From Battlefields to Farm Fields: Military Veterans Training to Become Organic FarmersJuly 28, 2016As I rode around the Rodale Institute's farm on my iron donkey, a.k.a. my bicycle, I came across two real-life donkeys named Erwin and Mr. Tugs. Instead of pulling plows, they were relaxing beneath a shady tree. It was the first sign that I was on an organic farm.
The Rodale Institute operates the most idyllic farms I'd seen during my 500-mile journey from Cleveland to Philadelphia. It contained a colorful medicinal garden, piglets born just days before my arrival, and bumble bees that never tried to sting me.
But some of the gentlest inhabitants of the farm were the people who worked there -- U.S. military veterans who were transitioning into more peaceable careers.
Jeremiah Gorske had served in the 82nd Airborne Division before he started taking organic farming classes at the Rodale Institute earlier this year. He, like a handful of other veteran trainees at the Rodale Institute, hope to eventually manage small farms or cultivate local growing in their communities across America.
The veterans are able to utilize the GI Bill for tuition and also receive a housing allowance through the VA while attending classes on the farm. They learn various organic farming practices ranging from beet cultivation to poultry farming.
Some, like U.S. Navy veteran Carla Waddoups, love farm animals so much that they treat them as pets. Carla brings her small goat named George Washington with her every day to work simply to keep her company.
The Rodale Institute is one of a small number of organizations training former soldiers to use tractors instead of heavy military equipment -- others include the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Troops to Tractors, and Ground Operations.
These programs seek to address potential shortages in the number of farmers due to a continuing wave of retirements. Nearly 20 percent of farms in the U.S. are operated by farmers over the age of 65 and most of them are expected to retire within the next decade.
The farming classes might also provide new skills for those veterans still searching for meaningful employment. According to the latest unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for U.S. veterans is at 4.6 percent, a decline from a year earlier and slightly lower than the overall U.S. employment rate of 5.5 percent.
During our cycling tour of the 333-acre farm, Gorske seemed thrilled about his new career choice.
"I'm outside all day, every day in this beautiful place with beautiful people getting to do work that truly matters," Gorske said.
'Election Cycle' Smackdown: Brawl Under the BridgeJuly 26, 2016As I biked along the train tracks of Homestead, Pennsylvania, I heard a crowd cheering beneath the High Level Bridge. Earlier in the day, I had spoken to a local bar owner named Jerry who recommended the event. Unlike at the RNC and DNC, no press credentials were required for this smackdown.
Security and ticketing was also lax. A man smoking an old-fashion tobacco pipe allowed me to enter without any hassle whatsoever, a nice change after four days of daily security pat-downs and metal detectors at the RNC in Cleveland. Tickets cost $5, but they waived my fee.
Jerry found me moments after I entered and began promoting the ring fights with the same gusto as Don King.
"We got the kids, we got the grown-ups, we got everything you could possibly think of for a frinkin' wrestling match under the bridge," Jerry said.
After pushing through a crowd of about 300 people, I found myself standing ringside at a tag-team match featuring Nikolai Volkoff, 68. Volkoff is apparently a legend in the professional wrestling world, where he often performed as a villainous Russian despite his Croatian origins.
I polled Volkoff about the presidential election after his own victory and he declared his allegiance to Donald Trump. "Hillary for jail," Volkoff said.
Nearby stood the mayor of Homestead, Betty Esper. Mayor Esper, 82, was about three feet shorter than Volkoff, but her personality was just as large. Esper has served as the town's mayor since 1990. This was her second year attending "Brawl Under the Bridge." Last year, she said she picked a fight with a wrestler but "he was too chicken."
"I've always been a Hillary fan. With all the negatives about her, she has the brains to run this country," Mayor Esper said. She had fighting words for Donald Trump, "He's a phony."
During a lull in the match, the announcer invited me to jump into the ring to take an informal survey of the crowd. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton received equally loud boos. My survey was cut short when the "Face of Pittsburgh" leaped onto the platform and declared himself as a third-party presidential candidate.
The fighting continued and escalated until the ultimate "Ambulance Match" at around 10 p.m. The loser left in a ambulance. Representatives for the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) said they look forward to hosting "Brawl Under the Bridge III" next summer. I'll be there.
'Election Cycle' Hitches a Ride With the 'Nuns on the Bus' on Route to the DNCJuly 25, 2016Koenigs was on route to the DNC today when his prayers for a break from the hot sun were answered by a bus of nuns.
A group of Catholic nuns who are taking a bus across the country to raise awareness about economic and social inequality in the U.S. spotted Koenigs cycling in the hot, humid weather. Like Koenigs, the nuns were traveling from the GOP convention to the Democratic National Convention and offered him a ride for part of the way along with some of their views on the 2016 election.
"We're taking our message to both conventions that we the people need to heal, and that means talking to each other, not yelling at each other," said Sister Simone Campbell, the tour's leader and executive director of NETWORK, the Catholic lobbying group sponsoring the trip. "In both parties, there's division and polarization."
While Republicans struggle to unite in support of a Donald Trump presidency, Bernie Sanders supporters are fuming over internal Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks that appear to show party officials strategizing on how to impede the Vermont senator's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.
The nuns believe their message about inequality transcends politics.
"We know that right now in our nation things are being torn apart by politicization," Campbell told Koenigs. "We're on the road to say 'we're better than that, we can come together,' and what better group to give that message than a group of Catholic sisters?"
Campbell and her fellow nuns deliberately left their religious garb and headpieces at home for their journey.
"We know that in order to be with the people at the margins, we need to look more like them. We need to not be intimidating," Campbell said.
Their aim is to raise awareness about income and wealth inequality in America and to call on elected officials and candidates to address the gaps.
"Our people in the middle class and at the bottom, they're struggling," Campbell told Koenigs. "People don't know that, and so what we have to do is have conversations across those divides."
When it comes to religion and politics, the Catholic sister said she thinks the two should mix. Clinton and Sanders have downplayed their religious backgrounds on the campaign trail while Trump has made clear that the Bible is his favorite book.
Campbell said she prefers for candidates to show their religious values through action rather than words.
"I wish there'd been a follow-up question to ask [Trump] about a book in the Bible that he really likes and see what would happen," Campbell laughed. "It strikes me that he [Trump] wants to be so liked and wants to be the star of everything. It worries me that he's that eager that he would just say what he thinks needs to be said regardless of where he comes from on the inside."
Campbell said she would rather see candidates' "religious values in action. That's what I look for, and I think most Catholics do too."
Pirates & Politics: 'Election Cycle' Takes a Survey in the Baseball StandsJuly 25, 2016
Pedaling From Trump's Podium to Hillary's: Starting Line 'Election Cycle' SpeechJuly 22, 2016The Republican National Convention came to a conclusion on Thursday night, after Donald Trump took to the stage to deliver his speech as the Republican presidential nominee.
So with the end of the GOP convention, it's on to the next one. Over the next few days, I'll bike from the Rock and Roll Capital to the City of Brotherly Love for the Democratic National Convention. From the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly, Hillary Clinton will deliver remarks on the final night of the convention to delegates and supporters.
'Captain America' in Turban Discusses RNC Experience in 'Election Cycle' InterviewJuly 22, 2016While Republican delegates and Republican Party leaders were inside the Quicken Loans arena for the convention, a number of people were gathered outside the Q protesting or showing support.
One cartoonist from New York City, Vishavjit Singh, is dressed as the superhero "Captain America" to start a dialogue on preconceptions about race.
He says his message is of "peace and tolerance."
"My message is really of peace and tolerance and let's start having conversations. That's the key. Because if you judge people, you don't talk to them. My hope is, 'Hey you know what let's start conversations.'"
He argues that his "alter-ego" as Captain America and wearing the red, white and blue superhero suit allows him to be seen in a different light, although he still keeps on his turban and has a beard.
"A lot of times people have a lot of distorted perceptions about turban-bearded people," he said. "So just letting that fear melt away. Captain America powers come in. Start conversations."
Over the past few months, he's felt an increase in hostility toward people who look like him.
"[Trump's] message and the rhetoric that he's been using, and a lot of the underlying racism that's bubbling up, I feel it. I've sensed over the past few months, people have been more emboldened, telling me where to go, calling me names," he said.
Expecting to be met with some animosity at the RNC, he admits he was surprised to find that people, regardless of their political affiliation and beliefs, have treated him rather well.
"It's been quite amazing. People have been just great. A lot of conversations happening," he said. "We might be disagreeing with each other, but it's been really smooth. It's been quite surprisingly smooth.
"The city of Cleveland has been very welcoming and everybody that's here. I'm engaging with a lot of Republicans, a lot of Democrats as well, and they've just been loving," he said, adding, "I haven't really felt the animosity towards me."
Top-Selling Republican Convention Swag in 'Election Cycle' InterviewJuly 22, 2016At the Republican National Convention, there was no shortage of merchandise you could purchase with the American flag or Donald Trump on it. Outside the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the top selling shirt for one vendor is one that reads "Blue Lives Matter." Mainly conservatives have embraced the message as one that shows support for law enforcement.
Another vendor on E. 4th street said he spent $50,000 on his merchandise and travel to the RNC, but had only made $5,000 in sales by the final day because delegates were less interest in Trump shirts and pins than he had anticipated.
"I've got all my money invested in this. I guess I've got to go home and tell the wife and kids that we've got to move out," said the vendor. "It's the worst I've ever seen it. Trump events are [usually] unbelievable."
He had set up shop at 42 previous Trump rallies.
Bike Barricades: Using Cycles for Crowd Control at RNC 2016?July 21, 2016Only minutes after a protester lit a flag on fire outside the security gate of the GOP convention, over a hundred bicycle police stormed into the area. They used the metal frames of the cycles as temporary barricades against the crowd of protesters and media.
It was the most dramatic confrontation seen this week. Seventeen protesters were arrested Wednesday afternoon during an attempted flag-burning. Most were charged with inciting to violence, while two were charged with assaulting an officer.
Bicycle police emerged as the primary means of containing the nearby crowds. Here in Cleveland, two wheels have largely replaced four-legged horses as the first line of defense against street mobs.
Nearly 200 police officers pedal around the perimeter of the Quicken Loans Arena in search of unusual activity and unruly crowds. About half of this force was brought from other cities just for the convention.
They use a series of carefully coordinated tactics to create temporary bicycle barricades, cutting off rowdy crowds and isolating those inciting violence.
In less than an hour, the crowds had largely dispersed. These bicycle patrols will remain at the ready, patrolling for any major protests before Donald Trump's speech planned for tonight.
Assembly Required: Constructing the RNC and 'Election Cycle'July 19, 2016It took the RNC only four weeks to build the staging at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena in anticipation of Trump's nomination Thursday. The set for our "Election Cycle" was a much simpler construction job, requiring just two wheels and a few screws. With traffic in downtown Cleveland backed up because of a maze of security gates and police blockades, this bicycle just might be the fastest way to get around the city.
'Let's Make America Great Again' Song Repeats Trump's Name 311 TimesJuly 13, 2016Emerging from the revolving door of Trump Tower, Freddy Martin looked like he could have worked on any one of its 58 floors. He wore a full suit and tie on an 84 degree July day.Martin, 62, had dressed his best for an unscheduled meeting with Donald Trump.
Martin didn't want to pitch a real estate deal or political strategy; he wanted to sing. As a jazz vocalist from Long Island, Martin took an hour long train into Manhattan to pitch what he hopes will become Trump's theme song for the 2016 Republican Convention. He came to serenade The Donald from the foot of his Tower.
Unfortunately for Martin, Trump was out of town.
But perhaps it's Trump's loss. Martin recognizes that no sound is sweeter to Trump than the sound of Trump's own name. The word "Trump" is repeated 311 times in the course of the three-minute song entitled "Let's Make America Great Again." The song shares Trump's rhetorical knack for repetition and includes only one phrase in its chorus: "Let's Make America Great Again."
With the Republican Convention less than a week away, Martin says he managed to talk to a Trump campaign staffer while waiting in line for a coffee in Trump Tower's Starbucks. He emailed the song to the staffer, but has not yet heard back from the campaign.
"I want this to be the song that Trump walks out to when he goes to make his big speech," Martin said.
Even if Martin's song doesn't make the convention stage, he'll be performing with his jazz band, Freddy Martin & the Martinis, at New York weddings and corporate events throughout the summer.
Pedaling Politicians: The 'Election Cycle' AheadJuly 13, 2016A young John F. Kennedy once said, "Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride."He was just one of a number of U.S. presidents who viewed pedaling as more than just a pastime.
Politicians have used bicycles for everything from diplomatic campaigns to cruising around with their kids. Teddy Roosevelt commissioned the first bicycle police squad in 1895; Ronald Reagan sped around Warner Brothers studio lots on two wheels; George H.W. Bush was known as a "bicycle-riding envoy" for his bike tours of Mao's China; the Clintons and Obamas take beachside rides on Martha's Vineyard; and George W. Bush still hosts an annual mountain bike race at his ranch in Texas.
So instead of covering this year's election from a crowded campaign bus, I've decided to keep up with the presidential race on a bicycle. It will give me the freedom to break off from the pack of reporters and seek stories on less trodden paths.
I'm planning to bike 500 miles from the Republican Convention in Cleveland to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Along the way, I'll pedal with politicians and the people who can put them into office. I'll hit the brakes frequently to hear what struggling students, farmers, teachers, small business owners and others have to say about the issues confronting them.
As I pedal through America's streets and fields, I hope to gain a better understanding of the problems facing our country and what path ahead might have the least number of potholes.
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