A Connection to Heal

On April 8, 2004 Sandra Fillon was on her computer. She clicked the ‘submit my comment’ button, closed her eyes and let out a small breath of air. It wasn’t a comment she submitted but more of a plea; and it was finally sent.

“I am looking for anyone that knew my father Robert Graham Curl. He was KIA 12/2/69 in the province of Phuoc Long. I never knew my father; I was almost 3 years old when he was killed. He is a stranger that I know from pictures. I am now 37 years old and with a child of my own and long to speak with anyone that knew him or was with him on the day he died. My mother passed away and all the answers to the many questions that I have of him passed away with her. I basically know his name, that he was from Walled Lake Michigan and he was only 24 years old when he died. He was a SSGT with the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment F Troop 2nd Squadron. Any information you might have would be greatly appreciated.”

The posting was placed on the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia (11ACVVC) guestbook for those seeking information about people killed in action (KIA). Sending out the plea wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was the waiting. And once the fifth anniversary of her web posting came and went she frankly admitted that she sort of forgot about it. “I was kind of fishing anyway,” she rationalized.

One afternoon, Terry Thomas, 63, hopped on his computer and began looking through his old regiments’ website. While he’d known of the 11ACVVC he joined the organization this year. It was on their website he saw Fillon’s posting on the guestbook. He said his only thought was, ‘I’ve got to get a hold of her’. He immediately called the number and left a voice message. “Hi. I served with your father in Vietnam. Please give me a call.”

The pair separated by more than 1,300 miles—Thomas lives in Kansas and Fillon lives in Florida—was united by a seven-year old web posting.

“When I got that message, I just about fell out my chair.” Fillon said. “I couldn’t wait to give him a call!” They spoke for hours. “We both cried and laughed and cried some more,” said Thomas. “So much for me being a manly man. I was just so happy to have found her.” By that weekend they had spoken on the phone numerous times were already Facebook friends.

Thomas began filling Fillon in on how he knew her father. Thomas a Vietnam volunteer first met SSG Robert Graham Curl, his drill sergeant, during basic training in Ft. Knox in 1969. The last time Thomas saw SSG Curl was just a few months later in December. “I didn’t think ‘Oh, that’s my drill sergeant,’ I was just happy I saw somebody I knew,” said the M16 gunner. Thomas wasn’t in Vietnam long before he was hit on his right side and left temple during the firefight in the Phuoc Long Province, South Vietnam. He was standing in-between SSG Curl and SSG Robert Raines. Thomas laid wounded and a few inches from him, SSG Raines and Curl were dead. Both men were on their third tour of duty in Vietnam.

“Of all the people that I could have found it’s the one guy that was next to him when he died,” said Fillon. “Listening to Terry, I was bawling like a baby.”

The September reunion of the 11thACVVC in Orlando was just the perfect time to meet face-to-face. As the day approached, Thomas had some trouble sleeping, this time not triggered not by the memories of Vietnam but by the excited anticipation of meeting fellow troopers and most importantly, meeting the daughter of his dead sergeant Sandra Fillon. “I really couldn’t sleep then. When something you know is about to change your life it’s hard to rest,” he said.

The Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia is a non-profit corporation that aims to honor those that fought and died during Vietnam. They were founded in 1985 and began having annual reunions in 1986. More than 1,100 people and 82 “first-timers” were in attendance during the reunion. “Many (first-timers) didn’t know what to expect but they felt right at home as soon as they walked in the door and saw the first Blackhorse insignia,” said the president of 11thACVVC Allen Hathaway. “Once I was there I felt a warm welcomed,” said Thomas. “This reunion, even though it’s my first, has sparked something in me and will not be my last.” With next year’s reunion in Indianapolis, IN, the pair hopes to make a stop in Michigan to visit SSG Curls’ headstone.

On a sunny Florida Sunday Sandra and Terry sat poolside and shared 43-year-old memories. “He’d carry a picture in his breast pocket and no matter how many times you’d seen it he was happy to brag about his daughter,” said Thomas. “He loved her deeply.”

Fillon knows that picture. She has a picture of her father holding up a picture of her. “Finding Terry is like finding a lost family member,” she said. Thomas agreed, “I have another daughter in Sandra.”

The pair discovered that as Thomas dealt with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) memories and the ‘survivors guilt’ of losing a friend Fillon never knew he died in Vietnam. Her Korean mother was notified of his death a year afterwards when a birthday card returned.  She was later told her father died in a car accident. “Because my mother could never speak or write English. I think the misinformation was due to the lack of translation,” said Fillon.  In the early 70s her mother married and brought her to America. Sadly her mother died never knowing the truth. It would take 30 years before Fillon discovered her father’s name and the circumstances surrounding his death on the Virtual Wall (www.virtualwall.org). SSG Robert Graham Curl, F Troop, 2nd squadron name is on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C at Panel W15, Line 16 and is buried in his home town of Walled Lake, Michigan.

“Once I discovered this I began digging. Searching for any and all information about him,” said Fillon. SSG Curl wasn’t married to Fillon’s Korean mother and as Fillon tried to reach out to her father’s family she was met with chilly reaction. “Me, a mixed raced child of their dead baby brother who died while fighting in Vietnam was like opening a very old and painful wound. It hurt, but I understood. Maybe they’ll be open to speaking to me later,” she said. “Meanwhile I figured I’d try other ways to find out about my father.”

She has discovered various websites such as findagrave.com and togeterweserved.com where she was able to find more people that knew her father, including her fathers’ high school classmate.

Just before getting Thomas’ message Fillon posted this on myfallensoldiers.com: “I am now 45 years old, almost twice the age you were when you died at 24. We never met in person, we’ve only seen pictures of each other. My mother never got over you and somewhere in the background your memory was always kept alive. I wish life turned out differently and you would be a 66 year old grandfather enjoying the latter part of his life but that wasn’t God’s plan. You have lived on in my heart though and you will never be forgotten.”

This meeting astonishes Fillon and Thomas, a meeting 43 years in the making.

“I’m sure Sandra is missing some pieces about her father,” said Terry as Sandra’s brown eyes swelled with tears. “And I’m excited to fill in those missing pieces,” he said as he cupped Sandra’s hand. Their new relationship is sealed. They vow to be a part of each others lives because when it’s all said and done, Sandra misses her dad and Terry misses his friend and through their union SSG Robert Graham Curl’s spirit remains.

Thomas said, “After all these years I’m glad to let Sandra know she was high on his love list.”

-Elena Brown

Special to the Emporia Gazette


Originally Published in Emporia Gazette Pull-out Section 11/05/12



All That Jazz

Denver’s historical Five Points neighborhood, once known as the Harlem of the West, is full of heritage and a renewed sense of purpose.

The kids in the cramped back room tapped their toes and snapped their fingers as the music flowed in, smooth as the liquor their parents drank in the lounge. The lucky ones who snuck in were so close to the stage they saw the tiny spheres of sweat glisten off Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson or Nat King Cole. “We weren’t so much concerned about how much it cost to get in. All we were concerned with was how we could sneak in,” says George Morrison Jr. with a heavy laugh. “You had to at least try,” he says. “It was jazz at the Rossonian!”

Harlem, Philadelphia and Chicago are famous for their jazz cultures, but so too was Denver’s own Five Points, a staple of western jazz culture. During the roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II, the neighborhood earned its title as the Harlem of the West, a must-stop for any jazz musician.

Historic joints, such as the Casino, Benny Hooper’s Ex-Serviceman’s Club and Lil’s After-Hours ran along Welton Street and jumped with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and more.

The Points was the bee’s knees and the cat’s meow, a place to settle in and sip some (at times) legal hooch and listen as a canary on stage sang to the hypnotic beat of a skin tickler. The musical mash “” the sweet brutality of hopes and dreams, both achieved and dashed, and the freedom to let loose with heart and soul “” everything got played in the Points.

George Morrison Jr., 88, is the son of acclaimed jazz musician George Morrison. His dad was known for jazz but was a classically trained musician who performed for the Queen of England. But even that wasn’t enough to break the Denver Symphony’s racist hiring practices, which prohibited him from being able to play because of the color of his skin. “That was a challenge to my dad because you weren’t going to hold George Morrison down,” his son says.

Instead, Morrison Sr. created his own orchestra, the renowned George Morrison Orchestra with players such as Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk and vocalist Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel later went on to become the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in the movie Gone With the Wind.

The band’s foot-tapping, dance-demanding jazz helped the group win a recording contract with Columbia Records “” the first to go to a black band. While with the company, Morrison Sr. recommended another jazz band that included Paul Whiteman, a white Denver bandleader, whose career became legend.

Those days spurred many stories. “I remember, during Prohibition, my dad making some home brew in the basement. He was making some when Bill Robinson came by to stay at our house. There was this loud noise, a “˜boom’ and “˜pow,’ and Bill Robinson said, “˜Get down; they’re shooting at us! Somebody’s shooting, get down!’ But it turned out the small bottles of the home brew had exploded in the basement. My dad said, “˜Aww, that’s just the brew downstairs,’ says a giggling Morrison Jr.

Morrison Sr. gave up touring in the mid-1920s and remained in Denver, where he opened the Casino jazz club, worked as a bandleader and taught music at Whittier Elementary, Cole Junior High and Manual High schools. While many musical greats were called to the Mile High City to perform, they weren’t allowed to stay in hotels downtown because of their skin color. Instead, city residents, like Morrison Sr., welcomed them into their homes. Others stayed at the Rossonian hotel and jazz club.

The Unity of Music

Once considered the premier club between St. Louis and San Francisco, the Rossonian provided high-class entertainment during the jazz era. It sits silent now, anchored in the Five Points of today. The wedge of a building is at the intersection of 27th Street, Welton Street, 26th Avenue and Washington Street, which forms the historic points that define and name the neighborhood.

“Man, it had a small stage. If the band had a piano, they had to build a little platform for it,” says Charlie Burrell, 88. A master jazz bassist, Burrell made a sensational career as a classical musician with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which hired him as its first black performer in 1949. He made $35 dollars a week and supplemented his income “” and repertoire “” with local performances at the Rossonian and other jazz halls. “For a $1 cover and 50-cent drinks, it was some good music. It’s even where the white folks came down to get their fix,” says Burrell.

Quentin Harrington owned the building and watched it become one of the most integrated places in the city. “I had white people standing out on Welton Street to get in the place. I could look around that room some nights and couldn’t see a black face in there,” he wrote in the book Growing Up Black in Denver, published in 1988, the year of his death.

The Rossonian, a National Historic Landmark, welcomed live music, from the scat of Ella Fitzgerald to Charlie Parker’s sax. When the lounge closed, the musicians headed down the block to keep the party going. “It was the after-hours joints like Lil’s and Benny Hooper’s that were really good,” says Burrell. “We’d play from two in the morning till dawn and sometimes later if it really got going.”

According to Burrell, people like Cedar Walton cut his chops with several great groups at Lil’s. “I remember playing with Charlie Parker. This was during the time he was punching Judy [using heroin]. He got up there, sat on the stool and went to sleep. We never stopped playing. It was loud, and he just sat up there asleep,” he says.

So Black and Blue

In the 1920s and ’30s, open segregation and racism ran feverishly throughout America with the Ku Klux Klan at the helm. Blacks in the Points rarely ventured any further than California Street to the north, 22nd Street to the south and High Street on the east. Anywhere else was dangerous, and Five Points became a haven born of necessity as a black bastion against hatred.

The neighborhood had a department store, the Roxy movie theater, restaurants, a fire station, a dentist’s office and even its own post office. It was a city within a city. Look closely, and you can still see it.

Many of the buildings still stand today. The US Bank at 27th Avenue and Welton was once Five Points’ Atlas Drug Store. “We had everything we ever needed right there in the neighborhood,” says Morrison Jr.

If anything, the hatred and necessary fortressing of Five Points strengthened the community. The neighborhood’s black businesses prospered as the African American population grew from 6,000 to more than 7,500 between 1920 and 1940.

“There was the YMCA, and that kept a lot of us off the streets and out of trouble,” says Morrison Jr. The Phyllis Wheatly Colored YWCA became an official national branch in 1920 and operated as a residence hall, employment bureau and youth camp. The Glenarm branch of the YMCA focused on social and cultural life in the community, and it was considered by most the town hall, which hosted multiple meetings on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Points was often the target of the Klan, which had a foothold in Colorado and was highly active until the 1950s, at one time boasting 50,000 members “” one of the highest memberships in the country. They were everywhere, including the government. During the 1924 elections, the Klan gained control by electing an open Klan member, Clarence Morley, as governor. The KKK became one of the largest organized political forces in the state with help from people such as Benjamin Stapleton, mayor of Denver from 1923 to 1931 and again from 1935 to 1947. After the Klan helped push him into office, he named Klan member William Candlish as police chief.

“I never saw the Klan, but we knew they were around,” Morrison Jr. says, recalling stories of when the family home was being built. “Three different times they burned crosses to stop the construction,” he says. The Morrison family property on Gilpin still stands today.

But a few buildings weren’t so lucky. They’ve been toppled by the wrecking ball, making way for gentrification, which has literally changed the face of the community.

Five Points’ rich history would have been forgotten if not for a long list of local musicians and developers and civic efforts such as the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, located in Five Points, which houses a growing collection of research materials related to African Americans in the west.

Determined not to let the Rossonian fade away, the latest modern-day Lazarus, the Denver-based, minority-owned Civil Technologies is at the forefront of Five Points’ revitalization. “Jazz is an American original art form with great cultural history,” says Civil Technologies developer and Denver native Carl Bourgeois. “It’s important that these places are protected and preserved for their past and future. I’m trying to honor that.”

“I had a fantastic childhood in Five Points. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world,” says Morrison Jr. “It’s sorta sad to see Five Points decline, and I miss the way it used to look, but it’s coming back. So watch out for the rebirth of the Points.”

Charlie Burrell and George Morrison Jr. jam and recall the Denver jazz scene.

(published Denver Magazine, 2009)

Published in: on 02/14/2011 at 08:43  Leave a Comment  

Stop Pissing Off Your Flight Attendant

7 Ways to Stop Pissing Off Your Flight Attendant
On December 28, 2010, In Daily List, by elenab

When flying, at best you’re clueless; at worst you’re an ass. But not to worry—we’re here to share a few things that will keep your flight attendant from going all Steven Slater on a mo-fo. And yes, it’s flight attendant not stewardess—And, since you’re clearly unaware, it’s also a new millennium. (Incidentally, I don’t get why anyone would want to piss off the people that could save your life in the event of an emergency 35,000 feet in the air.) So, take notes, stop being an ass and happy travels.

1. Don’t be the clog in the artery of boarding.
In those three hours you’ve been tooling around in the airport it never dawned on you to get your scarf, books and magazines and other various items to keep you amused. And must you do that in the aisle upon boarding? Get out a few things, not 14 different items for an hour-long flight BEFORE you board and make it to your seat. Let’s keep it moving, people! There are people behind you, sheesh!

2. Pay attention to the demo (and other announcements for that matter).
Now that you’ve settled in your seat, you’ve lost the ability to comprehend things like ‘Please pay attention to the safety demo’, ‘fasten you seatbelt’, ‘turn off all electronics’ or the words ‘under the seat in front of you’. If you gave a three-minute speech about safety and people ignored you, you’d be upset. Stop being a hypocritical jerk and pay attention, or else.

3. Don’t let your kids run amuck.
Your parental duties do not stop now that you’re on a plane. Don’t change your kids diaper in front of or on the flight attendant jump seat, and for that matter, don’t change them on the tray-table. Flight Attendants are not your insta-babysitter, because the game they play isn’t nice (remember this?) Or how about this game? It’s called, ‘Let’s kick a kid in the clavicle with the heels I’ve been wearing for the past 13 hours’. No need for instructions, they’ll catch on quickly.

4. Keep your stuff out of the aisle.
You know drinks are coming, and if you’re lucky, food! And how do you propose this is done? Enter flight attendants in the aisle. If you don’t want to get hit by a cart, then get your legs, elbows or head out of the way. Plus do you really want to be responsible for tripping up a flight attendant as they walk down the aisle because of your bag strap?

5. Handle your body.
Your immune system senses something harmful and antibodies like proimmunoglobulin E (IgE) are released. IgE trigger the release of the body’s chemicals like histamine. The release of histamine can affect a person’s respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and cardiovascular system. That’s the background of your allergy. If you can’t take things like nuts, milk or even if you morally object to pork, then bring your own food. Don’t expect the flight attendant to handle or magically know your dietary needs. This also applies to all medical conditions; we’re talking to you Diabetics that checked your insulin “in the other bag.”

6. No vague drink requests.
You wouldn’t walk into a coffee shop and say “I’d like a coffee’ when you want it black, with cream or sugar so why would you say it on a plane? Despite their majestic aura, flight attendants are not clairvoyant nor do they like to repeat, “How do you take it?” 221 times.

7. Know how to use a bathroom.
Not being able to handle the operations of going to the bathroom. Couldn’t be simpler, could it? 1.‘Push’. 2. Lock the door 3. Don’t be all shocked if your feet are wet when you went in there without shoes.

Published in: on 12/28/2010 at 15:01  Leave a Comment  

Son finally gets fuller picture of ‘SGT. MAC’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Mc-Cullough has been trying to find information about the man in the family photo albums alongside his mother.

The man whose picture sits in a frame on her china cabinet.

The tall man with the piercing blue eyes, similar to his own.

The man who was his father.

“I used to sneak around the house and look at the old photo albums and newspaper articles that my mom had,” he said. “I’ve always been wondering just who my dad was.”

Sgt. 1st Class Alfred McCullough was killed in Vietnam when Mike was 1 year old.

“I wonder how I would have turned out had he been around,” Mike McCullough said.

After his father’s death, his mother moved the family from Germany to Colorado Springs, never remarrying.

Mike McCullough was 37 when he started going on the Internet to search for information about his father. Now 40, the Pikes Peak Community College employee hit pay dirt over the weekend after he and his mother were invited to attend a reunion of his father’s unit in Louisville.

Silver-haired men gathered around a table to meet and share their 40-year-old memories and thoughts about “Sgt. Mac.”

Alfred McCullough served in the Army for 12 years and was 33 when he was killed by small-arms fire in Binh Tuy, South Vietnam.

He is buried at Fort Riley in Kansas.

He left behind five children; Mike is the youngest.

“I knew right off the bat that was Sgt. Mac’s kid when I looked in those blue eyes,” Ron Betz said. Alfred McCullough “was a tall quiet man with a thick reddish mustache. I remember he died in the morning. We lost three men that day.”

Retired Sgt. Edward Brown Jr. added, “He was a gentleman’s soldier. He brought his point across in a smooth way. He was a real good man that took good care of us.”

Both men served under Alfred McCullough in Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry A-Troop in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

The McCulloughs were contacted by the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia this year.

The organization aims to honor those who fought and died during Vietnam. It formed Operation Embrace last year to locate, notify and welcome the families of men who died into the “Band of Brothers,” said Charles Schmidt, president of the organization.

Mike and his mother, Johanna, represented one of about 60 families that attended alongside the 1,500 members in Louisville over the weekend.

Johanna McCullough, 72, brought military photos and newspaper articles to the reunion, including an article about her receiving her husband’s Silver Star for service in combat.

“There are more photos I can bring next year” when the unit will reunite again in Chicago, she said.

“When I saw ‘McCullough’ on the name tag I thought, ‘That’s Sgt. Mac’s boy!’ and gave him a big hug,” said Jack Morrison, 59. “I didn’t cry, but I was close.”

“McCullough was my platoon sergeant,” Morrison said. “My memory is not what it used to be, but I told him (Mike) what I could about his father.”

It was far more than Mike McCullough had known before going to Kentucky.

“I do wish there was more discussion about my father when I was younger, but I’ve discovered it’s never too late to learn about your family,” he said.

Mother and son said the weekend brought them closer.

“It’s so nice to know our family was not forgotten,” she said.

Mike said all he wanted was to get a bit of information about his father.

“And now, through these men, I have a stronger bond to him,” he said.

(Published in the Colorado Springs newspaper, The Gazette on September 10, 2007)

Columbine Victim Speaks (repost)

The Metropolitan Vol 26 Issue 11 ~ September 18, 2003

by Elena BrownThe metropolitan

Richard Castaldo describes how he was paralyzed in April 20, 1999 Columbine shootings. The Metro sophomore is currently pursuing a business degree.

He’ll be 22 this week. Celebrating a birthday — according to the medical odds — that should not have been. With eight gunshot wounds, he made it through alive.

But something is missing. There’s a void.

“They keep saying this all happened for a purpose,” he said tapping on the legs he can’t feel anymore, “but I’m still waiting for that purpose.”

Wounds meant to kill are now plainly visible on Richard Castaldo.

The Metro sophomore is paralyzed from the chest down, and as he wheels around the Auraria campus, he ponders on the vote scheduled for Sept. 17, a day before his birthday.

The Auraria Board will vote on whether to allow concealed weapons — including the 9mm pistol, they type of gun he was shot with — on campus. The new Colorado gun law allows people with a certified handgun or concealed weapons permit to carry their registered weapon anywhere in the state, including school campuses.

The basic qualifications for the permit include a minimum age requirement of 21, a $152.50 processing fee and a background check. Over 60 percent of Metro’s more than 20,000 student population, including Castaldo, meet the basic qualifications to get the permit.

“I don’t think I need a gun,” he said.

Richard Castaldo is a Columbine survivor and the whole issue makes him a little bit uneasy. He didn’t exactly expect to survive one of the deadliest school shootings in history only to enroll into a college that allows concealed weapons.

“It would be kinda freaky. I don’t know if I’d stop going here; it’s hard to say, but I can’t think of a reason why you would need a gun on campus,” he said.

Castaldo has no qualms about finding an officer and reporting a weapon, even if the Auraria Board upholds the Colorado law. “Not reporting it is just not something worth taking a chance on,” he said.

Chief of Police Heather Coogan agrees. “If someone is on campus with a gun, we want to know about it. Do not approach the person; call us.”

There has already been an arrest on campus of a CCD student who had an outstanding warrant and was carrying a weapon.

Castaldo remembers the incident at Columbine and that there was no time to react. There was a gun, and in an instant he was on the ground with 9mm bullet holes in his arm, chest, back and abdomen. He was one of the first people shot and the last Columbine survivor to leave the hospital.

“(After all of that) I still don’t think I need my own gun,” Castaldo said.

Castaldo took a semester off after the April 1999 shooting, but later went on to graduate from Columbine High School. Castaldo was only a junior when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold held an entire school under siege and had the attention of the world as they began shooting people. Ultimately, they would kill 12 students and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves.

Castaldo says most people ask the usual things: Did he know them? Where were you? Why did they do it?

“And this gets kinda old,” he says, “Answering that stuff is not fun to do.”

But, he answers them anyway: Castaldo vaguely knew Harris and Klebold. He was just beginning lunch with Rachael Scott when they were shot. She died. And he has no idea why they did what they did.

“I guess they were pissed off, but I don’t know. I didn’t have any beef with them. I just got in their way, I guess,” he said.

Castaldo became a favorite of the Denver press in the months after Columbine. Being in the hospital for four months, undergoing seven surgeries and physical therapy allowed him and his family to be under a constant bombardment of interview requests from local and national media, including filmmaker Michael Moore.

Castaldo and Mark Taylor, another Columbine student, were enlisted by Moore for his Oscar-winning documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.”

It had been reported that Harris and Klebold bought some of their bullets from a local K-Mart.

At the time, K-Mart did not restrict the amount of ammunition a person could buy.

The only restriction was the age requirement of 18. Moore, the students and the media went to K-Mart’s headquarters to ask the retailer to stop selling handgun ammunition.

K-Mart buckled under the pressure and discontinued the sale of handgun ammunition in all of its stores.

“That was pretty surprising; we didn’t expect that,” said Castaldo, “What you see in the movie is a genuine reaction of surprise.”

“Bowling for Columbine” has recently been released on VHS and DVD and ranks in the top 20 in video rental. People are noticing Castaldo aging, he said with a flash of a smile for this victory, yet as quickly as the smile appears, it fades. “I’m proud of all that, it’s just lonely sometimes.”

The notoriety comes in a dull lull for him. Mostly, people refer to him as “That Columbine Kid,” but since the movie, “I’ve been called by my actual name.” And he’s quite drained from the pity-party people regularly throw when seeing him or hearing his story. “I just don’t know what to say when people tell me they’re sorry for me. So I just say, ‘Thanks.’ ”

But he is appreciative. And he’s thankful to the two members of Denver’s S.W.A.T team for his rescue. It was over 45 minutes from the time he was shot to the time he was rescued. “I remember laying there, wondering if anyone was coming to help,” he said. “It’s kinda weird now, but the most pain came from my back. There was a sharp rock just piercing my back and I didn’t have the strength to move.”

“Getting shot hurts,” he said. He still has one bullet left inside by the doctors. “It was too dangerous to move.”

The five-year anniversary of the Columbine tragedy is April 20, 2004, but Castaldo says he has no plans, “I don’t even have plans for my birthday (Sept. 18), let alone something seven months from now,” he said while running his hands trough his long and thick curly black hair.

Castaldo’s hands are the busiest part of him these days. He continues his love of music and plays the saxophone and keyboards, and is helping with the music for a friend’s documentary. He drives a wheelchair-ready van and lives alone near Denver University. He even got his nose pierced a few months ago, and is thinking about getting a tattoo.

Castaldo is trying to get on with his life, but the memories of Columbine do not stray too far from his mind.

He tends to drift off and return to that day when something sparks a flash of memory, like the “Bowling for Columbine” movie or another school shooting in the news. And sometimes the U.S. and Iraq conflict adds to a growing dismal view of the world. “The war is in the same pool of fucked-upness.”

Still, he’s not ready to wash his hands of humanity. He admits his view of the world is bleak, which is why he got involved with the PeaceJam origination. Long before the Columbine attacks, Castaldo was reaching out to others about the evils of violence. He recently lent his wisdom of living and surviving in such a violent world to the PeaceJam documentary by recounting how violence has affected his life. The Denver-based organization is aimed at high school students to inspire global peaceful awareness and community activity. They offer workshops on suicide prevention, non-violent tactics and communication skills with the help of Nobel Prize winners.

Castaldo once met the Dalai Lama at a PeaceJam conference.

Castaldo isn’t mad at his life; he is coming to terms with it. The life of the slight teenage boy eating lunch was forever changed. And now the wheelchair-bound boy is becoming a man. “It’s funny,” he said with a pause. ”I used to really like to bowl. Now, I’m just confused about God’s plan.”

—Elena Brown

Unusual Ways to Use Recycled Goods in Everyday Life

Let’s face it—you’ve got a lot of crap lying around. A number of things coming into your house can be recycled, just make the space to recycle it or find more uses for it. Listen, you don’t have to be a full-blown hippie to start stepping up and saying sorry to Mother Earth. So, how can you get the best out of recycled materials? Sure you can do the usual milk carton as a bird feeder thing, but that’s so 2nd grade arts and crafts. How about turning a cereal box into a magazine holder or turning old toothbrushes into bracelets? Here’s a list of some big-kid uses of recycled goods in everyday life.

1. Grocery Bag

Um, Duh. Don’t be ‘That Guy’ who’s still using plastic bags at the grocery/department store. If it makes it any easier, keep an extra one in your car so you can always have it handy.

2. Bike Inner Tubes

Easy and instant bungee when securing things. Cut them down the middle, length-wise, and use it to tie down just about anything. Get a clip from the cool company, IT Clip.

3. Dryer Lint

Just when you thought it couldn’t be used, turns out you can use dryer lint. Use it in, compost, as a fire starter for the fireplace, spin it like wool or make it into clay. FYI: This stuff can be highly flammable and it is not to be used for stuffing toys.

4. Crayons and Jars

Make a candle. Just melt the crayons in a jar, insert a wick (about one-half exposed), then let cool. Use a Popsicle stick to create that swirled effect. Instant Candle!

5. DIY Sprinkler

Release your inner MacGyver and make your own lawn sprinkler with a 20-ounce plastic bottle with cap, 15 used ball point pins, male hose attachment, plumbing contact adhesive and sealant and a drill. Gotta see it to believe it.

6. Windows as Picture Frames

Such a cool bit of art with something you had planned to just toss aside. Wonderful Colorado artist, Alisa Mokler Harper, of Iris Photo Agency has the right idea.

7. Melted Wine Bottles

Don’t even pretend you don’t have plenty of bottles lying about. Put them to use by recycling them properly or having them pressed flat to make a fab cheese, fruit or appetizer platter. Takes a good 13 hours in a kiln (you have one of those right?) Or you can order online.

8. Buy Items Made from Recycled Plastics

Just make the extra effort to buy recyclable items. Recycled soda bottles, shampoo containers, and other plastics are being made into everything from pens to coats, carpet, and speakers. How cool is that!

—E. Brown

Germaphobe Nightmares: 8 Places Where Icky Live

Captain Obvious says: Surprise! Germs are everywhere! Now, there are good germs. They can live in the gastrointestinal tract of the body to help make vitamins. Some germs are used to make pickles and yogurt. But the icky ones that make you sick? Those are the baddies. And guess what, you touch their homes often. Then you touch your eyes, nose and mouth all without washing or sanitizing your hands. Yeah, you’re gross germ freak. Did you know the CDC recommends regular hand washing with warm to hot soap and water, for 20 seconds — the time it takes you to sing Happy Birthday twice.

So, where does the icky live? In the eight places below for starters. Feel free to take a look while I go wash my hands, again.

1. ATM/Credit Card Payment Keypads

The Lollapalooza of germs is ATM/Payment Keypads. They’re among the dirtiest things around. ATM keypads were found to have germs such as moraxell catarrhalis, a bacteria capable of causing everything from ear infections to meningitis.

Solution: Swipe your own card because once you give it to the cashier its now been with all the other cards they’ve touched. Carry and use antibacterial hand sanitizer. Or use TouchSticks (Yeah, we wish we woulda thought of this first.)

2. Money

Let’s just all agree it’s pretty gross because you never know where it’s been. The Federal Reserve does test money but the test shows only how soiled money is; it doesn’t reveal what soils it.

Solution: Antibacterial hand sanitizer.

3. Computer Keyboards

Anything that gets on hands can get on your keyboard. People eat, sneeze, cough and continue to tap away. Some studies show the levels of germs are five times higher than that found on a toilet seat.

Solution: Wash your hands before and after using your computer. To clean your keyboard, gently shake out the crumbs or vacuum it —wiping the keys with alcohol or bleach wipes. And don’t forget the mouse, because that’s groody too.

4. Toothbrush

Even MythBusters concluded toothbrushes are rife with germs; including fecal matter either from direct contamination or the spray from the toilet. Each time you flush the toilet, bacteria disperse in the air in the form of tiny particles. Chances are your toothbrush is hella gross.

Solution: Placing your toothbrush where it can air out and dry between uses — but not too close to the toilet. Also, replace your toothbrush often, especially after a cold, and be sure to close your toilet lid before flushing. There’s something called the Germ Terminator for that added protection.

5. The Bed

Get ready to gag: Dust Mites feed on your dead skin and their fecal matter and corpses contribute to asthma and allergies.

Solution: Don’t make your bed. Dust mites need humidity levels above 50 percent to survive. And while they can’t live in the arid conditions of an unmade bed, a made bed traps the moisture they need to thrive. It wouldn’t hurt having a dehumidifier with an oscillating fan to eliminate moisture and buy some dust mite-proof fitted sheets.

6. Salt & Pepper Shakers

Let’s learn a new word: Rhinovirus. What is it? It’s the culprit behind the common cold. And it lives most places, including the salt and pepper shakers.

Solution: When you wipe the kitchen table after eating, wipe off the salt and pepper shaker. And if you’re in a restaurant, use a disinfectant wipe. You might be viewed as the weirdo that carries around wipes but you’ll also be the weirdo that didn’t get a cold this season.

7. Remote Controls

The remote control’s surface is among the most cootified. Seriously, who doesn’t touch that thing?! Family, friends and we already know you’re not the cleanest thing around. So handling the remote can create a hotbed of germs. And what about the time you laid on the couch nursing that cold? Cold sufferers often leave their germs on the remote, where they can live for two days or longer. Gross.

Solution: Before you veg in front of the boob tube, wipe the remote control with a disinfectant. Or even put it in a plastic bag.

8. Steering Wheel / Keys

So you take the time to wash your car, but how about the steering wheel or a quick wipe down of your keys? The steering wheel is a breeding ground for germs. Plus, think of all times you’ve touched them with dirty hands or the places your keys have been dropped. Germs live longest in wet environments. A droplet from a sneeze that lands in your car could contain thousands of germs.

Solution: Take a can of Lysol spray, a cloth and get to wiping.

Published in: on 02/16/2010 at 17:25  Leave a Comment  
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The 4 Best and 4 Worst Airports for Getting Stranded

There’s a healthy dose of things that suck that we all, sometime in our life, must endure; Calling tech support, the DMV and people that can’t seem to get ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ correct in a sentence. Also, high on that list of suckitude is being stranded in an airport. Point blank and simply put; most folks would rather take a sucker-punch in the throat than be stuck for perpetuity at an airport.

But not to worry—we’re here to share (in no particular order) which airports, when stuck, suck the least when stranded. Enjoy and happy travels.

THE BEST, Least Sucky

1) London Heathrow Airport (LHR)

Serving close to 67 million passengers annually. Heathrow Airport is connected to over 160 destinations worldwide via 90 airlines and you’re bound to be stuck at least once, right? No worries. They provide business, family and special needs facilities; an unparalleled choice of shops and bars. The restaurant options include choices from tapas to fish & chips with a brilliant pint of Guinness. And for that American fix there is even a T.G.I.Fridays and a Krispy Kreme.

Visiting Terminal 5, a vast shopping center with more retail space than the center of Staines – the nearest town, covers shopping. LHR is stocked with shops like FCUK (French Connection UK), Gucci, Harrods, MAC, Mulberry of England and Naturally Cashmere. And if you happened to be there to too long go buy book in a vending machine.

2) McCarran International Airport (LAS)

It’s Vegas, baby! This airport is bustling with gambling, food and people. Because well, it’s Vegas, baby!

There are more than 50 retail shops and nearly 30 restaurants, lounges, and snack bars. So, if you managed to have any money left (or maybe before you lose it all), stop by the various gift shops from mega-hotel/casinos like Bellagio, Caesar, Excalibur, and the Luxor. And have we mentioned Budweiser’s Racing Track Lounge? Three words; cheap huge beers! And the bar is open 24 hours a day so you can either hit the ground running or kick back a few before the flight. If you end up stuck for a few hours, the airport is littered with more than 1200 slot machines.

3) Denver International Airport (DIA)

With its simulated snowcapped peak roofing, sustainable energy resources, public art programs and local beer brewing restaurants DIA just isn’t that bad of an airport. Too keep you occupied there is plenty of wandering space and places to people watch. The place is full of visually stimulating murals and sculptures like Mountain Mirage, a liquid vision of the mountains composed of 3,200 vertical streams of water. And if you’re thirsty, nestled on the far end of the B concourse is the sanctuary of microbrews, the New Belgium Hub Bar & Grill.

Once bored with people and beer how does a healthy dose of conspiracy sound? DIA alleged apocalypse-readiness conspiracy has grabbed the attention of the Huffington Post and Jesse Ventura. So if you’re stuck here kill your time with beer, art, the free Wi-Fi and try to find the alleged bunkers.

4) John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

Heading east? You’re going to get stuck. It’s high on the list of inevitabilities; like death and taxes. But if you do end up stuck there you shouldn’t go hungry. The words ‘food galore’ and ‘JFK’ was never in the same sentence till Jet Blue’s polished Terminal 5 came around. You can get some good eats at places like ‘Cheeburgar Cheeburgar’ or fresh sushi and sashimi at ‘Deep Blue Sushi’. And to wet your whistle, pop in for a well made martini in ‘Drink’ or if beer is your flavor try ‘New York Sports Grill’ a place that serves 48 beers on tap including local brews from Brooklyn’s’ Kels. And, as always, the best way to occupy your time: Free Wi-Fi.

THE WORST, Total Suckfest

1) Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)

“My flight got canceled and I had to spend the night at the airport.” Sadly, that’s how most O’Hare stories begin. ORD remains firmly planted on the list of worst on-time departures due mainly to weather and busier flight schedules. Now don’t get us completely wrong, during good weather this airport works very well, but when isn’t there some sort of weather issue in Illinois? It’s like when people from Cali say, “Oh, its 15 minutes without traffic.” There’s always traffic!

Weather isn’t the airports fault, but they could make it more accommodating for the stranded traveler. Hardly anywhere to sit – just fast food “restaurants”, no shops to speak of just another boring airport.

2) Miami International Airport (MIA)

Unfortunately if you are going to fly to South America, you don’t have much choice than to travel thru Miami International Airport (MIA).

The fact that MIA can be used for both the airport code and Missing in Action isn’t a coincidence. An inventory of items is missing from the airport, most importantly: chairs and food. The food selection is abysmal (Au Bon Pain and McDonalds, way to think outside the box) and for some reason the airport forces a maddening game of limited musical chairs. You think the airport folks would know that Florida travelers are hot, weary and usually hungry. Add stranded to the mix and you’ve got one helluva combination. The place can be musty and damp, and with poorly designed facilities you may actually walk more than 1/2 mile to your gate, as there are no people-movers. Sadly, if thunderstorms are in the area find a nice spot on the floor and be prepared for long delays.

3) Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

The airport has that old but trying to be updated feel. Sure there are a few new eateries and shops but it’s akin to having a flat screen and shag carpeting; they just don’t really vibe well together.

And don’t think you can get lost because there isn’t much to keep you occupied. The shops and food options are uninspiring and scattered throughout the terminal. And, if you want to gaze out of a window while you wait hour after hour after hour for your flight? Fuhgeddaboudit! Because more than a few of the gates are windowless. And according to avoiddelays.com EWR ranks only second behind MIA as one of the worst offenders for delays. And the icing on the suck-cake; No free Wi-Fi.

4) Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

LAX is lackluster at best. The circular madness of the layout had to be designed by a mad scientist and we are the lab rats. Getting from terminal to terminal is ridiculously flawed and inconvenient, either you have an extensive walk or line up to wait for the buses. There seem to be lines of people everywhere for the boring food options with limited seating. And if you’re over the two California Pizza Kitchens, three Burger Kings and four McDonald’s there is always the eight Starbucks of which to choose from. Having said that, at least it still has Encounter, that iconic Jetsons-style restaurant that serves surprisingly good food despite its closeness to dreadful airport food.

Bland food and lab experiments layouts aside, there is absolutely nothing in that airport to occupy the time, as the shopping options are awful and have no improvement in sight. Sadly, the airport is accustomed to the constant low scores from business traveler and newspapers’ surveys. FYI, I’ve yet to see TMZ when I’m waiting for pickup.

—Elena Brown (LikeMe//Daily)

Published in: on 02/05/2010 at 19:07  Comments (4)  
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Death’s Leftovers

At the end of the day Dan Newton stinks.

Some of the smells are familiar ones: the clinical latex smell from the gloves he wears, the smell of funk from sweat. But there’s something more— a ghastly pungent reek so foul you can taste it. It’s so seemingly tangible that it has a death-grip on Dan’s biohazard suit. The stench that dangles in the air is what brought him here, standing outside the small trailer just steps from Resurrection Cemetery.

“Oh that?” asks Newton with his usual flat-lined voice, “That’s the smell of human decomp.”

He’s hardly immune to the smell but it is, after all, just part of the job.

“I urge you to reconsider keeping the bed frame and dresser,” he says in the phone call, he is in constant contact with the family. They seem to keep flip-flopping on weather to keep the bedroom furniture. He knows its the call of closure that brings the family to the job but he urges it won’t help.

Newton’s stoic baby blues have seen their share of burned, bloodied, broken and bloated bodies. And on another hot summer Chicago day he’s a glad the family wasn’t there when he showed up. They don’t need to see and smell this. Not many people do.

It’s not that he doesn’t know what to say to the family—hell, he’s been in the field offering condolences to people for close to three decades, saying things like: “We’ll take care of this, you take care of your family”; “I understand how hard this is for you and your family”; “I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s a mash of oft-repeated niceties delivered in between the sobs of grief from family members.

It’s not that he isn’t compassionate; it’s just that, meeting people on what is the worst day of their lives isn’t high on the fun list.

In fact it is probably the worst part of a trauma and crime scene clean-up crew.

After the police have left, after the Crime Scene Investigators have cleared the scene, there’s still another call to make to the cleaners.

The cleaners scrub, rip and disinfect the leftovers of death—ridding the environment of things like the remaining toxins of a former meth lab, filth left by residents, smells from a decomposed body, blood splatter and cleaning the vents of skulls fragments. Being a cleaner takes a special mixture of safety, patience, timeliness and compassion. Because these sad calls made in the wake of a murder, suicide or accident— comes from landlords and homeowners, not the authorities. And people who are most likely to need this service are the least likely to know that clean-up services exist. Most people don’t think about this dirty job or where it occurs but it occurs across America in cities big and small.

There will always be crime and trauma. But not all jobs are crime-related nor are they messy, but they can be hazardous and people like Newton, founder of Metro Restoration Inc., a cleaning and restoration business specializing cleaning up biohazard and crime and trauma scenes, exist.

“I help people. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at.” the 42-year-old says. Many people in the emergency services tend to gravitate to this business due to the high tragedy threshold and the experience of helping those in need.

The Hazel Crest native has close to three decades as a volunteer firefighter in south Illinois suburbs and noticed a need to help those left behind in the wake of a catastrophe. Metro was founded by Newton 15 years ago and reaches areas in and around Chicago and surrounding states.

Death’s Aftermath

The 3-man crew had been at a trailer park in Justice since early morning. The small trailer is about 12×6 feet and boarded up. It’s would look like any other trailer, except for the blazing orange biohazard warning labels that are pasted alongside the trailer. The July summer sky is promising rain, a welcome relief from the 87-degree heat. It was around noon when Newton’s non-descript white van pulls up.

He takes a look at his employees outside drinking water and sitting in the shade, taking another break. All but one is wearing the uniform, which is rarely taken completely off.

“What’s wrong with him?” Newton asks Joe McGowan another seasoned biotech and lead supervisor at the scene.

“Whatta think? He’s hot,” Joe says to his boss. “The suit’s too much for him.”

“We’ll have him stay out. Maybe do the wipe down.” Newton suggests in a tone that isn’t up for debate. Newton checks on the man, making sure he isn’t showing signs of heat stroke. “You can stay on, if you feel up to it, but stay out of the suit.” he tells the employee. Newton reaches in the blue cooler full of ice and begins grabs a bottle of water for himself.

Reaching upwards of 10-20 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, compiled with body heat-the biohazard suit can roasting. The disposable suits are made with 100% high-density polyethylene (HDPE) throughout.

Its design reassures Newton, giving him protection from all forms of chemicals: solids, liquids, gasses and vapors. The suit keeps out particles as small as 0.5 microns.

But most importantly, it’s kept him healthy for more than a decade, as it will when he heads into the house to remove death’s aftermath.

First he steps into the one-piece hooded suit. Secondly, he puts on sock booties and duct tapes them over the elastic cuffs of his protective pants and slips on thick black boots.

Next he put on latex gloves and duct tapes them to the cuffs of his sleeves. Then he puts on a pair of durable blue rubber gloves.

The respirator goes on last.

“The smell of death, of decomposing–It’s a smell that is truly indescribable,” Newton says with a yell. His mono-toned voiced is muted thru the mask. “But once you smell it you’ll never forget.”

He jerks the straps and tightens his respirator; he’s ready to go inside.

The misshapen bloodstain is so loud on the full-sized bed your eyes are forced to it. The violent slash resembles a jaggedly sewn blanket and is alive with flies and maggots, the only sign of life in the teeny room. There’s no air-conditioning in the small trailer. From the angle of the stain it’s as if the man, clad only in red, white, and blue stripped underwear, had simply sat on the edge of his bed, laid back and died. One of his two dogs was found dead at the foot of the bed.

Today’s tasks: The bedroom.

Newton and crew unceremoniously gut into the mattress with a shiny bladed box cutter. Cutting out the stain and placing the material in a hazmat bag. Next they flip the mattress and discover another stain. After cutting it out they take out the ravaged mattress and put it in a big clear plastic bag for disposal.

Back in the room they tackle the stain on the cover of the box spring. Bodily fluids seemed to have seeped their way through the mattresses to the carpet underneath.

It’s when the dull dirty carpet and pads are cut away and pulled up when what seemed to be a few handfuls of white rice was reveled.

It wasn’t rice.

It was hundreds of maggot larvae were feeding on the still wet fluids of the deceased.

Decomposition is a fuzzy corner’s clock, with the stages of death so easily influenced by the person’s characteristics—primarily age, size, and health and environment— and where the body is found. Those factors can make it hard to tell the exact time of death.

It took about a week until a concerned friend contacted police for a ‘Well Being Check’. The length of time since his death, complied with the heat; the 50-year-old was severely decomposed when he was found. According to official reports he died from blood clotting in his arteries. Metro was called three days after the man was discovered.

The first 24 hours, the skin around the stomach turns a blue-green. Once the body ceases to keep bacteria in check, it spreads and Rigor Mortis sets in 3-36 hours after death. Flies are attracted to the smell, laying eyes around the wounds and the body’s natural openings. Within 36-48 hours, the body begins to bloat in areas with loose skin and from the build-up of gases. The strong odor attracts insects like beetles and mites to accompany the maggots that are still feasting inside the body. It will then heat up from all the insect activity.

At the end of the day, it took three bright red full biohazard bags of mattress, box springs and carpet remnants and eight gallon-sized trash bags of clothes to empty out the bedroom, the dressers and two tiny closets of clothes–some with price tags still attached.

“Some people want to keep the clothes. But they shouldn’t,” Newton says I can’t tell you [the family] what to do, but I strongly urge them to reconsider. There’s just no way to get that smell out.”

Metro has a laundry they do recommend, but there’s no guarantee the items will be odor-free, and may wind up costing way more than its worth.

The death scene/decomp job took about four people three days to finish cleaning the trailer, tossing out contaminated pieces and ridding it of the smell.

Newton looks at his pager, the family has called again. They say toss the bedroom furniture.

The Grim Sweepers

Death can be messy. Ripe smells held captive in cushions and mattresses while blood and body fluids seep silently into the cracks of windows and floors. People just don’t get that there’s more to cleaning up a violent scene than just wiping up a spot. A seemingly small blood splatter on the carpet can seep down thru the padding and spread, becoming a two-foot diameter of bodily fluids on the floorboards. A violent scene doesn’t mean the family moves out of the house. The mop and bucket cleaning agencies are not trained or equipped to deal with the trades of death.

“Being in bio is about helping people. It’s about bringing a place back to something habitable that’s the accomplishment,” says Metro supervisor, Bob Slager. “I’m not looking for praise. If feels good inside that your helping people. Helping, that’s the reward I shoot for.”

Slager has about five years with Metro and like Newton, is an Illinois native and a part-time firefighter in the South Suburbs. He views bio cleaning as an alternative way of aiding people that can’t aid themselves. The 42-year-old knows this job is hard on the body and mind so he keeps his sanity by working out and living by the simple motto of: ‘Work doesn’t come home and home doesn’t come to work’.  Rarely does Metro follow-up with the families and business after they’re done. But often a word of ‘Thanks’ come in a letter or email. “I know I make a difference. You can feel it in the handshake, and sometimes a hug, at the end of the job,” Newton says.

Viewing death in all its gory excess can take a toll on most but Newton, like many others in the business, come from a background in emergency services that prepare them for the ick-factor when cleaning human goo off the tables, chairs, floors, ceilings, desk and well…everything.

Newton recalls a call for a body removal last winter for a man that was found dead wrapped in his heating blanket.

“That was a bad one,” remembers Newton. “He’d only been dead a few days but looked like he’d been dead for weeks. Smelled like it too. It’s because of the heating blanket, due to the heat it sped up the decomposition and he had begun to liquefy.” he says. “Many people reach their point, their limit; I guess I haven’t reached mine yet,”

Usually when they’re called out for a body removal they are generally contracted, on the spot, to do the clean up, but not that time. According to Newton, the property owner said he’d find a way to clean it up. “When you see veteran cops sick in the bushes, you know it’s gonna be a bad one,” he says.

That’s not the first time they didn’t get a job but got the body removal. In July, Metro was called by the city of Chicago Heights to remove one body after a deadly shooting of four men at the Esoteric Nightclub.

“Don’t know why we didn’t get the job. They [club owners] never called us,” says Newton.

In a field that deals with tragic death, advertising and marketing can be tricky. Local authorities, housing complexes and transit companies contract most trauma cleanup crews so it pays to have good relations with the community.

No Guts, No Glory

Cook County is 946 square-miles with a population of about 5.3 million people. It’s the second most populous county in the nation, just behind Los Angeles. The sheer volume of the county requires outside contracts of companies for body removals and transport to the corners office in time for autopsy. This can bring some pretty heavy competition.

Metro is one of seven companies that service Illinois, according to the American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA). But they also compete with an estimated 10-14 other agencies, not affiliated with association. ABRA is an association of crime and trauma recovery professionals that also trains and certifies bio-technicians. Cleaners can make a decent living, according to Newton. Metro’s full-time employees might make around $35,000 a year and depending on the market that number could grow. But even then it all comes down to pricing. For example, the cost of bringing a body to the morgue was costing Chicago Heights about $300, Metro charges just under that to stay competitive.

Cutting prices and offering discounts doesn’t guarantee a job, oftentimes jobs are lost by simply being under-bid.

“Crime scene clean up is a pretty cut throat business,” says Slager. But it’s about your reputation that keeps them in business he says. “And we gotta be there. No missing a call when that pager goes off.” Slager added.

The South Holland based company promises a response time of under an hour for certain locations. They’re contracted with 16 Illinois towns for body removal and cleanup services. Cities like Alsip, Chicago Heights, East Hazel Crest, and Homewood Police Departments have referred Metro and other agencies for the excellent service.

Authorities aren’t allowed to offer a personal referral, they are stocked with business cards to hand the family or business-owner. It pays to have good relationships with the local mortuaries, funeral homes, housing complexes, a decent website and a reliable phone and pager.

About four years ago an office suicide took Metro to Crown Point Indiana. There was an extreme amount of biohazard bodily fluids left on the floors and walls after the gunshot to the head, according to the Lake County coroner office. Metro was there just after the investigation and cleaned up.

“We were informed that one could not tell that this had even occurred once the clean-up was completed,” says the Chief Deputy Coroner Jeffrey Wells.

Metro also has contracts with various Metra areas, primarily cleaning up after suicides involving the commuter train. According to the Illinois Suicide Prevention suicides are the 12th leading cause of death in Illinois with people over 70-years-old have the highest rate and are twice likely as teens to commit suicide.

“Seems older people, like in their 60s, 70s and 80s, are committing suicides, I’ve noticed,” Newton says. “Still we get more of everybody during the holidays. People get real depressed during the holidays, bout November, every year.”

Whether its drying a bathroom floor after a suicide in the tub (Metro is certified in Water Damage Restoration) or cleaning up after hoarders; people are under the impression that when an incident occurs in a home or business it’s up to the authorities to clean the mess. It’s not. It’s the responsibility of the owners, and usually covered, in part, by insurance.

Coverage varies depending on the policy but typically insurance covers up to 50-60% and what’s leftover can be paid thru financing and in some cases by the Crime Victims Compensation Bureau. Many crime-scene clean-up companies will handle the insurance paperwork for their clients.

Crime may not pay-but the cleanup does. Potential clients should be aware of the wide range of prices charged throughout the industry.

Metro’s prices can range from $1200 to clean up a small spatter of blood to the $3000-$5,000 ridding the environment of the smell of a decomposed body. They also clean hoarder and ‘filth houses’.

The difference between a hoarder and filth house is: Imagine if a hoarder collects decades worth various things and need a good cleaning. It becomes a ‘filth house’ when you incorporate hoarder tendencies and several lost and dead animals among the “collection”.

“That filth house was a big one. We filled seven or eight 30-yard dumpsters,” says Slager of a job that cost about $15,000. “They had meat in there from the 80s and dead animals.” Slager says.

Death Doesn’t Take A Holiday

Because of the unpredictability of death, a trusty pager is the bread and butter of cleaners. And with the job’s varying schedule, physical labor and firsthand trauma many cleaners have a high turnover rate. Metro does have therapists to help with the burnout.

“Here, when your feeling burnt, you can just go to another pat of the company,” Newton says.

Metro offers other services, like fire and smoke damage restoration and post flood structural drying that have won them an ‘A’ rating on the famed Angie’s List, an online rating service for contractor services.

A mid-sized company, like Metro, can have on average 20 employees on a rotating schedule.

“Sometimes its wait, wait and wait. Then next thing you know you’re getting’ slammed!” says Newton.

Joe McGowan usually doesn’t make any solid plans.

“I’ve missed birthdays and stuff, because the pager went off,” he says. “But hey, it is what it is.”

He also acknowledges that whatever day he’s having pales to what the families are going through.

People like McGowan, Newton and Slager are uncommon to have been in the business for so long, especially since the bio business is just less than 20-year-old.

Crime and trauma clean up is a specialty service spawned from the carpet cleaning business as did mold and mildew before it . In 1991 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the Blood borne Pathogens Standard. OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognized the need to regulate the cleaning and disposal of blood bourn pathogens, infectious pathogens and odor-causing bacteria that can linger long after the blood has left the body. These pathogens, like HIV and tuberculoses, can be deadly when not removed properly. For example, hepatitis B virus may be stable in dried blood for up to 7 days in 77 degree temperatures.

It became required individuals who are trained and certified in infectious waste handling and decontamination procedures do the job.

The new rules meant a new business and a niche market was born.

Cleaners acknowledge the dangers of their job.

“You can’t really think or dwell too much on a job,” Newton says. “You’ll never make it in this business.”

People are fascinated with the gore of the business. Newton doesn’t disappoint when asked about some of the worst jobs.

He usually tells of the time when the skin of decomposed body he was called to transport was falling off as he was trying to place the body in the body bag.

“That usually gets ‘em,” he says. “I also know of some folks that stopped eating rice because they resemble maggots we usually see.” He may seem flippant but he takes his job and safety seriously.

Trauma and crime scene clean-up companies offer highly trained services and adhere to strict rules guidelines and regulated by the CDC and OSHA that keep them safe. Many guidelines include hepatitis B vaccinations, yearly updated training, and contracted agreements with licensed Medical Waste companies. Metro extensively trains their employees with exercises, videos and a trip to the morgue.

Cleaning Up

When not at the firehouse, Newton can put in 15-hour days Metro, either on a job (they also cover towns and cities in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin), completing paperwork, or making free in-person quotes for a job.

He’d really like to hit up a Blues club, but just doesn’t have the time.

“I guess that’s why I’m single. This is my life,” he says with a whimsy of truth thru a faded tired laugh.

Newton gives the shop dog, Sobe, a friendly German shorthair, a pat on the head. The tan dog is a bit put off by the smell but still jumps up to greet the tired worker as if to say, ‘Welcome back’.

Newton heads to the bathroom and plunks his haggard pager on the sink.

That black electronic leash follows him everywhere.

Even on dates, if he had any.

He says he used to fish and go hunting, even had a few hobbies, but not anymore. Most nights he doesn’t have any plans, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like some time for himself. Maybe drink a glass of wine, cook a nice big plate of spaghetti, settle down and hope a good western is on TV and then get a well-deserved full nights’ sleep.

He heads to the shower to rid himself of the uniquely blended funk of sweat and death, hopefully he’s done for the day—It’ll go off again tonight.

—Elena Brown, 2008, Written for Medill School of Journalism Academy for Alternative Journalism Program

Itchy Inbox

Just when you thought there was a greeting card for everything, inSpot.org has reveled their latest in e-cards, the ‘you-may-have-an-STD’ card.

If you think it’s too awkward to have the face-to-face or the even less personal phone call, just send one of the many e-cards that will inform your partner that you have an STD and they may want to get a checkup.

In the spirit of the typical greeting card, they come complete with cutesy and clever sayings like, ‘It’s not what you brought to the party. It’s what you left with’. Or how about the one with a picture of a piece of string and says, ‘Sometime, there are strings attached: I got diagnosed with an STDs since we were together. Get checked out soon.’ And not to leave out the bi-lingual and jet-setting playas, there are cards in Espanol and sites that target Romania and Canada.

It can be difficult to notify your partner that you have and STD (or so I’m told) so if you’re really a spineless weasel, the e-card can be done anonymously! I know what your thinking, but try and resist the urge—As the site requests, don’t use this site to spam (as funny as it may be).

Because someone might get the idea to start a new greeting card: the ‘Sorry I falsely e-mailed you having a STD’ card.

InSpot.org is a non-profit organization that was created by ISIS, which provide sexual education and resource to the online community. A year ago more than 1,800 cards have been sent to about 4200 recipients, according to Deb Levine, Executive Director of Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS). She says about 1/3 of the cards are for chlamydia/gonorrhea; 1/3 ‘other’ (including the default: STD) and 1/3 are for crabs/scabies.

Seems like you’d know if you had crabs, but if it takes the verification of an e-card, so be it.

The site allows the newly informed infected with links to learn more about STDs, possible treatments, and clinics in their cities where they can be tested. inSpot e-cards (http://www.inspot.org) are available in 10 states, including Colorado with the funding from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Talk about one helluva e-mail, but then again it was opening up your inbox that got you in this mess.

A sample of the cards offered by iSpot.org notifying of a STD infection.