Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas disasters often come back to charm us

(The Bellefonte supplement to the Centre Daily TImes has ceased publication as of Dec. 21, 2005, so this is my final column for that venue.)

The Christmases I remember most vividly are not the joyous ones but the ones when something went wrong. The year the Christmas tree fell forward with a swish and a tinkle of broken glass just as the last ornament was put in place. The time a domestic squabble erupted into a kitchen war with much slamming of pots and pans. The cookies that burned.

I don't remember the pretty gifts over the years as much as the shabby ones, like the doll I got when I was about 6. She was very small with a cloth body and a molded head and even a molded hair ribbon. She had no feet, just black stumps under her dress. The shame I felt was palpable. I did not play with this doll. I did not even want to look at her.

In my first Christmas entertainment, I was to be a skater in a short, red taffeta dress. Awkward at doing the leg extensions to "The Skater's Waltz," I made only a halfhearted attempt at the steps. When Sister assigned a third-grader to move my feet in time to the music, I resisted. The older girl told Sister I kicked her; I say she deserved it.

For our high school Nativity play, my two best friends and I were cast as vestal virgins. We giggled our way through practice, but the night of the performance we lost it completely. I entered and delivered my line, "Veronica, hast thou kept the watch?" and the three of us broke up. We could not control our hysteria even with priests, parents and nuns staring in stony silence.

Over the years, there was always at least one disaster of the season. When I was teaching, a new administrator required all faculty to participate in a door-decorating contest. As I was stringing up lights, I noticed I was standing in water that was pouring out of the boys' lavatory across the hall. When no janitor arrived, I learned that another administrative edict had just taken effect: No repairs could be done until a work order was issued from "downtown."

This year, the stress began early. I listened to Christmas carols over the phone for 25 minutes waiting for another party to pick up. I called my long-distance provider for the third time to complain about a suspension of service notice for a bill already paid. A telemarketer would not get off the line, insisting that I press "1" now. Some people, it seems, just don't have any Christmas spirit.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Opening chapters of local history reduced to team mascots

An eager group awaited the presenter of "An Anecdotal History of Early Bellefonte" at the splendid new home of the American Philatelic Society at Match Factory Place on Nov. 12.

In due time, a proper Victorian lady swept into the Herman and Alice Lembersky Room and explained the difficulty of dressing when a corset is a prescribed part of the costume.

Launching into her illustrated lecture, the lady identified herself as Bonny Farmer, associate editor of "The American Philatelist." High points of Bellefonte's early history were recounted, then the talk shifted to an even earlier time, when white settlers encountered the American Indians already living here.

Chief Bald Eagle, of the Muncie Indians, a division of the Delaware tribe, made his "nest" along Bald Eagle Creek near Milesburg. Because the Delawares were allies of the French during the French and Indian War, his relationships here were uneasy. According to one account, he was murdered on Snow Shoe Mountain by Sam Brady in retaliation for chief killing Sam's brother.

Chief Logan, memorialized by Thomas Jefferson in a speech labeled "Logan's Lament," was another important figure in local history. His camp was near the Blue Spring at the present site of a Pennsylvania Fish Commission Hatchery on state Route 144 north of Pleasant Gap. Logan Branch of Spring Creek, Logan Fire Company and Logan Street ensure that his name will not be forgotten.

By 1785, Native Americans in the area were rare. By 1800, they had disappeared. Place names like Shikellamy and Kishacoquillas remind us of the original inhabitants, as do animal names like skunk and raccoon. The end of the lecture, though, was not the end of the story.

In the early part of the 20th century, schools and colleges started naming their teams and mascots after Native Americans. When a proposal was presented to the local school board to change the name Red Raiders to one more politically correct, the uproar could be heard from one valley to the next. In the end, the name prevailed, but the mascot -- a figure in buckskin wearing a cartoonish rubber mask with a huge hooked nose -- was retired.

Choosing a team mascot is like choosing your battle. When the Penn State Lions play the Florida Seminoles in next month's Orange Bowl, Chief Osceola, the great leader of the Seminoles, will ride again. His face paint and flaming spear may have nothing to do with Seminole history, but at least he is a heroic figure, not a comic one like their former mascot, Chief Fullabull.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Toys are quick to capture attention, regardless of your age

The colorful downtown block of West High Street from South Spring to Water has so many attractions for kids it forms a little community of its own.

Despite the window display of smiling children and teens, Kennedy Dance Centre is not just for kids. I should know, having taken a jazz dance class there some years ago. When the instructor started talking recital, I made a quick exit.

Up the street is Steppin' Out, a shop specializing in dancewear and accessories. Among the leotards in the window are cute stuffed animals in toe shoes and porcelain dolls in ballet costume. They are not toys, the clerk informed me; they are gifts for kids who are interested in anything related to dance.

The owner of Go-Velo-City says his imported diecast vehicles are not toys either -- they are collectibles. He still has some wooden pull toys and puzzles from a line he is closing out.

Pure Imagination carries traditional books, toys and games. Grandparents like shopping there because they see the things they grew up with, such as Golden Books and metal wind-up toys.

Alphabet blocks are also a popular item. My grandson loves making towers and then laughing when they crash. He is not nicknamed "Godzilla" for nothing.

Around the corner on Spring Street, Dollar General has bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks and all kinds of big action toys in their window. There are dart blasters and punching balls, a light-up tour bus with sound and Flavas, cool couples on cycles.

At this point on my walk, I had to go to Subway to take a break. But there was no escape. Over my tuna special, I saw a sign announcing "Fun Toy with Kids' Pak."

After all the shiny new stuff, a trip to "Toyland," the current exhibit at the Bellefonte Museum for Centre County, seemed in order. Here were the soft-bodied baby dolls I remember playing with and the Barbie dolls my granddaughters played with, dolls that exist now only as a bin of body parts. A display of military vehicles and books from the World War II era recalled our days of plane spotting. Why kids were expected to know a Stuka from a Spitfire, I am not sure.

When I took some middle school students from State College through the Centre County Historical Museum in September, they were more interested in sabers and carved dragons and secret desk compartments than a cupboard full of antique toys. Fantasy, it seems, is the new reality.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Town is never short on special occasions -- or cake recipes

Because there are so many occasions for cakes around here -- celebration, competition, seduction, sympathy -- it stands to reason there should also be lots of cake recipes. Some can be found on batter-stained pages in standard recipe books; some were clipped from newspapers or copied onto faded scraps of paper. But the most interesting and authentic to me are the ones in those spiral bound cookbooks put out by local organizations as fundraisers.

The newest one is "Raider Recipes," published by the Bellefonte Area High School class of 2008 and on sale at Plumbs Drug Store for $15. Here you can find Sarah Neff's Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake, Mildred Boone's Funny Cake and Barbara Milton's Hawaiian Wedding Cake. Because these recipes have been passed around for a long time, no one expects that the name attached to the recipe is the creator. The name means the baker has tried the recipe, probably many times over.

Besides mayonnaise cakes, recipes in other books call for strange ingredients, such as tomato soup in a spice cake, 7Up in a lemon cake or Coca-Cola in a chocolate cake. There's even a cake made with sauerkraut. Wacky cakes are like funny cakes and call for vinegar but no eggs. When box cakes began to replace scratch cakes, mixes were "doctored" with salad oil, instant pudding and pie filling.

"The Bellefonte Kitchen Sampler," published by the Bellefonte Junior Women's Club in 1977 includes classics such as oatmeal cake and sour cream coffee cake. Then there is carrot cake, which people seemed to think of as a health food. Nancy Miller, though, sets us straight: "Very rich. A little goes a long way."

The same could probably be said for Martha Nastase's Cheesecake for a Crowd. The first ingredient listed is nine pounds of cream cheese.

Many local recipe books include regional-sounding favorites such as Texas Sheet Cake, Mississippi Mud Cake and German Chocolate Cake.

A cake known variously as Poor Man's Cake, Depression Cake or War Cake shows the ingenuity of homemakers during hard times. One version has no eggs, no milk and only two tablespoons of lard for shortening.

Friendship Cake did not live up to its name. It began when someone gave you a plastic bag of fermented dough with mimeographed care and feeding instructions attached. Soon the stuff took over the fridge, billowing like the Blob. You had to keep baking cakes, like the one that called for a can of fruit cocktail, or giving away bags of dough. When my batch finally died of neglect, I shed no tears.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Local grant helps bring the sweet sounds of Talleyrand Park to life

Thanksgiving is a good time to express gratitude, not just for turkey and trimmings, but also for some of the things we take for "granite," as my imaginative students used to spell it.

Under a Local Government Grant, the Nov. 12 premiere of local musician and composer Rick Hirsch's jazz composition, "Village Green in Blue: A Musical Portrait of Talleyrand Park," at the Garman Opera House, presented new perceptions of a place that some of us might indeed have taken for granted.

Until he started researching the history of Talleyrand Park, Hirsch assumed that the park had been around forever. But it was only in 1964 that plans for the park were first proposed by Borough Council. The site was leveled in 1971, and in 1974 the real work began with the formation of the Talleyrand Park Citizens Committee.

Sculptor Rob Fisher, a Bellefonte resident and an original member of the committee, introduced "Village Green in Blue" by defining Talleyrand Park as "the quintessence of what the American Dream can produce." Then, the Valley Jazz Orchestra, comprised of seasoned players, as well as a young Krupa on drums and a budding Brubeck on keyboards, delivered a gift that will reap returns for years to come.

The composition in five parts was more free-flowing than structured, more pictures in sound than improvised jazz riffs on a theme. Spring Creek rippled along in the first movement, "Lifeblood," gained momentum as it reached the falls, then coming to a quiet close with a repeated figure on keyboard.

The second movement captured the graceful architecture of the suspension bridge in a tranquil scene where wood and steel sway in the breeze. Movement III is dedicated to the true owners of the park: the ducks. Hirsch gave them a calypso beat, while with just their mouthpieces, the trumpet section quacked convincingly.

"Placid" is a mood piece introduced by the keyboard, then picked up by the sax in a melodic passage with gravelly accompaniment on trombone. "Aspire" brought the work to a close, centering on the gazebo as a symbol of persistence and vision.

Sometimes we take grants for granted, forgetting that projects such as "Village Green in Blue" don't just happen. They start with the borough of Bellefonte and the Local Government Grant program with funding also from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, administered in this region by the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance. The results, as another of my students might have spelled it, are "ah-some."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Growing old has its advantages, though they are often hidden

What began as an ordinary trip to the drugstore for moisturizer turned into an education. Besides standbys such as Nivea and Neutrogena, the shelves were stacked with a bewildering variety of anti-aging products -- wrinkle removers, skin lifts, peels, masks, even a microdermabrasion kit that seems to operate on the system of sandblasting.

I left the store without buying anything because I was too confused, not just about the products, but about the aging process as well.

In his new book "Healthy Aging," integrative medicine practitioner Andrew Weil says we should embrace what is good about aging. In the CDT on Oct. 30, Arthur S. Rotstein quotes Weil as saying that "aging brings its own rewards."

Well, it brings senior discounts, but the first time the checkout clerk at Pizza Hut gave me a discount without my asking for it, I felt kind of betrayed. Then after the same thing happened at the Garman Opera House movie theater, I got used to it.

I received a reduction on my car insurance after I took a safe-driving course for older drivers. And recently, I applied for a senior pass at the new Centre Area Transportation Authority bus station at Schlow library. When the clerk, a lady of a certain age herself, asked if I didn't also want to get a pass for Centre Ride, the van that takes seniors to their appointments, I didn't flinch.

I may be riding that van for a long time. My beautiful aunt and godmother Gertrude Torsell lived to be 103. But no van for her; she was still driving in her 90s, always smartly dressed and blessed with perfect skin. I asked her once what she used on her face and she said Pond's Vanishing Cream. I think her real beauty secret was in never talking about her age.

The other day a tree trimmer was cutting dead wood out of one of the silver maples down the street. "These trees are all dying," I said.

He fixed me with a penetrating stare and said, "So are we." The arborist was also a philosopher.

This time of the year, the rich colors of the leaves remind me of my favorite Crayola crayons. But there are changes there too. Burnt and raw sienna are still in the box of 48, but golden ochre and burnt umber have vanished, like Aunt Gertrude's face cream.

In the autumn of my own life, the leaves this year seem more brilliant than ever. Maybe Andrew Weil is onto something.

Banned Books

(Belated post--this ran in the 11/2/05 issue of the Centre Daily Times)

Every September the American Library Association observes Banned Book Week. This year's display at Centre County Library did not shock because of its racy titles. In fact, according to librarian D. J. Lilly, many patrons expressed shock at seeing one of their favorite books tied up with yellow tape. "What's wrong with it?" they would ask. A handout prepared from the ALA website ( offered various reasons, most often "offensive language."

Looking down the list of banned and challenged books was like looking at a copy of the 10th grade curriculum guide from my years of teaching literature at the high school. There was Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

"Huck Finn" has been controversial since its publication in 1884 when it was banned by the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library, not for its language but for its depiction of a way of life the library board considered "rough, coarse, and inelegant." Twain, whose satire on civilization is narrated by nature-loving Huck, could not have said it better himself. More recently the book has been challenged because of its use of the n-word (over 200 times in the book, mostly by Huck).

My eventual decision to substitute another coming-of-age novel for "Huck Finn" was based on putting myself in the place of a minority student in the classroom and hearing repeated racial slurs. I felt like Huck in the middle of the Mississippi, trying to make up his mind whether to turn Jim over to the slave hunters or follow his conscience and protect his friend. "Huck Finn" will always be one of my favorite books, but how and when or even whether to teach the book remains a sensitive issue.

"The Diary of a Young Girl," Anne Frank's story about hiding out with other Jews in Holland during the Holocaust documents a time in history we are still trying to come to terms with. It makes the ALA list because it is "too depressing." The subject of "Fahrenheit 451" is book burning, an irony in itself. Even dictionaries don't escape the "offensive language" charge.

In the long run, according to ALA, it is "parents and only parents who have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children to library resources." In the classroom an alternate title can always be substituted for one a parent might object to. The freedom to read comes with an option: the freedom sometimes not to read.


(Belated posting--this ran in the 10/26/05 issue of the Centre Daily Times)

Trick or Treat night in Bellefonte can bring kids by the carload or a handful of stragglers, depending on where you live. Residents in the historic district, especially on Linn and Curtin Streets, have already started stockpiling supplies for the two-hour event. Last year the unofficial count on Curtin Street was between 250 and 300 kids. That adds up to a lot of lollipops.

Some people put up lights and elaborate displays to welcome the invasion of superheroes and Cinderellas, monsters and vampires. The adults have as much fun as the kids. But a few years ago I stopped turning on my porch lights. It could have been the year I was having my porch repaired, but it's more likely I had just stopped having fun.

Participating in Trick or Treat night means you are pretty much held captive in your own home, answering the door, handing out candy, trying to figure out the identities of the kids behind the masks. That's fine if they are from the neighborhood, but when I retired from teaching I could no longer recognize the kids from Pleasant Gap or Coleville or Zion.

When I leave now to attend evening services for the Feast of All Saints, I fight my way through a river of costumed kids followed by slowly moving vehicles. The scene is surreal, like a modern-day Children's Crusade. But by the time I get downtown the crowds have thinned. The action is all uptown.

I feel a little guilty at the end of the evening and try to justify my decision with excuses like, who needs all that candy anyway? But nagging thoughts swirl around me like so much ectoplasm. In my book, mean people are punished. Last year I did not have to wait long.

When I came in from getting the mail the next afternoon something dark hanging from a nail over the fireplace caught my eye. It was a bat, sound asleep, its plump velvety sides gently pulsing, a silent reprimand for my insensitivity.

The man from the exterminator service was understanding but warned, "This might not be pretty." Then he whipped out a piece of cardboard, ripped off a protective sheet and slapped the sticky side on the bat who went quietly without a squeal or a struggle. "I'll take it back to the office and release it," the exterminator said. "Brown bats are protected, you know."
No, I didn't know. But if it's a choice between bats or kids, maybe it's time to rethink my position.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A world of uncertainty has us looking for shelter from the storm

Five days after the "light" snow that was predicted for Oct. 25, snowmen still stood in front yards, and downed branches in full leaf were waiting for the chipper and the chain saw.

Not only did the unseasonable storm transform the landscape, it changed the order of people's lives. If Shakespeare were around, he would have written a play about it.

Storms in Shakespeare were not just an excuse to try out a new thunder machine; they symbolized upheavals in society. So King Lear, driven from his home and deprived of his title, rages against the elements. And in the "Scottish Play" (I share the superstition about using the actual title), three witches meet on the heath in thunder, lightning and rain to predict the murder of the rightful heir to the throne.

In "The Tempest," a shipwreck leads to a shakeup in the political order. In "Twelfth Night," another shipwreck throws characters into hilarious scenes of mistaken identity.

By looking at things from a different perspective, new insights emerge. By linking cosmic disorder and political chaos, Shakespeare shed light on themes of corruption and human error. Hurricane Katrina, in his playbook, would be the lens through which mistakes are magnified.

Before Hurricane Wilma hit, I checked in with two friends in southern Florida. Betty was putting up her storm shutters, and Barbara was polishing off the ice cream in her freezer. Both seemed like good examples of the principle of living with nature, not against it.

A humor column by Jack Gustafson in the Rochester Senior Times makes a similar point. In his list of characteristics of true Pennsylvanians, he says, "If you have worn shorts and a parka at the same time, you might live in Pennsylvania."

Looking ahead to this winter, The Old Farmer's Almanac has issued its forecast for the Appalachian region. Temperatures will be lower than normal and snowfall will be above normal with a heavy snowstorm in early April.

"We believe that nothing in the universe happens haphazardly," the editors say, "that there is a cause-and-effect pattern to all phenomena."

Yes, but those words may be cold comfort to folks trying to figure out how to pay their fuel bills this winter.

Shakespeare's plays always ended with a restoration of order -- lovers were reunited, villains disposed of, peace reigned. Audiences could go home with the satisfaction of having everything back in its proper place. The need for stability in an uncertain world was as much a part of Elizabethan times as ours.