Our Primary Pages
Wine & Tourism
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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)
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.
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.
Around the area ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 21, 2022 -- A few things have popped up.
For instance, the state is saying it will bring the hammer down on school districts that still have a Native American mascot or imagery at the end of the current school year.
This won’t affect Odessa-Montour -- which this year jettisoned “Indians” for its sports teams and adopted “Grizzlies,” who are not likely to object.
Nor should it affect the Watkins Glen school district, which eliminated all Native American imagery from its walls and merchandising. They are still the Senecas, but Superintendent Kai D’Alleva has said this now refers to the geographic body of water, not any tribe.
And both schools got rid of “Seneca Indians” for its joint sports teams, going with “Schuyler Storm” instead.
But -- and this is perhaps alarmist -- there has been no final word, nothing in writing, from the State giving its blessing to Watkins Glen for the use of "Senecas."
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said D’Alleva, who believes “we’re okay, but we are awaiting more guidance from the state. That will probably come near the holidays in December.”
And what if -- despite the current informal word working its way down the pipeline -- a decision on “Senecas” goes against Watkins?
Well, that would be a bit of a mess.
But maybe nothing comes of it. After all (and I say this lovingly), it’s not like the state bureaucracy to do anything annoying.
Congratulations to Faye Mooney (pictured at right), WGHS senior and standout member of The Storm varsity swim team, for her selection as recipient of the Section IV Good Sport Award. The honor, given to one swimmer in each section, was presented during the State Swim Meet last weekend up in Webster, NY.
Mooney earned a spot in States in two different races, the 100 Breaststroke and 100 Freestyle. But her achievements have gone far beyond victories in the pool. She has been an effective leader through example, encouragement and kindness.
Of course, Faye wasn’t the only member of the Storm to reach States. Teammates Thalia Marquez and Alannah Klemann were there, too -- like Faye in two events apiece, Marquez in the 200 and 500, and Klemann in the 200 IM and the 100 Backstroke.
It was a great season for this trio -- and for that matter for the whole swim team, which won its sixth straight Section IV, Class C championship.
The Odessa Fire Department is back with its live, on-site, Santa-in-its-midst Christmas Party, this year on Dec. 4th up in the Odessa Municipal Building community room on Main Street in the village.
This party, for kids 12 and under in the Odessa fire district, has been a popular event -- or was before Covid, and likely will be again. A party without a party atmosphere (thanks, pandemic) is almost impossible to pull off with any great satisfaction -- although the Fire Department gave out presents last year in the driveway outside the fire bays.
This time, it’s all back to normal.
The high school winter sports season is almost upon us. Bowling is kicking off, with basketball scrimmages part of the landscape this week. The hoops season starts just after the first of December. There will also be wrestling (a combined O-M and WG) squad, as well as boys swimming (also combined). Not to mention indoor track, which Watkins has been running for quite a few years now, although O-M hasn’t followed suit.
Kudos to the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club for its continuing Student of the Month Award given to seniors at Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high schools. Quite often an honoree is so very deserving, but is the kind of person who flies under the radar by nature (say, shyness) or circumstance. A good example was the last honoree from O-M, Sarah Barr. She’s a great girl, but not flashy. A leader, but not loud. A varsity athlete in more than one sport. Smart, and heading quietly toward a nursing career. Congratulations, Sarah, and thanks, Rotary.
Back from my travels ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 15, 2022 -- I’m back at my desk after almost six days away, half of that without a computer -- which meant I simply couldn’t add anything to this website for a while.
My old computer was dying -- had what my expert (IT) son Dave called a “bulging battery,” with a “catastrophic” end awaiting it.
This pronouncement came down in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside the Washington D.C. boundary, while I was visiting Dave and his family late last week. It was a rare chance for me to see my two granddaughters, Marley (6 years old) and Noa (who is 3).
It was the first stop of two on my itinerary, the other being Sarasota, Florida, where a niece was getting married on the weekend. So I had driven down to D.C. before Dave and I, along with little Marley, boarded a plane for Sarasota, departing from Dulles International Airport.
The ensuing Florida reunion entailed the presence of family members from Colorado, Texas, New Orleans and Sarasota. Suffice it to say that several of them had suffered various maladies since our last get-together a decade ago, ranging from cancer to PTSD to memory loss -- to a dizzy spell and ultimate diagnosis of Covid on this particular weekend for the father of the bride, my eldest brother. He ended up in the hospital for a couple of days instead of walking his daughter down the aisle. Beyond all of that, there were lots of folks I didn’t know (disorienting in itself), my niece and her groom having a wide range of friends.
While in Florida we visited the beach on Siesta Key, which really only managed to spoil me -- for the temperature was significantly lower upon the return north.
Anyway, once back in Takoma Park (after a 6 a.m. flight out of Sarasota the morning after the wedding), the matter of my computer was still unresolved. We had left it at Dave’s house, old machine connected to a new one I had secured, trying to get the contents of the first to migrate to the second through the available WiFi. Alas, it hadn’t completed the process upon our return. Fortunately, Dave had ordered a high-speed transfer wire and necessary adaptor before we had departed for Florida, and it was waiting for us upon our return.
Long story short: my IT son -- through that new connector -- managed to move everything on the old machine to the new, and (thanks to his knowledge of all things computer) get the framework I use on my website’s pages to coordinate with the new machine’s system ... a system greatly advanced from its predecessor.
And so I came through a long weekend with renewed contact with relatives, invitations to visit those in Colorado and New Orleans, and a new operational computer.
I also learned that flying -- anathema to me after 9/11 -- didn’t really bother me. In fact, it fascinated me how quickly (1 hour, 46 minutes) we could travel from Sarasota to D.C. with a tailwind. I had, since 9/11, probably made a half-dozen trips to Florida by car, which as anyone who has journeyed there on four wheels knows is interminable.
I only had one email query about the absence of any new Odessa File stories those weekend days, but that was more to find out if I was okay rather than to find out if I was being lazy or, worse, if I had simply walked away into the sunset of retirement.
But that wouldn’t happen with the 20-year mark of this website within sight. That happens on Dec. 29th -- at which point I will start my second 20 years.
Congratulations to the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team for a fabulous season, culminating in the Section IV, Class C championship. I know that the 1-0 loss in the Intersectional game was a disappointment, but the girls were great all season long, and should feel a euphoric sense of achievement.
And kudos to the Schuyler Storm varsity football team, which avenged its only loss (to Dryden) in a postseason playoff that gave it a 9-1 record and a newly devised Section IV Independent title.
And finally, further congrats to the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team -- Section IV, Class C champs for the sixth straight year -- and to its trio of state-tournament-bound standouts: Faye Mooney, Thalia Marquez and Alannah Klemann.
It was quite an autumn around here, sports-wise.
More about the Glen girls, now champs of Section IV
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 1, 2022 -- I’m still reeling from the soccer game emotionally. Actually, I would be reeling physically if the ball that I ducked -- the product of an errant kick --had found my head.
I was on the sideline, photographing the game, trying to hold my emotions in check -- for I’ve bonded with this team, and accordingly worry for them -- when the ball came flying in my direction. I ducked left as it went right.
“Good reflexes,” someone nearby observed.
Yeah, that would have hurt.
I’m not as tough as the girls on this Watkins Glen High School varsity soccer team.
They are the Section IV, Class C champions after the game where that ball narrowly missed my head. It was Friday, Oct. 28 over in Johnson City. Watkins Glen prevailed 3-0 over Trumansburg.
The fact is, these Senecas are often using their heads to move the ball along, hands being verboten. Chief among such practitioners is Sasha Honrath. For example, she tries to meet incoming corner kicks from her sister Skye. Sasha gets set in the goal mouth and tries to knock the ball in the net with her head.
That ball is moving fast because Skye has a powerful kick. I wince every time I see Sasha do that.
And yes, it worked once in that title game. Sasha got the middle of her team’s three goals in just that fashion. Skye got the other two, one from so far out I didn’t photograph her kicking it; I didn’t think it would amount to much.
After the ball soared past the Trumansburg goalkeeper and into the net, I shook my head.
“I stand corrected,” I muttered.
Then she got the game’s third and final goal, moving in from the right and cutting loose with a shot off her left foot. That, folks, is nimble, not to mention talented. I thought, watching from the sideline, that she would kick it with her right foot; in fact I thought she had until I looked at a sequence of photos that I had shot of it.
Really good players, I suspect, don’t have to think about which foot they’re shooting with; they just do it. Skye just did it.
She maneuvered past a defender by stopping on a dime, dancing up, and moving the ball from right foot to left. Then, before another defender could close in, she cut loose with her left foot, sending the ball high to the left, just past the outstretched arms of the leaping goalkeeper and into the netting beyond.
That was her 26th goal of the year. And while she’s been amazing, and such a big reason for the team’s success, her sister deserves plenty of credit too; the two mesh extremely well on offense. And so does Ava Kelly, whose speed -- even while limping a bit from a leg injury in that last game -- adds an element to the offense that makes it a multifaceted one.
But ... and I can’t stress this enough ... the defense is equally key, with Lillian Ameigh having a stellar season in goal, and back Carly Arnold coming to the rescue time and again, clearing the ball with her strong leg, and just anticipating where, exactly, she needs to be. Her coach, Scott Morse, said she was everywhere in that title game, and she was.
The supporting cast is strong, too. Here are a few who have stepped up: Rachel Vickio, Olivia VanSkiver, Brenna Pierce, Olivia King, Katrina Ricca, and Maisie Robertson. But that doesn’t really cover it all. Everyone on this squad has played a contributing role: Erin Snow, Zade Gomez-Fitzsimmons, Molly O’Connell-Campbell, Jennifer Gublo, Natalee Oliver, Michaela Wheaton, Gillian D’Alleva, Brianna Hatch, Madaline Bryerton, and -- though injured -- the irrepressible Maddie Tuttle.
What a great group. A team that -- parenthetically -- has several members who learned the basics of soccer years ago in the Schuyler Strikers youth program.
Will they advance from here? Maybe. They next play a team, Sauquoit Valley, that has gone 16-2-1 and was ranked 8th in the state among Class C teams by the New York State Sportswriters Association on Oct. 25, back before they won the Section III title game 5-0 against Watertown’s Immaculate Heart Central. Watkins Glen was ranked 20th in the same poll, but has won the Section IV semifinal (4-1 over Elmira Notre Dame) and title game since then.
Regional games are hard to gauge; all we know is these are two really good teams. What’s true for one is true for both: if you don’t bring your "A" game -- if you’re not being aggressive, beating the other team to the ball -- chances are you won’t reach the next goal: the state Final Four.
And even if both bring their "A" game, a freaky bounce or a brief mental lapse can prove costly: a moment of vast importance in an 80-minute span.
But at this point, I don’t doubt the ability or possibilities of this group of girls, this Watkins Glen title team.
Good Lord, what they’ve done so far is -- dare I say? -- heady stuff.
Storm Watch: And speaking of outstanding student-athletes, this website’s practice of honoring the best and the brightest from our local school districts in the spring each year is on track for another round.
For years I was part of -- actually co-founder and chief publicist of -- the Top Drawer 24, which honored two-dozen such students each year with a party at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
After co-founder and chairman Craig Cheplick and I bowed out back in the pandemic after 15 years running the program (which had grown far outside the boundaries of Schuyler County), I decided to scale down and bring an awards program back home -- to the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools -- with certificates to the honorees from our State Senator and Assemblyman. The Top Drawer name is still being utlized by those educators and TV officials who took over that program, and so I have foundered looking for a name equally recognizable.
The first year, I called my program Magnificent Sevens, since there were seven students from Watkins Glen High School and seven from Odessa-Montour. Then, when the breakdown was eight and six last year, I changed it to Roll Call of Excellence, but I’m not crazy about that either.
So I’m temporarily calling it Storm Watch -- since the two schools' nickname is The Storm in those sports in which they have merged. (The forecast, I hope, for each honoree is clear sailing to success in the future.)
Anyway, I’m looking for suggestions -- nominations, if you will -- for those to be honored this year, from 10th grade on up. And if anyone has a catchy name for it all, feel free to let me know. The goal is to honor 14 or 15, or maybe even 16 students if it’s warranted.
That range seems about right for the kind of well-rounded individuals we’re watching: outstanding in academics, athletics, leadership and citizenship. You can contact me at email@example.com
About those Glen girls ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 26, 2022 -- The season started with some promise.
Conventional wisdom said either the Watkins Glen or Odessa-Montour High School girls varsity soccer team would win the IAC division in which they both competed.
Before long, it became apparent that Watkins Glen might be a little deeper. While O-M had the dandy tandem of Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster, and a solid supporting cast, Watkins had the Honrath sisters, Skye and Sasha, speedster Ava Kelly, and a host of midfielders and backs -- including seasoned goalkeeper Lillian Ameigh -- who were very effective.
Now, looking back, it all seems so predictable. While O-M’s Nolan was setting a school single-season goal-scoring record of 27, Watkins’ Skye Honrath was building up a head of steam that carried her past 20 goals, to 24 now, mixed with a slew of assists.
When the two teams first met, O-M pulled out a victory in overtime, 2-1, on two Brewster goals. When they met the second time, it was for the division title, and Watkins prevailed, 3-1, with Skye Honrath scoring twice and Kelly once.
Then came the IAC Small School title game against Groton, won by Watkins 2-1 in overtime. Sasha Honrath scored the first goal, assisted by Skye, while freshman Zade Gomez-Fitzsimmons netted the game winner.
A quarterfinal game in the Section IV, Class C Tournament was next -- a 4-0 win over Unadilla Valley on goals by the Honrath sisters, Ava Kelly and Olivia VanSkiver. In the semifinal -- played on Elmira Notre Dame’s home turf -- Skye erupted for three goals (with another by Ava) as the Senecas won 4-1.
And now they play for the sectional title against Trumansburg.
This whole experience, this season of seasons, has been not only special -- but I think emblematic of a resurgence in excellence and school pride and community pride after the pandemic and a desultory spring.
This has been about a great group of girls, yes -- quite young, considering the team has just two seniors -- but also about all those people behind the scenes. You can point to the coaches at the Modified level, led by Ralph Diliberto, who obviously are teaching the right stuff. And you can point to the school administrators who not only support, but actively participate in, the school’s sports programs.
The Athletic Director, Rod Weeden, logs many miles behind the wheel going to, and getting kids to, sporting events. He coaches when necessary. He wears a lot of hats, but among them is effectively coordinating everything that goes into a sporting event: travel, officials, support staff and so on.
The Superintendent, Kai D'Alleva, helps coach the lacrosse team, took the booth as announcer at a recent football game, and is constantly visible at events involving the school’s various sports teams. He has offspring of his own involved in those programs.
You’ve got the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who show up to populate the bleachers at these events. At the Notre Dame game, the pro-Watkins cheers coming from the stands equaled those of the ND fans.
And it’s coaches like Scott Morse, who runs the varsity squad -- a fairly mild-mannered fellow who has shown time and again his ability to connect with the younger generation. He has been a successful junior varsity girls basketball coach, and soon takes the floor as the boys varsity basketball coach.
On the sidelines of soccer games, you can see his connection with the kids. It’s been there for years -- back before the days when his daughter, Hannah, was setting school scoring records out on that field. And it’s there now more than ever. These kids respond to his entreaties, his shouts, his gentle instructions.
But ultimately, it’s these kids. Morse says they all contribute, and they do. It’s not easy to organize a successful sports program, and even harder to carry it through to the point where the Watkins Glen girls have. From Skye Honrath to the sub on the bench who doesn’t see much action (yet, for this team is young, with an eighth grader, nine ninth graders, five 10th graders, four juniors and those two seniors, Carly Arnold and Katrina Ricca), they have all contributed, through athletic prowess, camaraderie, friendship, support and a shared goal: to be the best they can be.
Skye Honrath says the success comes from communication out there on the field; and, I suspect, off it as well. There are friendships there, and obvious respect for one another. They have, in the pressure cooker of competition, been enjoying themselves.
When Notre Dame tied the game early in the second half in the sectional semifinal, the Senecas didn’t visibly sag; nobody's head was down. They were all on full alert, looking for that next opportunity, which came in the form of a Skye Honrath goal. Followed by a Kelly goal. Followed by another Honrath goal.
“Maybe it’s because they’re so young,” one observer surmised of this unwavering positivity. “Maybe they just don’t know enough to be nervous in that situation.”
Maybe. Or maybe it’s because they know, better than most, that it’s just a game. And that games are supposed to be fun.
And this ... this has been fun.
A time to ponder ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 10, 2022 -- Today I have decided to celebrate my 99th birthday -- 25 years early.
On this, the 74th anniversary of my entry into the world, I figure it’s a good time to celebrate a milestone that -- let’s face it -- I might not ever reach.
We all need goals, and 99 seems a worthy one, but after battling cancer, and with the various aches, pains and other challenges that aging has already brought, I have to harbor doubts.
Yes, on this, my 74th birthday, I am pondering time.
The time left to be productive; the time left to enjoy loved ones; the time left in which to breathe.
Beyond that, I find myself considering the time already expended, with an analytical eye toward whether it has been well used.
I have to think the last 20 years have been. That’s how long I’ve been running this website, this online newspaper. Well -- it will be 20 years near the end of December: the 29th to be exact.
The 54 years I lived before that? I don’t know. A childhood of neuroses. A failed first marriage (though a successful second one). Jobs for no longer than eight years at a stretch. Poor planning for an uncertain future.
I’m blessed, now, to do what I do every day, and have since 2002. I thank my lucky stars, or God, or whatever or whoever directed me to this particular path.
The rewards thus far have been substantial. Friendships. A sense of belonging. A sense of worth. A joy in the work: in the photography, in the writing.
So ... when I reach 20 years, do I hang it all up? It seems like it could be a worthy jumping-off point.
It calls to mind the recent encounter I had with a couple from out of state, here visiting family. The wife was from here originally. We talked while out on separate, intersecting walks on Odessa’s streets. The gentleman knew me from this website, which he said he and his wife read regularly.
He asked if I was getting close to retirement, and I said that my planning has been basically annual, from the first of one year to the first of the next, but that I had promised a couple of standout Odessa-Montour athletes -- the two most accomplished female athletes in the school -- that I would continue to cover them through their senior sports seasons, which we are currently witnessing.
“You mean Tori Brewster and Hannah Nolan?” he asked, and I smiled.
“Wow. You do read The Odessa File, don’t you?” I said.
So, yes, I’ve promised to continue past the 20-year anniversary, and on through the school year.
Then what? Retirement?
That’s not remotely in my plans, but it’s not an empty question. We all have to pack it in some time. I was recently interviewed by a young woman studying journalism at Ithaca College. She asked me what would happen when I retired. Who would take it over?
“Maybe you will,” I responded.
Maybe. And then again, maybe I’ll be like Clint Eastwood, who has been cranking out movies into his 90s.
Let’s see. My 90s. That’s 16 more years, which would make 36 years total with The Odessa File.
Or how about back to that first number I mentioned: 99?
Now wouldn’t that be something?
But for now, come December 29th, I think I’ll simply take a deep breath, set my sights firmly ahead to the meetings and sporting events and business news of Schuyler County, and keep on reporting indefinitely, keeping in mind that for a workaholic like me, “retirement” is tantamount to a four-letter word.
And I will trust that the powers that be -- the journalistic gods, perhaps -- will sort it all out.
Good news from the doctor
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 15, 2022 -- Back a year ago, when I had lost my hair and was undergoing radiation treatments, I encountered a young lady I had first met several years before, during her high school days.
She expressed alarm at the sight of me, asking what was wrong. I explained that I had been invaded by cancer.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “How long do they give you?”
I smiled and said, perhaps a little optimistically, “Oh, about 20 years, I guess.”
A couple of weeks ago, I visited my oncologist for a three-month checkup, and everything appeared to be fine: no sign of my cancer returning. In fact, he recommended six months between appointments and removal of the port that had been installed in my chest last year to handle all of the incoming chemicals they pumped into me to fight the disease.
“I don’t think you’ll need it again,” the doctor said. “Worst case, it can always be reinstalled.”
Good news, indeed.
One thing about cancer. Once you’ve experienced it and are lucky enough to have fought it off, it is nevertheless part of you, in a mental, psychological sense. The thought is always there that it might come back.
As I liked to say while battling my cancer -- a non-Hodgkins lymphoma -- I wasn’t particularly worried about it killing me. Something will, and cancer is only one of about a thousand possibilities.
My wife Susan was a cancer survivor, at least for a little while. Her cancer was a rare sarcoma, though, compared to my rather run-of-the-mill variety. We were told upon her diagnosis that nobody had survived her kind of cancer for more than two years. She managed, through herbal treatments and a successful hysterectomy, to shake it off for a while, but it snuck back, its tendrils reaching out and wrapping around her spine. Then came treatments and a pulmonary embolism -- and she was gone just inside that two-year mark.
But I prefer to dwell not on the past, not on what has been lost; that can just lead to depression and inaction -- a sort of uselessness.
Which brings me back to my doctor. While giving me a clean bill of health, he thanked me for what I do, for running this website. “It’s the glue,” he said. A nice thought.
I thanked him back, and said I loved doing it, and looked for inspiration toward the career of moviemaker Clint Eastwood, who at last look was still producing quality films in his 90s.
“That’s my goal,” I said. To go as long as I can, as effectively as I can.
It gets a little harder every year, as the body keeps rebelling in one fashion or another. We all slow down.
The doctor nodded. I was, he said, good for fifteen years.
And he smiled.
Since only God knows.
One possible offshoot of all of this is on the horizon. I’ve been contacted by Cayuga Health for a planned video of me doing my journalism thing and extolling the virtues of my medical care. I volunteered for the tribute. The care I underwent at Cayuga was both beautifully administered and personally educational. Nobody can understand the world of oncology until they are thrust into it by circumstance.
I recall my wife being opposed to such treatments, but I knew they suited me from the moment I first heard the words last year: “It’s cancer.”
Powerful words, and in my case unsettling enough that I did not feel secure pursuing an alternative remedy, such as Susan had. We all must follow the path we think not only most effective, but which offers a comfort level to help fight the fear.
So Cayuga Health might soon come knocking on my door, quite literally, leading to that video and maybe even a billboard. I told them I had to draw the line, though, at running an ad on this website with my face front and center.
It’s quite enough that I have to see it looking back at me each morning in the bathroom mirror.
A glass-shattering event ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 21, 2022 -- First, some random thoughts:
--Decency is a commodity woefully lacking in today’s politics, whether on the national or state level -- or for that matter, on some of the local.
I just wish the civility that used to dominate politics (perhaps I’m putting an unwarranted sheen on it) and, for the most part, life in general, were more a thing of the present. But I’m afraid the internet -- which has made communication a growing Wild West (gun ‘em down with unkindness) show -- won’t permit that to happen.
--Here come high school sports. Practices will go on for a couple of weeks, and then formal contests. Odessa-Montour enters the competition with a new nickname -- the Grizzlies -- and logos. The logos are being developed, although Athletic Manager Greg Gavich sent along an email with one of them attached. It is at right.
There is a lot of chatter among O-M fans at the choice of Grizzlies as the mascot to succeed the Indians -- which had fallen under criticism as part of a national resetting of team nicknames considered inappropriate in this ever-changing day and age. Gone are the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) and Washington Redskins (now Commanders). Others are undoubtedly following. The move in Odessa wasn't mandated; while such an action has been proposed on the state level, it hasn't (at last word) been voted on. In fact, we still have Indians as the motif at Groton and Candor.
Watkins Glen is still the Senecas, but with native American imagery eliminated. The nickname is now a geographical reference -- Seneca Lake being at hand.
Personally, since the combined O-M/Watkins teams will be the Storm (replacing the Seneca Indians), I liked the idea someone floated that would have called Watkins the Thunder and O-M the Lightning, or vice versa. C'est la vie.
Now ... on to something quite apart from politics or nicknames.
It's like this:
Sometimes we make a decision in the heat of battle that can be called into question later -- like failing to notify a loved one of an accident involving personal injury. Such an accident happened to me, prompting the decision not to call my wife, Susan -- this was many years before her passing -- at work to let her know I was hospital bound.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, it’s funny how a conversation on one topic -- a general discussion between me and my son on a skype call this past week from his vacation at Virginia Beach -- can trigger a long-buried memory ... which is to say the accident in question, which happened in the late 1980s.
I was commenting in the talk with my son about on how much fun kids are at the age of his two daughters -- my only grandchildren, Marley and Noa. "How old?" I asked, though I should know that by heart. Five and almost three, said Dave -- with Marley entering kindergarten this fall.
"No kidding," I said, a little surprised, for they grow up so quickly ...
“I remember kindergarten,” Dave said, almost wistfully.
“Do you even remember your teacher’s name?” I asked.
He did. Mrs. Spotts.
“You helped out in class a couple of times,” he said to me. "Don't you remember?"
I had forgotten, but now I recalled it -- I was a volunteer aide in that class. And that triggered the memory of one day in particular when I failed to show up at the class as scheduled.
“Ohmigod,” I said. “That was when I had the accident, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” was all he said.
I was driving that day toward that class, located in the B.C. Cate Elementary School in Montour Falls, traveling from my home in Odessa, and nearing the long hill between the two communities. Suddenly, a blur appeared from the left side of the road, coming toward me. I flinched, and the blur impacted with my car, turning the windshield into a spider web and shattering the driver side window, showering me with glass.
The blur had been a deer, racing in evident fear, up from a field beside the road while being chased by dogs. He had tried to leap over my car, and failed in the effort, dying there as he bounced from my windshield to the side of the road. For my part, I was in shock, but managed somehow to bring the car to a stop at the right side of the road without veering into a ditch.
I sat, gathering my wits, considering my options. This was, as I said, in the late 1980s, well before cell phones, so that option -- a call for help -- was not available. I decided to retreat to my home, back a couple of miles. The car was still operating, so -- despite a windshield that distorted the scene in front of me, at best; and thus leaning out the hole where the side window had been -- I managed a U-turn without further incident, and nursed the car back to Odessa and my driveway.
I parked, turned off the vehicle’s engine, opened the door and stepped out -- and immediately fell to the ground. I was in such shock that I had very little strength in my legs. I sat there, on my side lawn, concentrating, willing the strength to return. I noticed then, too, that blood was dripping from my face. I touched my left cheek, which seemed heated, and felt bits of glass imbedded there. The glass extended up into my hair.
Finally I stood, and rather than head for the back door of my house, I staggered to the sidewalk and up the street to the Country Cards business run by my mother-in-law, Margaret Bauman. I have no idea why I didn’t just enter my house and phone her -- but I was not thinking clearly; and besides, the walk uptown wasn’t a long one. The store was within sight of my residence, maybe two stone throws to the east.
When I reached the store door, I pulled it open and -- not wishing to go inside while dripping blood; not wanting to soil the floor -- tried to call out to my mother-in-law, who was not visible from where I stood. My voice came out a feeble croak, and I gathered myself for a second effort when the door to the storeroom in the back opened and she appeared. It took a few moments for her to spot me, and when she did, she saw the blood and called out: “My God! Have you been shot?”
She approached and, despite my protestations, helped me inside to a chair, where I rested while she called for an ambulance -- which arrived in short order. I considered calling my wife -- who was at work in Ithaca -- but decided not to, fearing that she would rush home in a panic, possibly procuring a speeding ticket or, worse, getting in her own accident. My condition wasn’t dire; I just looked bad.
That was the reasoning, right or wrong. My mind wasn't at its sharpest; nor were my emotions steady. And now, from the perspective of more than 30 years, I suppose my mother-in-law agreed, since she didn't place the call, either. Or maybe she was conflicted, but honored my wishes. I don't know. Anyway, my decision was based on what I thought was a caring concern, and on the wish that a day that had spun out of control would not go further awry.
The paramedics, shortly after their arrival, put me on a gurney, covered my eyes with gauze to prevent glass from getting into them, and rushed me to the hospital, where I was treated -- the treatment consisting mainly of health practitioners picking small bits of shattered glass from the left side of my face, my forehead, and my hair. There were no serious lacerations; and the shock eventually wore off.
Now, talking to my then-kindergarten and now late-30s son from his vacation at Virginia Beach, he recalled that day -- the day I failed to show up in his class as scheduled.
“I remember that when I got home, I was adamant that you were going to take me to the mall,” he said. “I was adamant, but you just shook your head and said: ‘Well, that’s not going to happen.’
“I asked why," he added, "and you pointed out to the car. It was sitting there in plain view -- hiding in plain sight, I guess -- and I hadn’t even noticed.” It was dented, minus a window, with a spider-webbed windshield, and glass strewn about inside. There was also blood where the windshield met the car roof, left behind by the dying deer.
I laughed now at my son’s recollection, and told him his mother hadn’t noticed the car either. I had returned home that day -- transported by a brother-in-law from the hospital -- by the time she arrived in the late afternoon, after her workday was over. She asked me how my day had gone, and I said: “Fine, aside from hitting a deer, totaling the car, cutting up my face and being transported by ambulance to the hospital.”
She shook her head, perhaps puzzled at my humor. “Very funny,” she said. “Seriously, how was your visit to David’s class?”
“Well,” I said, and guided her to a window that looked out upon the car. I pointed, and she looked, gasped, and headed out the back door and across the side lawn to get a closer view of the vehicle. I followed her.
“My God,” she said, and turned to me, “Are you okay?” And she reached out to touch my face, where small indentations were still visible.
I assured her I was, and she drew me close, hugging tightly.
Then, pulling back, she looked me in the eyes.
“We’ll discuss later why you didn’t call me ..."
And oh, we did. My ears are still burning from that talk these many years later.
Which I guess goes to show this:
When something seems like a good idea at the time, it doesn't always seem that way later, when the proverbial bill comes due.
Moments that define us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 21, 2022 -- The shed was crying out for help. The siding on the north side was curling at its base, offering the weather a way inside to dampen and ruin the interior’s contents.
The east wall was wobbly, age and the subtle movements of the earth loosening its once-firm seams, opening tiny fissures.
The doors were warping, age taking its toll.
It was time to call in some help. So a couple of men who have done a lot of work on my old house started working their construction magic on my shed while I tended to the chore of cleaning it out to make room for their efforts.
And oh, my. What a chore. It’s amazing how much stuff can be accumulated in a 12x20 structure across a span of 30 years. Stuff I’d forgotten I had. Knickknacks, old papers, books, record albums, trading cards, posters, games, a bike rack, magazines, scrapbooks, and photos.
It is in that last category, photos, that the biggest surprise surfaced. Tucked in to the southeast corner of the shed, facing the wall and buried behind boxes, was a large framed photograph on canvas taken on my wedding day -- showing my late wife Susan with me at a table at our reception following the marriage ceremony. We were married in the old Baptist Church in Odessa, and partied at the Glen Motor Inn. It was Sept. 18, 1977.
The sheer joy of the moment bursts out of that photo, and in seeing it for the first time in I don’t know how many years -- in truth, I don’t even remember receiving it, although I think it arrived on our 25th anniversary, a gift from a brother-in-law adept at photography and poster-sized pictures -- I was newly amazed that such a lovely and loving female would agree to share her life with a drudge like me.
“Beauty and the Beast,” I commented upon seeing it.
But above all, I marveled at the sheer exhilaration on those young faces. And I thought about that, and realized how rare the moment was -- for in truth, how many moments of sheer joy are we given?
The shed project -- shoring up its stability and blocking off some leakable gaps -- was being done, as I said, by two gentlemen, a pair of hard laborers who have put in a lot of work on my homestead. The house, like me, is getting old and a little more wobbly than it used to be.
Other projects in the past year: the house has been scraped, primed, caulked and painted; the kitchen has a new mold-free floor and a new sink, counter and splash guard; an enclosed pantry has been built; and the foundation has been shored up and the basement cleared of 30 or more years worth of clutter.
And all of that came after -- actually overlapped with the latter portion of -- my cancer treatments. I accordingly had no energy to help on anything last year, but have been doing a lot of lifting and lugging of shed-based boxes this summer. So I guess it could be said that the house and my old body have both undergone treatment aimed at greater longevity.
So .... what have I learned from all of this? Well, the obvious: don’t let things go untended for too long.
Another is to enjoy what I have, in this new and improved form -- whether referring to the house or to my body. (I must have looked like hell last year, because I’ve had many people tell me this year how good I look. That never happened before the cancer.)
And there is this: When I wake up in the morning, I marvel at the miracle of life itself.
Ah, life. It seems arrogant to try and define it, for how much do we really understand about it?
Nonetheless, I want to say this -- one man's simplified, narrowed look at it:
Life is a huge, ongoing process of moments -- most (almost all) of which we take for granted, inured as we are to their passage while we're busy with this chore or that, or passing portions of the day in placid thought.
But when we look backward, we look at moments that stand out. I have a shocking few -- a couple of dozen, I would say, including my wedding day and, naturally, the days upon which each of my three sons were born -- that hold court in my mind with any regularity. When combined, they are the footings of the structure of my life ... my story.
--My family took a ski trip when I was a teen to a resort in northern Michigan. I recall my father (himself a neophyte snow skier) enthralled by a group of foreign young ski-clad men racing repeatedly down the main hill in front of the lodge.
“Must be a family,” said my father. “European. They call themselves the Benzini’s.”
Turns out they were not a family, but a ski team in training. And their call to one another, to reinforce the proper form needed when attacking a hill, was to “bend the knees.”
Ben zee nees.
My family laughed a lot at my Dad's folly, but if nothing else, it pointed up the confusing overlap of culture, dialect and the varying levels of expertise in the world -- in this case on a ski slope. (Hell, I should talk about folly; I've had a lifelong disaffinity with languages. For instance, I once thought the French word "beaucoup" was spelled "boku" -- even including it in a news story I turned in to the copy desk at my first full-time paper, the Watertown Daily Times. The city editor laughed and corrected it.)
--I learned something about solitude on a New Year’s Eve. This was in Michigan, when I was in my later teens. I don’t recall where I had been, but I was on my way home, alone, and stopped at a red light, when the New Year rolled in.
“Happy New Year,” I mumbled to myself, thinking some rather dark thoughts about the solitude of the moment and a radio celebration that seemed to mock me.
That moment has stayed with me. And (I suspect accordingly) I have never been a fan of our annual January 1st rite since then. But it also taught me about solitude, which I have on occasion embraced as an old, familar acquaintance.
--In college, I spearheaded an advertising campaign to promote a party my dorm was throwing. Rather than plaster the campus with posters or other signs, I gathered shorn hair from a couple of barber shops and glued it (in the middle of the night) to a big rock that was a landmark on the main quad, front and center in front of two lecture halls. And on the hair, we (for I had co-conspirators) spray-painted the time and place of the party.
Our gathering was a great success, but the school administration was less than amused, and had to order the hair burned off in order to get rid of it.
What a stench. Black smoke curling to the sky. And I never was held accountable.
The criminal sliver of my psyche loved it.
--When Bill Buckner of the Red Sox let a grounder from Mookie Wilson roll through his legs, the Mets pulled off a miracle finish in Game Six of the 1986 World Series that propelled them to Game Seven and, ultimately, the title.
I was there, sitting in a press section of left field, under a tent that kept the night’s misting rain off my head. I had gained access with my credentials (covering the game for the Elmira Star-Gazette, where I was Sports Editor) onto the field before the game, and so saw my Mets heroes close-up. After the game, I went to a press conference in the bowels of Shea Stadium.
The whole massive structure was reverberating with the stomping of the 50,000 or so souls still in the stands celebrating ... and it is that which I remember most: the feel of that throng rejoicing; the noise and the vibration and the sheer overwhelmingness of having witnessed -- with all of those tens of thousands -- one of the greatest games in baseball history.
It made me feel physically small but spiritually large, which is about the best we can hope for..
--Sometimes a memory covers much more than a moment or an evening. In 1988, it covered four months -- the amount of time I worked as an editor and headline writer at USA Today as part of a loan program from the Star-Gazette. Gannett papers did that to help USA Today’s bottom line: sent a reporter or editor every four months to Washington (actually Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river), and paid their salaries while the national paper reaped the benefits. It was a period in which I excelled on that national footing, winning numerous in-house awards and gaining a belief in my ability -- although an attempt to stay there on a permanent basis failed because, I was told unofficially, I was too male, too white and too old. That was 34 years ago, begging the question: If I was too old then, what am I now?
Bottom line is this: had I stayed down there for the rest of my career, there would in all likelihood have been no Odessa File. Not unless I started it after retirement, which is highly doubtful. So, from a personal viewpoint, it all turned out as it should have.
--More recently, and of much briefer duration, was a July 5th meeting of the Village Board at the Village Hall in Watkins Glen, when a situation involving the mayor -- accused by a woman at the meeting of sexual harassment in a bar -- came front and center. Whether the meeting will weather the test of time and be on my memory list a few years from now remains to be seen; but its short-term impact has been telling. It was a scene that hasn't faded.
The confrontation led to a verbal confrontation between the woman and the mayor. (I initially said here that she and the mayor were screaming, but the wild nature of the session has affected my short-term memory. A review of the Wet Couch Radio video from that meeting shows that she was not doing any such thing; she was steadfast and determined, which led in turn to raised voices from supporters upset that she was being asked to leave.) Then came a shouting match between another mayoral accuser and both the mayor and deputy mayor, and then between a third woman and the mayor -- all of which led, seemingly directly, to the mayor’s resignation two days later.
The meeting, raw and raucous, had a surreal feel to it, unlike any I have attended over my many years in journalism. It also had an air of fate about it, as though the village's personal pride and angst had descended to this one place for all to see; and for a kind of celestial judgment. Perhaps that's fanciful. Perhaps it was all a lot simpler than that; more basic. But whatever it was ... it was jaw-dropping.
Memories. The foundations of our personal stories. There are more from my own bank, but those I’ve advanced at least give a glance at who I am, warts and all.
From all of our moments, our memories, those structural foundations, we develop philosophies. They are often multi-layered, intersecting, and impossible to distill into a single, coherent idea.
I have one such representative thought, though. One philosophy.
What is it?
It boils down to this:
When I worked at the Watertown Daily Times back in the 1970s, I wrote a feature story on a newly elected sheriff -- a story that a recently formed weekly paper soon plagiarized, lifting it word for word, attributing it to another writer.
I was incensed, and took my complaint to my newspaper’s publisher, a distinctive, white-haired, suspender-wearing gentleman named John B. Johnson. I wanted something done -- perhaps a lawsuit, or at least a complaint lodged with the offending publication.
But Mr. Johnson just smiled, nodding his head.
“No, Charles” he said, in his peculiar sing-song-y voice. “You don’t want to do that. Can I give you a bit of advice?”
“Sure,” I responded.
“Never get into a pissing match with a skunk,” he said.
I smiled in turn, and still smile when it comes to mind.
It was so succinct, so unexpected -- coming as it did from a mannered, soft-spoken gentleman I always considered of Northern New York nobility. A patrician, if you will.
But beyond that, it struck me as true -- a commodity all too rare today.
Photo in text: Susan and Charlie Haefffner on their wedding day, 1977.
Of poetry and 911 ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 30, 2022 -- I was down at Lafayette Park the other night for a literary reading by poet Michael Czarnecki, courtesy of the Watkins Writers Group.
I went because I hadn’t seen Czarnecki -- author of numerous chapbooks and books of poetry -- for quite a few years. I remembered meeting him on a number of occasions years ago, but couldn’t recall the first time or the last. I figured I hadn’t seen him in 15 years or so.
I arrived at Lafayette Park in the middle of his reading; he was presenting various poems from his book “before poetry there was music” -- an ode to musical heroes of his past, such as The Dave Clark Five back in the ‘60s.
I listened, fascinated by the ease with which he conveyed his words and thoughts. He glanced at me when I arrived, and a couple of times after that. It was easy to pick me out, since there were only about a dozen folks on hand there on the park's bandstand, and they were seated. I, like Michael, was standing.
When he had read his last poem for the evening, he put his hands together, fingers pointed out, looked carefully at me and, angling those hands in my direction, said: “I know you. ... Don’t I?”
I had set off a memory, although he seemed to confuse me with another journalist, Jim Pfiffer of Elmira, who has devoted years to the ecological care of the Chemung River. “You work with the river, right?” asked Michael. I said no, a friend of mine did (Pfiffer and I both once worked at the Elmira Star-Gazette), and when I outlined what I do, that I'm a journalist who used to work at the Corning Leader and who now operates an online newspaper ... he remembered.
And the odd thing was this: a memory -- actually a feeling involving muted lights and soft background music and a warm, inviting atmosphere and the very presence of my late wife -- had flooded back to me as I had stood there watching and listening to him read.
I remembered now that I had first encountered Michael Czarnecki when my late wife Susan and I attended another such reading by him, but indoors in that warm, accepting atmosphere, in Montour Falls back in the late ‘90s, when I worked at the Leader. If memory serves, I wrote something for the newspaper about that evening. But it was the memory, or the feeling of it, that just about knocked me over now. Anyone who has lost a spouse and rediscovered in their mind a special shared moment will understand.
Anyway, Michael and I chatted for a few minutes, and I secured a signed copy of the book from which he had been reading, and told him about that night long ago, and how it meant so much to me -- in part, I suspect, because it had meant a lot to Susan.
“She was a fan,” I told Michael, to which he nodded and replied: “Well, thank you.”
And with that we said our goodbyes, and I left as the session swung into an open mic, a chance for those in the audience to offer their own readings.
Yes, memories are great, but they are tricky things. Michael Czarnecki remembered me, but only after mis-remembering me. And I can’t be sure what I wrote about him those years ago, but I have a renewed sense of a late '90s literary evening of enduring charm -- of lighting and mood and emotional warmth.
In this age of politically motivated lies upon lies -- of alternate reality -- the facts of simple faulty memories or misperception often get lost in the noise.
I bring this up to point to the recent move by the Schuyler County Administrator and Emergency Management Director toward possible establishment of a county-run ambulance service -- ostensibly to replace or at least challenge the Schuyler County Volunteer Ambulance Association, Inc., an independent operation with which those county leaders seem dissatisfied.
The Schuyler County Legislature’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, meeting the other day, heard a one-sided account regarding the Association.
For instance, the following was asserted by county officials:
The Association’s average response time to emergency calls is way too high. An attempt by the county to form a partnership with the Association resulted in a “money grab” by the latter at a meeting last week. The Association was averse to oversight built into the offer. The Association refused the county offer and walked away from the table. The Association has been inhabiting a building provided by the county for $1 a year “because they're supposedly providing service to our residents.” The county could do better with an ambulance service of its own, built from scratch. That could lead to the “demise” of the Association.
I wrote all or most of that in an article about that committee meeting, and it only took a couple of hours for me to hear from Matthew Chapman, president of the Association’s board of directors. He wanted to talk.
We met in a conference room at the Association’s building on Decatur Street, a building that Chapman said is owned by the Association on property it leases from the county for $1 a year -- an arrangement under contract through 2075. It had been 2025, he said, but was extended a few years ago.
Chapman also said the building, the front half of which was built back in 1969 (and the back half around 1991), is owned by and thus the responsibility of the Association, which has invested $300,000 in it since 2019 -- in repairs, upgrades and renovations. Plans also call for a new blacktopped parking area, which is showing its age.
Chapman doesn’t know how the county figured the Association’s average response time, but his figures came in much, much, much lower. He explained that the Association, which has mostly paid personnel operating on 24-hour shifts, must answer a 911 dispatch within a minute. Since most calls are in Watkins and Montour, it doesn’t take long to get to the designated spot after that. The time in which to answer at night is three minutes, since chances are the staff is sleeping in the headquarters bunk room.
As for oversight in a partnership? No problem, he said, if structured right. And walking away from the negotiations? Not so, he said. He said the proposal put forth by the county was not economically “sustainable,” in the eyes of the board of directors, and that when he delivered that news to the county, he hoped to discuss alternatives -- but was cut short, the meeting ended abruptly by the county. The Association is amenable to a partnership, he said, but negotiations require give and take on both sides.
As for any new county-run service leading to the demise of the Association, Chapman shook his head. His organization has reserves, and contracts, and the ability to shift its services to outlying areas (say in Yates County) that are in need of them.
So ... not wanting to get in the middle of this, but seemingly there anyway -- and as a citizen who (like many Schuyler residents) has benefitted (and can benefit again) from the efforts of our ambulance service, I say this:
It sounds to me as though divergent perceptions exist that reasonable negotiations could bring into line with one another..
It’s like this:
Michael Czarnecki and I reconnected despite some initial confusion, and a total uncertainty as to when we had first met or had last encountered one another. Now, having talked, we better understand the past, and where each of us fit into the other’s history.
Perception being a byproduct of perspective -- and talking things out in a reasoned and methodical manner often proving fruitful -- maybe the county and Schuyler Ambulance can figure out their relationship to each other’s satisfaction, too.
It seems like it would be worth the effort.
Photos in text: Michael Czarnecki (top) at the literary reading, and Matthew Chapman at the Schuyler County Volunteer Ambulance Association headquarters.
About leave-takings ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 12, 2022 -- There are leave-takings of various kinds.
There is the leave-taking that comes when we graduate -- leaving high school for college, or college for the working world. We leave behind friends we never forget, but quite often never see again -- class reunions excepted.
There is the leave-taking that comes at the end of an interpersonal relationship, no matter the cause. And the leave-taking that comes from moving from one job to another, or from one state to another, or from the working world into that of retirement.
And there is the departure from life itself -- which we have seen far too often locally of late. As I related last time I wrote a column, we had recently lost my mother-in-law, Margaret Bauman, and Fred Scott, Doug Hagin, Don Romeo and Tony Fraboni. After I wrote that, I found that a cousin -- one to whom I was close in childhood -- had died. His name: Dr. Charles Black, a brilliant fellow who practiced in Sweden and then France. Cancer claimed him.
Then we lost Mike D’Aloisio, a longtime coach at Elmira Notre Dame High School -- a wonderful friend who was an inspiration to many student-athletes. He authored a book about one of those athletes, Joel Stephens, who died far too young. The book, “5 C Hero,” focused on the 5 C’s that marked Stephens’ life: Christianity, Courage, Compassion, Character, and Commitment. Mike was claimed by ALS -- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Then we lost a couple of other folks known fairly well: Kay Fraboni (Tony’s mom, who passed away not many days after he did) and Richard Scuteri, a long-familiar figure in Watkins Glen in both politics and the food business. And there was Joan Oates, mother of an old friend of mine, Molly Oates.
When I get inundated with so much death, I tend to start becoming philosophical about it. That’s a defense mechanism, I suppose, but it tends to mitigate the sting that comes with the passing of each acquaintance who falls by the wayside.
And then that philosophy got eviscerated upon the slaughter of children. Uvalde served as a wake-up call to the growing menace of the American arsenal of private assault-style weapons. We are jaded by the sheer number of these shootings, but Uvalde brought with it such a shock value that we at least discussed gun safety a little more than usual.
That talk is fading again, though, as it always does -- although it appears some measured gun-safety rules might make their way through Congress.
Since that slaughter in Uvalde, I’ve felt a little bit overwhelmed by world events, and by the state of the Union.
I listened recently to a person who embraced a different kind of leave-taking: former Congressman Tom Reed, who had planned to leave Congress at the end of his latest term after being snared in a sexual-misconduct scandal -- and then resigned early to take another job, in a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm. I heard him when he was guest speaker at a meeting of the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club, where he spoke of a grim set of circumstances here and abroad -- from a China-Russia collusion to an economy rocked by inflation to the sharp political division in this country and all of its attendant problems: gun violence, Congressional gridlock, and a tribal mentality that makes vocal allegiance to either side -- or any of several offshoots of those sides -- a proposition fraught with pitfalls.
So ... pardon me while I turn instead to what I like most about this time of the year: the awards season that accompanies the closing month of the school year.
That’s a heck of a lot brighter than national and world news.
As one of the co-founders of the Top Drawer 24 program that honored two dozen outstanding student-athlete-citizens annually for 15 years before I bowed out last year -- and as a photojournalist who has been running this website for almost 20 years -- I feel uniquely positioned to honor Schuyler students.
Accordingly, I have continued to do so with the Roll Call of Excellence, which in its second year (earlier this month) honored eight Watkins Glen High School students and six from Odessa-Montour. As with the Top Drawer program, it looked not only at athletics, but at academics and character.
The WGHS Roll Call honorees were Cameron Holland, Daniel Ely, Owen Scholtisek, Faye Mooney, Melanie Wysocki, Adam Pastore, Jenna Solomon and Katrina Ricca.
The O-M honorees were Hannah Nolan, Tori Brewster, Camille Sgrecci, Daniel Lewis, Mackenzie Cannon and Katie Adams.
I’ll be announcing The Odessa File Athletes of the Year at both schools in the near future -- an award sponsored by E.C. Cooper Insurance -- as well as the 18th annual Susan Award winner. That's a sportsmanship award named after my late wife.
The first winner of the Susan Award, coincidentally, was a guest speaker this past week at the annual Schuyler Scholars dinner that honors seniors in the top 10% of their class academically at the Watkins Glen, Odessa-Montour and Bradford high schools. That dinner was held at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
I refer to Sally Wilcox Homolka, who was an outstanding basketball player and a key member of the O-M track team back in her high school days. She won the Susan Award in her senior year of 2004-05. She was tough, and yet had a core of kindness: traits of Susan Bauman Haeffner, who passed away earlier that school year, on Nov. 1, 2004.
Beyond those awards, I recently unveiled a spring sports All-Schuyler All-Star team of 14 athletes at the two schools, and named track standout Tori Brewster of O-M as the Schuyler Spring MVP. That followed seasonal MVPs awarded to O-M’s Hannah Nolan (soccer) and Watkins Glen’s Faye Mooney (swimming) in the fall, and to Watkins swimmer Liam Smith in the winter.
Mine aren’t the only awards, of course. WETM issues some, as does ESPN-Ithaca, as does WENY, which partnered with The Odessa File on the Top Drawer program in the past and is now key to publicizing the Top Drawer honorees, which this year totaled 64 across 20 school districts. (The program started with just the Watkins and Odessa districts, so the growth has been remarkable, reaching into Pennsylvania.)
WENY just came out with its Top Drawer list, in fact. It includes three students from WGHS (Cameron Holland, Daniel Ely and Faye Mooney) and two from O-M (Camille Sgrecci and Tori Brewster).
WGHS has its own sports award presentations, as well, as does O-M.
So there are a lot of awards presented each year -- well, each year again, now that the pandemic strictures have waned.
It all does my heart good -- as do the actual games and matches throughout the school year that ultimately lead to the awards. They tend to counterbalance for me the negativity of a period of history in which it would be very easy to become overly cynical, or uncompromisingly angry, or just depressed by world events.
So thanks, kids.
I love your competitive fire.
I love your achievements.
And I love that you can thrive here despite a pandemic and despite the threat -- seemingly hanging over every school in this gun-laden country -- of a horror like the ones visited upon youngsters at Sandy Hook and Uvalde.
I pray all of our young -- the youth of Schuyler County, present and future (not to mention the young across the country) -- never have to experience anything like that again.
I pray that their leave-takings are of the graduation kind -- and of the kind that populate long and fruitful and rewarding lives.
Of absent friends ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 20, 2022 -- Anxiety has been visiting me with increasing frequency.
It’s not so much a concern about my own health -- it seems to be checking out okay as I visit general practitioners, radiologists and oncologists -- but rather that of other people and, for that matter, of a non-living entity.
I have lost friends and long-time acquaintances in alarming numbers -- my mother-in-law Margaret Bauman, Fred Scott, Doug Hagin, Don Romeo ... and most recently Tony Fraboni.
Of those men mentioned, I was closest to Tony, who is a member of this website’s Essentials: area citizens who have been key players in the ongoing Schuyler County story. He is described there as follows:
“Long dedicated to public service, he served as treasurer for the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, on the Tri-County Housing Board, and on the Watkins Glen Library Board. A former village Planning Board member, he was -- as a trustee on the Watkins Glen Village Board -- instrumental as a member of the Joint Project Committee in the construction of a regional water treatment plant along the canal between Watkins and Montour Falls. A longtime VP and branch manager of Community Bank in Watkins, he retired in 2021. He was an active Rotarian, having served as its president, and was the moving force behind a successful annual fund-raising auction there.”
I pray for Tony and for those other friends and acquaintances who have passed, and for those still fighting the good fight.
The non-living entity I mentioned is this website, which recently (and hopefully not again) was suffering for several days from technical glitches that limited access to it. The problem was on the server end, where the faceless voices of technicians weighed in with varying theories as to the cause, until finally one hit upon a solution and instituted a fix.
The whole thing was causing me unmitigated agitation. So ... fingers crossed.
And yet. And yet.
There is always, if I look hard enough, an upside to life.
I usually find it in the young people I cover in sports and arts in our local schools.
Even in those instances where victories are hard to come by -- or completely elusive -- our local athletes (at least those still pursuing athletics) have shown a camaraderie and love of the challenge ... even this spring, which was a season of less-than-stellar success if measured in wins and losses.
As for the arts, I was wowed by the enthusiasm and skill exhibited on-stage this year at both schools in their annual spring plays: Cinderella at Watkins Glen High School, and Once Upon a Mattress at Odessa-Montour.
The leads in both were really good, and the supporting cast strong. Costumes and set design and lighting were appealing. An uplifting experience in each case.
High and lows. Sadness at loss tempered by joy in the achievements of young people.
It’s not surprising that amid all of that, I have turned introspective. And in doing so, I’ve looked to the past, and for some reason wondered what happened to two men from my long-ago past: a ragtime piano player and a hotshot young journalist fresh (when I knew him) out of the hallowed halls of Columbia Journalism School.
The piano player’s name: Steve Spracklen. He performed for a while up in Watertown in the late 1970s when I worked at the Watertown Daily Times as a reporter and editor. Months after Steve had moved on, I took a trip to Michigan when I heard he was playing at a place called Render’s Restaurant in that state’s northern woods.
The restaurant was owned by a fellow named Tom Render, who was an alum from my high school, Bloomfield Hills High north of Detroit. Tom, who was a few years ahead of me, had had a sister who was my classmate; I’d heard along the way that she had been murdered. After expressing my condolences upon my arrival at his restaurant, he plied me with more booze than I had ever ingested; which was saying something, for those were serious drinking days. (I went essentially dry a decade or so later.)
Spracklen played his wonderful ragtime music while I was there, and I retreated home the next morning -- for some reason a cushioned, gaudy toilet seat in hand, a gift from Tom Render.
Anyway, in recent days I searched the Internet for Spracklen, wondering whatever had become of him -- and found he is still performing ragtime, or at least has been until recently. I even enjoyed a couple of video performances recorded in the last few years.
Talk about a balm for the soul ...
The other figure was the Columbia J School graduate, Rob Burton, who I thought a little full of himself back then in the 1970s -- perhaps understandable considering he was the lone Columbia grad on our staff, and was thus treated by the administration like a young god. I think he was still there in Watertown when I left to travel the country with my wife, Susan -- a journey that led us, ultimately, to settle in the Southern Tier of New York.
For whatever reason, I googled Rob a couple of weeks ago and found a gray-haired guy looking back at me who I did not at first recognize -- but it was him, for the attendant biographical information confirmed he attended Columbia and worked first for the Watertown Daily Times in a career that has included journalism, business and politics. He has, among other things, been the mayor of Oakville, Ontario for a few years.
Turning again to his picture, I looked hard for the young fellow I had known -- and I finally saw him. No longer sporting a wild, bushy hair-do emblematic of that earlier era, but still wearing wire-rimmed glasses, he was clearly there, a great deal older but with the same overtly confident look.
Huh, I thought. Well, good for him. But how come everybody else is aging, and not me?
Ahhh, self-delusion. It can be so comforting.
Of sports & a bygone age ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 4, 2022 -- Kudos to Odessa-Montour alum Grace Vondracek, whose Corning Community College softball team is having another banner year, including four wins last weekend. After losing five of their first seven games, the 27-5 Red Barons have run off 25 wins in a row.
To date, Vondracek -- an outstanding pitcher, hitter and base runner at O-M a few years ago who was on the verge of some career records there before her senior season was wiped out by the pandemic -- is hitting .660 with 8 homers and 30 stolen bases.
Well done, Grace. And good luck in future games.
It's nice to see a local girl having success in a sport. It’s becoming all too rare around here. For the record, my last column has generated more feedback than usual. It detailed the downward spiral of spring sports -- and of most sports in general -- on the high school level, where participation numbers are way down.
(I’ve even heard from Florida, where one reader sent me a long newspaper article on the same subject. The fall-off is not a local phenomenon, and not solely attributable to the pandemic.)
If I wasn’t direct enough last time, try this: The two schools -- O-M and Watkins Glen -- should seriously consider merging their spring sports: softball, tennis, track, and probably golf. And while they're at it, they could follow suit with soccer, volleyball, bowling and basketball. (They've already joined their football, wrestling, baseball and swim programs, with some notable successes.) As for lacrosse, it can be found only at one of the schools, WGHS, but there might be students from Odessa interested in it, too -- although that sport's multi-year record at Watkins might warrant another look at its value.
Thus far, lacrosse has one win this season, while neither the O-M nor WGHS softball team had a win until Odessa defeated Watkins this week. WGHS tennis has three wins out of seven tries, and there is no tennis team at all this year at O-M. In track, O-M has been holding its own, but the numbers really warrant a merger of the teams. Even if they had merged this year, the girls' combined track squad would only have something like 15 members.
If we want more consistent quality on our playing fields, we have to look to mergers.
I had the rare privilege recently of revisiting faces from my past. Not just faces, but full bodies with familiar voices and with familiar stories to tell.
It was a gathering at the home of former Elmira Star-Gazette reporter and columnist Jim Pfiffer in West Elmira. It came a couple of weeks after I had met with Jim, two other Star-Gazette alums (Bob Jamieson and Glenda Gephart) and a friend that Jim and Bob brought along.
We met at the Bucket Bar & Grill in Odessa after Jim, Bob and their friend had visited Glenda at the Schuyler County Historical Society Brick Tavern Museum, which she oversees. We had a great time at lunch, reconnecting, so maybe that prompted the subsequent S-G reunion. Or maybe it was already in the planning stage; I don't recall.
The point is that the reunion at Jim's reassured me, at least for now, of the solidity of my existence. Memories of my years at that newspaper, from 1980-88, are vivid, but on one occasion -- at an S-G reunion several years ago --- a former reporter I had known fairly well over a period of years simply failed to remember me. As if I hadn't existed.
Talk about deflating. So it helps that two people at this most recent reunion knew me right away after many years apart.
This time, there was a former S-G reporter named Craig Scott who I hadn’t seen since he left the paper in 1986. I recognized him right away upon entering the Pfiffer household, and was relieved when he spotted me, came right over and shook my hand in recognition. Present by Skype was another alum, former reporter Tim Dougherty, who also recognized me quickly.
Also present was a woman who worked at the paper after me, but who I had encountered over the years -- although not in the recent past. Her name is Maria Strinni Gill, a photographer of significant talent working now, she said, for Corning Inc. With her was a daughter, Madeline, soon to graduate high school and head off to Niagara University where she has signed a letter of intent to play Division 1 lacrosse. Considering that the girl was born after the time in which my path and her mother’s had crossed those years ago, I was feeling in her presence that I was, if no longer forgettable, at least quite old.
But the gray hairs and facial creasing in the room aside, it was a gathering full of joy as we Star-Gazette survivors recounted and thus relived some of the highlights of our collective years at the paper, touching along the way upon a number of colleagues who have since perished.
One of the attendees suggested we should write a book about that era -- when journalism filled the building on Baldwin Street in Elmira with an endless energy generated by scores of employees in various departments. Our focus back then was, of course, on the newsroom itself, and on the cavalcade of characters who worked there before moving on to other jobs, or retirement, or to the great beyond.
Some of the names are probably familiar to those folks who have been around here long enough to have had the opportunity to read such reporters’ words. Of those who have passed away, there was Al Mallette, long the S-G sports editor; Jimmy O’Hara, a political writer who typed rapid-fire with two fingers; Garth Wade, a features writer of note; reporter Peg Gallagher; and Bill Morgan, a reporter in the newsroom and in bureaus. On the editing side, there were the late Mike Walker, Dick Wich and Jon Gastineau. In management, there was Rick Tuttle, Executive Editor when I was hired, and then Publisher before cancer claimed him.
Among the guests at Pfiffer's were Glenda and Bob from our lunch meeting at The Bucket, and reporter Jeff Aaron, editor Pat Foster Richards and her husband, photographer Jeff Richards, and longtime S-G librarian Peg Ridosh.
They all impacted me in one way or another in that world of the long ago -- a world changed forever by the internet. The old S-G building is empty, and the handful of employees still in the Elmira area are, I'm told, working mostly remotely.
Yes, all of these folks impacted me, mostly in a positive way, although the very nature of newspaper publication -- run on deadlines that had to be met -- created tensions and the occasional confrontation.
The pressure of those deadlines could be excruciating.
In fact, I used to say to my kids: “What do I hate more than anything?”
And they would respond: “Deadlines, Daddy.”
And they were so right. I still, to this day, have the occasional dream in which I seem to be moving in slow motion as the clock ticks down closer and closer to deadline.
And I wake up sweating.
And yet ... and yet, in my waking hours, I look back on that time with a degree of fondness and gratefulness.
The downward slide ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 12, 2022 -- The Watkins Glen high school varsity tennis team is playing shorter meets this year, with five matches each instead of the former seven. That means that instead of four singles matches and three doubles, there are now three singles matches and two doubles.
Why? Well, as one coach put it, it’s because schools in general are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit players.
A minor point? No, a symptom. At the extreme end, the Odessa-Montour High School tennis team is nonexistent this year.
That’s right: no team. While WGHS has managed to continue with its tennis program (it has 15 participants), O-M doesn’t have one tennis player this year. There was “zero interest,” said O-M Athletic chief Greg Gavich. “Literally, zero kids signed up.”
And tennis isn’t alone among sports troubled by depleted numbers. The WGHS varsity lacrosse team has some kids who would normally be on a modified team -- raised up because there wasn’t enough interest to fill both squads.
The O-M girls junior varsity basketball team ended its season this past winter when it came up short of players early in the season. The remaining roster was promoted to varsity, with the exception of one player who returned to the modified program.
The O-M girls varsity track team is down to 9 members this year, from highs in the not-too-distant past in the 20s. And the WGHS girls track team has only seven on the roster, with one of them injured for most, if not all, of the season. The O-M boys track team has 15 competitors, with WGHS counting the same number.
In recent years, the O-M girls swim program thinned down to almost nothing, so its remaining competitors joined forces with one-time intracounty adversary Watkins Glen. Both the girls and boys swim programs at the two schools are now merged -- as is the wrestling program. WGHS wrestling participation dropped precipitously three or four years ago, and O-M brought the remaining few on-board to provide an ongoing competitive outlet. At first it appeared to be an informal arrangement, but has now solidified.
Football at the two schools merged several years ago, after both districts were challenged to meet the minimum number of active players after injuries thinned their ranks. Baseball merged as well.
The numbers across the local high school sports scene have continued downward in the wake of the pandemic. It seems, though nobody in authority can say for sure, that the enforced elimination of sports and -- for many -- the decision to home school during that down time has changed the psyche and drive and general perspective of a significant number of our students.
At least that’s one theory. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to know for sure. I imagine falling enrollment has been a factor, as has the obsession many youth have with the alternate universe provided by the internet.
“The numbers in all sports have gone down statewide,” says WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden, “but so has the population of students attending schools.”
He pointed to statistics collected by the state that shows, for instance, that participation statewide in track has diminished from 67,978 students in 2009-10 to 46,645 in 2020-21. And in tennis, the number shrank from 24,145 in 2009-10 to 17,657 in 2020-21.
During that same period, baseball participation slimmed from 36,367 to 29,436, golf from 10,087 to 5,216, and softball from 31,969 to 23,113. (Among fall sports, football has seen a dive from roughly 59,000 participants to 39,000, split between 11-man and an increasing number of 8-man squads.)
“Hopefully some numbers will bounce back a little now that Covid is not affecting sports as much,” says Weeden, “but our population is still declining regardless of Covid.”
According to available data for K-12, the Watkins district has fallen below 1,000 students (983 in 2019-20), while Odessa-Montour was at 733 that same year. The downward trend has been long-term.
The bottom line, though, seems to be this: mergers of WGHS and O-M teams-- relatively successful thus far -- could be extended locally to include all spring sports. Greater numbers could bode well in track, softball, tennis and -- if any O-M athletes wanted to play -- in lacrosse, too.
But it’s not just numbers. A direct effect of dwindling rosters is reduced success. This year, the only team out of the gate with a winning record at O-M and WGHS is the WGHS tennis squad. The softball teams are foundering. So is the WGHS lacrosse squad. (O-M has never formed such a squad.) And the golf teams, while expected to see some good individual performances, will not likely see much team success. And the track teams need an infusion of bodies.
In terms of victories, there was success last fall with O-M girls soccer and with football and girls swimming (both merged), and in the winter the WGHS boys varsity basketball team excelled -- as did, to a lesser extent, the O-M girls basketball squad.
I’ve never adversely judged the two schools’ programs, but let’s face it: It’s a lot more fun, and rewarding, to win.
If spring sports has become (as I’ve heard postulated) a recreational endeavor, then something is awry. In the face of the clearly shrinking interest (and associated talent level), let’s circle the wagons and look closely at merger across the athletic board.
That’s not to say a merger of the two districts themselves should be attempted. I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that point. But sports mergers continue to offer a favorable outcome -- one where competition trumps participation ... and where success as measured in the satisfaction of victories just might beckon.
Squares of a quilt ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 23, 2022 -- “Come on. It’ll be an adventure.”
That line from the concluding episode of the famed TV series “The West Wing” -- which I was watching recently -- brought an almost visceral reaction from me.
That's because it’s exactly what I said to my wife Susan on two different occasions -- before we took a trip around the country in a camper in 1979, and again before I accepted a temporary post in 1988 with USA Today, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper.
And what followed was, in each case, indeed an adventure -- mostly because it was something two people devoted to one another were able to share.
In the first case, Susan agreed readily to the long trip, which kept us on the road, basically, for about three months.
In the second case, we had long since settled in an Odessa house we were buying, and she had given birth to our two boys, and a move to Washington seemed a bit much -- although it was by design for just four months, part of a loaner program from the Elmira Star Gazette, which like USA Today was a Gannett newspaper. But daunting move or not, Susan finally relented, agreed to join me in D.C. after the school year concluded (I was away from May into September), and ended up loving the whole experience.
In the 16 years left of her life after the D.C. adventure, she sometimes talked of both experiences -- our three-month trip and our time in Washington -- as highlights of that life.
There were many stops on our 1979 journey -- at campgrounds, in cities, in national parks, at various homes, journeying most of the way with two adolescents -- my son Bill (from my first marriage) and his cousin Robbie. We saw a lot, but one stop stands out, not for excitement, but for the kindness of a simple act.
A middle-aged gentleman we had only just met bestowed us with a couple of dozen grunion (small sardine-sized fish) that he had plucked from the sand of a beach near where we, he, and a score of other campers had pulled in for the night -- in a dirt parking lot alongside Route 101 midway down the coast of California. This came after Sue, the boys and I had toured such states as South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
The man was a minister named Josiah -- we, in the informality of the setting, only learned each other's first names -- who was actually from the area, an hour or so away. He was a widower, he noted -- "married to the church now, devoted to God." He had discovered this pull-off and frequented it whenever he could during the grunion runs in the warm months. The grunion females run up onto a beach with the tide, deposit eggs, mate with males, and swim out again a couple of hours later -- but while they are beached become easy pickings for folks who like a tasty treat.
“See the road over there?” Josiah said, pointing back to Route 101 as we talked shortly after arriving late one August afternoon. “That’s a state highway, and from there over to here is state highway land they’re not otherwise using, so they let folks camp here as long as things stay picked up. It sure beats spending the night in a trailer park, ’cause you’re not only paying there, you end up a mile-and-a-half or so from the ocean. Here, you get the ocean, and it’s free.
“Besides,” he said, “it’s a great place to come to catch some surf fish, the grunion, if that’s what you like. Actually, they're very tasty.” He motioned to the beach, where a number of campers were congregating, buckets and cans in hand that they would soon start to fill with grunion -- which they were allowed to catch, by law, only by hand. The sun was rapidly sinking out over the Pacific. Night was coming.
Later, after dark had descended, Josiah was knocking at our camper door. In his hand was a bucket with grunion he had caught. He explained the finer points of grunion preparation, which Susan and I followed -- cleaning the little fellows, rolling them in egg and flour, and cooking them in a skillet on our camper stove. It all led to a delicious meal.
Next morning, after most of the campers had departed for other points -- perhaps to return later; perhaps not -- we approached our benefactor as he was preparing to leave.
“Thanks,” I said. “That was a first. And it was very kind of you.”
Josiah smiled, looked down to the beach, where a few people were wandering about, gathering stones. The grunion were gone -- either grabbed for dinner or returned on their own to deeper water.
“That’s what folks do,” he said. “Or at least what they should. I’m a firm believer in kindness. Comes with the territory.”
He held out his hand, and I shook it.
“Glad to know you,” I said, for indeed I was. It was uncommon, in my experience at that point, to encounter a stranger as willing to not only impart kindness, but to embrace it.
"And I you," he said. He smiled at Susan and me. "Be good to one another. Only through shared experience can you maximize your time on Earth."
There was a sadness there; a wistfulness -- an unspoken reference to a past he hadn't shared with us. I could only wonder what it might have entailed; how long and fruitful his marriage might have been; how long before and under what circumstances his wife had passed; and what regrets he might still be harboring.
But my thoughts were fleeting, and we parted, Sue and I and the boys heading south, and Josiah disappearing into our personal history.
And he has stayed with me in memory all of these years -- a guidepost of sorts, a man whose core of kindness, tinged with sadness, has rung down through the ages.
It was a weird sort of timing, that "West Wing" line about adventure. It got me thinking about that 1979 trip, and about Washington, D.C., and inevitably about Susan. And it coincided with the passing in the same week (this past March 15) of the woman who gave birth to Susan -- Margaret Pound Bauman, the grandmother of my two youngest sons, and a sort of surrogate mother to me after the death of my own Mom eleven years ago.
And that, of course, prompted reminiscence about Susan and her folks, and about how, at the end of that 1979 journey, Sue and I ended up settling -- at her parents' urging -- in the Southern Tier.
Grandma, as my boys and I called her, was a wise woman -- sweet, but with a knowing edge. She was nearing 91, the last 15-plus years alone after the passing of her husband Oakley. She was, in fact, the first person to whom Susan introduced me the first time I cruised into Odessa in a yellow MG on an Easter weekend back in 1977.
Susan and I had been seeing each other up in Watertown, where we both lived -- she in an apartment with two females, and me in an apartment with some cockroaches after my first marriage had ended.
She hadn’t explained my existence to her parents, and my visit was a bit of a surprise to her, and so she introduced me to her mother like this: “Mom, this is Charlie. He’s crazy.” This took place in the old Country Cards store on Main Street in Odessa, a business owned and operated by Grandma for nearly three decades.
I might have been introduced as “crazy,” but Sue’s Mom seemed to like me anyway, and so put me at ease, and invited me to dinner, and ... well .. that’s how my eventual assimilation into Schuyler County life began.
And across the years, she was unfailingly fair. If riled, she responded firmly; but it took a lot to rile her. She, like Josiah of the California coast, had a core of kindness.
So ... assimilation into her family preceded my entrance into life within Schuyler. That latter came about three years after my first visit to Odessa -- after a couple more years in Watertown, then the trip around the country, then a year outside Ithaca.
Then we moved to Odessa, settling in a house within sight of the Country Cards store.
I'm not absolutely sure what Grandma thought of our 1979 and D.C. adventures. But I strongly suspect, judging by her own life and by my long association with her as her son-in-law, that she saw the raising of a family -- the digging of roots into a firm and stable and nurturing environment -- to be the best of adventures. And that any other experiences -- like trips or temporary moves -- were simply pieces of the whole; squares in a quilt, so to speak.
If that was indeed her belief, I don't think I could argue the point. Whether we each have achieved something of lasting duration is all a matter of personal perspective, and perhaps satisfaction. In my own case, there was nothing of more importance than marriage to Susan, the birth of my sons, and the development of a loving environment where our children could thrive.
Yes, that was all an adventure, my greatest. But it is in the past now -- the boys now grown, Susan long since passed, and now her mother gone, too. My last parental guiding hand ... gone.
I'm sure that living in that past is not the smartest or healthiest thing to do. I tend to exist day to day; to focus on the present. But that can be wearing. So I've been thinking that maybe I am good for one more adventure -- one more square of my life's quilt -- before it is too late.
What shape that experience might take, I don’t know, although I suspect travel would be part of it.
I could try another journey around the country, targeting some old favorite stops -- like that parking lot overlooking the beach in California -- and some new ones. Or maybe a train trip across western Canada is in order, or a visit to Alaska.
It’s food for a great deal of thought. And very tempting, no matter which direction I might choose.
Life lessons we learn ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 6, 2022 -- As I write this, I mourn the loss of a loved one.
She’s been gone for more than 17 years now, but every time I reach March 6 -- her birthday -- I mourn anew all that she lost, and all that we lost, with her passing.
Susan Bauman Haeffner, my wife of 27 years, died of a pulmonary embolism related to cancer treatment on Nov. 1, 2004, at the age of 52. If she had lived to the present day, she would now have reached 70.
I don’t know how we might have celebrated that milestone. When I reached 70, I just kind of blanched at the very idea of reaching such an advanced age. I mean, I still felt young.
I don’t know how we would have celebrated, but God, if only we had had the chance to do so.
We have all lost loved ones along the way, but the loss of a spouse who is your best friend is a particularly harsh life lesson to absorb.
I often wished, in the early days after her passing, that it had been me instead. I basically felt like stepping in front of a moving truck.
But reversing the order of our departure from this flying orb we call Earth would just have saddled her with the pain instead.
In time, I learned to accept what is, and simply look forward to the day -- whenever God chooses -- when we meet again.
And I adjusted back to daily life, and continued on in what I think -- I hope -- was a productive, meaningful way. And I, somehow, once again thrived.
Happy birthday, Susan.
And speaking of loss, one kind of a lesser degree -- but nonetheless delivering a life lesson -- came when the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team fell in the Section IV, Class C semifinals to Newfield. The Newfield Trojans went on to defeat Moravia for its second consecutive Class C championship.
Watkins Glen’s Senecas had a spectacular year. After a season-opening loss when they were missing three starters thanks to Covid-19, Watkins won 19 straight games before encountering a talented and determined Newfield squad in that semifinal at SUNY Cortland.
The players were visibly emotional in the game’s immediate aftermath. Understandable, but in retrospect I’m hoping they remember their comeback against Dryden to capture the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School championship, and their resilience in the face of injury -- winning and winning some more after having lost their top scorer for several weeks. They won most of their games handily, and when the other contests among those 19 got close, they found a way to dig deep and prevail.
That they didn’t prevail on their final day detracts, but to me only a little. Every team except one tastes defeat in the postseason.
I could point to a few factors contributing to the outcome of that last game -- one in which they trailed almost the entire time -- but that seems pointless. The bottom line is this: on that day, in that place, the Senecas had simply met their match.
As we all do, at some point in life.
Sometimes, too, a loss doesn’t really seem like a loss -- when a sports team, for instance, is on the rise or ascends to a point higher than observers anticipate.
Or when an illness that we’ve come to associate with death ends up as something life affirming.
On the sports front, I point to this year’s Odessa-Montour girls varsity basketball team, which -- despite a six-game losing streak in the first half of the season -- ended up reaching the semifinals of the Section IV, Class D tournament. Or the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity swim team, which in recent years had too few swimmers to fill all of the races, but this year was second in the IAC Championships and third at the Section IV, Class C meet.
Personally, I point -- thanks to the steady hands at Cayuga Medical Center -- to a remission of the cancer that sent me through chemotherapy and radiation last year. When you’re told you have cancer, you tend immediately to confront mortality. My sons and I discussed an orderly transition if my end was at hand, and one of my boys even cut the distance between my house and his by moving all the way from Asheville, North Carolina, to Takoma Park, Maryland.
But my cancer was chased away, and my hair -- I had gone quite bald -- gradually returned, and my energy level increased. If not for a nagging ankle injury, I would have had the mobility and drive of Odessa File years past -- 19 of them now, and counting.
Will the cancer return? It might, but I don’t dwell on it. I concentrate on living, and on working, and on loving all those who matter so very much to me. In going through a difficult patch, I came out with a greater appreciation of what I have.
Recently I encountered an acquaintance -- a man of substance in Schuyler County, now retired -- who spotted me lunching at a local restaurant. He hadn’t seen me in months, and seemed surprised by my physical appearance compared to the last time he had seen me, when I was bald and a bit gaunt.
“My gosh, Charlie, you’re back!” he enthused.
Well, yes, I am.
For now, anyway. And happy for it.
And ... well ... in no hurry to be reunited with Susan anytime soon.
The Legacy ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 25, 2022 -- The area basketball postseason is upon us, and an important transitional game leading into sectionals paid dividends. The Watkins Glen High School boys varsity squad rallied with a 21-4 fourth quarter -- including an 18-0 run -- to defeat Dryden 64-50 in the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School title game.
That contest, at Tompkins-Cortland Community College, prompted the following poem -- both in appreciation and perhaps as a sort of incentive, or perhaps propulsion, for the Senecas in the Section IV, Class C Tournament. Watkins Glen, which is the top seed and accordingly had a first-round bye, opens Saturday at 6 p.m. against No. 9-seeded Tioga in the WGHS Field House.
The poem -- a form of communication that comes to me at unscheduled and sometimes odd times (but in this case understandably inspired) -- reads as follows.
The wheels were spinning, coming off
The outcome looking dire.
But then the team applied the press,
And raced clear of the fire.
Eighteen straight points they scored that day,
A rally to be prized.
The cheers from Dryden’s faithful
Stilled as Watkins cheers did rise.
When finally the dust did clear
The Senecas had won it.
Triumphal legacy secured,
The Ball Hawks, yes, had done it.
Had won the IAC again,
The third time in a line.
Had prospered in a time of woe
The world in decline.
Thus in an era full of fear
They gave fans such a ride.
In Covid times, they soared up high,
Imbued the Glen with pride.
Watkins Glen is not the only local team in basketball tournament play. Although the Odessa-Montour boys bowed out in the first round of the Class D Tournament, the O-M girls won their opener against Edmeston and next face Schenevus, a school located far to the east, beyond Oneonta. Fortunately, with the No. 4 seed in hand, O-M avoids the drive east by playing host to the No. 5-seeded Dragons at 3:45 p.m. Saturday.
Most eyes, though, are on the WGHS boys squad, which has won 18 straight games after a season-opening loss to the Dryden squad it ultimately defeated for the IAC crown. Coach John Fazzary has a long and storied history at Watkins -- including a state title as coach of the cross-country team -- and has a lot of folks cheering for him to claim his first sectional basketball title in this, his final season before retirement.
Count me in that corner. Go, Senecas!
Coming soon: The Odessa File winter sports All-Stars. The selectees come from all of the sports, mixed together. There will also be a Schuyler Winter Sports MVP.
Farther down the road: our pick of seven outstanding student-athletes from each of the two schools covered: Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen. Last year we called each group a Magnificent 7, or simply The 7. Selection is based on a combination of academics, athletics and character, with recommendations from school officials playing a significant role.
Any suggestions on possible selectees? Let me know.
About those ball hawks ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 10, 2022 -- I encountered Aaron Thomson the other night up in the Odessa-Montour High School gym. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and wasn’t sure he’d remember me.
He lives outside Odessa now; has a tree service business. He is also coach of the O-M boys junior varsity basketball team.
After his team had defeated Candor that night, he came out of his post-game meeting with his players, and sat in the stands with family behind the O-M bench.
I got his attention, pointed at him, and he pointed back -- and then climbed down from the bleachers to where I was, on the sideline of the court. And we shook hands.
“Long time,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed.
I smiled. “The Wild Bunch,” I said.
And he smiled in turn, and laughed gently. “Yes,” he said. “those were some great days.”
The Wild Bunch was a nickname affixed to the 2005-06 Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team -- a squad, including Aaron Thomson, that went 18-0 in the regular season.
I was so inspired by the joie de vivre and seeming invincibility of that team that I wrote a poem about it after it had won its first seven games. As I wrote in an account called “Schuyler and Me,” which appears elsewhere on this website:
“The poem I wrote envisioned them going unbeaten through the season — they in fact went 18-0 before losing in the postseason — and was titled “The Wild Bunch.” I remember one player’s parent a little upset with that title, thinking it disrespectful, but it wasn’t long before the team had embraced the name, and “Wild Bunch” T-shirts were making the rounds.
“The roster included Conor Flahive, Joe Westervelt, Sam Schimizzi, Brandon Marvin, Tim Rentschler and his twin brother Brian, Jeff Meehan, Steven Combs, Aaron Thomson, Travis Phoenix, Jon Fazzary, John Michael Bianco and Pat Suits.
“The poem went in part like this:
“This grouping -- a basketball team it was called --
Did something quite daring, it losing forestalled.
It won and it won and it won once again,
Until there were no games to lose for these men.
“The names they were given, their tombs will be carved in
A Flahive, a Westervelt, Schimizzi and Marvin.
The things they accomplished, all writ in our tomes
Were done by the Rentschlers and Meehan and Combs.
“The names of the other players were all worked in, and then it concluded:
“The pressure they’d bring, the quick hands and the picks
In the year of our Lord, it was two thousand six.”
The fact that the team went on to lose in the post-season, falling just short of a sectional title, doesn’t diminish from that 18-0. It seemed to be one of those untouchable marks. And maybe it is.
Which brings us to the WGHS boys varsity basketball team of this year, 2021-22. It has gone 17-1 -- its only loss in the season opener, when it played without three starters (Owen Scholtisek, Cameron Holland and Joe Sutterby) due to Covid-19 protocols.
It seems -- seemed then, in fact -- that the game shouldn’t have been played, but hindsight in the Covid era is fruitless, and I suppose pointless. In any event, it was played, and Watkins lost to Dryden, 61-50.
That’s a stark score, for the Senecas almost never give up that many points; and rarely more than 40. You take away three starters before you’ve even gained your sea legs, and bad things can happen.
Since then, the team -- and I stress team, for this is a group that works very well together -- has run off 17 straight victories, some close, and some in runaway fashion, and won the Interscholatic Athletic Conference Large School South Division title. That puts the Senecas in the IAC Large School title game at 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17 at Tompkins-Cortland Community College.
Along the way, they weathered the absence of their top scorer, Adam Pastore, sidelined with an ankle injury from the middle of the regular season to almost its end.
Even without him, they excelled, one player and then another stepping up when needed: Scholtisek, Holland, Sutterby, Mitchell Pike, Jacob Yontz, Luke Spahalski. Beyond them, they have a deep bench with some sharpshooters who have seen limited action: Ryan Bauchle-Willett, Bryce Cady, Gavin Smith and David Kelly III.
This team, by its record, reminds me of The Wild Bunch -- but their demeanor is different. The Wild Bunch seemed looser, a bit irreverant, but always able to bear down when a game was in the balance.
This Bunch -- well, they’re normally off and running, fast break after fast break, steal after steal, from the opening tipoff. They’re quick, and on most nights they’re accurate from long and short range.
Their defense is the key. They’re so determined, so in-the-face of their opponents, that it's hard to tell whether poor shooting by the other team is a matter of a cold night or intimidation -- rushing shots by a fraction enough to throw off the trajectory or aim.
Maybe another poem, or at least a brief verse, might find this team’s gist. We’ll call it The Ball Hawks.
On the road to TC3,
They lost one game, and that a fluke.
Once on the court, their muscles tense,
they race and steal and juke.
Their names ring loud, there's Mitch and Luke,
and Adam, Jake, Cam, Joe and Owen.
In all they do, one fact stands out:
Their rivals are things they like mowing.
They race from the outset, no mercy they show.
They top their foes game after game.
These Watkins Glen Senecas, basketball kings,
Keep running and gunning to fame.
Okay, maybe not a great effort. But in truth, these guys aren’t flashy, except on the court. They possess a seriousness that seems to translate to crisp passes and true shooting and a relentless confidence that helps carry them to wins.
They are not the Wild Bunch. They are their own Bunch. Call them ball hawks. Call them runners. Call them gunners. And call them a pleasure for any fan to watch.
That they haven’t been drawing full houses to the WGHS Field House speaks not of them, but of a downward turn in school spirit in this pandemic era. Games in the Wild Bunch days drew large, gym-packing, enthusiastic crowds. No longer.
The Senecas drew a pretty good-sized crowd recently when they dispatched Waverly, breaking a tie atop their division. But it wasn’t like the old days. The attendance was significantly lower, and so was the decible level. And that’s a shame.
This Bunch deserves the same level of support, of encouragement, that the Wild Bunch received.
But even without it, they win. Seventeen in a row.
I mentioned to Aaron Thomson, that long-ago member of the Wild Bunch, how the first game this season had been played with Watkins Glen shorthanded by three starters due to Covid protocols, and he shook his head.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “It sounds like they should have gone 18-0.”
Which would have equalled The Wild Bunch in record, if not in temperament.
But hey: 17-1 speaks for itself. And greater glory looms -- is out there for the possible plucking by this special group of athletes.
Let’s hope they seize it.
Chapel, coach & creature ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 25, 2022 -- I took particular notice of the press release the other day announcing that the Schuyler County Historical Society had acquired Lawrence Chapel.
That’s an historic little structure out on Route 228 near the Fontainebleau Inn that my wife and I had scouted as a potential site for our wedding back in 1977. It had, alas, been unavailable on the date we needed, so we ended up holding our marriage vows in the old Odessa Baptist Church, which is now a private residence.
But despite the failure to attain the Lawrence Chapel site, it remains part of the lore of Haeffner wedding history, as everything that went into our preparations were special to us and remain special to me to this day.
I’m glad the chapel, deeded in 1972 to the Chemung County Historical Society, is now in the hands of the Schuyler Historical Society, since I have devoted my attention for the past 19-plus years to Schuyler County. It holds center place in my journalistic attention.
And, somehow, the professional and the highly personal have a way of melding, each becoming of import to the other.
Having left the last meeting of the Watkins Glen School Board while its members were in Executive Session -- they have this habit of starting the public meeting and then disappearing for a half-hour or more into a closed room while those others in attendance are left to cool their heels -- I missed the board’s approval of the coming retirement of John Fazzary, a longtime teacher and coach extraordinaire in the school district.
Fazzary will retire at the end of the school year, ending his reign as coach of the boys varsity basketball team, a tenure dating back to 1999-2000. Before that, he coached at Spencer-Van Etten and then as the JV girls coach and JV boys coach at WGHS before assuming the varsity mantle. He has also overseen the cross country program at the school, an effort that has included a state championship.
His basketball tenure has been a run of consistently winning seasons, and this year’s team is among the best he has had, going 12-1 as of this writing despite the loss several games ago of the team’s leading scorer, Adam Pastore, to an ankle injury. The team is deep, with several players capable of stepping up when needed on any given night.
Will this be the year Fazzary snags that sectional basketball title that has been eluding him? Maybe. I certainly hope so.
After that, what comes next for the coach? Will he stay busy?
“Oh, yes,” he said, ticking off days on the golf course and attendance at college basketball games among his interests, along with travel.
Good luck to you, coach. I’ll miss our late-night phone chats we’ve been holding for years after your games. It’s been fun.
The Cleveland Indians are no more. They’re the Guardians. The Washington Redskins are no more. They’re the Washington Football Club.
There is a movement afoot nationally and in our state to eradicate the use of Native American nicknames, mascots and symbols by sports teams -- deemed by their opponents as offensive; as culturally insensitive. That movement applies locally to our two school districts, where Watkins Glen feeds off the heritage of the Seneca Indians, and Odessa-Montour simply feeds off the generic Indians. Together, as in combined football and baseball teams, they have been the Seneca Indians in recent years.
Some of that is apparently going to change. Will have to, really, with pressure coming down from the state.
There have been local discussions about it -- involving administrators, students, and school boards -- across the past couple of years, but the pandemic seemed to slow the effort, putting as it did a crimp in meetings and discussion of non-pandemic-related issues.
The Watkins Glen district has moved noticeably forward in recent weeks, with Superintendent Kai D’Alleva discussing the issue in open session with the School Board. What I took from those talks was this: the district feels it can still be the Senecas by tying into the Seneca Lake culture, jettisoning any Native American mascots, imagery and the like.
D’Alleva thought there could be a tie-in, for example, to an old Seneca Lake legend involving a Loch Ness-like monster that plumbs the lake’s 600-foot depths, but he might have been spitballing on that one. (Nonetheless, the combined Watkins/O-M teams could, I suppose, be the Seneca Serpents.)
Maybe the lake tie-in will work for the Watkins school district; let it keep its Senecas. Maybe not. Up the hill, though, O-M has no such ready-made tie-in. It would seem something more strikingly creative is needed -- a Guardians-like name change.
In the meantime, there are still the Braves in Major League Baseball and the Chiefs in the NFL, and I suspect some minor-league baseball teams that will have to deal with this movement.
I am not judging either way. Since my late Aunt Jean, our family genealogist, said years ago that there was evidence of an Ojibwe Indian in our lineage, I tilt by potential heritage and longstanding sympathy to those who were on this land before the Europeans arrived. (If that Ojibwe heritage is true, it would make me something like 1/64th Native American; a suggestion that prompted me to create a whole new historical perspective in a novel titled The Maiden of Mackinac, about a 700-year-old female Ojibwe figure. So no, this whole debate does not waft softly past my radar. I await local name, imagery and mascot developments with great interest.)
More to the point, if anyone has any suggestions as to what names and mascots the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour sports teams might carry, let the districts or this website know.
The passing parade ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 10, 2022 -- When you run an online newspaper that includes obituaries, you are keenly aware of the passing parade -- of those figures, both significant and little known, who leave the stage of life.
When you’re my age and some of those obituaries pertain to people younger than you are, mortality keeps reminding you that you might be next.
It hits home a little harder when the obituary you are running is of someone you knew and respected.
Of late, that has included a 63-year-old named Craig Lattin (a decade younger than me) and Jim Wilson, a 77-year-old Schuyler County Hall of Famer.
I had known them both for years.
I knew Craig first through our shared love of card collecting: baseball, football, basketball, hockey and golf trading cards. He ran a card shop in Elmira Heights for years; I visited it from time to time, and we always chatted.
I also knew him through his role in the Watkins Glen School District, primarily in his latter years as its high school Dean of Students -- where he was popular among the students, being an empathetic fellow who played life fairly. The students responded to that.
And so did I, stopping in his office from time to time to talk and admire the sports memorabilia displayed on the walls there.
I saw him several times over the past year when we both set up as dealers at sports-card shows near Rochester, and we took the opportunity for further conversations. Again, it came down to our shared love of sports and its related collecting hobby.
When I heard he had died, I was stunned. I didn’t want to believe it, and held out faint hope until his obituary crossed my desk.
I knew Jim Wilson because of his long tenure as the first Executive Director of The Arc of Schuyler. The Arc provided services to my eldest son over the years, so I felt beholden to Jim and all that he had helped create to provide aid to people with developmental disabilities.
Jim’s significance was recognized with his election to the Schuyler County Hall of Fame several years ago. At the time of his induction ceremony, an introduction speech was presented by Margaret Cook, who had worked with him in the past. She said he was a man for whom “good is never good enough.”
He was “innovative, politically intuitive ... reserved, and even shy,” she said, noting that he was known by some as The Hawk “because he never misses a trick.” He also had “tremendous energy, never gives up, but knows when to say when.”
I personally knew Jim in a sort of laid-back, friendly way. I always found him approachable, and kind, and modest considering all he had accomplished in establishing and shepherding The Arc to a position of success and prominence.
When I spotted his obituary, I took a deep breath, and uttered an expletive reflecting my shock and disappointment at losing yet another good person I had known and respected across the years.
At the same time, I had to digest the passing of Betty White, a show business personality of long standing; Sidney Poitier, an actor of great achievement and note, and of comedian Bob Saget. White was almost 100 and Poitier was in his mid-90s, so their deaths were not surprising. Saget was in his 60s -- another passing of someone younger than me.
I never met any of the three, but like so many of us felt as if I knew them.
And then word came of the passing of Michael Lang, the famed Woodstock promoter who made waves around here in the recent past when he tried to establish a Woodstock-styled concert at Watkins Glen International. The effort failed, but along the way I met and interviewed Lang.
Now, he too is gone.
It occurred to me amid all of this that perhaps I should pull up the bedcovers, hide underneath, and in that way avoid the passing parade -- and the mortality that lurks out there.
Then again, I thought: Why bother? We can't stop life and its end result. All any of us can do, upon the death of a Craig Lattin or a Jim Wilson, or anyone else we know, is nod in their direction, recognize that they were significant to us and likely to others, and give them a nod.
A thank you, if you will, for sharing with us, in some meaningful way, the ride on this globe called Earth through time and the cosmos.
And a prayer never hurts.
Photos in text: Craig Lattin (top) and Jim Wilson.
When you least expect it ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 27, 2021 -- In my somewhat jaded old age, I find inspiration to be a fleeting -- well, mostly unattainable -- thing.
I haven’t felt inspired to love in that all-encompassing, nothing-else-matters way in many years.
I haven’t felt the hero-worship of my younger days since, well ... since those younger days. Back then, at home near Detroit, there were the Tigers’ Al Kaline and the Lions’ Bobby Layne and the Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay and ... well, mostly sports figures. The last of those was Catfish Hunter, after I had moved to New York and he had signed with the Yankees. I managed to meet him fleetingly during his Hall of Fame induction weekend.
With all-out love and hero-worship in my past, what I’ve been reduced to is the occasional rare and prized friendship, and an admiration for those people who contribute in manifestly positive ways to society (which rules out all of Congress) or who rise to an occasion.
Sticking with the athletics theme (I also admire writers, musicians and other artists), we have in recent months seen some remarkable risings on the national stage. There was the Milwaukee Bucks’ center, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who rose to stunning heights in leading his team to last season’s NBA championship. Or the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, who was his team’s best pitcher while also hitting 46 home runs last baseball season. Amazing.
On the local stage, we have the occasional high school standout. The Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team -- overall very good -- has among its stalwarts Adam Pastore, who recently poured in 34 points in a game in which he didn’t even play the fourth quarter. And he has followed that up with other impressive games. In fact, he seems to be a consistent force. But in being consistent, he is no longer a surprise.
And this is about a surprise.
I like surprises -- at least those of a positive nature. And one occurred in a recent WGHS girls varsity basketball game, when the Senecas, who had struggled in their first two games, trailed Dryden in their third game by 10 points after scoring just 15 points through the game’s first three quarters.
I was sitting with a friend -- this was in the WGHS Field House -- having taken a number of photographs, and figured the game was essentially over. The shots weren’t falling for the home team, and all seemed hopeless.
Then Jenna Solomon happened. The Watkins junior, a basketball veteran, suddenly (figuratively) donned a cloak normally reserved for fictional superheroes -- and carried her team to the cusp of victory, scoring 13 fourth-quarter points and putting her team -- which had trailed 25-15 entering the period -- ahead by two points, 31-29, with 1:25 to go.
It was a remarkable show of determination, especially after the desultory three periods that had preceded it. Up to that final quarter, Solomon had connected on one lone 3-pointer as the entire team struggled to find the net. In those closing minutes, though, she hit another long-distance shot, put up strong inside shots, and converted several free throws.
To look at the scorebook’s fourth quarter is striking. The Senecas scored 16 points in the period, more than equalling their total of the first three periods. But most noticeable was the mass of points in the Solomon column. Only two other players on her team scored in the quarter, one on two free throws, and one on one free throw.
The rest was all Solomon -- a 3, a trio of 2’s and four free throws.
Yes, I’ve seen the equal in terms of a single period’s worth of points from time to time, but I can’t recall one person carrying a team in such stunning fashion from the doldrums to the edge of victory.
That her team actually lost 32-31 -- Dryden tied the game with a field goal a minute from the end, and won it on a free throw with just 11 seconds left -- does not diminish for me the impact of what I watched; the surprise and pleasure I experienced in witnessing it.
The loss that after three quarters had appeared inevitable did, indeed, come to pass, but the circumstance of the defeat had changed so remarkably. It was disappointing, in the end, but not depressing.
It was a loss amid resilience, determination, and, yes, heroics.
And as a fan, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.
As of Dec. 29, I will have been operating this website -- this online newspaper -- for 19 years. I’ve told my sons I should ask every reader out there to send along $1 for each of those years -- at least those who have yet to donate to the cause. But of course I was kidding. Just wait until next year, when I reach 20. Then we’ll talk ....
And here’s hoping that next year is better than the one just concluding. Between my last surviving aunt’s passing, the loss and replacement of one of my crowns, and then cancer and chemo ... well, it was a personally challenging year. As it was for all of us, beset as we have been with the rise and fall and rise of Covid.
Let’s hope for something better in 2022.
Happy New Year.
Masking up is hard to do ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 8, 2021 -- As I walked into a junior varsity basketball game last week at Odessa-Montour High School, I encountered the varsity coach, Greg Gavich, whose team would be opening its season against Trumansburg there in the O-M gym as soon as the JV game was concluded.
I looked around, and saw people in the bleachers on both sides of the court. The bleachers weren’t full, by any means, and the size of the crowd was nothing like a good home football game brought. But it was significant, and Gavich put it in perspective.
“This is the first basketball game with spectators here in 645 days,” he said.
My head snapped up to look at him. I had forgotten. Last year, no spectators were allowed in the gyms for any games anywhere around here. Those gyms were oddly quiet, with only the calls of the players and the coaches and the officials in the air -- all taken in by me and my camera, located at one end of the court, the rare non-athlete or non-coach allowed to view what traditionally is designed for the applause and calls of encouragement from a faithful fandom.
“Six hundred forty-five,” I repeated.
“Yep,” he said.
And I smiled, marveling at how we -- despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic -- have adjusted; have decided to venture out where once we were essentially in lockdown. Not that all evidence of our caution has been thrown to the wind, for everyone in that gym was wearing a face-mask. Was required to by school officials.
Yes, that’s certainly an impediment to performance, what with ballplayers and officials running back and forth, up and down the court, their lungs reaching for air as the pace intensifies.
The parents of one player noted how their daughter, a member of one of the two varsity teams that night, found it difficult to maintain proper breathing while playing with a mask on -- how she would work up a sweat that would induce the mask to more than cover her face; it would adhere tightly to it, sweat to sweat, causing her to slow and, on occasion, pull the mask free of skin.
Perhaps she changed masks -- a dry one for the wet one -- during the competition; I don’t know.
But there was no arguing the rule, for coverings are considered by the schools to be essential -- if not in other places where the public might gather. (A point of order here: while almost all of the basketball players follow the rule, on occasion one might be wearing the mask like a chin strap, with mouth and nose unobstructed. If there is a rule, it seems as though the referees should enforce it. A technical foul on a chin-strapper might go a long way toward that enforcement.)
Anyway, impediment or not, I have to consider such a rule a good thing, especially when considering the long-term and stubborn nature of the various mutating bacteria that have altered our way of life -- and which, judging from the most recent numbers, are on the definite rise in Schuyler County: 91 cases in a five-day period, with the 19th and 20th related deaths.
Go into any big store, though, and you’re likely to see an easy majority of folks not bothering with a mask. Not that I should judge, because I find myself running quick errands maskless at the nearby post office or Dandy store. I do mask up, though, when going into a larger establishment, where I encounter more people and a likely enhanced chance to contract Covid.
So even I, a masker, violate this basic safety precaution. Depending on who you talk to, a mask is either pointless or essential; I err on the side, most of the time, of caution. Maybe my lapses in masking up are holdovers from my long-ago teen years, when I thought myself impervious to serious illness -- a notion that should have been dispelled by now, considering my recent bout with cancer.
(And for those who haven’t been keeping track on that front, I was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma -- discovered in my upper right gum in the spring. The summer -- normally a time for travel to my beloved Michigan Island, Bois Blanc -- was instead a period of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The end result is this: my hair, which disappeared, has regrown, and the cancer has gone into remission -- hopefully on a permanent basis. The only notable shortcoming remaining is a fatigue that strikes periodically. But part of that is probably age, since I am far beyond being a spring chicken.)
But back to masks.
Considering the circumstances, and the possible consequence (illness or death) of going around bare-faced, it seems prudent to wear one in public.
I, for one, will try to do better.
Even at the post office and small stores.
I won't have to think about doing it, though, at indoor high school sporting events. That's one little corner of our world where the decision has been made for us.
The house-color game ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 13, 2021 -- Color can soothe the soul.
Well ... the right color can. Which in my case -- it turns out -- is light slate gray, with a modest blue overtone.
That’s the color my son Jon and I decided on, finally, in the painting of our house in Odessa.
The house, for as long as I can recall -- which means since I moved in some forty years ago -- was white with maroon shutters. It has a whole different personality now.
But getting there was a challenge.
That’s because colors are tricky. You look at photos online of other houses painted in colors you think you might like, and you get hold of some swatches of colors and pick ones you think might reflect what those pictures showed ... and disappointment and even mortification can set in.
We started with a sky blue that was just not right, once we got it and saw it in its gallonage. Then we tried going darker, and the painters applied the new mix to the front of the house ... and it looked like a clown show, or at least a cautionary tale about trusting color swatches. It was bright and loud and ... well ... practically neon, when compared to the rest of the houses in the village.
That night, I encountered a woman who said she liked the color on the house, to which I replied: “You do? I don’t.” Which I suppose both surprised her and confused her -- for why would it be painted that way if I didn’t like it? (In retrospect, I think she was just being polite in complimenting it.)
The next day, I approached the painters and asked if anyone whose house they had painted had ever changed their mind after the first coat was applied, and wanted it covered with a second coat of a different color.
“Once,” was the answer.
“Well,” I said, “it’s about to happen a second time.”
Before choosing a new color, we got a couple of different samples and put them on small areas of a side wall ... and chose the light slate gray with the blue overtone that covers the house now.
We were determined to continue following those online photos, though, and decided on a dark blue for trim. But as soon as it was applied to our four front windows, I blanched again. This time it looked like four mouths with really bad dark-blue lipstick. And we asked again that it be painted over.
My son and I finally decided to forgo any trim other than white. And we decided to jettison any shutters, since now I wasn’t at all sure what color they should be. Besides, the shutters we had had on the house in the past were starting to rot out, and would have required some repair work beyond the painting. If I decide on any in the future, I’ll buy them new.
So ... finally ... simplicity ruled the day. And the house does not look like a clown show or bad lipstick.
It looks pretty cool. And beyond that, the painters used roughly a boatload of caulking and repaired a facia board and applied new shingling where it was needed.
And so, in the end, the missteps were worth it.
I, for one, don’t want to live in a clown show. And I’m not big on bad-blue lipstick.
No, in the end we all take a certain pride in our living environment ... or should. The fact that I waited so long to upgrade the exterior of mine is a mystery I haven’t consciously mined.
I’m just glad that something triggered it. Maybe it was the obvious need for scraping and priming -- not to mention painting -- on the weather sides of the house: the north and west. Maybe it was a newfound perspective brought on by my experience with cancer. That shook things up.
The paint job will, I suspect, lead to other upgrades.
And why not? It seems to have yielded positive results.
For now, though, the bottom line is this:
You can color me pleased.
A cast of characters ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 28, 2021 -- The persistent rain the other day and night kept me inside most of the time. Oh, I went out to get a few pictures, but for the most part I hunkered down. Being stalked by a low-grade illness, staying put seemed the most prudent course, anyway.
And being hunkered down, I turned ruminative. And being ruminative, I looked backward many years to an era very important to my development as a journalist: a near-decade working for the Watertown (NY) Daily Times -- my first job out of college.
I graduated from Albion College in the south central part of Michigan, but ended up in Watertown because that was the hometown of my first wife. It was also but a half-hour from Canada, which I had been considering -- in my youthful, idealistic, revolutionary phase -- relocating to.
I stayed put in Watertown, though, and was influenced along the way by a cast of characters whose lessons have stayed with me across these many years. I began work there in 1970, and concluded it in 1979.
There were gentlemen there who had made journalism their lifelong vocation, and were nearing the end of their careers. Some were reporters --such as John Pepp, who was in charge of obituaries, preparing many well in advance of the demise of notable people, so that detailed accounts of their lives would be ready at a moment’s notice when the time came. I always thought that was a little creepy, John spending most of his time anticipating death.
There was an elderly business writer, a middle-aged (leaning toward elderly) county government reporter, an elderly general assignment reporter, and so on. Outside of the family that owned the paper, the Johnsons, there was a man at the top who was the Executive Editor -- a cigar-chewing, craggy, intimidating presence named Gordon Bryant who joined the Daily Times while still in high school and had one role or another, including consultant, until his passing at the age of 94. When I worked there, he was closing in on 80.
As I arrived, the newspaper was in the midst of evolving -- of shedding some of the old guard and bringing on the new, which included folks of my generation. One of the youth brigade was the education writer, one covered city hall, one was the police reporter, and a handful occupied bureaus in nearby communities like Carthage, Canton, Potsdam, Massena and Ogdensburg.
I started out in Carthage, covering that village and West Carthage, which was just across the Black River from it. I was in Carthage for a year before being installed in the main newsroom. Despite the presence of the very elderly Bryant, it was in essence run by a courtly, less elderly (but nearing retirement age) gentleman named Fred Kimball, the City Editor. Fred was easy to work for -- an understanding fellow who tolerated the growing pains of the new guard.
Nothing ruffled his feathers -- but there was one telling story about him that indicated the steel in the man.
The story goes that an irate reader of importance invaded the newsroom to complain loudly about some news coverage -- directing his wrath at Fred, who as City Editor controlled the news flow. Fred listened quietly until finally, cutting the man off, he patiently explained that his hand, curled under the edge of his desk, was primed to pull a lever that would open a trap door underneath the man. “If you don’t leave right now,” he said, “I’ll pull the lever and you will drop to the first floor.” The loud complainer backed up, stunned, and stormed off. And Fred received a standing ovation from staff members who had observed the confrontation.
But it was Fred’s underling who fascinated -- and still fascinates -- me: a man named G. Robert “Bobby” Farmer.
Bobby was, when I arrived, the Assistant City Editor, although it was my understanding that he was not paid commensurate with the title. He was happy to be acknowledged as Assistant; had lobbied for the use of that appellation. In any event, Bobby was a short -- I think 5 feet 6 might have been an exaggeration -- and cherubic looking fellow with a bright disposition. He was a kindly soul, but you could sense the steel in him, too; and you could visually see the stress of the job in the little tics around his mouth and in his excessive blinks.
When Fred Kimball finally retired during my tenure there, Bobby -- who had started at the paper as a reporter in 1951 -- got the title he had long coveted, City Editor, and the salary to go with it. I worked near the man, all told, for a couple thousand days, and learned to respect his editing skills and his ability to pressure reporters at deadline without setting them off. As deadline neared and a reporter was still pecking at his typewriter -- this was just before the advent of the computer in the newsroom -- Bobby would walk by as the writer completed a paragraph, pull the paper out, carry it back to his desk and edit it. He would then repeat the maneuver from paragraph to paragraph until time was up and the copy in its entirety had to be sent out to the composing room.
Deadlines were sacred things: nerve tingling, stress inducing, and wholly necessary to the multi-faceted production of a newspaper from newsroom to composing room to the press, and from there out the door to the men and women entrusted with delivering it around the region.
Bobby, being a generation ahead of me, was not part of the clique to which I gravitated. He was often delivered to work by his wife, Jean, and at day’s end, she would pick him up. If memory serves, he lived in Cape Vincent, outside the city; or else was from there originally; or perhaps both.
When I left the paper to travel the country and ultimately relocate to the Southern Tier in 1979, one person whose guidance and example I knew I would miss would be Bobby Farmer’s. And I did. Whenever I thought of the Watertown Times, his was the first face that would pop up in my mind.
As the years passed, I worked for nearly a decade at the Elmira Star-Gazette, and then moved on to writing novels and dabbling in the sports memorabilia market. Then, in mid-January of 1994, I received word: Bobby Farmer had left work the day before, traveling down the small elevator near the front of the building from the second-floor newsroom to the ground-floor business office, where he sat in a visitor’s chair near the reception desk to await the arrival of his wife.
And there he was stricken. A stroke felled him and, as I heard it, killed him almost instantly. He was 64.
I had not been back to Watertown for several years, but felt compelled to make the trip for Bobby’s funeral.
At calling hours, I stood over his open casket and just stared at him, finally saying: “Oh, Bobby. We’ve come to this.” And I wept.
I hesitated to approach his wife, thinking that we had never been close and that, in any event, I had not resided in Watertown for 15 years and she might not even remember me. But when I approached her to introduce myself and express my condolences, she spotted me before I reached her and said, almost in a wail: “Oh, Charlie. What a terrible week I’m having!”
And she gave me a bear hug.
As we go through life, we are impacted by people who might not achieve greatness on a regional or world stage. But their importance to us -- to how we develop and see the world -- can be great in and of itself.
Bobby Farmer was one such person. Small in physical stature, he looms large in memory. Unassuming as he was, the force of his kindness lives on in my mind. And as a man who achieved his dream job -- his goal in life -- he was a rousing success.
I see some of Bobby in myself, especially where the job is concerned. I always wanted to work for myself, and to write, and to be able to survive in the doing. The Odessa File, while starting out as an experiment, has provided that dream job and kept me writing for nearly 19 years.
I did not become the big league baseball player I envisioned as a child; nor the successful novelist I thought would be an achievement at the top of the world.
But what I have done in my journalism career -- a good deal like Bobby Farmer did -- puts me, I think, somewhere in the success category.
And that isn’t bad.
Graduating here & there ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 11, 2021 -- Every birthday feels like a graduation.
If they issued them, I would have been given a diploma Sunday, Oct. 10 for making it through another in a growing number of years.
Sunday was my 73rd such milestone -- marked by an unbelievable number of well-wishers on Facebook and through Messenger.
Thanks to all who thought of me. I appreciate it.
Now, to segue:
Speaking of graduations, I received a diploma last week from the Radiology Department at Cayuga Medical Center for completing my 20 rounds of radiation treatments.
Now, with chemo and radiation in my rearview, I get a few weeks off before returning for scans and tests and, on the side, some dental work. All fun stuff.
With any luck the lymphoma won’t return, but if there’s one thing I learned from my wife’s passing, it’s this: cancer is unpredictable.
Not that I particularly fear it; I think I’m a little more leery of Covid. It has, after all, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Anyway, one of the remnants of my radiation was a mesh mask that was used to lock my head down on a gurney during each treatment, so I couldn’t move. It’s a creepy, Halloween-style mask that deserves my thanks, but at the same time is so freaky that I feel like imparting a little violence its way.
They told me at Radiology that most patients feel that way, and that some have been known to burn their masks, or blow them up, or run over them with a car, or shoot them.
I haven’t decided its fate yet.
Kudos to the Stegner and Schubmehl kids, who raised $1,001 for the Spirit of Schuyler through the sale of cookies and lemonade at the Grand Prix Festival.
What a marvelous thing to do.
It gives me hope that the upcoming generations might do better than the older ones have.
This coming Friday night’s football game between the once-beaten Seneca Indians and unbeaten Waverly is, in the words of SI Coach Trevor Holland, “huge.”
The 4-1 Seneca Indians -- a combined team of Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high school athletes -- has lost only to powerful Tioga, and won its last game 47-13 against a state Honorable Mention team, Cobleskill-Richmondville. State-ranked Waverly (6-0) swamped Dryden in its last game, 46-7.
Both the Seneca Indians and Waverly are in Section IV Division 5, along with Dryden (0-5) and Chenango Valley (1-4). Whoever wins this one should win the division.
It will be played on O-M’s Charles Martin Field as part of the Odessa-Montour Homecoming. The following week, the Seneca Indians will host Dryden on Watkins Glen High School’s Alumni Field as part of the WGHS Homecoming.
You might or might not have noticed that two more people have been added to The Essentials (Essentials), a group of Schuyler residents or former residents who have impacted life here in a positive way. None of them are in the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, but might someday be there.
The latest two are Olympian rower Olivia Coffey and the late Nelson Beebe, who was an outstanding and influential teacher at Odessa-Montour High School.
There are now 30 Essentials, evenly divided between men and women.
Nominations for inclusion in the group are always welcome. Just send me the name and some background information on the individual in question, and he or she will be considered by the selection committee. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail mail me at The Odessa File, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 27, 2021 -- The older you get, the more likely it is that you will encounter dates on the calendar that are difficult to experience.
They usually are dates upon which something bad happened. But not always; even dates that once were celebratory are tinged with regret.
For me, November 1 is the worst, for I lost both my father (in 1994) and my wife (in 2004) on that date.
Recently, September 18 came and went, and I found myself without any energy with which to combat it.
That was actually a good day for years -- my wedding anniversary, 44 years ago. Susan and I got married here, in Odessa, at what was then the Baptist Church. We had our reception at the Glen Motor Inn -- the site as well of our 25th anniversary celebration in 2002.
A little over two years later, on November 1, 2004, Susan was gone. Our visits are now in my dreams, or when the spirit moves me to drive to the cemetery where we buried her and where I will be resting, I expect, before too many years have passed.
Another date that sticks out for me is today’s -- September 27 -- the day Susan and I first met back in 1975. Actually, our encounter was in a receiving line at a party thrown by Susan and her two apartment mates in Watertown, New York, a community in which I had resided for several years. She and her fellow boarders -- one of whom was a young woman who worked with me at the Watertown Daily Times -- were recent college graduates and new to the community. Susan had snagged her first teaching job in the village of Copenhagen, not far from Watertown.
Susan didn’t even remember that first meeting in later years; I was just one of many people she didn’t know who she greeted that night at what was billed as an “apartment warming.” But I recall it vividly because even before I saw her, I somehow knew what she looked like, and when I shook hands with her, there was such a strong sense of familiarity that I was momentarily disoriented.
I could go into detail about our subsequent extra-sensory connection -- how I once sensed her in trouble and drove out a road I’d never been on, where I found her with a flat tire. This was long before cell phones, which we seemingly didn’t require to communicate long-distance.
Now, long after her passing, I still feel a strong connection. Every so often, I sense her passing through, checking up on me.
When you think about it, dates are just that: dates. But they symbolize both achievements in life and its losses, and so they trigger in us memories and, with those memories, inevitable sadness at the losses we all sustain.
I mean, a wedding anniversary should be celebrated, but when one half of the equation has passed into eternity, well ... it isn’t what it used to be, back when Susan and I could hug and laugh and enjoy the fact that we had found each other and co-existed so readily (traditional marital bumps in the road notwithstanding).
But with the feeling of loss triggered by her passing comes the knowledge that we did all right, too, producing two children and helping raise a third (from my first marriage, a union undertaken when I was a mere lad, back in college). Reproduction is, after all, a prime raison d'être, a rather elemental necessity if we are to help our species continue on in its dizzying rush to an uncertain future.
So ... sadness aside, and for that matter loss, all is really as it should be, or at least as it ultimately -- in nature’s way -- is meant to be.
Alas, that knowledge won’t mitigate the emotions triggered by a key date that signifies demise, for when we lose a loved one, we lose a great part of who we are.
With love lost comes longing.
But with it comes a responsibility, as well, to carry on; to function in a positive way in society. Nothing is gained by self-pity.
Accordingly, I find myself asking one question repeatedly.
Perhaps it is ingrained by its repeated use in art -- in books and TV shows -- where it helps to drive the plot, the ongoing narrative.
The question is this:
Next for me, in my ongoing cancer treatment, are five more radiation sessions. I’ve gone through 15 of them, and in the process have been increasingly fatigued. Pain in the facial cheek area is a given (the cancer was in the upper right gum), so I rinse repeatedly with water containing baking soda and salt. I am getting a numbing rinse today that should help, too, as I enter my final week of daily visits to Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca.
After that, hopefully, all will be well. I will be visiting the oncologist regularly, and face some dental work -- hopefully not exacerbated by the radiation.
All of that is kept in the background of my mind, at least some of the time, by my preoccupation with various high school sports, which unlike last autumn are in full swing this time around (with an occasional Covid-related glitch sidelining a player here and there for a quarantining period).
In fact, I was just updating my schedule a few minutes ago -- what games or matches or meets I might be able to cover this week in person.
For my job requires, like the rest of life, an answer once again to that question:
Radiation, fatigue & sports
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 14, 2021 -- One week plus one day into radiation treatments, and all is well -- if getting a little freaked out by the process is “well.”
For a gum-based cancer like mine, the radiation is aimed at that specific area, and to make sure I hold my head still, a mask was fashioned that fits my face like a really, really tight glove fits the hand.
The mask is mesh, and pressed so hard onto my face (and fastened to the cold metal platform upon which I recline) that my vision is impaired -- which is okay, since I prefer to close my eyes and concentrate on not freaking out.
The doctor tells me quite a few folks who go the mask route do have trouble dealing with it, claustrophobia or some other phobia taking precedence. Sedatives are not uncommon.
I have managed to avoid such medication. I figure -- after the first session went a difficult three times longer than normal so that adjustments could be made and everything deemed on the proper track -- that six or seven minutes are manageable.
At least so far. I have almost three more weeks to go -- or more specifically 14 sessions on consecutive weekdays. The radiologists told me they give me weekends off for good behavior.
I haven’t had much physical reaction yet, unless a case of constipation is somehow related. But I suspect that had more to do with gorging on dairy products like cheese and milkshakes.
Fatigue is present, but it’s been around since I started chemo about three months ago. Now that the chemo effects are starting to lift, I suspect the radiation is offering its own brand of fatigue. I just can’t tell the difference.
In any event, I’ve managed to get to some high school sporting events, and plan on continuing to do so -- although traveling out of county is not on my list of preferred ideas. In my absence at road football games, Derick Willett -- who has quite a bit of experience with football -- is snapping some photos to illustrate the game stories that we carry.
I won’t get to every home contest, but will pick and choose as my energy level permits. There are, after all, several sports going on, and sometimes multiple events locally.
I still enjoy watching our youngsters compete -- and it’s really good to see them back in action after last year’s aborted and condensed schedules.
Let’s just hope the ongoing resurgence of the coronavirus doesn’t hold sway as it did last fall.
The man with the mask ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 30, 2021 -- I guess you can call me a masked man.
No, I’m not talking about the N95s or any other form of mouth-and-nose mask designed to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
I’m talking about a full-face device literally molded to my chin and cheeks and nose and forehead that locks down so I can’t move when I get radiated as the next step in my cancer treatment.
I went through the preparation process last week -- with the mask form heated up to soften so it would mold properly; and with a mouthpiece inserted that pushes my tongue to the left so the radiation gets a clear field to the area that was cancerous (non-Hodgkins lymphoma) on my upper right gum.
The actual radiation process -- 20 sessions over a four-week period -- begins next week. Then, I’m told, I get to keep the mask as a souvenir. Not that I imagine ever wearing it after all of that. Comfortable it is not.
Besides, I have had masks, all of my own making, for as far back as I can remember.
We all have, I suspect -- you know, to hide our true selves, and to enhance our images.
It’s pretty standard psychological stuff.
Anyway, the lymphoma is gone now -- at least it doesn’t show up on a PET Scan -- but radiation, I’m told, is part of the standard protocol to make sure nothing microscopic survives in the way of cancer.
We don’t want it popping up again, after all, chemo being a treatment I’d just as soon avoid in the future.
I’m told that with radiation -- just as with chemotherapy, which I completed -- side effects will ensue, among them (I’m told) fatigue ... just when high school sports are getting going in earnest.
So how much I can cover those sporting events in person remains unknown. If I’m flat on my back, probably not many. So I’ll be counting on coaches more than ever to phone or email or text results of their contests to me. If I’m feeling up to it, I’ll be out there with my camera as much as prudence allows.
I managed to cover some of the Blue and White football scrimmage held Saturday by the Seneca Indians high school football team at Watkins Glen’s Alumni Field, and got what I think were some decent shots -- especially considering how little action photography I’ve practiced of late. You tend to lose your timing. But I’ve always said that if you have the right photographic equipment and take enough shots, something good is bound to turn up.
About my other masks.
They’ve been mostly physical: a mustache grown as a young man, inspired by Dr. Zhivago’s Omar Sharif; and shaggy hair, a surefire deflection from anyone looking at my face. Glasses completed the disguise; I never minded that I needed them; they afforded me a feeling that I was protected from unwanted outside scrutiny.
The summer I worked at USA Today, back in 1988, I shed the glasses for contact lenses. Somehow I felt a confidence in a new city among new people. But before long I countered the absence of glasses by growing a substantial beard, and the hair was suitably long. Once my stay in the Washington, D.C. area had ended, I reverted to glasses and shed the beard.
Then ... well, I adopted the role of recluse, venturing out only to weekend sports memorabilia shows as a dealer, where I was essentially interacting with strangers. They paid me little attention, focused as they were on my merchandise. That lasted a few years, until I ventured out in a public fashion in 1996, joining The Leader newspaper staff in Corning.
Only then did I ignore the need to mask up. Perhaps encroaching age had brought with it a measure of maturity, and with it a confidence that overwhelmed any fear of discovery of my true self. I wrote a number of pieces the paper submitted for award consideration, and I even won first-place among small-size newspapers in the state for columns I wrote -- and for which I was publicly introduced at an awards dinner in Albany.
After The Leader, I reverted to a hermit-like existence, writing a novel, but then came The Odessa File, and any thoughts of masking up or hiding faded into history. I needed potential readers and advertisers to learn of the presence of the website, and so I embraced a number of speaking engagements and tried, basically, to sell myself along with the product.
Now, lo these many years later, I have -- thanks to chemotherapy -- lost my reassuring locks and a modest beard I grew several years ago -- and I find myself a bit self-conscious about my new look.
Now, my mask is in the form of a hat. I wear it to both protect my head from the sun, and to shield my bald pate from public view.
So ... in the end, I guess, we all have -- and cannot escape -- our defense mechanisms.
The hair, I’m told, will grow back, although probably in a different fashion -- in color, in thickness, perhaps in style -- from the way I wore it before. It will, I suppose, become another mask of sorts. People will, I imagine, focus on the change in appearance, a welcome turn from the sometimes shocked look I get now when people I have long known realize only after several moments just who the bald guy is.
Having experienced an absence of hair, I might very well embrace a mop top and a mustache, and likely try to replicate the small beard that departed with the arrival of the chemo.
If the hair does come back, the hat will probably go.
The glasses will stay.
And, I suppose, I could utilize those N95s -- an effective face covering and appearance alterer -- if I really want to hide out.
Creations on the page ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 18, 2021 -- Back in the summer of 1979, I traveled the country in a small motorhome, a pair of mopeds affixed to a carrier on my front bumper.
I didn’t travel alone. My wife Susan was with me, as was my son and Susan’s stepson Bill, and my nephew Robert. Both Susan and I had saved our money, quit our jobs and headed out for what we hoped was a grand adventure.
It was all of that, and educational -- meeting many people at various campgrounds, national parks, and along the Oregon coast, where we joined a mobile community in a massive fish fry.
We were on the road for a couple of months, a stretch that so depleted me that I ended up fighting off a fairly severe illness near the end. The motorhome had become my home, but too cramped for my needs -- and unevenly heated on increasingly chilly nights at summer’s end.
I bring this up because, in these so-called golden years that settle in after the age of 70, I find my mind turning back to yesteryear at the slightest trigger, the slightest reminder of what once was.
In this case, it was a list I was making of my favorite this and that. And one category was Favorite Vacation Spots, at the top of which was my oft-visited and much loved Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac.
Next were Yosemite National Park in California and Mount Rushmore, a National Memorial in South Dakota. Both were stops on that 1979 journey, and both have stayed with me all these years.
Should my health improve and hold, I hope to make it back to both in the future.
For what it’s worth, that list I compiled, which seems to shift a little every year or two, is as follows. My favorites across the years:
TV series: The West Wing, Breaking Bad, China Beach, Veronica Mars.
Novels: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Huntress by Kate Quinn.
1st novel in a Book Series: Dawn’s Early Light (in the 7-book Williamsburg Chronicles by Elswyth Thane), All Creatures Great and Small (4-book series by James Herriot), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (7-book series by J.K. Rowling), The Winds of War (2-book series by Herman Wouk).
TV Miniseries: Lonesome Dove, The Queen’s Gambit.
Films: Casablanca, The Godfather, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, To Kill A Mockingbird, and in a more contemporary vein, Crazy Rich Asians.
Vacation Spots: Bois Blanc Island, Michigan; Yosemite National Park; Mount Rushmore.
Actors: John Wayne, Harrison Ford, Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Poitier, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford.
Actresses: Ginger Rogers, Amy Adams, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron, Emma Stone, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Meryl Streep.
Acting Duo: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Authors: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mark Twain, John Fowles, Michael Connelly, Harper Lee, Kate Quinn.
Yes, I have a lot of favorites in various categories, which I guess shows a breadth of appreciation that accounts in part for the large number of films I have watched and the many novels I have read.
I personally never aspired to make films, although I did aspire to be a novelist -- only to find that my strength is in a shorter form of writing, which is to say the essay or column.
That strength aside, I did write some novels -- and I’m proud that I at least made the effort.
One such novel -- the last I attempted, just before I debuted The Odessa File -- took me the better part of a year to complete. It’s called The Maiden of Mackinac, and it contains some of my favorite characters, including a giant talking turtle named Kingsley and a seemingly always energetic, hairy little creature named Tobias who feasts primarily on grubs and bugs. He is the last of his species: a tajahenus.
I once heard of a couple of women on Bois Blanc Island who, having read that particular novel, were openly planning a trip to neighboring Mackinac Island to look for Tobias, who I had left living peacefully there in a cave in the wooded interior.
I don’t know if they followed through with the trip, nor did I hear whether they located Tobias.
If they did go, I doubt they succeeded in the search, Tobias being both very private and very fictional.
Nonetheless, he’s very much a part of my interior -- mental -- world, and thus as real to me as any other memory.
Which in turn makes me wonder: If I can write -- in flawed fashion or not -- about Tobias and Kingsley and the titular character, a 700-year-old Indian maiden named Lillianna, why can’t I write something in the non-fiction realm? It could, I suppose, be about that 1979 trip, from which I have retained daily diaries.
Or I could write something more locally focused -- such as an account of the Alice Trappler trial that grabbed the attention of Schuyler County following the 2012 murder of Daniel Bennett; or a recounting of the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises of creating, nurturing and shepherding an online newspaper for more than 18 years.
Well, as the usually enthusiastic Tobias might say: “Yes, yes, you can!”
Now all I would need is his unceasing energy -- and a reasonable hope that the book might sell more than a dozen or so copies.
And the news is good ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 11, 2021 -- For a kid who faked illness on occasion in order to avoid attendance at school -- including, still vivid in my memory bank, the date of Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the bulletins and then coverage taking over my TV watching on a small black-and-white set in my bedroom -- I have learned my lesson hard over the years that health means everything, and that life’s challenges are to be met instead of avoided.
When my cancer was first diagnosed earlier this year, I was sent emotionally reeling. But I acclimated quickly to the ways of the oncological world as the healthcare industry waged battle with my Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
I haven’t been a big fan of chemotherapy since beginning it -- I don’t know anybody who is -- but it has proven to be effective, at least in my case.
Which brings me to this bit of good news.
I have been proclaimed cancer free.
Once you’ve contracted cancer, your thoughts can turn decidedly fatalistic.
At least mine did.
A couple of biopsies, insertion of a port in my chest, various blood work, and three rounds of chemotherapy had drained me; drained my optimism.
But they also led to my second PET scan last week.
I figured there was more chemotherapy ahead, despite the doctor assuring me midstream that things were going well.
So ... I met with a Physician Assistant this week to discuss the scan, and learned that not only has cancer not appeared elsewhere in my body -- my cancer was localized, in my upper right gum -- but there isn’t any cancer in me at all any more.
I had expected it to still be present in at least a reduced state (if it hadn’t spread to someplace like my brain -- accounting, or giving me an excuse, for all manner of journalistic decision-making).
Turns out, though, that the cancer is gone; has been bested by the chemo.
While cancer free, though, the diminishing effects of chemo (fatigue, loss of appetite, hair loss, constipation, nausea) might linger for weeks.
And next up: radiation, in a series of blasts to a carefully defined area designed to ensure that the lymphoma doesn’t come surging back.
Then, presumably, I am in the clear -- though you never know with cancer, which seems to have a mind all its own.
The sad fact is that some folks who survive cancer see it recur -- on occasion time and again.
But while worry -- and precautionary visits periodically to the oncologist -- will remain part of my life, I am breathing a little easier on this day.
Who among us knows what it might bring? Caution is a prudent stance.
But for now I’ll celebrate this ... well, this mildly surprising milestone.
It is -- in journalistic and just about any other terms -- exceptionally good and welcome news.
Yes, there is a Sheriff's race
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 4, 2021 -- Round 3, Week 2. The eighth week overall.
Chemotherapy continues to knock me down.
Twice in the first week after this round began -- after I was infused yet again with chemicals -- I slept roughly 14 hours in a 24-hour period.
That’s a lot.
Then, on Monday, I got a PET Scan, to let us know whether the lymphoma has stayed put in the area of my right gum. While it may still be there, it is vastly reduced. If that’s its only location, radiation follows.
Not that I don’t have my reservations about that.
My late wife passed away from a pulmonary embolism not long after starting radiation treatments for sarcoma tumors wrapped around her spine.
But that was a more serious and more extreme condition than mine.
Hopefully, I will soon shake off the negative effects of chemo and get back my strength (and yes, maybe a few of the 25 pounds I’ve dropped).
Then we can turn (with some trepidation) to the radiation.
Yes, Virginia, there is still a race for Schuyler County Sheriff.
There was a Republican primary -- both candidates, Undersheriff Breck Spaulding and Investigator Kevin Rumsey are members of that party -- that Rumsey won decisively.
Spaulding says he was disappointed with the turnout and that he has been told by some supporters who didn’t vote that they thought he had been a shoo-in to win.
Now, in an email from his campaign headquarters, comes a request that I clarify to folks that there is, indeed, a race still ongoing -- with Rumsey on the GOP line and Spaulding on an independent-party line, Safe Schuyler, in the November general election.
“Would you be interested,” the email said “in publishing a little blurb in The Odessa File that Breck Spaulding is still running for Sheriff, that even with the outcome of the Primary, he will still be on the ballot and out campaigning?
“We have heard from many who thought it was over. They have even thrown their Spaulding signs away. LOL.”
So ... please note. The race for Sheriff is still a go.
Congratulations to the Glen Gators Swim Team, part of the United Southern Tier Aquatics team competing this past weekend -- and winning the girls national title -- at the AAU Junior Olympic swim meet in Houston.
They posted a bushel of top-8 finishes and won a large number of medals -- representing our region incredibly well.
The Gators are a strong organization -- a feeder for our very successful high school competitions. The Watkins Glen High School swim team has won several sectional titles in a row. And some of the Gators are from other successful area schools, such as Notre Dame and Horseheads.
I had the occasion to attend a Rotary dinner at the new Seneca Lake Events Center at Clute Park in Watkins Glen. It’s quite a striking building that I’m sure will host many dinners and meetings and receptions. The Rotary dinner was its first.
The view out onto the lake there is unbeatable, and the associated facilities -- new restrooms, a lifeguard station, and an ice rink that doubles as a place to get sprayed by lake water pumped in on a hot day -- are top notch. The old pavilion stays, with renovations planned for the future.
Several people have asked who is running The Odessa File during my chemotherapy, and the answer is the same as always: It’s me.
I’ve managed, in my 18 years-plus on this website, to work through the occasional illness -- just like anyone else does in any career field. And so chemo has served as just another obstacle to overcome ... or at least one I try my best to ignore when it comes to work hours.
I can function perfectly well when I’m not sleeping 14 hours a day. But even if I am sleeping that much, that leaves me 10 hours of the 24 in which to update the website -- to sub in new ads, to add PSA ads, to edit or write stories, and to size and lay out photos.
It’s time enough.
The investigation tarring Governor Andrew Cuomo with the title of serial sexual harasser, and the governor’s obstinate denial, call to mind a fixture in American life on the national, state, county, village and even school district levels.
Once in power, too often those holding it think themselves above the law -- or at least above constraint -- and believe they not only deserve the power they wield, but should not be required to relinquish it.
And they are all bullies -- some better at it than others.
I’ve seen the power dynamic on all of those government levels. And I’ve heard enablers brush off accusations or suggestions of impropriety with “Oh, that’s just (so and so) being (so and so).”
I’ve heard of one in power locally saying “I can do anything I want” and -- in the shadow of a supposedly controlling oversight committee of seven people -- I heard of another saying “I only need four people” in his or her pocket to indeed do as he or she pleased.
Being a journalist, whether actively attempting to hold authority to account or not, I have been viewed by some such people as the enemy, the power holders knowing that a written word seeking accountability might appear from a journalist at any time. I have been sparing of such incidents. But those in power realize the possibility always lingers.
Sometimes a well-placed word or well-timed complaint can do the trick; can bring a power holder’s locomotion toward a specific self-serving goal to a rumbling halt.
I learned that early, back in high school.
That was when a gym teacher who was also the varsity football coach -- a large man and, though not a superintendent or principal, a pretty big deal in the school -- propelled me from his office and into a wall across from the office entrance when I earnestly (perhaps over-earnestly?) pleaded my case that a painful stiff neck should release me from gym class participation that day.
The pain was intensified as I thrust my hands out to break the impact as I struck the wall, and my anger flared. I had been in pain since early morning, and unable to get a doctor’s appointment on short notice. Why I didn’t visit a school nurse -- or why he didn’t send me to one -- eludes me. Maybe there wasn’t one on staff or otherwise present.
In any event, I made a beeline for the office of the principal, a distinguished elderly gentleman for whom I held great regard. He listened, contacted my mother, who contacted my father -- who, in due time, made his own beeline to the principal’s office, demanding the gym teacher be fired.
Bottom line: mediation resulted in my father relenting, and the gym teacher keeping his job. He had thought I was lying about the neck. I had therefore seemingly been challenging his authority. He didn't know his own strength, and certainly had not intended me harm. And so on.
But he was on notice. After that the teacher was exceedingly nice to me. He and I lived in peaceful co-existence for the duration of my high school tenure, the teeth of the power-laden beast having been dulled; the roar diminished to a purr. Where once he glowered and bullied, now he smiled and appeased.
In settling the issue, the gray of the middle ground became our armistice. And with it the bully in the gym teacher died -- or at least retreated to its cave, never to show itself in my presence again.
And thus should all in power be challenged -- held, somehow, to accountability.
Whether mayor, superintendent, governor or, for that matter, president.
The prize fight ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 25, 2021 -- I began Round 3 of chemotherapy a couple of days ago.
The first day was okay, but then a device affixed to my arm that replenishes lost white cells pretty much knocked me on my backside.
Sleep took over, on and off (mostly on) for 14 hours.
It is Sunday now, and I’m still a bit wobbly.
Round 3. It sounds like a stage of a prize fight -- the prize in this case being the possibility of recovery from something that might otherwise prove fatal.
This thing has been a roller coaster ride, and with any luck this will be the last chemo ride. Assuming (always dangerous) that an upcoming PET Scan gives good news, I will progress next to radiation. Several such sessions are planned.
But I know from experience (my late wife’s cancer battle) that this lymphoma affliction can be unpredictable. Even so, I take hope in the words of my straight-shooting doctor, who says I am progressing well, and that this is beatable.
By feeling fatigued -- and battling various side effects like gas and constipation -- I miss the energy level I need to get out and cover the news as I have in the past. That is the short-term goal: to cover things in the fall as I have for the past 18-plus years on The Odessa File, and for years before that at such newspaper stops as the Pontiac Press in Michigan, the Watertown Daily Times in Northern New York, the Elmira Star-Gazette, USA Today in Washington, D.C., and the Corning Leader.
I’m not yet ready to call it a career -- any more than I was when I was told by an editor at USA Today (when I was 39, some 33 years ago, after four months there on loan from the Star-Gazette) that I was too old to be hired at that national paper on a permanent basis.
Age has nothing to do with it; not at 39, certainly. Energy matters, and I've had plenty of it until this chemotherapy. And experience, which hopefully brings with it a modicum or more of wisdom, also counts.
I suspect I have outlasted that particular editor in pursuing journalism as a career -- along with probably just about every one of the many dozens of reporters and editors with whom I served during that long ago four-month stint in Washington, back in 1988.
I’m not harboring ill will over that period; if anything, the memories are quite wonderful and still intact: how I was given an apartment along with a per diem bonus on top of my salary; how my wife Susan (at first reluctant, and then embracing the experience) and young sons Jonathan and David joined me for a summer full of fun and education touring our nation’s capital.
Our apartment complex was just around the corner from Georgetown, up the street and within sight of the Kennedy Center and the Watergate (which had a grocery store we frequented), and a block or two from the Metro, which transported us below and upon the Washington landscape.
It was a summer of drought and intense heat (and plenty of air-conditioning) and one in which I made many new friends and won something like 17 in-house weekly awards for my headline-writing -- in-house praise being a key component of the USA Today performance incentive.
It was my first time working at a newspaper without its own press -- the various pages we produced being transmitted by computer systems to printing sites around the country, and then delivered in print form accordingly region by region. I took it a step further when I started The Odessa File some 14 years later -- sidestepping the need of any press at all, following the growing trend of online news delivery.
The summer of ’88 was, quite simply, the best season I ever recall experiencing, not only for the breadth of new places I saw and people I met, but for the adventure I shared with my wife and kids.
It spoiled me, quite simply, leading in short order to my departure from small-town news -- from the Star-Gazette and journalism -- for a few years, until I hooked on with The Leader in Corning almost a decade later. And that in turn led to some novel writing (an ambitious story titled The Maiden of Mackinac) and, ultimately, to an experiment in journalism called The Odessa File.
Had I managed to hook on full-time with USA Today, I suspect the memories I hold would have paled as I moved from my cushy apartment to something less desirable outside of the city (within my weekly paycheck’s parameters), and fought the daily commute and the pressures of a job that did not have the fairy-tale-like quality of a summer with a free apartment beautifully located, and with a per diem that enabled me to dine out or visit nearby movie theaters with some frequency.
On one day alone, I attended three films at three different theaters in Georgetown: The Drowning Pool starring Paul Newman, the original Manchurian Candidate starring Frank Sinatra, and Die Hard on the day (or at least first week) of its release.
A fairy tale indeed. Indeed.
Now, as I look ahead to the uncertainty of my own future health, I smile at the memory of 1988 -- at one of the best of so many adventures offered me by life.
And I find, amid the fatigue, that I am grateful.
In praise of an Olympian ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 19, 2021 -- I, as do many, love the Olympics.
I like the ideals of it, if not the politics.
I like the competition -- worldwide instead of, say, pitting one American city’s team against another’s.
I admire the athletes -- the vast majority of whom follow the rules and are not wholly beholden to their governments.
But this is not a politically motivated tract.
This is in praise of one of our own -- the indomitable Olivia Coffey, who earned a spot in the Olympics on the U.S. women’s eight rowing team.
I first met Livy (right) when she was a freshman at Watkins Glen High School, playing center on a team that went all the way to the Section IV final in 2004 before falling in the closing minute to Candor and its sharpshooter, Megan Shay. It was Shay, in fact, who drove a dagger into the Senecas’ heart with a late-game jumper.
Livy had the option the next year of staying at WGHS or, like her siblings, moving on to a prep school. I joined others in lobbying her to stay; I recall among the enticements was the use of the canal beside the school for rowing -- something Livy had started taking seriously. I thought, if she stayed at WGHS, that her basketball team would win a state title.
(I also recall, parenthetically, an area coach questioning my enthusiasm for Olivia Coffey’s athleticism, for as a freshman she was still growing and a gangly six-footer. But that was 2004, and now, in the hindsight of 17 succeeding years, I hope the coach in question understands.)
Livy chose prep school, where she played hockey (I traveled to Rochester once to watch her play, serving as chauffeur for three of her former WGHS basketball teammates. Livy inspires two-way loyalty.) and, I assume, kept up with her rowing -- for she eventually attended Harvard and, while there, became an All-American in that sport.
Her achievements in rowing since then have been spectacular, including three gold medals and two bronzes in five senior World Championships.
None of this surprises, nor do her recent interviews where she says she has worked for years to achieve her dream of a seat in a U.S. Olympic team boat. She barely missed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, serving as an alternate. Now, in her 30s and still a physical marvel, she has earned that seat. “I was always just on the cusp of doing it and it never happened,” she said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for so long, and the fact I get to do it is such a privilege.” Livy, who lived elsewhere for a long time, has more recently been a resident of Schuyler County -- Burdett, specifically, where she was training. Her parents reside outside of Watkins Glen.
Not that any of this should be surprising, considering the family Livy comes from. Her father Cal, who has been hugely successful at manufacturing sculls, was an Olympic silver medalist in pairs. Her mother, Maggie, a Cornell and Harvard grad, was a business executive before deciding she wanted to be a veterinarian. She is retired now. (The fact that she lost a recent bid for a seat on the Schuyler County Legislature does not reflect on her, but on the electorate’s short-sightedness in choosing women of distinction. The eight-person body is an all-male one.)
Livy’s siblings are, like Livy and her parents, significant achievers. (One, Laurie, a longtime member of the U.S. Navy, flew F/A18 Hornet jets. She was also good enough at basketball to be invited to try out for the WNBA, but was sidelined by a torn Achilles.)
I was at dinner at their house once, listening to the family talk about their experiences, and I started laughing. They wanted to know why I was, and I found it difficult to explain how overmatched I felt.
I still feel that way, about Cal and Maggie and Livy and the whole family. They’re amazing.
Which brings me to this:
A lot of us from around here will be watching the Olympics, Livy, and we’re rooting for you. We’ll be hoping that the Covid issues in Tokyo do not wash over into the rowing competition. (Livy herself battled Covid in the spring of 2020.)
We will be thinking with one mind:
Go get the Gold.
Update on my lymphoma: Round two of chemotherapy is underway. Then, later this week, round three. After that, radiation -- assuming a PET scan indicates that’s the next step. I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that, because chemo is no picnic. The less of it, the better.
My thanks to all of you who have sent me cards and emails of encouragement, and to those few who have contributed funds to help defray the co-pays and attendant costs.
Your thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated.
Of friends and memories ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 10, 2021 -- When you’re feeling drained by chemotherapy -- with little hints of nausea nibbling at the edges of your consciousness, and a metallic taste you can’t get rid of, and your appetite next to nothing -- thoughts tend to turn elsewhere.
Anything else you do might help take your mind off your plight, your discomfort.
I turn to writing, or yard work, or visiting old friends if I can drag my body out to the car and drive far enough to see them.
I did that on the 4th of July, venturing down to the Clute Park campground for about three hours to visit Jenny Thomason Moss and her husband Rob, parked there in their 43-foot motor home. We sat outside under their rig’s canopy to avoid too much direct sunlight, and luxuriated in a cooling breeze coming off the lake across the street.
Jenny and I go way back, to when I co-authored a book titled “The Glory Girls,” after the Odessa-Montour High School girls varsity basketball team -- of which she was a member -- won the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D championship in 2001.
Her sister Melissa, who graduated in 2002, wrote an essay about the team that appeared as the final article in that book. Melissa was in fact on hand on the 4th of July, up from Atlanta, where she works as an analyst-consultant for a fairly large client: Coca Cola.
Joining Jenny, Rob and Melissa was the girls’ mother, Ellen Hoffman. It was the best of all chemo worlds, there among friends. We were there on a beautiful day, telling old stories -- such as when Jen worked for me on The Odessa File.
In those days, when I had a great deal more energy, we used to cover races up at the Watkins Glen International track, which Jen recalled as being “a blast” with free food in the old media center and the excitement of powerful engines dominating the landscape, and the rich and famous floating about.
Jen is now a Senior Customer Support specialist for Accolade, Inc., down in Pennsylvania. The company provides concierge support when it comes to medical insurance. Rob is a supervisor for A&E Construction, also in Pa.
Since the days of O-M, the two girls have impressed with their careers, and Jen’s husband has done likewise. And Ellen, a super single mom to three great offspring, has married a great guy, George Hoffman. The couple are living up near Catharine Corners. (Matt, Ellen’s son and another O-M grad, has stayed in the area in the health care field.)
The Thomason clan has been like a second family to me, and so I rejoiced in the fact of the reunion.
Steve Rondinaro, formerly of Watkins Glen, is once again the voice of Drum Corps International, at the microphone for a lead-up on July 15 to this year’s championship competition. He has served the same role in the past on PBS and ESPN, and is now live streaming in theaters.
In a note he sent accompanying the press release on that coming event, he wrote: “The recent death of our last Squires founder, Chuck Calhoun, reminded me of how lucky we were to grow up when and where we did. For many of us it set in motion a lifetime avocation and passion.”
That background was outlined in 2013 when Rondinaro was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame. An accompanying article read: “Rondinaro's drum corps career started like many others who have entered DCI's Hall of Fame, as a marching corps member. A young 10-year-old in upstate New York, Rondinaro joined and marched with the Watkins Glen Squires through 1975. He also co-managed the corps that year as they narrowly missed the finals competition with a 13th-place finish in the 1975 World Championships in Philadelphia. Rondinaro would help lead the Squires through 1979.”
One thing about living with cancer is -- thanks to the penetrating fear of the word and despite a promising diagnosis -- the thought of possibly pending death brings memories into sharp relief.
One that has been frequently visiting has to do with Bubba Phillips, who played major league baseball for 10 years, from 1955-1965, including two stays with the Detroit Tigers, at the beginning of his career and at the end. He was a family friend, and on occasion visited our home in Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit, while I was a teenager, and at least once joined us neighborhood kids in a game of ball tag off a neighbor’s dock.
That was perhaps a foolhardy game -- using a tennis ball to throw at the other players if you were “it”; to strike one of them would relieve the thrower of that particular status. A blow to the head could conceivably have led to unwanted trouble, but youths being youths, we probably didn’t even consider the possibility.
And Bubba being a big kid at heart, he joined in on one such session, holding back on his throws, since he had developed something of a rocket-like arm in his years at third base playing for the Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.
I recall trying to dodge just such a throw from Bubba by sidestepping off the dock’s diving board, but the ball caught me in the arm, and was a pain I still figuratively feel. But despite that, I laughed all the way down to the water and beneath, because ... well, how cool was it to be hit by a ball thrown by one of my heroes -- by a big league ballplayer?
It was, as the late great sportscaster Stuart Scott used to say, “as cool as the other side of the pillow.”
Bubba didn’t live long enough to potentially encounter cancer himself; he was felled by a heart attack while loading wood into his pickup truck at the age of 63 down in the deep South, where he lived. When I read about his passing, I wept.
That came in my 40s, a decade in which I lost my father. In my 50s, I lost my wife and father-in-law. In my 60s, it was my mother and a brother-in-law.
Life, alas, is loss. But it is so much more.
It is adventure, and wonder. It is high highs to combat the low lows. It is always interesting, if you don’t let the negatives overwhelm you.
It is friends like the Thomasons and Mosses. It is even closer friends -- those who look after you and cheer you on each day.
It is family, in my case three sons, two brothers and assorted in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews.
We are each a part of a network of such people. They are as much a part of us as we are of them.
And, for those of us who choose so, it is about faith, and the hope of something beyond what we experience here on Earth. At this point, I hope that includes some form of blessed peace.
This thing, this cancer, can bring you to your knees -- has on occasion brought me to mine.
But I choose to use those knees not in despair or regret, but in prayer -- not for divine intervention, but rather divine guidance.
And between those instances of prayer, I look to the trees and the clouds and the stars and the passing storms with wonder at their very existence... and with awe.
The Up-top Cover-up ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 30, 2021 -- In my senior year in high school, I was challenged by my English teacher, Marilyn Bright, to come out from my shell and start producing readable writing.
Which is to say, she wanted me to be a story teller instead of producing rote assignments with little imagination. She wanted me to spread my wings and try soaring instead of cruising along on weak currents.
Up to that point, I prided myself on my spelling prowess -- I won spelling bees with some regularity -- and on my ability to understand the proper construction of a sentence. I was fact rich and style poor.
Miss Bright, who, bless her soul, died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 54, was one of several teachers or mentors who -- through an insistent belief in me -- pushed me to become at least something of value to society.
Not that I claim much value, but without them ... I can only wonder where the currents would have taken me.
There was, for instance, Robert Gildart, former journalist who became an instructor at my chosen college, Albion, located down the road from the University of Michigan.
Mr. Gildart, among his course offerings, taught journalism. He was also the advisor to the school newspaper, The Albion Pleiad. I took his first-semester Journalism course as an elective, and ran afoul of Mr. Gildart on the very first day.
He was explaining the necessity for brevity in headline writing -- due to the presence in, say, a one-column headline of only a relative handful of letters. So, he was explaining, the term “fisherman” took up too much space.
“What,” he asked, “is a good substitute for ‘fisherman’?”
The correct answer, which I knew, was “angler,” but when I raised my hand and he motioned in my direction, I answered instead: “hooker.”
The class roared its approval, and Mr. Gildart smiled at me, but his eyes weren’t smiling. They had turned hard.
When the class ended, he stopped me before I could leave, and once we were alone, warned me: “Don’t do that again. Journalism is a serious pursuit. Let’s keep it that way.”
After a pause, he added: “Okay? Enough said.”
I nodded, and left a bit chagrined.
Come the end of the semester, my relationship with Mr. Gildart remained cool, and he gave me a C+ despite my classwork having been of a quality a grade higher.
I took that message as a challenge, and signed up for the second semester of Journalism -- much to the surprise of Mr. Gildart when I walked into his classroom.
We merely nodded at one another, and the rest, as they say, is history. I became Sports Editor of the school newspaper, lined up a job the next summer at the Pontiac (Mich.) Press, and began a career in journalism that, on and off, has spanned a half century, more than 18 of those years devoted to The Odessa File.
Both Miss Bright and Mr. Gildart challenged me, and got a response. Now life, in its way, has challenged me, and I am responding.
Case in point: My hair is gone.
I had my son shave my head last night. To understand what a big step that was, you need to understand the love affair a man has with his hair. All sorts of identifiers are wrapped up in the hair that covers a potentially bald dome.
My fear of baldness as a young man has been transformed by the challenge posed by chemotherapy. More specifically, I embraced the common sense of it all, as I did in the educational settings of Miss Bright and Mr. Gildart.
You see, my hair started falling out yesterday. I had been holding out hope that it wouldn’t happen; had gone nearly three weeks into my chemo treatment without any having been dislodged. But then ... yikes!
It’s pretty freaky to rub your hand through your hair and come down with more than a few strands sticking to your fingers. I could just envision the clumps coming loose when I next shampooed my hair. I imagined my chiropractor freaking out when, while manipulating my neck, she might have suddenly been wearing some of my strands on her fingers.
So I had my son -- no stranger to head shaving as a style statement -- take his shears to my diminishing locks. By the time he was done, I was almost giddy with having taken the initiative, although my first look in the mirror was a bit of a shock. Some old dude was staring back at me.
At least my head, once shorn, didn’t appear misshapen or alien in any way. But still ....
Next up is Round Two of chemo, coming soon. Having been through one round, I know something of what to expect, and thanks to a discussion with someone in the oncology office yesterday -- before I realized the hair had decided on an exodus from my head -- I have a plan to attack those side effects I experienced in the first go-around. In particular that amounts to constipation, fatigue and weight loss.
That latter I haven’t minded, though. I needed to lose some weight; but didn’t expect to accomplish it through the wonders of chemotherapy.
At this point, I look for the positives, and that’s one. That, plus I’ve been able to function -- to do my job and even to travel to Auburn on Monday for a joint funeral service for my aunt, Jean Schumaker, and her son John. Jean died early this year at 98, while John died five summers ago after battling cancer. He was 69.
Present at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn -- at the Bennett family plot, my mother and her sister Jean having been Bennetts -- were John’s siblings, Anne and Mark, and his widow, Sally, along with grandchildren. I hadn’t seen Anne, there with longtime husband Jim Orloski, or Mark or Sally for decades. But we fell into our old patterns from youth, a hug sufficing before we started filling one another in on just what we’d been up to for the past 10,000 days or so.
It turns out that Anne and Jim, who are New Jerseyites, vacation at Keuka Lake, and drive each year past my house in Odessa. They just didn’t know it, Jim thinking I still lived in Watertown, which I left a long, long time ago. (That shows how much we had lost touch.) Anyway, they will be back at Keuka around Labor Day, so we can get together again at that time.
And it shouldn’t be hard to see cousin Mark again. A retired financial services guy, he lives in Orchard Park, or as he puts it: “Orchard Park Go Bills!”
In sum, a reconnection, a reunion with loved ones is a great bit of medicine.
And so today, two days after our re-meeting, I am in a somewhat buoyant mood -- although perhaps some of the buoyancy is the result of my recent weight loss and the removal of a covering atop my body that might have figuratively been holding me down.
Goodbye hair. I hope you decide to return.
I don’t think Mr. Gildart could quite identify with this situation. He had an impressive head of white, wavy hair. But Miss Bright, having died of cancer and, I presume, having undergone her day’s equivalent of today’s chemotherapy, might well have lost her hair.
In any event, I can hear her singsong cadence, her positivity and chirpiness that so endeared her to her students.
I think she’d say that, well, if you lose your hair and it feels a bit breezy up there ... that’s what hats are for.
And I think she’d say this:
“Just cover up, Buttercup.”
The impressionable one ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 19, 2021 -- A little over a week into chemotherapy, and I wonder how so many who went before me on this journey have managed to cope.
It’s a good thing that high school sports have ended for the school year, because I wouldn’t be able to attend those contests.
Maybe one or two, because some days are better than others; some are worse.
It’s difficult to put yourself in the place of someone battling for their very existence through the wonders (and, let’s face it, minor horrors) of chemo. But once you’re there, you fully understand, and quickly.
I won’t get into the side effects, although when I start losing my hair it will be fairly obvious. Let’s just say that I’m finding that sleep -- and lots of it -- is something of an antidote to the constant churning discomfort. As I write this, I am coming off a night where, on and off, I slept for 12 hours.
Sleep is escape.
Having said that, I hope to make it to the local high school graduations, to see some of my favorite people handed diplomas. I don’t know if I can actually make it, or stay for very long -- so anyone with a photo or two they want me to consider for publication are welcome to email them along to me.
I then hope, with my son Jon as my driver, to attend a memorial service at the Bennett family plot in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn on June 28 for two very special people in my life. My last aunt, Jean Schumaker (who like my mother, their sister Betty and their brother Bob, was a Bennett), died early this year in Auburn at the age of 98. Her eldest son John (pictured at right) died five summers ago in Queensbury, New York, at the age of 69.
I loved Aunt Jean for her kindness, her thoughtfulness, and I suppose for the fact that she raised such an amazing family: sons John and Mark, and daughter Anne. We Haeffner boys (my brothers Bob and Jim and I) were all quite close to the Schumakers growing up, as we were with cousins born to Jean’s sister Betty Black: son Chuck and daughters Nancy, Lynn and Ann.
Cousin Lynn was the first love of my life. I was struck like a thunderbolt when my family was visiting hers when I was 15 or so. The fact that I was struck like that was a huge surprise, because until that visit I was under the impression that I despised her. We simply hadn’t gotten along; and then suddenly we did.
“Forget it,” my mother, ever astute to my moods and emotions, said. “She’s your first cousin.”
Anne Schumaker (Orloski) was more of a buddy. Memory tells me that Anne and I -- I think this was in 1967 in Columbus, Ohio, while attending my brother Bob’s wedding there -- took a walk downtown, stopping at a hotel so I could use its public washroom. As I was leaving the room, a police officer entered, nodded at me and passed by. I exited to find not only Anne waiting for me, but the police officer’s nightstick, which he had left resting by a wall pay phone across the hall.
Without hesitation -- my only foray into serious crime -- I snatched it much to Anne’s surprise and slid it up my long sleeve, and exited the premises. Anne followed, shocked, I think, but to my recollection issuing a nervous “I don’t believe this” kind of chuckle.
We beat a hasty retreat to avoid what would have been an ugly consequence -- and I held on to that nightstick for years. I can’t say I was proud of such thievery, but there was something satisfying in owning my own hardwood weapon.
I trust enough years have passed to immunize me from the law, if not from your disapproval.
Anyway, Anne will be at the service, along with her brother Mark and John’s widow Sally and her children and, I think, grandchildren.
I haven’t seen Anne or Mark or Sally in so many, many years -- and I shake my head at the vicissitudes of life that carry us so far from our loved ones.
I shake my head, yes, and I weep at it.
A reunion, even on so solemn an occasion, is so very appealing.
And so I find myself smiling amid the tears.
I have been receiving nice cards from concerned friends offering whatever help they can, and I appreciate them. It’s nice to be thought of at all, but when the sentiments are so positive and thoughtful ...well, they serve as a balm.
And, as I pointed out on the Home Page, someone did an amazing job mowing my lawn just when it was getting away from me. I was gone from the house -- at a chiropractic session -- and have no idea who did such a lovely thing. It turns out I don’t have the energy I had before all of this treatment began, and can tackle yard work in only small doses. So I would like to thank the Samaritan in person.
One thing that several years ago I found a calming distraction from the often stressful regimen of reporting local news was the collection of trading cards -- baseball, football, hockey, basketball and non-sports -- and movie memorabilia, most notably lobby cards. Those were issued in sets of eight with the release of a film, and posted on the walls of movie theater lobbies. Some are quite expensive, and many not.
I decided to collect lobbies and other sized posters of Laraine Day, an actress popular in the 1940s and married to baseball’s Leo Durocher. I chose her because I thought her mesmerizing -- among her credits were the series of Dr. Kildare films starring Lew Ayres, and a movie with Cary Grant titled “Mr. Lucky” -- and because her memorabilia is, by comparison to, say, material from “Casablanca” or “Gone With the Wind,” of fairly inconsequential cost.
I find, on those days now when I can function, that cards and movie memorabilia serve the same purpose as they have in the past, only this time to take my mind off a stress that seems ever-present.
Thank God for such things. I collected baseball cards when I was a kid, and can still glance at those from the 1950s and early ‘60s and identify the players without even seeing their namea. They were my icons growing up, just as some movie stars were.
And believe me, as we shrink to advancing age, such things still hold sway over the impressionable.
Which is, I guess, what I am.
Where fear meets hope ...
The editor is providing this account -- and possibly subsequent ones -- regarding a medical condition he is experiencing. Perhaps it will serve some benefit, knowledge being a useful tool.
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 30, 2021 -- The words are chilling.
That hard “c” is harsh. It helps to strike fear.
Why can’t the bearers of such news soften it? In this case call it “lymphoma.” Soft “l” and “soft ph.”
That’s what an oral surgeon delivered to me after I had seen two dentists who passed me along to him. It was a lesion on the gums, swelling.
I thought it was teeth impacted.
But no. “It’s cancer.”
He had gotten the verdict from a lab in New York City that had examined a small piece of my gum taken in a biopsy the week before.
So ... the next step was an oncologist for further tests. A PET Scan. A bone marrow biopsy. That one was a lot of fun. Everybody should experience that at least once.
I got further analysis from the doctor two days after the bone marrow biopsy. He was pretty pleased, actually. There was no sign of the lymphoma spreading -- but it could, and so he wanted to aggressively go after it.
And that’s when other words I never thought would apply to me ... applied to me. He wanted, soon, to start chemotherapy. Three series, each three weeks long. Total: Nine weeks of treatment. But first I needed preparation. A visit to a radiation oncologist for examination; installation of a port for IV delivery of the chemo. And an educational session, so that I understand everything that’s happening, and everything that’s expected of me.
I’ll be going over quite often to Cayuga Medical Center -- where the scan and bone marrow biopsy and oncological visits have been taking place. I’m getting to know that place, I’m both sad and happy to report. Sad that I need to go there, but happy that I’m in good hands.
This could be a lot worse. It could have spread. I could be looking at an advanced case of lymphoma. It could, if more aggressive, have been terminal.
I feared exactly that from that first diagnosis: “It’s cancer.”
Those words play with your head, distort the fact that you’re aging and that a thousand different things can go wrong in your body, and probably hundreds of those can kill you. This is just one.
When I told a sister-in-law I had this cancer, she laughed -- not in mirth, but in a bow to the irony of the term “golden years.” She was speaking from experience, for her husband, my brother, had just gone back in the hospital with his second stroke in the past two months.
“Whatever happened to those pictures we saw where we’re supposed to be sitting there in the warm glow of the sun, enjoying our later years?” she asked.
It was a con job, we agreed. And so I laughed too, but not in mirth.
The oncologist, naturally enough, had me fill out a form listing anything I knew that was wrong with me -- the chief problem being high blood pressure treated by this tablet and that -- in addition to a family medical history.
To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any cancer in my blood relatives -- though I don’t know for sure. Maybe my parents knew of some and didn’t tell me, or maybe what felled this ancestor and that one was cancer -- without them knowing what it was, long before medical advances brought it to the fore and gave it that hard C name.
Anyway, I blithely believed I couldn’t be invaded in such a fashion. I was impervious.
Until I wasn’t.
I don’t know what to tell you about finances. That is developing.
I was, I discovered, underinsured at the outset, and I’m waiting to take a hit on that. I’ve tried to fix that -- stop the bleeding, so to speak -- by stepping up my coverage.
But there are problems ahead, I’m sure. An example: the lab in New York City that analyzed the bit of gum biopsied and sent to them by the oral surgeon hit me with a bill of nearly $6,000 -- with no indication that insurance was alleviating the burden.
I called down there, and discovered they had no record of any insurance pertaining to me. So a woman on the phone took my coverage information and inputted it. Hopefully that bill will come down now, although I don’t fully trust an amendment made through a phone conversation with a disembodied voice. I expect -- in the mood of the moment -- more trouble from that quarter.
And there will likely be a hefty amount -- unknown at this point -- owed for the PET scan and the bone marrow work. And God knows what else.
That’s one of the horrors, I suppose, of a cancer diagnosis. Everything costs, and plenty. It’s enough to spook you anew, quite apart from the march of the disease, and from the difficulties of the treatment.
At a time when a positive attitude is so important, worry imposes itself in the form of dollar signs -- in the fear of the imagined loss of everything material you hold dear, starting with a roof over your head.
When the first dentist saw me, in Schuyler County, his initial reaction at seeing the lesion on my upper gum was: “I’m not loving this!” He said it twice, maybe three times, and then uttered something like “possibly malignant” as he left the room.
When he came back, he had a different perspective. He’d shown X-rays of my condition to other such practitioners, and they had decided it all might be a reaction to a blood-pressure med I’ve been taking.
“Now don’t lose any sleep over this,” he tried assuring me.
And he passed me along to a second dentist, this one in Chemung County, who was supposed to do the initial biopsy. But when I reached his office for an appointment the next week, he backed away from the biopsy -- saying something along the lines of this wasn’t really his thing; that this condition was a bit unusual.
And he passed me along to the oral surgeon, who I saw the following week -- and who did do the biopsy. A week after that, I was back for a verdict. And he said he had heard from the lab down in New York City. And he fixed his eyes on me, and said those cold words.
I told him this was where he was supposed to say: “Just kidding.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’d like to. But I can’t.”
I turned to the young hygienist standing off to my left. She had a look of ... I guess compassion for the poor guy sitting there absorbing a body blow.
That really didn’t make me feel any better.
Now ... now I move forward, as so many others before me have moved forward, and as so many after me will.
Here comes the chemo, and there goes the hair.
Here come the bills, and the success or failure of the insurance, and all the confusion that comes with a new, disorienting experience.
Worry walks hand in hand with affliction.
But I caught a break. The results of the PET scan and bone marrow biopsy -- results I awaited with fear and all sorts of dire outcomes bouncing around in my brain -- were decidedly favorable from a recovery standpoint. The lymphoma had not spread. It was treatable. It was a Stage 1 situation -- one during which, I am assured, I will be able to continue working, covering the news of Schuyler County on this website. And so I will, I think, remain positive. Or I will try, at any rate.
Fear will nag, and panic will swell, and the thought of bankruptcy will loom until I see how effective my old insurance was, and how much better the new one might be.
But I will strive to be upbeat. For through it all, marching in tandem with me (if I can but look in its direction and see it) is one other -- very important -- thing.
It is hope.
And with that hope comes a visualization -- a plan -- that this will be conquered, and will become just another of life's interesting experiences ... one eventually fading, like so many others, in my rearview mirror.
Down in the valley ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 13, 2021 -- School budget votes are upcoming.
In both cases -- Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen -- the folks going to the polls on May 18 have spending plans in front of them that are seemingly reasonable. That’s if you assume as a starting point that school taxes that have evolved over the years to the current levels ... are reasonable.
Not directly related to this year’s budget in Watkins Glen -- but intertwined, I imagine, in the minds of taxpayers -- is the last move by the Watkins Glen School Board, whereby it approved the payment of about $170,000 from the Fund Balance to pay out a “Pandemic Persistence Honorarium” to each staff member of an association, plus some non-member civil service workers. Each payment is $750 if the employee has been on board since the start of the school year. After taxes, Superintendent Greg Kelahan said, it’s about $500.
“Oooooh, let’s go out to dinner,” said one such staffer -- a teacher -- with a touch of sarcasm after I informed her of the honorarium. She hadn’t heard about it. Her second reaction: “Didn’t we already get a stimulus check?”
The School Board sometimes does that kind of thing -- which is to say takes actions which, whether intended or not, are seemingly unbeknownst to staff (or anyone else) until after the fact. I recall that when the board hired Kelahan -- announcing it at a meeting attended by almost nobody -- school staff learned about it first thing the next morning by reading it on The Odessa File. That just struck me as wrong.
Another sudden, unanticipated move came when this year’s graduation date was moved from June 19 to June 26 in deference to the new Juneteenth holiday. That upset staff and a number of parents, so the date was changed again to June 20, the day after the original date.
I got a call the other day from a Watkins Glen school district parent who had been upset by the initial graduation change, wasn't thrilled with the alternative, and now was irate over the Pandemic Persistence Honorarium. He couldn’t understand how the district could “just do that” -- reach into its coffers and pay out that kind of money. It was unnecessary and unwarranted, he said. Another observer thought the honorarium a public relations disaster -- a slap in the face to district taxpayers whose own livelihoods have been endangered and in some cases upended by the pandemic.
I’m not a resident of that district -- I’m up in the Odessa-Montour district, which seems to be doing very nicely, thank you, without an honorarium -- and so I don’t have an emotional basis for reaction. I just find the actions of the School Board down the hill to be ... well ... interesting. And inconsistent.
Back when Dr. Mary Ellen Correa was planning to vacate the district superintendency, she prepared a list of a dozen potential candidates the School Board could look at. It didn’t, plucking Tom Phillips out of a job at South Seneca instead. All of a sudden, there he was in Watkins Glen. I was introduced to him at a basketball game in the Field House.
“Charlie, this is the next superintendent,” I was told by whoever introduced us as Phillips reached out his hand in greeting.
I believe my reaction was something like, “Say what?” At least that was what I was thinking, along with “How did that happen?” and "Where did this guy come from?"
Then, the next time around, when Phillips was preparing to depart the job, the Board decided to involve the staff and district residents in a handful of meetings to determine the kind of person they wanted as his successor, and the philosophical direction they wanted in the district.
Sounded great, but then the Board went dark after those meetings, only rumors leaking out. First they had a guy, then they decided he wasn’t right when he continued shopping himself around; and then they settled on Kelahan, a superintendent in Oriskany who nobody around here had heard of.
And now, this time, they simply turned to the high school principal, Kai D’Alleva, without benefit of a lengthy search. Interestingly, his salary was not mentioned upon his approval as superintendent -- a matter raised at the last Board meeting when one of only two people in attendance for a public hearing on the budget asked what that salary will be in D’Alleva’s first year. Business Manager Amy Howell had to look it up before telling the curious attendee -- Board candidate Jim Somerville -- that D’Alleva’s salary would be $130,000.
That’s considerably less than what they paid Kelahan at the outset ($165,000), but more than the O-M district pays its superintendent, Chris Wood, after he’s been here, and doing a good job, for something like a half-dozen years.
Whether by coincidence or in reaction to the Board’s actions, there are eight candidates for three Board seats on the May 18 ballot. Only one candidate, Barb Schimizzi, is an incumbent. Two longtime members of the Board, Kris Clarkson and Gloria Brubaker, will be leaving. Clarkson’s latest term is ending, and Brubaker -- openly tired of catching flak as the Board President -- is stepping down only a year into her latest of several terms.
So two of the seats will be for three years, and one -- Brubaker’s -- will be for the final two years of her term.
The candidates are largely unknown to the general public. The aforementioned Somerville, who ran once before, is on the ballot along with Schimizzi and relative newcomers Joseph Crane, Amanda Voorheis, Heather Dawson, Michael Myers, Joe Stansfield, and Brittany Oliver.
This should prove ... well ... interesting, as so many things related to the Watkins Glen School Board are.
Big signs & a crowded field
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 26, 2021 -- If the size of campaign signs matters ...
The signs are up in increasing number around Schuyler County in the current battle between Undersheriff Breck Spaulding and Investigator Kevin Rumsey to succeed Bill Yessman as Sheriff.
A Republican primary election is set for June 22, but that isn't expected to settle anything. Both camps say they will continue campaigning until the November election, the primary loser simply moving forward as an independent or under the banner of an alternative party.
And here's the striking thing: Some of the signs I'm seeing are pretty darned big. I saw three Rumsey signs yesterday that look to be about 4 feet by 6 feet or larger. Most of the Spaulding signs I've spotted are the traditional stick-them-in-the lawn variety, except for one large one up in Catharine. There are probably others.
It's those larger signs -- some with wooden stands and a wooden framework holding them in place --- that grab the attention.
Maybe I haven't seen it yet, and maybe it's out there: a billboard sign. If it hasn't happened yet ... well, I kind of expect it..
Anyway, they say size matters.
Does that hold with signs?
If so, keep an eye on who has how many of those really large ones.
Eight candidates for three seats.
That’s what voters in the Watkins Glen School District will find when they go to the poll in the coming School Board election, set for May 18.
In an age of apathy, that list of eight might speak volumes about what exactly is perceived by the public to be happening in that school district. I don't think a crowd would be forming for board seats if the perception was one of success, but I could be wrong.
Maybe, as we (hopefully) turn the corner on the pandemic, many are feeling a sudden burst of energy; and with that, a zeal toward public service.
But really: eight. I recall one election with six, but eight? One more and they could have fielded a baseball team. (In fact, there was a ninth petition taken out, but never turned in.)
The Watkins Glen voting situation is in sharp contrast to an adjacent district, Odessa-Montour, where three candidates -- two of them incumbents, Rob Halpin and Dana Sgrecci, and a newcomer, Kurt Anderson -- are running for three seats. Each is for a three-year term. One incumbent, Jeff Parmenter, decided not to run again.
It must be said that from all appearances, O-M -- which a decade and more ago seemed to get things wrong from a public relations standpoint on a semi-regular basis -- is running smoothly. School has been open almost every day this year to any district student who has wanted to attend classes in-person instead of remotely. I’ve heard nothing in the way of controversy, or missteps. The district appears to be well operated, with solid communication between the School Board and the superintendent, Chris Wood.
But in Watkins Glen, where a hybrid attendance plan that got each student into school an average of only two days a week through the opening months -- and where some parents were disgruntled by the district’s rather late-in-the-game graduation-date change (since changed again, so that it is now only one day later than originally scheduled) -- the crowd has formed on the ballot.
Does that signal dissatisfaction? I don't know. But I do know that the pro forma board silence at meetings, instead of give and take with the public, leaves a bad taste among those who want answers, just as adjournment to executive session right after each public meeting is called to order falls flat. Said one parent attending his first School Board meeting, after the board had disappeared behind closed doors for an executive session: "Do they always do this?" He seemed a bit put out. Well, I answered, pretty much.
Beyond that, the reaction of the district to an attempt by teachers to talk to the School Board about -- well, about how things might be improved -- seems baffling. The teachers seemed to want a sort of brainstorming session, the kind of thing I have, in my personal life, seen bear fruit many times. The reaction by the district? A cease-and-desist legal volley across the union bow.
The Watkins district, like O-M, has three School Board seats up for grabs. Two of them are for three-year terms and one for two years, the latter the result of the Board President, Gloria Brubaker, choosing to step down early. Only one incumbent is running.
That’s Barb Schimizzi, the board vice-president.
The other contenders include Jim Somerville, Michael Myers, Joseph Crane, Amanda Voorheis, Joseph Stansfield, Heather Dawson, and Brittany Oliver.
We already received letters from several of them for publication on The Forum page. And from their tone, they all seem hopeful; positive. And that, I suppose, might give us all hope .
I ran into Grace Vondracek recently. She showed up to watch an O-M soccer game, O-M being the school from which she graduated last year. Grace, who was an outstanding softball player during her years at O-M -- but who lost her senior season due to the pandemic -- is playing her beloved sport at Corning Community College.
She pitched in high school, but is playing shortstop at CCC. What hasn’t changed is her hitting prowess. She hit .700 in her last season -- her junior year -- at O-M, and now, after 24 games at CCC (her team is unbeaten) she is hitting an eye-popping .625, going 45-for-72 at the plate, with 8 doubles, 3 triples and a homer. She has scored 52 runs, driven in 25, amassed 18 walks and stolen 26 bases. She has struck out just three times, and has an on-base percentage of .703.
I checked the St. John Fisher website, too, to see how WGHS alum Hannah Morse fared on that school’s basketball team.
Hannah, you might recall, scored the championship basket in the state Class C final for Watkins Glen in 2017 as a sophomore, was a First Team All-State pick in her senior season, when the team reached the state final again before losing, and spent a year at CCC before shifting to St. John Fisher. In her first season in Rochester, she played a significant role in her team’s 9-3 campaign.
She averaged 8.1 points a game, with a season-high of 16, led the team with an average of 3.3 assists, and averaged 2.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals. She hit roughly 40 percent of her shots from both 2-point and 3-point distances, and sank about 70 percent of her free throws. Across the 12 games, she played a total of 321 minutes.
I for one look forward to following both Grace and Hannah to see what else they might achieve.
Of highs and lows ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 13, 2021 -- Talk about your highs and lows.
First, the high school athletes finally got clearance to compete --- first virtually, and then mano a mano.
That was pretty exciting, until the reality of the pandemic reached out and smacked some of them in the face.
The combined Odessa-Montour/Watkins Glen wrestling program barely got off the ground before it was grounded by exposure to COVID-19. Then the boys basketball team at O-M lost 10 days in a compressed season, and the players never really got their legs back after the layoff. Then Watkins Glen girls swimming was hit when four freshmen were temporarily sidelined. And now it’s the girls varsity soccer team at O-M, which had just reached a rhythm that was carrying it to several victories in a row. One player tested positive with COVID, and suddenly a busy soccer slate was vacated by quarantine.
The girls soccer team will return for a game on April 20, hosting Tioga. The game will also serve as Senior Night, where the team's seniors will be honored.
But with the track record in sports thus far, the question has to be asked: What’s next? When will another COVID shoe drop?
I received a phone call recently from an acquaintance seeking information about the Watkins Glen School Board. He wanted to understand where the board was coming from in the district’s controversial decision to change the date of graduation from June 19 to June 26.
He wanted to understand the relationship between the board and the man who made that date-change decision, Superintendent Greg Kelahan. He wanted to know the relationship between the board and that portion of the electorate that was upset with the date change -- altering as it did, rather late in the game, the plans of various district families regarding graduation celebrations.
He also wanted to know something of the history of the board, in order to understand the present.
And he wanted guidance, I guess you might say, on whether to run for the board himself. Could he have an impact if he was elected?
I answered all of his questions, filling in the answers with history and personal experience that I don’t overtly include in any news articles about the board. I try to stick to the facts in those stories, as I do with any news article on this website.
And in the discussion with this gentleman, I realized I know quite a bit about the people and policies not only of the Watkins Glen School District, but of the Odessa-Montour School District, over the past two decades, and I suppose much longer. I have lived here, after all, for almost 41 years, and have been running this website for 18 of them. And I wrote about the O-M district in some detail before this website began, as a reporter for the Corning Leader back in the late '90s.
Go back even further than that, and I was writing about the high school sports in both districts while Assistant Sports Editor and then Sports Editor at the Elmira Star-Gazette from roughly 1984-88; and in the three-and-a-half years before that, I edited news stories filed from Schuyler County while serving as a Copy Editor and then on the Regional desk at the Star-Gazette.
I have retained a surprising amount of minutiae from those 41 years, never really employed as informational fodder in my news articles, but there nonetheless. I suppose -- biases being an innate part of all of us -- that my approach to many stories is colored by them. Oh, not in the sense of employing adjective means to reach a political end (I try to keep adjectives at a minimum, and am forever deleting them in press releases submitted to me), but in the sense of deciding what deserves coverage, and what doesn’t.
The most compelling kind of story is the one that has a kick to it ... a snap, a subject or subtext that appeals to the general populace. It might be good news or bad news.
A recent example was the plan by Tompkins Trust Company to close its Odessa branch bank -- a bank which, under various ownership, has operated since 1930.
The story has a commonality. Almost everybody banks, and everybody recognizes that this closing leaves a gaping hole in Odessa’s downtown. And it smacks of big business (well, big for around here) impacting a community with what seems like a figurative shoulder shrug. Add to that the human element of tellers who have worked in that bank for many years suddenly facing a possibly jobless future, and you have ... well, a really troublesome story.
I prefer news of a more positive nature. I like to promote our area. It’s a special place, flooded by tourists in the summer, but somehow remote and singular even when tour buses fill the streets.
Have I changed over the 18 years in which I’ve been doing this? Of course I have. That’s natural. I tend not to react very often when confronted by naysayers -- although, in truth, their number has dwindled to almost nil over the years from a time when I found my first blush with daybreak to be nerve-racking. There was a time when a few of those naysayers would shoot off some scalding emails that greeted me as I first sat each day at my computer.
Anyway, it’s been suggested to me that I should write a memoir about small-county life and small-school-district life and small-town law enforcement, and so on. I suppose if done right, it would be interesting.
But will I?
Damned if I know.
That’s the team of outstanding student-athletes being honored this year by The Odessa File -- six representatives each from the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high schools.
There has been an emphasis on academics in the selection process, but sports play a role, as do leadership and character.
With guidance by school administrators and coaches, we’ve almost settled on the dozen -- 12 people who show promise going forward into the workaday world awaiting them.
This is a time different from the past, with changing hopes and aspirations. As a result, an increasing number of our youth have a pandemic-altered mindset. While college remains a priority for many, others are questioning the wisdom of spending so much money on a degree in a world full of ominous developments -- full of doubts.
So college plans have not been a major determinant in selecting this group of honorees. While education counts, the hint of things to come, of potential to be realized, is equally important. Sophomores, juniors and seniors have been considered.
Stay tuned. Plans call for the unveiling of the honorees in late May.
A pain in the back ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 29, 2021 -- I’m feeling overmatched.
By the computer gods, by my ailing back, by ... life, I guess.
The back flared up a week ago Friday, when I was standing out in the cold, photographing a football game down in Watkins Glen. That’s the same night that fencing snagged my down coat, bringing out a small cloud of feathers.
There's no effective fix for something like that, so I am planning a suitable coat-burial ceremony. Fortunately, the bitter cold of winter seems to be over, so I can go down-less.
Then there's the computer. Anytime I try to do something simple, like clean out files, the darned machine rebels -- does something to challenge my nerves and intellect. It usually costs me hours trying to clean up the mess that I know I've caused, but will forever blame on the computer.
Beyond that, there's the host of this website. It's gone a little ka-flooey. I can’t send items across the simplified File Transfer Protocol (FTP) because there’s been massive adjustments underway on the server’s end. One problem was the server itself is ancient by today's computer standards, so they're supposedly shifting a bunch of accounts (including mine) over to a new server. But that's been going on for several days.
The only good thing -- well, two good things -- is there is a back door through the host site that enables me to send over new items and update pages (although much more slowly); and the site itself hasn't crashed (knock on wood). One techie with the server company asked if we’d checked to see if the site was still there, because maybe it wasn’t (he thought); but it was up.
Anyway, about my back: A trip to the chiropractor popped a bunch of things back into place, and I've been heat treating and getting a lot of sleep -- probably partially the result of my second vaccination, which came the day after the chiropractic appointment.
I didn't suffer much from the vaccination -- not like some folks who’ve fallen ill for a couple of days after their second shot -- but did feel fatigued. But maybe a sore back contributes to that.
Bottom line: As long as the back aches, I'll be taking it a little easy on the photography. Lugging a heavy camera around does not feel good under such a physical limitation. But I'll keep trucking the best I can.
Now, on a completely different subject, I’ve heard from Tom Williams, who coached some remarkable Odessa-Montour girls varsity basketball teams back in the '80s.
He was responding to the story here recounting the state Class D championship won by the O-M girls basketball team 20 years ago, in 2001.
He suggested I research the 1982-83 O-M team. Fortunately, he saved me what would probably be hours of work by providing some particulars himself.
That team went 25-1 back in an era when girls basketball was just coming into its own -- "smaller ball, 30-second clock, elimination of the over-and-back rule, and no 3-point shot," he pointed out.
His team featured Jennifer Leszyk, Kathy Beebe, Laurie Nichols, Chris Slusser, and Jeannette Dillon. "Individually and as a team they are in the O-M Hall of Fame," Williams said.
They won the IAC division and league championships, a Section IV title, and a Central New York title before falling to the Section V champion, Bloomfield, "losing something like 39-34."
And "Oh, yeah," said Williams, "this was in Class C. Just wanted you to know."
He added that a record of "25-1 in Class C isn’t bad."
Amen to that.
The Top Drawer 24 committee -- or at least part of it -- will be meeting in-person for the first time in over a year this week to discuss the upcoming TD24 honors. This year’s program is expanding both geographically and in numbers. Since I’ve already announced my intention to step back from the program’s nuts-and-bolts operation, I honestly don’t know how many high school student-athlete-citizens will be honored, nor who they are.
I guess I'll find out more at that meeting. Beyond that, I've let it be known that I am undertaking my own, smaller honors program, quite apart from Top Drawer.
It will consist of either 10 or 12 sophomore through senior student-athletes at two schools -- Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, the two institutions where the TD24 program originated 16 years ago.
The emphasis here will be on academics a bit above athletics. Both are also inportant in Top Drawer, but it has tended to favor athletics. Where citizenship plays a role in Top Drawer, this will include a character assessment as provided by school administrators and my own observations. I will be depending on school superintendents for input.
Depending on the number of honorees decided upon, this group will simply be called The Ten or The Twelve.
Announcement of the honorees will come in the next couple of months. Further details are in the development stage.
A half-dozen fans sat in front of the press box at Alumni Field during the scrimmage. Others were scattered among the bleachers.
Not quite like old times ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 14, 2021 -- It felt like old times ... well, almost.
There weren’t as many people on hand on the sidelines -- in the stands -- as in the past, but at least there were some, a marked improvement from the ban on spectators that had been in place during the last, compressed winter sports season of basketball, wrestling, boys swimming, and bowling.
Now, on the football field, the players could hear the sound of applause and encouragement as they went about the business of blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and so on -- all the rudiments of a sport that this country long ago fell in love with.
It was a scrimmage against Waverly, precursor to a season opener Friday night against Ithaca on the same field -- Watkins Glen High School’s Alumni Field, which has sat unused, if not unloved, for lo, these many pandemic months.
Spectators were allowed two to an athlete, on both sides of the field. I walked onto the field with the mother of Waverly’s Sidney Tomasso, a girl who will be attending St. John Fisher in Rochester next school year, playing on the same basketball team as Hannah Morse, not long ago the top female athlete (a standout in both basketball and soccer) at WGHS.
Mrs. Tomasso -- whose son Joe plays quarterback for Waverly -- was headed to the bleachers outside the fence along the west side of the football field. I was staying on the east, where a larger bleacher section was host to a scattering of fans -- mostly parents, I surmised -- of the homestanding athletes on the field, members of the Seneca Indians, a combined force of WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School students.
I encountered WG Athletic Director Rod Weeden on the track that surrounds the field, and he explained that while state rules regarding spectators are a bit open to interpretation, the Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the school district were holding fast to the two-to-an-athlete maximum. While we talked, a woman in a portable stand near the parking lot -- she was taking the temperature of anyone entering the field and making sure they all filled out an attendance slip that assured they had not been exposed recently to COVID-19 -- called Weeden to say that four people were there for one athlete ... and what should she do?
Weeden told her it was definitely just two to an athlete, and to tell them they could watch the scrimmage on their phones since it was being live-streamed. Two of the four had to turn around, he told her -- perhaps to watch it in the warmth of their car.
Warmth was not to be had on the field, where a 36-degree day was made considerably colder by a north wind off the lake. It was numbing, and particularly difficult for someone trying to manipulate a camera with his bare fingers. My fingers hurt so much after a few minutes that I stayed but a half-hour. (I'll be shopping for thin, insulated handwear this week.)
I saw enough in that half-hour to get a sense of what to expect in the season opener. The Seneca Indians are a team that passes a good deal more than in the past -- “We just threw more passes in two possessions than we have in two years,” noted one of the assistant coaches. The quarterback is Cameron Holland, son of head coach Trevor Holland. His chief targets are Owen Scholtisek and Travon Jones, both exceptional athletes who have stood out on the gridiron in the past -- the most recent such opportunity a year and a half in our rearview, back in the autumn of 2019.
I watched the Seneca Indians go through three possessions. Each team got 10 plays per possession, starting back on their own 40-yard line. While I watched, WG/OM scored once on a 15-yard Jones run and a 2-point conversion pass to Scholtisek. Waverly almost scored on the 10th play of its second possession, but an apparent completion in the end zone was broken up by Scholtisek, who sent the would-be receiver flying out of bounds, right to my feet.
Overall, while the weather was “absolutely miserable,” in the words of Coach Holland, the team performed to his expectations -- the aerial aspect being something new.
“We don’t have the size or bulk that we’ve had in recent years,” he said. “But we have athletes, so we’re looking at it” -- the offense -- “a little differently.” Which is to say they are not only running the ball with Jones, Scholtisek and Dominick Fazzary, but throwing it to them and others, as well.
Was Coach Holland pleased with the scrimmage outcome?
“Absolutely. We made the plays,” he said -- both during the 10-play possessions and, near the end, when the two teams played closer to game rules regarding first downs and continued possession. But no score was kept. Points were not the point of the scrimmage.
And the two-per-player spectator limit?
“It’s a league thing,” Coach Holland said. “ I hope people don’t think that’s just us. It’s something we have to adhere to.”
Football is not the only sport in our towns, though. After that sport kicks off Friday, we will have volleyball at both schools, plus cross country at WGHS, and girls swimming -- which combines the rosters of the two schools into one squad. Last time the Watkins girls swim squad competed, back in the fall of 2019, it won its third straight Section IV, Class C championship, and a good deal of its team is back for the upcoming campaign.
And there is soccer -- both girls and boys -- at both schools. The O-M girls squad looks to be particularly strong, with returners like standouts Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster, both sophomores. Nolan scored 19 goals as a freshman, and Brewster drove opponents crazy with her speed. And joining them on the field are other girls with varsity experience, including Camille Sgrecci, a stalwart on defense.
All of those sports will attract spectators, much as football did. It will be two per athlete both indoors and outdoors, although the indoor sports are limited to home spectators only.
Ah, yes ... signs of normalcy. But other signs -- daily in the news, and on occasion in the schools or in competition -- are of COVID-19 not yet squelched.
Where caution remains a byword, so do such words as pandemic, exposure and quarantine.
That last, quarantine, brought a combined WG/OM wrestling season to a screeching halt almost before it had begun. When the seasons are compressed -- such as the basketball/wrestling seasons were, and like the football, volleyball, soccer, cross country and girls swimming will be -- a quarantine can pretty much eat up the schedule.
The O-M boys basketball team just completed a 2-5 season in which four of the seven games came in the last week to help make up for time lost by a 10-day quarantine brought on by exposure to a COVID case in a game against Spencer-Van Etten.
Yes, we are seeing the light of hope and promise.
The action on the football field seemed to signal it.
But we’re not out of the dark tunnel yet.
The Seneca Indians' Travon Jones (32) completes a 15-yard run for a touchdown.
Change is upon us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 28, 2021 -- Ah, changes.
They are an ever-expected -- and inherent -- part of life. The past year being a prime example.
But to put a finer point on it, which is to say changes smaller than the isolation, say, wrought by a pandemic, there are a number of both local and recent derivation.
For instance, we have a new Public Health Director now that Deb Minor has retired, effective this past Friday.
Her successor is Annmarie Flanagan, a Nurse Practitioner with Masters and Doctoral degrees. She started her career in Penn Yan, and is based there -- and will (as Minor did) oversee the Public Health Departments in both Yates and Schuyler Counties, splitting her time between the two. She will have an office in each of the two counties.
She has been working with Minor since the beginning of the year, and now steps up into the lead role.
There is Wesley Roe, Public Defender for years in Schuyler County, who is leaving to assume a role in the Office of Court Administration in Elmira City Court. Roe, who has worked for Schuyler County for more than 10 years and who assumed the role of Public Defender when Holly Mosher departed, will end his Schuyler run Tuesday.
There's the matter of County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, who has been rumored to be retiring soon.
But O’Hearn says that's not quite right -- that while he will soon be retiring for pension purposes (this coming month), he will be reappointed Administrator to serve as a transition figure while the county finds and then grooms a Deputy Administrator to succeed him. That process has gone through a preliminary stage, where a Search Committee whittled a pool of 30-plus applicants down to eight who, O’Hearn says, “meet the qualifications.”
The interview process begins Monday, and O’Hearn said that between finding the right candidate and the transition process, the whole thing could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months.
Only then, says O’Hearn -- who has been the Administrator for 16 years -- will he reach the actual point of retirement.
“I don’t even consider this retirement at this point,”he said. “That’s why we haven’t put out any news release ... why we haven’t really said it.”
We had a news story this past week about a change at the top of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, where Nathan Scott has succeeded the retired Phil Cherry. Scott, who brings 18 years of experience managing non-profits, comes from the Thrive Education Center outside Ithaca.
Following in the lead of the baseball, football and wrestling programs, the girls swim programs at Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools are merging for the upcoming, compressed season. Practices get under way this week.
According to one member of the O-M team, only three or four swimmers are expected back at Odessa. A couple of former team members are trying other sports, and one is out with an injury.
WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden said it will be a one-season-at-a-time merger, with future numbers the determining factor on a return to separate programs.
There is the planned retirement of Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan after 12 years as a superintendent (four years here and, before that, eight in Oriskany). The School Board is playing its replacement plans close to the vest, but since its president, Gloria Brubaker, said the board has a plan that apparently does not include the lengthy and costly interview process, speculation is swirling on a promotion to superintendent either from within the district or from within a restricted geographical area.
(Addendum: The position, it was unveiled soon after this column was published, goes to Watkins Glen High School Prinipal Kai D'Alleva, who succeeds Kelahan on Sept. 1.)
The Top Drawer 24 program honoring outstanding high school student-athlete-citizens, now in its 16th year, is expanding its coverage area to include Bath and home schoolers and even some Pennsylvania schools. Up in the air: the nature of the celebration honoring Top Drawer selectees. We (I am a co-founder of the program) hope it’s at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion, where it was each of its first 14 years before the pandemic shelved in-person gatherings. Last year, we simply announced the team on The Odessa File and on WENY-TV.
The expansion constitutes change enough, but the future is likely to see more, at least in the administration of the program. With super Executive Secretary Kathy Crans retiring at the end of the school year -- and likely available after that in no more than an advisory capacity -- and with my own determination to step back from my role (I have been heavily involved in the nuts and bolts of the operation ever since its inception, but am looking to trim my workload), there’s no telling what shape the program might take in the future.
But we’re focused for now on this year’s, and thankful for another change -- the recent advent, at last, of some athletic competition to help us judge the various nominees.
It’s going to be quite a strong Top Drawer 24 team, I think.
One thing that never changes:
The presence of occasional mayhem and the need for law enforcement to step in to subdue it. Something new this century, though, is the means of communicating it.
I give you a Feb. 25th Facebook exchange that came to my attention.
The initial entry: “High speed chase in Burdett. Anyone know what’s up?"
The following responses from different people tell the story:
“Let us know.”
“Heard they got them on Lake Street currently. Threw baggies out of the car. Drug involvement maybe?”
“If they can get them on one of the muddy roads they will catch them. I was sliding in the mud all day today. Crazy people!.”
“It was a woman. She got stuck, so in the end she got caught.”
“We needed some excitement on this street. LOL.”
“One female in custody. Got her.”
“It’s not me, Ma.”
“They went flying by my house on 4th Street.”
And it all concluded with this succinct entry, which I particularly liked:
About that retirement ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 14, 2021 -- I was at Harborside Lanes in Watkins Glen for a small (masked) ceremony honoring the graduating seniors on the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity bowling team: Michael Cook, RJ Bannon and Matt Irwin.
Among the few folks present were the parents, the coach, the school Athletic Director and -- in keeping with a habit of dropping in on such events -- the School Superintendent, Greg Kelahan.
When he spotted me, Kelahan walked over and told me something I wasn't expecting.
"I want you to know I'm retiring," he said.
I thought immediately that he was kidding, this pronouncement coming mere days after the School Board President, Gloria Brubaker, had announced her intention to step down as of June 30 after 20 years of board service.
"Right," I told Kelahan. "Very funny."
"No, I'm serious," he said.
I looked closer, into his eyes. I couldn't read the rest of his face because of the pandemic mask he was wearing.
"No, you're not," I said, not sure now.
"I am," he said. "I've been sending out a notice to a number of people ..."
"You're serious," I said, finally digesting the news.
"I would not joke about that," he said, "not to you, my friend. You know, I could have gone last year, but I thought, in the middle of a pandemic it probably would not be the best thing."
I was still confused. Was he even old enough? For some reason I had him pegged at 54. The retirement age in education is 55.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Fifty-six," he said. "Well ... in June."
"Oh, I didn't' know you were up there yet," I responded.
"Yeah, I just look so young," he said, joking. "So ... I'm excited, man. I'm gonna join you. Hire me."
We both laughed. Then I asked:
"Are you staying in Watkins?"
"So, when does this take effect?"
"Once the board decides on the next superintendent," he said. "I will stay as long as they need me to train the person, but I want to be done before the kids come back September 1st. So definitely over the summer."
We were interrupted at that point by the seniors' ceremony. Afterward, Kelahan started to leave, saying we could talk more later. I pulled out my phone/recorder and said, “How about a couple of minutes now?”
He agreed, and so we stood there, in the bowling alley, near its exit, and I started recording the following conversation.
"So?" I asked.
And he responded.
Kelahan: "It gets to the point where you recognize that the things that the district was able to accomplish are starting to feed themselves, are able to continue to progress on their own. That's what you're after; you're after establishing systems, to continue the work when you become unnecessary to the process. That's what you look for."
Interviewer: "Are you calling yourself unnecessary?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) “Absolutely. I'm not the first one.”
Interviewer: "This'll be four years here?"
Kelahan: "Yes, four years here and 12 years as a Supe, total. That's a lot of time as a superintendent." (Note: He was superintendent at Oriskany after serving in administrative posts at Cazenovia, in the Madison Central School District and for Madison-Oneida BOCES.)
Interviewer: "How many years in education?"
Kelahan: "Thirty two. Thirty-two years in education."
Interviewer: (Puckishly) "So you're 42."
Kelahan: "Yes, I am. I was a child prodigy. ... I turn 56, in June."
Interviewer: "So ... Gloria leaving had nothing to do with this?"
Kelahan: "Oh, no. Gloria was instrumental in charting the course for the district during my time here.The board president that hires you is very important to the superintendent. (Her leaving) was not a surprise to me. Gloria and I have talked, so ..."
Interviewer: "Did she know you were going to retire?"
Kelahan: "Yes, absolutely. I actually let the board know in August that this would be my last year, so we've been in discussions for quite a while ... how to transition."
Interviewer: "And what does the transition look like?"
Kelahan: "Right now, that's in the board’s hands. The board's making their decisions on how they're going to proceed. I have complete faith that they're going to do the right thing for the district. I am here at the ready; whatever it takes, I'm going to help the next person along."
Interviewer: "And you said that after you're done, you're going to stay here?"
Kelahan: "Yes, I'm looking for the next chapter in my life. I'm looking for another exciting career. Honestly, I want to do something that allows me to work my creative side more. It's a little challenging as a superintendent to really fully embrace your creativity. I'm looking to work with my hands, do something manual ..."
Kelahan: "I'm trying to figure out what I want to do. I'm a painter; a woodworker."
Interviewer: "Oh, no kidding, what kind of painting?"
Kelahan: "Right now I'm doing oil. I'm more of a modernist, impressionist, abstractionist."
Interviewer: "So, do you have any shows?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) "This is all private painting. I'm not ready to show the world. But honestly, through high school, I was an art-music student. That's where I took a lot of my classes."
Interviewer: "Where was that?"
Kelahan: "West Genesee, outside of Syracuse."
Interviewer: "Not far from here."
Kelahan: "Nope. But my wife has another at least four years before she can retire, so ..."
Interviewer: "What does she do?"
Kelahan: "She's a school counselor in Elmira. So, I've got a lot of possibilities. I'm excited. I want to try some new things."
Interviewer: (Perhaps reflecting his own fantasies) "Maybe a boat service on Seneca?"
Kelahan: (Laughs) "Yeah, yeah. ... I have not ruled out anything, but I know I want to do something. ... And let's face it, this was a tough year for educators; a tough year. I have tremendous respect for those people who are able to continue to persevere through these challenges. It's been a terribly difficult year. I don't want to say just for educators; those are the people that I know. To have your entire profession turned upside down ... I've been in awe that they've been able to do what they've done. The staff members, the teachers at Watkins Glen ... just tremendous, to be able to overcome such obstacles. And I want to speak on behalf of all educators, not just the ones I know at Watkins; all educators. They deserve such credit for keeping this ship afloat. It should have sank; it really should have. There's no reason schools were able to succeed to the level that they did, but for the staff members."
Interviewer: "You said you told the board in August. Is that when you decided, or had you been planning this longer?"
Kelahan: "I was eligible for retirement last year. I had considered it, but I thought it would be ill form for a leader to abandon ship in the middle of a pandemic. But, obviously, I believe we are in a position where things are somewhat more settled than they were last year. And I feel they are going to be in very good hands. I wouldn't be able to leave if I didn't feel that way. I feel they're going to be in good hands. It really is exciting. It's an exciting opportunity. Everywhere. For the entire organization. They'll have new leadership that will chart a course that's going to be appropriate for the times."
That was the end of it. The next day I phoned the School Board President, Gloria Brubaker, to see what progress the board might have made in finding a successor to Kelahan.
He had, indeed, notified the board in August, she said, that he was "seriously considering retirement." She added this: "I about fell off a chair. I was flabbergasted."
The board started soon thereafter considering its various options, which can range from far-reaching (and time-consuming, not to mention costly) interviews, to employing a headhunter to find candidates, to going through the BOCES board for a list of potential superintendents. BOCES has said there aren't too many candidates out there.
After consultation by the board with its attorney and plenty of discussion, Brubaker said, "I think we have a good plan," but it's one she did not feel at liberty to discuss.
"No matter what you do, you can't please everybody in the school district," she said. "So I told the board, 'Let's do what we want.'
"It's going to be good," she said. "We just need to see how it plays out. It might or might not work."
In any event, Kelahan’s targeted departure date -- Sept. 1 -- is more than a half-year away.
"So we have some time," she said.
Photo in text: Greg Kelahan
A matter of trust ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 2, 2021 -- Well, as (bad) luck would have it, I recently fell ill.
It set in on a Saturday night, when I suddenly couldn’t get warm. I was shivering so much that my hands were shaking.
A hooded sweatshirt, a blanket and a heater got the shakes to stop, and before long I managed to sleep.
The next day, I felt better, but that night I was feeling weak, and went to bed early. Four hours later, I awakened drenched. I had employed a heating bottle to ease a stiffening neck, and thought maybe it had leaked.
But it hadn’t.
I realized I had fever-sweated instead, and promptly disrobed, toweled down and donned dry clothing.
The next day I felt better, but still a little weak. By evening, pondering what to do, I received a phone call from my youngest son, Dave, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and who had recently recovered from a bout with Covid-19.
I told him about the extreme shivering, and he replied: “That’s how it started with me. I couldn’t get warm.”
And on the second night, I told him, I awakened drenched.
“That’s what happened to me,” he said. “Everything was wet. I had to strip and put on dry clothes.”
“Oh, good Lord,” I said. “How long did it last?”
“All told, about 10 days. Most of the time I was just tired. No enthusiasm. So I rested a lot. That’s what you should do: rest.”
And get tested, he suggested.
So there I was, convinced the coronavirus had finally come for me.
So I checked on-line to determine where to go for a test. To receive it at Schuyler Hospital would require a physician’s recommendation, so a call next morning to the office of my doctor seemed in order.
But my son Jon, who shares my home and therefore was exposed to whatever I was afflicted with, suggested a more streamlined approach: a visit to a WellNow clinic down near the Arnot Mall.
And so we signed up on-line to go the following afternoon. By the morning of appointment day, I felt fine. Really good. A little tired, but not ill. But we went to the clinic anyway and got tested by people behind masks and plastic shields and bulky protective gear.
And waited. And while waiting, I felt stronger and stronger. And would have been surprised to find a positive test result.
It came back negative, as did Jon’s.
So my initial fear -- an expectation, really, that I had contracted Covid -- was wrong. Which just goes to show, I guess, that we can’t trust our own instincts where the coronavirus is concerned. Fear can govern our responses. Nor, I suppose, can we trust our instincts regarding the new strains that are popping up.
We can only trust the virus to keep on coming until the vaccine distribution overwhelms it.
That trust seems ironclad. But trust, when applied to human nature, proves a much more unreliable thing.
I had a personal relationship of some duration implode over the loss of trust. I’ve had professional relationships do the same. In the latter case, it’s been a matter of manipulation: if a source (sometimes a newsmaker) cannot get from me (always a journalist) a one-sided loyalty, then I become a pariah. Trust (if you can call it that in such a twisted form) is broken.
We trust teachers to give our kids not only a good education, but one that prepares them for success in a rapidly changing and often cruel world. We trust deliverymen to get us our fuel oil and propane before the tank runs dry in the middle of a cold spell. We trust our friends to have our backs. We trust that the love we provide our offspring will be returned in kind.
Trust comes in many forms. One is a trust in our political leaders, which has been shown on the national level to be a foolhardy expectation. Congress has become a circus. (Well, in truth, it probably always has been one; but just not to this extreme.)
On the local level, it's more a hit-or-miss proposition.
I have lately been observing an unfortunate sequence of actions in one Schuyler County community -- Watkins Glen -- and it presents once again that trust issue: If the actions of an elected official are called into question by a string of related events and by the open complaints of an aggrieved party, how are a community’s residents affected? Can they fully trust that official to represent them in a fair and balanced manner -- even if he or she fully intends to? Where does the belief that led to his or her election -- and the trust that came with it -- end? Can fairness prevail in an emotionally charged case that by its very nature cries out for more facts?
I wish the answer to that last question could be yes -- an affirmation that no one is guilty until proven so. Or that the official should be given the benefit of the doubt in a case of competing narratives. But of course it isn’t ever that simple. While accusation does not equal guilt, we have long since come to recognize that politics breeds partisan positions, and that power held can be both corrupting and a strong aphrodisiac to those in its orbit who want a piece of it. Still ... whether innocent or guilty, the power holder (and any entourage that might be attached) can usually hold sway while a murky gray mist swirls around him or her, waiting for the clearing wind of truth.
While that wind might not arrive in a timely manner, life nonetheless always tends to equalize matters ... eventually.
For the record, while other news organizations are carrying the aggrieved party's (the Brandon Matthews family's) side of the aforementioned Watkins Glen issue -- having to do with a Notice of Claim (a precursor to a possible lawsuit) that involves such subjects as alleged sexual harassment and abuse of power -- nobody evidently, prior to those stories, contacted the elected official being most accused: the mayor of Watkins Glen, one Luke Leszyk.
They would undoubtedly have found what I did: no comment to speak of. But within the context of that response, there was a little more.
I suggested in my phone call to Leszyk that he was getting "pummeled" by the media, to which he responded "I am," adding: "That's the way it goes. ... But my attorney says I can't say anything."
He later said of the Notice of Claim, "Take it for what it's worth," but added: "I can't make any comments."
As far as responding to the accusations in the Notice of Claim, he said "I would love to," but added: "My attorney has told me not to comment. He's been really strict on it. He says I can't comment."
When asked if any news publications -- those running accounts of the Notice of Claim and about a podcast interview of Mrs. Matthews -- had contacted him regarding the story, Leszyk said "No ... but I can't comment on anything."
Even an effort to get him to respond to one aspect of the Notice of Claim that seems separated from the rest of it -- a statement to the effect that he wants to disband the village police department -- drew a no comment.
He then suggested I contact his attorney, Daniel Rubin of the Albany law firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo, which I did by e-mail, asking for a response to the Notice of Claim, to the podcast interview, and to the news stories about them -- and whether a counter-suit was being considered.
Not surprisingly, the response was succinct, echoing the mayor:
"Thank you for your e-mail," it said. "The Board and the Mayor cannot comment on ongoing personnel matters or pending or threatened litigation."
And apparently an attorney can't (or won't) either.
I long ago learned that there are forces at work at the governmental level -- and from there down to office and even familial levels -- that challenge the concept of trust, which is, thanks to human frailty, a veritable house of cards.
I believe that almost any power holder -- whether Mayor Leszyk or any other person in a position to hold sway over certain aspects of a community's life -- has, before holding that power, wanted it. Empowerment is almost always sought. The philosopher in me suspects it is a cry on the power holder's part for validity in the universal void.
It’s a sad truth: We are all so weak, so compromised. So ... human. If not holding power, we are at its mercy. And so it has been down through history.
At least, with the coronavirus, we are dealing with a basic force of nature without manipulative, power-seeking traits that define humans in less than flattering terms. The coronavirus simply is.
And yet, as dangerous as Covid-19 is -- as much as it should be worried over and, yes, feared -- I think I will trust it above, say, politicians ... with the stress on national politicians.
And let's face it:
That’s a hell of a note.
Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
An Inspirational Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 22, 2021 -- Maybe it’s the dark winter, a January where isolation has continued, a byproduct of the unremitting onslaught of the coronavirus. Maybe it’s the fact that I fell ill for a couple of days myself -- illness in any form bringing on alarm bells, all things (meaning in particular 400,000 deaths) considered.
Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, the memories have settled in, and especially of one man and the impact and inspiration he brought with him.
I was raised in southeastern Michigan, and part of that upbringing was weekly attendance at an Episcopal church.
I was in the choir when quite young, and then St. Andrew’s Guild, which meant I was an acolyte, garbed colorfully on Sundays in cassock and surplice, leading the choir into the church and down the center aisle to their seating in the chancel -- that area beyond the nave (the rows of congregation pews) where resided the altar, the pulpit, the lectern, minister seating and, in my church, a large pipe organ. Among my duties, I also assisted the rector during such ceremonies as Communion.
I don’t recall where I was baptized, but my Confirmation service came at the aforementioned church, Christ Church Cranbrook, an impressive stone edifice in Bloomfield Hills, near Birmingham and north of Detroit. I remember the building quite well, for I explored its many hallways and (I imagined at the time) secret passageways, including one leading to the bell tower. I was a curious and, I suppose, less than ideal aspirant for religious commitment.
(My mother taught Sunday School there, and I, along with another student, were the least well behaved in her classroom. I remember my mother expelling me one Sunday to the hall outside, I was so disruptive.)
Eventually, despite all that -- and at the behest of my parents -- I was set in my mid-teens to undertake the Confirmation ceremony, not just as an acolyte, but as someone ready (if you can be at such an age) to commit myself more fully to my faith, and I guess to the precepts of the church.
As my Confirmation approached, my parents raised my enthusiasm level by telling me a Bishop would be presiding -- and not just any Bishop, but one I knew, a man who had been the rector at Christ Church Cranbrook through the 1950s (my early church years) and one I knew and deeply respected: one Robert L. DeWitt.
I don’t recall exactly how the DeWitts came into my parents’ world, but a recent check with my brother Bob down in Florida confirmed that my family had been going for a short time to a Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, after we moved there in 1952, but that Mom didn’t like it at that institution and decided on Christ Church Cranbrook -- a chief reason being the presence there of Bob DeWitt.
My brother didn’t recall how, but thought that Mom knew Reverend DeWitt before that. Memory being a tricky thing, my own told me that Bob DeWitt’s brother Bill and my parents had both resided in Auburn, New York. That’s where my parents grew up, and where they met and married. My brother only vaguely recalled Bill DeWitt, but thinks that yes, there might have been an Auburn connection. (An online story I subsequently found, published upon Bill DeWitt’s passing in 2013, confirms he lived in Auburn for quite a few years, but is vague on the dates. Both he and his father are buried there.)
Anyway, whether by reference from Bill DeWitt (who, with his brother, hailed originally from Massachusetts) or through a previous acquaintance with Reverend DeWitt, the move to the Cranbrook church was decided upon as a matter of personal affiliation of some kind. And that’s the place, Christ Church, where I was brought up Episcopalian.
And that’s where I sang in a youth choir, and marched down the center aisle in church garb, and started to come of age -- to the age of Confirmation. By that time, 1964, Bob DeWitt had been gone from Christ Church for four years -- after being named suffragan Bishop of Michigan. Now, for Confirmation, he was coming back to participate in the ceremony -- not long before he was to depart for Pennsylvania, where he had been named Bishop Coadjutor (assistant, with the right of succession). Not long after arriving in Pennsylvania, he became Bishop upon the sudden death of his predecessor.
I felt a natural affinity with Bishop DeWitt, and not just because he had been my church’s rector for a number of years. Perhaps (I think in retrospect) it was because we both had liberal leanings, and perhaps because I -- despite my growing cynicism toward organized religion -- gave at least some thought to the ministry as a valuable (if underpaid) career.
I thought Bob DeWitt -- like his brother Bill -- was cool. While not tall (though to me, as a child, Bob seemed so), the Bishop was (like his brother) something I wished I had been: slender, assured and, well ... adult. Both seemed almost regal, but not stuffy; they had fast, great laughs, healthy senses of humor.
I was, by contrast, short, too round and totally lacking self-assurance.
Eventually I grew and gained some assurance, moving on to college and to marriage while still an underclassman. Then -- a common story -- I lost contact with much of my youthful past as I entered adulthood and left the state of Michigan behind -- including any contact with the church. But I followed Bob’s career for a while. He was Bishop of Pennsylvania for about a decade, a period in which he became fairly well-known for his liberal tendencies, including a desire to see women become ordained as ministers. He also pushed for integration, and opposed the Vietnam War -- all in his quiet, low-keyed, reasonable voice.
(The ordination, eventually, of many hundreds of women in the Episcopal church can be traced back to a stand he and two other bishops took in ordaining 11 of them without the approval of the church. An obituary published upon his death at the age of 87 in 2003 explained: “The ordination occurred in 1974, near the end of Bishop DeWitt's tenure in Philadelphia. He was one of three bishops who ordained a group of women called the ‘Philadelphia 11’ without seeking the blessing of church officials. Although he immediately was denounced by some officials, the action helped lead to the church's 1976 reversal of a ban on women in the priesthood. In 1989, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris became the first female bishop, elected to serve the Massachusetts diocese.” His action “opened doors to thousands of women who have since become priests.”)
He retired from his post in 1973, and became editor for the next eight years of a national ecumenical journal, The Witness. After that, he moved, according to his obituary, to a “small Maine community, Isle au Haut, where he had first spoken from a pulpit. In retirement, he helped lobstermen haul in traps, toss back the little lobsters, and store the larger ones until prices were optimal. He also spent much of his time writing songs.”
That same obituary quoted one of his two daughters (he also had three sons) as saying that while “he often preferred a baseball cap, bluejeans, and knee-high boots around town, he looked regal in full vestments, carrying a shepherd's staff.”
I have discovered (and ordered through the mail) a book he wrote titled Ebb Tide, about his experiences with his wife as she battled Alzheimer’s. (I opted for a used paperback at less than $20, since the only two hardcovers available ran in excess of $700 and $900, respectively.)
Some people, even if only briefly in your life, leave a lasting impression. Occasionally, a person might be so important that his (or her) moral compass becomes a guidepost of your own. Bob DeWitt was such a man for me.
I remember the Confirmation ceremony, at least in generalities, to this day -- again, memory being a tricky thing. Maybe it happened the way I see it; maybe my mind has shaded things, or even manufactured them. But whichever -- accurate or imagined -- I remember kneeling on the steps leading to the altar in Christ Church Cranbrook. I remember it being uncommonly cold in there. I remember Bishop DeWitt as an important component of the service.
Although I’m sure the Rev. Michael Hartney, now retired as the Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Watkins Glen -- a man who also knew Bishop DeWitt -- would likely correct me if I tried on my own to further explain the service, I instead quote an online source, starting with the important “laying of hands.”
“The laying of hands on the candidates by the bishop and the concelebrating priests represents the biblical gesture by which the gift of the Holy Spirit is invoked,” it reads, going on:
“The bishop and the priests who will administer the sacrament with him lay hands upon all the candidates (by extending their hands over them).” The bishop then proceeds with a prayer that includes: “Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding.”
Well, there’s very little I’ve ever fully understood of my belief system (conflicted) or my faith (sometimes fully blown, and sometimes stretched to the point of disbelief and accompanying despair).
But one thing I remember with a sense of surety is the feeling of Bishop Bob DeWitt’s hand upon my head.
I was kneeling, with my head down, so I couldn’t see exactly what was happening above me. That online description indicates the Bishop’s hands and those of concelebrants were held “over” the candidates.
And maybe they were. But in my mind -- and across the years -- I have felt the firm hand of the Bishop on my head, atop my hair. Perhaps it is an imagining; a wanting. And perhaps not.
But that laying on of his hand -- whether spectral or real, or merely an extension of the impact the man had upon me -- has been a guiding influence in all the ensuing years. It has quietly guided me as I considered, on occasion, a role in the ministry. It sustained me as I opposed, as he did, the Vietnam War, a conflict I considered wrong on so many levels. And it guided me as I entered a career, journalism, in which I tried to spread not the word of God, but the truth (as I perceived it) of this life on Earth.
When I think of my religious upbringing, it brings a warmth to me. Was that the result of fervent faith ... that there was a just reward ahead for a life well lived?
Or was it the feeling that comes from having been blessed by someone truly blessed with the love of God? Someone whose personality and integrity and quiet assurance helped transfer that love of God to an accepting young soul?
Bob DeWitt is long gone now, but not really. Not as long as my brain can function -- as long as memory and appreciation of a life well lived exists within me.
I feel like I owe you so much, Bishop DeWitt. If I had achieved, in my chosen profession, just half of what you achieved in yours, I would have considered myself a worthy disciple.
Maybe this testament redeems a little of that existential shortcoming.
I pray so.
Photos in text: Bishop DeWitt; and DeWitt with his family in 1960, when he became suffragan Bishop of Michigan. (Provided)
This is a better year?
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 3, 2021 -- First I lost a crown. It came out of my mouth in classic fashion, while I was eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Then I snagged a fingernail; nothing major, but temporarily painful.
Then one of my kitchen lights died -- an odd bulb that Walmart didn’t carry, so I had to wait until I could reach a more comprehensive store.
Then I ran into some technical difficulties with my computer -- the one that I use to run The Odessa File. I straightened it out all right, but nothing sets me off like computer ills; I am poorly equipped manually and emotionally to handle that stress.
And that was just in the first two days of the New Year. I knew I’d been putting too much hope on any year that wasn’t 2020.
And then, on the third day, I received word that a beloved aunt -- my last living aunt, Jean Schumaker -- had died. It was not unexpected; she was, after all, 98 years old. But the death of a loved one -- someone I had known all my life -- shook me to the core.
I was already on shaky ground, but with this news it felt like that ground was now opening up to swallow me whole. Perhaps perversely, I hoped so, as the tears welled and my breath caught.
“Damn,” I said.
Jean had been having problems -- with a fall, a heart attack and a positive covid test, all in the past week -- so something was bound to give. But as her daughter Anne said in an email notifying me of her mother's passing, this was both a sad occasion and a happy one, for Jean had lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” and was moving on to the next adventure.
She was the last of the Bennett girls -- a trio of Auburn, New York charmers, the oldest of which was my mother, Eleanor. Jean was next, and then the effervescent Betty. Both Mom and Betty passed away years ago, but Jean continued on, healthy for years but finally leaving her longtime walk-up apartment in Auburn when she was about 90, moving to an assisted living facility in that city’s downtown.
All three had been married, my Mom and Jean once each, to the loves of their lives. Betty was married twice. All were housewives in the traditional American 1950s sense of the word, raising families. Mom had three boys, Jean two boys and a girl, and Betty a boy and three girls.
The Bennett girls had a brother, the baby of the family, Bob. Their mother died delivering him, way back in 1931; their father, a popular Auburn physician, died in 1942 at the age of 49, the victim of a stroke. Like his sisters, Bob ended up a family man, with two daughters and a son. He divorced, remarried, and died before his sisters.
All of their kids -- me and my cousins -- were quite close growing up, not in a geographical sense, but getting together nearly annually and thoroughly enjoying one another ... to the extent that I actually fell in love with one of Betty’s girls when I was 15. My mother tsked tsked me, and said it was a good thing we didn’t live any closer. We resided in Michigan, while Betty’s family lived in Massachusetts, summering in New Hampshire.
My worst winter growing up was when I got really sick about the time my family was heading east from our home in Birmingham, Michigan, to visit Aunt Jean’s family in Syracuse. I was left behind in the care of a kindly neighbor couple, and so missed what I figured was a great adventure, for in my absence Syracuse had received three feet of snow -- an amount I had never seen, and which I thought must be most marvelous, perfect for building icy forts. I regret missing that trip to this day.
Jean was married to a great guy, Uncle Jack. I don’t recall what he did for a living, but it was undoubtedly something brilliant -- engineering maybe. He was very smart, very personable, and, alas, dead long before what I thought should be his time. I seem to recall talk of diabetes; in any event, I was no more than a young adult -- 23 -- when he died in 1972 at the age of 50.
I remember Jean taking it well; I also recall a wake at their Syracuse home that was a celebration of sorts -- the first wake I'd been to. Any other deaths of relatives or acquaintances -- mercifully few at that point in my young life -- had been somber affairs. I thought Jean and her children such strong people for their brave faces. No, it was more than being brave; it was a sign of profound love.
Nobody, I decided, had more class or was more wholesome than my Aunt Jean.
She was also the family genealogist, digging through old records for years, compiling charts of our family tree. The Bennett clan, for instance, had in its lineage other family names such as Havens, Morse, Griffin and St. John. Supposedly we were descended from, among others, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who invented the Morse Code. There was apparently a Native American in there somewhere, but all in all it seems as though the extended Bennett clan was pretty much New York State-settled after emigrating from the British Isles. The Haeffners, on the other hand, had a German background.
(I notice in her compiled genealogy that one ancestor on the Bennett side, Rachel Freer Hood, was married at 16 in 1802 and gave birth to her first child the next year -- early unions and early motherhood being quite common back in a day that lacked every modern convenience that we know. Children were essential in an agrarian society that depended on offspring as part of the workforce. Parenthetically, Rachel lived a full life, to 83.)
But that’s ancient history. What is more recent, and thus painful, is the passing of someone who was always part of my life. We were not in close touch in recent years -- not at all, I think, since the pandemic struck -- but she was never far from my conscious thoughts.
Now, with that e-mail note from her daughter, I am grappling with the fact that she is gone. Since she lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” as Anne put it, I celebrate her passing, but I do so with tears in my eyes. God bless you and keep you, Jean.
After mourning, I will turn again to the days and weeks and months ahead, but right now -- at the outset of this new year -- I have an unsettled feeling.
It's a feeling that 2021 should not, cannot continue this way -- not if it intends to improve on the year just passed.
Photo in text: Jean and Jack Schumaker on their wedding day in 1945.
To Serve Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 1, 2021 -- I’ve started and restarted this column, only to come up dry.
It was supposed to be a retrospective of the year just ending.
But on this January 1, just days after the 18th anniversary of the start of this website, I find that I really don’t want to look back at the year just ended, the nefarious 2020.
Any time such a retrospective has appeared on TV, I've changed the channel. Any time I have attempted to look back myself for highlights, I have only been able to think about all that has been lost.
Well, I did enjoy Dave Barry’s annual look back in the Washington Post, just because he is so irreverent and entertaining. But irreverence doesn’t suit my writing, nor does it suit the mood I have sensed here in Schuyler County.
We considered ourselves very lucky when we saw hardly any coronavirus cases, but now that we’ve topped 530 (out of a county population of just 18.000), that feeling of being invulnerable has pretty much gone blowing in the wind.
From a personal standpoint -- and coming off a semi-annual physical checkup that showed marked improvement in my blood work and blood pressure -- I have to say that the lighter workload created by the pandemic has proven beneficial to my health. I’ve gotten more sleep than when I was assiduously covering high school sports, and I have, with time to ponder such things, restructured the amount of manual labor I do (more) and my diet (decidedly healthier).
But the fact is: I, just like everybody, am going a little crazy with the solitude; with the lack of social interaction. While covering their sporting events was taxing, I miss the kids ... and their parents and the fans and the excitement that comes from a shared love of competition.
Ah, the kids. They're the reason we’re moving forward again this year with the Top Drawer 24 program -- which for the past 15 years has annually honored outstanding high school student-athletes -- although we’ll have to gauge things a little differently: figure out what, in this changed environment, constitutes “outstanding.”
Well, there might actually be a few sports ahead to help us make that determination; I certainly hope so. And it is that glimmer that gives me some optimism as we head into 2021.
In discussing the year past with a friend, he thought I should look back in this column beyond the past year -- back through the 18 years (as of Dec. 29) in which I’ve published The Odessa File -- way back to when I started this site on a dime and a prayer.
He pointed to some highlights (tenacity and durability have led to a substantal number of them), but also thought I should delineate the obstacles I faced along the way -- if only to explain that the odds were perhaps not very high that this thing could succeed. Not being a person who dwells on negatives for long, I see those obstacles as character builders -- things that were bothersome at the time, but which I, looking through my rose-colored glasses, see only as steppingstones. Any experience was one of growth.
As a longtime supporter and cheerleader of this website, my friend nonetheless urged me to at least touch upon those negatives -- not wallow in them -- in order to illustrate the difficulty involved in establishing a small information business and seeing it somehow grow. And I suppose he's right. So I will, for one paragraph:
There were a number of incidents: demeaning comments from an occasional parent or school administrator in person or by email or social media; a telephoned threat against me that prompted a call to law enforcement (threats are unavoidable and unenviable hazards in both journalism and politics, sorry to say); a couple of confrontations with angry readers who accosted me in store check-out lines; false accusations (such as one allegation that parents had to pay to get their kids featured here, a practice that would if true have made me quite wealthy and long since retired); irate calls from dissatisfied readers (usually parents); a refusal by most coaches one year at one school (Odessa-Montour) to contact me with sports results; a ban from the building during school hours at another school (Watkins Glen), and an attempt (quite futile) to ban me from the sidelines of sporting events (O-M again). I experienced a very slow growth in advertising (my chief source of income); have been called everything from "that crazy old man on the corner" (that from an O-M official, referring not only to me, but to my abode down the street from the school) to "yellow journalist" (that from a School Board president in Watkins Glen), and been asked by more than one person: "Who do you think you are?" The answer to that is "nobody, really." But I have certain rights afforded me by the First Amendment. An unfriendly and aggressive reporter asked me in an on-camera interview early in my tenure: "What gives you the right to do what you're doing?" I replied: "The same thing that gives you the right to stick that microphone in my face and ask that question."
I could go on, but the truth is that none of the negatives has amounted to much in my mind when compared to the satisfaction I derive from presenting the news in a county that has too often lacked enough of it. And there is the knowledge that providing a public service is something to be valued from a personal standpoint. I would hate to leave this life without having done something contributory.
There has been some acknowledgment of that along the way.
I’m not award-oriented; for instance, I haven’t submitted anything for trophy consideraton like newspapers do. (I won a bunch of in-house awards while working at USA Today, and captured several state awards over the years while working at the Elmira Star-Gazette and Corning Leader. But those latter two papers, like most, had to submit all sorts of paperwork and quite often a fee to be award-considered on the state level. Such fees do not exist in my budget.)
But what was really nice -- and neither expected nor lobbied for -- were two honors bestowed locally back when I’d been doing this for about five years: a Community Spirit Award from the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, and induction into the Watkins Glen High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Those are measurable achievements. Anything else is an estimate: the number of stories I’ve written over the 18 years, the number of local sports and news photos I’ve published (alas, none paid for by the photo subjects), the number of columns I’ve written, the number of letters I’ve published, and so on. And there is the indefinable nature of how the coverage has impacted life around here, if it has at all.
But really, what it all comes down to for me is this: I have been blessed to be able to do something I love, and to do it for so many years -- weathering a roller coaster of health and finances. I think -- I hope -- that it all has been encouraging ... that the coverage has provided some insights that might otherwise have been missed; and that it has provided the kids on the playing fields and courts and in the pools at O-M and Watkins Glen with something of value through the stories and photos I have produced.
These 18 years have been challenging and rewarding. I’ve tried to turn negatives into positives -- not always successfully, I’m sure; but the effort has been there.
I’m sure, at my age, that another 18 years are out of the question. But as long as I do this, it will be with the best of intentions.
I will continue to try to serve mankind -- not in the Twilight Zone sense of its famous episode To Serve Man, where a book by that title brought here by aliens turned out to be a cookbook, with humans the main course.
I mean it in the other way. No cooking. The serving will be stories and photos, most of them produced by me -- half baked, I'm sure some will say. But always with a little seasoning ... among the condiments a pinch of opinion and a dash of love for Schuyler County.
I’m thinking that perhaps there is a student out there, or perhaps there are two, who might be interested in writing a bi-weekly or monthly column for The Odessa File. Any budding journalists who might be interested? We could discuss it.
Beyond that, perhaps there is someone else out there -- adult aged -- who is interested in writing. Perhaps a wine column. Or an agricultural column. Or a financial column. The legal one we carry from Jim Reed at Ziff Law has been very successful.
These columns would not be tied to specific businesses, but to the general subjects I named, and perhaps one or two others.
We could use some more photography, too. This is a good venue to get your work recognized. For several years we carried regular groupings of photos by Liz Fraboni of Watkins Glen -- 50 such groupings over a half-dozen years. She still provides an occasional scenic shot with her unerring eye for beauty and composition.
And, as always, I invite political leaders -- mayors, the county administrator, our assemblyman -- to write columns whenever the spirit or circumstance warrants. Our State Senator’s office generates one a week.
Should our lives continue in the restrictive nature of 2020, I’ll perhaps try some other things to better pique my, and your, interest. Perhaps in-depth interviews. Perhaps personality profiles. There are a lot of interesting people around here.
Anyway, the thinking cap is on. So stay tuned.
And an update on books I've been reading. The autobiography of Demi Moore, titled Inside Out, is quite illuminating. Moore really bares her soul -- a good read.
And I've finally gotten around to reading historical novels by Paula McLain. The Paris Wife, about the romance between Hadley Richardson and her husband Ernest Hemingway, is marvelously well done. Next up: McLain's Circling the Sun, about aviator Beryl Markham.
Happy New Year.
The comfort of books ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 21, 2020 -- In times of isolation, I have found books to be a balm for the soul.
I even, in my more romanticized imaginings, liken them to the RMS Carpathia, the ship that in April 1912 raced to the point in the Atlantic Ocean where Titanic had sunk two hours earlier. The Carpathia picked up just over 700 survivors from lifeboats and transported them to New York City, arriving three days later. (An estimated 1,500 passengers died in the Titanic’s disaster).
More specifically, words are my lifeboat, and well-told tales fashioned from those words are my Carpathia.
I was enamored of the written word as far back as I can remember. I recall as a small boy visiting the library in Birmingham, Michigan, not far from my home, and feeling as though I had been dropped into a treasure trove. It was frustrating, though, since I was so young that I had not yet mastered the art of reading. I knew a lot of words, but others I did not, and any progress I made through any book beyond a basic, illustrated reader was slow going. In time I mastered use of the dictionary, repeatedly useful when I encountered yet another strange word in whatever story I was attempting to read.
I was not, to my way of thinking, a fast learner, but I was a determined one, and words eventually became my forte -- including spelling them, something at which I excelled. I won my share of spelling bees in my elementary school classes.
For a kid who was uncommonly small -- my nickname was Half Pint -- being champion of anything loomed large.
I read voraciously throughout my youth, and started amassing a small library of my own during my first marriage, a union that occurred in college and lasted a handful of years. When that ended, I leased a second-floor apartment where the only neighbors of note -- aside from the drunks in a rowdy bar across the street -- were the cockroaches inhabiting the cubbyholes of my kitchen. I was lonely enough that I started naming them, my favorite being Fred.
That period -- one of poverty -- was made less lonely by the books I had taken with me. I could always find friends within their pages. Eventually, I entered upon a second marriage that lasted over a quarter of a century, until death intervened. During that marriage my library steadily grew.
I have, since then, found the occasional solace in novels and biographies that fill many a shelf in my house, although this website occupied most of my attention and time before the pandemic hit. Back then, I was covering every sport in the two area high schools on top of the news available through meetings, interviews, press releases and so on, and had little time for recreational reading, other than on my annual sojourns to my favorite summer hideaway, Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.
Now, with the pandemic throwing so many of us into an isolation we could not have imagined a year ago, books have once again stepped to the forefront of my daily existence.
Nonfiction, fiction, classics, pulp, mysteries, romances.
I just finished a quick run of several books. First was Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, which for some reason I hadn’t read before, despite it being on lists of some of the great novels of the 20th century. I found it interesting and its style singular, but I was not engaged, and not at all sorry when it ended.
Then came Bagman, by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz -- a look back at the Spiro Agnew vice presidency, rife with corruption and outrageous behavior by Agnew. Having lived through that period, it was more a trip down memory lane for me than anything, although there were some revelations that added perspective.
I read another Jack Reacher novel -- this a joint effort by Lee Child and his brother Andrew titled The Sentinel -- and I found it wanting. If editing it, I honestly would have sliced about 50 to 75 pages out of it. It seemed slapdash and repetitive and not at all engrossing. That was disappointing, since I had very much liked Blue Moon, Lee Child’s previous Reacher effort.
And then there was a prize: The Giver of Stars, by JoJo Moyes, a novel based on a Depression-era program espoused by Eleanor Roosevelt -- to deliver books, and through them education, to folks living in the mountains of Kentucky. The characters grabbed me, and the story took twists and turns that had me up late reading.
It was my first try at a JoJo Moyes book, and it won’t be my last. Her characters were strong -- and if not strong, resilient -- which made it appealing to me, just as two other books I read recently (devoured, really) had me shaking my head in admiration at the strength of their protagonists, almost all women, and the high level of the writing.
Those two books were by Kate Quinn. One is titled The Alice Network, a spy novel set in two time frames -- World War I and the aftermath of World War II -- which was based on some historical figures: women who, in fact, spied for Great Britain in occupied France in the First World War. The second book was The Huntress, a novel about the search for a female Nazi who had committed several wartime atrocities. It also dealt with a flying corps of women in Russia during World War II -- an actual group dubbed Night Witches by German soldiers the women were dropping bombs on nightly.
Those three -- the Moyes book and the two by Quinn -- are the best historical fiction I’ve read since the heyday of Herman Wouk -- author of some tremendous books: The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, to name three.
So ... are you looking for a way to combat the isolation blues? Tired of watching the news, or other offerings on TV?
You could try a good read. The words, if well woven, might possess a transformative power -- just might present you with an alternative to the tedium, and with it journeys of the mind far beyond the walls of your home.
The Dance of Life ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 13, 2020 -- My first -- and in truth my only -- brush with ballroom dancing came in Mrs. Young’s dance class, a weekly gathering during my early teen years in the auditorium of an elementary school outside Birmingham, Michigan, a few miles from my home in Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit.
Mrs. Young was always gowned, as was her female assistant, Miss Vicki. Her male assistant, Mr. Jim, always wore a suit -- and if memory serves, a tuxedo at the class’s grand finale, actually held in a ballroom.
I’m sure I resisted the need for such punishment, which had been inflicted by my mother -- ballroom dancing, indeed! -- but I suspect in retrospect that it served me well, teaching me the basics of the waltz and foxtrot and cha-cha and tango, not to mention introducing me to social interaction.
There were two girls from my neighborhood in that class, along with a lot of kids I didn’t know or simply don’t recall. I had grown up with the two girls; they were in my grade, but that fact really only seemed to make the mortification of ballroom dancing greater. While a romantic at heart, I had no feeling whatsoever for either one, considering them (as many boys might feel toward neighbor girls) something beyond understanding and thus to be avoided.
I don’t know if Mrs. Young’s dance class had anything to do with a subsequent episode I had with one of those two girls, a young lady named Debbie. But within a year or two, I found myself head over heels in love with her -- we spent numerous afternoons together in my first foray into emotional extremism -- and I floated around in a daze for weeks before my defenses kicked in and, fearing the strength of my feelings, I fled the scene like a burglar when the lights come on. My first brush with love ended because I was simply afraid of it.
I raise the matter because of Brian Marshall, a boy who resided two roads over from mine; he was also in my grade at school. We used to pal around together when we were 12 or so, and got hooked on a board game called The Game of Life. I don’t know how many times we played that thing, but we were obsessed with it for a while.
Alas, Brian and I didn’t stay close for long; at some point he linked up with the group in school we nerds considered the hoods, growing his reddish hair out in ducktail fashion and wearing a leather jacket and a give-a-damn attitude.
Not long after I fled Debbie’s charms, Brian moved in on her, and they dated seriously for quite a spell, and I thought they might embark on their own Game of Life after graduation. Being in a different clique, I could only read the tea leaves from a distance, so I didn’t know the depth of their feelings for one another.
But as fate would have it, their path together, their chance of a life together, was -- if still a viable alternative after high school -- closed off in a most sudden and violent fashion.
On one trip home from college -- I was attending Albion College in Albion, Michigan -- I spotted a news story my mother had clipped for me from the Birmingham Eccentric, a weekly newspaper in the area read by folks in the adjoining suburbs outside Birmingham, including by my parents in Bloomfield Hills.
The article said that Brian Marshall had completed basic training in the Army. There was a picture of him with his hair shorn, looking more -- disregarding the age change -- like he had in the days in which we had played The Game of Life.
“Man,” I thought. “There but for the grace of college goes I.” College was a shield against the draft. I deduced that Brian must have bypassed college or delayed it. In any event, he was now part of the military.
A couple of weeks later, I was back at my parents’ apartment for another weekend visit and to do my laundry. My mother had clipped another story from the Birmingham Eccentric: this one had the same picture of Brian, but the headline was what jumped out: Local soldier dies in battle.
I stood there, blood draining from my face, as I read the account. Brian, a Private First Class, had been sent to Vietnam and had barely arrived when he was killed. His end came in a mortar attack on his first day in that faraway country. His Game of Life had reached a sudden, cruel and violent conclusion.
As surprising as his end might have been to him -- if he in fact had a moment to contemplate it before the explosion ripped his life from him -- reading that article was a shock to me. As quiet as the moment was, the words of that headline screamed at me, and have continued to do so periodically over the years. Some bonds, whether between 12-year-olds playing a board game, or more substantive, might be physically broken by the vicissitudes of life -- but they remain part of our memory, and thus part of our soul.
My lesson from all of that? Well, it’s complicated. It has something to do with life’s various strands being intertwined in often emotionally complex and unavoidably fateful ways.
To me, ballroom dancing shares space with death in wartime. That sounds absurd, but it comes down to a running equation: that Mrs. Young’s dance class = Debbie = Brian = the Game of Life = a story in a newspaper = death. And in the unavoidable conclusion of that equation, the music of the waltz or the foxtrot triggers in me a mix of emotions running the gamut from love to horror to regret. I can see Miss Vicki and Mr. Jim demonstrating their dance moves to a roomful of young novices; Debbie sitting with me in the branch of a tree overlooking a flowered field, each of us holding the other; and -- in a vision no doubt informed by war movies -- an explosion of incredible force and destruction in a foreign land.
And atop those images I have layered a term employed by the great writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: it is Duty-Dance With Death, part of the subtitle of his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
Mrs. Young’s class was, for me, a duty dance -- an effort to placate my mother, who thought I needed some culture ... which I’m sure I did.
My dance away from the emotional upheaval wrought by my relationship with Debbie was, in truth, a duty only to my own fragile, developing ego, one wrought with insecurities.
My dance with Brian was traditional: we bonded in youth, but danced apart as we chose different segments of our high school society; different classes not in the school sense, but in the sense of societal strata.
And Brian’s final, short arc to oblivion was, as Vonnegut put it, a duty-dance with death. He was part of the military complex, sent to a faraway land; sent to an explosive -- and to my mind then and now -- horrible death.
And in telling you this, I am undertaking a duty-dance: a waltz of contrition, if you will, owed to Debbie for her charms and my cowardice; to Brian, for our early friendship and for his early death, which haunts me still; and to Life itself, a Game both endlessly fascinating and in turns magnificent and heart-breaking. It is one, I fear, in which I endlessly fail to measure up.
But whether I do or not, I -- not to mention you -- will keep on dancing until the music finally stops.
Legacies past and present ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 6, 2020 -- Word filtered up here quickly this past week concerning the passing in Florida of Elmira coaching legend Dick Senko. It was noted only obliquely, perhaps, by some Schuyler County residents, but was big news indeed in Chemung County, where Senko’s positive and very successful football coaching career is well recalled.
A Section IV Hall of Famer, Senko was in fact an honoree -- or scheduled to be -- at the last Top Drawer 24 gathering up at the Watkins Glen State Park. He was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for a career that not only stood out for its numbers -- a 193-81-2 record while coaching at Elmira Free Academy from 1975 to 2003 -- but for its impact on young, developing students who learned both how to excel on the football field and how to enjoy the work that went into it. He will long be remembered by those he coached.
That Senko was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease was no secret, and made it virtually impossible that he might receive that Lifetime Achievement award in person, but we had hoped a family member might attend. Alas, the pandemic struck down our State Park celebration, and now we are hoping to make such a presentation this coming year.
In any event, while I had little contact with Senko myself, our paths crossed in minimal ways while I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department back in the mid- to late-1980s, the last two years or so as Sports Editor. I was mostly an office kind of guy, assigning coverages -- such as EFA football -- to staff members, and editing their subsequent work. But I met Dick a couple of times and spoke to him occasionally on the phone, my role leading me into the sphere of any notable sports personality in the city or region at that time.
I recall that even then -- not too many years into his reign -- that he possessed a reputation both as a tough (he looked, in his short-haired, rugged way, like a no-nonsense guy), successful, innovative coach and one who was widely admired by a rabid fan base. Back then you had EFA and you had Southside, and the rivalry between the two was fierce. Now, there is just Elmira High, a merger that left behind many great rivalry games.
Having had a mother who, like Senko, suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years before her death, I can fully sympathize with the Senko clan, knowing all the conflicting emotions that come with, in essence, losing a loved one twice: first in his or her memory and then in life.
But I am sure the family takes comfort knowing that his passing has not gone unnoticed or unremarked, for he left behind a rich legacy.
Photo in text: Dick Senko (Photo provided)
Now, I direct your attention to a couple of people who are Schuyler-oriented and are building, as Senko did, a legacy of service to the community. I am referring to Odessa-Montour School Superintendent Chris Wood and Schuyler Hospital President and CFO Rebecca Gould, homegrown products who are the subjects of an article that outlines their rise and their impact on Schuyler County lives. (Click here.)
The idea for the article, for the recognition, came from the ever-present depression wrought by the pandemic, a malaise that I realized was being combatted in interesting ways by those two individuals. I know Wood well, and Gould only recently. But both have left significant impressions.
I turned to other people who know them even better than I for information, filling in with Wood from my own memory bank. The bios were essentially provided, then, by longtime Wood acquaintance Craig Cheplick and hospital Community Public Relations Executive Director and Gould friend Michelle Benjamin.
I tried at beginning and end -- pre- and post-biographies -- to put what Wood and Gould have done for us in context. Others who know them can no doubt fill in more blanks with memories of their own personal interactions.
We are fortunate to have such leaders -- and others, such as County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, Public Health Director Deb Minor and SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, to name three -- in our midst as we fight the pandemic.
Thanks to all of them.
The trouble with mascots ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 23, 2020 -- When I was a boy, I loved watching Western movies on TV. You know, where the cowboys or the marshals or the mountain men prevailed against the elements or -- horrors -- against the Indians.
I took it for granted that the Indians -- except for Tonto, the sidekick of The Lone Ranger; or Little Beaver, who was a young pal to Red Ryder in a series of movies -- were the bad guys. The white man always prevailed.
Then I heard that there had been more Indians killed on screen than actually ever existed, and I started thinking things were more than a bit askew. It seemed excessive -- and reached my ears at about the same time that I was realizing that in life, nothing is really black and white. Life is gray.
And then I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee -- a wrenching account of American expansionism in the 19th century and its effect on the natives the white man overran. It culminated with the massacre of Lakota by whites at Wounded Knee, an account that deeply affected me -- and from then on I looked upon the history of this country from a different perspective, shaking my head at the cruelty with which it was settled.
There have been various movies since then that have focused on the culture of the Native Americans -- that showed life from their viewpoint as they were displaced from their lands by the encroachment of settlers and cattlemen and military. I was, and still am, taken by the charms of Dances With Wolves on screen, and by Little Big Man both in prose and as a motion picture.
Along the way, wrapped though I was in my Caucasian culture bubble, I was exposed to the occasional minority, including one Native American woman who became a friend before she moved away. After the fact, I learned she had returned to her native roots -- a reservation where she became involved with something far too prevalent in a world gone wrong: drugs.
She ultimately overdosed and died -- a sad fact that haunts me still.
Which brings me to something smaller and yet very much related.
The Indian -- the Odessa-Montour school district variety -- is an endangered species.
The long-simmering dispute over the disparagement -- others say glorification -- of Native Americans through the use of nicknames such as Indians and Redskins and Chiefs and Braves and so on, has reached a tipping point.
Gone is the Redskins name in Washington. Next up: well, probably the others. And O-M is in the thick of change.
School Superintendent Chris Wood said months ago that potential change in the school’s longstanding mascot was on his plate, after the more important matter of getting the kids back in school after a 2019-20 school year that ended with nobody attending on-site classes the last three months, courtesy of the pandemic.
He prepared the table for a hard look at the issue -- of nicknames and mascots and the utilization of a native race as representational of athletic teams -- by polling some people who matter: members of the real Seneca Nation, not the Watkins Glen High School sports fans of the same name.
And having been asked, they made clear what they thought -- to Wood and in a position statement that they wrote. It read:
“The use of Native American names, references, and imagery for the logos and mascots of schools and their sports teams is blatantly offensive to the Seneca Nation and has no place in a multicultural society that values diversity. It is not an “honor,” as many schools and teams assert, to be inaccurately portrayed by caricatures and references that have no connection to our history or our living cultures. The Seneca Nation calls on all districts and educational institutions to immediately cease this practice.“
The O-M hallways, which have seen their share of Indian murals painted by students (and eventually, with time, painted over), will not likely be seeing any more added to that artistic lore. The district, through its athletic department, has formed a student committee to work with the school in understanding the nuances of prejudice and steer the way toward a possible new mascot, and with it a new outlook.
This is not confined to the school bubble; outside influence has entered the picture: an attorney here (consulted by the district, and expressing surprise that it still had an Indian mascot), and a parent or other district resident there.
Always, always there has been a balance of arguments -- one side saying the Native American heritage is being honored; the other saying no, it’s degrading. Even students were split at first, although Wood said they all seem now to understand -- or are heading in the direction of understanding -- the position of Seneca Nation representatives.
“The Seneca Nation didn’t ask us to do anything,” said Wood, although its published stance pretty much sums up its determination that something should be done.
“We’re making it right,” Wood added, “but it’s gonna take time” -- probably the rest of the year to shed the old Indian mascot (if that’s what the students and school leadership decide on) and come up with a new mascot and logo. And after that, there is the transition from Indian uniforms -- a costly endeavor that “could take years.”
After the first of the next year, Wood plans to enter discussion with Watkins Glen school district officials, since the two schools share a name -- Seneca Indians -- in the joint sports of football, baseball and wrestling. Not that Watkins Glen will be new to the subject: Athletic Director Rod Weeden addressed the matter in July, discussing the expected need to shed the district’s Seneca Nation moniker and its mascot name: the Senecas.
“We could be given a directive from the state and we want to be prepared for that,” Weeden said. “On a more human level, I think this is a discussion we need to have. Outside of financial concerns there is bigger question related to the potential perpetuation of any negative impacts our mascot may have on a race of people. We are first and foremost an educational institution and we should be having educated discussion about hot topics such as this so we can become better. We all want to do and be better role models for our communities' children.”
I do not profess to understand all of the wrinkles of this issue as though I were a Native American. (Well, there is evidently a sliver of Native American heritage in my family, according to a genealogist aunt. The figure to whom she alluded was a 19th century male ancestor who inspired a novel I wrote about a 700-year-old Ojibwe maiden from a region near here who ultimately settled on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Hence the title: The Maiden of Mackinac.)
But I'm trying to put myself in a mental position to understand -- by flipping the script, by becoming the victimized; by imagining that I, we, the white population, has been shunted aside by a stronger, or meaner, or better armed part of our species, perhaps one whose skin is differently shaded; and that we have been largely relegated to reservations.
In that frame of mind -- in that upside-down imagining -- I try to gauge how I’d feel if that victorious culture had school districts with sports teams that professed to honor the heritage of we, the vanquished.
I'm sure I would have other grievances, as well, but for purposes here: How would I feel knowing that the ethnic group in charge would be utilizing our past to highlight part of their present.
It's a thought; an imagining.
And worth having, I think.
Years ago, we started this program called the TD24 ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 16, 2020 -- Since we were forced indoors and the kids were sent packing from school last March, one thing I’ve missed has been the opportunity to watch those young athletes excel on the playing fields and courts and in the school pools.
If there were no pandemic, the return to school this year would have led about now to the selection of Odessa File All-Star Teams and to a Schuyler Fall MVP -- the MVP honor being a seasonal tradition here.
I don’t know how the football team or the soccer and volleyball teams would have fared, but I assume the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity swim team would have posted another Section IV, Class C championship to go with those earned the previous three years.
And I assume that the Fall MVP might have been a 9th grade swimmer, Thalia Marquez, or possibly swimmers Faye Mooney or Amanda Wilbur -- or maybe all three. They shared last year’s Odessa File WGHS Female Athletes of the Year Award with their since graduated teammate Peighton Cervoni.
And a fall sports season would have given the Top Drawer 24 committee a pretty good start on assessing who might be considered for this year's TD24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens -- a squad unveiled each year in May. The honorees were, until the pandemic, feted annually in early June at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion. We couldn’t meet for that ceremony last June, but we hope to again in 2021, what with vaccines on the way ....
Anyway, this brings me to Brian O’Donnell’s compendium of facts -- his Watkins Glen Central School District: A History, 1853-2008.
I was looking through it the other day for some information on Bill Davis, who had died in Florida. Davis was a longtime fixture at WGHS --a physical education teacher, a coach, and for more than a decade the Athletic Director in the 1980s and '90s. He was also an outstanding athlete in his youth, excelling in football, basketball and baseball, and a first-year member of the WGHS Athletic Hall of Fame,.
According to O’Donnell’s tome, Davis played baseball for four years at Ithaca College, “signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs and played two seasons of minor league ball.”
While poring through O’Donnell’s pages, I happened upon a separate section he devoted to the early years of the Top Drawer 24 program, which is now in its 16th year. It was, in fact, first called the Brian O’Donnell Top Drawer 24, with O’Donnell playing a key role in each annual ceremony at the State Park until retiring a few years ago.
I’ve got lists of each team compiled in my computer, except for one: the first year. I had remembered a few of those on the squad, but if pressed would not have been able to list them all. But O’Donnell did -- filling in a frustrating hole in my own memory bank. In all, there were 14 students from WGHS and 10 from Odessa-Montour on that first squad.
Those two schools were the only ones from which we selected honorees in the first two years, before Trumansburg and Bradford Central Schools were added to the mix. Later came Spencer-Van Etten and South Seneca, and Chemung County Schools: Elmira High, Notre Dame, Edison, Horseheads and, while it existed, Elmira Christian. Another religion-based school, Twin Tiers Christian Academy, has been on board now for years, while the Corning and Waverly school districts joined the program last year. Bradford dropped out along the way.
So, from two schools we have grown to a dozen. I say we, because I was, along with then-Watkins Glen Athletic Director Craig Cheplick, a co-founder. I’ve sponsored the program all of these years, joined along the way by partner WENY-TV, while Chep has overseen the whole program with incredible help from super executive assistant Kathy Crans.
For the record, those first-year honorees -- feted at a ceremony on May 23, 2006 at the State Park pavilion -- were as follows, along with their grade number:
Top Drawer 24
First Year 2005-06
Molly Murphy 10
Sophie Peters 10
Jaclyn Conklin 10
Jon Fazzary 10
Alan McIlroy 10
Steven Combs 11
John Michael Bianco 11
Michelle Thorpe 12
Courtney Warren 12
Jeff Kellogg 12
Phil Brown 12
Natasha Evans 12
Ashley Evans 12
Molly Oates 12
Katey Cheplick 9
Sherry Benedict 10
Ryan Goossen 11
Matt Thomason 11
Katie Taber 12
Brad Stephens 12
Shannon Westlake 12
Pat Barnes 12
Melissa Shutter 12
Jordan Janke 12
The one freshman, Katey Cheplick, turned out to be the only freshman ever selected. That was entirely my call, in the face of opposition from some committee members who thought her too young. (The rules still specify anyone in grades 9-12 is eligible.) I found her a bit bigger than life, a judgment that I think has been validated by her successful academic and athletic college career and her key role now in the administration of Keuka College.
Anyway, she was one of several students honored more than once by the Top Drawer committee. Others in that first-year list who were honored again (and in some cases again and again) were Sherry Benedict, Ryan Goossen and Matt Thomason at O-M, and Molly Murphy, Sophie Peters, Jaclyn Conklin, Alan McIlroy and John Michael Bianco at WGHS. Other multiple honorees followed in succeeding years, including these students first selected in the program’s second year: Jamie Sedlack and Ellie Fausold at WGHS, and Cassie Fitch, John Blaha, Jesse Johnson and Michele Kenney at O-M.
Other multiple honorees followed, but in diminishing numbers as the program expanded. Until last year, we held the line at 24 honorees. Last year, for a number of reasons that included the addition of Waverly and Corning, and in the face of pandemic challenges, we honored 30 students.
One of our first-year honorees, Katie Taber, after a successful college track career at SUNY Cortland, returned to O-M in an instructional role, and has since joined the Top Drawer 24 committee, a vital cog linking the program’s origins to its present day.
O’Donnell’s history even carries a photo of that first-year team, posed on the lawn fronting the State Park pavilion. That was -- and continues to be -- the chosen spot for the annual group photo, moved one year by adverse weather to the interior of the pavilion, in front of a large fireplace. The only thing marring the first-year photo was my presence, for some reason, kneeling on the left side of the front row.
Without sports this fall, the ability of the Top Drawer 24 committee to assess each member school’s standout students has been hampered. And there is no guarantee that we will see any sports in Section IV this entire school year. But we will be in even greater touch than usual with school administrators and, perhaps, community leaders to help counterbalance that loss of perspective that has accompanied the loss of athletics. After all, academics and citizenship -- in fact character -- play equally significant roles in the selection process.
So anyone with suggestions -- with nominations -- may contact me by email at email@example.com or by snail mail at P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
I would also like to hear from any former Top Drawer 24 honorees who feel like sharing what they have been up to in the intervening years. Where are you? And what are you doing? Married? Kids? Jobs and hobbies? Achievements?
Let me know, and I can pass it along to our readers.
Shades of the Heidi Game
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 8, 2020 -- It was kind of like reading a novel and getting to the last chapter, and it’s not there!
Well, that’s not quite right. The entire chapter is gone except for a paragraph closing out the story on the last page, telling us -- for instance, in Elswyth Thane’s Revolutionary War romance, Dawn’s Early Light -- that Tibby and Julian, star-crossed lovers for hundreds of pages, are kissing ... and much to Tibby’s surprise and delight, are to be married, against what had seemed, when the last chapter ended, to be all odds.
How did that happen?
Or it was like watching a movie, only to have a reel missing, and the final scene comes up -- whereby Reacher in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is moving on to the next town after an adventure involving a wrongly accused female major and a teenager who appeared to be his daughter (or not; we don't know yet); or whereby Rick and Louis are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship in Casablanca after an adventure involving a freedom fighter and a former lover who Rick might or might not help elude the Nazis.
Explanations, please! How did they get from a cliffhanger to a resolution?
In this case, it was a televised sporting event on WETM Saturday night. There I was along with a lot of folks around the Twin Tiers, watching a classic college football showdown between Clemson and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, played at ND’s home field in South Bend, Indiana. The Irish tied the game with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime ... and then the last chapter disappeared.
The WETM News suddenly was upon us, with a youthful cast telling us some of what was going on around our area, and about the weather, and about local sports. But not about Clemson and Notre Dame.
Where the hell did the football go? I yelled at the TV when it became clear that the news was settling in for its usual half-hour stint. But it didn’t answer right away.
I tried calling WETM, which was not a lot of fun, because first it was busy -- four times -- and then when I got through, a voice directed me to the News Department, which didn’t respond until a news director who identified himself as Mark Silberstein answered on tape, providing his cell phone number in case of emergency. I googled him and found he had moved to Texas in August, so he didn’t seem likely to help.
So I called the switchboard again, and directed my call to Sports, and got a standard recorded message from Sports Director Andy Malnoske, who apparently wasn’t even there that night; Chuck Brame, as it turned out, was handling the sports report. I left a message identifying myself, and asking where the football went. Not cool, Andy, I concluded.
Then the weather guy, Austin Evans, finally -- midway through the program -- gave a brief and unsatisfactory explanation.
“We did not make the decision to leave the game,” he said to the camera, adding: “We were caught off-guard.” And that was it.
If not you guys, then who? I’d really like to talk to the person who did decide. You know, so I can understand how these things happen, against all logic and against all theories of customer satisfaction.
Does anybody remember the Heidi Game? Back in 1968, there was a great American Football League game on TV between the Jets and Raiders -- a game in which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute to win 43-32. The problem was that NBC -- which was broadcasting it -- decided to break away from its East Coast coverage to show the movie "Heidi" before those two touchdowns, leaving a whole lot of us without the game’s conclusion, and fuming. That led to a lot of complaints, and to subsequent communication and contractual changes that would prevent such a thing from happening in the future.
But a Heidi-like game was upon us again Saturday night -- at least locally -- this time on the college level. And what a game -- between two unbeaten teams, one ranked No. 1 (Clemson) and the other No. 4 (Notre Dame). And just like a book missing most of the last chapter or a movie missing a reel, it was an investment of time and emotion that left the viewer with ... the local news.
So, aside from calling WETM, what was there to be done? Well, I checked a sports channel for any updates, though the game was not available to watch. That way, I found that Clemson scored first in OT to lead 40-33, and that Notre Dame then tied it, 40-40. And then I lost track ... until, with the WETM news team leaving the air (finally), the football game was suddenly back, a half-hour after it was yanked from our living rooms.
And it was almost over. It was the second-to-last play as Clemson, now down 47-40 -- how did that happen? -- needed 24 yards for a first down to keep the game going. A pass on third down went incomplete. On the next play, a pass was caught, the ball was lateraled, the ball-carrier was tackled ... and the game was over.
And so the Notre Dame crowd rushed the field, and Julian and Tibby kissed, and Rick and Louis wandered off into the fog, and Reacher had his thumb out, hitchhiking until he paused to answer a cell phone in his pocket that he didn’t even know he had. And it was a text from the girl who he thought was his daughter -- or maybe not -- and she had obviously put the phone in his jacket pocket, and now was asking in type: “Miss me yet?”
Yeah, I missed you and a lot more. Like the heart of the best game of the season.
Adding salt to the wound, one of the football announcers intoned this while signing off:
“It’s a night they’ll remember forever in South Bend.”
Yeah, I might.
For all the wrong reasons.
The virus & the motorcycle
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 25, 2020 -- With the coronavirus running rampant, I haven’t felt this helpless -- this vulnerable -- since Vicki Smith dumped me for a guy with a motorcycle back in high school.
Lovely Vicki. My first real girlfriend. Time with her was like a dream.
Everything seemed fine ... until it wasn't.
How does that relate to the pandemic? Well ... no matter what I think about doing today or tomorrow, I will feel ... well ... neutered (as in "deprived of vigor or force") by Covid -- while keeping my guard up, fully aware that there have been so many people going along, healthy and fine ... until they weren't.
Although a journalist, I have to think twice about attending meetings I am covering as news events; there’s no telling when, for example, a teacher or student at a School Board meeting might test positive, sending me and everybody else at the meeting into quarantine.
I even had to give extra thought to a lunch with the two area school superintendents, down at the Harbor Hotel. Say what you will about supers (and I’ve no gripe with these two), but I’ve never before feared picking up an errant germ from them.
Shopping? Yeah, that’s another problem -- enough to set my teeth jangling.
But I’m not alone. The powers that be -- in this case Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, SCOPED Executive Director Judy McKinney Cherry, Schuyler Public Health Director Deb Minor and Schuyler Hospital President Rebecca Gould -- held forth with a Zoom session Thursday on the burgeoning Covid-19 infections occurring here.
More than 80 folks joined the session -- mostly business owners looking for some guidance in such an unsettling time.
The message was cautionary; extremely so, with the warning that Schuyler County, if the numbers keep rising, could end up with the same kind of restrictions visited earlier in the week upon Steuben and Chemung counties.
There are three color-coded state designations you don’t want to be tagged with: yellow, orange and red, in ascending order. The latter two -- when cases rise above a certain threshold, trigger all sorts of things, such as schools going entirely remote.
“It’s a pretty pivotal time for us here in Schuyler County,” said Cherry at the outset of the meeting. The situation is “serious,” she said, and although the county has been pretty fortunate with a low number of infections until the past month, “now is the time we have to double down” with the efforts that had provided us with those early low numbers: social distancing, masks, washing hands, and disinfecting..
“We cannot afford to become a hot spot,” she said.
Minor recounted the recent trend upward in infections, which reached 99 total on that day. Seventy-two of those people had thus far recovered.
“The vast majority of positives are linked to social gatherings,” she said: such things as parties outside the home, and church services. “People are starting to let their guard down.”
That 99 total, Gould pointed out, was probably low, since there are undoubtedly asymptomatic cases out there that haven’t been discovered or recorded.
One thing that should be attended to by local businesses, said Cherry, is an affirmation with the state attesting to an intent to follow state guidelines. Of 364 businesses in the county with employees, she said, only 147 have filed that paperwork. Among the benefits of an affirmation, she said, is liability protection.
The overall “goal here,” said O’Hearn, “is to avoid a cluster designation” of yellow, orange or red. While the majority of people and businesses are following the rules, he added, “some are not. And now we are seeing the results of careless behavior.”
He said any Executive Order from Governor Andrew Cuomo “is the law. We need 100 percent compliance to change the trajectory of this disease.” Wearing a face mask “is recognized as the greatest deterrent.”
Said Cherry in conclusion: “The collaborative nature of this has made us successful. If we take it up a notch, no business will have to close.”
Then, the next day, the upward trend continued. There were five new cases, and Schuyler County's total since the start of the pandemic topped 100, reaching 104.
Yes, it’s all enough to make me think twice before going to a meeting or the store.
It’s enough to make me think twice before joining superintendents for lunch ... or lunch with anyone, for that matter.
It’s enough to make me think twice before going anywhere.
And yes, it’s enough to remind me of Vicki Smith, riding on that damn motorcycle.
Our heroes matter ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 14, 2020 -- Not long ago, on Aug. 31, Tom Seaver. died. Then, on Sept. 6, Lou Brock did. And then, in the first two weeks of this month, we lost Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan.
These were all baseball Hall of Famers, each of them an integral part of my formative years.
I loved baseball when I was younger; still do, though not to the same point. Back when I was a kid, I knew about all of the players, and the key statistics of the better of them.
I was a Detroit Tigers fan growing up, living as I did just 20 miles north of that city. (An early hero was Al Kaline, who passed away in April.) After I emigrated to Upstate New York after college, I turned to the New York Yankees for emotional sustenance.
But it didn’t matter for whom I rooted; I always admired the best, among them Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford and Morgan.
Ford was the earliest player of the five, and at 91 the oldest of them to pass away. He was amazing throughout the 1950s and up to the mid '60s. Gibson came along in 1959, Brock in 1961, Morgan in 1963 and Seaver in 1967.
I remember seeing all five of them in person -- all but Ford at one Hall of Fame weekend or another. Morgan stands out among those Hall memories. I specifically remember observing him in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel, where the Famers stayed when in Cooperstown each summer to celebrate new inductees and bask in some glory themselves.
I had secured credentials from a friend, and was seated on a sofa in the Otesaga lobby next to renowned slugger Johnny Mize, chatting a little with him but mostly watching the various other famous men milling about. Morgan moved around effortlessly, engaging the others, a smile on his face, clearly enjoying the weekend and, by extension, the fact that he was among his game’s elite. He was a natural at networking, and everyone there seemed to love him.
As for Ford. I might have seen him when he pitched against the Tigers in Detroit, but I saw a lot of games at Tiger Stadium, and only specific moments -- generally Tiger highlights -- stand out.
What I remember clearly, though, is this: I saw him years later at a baseball card show up near Niagara Falls, where he was present to sign autographs -- for a fee, of course, which became a source of income for retired ballplayers when the trading card market heated up in the 1980s. They had missed out on big salaries back in the '50s and '60s, mega-contracts not gaining a foothold until the '70s.
I actually caught Ford’s attention momentarily that day. I had gone to the show to sell cards to dealers set up there. Dealers normally like that, buying cards below market value from show visitors, but one such dealer took a dislike to me. Whether it was my face or the fact that I arrived probably with as many cards as he had (I was lugging them around on a cart) I can’t say. (Such a maneuver -- peddling a cart full of cards -- was something I had never seen done before, but it had worked for me at several shows around the state.)
Anyway, I thought it a fair practice, not to mention effective, but that one dealer complained to the show organizer, who accordingly asked me to leave. Out in the parking lot, I was venting at this injustice as I loaded my remaining merchandise into my vehicle, not far from the show-building entryway.
As I vented, I looked up toward that doorway and there was Whitey Ford. He had just stepped out --for what reason I don’t know; maybe just to get some air -- and he was looking in my direction, where my invectives were flying about. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I was stunned into silence.
I can’t be sure, but I think he smiled and shook his head before turning and walking away, around a corner of the building.
I felt a bit like an idiot, letting my emotions out like that in front of one of my childhood heroes. It wasn’t my finest moment, and one that has stayed with me over the years.
Call it one of my life’s regrets -- a small one among many.
Anyway, it came back to me in detail when I heard of Whitey’s passing.
But that interaction aside, I am left with memories, and gratitude, that I was able to watch on television how he and Gibson, Brock, Morgan and Seaver performed on the playing field time and time again, year after year -- serving as sterling examples for a young man navigating life with far less skill and success than they possessed.
I was able to draw inspiration, and hope, from their performances, and an appreciation of what we, as human beings, might achieve if we aspire and persevere.
Heroes matter. The lessons they impart through their heroics matter.
Those five gentlemen mattered.
A rocky ride ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 2, 2020 -- I was sitting across the room from my TV just before 1 a.m. Friday, not paying attention to the news it was broadcasting, instead watching a Monk episode on my computer -- from a disc, part of that popular series’ complete run.
Then something from the TV caught my attention despite the headphones I had donned that drowned out the news report -- maybe it was a single word, maybe two; but I leaned back and looked around a printer that had blocked my view of the TV, and saw the ribbon at the bottom of the screen.
It said that the President and First Lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Holy s--t,” I said, and ripped off the headphones, and stood, and edged away from the computer and soon found myself standing in front of the television, my mouth (I suspect) agape.
I stood there, watching and listening, absorbing. And trying to organize the thoughts bouncing around in my head like a pinball.
Make no mistake; I’m no fan of President Donald J. Trump, although I rather like his wife. But this really had little to do with any of that. Politics tend to fall by the wayside when something so stunning confronts us.
As Dr. Vin Gupta was saying on MSNBC: “This has nothing to do with what we feel about the man’s performance in office.” It has to do with so much more.
Being a history major in my college days and a longtime student of the presidency -- it is an office I have long revered, if not all of the people who have occupied it -- I didn’t have to be told the import, or at least the potential import, of this development.
More than 7 million people have tested positive for Covid-19 in this country, and more than 208,000 of them have died. Many of them have fallen into the high-risk group of 65 years and above, often exacerbated by obesity. The President is 74, and he is a large man, wearing extra weight on his tall frame. And now he and the First Lady have become part of the statistic of infections.
The effects of this are mind-boggingly extensive.
“It’s almost unfathomable,” said one reporter, Jonathan Lemaire, during special early morning (1:30 a.m. coverage) on MSNBC. “It upends everything the President has said about the pandemic,” which Mr. Trump admittedly downplayed as it developed and gained a head of steam.
“What is next?” Lemaire asked. If the President falls ill (he and his wife were reportedly asymptomatic after testing positive), the reporter asked, how will that play out in terms of leadership here and relationships abroad? If he and his wife remain essentially without symptoms, will he again downplay the severity of the illness? Or, asked another talking head later in the coverage, will the President become an advocate for safe practices?
Beyond that, what about all of the President's contacts, including on a stage Tuesday night with Presidential candidate Joe Biden? They were spewing invective from a short distance -- maybe 12 or 15 feet apart -- for 90 minutes. Was the President a carrier at that point? Will Biden and his wife be tested? Yeah, almost certainly.
What about the people who traveled the past few days on Air Force One? They will all have to be tested. And what about the people the President and his entourage encountered on the road? There was a rally in Minnesota, and a fund-raising dinner elsewhere.
At 2 a.m., Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor, handed the news report over to Ali Velshi, a mainstay on that cable news network. This was going to be covered all night and through the next day. That’s what happens when something historic and potentially devastating happens.
We are barely a month from election day, which makes this even more complex. What happens to the campaigning that was gaining steam? What happens to the remaining Presidential debates? And what about the Vice Presidential debate set for next week? Was Vice President Mike Pence anywhere near the President in recent days? And considering the possibility of Mr. Biden having been exposed, was Democratic V.P. candidate Kamala Harris anywhere near him in the past day or two?
Pence issued a statement at about 2:10 a.m., pretty standard stuff, directed toward the First Couple. Love and prayers for their swift recovery. There was no indication whether Pence or his wife had been tested.
And another politician weighing in was a Democratic Congressman, Eric Swalwell. “This is a national security crisis,” he intoned. Perhaps. A national security threat, in any event.
One thing for sure: The phone lines in D.C. were burning up. Every news reporter who had any steam left at 2 a.m. was waking whoever they could think of. There were going to be a lot of sleep-deprived people the next day.
Reporter Lemaire weighed back in with this thought: What about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who met recently with the President, and who in turn met with a lot of Senators?
And what about the other people with whom the President had contact the past couple of days? One of them, Hope Hicks, a confidante of the President, tested positive, something known Wednesday night. Her infection -- the origin of which is open to question -- was the first one announced Thursday night. Then came word that the President and First Lady were being tested.
Then came speculation. Then came confirmation. Covid-19.
Said one doctor on TV: Hicks could have been a super spreader. "The network of people who will need to be tested is vast. There is no end to the problems here."
“We have,” said Lemaire, “stepped into the unknown.”
“The whole world is watching,” added MSNBC’s Williams before handing off the anchor desk to Velshi.
Among the watchers: the Dow Futures, down 500 points almost immediately.
Yes, this is likely to be a rocky ride.
Updates late Friday morning:
--Both Vice President Pence and his wife tested negative, with further checks to come, just to be sure.
--Supreme Court nomineee Amy Coney Barrett tested negative.
--The Dow Futures rebounded to the 300-400 range by dawn, and as of 10:55 a.m. the market
was down 221 points.
--The chair of the Republican
National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, has tested positive.
--The President is experiencing "mild symptoms" of Covid-19, it was announced.
Swirling autumn winds ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 28, 2020 -- Autumn has arrived, not just on the calendar, but in the leaves falling, swirling in the winds off the lake and bouncing along the lawns beneath shade trees.
The temperatures have been sinking notably at night, then warming in fits and starts -- as if holding desperately to a lifeline in a steadily growing current. We have accordingly been provided with some of the crispest, clearest weather this year after a sweltering summer.
Those leaves flying about are symbolic, I think, of the world we inhabit. We are the leaves, and events on the local, national and international stage are the wind.
Batten down the hatches, folks, because the winds will likely be picking up. But they won't be the worst of it. If we pay attention to all of the nonsense and self-serving maneuvers coming out of Washington, D.C., if the spread of the coronavirus intensifies, and if we allow depression to take hold, I fear we’ll feel as though the winds have reversed themselves, forming whirlpools that grab us and suck us down into a dark and menacing rabbit hole.
We’ll feel the pull of it every time another number is added to the list of coronavirus-infected individuals in our area; every time another 10,000 deaths are recorded nationally; every time an area student tests positive, sending school administrators into hyper mode, figuring out the best way to handle that which seems beyond handling.
I’ve observed from a distance as the school administrators and School Boards have grappled with the mercurial beast known as Covid-19. I’ve admired the determined path taken in one district while, along with other people, I've tut-tutted the vacillation in another. I’ve admired the “speak with one voice” philosophy of one district while puzzling over the “speak with a dozen or more” in another.
And we’re barely weeks into the school year -- one without any sports to occupy the student-athletes and their fans. That should simplify matters from a health standpoint, but there are so many other variables at play: state aid, quarantines, contact tracing, masks, social distancing, student dismay, teacher fatigue and an overriding, never-ending concern that the other shoe -- the one that could prompt a conversion to remote learning for everyone -- might drop at any moment.
The stress level for, say, superintendents, has got to be high, and with it the enervation that accompanies a thankless task. I wouldn’t relish being a School Board member, either, though Odessa-Montour, by virtue of its continued Zoom meetings and its seemingly simplified approach -- five days in school each week, with nobody but the superintendent speaking for the district, unless the School Board president weighs in -- tends to address its evolving issues efficiently. There’s something about the Watkins Glen approach -- public meetings with open and earnest debate among a Board that has obvious differences -- that tends to roil the waters.
And yet, you might argue, either approach is representative of the people, by people who are just trying to do their best. The public, and history, will be left to judge the capabilities and successes or failures therein.
And amid all of this aggravation and insecurity, one thing that has become a tradition -- the Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens selected by a committee each year for the past 15 -- will continue with a 16th year.
Yes, things will be different. If we lack sports and concerts and plays, we have other options -- among them an expansion into the world of home-schoolers. That is an as-yet untapped resource for the Top Drawer committee. Beyond that, there is the possibility of expanding regionally.
When the program began, it included just students from Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen, but has grown to incorporate a dozen schools. Last year participating schools included O-M, Watkins, South Seneca, Trumansburg, Twin Tiers Christian, Spencer-Van Etten, Thomas A. Edison, Elmira Notre Dame, Elmira, Horseheads, Corning and Waverly.
Program co-founder and chair Craig Cheplick says he’s looking at possibly including other districts -- maybe even branching down into Pennsylvania. Since we broke the number barrier of 24 by selecting 30 kids last year (the Big Ten has 14 schools, so such a misnomer has precedence), we might well do that again, maybe going numerically higher.
The program, which I co-founded with Chep and which is co-sponsored by this website and by WENY-TV, might look a little different this time around, but desperate times call for creative measures.
Anyone with any suggestions as to worthy honorees, feel free to email this website through a click-on link at the bottom of any page. The past was mere prologue. We want to have more fun with this event than usual, and I think we will.
Coach D ends his career ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 17, 2020 -- I see that Mike D'Aloisio has retired from coaching.
Mike has been something of a legend at Elmira Notre Dame, winning 12 Section IV Championships, four regional titles, and one Intersectional one while coaching various sports: football, girls and boys basketball, and golf. Recently he headed up the school’s 8-man football team, leading it to a sectional title two years ago.
His career at ND dated back to 1977, and he took over the reins of the football team in 1981.
I remember him back in the '80s, and in fact covered him for a few years -- from 1984 or so to 1988 when I worked in the Elmira Star-Gazette Sports Department, the last portion of that period as Sports Editor.
I've always admired the guy, from back then to now -- and in fact I was pleased to be part of the mechanism, part of the Top Drawer 24 committee, that honored him in 2016 with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was, four years before that, inducted into the Section IV Hall of Fame.
He graced me with a copy of a book he wrote about his experience knowing and coaching Joel Stephens, a standout multi-sport athlete at Notre Dame who went on to begin a professional baseball career before dying of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 22. The book is titled "5C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story," released in 2009. The title refers to the Christianity, Courage, Compassion, Character and Commitment that marked Stephens' life.
My admiration of D'Aloisio long preceded the Stephens years. It dated back to those early years on the football field, and was cemented by one experience, which I related to Mike when we were honoring him with that Lifetime award, but which he didn’t seem to remember. I imagine it was just one incident of many in a busy day in the midst of a busy football season.
It was either in 1986 or 1987, while I worked at the Star-Gazette. We had with us at the time a reporter who wrote about the poor condition of the Notre Dame athletic field, a story that so enraged an official at the school that he called the newspaper demanding a retraction -- which was not forthcoming, since the field condition was, in fact, poor. Failing in his demand, the official (a superior of D'Aloisio's) threatened to have the reporter arrested the next time he set foot on the ND campus -- a hollow warning, this not being a banana republic.
Nonetheless, the reporter was frantic, especially when I assigned him to cover the next Notre Dame home football game. He pleaded with me, saying: "But they’ll arrest me!"
To which I replied. "If they do, it will make for a great story."
The reporter protested, but ended up going, and as soon as he arrived on the football field, he approached Coach D'Aloisio on the sideline, and explained that he was fearful that he might not be able to cover the entire game, since arrest appeared to him as a distinct and imminent possibility.
"Just stand next to me," D'Aloisio told him. "You’ll be fine. Nothing will happen to you."
And the reporter stuck close to the coach, and nothing in fact did happen. The school official in question had, as I knew, simply been blowing off steam.
"I did that?" D'Aloisio asked when I related the story to him, some 30 years after it had occurred.
"You did," I said.
He simply smiled, and nodded his head. He knew it was something he likely had done -- an act with trademark D'Aloisio qualities, an act I deemed both wise and welcoming.
Now ... well, now he has reached retirement. I find that both depressing -- for it is something I personally do not look forward to -- and yet celebratory, for few people have graced the playing fields of the Southern Tier with as much class as has Mike D'Aloisio.
So here’s to you, Mike. I wish you well in your retirement, and in life.
We'll miss your on-field expertise and empathy. But your impact will long remain.
Ah, yes: retirement. It beckons to those of us fortunate enough to live that long. I haven't had the urge to hang up my spurs, but if I came into a substantial enough amount of money, I'd be buying a certain property up on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, and setting up shop there. The place I have in mind is a bed-and-breakfast with 7,800 square feet and a lot of rooms. I’d throw it open to my friends for free -- again, if I had the money to do so.
Of course, I don't have such resources, especially now, with the pandemic hitting me as it has hit most businesses, putting a dent in my advertising income, which is the primary way I keep this ship afloat. Related to that plight, I was considering possible alternative ways to generate income when I got to thinking the other day about Soupy Sales, an entertainer I grew up watching on TV, and the New Year’s Day 1965 prank that got him suspended for a couple of weeks.
Miffed that he had to work on that holiday, he urged his young viewers to gather those "funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents" from their sleeping parents' pockets and purses, and then "put them in an envelope and mail them to me." He actually received quite a bit of money (although some of it was play money) that he said he would donate to charity. That didn’t pacify the victimized parents, who wanted his scalp, and they got it for those two weeks before he was back with more of his entertaining nonsense. (His trademark was a pie in his face.)
No, I'm not advocating that my young readers do what those kids did for Soupy. But I thought then, and I think now, that it was a classically funny, if ethically flawed, flight of Soupy's imagination.
Besides, it was from my childhood, which I tend to view with great warmth. The good old days, you know?
Photos in text: Mike D'Aloisio (top) and Soupy Sales.
In the valley of uncertainty
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 7, 2020 -- That silence you hear is all of us holding our collective breath.
School is coming at us fast, and with it a return to the classrooms. It is normally a time of hope and expectation. Now it is a time of trepidation ... of worry.
Two weeks after the start of school, athletics are scheduled to start -- at least practices in soccer, swimming and cross country. Football was pretty much put on hold by the state, and then jettisoned by our local school districts, Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour.
The question, I imagine, on the minds of a number of school administrators is whether we will even make that two-week mark, Sept. 21, without a mishap along the way in the form of a spike in coronavirus infections.
Nobody seems quite sure how that might be handled, fraught as it is with uncertainties and so many variables, from severity to extent. Plans are in place, to be sure, but life has a funny way of throwing curves; of failing to cooperate.
Therein lies the collective breath-holding.
If everything goes well, from the standpoint of health, the situation is still burdened -- by the need for social distancing; by the seeming incongruity between rules for gym class (12 feet distant) versus those for, say, soccer (no such distancing, from what I can tell); by the stresses on teachers to educate not just those on hand in the classroom, but those at home, as well; and by inevitable confusion and conflict among administrators, teachers, students, staff and parents as previously unimaginable problems surface. And they will, and with them frustration.
Then there’s the fiscal aspect -- with the state waiting (and waiting) for the federal government to bail it out, and the school districts hoping it happens sooner rather than later, so that 20% of the promised state aid does not get withheld monthly (as has already begun). Without that money, all sorts of problems ensue -- as evidenced already by the Watkins Glen School District trimming $710,000 from its budget out of a possible shortfall of $2.9 million for the year. Odessa-Montour also faces a sizable state-aid deficit -- of about $2 million.
Where can that loss of funds be counterbalanced? Well, there’s always sports as a go-to budget cut. Football was already axed. Will others follow?
The kids are anxious to get back to some sense of what used to be normal. O-M has them coming back to the classroom five days a week (more than 600 of the 700-plus students opted for in-person education), while Watkins Glen decided, after some vacillation, to split the student body in two, with Group A attending Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are all-remote.
School starts this week, with that first group at Watkins attending classes on Tuesday, and after a couple of conference days off, the second group attending on Friday. Odessa-Montour begins Thursday, the 10th. I would prefer to see both districts all in with five days of in-person instruction, but that’s merely a preference, and not a judgment. Either system could prove a success or a failure. Only time and the virus will tell.
I’m crossing my fingers on the sports. Anybody who knows me knows I love sports, and in particular high school sports.
I really need a fix. I would love to see the WGHS girls swim team in action again. There are a lot of impressive competitors on that three-time Section IV, Class C championship squad. The team boasts names like Amanda Wilbur, Faye Mooney, Thalia Marquez, Malina Butler and Alannah Klemann. Wilbur, Mooney and Marquez, along with recently graduated Peighton Cervoni, were this website’s WGHS Female Athletes of the Year last year.
And the O-M girls soccer squad has a lot of returning talent -- talented players like Hannah Nolan (the team’s leading goal scorer last year), Tori Brewster and, on defense, Camille Sgrecci. Missing thanks to graduation: last year's O-M Female Athlete of the Year, goalkeeper Grace Vondracek. The WGHS boys soccer team, meanwhile, had a solid season last year, so it will be interesting to see how well it fares without top goal scorer Isaac McIlroy, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year in 2019-20 who is now in college.
The WGHS boys cross country team is coming off another Section IV championship year, but looks ahead to a season without the graduated Gabe Planty, an Odessa File Co-Athlete of the Year who moved on to Syracuse University and its running program.
In sum ...
I would like to say I have some answers, but all I have are opinions that change like the wind -- with every whim coming from the state government, and with every alteration adopted on the fly by the school districts.
It is a confusing time -- and one challenging to all of us not only from physical and fiscal perspectives, but in a spiritual vein, as well. There are days when we are ready to flex our independence and say to hell with Covid-19, but of course that is a very risky proposition, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on a local pub where two cases popped up and might spread from there.
It is a time when our faith in so many things is being tested:
Faith in our system of government; in our leaders.
Faith in our economy, and the value of a dollar.
Faith in our health-care system, and whether it is being supported sufficiently by a federal government that seems reluctant to do so.
Faith in our neighbors, in particular those who ignore the need of a face mask.
Faith in ourselves as impatience overtakes us and fear rears its head.
Faith in the future.
And faith, for those of us so disposed, in God.
With 190,000 dead and increasing at an alarming rate, one wonders what it’s all about ... what God was thinking at creation, and what He or She is thinking now.
That last I find a compelling thought, and my answer is simple:
Darned if I know.
And to add to the depression that periodically washes over me these days, Tom Seaver and Lou Brock, two baseball Hall of Famers admired by any sports fan, died within a week of one another: Seaver on Aug. 31, and Brock on Sept. 6.
Anyone who has followed baseball over the years knows their accomplishments, so I won’t recite them here. What always impressed me about the two men was not just their achievements on the field, but their attitudes as they climbed those heights.
Seaver was outgoing, fun-loving, considerate. Brock was quiet, self-effacing, efficient. Both were highly regarded on and off the field, and thus longtime ambassadors for the game.
They were also on my list of heroes. Most of mine are sport figures. A couple of politicians are on there, too -- but certainly none from the present.
To Tom and Lou:
Requiescat in pace, gentlemen.
Ghosts of journalism past ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 31, 2020 -- Garth Wade was from a journalistic era that is now but a memory -- back when the Elmira Star-Gazette hummed with activity, fueled by the energies of its talented and dedicated roster of reporters.
If you walked in the building back then, the first floor was full of business and advertising and circulation workers during the day -- the accounting and bookkeeping heart of the operation.
If you went upstairs, you emerged from the stairwell into the newsroom, a hive of worker bees, more during the day than at night, but a busy place for about 18 hours out of every 24. The hum was punctuated by cries of frustration or the banging of phone receivers or an instruction called across the room by editor to reporter.
There were dozens of desks, starting with the copy-desk area run by a News Editor, who was surrounded by a City Editor and Regional Editor and just plain copy editors. Heading south across the room, there were rows of reporters’ desks, left and right, and then a gathering of more desks at the far wall, where the Sports Department held forth.
Around the corner of the L-shaped room was the Features Department -- with several more reporters working on what was considered “light” news -- which is to say stories that had little to do with the workings of government or education or the courts, and more to do with the workings and lives of everyday people.
Beyond that area was the morgue -- the term used for the library, where clippings of past stories were kept alphabetized, and past issues could be viewed on a microfiche machine. Along the hall and down a back stairway was the route to the mailroom, where papers were bundled for distribution after coming off the press, which was a mammoth machine in a partially subterranean enclosure adjacent to all that bundling.
That was my favorite place in the whole building -- the pressroom, late at night, when my work as an editor was done and I could unwind to the rolling thunder that emanated from that machine. I could sit in a corner of the room, on a stool, and take in the sound, with the knowledge that my work was part of what was passing along those rollers, was part of the paper being printed and cut and shipped out to the readers.
It was the strictly aural equivalent of standing near a fireworks display -- disorienting and yet soothing, providing a re-ordering of my soul after it had been sorely tested by the bane of my existence: the deadlines that came with editing a newspaper’s stories and pages.
Garth Wade was among the reporters in that busy newsroom, a place quieter by several degrees than the pressroom but nonetheless both energizing and yet enervating -- a twin reaction to the distractions that dozens of allies generate when facing the challenges of time and space and bosses waiting to critique both your work and your timeliness. Mishandled syntax and misspellings were one thing; missed deadlines were considerably more serious. “Time is money,” one of my bosses stressed.
Garth was very economical with his time. He was usually out gathering the news, then made his entrance into the newsroom with a loose gait and greetings to his fellow workers, calling out to the editors, telling them what story he had researched through interview or observation, and was soon to write. And write it he did quickly -- speed being a valued commodity in any newsroom, but all the more remarkable for his, and the story’s, accuracy and engaging nature. Garth Wade knew how to write a compelling story -- reflective of his personality.
His outgoing nature was a holdover from his experience working in the personality driven world of radio that preceded his print experiences. He seemed almost brash, except for a counterbalancing native reticence. He was quick to deduce and express, but never with animosity. He struck me as about the most clear-eyed reporter -- and for that matter clear-eyed man -- I’d ever met: direct, assured, and with a writing style that said Read Me. His were qualities I found both engaging and intimidating, I being neither outgoing nor particularly clear-eyed. Every day seemed to me a struggle to make sense of life; to bring order to chaos.
Garth was old school, fitting in beautifully with a cast of characters like Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- longtime journalists who made their marks across decades, who loved the pursuit of stories and the satisfaction of informing the readers what was going on in their community.
When I hooked on with the Star-Gazette in 1980, they were all there, although O’Hara -- a highly regarded government reporter -- passed away suddenly not long afterward. Mallette, a longtime Sports Editor, retired in 1985, while Gallagher lasted beyond my tenure, until 1990. I left in 1988.
Garth Wade was there when I arrived, and was producing stories long after I left. He became a school bus driver in later years, and our paths crossed infrequently -- until I was invited a couple of dozen months ago to join a periodic gathering of former Star-Gazette employees, including Garth, in the cafe at Wegmans, not far up the road from the building where we all once worked, but which was vacated by its journalism practitioners years ago.
Oh, the paper still exists, more or less -- with a handful of workers in a small building a block or two away from the Star-Gazette headquarters on Baldwin Street, which stands across the street from M&M Red Hots. All that remains of the journalism that held forth in that old building for decades -- an operation once held high as the First Gannett Newspaper -- are the echoes of ghosts.
The ghosts of the late Jimmy O’Hara and Peg Gallagher and Al Mallette -- all gone now -- and of Garth Wade, who joined them Thursday.
And, I suppose, the ghosts, or slender memories, of me and those Star-Gazette alums who gathered at Wegmans.
It was a delight to reconnect with Garth and the rest of that reunion group, although clearly age had taken its toll on him. He looked worn, but he still had that ready, trademark smile. He didn’t seem as brash as when he was working the stories and channeling the words through a typewriter and, later, through a computer. He seemed honestly pleased to be part of a gathering of people who had populated part of his past, to be back among friends.
He seemed particularly tickled that one of us -- which is to say I -- was still involved in journalism so many years later. The fact that I was, I told him, was a matter of luck -- that after several years away from the game I rejoined it for a couple of years in the late ‘90s at the Corning Leader, and then after another break tried my hand at a news website that somehow caught on.
Yes, those Wegmans gatherings were something I looked forward to -- meeting with Garth and the meetings' organizer, Brian Pappalardo, and with Ray Finger, Ed Bond, Peg Ridosh, Bob Jamieson, Salle Richards and (before he moved West) Roger Neumann.
We had all aged significantly (thirty years will do that to you), but the conversations on current events and remembrances of co-workers past (“Hey, do you recall that young photographer who forgot to put film in her camera for that All-Twin Tiers Football Team shoot?”), along with explanations of what we were now doing, was a tonic to retired (and just tired) souls.
And then the pandemic hit, and the reunions stopped, and the shared remembrances ended, and then ... then Garth Wade died.
When I heard he had, I wasn’t terribly surprised, for I knew -- had been told through the grapevine -- that he was struggling.
But damn, it knocked the wind out anyway, and left me feeling weighted down for a full day and more. Depression, and loss, can do that to you.
And it left me thinking about the man we had just lost, about how he would breeze into the newsroom with a story, about the wide smile and sudden laugh, about the talent he brought to the news, especially in feature pieces about regular folks. He could identify with anyone, and they would open up to him, and the result was always a story that sang.
Yes, his passing leaves a void in the here and now, but as long as I draw breath, he is very much alive in my memory.
God bless you, Garth. You were unique, and like your fellow ghosts of journalism's heyday, you were both a treasure and a measure of excellence that community news outlets in our region and across the nation can only hope to emulate.
Photo in text: Garth Wade (Photo provided)
Nerves are rubbed raw ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 23, 2020 -- This might not be a time (as Thomas Paine penned) that "tries men’s souls" -- at least not the souls of most of us. But it certainly is trying our patience.
Consider school officials, including those in the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour districts.
Front and center among their frustrations is the need to pretzel themselves, their staffs and their planning in an attempt to meet constantly shifting state requirements -- all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of you might have heard of a man who went ballistic at the second of three presentations for parents by Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan this past week. The presentation emanated from the school auditorium (with a few district residents present) and streamed on Zoom for the convenience of those viewing from home. The three presentations were mandated by Governor Andrew Cuomo so that parents could better understand what awaits their children in education this year.
The angry man, whose invective lasted for well over a half-minute, was one of a relative handful of auditorium attendees. The parent of a student at the school, he took exception to the rule-making the district has undertaken to meet state standard in a situation where the coronavirus could pop up at any time.
While Kelahan said it was difficult to understand much of what the man was yelling -- although “Marxist” and “Socialist” were discernible early in the tirade -- he said the outburst was evidently triggered by the school mandate that any student refusing to wear a mask would not be allowed to attend school in person. He or she would become a remote learner.
“He’s one of our very concerned parents,” Kelahan said the next day, rather diplomatically. As for the mask mandate, he said the rule doesn’t insist on mask wearing in class. Once seated, and with the teacher’s approval (which Kelahan said he would strongly encourage), the kids can take the darned things off.
The man’s reaction, while extreme perhaps, is not unique.
“Across the country,” Kelahan said, it’s a common perception that “government agencies are overstepping their control.” At Watkins Glen, though, “it’s imperative that we maintain safety standards to protect students and staff. We have safety standards all the time, such as against running in the halls or shoving in the halls." And when the district says no firearms are permitted, that’s obvious, "but what they all have in common is a safety component.”
Face masks, of course, have become politicized, with encouragement from the man in the White House.
“People are latching onto masks as the great divide,” said Kelahan, adding: “People have a right to have feelings." The angry Watkins parent “was expressing himself. Being an Irishman, my emotions are often out there, too.”
The man ended up departing of his own volition after the outburst, “talking as he left,” said the superintendent.
Of course, that was just a sliver in time. The frustrations we are all feeling go far beyond a mask mandate. They go to the heart of our personal darkness: the depression brought on by sustained removal from societal interaction. So yes, I sympathize with the parents who are starting to lose control, just as I empathize with the students who are facing such an uncertain short-term, and perhaps long-term, future.
When I was a kid, it was 2+2=4. But in today’s upside down and inside out daily conundrum, it seems that 2+2=2 in the Watkins Glen school district. As in: two days of in-person schooling at the beginning of the week, and two days at the end of the week, but no student in school more than two days in any week.
That’s the scheduling plan at Watkins Glen -- 2+2, where half the students (the Blue group) will go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half (the Maroon group) will attend classes on Thursdays and Fridays. The plan was adopted by the Watkins School Board after it first embraced a hybrid attendance plan that had envisioned elementary students in school full time, and the older students attending on alternating days. It also followed a flirtation with an alternate schedule, which posited one group of students (Blue) in school three days one week and two the next, with a second group (Maroon) in school two days a week and then three the next. A third group (Silver) constitutes those students opting for remote learning.
The School Board seemed to be leaning toward the 3/2, 2/3 schedule at its last meeting, but in the words of one board member, “we left it to the discretion of the teachers.” According to Superintendent Kelahan, teacher representatives contacted preferred the 2+2 plan, wherby no students attend in person on Wednesdays.
In talking to two board members after the fact, I asked if they were getting “beaten up” by the public for their decision to go with the 2+2 plan, and they said no. When I pointed out that some people were obviously comparing their plan to the one at Odessa-Montour, where school is being offered five days a week, in person -- and where at least 610 of the 770 students have opted for in-person instruction -- the response of the two board members was immediate.
“Different district,” said one.
“Different people,” said the other, noting that Watkins district residents “just want us to settle on a plan.”
Meanwhile, good news from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced new laws expanding the limited allowable reasons for submitting an absentee ballot to include as a reason a fear of Covid-19. In other words, a fear of voting in person, among possibly infected people.
That in effect opens mail-in voting to the masses, which will likely increase voter participation -- always a good thing. Up until now, New York was one of a handful of states that didn’t permit mass mail-ins.
And on the down side, Superintendent Kelahan mentioned in his final presentation to parents Thursday night that signals from Albany indicate the district -- all districts in the state -- could well be facing a takeback, a reduction, in state aid. Kelahan said after his presentation that the takeback could be 20%, which would mean significant cuts “in programs and people.”
He and O-M Superintendent Chris Wood have been fearing this right along. It would not only impose a large financial hit, but force a realignment of their educational plans. Athletics -- even if permitted this year -- would be among the first casualties.
It all seems to hinge on Congress and its ability to reach an agreement on a bill that would provide relief to states. With Congress deadlocked -- and in any event taking an awful lot of breaks from its duties during such a critical summer -- it’s anybody’s guess whether our representatives will finally do the right thing and bail out the states.
It seems like a massive game of chicken: Republicans vs. Democrats, the Feds versus the States, and essential workers like firefighters, police and teachers with their professional heads on the chopping block.
Gad. What a time in which we live.
Photo in text: Watkins Glen School Superintendent Greg Kelahan in the high school auditorium during his final presentation to parents.
The anti-postal polka ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 14, 2020 -- You might call it “going anti-postal” -- a less violent term than its progenitor, but a nonetheless threatening one.
It’s what the Trump administration is doing with the Postal Service, denying it needed funding in an evident attempt to reduce mail-in voting in the Nov. 3 election. That’s got the attention of a lot of folks right now and is garnering a lot of ink.
But before that maneuver, a tandem move to slow the delivery of mail was instituted. It has to do with the new Postmaster -- a crony of (and large contributor to) Donald Trump named Louis DeJoy. He’s taken measures that have slowed the delivery of mail significantly, raising howls of protest from some in Congress, and the ire of common folks, like me. It is, quite simply, affecting a lot of people, and they’re none too pleased. Little wonder DeJoy is being called Delay.
I don't usually weigh in on national issues -- but this one is becoming personal for all of us.
For instance, I received an invoice on Aug. 13 for a couple of items I won in an online auction. The company that sent it provides such payment reminders as a matter of course, and such invoices normally arrive within two or three days from Maumee, Ohio.
That is, they used to.
This time, what came was an invoice containing items for which I had long since paid. The invoice was dated July 23. It took 21 days -- three weeks -- for this simple missive to make its way to my mailbox.
A week earlier, I received a package in the mail that I had been expecting for some time. It was sent from the same source on the same day as another package. The other package took but three or four days to get here. I waited another 10 days for its partner to show up.
This is emblematic of the strategy the Trump Administration is utilizing as the President bobs and weaves in an attempt to gain re-election. But it’s a dangerous game, among its dangers the fact that mail service provides delivery of prescription drugs needed by hundreds of thousands of ill and elderly in a timely, not tardy, fashion.
This is also a danger to our ballot process, since the President is, to my mind, clearly trying to disrupt a mail-in voting practice that he insists will be rife with fraud -- an unsubstantiated claim by any measure, and not the case, in any event, in Florida, where Trump needs the heavy population of his elderly supporters to vote for him in what could be a tight race. It’s okay if that state has a heavy dose of mail-in ballots, he has said. That's amazing gall.
The ploys -- the delays and the underfunding -- are obvious, and the President isn’t even trying to hide them. He is, in the view of many, trying to shrink the number of mail-in votes that will be counted in the Nov. 3 election. How? Well, some 32 states have rules saying a ballot that arrives after election day will not be counted.
By constantly bashing the mail-in process, Trump is eroding public confidence in it. Beyond that, assume someone sends in his or her ballot two weeks ahead of Election Day. If it takes three weeks to arrive -- as my invoice did -- then the result will be disenfranchisement. The man or woman who mailed that ballot would lose his or her right to vote in that election through the whim and chicanery emanating from the White House, through Delay.
Even Congressman Tom Reed, as loyal a foot soldier to the Trump parade as almost any other member of the House of Representatives (he toes the Trump line in House votes almost 90% of the time), raised the matter in a press release on Aug. 12. Perhaps he fielded enough complaints to make him think (long shot) that his re-election might be endangered. Whatever the reason, it was (despite his being somewhat bold in questioning a Trump maneuver) steeped in cautious rhetoric.
It was headlined: Rep. Tom Reed calls for Postmaster DeJoy to provide additional information on USPS operational changes. It was subtitled: Congressman expands on efforts to ensure vulnerable communities and rural regions don’t lose access to vital USPS services.
I would have preferred to see a headline titled: Knock it off, Delay.
The press release read, in part:
“Today, Representative Tom Reed voiced his concern over national reports and constituent outreach regarding delays in United States Postal Service (USPS) deliveries, substantial USPS operational changes, and staffing reductions. Reed called on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to provide Congress and the public with specific details on:
“--What changes or pilot programs the USPS has enacted.
“--What steps are being taken to ensure these changes do not delay the delivery of mail or the Post Office’s capacity to perform essential services.
“--How these new policies will impact customers and postal workers.
“Given mounting public confusion and misinformation, policymakers need to know immediately the extent of recent operational changes to the USPS and what is being done to prevent mail delays during this uncertain time. We should all want to help set the record straight and ensure the USPS and its postal carriers have the financial resources they need to carry out their mission and continue serving our communities.
“Improving the Postal Service’s financial solvency and boosting USPS efficiency is an appropriate goal with bipartisan support, but achieving those goals can’t come at the expense of New Yorkers who rely on the USPS to continue delivering packages, medicine, and other critical items in a timely fashion.”
Nicely said, I suppose, but if push comes to shove, will Reed act in support of Trump, or will he follow through on those printed words and risk an unflattering tweet?
On another matter:
Two very different approaches. That’s what we have in the Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen school districts. At O-M, which is following an in-school, full-time reopening effort, students will -- I suspect -- be looking more forward to getting back to classes and to their friends than the students in the Watkins Glen district are. There, in Watkins, the School Board has opted for a half-and-half, or what some are calling a 50/50, proposition.
Watkins students in an “A” group, pre-K through 12th grade, will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, with group “B” attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be devoted to disinfecting the buildings, with no in-school instruction. No day will see more than 50% of the student body in school, and on one of them there won't be any students present at all.
When not in school, Watkins students will be remotely learning, which was forced on kids around the country with the arrival in force of the pandemic in March. So ... with two days in and three days out, it’s really a 40-60 deal for students in the Glen. (What's wrong with Group A going to school three days one week and two the next, and Group B going to school two days one week and three the next? You really can't clean the place after school each day?)
Parents in both districts with an abundance of concern about their children's health have the option of remote learning for their kids. O-M reported Thursday that it had contacted the families of all but 114 of the district’s 770 students, and that 547 of those children are planning to attend school in person, with 104 doing remote or distance learning through at least the first semester. Five have opted for the more independent home schooling.
It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. Given the seemingly equal chance in either locale that the Covid-19 might rear its ugly head, I would much rather be an O-M student right now than a Watkins student. Five days out of the house instead of two. Regaining a sense of normalcy, of familiarity, of badly needed social interaction.
Of course, time is often a harsh teacher, and might yet instill another of life's lessons in me, proving my folly in issuing that assessment.
But we'll see.
A difficult road ahead ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 10, 2020 -- So ... Governor Andrew Cuomo has given schools the green light to open this fall.
Sounds great. But now comes the tough part ... and, I suspect, a rolling wave of confusion.
There are so many questions ahead:
--What form will the reopening take? This will likely vary from district to district. Odessa-Montour Superintendent Chris Wood has made it clear the preferred route is full-time, full-day, in-person education. Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan has said he has no preference, which pretty much leaves it with the School Board to consider: in-person, remote, or a hybrid of the two.
--Cuomo insisted on three sessions by each district with parents by Aug. 21, to gauge their preference, and one with teachers, who may or may not have serious concerns about putting themselves in an enclosed space (a classroom, not to mention a school in general) at a time when indoor gatherings are seen as a major transfer point of the novel coronavirus.
The results of those conversations -- public and teacher -- add all sorts of variables to the mix: will there be teachers who resist a return; and will there be a resistance by parents to send their kids into what they see as harm’s way? Those are two key factors -- neither of which, apparently, a school district can control. Cuomo said you can’t make either teachers or students attend in-person schooling if they feel their health might be at stake.
--What will be the response ... the overall effect ... if a student or students bused to school are found feverish upon entry (temperatures will be taken at that point) and ultimately are found to test positive for covid-19? What kind of delay will occur between test and test result? What if the test gives a false negative or false positive? What kind of contact tracing will be in place, and does that mean quarantining, say, for the whole busload who accompanied the infected student to school on the day his or her temperature spiked?
--And there are a myriad of subtle strategy shifters that will need attending to, probably daily ...
--Unless, of course, the state doesn’t get a federal bailout, and the state aid is pulled back by, say, 20%, which at the O-M district would equal a couple of million bucks ... which would necessitate a return to Square One. The whole darn thing would have to be reconsidered. Reducing aid by that much, or even anything approaching that much, would have serious repercussions.
Well, I’m no expert, with no sound answers, so I’ll be listening carefully to those closer to the educational systems to see what they figure out.
And on the upside of this whole covid-19 mess, I was directed by Judy McKinney Cherry, executive director of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED), to a Letter to the Editor that ran in the Lancaster Online news site in Pennsylvania. It was from Donna M. Dinger of West Cocalico Township in northeastern Lancaster County, concerning a visit to Schuyler County. It follows:
“My husband and I recently returned home from a glorious four-day trip to an event held on New York’s Seneca Lake. While we were there, we frequented restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores, gas stations and a small (25 people or fewer) outdoor gathering.
“No employees in public establishments were without masks and all were wearing them correctly. Not once did we see customers or clients enter a public building without a mask, nor did we hear arguments or witness confrontations. There was never a question in my mind that outdoor restaurant tables were 6 feet or more apart.
“Since we travel with our dogs, we have come to expect outpouring of affection toward them, but this year everyone admired them from afar. Folks at the outdoor gathering wore masks until seated at their tables and were physically and politely distancing from others. The state park where we hiked required masks on the trail; we met very few noncompliant hikers.
“It was evident that the people in this area took safety protocol seriously and without complaint. We never felt that we were in a stressful situation or that our health and safety were compromised. Respect was overwhelming.
“The reality of COVID-19 cases? In Schuyler County on Seneca Lake, there were 20 COVID-19 cases at the time and zero deaths.
“Coincidence? I think not.”
And I received another email regarding another positive occurrence -- the response to a potentially fatal accident up in the Watkins Glen State Park gorge last month that contained an element of Scouting that demonstrates the value of the skills imparted in those youth programs. Actually there were two separate missives in the email, one in which Victor Otruba, of Mansfield, Pa., explained how he and his sister Ariel, of Hellertown, Pa., helped a stranger in need. Writing on July 10, Victor shared the following:
“I could not be more proud of my sister, Ariel. Today we were at Watkins Glen when an older gentleman was overcome by the heat and unconsciously toppled headlong backwards into the crevasse.
“We didn't see it, but we heard the splash and screams from those near him. Before I knew it my sister and I had climbed down and plunged into the waters of the gorge. The man's son reached him first and never have I been so relieved as to find him conscious and aware. My sister took the lead in first aid; we immobilized him in case of spinal injuries and treated for possible head trauma and shock.
“We must have spent a good 40 minutes in the water getting to know the man (John Whitford of Liverpool, Pa.), before the pros arrived with proper rescue gear. Ariel kept him talking. He was a lifelong Boy Scout, having even taken his walking stick with him over the edge. ... If Ariel and I had not been Scouts ourselves, we would not have responded as we did.
“UPDATE: Received word from John! Luck was truly on his side today, leaving him with only some bumps, bruises, and a minor cut on the head!”
The other missive was written by John Whitford himself:
“I guess what happened to me qualifies as a near-death experience,” he shared in part. “Passing out, falling 40 feet into a gorge and coming to in water ... I expect that qualifies, as I was unconscious for the fall and briefly while in the water.
“While I do not recall specific details of my fall, when I opened my eyes I was floating in water with my son on my left and two strangers named Victor and Ariel on my right. I felt very comfortable and even ‘refreshed.’ I was mostly uninjured, a scrape on my scalp and possibly a mild concussion along with some muscle strain and pull in my left arm and my neck.
“My son Matt’s immediate response without any real regard for his safety, jumping over the wall and going down the hillside after me, was what kept me from major damage from inhaling water or even drowning. Without his actions I would very possibly be dead or brain damaged. Ariel and Victor saw someone in trouble and immediately came to assist my son and make sure I was stable. Everyone was soaked from jumping into the water to assist with my rescue.
“My thanks to all those that came to assist me. Thanks to the multiple fire and rescue units, the EMT and ambulance crew, the park staff, the police, the folks at (Schuyler) Hospital and all those who were so caring and compassionate; to my wife and son; and to Ariel and Victor, who jumped into the water to help care for me. God Bless you all ... "
Of hopes and dreams ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 29, 2020 -- Life is not just loss; it is also vanquished hopes.
Gad, that sounds depressing. But it’s pretty much true, or at least I’ve found it that way. Which means we all need to be flexible; to rebound from disappointment and rejection. At least in normal times.
Those oft-fractured hopes, to my mind, are largely represented by career aspirations. For instance, I thought when I was young that being a United States Senator would be just about the highest calling there is.
I didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to put myself out there for public consumption, though, so I ended up going in a different direction. Good thing, since I discovered along the way that Washington, D.C. is rife with corruption, and that a seat in the U.S. Senate is hardly a high calling at all.
I thought too that being a major league baseball player would be fantastic, but I learned early on that I had neither the talent nor the drive for such an undertaking. Along the way, in 1963, I was befriended by a major leaguer who talked of the excitement of the game but also of its divisions and (as in just about any aspect of society) inherent problems.
Whether that included a racial divide on his team, I'm not sure, although that particular organization was the second-to-last to abandon complete segregation on its roster, securing its first black ballplayer in a trade in 1958, fully 11 years after Jackie Robinson had ascended to the major leagues. The team had six black players in 1963, which was, I suppose, a significant step forward.
Put it this way: Whether racism played a role in the 1963 version of that squad is a matter of perspective and interpretation, often nebulous factors applied any time racism rears its head -- which I think by definition and nature is just about any day in anyone's life. (Well, it is perhaps not a constant consideration in Schuyler County, which is -- if a population of 17,000 can be considered overwhelming -- overwhelmingly white.)
In my own life, there was a black cleaning lady who visited our home every week when I was growing up, and on at least one occasion oversaw the family while my parents were away. When first told by my parents that they had hired this “colored woman,” I thought -- being young and quite literal -- that a many-hued person would soon be inhabiting our world. I was disappointed to find she was but one color. On occasion, a man related to her -- I can’t recall if he was son or brother or nephew -- did some manual labor on our property. I was always a little intimidated by him -- inherent racism, I suspect -- although he never did anything to warrant that reaction.
(The cleaning lady, name of Clara, did not intimidate me; and at the risk of sounding like the man who denies being a racist by claiming that "one of my best friends is black," let me say this: Clara became a part of my upbringing, growing old and gray as I negotiated my teen years. She was, in fact, a comforting part of my life, and a person I grew to love, and still love many years after her passing. She was a touchstone of kindness and yet firmness; wry humor laced with wisdom. I can hear her infectious laugh to this day, and miss the wide smile that went with it.)
A couple of decades later, I worked at USA Today on loan from the Elmira Star-Gazette for about four months, and did so well (the most in-house weekly awards among the entire staff during my tenure) that I thought I should have been considered for full-time employment. But I was told by an official there (off the record; it was more in the spirit of friendly advice than any edict) that I was not only "too old" (39) and "too male," but "too white."
So ... the paths we think we’d like to take are often blocked by our own shortcomings -- lack of confidence, inadequate talent, lack of drive -- or by societal limiters such as affirmative action. I faced all of those, and I think came out the stronger for it. Hell, we all get beaten down, but as the great fictional boxer Rocky Balboa said -- well, in essence it was "Get back up!"
Which brings me to this point:
Before the pandemic, we all had -- our own shortcomings or societal strictures notwithstanding -- the opportunity to follow that path or those paths that we chose. We had opportunity. If we had the will, we might just find a way -- or could take an alternative route that led to other achievements, others hopes and dreams.
But now, and for the foreseeable future, so many paths have been closed off. For 150,000 (and counting) souls, those paths have been closed off for eternity. For those still standing, things are not fatally dire, but “standing” seems to be the operative word, for we’re moving in place. Most of us, armed with the facts we can glean from conflicting national sources, choose not to travel, such travel presenting the risk of taking out or bringing home coronavirus infections.
I have taken a trip to northern Michigan -- to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac -- annually for the past quarter century, and before that visited the island several summers as a boy. It is part of my soul. But now I’m not going, not this year. My brother and his wife, who have joined me for many summers on Bois Blanc, are staying put in Florida, it appears. The risks of an annual trip to the wilds of Michigan seem daunting. Besides, Bois Blanc Islanders have made it known they don’t want visitors, and that if we come, we can damn well stay away from them -- in a distant cottage or a cabin in the woods -- for at least two weeks.
Air travel is way down, the cruise-ship business has pretty much tanked, and the raging pandemic has reduced car travel substantially. We are urged to stay home. Moving in place, going nowhere.
The kids -- the students in high school and recently graduated -- have found their hopes and dreams, if not exactly short-circuited, put on a remote (as in distance learning) basis. That’s a general statement. I’m sure if you dug down under its surface, you’d find some students whose families have been so economically stressed (or worse) by the pandemic that plans for potentially expensive college educations have gone by the board. Hell, colleges themselves are facing all sorts of economic concerns, the effects of which will be playing out before long, impacted (as are we all) by the recession (depression?) in which we’re mired.
Which leads us to the upcoming elementary and secondary school year. What will it look like? Will it be in-school, a hybrid of school and home, or simply online? Who knows? The Governor has yet to weigh in, and local districts have been hard at work preparing plans for each of those three contingencies.
At Odessa-Montour, School Superintendent Chris Wood said on Tuesday, July 28, that the district was “working on it (those state-ordered plans) even as we speak,” with a deadline of July 31 looming. The School Board would be discussing it at a meeting on July 30.
The same day, Watkins Glen Superintendent Greg Kelahan said his district was “finalizing (a) draft today,” and that the Board of Education would “review and adopt” at a meeting on July 29.
We all -- well, most of us, I assume -- hope there is a clear way to get the kids back in the classroom and, beyond that, onto the playing fields. Students in essence lost a third of their year the last time around, and the fear nags that they could -- if this pandemic keeps gaining steam -- lose even more this year.
Granted, they are not alone in loss, and 150,000 dead attests to the fact that there are worse things than online learning.
But God, it sure would be nice if our kids, if we all, got a break, and reclaimed a situation where excessive death in this country was curtailed, where our economy regained its health, and where desired paths -- career aspirations -- and their concomitant hopes and dreams became part of American life again.
That's my fervent wish.
That is my prayer.
T. Rump Rabbit's ghost ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 14, 2020 -- Theodore “Rump” Rabbit is dead.
That sad news reached me by e-mail mere days after the column I wrote (see below) in which he and I had a lively discussion regarding the nation’s various maladies.
The local fire chief, John Jelliff, told me in an e-mail that his wife Lisa had found the body of poor old T. Rump Rabbit in their yard off Church Street in Odessa. T. “Rump” (the nickname was in reference to his ample behind) was old -- I figure about 75 in human years -- and crusty and, as it turned out, probably carrying too much weight.
That’s a dangerous thing at his age.
“In all seriousness,” the chief wrote, “we are going to miss him. The entire neighborhood has grown attached to him.”
I wrote back, expressing the hope that his demise was not caused by anything I had written, or for that matter by anything I had said to T. Rump.
Well, the chief, surmised, “I think maybe he couldn’t take the heat.”
I’m not sure if the chief was referring to the glare of publicity, to the unfriendly banter the rabbit and I had exchanged, or to the actual weather, which for days -- at the time of T. Rump’s passing -- had been regularly in the mid-90s.
I know, I know. You think I’m kidding. But I’m not. T. Rump did pass away in the yard of the village fire chief, who did in fact inform me of it by e-mail. That is true. And the rabbit is buried there (in the grave pictured on the right). Whether you believe I had actually conversed in the past with that old right-wing carnivore is up to you. But die he did.
Which makes what followed even more interesting. Call it a flight of fancy, the product of an overactive imagination, or perhaps simply a commentary on our times.
With T. Rump’s passing, I figured I wouldn’t be doing any sort of sequel to that previous column, death being a final kind of thing. Or so I thought.
But as shown in my own past (I’m thinking in particular of an amazing Aurora Borealis show the week after my wife’s passing in 2004, along with other oddities that bespoke ethereal messaging during that funeral week. Click here.), the end might not ever really mean the end.
But I digress.
Days passed after T. Rump's death, each one seemingly hotter than the previous one, and I continued to take my daily walks along the village streets -- waiting until near sundown so as not to roast.
Then, at about the spot on College Avenue where I had last encountered T. Rump on the right side of the road not too many days earlier, a voice from my left, the opposite side of the street, caught my attention. It was a squeaky vocal, almost a screech, uncomfortably audible to my ears.
Part of that discomfort was because of the words: “You murderer!” I looked over and saw a cottontail, back on its haunches, studying me -- and I could have sworn steam was coming out of its ears. Or maybe it was just the remaining heat of a long, sauna-like day.
This unfriendly little rabbit -- I had seen him around from time to time, but never engaged him before -- twitched and snorted and gave out something that resembled a sneeze, and then raised his arms, gesticulating, in what I could only deduce was a spasmodic jerk. And he again sputtered “Murderer!” before taking off, moving in leaping strides across the lawn on which he had perched, over the side road branching off of College Avenue, and then past and around a house on the far corner.
I stood there, transfixed, wondering what the heck I had just witnessed -- or done to deserve such vitriol -- when another voice to my right, on the very lawn upon which I had encountered T. Rump the week before, broke the lingering silence.
“Don’t mind him,” said this higher -- a feminine -- voice. “That’s just old Lindsey. He says things he doesn’t mean half the time.”
I turned and saw a small bunny -- gray furred with long whiskers, along with what I thought were huge eyes -- sitting there, chewing on some grass.
“Lindsey, eh?” I said.
“Yeah, Lindsey Gee,” answered my newest acquaintance. “He spouts off, but nobody pays much attention.”
“Uh, huh,” I said. “I’m Hef, by the way. And you are...”
“Call me Aosi,” she said. “Everybody else does.”
“Hello, Aosi. I don't recall seeing you before.”
“Oh, I'm from downstate,” she said. “I caught a ride up here on a truck recently, just to see how Upstaters live. And honestly, everybody -- well, maybe not all of the rabbits -- are much nicer up here.”
Just then, from behind me and across the road, Lindsey had reappeared at the far edge of the corner house, and was screaming again.
“Murderer!” he yelled, although it came out more of a tortured croak. “And you, Aosi. You shut up! Just go back to where you came from!”
In response, Aosi hissed in Lindsey’s direction, and he took off again.
I turned back to Aosi, who was shaking her head. “What did he mean?" I asked. "Why is he so lit up about me?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “It's about T. Rump. Kind of a fixture around here. His friends are upset.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not one of my favorites, though. Kind of contrary. Really conservative -- or at least that’s the pitches he was throwing. But ... murderer? What did I do?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it," she said. "It's just a timing thing. You wrote about T. Rump, and he read it and was all pumped up and telling everyone about it, and then he dropped dead.”
“Yeah, well, I don't think I have any kind of life-or-death power," I answered. "My jokes about using him in a stew aside, I've never wished anyone dead."
“It wasn't you,” said Aosi. “I think T. Rump actually liked the attention. He was just old. Old and too fat. It was his time.”
I mulled that a moment, and nodded. “Okay, good,” I answered. “Thanks, Aosi. I'll see you later.”
“Bye, Hef,” she said.
I walked about a half a block, past the high school -- empty since the pandemic took over our lives -- and past a large house just beyond it. I reached a shaded stretch of road, with a garden on either side of the pavement, when I was stopped by another voice.
“Hey, Hef,” it said, and I turned to my left. There, within fencing around a lush growth of vegetables, sat ... well, it was a large rabbit, and yet not quite one. Which is to say, it was ethereal, a figure not quite whole. I could, in fact, see right through it, although its features were clear.
It was, I knew in an instant -- and through my shock -- the ghost of T. Rump Rabbit. I had certainly not expected this; nor would I have wanted to. In life, he had not been my favorite acquaintance, and so there was no reason to long for that which was lost. Not in this case.
The fact is, I’m of neither major political party, nor of any minor one; I consider myself, if forced to a label, a Practicalist. T. Rump Rabbit was a Paininthebuttist.
“Hello, Theodore,” I said, using his given first name. Then I added:
“I met a friend of yours down the road there, Lindsey Gee, I believe his name is. He’s pretty upset with me.”
“Oh, don’t let him bother you,” said T. Rump. “He was loyal to me -- or maybe a little afraid of me. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t pay him much attention if I were you.”
“If you say so,” I answered. “Another rabbit, Aosi, told me roughly the same thing."
“Ah, yes, Aosi,” he said. “Nice looking young lady, but a little mouthy. I didn’t much like her in life ... but you know something, Hef? When you see the light -- you know, the bright light when you die -- well, you really see the light!”
I looked around -- to determine if anyone was watching me talking to a ghost, and at the same time thinking that when I turned back, this vague image of the late T. Rump might not be there. I hoped not, anyway, for I was questioning my own sanity.
But when I turned back he was still there, so I asked him about that light he was touting: “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, pausing a moment, “the light frees you of all the clutter; the BS, the political noise. I mean, I understand now that ‘fake news’ is -- aside from the rare aberration -- a weaponized term, and I can understand why you might take offense at it.”
Might. I simply smiled in response while shaking my head.
“And yes,” T. Rump went on, “as you have suggested to me, the current occupant of the White House has completely undermined what is supposed to be an inherent dignity of the office -- and yes, the pandemic does exist and is serious, and he really shouldn’t be ignoring it -- and yes, he’s undercutting the rule of law with his henchman in the Justice Department -- and yes, he’s a narcissist who thinks of nothing but himself. With his poll numbers, I don’t think it will end well for him in the upcoming election.”
“Well, amen,” I said. “I think I like that light of yours.”
But then a thought occurred to me. That would have to be one strong, amazing light to change a curmudgeon -- a right-wing curmudgeon -- like T. Rump. Unless ...
I eyed him closely. “Theodore,” I said, “are you just jerking my chain?”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit smiled -- or at least bared his teeth. In retrospect, I realize it was a sign of evil glee.
“Good guess, moron,” he said. “You bleeding heart liberals are all alike: gullible. That’s why we will always win. I can’t wait until November. You are going to be so disappointed.”
And with that he disappeared. No puff of smoke. Just your basic ghostly evaporation.
I stood there, still at the edge of the road, wondering if I had just hallucinated all of that -- or if, as I feared, it was real. Either way, it triggered a philosophical corner of my brain, producing the following thought: it occurred to me that truly bad philosophies, truly bad political and religious movements, truly bad eggs occupying government positions of power are like cockroaches, taxes and alimony.
They will always be distasteful, and -- alas -- will always be part of us, at least until we’re wiped out by a large meteor, a thermonuclear war, or a virus with a little more bite than the covid-19 possesses.
Yeah, we’re damned if we’re here (well, life does have its attractions), and damned if we’re not (as in, you know, dead.)
But, I thought, I’ll take the former, warts and all -- those warts even including right-wing rabbits, both earthly and otherwise.
I smiled ruefully, nodded, took a deep breath, and looked ahead, down the road.
And with that, I took a step, resuming my evening walk.
Photo in text: The gravesite of T. Rump Rabbit, on the Jelliff property in Odessa. A photo of T. Rump leans against the headstone.
Theodore 'Rump' Rabbit puts his right foot forward
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 5, 2020 -- When I was a young man, every day seemed like a new adventure.
I was fascinated by the possibilities ahead -- at the way life seemed to turn on a dime; how a trajectory that seemed boring could suddenly be altered into something exciting.
I’m a good bit more jaded now. Too many bosses, too many job critiques, too many partings, too many disappointments, too many regrets. They all, when combined, can drain you.
Oh, I still get a kick out of some things -- in particular photography and writing; in covering the news of Schuyler County. But the most enjoyable of that reporting has been wrested away from all of us, what with school and the accompanying sports on which I’ve long reported being canceled out this past spring by the pandemic.
One thing I’ve added to my daily regimen, in the absence of the physicality required to photograph and report on those sports, is a daily walk around my village, the ever-quiet settlement known as Odessa.
I rarely encounter anyone on the walk, coming as it does in the early evening, likely while much of the populace is indoors at supper. Once in a while I meet someone of my acquaintance sitting outside on a patio or porch as I pass; in such instances, I might pause for a conversation.
Less likely is the situation where I meet an acquaintance also out walking. But I did encounter one the other evening. He was on the lawn fronting a house on College Avenue, hopping around, stopping, sniffing the air, hopping some more, digging a little in the turf, and then hopping some more. When he spotted me, he turned, raised his ears, widened his eyes, and smiled in recognition.
“Hef!” said T. (as in Theodore) “Rump” Rabbit. Then he moved his head to the right and left, looking at my hands, to see what I might be carrying, if anything. “I don’t suppose you have any carrots there, do you?”
I held my arms out, hands open and palms up. Both empty. “Sorry,” I said.
“Ah, well,” he said, and I thought he didn’t really look like he needed much food. He had gained a bit of weight since I last had seen him. Somebody must be feeding him more than carrots, I thought. He had gotten the nickname “Rump” for his big derriere, and it was certainly not diminishing.
“So,” he added. “How goes the battle? Still putting out that news rag of yours?”
“It’s a website,” I said. “A rag denotes paper. This is paperless.”
“Your ragless, then,” he said. “Still publishing? Still feeding the masses your version of the truth? I don’t suppose you admit to fake news.”
I was beginning to remember why Theodore was merely an acquaintance, and not a friend.
“Whatever,” I said. “How is it over on the far right?” Theodore is, if nothing else (besides a fat rabbit), far more conservative on most social issues than I am.
“Good,” he said. “None of my family has that virus. In fact, none of my kind have caught it. I could joke and say we can still get together like ... you know ... like bunnies. But truthfully, I think this whole pandemic thing is overblown. A bit of fake news there, don’t you think?”
“Hmmph,” I heard myself say, and decided I didn’t really need to hear any right-wing conspiracy theories. I just wasn’t in the mood. “So,” I said, looking to pivot and leave, “good to see you.” And I started to move off; to continue my evening trek.
“Well, wait,” he said. “You used to be a lot more engaging. No politics? You usually have a lot of misguided advice.”
I paused and looked at him. He was licking his front paws with an expression that I thought was far too self-satisfied. “Well, I guess I don’t this time,” I said.
“Cat’s got your tongue?”
Actually, my reticence was caused not by a cat, but by a rapidly growing aversion to a rabbit -- and I thought, probably not for the first time since I met this particular herbivore, of practicing some carnivorism on him.
I took a deep breath, and decided to confront this particular demon. “What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“You coming out against mail-in balloting? It’s ripe for cheating, you know.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “That’s White House BS.”
“Oh? And how about this virus thing? You're blaming the Chinese, aren't you? It’s all their doing, you know.”
“Open to debate,” I said. “They’re not clean, but it’s more complicated than that. Besides, I thought you said it was fake news.”
Undeterred, he went on. “And this Russian bounty stuff,” he said. “It’s hogwash.”
“If by hogwash you mean outrageous in its concept and its permissive execution, then I agree.”
Theodore sneezed, which I knew from experience was his way of expressing disagreement.
“Never happened,” he said.
“Intelligence agencies beg to differ,” I said.
“Deep state,” he responded. “They’re all out to get the incumbent. Everybody’s out to get him. It’s a really unfair world, you know.”
“Sometimes it is,” I agreed. “But there are times and circumstances that I find satisfying.”
I smiled. “Like consuming a nice meal called Hasenpfeffer.”
He looked at me. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“It’s rabbit stew,” I said, “served with red wine and various flavorings.”
“Ha, ha,” Theodore responded. “Leave it to you liberals to resort to threats.”
“No threat,” I said. “Just imagining a tasty meal.”
“Yeah? Well, one thing you can’t argue.”
“The elimination of traces of the Confederacy. Talk about your BS. Totally unwarranted. I mean, come on, Robert E. Lee?”
“I’ll grant you on Lee. And Stonewall Jackson.”
Those two were ingrained in me as heroes when I was growing up, and I can’t shake that.
“But really,” I said, “crappy Confederate generals with U.S. forts named after them? I don’t think that was ever justified.And existing statues of them were, for the most part, politically charged -- which is to say Jim Crow statements -- erected forty years after the Civil War.”
“They’re part of our heritage ....”
“They’re part of a Southern heritage steeped in racism. They’re not our heritage.”
“I disagree. What about the Confederate flag?”
“What about it?” I said.
“That is part of our heritage.”
I thought a moment, and nodded.
“It is," I answered. "But that doesn’t mean it has to be honored -- especially when it reveres a way of life built on something as heinous as slavery. The flag had its place, and now it doesn’t -- except as an historical footnote. The war, after all, lasted just four years. Hardly what I’d call entrenched. And certainly not part of 21st century life.”
“This 21st century life," Theodore said, "was just fine before the left-wing drive to undermine it and to overthrow this duly-elected government.”
“Huh?” I said, for I was having trouble following his path through extremism.
“It’s the minorities,” he said. “They’re being used. They’re being pushed by the left-wing extremists. You saw all those protests. It’s all part of a planned revolution, a blatant attempt to end this country.”
I shook my head.
“Those protests,” I said, “were the culmination of decades of frustration, of centuries of racism, fanned by an open murder of a man by police in Minneapolis -- one of many, I might point out, that have occurred across the years. Mix in the fears wrought by the virus and a tumbling economy ...”
“Blah, blah, blah,” said Theodore. “Bleeding heart-ism. You really are a tool.”
I laughed. For some reason, that term has always struck my funny bone.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “at least I’m not hopping around with a chance to be someone’s dinner.”
Theodore “Rump” Rabbit stared at me, and I back at him. Then -- on key and completely unexpectedly -- he started whistling “Dixie,” a musical ode to the Confederacy -- its marching song during the Civil War.
He really was pretty good -- the genesis of the song notwithstanding. The whistling was great, the enthusiasm of the song’s sentiment shining through. He pretty much nailed it.
I shook my head, not in admiration and not, despite the symbolism of the song, in dismay. It was more a sign of incredulity.
“What?” he said, seeing my reaction.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No,” he insisted. “It’s something. What?”
“Well,” I said, still shaking my head.
“What?” he said again.
So I answered.
“Well, it's the darndest thing ... what you were doing. Pretty amazing, really. I mean ... whoever heard of a rabbit that could whistle?”
Photo in text: Theodore "Rump" Rabbit at the time of our conversation.
Want to help
this website continue? It's easy. Either send a payment by Paypal through
a link found at the top left of many of our pages, or send a check or
money order to:
The Odessa File
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, NY 14869