In Vermont, a small-town feud leads to a big middle finger (literally)
WESTFORD, Vt. — One day not long ago, Dayl Walther was driving down Vermont’s Route 128, a pastoral stretch of rolling farmland and postcard-perfect views of snowy Mount Mansfield, when something in the distance caught her eye.
A retired school teacher and longtime Vermont resident, Walther is not easily surprised. But what she saw as she approached confounded her.
There, rising from a pole high above a row of cedar trees, was what appeared to be a massive fist, with a single finger — that finger — extending skyward.
In the days since the big digit first appeared, it has been the source of much consternation in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of 2,000 situated in the Champlain Valley. Was it some kind of political protest? Senior prank? Neighborly dispute?
The real story, it turns out, might be even better.
It began with a man named Ted Pelkey, a 54-year-old mechanic who on a frigid morning this week stood in his driveway off Route 128 — not far from what has become known here simply as “the finger” — and explained how it came to be.
For the past decade, Pelkey said, he has been attempting to move his business, Ted’s Truck and Trailer Repair, from the town of Swanton, twentysome miles away, to the 11.4 acres on which his home sits in Westford.
The move would not only eliminate his daily 30-minute commute, he said, but save him thousands of dollars a year in rent. It would also require the construction of an 8,000-square-foot building on his property.
As Pelkey tells it, the town initially signed off on the project, but after a handful of neighbors appealed to the state’s environmental court, local officials withheld the permit necessary to begin building.
Town officials did not respond to requests to verify or dispute Pelkey’s account. In any event, Pelkey launched a lengthy and costly battle with the town and the state’s environmental court, which has included another appeal, mediation sessions, and added to the $100,000 in legal fees Pelkey estimates he’s spent over the past 10 years.
Pelkey is a no-nonsense kind of guy — mustache, work boots, first name stitched in cursive on his work jacket. He takes a certain pride in paying for things with real, actual cash — “I’m not getting out my [expletive] American Express to pay for coffee,” he grumbles — and has never met a sentence he didn’t feel could be enhanced by an F-bomb or three.
Anyway, he was sitting at the bar at the LongHorn Steakhouse in Williston one night a couple months back, sipping his Long Island iced tea and brainstorming ways to stick it to the town, when he got to thinking out loud: “Too bad I can’t go buy a big [F-bomb] middle finger and put it on a post out there.”
His wife, Michelle — who over the years has grown used to hearing his outlandish ideas — replied: “Cut it out.”
But Michelle Pelkey also knows her husband. And so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when, soon after, he commissioned a local sculptor — at a cost of $3,000 — to create, from a 7-foot-tall, 600-plus-pound chunk of pine, a single-finger salute.
Pelkey picked up his purchase a few days after Thanksgiving and on the last day in November secured it atop a 16-foot pole in his front yard. It didn’t take long for it to get noticed.
The finger quickly became the talk of the town, from the checkout aisles of the Steeple Market to the dining room at Erica’s American Diner, where the men at the counter wear camouflage and the pancakes are as big as your head.
Priceless, gushed many. Offensive, grumbled a few.
Mostly, though, folks simply seem amused.
“It’s like the Dallas Cowboys’ owner said,” said Bruce Powers, who co-owns JJ’s Place, a pizzeria in neighboring Fairfax. “Any attention is good attention.”
“We oughta capitalize on it,” added Pam Sargent, who works the deli counter at Minor’s Country Store. She proposed printing the finger on T-shirts, along with a slogan: Westford’s Number 1.
Town officials, it might not surprise you to learn, have been less enthralled.
Citing the ongoing litigation between the town and the Pelkeys, Allison Hope, chair of Westford’s three-person selectboard, declined to be interviewed but wrote in a pair of e-mails that “Mr. Pelkey has a history of directing animosity toward town employees and town volunteer boards” and said the ongoing feud is “definitely not a tale of David v Goliath.”
The finger, Pelkey explains, was intended to be only a temporary installation; within a few days of its unveiling, he figured, he’d receive word from the town that it needed to be removed.
But in an unexpected twist, town officials have revealed that because the piece is considered public art, there’s nothing they can do to compel Pelkey to remove it. The Vermont Agency of Transportation has declared the finger out of its jurisdiction, as well, saying a state law banning billboards does not apply because it’s not an advertisement.
The bird, in other words, is free to soar. And it has.
Last Saturday, Pelkey said, more than 100 cars stopped at the property to take photos of the finger — one coming from 80 miles away. Standing in his driveway on a recent morning, meanwhile, he watched a handful of vehicles slow to a stop in front of the finger — a snowplow driver pulled over to snap a photo of the finger, a man named Don Dubie got out to shake Pelkey’s hand.
At one point, Pelkey’s cellphone rang with a number he didn’t recognize.
“Hello?” he answered. “Yes, that’s me.”
Turning to a visitor, he whispered, “CNN.”
Pelkey is hopeful that the recent publicity will prompt town officials to reach a settlement that will allow him to begin building — and if that happens, he said, he will gladly stand down, retiring the finger to his garage or, if his wife allows it, the living room.
Until then, however, he is digging in.
“They’ve drove the bus for a while, and now it’s my turn,” Pelkey said as he looked out at the hulking mass of wood rising from his front yard. “So get in the back seat and let’s go for a ride.”