An American in Olyphant

Olyphant's faux train station, built in the '90s and but one example in a town where many things are not as they appear.
Olyphant’s faux train station, built in the ’90s for a town with no access to passenger rail service, is one of many things in the borough that are not as they appear. (This photo is way too nice to have been taken by the author.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in my hometown, Olyphant, Pa. And I’m still here. I used to think of Olyphant as the nonpareil among Lackawanna County municipalities—until about seven years ago when I read in the paper that police had ferreted out a crack house a few blocks from my home (at least we never had a meth lab like our neighbor to the south, Throop).

Still, Olyphant is a pretty special place. When I took my friend Ed to see the town, he observed with excitement that it had a main street. He had never seen a town with a main street before, he told me. How quaint.  Ed’s hometown of Laurel, Md., was just “suburban sprawl,” he told me, dotted with housing developments and shopping centers amid undeveloped land—clusters of buildings connected by a network of winding roads.

Indeed Olyphant has a main street. And we have two pizza shops, an art studio, a first-rate music store, a flower shop, a factory, a bank and a copper bust of a beleaguered coal miner. We also have what I like to call the “traffic lights to nowhere.” (More on that in a another blog or Facebook post.)

Olyphant is also known for its heavy artillery. The borough of roughly 5,000 has a WWII-era cannon in one of its parks, and there’s a decommissioned tank, which looks like it was from Desert Storm, on the side of one of the roads. (Ed tells me it’s pretty alarming when you go around a bend and spot a tank on the side of the road. For my part, I’m inured to the sight of heavy artillery alongside busy thoroughfares. It’s normal, a fact of everyday life.)

We also have a large number of churches and bars, with a church-to-bar ratio that suggests we’re perhaps more plastered than pious.

Oh! I almost forgot: Olyphant is also, putatively, the center of the universe. You, the reader, may not be aware of it. This may be your first time learning this secret. I envy you.

Yes, Olyphant is the seat of power in our vast, unfathomable world. Olyphant is everywhere (and nowhere?). The universe is replete with Olyphant, shot through with Olyphant. Olyphant is being. Being is Olyphant. Or Olyphant is nothing? I’m veering off into terra incognita. Sorry. This sort of stuff is not in my baileywick.

This sort of speculation is, however, the province of people like John Peruka, who claims to have unearthed aboriginal secrets about the town and its centrality within the cosmos. The town is saturated in occult symbolism, he claims. His theory involves ancient Egyptians and aliens. In short, this man was an ancient alien theorist before it was cool.

In a YouTube video I discovered today, Peruka debates Justin Vacula, of the NEPA Freethought Society, and Kenny Luck, author of the book “Nepatized,” about the origins of the universe and the definition of matter—lofty questions for the local big box bookstore, Books-a-Million.

Peruka contends that matter is constituted by “pyramids of light.” But don’t take his word for it. “It’s on the Internet” is Peruka’s constant refrain (I think, however, that he put it there, so maybe there’s some circularity in his argument). I do enjoy that in the video he’s dismissive of the mere “earthlings”—Vacula and his ilk—who can’t grasp his theories. And I do like his populist leanings when it comes to scientific fact: If a large number of people believe a notion, it is ipso facto true, he asserts. Although, I must admit, he is a bit equivocal on this matter: He possesses the secret knowledge, the gnosis, because he was preordained by God to do so, but the veracity of his ideas is born out by the large number of hits he gets on his website (truth by democracy). The scientific establishment, on the other hand, has ignored Peruka’s claims, he says. I must admit, this man’s arguments are often hard to parse.

He and Vacula talk past each other for the most part, probably because their views are incommensurable, coming from two diametrically opposed standpoints.

I do agree with Peruka about one thing: The perimeter of Olyphant, when traced out, resembles a sphinx. My father and I were aghast when we discovered this one day at the University of Scranton Library. He was right, we exclaimed.

The sphinx in Olyphant is Olyphant, he says in the video. This idea strikes me as akin to one of Borges’ ideas about the relation between map and territory. Borges argues that the most accurate and detailed map of a territory is the territory itself. The signifier and the signified are one and the same. Mind blown.

Peruka might be more interesting if he wrote fiction rather than peddled his ideas as fact. I am impressed that among the legions of people proffering these so-called crazy ideas, his ideas get a lot of traction. Why? My theory is that he’s a relentless marketer. I’ve heard so many anecdotes from people who have been accosted by a man who wants to talk about the mystery of Olyphant. If you Google, “mystery of Olyphant,” your search will return a surprisingly large number of results relating to Peruka’s theories. Even the borough’s website has a page devoted to the mystery.

The beauty of ideas like his is that they’re not falsifiable, which means we can’t disprove them—despite the vigorous efforts of those indomitable NEPA freethinkers and their counterparts around the world. These people think they can use science as a bludgeon and beat competing metaphysical theories into submission. Well, they can’t—because Peruka’s claims are not within science’s purview, so science cannot prove or, more importantly, disprove them.

John Peruka 1. NEPA Freethinkers 0.


‘She was unstoppable’

30th Street Station platform, Philadelphia, Pa. Clarks Green woman was a globetrotter who never forgot her hometown.

By Gerard Nolan

Phyllis Dietrich left an indelible mark, not only in the Abingtons, but in places as far-flung as the North African nation of Morocco.

Described by family and friends as outgoing, energetic, generous and courageous, Dietrich, who died May 24, crammed what seemed like several lifetimes into her 85 years.

A resident of Clarks Green since the 1950s, Dietrich engaged with the local community, volunteering with several church and civic organizations. She didn’t stop there, though.

Her travels spanned a large swath of the globe to places such as China, the Amazon jungle, Russia, Peru, Israel, Egypt and a flight over the Arctic Circle. She visited 6 out of 7 continents, every U.S. state and just about every nation in Europe.

“Take the whole map and photocopy it and there you go,” her son Richard Dietrich, the youngest of Dietrich’s five children, said of his mother’s travels. “She started out small, but it just grew,” he said.

Domestically, she preferred to travel by car when she could, taking road trips throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“That’s the way to do things,” he said, explaining that taking in the breathtaking vistas through a car window was essential for his mother.

With each state or nation that she visited, Dietrich would try to find a decorative bell to take back with her. The bells decorated her home, testaments to her widespread journeys.

During her travels, she negotiated the rapids of the Colorado River, trekked through the Amazon rainforest and rode elephants and camels.

Dietrich’s friend and neighbor Martha McAndrew was always impressed with her friend’s fearlessness.

She relayed a story about the time Dietrich’s children took away her ladder, afraid that she might fall and become injured. Undeterred, Dietrich climbed onto her roof to string up the lights.

“You just couldn’t stop her,” McAndrew said. “She was unstoppable. She had total energy at all times.”

McAndrew recounted numerous other times when Dietrich would display the boldness that became one of her trademarks.

She wasn’t afraid of bears, for example. One morning she saw a brown bear lumbering through her neighborhood. She went inside to grab a camera, but the bear moved on before she could snap a photo.

A few years later, a pit bull attacked a neighbor and Dietrich rushed to the neighbor’s aid while the attack was in progress. And a few weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, Dietrich didn’t let fear of terrorism thwart her plans to visit China.

“There’s loads of guys that would not do half of what she did,” McAndrew said. “She was adventurous, she’d do anything.”

Dietrich had her first experience with airplanes when she was five and flew in a plane, McAndrew said, noting that that was in the 1930s, when air travel was still in its infancy. Flying as a child sparked a lifelong fascination.

During WWII, she wanted to join the civil air patrol, the civilian arm of the U.S. Air Force, so she could deliver warplanes after they were manufactured. She was rejected because of less than perfect vision. At 70, she skydived out of an airplane for the first time, the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Perhaps one of her bravest moments was when she joined the Peace Corps at 59 and moved to the North African country of Morocco for two years to assist in the development of a sign language system for the children there. The project lasted two years, but she forged a lifelong bond with the nation and its people. Each summer she would visit and return home with a group of Moroccan children in tow.

“She took them all over the place, I didn’t realize this,” her youngest son said.

She took the children to various points of interest in America, including Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, he added.

Her globetrotting to remote destinations tells only part of her story. She never lost sight of her hometown, Clarks Green, and the region at large.

She raised five children, daughters Diane, Donna and Carol; and sons, Robert and Richard. At 36 she attended college at Marywood University, then Marywood College, and graduated with a degree in special education with an emphasis on helping speech and hearing-impaired students. She began her teaching career at 42, working for NEIU as a special education teacher. Each summer she attended camps for hearing-impaired children.

Dietrich taught Sunday school at Clarks Green United Methodist Church for 55 years. And she volunteered at several nursing homes, as well as the Griffin Pond Animal Shelter, where she adopted all of her pets. She also worked with the animal shelter to bring animals to local nursing homes for pet therapy.

She helped organize a bake sale for a church she did not attend, the United Methodist Church in Chinchilla, because her own church did not sponsor a bake sale.

“She’d haul all the supplies and bake all of the cookies and sell them for the benefit of another church,” McAndrew said.

She was also a member of Colonial Dames of the XVII Century, a group of women who trace their lineage back to the American colonists. She was a founding member of a Clarks Green neighborhood group called Friends Interested in the Neighborhood Environment, F.I.N.E., which works to promote relations among neighbors and hosts an annual picnic.

Dietrich put a premium on education, attending The University of Scranton for a master’s degree after she retired. She was always marshaling people in the neighborhood to attend classes and educational seminars, McAndrew said. And she was the first to welcome a new neighbor to the neighborhood.

She was very outgoing and people loved her, her son said.

“She was always welcomed wherever she went.”

This article originally appeared July 25 in The Abington Journal. Original post:,180733