In the Forest of Sherwood
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 20, 2017 -- She was on our Top Drawer 24 team -- the annual team of ourstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by this website-- back in her senior year of high school.
Her Top Drawer biography in 2008 read:
"Molly Bilinski joins the Top Drawer squad as a Watkins Glen High School senior for an outstanding year in
which she excelled on the soccer field, played varsity basketball, and
is a key player on the varsity softball team. A consistent High Honor
student, she recently toured Europe playing soccer, and was named student
ambassador to the Watkins Glen Public Library as part of its annual membership
"She has impressed administrators and teachers with her work ethic
and attitude, and has been a participant beyond the playing fields and
classroom, as a member of the cast of the recent school production of
the musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'"
Since those quoted days of yore, Molly Bilinski has gone on to William Smith College, graduated with a Bachelor's degree in chemistry, and then secured a job as a certified technician with an asphalt lab in Buffalo, where she currently works. (Parenthetically, the firm's Cortland lab developed the asphalt used in the recent repaving of the Watkins Glen International racetrack.) But what none of that mentions is her passion for storytelling.
"I always had a composition book," Molly said in a phone interview this week. And she always wrote in it, even back in high school. Back then, what she was writing was a long-term project, one ultimately set aside but now, once again, part of her focus: a young adult novel in progress. But it turned out not to be her first finished work.
No, she completed another one ahead of it.
Molly Bilinski is soon to be a published author, creator of a young adult novel titled Lady of Sherwood, a reimagining of the Robin Hood tale, this time with Robin as a female. And, says Molly, the band of Merry Men actually consists of mostly women.
"Robin Hood is one of my favorite stories," the author said. "I didn't want to do something already done."
And what of Maid Marian? Well, there is a male equivalent named Marcus.
Molly connected with her publishing firm, Clean Teen Publishing, an independent Texas outfit (not a self-publishing outfit, but one more along traditional publishing lines), through Twitter, and when they expressed an interest, she sent some of the story, and then at their request a synopsis and sample pages. Then they wanted more pages, and then the rest of it.
"I've always liked to write," said Molly in our interview. While maintaining a certain vagueness about it, the story she was working on back in high school has now re-emerged, at least as an ongoing development project.
The older story, re-embraced, "has nothing to do with Robin Hood," said Molly. And how much progress has she made on it? "I'm rewriting parts of it."
But all attention for now will be on her Robin Hood, on Lady of Sherwood, with a publishing date of April 24. At some point, Molly will have a book signing at the Watkins Glen Public Library -- an event we intend to publicize on this website.
About the time of publication, there should be reviews by journalists who are provided with advance copies of the book.
Is she looking forward to the publication itself, or the reviews, or both?
"A little of both," she said.
So am I. And I imagine all of us involved in the Top Drawer 24 program will be watching closely. When one of the young adults we honor at our annual Top Drawer celebrations makes strides like this -- and I'm not talking just about the book, but about her success in college and in her career track, too -- we are even prouder than before.
Well done, Molly Bilinski.
Photos in text: Molly Bilinski and the cover of her book (Photos provided)
Time tripping back home
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 9, 2017 -- I was relieved to see 2016 pass into history.
It was a lousy year, loud with politics, and full of personal physical challenges. When I wasn't wringing my hands in agony over the prospect of a Trump victory, I was gimping around with a torn miniscus, undergoing treatments to repair a damaged shoulder and an arm so wounded that I couldn't lift a camera for a couple of weeks, and undertaking medications for high blood pressure that have had subtle and annoying side effects. And an extension of lowering my blood pressure: the creation of one of those unmentionable maladies that, shall we say, made sitting a challenge.
My father-in-law told me, as he neared the end: Don't get old. I'm beginning to think I should have listened.
It's no wonder, I guess, that my mind has turned to happier, easier times -- whether a childhood that carries almost entirely positive memories; a young adulthood where I was feeling my sexual and amorous oats; or a middle age where raising a family was an adventure embraced, and where I enjoyed a marriage of co-dependency and trust.
I was talking to a friend recently about that; about being happily married for so long and about how, after my wife Susan had passed away, I expected to remarry ... and yet how I didn't after all.
"I discovered," I said, "that it wasn't that I enjoyed being married; but that I enjoyed being married to Susan."
I think back, too, to my parents, and how when I lost them, I lost my lifelong touchstones. They were rocks, those two: Gus and Eleanor. Married 54 years. Met on a raft on Owasco Lake, when Mom attracted Dad's 30-year-old eyes when she was but 21. It didn't take long for them to marry, and they were always a team. I grew up in a solid household, both financially and emotionally. Angry words were a rarity.
What a great way to grow up -- in an upscale community called Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit, and in an upscale house bordering on small Sodon Lake. It was a ranch-style home with all sorts of modern features for its day, which is to say 1957. I have a black-and-white photo of it during the autumn, and a winter photo of it on a clipping from a local newspaper. Its caption reads: "One of Michigan's finest. Custom designed contemporary bi-level on a lovely sloping wooded lot. Four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, superlative kitchen with deluxe mahogany cabinets. Fine live-in space with adjoining recreation room on lower level." It then mentions "fishing, swimming, boating and skating" and "a truly resort atmosphere."
That was a bit much, so I'm guessing that might have appeared when my parents were selling the house, 10 years after they had had it built. That sale was in 1967, after I had gone to college. We had a getaway cabin by then in northern Michigan, and no great need for such a large dwelling. But even now, when I think of it, it's my house. It even (and this was cool) had a fallout shelter in the (finished) basement that served no useful purpose other than as a place to camp out (or in this case in) with friends both in comfort and away from the eyes of my parents.
Yes, a difficult (or at least annoying) year like 2016 can set the mind to ruminating on pleasantries past -- on parents now gone and on days forever lost except in the memory bank. I have (at least figuratively) been visiting those places I enjoyed and those people who helped shape me and who showered me with both love and protection in my formative years. I don't time-travel like Billy Pilgrim did in Kurt Vonnegut's masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, but it's my own lesser version: a kinder, gentler tendency to look for the good in life when current times are trying.
Here's to 2017. May it surpass its immediate predecessor, and thereby cut down on my need to visit past glories.
Pertinent six years later...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 27, 2016 -- I was looking over some of my earlier columns recently, and happened upon one from almost six years ago, on Feb. 22, 2011, in which I offered a poem that had been kicking around in my head -- one about the Internet and how it would lead us down the path to perdition.
It seems particularly timely still -- maybe more so in light of the recent election and the Russians and the hacking and the fake stories and the fact that the world, ever increasingly, is dependent on the Internet and social media.
I’ve renamed it “The Undoing.” It reads like this:
There was a day, not long ago,
Morality was fashion;
When violence was rare to see
And sex a private passion.
But with the 'Net came graphic scenes
Of murder, mayhem, gore;
Of bodies twined, of sweat profuse,
Of more and more and more.
Of troubled teens a-slicing arms,
Of vivid sights unbidden
By souls that fare far better
If life's truths are partly hidden.
And with these revelations,
These assaults upon our morals,
We came benumbed, were hardened
To life's marvels, life's rich florals.
And in the end, these images
This rampant information.
Led us to chaos, anarchy,
The undoing of nation.
When truth is bared in all its warts,
When Earth is shrunken, vile,
When compasses veer far from right,
When kindness turns to bile.
The end result is foreordained,
Upheaval will be ample.
Society will rupture, bleed,
Traditions will be trampled.
The moral here is simple:
It's far better -- not to lie --
But temper truth with veneer soft
With whispers, gentle sighs.
This high school sports season has thus far shown promise in several areas: boys swimming, where both Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen have shown strength (Watkins showed surprising depth when it defeated O-M in a face-to-face meeting); girls basketball, where both schools have gotten off to fast starts (they meet January 10th); the O-M wrestling team, with several successful competitors; the Watkins Glen girls bowling team (perennially challenging for sectional titles); and Watkins Glen indoor track (where several participants have as their goals school records, and have knocked down several).
I love reporting such successes.
With the Top Drawer 24 committee’s annual dinner meeting complete, nominations for membership on the team are starting to come in from school districts involved in the program -- which is sponsored by this website and WENY-TV and honors two dozen outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens from about a dozen districts in the area. Once the nominations are in, discussions will follow among committee members and with school administrators as we head toward the 12th annual awards ceremony in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all of you. I truly hope it is exactly that.
On the slopes, in my heart...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 16, 2016 -- I find myself, as one year leads to another, looking back at a growing mosaic of my past, for each time the calendar turns I have more to remember.
But oddly, lately, I’ve been focusing more on a relative sliver of the distant past, and in particular that period that encompassed my final few years as a teenager through my mid-20s: not exactly golden years, for I was emotionally vulnerable throughout, and not particularly happy ... at least until my second marriage.
I was seeking: validation that I was worth something; a relationship in which I might find unity instead of doubt and confusion; a direction that might illuminate my future.
And in that sliver of my past, in those few formative, emotionally roiled years, certain events or days stand out: my two weddings, certainly; and the birth of my first son (the other two came slightly later), and my work as a journalist both in college and soon thereafter, in Watertown, New York.
But above all, the memories come down to high school and college friends, and ski trips, and a cabin in the woods, and a girl whose name I can’t even remember, but who has stayed with me in essence all of these years.
She comes to mind fairly regularly, in fact ... most recently because of a fire.
Let me explain:
I spotted a news item the other night while surfing the Internet: the lodge at Boyne Highlands, a ski resort in northern Michigan’s Harbor Springs, had caught fire. A dozen people were injured, and dozens more were evacuated.
When I was a teenager growing up in Michigan, I utilized the ski slopes of Boyne Highlands, and of another resort, Boyne Mountain, and of another, Hidden Valley outside Gaylord. One winter break, before my parents bought a cabin in the woods west of Gaylord, my brother and I, along with various friends, traveled north from our Detroit-area homes to partake of some of those slopes -- at the Boyne Mountain resort, as I recall.
The Beatles were big then, and I had secured a wig -- I think from my mother -- that looked like their hairstyles, and I wore it while skiing, generating quite a few looks from other people. I was a bit of a showboat back then.
Back at the motel where a bunch of us were staying, we were playing Beatles albums non-stop after each day on the slopes. We played the Beatles’ “Help” and “Rubber Soul” and sang along, all of us -- I recall 10 or so boys of high school and college age piling into a couple of rooms -- knowing the songs’ words oh so well.
I would say this was late 1965 or early 1966, for “Help” came out in August of ’65 and “Rubber Soul” in early December. The ski trip was memorable, and fun, and almost magical, for that’s how the Beatles affected my generation.
The magic continued the next year -- the Beatles had released “Revolver” -- but in a different venue, for the need to rent rooms ended, my parents having bought the cabin near Gaylord in mid-1966. Before long my brother and I, along with our skiing buddies, were using that as an occasional base of operations.
Ah, the cabin.
It was a small place (before we enlarged it) -- kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a small bathroom with a metallic shower so small that if you moved your arms inside it, your elbows would meet metal and produce a clanging sound. And the only heater was a brown, boxy, electric one standing in the living room. I remember one very cold winter’s morning -- a bunch of us young skiers were there, sans grownups -- when we awakened to find one of our guests had unplugged the heater during the night and plugged in his electric blanket instead. We thought of tying him to a tree in the woods, and letting the animals have at him.
But all of this came after the ski event I remember most clearly; at least I recall the emotion and sense of it. It occurred in January 1965 -- and I specifically know the date of January 24. My family was at one of the resorts -- I believe Boyne Highlands, a memory reinforced when I saw the story about the recent fire there, and a picture of its ski lodge.
I remember the lodge: spacious, well-appointed ... but more to the point there was a girl present with me. It is strange that I don’t remember her name; I’m usually good about that. But I remember her looks: athletic, befitting a skier; blondish hair, medium length; piercing blue eyes, and a smile that touched my heart.
We had met on the slopes and struck up a conversation on our last day there, and kept talking afterward, way into the night, seated in the lodge, its large fireplace warming us. And as we talked, I became enamored, and wished the evening would never end. But it did, and so we did what we could: exchanged addresses before adjourning. I ultimately wrote her, but never heard back, and never saw her again.
I know the date because word arrived that day that the great English wartime leader Winston Churchill had died, and Jan. 24 was the date of his death. I remember discussing him with her, and how she seemed to know little about him while I, a bit of a history buff, knew substantially more. And she listened so raptly that I thought I must be interesting -- and hope soared of a future of possibilities that might include her, a mirage that young love often induces.
Alas, there was no future involving that young charmer and me, but of course life carried me on to other encounters involving other charmers, two of whom I married. I was a young man of strong feelings, often led by the heart.
I think now, in my approaching dotage, that I have lost the capacity for such soaring emotions, and I look back on those I experienced with some wonder.
I still carry with me, though, the memory (if not the feeling) of crushes I had: on a girl named Patti in nursery school who always wore polka dot-laden dresses; on a young, slender beauty named DeeDee Pipp in the 5th grade; on a young, physically advanced brunette in junior high named Sandy Smith, whose height overmatched that of me, a short dweeb; and on a wholesome lass in high school named Marsha Paul, who I envisioned as the perfect woman but who barely knew my name. And that was all before my confusing college years, which brought their own emotional experiences.
Yes, I recall all of those young ladies: their looks, their personalities, the sheer sense of them, the pain that young love for them brought to me, and the rarely concomitant joy.
And yet, perhaps sweetest of all, despite an inability to recall her name, I remember the girl whose day I shared on some ski slopes and in a ski lodge in northern Michigan on Jan. 24, 1965 -- the day the great statesman Winston Churchill passed into history.
Or as the Beatles put it:
Well, she was just 17,
You know what I mean.
And the way she looked was way beyond compare.
So how could I dance with another (Ooh)
When I saw her standing there.
A kindness for the ages ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 10, 2016 -- Jim Guild is planning to turn the building at 214 N. Franklin St. in Watkins Glen -- a structure that houses the Chamber of Commerce on the ground floor -- into a hotel.
I love the idea. I love hotels. I haven't stayed in many, but they were memorable. One was the old Pines Hotel on Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan, a building that burned to the ground one winter's eve under suspicious circumstances back in 1983. I loved that place; hung out there as a child during summer vacations, and stayed there as an adult. But those are stories for another day.
For now, another hotel comes to mind, and it encompasses a pretty good yarn.
It was in New York City, in 1968. I don't remember the name of the hotel, but it wasn't far from 42nd Street. I was there with a couple of college friends during spring break. We were there, among other things, to link up with a couple of girls -- one I was dating and one my friend Dick was dating. The third member of our group was Greg, an always well-intentioned, athletic fellow whose enthusiasm in all sports -- intramurals and up -- earned him the nickname "Coach."
We ventured east from Michigan -- where we all attended Albion College, west of Ann Arbor in the south central portion of the state -- and, being members of the Sigma Chi fraternity, stopped in Geneva and obtained free lodging at the Sigma Chi house there. The next day it was on to New York City, where we met with the girls, also Albion students, who were visiting the Big Apple with their respective parents. After a nice dinner, we went to a movie theater, where "Gone With the Wind" was playing on a huge screen in a wonderful old building that boasted a balcony. We chose the upper deck. It was my first viewing of the film, and to this day my best, for television pales next to the silver screen.
Later, back in the hotel -- a fairly snug, two-room facility that we three had rented for that single night -- Coach decided that he wanted to take a walk. Dick and I were tired, and declined his invitation to join him, and cautioned him that walking alone in a strange city might not be a good idea. Coach was undeterred; our caution was easily matched by his optimism.
An hour or so later, he returned -- with a companion. No, not a streetwalker, although Dick and I didn't exactly welcome this visitor -- a thin, quiet, straggly-haired young woman of pale complexion and very little means.
"She needs a place to say," said Coach, and we took him to the side room to talk.
"Are you nuts?" I asked. "We don't know anything about her. How the hell did you end up with her, and what possessed you to bring her here?"
He shook his head, signaling that I was being intolerant.
"She needs help," he said. "She ran away from home, up in Connecticut, and she has no money and no place to go. It's kind of a cold night, and I figured we could let her sleep here."
I looked at Dick, and then at the two beds in the side room. "She's not taking my bed," I said.
Coach shook his head again. "I was going to take the couch," he said, motioning to the adjacent room, "but she can have that. I'll sleep on the floor."
Dick and I conferred, and then I told Coach: "Okay. But that handbag she's carrying? I want to check it. You never know. She might have a gun."
"Whatever," said Coach, who adjourned to the other other room, spoke to the girl -- she was barely old enough to qualify as woman -- and returned with the handbag. We opened it, found little besides a wallet, her ID (she was indeed from Connecticut), a couple of cosmetics and a plastic comb with a handle -- the kind that tapered down to a point.
"Well, we'll hold on to this," I said, brandishing the comb. "It's a little too sharp for my taste."
I placed it in a dresser drawer, and Coach adjourned to the other room. He grabbed a spare blanket off the back of the couch and one of the couch pillows and sat down on the floor, facing the girl, who had sat down on the couch. And they talked in a low tone that only they could hear.
Dick and I looked each other, shrugged, and adjourned to our respective beds for the night. I slept a little fitfully -- a little nervously -- but managed to get plenty of shuteye. And when I awakened, I was pleased to find I was still alive.
That morning, our departure day, Coach left early with the girl, saying he would be back within an hour or so. Dick and I grabbed breakfast at a nearby diner, and then met Coach back at our room. The girl was gone.
I looked at him questioningly.
"I took her to the bus station," he said "She didn't have any money, so I paid for a bus ticket home. Called her folks, squared it away, and saw her on to the bus. And yes, I watched it leave."
It was an amazing display of kindness, and I suddenly felt badly for my suspicious, conservative approach to the whole incident. I asked how much it had cost him, and he told us, and Dick and I silently fished in our pockets for our wallets and handed him our share of the money he had spent, a third apiece.
It was only fair. And an inexpensive end to what, despite my earlier protests, was a humanitarian effort of impressive proportion. Coach had imparted a lesson of life, and it is one that has stayed with me to this day: Don't just turn a blind eye. How we are ultimately judged, and sometimes how we judge ourselves, can be determined by the simplest of acts.
Was Coach foolish? I had thought so, but I was wrong. Compassion -- something I clearly lacked -- had ruled his actions and won the day.
And in his kindness he might very well have saved the girl's life. I hope she has had a long and fruitful one.
Coach's act was so Biblical -- do unto others comes to mind, for starters, and a good many other maxims -- that across the decades, when I think of him, I consider him in almost saintly terms.
Maybe that's too strong.
But there is this:
In kindness can reside greatness.
From left: daughter-in-law Ali, sons Dave and Jon, granddaughter Marly and the editor. (Photo by Ali's father, grandpa Steve Piacente)
On meeting Marly ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2016 -- Allow me a personal note:
I finally got to see and hold our granddaughter. You would love her.
She has eyes the deep blue of that on the edge of space -- dark and yet somehow shimmering. She has gained weight so her cheeks are chubby, but I suspect she has more of Dave's looks than Ali's. Her mom's curly hair, though, might have been handed down to her.
She is trying to find support with her legs -- standing isn't far away -- when she is held on her mother's lap or that of her father, her uncles and, of course, her grandparents.
I say "of course," which is wrong; for you were not there; at least not that I could see, though I sometimes sense you. I did not sense you, though, on this weekend, when I met young Marlena Susan Haeffner, age 8 weeks, for the first time in person. But I certainly thought about you and what this would have meant to you had you lived this long.
She has among her attributes ("the best baby ever," brags Dave, who you and I thought was pretty good himself when he joined us in the world) a tremendous set of lungs, worthy of opera, I suspect. Hopefully she has your musical talents, and not my feeble ones.
We (sons Bill and Jon and I ) visited her on Long Island this past weekend, where Ali's side of the family had gathered for Thanksgiving. Despite the obvious benefits of a family gathering, the trip up from Asheville got Dave, Ali and Marly away from a smoky situation, wildfires creating an air hazard in western North Carolina. The fires have been burning some 20 miles from town, and prompting environmental hazard warnings.
Marly's presence just five hours away on Long Island was an improvement, too, over the 11 hours it takes to reach Asheville. So we took advantage of the shorter trip, staying (at an expensive Thanksgiving-weekend rate) in a Holiday Inn Express. The cost didn't really matter, though; you can't put a price on joy.
And that's what I felt, Susan, when I first saw and then held Marly: joy. And a sense, somehow, of completion -- that you and I, through our youngest son and his lovely wife, have finally seen our raison d'etre accomplished.
I wish that you could have been there, too. I find myself imagining the smile on your face, much as I was wearing one.
But who can say? Maybe you were there. Or maybe you have met Marly already in some metaphysical sense.
I certainly have no corner on knowledge or faith or an understanding of the nature of miracles.
But I have a holiday hope.
I pray that just such a miracle -- such a metaphysical one -- is possible and has occurred or will. I pray that somehow you know Marly and she knows you.
It just seems fair and right.
Well ... that's all for now.
God bless you and keep you, and I'll see you by and by.
Of meds and milestones ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 23, 2016 -- So there I was, getting clearance from a doctor so I could get some rehab done on my right knee's torn miniscus, when he tells me that my blood pressure is high.
And so I started in recent weeks on a strict diet and on three medications designed to bring the numbers down, and which can leave you momentarily loopy from time to time.
It was in one of those moments when I turned to my son and said: "These meds are something else. I'm sitting here imagining that Donald Trump, of all people, is our next president."
I'm not sure what caused the blood pressure issue. It could be genetics -- both of my brothers take similar meds -- or the prolonged election season, or maybe one too many run-ins with a school superintendent.
Something very realistically acceptable followed: the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity cross country team's state championship among Class C schools, led by the remarkable Patrick Hazlitt -- who was third at States among Class C runners and fourth when all class results were blended together. You can't get much better than that.
But matters improved even more. The Senecas went on to win the Federation meet against mostly larger schools, including the Class B titleist and the Class A runnerup. Coach John Fazzary likened the accomplishment to that pulled off by the basketball team from the small school in the film "Hoosiers."
I can't argue with that one.
A schoolwide celebration was held Tuesday morning at WGHS, in the Field House. Speeches, music and a colorful "Walk of Fame" with paper stars containing the names of each honoree made clear that the district appreciates the achievements of the cross-country runners; that enthusiasm for excellence extends beyond popular spectator sports like basketball.
Now, there is another competition for the team this coming weekend, at the Nike Regionals in Wappingers Falls. The top two teams there advance to nationals.
My son Jon, who resides in the family homestead with me, has been striving to break into the tough world of art, and has some successes, including a TV gig. Now he's created (and continues to create) a new story, in comic book form, about a woman lost in another galaxy who has essentially forgotten who she is or where she comes from. He has put a lot of time into creating the first chapter, which is online (here), and wants to work up a second chapter and publish the two in a printed comic book. This all takes financing.
So he's begun a Kickstarter campaign (here) with a goal of what seems a modest $7,000 to cover time, licensing, publication costs and so on. I am contributing what I can, and hope some of you out there recognize his talent and contribute too. In fact, if you were thinking of donating money to The Odessa File cause (always welcome), I would rather it be redirected to his campaign. It means a lot to him, and to me.
The weather turned from warm and wonderful to winter last Saturday, and the cat residing in my house, name of Leon, was looking out the windows with some alarm. And he's cuddling more, as if to stay warm. I'm afraid we're in for a long, cold season.
With the turn in weather comes the kickoff, really, of our Top Drawer 24 season, which extends until our annual party in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. Committee members, with input from school administrators, teachers, coaches and parents, keep a close eye on the academic, athletic and citizenship activities of the high school student-athletes in our region, mostly from schools in Schuyler and Chemung Counties. South Seneca was added to the mix last year.
The annual committee dinner to discuss strategies, policies and the like will be held in early December, and then the observations begin in earnest, although it is safe to say they started informally with the advent of the school year. The committee aims to ultimately select the best and the brightest of our high school students -- a total of two dozen honorees from about a dozen schools -- for Top Drawer membership.
This marks the 12th year of the awards program -- and as in past years, any suggestions or nominations can be forwarded to this website by e-mail. Links are available at the bottom of most pages on this site.
And the sun still rises ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 9, 2016 -- Well, I see that the sun rose this morning (sort of; it's rainy and gray outside right now), and that the world is still functioning despite what seemed improbable at the least.
Donald Trump, president-elect. Who'da thunk it? Last evening proved fascinating as the American electorate -- as those in the United Kingdom before them had done -- rose in large enough voice to effectively protest the status quo; rose to pluck battleground state after battleground state from the hands of Hillary Clinton.
Talk about slow-motion dominoes; it made for hours of mesmerizing television.
Now, I've not been a Trump guy -- I have thought the message is, in many regards, right but with the wrong messenger -- but now that this election has happened, I see that only someone so ingrained in our consciousness for so many years, and so outrageous, could have caused this to happen. He was the perfect mix of celebrity and soul (though I hesitate to use that latter word, since it strikes me as calming, where he is not).
Anyway, as a storyteller of sorts, I find this fascinating; I could not have dreamed it up, and when life (yes) trumps my ability to create, I'm left shaking my head in wonder.
And that's all I will say on the matter, other than this: I will pray for all of us in this turbulent time, and I will pray for Donald Trump -- pray that he has the wisdom and fortitude to lead us well.
And now ... it's time for all of us to move forward.
Meeting my granddaughter
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 25, 2016 -- I have a new neighbor, a new family on my street. They have a lovely home that has served about a half-dozen families since I moved in here. Oddly, I have known very few of them, other than in a passing way.
This one will probably be no different, since (and I know this sounds harsh, and hopefully I'm being a little facetious) I have noticed a couple of Trump signs on their front lawn. ....
The election is almost over, thank heavens. I can't stand one more appearance of Trump surrogates, those odd creatures who spin and spin and try to make their candidate seem feasible, even representational. I hope I run into a couple of them -- a white-haired CNN regular and a balding, overweight, New York styled lawyer who pops up on TV too often -- sometime in the future, just to see how I react in person. I don't imagine I'd have kind words. ....
But that's politics. Life intruded Monday.
I had kind words and soaring thoughts that day when I finally got to meet my first grandchild -- well, met her on my computer. As she was sleeping in her mother's arms.
I don't know why none of us had thought of it until the least computer-savvy member of the family came up with the idea earlier Monday. "Hey, why don't we use that thing where you talk to each other on the computer," I said to my son Jon, who lives with me. "You know, see each other, like you're in the same room."
Jon was seated facing away from me, but I imagine he rolled his eyes. "You mean Skype?" he said. "Yeah, that," I answered.
Not long after, my son Dave, the father of my sole grandchild, called me on my cell phone, to see when I might be heading south to Ashville to visit him and my daughter-in-law Ali, and granddaughter Marly, born Oct. 6th. I explained that certain responsibilities and appointments were limiting my immediate options. But, I said, what about Skyping?
"Huh," Dave said, chewing it over. He certainly knows how to set up a Skype conversation, just as Jon does. "I can't believe we didn't think of that before."
An hour or so later, he was texting me, asking if we could set it up right then. "How?" I asked, a simple response that revealed my total ignorance of the particulars of the maneuver.
Well, he said, he had just been conversing by text with Jon -- who happened to be seated across the room from me, the living room where I work, watching a movie with a couple of friends.
"Jon?" I asked aloud. "You been in touch with Dave?"
"I am right now," he said, and moments later stopped the movie, rose from his chair and headed over to my computer corner, motioning for me to rise and move aside. He and Dave were going to work their magic; were going to plug in whatever needed plugging, and connect my computer to Dave's in Ashville. I retreated to the other side of the room.
A few minutes later, I heard some beeps and a computer growl, and went over to the computer and its large screen, and there was Ali sitting down with baby Marlena Susan -- Marly, my first grandchild -- in her arms, sound asleep.
"Hey, Ali," I said. "How you doing?"
"Fine," she said, smiling down at the bundle she was holding.
I looked at Marly, too, and marveled at the peaceful scene. Madonna and child, I thought, a religious feeling washing over me. The baby was sleeping, and looking very content.
"Is Marly always like that?" I asked.
Ali laughed, and allowed as how the current state, sleep, was an occasional respite from a fairly active child -- one who, at 18 days old -- was as demanding as any other healthy baby her age.
I was wearing a wide smile at the scene in front of me -- was wearing it as Dave seated himself to the side and behind Ali. He had told me in our earlier phone call that they had gone out that day to vote in Ashville, and now Dave said "They gave us a sticker," which he pulled from his shirt and held close to the computer camera. "I Voted Early," it said.
I nodded. "Good for you guys," I said.
I was studying Marly, and said what many people who saw her picture on a column I wrote (below) had told me. "She really is a beautiful child," I said. Ali, beaming, thanked me.
It took me back in memory to my experience with my own kids, when they were demanding, dependent babies, and to the practice of changing diapers. I laughed softly and asked Ali: "How's Dave with the diapers?" She smiled broadly and said, "He's a champ!" Dave gave a small fist-pump and agreed. "I am," he said.
Jon's two friends who were visiting our home -- two young ladies -- came over to the computer to see the baby, and one asked if the name was Mar--lee--na or perhaps Mar--lay--na, and Ali said they'd thought about that, and considered both, though the former seemed to be holding sway. Time would tell.
I found myself smiling again, as were Ali and Dave. I said this was great. "Almost as good as being there," I said, "but not quite. But I'll be along before too long."
"We hope so," said Ali. "In the meantime, we should do this more often."
"I agree," I said. More Skyping was definitely in order.
Marly was still sleeping, so I added: "Such a well-adjusted baby."
Ali laughed again. She knew that was true, but that moments like this one -- where Marly was sleeping -- were but part of a larger, often exhausting mosaic of care.
"Well," I said at last, my eyes resting on the cherubic face of my granddaughter. "Good night, Marly. It's great to see you." And to Dave and Ali I added:
"I'll see you guys soon. Thanks for this."
"You're welcome," Dave and Ali said in unison. And Ali added: "Talk to you soon."
And with that Dave reached over and did something to the computer, and the picture faded, and Jon, standing nearby, reached over and disconnected from our end.
I looked at him as he finished, and we both nodded.
"Wow," I said. "That was great."
And in the quiet, as Jon returned to his movie, I thought of the political signs on the lawn of my new neighbors and on the lawns of far too many other people, and wondered if votes like mine would be numerous enough across the country to prevent a world where a demagogue like Donald Trump might rule during my granddaughter's formative years -- might poison the atmosphere (as he has for the past 16 months) with bile and a need to punish his enemies. And I said a little prayer about the upcoming election.
"Make this one for Marly," I pleaded softly, adding: "For her sake."
And I wondered if anyone heard.
What's in a name? This ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 9, 2016 -- Susan wanted a grandchild; looked forward to the day.
But the day never came in her lifetime. Cancer struck, and then a pulmonary embolism, and she was gone.
That was almost 12 years ago. We had been married for 27 years.
On Oct. 6, 2016, the grandchild Susan longed for arrived; it was a girl. She was born to our youngest son, Dave, and his wife Ali in Asheville, North Carolina, where they took up residence a few years ago. They've built a home there. It will be home, too, to little Marlena -- my first grandchild; Susan's first grandchild.
I knew in the wee hours of Oct. 6 that Marlena was almost here. Contractions were coming at 4:30 a.m., Dave wrote in a text message.
The hours passed, and eventually I went to a Rotary Club luncheon -- a weekly event in my world. Then, some 20 minutes past noon, as I was checking to see if there had been any new messages, the phone vibrated in my hand; it was ringing, on silent setting so as not to disrupt the luncheon.
Chris Burns, a club member, was holding a long-handled basket used to collect "Fines and Confessions" at each meeting: money voluntarily submitted by members for any milestones mentioned, meetings missed, and other reasons. Chris had just started passing the basket when my phone vibrated; it was Dave.
"What's up?" I asked quickly upon accepting the call. Across my dining table, club member Jim Somerville was watching, and said later that he wondered what the call was about, for my face bore a look of heightened interest and some urgency.
"Well," my son said to me across the phone from Asheville. "You're a grandfather. Congratulations."
Chris Burns was just passing in front of me with the basket, reaching out to another club member. I stopped him.
"Chris, hold it," I said, reaching out to his arm. And then to my son I said "Just a second."
I stood up, holding the phone out in front of me, and announced loudly to my fellow diners:
"It's my son on the phone. I've just become a grandfather for the first time!"
And the place more or less erupted. Congratulations, applause, smiles. I looked at a nearby table, where member Jim Guild -- who knows my three sons -- was smiling broadly.
"That's fifty dollars," he said, pointing at the basket.
I smiled back, and decided $20 was more my speed. "Hold on," I said to my son and set down the phone, extracted my wallet, pulled out a $20 bill and threw it with a wrist snap into the basket. And there was more applause; at least I think so. My head was buzzing with joy.
I grabbed the phone, held it to my ear, and asked: "You hear that?"
"Well, yeah," Dave said as if the question was silly. "Where are you? What's going on?"
I started walking through the dining hall, toward the exit; I needed to talk to Dave with some privacy.
"I'm at Rotary Club," I explained. "Your timing couldn't have been better; they were just passing the collection basket. You cost me $20, but it was well worth it."
And he laughed; and I laughed, for this was a time of great happiness. And I made my way outside, and we talked. Ali and Marlena were fine; Dave seemed relieved. The birth had occurred in their home, with a midwife.
At the end of our conversation, I passed along my love to them all, and closed as I always do, saying "Be careful out there."
And he responded, as he always does: "Among the English." It is a good-luck exchange stemming from a line in the Harrison Ford movie "Witness."
I returned to the luncheon, listened to the weekly program pertaining to the beautiful mural created on Main Street in Montour Falls this past summer, and then accepted congratulations on my grandfatherhood as the meeting ended and everyone was leaving.
"You didn't say whether it was a boy or a girl," a couple of people said, and I answered: "A girl, named Marlena. They're going to call her Marly."
Susan would have loved sharing that day, October 6th, with me. She would have realized a big goal -- a day that showed she would be followed by yet another generation, by a young girl. I think she would have loved the name Marly. We were usually on the same wavelength, and I think the name is an appealing one.
As the day progressed into evening, I was periodically tuning into my son's Facebook page, waiting for him to post the news, and to see the responses from friends and from members of the extended Haeffner clan in Colorado and Florida.
Susan would have been watching with me too, and probably itching to get down to Asheville -- a place I, along with Dave's two brothers, Jon and Bill, will be visiting in November. I'm not sure she would have waited that long; probably not.
Finally, Dave posted a photo of Marlena on Facebook, effectively introducing her to all those people out there who wanted to meet her.
"Ali Haeffner and I would like to introduce you all to Marlena Haeffner!" he wrote. "She was born today at high noon, weighing in at 6.5 pounds and 19 inches in length. All are healthy and happy."
I looked at the photo of little Marlena. And then I looked at the words again, and noticed: I had skipped right over one; an important one. Marlena has a middle name. Dave had not told me about it; it hadn't come up in any of our conversations.
"Marlena Susan Haeffner," the note read.
Marlena Susan Haeffner.
Dave had kept that interesting fact for last, whether intentionally or not. And it hit me right where my heart beats and my emotions live.
I choked up; a couple of tears escaped. And then a couple more.
Marlena Susan Haeffner.
"Wow," I said to myself.
And then to the air -- to my wife, to Susan, wherever she might be -- I added, as a few more tears fell down my cheeks:
"How about that, Sue?"
I shook my head at the wonder of a single word; of a name.
"How about that?"
And I sat, alternately smiling and choking back a sob, pondering that ... and then, more importantly, marveling at the miracle of a new life.
Photos in text: Dave and Marly on the day of her birth; and Marly on Oct. 8. (Photos provided)
'Here for the job, not the $$'
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 4, 2016 -- So I went to a "Community Meeting" -- that's how it was billed -- at the Watkins Glen High School cafeteria a few nights back. The subject was the search for a superintendent to replace the outgoing one. He's leaving after this school year -- riding into the sunset of retirement.
To set the record straight, there was very little in the way of community attendance, unless you include School Board members and their spouses, the district transportation director, a couple of reporters, and various members of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association. There might have been a few other residents there unconnected to the school, I guess, but if so, they were (with the exception of one) not people I knew. All told, there were a couple of dozen folks on hand.
The event was facilitated by a woman who oversees this kind of thing all over New York State, and what she did was break the group into subgroups with poster-sized pieces of paper to list ideas about the qualities a superintendent should have.
I was a little surprised at the civility with which I was greeted by School Board members (the Board was hosting the event), since I had days earlier criticized them in a column here ... questioned their dependability in choosing a new superintendent in a fashion that would put to rest a supposition that nepotism -- a frequent visitor to the district -- might rear its head once again.
For what it's worth, the gathering brought forth from its participants a number of good ideas regarding a superintendent. He or she needs, for instance, to be honest; that was paramount. Teachers want him or her to have an educational background; I (as the member of a group of four people that included Board President Kelly McCarthy) wanted the selectee to have large-budget business experience and some experience serving the public in government.
Broad subject headings on the posters included Experience, Education, Communication, Philosophy, Leadership Style/Decision Making, and Additional Qualities. The suggestion I liked best on that last poster was "Here for the job, not the MONEY!"
Other desired characteristics:
--Willing to listen;
--Good conflict resolution skills;
--Not autocratic/no bullying;
--End to "top-down" leadership;
--Supports BOCES and trades instead of just college path;
--Gives credit where credit is due;
--Engages with all employees;
--Ensures all information is passed along (to board, administration and teachers), not in bits and pieces; and
--"We" instead of "I."
I find it interesting that the party line -- which is to say the School Board's -- is that the incumbent superintendent has no say in this selection process. It also claims it is starting with a blank slate, with nobody specific in mind; that it will cast a wide net with advertising, utilizing some of the ideas from the "community meeting" and sessions with school personnel to create a flyer to be printed by BOCES; and that the flyer will be the only role BOCES has. BOCES could, if the School Board wanted, have a larger role -- but like a decade ago, it won't. McCarthy says that decision -- which a cynic could construe as the harbinger of a pre-determined superintendent selection -- carries no such weighted motive; is simply a matter of choice.
"I haven't got anyone in mind," she told me, referring to the line of succession. "And I haven't heard of anyone else" on the Board harboring a favorite, either. Whether the Board employs, as other districts have, a process organizer and consultant remains to be seen. It is one of the options under consideration, McCarthy said.
So ... I suppose I should be encouraged by the professions of intent; by the Board's announced plan to troll the waters around the region. Nobody has thrown his or her name into the ring yet, whether in-house or, I suppose, out-house. Understandable, McCarthy said, since the Board hasn't sought anyone yet. But there will be interest, and applicants soon, and the process will move forward fairly quickly, with advertising, applications, interviews and a selection. The successor needs to be in place by July 1, the start of the next school fiscal year, officials have indicated.
But somehow, lingering, is a suspicion, generated by a history in the district of nepotism -- that it could rear its head again. And then there are the machinations behind the scenes in the ongoing lawsuit brought by a district resident who the superintendent had police arrest three times last school year. (Those administrative actions were upbraided by a judge, seemingly buttressing the lawsuit.) The cloak drawn around that ongoing process -- seasoned by Board approval of the superintendent's contract for four years and then, months later, his announced retirement after the current school year -- has left much unanswered.
Maybe I shouldn't be suspicious; maybe the Board is sincere in its avowed selection efforts. But part of me suspects otherwise, and says this: If at the end the Board picks a specific man I have in mind -- one with a previous link to the district who could to my thinking be part of an arrangement -- then there will be something rather pointed to be said about administrative misdirection and nepotism.
But who knows? The board could easily prove my suspicion is way off-base.
I hope it does. I truly do.
There will be three new members of the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, announced recently: former State Senator Dutton S. Peterson, the late William "Bill" Wickham IV, and Tony Specchio. I like the selections, as far as they go.
This is only the second induction class since 2009. That's troublesome, given the rich history of our county, but more so is another fact that jumped out at me: There are only five women among the 44 Hall members.
Looking for elusive energy ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 27, 2016 -- Since returning from Bois Blanc Island in Michigan, I have found myself buried by work -- although part of that was caused by a sluggishness left over from my vacation. I encountered a slower pace on the Island, and have been having trouble finding a faster gear now that I'm back.
There's a malaise here, too -- a sort of judgmental self-disapprobation that comes with being left alone too often for too many weeks to read too many novels. It amounts to a sort of "I wouldn't wish me on anyone" mentality -- especially true in the emotional valleys that follow vacations.
The good news, though, is that by moving forward -- re-engaging in the goings-on in Schuyler County -- I will likely become energized again, tackling the many stories and trends and pronouncements in a period that will, after all, be very interesting.
First and foremost is the new wastewater treatment plant, being built in the near future along the canal beween Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. That will permit elimination of the old Montour plant and the smelly old plant on the southern shore of Seneca Lake, near the marina, and open up further lakeside development.
It's all part of the Project Seneca blueprint, which envisions development of a dynamic waterfront and other progressive moves. Part and parcel with that: the ongoing efforts of the Judy Cherry-led SCOPED (Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development) which, among many things, would like to see, at long last, use of the arid Business Park up the hill along Route 414 on the way to Corning.
It should be an exciting time ahead on the economic and development fronts.
There is, too, the matter of a new School Superintendent to replace the outgoing one at Watkins Glen, one whose penultimate year revolved around his incendiary insistence on the arrest three times -- for alleged trespass on school property -- of a female district resident who had opposed him in the past, and who is in turn suing him and the district and the School Board president. She won a significant ruling from the Village Justice overseeing the first case -- a ruling which said, in effect, that the Superintendent had no legal standing to do what he had done.
All of that mess (currently ongoing, behind the scenes) will be overhanging the School Board as it begins the process of finding a Superintendent successor, for the old one has set a departure date at the end of this school year as he enters retirement. Suspicious as I am of a board that seemingly condones the arrest of a citizen who is acting within her constitutional rights, I will cast a dubious eye on how this group handles the search.
Ideally, it would follow the process recently embraced by the Odessa-Montour district, which cast a net, whittled the field down to seven and then three candidates, and had them meet with a citizens group and other groups to be graded and, thus, locally vetted.
Given the occasional propensity of the Watkins district to engage in nepotism -- which, it could be argued, happened in that last superintendent hire 10 years go -- I hope the public weighs in loudly and clearly. Residents will have that opportunity at what is being billed as a Community Meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in the high school cafeteria. The board says it is seeking input there as part of its search.
Sounds right ...
Beyond that, we have the ongoing movement against the Crestwood firm's methane storage and proposed propane storage, and I imagine continued protests and arrests -- now well over 600 since the movement's inception. However, with a no-nonsense judge, David Brockway, now handling cases in the Town of Reading Court, the We Are Seneca Lake protest organizers might be rethinking the extent of their arrest strategy. One reader's recent suggestion: the protesters would do well to direct their efforts in a more positive direction.
Parenthetically, Crestwood has started running a couple of ads on this website, part of its public relations effort. I take no position on this conflict, and so overtly support neither their ads nor any that the propane opponents might decide to run. I just request a positive approach.
And ... the high school sports season is in full swing. That means lots of coverage, both written and through photos. The Athlete of the Week program operated by this website has resumed, heading toward the selection of seasonal All-Stars and, ultimately, an Athlete of the Year at both the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour schools.
On the horizon, too, is the annual Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by The Odessa File. Committee members, teachers and administrators are already looking hard at students seen as prospective Top Drawer members. Selections won't come until the spring, followed by the annual celebration of the team at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion in early June.
This is the 12th year of the program, which includes schools essentially from Schuyler and Chemung counties. The State Park celebration has grown to include presentation of The Odessa File Athlete of the Year plaques that go to honorees from Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools, and are sponsored by E.C. Cooper Insurance; presentation of the annual Susan B. Haeffner Sportsmanship Award in my wife's memory, which goes each year to a student who exhibits fair play under adversity; and a Lifetime Achievement Award given to a high school coach who has built an impressive record across the years and served as a mentor to those athletes in his or her charge. Last year's honor went to Mike D'Aloisio of Elmira Notre Dame.
In keeping with past practice, I invite anyone out there to nominate -- through an e-mail to me -- any student-athlete they think deserves to be a Top Drawer honoree. We haven't received many such e-mails in the past, but those that were sent helped us place two students on the team -- one male and one female. It is easy, frankly, to miss a deserving student-athlete because he or she is, say, on the quiet side. So have at it. Send your nominations.
Dillinger redux ...
The late gangster weighs in on the presidential race
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Sept. 9, 2016 -- The road -- barely that -- was almost invisible.
I had gone for a walk on the beach fronting both our property and the two properties to the west of us. I had rounded the point of our bay, walked up to a driveway that took me to the main road, East Huron Drive, and headed east again, intent on traveling past the entry point to my rental cottage. I wanted a longer walk -- perhaps to the Bois Blanc Tavern a quarter-mile distant, and to Rocky Road beyond it.
Before I reached my driveway -- nearly opposite it -- I spotted two parallel tracks leading into the woods on the north side of the road. The tracks had been imprinted there by motorized vehicles, but not recently. Tall weeds had virtually obliterated the markings.
I will, in fact, call it a path, for it was little more.
It looked, at first, as though it reached only a few yards into the woods.
But I was wrong.
I considered it for a few seconds -- maybe longer -- before suddenly feeling a tug in its direction. Literally a tug, and so I moved forward, onto the dirt lip between the path and the main road, and moved tentatively forward.
After I had taken several steps in, I saw the path wind slightly left, into the darkness of the woods. It was as hidden a path as any I’d ever seen.
“What the ...?" I heard myself say.
Hesitating, I surged ahead. Before long, the darkness of the woods gave way to a break in the overhead branches and leaves, and sunlight fell upon me, and I saw on either side what amounted to a marsh covered with thick green shoots sticking up above the water, almost hiding it. The ground underneath my feet softened, and I sensed moisture seeping upward.
Then, a few yards farther ahead, the woods closed in on either side. Dimness ruled, but my eyes adjusted. I was keeping a lookout for deer on either side, for the growth there was mostly in the higher reaches of the trees. There was plenty of room for animals along the forest floor, though I failed to see any. I was watching too for snakes along the path, for on Bois Blanc you never know when you might encounter one -- whether garter or rattler.
And then a break ahead -- light at the end of the wooded tunnel -- appeared, and at almost the same moment a strong wind arose around me, but not coming from the opening ahead, but from my left, strong and swirling ... inexplicable, really, for the woods should have been blocking it.
And I had a sense, as I walked under a small tree that had fallen at a 45-degree angle across the path, that I had just passed through something. It felt like a force of some kind, very slightly gauzy. The wind died as I neared the light, which was now widening and, I could see, led to an open field. An open field in the middle of a forest.
“Okay,” I said tentatively, for the Island is thick with woods, not generally with meandering fields in its interior.
But here ... this was wide open. This was something else.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I took a few more steps, moving ahead into the bright daylight.
“Do you need an engraved invitation?”
The voice seemingly came from nowhere -- from the air above -- until, materializing, my old acquaintance John Dillinger was in the field in front of me, maybe 15 feet away.
As told in my book Cabins in the Mist, I have ventured from time to time across a portal out at Dillinger’s Cabins -- a trio of rundown structures on the Firetower Road on Bois Blanc Island's interior that Dillinger used back in the 1930s while recovering from plastic surgery employed to disguise him from the federal agents chasing him, Dillinger being one of the most wanted criminals of his time. He had, at the outset, basically invited me across the portal -- the doorway, or what is left of it -- at the centermost of the three cabins in order to fill him in on what was happening in this world, and to join him in target shooting in the ravine behind the cabins. He focused on me, I suppose, because I am an Islander of sorts, a journalist (and therefore abreast of the news), and a history nut -- so I have an appreciation of his place in it (which, parenthetically, included his death at the hands of the FBI). He also professed to being bored.
Prior to this meeting in the field, I had neglected him during my past couple of visits to the Island, and now it looked as though he was forcing the issue.
“Hello, John,” I said, smiling.
“Don’t give me that smile crap,” he said. “Where have you been?”
I thought a moment.
“Oh, kind of hobbled. A knee issue. This is one of my first hiking ventures in a while.”
He looked at my legs, inquiring. I pointed to the right knee, where weeks ago I had damaged some ligaments. He pursed his lips and nodded.
“Okay,” he said. “Come on.”
And just like that we were transported to the deep woods of his world -- a kind of afterlife Bois Blanc populated by folks whose eternity is indeed the Bois Blanc of yesteryear. I have met, as explained in the book, various long-departed Islanders, including a relative I never would have dreamed of meeting again. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who.
Anyway, we were back at the cabins -- outside his cabins, whole cabins, basically new -- and he reached inside the doorway of the center one, apparently to a nearby table or shelf, securing something. When he pulled his arm back, he was proffering a pistol for me to use. He had another one in his belt, which he pulled out, and we headed down to the ravine to shoot.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m hearing from some of my neighbors; they've had visitors here like you, people who are talking about this presidential contest. What the hell is that about? It sounds like an unending bash cycle.”
"Pretty much," I conceded.
To clarify: Dillinger is not the only one who can summon visitors to his world. While the visitors there from our world -- the world of you and me and Trump and Hillary -- are generally few, it doesn't take much, I'm guessing, for word to spread in John Dillinger's domain ... for the residents there to gain a working knowledge of what goes on here.
"I’m familiar with this Trump character," Dillinger said. "Hell, he was over here once; somebody invited him. I talked to him a bit. He seemed full of himself; a real braggart; an inveterate liar. Seemed to think of himself as intelligent; always a dangerous sign. I didn’t like him. Clinton, I’ve never met; but I guess she’s got a few skeletons in her closet, eh? Really closed off, and has her own truth issues?"
"Yeah, you could say that," I answered. And then, curious -- for Dillinger had in life been a blunt-spoken character, unsavory to some and a hero to many, much like Donald Trump -- I added this: "I thought Trump might appeal to you.”
He fixed his eyes on me, and I thought for a moment that I might have overstepped -- that it was not the smartest thing to say to a man who had, in life, been violent, who had been (to put it baldly) a gangster.
“I don’t think so,” he said finally. “Maybe back in the old days, but I’m pretty civilized now. I don’t think anybody should be president who isn’t diplomatic. It’s a pretty dangerous world out there.”
“Then you’d vote for Hillary?”
He shook his head. We had reached the bottom of the ravine, where some cans were set on a log about fifty paces away. He took aim and fired, hitting a can; I followed suit, but missed mine.
“Little rusty?” he asked.
“I guess,” I said. “So, neither candidate. But of course, you don’t get to vote, so I don’t suppose it matters.”
“No, but if I did,” he said, “I’d have to go with a third party. You've got a couple of them, right?”
“Yeah, Libertarians and Green Party. Fringy.”
He took aim again and fired ... and connected. I fired and barely grazed the edge of the can I had focused on, moving it about an inch. It stayed on the log.
He shook his head again, this time a silent commentary on my prowess.
“So ... you get to vote for either of two candidates who shouldn’t even be candidates, or one of two candidates who I'm guessing nobody knows much about. They might be even worse.”
“True,” I said.
“Sounds like a conundrum.”
He took aim again, and again blasted a can off the log. I slowed my breathing, steadied my hand and fired, and this time my can lifted off its perch, into the air and, after spinning, down to the ground.
“Sounds like just one solution,” he said.
“A solution?” I said. “I’m all ears. And please don’t say ‘Don’t vote.’ I -- we; you know, Americans -- have a moral obligation to do so. Not that my vote will particularly matter. I live in New York, and Clinton’s way ahead in the polls there, so she’ll win the state regardless of what I do."
“Thinking like that among her supporters will get Trump elected,” he said. “Not that I care, but she needs votes instead of shoulder shrugs.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “But like you said, there is no good choice, although I have to think Clinton is less dangerous. Still, that's a hell of a distinction. So ... what’s your solution?”
“Just write in your own name,” said Dillinger. “You won’t win, but I assume you’ll be voting for someone you trust.”
I laughed gently.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“I’m not sure of that ... although I do like myself better than those two birds.”
Dillinger shot again, and again sent a can off the log. Then he looked over at me.
“You could vote for me,” he said, “but I don’t think it would be valid.”
I looked at him and nodded.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “And I think the same holds for me. Unless I’m mistaken, my own name wouldn’t be valid unless I filed paperwork ahead of time with election officials, announcing my candidacy. And that's too much of a hassle. So ... ”
We shot a couple of dozen more rounds, reloading and discharging as we went, and then adjourned to his cabin, where we each sat at an old wooden table inside and had a drink of cold Island water.
“Well, the way I see it,” he said, “is you’re condoning if you do vote for any of these candidates, and neglecting if you don’t. Like I said: a conundrum.”
I studied him.
“I’ve been thinking," I answered. "Don’t you people here have a reasonable answer to it? With all of your life experience, I mean.”
He laughed sharply.
“Nobody ever saw anything like this election before. How would we know how to handle it?”
“Well ... I figured that after you came over here -- you know, died -- that you maybe gained an overview of life ... and with that overview maybe a greater understanding.”
Dillinger shook his head.
“Not of politics," he said, "at least not politics like this. I think I speak for everyone here when I say ‘You’re screwed.’”
We lapsed into silence and finished our waters. Then, when we were done, I thanked him for his hospitality and got up. He rose, shook my hand and, looking me hard in the eye, concluded.
“Don’t be such a stranger. Come out here next time you’re on the Island. Then I don’t have to go chasing after you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “About that. How is it I just happened to find a path that led me through ... to you?”
He laughed, but it came out more of a snort.
“Mind over matter, my boy. Mind over matter. And don’t bother trying to find the portal there again. It was just temporary; a substitute. The path is just a path, and the field is just a field." I thought about that later, and decided he wasn't being fully truthful; was being, dare I say, a bit of a politician. There was something special about that path and that field. I would have to study them further, for the Island clearly has layers of magic.
“And that other thing,” he said. “I meant it: If you simply can't vote for Clinton, vote for yourself. So what if it doesn’t count? At least you’d be making a statement, albeit small.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Good to see you.”
I turned to leave the cabin, and immediately passed through a portal -- located as usual, when needed, in Dillinger’s open doorway (again, see Cabins in the Mist) -- and arrived instantly back in the open field. There was no sign of Dillinger now, nor of anybody or anything other than grass and surrounding woods. I ventured back to the path on the field’s southern edge, the path that had brought me there, and upon entering it felt a slight breeze -- no mysteriously strong wind this time. I followed the path past the angled tree and the dark stretch of woods and the reedy marsh ... back to the road. Once there, I turned for another look at the path, and felt an adrenaline rush as it wavered in the soft light that reached down through the overhanging trees. It dimmed, and brightened, dimmed and brightened again, and stabilized. It was almost as though it were winking at me. I would definitely have to pay it a return visit in the future, I thought.
I then turned, crossed the road at an angle toward my driveway entrance but a short distance away, walked its 50 yards and reached the vacation cottage I’ve been sharing with my brother and sister-in-law.
As I entered the cottage, my brother -- out on the porch, reading -- called out.
“Find anything interesting?”
“Nah,” I said. “The same old same old.” He had not believed what I had written in Cabins in the Mist -- thought it an entertaining fiction -- and certainly wouldn't believe this latest adventure.
“What’s that?” he asked. He apparently hadn't heard me.
“Nothing,” I said, a little louder. “Nothing at all.”
I turned toward the stairs that would take me up to the second-floor office I've been using for my writing.
“Screwed,” I said softly as I started climbing.
Clouds float by above the Straits of Mackinac, as viewed from Bois Blanc Island.
Inspiration ... and longevity
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 26, 2016 -- In those moments when I feel my resolve wavering, I will sometimes look for inspiration -- something that shows me that difficult situations can be overcome, that solutions can be found, that a deep breath and some nerve can see me through .... by simply moving forward, by going through.
One such inspiration is in the form of a 12-year-old girl from Great Britain who appeared on the Britain’s Got Talent show back in April -- a little slip of a thing, seemingly shy, looking to her mother for a nod or a smile of encouragement, as the girl stood on the stage in front of a large crowd and before clearly dubious judges, chief among them the often disagreeable Simon Cowell.
She confessed to him that she was indeed nervous, and then when asked, said -- to Cowell’s eye-rolling -- that she was going to sing “Defying Gravity” from the play “Wicked.” Judge Amanda Holden first enthused at the announcement, and then confided to a fellow judge that the song was a hard one.
And then the music started, and the little girl -- Beau Dermott, with her mother in the stage wings and her father and brother in the audience -- started singing. In moments, she owned the place. She morphed into a poised adult-like phenomenon with a low, assured voice that soared as the song demanded ... and by the end, after the final note, gave a look of determined victory that just as quickly reverted to that of a little girl, complete with shy smile and tears.
I showed the performance to a very good singer, and asked how this could be possible -- how a little girl could steel herself in the moment of truth, before a large hall full of people and before four doubting judges; could transform from little girl to astounding diva before changing back again, once the challenge had been met, after she had surged forward and through.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But she’s good.”
“We were not expecting that,” said Cowell to the girl after her performance. “I like the way you came up here and just mugged all of us, like ‘yeah, I’m really nervous.’ But that’s how you do it.” The performance was so astounding that Holden pressed the “Golden Buzzer” that released confetti and advanced Beau Dermott right past the audition round to the semifinals.
That Beau ran afoul of some social media heat later on -- she had, gasp, had singing lessons! -- and finished but fifth (on voting by a fickle public), does not diminish the feeling of resolve I get just by watching that audition video. The kid has a great future on stage, but beyond that, I have to think her example can be a beacon of inspiration for folks beyond just me.
Check out her performance on You Tube.
I had a request from a reader who likes my adventures (or lack thereof) that I write about here on the Island. He said he wanted pictures of Hawk’s Landing (right), where I get the occasional meal and the frequent ice cream cup, and of the cottage where I am staying with my brother and sister-in-law this summer. We've shared lodging each summer for a good many years, and have resided at four different places in the last four visits.
The cottage this year (below right) is perhaps the best yet; very comfortable and close to the water, so that the waves, when they’re white-capping, offer a soothing cadence that serves as a sleep aid at night and a calming visual attraction during the day.
So I include both pictures this time, along with some other shots I’ve taken, mostly with my phone camera. I’m tending to leave my regular camera in its bag, so as not to put further strain on my damaged right shoulder, which feels that with limited use it might be returning to a serviceable status as the high school sports season nears. (I won’t hurry back home, mind you, and so will miss some of the early fall contests in Schuyler County. But I’ll report on them through phone conversations or e-mails with coaches, and will run photos snapped by any shooters out there willing to provide them.)
Yes, I’ll be returning home, by and by -- unless I find an heiress up here who can’t live without me.
A large number of Island residents -- almost entirely summer denizens, the winter population numbering only a few dozen -- have been coming here for a very long time. I met a man recently who said his family’s Island presence dates back to the 1920s, when his grandparents started coming here. His mother was married here in the early 1950s, and he’s been on Bois Blanc all but one summer of his life. A good many others I’ve met have been summering here since well before my first visit in 1952.
I’m a newcomer by their standards. I figured out that I’ve been on the Island 30 times, for a little as a day (back in the late 1960s) and as long as six weeks or more when I was a child. The visit this year is six weeks, as well. All told, I’ve spent well over a year and a half here.
But that’s not much when compared to, say, the late Mary Babler.
She and her husband Wayne met my parents when both families lived in Manhasset, Long Island, at the beginning of the 1950s.
When my Dad secured a new job with the United States Shoe Corporation as its Michigan wholesale salesman in 1952, the Bablers -- annual visitors to Bois Blanc -- urged the Haeffners to vacation here ... which we did for five summers, until building a house on a lake north of Detroit, in Bloomfield Hills. The thinking was that with the lake, we didn’t need the Island or the Straits of Mackinac any longer, and so stopped coming. (A few years later, we did return to the Island one summer -- in 1962, when I met a girl slightly younger than me named Wendy Manning, who ultimately was the model for a character named Addie Winger in two of my novels. Then, with the exception of a couple of visits, I didn't return here until 1995, and have visited annually since.)
Anyway, Mary Babler once told me, after she had passed her 81st year, that she had been on the Island every summer save one, when she was a toddler. And each time she stayed for a lengthy period, since Mary’s family had the physical and economic comfort of a cottage purchased by her parents many years before we ever arrived. Assuming an average of two months times 80 years, Mary spent many cumulative years on the Island.
But even that pales next to lifetime residents -- year-rounders like the late Ray Plaunt, who was born up here (some say on the Island, some say the mainland) and lived 95 years, missing a significant amount of Bois Blanc time only while serving in the Pacific in World War Two. Ray should have written about his life; it was fascinating.
One of his contemporaries who did pen an autobiography was Jim Vosper, who died a couple of years ago. He spent a good portion of his childhood here, and wrote about it in a book, “Island Boyhood,” published in 2001. As an adult, Jim summered on Bois Blanc for many years while living most of the time in Wisconsin, and was an avid hunter, bagging his final Island deer in his final year, at the age of 93.
Yes, Jim passed away in 2014, and Ray in 2016. Every year or two a notable Islander appears in the obituaries, and is buried in the Bois Blanc cemetery. It was Ray’s turn this time.
The cemetery is, by any standards, a peaceful place -- shaded and quiet. Its headstones are mostly low lying, the better to weather the Island storms. It is located at the edge of The Pines, the Island’s only municipality, and it is easy to miss the turnoff into it. The road leading to the graves is more of a path, a dirt track through thick woods -- for the cemetery is, in fact, in the woods.
And that’s fitting, since Bois Blanc means white wood -- or more popularly white woods -- reflecting both the Island's white pine and birch trees.
Photos in text:
From top: Hawk's Landing; our cottage this summer; an Island road, with appropriate speed limit (it's 20 on the main road, also dirt); one of many street signs that appeared this year, adorning most of the side roads (and some driveways); one of the jays visiting us after we put out some food for them; and the ice cream case at Hawk's Landing, a popular stop for Island residents.
Chairs stationed along the Island's southern shore await an evening cocktail social hour.
Sunset on Bois Blanc Island as viewed from in front of the Hawk's Landing eatery.
A storm in the Straits of Mackinac caused damage along the Island shore in 1953.
Of history ... and death
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 20, 2016 -- Two weeks into this vacation, life on Bois Blanc has slowed; many of the summer visitors are heading back home to work and to school. A young waitress at Hawk’s Landing departs soon for her freshman year at the University of Michigan.
“I’m really excited,” she said. "I'm not really mentally prepared, because -- you know -- I've been working hard here. But I imagine it will all fall into place when I get there."
Of course, that leaves the Hawk’s owner, Austin Sims, without one of his employees, and a very good one at that. Getting enough dependable help is proving a bit of a problem -- even with the dwindling population; another, middle-aged Hawk's waitress was lamenting recently during a break that she was working 12 hours that day.
“It’s a lot,” she noted rather obviously.
A longtime, dependable waitress named Carleen died in the offseason, which surprised me. She was on the elderly side, but didn’t seem at all ill. Besides, there is a certain sheen of longevity on the Island. We lost the former ferry skipper, Ray Plaunt, in February at the age of 95. Miriam Hoover, the widow of the president of the Hoover Vacuum company and a major landholder here, is 102. And one Island resident is 103. There are others, including a woman at the next table from us at Hawk’s the other day who mentioned that with the arrival of her 90s, she had relinquished a little in the area of her auditory capabilities. She wasn’t deaf, but leaning that way.
A group of mostly middle-aged to quite elderly folks showed up for a Memory Night at the Wagner Room the other evening. It’s a community room located at the rear of the fire department on the outskirts of The Pines, the Island’s lone municipality.
Memory Night was run by Mike White, a longtime Bois Blanc resident who is also its chief historian. But on this night he seemed disorganized. He had a computer that he was using to show some random photos of the Island -- most of them taken long ago -- on a screen as the gathering of about 30 people arrived.
His main presentation, though, was a video transferred from film shot by Miriam Hoover's late husband, Earl, back in 1966 and 1967 showing the construction of the Hoover Building, a one-story meeting place donated by him and located next to the Church of the Transfiguration in The Pines. The church is one of two on Bois Blanc, the other being a nondenominational chapel housed in a converted Coast Guard boathouse on the Island’s east end, some 10 miles distant from The Pines place of worship.
The film was interesting, showing the step-by-step process of building the Hoover structure. But when the film was done, Mike White seemed at a loss about what to present next -- until a woman in the audience said, “Well, show us those photos you had up there before, when we were walking in.”
It turned out that there were hundreds of photos in there, some of which Mike would show briefly, while keeping others up on the screen while people debated who might be pictured and when -- though some of the photos were marked accordingly. It turned into a long session of an historical nature, with audience members often able to add substance to the photos we were seeing.
One photo was of a storm in 1953 that struck the island, washing some small boats well onto the shore and damaging various docks. This happened after my family had started coming to the Island (in 1952) -- but occurred after our 1953 visit. I am presenting one photo from that storm (at the top of this column) that I snagged with my cellphone as I pointed it toward the screen. The original was snapped from a spot on the southern shore in front of the Hoovers' cottage, a sturdy old structure that dates back to around 1908. The Southern Straits sign in the photo still stands in front of the Hoover place.
Another photo shows the Atherton Ayers -- a smallish freighter, but far, far larger than the crafts that Bois Blanc normally welcomes to its shores -- aground off Sand Bay on the Island’s western side. This had nothing to do with the 1953 storm, though; it occurred in 1989.
And there was a rare photo of the old firetower -- gone for many years now -- used by volunteers and, I suspect, old Department of Natural Resources workers to scan the treetops of the Island many decades ago, keeping an eye out for any suspicious smoke or any flames. As the first line of fire defense, it was located on the Firetower Road that slices through the Island’s midsection.
It was also in recent years the subject of debate among locals, some of whom insisted it had four legs, while others said three. The latter camp, the photo shows, was right.
The evening ended before Mike White (pictured at right) got through all of the photos in that computer. He seemed intent on reaching the end of them, though it was clear he had no idea how many there were. Some of the crowd started leaving, in ones and twos, after 90 or so minutes while the Babcock family gathered outside, waiting entrance so they could set up tables and goods for the next day’s Babcock Family Sale in the Wagner Room -- a combination rummage and bake sale, complete with raffle. It was to start at 9 a.m.
Finally, Mike’s wife, there among the audience, sidled up to him and urged him to shut down the computer; the show had to end. He hesitated, but when more people rose to leave, he finally relented.
One of the Island residents -- a man who has summered here since childhood and is now over 70 -- laughed over Mike’s plight.
“Historians,” he said. “They never want to give up on the history.”
Photos in text:
From top: The old Island firetower, taken down many years ago; a freighter aground off the Island in 1989; and historian Mike White, who is probably the man with the most knowledge of Bois Blanc.
I have felt it in the air: death dancing around my psyche ever since I arrived on the Island this summer. Friday evening, it left its calling card.
I learned of the passing on Aug. 9 of a man who meant much to me in my early years -- a first cousin named John Schumaker of Queensbury, New York. He was 69, just a little older than me, and like the rest of the 13 first cousins in the Haeffner-Schumaker-Black-Bennett clan, we were -- through our first three decades -- fairly close. Then life took us over, and John and I and all the other cousins concentrated on family and jobs and personal pursuits that led us seemingly far from one another, though none of them have ever been far from my mind.
Now John, an architectural draftsman by trade, a Civil War enthusiast and a man with an infectious grin and laugh, has left us after a battle with cancer. He is the first of the first cousins to go, and I find myself battling back the tears -- not only for his passing, but for what we lost by straying from one another. I hope that my brother Bob and I can arrange a springtime reunion of the remaining cousins -- reunions being something experienced by our families on a regular basis growing up, and now long overdue.
But alas, one cousin for certain can't be there.
God bless you, John. I find myself missing you ... now that it’s too late to do anything about it.
A quiet Island hideaway ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 12, 2016 -- “Hey, the Haeffner boys are back!”
Larry Phillips, past owner (and still part-time worker) at Hawk’s Landing, called out those words when he spotted my brother Bob and me as we entered that eatery on our first evening this summer on the Island, a little over a week ago. Larry also operates a real estate office, located in a room in the corner of Hawk’s.
“How long this time?” he asked, which is a standard line here on Bois Blanc. Larry and his wife don’t get asked that, though, since they have managed to secure a year-round existence here -- one of the chosen few dozen who manage it.
Bob and I, with Bob’s wife Gussie, are here for a six-week stay -- the longest for any Haeffners since Bob and I were children and accompanied our parents to this unique setting in the 1950s. We told Larry as much, and asked what was new.
“Well, that place you stayed last year?” he said. I nodded, recalling with fondness a modern home overlooking Lake Huron on the Island’s southwest shoreline, on the outskirts of the lone municipality of Pointe aux Pins (referred to by locals as Point of Pines, or simply The Pines). We occupied that structure -- a comfortable two-story home -- for five weeks, and were thinking about buying it until a woman living full-time elsewhere on the Island purchased it before we could act.
“It just sold again,” said Larry. “Or at least the sale is pending.”
I was mildly annoyed, disturbed that I hadn't been notified when it became available. “You could have told us,” I said, but Larry’s blank look told me he didn’t recall my interest in the place last year.
“Yeah,” he finally said. "The woman selling it has to be out in sixty days,” but he couldn’t explain why she was unloading it after so short a time. “Anyway, welcome back,” he said. “Where you staying this year?”
“The Vanderbeck place,” my brother told him. “Out a couple miles to the east.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Larry. “Nice place. They’re not using it?”
In fact, we had been steered to this summer’s cottage -- our fourth different one in four summers -- by a lifelong Bois Blanc summer resident we knew when we were kids, name of Bruce McAfee. He knows everything about everybody on the Island, it seems. The Vanderbecks -- though we've never met them -- were regulars here for years until health issues precluded their annual visits starting last summer.
It is a beautiful cottage, right on the shoreline looking southeast across Lake Huron. It is approached on a narrow track cut through the woods -- a track that we had difficulty finding, since trees on either side hug the main (dirt) road (East Huron Drive) and thus obscure the entrance until a driver is on it or past it. I likened it to a hideout of the Old West.
“It’s like a Hole in the Wall,” I said to Gussie after she almost missed it while driving back on our fourth day here from a farmer’s market outside The Pines-situated Island fire station. I was referring to Butch Cassidy’s old hideaway, which is what this is: a hideaway -- quiet, tucked out of sight and barely registering traffic sounds, and receiving none of the dust that kicks up from the road.
(We solved the difficulty in finding the turn-in by tying three white kitchen garbage bags end to end and then looping them around the tree on the driveway entrance’s right side. It is easy to pick out that tree now.)
The cottage -- a two-story structure with modern kitchen and large, enclosed porch -- looks direcly out at the Poe Reef Lighthouse some miles distant. The shore is sandy, but the water is laden with small stones that are far from comfortable for wading. Protective footgear is a must.
Nonetheless, that discomfort aside, this is as placid a locale as we’ve occupied. We utilized one cottage -- owned by the Marconi family of Cleveland -- each summer for more than a decade, but it was sold during the spring three years ago, prompting a quick search for a replacement. We found a three-story structure with a red roof not far from our current place -- we called it, naturally, the Red Roof Inn -- but the stairs were killers on our old knees.
So we found last year’s place on the southwestern shore, and then this.
I have found that my love of summer reading has returned; I read three books the first week here, the same number I waded through during the five-week visit in 2015. I arrived this time with so many aches and pains -- sore shoulder (too much photography, I expect), sore leg (from slipping on a wet spot in the kitchen back home, leaving a stubborn knee bruise) and a seemingly hyperactive back -- that I decided I needed to sit and rest and read for the most part until I felt better. That approach seems to be working. The aches are slowly diminishing.
I have managed to keep up on most of the goings-on back home, but won’t be there to photograph anything for some time, so hopefully folks with cameras can send me some shots.
Meanwhile, highlights here are pretty low-keyed.
Beyond an occasional meal at Hawk’s -- which is one of the four or five social gathering places on Bois Blanc -- we have visited a weekly Farmers’ Market (a husband and wife there make the best pies) and will be attending a Memory Night (where folks presumably will regale us with tales of the Island as it used to be). There are also square dances, a reading club, a weekly fun night (through August) at the Coast Guard Chapel on the East End, and a big rummage sale (upcoming).
No, you’re right. There isn’t much going on here.
It is a hideaway, after all, and most people on Bois Blanc like it that way: quiet.
And I’m among them.
Farewell to a boyhood hero
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, Aug. 6, 2016 -- The drive from Odessa to northern Michigan was uneventful. I left about noon on Tuesday, and arrived in Pinconning, well north of Saginaw, about 10:30 p.m. and found a motel with a vacancy.
I linked up with my brother and sister-in-law there the next morning -- they were en route from Florida and passing through Michigan by a different route, but Pinconning bound. That was one reason I decided to stop there -- to meet up with them and caravan from there to our destination two hours north. We had done so in the past.
We have shared summer lodging on the Island for many years, with various friends or family occasionally joining the fray. This time their son was planning to arrive with some of his offspring, but canceled out at the last minute. That made the logistics simple at the cottage we are renting this year: I get the upstairs, with two bedrooms, a bathroom with shower, and a work area designed for artwork but perfect for my computers. Brother Bob and Gussie get a large master bedroom, and Gussie generally owns the kitchen and laundry room. The general gathering area is a large enclosed porch that looks out on the Straits of Mackinac and toward Cheboygan in the distance.
After we had met in Pinconning Wednesday morning and consumed a huge breakfast at a diner across from the motel, we headed for that selfsame Cheboygan, where we would do some grocery shopping and board the ferry for the crossing to Bois Blanc Island. Bois Blanc (correctly pronounced with its Frenchness as Bwa Blonk, but called Boys Blank by far too many locals) is seven miles from the mainland.
When we arrived at the parking area where we would board the ferry, we went to the Plaunt Transportation office adjoining it to pay and pick up our round-trip tickets. There, we discovered a flyer that contained some unnerving news -- old by now to Island denizens, but fresh and thus painful to us.
It said, quite simply, that the man who had long run the ferry business years ago -- a man who had been, for me, a childhood hero -- had died in February. Ray Plaunt, with whom we (and other admirers) had met the previous year on the Island at a couple of special Thursday "Say Hi to Ray" gatherings -- has passed away after living for 95 and a half years.
At my age, death saddens, and especially when it's someone who has meant so much to me; but my first thought was "Thank God we got to see him last year."
Ray had been the Island ferry skipper back when I was a wee lad -- a man who piloted his boat casually while half-turned to talk to his passengers gathered in the pilot-house, which doubled as a passenger area. He was not a large man, but he seemed bigger than life to me; swarthy, wiry, tough, and yet fun-loving. He was a hunter and fisherman -- a man of the land who carved out a good living for his family. His son eventually took over the ferry business; his two daughters, raised on the Island, still visit there summers.
I used Ray as a model for a character in two novels I wrote: as a ferry boat skipper named Jacques Lafitte -- known as Lightfoot Jack, an anglicized version of his character's name -- who, in the second book, appeared to have had a World War Two role as a sort of superspy in Europe. When I told Ray about this some years ago, he laughed heartily and said: "I served in the Pacific." Whether he was actually a spy, he didn't say.
I had visited the Island as a child for several summers, and then not at all (save for one half-day visit) for 17 years -- and then not again for another 16 years. Then I wrote the first of my novels -- set on Bois Blanc in my childhood past -- and was about to write another, bringing the story up to the current day. But I needed to see what changes time had wrought, and so my wife and I ventured up here for three days in an October of the mid-1990s, and despite sleeping in small, now-razed, bug-infested cabins, were so taken by the Island that we wanted to return the following summer -- if we could find better lodging.
We knew of one rental cottage, owned by Ray's son Curt, and asked Curt if we might secure it for a couple of weeks the next season. He balked, explaining that he didn't normally rent to strangers, which we essentially were. I asked him to check with his father, for I hoped that Ray -- having known my parents in the old days -- might put in a good word.
And that's what he did. "The Haeffners?" Ray said to his son. "The Haeffners are good people!"
And so Curt rented to us, a situation that continued for several summers, until we opted for alternative lodging.
My brother and his family started coming up annually in 1999, and each year, with the exception of a couple, we saw Ray at one time or another during our stay, when he would visit the Island for a day or two. He was living in Cheboygan rather than on the Island, since medical care on Bois Blanc falls far short of that on the mainland. And along the way he sustained a stroke, fought through that, lost much of his hearing, and was working with diminishing eyesight.
And yet he was cheerful at those Thursday gatherings -- during day trips to Bois Blanc from his Cheboygan home -- and delighted to visit with people from his past who were delighted to see him. But one of his daughters, Lee, says he was frustrated at being dependent on other people. He had been a virile, independent spirit, and aging was tough.
Then in February he fell and broke his back. It wasn't considered major at first -- the Cheboygan Hospital didn't see the break on a scan, Lee said -- but the pain was significant, and he was finally taken to another hospital, in Petoskey, which is over on the western side of the state, along Lake Michigan. Doctors there confirmed the break, and admitted him.
Complications occurred -- blood pressure and heart-rate issues, among others -- until he finally told Lee that he was ready to go; ready to meet his maker.
"I'm just waiting for The Man to open the door," he said.
He seemed stable the last time she saw him alive, there in the hospital, but he passed on the next morning -- a legend going through that door to what I hope is a just reward.
There should be a special place in heaven for shining beacons, upstanding family men who also happen to be heroes to young, impressionable boys.
God bless you, Ray Plaunt.
You were -- to me and many others -- something special.
Photo in text: Ray Plaunt with a summer Island resident, Mary Ellen Landschulz, during a gathering on Bois Blanc in August of 2015.
Tendency to sensationalize
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, Aug. 1, 2016 -- I was dismayed to see the Star-Gazette and, then later, the local weekly offering in prominent headlines an audit finding from the State Comptroller taking to task the Odessa-Montour School District for having a fund balance with too much money, among other less than earth-shaking infractions.
There was nothing major in the pronouncement -- several areas, basically, that needed attention, the easiest to understand being the fund balance exceeding the legally allowed 4% of the total budget. Mistakes like this are not unusual; shortcomings occur in the fluidity of the budget process.
But by the way the system works, the Comptroller always releases his findings in a formulaic way, and news operations -- if they aren't careful -- fall into the trap ... overplay it all. They sensationalize something essentially humdrum.
In a basic summary the comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, wrote in part: "The (O-M) board and district officials did not adequately manage the district’s financial condition. They overestimated general fund appropriations when preparing and adopting the last three completed fiscal year’s budgets ... overfunded three reserves ... and overstated a liability, which further increases the excessive amount of unrestricted fund balance."
The School Board itself addressed the issue at a workshop meeting on July 28, where Superintendent Chris Wood (pictured at right, whose first reaction was a seemingly reasonable one, whereby he pointed out that there were three superintendents in the district recently, a disjointing transition that saw Jim Frame, interim Peter Punzo and Wood in the district's top chair) explained that he had sat down that morning with interim Business Manager Carolyn Benedict, a woman of extensive experience in the field of management and audits, to discuss each audit point. Some of it seemed pretty petty, Wood seemed to say, adding: "I think we're being smart. Two years in a row now we've gone below the (state's tax cap)." Taxes have remained almost constant for six years.
School Board President Rob Halpin took it farther, saying that while "It's good to have a broad discussion about what this is and what it means, if anything," the Comptroller uses a standard formula in his report that yields headlines that can "make it easy to panic." And some of the Comptroller's language, he said, is "asinine" -- helping to foment those headlines and leaving the victims, in some regards, scratching their heads.
"So it's best to have a discusson," he said. "What I saw was sort of a critique of our philosophy" used in "building a budget." But at the same time, he noted, there were a couple of points that needed study to "understand how they occurred." He also said the board was already aware of the excess fund balance. "We had a discussion about that," he said, "and what we might do about it." Next comes the expected "corrective action."
But first, Benedict had something to add. She said she had seen a story in Westchester County recently about health care costs, one that was blown out of proportion. The story made a relatively small amount of money sound excessive by quoting the dollars in question instead of the minisucle percentage of the budget that they constituted. "They tend to grab things that make for good press," she said in reference to either the Comptroller or the media before hesitating and adding: "I'd better not say any more."
And the discussion ended. But it left me nodding at a consistent, inherent shortcoming of the media: a tendency to sensationalize or, sometimes, create circumstances that beg sensationalism. Journalism is, alas, a business that requires attention in order to succeed -- and in our era of big business, that attention, at least on the national stage, requires constant feeding.
Maybe it's the constant drumbeat of negativity on the national airwaves, courtesy of a 24-hour news cycle -- but I can't help but attach this O-M situation, fueled as it by a faulty media mechanism out of Albany, with the ups and downs of a certain "Republican" presidential candidate reported ad nauseam by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Talk about your perfect marriage of needs.
Anyway, it was the headline-grabbing, one-sided system of state-level storytelling that kept me off the O-M audit story -- just as the national media should have resisted -- rejected -- its incessant need to interview Donald Trump every time he fulminated during the primary season. That raucous rudeness of his -- mixed with media attention -- helped create the perfect storm that has become Hurricane Donald.
Enough said. I don't feel like adding to that narrative -- at least not today, not any more than I just did. I could too easily get carried away by fulminating myself about him.
I'm leaving soon for my annual trip to Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. I'll be hanging out there with my brother -- reading, writing, hiking and, I hope, relaxing. I will be taking my computers with me to keep The Odessa File up to date, following happenings back home through press releases, guest photography, and phone conversations. And I will, I expect, be writing about the Island and the people there. My son Jon will oversee the Odessa homestead in my absence.
Stealing more than words ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, July 21, 2016 -- I have a friend who lives up in Canada. In Kingston, Ontario. He, like me, is into card collecting and card trading; that’s how we met, although I can’t recall the exact moment. He’s been a visitor annually to my house for so many years that it seems as though I’ve known him forever.
I lost contact with him some months ago, and didn’t get it back until this week. It wasn’t unusual for him to be incommunicado, but he had been scheduled to send me some collectible materials I had paid for some months ago, and hadn’t -- and so I wondered.
This week, when he called, his voice was scratchy, his energy noticeably down. It turned out he had been in the hospital for five months after suffering a heart attack and, he said, after dying three times -- yes, thrice -- and undergoing triple bypass surgery. And he is barely older than me, at 68.
He was home from the hospital on leave; scheduled to return there. But he was itching to get into our old habit of trading cards. He wanted to know what I had picked up in the way of cards since his disappearance, and when I told him, he got excited and wanted a set of my Zorro cards from the late 1950s; in return, he would send me this and that.
I laughed. Here was a man who had touched death, and still isn’t well, and he wanted to get back to those things he enjoyed. I told him I could do a basic trade, but that we should wait until he was healthier before stepping up the game.
The other thing he wanted was this: He wanted me to check out my own health.
“This thing hit me without warning,” he said. “I was at an antique show, dealing with a customer, and I just dropped like a sack of potatoes. It didn’t hurt or anything, but I couldn’t move; couldn't do anything.”
Now, back from the dead, he was worried about an old friend.
“I’d hate to lose you,” he said.
Nice to be wanted, I thought, although I’ve long been inclined to let nature have its way; to live like my ancestors, checking out when the time comes. I gradually accumulated that philosophy, I think, starting with my father's death in 1994 -- and then with a visit to the hospital in 1999, when a shortness of breath led doctors to decide I’d had a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. I hadn’t, as a camera doctors ran up to my heart showed; in fact, the heart was clean and, two physicians told me, that of a man half my age.
The problem, we finally figured out, was a bad back -- which was an expensive lesson: don't necessarily trust a diagnosis. But before learning that, I had said goodbye to my mother -- a wrenching experience. And yet ... and yet I survived, only to see her leave us 12 years later. In between, I lost my wife and her father, not to mention an aunt and a brother-in-law. The longer we live, the higher the body count mounts.
But I don't want to discuss death per se. I'm taking a sharp turn here, from the personal to the political -- for the more death I have seen, the more sensitive, I find, that my BS meter has become. But with age has also come some peace. I don’t get as riled as I did when, as a young man, Richard Nixon set me off. I remember watching TV once with my Mom; it was a press conference, and Nixon said something that had me shouting at the TV screen: “You're lying!” My mother thought that was horribly disrespectful. I wonder what she’d think of our two current presidential candidates.
Back in those long-ago days, I guess I believed that Nixon and his corrupt running mate, Spiro Agnew, were the only politicians who were clearcut liars; call it naivete. I’m guessing that a high percentage of politicians then, as now, were full of BS. But Nixon and Agnew were the only ones I could read clearly back then as dishonest, just as -- in an opposite vein -- I think Ohio Governor John Kasich is the only mostly honest politician today.
Which brings us to the Republicans' quadrennial convention -- the hatefest the GOP has been running in Cleveland. At least the streets have been peaceful.
The most fascinating aspect of the convention, to me, has been the Melania Trump flap -- the fallout from her speech, one that carried a plagiarized portion of Michelle Obana’s 2008 convention speech. What was most alarming was not the plagiarism -- although I take such things personally, for a reason --- but the disingenuous, deflecting and dishonest reaction by the Trump camp, and in particular the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, trying to tell us the sky isn’t blue. The Clinton camp is dishonest enough, but at least in a traditional, political way. These Trump clowns are by habit bullies, deniers, accusers and deep-in-the-marrow finger pointers -- a more or less civilized street gang.
Now, about that personal affront that plagiarism triggers. I recall, first, how Senator Joe Biden ran into a mess back in 1987 during a presidential campaign when he lifted and used words from a British politician’s speech without attribution, although he claimed to have attributed the usage when employing the words before. Later it was reported he had similarly borrowed phrases in law school, and from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. I took particular exception because it created a conflict in me: I liked Biden, but I treasured the value of the written word. Of course, history tells us he dropped out of the presidential race, never to grab the brass ring.
Then there was a fellow college student -- actually two years ahead of me -- who was Harvard Law School-bound until he lifted some phrasing from an established work in a key history paper he wrote in his senior year. The way I heard it -- although the student wasn’t talking about it much -- is that his professor recognized the plagiarism, called the student in for a little chat, told him he would be passing him ... but that he would also be notifying Harvard, which in turn brought the hammer down on the student, blocking his admission and with it a rather prestigious career path.
Much later, in 1988, when I was working as a copy editor at USA Today, we had weekly contests for best headlines -- and one I wrote was claimed by another editor. I bit my tongue, since I ended up winning 17 awards in my 14 weeks there (on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette). I figured one more award wouldn’t matter, while the guy claiming this one seemed somewhat desperate to achieve something. But it still rankles.
And I wrote a story once about a new sheriff in Jefferson County, up in Watertown, when I was a reporter at the Daily Times there. It was a feature piece, based on an interview with the sheriff and on research, and we published it prominently. A week or so later, a fairly new paper -- memory tells me it was a combination penny saver and news vessel -- printed its own story about the sheriff, with the byline of a reporter whose name I didn’t recognize. Alas, it wasn’t really “its own story”; it was mine, reprinted verbatim, with no credit to me whatsoever.
That one hit most deeply -- for it was like a thief breaking into my home and stealing something I prized. Plagiarism is theft -- of words, true, but behind them research and creativity and, in the crafting of a solid piece of entertainment and information, years of training. You use my words, you steal a piece of my soul.
I tried to connect with someone at that paper in order to complain, but they seemed to be ducking me; avoided me at every turn. So I took the matter to my publisher, but in true form -- for he was a quiet, thoughtful, pipe-smoking figure who approached most matters philosophically -- he told me it wasn’t worth my time or effort, for any newspaper that would purloin someone's work simply didn’t merit a second glance. It wasn't worthy of the attention of a real newspaper or a real reporter.
Besides, he said -- and this was a line I'd heard from him more than once -- “never get into a pissing match with a skunk.”
That last word, I suppose -- skunk -- is as apt a description of any plagiarist as I can conjure. And so I'll leave it there.
Except for this: Politics and plagiarism aside, I have some Zorro cards to mail.
A blast from the past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, July 10, 2016 -- I was watching a news account Thursday on MSNBC about the Baton Rouge police shooting of a black man on Wednesday -- an incident that had preceded by a day a similar shooting in Minnesota that led, ultimately, to the assassination of five police officers in Dallas.
The reporter in Baton Rouge -- on my TV screen -- was a slender brunette, a white woman sleekly dressed, talking about the situation there, but in truth I wasn't listening. I had in an instant thought she looked familiar, only to be told a second later her identity by a line of type at the bottom of the screen. It said she was Tammy Leitner.
"Oh, my god!" I said to the screen; to the woman. For I knew her -- past tense, years ago. Formal name Tamara. Last name pronounced Lightner. It could even be argued that if not for me, she would not have been in front of that camera in Baton Rouge, speaking to me through my TV screen.
I'm not claiming responsibility for her success; she earned it, being a very driven person who, from the beginning, aspired to career excellence.
But if I hadn't been involved in her first break in the journalism business -- had I not had a hand in hiring her -- it could be argued that the arc of her life would have been greatly altered.
Let me explain.
My boss, Mike Gossie, was out on medical leave for a few weeks while I worked at The Leader newspaper in Corning in the late 1990s. I'm guessing this was in 1997. Anyway, John Kelleher and I -- Mike's assistants -- were faced while he was gone with a need to fill a reporting staff vacancy, and accordingly interviewed some prospects.
One was Tammy Leitner, a college graduate with a master's degree from Boston University (at least that's what Wikipedia tells me; I had forgotten) who was in her mid-20s, confident to the point of brashness. I thought she did well in the interview, but Kelleher was only lukewarm and wanted to complete the interview process -- see who all was out there. And so some weeks went by before -- really needing a new reporter -- we contacted Leitner. Memory tells me I urged it, while John was still reluctant. By that point I thought she might have hooked on with another paper, but it turned out that she was still available, and so she reported for work at The Leader.
Fast forward to the return to work of my boss, Mike Gossie, who wanted right away to know who the attractive young reporter was. Mike, being single, was soon spending time with Tammy -- a relationship that ultimately had them living together and eventually leaving the paper and moving west to newspaper jobs in Arizona.
I have to say that Tammy and I never learned to like each other. Call it bad chemistry. She had a sharp tongue, even more so than mine, and we traded pointed barbs throughout her stay. Not that she wasn't a good reporter; she was, although a little too aggressive, too ambitious for my taste in pursuing stories. If there was one that she deemed important, she wanted to be involved -- refused to take "no" for an answer. She wanted, from the outset, to build a resume that would garner attention. (I recall in particular her coverage of a visit to our area by former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.)
And she wrote some entertaining stories, in particular one in which she spent time -- I don't remember if it was overnight or longer -- in the county jail, so she could see life there from the perspective of the inmates.
After she and Mike moved west, Tammy distinguished herself in a couple of ways: by saving an endangered swimmer from a lake near the house she shared with Mike; and then as a contestant on the "Survivor" television show in its fourth season. She parlayed her "Survivor" fame into a TV reporting job in Arizona, and started the arc leading to the Baton Rouge report in which I spotted her. She married Mike along the way -- in a West Coast ceremony attended by, among others, her friends from "Survivor."
She started her TV career at a CBS affiliate in Phoenix, and won several Emmy awards. She took up triathlon training and competitions, too -- and to her credit helped save Mike's life by alerting her brother, a physician, about a condition Mike had, called to his attention by an ophthalmologist who noticed too much copper color within Mike's eyes and cautioned that he should get it checked. This came just before the move west, and Mike started losing his energy shortly after. Tammy alertly notified her brother, who in turn recognized the seriousness of the condition -- a rare disorder called Wilson's Disease in which the body has a growing and unchecked supply of copper, which can prove fatal. The brother helped get Mike into an experimental treatment program at the University of Michigan Medical Center that was testing the effect on the disease of a derivative of Australian or New Zealand grasses. The treatment worked, and Mike was saved, although he had to temporarily adopt a lifestyle dialed down from his norm -- which has long included a lot of running and other athletically related activities, which he eventually resumed.
I had visited Mike near the end of his months-long stay at the U of M. This was in 1999, and we went to a Detroit Tigers game with him and Tammy and a visiting Kelleher -- who himself had moved on to another newspaper management position. (I too had left The Leader.)
Not long after, Mike was released from the U of M program, and he and Tammy returned to their lives in Arizona, and me to mine in New York. Eventually, I started The Odessa File, saw Mike once more, and then lost touch with him, other than through occasional e-mails. The years passed, and I ultimately heard through the grapevine in 2011 that he and Tammy had divorced, a fact that Mike confirmed in a message not long after. Mike moved on along the way to another Arizona job -- a prestigious management position in publishing -- while Tammy (Wikipedia tells me) joined WCBS-TV in New York City in 2013, continuing in her reporting strength of investigative journalism. From there she joined WMAQ-TV -- NBC Chicago -- in March of 2014 in the same role.
It was in connection with that job, I assume, that she was sent to Baton Rouge for a story that had garnered national attention and outrage -- a precursor to the Minnesota and Dallas tragedies.
In researching Tammy's career path, I happened upon her Facebook page, and was heartened to see, near the top, that "3,511 people like this," and that among them, pictured right there, was Mike Gossie.
I assume (actually, I hope) from that that they have remained friends, which is something Tammy and I never were; we remained, in fact, at arm's length and a bit adversarial in her early post-Corning years. It was in one of those years -- I think about 2003 -- when Mike's sister Lisa died, and a funeral service was held at a Hammondsport church. Mike, when he saw me upon my arrival at the church, gave me a bear-hug greeting, while Tammy and I merely nodded to one another. After the service, a group of us were standing outside, talking, and I happened to be next to Tammy.
At one point, neither of us was engaged in the group discussion, so I turned to her and said: "You're looking well, Tammy."
She turned to me and said: "Thank you, Charles."
After a few moments, I turned my head halfway in her direction, and leaning toward her, added this: "You realize, of course, how much it pained me to say that."
She smiled and nodded.
"Yes, Charles, I do."
And that, I believe, is the last time I ever saw her ... until Thursday, when her image was talking to me about Baton Rouge and I was saying, "Oh, my god ...."
She had made it to the national stage, this ambitious reporter. Had we never met, she probably would have made it, anyway ... but by a much different route. She would not have met Mike, would not have raised the alarm about his health, would not (in all likelihood) have been in a position to make the "Survivor" show and turn its fame into a TV reporting career.
But as I said: ambition. It is not always endearing, that trait, but it can prove to be unstoppable.
So to the "Oh, my god" I uttered to the television screen, I now add, in all fairness, and only a bit grudgingly:
"Damn, kid. You made it. Good for you."
Of justice delayed ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 30, 2016 -- The press release arrived as many of its type have: with fanfare and unavoidable bias, from the group protesting Crestwood's storage of methane and the firm's proposed storage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in abandoned salt caverns.
If there was an accompanying soundtrack, it would likely have featured Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
The press release proclaimed "Victory for We Are Seneca Lake Protesters as Mistrial Declared in Town of Reading Court." Given the often partisan, sometimes outraged (depending on circumstance) tone of most such missives, I harbored doubts as to the validity of its facts.
But after checking with the District Attorney's office, it seems the release was reasonably accurate as far as the factual progression of a Reading court case gone horribly awry on Tuesday afternoon, June 28th.
The Town of Reading Justice is Raymond Berry, a man who to my thinking is a classic old gentleman. He is, like many locally elected town and village justices, limited in his law training. Now on the far side of 80, he has been faced -- at a time in life when any man or woman should be winding down, or at best operating with dignity in a traditional schedule unfettered by too much nonsense -- with a situation beyond the capacity of any such justice, whether 30 or 80.
His court has been inundated with hundreds of trespass and disorderly conduct cases stemming from the Crestwood protests. The protesters, with some regularity, gather at the Crestwood gate along Route 14 north of Watkins Glen, blocking the entrance and exit of any and all vehicles, prompting the arrival of Sheriff's deputies or village police to haul them down to the Sheriff's Office for processing and release.
The end result: the court system, which is to say primarily the Town of Reading Court -- since Reading is where the protests occur -- is overwhelmed. There is a second town justice, John Norman, but he has long since recused himself because of employment with Crestwood. That has put the onus on Berry.
I stood in court for some of the early protester proceedings, and it was a grind. The legal system moves ever slowly -- and for a man of advanced years (as Berry is) to tackle it, and seemingly embrace it, was a bit beyond my understanding. And that is not ageism from the keyboard of a spring chicken; I am of Social Security age, and feeling some of the weight of years.
No ... I thought, and still think, that Judge Berry is a sympathetic figure here -- not the image of the biased barrister that the protesters have promoted. I see him more as a kindly figure being steamrolled by sheer numbers.
And I can't help but feel he would have been better served by somehow avoiding the whole mess. Although, it must be said, he sought re-election in 2015 with protest cases gaining in number and his eyes presumably open.
Anyway, what basically happened Tuesday -- according to those news reports from the protest camp, and according to word circulating around the county courthouse the next day -- was that Berry, hearing the first of what promised to be scores of trials in coming months, listened to the prosecution present its case, listened as the defense moved for dismissal, and then declared the defendant guilty without the defense having presented its case.
That prompted the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John Tunney, to explain to the judge that he had to allow a defense, after which Berry is purported to have said "I still find him guilty." Ultimately, on motion of one of the defense counsel, Sujata Gibson of Ithaca, Berry agreed to recuse himself from the case and agreed to declare a mistrial. According to the press release, the motion to recuse also covered all future related -- which is to say protester -- trials.
I talked to the District Attorney, Joe Fazzary, the next day and he had heard much the same story, presumably as related by Tunney. He wasn't absolutely certain that Berry was going to recuse himself from all such future trials, saying that there is a process that must be followed -- application to a higher court -- for that to be put into motion. If it does take effect, he didn't know what the disposition might be of all of the upcoming trials. There are scores of them, and they would have to be reassigned.
The cases could be distributed to various village and town courts, or dumped into a single one. In any event -- recusals or not -- the DA's office continues to face a lot of work on protests, which will likely only continue, adding many more arrests to the 600 or so that have already occurred in the past couple of years. The workload will -- needless to say, I suppose -- still be intense for the presiding judge, too, whether it's Berry or someone else handed the reins to this judicial mayhem.
And that's what it is -- a deliberate move to clog the courts. After a deliberate move to keep law enforcement officers busier than they want to be. After signs are painted and protest themes concocted and supporters engaged to be at the Crestwood gate on specific hours of specific days.
It's all permitted, though; it's constitutional. And it's for a cause; one, quite frankly, with which I'm sympathetic. And I support the right to protest. But I don't like the means to the end here; it seems showboaty, and shallow, and aimed at the wrong target: the judiciary. I don't like when a good man like Ray Berry is hammered: disdained, denigrated. He signed on to run a court that dealt with things like traffic infractions, small claims, and zoning violations, with an occasional criminal arraignment thrown in.
This logically calls to mind the nature of the village justice system, which in New York State consists of some 1,900 justices in 1,250 courts. You or I -- or any resident of age -- can run for that office; get elected with no legal experience or expertise. Oh, there's a course that the newly elected must take, and a renewal course every few years, but the knowledge a course imparts pales next to law school and a daily dose of courtroom experience.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has pressed for reform of the system, its staff attorney telling the state Assembly's Judiciary Committee, for instance, that the majority of town and village justice positions are "filled by minimally trained non-lawyers ... (who) have the power to imprison people for up to one year, evict people from their homes, set bail that can result in lengthy pre-trial incarceration for people awaiting their day in court, and impose substantial fines. Though they wield this great power, (they) are not equipped to use it wisely."
"I used to be in favor of the village justice system," said one area lawyer who served as a village justice before going to law school and learning the depths and shoals and possibilities inherent in the tangled web of rules, regulations and parameters inherent in our legal system. "Now," he said, "I'm not. I would like to see a district court system. Get rid of all of these small courts, and move the cases" to a courtroom with a judge who has studied the law and understands trial procedures.
Problems with that, of course, would include the traditional: opposition by government to a loss of local control, to a wresting of a local residential right to choose judicial representation from within; and an inconvenience, should a successive court be located far away instead of nearby. The cost might also be a point of contention, what with the expensive surrogate trappings that come with sizable courtroom operations.
Yes, the current system has its shortcomings, and can yield wildly uneven results in court-to-court comparisons. And any town or village court, absent a judge with a legal background, will find itself severely tested when low-level lawbreaking is piled high and dumped at its door.
If it were me on such a bench and facing a procedural challenge such as that posed by the protesters -- had I assumed the mantle of office and the black robe at the ballot box, with the expectation of a reasonable workload -- I would have quit long ago, realizing the futility of dealing with scores of manufactured trespass and disorderly conduct trials.
An abrogation of responsibility? Maybe, and it perhaps points up that I shouldn't be on the bench at all. Being part of the existing system probably should require some basic loyalty to it. And I don't have that. Instead, I would hope that such a move -- self-ejection from the bench -- might lead to awareness of the system's flaws, and to change.
What I would ideally like to see is further debate on the merits of reforming the current system -- reform that would take financing of the courts away from localities, beef up state oversight, and require, as the ACLU attorney told the Assembly committee, "that (all) judges meet the same standards as members of the Bar."
But that's perhaps a pipe dream. Political pushback has come into play, and will again. While the law moves ever slowly, so does change.
Practically speaking, the bottom line for me is this:
Leaving the bench as I would -- dodging the whole mess brought into court by a group such as the protesters -- would seem to me to be ... dare I say?
Although I suppose a mass recusal by Judge Berry, if that's what's happening next, might be judicious, too.
Kudos, kudos, and not ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 16, 2016 -- Okay! Yes! Marvelous ...
I don't know if you saw the news the other day about the Elmira Notre Dame varsity softball team.
It won the Class C state title.
And playing key roles were Mackenzie Maloney and Alivia Clark -- Maloney with a three-run double and Clark getting the final five outs in a relief pitching performance, closing out the Crusaders' 8-6 win.
Why would I be so happy about that? Because Maloney and Clark were both members of the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athletes sponsored by this website. The 11th annual ceremony honoring the Top Drawer 24 was held June 6 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Maloney and Clark were there with the 22 other honorees, and then days later the pair went out and helped ND win a state title.
I love that.
Kudos too to Marie Fitzsimmons, retiring from a long career teaching at Watkins Glen High School.
Marie has been a mentor to many, and the guiding light in the school's venture into the world of Model United Nations, where kids get a curriculum steeped in current and past events and governance, and an extended, hands-on course in debating.
She was also a very effective cross country and track coach -- author of a popular event called the Twisted Relays some seasons back. She was absent from the WGHS classroom last year while serving as a teacher overseas in the Peace Corps, and then returned to Watkins for a final, productive year.
Good luck in the future, Marie. You are one of a kind.
Now ... about this School Superintendent (Tom Phillips) vs. School District Resident (Kristina Hansen) case.
I've encountered Phillips' authority in the past -- most notably when he basically revoked a sort of carte blanche access I had to the school which had helped generate some positive, interesting stories and photos on students and programs. He was upset with some news coverage about him, and so figuratively slapped my hands, essentially saying I had to have prior approval to visit the school during classroom hours. The order was fairly vague and innocuous, but it has deterred me from going to the school during the day unless I have to.
No problem. It has cut down on school stories, but freed up some time for me to work on other things.
And it was absolutely nothing compared to the reaction Hansen encountered for trying on March 11 to enter the school on a non-class day to attend a staff meeting run by Phillips regarding the "state of the district." Hansen claimed the right to attend on the basis of service on a couple of school-related committees, but also because of the presence of four School Board members. That constituted a quorum that should have turned the meeting public, according to the recent ruling by Watkins Glen Village Justice Connie Fern Miller dismissing a misdemeanor charge of trespass against Hansen.
That charge, and two others, were brought against Hansen at the urging of Phillips in the weeks after he had had her removed from the building during that March 11 gathering -- charges based on an edict he issued banning her from district buildings without his written permission.
The first arrest, on March 21, surprised the hell out of me. That was when Hansen tried to attend a School Board meeting and was instead handcuffed by police and led away.
My disbelief was doubled when the School Board President moments later -- in answer to a board member who said "it's not like a safety issue. Why are we dragging people away in handcuffs?" -- said in a generally tarring kind of way: "We don't know what they're going to do. We don't know."
Whoever "they" might be.
I was, on the other hand, amused the next day when I heard -- and this was second-hand -- that Phillips was complaining that someone had alerted me beforehand to the arrest, and that that is why I was there with my camera to record it. The only person who alerted me was the superintendent himself, who greeted me anxiously upon my arrival shortly before the scheduled School Board meeting, and then -- after admitting me to the (locked) board meeting room -- bolted outside. He had gone out, I saw when I looked out a window, to talk to two village policemen who had just arrived.
"Oh, my god," I muttered, or something along that line. And I went outside with my camera at the ready and waited -- and was rewarded with the sight of Phillips rushing out again to confront Hansen as she arrived. He then turned the matter over to the police when Hansen refused to leave. She was verbally claiming a right to be there -- a plea the police ignored as they cuffed her, but a right which has been affirmed in the ruling by Judge Miller.
Anyway, I was going to talk here about people in positions of power who use it in a bullying fashion -- and accordingly somehow liken Phillips to Donald Trump.
But it's something I don't need to do. Phillips' actions speak for themselves, enough to have drawn Judge Miller's rebuke as to their legal standing: they were "not lawful."
What this all means now, I suppose, is either a noisy lawsuit (the intent of such action was announced by Hansen's attorney weeks ago) or a quiet settlement as the School District and other respondents -- including the Village Police Department, Phillips himself and the School Board president, Kelly McCarthy -- move to put this behind them.
A settlement would be prudent, I suppose, as would silence from the superintendent, who is quoted in the Watkins Review and Express as finding "a little perplexing" the contention in Judge Miller ruling's that Hansen was fully justified in trying to attend that March 11 meeting. The ruling also noted that there was no "breach of the peace, disruptive behavior or physical contact with any person" by Hansen, and no disruption to students, since classes were not in session that day.
That day -- when Phillips met Hansen at the school door and ultimately had her escorted out by police (though not, at that point, charged) -- was the trigger to this whole mess. His edict banning her followed, as did her March 21 arrest and the two other trespass charges.
About that day, March 11: Phillips was quoted in the Review and Express as saying, after the judge's ruling:
"I take seriously my responsibility to protect all people from security breaches, not just students. I still have a duty to ensure the safety and security of the building when staff is present."
The judge did not agree that safety and security were at stake on March 11. The fact is, Hansen seems to be a low-keyed figure, hardly threatening -- but adept at getting under the skin of authority figures by asking questions about their actions. This evidently bothers those being questioned -- bothers them a lot ...
Phillips told the Review and Express that he has followed and will follow the advice of counsel in all of this -- which, let's face it, has not served him well so far. According to that same article, "he said he will be speaking with the prosecutor and school attorney in regards to how they will react should Hansen visit school grounds again."
I hope that that is a misinterpretation of Phillips' remarks, because it sounds contentious, as though he thinks Hansen still might not have the right to visit.
For her part, Hansen, feeling validated, says she is looking forward to attending the next School Board meeting, on June 20.
I'd better plan to be there with my camera.
Considering the tendency of the School Board to shrug its collective shoulders whenever its superintendent says or does something controversial (for example, he said the county judge showed "a level of judicial incompetence" that is "inexcusable" following a ruling that went against the School District in the Kate Bartholomew stun-gun-on-a-bus case), will anything come of this series of Hansen incidents other than a quiet settlement? Will it affect the superintendent's job standing?
If it was my school district, I would be clamoring for resignations -- of the superintendent and the School Board president -- for letting things spin so far out of control.
But it isn't my district. And in the absence of much talk about it up here on my hill, I figured I might get some response on that and other matters from the horse's mouth -- from the superintendent himself.
So I e-mailed Phillips with some questions:
I see you are consulting with counsel regarding the Hansen ruling. Any further comment?
The Review story says "Phillips said he will be speaking with the prosecutor and school attorney in regards to how they will react should Hansen visit school grounds again." Is another arrest considered an option?
Since the ruling hinges largely on your actions on March 11, do you have any regrets about that day? Any thought that it could have been handled differently?
And is there any thought on your part and Kelly McCarthy's as to resignation? Has there been any call for such action?
Thanks, and have a good day.
I haven't heard back.
Absent of those answers, I'll content myself for now with reporting whatever I can about subsequent events in this matter -- although I suspect a settlement might include a confidentiality agreement that precludes an open discussion of any money changing hands.
And such an agreement will probably leave unanswered the head-scratching response of the village police in all of this. According to Judge Miller's ruling, Phillips, in his handling of Hansen, exercised power that he didn't legally possess. My question -- and others have voiced it -- is this: Did the police have to respond to Phillips' every urge to arrest Hansen? Does a position of authority (such as school superintendent) mean that the position holder should automatically be deemed right by other, arresting authorities?
I'm just asking, because I don't know.
In any event, the police -- who have said they were just doing their job -- appear to be on the hook here, too, as far as the lawsuit goes.
The bottom line, at least at this point in the proceedings (although nothing surprises me in the often gray, interpretive world of the law), is this:
It appears that right, at least sometimes in the legal arena, trumps might.
Going forth in the world ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, June 8, 2016 -- The 11th annual Top Drawer 24 ceremony at the Watkins Glen State Park was held June 6, and by all incoming reports was a sterling success.
Two dozen amazing young men and women from 10 high schools in the region -- primarily in Schuyler and Chemung counties -- were honored for a combination of factors: athletics, academics, citizenship, and a positive impact on the world around them.
The speakers, led by Pittsburgh Steelers scouting director Mark Gorscak, were uniformly good, each with a message that didn’t dwell for long on the honorees’ achievements, looking ahead instead to what they might yet accomplish in taking their places in the world.
Real leadership, as opposed to “fake leadership,” is lacking, said Top Drawer co-founder Craig Cheplick, telling the kids that they can fill the voids that exist. “We need you,” he said.
Gorscak employed a red rubber ball as symbolic of the creativity and drive required to turn a dream, with all of its unformed basics, into something fully formed and vital.
Former Top Drawer member Allison Stamp used her college experience as a soccer goalie -- three years on the bench before a breakout season full of achievement and reward in her final year -- to urge the newest Top Drawer 24 team to work hard and harder ... to never give up.
Penn State Altoona volleyball coach Phil Peterman said we all must expect adversity, and should meet it head-on: “overcome in order to become,” he said.
And Lifetime Achievement honoree Mike D’Aloisio said that success on the playing fields is not enough -- that it is how a person treats others that defines his or her legacy. He pointed to role models he knew: Elmira-based athletic standouts Ernie Davis and Joel Stephens, both taken early in adulthood by disease, and both with legacies that shine. Stephens, in fact, was the subject of a book written by D’Aloisio that focused on five C’s for which Stephens stood: Christianity, courage, compassion, character and commitment.
It is such messages and the annual Top Drawer ceremony’s locale -- the State Park’s beautiful, open-air pavilion -- that help make the program so unique. But the success each year also depends on the quality of the selected honorees. And from everything I saw this time around, this class was first-rate ... perhaps the best yet.
Now, for those late to the Top Drawer concept, or simply lacking in its historical perspective, let me note that the program's origin occurred at Craig Cheplick’s Montour Falls home, he being the Athletic Director and a teacher at Watkins Glen High School at the time.
I was there to watch some TV sports, and we got brainstorming, talking about award programs, none of which had ever totally appealed to me. Any honorary post-season teams selected were almost wholly sports-derived, and from my experience (as Sports Editor at the Star-Gazette years earlier) selected with too little thought, too little input from coaches, too little preparation. Oh, those sports-based teams usually boast reasonably representative selections, in their own limited way, since sports All-Stars tend to stand out. But that was the main rub: those teams were all about sports.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said to Chep, “if there were an awards program that took into account the whole package. You know ... sports, academics, how the honorees give back through public service or school clubs or church projects.”
Chep jumped on the idea immediately, making phone calls, recruiting a committee and basically setting the whole thing in motion. For Chep is an organizer, and a damn good one ... which made him the best AD that Watkins had seen ... so good that there has been a relative vacuum in the wake of his departure. He is a promoter, a showman ... and those are qualities he has utilized to promote the Top Drawer 24, gradually expanding it from two schools to many more now.
We’ve held the ceremony each year at the State Park pavilion because it offers a unique and beautiful setting that, for our purposes, outstrips any other local options. It has served us well no matter the weather -- heat, cold, snow, rain and, in the most recent instance, beautiful sunshine and moderate temperatures.
We almost always have a 100% turnout by the honorees -- we missed that level twice for good reason -- and with them come parents and grandparents and friends and, on occasion, coaches and teachers and school administrators. But the Top Drawer 24 is not about those mentors; it’s about the kids and about the message provided, in differing forms, by speakers recruited for their experience and their wisdom.
The message -- boiled down -- is ultimately this:
“Nicely done, honorees, but your work is just beginning. Go forth in the world, and do both well and good. And may God bless your efforts.”
The question is raised each year, too, about the program’s future. Chep is retired from his old teaching job now, and I’m past normal retirement age, and we might lose our glue -- super assistant Kathy Crans, who handles scheduling and an amazing amount of detail work -- to retirement in a couple of years.
As time marches along -- which is to say each year at this time -- I have said and Chep has said about the Top Drawer future: “Nothing is forever. But let’s do the best we can while we can.”
If there were an underlying message to us from ourselves, I guess it would be similar to the one we see delivered to the honorees. Ours would read like this:
“Go forth with the program, and do both well and good. And let’s just hope that God smiles upon the effort, and does so in the long term.”
In the presence of greatness
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, May 16, 2016 -- I saw the great Ben Hogan play golf ... in person.
I've also seen Jack Nicklaus. And Arnold Palmer. And Johnny Miller. And Tom Watson. And Billy Casper. And Lee Trevino. And some other greats.
But chief among them, to me, was Ben Hogan -- one of the greatest golfers ever, a man long gone now from our midst. He died in 1997 at the age of 84.
I say chief among them not because he was necessarily better than them (Nicklaus, after all, is considered the greatest of all), but because the window of opportunity in which I could see him was a small one -- and accordingly the fact that I did has left me with a sense of lasting gratitude.
I saw Ben Hogan at the Carling World Open, played on the Oakland Hills Country Club course near my Bloomfield Hills, Michigan home during late August in 1964, when I was 15. The Carling Brewing Company had sponsored several tournaments over the years beginning in 1953. This was the biggest, with big names -- the first year of four years in which it was held at varying locales.
Bobby Nichols won that 1964 tournament. He was a semi-big deal back then, the winner ultimately of 12 career PGA Tour events, including the PGA Championship the previous month. In this tourney, the inaugural World Open, he shot a 2-under-par 278 -- one stroke ahead of Arnold Palmer -- and took home $35,000. That's chump change out on Tour now, of course; but it was the biggest prize ever to that point -- almost twice what Nichols had earned for winning that major in July (his only major victory, as it turned out).
I chanced to see Palmer again -- along with Nicklaus and others -- years later when I attended the U.S. Open at the same course, but very little sticks out in terms of specifics -- save for when Nicklaus walked past me on a path near the clubhouse, and I was struck by the fact that he was not a larger-than-life individual, not when I was briefly measuring myself next to him. He's listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, and I think -- or at least in that moment thought -- that such a statistic was a bit of a reach. But he had huge forearms and what looked like powerful hands, and that mesmerizing face I had seen hundreds of times on television and in magazines.
I suspect that, as he walked by, my mouth was hanging open in awe.
But that was 1985. A more fixed memory for me was the one I have of the great Hogan at that Carling World Open in 1964. His return to Oakland Hills -- he had won the U.S. Open there in 1951 -- was a fairly rare appearance for him in competitive golf, for he had limited his number of appearances for several years after a near-fatal 1949 auto accident. And then he had tapered the limited number to very few.
He was in a good mood during the tournament, I have read; he was smiling and chatting with fans and signing an occasional autograph. This was contrary to his well-known inclination toward taciturnity. But his mood didn't seem to diminish his usual focus and drive.
He had plenty of both throughout his career, seemingly more so the farther along it went -- at least through 1953, the year he won three majors. All told, he racked up nine major titles: two Masters, four U.S. Opens, one British Open and two PGA Championships. Six of the nine came after the accident, in which he suffered fractures of the pelvis, collarbone and left ankle, a chipped rib, and blood clots. He was in the hospital for two months, and was told by doctors that he might never walk again ... and indeed was beset by circulation problems and other limitations through the rest of his life.
But defy the doctors he did. He not only walked, but returned to the PGA Tour in 1950, almost winning on his first try. He tied Sam Snead for the 72-hole lead at the Los Angeles Open before losing in an 18-hole playoff.
In 1953, he entered just six tournaments, and won five, including the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. That highlighted a career (that started in 1930 but wasn't truly successful until 1940) in which he was the leading money winner on tour five times, and PGA Player of the Year on four occasions.
Hogan was, in fact, diminutive in terms of today's sports figures -- about 5 feet, 8 inches and 145 pounds. "Bantam Ben," some called him. A slender Texan known for a sweet, compact swing.
And he was a serious man.
"I play with friends," he once said, "but we don't play friendly games."
And a perfectionist.
"I hate a hook," he said of a golf shot that swings out of control to the left, and was the bane of his early career. "It nauseates me. I could vomit when I see one. It's like a rattlesnake in your pocket."
In truth, I didn't know much about Hogan when I went (on at least two days, I think, and maybe more) to watch the golfers compete at the Carling World Open. My Dad and an older brother had tried to explain to me that there was more to the golf world than Arnie and Jack -- that Hogan in his prime finished in the top 10 far more often than not; that Hogan was a walking miracle, considering the severity of the injuries he had sustained in the accident; and that Hogan had a line of golf clubs named after him.
I knew about the clubs. I played some golf back then, and had a mismatched gathering of woods and irons that included a Hogan that I couldn't hit worth a damn.
In 1964 and the start of the Carling World Open, he was just an old guy to me, and one who hardly competed anymore. So this was, unbeknownst to me going in, a rare privilege; though I'm sure his fans knew that. As it turned out, Hogan didn't disappoint them. He finished fourth that week, firing a 68 on the final day, the day I remember most.
I saw him out on the course on a couple of early holes in the afternoon as I, along with some friends, scurried about, trying to witness as much drama as possible. I realized Hogan was doing well, and thought it odd that someone so aged could keep up with much younger competitors. But what I remember most about Hogan came from watching him on his final hole as I sat behind the 18th green. Memory says I had my Dad's old binoculars -- obtained in Germany in World War II's waning days -- though perhaps not. But whatever ocular device I was using, I remember clearly seeing Hogan's sweet swing on his approach shot, and the flight of the ball as it neared the green, and the bounce it took as it hit the green -- and the vibration in the flagstick when the ball struck it midway up before settling mere feet away from the cup.
"Wow," I thought, and probably said it aloud. The crowd was going wild as Hogan walked up the fairway toward the green. The cheering was louder than for anybody else that day, I thought. And I finally realized what I had started earlier to process: I was in the presence of not just an old man -- and his 52 years did indeed seem ancient to me -- but something far beyond that. I was looking at a demigod, though I would not have known that word back then.
This was a walking, smiling, crowd-acknowledging embodiment of golf history, a magnificent ball-striker from the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s who somehow had time-warped to a point there, in front of me, amid the stunning greenery of one of America's finest courses, vintage mid-1960s.
Did Hogan make the putt? Probably. I was in such a fog over the approach shot and the realization of the special nature of the moment, that that part of my memory bank fails me. But as I said, he registered a 68 that day, so he was economical with his shots.
I wondered -- as he left the green amid all those cheers, and headed away to register his score and talk to reporters -- just who or what had briefly entered my space and passed through. In the time that has followed, I have read much about the man based on statistics, on the numerical facts.
But the facts, while endlessly impressive, can't match what happened on that 18th hole -- a sliver of time that has become almost metaphysical to me: a perhaps supernatural conjoining of opportunity and timing that brought a legend into my sphere of being, and in the process impacted me, somehow, for all of my years.
While my glimpses of the man were relatively fleeting at that tournament, and while that one shot I have remembered all these years took but a few seconds, what I experienced that day comes down to this: it was a privilege that became a small personal touchstone.
And the touchstone is embodied in a phrase. It goes like this:
I saw Ben Hogan play golf.
On getting played ... or not
And we unveil our Lifetime Achievement Award winner
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, May 2, 2016 -- I was walking the aisles of Walmart the other night, doing a little shopping before perusing the latest in DVD fare, when a man approached me -- a man I didn't know -- and told me he enjoyed reading my columns. He said it twice, in fact, gently grabbing my shoulder for emphasis the second time. And I did what I do when I'm caught off-guard like that. I said thank you. Twice.
I'm honestly surprised when complimentary people approach me, but they do. If I thought about it, which I'm doing now, I would expect more naysayers to approach me than complimenters, in keeping with the age-old adage of "Kill (or at least berate) the messenger." But that's not the case. I rarely encounter such negativity.
About that: In my early years, criticism tended to sting, but living as long as I have (and this seems particularly true in the past couple of years), I find that thoughts harbored by critics -- verbalized or not -- really don't mean much. Not if I'm doing a job that the large majority seems to appreciate. I know, for example, that I am in disfavor in a certain administrative office; but that doesn't really matter. It means I'm doing my job.
That sounds trite, but it's true in journalism.
It comes down to this:
If the subject of a reporter's coverage is unhappy with the coverage, chances are it's because that subject has not been able to control it. Or has lost rapport with the reporter. In my young adult days, at a newspaper in Watertown, I was covering county government and was "befriended" by a member of the Board of Supervisors who fed me information under the misguided belief that I would print whatever he wanted. It didn't take long before one of his self-serving maneuvers ended up boomeranging on him, and I duly reported it. He was furious, calling me a number of creative names, and vowing never to speak to me again. And he didn't.
Such was the early lesson: cooperate to a point, but don't get played.
And a subtext of that is: anyone in authority has an agenda, and it is usually either self-serving or according to a heartfelt philosophy. Either way, the authority figure can be very passionate about his or her program, and about anyone (reporters included) who might get in the way.
That is one reason why I don't buddy up with anyone other than a couple of close, non-official friends whose judgment I fully trust, and often seek. I'm not a belonger, either, other than in one local club -- but even there I have maintained an honorary status for years. It is much easier to report on things -- and in particular on people -- from a personal distance.
I remain, in widowerhood, a family man. And it's a growing family. I was thrilled to be told recently by my youngest son, Dave, and his wife Ali that they are expecting a girl in early October. This will be my first grandchild, and it brings to mind how much my wife Susan had looked forward to being a grandmother ... but fell far short of witnessing the actual event here on Earth. I like to think she has taken notice and celebrated amid whatever heavenly schedule she is now following.
We are in the home stretch in the selection of our 11th annual Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens. The party honoring them is set for June 6 at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion, the location that has distinguished the program since its inception.
Speakers are lined up, and we will be honoring an amazing coach with our second annual Lifetime Achievement Award: Mike D'Aloisio (right) of Elmira Notre Dame. Mike has mentored kids for decades while carving out a long and distinguished coaching career in football and basketball. He is also an author, of 5 C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story, released in 2009 and chronicling the short life of the incredible Stephens, a Notre Dame athlete of remarkable abilities who died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 22. (The title refers to the Christianity, courage, compassion, character and commitment that Stephens stood for.)
D'Aloisio, a Notre Dame employee beginning in 1977, was already established as a successful football coach when I served as Sports Editor of the Elmira Star Gazette in the mid- to late-1980s. All told, he has totaled well over 200 wins on the gridiron, not to mention more than 250 wins while he served as coach of ND's boys varsity basketball team, winner of three sectional titles during his tenure. And he has served as girls basketball coach, taking his team to a sectional semifinal last season, and as golf coach.
(My favorite D'Aloisio story involved a sports reporter under my guidance at the Star Gazette who wrote a story critical of the condition of the Notre Dame athletic field back in the '80s. A school official -- a D'Aloisio superior -- was furious with the unwanted coverage, and thus called the paper and told me he would have the reporter arrested should he set foot on campus again. That was clearly an idle threat, since legal action in response to a news story (an accurate one at that) would be illegal and unwarranted, and only generate more unwanted publicity. Accordingly, I told the reporter to go there to cover the next Notre Dame football game -- and he, aware by then of the official's threat -- complained that he would be arrested. I told him: "If you are, it will make for a great story."
The reporter went to the game and, looking around, didn't see the official. But he feared he would at any moment, and so went to the sidelines before the contest started to tell the coach -- D'Aloisio -- about his predicament: how he might not be able to cover the whole game, jail beckoning as it was. D'Aloisio just laughed and told the reporter to stay near him, there on the sidelines, and he would take care of him ... make sure the official didn't follow through on his threat. And the reporter did as instructed.
The official never did try to have the reporter arrested. He ultimately knew better -- as D'Aloisio instinctively understood in that moment of kindly and wise laughter, and of encouraging protectionism. D'Aloisio in that moment created a buffer within which he realized the nervous reporter could function, and in functioning complete an appointed task.
That, I commented later at a news meeting at the Star Gazette, constituted both wisdom and leadership, and they are qualities for which Mike D'Aloisio has become well known across the years.)
D'Aloisio was inducted into the Section IV Hall of Fame in 2012. His upcoming lifetime award follows the inaugural one bestowed last year by the Top Drawer 24 program on longtime Horseheads volleyball coach Patti Perone.
Photo in text: Mike D'Aloisio
The emperor's clothes
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, April 23, 2016 -- It's been a while since I wrote a column. I've been busy, true, but also a bit put off by the obvious subject matter -- the use of handcuffs on outspoken citizens.
I figure there's a lot to be said about that, but I won't say it. It just stirs up more trouble over an incident that already is full of a great deal of underlying acrimony. Not to mention head-scratching bravado.
I received a letter from an Odessa resident taking the superintendent in question to task for his "volatility," and the School Board in question for its passivity and how it's evidently missing the obvious: that the superintendent works for them, and not the other way around.
But if I were to publish it, Board apologists would say it wasn't a Watkins Glen resident complaining. Well, some Watkins residents have complained too, but not in letters to the editor ... with a couple of exceptions. In each of those two, the writer was "appalled" at the handcuffing and critical of the Board and superintendent. But both also expressed concern about the personal consequence of publishing their letters, and so I did not run them.
"It's a small town," one said, leaving unsaid what can be applied to almost any small town: Openly challenging those in power can be a fool's errand.
So then I was thinking, well, maybe I could write some verse. That can sometimes lighten the mood.
So I tried a stanza, roughly in the style of e.e. cummings, without capitalization. I chose as a subject one which I visit from time to time: the emperor's new clothes, wherein a populace willingly turns a blind eye to something obvious despite understanding its absurdity.
In the traditional tale, an emperor, convinced he is wearing fine clothes that only the worthy can see, marches naked in a procession through the streets of his realm -- and all of his subjects, afraid to appear unworthy or (more likely) difficult, marvel at his raiment. It takes a child -- a person of pure innocence, unfettered by political pressure -- to say: "He has nothing on!" Others join the cry. The emperor, suspecting it is true, marches onward nonetheless.
Anyway, I've turned it around a bit -- made it more of a naturally reactive slice of life that comes after the emperor's march has ended. I've always imagined him small like one of my favorite characters, the king in The Wizard of Id, and all of his staff as very tall. Anyway, someone -- probably staff -- has made off with his clothes, and he is loath to don anything less than royal wear. He is scurrying about, trying to find something as the evening temperature dips: royal shirt, royal pants, royal socks. Something. But they are gone, too. Here's the verse, limerick style. It's called "Chilly night."
the emperor was seeking some clothes;
he was nude from his head to his toes.
but try as he might
he stayed bare through the night,
and his small royal digits soon froze.
There. Humor accomplished. (A friend laughed, anyway, when I read it to her.) Now on to something with wider repercussions: politics.
A friend recently asked me if I had gone to any nearby cities "to see the candidates" during their campaigns for votes in the New York Primary. He meant Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Two or three of them had meandered Upstate, I guess, though I wasn't paying attention. And so I said:
"Why would I want to? They're in my living room every night."
At least they are if I have the nightly news on -- or visit one of the 24-hour news channels, which carry politics ad nauseam.
"You know," I told another friend later, "I yearn for the days when we had just three or four stations on TV, and the news was in really short bursts."
That was a long time ago, when I was growing up in Michigan, though my son recently pointed out that he remembers that when he was a child, we couldn't afford cable and had just three or four stations.
I don't know about that. It's depressing to think of such a struggle. So I guess what I did was put such poverty from my mind long ago.
But speaking of depressing, here's my prediction: Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and defeat Hillary Clinton for the White House.
"Then we might want to move to Canada," I suggested to my son. "But with The Donald in charge, I don't think any place will be safe."
Which brings us to this:
there once was a man named ted cruz
who so wanted the donald to lose.
but the more cruz would talk,
the more voters did balk
until finally cruz wasn't news.
Have a nice week.
Almost down the rabbit hole
By Charlie Haeffner
March 27, 2016 -- I was going to start this column like this:
My name is Alice. I'm a reporter.
I was visiting the land of Unbelievable -- to attend a School Board meeting -- but upon walking toward the school I encountered a rabbit who was bustling around all important-like, and as he passed by, my head was struck by what appeared to be a scepter he was carrying.
Stunned, I began falling to the ground. But my ears still worked, and I heard him mutter something as he raced on by:
"The issue is I'm late. I have a very important date."
And he dodged into a hole that seemingly appeared out of nowhere near us, and disappeared ... and I, stunned, crawled to the hole and followed him, falling and sliding and bouncing a very long way until rolling to a stop on firm ground, in a strange underground land lit by ... well, it seemed to be lit by the flashing lights of a police car. And two officers were nearby. And the rabbit was confronting some bespectacled woman, ordering her to leave ...
But then I thought: "No." As bizarre as the whole encounter outside the Watkins Glen High School on March 21 seemed to me (see Schools), this wasn't the way. "This is serious," I told myself. "We can't wave it away with humor or satire."
And so I struggled to write something more serious. But nothing worked. Nothing.
I finally gave up and instead wrote what follows ... which has nothing to do with the arrest that day of a Watkins Glen school district resident attempting to attend a School Board meeting without written permission from the superintendnent. Nor does it have to do with Open Meeting Laws or with the tendency of the School Board toward .... well, perhaps an antonym of humility. Pick your own word.
No, I opted for something, on this Easter weekend, that was more uplifting, more hopeful and less draining.
It deals with the gem called the Seneca Lake shoreline -- a wonder that helps make Watkins Glen such a great place.
I say let that other stuff -- any educational conflicts -- fall where they may. If there are more, I'll just try to cover them as they happen.
I drove down to the pier in Watkins Glen on Saturday, an afternoon when the sun was bright and, as it set, was casting some long and interesting shadows.
There were people out there, walking between the shuttered Village Marina and the pier itself, increasing in numbers as the afternoon inched toward the dinner hour.
The people were nodding to one another, even though strangers, and walking out to the edge of the pier and back, and sitting on the occasional bench or in cars, taking in the beauty of the southern shore of Seneca Lake.
There were joggers, too, gliding through the sunshine and the cool but mild temperatures ... and there were a pair of fishermen and two kayakers. But the focus of the majority seemed simply to be on enjoyment -- getting out of the house and taking deep gulps of fresh air that wouldn't freeze the lungs.
Yes, spring is here.
I give you, hence, some of the photos I snapped down at the lake, with an eye in many of them toward those lengthening shadows. Next chance you have, get outside with your cameras and send me some of your pictures.
Happy Easter, and God bless.
A week to test the soul ...
By Charlie Haeffner
March 14, 2016 -- Thank God that week is over.
It started on Sunday, March 6 with a sports card show in Webster, where I set up as a dealer. I managed to turn a throbbing arm -- a tentative case of tendonitis -- into a full-blown muscle attack by lifting one heavy box too many. It's amazing how painful a limb can be when it decides to rebel ... refuses to work properly, or in this case barely at all.
It was a show that saw me spend more than I took in, which didn't add salt to the wound exactly, but didn't help mitigate the discomfort the muscles were imparting.
Then, on the way home, fatigue started in -- long day, hard work, but above all (I suspect) I was experiencing a drain created by pain.
And that's when I encountered the police officer who handed me a speeding ticket in Geneva -- my first in something like 33 or 34 years. Four points worth, although I was directed to send a letter to the Ontario County Assistant District Attorney requesting a reduction to two points. I'm still waiting to hear back.
Anyway, anyone who has received a ticket probably has reacted as I did: with a bit of shock, and with anxiety in the middle of the night created by that shock and the uncertainty of how, exactly, to navigate the legal system.
Then came Tuesday, and more Donald Trump victories on the campaign trail. The man is a demagogue, yes, but so much of a nonsensical one that he strikes me as a menacing caricature -- or a dangerous wind-up toy. Turn the crank and he spews venom.
But he has a large following, which speaks volumes about the shortsighted state of our nation.
Then I found myself feeling a touch of guilt in the wake of transmitting news of the Watkins Glen School District that had called into question the judgment -- or at least the foresight -- of the people running the district, both School Board and Superintendent alike.
This news came in the form of two teachers lamenting the loss of basic, hands-on lessons for students in Shop classes in the rush to embrace the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) concept. The teachers, I was informed by one source, were invited by a board member to address that body in open session. Whether that's true or not, such a public approach turned the teachers' words into news, if someone covering the meeting deemed it newsworthy.
Which I did, and reported in the column below this one. The teachers' contention was backed by a couple of Corning Inc. engineers who have noticed a dropoff in the abilities of graduates seeking jobs. This situation gradually developed in a time when Shop equipment and tools were dispatched, sold away on the cheap, and various cool computerized equipment -- a machine that builds 3D shapes, and a virtual welder, for instance -- were purchased in their stead. Coincidental, unrelated timing? The teachers think not. And I think not.
To recap briefly, one of the teachers explained the problem like this:
"Kids used to build forts, ride bikes, make up their own games. They learned about chains, sprockets, and gears when the chain came off the bike; or that wood splits and metal bends. They learned about levers when using a hammer. They understood air is compressible when pumping up bike tires ...
"The kids didn't see (hand-on experience) as educational, they just picked up on it. So they gained knowledge without knowing it. Now children don't experience enough to gain 'assumed common knowledge.' The old shop classes are a way to bridge that gap. The new equipment is run by computers and doesn't allow students enough of the unstructured-experience learning."
I've heard whispers coming from that closed society ... that school district ... suggesting the two teachers might have been read the riot act by administration after the column appeared -- and that's where my guilt feelings came in. If they were called to account because of my words, I feel badly about it. But on the other hand, I don't think the judgment of people running a public instititution should be kept under wraps, no matter how badly those in charge might like to think so.
Anyway, keep that one word in mind: Shop.
It might prove important later in this column.
Then there was the matter of trying to handle a camera, or for that matter type at my computer, with my arm throbbing. I sought the services of a chiropractor for the first time in a decade or so, and found one who knows her stuff. The arm, still sore and achy, is responding to treatment ... but not for heavy use. This will take a while.
And then came the judge's ruling on a motion by the District Attorney to keep the files open and available in the Kate Bartholomew stun-gun case. Records are often closed after an acquittal, which is what Barthlomew got on a weapon possession charge.
I've been covering the case with mixed feelings, since I like the woman, long a Science teacher at Watkins Glen High School. But nobody in their right mind is defending her actions in giving a stun-gun device she purchased online to a student who in turn took it on a school bus. It was discharged there, thankfully without injury. It is, bottom line, a news story of local importance.
I don't know if you've ever studied a legal ruling, but at first glance it reads like so much mumbo-jumbo. I felt like I needed some interpretation after reading this latest one, but couldn't raise the district attorney right away. So I subjected myself to a second read, and it all snapped into place. The judge was telling the DA that yes, the records would remain available. It said, basically, that the DA could have at Bartholomew -- study the trial transcript for what the DA has said is a possible perjury charge. And the school district where Bartholomew taught, and the State Education Department for that matter, can look at the ruling, and at various exhibits, with an eye toward her possible removal from the teaching rolls. She has been on suspension since the stun-gun incident.
Next, I had to text the Superintendent of Schools for his reaction. The last time he had reacted to the judge, the Superintendent had said unkind things about him (after the judge had ruled Bartholomew not guilty on the weapon possession charge). I had subsequently taken the Superintendent to task in print for his indecorous language, which was rather Trump-like in its bluntness, I thought.
I didn't know what his response might be this time, if he deigned to respond at all. He did, though, and without any rancor (the ruling, after all, having gone his way this time). He was full of praise for the DA, but had nothing to say about the judge. Which might be just as well.
And then my pants split out. I don't know when; maybe in the washing machine. But I didn't notice until I was out in public, at a news conference celebrating the opening of the apartment complex in the converted Middle School. I noticed a state official peering at me, but not at my face; lower. And I glanced down and realized there was a gap in the front where the seam of the pants had ripped; a couple of inches worth. It's a good thing I wasn't going commando.
This wasn't like the dream where you're naked walking down Main Street, but it was bad enough. Fortunately I was wearing a coat, so I adjourned outside and removed it, tying it around my waist and positioning it accordingly to cover the mishap. While I was adjusting it, two officials from the high school -- a principal and a resource officer -- said hello as they approached to enter the building, and I pretended as though nothing was amiss. The officer has a wicked sense of humor, and I didn't need that.
I got through the rest of the news conference and a brief tour of the facility, and hurried home to find whole trousers before continuing on my way to the rest of the day's stops.
And then came Friday night, and the rally canceled by Trump when thousands of protesters showed up in Chicago in opposition to his candidacy -- to his hate-filled rhetoric. You've heard it: Little Marco. Lyin' Ted. Bernie the Communist. Hillary the Criminal. I'd like to punch him (a protester) in the face. Throw them out, Get rid of them. The Media is terrible; some of them are such lying, disgusting people; I hate them. The President is incompetent. If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. We won with the poorly educated; I love the poorly educated. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters. They're rapists (said of Mexicans entering the United States illegally).
And of John McCain: He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.
And that was followed by Saturday, when Trump was spouting off at a trio of rallies in Ohio, where he was trying to defeat its Governor, John Kasich, in an upcoming winner-take-all primary.
"I can't take my eyes off of this," I said to my son as CNN carried an hour-long rant by Trump. "It's like a slow-motion train wreck. If this guy wins the White House, nothing will get done. Every power clique in Washington will team up against him."
It all smacks, I told him, of classic literature in which demagogues gain power and abuse the hell out of it -- such as in Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, which reflected the rise and fall of Huey Long.
Here's the thing: If I were to say such things as Trump does, I'd be roundly roasted. And if most folks -- say you -- were to say them, people would think you reckless or nuts, and some of you would lose your jobs. But when he says them? He gains votes.
To which I respond with a four letter word:
Got your attention? I shouldn't use such a word, you say? If I was Donald Trump I could, with impunity.
But I didn't really say it. You only thought I did.
Sh** seems, at first glance, Trump-like in its intensity and offensiveness.
But what I said was Shop. Shop. Shop. That word ... that concept, when referring to hands-on projects and school lessons, seems to be the answer to many problems -- as opposed to hate rhetoric from an egocentric demagogue like Trump, a man who could (if he were civil) be a role model. But his words, his attitude, his unseemly attacks on just about anyone who doesn't support him ... are problems themselves.
Role model? No.
He is quite the opposite.
Matters of future shock ...
By Charlie Haeffner
March 3, 2016 -- The Donald is striking fear in the hearts of the Republican hierarchy, and fear in some of our hearts, too.
It could happen: a president with the social skills of a mongoose of the family Herpestidae, or pest for short. Carnivoran. And a skin so thick that the venom of snakes just rolls off of him, like so much Teflon. Able to mix it up with those snakes, and able to dispatch them. Embraced by common folks looking for a house pet, only to find destruction reigns once the pest is admitted into the house.
Annoying enough to be banned for import into the United States. But here's a stark difference: The Donald is already here.
Ah, politics. When Ted Cruz starts looking desirable -- as he was after Super Tuesday to Senator Lindsey Graham -- you know panic is setting in. Graham was quoted days ago as saying: "If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you." Graham has called Cruz "the least respected Senator," and he was also quoted as saying a choice between The Donald and Cruz would be like a choice between being shot and poisoned.
Now, he says, "We may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump."
This campaign season is either disgusting or fun. I haven't decided which. But it all is entertaining -- which is, of course, The Donald's strong suit. It comes with his years of TV stardom. We think we know the guy, since he has been in our homes seemingly forever. We can identify with him. But really, how many of us know what makes this guy tick?
We can thank him, I believe, for helping short-circuit Jeb Bush's presidential aspirations, which is fine by me. But his blunt outbursts are not just out of the norm; they could trigger not just our collective mortification, but potentially unwanted and dangerous responses from the leaders of other nations -- from men who might be able to match him, mongoose to mongoose.
Diplomacy is a word he should look up, and study. Just as we've been forced to absorb its antonyms after each of his progressively insulting performances: brash, graceless, ill-advised, imprudent, inadvisable, indelicate, injudicious, tactless, indiscreet and unwise, not to mention improper, inappropriate, indecorous, unbecoming, uncivil and unseemly.
He reminds me a little of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight film -- a frightening character with bad hair who says : "I'm an agent of chaos." Or (befitting the sophomoric nature of too many of the Republican candidates' campaigns): "Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push." Or: "I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."
Or (perhaps most applicable and disturbing): "Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it."
As Robert Redford's Senate candidate Bill McKay famously said to his political consultant after winning election in The Candidate -- as a noisy group of supporters and journalists closes in: "What do we do now?"
I, for one, don't want to find out what The Donald will "do now" after being elected. But let me play devil's advocate and say this: The fact that he's talking about doing something -- no matter how, from a logical standpoint, his promises sound outlandish -- seems preferable to government business as usual.
Of course, those promises might be no more than political rhetoric on steroids -- the words of a man with an outsized ego and a vision far beyond his grasp in the reality of a world where statesmanship, diplomacy and the legislative and judicial branches of government can counterbalance many a Donald-sized whim.
Even so, I can't shake the feeling that this portends trouble; a potential weakening in our government and in our standing worldwide.
Anyway, as The Donald might say: Stay tuned.
Worth noting from the Watkins Glen School Board meeting on March 2 was this: a presentation by tech teacher Karen Armstrong -- with supporting testimony from two Corning Inc. engineers, Jody Markley and Wayne Pike, both of whom have children in the school district -- saying, in essence, that the leap to a computerized STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program has overlooked the very essential matter of hands-on, old-fashioned experience and knowledge.
There are "gaps," Armstrong told the Board, in students' knowledge of basic science concepts and hands-on abilities. And the problem exists beyond high school, into college, as students bury their faces in handheld devices -- "playing games," said Markley, who noted that kids have been "coming out of college" for the past few years "without the basics."
"Give me a pencil and paper," said Armstrong, "and I can teach cursive writing. Give a student an underwater pen, and I can't." In essence, she was saying, school districts -- in taking the leap forward with the STEM advancements -- have moved too far forward too quickly. "We reduced what we thought could be eliminated," she added, "but they can't be."
Tech teacher Bob Hogan told the board a plan is being devised to use grant funds, donations and a budgeted amount of money -- $15,000 to $20,000 a year over five years -- to reestablish "real world experiences in class." This would include, for example, real welding to complement the recently embraced virtual welding. The goal would be to connect to two of the three particular career paths cited by colleges as needed in the region: welders, machinists and nurses. But donations of equipment by business, he said, is tied to a district commitment to the plan.
Beyond that, said Hogan, it would be nice if the Board considered providing a bay of the old bus garage for use by a Shop Club.
Asked to expand on the problem, Armstrong sent me an e-mail, which read:
"What has happened was the wood shop and metal shop labs closed down and new, more modern equipment was provided to us. However, the students need the old-style basic hands-on courses, as well. Students don't pick up unstructured knowledge from everyday life like they did in the past. For example, kids used to build forts, ride bikes, make up their own games. They learned about chains, sprockets, and gears when the chain came off the bike; or that wood splits and metal bends. They learned about levers when using a hammer. They understood air is compressible when pumping up bike tires.
"Mr. Pike (who is plant manager/director at the Corning Inc. Sullivan Park Research and Development facility) was referring to this learning when he said students don't always connect the dots (nowadays). The kids didn't see (hand-on experience) as educational, they just picked up on it. So they gained knowledge without knowing it. Now children don't experience enough to gain 'assumed common knowledge.' The old shop classes are a way to bridge that gap. The new equipment is run by computers and doesn't allow students enough of the unstructured-experience learning."
Now, she said, the district is planning "to cut another (tech) position; Greg Grodem retired in January. We are trying to figure out how to ... make sure we provide the education the students need. Both sides have valid points. There is a decline in enrollment and we need to prepare (for that). On the other hand, we can't afford to eliminate some of those (hands-on educational) areas. The $15,000-$20,000 would buy equipment that would bridge the gap between what we used to have and what we need now."
The board, along with Superintendent Tom Phillips, essentially did not respond to what seemed a respectful request rather than a rebuke -- a request to backtrack a bit, to correct what was perhaps a headlong rush into the STEM future without due consideration of the past, jettisoning the old equipment along the way. But the board didn't need to respond to the speakers; in fact it has a built-in defense -- policies that preclude debate with the public.
In any event, as with the national politics: Stay tuned. The abandonment of basics in the face of a technological onslaught -- one that seems to offer much, but has its obvious drawbacks -- likely goes far beyond the borders of Schuyler County. If so, it could portend a weakening of American society ... a quiet consequence in stark contrast to that created by the bombast of a President Trump.
Lots of Top Drawer interest
By Charlie Haeffner
Feb. 15, 2016 -- The Top Drawer 24 committee has been busy gathering nominations of students it might consider for inclusion on this year's Top Drawer team -- the 11th annual squad, to be unveiled in May and honored in June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
Since the program was enlarged to include Chemung County schools, interest in the Top Drawer team -- two dozen of the best and brightest students that our area has to offer each year in athletics, academics and civic participation -- has intensified. We've received a large number of nominations this time -- 50 to be exact.
Consultation with administrators, teachers and coaches will follow, along with personal observation by committee members, until a consensus is formed. But the list of nominees might not end at 50. There always seems to be a student or two who suddenly comes to the foreground -- and we on occasion hear from parents extolling the virtues of their offspring.
Any parents so inclined can e-mail me accordingly. Just go to the click-on link at the bottom of almost any page on this site.
We are developing a strong list of speakers for this year's ceremony, but also cutting the length of the event. The emcee will once again be Renata Stiehl, WENY-TV News anchor.
More information will follow as the event nears.
Lou Condon Jr. is in the process of leaving Watkins Glen High School, where he has served as a long-term sub in math and been coach of a successful varsity football program -- one that merged with Odessa-Montour's last season and posted a 7-2 record.
According to reports, he has taken a tenure-track job at Campbell, to take effect later this month. At last word, his resignation had yet to be acted upon by the Watkins Glen School Board. If that transpires as expected and Condon leaves WGHS, he could conceivably still coach football there -- but not if someone on the Watkins staff wants the job. School district employees have long held sway over outsiders when it comes to coaching.
Stay tuned, folks. And good luck, Lou, wherever life takes you.
It might have escaped your notice, but the upcoming Section IV, Class C boys basketball tournament that starts Tuesday has a potentially interesting wrinkle to it -- a possible game between the Watkins Glen boys and No. 2-seeded Moravia ... at Moravia. That's if Watkins Glen wins its first two games of the tournament and Moravia, as expected, wins its first contest following a bye.
Recall, if you will, that the Watkins Glen school administration -- one official citing "prudence" and a need to let tempers cool -- uninvited Moravia from the recent Holiday Basketball Tournament at the Field House, the locale last year of a postseason game between WGHS and Moravia that ended with Watkins winning and the homestanding faithful at the south end of the court (the Bleacher Creatures) rushing on-court in celebration. There simply wasn't any safeguard against such action (since corrected), and the joy of the moment turned momentarily ugly with a little shoving. The situation, fairly minor in scope, was magnified in print by an Auburn reporter, and some bad feelings lingered.
The decision to jettison Moravia from this year's Christmas bash after it had already been invited (Trumansburg, Dundee and Watkins were the other participants) likely didn't set well with the Blue Devils; nobody likes to be shown the door. The Moravia Athletic Director, in any event, said in response that his school had been committed to the tournament and looking forward to it. As it turned out, no replacement could be found by Watkins Glen, and so the tourney had but three teams -- and was referred to in some circles as The Tripod Tournament.
If a Watkins visit to Moravia occurs this postseason, expect a chilly reception ... and a fired-up Blue Devils team. Call it cause and effect -- an incentive that probably shouldn't have been served up to them on a platter. They seem to be awfully good as it is.
Update on Feb. 20: Alas, the Watkns Glen boys fell to Greene 42-39 in the second round of the tournament, leaving Greene to face Moravia.
Congratulations to Watkins Glen's Ian Chedzoy and Brandon Gould on their Section IV wrestling titles and their resultant trip to States later this month. And congrats to WG's Patrick Hazlitt for reaching States in Indoor Track, and to the Senecas' Matt Doppel for his two wins at the IAC Swimming Championships.
Farewell to more friends ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Jan. 26, 2016 -- One of the more disconcerting, not to say saddening, aspects of operating this website comes in the form of obituaries I publish.
It is bad enough when one arrives through an e-mail about someone I never met. But when I know the person who has died ... I usually stop what I'm doing, bow my head, and mumble what I suppose is a prayer, although I think it's often more guttural than faith-based.
That, I suspect, is because at the root of it all, we are animalistic -- civil trappings to the contrary. I simply point (as I discovered in childhood) to the bees' and birds' inexplicable communication systems (have you ever seen bees swarm when one is endangered, or seen birds fly in uncanny formation?) to explain our own interconnection, operating though we do at a more sophisticated level.
When we lose someone, especially someone we know, we lose a part of ourselves; put to rest a part of our shared history, no matter how minute (or even seemingly nonexistent) our interactions. As John Donne put it:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankind;
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Sometimes, for some reason, these passings occur in threes -- as last year, when we lost Ron Shutter, Michael Argetsinger and John Senka in rapid succession.
This year, in the past few days, we've lost Anne Meehan, Dodie Peckham and -- though his obituary didn't run on this website, but rather on the pages of The Leader in Corning -- a longtime Corning reporter, columnist and friend named Bob Rolfe. I was alerted to his passing through an e-mail from a shared friend directing me to the obituary.
I knew Anne Meehan through Rotary Club, where until recently she played piano, and where she always greeted me (and everyone else) warmly. A former teacher in the Watkins Glen school district, she had known my late wife, Susan, in that educational setting, and reached out to me through the shared connection. "Such a lovely girl," she said of Susan.
I knew Dodie Peckham through her late husband Bill, an engaging man who was a former school superintendent in Oregon who moved here in retirement with his wife, settling on farmland east of Odessa. Dodie was a voracious reader, and professed to be a fan of the last novel I ever attempted, The Maiden of Mackinac. We shared the love of words.
I saw Bob Rolfe as a sort of curmudgeonly Santa Claus -- which is to say he looked like Santa (white beard and all) but didn't sound like him at all. He was gruff, and often painfully to the point, and famous in Steuben County for his hard-nosed Corning City Hall reporting and his sometimes acerbic columns. But underneath it all was a core of kindness.
The first time I met him -- shortly after I had joined The Leader in 1996 as an editor -- he told me point-blank that he had long had an agreement with management that he could write what he pleased, and how he pleased, and that I was not to alter his columns at all. I nodded and said "Of course," and then blithely edited them as I saw fit, for I had not just an agreement of my own to do so, but a pledge. (Bob never commented on any of the changes I made, so I'm not sure he ever re-read his columns once they reached print.)
We grew to appreciate one another in my three years at the paper, and just before it was time for me to leave, Bob sat with me in one of the paper's conference rooms and commiserated. (I was leaving in a time of professional turmoil which is difficult to explain in a few words, and so I won't attempt it. Suffice to say I was resigning.)
In the course of our conversation, Bob Rolfe made an extraordinary offer.
"I'm with you on this," he said, and offered to resign in tandem with me. I smiled -- tickled at the thought, at the demonstration of loyalty -- but I said no, that wasn't a good idea. I told him he should check with his financial advisor (I believe it was his brother) before making such a radical choice. He was 62 or 63 at the time.
He nodded. "Well, you're probably right," he said. And he did check, and was dissuaded from the move, and stayed with the paper until retirement beckoned.
But I've always loved Bob for that offer.
A year after I left, Corning experienced some turbulence involving police policy toward youths gathering in downtown Corning. I composed one of those story poems I like to write that commented on that very subject, and sent it to Bob anonymously, thinking he'd get a charge out of it. The anonymity apparently intrigued him, for he ran the poem in one of his columns. And when I followed with another poem a few weeks later on another subject, he ran part of that one, but announced that as much as he liked the poems, he wasn't giving up his column to any more such words unless the writer came forward.
I decided, for some reason I can't recall, to maintain my cloak of secrecy. Bob and I rarely encountered one another in subsequent years, and when we did, I wasn't sure how to tell him I was the author. So I didn't, and to my knowledge he never knew.
In summary: Bob Rolfe and I connected on a professional level, on a level of mutual admiration, in friendship, and ultimately through verse.
And so when I heard of his passing, and then read of it, I bowed my head and -- as I had for Anne and Dodie -- let out a guttural sound.
But all three deserve more than that. So here's something faith-based. It was designed in the Bible as words for the living -- through Moses to the children of Israel -- but I've embraced it too as hopeful and encouraging for those loved ones who have recently passed away, and for whom we are praying.
It comes from Numbers 6:24-27: "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace."
Of respect and decorum ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Jan. 11, 2016 -- When I was a child in southeastern Michigan -- in my early teens, I would say -- I gave thought to being a lawyer. Oh, I had considered being a baseball player and a U.S. Senator, too, but lawyering sounded more within the realm of the practical.
There was an attorney who lived in our neighborhood -- the next street over and up a hill. He was the father of one of my brothers' playmates. His name was Ed Barrett, and he was, in his attorneydom, something godlike to me.
We talked about the law -- or rather he did, explaining its pluses and minuses, and some of his experiences -- and he told me he would let me accompany him someday to one of his trials. I looked forward to that, but was also a little apprehensive, for what I knew of courtrooms -- what I had seen on TV and read about them -- was a bit intimidating.
The trip to that courtroom never happened. Neither he nor I ever followed through, and Ed Barrett ultimately fell victim to cancer, dying -- if memory serves -- in his 50s.
But this is what I took away from my exchanges with him.
Courtrooms were treated -- and should be treated -- with a respect and decorum befitting the place they hold as one of the key foundations of a civilized society. Judges, by extension, should be treated with the same respect and decorum. They are human, yes, and no doubt as fallible as anyone else, but they are directed by a set of laws and regulations and guidelines that carry with them a certain institutional, and essential, protection from the vagaries associated with, say, politics. It's what I call the "shush factor." If you visit a courtroom, speak only in whispers if at all; and if you have anything to say outside of it, be measured and moderate in your tone.
The courtroom, and by extension the system of jurisprudence, demands this obeisance. It doesn't always receive it, for mayhem has occasionally overtaken court hearings in various parts of the country. But the precedent of respect and decorum is long held, and deeply guarded.
That's why, I think, it was so surprising to hear a school official in Schuyler County, unhappy with a court ruling, absolutely rail against the judge, saying the man had exhibited "a level of judicial incompetence" that was "inexcusable." The official was reacting to the acquittal of a female Watkins Glen High School science teacher on a weapons possession charge. The judge, after a bench trial, had said the teacher failed to act wisely in purchasing a stun gun for a student who ultimately took it on a school bus, but that the prosecution hadn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she was guilty of the charge.
The official who railed was the teacher's top administrative boss, the school superintendent -- a man not known for reticence and who, some think, stepped beyond the line of established propriety here. His words were so strong, in fact, that they at least temporarily deflected criticism and discussion away from the judge's ruling (which might otherwise have been roundly debated) and onto himself. Mostly what I heard in the days following the judge's verdict was criticism of the superintendent's words, deemed unseemly.
And given the nature of our court system -- its traditions and its reverence for the law and for muted ceremony -- his reaction was exactly that. And impolitic. And one-sided, for the judge is constrained by his office from replying in kind.
Alas, rather than retreat in the face of criticism to ruminate on the bastion-breaking nature of his words, the superintendent then allowed himself to be videotaped for TV news -- and said on-air that his reaction to the ruling was the result of his "passion" for Schuyler County. And he reiterated his plan to pursue the acquitted defendant's teaching certificate. In other words, zeal unchecked.
His "passion" plea probably fell on deaf ears among the populace that took exception to his post-verdict diatribe, in which he also said that "only in Schuyler County" could such a thing as the not-guilty verdict occur. He didn't use the word "travesty," but it seemed to logically follow.
Several readers -- through letters, phone calls and e-mails -- took exception to the phrasing only in Schuyler County as unduly critical of our chosen home. The result? A succinct verse on the matter that will hopefully run here soon in its entirety with a column by A. Moralis, a pseudonymous writer who on occasion comments on matters related to Schuyler County. The verse describes the attributes of Schuyler, and concludes:
Not everyone appreciates
The splendor offered thus.
Some pointed words, a biased blast
Might tend to debase us.
But in the end calm heads will rule
And verbal broadsides past
Will fade beyond our memory.
It’s Schuyler that will last.
Now that, to my way of thinking, is measured. Harmonious. Befitting the overlying atmosphere that our system of law offers as embodied in the history, symbolism and austerity of a courtroom. There should be no room here for stridency.
I can, having said that, still see adding to the verse a stanza suggesting the School Board not turn a blind eye to the superintendent's excess, nor to the fact that the media coverage surrounding the case might have been avoided if the matter had been handled in-house.
And for that matter, I might have written a stanza urging the Board to consider how, if at all, the culture of its school might have contributed to the stun-gun event -- whether there was enablement of any kind that could explain the teacher's mind-set when she purchased the gun and then, equally foolishly, gave it to the student.
But that's just me. Call me a believer -- in the respect and decorum due the judicial system, and in the maxim that the past can serve as a guidepost for the future.
To those who have mattered
By Charlie Haeffner
Dec. 30, 2015 -- Here is a tip of the hat to those who have mattered -- who have made a difference -- here in Schuyler County in the past year.
Naming these people is not a scientific analysis -- and nothing derived by discussion with a committee. This is just me, observing. If I miss someone, e-mail this website and we can give him or her some attention through your words, presented on the Forum Page.
First, I put at the head of the class a symbolically opposed tandem: the redoubtable Dennis Fagan, head of the county Legislature, and Sandra Steingraber, a woman who doesn't even live here, but has spent a good deal of time leading local protests against Crestwood's storage of methane and its planned storage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in abandoned salt caverns on the west side of Seneca Lake.
Fagan -- as leader of a governing body that backs the Crestwood plans, and suspect in protesters' eyes as former owner of an engineering firm that caters to Crestwood -- is the devil incarnate to Steingraber's legions.
I personally see a man of principle, just as I see a woman of principle in Steingraber -- a renowned professor of biology, an author, and an environmentally attuned cancer survivor who resides with her family in Trumansburg.
Two strong wills, and one continuing story.
Beyond them, I would be remiss not to mention the drive toward a regional wastewater treatment plant -- and in that spirit I honor the mayors of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls who helped get the whole thing going: Mark Swinnerton (since defeated at the polls by one vote) and John King, respectively. There are others involved in the movement, to be sure, but these two serve well as functional and symbolic leaders.
And then there are:
--The Montour Moose Lodge, led by Mike Donnelly. This organization repeatedly offers its kitchen and dining facility and its support in important fund-raising breakfasts and dinners.
--Peggy Scott for her leadership in the United Way and Seneca Santa. Both are hugely important organizations, and Scott has led them for years with enthusiasm and efficiency, and did so again this time around.
--The new Odessa-Montour superintendent, Chris Wood, who brings an enthusiasm to the job and understands that he works both with and for the School Board. He also, unlike his predecessor, lives in the county. The attitude at the school -- personified in Wood's can-doism-- seems to have gone from wholly secretive to wholly positive in the past couple of years, led by Board President Rob Halpin -- another impact player who goes about his business in a quiet, efficient way.
--Joan Scott, for her leadership and guidance as head of the Schuyler County Veterans Service Agency. She impacts so many deserving veterans trying to negotiate the shoals of life after service.
--Keith Pierce, who in his years as leader of Odessa village government has put forth an agenda of positive change in a relatively stagnant community. The change has come necessarily slowly, and now he is hoping to upgrade the village from septic to sewer. He and the board are looking at a scenario that would tie the business district and school property into an expandable treatment facility on the west end of town. Other options might include joining the developing regional plant along the canal between Montour Falls and Watkins Glen, or utilizing equipment and land on Grant Road that once was a chicken farm.
--Restaurateur and brewer Doug Thayer, who with businessman Jim Guild are among the most active and important participants/promoters of downtown Watkins Glen -- gamblers with not only the bottom line, but the future of a vibrant village economy, on their minds. Guild, also a landlord (for the Chamber of Commerce visitor center and other properties), operates the hugely successful Famous Brands clothing store and spearheaded the Ben & Jerry's franchise operated by his son. Thayer, owner of the Wildflower Cafe and the Crooked Rooster Pub -- and instrumental in establishment of the Nickel's Pit BBQ -- has now purchased the old Clifford Motors building and opened a beer garden and tasting room there.
--Andy Manzer, who has overseen growth and renovation at Schuyler Hospital and at the Seneca View Skilled Nursing Facility, along with expanding the local hospital services through an affiliation with Cayuga Medical Center. He will be leaving us in the next few months for a job in the Cooperstown area, and will be missed.
--Judy Cherry, who brought with her from Delaware -- to the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development, where she is Executive Director -- both enthusiasm and extensive experience. During here short tenure, there has been a remarkable upswing in grant funding, state awards and the like in Schuyler ... which common sense alone says is no accident, and which observation says is inevitable given her capacity to interact, encourage and cajole.
--District Attorney Joe Fazzary. Somehow, year in and year out (and again this year), Fazzary steps into the law enforcement limelight -- this time in his handling (they would say ham-handed, but I say creative) of the scores of cases involving Crestwood protesters and, just this month, in his prosecution of a case involving a Watkins Glen High School teacher (now suspended) who supplied a student with a stun gun ultimately taken onto a school bus. The ruling on that by County Judge Dennis Morris is pending -- expected soon, the DA's office says, in written form. We'll keep you posted.
Beyond those folks, I tip my hat to the vintners among us, for they have spearheaded an industry here that has given new life to Schuyler tourism. The size and impact of their wineries vary, but their importance is uniformly of the highest order -- both for the past year and the future.
We are, as I write this, on the verge of the so-called Tripod Tournament -- the three-legged Boys Holiday Basketball Tournament at the WGHS Field House created when the district dismissed Moravia from the lineup. That move was ostensibly to maintain order in the wake of last spring's on-court dustup following a postseason Watkins-Moravia basketball game.
First up: today (Wednesday, Dec. 30), Trumansburg vs. Dundee. with the JV at 5:30 and varsity at 7.
WGHS plays Dundee on Saturday (JV at 6 p.m., varsity at 7:30), and WGHS plays Trumansburg Sunday (JV at 3 p.m., varsity at 4:30).
If all three teams go 1-1, there will be no champion. But there will be an All-Tournament team and MVP at both levels.
See you at the Field House?
Of jokes and jousting ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Dec. 16, 2015 -- I was told by a female reader that I was rather "morose" in my last column, reminiscences of Mr. Jim -- an old dance-class instructor -- notwithstanding.
And I tended to agree with her. Sometimes, when I fall into analytical mode, a veil of seriousness -- sometimes combining regret and frustration -- tends to wrap itself around the narrative.
So I'll try for lighter here.
For instance, I told another female friend about a joke relayed in a magazine article by comedian Lewis Black -- one of his favorites, and one that he was (and I am) concerned might create a negative reaction. But it is funny. It goes like this: "If a man speaks and a woman isn't there to hear it, is he still wrong?"
(My friend laughed and answered an emphatic "Yes!")
I'm not a joke-teller, though. My father was. He told stories and jokes quite often, and I could never understand how he could remember them. I couldn't -- although there was one about milk and cookies whose basics stuck with me because I heard it so much growing up. I won't share it here, though, because while it was funny, it was off-color, too.
The punch line became a part of family lore. It was this: "A cookie, maybe?" My mother, my father and (I suspect) my brothers and I used it one or more times in answer to a situation crying out for a solution or balance; a yang for a yin.
Whoops. There I go getting analytical again.
Okay, I was going to try to break up any recurring seriousness here by presenting something that appeals to me from time to time: verse.
I was going to take you back to a time long ago, back when horsepower actually meant horses, and when competitions -- and the honor of neighboring communities (kingdoms or fiefdoms, for the most part) -- had nothing to do with the inflation (or deflation) level of footballs, nor with other modern curiosities.
I was going to take you to a time when tournaments meant horsemen doing controlled battle with lances that had blunted tips. It was called jousting, and it was very popular, complete wilth enthusiastic fans. You might have even called those fans "Bleacher Creatures."
The poem is fairly long, though, and even I have trouble keeping my focus when reading it. So I'll refrain from publishing the whole thing.
But since I went to the trouble of writing it, I will run a sampling here, to give the flavor. The poem is called "The Tournament." The first couple of stanzas read:
Wars can be such tricky things.
They start too easy, end too hard.
Consider please Muldavia,
A kingdom recently on guard.
Its peaceful mien was shattered
When accused it was of sin.
It lost a joust to Jefferson,
The host, which loved to win.
Coincidentally, Watkins Glen was once known as Jefferson, right after it was known as Salubria.
Anyway, the joust devolves into a chaotic post-game fracas, with each side blaming the other, and when Muldavia is invited to a subsequent competition at Jefferson, the proud Jefferson monarch, upon discovering this, gives Muldavia the boot, saying: "I will not have a repeat / of what happened once before. / Keep those Muldavians out of here. / Let's raise the drawbridge, block the door."
A stanza that came later on -- one that struck my funny bone (I'm easily amused, I guess) -- was among several stanzas contemplating the disappearance of the Jefferson monarch (from our vantage point, into history), which ultimately blunted war preparations and led to Muldavia being invited back to joust:
A whimsy that so many liked
Says that he ran afoul
Of teachers who dissected him
with consonants and vowels.
On a similar topic -- the Watkins Glen High School Boys Holiday Basketball Tournament scheduled for after New Year's but on hold for a while after Moravia was jettisoned from the lineup for reasons never fully explained, though fairly evident (think last spring's postseason game and postgame dustup in the Field House) -- WGHS Athletic Manager Erich Kramer was asked by e-mail if a replacement had been found or if the tourney was being canceled. He responded like this: "There will be something that weekend whether we find the 4th team or not, (and) still have the hole in the bracket."
The details of that plan are now public. There will be a three-team tourney in the WGHS Field House gym, as follows:
--Dundee and Trumansburg will compete on Wednesday, Dec. 30, the JV at 5:30 and the varsity at 7 p.m.
--Watkins Glen will play Dundee on Saturday, Jan. 2 in JV and varsity games at 6 and 7:30 p.m.
--Watkins Glen will play Trumansburg on Sunday, Jan. 3 in JV and varsity games at 3 and 4:30 p.m.
If one of the schools goes undefeated, that team will be champion. If all three go 1-1, though, there will be no champion. Beyond that, there will be JV and varsity All-Tournament teams with MVPs.
"It's not ideal," said one observer. Another had unkinder words for administrators who created this oddly shaped event only after (and because) Moravia was no longer coming.
My own viewpoint? Somehow this tourney reminds me of a three-legged hamster I once owned. He lost his fourth limb in an accident. We called him Tripod. He couldn't run on that wheel in his cage worth a damn.
We'll see if this three-legged tournament runs any better.
I got an eyeful recently during a tour of Watkins Glen High School's developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program, part of a national and state trend. The tour preceded a School Board meeting, and showcased the array of modern devices available to students in various classes -- what used to be Shop (but is way beyond it with Virtual Welders, 3-D printers and the like), Architectural Drawing (with an advanced laser printer on hand), and a lab where Robotics and intense studies in engineering design can be used to reach mathematical conclusions -- such as employing a model of a stream, complete with silt and flow, to determine velocity, slope and volume, among other things.
One student, confidently downloading instructions into his Lego-laden robot, said he was in 7th grade. When I was in 7th grade, I tried without much success to fit into a school society that penalized youth; I struggled with a new, basic Math whose logic seemed to elude me, and I pined for girls about a foot taller than me.
That was my school landscape.
Robotics? 3-D printers? And for that matter, computers?
Not even in my dreams.
As the ghosts rise ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Nov. 29, 2015 -- From my perspective, the holidays aren't what they used to be. I'm sure that's a sentiment experienced by many of the elderly as they sail on through their "sunset" years.
Part of the problem -- at least for me -- is that I possess a rich past. Not rich in money, but rich in family. I was raised in a loving family, and helped raise my own children in a loving one, too.
But with time comes attrition. I've lost my wife, my father and mother, an aunt and uncle, and a couple of in-laws. Not to mention friends who have fallen by the wayside as my own life has stretched onward.
Every Thanksgiving, and for that matter at Christmas, that past rises in my mind and in my heart, and creates an ambivalence -- a feeling, on the one hand, of loss, and a feeling on the other hand of joy at having been so blessed with so much for so many years ...those years during which those people now departed were part of this world.
And in that ambivalence I find myself turning, inevitably, to those people who shape my daily existence now -- my three sons; a couple of very special friends with whom I have frequent contact and whose counsel I often seek; and the many people with whom I interact in my role as a photojournalist.
I encountered one such man on Thanksgiving day, as I and two of my sons attended a feast at the Burdett Presbyterian Church. His name is Dick Evans, and he was serving as the event greeter. After I had eaten and was about to leave, he thanked me for what I do in providing news to the area populace, and surmised how it's probably a lot of fun.
"Yes," I admitted, "it can be."
"Almost like it isn't work?" he asked.
"Well," I responded, "I wouldn't go that far."
It is mostly fun, tinged with hard work. I feel lucky to be doing it, especially given the thought that it so easily might not have happened at all.
Think about it. We all are on paths with choices, with forks in the road (which Yogi Berra suggested that we simply "take") that could so easily lead in unintended directions -- far different from the routes that have led us to the here and now.
If my first wife, met in college, had not been from Northern New York, and had we not decided to move there following graduation, and had we not divorced, and had not my second wife -- met in Northern New York -- been from Watkins Glen, I wouldn't have settled here. And those are just the main forks; there are so many seemingly minor ones that present themselves along the way; that seem inconsequential, but can change the course of our lives.
And there is always the wild card with the largest impact: health. I need mine, after all, to achieve the daily goals of my job.
Yet ... I vividly recall lying in a Schuyler Hospital bed back in '99, talking on the phone to my mother, explaining how I was in ICU after what was assessed as a myocardial infarction -- a heart attack. I felt, talking to her, that this might be our last conversation, and in that realization I felt a great sadness.
I was there because I had had trouble gaining a deep breath, and my alert wife, Susan, upon discovering it, had immediately transported me to the hospital. And from there the doctors, being cautious, placed me in Intensive Care for the night. I was transferred next morning to the Packer complex in Sayre, where I had a choice of a stress test -- only 85% accurate -- or a camera in my heart. I opted for the camera, which showed that my heart, then 50 years old, was equivalent to that of a healthy 25-year-old. That was the word from the doctors, who in turn released me back into the world.
A lung check the next day back at Schuyler Hospital failed to produce a reason for my breathing malady, but a subsequent trip to the chiropractor did: misalignment in my back brought on by stress and by shoveling away a 10-inch snowfall from my driveway days before.
Even with insurance covering most of the cost, it proved to be an expensive backache.
But it was valuable in the residue of sadness it left; the realization that at some point there would be a final conversation. That led me to write a rather ambitious novel (The Maiden of Mackinac) and, then, to start The Odessa File.
You see, I viewed both endeavors as an effort to do something constructive, something worthwhile before I came to my end. The novel has never caught on, although those who have read it have, for the most part, professed to enjoy it. But The Odessa File, after a bumpy start (few readers and almost no ads) gained steam and has endured for nearly 13 years.
And it is that to which I point now, with some pride and amazement, as the one thing I have done that seems to matter. And the fact that I do it (for the most part) well -- as opposed, say, to how I dance -- makes it all the sweeter.
I mention dancing as an example of memories that wash up during the holidays. This one in particular has to do with Mrs. Young's Dance Class, run by a woman who, from my perspective at the time, was incredibly old -- although, I suspect, younger than I now am.
She ran her class with a couple of helpers -- a woman whose name eludes me (Miss Vickie, perhaps?) and a fairly short, handsome man with slicked-back black hair who we called Mr. Jim. The class was held in the gymnasium at one of the area schools where I was raised in southeastern Michigan, north of Detroit. Memory insists that it occurred during winter, in the several weeks on either side of Christmas.
I went to the dance class -- or rather was transported, since I was too young to drive -- with two girls from my neighborhood, one named Karen and the other named Debbie. The class wasn't my idea -- my mother was insistent -- and to be saddled with two girls in my grade (Girls, ugh, I thought) was tantamount to beating myself on the head with my beloved baseball bat. I would much rather have been outside my house at dusk -- the time of the dance lessons -- hitting stones with that bat into the hillside across the road from my family's house. I earned points (bestowed by myself) for those stones hit well; I don't recall earning anything from dancing except a degree of embarrassment.
What I remember most about Mrs. Young's class is lining up to dance with either Karen or Debbie, my left arm outstretched, the right hand of my partner in my left, and Mr. Jim -- after bounding from couple to couple -- stopping next to me. He always did this, and always smiled, nodding. "Good form," he would say. "Good form." And he'd reach out and give my hand and that of my partner a soft pat.
I wasn't ever sure if he was commenting on the form I was exhibiting in those moments, or admonishing me, his smile covering his disdain. (I was fairly insecure.)
Anyway, as an aside, I had a brief relationship a few years later with Debbie, a caterpillar who blossomed into someone quite beautiful -- and in typical form I was so spooked by the strength of my emotions that I retreated to singledom before many blissful encounters had passed.
My dance experience lives on in family lore for the time that one of my brothers, having found the love of his life (and ultimately his wife), had taken her to visit our parents. This occurred in Michigan; I was living in northern New York. I received a phone call from my mother, who announced that my brother was there, and that Karen was with him.
"Karen who?" I asked with some suspicion, my mind going back to the uncomfortable days of Mrs. Young and Mr. Jim.
Well, it was a different Karen -- which is what, after all, the odds favored. But my mother -- having served as occasional chauffeur for me and the two girls to and from dance class, and no doubt remembering my discomfort with it -- thought I was hilarious, and never let me forget those simple words: "Karen who?"
I will confess having harbored a hope -- despite my misgivings -- that I did fairly well in following Mrs. Young's and Mr. Jim's instructions. But any ability I might have shown during class has wafted away over time. I completely lack rhythm on the dance floor.
Mr. Jim would be appalled ... or maybe not. Perhaps he would be nodding amiably, knowing full well that "good form" was indeed beyond me.
So ... I will stick to what I know best -- words -- in the hope that I do better with them. And in the words I will seek some measure of solace during this holiday season ... some measure of peace with the ghosts that rise at this time of the year, triggering memories of wonderful Christmases I experienced when I was a child and when my sons were growing up.
And in that peace I will say to you, with sincerity: I hope you have a loving -- and, yes, memorable -- holiday season.
For the memories, while perhaps saddening in later years, can have a saving sweetness about them.
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