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Under My Hat: Don Sarvey's Blog


November 13, 2016


H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the acerbic columnist for the Baltimore Sun, was no fan of populism.

He wrote, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He has now been proved right.

Mencken also wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Right again, unfortunately. The American people are about to get it good and hard.

But not quite all is lost. “In this world of sin and sorrow,” Mencken said, “there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”

Hear, hear.

11:19 am          Comments

January 29, 2016



With all the ballyhoo about the return of “The X-Files” to television, I was reminded of something odd that happened a long, long time ago (but not in a galaxy far, far away).


It was near midnight on a clear August night in 1966 when my girlfriend and I went into the field beside her house to watch the annual Perseids meteor shower. I was nineteen and had never seen a display quite like it before: a spectacular fusillade of shooting stars slashing across the sky, one after another in rapid succession. The image of that night sky and the sense of awe I felt have remained vivid all these years later.


Apart from the shooting stars, we noticed a bright pinpoint of light, moving comparatively slowly, coming up over the horizon in front of us. It moved steadily until it appeared to be overhead. A satellite, surely; it was reminiscent of watching Sputnik go over nearly a decade before. But the pinpoint of light stopped and seemed to hover for a just a moment. Then it accelerated away with blazing speed off to our right. It was gone in a second or two. There seemed to be no apparent explanation for the sudden change in speed and direction. It was puzzling.


I was working that summer as an intern at my hometown newspaper, my first job in the news business. So the next morning I gave myself the assignment of making a call to a professor at Penn State and asking some questions to see if I could figure out what I saw. The professor said the slower moving light probably was in fact a satellite. He said the time and direction roughly coincided with the orbit of Echo I. If you remember, Echo was a metallic-coated balloon one hundred feet in diameter used to bounce microwave signals off of and was, under good conditions, visible from the ground.


But what about the way it stopped, or seemed to, and the way it did a super-fast dash out of sight? Here’s what the professor said, and this is a direct quote because I still have a yellowing newspaper clipping of the story I helped to write: “The account of the erratic movement can be explained by the observer looking around and taking his eyes off the moving object and then returning them.” I didn’t remember looking away and looking back, but certainly I could have been distracted by the ongoing meteor show. Still, I wasn’t particularly sold on the professor’s explanation.


This little experience would have become just a transitory wisp of memory were it not for what came next.


Two more reports came into the paper that morning. They were taken down and added to the story by a staff reporter. First, a woman who lived in a rural, sparsely populated area well out of town claimed that what she called a UFO had loudly swooped by her home the previous afternoon. She said the object was small, egg-shaped, and orange in color. Second was this item: “A small helicopter, reported seen over this city and adjacent areas, landed at the airport yesterday, but its pilot and passenger did not identify themselves, and the craft carried no identifying marks.” The story speculated as to whether the helicopter might have somehow “sparked” the UFO report.


Here’s the bottom line for me: I can believe that mistaken observation or atmospheric refraction or some such esoteric element could have come into play with what I saw or thought I did. I can believe that someone not used to seeing a helicopter in her neighborhood could have excitedly misapprehended what she saw. It’s the final item, the bit about an unmarked helicopter with unidentified occupants, in combination with the other things, that gives me a just a little bit of pause. No markings? Really? That, indeed, would be odd. Rationally, I can’t take it any further. Just an offbeat event that provides a little tickle of mystery. With this one, there is no conclusive truth out there. So it just stays in my personal X-File.


© 2016 Donald C. Sarvey and Editorial Enterprises, Inc.



11:13 am          Comments

December 21, 2015


Over the years I have written countless newspaper and magazine profiles. I have often asked in interviews: Whom do you admire? Who are your heroes? The answers people give are revealing—they illuminate what qualities people deem worthy of respect. You find out what matters to them. It says a lot about who they are.

This past week’s exchange of compliments between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s refusal to back away from his vigorously stated admiration of Putin, tell us pretty much all a reasonable person needs to know about Trump.

10:11 am          Comments

June 12, 2015



The death of horror movie actor Christopher Lee this week brought to mind an evening in September 1974 when our paths crossed—sort of.


I was in England for a two-week vacation with my then-wife. We spent the first week in London and the second week touring the countryside in a rental car. During that two weeks, we attended three theater productions: Agatha Christie’s long-running play, “The Mousetrap,” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” both of which we saw in London, and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


“Pygmalion” starred Diana Rigg as Eliza Doolittle.  She was famous in America for having played the lusciously beautiful, jumpsuit-clad Emma Peel in “The Avengers” TV series in the 1960s. Truth be told, she was the reason I wanted to see the play.


When we came out of the Albery Theatre after the evening performance of “Pygmalion,” we we headed for an Underground station to take the “tube” back to Swiss Cottage, the neighborhood where our hotel was located. As we were walking, a Rolls Royce slowly glided up in the street beside us. I turned to look, and there—unmistakably—was Christopher Lee in the backseat, staring straight ahead. The Rolls paused for a moment in the traffic and then moved ahead and disappeared.

That instant of recognition is frozen in my memory. If only Christopher Lee had turned his head. Maybe he would have seen me looking and smiled at a star-struck passerby. I think I could have easily imagined he was wearing his Dracula fangs.  


11:25 am          Comments

December 16, 2014


A man named George A. Fetterly died 62 years ago this month of a cerebral hemorrhage in a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 11 days short of his 70th birthday. That man, as satisfactorily as I can determine, was my great-grandfather, the missing father of my grandmother — Grandma Bertie, one of the special people in my life.

I heard Grandma Bertie tell only one story about the father who abandoned the family in Pittsburgh when she was a child. She related how he came from Chicago by train to Lock Haven, the small town in north central Pennsylvania that had become her new hometown. He showed up after the death of the wife he had cast off. Grandma Bertie, by then a young wife herself, met him at the station. It’s likely her younger sister, Marie, was also there. George A. Fetterly was angry no one had let him know about the death of his former wife. My grandmother tartly told him that since he hadn’t been concerned about what had happened to them, why should they have been concerned about getting word to him? He took another train back to Chicago. She said she never saw him again.

He was never mentioned when I was growing up. For a long time I knew nothing about him, not even his name. We all like to think we are descended from good people. Most of the time nothing disturbs that belief. Such was not the case with this man. His actions had drastic and lasting repercussions. Because he left, Grandma Bertie, her sister, and their brother spent four years in a church-run children’s home in Ohio. Her lingering memory of the home was singing Christmas carols around a piano played by a blind girl and understanding that Santa Claus had too many other places to go.

Grandma Bertie became a kind-hearted, generous a woman, but she forever suffered from a streak of fearful insecurity. It drove her to let no need or want go unmet in her family if she could help it, first with her two sons and then with me, her only grandchild.

I have an old photo that shows George A. Fetterly standing in front of the corner store he ran in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. The sign over the front window says “Geo. A. Feterly.” (In various records, the spelling of his name changes back and forth between Feterly and Fetterly. He started out as Feterly. His death certificate had the last word, sending him off as Fetterly.)  The lettering on the window advertises candies, ice cream, tobacco and cigars, and sodas. With him in the photo are his three children: his oldest daughter, Alberta, known as Bertie, my grandmother; his son, young George, the middle child, who would have a short life, dying at age 20; and Marie, the youngest, who would live the longest of the three, to age 98.

George A. Fetterly and Anna Speece married in 1901 in Pittsburgh. From 1905 through 1908, various Pittsburgh directories list him as a confectioner in business at several different locations in succession. As of the 1910 census, the family is listed as intact and still living in Pittsburgh. Also in 1910, an article in the newspaper in Lock Haven, where Anna had previously lived, identifies her as Mrs. Fetterly of “Pittsburg” (as it was then commonly spelled) and says that she and her three children were in town visiting friends and relatives.

Something happened after this to change things. As of 1911, a Pittsburgh business directory lists George A. Fetterly as out of the confectionary business and working as a chauffeur. According to census records, in 1912 he had a son named Ralph Clyde Fetterly by a 20-year-old woman of Slovenian heritage named Marketa Shallack who lived in Chicago. This event surely played a part in destroying the marriage to Anna. So far, though, I have found no official record of a divorce. It’s uncertain if George A. Fetterly and Marketa Shallack ever married, but at some point he moved to the Chicago area. The census of 1930 lists him as living in Oak Park, Illinois, and working as a chauffeur/taxicab driver. But, surprisingly, he’s also listed as being married to someone else, someone new, a woman named Eva (no maiden name given), the daughter of Russian immigrants.

In the meantime, my great-grandmother moved back to Lock Haven but struggled to support herself and the children. She subsequently was forced to send the children to the Cleveland Christian Home where they were kept as “boarders” for four years, from 1916 to 1920.

I wrote to the home to find out if any records still existed. The official who responded sent photocopies. The information was sparse, but under the name of the children’s father was an interesting notation: “Thought to be dead.” It’s not clear whether Anna didn’t know what had happened to him or where he had gone, or if it was an innocent fiction to assure that the children qualified for admission to the home.  The circumstances suggest that a pastor in Lock Haven who was from Ohio and belonged to the same denomination that operated the home may have arranged the placement. In the census for 1920, the year the children finally returned to their mother in Lock Haven, Anna reported that she had a job in a local furniture factory—and listed herself as a widow.

In 1930, Anna’s two daughters, Bertie and Marie, were both now married and still in Lock Haven. Their brother, George, had died three years earlier, at age 20, apparently of food poisoning. On a Saturday morning in November, Anna arose early and set out in a truck with a helper, a man named William Welsh, to pick up produce for a business operated by her son-in-law, Harold Finnerty, Marie’s husband. The pair had to cross the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. At that early hour there was no guard on duty at the crossing to warn of oncoming trains. They didn’t see a westbound freight train coming around the curve. The truck and the occupants were violently struck and their bodies scattered in a grisly scene.

It was some time after this terrible accident that George A. Fetterly arrived in Lock Haven on the train from Chicago. What brought him? Why then? Had he known or somehow heard about Anna’s death? The people who could answer these questions are gone. I have to wonder: Did George A. Fetterly ever have a legal divorce from Anna? He now had a son from another liaison, and he was considered married to the woman named Eva in Illinois. Anna’s death would have been an event of significance to him, possibly affecting the legality of his current marital status. He might have wanted confirmation, proof, or some sort of documentation of Anna’s death.

I have another photo that shows George A. Fetterly in a studio portrait. He is standing, looking at the camera, with his right hand and arm resting casually on a small table. He is wearing a rumpled three-button suit coat. He has aged greatly from the photo of the young man in front of his store. The hairline has receded from his forehead He is not smiling. His lips are rigidly held and his mouth is a dark slit, suggesting teeth gone bad. His expression makes me think of a man with a sense of suspicion or wariness. The photo is printed as a postcard, but it obviously was never sent. It bears no address, stamp, or cancellation mark. Handwritten on the back is the message: “For Alberta From Dady.” (This time a dropped “d” instead of a dropped “t.”) The card bears the embossed imprint of a photo studio in downtown Chicago. How did the photo wind up among my grandmother’s things? Did her father give it to her that day at the station? If so, it was a parting memento from the father she never saw again.

By roughly 1935, George A. Fetterly was no longer living Chicago. He had taken up residence in Benton, Arkansas, employed as a retail grocer. According to the 1940 census, he was divorced from Eva, who was now an inmate in the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Little Rock, the place in which she would ultimately die. After Arkansas, George relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the state where his parents had been born. His last job was as a salesman and warehouseman for a dairy. He died on December 20, 1952, in Hillcrest Hospital in Tulsa of a cerebral hemorrhage. According to the death certificate, he left a wife named Thelma.

The funeral home that handled the arrangements is still in business. I called to find out if the establishment kept files of obituaries. Not files, said the gentleman I spoke with, but there was a scrapbook down in the basement. I gave him the name and the date and he said he would check. He was gone from the phone for a few minutes and then he picked up again. “I found it,” he said. Could he send me a copy? That would be too difficult, he said; all the clippings were pasted in a big book. I asked him if he would read it to me over the phone and he agreed. Actually I asked him to read it to me twice to make sure I took down the details accurately.

Besides, his wife, Thelma, the listed survivors were his son, Ralph, in Chicago, and several siblings. I was especially pleased to have that list of siblings. The names provided final confirmation that I had followed the right man through the long trail of records. They matched the family names I had started out with from the census of 1900. What I did not find in the obituary was any mention of the family that George A. Fetterly left behind in Pennsylvania. I find it hard to believe that someone among the survivors would not have had an inkling of their existence. My disdain for this man had grown as I searched for what had become of him. Now it hardened.

George A. Fetterly was a ghost figure who hovered as an absence felt over the lives of Grandma Bertie and her sister, Marie. Grandma Bertie died in 1987, ironically of a cerebral hemorrhage like her father. Marie died in 2008. They and their brother, George, and their mother, Anna, are all buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania, 1,276 miles from the grave in Rose Hill Cemetery in Oklahoma that George A. Fetterly will never abandon. Thelma died in 1973. Ralph died in 1957, after having started a new branch of the Fetterly line.

© 2014 Donald C. Sarvey & Editorial Enterprises, Inc.

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