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Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
An Inspirational Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 22, 2021 -- Maybe it’s the dark winter, a January where isolation has continued, a byproduct of the unremitting onslaught of the coronavirus. Maybe it’s the fact that I fell ill for a couple of days myself -- illness in any form bringing on alarm bells, all things (meaning in particular 400,000 deaths) considered.
Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, the memories have settled in, and especially of one man and the impact and inspiration he brought with him.
I was raised in southeastern Michigan, and part of that upbringing was weekly attendance at an Episcopal church.
I was in the choir when quite young, and then St. Andrew’s Guild, which meant I was an acolyte, garbed colorfully on Sundays in cassock and surplice, leading the choir into the church and down the center aisle to their seating in the chancel -- that area beyond the nave (the rows of congregation pews) where resided the altar, the pulpit, the lectern, minister seating and, in my church, a large pipe organ. Among my duties, I also assisted the rector during such ceremonies as Communion.
I don’t recall where I was baptized, but my Confirmation service came at the aforementioned church, Christ Church Cranbrook, an impressive stone edifice in Bloomfield Hills, near Birmingham and north of Detroit. I remember the building quite well, for I explored its many hallways and (I imagined at the time) secret passageways, including one leading to the bell tower. I was a curious and, I suppose, less than ideal aspirant for religious commitment.
(My mother taught Sunday School there, and I, along with another student, were the least well behaved in her classroom. I remember my mother expelling me one Sunday to the hall outside, I was so disruptive.)
Eventually, despite all that -- and at the behest of my parents -- I was set in my mid-teens to undertake the Confirmation ceremony, not just as an acolyte, but as someone ready (if you can be at such an age) to commit myself more fully to my faith, and I guess to the precepts of the church.
As my Confirmation approached, my parents raised my enthusiasm level by telling me a Bishop would be presiding -- and not just any Bishop, but one I knew, a man who had been the rector at Christ Church Cranbrook through the 1950s (my early church years) and one I knew and deeply respected: one Robert L. DeWitt.
I don’t recall exactly how the DeWitts came into my parents’ world, but a recent check with my brother Bob down in Florida confirmed that my family had been going for a short time to a Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, after we moved there in 1952, but that Mom didn’t like it at that institution and decided on Christ Church Cranbrook -- a chief reason being the presence there of Bob DeWitt.
My brother didn’t recall how, but thought that Mom knew Reverend DeWitt before that. Memory being a tricky thing, my own told me that Bob DeWitt’s brother Bill and my parents had both resided in Auburn, New York. That’s where my parents grew up, and where they met and married. My brother only vaguely recalled Bill DeWitt, but thinks that yes, there might have been an Auburn connection. (An online story I subsequently found, published upon Bill DeWitt’s passing in 2013, confirms he lived in Auburn for quite a few years, but is vague on the dates. Both he and his father are buried there.)
Anyway, whether by reference from Bill DeWitt (who, with his brother, hailed originally from Massachusetts) or through a previous acquaintance with Reverend DeWitt, the move to the Cranbrook church was decided upon as a matter of personal affiliation of some kind. And that’s the place, Christ Church, where I was brought up Episcopalian.
And that’s where I sang in a youth choir, and marched down the center aisle in church garb, and started to come of age -- to the age of Confirmation. By that time, 1964, Bob DeWitt had been gone from Christ Church for four years -- after being named suffragan Bishop of Michigan. Now, for Confirmation, he was coming back to participate in the ceremony -- not long before he was to depart for Pennsylvania, where he had been named Bishop Coadjutor (assistant, with the right of succession). Not long after arriving in Pennsylvania, he became Bishop upon the sudden death of his predecessor.
I felt a natural affinity with Bishop DeWitt, and not just because he had been my church’s rector for a number of years. Perhaps (I think in retrospect) it was because we both had liberal leanings, and perhaps because I -- despite my growing cynicism toward organized religion -- gave at least some thought to the ministry as a valuable (if underpaid) career.
I thought Bob DeWitt -- like his brother Bill -- was cool. While not tall (though to me, as a child, Bob seemed so), the Bishop was (like his brother) something I wished I had been: slender, assured and, well ... adult. Both seemed almost regal, but not stuffy; they had fast, great laughs, healthy senses of humor.
I was, by contrast, short, too round and totally lacking self-assurance.
Eventually I grew and gained some assurance, moving on to college and to marriage while still an underclassman. Then -- a common story -- I lost contact with much of my youthful past as I entered adulthood and left the state of Michigan behind -- including any contact with the church. But I followed Bob’s career for a while. He was Bishop of Pennsylvania for about a decade, a period in which he became fairly well-known for his liberal tendencies, including a desire to see women become ordained as ministers. He also pushed for integration, and opposed the Vietnam War -- all in his quiet, low-keyed, reasonable voice.
(The ordination, eventually, of many hundreds of women in the Episcopal church can be traced back to a stand he and two other bishops took in ordaining 11 of them without the approval of the church. An obituary published upon his death at the age of 87 in 2003 explained: “The ordination occurred in 1974, near the end of Bishop DeWitt's tenure in Philadelphia. He was one of three bishops who ordained a group of women called the ‘Philadelphia 11’ without seeking the blessing of church officials. Although he immediately was denounced by some officials, the action helped lead to the church's 1976 reversal of a ban on women in the priesthood. In 1989, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris became the first female bishop, elected to serve the Massachusetts diocese.” His action “opened doors to thousands of women who have since become priests.”)
He retired from his post in 1973, and became editor for the next eight years of a national ecumenical journal, The Witness. After that, he moved, according to his obituary, to a “small Maine community, Isle au Haut, where he had first spoken from a pulpit. In retirement, he helped lobstermen haul in traps, toss back the little lobsters, and store the larger ones until prices were optimal. He also spent much of his time writing songs.”
That same obituary quoted one of his two daughters (he also had three sons) as saying that while “he often preferred a baseball cap, bluejeans, and knee-high boots around town, he looked regal in full vestments, carrying a shepherd's staff.”
I have discovered (and ordered through the mail) a book he wrote titled Ebb Tide, about his experiences with his wife as she battled Alzheimer’s. (I opted for a used paperback at less than $20, since the only two hardcovers available ran in excess of $700 and $900, respectively.)
Some people, even if only briefly in your life, leave a lasting impression. Occasionally, a person might be so important that his (or her) moral compass becomes a guidepost of your own. Bob DeWitt was such a man for me.
I remember the Confirmation ceremony, at least in generalities, to this day -- again, memory being a tricky thing. Maybe it happened the way I see it; maybe my mind has shaded things, or even manufactured them. But whichever -- accurate or imagined -- I remember kneeling on the steps leading to the altar in Christ Church Cranbrook. I remember it being uncommonly cold in there. I remember Bishop DeWitt as an important component of the service.
Although I’m sure the Rev. Michael Hartney, now retired as the Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Watkins Glen -- a man who also knew Bishop DeWitt -- would likely correct me if I tried on my own to further explain the service, I instead quote an online source, starting with the important “laying of hands.”
“The laying of hands on the candidates by the bishop and the concelebrating priests represents the biblical gesture by which the gift of the Holy Spirit is invoked,” it reads, going on:
“The bishop and the priests who will administer the sacrament with him lay hands upon all the candidates (by extending their hands over them).” The bishop then proceeds with a prayer that includes: “Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding.”
Well, there’s very little I’ve ever fully understood of my belief system (conflicted) or my faith (sometimes fully blown, and sometimes stretched to the point of disbelief and accompanying despair).
But one thing I remember with a sense of surety is the feeling of Bishop Bob DeWitt’s hand upon my head.
I was kneeling, with my head down, so I couldn’t see exactly what was happening above me. That online description indicates the Bishop’s hands and those of concelebrants were held “over” the candidates.
And maybe they were. But in my mind -- and across the years -- I have felt the firm hand of the Bishop on my head, atop my hair. Perhaps it is an imagining; a wanting. And perhaps not.
But that laying on of his hand -- whether spectral or real, or merely an extension of the impact the man had upon me -- has been a guiding influence in all the ensuing years. It has quietly guided me as I considered, on occasion, a role in the ministry. It sustained me as I opposed, as he did, the Vietnam War, a conflict I considered wrong on so many levels. And it guided me as I entered a career, journalism, in which I tried to spread not the word of God, but the truth (as I perceived it) of this life on Earth.
When I think of my religious upbringing, it brings a warmth to me. Was that the result of fervent faith ... that there was a just reward ahead for a life well lived?
Or was it the feeling that comes from having been blessed by someone truly blessed with the love of God? Someone whose personality and integrity and quiet assurance helped transfer that love of God to an accepting young soul?
Bob DeWitt is long gone now, but not really. Not as long as my brain can function -- as long as memory and appreciation of a life well lived exists within me.
I feel like I owe you so much, Bishop DeWitt. If I had achieved, in my chosen profession, just half of what you achieved in yours, I would have considered myself a worthy disciple.
Maybe this testament redeems a little of that existential shortcoming.
I pray so.
Photos in text: Bishop DeWitt; and DeWitt with his family in 1960, when he became suffragan Bishop of Michigan. (Provided)
To Serve Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 1, 2021 -- I’ve started and restarted this column, only to come up dry.
It was supposed to be a retrospective of the year just ending.
But on this January 1, just days after the 18th anniversary of the start of this website, I find that I really don’t want to look back at the year just ended, the nefarious 2020.
Any time such a retrospective has appeared on TV, I've changed the channel. Any time I have attempted to look back myself for highlights, I have only been able to think about all that has been lost.
Well, I did enjoy Dave Barry’s annual look back in the Washington Post, just because he is so irreverent and entertaining. But irreverence doesn’t suit my writing, nor does it suit the mood I have sensed here in Schuyler County.
We considered ourselves very lucky when we saw hardly any coronavirus cases, but now that we’ve topped 530 (out of a county population of just 18.000), that feeling of being invulnerable has pretty much gone blowing in the wind.
From a personal standpoint -- and coming off a semi-annual physical checkup that showed marked improvement in my blood work and blood pressure -- I have to say that the lighter workload created by the pandemic has proven beneficial to my health. I’ve gotten more sleep than when I was assiduously covering high school sports, and I have, with time to ponder such things, restructured the amount of manual labor I do (more) and my diet (decidedly healthier).
But the fact is: I, just like everybody, am going a little crazy with the solitude; with the lack of social interaction. While covering their sporting events was taxing, I miss the kids ... and their parents and the fans and the excitement that comes from a shared love of competition.
Ah, the kids. They're the reason we’re moving forward again this year with the Top Drawer 24 program -- which for the past 15 years has annually honored outstanding high school student-athletes -- although we’ll have to gauge things a little differently: figure out what, in this changed environment, constitutes “outstanding.”
Well, there might actually be a few sports ahead to help us make that determination; I certainly hope so. And it is that glimmer that gives me some optimism as we head into 2021.
In discussing the year past with a friend, he thought I should look back in this column beyond the past year -- back through the 18 years (as of Dec. 29) in which I’ve published The Odessa File -- way back to when I started this site on a dime and a prayer.
He pointed to some highlights (tenacity and durability have led to a substantal number of them), but also thought I should delineate the obstacles I faced along the way -- if only to explain that the odds were perhaps not very high that this thing could succeed. Not being a person who dwells on negatives for long, I see those obstacles as character builders -- things that were bothersome at the time, but which I, looking through my rose-colored glasses, see only as steppingstones. Any experience was one of growth.
As a longtime supporter and cheerleader of this website, my friend nonetheless urged me to at least touch upon those negatives -- not wallow in them -- in order to illustrate the difficulty involved in establishing a small information business and seeing it somehow grow. And I suppose he's right. So I will, for one paragraph:
There were a number of incidents: demeaning comments from an occasional parent or school administrator in person or by email or social media; a telephoned threat against me that prompted a call to law enforcement (threats are unavoidable and unenviable hazards in both journalism and politics, sorry to say); a couple of confrontations with angry readers who accosted me in store check-out lines; false accusations (such as one allegation that parents had to pay to get their kids featured here, a practice that would if true have made me quite wealthy and long since retired); irate calls from dissatisfied readers (usually parents); a refusal by most coaches one year at one school (Odessa-Montour) to contact me with sports results; a ban from the building during school hours at another school (Watkins Glen), and an attempt (quite futile) to ban me from the sidelines of sporting events (O-M again). I experienced a very slow growth in advertising (my chief source of income); have been called everything from "that crazy old man on the corner" (that from an O-M official, referring not only to me, but to my abode down the street from the school) to "yellow journalist" (that from a School Board president in Watkins Glen), and been asked by more than one person: "Who do you think you are?" The answer to that is "nobody, really." But I have certain rights afforded me by the First Amendment. An unfriendly and aggressive reporter asked me in an on-camera interview early in my tenure: "What gives you the right to do what you're doing?" I replied: "The same thing that gives you the right to stick that microphone in my face and ask that question."
I could go on, but the truth is that none of the negatives has amounted to much in my mind when compared to the satisfaction I derive from presenting the news in a county that has too often lacked enough of it. And there is the knowledge that providing a public service is something to be valued from a personal standpoint. I would hate to leave this life without having done something contributory.
There has been some acknowledgment of that along the way.
I’m not award-oriented; for instance, I haven’t submitted anything for trophy consideraton like newspapers do. (I won a bunch of in-house awards while working at USA Today, and captured several state awards over the years while working at the Elmira Star-Gazette and Corning Leader. But those latter two papers, like most, had to submit all sorts of paperwork and quite often a fee to be award-considered on the state level. Such fees do not exist in my budget.)
But what was really nice -- and neither expected nor lobbied for -- were two honors bestowed locally back when I’d been doing this for about five years: a Community Spirit Award from the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, and induction into the Watkins Glen High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Those are measurable achievements. Anything else is an estimate: the number of stories I’ve written over the 18 years, the number of local sports and news photos I’ve published (alas, none paid for by the photo subjects), the number of columns I’ve written, the number of letters I’ve published, and so on. And there is the indefinable nature of how the coverage has impacted life around here, if it has at all.
But really, what it all comes down to for me is this: I have been blessed to be able to do something I love, and to do it for so many years -- weathering a roller coaster of health and finances. I think -- I hope -- that it all has been encouraging ... that the coverage has provided some insights that might otherwise have been missed; and that it has provided the kids on the playing fields and courts and in the pools at O-M and Watkins Glen with something of value through the stories and photos I have produced.
These 18 years have been challenging and rewarding. I’ve tried to turn negatives into positives -- not always successfully, I’m sure; but the effort has been there.
I’m sure, at my age, that another 18 years are out of the question. But as long as I do this, it will be with the best of intentions.
I will continue to try to serve mankind -- not in the Twilight Zone sense of its famous episode To Serve Man, where a book by that title brought here by aliens turned out to be a cookbook, with humans the main course.
I mean it in the other way. No cooking. The serving will be stories and photos, most of them produced by me -- half baked, I'm sure some will say. But always with a little seasoning ... among the condiments a pinch of opinion and a dash of love for Schuyler County.
I’m thinking that perhaps there is a student out there, or perhaps there are two, who might be interested in writing a bi-weekly or monthly column for The Odessa File. Any budding journalists who might be interested? We could discuss it.
Beyond that, perhaps there is someone else out there -- adult aged -- who is interested in writing. Perhaps a wine column. Or an agricultural column. Or a financial column. The legal one we carry from Jim Reed at Ziff Law has been very successful.
These columns would not be tied to specific businesses, but to the general subjects I named, and perhaps one or two others.
We could use some more photography, too. This is a good venue to get your work recognized. For several years we carried regular groupings of photos by Liz Fraboni of Watkins Glen -- 50 such groupings over a half-dozen years. She still provides an occasional scenic shot with her unerring eye for beauty and composition.
And, as always, I invite political leaders -- mayors, the county administrator, our assemblyman -- to write columns whenever the spirit or circumstance warrants. Our State Senator’s office generates one a week.
Should our lives continue in the restrictive nature of 2020, I’ll perhaps try some other things to better pique my, and your, interest. Perhaps in-depth interviews. Perhaps personality profiles. There are a lot of interesting people around here.
Anyway, the thinking cap is on. So stay tuned.
And an update on books I've been reading. The autobiography of Demi Moore, titled Inside Out, is quite illuminating. Moore really bares her soul -- a good read.
And I've finally gotten around to reading historical novels by Paula McLain. The Paris Wife, about the romance between Hadley Richardson and her husband Ernest Hemingway, is marvelously well done. Next up: McLain's Circling the Sun, about aviator Beryl Markham.
Happy New Year.
The comfort of books ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 21, 2020 -- In times of isolation, I have found books to be a balm for the soul.
I even, in my more romanticized imaginings, liken them to the RMS Carpathia, the ship that in April 1912 raced to the point in the Atlantic Ocean where Titanic had sunk two hours earlier. The Carpathia picked up just over 700 survivors from lifeboats and transported them to New York City, arriving three days later. (An estimated 1,500 passengers died in the Titanic’s disaster).
More specifically, words are my lifeboat, and well-told tales fashioned from those words are my Carpathia.
I was enamored of the written word as far back as I can remember. I recall as a small boy visiting the library in Birmingham, Michigan, not far from my home, and feeling as though I had been dropped into a treasure trove. It was frustrating, though, since I was so young that I had not yet mastered the art of reading. I knew a lot of words, but others I did not, and any progress I made through any book beyond a basic, illustrated reader was slow going. In time I mastered use of the dictionary, repeatedly useful when I encountered yet another strange word in whatever story I was attempting to read.
I was not, to my way of thinking, a fast learner, but I was a determined one, and words eventually became my forte -- including spelling them, something at which I excelled. I won my share of spelling bees in my elementary school classes.
For a kid who was uncommonly small -- my nickname was Half Pint -- being champion of anything loomed large.
I read voraciously throughout my youth, and started amassing a small library of my own during my first marriage, a union that occurred in college and lasted a handful of years. When that ended, I leased a second-floor apartment where the only neighbors of note -- aside from the drunks in a rowdy bar across the street -- were the cockroaches inhabiting the cubbyholes of my kitchen. I was lonely enough that I started naming them, my favorite being Fred.
That period -- one of poverty -- was made less lonely by the books I had taken with me. I could always find friends within their pages. Eventually, I entered upon a second marriage that lasted over a quarter of a century, until death intervened. During that marriage my library steadily grew.
I have, since then, found the occasional solace in novels and biographies that fill many a shelf in my house, although this website occupied most of my attention and time before the pandemic hit. Back then, I was covering every sport in the two area high schools on top of the news available through meetings, interviews, press releases and so on, and had little time for recreational reading, other than on my annual sojourns to my favorite summer hideaway, Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.
Now, with the pandemic throwing so many of us into an isolation we could not have imagined a year ago, books have once again stepped to the forefront of my daily existence.
Nonfiction, fiction, classics, pulp, mysteries, romances.
I just finished a quick run of several books. First was Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, which for some reason I hadn’t read before, despite it being on lists of some of the great novels of the 20th century. I found it interesting and its style singular, but I was not engaged, and not at all sorry when it ended.
Then came Bagman, by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz -- a look back at the Spiro Agnew vice presidency, rife with corruption and outrageous behavior by Agnew. Having lived through that period, it was more a trip down memory lane for me than anything, although there were some revelations that added perspective.
I read another Jack Reacher novel -- this a joint effort by Lee Child and his brother Andrew titled The Sentinel -- and I found it wanting. If editing it, I honestly would have sliced about 50 to 75 pages out of it. It seemed slapdash and repetitive and not at all engrossing. That was disappointing, since I had very much liked Blue Moon, Lee Child’s previous Reacher effort.
And then there was a prize: The Giver of Stars, by JoJo Moyes, a novel based on a Depression-era program espoused by Eleanor Roosevelt -- to deliver books, and through them education, to folks living in the mountains of Kentucky. The characters grabbed me, and the story took twists and turns that had me up late reading.
It was my first try at a JoJo Moyes book, and it won’t be my last. Her characters were strong -- and if not strong, resilient -- which made it appealing to me, just as two other books I read recently (devoured, really) had me shaking my head in admiration at the strength of their protagonists, almost all women, and the high level of the writing.
Those two books were by Kate Quinn. One is titled The Alice Network, a spy novel set in two time frames -- World War I and the aftermath of World War II -- which was based on some historical figures: women who, in fact, spied for Great Britain in occupied France in the First World War. The second book was The Huntress, a novel about the search for a female Nazi who had committed several wartime atrocities. It also dealt with a flying corps of women in Russia during World War II -- an actual group dubbed Night Witches by German soldiers the women were dropping bombs on nightly.
Those three -- the Moyes book and the two by Quinn -- are the best historical fiction I’ve read since the heyday of Herman Wouk -- author of some tremendous books: The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, to name three.
So ... are you looking for a way to combat the isolation blues? Tired of watching the news, or other offerings on TV?
You could try a good read. The words, if well woven, might possess a transformative power -- just might present you with an alternative to the tedium, and with it journeys of the mind far beyond the walls of your home.
The Dance of Life ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 13, 2020 -- My first -- and in truth my only -- brush with ballroom dancing came in Mrs. Young’s dance class, a weekly gathering during my early teen years in the auditorium of an elementary school outside Birmingham, Michigan, a few miles from my home in Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit.
Mrs. Young was always gowned, as was her female assistant, Miss Vicki. Her male assistant, Mr. Jim, always wore a suit -- and if memory serves, a tuxedo at the class’s grand finale, actually held in a ballroom.
I’m sure I resisted the need for such punishment, which had been inflicted by my mother -- ballroom dancing, indeed! -- but I suspect in retrospect that it served me well, teaching me the basics of the waltz and foxtrot and cha-cha and tango, not to mention introducing me to social interaction.
There were two girls from my neighborhood in that class, along with a lot of kids I didn’t know or simply don’t recall. I had grown up with the two girls; they were in my grade, but that fact really only seemed to make the mortification of ballroom dancing greater. While a romantic at heart, I had no feeling whatsoever for either one, considering them (as many boys might feel toward neighbor girls) something beyond understanding and thus to be avoided.
I don’t know if Mrs. Young’s dance class had anything to do with a subsequent episode I had with one of those two girls, a young lady named Debbie. But within a year or two, I found myself head over heels in love with her -- we spent numerous afternoons together in my first foray into emotional extremism -- and I floated around in a daze for weeks before my defenses kicked in and, fearing the strength of my feelings, I fled the scene like a burglar when the lights come on. My first brush with love ended because I was simply afraid of it.
I raise the matter because of Brian Marshall, a boy who resided two roads over from mine; he was also in my grade at school. We used to pal around together when we were 12 or so, and got hooked on a board game called The Game of Life. I don’t know how many times we played that thing, but we were obsessed with it for a while.
Alas, Brian and I didn’t stay close for long; at some point he linked up with the group in school we nerds considered the hoods, growing his reddish hair out in ducktail fashion and wearing a leather jacket and a give-a-damn attitude.
Not long after I fled Debbie’s charms, Brian moved in on her, and they dated seriously for quite a spell, and I thought they might embark on their own Game of Life after graduation. Being in a different clique, I could only read the tea leaves from a distance, so I didn’t know the depth of their feelings for one another.
But as fate would have it, their path together, their chance of a life together, was -- if still a viable alternative after high school -- closed off in a most sudden and violent fashion.
On one trip home from college -- I was attending Albion College in Albion, Michigan -- I spotted a news story my mother had clipped for me from the Birmingham Eccentric, a weekly newspaper in the area read by folks in the adjoining suburbs outside Birmingham, including by my parents in Bloomfield Hills.
The article said that Brian Marshall had completed basic training in the Army. There was a picture of him with his hair shorn, looking more -- disregarding the age change -- like he had in the days in which we had played The Game of Life.
“Man,” I thought. “There but for the grace of college goes I.” College was a shield against the draft. I deduced that Brian must have bypassed college or delayed it. In any event, he was now part of the military.
A couple of weeks later, I was back at my parents’ apartment for another weekend visit and to do my laundry. My mother had clipped another story from the Birmingham Eccentric: this one had the same picture of Brian, but the headline was what jumped out: Local soldier dies in battle.
I stood there, blood draining from my face, as I read the account. Brian, a Private First Class, had been sent to Vietnam and had barely arrived when he was killed. His end came in a mortar attack on his first day in that faraway country. His Game of Life had reached a sudden, cruel and violent conclusion.
As surprising as his end might have been to him -- if he in fact had a moment to contemplate it before the explosion ripped his life from him -- reading that article was a shock to me. As quiet as the moment was, the words of that headline screamed at me, and have continued to do so periodically over the years. Some bonds, whether between 12-year-olds playing a board game, or more substantive, might be physically broken by the vicissitudes of life -- but they remain part of our memory, and thus part of our soul.
My lesson from all of that? Well, it’s complicated. It has something to do with life’s various strands being intertwined in often emotionally complex and unavoidably fateful ways.
To me, ballroom dancing shares space with death in wartime. That sounds absurd, but it comes down to a running equation: that Mrs. Young’s dance class = Debbie = Brian = the Game of Life = a story in a newspaper = death. And in the unavoidable conclusion of that equation, the music of the waltz or the foxtrot triggers in me a mix of emotions running the gamut from love to horror to regret. I can see Miss Vicki and Mr. Jim demonstrating their dance moves to a roomful of young novices; Debbie sitting with me in the branch of a tree overlooking a flowered field, each of us holding the other; and -- in a vision no doubt informed by war movies -- an explosion of incredible force and destruction in a foreign land.
And atop those images I have layered a term employed by the great writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: it is Duty-Dance With Death, part of the subtitle of his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
Mrs. Young’s class was, for me, a duty dance -- an effort to placate my mother, who thought I needed some culture ... which I’m sure I did.
My dance away from the emotional upheaval wrought by my relationship with Debbie was, in truth, a duty only to my own fragile, developing ego, one wrought with insecurities.
My dance with Brian was traditional: we bonded in youth, but danced apart as we chose different segments of our high school society; different classes not in the school sense, but in the sense of societal strata.
And Brian’s final, short arc to oblivion was, as Vonnegut put it, a duty-dance with death. He was part of the military complex, sent to a faraway land; sent to an explosive -- and to my mind then and now -- horrible death.
And in telling you this, I am undertaking a duty-dance: a waltz of contrition, if you will, owed to Debbie for her charms and my cowardice; to Brian, for our early friendship and for his early death, which haunts me still; and to Life itself, a Game both endlessly fascinating and in turns magnificent and heart-breaking. It is one, I fear, in which I endlessly fail to measure up.
But whether I do or not, I -- not to mention you -- will keep on dancing until the music finally stops.
Legacies past and present ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 6, 2020 -- Word filtered up here quickly this past week concerning the passing in Florida of Elmira coaching legend Dick Senko. It was noted only obliquely, perhaps, by some Schuyler County residents, but was big news indeed in Chemung County, where Senko’s positive and very successful football coaching career is well recalled.
A Section IV Hall of Famer, Senko was in fact an honoree -- or scheduled to be -- at the last Top Drawer 24 gathering up at the Watkins Glen State Park. He was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for a career that not only stood out for its numbers -- a 193-81-2 record while coaching at Elmira Free Academy from 1975 to 2003 -- but for its impact on young, developing students who learned both how to excel on the football field and how to enjoy the work that went into it. He will long be remembered by those he coached.
That Senko was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease was no secret, and made it virtually impossible that he might receive that Lifetime Achievement award in person, but we had hoped a family member might attend. Alas, the pandemic struck down our State Park celebration, and now we are hoping to make such a presentation this coming year.
In any event, while I had little contact with Senko myself, our paths crossed in minimal ways while I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department back in the mid- to late-1980s, the last two years or so as Sports Editor. I was mostly an office kind of guy, assigning coverages -- such as EFA football -- to staff members, and editing their subsequent work. But I met Dick a couple of times and spoke to him occasionally on the phone, my role leading me into the sphere of any notable sports personality in the city or region at that time.
I recall that even then -- not too many years into his reign -- that he possessed a reputation both as a tough (he looked, in his short-haired, rugged way, like a no-nonsense guy), successful, innovative coach and one who was widely admired by a rabid fan base. Back then you had EFA and you had Southside, and the rivalry between the two was fierce. Now, there is just Elmira High, a merger that left behind many great rivalry games.
Having had a mother who, like Senko, suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years before her death, I can fully sympathize with the Senko clan, knowing all the conflicting emotions that come with, in essence, losing a loved one twice: first in his or her memory and then in life.
But I am sure the family takes comfort knowing that his passing has not gone unnoticed or unremarked, for he left behind a rich legacy.
Photo in text: Dick Senko (Photo provided)
Now, I direct your attention to a couple of people who are Schuyler-oriented and are building, as Senko did, a legacy of service to the community. I am referring to Odessa-Montour School Superintendent Chris Wood and Schuyler Hospital President and CFO Rebecca Gould, homegrown products who are the subjects of an article that outlines their rise and their impact on Schuyler County lives. (Click here.)
The idea for the article, for the recognition, came from the ever-present depression wrought by the pandemic, a malaise that I realized was being combatted in interesting ways by those two individuals. I know Wood well, and Gould only recently. But both have left significant impressions.
I turned to other people who know them even better than I for information, filling in with Wood from my own memory bank. The bios were essentially provided, then, by longtime Wood acquaintance Craig Cheplick and hospital Community Public Relations Executive Director and Gould friend Michelle Benjamin.
I tried at beginning and end -- pre- and post-biographies -- to put what Wood and Gould have done for us in context. Others who know them can no doubt fill in more blanks with memories of their own personal interactions.
We are fortunate to have such leaders -- and others, such as County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, Public Health Director Deb Minor and SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, to name three -- in our midst as we fight the pandemic.
Thanks to all of them.
The trouble with mascots ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 23, 2020 -- When I was a boy, I loved watching Western movies on TV. You know, where the cowboys or the marshals or the mountain men prevailed against the elements or -- horrors -- against the Indians.
I took it for granted that the Indians -- except for Tonto, the sidekick of The Lone Ranger; or Little Beaver, who was a young pal to Red Ryder in a series of movies -- were the bad guys. The white man always prevailed.
Then I heard that there had been more Indians killed on screen than actually ever existed, and I started thinking things were more than a bit askew. It seemed excessive -- and reached my ears at about the same time that I was realizing that in life, nothing is really black and white. Life is gray.
And then I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee -- a wrenching account of American expansionism in the 19th century and its effect on the natives the white man overran. It culminated with the massacre of Lakota by whites at Wounded Knee, an account that deeply affected me -- and from then on I looked upon the history of this country from a different perspective, shaking my head at the cruelty with which it was settled.
There have been various movies since then that have focused on the culture of the Native Americans -- that showed life from their viewpoint as they were displaced from their lands by the encroachment of settlers and cattlemen and military. I was, and still am, taken by the charms of Dances With Wolves on screen, and by Little Big Man both in prose and as a motion picture.
Along the way, wrapped though I was in my Caucasian culture bubble, I was exposed to the occasional minority, including one Native American woman who became a friend before she moved away. After the fact, I learned she had returned to her native roots -- a reservation where she became involved with something far too prevalent in a world gone wrong: drugs.
She ultimately overdosed and died -- a sad fact that haunts me still.
Which brings me to something smaller and yet very much related.
The Indian -- the Odessa-Montour school district variety -- is an endangered species.
The long-simmering dispute over the disparagement -- others say glorification -- of Native Americans through the use of nicknames such as Indians and Redskins and Chiefs and Braves and so on, has reached a tipping point.
Gone is the Redskins name in Washington. Next up: well, probably the others. And O-M is in the thick of change.
School Superintendent Chris Wood said months ago that potential change in the school’s longstanding mascot was on his plate, after the more important matter of getting the kids back in school after a 2019-20 school year that ended with nobody attending on-site classes the last three months, courtesy of the pandemic.
He prepared the table for a hard look at the issue -- of nicknames and mascots and the utilization of a native race as representational of athletic teams -- by polling some people who matter: members of the real Seneca Nation, not the Watkins Glen High School sports fans of the same name.
And having been asked, they made clear what they thought -- to Wood and in a position statement that they wrote. It read:
“The use of Native American names, references, and imagery for the logos and mascots of schools and their sports teams is blatantly offensive to the Seneca Nation and has no place in a multicultural society that values diversity. It is not an “honor,” as many schools and teams assert, to be inaccurately portrayed by caricatures and references that have no connection to our history or our living cultures. The Seneca Nation calls on all districts and educational institutions to immediately cease this practice.“
The O-M hallways, which have seen their share of Indian murals painted by students (and eventually, with time, painted over), will not likely be seeing any more added to that artistic lore. The district, through its athletic department, has formed a student committee to work with the school in understanding the nuances of prejudice and steer the way toward a possible new mascot, and with it a new outlook.
This is not confined to the school bubble; outside influence has entered the picture: an attorney here (consulted by the district, and expressing surprise that it still had an Indian mascot), and a parent or other district resident there.
Always, always there has been a balance of arguments -- one side saying the Native American heritage is being honored; the other saying no, it’s degrading. Even students were split at first, although Wood said they all seem now to understand -- or are heading in the direction of understanding -- the position of Seneca Nation representatives.
“The Seneca Nation didn’t ask us to do anything,” said Wood, although its published stance pretty much sums up its determination that something should be done.
“We’re making it right,” Wood added, “but it’s gonna take time” -- probably the rest of the year to shed the old Indian mascot (if that’s what the students and school leadership decide on) and come up with a new mascot and logo. And after that, there is the transition from Indian uniforms -- a costly endeavor that “could take years.”
After the first of the next year, Wood plans to enter discussion with Watkins Glen school district officials, since the two schools share a name -- Seneca Indians -- in the joint sports of football, baseball and wrestling. Not that Watkins Glen will be new to the subject: Athletic Director Rod Weeden addressed the matter in July, discussing the expected need to shed the district’s Seneca Nation moniker and its mascot name: the Senecas.
“We could be given a directive from the state and we want to be prepared for that,” Weeden said. “On a more human level, I think this is a discussion we need to have. Outside of financial concerns there is bigger question related to the potential perpetuation of any negative impacts our mascot may have on a race of people. We are first and foremost an educational institution and we should be having educated discussion about hot topics such as this so we can become better. We all want to do and be better role models for our communities' children.”
I do not profess to understand all of the wrinkles of this issue as though I were a Native American. (Well, there is evidently a sliver of Native American heritage in my family, according to a genealogist aunt. The figure to whom she alluded was a 19th century male ancestor who inspired a novel I wrote about a 700-year-old Ojibwe maiden from a region near here who ultimately settled on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Hence the title: The Maiden of Mackinac.)
But I'm trying to put myself in a mental position to understand -- by flipping the script, by becoming the victimized; by imagining that I, we, the white population, has been shunted aside by a stronger, or meaner, or better armed part of our species, perhaps one whose skin is differently shaded; and that we have been largely relegated to reservations.
In that frame of mind -- in that upside-down imagining -- I try to gauge how I’d feel if that victorious culture had school districts with sports teams that professed to honor the heritage of we, the vanquished.
I'm sure I would have other grievances, as well, but for purposes here: How would I feel knowing that the ethnic group in charge would be utilizing our past to highlight part of their present.
It's a thought; an imagining.
And worth having, I think.
Years ago, we started this program called the TD24 ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 16, 2020 -- Since we were forced indoors and the kids were sent packing from school last March, one thing I’ve missed has been the opportunity to watch those young athletes excel on the playing fields and courts and in the school pools.
If there were no pandemic, the return to school this year would have led about now to the selection of Odessa File All-Star Teams and to a Schuyler Fall MVP -- the MVP honor being a seasonal tradition here.
I don’t know how the football team or the soccer and volleyball teams would have fared, but I assume the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity swim team would have posted another Section IV, Class C championship to go with those earned the previous three years.
And I assume that the Fall MVP might have been a 9th grade swimmer, Thalia Marquez, or possibly swimmers Faye Mooney or Amanda Wilbur -- or maybe all three. They shared last year’s Odessa File WGHS Female Athletes of the Year Award with their since graduated teammate Peighton Cervoni.
And a fall sports season would have given the Top Drawer 24 committee a pretty good start on assessing who might be considered for this year's TD24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens -- a squad unveiled each year in May. The honorees were, until the pandemic, feted annually in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. We couldn’t meet for that ceremony last June, but we hope to again in 2021, what with vaccines on the way ....
Anyway, this brings me to Brian O’Donnell’s compendium of facts -- his Watkins Glen Central School District: A History, 1853-2008.
I was looking through it the other day for some information on Bill Davis, who had died in Florida. Davis was a longtime fixture at WGHS --a physical education teacher, a coach, and for more than a decade the Athletic Director in the 1980s and '90s. He was also an outstanding athlete in his youth, excelling in football, basketball and baseball, and a first-year member of the WGHS Athletic Hall of Fame,.
According to O’Donnell’s tome, Davis played baseball for four years at Ithaca College, “signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs and played two seasons of minor league ball.”
While poring through O’Donnell’s pages, I happened upon a separate section he devoted to the early years of the Top Drawer 24 program, which is now in its 16th year. It was, in fact, first called the Brian O’Donnell Top Drawer 24, with O’Donnell playing a key role in each annual ceremony at the State Park until retiring a few years ago.
I’ve got lists of each team compiled in my computer, except for one: the first year. I had remembered a few of those on the squad, but if pressed would not have been able to list them all. But O’Donnell did -- filling in a frustrating hole in my own memory bank. In all, there were 14 students from WGHS and 10 from Odessa-Montour on that first squad.
Those two schools were the only ones from which we selected honorees in the first two years, before Trumansburg and Bradford Central Schools were added to the mix. Later came Spencer-Van Etten and South Seneca, and Chemung County Schools: Elmira High, Notre Dame, Edison, Horseheads and, while it existed, Elmira Christian. Another religion-based school, Twin Tiers Christian Academy, has been on board now for years, while the Corning and Waverly school districts joined the program last year. Bradford dropped out along the way.
So, from two schools we have grown to a dozen. I say we, because I was, along with then-Watkins Glen Athletic Director Craig Cheplick, a co-founder. I’ve sponsored the program all of these years, joined along the way by partner WENY-TV, while Chep has overseen the whole program with incredible help from super executive assistant Kathy Crans.
For the record, those first-year honorees -- feted at a ceremony on May 23, 2006 at the State Park pavilion -- were as follows, along with their grade number:
Top Drawer 24
First Year 2005-06
Molly Murphy 10
Sophie Peters 10
Jaclyn Conklin 10
Jon Fazzary 10
Alan McIlroy 10
Steven Combs 11
John Michael Bianco 11
Michelle Thorpe 12
Courtney Warren 12
Jeff Kellogg 12
Phil Brown 12
Natasha Evans 12
Ashley Evans 12
Molly Oates 12
Katey Cheplick 9
Sherry Benedict 10
Ryan Goossen 11
Matt Thomason 11
Katie Taber 12
Brad Stephens 12
Shannon Westlake 12
Pat Barnes 12
Melissa Shutter 12
Jordan Janke 12
The one freshman, Katey Cheplick, turned out to be the only freshman ever selected. That was entirely my call, in the face of opposition from some committee members who thought her too young. (The rules still specify anyone in grades 9-12 is eligible.) I found her a bit bigger than life, a judgment that I think has been validated by her successful academic and athletic college career and her key role now in the administration of Keuka College.
Anyway, she was one of several students honored more than once by the Top Drawer committee. Others in that first-year list who were honored again (and in some cases again and again) were Sherry Benedict, Ryan Goossen and Matt Thomason at O-M, and Molly Murphy, Sophie Peters, Jaclyn Conklin, Alan McIlroy and John Michael Bianco at WGHS. Other multiple honorees followed in succeeding years, including these students first selected in the program’s second year: Jamie Sedlack and Ellie Fausold at WGHS, and Cassie Fitch, John Blaha, Jesse Johnson and Michele Kenney at O-M.
Other multiple honorees followed, but in diminishing numbers as the program expanded. Until last year, we held the line at 24 honorees. Last year, for a number of reasons that included the addition of Waverly and Corning, and in the face of pandemic challenges, we honored 30 students.
One of our first-year honorees, Katie Taber, after a successful college track career at SUNY Cortland, returned to O-M in an instructional role, and has since joined the Top Drawer 24 committee, a vital cog linking the program’s origins to its present day.
O’Donnell’s history even carries a photo of that first-year team, posed on the lawn fronting the State Park pavilion. That was -- and continues to be -- the chosen spot for the annual group photo, moved one year by adverse weather to the interior of the pavilion, in front of a large fireplace. The only thing marring the first-year photo was my presence, for some reason, kneeling on the left side of the front row.
Without sports this fall, the ability of the Top Drawer 24 committee to assess each member school’s standout students has been hampered. And there is no guarantee that we will see any sports in Section IV this entire school year. But we will be in even greater touch than usual with school administrators and, perhaps, community leaders to help counterbalance that loss of perspective that has accompanied the loss of athletics. After all, academics and citizenship -- in fact character -- play equally significant roles in the selection process.
So anyone with suggestions -- with nominations -- may contact me by email at email@example.com or by snail mail at P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
I would also like to hear from any former Top Drawer 24 honorees who feel like sharing what they have been up to in the intervening years. Where are you? And what are you doing? Married? Kids? Jobs and hobbies? Achievements?
Let me know, and I can pass it along to our readers.
Shades of the Heidi Game
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 8, 2020 -- It was kind of like reading a novel and getting to the last chapter, and it’s not there!
Well, that’s not quite right. The entire chapter is gone except for a paragraph closing out the story on the last page, telling us -- for instance, in Elswyth Thane’s Revolutionary War romance, Dawn’s Early Light -- that Tibby and Julian, star-crossed lovers for hundreds of pages, are kissing ... and much to Tibby’s surprise and delight, are to be married, against what had seemed, when the last chapter ended, to be all odds.
How did that happen?
Or it was like watching a movie, only to have a reel missing, and the final scene comes up -- whereby Reacher in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is moving on to the next town after an adventure involving a wrongly accused female major and a teenager who appeared to be his daughter (or not; we don't know yet); or whereby Rick and Louis are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship in Casablanca after an adventure involving a freedom fighter and a former lover who Rick might or might not help elude the Nazis.
Explanations, please! How did they get from a cliffhanger to a resolution?
In this case, it was a televised sporting event on WETM Saturday night. There I was along with a lot of folks around the Twin Tiers, watching a classic college football showdown between Clemson and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, played at ND’s home field in South Bend, Indiana. The Irish tied the game with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime ... and then the last chapter disappeared.
The WETM News suddenly was upon us, with a youthful cast telling us some of what was going on around our area, and about the weather, and about local sports. But not about Clemson and Notre Dame.
Where the hell did the football go? I yelled at the TV when it became clear that the news was settling in for its usual half-hour stint. But it didn’t answer right away.
I tried calling WETM, which was not a lot of fun, because first it was busy -- four times -- and then when I got through, a voice directed me to the News Department, which didn’t respond until a news director who identified himself as Mark Silberstein answered on tape, providing his cell phone number in case of emergency. I googled him and found he had moved to Texas in August, so he didn’t seem likely to help.
So I called the switchboard again, and directed my call to Sports, and got a standard recorded message from Sports Director Andy Malnoske, who apparently wasn’t even there that night; Chuck Brame, as it turned out, was handling the sports report. I left a message identifying myself, and asking where the football went. Not cool, Andy, I concluded.
Then the weather guy, Austin Evans, finally -- midway through the program -- gave a brief and unsatisfactory explanation.
“We did not make the decision to leave the game,” he said to the camera, adding: “We were caught off-guard.” And that was it.
If not you guys, then who? I’d really like to talk to the person who did decide. You know, so I can understand how these things happen, against all logic and against all theories of customer satisfaction.
Does anybody remember the Heidi Game? Back in 1968, there was a great American Football League game on TV between the Jets and Raiders -- a game in which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute to win 43-32. The problem was that NBC -- which was broadcasting it -- decided to break away from its East Coast coverage to show the movie "Heidi" before those two touchdowns, leaving a whole lot of us without the game’s conclusion, and fuming. That led to a lot of complaints, and to subsequent communication and contractual changes that would prevent such a thing from happening in the future.
But a Heidi-like game was upon us again Saturday night -- at least locally -- this time on the college level. And what a game -- between two unbeaten teams, one ranked No. 1 (Clemson) and the other No. 4 (Notre Dame). And just like a book missing most of the last chapter or a movie missing a reel, it was an investment of time and emotion that left the viewer with ... the local news.
So, aside from calling WETM, what was there to be done? Well, I checked a sports channel for any updates, though the game was not available to watch. That way, I found that Clemson scored first in OT to lead 40-33, and that Notre Dame then tied it, 40-40. And then I lost track ... until, with the WETM news team leaving the air (finally), the football game was suddenly back, a half-hour after it was yanked from our living rooms.
And it was almost over. It was the second-to-last play as Clemson, now down 47-40 -- how did that happen? -- needed 24 yards for a first down to keep the game going. A pass on third down went incomplete. On the next play, a pass was caught, the ball was lateraled, the ball-carrier was tackled ... and the game was over.
And so the Notre Dame crowd rushed the field, and Julian and Tibby kissed, and Rick and Louis wandered off into the fog, and Reacher had his thumb out, hitchhiking until he paused to answer a cell phone in his pocket that he didn’t even know he had. And it was a text from the girl who he thought was his daughter -- or maybe not -- and she had obviously put the phone in his jacket pocket, and now was asking in type: “Miss me yet?”
Yeah, I missed you and a lot more. Like the heart of the best game of the season.
Adding salt to the wound, one of the football announcers intoned this while signing off:
“It’s a night they’ll remember forever in South Bend.”
Yeah, I might.
For all the wrong reasons.
The virus & the motorcycle
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 25, 2020 -- With the coronavirus running rampant, I haven’t felt this helpless -- this vulnerable -- since Vicki Smith dumped me for a guy with a motorcycle back in high school.
Lovely Vicki. My first real girlfriend. Time with her was like a dream.
Everything seemed fine ... until it wasn't.
How does that relate to the pandemic? Well ... no matter what I think about doing today or tomorrow, I will feel ... well ... neutered (as in "deprived of vigor or force") by Covid -- while keeping my guard up, fully aware that there have been so many people going along, healthy and fine ... until they weren't.
Although a journalist, I have to think twice about attending meetings I am covering as news events; there’s no telling when, for example, a teacher or student at a School Board meeting might test positive, sending me and everybody else at the meeting into quarantine.
I even had to give extra thought to a lunch with the two area school superintendents, down at the Harbor Hotel. Say what you will about supers (and I’ve no gripe with these two), but I’ve never before feared picking up an errant germ from them.
Shopping? Yeah, that’s another problem -- enough to set my teeth jangling.
But I’m not alone. The powers that be -- in this case Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, Schuyler Public Health Director Deb Minor and Schuyler Hospital President Rebecca Gould -- held forth with a Zoom session Thursday on the burgeoning Covid-19 infections occurring here.
More than 80 folks joined the session -- mostly business owners looking for some guidance in such an unsettling time.
The message was cautionary; extremely so, with the warning that Schuyler County, if the numbers keep rising, could end up with the same kind of restrictions visited earlier in the week upon Steuben and Chemung counties.
There are three color-coded state designations you don’t want to be tagged with: yellow, orange and red, in ascending order. The latter two -- when cases rise above a certain threshold, trigger all sorts of things, such as schools going entirely remote.
“It’s a pretty pivotal time for us here in Schuyler County,” said Cherry at the outset of the meeting. The situation is “serious,” she said, and although the county has been pretty fortunate with a low number of infections until the past month, “now is the time we have to double down” with the efforts that had provided us with those early low numbers: social distancing, masks, washing hands, and disinfecting..
“We cannot afford to become a hot spot,” she said.
Minor recounted the recent trend upward in infections, which reached 99 total on that day. Seventy-two of those people had thus far recovered.
“The vast majority of positives are linked to social gatherings,” she said: such things as parties outside the home, and church services. “People are starting to let their guard down.”
That 99 total, Gould pointed out, was probably low, since there are undoubtedly asymptomatic cases out there that haven’t been discovered or recorded.
One thing that should be attended to by local businesses, said Cherry, is an affirmation with the state attesting to an intent to follow state guidelines. Of 364 businesses in the county with employees, she said, only 147 have filed that paperwork. Among the benefits of an affirmation, she said, is liability protection.
The overall “goal here,” said O’Hearn, “is to avoid a cluster designation” of yellow, orange or red. While the majority of people and businesses are following the rules, he added, “some are not. And now we are seeing the results of careless behavior.”
He said any Executive Order from Governor Andrew Cuomo “is the law. We need 100 percent compliance to change the trajectory of this disease.” Wearing a face mask “is recognized as the greatest deterrent.”
Said Cherry in conclusion: “The collaborative nature of this has made us successful. If we take it up a notch, no business will have to close.”
Then, the next day, the upward trend continued. There were five new cases, and Schuyler County's total since the start of the pandemic topped 100, reaching 104.
Yes, it’s all enough to make me think twice before going to a meeting or the store.
It’s enough to make me think twice before joining superintendents for lunch ... or lunch with anyone, for that matter.
It’s enough to make me think twice before going anywhere.
And yes, it’s enough to remind me of Vicki Smith, riding on that damn motorcycle.
Our heroes matter ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 14, 2020 -- Not long ago, on Aug. 31, Tom Seaver. died. Then, on Sept. 6, Lou Brock did. And then, in the first two weeks of this month, we lost Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan.
These were all baseball Hall of Famers, each of them an integral part of my formative years.
I loved baseball when I was younger; still do, though not to the same point. Back when I was a kid, I knew about all of the players, and the key statistics of the better of them.
I was a Detroit Tigers fan growing up, living as I did just 20 miles north of that city. (An early hero was Al Kaline, who passed away in April.) After I emigrated to Upstate New York after college, I turned to the New York Yankees for emotional sustenance.
But it didn’t matter for whom I rooted; I always admired the best, among them Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford and Morgan.
Ford was the earliest player of the five, and at 91 the oldest of them to pass away. He was amazing throughout the 1950s and up to the mid '60s. Gibson came along in 1959, Brock in 1961, Morgan in 1963 and Seaver in 1967.
I remember seeing all five of them in person -- all but Ford at one Hall of Fame weekend or another. Morgan stands out among those Hall memories. I specifically remember observing him in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel, where the Famers stayed when in Cooperstown each summer to celebrate new inductees and bask in some glory themselves.
I had secured credentials from a friend, and was seated on a sofa in the Otesaga lobby next to renowned slugger Johnny Mize, chatting a little with him but mostly watching the various other famous men milling about. Morgan moved around effortlessly, engaging the others, a smile on his face, clearly enjoying the weekend and, by extension, the fact that he was among his game’s elite. He was a natural at networking, and everyone there seemed to love him.
As for Ford. I might have seen him when he pitched against the Tigers in Detroit, but I saw a lot of games at Tiger Stadium, and only specific moments -- generally Tiger highlights -- stand out.
What I remember clearly, though, is this: I saw him years later at a baseball card show up near Niagara Falls, where he was present to sign autographs -- for a fee, of course, which became a source of income for retired ballplayers when the trading card market heated up in the 1980s. They had missed out on big salaries back in the '50s and '60s, mega-contracts not gaining a foothold until the '70s.
I actually caught Ford’s attention momentarily that day. I had gone to the show to sell cards to dealers set up there. Dealers normally like that, buying cards below market value from show visitors, but one such dealer took a dislike to me. Whether it was my face or the fact that I arrived probably with as many cards as he had (I was lugging them around on a cart) I can’t say. (Such a maneuver -- peddling a cart full of cards -- was something I had never seen done before, but it had worked for me at several shows around the state.)
Anyway, I thought it a fair practice, not to mention effective, but that one dealer complained to the show organizer, who accordingly asked me to leave. Out in the parking lot, I was venting at this injustice as I loaded my remaining merchandise into my vehicle, not far from the show-building entryway.
As I vented, I looked up toward that doorway and there was Whitey Ford. He had just stepped out --for what reason I don’t know; maybe just to get some air -- and he was looking in my direction, where my invectives were flying about. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I was stunned into silence.
I can’t be sure, but I think he smiled and shook his head before turning and walking away, around a corner of the building.
I felt a bit like an idiot, letting my emotions out like that in front of one of my childhood heroes. It wasn’t my finest moment, and one that has stayed with me over the years.
Call it one of my life’s regrets -- a small one among many.
Anyway, it came back to me in detail when I heard of Whitey’s passing.
But that interaction aside, I am left with memories, and gratitude, that I was able to watch on television how he and Gibson, Brock, Morgan and Seaver performed on the playing field time and time again, year after year -- serving as sterling examples for a young man navigating life with far less skill and success than they possessed.
I was able to draw inspiration, and hope, from their performances, and an appreciation of what we, as human beings, might achieve if we aspire and persevere.
Heroes matter. The lessons they impart through their heroics matter.
Those five gentlemen mattered.
A rocky ride ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 2, 2020 -- I was sitting across the room from my TV just before 1 a.m. Friday, not paying attention to the news it was broadcasting, instead watching a Monk episode on my computer -- from a disc, part of that popular series’ complete run.
Then something from the TV caught my attention despite the headphones I had donned that drowned out the news report -- maybe it was a single word, maybe two; but I leaned back and looked around a printer that had blocked my view of the TV, and saw the ribbon at the bottom of the screen.
It said that the President and First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Holy s--t,” I said, and ripped off the headphones, and stood, and edged away from the computer and soon found myself standing in front of the television, my mouth (I suspect) agape.
I stood there, watching and listening, absorbing. And trying to organize the thoughts bouncing around in my head like a pinball.
Make no mistake; I’m no fan of President Donald J. Trump, although I rather like his wife. But this really had little to do with any of that. Politics tend to fall by the wayside when something so stunning confronts us.
As Dr. Vin Gupta was saying on MSNBC: “This has nothing to do with what we feel about the man’s performance in office.” It has to do with so much more.
Being a history major in my college days and a longtime student of the presidency -- it is an office I have long revered, if not all of the people who have occupied it -- I didn’t have to be told the import, or at least the potential import, of this development.
More than 7 million people have tested positive for Covid-19 in this country, and more than 208,000 of them have died. Many of them have fallen into the high-risk group of 65 years and above, often exacerbated by obesity. The President is 74, and he is a large man, wearing extra weight on his tall frame. And now he and the First Lady have become part of the statistic of infections.
The effects of this are mind-boggingly extensive.
“It’s almost unfathomable,” said one reporter, Jonathan Lemaire, during special early morning (1:30 a.m. coverage) on MSNBC. “It upends everything the President has said about the pandemic,” which Mr. Trump admittedly downplayed as it developed and gained a head of steam.
“What is next?” Lemaire asked. If the President falls ill (he and his wife were reportedly asymptomatic after testing positive), the reporter asked, how will that play out in terms of leadership here and relationships abroad? If he and his wife remain essentially without symptoms, will he again downplay the severity of the illness? Or, asked another talking head later in the coverage, will the President become an advocate for safe practices?
Beyond that, what about all of the President's contacts, including on a stage Tuesday night with Presidential candidate Joe Biden? They were spewing invective from a short distance -- maybe 12 or 15 feet apart -- for 90 minutes. Was the President a carrier at that point? Will Biden and his wife be tested? Yeah, almost certainly.
What about the people who traveled the past few days on Air Force One? They will all have to be tested. And what about the people the President and his entourage encountered on the road? There was a rally in Minnesota, and a fund-raising dinner elsewhere.
At 2 a.m., Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor, handed the news report over to Ali Velshi, a mainstay on that cable news network. This was going to be covered all night and through the next day. That’s what happens when something historic and potentially devastating happens.
We are barely a month from election day, which makes this even more complex. What happens to the campaigning that was gaining steam? What happens to the remaining Presidential debates? And what about the Vice Presidential debate set for next week? Was Vice President Mike Pence anywhere near the President in recent days? And considering the possibility of Mr. Biden having been exposed, was Democratic V.P. candidate Kamala Harris anywhere near him in the past day or two?
Pence issued a statement at about 2:10 a.m., pretty standard stuff, directed toward the First Couple. Love and prayers for their swift recovery. There was no indication whether Pence or his wife had been tested.
And another politician weighing in was a Democratic Congressman, Eric Swalwell. “This is a national security crisis,” he intoned. Perhaps. A national security threat, in any event.
One thing for sure: The phone lines in D.C. were burning up. Every news reporter who had any steam left at 2 a.m. was waking whoever they could think of. There were going to be a lot of sleep-deprived people the next day.
Reporter Lemaire weighed back in with this thought: What about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who met recently with the President, and who in turn met with a lot of Senators?
And what about the other people with whom the President had contact the past couple of days? One of them, Hope Hicks, a confidante of the President, tested positive, something known Wednesday night. Her infection -- the origin of which is open to question -- was the first one announced Thursday night. Then came word that the President and First Lady were being tested.
Then came speculation. Then came confirmation. Covid-19.
Said one doctor on TV: Hicks could have been a super spreader. "The network of people who will need to be tested is vast. There is no end to the problems here."
“We have,” said Lemaire, “stepped into the unknown.”
“The whole world is watching,” added MSNBC’s Williams before handing off the anchor desk to Velshi.
Among the watchers: the Dow Futures, down 500 points almost immediately.
Yes, this is likely to be a rocky ride.
Updates late Friday morning:
--Both Vice President Pence and his wife tested negative, with further checks to come, just to be sure.
--Supreme Court nomineee Amy Coney Barrett tested negative.
--The Dow Futures rebounded to the 300-400 range by dawn, and as of 10:55 a.m. the market
was down 221 points.
--The chair of the Republican
National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, has tested positive.
--The President is experiencing "mild symptoms" of Covid-19, it was announced.
Swirling autumn winds ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 28, 2020 -- Autumn has arrived, not just on the calendar, but in the leaves falling, swirling in the winds off the lake and bouncing along the lawns beneath shade trees.
The temperatures have been sinking notably at night, then warming in fits and starts -- as if holding desperately to a lifeline in a steadily growing current. We have accordingly been provided with some of the crispest, clearest weather this year after a sweltering summer.
Those leaves flying about are symbolic, I think, of the world we inhabit. We are the leaves, and events on the local, national and international stage are the wind.
Batten down the hatches, folks, because the winds will likely be picking up. But they won't be the worst of it. If we pay attention to all of the nonsense and self-serving maneuvers coming out of Washington, D.C., if the spread of the coronavirus intensifies, and if we allow depression to take hold, I fear we’ll feel as though the winds have reversed themselves, forming whirlpools that grab us and suck us down into a dark and menacing rabbit hole.
We’ll feel the pull of it every time another number is added to the list of coronavirus-infected individuals in our area; every time another 10,000 deaths are recorded nationally; every time an area student tests positive, sending school administrators into hyper mode, figuring out the best way to handle that which seems beyond handling.
I’ve observed from a distance as the school administrators and School Boards have grappled with the mercurial beast known as Covid-19. I’ve admired the determined path taken in one district while, along with other people, I've tut-tutted the vacillation in another. I’ve admired the “speak with one voice” philosophy of one district while puzzling over the “speak with a dozen or more” in another.
And we’re barely weeks into the school year -- one without any sports to occupy the student-athletes and their fans. That should simplify matters from a health standpoint, but there are so many other variables at play: state aid, quarantines, contact tracing, masks, social distancing, student dismay, teacher fatigue and an overriding, never-ending concern that the other shoe -- the one that could prompt a conversion to remote learning for everyone -- might drop at any moment.
The stress level for, say, superintendents, has got to be high, and with it the enervation that accompanies a thankless task. I wouldn’t relish being a School Board member, either, though Odessa-Montour, by virtue of its continued Zoom meetings and its seemingly simplified approach -- five days in school each week, with nobody but the superintendent speaking for the district, unless the School Board president weighs in -- tends to address its evolving issues efficiently. There’s something about the Watkins Glen approach -- public meetings with open and earnest debate among a Board that has obvious differences -- that tends to roil the waters.
And yet, you might argue, either approach is representative of the people, by people who are just trying to do their best. The public, and history, will be left to judge the capabilities and successes or failures therein.
And amid all of this aggravation and insecurity, one thing that has become a tradition -- the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens selected by a committee each year for the past 15 -- will continue with a 16th year.
Yes, things will be different. If we lack sports and concerts and plays, we have other options -- among them an expansion into the world of home-schoolers. That is an as-yet untapped resource for the Top Drawer committee. Beyond that, there is the possibility of expanding regionally.
When the program began, it included just students from Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, but has grown to incorporate a dozen schools. Last year participating schools included O-M, Watkins, South Seneca, Trumansburg, Twin Tiers Christian, Spencer-Van Etten, Thomas A. Edison, Elmira Notre Dame, Elmira, Horseheads, Corning and Waverly.
Program co-founder and chair Craig Cheplick says he’s looking at possibly including other districts -- maybe even branching down into Pennsylvania. Since we broke the number barrier of 24 by selecting 30 kids last year (the Big Ten has 14 schools, so such a misnomer has precedence), we might well do that again, maybe going numerically higher.
The program, which I co-founded with Chep and which is co-sponsored by this website and by WENY-TV, might look a little different this time around, but desperate times call for creative measures.
Anyone with any suggestions as to worthy honorees, feel free to email this website through a click-on link at the bottom of any page. The past was mere prologue. We want to have more fun with this event than usual, and I think we will.
Coach D ends his career ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 17, 2020 -- I see that Mike D'Aloisio has retired from coaching.
Mike has been something of a legend at Elmira Notre Dame, winning 12 Section IV Championships, four regional titles, and one Intersectional one while coaching various sports: football, girls and boys basketball, and golf. Recently he headed up the school’s 8-man football team, leading it to a sectional title two years ago.
His career at ND dated back to 1977, and he took over the reins of the football team in 1981.
I remember him back in the '80s, and in fact covered him for a few years -- from 1984 or so to 1988 when I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department, the last portion of that period as Sports Editor.
I've always admired the guy, from back then to now -- and in fact I was pleased to be part of the mechanism, part of the Top Drawer 24 committee, that honored him in 2016 with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was, four years before that, inducted into the Section IV Hall of Fame.
He graced me with a copy of a book he wrote about his experience knowing and coaching Joel Stephens, a standout multi-sport athlete at Notre Dame who went on to begin a professional baseball career before dying of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 22. The book is titled "5C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story," released in 2009. The title refers to the Christianity, Courage, Compassion, Character and Commitment that marked Stephens' life.
My admiration of D'Aloisio long preceded the Stephens years. It dated back to those early years on the football field, and was cemented by one experience, which I related to Mike when we were honoring him with that Lifetime award, but which he didn’t seem to remember. I imagine it was just one incident of many in a busy day in the midst of a busy football season.
It was either in 1986 or 1987, while I worked at the Star-Gazette. We had with us at the time a reporter who wrote about the poor condition of the Notre Dame athletic field, a story that so enraged an official at the school that he called the newspaper demanding a retraction -- which was not forthcoming, since the field condition was, in fact, poor. Failing in his demand, the official (a superior of D'Aloisio's) threatened to have the reporter arrested the next time he set foot on the ND campus -- a hollow warning, this not being a banana republic.
Nonetheless, the reporter was frantic, especially when I assigned him to cover the next Notre Dame home football game. He pleaded with me, saying: "But they’ll arrest me!"
To which I replied. "If they do, it will make for a great story."
The reporter protested, but ended up going, and as soon as he arrived on the football field, he approached Coach D'Aloisio on the sideline, and explained that he was fearful that he might not be able to cover the entire game, since arrest appeared to him as a distinct and imminent possibility.
"Just stand next to me," D'Aloisio told him. "You’ll be fine. Nothing will happen to you."
And the reporter stuck close to the coach, and nothing in fact did happen. The school official in question had, as I knew, simply been blowing off steam.
"I did that?" D'Aloisio asked when I related the story to him, some 30 years after it had occurred.
"You did," I said.
He simply smiled, and nodded his head. He knew it was something he likely had done -- an act with trademark D'Aloisio qualities, an act I deemed both wise and welcoming.
Now ... well, now he has reached retirement. I find that both depressing -- for it is something I personally do not look forward to -- and yet celebratory, for few people have graced the playing fields of the Southern Tier with as much class as has Mike D'Aloisio.
So here’s to you, Mike. I wish you well in your retirement, and in life.
We'll miss your on-field expertise and empathy. But your impact will long remain.
Ah, yes: retirement. It beckons to those of us fortunate enough to live that long. I haven't had the urge to hang up my spurs, but if I came into a substantial enough amount of money, I'd be buying a certain property up on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, and setting up shop there. The place I have in mind is a bed-and-breakfast with 7,800 square feet and a lot of rooms. I’d throw it open to my friends for free -- again, if I had the money to do so.
Of course, I don't have such resources, especially now, with the pandemic hitting me as it has hit most businesses, putting a dent in my advertising income, which is the primary way I keep this ship afloat. Related to that plight, I was considering possible alternative ways to generate income when I got to thinking the other day about Soupy Sales, an entertainer I grew up watching on TV, and the New Year’s Day 1965 prank that got him suspended for a couple of weeks.
Miffed that he had to work on that holiday, he urged his young viewers to gather those "funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents" from their sleeping parents' pockets and purses, and then "put them in an envelope and mail them to me." He actually received quite a bit of money (although some of it was play money) that he said he would donate to charity. That didn’t pacify the victimized parents, who wanted his scalp, and they got it for those two weeks before he was back with more of his entertaining nonsense. (His trademark was a pie in his face.)
No, I'm not advocating that my young readers do what those kids did for Soupy. But I thought then, and I think now, that it was a classically funny, if ethically flawed, flight of Soupy's imagination.
Besides, it was from my childhood, which I tend to view with great warmth. The good old days, you know?
Photos in text: Mike D'Aloisio (top) and Soupy Sales.
In the valley of uncertainty
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 7, 2020 -- That silence you hear is all of us holding our collective breath.
School is coming at us fast, and with it a return to the classrooms. It is normally a time of hope and expectation. Now it is a time of trepidation ... of worry.
Two weeks after the start of school, athletics are scheduled to start -- at least practices in soccer, swimming and cross country. Football was pretty much put on hold by the state, and then jettisoned by our local school districts, Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour.
The question, I imagine, on the minds of a number of school administrators is whether we will even make that two-week mark, Sept. 21, without a mishap along the way in the form of a spike in coronavirus infections.
Nobody seems quite sure how that might be handled, fraught as it is with uncertainties and so many variables, from severity to extent. Plans are in place, to be sure, but life has a funny way of throwing curves; of failing to cooperate.
Therein lies the collective breath-holding.
If everything goes well, from the standpoint of health, the situation is still burdened -- by the need for social distancing; by the seeming incongruity between rules for gym class (12 feet distant) versus those for, say, soccer (no such distancing, from what I can tell); by the stresses on teachers to educate not just those on hand in the classroom, but those at home, as well; and by inevitable confusion and conflict among administrators, teachers, students, staff and parents as previously unimaginable problems surface. And they will, and with them frustration.
Then there’s the fiscal aspect -- with the state waiting (and waiting) for the federal government to bail it out, and the school districts hoping it happens sooner rather than later, so that 20% of the promised state aid does not get withheld monthly (as has already begun). Without that money, all sorts of problems ensue -- as evidenced already by the Watkins Glen School District trimming $710,000 from its budget out of a possible shortfall of $2.9 million for the year. Odessa-Montour also faces a sizable state-aid deficit -- of about $2 million.
Where can that loss of funds be counterbalanced? Well, there’s always sports as a go-to budget cut. Football was already axed. Will others follow?
The kids are anxious to get back to some sense of what used to be normal. O-M has them coming back to the classroom five days a week (more than 600 of the 700-plus students opted for in-person education), while Watkins Glen decided, after some vacillation, to split the student body in two, with Group A attending Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are all-remote.
School starts this week, with that first group at Watkins attending classes on Tuesday, and after a couple of conference days off, the second group attending on Friday. Odessa-Montour begins Thursday, the 10th. I would prefer to see both districts all in with five days of in-person instruction, but that’s merely a preference, and not a judgment. Either system could prove a success or a failure. Only time and the virus will tell.
I’m crossing my fingers on the sports. Anybody who knows me knows I love sports, and in particular high school sports.
I really need a fix. I would love to see the WGHS girls swim team in action again. There are a lot of impressive competitors on that three-time Section IV, Class C championship squad. The team boasts names like Amanda Wilbur, Faye Mooney, Thalia Marquez, Malina Butler and Alannah Klemann. Wilbur, Mooney and Marquez, along with recently graduated Peighton Cervoni, were this website’s WGHS Female Athletes of the Year last year.
And the O-M girls soccer squad has a lot of returning talent -- talented players like Hannah Nolan (the team’s leading goal scorer last year), Tori Brewster and, on defense, Camille Sgrecci. Missing thanks to graduation: last year's O-M Female Athlete of the Year, goalkeeper Grace Vondracek. The WGHS boys soccer team, meanwhile, had a solid season last year, so it will be interesting to see how well it fares without top goal scorer Isaac McIlroy, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year in 2019-20 who is now in college.
The WGHS boys cross country team is coming off another Section IV championship year, but looks ahead to a season without the graduated Gabe Planty, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year who moved on to Syracuse University and its running program.
In sum ...
I would like to say I have some answers, but all I have are opinions that change like the wind -- with every whim coming from the state government, and with every alteration adopted on the fly by the school districts.
It is a confusing time -- and one challenging to all of us not only from physical and fiscal perspectives, but in a spiritual vein, as well. There are days when we are ready to flex our independence and say to hell with Covid-19, but of course that is a very risky proposition, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on a local pub where two cases popped up and might spread from there.
It is a time when our faith in so many things is being tested:
Faith in our system of government; in our leaders.
Faith in our economy, and the value of a dollar.
Faith in our health-care system, and whether it is being supported sufficiently by a federal government that seems reluctant to do so.
Faith in our neighbors, in particular those who ignore the need of a face mask.
Faith in ourselves as impatience overtakes us and fear rears its head.
Faith in the future.
And faith, for those of us so disposed, in God.
With 190,000 dead and increasing at an alarming rate, one wonders what it’s all about ... what God was thinking at creation, and what He or She is thinking now.
That last I find a compelling thought, and my answer is simple:
Darned if I know.
And to add to the depression that periodically washes over me these days, Tom Seaver and Lou Brock, two baseball Hall of Famers admired by any sports fan, died within a week of one another: Seaver on Aug. 31, and Brock on Sept. 6.
Anyone who has followed baseball over the years knows their accomplishments, so I won’t recite them here. What always impressed me about the two men was not just their achievements on the field, but their attitudes as they climbed those heights.
Seaver was outgoing, fun-loving, considerate. Brock was quiet, self-effacing, efficient. Both were highly regarded on and off the field, and thus longtime ambassadors for the game.
They were also on my list of heroes. Most of mine are sport figures. A couple of politicians are on there, too -- but certainly none from the present.
To Tom and Lou:
Requiescat in pace, gentlemen.
Ghosts of journalism past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 31, 2020 -- Garth Wade was from a journalistic era that is now but a memory -- back when the Elmira Star-Gazette hummed with activity, fueled by the energies of its talented and dedicated roster of reporters.
If you walked in the building back then, the first floor was full of business and advertising and circulation workers during the day -- the accounting and bookkeeping heart of the operation.
If you went upstairs, you emerged from the stairwell into the newsroom, a hive of worker bees, more during the day than at night, but a busy place for about 18 hours out of every 24. The hum was punctuated by cries of frustration or the banging of phone receivers or an instruction called across the room by editor to reporter.
There were dozens of desks, starting with the copy-desk area run by a News Editor, who was surrounded by a City Editor and Regional Editor and just plain copy editors. Heading south across the room, there were rows of reporters’ desks, left and right, and then a gathering of more desks at the far wall, where the Sports Department held forth.
Around the corner of the L-shaped room was the Features Department -- with several more reporters working on what was considered “light” news -- which is to say stories that had little to do with the workings of government or education or the courts, and more to do with the workings and lives of everyday people.
Beyond that area was the morgue -- the term used for the library, where clippings of past stories were kept alphabetized, and past issues could be viewed on a microfiche machine. Along the hall and down a back stairway was the route to the mailroom, where papers were bundled for distribution after coming off the press, which was a mammoth machine in a partially subterranean enclosure adjacent to all that bundling.
That was my favorite place in the whole building -- the pressroom, late at night, when my work as an editor was done and I could unwind to the rolling thunder that emanated from that machine. I could sit in a corner of the room, on a stool, and take in the sound, with the knowledge that my work was part of what was passing along those rollers, was part of the paper being printed and cut and shipped out to the readers.
It was the strictly aural equivalent of standing near a fireworks display -- disorienting and yet soothing, providing a re-ordering of my soul after it had been sorely tested by the bane of my existence: the deadlines that came with editing a newspaper’s stories and pages.
Garth Wade was among the reporters in that busy newsroom, a place quieter by several degrees than the pressroom but nonetheless both energizing and yet enervating -- a twin reaction to the distractions that dozens of allies generate when facing the challenges of time and space and bosses waiting to critique both your work and your timeliness. Mishandled syntax and misspellings were one thing; missed deadlines were considerably more serious. “Time is money,” one of my bosses stressed.
Garth was very economical with his time. He was usually out gathering the news, then made his entrance into the newsroom with a loose gait and greetings to his fellow workers, calling out to the editors, telling them what story he had researched through interview or observation, and was soon to write. And write it he did quickly -- speed being a valued commodity in any newsroom, but all the more remarkable for his, and the story’s, accuracy and engaging nature. Garth Wade knew how to write a compelling story -- reflective of his personality.
His outgoing nature was a holdover from his experience working in the personality driven world of radio that preceded his print experiences. He seemed almost brash, except for a counterbalancing native reticence. He was quick to deduce and express, but never with animosity. He struck me as about the most clear-eyed reporter -- and for that matter clear-eyed man -- I’d ever met: direct, assured, and with a writing style that said Read Me. His were qualities I found both engaging and intimidating, I being neither outgoing nor particularly clear-eyed. Every day seemed to me a struggle to make sense of life; to bring order to chaos.
Garth was old school, fitting in beautifully with a cast of characters like Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- longtime journalists who made their marks across decades, who loved the pursuit of stories and the satisfaction of informing the readers what was going on in their community.
When I hooked on with the Star-Gazette in 1980, they were all there, although O’Hara -- a highly regarded government reporter -- passed away suddenly not long afterward. Mallette, a longtime Sports Editor, retired in 1985, while Gallagher lasted beyond my tenure, until 1990. I left in 1988.
Garth Wade was there when I arrived, and was producing stories long after I left. He became a school bus driver in later years, and our paths crossed infrequently -- until I was invited a couple of dozen months ago to join a periodic gathering of former Star-Gazette employees, including Garth, in the cafe at Wegmans, not far up the road from the building where we all once worked, but which was vacated by its journalism practitioners years ago.
Oh, the paper still exists, more or less -- with a handful of workers in a small building a block or two away from the Star-Gazette headquarters on Baldwin Street, which stands across the street from M&M Red Hots. All that remains of the journalism that held forth in that old building for decades -- an operation once held high as the First Gannett Newspaper -- are the echoes of ghosts.
The ghosts of the late Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- all gone now -- and of Garth Wade, who joined them Thursday.
And, I suppose, the ghosts, or slender memories, of me and those Star-Gazette alums who gathered at Wegmans.
It was a delight to reconnect with Garth and the rest of that reunion group, although clearly age had taken its toll on him. He looked worn, but he still had that ready, trademark smile. He didn’t seem as brash as when he was working the stories and channeling the words through a typewriter and, later, through a computer. He seemed honestly pleased to be part of a gathering of people who had populated part of his past, to be back among friends.
He seemed particularly tickled that one of us -- which is to say I -- was still involved in journalism so many years later. The fact that I was, I told him, was a matter of luck -- that after several years away from the game I rejoined it for a couple of years in the late ‘90s at the Corning Leader, and then after another break tried my hand at a news website that somehow caught on.
Yes, those Wegmans gatherings were something I looked forward to -- meeting with Garth and the meetings' organizer, Brian Pappalardo, and with Ray Finger, Ed Bond, Peg Ridosh, Bob Jamieson, Salle Richards and (before he moved West) Roger Neumann.
We had all aged significantly (thirty years will do that to you), but the conversations on current events and remembrances of co-workers past (“Hey, do you recall that young photographer who forgot to put film in her camera for that All-Twin Tiers Football Team shoot?”), along with explanations of what we were now doing, was a tonic to retired (and just tired) souls.
And then the pandemic hit, and the reunions stopped, and the shared remembrances ended, and then ... then Garth Wade died.
When I heard he had, I wasn’t terribly surprised, for I knew -- had been told through the grapevine -- that he was struggling.
But damn, it knocked the wind out anyway, and left me feeling weighted down for a full day and more. Depression, and loss, can do that to you.
And it left me thinking about the man we had just lost, about how he would breeze into the newsroom with a story, about the wide smile and sudden laugh, about the talent he brought to the news, especially in feature pieces about regular folks. He could identify with anyone, and they would open up to him, and the result was always a story that sang.
Yes, his passing leaves a void in the here and now, but as long as I draw breath, he is very much alive in my memory.
God bless you, Garth. You were unique, and like your fellow ghosts of journalism's heyday, you were both a treasure and a measure of excellence that community news outlets in our region and across the nation can only hope to emulate.
Photo in text: Garth Wade (Photo provided)
Nerves are rubbed raw ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 23, 2020 -- This might not be a time (as Thomas Paine penned) that "tries men’s souls" -- at least not the souls of most of us. But it certainly is trying our patience.
Consider school officials, including those in the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour districts.
Front and center among their frustrations is the need to pretzel themselves, their staffs and their planning in an attempt to meet constantly shifting state requirements -- all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of you might have heard of a man who went ballistic at the second of three presentations for parents by Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan this past week. The presentation emanated from the school auditorium (with a few district residents present) and streamed on Zoom for the convenience of those viewing from home. The three presentations were mandated by Governor Andrew Cuomo so that parents could better understand what awaits their children in education this year.
The angry man, whose invective lasted for well over a half-minute, was one of a relative handful of auditorium attendees. The parent of a student at the school, he took exception to the rule-making the district has undertaken to meet state standard in a situation where the coronavirus could pop up at any time.
While Kelahan said it was difficult to understand much of what the man was yelling -- although “Marxist” and “Socialist” were discernible early in the tirade -- he said the outburst was evidently triggered by the school mandate that any student refusing to wear a mask would not be allowed to attend school in person. He or she would become a remote learner.
“He’s one of our very concerned parents,” Kelahan said the next day, rather diplomatically. As for the mask mandate, he said the rule doesn’t insist on mask wearing in class. Once seated, and with the teacher’s approval (which Kelahan said he would strongly encourage), the kids can take the darned things off.
The man’s reaction, while extreme perhaps, is not unique.
“Across the country,” Kelahan said, it’s a common perception that “government agencies are overstepping their control.” At Watkins Glen, though, “it’s imperative that we maintain safety standards to protect students and staff. We have safety standards all the time, such as against running in the halls or shoving in the halls." And when the district says no firearms are permitted, that’s obvious, "but what they all have in common is a safety component.”
Face masks, of course, have become politicized, with encouragement from the man in the White House.
“People are latching onto masks as the great divide,” said Kelahan, adding: “People have a right to have feelings." The angry Watkins parent “was expressing himself. Being an Irishman, my emotions are often out there, too.”
The man ended up departing of his own volition after the outburst, “talking as he left,” said the superintendent.
Of course, that was just a sliver in time. The frustrations we are all feeling go far beyond a mask mandate. They go to the heart of our personal darkness: the depression brought on by sustained removal from societal interaction. So yes, I sympathize with the parents who are starting to lose control, just as I empathize with the students who are facing such an uncertain short-term, and perhaps long-term, future.
When I was a kid, it was 2+2=4. But in today’s upside down and inside out daily conundrum, it seems that 2+2=2 in the Watkins Glen school district. As in: two days of in-person schooling at the beginning of the week, and two days at the end of the week, but no student in school more than two days in any week.
That’s the scheduling plan at Watkins Glen -- 2+2, where half the students (the Blue group) will go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half (the Maroon group) will attend classes on Thursdays and Fridays. The plan was adopted by the Watkins School Board after it first embraced a hybrid attendance plan that had envisioned elementary students in school full time, and the older students attending on alternating days. It also followed a flirtation with an alternate schedule, which posited one group of students (Blue) in school three days one week and two the next, with a second group (Maroon) in school two days a week and then three the next. A third group (Silver) constitutes those students opting for remote learning.
The School Board seemed to be leaning toward the 3/2, 2/3 schedule at its last meeting, but in the words of one board member, “we left it to the discretion of the teachers.” According to Superintendent Kelahan, teacher representatives contacted preferred the 2+2 plan, wherby no students attend in person on Wednesdays.
In talking to two board members after the fact, I asked if they were getting “beaten up” by the public for their decision to go with the 2+2 plan, and they said no. When I pointed out that some people were obviously comparing their plan to the one at Odessa-Montour, where school is being offered five days a week, in person -- and where at least 610 of the 770 students have opted for in-person instruction -- the response of the two board members was immediate.
“Different district,” said one.
“Different people,” said the other, noting that Watkins district residents “just want us to settle on a plan.”
Meanwhile, good news from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced new laws expanding the limited allowable reasons for submitting an absentee ballot to include as a reason a fear of Covid-19. In other words, a fear of voting in person, among possibly infected people.
That in effect opens mail-in voting to the masses, which will likely increase voter participation -- always a good thing. Up until now, New York was one of a handful of states that didn’t permit mass mail-ins.
And on the down side, Superintendent Kelahan mentioned in his final presentation to parents Thursday night that signals from Albany indicate the district -- all districts in the state -- could well be facing a takeback, a reduction, in state aid. Kelahan said after his presentation that the takeback could be 20%, which would mean significant cuts “in programs and people.”
He and O-M Superintendent Chris Wood have been fearing this right along. It would not only impose a large financial hit, but force a realignment of their educational plans. Athletics -- even if permitted this year -- would be among the first casualties.
It all seems to hinge on Congress and its ability to reach an agreement on a bill that would provide relief to states. With Congress deadlocked -- and in any event taking an awful lot of breaks from its duties during such a critical summer -- it’s anybody’s guess whether our representatives will finally do the right thing and bail out the states.
It seems like a massive game of chicken: Republicans vs. Democrats, the Feds versus the States, and essential workers like firefighters, police and teachers with their professional heads on the chopping block.
Gad. What a time in which we live.
Photo in text: Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan in the high school auditorium during his final presentation to parents.
The anti-postal polka ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 14, 2020 -- You might call it “going anti-postal” -- a less violent term than its progenitor, but a nonetheless threatening one.
It’s what the Trump administration is doing with the Postal Service, denying it needed funding in an evident attempt to reduce mail-in voting in the Nov. 3 election. That’s got the attention of a lot of folks right now and is garnering a lot of ink.
But before that maneuver, a tandem move to slow the delivery of mail was instituted. It has to do with the new Postmaster -- a crony of (and large contributor to) Donald Trump named Louis DeJoy. He’s taken measures that have slowed the delivery of mail significantly, raising howls of protest from some in Congress, and the ire of common folks, like me. It is, quite simply, affecting a lot of people, and they’re none too pleased. Little wonder DeJoy is being called Delay.
I don't usually weigh in on national issues -- but this one is becoming personal for all of us.
For instance, I received an invoice on Aug. 13 for a couple of items I won in an online auction. The company that sent it provides such payment reminders as a matter of course, and such invoices normally arrive within two or three days from Maumee, Ohio.
That is, they used to.
This time, what came was an invoice containing items for which I had long since paid. The invoice was dated July 23. It took 21 days -- three weeks -- for this simple missive to make its way to my mailbox.
A week earlier, I received a package in the mail that I had been expecting for some time. It was sent from the same source on the same day as another package. The other package took but three or four days to get here. I waited another 10 days for its partner to show up.
This is emblematic of the strategy the Trump Administration is utilizing as the President bobs and weaves in an attempt to gain re-election. But it’s a dangerous game, among its dangers the fact that mail service provides delivery of prescription drugs needed by hundreds of thousands of ill and elderly in a timely, not tardy, fashion.
This is also a danger to our ballot process, since the President is, to my mind, clearly trying to disrupt a mail-in voting practice that he insists will be rife with fraud -- an unsubstantiated claim by any measure, and not the case, in any event, in Florida, where Trump needs the heavy population of his elderly supporters to vote for him in what could be a tight race. It’s okay if that state has a heavy dose of mail-in ballots, he has said. That's amazing gall.
The ploys -- the delays and the underfunding -- are obvious, and the President isn’t even trying to hide them. He is, in the view of many, trying to shrink the number of mail-in votes that will be counted in the Nov. 3 election. How? Well, some 32 states have rules saying a ballot that arrives after election day will not be counted.
By constantly bashing the mail-in process, Trump is eroding public confidence in it. Beyond that, assume someone sends in his or her ballot two weeks ahead of Election Day. If it takes three weeks to arrive -- as my invoice did -- then the result will be disenfranchisement. The man or woman who mailed that ballot would lose his or her right to vote in that election through the whim and chicanery emanating from the White House, through Delay.
Even Congressman Tom Reed, as loyal a foot soldier to the Trump parade as almost any other member of the House of Representatives (he toes the Trump line in House votes almost 90% of the time), raised the matter in a press release on Aug. 12. Perhaps he fielded enough complaints to make him think (long shot) that his re-election might be endangered. Whatever the reason, it was (despite his being somewhat bold in questioning a Trump maneuver) steeped in cautious rhetoric.
It was headlined: Rep. Tom Reed calls for Postmaster DeJoy to provide additional information on USPS operational changes. It was subtitled: Congressman expands on efforts to ensure vulnerable communities and rural regions don’t lose access to vital USPS services.
I would have preferred to see a headline titled: Knock it off, Delay.
The press release read, in part:
“Today, Representative Tom Reed voiced his concern over national reports and constituent outreach regarding delays in United States Postal Service (USPS) deliveries, substantial USPS operational changes, and staffing reductions. Reed called on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to provide Congress and the public with specific details on:
“--What changes or pilot programs the USPS has enacted.
“--What steps are being taken to ensure these changes do not delay the delivery of mail or the Post Office’s capacity to perform essential services.
“--How these new policies will impact customers and postal workers.
“Given mounting public confusion and misinformation, policymakers need to know immediately the extent of recent operational changes to the USPS and what is being done to prevent mail delays during this uncertain time. We should all want to help set the record straight and ensure the USPS and its postal carriers have the financial resources they need to carry out their mission and continue serving our communities.
“Improving the Postal Service’s financial solvency and boosting USPS efficiency is an appropriate goal with bipartisan support, but achieving those goals can’t come at the expense of New Yorkers who rely on the USPS to continue delivering packages, medicine, and other critical items in a timely fashion.”
Nicely said, I suppose, but if push comes to shove, will Reed act in support of Trump, or will he follow through on those printed words and risk an unflattering tweet?
On another matter:
Two very different approaches. That’s what we have in the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen school districts. At O-M, which is following an in-school, full-time reopening effort, students will -- I suspect -- be looking more forward to getting back to classes and to their friends than the students in the Watkins Glen district are. There, in Watkins, the School Board has opted for a half-and-half, or what some are calling a 50/50, proposition.
Watkins students in an “A” group, pre-K through 12th grade, will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, with group “B” attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be devoted to disinfecting the buildings, with no in-school instruction. No day will see more than 50% of the student body in school, and on one of them there won't be any students present at all.
When not in school, Watkins students will be remotely learning, which was forced on kids around the country with the arrival in force of the pandemic in March. So ... with two days in and three days out, it’s really a 40-60 deal for students in the Glen. (What's wrong with Group A going to school three days one week and two the next, and Group B going to school two days one week and three the next? You really can't clean the place after school each day?)
Parents in both districts with an abundance of concern about their children's health have the option of remote learning for their kids. O-M reported Thursday that it had contacted the families of all but 114 of the district’s 770 students, and that 547 of those children are planning to attend school in person, with 104 doing remote or distance learning through at least the first semester. Five have opted for the more independent home schooling.
It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. Given the seemingly equal chance in either locale that the Covid-19 might rear its ugly head, I would much rather be an O-M student right now than a Watkins student. Five days out of the house instead of two. Regaining a sense of normalcy, of familiarity, of badly needed social interaction.
Of course, time is often a harsh teacher, and might yet instill another of life's lessons in me, proving my folly in issuing that assessment.
But we'll see.
A difficult road ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 10, 2020 -- So ... Governor Andrew Cuomo has given schools the green light to open this fall.
Sounds great. But now comes the tough part ... and, I suspect, a rolling wave of confusion.
There are so many questions ahead:
--What form will the reopening take? This will likely vary from district to district. Odessa-Montour Superintendent Chris Wood has made it clear the preferred route is full-time, full-day, in-person education. Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan has said he has no preference, which pretty much leaves it with the School Board to consider: in-person, remote, or a hybrid of the two.
--Cuomo insisted on three sessions by each district with parents by Aug. 21, to gauge their preference, and one with teachers, who may or may not have serious concerns about putting themselves in an enclosed space (a classroom, not to mention a school in general) at a time when indoor gatherings are seen as a major transfer point of the novel coronavirus.
The results of those conversations -- public and teacher -- add all sorts of variables to the mix: will there be teachers who resist a return; and will there be a resistance by parents to send their kids into what they see as harm’s way? Those are two key factors -- neither of which, apparently, a school district can control. Cuomo said you can’t make either teachers or students attend in-person schooling if they feel their health might be at stake.
--What will be the response ... the overall effect ... if a student or students bused to school are found feverish upon entry (temperatures will be taken at that point) and ultimately are found to test positive for covid-19? What kind of delay will occur between test and test result? What if the test gives a false negative or false positive? What kind of contact tracing will be in place, and does that mean quarantining, say, for the whole busload who accompanied the infected student to school on the day his or her temperature spiked?
--And there are a myriad of subtle strategy shifters that will need attending to, probably daily ...
--Unless, of course, the state doesn’t get a federal bailout, and the state aid is pulled back by, say, 20%, which at the O-M district would equal a couple of million bucks ... which would necessitate a return to Square One. The whole darn thing would have to be reconsidered. Reducing aid by that much, or even anything approaching that much, would have serious repercussions.
Well, I’m no expert, with no sound answers, so I’ll be listening carefully to those closer to the educational systems to see what they figure out.
And on the upside of this whole covid-19 mess, I was directed by Judy McKinney Cherry, executive director of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED), to a Letter to the Editor that ran in the Lancaster Online news site in Pennsylvania. It was from Donna M. Dinger of West Cocalico Township in northeastern Lancaster County, concerning a visit to Schuyler County. It follows:
“My husband and I recently returned home from a glorious four-day trip to an event held on New York’s Seneca Lake. While we were there, we frequented restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores, gas stations and a small (25 people or fewer) outdoor gathering.
“No employees in public establishments were without masks and all were wearing them correctly. Not once did we see customers or clients enter a public building without a mask, nor did we hear arguments or witness confrontations. There was never a question in my mind that outdoor restaurant tables were 6 feet or more apart.
“Since we travel with our dogs, we have come to expect outpouring of affection toward them, but this year everyone admired them from afar. Folks at the outdoor gathering wore masks until seated at their tables and were physically and politely distancing from others. The state park where we hiked required masks on the trail; we met very few noncompliant hikers.
“It was evident that the people in this area took safety protocol seriously and without complaint. We never felt that we were in a stressful situation or that our health and safety were compromised. Respect was overwhelming.
“The reality of COVID-19 cases? In Schuyler County on Seneca Lake, there were 20 COVID-19 cases at the time and zero deaths.
“Coincidence? I think not.”
And I received another email regarding another positive occurrence -- the response to a potentially fatal accident up in the Watkins Glen State Park gorge last month that contained an element of Scouting that demonstrates the value of the skills imparted in those youth programs. Actually there were two separate missives in the email, one in which Victor Otruba, of Mansfield, Pa., explained how he and his sister Ariel, of Hellertown, Pa., helped a stranger in need. Writing on July 10, Victor shared the following:
“I could not be more proud of my sister, Ariel. Today we were at Watkins Glen when an older gentleman was overcome by the heat and unconsciously toppled headlong backwards into the crevasse.
“We didn't see it, but we heard the splash and screams from those near him. Before I knew it my sister and I had climbed down and plunged into the waters of the gorge. The man's son reached him first and never have I been so relieved as to find him conscious and aware. My sister took the lead in first aid; we immobilized him in case of spinal injuries and treated for possible head trauma and shock.
“We must have spent a good 40 minutes in the water getting to know the man (John Whitford of Liverpool, Pa.), before the pros arrived with proper rescue gear. Ariel kept him talking. He was a lifelong Boy Scout, having even taken his walking stick with him over the edge. ... If Ariel and I had not been Scouts ourselves, we would not have responded as we did.
“UPDATE: Received word from John! Luck was truly on his side today, leaving him with only some bumps, bruises, and a minor cut on the head!”
The other missive was written by John Whitford himself:
“I guess what happened to me qualifies as a near-death experience,” he shared in part. “Passing out, falling 40 feet into a gorge and coming to in water ... I expect that qualifies, as I was unconscious for the fall and briefly while in the water.
“While I do not recall specific details of my fall, when I opened my eyes I was floating in water with my son on my left and two strangers named Victor and Ariel on my right. I felt very comfortable and even ‘refreshed.’ I was mostly uninjured, a scrape on my scalp and possibly a mild concussion along with some muscle strain and pull in my left arm and my neck.
“My son Matt’s immediate response without any real regard for his safety, jumping over the wall and going down the hillside after me, was what kept me from major damage from inhaling water or even drowning. Without his actions I would very possibly be dead or brain damaged. Ariel and Victor saw someone in trouble and immediately came to assist my son and make sure I was stable. Everyone was soaked from jumping into the water to assist with my rescue.
“My thanks to all those that came to assist me. Thanks to the multiple fire and rescue units, the EMT and ambulance crew, the park staff, the police, the folks at (Schuyler) Hospital and all those who were so caring and compassionate; to my wife and son; and to Ariel and Victor, who jumped into the water to help care for me. God Bless you all ... "
Of hopes and dreams ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 29, 2020 -- Life is not just loss; it is also vanquished hopes.
Gad, that sounds depressing. But it’s pretty much true, or at least I’ve found it that way. Which means we all need to be flexible; to rebound from disappointment and rejection. At least in normal times.
Those oft-fractured hopes, to my mind, are largely represented by career aspirations. For instance, I thought when I was young that being a United States Senator would be just about the highest calling there is.
I didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to put myself out there for public consumption, though, so I ended up going in a different direction. Good thing, since I discovered along the way that Washington, D.C. is rife with corruption, and that a seat in the U.S. Senate is hardly a high calling at all.
I thought too that being a major league baseball player would be fantastic, but I learned early on that I had neither the talent nor the drive for such an undertaking. Along the way, in 1963, I was befriended by a major leaguer who talked of the excitement of the game but also of its divisions and (as in just about any aspect of society) inherent problems.
Whether that included a racial divide on his team, I'm not sure, although that particular organization was the second-to-last to abandon complete segregation on its roster, securing its first black ballplayer in a trade in 1958, fully 11 years after Jackie Robinson had ascended to the major leagues. The team had six black players in 1963, which was, I suppose, a significant step forward.
Put it this way: Whether racism played a role in the 1963 version of that squad is a matter of perspective and interpretation, often nebulous factors applied any time racism rears its head -- which I think by definition and nature is just about any day in anyone's life. (Well, it is perhaps not a constant consideration in Schuyler County, which is -- if a population of 17,000 can be considered overwhelming -- overwhelmingly white.)
In my own life, there was a black cleaning lady who visited our home every week when I was growing up, and on at least one occasion oversaw the family while my parents were away. When first told by my parents that they had hired this “colored woman,” I thought -- being young and quite literal -- that a many-hued person would soon be inhabiting our world. I was disappointed to find she was but one color. On occasion, a man related to her -- I can’t recall if he was son or brother or nephew -- did some manual labor on our property. I was always a little intimidated by him -- inherent racism, I suspect -- although he never did anything to warrant that reaction.
(The cleaning lady, name of Clara, did not intimidate me; and at the risk of sounding like the man who denies being a racist by claiming that "one of my best friends is black," let me say this: Clara became a part of my upbringing, growing old and gray as I negotiated my teen years. She was, in fact, a comforting part of my life, and a person I grew to love, and still love many years after her passing. She was a touchstone of kindness and yet firmness; wry humor laced with wisdom. I can hear her infectious laugh to this day, and miss the wide smile that went with it.)
A couple of decades later, I worked at USA Today on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette for about four months, and did so well (the most in-house weekly awards among the entire staff during my tenure) that I thought I should have been considered for full-time employment. But I was told by an official there (off the record; it was more in the spirit of friendly advice than any edict) that I was not only "too old" (39) and "too male," but "too white."
So ... the paths we think we’d like to take are often blocked by our own shortcomings -- lack of confidence, inadequate talent, lack of drive -- or by societal limiters such as affirmative action. I faced all of those, and I think came out the stronger for it. Hell, we all get beaten down, but as the great fictional boxer Rocky Balboa said -- well, in essence it was "Get back up!"
Which brings me to this point:
Before the pandemic, we all had -- our own shortcomings or societal strictures notwithstanding -- the opportunity to follow that path or those paths that we chose. We had opportunity. If we had the will, we might just find a way -- or could take an alternative route that led to other achievements, others hopes and dreams.
But now, and for the foreseeable future, so many paths have been closed off. For 150,000 (and counting) souls, those paths have been closed off for eternity. For those still standing, things are not fatally dire, but “standing” seems to be the operative word, for we’re moving in place. Most of us, armed with the facts we can glean from conflicting national sources, choose not to travel, such travel presenting the risk of taking out or bringing home coronavirus infections.
I have taken a trip to northern Michigan -- to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac -- annually for the past quarter century, and before that visited the island several summers as a boy. It is part of my soul. But now I’m not going, not this year. My brother and his wife, who have joined me for many summers on Bois Blanc, are staying put in Florida, it appears. The risks of an annual trip to the wilds of Michigan seem daunting. Besides, Bois Blanc Islanders have made it known they don’t want visitors, and that if we come, we can damn well stay away from them -- in a distant cottage or a cabin in the woods -- for at least two weeks.
Air travel is way down, the cruise-ship business has pretty much tanked, and the raging pandemic has reduced car travel substantially. We are urged to stay home. Moving in place, going nowhere.
The kids -- the students in high school and recently graduated -- have found their hopes and dreams, if not exactly short-circuited, put on a remote (as in distance learning) basis. That’s a general statement. I’m sure if you dug down under its surface, you’d find some students whose families have been so economically stressed (or worse) by the pandemic that plans for potentially expensive college educations have gone by the board. Hell, colleges themselves are facing all sorts of economic concerns, the effects of which will be playing out before long, impacted (as are we all) by the recession (depression?) in which we’re mired.
Which leads us to the upcoming elementary and secondary school year. What will it look like? Will it be in-school, a hybrid of school and home, or simply online? Who knows? The Governor has yet to weigh in, and local districts have been hard at work preparing plans for each of those three contingencies.
At Odessa-Montour, School Superintendent Chris Wood said on Tuesday, July 28, that the district was “working on it (those state-ordered plans) even as we speak,” with a deadline of July 31 looming. The School Board would be discussing it at a meeting on July 30.
The same day, Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan said his district was “finalizing (a) draft today,” and that the Board of Education would “review and adopt” at a meeting on July 29.
We all -- well, most of us, I assume -- hope there is a clear way to get the kids back in the classroom and, beyond that, onto the playing fields. Students in essence lost a third of their year the last time around, and the fear nags that they could -- if this pandemic keeps gaining steam -- lose even more this year.
Granted, they are not alone in loss, and 150,000 dead attests to the fact that there are worse things than online learning.
But God, it sure would be nice if our kids, if we all, got a break, and reclaimed a situation where excessive death in this country was curtailed, where our economy regained its health, and where desired paths -- career aspirations -- and their concomitant hopes and dreams became part of American life again.
That's my fervent wish.
That is my prayer.
T. Rump Rabbit's ghost ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 14, 2020 -- Theodore “Rump” Rabbit is dead.
That sad news reached me by e-mail mere days after the column I wrote (see below) in which he and I had a lively discussion regarding the nation’s various maladies.
The local fire chief, John Jelliff, told me in an e-mail that his wife Lisa had found the body of poor old T. Rump Rabbit in their yard off Church Street in Odessa. T. “Rump” (the nickname was in reference to his ample behind) was old -- I figure about 75 in human years -- and crusty and, as it turned out, probably carrying too much weight.
That’s a dangerous thing at his age.
“In all seriousness,” the chief wrote, “we are going to miss him. The entire neighborhood has grown attached to him.”
I wrote back, expressing the hope that his demise was not caused by anything I had written, or for that matter by anything I had said to T. Rump.
Well, the chief, surmised, “I think maybe he couldn’t take the heat.”
I’m not sure if the chief was referring to the glare of publicity, to the unfriendly banter the rabbit and I had exchanged, or to the actual weather, which for days -- at the time of T. Rump’s passing -- had been regularly in the mid-90s.
I know, I know. You think I’m kidding. But I’m not. T. Rump did pass away in the yard of the village fire chief, who did in fact inform me of it by e-mail. That is true. And the rabbit is buried there (in the grave pictured on the right). Whether you believe I had actually conversed in the past with that old right-wing carnivore is up to you. But die he did.
Which makes what followed even more interesting. Call it a flight of fancy, the product of an overactive imagination, or perhaps simply a commentary on our times.
With T. Rump’s passing, I figured I wouldn’t be doing any sort of sequel to that previous column, death being a final kind of thing. Or so I thought.
But as shown in my own past (I’m thinking in particular of an amazing Aurora Borealis show the week after my wife’s passing in 2004, along with other oddities that bespoke ethereal messaging during that funeral week. Click here.), the end might not ever really mean the end.
But I digress.
Days passed after T. Rump's death, each one seemingly hotter than the previous one, and I continued to take my daily walks along the village streets -- waiting until near sundown so as not to roast.
Then, at about the spot on College Avenue where I had last encountered T. Rump on the right side of the road not too many days earlier, a voice from my left, the opposite side of the street, caught my attention. It was a squeaky vocal, almost a screech, uncomfortably audible to my ears.
Part of that discomfort was because of the words: “You murderer!” I looked over and saw a cottontail, back on its haunches, studying me -- and I could have sworn steam was coming out of its ears. Or maybe it was just the remaining heat of a long, sauna-like day.
This unfriendly little rabbit -- I had seen him around from time to time, but never engaged him before -- twitched and snorted and gave out something that resembled a sneeze, and then raised his arms, gesticulating, in what I could only deduce was a spasmodic jerk. And he again sputtered “Murderer!” before taking off, moving in leaping strides across the lawn on which he had perched, over the side road branching off of College Avenue, and then past and around a house on the far corner.
I stood there, transfixed, wondering what the heck I had just witnessed -- or done to deserve such vitriol -- when another voice to my right, on the very lawn upon which I had encountered T. Rump the week before, broke the lingering silence.
“Don’t mind him,” said this higher -- a feminine -- voice. “That’s just old Lindsey. He says things he doesn’t mean half the time.”
I turned and saw a small bunny -- gray furred with long whiskers, along with what I thought were huge eyes -- sitting there, chewing on some grass.
“Lindsey, eh?” I said.
“Yeah, Lindsey Gee,” answered my newest acquaintance. “He spouts off, but nobody pays much attention.”
“Uh, huh,” I said. “I’m Hef, by the way. And you are...”
“Call me Aosi,” she said. “Everybody else does.”
“Hello, Aosi. I don't recall seeing you before.”
“Oh, I'm from downstate,” she said. “I caught a ride up here on a truck recently, just to see how Upstaters live. And honestly, everybody -- well, maybe not all of the rabbits -- are much nicer up here.”
Just then, from behind me and across the road, Lindsey had reappeared at the far edge of the corner house, and was screaming again.
“Murderer!” he yelled, although it came out more of a tortured croak. “And you, Aosi. You shut up! Just go back to where you came from!”
In response, Aosi hissed in Lindsey’s direction, and he took off again.
I turned back to Aosi, who was shaking her head. “What did he mean?" I asked. "Why is he so lit up about me?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “It's about T. Rump. Kind of a fixture around here. His friends are upset.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not one of my favorites, though. Kind of contrary. Really conservative -- or at least that’s the pitches he was throwing. But ... murderer? What did I do?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it," she said. "It's just a timing thing. You wrote about T. Rump, and he read it and was all pumped up and telling everyone about it, and then he dropped dead.”
“Yeah, well, I don't think I have any kind of life-or-death power," I answered. "My jokes about using him in a stew aside, I've never wished anyone dead."
“It wasn't you,” said Aosi. “I think T. Rump actually liked the attention. He was just old. Old and too fat. It was his time.”
I mulled that a moment, and nodded. “Okay, good,” I answered. “Thanks, Aosi. I'll see you later.”
“Bye, Hef,” she said.
I walked about a half a block, past the high school -- empty since the pandemic took over our lives -- and past a large house just beyond it. I reached a shaded stretch of road, with a garden on either side of the pavement, when I was stopped by another voice.
“Hey, Hef,” it said, and I turned to my left. There, within fencing around a lush growth of vegetables, sat ... well, it was a large rabbit, and yet not quite one. Which is to say, it was ethereal, a figure not quite whole. I could, in fact, see right through it, although its features were clear.
It was, I knew in an instant -- and through my shock -- the ghost of T. Rump Rabbit. I had certainly not expected this; nor would I have wanted to. In life, he had not been my favorite acquaintance, and so there was no reason to long for that which was lost. Not in this case.
The fact is, I’m of neither major political party, nor of any minor one; I consider myself, if forced to a label, a Practicalist. T. Rump Rabbit was a Paininthebuttist.
“Hello, Theodore,” I said, using his given first name. Then I added:
“I met a friend of yours down the road there, Lindsey Gee, I believe his name is. He’s pretty upset with me.”
“Oh, don’t let him bother you,” said T. Rump. “He was loyal to me -- or maybe a little afraid of me. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t pay him much attention if I were you.”
“If you say so,” I answered. “Another rabbit, Aosi, told me roughly the same thing."
“Ah, yes, Aosi,” he said. “Nice looking young lady, but a little mouthy. I didn’t much like her in life ... but you know something, Hef? When you see the light -- you know, the bright light when you die -- well, you really see the light!”
I looked around -- to determine if anyone was watching me talking to a ghost, and at the same time thinking that when I turned back, this vague image of the late T. Rump might not be there. I hoped not, anyway, for I was questioning my own sanity.
But when I turned back he was still there, so I asked him about that light he was touting: “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, pausing a moment, “the light frees you of all the clutter; the BS, the political noise. I mean, I understand now that ‘fake news’ is -- aside from the rare aberration -- a weaponized term, and I can understand why you might take offense at it.”
Might. I simply smiled in response while shaking my head.
“And yes,” T. Rump went on, “as you have suggested to me, the current occupant of the White House has completely undermined what is supposed to be an inherent dignity of the office -- and yes, the pandemic does exist and is serious, and he really shouldn’t be ignoring it -- and yes, he’s undercutting the rule of law with his henchman in the Justice Department -- and yes, he’s a narcissist who thinks of nothing but himself. With his poll numbers, I don’t think it will end well for him in the upcoming election.”
“Well, amen,” I said. “I think I like that light of yours.”
But then a thought occurred to me. That would have to be one strong, amazing light to change a curmudgeon -- a right-wing curmudgeon -- like T. Rump. Unless ...
I eyed him closely. “Theodore,” I said, “are you just jerking my chain?”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit smiled -- or at least bared his teeth. In retrospect, I realize it was a sign of evil glee.
“Good guess, moron,” he said. “You bleeding heart liberals are all alike: gullible. That’s why we will always win. I can’t wait until November. You are going to be so disappointed.”
And with that he disappeared. No puff of smoke. Just your basic ghostly evaporation.
I stood there, still at the edge of the road, wondering if I had just hallucinated all of that -- or if, as I feared, it was real. Either way, it triggered a philosophical corner of my brain, producing the following thought: it occurred to me that truly bad philosophies, truly bad political and religious movements, truly bad eggs occupying government positions of power are like cockroaches, taxes and alimony.
They will always be distasteful, and -- alas -- will always be part of us, at least until we’re wiped out by a large meteor, a thermonuclear war, or a virus with a little more bite than the covid-19 possesses.
Yeah, we’re damned if we’re here (well, life does have its attractions), and damned if we’re not (as in, you know, dead.)
But, I thought, I’ll take the former, warts and all -- those warts even including right-wing rabbits, both earthly and otherwise.
I smiled ruefully, nodded, took a deep breath, and looked ahead, down the road.
And with that, I took a step, resuming my evening walk.
Photo in text: The gravesite of T. Rump Rabbit, on the Jelliff property in Odessa. A photo of T. Rump leans against the headstone.
Theodore 'Rump' Rabbit puts his right foot forward
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 5, 2020 -- When I was a young man, every day seemed like a new adventure.
I was fascinated by the possibilities ahead -- at the way life seemed to turn on a dime; how a trajectory that seemed boring could suddenly be altered into something exciting.
I’m a good bit more jaded now. Too many bosses, too many job critiques, too many partings, too many disappointments, too many regrets. They all, when combined, can drain you.
Oh, I still get a kick out of some things -- in particular photography and writing; in covering the news of Schuyler County. But the most enjoyable of that reporting has been wrested away from all of us, what with school and the accompanying sports on which I’ve long reported being canceled out this past spring by the pandemic.
One thing I’ve added to my daily regimen, in the absence of the physicality required to photograph and report on those sports, is a daily walk around my village, the ever-quiet settlement known as Odessa.
I rarely encounter anyone on the walk, coming as it does in the early evening, likely while much of the populace is indoors at supper. Once in a while I meet someone of my acquaintance sitting outside on a patio or porch as I pass; in such instances, I might pause for a conversation.
Less likely is the situation where I meet an acquaintance also out walking. But I did encounter one the other evening. He was on the lawn fronting a house on College Avenue, hopping around, stopping, sniffing the air, hopping some more, digging a little in the turf, and then hopping some more. When he spotted me, he turned, raised his ears, widened his eyes, and smiled in recognition.
“Hef!” said T. (as in Theodore) “Rump” Rabbit. Then he moved his head to the right and left, looking at my hands, to see what I might be carrying, if anything. “I don’t suppose you have any carrots there, do you?”
I held my arms out, hands open and palms up. Both empty. “Sorry,” I said.
“Ah, well,” he said, and I thought he didn’t really look like he needed much food. He had gained a bit of weight since I last had seen him. Somebody must be feeding him more than carrots, I thought. He had gotten the nickname “Rump” for his big derriere, and it was certainly not diminishing.
“So,” he added. “How goes the battle? Still putting out that news rag of yours?”
“It’s a website,” I said. “A rag denotes paper. This is paperless.”
“Your ragless, then,” he said. “Still publishing? Still feeding the masses your version of the truth? I don’t suppose you admit to fake news.”
I was beginning to remember why Theodore was merely an acquaintance, and not a friend.
“Whatever,” I said. “How is it over on the far right?” Theodore is, if nothing else (besides a fat rabbit), far more conservative on most social issues than I am.
“Good,” he said. “None of my family has that virus. In fact, none of my kind have caught it. I could joke and say we can still get together like ... you know ... like bunnies. But truthfully, I think this whole pandemic thing is overblown. A bit of fake news there, don’t you think?”
“Hmmph,” I heard myself say, and decided I didn’t really need to hear any right-wing conspiracy theories. I just wasn’t in the mood. “So,” I said, looking to pivot and leave, “good to see you.” And I started to move off; to continue my evening trek.
“Well, wait,” he said. “You used to be a lot more engaging. No politics? You usually have a lot of misguided advice.”
I paused and looked at him. He was licking his front paws with an expression that I thought was far too self-satisfied. “Well, I guess I don’t this time,” I said.
“Cat’s got your tongue?”
Actually, my reticence was caused not by a cat, but by a rapidly growing aversion to a rabbit -- and I thought, probably not for the first time since I met this particular herbivore, of practicing some carnivorism on him.
I took a deep breath, and decided to confront this particular demon. “What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“You coming out against mail-in balloting? It’s ripe for cheating, you know.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “That’s White House BS.”
“Oh? And how about this virus thing? You're blaming the Chinese, aren't you? It’s all their doing, you know.”
“Open to debate,” I said. “They’re not clean, but it’s more complicated than that. Besides, I thought you said it was fake news.”
Undeterred, he went on. “And this Russian bounty stuff,” he said. “It’s hogwash.”
“If by hogwash you mean outrageous in its concept and its permissive execution, then I agree.”
Theodore sneezed, which I knew from experience was his way of expressing disagreement.
“Never happened,” he said.
“Intelligence agencies beg to differ,” I said.
“Deep state,” he responded. “They’re all out to get the incumbent. Everybody’s out to get him. It’s a really unfair world, you know.”
“Sometimes it is,” I agreed. “But there are times and circumstances that I find satisfying.”
I smiled. “Like consuming a nice meal called Hasenpfeffer.”
He looked at me. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“It’s rabbit stew,” I said, “served with red wine and various flavorings.”
“Ha, ha,” Theodore responded. “Leave it to you liberals to resort to threats.”
“No threat,” I said. “Just imagining a tasty meal.”
“Yeah? Well, one thing you can’t argue.”
“The elimination of traces of the Confederacy. Talk about your BS. Totally unwarranted. I mean, come on, Robert E. Lee?”
“I’ll grant you on Lee. And Stonewall Jackson.”
Those two were ingrained in me as heroes when I was growing up, and I can’t shake that.
“But really,” I said, “crappy Confederate generals with U.S. forts named after them? I don’t think that was ever justified.And existing statues of them were, for the most part, politically charged -- which is to say Jim Crow statements -- erected forty years after the Civil War.”
“They’re part of our heritage ....”
“They’re part of a Southern heritage steeped in racism. They’re not our heritage.”
“I disagree. What about the Confederate flag?”
“What about it?” I said.
“That is part of our heritage.”
I thought a moment, and nodded.
“It is," I answered. "But that doesn’t mean it has to be honored -- especially when it reveres a way of life built on something as heinous as slavery. The flag had its place, and now it doesn’t -- except as an historical footnote. The war, after all, lasted just four years. Hardly what I’d call entrenched. And certainly not part of 21st century life.”
“This 21st century life," Theodore said, "was just fine before the left-wing drive to undermine it and to overthrow this duly-elected government.”
“Huh?” I said, for I was having trouble following his path through extremism.
“It’s the minorities,” he said. “They’re being used. They’re being pushed by the left-wing extremists. You saw all those protests. It’s all part of a planned revolution, a blatant attempt to end this country.”
I shook my head.
“Those protests,” I said, “were the culmination of decades of frustration, of centuries of racism, fanned by an open murder of a man by police in Minneapolis -- one of many, I might point out, that have occurred across the years. Mix in the fears wrought by the virus and a tumbling economy ...”
“Blah, blah, blah,” said Theodore. “Bleeding heart-ism. You really are a tool.”
I laughed. For some reason, that term has always struck my funny bone.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “at least I’m not hopping around with a chance to be someone’s dinner.”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit stared at me, and I back at him. Then -- on key and completely unexpectedly -- he started whistling “Dixie,” a musical ode to the Confederacy -- its marching song during the Civil War.
He really was pretty good -- the genesis of the song notwithstanding. The whistling was great, the enthusiasm of the song’s sentiment shining through. He pretty much nailed it.
I shook my head, not in admiration and not, despite the symbolism of the song, in dismay. It was more a sign of incredulity.
“What?” he said, seeing my reaction.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No,” he insisted. “It’s something. What?”
“Well,” I said, still shaking my head.
“What?” he said again.
So I answered.
“Well, it's the darndest thing ... what you were doing. Pretty amazing, really. I mean ... whoever heard of a rabbit that could whistle?”
Photo in text: Theodore "Rump" Rabbit at the time of our conversation.
The ghosts of my past, and timeless lessons imparted...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 16, 2020 -- When I started in the journalism business, I hooked on with the Watertown Daily Times in Northern New York -- Watertown being the hometown of my then-wife. My first posting, my first assigned coverage, was Carthage, or more specifically the “twin villages” of Carthage and West Carthage, two communities separated by the Black River. They were located about 20 minutes east of Watertown.
At the urging of my bosses, I secured an apartment just outside of Carthage -- the idea being that my coverage would be more complete if I were there in the twin villages around the clock. I preferred Watertown -- that’s where I wanted to work -- but newcomers can’t be choosers.
So I settled in with my wife and small son and tried to acclimate to Carthage, which wasn't hard; it was like many other communities, politely welcoming, with its various social classes and its share of colorful characters.
Among those characters was the police chief, a round, ruddy-cheeked, fifty-something fellow named Ray Murray, who viewed me with some amusement. One morning, as I was walking along State Street, the main thoroughfare, looking for news, Chief Murray hailed me from across the street -- waved me over.
“I got something to show you,” he said. And he led me into a building and down a stairway to a basement, and around a couple of turns on the damp concrete to a stall used for storage. He stopped at its edge, turned, smiled, and pointed to the floor inside the wide entry. I leaned forward and to the right to get a view, and there was the quite dead body of an elderly gentleman lying there in plaid shirt and dungarees, mouth and eyes open, illuminated by a soft bulb hanging from the ceiling a few feet above.
I was, naturally, shocked. This was the first deceased person I’d ever seen outside a coffin, and I don’t think I’d seen but one or two of those. I stared, not sure how to respond, until Chief Murray chuckled.
“Heart attack,” he said. “Something, isn’t it?”
I looked at him, speechless, with a “Why?” trying to make its way out of my mouth.
The Chief took in my reaction, smiled, and finally said: “Thought you should see it. This is how my job is.”
And he strode past me, retracing his path, and I followed, and we climbed the stairs and parted on the street. The Chief headed off to his office, probably to arrange the removal of the body.
That day has stayed with me every day since -- not only for its shock value, but for the truth the Chief was trying to impart to me -- that we all have roles to play, and sometimes what you or I do doesn’t amount to much in the view of somebody else operating on a wholly different plane and with a wholly different list of responsibilities.
Or maybe, just maybe, Ray Murray was simply having fun at my expense.
Another notable character was Bob Rich, the owner and publisher of the Carthage Republican Tribune, a weekly publication that thoroughly covered the village news. Mr. Rich, a World War II Army veteran, had lived in Carthage his whole life, with the exception of his military service.
Bob was by then about 50 years old, but had a seamed face that suggested elderly to me, for I was a fresh-faced young whelp just out of college. But despite our difference in age and experience, he was unfailingly kind to me, making the occasional suggestion on people to interview and meetings worth attending.
What I remember most, though, was a contest he ran in his paper over a period of weeks -- where he would pick a local resident as a secret subject who his readers were challenged to identify by rather vague and (I guessed) insider clues he put in front of them like so many scraps for the birds. Anyone winning a weekly identification -- whoever was first with the correct answer -- won $200, although I think you could win only once.
I didn’t earn much of a salary -- $6,500 annually -- so that $200 looked pretty large to me, and I dove headlong into the clues each week. But I’d only been there a couple of months, at that point, and you just don’t learn about a community and its people beyond the surface in that short a time.
I failed miserably in that contest, week after week. A couple of times I thought I’d arrived at the correct answer, but was wrong.
I mentioned this failure to Bob Rich after the contest had concluded.
“I didn’t figure out one of them,” I said, and he smiled, shaking his head.
“No, I don’t suppose you did,” he said.
Society obviously functions best when we co-exist peacefully, and that is handled best with civility and norms. It is not handled best if we look unrelentingly for the worst in a person (as we do with politicians). Given our deep well of secrets or, perhaps, preferred privacies, such a judgmental smorgasbord practiced widely would undermine the societal foundation we depend upon.
What I'm leading to, I suppose, is this: in this age of the pandemic, all of our usual social tendencies are not so much put on hold as they are enhanced. As is the fraying of our nerve ends.
We all, in better times, maintain a certain distance from one another, a space dictated by our respective and differing roles (Ray Murray's cop vs. my journalist), and by the fact that -- short of living some place our entire lives and, in the case of Bob Rich, making his living knowing as much about everyone around him as he could -- we really don’t know one another very well.
Not unless we are really close friends. I don’t know about you, but such friends have been few in my life.
The fact is, our normally subjective distancing -- our tendency to hunker down in our homes with our immediate families, venturing out to shop or to work or to the occasional party -- has become objective lately: represented most noticeably by face masks. Where we in normal times wear a subjective mask -- our faces, carrying (or hiding) our emotions -- we now wear unrelenting cloth ones that reveal nothing.
And that will continue -- at least with the more cautious among us, wearing manufactured face masks in public -- if the coronavirus insists on staying around.
Really, while we are -- as the popular saying goes -- in this together, we all stand the best chance of moving forward with our health intact by tending to ourselves. Pandemically speaking, when we do, we also, concomitantly, fail to endanger -- and thus benefit -- our neighbors.
And about graduations:
Around here, social distancing has proven remarkably successful, despite daily gatherings at Walmart and weekend gatherings at the State Park.
It is on that note that I want to echo what school officials and local government officials are saying to Governor Andrew Cuomo: Eliminate the numerical limitation on graduation, or, perhaps, let local officials make the decision on how to proceed with such ceremonies. With masks and distancing, there is no reason to force a district like Watkins Glen to hold four ceremonies -- not when more sizable crowds elsewhere locally (sometimes minus face masks) have failed thus far to generate viral transmissions.
If you do relent, Governor, the spirit of the graduates will be lifted high with seemingly no serious health threat. They will graduate together -- the fitting culmination of a journey that they have shared across many years.
Come on, Governor. Let’s show some sense here, along with compassion..
Open up the graduations.
The contagious, admirable drive of our young adults ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 3, 2020 -- The older I get, the more I depend on the enthusiasm of youths to regenerate my own often flagging energy.
I feed off of their drive, their achievements, their love of life and competition.
I don’t think I could have done this -- published this online newspaper -- for 17-plus years otherwise. Especially not where I am now, at three score and 11 years. (Yes, as in Three score and 11 years ago my parents brought forth on this continent a new journalist ...)
Tuesday was no different from those other days and years.
Young folks -- many of whom I have covered in sports stories and whose photos I have snapped on the playing fields -- were suddenly back in my world, the world of news.
There was the turnout that day at Watkins Glen’s Lafayette Park of scores of people holding signs in protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the week before at the hands of law enforcement.
Many of those present at the park -- standing for hours alongside Fourth Street -- were young adults. Despite their pandemic face masks, I recognized many right away as they greeted me and my camera. I had pointed my camera in their direction many times in past years, at school athletic, academic and theatrical events.
I spotted and spoke to Mariah Gonzalez, Hanley Elliott, Grace Wickham, Kai Sutterby, Megan Hazlitt, Luke Flahive, Kathleeen Swinnerton, her sister Sarah, Scott Brubaker, H. Nathaniel Rose, Allie Gibson and others. All those named are Watkins Glen school district alums (or, in the case of Sarah Swinnerton and Brubaker, graduating seniors).
The event was organized by 2018 Odessa-Montour grad Alec Betts. On hand, standing just west of Alec in the sign line, was Manley Gavich, another O-M grad.
There were others, but masks and memory are blocking their names.
The point, I guess, is that I was both energized at seeing old friends -- we’ve been locked up so long by this virus and by executive fiat that we’re all craving some human interaction -- and by the fact that they have been motivated by a need for positive societal change.
Their numbers, and the hours that they stood there, masked, holding signs -- led me to wonder: where did that come from? Upbringing, of course. And, I suspect, teaching.
A friend of mine, a retired educator, said that social justice has long been preached by teaching staff at Watkins Glen.
So ... let’s chalk one up to upbringing, to teaching, and to social justice.
And to renewed energy as we all start coming out of our self-imposed hiatus from public life.
The same day, I was able to purchase trophies I had ordered at Watkins Sporting Goods, which had just opened its doors to masked customers.
This came on the heals of word from Kathy Crans, the Top Drawer 24‘s hard-working Executive Everything, that she had sent out large padded envelopes filled with certificates from various government officials and medallions to each of this year’s Top Drawer honorees. The Top Drawer program, for those uninitiated, annually honors two dozen top student-athlete-citizens from a dozen school districts in the region. It is co-sponsored by WENY-TV and The Odessa File, whose editor/publisher (me) was co-founder.
Anyway, I picked up Athlete of the Year plaques at the Sporting Goods store for nine different student-athletes: Grace Vondracek, Paden Grover and Preston Harris at Odessa-Montour High School, and Isaac McIlroy, Gabe Planty, and swimmers Amanda Wilbur, Peighton Cervoni, Faye Mooney and Thalia Marquez at Watkins Glen High School. I also picked up a trophy for the Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award winner: O-M’s JoLynn Minnier.
As soon as I got the plaques, I delivered four of them to the E.C. Cooper Insurance business next door to Watkins Sporting Goods. E.C. Cooper sponsors the awards annually, but more to the point, honoree Amanda Wilbur’s mother Julie works there and had earlier agreed to distribute the plaques to Amanda and her fellow swim honorees once I had secured them.
Those four swimmers led WGHS’s girls varsity swim team to its third straight Section IV, Class C championship last fall. Each of the four earned a spot on The Odessa File’s All-Schuyler All-Star First Team.
As it turned out, Julie had the swimmers gather Tuesday night, and distributed the awards at that time.
Later that night, photos and a message were emailed me by Amanda Wilbur, a senior this next year at WGHS.
“Hi Charlie,” she wrote: “it’s Amanda Wilbur. Here are some pictures we took when we received our rewards by surprise! Thank you so much for the nomination and also for always following and supporting us throughout the season :). We appreciate you so much and hopefully will get to see you in the near future next season! Hope everything is well! Stay safe during this time and see you soon!”
Thank you, Amanda. That kind of positive reaction -- something of a rarity for journalists -- is invigorating. It's the sort of thing that keeps me going -- to use an old phrase, keeps me "jazzed up."
I also was affected by the reaction of the Susan Award honoree, JoLynn Minnier. I happened to encounter her Tuesday afternoon at Walmart, where she was serving as a checkout clerk in a line I chose by chance. I didn’t even recognize her at first, her pandemic facemask -- mandatory for Walmart workers -- obscuring her looks.
I told her I had picked up the trophy for her, and after she cashed me out, I went to retrieve it from my vehicle, returned to the store with it cradled in my left arm, and got in her line again, waiting for one customer ahead of me to finish up. Then I approached her.
Her eyes crinkled in smile as she saw the trophy.
“I love it!” she said.
I handed it to her, expressing the obvious -- that this was a singular honor, presented to one person in the region covered by the Top Drawer program. It is an award named in honor of the life and fairness of my late wife Susan, and while it started out as a stand-alone honor (its origins predate the Top Drawer 24), it has become a part of the Top Drawer program in recent years.
“I’m so glad you selected me,” she said, and I felt a bit overwhelmed at the sincerity in her voice.
And so I smiled from behind my mask, snapped her picture with my phone, and wished her what we all have been wishing one another in this age of the pandemic.
“Be well,” I said, before moving on and leaving her to turn to the next customer.
Photos in text:
Top: Some of the young adults lining Fourth Street during the protest.
Middle: From left, Watkins Glen Female Athletes of the Year Thalia Marquez, Peighton Cervoni, Faye Mooney and Amanda Wilbur. (Photo provided)
Bottom: Susan Award winner JoLynn Minnier with her trophy, presented to her as she worked at Walmart. For some reason, the camera phone produced this picture in black and white.
On a turbulent ocean ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 21, 2020 -- There is a celebrated bit of verse:
O, God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.
That saying, on a plaque that famously graced the desk of President John F. Kennedy, is referred to as The Breton Fisherman’s Prayer. Its origin is in dispute, but it appears to have derived from a poem by church historian and literary editor Winfred Ernest Garrison.
I have long found those words, or at least that sentiment, to be true of our existence, or of any existence on Earth: a reminder that each of us is infinitesimal in the scheme not only of the world, but of the universe.
But at the same time, it suggests to me that outflanked, outsized and out-everythinged as we are by the natural and the galactic above, below and around us, we are still here. Somehow.
And that is because of adaptation. It is that simple, really; we have evolved, adapted, across millennia and quadrillions of miles of Earth travel through space -- at, we are told, some 67,000 miles an hour around the sun, which is orbiting the center of the galaxy, "which itself is barreling through space," in the words of one artlcle on the subject. (That mph is our own measurement. I suspect that an hourly rate means little in space, out where the novas sing.)
We adapt, as we have with this pandemic. It seemed like a huge jolt when it first hit, mostly because we had streamlined our existences into comfortable homes and societies, at least here in the western world.
With that comfort upended by the coronavirus, we’re still trying to figure out the proper response.
We’re moving forward, but problems just seem to be waiting around the next corner.
This applies to just about any aspect of life today: business, for sure; government; religion; personal finance; family dynamics.
And education. That seems apropos, as well, especially with so many questions lingering that affect so many people who depend on it. So ... let’s take a look at education.
The Watkins Glen School Board met online on Monday evening, May 18, and a sizable portion of the session dealt with the pandemic.
Superintendent Greg Kelahan discussed how the teachers and administration had learned a lot about themselves -- their adaptability -- and about some of the strengths that remote teaching (and remote learning) had by necessity introduced in this difficult time.
Chief among these, perhaps, was the interaction between the schools and students' families -- whereby remote instruction required a greater interest and knowledge on the part of staff about those families to effectively communicate lessons and meet students’ needs. Separation, it seems, helped draw people closer.
As school reopens -- assuming it does at some point in the fall (and we have to ask, will it be later than usual? Ithaca College has announced it won’t return until Oct. 5, although Binghamton University has picked Aug. 26.) -- “we can take what we have learned” in distance learning during the pandemic, said Kelahan, “and act on it. We have to determine what is worth holding on to.”
But it will require more than embracing distance learning techniques, really, for this is a multifaceted problem. And the assurances at the School Board meeting -- where the superintendent told the Board that the district was in compliance with Executive Orders from Governor Cuomo and with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- seemed to beg a closer look. Everything we've seen in recent months -- school closings, rumors, changing directives from New York State -- have been repeatedly unsettling, and need perspective.
So I called Kelahan.
That discussion raised the specter of future shock beyond anything exhibited at that Board meeting -- where he was answering specific questions with specificity
So I added some.
--Assuming school is reopened in the fall, how do you protect everyone?
--Is there a plan in place, or are you waiting for direction from the state?
--How do you
conduct gym classes, where close proximity and close physical exertion has been commonplace?
--What about Interscholastic Sports? Will there be any?
--Will classes be arranged in shifts, so
that a full contingent of students is never on hand?
--How will bus transportation evolve?
--Will there even be in-school classes?
You get the idea. And Kelahan didn't hesitate to answer.
"We're in a wait-to-respond mode," he said, although planning is ongoing on the offchance that the state permits some sort of local independence. Accordingly, a meeting of WGCSD administration, union officers and teacher leaders was set for late in the week.
But up to now, the superintendent said, "Albany has taken control of everything" -- first putting the kibosh on (but then approving) an offer from Watkins Glen International to have graduates from Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour celebrate by driving the WGI racetrack and taking part in a socially-distanced ceremony in the grandstand.
So there is occasionally good news. "We've gotta remain optimistic -- feel like we're in control," Kelahan said.
But that control, even if some is granted by Albany, would be limited by the reality of the coronavirus.
"I believe in my heart of hearts," Kelahan said, "that the traditional method" of education "will not remain. We will not return to life as it was.
"We will return to a very different school environment. The hallways and classrooms will be different." Students might be in one controlled area, while teachers do the moving, from class to class.
The teaching areas utilized might not be the classrooms as they exist, but larger common areas like the gymnasium, cafeteria and lobby areas where 6-foot social distancing can be maintained.
The students might also not be attending full days, or might return but without having a live teacher all of the time. There might be education in shifts, with students present for three days and then off for two -- or some similar arrangement -- or even school running for 11 or 12 months.
"That's been discussed" at the state level, Kelahan said, with the idea including "intermittent two-week closures to relieve the pressure."
And whichever schedule is adopted, there is the matter of Physical Education and, beyond that, Interscholastic Athletics. Kelahan says the former will obviously require a rethinking, and the latter a change perhaps from competition to "more about fitness."
While the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) "is playing it coy," he said, it has formed a task force to study how to revive Interscholastic Athletics. But if such sports are restarted, they could be significantly different from the past. There could be "virtual competitions," Kelahan suggested, and "at best, abridged seasons" with some sports -- those requiring physical interaction (like soccer, basketball and football) -- possibly altered or jettisoned.
"Pandora's Box has been opened," Kelahan said, leading to ... well, nobody is sure. Governor Cuomo said Thursday that there will be no in-school summer school, but that any decision on reopening the educational facilities in the fall must await more developments and information.
But there is that distinct possibility -- hovering -- that the reality of school closings might extend into the next educational year.
But Kelahan -- any educator, really -- prefers to dwell on a more positive plane: of the kids returning to the environs of the school. "I think kids need to be in the school for interaction with their friends," he said.
But even that arrangement -- classes, kids moving about between periods and so on --seem to be a thing of the past. With this pandemic front and center, nobody knows how long before it recedes or is overcome; nor how long before another virus or natural or manmade disaster strikes.
In that atmosphere, school officials are looking at change. "There are conversations with architects and engineers," said Kelahan, with an eye to "retrofit our environment." This might include knocking down some classroom walls -- creating larger areas to accommodate social distancing.
This presents "a lucrative market" for those architects and engineers, he said -- and another change in the longstanding environment to which students were accustomed.
"What a sad, sad world for kids," said Kelahan. "At some point it feels hollow to say we're raising resilient children. We're trading childhood for resilience. It feels hollow."
What he feels is needed, he said, is a populace that -- faced with the possible absence of professional places of learning, "rises up and says 'No, no. We're not going that far down that road."
Toward that end, he has sent a lettter to parents and guardians that says the New York State Education Department is asking residents to participate anonymously "in a statewide virtual conversation about reopening schools. ... I encourage everyone to ... share your thoughts and help evaluate the critical issues" at the following website: https://my.thoughtexchange.com/333518046.
Yes, prepare to adapt -- not only in education, but in most social and economic aspects of life.
In fact, I suspect that adaptation will be a gentle way to put what Watkins Glen and every other school district in the state and country will be facing.
The problems will be large and small, and the solutions difficult. There will be times -- especially early on -- when district leaders feel buffeted by a large storm while they try to sail adrift on a turbulent ocean.
The poem by Winfred Ernest Garrison that I mentioned earlier -- whether or not it's the source material of the saying on JFK's desk plaque -- puts it much more eloquently. The poem reads in its entirety as follows:
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?
Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.
Amid the emptiness ...
a challenge and an invitation
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 12, 2020 -- I was out walking the streets of Odessa, and made my way to the Odessa-Montour High School athletic field.
It was empty; devoid of any activity.
The softball diamond, baseball diamond, football field, track, bleachers, dugouts -- all empty.
For that matter, the streets of the village -- with the exception of an occasional car passing by -- were empty, too.
But there was one major difference between the school grounds and village streets.
The village houses were full, their furnaces churning against an unseasonable cold snap, cars in the driveways.
The school grounds were barren, the halls barren -- disinfected shells. One school vehicle was parked in the front parking lot.
There was something sad about that emptiness -- sad when considering what used to be, and discouraging because the language of learning was absent, relegated to remote lessons squeezed through available technology into the homes of the students.
Standing in the middle of the softball infield, imagining O-M pitcher Grace Vondracek unleashing a rising fastball, my eyes saw instead a vacant pitcher’s mound, a vacant home plate, vacant dugouts.
Turning toward the football field and the track surrounding it, I imagined a group of sprinters led by Preston Harris breaking from the blocks at the start of the 110 Hurdles, and farther on, the high jump pit where Paden Grover would have been clearing 6’2” or more.
Turning right, I was facing the baseball diamond, overseen by a scoreboard with nothing but seasonless blanks on it. No Derrick Lewis camping under a foul pop fly; no Isaac McIlroy turning a double play out at second base. Nothing.
This, to me, is emblematic in a way of this disaster; this pandemic. There is an overweening emptiness.
Granted, the loss of sports is small when compared to the deaths, to the grief, to the loss of livelihoods.
But it strikes me not only as a sad byproduct of the coronavirus, but as a possible harbinger of a future struggle within our educational system -- a struggle that might see a reopening in the fall as something beyond difficult, at least in the brick and mortar settings of physical high school classrooms.
There are so many questions there.
Questions that only time -- and money and the tenacity of the coronavirus -- will answer.
After that walk on the school grounds and around the village, I returned home and sat at my computer, thinking about the lost spring season, but then called up the sports page of this website and managed a smile.
We have, amid all of this, honored deserving student athletes for various things -- all carried in detail on the website. I suppose that kind of thing -- awards -- fades quickly from memory in dire circumstance, but it is fresh with me. I’ve ordered plaques for the various Athletes of the Year at the O-M and Watkins Glen High Schools; a trophy for the winner of the Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award, and certificates from the offices of our state Senator and Assemblyman to go along with medallions for Top Drawer 24 honorees -- student athletes considered among the best and brightest in this region (Schuyler, Chemung and parts of other counties).
We would under normal circumstances have been preparing now for a June 1 Top Drawer celebration at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion -- one of many spring/summer events that have been brought to their knees by the pandemic.
If we had held that event -- that celebration -- the honorees and their families and coaches would have gathered for presentation of the medallions and certificates, and to listen to some speeches, including one by Top Drawer co-founder and chairman Craig Cheplick. In the absence of that speech, he will be including a message to the honorees in the certificate/medallion packet distributed to each one of them in the near future.
"I would like to congratulate all of this year’s Top Drawer 24 honorees," he wrote. "We would have liked to meet all of you and your families in person at our ceremony, but we were derailed by the pandemic.
"I am sure you have heard the proverb 'To those who much is given, much is expected.' Even though many of your plans were interrupted this year, much will be expected of all of you. I know the world you are going out into seems to be a broken and confusing place, but be rest assured that things will get better and you and your talents will be at the heart of it. I know you are all well equipped to go forth in a productive and positive way with no "poor me" or "I got hosed" laments.
"So rise up wherever you may be -- at your colleges, on your teams, in your churches and communities and families -- and make an impact for the better.
"We invite all of you to attend next year’s ceremony -- on June 7, 2021 -- to be honored. Stay safe and God bless."
There you have it. Come to our next scheduled ceremony -- next year, God willing -- and we will celebrate you and your achievements, and catch up with what you are doing.
For the record -- lest we forget, the award winners and Top Drawer honorees were as follows:
Lifetime Achievement Awards: Scott Westervelt (O-M) and Dick Senko (Elmira Free Academy).
Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award: JoLynn Minnier (O-M).
O-M Athletes of the Year: Paden Grover, Preston Harris and Grace Vondracek.
WGHS Athletes of the Year: Gabe Planty, Isaac McIlroy, Amanda Wilbur, Peighton Cervoni, Faye Mooney and Thalia Marquez.
Top Drawer 24 (all seniors except for one):
Watkins Glen: Isaac McIlroy, Gabe Planty, Kelsey Kernan.
Odessa-Montour: Sara Gardner, Derrick Lewis, Paden Grover.
Trumansburg: Sarah Wertis, Conor Baird.
South Seneca: Hailey Bentley, Samantha Marion.
Elmira Notre Dame: Alyssa Walker.
Spencer-Van Etten: Paige Grube.
Thomas A. Edison: KK Bush, Jack Hourihan.
Elmira: Madisyn Ross, McKenna Ross, Zaria DeMember Shazer, Morgan Gentile.
Horseheads: Avery Snyder, Terese Cites, Abigail Packard, William “Henry” Juan, Jillian Casey, Sophia Verkleeren (the lone junior on the team).
Corning: Charlotte Nevins, Seth Hogue.
Waverly: Brandon Clark, Sheridan Talada, Scott Woodring.
Twin Tiers Christian Academy: Moriah White.
And the other shoe dropped
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 3, 2020 -- So now, there is no school for the rest of this academic year. The other shoe has dropped as far as returning goes.
For the seniors, this is especially difficult.
For the others, not too much less so, I suspect.
I’ll be closely tracking the local School Boards in the next few days.
I had contact by text with Superintendent Chris Wood at Odessa-Montour. That board will be meeting Thursday -- when, I suspect, it hopes to have some directive from the state on what comes next.
That was my question to Wood: What’s next?
His reply, in the absence of specific directives, was succinct as well.
“See what we are allowed to do vs. not -- i.e. graduation. Start to plan for budget and BOE vote.”
Those are the main subjects, but I suspect there are many other variables that school administrators and School Boards will be tackling, too, for this pandemic is like dominoes. One thing leads to another leads to another ...
Yes, this will be a busy week for school officials in the hundreds of districts in the state.
Can you imagine the chaos that’s going on at the State Education Department? Especially with most of their work handled remotely. Communication tends to lag a little when in-person discussions are jettisoned.
Will there be a graduation? Certainly not like we’ve experienced before.
--No mass gathering in the auditorium.
--No assemblage of the senior class on the stage.
--No handshakes as each diploma is handed out, up close and personal.
--No shifting of tassels en masse.
--No throwing of caps onstage at the end.
--No filing out and gathering for hugs and photos outside the school building.
How will it be handled? Will it be handled? Will graduation be virtual, or will it be out on an athletic field, where social distancing can be maintained? Or maybe -- a neighbor had this idea, at least pertaining to O-M -- could it be run parade-like in front of the school with loved ones watching from the safety of parked cars in the adjacent parking lot?
The Watkins Glen School Board is set to meet Monday. The published agenda specifies the annual Public Library budget presentation, as well as board approval of the proposed district budget for 2020-21.
The O-M School Board was set to meet Tuesday, before changing it to Thursday. Board members might know more by then regarding graduation, and presumably (hopefully?) the date of the public budget vote, although that too is colored by so many factors -- in particular state aid.
If the federal government doesn’t bail out the states, then the states will be cutting state aid to schools. By how much? Who knows? Signals coming out of Albany have been varying greatly.
As we all have learned recently, we can’t believe that today’s news will hold form through tomorrow.
I’ve been finding ways to distract from the worries of each day. Chief among them is eliminating the mess that my household had become. Organization rules.
A second one is watching movies. They are vastly preferable to watching the news, which I think most folks would agree is depressing.
A third is reading. I’ve tackled some books I never pondered reading before, like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. There’s a little of my recent favorites, Lee Child and Michael Connelly, and a dabbling into my old-time favorites: Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Elswyth Thane. (That latter was an author back in the 1940s and ‘50s who wrote a popular family saga, the Williamsburg Series; one of my favorite books of all time is the first in that series, titled Dawn’s Early Light, which has my all-time favorite character, a young girl named Tibby Mawes.)
And I’ve discovered a new author -- a man I’ve actually known for many years. He’s Richard Owen Price, author of The Tablets of Damascus and a couple of other novels, along with a children’s book or two.
Dick is a Californian with a connection to Odessa -- where he once lived as a boy -- and Elmira, where he was the Executive Editor of the Star-Gazette back in the ‘80s and in fact my boss at that time and that place. He was a sort of mentor, instructing me during workplace seminars on the finer points of investigative journalism, feature writing, and news stories in general.
Along the way -- after he’d moved on from Elmira to Gannett corporate work and then, ultimately, out of journalism -- I’d heard he had died, and mourned the loss of a friend. That is, until one night while working -- it was about midnight -- I received an email from Dick, saying he had found my website and loved everything about it.
When you hear from someone you think is dead, the proof of your misinformation is really quite striking -- not to mention, in this case, exhilarating. Add to that some praise from a mentor, and that night went down in my personal annals as a special one.
Anyway, Dick is the latest of authors who interest me. First and foremost, as they have been for years, are Twain and Vonnegut, a tad ahead of Thane.
I once saw Vonnegut; heard him speak at an Ithaca College gathering. Twain I missed by a few years, although I often attended and loved Mark Twain the Musical -- a play performed annually for years at the Elmira College Domes. It was as close to Mark Twain come alive as I could hope for.
Do you remember that play? It was marvelous theater with clever sets in the space where the school’s hockey teams play. It was a lot of years ago. Let’s see ... a check of the internet says it ran from 1987-95 -- both in Elmira, where Twain’s wife was born and raised and where he often worked, and in Hartford, Connecticut, which was his home for 17 years.
But that was then. Now, inspired by the written word and by some beautifully realized TV dialogue, in particular that on an amazing HBO film called “Bad Education” -- about school officials in Roslyn, Long Island embezzling millions of dollars a few years ago (Hugh Jackman is tremendous as the snake-oily superintendent who ended up in prison) -- I might, just might, try my hand once again at writing a novel.
I think I would set the story in Schuyler County, or an area based on it. That would be fun.
Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve produced a book. Maybe it's time.
A walk around the village ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 24, 2020 -- Each day since early in this pandemic I have taken a walk around the village of Odessa -- usually up College Avenue (I live at the corner of Main and College) to Speedway, over to Church and down to Main and back home. Sometimes I’ll veer off onto school grounds, or over to Merchant Ave., or a variation involving a side street or two.
On this Tuesday past, I started out in sunshine. By the time I had crested the knoll and was nearing the high school, the wind picked up and the temperature dove. I was carrying some gloves in my coat pocket, which I promptly donned.
As I approached Speedway and turned left there, light white flakes were suddenly swirling, and by the time I reached Church Street and turned left, the flakes and wind had picked up. I was suddenly in a squall.
Leaning into the wind, I paid attention to branches under which I walked, because the trees were now leaning in gale-force winds. And as I neared the Wesleyan Church -- located opposite the Methodist Church (they don’t call it Church Street for nothing) -- the snow had turned to hail. Little white pellets were bouncing off the sidewalk, the pavement to my right, and my head.
But the hail lightened back to snow flurries a block later as I crossed Maple and walked past the former Baptist Church -- site of my marriage to Susan Bauman more than 40 years ago. Yes, another church on Church Street.
Going downhill from there, I encountered sunlight again by the time I reached the flat and rounded the corner onto Main Street. Then the sun disappeared, the wind picked up, and I leaned forward the final few yards before veering left into my side yard, gaining relief from the biting cold as my house served as windbreak while I made my way to the back door.
That’s the weather report -- a gamut of changing conditions that seemed to my mind to reflect what is happening to us in this unsettling time. We are getting belted by change beyond our control. And yet ... that walk serves as a sort of stabilizer, providing (at least mentally and emotionally) a touchstone of village (and personal) history.
This village has been my home since 1980 (40 years!) and is thus, unavoidably, full of memories, full of ghosts. Personal ghosts.
For example, as I cross my back lawn to the road on the start of the walk, I look to the right, across the street, and see the former home of Bill "Jumper" Roberts, who lived and died there -- a nice fellow who helped me shovel out after a nasty snowstorm the year before a heart attack took him in 2013. The same fate -- a failed heart -- befell Ron Peppard, my next-door neighbor to the east, the following year.
The house next to Jumper’s has seen multiple owners, the earliest of whom I remember being Ken Carpenter and his wife. Ken was a kindly gent, quite a bit older than me and no doubt long since passed.
Across the road from there is the Lindsley house, where family members still live. Patriarch Walt was known for his local cooking, and personally for the garden tilling he did for Susan and me every year. The man had a big heart, which like those of my other male neighbors failed him one day.
Up the road, I walk past the home that once housed Mary Jones, a community minded woman who I remember being hit by a car up on Main Street and thrown a couple dozen feet -- and surviving. She was quite elderly then, but recovered and returned to her interests, which included the local garden club. My wife was part of that same club, and locked horns in disagreement with Mary on occasion.
When death came for the two of them, it came on the same day, Nov. 1, 2004. I was oddly comforted to think that Susan had company she knew on her way to heaven.
And so it goes around the block. A fellow with whom I locked horns in occasional dispute resided in one house. A onetime babysitter lived in another before she died in an auto accident outside of town. Up to the right, if I choose a western path on Speedway, I pass houses that once were home to Jo Fitch (a good friend claimed by cancer); Nelson Beebe, a math teacher with a great sense of humor and a weakened heart that finally gave out; and Bob and Althea Carpenter. Bob, an insurance agent, became mayor of Odessa in his retirement years. He and I used to get together for lunch once a month or so up at the Village Take Out restaurant -- now gone, as are Bob and Althea, as sweet a lady as you’d hope to ever know.
The village’s churches have been the site of many a local funeral, including my wife’s -- in the Methodist Church. We had shifted over there from the Baptist Church several years earlier. But even now, when I pass the Baptist Church -- a residence now -- I recall that day of our marriage so vividly. Love and joy ruled the day, the cold, the rain and a gray fog failing to dampen our spirit.
It’s really rather remarkable, so many years after the fact, to be able to stand on my back porch and look southwest, and see -- looming over houses and trees -- the steeple of the church where I was married. As constant reminders go, that’s a pretty good one.
Now, in this age of the coronavirus, I have adopted this constitutional, this daily walk, with more regularity than ever before. And that in itself calls to mind another ghost: that of Leland "Lee" Drake, a gentleman from Odessa who used to take what he called his constitutional every day for years. I’d see him on Merchant Avenue, where he lived, or out on Main Street, spry until near the end, after he had survived more than nine decades.
He always seemed healthy and happy, until he lost his wife four years before his own passing. He simply disappeared from the village streets one day, and the word went out that he had given up and checked into a nursing home -- where he died a short time later at the age of 95.
I often think about Lee; about spousal loyalties and dependence; and how painful it must be to live so long that you lose virtually everybody who might matter to you.
When I lost Susan, I lost hope and any sort of a strong will to live; but I was young enough, and my health sturdy enough, to weather the depression and the grief until I found a rhythm in my work and friends of lasting duration and immeasurable impact. And eventually one of my sons moved back home, providing an Odessa-based family structure once again.
And so I live to write not only about what goes on in our communities and at our schools (pre- and, I hope, post-coronavirus), I also write about ghosts -- about people who lived and breathed and meant something to me and to other people.
They were here, and are still fresh in my mind. In that sense they still live.
Maybe that’s why I’m still here.
Simply to write -- about you, and about your children, and about the ghosts, the people who used to populate our communities and who have left their marks.
Some were my friends, and a few were foes -- but in the end, they all were important to me, holding key roles in my own personal play.
Which reminds me of this ditty I once penned:
In my sunset years I pine
For absent foes and friends of mine.
To win, to lose, it mattered not
To live, to love is all we’ve got.
The butting heads, the wounds of yore
The wins to cheer, defeat deplore.
It all has faded from earth’s place,
But not from memory’s embrace.
Our best hope for the future
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 17, 2020 -- With the unveiling of this year’s Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens from a dozen school districts in the region (see story here), we on the TD24 committee have continued what has become an important tradition in this region.
The program recognizes a relative handful of high school students -- in this case, and in recent years, almost all seniors -- who have distinguished themselves in ways significant enough to catch the attention of the committee (athletic directors, coaches, journalists and others).
The selection was done this time without benefit of a full year of sports or classroom scheduling, and without a prime piece of the process: a celebration at the Watkins Glen State Park. It was to have been held on June 1, but like pretty much everything else was eliminated by the coronavirus pandemic.
So while there is no physical gathering, we are celebrating the Top Drawer team on this website and elsewhere -- at the online Valley Sports Report, and on the WENY- TV news. We also hope to obtain our usual certificates of achievement for each honoree from government officials; we have been in touch with Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, and will follow suit with State Senator Tom O'Mara's office and that of Congressman Tom Reed.
Making the team has always been difficult, and was again this year. We extended the number of honorees this year to 30 for a variety of reasons, some abstract and some purely physical -- such as the addition of two school districts (Waverly and Corning), which between them earned five spots in the final lineup.
In joining our effort to trumpet these students, the publisher of the aforementioned Valley Sports Report, Tim Birney, asked exactly how this program came to be. Well ... I dug back in the files to refresh my memory, and provided him with the following email:
“The Top Drawer 24 was born in the autumn of 2005 during a brainstorming session held by Odessa File publisher Charlie Haeffner and Watkins Glen High School's then-Athletic Director Craig Cheplick. The two men decided that the usual All-Twin Tiers and League All-Star teams, which focused on one sport and one season, could be improved upon by establishing an honors team that included all sports and the entire school year, taking into account academics and citizenship, as well.
“A committee was formed, and plans made for the first such team, honored at a party at the Watkins Glen State Park the following spring, 2006. Haeffner and Cheplick decided that the party locale, at a pavilion near the park's south entrance, was so beautiful -- contained such a charm never found at indoor ceremonies -- that it was intrinsic to the program. And so it has been held there annually ever since -- until the pandemic forced its cancellation this time around.
“The program initially included only student-athletes from the Schuyler County school districts of Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour, but was expanded after a couple of years to include two school districts touching within the county boundary: Bradford and Trumansburg. Spencer-Van Etten was added in 2013, and in 2014 came the inclusion of Elmira Notre Dame, Elmira Christian Academy, Twin Tiers Christian Academy, Edison and Horseheads. Then Elmira High School joined in 2015.
“South Seneca was added in 2016, just as Elmira Christian Academy (which has ceased operations) and Bradford were bowing out. And this year, the program expanded once again, with the Top Drawer committee -- after receiving interest from Waverly and Corning -- deciding to add both of those school districts.”
There. That’s the bare bones. It doesn’t explain how we came to call it the Top Drawer 24 (my brainchild, which co-founder Chep didn’t like initially, but ultimately came to embrace); or how we happened to expand to Chemung County (Chep’s brainchild, which proved a stroke of genius that has propelled the program to new heights); or how, exactly, the honorees are selected.
On that one, I stand by my explanation many years ago to the mother of one such honoree, who asked: “How do you pick these kids?” My response was, and remains: “It’s a mystery.”
We theoretically consider 9th through 12th graders, though as the program (and the number of districts) has grown, it is almost all seniors now, with an occasional junior or two.
Along the way, we have honored about 60 kids more than once each -- two, three and, in one instance, four times. This year, there are two repeaters.
What does this all mean, in particular in this most unnerving of years? Well, it's a reminder that we have extraordinary young people in our midst who have excelled on and off the playing fields -- and that student-athletes following in their footsteps will, God willing, have the same opportunity in the near future.
It is also important to remember that these students are the leaders of tomorrow, and that in going through this pandemic, they are -- I imagine -- learning from the mistakes of the generations that preceded them.
They are, quite simply -- by their very nature of athletic leadership, academic achievement and citizenship -- among the youths who are our best and brightest hope for the future.
Farewell a hero ... and the TD24 in the pandemic era
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 7, 2020 -- First, a note on baseball Hall of Famer Al Kaline.
The former Detroit Tigers right fielder -- a man I watched in person many times at Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium (I grew up north of Detroit) -- died Monday at the age of 85.
He was a batting champion before I even knew what one was, and a steady, gentlemanly figure on the field and off. He was a constant throughout my childhood -- always in right field, always leading the Tigers, always there. He was an All-Star for 13 straight seasons in a 22-year career that saw him amass 3,007 hits -- one of just 32 ballplayers to reach the 3,000-hit plateau.
There was nothing better for a kid from the Detroit suburbs than to acquire an Al Kaline baseball card from a five-cent wax pack -- in my case, purchased with my dime allowance up at the Wesley's Pharmacy near my neighborhood. The most hated cards: those featuring Mickey Mantle, for we despised the Yankees. (Don't ask me how much more value Mantle cards have today than Kaline cards. If I'd only kept those Mantles ...)
I encountered Kaline once after his playing days, when I attended a highly prized Baseball Hall of Fame party back in the early 1990s -- the year that Joe Morgan and Jim Palmer were inducted.
I was there at the Hall, after hours, on credentials secured by a friend who got them through his work at the Little League Museum in Williamsport.
I was agog, looking around the room, seeing then-Commissioner Faye Vincent, the two inductees and various other Famers, among them Kaline. I was in fact, staring at Al across the room when he turned and looked me in the eye.
His look, I thought, was along the lines of “Who the heck are you?”
Maybe he recognized me from one of my many visits to Tiger Stadium. I’d go down there early on some game days and run around behind the dugouts during batting practice. But I doubt it; recognition seems unlikely, since we never fomally met.
Anyway, the look lasted a couple of seconds before I, a bit abashed, turned away. But the moment has stayed with me all these years. I registered for the briefest of seconds in the eyes of the great Al Kaline.
God bless you, Al. You meant more to a young boy growing up than you could possibly have imagined. You were a great role model, always exhibiting grace under pressure.
I do not ascribe the term “hero” lightly.
You were one of mine.
One of the many, many victims of the pandemic is not a who, but a what.
It’s the annual Top Drawer 24 celebration held annually at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. But it’s not being held this year, for obvious reasons.
We will, however, still have a Top Drawer team. And we will be announcing various other award winners.
Even if the schools reopen at the end of this month, they’re going to be swamped with a make-up regimen that has no room for my bothersome presence or that of Craig Cheplick (we’re the Top Drawer 24 founders). We, in normal times, would visit each participating school, pulling kids from class to inform them of their selections, get their photos, and work up biographies on each one.
Besides, I doubt that the State Park will even be open by the now-canceled date of the celebration, June 1st.
So ... we’ve been in touch with our speakers, both of whom would have been interesting -- and we trust will be in the future. They've both been invited back to speak next year: Steve Hoffman, who enjoyed a long career in the National Football League, and has three Super Bowl rings from his years with the Dallas Cowboys, where he served as a special teams coach; and Mackenzie Grube, a Spencer-Van Etten graduate, a junior at Brockport State, and a 2018 Top Drawer honoree who is pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.
We’ll have to forgo the physical presentation this year of Lifetime Achievement Awards to two deserving regional figures -- Elmira Free Academy's Dick Senko and Odessa-Montour's Scott Westervelt. The presentation is set instead for next year’s Top Drawer party, on June 7, 2021.
We will also be forgoing presentation this June 1st of the Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award, given annually since 2005 to a deserving area athlete who has exhibited a core of kindness in the midst of combat, and risen above adversity. But an honoree will indeed be selected, to be announced in the near future.
And while we annually present The Odessa File's Watkins Glen High School and Odessa-Montour High School Male and Female Athlete of the Year Awards at the Top Drawer Party each year, those also will be announced on these pages, again in the near future.
That leaves the Top Drawer team itself. This is the 15th year of the program, and we’re not about to let it lapse because of the pandemic. It’s just the ceremony itself, with all of its trimmings, that is being jettisoned -- hopefully a one-time occurrence.
We added two school districts this year -- Corning and Waverly -- while trying to hold the line at 24 Top Drawer honorees. We might get a little flexible with that number this time around, since the process for considering and winnowing the list of prospects -- outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens from 13 school districts -- has been short-circuited along with classes and sports.
That team will be announced in the not-too-distant future, as well. Right here on these pages, as well as on WENY-TV and elsewhere.
So ... to recap.
Susan Award, Athletes of the Year and TD 24 to be announced.
The gift of hope ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 3, 2020 -- I think we are all confused. Shock does that to you.
Who saw this coming? Well, I guess some folks -- scientists and a few politicians who managed to learn from history.
There is, after all, a history of pandemics.
Not frequent. Not in a while. But there in the past, nonetheless.
I’m not going to get into finger pointing. I’ll leave that to the national columnists who make a living out of negativity.
I’m also not going to dive into the darkness of the moment, wringing my hands, as much as I feel like it.
But I do want to touch upon what is coming around the bend -- not in terms of the virus. I assume it will run its course, taking down a lot of folks, though hopefully not many around here.
No, at least not around here.
I have a warm spot for Schuyler County. As much as I’m prone to say that all roads lead to Odessa (past my front door) or to Schuyler itself, I hope that nobody from the outside -- say from downstate -- can find that particular route.
I like, at this point, thinking that Schuyler-small is good, and that the fewer people who know we are here, the better.
To a point, of course. It would be lovely if this all blew through in the next month or so and we had a rebirth of business. It’s just that we’re all so wary of getting close to another human being, that we will be looking askance at tourists, the county’s bread and butter.
As I said: confusing.
Every nook and cranny is impacted. Every business. Every individual. Every bank account. Every day.
Education poses a particular problem. I watched an Odessa-Montour School Board meeting Thursday evening on my computer, and when it was over I was shaking my head.
They don’t know when school will resume, if this school year at all. Budget time is coming up, but they don’t know what resources they will have since, as Superintendent Chris Wood noted, “this thing changes two or three times a week.”
The educational questions are endless, and the planning has to be extremely flexible. If the kids don’t come back until September, those returning underclassmen (I’m temporarily ignoring graduation, which has its own set of questions) will require more than a year of instruction during the next school year to catch up in such regimens as math and Spanish.
For the record, the latest incarnation of the upcoming budget has been adjusted to account for the unanticipated absence of some expected funds, with cuts coming at the expense of a position here and there in Special Education, library, technology, and cleaning. A dump truck purchase has been, well, dumped.
There would be no increase in the tax levy, board members were told.
But they were also told that this thing is like mercury -- continually changing shape . As Board President Rob Halpin noted, they will be planning for the worst, but hoping for the best.
And if upon a return, the students must maintain a six-foot distance from their classmates, then what? More classes to accommodate the distancing?
And that’s just one of our two school districts, and they are two of oh, so many in the state.
That alone has me shaking my head -- and, if I permitted it, would leave me shaking, period.
And yet ... we live in what could be construed -- political gridlock, national division and hate crimes aside -- as the greatest country in the history of mankind.
Of course, mankind -- in the scope of the universe and the billions of years that have preceded us -- is a pretty narrowly defined category.
But still. I’ve loved this country and all it has to offer since I was a wee lad -- back in the days of Davy Crockett (Disney’s; not the real one). And I finally felt at home when I reached the Southern Tier forty-some years ago. Reached Schuyler County.
That was a very good day, indeed. I’ve had a lot of those around here, topped by my wedding, also in Schuyler, up at the old Baptist Church in Odessa. And the births of the two sons born to me and my wife, Susan. And the day, I suppose, when I started The Odessa File.
Yes, I have good memories in this little village, in this county.
But what about the future?
Do I have any idea what’s coming down the pike?
Not a clue.
But I hold out hope -- and offer it to you, as my gift. Just in case you were lacking it.
Some day, soon I hope (that word again), we will all be able to join in a chorus of “Happy Days are Here Again.” Or maybe “Joy to the World.”
In the meantime, let's all keep our heads down.
Notes in a troubled time II
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 25, 2020 -- I think we’re all getting the rhythm down.
Isolation is a challenge, but communication remains a constant from that life we used to lead.
I managed a lengthy interview and story on the hospital without leaving my home. That's old-school -- using the phone.
And in keeping with the Internet age, I receive press releases, letters, and various other communications by email -- some of which make it to the pages of The Odessa File. Facebook is another source of information.
For entertainment, there’s TV, of course, and DVDs, and books. Yeah, I know, reading is becoming a lost art. But maybe it will regain a little traction in this down period.
We’re all unsettled by this pandemic, and in many cases worse than unsettled because of the economics of the situation: shuttered businesses, lost jobs and wages -- and for the kids, lost education and lost sports and lost camaraderie.
I mean, this is serious disruption.
But entertainment aside, I'm finding that phone and Internet communication is keeping me from tipping over the edge into a frustration or, I suppose, fear. That and the fact that we live far from New York City, unfortunately the epicenter.
A communications example: the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club, whose members keep in touch through emails. I’m a member.
It was through one of those that I learned that our exchange students had returned home at the request of their parents. So they will miss the full flavor of their year abroad. Club President Glenda Gephart let us know on Thursday that “Kajsa returned to Sweden on Monday. Nozomi will return to Japan tomorrow, Friday.”
Those are two great kids. Kajsa Rolfes attended Watkins Glen High School, while Nozomi Miyoshi was at Odessa-Montour. Good luck back home, girls. You were a great addition to Schuyler County.
Beyond that, we had word circulated of the passing of Rotarian Rich Greenberger’s father; something I otherwise might not have known. My condolences, Rich.
And Rotarian Mark Rondinaro sent out an email about how Lakewood Vineyards, where he works, is still in business -- among other things delivering wine. That was welcome news.
“Lakewood Vineyards,” Mark wrote, “is open for orders, pick-up and shipping. If you would like to relieve someone's cabin fever and mitigate their social isolation with some of the best wine of the Finger Lakes, we would be happy to help you make it happen. We will be glad to make deliveries within 25 miles for six bottles or more. You can reach us on the telephone at (607) 535-9252, or find us at http://www.lakewoodvineyards.com."
And another business was mentioned by President Glenda: “Erick Thorpe (who has been serving lunches at Rotary’s weekly meetings) has launched a barbecue trailer at his restaurant, The Bucket Bar and Grill in Odessa, on Saturdays from 11-3 or until sold out. Pre-orders at 594-7010 are encouraged. The menu includes chicken BBQ, smoked ribs and pulled pork. Please consider supporting Erick! (The Bucket continues to serve takeout only during the week.)”
And Rotarian Ted Marks echoed the Lakewood news, and added some more.
"Atwater Vineyards (which he owns) is open for orders, pick-up and mailing, should you want to send some Finger Lakes Cheer to other shut-ins. We will be glad to make local deliveries for a case or more. Give the winery a call, 607-546-8463, or go online Atwatervineyards.com."
(Editor's note: It's only fair to suggest you can check the websites of other area wineries to see what they're up to, as well. Glenora, for instance, notes that its "retail shop is still open ... and offering optional curbside pickup." It also has an online wine store. Check out glenora.com. And, of course, there are many others.)
And Ted added: "I’m bored as heck.We have been doing all the 'put-off' chores. I’ve been selling on E-Bay 'junk' that has been hanging around for years." And part of the money raised from that 'junk' goes to a great cause. "I decided to use the E-Bay charity program," he said, "and 10% is going to the Spirit of Schuyler," which provides emergency funding for Schuyler residents in need.
"Amazon also has a program," he said. "You just go to the Smile.Amazon.com program and set it up. They then will donate part of your purchase to Spirit of Schuyler, at no cost to you.
"But I do urge everybody to buy local first. They, and we, all are going to need the business."
Thanks, Ted. Maybe I'll start selling on Ebay again. I used to, years ago. Maybe again.
And you're right. Shopping local is a must.
Beyond those emails, I received a prayer request, and a request to help out with an economic issue, a couple of requests for photos I had in my computer, and suggestions for a couple of story ideas (what we used to call “pitches”). Phone calls -- as old-fashioned as they are -- seem to be reserved mostly for friends and family, although I did field one website-related complaint on one call.
And a message arrived through Messenger.com from former WGHS Principal and School Board member Brian O’Donnell, for years associated with our Top Drawer 24 program (honoring outstanding high school scholar-athletes) before he retired. He wanted to let me know he and his wife, living in Horseheads, were fine, “exercising by daily walks (when no people are around) and self quarantining as much as possible.”
Out of curiosity, I used the Internet to check on the Odessa-Montour spring sports schedule -- mapped out in great detail. In case you were wondering, Monday’s schedule had called for softball at Newark Valley and tennis at home against Moravia. Alas ...
And I had heard that Finger Lakes Distilling was doing something that is trending around the country: utilizing its facility to produce hand sanitizer. So I looked it up and found this on their website:
“We are now dedicating a large portion of our time to making hand sanitizer to help the community in this time of need. The sanitizer is made using the formula recommended by the World Health Organization. We are providing hand sanitizer in bulk quantities to local healthcare providers and other services such as law enforcement. We are trying to prioritize these orders based on need.
“We are working on a way to offer this sanitizer via online sales for our everyday consumers as well, so stay tuned for more information on that.”
And I can’t end this without mention of Christmas. Yes, it’s back on the Hallmark TV channel, which is running a Miracles of Christmas Movie Marathon to “lift the spirit.” We can all use a little of that, I guess, but those particular films seem to be on during a majority of the year now. No complaints from here, though. I still watch.
So ... where are we headed? God knows. But I feel reassured knowing that communication of various kinds is available ... and used.
Notes in a troubled time ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 25, 2020 -- It’s an unsettling time, to be sure. It was brought home (yet again) with notification Monday from Cayuga Health to pull its digital ads from this website -- what they call a pause in their media buys in general. For the first time in many years, there is no Schuyler Hospital or Cayuga Health ad atop the center column of the Home Page. Nor is there a Cayuga Health ad atop the Sports Page..
Without them, the page tops look pretty barren. At the same time, we added a Classic Chef’s ad on the Home Page and the Business Page. While that was a distinctly positive sign, I’m guessing there might be some more pullouts (hopefully just temporary), each one of which will impact this website, just as so many people are being impacted.
Despite this expected trend of diminishing receipts, I plan to carry on, at least for the foreseeable future. I am fortunate in that I operate this website by myself and from my home -- both of which allow me to minimize my costs. I can pretty much hunker down while still offering the news.
So I will keep my head down and keep on trucking, That’s what I’ve done for a long time, basically committing to go as long as I can. God willing (and maybe if I figure out some alternate funding), I’ll be around awhile -- and firmly in place when the high school kids regain the playing fields.
My recent invitation to students to write about their experiences and thoughts and (perhaps altered) hopes were deemed a good idea by one reader, who suggested they also might send along photos or artwork -- not just the written word. And she is right. Expression can come in many forms.
As of this posting, I have received nothing from any student. I hope I do.
I received a call Tuesday from an old friend, Steve “Doc” Pike, who is safely ensconced in Key West, Florida, where he has spent much of his time in recent years. He was up here last week, doing some work on a place he owns on an area lake, but then hustled back down to Key West when it became clear the window to do so might be closing. Glad you made it back safely, Doc.
Barnie Parker’s Sharing Shed is a great idea. The shed, with donated goods that might be needed at area households suddenly facing hard times, was built for St. John’s Episcopal Church -- up at Catharine Corners outside Odessa -- by Kyle Frasier, a gifted carpenter who works at the nearby Hoffman Farm.
Anybody can deliver their goods at any time -- just open the shed (located near the rear corner of the church along County Road 14) and place them inside -- just as people in need of them can remove them at any time. “No questions asked,” says Drew Guild, who oversaw the project and helped Frasier move the building from its construction site on the Hoffman Farm to the church on Saturday, March 21.
I’m particularly pleased that Barnie Parker is being remembered. A longtime teacher and a member of that church, I knew him as a barber. The man cut my hair regularly for years, until retirement and declining health brought an end to his practice. He was a great guy -- upbeat whenever I encountered him, and an engaging conversationalist.
Let’s all give some thought to a donation to the shed -- and by extension to our neighbors.
It’s Scam Alert time. As outlined in a story on the Government Page, there are a lot of unscrupulous folks out there who want to steal from us if possible through online scams and phishing. Check it out.
I’m among the many who are missing sports -- both national and local. I can only imagine the disappointment this must be bringing to our area athletes. Some had a promising season ahead of them. While I hold out hope that there will be a return to those playing fields in time for an abbreviated spring season, I can’t help but wonder if that’s going to be out of the question. April 13 is still the target return date for schools.
If they do return, great. It would be so very good for the kids to re-engage, and to compete -- especially for the seniors on their last high-school hurrah.
If they don’t return, I suppose I’ll have to start thinking earlier than usual about the annual Athlete of the Year awards this website gives to standouts at the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools. I would be presenting them without a key piece missing -- a spring sports season that is, in a few cases, the jewel of an athlete’s career.
I know; I’m obsessing on what -- in the scheme of our disrupted lives -- is way down the list of things to worry about. But I find myself doing that: focusing on things I might control. So much seems beyond that.
(And speaking of sports, I see that the Olympics have been postponed a year. We have a connection to one of those competitors -- Olivia Coffey, who once attended Watkins Glen High School and whose parents live near that village. Livy is a world-class athlete -- and qualified for the Olympics as part of a Women’s Eight rowing team at the World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria on Sept. 1.)
I’ve heard with some regularity from my son Dave and his family -- wife Ali and daughters Marley and Noa -- in Tel Aviv, where he is working in IT research for a firm over there. The plan has been for them to return home to Asheville, North Carolina, at mid-year after two years in Israel. I hope they return on time, if not sooner. I really want to see them..
And finally, Judy Cherry, Executive Director of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development, sent along a link that shows that the essential jobs exempted from the governor’s order to close business doors includes quite an array of operations. To check out the list, click here.
Of the Island and essays ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 19, 2020 -- I understand that the place to which I travel -- at least have traveled -- each summer is taking care not to have any of its five or six dozen year-round residents contract the coronavirus.
If any of those few folks goes to the mainland, they must self-quarantine when they return to Bois Blanc, their remote island in northern Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac.
While I sometimes have, in the past couple of weeks, wished I were up there, to go now -- or anytime in at least the near future -- would mean that same self-quarantine.
It helps, I guess, that I have been renting up there. I have no urgency to go and check on the welfare of my property.
Chances are, in fact, that if I had such a place -- a home or cottage -- it might already have been used to subsidize the supplies of someone ensconced there year-round. A message on a Bois Blanc website noted that the writer owed a cottage owner some toilet paper that the writer had obtained by entering the owner's closed, seasonal building for the express purpose of borrowing some.
Ah, toilet paper again. It seems to have assumed a sort of deification. While I have enough, I encountered a lone six-pack of Angel Soft sitting on an otherwise bare shelf at Walmart in Watkins Glen earlier this week. I stopped, and noticed a sign posted nearby cautioning that any shopper could only purchase one item from that shelving section.
While I was digesting the message and the oddity of the lone pack of toilet paper sitting there, a male voice behind me said “It’s the last one.” Unspoken was a “you might as well.” So I grabbed the package and placed it in my cart.
Turning to the man behind me, I saw that he was a store employee, there to guard the merchandise from hoarders. A few feet down that row of empty shelves sat some more paper goods -- a limited supply of paper towels and, beyond that, some facial tissues.
I engaged him in conversation, and learned that without his presence, the paper products would have disappeared much faster. One woman he had recently encountered there, he said, had given him a bit of a hard time, saying one of the two packages she wanted to take was for her husband.
“He can come and get it himself,” the sentry told her.
“But he’s right over there,” she said, waving to some indeterminable point elsewhere in the store.
“Then he shouldn’t have any problem getting here,” the sentry said.
The woman left in a huff. And no husband came to claim the toilet paper.
I, like many of you, am hunkering down, although my hunkering will likely have an occasional interruption. Tuesday, for instance, I visited both the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen schools as they prepared for the arrival of parents and students coming in to grab and take home personal possessions, books and assignments. I also met with the superintendents, talked to a couple of principals, visited Walmart, found the toilet paper there, and then, to top the day off, attended a press conference at the Human Services Complex in Montour Falls for an update by various officials on the pandemic.
I won’t, sadly, have the need to go out, as I normally do, to cover a long weekly array of high school sporting events. Just as spring sports -- baseball, softball, track, tennis, lacrosse and golf -- were about to start their seasons, this all happened.
We were, as my writing acquaintance A. Moralis put it in a recent conversation, “caught with our pants down.” A. Moralis has long been upset with the interlocking nature of American needs with those of countries around the world. But that can be the subject for another time.
The schools were caught off-guard just as much as the rest of us, and the kids who populate the playing fields and the bands and the debate clubs are the ones who -- from a developmental standpoint -- will surely suffer.
We have a great group of high schoolers around here. Many are college-bound, while others, I imagine, were counting on their senior year to get them in. But besides the many questions being raised regarding tests and graduation, the high school seniors are also simply missing out on a rite of passage: a year of proms and plays and camaraderie and, yes, of sports.
So here’s a thought. I would like to hear from a representative sampling of the high schoolers, from 9th through 12th grades, on their thoughts about this health crisis; their thoughts on the loss of classes until at least April 13 and -- I hope not -- very possibly well beyond; and an outline of what they are doing to occupy all of this down time.
An essay form would probably be best, similar to how I present my thoughts in these columns. Any that are well thought-out, reasonably well written (I reserve the right to fix grammar and syntax), and basically informative will have a clear shot at being published on this site. I’m talking to Hannah, Max, Adam, Tori, Aislinn, Grace, Paden and so on -- all you athletes, but most assuredly you non-athletes, too.
You might find this kind of exercise to be fun. And I know I’d enjoy reading your accounts. I think a lot of people might.
Give it some thought. You can email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org -- and send any essays to the same address.
We're in this together ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 12, 2020 -- I hesitate to write about the Coronavirus for a simple reason: I’m no expert.
Beyond that, I might -- as a means of whistling past the sickroom, so to speak -- try to make light of it in some way. But if I did, I would be rightfully accused of ignoring the severity of the situation.
If I came down on the heavy, emotional, perhaps fearful side, I would be rightfully accused of adding to the hype and potential panic.
If I pursued it from a news standpoint -- and being a newsman, I must -- I could be accused of adding to the confusion ... for the reaction of officials right now is one of mixed messages, from our national leaders on down.
(Locally, I tried to question a school official about it, but he practically ran from me. I suppose he’s been getting inundated on the subject. Or maybe his reaction was just a caution born of uncertainty. Another official was more receptive, pointing out that a letter had been sent home to parents outlining the situation, with accompanying health department charts on tips to combat the virus.)
Any caution, I suspect, is much like my own -- a fear that it will be too easy to misspeak, or misstep, or send out a signal that opens itself to wrongminded interpretation.
This whole pandemic thing seems crazy, though. Surreal. “Like a bad novel,” I said to a couple of acquaintances.
No NBA games. March Madness canceled. The NHL suspending play. Pro golf events canceled. Major League Baseball suspending the remainder of spring training and delaying the season. Ohio closing schools for at least three weeks, Maryland for two. In New York State, a proclamation forbidding gatherings of 500 or more people.
Locally, there are enhanced hospital visitor measures; a canceled Democratic Party dinner; CCC moving to online classes; Rotary deciding to cancel its annual antique show, scheduled for March 22 at the Community Center in Watkins Glen. That is a money-maker for the club, helping it to provide services and scholarships -- but the club agreed to a man and woman that safety comes first.
And then there's the stock market, enmeshed in a sickening dive.
And the crisis will only grow as the virus spreads.
It’s pretty disconcerting. We’re all going to take a hit on this, whether struck with the virus or not. As one longtime area businessman put it rather baldly: “Business sucks.”
As indeed it already does, and will at least in the near term. And this despite, as of Thursday (according to a Public Health nurse), there are no cases of Coronavirus in Schuyler or contiguous counties. “But I can’t speak for tomorrow or two weeks from today,” she said.
I went to Walmart Wednesday night, and found there had been a run on certain things. Disinfectant wipes. Toilet paper -- pretty much cleaned out. Bottled water -- reduced in stock but with a limit of so many cases per customer.
Wipes, wipes and water. In this time of emergency, the three W’s tell us a lot about ourselves. (Walmart got a limited re-supply of toilet paper the next day, but it looked like that was going pretty fast, too.)
We will find out more about ourselves as this situation evolves. I hope we like what we find.
I hope that Leslie Danks Burke, who is running against incumbent Tom O’Mara for the State Senate (and who herself turned a planned fund-raising party Thursday into a digital event where participants could stay at home, “wash your hands, get yourself a glass of wine,” and click onto a Facebook page for the party, gone online), read it right in a column she wrote for these pages:
“As a mom," she said, "I’m concerned about my children, of course. And I know that the best way to help my own loved ones is get informed, make a plan, and do my best to keep us healthy.
“All the time," she added, "but especially now, is a great time to get to know our neighbors. Take a moment to get informed so that we can be helpful" on how they might "access the medical help they need. We’re all in this together, and I know we’ll tackle this issue like we tackle everything else: as a community.”
Sounds good to me.
Numbers everywhere ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 6, 2020 -- I don’t pay too much attention to budgets, other than to their overall tax rates, tax levies, increases, decreases and so on.
But I was handed an interesting document as I attended a recent Watkins Glen School Board meeting: Athletic Director Rod Weeden’s sports budget proposal for the coming year.
The total: $479,797.
I report quite often on high school sports around here, but I don’t think in terms of the money needed to finance all of these contests; I am forever focused on athletic achievements, school spirit, team camaraderie and the like.
But I found this interesting, because it broke things down so specifically, and in a readable fashion -- unlike in standard budgets, which I find completely inscrutable and indecipherable.
So, let’s get to the meat of it.
--Coaching salaries in the 2020-21 budget are listed at $215,395, an increase (contractually) of $22,213 from the current year’s $193,182.
--Interscholastic Athletic Conference costs (officials, dues, and site and tournament fees) will total $68,741 -- about the same as this year.
--Safety equipment purchases (football and lacrosse helmets, or to replace equipment failures such as in score clocks, timing systems, and sound systems) are budgeted for $16,000, the same as the current year.
--Sports team supplies (uniforms, ordered on an annual sports rotation basis, along with nets, balls, and uniforms as specifically needed during the year) are budgeted for $28,000, up $3,000.
--What is termed “district wide contractual” (the reconditioning of helmets and football uniforms, along with travel and overnight expenses for state-level competitions) is budgeted for $14,000, the same as this year.
A breakdown of costs by sport is presented by specific level of sports within one particular genre -- say baseball (varsity, JV and modified); and basketball (boys varsity, JV, and 7th-8th grade, and girls varsity, JV and modified).
The largest cost of each comes in the realm of the varsity sports, some of which is shared with the Odessa-Montour district (baseball, football). The projected WGHS varsity costs, by sport:
Boys Basketball: $14,672
Girls Basketball: $14,027
Cross Country: $8,531
Boys Golf: $6,212
Girls Golf: $5,300
Indoor Track: $11,339
Boys Soccer: $12,137
Girls Soccer: $11,720
Boys Swimming: $14,644
Girls Swimming: $13,112
Boys Track: $7,891
Girls Track: $7,198
“It is important that we recognize the commitment that the School Board and the community have made to athletics,” said Superintendent Greg Kelahan.
Indeed. And it’s important to recognize the opportunity for growth and achievement that these many sports programs offer to the students.
Many of them take advantage of it. Some do not. But it is there, and for that I think we all should be thankful. Take these avenues away, and you’ve got some pretty stark dead ends.
And speaking of numbers:
--The combined age of the three main Presidential candidates -- Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Donald Trump -- is fast approaching 230 years.
And I thought I was old.
--The announced amount raised at the recent benefit for Craig Gallow, severely injured in a January motor vehicle accident: $44,000. Nice job, community!
--The number of legitimate Houston Astros baseball championships: 0.
--The number of years since the Watkins Glen boys won a sectional basketball title: 69. The year was 1951, and Tracie McIlroy tells us on Facebook that her father, Roger Herrick -- the great grandfather of current team senior Isaac McIlroy --was on that last championship squad.
--2 p.m. on 3/7/20: the hour and date when that drought might end. The Section IV, Class C title game will be played at SUNY Cortland. It would be nice if the number of fans on hand for the Senecas increased from the sometimes lackluster turnouts during the season.
This is a special team, with history in its sights. Rest assured that Newfield -- Watkins Glen’s opponent in the finale -- will have a very large and very loud contingent on hand.
Watkins Glen Planning Board member Tom Fitzgerald has researched the housing market in the village, and come up with the following. There are:
--616 single-family properties
--80 two-unit properties
--6 three-unit properties
--2 four-unit properties
--77 short-term rental properties
There are, he adds:
--239 hotel and motel rooms
--39 bed-and-breakfast bedrooms
--200 short-term rental bedrooms
“This means,” Fitzgerald wrote, “that 10.7% of all the properties in Watkins Glen are short-term rentals. My impression is that there have been a number of houses that have recently been sold and turned into short-term rentals. This has no doubt driven up the costs of purchasing a house in Watkins Glen.”
Accordingly, he is in favor of holding short-term rentals “to about the current level.” That would allow those STRs to stay in business and still encourage single-family home ownership; stabilize the STR growth “situation,” and “cause price adjustments which can make the future for all more predictable." A hold on the number of short-term rentals “will also prevent STRs from taking over the flat area of the village.”
And another number: 24.
Preparations are moving forward for this year’s Top Drawer 24 celebration on June 1st at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion -- where two dozen of the best and brightest among the student populations in a dozen school districts will be honored.
We have a great keynote speaker set up, and worthy Lifetime Achievement Award honorees. And while the process is still ongoing, this will be an outstanding group of student-athlete-citizens we will be lauding -- and challenging. For each year the overriding message to the honorees is: You’ve achieved a lot; now go do better.
It really is a remarkable program -- now in its (another number) 15th year.
A player from the past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, February 25, 2020 -- Sometimes, when external forces exert themselves -- in my current case a cold that moved in on me while I was covering a recent sports event -- I tend to become introspective. No, that’s not quite right. I tend to look backward, to a time in which all of the players in my life were on stage.
Maybe it’s because when I’m sick, I feel mortality moving in. I am, after all, older than some of the folks whose obituaries I publish here.
Anyway, I’ve been looking backward these past few days at those players in my life; people in and of my sphere; people who impacted me through my various chapters: high school; college; a decade in journalism in Watertown, New York; another decade in journalism in Elmira, New York, capped by a four-month stint at USA Today; years traveling the sports memorabilia circuit along the Eastern Seaboard; three years at the Corning Leader; a couple of years of novel-writing; and then the last 17 years operating The Odessa File.
Many of those players -- those people -- are gone now, which makes the remembering increasingly bittersweet.
Gone are my wife, for instance, and my parents, most of my aunts, my uncles, professors, mentors, employers, fellow workers, and various friends.
The structures in which I operated survive, for the most part: childhood family homes in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; a vacation retreat outside the northern Michigan community of Gaylord; a home from my first marriage, in Watertown, New York; my places of newspaper employment in Pontiac, Michigan, and Watertown, Elmira and Corning, New York.
But those are mere shells; what matters most to me now are the people who populated them; what matters most are the memories of those players.
A lot has happened in my 71 years, and a lot of time, if I were so disposed, could be spent ruminating on those things; but such ruminations mostly turn active only during an illness.
Enter my current cold, which has rekindled thoughts of those impactful
people -- and most particularly of one who long ago departed, in a way, although I can’t attest for his fate or whether he is still around to read this.
His name: Well, we’ll call him Gabe. His real name -- I hesitate to use it here on the chance that I might not describe him fairly -- was a fairly common one. It was so common that there are thousands of the same name in the world, making it difficult to track down one particular such person, should he choose -- as this one seemingly did -- to disapppear from the lives of those folks who once populated his world.
I met Gabe my freshman year at Albion College in south central Michigan, not far from the Ohio border. I don’t recall exactly where he was from, although it was somewhere in Indiana; but he became part of my small group of friends in those early college days. He had a room in my freshman dorm, so we saw each other often by chance; played bridge together; hung out together; partied together; and ended up rushing the same fraternity.
He was an athletic fellow -- despite a look that indicated otherwise: glasses sitting below some dark, wiry, curly hair. But he had a swagger, too. He seemed gifted at whatever sport he attempted: football, basketball and baseball, although he, like me, eschewed organized varsity competition; we were intramuralists. He had a ready smile; and was quick with a quip. I liked him right away, and continued to.
Having said that, we were not the closest of friends; circumstance, in retrospect, provided a somewhat conflicted relationship. I remember specific shared experiences with Gabe, rather than the long, continuous history that I shared with several other guys.
I recall, for example, that he, in fun, hit me in the solar plexus one day as we were leaving the dorm. I saw red and jumped him, and in my fury pelted him with such devastating power that he started laughing, even though I had the appearance of the upper hand, sitting atop his prone body and “pummeling” him. The end result: he never struck me again, but neither did he fear me.
I recall, too, the weekend that the popular singer Neil Diamond came to our campus to perform in concert. The student body gathered in ancient Kresge Gym, which offered a stage, floor seating and a small balcony. I was seated down near the front with my girlfriend of the moment, a cute blonde I will call Daisy, who in the course of the show caught the attention of Diamond, who called her up on stage. Once there, he was asking her who she was and what class she was in, and then motioned toward me -- still seated in the audience -- and asked her if he should be concerned with me; with my potential wrath as a jealous boyfriend.
Just then a voice cut through the gym from the rear -- from the balcony, I think. It was the voice of Gabe, saying loudly and clearly: “Haeffner? Nah. He’s a real weenie.”
Mortification would best describe my reaction. I still feel the moment. Some things never leave you.
Fast forward to the next summer, while I was up in northern Michigan, staying at my family’s cabin/cottage outside Gaylord. I was working at the Hidden Valley Country Club a few miles away, and so when my girlfriend -- still Daisy -- paid me a visit and we were joined (I'm not sure if by invitation or surprise) by Gabe, I had to leave them to each other during my working hours.
That Daisy and I decided, during her visit, to break up, I did not ascribe to Gabe, though I had my suspicions as to his intent. By the time we arrived back at school, Daisy wanted to get back together with me, but I had already moved on to another girlfriend -- one I soon thereafter married -- and so declined her kind offer.
Once married, I didn’t have occasion to see much of Daisy, though we had common friends and were comfortable enough when our paths did cross. And in truth, I don’t recall Gabe being a major player in my life anymore. At any rate, graduation came and we all went our separate ways.
I don't recall if Gabe and Daisy became an item while still in college, but I ultimately heard that they married one another; and that he went in the military; and that they divorced after his return. I never had a handle on the whys or wherefores; nor did I consider it my business.
Years went by, and the time came when I felt the urge to track down my old friends from my Albion College days. I either contacted, or heard about, each of them except for Gabe. Nobody seemed to know what had happened to him, and so my efforts went for naught. As the internet became a viable tool for tracking down folks, I tried that, too, but without success.
Now, in the winter of my years, I am less inclined -- the fires having been tamped down by life and its accompanying gravity -- to go searching. There comes a point when you realize that those great days of yore are enhanced by the prism of memory; that they weren’t (if we really, really thought about it) all that great. Life, no matter what chapter, has plenty of downs to go with the ups.
But some faces of the past -- like that of Gabe, lost physically along the way, but as fresh to me now in my memory as it was that half-century ago -- pop up in my mind from time to time, and most particularly when I’m feeling the effects of a cold and the winds of mortality. They are the faces of people of lasting impact, people who enriched my life.
They were players in my own story, in this case from an early chapter, and thus key to everything that has followed -- since all things lead to something else; cause and effect. They were, and are, a part of me yet.
Yes, those people -- and Gabe was for a time an important one -- are at once enduring and embracing ... and in his case, because of his vanishing, somewhat haunting.
Now .... if I can just get rid of this damn cold.
When regret comes calling
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, February 4, 2020 -- I was raking leaves from around some shrubbery fronting the screened-in front porch of a cottage we had rented on the Island -- Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan. As I rounded one of the shrubs, I encountered my wife, Susan, resting on a lounge chair on the lawn, a book in hand.
She was studying me, and her look suggested she was about to say something weighty, and so I stopped my chore and leaned on the rake, and waited.
It did not take long.
“Why don’t you make love to me as much as you used to?” she asked me, adding: “You know, like when we were in France.”
Which I thought was a very strange thing for her to say, since we had never been in France. But being the sort who likes to parry with jest, I smiled, looked out across the lawn, the passing roadway and the lake just beyond, and adopted a French accent for my answer.
“Because,” I said, turning back to her with what I thought was a rakish grin, “the air is so much lighter there. It is so much easier to do things.”
She did not smile back.
“No, I really mean it,” she said. “Why?”
And I nodded, looked out to the lake and the distant mainland -- and turned back to her again, equally as stern.
“Well,” I said, the accent gone. “It’s probably because you're dead.”
And with that I dropped the rake ... and woke up.
And found myself in the study of my home in Odessa. I had fallen asleep in my reading chair -- the latest book on my reading list resting, closed, on my lap. I fished my phone out of my pocket and checked the time: 3 a.m.
And then I coughed -- hacked, really -- for all of this was a byproduct, I suspect, of two primary things.
One was an effort the day before to secure lodging this coming summer on Bois Blanc Island, which my wife and I used to visit annually before her passing in 2004, and to which I still return each summer, sharing one rental property or another with my brother and his wife.
The other was an illness making the rounds that had weakened me and left me especially limp and vulnerable to memories, regrets, and, yes, a manufactured encounter with my late wife -- a frequent, silent ghost in my life these 15 years-plus, but given to voice in my dream world.
Dreams seem to have minds of their own; do not follow conscious thought or logic. The cottage before which I was raking, for example, does not exist -- is an amalgam of those I have inhabited on that wondrous island in the Straits of Mackinac. And let’s face it: finding me anywhere willingly wielding a rake is a bit of a stretch.
And an odd thing (as if it all wasn’t odd enough): there was a third person in my dream, just off to the side. It was a child, a tow-head, I think, who giggled at my French accent. I thought at first that it was one of my sons; or perhaps one of my two granddaughters. But I believe in retrospect that it was me -- the young, tow-headed me who used to delight in visiting the island in the summers of my youth, of the 1950s.
I’m not sure why I would be both child and adult in the same scene, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that, even in my so-called golden years, as my body organs and skin and energy flag, I am not entirely old; part of me is still, in my soul, a virile teen or 20-something, and part of me will forever be that child.
As part of me will forever be linked to the woman I loved, to whom I was committed, and with whom I produced and raised two boys and helped raise a third from my first marriage.
So, anyway ... after checking the clock in my phone and hacking, I rose from the chair in which I had been sleeping, and wandered downstairs to my desk to type this up: a memo, if you will, to all of us who, as life adds layer upon layer of experience, find ourselves weighed down a bit some days -- especially those days upon which we are most vulnerable. When we are ill, for instance, and feeling alone; or dreaming, and as a result perhaps experiencing a sense of loss and regret.
But this is not intended as a whine session. I in fact have positive advice to share -- facile perhaps, but on occasion effective.
When feeling the weight of all of those layers of experience, just try to make light of the situation. Maybe a French (or some other) accent will help. Humor can carry us far.
And if that fails, perhaps you can do something different: take a trip, document it in a diary. I toured the continental United States once, and it changed the trajectory of my life. The U.S. is always a good bet.
Or ... and I'm reaching for a thematic conclusion here ... you might do what I haven’t done yet (though I’ve been thinking about it for a while): take a trip across the Atlantic, say to France.
I hear that Paris is lovely.
True, that seems like a pat destination -- French being a repetitive element in this essay -- but it's honest in this sense: I'm wondering if my thoughts of France, which preceded the dream, didn't somehow play a role in the direction it took.
And I like to think that if I were to go there, to Paris, that my wife would be smiling, after all. Heck, maybe she's trying to tell me something: Go east, old man, and seek ... enlightenment? I don't know.
But I'm guessing -- I hope, anyway -- that if I do go that I will be smiling, too.
Hope. That's what I do, what I think most of us do, even with a cough and a disruptive dream -- even a dream that starkly reminds me of all that life has to give and, once given, takes away.
Yes, I hope. Even in the throes of illness. Despite a cough, despite a dream perhaps fever-induced, I hope.
I have always embraced hope. Though it might, in some circumstances, wane for me, it has never been -- and dare I say (with some redundance) I hope it never will be -- extinguished.
The passing of a journalist
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, January 23, 2020 -- I was going to write today about some of our young athletes and their ongoing achievements. But it will have to wait.
I am instead going to the other end of the spectrum -- that of a long life well lived.
I am talking of the passing of a 96-year-old gentleman I had the pleasure of knowing fairly well. In fact, I worked with him for several years.
I received word of his passing on Facebook and then saw his obituary on the Elmira Star-Gazette website.
His name: Al Mallette, an old-school, prototypical Sports Editor. He served the Star-Gazette as reporter and editor for decades, covering everything from minor league baseball to high school sports to local bowling and softball leagues.
Any sport was fair game, for he loved them all. He loved covering them, and writing about them, and being at the heart of the information engine that carried stories about them to Elmira and surrounding areas.
When I joined the Star-Gazette in late 1980, Al was still the sports kingpin; had been for a long time. He was always friendly to me, and I to him, and so I was particularly dismayed when the powers that be at the paper -- who have long since departed into history -- nudged him aside. He was relegated to the role of reporter/columnist, the lot of so many aging journalists over the years.
He bore the diminution with grace, but I could see in his eyes the pain that came with the hiring of a much younger man who took his place with that prized title: Sports Editor.
He stayed at the paper until March of 1985, then went into a busy retirement that saw him writing books and helping establish what is now the Chemung County Sports Hall of Fame.
I ended up following in his Star-Gazette footsteps, joining the Sports Department after his departure and ultimately taking on that title he so loved: Sports Editor.
In his honor, I also took on the responsibility of writing a weekly column called “Sunday Brunch,” the name of his long-running column years before. I don’t think I ever measured up to him, though; I love sports, but they don’t flow through my veins as they did through his.
I encountered Al on occasion over the subsequent years. I left the Star-Gazette in 1988, and saw him now and again at various functions. I suspect the Elmira All-Sports Banquet might have been one of them, since he was instrumental in the founding and operation of that once-annual gathering at the Elmira College Campus Center.
And then, sometime in the early 2000s, I met with him a couple of times to negotiate the purchase of various memorabilia he had collected over the years -- including an Ernie Davis signed photo. Ernie was a subject of pride with Al, someone he covered in that remarkable athlete's formative years, and who he continued to write about as Ernie gained accolades and the Heisman Trophy for his football exploits at Syracuse University. And Al wrote about him after Ernie’s death by leukemia in 1963.
Among the items I picked up from Al that I still hold are a photo of him in the Star-Gazette office with Ernie. A Star-Gazette editor named Cove Hoover is in the photo -- a glossy original affixed to a cardboard backing, and dated 1961. I've reprinted that portion of the photo here with Al and Ernie.
I also retain a softcover book -- a compendium of Ernie Davis newspaper and magazine articles called “Ernie Davis: A Historical Perspective” compiled by a gentleman named Bob Hill in the late '90s. I have no idea how many copies are out there, but I have never seen another. It has proven a valuable resource whenever I’ve had occasion to write about Ernie.
I don’t think Al ever got over the passing of Ernie -- the sudden end to such a promising life, such a promising career. He spoke about Ernie warmly during our memorabilia sessions, always a rueful smile on his face, with pauses to shake his head -- whether in dismay or wonder or both, I don’t know.
There’s a copy in that compendium of a column Al wrote after Ernie’s death.
“I was one of the fortunate ones," Al wrote, "to have known Ernie his 10 years in Elmira, from his first Small Fry days in September 1953 until his expected, though untimely and shocking death Saturday morning in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital ...
“I vividly recall the time in Pittsburgh when the Orange were to play the Panthers. My wife, Teresa, and I and the Red Colpitts of Elmira were having breakfast when Ernie and (SU teammate) Gerry Skonieczki walked up. They could have lunched with their teammates. Instead they sat and chatted with us ...
“Ernie and I chatted several times after the news broke that he had leukemia. Each time Ernie was so enthusiastic that he would whip the disease and be back playing football, that you almost believed he would, too -- though you knew in your heart that Ernie never again would ...
“That was Ernie, though.”
I encountered Al again on his 90th birthday -- at a party thrown for him in the Hibernian Center on Elmira’s southside. He had recently fallen and struck his head, and was sporting a red scar on his forehead, courtesy of the incident. Some folks were saying he was a little dazed and might not be recognizing everyone.
I spotted him there at a table in the middle of the party room, with well-wishers crowding in, and he looked a little overwhelmed. I thought, yeah, he might not even remember me; it had been a few years and he was, after all, nine decades old. But as I stood on the far side of the table, observing him interact with the other folks, he suddenly swiveled his head and looked directly at me, and broke into a big smile.
He fairly growled my name in recognition: "Charlie Haeffner!" I smiled in return, probably as widely as he was, and made my way to his side. And we sat there talking, catching up, reminiscing about the old Star-Gazette days and, yes, about Ernie Davis.
I lost track of Al after that; had heard recently that he was in Bethany Village in Horseheads, and planned to look him up.
But I waited too long.
And so Al is now part of the history he used to write; part of the fabric of Elmira-area lore that he helped to record.
He was, as I said, old school. A local treasure. And with the demise of the daily newspaper, he was the kind of thorough, valued and valuable sports journalist we will not likely see passing our way again.
Photo in text: Ernie Davis sits at a typewriter in the Elmira Star-Gazette newsroom, with Al Mallette at his side, in 1961.
Students gather at center court around Erin Gruwell (red skirt) in the WGHS Field House.
Out of the darkness ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, January 11, 2020 -- I’m not sure I’d nominate Erin Gruwell for sainthood. That enters into the realm of the religious, where I get uncomfortable.
But “National Treasure” would do nicely. She is certainly that. And the fact that the Watkins Glen School District has seen fit to hitch its wagon to her blazing star speaks volumes of its educational intent.
Gruwell visited the Watkins Glen school district last year, and she was here again this week, this time with two of her original Freedom Writers. There were 150 such writers, potential losers (in our pigeonholing vernacular) who became winners under her tutelage and with the realization that the written word is empowering and oh, so capable of giving each of us wings.
Gruwell, the teacher portrayed by Hilary Swank in the 2007 film Freedom Writers, was a teacher extraordinaire in Long Beach, California who lifted the high school kids in her first class to international acclaim with publication of their diary entries created as part of her class. She is no longer in the classroom, but is spreading her teaching method on a wider scale, bringing her message (and that of the Freedom Writers) of hope, kindness, teamwork, and the redeeming quality of love, to students in other districts and other states -- even ones 3,000 miles east of her Long Beach base.
Districts such as Watkins Glen -- a stop as part of her Freedom Writers Foundation’s effort to spread that message.
We’re not talking mere book-learning here. We’re talking a shared experience beyond the written page, into the interior that we all guard so zealously -- into our psyches and souls. Her Freedom Writers (they adopted the name in tribute to the Freedom Riders of the American south in the push to broaden civil rights) were largely closed off to her teaching when she first met them, but under her guidance learned that their grievances against life’s inequities and abuses could be turned to something positive: from pain came purpose.
They did it through writing anonymous (numbered, not named) diary entries in Gruwell’s class, and in the doing began to see one another as individuals instead of stereotypes; as friends instead of foes; as family. They were tabbed as among life’s losers, but in the turning became graduates and a collective success story, their writings becoming The Freedom Writers Diary, a bestselling book now in its third printing and the subject of that Hilary Swank film.
Their grievances, when obsessed over alone, became a black hole. But they learned the grievances could be countered effectively by shared writing, by personal accounts and observations that unearthed a commonality of experience. And that commonality became a light to steer their lives in a positive, loving direction.
That The Freedom Writers Diary not only made it past the confines of its original classroom, but became a huge best seller that continues to inspire those who, like its writers, are grappling with doubts, fear, depression and abuse, is a small miracle. As Narada Comans, one of two Freedom Writers visiting Watkins with Gruwell, told an assembly of WGHS students: “It’s bonkers.”
The visit included a program before about 75 people Thursday night in the Elementary School auditorium, and interaction Friday with teachers and students in the high school. Perhaps most telling among the Friday activities was a gathering of students in the Field House gym. They lined up around the perimeter of the basketball court, with Gruwell, microphone in hand, occupying the centermost point (the court’s “WG” logo) and Freedom Writers Comans and Sue Ellen Alpizar flanking her at each of the court’s free-throw lines.
Under Gruwell’s direction, the gathering of students, like a rectangular amoeba, moved in toward her and her writers, and back out again, in response to such prompts as “those of you who have experienced depression, move forward.” And afterward: "Now move back."
Other prompts: “How many of you know someone who has thought about or attempted suicide?” and “How many of you have been bullied?” and “How many of you know someone who has hurt themselves?” and “How many of you have suffered a loss -- of friendship or innocence or of a parent?” There was, for good measure: “How many of you have been picked on first, and been the last to be picked?” and “How many of you have felt you are just not good enough?”
In every instance, almost the entire gathering of students -- 9th through 12th graders -- stepped forward.
That fact alone is both startling and depressing, until you realize that what Gruwell is stressing is the similarity of certain aspects of our lives -- the experiences, some physical and many emotional, that we all share. And the redemption is in her message of response.
“We all have a story,” she said, and in the telling, in the airing of our inner feelings and fears, we can let in some light, especially when we realize that others are facing the same burdens. By recognizing and understanding what is happening to those close by, we can, through the strength of shared support and numbers, fight off the darkness.
“In those dark moments there is no light,” she said. And from that comes anger, resentment, and sometimes a feeling of hopelessness -- until you realize you are not alone. “Maybe you’ll catch someone’s eye or see something you never saw before” in that person: a familiarity, the beginning of a bond. That’s what happened with her class of 150 Freedom Writers.
She motioned to the two with her, Comans and Alpizar, and said: “This is what it looks like to be older and bigger and better.”
This is the essence of the message, says Gruwell: “Love is love is love. I want you to be close when those near you need it. When they really needed it" -- and she motioned to the Freedom Writers -- "I was there for them. I hope we can lead with love. I hope we can listen ...”
The philosophy gets more specific when examining the evil of the world -- personified, for instance, in the Anne Frank story, a diary of a European teen girl hiding with her family from the Nazis during World War II. It was read in class by the original Freedom Writers. Some of them eventually visited the Auschwitz concentration camp and even the attic where young Anne Frank hid before the Nazis took her and her family away, in Anne’s case to her death. These same writers have come to know a survivor from Auschwitz who has stressed to them, in a quote attributed to several statesmen and philosophers: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
This applies to both evil and to the personal demons we see bedeviling others. Doing nothing, says Erin Gruwell, is not acceptable. We all need a helping hand along the way. We all need one another.
Gruwell’s visits are not the only effort by the Watkins school district to embrace her teaching methods and messages. Five of its teachers and two of its School Board members attended a Freedom Writers seminar in Long Beach last summer and, now back home, are spreading the message and methods among their peers.
I think the idea and execution are admirable and that Gruwell’s presentation resonates.
And while the skeptic in me wonders how much impact a daylong visit to a school can leave behind, I find it both hopeful and comforting.
Why? Well ... the less skeptical part of me thinks that the message -- so powerful and positive -- carries with it its own undimmable light.
Photos in text:
Top: Erin Gruwell addresses students in the Field House gym.
Second: Freedom Writers
Narada Comans and Sue Ellen Alpizar in the Field House.
Third and Fourth: Signs in the WGHS hallway expressing themes of the Freedom Writers' visit to Watkins Glen.
A panoramic view of the Field House gathering, with WGHS Superintendent Greg Kelahan overseeing the event.
Another anniversary ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, December 26, 2019 -- As I near the end of my 17th year at the helm of this website, I marvel at the fact that the young athletes whose exploits I cover on these pages weren’t even born yet, or had just been, when I started down this road.
Considering that I have, along the way, lost my wife, my mother, my father-in-law and assorted other relatives -- not to mention friends I encountered along the way, people who entered my life after the launch of The Odessa File -- I shake my head at life’s vicissitudes and its blessings.
I am particularly drawn to such thoughts in this Christmas season for the dual reason of the memories the holiday brings -- of raising young children who, like their mother and I, loved the shared excitement -- and the milestone that I reach each year on Dec. 29, the date upon which I first introduced this website to the online world.
As I’ve related before, that first night I had three visitors -- and two of them were me. The other was a friend I alerted to the presence of The Odessa File, which contained a couple of ads and a couple of stories, along with a photo or two.
Back then, I was utilizing a horribly inefficient camera I had picked up at a local store -- one so slow that any movement whatsoever by a photographic subject resulted in a blur. Considering I was hell bent on covering local sports through words and photos, it posed a challenge.
I eventually expanded my readership -- through a helping article in the Elmira Star Gazette, through the circulation of flyers at sporting events, and through word of mouth -- and improved the photography by buying a better camera, and then after that a still better one. Successful photos, I discovered, came down to utilizing the proper equipment.
Following the passing of my wife, a local woman named Susan Bauman Haeffner, I nearly went under both emotionally and economically, but something she had predicted -- that ads would come, and in rapid succession, like falling dominoes -- came to pass, and I trudged onward.
Along the way I teamed with the AD down at Watkins Glen High School, Craig Cheplick, to improve the product. We used to brainstorm all sorts of ideas, some of which took hold -- like an Athlete of the Week, seasonal All-Star teams, and then the Top Drawer 24 program that recognizes two-dozen outstanding student-athlete-citizens each year with a celebration at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Soon I had passed the five-year mark of producing local news coverage, and then 10, and eventually -- much to my amazement -- fifteen.
When I had started, I had decided to play it year to year: to see if it was worth the time and effort to continue for another 365 days.
Now, at my somewhat advanced age -- and against previous logic -- I don’t put a time frame on it. I figure I will go until I drop, or until someone steps up with an offer that would make it worth my while to move aside and let fresh blood take it over.
In the meantime, I look forward each week during the ever cycling high school sports seasons to covering the contests that our communities follow closely -- and which have resulted in state titles, both team and individual, at both schools, Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen.
I look forward to covering the young athletes who put themselves out there each game, trying their best to represent their schools and communities in a positive (and we hope victorious) fashion.
And I marvel, as I said, that they were not yet born, or had barely been, when I began this journey.
As I look ahead to year number 18, I will try to keep the level of information and entertainment flowing at a high level -- although at my age not every day is one marked by an abundance of personal energy.
But as long as the flesh is willing, so -- I think -- will the spirit be.
Happy Holidays to you all.
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