May 2020

Adam Hanger was born about a century or so too late. 

That’s what his dad Glenn says as he describes his son’s fascination with the old Wild West.

We are not talking about daydreams of rowdy gunslingers and gamblers.

Adam’s imagination roams the open ranges of Texas where cowboys on horses would drive huge herds of longhorn cattle over hot, dusty, wind-beaten, sun-parched ground. His thoughts settle on those cold star-filled nights when the wranglers would hang out at the chuck wagon, dinner pans at the ready, waiting for the “cookie” to spoon out good, hearty, heaping piles of grub.

And that’s where reality begins because 18-year-old Adam and his father own a chuck wagon and won first place in 2019 for their mashed potatoes at the Cheyenne Frontier Days cookoff competition in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Adam is the reigning Rookie of the Year in the American Chuck Wagon Association for his advocacy of this slice of
American history.

The makings of this dream go back to Middlebrook, Va., when young Adam would often catch episodes of classic Western television shows with his dad and grandfather at the Shady Acres Farm served by Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative.

That was all it took, plus an abiding interest in history and an appreciation for the outdoor life associated with farming. Adam spent hours on his own reading about life out West.

“I was talking with Dad one day and I asked him what he thought about us getting a horse-drawn wagon,” Adam says.

Until that moment about three years ago, Glenn says he had never given a thought to ever owning such a wagon.

They put a want ad in the paper. Meanwhile, they had a friend who already owned a beat-up Mitchell farm wagon dating back to the 1890s. They bought the rig in September 2017.

Since then, they have acquired another wagon and buggy. “If Adam had not shown an interest and done a lot of research, we wouldn’t have had one. Now I cherish it,” Glenn says.

But the real treasures are the hundreds of hours they have spent together refurbishing the Mitchell, salvaging what they could and outfitting it as a chuck wagon.

Their first order is for total authenticity, says Adam, who dug through historical documents to make sure their work accurately reflects a cowboy-era chuck wagon right down to single-slotted flathead screws. (Phillips head screws were not invented until the 1930s.)

They built the chuck box (pantry), using rope sections for the drawer and bin handles. Also, they constructed the boot, a box used to carry Dutch ovens, cast-iron skillets and other cooking utensils. Some things they couldn’t do — they took the Mitchell’s wheels, for example, to Amish craftsmen for proper restoration. “We want to make everything about this as historically accurate as possible,” Adam says. “For everything we did, we looked at pictures and plans and then went with what we thought was the best representation. We want people to experience the West as it was because this might be as close as a lot people, especially in Virginia, ever get to it.” Their rig is registered as an authentic replica by the American Chuck Wagon Association based in Lubbock, Texas. 

Sam Howell is president of the American Chuck Wagon Association, which represents about 300 members in 31 states, plus some members in Europe and Canada. He says Adam’s participation in the group is vital to preserving that period of time in the West, a post-Civil War history of only about 30 years after when an estimated 10 million Texas longhorns were driven to railheads to feed the nation’s appetite for meat and other products.

“We love it when we see young people like Adam take such an interest. Someone like him will influence others to understand just a little more about this period. It’s a difficult thing to do it accurately. If people like Adam don’t carry it on, it will be a lost part of history,” says Howell, who presented Adam with the 2019 Rookie of the Year Award.

In the end; however, chuck wagons are about the grub. 

People around the Shenandoah Valley from Staunton to Lexington can experience their cooking at the numerous gatherings and events they attend.

Last fall, at the Cheyenne Frontier Days roundup, the father-and-son team won a first-place award for the best mashed potatoes among chuck wagon contestants. (Don’t bother trying to get the recipe; Glenn sidesteps the question.)

“Well, I have always enjoyed cooking. All I had to do was adjust to doing it from a chuck wagon and using an open campfire flame,” Glenn says. “The old cooking utensils are perfect for that. For a dinner, we’ll do a chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, beans, biscuits and some sort of fruit cobbler or pie baked in a skillet or a Dutch oven.”  

And the coffee. Can’t forget that cowboy coffee.

Retiring into the Boyish Pleasures of Ham Radio

I’m a septuagenarian amateur radio operator in the internet age, a ham radio hobbyist who operates almost exclusively with the Morse code, a form of communication not even required for emergency use anymore. I’m one of those boys who embraced ham radio in the 1950s and are still at it.

I haven’t gone out of style yet.

Despite the rise of cellphones and the internet, there are more licensed ham radio operators today than ever, about 750,000 in the U.S. alone. In part, this is due to new platforms and available modes like satellite communications and moon bounce. While women amateurs remain a minority, their numbers are increasing.

Several times a week, a group of ham operators gathers at a Shenandoah Valley Wendy’s for lunch. Most are retired from a wide range of careers. Attendance varies. Sometimes talk is about radio, but often it includes other topics except politics. There is a shared understanding in amateur radio that politics is off-limits.

Lately I’ve been pondering two questions. Why did so many of us get into amateur radio as young boys in the 1950s? And now in our senior years, why are we still at it?

COMING OF AGE

Susan Douglas’ book on the history of radio, “Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination,” has some answers. She argues that the interest among boys was partly due to what was happening in the 50s and partly due to the nature of 20th century masculinity.

In the post-World War II era, radio waves were again free for non-military use. The radio spectrum was, as Douglas says, an undeveloped wilderness. Between 1954 and 1959, the years when I became licensed, the number of ham operators nearly doubled.

Ham radio, says Douglas, was a place where men could “escape the constraints of conventionalized masculinity” while still pursuing masculine interests. In other words, it provided a way for boys who didn’t fit the John Wayne style of masculinity to find a place.

Boys like me.

I was shy, an introvert. I was not very competitive and not at all interested in sports. I loved to invent and tinker, often fashioning things out of junk parts. Electronics, and especially radio, provided an arena in which I could explore, create, develop skills and even achieve some level of technological competence.

I had won a crystal radio on my paper route. While trying to figure out why it didn’t work, I met local ham operators and an elderly radio repairman, a networking skill which would turn out to be important in my professional life.

On the air, I chatted with people around the world with similar interests. Though our brief chats were rarely profound, there was a connection. Locally, I found a few peers who shared my interests.

THE CODE CONNECTION

Like many men in my cohort, I was off the air (QRT, in radioese) during much of my work and family life, reengaging during my late 50s after the children were gone and becoming more active as I moved toward retirement.

Why have I returned to it after a satisfying career in unrelated arenas?

In my younger years, I liked to fish, using ultralight gear to increase the challenge and excitement. I have given up fishing.

However, radio is a kind of electronic catch-and-release fishing.

It relies on skill, involves interesting gear, and has the excitement and serendipity of hooking something or someone you can’t see, and no person or creature gets hurt. As in ultralight fishing, some of the time I use low power (QRP) to increase the challenge.

For me, radio always has been about the technical and creative aspects as much as the on-air experience. I love to build, restore, customize equipment, to solve technical problems, as much or more than being on the air.

Morse code, or “cw” as it is called, is a craft and a challenge. When I returned to amateur radio after years away, one of my goals was to become a good cw operator: learning to decode in my head and to send with ideal spacing and rhythm. Often when chatting with someone on the air, one of us remarks that we are getting in our “cw fix” for the day.

As Douglas writes, “Behind the stereotype of ‘old fat guys in basements’ are people who insist that radio be participatory, active, noncommercial, educational, personally liberating and democratic.”

Radio might not give me the physical exercise I need, but it lets me tinker, create and exercise my brain. It provides me with a transnational community that spans vocations and class, a community that becomes more important as I retire from my vocations in justice, education and photography.

And it keeps me connected.