Genesis of a Fiction Chapter

Bill Burkett
10 min readMar 17, 2023

Eisenhower Statue at Gettysburg College. From Gettysburg tourist promotion.Used to illustrate a “State of Control” chapter called Saturday in Gettysburg: “He turned alongside Gettysburg College with its weathered statue of Eisenhower. He liked the kindly visage the sculptor bestowed on the quail-shooting, golf-loving general who led armies of the Free World against Hitler, then defeated the scholarly Stevenson in a long-ago presidential contest.”

The Gettysburg scene came to me when I located the home of one of my fictional wrongdoers on an Adams County apple farm. I remembered the area from when I was a newpaper reporter. I’d spent days, once upon a time, in Gettysburg and Adams County, digging into shenanigans of real-life wrongdoers. Recreational land-development schemes were thick on the ground back then. Almost every one of them was crooked, buying up apple farms and pastureland, selling a dream of a place in the country for urbanites.

I was drawn into the conflict the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. History shows a Wisconsin senator named Nelson, worried about the environment, toured a 1969 Santa Monica oil spill sliming the “postcard” beaches of California. He was outraged the oil company had been allowed to operate without safeguards — and there was no legal recourse for the destruction. But he was impressed by how many people showed up to get dirty cleaning the beaches. Flying back to DC, he read a magazine story about campus antiwar demonstrations across the nation.

Maybe he had an epiphany. He is credited as father of the first Earth Day, encouraging the same energy and tactics used against the Vietnam war, now it was winding down. Newspapers say over 20 million showed up nationwide to do so.

What history does not tell me is whether he knew, or was a Washingon neigbor of, Dagmar Perman.

(Parenthetically, within three months Richard Nixon by executive order established the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and enforce national pollution legislation. By the end of the year Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. Parenthetically, these were two of six major environmental-protection actions credited to him by no less than “Treehugger” Magazine. But this is Dagmar’s story.)

My bushy-headed old Harrisburg managing edtior had become convinced, on what I considered short evidence, I was his new “go-to” investigative reporter. So he told me to sign out a car and go find out what the hell was going on in Gettysburg. If he mentioned “earth day” I don’t recall. To me, it was an excuse to get out of the office. Almost like a day off. I celebrated in a West Shore Howard Johnson’s offering an all-you-can-eat lunch. No recall of the food, just that it was satisfying and — eventually — filling.

I’d dawdled long enough. Time to deal with Gettysburg. Dagmar was not the first person I met there, though I came to understand she must have put a bug in my editor’s ear.

My first stop was the Gettysburg weekly newspaper. Any out-of-town reporter will tell you to hit the local guy first; he knows the ground and the hidden land mines. Dan Mangan, the local reporter, was a font of information. Big Charlie Rist was in town; he’d bought up hundreds of rural acres, stopped only by running up against the Battlefield boundary. Charnita was the development’s name, for Charles and Nita, his wife.

Lots were being platted out and sold to city dwellers wanting a country place. A fancy clubhouse already was in place, serving lunches and sales pitches; artist’s renditons of golf courses and swimming pools lined the walls. Rist believed he would double the Adams County population, need his own zip code — and police. Dan referred me to the local State Police detachment, headed by a corporal so impressed by Big Charlie he’d run him for wants and warrants. Nothing actionable, he told me sadly. But no way was he getting his own police force.

Finally Dan led me to Dagmar, Rist’s sworn opponent. He was destroying the landscape, drying up creeks, polluting the aquifer! First time I’d heard the term aquifer — far from the last. Well, she was a college professor after all. And so much more. Her accent — Czech as it turned out — reminded me of Zsa Zsa Gabor (Hungarian).

Her Adams County neighbor and henchman in opposing Rist was a life-long Adams County apple farmer working acres in his family a long time. One of Rist’s bulldozers clearing putative property lines for vacation homes had created a massive mudslide down a hill and onto their land.It wasn’t clear my first visit whether her land or his had been inundated. Maybe both. But the mudslide got their attention.

Bad idea to get Dagmar’s unfavorable attention. She and her henchman sued in local court. The suit died. Charnita kept right on. Along came Earth Day, and Dagmar saw her chance to draw outside attention.

My first front-page story below the fold showed my old editor’s skill: headline called it a “new battle of Gettysburg.” Which evidently caught the eye of other editors. Next time I was in Gettysburg, Rist was holding a press conference. Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Washington Post. Others I don’t recall. He staged a big lunch for us. I was astonished at the rudeness of big-city reporters demanding he take payment and provide a receipt. Not the way we did things down South where I broke in; reporter meals were always comped.

By the time Big Charlie got to me it was clear he felt terrible. “I guess you need a receipt too…” he began.

“Charlie, no. I accept your courtesy. If you think buying me lunch protects you, you need to find another line of work.”

Rist was amazingly well connected. A local bank president, also senior GOP state senator, got the bank to buy Charnita “commercial paper” at one hundred precent on the dollar — unheard of. Charnita was a Wall Street darling. Unknown: the senator was a Charnita silent partner. Unknown until I uncovered it. After which he telephoned me to suggest I was making no friends in Pennsylvania and needed to go away. My salty old editor refused me permission to publish the conversation. Not relevant until we find your body.

For me, Charnita was just the start on recreational-land scams. The Pocono Mountains were infected too. Any rural Pennsylvania within reasonable driving distance of the East Coast urban spawl was a target. After I did an undercover bit with the director of Consumer Protection (pretending to be my wife) and her assistant attorney general (our college son) I wrote a five-part series than ran for a week. The only time I saw a legislative committee wait to convene each day until delivered the paper, then quiz witnesses about facts in my stories.

But Dagmar upstaged me. She showed up to testify and removed from a paper bag quart-bottles of filthy water she said were from Adams County wells. Invited the legislators to drink if they believed it safe for human consumption. No takers of course.

Don’t remember the chronology, but her court case became active again. I beat that road to Gettysburg. Dan Mangan had talked about being excluded from testimony. This time I watched the judge exit his chambers — followed by Big Charlie.

At some point the judge decided on a site-viewing and court recessed. I followed the cars. Soon as they turned into the property, Charlie’s lawyers parked across the entrance to block me. But I was in my personal rig that day, F-250 Ford Pickup. So I just turned into the ditch, bumped across, and went around them. Dagmar said later she was delighted to see my big blue truck “like a charger!” coming to observe the goings-on. Later her apple-farmer co-plaintiff filled my truck’s dual tanks from his farm pump; at ten miles to the gallon highway I was afraid of running dry. I didn’t pay him for the gas either.

Thinking about Gettysburg, I looked up Dagmar. And found her obituary. Always an unpleasant shock. More common the longer you last. She died in 1978, which seems far too young. Eight years after she launched her “new battle of Gettysburg.”

Per the obit, “Mrs. Perman earned national attention in the early 1970s when she helped organize a group of southeastern Pennsylvania citizens in a legal fight against Charnita Inc., a land development company then thriving in that area. Mrs. Perman, along with her husband, Dr. Gerald Perman, Washington psychiatrist, owned property near the Charnita operation.

“The group contended that Charnita was heedless of local and national laws involving fair trade practices and land development…By the time Mrs. Perman was finished with Charnita, the Federal Trade Commission had ordered it to offer refunds to hundreds of customers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered an indefinite ban on the sales of lots. The operation eventually went bankrupt….”

Of course no newspaper is going to credit another newspaper with finishing off Charnita. The bank fired its president when they discovered his secret connection to Charnita was behind his buy recommendations. Charnita the corporation did in fact go bankrupt. But it had one last gasp: to sell the whole mess to a Florida real-estate empire. Under corporate laws, no mud would adher to Ft. Lauderdale. They would pay no refunds, honor no debts. They would be free to address FTC and HUD concerns in their own way. The state assistant attorney general for consumer affairs had been tracking Rist’s every move. Did he have the State Police wiretap him? Didn’t ask. Because he told me about the telephone deal to get Rist out from under and the new “clean” Florida corporation into Gettysburg.

So I called Ft. Lauderdale and asked to speak to the boss who agreed to the deal. He took my call immediately. Said he’d been reading about the Gettysburg mess. Had high hopes to create a first-class development. I frankly said I don’t trust anyone who bails Charlie Rist out, so I’ll be living in your hip pocket until you prove yourself. So will state Consumer Affairs, though they can’t make calls like this. So help me, he uttered a kind of sigh. The message I’m getting is Charnita is not a good idea. Good thing nothing is signed yet….

So with all due humility I feel as if I drove the final stake in Charnita’s feebly thumping hopes.

Dagmar makes a better heroine. And she did get me to Gettysburg to start with. Her obit: “One of the ironies throughout the Charnita struggle was that some of her opponents characterized Mrs. Perman as ‘a Commie.’ Actually, Mrs. Perman had fled her native Czechoslovakia in 1948 at the onset of the communist takeover there. She was on board the last plane to leave the country before the borders were closed….

Now that’s a real heroine. She studied all over the U.S. and was a teacher at Georgetown when I knew her. I would swear she told me once real Commies stood her parents against a wall, demanding her whereabouts as a known student agitator, as she hurried to the last plane out. My perhaps- fallible memory says they refused to rat her out and were shot on the spot. But her obit lists her mother as a survivor. In 1978, the year of her death, I was three jobs away from Harrisburg, in Arizona, getting ready to move to a fourth in Washington State.

The corrupt state senator had died of a reported heart attack not long after his bank fired him. My editor sent me a copy of his obit and said they pinned it to the newsroom bulletin board as my final reporter’s “kill.” But in years since, when I visited back there I had to cross a Susquehanna River bridge named for the senator. No monuments pour moi. C’est la vie.

I actually viewed the unveiling of the Eisenhower statue for my newspaper. I interviewed the scuptor. From my notes at the time:

“I was interviewing a modest sculptor in a faculty break room at Gettysburg Community College that morning. He was as muscled and bearded as those early Technicolor strongmen who played Samson and Hercules and other roles that gave them an excuse to bare as many muscles on screen as possible. Even covered in conventional casual attire, his form, and the craggy countenance above it, was a magnet for the eyes of every distaff member through the door. Some men would have preened. He didn’t even notice.

“His gaze was focused out the window on a woman old enough to be his grandmother. She was holding the end of an ornate cord that secured a tarp shrouding a sculpture about to be unveiled: his work, memorializing her late husband. He wanted to see her first instant of reaction to the unveiling in her face, that unhidable tell, before she went into the public mode of graciousness for which she was well known.

“Mamie Eisenhower pulled the cord. The cameras flashed. The crowd outside applauded. The gracious speeches began. The sculptor nodded to himself, once, crushed his cardboard coffee cup and flipped it into a wastebasket.

“‘She liked it,’ he said, and left the room.

“Dwight David Eisenhower in stone, slightly larger than life, slightly stooped, gazed sightlessly over the campus to which he had devoted time in his twilight years. The genius of the sculptor had captured the well-known stance perfectly. Ike had a way of looking relaxed in mufti that somehow underlined his life as a career soldier and General of the Armies….”

Ike comes back to Gettysburg for all the world to see, my favorite managing editor headlined my story the next day.

All a long time ago. When I set my “State of Control” novel in the 90s, and chose Pennsylvania as the focal point, I needed a rural town near the capitol for the chairman’s abode. Instead of Fife and dessert-grape arbors on land allegedly stolen from Nissei truck farmers when they were put in World War Two concentration camps, it became Gettyburg and apple trees. When I sent Keyes down to see the chairman, I detoured him past Ike’s statue for sentimental reasons.

Never did write a novel about recreational-land scams. It was great newspaper fodder but didn’t translate to drama.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.