Jim Kenyon: Treading carefully after four flat tires raise questions of targeting

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/26/2021 9:35:41 PM
Modified: 6/26/2021 9:35:42 PM

The tire pressure warning light in her Toyota Prius popped up shortly after Sally Tomlinson had finished her shopping in Fairlee.

The 80-year-old Tomlinson, who lives in Orford, drove to a nearby garage, where a mechanic found a razor blade in one of her tires. A puzzled Tomlinson asked herself, “How do you pick up a razor blade in your tire?”

Over the course of the next two months, Tomlinson’s car suffered three more flats. The last one, which occurred earlier this month when a longtime family friend had borrowed the car, resulted in the 2011 Prius skidding into a ditch off Route 25A in Orford. The car was totaled, but the driver, 29-year-old Trevon Flood, wasn’t injured.

Afterward, Tomlinson’s daughter, Senayit, a musician and songwriter, posted on Facebook that she was “having a hard time thinking this is random, as we have BOTH been speaking up against racism in this area, and her Prius is absolutely recognizable with bumper stickers etc.”

On a rainy afternoon last week, I headed to Orford to talk with Sally Tomlinson about the chain of events, which sounded unsettling to say the least.

Tomlinson lives at the end of a dirt road, about 10 miles from the village. She greeted me at the front door, barefoot and wearing jeans. A spider tattoo on the back of her hand poked out under the sleeve of her bulky sweater.

I mentioned to Tomlinson that I had stopped on my way to chat with an Orford resident I see from time to time. He fondly described her as an “old hippie.”

Tomlinson didn’t respond. She just smiled.

Tomlinson grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Princeton University physicist and a day care provider. Tomlinson herself developed Ivy League ties, teaching Chinese as an adjunct professor at Dartmouth at a time when the school was all-male. (Dartmouth didn’t go coed until 1972.)

In the Upper Valley, she met her future husband. Tekle Tomlinson, an Ethiopian political refugee, was working at a short-lived international school in South Royalton started by Anthony Doria, who went on to launch Vermont Law School in 1972.

The couple later moved New York, where they raised their three biracial daughters. Tekle served as director of the New York office for the World Food Programme, a United Nations organization dedicated to fighting hunger and promoting food security.

He arrived in the U.S. in 1962 with “little more than his grandfather’s pocket watch and a desire to eliminate the type of poverty and hunger he had escaped,” The Boston Globe wrote following his death in 2009.

By the time of Tekle’s death at age 76 after a lengthy illness, the Tomlinsons were entrenched in Orford, where they’d bought a 200-acre farm with a view of Mount Cube in 1975. Over the years, the Tomlinsons became valued members of Orford and the surrounding communities.

On its website, the Rivendell Trails Association credits Sally with coming up with the idea for the Cross Rivendell Trail.

The Rivendell Interstate School District, which consists of Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire and Orford, was still in its planning stages in the late 1990s when she proposed a cross-district hiking trail as a “way to build community between the four towns,” she said. (The 36-mile trail starts on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River in Vershire and ends at the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Cube in Orford.)

The four flat tires — two from punctures in the sidewalls — in two months are testing Tomlinson’s sense of community. “It’s confounding in a way, but it’s beginning to feel a little more coincidental than just bad luck,” she told me. “I’m wondering if it’s political.”

As Senayit mentioned on Facebook, she and her mother have been speaking out against racism. In a recent Vermont Public Radio interview, Senayit talked about “Black trauma” and the “police murders of Black people” that received little attention until a teenage girl recorded the video of a defenseless George Floyd being killed on a Minneapolis street in May 2020.

Last summer, the Tomlinsons began hosting workshops for small groups of social activists who support those who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Sally Tomlinson has racked her brain trying to figure out what might have precipitated the spate of vandalism, or something even more nefarious, from her vantage point.

Maybe someone took offense to the Prius’ equal rights sticker and the “Resist” decal, which The New York Times has described as the “one-word battle cry for the anti-Trump forces.”

Tomlinson thinks back to the letter she wrote to someone in town who was flying a Confederate flag. She didn’t want to come across as confrontational. She just hoped to get the person to think about what the flag represented and the impression that displaying it gave.

She worries that Flood, who is Black, could be a target. Flood, who lives at her house, is a chef who often drives her car to his jobs at two area restaurants.

After the most recent incident, Tomlinson called Orford Police Chief Jason Bachus. “I’m not sure what to think about this,” she told him.

Bachus stopped by the auto repair shop to look at two of the blown tires. He noted their worn tread. “I’m not a professional tire expert, but (the flats) were probably due to bad tires,” he told me.

Bachus, who is also the part-time chief in Fairlee, has had “no other reports of possible targeting” or car vandalism, he said.

After talking with the chief, I’m not sure what to think about all this.

But I suspect in the predominantly white Upper Valley it’s still more convenient to dismiss four flats in two months as a run of bad luck than to acknowledge feelings of hatred or bigotry could be in play.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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