There's a Czech bakery, deli, and gas station combo in tiny West, Texas, that's world-famous for serving up fruit kolaches and hot chubbies to locals and tourists driving on I-35 between Dallas and Austin, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last 29 years. Last night was no exception. In the wake of the massive explosion and fire that rocked a fertilizer plant just three miles down the road, Czech Stop kept its doors open—and the kolaches coming—almost without interruption.
"I rushed up there after it happened because one of my employees said the ceiling was falling in," says Barbara Schissler, president of the Czech Stop empire, who's worked there since it opened in 1983. "One of our freelance carpenters recommended that we close the doors, but when I showed up, I saw only the ceiling tiles were buckling, so I reopened. The only thing we did was cut the gas pumps, because we were expecting another blast."
When the plant exploded at 8 p.m., there were about seven employees on shift. Fifteen minutes later, fire trucks and police cars started rushing down the street to the site of the accident. Not long after, injured victims started walked in.
"Two women in a truck stopped by. One's leg was bandaged and bulging, and she had a few cuts on her arms and legs," says Schissler. "I don't know why they decided to stop here first. When you're in shock, you're not always thinking. We did whatever we could to make them feel comfortable, gave them ice water." Several more people with cuts and bruises stopped by through the night, but Schissler said her usual customers were missing. "All the bakery regulars were out there on the scene, helping out."
In the morning, Czech Stop was ready to help first responders who stopped by, donating cases of water and handing out free food and drink. The store is also planning on donating baked goods to the Red Cross.
Like many local bars, diners, and coffee shops in many other towns rocked by calamity, Czech Stop has transformed virtually overnight into a hub of refuge. After December's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the owners of Blue Colony Diner fed hundreds of volunteers, policemen, firefighters, and first responders, earning the nickname "The Food Angels." The morning after Hurricane Sandy struck, David T. Holmes III turned It's a Wrap, his lunch cafe in Plainfield, New Jersey, into a relief station for 10 days, offering victims free coffee, soup, power, and a place to sleep. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Joann Guidos kept Kajun's Pub open so that "the lonely and broke would not endure the ordeal alone." Homeowners fleeing the deadly June 2012 wildfires in Colorado congregated at Bob's Coffee Shop in Laporte, to figure out, over danishes, where the megafire was headed next.
A Jalopnik writer from Texas says when he first heard about the West Fertilizer explosion, his first thought was whether anyone was hurt. His second thought was whether the Czech Stop was okay. "It's no surprise that, when I turned on the local news last night, the news producers had thought to call the Czech Stop and put an employee on the air," he wrote. "It's what everyone knows."
This tiny community of around 3,000 boasts a remarkably vibrant and long-standing Czech heritage. In 1859, a popular Czech reverend immigrated to Galveston to minister to German Protestants, and many of his compatriots followed. By 1990, almost 300,000 Texans claimed some Czech ancestry according to the Texas State Historical Association, seeding this part of Texas with Eastern European languages, cultures, and cuisines. "Most notably, the Czech pastry 'kolache' (pronounced koh-law-chee) is still served today in restaurants and rest stops from Columbus near Houston all the way up to West," says Jalopnik's Hardigree. "It's a soft, sweet dough filled with some fruit, cheese, chocolate or some mixture of all of those. It's fantastic."
Czech Stop has been a fixture in town since it was opened in 1983 by Bill Polk, a former marine who bought the shop from a national chain and took it over with one employee, a small menu of sausage kolache, and a handful of fruit and poppy seed pastries. Its got lots of Czech neighbors in town. There's Picha's Czech-American Restaurant, known for its sausages and kraut. You can pick up a kroje at Maggie's Fabric Patch, a dress traditionally worn by Czechs and Slovaks at communions, weddings, and funerals. A Czech-language radio station broadcast from here until just a few years ago. West is also home to a branch of Sokol, a Czech organization that started in Ennis, Texas with a mission to help young community members become leaders through the practice of gymnastics.
Today some 75 percent of the town can claim some Czech origin according to Radio Praha, the Czech Republic's state radio station. Today, the Czech Ambassador to the United States is scheduled to visit West in a show of support and solidarity."The Czech authorities and the media are closely watching the latest news from this little outpost of Czech life in Texas," writes Radio Praha reporter Rob Cameron. West's mayor, Tommy Muska, agrees. "It's a lovely little town. Everybody's got a Czech last name it seems," he said. (Muska's Czech, too.) Author and journalist Brendan McNally, who grew up in Dallas but now lives in Pelhřimov with his family, tells Radio Praha that Czech Stop’s kolaches put West on the map.
Last night's tragedy has hit close to home in more ways than one: The bakery's office manager lived three blocks away from the fertilizer plant, and lost her house to the explosion. But Schissler and her crew plan to keep serving up kolaches and coffee 24 hours a day, business as usual. "We've never seen anything like this, but we've never closed a single day in 29 years," Schissler says. "You bet we're staying open."
An amendment proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to require background checks for commercial gun sales (but not for sales between "friends and neighbors") was shot down Wednesday afternoon in a 54-46 vote, failing to capture the 60 votes it needed to advance. The bill would have been a modest victory for gun control advocates, while ceding numerous concessions to the gun lobby (the NRA initially called it a "positive development.") Nevertheless, only four Republicans voted for the proposal, with 41 voting against it. Five Democrats rejected the proposal as well (Reid was a special case; see below). Standing with families of Sandy Hook victims, President Obama said that "there was no coherent argument for why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics."
More MoJo coverage of the Senate's failed background check bill.
There's still a lot we don't know about Monday's bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We don't know if the bombs were set off by one person or multiple people; we don't know if it was an act of foreign or domestic terrorism; we don't know what the perpetrators(s) look like; we don't know what the motive was. One thing we do know: Many of the initial reports on media outlets on Monday and early Tuesday have proven to be false.
That's inevitable during a breaking news event—and in this case, even some law enforcement officials did more to confuse than to clarify. But one day later, here's a look at some early storylines that have fizzled upon further scrutiny:
1. Cellphone service shut down in Boston. Reported by: the Associated Press, which credited the information to an unidentified "law enforcement official." But cellphone service continued uninterrupted in the city. Verizon spokesman Torod Neptune told Mother Jones the reports were "incorrect," and that service providers were not asked to shut down.
2. Explosions kill 12 people. Reported by: the New York Post. As of 6:58 p.m. on Monday, the tabloid's website was still touting the 12 dead figure on a splash on its website. (It has since been updated.) The Boston Police Department has only confirmed three dead, along with 176 injuries (including 17 people in critical condition).
3. Bombing at JFK library. Reported by: multiple sources, thanks to a series of ambiguous statements from the Boston Police Department. Boston police commissioner Edward Davis said at a press conference Monday that police were investigating a link between an incident at the JFK library and the marathon bombing. Time's Andrew Katz reported on a "possible" device, citing police scanners. By Tuesday morning, the JFK library incident had been officially classified as a "mechanical fire"—as library officials had maintained all along.
4. Saudi national in custody. Reported by: the New York Post, which stated on Monday that a Saudi national had been taken into custody as a "suspect." Although investigators said they were speaking with a Saudi man who was in the United States on a student visa and was being treated for injuries at a nearby hospital, no one has been taken into custody, and at the moment there are no suspects.
5. Five additional incendiary devices found. Reported by: the Wall Street Journal, which initially said that counterterrorism officials had found five unexploded devices around the Boston area—separate from the two detonated bombs. The New York Timesreported three unexploded devices, including one at the corner of St. James and Trinity Streets, and another outside the city in Newton. But the Journal walked back its report quickly and Newton police rebutted the bomb report. On Tuesday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick confirmed that "two and only two explosive devices were found yesterday," although many packages were investigated. "There were no unexploded explosive devices found." Both articles have since been updated.
6. Police have security footage of a "possible suspect." Reported by: CBS News, citing "one law enforcement official." According to a Monday afternoon CBS News report, authorities had found a video of an individual carrying backpacks on Boylston Street minutes before the first explosion. This would be news to the Boston Police Department and the FBI, both of whom say they are still looking for a suspect and have no description of what he or she might look like.
7. Sunil Tripathi did it. Reported by: Dozens of sources, most notably BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, and Reddit—which had zeroed in on the missing Brown University student over the previous 24 hours. But Tripathi's name had never been mentioned on the Boston police scanner prior to the initial reports on Twitter. And just a few hours later, NBC's Pete Williams officially corrected the record, breaking the news that authorities had identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the primary suspects in the bombings. (Tripathi is still missing.)
A Navigators chapter in Los Altos, California, helping restore a redwood grove.
The Boy Scouts of America, which discriminates against gay Scouts, atheists, and families who want to put their sons and daughters in the same scouting program, has seen its membership plummet in the last decade. Many former Scouts have left scouting altogether. But a number of families fed up with BSA policies have found Navigators USA—a small organization that "welcomes all people…no matter what gender, race, lifestyle, ability, religious or lack of religious belief" and has seen its chapters (comparable to Boy Scout troops) double in the last year.
"We knew the Boy Scouts excluded gays when we started, but we thought that was one of the old, outdated rules on its way off the books," says Bryan Freed, whose family switched from the Boy Scouts to a Navigators chapter in Los Altos, California, after the Boy Scouts publicly reaffirmed their ban on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters in July 2012. "We told our 8-year-old son, Nathan, what we thought of the official BSA rule on excluding gays, and we let him decide."
The Navigators originated from BSA Troop 103 in East Harlem, which was also the first troop in America that was started in a shelter serving homeless families. After the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Boy Scouts could bar gay troop leaders in June, 2000, Navigators founder Robin Bossert, who was leading the Harlem troop at the time, said he stayed in the organization for three more years, "while I tried to see if it was going to be possible to change their policy from within." When he realized this wasn't going to happen, he pulled out of BSA and Troop 103 became Navigator Chapter 1.
In March, 2012, the Navigators had 19 chapters, but today, there are about 45 chapters across 21 states, according to Tony Porterfield, a chapter leader in Los Altos. Bossert adds that they are growing at a rate of about two chapters per month, with each chapter having an average of 8-12 children, so he estimates that there are up to 600 boys and girls enrolled in the program. For the most part, Navigators participate in the same kinds of activities that Boy Scouts do: camping, organic farming, hiking, tie-dying, excursions to museums, and community service. Freed says the only event his son misses from the Boy Scouts is the Pinewood Derby, where scouts build and race model cars. (Freed points out that "as a parent doing much of the work on it, I do not miss it.")
But there is one big difference: the Navigators' Moral Compass (left), which expresses the group's philosophy that members shouldn't be discriminated against over gender, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Bossert says the organization has openly gay chapter leaders, as well as board leaders and co-members.
"We wanted our two sons to take part in scouting [and] we wanted to do that within an organization that reflects our family's values," says Porterfield. "Inclusiveness and respect for others is part of the Navigators program and something we discuss directly with our children."
Porterfield, who was a Cub Scout as a boy, notes that in the Navigators, LGBT issues are covered in age-appropriate language, with the conversation focusing on the importance of treating everyone with respect. When Freed asked his son which organization he wanted to join, he says he phrased the question like this: "Gay people are men who want to marry men, or women who want to marry women. Most families have one mommy and one daddy, but that is not always the case. And the Boy Scouts do not let gay people join their group."
There are other alternative organizations to the Boy Scouts, both faith-based and secular, but the Navigators are among the biggest. They nonetheless still have a long way to go before catching up with the Boy Scouts numbers: Deron Smith, spokesman for the Boy Scouts, tells Mother Jones that there are about 2.6 million members (there were 2.7 million members in 2012, and 2.8 million in 2011.)Since 1999, membership to the Boy Scouts has declined by about a third. In the last year, the Boy Scouts have also faced dropped funders, angry pop stars, and most recently, a California bill that would make the organization ineligible for tax breaks because of its discriminatory policy against gay members. The organization will vote on whether to overturn its ban on gay members in May, but even if the ban is overturned, individual troops will still be able to discriminate.
"We can't discuss other organizations," says Deron in response to a question about whether participants unhappy with the ban should choose the Navigators over the Boy Scouts. But he adds that BSA aims to "create an environment where people who may disagree on a variety of topics can still work together to achieve life-changing benefits to youth through its program."
"I'm skeptical that any other organization can replace the century of tradition and refinement that the BSA has enjoyed," adds Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian mothers, and founder of Scouts for Equality, which is advocating for the Boy Scouts to lift its gay ban. "We'd prefer that the BSA return to its core values of mutual respect and religious freedom, but fully understand that other folks don't want to wait."
When I arrive at the 9:30 club in Washington, DC, where the Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit is setting up for a sold-out show, frontman Scott Hutchison and his brother, drummer Grant Hutchison, are Skyping with their mom. They have been on a cross-country tour since early March and they haven't shaved, but they're still managing to be cheerful, dutiful sons. "On my day off, though, I like to get a prostitute and have some coke," Grant jokes after they get off the call. "Actually we're very boring; we like to read and go the cinema," Scott adds. "We're on a bus so often, it's nice to just lie in a bed, spread out, androlllll" (which might explain their bed-head, not to be confused with the "we spent two hours making our hair look fashionably disheveled" kind.)
Frightened Rabbit—that's what Mrs. Hutchison used to call Scott, because he didn't like playing with other kids—is known for writing beautiful, aggressively bleak songs, often plotted around Scott's most-recent breakup. "Poke," from the 2008 record Midnight Organ Fight, includes such uplifting lyrics as "why won't our love keel over as it chokes on a bone?...Or should we kick its cunt in and watch as it dies from bleeding?" (The c-word is used pretty commonly in Scotland.) State Hospital, the band's 2012 EP, has a track that tells the story of a man sitting alone in his apartment on Boxing Day, clad in boxers, drinking like a fish, and staring at the phone: "I can't call you all mine anymore, I can't call you, full stop. But you know you can call me up anytime, call me whatever the fuck you want."