Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Paddling in the dark: blind dragon-boaters race on the Schuylkill River

This story ran in the Daily News on September 28, 2005.

JUST GETTING INTO a boat is difficult at Lloyd Hall on Boathouse Row.

First, you have to traverse the tall, over-sized concrete steps.

Then you have to drop about three feet from the bank of the river onto a floating dock.

The dock is actually a collection of small rafts tied together so there are gaps, not to mention peeling boards, popping nails and missing planks.

Once you get to your precariously bobbing boat, you must be careful not to rock too much or you’ll wind up in the dark river.

Now, imagine doing  that without being able to see.

Getting in the boat was the first challenge for the squad of paddlers known as Homer’s Heroes, a dragon boat team made up of blind athletes from around the Philadelphia region.

The first year team is among the 128 crews that will be competing on Saturday in this year’s Dragon Boat Festival, the fourth annual one day extravaganza of teamwork, fitness and goodwill on the Schuylkill River.

“There is a great deal of potential in this boat!” said Carol Lee Lindner, the founder and organizer of the event who also coaches many of the teams.

Among the 2,800 paddlers who will run the 500 meter race are church groups, co-workers, college students, cancer survivors, a squad of mentally challenged people and a crew of deaf paddlers.

At last year’s festival, a squad of homeless men manned a boat.


During a recent practice, sighted volunteers helped the blind paddlers - clad in red life jackets and waving walking sticks - to navigate their way down the steps, onto the dock and into the long, red boat.

“This is not easy walking here,” said paddler Maria Grayson, 40, of Mt. Airy.

White canes were then put away and replaced by wood paddles.

The usually dark world of the paddlers was made even more uncertain by motion of the water and the shaking ship as other people climbed aboard.

Eventually, the 20 man crew was ready, squeezed into the boat with their oars poised in the water.

Lindner sat in the drummer’s seat and barked commands.

“Remember, your outside hips go forward!” she bellowed in her sweet-natured voice. “The outside leg goes up against the gunnel!”

The boat began floating away from the dock.


Lindner started the festival in 2002 to bring the team-oriented sport to the masses.

Dragon boat racing can be traced back nearly 2,500 years, to when Chinese politician Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning in the Milou River as a protest against corruption.

Legend has it that the local fishermen beat their drums and splashed water with their paddles to stop fish and evil spirits from eating Yuan’s body.

Riding boats and banging drums became an annual ritual, and then it evolved into a competitive sport, always honoring the spirit of Yuan.

The first three events in Philadelphia have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charitable organizations including the Fox Chase Cancer Center.


“Your little finger should go all the way into the water,” Lindner ordered. “That way you make sure your blade is totally in.”

As Lindner counted off, the team stroked the water, slightly out of sync but the boat slowly moved forward.

“It feels off balance,” said team captain Michelee Kemp.

“Come on Michelee, you can do it!” prodded Lindner.

Kemp, 32, has been blind since birth. The mother of a two-year-old daughter, Lauren, travels nearly three hours from her home in Ocean City, Maryland just to be a part of the experience.

“It’s exciting, almost like an adventure,” she said. “I am a competitive person but personally, I most enjoy the challenge of getting everyone here, getting this together.”

The boat built up speed, the rowers - despite not being able to see each other - began rowing in unison, and the team glided past the old Victorians along Boathouse Row.

“A good majority of the team has very good technique,” Lindner said later that day. “Better than many paddlers on the other teams.”

The paddlers listened to the instructions, ceasing to paddle when Lindner barked, “Hold water!”


“It’s a great feeling of freedom,” said Grayson. “Just to be able to be out there.”

Grayson, a former softball and basketball player, lost her sight at age 27 due to diabetes related complications. She is also the recipient of a kidney transplant.

And just three weeks ago, she won two gold medals at an international rowing competition on the Schuylkill River sponsored by the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled.

“Being able to participate in athletic endeavors again, that was the biggest draw,” said the modest Grayson.

Grayson also cyles on tandem bikes, she skis and rock climbs, both indoor and outdoor.


Since it took so long to board the boat, and another team was waiting to use the communal craft, the practice session had to be cut short.

The blind crew turned the craft around and smoothly glided back to the dock, with a sighted steerer controlling the direction.

“Having the trust in them, and in each other,” said Kemp. “It’s an amazing thing.”

Teammate John Curran, 49, described cruising in the dragon boat as similar to riding an exercise bike.

“Because you can’t see, you feel like you’re not going anywhere” he said. “You don’t know if you win or lose. You almost have to rely on others to fill you in.”

Curran has been progressively losing his sight for the past 12 years. He said his vision now is like looking through frosted glass, and he expects that one day, he will eventually fade to black.

"Being blind is almost like being a professional baseball player at the end of his career,” Curran said. “You just have to find something else to do.”

A former carpet layer and furniture mover, he is still learning to adapt to life without vision.

“Imagine a blind mover showing up at your house!” Curran said with a laugh.

The Northeast Philadelphia resident still wears glasses but he noted that they are just for protection.

“You have to stay positive,” he said. “That’s the key thing.”


Lindner watched with a big smile as the Homer’s Heroes squad began to disembark from the boat.

"I am so impressed with this group,” she said. “I’m in such awe.”

Members of another dragon boat team, the Big Red Dragons, helped the Heroes climb the steep wall up to shore, and then over the concrete steps.

“That’s the spirit,” Lindner said with a smile.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The fun-loving '50s are back, at the Hot-rod Hoedown

From the 9.9.05 Daily News:

SOME PEOPLE have the slicked-back pompadours, rolled-up jeans, hula girl tattoos and a pack of smokes tucked in their shirt sleeves.

Others have grease under their fingernails and souped-up vintage hot-rods with novelty dice hanging from the rearview mirror.

And yet others just like to tap their feet and bob their heads to hard-thumping, danceable sounds of blues-based, rockabilly music.

Joe Shipley, aka Professor Ouch, wants to bring them all together.

And he will, starting tonight, at the Hot-rod Hoedown and Rock & Roll Rumble, a weekend celebration of 1950s culture - pin-striped cars, porkpie hats, pinup girls and bass-backed, three-chord rock 'n' roll tunes.

The seventh annual event brings together all the elements - music, fashion and cars - of the "Kustom Kulture" scene, an homage to yesteryear, when cars were made of metal, music was played with instruments and rebels were rebels for no apparent reason.

"That's why I do the show," said Shipley. "To get the scene going in this area."

Shipley, a tattoo artist, radio DJ and pop culture kitsch collector, started the show in 1999 after he realized he and all of his '50s-loving friends were driving late-model, home-modified, self-stylized jalopies.

"We wanted to put on a show for people who drove weird cars," he said. "A lot of car shows are just a bunch of guys watching their bumpers shine. Ours isn't."

The first Hoedown, held near the Silk City Lounge in Northern Liberties, featured road-ready classic cars with dings and dents - cars that people drove every day, not fancy rides that spent more time under tarps than on asphalt.

About 150 cars were displayed, including Shipley's 1959 Ford Galaxy.

At last year's event, about 3,000 cool cats and baby dolls checked out more than 850 pre-1975 gas guzzlers.

This year's show at the Kahunaville complex in Wilmington, Del., is expected to be even bigger.

Besides the cherry coupes, highboys, chopped tops, lead sleds, rat rods and daily-drive beaters being showcased, visitors to the Hoedown can see burlesque shows, tattoo contests, a ladies-only roller derby exhibition and lots of loud rockin' honky-tonk hipsters, including South Jersey's own Full Blown Cherry.

For three days, the little pocket of Delaware will look like "American Graffiti" come to life or "Grease" without the choreography.

Kustom Kulture - the name that loosely applies to the throwback scene - evolved out of auto-obsessed Southern California.

While car lovers have been around since the automobile was invented, the rebellious '50s culture movement was bolstered by the Stray Cats in the early '80s and then catapulted by the movie "Swingers" in 1996.

The scene hit the mainstream in the late '90s when swing dancing made a comeback and Von Dutch, a renowned pin-striper and legend among hot-rodders, became the "it" label with the young and trendy.

The scene had an underground following in Philly for years but it was the Hot-rod Hoedown that connected the gearheads with the greasers, and the old guys driving the classic cars with the young kids rolling in their pimped-out rides.

The Hoedown attracts hipsters at every level of dedication.

"You'll see a ton of kids with greasy hair and rolled-up jeans but they're driving Neons," Shipley said. "You'll find people into cars - they'll spend $5,000 on a new grill - but they won't pay to get their teeth fixed."

Of course, some people have the whole package.

Vicki Long, 21, was into the punk-rock scene before she discovered Kustom Kulture about five years ago.

"Punk girls are all about being ugly," said Long, a tall, thin redhead with matching lipstick. "I'm not about being ugly."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, she sported jeans rolled up like capri pants, a sleeveless red shirt, dice earrings, her hair properly curled back in the front and the remainder in a ponytail.

She looked as if she could have been an extra in an Elia Kazan movie.

The Fishtown native said, "This is the way I dress all the time."

And so does her boyfriend, a slick-looking hep cat who goes by the name Lucky, and all of his friends in the South Jersey-based car club The Deadbeaters.

"I was a born greaser," said club member Brian Smith, 24. "I pretty much live the lifestyle."

Smith and seven friends hang out together all the time, working on cars heavy on chrome and low on gas mileage (nothing they drive gets more than 20 miles per gallon and most get far less).

The crew tends to dress in black, listen to upbeat, twangy music, sport Vargas girl tattoos and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

"It's kind of the official beer for the scene," said Deadbeater Scott Binder, 42.

Binder, a landscape designer and proud driver of an immaculate '62 Chevy Impala station wagon, said that the movement is more Brando and Dean than Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph. But it is all rooted in the feel-good '50s.

"The '50s have always been glorified by the media," Binder said. "That was the best time in America: World War II was over, the Vietnam War hadn't started - it was a time of peace and the music was good."

Another former Philly punk rocker, Binder bought his hot-rod after attending the Hoedown in 2000. Now he co-hosts a rockabilly radio show with Professor Ouch.

Shipley emphasized that the movement, however, is not simply about nostalgia, or as he calls it, the "Happy Days Complex."

"It's about keeping stuff that's good alive," he said.

In Shipley's cluttered South Philadelphia apartment, he has a huge collection of '50s paraphernalia: tiki dolls, tin robots, old wrestling masks, vintage movie posters and velvet paintings of dogs playing poker.

In the driveway, he has, among other vehicles, a 1951 Chevy Fastback, a 1954 Hudson Jet and a custom-made, stainless-steel camper built in 1956.

He has dreams of opening a "Ripley's Believe It or Not"-style museum and he's collected hundreds of sideshow artifacts like shrunken heads under glass, a two-headed calf, an albino squirrel and the remains of a baby alien.

"That's our culture," Shipley said. "America has become a lowbrow society."

And he revels in that.

"If you only live in a top 40 mentality, you are shortchanging yourself," Shipley said.

"Why live a boring life?"

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Big Easy Troupe in Fringe Fest: Show Must Go On

Hurricane Katrina coverage in the Philadelphia Daily News from 9.1.05:

Richele Pitalo has no idea if her family is fine or whether her home is intact.

She fears for her 82-year-old grandparents, but she can't get a phone call through to her family in Biloxi, Miss.

They live on the beach, right in the heart of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"My family doesn't leave because of hurricanes," the Biloxi native said yesterday. "It's just a part of our world down there."

And now Pitalo is too busy to constantly fret.

She and the eight other members of the New Orleans-based performance troupe EgoPo are frantically preparing for their opening production tomorrow of "The Maids X 2" as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

"That's the greatest thing that's going to give us purpose now," said Pitalo, an actress in the show. "I can't cry anymore."

Each of the troupe members faces an uncertain future: They don't know about their jobs, their homes or about their friends and families back in the battered region.

Stage manager Alejandra Cejudo left behind a sister who couldn't get out of Mobile, Ala., and an aunt and uncle in Pascagoula, Miss., about an hour away from Biloxi.

"They live on the beach," said Cejudo, a Dallas native who has been living in New Orleans for the past five years.

"They evacuated everyone, but I heard that every house on that beachfront is completely gone."

Cejudo tried to leave New Orleans on Sunday before the storm but got caught in the giant traffic jam of people fleeing the city. By the time she arrived at the New Orleans airport, she missed her flight to Philadelphia.

"So I drove 10 hours to Dallas and flew from there," she said.

Troupe members started staggering into Philadelphia last Friday. The final member arrived last night, after being routed through Memphis.

The group is staying in far-off New Hope because someone offered them a free place to stay. It is a nonprofit organization operating on a tight budget.

None of the performers is paid for his work. And all of them are reluctant to spend money because their regular jobs in New Orleans may have washed away.

"We're refugees," said Nick Lopez, an actor and production manager.

The troupe is considering holding a benefit performance to raise money.

It already is scheduled to do 10 shows of Jean Genet's 1949 psychological drama about surviving oppression.

Tickets are $15, and they include a bottle of Abita beer and a bag of chips straight from Louisiana. During intermission, the troupe offers a jambalaya dinner at an additional cost.

You can buy tickets, or make donations, at or by calling 215-413-1318.

At the end of the festival on Sept. 17, troupe members are supposed to return to New Orleans. But they don't know what they will find when they get there.

Associate producer Erica Centurion is hoping for the best.

"I made sure all my friends were leaving before the hurricane," she said. "I pulled my bed away from the window and I took my laptop."

Centurion said her second-floor apartment should be fairly untouched.

"I have two plants that are probably dead," she said.

"Or floating."