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A point of positivity ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Feb. 24, 2024 -- Welcome to writer's block. Or perhaps more accurately, to this writer's inability to create a cohesive essay.

Oh, I wrote a column that I thought about publishing, but it meandered. Actually, it started out pretty well, but sometimes a good start leads either nowhere, or to a sort of pontificating nonsense.

Here's how that column I wrote started:

Five words stood out for me while I was vegetating by watching TV the other day.

It had been a hard week of work, and my tired old body -- and mind -- needed a respite. So I ventured into the various premium services available on my smart television, finding first the pilot episode of a series I had forgotten but now recalled liking when it first aired 15 years ago.

It's called Royal Pains, and follows the ups and downs of a talented surgeon basically blackballed in the world of hospitals before hooking on as a "concierge physician" in a community, the Hamptons, occupied by the financial elite.

As his world, in the initial scenes, collapses around him, he offers what is not exactly philosophically deep, but struck me in the moment as so spot-on as to leave me nodding.

"Man plans; God laughs," he said.

I think, amidst my nodding, that I answered with a less than cerebral "whoa!"

The other word came from a viewing of the movie "The Holdovers," in a discussion involving the lead character, a prep school teacher named Paul Hunham, and his headmaster, Dr. Hardy Woodrup. The word "hidebound" was used to describe the teacher.

To be specific, it went like this:

Dr. Woodrup: Paul, at your core you're an excellent teacher, but your approach to the students is rather ... traditional.

Paul Hunham: The school was founded in 1797. I thought tradition was our stock in trade.

Dr. Woodrup: Then let's call it hidebound. You know, unwavering, resistant to --

Paul Hunham: Yes, yes, yes -- I know what "hidebound" means.

******

Not bad. Breezy, with a direction apparently in mind. Alas, after writing those words, I started going around in circles. Yes, pontificating.

It all had something to do with God's sense of humor, and my failure to ever use the word "hidebound" in my writing before -- even though some might say it could be applied to me.

I wanted to incorporate "God laughs" -- somehow equate it with the challenges I faced in starting this website all those years ago. I wanted to point out that this website, while part of the modern internet age, was (and is) based on traditional journalism practices dating back decades. (Thus, I suppose, hidebound.)

I tried to spin a narrative about the challenges we all face (in this telling they were a product of God's peculiar humor), with the conclusion that if we dig deep and meet (and outlast) those challenges, "we can prevail, and in the end do something positive for ourselves and for our fellow beings."

Wow. Talk about trying to go deep. I mean, it's really a lot simpler than I was making it. Basically, I wanted to say the world would be a better place if we all did positive things for one another. (Are you listening, Congress?)

That's it. Now, if I can just shake this writer's block.

******

And speaking of positivity:

A small committee has gathered here to oversee a new project -- a look at a couple of dozen people who excelled in high school in Schuyler County and have gone on to success in the world, whether on a business or medical or religious or other path. We're looking for young men and women who graduated in 2000 or later and have made their mark in a noteworthy, positive way.

For lack of a formal name, call it "24 in '24." Or maybe "24 Who Matter."

To start, we are looking for names of those people. Some have occurred to us without much effort; others might elude us without your input. Once we have the names, we will research or contact them to see what they are doing, where they are going, and present summaries -- perhaps stories -- of their thoughts and accomplishments.

Beyond that ... well, we'll see where it leads.

Any nominees?

******

And earlier:

That personal touch ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Feb. 3, 2024 -- One of the hallmarks of our online fixation is the presence of "influencers."

They are social media creatures who have large followings and, by their example, ostensibly influence the behavior of those who apparently aspire to be like them.

I guess that's fine and good, but I adhere to the old-fashioned method of influence. I was mentored and inspired by people with whom I interacted one-on-one. They were influencers on a small scale, perhaps, but their effect has lasted for decades. (I doubt the modern influencer's influence is quite so long-lasting.)

Who were these people? Well, a couple of them were classroom instructors who challenged me out of my cocoon of smug entitlement.

The first was Marilyn Bright, an English teacher at Bloomfield Hills High School in Michigan, an institution from which I graduated in 1966. She was a young teacher at the time -- just under 30 years of age -- and thus easy for many students to relate to.

She punctuated her lessons with humor, but could be serious when needed, especially one-on-one, which is how she approached me about my attitude in my junior year. She didn't approach me negatively, but with a smile and an assurance that what I was doing in her class -- which wasn't much -- was far below my potential.

"Potential is the key," she said softly after asking me to stay after class was dismissed. She would write me a pass to my next class when she was finished, she said. And so I stood, rooted in front of her desk as she sat there, looking up at me through her horn-rimmed glasses, her slender body leaning back, relaxed, studying me.

"You have it," she said, "but you aren't using it."

I don't recall what else, specifically, she said over the next few minutes, but I remember her closing,

"There's nothing sadder, really, then wasted potential," she declared softly, adding:

"Please ... don't ... disappoint me."

I took it to heart, and applied myself to my sentence construction and my creative writing, and ended up excelling in that class and in English during my senior year.

During that final year, I stopped by her class at the end of a school day.

"I just wanted to express my thanks," I said to her as she went around the room, picking up discarded pieces of paper and a broken pencil some student had left behind on a desk.

She stopped for a moment, smiled at me and shook her head.

"None needed," she said.

I learned years later, as the century turned, that Marilyn Bright had only lived to 53 -- had died of cancer on Aug. 12, 1991 in Detroit.

"She leaves a legacy of devoted students who have not forgotter her," said her obituary in the weekly Birmingham (Mich.) Eccentric newspaper.

"She had a unique gift for critiquing work in a non-judgmental way that left you feeling encouraged, even enthused about your work," one of her former students was quoted as saying in that obituary.

Amen to that. And amen to the personal touch of a true influencer.

******

The other instructor was Robert Gildart, a former journalist who was a professor of creative writing at Albion College when I attended that school from 1967 through 1970.

One of his classes was Journalism, which included -- in the second semester -- an active role in the school newspaper.

He and I started in a shaky manner, my tendency toward humor offending him. That came when he was discussing headline writing on the first day of class, explaining that short words were needed atop stories where longer synonyms wouldn't fit. One such example was "fisherman." He asked if anyone knew the preferred headline word, which was the shorter "angler."

But I couldn't resist, and raised my hand.

"Yes?" he said.

"Hooker," I responded, sending the class to laughter. Mr. Gildart smiled and nodded, but at the end of class he stopped me.

"Don't ever do that again," he said, adding that his class was one to be taken seriously.

At the end of the semester, he gave me a C, even though my test and project grades were higher, and I got the message. He was in charge.

And much to his surprise, I signed up for the second semester -- and treated the subject with the seriousness (the reverence, really) that he (and now I) embraced. And I worked as sports editor on the school newspaper, and got a job as an intern that next summer at the Pontiac Press north of Detroit ... and eventuallly became a full-time journalist, in Watertown, New York, then at the Elmira Star-Gazette, then at USA Today, and after a break of several years, at the Corning Leader.

And eventually I began, on Dec. 29, 2002, to operate this website -- this online newspaper.

I kept in touch with Mr. Gildart for a few years, and he was absolutely delighted that one of his students had entered the field he so loved. And he expressed a certain pride not only in me, but in himself for having mentored such a difficult student in the right direction.

He lived to 81, passing away on Feb. 20, 1996 at a hospital in Jackson, Michigan, just down the road from Albion, to the east.

I learned of his death a few days later while working at the Corning Leader, and accordingly wrote an article -- tinged with love and sadness -- in his honor.

******

If the knowledge and inspiration imparted by an "influencer" constitutes more than just a passing fancy, then he or she is truly deserving of that descriptor.

Marilyn Bright and Bob Gildart have lived with me across the years, long after their passing. You can thank them as much as anybody -- maybe more than anybody -- for reading these words today.

They live on in The Odessa File's very existence.

On your behalf, on on mine ... let this be a thanks for their wisdom and guidance.

******

I found what follows in one of my old files after Ariana Marmora was recently named a Schuyler County Assistant District Attorney. It was written in 2007, upon Ariana's selection to the Top Drawer 24 team of county scholar-athletes. That was a program operated for 15 years here in Schuyler by Craig Cheplick, Kathy Crans and me in an attempt to annually honor those students who excelled on more than the playing fields. The item in question read:

"Ariana Marmora is a member of the Top Drawer team not just for athletic prowess -- although she was a captain this year of the Watkins Glen varsity track squad -- and not just for her grades, although she is a High Honor student. And she makes it not just for her kindness, although she possesses that in abundance. On top of all of those attributes, what stands out this year is her activism, as president of the Student Council, as student spokesperson in sessions with administrators, and as a voice for the underdog -- in her efforts to establish, and obtain official sanction for, the school's Gay and Straight Alliance."

It is nice to see one of those outstanding Top Drawer honorees making her mark -- and especially in Schuyler County.

******

And earlier:

This, that & a remembrance

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Jan. 15, 2024 -- The Detroit Lions won a playoff game Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams -- the first playoff win for the Lions since January of 1992 -- and only its second since the team won the NFL championship back in 1957.

I'm so old, I remember that championship. Somehow my family ended up with a football signed by the team. I'm guessing it came from the Lions' medical trainer, a gentleman named Doc Thompson who lived on our small lake north of Detroit. (Yes, I grew up a Lions fan, and have never quite outgrown it.)

The last I saw of that ball, it was deflated and the signatures were faded. That was a long time ago. It probably got discarded in one of my parents' post-retirement moves.

Anyway, I shared the Motor City's joy at the victory Sunday -- as I cheered the job that the Green Bay Packers did in dismantling the Dallas Cowboys the same day. I don't know what it is about those Cowboys that has me cheering against them. I used to love the team when Roger Staubach was the quarterback.

But now ... not at all.

Of course, having lived in New York State for many years now, if push comes to shove -- if it comes down to the Lions or the Buffalo Bills -- well, then:

Go, Bills.

*****

The proposed expansion of the Padua Ridge sand and gravel mine -- from 14.33 to 75.38 acres -- is likely to create a wave of discussion and debate, the area sitting as it does next to the Watkins Glen State Park. For a detailed account, I would direct readers to an article by environmental writer Peter Mantius here. The DEC notice of the project application -- very detailed -- can be found at DEC bulletin.

With a virtual public hearing set for Feb. 12 and an in-person one at the Seneca Lake Events Center at Clute Park on Feb. 13, anyone interested should study the particulars.

*****

This should prove to be an interesting week of local sports, highlighted by a meeting of the Watkins Glen High School and Odessa-Montour High School girls basketball teams at WGHS Tuesday night, and a meeting of the boys squads from the two schools Wednesday night at O-M.

With various sports at the two schools having merged -- football, girls and boys swimming, baseball and, at least for now, softball -- the old traditional and once anticipated intracounty showdowns have become few and far between.

*****

I've been reeling a bit the past week, a reaction to the passing of Richard Bauman in his Elmira home at the age of 73.

Rick or Richard -- some called him Dick -- was a brother-in-law of mine, one of four boys in the Oakley Bauman clan. The family homestead was up on Coykendall Road, above Watkins Glen. Rick and his siblings -- Steve, Patrick, Bill and my late wife Susan -- were graduates of Watkins Glen High School.

It was a difficult family in which to marry, each member possessing a strong personality and a self-assurance at odds with my usual self-doubt. But marry I did, love being love, after all.

Richard was a challenge. Just about anybody who knew him would tell you that. He seemed to glory in saying the shocking, or sometimes the offensive. He loved the resulting reactions, the interchanges, the word salad. In our exchanges -- and I count many over the years -- our politics clashed, his conservatism to my liberal tendencies, and he was always ready to let me know he was the better photographer. "No argument," I would tell him, laughing, for it was true.

He could also be charming, and funny -- and loved to be involved in worthy pursuits, like helping out with the Hidden Valley camping program.

For years, Rick owned and operated a hobby shop on Main Street in Odessa. He specialized in radio-controlled aircraft.

It was at that store where we printed the pages of a book we created back in 2001 called "The Glory Girls," a detailed account about the Odessa-Montour High School girls varsity basketball team's rise to the New York State Class D title.

Yes, Rick and I were co-authors. I did most of the research and interviews and writing, but Rick was the one most responsible for the book. I had intended a photo notebook for the girls on the team, but he envisioned something larger, and led me, through his insistence, to the finished product: photos, interviews, game-by-game statistics, etc. We had it bound by a publishing company in Ithaca, and sold a bunch of copies -- but managed to lose money on the whole deal.

Despite that financial misstep, even now I treasure the fact that we produced it. And I think Rick did, too.

Anyway ... the book is among the legacies of a man who seemed, in some ways, a little bit bigger than life. Rest in peace, Richard.

******

And earlier:

Those basketball tourneys

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Jan. 8, 2024 -- Another month, another illness.

This time it seems to be a winter cold, or what a friend familiar with the history of the locale calls The Field House Flu.

That's where I was for four days near the end of December, two days before I felt the stirrings of illness moving in.

Not that I'm condemning the events I was covering there at Watkins Glen High School -- a pair of annual basketball tournaments, one for the girls and one for the boys.

The girls tourney, the Melissa B. Wilson Memorial in honor of a young lady who played basketball at WGHS in the 1990s before losing her life in auto accident in 1996, saw the Watkins Glen varsity and JV win titles.

The home team was not as fortunate in the boys tournament, the varsity winning the consolation contest, and the JV losing twice.

But as entertaining as the basketball was, the highlight, to my mind, came with the induction of a half-dozen figures -- four athletes and two coaches -- into the WGHS Athletic Hall of Fame.

Among them were some old friends, in fact all of them with the exception of Coach Jeff Smythe -- who was at Watkins back in the 1970s, while I was still in Watertown and years away from The Odessa File.

But among the inductees was Coach John Fazzary, with whom I had late-night conversations after his basketball team's games across many years; Matt Gill and Patrick Hazlitt, both exceptional runners who I covered extensively in their WGHS days and liked tremendously; and Lexi Castellaneta, year in and year out a state-level diver who turned me into a fan from her first season on the springboard.

And there was Courtney Warren-Manning, who hailed from the first group of WGHS athletes I covered, back in 2003. Her forte was swimming, but she was an excellent basketball player, too. And on hand to see her inducted were other basketball players from that era: Molly Oates, Olivia Coffey, Jennifer Conklin (also a swimmer and a Hall of Famer) and Michelle Thorpe Lynch.

I was particularly beholden to those girls and their teammates and coaches back in the winter of 2004, after I lost my wife to cancer and found myself in an economic bind, this website not having fully connected with advertisers yet. They threw a spaghetti dinner for me, and gave me $2,000 realized at that event.

Some things a person never forgets, not if he or she has an ounce of gratitude. I have plenty, and consider all those young women lifelong friends. It was a special treat to see them together again.

******

Not everything was positive from the tournaments, of course. There was the resulting flu, which I should have anticipated by wearing a mask. Of course, almost nobody does, anymore.

There was also the matter of fatigue -- in my case enhanced by the need to return home each day after tournament play to write the necessary stories and process the necessary photos and fight what, in this case, were necessary late hours. At my age, when midnight comes I tend to like to lie down -- not always possible at that time of night with this job.

Back in the old days -- which is to say when Craig Cheplick was the AD and ran the tournaments -- the games (two JV and two varsity each day) were invariably run at 12, 2, 4 and 6 p.m., which left enough time between games for such things as 3-point contests, overtime or, in this case, Hall of Fame inductions.

In this year's tourneys the time frame from game to game was shorter. In the girls' tourney, the times were 3, 4:30, 6 and 7:30 p.m. When things would run late, that meant a late night for everyone: fans, players and me. The second night, things at the Field House didn't break up until 10 p.m. For me, midnight and beyond would come fast and furious.

The boys tournament that followed was better, with start times of 1, 2:30, 4 and 5:30 p.m. -- but an extra hour earlier would have been even better. Personally, I was living on fumes when it came to putting the reports together late at night. Any help toward starting -- and finishing -- earlier would have been welcome.

*******

Now, having said all of that, I must add that the whole four-day production was pretty impressive in terms of attendance, energy in the gym, and the quality of play -- especially in the boys tournament, which saw some close games.

I'd even venture to say that I'm looking forward to next year's version, with the hope that organizers embrace the 12, 2, 4 and 6 schedule.

Now ... on to the rest of the winter seasons of basketball, wrestling, swimming, bowling and track.

I look forward to them.

*******

And earlier:

Visiting some old friends ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Dec. 25, 2023 -- I have been spending some evenings of late in the company of a beautiful woman. She was originally named Zeebee Kwayzenhs, her tribal (Ojibwe) name for River Girl, for she was born on the banks of a river -- a tributary of the St. Lawrence -- up north of here.

But the name didn't stick. She became known as Lillianna, a name given her in a vision from the spirit world. It means "purity," she was told, and would serve as a badge of honor as she represented her people.

Yes, I have been spending evenings with Lillianna -- revisiting her, really, something I had not done for twenty years. For some reason, I was compelled to do so starting the other day.

Lillianna is the title character of a novel I wrote those two decades past called The Maiden of Mackinac. It was finished shortly after I started The Odessa File. A hundred copies were printed by me, spiral-bound, and I sold or gave away almost all of them.

And then I put the novel -- my few remaining copies of it -- on a shelf, rejecting any fleeting idea to revisit it -- to see if I thought, in retrospect, whether it was any good. I pretty much thought it wasn't -- although I had a few fans of the effort, including a retired teacher who marveled that I had created in its pages a new Native American mythology.

But her husband, while also admiring the work, wished that I had structured it differently, in the manner of, say, a Lee Child or John Grisham novel. Another man said he was bored by it, although I intuitively thought he hadn't really read it -- was simply not a fan of either history or Native Americana. My response to either was a defensive one: "I wrote it the way I wanted."

It's funny how the years can pass and you can leave behind something that at one time meant so much to you. In the case of The Maiden, I spent many a night for more than a year writing and editing it -- a long time to spend, figuratively, with Lillianna.

I eventually finished it, and printed it, and sold it and gave it away, and set it on the shelf. Then, a few years ago, my sons -- as a birthday present to me -- had the novel made available on Kindle, through Amazon.com. But even that didn't draw me back to the story, to a reading which, from the distance of years, might or might not have entertained or pleased me.

So ... since I tend not to hold my writing in any particular esteem, I never took the time to read the book again -- until now. I simply picked it up from a shelf in my library the other day and started reading -- and from the first page to the last, I was not so much pleased as engrossed and fairly amazed that I had produced something so full-bodied and -- to my eye -- well written.

I loved the mystery at the heart of the plot -- the search by a writer for the truth behind the legend of a 700-year-old Ojibwe woman, this Lillianna. And I loved the characters -- the charming Maiden and her friends, a small man-like creature named Tobias, biologically a tajahenus, the last of his species; and a giant talking turtle named Kingsley. Beyond that, I was impressed with the obvious research I undertook that went into understanding the movement of the Ojibwe people from the east to a more welcoming midwest.

I had shown the novel in its early state to a family friend, who complained that I had a character in there who employed a sort of hypnosis in a manner not keeping with known methods. And she conveyed the complaint to a mutual acquaintance, who in turn questioned it himself. In both cases I had to laugh, for the novel is a fantasy -- containing not only the tajahenus, the turtle and the 700-year-old woman, but ghosts and wraiths and reincarnation.

When I explained that to the mutual acquaintance -- who had not bothered to actually read the book -- he shook his head and asked what I might have been smoking when I wrote it.

A more satisfying response was one I heard about during a visit to Bois Blanc Island -- a neighboring land mass near Mackinac Island. I heard that two women on Bois Blanc who had read the book were vowing to visit Mackinac in search of the cave in which the tajahenus, Tobias, was living in the island's wooded interior. That is where I had left him on my pages. Whether the women followed through with the visit, I don't know; but the idea that they thought his presence might be possible was, I thought, a compliment to the convincing nature of what were, after all, just my words.

The point, I guess, is that in rereading the novel -- in once again visiting its characters -- I decided that the lukewarm reaction I received in a handful of cases was not the benchmark by which I should have judged my work.

In producing any art, the person creating it should pay attention to his or her own internal compass.

And that, I guess, is a high-minded way of saying this: Hey, I like the book, even if I was the one who wrote it. And I'm fairly amazed that I did so.

Not to mention that I'm glad that I took the time to revisit Lillianna and the others -- friends of mine, all.

But beyond that, they are, in a sense, my children, for they sprang forth on those late nights long ago from my own fevered imagination.

Imagine that.

*****

Note: The author of The Maiden of Mackinac also wrote Island Nights and The Islander, Books 1 & 2 of the White Woods Chronicles, along with Cabins in the Mist. All three were inspired by the author's many visits to Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. He also co-wrote The Glory Girls about the Odessa-Montour High School girls varsity basketball team's 2001 state championship.

*****

And earlier:

On retaining hope ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Dec. 16, 2023 -- It was too soon.

We were barely into the wintry season, and along with some snow in the overnight hours leading to this past Monday, the power went out.

I blessedly slept through it all, but discovered my computers shut down and the juice to two of them off when I got up. My son had been alerted to the outage when a surge protector in his bedroom beeped at him about 4 a.m.

He told me the power remained off for three and a half hours.

It had been cold enough in the days leading to the outage to wonder if Florida might be a more appealing option. And then losing the power and, by extension, our manufactured heat? Well, that was a bit much.

And yet, somehow, with a long winter -- and an occasional snowfall -- ahead, I retain hope, the milder weather that followed Monday's no doubt adding a (false) sense of security.

And I'm thinking, at long last, Generac.

I guess you can color me optimistic and growingly pragmatic.

******

This is the time of year I find most difficult, because my memories of long-gone Christmases are still sharp -- in particular those when my children were young and their mother and I strove to make the holiday as special for them as possible. Part of the celebration came at the home of my wife's parents, on the next hill over from ours -- over on Coykendall Road above Watkins Glen.

It is a difficult time now because of the loss that comes with life -- the loss of my wife and her parents and one of her brothers, not to mention my parents and aunts and uncles: all of those folks who so influenced me growing up. But mostly the seasonal difficulty involves the loss of those people -- my spouse and in-laws -- who made up our Schuyler Christmases.

And yet, somehow, as we approach another yuletide observance, I retain hope.

I guess you can color me thankful that I at least had it all for a while -- and of a faith (sometimes fleeting) that my lost loved ones and I might, someday, be reunited.

******

A tradition that has arisen in recent years, one I see as part of my Christmas observation, is the basketball tournaments played in the days following Santa's visit -- played across four days down at the Watkins Glen High School Field House. There have been a blip or two along the way in the scheduling, but the tournaments are on track this year for December 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th -- first a two-day, four-school girls tourney, and then a boys competition with four schools competing across two days.

The home team, Watkins Glen, has been successful in its own tournament quite often, and I suspect the WGHS girls varsity has a good shot again this year (against Spencer-Van Etten, South Seneca and Trumansburg). The boys' team is in a sort of rebuilding year, and from early indications might not win the tourney this time around. (Other teams include Newfield, Candor and Trumansburg.)

And yet, somehow, despite the boys team's shaky 0-3 start, I have retained hope -- and was pleased to see a Watkins victory in the season's fourth game.

I guess you can color me a shameless local sports fan.

******

I put a notice out on the Home Page alerting folks to the availability of ad space on this website, and alluding to a recent shrinkage in the number of businesses posting ads here. That started with the pandemic, and has been exacerbated in recent weeks as one business owner retired and two pulled out without explanation.

I also included on the Home Page a note expressing my gratitude for any donations that readers might be able to provide to help the cause -- a cause now approaching (on Dec. 29) the conclusion of its 21st year. (Happy birthday a few days early, Odessa File.)

Several readers have responded with donations -- and I have signed on a new advertiser and, possibly, a second, which is a start in stemming the economic bleeding.

With that sign of support, I retain hope.

I guess you can color me as trusting ... that hard work will win out.

*******

Ultimately, though, I retain hope -- in the face of a tragic, unspeakably sad auto accident that claimed the life of Waverly High School basketball's Peyton Shaw -- in the accomplishments of our youth, both academically and on the playing field.

I am particularly heartened of late with the rise to prominence of Odessa-Montour 8th grader Leah Antes on the basketball court (averaging 15.8 points a game over the first six games of the girls basketball season); and of the courage and vision of O-M 7th grader Lexi Strobel, who singlehandedly convinced the district to approve her as a one-person modified cross-country team this past fall, and who is now asking the School Board to establish boys and girls cross-country teams next year. She has personally identified 23 students interested in participating.

Courage on the court on the one hand, and courage not only to run, but to envision and lobby on the other. And this from junior high students.

I am, every year, impressed by the achievements of our young. And this year -- thanks to those two young ladies and significant successes by soccer players at Watkins Glen and swimmers from both schools -- I am a bit more in awe than usual.

Yes, I retain hope.

How can I not, when there are such examples around us?

*******

And earlier:

Oh, those Lions ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2023 -- It was a very gratifying Thanksgiving, except for the part where the Detroit Lions lost to the Green Bay Packers.

I had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner on the day before at the home of friends in Alpine, and then another one on Thanksgiving Day up at the Burdett fire station -- in both cases filling myself with delicious food. No wonder I gain an inch of girth at this time of year.

It was a weekend, too, of low-keying it while I shook the last vestiges of the Shingles that settled in on me several weeks ago. There was lots of football -- way to go, Michigan -- and a helping of Hallmark Christmas movies, sandwiched around a serious and rather remarkable film I picked up on DVD: Oppenheimer.

It was an oddly emotional weekend for all of my couch potatoism -- from anger at the way J. Robert Oppenheimer was dealt dirty by Washington politics (some things, like the D.C. power brokers, never change), to tears at the drop of a hanky from a trio of Hallmark films -- for those of you equally afflicted by such sweetness, try A Christmas in Notting Hill and A Biltmore Christmas -- to utter frustration on the football front, starting with those Lions and culminating with the Buffalo Bills, who have found new and ingenious ways to stumble this season, most recently in overtime to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Bills' misadventures are familiar to anyone who has followed them and rooted for them for any period of time.

But the Lions perhaps require a little more explanation.

*****

Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on a hill overlooking a small lake, I was an enthusiastic fan of three Detroit-based professional sports teams, Detroit being down the road about 20 miles.

I loved the Tigers (Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Denny McLain and a personal friend, Bubba Phillips), the Red Wings (Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk), and the Lions (Alex Karras, Nick Pietrosante, Gail Cogdill, Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary and so on). I didn't care much about the basketball Pistons, because they weren't very good.

Each Thanksgiving through the '50s and early '60s, the Lions played a Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers, who I admired. But hey, I was a Lions guy, so my allegiance was clear when the two teams met.

As I wrote here about five years ago:

"The Pack, under Vince Lombardi and featuring such stars as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer, was the better team, although the Lions were pretty good in the halcyon days of the early '60s.
 
"We had a TV that picked up some Lions games through an antenna that would reach a signal in Lansing. As I recall, that sidestepped local football broadcasts that were often blacked out, though I can’t recall specifically why. Economics, I suppose.

"Anyway, on Nov. 22, 1962-- exactly one year before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- the Lions rose up and defeated the unbeaten (10-0) Packers 26-14. The Lions  (9-2 after the win) built a 26-0 lead through three quarters -- on two Gail Cogdill touchdown passes from Milt Plum, a fumble return for a TD, a safety and a field goal --before Green Bay scored twice down the stretch. It was a victory that surprised many, and was a very pleasing result in our house.

"Really, after they had won the championship five years earlier, the Lions had receded -- were still pretty good, but no world beaters. Despite the victory on Nov. 22, they didn’t catch the Packers in the standings that year (the Pack going 13-1 and then beating the New York Giants 16-7 in the championship, and the Lions going 11-3). And it only got worse after that, with losing seasons not far ahead.

"But the Thanksgiving Day game was always part of our annual celebration."

The Lions had played on Thanksgiving Day annually starting in 1945, and the Packers became their opponent on that day starting in 1951 and running through 1963. Then the Lions' holiday opponent changed each succeeding season, and they didn't face the Packers again on Turkey Day until 1984 (and again in 1986). They met again on Thanksgiving a half-dozen times between 2001 and 2013, and then not again until this year.

The Lions continued to play Thanksgiving Day games across all those years, but to me it wasn't a true Thanksgiving unless the opponent was the Pack. That's why I found this year's matchup so appealing, in a season in which the Lions have been excelling. Alas, I found the outcome (a 29-22 Green Bay victory) quite unsatisfying.

For the record, the Lions have lost more often than not on Thanksgiving (37-44-2), including a 10-9-1 mark against the Packers.

Funny, isn't it, how childhood habits (and fandom) can carry across the years.

*****

And speaking of fandom (of the local variety), the winter high school sports season is upon us, with a lot of Schuyler County question marks needing answers. From an early perspective, it looks like the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity basketball team, the combined Watkins/Odessa-Montour wrestling squad and the combined WG/OM boys swim team have the best chance of success. But surprises could pop up.

*****

I heard from WGHS and Bucknell swim legend Courtney Warren in an e-mail thanking me for whatever role I might have played in her selection to the WGHS Sports Hall of Fame, yet to be announced. She was notified of her induction by WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden.

For the record, my call (in a recent column) for her inclusion was buttressed by the verbal advocacy of former AD Craig Cheplick, who, like me, well remembers Courtney's achievements. Chep and I devised an All-Decade team of Schuyler County athletes back in 2011, a listing split into three levels, the highest being the Solar Division. Each level (the others were Lunar and Comet) was influenced by whether a selectee had carried a successful high school career through college, into college, or was not yet of an age to attend college.

Courtney Warren was on that topmost team, along with Odessa-Montour's Stefanie Collins and WGHS's Olivia Coffey, Molly Schamel, Todd Lincoln, Julie Miller, Phil Brown, Cathy Brown and Alicia Learn.

Congratulations on your Hall of Fame induction, Courtney. It is well-earned and long overdue.

******

And earlier:

Of shingles ... and legends

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Nov. 13, 2023 -- I have a roofing disease.

That's how I recall its name: shingles.

It's a fun little malady, which started with what felt like a pulled muscle beneath my left ribs, and then announced it was something else with a band of rash on my back's left side.

Anti-virals followed, and then some pain meds, although the pain really hasn't been bad. It's the fatigue; I seem to need a nap every few hours or so.

I had shingles once before, about 50 years ago, and as I recall it, a doctor treated it with a shot through a needle that, in my memory, was about five feet long. Now, they give you a week's worth of pills that could choke a horse. I prefer the pills.

That's how I entered November, which isn't my favorite time of year -- a bias based on the month's first two days. November 1st is the anniversary of the deaths of both my father (in 1994) and my wife (in 2004). And November 2nd is the anniversary of my first marriage, a failed union that started 55 years ago and ended eight years later.

Yikes. What a combination of dates. I try to ignore their symbolism -- try to imagine I've leapfrogged from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, but it doesn't work. My memory, despite my years, does not seem frayed to that extent yet.

Nonetheless, I figured that by focusing on an upcoming event, I might roll right by the 1st and 2nd this year without the usual emotional turbulence. And there was a promising day upcoming: the 4th. So perhaps I could just look ahead to that.

That was the day of two sports events of importance. First, the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team -- fresh from winning its second straight Section IV, Class C title -- was playing a regional contest against Sauquoit Valley, the Section III champion. And second, the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team -- a combined squad of WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School athletes -- was going for its seventh straight Section IV, Class C title. In fact, the Storm squad was a shoo-in after a Preliminary round on, yes, Nov. 1, in which they dominated.

Alas, Nov. 4th proved to be a physical challenge. I was planning to go to Herkimer to watch -- and photograph -- the WGHS girls soccer game. I got up that morning, showered, intended to drive the nearly three hours to the game site, but first sat down to check my emails -- and that shingles fatigue hit me. I didn't want to get up, except to move to another, more comfortable chair, where I promptly fell asleep for one of those many recent naps.

And so I missed that trip -- and the photography from it. Instead, I slept until 15 minutes before 11 a.m., awakening to realize that my home-based sports option -- the swim meet -- was almost ready to start. I hustled out of my house and reached the pool just as the National Anthem was playing.

The swim meet, as optional coverage choices go, was amazing, with the Storm winning 10 of the day's 11 events and cruising to the championship.

*****

Which brings me to this.

I was, in a portion of my shingles-induced down time, watching a movie called Before Sunrise starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, made in the mid-1990s. It's about a young couple who meet on a train and spend a night walking the streets of Vienna. When they part at the end, they agree to meet back there in six months.

Nine years later, a sequel was released, Before Sunset, in which we learn that they never did link up those six months later, but now they do, when Hawke's character, Jesse, is touring Europe, promoting a book he has written about that night. And Delpy's character, Celine, who lives in Paris, drops in on him while he is promoting his novel at a bookstore there.

Anyway, Jesse, in talking to a gathering of fans in that bookstore, says this: "Happiness is in the doing, not in the getting what you want." Interestingly, what he truly wanted, Celine, is ultimately what he ends up with, as we find in a second sequel released another nine years later.

Which got me thinking: What do I want? Do I have it already, or is the doing enough without it?

And which yielded this: I once had what I wanted, and lost it. Or rather her: my wife Susan. Which sent me into a tailspin. And the only thing that kept me sane was my work, which meant stories and photos I produced on The Odessa File.

I stopped tailspinning a long time ago, but rather than allow another such episode, I pulled into a shell -- a shell largely buttressed by the stories and photos I continued (and continue) to produce.

So ... life changes, and with those changes our goals are altered -- as are, I suppose, the ways we counter sorrow with joy, and angst with serenity.

Do I have what I want? Yeah, I do, at the same time that I don't. But I will take what I have: the interaction I have with the world around me; the seeming importance (at least to some people) of what I offer through this website.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with that, and it usually circles back around to the teen athletes I cover -- and have covered for two decades.

I harken back to a moment in time that came when I was just coming out of chemotherapy treatment a couple of years ago. I was bald, and emaciated, and kind of pasty looking -- changed enough, physically, that a number of people who knew me didn't recognize me, wondering "Who's that guy with the camera?" I was, I imagine in the minds of some, on the way to my demise. Cancer has earned that fearsome reputation.

It was the beginning of the fall sports season, before the start of the school year, and I ventured up to Odessa-Montour High School to witness a girls soccer scrimmage there. I was wearing a ball cap, which I guess further obscured my features, and so for several minutes after I reached the O-M bench, nobody recognized me or acknowledged my presence. And these were girls I had covered, in some cases, for years.

Then one of them, glancing my way, did a double-take, smiled and came over to me, giving me a wordless hug. Others, seeing this, realized who I was and lined up, five deep, for their own hugs. And lastly, one came up to my side, leaned on my right shoulder, and smiled.

"So ..." she said. "The legend returns."

I liked the moment, and the idea that anyone would consider my plebeian efforts as rising to such a level.

It was nice to be referred to in that way, in that moment, whether it was heartfelt or merely the overactive imagination of the young.

*****

There is a great line in the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which a reporter -- having heard the truth about how Jimmy Stewart's character, Senator Ransom Stoddard, ascended to power through a Western myth (that he shot and killed a notorious outlaw) -- shredded and burned his notes.

"You're not going to use the story?" Stoddard asked. To which the reporter replied:

"No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In other words (conceding that this line is heavily debated), go with the sensational -- the kind of story that sells newspapers.

Or, put another way -- and this was actually said by a former newspaper editor of mine: "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story." Which I generously attributed to a philosophy advocating the presentation of a story (using available facts) in the most vivid, attention-grabbing way.

Maybe someone someday will study what has happened here at this little venture, this Odessa File, that I churn out mere feet from my living room. And maybe he or she will write about it.

In the telling, I would hope that the author might stick to the facts.

Or perhaps I should tackle such a project myself. To make sure there is a truth telling.

Honest Abe-like.

And yet ... being a trained journalist, there is something in me that is drawn to the "print the legend" dictum.

Accordingly -- if swayed to that dark side -- I might start from the beginning, like this:

"A long time ago, in a village far, far away ..."

If I adhered to that theme, I wonder who would be my Luke, my Han, or my Chewbacca.

Or for that matter, who might be a suitable Schuyler County Darth Vader?

Hmmmm ...

*******

And earlier:

The art around us ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Oct. 24, 2023 -- The definition of art is, I suspect, as gossamer as art itself; as finely honed; as many tiered; as impossible to pigeonhole.

Oh, there's the usual: "The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance."

Or there's this: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination."

Or maybe it can be just this (from me): "Art: as in Garfunkel -- his genius vocals, channeling the genius songwriting of Paul Simon."

Yet art, I maintain, is much broader -- to be found in every aspect of life.

There is writing, of course. I encountered a gentleman the other day who asked if I have written any books (I have), and who commented what a good writer I am. Nice to hear, but I found my novel writing lacking, and so turned to shorter efforts, like this one. There is an art to novel writing that I don't possess, and a different art to essay, or column, writing. So I suppose I can claim some limited artistry.

I see art far beyond the written word, though. My thoughts turn at this juncture to the soccer field, where artists like Watkins Glen High School student-athletes Michael Purpura and Skye Honrath have been performing an artistry of motion and nimble-footedness in seasons past and present.

To take one of the two: Honrath is poetry in motion out on that soccer field, twisting, turning and evading oncoming defenders in search of a shot, either left-footed or right. When she does find an opening, her efforts are either rockets or well placed arcing shots -- frequently for a goal. As of now, she has 29 goals in this her junior season, and 66 in her three-year varsity career. She is small in height compared to many competitors, but has a large, self-sustaining drive, and finds success with remarkable frequency -- using the field of play as the figurative canvas for her art.

******

If art is, as the one quote says, an "application of human creative skill and imagination," I can point to creative efforts designed to benefit fellow humans. I refer -- for credible example -- to the Spirit of Schuyler, a non-profit that helps Schuyler County residents with funding in emergency situations. It grew out of an annual party in the garage up at Tony Vickio's home along Route 329 above Watkins Glen -- a party turned to vision, turned to long-running charity, turned to art of the heart.

The Spirit of Schuyler -- led by the Vickios -- just had its annual fund-raising "Gathering," which long ago outgrew that garage and is held in the Hidden Valley Lodge. That event, in itself, is a work of art, with hors d'oeuvres, a catered dinner, raffles, music, prizes, and a sense throughout of an effort well worth doing.

******

I like to think that the operation of any endeavor that helps people -- that provides a service or encouragement -- is, at its base, steeped in art: the art of compassion and compromise and concerted effort. I think, for instance, of the Seneca Santa gift-giving effort and the Schuyler County United Way -- both run by the ever-giving Peggy Scott of Burdett. These are examples of the art of humanity and the soul.

And from a personal standpoint, I think of the medical fraternity, or at least its most dedicated researchers and servants, as true artists. Having been assaulted by cancer and having lived to fight another day or two thanks to the application of their unsettling magic potions (chemo and radiation, in my case), I see art as extending to the limits of our curative imagination. And each year, it seems, new discoveries lead to more lives saved. Medicine, like Seneca Santa, the United Way and any successful artistic endeavor, is a living, breathing, evolving entity.

Which brings me to -- not a criticism, but rather an encouragement of -- organizations that were designed to honor the best and brightest among us, the best and brightest being those people who exhibit an artistry on the playing fields or in the game of life. The organizations are generally known as Halls of Fame.

This particular subject arose with the realization -- looking at the impressive Sports Hall of Fame display in the lobby of the Watkins Glen High School Field House -- that not only has there been no inductee there since 2017, but that the name of Courtney Warren is not up there.

How is this possible? I asked myself.

When I started this website more than 20 years ago, I was covering sports at just the Odessa-Montour High School, but one name I heard from down the hill at Watkins Glen was that of swimmer Courtney Warren. When I was recruited by the WGHS Athletic Director, Craig Cheplick, to cover sports at his school, I finally got to see Courtney in action.

And she never disappointed. That was in the 2003-04 school year, her sophomore year. She was a state-level swimmer who, to my eyes, was not anywhere near the image I had had of such an accomplished athlete. She wasn't trim, nor of broad shoulders. What she had was the art of technique, along with heart and the will to win. And win she did: time and time and time again.

She also won this website's WGHS Athlete of the Year Award in 2004-05, edging out Megan Matthews Thrasher, a superb athlete who is on that Hall of Fame wall in the Field House. When a Decade of Stars team was compiled on this website (covering 2001-2011, considered by many to be the school's golden era of sports), the first name on the first-team list was Courtney Warren.

And, even though she sustained an ACL injury in her senior year at WGHS while playing basketball, Courtney went on to an All-American swim career at Bucknell University, ranking in the top 10 in program history in four different events. She was an All-Patriot League pick four times, a First Team selection two times -- twice winning the Patriot League and ECAC 100 Yard Backstroke titles -- and recipient of the school's Christy Mathewson Award presented to its outstanding senior female athlete. Beyond that, she earned the Patriot League Swimming and Diving Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award in that senior year.

Finding her missing from that WGHS honor board -- and noticing the lengthy dearth of any inductions -- got me to wondering about our Halls of Fame in general.

*******

When operating at peak efficiency, such Halls are works of art -- for operating one successfully requires dedication, attention to detail, and a finger on the pulse of the community it serves and reflects -- whether that community is a county or a school.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, or any Hall devoted to a professional sport, holds annual inductions, or maintains an induction schedule close to it. Alas, we have seemingly ignored such schedules here in Schuyler County -- years elapsing without inductions in the Sports Halls in our two school districts (since 2019 at O-M, and since 2017 at WGHS). And the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, seemingly stuck at 48 honorees (40 men and 8 women), hasn't added anyone since 2018, although I have heard encouraging reports of a new selection process underway. There are indications, too, of movement in the direction of inductions at WGHS.

As a fan of the art of life -- and as keeper of The Essentials, a Hall of Recognition (I guess you might call it) of 36 Schuyler County individuals picked since the county Hall made its last selections -- I hope those reports are accurate. I hope they yield fruit.

It's long past time.

*******

And earlier:

The appeal of our heroes ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Oct. 4, 2023 -- I recently received a note from Steve Rondinaro, long associated with The Squires Drum & Bugle Corps and an announcer of note who sent me a link to his website, where he published an account of his long friendship with baseball legend Brooks Robinson, who passed away on Sept. 26 at the age of 86. Steve hero-worshipped Brooks in childhood, and became friends with him in adulthood.

It's a touching account, well worth the read for anyone, whether or not a fan of Robinson -- the greatest fielding third baseman in baseball history and a member of the sport's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

I personally never met Brooks, but saw him on a couple of occasions in Cooperstown -- at induction ceremonies in the late 1990s. I include a photo here that I snapped of him back in 1998, at the induction of (among others) Don Sutton and Larry Doby. I don't recall how I secured credentials to get as close to the dais as I did, but Brooks was one of many returning Hall members there. (I was also there in 1987, when Catfish Hunter, Billy Williams and Negro League legend Ray Dandridge were inducted, and in 1997, when the honorees included Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda and the late Nellie Fox.)

I provide you with the link here to Steve's account of Brooks Robinson. I will also direct you to three stories that I wrote years ago, before The Odessa File, when I was the resident "expert" regarding sports memorabilia at a website called baseballguru.com. I see that the website still exists, and while my stories are no longer there, a bunch of my photos are on the site's Hall of Fame Page.

Those three stories are about my friendship with a baseball hero named Bubba Phillips (here), about a wintry night upon which I visited an eerily vacant Cooperstown (here), and about an exchange I had with the aforementioned Ray Dandridge upon his induction to the Hall of Fame (here).

*******

The Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team continues unbeaten as I write this, 12 games into the season. The defending Section IV, Class C champions, the Lake Hawks are led by a trio of ballhawks -- Skye Honrath (22 goals after four straight games with three goals in each), her sister Sasha (15 goals), and Ava Kelly (16 goals) -- and by senior goalkeeper Lillian Ameigh and a stalwart group of midfielders and backs, any one of whom you could point to as producing some special games.

The team is scheduled to play Newfield at home Friday night before hosting what will be its toughest test to date on Saturday: Bath Haverling, ranked No. 1 among Class B schools by the New York State Sportswriters Association, although Bath lost to Livonia the day after the latest rankings were published, leaving its record at 9-1. The Sportswriters got around to listing Watkins Glen at No. 8 in Class C this week after ignoring the Hawks entirely in its first posting last week. Since it is likely nobody with the Sportwriters group has ventured to any of the Watkins games, its rankings must be taken with a grain of salt. They amount to guesswork.

I asked Watkins Glen girls soccer coach Scott Morse if he had been the person responsible for scheduling in the Section V powerhouse Bath (which through its first 10 games outscored its opponents 40-4, compared to Watkins Glen's 67-7 advantage through 12 contests). Morse laughed and answered: "I did it, and I like it." The idea, of course, is that the tough Bath squad will get the Hawks ready for a challenging postseason of Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Section IV, Class C tournament competition.

The Bath game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at WGHS's Alumni Field. It would be great if the Lake Hawks' fans turned out in force to cheer on their team.

********

Apart from sports, I often attend meetings of one sort or another -- often ones where nothing I deem particularly newsworthy takes place, but where I learn something extra about the goings-on in Schuyler County, and gain some insight into the role played by various village and county officials.

There is, on the one hand, great patience required when something like the placement of stop signs on side streets and other traffic regulations is discussed, as was the case at a recent Watkins Glen Village Board meeting. My eyes glazed over and I fought fatigue as detail after detail was examined, and after an hour or so I rose to depart. "Leaving so soon?" I was asked by one official. "I'm going to go home and take a nap," I replied.

Another meeting was one involving a Public Safety Committee of the Schuyler County Legislature, where heavy hitters in county roles like District Attorney and Sheriff and Emergency Management Director were on hand to meet with legislators. There was some dissatisfaction expressed at that meeting by one legislator regarding communication among various facets of law enforcement whenever an overdose case occurs, and further dissatisfaction by another legislator regarding the handling of a case involving a man described as "a not nice person" who had run afoul of the law on different levels.

It was all complex and -- well, more involving than traffic and road regulations. It showed me that men and women we generally look up to and depend upon to keep our community safe are not without their own bureaucratic challenges beyond the walls of their offices. I don't think we look closely enough at the challenges they face daily -- the tightrope they must walk above waters occupied by, if not alligators, by barbed regulations that can carry their own particular bite.

And I have to think, in reviewing those meetings, that we're pretty damned lucky to have people who want to serve us ... despite the tedium, the challenges, the criticism and what, in the overall scheme of things, must seem to them like a cacophony of sound, a kaleidoscope of competing and demanding interests.

*******

I turn 75 in less than a week. Anyone planning a birthday present might consider a donation to The Odessa File cause. I suppose 75 cents would be about right, although $7.50 and $75.00 donations would be welcome. I'm guessing that $750 would be a bit of a stretch. Anyway, I'm at P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869 if the spirit moves you.

In the meantime, let's enjoy the warm weather we're experiencing this week.

*********

Photo in text: Brooks Robinson at the 1998 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He was elected to the Hall in 1983.

*******

And earlier:

Looking up ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Sept. 19, 2023 -- When I was a lad -- I think in 1963, in my teenage years -- I was thrilled in a "Boy, this is cool!" way as a total eclipse of the sun was approaching during what back then was always a magical time: summer, when there was no school.

As near as I can figure, looking at the record of eclipses from the 1960s, the specific date was July 20, 1963. And I can say that what I remember most was the cautionary note that looking directly at the eclipse could damage the eyes -- with the solution being to look at it through a cardboard box device with a pinhole in it (a box pinhole projector) that would transmit the image of the sun safely inside the device while its holder was actually facing away from the sun.

Nowadays, the solution is more in the line of solar filters on your glasses or telescope, although I suspect the pinhole idea still holds. In any event, the cautionary note remains: looking directly at the sun during the eclipse (except, one site says, during the two to four minutes of total eclipse) can lead to solar retinopathy, more commonly called retinal burns. Not that it would particularly hurt, since (as another site warns) "the retina has no sensitivity to pain." But there could be damage.

Anyway, I bring this up to compare yesteryear, 1963, to next year, 2024, when a total eclipse in this region -- well, apparently from Texas to Maine -- is expected on April 8th.

Back in 1963, the approaching phenomenon was touted in newspapers and occasionally on the news, which was offered basically at midday and in the evening on three networks (there were no cable stations), although the morning Today Show probably featured it, too.

Today, we have 24/7 news on TV, and an unending number of websites that can offer their own take on events, not to mention Facebook and Twitter (X) and so on. Word spreads instantly, and we're all -- if we have broadband and want to spend time online -- connected in ways that weren't possible (or really imaginable) those 60 years ago.

When I started receiving emails recently that were touting area gatherings next April designed specifically to view the eclipse, I asked myself: "What's the big deal?" My memory tells me it was a really cool phenomenon back in 1963, but somewhat more of a private affair, or at least one that wasn't calling for large groups of curiosity (or thrill?) seekers. My family, as I recall, was visiting in Ontario, Canada at the cottage of old friends atop a bluff overlooking Lake Huron.

That was all: a gathering of family and friends, not unlike other visits we had made to that same vacation getaway. But what is this mania today? I suppose it's totally in keeping with the breakneck pace of the modern world -- the need to always do something new and interesting -- but that certainly doesn't make it better than the pace of yesteryear.

Well, the matter of the eclipse came up at a recent meeting of the Watkins Glen School Board, because evidently so many visitors are expected in our county on April 8th that it could well impact school transportation. Not to mention that a normal release time would coincide with the eclipse, which is supposed to start at around 2 p.m. and end around 4:30 p.m.

The School Board in its discussion noted that "everything is sold out" locally that day -- meaning lodging of any kind -- and that the State Park is considering opening on April 1st, earlier than usual, to accommodate an expected influx of eclipse watchers. Of course, the impact of the whole thing could be significantly mitigated by, say, an April snowstorm.

The board bounced around the idea of early release that day, but recognizing that traffic could be significantly impacted by what Board member Keith Caslin said could be many, many thousands of visitors, easily outstripping the traffic created by the annual NASCAR race at Watkins Glen International, the thought was voiced that maybe April 8th could instead be a remote learning day for Watkins Glen students. That was, of course, a method of education utilized during the pandemic; thus the district is well versed in its parameters.

So ... not wanting kids on buses stuck in gridlock, and facing the uncertainty, really, of just how bad the traffic will be (with Caslin cautioning that with a huge turnout of visitors, "we could be in trouble"), the board decided to seriously look at that voiced thought -- at that potential remote-learning solution. Superintendent Kai D'Alleva told board members he would look into it. And there is the possibility, it was suggested, that Governor Hochul might declare a state of emergency that day in New York -- which would presumably mean a set of directions and regulations as yet unknown.

Good grief. That day sounds like a mess; and potentially a perfect storm of circumstances leading to a wholly negative consequence.

Not to sound like an old traditionalist, but it's not like back in 1963. That was no storm. Not at all.

It was, to my rose-colored memory, a time of family, of wonder, and of a curious peace that settled upon me as I looked at the eclipse through that box pinhole projector.

It was quiet bliss.

*****

On another matter, I have been duly impressed with two of our high school sports teams -- both defending Section IV, Class C champions: the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team and the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team. The latter is composed of athletes from both WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School.

The soccer team, as of this writing, has won all six of its games by a combined score of 33-2, with Sasha Honrath leading in goals with 11. Her sister Skye has eight, and Ava Kelly seven. The team is young and deep, and of course carries the knowledge and confidence that comes with a sectional championship. This should prove interesting.

And the swim team, which has won the sectional title stretching back several years, has a wealth of talent -- particularly in seniors such as Thalia Marquez, Alannah Klemann, and Malina Butler, and underclass athletes like Kendra Fish, Emily Melveney and Cara Reynolds. The fact that this squad defeated a Class A school like Ithaca last weekend was an attention-grabber. Good luck the rest of the way, girls.

*******

And earlier:

About that gravity ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Sept. 4, 2023 -- This whole thing with ESPN being blacked out over a dispute involving ... what else ... money prompted me to start hearing, unbidden in my head, that song from "Wicked" titled "Defying Gravity."

I could almost hear my TV singing it to me:

"Something has changed within me;
Something is not the same ..."

The ensuing lyrics show Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, moving forward with renewed resolve: "I'm through with playing by the rules/Of someone else's game/Too late for second guessing/Too late to go back to sleep/It's time to trust my instincts/Close my eyes and leap!/It's time to try defying gravity..."

I feel, every time I check to see if one of the ESPN or Disney channels has come back on the air (and instead I find that annoying note saying the blackout mess is all being done for us), that the world really is beyond our control. We are dependent on push buttons and software and electricity that can disappear without warning.

I suppose, if we are to defy gravity in this case, we can go to streaming services that carry the sporting events we are missing, or simply do what I was forced to do when my last TV died recently: wander the computer in search of news and entertaining clips or movies, play DVDs, or better yet: read.

Not enough of us remember books -- you know, those things some lawmakers in decidedly disturbing states are trying to ban with increasing frequency.

*****

I talked to Chris Wood, former Odessa-Montour School District superintendent who resigned last December and took a job after that as principal in the Bradford school. Our conversation took place after Chris was appointed Dundee School District superintendent by the Dundee School Board on Sept. 1. His contract is for three years.

He said he was helped in deciding to apply for the position by Kelly Houck, former Dundee and BOCES superintendent who is now the superintendent in the Bath district. She assured him it would be a good fit for him. And Jim Frame, former O-M and BOCES superintendent who served as interim superintendent this summer at Dundee, provided similar encouragement. Frame was also part of the group conducting a superintendent search for Dundee and other districts in the state.

Chris is slated to start at Dundee on Sept. 28th. "I have some obligations to finish up at Bradford," he said, including "making sure they find a replacement for me." If a replacement is found before that date, he might move over to the Dundee job sooner.

We talked about this website's Essentials -- people whose contributions to life in Schuyler County have proven invaluable -- and he had a nominee in mind. And we talked about this website's annual Tribute Awards that go to outstanding student-athletes (and he again had a couple of nominees). Finally, we talked about Grace Vondracek, the subject of the column preceding this one (see below). Chris was the O-M superintendent when Grace attended there, and watched her excel in academics as well as soccer, basketball and softball.

He said he "ran into her recently at Barnes & Noble," where Grace was working before heading off to a Division II college, Caldwell University in New Jersey. She will play softball there after a career at Corning Community College that netted her two straight national Player of the Year honors "She's a great girl," he said, adding that he was sure she would "do well at Caldwell."

We hope the same for Chris Wood as he enters this new chapter at Dundee.

******

The high school sports season is off and running, and while it's too early to make reasonable predictions on the performances that might come, it is evident that the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team is deep in talent and strong on the field, its success (defending the Section IV, Class C title) dependent on desire, hustle and teamwork. All three elements were evident in the team's opening 6-0 victory over Groton, which it had defeated in double overtime last season for the IAC Small Schools title.

The combined WGHS and O-M football team (the Schuyler Storm) moved the ball well in its opener against Spencer-Van Etten/Candor, but misfired at key moments -- two interceptions near the SVEC end zone, a blocked field goal, and a botched extra-point snap -- in losing 12-6. Time will tell if the team can regroup effectively from that disappointment.

Girls swimming gets underway soon, and expectations for that Storm squad are high after a string of Section IV, Class C championships. This year's roster is deep, too, with plenty of experience and past individual successes.

As for teams in other sports, we'll wait and see. Some haven't started yet, and those that have played have either sustained defeat or -- in one case -- failed to notify The Odessa File as to the outcome of a game.

Please, coaches, contact this website after each event, win or lose. The kids deserve notice for their efforts, and the more we know here about their performances, the greater the chance they will have to make The Odessa File All-Sports All-Star Teams that follow each season. Either call 607-742-2772 or email chaef@aol.com.

******

And finally, thanks to all who voted for me in the balloting for the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce Schuyler Samaritan Award. The fact that I won came as quite a shock ... but a pleasant one.

*******

And earlier:

Reaching great heights ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Aug. 25, 2023 -- I had remembered her as being slighter of build; never lacking in muscle or energy; just not this ... I don't know ... powerful.

Maybe it had to do with her quiet yet friendly exchanges; her soft but firm demeanor. When I first met her, when she was in the 8th grade at Odessa-Montour Junior-Senior High School, she was shy; could hardly look me in the eye. She did all of her speaking, figuratively, on the softball field.

Grace Vondracek was, back then, the pitcher for the O-M Indians varsity softball team, and a very good one. Over her four seasons on varsity (she missed her fifth, in her senior year, when the pandemic canceled out that spring sports schedule) she struck out more than 700 batters.

But it was always her performance at the plate, batting, that impressed me the most. The right-handed throwing, left-handed hitting Grace batted at or above .700 in her junior O-M season, which was just a bit above her previous performances. And if memory serves, she did that despite a slump that had lowered her from .800. And she did it with power, registering 10 home runs.

I was on occasion asked where I thought she might pitch in college, and I said I didn't know if she would; that her hitting (and base running, at which she excels) might well serve her better.

And, as it turns out, I was right.

I sat down with Grace one recent day at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Big Flats Consumer Square shopping plaza. She was working there prior to her departure to Caldwell University in New Jersey, where she will study and play softball for the next two years after a magnificent run at SUNY Corning Community College. She played softball at CCC for three years (one year of eligibility added due to the pandemic), and earned the ultimate in awards the past two seasons: the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Player of the Year.

A shortstop on defense, she batted .609 last season, with a .687 on-base percentage, and a .974 slugging percentage. She led the nation in hits (95), walks (38) and runs scored (91), and had 20 doubles and 11 home runs. She was a First Team All-America selection, and on the DIII World Series All-Tournament Team.

"Grace Vondracek," said her CCC coach, Stacy Johnson, in a press release, "is the most decorated student-athlete in SUNY Corning history. To be named a two-time National Player of the Year is a tribute to her abilities. Offensively Grace can beat you with her bat or her feet. She is one of the toughest outs in the nation because of her ability to drop a bunt or hit the ball out of the park. On the basepath, she is a threat to steal any base at any time. Defensively, she has been an anchor up the middle with her speed coupled with her strong arm."

I asked Grace what it was like, being singled out twice as the best in the country.

"Awkward," she said, ducking her head. A touch of the old shyness was there, I thought; but then I reconsidered. It was humility.

Grace had gone to CCC expecting to pitch, but was slotted at shortstop after another pitcher transferred there in that first, pandemic year. So instead of leading from the pitcher's rubber, Grace led from her new position of shortstop -- led her team to the finals of the NJCAA World Series finals repeatedly, the last time to a championshp game that was almost in hand -- before the opposition wiped out a Corning five-run lead in the final inning to overtake CCC.

"How did that happen? I asked.

Grace smiled ruefully and shrugged. "I don't know," she said. And after some thought, she recounted how a combination of opposition hits, walks and hit batters started harmlessly enough but then built an unstoppable momentum. She said the fact of the defeat is "still tender," but that her coach, the aforementioned Stacy Johnson, told her it was best to be philosophical about it -- to accept that the championship "wasn't meant to be."

"There's nothing that could have been done differently, really," said Grace. Despite "all the what ifs ... we just can't think about it anymore. Because it's done and over with ... unless somebody magically brings in a time machine."

Grace, whose awards have included a golden shoe for her baserunning prowess, and a SUNY Scholar Athlete of the Year honor, takes her academic and athletic abilities to New Jersey now, her first time residing such a distance from her Cayuta home for such a prolonged period. She says it has her "excited, nervous," but that she has relatives -- two aunts -- within two hours of that school. And her parents will be going to Jersey to watch as many of her games as they can, she noted.

Caldwell's softball team, led by a newly hired head coach, Lindsay Mayer, following the retirement of longtime coach Dean Johnson, plays in the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC). Grace said the school is aware of her pitching, but that that's not what they recruited her for. She will be expected to do what she did best at Corning Community College: hit the ball, run the bases, and make things happen on offense.

She said she was looking forward to the challenge, but the thought of what happens later -- after college -- brought a worried look to her face. She said she was not sure what she would pursue in the area of employment, but what bothered her more was the thought that her softball career would be over -- something that has been a large part of her life for so many years.

After graduation from Caldwell, she said, "I'll cry for like the next few years" because "I'll never play again."

When I suggested that there were adult leagues around the area, she almost imperceptibly shook her head. "Beer leagues," she said softly, and let it pass.

That's easy to understand. When you've been to the heights, and there are no more such pinnacles to reach, the alternatives can wane. But I have no doubt that Grace Vondracek will adapt, and will excel in whatever she chooses.

Personally speaking, looking back, I believe that what Grace has achieved (and, I suspect, will continue to achieve at Caldwell University) is the stuff of legend, and worthy, if nothing else, of a parade.

And failing that, we should let her know of our profound admiration, not only for her proficiency on the softball diamond (and in the classroom), but also for the way she has represented our Schuyler County community. We can, after all, bask in her glory, a glory borne by her with dignity and, yes, with grace.

******

Photo in text: Grace Vondracek seated in the Barnes & Noble bookstore cafe.

******

And earlier:

To an absent friend ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Aug. 17, 2023 -- When you approach the age of 75 -- and I’m less than two months away -- you tend to take stock of where you are and where you’ve been.
And stock of who you are, and who you’ve been.

Yes, it all gets a little esoteric.

Anyway, you find -- or at least I found -- that my life, at least in my younger years, was by and large somewhat wanting. I was, despite trying to wear the mantle of rebel, too wary of putting myself out there as an active one -- immobilized by fear and a sense of vulnerability.

Rebel, you say? The mild-mannered photographer? You’ve got to be kidding.

Well, I could go into the fact -- and fantasy -- of it, but I prefer instead to put forth the point that even with the passage of years and the challenges that growing older have presented me, the times past and present blend together. I am as much 18 as I am almost 75.

I am still very much at home with memories of, say, my college years -- at small Albion College in Michigan -- as I am with those of, say, the recent Italian-American Festival in Watkins Glen.

I am, in other words, roughly what I was -- in all my configurations, whether rebel or not.

As I started writing this, and mentioned college, I thought back to those days and to someone who meant so very much to me: Richard Scott DeVos, a classmate who pledged the same fraternity as I did: Sigma Chi. He was half of an attractive couple after linking up during our sophomore year with a freshman from Niles, Michigan named Amy Kelly. I remember the night they first got together, when he danced with her at a social gathering in the school’s Kresge Gymnasium.

Dick and I were close during those years. I found him, and for that matter Amy, both  intelligent and blessed with a lively sense of humor -- with a joie de vivre. And like me, he was a dreamer. We talked on more than one occasion about traveling the world in a sailboat -- but of course life got in the way. After graduation, our worlds diverged, with Dick and Amy staying in Michigan while I headed to Upstate New York. They had married along the way, and settled down after graduate school in Amy’s hometown of Niles, in the state’s southwestern-most corner.

I reconnected with them on occasion, the last time about 20 years ago -- when I stayed with them for a night and caught up on our past. We even phoned and met with another Niles resident and Albion alum named Kathy Kaiser, who I had dated, and been pinned to, back in my sophomore year. It was a reunion that has resonated over the years, but was never repeated.

But Dick and Amy were always in my heart, and so, after starting this column, I decided to google them to see what they might be up to -- and ran smack dab into Dick’s obituary, by now four years in the past. There it was, with a picture of him in his elderly years: Dick DeVos -- bright, tall, charismatic Dick DeVos, who went on to a career in economics, serving as a business manager for various organizations -- gone at the age of 71.

I sat there, stunned, though in truth I have handled hundreds of obituaries on this website and am somewhat inured to feelings of sadness that they might elicit. But this time ... this time it hurt.

Dick had passed, and I hadn’t even known it. I sat there, wounded, thinking about it, and memories flooded back of our times together at Albion -- where we were, in truth, part of a small coterie of like-minded students (which is to say idealistic at the time).

I loved the guy like a brother, and still feel his presence, just as I feel the presence of the others in the group. I’m afraid to google them, although one, named John Williams, dropped off everybody’s radar a long time ago. Last I knew, Carl Hall, Ed Maynard, Joe Fisher and Harry Boyce were all still with us, although Ed and Joe had faced down some serious health challenges.

*****

At my age, and recognizing that a lot of the obituaries that are published on The Odessa File are about people younger than me, I shouldn’t be shocked by the death of anyone my age or near it.

But I was, in this case, indeed shocked. But my reaction went beyond the surprise of it.
It went deeper, to an understanding that Dick’s passing meant the death of a small piece of me -- of my past, and yet very much a part of my present. It was a small piece of the complex quilt of my human psyche and emotion.

After discovering the sad fact of his passing, I reacted by saying “No, no, no, no, no!” aloud, and then sat and pondered, and offered a better-late-than-never prayer for Dick, and -- finally -- took a deep calming breath. This might have knocked me back a bit, but it wouldn't derail me. No ... in fact I conjured up a vision of Dick handing me a track baton, telling me to "keep going."

I might be nearing an unsettling age milestone, but I’m damned if I’m giving up yet. Even with health setbacks that come with the “golden years,” and despite the inevitable sadness that comes with life’s many losses, I’m mentally preparing for what could yet be a long haul: the final quarter of my life.

Wish me luck.

******

And earlier:

The Underground Man ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, July 29, 2023 -- They come to me unbidden, usually when I’m at rest -- thoughts of the trip.

And in particular of Mike Oehler.

Who? you ask.

Mike Oehler (pronounced Eh-ler) was emblematic, I suppose, of my youthful tendency toward idealism -- toward a sort of rebelliousness, though I never acted it out in any extreme way.

I was, at an early age, appalled by the lies of Richard Nixon. Oh, nobody was saying he was lying -- he was a respected (sort of) politician. But when I'd see him on the news and he’d open his mouth and say something that to me seemed so blatantly opposed to reality, I would complain to the TV: ”But he’s lying!”

My mother, seated nearby watching the same thing, would admonish me. “Hush. How can you say such a thing? He’s the President of the United States.” (Or, depending on the time of the Nixon utterance, the Vice President or a candidate for the Presidency.)

Part of my problem was the reverence with which I held the office of the President, pretty much shattered by Nixon. I was a history buff, and could, at an early age, recite in order who had been President and when. Those and baseball statistics, embodied on and through baseball cards, were my jam.

Anyway -- whether I was right or not in the given moment notwithstanding (and Nixon showed his true colors before too many years passed) -- I was inclined, as I grew to young adulthood, to like anyone who offered a different approach to traditional life; who proffered a philosophy that rankled those in power or challenged the status quo.

I admired Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and population control activist Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb) and, yes, Mike Oehler.

****

My new bride Susan and I, living in Watertown, New York back in 1979, decided -- after saving some money -- to leave our jobs and head out for a trip around the country. We wanted an adventure; to see new places; to meet people across the nation. We were young, and short on planning, but youthful enthusiasm often cannot be contained.

We bought a camper for the trip, and a couple of mopeds that we strapped to the vehicle’s front, and headed out with my son Bill from my first marriage and his cousin Rob as traveling companions. We would be on the road for weeks, hitting a majority of the states along the way.

We stayed in the northern half of the country while heading west, stopping off in Chicago before visiting Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and, up in Montana, Glacier National Park. Eventually we entered Idaho and headed up into the hills in search of Mike Oehler.

*****

I discovered Oehler’s book, “The $50 and Up Underground House Book,” in a Watertown book store, and spent the $6 required for it -- a 112-page, large-format paperback subtitled “How to Design and Build Underground.” It told the how and why, and in Oehler’s case the where of constructing an underground home on the cheap. He had built one out there in the Idaho hills for $50, later expanding it at a cost of $500.

Boy, I thought, this guy is really off the grid, living a life whereby he thumbs his nose at traditional above-ground structures -- at society. It fit perfectly with my desire to do something ... different. (In my college days, I -- along with some friends, thought sailing around the world held great promise, great allure. Of course, none of us could afford it, and we eased into lives where paychecks were an essential ingredient of survival.)

When Susan and I decided we might grab a piece of that non-traditional life -- this came a decade after my college days -- the Oehler book, written that same year, fit beautifully, for we could swing up into Idaho during our journey west and find the man and see exactly what he was doing to pursue his dream. Accordingly, I wrote him, and received a reply. It came from Bonners Ferry, Idaho -- a handwritten note from the author. I still have it, yellowing around the edges, tucked into the Oehler book, which has sat on a shelf in my bedroom for lo, these many years.

“Charles,” he wrote, “There are five U homes in our county alone. Minn. and Okla. are leading states. Probably 300 to 1,000 U houses in the U.S. now. Earth Shelter Digest lists a number each issue. You may visit, but I probably will not be able to give you much time. If you hang around for any length, you will find yourselves with shovels in your hands.”

And so it was that we headed west on our journey, with Idaho and Mike Oehler’s underground home firmly in our figurative sights.

*****

We arrived in Bonners Ferry, a quaint little city (population 2,500), on a Sunday, and after asking around, got directions to where we might find Oehler. His land was mostly on a hill adjoining a farm owned by the Hubbell clan, a family with eight children. The farm was beside a dirt track miles outside of Bonners Ferry. We missed Oehler on that Sunday -- he had gone off somewhere to a party -- but caught up with him the next day.

I kept a diary throughout our weeks on the road, and at some point in the intervening years used that diary to construct a chapter on our visit to Oehler. It was to be part of a book titled “Summer Song,” but I never got around to writing it. The chapter survives, though. I had forgotten writing it, but found it after I started this column, when I turned to my diary for details. The chapter, its pages paper-clipped together, was sitting there with the diary, just waiting for me.

I described Oehler -- referred to by one local resident as “a hippie” -- in that chapter like this:

“As I got out of the rig, I spotted him as he trudged into sight -- a man five-foot-ten or so, 40ish, and wearing nondescript clothes, no shoes or socks, a light, almost wispy mustache, a heavy beard with left and right points to it, dark-framed glasses and a dark elfish hat that shaded most of his face, keeping the sun and prying eyes out. A large black dog was at his heels, obediently following him.” (This was at the Hubbell farm, a homestead where he was clearly welcome -- almost part of the family.)

Our conversation, at first awkward, warmed when Susan and I invited him to join the two of us and the boys -- Bill and Rob -- for a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, and by meal’s end he agreed to lead us up the nearby hill to his underground home. It was a steep climb, 200 feet high, on a hot day, but we made it to our goal.

What we found was a functional living quarters carved into the hillside, traditional in that it had doors and windows, but very spartan in its furnishings, and without electricity or running water. It had an earth- and brush-covered roof with supporting beams, wooden-planked walls backed by polyethylene, and carpeted floors in open but defined areas: a kitchen, a dining area, and a den/library, each a step up from the adjoining one. Oehler had designed it near the top of the rise, in such a fashion that moisture rolled away instead of into the structure, which was -- on that hot day -- quite cool.

The state of the home -- shadowed, basic and essentially somber -- was not unexpected. It hewed, in fact, closely to what Oehler had described in words, drawings and photos in his book. While we had wanted very much to see the house, to include it as part of our journey around the country, Susan and I were -- I think from the beginning -- of a like mind that the factors we liked most were its reduction from the norm in exterior maintenance and in interior heating and cooling bills. But while not expecting to fall in love with the place (and we didn't), we had headed to Idaho because of the sheer newness of seeing that part of the country, and with the idea that visiting Oehler’s home might (as I wrote in that chapter) “help us formulate our own plans.”

Perhaps the most memorable part of that visit, though, came after we had seen the house and worked our way back down toward our starting point: the Hubbells’ home.

On the way, Oehler opened up verbally -- telling how he liked to make “a dandy home brew” that sometimes affected visitors who would then stumble and tumble their way down the hill; how we were walking on what he called “the Thanksgiving Path” because he had installed it “my first year here,” on Thanksgiving in 1968; how he had looked for land in the region for three months before finding this realm; how he had originated in Chicago and lived in Southern California for two years, with stays in Mexico and Hawaii before relocating to Idaho; and how moving there “was one of maybe two good things I’ve done in this life.”

As we neared the hill’s base (I wrote in that chapter) “at a spot overlooking the hills in the distance, I saw what I thought was smoke, to the east of Bonners Ferry.”

And now I turn the narrative over to that chapter, which recounted:

“That a forest fire?”

“Yeah, that’s one,” Oehler said.

“Get a lot around here?”

“Too many.”

At the bottom of the hill, he watered his horse, Nelly, giving the boys a ride on her as he led her across the field where she’d been grazing and over to a water bucket. He turned off a sprinkler watering his garden, looked in his tool shed for something, showed us a greenhouse -- part underground and part not -- that he had built in the flats, and started heading over toward the Hubbells’ house, his dog at his heels and us behind.

As we neared the house, he excused himself and headed around the side toward the rear door, dropping his knapsack on the front porch as he passed by. We walked toward the porch, where we could see a young girl seated on the steps, feeding an animal on the lawn in front of her. As we drew into the shadows of the yard’s trees, and our eyes adjusted, we realized that she was feeding a young deer.

“My God,” I said, reaching for my camera -- which I had slung around a shoulder for the trip up the hill -- and snapping off a shot. I was sure the animal would bolt at any moment.

But he didn’t. He continued to take the vegetables the girl held out, and then he approached me and licked my hand. Finding no food, he returned to the girl.

“Where’d you ever get that?” I asked her.

“Oh, someone gave him to us,” she said.

“What’s your name?” I asked, and she replied “Julie Hubbell.” She was, I figured, about 12.

“So someone gave him to you, eh? How’d they ever come by him?”

“They saw him standing alone in a field,” she said. “The momma deer often leaves her young in a field for a while, has them stay there while she goes off into the woods, and then she comes back for them. Our friends didn’t know that, and picked this one up, and then didn’t know what to do with him, so they gave him to us.”

“He’s your pet, then?” The deer was moving away from her, toward Bill and Rob.

“No, not really,” she said. “The game warden said we could keep him as long as he stays outside and can roam around and we don’t pet him up. But he’s always around here looking for food.”

“What do you call him?”

“We don’t really have a name. We just call him ‘deer.’ Whenever we want him to come, we just call, ‘Here, deer, deer, deer. Come on, deer.’”

The deer, busy licking Rob’s bare leg, turned back at the sound of his name and went to Julie.

“See?” she said.

At that point Oehler came out the front door.

“Welcome to stay on my land,” he said to us, pointing toward the flats at the base of his hill.

Susan and I looked at each other, and with a slight shake of our heads agreed it was time to leave.

“No, thanks,” I said to Oehler. “Think we’ll head for Washington.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. He picked up the knapsack, put something in it that he’d just brought outside, and hoisted it to his back. As he did so, his hat fell from his head, and it bounced on the ground a few feet away, near Julie.

She rose from her seat on the steps, took a couple of strides, reached over and picked it up.

“Here, you forgot your pointy hat,” she said.

“You mean ‘pointy head,’ don’t you, girl?” he asked.

“Yes,” she giggled. “Pointy head.”

Mike Oehler put his hat back on and walked down the porch steps. He turned and headed away from us, his dog, which had been waiting patiently for him outside, following at his heels.

“Goodbye, people,” he said, glancing our way and waving a quick wave. And he was gone.

*****

If you look up Mike Oehler online, you can find a Wikipedia entry that says “David Michael Oehler was an American environmentalist and author. He was a proponent and designer of affordable and sustainable alternative forms of housing.”

He wrote other books besides the one that had drawn us to Idaho. He wrote “One Mexican Sunday” in 1981 -- two years after our visit -- and “The Hippie Survival Guide to Y2K” in 1999 before completing “The Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book” in 2007.

He died in 2016 at the age of 78 in Boundary County, Idaho -- home of Bonners Ferry and of the Hubbells’ farm and of his underground house atop a hill.

I like to think he met his end peacefully, elfish hat nearby, an obedient dog by his side -- and maybe a partial jug of homemade brew within reach.

Above all, I like to think he passed while in the soft embrace of the land he so loved.

*****

And earlier:

A housing community plan; that leave; & other matters

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, July 12, 2023 -- Playing catch-up with some news items:

Of possible future interest -- certainly worth keeping an eye on -- is a proposed housing development on 16 1/2 acres of land behind and to the east of the Walmart store in Watkins Glen. Developer David Wilcox has presented a concept plan that would involve construction of 62 single-family homes and a restaurant -- a residential community he calls the Waterside on Seneca Development.

Watkins Glen Planning Board member Tom Fitzgerald (pictured at right) expressed some concern about the scope of the project at Tuesday’s Watkins Glen Village Board session, suggesting that he couldn’t envision that many homes packed into such a tight space. Maybe half of that number, he said. He was concerned, too, whether the land -- “not completely flat” -- would require a great deal of fill, and how fire trucks could exit after entering, because the concept plan doesn’t provide an adequate turn-around or exit route.

County Planning Director Kristin VanHorn discussed the issues with him, agreeing that there are a number of questions that need to be answered, but saying that Wilcox will need some assurance by the Planning Board and Village Board that the project can be built before committing to engineering and related costs. Next day, she said the project is in the very early stages, with negotiation likely ahead as to the number of dwellings and other issues. She said such a project has been possible under the Village Zoning Law for years, but that “nothing like this has been done before.” The concept was presented to the Village Planning Board, she said, “to start the discussion.” The process ahead, she added, “will be methodical.” And she added: “We need the housing.”

Mayor Laurie DeNardo suggested at Tuesday’s meeting that Mr. Fitzgerald seemed to be pre-judging the project, but agreed that more information is needed. She wants the project to proceed, though, saying the next day (like VanHorn) that “We need the housing” and adding: “Maybe not 60 houses, but we can work on that. We’ve got to go through the process” -- which would include hiring a consultant.

********

I piqued the interest of other news organizations (and quite a few local folks) with my short piece on the decision Monday by Schuyler County government to place its Administrator, Fonda Chronis (pictured at right), on administrative leave.

The county has been super tight-lipped on the “why” behind the move, ducking questions about it, with one county employee saying she had been told to say “No comment” to any inquiries.

The TV stations got on the case the next day, with WETM going so far as to knock on the doors at the Chronis house along Fourth Street in Watkins Glen. Nobody answered. So WETM turned to County Attorney Steven Getman, who hewed to the county line, giving nary a hint as to the cause of the leave-taking.

The same day, a check of the county website showed that the name Fonda Chronis had been removed as County Administrator. In its place was “Vacant.” Which begs the question: What exactly does that mean? Has he been terminated?

So ... will we ever get the full story? One part of me says it seems like we should, considering we, the taxpayers, were helping to pony up this Administrator’s $130,000 salary, and will do the same for any successor.

But part of me -- and this has been voiced by a couple of people well versed in area politics and proud of the Schuyler brand -- recognizes the black eye this leaves on the county. Maybe the questions that remain unanswered are better left in the rearview as the county moves on to what will hopefully be a more fruitful future.

But the journalist in me will keep watching, and listening, and I suppose asking: What happened?

******

Grace Vondracek (pictured at right), an Odessa-Montour grad and a standout through three seasons at Corning Community College, recently secured her second straight National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national softball Player of the Year award. She was also -- among other honors -- named the 2023 SUNY Student-Athlete of the Year in the sport of softball.

How long has it been since O-M had so much to applaud in one of its alumni?

Grace is heading next to Caldwell University, a Division II school in New Jersey with a long and successful softball history.

Grace, some hopefully remember, was an amazing O-M pitcher in the pre-COVID years (she lost her senior season to the pandemic), but even more amazing as a batter, hitting around .700, with power and speed. That was her forte at CCC, where she played infield, but not pitcher.

It will be interesting to follow her progress as she ascends to this next level of competition.

*******

Recent O-M graduate Trinity Trojanowski (left in photo) and recent Watkins Glen High School graduate Ava Barber (right in photo) excelled out in Denver earlier this month at a National Leadership Conference of the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), which describes itself as “a national Career and Technical Student Organization for students through grade 12 in Family and Consumer Sciences education.”

The two had teamed to win a statewide competition during the school year -- earning a gold medal in the New York State FCCLA competition for a New Visions project, "Slaying Hunger in Schuyler." That conference and competition, in Callicoon, NY, qualified them for the Denver conference, where they took a silver medal against some stiff competition.

After winning the state competition, Trinity had explained that she and Ava, who both hosted a food drive with an eye toward establishing a food pantry at each of the two schools, credited the New Visions program for their success.

"Ava and I wouldn't have this opportunity," she said, without the GST BOCES-based New Visions program, which provides courses designed "for motivated, accelerated, college-bound seniors." New Visions officials, Trinity said, "were the ones who enrolled us in FCCLA.”

********

I’ve been asked repeatedly whether I’ll be going out to northern Michigan this summer, to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac -- a destination I visited annually for 25 years (after several childhood summers there) before the pandemic arrived.

But with no travel companion or Island companion (my eldest brother, with whom I shared lodging and expenses, no longer makes the trek), and with my son Jon urging me to stay home (arguing that it’s gotten too dangerous out there to travel alone), I’ve scrapped such a journey.

I’m tempted to go, but I’m afraid I’d be bored once I got there, anyway. I love the place, but have found that companionship -- a shared experience -- is a key to vacation enjoyment. Besides, let's face it: Hanging out in Schuyler County is considered by many folks in this world to be a vacation.

*********

And earlier:

A musical interlude ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, July 7, 2023 -- I spotted a notice recently saying Gerard Burke would be performing at the Seneca Cheese Company in Watkins Glen at 3 p.m. It was then well past 2 p.m., so I cleaned up, rushed from the house and drove down the hill into the gridlock that marks Watkins Glen on a summer weekend.

I pulled into the Seneca Cheese lot shortly after 3 p.m., and found Gerard Burke singing on the far side of the building. He was seated there, his back to the building’s north wall, entertaining a small group of listeners on a covered patio.

I walked onto the patio and over to a wooden table positioned not far in front of Burke. He glanced up from his guitar as I passed in front of him, but there was no reaction there, just a quick glance. That concerned me, because he should have shown some recognition; perhaps a nod. But there was nothing.

I was concerned because I had known Gerard Burke years ago, working with him for several years at the Elmira Star-Gazette, where he was a reporter whose byline carried his real name: Jeffrey Aaron.

I sat and listened there on the patio -- and marveled at how good he was -- and applauded at the end of the first, second, and third songs. The patio was beginning to fill up with folks carrying food and drink out from the Seneca Cheese interior; and so the applause slowly grew, too.

After about 45 minutes, Burke announced he was going to take a break after his next song. He glanced around the patio, his eyes flickering only briefly onto mine, and then performed that final pre-break song.

I had begun thinking that this would be an embarrassing incident in the same vein as those on three other occasions, when people I had known failed to remember me. The first time it happened was at a high school class reunion forty years ago, when a young woman I had once known had no idea now, a decade later, who I was; the second occurred about a dozen years ago on a visit to the Watertown Daily Times, where a reporter drew a blank when I greeted him even though we had worked together there years earlier; and the third came five or so years ago at a reunion party in Elmira for Star-Gazette alums, when a former business writer I had known for the better part of the 1980s professed not to have known me at all.

Gerard Burke was another such alum, so the memory of that last slight came washing over me as though it had happened the day before. The only thing that had mitigated the sting in all three previous instances was the presence of other people who did, indeed, remember me. But there was no one else present on that Seneca Cheese Company patio who I knew, so this cut might run deeper than the others.

When he was finished with that last song, I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, and approached Burke to tell him how much I enjoyed his performance. If there was still no recognition, I thought I might just turn and leave. I just wasn’t sure.

As I neared him, Burke was facing away, taking a swig from a cup of soda. After setting it down, he turned to me, smiled, held out his hand to shake mine, and said: “Hey, Charlie, good to see you.”

Relieved, I answered: “Good to see you, too, Jeff.”

And so it was that I was reunited with an old friend.

Jeff Aaron and I worked in the Star-Gazette newsroom through much of the 1980s, during the same period in which that forgetful business writer had been employed there. After I left, Jeff continued with the paper for years, leaving at one point but returning to close out a career that ended when the newspaper was downsizing.
 
“I worked there 25 years,” he told me as he took his break and we chatted at my table. “Not all together. I left for awhile, then went back part-time.”

He has performed for the past couple of decades out of Elmira as Gerard Burke. His specialty music: the Delta blues, which originated in the Mississippi Delta. It is a genre considered a cousin of country blues.

While we talked, the rain threatening that day started falling in earnest -- close to a downpour, but it didn’t bother us there under the patio covering. We talked as old friends do, referring to old colleagues simply by their first names, comparing maladies that each of us have faced over the years, and discussing contacts we still maintain with a handful of former Star-Gazette employees.

In other words, catching up.

*****

At an age when I have, alas, lost friends and acquaintances to death, relocation or a simple change of heart or lifestyle, this reconnection with Jeff Aaron warmed me on an otherwise depressingly gray day.

The joy he wears, the music he generates, the history we share from a bygone era, and our joint passion for the craft of journalism, made whole my aging soul on a day when, for whatever reason, I needed such a spiritual balm.

Some times, all it takes to achieve a measure of peace is a friendly, familiar face -- one with a smile.

It helps, of course, if the person behind that face remembers you.

*****

Photo in text: Gerard Burke (Jeff Aaron) performing at the Seneca Cheese Company.

*****

And earlier:

A personal connection ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, June 27, 2023 -- I was talking the other day to my son about favorite movies -- as opposed, I guess, to great movies.

I mean, great movies are easy to pick. They are on best-ever lists, for one thing. And greatness jumps from the screen, in most cases.

I’m thinking of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago and Star Wars and Casablanca. Movies like that.

Sometimes they double on my favorites list, which is topped by Casablanca. I would include in my top 12 both Doctor Zhivago and Star Wars. After that? It turns a little quirky.

Why does any of this matter?

Because film has been a staple of art for more than a century now -- and has helped shape the world in which we now live.

From a personal standpoint, film calls to mind how I raised my sons -- taking them often to action adventure films starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis. And it calls to mind an instance when my wife -- not much of a movie buff -- showed up at the theater to join me in a showing of Sleepless in Seattle. It was a surprise to see her there, for she had initially vetoed the idea.

The movie was marvelous, heightened by the presence of the woman whose hand I held throughout the showing; the woman who has now, due to her untimely passing, been beyond my touch for more than 18 years.

That’s one reason Sleepless is on my list. The feeling it engenders is what makes it special. And isn’t that, really, how each of us builds such a list of favorites? Isn’t there almost always a personal connection?

After Casablanca (I get chills when the French sing La Marseillaise), Doctor Zhivago (that mustache on Omar Sharif inspired me to grow my own), Star Wars (I was wowed when it first came out and still love it) and Sleepless, personal connection continues to rule my choices -- often dictated by the actor or actress at the center of each one.

Ever hear of Streets of Fire? It stars Michael Paré, who I started following when he was the title character in Eddie and The Cruisers. He also starred in the time-tripping Philadelphia Experiment and the sequel to the Cruisers movie: Eddie Lives. But Streets of Fire, a mix of futuristic myth, mist and music, is the most stunning of the Paré quartet, and on my Top 12 list.

Another of my favorite screen presences was Ginger Rogers. I’d take any of her films with Fred Astaire, but my favorite was one without him: The Major and the Minor, which gave Ginger a chance to flex her comedic chops. A rewatchable delight, and another of my choices.

And then there was John Wayne. Two of his films make my top-12 list, and in each one he’s a curmudgeonly cuss. One is The Searchers, generally considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and the other is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- where he calls Jimmy  Stewart’s character “Pilgrim” about 30 times. I don’t know what there was about Wayne that struck such a chord. But to me, he was the West.

That leaves four slots. One goes to The Best Years of Our Lives, a post-World War II study of the effects of war on returning servicemen. I’m hooked there not only by the story, but by some of my favorite actors: Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright.

The second goes to The Apartment, a socially sharp look at the insurance world and the pressures brought to bear therein on a lovable bachelor played by Jack Lemmon. A young Shirley MacLaine is gold, too.

The third and fourth go to films written by the great William Goldman: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  and The Princess Bride. Love ‘em both, partly because I revere Goldman.

I notice, looking back over those 12 selections, that they are heavily skewed toward romance -- either as a central theme or as a weighty subplot. I’m not sure what that says about me, other than I was raised by loving parents and longed for a loving relationship growing up -- which I found in my 20s.
 
Even now, with that relationship relegated to my memory bank, I look favorably on any strong union. There’s a certain magic there. So ... color me a hopeless romantic.

*****

Yes, personal attachments play a role in the kind of movies we like, and in choosing lists like the one above. The same can be said of other art forms, I suppose, but films are a medium that can affect us in various ways: by texture and music and the truth in a story’s telling. We can be affected by direction, and editing, and by something as basic as the beauty of a scene. (I think of the haunting marsh of Where the Crawdads Sing -- not my favorite film, although its source material -- a novel -- is among my favorite books.)

In my case, movies inspire feelings of how things used to be, things that I liked or loved, usually connected to family. With my wife gone and my sons so grown that the youngest has now turned 40, those memories and feelings have become increasingly distant and increasingly valuable -- even priceless -- to me.

So thank you, movie makers. Thank you, directors John Ford and William Wyler and Billy Wilder and the like. Thanks to the writers and editors and costume departments and cinematographers -- to all those involved in the many moving parts required to produce such a work of art.

That complexity, I maintain, is reflective of life itself. Life: that amalgam of bone and blood and skin and organs .... and the power to appreciate.

It comes down to this: I think that any movie well made is something of a miracle -- as are we all.

*****

And earlier:

A remarkable year ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, June 14, 2023 -- Most of us look back over the preceding year only when the New Year approaches and arrives.

I’m more inclined to look back at the end of each school year. That’s when my body -- stretched sometimes to the breaking point covering the high school sports crescendo of postseason, tournament action -- suddenly relaxes, a balloon with its air, its energy, released.

I sit here on a night barely removed from a remarkable spring sports postseason, looking ahead to an occasional meeting, or ribbon cutting, or festival, until the annual rite of graduations occurs at the Odessa-Montour High School (on a Friday night) and at the Watkins Glen High School (the next morning).

After that, well --- it’s summer, and I on occasion have been known to sneak away to some far-flung destination to recharge my batteries, perhaps see old friends, and ponder both past and future. For a quarter of a century, that destination was “my” island, Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, right about where Lakes Michigan and Huron touch. That string of annual visits ended with the pandemic, and my absence from the island’s woods and dirt roads and shoreline was extended by my bout with cancer two years ago, and then by a need last year to spend that vacation money on repairs for my very old (it dates back to 1865) home in Odessa.

I’ve given thought to making the long drive out there to northern Michigan this summer, but might choose someplace closer to home. With my brother -- with whom I had shared my Island visits since the passing of my wife back in 2004 -- and his wife no longer making the long drive north from Florida, I have nobody to share the experience with me. And since I, when left alone, often find boredom, it’s probably not a great idea to undertake such a journey of such distance.

Anyway, back to the end of school -- to the looking back part. The highlights provided by our county’s high school sports teams were pretty high:

--Back in the fall, a sectional title for the WGHS girls varsity soccer team, led on offense by the nimble and high-scoring Skye Honrath and on defense by the speedy and oh-so-effective Carly Arnold -- both All-State selections.

--School records for O-M varsity soccer standout Hannah Nolan in a winning season. She scored a single-season school record of 27 goals (edging Jocelyn Garrison’s old mark of 26) and finished her career with a school record 86 goals.

--An Independent Sectional Championship for the varsity football team, the Storm, shared by WGHS and O-M student athletes. The squad -- led by O-M’s Male Athlete of the Year, quarterback Daniel Lewis -- and some sure-handed receivers lost just once in 10 games.

--A sectional title -- the sixth in a row -- for the Storm girls varsity swim team (another combined WG/OM squad), led by the WGHS Female Athlete of the Year, Faye Mooney, with other State Tournament qualifiers Alannah Klemann and Thalia Marquez.

--An IAC championship and a sectional tournament second-place finish for the resurgent Storm varsity boys swim team, led by Liam Smith, Jon Spencer, Ryan Dean and Vinnie Ocasio.

--An individual sectional title for WGHS freshman Maddie Tuttle in the Racewalk, a remarkable fact punctuated by her time: a school record. Tuttle, recovering from an ACL tear sustained in 8th grade, was not cleared to run, so had taken up the nearest thing to it: racewalking.

--A winning season by the WGHS boys varsity basketball team, led by Male Athlete of the Year Jacob Yontz, who had a pair of triple doubles and 10 double doubles.

--An IAC divisional title for the O-M girls varsity basketball team, led by offensive and defensive dynamo Hannah Nolan and sharpshooter Gina Gavich.

--A victory in the OM Duals for the Storm (Odessa-Montour/Watkins Glen) varsity wrestling team (which went 5-0 in the six-team meet), followed days later by an IAC Division II championship.

--A sectional title for the Storm varsity baseball team. The combined OM/WG squad lost its last six regular-season games after an 8-3 start, then -- with Alex Holmes and the aforementioned Daniel Lewis leading the way on the mound -- dispatched the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in the Section IV, Class C tournament before defeating Bainbridge-Guilford in the finale.

--IAC division titles for the O-M boys and girls varsity track-and-field teams. The boys saw a school record in the 3200 by Ben Campbell and the rise of David Patterson in the Triple Jump and Pentathlon. The girls’ squad saw two of its members -- Athletes of the Year Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster -- set multiple school records and qualify for the State Tournament, where Brewster placed 6th in the 100 Meter Dash, and Nolan 7th in the Pentathlon.

There were other successes -- a winning season for the WGHS tennis team (O-M didn’t field one); a resurgence in the fortunes of the WGHS softball team (which welcomed several members from O-M when that school’s varsity softball team folded); and individual standout performances (like Nick D’Alleva in WGHS lacrosse, and Rachel Vickio in WGHS basketball and track-and-field).

In retrospect, that was a lot to cover. Hundreds of photos and thousands of words. Quite a few late nights. That’s when I have my doubts. I start wondering whether I can -- before fatigue overtakes me -- finish writing the stories and processing the photos and laying it all out on pages that all too often throw technological glitches in my way.

That’s when I turn to the cat that lives with me and my son Jon. The cat’s name is Leon. So I ask him, in the dead of those nights: What do you think, Leon? Can I do it?

And he always answers with an inscrutable stare, sometimes punctuated by a demanding meow that probably says Forget your work. Give me some more food.
 
Which would make sense, I guess. He’s primarily a nocturnal creature, unaccustomed to midnight yawns ... and he loves to eat. He wouldn’t understand -- nor care about -- my fatigue at such a juncture.

But I don’t take offense. In fact, I admire his seeming self-assuredness, the comfort with which he seems to rule the household.

Next life, I think I'll come back as a cat.

*****

And earlier:

The road to a title ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, May 30, 2023 -- It was the equivalent, I suppose, of a hundred paper cuts -- each leading, as it turned out, to an ultimate demise.

The Corning Community College softball team, runner-up the previous two years at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series in Syracuse, was on the verge Saturday of finally claiming that elusive crown.

The Red Barons were up 12-7 against the top-seeded North Dakota State College of Science, which was down to its last out in the bottom of the 7th inning.

And then all hell broke loose.

I was watching, after a fashion, following the written updates on the NJCAA website. I was waiting to see “finally” happen; a championship for a snake-bitten team. But it never happened. The score on the website adjusted from 12-7 to 12-9, and then 12-10 and 12-11, and then straight to 12-13. The Red Barons had, figuratively, struck out.

A cursory exam later of the run-producing plays by North Dakota showed a  triple to right that drove in two runs; then an RBI single; then, with the bases loaded, an infield error allowing in the 11th run; then another single scoring the tying and winning runs.  From a 12-7 lead to a 13-12 loss -- an excruciating turn of events, the kind (if you are a player on the losing end) that never leaves you.

I bring this up to contrast it with the Schuyler Storm varsity baseball team, which went from the depths of a six-game losing streak at the end of the regular season to what would seem an improbable turnaround, this one of a positive nature. As the 6th seed, the Storm dispatched the No. 3 and No. 2 seeded teams before meeting another upstart, the No. 9 seeded Bainbridge-Guilford, in the Section IV, Class C championship game, played at a neutral site, the Union-Endicott High School baseball field.

Whereas the CCC goal this year was clearly that tournament title, the pinnacle that the Storm would have aimed for (and I wouldn’t have bet on it) was a sectional title. That was, in itself, a long shot. History was against it. Watkins Glen High School -- which shares the Storm roster with Odessa-Montour High School athletes -- had never won a baseball sectional championship before. O-M had once, back in 2007. Also, a lack of depth (11 players at the season’s outset) seemed to pose a possible problem.

Now, of course, with that title hurdle cleared, the team (with a couple of former JV players now among its ranks) is hoping for more, as are its fans.

******

Down early 2-0 against Bainbridge-Guilford, these Storm Bounce-Back Boys did what they had against Edison (the No. 2 seed) two days earlier: they rallied. The fact that B-G was serving up most of the rally runs through errant pitches (and a wild pickoff throw) does not diminish the feat: good teams take advantage of opportunity. And make no mistake: the Schuyler Storm is both a good team and an advantageous (not to mention resilient) one -- a team that found its mojo at just the right time; that came together when it really mattered.

It’s a team whose members pick each other up. The support between the players, and between the coaches and the players, is palpable.

It is easy to took at the regular season record of 8-9 and think “yeah, well.” But I prefer to look at that 8-3 start. Losing streaks, like slumps, can be a temporary detour. Such was the case here. Three wins when it counted -- a sectional playoff shutout and then two bounce-back wins and a resultant championship -- pretty much say it all.

And like any good team, this one is not dependent on any one star. There are, in fact, four IAC All-Stars -- Daniel Lewis, Alex Holmes, Ben Heichel and Brady Cannon -- and a supporting cast that has shown a timeliness in its productivity.

Sometimes that productivity doesn’t show up in the scorebook. For instance, the team was flailing early against Bainbridge-Guilford, with only an infield single and a walk to show for the first three innings. But down at the bottom of the order, Gunner Herrmann and Mike Hines tattooed a couple of B-G pitches to center field for outs in that third inning -- outs that showed the B-G pitcher could be hit.

Did that trigger something? I think so. That, and the fact that the entire Storm lineup had gotten a look at -- and a feel for -- that pitcher in those first three innings. That all led to a run the 4th ... and five in the succeeding 5th inning.

Confidence can play a major role in any performance; and certainly finding that mojo can shift a game’s momentum and outcome. And it doesn't hurt that the team has coaches with experience, including a head coach, Jason Westervelt, who this year alone has coached a girls swimming sectional championship team, a boys swimming sectional runnerup team ... and now has led this group to a sectional baseball title.

*****

There was a Little League team a few years ago -- okay, a lot of years ago -- called the Tigers, in a community north of Detroit. I was on it, and it was a disjointed bunch. One of the kids, named Robin, had a chip on his shoulder, and that was emblematic of the team’s relationship. We looked askance at one another, and we struggled early.

But somewhere along the line -- when I and a couple of other players started hitting line drives with consistency and Robin, somehow, found a way to smile and bond with the rest of us -- that team came together and won the league title.

On the flip side, I made the varsity baseball  team in my junior year in high school, which seemed almost impossible, given that the team makeup appeared foreordained -- a group of athletes who were, on the face of it, of a like mind ... a tight clique, really, that thought highly of itself and was far beyond my normally non-athletic world. (Oh, I liked to ski, and played neighborhood basketball and baseball, but I was a dweeb, scorned by the “true” athletes.) I made the varsity only after getting a last-minute turn in the batter’s box at a key preseason tryout, and managed to line the first pitch from the coach past his left ear, getting his attention. And then I sprayed line drives all over the place ... and made the squad.

Alas, one of the clique members got displaced as a result, and played JV ball. And so, in subsequent post-game laps that the coach imposed on the varsity, I found myself hit by the occasional stone hurled from behind me by that displaced player’s friends.

But here's the thing: For being so tightly bound, those guys weren’t really a team, for a clique does not a team make. Shared effort and sacrifice, not to mention the ability to rise to an occasion, do. And that long-ago high school team -- a group of individuals who lacked the sharing and sacrifice -- never did rise to the occasion, and so remained unsuccessful.

So I speak from personal experience. I know what struggle and success from a team standpoint looks like, and feels like. And I know when those elements are missing; when self-satisfaction and a resulting turgidity prevail.

In comparing this year to those years so many decades ago, I can say that this team, this Storm, looks and feels (though a good deal older) like my Little League Tigers of old. No stone throwing here.

I believe that no matter what happens in the coming postseason (unless, I suppose, the Storm makes it to the state title game and relinquishes a five-run lead in the bottom of the 7th), this team has earned its place in Schuyler lore as a representative to hold in high regard -- for there can be little better, looking back from the perspective of years yet to come, than a high school sectional title.

Yes, this team is something. It came together, overcame adversity, and rose to the occasion.

It is, now and forevermore, not just a champion of Section IV, but a champion for Schuyler County.

*****

And earlier:

The name game ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, May 19, 2023 -- What is in a name?

Well, quite a bit, actually. Like the ego inherent in self-identification. Like tradition.

I was saddled by my parents with the first name of Augustus, the sixth in a line dating way back. First there were three named Augustus Carl, and then three named Augustus Charles.

I tried to keep that name hidden growing up. A moniker like that was just embarrassing, the youthful me not appreciating tradition.

In fact, the first girl I dated -- my junior year in high school -- wanted to know what the “A.” stood for. That’s how I signed my name (and still do, for the most part): A. Charles Haeffner.

I wouldn’t tell her, so she tried guessing, with me saying “no” to her repeated efforts: Anthony, Alfred, Arthur and so on, until -- growing tired of the queries -- I ducked my head with some discomfiture when she tried “Andrew.”

She bought the act. So that’s what she would call me -- that and “Andy” -- when she wished to annoy me or kid me. And I played along; actually got to like the name Andrew, and sort of adopted it.

Then we broke up, and a year and a half passed, and it was time for me to graduate. She was a year behind me, but present at the graduation ceremony since her sister was in my class. And so she heard the principal, in announcing my name as a graduate, intone “Augustus Charles Haeffner.”

After the ceremony, the girl -- from whom I had basically become estranged -- walked up to me, looked me in the face, and said, rather exasperatedly: “Augustus?”

And she shook her head, and walked away. And that’s the last thing she ever said to me, for I never saw her after that.

I later -- in college -- was called “Augie” by friends (after being called “Chuck” for the most part growing up) but adopted “Charlie” as my go-to name. And so it’s been ever since.

When my son Jon was born, my wife Susan and I decided to sidestep the “Augustus” tag, and so he became Jonathan Charles Haeffner. I still, at that point, lacked an appreciation of tradition, I guess. Were I to be naming him today, I might very well go with “Augustus,” the seventh in a line.

*****

That whole matter of names and tradition has been raised with the politically correct movement away from Indian names and motifs in sports franchises and high school sports teams. Gone are the Redskins and Indians, while the Braves and Chiefs carry on as before. But that’s on the national level.

The state is another matter, where the order has gone forth: divest thyself of Indians and Redskins and, yes, Senecas.

Accordingly, the Odessa-Montour school district adopted “Grizzlies” as its nickname and mascot after years of being "Indians" -- and other schools with “Indians” as their alter ego are under the gun to change, including Candor and Groton.

Watkins Glen is about to retire “Senecas,” which has led to some teeth gnashing by traditionalist alumni, and I understand their frustration. But when the state, which controls so much in the way of school district purse strings, says “Jump,” districts pretty much have to say “How high?”

In the process now under way to find a name to replace “Senecas,” the district has winnowed down something like 200 names in 700 survey responses to 29 names picked by the School Board to pass along to students for a ranking by preference. Totals are still being tabulated.

Among the 29 names are the following: Athletics, Blue Birds, Blue Wave, Bobcats, Clippers, Coyotes, Cyclones, Ducks, Eagles, Falcons, Fighters, Fishers, Fighting Fishers, Flyers, Glaciers, Gladiators, Hawks, Lakers, Lake Hawks, Lake Serpents, Lightning, Pacers, Racers, Ravens, Thunder, Tidal Waves, Tides, Waves and White Caps.

From those, anywhere from four to 10, in the estimation of Superintendent Kai D’Alleva, will advance to a final selection process.

And eventually -- perhaps soon -- a new name will be selected, and with it a new mascot. That mascot might well be dictated by the name selected. “Coyotes” would obviously feature a Coyote, for instance. But what if it’s something generic like Lakers? What mascot associated with Seneca Lake might be selected? Ship captain? Serpent? Perch? Trout? Bass? Vacationer?

Ah, the questions associated with a change like this are many, and the chances of satisfying everyone, traditionalists and not, are seemingly remote.

I’m glad I’m not tasked with the selection.

Personally, I’m not really enamored of any of the proposals -- although I've thought for months that Thunder (or Lightning) would have worked well with the combined WGHS-OM teams, the Storm, if O-M had opted for Lightning (or Thunder) instead of going with Grizzlies.

But that didn't happen. So I'm left with this: The only name I’ve really liked over the years, and it wasn’t really mine, is Andrew. The name given to me by that girl friend. It comes, interestingly enough, from a Greek word meaning "manly."

I just don't think it would work as a team name or mascot, would it?

The Manly Andrews?

Nah.

*****

And earlier:

Good things happening ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, April 28, 2023 -- I happened upon this photo the other day. It was from the moments after Watkins Glen’s Zade Gomez Fitzsimmons scored an overtime goal against Groton back in October to give her WGHS girls varsity soccer team the IAC championship, on the way to a sectional title. For Groton, the shock of the goal -- and the frustration it created -- is clear on the face of the girl in the foreground.

I decided, back then, to not run the photo; to focus on the positive aspect -- the winning shot as it left Zade’s foot, the celebration that ensued. But it’s a pretty good photo, showing the flip side of that celebration: the agony as opposed to the ecstasy.

I present it now because I think -- having happened upon it again -- the remarkable season the WGHS girls soccer team had is worth revisiting, and to note that it is a young team. Just two seniors are leaving, although both of them, Katrina Ricca and Carly Arnold, are talented athletes, and Arnold was All-State.

But it’s a deep team, and one that responded (and will presumably continue to respond) beautifully to the coaching of Scott Morse and Ralph Diliberto. And, as we wend our way through the spring sports season -- much more successful than last year’s at WGHS (let’s not forget, by comparison, that Odessa-Montour has no tennis, no boys golf and no softball teams) -- the act of looking back also, at least in the case of the girls soccer team, prompts thoughts of a bright future.

******

And while in a positive mood (remarkable, really, given upcoming hernia surgery), I visited recently with the WGHS principal, Kyle Colunio, who was filling me in on some remarkable things going on in his school. I have to say I’m impressed, as the current administrative regime under Kai D’Alleva and the attentive School Board have altered the direction of the district in helpful, hopeful and challenging directions.

Where (a couple of administrations ago) the district seemed hell-bent on virtual education and a fairly vague stab at a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) curriculum (complete with a STEM room addition on the school’s north side), the old hands-on with real tools philosophy is back.

The old STEM room has been used from time to time over the ensuing years for curricula related to the tenets of the STEM program, but this year the room’s primary tenant is an Agriculture class -- yes, Agriculture, a lifeblood of New York and U.S. living, brought to life at WGHS through the growing of plants in a classroom. This is a first-year project -- one of several the district has undertaken.

The hands-on use of real tools -- as opposed to virtual welding and other virtual pursuits that supplanted tools that were jettisoned for pennies on the dollar -- is back in a variety of ways in the old shop classroom, whose main occupant, from a project standpoint, is a Cobra kit car being built by students through a regional program called The Winners Circle Project with an eye toward running it in a Vintage Race at Watkins Glen International in September.

That same shop classroom -- now really a metalworking classroom -- houses several car engines long since broken and discarded, but being used under the tutelage of teacher Bob Hogan to educate students as to the hows and whys of internal combustion engine repair and operation. Real welding takes place here, although virtual welding can be used as a steppingstone now to the real thing.

But there are other equally encouraging happenings in other rooms off of the school’s hallways. For instance, there is an advertising and marketing class that is tied into the Kit Cobra construction. That course, taught by Angela Morse, will turn its attention next year to work with the Chamber of Commerce and local industry experts.

And there is something quite apart from engines: a Master Chef class devised by teacher Charity Couch at the behest of the administration -- a sort of Home Economics on steroids, eschewing most of the random subjects of that traditional class and concentrating on the making of varied meals from pasta to meats to signature restaurant fare ... things learned that students can try at home to great effect. In its first year at WGHS, it has drawn 50 interested students. (Couch is also spearheading an Early Childhood Education course, to debut in 2024-25.)

That’s not the only food-related project in the school, either. Students under the tutelage of teacher Kaz Popovich have opened a Snack Shack in a room across from the main office where students can stop by (though not during lunch hour, in order to avoid conflict with the cafeteria) for food and drink -- a sort of pick-me-up in the course of a long day.

Even more important is a project undertaken at both WGHS and now at Odessa-Montour:  a project aiming to combat hunger in Schuyler County. The project was kick-started by Ava Barber, a WGHS senior enrolled in BOCES’ New Visions program, who started a food drive when faced with statistics showing many county students lack the security of a food source. She enlisted the aid of a New Visions friend, Odessa-Montour High School senior Trinity Trojanowski, to do the same at O-M.

Key to the effort, said Barber, is anonymity -- something other food programs like reduced-price lunches and a backpack program lack. Barber’s efforts have resulted in a food pantry up and running at WGHS, catering to students as the need arises. Also recently acquired: a $5,000 grant to upgrade the facility with installation of a refrigerator, allowing the collection of perishables. Both students hope to pass the effort along -- Barber through the National Honor Society -- so it will continue and grow after they graduate.

Elective classes in the usually staid curriculum of Social Studies are offering students a chance to deep dive into areas that led to today’s current world mess -- courses that can provide a greater understanding of how we have ended up in a world so seemingly on the brink of disaster in so many ways. Those new courses are The Fifties and Foreign Policy.

But my favorite change -- a creative addition to the school this year -- has got to be the Learning Lab.

This is a room in the high school devoted to reclamation -- to credit recovery for students who have, for whatever reasons (family strife, difficulty transitioning from the pandemic, and so on) fallen behind; find themselves in an academic hole from which the route to graduation is daunting.

The room caters to the individual needs of the students who populate it -- about 20 total now, with perhaps up to seven or so in there at any one time, some in need of the lab for an hour, and others for the majority of the day. It is run by longtime teachers Amy Planty and Cathy Mangus, with assists from Ward Brower,.

The room has four study carousels and other desk space, and is computer based. It can be used by students other than those in need of recovery -- perhaps looking to research a subject for a paper -- but it has been visited mostly by students who need a little help ...  a leg up out of that hole. Included in the itinerary are field trips to sites that connect the students to possibilities; that show them work sites and other locales that allow them to experience what paths they might pursue, rather than struggle without a vision.

The Learning Lab was the brainchild of the aforementioned principal, Kyle Colunio, who said it offers a sort of alternative education.

In fact, the new efforts in various classrooms -- the Cobra kit car and the metalworking, the agriculture, the Master Chef course -- offer something that perhaps a student could find on a different scale at BOCES, but without the commitment of time that that organization’s programs might entail.

These new offerings are an alternative, of sorts, to BOCES’ alternative education -- not the be-all and end-all answer to the services it provides, but an insight into what it represents, and in some cases a steppingstone to its programs.

Photos in text:

Top: The reaction of a Groton player after her team lost to Watkins Glen in the IAC soccer championship game.

Middle: WGHS students at work around the Cobra kit car.

Bottom: Teacher Amy Planty at her desk in the Learning Lab.

*****

And earlier:

To talk, or not to talk ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, April 11, 2023 -- My last column seemed to strike a chord in some folks -- more so than my musings usually elicit.

The subject was the shrinking high school sports scene here in Schuyler, a topic triggered by the absence this spring of tennis, softball and boys golf at Odessa-Montour. Other roster-challenged spring sports include lacrosse and girls track at Watkins Glen.

I suggested a general merger of sports, since it’s worked well on a growing number of joint teams -- in wrestling, baseball, football, and boys and girls swimming. And I threw out the thought that overall merger has worked well for other schools.

That led to a discussion at the last Watkins Glen School Board meeting about sports and, yes, about merger -- with the board asking Superintendent Kai D’Alleva to reach out to the Odessa-Montour school officials about perhaps initiating merger discussions.

*****

I received an email the next morning from the O-M interim Superintendent, Tracy Marchionda. We had, a couple of weeks earlier, agreed to get together for a talk sometime soon, and now seemed right. She had been contacted that morning by D’Alleva, who told her I had been at the Watkins School Board meeting and would be writing a story about it.
Anyway, I agreed to meet later that day with her and O-M School Board member Jen Mosher. As it turned out, School Board member Dana Sgrecci was also present when I arrived at Marchionda’s office.

The meeting lasted for more than an hour, and while I wasn’t treating it as a news story -- but rather a feeling-out session -- there are a couple of impressions I carried with me when I left.

First, the people running the O-M district are doing a good job in many regards, and are justifiably proud of it. Without getting into personalities, that was not always the case there -- not early on in the 20-plus years I’ve been covering the district.

Second, while the current administration has shown a willingness to merge sports with Watkins Glen on a case-by-case basis -- and I think was professing at that meeting in Marchionda's office a willingness to hold a dialogue with Watkins on perhaps a larger scale of cooperative ventures -- there seems to be no way it intends to entertain a joining of the two districts into one.

But ... and this point needs to be addressed: The full range of opportunities afforded to the kids on the playing fields and courts aren’t being met, especially this spring at O-M. There are varying reasons, but uppermost in my mind is a shortfall in recruiting. I’ve seen coaches who know how to recruit -- and put together sizable, contending teams -- and those who don’t know how.

O-M students reportedly showed no interest last year in tennis, with only a couple of inquiries about it this year. Down the hill, WGHS drew more than 20 kids combined for varsity and modified tennis this spring. Why the huge difference? I have to think recruiting -- which, once instituted, can trigger word of mouth and peer enthusiasm.

*****

And -- back to the impressions I carried with me from the meeting at O-M: Part of that district's reluctance to merge comes from pride ... from an independence embraced across the decades. That independence takes the shape of ... well, if not isolationism, then insulation. I personally encountered that when I started covering the O-M district. I was kept at an arm’s distance, as though I were invading its practitioners’ space. I found at the outset that my presence elicited only lukewarm acceptance by the student athletes, coaches and administrators I was covering. (This insulated, arms length reception has been tempered over the years. Longevity on my part has played a role, but so has O-M’s willingness to open up some; to accept, for instance, the need for targeted sports mergers.)

In contrast to the early reception accorded me at O-M, there was this: When I was convinced back in 2003 by the Watkins Glen High School Athletic Director at the time, Craig Cheplick, to start covering his district’s sporting events (something I didn’t do for most of my first year at the helm of The Odessa File), I was greeted by the Watkins students with smiles and hugs -- quite literally with open arms.

Which points up, I guess, that we are dealing with two very different districts with very different philosophies -- in communities that are quite different from one another. Watkins Glen is a village very dependent on outside visitors; Odessa is definitely not a tourist haven.

And -- back to O-M’s resistance to merge -- part of it is fiscal logic. Taxes have been kept pretty tight there, especially under the current board led by attorney Rob Halpin. The board can also point to a recent uptick in district enrollment, to a total of 796, just barely 100 less than Watkins Glen’s 898. (Both totals are fluid, what with arrivals, departures, and home schoolers who aren’t part of those numbers. But you get the idea: There isn’t that much difference between the two in terms of student population.) And while the current O-M graduating class is numbers challenged, larger classes will follow.

The O-M administrators, to hear Mosher, Sgrecci and Marchionda tell it, were surprised by the Watkins board’s sudden veer in the direction of merger. It really hasn’t been raised as a proposal in years, and then (obviously) without success -- and not, really, with any traction.

*****

So ... what is my feeling about merger?

Well, I don’t think what I think really matters. From a practical standpoint, I have no sway. I did push back a little at that meeting in Marchionda’s office, responding to a comment that O-M didn’t need to be saved. I said Watkins wasn’t trying to save them, but was talking instead about what is best for the students in the future.

And what of Watkins Glen School Board member Keith Caslin's assertion that Schuyler County can't continue to support two school districts? That might require a longer look. I don’t have a crystal ball, and have no feel for that particular subject.

I do know, though, that I have not been subjected to any sort of sticker shock when it comes to taxes here in the O-M district (well, not in a quarter century or so, but that long-past era is a different story), and I recognize the school spirit that still exists here among student athletes, particularly palpable when they are playing a Watkins Glen team.

That would seem to fly in the face of common sense, given that the two schools share a growing number of teams. But there you have it.

If fiscal responsibility and school spirit count for anything (and I think they do), then a marriage in this case -- a merger of the two districts -- might seem an unnecessary shotgun device.

But I don’t have all the answers, and I don't think that any individual person among either district's leadership does.

So the two should talk. A lot more comes out of brainstorming than from not.

*****

And earlier:

A shrinking sports scene ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, March 28, 2023 -- I find it inordinately sad, not to mention concerning.

Our two school districts have long been numbers challenged, with enrollments on a decline over the years. Where once sharing between the two was anathema to either school, now it has become increasingly commonplace.

In the past few years, athletes from both schools have shared the rosters on the baseball, football, wrestling, and girls and boys swimming teams. And it’s worked well. (In each case, merger helped alleviate dwindling participation levels.)

But declining numbers have been exacerbated -- in part, possibly, by a psychic malaise left behind by the pandemic, but I have to think there are other factors: the cultural shift toward the Internet and hand-held devices; a dearth of area feeder programs outside of football and soccer; an occasional absence of proper recruitment of student-athletes (kids sometimes need a little push, a little incentive); the presence of apathy and the absence of vision on various levels; and fallen school enrollment numbers.

You can, in fact, point all over the place: at the students, at the coaches, at the district, at society, and at the whims of nature (or the Chinese). Nothing, when it comes to analysis of life, is simple.

But the fact remains: Now, like an Incredible Shrinking Man (or Woman), the size of participation in spring high school sports in Schuyler County (not to mention in cross country and volleyball earlier in the school year) is shriveling. The traditional structure of programs like softball, tennis and golf at Odessa-Montour High School, and lacrosse, baseball and track at Watkins Glen High School are being altered -- at least in the short term, and perhaps beyond.

To wit:

As practices were underway and the start of the season (this week) approached, word came down that there is neither varsity nor junior varsity softball at O-M this year, with four of the varsity players opting to join the WGHS team, which was starting with 11 players. The O-Mers have been practicing with the Senecas’ varsity while awaiting approval to be merged into that squad. The team will not operate, as other merged sports have, as The Storm, but initially will be simply the Watkins Glen Senecas -- Senecas being a nickname good, evidently, until the end of the school year, after which a new one (so sayeth the state) must be adopted.

But softball -- and this should be the trigger to permanent merger of that sport -- is not alone.

There is no one playing boys golf at O-M this year, while the girls have but three players. And as with last year (and 2020 and 2021), there is no O-M tennis team. "We had a couple of students ask about tennis," said O-M Athletic Manager Greg Gavich, "but not enough interest to form a team." No softball, no boys golf, no tennis. That leaves baseball and track.

Baseball is bordering on thin this year, too, at least at the varsity level, with the large majority (9) of the combined (OM and WG) team coming from the Odessa school. The roster, which requires nine players on the field, topped out at 11. Junior Varsity and Modified participation is higher, with 14 on the JV (8 from O-M and 6 from Watkins), and 25 on the Modified (11 from O-M and 14 from Watkins).

It could be perceived as particularly galling that softball and baseball numbers are falling despite relatively cushy facilities -- where a lot of money was spent on installing artificial turf in the infields.

Meanwhile, lacrosse at WGHS -- a venture going back more than a half-dozen years -- has not yielded any results approximating competitive success, but is back again this year, with 17 players on the varsity. But there is no Modified squad since, as Athletic Director Rod Weeden explained, “Not enough signed up to complete a team.” (So some of the varsity members are would-have-been Modified players, had there been such a squad). O-M, meanwhile, has never tried lacrosse, nor attempted to merge with the WGHS program -- although Watkins should, I suggest, offer spots on the Watkins roster.

Watkins Glen has also struggled in recent years with recruiting athletes to the boys and girls varsity track teams, and that continues to be the new normal -- although the boys number is steady this year at 15. (The girls, alas, are at 8; and the Modified numbers are alarmingly low: 6 boys and 0 girls.) O-M’s numbers are encouraging: the boys track team has 25 members, while the girls have 17 -- totals that are an anomaly in a sea of struggle.

Watkins Glen, unlike O-M, has boys golf, with 6 participants, while the girls team has 5. Tennis is healthy there, with 18 members on the mixed boys and girls varsity tennis team.

Also healthy: the newly formed (last year) co-ed Clay Trap Shooting club, with 34 student-athletes between the two schools -- 19 boys and 6 girls from WGHS, and 7 boys and 2 girls from O-M. “Trap is still a club sport for NYSPHSAA (NYS Public High School Athletic Association) purposes,” said Weeden. “However, we are giving varsity letters and pins to those who compete in the sport at the local level.”

(The overall problem of shrinkage is present in the arts, as well. The recently concluded WGHS musical, The Wizard of Oz -- which attracted sizable audiences to all three performances -- drew a smaller than expected turnout of participants, so the directors turned to 5th and 6th graders to fill the roles of the Munchkins. And flexibility in costume changes became the norm as several thespians embraced multiple roles. One 8th grader had a half-dozen different roles, including a solo in one of the play’s musical numbers.)

(And another tradition, the youth basketball league run by Jim Scott at Watkins Glen for decades -- a rite of passage for many up-and-coming boys and girls over the years -- has seen a sharp drop in participation numbers.)

If there is any consolation, it is in the Modified numbers of some sports. O-M 's Gavich says there “seems to be more interest in the current Modified sports, as well as a larger enrollment in those grades as a whole.” So the numbers picture might brighten a little going forward, but time will tell the truth of that -- and in fact I have my doubts.

As a longtime advocate of youth sports culminating in the high school competitive experience, this stark drop-off has me thinking “merger, merger.” And not only of the sports teams (though more than that seems unlikely).

Look to Elmira or Corning. They merged schools (Southside and Elmira Free Academy in the one instance and Corning East and West in the other) in 2014, and aren’t facing such dismal sports numbers. But of course they have many more bodies -- which is the point when I say merger of (at least) sports should be advanced here to include cross country (not offered at O-M, but maybe there are some interested runners), lacrosse (again, not yet offered at O-M), indoor track (ditto), volleyball, golf, tennis and softball. Now would seem a good time to embrace such moves.

Without softball, tennis or boys golf at O-M, and with weak numbers in baseball, softball, girls track and lacrosse at Watkins Glen -- not to mention in cross country and volleyball -- the odds of a meaningful, competitive experience on the playing fields and courts are diminished, robbing the kids of worthwhile experiences; of opportunity.

To the point, if this spring is anything like the last (when those dwindling numbers started surfacing in earnest), there will be an unavoidable dip in the level of play. Last spring, this website -- which just recently named an All-Star winter squad with First, Second and Third Teams -- had to limit its All-Stars to a single First Team.

This season, alas, is not looking any better. Perhaps worse, in fact.

I've noticed that Dick's Sporting Goods has an ad whose theme is "Sports Change Lives."

They can, but not if they've evaporated.

I, for one, mourn the past of Schuyler sports, and fear for their future, and by extension the future of our kids.

*****

And earlier:

Picking through the facts ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, March 22, 2023 -- Not to be morbid -- I’m really not trying to be -- but:

Every time I receive an obituary to run on this website regarding the passing of somebody younger than me, I take a moment to reflect on the fate we each face, and wonder when my time might come -- and who, if I’m still operating this website up to that point, will do the honors of posting an account of my life.

I imagine that my exit will come when I look up and see my late wife, Susan, smiling and beckoning. “It’s time,” she will say, and -- knowing I’ll be reunited with her -- I will willingly go.

Where to? The light, I suppose, although what comes next cannot be determined definitively until we are there. Will I just cease to be, and blend in with nature? Or is there more?

And who will write about me? I can only imagine the effort that will go into trying to list my contributions. (Well, actually, that wouldn’t be very long.) For what it’s worth, here’s some helpful facts to build around.

-- I was a procrastinator as a youth, and one of those so cowed by the classroom that I feigned sickness on occasion and stayed home from school in order to sidestep the ignominy of being called upon without a ready answer to whatever the teacher was asking. (This was part shyness, and part and parcel with that procrastination. I was all too often woefully unprepared. But it also reached back to the third grade, when my teacher -- an unpleasant, elderly woman -- chastised a kid in our class by holding him upside down by his feet. He was small, and so the effort did not take Herculean effort; but the effect was Herculean on me.)

-- I had a crush on a girl named Patty in nursery school, and on a girl named Dee Dee in fifth grade. Dee Dee was reputed to give out kisses at recess -- out among the sheltering cover of a stand of fir trees. I may have gotten a buss from her once; or maybe I just fantasized about it.

-- I was seriously in the throes of love thrice in my life -- first with a first-cousin who, until we gathered as a family one summer for a reunion, I had thought I hated. By the time that vacation was over, I was totally smitten with her, prompting my mother to wag her finger at me and utter “No!” The next two times I tumbled, it was with the two women I married. The love in the first such instance faded; the second never has.

-- I was a bit of a smart-ass through my teens and 20s -- a defense mechanism shielding my insecurities. An example came on my first day in journalism class in college, a course that proved a steppingstone, as it turned out, to a career. The professor, Robert Gildart (who ultimately became a proponent of mine), asked -- in a discussion of headline writing -- what word might be used in place of “fisherman” in order fit it into the limited space allowed. I raised my hand and answered (despite knowing the answer was “angler”) this way: “That would be ‘hooker,’ sir.” Mr. Gildart held me back after class to warn me that he wouldn’t put up with such affrontery.

-- My first career job was during my college years, at the Pontiac Press north of Detroit as a summer intern, where I was awed by the editors, save one who delighted in harassing and belittling me. Fortunately, I had to work in his department only part of the time, and mostly secreted myself in a separate room housing the sports department and its marvelous editor, Bruno Kearns -- a legend in that part of Michigan. Bruno taught me a lot about sports coverage; the other editor (the belittler) showed me how not to oversee a news team.

-- I followed that with about nine years at the Watertown (NY) Daily Times, situated in my first wife’s hometown. I took the better part of a year off after two years there -- with the avowed purpose of writing a novel, but mostly to rid myself of a case of ulcers that prompted a diet designed to mollycoddle my digestive system. I was, it seemed, not yet ready for the tug of war that daily life in the workaday world proved to be.

-- I eventually ended the first marriage and embarked, the next year, on a second one with Susan, who was living in Watertown while teaching in nearby Copenhagen. She was one of two roommates of a woman with whom I worked at the Watertown Times, and I met her through that connection. After a couple of years together, Susan and I traveled the country in a motorhome for about three months, ending up in the Ithaca area, where we resided for a year. Then came Odessa, in a house whose purchase was lined up by her father, Oakley Bauman, a prison guard operating a gun shop in Odessa next door to his wife’s Country Cards business, located little more than a stone’s throw from the house he found for us.

-- Then came the Elmira Star Gazette, where I secured an editing job literally hours after interviewing, against my better judgment, for a telemarketing post in Ithaca. I left that telemarketing interview almost running: it was not remotely my cup of tea, and the woman in charge seemed a bit too Genghis Khan-like for my taste.

-- Eight years later, after stints at the Star Gazette as an Assistant Regional Editor, Assistant Sports Editor and Sports Editor (and after four months on loan from that paper to USA Today), I left journalism and entered into the financially shaky territory of sports memorabilia -- setting up at shows along the eastern seaboard from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, and closer to home.

-- The Corning Leader came next in 1996, and lasted three years until I could no longer stomach a souring relationship with the publisher (a business-side guy with whom I -- being on the news-side operation as Assistant Managing Editor -- couldn't really find a meeting of the minds); and then, after spending a couple of years writing (primarily The Maiden of Mackinac, a fantasy novel about a reputed 700-year-old Ojibwe woman), I embarked on something called The Odessa File. Along the way after that, I lost my wife, my mother, my father- and mother-in-law, and assorted other relatives.

And here we are. Have at it, whoever writes my obit when the time eventually comes. Pick and choose. Need more help? There are other signposts, I suppose -- the difficulties I encountered along the way from less than cooperative news subjects (a couple of former school superintendents come immediately to mind), and, on a more positive note, the success of the Top Drawer 24 program that honored high school students in the area under my auspices and the direction of former Watkins Glen High School Athletic Director Craig Cheplick. We ran that for 15 years. And there is, it's worth mentioning, a program I started called The Essentials -- a compendium of folks honored on this website who have in the past been, or continue to be, important to life in Schuyler County.

So ... anyway ... by my judgment, there are some nuggets there, but not much for so many years on Earth.

More to my credit, I think, are the facts that I’ve stayed out of jail and resisted an urge to enter the cesspool of Washington politics in an effort to fulfill a childhood dream to become a U.S. Senator.

Those two things alone should earn me a couple of gold stars at the Pearly Gates.

*****

And earlier:

Forever friend, forever hero

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, March 6, 2023 -- I was glancing through some of my sports memorabilia the other day when I happened upon a 5x7-inch photo of John Melvin “Bubba” Phillips in his Chicago White Sox uniform, with the date noted on the reverse: 1959. It was signed “Best Wishes. Bubba Phillips.”

It is not, as such memorabilia goes, of significant monetary value. But as one of the rare physical links that I have to Bubba, it is basically priceless to me.

Bubba Phillips, out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was a major league baseball player for a decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, a .255 career hitter for the White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, predominantly playing a solid, dependable third base. He played in one World Series, in 1959 with the White Sox, going 3-for-10 with a double as Chicago lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.

It was during his stint with the Tigers in 1963 and 1964 that I came to know him.

I’ve written about Bubba before -- as part of an introduction for a book I never published -- for he impacted a growing boy in a way that only a hero/friend can. I admired him, and thanked God for the attention he paid to the pimply-faced teenager I was. After finding that 5x7 photo and studying Bubba’s friendly face, I dug out that book introduction, which I condense here, just to give you a sense of the man and what he meant -- what one man can mean.

Bubba died in 1993, felled by a heart attack. I wept when I read about it, and I mourn him to this day -- a day in which I now am older than he lived to be.

What follows seems -- at least in part -- to be quaint now, as major league baseball adopts a pitch clock and hastens the flow of its games. But the sentiment remains.

*****

For a young boy like me growing up in the 1960s, Bubba Phillips was perhaps an unlikely hero -- a journeyman ballplayer of average height and modest batting average. He did little in the realm of extraordinary, but I -- we -- embraced him nonetheless.

I say "we" because he belonged to all the neighborhood kids from the moment he first came to my house in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to visit.

"Hey, Rich (or Chris or whichever friend I called with the news)! You'll never guess who's over here. Bubba Phillips!"

"Yeah, right. And I'm Rocky Colavito."

The Rock -- a Detroit Tiger outfielder and noted home-run hitter -- was our hero up to that moment.

"No, no. Really. Honest. My folks met him down South, on a trip, right after the Tigers got him. They're like friends ... and he's over here now. Wanna meet him?"

And of course they all did.

*****

Right after Bubba’s trade to Detroit from Cleveland in '63, my parents -- while visiting old friends in Laurel, Mississippi (where they had once lived in post-World War II days) -- were introduced at a party to Bubba and his wife, Martha, residents of nearby Hattiesburg.

In retrospect, I suspect that knowing someone near his new base of operations meant something substantial to Bubba. It gave him a point of reference outside of the game itself -- a haven from the rigors of diamond warfare. And since he was living out of a hotel, it gave him the semblance of a home away from home.

At the time, though, I thought not in terms of his needs -- only in terms of his presence. He was 33, I realize now, though such calculations never entered my head back then. He was so many things: he was a Tiger and a hero, yes, but also a play companion when we swam in our small, crater-shaped lake north of Detroit; a foe to be reckoned with when we played ball tag on the neighbor's dock; and the source of free tickets to Tigers home games whenever my brother and I wanted them.

*****

Bubba was also my mentor that first summer, teaching me the finer points of batting, fielding and throwing -- an effort crowned by a scheduling quirk that allowed him a night off and a chance to visit on an evening in which my Babe Ruth League baseball team (for which I patrolled left field) was playing a game. As fate would have it, none of the team's handful of pitchers showed up for the game, forcing our manager to turn elsewhere.

"Hey," said a helpful teammate. "Haeffner's pitched before. I caught him a few times in Little League."

"Is that right?" asked the manager, turning toward me with a pleading look. And indeed I had, and with some success -- but it was a role I had gladly left behind.

You see, the difference between Little League and Babe Ruth pitching was multi-faceted. Increases in the distance from the mound to home plate and in the elevation of the mound itself were only part of the problem. The intervening years had also added wisdom and knowledge to my limited repertoire of pitches -- and hence increased my awareness that there were significant forces (starting with batters and bench jockeys and concluding with my own teen-frail nerves) allied against me.

But circumstance warranted I take the mound that night. I would not have been a true team player if I had refused. Alas, I knew as the first pitch sailed behind the batter's head that I really wasn't meant to toe the pitcher's rubber.

My sense of doom was heightened by the arrival of Bubba just as the game was about to start. Seated along the sidelines, disguised by sunglasses and the anonymity that comes with being a merely average major leaguer, he puffed and then -- extinguishing it -- chewed on a cigar with increasing agitation as I tried mightily to find the strike zone. The harder I tried, the more I validated the hopelessness of performing for my hero.

"Come on, Chuck baby," he yelled a couple of times, for that was my teenage moniker. "Hum it, baby. This guy's all yours."

But none of the batters were mine.

The first walked on four pitches.

The second walked on four pitches.

The third walked on four pitches.

I paced, dried my pitching hand on a resin bag, turned 360 degrees to the left for luck, sniffed the leather of my glove for inspiration, looked skyward to the gods, and glanced at Bubba for reassurance.

By that point, though, he was not a reassuring sight. Chewing more and more violently on his cigar, he had worked it down to the final inch; seated on the ground, his arms wrapped around his bent knees, he had started a swaying motion that, with each increasing thrust forward, seemed to be pushing the cigar farther and farther into his mouth.

"Ball!" yelled the umpire as my 13th pitch sailed high and wide. Bubba's head bobbed downward. He was no longer watching.

"Ball!" bellowed the umpire again as the catcher blocked one in the dirt. Bubba's rocking was picking up in tempo.

"Ball!" came the cry again as the batter dove out of the way. This time I didn't look Bubba's way. Concentrate, I told myself. Focus. For Pete's sake, get a strike.

I looked in as though the catcher's sign would make a difference, stretched to hold the runners on, and cut loose with my 16th pitch.

"Ball!"

I didn't move from my follow-through position for several seconds, staring at the ground, wondering how I had arrived at this pinpoint of misfortune in a universe full of promise. And why. Especially now, in front of Bubba.

Bubba.

I looked over at him. He had stood, and removed his sunglasses. His head was bowed, but as I watched he lifted it and took a deep breath.

He looks green, I thought, but then dismissed it as a trick of early evening light and the distance between us. But my initial instinct was correct. That last pitch had not only forced in a run, it had forced Bubba into a convulsive gasp that pulled the remainder of his cigar down his throat. He was fighting nausea.

But even as he struggled to regain his composure, Bubba's eyes sought -- and found -- mine.

And he shrugged. And smiled.

*****

The manager found another body to replace mine on the mound, and I moved to the outfield, atoning at least partially with an assist and a couple of hits. We lost, though, and if there is a scorecard of the game surviving somewhere, it will show me as the pitcher of record.

I seldom replay that game in my mind, however. An 0-1 Babe Ruth League career pitching record is hardly something to haunt me. If anything, I find it amusing. Very few people can miss the plate 16 straight times.

What stays with me is Bubba. I often think of the cigar, and of the shrug, and of the smile.

I had performed poorly, and it had upset Bubba's nerves. But in the end, the performance was of little significance. He held it against me no more than I would hold an 0-for-4 or a throwing error against him. It was part of the game. It was worth a shrug.

But beyond that -- beyond the vagaries of a game played by young boys and grown boys, beyond the balls and strikes and wins and losses -- Bubba and I had struck a chord … had forged a friendship.

My hero was my friend, a man who could see past my ignominy, and his own nausea, and salve my wounded pride with a shrug and a smile.

*****

By 1993, in an age of fast food joints, video games, action films and cable TV, there were few heroes left. And Bubba was about to leave the stage of life.

"Do I have a hero?" my son Jonathan asked that year in answer to my question. "Nah. I don't think so."

"What about Billy Joel?" his younger brother David prompted helpfully.

"Billy Joel?" said Jonathan, then a budding singer himself at 12. "No. He's not a hero. He's a favorite."

Yes, hero-worship requires more than well-grounded practicality. It requires blind faith, a commodity in short supply.

I don't think there is a youngster of my acquaintance who would, in this era of haste, look to a journeyman baseball player as a hero. To do so requires an appreciation of time measured in pop flies and ground balls and bunt signs and pickoff attempts and stolen bases.

It requires both an appreciation of brief but illustrious individual feats -- say a Willie Mays catch of a Vic Wertz drive -- and a knowledge of historical footnotes and pennant winners and players' season and career statistics.

Its requires knowing a Dale Long from a Dale Murphy, a Hank Sauer from a Hank Aaron.

It requires an appreciation of the flow of time, and of the natural ease with which baseball's measured and modulated pace mirrors it.

*****

Bubba Phillips returned to his beloved South after baseball, and we lost touch with each other, though I heard that he had joined the athletic department at his alma mater, Southern Mississippi.

We did by chance talk once more -- on the phone, years later -- but little stands out other than the joy I felt in finding that everything was going well for him and Martha. It was the warmth one person feels in the good fortune of a friend.

And so when I read in 1993 that Bubba had collapsed and died while loading wood onto his pickup truck outside his home in Hattiesburg, I immediately did two things.

First, I gasped.

It was a gut reaction to the shock and, I realized with great fondness, the kind of thing that might have forced a cigar butt down my throat had I been chewing one.

And the second thing I did was, I cried.

****

And earlier:

Familiarity counts ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Feb. 17, 2023 -- I was sitting there in the waiting room when the thought came unbidden to me.

“Damn,” I thought, and maybe muttered it aloud.

This, I realized with sudden clarity, was the same hospital where my wife had died 18 years ago.

And the thought momentarily unnerved me.

It’s not like I hadn’t had a smidge of trepidation nearing the hospital. I was transporting my son Jon, who was to undergo a gall-bladder removal. But I hadn’t allowed my mind to fixate on what, in retrospect, seems obvious: this was a place I had no desire to revisit, and hadn’t since my wife’s demise there 18 years ago.

I was at the Arnot Ogden Medical Center, waiting while the staff there worked to take out an organ that had been causing my son all sorts of problems. As surgeries go, it ranks low on the risk list. But as a necessity? Well, it seemed a no-brainer.

The doctor, in approaching me in that waiting room after the surgery, said something about the gall bladder containing “big stones” and that all had, indeed, gone well.

Which drew a sigh of relief from me, because considering what had happened to my wife there --   a fatal pulmonary embolism that came after she had begun radiation treatments for a rare form of cancer -- my nerves were taking a bit of a hit.

Anyway, the doctor said Jon was in recovery, and then would be wheeled back down to the day surgery cubicle in which he had started the process. I was told I could wait there, and was doing so when a familiar face and voice came down the hall.

“I thought it was you,” the female voice said. “I saw the name for your son, and I figured there can’t be too many of those.” The spelling -- Haeffner -- is not unique, but pretty close.

Oddly enough, my nerves settled as the woman -- in nurse scrubs -- entered the cubicle and signed in on a board on the wall: Michelle.

I had to smile. My son's nurse was Michelle Thorpe Lynch.

*****

I covered Michelle Thorpe’s athletic exploits at Watkins Glen High School early in my tenure running The Odessa File. She graduated in 2006. Now married, in her 30s, and the mother of three, she is a registered nurse.

I was friends with her back then -- back in the day -- the way I am friends with kids from any generation that comes through the WGHS or Odessa-Montour hallways.

Nowadays, it’s people such as Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster at O-M, and Carly Arnold and Maddie Tuttle at WGHS. All of them and their classmates were just about being born, or (in freshman Maddie’s case) would be in the coming years while Michelle Thorpe -- and Courtney Warren, Molly Murphy, Molly Oates and others -- were holding forth on the fields and courts for the Seneca Nation.

The bottom line from my son’s recovery was this: Michelle brought a professionalism and personalism to the experience that relaxed Jon, not to mention his old father. And helped dispel the ghosts that had begun to haunt me in that waiting room.

Most nurses I’ve encountered are quite good, but I don’t generally encounter one at a family trauma moment who I’ve known for the better part of two decades.

Familiarity counts. And in this case was a blessing.

*****

And it all got me to thinking. Michelle Thorpe Lynch has carved out an admirable career; but there are so many students from the Schuyler past whose post-graduate paths have eluded me. Michelle was on the first Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by this website. I was involved with the program for 15 years, which means a lot of kids got honored not only for their high school achievements, but for what I and program co-founder Craig Cheplick thought they might accomplish in the coming years, based on their young track records.

One of the key people in that program’s early years was Brian O’Donnell, who served as the WGHS principal and later on the School Board. He published a spiral-bound book that serves as an outstanding history of the Watkins School District, covering the years 1853-2008. Among the many gems in there is a photo of that first Top Drawer team, along with lists of honorees for the program's first three years.

Among the first 24, for instance, was Katey Cheplick, the only freshman on the squad ever (and the only four-time honoree). She is having a stellar administrative career at Keuka College. But I’m really not up to speed (except in some piecemeal ways) on the others. Michelle Thorpe, yes, and I believe Molly Oates is teaching in Ithaca, but not the aforementioned Warren and Murphy, nor the following:

WGHS -- Sophie Peters, Jaclyn Conklin, Jon Fazzary, Alan McIlroy, Steven Combs, John Michael Bianco, Jeff Kellogg, Phil Brown, Natasha Evans, and Ashley Evans.

O-M -- Sherry Benedict, Ryan Goossen, Matt Thomason, Katie Taber, Brad Stephens, Shannon Westlake, Pat Barnes, Melissa Shutter and Jordan Janke.

From O’Donnell’s succeeding 2007 Top Drawer list we can also add WGHS honorees Ellie Fausold, Jaimie Sedlack, Andrea Witiaz, Sunnie Smith, Ariana Marmora, Ben Stamp and Tom Blake, and O-M honorees Cassie Fitch, John Blaha, Michele Kenney, Jesse Johnson, Kassie Taylor, Amanda Wager and Justin Hall.

From the third year, 2008, I know that WGHS’s Nick Phoenix is doing IT work for a company in the Pensacola, Florida area; that Joe Stansfield is now a member of the Watkins Glen School Board; and that Molly Bilinski is a published author (“Lady of Sherwood”) and working in the chemistry field while living over in the Buffalo area. But among other first-time honorees on that list are Abby Stamp, Ernie Brennan, Erik Dahl, Ben Quigley and Ashley Savard.

If anyone wants to send along updates, please do.

*****

All of which leads to the Tribute Awards, honoring high school student-athletes in those two schools for their outstanding academics, athletics, citizenship and character -- much like Top Drawer aspired to do in its early, two-school years. That program grew to a dozen  schools around the region over the years, and now -- since I and co-founder Craig Cheplick bowed out and it fell under the auspices of WENY -- is on track (I’m told) to cite 50 kids after honoring 64 last year. I’m not sure how many school districts WENY has extended to.

The Tribute Awards -- with input from school administrators and anyone who wants to submit a nomination -- will be announced in May. This is what has evolved from an Odessa File program two years ago in which seven students from each school were honored (thus The Magnificent Sevens) and from last year’s Roll Call of Excellence (which was a bland and unwieldy title).

Plans call for each honoree to receive certificates of commendation from State Senator Tom O’Mara and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, and maybe from Congressman Nick  Langworthy. I’m looking for a way to finance plaques, and talks are underway regarding a possible dinner. This would not -- like we used to do with the Top Drawer 24 -- be at the State Park, but rather indoors.

From all appearances, The Tributes program will likely involve 16 students --  eight from each school.

So ... if you have anyone you would like to tout, now is the time. Tributes await.

*******

And earlier:

A matter of time ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Jan. 17, 2023 -- Past, present, future.

The first of those, the past, paid me a visit the other day. Or perhaps I visited it.

I refer to a gathering of 15 bowlers at Harborside Lanes in Watkins Glen -- 15 bowlers who once upon a time bowled for Watkins Glen High School in Interscholastic Athletic Conference competitions at that very alley. This was the first annual Watkins Glen Alumni Bowling Tournament, organized by various alums.

When I walked in, I felt a little overwhelmed by deja vu, the first bowler I spotted (because he was dressed, as he has long tended to, in bright colors) being H. Nathaniel Rose.

Our greeting was simple.

“Hey, H,” I said to him.

“Hi, Charlie,” he answered back.

He last bowled for WGHS in 2019. He’s in college now at RIT, and still involved -- as he was in high school -- in stage productions.

Then I spotted Christian Thompson, still as lanky as he was when he bowled for the Senecas back in 2000-2006. He works (I believe he said) in the asphalt trade now. He is an archer and angler, and looks even fitter than years ago. He hadn’t bowled in two years, but rolled a 198 his first game on the way to teaming with Natasha Evans for first place in the tourney.

And there was Natasha’s twin sister, Ashley Evans Richtmyer, with her toddler, Aurora, and Hayley Cornish with her daughter, Evelynn. Gads. I used to cover these mothers of children when they were kids themselves.

Down a few lanes was Erika Rhodes. I once wrote a story about her and her art back in her high school days, which ended in 2014. She still produces drawings and paintings, although she works not as an artist, but at Pathways, which caters to individuals and families with a host of services.

She remembered that article I wrote those years ago, and said that now she doesn’t think her artwork back then was very good -- although I disagree. She was, in fact, working during the tourney, between turns on the lanes, creating a logo for Ward Brower, the WGHS bowling coach who, way back when, purchased one of Erika’s paintings. I believe it had been on display at the school with other students’ work, and I had put in a bid for it -- too late.

I include the logo here, personifying a term Brower uses to describe the bowlers on his WGHS girls’ bowling team this year: Ladies of the Lake.

And there were another 10 people bowling at the Alumni Tourney, although with thinner threads to my past. I knew the names, but not always the faces.

All told, though, it was a bit disorienting -- while at the same time gratifying. There can be something rather warming about revisiting the past like that.

****

And there is the present.

I refer here primarily to the current high school sports season. I’ve rather immersed myself in it, and along with everyone was flabbergasted that 16-year-old Keyonna Garrison -- a fit and talented student athlete -- could be victimized by a stroke.

That she has come home -- and that she was starting rehab this week; and that the prognosis is good, according to her parents -- is welcome news, as welcome as that involving the fallen Buffalo Bill, Damar Hamlin, who is by all accounts well on his way to recovery.

And thoughts of Keyonna swing to the challenges her teammates face this week -- against a resurgent Watkins Glen team on Wednesday, and against a tough Moravia team on Friday. It could be a rocky week for the O-M girls, but as they say, nothing is foreordained -- or more colloquially, that’s why they play the games.

The Watkins girls basketball team is seemingly coalescing into a winning squad, with scoring contributions from several quarters -- normally senior Jenna Solomon and freshman Rachel Vickio, but recently senior Chelsea Parsons, too.

The Watkins boys basketball team is having intermittent success, with some eye-popping stats from Jacob Yontz, while the O-M boys have struggled, but have rebounded from a nightmarish start to claim four victories thus far.

Wrestling and boys swimming -- both combined squads of WGHS and O-M athletes -- have found some successes, too, although the bowlers -- fairly low in numbers -- have been (with limited exceptions) struggling. (Is merger of that sport in the near future?)

All in all, there will be plenty of All-Star selections ahead in the All-Schuyler, All-Sports team this website publishes at season’s end.

The fact is, I enjoy these high school competitions -- and am repeatedly, year after year, impressed by the student athletes who populate them.

Come May, I’ll be honoring more than a dozen Schuyler students beyond All-Star performances. This website will, as it did for years with the Top Drawer 24, be honoring those who stand out for athleticism, sportsmanship, academics and citizenship.

This will be the third year of such (post Top Drawer) honors. Two years ago, there were 14 honorees -- seven each from O-M and WGHS. I called them, in rather uninspired fashion, the Magnificent Sevens. Last year there were 15 total from the two schools, and I called their honor the Roll Call of Excellence. But that struck me in retrospect as a bland title. It needed more punch -- something easily indentifiable.

I’ve decided finally (I hope) on The Tribute Awards -- or simply The Tributes.

Anyone you want to nominate? Send me the name or names and a little bit of biographical information.

*****

And there is the future.

There was the presentation at a recent Odessa-Montour School Board meeting by GST BOCES Superintendent Kelly Houck. She told the board that a mandated move to an electric-bus fleet was coming -- that any assumption that it wouldn’t come to pass would be misguided.

“It will happen,” she said, noting in information distributed to the board that “districts will be required to purchase or lease only zero-emission school buses starting on July 1, 2027.” And this: “Districts will be required to only use zero-emission buses, commencing July 1, 2035.”

And not just buses, said Houck. Any district vehicle that carries students, meaning vans, will have to be electric.

Think about it. A fleet of buses, each constructed for zero emissions, means electric charges administered through charging stations. Since the mileage available from one charge won’t get buses as far as current diesel engines do, there are built-in challenges in a rural, hilly environment like Schuyler County with cold, battery-sapping winters. Each bus will cost about $350,000, up from the current $150,000 or so. Houck indicated the first fleet will have funding available through a grant program. But after that? Who knows? There seems an awful lot of unknowns about this.

One fairly knowledgeable source, empirecenter.org, questioned the wisdom of the movement in an article late last year titled “Charging Forward: New York’s Costly Rush to Electrify School Buses.”

There was this telling paragraph in a very long, detailed study:

“With more than 50,000 school buses, New York has ten percent of the national fleet. With purchase prices of $150,000 to $275,000 more than diesel buses, plus infrastructure upgrade costs of $10,000 to $30,000 per bus, the upfront cost to electrify New York’s entire school bus fleet will be between $8 billion and $15.25 billion more than replacing them all with new diesel buses. At that price even the combined outside funding sources – which add up to less than $800 million – won‘t go far toward helping New York school districts pay for the switch to zero-emission buses.”

The empirecenter.org's conclusion? "While electric school buses can improve the health of students, the negative health impacts of diesel buses are more cost-effectively mitigated by purchasing newer models or retrofitting older buses with more advanced technology."

And the whole issue is compounded, in the words of Houck, by “so much gray and ambiguity so far.”

That zero-emission program, combined with noises from the state’s Climate Action Council, is giving a lot of people pause. The CAC has a plan that, State Senator Tom O’Mara has relayed, calls for:
 
"--No natural gas within newly constructed buildings, beginning in 2025;  
--No new gas service to existing buildings, beginning in 2030;  
--No replacement natural gas appliances for home heating, cooking, water heating, clothes drying beginning in 2035;  
--No gasoline-automobile sales by 2035; and  
--Installing onsite solar or joining a community renewables program by 2040."

O’Mara has been decrying this direction rather loudly, saying the cost to homeowners down the road will be prohibitive.

“Governor Hochul’s ambition to impose far-reaching clean energy mandates on all New Yorkers keeps moving forward,” O’Mara wrote in a column published on this website last month,  “yet her unwillingness to explain how much it will cost or how the state intends to pay for it remains shocking. Consumers have no idea what’s coming. The Climate Action Council’s plan has never been accompanied by any cost-benefit analysis of the impact of these actions on energy affordability, reliability, or sustainability.”
 
It’s a bleak picture he paints, and if remotely accurate ... well, lordy!

And they think the exodus from the state is in high gear now ....

****

The past, present and future.

I  look back fondly at the first.

I enjoy the second (an enjoyment enhanced, I suppose, by having fought off cancer).

And, finally, I look to the future with trepidation -- not for me, necessarily, but for my children and grandchildren, and for all those of their generations.

*****

And earlier:

20 years and beyond ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Dec. 29, 2022 -- Well, we’re at the 20-year mark.

Twenty years since I started this website back on Dec. 29, 2002.

Seems like a lot of years ... and I guess it is. Over a quarter of my life: roughly 27%. More than 7,300 days. God knows how many stories I’ve published. Certainly more than 20,000 of them. And way more photos than that.

I’ve covered close to a couple of thousand kids competing on the high school athletic fields, courts and courses. Befriended some; honored a good many through weekly, seasonal and annual honors.

I’ve covered various government, educational and business stories, written hundreds of columns, and provided space for many, many Public Service Announcements.

It hasn’t always been easy, what with technological hiccups, a reluctance by some officials to be the subjects of news stories, and a reluctance by some coaches who were less than forthcoming with game results.

But most of that pushback came early on. Longevity -- and I suppose the familiarity that comes with it -- has seemingly smoothed the rough edges of acceptance. And for that I am grateful.

The decision came early to avoid a pay wall -- access to this website through subscriptions. I was told by an acquaintance at a newspaper that does charge that it was the only way to run a business. My philosophy is the opposite. I wanted readers; I needed them above all else. Then I could justify charging for advertisements. And that hasn’t changed. (I thought naively at first that donations would be a substantive part of my operating income, but that never came to pass.)

Very little in the way of change is envisioned for Year 21, although I might expand some coverages. One idea I’ve mentioned before is a podcast run by my son Jon, I suppose with my participation, as well.

This has -- up to now and embracing selective amnesia; forgetting the occasional nasty email or irate phone call; and shrugging off some slightly offensive opinions regarding the quality of my work -- been an absolute blast (if you also discount the struggle to produce while I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in the latter half of 2021).

The Odessa File has proved to be the best professional decision of my life -- of what is now a lengthy career in journalism dating back to my college days in the late 1960s.
I have given thought from time to time about writing in detail of the ups and downs -- the achievements and setbacks -- in running a newspaper. Or in this case, an online publication designed (with personal touches) to emulate the kind of print media at which I worked in Pontiac (my first newspaper stop, in Michigan), and then in Watertown, Elmira and Corning, New York, with a stint at USA Today.

But I doubt I will tackle it; or if I do, it won’t be a tell-all, but more the conveyance of the importance and difficulty in providing such a public accounting. I would demonstrate it through specific coverage instances -- or, to put it more simply -- through anecdotes; through stories. But I won’t belabor any of them here.

No, I will simply say it’s been an honor to provide a service like this, and despite the occasional thought of retirement, I hope I can continue to provide it for a reasonable time in the future. At my age, I don’t know what reasonable is. But the fact remains that I’m a good deal younger than our president, and younger than the man who preceded him, and practically a child next to, say, the senior senator from Iowa, Mr. Grassley, who was recently re-elected at the age of 89.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, actor/director Clint Eastwood has been productive into his 90s.

So ... I rule out nothing. I’ve never been a long-term planner, nor an adherent to some of our established rules and norms regarding the elderly.

So ... age be damned, and let it fly. Full speed ahead into a future that is, for all of us (regardless of how long we’ve been here) a great unknown.

****

And earlier:

A passion restored ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Dec. 17, 2022 -- I can read again.

Well, to be more specific, I can read fine print again. And that includes in particular the print in novels.

See ... the thing is, I had gone about a dozen years since getting my eyes checked. They seemed fine until I was coming out of my cancer treatment a little over a year ago. Then I noticed I wasn’t seeing those words on the printed page with much acuity. Each word seemed to challenge me, as though I was reaching for it through a very precise overlay of distorted glass.

For whatever reason, I delayed in securing an optometry appointment. Just getting old, I thought. I figured that diminished eyesight was among the shortcomings of the golden years that I would just have to endure. (I'd have thought that letting cancer sneak up on me, and with it the need for dental repair work, would have been hint enough of the need to take care of my body, but wisdom does not necessarily come with age.)

But common sense eventually prevailed, and I got an appointment -- where I learned my eyes had shifted from nearsighted to farsighted. An optometric adjustment would fix the reading problem, I was assured.

There was a delay in getting the new glasses, but when I did ... boy oh boy. Everything snapped into focus. The words, clear now, were jumping off the page and into my interpretive brain. A novel I had struggled with the previous month I was now devouring, my passion for reading stories restored.

The simple message: Don’t delay. If your eyes aren’t what they used to be, modern optometry can very likely fix it. It’s worth a try, anyway.

*****

It's less than two weeks now until I reach the 20th anniversary of operating this website -- of essentially providing a service that I think Schuyler County needs and deserves.

Communication is a cornerstone of any society.

The first day I published was on Dec. 29, 2002. I had started the process just after Thanksgiving upon the advice of my youngest son, who knew of my love for writing and journalism, my dislike of bosses, and the cost inherent in any startup involving paper, ink and distribution across any geographical area. Online was the answer.

That first night I had three visitors, and I was two of them. The other was a friend. I think I had, at that point, placed two stories on the website. There were no ads, other than a couple of in-house ads involving possible donations (if there were to be any) from the readership.

There have been some donations over the years, but few and far between. The only thing keeping this going has been the cooperation and generosity of advertisers. So I suggest that anytime you encounter any of them, you thank them for their help in keeping this venture operational. (If you want to contribute, too, you can send a check or money order to The Odessa File, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.)

Now, as I get ready to celebrate 20 years (probably with a glass of eggnog or something) and turn toward year 21, I am looking at trying a new thing or two. Among them: a podcast, which I hope to see developed and operated by my son Jon. At three score and fourteen years (and after that cancer bout last year) I have to start thinking about a transition. Not even I can last forever.

So the podcast could be a start in that direction. The whole process of transition, though, will (I hope) take a long time. Years in the making.

*****

So ... that should answer the occasional question engendered by an earlier column in which I suggested that retirement was gaining appeal. As I also said in that column, I might pull a Clint Eastwood and pursue this creative passion of mine until I’m 90 or more.

And yes, in the meantime, setting up for a transition won’t hurt, and might enhance the entire effort.

Meanwhile, if I don’t see you at one of the sporting events or other events I’m out there covering with my camera, I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

******

I received a message a few days ago from Trevor Holland, Watkins Glen teacher and coach of the Schuyler Storm varsity football team -- a combined squad of Watkins and Odessa-Montour high school athletes.

With the message -- about the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 10, won by Army in double overtime -- came a photo.

The message and photo are well worth passing along to you here. Trevor wrote the following:

“Hello Charlie.

“I wanted to share with you a great picture. Daphne & I and our boys, along with family and friends, go every year to the annual Army-Navy football game held in Philadelphia. We have met up with my father for the past 14 years at the game. He is a retired Navy captain of 38 years.

“This year we had two WG graduates in attendance. This is Bryce Kelly's first year at Annapolis (Navy) and Joe Chedzoy's final year at West Point (Army). Teammates for 364 days a year, except for the 2nd Saturday in December when Army & Navy meet on the football field.

“A salute to their service, and representing Schuyler County proudly!”

*******

To all those who commented on my last column about the pickup basketball game at the old Middle School involving female basketball greats from Watkins Glen High School’s past, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing it -- but even more so revisiting with these women who meant so much to my past. They were remarkable way back when -- in the era in which I reported on their court achievements -- and they’re remarkable now. The bonus has been getting to know some of those women whose high school days preceded The Odessa File. I think they’re terrific, too.

Photo in text: Bryce Kelly, left, and Joe Chedzoy (Photo provided)

******

And earlier:

Molly Oates drives the ball upcourt in traffic.

Echoes of a kindness ...

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2022 -- Sometimes I get stuck in the past.

Sometimes it’s in childhood -- say on a walk to the Wesley’s Drug Store several blocks distant from my family’s Birmingham, Michigan home to buy a pack or two of baseball cards with my allowance. I lived for baseball cards, and so sometimes I find myself mentally retracing that route.

Sometimes it’s the hot, drought-ridden summer of 1988, when I worked in Washington, D.C. at USA Today, a national Gannett company paper. I was on loan there for several months from the Gannett paper in Elmira, New York.

That was a period of intense satisfaction both personally (with my family happy there) and professionally (I excelled, winning numerous in-house awards). And yet it was a watershed, for despite efforts to get me on staff there full-time, I was (in the words of one official) “too old, too white and too male” for the politically correct Gannett. I was also temporarily spoiled for small-town journalism, and so left it at that point for several years.

Sometimes it’s a moment, as the one when I first saw my wife Susan, and felt as if I had known what she looked like, and what she was about, before that first meeting had come. Call it love, call it serendipity, call it magic. But that instant often comes around to visit me, and is always welcome.

Sometimes, on the far end of that spectrum, is the moment on November 1, 2004 in which a social worker found me waiting on the lawn outside the hospital after Susan’s embolism, nodded when I asked if we had lost her, and watched as I collapsed to the ground, felled by grief. I try not to let that one come around very often.

*****

And sometimes I harken back, with unending gratitude, to the reaction of the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity basketball team after my wife’s passing.

Ten days after her death, I finally came out of solitude, looking for some human interaction; nothing substantial, just a place where there were other people I might observe to lessen my painful introspection. I opted for the WGHS Field House, where I knew both the boys and girls varsity basketball teams were practicing. I stood apart, up on the track overlooking the court, partially obscured by shadows.

But one of the girls spotted me, and gently waved. Then she and another climbed the stairs to the track, and each gave me a silent hug and a pat on the back. They were followed by others, one at a time. And so I was brought back, in a sense, to the community of operational humanity.

That team, which I had covered the previous year for the first time, then did something remarkable: It organized and held a spaghetti fund-raising dinner for me. I was destitute, financially and emotionally, and they rode to my rescue, providing me with $2,000 -- two thousand very badly needed dollars. I have never forgotten that.

In fact, a lot of who I am today -- and what I do, which is continue to run The Odessa File -- dates back to that kindness, for it kept me going: encouraged me, helped me bridge the gap from despair to hope. I could, if space and time permitted, relate tales about a lot of the girls from that team and its immediate successors, for they were not only my friends, but the source of some rich sports stories.

Which brings me to this:

Sometimes, the past can be visited not in memory alone, but in sheer physical presence -- such as at a gathering of those self-same young Watkins Glen women, along with some of their predecessors, at a recent pickup basketball game in the old Watkins Glen Middle School gymnasium.

This is a periodic occurrence, this pickup gathering, and one I attended after hearing that more than the usual number of players would be on hand, the extra numbers home to visit on a holiday weekend. These women -- whose names and faces are so very familiar to me -- are long past their high school careers, but still harbor a love of the game and thoroughly enjoy squaring off against one another.

When I walked in to the room housing the court, the first woman I spotted was Olivia Coffey, who had tipped me to the gathering when I encountered her days earlier at Walmart. She only played at WGHS through her freshman year before transferring to a prep school, but could still (on this day) put up some delicate and accurate shots -- not surprising, I suppose, in an athlete who excelled in other sports such as hockey and rowing, the latter earning her three world championships and a spot in the recent Olympics. She spends part of her time now in Burdett when she isn’t working down in New York City.

Olivia was a student at WGHS almost two decades ago, during my first year covering the Lady Senecas basketball team -- the season of 2003-04, when the squad reached the Section IV final before falling in the closing moments to Candor.

Also present at the Middle School from that era -- and I include a five- or six-year period, for all of the players I covered during that period seem to be of one team in my fractured memory, indebted as I feel to all of them for somehow, through their accomplishments, buoying my spirit in a dark time -- were Megan Matthews, back home to visit; Molly Oates, now a teacher in Ithaca who lives in Watkins; Jennifer Conklin (from Washington, D.C.) and her younger sister Jaclyn (who lives in the Adirondacks); and Michelle Thorpe Lynch, who works in the health-care field while raising a family locally.

There were also several athletes present who were on the WGHS playing stage before The Odessa File happened along. Among them: Alicia Learn, who has carved out a niche as the current day’s WGHS girls coach, with a state title and state runnerup finish on her resume, along with several sectional championships; and Amy Chaffee, who went on to play standout basketball at Keuka College. She was at this modern-day gathering with her sister Nikki. And competing with them on the court were Coveney Fitzsimmons -- a doctor now -- along with Melanie (Barnes) Caslin and Emily Byers. I've met them all, and hold them in high regard -- as socially conscious individuals and, from what I saw out on that court, as athletes.

“We all miss it,” said one of the players about the game, the sport of basketball. “It is a great outlet.”

This group included people important not just to me in that long-ago past; I believe all of them were important in their playing capacity to a community that takes pride in the achievements of its offspring and in how they represent the village and region. The players may have faded from the public consciousness as the years have worn on, but they have not faded from mine.

When you owe as much to a group -- to a team -- as I owe to the girls of the Watkins Glen High School basketball program of those early years, the debt doesn’t fade.

I was, and am, beholden to them -- to these friends of my past, to these beacons of my darkest days.

So it was a joy for me to reconnect, even for a short time, there at the Middle School -- to meet with them a half a lifetime removed from their glory days of high school.

They are far from kids now, but they are, in a sense, children of my mind; forever frozen as caring teenagers.

And to see on their faces the joy of playing basketball again so many years later, and competing against longtime friends, was a blessed bonus that I can now add to my memory bank.

Photos in text:

Top: Jaclyn Conklin, left, defends against Megan Matthews.
Second: Olivia Coffey, foreground, prepares to pass to Matthews.
Bottom: Michelle Thorpe Lynch.

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Note: One of the players present, Melanie Caslin, said that while the group does not wish to be overrun by numbers, anyone interested in competing at one of the group’s periodic pickup games can contact her.

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Charles Haeffner
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