural centers; and episodes of art and poetry-geared shows on bctv.org, i often brought along poem-sources from my books as special featured guests to share more about their lives through questions from the audience. i heard again and again that this served as a favorite aspect to the poetry readings. a photographic evolution and the actual poems of these readings are on the blog for this project at http://thelaborsofourfingertips.blogspot.com and on the facebook page for it searchable as the labors of our fingertips: poems. i sell the books directly on my own (thelaborsofourfingertips at yahoo dot com or by phone 610.401.3392) and also online through www.gofundme.com/berkscountypoems. my teaching work can be seen at poetrywithjenniferhetrick.blogspot.com and on facebook under poetry with jennifer hetrick.

enjoy these poem-samplings from this project.

from volume one (a full poem) 
willie kramer, south heidelberg township | born: 1932

i still have my cutting knives. but i spent
18 years in the color department before i began
slicing leather that soon became what people

would later sit on in automobiles. i kept cups
of colors in front of me, starting in 1957.
i matched mixed paint to the samples car

manufacturers mailed to garden state tanning
in fleetwood. we carpooled from cressona,
schuylkill county and had some icy-roaded

scares on route 662 in the chillier months.
about 20 different hues took homes inside
50-pound barrels. they never put it this way,

but i became an incidental chemist, regularly
measuring and weighing what i blended.
one guy applied a base coat. another fellow

did a top coat. they called me a color matcher
until i spit up blood, spending several days
in the hospital. afterward, they moved me

to the cutting department, where i worked
for 20 years—split only automotive hide
and had to work fast, following the patterns.

one day, i saw three birds perched up high
in the factory. the mom and dad flew out
and sat on the street’s power line. they called

for their baby bird to join them. the mom flew
back, chirping up a storm next to the baby. it
flittered out the window behind her, to the wire.


from volume two (an excerpt of a poem)
leonard crowdell, boyertown borough | born: 1928

crooked water in 1963—i noticed this in my drinking glass
on the RMS queen elizabeth as the captain announced our
invitation to glide to the side of the ship because lady liberty
with her quieted torch stood as that american symbol of what
touches the stretch of sea opposite my homeland—leicester,
england. the crew expected that ship to tip, tilt a little bit from
huddling onlookers reaching at its edge, gripping the rails,

their eyes fixated on her wordless promise in copper. my
father bought me a construction set in my days of boy-world,
when i used a toy crane to pick up cargo of railway carriages.
he made shoes and boots; mother cut the patterns of dresses.
once old enough to have my own job, i worked for the bentley

engineering company. how i digested the idea of moving
here on loan for great american knitting mills, inc. in bally—
apprehensively. but after 3 years, i told my boss i wouldn’t
be returning across that wide pond. my first day in the place,
a november morning, i toured the operation to examine those
broken machines i’d be repairing, and as we paced slow lanes
around the distinct lines of gold toes, we took in new history.

president kennedy had just felt the sudden song of a bullet
meeting the brain. but with three shifts of socks to fashion
and orders to fill, production pushed pitiless responsibility…

from volume three (an excerpt of a poem as extended haiku)
evelyn fehr, west reading borough | born: 1929

we all knew it by
anything but its true name,
the only jump rope

factory around—
berkshire cordage mill along
furnace road. my dad

worked there, said he would
get me a job, too, and he
did, in wernersville.

each handle shined red,
brightly. the ropes’ colors kept
my young eyes gleaming

in the later years
of the 1940s. i
tacked those wooden ends

to the rope, slamming
my machine into action
by pressing my foot…

05 April 2015

( reflections through a rearview mirror )

by bethany grandy

some of my happiest childhood moments were those spent riding in our steel blue station wagon as we embarked on a day of dysfunctional family fun. some of you may demur at my suggestion that sharing a confined space with family members for any extended period of time is enjoyable. yet, for me, those moments were the most transformative of my youth. in many ways, those car rides were the catalysts for my transition into adolescence, during which i was exposed to love, laughter, fighting, and forgiveness. as i blossomed into a worldly adolescent, i felt ever thankful for such memories which have shaped my life impermeably and forever.

as the youngest and smallest sibling of the grandy clan, i was always relegated to the backseat—situated squarely between the bodies of my brother and sister, as well as within the surveillance parameters of the rearview mirror. more often than not, my father was the one steering the wheel during these long drives. i felt his incredible power so viscerally, yet, through mirrored reflections, his silent struggles were illuminated. in the framed reflections of the rearview mirror, i saw him clearly for the first time.

warning: objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

all essay photos courtesy of bethany grandy

i may have been too young or stubborn (or both) to fully appreciate it then, but sitting directly in my father’s line of vision bonded us in profound ways—ways i cherish more and more with each passing day. i can so vividly remember how, in an effort to make me smile, my dad would glance back at me through the rearview mirror, stick out his tongue, and then quickly turn his attention toward the road without my mother, brother, or sister ever seeing. of course, this would elicit a whiny reaction from me like, “moooom, dad stuck his tongue out at me !” to which she would feign disbelief and playfully scold, “jace, stop it !” my dad would give a guilty wink to my mother in the passenger’s seat before returning his attention to the road ahead. those moments—when a smile danced across my father’s lips and  joy reflected from his eyes—are evergreen in my memory. our laughter played as the soundtrack to his smile—and happiness, like the winding road ahead, seemingly endless.

but not all memories are this quintessentially golden. in the nine years since his passing, i have compelled myself to purge the blind spots of my memory where the more painful memories dwell. more than once, i had a front row, backseat to the escalating tensions between my parents. i remember the wild eyes and frustrated sighs that were ominous precursors to every argument. although their fights almost always ended in forgiveness, tangents of these explosive exchanges have stayed with me—burning red in my memory. during these fights, tears streamed down my cheeks, like raindrops across the windshield during a storm. how good-natured conversations could turn volatile so quickly, i never understood. nor did i desire to. i only remember regretting those moments and silently praying for them to subside. my father had a fire in his heart, but sometimes, too often, it became an excuse for arson.

for thirteen years, i watched as my father adjusted the rearview mirror to every conceivable angle until it reflected some kind of lost hope that he could latch onto. maybe he, too, was attempting to eliminate the blind spots in his life—and there were many of them. or, perhaps he was, as i still am, searching for comprehension in something that is vastly and utterly incomprehensible. i can still remember how, when he thought everyone in the car was sleeping, he would angle the mirror toward my brother, sister, and i and gaze at us with tender bewilderment. during those precious moments, my father reflected the very best of us, just as we reflected the very best of him.

as i adjust my own rearview mirror while driving, i am consoled by the reciprocity i see in its reflection. indeed, i am the fragmented whole of my father’s fragments—a cracked mosaic crafted from the shards of his shattered soul. i am nostalgic for the moments and the miles that bonded us as father and daughter, but in memory, i am forever intimately and unconditionally connected to my father.

( brendan’s band: a new nonprofit for hearts in need )

by jennifer hetrick

the seventh of april this year is one of the most painful time-related, heart-tugging reminders for the family of brendan traylor of rural boyertown. on this day in 2014, they discovered that he had stopped breathing after proudly venturing home from rehab in florida a few days earlier, working hard to heal after delving into heroin and prescription drugs the previous summer while spending time with fellow teenagers. he had been 18 when his family lost him.

not everyone in this world has the strength to turn pain into an effort moving toward peace, when tragedy carves its way into the soul-knowledge of those who lose someone they love to the ends of this earth. but traylor’s grandmother, pat erb, shifted her grief into giving. she and several other volunteers created brendan’s band as a nonprofit in the boyertown community as a way to not only educate locals on the serious drug problem that’s been under our noses, often at the hands of ignorance and living in bubbles of an easier world—but to serve as a multi-faceted resource for anyone who has stumbled into the devastation of how drugs are permeating our community. brendan’s band keeps families aware of all phone numbers relevant for getting help for their loved ones who are addicted, something erb and her family had a complete runaround with when they originally found out brendan was doing drugs. parents reach out to erb and other members of brendan’s band when they make this same heartbreaking discovery about their own children because when they’ve heard about brendan’s band, they know that she and those who volunteer with her are people who will truly understand their horror, lows, and desperate need for being around those who realize what they’re going through in what they’ve learned and wanting to help their kids. brendan’s band also helped to finally nudge pennsylvania’s legislators to update the state’s drug database, which had been let go for several years until erb began working to get local newspapers to put this information out in the headlines. by last autumn, the database received approval for updating, which took 60 days to complete. now, if someone tries to buy something like sudafed in one pharmacy, the purchase is recorded and noted with their identity so that if the person tries to buy it at another pharmacy, the transaction won’t be allowed to happen.  

( all photos courtesy of kristie springman )

brendan’s band’s name is tied to brendan’s love of music, paired with 
the idea of banding together to support hearts around drug use )

erb has also been mentoring a 16-year-old girl who has been clean for more than a month from heroin. 

brendan’s band’s members appear at community events and offer educational material about drugs, resource hotline numbers, information for bringing lock boxes for prescription drugs into homes, and the addresses of local police stations where old prescription drugs can be disposed in drop boxes.

erb and her daughter, brendan’s mother, kristie springman, learned months before brendan died that young people who are taking heroin don’t usually admit to it but instead say things like, “i feel sick.” parents often think their kids have just caught the flu or other viruses because they just don’t expect their kids to do drugs. and not believing that kids who come from good, loving homes will give in to trying out drugs is the naïve factor which keeps more and more families finding their way into devastation that could be prevented if drugs were not so easily accessible. it is often said that where teenagers are, you can find drugs. 

brendan had said a hard no to drugs at least two or three times earlier in his life before the reality of peer pressure finally made him decide to try prescription pills and later heroin. while out of rehab months later, after the family realized something wasn’t right and arranged an intervention, he felt elated that he had worked hard to get off of drugs, since this is far from easy.

brendan’s family knew him as a kind, loving, strong-minded teenager, something that isn’t always easy to say of young people today. one police officer who knew him began to shed tears when he learned brendan had died, commenting on how respectful of a person brendan had been to him. but when heroin and pills cut through, the chemical need changes everything.

a new support group called the next right step started in boyertown and will soon be joining the pottstown area as a resource to families whose loved ones are going through addiction. julie umstead is organizing these support groups to ensure that no parent or family member is alone in this struggle. to find out more, call her at 610.323.2328.

more information is online at www.brendansband.com and newsnotblues.blogspot.com.


julie umstead is a mother in lower pottsgrove township who recently started a support group called the next right step. it is for families who have loved ones currently going through addiction of heroin, pills, or some other form of drugs. there will eventually be support groups at four different churches in the pottstown and boyertown areas so that weekly meetings are available for parents and other family members who may need a place to turn to about these struggles on a regular basis.

the first meeting happened at trinity church at 250 sweinhart road, boyertown, pa 19512 on tuesday, march 24. future next right step support group meetings are scheduled for april 28 and may 26 at 6.30 p.m.

umstead is in the process of getting the remaining three church locations set around the area. she will be announcing the others very shortly, once she has the arrangements confirmed. to reach her, call her at 610.323.2328.

insights from kristie springman, what she learned from her son's circumstances:

•people want to talk about it, these painful stories parents learn
•locking up all medications is crucial
•addiction is recovery, jail or, death
•heroin and pills don't discriminate
•addiction and recovery is forever
•addiction starts at any age
•a 30-day stint in rehab isn’t a quick fix
•jail is not a cure
•addicts have to create a new normal/life for themselves for a successful recovery
•addiction is a disease, just like cancer.  nobody wants cancer.  nobody wants to be an addict.
•you don’t know you’re an addict until you take that first hit, and then it’s too late
•recovery is possible
•how hard it is to not enable
•having a loving family, lots of friends, a two- parent household, all the money in the world, or if you have children--these things do not prevent addiction
•brendan’s death did not stop his friends from using, even though it felt like it'd be a wake-up call
•teenagers think they’re invincible and that addiction and overdosing will not happen to them
•once you have a loved one who is an addict, you won’t ever get that same person or relationship back
•everybody’s rock bottom is different
•when you think it’s not your child, it’s your child
•you can’t control the addict--the drug controls the addict
•addicts are liars, thieves and very manipulative

when brendan was in rehab, i thought this was all behind us, that he’d come home and be “cured” of this addiction. i didn’t know this was a lifelong thing. it was like walking on eggshells when he came home. i felt like the only time i could breathe was when he was at his outpatient therapy or his NA meetings because that’s when i knew he was safe.

brendan was so proud that he got his 60-day clean tag on april 5th, 2014. on april 6th, i believe he was in celebratory mode and over-celebrated with the prescription pills. he never thought death would happen to him like so many other teens.

there was not one time in brendan’s life that i was ashamed of him, and i was so proud of him for staying strong and getting help. 

19 January 2015

( someday )

by frank wolfe on october 4, 2014

for richard fulmer 
my new favorite teacher 
who has always loved me
and also teaches me 
about love.

through our kitchen window

the evening sun glows on the basket of fruit

and my tears are drying.

i feel my body

and hear the forever constant hum

of the refrigerator

and my thoughts.

over the phone we just played 

a serious game of basketball

in your driveway

when we were young enough to love each other 

with bumps and sweat.

now we walk in the autumn of things

and the cruelty and kindness

is seeing through the glass

and wishing you could hold someone or something

so tight that time stops

but the sun has set

so i get up and close the curtains

and know that someday

we'll all be dead.

that's not how i'd like to end this poem

but i can't think of anything else i'm so sure of.

and i love you.

( this guy )

this guy
by frank kelso wolfe on august 10, 2014

if i knew a guy named frank 
and it was 3:39 in the morning
and i knew he was sitting tall
at the foot of his unkempt bed
in the high backed leather swivel chair
seeing his own reflection 
in the black bay windows and elegant clay
(a distinctly different perspective
just four feet from where he used to lay
twisted in the joyful pain of being alive)
if i knew this guy,
that he has trouble walking
but can fly 'round the sparkling globe
soaring above cities and seas
clawing at constellations, gorging on galaxies
seeing everyone everywhere forever
without ever leaving his room
if i knew he had chosen clay and pen and paint
over a future and the ways of many or most
if i knew as intensely as he the urgency of life
and the ecstasy and absurdity and aspirations 
of a gifted dreamer
who creates smiling faces and comforting words
pleasing shapes he knows will last longer
than the dying tribes of earth 
and never have to leave
if i knew him and his silent tears
i'd say how proud i am of him
and how much i love him
and help him to bed
and turn out the light.

( poem for my facebook friends)

poem for my facebook friends
by frank wolfe on july 19, 2014

who ponders pencils peaches and peers

and what we wish to share

a man slipping on ice, a woman skating on it

the questions we comment on

which shade of green we would be

who is now in love

which child is ill, or earned their blue belt

why double rainbows and dancing dogs become important

our moments of waking toss us from year to year

computers connect us in modern solitary ways

while we yearn for the warm blanket of 

hand heart holds

that brought us comfort when reality was too real

i caringly, needily, desperately, lovingly type to you

my friends, please be well

prepare yourself to hold someone bodily

when the power goes out

when we discover what lies beneath the tenuous technology

when we the breathing are all we have.

( poem for a friend )

a poem for a friend
by frank wolfe on october 1, 2014

around here

when it's autumn

the leaves turn to

you are warmly

thought of and loved

just for being

sunshine makes it

easier as does your voice

because we all have our

victory can mean many things

waking, dressing, smiling

at your face in the mirror even

holding on knowing there will

be light after dark

warm after cold, strength after

moments with you

any way at all

beautiful and good as gold

around here.

( what got done today )

what got done today
poem by frank wolfe on august 1, 2014

with the sun blazing in dubai

construction workers built a mirrored tower

and wiped adam's sweat from their brows.

a child in detroit dug through a dumpster

and smiled at his luck when he found

a half eaten happy meal and three cigarettes.

two red haired neo-hippie chicks

skipped their health class and instead

went for ice cream: rum raisin and strawberry.

all the monks in a mid montana monastery

planted acres of snap peas

and silently prayed for the salvation of mankind.

nan went to the new grocery store in beijing 

and loaded her cart with organic vegetables

while hawks flew circles over mounds of e-waste.

every single living human being breathed

many smiled and had clean water to drink

and poets mowed the lawn because they had to.

appreciating frank wolfe of royersford, pennsylvania.

for those of you who stumble across this blog and posts dedicated to frank wolfe, if you'd like to contribute your own words about him, too, please send them for posting.

please feel free to share a link to this blog online and via email with others to help them discover this place for remembering frank and keeping him at the surface of our living with his unforgettable essence.

( frank kelso wolfe is easy to love and miss. his paintings are something we all 
know to keep appreciating, as well as his lessons he found himself teaching us.

"his poetry was glaringly true and beautiful." -- in memory of frank wolfe.

words contributed by elaine woltemate


frank was truly one of a kind. he had so many talents--it is hard to say which one was greater than the other.

his writing was deep and profound, getting one inside his mind and riveting one to look into their own. his poetry was glaringly true and beautiful. to bare and share one's soul was his aim, and he didn't miss the mark. to say it touched a person was only half the truth.

his art was simple and outstanding. he captured his thoughts on canvas and could paint an object or even a concept without fault. its simplicity was the attraction, and his use of color the best. 

( this is one of frank's blue-hued paintings. )

the portraits were gifts of god. he did a remarkable job of detailing the qualities of his subject without  thought of gain for himself. they are outstanding and a talent unto itself.

i think of frank with love. why didn't he know how much we all felt for him. i wish i had done more for him. we were just at a turning point when he died, and i will regret forever that i did not have a chance to tell him.

i miss him.

"painting is a physical activity." -- in memory of frank wolfe.

email & words contributed by joe glincosky | mc blackbeard


i had asked frank a while back what one would need to begin painting. this was his reply, and i think it would serve as a great help to someone on the fence about beginning to paint. i felt this was an important gift that frank gave before he embarked on another journey. 

from: frank wolfe 
date: march 30, 2014 at 8:08:23 pm 
to: joe glincosky 
subject: painting


thanks for these questions. i had fun and gained some insight while writing this. i have not been painting for a while for physical reasons, but have enough other creative outlets that it's cool. and i will get a fresh start when i am able to pick up the brushes once more. gonna sketch and sculpt and write tonight. are you considering painting ? talk soon. peace. frank

painting: essentials and top 3 rules: essentials:

--motivation. desire.

--paint. acrylic or oil. (acrylics are easier to clean, and dry much faster than oils) colors: white, black, red, yellow, blue. perhaps a brown like burnt sienna or raw umber.

--a thinning medium for oils, like cold pressed linseed oil.

--cleaning stuff: water or turpentine (when using turpentines and such, you need good ventilation) / jars or cups. paper towels, and or cloths.

--some sort of palette ( wooden, plastic plate, palette paper, etc.)

--at least three decent brushes (sm. med. lg.) my teacher d. knoecklein told me if i was going to spend money on anything, make it on good brushes. there are many types and costs.

--a flat surface: canvas ( pre-stretched or stretch your own. wide variety of prices and quality), canvas paper, canvas board, masonite, wood, metal (for acrylics which are plasticky) foam core, etc.

--an easel or some way to support the surface. should be comfortable. painting is a physical activity.

--a pleasant place to paint. good light. relatively few distractions. i usually listen to music.

--an idea. ask yourself the question "what do i want or need to see?" 

--look at paintings. in books or on the internet.

top 3 rules:

1--avoid judging your work so much at first. have fun. 

2--do it on a regular basis. make it a habit. your brush technique and sense of color and composition will improve.

3--practice your sketching/drawing skills.

( frank often joined curious sets of objects in his paintings.

frank wolfe and i first met at the open mic at frank's (the old bull tavern,) in phoenixville. i had been the manager of the bar and had set the wheels in motion for it to happen, and pete benes was the driver. it started to catch some steam, and eventually frank came to scope it out and eventually perform, which was always a highlight. when we first met, you could feel the transfer of energy that frank came to master so well. we talked, and richard liston was with him. i had first met richard at rcb-the 3rd installment. i walked up on my wife, whom had given birth just three short months before, to find her bouncing off the ground and richard in a deep conversationalist trance. frank and my relationship would blossom over the course of the next years, including countless late night discussions in which we both listened equally as much as we spoke. one trip to the elmwood zoo with june and several in person appointments in dimly lit buildings. he was one of the brightest stars i've had the pleasure to share company with. over the course of our friendship, he had given me paintings unsigned, and specific ones that he deemed only for me to share with others. i commissioned  him to paint two pieces which have found residence in douglasville, the site of the red corner benefit, as well as the painting that found its way on his mass card, notice the red corner. he was my friend, my pen pal (one way) and a true american spirit--my world is that much more empty with his passing--yet the things he schooled me on are invaluable to the rest of my days.

18 January 2015

( raising the gentle giant from the water )

words contributed by patrick mckinney
(this memory is from a tubing trip down the schuylkill river in douglassville with frank wolfe, jennifer hetrick, and patrick mckinney in the summer of 2013.)


( frank wolfe painted this river scene after the tubing adventures, where we also paddled 
hard with our hands to dodge a big pile of dead branches and the pillar of an old bridge 
in harsh and pulling currents-- quite the adrenaline-filled moments. )

the three tubes floated to the river's edge, and the adventure was coming to a close.  we were greeted by river tube staff who immediately tried to extricate us from our watery domain.  i was challenged and so was frank as we tried to remove our water-soaked booty from the large donut (or bagel, if you prefer). two staff members grabbed my hands and hoisted me up. i turned and helped frank, who relished the treatment with a broad grin and a glint in his eyes. it took three of us to free him, and he landed standing tall and proud, knowing that he made an accomplishment. 

"we could live forever through what we write and paint." -- in memory of frank wolfe.

words contributed by charlie scott

i first met frank wolfe at the writers' club at montgomery county community college 20 years ago.  jeff cooper and i started words at ransom in order to publish and promote our poetry. jeff recognized frank's talents and suggested that we should do a frank book.  i was reluctant since i didn't want to start doing other people's work. we hashed it out, and i'm glad that jeff won out. jeff would do the printing once frank and i had the finished product.  

over many weekends and countless phone calls, my feets weren't made for color evolved. we published two more of frank's books over the next couple of years. more important was a lifelong friendship that emerged. we often discussed our poems and stories, finding ways to improve them. when in the fall of 2014, he sent me a copy of love and bagels, i recognized most of the poems. but "in charlie's basement" stood out. i joked how he managed to immortalize my dog, rocky.  

frank struggled with many things over the years, but making friends was not one of them. he cherished all his friendships. he would often be frustrated when friends drifted out of his life for a bit. he knew that he could be a difficult friend, over the past couple years. we talked about how he should reply to a "so how ya doin' ?" everyone was well aware that the knees hurt. so the next time i talked to him he says, "i'm just groovy !"  i said, "bullshit, but let's move on." we never did work out how he could answer that question.

i often told him his true talent was with the paints. he would do pictures that were a style all his own.  from his words to fractures to triads, they were unique.  my favorite frank painting, and i'm biased here, is the one he did of me. i didn't know that he was doing it.  he took a pic of me from my daughter's facebook page where i was asleep on the couch and turned it into a painting. frank's parents gave it to me after his passing. i wish he was still here so that i could thank him for painting it.

( this is frank's painting of charlie scott

we would talk about why we have to make our art. part of it is simply to get it out so we can keep our sanity. but often, we mentioned how it made us immortal. we could live forever through what we write and paint. as we grew from naive 20-year-olds into middle age, we realized immortality wasn't nearly as important as simply being remembered. i miss my friend every day.  and have a feeling frank wolfe will be remembered long after i am gone.

( my friend frankie )

author’s note: this is a work of the imagination.
by ruth z. deming

there he is, frank kelso wolfe, coming down the stairs in his slippers and bathrobe. whistling, he looks around for his mom and dad. the kitchen clock reads ten-thirty. he’s slept late again, but who wouldn’t. it takes him hours to fall asleep. his mind is so active, so filled with ideas. already the little tablet on his end table is crammed with ideas for poems and paintings and sculptures. 

( a self-portrait by frank kelso wolfe )

a big man, with skin the color of cocoa, he fries a couple of eggs, along with four strips of bacon, which he drains on a paper towel, helping himself to one hot delicious strip, and licking his fingers.

sitting at the table, he tries to taste each delicious bite, but his mind is racing again, off and running like a racehorse.

“better not forget to take my pills,” he thinks. in the middle of the table is a huge white pill box. he pries open the “wednesday morning” container and empties five pills into his hand. friggin’ mental illness, he thinks. if only there was a pill to curb that appetite of his. all those pretty little pills – pastel blue, pink, yellow – plus a two-toned capsule that reminds him of a car they once owned with a black top and red body – they make him fat as a house.  

downing the pills with a glass of tropicana orange juice, he remembers many a time when he purposely did not take the pills. talk about getting sick ! there is no sickness in the world like becoming psychotic. he gives a soft laugh. “jeez, what i put my parents through.” last year, he believed he was a famous stand-up comedian and was communicating – telepathically  with eddie murphy. 

“mom and dad,” he said to his parents as they sat on the front porch. “i know it’s hard to believe, but eddie murphy – yes! – the eddie murphy is talking to me this very minute. he wants me to open for him at the steel city coffeehouse.” 

he shook his head in disbelief.

“frank,” said his mother in that stern voice of hers he hates. “frank, did you take your medication ?”

she was a take-charge woman, like his sister nettie jean, while his dad, the retired assistant superintendent of graterford prison, liked nothing better than to putter in the garden and perfect the art of relaxation. frank still remembered when his dad was spokesperson for a hostage situation that ended with no one getting killed. well, that time, anyway. inmates in those days often came out to the house and helped do chores. 

his dad, a superb chef, who did all the cooking – ah ! those luscious sweet potato fries dipped in honey mustard – would tenderly show the inmates, clad in orange jumpsuits, how to boil an egg to make egg salad. 

frank would stare at these men, both white and black, when their backs were turned. these were real criminals, not actors on criminal minds.  just ordinary people who robbed banks, assaulted people, and forged checks. 

the only thing frank did wrong was not take his medication.

“eddie murphy ! do tell !” he gave a whoop and a holler and cake-walked around the front porch. 

his mother grabbed him by the arm and marched him into the house. 

she sat him down at the kitchen table, looked him over, and shook her head.

they heard a squirrel running across the wire.

“the squirrels have more sense than you do, frank wolfe,” she said.


frank got into the habit of sequestering himself in his room after he lost his job as a certified peer specialist. he had actually earned money for being mentally ill. as a peer, he helped other mentally ill men organize their day and prepare for the world of work. in the morning, he would meet joe or big sal or bobby for breakfast at mcdonald's. he would pay for their breakfast and his own and while listening to them would down three egg, cheese, and bacon biscuit sandwiches. 

but the pain in his feet, his knees, and his hips became unbearable, so he ceased leaving home and lost his job. 

his strong faith in god never wavered, but he wondered why he was being punished. 

he would call his friend ruth on the phone. what he didn’t know was that, if she was home, she would decide if she had the strength to listen to him.

“hello, dahling,” he would say in a light-hearted voice. and then he would launch into a dissertation on his pain. “i’m holding on for one more day, sweetness. i go down the steps on my butt. it’s the only thing that gets me downstairs.” 

she was of no help at all, but just hearing her voice, a sort of raspy cheerful voice, made him feel better. for as long as the phone call lasted, he forgot his agony. he would have stayed on the phone all day, but she wouldn't hear of it. he could hear her doing things while he talked. 

once, he heard her open a door and go outside. the birds were in a frenzy of chirping. they seemed to enter his own bedroom and fly all around, landing on his desk and computer and book shelves. 

until, of course, he got off the phone and was left in misery again.

oh, lord, why are you punishing me ?


books ! was there ever a man who loved books more than frank kelso wolfe ? frank was a bi-racial man, with a white mom and a black dad. back in the small town in ohio where they met and married, they encountered little prejudice. on his own, frank discovered native son by richard wright, the story of bigger thomas, who kills a white woman; invisible man by ralph ellison, who paints himself black and finds out what it’s like to be black in a white man’s world; and of course all the james baldwin books. who could blame baldwin, thought frank, studying his kind, yet sad face on the book jacket, for living as an expatriate in paris. 

frank also liked to page through his own books. he was one of those rare birds: a published poet. had he really written hundreds and hundreds of poems ? re-reading them, while lying in bed with a soft lamp illuminating each page, he silently thanked god for giving him the gift of writing. 

today i shall cut myself shaving, and slap on some aqua-velva,
just so i’ll remember the sting.
last night i brushed my teeth, then drank a glass of orange juice,
so as to not take sweetness for granted.
my bed, less and less a comfort, i make it every day despite
the struggle of standing, finding pleasure in things well ordered.
the delivery guy has become a friend, and i tip him well.
he brings my lunch to my room, stringing out an
unsustainable situation.
i might never leave my bed, surrounded by my social media, and joy
when sunlight streams through my big bay windows, sequestered
except when nature calls, or i must have chocolate.
depending on the kindness and/or love of others,
i’ve realized it’s whatever gets you through the day,
and the only absolutely necessary activity of daily living
is desiring to live.

from his bed, his eye fell upon the book the red badge of courage. he was in too much pain to pull it off the shelf, but suddenly he had an idea. since he liked it so much, why not read it to his parents ? his dad, after all, was happily retired, and his mom could certainly take a break from her housekeeping duties. like her son, cecilia was a whistler. he loved the sound of her whistling as she dusted the living room, with its old-fashioned furniture. why buy anything new when there was such loveliness and comfort in what they already had.  

the three of them sat in the living room. frank opened the drapes so daylight could flood the room. from the purple easy chair, he showed them the cover of the red badge of courage, with the american flag carried as a standard-bearer by the union soldiers, dressed in blue. 

“it’s about courage,” he told them in his soft voice. he dared say nothing about his failing courage in living with his physical pain. he cleared his throat and began to read.

the cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. as the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. it cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares.

“wait a minute, sonny,” said his dad. “you know i ain’t so young anymore, and i can’t hear you.”

“all right, dad,” said frank. he pulled over the purple ottoman and sat right in front of his father, who sat next to his wife with his arm around her on what they called their “green davenport.” 

as long as i read, thought frank, i will live. 

and so they went through book after book. 

he read them short classics like the time machine by h.g. wells, the metamorphosis by franz kafka, and o pioneers ! by willa cather. 

“never liked o pioneers ! in high school,” frank confessed. “so i thought i’d give it another try.”

“it’s good, frankie,” said his mother. “and you read it so well !” 

their son had lots of practice. he was a stand-up comic and poet at the steel city coffeehouse in phoenixville. a born performer, his youtube videos show him confidently striding onstage, with the help of a cane, seating himself at the mic, and speaking with intimacy and confidence to the audience, urging them to give him a round of applause. 

the many sides of frank kelso wolfe. 

my god, he thought at home. what a legacy i leave behind. he knew for certain there would come a day, he knew not when, when he would end it all. 

lying in bed one night, he reviewed his life. it was a great life, really. he knew this and hated to leave it, but he and the devil duked it out. in high school, he had been a scholar and an athlete. had he known at the time that mental illness would stalk him for the rest of his days, he would have snagged one of the pretty cheerleaders at high school. he was always attracted to white women, like his blond-haired mother. he remembered leslie, a short woman with huge calf muscles, who tossed that star-spangled baton so high in the air at football games you thought it would sail onto the planet jupiter. yes, that’s who he would have chosen, little leslie. wonder where she was now and if she’d remember him in the obituary notice.

for three months, frank and the devil played catch-me-if-you can. 

“today is the day !” frank would announce to himself, only to find there was something worth living for the next day. 

suicide experts know that once a person makes up his mind to do himself in, a calmness comes over him or her, like a lull in the ocean waves. 

a wordsmith to the end, frank lay in bed thinking of all the words for death. he deemed it cheating to use the dictionary. his was the random house unabridged, which was almost as fat as he was, he thought. his favorite expression was “to croak,” a term his psychiatrist was fond of using. he loved his psychiatrist and was sorry to disappoint him. 

should he write a note ? heck, his entire life of forty-five years served as his note. there was one thing he had to do before he went to the other side. that little nephew of his, jamie, with his black hair and smiling face, he must see him again. 

but the devil was at his back. he couldn't wait. he was suddenly propelled to take action. 

he’d failed before, many many times. “failbetter,” was a term dreamed up by the poet and playwright samuel beckett. 

this time, he would fail better than ever. he would succeed. 

he placed his cane on his bed, along with one of the caps he loved to wear. his sister nettie said he looked “so debonair” when he wore them. dressed in a warm flannel shirt, khaki pants, and thick socks and shoes, which cushioned a bit of the pain when he walked, he looked around his room, his sanctuary.

“goodbye room,” he said and blew it a kiss, after closing the door. 

he went up to the attic and let himself out onto the roof. he startled a couple of doves who sat on the roof cooing like pigeons. everything he loved was in view now. his parents were downstairs and had no idea what he was doing. a neighbor across the street came out of her house in her white apron. frank didn’t even bother to wave. he was in the same kind of trance as when he wrote or painted. looking up at the blue sky, he had a sudden thought. 

this is the day of my death, october 7, 2014. 

spreading his arms out like a bird, he dove head first onto the ground. the crisp autumn air against his face and body gave him a few moments of joy. and though she didn’t notice, he smiled at the woman in the white apron and wished her peace.