HUMILITY AND SERVICE

Hugh Bonner’s funeral, St. Patrick’s Day, 1908, NYC

October 26, 2020

 

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     I am partly of Bonner heritage, Irish through my grandmother Mary and also Scot as the family was Bonnar there before some went to Donegal. This matters to me mostly, in 2020 especially,  because I am distantly related to Mary’s Great-Uncle Hugh Bonner, the first chief of department of the newly formed Fire Department of New York and later the sixth fire commissioner. It matters because this is a dramatic, pivotal election year, and this is the United States, the nation that has the “welcoming” Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor. It matters because I want to see more Hugh Bonners — white, black, brown, red, yellow, female, transgender, gay, straight in humble service.

     And it matters because Bonner, who passed of pneumonia in March 1908, after working a job — yet another Gotham blaze — was a man of humble service who rose from immigrant roots in the Irish Great Hunger and the poverty of crime-ridden Five Points in Manhattan to help direct the heroism of the fire department and to offer lifesaving tools without claiming patent. He also authored a  treatise on fighting fires in tenements with central light shafts that acted as chimneys when there was a blaze. Those shafts were banned in future construction, saving many lives.

     The New York Times’ report of Bonner’s passing noted that he “owed his position in the department to his high sense of duty.”  A Times editorial read: “In Hugh Bonner this community has lost a man who placed its Fire Department at the head of similar organizations in the service of the world’s great cities. He ran New York’s first self-propelling fire engine and its first chemical engine; he operated the first water tower ever used; he invented the life net and various devices for reaching the heart of a fire more quickly … New York proudly mourns his death.”

     It is the accident of birth that brings this humble man of service to my lineage, but knowing his history makes me more deeply bow to the great possibilities of people rising from hunger and want who grow to serve through stacked odds. That’s my kind of nation, and I tremble that it will disappear in the current indecency of false prophets. 

     Today, so many potential Hugh Bonners  do not survive to achieve; so many are pushed aside, wounded and killed by racism, prejudice, by the greedy who send their jobs away, by the elected who don’t walk the talk of equal opportunity, by the fakers who proclaim rescue while picking the pockets of the gullible.

      Hugh Bonner is why I voted so proudly in this presidential election.

     

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

                   –30–

SYNCHRONICITY

October 19, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     In another century, it seems, there were conversations about everything yet nothing of great import. Those two were not going to solve the world’s problems nor were they going to impress each other with pontification. Even the exact words did not matter, for it was the expectation that long drives and long talks would be a Friday and Saturday evening routine that counted most. It was that and the rhythm of it all.

     And the silences between many spoken — and heard — paragraphs were welcome as well, accepted not as moments where either had nothing more to say but as a minute or two or five to savor what already was said, much like you do in a several-course dinner.

     Now all this may seem remote, unimportant and unconnected to the reader, but you have been there. Recall when you were with someone and felt more than comfortable. There was trust, reinforcing habit and a feeling of mutual worthiness. 

     I guess for some in such situations the conversations and their routine might be the stuff of romance, though in that case perhaps fewer words the better. But goose bumps can come from talk alone.

     Even if the romantic is never reached or even proves impractical, it cannot be denied that two people purred in common language for a long moment, once upon a time.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

THE ROAD

October 12, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     There is a road on the South Mountain, a winding, hilly journey that has long defined the lives of farmers and artists. It is the plan of the gods for there is little difference between the two nurturers who plant and harvest that which is from nature.

     In life there is also such a road for us, though the actual route may simply be a metaphor. Windings, hills, downward slopes, fertile ground, seeds sown, watched over, the harvest — all are part of life in degrees. Storms, too. Drought, poor soil, inattention, that “reap what you sow” whisper from off-stage.

     Then there is what some call the divine, or at least intended, meant to be. The road comes into your life. It takes you for a ride. You leave for other byways, but you return in moments of reflection to the original route.

     There is an actual South Mountain Road near me, in New York State, descending from the Concklin Orchards at Pomona to the slopes of High Tor mountain across from Dutch Town in Haverstraw. “The Road” has been home to playwright Maxwell Anderson, artist Henry Varnum Poor, actors and others gifted as those who describe the human void. There is magic in such creation, as there is atop the hill in the 1700s Concklin farm spread.

     My father would drive us along South Mountain, my brother and I rolling side to side in a 1939 Dodge as Dad maneuvered the turns. In high school, I rode a bike there in great effort. In early romance, there were walks and talks and silence and hope and goose bumps of a summer.

     In the working years as a newspaper stiff there were the photographs I took of road celebrities, the writing, the commentary.

     In retirement there have been stylized photos and paintings.

     All in all, quite a few decades of pull from The Road at South Mountain. I thank the gods.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

CURIOSITY

 

October 5, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

Curiosity, we are warned, killed the cat, but the naysayers never tell you about the nine lives.

Curiosity was a welcome trait for Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, who thought out of the box, who applied independent, non-conformist learning skills to their journey.

Einstein’s son Hans Albert said that his father was “withdrawn from the world even as a boy.” Had he been the traditionalist, he might have ended up a fine professor instead of spending 10 years daydreaming about gravity and the speed of light and whether a fellow saw himself in a mirror the same way traveling through space as he would moored to earth. His E=MC squared formula might not have been written. And, so, the good, and as Einstein noted, the bad in “progress.”

Thomas Edison tinkered in his lab with a similarly inspired staff, trying this and that out of curiosity much more than straight applied science. Had he followed strict dictum, he and his people might have given up. If they had let curiosity kill the cat the first time out on light bulb filaments, there would have been no ninth life, no pushed curiosity that found carbonized thread as the winner. And then there was light, literally.

Edward Hopper, the famed American realist painter whose works of solitude are so especially defining to the crazy world right now, spent long, non-painting months in utter curiosity, going to 1930s movies, peering out his Washington Square studio window, looking away from the sea at South Truro, Mass., walking Gotham’s streets and reaching into his file cabinet of a mind for human and architectural sketches filed on so many trips of curiosity. He took what he needed, and when the time was right, he brushed in strokes of interpretation that make us shiver.

So, I say to all of you, especially the young yet unspoiled by too many limiting rules: Go for it – be curious, day dream, move to a different, unique place in your mind. Be independent, dare to “go to infinity.” This America, in particular, this nation right now in a time of virus, in this suffering moment of wrongs and inequalities, needs your innovation.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay is adapted from an earlier one.

‘HARSH TRUTH’

September 28, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

The “American Dream” has always been “just white,” and until the nation admits that, some of those who have arrived will keep people of color and immigrants from success. And some of those who do achieve the dream, no matter the ethnicity, the skin tone, become “just white” in their thinking, unconsciously or not. Until that, too, is recognized, strong areas of white superiority, with all the hatred, racism and fear, will rule — by whites and non-whites — on the “right side of the tracks.” Harsh truth.
Securing the American Dream in our earlier history was in part a horror story because it brought the displacement and genocide of Native Americans and was built on slavery as well, yet there is also the undeniable human advancement in this great experiment set by our founders, which has given the full world benefits as well. This movement was born out of old European religious persecution and non-responsive government. Its journey has assured progress, fulfilling manifest destiny in this land of always seeking a new frontier. Material and social growth, witnessed by the forging of the Civil War and after, the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the great rising of a middle class post-World War II, were possible because of the Dream. It gave us the can-do spirit of World War II. It brought us respect and leadership in the world.
But as with all such achievement, once inside the new house, the well-kept community, the land of good schools and no tenements, too many who get in close the door. You are the new white man, not even the white woman, and the kind from which you came have no seat at your table. Harsh truth.
We are not a “melting pot,” nor should we be. The “melting” reference is really saying, “become just white.” No, we absolutely must be diverse — it is the strength of humanity — but surely with the common purpose of equality, opportunity in a land of promise, a continuing experiment begun by the founders. Until that becomes the true American Dream, an inclusive one that also addresses horrible wrongs against Native Americans, we will have nightmares, as 2020 is showing us. This is the time to make the American Dream all the colors of the rainbow.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

THE INCOMPLETE UMBRELLA

Acrylic on canvas/gunther

 

September 21, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     There is at least a single incomplete umbrella in anyone’s life, no pole leading to canopy, a metaphor for incompleteness, perhaps something unfinished or just plain out of sight to anyone but you.

     The journey taken, the one ahead, the one under way, well that’s yours, and you alone are the master of its fate. Is rain falling on the day you are going for that job interview? Is the umbrella at hand in which to disappear as you leave a love affair? 

     Is there protection in politically divisive times when those in charge would deny you the citizen an umbrella?

      You know how to “hold”  the umbrella, denied or not, for while its pole seems missing — incomplete — you know where it is. 

     Protection in life — and that’s metaphorically an umbrella — is what you make it, complete or not.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

     

‘SLICE OF LIFE, IN A WAY’

September 14, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     Some seasons ago, quite a few really, the no. 6 red naugahyde-covered twirling diner stool at Tiny’s Spring Valley, N.Y., place offered a fine view of the glass donut and sliced cake case, which, of course, was a most tempting time, even for a 19 year old usually seated for a grilled cheese right off the facing flat-top grill with fries cooked then and there, not an hour before and then kept under a heat lamp.

     “Tiny” Lazaroff was a big man, and as they say, with a large heart to match. He was jovial, and his diner was at the comfort-level standard expected of highway stops before fast food sped up the gearing to assembly line quick-a-motion. My grandfather moseyed on west to Tiny’s for java on a Saturday morning, nursing it for a longish time with a donut “sinker” from the glass case.

     What was in the case was not impressive by today’s expectations. There were no layer cakes piled high with two inches of genetically modified “whip cream” nor no “N.Y. cheese cakes” made in Sheboygan. No, just a few plain donuts, some chocolate, and wonderful slices of vanilla-iced lemon pound cake.

     I usually sat on red naugahyde stool no. 3, right opposite the grill cook, but one day Tiny’s was too busy for the regulars — a tourist bus had actually stopped in little Spring Valley — and I ended up at no. 6. 

     Planted there, I was about to order the usual grilled cheese, but before the overly busy counter waitress got to me, the cake case’s magnetism kicked in, its fluorescent light behind the gleaming chrome and tempered sliding glass doors shining just right on a piece of that pound cake, freshly cut from a true, 16-ounce loaf, unlike today’s 12.5-ounce fakers. Like a stricken young pup in a school days’ crush, I mumbled in shyness that I just had to have that slice.

     Tiny’s coffee, in a green cup on a green saucer, came along for the ride, and my time with that wonderful iced-top lemon cake was rather long and as sensuous as could be. I used a fork to parcel out 1-inch by 1-inch squares, starting at the bottom and moving ever so slowly toward the icing, which ended the night. The “kiss” as it were.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

PUDDLES AS ‘RESET BUTTONS’

September 7, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     On a very hot and humid day, in the New York State that now is in summer more like Georgia, don’t avoid puddles. They instantly cool your soles and so give you reason not to give up the exercise walk that is keeping you physically fit but also sane in the restricted time of virus.

     When you are young, or when some of us were, you aim for the puddles. You might also play with mud, casting little buildings not unlike Pueblo Native Americans or early settlers daubing over chinked logs to stave off a bit of the winter cold.

     So, not avoiding the puddles, really or metaphorically, helps you accomplish something: as a kid, passing time, being creative, staying out of your mom’s way; as an adult, building shelter. Either way, don’t avoid the puddles.

     Walkers will tell you the best time to do so is in light rain. Umbrella or not, there is an insulating quality about it, your own security blanket of falling water that enables you to amble even in a crowd, your being, your thoughts protected. The puddles you jump over are accomplishment.

     It is a common photo, especially now that everyone carries a camera as smart phone, that reflections of buildings are caught in puddles, as if we can contain urban life and not be overwhelmed by its impersonal hugeness. It also makes for a pretty picture. 

     As it is with all simple things in a life that can be so complicated, with worries, with challenges, with ups and downs, an ordinary puddle (are there any other kind?) can be the reset button.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

‘DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS’

August 31, 2020

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     Rituals in our lives change, but that does not mean they are easy to get used to. They are even tougher to accept. Here I was in another town, USA, the location no less important than any, communities where life begins, passes, ebbs and flows in between. I was expecting 1980 or thereabout to remain the ruling time, but it was 2020, and I just did not get it.

     An early-morning ritual is to take a walk, have java and read the local newspaper. And so I sought a paper. But there was none at 6:30 a.m., long after morning editions have gone to bed, to press. 

     I asked a very polite but matter-of-fact store clerk when the newspapers might arrive, and I was told,  “When the man gets here, he gets here.” In other words, the news, the information that impacts our lives, which entertains, saddens, enlightens, exposes charlatans and connects us to the full range of human emotions, and which once would await no man’s delay under deadline tradition, would now “get here when it got here.”

     I was an active newspaperman for four decades and remain one in soul. Never missed a deadline, thank you.  No bragging – the first rule of newspapering is to get the info out on time, quicker than that, if possible. We all did it, do it.

     Now, many deadline clocks no longer tick louder and louder at the pressman’s hour. They are still. The daily printed word, the “who, what, where, when, how, why” of public meetings, government contracts, local sports, national and world news, and, yes, oh yes, presidential elections does not make deadline. Newspapers fold and fold, victim of the long trend of fewer print readers, consequently reduced advertising revenue and information delivered in bites rather than full length via Smart phones and iPads, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and TV/radio. 

     Sad, for a much fuller report can be had in print, all the better to be informed in a democracy that you want to keep. If a foreign power sought to dumb down a nation and have its people thrive on falsehoods, misinformation and gossip; if it wanted to turn elections toward zealots who build and keep a base by fear, then it would back hedge funds and other “investors” that buy declining newspapers and close them down for asset profits. You see, democracy dies in darkness, and that is the aim of some foreign powers. It is also the goal of some within these United States.

     While I waited in a strip mall parking lot for the paper delivery guy to get there, I saw descendants of folks like me, but they were not buying papers as their dads and granddads did or still do. Instead, they were in their cars, lined up at a bank, at ATM machines, to get money for the day.

     Once, we carried cash in our pockets from our pay checks for a week or two. And we used some of our pocket change to buy a newspaper.

     I doubt if many of the good, hardworking people on the ATM line buy a paper after they get their bank machine cash. Probably quench their thirst for information — and that remains a human constant — via mobile devices or computers. What they might swallow may be deliberately slanted “news” that does not go through traditional editing and vetting.

     The world has changed, and so has its ways. I simply forgot to get on the train. But I’ll never read about it in a newspaper.

 

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

                                       –30–

‘DECENCY NO LONGER HAS FIRST-CLASS POSTAGE’

August 24, 2020

By Arthur H.Gunther III

This painting of mine is rural America, where predictability, reliability, routine are the melody for living.

Conservatism, fear of government overreach service, Pony Express on, a life-stream of letters, parcels, farm equipment parts, seed, baby chicks, then medicine and whatever few checks might come in retirement.

From this house, still catching the light of awesome land, a family, then a man and wife, then perhaps just the woman, would go to the general store to mail something but also to gather a bit with far-flung neighbors in the decency of shared existence.

Now, so far away in Lobbyville, D.C., in the special-interest section at what was once the People’s House, a wink comes to make metal boxes in blue disappear from the country store, from city and suburban corners, too.

Decency no longer has first-class postage.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

 

–30–