Old Posts

January 10, 2011

‘What’s it all about?’ (take one)

There are very few left who recall when movies and not TV, and certainly not the Internet, Netflick, iPods and MP3 players, etc., delivered most visual entertainment, a time when if you were a bit tired of using your imagination listening to a radio comedy or drama, or if you felt a need to socially mingle, you walked down the street to a local theater, and for a quarter or less saw two features, a newsreel, travelogue and cartoons.

My grandparents’ generation did that and my father’s to a large extent, too, though my dad bought his first television in the late 1940s. That purchase brought my brother and me into a new age, but since 1950s programming was limited, and the stations numbering 7 in my New York parts, we also went to the movies. Not on weekday nights like my grandparents but for Saturday matinees.

These days all the generations see the movies of 1920 to the present on whatever device is available, with a sort of democratization talking place as the greater world becomes ever more visual. Hail that, but all this flooding of the senses, especially via large-screen TVs, brings a ponder from a fan in Colorado. An intriguing ponder.

She writes, “When viewing ‘old-time’ movies, I wonder about the atmosphere that does not translate to film. What were the smells like in those weekly – at best – bath days? And all the animals and their ‘residual benefits,’ the myriad urban stables needed for city transportation, etc.? And the wood, fire and coal fumes?Then the sounds that went along with the smells?
“And, what is rarely offered in the made-up, coiffed, perfection of Hollywood appearance of the characters has got to be so far from reality: What about the smallpox-scarred faces and the physical remnants of other diseases long banished from the modern world? What were gaslight and candlelight really like, and how dark must it have been without all the ‘light pollution’ we take for granted in 2011?”

My fan (labeled as such since she’s a loyal reader who doesn’t have to contemplate my true visage) further asks if I “also strive to hear and see and smell ‘reality’ when watching such historically set (and often inaccurate) films?”

Well, fan, I do consider what life was like in pioneering days, or in the gritty Great Depression, or in the Cold War 1950s. I don’t think I have thought so much about the fragrance of a particular time, but, yes, about the harshness and drudgery of a long farm day, or when ketchup sandwiches were the main meal or when someone on screen was caught in one of the emotions of life and or death.

Perhaps there will come a day when old films can be reconstructed to give us the smells and whatever else of the particular time, to involve us in virtual reality. If so, and despite “historical inaccuracy,” that could benefit humankind. For if we could stand on a bread line or be a dying soldier or Joan of Arc or Napoleon or Hitler’s vioctims or Moses or Mr. Smith or George Bailey, how much more understanding we might become of our joint existence and what it’s all about.

January 3, 2010

90 miles to go

It seems impossible that one decade has already passed in the 21st century. Though it was marked with the horror of Sept. 11 and awful war and terrible economics, these past 10 years ran faster than a super track star in the 100-meter dash. Perhaps our ever-more technological times, with rapid communication and the concentration of anything held to a few seconds make the clock spin so rapidly. Sitting by candle and anticipating the early milking of the cow gave more time to reflect.

But progress is supposed to be good for us – it is light against the darkness, a chance to better lives, to bring ease. Progress has accomplished all that, our history shows, but in its name some have profited more than others. In this new century, special interests that seek money without giveback responsibility and political influence without an adjustment for all the people’s needs largely steer growth. While most of us take the train ride – for it is the history of our nation that we chase a new frontier – we’re seated more toward the caboose than the locomotive. We can’t see the tracks ahead.

There are more people – rich ones – in first class these days, and they can see just fine. There are more of the good folk back at the end of the train, too, grateful for a ride though the engine’s cinders may fly through their windows. There is the hope, still, that on the next run, they may move closer to the locomotive. The passengers in the middle, those in second class, are no longer numerous, and it’s more than a pity, for it was their ever-growing ranks and the appetite for middle-class living which built the railroads. And the output of the factories. And the need for housing, the roads, etc. – all progress, surely.

The speed of the 21st century is so rapid that we can’t see who is on the train, nor have we bothered to care. Americans have taken progress for granted for decades now, in a steady drive since 1945. If we can obtain cell phones and flat-screen TVs and an equity loan or a tax rebate or two to buy them, and if our days pass comfortably enough, we won’t look at the clock and notice it is close to midnight. That’s for another day, yet that dawn may not come. We don’t see horrible war, for it is not in our yards. We don’t hear the gold leaving Fort Knox to pay for a bigger and bigger national debt. We don’t fathom that more and more of us are not on the train to progress any more.

What was the wind that just passed through the station? Was it just a decade in modern speed?
Maybe we’ll get to reflect on it all, even by candle.

December 27, 2010

Respite

If life were just about cozy socks, maybe adding hot chocolate, reading material and a log on the fire would give most of us enough peace for a long time. But the socks eventually need changing, the chocolate is enjoyed and the log burns down. The book is read. Yet the story is not over since the moment, if we are lucky to have it, is but a page in life.

It took a snowstorm to bring the metaphorical equivalent of that moment to me in my particular part of the Northeast where a relatively weak but genuine “blizzard” hit us for the first time in decades. We have had plenty of snowstorms and drifting over the years but not such fierce winds that even just a foot or so of snow was made into mountains here and there. Bitter cold, too.

Travelers returning to home and hearth after the Christmas holiday were caught in the storm, though most people were able to sit within and chill out, the Sunday after set to 33 1/3 rpm rather than 78, the stomach satiated enough that it could rest and sufficient presents to keep children occupied and out of the SUVs where all too many seem to spend all too much time going to their numerous appointments.

I did not cozy up to a book, though other family members, good readers all, were happy to do so. I did not change into cozy socks though I received a few pairs under the tree, and I am not a hot chocolate fan. But a good microbrew, a newspaper and three pairs of already washed socks brought the purring on in my quiet moment, stolen from the fast pace of life as if I were on a fast train that had pulled into a siding.

There I remained for a good part of the day, happy that the hands of the clock did not move so fast, happy that I barely looked at the time. I sought no complication, did not push my brain to rack over political mistakes in my beloved country. I just put my being on autopilot and perused – did not study – the paper. The beer was not swished but sipped, and my three pairs of socks, regulation uniform on a cold day, constantly telegraphed that they were keeping my feet warm. Reassurance of blessed simplicity

What more could I want in my quiet? Not a thing, except perhaps that it last a bit longer.

For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my (former) newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web. – Arthur H. Gunther III

December 20, 2010

Transistor Radio

By Arthur H. Gunther IV

The transistor radio was black. Long ago, the small plastic piece that held its battery in place had been lost. Black electrical tape had by now done the job of the forgotten plastic piece for so many years that the back of the radio was inevitably sticky near its bottom. Max remembered with clarity the eyes of the Eveready cat peeking out from in between the loops of tape. Nine volts was all the radio needed for months of listening. It seemed to Max that the metal antennae, necessary only for FM reception, had never been there, though it must have at one time. The radio’s listeners had never had much use for FM anyway.

The radio belonged to Max’s grandfather. He lived in a small house overlooking the Hudson River, bought long before there was any cache to being near the water that bore the Dutch explorer’s name. Max would ride his bicycle over the mountain from his house on school-year Saturdays and summer afternoons and sit outside with his grandfather while the radio hummed with the sound of that afternoon’s baseball game. The announcer’s voices were both familiar and friendly, their chatter the ideal accompaniment to whatever conversation Max and his grandfather were having. The easy rhythms of the game left plenty of space for old stories, memories, reading and commenting on the articles in any of the several newspapers that were always around Max’s grandfather’s house. The radio even had an ear piece, not head phones, attached to a long white wire which Max would sometimes find stuck in his grandfather’s left ear. He always unplugged it upon seeing Max.

Around the time of his ninth birthday, Max’s mother became sick and found herself in the hospital for several months. When December arrived and it was clear that she would not be home for Christmas, Max’s dad sent him over to his grandfather’s house for Christmas Eve. Max’s father knew the value of waking up to a warm, glowing, happy Christmas morning and doubted his ability to provide it for Max that year. Though Max welcomed every opportunity to see his grandfather, and grandmother too for that matter, he lay in bed that night unable to sleep, filled with thoughts of worry about his dad and mom. Max crept downstairs at midnight, looking for distraction. There on the table that stood by the old green sofa sat his grandfather’s transistor radio. Max picked it up and brought it back to his room. The December night was clear. Max could see the moon reflecting on the river from where he lie in bed. He turned on the radio and scanned the dial for something to take his mind off his worries. The weather, Max’s room on the water and the winter night combined for ideal AM reception, and it seemed that every fraction of an inch the dial turned revealed new sounds, many from places that Max had never come close to visiting in his short life. There were call-in shows from Washington and Baltimore, weather from Buffalo, news from Cleveland, Christmas songs from Hartford, Philadelphia and Princeton, New Jersey, even a hockey game from Toronto. Eventually, Max settled on the voice of Jackie Gleason. A station from Boston was playing audio of an episode of “The Honeymooners” that Max had never seen. It was a Christmas show that was essentially a retelling of the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Though Max was years from reading the actual text, the story was the perfect distraction, and he quickly became absorbed in the voices of the characters until he fell fast asleep as the show ended, barely able to turn off the radio.

Max’s mother recovered and that year ended up being the only Christmas Eve he ever spent at his grandfather’s, though his family continued to visit on Christmas Day for years to come. Years later, Max was at college, in the thick of the all-night studying that was the inevitable sacrifice for surviving the December final exams of the fall semester, when he wandered down to the TV lounge in his dorm for a midnight study break. He found a girl there, presumably with the same idea he had. Max sat down and noticed that on the TV was “The Honeymooners.” After watching for several minutes, he realized it was the same episode he had heard that Christmas Eve long ago at his grandfather’s house. Though Max had always meant to, he had never seen the actual episode. Max gasped out loud at the lucky coincidence of finally finding the show. The girl who sat there turned to Max, as if just realizing he was there.

“Sorry to startle you,” Max said, “but I’ve always wanted to see this episode.” “I think I know it by heart,” answered the girl. “When I was a kid in Boston, there was this one radio station that played it every Christmas Eve at midnight. It was some kind of tradition. I used to fall asleep every year listening to it in my room. It’ll always remind me of home.”

Max sat there tongue-tied, with a goofy smile curling across his face. Two weeks later, when he was home for the winter break, Max told his grandfather the story. And when Max married that same girl five years later, he opened the gift from his grandfather to find the transistor radio at the bottom of a small box. It is all so clear in my memory. Max is me.

Even now, on clear, cold winter nights, when my wife and children are fast asleep and I just can’t seem to settle my thoughts, I’ll find a quiet room in my house, take out my grandfather’s old transistor radio and scan the AM dial, wondering what will be out there for me to find.

Arthur can be reached at clausland@yahoo.com

December 13, 2010

A holiday tale

Growing up in little Spring Valley, N.Y., a country village near New York City, but oh so far from urbanity, holiday lighting was minimal. Ostentatious wasn’t yet in, very few of us had any extra money, and cheap, overseas-made decoration wouldn’t arrive until nations recovered from the Second World War. Indoor and limited outdoor lighting depended on strings and sets kept for years, with bulb replacement just about all that was necessary.

Most people in the Rockland County of the 1940s-50s would travel to one of the five and tens or hardware stores in the Valley, Suffern, Nyack, Haverstraw or Pearl River and get fresh tinsel for the Christmas tree, perhaps a new ornament and a few seven-watt bulbs. Many would wait until Christmas Eve to decorate. Few put up elaborate outdoor lighting. Our Jewish neighbors lit Menorahs for Hanukkah. Neighbors of any persuasion were invited on the eight nights to participate in the lighting.

Downtowns were lit with heavy strings of colored bulbs across main street from telephone pole to pole. In Spring Valley, Garry Onderdonk, whose electrician father installed the lights, would have to switch each string on nightly, using a long pole. Merchants would add color to their window displays for both Christmas and Hanukkah.

In all, there was enough bright and varied lighting to make the season warm and festive. Just right, most of us thought. In keeping with both reality and our expectations

So it is with prejudiced view, or at least non-approving thought, that I cannot accept the lavish displays I now see in the suburbs, including Rockland. Some homeowners are hiring outfits that bring 10 men and a bucket loader to trim large evergreens with string after string of lights. Giant air-blown figures sway with the wind and against other lighting on the lawn. At the street is a sign proclaiming that the Disneyland spectacular was “professionally” installed.

It makes you wonder how many holiday lights there are at the unemployment office or in homes where people go to sleep solid middle class and awake in lower economic ranks.

Now, I am not blaming folks well enough off to have a design team temporarily triple their electric bill. Yet, the contrast is still there for all to see in a nation that faces Christmas 2010 more worried about debt, jobs, government viability and the national mojo than it has since the Great Depression.

But, hey, it’s holiday time, and colored lights take our minds off reality. Enjoy, please. Come January, the lights again will be white and bright. Enough that we can see what’s what. If only we then take a look. …

December 6, 2010

‘Night carpenter’ at work

I think doors have a way of fitting in, just like long-gone Uncle Jack in town for a comfy visit. He gets that way fast. Or people who initially stand out and are somehow morphed into the crowd, hopefully adding to the whole. It’s as if the universe has a carpenter on staff who, in the secrecy and dark of night, planes here and sands there, making adjustments to assure a fit, whether it’s doors or people.

Several weeks ago, I replaced six interior doors in my 1973 home with more stylish, six-paneled molded ones. Now, this house, like me, has lost its plumb and level a bit in 37 years, so just one factory-produced door fit without having to trim an edge, more deeply mortise a hinge or move the height of a lock.

The refitting took time, and when the work was done, despite the usual mistakes and miscalculations by this practiced but non-pro carpenter, and with almost a full vocabulary exercised in the cursing language that is always in my tool kit, the doors looked just fine and worked fairly well. Not perfect, you see, since (1) they were not the original doors, which had been fitted to the jambs on an assembly line, but (2) replacements made by another manufacturer decades later. Sizes were off, as they often are. So was my work, a tad.

It has taken these weeks since installation to give a nudge here and there to a few doors, and it is nearing winter, too, when the house moves a bit. That has required further adjustment to the doors.

All is now fine, yet something else is happening. Last night, I went into my office area and flipped the door closed, as I did with the old one. It smoothly went into position, as easily as would a machinist’s pin in a milled location. This is not my “fine” carpentry at work, though. I really believe the doors feel at home, that they finally fit in.

They are now part of the house, as its predecessors were for so long. I miss the history of those doors, two of which were on my sons’ bedrooms, with their signs and posters affixed, different in each season of growth. But today is today, and the hope is the doors will also open to tomorrow.

I am grateful that they fit so well. It must be the finish work of the unseen night carpenter.

November 29, 2010

Sam’s hiccups

Had a conversation with a young fellow at a train station in chilly, windy weather when the topic turned to hiccups since that was what the 3.5-year-old was using for punctuation in what otherwise was rapid-fire language. We were waiting for his mom and dad, my son and his wife, to return from an anniversary trip to New York City, and I figured he would like to see the Metro-North local arrive. It isn’t every day that a kid looks at a train these days – it’s still a thrilling sight, as it has been since the first Erie ran in my parts in the late 1840s.

But keeping a youngster occupied at a busy station, even for the 10 minutes I figured were left before the train pulled in, is challenging. I don’t know his world, and he doesn’t know mine. What are Sam’s day dreams? His fears? His concept of time, space? How does he look at people? What does he think of his old codger grandfather, an odd-enough fellow?

Discussing hiccups seemed an excellent way to keep him occupied. We had a conversation, parts of which, maybe even the whole, might seem silly, but then again, pondering the universe in any which way led us to the electric light and other good things, too. In the least, it can be entertaining.

I asked Sam where he got his hiccups. Did his mom put them in his breakfast cereal? Did his teacher give a Thanksgiving treat? Since, I, too, wanted hiccups so as to not be left out, I asked Sam where I could buy them.

He answered with a bunch of “no’s” and “I don’t know.” He did so quite seriously, as if we were professors pondering quantum physics. Sam thought it quite natural that his grandfather and he would be having such a conversation, and he pondered every answer. At no point did he think the questions silly. Perhaps in a few years he will see nonsense, but not now.

Now is still time for Sam to have an awfully broad imagination, an unlimited field of dreams where he can race this way and that, chasing this thought or another. Why not? He has not yet been told to limit his thinking, to set boundaries. Sam — any youngster his age — can be what Tom Edison always was, a thinker without qualification whose imagination is without limits.

Soon, thanks to a conversation about hiccups, including asking Sam what color his were, whether he saved a few in his pocket for an after-lunch treat, and whether he could see them on his computer, the train with mom and dad pulled in.

The very sight of his parents made Sam lose his hiccups and eagerly embrace his favorite people. Wonderful. Gramps moseyed on.

Hope Sam had some hiccups later, though.

November 22, 2010

When a door closed …

Forty-seven years ago this was a Friday, and about 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professionally but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial.

So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone, Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.

And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.

Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched.

Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.

November 15, 2010

Never forgotten

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – It is another moment now for my classmates and me, Spring Valley High School 1961, a season so very far removed from senior year autumn 50 years ago when “fall madness” brought the football team to its new playing field and General Organization President Fred Yatto Jr. stood at half-time with Gerd Bitten Andersen, our Danish exchange student.

In a few weeks’ time, the rush of giddy feeling from knowing that in just months we would graduate and move to adulthood and its freedom would be tempered with loss and sadness, too.

On Nov. 19, 1960, Fred, 17, passed away after very difficult, even impossible, heart surgery. A routine school sports physical the previous spring had detected an unusual sound in his heart. Further investigation revealed a hole. This meant open-heart surgery, then in its infancy and far, far riskier than today.

Fred knew his operation was coming up in early November 1960, but he tried to make light of it, hoping not to worry his classmates. Most of us were too immature and inexperienced to know the very grave danger he faced. Fred understood that and continued to be everyone’s friend. His ability to get along with people proclaimed great promise.

On Nov. 12, he presided over a pre-game ceremony on the new field off Route 59 in which Bitten was officially recognized. And about two weeks before his surgery, he went to a party in nearby Pomona with some friends, this writer included. The small amount of alcohol he had there, in his condition, caused him to pass out. We carried him onto a bed in a spare room at Joan Prescott’s Pomona Road home so he could recover. It was a prescient moment.

Just a few weeks later, some of us would again carry Fred Yatto, this time to his final resting place on this Earth, the West New Hempstead Cemetery, only two miles from the Prescott house. Fred died Nov. 19, after the open-heart operation revealed a hole the size of a half-dollar, and in those days it could not be successfully repaired.

When our classmate passed away, so ended the innocence of school life for the Class of ’61. We have had other classmates leave us too soon in later years, 15 by my count from a class of 201, but Fred was the first, and the sobering it cast will never be forgotten.

Good times eventually returned to SVHS, but the black fact that death comes to us all, including the young, was forever imprinted on our psyche. It changed us, some for life. The journeys each of us have taken since Nov. 19, 1960, have been set by it.

While I know that, in an earthly view, Fred Yatto was denied the right, the joys, even the sorrows of life beyond high school, the journey into middle and old age, and into the season that is now, it must be said that his spirit has lived a life.
Fred’s memory, his influence, lives in friends and former classmates, who, once in a while, reflect on the young man who was and the man who should have been.

I recall his eagerness, his humor, his sense of responsibility, his deep love for living. What were to be his hopes, his aspirations, his ups and downs, have been experienced in some way or another by the Class of ’61. Some of us have thought: What would Fred have said about this or that, or what would he have done in such and such a moment?

The realization that 50 years later, a 17-year-old fellow has not been forgotten is proof that a life did not finish on this earth on Nov. 19, 1960.

November 8, 2010

The loss at Woodside

NEW HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – History isn’t always rescued. Sometimes it costs too much. Sometimes “progress” is a big bully and wins. Sometimes no one cares. Sometimes there are priorities. The given, though, is that all history lost is heritage gone, memories set to fade mode, to hazy recollection such as “Wasn’t there a barn over there?”

New Hempstead, in the Spring Valley Postal District, is a smallish village carved out of the Town of Ramapo several decades ago, in part to slow the development bulldozer, protect quality of life a bit and perhaps save this or that part of history. Yet now a big piece of the past is gone. It is a sad story, one that almost anyone, anywhere can relate to since change, while often beneficial, also is like a wake.

On a recent Sunday, the volunteers of the Moleston Fire District, Hillcrest Fire Company, held a training exercise at the long-standing Woodside Dairy barn off Brick Church Road. The barn, not used for many years, had become dilapidated, and it was determined it had to go. So it was put to the torch, doing one last bit of good for the community it long served, training hardworking volunteer firefighters.

Perhaps it was fitting, too, that Hillcrest would bring the barn down since the Moleston District’s first commissioner was Enoch Erickson, predecessor of those Ericksons who worked the dairy farm.

According to Marty Erickson, wife of Gene, daughter-in-law of Clarence (Pete), the Woodside Dairy Barn and Milk House began on purchased Smith farmland. Woodside was a working dairy farm until the 1960s. During World War II, says Marty, “The family made sure local children had dairy products, often at no cost. When the Rockland Leader (a Spring Valley weekly newspaper) burned in the 1960s, the barn stored rescued editions.”

As Rockland County moved from pre-war rural to post-war New York City suburb, local dairies and other farms were sold for housing developments and strip shopping centers, “progress” paving over a long-practiced way of life. Soon enough, people began buying milk from large companies in convenience stores and supermarkets, and home delivery died out.

Woodside was sold “for a token amount, in a spirit of patriotism, for a county veterans cemetery … In recent years, the buildings have been vandalized, the barn roof succumbed to the weather … and the silo was covered with vines,” writes Marty.

The Woodside barn has not been rescued. If it could have been restored, perhaps Rockland schoolchildren could see demonstrations of old-time milking, smell the hayloft straw and the old barn timbers, get away from the hustle and bustle and step back in time to a moment of American history when independence, hard work, self-sufficiency, community spirit and service and pure survival were parts of ingrained country character.

Saved from Woodside are a few milk bottles and fading memories. Yet there must be a repository for all the emotions this farm witnessed over so many years. Somewhere, somehow, some time, they may emerge in realization and enlightenment that progress doesn’t mean just building the new but securing the past as well.

November 1, 2010

Election Day

Election Day this year is more important than in many seasons. If this nation (1) does not show up at the polls and (2) does not elect those willing to forgo special interests and secret money, America will not progress. The economy will stagnate and taxes will rise. Major issues – true health care reform, job creation, fair trade, education reform, immigration, security and the rescue of the dwindling yet vital middle class – will not be addressed.

According to national newspaper reports, in the 2006 mid-term elections, outside groups not connected to political parties spent $51.6 million. So far in 2010, courtesy of a high court decision guaranteeing “free speech” to big-moneyed interests that can bully with unlimited cash, such groups have spent $280 million, 60 percent from undisclosed donors.

It is power and greed, hiding behind political philosophy and jingoistic, simplistic slogans that are behind large secret donations. Continual war makes money for all too many, as Ike warned us in far less involved times. Health care is not about human needs but about profit. Manufacturing, once and for a long time made successful for companies and the nation by hard-working blue collars, has left the USA for other countries, a slap in the face to those still owed for building these companies. But money rules, even if only for the short term since without income, Americans won’t buy products and so keep the economic stream replenished.

If God’s lighting could strike Tuesday, it might bring us a full turnout of thinking voters; it might cause the special interests to wither; it might see the election of thousands of “Mr. (Miss/Mrs.) Smiths, who go to Washington or to state capitols or to town and village halls as disconnects from the almighty dollar, who seek only to do right by their fellow man, woman and child.

Such equality of purpose has not been seen in the Founders’ Land for decades.

October 25, 2010

Progress and a playwright

There is in my county – Rockland – in what just a short 50 years ago was mostly rural land, a slice of leftover heaven. Though within 25 miles of New York City, the absence of interstates and direct rail had until the 1950s kept growth on the other side of the Hudson River. To this place, this country of apple farming since the 1700s, came many artists and writers, who could keep in touch with business/career matters in Gotham and then escape to create in soulful respite. One of these gifted people was John Patrick (Goggan), playwright of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” screenwriter of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and other notable properties.

The author guarded his privacy, and he could do that well, living on more than 200 acres of God’s land in the woods, hills and marsh of the Town of Ramapo, off old State Highways 202 and 306. For a very long time, even as “progress” filled in surrounding acreage, Patrick was able to keep his retreat, and, presumably, his quiet so that “Some Came Running,” “High Society” and “Three Coins n a Fountain” could be written. His lavish parties at the estate, which included stables and farm animals, attracted well-known neighbors like the actor Burgess Meredith.

In time, Patrick would leave, as would Meredith, playwright Maxwell Anderson of South Mountain Road, New City, and so many others. The assumption is Rockland’s loss of innocence had something to do with the exodus.

What seemed heaven-sent, so much open and wooded land, in a place where seasons changed, where long country walks in great quiet could be had for free, was replaced with too-many-to-count housing developments, strip shopping centers, then low-rise and high-rise apartment houses, indoor shopping malls, traffic, congestion, noise and high taxes, all made possible by two interstates and a bridge called the Tappan Zee.

This “progress” surely was that for many, just as 1800s growth on the island of Manhattan gave us part of New York City, enormously influential, enjoyable yet teeming in great emotion with all the elements of human living. Paved over was simplicity, nature’s sounds and the awe of masterful creation, there for the taking by eye, ear and heart.

Now, the same “forward” movement of growth is set to gobble away John Patrick’s farm, which, amazingly, has not yet been developed. And it would not be today, in the stress of the challenged and changing economy. There is little money for more housing, even in such a bucolic setting as Patrick’s retreat. Too many homes are already for sale, too many through foreclosure alone.

The equation here for “progress” is a different formula. Ramapo government is trying to accommodate a religious group that contends it needs God’s bucolic acres for its interpretation of God’s work. So, the acreage, once zoned for homes on two acres, with much of the land held back as flood plain, has been rezoned, and the town Planning Board is probably going to approve 87 single-family homes and 410 multi-family units. Guarding the marsh areas in the aquifer will mean heavy, urban-like density, quite unsuitable for this relatively country-like section of Rockland.

Government is failing to balance the quality for life for all in this rezoning, and the religious group is not seeing the wisdom of building a smaller complex so as to be a better neighbor.

Such a script is part of the “progress” play, for old-time Rocklanders could argue that too many developments replaced the apple farms, or early Manhattanites could contend that their neighborhoods were blitzed for growth. Or our Native Americans could justifiably claim that sacred land was taken from then for the white man’s “progress.”

An old story. One even worthy of a John Patrick theme. Certainly fodder for Maxwell Anderson, whose play “High Tor” detailed growth and consequences, too.

Ironically, it is for the sake of God, or, more exactly, for one people’s view of His call to life on this earth, that “heaven” will transform into what would others would term its opposite.

October 18, 2010

We must declare war

It is time to declare war, America. We are at our united best in such action, one that begins after an attack on our people, noted by the president in a stirring speech and legalized by the Congress. We’re talking World War II-like declaration and subsequent adrenalin load, mobilized defense and full use of our can-do brains and muscle.

Our nation has been attacked, not by terrorists but by special interests who buy our officials and who cunningly direct growing populist rage against government and policy, playing on the fear foaming out of the stirred pot of a prolonged and most severe economic crisis. Feeding the fire are rumor-mongers, nonsensical beings who reason not, who, for example, blame minorities for anything and everything, as if no minority ever helped build this country.

The American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, two world wars and manifest destiny, is disappearing. Corporate greed has outsourced jobs overseas. Focusing on the immediate bottom line instead of the future of the American economy/social structure is creating a third world-like underclass that will be out of work permanently.
At stake is much more than loss of buying power, a stalled economy and the threat of renewed recession, even deflation. No democracy long sustains itself without a healthy middle class and the hopes therein. Cities and suburbs will decay, and crime and social problems will increase. Children will be lost as progress regresses for the short-term almighty dollar.

Aspiring to be in the middle class, with its great comforts, its sense of arrival, has been the carrot that so many Americans have chased, even while under the stick of poor job conditions, long hours and sacrifice. It has always been worth it – the carrot usually has been eaten. Until now.

Now, the rules are different. Greed is the only rule, with profits ever higher for the very rich, for corporations built by the middle class that now outsource work overseas. Greed that is aided and abetted by ever-more powerful special-interest groups, through 501C (4) political action committees and a Supreme Court decision that essentially allows big money to drown opponents and their contributors in a sea of cash. In 2010, big money rules elections, rules Congress. That is an attack on America.

So, let there be war, never desirable but once again necessary since the conflict has not been avoided by true campaign finance reform. Call it “The Greed War,” one that awaits national address by an articulate president who nearly has been done in by special interests and their manipulation of national rage into awful moments of untruths, extremism and even violence, and by himself, since his leadership has been most lacking on what he promised to do. But he is still the national leader, and he can still help save the nation.

Once his words are given in an address to a joint session of Congress, that body will then, as agent for the people, declare that this nation is now at full war with those who thwart our national aims of equality and social and economic advancement through their push for the big dollar and for the special powers – military/industrial/political – the investment dollar might bring.

Once war is declared and the enemy is identified as special interest, it must be eliminated. No more fat wallets for any candidate or office holder, with each and every campaign instead fully funded by the people. Lobbyists would still have their voices, but through public hearings on any cause or government question and not through questionable “donations.”

Then, the war won, a new “Marshall Plan” of recovery, not for Europe but for America this time. Funded will be a new industrial/scientific age that creates innovative work (jobs), the seeking of a new frontier that can guarantee a vibrant middle class, and with it, the wealth of the upper and the sustenance and dreams of the lower. And the hopes of the future for all in this nation.

October 11, 2010

Free speech takes courage

Most postings to online news stories are an embarrassment to free speech. The same people seem to post over and over, often answering one another back and forth, in diatribe reminiscent of the old radio call-in shows, also dominated by “regulars.” What is written is usually not thought out, poorly phrased, full of spelling and grammatical errors and not edited by anyone. Worst of all, they are unsigned, which makes their frequent fear- and prejudice-based “reasoning” all the more troubling since their authors strike in anonymity. Rumor-mongers, these posters play on “e-bites,” the Internet equivalent of sound bites. But the full meal, the thoughtful argument, is rarely there.

Is this how we are to “inform” in the new age of declining print and quick electronic comment? If so, the nation, the world, the neighborhood is in trouble. It’s like uttering a joke in one language, translating through the idioms of 10 other tongues and then back into English. The intended meaning is lost, even skewed toward idiocy.

How did we get here? As revenue has declined in dwindling print journalism, newspapers and other media have encouraged online viewpoints, thus giving almost anyone a shot at speaking in the public square. In doing so, there has been editorial ballyhoo about protecting democracy through added, unrestricted comment, but that’s a convenient argument used to rationalize marketing for website hits. The more people who visit the sites, the more advertisers you get.

How is public discourse encouraged when too few posters think through what they want to say, often getting off the subject completely and instead pushing whatever agenda they may have? Some examples: A recent Associated Press story about Kim Jong Un, the new North Korean leader, contained many postings, including one that suggested America send “that fat little pork chop” to South Africa where sharks could eat him alive. Attached to a suburban newspaper piece about a highly paid police chief who may retire was the comment that many houses “where lost do to forecloser.” No, many homes WERE (perhaps) lost DUE to FORECLOSURE. In a Louisiana story about that state’s review of the Gulf oil spill, there was this: we should “believe the findings of this committe? yeah tell it to the friggin pope!” (Spelling, grammar, vulgarity not changed “to protect free speech.”) How do these postings add anything coherent to debate?

As a retired 42-year newspaperman who fought for the right to access facts and print them and for the right to express both the newspaper’s views and the people’s, I cannot call for a narrowing of the online response pipeline. Instead, since I am still free in this nation, I will continue to ignore most of this comment, just as I switched off many of the old “hotline” radio callers. But as a former editorial page editor who, together with my newspaper, insisted that letter writers identify themselves, I urge all media companies to require the same for online posters. And any poster immediately should show courage of conviction and stand up using his/her real name. This should make people think first, and think deeply, before posting. It would weed out the ridiculous.

In the letter-writing days, some of the correspondents would ask me to use a pseudonym, for fear that “some nut will call me” or “I will be harassed by calls.” I would reply: “When you use our – your – free speech forum, you hang yourself out there. The right to offer opinion comes at risk. Be willing to take it.” Almost all did.

That’s not the case with online posting. There are too many participants who do not have the courage of their convictions.

October 4, 2010

State of the nation

Taxes are up, people’s confidence down. Health insurance is ever more costly despite “overhaul,” the rich are richer, and they don’t share opportunity. Manufacturing, once the bedrock of our economy, is silent, its machines now spinning in China. The American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, immigration, two world wars, suburbia and manifest destiny, is disappearing. A third world-like underclass is forming, one that permanently will be out of work.

At stake is much more than loss of buying power, a stalled economy and the threat of entrenched recession. No democracy long sustains without a healthy middle class and the hopes therein. Cities and suburbs will decay, and crime and social problems will increase. Education will not progress in such limited optimism. Children’s dreams will be lost as opportunities dwindle.

The squeeze of the common man is on for the short-term, almighty dollar to enrich the already wealthy, with scant evidence that the largess ever trickles down to reinvigorate consumers who buy most of the products and who want to climb the ladder of success that is the foundation of the middle class.

Our longest war continues without clear strategy. There is no end in sight. It is killing our young and draining not only the borrowed treasury but the nation’s future as it will be our children’s children’s children who will have to repay the borrowed debt, if they can.

Special interests – some of polarized political bent, many others industry-driven (health insurance companies, military suppliers, financial houses) – determine our legislatures, our executive branch, too. If “Mr. Smith” went to Washington to tell us this in what was once plain, simple, direct – and honest – language, he probably could not get through Homeland Security.

Politics in 2010 is polarized talk, not service to the people, now delivered in quick sound bites and e-bits meant to inflame, not inform, playing off slogans, playing off fear, based not a whit on facts. The downsizing and less-profitable media devotes too little in investigative reporting and explanatory writing to structure the debate and thus forge the choices that a democracy must make. Instead, we have sloganeering, innuendo, deliberate distorting of facts, pushed rumors – all meant to push a simplistic agenda, such as “take government back” or “change.”

If only it were that simple.

Government investment – deficit spending – was supposed to gas up the stalling economy, but it has not. Bureaucracy, special interests and deliberate distortion of aims have largely wasted borrowed money. It seems the system we have simply shoots itself in the foot, yet the ordinary American feels the pain, not government.

The handwriting is on the wall, and it is one word: “greed.” What the nation requires is a teacher who will erase that from the blackboard and write “investment.” Investment in jobs, in what must become a new industrial/scientific age in America that creates innovative work, the seeking of a new frontier that can guarantee a vibrant middle class, and with it, since it is America’s historical bent, the wealth of the upper and the sustenance and dreams of the lower.

All good will follow – money for schools, for health care, for infrastructure, for defense, for debt.

One last thing: Teacher should send special interest to the principal, recommending permanent suspension. Can’t teach with a bully in the classroom.

September 27, 2010

Balance in suburbia

In 1945, even before troop ships brimming with returning World War II veterans hit ports in America, the suburban “plan” had been hatched. Defense contractors like Levitt & Sons knew many of these men, and some women, would never go back to their cities after their breakout. No longer were aspirations shelved by the make-do years of the Great Depression and then a devastating conflict. As well, there was renewed confidence in survival. The G.I., the sailor, the Marine, the airman, had made it back, and maybe these Americans could forge yet a new frontier, as is written in our national genetic code.

The newest frontier was affordable housing for the average American, to fulfill the dream of home ownership. William Levitt and his family, businessmen surely seeing great profit as well as possessing the ability to meet a need, were the first to step up to the plate in 1947 when they began selling homes fabricated in an assembly-line method, with payment as low as $57 a month. “Levittown” would completely alter the Long Island farm landscape, and everywhere else. Quickly, housing developments would grow across the nation, including in New York City’s suburbs, fertilized by eager investment and cultivated by willing towns and villages, which envisioned much more money for tax coffers. What was not expected in the heady rush was suburbia’s cost, its great and growing expense that today is helping drain treasuries from the federal government to the states to communities.

Aging infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, utilities, parks and public buildings; hastily built homes now requiring new plumbing and electrical work; houses illegally modified over the years against zoning regulations to create multiple units; insufficiently maintained homes, some of which stand out as eyesores, with unregistered cars on lawns, litter and unpainted siding; and bulldozed-over floodplains that raise the water table for other residents, filling their basements in storms – all these concerns now haunt graying suburbia, just as many of them have afflicted the old cities from which suburbanites fled in the decades after World War II. Yet, ironically, many of our urban areas have been rebuilt in their rediscovery. Children of suburbanites, turned off by the great development expanse, shopping strips that you have to drive to and the loss of old neighborhood downtowns, seek closer community in walking, downtown areas in Brooklyn, for example.

But this leaves suburbia wanting, for our growing national, state and local deficits and the ever-escalating cost of government combine to raise taxes prohibitively while concurrently not providing sufficient re-investment. Our infrastructure repair budgets are cut; our social services and health care expenses increase as suburbanites age. Reductions in manufacturing jobs and other workplace losses shrink the ranks of the middle class, the suburban bedrock. Suburbia no longer is growing, yet the rather big elephant in the room needs to be fed, its appetite almost insatiable. Who will pay?

A partial answer is in balance, which is necessary in the maturing of the suburbs. When the suburban boom began, planners, developers, investors and government should not have abandoned our downtowns and hamlet centers, instead balancing rebuilding there with the growth of fringe development. Without visionary thinking, we left areas to sometimes unscrupulous, exploiting landlords who turned them into substandard housing. And we vacated our downtown shopping zones in the process.

The proper plan would have been to reinvest in the downtowns, to tear down and renew the old and build a community of shops and housing, tied to outer suburbia. Instead, a gazillion shopping strips went up, with yet another pizza shop, dry cleaner and now the standard bagel joint. No visionary was available then (1945-2005 at least) with a strong enough voice. Everyone thought the suburbs were the best thing since toasted bread. Leave the crowded cities behind, people said. So, many Gothamites fled to the suburbs, but many, too, have now fled from them as well in the inevitable aging of suburbia.

Balance is required in development, particularly in rebuilding suburbia; that is, if growth and regrowth ever happen in this scary economy. But will visionaries speak up and be heard this time, over the shuffling of the mighty greenback?

Sept. 20, 2010

A neighborly cruise

ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN DAWN (Sept. 12-19) – I’ve cruised seven days as a tourist in calm waters, though in truth I would rather have been on a high seas adventure as correspondent during trying times. I saw clear to the horizon, literally and otherwise, no other vessels near, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, its ballasts and stabilizers set for a senior citizen-comfort ride, pushing along at 13 knots, bound for Halifax, St. John, Bar Harbor, Boston, Newport and then back to New York City.

Security was tight shore-wise, ship-wise. It is the price we pay these scary days – 99 percent of the people showing photo ID, facing deep scrutiny by eye, computer and X-ray detector against the 1 percent who might do harm. This puts a damper on fun activities, especially when the rare official is overzealous, but not so much that what you pay for doesn’t deliver on a cruise. If you are a casino aficionado, a shuffleboard player, a Las Vegas-type show lover; if you like to eat, to socialize, to relax on deck lounges, a cruise is custom-made; if you like to get off the ship in varied ports (not all do), this is the way to travel.

For me, a cruise is a way to people watch, to observe humanity, to overhear accents – from England, the American Midwest, Canada, France, all over the world, 70 nations represented on my trip alone. It’s been an opportunity to have conversations – so many people were friendly, so many were interesting. Some were endearing. Living as most of us do in a microcosm, interacting with the same neighbors, workers, family and friends every day, immersed as we are in whatever region in which we live, we get used to the habits – the politeness, the impoliteness, the yin/yang – of our particular little world – the moaning and groaning, the good deeds, the annoyances.

I can report that getting out of our cubicles and meeting new people makes you feel optimistic about humanity. You are reassured once again that while we have always been troubled by greed, hate, wars, the better nature of us all is still a good bet for the long run.

As I cruised along, my sense of pioneering, the security blanket of independent spirit that I have carried since birth still wrapped tightly, I was reassured that this nation, this world must never be looked at through the eyes of the self-annointed suspicious, through the greedy, through those who profit by hardship and who would have us live in fear, but through the hearts, minds and values of the corn farmers I met on this trip, and of the English couple bent simply “on a holiday, you see,” and of the Filipino staff most courteous, and of the American westerners with wonderful, disarming manners, and of the older lady looking at an immigrant baby who saw only promise in a nation that once gave her Polish grandfather a shot at a dream.

If only the world we live in – the one determined by our governments – was as neighborly as this cruise has been.

Sept. 11, 2010

In honor of Sept. 11, this is a reprint of my column for Sept. 14, 2001, just days after the awful attack on America.

Weeping in Pearl River

They are weeping in Pearl River. Weeping for New York City’s Bravest and Finest, lost in the rubble and horror and smoke of the World Trade Center disaster.

They are weeping elsewhere in Rockland County, surely, for civilians and city workers alike, but it is Pearl River and all of Orangetown where so many of the Bravest and Finest live.

Some neighborhoods are almost an extension of the city, and firefighters and police officers living there have taken the jobs of fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers.

This is another Rockland, set apart from the country and historic days, and distinct from the regular post-war suburbia of New City or the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Spring Valley and Haverstraw.

In that, there is as much heritage, distinction and pride as in any section of this geographically small county so close to New York City. Indeed, it is the physical closeness that makes Pearl River, particularly, so attractive to city workers.

When the Palisades Interstate Parkway partially opened in 1955, Orangetown was the first accessible Rockland area, 16 miles from the George Washington Bridge. Firefighters and police officers, seeking a country life for their families and unable by law to live in New Jersey, which is closer to Gotham, flocked to the relatively affordable housing here.

And they formed a community. It is not the usual suburbia. Yes, there are the bi-levels; the block parties; the hustle and bustle of car pools and family activity. But there is also the “Brotherhood.” The Brotherhood of deep concern and respect for each officer, active or retired, and son or daughter or father or grandchild of that officer.
You might just as well be in the firehouse or the police precinct station house on many streets of Pearl River. These people stick together, and when one suffers, all do, fueled by the deep sense of mourning that the Irish (so many of these officers are of that heritage) instinctively carry in their souls and hearts.

Rockland, Pearl River, do not yet know how many of their New York City Bravest and Finest will be counted on the honor roll of the dead. That may take weeks, and the toll may be high. But already the darkness of grief has descended, and with that sweep of fate are also seen angels of mercy and comfort.

The mutual-aid system of the Brotherhood of firefighters and police officers has eased into the grief, separating the dark from hope and resurrection and thanks for sacrifice.

The bagpipes will be playing a long time in Pearl River and in Rockland. The Masses will be many. There will be a lifetime of sorrowful memory. But already there has begun a healing, thanks be to God, by the goodness of the Brotherhood.

September 9, 2010

Curiosity, a lifesaver

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

In the University of Higher Education that is life, you can earn a doctorate via Curiosity 101, 201, 301, 401. Curiosity was a welcome affliction for Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, who thought out of the box, who often applied barely basic skills of learning to journey, as Buzz Lightyear says in “Toy Story:” “To Infinity and Beyond.”

Einstein did poorly in school arithmetic and early math. Had he been the traditionalist, had he earned his gold stars in calculus, he might have ended up a fine professor of that discipline 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.

Tom Edison endlessly tinkered in his lab, trying this and that out of curiosity 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 inquisitiveness that found carbonized thread as the winner. And then there was light, literally.

Edward Hopper, the famed American realist painter whose works of solitude and intensity of emotion are so especially defining to the world right now, spent long 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 mind’s file cabinet for human and architectural sketches squirreled away on so many trips of curiosity. From here and there, Hopper took what he needed, and when the time was right, he brushed in strokes of interpretation that make us shiver decades later.

So, I say to all of you, especially the young yet not spoiled 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 and beyond.” This America, in particular, needs your innovation right now.

August 30, 2010

Coincidence?

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – There are too many coincidences in life – for any of us – to continue believing there is no connection, casual or otherwise. I learned that (again) the other day.

My son lives in this Hudson riverfront village, in a 1928 house built by the Lewis Family. One of the Lewises had three daughters and wanted to give them homes. He tore down his own house on Van Houten Street, constructed two small look-alikes and another on nearby Castle Heights Avenue. For generations, Lewises and Buckouts lived on Van Houten, until my son won out over others to buy one of the homes from LeRoy Buckout. Arthur IV had no grandiose ideas to tear the place apart and remake it according to modern “elegance.” Instead, “George Bailey,” whom I can truly call my son, has simply fixed up a simple but truly comfortable home. That intent made LeRoy quite happy.

Yet the time arrived when Arthur needed space for wife and two children, and that meant converting what was once a dirt floor basement into a romper room/living area. Yours truly has been the volunteer “contractor” on the job, along with experts in drainage, heating, electricity and dry-walling.

After months of building stairs, putting in a floor, adding to the pro electrical work, wall finishing and trim, I came to the drop ceiling portion, where old-fashioned tin was used. This required sturdy gloves, big tin snips and some muscle.

It was while working on a small table, set up by chance under the southeast window, when I realized, as I cut a circle for a light, that I was handling tin in the very same spot where Mr. Lewis had his commercial tinsmith’s workshop in the late 1920s.

If a photograph could have been taken of me at 11:30 a.m., August 27, 2010, in a brightly lit, almost finished room in what was once the unfinished basement of the house at 25 Van Houten, and if a shot had been snapped of Mr. Lewis at 11:30 a.m., August 27, 1929, and if the two had been compared, the latter would have been of a professional craftsmen making a living and the former of a man helping his son build his family’s space.

Similarities, yes. Coincidence? No, no more than my son Arthur 4th resembling good George Bailey. He even has the same white picket fence in front of his home.

August 23, 2010

Tools of the trade

Craftsmen/women are inventive people. Take electricians, for example. With all the fancy lithium-powered drills and saws and other modern tools to hang from your belt, most of the sparkys I’ve known and/or observed use lineman’s pliers as combination hammer, cutter, measuring device and coffee stirrer.

It’s probably easier to stick with one tool, be it 1929 or 2010. Your hands are married to the pliers in their symbiosis. You can save time by not putting one tool in your pouch and then taking out another. Most important, this tool is basically an electrician’s only, not a plumber’s or a carpenter’s. It is therefore the mark of the trade. And anyone in a trade or a profession likes to be noted as such. It is pride.

In the old newspaper composing rooms, printers had line gauges in their apron vest pockets. Also called “pica poles,” these rules measured type, 6 picas to the column inch, 14 agate lines to the inch.

Doctors carry stethoscopes. Carpenters hammers, or more recently, pneumatic tools. Mechanics have wrenches in their pockets.

Two generations ago, grocery clerks had a pencil resting on an ear so as to quickly pull it out and tally up the bill on a fresh brown paper bag, the speed of their arithmetic amazing. Some of my teachers stuck pencils in their hair, usually red ones, for difficult marking (or was it a warning?).

Fishermen return from the sea with their nets, and, it is hoped, their catch, but when they are set aside, their trade is marked by sun-etched faces and a distant look that says “I go to the beyond every day, and so far I have returned.”

Children have a mark of the youth “trade” as well. Imagination, curiosity, wonderment – gifts to the early ones so quickly obscured by the details and distraction of puberty and adulthood, only to return in aging years.

The observant can tell often tell who is in what job, or where the life has been, sometimes where it is going. For we all carry the tools of our trade.

August 16, 2010

The 5&10 adventure

You can be as old as I am – 67 – and still be age 12 when you step into the 2010 version of a 5&10-cent store. You can have $200 in your pocket but again feel the wonder of what a quarter might buy in this magical palace.

Once, every downtown had a 5&10, sometimes two. Usually there was the omnipresent Woolworth’s where in my grandparents’ time, many items did, indeed, sell for a nickel or a dime. In the 1950s, in Spring Valley, N.Y., at the Consolidated 5&10, 25 cents and up was more likely.

Nyack, a nearby village, had two dime stores, and each was set up in honorable, cherished fashion. Double entry doors to the right, double exit to the left. Railroad flat floor plan, a shotgun drive in a long room. Wooden floors once varnished but never again. Islands of counters with 5-inch glass walls, goods spread neatly.

(An odd thing about those counters. They never seemed messy, even on a sale day when dish towels, for example, might be on special at 10 cents per. Maybe consumers were neater then. Today, in major department stores, counters without glass walls but with originally well-stacked piles of say, shirts, soon become jungles of goods in disarray.)

In the old 5&10, hardware items were usually toward the back of the store, and that’s where I headed. Once, with 25 cents in hand, probably a quarter from my grandmother, I could not wait until Boy Scout Troop 13 had finished its Friday night meeting at the Dutch Reformed Church so that I could get over to Consolidated, zoom down the long aisle to the right, back to the last glass-walled counter and then to the small bottles of turpentine. I got one for 19 cents, no tax, and once out of the store and on my walk home to Hillcrest, I opened it up to get the pine smell. The next day it was used on a wood-working project in my parents’ unfinished basement.

In larger downtowns, the dime stores had candy counters where you bought by the pound or fraction thereof. Loose candy – nonpareils were a favorite – were scooped up by the counter person, weighed in a hopper and then slid into a white paper bag, which you clutched tightly all the way home. Other 5&10s had wonderful donut counters, and as soon as you entered the store you could smell the sweetness. Every mom’s hand was soon tugged by a child with watering mouth. Even bigger stores had lunch counters with fountain service and quick, simple sandwiches, such as grilled cheese and chicken salad.

Just as Automats were once urban fixtures, complete with characters and good, dependable food, so 5&10s were small and big downtown meccas, one of the required stores that made main street Main Street, a place for every income level, almost always affordable, even for a fellow with an rare quarter burning a hole in his pocket. What an adventure they were.

August 9, 2010

On local identity

It’s Rockland County, this place from which I write, this land north of New York City. It is not the Carolinas. Not Boston. Not San Francisco. Not Europe or Asia or South America. Or the Bronx or Brooklyn or Manhattan. Not even New Jersey, our closest relative. It’s this special, unique place, defined by and for the individuals who live here. Whatever each of us finds pulling about this county is in that mix of emotion, personal attachment, gathered history and the sinew of having so far survived suburbia.

Rockland helped define suburbia. As with Long Island’s famous Levittown, this county quickly built suburbia’s framework – in hundreds of housing developments since 1950; in civic associations that gave voice (sometimes loud) to former, once-living-in-anonymity Gothamites; in greater diversity in a region known for its varied mix since the 1600s; in added national infrastructure like the Thruway, Palisades Interstate Parkway, and, of course, the Tappan Zee Bridge; and in the growth — the constant growth — of everything, from government to schools to the tax load.

Has the trip been worth it so far? Yes … and … no. There are few Rocklanders who do not pine for some of the so-called “good, old days,” who would not take less traffic; a generally friendlier attitude from people; no air, visual or noise pollution from the Palisades lnterstate; more green space; fewer-filled in floodplains; our farms returned; downtowns restored; unlocked doors; less government; simplicity.

It’s the nature of things to look back
wistfully, and even a Rocklander of a few
years’ residency can and does that. Take a
countyite of 75 years’ duration or one
whose family dates back to the I600s, and
you really intensify the feeling. But we all
know that “progress” stops for no one,
and no change is entirely welcome.

That said, I would not trade my existence here in Rockland for any other spot that I have visited. This is a county of great variety in its people, groups and geography, and you have only to reach out
to touch some of it. Walk South Mountain
Road on a foggy morning; climb High Tor in
the fall; take the Hook Mountain path in the
summer; sail the Hudson; traipse through
downtown Suffern with the Ramapos in the
distance; look at the beauty of some of the
old custom-built homes on South Madison
Avenue in Spring Valley; hike the Dunderberg; bike through Tomkins Cove; spend an early morning on
Camp Hill Road in Pomona.

Attend some function sponsored by our many caring agencies; go to an art show; hear and see
local performers; recognize the work of our many volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps people and others; realize how, in a pinch, even complaining Rocklanders help each other.

Yes, we are a busy place, sometimes too
fast-paced, too impersonal, too abrupt, even arrogant and cold. But this Rockland is also a mix of many interesting people with varied outlook and diverse background.

That is how it is in Rockland today; that is it was in
1798, and is one of the reasons more sedate, more countrified, Iess slower-paced Orange County was willing to let us go that year as we formed this county of Rockland.

Our die was cast the moment the first
settler realized we were close to the great
port of New York. We are not the city by far, but
we are influenced by it, then, now and forever. We also exert influence, and even the most brusque former urbanite gets his edges polished and becomes this different breed called Rocklander.

Here’s an example of a Rocklander couple, Betsy and Jim Miller. They wrote me at The Journal-News to tell us of the old days in this county. “Many years ago,” they said, “when we had goats, chickens, etc., the schools used to make the property their yearly trip.
We taught children to feel a warm egg, freshly laid, and they learned to get a squirt of milk from a goat and about nature.”

Such description of an earlier time in Rockland speaks to the “quiet” of those days. Once, the close, personal family touch was more evident.

In my own youth, the Rockland neighborhood of the 1940s and 1950s, there was Spring Valley’s John Romaine, a radio and TV expert, running projectors at the Hillcrest Firehouse during holidays so the area
youths could see cartoons and other films. He also had a small theater in his Locust Street home. There have been and are individuals in Rockland who care enough about their neighbors to do something for them. They should continue to be heard, for they speak eloquently.

You define someone who lives in Rockland as either a countyite — a “Rocklander” actually — or someone who is just passing through, who may pick up some of our mannerisms but who simply wants to move on, who never really invests faith and emotion in this county. Make your choice. And be proud of the town, village or hamlet where you reside if you stay.

No “community” can be called such unless it has residential interest. I’m old enough to have lived in pre-Tappan Zee Bridge, Thruway and Palisades lnterstate Parkway Rockland, and in those semi-rural days you were damn happy to call yourself a Valleyite or a Nyacker, Stony Pointer, Haverstrawite, Piermonter, Suffernite or whatever. Even in really countrified areas like Stony Point, there were geographical subsets, and termed yourself a Tomkins Cover or a Grassy Pointer.

The late James Farley, the famous organizer of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two presidential campaigns and the former postmaster general, never forgot that he came from Grassy Point. Rockland, yes. Stony Point, yes. But Grassy Point in particular. The air is a bit different there, you see, by the high tide and the lowlands on the Hudson River. A little different, you see, than living up in the hills off Franck Road.

Now, in this busy land we call Rockland, in a new century, so many residents just pass through. They are transferred here. They move from urban areas to seek a quieter lifestyle. They plan to reside here for a time and then retire to the Carolinas, along a golf course. That’s OK, and may they have a beautiful life, but while these people are here they ought to get to know their host. Rockland is the host. Specifically, a town, village or hamlet is the host. Live on Germonds Road? Then don’t say you reside in New City. You exist, for a time anyway, in the hamlet of Germonds. Go to school at Rockland Community College? That’s not in Suffern; it’s in the hamlet of Viola. Call the Clarkstown police for information? Well, you are calling the police department, not the “local police precinct,” as one
Journal News reader put it to me. Likewise, it’s village hall, town hall or the county seat at New City, but not “city hall.”

And, speaking of New City, though that’s where the courthouse, Legislature and many executive county offices are located, it is merely a hamlet, not
even a village and certainly not a city.

lf you run a business, put the name of your community on the truck. Tradesmen were once quite proud to include the community location. Now we see merely a cell phone number or an e-mail address.

Why harp on this loss of identity? Because if we do not make an effort to know the area in which we live, we become disconnected automatons. We might as well be living anywhere. We work, come home to sleep in a development, go to malls (which are about the same everywhere) and never realize that each of Rockland’s areas has uniqueness.

This Rockland is different, just as any area has its characteristics; revel in them. Our county is chock-full of history, far example. It is where the plan to end the Revolutionary War at Yorktown was hatched by Gen. George Washington (at Tappan); it is where this nation received its first gun salute from the British (at Piermont); it is the site of the first national railroad, the old Erie out of Piermont; it has figured in every major war; and its karma is such that no matter what happens in a big way nationally or internationally, there is usually a Rockland connection.

People ought to live where they want and for as long as they like. And you do not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Rocklander, shouting “rah, rah” every time the name is mentioned, but if you live here, even for just a few months, get to know where you are, who you are.

You are a Rocklander; you are a Dutchtowner or Montebelloite or Garnerviller or Snedens Landingite or Pearl Riverite or (fill in the blank). You are not just someone who lives “upstate” or “near New York City.”

Cherish this Rockland.

August 2, 2010

Fall follows summer (thank God)

The unexpected bonus of a very hot summer is anticipation of a boffo fall. This year, in the Northeast anyway, it better have moxie. The heat so far in these parts has been too much already.

We have been averaging temps in the 90s, even very high 90s, when we usually have high 80s. Add extra-sticky humidity, and this is Georgia North. Fine for the Georgians but not for we climatically inbred northerners.

The summers many of us had as children in this part of New York State – seasons without house air conditioning – were hot, too, it seemed as if we had enough respite in the swimming areas then so easily accessible at low or no cost. Now, state budget cuts have closed some pools, and the free areas once available are long gone, bulldozed over for “progress.” (Trouble is, some people have houses sitting in old lake areas, and their basements become swimming pools, unwanted ones.)

In old summers, too, before the developments arose in the suburbs, boys built huts and tree houses out of scrap lumber and small felled wood, which we cobbled into overnight sleeping quarters. Many a present-day do-it-yourselfer learned how to saw wood and swing a hammer on these construction jobs.

Such night adventures took us away from attic heat and set us on an independent road. We all felt like pioneers or Davy Crockett. We all believed that Americans, by their nature, set out with little and chased a frontier. While, as 10-14 years olds, we didn’t sit down and philosophize this belief, it was there nonetheless, felt deeply and instinctively, passed along by the culture and the economic times we lived in. Waking up with the animals in the woods was a free rite of passage then, and no boy came back home just a boy. The future usually looked brighter.

In 2010, it is summer heat, once again, that is promoting hope of a different sort. It can’t last forever, and I look forward to the morning and evening chill of autumn, its beautiful colors, the crunch of walking in leaves, the shift into cruising gear after chugging uphill. Like the young fellow toughing it out overnight in the woods, emerging more prepared for what’s ahead, this summer’s unforgivable high temps has cast a whetted appetite for fall.

May it come sooner than later.

July 26, 2010

A seasonal move

These hot days in the Northeast, recalling some boling summers of decades ago, also bring to mind a routine that a fellow I knew followed seasonally. He was a radio/TV repairman whose self-made career began with early 1920s radio through the great period of that medium in the 1930s-1940s, into the emerging, life-changing TV birth years of the 1950s and toward the beginning of color, though he would not repair the last innovation.

By then, in the early 1960s, John Romaine had settled into a pattern comfortable enough, reliable enough, no-surprises-enough that he didn’t want to tackle new technology. He had his longtime, reliable customers, many of whose families he knew as well as his own, growing up in a small village north of New York City.

Once, he and a partner had a radio/small appliance store, which later sold televisions, including, in 1948, a 22-inch model. That was when the typical screen was 7 or nine inches. RCA, his prime supplier, had come out with a set that projected an image onto a mirror without too much distortion, a forerunner of the projection Tvs of today.

The changing way of American life – the decline of the typical small town in favor of suburban shopping strips and malls – plus a growing number of competitors in what became a huge suburb helped shutter Ro-Field Appliances on Main Street. It was then that John brought his repair business home, making a living out of that. Downstairs in his older house, on a tree-lined street just a mile or so from Spring Valley, he set up shop under a basement window. He stood on a wooden platform to resist shock as he touched high voltage areas, especially in TVs. A large soldering iron was at the ready – to sweat in a resistor or a capacitor. An observer would always find it amazing that an ailing TV or radio could suddenly come to life with the replacement of just one or two tiny parts.

The man would then put the receiver back in its polished cabinet, unless he had removed it in the customer’s home, and then manage his way out of the basement and into a green Ford station wagon, which could be seen all over Spring Valley and Hillcrest, where John lived.

That trek out of the basement made over and over was seasonal. In summer, when the breezes might be obtained, the man took to his garage, where he had a second shop much like the one downstairs. Here he was among the birds and cooler mornings and evenings to do his work, leaving the heat of the day to pass.

It is doubtful today if repairs to highly sophisticated electronics could be made in basement and garage shops or that a well-liked neighbor whose family went way back and knew other families that went way back would be driving around picking up, repairing and delivering your TV.

John Romaine did this all year round, whether from basement or garage, and his reputation for quality work and a friendly manner were as reliable as the guaranteed change of seasons.

July 19, 2010

A subtle art

Ice cream, especially in this summer of awful heat, is to adults the childhood reminder that there are Band-Aids when needed. For we too get boo boos, and a treat like we had as kids not only satisfies the palate but nurtures the soul in whatever hurt there is. Sort of like having grandma with you forever.

I am partial to butter pecan but will take coffee, strawberry and a classic — half-vanilla, half-chocolate. Don’t cotton to the cheap stuff, though, and I don’t judge by price alone. “Cheap” can mean ice cream with a fancy name but bearing false promise, like a suitor who dresses well and flashes a thick wallet but who is inadequate as good, engaging company.

With ice cream a rarely but deliciously visited friend, reserve it for special need or special fun. For such sacrifice, I want to taste creaminess, flavor and richness. Keep the gum additives on the shelf, use fresh ingredients. The manufacturer can still make money keeping to a high standard — witness those ice creams that sell well at reasonable price.

There are ice cream favorites for you and me, but once there was a type that is now rare to find, which even then was costlier but which always guaranteed the best tasting experience. And that was hard-packed ice cream.

Sold from old-fashioned fountain service stores — those downtown, hometown beauties with long marble counters and a soda jerk behind who mixed seltzer and flavor to give you a drink — hard-packed ice cream was the same lovely variety you enjoyed in a cup or cone at the counter.

Taken from large tubs in a waist-level freezer, this ice cream was so hard that it didn’t melt on the way home. It took expertise and strength to scoop out the ice cream, using a stainless-steel paddle and digging down hard, as if mining coal.

The paddle was deliberately shaped so as to slide against the tub wall and slice off the eagerly awaited dessert. The ice cream would be packed, tightly, if done right, into a white cardboard container shaped like a large version of the ones used in delicatessens for take-out potato salad.
Each container had a metal fold-up handle for carrying.

The best ice cream packers would paddle a bit extra onto the top of the container, which when finished, should have had a mound on top. The box top would not close, and waxed paper would instead be stuck to the ice cream.

No ice cream tasted so wonderful as hard-packed, no matter what the flavor. If my dad brought this treat home, we knew either the national economy was picking up or his horse had come in (which can be synonymous).

Today, you might be able to locate hard-packed ice cream somewhere, but even if you do, it probably won’t come from a soda fountain, the jerk doing double duty as the experienced and giving packer. And maybe it would not taste the same, either.

July 12, 2010

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – If you were in the sixth grade hosted by Torger Gram, an English teacher who gave you weekly compositions to write, the heading of this column would be familiar. Of course, it was once a bromide, too, in almost every English instructor’s class, public and private schools.

Nationwide, returning students would be asked to build descriptive, adjective-laden sentences (hopefully) by relating what happened to them in a relatively carefree time. The paragraphs would be about the same across the U.S. – details of trips with family, hanging out with friends, birthdays, swimming, even boredom – but different as well, unique to the area.

So it is that we come to the summer of 1954 in a village called Spring Valley, 30 miles north of New York City but with the suburbs yet to build out, still far removed from Gotham save the visiting of summer bungalow dwellers. This is still a community where the soon-to-be sixth grader, the fellow or gal who would write compositions for Mr. Gram at the North Main Street School (or for teachers at the South Main Street, Monsey or St. Joseph’s schools) was probably third generation Valley, at least, headed for the same desks their parents sat in (some of whose reputations would precede them). In many cases, kids who played together were the sons and daughters of people who had also mutually passed sleepy summers in the Valley.

Vacation time would bring youngsters together at the Spring Valley Theatre, where we would watch “Stalag 13,” “House of Wax,” and, later, The Diary of Anne Frank,” “On the Beach” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” We would buy candy from Brown’s next door since the theater charged triple for Necco wafers, Jugifruits and non-pareils. What Brown’s did not have was Bon-Bons, a box of vanilla ice cream bits covered with chocolate. The cost was 25 cents, almost double the admission sticker for the Valley Theatre (14 cents).

We might head back to Brown’s after the movie, if we could afford a soda, or go across Main Street to Arvanite’s Luncheonette. (In later years, there would be trips to Perunna’s, Bartero’s or Martio’s for pizza.)

Since we had free summer time, our parents would send us on errands. We might go to DeBaun’s Hardware or K&A for something, or to the five & ten or to Slavin’s Drug Store. Haircuts would be had at Balogh’s, Rocco’s and a few other places. We took our portable radios to Ro-Field Appliances and picked up dry-cleaning items at Ideal Cleaners on Church Street.

No matter where we went “downtown,” we’d end up in Memorial Park, where we’d find other pals on the swings or the merry-go-round. We might also head up Church Street to West Street, past the Ukrainian Church and onto the old Erie tracks, which could take us to Monsey and the sandstone Indian caves down in the glen. If we came back to West Street, we might play with the huge piles of scrap metal at Consolidated Stamp or head off to the Clopay factory on Church where boys found scraps of shade material to use in building summer huts.

Days were spent outdoors, under shade trees, playing canasta or other card games with friends, and on some occasions, indulging in an innocent-enough “spin the bottle,” organized whenever three or so girls located three or so boys.

The hot nights were endured without air conditioning, tarrying out as late as we could, given the 9 p.m. Spring Valley curfew, “enforced” by friendly police. Some evenings found the boys sleeping outdoors in their huts in the woods not yet bulldozed for post-World War II development.

Each summer was its own, with physical and mental development driving moods from one to the next for growing youngsters who enjoyed themselves without much money, who had few luxuries, but who enjoyed pals who seemed to be there forever. The key ingredient in these sleepy seasons was stability, in a village that never seemed to change.

Come September, it was easy for many Valleyites to write “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” since that time had passed so easily, so simply, with good memories. All across America in that year of 1954, the writing surely came fairly effortlessly as well, with distinct area flavor. Yet not one experience elsewhere was fully interchangeable with that in Spring Valley. That was our unique gift.

July 5, 2010

‘Daydream of youth’

ANYWHERE, USA – The young woman, about 17, joined by another of the same age, stood side by side in the time capsule that is an ice cream shack. They could have been my high school classmates, 1959, or my sons’, late 1980s, or the 27 year olds of today, back in 2000.

What is it about young women working part-time at Dairy Queen, Mr. Frostee, Carvel’s, any ice cream take-out place? No matter what generation, the dress is the same: shorts, tops; the hair is pulled back; the overheard conversation is about boys, college; there is sometimes a vacant stare: the daydream of youth; and the attachment to job, place, time is so fleeting that it will be remembered hardly at all.

Except maybe if the summer also includes romance.

Now, not to be sexist, young men working the Dairy Queen shift are also in passing time, place, but there seems less vacant staring and more of “What’ya need?” and getting the order out. The female/male difference – Venus/Mars – is there, too. And it seems most ice cream shops employ young women, not young men.

In high school, a fellow like me (or you?) might have had a crush on one of these ice cream girls; later, you might have felt fatherly; now it’s grandfatherly.

But it is also reassuring, especially on this July 4th weekend where there is so much pessimism in America – worries about the loss of jobs and the shrinking of the middle class; costly wars that seem endless and confusing; budgets in trouble; greed; lack of personal responsibility. In all this, the nation that began with difficult birth against heavy odds, this child called America, is still not fully grown, ready for retirement. Young people – like the women and men of the ice cream shops, with their dreams, their needs, their concerns, their many flavors – promise to whet their appetite on the next frontier.

No wonder American apple pie is often a-la-mode.

June 28, 2010

Weather and democracy

I guess people born and raised in areas of great humidity adjust to that, perhaps even prefer the wet warmth. But for those of us who live where there are seasons, it is unavoidable stickiness. The common refrain up north here near New York City is that “I don’t mind the heat (say 90 degrees, which is hot for us), but I can’t stand the humidity.”

Of course, the same lips, including mine, also form the words, “I don’t mind the snow, in fact, it’s beautiful, but the ice, no.” Obviously there are regional variations to the weather – the dry but very hot conditions of the Southwest, for example. In Texas, where I visited in December and found temperatures in the mid-70s, that was a cold snap, and some were pining for summer’s constant heat wave.

At least many in Texas, though not all, have air conditioning, and in the Northeast, etc., too, or “chillers” or heat pumps. This is America, and the middle class, low, true middle and high, has made creature comforts widely available. The seasons are more a function of the outdoors, if you choose them to be.

The great middle class civilizes America, even applying it to home and car comfort, and as such is a bulwark for democracy. I cannot imagine what social troubles might ensue if suddenly there was a reduced middle class and, so, less paid-for AC and heat.

This is not 1936, with a Great Depression having thwarted American higher expectation and materialism not yet the routine anyway. The middle class was much smaller, though it had begun to develop at large in the dizzy-hot economy of the later 1920s. It took the Depression tryouts of one government program after another, some failing, some not, some working, to keep the people’s mind off their class worries. World War II production and post-conflict largesse brought a real American middle class, along with government as an economic but increasingly involved, even smothering “buddy.”

Now, as the rest of the world also develops a middle class, our own is shrinking from high unemployment, The AC is still on in the great heat, and there is warmth for most in winter. Yet, where there are seasons and where there are not, there is a growing, disturbing worry that when it gets hot and when it gets turns cold, there won’t be relief. Government only does so much, for it spends largely in deficit, not investment.

In the old days, the middle class came to the rescue. Or at least the aspirations of those seeking such status propelled effective government of least, but necessary, intervention. Soon enough, who will stave off the humidity?

June 21, 2010

A road changes direction

WEST NYACK, N.Y. – It’s déjà vu all over again as Route 59, one of the state’s major highways, returns to two lanes after about 52 years. It’s just for a time, but for people like me, so few of us now, it’s like returning to the countrified area of lower New York where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

What’s happening, or beginning to happen since the Albany budget crisis may delay work, is that New York is getting around to replacing the four bridges along Route 59 that cross the Hackensack River and the West Shore rail line. The approach is to cut off one side and take out those bridges first, then reverse the process. Ironically, after only a half century of use, the Department of Transportation has chosen to replace the newer bridges first. Those left from the 1920s will soldier on until the children get new shoes. Perhaps that says something about old-style durability.

Traffic east and west has been routed from four lanes to two, over the old crossings. I drove that route the other day, riding across the old bridges eastward for the first time since 1958. Though the vista has changed as you leap over the railroad tracks and then across the beginnings of the Hackensack River (which later gathers force as it heads for New Jersey and the Atlantic Ocean), the goose-pimply feeling was that I had returned to my teen years, sitting in the back seat of my dad’s Ford, brother Craig next to me and my mom in the front.

We would have been headed for Nyack on a Saturday, then a thriving, typical American town, pre-mall, pre-suburban shopping strip, where shoes, dresses, shirts, sporting goods and five and dime items and so much else could be bought, shoes repaired as well, clothes left at the tailor, baked goods picked up, with time left on a very ordinary but oh so wonderful family outing for a stop at the Main Street diner or soda fountain.

Nyack – all American towns – have changed now, downsized, gone out of business or morphed into trendy weekend stops for restaurant goers or antique hunters. The four-lane highways built to them, as was the enlarging of Route 59 half a century ago, somehow caused traffic to bypass, to race instead to super malls. The mom and pop places downtown could not compete, though some precious ones still remain in Nyack and in other Americana.

There are so few like me who still recall old Nyack, and the original two-lane Route 59, too. I ride that route of the Old Nyack Turnpike in memory now, though the Albany reconstruction will, for a time, sharpen the focus as I actually get to cross the bridges in the “right” direction. Déjà vu all over again, and I smile at the picture.

June 14, 2010

How Jon’s day began

NYACK, N.Y. – Once upon a time but for a long 50-year run, there was at 53 Hudson Avenue in the downtown heart of this Hudson River village a thriving newspaper which daily gave birth under the masthead The Journal-News. It was blessed with many “Front Page” characters over its decades, perhaps a karmic tribute to the famous Ben Hecht/Charles McArthur play written just up Broadway.

In the mid-1970s, The Journal-News would add to its wonderfully odd roster one Jon Murray, then toiling in the trade at The Reporter Dispatch, a sister paper across the Hudson in Westchester County. Once destined for pro baseball but sidelined with injury in the way hopefuls are, Jon first was a sports writer, since he had to do something with his love of the game, and he was a good one at that. But he was also an artist, not the sort who makes a living at painting, but one gifted with creative graphic design. The mini-gods who ran the RD saw this talent and moved Jon from sports to the copy desk, assigning him to “dummy” or lay out newspaper pages.

And Jon was good at that, too, quickly becoming known for eye-catching front pages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when newspapers were getting away from cover pages with lots of gray type and small photographs. Jon made these presentation fronts sing, adding grabber headlines, big photos and creative typography.

When a position opened up at The Journal-News in the mid-1970s, Jon took it and eventually became chief copy editor, the “slotman” job, the person who, in pre-computer days, sat in the slot of a horseshoe-shaped desk and parceled out pages to be dummied, stories that needed headlines and photographs requiring captions. He also did the front page, always the key design element.

The man was unflappable on deadline and constantly gracious. He ordered no one around. On busy days, say when a heavy Wednesday paper, replete with many ads, had to be dummied, Jon would simply say to his copy editors or deskmen: “Put your sneakers on.” And they did.

Jon’s daily rhythm began with a ritual. His first task wasn’t his tea, or the initial look at that morning’s wire service material or getting his desk in order. Jon began his day with a trip to the pencil sharpener, where he slowly but deliberately put a fine point on his No. 2 pencils, precious tools to this artist. That task took about a minute, and the deskmen (and women), already in their seats, laced their sneakers at the sound and sight of Jon readying his pencils. The race to deadline was next, and all knew it.

This newspaper artist would remain with The Journal-News for about two decades, and his ritual stayed the same, even after the paper gave up pencils and layout sheets for computers. Jon continued to rout hand-drawn design to his copy editors, who then filled in the blanks on the monitor screens, and the sound of the pencil sharpener was, as ever, the factory whistle.

June 7, 2010

Seeking the old synergy

There is a synergy, a working relationship that creates an enhanced, combined effect, when three people are lucky to hit the right notes in a given profession. That was the score when George (Weep) Chalsen, Aloysius (Al) Witt and Arthur (Art) H. Gunther toiled at the old Journal-News at 53 Hudson Ave. in downtown Nyack, N.Y. It was a decades-long partnership that was to be repeated many years later in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program in nearby Spring Valley.

Newspapering, like a breakfast program, means meeting deadlines, and there is no room for lollygagging. Weep, who never sat down, was always on the move, a 50-year printer who daily felt the hot sweat of casting metal type and arranging it to form words on the printed page. At the RIBP, he sweated, too, as a longtime soup, vegetable and grits cook.

Al was chief photographer for years at the JN, and he had to be ready at a moment’s notice to grab his camera and take a breaking news photo. He was also adept at working with the public. In a previous existence, of which Al had a few, he was a camera salesman at Macy’s Herald Square in New York City, so he had perfected the art of talking to people.

At the RIBP, where Al worked in various positions for 25 years, he continued his gift of schmoozing the public, entertaining and putting at ease fellow volunteers and program participants. His old ability to grab a camera and get to the job at hand easily translated to changing the breakfast order when food supplies abruptly ran out or taking on other tasks when there was illness.

Now this Art Gunther fellow, 21 when he came to the newspaper in 1964 as a “flyboy” (one who “caught” newspapers as they flew off the “fly” or end of the press), and who then became a copyboy, was taken under Al’s wing at the JN. He saw the potential for photographer in me, a gift from mentoring Al that led to many full-time positions at the paper over 42 years: writer, layout man, editor, editorialist, essayist.

In those decades, I would find synergy with both Al and George. The first thing a newspaper editor learns is that he must have a friend in the composing room if he is to meet deadline. George, always with exacting standards, was that fellow, and he made my career happen as much as Al.

George and Al eventually retired, with Al coming first to the breakfast program at United Church, then some 12 years later, George and his wife Phyllis. I later learned of the RIBP and told Al that I would be there as well when I retired. When I found out that George was already on board, I moved up the date and began in the RIBP almost five years before I retired.

It was a no-brainer to work the synergy again with Al and George and to help the people of Spring Valley, once the home of the Gunthers dating back decades. I also went to Boy Scout meetings at United Church, back in 1955, so it was a coming home in several ways.

George passed last year, and Al again “retired,” deep into his 80s while still looking 65.

The synergy today at the breakfast program is the cooperation between Phyllis, Carol, Moucille, MaryAnn, Helen Jean, Elnora and Jane. (I’m the only male except when Pat Gorman occasionally volunteers.)

In 2010, I constantly remind myself how much better Al and George did the full trick, with Art the helper, not the fellow who inherited being cook and bottle washer. At least I have the old synergy to push me toward the standard.

May 31, 2010

‘Les cochons’ among us

ALMOST ANYWHERE, USA – One of the problems with a graying, older suburbia, which is the lower New York State area in which I live, is that often land and building neglect have arrived over the decades. The same is true of urban sections of this nation, surely, and rural and other regions, though untidiness certainly seems dependent on the people who live in a particular place. Some, bless them, always take care of their property, no matter how little money they have. Others are, well, simply “les cochons,” a much nicer, French way of saying “pigs.”

If I had a magic wand, I would compel communities that have property maintenance laws to enforce them, and make those that do not enact such ordinance. It is in the general public interest to protect property values.

Many towns and villages declare, as my local Orangetown community notes in its “Chapter 24c, Property Maintenance Code,” that “Properties which are not adequately maintained and repaired may serve as an attractive nuisance … (they) tend to … detract from the appearance of adjoining properties, which may lead to the progressive deterioration of a neighborhood.” Absolutely, we all have seen that happen.

Such law is fine on paper, but what happens when a homeowner keeps unregistered junk cars in his driveway, when someone leaves litter on his land, when trash and recycling containers are not removed after pickup, when fences are falling down, when gutters are falling off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades rundown?

These are real conditions in most communities, and it seems the onus is on neighbors to be the bad guy and make a formal complaint. Instead, the municipality should be noting the neglect and notifying property owners to correct.

One way to improve property appearance is by certificate of occupancy renewal whenever a home or business is offered for sale. The community sends out an inspector after a small fee is paid to cover that, and neglect such as poor sidewalks and yard litter are corrected before the property can be sold.

Neglected property not being sold should be cited. We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going to their jobs, they can jot down addresses. So can police on routine patrol. For that matter, so can the mayor, the town supervisor, the trustees, council people, any concerned citizen. We all have a financial and quality-of-life stake in how our villages and towns look.

If owners do not correct the neglect, the municipalities can step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. However, the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, pending foreclosure, etc., perhaps community service organizations can lend a hand and take on these properties as projects.

The point is to clean up blighted properties and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books. As James Dean, Orangetown highway superintendent, said recently about his campaign to prevent graffiti from spreading to the point of blight, “If you have a building with a broken window, it seems to attract more people to break more windows.” Property neglect can mushroom.

Think of your mother, who I hope told you to wash your hands before dinner, to pick up your toys, to not track mud into your house. Well, communities are homes held in common. There is no room for “les cochons” to spoil it for the rest of us.

May 24, 2010

The mad dash

It may be decades between runners, but the quick leap and the mad dash are the same, differing gender aside. As I was tooling down a local street at 7 in the morning last week, the high school gazelle sprinted toward the school bus. I am quite familiar with her story.

I, too – you, too – were late for the school bus, some of us chronically, others in the occasional mode. One awful morning, I heard my bus, No. 15, yellow (we also had green-colored ones) coming, its characteristic hissing air brakes announcing arrival at the Eckerson and Buena Vista roads stop in Hillcrest, N.Y.

I jumped out of bed, pulled on the pants I wore the day before (which had been left on a chair, natch), stomped my feet into already tied shoes, the heels pushed down, threw a sweater over my PJ tops, grabbed a coat after I almost fell down the stairs and ran for No. 15, just barely getting in the closing door at the Eckerson and Pascack roads stop.

My hair, then in ample supply, was uncombed, I still had to get my shoes on right, and my stomach was growling for lack of breakfast. I had yet to go to the bathroom.

My father, who for years had gotten my brother and I ready for school, now left it to high school-age boys to do the job. My mother was already at work. So, there was no one to blame for my lateness but myself. Guess watching The “You Bet Your Life” rerun the night before, at 11:15, did the trick. Or maybe I was just lazy.

At least the high school gazelle who I saw barely make it to her bus – number unknown, but still yellow – looked in pretty good shape. Yet I had to chuckle that youngsters were still like we were now so long ago. Zillions of minutes later, in a life so quickly lived, I see today’s young world tethered to iPods, iPads, Internet everything. Schools are very expensive. Everything is expensive. There are so many things for a youngster to do, so much so that appointment books are kept. Yet the simple fact that the grandfather-aged fellow overslept in 1960 and so does the kid in 2010, and the same mad dash to the bus is made, offers comforting kinship.

And renewal for me. It made me feel as if I had to study for the coming June New York State Regents exams.

May 17, 2010

The harbingers …

We have chirping birds in these parts, particularly in the spring, and they are the harbingers of Northeast America’s April to September love/hate affair with what now amounts to three seasons in two: early spring, summer and the newer mixed season of spring/summer, that one marked by un-delightful humidity. The birds are unusually silent in that developing “season,” initially limited to a few days now and then and now sometimes lasting a week or more.

We know we have more humidity in 2010 than in 1990 or 1960, because clumps of green mold grow on the north side of buildings, rarely seen before. People report more headaches and sniffles and aches and pains. Even a little bit of garden work brings humidity-driven sweat, and the birds, a welcome accompaniment in the season of rebirth, don’t chirp as much.

Not all will agree with me about humidity. Millions live in parts of the United States and the rest of the world where it is a daily part of the weather and welcomed as such. But up here, as the saying goes, “It isn’t the heat that bothers me, it’s the humidity.”

We also proclaim, at least those who choose to remain here, that “We are fortunate to have four seasons,” even though we naturally complain when snow and ice overstay their initial holiday wonder arrival, or the winds of March chill us too much and extend impossibly high utility bills.

In this American democracy, at least when there was the requisite growing middle class so necessary for the economy, social progress, human rights and for fulfilling the ideals of the Founders, there was choice to move about, to take in four seasons if you wished, to enjoy humidity-laden areas, the dry sections of the West, the plains of the Dakotas, the light of the Pacific Coast.

I fear that with the extending polarization of the economy – the very, very rich, the high rich, the very, very poor and the poor – there will be fewer of our children and grandchildren in the middle-class ranks. I enjoy my four seasons, and I would fight any battle to assure my own and your own can choose different geography.

Perhaps my concern is unfounded, but I swear that even in spring’s renewal this year, there have been fewer birds chirping. Seems there’s an ailment among us called Greed, and I guess even some of the songbirds have flown away.

May 10, 2010

Rediscovery

NYACK, N.Y. – This is a community mostly of the later 1800s and the 20th century, along the shore of the historic Hudson River. It bustles in its moments, like most villages, though in 2010, much of the movement is by car or truck, with even many pedestrians hopping from those for small jaunts. So much is missed in the process.

Once upon a time, with walkers in the majority, the scenery didn’t just pass by. I rediscovered that fact on a recent four-mile walk from my home in Blauvelt to downtown Nyack.

On a hot and also humid early summer day that had its date confused and arrived in spring, with the temperature near 88, I found myself going to an appointment in Nyack and feeling bloated from too much of a love affair between a sweet tooth and pastries. So, I tried to work off the guilt and bring back the energy by burning calories on an over-the-mountain run. It’s a moderate hike up Clausland – not Mt. Everest, not San Francisco, but way beyond the plains of Iowa. It was challenge enough.

Most of the walk to Nyack via the mountain route is pleasurable scenically, since you pass through a town park, see deer, raccoons, even a fox or coyote, none of whom seem particularly interested in you. There are cars, too, more than enough of them, taking this shortcut trail to Nyack.

I saw what those motorists did not, and what I don’t spot when I often take this run in the car. Winter was harsh this year, with ice storms and high winds, and the woods were damaged. Many branches, even full trees, fell, but nature has already used that destruction as renewal for the land, with green shoots of new vegetation cropping up everywhere. I spotted so much of this beauty, and it was heartening. Made me feel like the perpetually optimistic Sagittarius.

I also saw rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks scampering amongst the green looking for food even though the fox and coyote were a challenge. I never notice the animal kingdom in my car while going 35 mph.

Looking up at the forest canopy, newly opened spaces offered funnels for great streams of light to the green floor and old Rockland County rocks. It was the very sight that Native American Lenni-Lenapes saw. I never think about that on the fast-paced car run over the mountain.

Once beyond the Clausland summit, I could see old Nyack as its 1800s and 1900s homes stretch down to the river on streets where my great-grandfather drove and walked. Walking and not riding in a car afforded me a great opportunity to see the magnificent handicraft of ancient carpenters who fashioned these Victorians, American four squares and Tudors. I could see the great variety of landscaping and the individuality of the homes, so common to any village in America but so often never spotted.

When I hit the downtown area of Nyack, I looked at the old storefronts, some of which I first noticed as a tiny youngster. Walking in downtowns, we usually don’t look up, to see above the stores. This time I did, since I was in the habit of spotting the usually unseen on this entire trip. Again, what fine architecture and craftsmanship.

Though I had just finished a four-mile walk over a mountain, I swear it seemed my heart was beating slower than it usually does in my busy world. I wonder if that’s because I took time to smell a flower or two? (Maybe I should eat pastries more often.)

May 3, 2010

No pipe tale, but …

Recently, I managed not to put anyone sleep during an address I gave for the 75th anniversary of the Spring Valley, N.Y., Rotary Club. The speech was easy to do since the Rotary there has included so many influential, giving, caring business and other professional people over its nearly eight decades. It was a simple task to recall them and their influence on a village, from the Great Depression onward.

Since the address was given in the old Dutch Reform Church where 56 years ago I went to Boy Scout meetings and in the same building where I am fortunate to participate in a morning breakfast program as cook, there seemed to be a “speech angel” or two making sure my words were clear and not boring. Even W. Francis Scott, my speech teacher at Spring Valley High, would have passed me on this. Strangely, the last time I spoke publicly in the village was at the graduating speech dinner in spring 1961 (our “final exam”). I again thank Mr. Scott for giving all of us courage to stand before an audience.

What he could not prepare me for was the emotion you can reveal before an audience, with your raw insides showing, as it were. That happened as I talked about many people I knew in my small-town community who have moved on – a bit of throat clearing was necessary. But I did not stumble in my 20-minute speech. That happened afterward.

When the address was over, and the audience generously gave approval, Ed Frank, president of the Rotary, Len Binder, a past president, and Jim Mellion, son of the well-known grocer in town, gave me a present.

In 1947, when Spring Valley was nearing the economic height of post-World War II renewal, the new Memorial Park was dedicated on the site of the old village dump. A time capsule was buried with the usual artifacts, such as a copy of the Rockland Leader (the village newspaper), a $2 million check to the present mayor from then Mayor Anthony Milewski (uncashable, of course) and a Smokemaster pipe manufactured by the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe Co. in Spring Valley.

Undoubtedly donated by Bernard Shoemaker, Briarcraft’s owner and a founding Valley Rotarian, it surely was handled, perhaps even made, by Arthur Sr., my grandfather and foreman of the factory. For 50 years, until 1997, the pipe was in a metal box under the memorial monument at the center of the park. I was in kindergarten when the time capsule was buried. I played in that park, walked through it on the way to elementary school and high school, passed the monument as I attended Boy Scout meetings and drove by in early adulthood.

Now, 63 years after my grandfather helped prepare that pipe for the time capsule, it has been presented to me and to my family. I was so overwhelmed that I could not speak for a moment. I hope the audience forgave me that.

It may be difficult for some to understand how Spring Valley was so life-forming to me, to my brother, my father and my grandparents and to so many thousands in our years there. Growing up, I had both success and failure in the Valley, and I have never felt satisfied that I was one of her better native sons. Now that almost does not matter, since I was welcomed home and perhaps forgiven with this precious gift. I must have walked by that buried smoking pipe and played above it on the big monument a thousand times. Now it sits on my desk. Amazing.

April 26, 2010

A downtown, once

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – In the 1940s-1950s, I grew up in this village just northwest of New York City yet a world apart from urbanity. My father was a youngster here in the 1930s. Over the years I have been asked by people raised in much more populated areas how so many ex-Valleyites like myself can have such deep attachment to the community. We do because it was a small, close town, and its businesses and professions were stocked with people we all knew. Everyone was family, including the grouches, the characters, the guiding folk.

In the early 1920s, Spring Valley became the “Hub of Rockland County” because two major state roads had been built, Routes 59 and 45, leading to and from Suffern, Nyack, Pomona and New Jersey. This put the village at a crossroads, and as a result business grew.

Soon, there were hardware stores like K&A, DeBaun, Scharf’s and Call Me Dave. There was the Widmann commercial bakery behind the famous Henry Kulle tire and battery dealer. There was Mellion’s Market, the Plaza Restaurant, Rakow’s, Shapiro’s and Nat Kaplan clothing stores, Burns’ Florist, Stevens’ Florist, the original Spring Valley Theatre, Arvanites’ luncheonette, the Ramapo Trust Co., The Second National Bank, the 5&10, the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory where my grandparents, father and mother worked, Consolidated Stamp, Schack’s Glass, Ro-Field Appliances, Brown’s soda shop, Perruna’s and Bartero’s and Cullen restaurants, various barbershops, including Mayor John Balogh’s, and car dealer Driscoll Chevrolet, then located downtown.

Many of these businesses began in the Great Depression, and the fact that they succeeded in the hub of Spring Valley was because they offered valuable services by trusted merchants and others close by for villagers and other Rocklanders. Many business and professional people also lived and toiled above the stores as doctors, dentists and lawyers.

If any of you readers were privileged to grow up in a small community, even you urbanites who lived in neighborhood areas, you can easily sub out the names of the stores and people I’ve mentioned for your own. You get the picture.

These downtown people were dairymen, bakers, lawyers, factory owners, undertakers, grocers, etc., who had such a symbiotic working relationship with each other that they succeeded, In the process, they supported many who could not easily get by. This was America in the tough, a going enterprise.

Today, highway shopping strips and malls have replaced our downtowns, and the closer-knit residential housing is gone, too, in favor of easily anonymous suburban developments and isolated “McMansions” that drive wedges against the opportunity for neighborliness.

In time, with the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Thruway and Palisades Interstate Parkway, the Rockland suburb grew around Spring Valley and other downtowns, and the old closeness began to disappear as stores were shuttered and the outward population grew so large that it was difficult to link names with the past, with long-time families.

In its age, Spring Valley and Anytown, USA, too, defined people particularly determined to succeed, who sought better lives for their children, who enjoyed the company of friends and neighbors, who reaffirmed and articulated both their gratefulness for a land and village of opportunity and their determination that the children should do even better.

If there can be an American “back to the future,” it might be a return to the downtown.

April 19, 2010

Chasing the quiet

ROCKLAND LAKE, N.Y. – The once thriving hamlet where much of New York City’s ice was carved and shipped down the Hudson River until people bought refrigerators was, in the 1960s, obliterated through eminent domain to forge a state public park – blunt bulldozing for “progress” that could not easily happen today, even if Albany could pay for it. Now, almost 50 years later, years of under-funding and near bankruptcy have made parts of this park look more than sad.

Yet, yesterday there was hope, if not for Rockland Lake State Park, then for humankind as the 21st annual George Wodicka Hook Mountain Half Marathon and Hope 5K Run/Walk were held in March-like weather.

It was the sort of chilled sky and brisk air that old-time Rockland Lakers would have recognized: The cold water that provided local employment in winter was still lowering temperatures as if to delay its season’s end. Summer boaters and fishermen were next, then the buildup in fall to new income.

But that was then, now so long ago. The community was destroyed, its people, descendants of generations, relocated. Some still return, as walkers on a meandering path around the lake, or in burial at the Gethsemane Cemetery.

Yesterday, hundreds of others came on a charity-inspired day, chasing hope to battle the prostate cancer which had claimed Rockland Road Runners member Wodicka. So poor is New York State that the local Clarkstown Police Department had to provide supervision, and runners had to begin their races in a parking lot crumbling so badly that some complained of nearly twisted ankles.

That makes one wonder at the wisdom of wiping out a community of property taxed homes and businesses to construct a park which now cannot be funded. A park that on balance was not necessary given the many then in place in the Rockland and Bergen counties area so close to Gotham. A balance was required as early as 1965 between urban needs and suburban availability to meet them without giving up so much history and identity.

Simple people, some complex in particular nature as many of us are, led simple lives in two centuries in the hamlet of Rockland Lake, and the great quiet that is found and cherished in this area atop the cliffs leading to the Hudson and adjacent Hook Mountain was once theirs alone. Progress could not relocate that feeling, though, and it has been left to those able to visit the park in less-busy moments.

My son Arthur 4th, who captured the win in the 5K, long ago tapped into the quiet of Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain, nearby Talman Mountain, Clausland Mountain and, of course, Bear Mountain, where he romped as a child, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. And now his son Sam, too.

The building of New York State’s parks, most of them early in the 20th century, was a gift for urbanites in particular whose own geography was built upon to fuel this nation’s growth, success and opportunity. But progress pushes quiet aside, and some place must be found to relocate it if civilization is not to be overwhelming. For city dwellers, there is relative quiet in busy-on-weekends state parks.

Some lucky people find the quiet in their soul, in their walks or running or hobbies. Or on a March-like day in April when motivated participants chase quiet in the once hamlet of Rockland Lake.

April 12, 2010

Lack of acceleration

A good long time ago, I owned a 1960 VW “Beetle,” which was cherry red and which broke down often, perhaps because my hard driving was not matched well with the 40 horsepower engine. Yet it was so simple a car, with technology borrowed from Henry Ford, that, like the Model T, it could often be repaired on the road, on the run.

It was not unusual for me, then a 21-year-old, to pull off the road and change the VW’s four sparkplugs or take the carburetor apart and then get moving again. Once, when coming off the Palisades Interstate Parkway in Bardonia, N.Y., I had to coast to a stop onto West Clarkstown Road after I realized I had no accelerator pedal.

Now, this was in 1963, 47 years before Toyota, then not even a pronounceable name in the United States, had its celebrated accelerator problems. Unlike Toyota’s gas pedals, which are electronic, the old VW’s was fastened to a long wire than ran 10 feet or so back to the rear engine. The cable had rusted and snapped, and so I had no way to control acceleration.

Or did I? I said this was an easy vehicle to repair. The German “people’s car,” ordered by Adolph Hitler and owing its design to Ferdinand Porsche, was built with some components based on Ford’s ideas, after German engineers visited his factories.

While Hitler’s thoughts and application were madman-oriented, the VW spawned during the 1930s and adapted for military use during World War II actually proved good for people all over the world following rejuvenation by the British, who took over the factory.

So little changed in the car over the decades. And so it was that when the accelerator cable broke on my Beetle in 1963 I was able to come up with a commonsense solution, just like so many did with the Model T. It wasn’t my brain working so much as it was the American genius Ford.

I found a piece of wood on the side of the road and wedged it into the carburetor linkage, which made the engine race. I then let out the clutch in gear three of four and went up the one-mile hill toward my Hillcrest home, pushing in the clutch when I had to stop and lurching forward when I wanted to move.

Once home, I borrowed neighbor Isaac Pfeffer’s big Buick, went to VW and bought a new accelerator cable for $7.95, soldered the old one to the new one and threaded it back to the carburetor, where I made a connection. All was well again – until the next simple-to-fix breakdown.

No simple fixes for the Toyota pedals, however. No $7.95 repairs. Also, no comparison between the ancient VW Beetle and today’s safer, smoother, more comfortable cars.

Yet somehow, lost in the transition of “progress,” is the Henry Ford idea that the car ought to be fixable by the user. Or maybe we should start taking mechanics with us, as Ford did in his race cars, riding “shotgun.”

April 5, 2010

A hat story

NYACK, N.Y. – Nearing Memorial Park, an acre of recreational ground inimitable to almost any American village, is an old sidewalk along Piermont Avenue, trod for perhaps 80 years now. On that walk, on a recent nascent spring day, when hope that the odd winter of quick and heavy snow and furious nor’easter had finally passed was a woman who looked to be 85 or so, wearing a grandma’s hat, a wool cap that could be drawn over the ears if the promising sun gave way to an April chill. Behind this lady was a child, probably 5, conceivably the same age the woman was when she first stepped on the avenue’s sidewalk.

“Mommy, that lady looks funny in her old hat,” said the child as she jumped from walk to street and back again. “I don’t have a hat on because it’s not winter – it’s spring and the birds are chirping, and they don’t have hats, either.”

The mom, obviously hearing this as question number five of maybe 25 on one day alone, answered in patience. “She’s cold. That lady doesn’t run all over and climb jungle gyms and chase her brother like you do. She’s just taking a nice walk in the warming sun.”

“Well, I still think her hat is funny,” replied the five-year-old as the mother and daughter walked past the lady. The woman heard the remark, smiled in reflection of acquired knowledge, and told the child, “This is not my hat. I borrowed it.”

“Mommy, maybe we can buy the lady a new hat since she had to borrow this old, funny one,” said the child. “No, I’m just fine,” answered the woman. “I’ll tell you a story. When I was little, probably your age, and playing in this park near the Hudson River, my grandmother would come by to watch. She would make sure I did not go more than a few steps into the river, that I didn’t play on the slippery rocks, that I kept my coat on. But one thing I would not do is wear my hat. Other kids wore hats, but I thought they were silly. I would make sure I left mine at home, or I would take it off as soon as I left the house.

“I had a lot of fun playing in this park then. We didn’t have swings and a jungle gym like you do now, but the hills, the stream, the waterfront are much the same except that the wonderful old dock is gone.

“My grandma would tell me over and over to put my hat on. Once, she took hers off and pushed it over my head. I got mad and threw it on the ground, and that made my grandmother sad. She didn’t speak all the way home.

“The years passed, and I grew up, leaving Nyack to get married and then came back after raising our children. I inherited my grandma’s house and began walking to this park as I did as a child. I don’t play on the slippery rocks anymore, and I don’t run, but I see my young self in children your age. And I now wear a hat because I’m cold.

“Do you know who I borrowed this very hat from? When I went into my grandma’s attic, I found many old things, including her old wool hat. I gave it a good wash, added a stitch or two of repair and now I wear it to Memorial Park. I can still hear my grandmother telling me to put on my own childhood cap, and I can feel her slipping this hat over my ears. Only now I don’t take it off and throw it on the ground. And I don’t think my grandma’s sad any more.”

“Cool story, mommy,” said the five-year-old as she said goodbye to the lady and ran to the slippery rocks.

March 29, 2010

Facing a grilling

I am writing this at 5:48 a.m. about a subject that at this time on Tuesday would have me standing before a large restaurant grill flipping pancake no. 97 or French toast no. 60. I am, on the second day of the workweek, the volunteer cook in a 25-year-old breakfast program in Spring Valley, N.Y.

Others, like Al Witt, my former boss at The Journal-News, where I worked for pay for 42 years, and George Chalsen, a 50-year printer there, preceded me as cook. The “soup kitchen,” operated as the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program using the good will and facilities of the United Church in Spring Valley, now serves three times as many homeless and poor men and women as it did just three years ago. I am only the Tuesday cook and can report just that day’s figures – about 150-170 people served.

My newspaper jobs as copyboy, photographer, writer, editor, essayist and editorial page chief were arrived at in hands-on learning in the old style once available at thriving newspapers. You watched others work, asked some questions, tried your hand and more often than not, the Horatio Alger effect took place and you moved up the ladder. Such hands-on training provided new blood to carry the torch of an honored profession. It worked well, as it did in other professions, as many acquired the “college degree” of job experience.

Now, in volunteering as a cook, I have been fortunate to continue the hands-on training from my newspaper time, even with two of the same people – Al and George, whose grill technique – not running it too hot that it smokes; avoiding water/oil fires; mixing the right batter and French toast dip; the art of flipping itself; and dividing your time so that while you work the grill, you also watch the soup, make grits, boil hot water for a variety of tasks, monitor two ovens full of sausage, keep the Bunn coffee maker in its 10-cup cycle for 100-plus cups and take 15-second breaks to bring the food to the cafeteria.

Al and George did it all and well. George was particularly organized and Al offered jokes along with perfectly shaped pancakes. I cannot duplicate their methods, just as I could not at The Journal-News. But I have acquired experience through hands-on training, and I imagine both Al and George would give me a passing grade.

What a privilege in life to have spent 50 years learning on the job(s).

March 22, 2010

Friends, in snapshot

It was a walk you see on any road, in any town, anywhere in the world — two young fellows (they could be girls) bouncing along in spurting growth, in gangly gait, jabbering away.

What could be so important to discuss at age 14? Well, anything and everything since age and needs and concerns and wishes and dreams and worries and warts are relative to age.

I saw just the backs of the two young ones as they ambled down Western Highway, the old pre-Revolution kings road in Blauvelt, N.Y., where I live. I did not need to see their faces, for once those two were Mark Broat and I in nearby Hillcrest, 1958. Our conversation then was probably what the Western Highway boys were addressing: school, girls, other people, sports, teachers, nothings and everything.

For a moment, I was back with Mark, for the universality of friends walking is obvious. It was reassuring, too, since while each ruling generation seems to condemn the newer ones for going to hell in a handbasket, somehow the newest quickly becomes the oldest — surviving, succeeding, making mistakes and producing more youngsters who take walks together as friends on any road, anywhere.

So fleeting is time that I instantly recall those 1958-era walks as if I had just walked into my house at 25 Karnell Street after a one-mile trip with Mark to downtown Spring Valley. No aches and pains then. No taxes to worry about. No concerns over politics. No angst over trials and tribulations in family or among friends. A rather protected world, fortunately, yet a world that not every 14-year-old shares, though even there, friendship blossoms.

My two sons, Arthur 4th and Andrew Edward, had their own walks with friends and now their children will, too. So will youngsters you know. Such is life. Such was the moment yesterday on a sidewalk off Western Highway.

March 15, 2010

The Great White Wall

Calling President Obama. Anyone in?

It seems that no matter who becomes the nation’s chief executive, even if it’s a popular stumper like Obama, the cadre of advisers, the moneyed interests that will fund the next campaign, the congressional people in the know and any others with access keep us from ever again seeing and reaching the candidate we choose.

What this does in modern America, where even visiting the White House as an ordinary citizen requires prior security vetting, is to keep the people from the powerful head of state of a democracy, and, so, from moderate views, from common sense approaches to what are major problems in the economy, health care, defense, quality of life, immigration and education.

Look at the health-care issue. Many suggestions, carefully drawn, some already in practice, have been made by regular citizens who can’t get an ear at the White House. At least that is what appears to be happening.

Candidate Obama was soundly elected on populist views, appealing to moderates in both parties, after the failing government of decades brought us no solutions and put us into debt for our troubles. Democrats and Republicans have been to blame.

John McCain, the GOP maverick, also spoke to populist, moderate views since they are the heart and soul of America, and he would have been elected had not voters really counted on the “change” that the winner forcefully and articulately promised.

McCain, back in his longtime Senate seat, returns to Peck’s bad boy image, though that is now tempered by his years and, of course, the lobbyists who these days really seem to run government. Yet count on him to offer the same views he did on the election trail. Not so Obama. He’s in the White House now.

It seems the only time the man can take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and be populist again is when he runs away from Washington and stumps somewhere. Then he is candidate Obama anew. People ask him questions, and he responds. His views, modified by the reality of the office and the nation, still seem moderate.

But put him on Air Force One and then Marine One and secure the president in the White House, and no ordinary citizen gets to ask anything, except through scripted means. We really don’t know what he is thinking.

George Bush would cite a letter from a citizen. So did the Clinton and Reagan administrations, as if the solitary missive pulled from many thousands was proof that, golly, gee whiz, the folks in the White House are just like we people out there in America.

Well, they are not. The office requires dignity, yes, but it does not necessitate distance. Until modern presidents open their ears to ordinary Sue and Joe, all the chief executives will hear is what he or she is told by vested interest. The pulse of the people will not be felt.

March 8, 2010

Once, in the country

VIOLA, N.Y. – Almost 50 years ago, in a time that could be today if progress had not marched, the American Pussy Willow was predominant as a first sign of spring along College Road, then newly named from Viola Road for the small two-year school that began in 1959.

Rockland Community College would become one of the largest of its kind, taking land from old farms and former county almshouse property, as needed. In less than a decade from its start, the furry catkins that are the buds of the pussy willow (and so the name “pussies”) would be found no longer in the wet lowland off the road and in front of the 1800s Hudson River brick-built main hall.

The American Pussy willow, and the European variety both herald spring and are used in some religious services when palm cannot be grown. As a harbinger, the catkins, so soft to the touch, seem a transition between winter, when fur is needed to keep warm, and the bright then deep green foliage of spring into summer.

If you have the blessing of living in changing seasons, the willow buds warmly remind you of renewal. And since the plant is so easy to grow, hope is there as well for an easy and successful planting into harvest. At least the opportunity exists.

Pussy willows are still to be found in Rockland County, N.Y., just 20 or so miles up from the great gotham that is New York City, and probably in Viola, too, but not in front of RCC.

Progress thrives on growth and hustle and bustle, which can push aside natural, simple beauty, replacing it with expensive horticultural landscaping, maintained by squads of men carrying leaf blowers, weed-whackers and trimmers in chalk-on-blackboard-like cacophony.

The young college woman who could be gifted with furry catkins on willow stalks still exists as well, and perhaps such an un-fussy, modest present would still be welcome. But the search for the stalks is no longer easily satisfied.

Colleges aid progress, aid humankind, aid the individual and are a general blessing. Long – very long – before the college at Viola was there, even before the almshouse of life’s endings was replaced by a house of beginnings, the American pussy willow plant thrived in soil native to native Americans. And it was a thing of beauty, indeed.

March 1, 2010

Squeeky wheel gets no oil

One way to save taxpayers money is to sentence non-violent criminal offenders to (1) community service and (2) to push shopping carts full of cement sacks and with one malfunctioning wheel around a home center for 35 minutes. An alternate venue can be the supermarket, the broken cart overfilled with heavy food items.

No unsuspecting consumer, though, should be forced to push these bad carts, which under the law of averages, ends up in my hands or yours about every fifth try. How do they get this way, with one lopsided wheel, or one squeaky wheel that has everyone looking at you and silently asking, “What is the matter with that guy? Can’t he pick the right cart?”

I have historical interest in the matter, since one of the earliest carts was cobbled together in the 1920s and used in the Packard-Bamberger department store in nearby Hackensack, N.J. Since it had four wheels, the potential then began for one of them to malfunction. Yet in defense of the original inventor, I’ll bet the machining and the parts were superior and thus less prone to breaking down. Why modern wheels are not better made is baffling. The squeeky wheel is said to attract attention in society, to “get the oil.” Not on carts.

Today’s carts are a mix of plastic and stamped steel. Those in our local big-chain super-duper markets are huge, especially if you choose the ones with car seats for the kiddies or even small toy cars that the children sit in. That adds even more wheels to the cart, now the SUV version. Trying to parallel-park that style next to the cookie aisle is formidable, with junior tipping it as he reaches for the Oreos.

The carts I encounter, bad wheel on the fifth try or not, won’t hold four bags of groceries in brown bags, as logic would tell you they should. You end up smushing the packaged bread, already made soft by the preservatives. Designers should have to test their designs in the market, and their wheels should break down.

How does one wheel get broken? Do senior citizens drag race with the carts? And bang into one another at the supermarket roller derby? Do parents load four kids at one end, putting too much weight on a wheel?

At the home center, the carts, also super huge, are not well-designed either. Small items fall through the holes (probably jamming the wheels). Try hauling four 8-foot pieces of lumber — you need red flags at the end as a safety precaution.

Perhaps the wheels are busted when people take the carts to the streets, dropping them off at apartment houses and other stores (maybe that’s how some of them end up in creek beds in these parts). One of my newspaper predecessors suggested that the wayward cart problem could be solved by making them radio-controlled. At the push of a button, small motors would steer them back to the stores. He added that any senior or junior in need of a lift might hop in and get a free ride.

But, of course, that might break a wheel.

February 22, 2010

The broom dance

“Put your shoulder to it,” a chief petty officer might tell the swabbie pushing a mom or broom deck side, but in truth, there’s more dance than brawn.

The closest I ever got to a CPO was my Great-Uncle Herbert Gunther, a walking advertisement for tattoo parlors who charmed women in the Asian ports just after World War I. I was never a swabbie, except in my own home, where I can mop a deck mighty fine, thank you.

I can also do a broom dance, in the garage or on the basement floor. And I barely put a shoulder to it.

Decades ago, I was a jack of all trades at a smallish community newspaper in Nyack, N.Y., called The Journal-News. That was back when there was enough advertising to support newspapers chock full of local news, back when enough people read papers and back when costs were low enough that a chain didn’t come in and buy up the community paper and dress it like all its other papers, so as to attract national ads and raise stockholder income.

No, this was in the early 1960s, and I was a copy boy in addition to being the coffee guy, the perforated wire service tape collector (tape with holes was used to set type) and an in-training photog, writer, editor – almost anything connected to a newspaper that you wanted to be. The door was wide open to the individual with get up and go.

Some days I also did the floors, either by direction or because I just felt like grabbing a broom. I had watched the high school custodians handle brooms so deftly that not a hair was missed and with action so effortless that you thought the floors were made of polished marble.

These guys would start at the left side of a hallway, push the broom a bit, angle at about 45 degrees, then tap it until the collected debris fell off. They then began sweeping anew, this time maybe at 55 degrees. They would make a 10-foot forward movement, then circle back for a parallel sweep, and so on to until the width of the hallway was done. It was then onto to other 10-feet set of parallels, and eventually the pile of debris was picked up by shovel.

This was a sure dance of a particular sort, and you could put music to it, the notes so evident. At the newspaper, I adopted that rhythm as best I could, and I perform it still in my basement and garage. My wife Lillian loves the tune.

February 15, 2010

The completed task

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – At age 67, I’ve handled more than a few broken windows that required removal, repair and replacement, but it wasn’t until the last half of 2010 that I learned almost everything I know about doing so. This thanks to a volunteer rehab project at the Old Stone Church in this village just north of Nyack on the Hudson River.

I’ve written about this before, and you may recall that Win Perry, Joe Diamond, Vince Morgan and I have spent about seven months removing paint from 19th century double-hung sash, replacing broken glass, re-puttying, re-varnishing, installing antique sash locks and reinstalling the windows in what is now village property. It is probable that the sash, with their hand-made wavy glass, had never been removed, so we mimicked the hands and the work of men so long gone now that they could have been our great-great grandfathers.

What satisfaction resulted from the joint effort – a bunch of older guys not saying too much, just intently working at their own tasks, as directed by Win, the Upper Nyack historian and an architect by trade who knows period detail. As I have noted, it was his insistence on detail in every phase of the project that changed my work habits.

When I was a youngster in Spring Valley, my grandfather Arthur Sr. took me to his workshop since he knew I had an interest in wood. We did a project together, but when it came time to clean up, I was lazy. In fact, my finish work on the small woodworking project was sloppy. I can still recall my grandfather’s words to my father that I had to learn patience and task completion. Well, 55 years later I have done so, finally.

I have lived in two homes and have added onto and rehabbed them and a dozen others belonging to family and friends, with all manner of plumbing, electrical and carpentry projects. That work was at first passable and then improved with experience. But all along, my modus operandi has been to get the job done. I could always hide the mistakes, in carpentry at least. I never compromised on safety, but I found creative ways to let other things slide.

Win, Joe and Vince, do not do so. They are like craftsmen of old, and I learned on the Stone Church window detail that, well, detail really counts. And detail means patience. And patience brings you on a journey not unlike what those who toil in monasteries must feel. You reach a point of deep quiet where your pulse is slow, where concentration is effortless, where your hands seem to know what to do instinctively. It all gets better the longer you stay.

My grandfather is finally back in the room, and I think he is smiling.

February 8, 2010

Black and white, mostly

I have never understood life’s complexities – love, hate, war, peace, success, failure. My limited brain focuses on absolutes, and while I can see the outline of supposed gray areas, I get a headache trying to fathom them. I am too simple for my own good.

One of my junior high school friends is a super intellectual, author of books and incisive major national magazine articles that have helped shape U.S. political thinking. He knows how to walk the talk in the gray zone.

I knew another person who is a math whiz. She can take the absolutes of that discipline and see the flexibility that nevertheless exists. Her brilliance and way of thinking mimic Einstein’s theories.

When I was much younger, there were those around me “deeply in love.” That initially euphoric state morphed into practicality with enough magic to offer some lasting storybook romance. It is a language difficult to understand if you can’t wade into the necessary gray areas of life.

In sports, there is all this talk of absolute victory, yet the subtlety involved in getting there means some pretty good smarts must first be employed, a calculated run through the gray zone.

Yet being simple has benefits. You can offer bon mots that sound good, even connect to utterly deep meaning, if you are not required to discuss at length. It’s a form of “twittering” on the Internet. You offer “tweaks” and move on.

And living simply means you don’t question too much – you take so much on faith, so you can exist, so you can survive. It’s fine as long as you don’t have too much time on your hands and feel the pull to look into the gray area. Then you need an aspirin.

February 1, 2010

No quick sale

In Nyack, N.Y., circa 1964, there was an old fellow with ever-present cigar at Arnold’s, the pre-chichi luncheonette where coffee and a scrambled egg on hard roll to go was 35 cents. These days the wonderful but unwonderfully expensive breakfast/lunch place at this location offers 10 varieties of pancakes alone.

In the old simplicity, “Moe,” which may or may not have been the cashier’s name, yet the name fits, would never look directly at you. His time seemed to be spent grunting, not in observation or conversation. But he was more than sharp enough to be the gatekeeper, and nobody got past Moe without paying the tab. He took the cash (no credit cards then) and the standard-sized check that the counter waitress had given you and threw the paper money on the marble shelf of the old wind-up register while quickly but intently squinting at the tab, which then went on a spike as he pressed the big keys on the National Register. The door popped open, and Moe reluctantly gave you the change, holding his fingers against the paper in hope of finding an extra bill there that should not be.

Moe came through the Great Depression, you see, and he was as frugal as he was downright cheap. And not too trusting. He was also Arnold’s father-in-law, and Arnold needed him as the gatekeeper. (Moe didn’t seem to need Arnold. Maybe he was looking out for his daughter.)

The old Nyack luncheonette, Moe, the cash register, the way you paid the tab, comes to mind because yesterday I tried to buy a copy of the Gotham tabloid, the New York Daily News, in Pearl River, a hamlet close to Nyack. It wasn’t an easy purchase.

In Moe’s day, which was also mine and quite possibly yours, I would pick up a copy of the News, tuck it under my left arm and reach in my right pocket for 5 cents, which would be slapped on the marble soda counter next to Moe’s register. Moe wouldn’t look up, but he heard the sound, and by its tone knew that you left 5 cents, not less. He also knew you had the paper under your left arm, for, as I said, he saw all, and Moe was the gatekeeper.

The entire transaction at Arnold’s, if you were just picking up the paper from the rack outside, hopping in, dropping the nickel and leaving, was a few seconds. But my Pearl River buy took considerably longer.

There I stopped at a chain store pharmacy, open 24 hours, which also sells newspapers, and picked up the Sunday News, took out $1.25 and plopped it all on the Formica, not marble, counter. I then turned to leave. The young fellow at the counter, about 60 years less in age than Moe, asked he if could have the paper I just bought. I gave it to him and asked why. He replied that he had “to scan it” before the cash register, an electronic model far removed from Moe’s brass one, could open its cash drawer.

Ah, “progress.” But also a column idea.

January 24, 2010

Humility by art

Well, of course that title could indicate one of two directions – “humility” as defined by me (Art) or humility through art, which is the subject here. I’m not sure someone short of Mother Teresa could, with ego, apply lack of vanity and self-importance.

I am retired, but once upon a time the workplace requirement for humility, often desirable in keeping a low-enough profile to be left alone and really do the job, was also a necessity when the raises were handed out by the pooh-bahs, the grand one or the lessers. That situation required a bit of bowed head, some minor groveling and the comment “Gee, thanks, boss. I’ll do even better for the company now.” Even if you were muttering under your breath and then threw a fit in your assigned cubicle, humble you were for the long minute.

Humility is also practiced in marriage, especially if peace be kept and if longevity is the goal. And there is always the nagging feeling (not the spouse nagging you) that she’s right. You can’t say that readily, of course, so a humble walk-through saves the day.

I’m not retired from marriage, so though the workplace no longer requires the drill, I am cognizant of what’s what in marriage, at least most of the time.

The humility venue of which I write today is somewhere else, in a new world for me, the art universe actually. I have known preteniousness there over the decades, taking photographs for the newspaper I long toiled for. But those were in-and out assignments, and I did not linger, nor did I take time to see beyond, to what is humility among artists. Now, I am occasionally hanging on the wall at a show or gallery – a photograph or two or a “painting” – and I am humbled.

In retirement, we don’t have to prove as much anymore – for the company’s well-being and growth, for self-satisfaction, for the raise, for promotions. Post-work focuses on keeping to good health in self and family — physically, mentally, financially. And hopefully on giving more in volunteering ways than the working days allowed.

But, art, a world I have been gifted to enter, even though it’s much like being a freshman, is extra fun, and I hope that makes me humble. In art, there is so much of life and death and hope and despair and the future and the unexplained that its expression can never be limited, for to do so would be to forever reinterpret what was, what is and also to limit growth.

In artistic expression, you see the gifts of the individual in comparison to your own. That is naturally humbling. But also hopeful since in the journey called art, you don’t remain in one spot. The life there evolves.

I know egoism as well as great, great doubt are the twin maladies of art, but they are also the creators. I would add humility to the palette, its own color.

January 18, 2010

The old post office

In a very simple time when things were still complicated for grown-ups, of course, country children of the 1940s and ’50s found diversion in rustling through the woods, playing hide and seek with other kids and going on small errands with dad or mom.

Absent the video games, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, HDTV, ballet school, karate lessons and all the other appointments now penciled in the datebook of a youngster, if you were staring at the wall as a 7-year-old, and dad was warming up the 1949 Studebaker Commander (once red, then repainted green), he might beckon you to hop in and travel a few miles to the Spring Valley (New York) Post Office so he could retrieve mail from Box 74.

You weren’t tall enough to see in the small box, set in a long row of decorative brass containers with combination locks. In a year or too, you could actually open the box yourself, anticipating mail as you walked home from school.

But for now, dad went to get what was there, and you would hang around the Art Deco lobby, standing on a grand marble floor and looking up at a Social Realism mural, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Postmaster Jim Farley Post Office rebuilding projects of the Great Depression.

The Spring Valley branch on Madison Avenue was and is a most solid structure, meant to convey the ability of a nation to rebuild itself and to endure. And the inside was deliberately set as a small palace, with wonderful hissing steam heat that warmed you on the coldest of February days. The government could help take care of you, you see, and the mural of laborers, farmers and industrial smokestacks billowing the white smoke of progress underscored this “we can do it” recovery.

A socialism-tainted view, though it was lost on the 7-year-old in 1949. He was there, escaping boredom with his dad, and he liked getting his fingers warm at the radiator. He also wanted his own mail, so the routine was to head over to the huge wire basket where people threw junk mail that arrived even in those days, and without messing about too much, take out a sealed letter and hold it, then open it, a grown-up thing to do.

The trip home was usually uneventful. Dad might stop for a loaf of Sunshine bread at Roth’s store, the motor and heater left running as he ran in and out. Soon you would be back in the quiet of the house, no TV to watch, and you might seek imagination in adjacent woods, within earshot of mom calling you home for supper at about 5:15.

Like I said, a simple time.

January 11, 2010

Win Perry’s tutelage

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – It seems that at age 67, you can still learn new tricks, lots of them. About windows, for example. Old windows.

Since last summer, I have been privileged to be part of a volunteer crew restoring 1800s windows at the Old Stone Church in this village north of New York City. The 1813 former Methodist Episcopal church, now community property rescued to save and showcase history, naturally requires maintenance and restoration, given its age. Right now, the crew, including Win Perry, Joe Diamond and Vince Morgan, are focusing on double-hung window sash almost untouched in more than a century.

Win, the Upper Nyack historian, first ordered old-style replacement storm windows, which were carefully fitted, primed and painted and then set in the six downstairs and two upstairs primed and painted frames. Then we took out the sash that were in place when Win’s long-ago relatives passed by on horseback and when so many great-great-great-grandparents stared through the wavy glass panels while attending church.

Next, we set up a ladder on sawhorses and began the laborious task of removing old paint with caustic chemical stripper, a very messy process. I have done some of this in my time, but never the way Win masters it, with great attention to detail – making sure not to scar the old, old wood, delicately scraping off the layers of paint, some applied 120 or so years ago. Paint removal alone took several weeks to accomplish.

Then there was priming with spar varnish to enable new putty to stick, replacing broken sash (and reusing parts of the old for smaller panes), puttying, oil priming, and now in January 2010, almost six months after we began, applying two coats of finish paint and then a varnish stain to the inside part of the sash.

In a month or so, we should begin to reinstall the double-hung windows. In all, the restoration will be the first such major effort on the sash, one that may never be duplicated, or if so, not for 80-100 years or so.

There is great satisfaction in all this since, as someone interested in history, I am part of it, and because the Old Stone Church is in my son’s village. His son Sam could some day, as an old fellow, walk past the very windows his ancient grandfather helped refurbish. Perhaps he will be part of the 2100 crew.

Though none of the skills involved are new to me, the methods of doing so under Win Perry’s exact direction are. I have learned to be more particular, to have patience, and, most of all, to take exceptional pride in the outcome. So, an old dog learning new tricks.

January 4, 2010

The letter was lost

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – In my father’s time, during a depression, this then semi-rural community northwest of New York City one day found a ray of hope in the opening of a brand-new post office on Madison Avenue.

Its construction arranged through the political pull of Jim Farley, a Rockland County son who helped win Franklin D. Roosevelt his first term and who in turn became the postmaster general, the new edifice was so solidly built of brick and granite, its lobby of durable marble, its teller cage of shiny brass, that it seemed to my father, then a teen, that if the nation could bring something like this to a relative backwater, it could rise all the way out of the worst economic calamity the modern world had ever seen.

Dad’s optimism proved correct though a world war ended the Great Depression and a devastated Europe gave America a leg up on world manufacturing. Still, the can-do, let’s-build-it-solid motto of the American industrial empire, its work guaranteed and its profits assured by many, many hardworking people, really did the trick – for the war effort and for peacetime.

But then came growing competition – from Japan, then other parts of Asia and re-emerging Europe, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and bigger and bigger China. Instead of meeting that competition and sharing the world market through innovation, cost-cutting reduced staff, closed factories and outsourced manufacturing. Bill, the gray-haired 60-year-old, in the factory since age 20, was out. So was Ken, 40, whom Bill taught. Their expertise and the proper line of succession were deemed not necessary.

A computer could design the product, say a mailbox, and the company could find cheap labor to build it, in a country where factory emissions were not regulated.

The Postal Service, once the Post Office, which inherited a wonderful part-steel/part-cast iron mailbox that stood outside the almost indestructible Depression building on Madison Avenue in little Spring Valley, could now replace that box with a new one, built overseas perhaps, but even if constructed in the good, old USA, put together on the cheap.

Competition, you know. Profits, you know.

Well, that double-sized stamped sheet steel mailbox that now sits on the sidewalk off Madison doesn’t look right. Doesn’t look like a mailbox ought to. Doesn’t work right, either, its bin door not properly cantilevered so as to flip back without citizen assistance.

Old Bill and Joe could have told the manufacturer that before the replacement mailbox left the factory. Only they had already left.

Not sure why the mailbox needed to be replaced anyway. The first one saw service through a Depression, World War II, Korea, peacetime, Vietnam, Watergate, the coming and going of the Ford Pinto, 2001, iffy presidencies and the stimulus. Guess I’d write a letter to ask, but don’t know to which lobbyist, and I’m not certain that I’d get it into the new mailbox.

December 28, 2009

R U SPKG TO ME?

Once, so very long ago on the time clock of the young, “tweet” was the language of the bird Tweety, the cute Warner Brothers Looney Tunes character. Now “tweet” is shorthand posting on “Twitter,” a social networking and micro-blogging site. Tweety Bird caught our attention with high-pitched sound, and modern tweets are supposed to grab you in their abbreviated look, much like the reduced wording of an ancient telegram.

There should be no problem with that since any way of communicating, especially one as popular as tweeting, is democratizing for humanity and should be encouraged. Spreading information, though it often may be loaded with gossip, rumor, falsehood and prejudice, is still enlightening. And it can be self-correcting, as one tweet leads to another, including setting the record if not straight, then straighter.

My only reservation is that any language shorthand also forces the brain to think that way, too, so while focus on any particular subject may be intense, the attention span is not, and it’s on to the next thought all too quickly. Any thought not fully developed with deep rooting will wither as a plant without sustenance. Result: We may all find ourselves in a twitter for lack of complete tweeting.

Or, just as disappointing, more words and phrases will be lost to what was once well-developed languages. Just look at the advertisements in the 1930s’ U.S. magazines. The copy often carried 100-200 words plus the images. Now, it’s a few grab-your-attention phrases for people on the run. The English language, as must be happening as well to other tongues across the globe, is being truncated. And with that comes loss of universal expression and communication.

An example: I was in a supermarket early one recent morning and went to the bakery section to get a donut, maybe a pastry, etc., from the self-serve racks. The baker was late, and so the day’s fresh goodies were not yet placed. I stood about until a young woman asked me what I wanted. “When will the baked goods come out?” I asked. She went silent for about five long seconds and then answered quizzically, “You mean the donuts?” I said, “Yeah, the donuts, the pastries, the crumb buns, the flavored croissants, the Danish, all the baked goods.” She retorted, “What kinda donuts you want? I’ll get them from the back.” Three minutes later, I had a powdered jelly and a crumb bun in hand. One of the two was a donut. I did not tell her which.

I hope I did not put the poor thing in a twitter. Her experience with an old guy probably pushed her to post a few tweets.

If twittering with tweets is to continue, as it will, if we are to follow the dictionary definition of twittering, which is “to tremble with nervous agitation or excitement,” in this age of shorthand, pulsating language, I hope we at least find abbreviations for descriptive phrasing, such as baked goods.

Otherwise, as with a fine painting where the viewer fails to see the subtlety of color or when a reader of fiction does not hear the author’s unique, layered voice, we will end up living in a world of skimming.

And you know skimming barely scratches the surface. It’s no way to live life.

For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my former newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web.
– Arthur H. Gunther III

December 21, 2009

‘Christmas Eve’

By Arthur H. Gunther IV

Perhaps it was more a habit than a tradition. At what point do habits become traditions anyway? It’s like anything else, thought Charlie as he drove around early Christmas morning – it’s all a matter of perspective. Charlie had been battling the cynics all his life, and though he was nearing 75 and had days where it was hard to muster up the energy to care, he still did.
Charlie had been retired from his job at the plant for 10 years now. When he had started as a young man, there was no choice but the overnight shift for the newly hired. By the time he reached his mid-thirties, Charlie had been offered the option to switch to more “regular” hours, but by then he had grown accustomed to beginning his workday at seven at night and leaving the plant at four. Charlie also realized somewhere along the way that the night shift fit him perfectly. Everything was a bit quieter, a touch more solitary. When he retired at 65, Charlie had been working the overnight shift for 40 years.
As the day of his retirement neared, it had been a common theme to joke with Charlie that now he could finally sleep in. “Better buy a bathrobe and some slippers,” he was told. Charlie himself didn’t know what to think. He actually wasn’t sad to be retiring. Most of his friends at the plant were long gone, and Charlie had a few other things he wanted to do. The first few weeks, he actually tried to keep more normal hours. Going to sleep at 9 or 10 didn’t turn out to be a problem, it was the waking up. Charlie felt lost getting out of bed with the sun shining. His whole day was thrown off. He felt as if he were missing something. After three weeks, Charlie had had enough. He kept the 9 o’clock bedtime but began making sure he was out of bed by 4 a.m. After a week, he didn’t even need an alarm clock.
At first, Charlie figured he needed a task to occupy his pre-dawn hours, so he took to delivering newspapers. It was a chance to revisit one of his first jobs, except for the fact that back then he had delivered the papers by bike after school and now it was in the dark with his Volkswagen. Charlie stuck to this for the first year but eventually realized he really didn’t need an excuse to be up early and out in the world, so he quit.
Which is why Charlie found himself driving around his hometown at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning of the year he turned 75. Charlie always listened to music on his drives, never a tape or CD. He loved when one of his favorite songs came on the radio, it was like someone was agreeing with him. This morning the radio was filled with Christmas music, and Charlie waffled between three stations, skillfully avoiding commercials. Charlie loved his town at this time. He chose routes that visited places that had seen little change in his lifetime. It was still possible to steer clear of roads with numbers and strip malls if you knew what you were doing. There were memories along each of these routes. The still of 4 a.m., the radio and the rhythm of the drive were all conducive to thinking. Thinking and appreciating went hand in hand. Charlie had learned this long ago. Time. Time like this is invaluable.
It was still quite dark on this starless night as Charlie crested the hill behind the college. Pulled over to the side of the road was an old Volvo station wagon, its right front tire jacked up in the air. A woman and two young children stood nearby as a man who couldn’t have been more than 30 worked on the car. Charlie pulled in right behind the family and got out to see if he could help.
The younger man introduced himself as Bill and was grateful for Charlie’s help. It took the effort of two to loosen the lug nuts, which were stuck on tight due to the cold and a bit of rust. As they worked, Charlie asked Bill if he were getting an early start to his Christmas Day traveling.
“No,” Bill explained, “this is a bit of a tradition that I have. Luckily my wife and kids tolerate it. When I was a kid, my father worked down the hill at the newspaper. He would always work the Christmas Eve shift and get off at 4. My mom thought it was sad that the family couldn’t be together for Christmas Eve, so one year she woke up at 3, cooked a big breakfast, packed it up, and we drove down just as my dad was getting out of work to surprise him. We all ate together in the car down by the river. The next year, even though it wasn’t a surprise, we did the same, and eventually it became a tradition. Even after no one was around anymore I kept it up. That’s where we’re heading right now. We always end up being a bit tired on Christmas afternoon, but it sure makes the day go by a bit more slowly.” Bill waited a beat and added, “That’s a good thing.”
The spare tire was now on and the family wished Charlie a Merry Christmas as they drove off. As Charlie got back in his car and continued on his drive, he couldn’t help but smile. “Score one for the optimists,” he said aloud, with no one but the night listening.
(Arthur is reachable at clausland@yahoo.com)

December 14, 2009

Going beyond

When you go to an art museum, the standard pose, of course, is the one that has you pondering in front of a particular work, perhaps stepping back, putting one hand under chin, tilting head, moving forward, all in a studious attempt to “get” the painting, photograph, sculpture, woodcut, print, collage, whatever. Some of us do this studiously, some in affectation, some because we are simply joining the crowd. Others don’t have any pose and are just tagging along, with a spouse or friend, even under mild protest.

The point, whether there is a workable pose or not, is that what is in the eye of the beholder is central to the art experience. The person who just tags along but who might take a glance up at, say, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” the well-known film-noir painting of a night diner scene in 1940 lower Manhattan, might in that instant understand more about the work than the fellow who has stood before this wide horizontal piece 20 times with hand under chin.

There is a dialogue going on between artist and viewer, and the language and its comprehension come from that simple but deep-in-subtlety well of “going beyond” understanding that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about. In “Nighthawks,” the viewer “transcends” any actual experience in a diner to understand beyond.

Hopper, the famed American realist painter, uses the bright inside light of the corner diner to contrast with night darkness. The light reveals the faces of the four figures – the counterman, the couple (perhaps Edward and his wife, artist Jo Nivison) and a man opposite. This light is transcendental – beyond ordinary perception – a realism that we normally do not notice. Hopper’s paintings are infused with that light. Even the shadows are functions of it, as are the people.

That’s my take on “Nighthawks” and on Hopper, a painter well received in his time but much more so in his revival, which began a decade or so ago. This is the artist most often characterized as the “lonely painter,” whose urban oils are painted with figures who do not look at one another, who instead seem in isolated thought or which have no people in them at all. His Cape Cod summer works – oils and watercolors – are brighter than the city ones, yet are as transcendental in the use of light, a metaphor for revelation and understanding. But you, the viewer, the self-reliant as Hopper would have you be, has to do the work. He will not instruct you.

I do see not loneliness in “Nighthawks” but urban alienation, which is the cityite’s cautious way of bonding. Three people sit on diner stools, two may be strangers to the third; they each need some degree of company (because they are human) but cannot speak to one another readily, as is the urbanite’s apprehensive, even suspicious way, so they sit in silence, not looking at one another but surely knowing another human being is next to them. That is not loneliness but the gothamite’s survival, his self-reliance.

So, “Nighthawks” becomes Emerson-like, taking the viewer, whether he has the standard pose or not, to the inner, spiritual and/or mental essence of us living creatures. There is also, like Emerson, utter simplicity, so reduced, but yet saying so much. The individual exists even in the big city and the broad summer experience. There is the dignity of each of us, going beyond ordinary description.

There is art everywhere – in old architecture, in sunlight rooms, in a pre-war diner – and to me that is what Hopper is all about. The art museum pose, certainly useful, isn’t necessary to understand that.

December 7, 2009

Faith renewed in San Antone

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — So this is Texas, this American city of great Mexican/Spanish/native Texan heritage, surrounded by hill country and covered by a deeply blue sky. This is not the light of an Edward Hopper urban mood piece or New England landscape but a shower of little, exploding stars that make you squint. Not so much, though, that you can’t see the Texan character.

And that is utter honesty, and directness and the most sincere politeness I have ever been gifted with in my life. “Howdy, Podnuh” is inimitable here, whether those actual words are used or not. Good manners is inbred. After this, I will have a difficult time back in my native Northeast.

Texas star figures – metal, wood, in print – are everywhere, just like you see in the old Hollywood movies, and there actually are people here like the film characters at “Reata,” the fictional Texas ranch in the fictional movie “Giant.” Rock Hudson and James Dean captured the look, strength, independence and sense of right and wrong as well as other deeply set principles of the Texans I’ve met and watched in my few days’ visit here.

San Antonio proper has its beautiful River Walk, with its sensible and useful links to stores, a museum, the botanical gardens. It makes you realize what’s lost in the huge American building of the suburbs and one shopping strip after another that must be reached by car.

There are suburbs here, too, and many shopping strips. Pity the poor traveling salesman, in from Iowa, awakening in Motel 75 on Austin Highway, thinking he was in Secaucus, N.J., or outside Pittsburgh. The Great American Lookalike Anonymity, with its chain stores, is present.

When Ernie Pyle, the great American traveling columnist and later war correspondent, trekked across the nation before World War II, he could not complain of such suburban lookalikeness and instead was able to celebrate more of the local character he found everywhere. And which still exists.

But you must go to the haunts in San Antonio – and elsewhere in the nation – to find them. Well worth the search. In just hours I spotted tall drinks of water in cowboy hats that would not fit heads in New York; drivers who yell “Howdy” to one another instead of cutting each other off; simply no litter at all; conservative politics, such as the sign on the lawn next door to my son Andrew’s house in Alamo Heights: “No Socialism,” set on a pure black (Mussolini’s Black Shirts?) background.

Each of the people I met or watched was a truly interesting character, underscoring and renewing my faith in people in general. Each place I visit and the place where I live my life most of my days have individual characters who make emotions rise and fall, who give you hope and sometimes send you off in despair, who remind you that this America of ours, always of diversity, is one thing most of all: fiercely independent, still the pioneer sort.

Would that those who fashion policy in that non-state called Washington, D.C., understood this. Then the health care snafu – and everything else – would be so much easier to work out.

November 30, 2009

The sock test

The rapt attention of a child watching “The Aristocats” can be like the fixed stare of the later day-dreamer, in each case the individual giving concentration to sights, sounds, thoughts that will somehow play a role in the evolving life. So, both moments can be a worthwhile investment.

The other day, a babysitting one for grandson Sam, who is 2.5-years-old on this date, offered a look into youthful concentration. In fact, I studied the moment and did a test.

Sam had just come back from a half-walk, half carry-by-gramps jaunt to a downtown (Nyack, N.Y.) diner, The Skylark, where one pancake with strawberries competed for his attention with curiosity about the eatery and its patrons. Thirty minutes later, his grandparents long finished with their own breakfasts, Sam ordered, “Take home!,” nodding to the still mostly uneaten pancake. The waitress nicely wrapped up the food, and we got moving, Sam all the way home (about 1.2 miles) fixing in on this and that, as toddlers do. Yours and mine.

Back in the house, he played a short while with puzzles and building blocks and then took off shoes and socks, his sign for watching a DVD movie, which he retrieved from a shelf, looked at the cover and decided that it was “The Aristocats.” “Put on!” came another order, and after his grandmother bargained with him for a diaper change first – one most resisted – Sam settled in on a large couch ready for a favorite movie, a film that has also been a buddy to millions of children over the decades.

Since his grandfather was seated next to him, Sam did not have a chance. The older fellow set his own day-dreaming on pause, and noticing Sam’s rapt intent as the butler sets out to cheat the kitty cats of their inheritance, decided to test the young fellow’s concentration by putting a sock on Sam’s head.

Well, the sock, sort of a “Cat-in-the-Hat” striped design, remained in place for several minutes as the TV viewer spoke to himself, sang a song or two, swayed his body slightly but, most of all, kept the gears and wheels spinning in that young, developing mind.

Now this was an odd metaphor but nonetheless promising. In this world, this fast-paced time of quick news bites, abbreviated language by cell phone text and just seconds of concentration where once there were minutes at least, there was hope that if a 2.5-year-old could keep his mind and his senses fixed on words, pictures and thoughts, he would also stay with the many books his parents surround him with each day. The sock on the head might prove to be the covering for the eventual well-placed feet on the ground as it were. An odd but apt metaphor.

Children are not supposed to watch much TV, the dictum goes, and Sam does not. But a movie that offers well-spoken words, lovable characters, a sense of right and wrong and so a moral, can be part of the mix of play activities that get the wonderful gift that is the mind going and growing in life.

I do not know where Sam went, where his thoughts traveled, as he watched “The Aristocats” after a spirited morning with his grandparents, but my sock test, the proof of concentration, gives expectation that he’s building castles and moats and fields and streams and woods and mountains and grand adventure, all set for a life that is, well, an ever bigger, total grand adventure. May it be so.

November 23, 2009

‘Once upon a time …’

Once upon a time in the nascence of suburbia, there was a street in a community called Hillcrest that had a model home at 25 Karnell. Being such, it was wallpapered with huge floral print in 1953 style. But that was the extent of added attractions. It was still a $12,500 Cape Cod-style house with two bedrooms, dining room, eat-in kitchen, full, unfinished basement and expandable attic, then also in vogue for, well, expanding families.

Time came when that attic was built-out, usually with scrap wood found here and there (a friend located beautiful hardwood in a bowling alley that was to be torn down for strip shopping). “Repurposing,” you see, was not invented in today’s “going green” age, although originally the term was synonymous with “saving money.” The annual income tax refund also helped construct expandable attics into two big bedrooms, with, if the shekels were there, a modest bath.

The finishing of the attic, in Hillcrest and elsewhere in this nation, was a suburban ritual, a mark that the family had grown, and so its needs, and that there was a bit more money to move forward in overall progress. Only well-heeled professionals lived in the McMansions of the day, still-modest brick ranches that cost a whopping $40,000. For most, the ready-to-be-enlarged capes were a godsend, especially for families who had come through the Great Depression and survived a world war.

Everything was new on those suburban streets, including the water, sewer and electric/gas infrastructure. And in Hillcrest, there weren’t yet enough homes to overwhelm. The woods were still there, if no longer everywhere.

But suburbia is to expansion as a weeping willow is to rapid growth. Water the latter, and it multiplies. People the former, and suburbia explodes. So, in time, the expandable capes were built no more, replaced by fully finished and bigger spilt levels, then larger high ranches, then even bigger colonials, then McMansions of various super sizes. These never-ending developments would take over the woods, stress the old infrastructure and crowd the land with density.

The 1953 Hillcrest cape my parents bought in 1953 and sold in 1964 for $19,000 would sell for about $380,000 today, but it now includes apartments in the basement and attic. It was concern about neighborhood overgrowth – illegal and illegal – that caused my mother and father to leave for a less-dense community in the same New York county.

Now we have the graying of suburbia in troubled times for lack of foresight and planning; for too many homes built; for infrastructure neglected; for anonymous strip shopping that must be accessed by car; for illegal housing and other zoning violations that are officially ignored.

Suburban planning could have arrived more responsibly, providing for new residents by expanding walkable village centers, just as we built expandable cape cods; by limiting growth; by protecting flood plains and the air-filtering and mind-easing woods. Instead, developers were allowed to follow a timed-release policy of “scorch and burn,” in this case bulldozing the woods and fields, building too much density, making a quick profit and walking away from the seeds of conditions that would inevitably result in greater traffic, a stressed infrastructure, higher schooling and government costs and reduced quality of life through both density and what it often spawns – illegal apartments.

It all could have been different, this suburban story, in Hillcrest and elsewhere. But, as the first paragraph of this piece introduces, “Once upon a time. …”

November 16, 2009

Man of conviction

It was a time of national unity against the obvious enemies – Hitler’s Germany and an imperialist Japan that had staged its Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack, but in the democracy that was at home, the one U.S. citizens and military were soon to protect, there was supposed to be room for dissent; otherwise, why the republic?

Yet the price for being a conscientious objector was high – public ostracism and the harshness of federal prison, including the injustices within those jail walls that were counter to the democratic rights of humankind, those very entitlements that are at the foundation of this nation.

There can be – must be – argument in a democracy about war, about relative “good war” (say World War II) and “bad war” (say the Vietnam War); about any government’s historically complicit failure to prevent the death of so many young people; about war’s devastation, war’s aftermath, war’s cost; about the vested interest of the military/industrial complex of which the good soldier Eisenhower warned us; about the polarization of one citizen against another, creating dislike, even hatred, just as brother was pitted against brother in our worst war, the Civil War.

There are no “nice,” safe, easy answers in such debate, yet this much is certain: If the patriot is to lay his or her life down in battle for the democracy, which at times is surely required, then it must also be understood that the sacrifice comes, too, on behalf of the living who choose to protest. Dissent can be sure patriotism as well, and it must be guaranteed.

I know of a distinguished fellow, quite accomplished in his professional career, as a husband, too, a father, a local New York historian, now 90, son of a pacifist, who was the valedictorian of his high school class in 1936, and went on to graduate from Columbia University in 1941. He was called up for the draft during World War II but failed to register because of his conscientious objection to war, and was sentenced to three years in prison, at Danbury, Conn., and Lewisburg, P.A., in March 1943.

The man willingly paid the price, as also befitting a democracy, for expressing his conscience in a time of war and national sacrifice. He knew that and took his punishment without complaint. What this man of principle could not abide was the hypocrisy of injustice against his fellow man, as seen in jail.

He took part in several prison strikes with other conscientious objectors – a work strike at Danbury in 1943 to protest racial segregation in the prison, and two hunger strikes at Lewisburg to protest mail censorship as well as a ruling that lengthened the terms of prisoners who staged work strikes.

Segregation was part of our nation before, during and after World War II, in the military too until 1948, even as a war was being waged against Hitler, who said in no uncertain term that some people (Jews, the mentally ill, social outcasts) were not people at all.

The man I know, who to this day speaks his mind and backs his conscience in peaceful civil protest, was, with others, locked in solitary during their strike to end jim crow seating in the Danbury mess hall. There was also protest against blacks being given menial work tasks.
It took more courage than most of us could muster to do what the man did, along with his fellow conscientious objectors, in defense of others in this democracy. I am not sure I would have had conviction in such a situation.

World War II was not my generation’s war, though I had relatives who served, one of whom was severely wounded. You can argue that this conflict could have been prevented by numerous governments worldwide, including our own, in the 1920s and early 1930s, but there was no other choice but a fight given the German invasions and Pearl Harbor. I believe I would have served if drafted after Pearl Harbor, but whether I would have had the red badge of courage under fire, I cannot tell. I do hope that I would have tolerated in this “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style of democracy that is my belief, those conscientious objectors like my acquaintance, who is also my friend.

He edited my collection of essays for the Historical Society of Rockland, knowing well that one of my favorites was “1944: A fellow doing his job,” about the wounding of my Uncle Winfield Gunther in December, in the battle of the Huertgen Forest. I wrote that my uncle, an Army private, was “Unannounced by name, almost anonymous on purpose. He went where he was told and did what he was supposed to do. He never expected anyone to say thanks because he was just one of many called to the task then at hand. …”

Winfield, in 1944 a father, was drafted along with so many for the retaking of Europe and the expected invasion of Japan. It was his conviction that he could and would serve, and at peril. I am immensely proud of my late uncle, not only for his service but for the way he also continued a democracy as a civilian in responsible fatherhood, in the work place.

My friend, the man of conscientious objection, served his nation, too, for without dissent and without toleration of other views, there is no democracy. Patriotism that is blind to injustice or will not allow railing against it in hope of honest and truthful debate and betterment is infatuation for your country, not love.

As a patriot, I am proud of my friend’s courage then and now.

November 9, 2009

Stepping into the season

I realized something was missing the other afternoon on a sharply brisk fall day with enough breeze to part golden and bright red leaves from their summer home and chase them in wisps and twists down the street. Incomplete in this set piece for autumn? My slippers.

I had gone through the whole of the last season without such need, for the weather was too hot for wool-lined footwear, even for socks. The cold wood floor of the house was great relief.

But now we step into fall, and one of the joys of coming in after walking around in the grownup shoes of adulthood, doing this errand and that, is to anticipate coming home, closing the door behind you, knocking off the brown footgear and dropping ten toes into comfy slippers. That and maybe hot cocoa or a hearty soup plus reading material or interesting e-mail or a blanket and the recliner would bring me to the place where I wanted to be.

Yet I could not get there since the slippers from last-winter-into spring were not there. My footsies were getting cold and they had no friends to play with. I looked under beds, in closets, in storage, in the garage, in the car (out of desperation) and on shelves. No slippers, no where.

I then did what every husband does, and called out in the ether: “Where are my slippers?” The “answer” from my spouse was automatic – silence, for that is most usual when I offer a certain tone of voice.

It was only after I showed up in person in front of the other half and calmly repeated my question that I was directed to a drawer in furniture unit b, sub-compartment 626 that I found my old friends.

“Well, you left them in the middle of the hall last spring, so I put them away,” was the rationalization, as if my annual habit of parting winter-spring and cautiously approaching the hot humid time of summer was as usual as an animal awakening from hibernation.

The slippers located, my feet said hello. And there was purring to be heard.

Ah, another good step into fall.

November 2, 2009

Autumn in New York

ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. – With the second day of November arriving here in this part of the Northeast – lower New York State but north enough of its great southernmost city that the vestiges of long-ago country autumn can still be recalled, the air this morning was about 1948 vintage, I’d say. It was as if that fall had been bottled as rural wine and kept to mature, though that seems impossible, and why would anyone want to mature what already smells wonderful?

I claim this morning’s air as 1948 because in that season I was just turning six, and we then were living in the hamlet of Nanuet, having just moved from Sloatsburg village. (In those days, we tended to relocate when the rental lease was up in October, a bit jarring since my brother and I had to change schools after classes had begun, but often the move was economically driven.)

Nanuet was then rural as was most of pre-Tappan Zee Bridge Rockland. I was in the first grade and yet walked along Highway 59 to school, about 1.5 miles away. No real danger as I stuck to the marsh side, making my way through the beautiful cattails and skirting behind the large billboard signs.

It was in that marsh that I deeply took in the cool air, not yet with the icy breath of winter but surely without summer’s humid overlay. It was refreshing, that bit of air in 1948, my birthday two days away, Thanksgiving coming, too, then Christmas. Nice time of year, as I already liked my new school on Highview Avenue.

Later that day, the still-strong sun would warm the air and the scent of morning would be lost forever. Or so it seemed.

This morning, in 2009, also on Nov. 2, I got out of my car, my legs considerably longer than in the first grade, and took in a deep breath of fall air that had come from the nearby direction of my old Nanuet homestead.

Could it be? Could that scent be autumn 1948? Well, yes, it seemed so. I guess someone bottled what this once-first grader whiffed 61 years ago and saved it until 2009. And now uncorked it.

What a birthday present.

October 26, 2009

The welcoming house

Ask any Realtor, or a five-year-old free in spirit, and they will tell you that every home offers an immediate feeling, and either you want to take off your coat and stay awhile, or you think you should run for the hills or you’re rather indifferent – no strong vibes up or down. Houses – by their design, furnishings, color, upkeep, orientation to the street and to neighboring properties – create an impression that telegraphs to the individual. Some of us are as perceptive as the young child and get all the dots and dashes.

My grandmother’s home in Spring Valley, N.Y., had good feeling about it, certainly since my grandparents lived there and every visit was a treat, but also because the circa 1912 house was simply inviting by design and period, full of sunlight, with an attic to explore and a huge, comfortable chair in which to curl up and read The Saturday Evening Post by the bright light of a standing lamp while the grownups talked. The time to leave that home always came too quickly.

I wish I could say that about all the houses I visited in that village where I grew up, or the homes I’ve been in and out of since, here, there and many other places. Some have been almost foreboding, immediately cold to the emotional touch. Others were neither warm nor cold but bland for my taste, though not for others’ obviously. Individual attraction determines so much.

Yet sometimes there is space that almost all of varied taste can agree is special. You walk into the foyer, and it feels like you have come to sanctuary after a long and arduous journey. You are “home,” though it is not your house, and you wonder why you have not walked through this door before. You can see the bright kitchen ahead, the parlor, though formal, made inviting by a charming fireplace, a dining room where you could play cards with friends on any night without intruding on space usually reserved for holidays.

You see a bath almost in doll house whimsy, tucked near a steep stairway with well-worn treads, polished by the steps of many people over 150 years or so.

You are turned onto the second floor by one of two handmade, built-in caticorner storage cabinets, as if a hidden hand gently directs the way. On that floor you see bedrooms that also capture light, another tastefully remodeled bath, with ancient claw foot tub repurposed to this home and perhaps rescued from the landfill. In the bath is a gift for children, a small cupboard that is attached to a “secret” door leading to the stairway for the third floor. You need not ask why the stairs open in the bath since no one is required to justify why a youngster’s smile is encouraged.

The third floor brings more delight for the child and the child within since it is finished space filled with eaves, the lines from which fairy tales are strung. Small dormers, probably added to the house and by the same person who did the caticorner pieces, are just the right height for someone young or old lost in dreams on a rainy day.

Now this grand old house does exist, and I visited it not long ago in South Nyack, N.Y., a home that has connection to my 42-year newspaper career since a columnist predecessor long lived there. Six degrees of separation.

The house has been properly and carefully and thoughtfully restored via expert craftsmen directed by a fellow arts center trustee.

I don’t know the depth of welcome this home would have offered anyone before the restoration, but I can tell you its basic vibes were in place the day it began life. It’s just that sort of house. Like the person you meet and you know in certainty that you can trust him/her, this house offers the same sort of assurance.

October 19, 2009

‘Number, please’

Ah, how the modern world has morphed into blitzland, with everything so fast that a sentence isn’t even finished before the “listener” focuses on something else. Consider cell phones, those gadgets that deliver and receive often barely audible calls at four times the cost of Alex Bell’s nearly perfected instrument, the one tethered to a solid wall.

Once, we need not suffer the angst of wondering whether anyone wanted to talk to us. We simply waited until we got home, and the person rung us up when we were in. Later, we bought answering machines because (1) they were invented and (2) life had speeded up enough to add anxiousness to curiosity. Then we bought cordless phones that we could carry with us into the bathroom, the garage, even on a very short walk up the street. Couldn’t miss that call, you see, as if we were going to be told we won $65 million in an East Anglia lottery.

Today, cell phones are almost sewn under our skin as are heart pacemakers, and we constantly check to see if they are still there. We flip open the gadgets for messages as regularly as heartbeats, perhaps hoping that though we goofed up on the job and lost the company much money last fall, this autumn all is forgiven and we can expect a call giving us the amount of a bonus payment from the national stimulus.

Or perhaps we just have to know someone wants to speak to us, or sell us something or e-phone us a photo of their dog doing cartwheels or text us a message in e-phone/mail shorthand. We just have to know.

Well, to each his/her own, but as for me, don’t include my ears in the calling circle. I don’t want to overhear a loud conversation in aisle three of a store, nor do I want to be held up on a checkout line as someone talks and fumbles with a credit card while ignoring, quite rudely, the cashier, who is there to communicate as well as to check one out.

I don’t want to know about love gone wrong, weird ailments, lost pets, unruly children, money and job woes and really personal stuff, all of which I have picked up in public phone conversations.

Years ago, when Ma Bell offered wonderful, clean, odor-free mahogany booths inside lobbies from which to make a telephone call for a dime, we all closed the folding door for privacy. Then on the cheap, she took the booths away and gave us shelves and a small wall panel to hide behind. But our calls could be overheard. Maybe it was then that the woman who had raised us on good manners in making and receiving telephone calls became a modern parent and indulged our self-centeredness. She gave us cell phones, and now we can be publicly discourteous to the max, if we should so choose.

Yet it’s too modern, too, to blame mother alone. She cut the umbilical cord. We still have ours plugged in, to the cell phone on our belts, in our hands, on our ears, in our purses.

October 12, 2009

Fall, as you like it

It is a crisp fall day in this part of the Northeast, up the Hudson River just miles from the Great Gotham – New York City – but in my mindset I do not see nor feel nor taste nor smell any connection. I am wrong, of course, since this county, Rockland, is now the home mostly of ex-urbanites. My own family, too, came from that direction, although enough decades ago that the cityscape was far different.

I grew up in a pre-Tappan Zee Bridge semi-rural, farming and light manufacturing community, not yet the site of hundreds of cookie-cutter housing developments that were supposed to continue the old neighborhood connection as families sought grass and air and good schools for their post-war families. Such realization occurred, but in early, small developments only. Today’s Heather Lane and Michael Court and Sparrow Run are streets of anonymity, and it is possible to live on them for 30 years and not know a neighbor by sight, let alone name. The lack of front porches, the utter necessity of cars to get anywhere don’t make for social discourse, meeting one another.

If your children are in elementary school, you might see the neighbors at events there, or at sports activities, but soon enough high school graduation comes, and the fellow or woman you talked to once or twice 12 years ago is now in row 3 watching his daughter move on as you see your son get his diploma. You and your neighbor probably will not meet again.

In my own lucky time in Rockland, before suburbia, I was fortunate to know some neighbors, to sit on then-available front porches, to walk to stores in a downtown, to kick my feet in fall leaves, to take in the crisp air without flavoring by exhaust as yet another SUV goes off to yet another strip shopping center. Fall here and then had a particular smell, too, the wonderful musk dampness of overturned wet leaves; the sharp pungency of bursting colors; the woodsy hint of winter straw, soon to be gathered for insulation in children’s winter huts.

I make no apologies for my dreaminess about and nostalgia for the county of my youth; I appreciate the added diversity a bridge and time have brought; I rail at “progress” but applaud opportunity for others, though the net result of poor planning – deteriorated downtowns, crowded roads, stressed resources, high taxes, anonymity – must forever be assailed if right is to make its point.

But it is fall, and the great joy in that has its interpretation for the individual. I have stressed mine, and now I say may all enjoy it as they wish, as the season reveals its ties to one and another, maybe all.

October 5, 2009

Making life grow

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — Unabashedly, this week’s column is written for the Class of 1961 from the high school in this village, then still a country town and its place of secondary instruction almost the way it was for the students’ parents, too, many of whom had the same teachers. You not of this ilk nevertheless may find symmetry and relevance and association, for all education in all communities in all ages share similar bent, no matter the age, the language, the ethnicity.

I write now of football season, part of our education, which for SVHS, especially the 1950s, was like a warm communal blanket that drew everyone back from the summer and got us going as classes. The spirit was infectious even if you didn’t give a hoot for football. The crisp air; shuffling the fallen leaves on the sidewalk jaunt to the game; getting in with a “G.O.” (General Organization, student governing body) discount pass; Sabrette hot dogs; hoping to see that girl or guy you had a crush on; meeting the girl or guy on the sly (often); the band and halftime; the first run of the bulls (players) onto the field and the great pride you felt being part of a community of like and emerging age.

This was school spirit that was not forced, that was not jingoistic, that was felt in the heart and on the goose-pimpled skin of growing teens who were just forming their lives, together and separately.

Time would come soon enough when the high school seniors would toss their caps, take off the gowns and leave the building door for the last time on many separate paths, never again to be part of those high school football games, that time of coming closer without a word spoken.

No matter what high school you went to, no matter where or when or with whom, the ties that were forged still bind despite the inability, even in some cases the disinterest, to be part of that cohesion once more.

No, youth is not wasted on the young; it is part of the fertilizer that makes the rest of life grow.

Happy football season!

September 28, 2009

‘Life as a continuum’

If time is seen as a “continuum,” a succession of moments in your life that are, by chance or direction, relative to everyone else’s existence, even if you never meet them, then what I have to report is understandable. If not, it’s interesting, I think. And, again, probably relative to your own experiences.

Once upon a time, though this is not a made-up tale but it was so long, long ago, the sixth grade at North Main Street School in Spring Valley, N.Y., was on Christmas leave, and the day itself was in progress. Presents already unwrapped in happiness, my family was looking forward to a two-mile trip to Nana’s house for holiday dinner. This would be the most satisfying part of the day – physically filling our stomachs and emotionally massaging the heart.

But that trip was a few hours away, and my parents had another present to offer – their bedroom telephone extension. They received few calls, my father did not like being awakened when he was sleeping days after a night shift, and he and my mother knew that two growing boys might have use of a simple phone to talk to their pals.

But how to get it upstairs? My brother Craig and I wanted the phone that very day, of course, but an installation order to the New York Telephone Co. could not be placed until after Christmas, and then there would be a short wait before the installer could come, given the ever-busier Ma Bell, whose Nyack, N.Y.- based installers could barely keep up with new phone orders from suburban tract homeowners in 1954.

My brother and I had a solution. This writer, whose reading material then included “Popular Mechanics,” with its detailed but simple electrical, etc., drawings, thought he had absorbed enough information to move the phone. My father did, too, to his credit. In a flash, the few tools at hand (my dad is not handy) were located, and I eagerly unscrewed the phone terminal from the bedroom baseboard. In those days, the wonderfully heavy and reliable “desk sets” were tethered to these terminals, and you did not normally plug in the phone. Such devices were reserved for the rich, who might bring them outside to their large patios.

I had to measure carefully since I did not have new telephone wire, a product that was nearly impossible to obtain because you were not supposed to touch New York Telephone installations (oops!). The wire measured for usable length, I pulled it off its basement staples, routed it out the sidewall, ran it up to the newly finished attic and then mounted the old terminal on the wall baseboard, just between our twin beds. The final connection made, my brother and I heard the dial tone and, boy, did we feel grown up. The bonus was that the move was completed in enough time to skedaddle to my grandma’s house.

In the years that followed, as a 12- and 11-year-old grew through our teens, that shared phone would be dialed to many a friend, including that new species in our lives – girls.

Now, the “time as a continuum” part. Fifty-five years later, I find myself a trustee of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack. One of my happy duties is to help fellow Trustee and Master Handyman Lynn Saaby take care of the 1858 home of the famed American realist painter. The main office is being relocated upstairs to a small sewing room (or perhaps it was a bedroom), and a phone line is required.

In much the same manner as that long-ago 1955 Christmas Day phone relocation, I recently strung a line at Hopper House from the original phone terminal upstairs. These days, you can fiddle with inside phone wiring since you own it, but other than that difference, the procedure was the same for me as it was in the sixth grade (though it is a bit more difficult to get off my knees in 2009).

So, time has continued for me in a succession of events, many connected, all related. What I was doing 55 years ago affects me today and also connects to others, as the new phone at Hopper House will surely bring in calls from around the world.

September 21, 2009

When the shouting stops …

Some Americans have always shouted down others, a rudeness that becomes a distraction clouding over the possibility of thoughtful debate. We must do better.

The shouting, as well as its opposite – reasoned point and counterpoint – can be traced to our independent, pioneering spirit, the deliberate severing of any head-bowing connection to Old Europe and the wars, the economic and social suffering and the religious persecution that sent so many of our forebears to America. In the new land, we were going to speak our mind, even if we were sometimes rude. Centuries later, too many of us are still shouting, especially at government, avoiding clear thinking just to make sure we are heard. The health care debate is the latest – one of the worst – examples of that.

Those of us in the media have not helped, emphasizing the mayhem at some town hall meetings over the facts of any health care plan.

Our shouting, our irrationality over things official, is enabled by our fear of big government, something this nation and its immigrants have tried to avoid because there must be no allusion to any king or dictator. Besides, the track record of official handling of anything – the recent “cash for clunkers” red tape nightmare is a case in point – confirms our worry about government incompetence.

The shouting is assisted, too, by prejudice against those who we perceive as not meeting the pioneer requirement of carrying the load. We showed that discrimination in opposition to immigrants in the 1800s, the ancestors of families now well established economically and socially. Then, in the last century, we gave racism a push. And now we are against undocumented aliens. Just as we have the ability to reason rather than shout, our prejudice is set against our oft-stated sense of compassion and charity.

Knowing our history, then, we must stage the necessary debate over health care by restating our thirst for independence, by recognizing our continued call for individual responsibility, by overcoming prejudice to help those in need.

End the shouting and polarization at town hall meetings and in the media. Look at where we are faltering and where we must climb if the ever-soaring cost of health care is not to quickly assume so much of the gross national product that our economy soon falters. And then we will all suffer.

Debate must happen rationally. I’ll offer my own two cents, no better perhaps, no worse I hope, than anyone else’s, but at least it is offered in the quiet, thank you:

• Accept that health care costs have risen way beyond the inflation rate, boosted by key factors, including over-testing to protect against lawsuits, use of emergency rooms as doctors’ offices, obscene profit-taking by too many medical care and supply providers, lack of a preventive care and malpractice.

• Recognize that the number of uninsured and under-insured is a black mark on a nation that has yet to realize that affordable health care for all is essential to its well-being, as necessary as military defense. A sick nation cannot be productive, and it cannot seek new frontiers.

• Acknowledge that health care might be better run by private companies, not a potentially fumbling government bureaucracy.

• Understand that individuals should be allowed to remain with present insurance companies and plans, the cost of which must be modified by government-encouraged competition. Perhaps, instead of any government-run plan, a quasi-official setup can be used, in the style of the Postal Service.

• Accept that any health care plan must be regulated as to prices and profit margin, just as the utilities once were, quite successfully.

• Know that prevention must be the focus, as this will increase longevity and productivity, save on medical bills and improve quality of life.

• Accept that no-limit catastrophic care must be provided, no questions asked and all compassion given.

• Agree that free walk-in fitness centers, rehab instructors, nutrition counselors and longevity experts must be provided to assist in preventing disease and the devastation that throws people into nursing homes at great cost.

• Acknowledge that low-cost and no-cost care to indigents, to anyone in need, should be given in centers run by a consortium of health-care providers. A national health corps could be established to help fund medical schooling, with the graduates serving as lower-paid physicians and nurse practitioners.

• Understand that computerization and paperless administration would be required so no one is overwhelmed by forms. All payment would be handled instantly in the health care provider’s office.

Obviously, these suggestions are just one person’s participation in the necessary debate. They can be improved upon by many minds in the national persuasion – they are but a starting point for necessary debate that will begin only when the shouting stops. Our future depends on sound reasoning. We must at long last listen to each other, or we will shout ourselves into the fall of America.

Sept. 14, 2009

Transcending the light

NYACK, N.Y. – For most of this year I have been a trustee of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in this Hudson River village of the American painter’s 1892 birth. That position, and the activities it affords, continue to be a trip into the famed realist’s mind.

In the past 20 years or so, especially, Hopper’s work – “Nighthawks” as among his most recognizable – and his method of “painting sunlight on a building” have become almost a religion to some. His oil paintings of urban (New York City) and Nyack scenes and the watercolors from Cape Cod and Maine bring fantastic prices, if any ever make it to the market since most works are held by the Whitney Museum in New York and at other venues. In Hopper’s lifetime (1892-1967), very little money, relatively, was realized though his fame was certain from the 1940s at least.

I’ve had “Nighthawks” on a wall of my home office for years, originally because the artist is a native Rockland Countyite, and that drew this hometown boy to him. I have looked at it many times, but only in past months have I stared INTO this painting of a late-night diner scene in Greenwich Village. Now I see that it is all about the light that paints itself on the buildings, on the diner, on the three patrons and the counterman. The light is transcendental – beyond ordinary perception – a realism that we normally do not notice. Even the shadows are functions of the light. So are the diner patrons and the counterman. You can see what you wish, and for some that is urban loneliness, others the film noir of a city in the 1940s. Hopper did not analyze his works, though he said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.” My own take is that he let the light in any scene – day or night – speak for him. I never see loneliness.

In this past year as a Hopper trustee, I have studied many of the artist’s works and have been privileged, as a professional photographer, to interpret some of the Rockland locations that inspired the artist, such as the old shop, still standing at School Street and Broadway in Upper Nyack, which is portrayed in spareness and transcendental light in “Seven A.M.’ (1948).

The Hopper House Art Center, at 82 North Broadway, will soon include eight interpretative photographs in its hallway, on a “living wall” meant to demonstrate how Hopper’s birthplace village influenced his art. It is hoped that photographs, paintings, collages, etc., from others will follow my limited run in a continuing exhibit for years to come.

Entitled “Hopper’s Rockland Inspiration … Interpretations in Photographs,” this hall of Edward’s “reach” could prove unique in art centers/museums because it will attempt to have living artists continually re-examine and reinterpret a master. It will also bring Edward Hopper home to a house long recognized for its art shows and events but not necessarily tied to the artist who ran down this hallway as a youngster, who saw the light play out when the front door was opened and rays of early-morning brilliance shot up Second Avenue from the Hudson River. In that, a life was changed forever. As was American art realism.

I write this piece not because I am a plausible interpreter of Edward Hopper’s work, his being, his absorption in light – I am merely a neophyte study, perhaps with great limits. I pen this essay because I am a Hopper House Art Center trustee who wants to promote one of its exhibition ideas, yes, but much more than that. I want as many people as I can reach to feel as I do about this giant of a man, who was quite tall and whose long fingers pushed a very long brush that took the light God made and magically stretched it onto canvasses that transcend, that are outside consciousness.

May many see that light and take a journey with it.

A 2009 photographic interpretation of Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting “House by the Railroad”.

September 7, 2009

The house on the corner

Spring Valley, N.Y. – For just about 90 years, nine decades that brought this village through post-World War I prosperity, the Great Depression, an awful Second World War, new post-conflict boom and the growth and the beginning decline of suburbia, a beautiful Craftsman-style home has stood on the corner of South Madison and Castle avenues. It has been a polished jewel in a once well-kept neighborhood now suffering from dense multi-family and boarding house zoning that has encouraged landlord neglect and official indifference, balanced in favor of added tax revenue.

Two brothers were raised in that home, sons of the owner of a large commercial bakery. One became the General Organization president and all-around popular man on campus at the high school across the street. Both brothers were successful businessmen, even after the bakery closed because much larger corporations undercut the price as they also cheapened the bakery goods.

Well into their 80s, the brothers followed the wishes of their parents, who were meticulous in keeping the corner home beyond neat. The lawn was always mowed, the trim painted in its usual yellowish cream, the art-style glass polished. The boarding house up the street gave up its lawn so multiple cars could park there. The high school was sold to a private group that has allowed it to deteriorate almost to ruins. There is litter. There are neglected homes. There is a general shabbiness in what used to be one of the best sections of a once-prosperous village.

Now the jewel at South Madison and Castle avenues has joined the community’s decline. The last of the brothers has passed away, and the family home, an example of how to keep your property neat, has passed, too, into the hands of those who see such houses merely as a place to live, a place to make profit. The lawn is cut when it’s cut. The trim gets no paint. The glass goes untouched. “Why are these things important?” the new owners seem to suggest.

Soon, what stood for so many years at this corner will morph into look-alike modern suburbia, at least that part of suburbia recognized as decline.

Village leaders seem uninterested in the decay, for they have let it happen for almost four decades now, as housing developments sucked away old village families and strip shopping promised a better trip than the downtown Main Street stores. Now, many of those strips have themselves fallen victim to mega malls, and the housing developments are graying, many in need of repair and many owned by seniors who have no use for the numerous rooms. (Didn’t anyone think of that when these large homes were built?)

Even as suburbia has declined, though, even as the village of the two brothers’ birth withered, the corner at South Madison and Castle was a shining example of what can be done, what must be done, in such decay. Pity that their neighbors never saw the light.

August 31, 2009

Summer into fall

The humidity has decreased and the door doesn’t stick any more. It opens relatively easy – you don’t have to fight it. An analogy, yes, for summer going into fall in these parts, the increasingly humid Northeast.

Once upon a time, although it was no fairy tale, we had hot and humid summers, with the wetness peaking in August but the cooler nights making that bearable. Now, because of whatever – climate change or just the passage of time on an ever-aging earth – there seems to be more humidity in my section of the land. In years past, you only occasionally spotted mold on the north side of a building, and now it is common, a sure sign that Georgia weather likes to pay a visit, and to linger a spell.

Now, on the eve of fall’s September, the door opens with a bit of ease – not complete ease – but without a struggle. Some trees have dropped their leaves and the air has lighter smells, no longer masked by humidity or with one scent held suspended, as has been the case this summer with the smoke from evening open-pit barbecues.

(They are the rage here, with huge pits crafted in backyard cement or bought ready-made from the home improvement store, holding mesquite and other seasoned woods, lit and roared up to a great fire upon which slabs of meat are thrown in a ritual that may hark back to the primitive but which now is so, so suburban. The rest of us have to endure the lingering smoke and food smell.)

As the nose of summer fades, the door is opening to the promise of fall – crispness, a warm coat, walks in the leaves that take me back to youthful memories, shorter days and the coziness of that and the greater quiet in my suburbia.

Yes, this is leave-taking of the summer, in this year’s instance, an unusually cool season. Swimming was oft-denied, as was sunbathing and general appreciation of the hot weather. I am sorry sun lovers never got their fill, and I apologize for wishing their time to be gone. They would gladly wrestle the stuck door in exchange for summer’s fun.

But never having been a sun baby, and always looking for the quiet, I anticipate fall’s reappearance. That season is never the same, of course, but the constants of smell, some chill and the offer of solitude to the individual in his or her walks are there, and I welcome my old friend.

August 24, 2009

The fitted door

Once upon a time, a long, long way back, a man in bib overalls, perhaps in a faint stripe, with a cloth hook on the side for a hammer and a back pocket to hold a foldable, not tape, measure, might spend an entire day on your front porch.

He’d work quietly, might even offer a short, very short comment or two about the weather, gladly accept your lemonade and perhaps sit for a spell on the porch steps, not saying anything more.

His speech would come in the duration and volume he set as he worked on your new screen door. In the days before tape measures that roll in frenzy back into a case, even as you forget the measurement, wooden screen doors with self-closing spring hinges were in style, along with foldable stick measures. There were no already framed aluminum door sets, just about ready to plop into a door frame using a battery-powered screw gun.

No, your man was the battery power and the acquired skill power, too, so necessary to fit the wooden screen door to a frame probably neither plumb nor level in a house with equal but charming tilt. Like so many things in those times seemingly askew, the house wasn’t going to fall down, and a man could always be found to fit your door to your non-square frame.

That would take a well-sharpened plane, various hand tools for drilling and setting slotted, not Phillips head, screws, and much patience for the constant refitting. Your man usually had enough of that, even if he had a short fuse and might curse a bit under the breath, for the man had his flaws beyond the superlative work he did. He would not have survived in the job if he could not have grown in it, the good and the quirks amplified together.

And that’s why he had those bib overalls, with a slight stripe, and most of all pockets for a lifetime of fitting of many sorts – gaining experience, tucking away some patience and a bit of chewing tobacco, too.

August 17, 2009

The block of time

NYACK, N.Y. – Over the weekend, I was photographing the opening of a new (painter Edward) Hopper House exhibit – “Three Styles in Clay” – when a 1959 graduate of Spring Valley High School caught me up in conversation.

She had just been to her 50th reunion, and since my own Class of 1961 may have its own half-century bash, I was interested to hear what I had suspected: that such events, despite the greatly changed physical appearance for some, is as if high school were merely on summer vacation and that we all had returned in the fall.

The people who hung out together in 1956-59 did so at the reunion. The same jokes were recalled, the old town haunts were revisited and memories were sharp.

I could relate to what this woman was telling me because we were in a “block of time.” Her teachers, 99 percent of them, were there for my 1958-61 years at SVHS. Actually, more than a few had been my father’s instructors.

My conversationalist and I were in the same time period, though we shared the high school building for just one year. It was as if we had attended together for the sophomore-senior terms.

Both our classes were awfully small, just 200 or less, compared to the 600-plus sizes that would hit my suburbs in the 1960s and beyond. That meant we knew each other’s families, older and younger siblings, storekeepers. Talking about all these people brought me home to a village I truly treasured in a way not possible today since the community bears no resemblance to that of my youth (although my father and I saw the same Spring Valley in two generations since post-war growth did not impact the village until the 1960s.)

In between our SVHS reminiscences and photographing the beautiful ceramic works of Rosemary Aiello, Norman Epner and Taesik Song and in entering that special artistic world, one that is also its own block of time, I realized I had encountered a gift, as had my fellow talker. We spoke the same language, a 1950s Spring Valley dialect that my spouse, my children, most of my friends and colleagues could never understand. Nor is it necessary that they do. There are parts of the individual unto himself, herself, and he or she is delightfully free to pick up the old language and converse in dialect when the occasion tugs.

Hopefully, we all have this opportunity to revisit, if we wish, our own high school years and other life haunts. However special your loved ones are, where you grew up and what happened is an elixir, a fountain of special creation, to be shared by those who recognize the taste.

August 10, 2009

A man out of the blue

NEWPORT, R.I. – Arriving recently on this famous and beautiful island off the Ocean State, where the Vanderbilts surveyed magnificent summers and weekends at The Breakers, the family and I were met with nothing but quiet. The folk festival of the night before had strung its last notes and the faithful were deep in induced sleep. All except one, the guru of them all.

Stepping off a curb near the waterfront between Newport and Jamestown, we saw an erect, smiling man wearing a large straw hat. His smile, voice and face immediately gave away folksinger Pete Seeger’s identity. This man, who millions have seen in concert, on TV and in film, in civil protest and at hundreds of Hudson River Valley fund raisers over many decades, was unexpectedly surrounded by no one. No handlers. No associates. No security.

Refreshing, that, as was his awfully friendly demeanor and his casual query: “I’m looking for twine. Need to tie something to the roof of my car.”

The family was a bit speechless, some of us shook the man’s hand, I wished him a happy 90th birthday though he looks 75, and then we quickly answered his question: “There’s a gas station over there and some stores there.” Soon we were off on our separate ways.

Looking back, we should have helped this unassuming and popular folk singer find the twine. Guess that with a three year old in tow, we were focused on him, and Pete Seeger seemed so nonchalant and self-assured and independent that you just figured he could find the twine, haul his stuff to the roof of a car and mosey on. He could even jump into a Conestoga wagon and head for the West in 1870. Pure American, that.

Seeger was in town for the 50th anniversary of the Folk Festival and joined such other icons as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie. The event is companion to the nearly 55-year-old Jazz Festival, and in the short-lived years before amplified rock music shouted over folk, great performers of protest songs and lyrics defining the this land as our land at Newport included Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom Singers. In 1963, the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was heard. That same year, his first at Newport, Bob Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which recounts the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Seeger, known to many in my 1940s-1950s generation as a radio singer and member of The Weavers, became a key figure in the American folk revival of the 20th century – as a performer, song writer, banjo expert and unfailingly good-natured, non-violent artist. Remember “Goodnight Irene,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Turn, Turn, Turn!”? Recall the Kingston Trio, a buttoned-down shirt version of The Weavers?

Pete Seeger performed at the Obama inaugural, and I’ll bet there were no handlers then, either. Guess he had to be vetted by the Secret Service (not an easy task for a lifelong civil rights protester), and he probably felt constricted in D.C., even in his shared great moment.

I think we saw in Newport, on a deserted street, all alone, the Pete Seeger most of us know. He was in his real life current: unassuming, looking for twine to tie up his gear, preparing to leave yet another gig. Would that the mighty and powerful who are in other spotlights take a humility and honesty lesson from this man. Would that the still-sought America of “Mr. Smith” include more like Pete Seeger.

August 3, 2009

TAP INTO YOUR MUSE

A photograph always tells you something, whether it’s in 1,000 unspoken words or one. It appeals (or not) to who you are, even where you would like to be. It reaches out to touch you, to push you away, to bring on dreams, to move you onto something related. It makes your mind record the image, for possible later use, gosh knows when.

I have been taking photographs professionally for some 43 years, artistically for at least 20 and actually since I bought a Brownie Hawkeye at age 13 in 1955 with $20 in combined birthday money and cash that my brother loaned me (still have to repay that).

Once, photogs were an elite group, given the expense of the equipment and the mastery of technology needed. Today’s digital world makes it so much easier to concentrate on the subject, free from technical things, that more people are revealed as true photographers. They had the “eye” all along, but their talent could not be seen.

Add in computer software that is relatively easy to use compared to old darkroom techniques and the amazing ways the applications can enhance your work, and an entire world of brilliance unfolds every day.

If I were king, I would declare every day a photo-op so that millions become lens people in this new ease. Imagine the great tugging at emotions, the deep look into humanity, the documentary possibilities from all these new images?

Take photos and share with the world via the Internet, people! Shoot today.

(The photograph at the top of this column is of the Seven Lakes Drive, Harriman State Park, New York State.)

July 27, 2009

The secret sign

One of the habits you acquire in a career is the special way your hands and body handle things. A surgeon, for example, is given a scalpel and takes it for use in a certain, practiced way. A cabbie holds his steering wheel ready for quick movement in unpredictable, aggressive traffic. A seamstress can do microsurgery on a garment, lightning fast.

The other day I was reminded of acquired dexterity when I picked up a newspaper, a New York City tabloid. I usually buy three-four papers a day, because I like to read them, can’t go 24 hours without one, want to support the beleaguered, ink-stained wretches who are still lucky enough to be employed in journalism, and because I can’t even seem to eat without a paper in front of me. (That was once difficult for my family, but now all seem to have the same habit.)

When I was in the store and picked up the Daily News, I instinctively placed it in a quick flip under my arm after first using my thumb and second finger of my left hand to fold the paper.

This always gives me an inner smile, for it is a habit common to frequent newspaper readers and especially those who work for papers. In newsrooms across America, when the first copies off the press are dropped in a bundle on the city room floor, the staff scrambles to pick up copies, does the flip maneuver and then slaps the paper down on any surface to quickly scan for headline goofs, other typos, print quality, etc. Part of the club, man.

I am no longer a working newspaper stiff, but I will never retire from being a newspaperman. I would have toiled until death, but the gods did not let me, and perhaps the people have thus been spared. But I can still pick up the News, the New York Post, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the San Antonio Express-News, etc., and feel part of the club.

I just give the secret sign – my finger flip and underarm fold.

July 20, 2009

The trusted man

When Walter Cronkite died a few days ago, the first word of the first tribute was “trust,” since this fatherly figure long delivered the news in balanced fashion without hype, strong gesture and contorting facial expression, sans showoff-manship. His legendary signoff, “And that’s the way it is,” was earned since he told it like it was each day, to the best of his reporting, managing editor, editing and anchorman abilities. It was the way he was raised in the profession, and the evenness suited his personality.

Some of us knew that Walter Cronkite was level-headed, accountable and could be counted on for honesty years before he became the premiere CBS newsman, after Edward R. Murrow recruited him as one of “Murrow’s Boys” following Cronkite’s work in radio and as a World War II theatre correspondent.

From 1953 to 1957, CBS had a Sunday show, “You Are There,” with Cronkite as the anchorman for “live” reports looking at important historical events as though they were breaking news. Featured were key moments in American and world history, with CBS News staff, in 1950s attire, reporting on the historical events as they unfolded and interviewing the characters. At the end of each show, Cronkite would say, “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times … and you were there.”

The “who, what, when, where, why and how” of traditional journalism were hit on all cylinders, with Cronkite managing the reporting in these shows. The balanced character he played, directing the search for the facts, soon was a “trusted man” in America, and it carried over into his own, true, TV news shows of the 1960s into the 1980s.

Such an image of trust came naturally to a man of even temperament and articulate, reassuring intonation who, as a United Press correspondent, went ashore on D-Day, parachuted with the l0lst Airborne, flew bombing missions over Germany and covered the Nuremberg trials.

Yet Cronkite would tell you he was just one of many war correspondents brought up in a balancing-the-news tradition who dumped themselves into the action to report more deeply. Not all such reporters did, of course, some waiting in rear headquarters for the military Public Information Office handouts and choosing not to tempt the censors.

Apparently, Walter Cronkite was a more resourceful man, and like the famed Ernie Pyle, he got around officialdom to give the people their due.

Journalism has changed so very much since Cronkite’s radio, wartime, early TV and prime-time news anchoring, with ratings now so strongly dependent on pretty or handsome talking heads, and with some shows agenda-driven politically. Newspapers, hit with declining readership in an electronic age, are reducing staffing and watering down what corporate now call “product.”

Add in the “citizen journalism” of unverified gossip, prejudice and wrong information, despite the benefits of having more eyes and ears out there probing for information, and you have a kettle of fiction and fact, with little enough simmering.

How does the ordinary person, thirsting as always for the news, know “the way it is” anymore? How does the public dip into the kettle and get nourishment?

Guess we will have to find another, modern Walter Cronkite to tell us how, to restore balance to the information gathering and delivery business.

July 13, 2009

The involuntary cashier

Twenty years ago, I would go to a home improvement store and wait on a long single line to pay 89 cents for two short bolts with nuts. In those days I would half complain, half joke to the cashier that I was 28 when I walked in the store and now I was 64.

At least the line moved along then, however slowly, since the store, much larger than the beloved downtown hardware place (which I haven’t loved enough) but still a shrimp compared to modern mega “working warehouses” where the workers may be in the aisles or in stocking but not at the register.

Back in the old days, most people were still cash customers, especially since credit cards could not be used for purchases under $10 and ATM and debit cards had yet to be foisted upon the unsuspecting but gullible public as necessity. In 2009 you get to wait on even longer lines as someone fiddles for his/her card, scans it, gives the security code to the cashier, signs a touch pad and waits for the receipt to roll out at 10 inches with three coupons for stuff you would never buy – and all for a purchase of $2.43. Oy.

But wait! Some genius in corporate who wanted to get rid of 233.8 cashiers chain-wide to make the annual profit target, decided to make your life “easier” (that’s the hype) by actually turning you into the single cashier. Unpaid.

The home improvement store I was in early this morning had no living cashiers, just four “self-service” machines that first ask you if you want to proceed in English. Since I live in a country that is English-speaking, why wouldn’t that be an assumption? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to ask “Another language?”

Choosing English, I scanned my items, some of which were long boards that were awfully difficult to press on the glass platen. Then, because the boards would not fit in the 10-inch plastic bag, I was hit with a sharp recorded voice: “Unexpected item in bagging area.” Soon, I thought, red lights would start blinking and I would be surrounded by security.

I had to do a time-wasting shuffle as I looked for someone to come over and cancel the threat. I then scanned other items and was prompted by the on-screen display to pay cash or by credit or debit or, presumably, by barter, only I had nothing to trade except my wits, which were at loose ends and not worth much.

The machine asked for my phone number. I declined, thank you, since Dick Cheney already has it. I put in my $20 bills but apparently not fast enough as the machine kept yelling for me to feed it, now!

The transaction over, certainly faster than if I had waited online as I did in a smaller version of the home improvement joint years ago, I still felt at a loss. This time it wasn’t my precious time that was wasted but the uneasy notion of forced involuntary servitude. I was an unpaid cashier who had to jump through hoops to fund corporate bottom lines.

But, hey, come to think of it, isn’t that we schmiels have been doing with the auto companies and the banks and the mortgage companies and Bernie Madoff? Oy.

July 6, 2009

The last American

Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s were once part of American history lessons for many a youngster. There was enough truth in these movies to give a valid sense of how the nation grew, and, more important, the American spirit was well captured over and over, portrayed in the great sense of independence, ingenuity and common sense of the characters.

You see all that in Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939). And in Robert Young, Dean Jagger and Randolph Scott in “Western Union” (1941). The women were often the strongest, with the deepest understanding of right and wrong, such as Claudette Colbert in “Drums Along the Mohawk.”

Today, in this “Land of the Free,” could any of these movie characters, who actually represented definable qualities in pioneering Americans, survive amidst all the rules? The real people Hollywood portrayed would probably be so suspicious of how large government has grown that they would leave for the wild, as so many did when the towns and cities that replaced their early settlements rose and “civilization” came to town. That’s when it became hard to breathe.

Americans can now breathe more deeply at the U.S. icon, the Statue of Liberty, but they still cannot get enough free air there. This past weekend, the national birthday, saw the security tightrope around Miss Liberty, placed there in 2011 by the we-know-what’s-best-for-you crowd, finally loosened a bit, but not completely.

The Lady in the Harbor had been shackled against the public for fear that a terrorist would blow her up or that any emergency would be difficult to handle because of the narrow staircase (never a problem since 1886). Applause for Rep. Anthony Weiner, who pushed for years for the statute walkup to the crown to be restored, properly calling the decision by some security extremists to close the icon “a partial victory for terrorists.”

But the door is not fully open. To climb inside Miss Liberty, who has for more than 100 years welcomed so many to America, to opportunity, you must purchase tickets in advance, be screened and visit in small groups.

The characters in those Hollywood historical films wouldn’t even bother. They’d pack up their muskets and head westward, hoping the frontier was still there, free from ever-larger bureaucracy and too many regulations for “our own good.” They would figure that they could handle most threats on their own, in concert with fellow Americans. Mostly by common sense.

I don’t know who will be the last American to seek the frontier, but he or she has certainly has already left the great harbor that is shared off Liberty Island between New York and New Jersey.

June 29, 2009

House becomes a home

ANY HOME, ANYWHERE – The 1920s house on the TV home improvement show looked typical for its time. The original, just-past-Craftsman-era-approaching-modern-lines doors and molding had never been painted, and the patina of so many decades was ready to be enhanced by simple light work with extra-fine steel wool and tung oil.

That approach would pay due respect to this house and celebrate its roots, a responsibility that comes with older property. Too many homes of other generations have been reworked into some vision of modern use that it would have been better to tear the structures down and start all over. Yet other houses have been adapted to later use while being sensitive to the past, allowing the owner to live in other than a museum.

It’s all a matter of taste, and that is, as we know, a finely developed sense that is kin to the chief sense – common sense.

We all spend enough time in our homes during our lives – the houses where we grow up, the homes of our first dates, our own houses, our friends’ homes, our children’s. In any given house there are thousands of faces and expressions stored in woodwork reflections. If only the doors and molding could be read like a digital camera image, what would we see?

Any home I’ve been in gives off an immediate feeling – of comfort, or orderliness, of my taste or not, sometimes of disappointment and missed opportunity. There is a feeling for me, as for you, and sometimes a general, held-in-common feeling – what the Chinese term “feng shui.” Certainly the positioning of colors, materials and elements in a home can promote harmony with nature, with yourself. You can feel that flow of energy, which seems to link you to calm not of this earth.

My Colorado friend writes of a poorly designed staircase that seems to float on either side of the steps without sufficient anchor to the treads. It apparently passes the local building code and may indeed be quite strong and safe. But its design is as if Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawk” painting of the diner and its occupants had been drawn and finished in crayon. The oil colors, the brush marks take us into another dimension.

So it is with old woodwork and lives lived in any one house that becomes – well, a home.

June 22, 2009

A class for its time

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – No high school graduating class is like another, despite the usual fundamentals – students, teachers, studies, sports, infatuations, aspirations, family background or perhaps no family at all.

There is chemistry to any one class, as there was to my own, Spring Valley High, 1961. We were a mix of 202 kids, and most of us were acquainted enough with just a handful of the others. Names, faces, inclinations, reputations we knew, but the intimacy that comes from living life with and among others, no.

Yet that did not matter, for such closeness was not of our high school time, nor could it have been. Though we were groups of 10 or 20 students knowing each other, some having spent formative years together in the Spring Valley elementary schools, or at St. Joseph’s Parochial School, or in the Lakeside or Happy Valley foster care communities, or in the boroughs of New York City, there was, when we assembled, a certain electrical current powering a magnet to attract us into a cohesive whole.

Of course, all graduating classes have this magnetism, this chemistry, but the DNA is always different. SVHS ’61, for example, was tempered by post-World War II economic triumph over the Great Depression that our parents had endured as well as the war; by Sputnik and the Cold War; by the beginnings of suburbia in the countrified county in which most of us had built our huts and romped in play houses fashioned by kind fathers. Our teachers were the same ones who taught our parents, just as the Main Street merchants were familiar decade after decade.

We were a time, a class caught between the old ways and traditions of 50 years or so and the great, great social change that was to come in the 1960s and beyond, years in which we would all forge what has for each of us become most of our life.

We would leave Spring Valley High, and those classmates, friends and time to turn into adults, though the truth is some of our fellow students had already become serious even in the protected world of high school, given economic or family difficulties. One of our classmates got up at 4 each morning to stack newspapers at Arvanite’s candy store. Others brought to school whatever difficulties or, perhaps, triumphs and strengths he or she gathered in foster care or single-parent homes. As today, the young person arriving at school carries his or her own life.

Our four high school years, which actually included the ninth grade at Spring Valley Junior High since most of the graduating class was first assembled that year, went quickly, each of us going to class, being with this friend or that, participating in football and basketball games and other sports, or school dances, enjoying the arrival of Gerd Bitten Andersen, the Danish exchange student, in our senior year and enduring the awful loss of Fred Yatto Jr., the popular school General Organization president, in November 1960.

After June 1961 and the graduation moment arrived, we would all scatter as quickly as we had gathered just four years before, some keeping in touch with the people we knew in 1957-1961, many moving away, some passing on, careers made, children born, lives lived, a moment or two every year or so in reflection of what for us was high school.

When we met in reunion 20 years into post-SVHS life, the chemistry that is our whole flowed like current in a stream without rocks, a visit of comfort and reassurance. If we have another reunion, say a 50th in 2011, it will be the same.

Our moment, cast in the time it was, with the people we knew, gave us the mix that still nourishes our roots. It is perhaps indefinable in any other way. The feeling simply exists even so long past its daily instant.

June 22, 2009

A class for its time

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – No high school graduating class is like another, despite the usual fundamentals – students, teachers, studies, sports, infatuations, aspirations, family background or perhaps no family at all.

There is chemistry to any one class, as there was to my own, Spring Valley High, 1961. We were a mix of 202 kids, and most of us were acquainted enough with just a handful of the others. Names, faces, inclinations, reputations we knew, but the intimacy that comes from living life with and among others, no.

Yet that did not matter, for such closeness was not of our high school time, nor could it have been. Though we were groups of 10 or 20 students knowing each other, some having spent formative years together in the Spring Valley elementary schools, or at St. Joseph’s Parochial School, or in the Lakeside or Happy Valley foster care communities, or in the boroughs of New York City, there was, when we assembled, a certain electrical current powering a magnet to attract us into a cohesive whole.

Of course, all graduating classes have this magnetism, this chemistry, but the DNA is always different. SVHS ’61, for example, was tempered by post-World War II economic triumph over the Great Depression that our parents had endured as well as the war; by Sputnik and the Cold War; by the beginnings of suburbia in the countrified county in which most of us had built our huts and romped in play houses fashioned by kind fathers. Our teachers were the same ones who taught our parents, just as the Main Street merchants were familiar decade after decade.

We were a time, a class caught between the old ways and traditions of 50 years or so and the great, great social change that was to come in the 1960s and beyond, years in which we would all forge what has for each of us become most of our life.

We would leave Spring Valley High, and those classmates, friends and time to turn into adults, though the truth is some of our fellow students had already become serious even in the protected world of high school, given economic or family difficulties. One of our classmates got up at 4 each morning to stack newspapers at Arvanite’s candy store. Others brought to school whatever difficulties or, perhaps, triumphs and strengths he or she gathered in foster care or single-parent homes. As today, the young person arriving at school carries his or her own life.

Our four high school years, which actually included the ninth grade at Spring Valley Junior High since most of the graduating class was first assembled that year, went quickly, each of us going to class, being with this friend or that, participating in football and basketball games and other sports, or school dances, enjoying the arrival of Gerd Bitten Andersen, the Danish exchange student, in our senior year and enduring the awful loss of Fred Yatto Jr., the popular school General Organization president, in November 1960.

After June 1961 and the graduation moment arrived, we would all scatter as quickly as we had gathered just four years before, some keeping in touch with the people we knew in 1957-1961, many moving away, some passing on, careers made, children born, lives lived, a moment or two every year or so in reflection of what for us was high school.

When we met in reunion 20 years into post-SVHS life, the chemistry that is our whole flowed like current in a stream without rocks, a visit of comfort and reassurance. If we have another reunion, say a 50th in 2011, it will be the same.

Our moment, cast in the time it was, with the people we knew, gave us the mix that still nourishes our roots. It is perhaps indefinable in other way. The feeling simply exists even so long past its daily instant.

June 15, 2009

An insult to Navy

In a world that has become so very tense since Sept. 11, many old oaks have been cut down to produce the thousands of reams of paper necessary for added security rules. Trouble is, now we can’t see the forest for the trees. And in a democracy, it’s the big picture that you always want to keep in focus.

Last week, I received an e-mail from Bill, a retired Navy officer who rose from the very bottom of the seaman ranks, an old, old tradition meant for the determined and also a democratizing guarantee for the service. If the officers never came from the ranks, if the Navy, or the Army, or the Marines or the Air Force were made up of just career professionals, born and bred to the task in an elite, and included no former swabbies or grunts, our military could become like those in other, less democratic nations – set apart.

Bill was concerned, he told me, about this year’s regulations for the U.S. Naval Academy graduation, held last month, that specifically banned ceremonial swords from the Yard at Annapolis. I checked that out in the rules list for “Commissioning Week 2009” at the USNA website, and Bill is correct.

He and his fellow Navy guys are upset about that, since a graduation like this includes “full dress,” and that means ceremonial swords. How often do these officers get to dress up like that?

The last time a ceremonial sword was used in naval battle probably was in the 19th century, and I’m not sure just how sharp any of them are kept anyway.

If the ban on swords was another “anti-terrorist” security move, the reasoning is odd. If terrorists wanted to attack a service academy graduation, you would hope the commissioned and non-coms present would protect the rest of the people any way they could, even pulling out ceremonial swords.

Yes, we live in scary times, and modern, ever-evolving technology provides many resources to those who want to hurt us. And we must be vigilant, on guard, against Sept. 11-type attacks. But just as none of us would want to give up democracy in order to save it, to live in lock-down, common sense should prevail in writing security rules.

Herbert Gunther, my late great-uncle, was a career chief petty officer who was mighty proud when he could put on his dress uniform and “feel” his Navy blood. Dwight D. Eisenhower is entombed in his World War II jacket, a request he made because of his pride in wearing the uniform.

In that light, denying full dress with ceremonial sword to dedicated naval officers was an unnecessary move, even an insult.

In our renewed vigilance, we must not let fear bulldoze common sense.

June 8, 2009

A nation still in journey

PIERMONT, N.Y. — Yesterday, on the shore of the famous Hudson in the 400th year of the river’s exploration by Henry the navigator, I balanced my own past and deeds with the words of a new manifest destiny.

Actually, the preordained is not “new” for this nation or any of us Americans. “Reinterpreted” is a better word – constant reinterpretation, re-examination. Ever since Henry Hudson and the other explorers came to America, we the people on these shores have never rested. It’s the American Way. First, early eastern frontiers gave way to the North and South, Midwest and West. Cities were built. Farms provided bread baskets. Rivers became water highways. Railroads connected East and West, North and South. Highways, too.

Industry, invention, American literature, American art, American food, American habits – all came to be part of an American history that continues to be written even as we now take a moment to recall what doors Henry opened by traveling the navigable portion of the Hudson four centuries ago.

If we had already figured a way to time-travel, and this nation might yet do that, we could instantly stand at the end of the Piermont Pier in 1841 and see the beginning of the Erie, the first long-distance U.S. railroad, which would open up the Midwest and West via people and supplies, in our manifest destiny.
Were we now here in Piermont on May 7, 1783, we would witness the first formal recognition of the new nation by the British. On that date, Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander during the Revolutionary War, received Gen. George Washington aboard his vessel Perserverance. The King’s Navy then fired its first salute to the flag of the new United States of America.

All else is history, just as individual days in our careers, in our lives, are part of the past. Yet because we are Americans, so antsy to do other things, we will reinvent ourselves over and over, whether we do that on the job, in our retirement as I am doing, or in studying our rich history, in remedying our economic woes, in restoring our stature in the world.

It’s our manifest destiny. You see, we are all on the ship Half Moon with Henry. We are all ghosts of the past charting the American future.

(This piece was written as part of a speech given on Sunday, June 7, 2009, in Piermont, N.Y., to The Friends of the Orangetown Museum, at its annual dinner celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river.)

June 1, 2009

Making newspapers thrive

I used to be a newspaper columnist, penning one and then two essays a week for 25 years in between plowing, planting and harvesting the second half of a 42-year, ink-stained gig in what is now said to be a “dying profession.” Only it ain’t dead yet.

It just needs the right blood transfusion. And the donors are readers, not publishers. Too many of the latter never worked in trenches where reporting means slime, greed, corruption and more official B.S. to wade through than is at the local waste treatment facility. If these corporate thinkers had been in the daily war, maybe they would understand the public’s thirst for information and the need to quench it.

While readers have remained thirsty, publishers have refused to fill the glass, instead offering surveys, think tanks and feel-good, chummy retreats for staffers that have not saved newspapers but instead have distracted the front office from what readers and reporters and good editors (not enough of those) have always known. Ever since one fella whispered to another, there’s been news. And gossip. And innuendo. And baloney. And facts closest to the truth as truth can be in this world. But you have to dig for them. And that’s news.

If all this sounds Damon Runyon, well, God bless the fact that “journalism,” a fancy word for newspapering that most scribes wouldn’t wear even on Sundays, is really old-fashioned, “Front Page” legwork –
cultivating sources and jumping into an investigative dig worthy of Sherlock Holmes. If there is also the soul of a self-deprecating street bum, where all the goodness of humankind can reside, the reporter is the better for it. And so is the reader.

Digging and lots of new, not rehashed, reporting gives us news, and news, whether it’s what the first fella said to the second fella, or if it’s about the town or school board meeting, or the Yankees, or the president, well, it’s all information. And people crave information.

The transfusion that is ready for newspapers is the time, the mind, the heart, the soul readers are willing to give those who gather and report the news. People will spurt blood to find out what is happening. They want the dirt, the scandal. They also want the think piece that analyzes matters. They want the essayist who makes the highs and lows of life vibrate, resonating in hearts and minds and bones in ways the columnist can express but the reader cannot.

People, the readers, whether they are looking at a printed tabloid or broadsheet or the Internet or the TV news or Kindle, Twitter or Facebook, want news. They want “quality, balanced, well-written pieces (that) refrain from blurring the lines between factual news reporting and opinion/agenda/promotion views,” as one Colorado reader puts it.

Want to save newspapers? Use the blood that readers will give willingly. Go back to digging out the news and then fully reporting that, written by guys and gals who feel newspapering from their toes up, left alone by the front office to do their thing.

If we had had real news from a full, leave-them-alone reporting staff in the past two decades instead of spending the bank balance on surveys and page redesign and trendy fluff pieces, maybe the current economic debacle would have been derailed by investigative stories. Or the Iraq war. Or G.M.’s troubles. Or many things.

People want the news, and only those who give it to them, in whatever and every way they want it, will survive. They will thrive, actually.

May 25, 2009

The facts are irreversible

NYACK, N.Y. – Jerry Donnellan, the Rockland County veterans affairs director, a severely wounded Vietnam combatant, doesn’t have to see war photos to know that the facts of such destruction are irreversible. He immerses himself in those facts every day, caring for men and women still suffering from physical and mental wounds.

Fact is that for many of these veterans pain is lifelong, the struggle endless, while their moment of being shot or bombed was just an instant or the assault on their mind, the second they were sent to hell on earth, happened in a flash.

When Jerry speaks eloquently, in a grunt’s voice instantly understood by brethren – and he speaks often, at ceremonies and in letters meant to launch debate – he is back on the field of battle protecting his buddies, just as they looked out for him.

He’s not there for the generals who plan the fight, nor for the politicians who fund from perches far off, nor for the public that, all in a mix, either ignore the conflict, or let it happen when it might not have been necessary or buy into jingoism with John Wayne bravado, complete with a warm bed that night after the Hollywood stage is struck.

Fact is that war is irreversible. Once a weapon is fired, once training moves the soldier to do what he is to do, once the right or wrong of it is decided in high council rooms, once someone is shot or his head is sent on a lifelong mind trip, it is all irreversible. That is a fact.

Wars do end. Peace does come. Enemies embrace each other. Or there are standoffs for generations – there are other skirmishes. Books are written about strategy, how this or that might have been done, how the war might have been won, or avoided. But the fact, for those who leave the battlefield, is they are changed forever.

Today, on this Memorial Day made most convenient for a civilian three-day weekend, and again on what Jerry Donnellan sees as the real Memorial Day – May 30 – he will limp a bit to the podium on his wooden leg and have the absolute right to speak for all men and women, in all nations, in any age, who once stood, who presently stand or who will stand the watch with weapon in hand, in protection of someone by order of some government.

Only such a man, and not the politicians, not even a president, not those generals never in battle, have the right to be at the podium as much as Jerry or those like him.

And that is a fact. Irreversible.

May 12, 2009

When the Pop Roths ruled

ABOUT 1955 in Anywhere, USA. – The soda fountain counter is a well-worn brownish marble, less polished than those in today’s trendy kitchens where a backsplash can cost more than all the sodas a 1950s kid could drink in all the years of his youth, if he began every morning with a nickel.

Behind the counter is a man like Pop Roth, an “old” guy probably 55, with not much of a smile, if you ever see him without the stub of an unlit cigar. He moves from the register to the chrome seltzer lever when the kid sits down at that section of the counter, knowing he is going to part with his nickel and that the coin will be in the register before the kid puts his lips on the Coke glass, wet from the water rinse it’s kept in.

“Cherry Coke, please,” the kid says because he’s just 11 and doesn’t yet have the brusqueness of life to drop the “please” his mom – even more so, his grandma – implanted in his brain. (Funny how he’ll probably bring back the word when he hits 55 himself.)

Pop Roth, father of the proprietor but who acts like the owner, squirts a little Coke syrup, a splash of cherry, tilts the glass with a long spoon in it and hits the seltzer lever so that the spray lands on the spoon, reducing the bubbles and making the whole job quicker. That also means Pop goes back to the register quickly, with your nickel.

The ritual is the same for any kid on any day, with vanilla Cokes, egg creams, even the “2 cents plain” seltzer if the kid doesn’t have the nickel.

The kid spends his time at the counter, this bar of his youth, really getting his insides cold on a hot day. If this had been a cold afternoon, maybe the cherry Coke would have given way to three Bachman pretzels, with Pop getting the same nickel in his register. Those long stems with salt would have lasted until the kid walked home from school.

I don’t know where Pop Roth went, or his worn counter, or the fountain service with its separate syrup and seltzer. It seemed life changed forever for candy stores after the World’s Fair of 1964, when a pre-made, not fountain service Coke, seltzer and syrup added beforehand, suddenly cost $1 and ice cream cones went from 10 cents to 25.

The inflation that began in Queens, N.Y., expanded outward across the land and never stopped, and now a Coke, vanilla, cherry or regular taste the same everywhere when once every soda fountain offered its own mix, depending on how different the Pop Roths were.

The question for me has long been, how could these fountain guys, all with a different touch – some using more or less syrup, some shooting more or less seltzer – still be same by type all across this land in that Great Year of the Lord 1955?

May 11, 2009

Communication

ROCKVILLE, Md. – It is written in humanity that an infant does not speak yet the child communicates. This much older fellow, your writer, who perhaps speaks too much, was reminded of this gift during a lengthy walk with a 5 month old.

The stage set was an old-style train station with a clanging bell that you don’t usually see at crossings any longer. Emmelene Lucy Gunther, my second granddaughter, and I were there late last week after I gave her my first solo push in a car seat/stroller contraption in which she faces toward you. As you walk, you notice the child’s darting eyes taking in the trees, the sky and whatever shapes her eyes see at this point. Every moment or two, Emme would fix a stare on me, and that’s when communication began. I hadn’t enjoyed that before with this newest member of the family since we live far from my son Andrew’s home (and even farther soon since they will move to Texas).

The day had been routine for a regular visit – talk to relatives, play with the grandkids, and, for me, time to catch up on overdue home repairs. It was at the end of a hot and muggy day, when the work was done, that something told me to take Emme for a push in the park, a beautiful spot that includes the Kensington train stop on a passenger line. Emme and I had never been alone before, and it was time.

The longish walk was taken slowly, for the household chores had tired me, Emme is gaining in weight and the hills are a few, and I deliberately mimicked my own grandfather’s leisurely gait as we too spent time together walking to a Spring Valley, N.Y., train stop in 1945 when I was three. The freight did not come that time, but the walk proved its own memory, with my little legs trying to keep up with my much bigger Gramps. His great quiet and sitting next to him on the train platform, our legs dangling, made such a deep impression that I have never forgotten it.

Unlike Emme, I could talk a bit then but doubt if I said much. There was communication anyway in the unsaid things between a kind grandfather and a young boy sitting on a freight platform near the end of a world war.

Now it was my own time as a grandfather with Emme, and while I sat on a bench, car seat/stroller next to me, both of us waiting for the next passenger train and its diesel whistle, we exchanged glances and smiles. There was infant babble, moving of feet and arms and quick turnings of the head as the railroad crossing bell clanged away. I tried to cover Emme’s ears when the train, just feet away, roared by, but she did not seem to mind the noise. She just offered a fixed gaze and a smile that, from any child, makes the adult forget about aches, pains, money, illness and all the other cares of the world.

The train passed, Emme and I left, a communication established. She will not recall that moment, but I will in my time, and perhaps someone in the family will some day tell her of this first solo time between a grandfather and a granddaughter, so as to offer a memory like the one I have from 1945.

That same night, some 275 miles away, back home in Rockland County, N.Y., at the GAGA Arts Center where I was fortunate to be participating in a photography show with 30 other lens people, I stood talking to a former newspaper colleague when I heard suddenly heard fast but light steps on the old wooden floor of a former textile mill and a shout of “Papa!” It was my grandson Sam of Upper Nyack in a surprise visit.

And it was time for more communication.

May 4, 2009

Rising from the ashes?

BOSTON, MASS. – In a town where the tears and laughter of Irish wakes are still as common as the “B”s on baseball caps, a funereal dirge set in during a weekend visit. The venerable, 137-year-old Boston Globe was (is) on the ropes, and management continued to negotiate concessions with major unions well past a midnight deadline into today. But The Globe’s owner, the New York Times Co., was prepared to file a plant closing notice with the state if it failed to reach agreement.

I cannot imagine Beantown without The Globe any more than I can the city without the Boston Herald, a gritty tabloid that hits its mark in a diversified community. So much of what happens daily, so much of what is hidden in government, business and shady dealings, so much of the current of daily life runs through the pages daily that if either or both newspapers were to cease print publication, a new dark age might ensue.

How many in-depth stories would be published online, and, even if some made it, how many readers would give more than a minute to the story? The modern brain works in text messaging mode, in Twitter, in e-bites, in flashed imagery, in potentially god-awful blogs and reader comment sections where half-baked, poorly thought-out hearsay and prejudice are often posted.

Consider this online comment from the usual anonymous reader, posted to The Globe’s story on negotiations to save the paper: “The Globe is in trouble because there’s so many more options for folks to get their information these days. Both the Globe and N.Y. Times should shut down, or just keep an online version. Why buy the paper when you can get quicker, updated news from the online versions?”

“Why buy the paper?” You should get it for free online? Who, then, is to pay an investigative reporter, or will your government be left to do whatever it wants behind the scenes? Will bankers pull more profit-oriented shenanigans without discovery until it’s too late? Will the Constitution be assaulted again, ostensibly to “keep you free?” Who would invest in reporters who give us great human-interest stories? Sports and business news? Wouldn’t you pay to read all about it?

Another reader comment, complete with misspellings and poor grammar: “I’ll bet the Globe wished it never supported liberal ideas like the perpetuation of archaic and useless unions. Listen Globe why don’t you touch Kerry and the Kennedy’s, and Dukakis, and Bonnie Fwrank and all the other rich liberal pols who claim to be spoksmen for the poor. Because I guess, your among poor as well. Get them to front you a few bucksefor all the slanted one sided media support you gave them.”

The now old-fashioned “Letters to the Editor” columns of print newspapers would never have allowed such poor English without merciful correction, and the reader would have had to give his name and town. Yet more than enough papers, thank you, would have used his (her) sassy comment. In opening up comment to more voices, a wonderful free speech move, we have dumbed down the expectation for clear expression.

Finally, this reader comment: “Newspapers and their administrators have failed for years to address the threat of the Internet. In fact, this failure has placed them on the doorstep of oblivion. In a free enterprise system, if people do not buy your goods or services, you go out of the business. At some point, the unions need to get this little ‘joke.’ ”

Yet it was more than union concessions in the Boston funeral march this past weekend. It was a way of life. For hundreds of years, newspapers have been sinners and saints, reporting the news and inventing it, saving lives, chronicling history, making us laugh and cry. In the end the report card has always carried a passing grade, since the thirst for information has been quenched and lives have been enriched, if not saved. Indeed, democracy itself. The imminent death of many ink sheets and the starving of others to skeletons will put a big burden on the citizenry to support, even demand, online services that rival what papers do best, warts and all. They must pay for that.

And when we sit in front of the flat screen, we must repeat this mantra over and over: “I must read this, I must read this story to its end.” And this one, too: “I will express myself often, but I will write clearly, with thought, with correct English usage.”

April 27, 2009

Simplicity, ingenuity, a life lived

NEW HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – In an 1827 house of worship called the “English Church,” for its congregation was not Dutch-speaking, a window of wavy, hand-blown glass frames 2009 worshippers as a memorial service for a grand woman of 89 takes place, almost a century of living noted with prayer, song, recollection – an existence of accomplishment but just a fraction of time gone by in this place, one of God’s many homes.

On the windowsill lies Yankee ingenuity, a piece of scrap pine cut in stepped fashion, as the leg of a step ladder might look, so as to hold up the window at this height, or a bit more, a bit more than that perhaps. It is simplicity, invention to suit the need, costing nothing. It built this nation.

As two beautiful hymns were sung in the Protestant fashion – all the verses – and speakers infused with a person’s life remembered a spirit, not the last heartbeat of a few weeks ago, the windowsill prop became a metaphor for decades of a person’s simple but inventive acceptance of change, of individuality, of tolerance, of giving. These qualities, too, built the nation and formed a people.

In other years, actually in other centuries, the English Meeting House, formed in 1742 with the present edifice built in 1827, was filled with Rockland County farmers and 1800s businessmen, some of whose triple-great-grandchildren look through the same wavy glass today, with one perhaps soon to craft the latest in a line of window step props. Such tradition, too, built a nation and formed a people.

The memorial service over – it was just short of an hour, not too long to belabor a point and not too short that thoughts couldn’t get between inevitable day-dreaming – the church emptied, its attendees off to automobiles, not surreys, with or without fringe on the top. That gathering and leaving, too, has built a nation and formed its people.

Yesterday, one of those citizens was rightly recalled for God’s work in a house she so loved.

April 20, 2009

Three musketeers and one joke

In a time, once, there were three fellows. One took a part-time job in high school to be a newspaper printer’s apprentice. He toiled, went into the Navy via the draft, returned and came to work with the second fellow, who took a job as a photographer after being a salesman, milk truck driver and Macy’s employee. Not long after, the third fellow showed up. He took a job as copyboy but soon was taught the beginnings of photography by the second fellow. So, then there were three men in newspapering, learning from each other, especially the third from the second and the second and third from the long-timer, the first fellow.

This work merriment continued for decades until one day the second fellow retired, then a few years later the first set aside his printer’s rule, and finally the third fellow left in “retirement” after 42 years but not yet ready to go. “Downsizing” they called it.

While the third fellow was still working at the local newspaper, the second fellow had long been a volunteer in a soup kitchen. Some years later, the first fellow heard about that and joined him. Then, lo and behold, the third fellow came aboard. And for a time, once again, the three musketeers had another chance at work synergy.

These three cooks on the Tuesday shift learned their joke banter – that necessary workplace relief – at the newspaper. You sneaked in a guffaw every now and then, on the run, since the big deadline clock was always marching across the newsroom and the composing room.

We have continued that push for deadline in the food program, and so our jokes and banter follow the same recipe as at the JN. That means a quick joke here and there, usually repeated at least twice since none of us can hear well anymore and because we have to tell it again for the ladies who do breakfast. (At least we repeated some of the jokes.)

Most of the jokes are ordinary, except for one. George is a neatnik, and things must be in their place. He was that way at the newspaper, really upset if an ad was not ready for insertion into a page. Now, in the food program, it’s pots. We have inherited a hodgepodge of aluminum, steel and stainless cookware, and each day’s crew plus the people who use the kitchen in the afternoon either have their own places to store a soup pot or a kielbasa kettle or they just throw them anywhere. That riles George, who believes there is a constitutional provision requiring small pots of like vintage to be placed in larger pots. And in the same spot on each section of the lower shelf. And this should be done each and every day of each and every week.

So, on Tuesdays, the routine for George has been to come in, put down the many items he and and wife Phyllis collect to give away, take off his coat and then proceed to mutter a few expletives as he throws one pot this way and another that way, It’s entertainment – we all stand back laughing our heads off. No Tuesday with George has begun without him doing this, and it has been reassuring to hear that pot rattle weekly.

But George should know that on more than one morning, we, probably me more than any other, deliberately messed up the pots so George would go nuts. Pots were on the floor, hanging askew from the tables, some left with water in them.

It’s a good thing the kitchen was built off the original church, in the old parking lot that was there when I attended Boy Scouts in the gym in 1954. Cursing is thus allowed, especially by an old sailor like George.

Tom and ‘Big John’

April 13, 2009

There is no workplace rhythm – this necessary, life-sustaining tempo, this melody, this song – without the interplay of people. Bosses, the ordinary grunts, specialists, the guys and gals who do the job, or who do the job better than others, the slackers, the prima donnas, the ego-feeders and the ego-needers, the rear kissers, the independents, the saints, the sinners, the long-termers and the in-and-outs – all are essential to what makes a particular shop or store or business sing its anthem. Success, the name and reputation, the lasting memory ride on this music.

In the old-style newspaper business, when editors “dummied” or sketched pages of print, photos and graphics on style sheets that printers would try to follow in the upstairs composing room or the “backshop,” usually making corrections that resulted in much better print, we editorial types soon learned to “make a friend of a printer,” for you were sunk if you did not. No matter how accurate you thought your story lengths were, or how tight the pictures were cropped, and especially if you believed your headlines would fit the column space, once you stood next to the printer, that compositor making up your page in cast hot metal, you soon realized you weren’t worth a pot of ink.

That’s when printers like Tom D’Auria and “Big John” DeSevo saved your ass, particularly on deadline. Tom, who was close in age when we worked together in the 1970s, and Big John, who was a bit older as we toiled in the 1970s-’90s, were originally linotypists or typesetters at a country then suburban newspaper named The Journal-News in the 1950s and ’60s. They also did page makeup, placing type cast from molten metal in “chases” or forms, with photographic and advertising “cuts,” locking that heavy mass with a special wrench and then sending the form to a “mat” maker. The mats were filled with cast lead in half-cylindrical shape to be placed on rotary presses for printing.

That precision work gave way to photo-offset printing in the 1970s, and Tom and Big John became “paste-up artists” who laid down columns of type, photos, graphics and ads on full-size heavy paper sheets, which were then photographed to produce offset printing plates made of tin. It was a less precise process than hot type and eventually was replaced by computer design direct to printing plate, the standard in newspapers today.

In their time, printers like Tom and Big John, the former always making a joke and the latter puffing away on a cigar and working quickly, were your friends in composing, deftly trimming stories, rearranging the layout to make it jump, helping fill out headlines, etc. They assisted you in making deadline and getting the work done in what is the daily birth of a newspaper.

Both Tom and Big John were affable people, two of the songbirds in the wonderful rhythm of the old and then changing newspaper composing room. Their banter, their yells for trims, for more type, set against the clank-clank of the Linotypes and then the whirring of the offset cameras, gave cadence to a craft.

Few who read the old Journal-News out of 53 Hudson Ave. in Nyack. N.Y. knew Tom D’Auria or Big John DeSevo, for as in most jobs, the staff was unsung. Yet like the mason who sets the first block best, the foundation for any one day’s newspaper was assured by their presence. Gone now, both of them, as surely as is their style of newspaper composing, I can still hear their music.

April 6, 2009

A ‘Secretary of the People’

ANY TOWN BUT D.C. – The new president has disappeared into the modern “isolated presidency,” behind a wall of ever-heavy security where only his chosen people get to whisper in Barack Obama’s ear. This man, who campaigned for a particular definition of “change” and who still seems bent on achieving that, sometimes escapes to the hustings to see more ordinary people, or he occasionally invites a group of everyday Americans for a White House visit, but those are stage-managed events that are, like everything else in the man’s official life, carefully programmed into an orchestrated schedule. Would that the president could be incognito and have a cup of joe with Harry at Sparky’s Diner. Maybe Mr. Deeds could slide onto the next stool.

No matter whom you voted for in November, the person chosen was destined to be cocooned in the big house, uber-security teams viewing him more as a potential target rather than a person free to interact with the citizenry. Meanwhile, the president’s handlers have agendas, some actually directed by the chief executive, some interpretations of what they think he means to do. All day long, into the night, in the early morning, on the weekends, court advisers have Mr. Obama as a captive audience. But where are citizens Joe and Sally? On Main Street, on the farm, somewhere other than in the isolation from reality that is the political part of the District of Columbia.

I voted for Obama, having long expected someone like his great potential and purpose since the day his predecessor was chosen in 2000. More than a few worried then, from the speeches given and the agenda offered but mostly from what was not said, that there would be great challenges to our economy, to our liberties, too, if George Bush were elected, though the opportunities for abuse Sept. 11 gave him and his administration could not have been imagined.

I have often voted for the GOP, even backed deep conservatives, but this man and particularly his vice president, portended incompetence and deliberate misfeasance, so he could not be on my accepted ballot while another Republican could. In the end, as feared, Mr. Bush slapped Mr. Deeds in the face, and therefore he slapped me. Yet there had to be a George Bush if there were to be a Barack Obama or a John McCain, just as FDR followed Hoover.

Now that we have a new leader, we must guard against the isolated presidency. With the great growth in presidential power beginning with Ronald Reagan, the wall around the person in the Oval Office has been built higher and higher, and regular people can no longer see or hear the president. Management, most of whom are well-intentioned but still agenda driven, and those who properly but in a separate, lock-down mindset look to security, have isolated the president from what is happening in America.

A timely example: Did Mr. Obama know that the security alone on his European trip cost some $7 million while in America staff cutbacks at Social Security have created years-long backups in processing disability claims? There are many other such comparisons.

Mr. Obama was elected to produce “change,” and the promise of all that cannot be met if the presidency becomes even more remote, isolated, even imperial.

There must be a modern way for ordinary people to see him, talk to the president, to let him know, for example, that $7 million is spent on one trip while people with real needs go wanting.

Perhaps the answer is to create a special cabinet post, “Secretary of the People,” with the appointee chosen from among the most ordinary of Americans. The position could be filled for a year at a time. The secretary would have the president’s ear about the ordinary concerns of ordinary citizens, and the chief executive would meet with such people each week to hear their stories and to act on them. No fanfare. No staged photo-ops with these everyday Americans. Just be at the “diner” with them and listen. Then act on their needs.

Guard against the isolated presidency. The president must regain his touch with the people.

‘Hasta la vista, cords’

March 30, 2009

My friend the corduroy must move to summer storage, a lightly sad moment, though the promise of spring makes it easier. I just have to forget that hot, humid summers follow the season of renewal in a sort of eat-the-cake-now-and-have-indigestion-later payback.

Corduroys are my winter blanket, the security clothing that tells me summer is long gone, that I’m now into the crispness of fall and that I can snuggle on the couch watching an old movie, feeling the cords as the marker of cozy comfort.

It has been this way since my youth, when my mother realized that I did not like Wranglers (too stiff, then, and they smelled awful when wet), so she bought me corduroys for the two pair of pants that would get me through the growth spurt of one season.

Dark brown was the usual color, though black came into fashion in the eighth grade of 1957, as did the true shiny chino pants that we boys seemed to need. The year before it was gray pants with pink shirts, probably the only time males of that time were allowed to wear such colors without derision.

Both the black cords and the chinos had small, seemingly useless belts at the rear, which if left open, offered the suggestion that you were not “going steady” with any girl, a quaint notion in a quaint time. I think it lasted for one season.

During my working years as a newspaperman, I wore cords, defying the newsroom tradition of gabardine slacks, white shirt and tie. I never wore a tie, didn’t like white shirts and would not give up the comfort of corduroys. (Ever since my 1960s, The Journal News city room in Nyack, N.Y., has been more or less casual Friday.)

These days, there are cords and there are cords, the quality of which is not reliably tied to price and supplier. I’ve gotten some great ones at K-Mart and some quick-shrinking varieties through e-mail order from big-name men’s clothing outfitters. Some cords sell as high as $125. Mine cost about $20-$35, and I usually get three seasons out of them. Sometimes longer, since there are favorites. My family wanders away when I appear in paint- and otherwise-stained long-lasters, however clean they are.

Alas, it is time to hang up the corduroys, hoping for the promise of another, fine season. On to the tan chinos that aren’t really chinos but a likable thing on their own anyway. I get attached to them, too, until it is the moment to suffer through summer and to wear rather comfortable shorts as a salve.

Hasta la vista, cords.

March 23, 2009

A trail left marked

We all walk through life – some of us may run, some may crawl – at a beat determined by genetics, upbringing, generational time and individual “mojo.” Our paths are set by fate, destiny and happenstance, directed by God and modified according to the imbalance set by Adam and Eve. If, on the last stretch, the human has heard her song and deeply smelled her favorite flowers, if this individual has been allowed –
even wallowed happily in – the expression of her uniqueness, if we can state with pride that she was, say, a poet whose music was heard in the mundane, too, then the right hand was dealt, and she played it well.

This description is my obituary for Barbara Hurley, a lady of exceptional grace and bearing, with whom I spent just an hour or so twice a year, enough to fill the tank for the long ride between.

By the time I returned to Mrs. Hurley’s life, after having known her for most of mine through her family and her job, she was in her 80s, living alone after Daniel, her long love and husband, had passed away. As an itinerant but volunteer handyman, I would winterize her New Hempstead, N.Y., home – put up the storm doors, remove the window air conditioner and such – and return in spring to summerize. In those short visits there would be talk of her three children, grandchildren and others we both had known in our lives.

Sometimes Barbara would show me her poetry – she was accomplished and had written a collection, “No Hurry Now,” verses that “speak of personal reflections on dreams and hopes, keen observations on people and nature and deep views on love and other emotions.”

Her home was a centuries-old sandstone so typical of the lower Hudson Valley area, one long admired by Dan and Barbara and a property they were finally able to buy after much scrimping. Dan, an outdoorsman, was the squire of this enclave of a quieter past, and Barbara, retired as dietician for the Spring Valley and East Ramapo schools, was companion for life in conversation, family, writing and giving to others. Her days were long and nights even more so after Dan’s passing.

When you are a visiting handyman, there for friendship as well as work, you have the escape of a quick visit, if need be. Your activities mix with the conversation, and if there is a lull or if there is too much emotion, you can turn the words to “This window needs caulking. I’ll be back sometime next week.” But you can also linger, if that feels right, sitting on the front porch for a short spell. I did linger a time or two.

In the end, you move on, satisfied that a good deed has been done for a woman whose children were classmates and more, whose husband was a fine man, married to a lady of grace whom you first recall from son Michael’s fourth-grade birthday party in 1953, when she let the kids run wild and then sat them down to eat great cake in a country field at Pomona.

Barbara Hurley’s earthly journey now is finished, the last steps taken. As she writes in “No Hurry Now,” in the poem “Lost:”
“Should I stumble, let it be upon
a pile of pebbles you, by habit, left
to mark a trail to help me find my way.”

March 16, 2009

Happy St. Patrick’s

ANYWHERE, USA – On the day before St. Patrick’s religious feast observance and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century, there are more than a few people looking in the closet for that old green sweater. Even if they’re not of Irish descent.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day has been a national tradition ever since Irish immigrants in America offered the world the first parade back in the earlier part of the 19th century. Irish Catholics also have observed this time as a religious holiday for more than 1,000 years.

When I was a youngster in Rockland County, N.Y., in the 1940s and ’50s, our elementary school teachers, including those of Protestant and Jewish beliefs, would put a bit o’ the green on the blackboard molding and wear the color. Mark Broat, one of my Jewish friends, would come in with a green shirt. And Sondra Berg would swirl around in a “poodle skirt,” not in the typical gray or black, but green.

Our teachers would talk about St. Patrick in the history lesson, and there might be mention of the famous parade in New York City. (Rockland then had no local parade, though today, with so many residents of Irish heritage (many born in the Emerald Isle) living in Pearl River, Stony Point and other parts of the county, we have long had a quite serious march of our own.)

In my time as a youth in Rockland, ethnicity was rarely a defined thing. No kid would say “I’m Irish,” “I’m Italian,” I’m Polish,” etc. Perhaps that was so because anyone with such heritage was already second- or third-generation American, and whatever the ethnicity, the U.S. experience had mixed the stew. It wasn’t until the great suburban migration from ethnic New York City neighborhoods, which gained strength in the 1960s, that Rockland youth claimed heritage.

Not to put too much judgment on this, I’m happy that I grew up in a place where people of whatever ethnic background simply thought of themsleves as American, if they thought of it at all. It is quite right to be proud of one’s lineage, but you really are in America. You cannot claim, for example, to be an “Italian” if you were not born there.

My mother, as proud a person of Irish descent as there could ever be, and whose 91st birthday would have been on St. Patrick’s Day, never thought of herself as anything but American. Yet on that saint’s day, she always, always, wore green, as will her resting place tomorrow. Her son will be in the color, too. Maybe even good old Mark Broat will sport the hue as well.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

March 9, 2009

A wall against ‘progress’

NEW CITY, N.Y. — Poet Robert Frost, in “Mending Wall,” says that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …,” yet we find so many of our public buildings set apart by elevation held in by stone or brick or mortar, perhaps as an example of what organized civilization can accomplish, perhaps as a show of authority agreed upon in the people’s compact.

In New City, which is the county seat of a place called Rockland in lower New York State, the 1928 Art Deco-style Courthouse sits in grandeur on an elevated, rising place contained by a wall, capped by the same, thick native slate that held in the identical ground where the 1828 and 1798 courthouses stood.

Entire generations have had their lives recorded in birth, property and death matters in what was also the county clerk offices. Once, half-mile lines formed around the Courthouse on Dec. 31 of each year as motorists in the last minute renewed auto registrations.

News still and action cameras have recorded many a serious trial at the Courthouse, proving again that even a country county, then a suburban one, is not immune from big-city crime.

The very elevation of the acreage adds to the Courthouse’s imposing overlook, facing a Main Street in a hamlet called New City, in a town named Clarkstown. The building itself is now the lead one in a series of structures added as Rockland’s population has grown enormously since World War II.

In an effort to spruce up New City’s Main Street, yet another American downtown suffering from the withering effects of suburban sprawl and one of its most ardent mistresses, the strip-shopping mall, Clarkstown officials rightly seek renewal, as they have done in the hamlets of Congers, Nanuet and Valley Cottage.

Brick pavers and new sidewalks, decorative lighting and tree and other plantings encourage a come-hither look, beckoning the visitor to park the car and once again mingle with others in a downtown shopping district.

An effort to be encouraged, which is what I did over and over in many editorials and essays when I was editorial page editor of The Journal News, a Rockland daily.

Now, as New City is to have its hamlet center redone, the Courthouse waits up on its hill overlooking this new phase of “progress.” It is important that the Courthouse property, as any such parcel in any town or city in America, be left sacrosanct, that what is done nearby somehow blend in with the stately offering already there.

In New City, the great worry is that the proposal to move a large number of wires – high-voltage and lower-voltage electrical; telephone; cable TV; and the newer light-carrying fiber-optics – from the Main Street sidewalk will mean the elevated Courthouse lawn will receive these wires and their poles, imposing on a facade and a history that should not – cannot – have its image marred by this next evolution of New City.

County and town leaders will soon meet on the issue, and the Rockland County Historic Preservation Board, of which I am a member, will urge that the wires be relocated across the street. Some of us even want them buried for this small stretch of the hamlet.

Yes, Frost says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …,” but might that also include “progress” and its often Sherman-like blitz march over our history? For centuries, the Rockland County Courthouse wall has kept Main Street on one side and the great lawn on the other. If the telephone poles march onto the green, they will sully that civilizing demarcation.

March 2, 2009

Time for spring, Phil

Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog from Pennsylvania who gave us six more weeks of winter when he saw his shadow on Feb. 2, could have fooled me. It was just four days ago that I was almost down to my shirtsleeves in my Northeastern woods, enjoying the first fresh scent of coming spring and hearing the returning birds give their staccato dot/dash, dot/dash. This morning we are facing what could be a foot of snow, very cold snow.

Hey, it’s March already, and things are supposed to be getting green given that March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, is approaching and all the world is emerald for that moment. We’ve had a very long winter in New York State, and while I was singing about its beauty not long ago, it’s getting boring. Even grand and sexy mistresses have their turn-back-to-pumpkin time.

Soon, it will be off to the shovel and the driveway that gets longer each year. After nearly 36 seasons, I can clear the way almost by touch, and if I could bring back all the white stuff thus far shoveled, I’d have enough for a true White House in Alaska (does Sarah Palin have cash?).

Yes, again, there is no school for the young ones, a class of which I was once in the tribe, and maybe it would be nice to have a day off, but since I am a retired person, I already do that routine. Yes, we drivers will have to go slower, at least those who have common sense, and the quieter journey will be a relief from the road hustle-bustle that is a suburban characteristic. And, yes, not running everywhere, which seems to come with retirement since you may actually be trying to run from it, will put me against the mountain of things to be done in the house, but isn’t snow supposed to be play time? It was, once, even a March storm.

“Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of all Prognosticators” says that winter should end on March 16. That still gives time for a second Blizzard of ’88 (March 12, 1888). No, Phil, you like to eat wild grasses, berries and agricultural crops. That usually means spring planting first, you big squirrel. Wanna eat? Get with the program, give us a chance at our annual renewal.

February 23, 2009

Refilling more than a bottle

Once there was a ritual as deeply connected to its environment as the scene was to daily life, at least in the Northeast.

At 2 a.m. or so each and every day, in the old-fashioned but then much-in-fashion dining car-style icon that was Hogan’s, along Route 59 in West Nyack, N.Y., a waitress (if there was one, otherwise the counterman) walked the string of five booths that were fixed opposite the long counter with 12 stools.

Her job – his job – was to refill the ketchup bottles – always Heinz. You, the customer, if it had been that sort of evening when you needed a booth to unwind rather than the greater intimacy of a stool opposite the counterman, was seemingly not noticed by the waitress filling the ketchup bottles. She just slid past your left hand flat on the table, your right one holding a cup of java half in the air, pulled the bottle, poured fresh supply into it and then bowled it back in place, a perfect strike next to the salt and pepper and sugar bottle and chrome napkin holder and two-page menu, as if she had done that trick a thousand times. Which she had.

She wasn’t your mother, and you didn’t need another one anyway, but the regularity of this waitress’ appearance in her mundane task was as reassuring as the hot Campbell’s tomato soup put on the table at home when you were 10 on a very cold day. Even sitting in a booth anonymously at 2. a.m. didn’t chase away the touch of the human.

Sometimes the waitress, or the counterman, if either noticed the need, had a conversation with the patron(s) while filling the ketchup bottles, lingering a bit, even sitting down, a cigarette lit and smoked and easy banter exchanged. Also reassuring – that – even to the fellow who needed a booth, not the counter, on an early morning.

The waitress would hit the counter after the booths were done, maybe saying something to the counterman, who might have been leaning over it or who was at the grill, frying eggs, bacon and home fries in full view. The back kitchen was only for stews and such in those days of the diners along Route 59 – Hogan’s and Tiny’s up in Spring Valley.

Rituals count in this life, especially the simplest ones, barely noticed by any of us until memory flashes and we realize a foundation peg had at some point been driven.

Those old diners, the routine of refilling ketchup bottles, the marked seconds in a life, counted. Yes.

February 16, 2009

A possible story

NYACK, N.Y. – Old houses do not give up their secrets willingly, with entire generations sometimes skipped before a stranger gets a peek into history. I was such a stranger in such a house. I am thankful.

In early January, fellow Edward Hopper House Art Center volunteer Lynn Saaby and I were installing a utility sink at the birthplace and boyhood home of Hopper, the famed realist painter (1882-1967), and one final connection had to be made to an old drain pipe. This required me to crawl into the wall recess of what apparently once was a linen/cutlery storage room on the second floor of the Queen Anne/Federal style house on North Broadway.

The pipe was stubborn, but so was I, and I wrestled it while the cast-iron behemoth resisted. Giving up a few more drops of water, the pipe finally agreed to surrender, and Lynn and I pronounced the installation a success.

When I was gathering up my tools, by now numbering about 14 pieces (you know how plumping goes), I also threw a crusted, almost awful looking piece of metal into my kit, which I had found in the wall recess. I was too tired to give it a look then, and with the savory thought in the back of my mind that perhaps we had found something really old in a really old home (1858), I let the metal sit with my tools for a week or so in my basement. (You know how it is with savory thoughts – the anticipation and suspense grows if you let them stew a bit.)

Finally, I took to the toolbox, pulled out my wrenches, pliers and what not, cleaned them and put them back in storage. Again, finally, there in the bottom of the box, along with worksite debris that I still had to throw out was the crusted, almost awful looking piece of metal. I took it in my hands and carefully chipped away at the greenish gook. It was washed in vinegar and polished and set again in vinegar and salt to etch out the crevices. It was eventually revealed that we had found a silver-plated spoon, most likely from the Hopper family service, manufactured by the “1847 Rogers Brothers” company in the “Assyrian Head” pattern first produced in 1886 (photo below).

This was a find, I thought, since the painter himself, a four-year-old in 1886, might have used it at Sunday dinner. And his mother Elizabeth, his father Garret, his sister Marion, his Grandmother Smith. The story is even more interesting if you conjure up that the boy who would become the man who painted from inner life such iconic pieces as “Nighthawks,” “Early Sunday Morning” and “Seven A.M.” might have deliberately hidden the silver-plated spoon in the wall recess, maybe in his youth some 120 years ago.

Edward Hopper would leave his boyhood home for good in 1910, his sister living there until she passed in 1965. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a great effort was made by the Edward Hopper Landmark Preservation Foundation to rescue the Hopper birthplace from demolition. The building is now part of the Edward Hopper House Art Center, offering exhibitions and other arts-related activities. A “Hopper Room” is planned to showcase Hopper’s work and life and that of his family.

The Assyrian head spoon that Lynn and I found may well become part of that special room, now destined for a beautiful addition built in the year of Edward’s birth. Hidden from view, carved in the original fireplace mantle, are the initials “E.H.,” perhaps another secret young Edward left in his boyhood home.

Hopper once said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.” It could be that the long-lost spoon, and the initials, too, are part of his story, of his art as well.

Feb. 09, 2009

Seeking a ‘gold standard’

Yesterday (Feb. 8), in a piece entitled “Reporting in Real Time,” Clark Hoyt, “Public Editor” of the New York Times, gave the reader a classic summary paragraph in wonderfully traditional but sometimes now-forgotten newspaper style: “… the (Caroline) Kennedy saga is a sharp reminder that a newspaper that prides itself on getting things right must exercise great discipline before pushing the (Internet) button on a fast-breaking story.” Quite right.

He was writing about immediate Web postings as compared to print journalism, which allows more time and a better check of the facts. The Kennedy online blurbs were incomplete, even misleading and thus did not meet responsible journalism standards. The Public Editor called for such a standard in Internet reporting. Yes.

Yet the lesson has been learned before. At the turn of the last century, with so many competing ink sheets in Gotham, The World was the newspaper to beat. That publication had multiple editions (seven on one Saturday alone in 1901), and each one carried either breaking news or updates of those. Other papers chased The World’s leads, rushing out their own editions and updates.

Now, did these breaking news shorts and updates meet the journalism gold standard of “who, what, when, where, why and how,” or were they placed as quickly as a Linotypist and Ludlow headline maker could get the words out, the facts be damned?

Competition was the game’s name, then as now, and the news, in the rush to be first, was not the most accurate. Perhaps it was dead wrong.

Eventually, newspapers faced less print competition, especially in such cities as New York, which in the 1960s lost to rising costs The Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, The Journal-American and the World-Telegram & Sun. Those papers that were left began to focus on developing stories that “got things right.” Reporters and editors raced deadline, yes, but with fewer editions, there was more time to better cast the stories.

Indeed, there was a great maturing at The Times and in other papers across the nation, large and small, from the Great Depression through World War II into suburban growth. While tabloid sensationalism (“Headless Torso Found in Topless Bar”) continued and while political belief still ruled some editorial pages, some of the best investigative reporting and a consistency of meeting the motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was the general rule. People counted on their newspapers.

Now, with the morphing of newspapering to the Internet –
to unpaid and sometimes uncertain “citizen journalists;” to “Mojos” or “moving journalists” who must cover the beat from their car or home to save the publisher money; to the instant postings by bloggers and readers, the great worry is that the information put out there will not be right, that it will be gossip, innuendo, prejudice and downright falsehood.

As Times’ Public Editor Hoyt cautions, a way to restore the gold standard must be found in the online age.

February 2, 2009

Getting the news out

Once upon a time, people were so hungry for news that they overworked a printer named Gutenberg whose movable type brought speed to information delivery. Stories were quickly thrown to the masses. Democracy often followed.

For centuries, the citizenry have looked to newssheets – newspapers and magazines – for information great and small, for investigation of wrongdoing, for helpful facts and guidance, for commentary by the introspective, for space to reply to the pulpit. It’s been an oft-troubled, sometimes sensational, often biased, even incomplete delivery, but in the heavy stream of information there has been the truth, the utterly vital truth.

Now, with the printed sheet in serious economic trouble because fewer of us read newspapers and more go online for slim “news bites,” where will the people invest their hope for in-depth “who, what, when, where, why and how?” With the bloggers? Hope not, since so much posted online “information” is unchecked hearsay and prejudiced comment that suit the blogger’s ego and needs, not the goal of a balanced, unbiased report which the people so desperately require in a free society.

With “citizen journalists”? Maybe, but in a limited way. Applause here for anyone with the moxie to ferret out news of any sort, especially wrongdoing. Those unpaid “journalists” who can do that well are born to the manor. In the old days of ink and newsprint, they would have been eager copyboys ready to rise to greatness in the profession.

But really good unpaid newspaper people are rare, and there is no support system to allow them to work and work well consistently. It’s a hit-and-miss game.

Will the people get their information from newscasts, cablecasts, online feeds? Yes, but the worry is that what is imparted will come in such quick “e bites” that absorption will not occur, that instead people will read what they want to read and pass it on in a half-baked way. That would lead to gossip and an unbalanced, incomplete story.

Who knows where the online information age will take us. Encouraged by non-newspaper readers and light perusers who accept news bites as normal, government may just get away with more corruption and misdeed; the citizenry may be “lightly informed” at best; and what was once thought through in the brain may instead be dumb-downed to uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to incompleteness.

A democracy survives only if freedom of the press is a requited suitor. The online industry, citizen journalists and the mainstream media that has been forcibly morphed onto the Internet have quite a challenge ahead to keep that freedom from eroding as information retrieval, presentation and absorption move away from print.

Perhaps, in the ever-bigger world, it will be small weeklies that save the day. Just as the energy crisis may encourage people to live closer to walkable, serviceable hamlet and village downtowns, the full local news report may come from those publishers with economic and social roots in the community, who can produce a newssheet at lower costs and without having to hit a corporate profit margin. Local advertisers will love them.

People will always be thirsty for information, so someone, somehow has to get it out. May they be the brightest, most instinctive, hardworking, irascible, irreverent stiffs we can find. Otherwise, truth will be a victim.

January 26, 2009

Winter as a wonderland

A funny thing happened on the way to adulthood – snow lost its magic. Instead of amazing me, it made me grouchy. I had to drive in it, shovel it, trudge in it as I did all the other things I must in life.

That is until this winter, which is a throwback to seasons of yore when it seemed to snow every other week. While winter 2008-09 hasn’t given this part of the Northeast (north of New York City) large amounts of the white, it has granted us frequency. Which means, if we care to look from inside the frosted window, lightly falling, pretty flakes, each one distinctive; a coat of the pristine for the evergreens; kids bundled up and having snowball fights and building snow men; the quiet that snow brings, with fewer cars on the road and those there are wearing cushioned shoes.

Why it is that I am recognizing all this in the present winter, something I have not done in years, is a question I cannot answer, nor will I try. I am pleased that for this season at least, the glass is being viewed half full, not half empty.

In our youth, we generally see snow as a chance to miss school; to play with friends; to have a bowl of hot soup. It’s a pause in busier routine, and this itself is a valuable life lesson – that there are pauses. Even the rat in the race has to stop for cheese.

This season the shoveling has not been heavy enough to push aside optimism; I haven’t had to drive great distances under dangerous conditions; I’ve been able to continue walks for exercise – physical and mental.

I haven’t gotten as angry at my neighbors for not shoveling their sidewalks nor for throwing nearly frozen water into the roads. I’ve chilled out at a time when I almost gave up on simple pleasure.

I guess it’s all in the attitude. That and snow that has been averaging 2-3 inches and not 2-3 feet. Calm and gentle this winter has been, a whisper in the ear rather than a shout.

January 19, 2009

Democracy = hope

Your president and mine will be sworn in Tuesday, and it matters not first that he is the first black man to hold the office, that his oath will be taken as a severe economic calamity threatens our lives, that decades of eyes-too-big-for-our-appetite and corporate and government incompetence, and deliberate, immoral selfishness and greed await the tolling of the high noon bell even as the new leader speaks.

Presidents come and go, in wars and not, in civil strife and not, in depressions and not, in times of great faith and in times of great despair. The republic stands. It survives despite its bad moments, despite its long periods in denial of equal rights, equal voting, equal representation, equal opportunity to live. It is democracy, this imperfect and continuing American experiment, democracy from its revolutionary outburst through Guantanamo, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Native American slaughter, killing of brother by brother in the greatest war of our nation, race riots, beating of unionized auto workers, interning of Americans, the McCarthy witch hunt, some orchestrated wars meant not to protect a country but to further narrow political and mercenary interests, and, in the last eight years, denial of human rights to some in the name of keeping them for most in a democracy, a tainted purse.

It matters not first who is the individual who stands on the steps of the people’s Capitol, who sleeps in the people’s house, who sits at a desk given to the people, who works for the people.

It matters not first that this man called Obama is heralded on a prayer but yet without proof that he is the deliverer of accomplishing change in a nation that requires course correction.

No, what matters first is that there is in this troubled republic, in this challenged land, in this nation of great and demonstrated achievement someone new taking the oath of office as 44th president. The promise endures – through controversy, through difficulty, through ups and downs, through achievement and destruction, through elation and hand-wringing.

A new person will lead, chosen in the constitutional process to participate in the constitutional process, mistakes notwithstanding.

We will see where this leads. Democracy = hope.

January 12, 2009

Not such a toast-y moment

In this age of obsolescence, which began some decades ago when a manufacturer crunched numbers and realized he could garner more money not by improving a product but by making it a throwaway, a toaster is not warm and fuzzy anymore. Not my morning cup of tea, surely.

Growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, the Gunther family had but two toasters, the first a flip-top type, which meant you put one or two slices against a heating element, of which there were two in a double lean-to or A-frame position. Then you flipped the toast. Took time but the clocks turned more slowly then.
That worked quite well, but little fingers could touch the elements and so my mom kept the machine on top of the ice box (we did not yet have a refrigerator in Sloatsburg, N.Y., 1947).

There was no reason to replace the flip top, even if my father liked “gas toast” so much that he would rather take a fork, stick a piece of bread on it and toast it above a stovetop burner. My mother didn’t appreciate the smoke. Worse for her was when he made the toast in the coal furnace, but my brother Craig and I, to this day, prefer that sort of burned bread. Occasionally I have been banned from my own home for making it.

Our second toaster came by way of fashion and upward mobility. Not because the flip top had worn out (it was indestructible, with thick toasting elements that would not burn out) or because my mother thought a spanking new model could wean my father off his hand toasting.

It was 1950, five years after the end of World War II and probably seven years since defense spending pushed the Great Depression aside. Both my parents were working, and while the pay from their jobs (sometimes my dad had two at one time) was not magnificent, there was general economic improvement in our household. The United States held a monopoly in manufacturing with war-town Europe and Japan not yet recovered, and things were looking up for most Americans, my family included.

A bright, quite shiny (the chrome finish was extraordinary) Model 1B16 “Powermatic” Toastmaster with a self-lowering mechanism found its way off the local appliance store shelf in Spring Valley and into our kitchen in a rented home in that country village north of New York City (or as the great locals put it in those days, “south of Albany”).

The Powermatic never, ever failed. Its geared lower mechanism never jammed. Its darkness control always was spot on, and it made toast fast. You could pop in the toast while doing other breakfast tasks. You could empty the crumbs in a snap via a push-button bottom. The Toastmaster, too, had heavy-duty elements.

The toaster lasted almost 30 years in my parents’ household, replaced about 1980 only because – again, upward mobility and the desire for something new. But the new toaster did not last – something broke quickly – and it was replaced by another, and another and another. …

In my house since 1967, there have been 10 toasters of various types. I have had to pull the plug on all of them to fork-out stuck bread. Some of the toasters have made one side of the bread well-done and the other side half-done. Some have just quit. The latest, which gave me my less than toasty, warm and fuzzy breakfast moment, is an electronic model. To use it, you must be an electrical engineer or able to red bad English in small print on a foreign-made carton.

You can’t simply pop the toast in but must press a start button, then put in the bread, then dial up a browning level by pushing another button, then put in a slice of bread after you have selected “bread,” not “bagel,” not “muffin.” Then your toast is toasted, but the number “7” on the browning scale is sometimes really number “3,” so you have to go through the entire procedure once again.

After all that nonsense, after the well-earned toast is toast, digested already, a loud beep emanates from the electronic toaster, telling you that it has gone to sleep mode, and have a very fine day, thank you.

Sleep? Maybe I’ll give the toaster eternal rest. Toastmaster IB16 where are you?

January 5, 2009

A hopeful time, really

We are at a precipice, this nation of ours, this land of almost 233 years, this space that has never been broad enough to contain our manifest destiny, our search for the new, the untried, the undiscovered.

Behind us are many fears conquered, many accomplishments and great awe at having chased a frontier for so long and for having endured through our worst war, the great civil conflict, two world wars and Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Our inventions, our democracy, our standard of living, our diversity, our charity, our goodness are all in precedent, a model for the world, just as our racism, our mistreatment of Native Americans, our moments of meanness, our assertiveness and parochialism have also put other peoples, even the sense of right and wrong, against us.

We are reminded at key times of our warts, such as the assault on individual constitutional freedom in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the resurgence of that clamp-down in World War I, the interning of Americans of Japanese descent in the Second World War, the McCarthy craze, police beating protesters in Selma and at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the post-9/11 trampling of rights, this time in great secrecy and non-accountability.

Yet we stand tall, continuing as a great experiment in recognizing the rights of humankind. As Churchill said, “… democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is imperfect, but what better choice is there?

Well, the precipice we are at may offer a better choice, and it’s a return to our roots. If you accept that democracy is flawed and that our nation has a mission to better it, then we see that we have both succeeded and failed. Succeeded, for example, in tolerating more diversity and electing a president who happens to be of color, but without regard to that, yes; failed in using the word “democracy” as a cover to grow government, to allow lobbyists to basically rule what is largely a dysfunctional system that responds so easily to special interests.

For example, congressmen running for office every two years actually run every day, catering to those interests that will ensure re-election. Good intentions, a moral stance, the nation’s best interests are left largely to do-nothing oratory.

So, we are at a precipice, having witnessed in 2008 the culmination of at least five decades of building greed and loss of personal financial responsibility. Not for everyone, but for enough of us. Not for every bank and business, but for enough of them. As a nation, we bought beyond our means; we plowed over farms and filled in suburban wetlands for ever-bigger homes eventually bought with iffy, unsecured mortgages; we gave up our downtowns and walking and intermingling with our neighbors for car trips to strip-shopping, to the pizza place, the bagel store, the fast-food joint, in our mammoth Explorers and Escalades. We let our downtowns and cities decay.

Our lack of savings, our energy wasting, our failure to plan for our poor, our seniors and our children are the result of gluttony, an addictive habit taken advantage of by people with even bigger appetites – once respectable great banks, hedge fund operators and energy, real estate and mortgage speculators, their irresponsible behavior sanctioned by a government wearing blinders. We are all at the precipice because of them and ourselves.

Where do we go now? Jump off into another Great Depression, one that took a world war to end, one that was replaced by the beginning of a greed economy? Or do we find our way down the dangerous cliffs by stepping on the stones of individual financial responsibility; a call for government to rule not by lobbyist but by national need and will; by much better land use planning that includes houses of all sizes for all incomes and needs; by requiring energy independence in our cars, homes, government buildings; by training many more of our high school youth for trades and manufacturing rather than blindly sending the masses to the “democratization” of college?

The real democracy that this nation has sought from its beginning can be found in the careful but courageous trek down the mountain, off the precipice, by the enlightened and egalitarian rebuilding of our financial network; by becoming the world’s leader in renewable energy; by working with other nations rather than unilaterally against the very real evil of terrorism.

Looking back from the precipice we see achievement as well as mistakes, and that and our ever-searching for a new frontier are the source of the hope and moxie needed to our get down safely and, starting again from our roots, re-instilling and reinvigorating the basics of our democracy.

A hopeful time, really, because it’s not in the American nature to just give up and jump.

December 29, 2008

The Nedick rhythm

Every city has its rhythm – doors open, people go through, others come out. Gears, cogs, wheels turn everywhere with long-practiced effect – if this person or that is suddenly not there, the new individual, even with neophyte rough edges, soon becomes part of the well-oiled machine.

So it was at the old Nedick’s in Gotham, New York City. It seemed, in my few visits there as a child, that every subway stop in Manhattan had one such lunch counter. The company had maybe 100 shops from 1913 until the early 1980s, and then like the wonderful Horn & Hardart automats, they disappeared. It is said that today, a somewhat deja-vu version has surfaced – below the surface – near track 19 at Pennsylvania Station.

In its time, a Nedick’s was a most unsual place, just the right stand to get a quick orange drink, a mix of orangeade and orange juice. No ice to cheat you out of a full beverage. And the hot dogs were from heaven – nicely grilled with a slight burn on the skin so as to crack when you bit into them, served in marriage with a New England-style frank roll that had been slathered with real butter and grill-toasted. Mmm, mmm. Real comfort food, with theater, too, as sure as the Keith-Albee Vaudeville circuit down Broadway.

Theater because at lunch and other busy times, the shoehorn of a place that was a Nedick’s usually offered just a line of stools, and once the first-comers plopped down, the next person who would occupy the seat stood behind. And then the next to the next. And then … until the rows of stools had perpendicular lines five-six customers deep.

In this theater of the food, voices never stopped – the voices of the counter people; the grill man; the customers who were lucky enough to sit side by side; other people on line who struck up a conversation.

Customers would smoke; they would shuffle; they would read newspapers and books, all sometimes in a rhythm of unison or reciprocal action that mimicked what straphangers do on crowded subway trains. But few of these New Yorkers would really look at each other, for no staring – no eye contact – is a survival skill in Gotham. Anonymity allows the oiled gears to turn best.

And once the Nedick’s of N.Y. were part of the mechanism, in a turnstyle way. In and wait, in and sit, chow down from a simple but filling menu, out the door and back on the move.

Such places helped keep New York’s clock – its people, its life – running on time and in regularity.

For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my former newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web.
– Arthur H. Gunther III

December 22, 2008

“Christmas and hope’

The sign outside the old house pointed to the former presence of the Underground Railroad. The brook running just beside the anonymous building had been a marker for former slaves filled with a combination of heart and hope, fleeing the South, leaving the unfathomable hatred, greed and ignorance that had brought them to this land in their wake.

This is where John Reilly had spent every Christmas Eve of his youth – at least five or so minutes of it anyway. His mother had begun the tradition before he was even born. It had always struck John as rather peculiar that his churchgoing mother didn’t seem to mind one way or another what the family wore to Mass the next morning, but insisted that he and his brothers dressed up with ties, shoes and sport coats for the 10-minute walk to the site. John’s mother would explain a little bit about the Underground Railroad, and then she and the three boys would stand silently for several minutes. John wasn’t exactly sure of the point. He didn’t ask questions. At the time, John wasn’t even sure he believed the story that his mother, a white woman several generations removed from Ireland, told of black men and women over 100 years before who sought shelter in the house beside the brook. Several years into his 20s, after his mother had been gone for a few years, it was all confirmed with the placing of a historical marker where John and his brothers had once spent part of their Christmas Eves.

The tradition had lapsed around the time his mother could no longer make the walk. She had asked John once if he still kept the tradition, only to have the subject changed, the question ignored, a fact that still left John with feelings of guilt. Not enough, however, to cause him to even consider revisiting the trek up the hill from the river. John knew his history. He recognized the sad facts that shaped many of the early days of America and led to the racism that, though waning, still reverberated in different ways. He respected the struggle, but had no idea what it had to do with him, with his mother and brothers, with Christmas. So he let the tradition fade away.

John now found himself living in the same house were he had grown up. He had been the last brother there when his mother passed and, since he was the only sibling still in town, had simply inherited the place. That was just over 10 years ago now. The house had been quiet for a time, but slowly regained its youth. One of the upper bedrooms was now filled with John and his wife, another with his 6-year-old son, Max.

Things had changed when John married, but things had really changed with the birth of his son. A marriage might shake your life up, but it is really just a continuation of what already started somewhere back before. A child however, made everything different for John. He had thought his days of learning were behind him, but with Max every day brought something new to digest and ponder. It was all rather amazing.

Max, who had started school the previous fall, had taken a particular interest in the presidential election that increasingly occupied the country’s attention over the past year. Barack Obama was the candidate that had won Max’s heart. He had a new fact to tell his father each night at the dinner table about the young senator from Ohio. Max had always had his favorites from when he could first point, and now it seemed Barck Obama was next.

On Election Day, Max insisted on walking to the polling place with his mom and dad. John even let him pull the lever for Obama, a candidate who John, not very political or opinionated himself, knew was the better choice.

Max’s usual bedtime was 8, but on Election Night his parents relented (did they have a choice?), and told Max he could stay up to wait for the results of the vote. Together, Max, John and his wife stayed in bed, watching the map fill up with blue. John looked over to see his wife asleep by 10, but Max was still wide-eyed and listening. What a strange creature, John thought. How much of this political talk does he understand? How much do I understand? The election was called at 11:01 and Max silently cheered. Leaving the television on, John carried Max to bed, read him a book and tucked him in for the night.

When he returned to the bedroom, the scene on the TV was of a park, packed with a crowd. John was ready for sleep, but out of curiosity sat closer and turned up the volume a bit. The cameras cut to a stage and out walked the new president, his wife and two daughters. Their smiles looked genuine and real. The girls reminded John of his son. Obama stepped up to the microphone and seemed to survey the crowd before he spoke, finally savoring the moment he had worked so hard to earn. The president-elect started to speak and immediately something stirred in John. The crowd hung on every word and the momentum of the speech gathered. Obama spoke of hope and promise, of hard work and pride, of possibility. As Obama talked, John thought of his wife, of his mom, but mostly of Max. He began to see what Max must have sensed. There wasn’t an ounce of cynicism in young Max’s heart, and on the stage was a man who inspired belief, who challenged you to hope, despite whatever odds people were giving you.

Christmas came several weeks later. Just after dark, John asked his wife and son to get dressed, maybe wear something a little nicer than usual. They had a walk to take, up the hill, a bit west of the river, near a brook. If Max asked why, John would tell him of the old tradition, and about how he was now beginning to understand. About opening your heart and hoping, no matter who you are, or where you live, or whatever cynicism greets you daily. Once there were former slaves, he’d explain, who passed right through here, probably on a dark night like this, bruised inside but dreaming and believing, never giving up hope.

Christmas and hope. It was all starting to make sense.

Arthur H. Gunther IV, a schoolteacher, lives in Upper Nyack, N.Y., with his wife Laura and son Sam. His e-mail is clausland@yahoo.com

December 15, 2008

Once, you liked Uncle G.M.

It seems we’ve cast out the once-cherished relative whose boozing is now too much, ignoring the forgiveness of the season and surely throwing rocks in our glass houses. For who is without blame in precipice shove of the U.S. auto industry?

If it were not for the 100 or so years of automobile manufacturing in this country, the standard of living for middle-class America would not be what it has become; World War II could never have been won without the factory capability, training and “can-do” attitude that the automakers and its legions of workers provided; unionization and its positives would never have happened; assembly lines, vehicle safety improvements and industrial innovations would not have been developed; the interstate highway system would not exist; the United States and the rest of the world would be in an agricultural economy unable to support the population. Yes, what “was good for General Motors” was once good for the U.S. — and the world.

Now, the highly paid CEOs of the Big Three automakers have come hat in hand to Congress and to a president to beg for money against bankruptcies that may happen anyway. The unthinkable may be ahead: a dead U.S. auto industry, and with it the sudden passing of thousands and thousands of auto parts suppliers, local car dealers, etc., and their workers, bread winners all. In their place will be a pared-down network of companies owned by foreign interests, with wages and terms dictated as if we were an occupied nation, which we would be.

What has happened? Oh, so very much. Generations of Americans who would buy nothing but an American car failed to insist on the same quality and efficiency of cost improvements constantly made by the Japanese and some other overseas manufacturers. Even if a bolt dropped out of the showroom car on the way home, we insisted that it was “patriotic” to buy American. It was, and it is, but not to accept a pig in a poke as the price. Why didn’t we phone Detroit? Why didn’t the automakers understand the quality issue? Or hear the call for well-designed, fun-to-drive but fuel-efficient vehicles?

Instead, the industry built bigger and bigger, feeding America’s appetite for ever-larger everything, whether it be cars or houses. Even President Bush declared early in his first term that “Everyone has the right to own an SUV.” Quality improved, yes, but the news has been hidden by the many structural problems in the industry.

Where has the Congress, the now high and mighty body that has been making automakers grovel – where was it on insisting that fuel efficiency standards be met? That quality become “job number one”? It only heard the lobbyists for the automakers and parts suppliers and the unions. Now it wallows in its own hypocrisy, wasting words on criticism of the automakers’ corporate flights to Detroit, while putting the cane to the CEOs. Meanwhile, the bankers they bailed out with almost a trillion dollars are barely asked a question or two as to where that money is going. The whipping boys are the automakers.

Where has the United Autoworkers union been in the industry’s decline? Over the decades, the union built a fair wage but kept adding benefits ever more difficult to sustain in a worldwide competitive market where other manufacturers are supplying better vehicles at lower cost.

The American auto industry is moribund, and while U.S. taxpayer money may stave off bankruptcy for a time, its overall size, its methods of operation and its costly way of doing business must die. Mergers; fewer models; a quick move to drivable, fuel-efficient vehicles (including some overseas models the manufacturers already make); reworking of union contracts; infusion of some of the big cash the banks have gotten and are not using to free up the credit market; and injection of the “can-do” spirit that the automakers – and this nation – used to have can bring viability and pride once again to an industry that helped forge this country.

Don’t throw the boozing relative to the cold, people. Get him help. He’s kin and blood, and once you hugged him. You might again need his help – God forbid – if there is another calamitous war. You surely need his help in reworking the economy.

We really are in this all together: “What is good for G.M. …” But this time don’t let G.M. and the other automakers decide what is best. Don’t let the lobbyists, either.

This full nation, not just the auto industry, requires rebuilding and reworking; a recasting of spirit; a new economy; want and need apart from greed; a sharing of misery; and a joint sowing of hope.

Rebuilding America must include its auto industry.

December 8, 2008

Another branch on the tree

Perhaps it is a bit of fate and the constantly intriguing six degrees of separation which affects all of our lives that on this date, my late grandfather’s birthday, I note another addition to the clan, granddaughter Emmeline Lucy Gunther, born a week ago at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where her mom is a pediatric physician.

It is also a connection to history that my grandfather’s grandmother was Emelie Louise Gunther, with a surname similiar to her 4x-granddaughter. My son Andrew and his wife Patricia don’t know this family history, but I think it is more than coincidence that their daughter has the same ELG initials.

A quick though 250 mile-long trip to Maryland last Thursday to see the family and the new ELG brought additional assurance that life goes on, that varied branches of a family tree continue to sprout in this direction and that. That is life-affirming and something to which we can all relate.

Being a grandparent – for the third time now – still feels a bit strange since in my mind I am sometimes that teen in Spring Valley, N.Y., or the young photographer at The Journal News in 1965 or the editorial page editor retiring on that day in July 2006. Maybe this is self-preservation, since fully accepting that you are a grandpa hastens your inevitable finish.

But all such thought is in the mind, and it is soon shaken when a 3.5-year-old Isabella appropriates you as her “horse” and otherwise playmate, and you trundle off to a life never known. I must have been a horse with my two sons, too, but that was different. They were direct flesh and blood and the grandchildren are blessed in their own way with a mix of genetics. Besides, I can go home after playing with grandkids Isabella and Sam. I do not have to worry about a roof over their heads (though I still do, in patriarchal fashion), nor college nor all the trials and tribulations of growing up. That is their parents’ path, and may it be wonderfully trod upon.

As for tiny Emmeline Lucy, whom I cannot think of without humming a Beatles song, there is as yet no give-and-take relationship though the bond began deeply on the second day when two things happened: (1) her eyes fixed on me, and we each went inside the orher, and (2) I held her, an awfully small bundle that between visits will grow and grow. I hope to be her horse some day, too.

Forgive me as I talk family here. All of us are polite when the photos of the grandkids are passed around. We are interested, but not as much as when the pictures are of our kin.

Yet in the universal commonality that life offers, my story is like most. And with six degrees of separation, we may even be connected.

December 1, 2008

Where is time going?

It seems impossible that Thanksgiving has just whizzed by, and we road runners in this heightened age of quickness are racing toward the December holidays. Did time run this fast when we were school children, eagerly awaiting winter vacation?

It probably did, though when you are young, you don’t see the sun going down anywhere. There is no vision of the final stop, so every moment is a fresh frontier, with new hills to climb, plateaus for wandering, woods to get lost in for a moment or two. All this most deliberately, for the mold that is cast at birth doesn’t shape you for all of life – the going at life does.

Maybe that’s why in adulthood, especially past mid-life, time seems an express rather than a local – you’ve gathered so much speed from the refinements made in the constant journey.

And that can be for the good and not so good. Some of us, surely including me, rush too much, flowers left unappreciated and the reason for the quickness lost anyway in Mad Hatter fashion. Time becomes a tea party, but unlike the character in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” it again becomes relative to life and we snap out of it. Only to find so much time has gone by.

In that going, we all have differing journeys, complete with family, friends, schooling, jobs, loves, haunts, likes, dislikes, challenges, success, failure and duration. Time is a film strip of life in which we compare sequence and events.

Not to get overly philosophical, but even when time goes by so quickly, there is the ability to freeze frame any part of it – past, present – so that, like a visit to a good friend, you can stay an extra day or two to suit yourself.

Happy going at it, in your own time.

November 24, 2008

At this Thankgiving time

We’re sliding into Thanksgiving, and it seems another year has passed so very quickly. Once, that was not always the case.

When we were kids – and this means any of us, in any generation – late November would mean the school year was truly under way, and we knew our teachers and they knew us. The rhythm had been established, and save spring renewal, when great and significant change can occur for the rare individual, by now we were already wearing our brand label. We were settled in.

And we were settled toward the holidays, too, with the annual anticipation of Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever holiday it was for any of us. Thanksgiving is the gate time for that, with the season officially begun on the morning after the big stuffing day.

In my own time, Thanksgiving was noted by the annual trip of less than two miles to my grandfather’s Spring Valley, N.Y., home from our Hillcrest house, a magical journey that began with my dad warming up the Studebaker, my brother and I dressing a bit better than usual and my mother gathering the Tancos Bakery cake. We would then get in the car and head down Karnell Street, left on North Main, right on Maple, left on West, right on Central, left on Cole and right on Ternure to Number 14.

May grandmother’s house would be so very warm and humidity filled from the Thanksgiving oven. We could barely see outside, the window condensation so thick that we could write on the big, old panes. Pleasantries would be exchanged by the adults while my brother ran to the TV and I to my grandfather’s huge and cozy reading chair beside the big reading lamp and next to the ever-present Saturday Evening Post.

There I would stay until the dinner call, which meant we would soon end up so stuffed that we all thought we would burst. What delicious food there was and how much the life seemed to purr as the adults carried on their usual conversation.

The special day’s finish would come soon enough, though, and with the early setting sun and the cold night upon us, we would reverse the route back to 25 Karnell St., there to await Christmas, maybe spring renewal, summer, fall and another trip to my grandparents on Thanksgiving.

I never thought that cherished routine would end, because when you are young, you see no limits in life. Time goes so much more slowly.

Our time has passed now for trips to Spring Valley, and after years of sharing the day with this relative or that, I have become the grandparent who is visited, sometimes by two sons, one who lives far away and who comes whenever he can do so, and another who is but three miles apart.

That fellow now gets in his own warmed-up car with his wife and his son, a dessert in hand, and goes up Van Houten Street in Upper Nyack, left on Broadway, right on Highmount, left on Route 9W to South Highland, right on Bradley, left on Rt. 303, right on Erie, right on Western Highway, left on Old Western, left on Burrows to Number 30.

There is no cozy and huge armchair here for my grandson Sam or for Isabella when she comes from Maryland, but there are special haunts for both, enough to say, “We’re in grandma’s house on Thanksgiving.”

A truly American saying, in your home and mine. Have a fine holiday.

November 17, 2008

Sun shone in dark newsroom

DATELINE ANY NEWSPAPER – There is a necessary darkness on a newspaper’s city desk, where the day’s report is gathered, and on the news desk, where it is assembled in words and pictures and graphics for the reading public – for the civilians. It is darkness born of necessity, for it is in the hoped-for chasing of it each and every day that true obscurity, ignorance, secrecy and gloom can be swapped for cognizance, comprehension, enlightening, intelligence, knowledge, sense, sensibility and understanding. The news business is gritty – it’s about government malfeasance and corruption, murder and other crime, ever-rising taxes, the fall of humanity and its occasional rise. All this sells newspapers, and it sells because people want to read that sort of news, no matter what they say.

Deadline in the darkness brings its own pressure, with subscribers and advertisers promised a firm time for street appearance and home delivery. Ads make the bucks in the business, not the cover charge. So, deadline is serious.

And deadlines mean taskmasters – the cursing city editor yelling across the room at a reporter baking a story; the slotman who throws a suggested headline back at the copy editor because it doesn’t sing like “Headless Torso Found in Topless Bar;” the photo chief who doesn’t want to see check-passing shots; and the assistant managing editor who has to keep everyone from hitting each other rather than punching out the daily report.

Some assistant MEs can be tougher than city editors, for many of them were there once and can’t shake the inbred need to crack the whip. But since they also work off deadline in routine personnel matters, they usually acquire a bit more compassion.

One assistant ME I knew came with natural compassion, no matter what previous job he had held at numerous newspapers about the United States. This was Jack Pease, who recently passed at 73 in Denver. From 1987 to 1992, Jack worked for The Journal News in Nyack, N.Y., offering strong, deeply felt laughter straight from the belly. He also fed the stomach, bringing in lavish homemade spreads for the Saturday into Sunday shift. His meals were legend.

Jack was an insightful fellow who could not counter injustice in any form, anywhere, whether it was from a rogue nation or from a big boss who held an impressive title in the news business but who didn’t show respect for his fellow workers. I guess that’s why he moved on so much from paper to paper. He also had a fully strong social conscience and often noted that when he talked about the issues of the day with me, then the newspaper’s Editorial Page editor. He always lobbied for the downtrodden, living his Universalist faith beyond Sundays.

Unlike so many who seek to climb a ladder of success in my business or in any actually, Jack Pease looked at the person individually since he knew the person is an individual and almost without fail liked what he saw, genuinely applauding the man or woman and encouraging the best from each.

In his time with us, Jack caused the sun to shine in the dark of the newsroom. It made an often pessimistic job much easier.

November 10, 2008

Rock walls and Indian spirits

When Henry was very, very small, so tiny that he needed to balance himself in early walking, his dad set him toward the long rock wall that followed the curve of Closter Road, which, of course, was the ancient path to a place called Closter.

It’s a busy road now, with cars coming and going, and the wall, long a sitting sanctuary for the bored and the tired, is in these modern times a protective barrier against speeding cars, of which there are many.

When the wall was taller than Henry and he used its rocks to steady his walk, Henry’s dad was the balancer to his left. Walk they would week after week in a growing-up ritual that, as father and son journeys go, offered teaching about other things. Like Indian spirits.

In this land called Rockland where Henry grew up, magical because it was his boyhood home, he had heard that rock walls possessed certain powers for the good since they were built by Native American tribes, sometimes to bury their respected elders.

Henry’s dad said the Indians were community-minded people, taking care of each tribe member with fairness and honor and that older people were cherished for their accumulated wisdom, looked upon as those who pass on wise counsel, who had learned to forgive, who were now warriors for good deeds.

So it was that when some died, the particularly revered might be placed in eternal resting spots covered with rocks and more rocks, enough to make a long wall to note for generations their once earthly stay and to remind the living of the wisdom of all ancients.

In this way, a lost tribe member, or a young warrior who hated too well or anyone – Indian or not – who had trouble in life would might come upon the long walls and be guided in one fashion or another.

So, when Henry was little, the wall helped him learn to balance in his first walking, his dad to his left. Later, Henry walked to friends’ houses protected by the wall from cars speeding to Closter and any other destination in the hurly-burly world.

Now as an adult, Henry walks and runs along the wall and sometimes sits on it, believing deeply that there’s magic in it – the magic of wisdom and stability. Knowing that makes his life as solid as the rocks left by the Indians, walls left to remind us all.

Nov. 3, 2008

The people done it

If you’re a real man, you’ll vote tomorrow. If you’re a real woman, you’ll be there. This presidential election and the congressional one are too vital to sit out. A sea change in the dysfunctional nature of our well-lobbied, special-interest, secretive government must occur. It can begin Tuesday.

That change can come from the Republican side, the Democratic one, from both and from the independents in the mix.

Our government, once of the people, by the people, for the people, no longer exists. As presently constipated, it is not the dream of Republicans: Regulate lightly if at all, growing business to grow the middle class, without which no democracy can stand. It is not the wish of Democrats: Use government to provide programs bettering all classes, including the underprivileged. Instead, for decades what we Americans have had are successive Congresses that answer to well-financed lobbyists and presidents pursuing self-driven agendas which ignore Congress. The lobbyists keep the people from Congress; the presidential handlers and administration mystery men keep the president from the people.

In the current presidency, secretive policy makers have engineered costly, intrusive uber-security and war itself to push America into self-imposed exile from the world community, authorizing human rights abuses that defy civilized living and which make hypocritical the democracy mantle. It has been cowboy diplomacy with a president riding a Texas-style barroom motorized bronco while the real buck riders have been in the shadows. Who knows what the true agenda has been and how deeply its roots have been planted for decades to come?

The people have allowed the congresses to fail, to not address health care costs, Social Security, the true targets of terrorism, the decline of Main Street and Joe the Plumber’s finances.

On lobbying, even well-intentioned efforts end up being re-tailored to fit profit-driven special interests. Just look at the greedy, irresponsible sub-prime mortgage fiasco in poor neighborhoods.

We are a nation that long offered hope for democracy, for the downtrodden, for the poor family working toward the middle class, for inventiveness, for betterment of the human condition, for God’s work, Mohammed’s work, Allah’s work. But what we were is not what we are now: greedy, self-interested, uninformed, so involved with our own lives that we have let government grow beyond our reach. The people done it.

Government got to be too much for us — too complicated, too remote, too filled with politics and favoritism. We haven’t understood it in years, nor do we even try when we are in social studies classes as kids and later, when we can read newspapers and access by TV and Internet all manner of information. In our vacuum have come the lobbyists, the special interests, the constantly reelected do-nothings for us, the presidents who initially are voted in by the people but who are then kept from their concerns by security, by “advisers,” by a vice president with his own agenda, one not fully revealed, one perhaps criminally accomplished. Who knows?

Our media — and I am retired as part of the Fourth Estate and so collectively join in the irresponsibility — have not asked the right questions, have not been balanced, have not been probing, even as our ranks have been downsized in the new Information Age.

Tomorrow, if we are real citizens, we will run to the polls and cast our votes for whomever we think offers the best hope of again listening to the people on their needs. But when we leave that booth, we must also have voted for Resolution No. 1: That we will become informed, stay informed and utterly demand without letup a sea change in our now not-working government.

It’s either that or the inevitable downward spiral into what befell the great Roman Empire: decline of the middle class and with that the addressing of human concerns across the board, while the barbarians assume control.

The people will have done that in America. Unless we begin to undo the badness Tuesday.

October 27, 2008

Just a story

Here’s a story. In it, one person dies, another is shot and two others are chased from even the hope of the American Dream. And it didn’t happen in the gritty, dark city but in the burbs.

If you want to read on, please check your immigration views at the door. This piece isn’t about our nation’s failure to craft and adopt a fair, equitable and humane system for a continuing stream of emigrants as vital as ever to our economic, social, political and overall quality-of-life growth. This republic has always been plugged into such a current. It once lit the Lady in the Harbor’s lamp, now dimmed by failing immigration policy, a doctrine that no one – conservative, liberal, in-between – likes.

Let this be judgment enough for this story, though. Instead, focus on life and death and circumstance and unfairness and the evident substance of humanity – good, bad and all shades of gray.

Not long ago, once upon a time really, but “really” this “time,” one Juan A. Martinez, a Mexican national, lived among a small colony of homeless under a state highway overpass on another border, the one separating the Town of Clarkstown, N.Y., and a hamlet called Nanuet.

Like the others – illegal and legal immigrants – Juan eked out work when he could, the day laborer trade being as much an economic mainstay here as elsewhere and with a long list of applicants. He, too, sent money and hope back home, to a sister.

That stopped when Juan Martinez was found dead some weeks ago along the Pascack Brook, the police theorizing that he was caught in the fast waters of Tropical Storm Hanna earlier in September.

For volunteers in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program in Spring Valley, N.Y., Juan was yet another gone missing – some arrested, some on the drink, some at work, some just sitting out the day by themselves. No judgments are made in the program. Maybe the soul would show up on another morning.

Not Juan. In his stead came Angel, his best friend, a handsome man who looks like Pancho Villa. We offered condolences in the serving line, and Angel used the universal sign of making a fist and pounding his chest to show pride for having been Juan’s friend, his best buddy. The hit to his heart was almost loud enough to hide his tearing eyes. Now Angel awaits deportation. Another gone missing.

So does Marcos, also a RIBP client, reportedly in federal custody.

Evin, often just behind Marcos or Juan or Angel, who worked at a soul food restaurant until he was shipped back to Guatemala, was seriously shot there. He may never walk again.

Juan Martinez’ ashes are being sent to Mexico, along with the princely sum of $500 for his sister – the last bit of American hope for that woman. Angel and Marco, despite their own troubles, raised most of the collection.

No judgment here about immigrants, illegal or not, or hard-luck circumstances, or fate, or opportunity or individual and collective responsibility in a cockeyed world.

Just a story, that’s all. One man dead, another shot. Two friends show compassion. An account of life, living.

October 20, 2008

The passing parade

Those of us who are worried about the economy, war, spoiled kids and the world going to hell in a hand basket should see the old “Passing Parade,” a series of theatrical shorts originally distributed by MGM in 1938, supremely narrated by producer John Nesbitt. These slices of life would reaffirm anyone’s faith in humanity’s mojo: What goes up comes down, but what is down goes up, eventually.

Nesbitt’s pieces were born in the Great Depression, witnessed by moviegoers who sought respite and vicarious enjoyment at the flicks, where they saw two feature films, a newsreel, several cartoons, a travelogue and “The Passing Parade.”

You left the theater with your head, if not your heart, temporarily massaged by fantasy, fully commiserated with other suffering people, informed about exotic places, still laughing at Porky Pig’s antics and nodding in agreement that your foibles are those of others, too.

Nesbitt’s essays were deeply real, to the point that the grandfather portrayed was yours as well, that the troubles colonial Americans had in gathering food were similar to growing your backyard garden veggies, that seeing a rich man fall from greed and grace and a basement entrepreneur rise from his American tinkering inventiveness was relative to your way of thinking.

The producer, who also shared his wisdom via radio, didn’t offer anything extraordinary, which is why his shows were just that, extraordinary. Our ordinary life is extraordinary because the ups and downs, the foibles, the tears, the joys, the idiosyncrasies, the hopes, the despair, the rain, the sunshine have always been with humans and will be there until the great fall.

The key is to understand all that, to know that we, this time, did not invent success and failure, good and bad. This is just a moment, and the same moment, in different dress, was lived by humans a thousand years ago. That’s why life is a passing parade.

Kind of makes me feel better.

October 13, 2008

‘Gimmee rewrite!’ Tony

NYACK, N.Y. — Of the 30 or so editors mutually endured in my 42 years at The Journal-News, Tony Davenport was the oldest. Not chronologically but as a reincarnation of every get-the-story, “gimmee rewrite!,” cut the B.S. editorial character straight out of Central Casting. He was probably born with flat feet, a telephone glued to one ear and fingers indented from hunting and pecking over typewriter keys in a cloud of smoke thicker than a Damon Runyon stage setting.

This guy was “Front Page” material, salivating when a politician caught fire and went down in a blaze, a cityophile shoehorned into a suburban news sheet who proved the right fit anyway. It was instinct that did it.

Tony respected his staff because he had been at their baptism — it was his as well. He saw the need for fire in the belly in a job underpaid and often overworked. Something besides money has to fuel the life. He forgave the sins of poor grammar, the misspellings, the odd fact not checked, but never cottoned to half-assed copy.

Editor Davenport had to live in the growing corporate world that has climbed on the backs of our newspapers, and he knew that print survival means smiling at the ignorance from upstairs when you really want to mutter, even scream. He fought the good war for us, keeping our identity least sullied, running interference so that the “who, what, when, where, why and how” business could give birth each and every day to another edition for the unique Rockland audience.

Increasingly in our profession, a career’s lifespan depends on survival and luck as well as the ways the moneychangers fill the coffers from sales to information-thirsty readers and, now, Internet surfers.

If profit could be damned and the focus left to gathering, editing and presenting the news, most of us would be purring like the contended cat while in the corner city room office, a bellowing but beneficent editor pushes the adrenalin button. “Get in here, Jim!” “Gimme rewrite!”

Our Tony Davenport, at that switch for a long time, kept The Journal-News “Front Page.”

Good luck, Tony. You came to us with a master’s in instinct; you leave with a doctorate in printer’s ink. To the end of your days you’ll be a newspaper stiff. Walk proud.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tony Davenport, just 50, recently lost his job as Journal-News managing editor. He joins thousands hit in the continued downsizing of newspapers in this America.

October 6, 2008

The quick, enduring habits

You know, it’s the simple things that are the heartbeats of a life.

Yes, the economy, war, social strife, greed, security and all the other issues that seem ever on the calendar, along with the greatness of family, many (most, actually) good people and a creator’s hand in moments of utter compassion and miracle are all the backdrop and stage set and hands-on involvement in everyday existence. But it’s the gestures of each person’s times that get us through it all.

It can be a quick, well-practiced gesture of faith, in prayer in a church, synagogue or mosque or in one’s private time. It can be a teacher’s pat on the head or a dad’s hand on his grown son’s shoulder, even some 60-odd years into the younger man’s life.

It can be a wink from mom when you get the recipe just right, or right enough that what is passed down will continue its journey. It can be a spouse’s gaze, spotted across a living room. It can be your friend’s way of walking or a runner’s stride. Or a baby’s awkward but self-assuring first steps.

It can be the way a grown man folds his newspaper as soon as he has paid for it, perhaps something he has done since he began buying a tabloid or standard sheet, a bit of assurance that there is something to report in the world, that the story has been covered, and now it can be read, maybe over a cup of coffee.

It can be the style you give to holding that cup. Once, people balanced conversation with java in one hand and a cigarette in another, the former now not so much, at least here in America. But it was a defining gesture nonetheless.

It can be the way you speak when you know someone is really listening. It can be the running of her hand through her hair when she is with a first boyfriend. It can be the running of both hands through what is left of your hair when you do the household bills.

Yes, all everyday signs of everyday existence. Wars come and go, economies rise and fall, new replaces old. Life begins and life is gone. What keeps all these moments tied together are the simple things that are the heartbeats of a life.

Endurance in Pomona

September 29, 2008

POMONA, N.Y. – This is the land of the goddess “Pomona,” who watches over fruit, the community so named in the 1700s by one of the earliest of American apple growers, the Concklin family. If life has reaffirming simplicity, as enduring as the tree itself, it can be found here.

The suburb, and Pomona is now part of that phenomenon, has long come clamoring in the night like a suitor who often does not fulfill promises, with bells and whistles called shopping malls, sidewalks and a tax base, but who also leaves, in the retirement wake of people who stay for a while and then blow off for North Carolina or somewhere, much property density, noise, traffic and such development names as “Huggy Bear Estates.” Yet the apple blossoms appear each spring, simple in their faithfulness and honesty as the fruit ripens to a festival of red and greens in McIntosh, Empire, Cortland, Winesap and other varieties.

The season cannot be denied, despite “progress” and in spite of less or more rain or the ravages of an icy winter.

The fruit is simple though the husbandry has become more learned since Pomona first was the apple of New York’s eye. The farmer’s life remains in harness, and the endurance there, from generation to generation of Concklins, builds upon the dust-to-dust genealogy of many who have seen the sun rise and set in the honest toil against South Mountain or along Pomona Road. That has been true from the days of Nicholas Concklin in 1712 through J. Raymond in the 20th century and now to Richard and Linda and their families in the present.

A visit to the farm stand on South Mountain Road reveals not the automatically watered fruit and vegetable displays of the gourmet market chains but squeaky, old doors off an old barn that lead you to the sights and smells of fresh produce, ready to be picked up and eaten as soon as you leave the store.

Nothing fancy here, including the counter people who were out in the orchards that morning and will be this afternoon. The stand competes with megastores offering polished fruit flown in from great distances, but who could sit alongside the turnings of South Mountain, against a Concklin tree, eating an apple from Washington State, no matter how delicious?

Suburbs have their sure way of homogenzing things, diluting local history, making life standard and anonymous and sometimes predictably dull. They are warehouses for life, a measure of safety but also so “inside” that the vibrancy of old village downtowns, the characters you meet in them and the music of country life are the trade-in price for this progress.

But an apple farm, that is different. Linda and Richard Concklin walk where Nicholas did in 1712. There have been births and deaths and full lives evolving here for generations. Trees, too. In the great goodness of the hard farming life, so close to the land, so subject to nature’s laugh and slap and comfort, there can never be a lie uttered or lived.

The Concklin Farm

September 22, 2008

Demo Republico’s election-year take

As a retired newspaperman, I can’t put to pasture my nature as a busybody, an inquiring sort. So when I saw neighbor Demo Republico sitting on his fine, American-style front porch nursing a Scotch sans rocks after mowing his lawn, I moseyed on over and had him do a Q&A.

I sat on Demo’s left because journalists are said to be left-leaning, and I am really striving for balance here. My ears were cocked to his right.

Demo is a full-bloodied American of sure but certain Greek descent. He is patriotic to the point of showing tears and knows the history of his nation, particularly how the Founders, in an uncertain time, kept a fledging nation growing and away from the precipice of economic, social and political disaster. Demo is independently minded, as stubborn-headed as were the pioneers. Most of all, he believes in the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. …”

Demo voted Democratic as an urbanite whose immigrant parents toiled in honest but labor-laden trades but now usually goes for the Republicans in the growing conservatism of his maturing life in the suburbs. He is not yet sure of his ballot choice in this year’s pivotal presidential election. In many key ways, Demo Republico is Everyman in America 2008.

Here’s the Q&A. The questions are mine, but the answers are Demo’s.

Q: Well, the economy has to be first. What’s your take on it all?
A: My parents, like yours, went through the Great Depression, surviving the deprivations of that and World War II. They, too, were caught up in the relative boom of the post-war economy, but when they at long last could “afford” a home, they had to first save the 20 percent down payment for a reasonably priced house and had to be certain they could pay the mortgage, taxes, utilities and the costs of raising their children. The lender told them that, but so did their economic common sense.
The “government (we) instituted” has gradually lost its common sense in the past four decades, feeding the American desire for more and bigger and trusting Big Business to deliver the most in an unregulated way, taking certain but reasonable profit. But our government forgot about greed, which is always present in the world of finance and which reached new levels of ungodly avarice in the past 10 or so years.
How to fix the economy? Take the common economic sense of my prudent parents and regulate where necessary to prevent the greed which is collapsing the markets. No over-regulation that kills enterprise, but sure rules effected by enough government watchdogs on staff to do the job and with clear directive from the White House and the Congress. Do all this in a way that follows the checks and balances established by the Founders, with congressional and court oversight and certain but limited presidential power. Don’t forget my ancestor’s Greek democratic roots.

Q: I know you take prescription pharmaceuticals for your high blood pressure and diabetes. And that your last co-pay was $315, 200 percent higher than three years ago. Your doctor’s office visit cost $125, not covered by your health plan. Some of your friends take their drugs every other day to save money. Where should the next administration be on health care expenses?
A: America has fine hospitals, physicians, medical schools, research facilities, etc., but outrageous profit-taking will soon inflate costs so much that people will not seek assistance until they are in an chronic state, which will cost them, insurance companies and government even more.
The next president ought to view reasonably priced, fully available health care as another provision of the Bill of Rights. It is in the national interest, a wise investment.
There have to be incentives for preventive care, a watchdog against drug price gouging, a national malpractice insurance fund so doctors can stay in business and large health care centers that replace the crowded emergency rooms which are now doctor offices for many people.
Profit can be handsomely made in our capitalist system by health care providers, but there must be economic common sense here, too.

Q: The Social Security Trust Fund has been raided by presidents and Congresses for decades, with the money sent to the general fund and an IOU left that cannot be paid. Now the government claims Social Security is in trouble and may not be able to meet its future payouts. What to do?
A: First, protect the SS Trust. Allow no money transfer into the general fund. Second, lower the percentage taken out for the payroll tax but keep the tax on all income, whether you make $5,000 a year or $1 billion. Maybe take part of the percentage reduction and have it pay for free or reduced-price drugs.
Allow people to make whatever they can in retirement without penalty. Encourage individuals to take up to 20 percent – no more – to invest in government securities only, such as municipal bonds for infrastructure repair.

Q: The need for public assistance programs will grow in the troubled economy. What changes will be needed?
A: I think that if President Lyndon Johnson had not given most of his attention to the ill-fated, ill-directed and unnecessary Vietnam War, he would have made much better his Great Society program. Instead, well-meant programs and the necessity of government intervention to help the needy have spawned generational welfare that provides little incentive to leave that world. An emphasis must be made on education, economic advice, housing opportunities, food programs and much greater support for the mom and pop assistance efforts run by community groups and religious institutions.

Q: Education costs plenty in this nation, but test scores for reading and general comprehension and arithmetic are not in sync. What’s your take?
A: My parents did not finish high school, but they did their own income taxes and knew more than the basics of our national history, our Bill of Rights and Constitution.
I would ask all schools to teach those same basics early on, with re-emphasis in middle and high school. I would push reading and word comprehension in this time of sound bites and quick Internet hits.
I would rather see only half the high school graduates now attending college in that sort of higher public education, instead getting the young trained in the technical, medical, social and other trades. A bachelor’s degree has become like a high school diploma of old, and there is not enough accurate and full training for the jobs that need to be filled if the economy is to be renewed and restored.

Q: Immigration is either looked at with prejudice or with rose-colored glasses. What’s to be done?
A: I am from an immigrant family, and so are you. All but the Native Americans in America have had to carry a Green Card at one time or another in their ancestry. This nation has been built on the backs and brains of immigrants and their offspring, and our future prosperity is tied to their constant arrival.
We must devise a reasonable way to provide for legal immigration, including limited amnesty after criminal background checks. The slate must be made clean, and an orderly and fair process devised for future immigration.

Q: Well, any final thoughts, Demo Republico?
A: My parents named me Demo for the Democratic Party they saw as the saviors of their blue-collar, immigrant existence and success in America, their dream land of opportunity. I take my last name from the ancient Greeks who helped give America its foundation of “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And it is no coincidence that it matches “Republican.”
No matter who wins this presidential election, which may prove the mother of them all, no matter where our economy goes, no matter how well we deal with our challenges, we must hold firm to the belief that we are a special people, that the sense and practice of our democracy must always come first – above materialism, war, security. For if we compromise that premise, our America will cease to exist.

Thank you, Demo Republico.

September 15, 2008

An overlooked America

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – This true story, this essay, has to take place in a small village, old to the point of some 300 years, with small sidewalks that dip and turn and rise and sink just as do the lanes and streets of this community that holds the Hudson River close to its anatomy.

The sidewalks, cobbled together over centuries from slate, rock, hand-poured and machine-given cement, have felt the footprints of generations of shipyard workers, village tradesmen, artists like Edward Hopper as a boy and actresses such as Helen Hayes and Ellen Burstyn as grown women. Children daily have slammed the whitewashed gates in front of their smallish homes on Lower Castle Heights Avenue and Van Houten Street, walking and running off to play and to school and to life, leaving behind the ever-bigger footsteps of inevitable growing up.

If small town America were to have veins, these sidewalks would be some of them.

It was on a walk along a sidewalk on a recent afternoon that I saw a fellow looking a bit more industrious than a retired man might. Instead of sitting on the generous front porch of his home, certainly a treat that was his just reward, the man was sweeping the walk in front of that porch.

Grass clippings, small branches, weeds and the odd cigarette butt were flying left and right as he took a large corn broom and swung it like a pendulum, moving forward as if he were a motorized street sweeper, which he was. It was a learned practice, this efficient brooming, just like a seasoned sailor swabbing a deck.

But it was also an odd sight since the man was not carrying a leaf blower descended from a Mack truck engine. He was not surrounded by six similar men with equipment on their backs or in their hands that combusted internally and made noise infernally. The rich neighbors up the street have such attendants, as does much of suburban America. But this man chooses a simpler way.

At this house, in this time, in the Village of Upper Nyack, there is a gent who without fanfare and noise and expense wants to keep his small home and old, old sidewalk neat. He does that in a Charlie Chaplin-like walk with a straw broom. His great-grandfather surely did the same thing.

Nowhere in this important, perhaps defining presidential election of 2008 will this man appear, but his old-fashioned, responsible self-labor speaks volumes of where we once were in America.

September 8, 2008

Once the neighbors leave …

I live in a suburb, a multi-facted description that this child of a rural landscape has never cottoned to since it pegs me to change that has been too rapid, too urban-like, too fast-paced for my bones and my soul. I did not invite the suburb here; it enveloped me in its inevitability. Yet I am a good sport about it.

The pent-up, post-World War II desire to push outward from New York City, just 20 miles from Rockland County, coupled with a great G.I. benefits package that included veterans’ loans, made it certain that kit and caboodle would be loaded into the moving van, set for a wagons-ho! north. The die was cast.

For those of us living in the smallest New York county geographically outside Gotham, which until the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River in 1955 was one of many fruit and truck vegetable farms, country hamlets and relatively small downtowns like Nyack, Spring Valley, Pearl River, Haverstraw and Suffern, the almost overnight sight of 100-plus home developments, a massive school building program that is only beginning to abate 50 years later and quick-to-arrive pockets of decay, building density, landlord neglect and too much strip shopping was a shock to the system.

As friend Elaine puts it, “Guess the plum was just too juicy for the greedy developers and politicians.”

Had “the proper vision and planning … occurred,” she correctly adds, maybe suburb would not be so grating a word, at least for me.

Actually, the concept has irritated enough ex-urbanites, too, as proven by the return to NYC of Rockland residents who have grown weary of high property taxes, sprawl from poor land use and the expense of their large houses. Meanwhile, the city from whence they came has been renewed and rediscovered for its amenities, and the moving van has been turned about.

This leaves suburbs like Rockland with ever-higher municipal and schooling costs geared to constant growth, and in that expansion’s slowing, the burbs are found to be without sufficient investment to cover the charges. Suburbs are quite expensive to maintain, and given the sub-prime mortgage crisis and declining property values, assessments are dropping while towns and villages are finding everything, from utilities to tar for the roads, is costing more. The once great American Dream of wagons ho! headed to the suburban expanse is turning out to be pie in the sky, an illusory concept tethered to reality for a time only.

Now, where does that put those who cannot afford to leave the suburbs and those like me who do not wish to give up the land of their youth? Are we to pay more and more for the effects of greater density, property neglect, busier roads, empty stores in shopping malls and less and less quiet?

Any person of balance and humanity could never deny someone a place in the suburbs. Rockland, indeed, has been made much richer by its diverse and many peoples. I have had to give up a small-town, friendlier, more trusting time so others could have a chance at a dream, and that is OK. Dreams are relative, after all, or as Elaine quotes sage Richard Bach: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. …”

But as someone who will until his passing day pay both in coin of the realm and in a more hurried life for other peoples’ dreams, I think it not unfair to ask that whatever future the suburbs may have – in both new growth and rebuilding – may there be innovative land-use planning for what properties are left, tied to creative energy use, traffic control, good architecture and less of an addiction to greater density.

If this is not done, than I will feel as used and trod upon as the homeowner who invites a number of weekend guests and finds that some trash the house while others keep the silver polished.

Those who invest their lives in one place are owed a certain respect, for without them there is no community, just a boarding address for a time.

September 1, 2008

A Labor Day example

On this Labor Day of late sleeping, barbecues, beach trips and general laziness for many but the same-old, same-old for those who are not “honored,” a memory trip back 100 years recalls a man, Hugh Bonner, who created an example of the best of any who “labor.”

Bonner, the ever-demanding New York City fire commissioner who docked two subordinates’ pay for being a few minutes’ late, established standards and a sense of responsibility in the FDNY.

An immigrant who survived the notorious Five Points hellhole in Manhattan to become the first Irish-born chief of department and whose fire prevention writings, still in the Library of Congress, include “Tenement House Fire Escapes in New York and Brooklyn,” Bonner demanded and got excellence in meeting fire safety standards. His modus operandi was to prevent fires, not just fight them. Firefighting was an ever-growing science, and he preached it by example.

He and fellow immigrant John Bresnan were fire heroes, each having saved lives on several occasions, according to the excellent work, “So Others Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest” (Terry Golway, Basic Books 2002). They were inventors and perfectors of equipment still in use today, such as the sliding pole, water tower and the life-saving net. Bonner formed the first true training school for firefighters.

These two never missed a major blaze, directing individually at the scene and setting an example for the ranks. Most of all, they emphasized the necessity of establishing a more and more scientific firefighting force, the need for building design changes and the use of ever-more sophisticated fire response apparatus and on-site water supply, such as standpipes.

Day after day, and more accurately night after night, Bonner would review what happened at a fire scene so as to learn from the experience. He noted how light and air shafts in tenements served as treacherous flues in terrible blazes and pushed legislation to require changes in design.

On March 17, 1899, St. Patrick’s Day, he and fellow firefighters left the line of march after a blaze began at the seven-story Hotel Windsor. The Fifth Avenue scene quickly became one of great disaster as guests jumped from windows, though some used safety ropes, a requirement pushed by the likes of Chief Bonner. He took “personal command of the fire at an early stage,” as Golway puts it, Bonner noting later, “There was not a fire-proof thing in the place, and absolutely nothing to check the spread of flames all over the building once they gained a certain amount of headway.” The chief blamed outdated construction and was quick to incorporate that message in his dealings with the city and Albany.

Bonner, as chief of department, as fire academy leader, as fire commissioner, would fight a never-ending battle with politicians and profit-oriented developers to secure better fire safety in buildings. His political fight would cost him his job as department chief, with President Theodore Roosevelt sending him to Manila to set up that city’s fire department.

When Bonner returned to become the sixth NYC fire commissioner in 1908, he had a clear agenda in mind: fire safety, no ifs, ands or buts. That in these 100 years since there have been tragic fires caused by poor building design and shoddy construction; that the great FDNY itself has not always kept to standards insisted upon by such pioneers as Bonner and Bresnan; that the best equipment (radios, ropes, GPS locators) has been denied the Bravest cannot be tied to Bonner’s legacy.

If he were alive today, Bonner would personally look out for his men. He would know what dangers any building presented, since he made a habit of watching their construction. And there is no way a standpipe would have been severed, as happened in the Deutsche Bank fire that claimed two firefighter’s lives in 2007 as the 9/11–damaged building was being torn down.

Bonner held to personal, on-the-job responsibility to the end, succumbing to pneumonia, “the result of exposure at his post, while devising new methods and establishing new standards of efficiency demanded by the city’s increasing fire hazards,” as a March 14, 1908, New York Times editorial put it.

Chief/Commissioner Bonner demanded accountability and learned from experience, perfecting the art of firefighting so that both civilians and the Bravest even today are less likely to be slaughtered by irresponsibility and neglect.

That makes the man one to be well respected on this Labor Day 2008.

The writer is a descendant of Hugh Bonner.

Aug. 25, 2008

If Will Rogers …

Will Rogers, the great American humorist and social commentator who helped this nation laugh during the last big economic upheaval – the Great Depression – would be a welcome analyst today as the Democratic and Republican conventions bring glitter and carnival in their short season and nominate two presidential candidates, one of who will have an opportunity to lead us for a long time. Rogers’ disarmingly plain-speaking ways would get the citizenry to the core of what is supposed to be happening. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has effectively done that as of yet, offering platform, yes, but little foundation. No constructive details of a presidential construction are there for the American people to chew on.

Rogers’ wise cracks and genuinely, ah-shucks, folksy ways were in contrast to stuff-shirted politicos and their often-unfulfilled promises and special interests. He could quickly undress a congressman, even a president, and show the long underwear so that the people knew who they were looking at and whether there was a spine underneath the handmade suits.

Today, in this electronically more sophisticated age, when expensive and profitable air time promote not in-depth nor complete thought but sound bites for an audience that pays increasingly less attention, the bon mots are chosen to inflame for a particular political philosophy, or to be a broad, sweeping generalization meant to capture someone oratorically. Problem is, like the lothario who has a good pickup line, can the night that follows consummate the dream?

As this historic presidential campaign heats up for the final laps in 2008, what would Will Rogers tell us in an entertaining way that also gets a serious message across? How would he explain where we are at and where we should be headed? How would he act as translator to the politician today, as he did in the 1930s?

When our standard of living began to rise in the post-war 1950s of superior American manufacturing and world leadership, the black sedans of the Great Depression were replaced by the two-tone aquamarine and cream fin-tailed road rockets of the future. Nothing seemed unobtainable. But as European reconstruction progressed, and Japan and Germany re-emerged and former British, French and other colonies began to make and sell goods more cheaply, this America began to lose its manufacturing base.

Decades of failure to reinvest in modernization, paired with the growing national expense of the Cold War, Vietnam and social unrest; the bleeding social and economic decay of the inner cities; the never-ending expansion of costly to maintain, spread-out suburbs; the burdensome debt of social programs both necessary and meant to help but poorly planned and executed; and the utter irresponsibility of not beginning to meet the emerging energy crisis back in the early 1970s have further weakened this nation.

Yet succeeding generations have come to expect more and more and to access that in greater debt without the ability to repay.

How would Rogers tell us – better yet, tell the candidates – that these are moments in denial?

While Obama and McCain are stage-managed by their political handlers; while on-air and Internet commentators portray each candidate as savior or dimwit, too old or too inexperienced; while fat-cat special interests buy million-dollar skylight boxes at convention sites, ordinary John and Sue Public are waiting for the word from on high.

Just how will McCain or Obama save the economy? Protect the national interest? Provide “affordable” health care? Offer real, freedom-based national security and not the lockdown atmosphere now in place? And, most of all, return us to the guarantees of the Constitution and the Founders’ principles?

Will Rogers would tell us a joke while doing a rope trick, giggling here and there, and before we knew it, he’d have our confidence back in the firm footprints of progress originally set on the ground around Plymouth Rock, on the road from Lexington and Concord, on the Conestoga Trail, on the moon’s soil.

God knows we need a voice from above.

Aug. 18, 2008

A bad hair day

SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA – It doesn’t matter where “Joe” is, for this hapless soul would be without “luck” no matter where his geography lies. The guy is just having a bad hair day.

Joe opened his eyes this morning, and that part was OK. He was still breathing, and he couldn’t get up on the wrong side of bed since it’s next to a wall. But when he hit the bathroom and found the toothpaste tube empty, the key paper product gone and the water closet handle broken, Joe knew he should retrace his steps and walk – no run – back to bed.

Why such a day come along – and it does for us all – might be due to karma payback, plain bad luck, astral influences or maybe your ex-lover put a hex on you.

Body chemistry plays a part, surely, since if you don’t have enough of the “happy” juice, the endorphins and serotonin, the blues can set in. For centuries, society has been hailing the perennially optimistic guy or gal while feeling sad for those who feel sad, when it’s probably more the chance of birth that gives the individual his brain chemistry and the inner pharmaceuticals that drive a life, or not.

Fortunately, when you are a kid, at least when I was one, you know nothing from endorphins or the blues. Your mom just tells you to get out of your room and play with the other boys and girls. The bad hair day passes as a momentary hump. Ignorance is salvation.

But in adulthood, economic pressures, continuing chemistry changes, the realization that life is not endless, etc., and the knowledge that people do get blue or even depressed gives you an education that can make the bad hair day last a week. Or longer if there is a mid-life crisis.

In retirement, there can be a post-traumatic syndrome effect, because you have so much time on your hands that all those fears, all those unresolved issues you put aside as you went from childhood to teenhood to young adulthood to middle age to seniorhood pop up like weeds in a field now heavily misted by free time.

And mom is no longer there to tell you to get out of the house and go play, to keep busy, to not focus on yourself. Yet there is always the memory of mom and grandma, who usually seemed so busy themselves that you wondered how they got it all done.

And you rarely, if ever, saw mom and grandma is their own low-serotonin times. It is the nature of being human that the protectors shield you from too much unnecessary worry.

Joe, who’s having a bad hair day, ought to get out of bed and mow the lawn, it seems. Mom would yell up the stairs and tell him to do just that.

August 11, 2008

Hope for America

WEST DENNIS, Mass. – In a United States increasingly defined by haves, have-nots and almost have-nots, this Cape Cod community remains in part old blue-collar America, an island of sorts within a peninsula.

It is about comfort food and comfort knick-knack seaside shopping and 1940s-50s-type motels, dotted along Route 28, which could just as well be the original and famous Route 66.

It is in spots a mom and pop town, though not with original business owners, some now replaced by first-generation immigrants eager to be part of the American Horatio Alger stream. West Dennis is not the more tony Dennis, off the Old King’s Highway and before the bay and where young Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart and others gave forth magic at the Cape Playhouse.

West Dennis is on the Atlantic Ocean side, facing the Nantucket Sound, a location that is a metaphor for family-oriented fun reminiscent of traveling America in the 1950s.

In all that is West Dennis, there is grandeur of the very best sort – exalted and awesome ordinary living that is extraordinary, as sure as the sun rising each day and as trusted as a handshake deal once was.

A visitor to West Dennis can appreciate a fine, solid vacation that offers food, beach, a decent night’s stay and nearness to the many and varied sights of Cape Cod, from the diversity and acceptance of Provincetown to the linen napkins of Chatham, to the reinvigorated Hyannis, to the marshes and ponds and wonderful walking/riding paths everywhere.

You can pretend to be among the nouveau riche if you like, to be an old salt on a park bench or an off-islander from Beantown. Or you can do as I did and rise at 4 a.m. from the clean bed of an inexpensive Travelodge room off Route 28 and head off to Corporation Beach at Dennis for a rising light photography session.

The fishing was not great this time, because it was raining and the exceptional morning light of the Cape slept in. Not a car to be seen on Old Bass River Road, a route so ancient that I could have had a horse – not a car – on it centuries ago. It was the great quiet, itself worth the 251-mile trip in heavy rain from my home in Rockland County, New York State.

Some photos were taken and then a walk in the old churchyard, a familiar haunt for me in Dennis. More quiet, some old-fashioned donuts and, later, lunch with a former newspaper colleague who took leave of busy geography to retire to the Cape.

I left thinking this trip had been easy, that the small jitters I had about such a long journey were for nothing, that while my photo fishing was somewhat disappointing, I had seen firsthand proof in West Dennis, Mass., that this changing America of economic polarization still includes individuals and families who are comfortable with a basic vacation. Long live Route 28. There is hope for America.

Six a.m., Brewster, Mass., on the East Dennis border.
Aug. 4, 2008

The temporary loner

I’ve been a loner of late – not in the standard sense of a person who prefers to be alone, who avoids the company of others, but one who is alone because four members of his family have flown the relative homestead for a European trip.

Bully for them – my wife, first-born son, daughter-in-law and grandson – for this was an opportunity that apparently presented itself without promise that it might again return. So off they have gone for 13 days, and in the middle of it, the e-mail reports are that very young children — Sam is 14 months – adapt to most anything and that the sights, including Florence, Sienna and Rome, have already given the adults video postcards for their memories, retrievable for life.

That’s wonderful – “Ÿ tutto meraviglioso” – but the guy who stayed home is not climbing the high steps in old Sienna, or seeing the art in Florence or gesturing wildly with fellow drivers in Roma. He’s doing the loner bit, OK with him since he likes the quiet and his independence. OK for a while.

The fellow’s not too hapless a male that he can’t cook for himself, wash clothes, vacuum and otherwise show reasonable domestication, though he would not pass the wife’s standards.

This loner, who could have gone on the trip too but who is not the inveterate traveler, has been facing the biggest hurdle of separation – too much time on one’s hands. It was already difficult because I am retired after more than 42 years of constant deadline work as a newspaperman, and two seasons into it, I am still spinning my wheels.

What does a loner do when he is given even more time in which to do nothing? Well, I visited two other loners – my father and my father-in-law, elderly gents whose spouses have passed on and who really know what being a loner means. Each faces long days and even longer nights when sleep does not come easily. Each has tasks that get them through the day – cooking, cleaning, reading, TV. They measure the day’s progress by how well they do the job. They defeat time in every move forward through the list.

My father can still drive responsibly, and so during the day and in good weather only, he is in a new, small car that we urged him to buy. It has made him feel a bit young again, given him some freedom. My father-in-law does not have that escape from home confinement.

After my visits with both of these fellows, driving my own car, able to get out and walk briskly in exercise, always younger than the two men, I felt much less a loner than earlier in the day. And the visits ate up time.

We are all creatures of routine, whether we are loners by nature – living alone – or loners somewhat in a relationship where routine and common bond and deep, earned emotion and shared experience bring a symbiosis that make time and its constant cousin, boredom, move along. Many times well and happily.

My father and father-in-law have crossed a bridge in being loners – they have chased loneliness into a dark corner and fight its reappearance daily by being resilient and by accepting being loners, much as a hermit who did not want to be one must do to survive. God bless them.

That is a baptism by fire that I am not yet ready to face.

May the family have their days and nights in Italy. I would give them more weeks there if I could. But I do not wish to be a loner forever.

July 28, 2008

Ellen, at the crossroads

NANUET, N.Y. — A circa 1948 TV antenna, its elements half gone with the wind in 60 years, arrived atop Ellen Ferretti’s family home in her third decade, a signal that her beloved hamlet, 25 miles northwest of New York City, was changing and that she was part of that. The aerial was modern invention at its utmost, placed on the sharp peak of a late 1890s house that may not have been initially electrified. Now, in a more modern age, the family could see pictures and hear sound delivered through the ether.

Even with that progress, Ellen could still leave her house on foot in the busy of the day and walk along State Highway 59, the traffic not so steady nor so energetic that a pedestrian need fear. A small, old-fashioned filling station, carved out of a home like so many Nanuet storefronts, was next to Ellen’s house, and the new Nanuet Hebrew Center was across the street.

Lederle Laboratories, then the biggest employer in Rockland County, was in easy driving reach, and Ellen made that her workplace – as a scientific assistant to biological productions – for 48 years.

Up Middletown Road, the hamlet’s Main Street, was the bakery, open part-time because of limited population, and there was the library, barbershop, florist, Nanuet Hotel, Nanuet Restaurant, St. Paul’s Church, Comfort Coal, Hutton & Johnson Lumber and Charlie’s Market.

Nearby were the Highview School, Golden Motors, the firehouse, various bars and other businesses that were on the traveled route from New City to Pearl River and New Jersey, and from Suffern and Nyack. Route 59 and Middletown Road, the junction where Ellen’s house stood, became a crossroads, the well-known “Four Corners” commerce magnet that brought Nanuet the slogan, “The Hub of Rockland County.”

All this growth existed in 1948 when Ellen Ferretti was 33 and the TV antenna went up, signaling more change. Progress to that point was welcome, for the country life of a small hamlet had come to be steady and dependable from 1900 to 1948.

It was not to be so in coming decades. While Ellen was watching Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason and John Cameron Swayze on her early, 13-inch TV set, developers and investors were talking to town supervisors and rudimentary planning and zoning boards to bring in suburban tract homes, strip shopping centers along Route 59 and Middletown Road and eventually an indoor shopping mall.

The community Ellen Ferretti knew in childhood and into her 30s, the hamlet of sufficient but not overwhelming commerce, of neighbors and shopkeepers who knew each other’s names, a land of great patches of evergreen trees, wetlands with cattails and turtles, began to adopt a new identity, one defined by decade rather than century, one today that is seeking permanent description. Gone first was the small filling station, the one the Yatto family operated. The bakery left, the library went from storefront to a large building many streets away from downtown, on a campus where a middle school and high school were soon necessary. The Nanuet Mall was built, and its future expansion included an offer to buy the Ferretti home.
Route 59 and Middletown Road were widened and widened again, so much so that even Ellen could no longer walk in the old relative safety. Grand, old homes were torn down and there rose bagel shops, dry cleaners, fast-food joints and suburbia’s neon signs.

Ellen was saddened by the scope and swiftness of the change, of a “progress” that paved over her close-knit community and one that did not even promise stability to ease her loss. She would appear at Clarkstown Town Board meetings, sessions of the Nanuet Civic Association, at Historical Society of Rockland events, all to protest rapid growth, the loss of neighborliness, the appearance of litter incurred by careless shoppers and absentee landlords.

Before she passed away recently at 91, Ellen became a living statue in Nanuet, a symbol of the cry – mostly unheeded — for reasonable growth with responsible change. In her time, she would outlive the Nanuet Mall, now mostly empty stores because a bigger shopping center was built a few miles away, and there were many other stores elsewhere anyway.

Ellen Ferretti is now recalled as the champion of resistance to poorly planned change, overgrowth for the sake of speculation and profit, future consequences ignored. Her unheeded warnings and predictions are today revealed in the empty stores, in heavy traffic, in the high taxes of a suburbia that cannot sustain itself and knows not its future.

TV signals no longer come through Ellen’s 1948 antenna, and there is no variety show to take you from the day’s cares, but there is fiber-optic, 350-channel television, with much analysis from talking heads about an economy grown too fast on spindly legs.

Ellen Ferretti saw that long before the fact, and all she had was a primitive television connected to a rooftop aerial.

July 21, 2008

Pebbles in the stream

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – Life as we know it has mysterious moments – connections to other people, other times – that pop up as pebbles and stones thrown into the streams of our ordinary rhythm. You are nudged away from your daydreaming in that rippling.

That can be unnerving but also reaffirming, too, for it reminds you that this journey is not of one person alone – yourself – but others before you. Someday you will be the “other” to those after you since human existence, while not yet the sum total of all who have ever lived, is the accumulating total.

We’ve all had our “déjà vu” moments when it seems we have said or done or experienced the exact same thought, act or emotion in precisely the same way – precise longitude and latitude – as some other time. But we can’t see how we ever said or did whatever before.

We also receive brain pictures of loved ones gone, clear as a bell, almost as if you could touch the individual. A 120-volt, surefire connection, gone in a millisecond.

Or we walk into our garage and for a second or two actually smell the place at a grandfather’s home, not recalled in 50 years. It is your garage, with the gathered scent of your own stuff, not your relative’s. Yet the aroma is unmistakable. It does not linger though.

All stones thrown in the stream or reflective pond of your being, and who knows why?

In Upper Nyack this past Sunday, with my son Arthur, his wife Laura and grandson Sam gone with friends to Cape Cod, Mass., I was detached from my own home repairs to fix a “scupper” at the son’s home. A gutter downspout was misdirecting water past the scupper, a piece of metal for guiding water flow.

I was able to fashion a bit of tin with shears and screw that to the scupper for the fix.

As I was doing the job, I was acutely aware that the 1929 house was built by a Mr. Lewis for one of his daughters, who married into the Buckout family. My son bought the home from them. Mr. Lewis was a tinsmith, you see, and I wondered aloud whether he would wince at my own relatively crude fashioning of a material he so well shaped. And I was working on the home he helped build.

I also thought of a distant great uncle in my own family, Hugh Bonner, who began working life as a tinsmith and then became fire commissioner of New York City in 1908, 100 years ago.

More pebbles in that stream.

July 14, 2008

Hearing from the people

This web column, now almost two years in the offering, doesn’t generate much comment, but neither did The Column Rule, the weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) essay I penned for The Journal News from 1981-2006, when I retired. Yet I wrote and write not for response anyway, so it’s cool.

After some 2,600 columns, 3,000 editorials and a few news articles and perspective pieces at the newspaper and some 100 web columns, I can report that while writing once brought me an income, it also was and is my own way of life – like brushing teeth, eating, taking a walk, getting through the day. I would feel lost without the exercise if I didn’t at least try to string words together. It is something I must do.

That given, it is indulgence on the reader’s part to catch those words, and I am grateful. I can say I seek no audience, yet no writer can truthfully claim that for ego often triumphs the practice of the craft. The occasional feedback supports that view, since if I reach someone in a column, if I have shared a similar experience, even if I were raised in Rockland County, N.Y., and the reader in Canarsie or Schenectady or San Jose, and I learn about it, it makes my day, sometimes for a few days.

It is, I suppose, like the teacher who instructs and instructs, then suddenly he or she hears a student repeat part of a lesson as if it were the student’s own thought, in his words. Quite rewarding.

Yet such return on the investment cannot be forced. You cannot seek feedback. You cannot wear a sign that reads “Do I Teach Well? Or “Did My Words Make a Connection?”

The links are forged nonetheless. I occasionally run into someone who recalls a column I wrote, say in 1984 or 1996, or even one thought lost in space on the great big web.

For example, just recently I heard from old Spring Valleyite George Toth, who was responding to an Internet piece June 16, “Plums in season,” about a youngster’s 1950s walk home in the rain and a dash into the Main Street storefront A&P for fresh plums.

George write me in an e-mail: “I’ll bet that boy wished he could go up to the print shop on the corner, reach into that outside cooler and retrieve a nice cold soda.” He was reminding me of another Valley youngster favorite. That memory strayed with me all week.

Another message I received was from Tim Dunn, a Spring Valley police officer for 22 years, who had read my Column Rule pieces in The Journal News. He is the unofficial department historian.
Tim is looking for photographs of the department and village activities from the 1920s through the 1950s.

He steered me again to some great old paintings of Valley scenes during World War II, including the Home Guard drilling at the high school, holiday package wrapping at the American Legion, etc., which are now at the Finkelstein Library in the village.

The officer reminded me of such great SVPD names as Chiefs Burt Durie and Leo Lunney, and I thought of Chiefs Adam Krainak and Cliff Tallman, and Valley people like the Haubners, Snedens, Mellions, Sherwoods and Eckersons.

I thank Tim Dunn and George Toth for reconnecting me with my boyhood past. That’s something I try to do in my writing, so having the tables turned on me was a nice feedback treat.

July 7, 2008

Going to the movies

Ridgewood, N.J. – Once there was a time in America when a lazy, hot, humid, early Sunday afternoon might take you away from the backyard hammock and make you mosey to the movie theater.

In my own long-go Sunday time of such bent, we would walk or be driven by parents from the outskirts of Spring Valley, N.Y., to the, well, Valley Theatre, and there see, for 14 cents each “Stalag 17” or “The Black Shield of Falworth.” Even at 25 cents in the late 1950s, “Bridge on the River Kwai” or “On the Beach” could be enjoyed, plus a newsreel, travelogue and cartoons. In air-conditioned space, too.

That sort of Sunday fun quickly became extinct in my life when cars, dates and work and school and then home and family gave me new weekend routines. Watching from stage left, with a tear in its eye, was the Valley Theatre, which along with almost every Bijou in small-town America shuttered the doors for lack of attendance after competition from TV, then the computer and the busy-SUV-driven way of life. And because Sundays became other moments in another age.

So, it was with a bit of nostalgia and surprise that we even thought of Sunday movies this past weekend. But we did, getting in a car to drive 11 convoluted miles to Ridgewood, N.J., to a very old theater on the main drag that began life as an ornate film palace in a posh town of the 1920s.

The ornateness is gone, and the house is now a four-plex, with walls thin enough to hear the action adventure next door. On the up side, it is clean, comfortable and most of all, it is not in a mall. We could have gone 1.5 miles to see the same film, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” at a nearby mega shopping center, but on weekends the place is Coney Island North, a carnival stop off the interstate. I refuse to be a victim of crowd assault.

The run to Ridgewood in the heavy suburban traffic of parts of the Northeast can take 45 minutes to reach — and this is one of the reasons why Sunday movies haven’t been thought of in years — but on this holiday weekend, the run was quite fast, even enjoyable.

A flood of feelings came over us as we parked the car downtown and walked with others to the theater. It was Spring Valley’s Sunday once again, decades later. The cost is now $10.50 and not 14 cents, but there was a $2 break for having lived in two different worlds long enough to become senior citizens.

After the film, a walk on Ridgewood Avenue to window-shop, also an ancient tradition.

This was a day of reaffirmation for a time I thought was long lost.

June 30, 2008

Judy polished the Fourth Estate

People sometimes see newspapers and their reporters as barely tolerable, often loathsome entities exaggerating stories for thrill and profit under First Amendment protection. But papers also tell the truth, and they save a life or two and often show that other creature of the Constitution – the politician – in costly failure.

Love ’em, hate ’em – we all need an ink-stained wretch in our lives. For as much as we aim for the messenger, the real target he or she carries is news that really can, on occasion, save our democracy. Daily, it’s the idealism of “The Front Page” versus a half-baked or inadequately reported story, but at the end of the day, the better bargain is to tolerate newspapers.

“The Front Page,” a 1928 Broadway play and subsequent film treatments, was co-written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, once of Chicago and then later and for all eternity of Rockland County, N.Y. Centered on the Chicago trade, the zaniness, media competition, oddball characters and the mighty draw of printers’ ink was as vitally present in The Journal-News city room at 53 Hudson Ave., Nyack, as it was in the criminal courts press room in the windy city.

In its 119-year history, The Journal-News has carried stories by many reporters who could have fit the mold of Hildy Johnson, the smart, inquisitive reporter who is central to “The Front Page” and its four movie versions. But one female scribe stands out in that role: Judy Grande.

She was the double of Hildy (Rosalind Russell in the 1940 “His Girl Friday”). This young Journal News reporter, who sweated out the trials and demands of political and municipal beats in the late 1970s, was consumed by answering the “who, what, when, where, how and why” of redemptive newspapering. She spotted stories where others did not, such as contaminated private wells in West Nyack, and followed leads, asking tough questions of polluting industry and evasive politicians. A mob contract for her nosiness was mentioned.

Ms. Grande’s critics contended that she was just “selling papers” with her inquisitive street digging and reporting, but Judy simply smelled a rat by nature and sought to tell the truth.

Elegantly articulate, Judy Grande was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and finalist for a Journal-News series headlined “Getting Away with Murder.” She would leave the newspaper in the early 1980s to work in the Washington Bureau of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to become president of the National Press Club and to have a daughter with Brian Gallagher, her newsman husband.

Gone now at the quite early age of 58, succumbing to a battle with cancer that even her probing words could not win, a spot is being made in a city room somewhere for the next Hildy Johnson, the next Judy Grande, who will again put the polish on what is good and necessary about newspapers.

June 23, 2008

In California, for a time

When I was in New York City a few weeks ago, I sat on a bench near a river, in a big park, looking at the passersby, as is my wont, and taking in Gotham’s weekend relaxation, which is busy and intense but also quite apart from the weekend hectic pace. When I got up to reenter the urban streets and continue walking downtown, I did not realize that part of me would be flying to California.

And I wouldn’t even know it.

I did understand pretty quickly that something had dropped out of my pocket – my last press card, issued by my once employer of 42 years, The Journal News, so that I could get past police and fire lines to do my job.

I am retired now for almost two years, and the card is no longer valid, but it was attached to me for so long that I feel naked without the reminder of a mutually fruitful association.

When you are retired, or so it goes with me, you know you are on the outside, watching the productivity of someone else, and at times you wonder if you were ever there. You may have earned your stripes and all that, you may have left for the pasture having served well, with a sincere pat on the back besides the requisite gold watch, but you are also not on-duty anymore. Perhaps it has to be, but it is still not easy for some of us to look back at the closed door.

When I heard the lock click on July 28, 1996, I reached in my pocket to feel the last identity card, complete with photograph of a younger person and the key word “PRESS” on the front. At least I had a touchable link to a time that was.

But I lost that link in a park in busy New York City, on a beautiful spring day, the pocket of a new pair of pants too shallow to hold everything.

Of course, I could have put the card in a wallet and secured that in a button-down pocket, But I am often without ordinary sense, and I wanted to feel the card anyway.

When I reached for the card as I walked down Fifth Avenue and could not find it, I understood that, like the old job, it, too, was gone. In a strangely comforting way, I accepted that instantly. A pang for the loss, yes, but also some relief that I would no longer be touching the past in my pocket. It was – is – a good past, and I should have no regrets. I felt that I was instructed to move on.

Some weeks later, though, the past caught up with me. The old press card, that long attachment to my being, was mailed to me by a wonderful woman who lives in San Jose, California. Ilene Levine found the card in Riverside Park in New York City, an old stretch of beauty near the Hudson River.

She took it back West with her and then went to the trouble of mailing it to the address given on the card, the newspaper’s general offices in White Plains, N.Y. That mailing found its way across the Hudson to West Nyack, where I last worked, and Nancy Cutler, my successor as editorial page editor, called and said she would leave it for me to pick up.

I have never been to California, but part of me made the trip. And with an obviously delightful lady.

Thank you, Ilene Levine, for spotting the card and taking the trouble to send it back. It remains on my desk at this point, not yet back in my pocket, and maybe that is to the good. I do look at it, though.

Thank you.

June 16, 2008

Plums in season

Once upon a time – and this seems a fairy tale of sorts – a 14-year-old youngster with a huge quarter in his pocket – more money than he touched in an average year – found himself in a sudden heavy June downpour on a village street, under the awning of a storefront A&P.

Now – and I told you this is a bit of a fairy tale – storefront supermarkets are today’s memories, as are a lot of village downtowns. And a quarter isn’t much to most kids in 2008.

But this story is circa 1957, and plums cost about 14 cents per pound. A quarter brought you perhaps five luscious red ones, so sweetly juicy that you were beyond even candy heaven when you bit into them. Good ‘N’ Plenty or a Mars bar might rush Grandma’s admonition into your head – “You’re going to get cavities” – but she was always telling you to eat fruit.

The awning under which the 14-year-old huddled with other walkers in the downpour made the dim incandescent bulbs in the A&P shine more directly inside and tempt a youngster to look within. The quarter that had been a pocket buddy for a week now, made shiny by much fingering, caused an ever bigger bulb to go off in the youngster’s head. He went into the market, saw the plums, read the sign, “14 cents per pound,” and picked up a few, moving over to the weighing scale his dad had used when they went to the market.

The scale didn’t seem difficult, though the young man had never used one, nor had he ever bought plums, nor had he ever purchased anything in a supermarket.

A day-dreamer in the eighth and other grades, he nevertheless had absorbed enough basic knowledge and arithmetic to know how many ounces were in a pound and that at 14 cents per pound, he could get nearly two pounds of plums for his 25 cents.

He weighed the fruit, determined how much he could buy and took it to a sales clerk in a brown paper bag – no plastic ones yet. The woman at the hand-operated register put the plums on her own scale and used that calculation plus the figures she had in her head for the daily produce charges to arrive at the total cost, after pounding a succession of keys. No tax, and that is no fairy tale.

The cost was 23 cents, and the young fellow took his bag of plums, feeling awfully grown up in the process. The summer rain was kept away by the awning long enough to stand in front of the storefront A&P and devour the fruit in rapid order. The boy then continued his journey home, now with two pennies in his pocket, soon to be made as shiny as was the quarter. The money would eventually buy one Bachman straight pretzel.

More than fruit was digested that day in a long-ago time, in what seems like a fairy tale but which was not.

June 9, 2008

The well-worn church door

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – There has been knocking at church doors during the presidential primary campaign, with inflammatory preaching and its potential for influencing candidates who belong to the faith. It has been media-stirred, this frenzied and politically leveraged hubbub. But most houses of worship never hear such a rap at their doors.

In Spring Valley, in this lower New York State village once a rural farming community and now of the diverse suburbs, there has long been other knocking at church doors, those first opened in the 1860s to Dutch Reform worshippers. The set of doors at United Church has stood as thick and strong as the oak tree it was made from and which first grew in pre-America times.

The passageway is enduring testimony to what – well – endures. The doors have opened and closed so many thousands of times without fail, without a slam to those who might enter, its cast iron hinges still tight to frame as if by divine will.

Politics comes in its season, but the door to any house of worship opens both before and after the rhetoric and the playing out of any November’s attempt at democracy’s sustenance, even rebirth.

In our nation’s many and varied houses of worship, there are baptisms, Jewish and Muslim circumcisions, marriages, funerals and most sacred religious holidays observed, and no political talk by any one religious leader stands beyond the enduring moments of those rites and practices.

Some national commentators would paint an entire church or synagogue or mosque with the perceived color given to one of its congregations by virtue of the pastor’s talk. If a candidate belongs to a church and the spiritual leader is fiery to the point of being tastelessly outrageous, the candidate therefore must also be that sort, or so it goes.

Yet nothing is black or white. There are so many shades in between, and even the believer in such a congregation is not a clone of the pastor. The free-thinking, common sense American knows that and also understands that any one church or synagogue or mosque, with its particular set of worshippers, is but a part of the whole. Beyond fiery speeches, there is day-to-day good work behind every church door.

For example, at United Church, Spring Valley, all are welcomed, and there is great diversity because of that. Space is provided for day care programs, breakfast is made for the poor, outreach is given to many. The good works — the why of a house of worship — are performed here.

It is tempting to paint any religious group with a broad brush in the heat of politics and in the opportunity to push prejudice that lurks as a disease ready to chomp and grow on the bacteria of hate.

The easy and readily available way to counter that is to knock at the door of any house of worship, at the old United Church in Spring Valley or at a new mosque in Chicago. Or anywhere and everywhere.

Come November, we will have a new president-elect and whatever else that means for the nation. But that is of a season alone. Not so behind the church door. Such good work happens whether the pulpit is occupied or not.

Old, young, vice-versa

WESTWOOD, N.J. — I was a bit younger after I pulled out of the gas station last week, drawn there by the $3.87/gallon regular price, though I still kissed $16 goodbye.

That most recent moola shipment to Profit, Inc. – the greedy oil mongers and their grossly speculating shills – was on my mind as I got ready to start my engine and begin burning more gas, though my hybrid car (a Prius) is not so thirsty as, say, the Hummer, a vehicle that should be banned not only for wasting energy but for counterfeiting the brave military who drive the real thing. It’s like wearing a medal not earned.

I was made younger in the filling station by a, well, young fellow, who after he filled my tank, pointed to his Pontiac GTO, 1979, white, big V8, dual exhaust, and made mention that I’d go a lot farther in my car than he would.

“Yes,” I said. “But yours is much more fun to drive.” A truth, surely, and a metaphor in my life, some 40 years ahead of the young attendant’s. He’s more agile, faster and has more energy in half his being than I do, and we aren’t including the cars.

Yet this fellow, who by right of his age needs no fountain of youth, already had a glint in his eye toward the practical. And practical is what you become as you move the inevitable steps and steps away from the fountain.

You could see that he was thinking about economy, a more practical car, because his brain told him that is where the future is headed. (The hope is that for him and all the other young there will be cars at all.)

In that moment, for only a second, he jumped into the driver’s seat of my Prius and I was hitting 1,400 rpm in neutral in his white GTO. We quickly ended the exchange, for I could not assume his youth and all its promise, and he had no place at my age point, a plateau that I am comfortable with so far and which I have earned, thank you.

We said to each other, “Have a nice day,” and my car was quickly replaced by another at the gas pumps, its driver also eager to cash in on under-$4 fuel. Perhaps the young fellow would have a short conversation with that motorist, too, and so continue his life’s instruction, which usually comes in such small but important ways.

As for me, I was lighter on my feet that day.

May 26, 2008

The old Irish woman

In the weaving of family history, in the tapestry that we all make in our lives — whether we care about the past or not — there come unusual moments that are meant to be.

One involved this writer and my Irish ancestry on a recent weekend in New York City, at the corner of 96th St. and Amsterdam Avenue, in and just outside the Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church.

People were going up the stairs of this century-old Gothic structure in a section of Manhattan once called Bloomingdale and where, in the later 1800s, the successful began to build brownstones and other great homes. Now it is an area of mixed income, much diversity, beautiful old townhouses and some awful condominium towers designed in the Soviet block style.

The day I was there, the church was offering Mass in Spanish, and the Mexican-style music was stirring. Outside the church, a petite, groomed but apparently poor woman of obvious Irish lineage sat on a bench, all alone, in good posture, her hands together. As passersby walked to the church or up and down Amsterdam, this old lady, as much a part of the 2008 Upper West Side as are Lexus automobiles and nannies, asked for alms, a handout.

I paid little attention as I walked to the church, the inside of which I was eager to see. I paid no mind since I am an easy mark, and I sometimes check myself. Was she going to use any money I gave her for booze? Did she already have cash in her pockets and was she there, alone on this bench in front of a church at service time, as part of a Sunday ritual? Did she go from church to church, sitting groomed but apparently poor, ready to cash in after a plaintive squeak to easy marks?

That sort of instant logic made me walk past her, my eyes downcast in some doubt and guilt, and I went into Holy Name to see a magnificent edifice, the same church from which Hugh Bonner, the 1908 fire commissioner of the City of New York, was buried in a grand funeral 100 years ago.

Commissioner Bonner, who was also the New York City Fire Department’s first chief, and to whom I am related by way of my Grandmother Mary (Bonner) Lyons, was an Irish immigrant, arriving here at 8 in 1848, a lad who escaped the potato blight and Irish Famine, who grew up in the ultra-tough, crime-infested, gang-laden Five Points section of Lower Manhattan. He was one of the Irish who escaped poverty, became a tinsmith and volunteer firefighter and then one of Gotham’s first paid firemen.

Hugh Bonner did his ancestry proud, New York too, when he saved 30 people in a structure fire at Barclay Street, organized the first fire training academy and helped invent the lifesaving net, the water tower and various other devices for getting to the heart of a blaze quickly. His last service before he succumbed to pneumonia, contacted on the job in a chilly March fire, was to replace rotten hose that the politically connected had forced on the FDNY.

On my own trip to Holy Name, I went to see where Hugh Bonner was rightly memorialized for a life he himself built. I left stirred by my own connection to this man, a blood link that I have by fate but which, nevertheless, is part of the tapestry of life I have long been weaving.

As I left, still on the bench outside the church was the woman with the Irish face, who for all I know, may also be a long-ago relation. Her light cry could still be heard, and this time I gave, whether the lady had need or not. She replied, as I touched her thin and bony shoulder, “God bless you, sir.”

I had a tear in my eye as I walked across Amsterdam, headed for Central Park a few streets away, leaving behind the concrete evidence of my Irish ancestry but taking with me more thread for the tapestry.

After Hugh Bonner, not all members of the family would fare so well, falling on hard times and some alcoholism. A grandmother dead at 32, sick after the birth of 13 children; a grandfather to pass away in the 1930s, in part the victim of drink. A mother left orphaned at 8, raised here and there by family and not, who would be as successful in her hard working life, in raising my brother and me, as was her relative Hugh Bonner in his esteemed service.

I saw so much of my ancestry that Sunday along Amsterdam Avenue, in a church and outside a church, and the tear in my eye was for the sum of it all, high and low.

May 19, 2008

Double the pride

If I could double-dateline this piece, it would be Central Park, New York City, and the Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, where my sons, Arthur 4th and Andrew Edward, competed, respectively, in a 10k race and a triathlon this past weekend.

“Double” is a keyword here, for my pride is already double. My boys, now very grown men, have gained not only success in their family and professional lives but have remained stalwart competitors in road racing and, in Andrew’s case, biking and swimming, too.

If I could have been in double the places I was, I would have seen Andrew complete the Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon in 5 hours and nine minutes, with a 270th placement in a field of 1,995, putting him in the top 14 percent, and as number 45 among the 254 competitors in his 30-34 age group, in the top 6 percent there.

Ask Andrew, as his brother did by phone from New York to Florida moments after the triathlon was over Sunday, and he will tell you he wasn’t happy with his performance, although his father and mother surely are.

If someone swims 1.2 miles in 36 minutes, then immediately hops onto a bicycle and pedals for 56 straight miles in two hours and 37 minutes, then gets off and runs 13.1 miles in 1 hour and 50 minutes and manages to reach the finish line, how can you not be pleased? Andrew more than made the finish line. Some 1,725 people came after him, thank you.

On Saturday at the New York Road Runners’ Healthy Kidney 10k, Arthur 4th finished 22nd in a field of 6,273, running the race in 31:21 with a mile pace of 5:03. At age 36, with a gazillion races under his belt since he was in middle school, this Upper Nyack, N.Y., fellow also can boast. But predictably, he felt he could have done better. “Have to work on those abs,” he told me as I walked with him across Central Park West and onto 70th St. just after the race. His abs are already so flat and tight that Ringo could play a drum set there.

I have been hearing such post-race self-criticism from both these fine fellows for decades now. I hope they know that if I could have come anywhere near their performance when I was in Spring Valley High School, and even if my father, a better runner than I, could have matched their marks back in the 1930s, we would both be super happy.

Parents are supposed to be proud of their children – even when the kids are adults – and we should all be forgiven for politely passing around the family photos. But, since so little true, stated emotion passes as words between father and son, the immense pride a parent feels usually has to be stated in a nod, a glance, a smile, a pat on the back but mostly in what you say to others out of the sons’ hearing distance.

I am humbled by the living experience of these two men. There, I said it.

May 12, 2008

In the park

CENTRAL PARK – Other towns have a park that is central to their geography and that might even be given the proper noun, but in all the world, there is just one real Central Park, the oasis in Manhattan.

This famous, 150-year-old spot of available sanity in the midst of fast-paced Gotham is as anonymous as a park can get. People ignore you because, well, the Park is in one of the five boroughs of New York City, and you are ignored in any of them. That’s the New York way.

So, you can leave the hustle of Fifth Avenue or Central Park West or the side streets from East and West 110th to East and West 59th; you can emerge from the subway; you can walk from your car having spent many minutes locating parking – you can do all these things and enter Central Park and instantly feel that you have escaped and that you are now in a protected area, the door closed to the outside.

Whether it’s a walk around the old, old Bridal Path with a friend, the two of you in chock-full conversation drawn from a deep well; whether you are jogging around the reservoir; sitting on a bench as the pigeons keep you company; watching the sailboats at the Bethesda Fountain; participating in a road race; visiting the Children’s Zoo; reflecting at the John Lennon tribute area (Strawberry Fields) or lounging on the Great Lawn, there is never-ending opportunity to enter another dimension, to leave everything else behind. Forget the job, the economic situation, perhaps health matters, relationship concerns, the world’s problems.

Instead, thank landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and others for turning a marsh and a shantytown into landscape that is architecturally beautiful, with its rocks, trees, shrubbery, lawns, water sites, beautiful bridges, walking and riding trails, Tavern on the Green and the beauty of the seasons.

Thank heaven Central Park was crafted. Imagine busy Manhattan, busy New York City, with its constant noise, heavy traffic, sometime pollution and absolutely frenetic pace without a quiet zone. Central Park is like the “quiet time” your early teachers called whenever the class became overly zestful and on the edge. Only this quiet time has been for millions of visitors into the third century now.

The Park’s greatest gift is that it leaves you alone and encourages all living things to do the same. You can walk in your thoughts; in your conversation with another; you can sit and read; you can sail a toy boat; you can watch the animals; you can put your I-Pod earphones on and get lost in music. You can do all this and not be stared at, not noticed by anyone. Even the animals, so used to humans that they come close, respect your privacy. If you have nothing for them, they go to another subject.

The unwritten rule of Central Park is to do no harm to another. The sense is that we all need to step off a Fifth Avenue or a 96th Street in our lives and take an emotional bath in the anonymity of beautiful Central Park.

The gods have protected this oasis for so many over numerous decades, including times of deep neglect. But now the Central Park Conservancy is in charge and maintaining it well for the present and the future, for those who need a break and seek reaffirmation of faith, friendship and the other important things in life.

Need a break? Visit Central Park.

May 5, 2008

SPRING’S SPECIAL VISIT

Like the synchronization between two people in love, a spring with full, colorful bloom and frequent, gentle, soft rain can be a marriage of earthly conditions and God’s soul that proves most fertile. And it doesn’t happen often enough.

But this year, in this spring season in my part of the lower Northeast, nature has been offering just the right moisture and sun and temperature so that the dogwoods, magnolias, pear, apple and cherry trees are awakening fully, even magnificently, from a mild winter.

A walk in the light spray that has been our rain makes you forget the higher and higher gasoline prices because it makes you forget cars. You don’t feel the tingle of the rain in cars – you fight the water with your windshield wipers, rushing off to the next task.

In quite a few years past, spring has been rushing, too, stopping by for just a day or week here and there, never really casting off a heavy winter coat and still yawning from hibernation. Its color has not been as deep and remarkable as in 2008, its rain a downpour that reminds homeowners of the poor municipal planning which filled in wetlands and gave them flooded basements.

Like the lover you wanted her to be, this season’s spring really likes you and is not rushing off in fickleness to a hot summer romance with, well, summer. She stays because this is where she wants to be.

Her time to go will come, of course, for no relationship is of one season alone. Yet in this year’s lingering, in the sensuality of an unforced rain and a rainbow of Heaven’s colors, there has been the true message of spring: a reawakening.

Summer may prove hot, humid and unbearable; fall may drop its leaves too late; and winter may be icy, but spring has been magnificent, and the cup has been filled for a long and lasting sip.

Concklin orchards, Pomoma, N.Y. Spring 2008

April 28, 2008

MOM DOESN’T HAVE A CHANCE

Here I was in this palace of home repair goods, with a king’s ransom for bolts and nails and other ordinary things that a few decades ago would have cost just pennies, available at a friendly local hardware store and never requiring a superdupermarket-like cart.

I had the cart because, you know, there’s eye candy all about for a hapless fellow with home redesign and repair lust and a credit card not yet at the max (though the gas pumps almost did that on the way to the palace). You just never know what you might need from aisle three or aisle 15.

As I kaplunked, kaplunked, kaplunked down aisle 7, looking for what I came to buy – an electrical box called “old work,” though I was seeking a new box for new work but in a not-new house – I spotted a familiar product, a “keyed receptacle,” which is to say a light socket.

You know, the type that is brass or silver in color (no longer actual brass or nickel-plated brass), which you use to repair a lamp. My first electrical job, in the sixth grade, was fixing a lamp for my mother without telling her beforehand. I gladly biked down to my town’s main street, about two miles away, to buy a light socket at the five and ten with a quarter long made shiny by holding it, and only it, in my pocket. But, gee, Mom’s kid was going to fix her lamp. A big deal for me in 1954.

There it was, in the five and ten, in a glass-walled section on a large goods table, next to another section full of light switches. My section was clearly marked “keyed receptacles,” and I have never forgotten that cool term. Somehow seems more precise than an “old work box” for new work.

Holding that long-ago thought, I returned to earth, 2008, as the wheel fell off my home repair store cart, the one not meant to haul food for the body but goodies for the home repair stud. It fell off right at the shelf holding the keyed receptacles, which were as clearly marked as this part had been more than half a century ago. Ah, but the cost: $6.29. The brass coloring was already flaking off the aluminum casing, and I could read that it was not made in the US but by China, the US banker.

With time on my hands, since the cart was on just three wheels and I could not resume my big-eyed search, I wondered why a light socket made in a nation that still pays its workers little, or in fact sometimes uses prison labor, would cost so many times what I forked over for a real brass, real sturdy keyed receptacle years back? Even given inflation, it seemed a bit much.

I had to abandon my thoughts and my cart in aisle 7 because the home repair outlet equivalent of an automobile flat tire brought no in-store assistance. I had to move on.

Sans cart, and after a bit of searching, I located the old work box that I needed for new work, queued up on one of two lines open in a bank of 12 registers, paid cash to a nice day dreamer who seemed annoyed that I was not using a credit card and headed home, wondering how many young fellows and gals eager to fix their mom’s broken lamps would have to pass on the opportunity. Keyed receptacles cost too much today, and you don’t bike “downtown” to a home improvement store.

Too many purchases + a cheaply made cart = my broken wheel, and too much “progress” + a greedy search for profit, profit, profit = the higher cost and lowered quality of a keyed receptacle.

Therein lies societal change.

April 21, 2008

THE OLD BACKYARDS

When I was a little boy in Spring Valley, N.Y., my grandfather would take me on a walk, just a simple jaunt down Ternure Avenue, across Cole, a right on Alturas, left on West and a swing onto Maple. A tall man’s stride accommodated the perpetual motion of a youngster’s swinging legs, as if the difference in ages had geared up speed from the first to the third generation.

What I recall most from those few walks, during World War II when my mother and brother Craig and I were living with my grandparents, was the green lawns and the vivid colors of the dogwoods, magnolias, cherry and pear blossoms. I didn’t know all my colors, nor did I understand tree varieties, but the smashing look of that explosion of reds, greens, whites, pinks and browns, plus the early spring air’s light breath of new growth made me think I was already where my mother promised I would be if I were a good boy all my life: Heaven.

In the many decades since those walks, I have had a few dreams about that sort of Heaven, and I remain convinced that I was actually there back in Spring Valley.

In these parts, before a big bridge was built over a big river; before suburban tract homes outnumbered the ancient apple trees; before landscaping services with a cacophony of gas-powered machines were required at almost every home; before rock gardens and waterfalls and Roman statues covered McMansion lots, there was the old and true backyard.

My grandfather had one, at 14 Ternure. Mowed it by hand he did and trimmed the moss from the sidewalk joints with a paring knife he kept in the garage, a duty he passed to this grandson.

Gramps had a cherry tree, which Craig and I climbed in for the June harvest, and there was a large “Victory” vegetable garden, to help supplement war rationing. A canvas swing was moored from two trees, and the empty, detached garage smelled of grass clippings stored for later composting, a structure emptied by limited gas availability – some three or four gallons per week for the average driver. So, the car was sold and my grandfather walked two miles down the hill to work and two miles back up the hill to home.

A spring’s evening would, if May temperatures held and with War Savings Time assisting, encourage my grandparents and my mom, brother and I to sit on the porch or in lawn chairs after supper.

What do young children think about in lawn chairs or on porches? I remember the green and relatively unadorned lawn, neatly trimmed, a tree here and there, a bush or two or three adding the desired horizontal architectural landscape line. You could sit in those wooden chairs, my grandmother talking to my mother, my grandfather reading his paper (a day’s requirement for him), and immensely enjoy the utter quiet. No cars zooming past; no machinery of any sort; no sounds of neighbors yelling that the barbecue is ready, and none of the outdoor smoke and food odors either.

You could just daydream, gazing onto other people’s basic greenery or into the woods that always seemed nearby.

My grandfather, finished with his paper, would then ask me, sometimes my younger brother, too, if we wanted to take a walk. And there we would go, to see more lawns and colorful trees and bushes and a neighbor or two or three.

I don’t know what a child’s pulse is in these days of hurry-up and overbooking of activities, video games, car noise, lawnmower zoom-zoom and the shouting of a society that needs a rest, but in 1944, mine was probably not over 60 beats per minute, except, perhaps, from seeing nature’s beauty.

What would you expect, though? I was in Heaven.

April 14, 2008

What’s in a name, a place?

ROCKLAND, N.Y. — This county, the smallest geographically in the state outside the five boroughs of New York City, is more than 200 years old. Like every community in this nation of ours, it is jam packed with history, famous people, even more notable ordinary folk, characters, highlights and oddities, and a spirit that compels some to remain here forever and which chases others away.

The county is the site of the July 4, 1774, Orangetown Resolutions, which stated a people’s intent to be free and
set up the Declaration of Independence two years later. It is where the first long-distance American railroad began in the late 1840s, opening up a stream of goods to the West and helping fuel Manifest Destiny. Now Rockland is in part a suburb of New York City, but before that was Indian land, Dutch land, English land.

At least eight of George Washington’s 118 Revolutionary War headquarters were in what became Rockland, then a part of Orange County — including the famed DeWint House in Tappan.

That historic hamlet also figures in so much of our nation’s history. It has, for example, heard the death-march cadence for Maj. John André, convicted as a British spy in 1780. And there was fife and drum for Sir Guy Carleton’s meeting with Gen. George Washington, when in 1783 the British recognized our new United States. A gun salute was fired from a British ship in the Hudson River off Piermont to mark the meeting, the first official sign of respect.

The Hudson itself is now nearing its quadricentennial, 400 years since the September 14, 1609, arrival of Hendrik Hudson at the shores of the Tappan Zee.

Rockland was initially called Orange because in 1664, all the territory in North America lying between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers was given to James, the Duke of York, by his brother King Charles II of England. The Duke was closely connected by marriage to the House of Orange, a name he extended to this particular section of his New World domain. A name that remained until 1798, when growing differences in political philosophy, in trade and in general outlook saw the lower part of Orange County set off as Rockland.

The name is obvious to any landowner who has ever tried to dig a garden here.

Before the white man arrived, the land that became Orange and Rockland counties was home to such Native American tribes as the Nyacks, the Munsi, the Tappan, the Haverstraw, the Lenni Lenape and the Nyacks.

Our rich history has included iron mines in the Ramapos; basketry among the mountain people; manufacturing in the Nyacks, Pearl River and Ramapo; brickmaking in North Rockland, which supplied most of New York City’s tenement clay; truck farming and, of course, apple and peach orchards, the very best in New York state.

We’ve had our share of fine actors and musicians and artists and inventors. Our service clubs and societies have been there for every cause in every decade.

Rockland’s geography includes glacially formed mountains and valleys, marsh land, deep woods and several main rivers and numerous streams. The beauty of the four seasons is felt here deeply, with spring’s rain misting your soul; summer evening breezes a welcome relief; fall’s colors outstanding; and winter’s chill a fine time to take a walk in the parks and trails that we enjoy.

We have long been called the “bedroom of New York,” since so many, even the ancestors of long-time residents, hailed from the city on summer visits and came back after season to make lives.

Diversity in Rockland has been the byword from our beginning, with the Port of New York so very close and Rockland seen as opportunity. It has enriched us for centuries.

This county figured in the two world wars, with huge training and embarkation camps in Orangetown in each conflict. The D-day landings were literally staged in Orangeburg at Camp Shanks, with each fighting unit assembled in the order of battle.

Modern Rockland is a relative baby, born in December 1955 with the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the New York State Thruway at Nyack, on Hudson’s river. For some this crossing on the Eisenhower National Defense Highway network would come to mean a road to quieter, classier suburban living apart from the steamy high rises and noises and conflict in Gotham. For others it would be an opened gate to noisier times, with a reduced quality of life apart from the rural ways of pre-bridge Rockland.

The two philosophies have never been resolved, though most long-timers have accepted change after more than five decades and the original newcomers have become Rocklanders themselves, now also muttering about the present arrivals.

The bridge, assaulted by many times the planned traffic load for more than half a century, may be rebuilt as an even wider, busier crossing. If so, the potential impact in this new century is yet to be forecast. Will there be the reasonable growth and open space planning that never happened after the first cars crossed the Tappan Zee? Will diversity continue to bolster us all and make us better people, or will the new economic and social challenges in a frightened national “terrorist” atmosphere bring out the least desirable aspects of human nature?

In 1939, the wonderful World’s Fair, the brightest and most hopeful moment in the Great Depression but also part of the last international smiling before a terrible war, allowed “Rockland County Day” at the fair’s Queens site. An address was given by county notable Mary Mowbray-Clarke on June 19, some 73 days before the Nazi invasion of Poland.

She said: “We are of all races and origins (in this Rockland) and yet we have been able to build together in an age hurrying around us. …”

Yes, and so the same story continues with new chapters in this place called Rockland County, New York.

April 7, 2008

What the people know

Will Rogers’ gift was that he spoke to the common man as a common man, though the expression of his wisdom was anything but common.

He wandered around the nation during the Great Depression, offering aw shucks, self-depreciating humor, a shy man’s way of disarming the audience so that you would take his words at their honest meaning. And powerful meaning they offered, from this man you could trust.

There is an analogy today to those economic times but with tentacles in so many more places now. There is no Will Rogers to make light of what is serious, and in that way both give relief and put a spotlight on major issues that affect the ordinary person.

Yet, then as now, the people really knew best. There may have been Franklin D. Roosevelt brain trusts in Washington dedicated to experimental economics in hopes of ending a financially bad time, but the moms and the pops, the corner grocery man, the out-of-work factory fellow, the foreclosed-on dirt farmer – all could tell you what went wrong.

To a man and a woman, they knew government encouraged a heady stock market in the 1920s, that it looked the other way when more investors irresponsibly bought on margin and could not hope to cover their debt if they had to do so.

The people knew, too, that they and/or their neighbors bought into the materialism of the 1920s, gobbling up a new purchase plan called “time payment,” where you bought radios and household appliances with just a dollar down and a dollar a week, no questions asked about the ability to pay. OK in the bustling 1920s, but in the Depression these payments could not be met, and their total was huge. It helped worsen the debacle.

Government’s response was a plethora of direct-involvement agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. Some worked, some were ruled illegal or abandoned. Some the people wanted, for they wanted something. Some they did not, for their government, which did not listen in the first place, got bigger though its listen-to-the-people ears did not.

It took a world war and the post-war years dominated by the only nation with working factories to end the Depression and send the U.S. back to better times.

Today, after decades of onward and upward, despite more than enough recessions, the D.C. ears are still not cocked to the people, even though some former candidates listened to us on the stump when we elected the heads to which they are attached. But not in office.

Again, the economy is in trouble, also following heady times that saw gross, irresponsible real estate speculation, mortgages unsecured and overvalued and home equity loans used to pay for big cars, not house improvements. The government regulators could have cared less.

This time, our economy is tied much more closely to the world; we have no manufacturing base to return to; we owe billions deep into our grandchildren’s futures, to such nations as growing China; and we have a war fought perhaps for the right reason but in the wrong place by the wrong leaders, and just about by ourselves, a war that will also bleed the taxpayer not yet born.

Our energy prices are high, our energy policy non-existent. Health care costs, including drugs, are way above inflation, and food prices are joining them.

But I don’t need to tell you this. You’re the ordinary man and woman, the common folk. Will Rogers isn’t here anymore to comment for you, but he did say, and it is written: “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” Ears cocked, D.C.? Nah.

March 31, 2008

This short story was written for the children in Pam Farsetta’s first-grade class at the Lakewood School in Congers, N.Y. It was read to them recently by the author as part of “Relax and Read Day,” developed by Kathleen Schwartz.

League of the Quiet

It was cacophony, you see.
C-A-C-O-P-H-O-N-Y. Great noise, all about, everywhere. A person could not think. A person could not read. A person could not speak. Every kid in town had a head full of noise.

The televisions had no on and off switches and blared MTV, cartoon language and commercials 24 hours a day. Everyone’s laptop – and everyone had a laptop – played music and video games and would not turn off.

Mothers, even quiet ones, raised their voices. Dads were yelling at Little League umpires. Sisters were taunting brothers. Brothers were bouncing baseballs off walls.

Teachers scratched chalk to a high and long pitch on the chalkboards. Principals shouted at parents over the telephone. Parents answered back over their cell phones. Policemen used their whistles constantly. Firefighters could not shut their sirens.

Politicians talked without stopping, though no one noticed anything different. Trash collectors banged cans all day long. Restaurants banged pots. Drummers banged drums.

So, you see, it was cacophony, the Great Noise everywhere. It was a world crisis.

That would not do for Hiram, Esmerelda and Jules, buddies in and out of school, with Hiram the quiet, introspective one; Esmerelda the smart, witty problem solver; and Jules the fellow with the engineer’s mind.

For days now, in this world of noise, the three had to signal each other to be noticed, to communicate. Even when they found an isolated place to sit and talk, they had to shout. Esmerlda was not an easy shouter, though; and Hiram needed quiet more than most; Jules found loudness interfered with his thinking.

The three friends could not take it anymore, so they went to the school’s boiler room where the hiss of steam and the rush of gas firing the furnace would at least drown out the cacophony that was growing and growing in their school, in their town, in their state, in their nation, in the world.

“What are we to do,” asked Hiram. “Well,” said Esmerelda, “Let’s think this out. It seems we are the only people in this school, in this town, in this state, in this nation, in this world to be aware of the noise. It is up to us to restore the quiet. We need a solution.” “Solution?” Jules chimed in. “Solutions are what engineers work on.” Hiram added, “Hmm, I must ponder this within, deeply.”

The three buddies then went outside and sat down in the middle of a large field near the school, Hiram to think soulfully, Jules to ponder like an engineer and Esmerelda to think practical.

Hiram, who was first cousin to anything quiet, plugged his ears with cotton and put on a football helmet so he could concentrate on finding a cacophony-free zone. Jules began drawing a structure where the quiet could begin. Esmerelda told both of them, “I’m going to take a snooze over there under that pretty tree and wait for you two to wake me up with ideas.”

Hiram thought and thought and became so tired that he also went over to sit under Esmerelda’s tree and rest. Jules drew and drew and soon was awfully tired too, and he joined his buddies. Pretty soon, Hiram, Esmerelda and Jules had their backs against the tree trunk and were asleep, snoring loudly.

When one made a big sound after a deep breath, another exhaled in a different pitch and the third made another sound. This unique combination of snoring produced such a special frequency that a big — hugely big — sound wave began to grow and grow. The wave carried itself across a pond and then a field and then to the road and then to the highway, to this town and the next; to this state and the next; across the oceans to every nation in the world went this sound wave.

And suddenly there was a great pop! It became quiet everywhere. The hugely big snoring sound wave, begun under a small tree in Congers, N.Y., was enough to break the hold that the Great Noise had on the world.

This new Great Quiet awakened Hiram, Esmerelda and Jules, and the engineer among them realized what they had accomplished – by chance, yes, but also by their faith that they could end the Great Noise. They looked at one another, saying nothing, simply marveling in the moment caused by their snoring, which came after they tried so hard to find a solution while awake.

Finally Esmerelda said, “Let’s take a quiet walk back to our quiet school. We have not done that since I don’t know when.”

And that’s how the League of the Quiet began. Soon it had members and chapters worldwide. And while noise returned to the earth, it was less because quiet, too, had come back. People simply took rests under beautiful trees and snored.

March 24, 2008

Recalling a newspaperman

Yonkers, N.Y. – Every business — and newspapers are a business — has those guys and gals in harness who are the drag horses for the daily grunt work, the dependable types who pull on and on, who take the product where it has to go. The bosses come and go, these sometimes directionless executives with grand ideas, and the wagon being pulled may get an updated look, but in the long haul, it’s the strong horses who save everyone’s rear end.

Dave Hartley, a five-decade editor who hailed from his beloved Yonkers, a city just beyond the Bronx, and who served in various newspaper jobs for the Gannett corporation, passed away recently after cancer knocked him out of his front-row seat on the Editorial Page of The Journal News in Harrison, N.Y., a combined daily made up of various former community papers.

Dave would never have gotten up from his seat — for years on the “rim” of a newspaper layout desk and then at a computer — not for a lengthy vacation and almost never for a sick day had he not been hit by such a devastating blow.

His modus operandi was to show up at work early, before six, to actually read that day’s birth of news and then put his sneakers on so he could chase the next deadline.

Workman-like, Dave Hartley was always in motion, on the phone with mayors and then governors; doing page layout on the computer; writing headlines on copy he edited; finding holes in stories, as only a seasoned reporter long on the job could do; and writing edit after edit.

He thought he would do all this until they carried him out, maybe in his 80s. “Just leave me alone,” he requested of all the many bosses he had, and the job will more than get done. Leave me with this wonderful life, his very being would flash as a neon sign in the Damon Runyonesque existence that the ink-strained craft invites.

But that was not the –30- (end of story) that was to be in Dave Hartley’s life. Like the politicians, the characters, the ordinary people he wrote about over and over in his many years, Dave saw fate intervene. As with the raison d’etre arrived at in all his pieces, that same fate had already written his epitath, glowing and worth all the gold in the world to a newspaperman:

He made deadline.

March 17, 2008

Rockland’s ‘main street’

Rockland County, N.Y. — “Main street” defines existence, describes community character, is a route for movement and commerce. Hopes, dreams, birth, death – all of life travels on main street.

In Rockland, New York State’s smallest county geographically outside New York City’s five boroughs, “main street” is Route 59, the Nyack Turnpike that stretches from the mighty Hudson River at Nyack to the famed Orange Turnpike in Suffern. Since the 1820s, residents, merchants and visitors have plied the east-west route originally built through dense woods, low areas and up and down numerous ridges to transport factory goods from the Ramapos to shipping at Nyack.

A toll road until the Nyack Turnpike became part of the county system in 1894 and then renamed state highway 59 in 1911, the route has been widened and straightened numerous times in its 185-year run, with promises of more change to come, especially in the “bottomless swamp” at West Nyack where a large mall – Palisades Center – sits atop apparently deep pilings but with an underground parking lot that has sunk perhaps a foot in 10 years.

It is life itself, this Route 59, with two malls, suburban shopping strips, apartments, a hospital, a police station, funeral homes, an abandoned drive-in, religious communities, town halls and historical buildings, decay and new construction along the 13.5-mile road.

The sun rises at the beginning (or end, if you like) of Route 59 on Nyack’s Main Street at the Hudson and sets just behind the Ramapo Mountains in Suffern as Lafayette Avenue gives the state highway yet another name in that village.

There are bagel stores, car dealerships, dry cleaners, donut shops, restaurants, supermarkets, signs galore, sidewalks, pedestrians, litter and park-like areas. In Nanuet, there are Saturday demonstrations for and against the Iraq war. In Spring Valley, day laborers line up for work – they hope.

In Monsey, the religious walk in ancient garb. In Airmont, one of Rockland’s newer villages builds an existence. In Nyack, there are fancy restaurants and old antique shops. In Suffern, immigrants, and businesses catering to New Jerseyites just over the border.

In Rockland, Route 59 is more than a road that has been traveled upon in three centuries. It is more than post-World War II strip shopping. It is more than a route paralleling the New York State Thruway. It is a vital highway of all walks of life, one that has its main trunk in some villages and its branches in others.

It is the focal point of the county just as main streets everywhere are the center of interest and activity, the roads where divergence meets in commerce and humanity.

March 11, 2008

Sidewalks that endure

SOUTH NYACK, N.Y. – Down along the Hudson River a very old Victorian home sits, a large structure once coveted by Helen Hayes the actress but already sold by the time she took the trip from New York City, so she bought a bigger and grander place just a tick up on Broadway for a much higher price. It cost her a “pretty penny,” a friend said, and that’s what her longtime house was called forevermore.

That was about 75 years ago, and in the decades since, owing to how villages age, the first house has ended up a bit of a shambles and the second is worth in the millions. But both have something in common in 2008 besides the now scenic river at their backs – their original sidewalks.

You can recognize 1920s-’30s sidewalks in these parts because the masons back then used a heavy sand mixture, sometimes obtained from the reddish-brownish banks of the Hudson. And they thought ahead about the winter ice, so they took the time to emboss a grid pattern of small depressions in the almost dry cement.

The result was relatively safe, rather durable sidewalks, almost as strong as the heavy slate slabs used before cement, many of which can also be seen along Broadway and Piermont Avenue, where the first object of Miss Hayes’ suburban dream lies.

Of course, the actress, “The First Lady of the American Theatre,” winner of an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and a Grammy, walked on both sidewalks, not only as a prospective homebuyer with her playwright/newspaperman husband Charles MacArthur, but as a frequent pedestrian in the Nyacks.

Residents well recall her friendliness and non-airy ways and how she would leave the front gate of Pretty Penny, step out on her sidewalk, head down Broadway and turn right on Main Street so she could volunteer as a saleswoman in a dress shop during World War II. The regular lady there was making Red Cross bandages.

Pretty Penny, in Nyack, was bought and sold following Helen Hayes’ passing in 1993 (at age 92), and one of the new owners, also an actress, made the front brick wall higher, put in a set of heavy driveway doors and security cameras and took out the middle walker’s gate that Miss Hayes swung open and closed thousands of times. The idea was uber-privacy, something the lady who played Victoria Regina for three years on Broadway never sought, though Nyackers always gave it to her.

But even that measure of seclusion for the new owner proved insufficient, and the house was sold. And offered for sale again, with much updating and at great expense.

The famous rose garden the famous actress herself tended may still have its roots in the back of Pretty Penny, near the pool where Laurence Oliver, Franchot Tone, the Barrymores and other Hollywood and Broadway luminaries frolicked, though the driveway barrier prevents the passserby from seeing any of that.

How many times Miss Hayes must have carried cut roses out the old front gate and onto the sand-cement walk with dimples for breaking up the ice.

When I take my walks about the Nyacks, from South Nyack through Nyack into Upper Nyack, I often pass the would-be Hayes house and the real one too, a distance between of about three-quarters of a mile. Such old sidewalks to tread upon, used by so many walkers over so many years. There are new walks, too, some just a year or so in age, some with cracks because the cement mix is not suited as well to the Nyacks and the Northeast and the winter as that made by the thinking masons 70-80 years ago.

As in life, some things endure better than others.

March 3, 2008

Darkening a church doorstep

Spring Valley, N.Y. — It’s a narrow drive, this rightly named Church Street in a typical USA downtown where glory is past and future is uncertain, but even the long line of black, dark-window, mega SUVs that now form a presidential cavalcade could easily navigate to the steps of the old Reformed Dutch Church.

If on a weekday, President Bush were to emerge from security and see a bit of the ordinary world, if he were to darken these church steps, trod by the faithful since the 1860s, he could sit with the homeless and poor who are given a breakfast, bag lunch, warmth, companionship and hope for the day by volunteers who have done so beginning in the 1980s as part of the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program. The United Church of Spring Valley, successor to the Reformed Dutch after merging with the Congregationalists next door, is the host and fervent backer in a good works effort.

That’s to be expected of tax-exempt organizations, that they provide public benefit in lieu of contributing to the collective money pot. Offering a place for the expression of faith and good deeds pays that bill many times over. Has for almost a century now, ever since the income tax system began.

If the president were to arrive on a Sunday, he would hear Pastor Rob Williams give an articulate sermon on Bible readings and thought particular to the United Church of Christ national creed but also speak out against injustice as well. Given the long history of this church and its predecessors in our America, such advocacy for the afflicted follows a time-honored tradition of free expression in the name of God, the Christ and humanity. In the eyes of the church members, its elders and its synods, it is a responsibility to do so.

Surely the president could respect and appreciate this mission, given the role his own church has played in speaking out on its particular concerns.

It was with similar tradition that on July 23, at the biennial General Synod of the United Church, at the Hartford, Conn., Civic Center, now presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was one of more than 60 speakers who “addressed Synod in a variety of venues from a variety of perspectives,” according to a statement by The Council of Conference Ministers. The letter also notes that Obama was invited as a member of the denomination “to reflect on the connection between public service and personal faith” a year before he was a presidential candidate.

Yet our – the nation’s — Internal Revenue Service, which absolutely must probe possible tax fraud to protect us all, has decided to investigate what seems like a non-issue, questioning whether the tax-exemption of United Church of Christ has been violated. Its letter to the church notes, according to an online report by the UCC, that the IRS was initiating an inquiry “because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status.” The probe is supposedly based on website articles that noted the senator and now candidate had addressed nearly 10,000 church members and that “Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign,” as the Council statement puts it.

The Council of Conference Ministers’ letter goes on to note that the UCC neither consented nor invited the placement of those tables and that the setup was in public, not church, space.

Now the UCC must defend itself against a possibility spurious probe, one that will cost it money, cash that could help pay the escalating expense of heating the Fellowship Hall in Spring Valley where increasing numbers of homeless and the poor eat, as well as meet some of the soaring cost of food.

The money the government will use for its investigation would be better spent going after the those responsible for the sub-prime mortgage mess, an action of super greed that our leaders and agencies just winked at and let proceed. How much profit has been unreported? How much loss, self-inflicted, will now be claimed against tax owed, with other citizens picking up the bill?

If President Bush were to darken the steps of United Church in Spring Valley, he would see that there are more people eating in a volunteer breakfast program because of the economic woes caused in part by the mortgage debacle; that the church’s higher heating costs are tied to failed energy deregulation; and that the escalating food expense is related partly to the push for ethanol and the loss of fields for wheat production. These are all better subjects for government focus than questioning the demonstrated goodwill of a tax-exempt UCC.

One would hope the UCC probe is not tied to the action last year by church leaders who tried to present a petition to the White House signed by thousands of UCC members in a call to stop the war in Iraq. They were rebuffed, and I am informed that some were arrested.

Many volunteer in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program, and none expect a presidential cavalcade to come down Church Street in Spring Valley. They do not envision a president watching former professional people and ex-blue collar workers washing pots and preparing sausages and pancakes at 5 a.m. Instead, the volunteers will face reality and continue to perform tax-exempt work. Good deeds in a church of God, one of many in the UCC congregation that perform works which go beyond sermon and written creed in the day-to-day humanity of Christ, seeking to fulfill the challenge that “whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.”

Maybe these days Christ himself needs to file as a 501(c)(3, as a tax-exempt organization.

The writer is a volunteer in the RIBP, which is assisted by the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Rockland County
February 25, 2008

Reinventing the downtown

Nanuet, N.Y. – A morphing of the American suburban “plan” that has tumbled willy-nilly up and down the development hill since the post-World War II housing boom may soon begin in this relatively large hamlet 20 miles north of New York City. And it could come to a town near you.

It’s back to the future here if a mall redevelopment scheme goes forth, promising to reinvent the suburban shopping center as a new Old Village, with open-air shops, homes, sidewalks and trees.

The Nanuet Mall, at the junction of two busy highways, Route 59 and Middletown Road, opened in 1969, one of the first indoor shopping centers that began to replace aging downtowns in this once mostly agricultural and manufacturing County of Rockland.

Shoppers came for decades to two, then three anchor stores with shops in between, loading the car with their kids in the driveways of their tract homes and going on an outing. During the week they drove from those high ranches and colonials to an ever-greater offering of smaller strip shopping centers that now dominate all the bigger roads in this smallest county geographically in New York State outside of New York City. Most have empty stores and some are unsightly, the consequence of too many of them and absentee landlords.

Rockland’s suburban sprawl began circa 1950 with former military land and numerous farms bulldozed over for $8,999 expandable Cape Cods, stretching out over the next decades to all five towns, with “Progress” filling in flood plains and otherwise assaulting the land. Gothamites, ready with post-Depression income and eager to leave the griminess of the long-neglected city for a new life, bought houses faster than they could be built.

Prices rose over the years, especially in the speculative markets of the 1990s and up to 2007, and the median home price is now about $500,000, with some mega mansion tabs in the millions. All in all, it has been a pell-mell rush to build, with insufficient town and village oversight by mostly volunteer planning, zoning and other municipal board members.

Now New York City has been rediscovered, perhaps because of the great isolation that suburban living brings when you reside 20 years on a tract home street and perhaps never know your neighbors, when you must drive two miles to a strip center convenience store to get milk, when there are few downtowns in which to stroll. The old city neighborhoods once fled are now worshipped by the grandsons of the 1950s’ and ’60s tract home buyers.

The Nanuet Mall has been witness to this suburban sprawl and change. Sprawl fed it for a long time and sprawl’s effects have killed it. First, a new, much bigger “destination” mall opened two miles away in West Nyack, about 10 years ago. Deliberately planted almost on the New York State Thruway, the Palisades Center draws 90 percent of its customers from outside Rockland to a carnival-like atmosphere of fast-food places, movie theaters, restaurants and cheaper clothing stores for younger people. Rocklanders go there, too, to this “downtown,” but not in quantity. Most drive 15 miles to large, more traditional indoor malls in New Jersey.

The Simon Property Group, which owns the Nanuet Mall and a number of fairly fashionable large shopping centers, has been watching Rockland shopping habits for a few years and originally intended to rebuild the 1969 center as a regular indoor mall. But Simon apparently has realized the renewed interest in city neighborhoods, in stores that are within walking distance, and that it would make better economic sense to morph the Nanuet Mall into “an open-air shopping and entertainment lifestyle center,” as a story in local media puts it.

My educated guess after observing Rockland and suburban growth for more than 40 years as former Editorial Page Editor of The Journal News in Rockland is that the mall site will become a mix of open-air shops connected by treed walks and decorative lighting; multi-story housing for commuters, senior citizens and the blue collar work force; a transit center with connection to the adjacent Pascack Valley Line trains and buses; and a plethora of restaurants, sporting goods stores and all the other marketplace venues of the new “downtown.”

And that’s what the plan will be, to return to the future and build a big “downtown” in Nanuet some 50 years after the beginnings of suburban sprawl began to wipe out the regular downtowns that long existed in this county.

Simon may well reinvent the mall concept in Nanuet if plans go forward. Rocklanders may see the new design as a chance to have a large shopping area of their own, not a mall shared with Thruway visitors. And town fathers in Clarkstown will eye the potential tax rateables in an ever-more expensive community increasingly burdened by the costs of suburban sprawl.

Ah, but is this the answer to sprawl? Sprawl killed the downtowns and people now miss them, so the solution is to build a new but bigger downtown? A morphed Nanuet Mall may give Rockland a warm and fuzzy place, but it will not address the future of aging tract home communities that are highly taxed and which eat up so much income in heating and cooling costs. Those who will live in the new, more densely packed Nanuet Mall “downtown” community may benefit, but will there be so much construction on such a small footprint, and perhaps high-rise structures and parking garages as well that the downtown becomes a small city? Is that “planning” any better than the non-planning that gave us suburban sprawl and which killed the downtowns?

Questions, surely, for all of America where there are suburbs and old malls and long-gone downtowns.

Questions that would be avoided in 2008 and beyond if in 1950 post-war housing had been tied to downtown areas, with reinvestment in those walking/shopping communities. Then we all would have Main Streets in our backyards and not have to get in the car and drive miles to visit an indoor mall or a morphed shopping center that is our new downtown.

Feb. 18, 2008

Pardon my soapbox on TZB, but …

NYACK, N.Y. — In response to recent news that the fate of a major U.S. river crossing, the Tappan Zee Bridge on Interstate Route I-87 (New York State Thruway), would soon be decided, I repeat a column I wrote on the subject, which was originally published in The Journal News on December 28, 2005.

Nobody asked me, but if I were His Omnipotence and could arbitrarily decide on a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge, this is what would be done. I write this from the perspective of both a third-generation Rocklander but also a fellow who has an opinion, just like anyone else.

Acknowledging that the 50-year-old existing span was (1) deliberately built on the cheap so a cash register could quickly be in place to pay off Thruway bonds and maintenance, and (2) that the zestful, giddy nature of 1950s interstate highway road planning, mostly head in the sand, continues even after the I-287 connection at Hillburn in the early 1990s was allowed to greatly increase truck traffic through and about Rockland, the resolve would be that we do not repeat the mistakes. At least not so very badly.

Therefore, any new structure or tunnel or combination would have to last as long as the Brooklyn Bridge (since 1883) but would not carry any additional traffic than now endured. Less, I would hope. There can be no added air, noise and visual pollution in what the highway people like to call the “Rockland Corridor,” as if we were just an alleyway of others’ convenience. Which we are all too often.

Now, be it resolved, according to His Omnipotence

• The crossing would be both tunnel and bridge, a two-way, multiple-lane vehicular/rail tunnel, with trains running fully by tunnel from Rockland to the Hudson Line tracks near Tarrytown and thus offering the illusive one-seat ride to Gotham.

Vehicles, though, would emerge from the tunnel while still in the river, exiting via a causeway ramp to a bridge that would continue to the present connection at Tarrytown.

• The Thruway in Rockland would end above ground just pass Route 303 in West Nyack and then the road and new rail would drop into the tunnel. All present Thruway land to the Hudson would be cleared for open space, river parks and restoration of old downtown South Nyack, with Victorian and other period-style housing and shops. A fortune could be made by the Thruway on this land sale.

• Before a new crossing is built, require that all trucking bound for New England shore area cities and communities take the Thruway north to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, then Route 84 and, via a new connector interstate highway in Connecticut, to Route 95. Regular motorists would be strongly encouraged to do so as well. A new bridge or tunnel might be necessary at Newburgh.

• Trucks going to New York City, Westchester and lower Connecticut would travel night hours only.

• Regular commuters would get a fast-track lane and be required to use 55 mph EZ-Pass.

• No maintenance work could be performed during peak travel time.

• How to pay for it all? Well, “Homeland Security” and Defense Department money, that’s how. Take a leaf from history. For years after the Thruway was built, Nyack tried to get an entrance northbound (westbound) near Route 59. The Thruway never answered, until the late Virginia Parkhurst, our fine, longtime Nyack area reporter, found out that the section of the Thruway from roughly Spring Valley over to the TZB area was part of the initial Eisenhower Defense Highway network and so the exit could be funded federally. It was built in the late 1960s. Also, the bridge itself was permitted by a 1930s War Department permit, again recognizing the crossing’s place in our national defense.

Therefore, construct any new Hudson crossing using Defense Department and Homeland Security funds, to continue the vital Eisenhower Defense Highway network. (Ike began the U.S. interstate system after his experience with the German Autobahn during World War II, and he realized the military and civilian benefits.)

Finally, people, all you well-intentioned ones who want to do it right this time, don’t build anything that will route even more traffic and thus woes through the “Rockland Corridor.” If you do, you will give us misery and you will still need another, wider crossing in just a generation or so, as bigger highways bring more traffic. As for the crossing itself, use the best and most-lasting materials this time.

(Pardon my soapbox, but this is what I would do.)

February 11, 2008

Idiom grows in a mall

IN A MALL STORE — Says the mom to the kid, “You already have enough to beat the bandit.” The young one, about 7, answers, “Beat the panda? What does that mean?” His mother articulates “bandit” as the child continues his shopping cart gymnastics, paying attention at about 10 percent.

I wondered, as this familiar scene of mom and kid played out, how long it would take the boy to get it, to absorb the idiomatic language and to store it on one of the brain’s shelves, ready for retrieval should he have his own occasion to use such a saying.

And we all go through this training, in whatever language and idiom we use. I recall being underfoot as a four-year-old, hanging around my mother as she was talking to her friend Katie. She said to me, “Don’t hang on your mother’s apron strings.” I had no idea what she was talking about though I remember thinking, “Why would I want to pull strings on an apron?”

We had a teacher at Spring Valley High School in lower upstate New York who would intone to the talkers in class, “You are not the only pebble on the beach,” and her school language was echoed by the librarian, Elma Bird, who would tell us, “I’ve got four good eyes, two the good Lord gave me and two I paid hard-earned money for.” In other words, watch it.

Idiom is the music of any language, sometimes almost ageless, as in ”You already have enough to beat the bandit,” or specific to a time, such as the zoot suit jive and pig Latin talk of the early 1940s or the rap of today or even the txt msg. that youth whiz off on their cell phones, their fingertips worn to the age of 90.

The boy in the mall store was focused on more goodies, of course, not on absorbing idiom, and most likely forgot the conversation in a half-millisecond. But his brain did not. Someday, perhaps when he is 32 and has a five-year-old who simply has to have whatever his eyes see, and have it now, the old man will proclaim, “You already have enough to beat the bandit.”

He may also say, in a day’s length, “Holy moley” (“Captain Marvel”); “Three sheets to the wind” (nautical idiom); “As old as the hills” (the Bible); and “Discretion is the better part of valor” (Shakespeare).

Geez, Louise, the way the language sings.

February 4, 2008

The smell of burned toast

When I was young, just a few years after double digits began, I referred to a slice of toast as “toast bread,” entirely incorrect but that is what my father said, and you emulate the old man whether you should or not (in my dad’s case, more would have been better than less). “Toasted bread” would have been right, of course, but in the American vernacular, “toast” is enough.

Ah, but is today’s toast “enough,” if you take a deeper look?

I’m a joyfully ordinary person who was raised in an ordinary time, and white bread was on the menu in my life then, not the better tasting, better for you wheat or rye or multigrain. White bread is what hit the Toastmaster on school mornings or occasionally at supper when the desired fare was light and the sogged Cherrios needed stiff-bread company. And you could bring taste to white bread, I assure you.

The Toastmaster, which unlike today’s overseas specials bought at WalMart or Target, actually was repairable and endurable and lasted until just recently, some 50 years. It had a wonderful feature that allowed the toast to go down automatically, and if you aimed just right, as young schoolchildren will try to do on a morning when they are already late for class, you might just get a slice in the machine from across the table. Or at least one of the slices from a 24-piece Buttercup bread loaf, with “real” butter sloshed across the top before baking.

That white American bread, made with refined flour, yes, but in the 1950s still with some beginning taste, was perfect for the Toastmaster. It was not thin, it was not thick. It was not super moist or gummy, like white bread in 2008, and not stale either. It had nooks and crannies, which was excellent since any bread before it is toast must present itself first with these crevices. They capture flavor, ending up as shades of dark and light no matter how you set the toaster.

I always moved the rheostat, the toasting control, to dark because I wanted not burned toast but bread well on its way.

Sometimes my father would do me the honor of making my toast bread, especially if I had just fallen out of bed at 7:40 and Bus 15 was due at 7:55. The wonderful smell of burning toast sent its wisp upstairs and took my hand and put me at the table where dollops of “real” butter sat on the offering, ready for me to flatten with a table knife (never butter knives — my mother saved those for company).

“Hurry up and eat your toast bread,” my father would say, “Or you will miss the bus.”

Many, many buses later, when I smell burning white bread today, the feet start to move for the run to Eckerson and Pascack roads, a bit of butter and bread still on the lips as I board number 15.

January 28, 2008

Parking lot as downtown

Pearl River, N.Y. – A warmish Sunday for a Northeast January brought me out for a coffee at the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts here, non-descript among the vast chain’s outlets. Close your eyes and you may awaken in Anywhere, USA. Take a bite of a jelly stick in one place and finish it in another, the experience is all the same.

Not to knock Dunkin’ unduly. Their coffee is great even if the donuts have been dulled to make their taste acceptable (and therefore comfortably predictable) anywhere. No, I’ll complain about the store location.

You don’t find too many chain store donut sellers or chain store food places of any description on Main Street, USA. Need the heavy traffic, you see, and that means a highway corner, preferably one so busy that getting in and out of the lot may cause serious harm to the driver, God forbid, but under the law of averages, also bring mucho sales to the eatery.

The sadness on this particular day had to do with more than a chain location, one which a decade ago knocked out Molly’s Donuts, a nearby mom and pop shop where the baked goods were homemade and cost less for a tastier product.

Ah, but there the folks lingered, much as others would at the corner tavern or the general store of old. No chain store is going to tolerate a slowdown in floor traffic. Have to up that bottom line in the ever-new quarter.

On this nicely warmish Sunday, in this strip shopping center lot where perhaps 300 vehicles could be parked, adults and children went back and forth from SUV and an occasional car to the bowling alley, to the dollar store, to the delicatessen, to the pizza place, to the Chinese take-out and to Dunkin’ Donuts.

They did not sidewalk stroll, as on Main Street, USA, for there was no sidewalk. They did not congregate as on Main Street because there were no corners. They simply went, heads almost bowed, rushing from SUV and occasional car to the place of business and then back to the vehicles. The lot was filled with exhaust fumes, as motors idled. Drivers looked left and right so as not to strike anyone coming from SUV and occasional car to and from the strip shopping stores.

It was all so anonymous, this Sunday scene. Perhaps a park in the middle of the asphalt lot would have positively changed the atmosphere, with children playing, oldsters snoozing on benches and mothers talking with other parents, the sort of park you find off Main Street, USA.

The decline of our downtowns, brought by the great American push to drive everywhere, especially to malls and shopping strips, has made strangers of each other even in smaller communities.

Once, we ran into our teachers, our preachers, our grandparents, our friends on Main Street. We talked of perhaps nothing, but the conversation, the reaffirmation of feeling among people we knew, was everything.

Not so in this substitute downtown, this parking lot in a place called Pearl River, a fine community that like so much of America, lost its Main Street years ago.

The saddest thing of all was that there was some laughter here in this parking lot. I guess our new “downtowns” have become relative to the age. Like chain store donuts, blandness can seem like fun. But Main Street’s Molly, and Joe the barber and Sal the butcher and Henry the hardware man knew better.

January 21, 2008

Restore the ‘lost presidencies’

Imagine if all presidential contests in the United States were funded solely by monies raised through taxation, with spending limits set by Congress? No donations. No cash and favor from special interests. No promises to keep after mortgaging the political soul. A level playing field for all candidates, from declaration through primary to the final vote.

If this were the law in the 2008 presidential contest, the immensely influential lobbies that are Big Oil, energy, farming (ethanol), rightwing, leftwing, war contractors, auto manufacturers, health care and foreign interests, to cite just a few, would be left standing in the political cold, their suitcases overflowing with money worthless for the cause.

The candidates would walk past these once-steamy, alluring suitors, up to the podium and the soapbox, to the radio and TV station, to the print interview, to the Internet blog and speak the “truth” as they know it. They would actually have to utter words of substance, not tied to any interests from largely pre-written scripts.

And tired ones at that.

Today, when a man (and now perhaps a woman) becomes president, the individual is ushered into a secret, remote world protected by uber-security, his/her words measured, paced and chosen by handlers who present whatever image they deem correct for whatever message they seek to convey. This all begins with massive campaign funding, as the lobbyists carefully craft the man/woman.

The influential who buy the presidency – and this includes political rightist or leftist philosophy pasted onto the once candidate and stuck there by money glue – are the puppeteers pulling the strings. Gone are the days of a strong, independent president like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Teddy R. before him. Now the presidency is deliberately remote, even more so in the name of that awful term, “Homeland Security,” another way of saying the gendarmes must keep the minions in the dark “for their own safety.” In that dark sinister things happen, like secret prisons.

The future of our presidencies includes even more remoteness and obfuscation, built on the Dick Cheney-fabricated model of the George Bush administration.
Does any American really understand this presidency? Is it Bush’s or that crafted by others brighter that he, with Bush the willing but manipulated player in the most powerful office in the world?

If the men and women who would seek to be the successor to the original role model set by the reluctant but well-serving George Washington, then they must not be beholden to any interest other than their own ideals, clearly expressed on an equal opportunity footing with their challengers.

A federally (taxpayer) funded presidential campaign could do that. Imagine, for example, if the candidates in the 2008 contest knew that they had to speak to the issues rather than spending huge sums attacking one’s use of drugs; one’s religion; one’s expenses on security? How are those matters of great interest to Americans beset by ever-rising taxes and debt, the sub-prime crisis, a worsening balance of trade and loss of prestige?

How close have Big Oil, political extremism, any of the lobbying interests gotten to any of our candidates and made them appear as crafted images without real voices? High-priced TV, print and Internet advertising can market even an apple as a polished winner, it seems.

But if the playing field included none of the lobbying money, if each candidate had a set amount to get the message across, it would be up to the wits of the individual, and the smarts, and the inner voice, to talk and then walk the talk, to and with the American people.

Perhaps then there would be suggestions on meeting the health care crisis, including funding preventive care and boosting research on disease cures; on avoiding wars with no clear goals or strategy, conflicts that seem to reward private contractors while our young die bravely; on helping people buy homes responsibly; on funding industrial reinvestment; on ending the ballooning of the national debt; on providing a restructured mass transit system and automobiles that run on alternative energy; on energy savings across the board; on immigration; and on securing the nation but without loss of freedom of speech, without secret prisons and torture that should disgust any American who believes in our stated values.

Indeed, it is those very values that are being assaulted in our “lost” presidencies.

Harry Truman went to the people in 1948 as a predicted loser and told it “like it is.” He won in his simplicity. Can anyone running for U.S. president do that today?

Federal funding and rejection of lobby money might find us just such a person.

January 14, 2008

On product quality

Let me tell you a tale of woe, one that I am certain you have endured as well, at least in similarity.

Now, everyone for eons has been complaining about whatever the current product is. Even in 5,000 B.C., some lady was probably telling her neighbor that “They don’t make clay pots like they used to.” And the return bromide – that it is a good thing they don’t make many things the way they used to – is just as valid.

For example, house framing today, mostly in the “platform” style – is much stronger than the “balloon” or “western” method once so popular, back when long lumber was readily available, especially out West. But balloon framing led to floors out of level and fire danger.

So, today’s platform framing, essentially building one level complete with sub floor, then another story, is stronger, though the caveat must be added that new growth lumber is not nearly as tough and durable as the old rough-sawn, true 2×4’s used in the balloon style.

Poduct quality, therefore, is relative to the time, with no true black and white – like life, an awful lot of gray and all too much room for rose-colored glasses and revisionist history – “They don’t make them like they used to.”

This life’s truth bonked me on the head once again just recently when I volunteered to replace a commercial-style sink drain in a soup kitchen.

The old drain, several years in use, had broken because the retaining ring was made of cast aluminum. A mistake if you are going to have lots of hot water in a sink that also includes stainless steel, brass and other metals. The rate of expansion helped crack that piece, which should have been high-quality brass.

So, I set out to buy a new drain of at least decent quality. Went to a store that is supposed to sell such a product and bought the drain. Installed it, but one day later it failed. One vital part was plastic.

I then searched for “The Plumber’s Choice,” a “commercial-grade” drain that cost twice as much as the first one, which wasn’t cheap in the first place. This drain went in smoothly, with a true brass retaining ring. What a pleasure to work with a well-made, properly machined part. It was a friend to this plumber.

Ah, but two days later, as my friend George Chalsen was cleaning the sink, he gave a small tug on the drain stopper, and it fell apart. Yes, the drain itself was top quality – it should last 20 years. But the stopper, outsourced from some cheap operation somewhere in the world, was so poorly made that it should not be sold even in a dollar store.

The manufacturer – in business for 100 years or so – tried to cut costs, and it hurt its reputation in the process. It should have provided a stopper just as fine as its wonderful drain, a model unchanged in proven, working design for decades.

So, the truth is that they do make them as well as they used to, just not every part.

January 7, 2008

What’s in the stars?

Some years ago, newspapers, in their continual search for perks to attract and keep readers wrapped around the main function of their daily sheets – printing the news – decided to add “biorhythms” to the horoscope page. As with the reports from the stars, these “personalized” bits of advice were supposed to direct you through the day.

Decades before that, the New York Daily News carried this tag on its horoscope column: “The stars impel, they do not compel,” a proper warning to the reader that they should not build their days and lives around the readings. By the time biorhythms were published, there was no such tag, and I have never seen it on horoscopes since the News’ 1960s days.

It seems we all need advice in our lives – even the ancients consulted astrologers, whose ill-timed or just plain wrong readings sometimes cost them their necks. Kings and queens, entire nations, rose and fell despite such advice, though there were more than enough moments to note a striking similarity between accurate readings and historic events.

I don’t live my life via horoscopes but like many people, I’ll take a look at them, always, I hope, recalling the “impel, not compel” warning.

I never consulted biorhythms, however, probably because they seemed too complicated to determine. You can read your horoscope in a flash, just as the fellow on the bagel line looks at the sport scores in a tabloid. (Newspapers count on that, one successful reader feature after another.) But biorhythms included some math related to your emotional and physical cycles before you understood them.

Horoscopes are friends of a sort, especially if they greet us with a little nod to our unique qualities without mentioning that others may not be so happy with them at all, or at least are indifferent.

If it is time and observation that are key to a reading under whatever sign, there has to be some kernel of relativity. And if your spouse or boss or friend or neighbor isn’t available for daily personal consultation on a positive plane (that almost never happens in human relations), the small paragraph in a newspaper can be your morning companion for the quick moment you glance at it.

And we newspaper readers would miss such a friend. A paper I worked for moved the horoscopes to the classifieds and shrunk the type to 6 point, quite small to read but it saved newsprint. The phones rang for weeks, followed by more irate ones when the crossword was also banned to the classifieds. Both features have their place, the publishers were reminded.

So, as long as there are newspapers, most of them will carry the horoscopes, though not the biorhythms. But papers probably could use their own horoscopes, since readership for print versions of our daily sheets continues to decline.

Dec. 31, 2007

A library’s mistress

PALISADES, N.Y. – At the corner of Oak Tree and Closter roads rises a very old building, once a comfortable house and now a comfortable library, still a home of delight, of interest and intellect, of curiosity and education.

Its fireplace is without blaze, but books and magazines and comfortable chairs now draw you to what is still a hearth, one long tended to by a doting mistress.

Beatrice Agnew, as French as an expatriate can be in America, with a critical, no-excuses eye for cultural standards and the reading component, has passed on, her nearly 40-year role as director of the Palisades Free Library over but long to be remembered.

For there are already legends about this woman, this grande dame so particular in her habits of choosing the very right books for her particularly acute community.

Beatrice WAS the library, just as surely as was her predecessor Mildred Rippey. Each put a stamp on what is the very best in libraries, the small community ones that offer unexpected jewels in their collections and which bubble over with informed, understanding ways from long-serving staff, including and especially in the case of Palisades, such people as Marie Firestone, Beatrice’s right arm.

The newspaper story on Beatrice Agnew gave the who, what, when, where, how and why of her life — that she was the daughter of two artists, born in Paris, who developed a surefire ability to choose books for the library even before they hit the best-seller list. Well, yes, Beatrice Agnew was an artist herself, heir to such temperament and fastidious in running a library that had to be just so — just so for Palisades, just so for the patrons.

Despite many annual budgets, taxpayer funding challenges and more than enough library trustees to deal with, Beatrice carried the standard of her chosen profession as forcefully and proudly as did the Parisians the drapeau tricolore in the Revolution of 1789.

Beatrice worked at the Palisades Library until she was stricken quite recently with a stroke. Vibrant in her 80s, her desk was left waiting for her to return, as general in charge. Whoever follows as director will offer chemistry of her/his own, but for a long time, in a Camelot of sorts, there was one Beatrice Agnew at a special place called the Palisades Free Library. No ISBN number is needed to cite that.

For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my former newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web.
– Arthur H. Gunther III

December 24, 2007

A message on Christmas

Franklin was a man of routine. Perhaps such a person had become an antiquated notion in this day and age, the very word “routine” summoning visions of safe havens and early dinners. Someone for whom risks were akin to strangers at your night door. What a shame to reduce a person to such a narrow universe. There had been a time where Franklin would have been moved to debate and argument over such labeling of his being.

He was older now and less ready to argue. So old in fact that he would rather not seek new memories for fear of crowding out the old ones which kept him warm, the ones that had made him who he still was. This was easier than it sounded. The year itself, with its familiar cycle, cooperated nicely. The ebb and flow of the seasons lent a rhythm to his days that evoked memory at every turn. Despite the changes that had settled around his town, there was still so much to remind him of his past days.

Which brings us to Christmas. Here it wasn’t so easy. Franklin himself had never been what most would call religious. He never attended a church or other religious house, even on the most popular of churchgoing days, Christmas. His wife had been another story. Molly had been a regular churchgoer, attending church every Sunday morning for the entire 55 years of their marriage. She rarely spoke of her beliefs, preferring to let the way she lived her life do the talking.

Franklin did not label himself some kind of heathen. He had plenty of belief in God. Proof was everywhere. Franklin saw God in snowstorms and surprises, laughter, nature and seeming coincidence. Franklin had seen God every day for 55 years in his wife. Church just was never a place where he sought Him.

Franklin’s wife had been accepting of his ways. She never asked him to attend church with her. On Christmas Eve, she may have dressed a bit nicer and left a little earlier, but she still attended alone. When Molly died a few years back, Franklin was stunned, as he knew he would be, though her passing was not unexpected. Slowly, however, he found those familiar routines and let the memory of all the sweet days before settle in more deeply than ever. In his own way, Franklin’s wife walked with him through his days.

It was on Christmas that Franklin was at a loss. He had depended more on living vicariously through Molly’s routine on that day than he had realized. Franklin first tried ignoring the holiday, but that didn’t seem right. He had never ignored religion, just celebrated it in his own way.

The second year after his wife’s passing, Franklin instead sought distraction and tried hiking in the woods, but this wasn’t much better. Before he knew it, here came the season again.

By Christmas Eve, Franklin was restless. After trying to distract himself with some of the old Christmas movies that his wife and he had always appreciated, he put on his coat and went for a walk. He decided to head toward town and maybe see if he could find a place open where he could drink hot chocolate. As he walked south on Broadway, he noticed more cars than usual parked on the side streets. People left and right were emerging from their cars dressed quite nicely. Slowly Franklin realized that these must be the extra people who always attended Christmas Mass. Without consciously making a decision, Franklin found himself following the crowds up the hill toward the church. As he crested the rise, he was taken with how the building flooded the normally quiet Tuesday night of the street with light. This was a street where Franklin rarely found himself, never having a reason to walk here. He couldn’t remember the last time he walked this way.

Franklin stopped at the corner adjacent to the church and stood still. As he contemplated whether to go inside, he suddenly was startled by the noise of a collective standing up. An organ note rang out as all the lights around him went out. His first thought was that a blackout had occurred, but then Franklin saw that inside the church candles were being distributed and lit. Candles were soon being passed around for those who stood outside on the steps, too. Franklin guessed that the church must have been filled to capacity. Thinking his decision had been made for him, he turned and was about to walk home when a little girl ran up to him with a candle. “Here you go,” she said and was quickly gone.

Franklin had forgotten to wear gloves, and his cold hands dropped the candle as quickly as it was handed to him. Bending down to pick it up, he noticed that he was standing not on a sidewalk but on a brick walkway. The bricks were all engraved with dedications. Franklin read the ones he could see illuminated by his candle: “John, with love from Elaine.” Then another: “Margaret and Stuart, 45 years” and finally: “For Franklin, thank you for your faith, always, Molly”.

Franklin was frozen in place. He read the brick again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things and then slowly stood up. He could hear the church choir start to sing as he turned to walk away. Maybe next year he would return and go inside, Franklin thought. Maybe tomorrow he would walk down this street again. For once, Franklin was glad he had changed his routine.

—–

Arthur H. Gunther IV, a schoolteacher, lives in Upper Nyack, N.Y., with his wife Laura and son Sam. His e-mail is clausland@yahoo.com

December 17, 2007

Helen, the ‘mensh’

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — Of course, Helen Mandel was a mensh, Yiddish for “good person, one of integrity and honor.” And no matter where you live in this world, you know the woman. Such people are everywhere. More than we think.

Helen has passed away, the awful victim of a brain tumor, which brought the temporary hope of successful surgery but then failure to recover, resulting in a coma-inducing stroke. Her imprisoned body lie tethered to the many tubes and fluids and machines of modern medical science, but in the end, when brain function seemed impossible to retrieve, Helen was left with the angels for her passing.

That such a vital person, such an involved woman with great vigor, who volunteered so much, would be stricken and taken so rapidly is incomprehensible.

It was not long ago that Helen was in our Rockland (County) Interfaith Breakfast Program, making sandwiches, barking orders, telling Al Witt that even at 84 he could not quit. For about 20 years she pushed and prodded and made sure the homeless and others in need were fed a good morning meal.

Helen was a ball of fire, gathering up plastic bags for redistribution to those who carried their belongings on the streets; bringing temporary volunteers to the program when someone was out; always asking about everyone’s family; telling us about her later day activities, which might include mah-jong, exercise at “Curves” and, certainly, a good lunch.

Helen was proud of her New York City roots but equally wore a badge of honor as a Spring Valley suburbanite, buying into one of the earliest developments. Later, she and her husband Julie would move north from Rockland, to Tuxedo in Orange County, as others have done in retirement. But her home base would always remain in the Valley, and that is why this essay is datelined from that community.

God only knows why Helen was a mensh. Was it something in her childhood, her adult years, a personal experience that triggered the help gene?

All we understand is that Helen Mandel was, until her stroke, a vital, giving person who took no nonsense from anyone, who gave to all but at the same time told you to stand up straight.

God has use elsewhere for such people, it seems.

December 10, 2007

When the lights went up

ANYTOWN, USA – There isn’t an old Main Street in anyone’s memory that isn’t decorated with the lights of the holiday season. While today’s indoor malls may begin their approach to this time of year months early — in August — once and long ago, just after Thanksgiving, the department of public works or an area electrician or just some volunteers took strings of heavy, 14-gauge wire with colored 25-watt bulbs attached and hung them from Barney’s Bar to Joe’s Diner. And then from this store across Main to the next.

The effect, coming down the hill into, say, Nyack, N.Y., was a welcome to seasonal shopping when the few dollars in the family pockets were carefully swapped for a doll, a game, a BB-gun, a basketball, some skates.

Children along on the Saturday trip were sent off to Memorial Park to play, and hours later, after running up and down the ferry dock of the Tarrytown-bound boat or stepping on the frozen ice at water’s edge, they would rejoin their parents and maybe, just maybe, have a sandwich not made at home or an ice cream soda, French style with whipped cream and nuts.

No Woolworth’s was left untouched by the magical seasonal visit, with grandma’s threads and notions replenished, a new dish towel for an aunt who could no longer get to the movies for the free variety (which came with the price of admission) or loose candy for grandpa.

The lights that hung from Cedar across Main, or at Franklin or down on Broadway gave more than color to cold and gray days. They turned us on in spirit and in expectation that a bit more than the ordinary would come our way, even more than the Thanksgiving dinner feast we had already enjoyed at our grandmother’s house.

Now there would be holiday things like trees and our varied religious observances, time off from school and treats, like the ethnic cookies made only in season.

At the end of the shopping day, perhaps repeated on another weekend, in the dark of the winter solstice, the steam we saw from our mouths made cartoon dialogue balloons against the lights strung across main street. In those cutouts we could write our hopes for this gift or that.

Today in memory we write about our parents, our old homes, our friends, our gifts way back when and about the old-style, simple lights hung without fail in our downtowns.

December 3, 2007

The self-deprecating man

NYACK, N.Y. — Jerry Donnellan, a reluctant soldier of the Vietnam War, might tell you in one of his many public speeches on behalf of veterans that he cannot spell, maybe not even pronounce “self-deprecating,” but that would be a deliberate, playful ruse, delivered with a blink and a twinkle of the Irish leprechaun’s eye, another way to get your attention.

And then it would be on to serious matters, like substantially better care for vets wounded, maimed and mentally assaulted in all our wars.

Jerry, who lost a leg and almost his life in combat early in his draftee life in Vietnam, is now director of veterans affairs for the County of Rockland in lower New York State. He is a Valley Cottage resident by geography but a Nyacker by instinct, so we dateline this piece from his childhood place, the one which he left to become the reluctant soldier.

Ernie Pyle, the wonderful, soul-touching World War II correspondent, nailed it when he wrote of the ordinary grunt, the citizen soldier who loves no war, who has a healthy G.I. Joe disrepect for the military’s necessary but always temporary powers and who wants nothing better than to do his job and get back home, protecting his buddies along the way.

Pyle knew and Jerry knows that only a citizen military, the reluctant volunteers and conscripts who put themselves in harm’s way, can keep democracy safe, for any other army can love war and be the tool of dictatorship. We see that all over the world.

Jerry did his part as the reluctant soldier and survived to return home. Ever since, he has been a constant fighter for those even more seriously wounded than he and for better veterans’ care, often neglected in underfunded hospitals.

He was recently in the news, blasting New York State for not releasing to his office key information that is necessary to handle veterans’ cases. The red tape pushers in Albany, buttressed by bureaucratic power and hiding behind that awful term “Homeland Security,” decided that the “Homeland” was to be denied the vets, that they would not, in the interest of “national security” release individual details to a director and an office that exist under state mandate to assist veterans.

Jerry is gaining on Albany in that mess, a situation as sorry as the Washington numbies who seek a return of bonuses paid to soliders who reupped. Why? They got shot and didn’t finish their tours. What fine print that is, written in shame.

When Jerry was a citizen soldier, he went along, got along with the military ways so the machine would work, so he could do the job and return home. Now that he has earned lifelong membership in the fraternity of the veteran wounded, he will not, cannot, must not tolerate any snafu that threatens his buddies, whether they be 18 or 99.

Maybe that’s why Jerry Donnellan was recently awarded the “Northeastern United States Veteran-Patient Award” after being nominated by the Shatemuc Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.

This award is presented to a “veteran-patient” in recognition of outstanding achievement in personal, professional and family life following a disability.

The DAR citation states that Jerry is a “person who has proven significant contributions of leadership, patriotism and increased public awareness of veteran-patients.” Yes.

Jerry received the honor at the American Legion Past Commanders dinner at Kruckers Restaurant in Pomona, N.Y. Recognition was by Chapter Regent Martha Erickson and President General Chairman Nancy Mahan.

I don’t know if Jerry Donnellan spoke in a self-deprecating way when he picked up his award. If he did, it was to put the spotlight on other veterans, a tactic as winning as any brilliant left-flank maneuver by Gen. George Patton himself.

(To witness first hand Jerry’s eloquence on veterans’ matters, copy and paste this link in your web browser to access his testimony before Congress:) http://veterans.house.gov/hearings/Testimony.aspx?TID=7751

November 26, 2007

On a birthday

Birthdays mark another year of living — survival, good things enjoyed, reflection, investment in the future. The lucky share natal observation with family and friends, though it is only the individual who can define the 24 hours in accuracy.

What is a birthday to you? Can it ever be a repeat of the best one ever or avoidance of the least favorite? Are there enough loved ones and friends about to make the moment merry? Do you fully enjoy the glow of the day?

I’ve seen people celebrate birthdays in soup kitchens — volunteers and those in need, each oblivious in their approach to the day, neither seeking recognition but each beaming when even a small gesture, “Hey, Happy Birthday!” comes.
And then on to the next thought or action.

Birthdays cannot last more than 24 hours nor should they endure, for that would put any of us so far apart from the ordinary that we become extraordinary. And only God’s delivered karma does that, with little choice given to anyone.

Doubtless any birthday today is not about equality, for the woman in Bangladesh and the child in a bombed Iraqi village and the patient in a Idaho hospital do not sit before a wonderful cake with beautiful candles and the magic of a wish offered and, more important, any hope that it will be fulfilled.

Yet so many of us do have a special day, with genuine congratulations, real expression of honest meaning, delivered by a handshake, a kiss, eye contact.

Gifts? What are they when you have everything material? Unless the monetary cost is secondary, and the right choice is made, one that gets to the heart or the soul or both.

In the end, birthdays are an awfully private matter often gone public, perhaps best shared with those you are most comfortable with but really affirmed in that moment of quiet when you are with yourself.

That moment became yours alone when your mother released you to the world, and each year it is a sanctuary that you and you only can return to in the purest way.

Happy Birthday to those who are in that moment.

November 19, 2007

Elliot’s ‘bean counter’

When coffee was 10 cents for a container takeout and a scrambled egg on white was traded for two bits, Elliot, the luncheonette owner in Nyack, N.Y., had a man at the wind-up National Register who guarded the treasury.

“Pop,” Elliot’s father-in-law, took the cash, and you did not get past his gate without paying every dime. This was the height of the Cold War – 1962 — but he was stronger than the Berlin Wall.
Pop was a survivor of the Great Depression, and he knew thin dimes were worth their weight in gold if you took care to accumulate them and reinvest. The man wasn’t going to lose even one.

Usually you could pay for your breakfast or even lunch with loose change, though for most people in 1962, coins in the pocket were like today’s dollars in the wallet. When you gave Pop 35 cents for an egg sandwich and java, he took the coins with his right hand and spilled them out neatly on the marble ledge of the wind-up register. He quickly scanned the lineup for the correct amount and also to see if you slipped in a foreign piece.

If by some chance you actually gave him a dollar to break for the 35 cents, he also placed that on the ledge, his eyes widening as if he were Superman with x-ray vision. Even a buck could be counterfeit, you see.

In the rare event you handed him a big bill — $5 — for the egg and coffee, Pop acted as if he had to visit the vault. His concentration would become even more intense, the cigar that was always in his mouth clenched even tighter.
The bill would land on the marble ledge, would receive the scanning eye technique and then Pop would raise it to the 100-watt bare light bulb Elliot had above the register in this old-style 1800s shop on Broadway.
He would look at both sides of the $5, then snap it and rustle his fingers to catch the texture. All to see if the bill were genuine.

And it did not matter if you were a trusted, longtime customer. You could be a hapless counterfeit carrier.

When you received your $4.65 change, Pop would splay the coins out on the worn counter next to the register, and you were forced to pick them up one by one.
I always thought that gave him a second chance to scan the coins.

The dollar bills would be handed over to you individually as well, with Pop snapping each to see if an extra buck had attached itself.
The final dollar would hit your fingers, and Pop would momentarily hold onto his end, as if he were not certain that you deserved the change.

Pop never smiled and barely grunted when you greeted him. Yet he was beloved. He never cheated you; he was a fixture, and that got your day started; and his grunts always seemed positive, so you were thankful.

Not too many stores have manual cash registers anymore, and the Pops who knew their arithmetic so well that their heads were calculators have largely disappeared, replaced by digital processors that tell you what change to give or which render none at all, instead accepting the wave-by charge card for the $2.25 expresso motto latte.

There are still the Nyacks in this nation, still many streets called Broadway and lots of 1800s buildings. And coffee is brewed daily, egg sandwiches made, too, now costing more than the accumulated weight of inflation over the years since 1962.

And doubtless there are characters like Pop, so the endearment must continue in another way, in different 2007 expression.

But the skill this old fellow showed as Elliot’s “bean counter” remains incomparable.

November 12, 2007

The early morning start

How do you start your day? Are you the early riser or the late one? A night person who purrs along in later snooze time as others drag themselves off to the showers at 8 a.m.? Or the up-and-at-’em individual who sees a new challenge every 24 hours, beginning at 6 or 7?

For decades, I was either up early in the morning because I was working the graveyard shift for a newspaper or I was coming home after a night stint. Then there were the many, many years when I deliberately chose to get in at 4 a.m. to begin my writing and editing on the editorial page, unencumbered by the cacophony of other working stiffs.

There is a certain sense of territorial right being up that early, hitting the roads where there are few vehicles and entering an office where you turn on the lights and set the coffee pot. You own the space for a time, and while you must relinquish it later, that is OK, since by then the rules have changed. The later arrivals are part-owners, but you have already had your way, in mutual satisfaction I add, with the spirits of the early time.

And they are kindred spirits in this consummate space and moment. Most of the creativity in my work came from the quiet time when all I could hear were the creaks of an old building and the chatter of a police radio, extending my ears to a hundred points of human reference – this call or that, a disturbance, a flat tire, a false alarm or even the more serious matters. So many mental notes would be made for future, even immediate, reference.

I was in the office, and in my little office within, with partners who served me this word or that, this phrase or that, who nudged my can’t-professionally-type fingers to the right keys, sometimes in such rapid succession that I thought I was an automated typesetting machine.

I could not have had such direction in the 9 a.m. cacophony, however beloved and compelling newsroom noise may be as people gather information and set about for the daily birth to the citizen parents.

No, my early ride, in the cold and heat, in snow and ice and rain, the trip on darkened country roads, the stop at the coffee shop for the first shot, were all the start to my day, and even now as I write this piece without an office, in retirement portfolio, I am dressed by – my chair is pulled out by – the League of the Quiet, which surrounds me and which I cannot do without.

November 5, 2007

A penny for some thoughts

In a handful of pennies, my eye usually scans for the old-style “wheat” coins, those Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent pieces produced from 1909 to 1958. My father collects them, and though most are worth only 10 cents or so, it makes him happy to add one to his special books.

Most of the wheat pennies I come across are from the early 1950s, with perhaps an occasional 1930s coin. But the other day I spotted a 1919 model, well-worn and crusted with so many decades of history.

Can you imagine where that penny has been? My grandfather was just 20 when it was made, and it could have been in his pocket. Heck, it might have been in President Woodrow Wilson’s change or with a suffragette or in a farm boy’s pocket as he headed down a long country lane to the general store and penny candy to satisfy his salivary glands and pounding heart. Perhaps a returning Doughboy had it with him.

It certainly wasn’t in my dad’s pocket, since he wasn’t born until three years later, nor in mine, a fellow who the records show came to earth in 1942.

Was this wheat penny, once so shiny, one of five given to a former successful businessman now selling apples on a city street corner during the awful Great Depression? Did it, no matter how small a coin of the realm, help him survive? Did a mother hand this penny off to her daughter for school milk money?

Did the son of the Great War Doughboy have the Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent in his military-issue pocket as he landed at Anzio?

Was the penny in a jar used to collect coins for a new dress or a Sunday shirt? Did it end up in the bank so grandfather could buy one of the first cars built after World War II, when civilian production resumed?

Was this coin in Thurgood Marshall’s pocket in 1954 as he appeared before the Supreme Court he eventually would join, in the fight for U.S. school integration? Was it again at the White House as President John F. Kennedy gave his famous inaugural speech in 1961?

Did it return to war in Vietnam, in the pocket of one of so many draftees who went off to an unpopular, undeclared, apparently unnecessary fight, only to come home to boos and spitting as protesters confused the warrior with the war?

Did the wheat cent drop in the mud of a rainy Woodstock, buried in unfocused but vital dreams and scattered promise? Did someone pick it up and use it in the inflation of the energy crises of 1973 and 1978, in the recession and reinvestment of the 1980s, in the speculation and greed of the 1990s?

Was it in some Gothamite’s pocket in September 2001? Did it go off to yet another war in the third tour of the Doughboy’s great-granddaughter?

Or has this 1919 penny, minted to honor Abe Lincoln, really been in a dusty cellar for almost 88 years, swept about, collecting dirt and dust but escaping all the many and horrible woes of the decades as well as their drama and greatness?

A penny for the thoughts.

October 29, 2007

Imagination

This is the time of the pumpkin, you know, and so the tale of a flickering candle.

Once upon a time not long ago but also not in the institutional memory of any but today’s American elders, there was a suitor named Imagination who was courted on boring, rainy summer days, weekends when school was out and when the kissing and hugging relatives came to pay semi-annual visits.

Children with eager little minds, possibly big eyes and jaws that could open and drop would seek sitting-on-the-lap time with Imagination, a presence who was not gender specific and therefore, even today, untouchable by Political Correctness.

The lap seemed, in those not-so-long-ago-but-now-almost-forgotten days to be wide and available enough for all the children of all the neighborhoods, all at once.

Imagination only asked that the children come eagerly, with open minds and open ears, that they be polite and that they tell their mother where they were going, for there is no wrath, Halloween or not, second to a worried mom who catches up with wandering offspring.

One day, two or three youngsters – it was difficult to tell since Hiram was so quiet that he was not always counted in the crowd – found themselves antsy two days before Halloween. They sought out Imagination because video games, I-Pods, plasma TV, cell phones, SUVs and parents’ chock-filled appointment books had not yet come to the earth.

The children – there were actually three after Hiram spoke up – called out “Imagination!” and, poof, the non-gender specific presence appeared. “You rang, kids, so what’s the adventure? Imagination asked. “We are bored, so take us on a Halloween journey,” said two of the three.

“Ah,” intoned Imagination. “That would mean a pumpkin and a candle. You must supply those.” Off the children tumbled, racing to find a pumpkin, which Esmerelda took from her front steps, and a candle, which was Jules’ sabbath light (but his grandfather did not need it until Friday, five nights hence).

In a flash worthy of lightning on witches’ eve, the three were back on Imagination’s lap. “What do we do now?” asked Esmerelda, clearly the most articulate of the bunch.

“Carve the pumpkin and take the fixings to one of your homes and bake a pie with a mother’s help. Put the candle in the hollowed-out pumpkin, light it and place it on the kitchen table as the pie bakes.

“Then stare at the candle, all three of you together but each alone, too. You will have one hour before the pie comes out of the oven, and a few more minutes after that to let it cool a bit. Use that time to stare at the flickering light and let your minds wander. Take a trip anywhere you want, with anyone you want and do anything you want. Just tell your mother first.”

And then the three children climbed off Imagination’s lap. They scampered down to Hiram’s house, carved the pumpkin, helped his mom bake a pie, placed the candle in the pumpkin and lit it. As the wonderfully delicious smells of homemade pastry filled the kitchen, Esmerelda, Hiram and Jules, separately but in concert, stared at the flickering candle and met up with imagination (small “i”) all on their own.

And there was pumpkin pie for dessert.

Oct. 22, 2007

The Challenge for Newspapers

If I were writing this principally for those 50 and over, I could stop here. If they were the only people newspapers had to be concerned about, there would be little reason for an exposition on why news delivery must change to stay alive. The 50+ group includes many stalwart readers, hooked on the news, educated and brought up and matured to understand the value of a free press in a free society, warts and all in both establishments. An imperfect world for both, but what would be the alternative?

And therein the great danger that lies ahead, simply because they are readers and so many others, especially a growing number of younger people, are not.

Since printing began and the first sheets of paper brought news to individuals, private companies could count on people to buy enough dailies and weeklies to keep the print profession going; to support advertisers; to hold circulation stable. Now there are too few of these print readers.

The Computer Age and the Internet, the MP3 Player, the I-Pod, the Blackberry, the cell phone, video games, I-Max and the many morphings of television all snatch concentration time away from people, who seem busier than ever with seemingly endless schedules. There are fewer lunches spent with a newspaper; fewer evenings after dinner in an easy chair with the editorial page or columnists; fewer open pages of The Daily This or That spread across the kitchen table.

Now it’s to the constantly-on computer and Yahoo or Ask. Com or Google and search engines. In milliseconds, much information. News is read in headlines and short paragraphs, barely digested, understood even less. Photographs and other images steal viewer time, reducing the brain’s saturated word count.

This means fewer newspapers sold, putting some out of business. What were once cash-cow businesses that left the newsroom to do its job without interference are profit-driven companies that enact cuts everywhere and which call their papers “products” that require front office managing by non-newspapermen so as to guarantee the bottom line. Once the city room was a church, left unsullied by businessmen who could never understand that type anyway. But they made money for the bosses. Now they don’t make enough.

More than ever, newspapers are decided by profit and that affects what to cover; how deeply reporting goes; how thorough the editing is; and whether the traditional “who, what, when, where, how and why” of journalism will continue as creed or whether one or two of the pillars of fact gathering fall to cost-cutting, thereby weakening the story and journalism itself.

The Computer Age, with its great but flawed ability to offer “facts” and commentary so quickly; to spread such information around the globe; and to keep it in reference form that can out the wrong-doers presents an opportunity to add to individual knowledge and so empower him or her to self-educate. And since education leads to questioning, the hope is that the Internet’s ever more vast store of words, data and images will make our younger people more like the newspaper readers of other years — those who question, those who think.

So, the “challenge” for newspapers is really a challenge for that media and those who design and manage electronics to present information in such a way as to make the reader interactive, to want more details, to then ask questions in e-mail letters, in Internet forums and blogs.

There will always be a thirst for information. Humans have craved news since the first of us scrawled something on a rock wall. And businessmen will always want to make a profit. If they can do that in the information delivery business, fine. Might even make some of them feel a lofty goal is being met.

What we readers must do, whether we are the kind who grew up with three newspapers a day in the house seven days a week or if we are online perusers of news, is to support the information delivery financially. Twenty years ago, it cost us 25 cents to buy a chock-filled daily. Today it takes a bit of electricity, investment in a modern computer and a monthly Internet charge to access a zillion bits and pieces of news and other data.

The “who, what, when, where, why and how” still must be demanded. We must read, in print or online, then question, then react. And most of all, if there is no “why” or “how,” if any key word in the pursuit of a free and open press is missing, we must let the bean counters in the media know.

Otherwise the free press will lose the ammunition it needs to keep us safe from individuals and groups seeking to control the information flow for their own anti-democratic purposes.

October 15, 2007

The end of the pew

ANNAPOLIS, M.D. – The United States Naval Academy is, at 162 years, steeped in enough tradition to humble the visitor. That it exists as a school of instruction for future officers adds security to that.

No matter what your views are on war, it happens way too much, and our nation must be ready with trained military even if its leaders may not be up to the task at any particular moment. That is the mission of this academy.

Walking well-kept grounds of the USNA gives certainty that it is a tight ship run on land and that among the young men and women there are a few future stars, as has been the history at all of America’s service schools.

But it is the chapel where you sense the true tradition of it all, Navy-wise. John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy,” the man who told the British, “I have not yet begun to fight,” lies in a crypt here. Looking about at Navy blue-covered pews, you can envision officers and midshipmen over the decades, united in the prayers that, sadly, some would repeat aboard ship, in war and in burial at sea.

There are the ghosts of the commodores, including Matthew Perry, and other naval heroes. There seems none of the saltiness of the regular Navy, talk like my late Great-Uncle Herbert Gunther, a retired chief petty officer, could utter so freely, gesturing with his tattooed arms.

There’s a bit more elegance here, in the training of these midshipmen, who will later have the equally necessary hands-on learning from such CPOs as Herbert. Then a few will return as rear and fleet and other admirals, highly decorated and highly polished, to rest again on the Navy blue of this beautiful chapel.

More than one will sit at the end of the pew, just as they would lie at the edge of a bunk, one eye open, as battle neared or nature’s storms surged. No midshipman can do that, for they have not yet earned the right through experience and the enduring of gut-wrenching sea sickness that can hit a naval person even in calm waters.

For some the end of the pew comes in eight bells, the signal that the final watch is over.

At the Naval Academy, instruction takes place in the classrooms, aboard a training ship, in drills, but it is the reflection in chapel, first begun there as a middie and then resumed as an old officer, with more than enough sea legging and chief petty officers in between, that puts you at the end of the pew. Well-deserved.

October 8, 2007

A ‘train ride’ to the past

Orangeburg, N.Y. – If any of my readers hail from the Midwest or the West, I would like to tell them that this small community, a hamlet of Orangetown in lower New York State, figured in their area’s own history. The original Erie Railroad (1840s) ran from Piermont on the Hudson River via Orangeburg to the Erie Canal in upstate New York. Both forged the path westward.

Goods, people and the necessary equipment for the beginnings of settlement in other parts of the nation were carried from the Hudson and New York City on the famous Erie line, then sent via the 1825 Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie and the great passage westward. The combination of railroad and canal would transport social and economic change in the young nation, including the first great movement of American settlers to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians. They also made the Port of New York the greatest in the new country.

Yet, just as the 1959 St. Lawrence Seaway and the interstates have locked the canal into what is now primarily a history resource and tourist attraction, they steam-rolled many of the locomotives and the rail systems upon which they magnificently chugged into bankruptcy.

So, it is that in the year 2007, in Orangeburg, a portion of the original 1840s Erie Railroad is now a walking/biking path, paved over figuratively by “progress” and literally by the Town of Orangetown, which maintains a several-mile section from the New Jersey line at Tappan into Orangeburg.

It is well-used, as so many of these restored rail routes are across the nation. The slight grades so necessary for low-power early train engines and the gentle curves are perfect for joggers, serious and occasional walkers and cyclists.

And in Orangeburg, if you get on the path early, you can have it to yourself, walking in the quiet, through the same woods that trains passed through more than 150 years ago.

It was on such a walk recently that, in the first hint of fall, I could smell with delight the wild grapes that once covered so much of pre-suburban Rockland County. This is one of the friendly smells of my youth, now long forgotten in time and change.

But there it was again, a strong scent sent my way, and in the closing of my eyes, I took another train on a memory trip.

It was a great ride, and though asphalt now covers the old Erie rail path and there is no real locomotive, I was all aboard on this run.

Oct. 1, 2007

Beyond our suburbia

I was with The Journal News for 42-plus years, serving principally as a photographer and writer. I came to the paper on the cusp of Rockland County, N.Y., as emerging suburbia, the child of a rural county, born a bit more than a decade before the Tappan Zee Bridge opened in 1955 and the great changes that would bring.

My seasons at The Journal would parallel this suburbia’s great and unrelenting growth, added diversity, housing density, zoning violations, increased traffic, much higher taxes, an assault on precious resources like water and finally the collective eye now half open to saving what little land there is left.

It is a story not unlike that playing out in many areas of our nation.

When I arrived at The Journal in March 1964 as a “flyboy,” the fellow who catches the newspapers as they “fly” off the press and then stacks them for delivery, Rockland’s development as a major post-World War II suburb was about 25 percent complete. Today that stands at almost 100 percent because there is very little land remaining for tract homes and the houses being constructed are McMansions or multi-family units.

Rockland is now moving into “ex-urbia,” with elements of both the suburbs and urban areas, including higher buildings, added housing density, a stress on resources and, of course, additional traffic.

In my decades at the paper, politics was key, since Rockland has always been a political animal, more tied to lower New York State than the land north and west of us. Don’t forget it was the conservative Orange County residents who threw us out of the county in 1798, and we then gladly formed Rockland.

As the years have passed since World War II, most of the political base has been formed by ex-New York Cityites who knew the ward system, constituent service and patronage. That is why we have a county legislature larger than Bergen County, which has more land area and population.

Even when I was a boy in the 1940s and ’50s, a glance at The Journal News, then called by most the Nyack Journal since it was based in Nyack and once had that name, would show the lead story on any given day was about this or that government action. And so it is in 2007.

Suburban civic associations developed in every community after the war, and their successors are strong today. From their ranks came politicians and other movers and shakers.

But now Rockland faces the greatest challenge yet: How to take the graying of its suburban/once country nature and limit the urban influence so that a quality of living is not further assaulted by diminished resources, ever-higher taxes and density construction that is neither architecturally pleasing nor suitable for what land remains.

As editor of the editorial pages for 20 years and as a columnist for 25, and, really, even as an editor of various sections of the paper and a staff photographer, too, my constant mantra was to plan wisely, save open space because it is cheaper for the taxpayer and better-looking as well, and to mix communities with all income levels to assure that less decay sets in and that young families and senior citizens have a chance to live relatively well.

I advocated strong zoning and building codes and jailing for slumlords who violated them; much less strip shopping; an assault on litter; and the redevelopment of village and hamlet downtowns.

Sometimes government listened; more often they did not. Yet Rockland’s present open space plans can be traced to the call by The Journal News and by others, too, as well as to some better land planning. Hamlet center renewal, which the paper also supported, is being pursued in some of our towns.

It seems that in very political Rockland, whom you know and what you can give in the form of this favor or another has all too frequently determined how areas grow. The challenge is to end that attitude before we are beset with an urbanization that offers not charming Gotham-like neighborhoods but the negative side, the problems of cities.

When I retired in 2006, my hope was that this challenge would remain on the media agenda; it has, but not with enough attention and force. That is dangerous, for beautiful Rockland, with its fine, diverse people, excellent schools and much charity and goodwill, is at a crossing wider than the Hudson River. We can swim with the tide in our favor in future growth and in our necessary redevelopment of what is tired and shabby, or we can sink in costly urbanization that most of us will not like and from which others not among us will profit.

It is up to us, just like it is up to citizens elsewhere in this nation of much-challenged suburbia.

September 24, 2007

Taking the watch

George Lynch Jr. grew up along the Hudson River, and when World War II was raging he jumped from high school into the Navy and the oceans of danger that patriotic act presented. Back on land as a survivor and veteran, he took up the last watch as protector of his fellow military. Now he, too, has passed.

Memorial Post 7462 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Piermont, N.Y., where George served as commander is draped in bunting for the 80-year-old Sparkill resident who sailed on the USS Doherty in the European Theatre of Operations. As did so many others of his generation, George left school to enlist in the cause, later obtaining his diploma when that goal was the more important one.

A kindly man who openly shared the special bond only a veteran can have with other former military, George Lynch fought and fought to erect the “G.I. Joe” statue in Piermont. That lower New York State village was “Last Stop USA” for some 1.3 million Army personnel who during World War II marched through the community from an assembly area at Camp Shanks in nearby Orangeburg to waiting craft along the Hudson and then Atlantic transport to England.

The D-Day invasion’s landing order of movement was largely staged at Shanks with the men and materiel involved moved through Piermont then to re-formation in England.

George felt the ordinary grunt in that cataclysmic time should be recognized, so a few years ago he raised funds and cajoled politicians and others so that the statue could be cast and placed at the very corner in Piermont where the military marched.
The life-size monument depicts a waving soldier in battle gear. It is a marvelous and fitting tribute, but George had to overcome opposition to any “war” statue and was not allowed to include the Army-issued rifle (but he did sneak in a grenade).

Every Christmas George Lynch organized a post party for the surviving vets and their families, and each Memorial Day he saw to it that there was a memorial ceremony near G.I. Joe. He also arranged parties and obtained gifts for hospitalized veterans.

George’s obituary noted that his survivors include “the entire village of Piermont and Sparkill, N.Y.” That is so because this man was so immersed in the goodwill of local service that he made many friends and came to know so much of hamlet history. He shared that knowledge daily, as an unofficial mayor and full-time good neighbor.

In Piermont, as well as in Sparkill, you do not just reside. There is a special flavor along this part of the Hudson, and the great and intertwined relationship of generational families provides an anchor. As a boy, every mother is your mom, every man your uncle. As a young man, you mature under similarly watchful eyes, and the community is proud when you join others in the service of your nation.
As a returning veteran, you help the older former military make that continual readjustment to civilian life, a lifelong quest.

And as one of the surviving, older veterans, you, as George Lynch Jr. did, take up the last watch, this time not the traditional fixed period of duty aboard a ship, usually lasting four hours, but a vigil to the end.

Somehow I think George Lynch Jr. is still at his post.

September 17, 2007

‘Do no harm’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This is your nation’s capital, including the Capitol, though today’s uber-security could convince you someone else owns it. If you asked those in charge, they might just say, “No, this is a democracy and you citizens do have your government, but in these troubled times, we just thought we might keep it safe for you, under lock and key of course.”

Our recent visit here practically coincided with Constitution Day, an occasion usually observed on or around Sept. 17, the date the document was adopted in 1787. Given that some in government feel the principles of the Constitution must be modified or restrained to protect us from terrorists and that across the aisle others want a strong and public restatement of the unique concepts that have largely guided our America even in bad times, this observance is especially important in 2007.

But it will be largely ignored. Most citizens will not know what the fuss is about, and any official ceremony is likely to be noted only post-facto in a short media story in the days following.

We had our own Constitution Day a few days before Sept. 17 when, through the efforts of Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, and the very sharp Rochelle Wood of his staff, we went on an excellent tour of the Capitol, including the floor of the House of Representatives since it was in recess and thus accessible.

The House seemed so very small in contrast to the momentous decisions made there. Who has not seen film clips of Franklin D. Roosevelt giving his “Day of Infamy” speech in this chamber? Or the visiting Winston Churchill during the dark, early days of World War II?

I glanced upward and saw people wearing goose pimples as Jimmy Stewart railed for them and all the little guys in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” set not in the House but on a remarkably accurate 1939 movie sound stage. The words in that film surely were fit for the House of Representatives.

The people’s voice then and now stands in contrast to the ultra-security – the metal detectors, body searches and intense looks from the guards as we went into the Capitol, and even as we went to get coffee in the old Post Office Building, now a series of public restaurants.

Barricades are everywhere in Washington; you feel as if you are being watched. The White House tour, which you once could take on a whim, now must be arranged through a congressman well in advance and only after a background check.

Billions nationwide are being spent on these security measures – in a town where poverty, homelessness, drugs and crime fester in national shame just streets away from the White House and in a nation where a greedy mortgage market has helped people lose their homes over bad credit; where a large and growing percentage have no health insurance; where toy and other manufacturers export jobs to countries that have lax environmental laws and send back lead-laden goods; and especially in a country where there are such serious abuses of civil liberties that the statues in the halls of Congress – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and so many others – must be weeping.

There are many sayings attributed to famous people, now displayed everywhere in Congress, such as Jefferson’s “Educate the people generally” to prevent loss of their freedoms. There are timelessly apt quotations from Will Rogers, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, from all political perspectives.

But there’s room for one more in the Capitol: “Do no harm.” Be common sense secure, yes, in these post-Sept. 11th times, but do not second the hidden agenda of authoritarianism, which feeds on fear. Do not neglect your nation’s housing, health and children’s needs; and most of all don’t tell you or me that the key to our liberties must be held by a select cabal, for “safe keeping,” that the Founding Fathers’ principles must at be shelved for the “greater good of the nation.”

As that happens there is then no democracy to protect and no need for Constitution Day at all.

September 10, 2007

Beyond the specialty

The other side of my life is photography, which is much like writing because you describe something, too, only with a camera. Your verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs are the composition, the lighting, the quality of focus, the perspective you bring to the subject. The subject remains essential and you are the reporter, perhaps an interpreter, too.

No two photographers, like no two writers, will usually take a picture or describe something in quite the same way. That is to the good, for we viewers and readers sure would be bored with the same take on things. And the egos of our writers and photographers would have no ceiling limit.

When I was in newspaper work, being both a staff photographer and a writer meant I earned the title “combination man,” alias “double threat,” because I was able to perform two jobs. The editors smiled since they got their money’s worth that way.

There was some argument that combination men were really a poor choice since it is seemingly difficult to discipline yourself well in one craft if you are into another; that you might be better as either the writer or the lensman but not both.

That was true in some cases, but I also knew some brilliant newspapermen (and that includes the best of them, the women) who could make you laugh, cry, empathize and become informed as to the who, what, when, where, why and how of something, both visually and through prose.

For example, I cite one Virginia Parkhurst, who wrote and edited at The Journal News in Nyack, N.Y., for 45 years. Her reports of “routine” village board sessions were so filled with detail, accurate quotes and flawless description (without editorial comment) that you saw the characters involved and felt the dynamics of what was happening in a smoke-filled room where basic citizenry took place. The mundane story was anything but.

That was her reporting. As a combination man, Virginia might also come back to the JN building and give Staff Photographer Ken Muise a roll of 620 Kodak film, which she had run through her Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. It might be a candid shot of the same village regulars (or irregulars) that she had described so well in her story.

If the paper ran the photograph that Ken printed after he developed Virginia’s film, the JN reader would get a double-whammy from this double-threat woman.

In today’s world, there are few combination men in any craft, let alone newspapering. Good gosh, papers don’t even promote copy boys to apprentice writers and editors anymore; must have that journalism degree, as if such expert training, as valuable as it is, could substitute for native ability growing in a pioneer spirit, with fire in the belly.

Such pretension that a craft will be better served by straight-line training without detours or add-ons, without a little of this and that, is putting too much hope in specialization.

The country doctors of old were especially good at what they did because they were part-surgeon, part general practitioner, part compassionate human being, part of – yes – this and that. The hardware store man was a font of home repair knowledge. The butcher could slice you some gossip with the baloney.

It may seem that specialization – expertise – is best in a complex society but the greater blessing may be in letting people become good at what they can do beyond the assigned task that the workplace sets. We must remember that the full phrase is “Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.” That title was held by Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci, combination men who certainly were not lightweights in any applied discipline. Imagine holding them to one craft.

September 3, 2007

Harry and his truck

Two generations ago, long before driving a pickup truck was designer cool, Harry Jackson used one for work, usually a Ford or a Chevy, durable machines that were as necessary to his landscaping job as a hammer then was to a carpenter.

You would recognize Harry by his red or green or blue truck, bright and shiny and he as proud as a peacock on yes, “pickup day” at the dealer and then, as the months and years went by, the truck with a dent here and lawnmowers in the back and the honest dust and grime of a working man’s craft covering his vehicle.

In the relatively small town where we lived in the 1950s – Spring Valley, N.Y., for the record but it could have been in Maine or Colorado or California – men with craft like Harry were respected notables. Joe, a carpenter; Sam the iceman; radio and TV repair guys, they all were as necessary to a community’s smooth operation as were the doctor, the dentist, the teacher, the librarian, the pharmacist, the baker and the clergyman.

So the sight of Harry whizzing by in the red or blue or green truck over the many years he was a landscaper made the viewer silently nod in appreciation that he was on the job and in hope that others would follow him.

We see his truck no more. Instead there are what seem like a gazillion huge, diesel-powered vehicles pulling vans full of super-sized lawnmowers, weed-whackers, leaf-blowers and the other weapons assault troops use as they descend on seemingly every lawn and manicure it, gone 20 minutes later for the next home trimming. Entire days in a neighborhood can be spent hearing these troops at one home and then the next.

Harry, in his day, was an exception – just a few properties required lawn mowing, since most homeowners did their own work.

And trucks like Harry’s are now hard to find, too, replaced by designer Cadillacs, Hummers and Lincolns, huge behemoths that shout: Wash me! Pamper me!

Harry’s worth came in his honesty and good work, the respect shown to him by his fellow villagers obvious as he passed by in a dusty truck. He would have found the assault troops too much, over the top, and as for designer trucks, well that would have been like mowing a lawn in a tuxedo and white gloves. A little too frilly.

August 27, 2007

Beyond understanding (that’s good)

Most men I know are, like me, married – long married, which may defy the national norm in 2007. Whether this is by design or accident or luck or the mindset of our generations (mixed age groups here), I cannot begin to fathom. I don’t understand marriage or women at all.

It isn’t just the Mars/Venus thing. Most of my friends in life have been female, and there have been moments with some of them, not always romantic or sexual by direct act, but which have put us on the same stream current, feeding each other questions and giving and taking answers as if we were one being yet quite apart, still as necessary to each another as the writing hand. It’s been a blessing.

Yet of the gifts the deity bestows on each of us, I come up empty in the overall desirability department. Looks? Shyness? Je ne sais quoi? The mix isn’t there; never has been; and in the sunset I don’t expect the right nose job or overall body and personality lift to turn the tide. And that’s cool. You are what you are and can become. Live with it, live around it.

Still, the real tide – the ebb and flow of each day and together the days that become weeks and months and years – has been regular, as predictive as the charts for any tidal river. Someone has looked over me. Wonder who.

This posting date (August 27) is my wife Lillian’s birthday, coming in a year that notes a marriage of 40 seasons. The proverbial medal has been struck, of course, but displayed high enough above the mantle that she can’t – on one of the lesser days – beam me on the noggin.

How the woman came to travel so long and so far and give so much of her life to an oddity can only be explained in a language I do not know. But I do know the word “grateful”; I do know the words “good mother,” “fine wife,” “thick-and-thin companion.”

Lillian would be the last to admit she was often the first in her children’s once young world of growing up or now in their adult-apart existence. Her common sense, steadfastness, reliability and intelligence are her gifts, as they were to her many students in her teaching years.

She has set the tide charts for my life, and I am grateful. Don’t understand that – don’t properly decode women or marriage – but I am happy about the results.

Happy Birthday, Lillian.

August 20, 2007

The George I knew

I didn’t know George D’Loughy well, yet I knew him very well, so much so that just a few sessions of friendship in 60 or so years kept us in contact with the essence of each other.

My friend George, who passed away recently, was someone you would call a kinsman after you had just met him. We first talked to each other in the dawn of our youth at a park in Spring Valley, N.Y., George the smiling, friendly kid who helped my brother Craig and me swing a self-propelled merry-go-round.

From time to time, we would run into George at Memorial Park, always greeted with a smile, George’s outgoing nature and the great, carefree fun of the moment. That would happen in life too, in the occasional meetings.

We did not always go to the same schools. Craig and I left the Valley for Sloatsburg, Nanuet and Airmont before coming back, but eventually we met up with George, and we all graduated from the same high school. We might also run into him when we were on Main Street in the Valley since his father was at Bauer’s Market.

Each time, it was essential George all over again, accepting others without judgment, offering a big smile, his winning affability constantly there. We were not always in the same circles – sports, friends, classrooms – yet George was one of our best friends. He was best friend to many.

George won our trust and he ours so many years ago on the merry-go-round. Kids can be acutely tuned into other youngsters’ ways, as if they have special antenna, and George D’Loughy was giving out the most trusting and enduring of human signals: decency. Craig and I sure felt comfortable with this friend.

And so did everyone who knew George – as a bartender/confidante, a man who sang Doo-Wop, an engaging sort who called me just weeks before he died and told me that he had long enjoyed our friendship.

George was dying, but he did not let on, for this man of courage, even in great pain, would not call you to his side to hold his hand. He did not want you to suffer.

Instead. George D’Loughy took his strength from innately knowing that his earthly gift was that he was a good guy, that he made friends instantly, friends for life. And so many took sustenance from that gift.

You did not have to know George well – spending every other month in contact with him over 60 or so years, for example – to know him well. Craig and I understood and appreciated George in his essence the minute we met him at the merry-go-round.

As I age myself, I feel the old playing fields of our youth once again, and I can see one of our school gym coaches lining us up, then calling our names one by one to take a jog around the oval. George is waving at us – he’s run off to that merry-go-round.

Keep it spinning, friend.

August 13, 2007

The quick repair

It was one of those John Romaine days as I call them, a call for repair that ended up not as such, except to the slightly wounded psych, a reminder that we are all so very human.

Of course, the moment, in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth geographically but in the present time-wise, was not earth shattering. This was not anything serious – no one suffering, no illnesses, no war, no gang fights, no dire circumstances. So, it hardly seems worth mentioning except that maybe we have all too much news of the other sorts, and a little slice of earthly foibles might be the right voyeur ticket to get away from relentless doom.

Many years ago now, in my own youth, there was a man called John, last name Romaine, a self-taught, rather bright, utterly engaging and friendly fellow who co-owned Ro-Field Appliances on Main Street in my youthful Spring Valley, in the 1940s and ’50s a summer resort village 20 miles from New York City.

John ran the radio, then TV repair shop as the fix-it man while his partner did sales. Some of their customers included folks, the gentry too, who would phone Ro-Field and report that, say, their Philco radio console had died, that “a big tube must have burned out” and would John Romaine come with his case of radio tubes, with such exotic labels as 5Y3GT, and get the console working again in time for “The Jack Benny Show”?

John would load up his green Ford station wagon and head for the customer’s house, arrive there and quickly look at what his thought was the most obvious place to start: the wall outlet. More often than not, the radio console plug (or TV set’s) would have been pulled from its mooring, probably in vacuuming.

For some reason, the customer never checked, and though John could have told the customer via phone to do so, he liked his clients and enjoyed the calls, so he just came when called.

The customer would get some banter, gossip would be exchanged and the bonds that exist in small communities strengthened. John never charged for the pulled plug “repair.”

I had occasion this past week to do a John Romaine, in the Valley that we both enjoyed, when a local church, its building in place since the middle of the 19th century, needed a “keyed receptable” repair. In other words, the pull-chain, bare light bulb fixture in the janitor’s closet was reported as not working.

I gathered up my at-ready tools in my Blauvelt home, just as John did his in the Valley and in Hillcrest, where he later lived, and went off to the church, fittingly on Church Street, just up from what was Ro-Field Appliances.

Found the closet and light, and as soon as I pulled the chain, I knew that this might be a John Romaine repair, for it pulled easily, usually a sign that nothing was amiss. Had it stuck, that would have been a different story.

I took the bulb out, put a new one in, and it worked. Since no one was in the church at the time, I could not have the banter, the gossip, the human connection that John Romaine did on his pulled plug calls, but I did get to reconnect in memory to a fellow I admired, a style of repair not often seen today and to join in fraternity, the most important thing of all.

August 6, 2007

Hardware workings

ESSAYS

Hardware workings

Why is it that many towns, sometimes even small ones with dwindling populations, still have hardware stores – the old-fashioned variety that carry everything from a brass screw maybe made in 1940 to a modern digital clock?

Our main streets, the nation’s downtowns, have largely disappeared, decades-long victims of shopping malls and suburban strips and large chains that have the money to invest in bigger but not necessarily better.

So many main street stores are gone – the shoe repair fellow, the dress shop, the men’s outfitter, the pharmacy and, good grief, the bakery. We’ve traded hands-on service for self-service shopping, usually without a guide. We will wander with aim but not direction up and down chain pharmacy or super-supermarket aisles looking for a box of aspirin that Joe the druggist would have quickly handed over, usually with some cheerful banter. Even if he were irascible, it would be an experience to remember.

Yet while so much of American commerce is now at the mall (which is probably owned by foreign investors, not your neighbors), somehow at least quite a few hardware stores have survived.

They have aisles like the chain stores but the place is never so big that you wander with your aim not met. Besides, the proprietor is always there to help. And the store seems to have everything.

For example, I recently did plumbing work on my younger son Andrew’s home in Maryland. Of course, in the middle of that project parts were needed, since it is the Given Law of Plumbing that it shall be so. Obtaining the material actually amounted to three trips.

But Hometown Hardware had everything I needed, and the store was just a mile and a half away, not the 12 miles’ distance that a national home improvement center is.
And there I would be wandering up and down the aisles. Perhaps I would find packages of toilet repair bolts without some necessary pieces or stocked in the wrong place or out of stock, so prone to petty theft, so replete with many customers handling goods, so remote from assistance these huge stores can be.

The village of my youth had four hardware stores along a short Main Street – K&A, Scharf’s, DeBaun’s and Call Me Dave. They all did business. They all seemed to have everything, including human help.

Those stores are gone now, for Spring Valley, N.Y.’s Main Street has really disappeared, but there are still the hardware stores of old like Hadeler’s in nearby Pearl River. I can park right in front, hop in and ask for help, get the right part quickly and leave having had contact with live people, not the chain-store speaker bellowing, “Assistance needed at the front registers.”

Old hardware stores still have that human touch.

July 30, 2007

The perception of rain

Weather talk – “Looks like rain today” – is the conversation starter and saver we all hang on to, but for a child there is yet no needed crutch.

For a two-year-old or so, there is both curiosity and annoyance, as well as the practicality of the situation.

Isabella, a granddaughter from Boston and now Maryland, visiting her great-grandfather in Fair Lawn, N.J., over this past weekend, was bored with roving about a strange and very hot house and so walked to the front door where she noticed that it was raining.

Not pouring “like cats and dogs” as one of her storybooks might tell her, with a colorful picture of friendly canines and felines falling from the sky as a pretty little girl held an equally bold red and white umbrella. No, this was rain falling straight, by itself, enough for a little girl to notice.

The adults inside, ranging from age 32 to 94, punctuated their conversation about this and that with the weather bromides: “Wonder how long it’s gonna last?” “Was this predicted?” Or the newest one: “Something must be up with global warming. We are getting (too much or too little) rain these days.”

Meanwhile, Isabella, balancing one of her Velcro-held, sneakered legs with drooping sock on her toes, was queen at the front door, observing in another vein:” Poppa’s car is having a bath.”

That made her frown, for she likes her baths very much, being a water rat, but she was not sure if her father would appreciate the family car getting wet.

In the childlike way of quickly transferred observance, though, Isabella turned her attention to another take at the wet stuff, just as she moved her balance to the other foot.

“The earth is having its juice,” she was told by her grandfather, and that caused her to wonder why her morning orange juice is yellowish and the earth’s rain is clear. She was advised that the trees, the lawns, the streets and cars like Poppa’s give the rain juice their own colors.

To prove that, we stuck our hands in the rain, and Isabella saw that her pink fingers added a tint to the falling drops.

But how do the trees, the lawn, the street and Poppa’s car drink the rain juice, Isabella asked, a very practical question for a two-year-old who is constantly told by adults that she must do practical things.

Isabella was informed that there are secret tongues in the trees, the lawns, the streets and poppa’s car, and they dart about, left and right, up and down, seeking the rain juice. They do it so fast that you cannot see their tongues.

The two-year-old seemed quite satisfied with the explanation, either chalking it up as sanctified truth or silliness, since it came from the gramps who offers both.

Isabella was left to her own devices, staring deeply beyond the front door, or so it seemed. The hope was that she took a magical journey, and that the trip will be joyous and long, long enough to remember it when she, too, becomes an adult and asks the question: “Is it going to rain?”

July 23, 2007

Summer, in one place

FALMOUTH, Mass. – Anyone’s summer vacation, the subject of so many required middle school essays, is relative, and perhaps that is why English teachers long used the bromide topic. What student could not find something to write about based on his favorite season (no school)?

Well, what I did on my summer vacation this year, this time in Falmouth Heights, a lovely Atlantic Ocean beachfront area and a particular section of the Town of Falmouth, was observe — people, mostly.

This is a super-quiet beach section, with no music allowed from radios, boom boxes, TVs and boosted-bass car sound systems. While kids romp as children do on a beach, the no-music rule seems to calm them down, and their decibel level is tolerable. (Maybe it’s like not giving kids a sugar snack.)

Thirty years ago, you might have said Falmouth Heights was timeworn, like parts of the New Jersey shore but not honkytonk as a boardwalk town can become. But these days, given the 400-1,000 percent increase in water area real estate values in just a few years, big money has restored Victorian facades and new, even gifted, architecture has risen. You can call parts of the Heights classy but with unmistakable New England charm, itself a mix of down-to-earth good manners and observant, well-placed comment and criticism.

The hope is that money will not drive these good people out, replaced by Hamptons-like yahoos.

The regulars here, which include all-year residents as well as those returning vacationers who have earned their dues and place over decades of summer renewal, tolerate the odd visitor who may be loud and boorish, but the civility is so infectious that better habits are quickly learned. There is virtually no horn blowing, even if you do that all the time in, say, Gotham.

Walking the beach each morning in search of the magical light that can paint a photograph, I would see people and their dogs, each filling their lungs with peace and air fresher than that in the Northeast inversion we began to run into at New Haven on the way back home to New York State.

Just past the Seaside Inn, where we stayed so calmly amid gardens rivaling a botanical offering, was a marble bench near the beach, with the inscription, “Vera & Bill.” Neither was in sight, and this may be a memorial, but it is not difficult to imagine a couple recharging there, recalling more of the positives than the negatives in a long relationship.

On a rock jetty, a man was in a chair with his fishing pole, seemingly one with the calm ocean at low tide. It was as if it did not matter whether he caught a fish or not.

Other sights and sounds included kids with hot dogs and ice cream, bought from a very old stand on the Heights road, and the inevitable footprints in the sand, with some pressed in more firmly and others set apart with long strides.

Our stay was short – just four days, coming at the end of a weekend and before another, so it felt unlike a traditional vacation. It was as if we just popped in for a lingering moment. Less formality, too.

How refreshing that was, though, given the spell that Cape Cod, even in its heavy population growth, even in its costly real estate, can weave.

The magic is found in the sand itself, in the mini roses that adorn long-unpainted fences, in the many ghosts of Mrs. Muir found along the ocean, in the very nature of a resident Cape Codder, unique to this unique land.

July 16, 2007

Wheels turn back to past

ROCKVILLE, Md. – This large, urban-suburban and parkland community has enough small hills to recall my Rockland County, N.Y., youth, particularly the challenges for a fourth grader on his first bicycle in Spring Valley and Hillcrest.

Visiting kin recently in Rockville, I brought my current bike with me, one that costs perhaps 15 times the original and one that has enough gears and low weight to get me up the Rockville hills without standing up.

That is, unless I want to hike myself up and apply double the foot power, in the process recalling the smaller legs I had in 1954, the one-speed, heavy bicycle (maroon, with white striping) and the even steeper Valley hills, the same ones my father pedaled up and coasted down.

What satisfaction in getting up one of those hills.

The day I took a bike trip in Rockville was hot, even by southern standards. Not like my youthful Rockland summers, which could be awfully hot but for just a few days here and there. Not like today, when global warming or whatever seems to make Nature mad and to turn the oven on. In my parts, these days are hotter and particularly more humid than they used to be.

Rockville always seems hot and humid in summer, and any bike trip requires lots of water and rest in the shade. And I took care of both along Knowles Avenue.

Having just bought ice cold water at a convenience store (omnipresent these places are, no matter where you go), I pedaled up and down hills until I came to — well — a knoll, in front of the public library.

It was like old Spring Valley and the Finkelstein Memorial Library, also on a hill, off South Madison, and also with much shade provided by beautiful oak trees.

They say once you’ve ridden a bike, you never forget, and it was that way not only with the Rockville jaunt but with the rest stop near the library off Knowles, even though 53 years have come and gone in between those two library bike visits, most of the years without a bike.

Yet, thanks to the gods and a better ride, I was able to do exactly as I did in 1954: take a quiet, independent, nobody-bothering-you bike hike, get a drink (last time a Mission soda for 10 cents; this time plain water for $1.25) , find a shady spot near a library, plop the bike down and sit on the grass.

The daydreaming came easy, once again, just as before.

I am grateful.

July 9, 2007

‘The Book of Justification’

In a nation that has seen too many wars since my youth of 60-plus years ago, the month of July, with its fireworks, some parades but largely vacation and merriment, has not changed much.

The old men who saluted or held their hands over hearts at the parades in the later 1940s are there still, replaced by men as ancient as me or older.

Kids may no longer weave tri-colored ribbon in their bicycle spokes and join uninvited but welcomed in a main street parade, but if there is a march to be found, they hang about as before, riding much fancier and more expensive bikes. They remain the young excitement of any patriotic gathering.

And patriotism? Well, there is jingoism and hypocrisy and genuine pride and respect, too, all in the mixture of 2007 as in 1947. Politicians still say the same things from the stump, about motherhood, apple pie and saving the world for democracy. But crooks remain among them and deal makers and lobbyists and apologists as well as the well-intentioned and the accomplished.

And the old continue to send the young to war, referring to the “Standard Government Book of Justification” for each conflict. Somehow this tome, unwritten but understood as a bible, is passed from leader to leader, its long-ago author never revealed, its words held sacrosanct no matter which the government, no matter what the cause.

Has the world, in my scant six decades, been made safe for democracy? Has the brave soldier, sailor, Marine died in vain? Has the mother been left without son, the wife without husband, the child without father (or now mother), the friend without friend because the Book of Justification was opened to a certain page and their names were on it that day, that hour? No matter the nationality? No matter the iffy righteousness of the cause?

Abraham Lincoln hated war, though he became a master self-taught strategist during our civil conflict. Yet his Second Inaugural Address told us to go beyond war’s justification and seek healing, to promote peace not hate. Dwight Eisenhower, the architect of D-day victory, abhorred war, too, restraining the United States from conflict during his two terms and warning at his time’s end that profit and generals could in concert fuel future conflict.

July is not the month to grieve over dead military; May is. July is not the month to honor our military, living and gone; November is. July is the month of our nation’s birthday, a time to recall the bold, frightening, chancy initiative of 1776. And since the month includes the same parades, the same patriotism, the same honest respect for the flag and for the individual sacrifice of each solider, sailor and Marine as in May and November, we have a right — no an obligation — to worry as much as Lincoln and Ike did about motives justified by the same Book of Justification they themselves held and read.

July 2, 2007

Tricks of the trade

My mother, a working woman who prized an awfully clean kitchen, had precious little time for that but made sure her mission was accomplished. She used determination and experience-acquired technique, shortcuts that today seem so simple.

For example, to get the last bit of small waste out of a large sink, she moved the faucet spout quickly to the left and right, using her fingers to direct the water in an efficient, spray-like way. Presto, and the sink was as clean as if one had used an aerater attached to one of those $987 faucets people routinely buy today.

Or, she would leave a bit of Clorox stopped up in the sink overnight to bleach the white thing, old as it was. Old but never dirty, never messy.

My mother accepted no excuses in her quest for cleanliness, not in the kitchen, the single bath, the house in general or the bedrooms occupied by two young men. While she cut Craig and I some slack, knowing that we were average and ordinary in the housekeeping department, we had to toe the line enough to do a decent job of upkeep.

In those days of other and varied concern, though, we never understood why.

Back in the kitchen and in the bath, too, my mom would use her Babo sparingly – a container seemed to last many months – to make the chrome shine. Newspapers and vinegar kept the kitchen window streak-free. The oven never saw grease build up because another sort of “grease” – from the elbow – attacked the cooking place each and every time she used it. Same for the stovetop and the splash behind it.

The floor would get a washing just about every day, on hands and knees, with more Clorox. If my mom ever had sinus trouble, I don’t recall that since she seemed to keep the passages clear via the strong floor cleaning.

Saturdays, when my mother launched her most thorough house attack, chairs were taken from the kitchen, refrigerator moved, cabinets rearranged, bread drawer emptied.

I cannot recall any motorized gadgets used in the kitchen cleaning process. Just well-worn brooms, mops, scrub brushes pushed on hands and knees, recycled dish towels for sink and faucet polishing and a radiator brush to get behind the oven. All kept neatly, too, in a hall closet. Its smell still tugs my memory.

Mom, who worked because the family wasn’t rich, never used her job as an excuse not to keep the house neat, though that would have been reasonable. Yes, she received help from her attentive husband, who cleaned bathrooms, and even some from her sons, but she was queen and king of the kitchen, and it had to shine like a palace.

In the slow and relentless tragedy that is Alzheimer’s, one of the very first signs was a kitchen my mother never would have accepted. Neat enough for the ordinary but not for Patricia Gunther’s standards. The change almost made the illness easier for us to accept.

June 25, 2007

Noise by any other name

I am a fan of many home improvement shows, much like some fellows are into sports via TV. I don’t require a 50-inch HD set in a “man cave,” but give me Bob Vila or Norm Abrams or “Hometime” or just about any of the fine shows on HGTV or DIY and I can be left alone, untended. No need need to water the planted viewer.

We recently changed TV signal carriers, and so I can watch more home improvement shows. You would think this is a blessing, and in pure viewing and choice it is. But it is hard on the ears. And on the brain. And on concentration.

HGTV, DIY and some other stations, as well as individual show producers, have added heavy “music over” to the TV scenes. I call the loud rock music or hip hop “music over” because it is like voice over on a documentary or a commercial.

Only that can be artfully, skillfully, professionally done, adding explanation. What the music does is intrude. You cannot concentrate on the fellow with the hammer, and when some other person is explaining what the fellow with the hammer is doing, the music, set at a louder level than the voice, is as unwelcome as someone who interrupts a two-way conversation. It is rude.

It has gotten to the point where I put the remote on mute and just watch the scene. I lose the experts’ explanations, though.

The “music over” has jammed its way into virtually all the do-it-yourself programs, though Vila’s” Home Again” and the original Hometime” and “This Old House” do not yet allow it. Wonderful for them.

Now, this column isn’t meant to make me sound like an old geezer. I like tunes as much as anyone, but as with the whispering you do with a lover, sounds have a certain volume and intonation, a meaning, a purpose, a rhythm. What has happened on these shows is boom box blaring as people try to teach.

Maybe it’s the overly distracted world we live in, where TVs, I-Pods and boom boxes are all shouting while kids do homework, or the loud distraction we hear from ceiling speakers in some restaurants.

It all reminds me of the fellow in seventh grade, in the back row, who could not keep his feet still. Bennie moved his clodhoppers so much that frustrated teacher Rocco Fazio made him sit in socks.

I think today Bennie might be a rich home improvement show producer.

June 18, 2007

Paved over by ‘progress’

Spring Valley, N.Y. — Over on Alturas Road, between Cole and Summit avenues, on the hill once called Red Brick, many deep inches of asphalt are the burial cover of a long-gone era.

An era that saw much less traffic on the Old Nyack Turnpike, on the Alturas Road section in this once summer resort village in the country north of New York City. The Turnpike is now part of Route 59, a state highway that runs from the old Nyack port on the Hudson River to Suffern and the foot of the Ramapo Mountains.

Once, it was the main route for overland goods and people on their way upstate, until the Erie Railroad came through in the late 1840s. The Midwest and the West fueled their building via the Erie and its railroad and canal, helping forge an ever-expanding American frontier with people and goods that sank in foundations and roots everywhere.

For a long time, in the later 1800s and the 1900s until about 1968, Route 59 was a busy but local road, which it still is in 2007. But now it is a ribbon of the suburbs, flashing with neon and locked in step with one shopping strip after another. Though the state, in a bit of welcome wisdom, provided a median of beautiful trees in its widening of Route 59 in nearby Nanuet, most of Route 59 today is what you would expect of a highway anywhere.

Check into a motel off this road, and you could wake up in many parts of the United States, so similar the look and the growth.

But once, until the later 1960s, Route 59 had its quiet passages, especially the Red Brick Hill between Cole and Summit. It was classic Rockland County, once the nation’s brick-making capital, with its many Hudson yards providing the building block for 90 percent of New York City’s tenements.

Some of that brick, a longer-fired variety, found its way to the steep hill at Alturas and was hand laid against wide cement gutters on either side, a very efficient drainage system that worked for decades.

Decades, too, would the red brick lie in its clay sister earth, offering the sleepy toddler on his way to Gramps’ house a reassuring bump-bump sound off the tires, a welcome to a bed soon warm.

The hill, too, covered with packed snow and light in traffic, was a popular sledding route when adjacent Dunlop’s Hill was crowded with youth who could take delight in activity that cost nothing and which brought laughter and memories.

In the march of progress and the ever-thickening book of rules for standardized highway surfacing, the red brick hill would be paved over by Albany. And then paved again. And again.

It took numerous revisits by officialdom to completely cover the red bricks, and they are hardly recalled today.

Most “natives” of the Alturas Road area of Spring Valley are but 10 years there, certainly the elders of the ever-newer people, but without a whit of a clue that the hill they now speed along was once made of red brick.

Once, you had to slow down for the ascent and the descent, maybe not enough to smell the flowers — the black-eyed Susans — on Dunlop’s Hill, but with sufficiently slowed pace to feel the history of a road once trod by horses and wagons.

June 11, 2007

‘Higher thinking,’ perhaps

We should have realized that Hazel Margulies, a longtime elementary school teacher in Spring Valley, N.Y., was right in the 1950s when she gave us an education on state law regarding classrooms. She never got the lessons wrong.

Most of the 28 kids in the class were willing to listen to her explanation, principally because it had nothing to do with the arithmetic this task master and excellent teacher usually drilled into us.

It was a hot day, one of those knocks on the door in June that summer can bring, and the double-hung windows, so tall that Miss Margulies needed a special pole to open the top half, were letting in what air was still moving.

We had no fans, no air conditioning at the North Main Street School in 1955, but we didn’t have AC at home, either, and maybe just one table fan. Sweating was a part of life, not helped by a unstated but enforceable dress code that allowed no shorts or tank tops, just pants for boys and skirts for girls.

(Though the girls had more clothing on, they always seemed to sweat less, just as they did not freeze at the bus stop in February though their bare legs were exposed above crew socks. It’s a puzzle I have never been able to solve.)

On this particularly hot day, when outside temperatures were in the lower 90s, our second-floor classroom on the north side was not yet sweltering. In between the glazed stares from Mark Broat over fractions and Gene Jackson’s attempts to shoot wads of paper at Sondra Berg, George Kapral asked Miss Margulies why the classroom ceiling was so high. Somehow the rest of us had not noticed that it was about 12 feet, though we all stared at it often enough.

The teacher, who was thoroughly versed in all sections of state education law, such as “No hair combing in class since that may be unhealthy to others,” enthusiastically told us the statues required so many cubic feet of air space for each student. It didn’t matter how skinny or fat or tall or short or how full of hot air the particular kid was, each student got his allocated box of air.

The formula was “mathematically determined,” and Miss Margulies offered a rare smile in saying that. Thus the high ceilings. And the double-hung windows for air movement.

On hot days, heat would rise and keep the classroom cooler. On cold days, the heavy, puffing steam radiators were more than enough to warm even big rooms.
Finally, a transom window was above the classroom door to complete the air circulation pattern without much noise coming from the room (though no noise ever came from Hazel Margulies Land).

In the great post-war push to build more schools for baby boomers, coupled with higher construction costs, new designs and quick building, people rewrote the laws on air space per child and ceiling height, and eight- or nine-foot ceilings became the norm. Double-hung windows left town, too, as did transoms.

Has all this made a difference in student learning and behavior?

A recent study at the University of Minnesota, as reported on the Internet, says perhaps. It makes a case for classroom ceiling height and how the brain works. The study suggests, according to researcher Joan Meyers-Levy, that “When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts.”

Meyers-Levy and co-researcher Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia joined in forming the hypothesis. “Managers should want noticeably higher ceilings for thinking of bold initiatives. The technicians and accountants might want low ceilings,” says Meyers-Levy.

Well, maybe all that is true. The “feng shui” people tell us that architecture and mood affect brain activity and learning, as do colors and building materials.

So, I would agree, though I suspect that whatever the classroom ceiling height, Gene Jackson would still be shooting paper wads at Sondra Berg and Mark Broat would have glazed eyes over fractions.

And good, old Hazel Margulies would be citing another portion of the state ed law.

June 4, 2007

Circling to north, 2007

U.S. ROUTE 9W (Nyack, N.Y.) — Whatever journeys your life takes, I’ll bet you end up going circular every once in a while. Not in dead-end circles, but in a pattern that brings you to new experience via the same paths already taken. Like a car going through a painting shed more than once, you add luster.

Taking a circular route can include stops to pick up emotions expressed and enjoyed in decades past and using those to bring deeper dimension to something old.

This past week I found myself circling to north, carrying a precious cargo for a precious cargo, our new and second grandchild, Sam Jake Gunther, born to parents Arthur H. Gunther IV and his wife Laura Appelbaum of Upper Nyack, N.Y.

It was a difficult pregnancy, replete with dramatic medical moments and a C–section birth after 34 weeks, but at 17 inches and 4 pounds, 11 ounces, Sam came out screaming and ready for the world. As ready as his most-alive and humanly involved parents are, so how could it be otherwise?

In preparation for his arrival at the home he will now share with his parents, my son and I redid an old room, in an old house, once and often a bedroom to many others. Now it’s fit for another try at someone’s growing up.

In this room will be the usual crib, changing station, toys, etc., and also the family rocking chair, Mission style, circa 1922, that for years has made its way from here to there, down to Florida for a while but mostly remaining in Rockland County. It has been used for individual comfort and particular peace by a number of Gunther family members and others for all those decades.

It is a solid rocking chair, with old leather seat and large springs, rendered in the typical dark stain on oak that marked Mission style/Craftsman/Stickley pieces. It is not an authentic Gustav Stickley, from the famed artisan who built beautifully designed furniture in the Arts & Crafts movement, but it has similar durability. Not a joint is loose in the chair.

When I was the smallest I can recall and it was summer, visiting or living in my grandparents’ 14 Ternure Ave. home in Spring Valley, I would run to the enclosed porch and then jump up on the chair, rocking back and forth in the reassuring way a child does and to which, by human nature, we return in older age. As the years went by, straight into high school, the chair became my particular spot in that home.

It was purchased, for a week’s salary I bet, by my grandfather Arthur Sr. for his wife Maud, who was about to have my father, Arthur Jr., in 1922. He wanted her to have a comforting spot in which to rest and rock.

When the chair made its way back to Rockland after my grandparents passed away, it went to my father’s Pearl River home, where I sat in it once again and talked to my mom, who was slowly leaving us with Alzheimer’s. It was, in its own way, another rhythm for infancy, then without hope but in seeking comfort anyway.

When my mother, too, died, I inherited the rocking chair, and we sat in Blauvelt with Isabella Frances, our first grandchild, continuing the grand habit. Now it will be at Arthur’s house, for many decades I hope, and Sam Jake its first Upper Nyack occupant.

In bringing the chair to Arthur’s home, I deliberately went on a circular route from my house to his, taking old U.S. Route 9W, the very highway that carried the rocker on a snowy night in December 1932 as my grandmother and her sons Arthur Jr. and Winfield came to Spring Valley to join Arthur Sr.
Seventy five years later, the rocking chair was traveling on the same road, this time remaining north on Route 9W instead of west onto Route 59 at Nyack.

The chair’s mission is the same: delivered on the same highway to Gunthers who will use it for comfort, laughter, perhaps tears, quiet, hope and, all that is family.

Circling north, the journey continues.

May 28, 2007

On Memorial Day

Editor’s note: I gave a short Memorial Day speech in a community in lower New York State today and will use use that as this week’s column. The village was near Camp Shank’s, the largest East Coast embarkation port for the U.S. Army in World War II.

“PIERMONT, N.Y. — We are not alone here, at this corner, on this Memorial Day. In our humble tribute, we are surrounded and saturated by the spirits of the good people who marched by in 1943, ’44 and ’45.

• People like the young man from Wisconsin who saw his mother’s face on a woman he did not know, sitting on her porch off Paradise Avenue as he passed. Soon enough he would be with the 36th Infantry Division at Cassino, and the images of the two women would become one, warming his soul in the cold of battle hell.

• The fellow from Camden, New Jersey, brought to Camp Shanks in the middle of the night on a troop train, who a few weeks later would ride on a transport driven to the Piermont Pier by one of the many women of the home war effort. Maybe he recalled her deft steering of the deuce and a half when he saw the Red Ball Express materiel delivery teams after the breakout at St. Lo and the race to the Rhine.

• The two brothers who last touched American soil at Piermont, one off to the U.S. II Corps at the Kasserine Pass and the other with the 45th Infantry at Ragusa, Sicily. Only one son would make it back to this good earth.

• The older man, a private anyway, who was not drafted but who joined and became “Pop” with the 106th Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge. The calm hills over Piermont, one of his last sights of America, were in his mind in bitter cold, snowy woods of that awful blitzkrieg December.

• The fellows who shaped up at Shanks for the 32nd Field Artillery and the First Medical Battalion, units that saw a quiet U.S. sendoff and then the shouting, cataclysmic horror of D-day and D-day plus one.

• And all the men, almost all civilian soldiers, once machinists, salesmen, the unemployed, farmers, professional workers, sons and fathers, neighbors and strangers, immigrants and Native Americans and all whose forebears came to this nation free or not.

They are the spirits who once moved as humanity through this Piermont, past this spot where the inanimate but full-of-life G.I. Joe statue gives constant nod to their service, their courage, their sacrifice, their protection of one another.

This scene of continual reverence plays not only on this Memorial Day in Piermont, but on every day of the year, in every year, in every small and big town in these United States. Not one community has been left untouched in the world wars, by the Korean and Vietnam wars, and now by Iraq.

Wars are fought by the then living and endured for decades afterward by the survivors. The memorials we erect to those gone are in worthy and humble tribute and comfort the living, but it cannot end there.

What Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg must be remembered, must be repeated at each gathering such as this:
‘It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.’

Many good people, many ordinary ones made so extraordinary in calamity’s forging, marched past this little spot in Piermont on the way to war. Not all returned, and those who did had to live the lives of their buddies, too, fulfilling the promises of a safe and secure democracy, so that, as Lincoln added,
‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

You hear such voice still, here in Piermont, from the one-million-plus spirits who passed through to the European Theatre of War. They will never stop speaking, in this village and in all of this America.

We must listen.”

May 21, 2007

Al’s roaring engine

We once had a neighbor named Al, who owned an auto repair and appraisal shop in New York City. He was the Karnell Street (Hillcrest, N.Y.) alarm clock, warming up one of his take-home cars, usually with a bad exhaust, for the Gotham commute. I managed to get up for school on time each morning because of Mr. Winnick.

This highly decorated Army Air Corps gunner and crew chief knew loud sounds well, having miraculously survived 50 World War II bombing missions on a B-17 with the 97th Bomb Group of the 414th Bomb Squadron, in both the North African and European Theaters of Operation.

You can imagine the flack noise, the sound of the rounds from his turret gun and other arsenal and the bombs themselves. How he and his crew on “There and Back” beat overwhelming survival odds is testimony to luck and skill.

Al Winnick would marry his Theda on VJ-Day 1945, a union that lasted 62 years until his passing last week at age 85. By then this man, who lived through hell in the sky when only in his 20s, had acquired a peaceful life in Florida, taking his longtime residency in Hillcrest and the Spring Valley area as a cherished memory.

This man was a good neighbor -friendly, as were his children Stuart, Nadine and David, all part of an early suburban crowd that saw each other’s families grow up in the American Dream of rising expectations and optimism in the Eisenhower years.

New housing developments and shopping strips were as ubiquitous as the brighter colors on 1950s’ fin-tailed automobiles. The war that he and others fought had, even in such horror, built a successful post-Depression America and a reconstructed Western Europe.

Al kept his property neat and only sold his Sol Kuperman expandable Cape Cod-style home, as did many original residents, because a lack of municipal planning had added density and illegal home conversions to the neighborhood that he and my family once called home.

This was not the neighborhood Al Winnick and so many others had extended from his Bronx upbringing, and it was not the community that I and other natives extended from country-like Spring Valley.

Somewhere along the way, too much profit-oriented construction and too little building code oversight had put a cloudy film on the aquamarine and cream-colored 1956 Plymouths and red and black 1957 Chevrolets, their hubcaps now missing in a grayed suburbia that has all too often been lost opportunity.

Al and Theda probably well enjoyed Florida. That state has so frequently been the next and final frontier for people chasing the American Dream.

While the Winnicks were in my neck of the woods, they did their part to further the hopes and aspirations of a nation, Al particularly, with his war service and then his participation with Theda in trying to make suburbia work as a community. Even his early morning car warm-up was as welcome as a nod from a neighbor on the old-fashioned front porch.

May 14, 2007

Of necessity

Years ago, decades actually, this once young man watched as an older fellow carefully straightened bent nails taken from discarded wood. “Why,” I asked?
The man said he would reuse them, but I wondered why he bothered, since an ample-sized box of 10-penny nails (three-inch pieces) then cost about 89 cents and could meet home use for a very long time.

I missed the point, literally. It was “Waste Not, Want Not,” and it was the attitude that counted. And what came with the exercise.

Now, older myself but not always wiser, for I still don’t straighten bent nails though the cost for a box of 10ds is now about $4, I did find myself in the attitude lesson recently. Of necessity.

I was into a home improvement project, the sort that seems to come in retirement like bills long overdue, when I needed a caulking gun. Did not want to run to Beckerle Lumber yet another time (my average home repair/renovation seems to be two trips a day, at least), so I grabbed the caulking gun I had in the garage.

It was caked with white and gray and clear caulk though only about a year old and the advancing mechanism was frozen. I had once again failed to clean the gun, something my grandfather, or the fellow who straightened bent nails way back, would not have done.

After the last use, I figured I would just buy another gun, for about $4. But here it was eight hours into a May 2007 project, and I was too bone-tired to go to the store. So, I played old-fashioned. Sitting down, half for rest, half for concentration, I carefully and slowly peeled the old caulk off the gun and then cleaned the metal with a solvent and oiled the advancing mechanism.

Not only did the gun work, but it performed better than when I bought it. There was real satisfaction, too, in not only saving a few dollars and avoiding another stress-filled trip on ever-busier roads, but in silently meeting the approval of the oldsters who “wasted not, wanted not.”
I may never buy another caulking gun. I like this one too much now.

May 7, 2007

Waiting at the crossing

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — In a time warp, it seemed, I sat in my grandfather’s 1940 Chevrolet and I was the driver, though in that model year I was not yet born. But there I was, on Main Street in this lower Hudson Valley village, third car back, waiting for the train to pass on the Pascack Valley run.

People have waited for that train since the 1840s, long before automobiles. Cows, too. Farmers, tradesmen, children late for the South Main Street School, too.

The Main Street crossing, in 2007, as decades before and in a third century back, is and was non-descript and in that quite descriptive of small-towns anywhere in America — a train crossing set on a principal street, a stop in someone’s — many ones’ — day, every day.

What thoughts does one have in the car waiting for the ordinary train in the ordinary town and in ordinary time?

I imagined I was my grandfather, though the other day I sat in a 2005 Toyota and was far older than my 41-year-old gramps was in 1940. He might have had work on his mind; I had retirement. He might have been concerned about a war far away, not yet involving America but which could some day soon include his two sons; I was, as so many of us are, concerned about the loss of life and perhaps so much else in an undeclared war today.

I, too, thought of two sons and a grandchild and another on the way. I thought of Spring Valley, where I learned to drive, as did my father, crossing this crossing. I thought of the K&A Hardware store at the train crossing, for years server to the farmers’ trade and the orchard growers, too.

I thought of first dates and before that walking to the village movie theater and of taking photographs for The Journal News in my early career, each time stopped at the crossing for a moment. I thought of my family in a God-awful 1973 Pinto, which could have stalled before it crossed the tracks.

I thought that I was the third generation to wait at this crossing, and my heart was beating and my mind was thinking and my body was responding just like my grandfather’s did in 1940, and my father’s in 1950.
My own sons have crossed this track, too, and so has Isabella, the great-great grandchild of the guy in 1940.

Spring Valley is hardly recognizable from my grandfather’s day. Shopping malls and the march of suburbia have done a number on downtowns all across America. But since a village is not only the present but memory as well, when I wait at the train crossing on Main Street, Spring Valley, I do not have to be in 2007 but in 1970 or 1980.
Or as my grandfather in 1940.

April 30, 2007

No echoes in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just a short walk from the fortress that is now the White House, isolated from what its present inhabitant apparently fears is the terrorism of public opinion, are the words of a flawed but arguably great president and eloquent speech-maker, Franklin D. Roosevelt, carved in the granite of his immense and hallowed memorial.

It is questionable whether the present occupant of the temporary seat as the people’s chief representative has read, in place, the common-sense, Jeffersonian- and Lincoln-like sayings that accompany such classic FDR/U.S.1930s and 1940s scenes as bread lines and rural electrification. Modern presidents do not walk about the District of Columbia as Harry Truman did or get around Washington and the nation, as FDR managed even in hidden infirmity. Now the presidency, like the country, is often in lockdown, a self-fulfilling affliction that does not, as claimed, protect democracy but eats at it.

Even if the president in 2007 would take a walk among the fountains of the FDR Memorial and look up at the carved words, so often delivered in wonderfully direct, arm-touching “fireside chats,” the fear is he would not understand, so opposite is his political philosophy about the natural, God-given, inalienable rights the citizens possess.

“We must scrupulously guard and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, no matter what their background,” reads one Roosevelt inscription.

“We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our nation” proclaims another.

There are no echoes in Washington these days. In one part of town – the people’s town – is a sitting president who will not or cannot read history to the point of applied understanding while just a short distance away is the visible commemoration of a long-gone leader whose words, from an acknowledgement of the divine rights of the people, offer the nation’s real life force.

Which is the truly dead presidency?

April 23, 2007

Spring, sprang, sprung

BLAUVELT, N.Y. – When I was a youngster in these parts far enough north of New York City to call the area rural and country in the 1940s and ’50s, a Saturday in spring would usually include a walk in the woods or fields wherever we lived: Spring Valley, Airmont, Nanuet, Tallman, Hillcrest. It was always an imaginary experience. For the kingdom, in such vast, undeveloped acreage, was your own, though an 11-year-old could not hold title.

My mother occasioned such exploration by throwing brother Craig and me out of the house each Saturday so she could clean, the only day she really had since she worked five days a week and wanted, quite naturally, to put up her feet on Sunday.

We would be out and about for several hours at least, sometimes meeting with friends to play hide and seek or cowboys and Indians or to spend time in home-built winter straw and old wood huts, with a small fire and hot Campbell tomato soup for lunch.

Other times, often enough, I would be alone, an independent spirit renewed each spring by the awfully delicious smell of new buds on the trees and flowers, amazed once again that the earth could reawaken after the winter’s cold. What optimism that brought for my next journeys in life.

Sometimes, on my foraging in the woods, and particularly the fields in Spring Valley off the Old Nyack Turnpike, my foot would hit a puddle and I would see gurgling up from the ground a steady current of water. I would step down hard, thinking I could close this natural faucet, but I could not. I just increased the pressure, and a small geyser would result.

After the first spring was sprung, I asked my father what I was seeing, and he said, yes, it was a natural spring, quite fresh, flowing water that was abundant in Rockland County, since this area lies atop a Glacial Age formation of underground caverns and aquifers. For years after that, I would marvel about the many springs I found and would tell others, with imprimatur of course, the story my father passed to me.

Springs have not been on my mind for many decades now, and the once-pleasant memory has now taken on a twisty of maturity. After living in my colonial-style home with basement for 34 years, the recent freakish rainstorm seriously flooded our cellar for the first time.

Eight inches of wet stuff in just 12 hours, combined with runoff from neighboring properties and the loss of area flood plains in over development conspired to give us almost 700 gallons of water that we had to bail out or water vacuum.

At some point, after the great Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Department had pumped us out and the water returned, I resorted to a rented jackhammer so I could sink a sump pump. As soon as I punched the first hole in four inches of concrete, the water shot up, and once the hole was dug, what did I see? Two springs, running full.

But this time I was not 11; I was not in an open field on a sunny day; I was 64, had a big tax bill; and owned a basement filled with finished basement inundated by water.

These 2007 springs sprang less idyllically. But it’s nice to know that Rockland still has some left. I thought all the Huggy Bear Estate housing developments had covered them all.

April 16, 2007

“Kilroy was here”

Washington, D.C. – On a trip south from my usual perch in Rockland County, New York State, the Red and Blue Lines of the very good District of Columbia subway system delivered us to the Smithsonian Station, and coming up for daylight was a goose-pimple moment.

It isn’t that I haven’t been to the nation’s capital, or the Capitol for that matter. Took the two boys once, and my parents brought me here in the days when you could park – free – just outside the Supreme Court building. Yet the sight, even for a fellow in his 60s, of the soaring needle that is the Washington Monument, then the old (and new) buildings of the Smithsonian, then in turn the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln Memorial and the newer, magnificent outdoor sculptures that are the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Korean War memorials, was reaffirming.

Even in a troubled democracy, even in a time when some do not read the rules and make their own, the roots set by Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, et al., and reinforced by Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, among others, are thriving in the Potomac basin, nurtured by the citizenry and others who visit Washington.

One of the most stirring of sights is the large collection of granite columns and blocks that acknowledge those who served in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II, just at the end of the Reflecting Pool that leads to the Lincoln Memorial.

Dedicated by the first George Bush, it is an impressive and overdue paean to so many who gave their lives, their limbs, their psyches, their sense of citizenry to a nation and world. But the best tribute to those good men and women is not the expansive monument itself, with its own reflecting waters, but what some would proudly call a scrawl, almost hidden in a corner.

It looks like graffiti, and technically it is. So, when you approach the drawing and writing on the back side of the memorial, you begin to get angry that someone would do this at such a sacred site.

But, ah, it’s not desecration at all but a hallelujah to the ordinary man and woman of the wartime years. The writing reads, “Kilroy was here,” and the drawing is of the unique figure popping his eyes over a line, which might be a wall.

The phrase and doodle are usually attributed to James J. Kilroy, an American shipyard inspector, who worked at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Quincy, Mass., where he supposedly used the phrase and drawing to mark rivets he had checked. It caught on with Americans at home and in the Armed Forces and popped up everywhere, in both war theaters.

Whoever thought to include this very American bit of independent irreverence was brilliant, for it catches the spirit of this still young nation itself, and the reasons why we have a Bill of Rights, the Constitution and, at times, great leaders who understand the vision and carry it forward.

The late columnist Ernie Pyle would note over and over that the military he met were just citizens, not professionals – doing a job they were called upon to perform, to do it well and then to go back to being citizens.

Amid all the military drilling, all the rules, all the saluting was always the pen- or pencil- or crayon-scrawled “Kilroy was here,” as if to remind necessary bureaucracy and command that there will always be, in this America, a personal identity.

At the World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.

April 9, 2007

The red tape mess

TAPPAN, N.Y. — Here in this historic hamlet where they hanged British Maj. John Andre as a Revolutionary War spy, some volunteer firefighters of late feel as if their own necks, always on the line for emergencies, have been stretched by the modern government.

At least by a branch of that authority, the Orangetown municipal boards, specifically planning and zoning.

The volunteers are truly that — not paid — highly trained fellows and gals who turn out at ungodly hours like 4 a.m., often in bad weather, crawling through smoke and 1,200 degrees to save lives.

A few years ago, the Tappan smoke eaters sought to build a new firehouse to replace an 1800s structure that cannot house modern, sophisticated fire rigs. The volunteers thought they would have an easy time of it, since they give so much to the community. But government saw a flood plain of the Sparkill Creek, needed more than ever now since past government allowed so much upstream construction, as well as a road made busy by that growth and such rules as side lot clearances. They decided to snail pace the project.

Town hall deemed the firefighters mere citizens who would have to abide by all the rules and go through the usual permit process, one that can take an awfully long time.

The volunteers resisted and went to the state courts, where they were told, after a lengthy and costly fight, that they were indeed ordinary, that their claim of being a government entity was too distant from fact and that the fire company must take baby steps in its building plans.

An odd bit of reasoning considering that if town hall wanted to construct a new structure, it could probably move ahead with abandon. No matter what is built, the ecology absolutely should be protected – that is a given — but town hall or a firehouse, which serve the public interest, ought to be on a more deliberate track. Get the thing built, built right, but get it done. There is a public need.

By the time the long-winded court process was concluded, Orangetown and the Tappan volunteers had already agreed to move ahead. The new firehouse will be built, as it must be. Environmental safeguards will be taken, as the firefighters always intended.

(Why would the volunteers, hamlet residents themselves, jeopardize their own backyard when they put their lives on the line to save property?)

Thom Kleiner, the town supervisor, is quoted as saying after the court decision: “What we have to ensure is that the communications between” the town and fire departments is such “that our emergency volunteers need not resort to legal proceedings to move ahead.”

Yup, and one wonders why that common sense handwriting wasn’t on the wall in the first place.

April 2, 2007

The other ‘suit’

Humility is a suit of its own, as fine and potentially well-fitting as a London-tailored pinstripe, only it’s to be worn even when you are digging trenches. And we should all be doing that in life.

It’s difficult to talk about – write about – humility because if you have it, and again we all should try, you can’t shout that fact from the rooftops. You cannot say, “Hey, look at me. I am a rich man, but I have humility.” And it is almost contradictory to try, since humility can be defined as having “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.” Most rich people, for example, left modesty back on the first rung of the Horatio Alger ladder of success.

Humility is also described as “meekness, diffidence, unassertiveness; lack of pride, lack of vanity; servility, submissiveness,” but we all know people with true humility who are not meek. The late Mother Teresa of Calcutta was quite humble but very assertive in serving the poor and in getting wealthy people and governments to offer their own form of encouraged humility by assisting the cause.

I would rather think of humility as a shower you take after feeling all too self-important, and it’s one that should drench you quickly, like a burst to the face with ice water after a night of too much drink.

In the sobering reality of life, you cannot always be in overdrive or even top gear. You cannot strut as a peacock forever, even if you wanted to, because someone will douse you with a come-back-to-earth spray of the humility we all should have in the first place.

Sometimes karma seems to bring humility. I’ll tell you a story about that. Recently, I was one of three Rockland County, N.Y., people honored by the Historical Society with their annual “Lifteime Achievement Award.”
Harriet Cornell, the longtime Democratic party chieftain and now the first female leader of the local County Legislature, surely deserves the honor for her decades of strong support for protecting Rockland’s history and saving open space.

Joyce DeSousa is an equally eligible recipient for her relentless, filled-with-moxie volunteer efforts.

They hit me with the award because I was able to write from my longtime perch as editor of the Editorial Pages, The Journal News, about history, green space and good planning.

I think we were were all humbled by the award, which is the expected behavior. So, no cheers for any of us in that.

But, having left the festivities, I was given another push toward humility – just in case I had forgotten to hit my face with water – when Albon Man, one of my mentors in the Historical Society, was spotted fussing with his car after the battery failed.

We went over, I gladly took off the pinstripe suit jacket, put on an old sweater, a “schmatte” that I carry in the car, and happily got my hands quite dirty connecting the cars with jumper cables.

What a wonderful return to earth.

March 26, 2007

Overdue on good planning

Almost anywhere in these United States you will find terrible overgrowth – too many homes and too much strip shopping and the consequences of both, including heavy traffic, long commutes and stressing of the water supply and other natural resources. People endure a hell-bent life that seems to turn too many into automatons racing to pay the mortgage.

It all began, of course, with the Pilgrims and other early settlers, because the vastness and virginity of America encouraged not only the Mayflower but subsequent migrations chasing an ever-expanding frontier.

We still think we will never run out of land, and while some of the great reserves of the West and other regions remain, even there you find such a concentration of people and their trappings that you know there has not been good land-use planning.

The American frontier was effectively expaned by President Eisenhower when he authorized the interstate highway system in the 1950s, which continues to be built and rebuilt. That has opened up so many areas to growth.

Now, it is not growth that is improper. People have a right to relocate, to seek the “American Dream,” but the cost of doing so has to be balanced against the need for orderly development, renewed resources, energy conservation, good architecture, reasonably sized homes and not McMansions, etc.

I was privileged yesterday, March 25, to be one of three people who received the Rockland County (New York) Historical Society Lifetime Achievement Award for, in part, editorials and columns I wrote on the county’s history and the necessity to recognize its lessons in Rockland’s continuing growth. With your indulgence, I include my short remarks to the Society, because, I suggest, they have application in other places, too:

“Thank you for this award, which humbles me.

“May I suggest that it is not just given to we three recipients tonight? Nor is it from the 2007 Historical Society alone.

“It is for any and all people who cherish history, especially our Rockland past, and who seek to learn from it. And it is given not just by the present fine historians of this society but also by those now gone, such as Leland Rickard-Meyer, Blackie Langer, Wilfred Talman, John Zehner and so many others.

“And the award also recognizes those many people over our more than 200 years in Rockland who have been inquisitive about our roots and those who seek now to be their better guardians.

“History is so vital today in this county, one of the most suburban in the nation, with all the attendant problems that our 50-plus year-style housing development has brought in isolation from our downtowns, in more traffic, in ever higher taxes and a sapping of resources; where all too many historic homes and other properties have been lost; where poor land use planning has bulldozed us with overgrowth; where the water supply is drawn down and assaulted with pollution; where the scope of a replacement crossing at the Tappan Zee may be decided by transportation funding managers in Washington, pointing at a map and what they call the needs of a ‘corridor’ and not acknowledging the cost the present bridge and enlarged Thruway have inflicted on Rockland in negative air quality, noise and traffic congestion; and where urban-style high-rise and other density housing are improperly suggested for single-family and semi-rural areas.

“We have endured the sometimes ignorant avoidance of our Rockland history — our roots, our diverse peoples, our place in the building of this America and our capacity for goodness. That history could have been built upon with reasonable growth tied to fully revitalized downtowns, more protected space and increased interstate traffic routed north of the county, not through the geographically smallest in New York outside of the five boroughs.

“Now we must learn from our mistakes and plan wisely for the land that is left, so that in 100 years’ time our children’s children’s children will gather to bestow a lifetime achievement award on some future born who could then stand and proclaim: ‘The tide began to change in 2007.’ ”

March 19, 2007

The seasonal routine

Once, long ago for me now but a current wonder and benefit for other families, I had a fine and wonderful grandfather, Arthur H. Sr., who lived in what was for me a magical place called Spring Valley, N.Y. This village in my very young world of the 1940s and ’50s was very small-town, with old-time families, a class structure, yes, but also respect earned for the individual through character. My Gramps, a blue-collar foreman of the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe Co., was well respected.

And we, his grandchildren, worshipped him. He was witty, played practical jokes, talked politics with my father, wrote critical letters to presidents and catered to his wife and my grandmother, Maud.

Their home at 14 Ternure Ave. was a circa 1910 white clapboard house built by the Haera family next door and rented in 1936 by Gramps. But to my industrious and frugal grandfather, that was throwing money away, so he managed to buy the place for a mortgage of $25 a month, which he quickly doubled to $50, at a total price of $4,000, giving up his first new car and hoofing it to work almost two miles away so he could afford the deal.

He kept the property spic and span, for he was a neat person, and besides, so did 99 percent of his neighbors in those relatively litter-free days of a Depression-era society in which consumer goods were hard to obtain anyway and fast-food wrapping had not yet been produced to satisfy our ever-quickening pace.

In his neatness, Gramps would trim the moss between his sidewalk slabs, using an old kitchen knife that he kept sharp with a stone, in the fashion that his father taught him and with a skill grown from patience and necessity. He kept the knife in his garage, on a nail peg, and as I grew older, I became the moss cutter.

In the winter, when the snows hit hard, as they seemed to do more often in my youth, my father Arthur Jr., my brother Craig and I would drive from where we lived (always nearby, in various parts of middle and western Rockland County) and help Gramps shovel the two lengthy walks that right-angled his corner property.

Such shoveling was required by law, then as now (though often not enforced in 2007). But this snow removal was also necessitated by my grandfather’s ways. He simply could not have a snowbound property, no more than he could have a littered landscape.

It did not matter if he had to get up at 5 in the morning to restock the coal furnace and take out the ashes from the day before and then shovel a walk. He and almost all his neighbors did the same thing, and I can tell you he was awfully happy he had a furnace. His own childhood came with some years of pot-belly heaters and coal cook stoves.

As we grew older, so did my grandfather, and though he was still younger than I am now, my father felt he should have help in the shoveling.

But it was more than that – a rebonding of family, with my Nana offering cookies.

Such a simple thing, this snow shoveling, this seasonal responsibility, and though it came in such very cold weather, it offers a quite warm memory.

March 12, 2007

Babo, Ipana, Rinso, Oxydol …

The freeze-frame images of anyone’s past
probably include a slide show of consumer products popular at the time. I can, for example, see the Rinso detergent box on the sink counter, ready for my mother’s by-hand laundering.

She used that brand as well as Red or Blue Super Suds, but then she gave up “Rinso White, Rinso Bright” for Oxydol, which was detergent with bleach.
(Odd that today’s TV hawkers push cleaning goods with the letters “oxy” in them, as if rediscovering that a bit of ordinary bleach can clean as well today as it did 100 years ago.)

But household product marketing is all about the new and better thing, even if it simply has a new name or container but the very same ingredients. And most of us, suckers that we are for the snake-oil salesman, will even pay more for the privilege of buying the same old, same old but in a new look.

In our various homes of the 1940s and 1950s in Rockland County, N.Y., my family also used Ipana toothpaste, which promised spectacular brightening, though that didn’t mean much to a kid who was going to lose his baby teeth anyway and who had to be reminded every night, like millions of others, to brush his choppers.

That toothpaste was the subject of a great radio commercial (“Brusha, Brusha …”) and replaced the brand Craig Martin in our household.My brother Craig William was named after the dentifrice when my mother and father could not come up with a moniker and one of them walked into the bathroom.

On the sink near Rinso or Oxydol was Babo (“The Foaming Cleanser…”) which my mother swore by – again – for its bleaching properties. No matter how old and worn the sinks were in our various homes, she got them awfully spotless, including the chrome. For years I thought it was the Babo, until I realized it was my mother’s hard work.

In the 1950s, after we bought our first TV, the radio jingles became past history, as did most of the products we had been using. The great optimism of that decade brought new household goods, colorfully packaged in a modern look mean to mimic flight and the next frontier – space. TV would carry commercials that underscored an exciting and trusting leap into the future.

It is a comfortable feeling, of course, this recall of detergent boxes, etc., in my mom’s kitchen. And in looking at the history of these products via the wonderful Internet of our present time, learning such tidbits as the key ingredient in Rinso (“Solium, from sunlight”) takes you back on a nice road trip.

Sure, those Rinso commercials on radio’s “Big Town” were 90 percent baloney, but hearing them again or reading their copy gives a warm connection anyway. One of the greatest things about the America I grew up in was its optimism despite a terrible world war and the lifelong effects of a crippling depression.

If a product were hawked with a radio or TV jingle like “They’ll know you’ve arrived when you drive up in the 1958 Edsel,” you didn’t have to believe it. The marketplace would later decide the worth and desirabilty of the goods being sold (the Edsel, of course, bombed). But in the hawking, there was hope that something better was coming your way, even if it was “new and improved.”

March 5, 2007

The Isabella Moment

Any grandparent wants to coo about the children of their children, for familial pride is akin to you personally being responsible for continuing the human race. You tend to see the very best in the grandson or daughter and rarely the warts. You are not critical of them as you were with your own children, nor as judgmental as you can be with your kin’s spouses.

Yet we don’t all carry the grandchildren’s photos in our wallets and show them to everyone who feels obligated to add to the cooing. Some of us grandparents even have a hard time making a real fuss over our grandchild infant or one- or two-year-old, perhaps preferring, by innate nature, to watch the young one grow out of the corner of our eye, to be amazed that halting steps can be taken after race track crawling; that food can be eaten in funny, adaptive ways, the spoon turned about like a musical baton; that a scrunching of your own face is returned; that what they call you can actually be uttered by such tiny voices, learned by tiny, constantly developing brains.

All this and so much more happens in nature’s course, God willing, seemingly in the blink of an eyelid, between visits.

Children are both egalitarian and selective, hopping from one person, even one grandparent, to another, fickle in their short attention span. You are never their king or queen for long, it seems, nor should you be. The child must relate to so many people and will become the sum total of his or her own personality, upbringing and interaction with relatives, friends, teachers and others.

But sure as you know this child is alive and growing, sure as you know that so much learning is taking place as the brain grows its synapses, and bridges of understanding and roads to the future flash electrically across, with memory and experience stored; sure as his or her very being is unique to the world and there will be so many others within, you sense there is a door to this young one, that you, on a personal visit, can visit within for the first time and forever. A door for you alone.

I found such a door a week or so ago when my first grandchild Isabella Frances was in town from her Maryland home. With time split between us and her other grandparents, Isabella made the required rounds. She had her toys and so her castle, in each house; each person who lifted her had things to say, questions to ask, words to coax out of Isabella.

And she obliged everyone, for an instant, happily chattering away in her own native language, one which so many adults once had a version of, too, but the words of which – those unique pronunciations, those meanings – now forgotten in long disuse.

The Isabella moment came for me when she and I were on a front porch, Isabella in a large rocking chair, enjoying the rhythm not so much in the comfort way a child finds rocking but as contentment.

We did not have long, she and I, for it was return time to Maryland and her father’s arms awaited. Besides, she would not have remained long in the rocking chair, her arms and legs and voice and eyes looking for the next thing to do.

Just before I scooped her up and handed her off to her dad – my son Andrew Edward, who is a natural magnet to his daughter – Isabella looked at me. Our eyes were wide-open doors, and we both went through. I said in the only greeting and affirmation possible: “I love you Isabella Frances,” and I know she understood.

She will not recall this moment, this nearly two-year-old. But it is in her subconscious memory, which has a link, I believe, to her soul.

It was our own understanding, and though she will have so many others with kin and friends, in that moment, on that porch, this child and I were bonded beyond blood. The little girl, yesterday an infant, a grandchild with bragging rights, as all such young offer, was irrevocably tied to my being, and I to hers.

No wallet photo could duplicate that.

Feburary 26, 2007

Tappan Zee visionary needed

“Hands Across the Hudson” was the 8-column banner headline splashed in bold and heavy type on the cover of a special section put out in December 1955 by The Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., until then a ferry stop across the Hudson River from Tarrytown. The metaphorical hands were the steel pieces of the Tappan Zee Bridge, connecting the people of Rockland and Westchester counties. Or so the vision went.

The reality, almost 52 years later, has sadly, dangerously and costly lacked such Robert Moses-style grandiose, great-scheme planning, instead focusing on one need and that only: a “cash register” for the new Thruway in New York State from Yonkers to Buffalo.

The road would end up being named for Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a promoter of the Empire State’s own Autobahn, and the bridge for Malcolm Wilson, one of so many successive governors who would fail to forge a fully planned vision for the Thruway and the areas it travels through, especially the now heavily overused and decrepit Tappan Zee Bridge.

The crossing, its name suggested by Norman R. Baker, a longtime Journal-News editor, has never acted as a joining of the hands between two counties, bolstering each other’s economy, for example. The Hudson is a great divide, and the peoples of Rockland and Westchester are quite different in outlook and disposition, the east side geographically large and with more than a few pockets of affluence, and the west side – Rockland – an ever-growing, ever-more diverse suburb of New York City, one literally developed by the Thruway, the Tappan Zee and the Palisades Interstate Parkway.

No, the crossing from Tarrytown to Nyack was never part of a vision to symbiotically join two counties. Instead, it was a realtively cheap rush job, a crossing pre-fabricated with the lower quality steel America was making in the Korean War period and thereafter, until it lost its industry to the Japanese and the Germans.

The “great planners” at Albany, not a Robert Moses among them, simply looked at a map and placed the Tappan Zee as far south as they could, just 25 or so feet from the river area governed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which sought a Hudson crossing near the New Jersey border.

The Thruway fellows believed they had to tap into the commerce bound to and from New York and New England, and the travelers who would go to the Catskills and the rest of the state. That would be a lot of trucks and cars, and many 50-cent tolls either way. The bridge could be the cash register that retired the Thruway bonds by the 1990s.

The bonds were indeed paid off, but the expensive-to-maintain Thruway has never become the free road once envisioned, and the stressed Tappan Zee, its cash register till increasingly overflowing with toll money, is needed more than ever to support this part of what in Dwight Eisenhower’s time and after has become the huge U.S. interstate highway system. The bridge money is also required for constant Band-Aid approaches to fixing a crossing with dangerous punch-through holes, with frequent and sometimes massive traffic backups to make those repairs.

Government in Albany moves ahead slowly on a bridge replacement, offering schemes that seem not to take into account local needs and concerns nor with any look forward. In Washington, there is just a stirring of concern even though the Tappan Zee is part of the Eisenhower Defense Highway network.

In short, there is no vision on replacing the Tappan Zee.

Robert Moses-style direction was never in the picture for the crossing back in the 1940s planning, nor would his dictatorial style have been wanted, given his unfettered assault on mass transit and the destruction of old New York City neighborhoods in the name of “progress.”

Today, New York City is strangled by traffic, an aging mass transit system unable to relieve that. Its gridlock is echoed by the backups on the Tappan Zee, which could have been prevented by grand planning, too.

Just as Moses would have better served the city and its immediate region by meeting the needs for both mass transit and elevated highways, so too could have Governors Dewey, Averill Harriman, Nelson Rockefeller, Malcolm Wilson, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki developed the proper vision for the Thruway corridor.
What is that vision?

You simply cannot replace the Tappan Zee with a bigger crossing, even one much better built, and expect the problems brought by the Thruway and the interstate system to go away: increasing air pollution, especially in Rockland, the smallest county geographically outside New York City; the fact that a larger bridge might push the federal government, which must provide the money, to require a wider and busier Thruway in Rockland and Westchester; many thousands of cars on the road, too, when the gambling casino opens in upstate Monticello and when Stewart Airport at Newburgh becomes another JFK.

Rockland and the lower Hudson Valley already suffer from lack of planning vision in the tripling of truck traffic courtesy of the federal government in the 1990s when, without local consultation and input, it funded the I-287 connection from New Jersey to the Thruway in Rockland.

The federal planners will seek to brush aside local, even state concern, and simply build a bigger bridge, a wider road, the concerns about pollution, lowered quality of life, a population increase in Rockland where the water supply is already inadequate all matters not to worry about.

There will probably be no money for mass transit that would make a difference, such as a one-seat train connection to New York City. There will be no requirement that trucks bound for New England move north and cross the Hudson at Newburgh, to reduce traffic congestion in Rockland-Westchester.

There will be no serious consideration of a tunnel, which could begin miles away from the Hudson on both sides and return land to villages raped in the original construction, a crossing easily built with modern technology and which would be cheaper to maintain.

There will be no coordination with the county planners in Rockland and Westchester on their needs. There will be no true looking at the map of the Hudson River valley to see how traffic on the interstates might be better moved, or goods might be shipped by a renewed rail system.

And there will be no attempt to blend between “the wonders of human engineering” and the “wonders of nature,” which are the natural beauty of Rockland, Westchester, and, of course, the Hudson, as other areas have done in their road building, notably Colorado with its Glenwood Canyon I-70 project.

No, there is no grand vision, no Robert Moses-type leader who can see the bigger needs of the next 100 years but then be tempered enough in his actions so as not to be a dictator. A person who will work with local leaders. Had that happened with Moses, New York City would not have the transit, traffic and housing problems it now does. Had that happened with the Tappan Zee, a poorly constructed bridge would not have been built, and built where it is; there would be a quick train ride to New York; and the Thruway would be part of a highway system designed to move people quickly and efficiently.

All without overwhelming and destroying communities. A green vision, as it were.

There was no Tappan Zee/Thruway visionary; there is not one now. Unless the newly minted governor, Eliot Spitzer, feels Moses fever.

Will he?

February 20, 2007

The newsman, a gentleman

Parker Smith, almost a lifelong newspaperman, beat the odds. A three-pack-a-day smoker for three decades, he recently moved on from this life at the rather OK age of 85, having played tennis daily for many of the years before that. He also was a journalist in full exercise, completely involved in the newsroom operation when he was the managing editor of the old Journal-News in mid-1960s’ Nyack, N.Y.

The man was a gentleman, hard to come by in the old craft where curse words, bellowing orders and stare downs across the room were the usual rocks in the raging waters leading to each deadline, each new daily birth of that suburban newspaper.

Parker wasn’t at the Journal for all that long, just a year or so, replaced by another Smith called Don. He would go on to become executive editor at what was then called Westchester-Rockland Newspapers (of which the Journal was a part), but his true love was on-the-floor newspapering, so he gave that lofty title a heave-ho in 1970. From that time on to past normal retirement age, Parker commuted on a hellish daily trip from his home in Valley Cottage, N.Y., across the Hudson River and down into the bowels of Long Island traffic to work at a paper called Newsday. There he was on the news side and in sports, on-the-floor newspapering.

The man came to his newspapers in an age before electronics, when a keyboard was still attached to a Royal or Underwood manual upright typewriter, when pages were assembled with mounds of heavy metal type, when you had to “dummy” or design pages from galleys or proofs, when if you did not make a friend of a printer, you were thrown into newspaper purgatory, forever.

Parker made friends with printers and with his fellow newspaper people, principally because he never left the tribe. Give him a title like managing editor, and that’s all it was, a title. He would work side by side with you in getting out the paper, and he was firm but courteous enough in doing that.

I was the beneficiary of that attitude, since he made me, a copy boy, a photographer based on the enterprise work I was then doing (1965) on the litter situation in my native Rockland County, N.Y.

The litter remains, despite the many editorials I would write after being allowed a chance to rise up the ladder because Parker put me on the first rung. And newspapers still gather the information and arrange it and send it out to you, albeit in a much more sterile newsroom with air conditioning and good lighting and computers and political correctness, too. And probably way too much overhead administration, the sort Parker Smith could not take in his own promotions. So he went back to the ranks, to keep himself honest and also his profession.

When Parker Smith gave up his last breath in Northhampton, Mass., last week, it still smelled of printer’s ink. What a way to go.

Parker Smith and Lady Bird Johnson
in 1965 after the newsman pushed a local campaign against
litter, part of the first lady’s ‘Keep America Beautiful’ effort.

February 12, 2007

The rail path

BLAUVELT, N. Y. – Woods in the suburbs are not a rare thing; they are actually part of the stage setting, just like development homes, shopping centers, elementary schools, houses of worship and now, perhaps, McMansions. Woods are there to tell us it is not a cityscape. No big woods, though, not usually. It would not be the suburbs.

And the small, rescued or just plain lucky to survive woods are enjoyed, as they are in this north of New York City hamlet, where a small stretch of maple, ash, poplar, oak and brush and bramble lines Western Highway.

Blauvelt is part of the historic Town of Orangetown where in 1774, the Resolutions were signed in Tappan declaring loyalty to the British king but claiming independence in our colonial ways. That was on July 4, by the way, and two years later on the same date there would be no loyalty to the king.

But the nation prospered, and in the 1840s Blauvelt became part of the route for the first long-distance railroad in the United States, the Erie.

Stretching from the new Hudson River landing at Piermont upstate to the Erie Canal, the line took people and goods a long way toward the Midwest and West and so helped build a new country.

The Erie ran through the woods I note until 1939 when other lines, a Great Depression and the automobile and truck did it in. The greater Erie itself survived a few more decades.

These days the old rail path is just a few piles of cinders and rail ties, the rail itself taken away a long time ago.

There are a few souls who venture onto the old rail path for a short walk, though that is made difficult by another part of the suburban stage setting: discarded appliances, cars, etc., in what woods there are.

There are plans to turn the old Erie stretch in these woods into a walking/biking path, but that is dependent on federal and state funding, an iffy gamble with the growing federal deficit.

The regulars here would like that, for a similar, years-in-the-making rehabilitation of another part of the old Erie in Sparkill and Tappan has proven to be a real winner, with many residents taking to woods they may never have seen.

Another section of the Erie, in northern Blauvelt, cannot be rehabbed because a minority of residents there feared the woods were dangerous enough, providing cover for crooks who might rob their homes, and that a rail path would allow even easier access.

Pure nonsense, yes, but it killed the deal, denying to so many a chance to take a walk in the woods.

Yet that action, like the woods, like the rail path, like the McMansions, like the original Cape Cod development homes, is part of the suburban stage set, too.
Suburbs are born from city experience, and urban flight and upward mobility mean people carrying suitcases with excess baggage that cannot be checked at the former country/rural line.

The old Erie helped accelerate the suburbs, and now on a section of its final resting place, other suburbanites take a walk and can reflect on that and so much more. It’s a bit of a maturity.

February 5, 2007

Tales to tell at Macy’s

The proverbial fly on the wall, would if it could, reveal many a story about the humans who moved through there, and perhaps the same can be said about something as inanimate as the well-worn banister rails on the Macy’s 34th Street escalators, in the department store’s 1902 New York City building.

Located off Broadway in Herald Square, with a Seventh Avenue building attached in 1927, Macy’s is recalled as the subject of the famous 1947 movie, “Miracle On 34th Street,” in which Santa Claus is made real for non-believing adults but who was scarcely doubted by little Natalie Wood.

There are interior Macy’s location shots in that movie, but whether the escalator banisters I note were in one I do not recall.

Most of the escalators in the original Macy’s building have wooden treads and banisters, a marvel of engineering considering that they have been running for many decades. Compare them to some of the modern, computer-assisted escalators you see in malls. One mall in West Nyack, N.Y., always has several that are not running, overheated, perhaps, and a dangerous climb or descend for customers.

We were in New York City, my wife Lillian and I, this past weekend to see a revival of “Company,” the well-done musical by Stephen Sondheim that still holds up years later. It was at the Barrymore Theatre, named by the Shubert Organization for Ethel Barrymore, and being in that wonderful house where so many famed productions have been staged was a thrill in itself.

And the musical, of course, with its poetic lyrics and insightful lines about a bachelor on his birthday and the “company” he keeps, was worth the trek into Gotham.

But what really made the day for me was the walk to Macy’s in the growing cold, through the canyon-like winds that New York offers, a brisk challenge that rewards you in its completion, sort of like climbing a mountain. After all, New York is New York.

Macy’s, with its old-style woodwork, plaster effects and wooden escalators, is almost a national treasure, and visiting it is like seeing Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building.
(I might have included the Statue of Liberty, but the Homeland Security over reactors have put that virtual beacon of freedom practically off-limits, in the name, of course, of “protecting your freedom.)

I am not a shopper and had little interest in the goods Macy’s offers. I was there in accompaniment, to observe people and things, to savor something old and true, a place where my parents took me as a little boy, where my father went as a child.

Perhaps that well-worn banister had my dad’s fingerprint under years of varnish; mine, too and maybe those of the less fortunate in the Great Depression who could only look at Macy’s goods in a respite from despair.

Or the marks of soldiers and other military on leave before they shipped out for the theaters of World War II.

How many young children rode to see Santa Claus on these wooden escalators, nervously and in excitement holding onto the wooden banisters? How many brides to be on the way to the bridal salon? How many ordinary people, off on a Saturday shopping tour, took the escalators up to the coffee shop on the for the expected, reaffirming treat?

It is a tribute to Macy’s that the old wooden escalators, long in service, have not been scrapped, that no modern spectaculars have been installed, with plastic banisters and shiny aluminum treads.

Yes, youngsters can take such moving stairs to see Santa and so can brides. But aluminum and plastic don’t show wear and tear with character, and so the joys and hopes and millions of moments of small excitement. Varnished oak does.

Every inch of those continuous loop wooden banisters at Macy’s has thousand stories to tell, at least.

January 29, 2007

A notion about notions

One of the least used words in the English language today is “notions.” Some of us lucky enough to be in our 60s recall it, not so much because we used the element of speech but because our grandmothers or even mothers did.

Like most of old America, the Rockland County, N.Y., landscape in which I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s included villages with five and tens, sometimes two on the same street, as in Nyack and Spring Valley. Each one of these blessed events had a “notions counter,” where items used in sewing, such as buttons, pins, and hooks, were sold.

Usually, the notions counter wasn’t really a counter, though some larger five and tens, the ones big enough to also make and sell wonderful donuts, did have a section where there was a sales lady replete with all manner of sewing knowledge. She had more than a notion about the equipment, materials and craft.

More than likely, though, notions were contained, laid out neatly in rows, on a large sheet of wood, maybe six feet by six feet, with a glass fence around it about five inches high. There were rows and rows of carded buttons, spools of thread, pins, hooks, etc.

The notions counter wasn’t a respectable place for a young boy, of course, but if your grandmother or mom had you in tow, you followed the leader. I recall being amazed by the large notions display and wondered how the store could ever make enough money to carry all that thread and whatnot. The answer, of course, was that all across America, there were grandmothers and mothers drawn to notions counters as if they were life magnets. And they were.

There was a certain reassurance in going to a five and ten in the first place, for they always seemed full of ordinary life — your neighbors, friends, fellow students, trades people. You were put at ease in knowing that many people needed something from the notions counter or the hardware area, or that a child like you was being rewarded with weighed and packed loose candy like nonpareils. It’s the usual, the shared commonplace moves, that glue humanity together.

The prices were always low at the five and ten, not always five cents and ten cents, but for a quarter you get something useful in a young boy’s life, like a bottle of turpentine for a sixth grader making wood projects at home. Carrying that glass bottle home, with its distinctive pine scent, was like holding a graduation present — you were moving ahead in life.

The word “notions” is no longer much used. Maybe you can find it on a sign at a big box retailer, in a long aisle, but there won’t be any six by six foot display shelf with glass wall. Maybe not even grandma carefully choosing a spool of blue thread that would then sit in a sewing box for decades.

Five and tens are long gone, just like Frank W. Woolworth. And the word “notions,” well, most of us have no notion what that is.

January 22, 2007

Two, not three, men on a ‘horse’

When you are a newspaper photographer, you are like a stage or film director – you set up shots, scenes that capture, it is hoped, the essence, the nut, the who, what, when, where, why and how of an event, occurrence, etc.

That surely was the way I worked as a lensman for The Journal News, a daily paper in Rockland County, N.Y., some years back. Today the focus is less on such set-up shots and more on capturing the moment candidly, ostensibly so you do not “manage” the moment, so you do not add artificiality or even the hint of a staged check-passing photo.

Actually, we photogs of the 1960s at The JN – Ken Muise, Andy Dickerman, Al Witt, Warren Inglese and I – never took check-passing moments, and we tried not to over-direct or stage a set-up so that it became cliché. Most of the time, we took what Al properly terms “posed candids,” which simply meant you observed a scene and maybe moved a person to keep from cutting someone else’s head off. The result was the better telling of a story, in my view.

But no matter what the approach, the shot must say something.

That’s what I was trying to do one hot summer afternoon in Nyack, N.Y., at the former Tappan Zee Playhouse, a seasonal theater off a street called Broadway.

The play was “Three Men on a Horse,” a 1930s comedy in three acts by John C. Holm and George Abbott. I do not recall the actors – sometimes in summer stock in Rockland they were famous, like Gloria Swanson or even Helen Hayes, who lived up Broadway a bit – but I do remember the director, Sam Levine.

Levine was principally a character actor – gangster, detective, neighborhood colorful figure – of the 1930s and ’40s, a balding man with a mustache and a sharp New York City attitude and accent. He was excellent in his work, especially when he hit Broadway in the original “Guys and Dolls.”

Sam Levine had been in “Three Men on a Horse” in a 1930s radio play and knew the material. This summer, 1968, I believe, he was not an actor but a director.

He was directing when I walked into the cool, darkened theater for 10 or 15 minutes. I was there to do a publicity photograph for the summer stock play, soon to open. I quickly grabbed a few actors – my standard approach, for I wanted a tight close-up to dramatize the play rather than a bird’s-eye view of 10 thespians on a stage, taken from the tenth row.

I had composed many such photos and enjoyed them, for you could be a bit more creative with play shots, using natural or “available light,” and the actors were just perfect, ready with all manner of great expression, unlike most living photographic subjects.

Usually the director knew I was coming and would let me do my thing, recognizing that I, as a professional, was a director, too. He or she would step back as a “second unit” director, helping if needed.

Not Sam Levine. He was just like one of his tough film or stage characters, grabbing me by the arm and interrupting the shot. “I am the director here,” he said. “In my theater, I set up the shots.”

Well, Sam set up the shot he wanted – not unlike my own – but I worked the angle my way since I was the cameraman, not him. We used the same three actors I was already “directing,” and the photography went quickly, allowing Sam to go back to his main directing job.

I shrugged my shoulders as I left the playhouse, adding Sam Levine to the long list of characters – famous and seemingly ordinary – that you meet as a news photog.

January 16, 2007

A newspaperman

Writers — more often than not — are born, granted the gifts of expression: insight, clarity, even wit, wisdom, humor. Combine that showering of literary gold with the bonus of an extensive vocabulary acquired by voracious reading, and you have a potent wordsmith.

And put that writer on an opinion page, where a vast knowledge can wade through facts and fiction to form reasonable thought, and you have the right knight on the charger, a defender of the First Amendment castle.

Such a person was born in Rockland County, New York, in 1921, raised in the economic difficulties of the Great Depression and surrounded by the talk of politics national and local: the late Grant Jobson, first editor of the Editorial Page at The Journal News in Rockland (1973-1987).

That a man worthy of a Pulitzer for his combination of reporting, writing style and editing could come from a small community called Garnerville in then rural Rockland, a man not blessed with the privilege of going to college and graduate school, a man grown from the boy whose ears heard the distinct music of our diverse people and whose eyes took in all that was local — political, economic, social, historical — is proof that the gifts in us all can be unwrapped and enjoyed not only by ourselves but by those whom we touch.

And Grant touched many, from the politician to the teacher to the police officer to the man and woman in the street. His was a populist view, taken from the readings of the Founding Fathers whose works he knew so well. He believed that it was a responsibility to be a newspaperman, to seek the who, what, when, where, how and why of a story, to get the facts straight, to present the story in readable fashion, and, most of all, to get the story out, no matter how small. Grant understood that the more reporting you do, the more information you deliver to the people, and, so, the stronger our democracy is. He brooked no claim from any government official that information was “not available” or “was off the record.”

He was quick to lance the puffed-up politico but just as fast to praise a job well done at city hall.

Grant’s weekly column, “One Man’s Rockland,” was a fascinating, entertaining look at not only county issues but into the Irish-derived wit of a man with more than a little impishness. He reminded longtime Rocklanders of their past and acquainted newcomers
with his particular feelings about land, independence, country life and the ecological beauty of our county.

Grant Jobson served us well– this Rockland, its people, the Rockland County Times and The Journal News. He breathed deeply every day to take it all in, making observations, editing them and presenting facts and opinion in constant servings that offered meat and potatoes but also high cuisine and, at times, cherries jubilee.

And he did it all with a high standard. Once, as chief night copy editor, he posted a note on the city room bulletin board: “Clean copy, dammit!”

Yes, clean in every way: factual, complete, readable, informative. Do the job well.

Like Grant.

January 9, 2007

The corner pirouette

The corner pirouette

The half pirouette that the young woman made as she stood on a street corner mimicked a movement many of us have performed, waiting for a school bus, another ride, a friend. It is akin to looking at our watch, staring at our shoes, whistling in the wind.

It is life itself, one of those awfully small but reaffirming heartbeats that keep the current moving through the routine of a day. A pirouette, like looking at your shoes, happens only in the ordinary, not when you are climbing one day’s mountain or descending another’s steep hill. Your pulse is normal, your expectations routine, you know you are breathing, and you expect to continue.

A pirouette – spinning a bit on one foot – is perhaps a subconscious test that you are still here, not that you are worried you are not, but simply a check of the status quo, like a watchman checking the stations on his tour. The key goes in, it is turned, and life for the watchman is as ordinary as it is supposed to be. No surprise.

I was driving in a small town when I saw the woman do her half-pirouette, spinning on one leg, not in a staged ballet style or serious affectation, but in passing time. I saw her only for an instant, but you could read a life in that time.

She seemed happy, content, life humming along, and whoever, whatever was next in her day was more than acceptable. It, he, or she would be the next watch station, and the lady with the pirouette had the key. She could safely lift one foot off the ground and spin, for there was more than enough trust for that.

We all have our scary days – going to the dentist or the doctor, taking a school exam, facing the boss, getting older – and there are no half-pirouettes on those days. For most of us, thankfully, life does not consist of scary moments, and the motor runs without misfiring. It is in such security that we can lift one foot off this mortal coil and know we will not come crashing down.

I knew the lady I saw in this small town – and she could have been in a big city or in a rural cornfield – was having a good day.

January 1, 2007

The well-worn stairs

There is little substance in this life save the durable. We all come and go in the sea of humanity, and our short presence on the stage is marked according to luck, destiny and sometimes free will.

But even then our footsteps are but marks in sand, and the tide is ever changing. What lasts longer is the accumulating total of footsteps. On a beach, in high summer season, the water cannot easily push aside the mark of the masses. In a house, on well-worn stairs that have served 77 years, there is even more of a record.

Working recently in my son’s Upper Nyack, N.Y., home, I had to make many trips up and down the oak–treaded split staircase with a landing as I went to the basement and then to the second floor, carrying tools and materials.

In that journey of some haste, for there is always something else to do in a day, the moment was not so quick as to hide from observation, even out of the corner of an eye, the concave-carved middles of all the steps.

The house was built about 1929, and from the looks of the stair treads, there has never been a covering on them. So, the several generations of the Buckout Family which owned the home until my son bought it a few years back, were able to wear the steps down.

You can imagine, as in any family, the first steps on the staircase of the workmen who handcrafted this house, then the people who carried in the original furniture and other belongings.

And the initial, backward-moving steps of children learning to use stairs on all fours. Then the scramble up and down as they grew.

The father getting up early, quite early, every day to run down to the basement and stoke the coal furnace for heat. And the mother who took her daily washings to a soapstone sink in the cellar.

The friends over for visits and the trips to the only bathroom — upstairs.

The kids off to school, jumping two steps at a time and swinging from the last newel post to land feet first at the front door for the final leap outside to the porch.

And the young daughter, descending in her bridal gown, the soldier off to war, the house now emptier and quiet, with few footsteps heard except those in memory.

With time moving on and a relative’s passing, the quiet descending of the stairs of a loved one’s remains.

Finally, in the long history of one family who lived so long in their beloved home, the gathered belongings of decades, brought down the stairs to another home, maybe one without stairs.

Now, at 25 Van Houten St. in Upper Nyack, new steps of a married couple, friends, some relatives and a fix-it dad are heard on the well-worn stairs.

Enduring sounds. Meant for both daily living and scrapbook collecting.

We all come and go, even in this wonderful home, but the passing of time and events leaves an accumulated mark, here in polished oak.

For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, has offered a holiday story published in place of my newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web.
– Arthur H. Gunther III

December 25, 2006

A Christmas encounter

This year, this Christmas, Charlie was snowed in. The snow had come, like all things great and beautiful, quite unexpectedly. Charlie was a fan of snow, if weather could be said to have fans. He wished for it and waited expectantly once the calendar announced winter’s arrival. Charlie had little patience for people who labeled snowfall as an inconvenience, as something to hope against and wish away. He loved the snow’s power, how everything familiar was made new again after a storm, how the world slowed down and modern conveniences were reduced to nothing more than toys at the hands of Mother Nature. But most of all, Charlie loved how snow put children a little more in charge of the world. Their handiwork, always present somewhere in the periphery, was so much more obvious in the days following a snowstorm.

Given all of this, the first thoughts that announced themselves as Charlie woke up Christmas morning could not have been more unexpected. Finding his house draped in white, Charlie silently cursed his luck. Where was the snow all those times that he had nowhere to go, nothing to do but appreciate its beauty? There were 10 inches on the ground at six a.m., and the storm showed little sign of letting up any time soon. There would be no driving of any kind for awhile, and this is what gave Charlie pause. For the first Christmas in, well, probably in Charlie’s entire lifetime, his routine was changing. Charlie had been set to head north at seven that morning to the town three states away where his brother lived. As much as he wanted to see his brother, it was Charlie’s fiancé, who lived three houses down from his brother, who Charlie had looked most forward to seeing. This was going to be there first Christmas together.

A bit annoyed, an emotion with which Charlie normally wasn’t much familiar, he threw on some clothes and walked out into the storm. Despite the still-rising sun being buried behind the thick clouds covering the sky, the world around Charlie’s house was bright. Light from the strings of Christmas bulbs hung throughout Charlie’s neighborhood, along with the untouched snow, made everything luminous.

It was while admiring the brightness of the world and listening to its unfamiliar stillness that Charlie heard a solitary voice. He looked in the direction of the sound to see a child playing alone near a picnic table. Walking closer, Charlie noticed that the boy wasn’t actually playing but instead clearing snow off the picnic table. It seemed odd to Charlie that not only was the boy alone on Christmas morning, but that the child seemed to be preparing to sit down at the now cleared-off table.

“Hi, there!” Charlie said brightly, hoping not to scare off the boy before hearing his story.

“Hi, yourself,” the boy replied, seemingly unfazed by Charlie’s appearance.

By way of introduction, Charlie said, “I live across the street. My name’s Charlie.”

“I know. I’ve seen you around,” replied the boy, who appeared to be about seven years old.

“What are you doing out here?” Charlie asked. “Planning on building a snowman?”

“No. I couldn’t wait to use my Christmas present.” The boy pulled from his jacket pocket what appeared to be a deck of cards. Their bright package stood out in direct contrast to the whiteness surrounding the scene. Charlie regarded the deck for a second, registering first the boy’s excitement and second his indication that this was the sole Christmas present the boy had received.

“The snow couldn’t have come at a more perfect time!” the youngster continued. “These cards are waterproof. Mom says that they’re made of plastic. I asked her to come outside with me, but she saw the snow and went back to bed. How could she miss this?”

Charlie, beginning to absorb some of the boy’s energy, began to wonder the same thing.

Clearing off the bench opposite where the boy sat, Charlie said, “I’ve got some time. What do you want to play?” “The only game I know is ‘Go Fish’,” the boy answered.

“Sounds good to me,” Charlie replied, shuffling the deck and beginning to deal. The cards were indeed waterproof.

Charlie was content to just sit, play “Go Fish” and admire the still-falling snow, but by the third game he had learned quite a bit about the boy. His name was Jackson. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters and never mentioned a dad. His mom was “almost a nurse” and studied a lot. She had promised to teach Jackson solitaire because it was the best game to play when you’re alone. There was no talk, besides the first mention of the cards, about the fact that this was Christmas Day. Charlie imagined that kids all over town were probably at this very moment waking up and ripping open large boxes that their parents had waited on long lines to fill, barely pausing as they moved from one present to the next. This boy who sat before him, Charlie thought, was one of the wisest people he had met in quite awhile, content to sit in a snowstorm on a holiday, talk about his life and play cards. Jackson was in no hurry to go anywhere, and now that he thought about it, neither was Charlie. Everything arrives in its own time.

Eventually, the snow turned to flurries as the brightening sky grew blue. Hearing a plow in the distance, Charlie remembered his morning plans, and a bit ashamedly, his initial disappointment at this morning’s snow.

Suddenly Jackson stood up and pointed toward a light that had appeared in the window of his house. “My mom’s up,” Jackson said. “I’m going to go see her.”

Charlie nodded and said goodbye. He needed to be going too, but for a minute more he sat there looking around. Life was marching on again, but it was good to have been reminded for a moment to sit still and appreciate its beauty.

December 18, 2006

Describing a hamlet

You define a community by its people, its natural and acquired assets and its history. Take Congers, N.Y., for example.

I am a Spring Valley boy, raised principally there, in a village with a population of perhaps 5,000 in fall through spring and 25,000 when New York City summer visitors would come to town in the 1950s. My own experience of growing up was defined by the Valley’s diverse nature and its long history as a seasonal bungalow community that morphed into the quiet and the daily build-a-life of most towns, villages and hamlets.

Congers took its own path, as most communities do. A look at its history makes it obvious uniqueness has unfolded in this Clarkstown hamlet.

In my days of the 1940s and 1950s in Rockland, Congers seemed defined by the railroad, the West Shore Line, which then carried both freight and people, and before those decades, the rail spur from the community known as Rockland Lake, which brought customers to various Congers businesses.

About 1889, The Boston Improvement Co. saw the connection to the railroad and bought most of the acreage, forming 10,000 or so of the smallest lots in Rockland County – some as tiny as 40 by 80 feet. It intended to build Gotham’s suburbia.

With the beautiful Swarthout Lake, Rockland Lake and Congers Lake, great hotel development was planned and several summer palaces were built for wealthier buyers. But hard economic times in the late 1800s pushed aside hope for a major resort area. Lots were bought on speculation by out-of-towners and abandoned by some of them, muddying title.

In fact, some say that Congers failed to grow into a Spring Valley or a Nyack or a Haverstraw in the 1900s in part because of the unclear titles, a legal mess that had Rockland hiring extra title researchers when New York State sought to buy land for Route 303 in the 1930s.

Over the years, Congers has seen quarrying of its glacial rock, farming, summer bungalow use and, now true and full suburbanization. Streets were named for states — New York, Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts — and presidents: Harrison, Grant. The hamlet, originally called Waldberg, was renamed Congers after Albert B. Conger donated land for the rail station.

Congers was an early leader in civic association formation. In 1897, some residents formed the Citizen’s Improvement Association, raising money through $3 a year dues to put in stone sidewalks, plant trees, maintain street lamps and encourage industry.
In later decades, civic associations in Congers would band together to fight for Congers Lake preservation and to keep the Reynolds Metals Co. from building an aluminum can plant.

Of course, no consideration of Congers and its history would be complete without noting the Dr. Davies farm, established on earlier farmland by Dr. Lucy Virginia Meriwether and her artist husband, Arthur B. Davies, in 1891.

Davies was a world-renowned artist, president of the Artists and Sculptors group, which offered the famous Armory Show of 1913 that brought America into the modern art age with its showing of impressionist works.

Dr. Davies, known as “Dockie,” traveled by wagon and later car, delivering some 6,000 babies in her long career.
Their son Niles Sr. worked the spread for dairy, but later, with Depression prices killing all profit, apples and truck farming crops became the economic backbone.

Niles Davies Jr. and his wife Jan continue the farm today, though the acreage is different since the state condemned a large portion of the original farm in the early 1960s for Rockland Lake State Park.

Niles, though, is more than farmer. His artist genes and the cultural pursuits of his late mother Erica have brought him wide interests, including art and history.

Now, some anecdotes about Congers, with just one offered by me:

• In the 1950s, my father, brother and I would come to Congers to rent a rowboat from some old guy who ran a shack off Route 303.We would go out into the lake and all we would catch were small fish, which we had to throw back. We had no trouble attracting mosquitoes, though, which were legion.

The other anecdotes are from Elaine Muise Calabro, now of Colorado, whose family once lived on Massachusetts Avenue:

• Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer, apparently would type naked in his yard, rumor had it. He lived at the end of Massachusetts from about 1949 to 1957.

• Halloween trick or treating sometimes included a visit to the Station Square business district. “About the only thing open was Dick’s Bar at the west end of Brick Row (Magluson’s Hardware and Dick’s below, apartments above),” Elaine tells me.

“So in we went. Should not, of course, have been there — rules about children in such establishments — but as we entered, proprietor Dick quickly turned away and busied himself polishing glasses or whatever. We trick-or-treated down the row of imbibers at the bar, none of whom had candy but all of whom had coins. The ones who had been there longest were the most generous, and we each accumulated a handful of change. When we’d hit up the entire patronage, Dick suddenly ‘discovered’ we were there and made a noisy, but not very intimidating, show of chasing us out.”

• Elaine also says that “Congers always had a Memorial Day parade, typically small-town with school bands, fire trucks, Scout troops and, of course, veterans and Gold Star mothers.”
One year, 1955 it is believed, the parade was bisected by a very long freight on the West Shore. “A local artist was at the parade and her painting of it appeared on the cover of a New York paper’s Sunday supplement the following year. Congers was not identified, but the stores were all ‘correct.’ ” The little Girl Scout with a big painted flag was none other than Elaine Muise.

If the Boston Improvement Co. had not carved up so many small lots, which fell to land speculators and unclear titles, Congers might now be bigger than nearby New City, but think of the flavor that would have been lost.
Now the hamlet is, in its renewal, in its maturity, in its refinement, a suburban mix of old and newer, of homes and neighborhoods and people and schools and businesses.

And a civic association, as strong and vital as its predecessors.

Congers is a community unlike the Valley of my youth, but a hamlet of the daily life as well, as strong and vital, as connected to its history and its people’s tasks, hopes and fears and the tug and pull of living as anywhere else.

What variety, yet with things held in common, do our communities offer.

December 11, 2006

Tale of one veteran

As a newspaper editorialist and columnist, it was always a privilege – and a responsibility – to write about veterans and their causes.

I say responsibility because as an editorial writer, I could not repeat often enough that you must separate the warrior from the war, that while wars are controversial, we can never question the sacrifice and heroism of those who serve in the military. One hundred percent support is always required.

On heroism and service, it is fitting at this time in December to recall the heroism of one grunt in 1944, some 62 years ago now.
The story can begin on a bright day in hot August when a former Spring Valley man, age 26, was then living in Long Island and working as a grinder for the Sperry Gyroscope Co., which developed the famous World War II Norden bomb sight.

The man’s job and two children had kept him from the war draft, but with manpower needs quickly building after D-day and the St. Lo breakout and the push to cross Europe and the Rhine into the heart of Germany, he quickly found himself in the infantry.

It did not matter that he was an experienced seaman, having served under age in the Merchant Marine. As he later told me, when he appeared at Whitehall Street in Manhattan for induction, it was “Army day,” which meant that the other service branch recruiters took it easy that day and let the Army do all the processing. Every one who showed up went into the Army. The next day was “Navy day.”

The fellow took quick training and then was sent from Fort Dix, N.J., under the cover of night in a train to Camp Shanks in Orangeburg, N.Y., the largest World War II U.S. Army embarkation port, but you could not fool him about the geography, for the former Rocklander soon recognized his old county.

Knowing that he was near his former home in Spring Valley, where his mother and father still lived, the man sneaked out of the staging camp and visited his family, as so many GIs did at Shanks.

Soon, it was time for the fellow to board transport trucks driven by women to the great pier in Piermont, where he went on a small ship to the harbor at New York City, then onto a converted freighter and Europe.

It seemed like no time before the man, who just weeks before had been walking to the train station to get to work in Long Island, was on patrol in the Hurtgen Forest near Aachen, Germany.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest, Sept.19, 1944, to Feb. 10, 1945, proved to be a devastating one that claimed about 33,000 American casualties. It remains controversial to this day, since its purpose – to help the advance on the Rhine River – in the end did not require the battle at all.

It would be difficult to tell that – to mention the political controversy of war – to the infantrymen there, who endured a long battle that was savage. The Germans pre-targeted artillery with exploding shrapnel shells at all compass points, so that a rain of steel fell on the Americans.

The man from Spring Valley, just days into his part of the battle in December 1944, spotted a small farmhouse with a German nest inside. As his hand went up to lob a grenade, enemy fire took three fingers of his right hand.

At this point in the war, medical attention was more advanced, and he was assisted in the field, quickly evacuated to the rear lines, stabilized, flown to a Paris hospital, further stabilized and eventually sent for many months of rehabilitation at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

After the war, the man did not talk of losing fingers on his writing hand. All he said was that he would never forget the day he was wounded, for it was his son Jimmy’s birthday.

The fellow blended in with fellow veterans, each seeking a return to civilian life.

He was the typical American soldier, the citizen who has left the farm or the city in the history of our nation and fought in the War of Independence, or who went to Gettysburg or to St. Mihiel, the Hurtgen Forest, Inchon, the deltas of Vietnam and now the streets of Iraq.

He was in that sea of good people that the famous newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle wrote about. Unannounced by name, almost anonymous on purpose, he went where he was told and did what he was supposed to do. He never expected anyone to say thanks because he was just one of many called to the task then at hand.

The man’s name? Winfield A. Gunther, my late uncle.

I thank all veterans for being the many thousands of Uncle Winnies out there.

December 4, 2006

Wood shop carved solid habits

Gene Carroll, our wood shop teacher at the old South Main Street School in Spring Valley, New York, in the 1950s, used to organize cleanup activities around a monthly ‘‘club.’’ The ‘‘democratically elected’’ president swept the floor.

Of course, this meant that the least popular fellow became president, so he could do the dirty work. It was an odd exercise in democracy that I sometimes wonder might have application for today’s world.

Mention is made here of Mr. Carroll and wood shop because, with the holidays nearing, there are the annual memories of making a cowboy tie rack out of number two pine for your father, or a spice shelf for mom. We began these projects in September, and it took most of us the two times a week (later one) in the shop to get the projects cut (with handsaws), sanded (with elbow grease) and shellacked (a delightful smell of half wood alcohol, half dry shellac flakes).

There were precious few of us who could be proud enough of our craftsmanship to show the cowboy tie racks or spice racks in public, but our parents were delighted all the same and kind enough not to cringe in our sight when presented with such gifts.

Mr. Carroll was a tough fellow, ready to call you up short if you were being a wise guy or not handling the tools with care. To this day, whenever I use a bench vise, I always recall this teacher telling us to close it tight and then back off a turn, so that some unsuspecting soul would not jab the vise handle into his stomach.

Gene Carroll had an unusual sense of humor, too, trimmed with a bit of sarcasm, which was probably born and bred of the endless number of made-by-amateur projects unleashed on him by his charges. He probably went home and screamed in the closet every day.

Yet he was fair and a good teacher, with lifelong habits imparted. I am a wood hobbyist today, though you would not have suspected such an avocation in my fifth-grade years. What good and safe methods I employ, what woodworking tips I use, are largely from Gene Carroll.

I had wood shop just before lunch, and my hands smelled like fresh-cut pine, not a bad thing (they market expensive men’s cologne with just that scent today). Since I usually ate Swiss cheese sandwiches on a particularly light and tasty white bread (from the Buttercup Baking Co.), the combination of a ravenous appetite, desirable sandwiches and fingers that reminded me of the pine, well, all that made lunch even nicer.

(Sometimes today I’ll do some woodworking before lunch, just to get that scent. But, alas, not more Buttercup bread.)

The last time I had shop was in the eighth grade, at what was then the Spring Valley Junior High School (in its first year, 1956-57). By then we knew the drill, literally running to pick up our hand drills (braces and bits, etc.) from the tool cabinets and getting down to business. By then, too, the club presidents were used to their sweeping duties, for we elected the same poor slobs over and over, year after year. (Maybe we all should have a dose of such humility.)

These days, some schools mix home economics with wood shop, and classes are co-ed, which makes sense, since why shouldn’t we all learn housekeeping and home repair? (Actually, I’m told that option was available in the Spring Valley High School of the 1930s, which shows once again that there are very few ‘‘new’’ ideas out there, just new twists on old ones.)

I didn’t opt for wood shop elective in high school and did not really get back into handling wood until about a decade later. Funny, though, because the moment I picked up a hand tool in my renewal, I thought about shop teacher Gene Carroll. That time, however, and all times since, I have had to sweep up the wood shavings, since I am the ‘‘president’’ of my own wood shop ‘‘club ’ at home.

November 28, 2006

Food run brings on history appetite

I was sent on a take-out food run one recent Saturday night, off to a chicken place on the New York/New Jersey line, straddling Tappan and Northvale. Don’t usually mind these weekend trips, since, unlike the days and nights during the week, I’m not in a rush. Almost a vacation from the regular.

What always strikes me at the fast-food places is the assembly-line production, with hungry people queued up to pay not paltry sums for goodies that they then have to schlep home. No candlelight, quiet, served dining here, but also no dress-up required. It’s the weekend; it’s fast food; and everyone else in line is lost in his or her thoughts, too, shuffling ahead as the person in front of you takes a few steps. Your mind is in neutral, but always with the slight worry that you will be able to speak intelligently when the order-taker puts you on the spot, in a roomful of people, with ‘‘Welcome to Happy Harry’s Chicken. How may I serve you?’’

Or, if the night’s been long and the images of humans and chickens have blended after too strenuous a shift, just the simple ‘‘Yeah?’’ or ‘‘What’ya need?’’

This particular Saturday night brought a reasonably fast food line, about 11 minutes from entry to chicken dinners, with the patrons patient and the servers polite. All in all, a moment of convenience well-served.

It was in leaving the fast-food place and heading home that the trip turned out to be less than run-of-the-mill. As I exited the brightly lit building and rolled through the parking lot, following yet another queue, I caught a glimpse of a stand of trees so native to the Rockland/Bergen lower lands area that their species surely was there when the Tappan and other Indians lived in the region.

Tall, with few leaves, and set just above a stream and a marsh, these tree groves were the sort of place where Native Americans in, say, 1600, would make camp, build a fire and have the evening meal. No fast food. No neon lights. No queues. No weekend days to differentiate from the workaday grind. The thought of it all stood in contrast to what I am doing, what we are all doing, in 2006.

A moment later, I was driving past the DeWint House in Tappan, where Gen. George Washington stayed several times and from whose table was sent sugared treats for an imprisoned and soon-to-be-hanged Maj. John Andre (of the Benedict Arnold/West Point spy fame), who was quartered at the nearby Yoast Mabie tavern (now the ’76 House). I thought, as the chicken dinners prepared via gas flame sat in my car, what sort of food the two might have had, separetly, in that 1780 time, and the taste in each mouth on such a tragic occasion.

Further up, along Western Highway, as I headed for my homestead in Blauvelt, I passed what from 1943 to 1946 was Camp Shanks, the largest East Coast U.S. Army embarkation port for the European Theater of War in World War II. Some 1.3 million soldiers called it ‘‘Last Stop USA,’’ and for many, all too many, the food they had at the camp was the last they would ever eat on American soil.

Chicken must have been a staple then, too, as well as mashed potatoes and corn bread. As for the weekend differentiation, sure these fellows knew Saturdays and Sundays from weekdays, until they got to North Africa, France, Italy, the Low Countries, the Balkans and Germany. The food there was “fast,” though, canned or powdered rations wolfed down with a cocktail of fear and apprehension and maybe a chaser of artillery fire.

Such thoughts came and went quickly as I headed for my driveway. Soon, the takeout food was on the table; it was again 2006, not 1600 or 1780 or 1944. And, it turned out, I already had had dessert, in a recollection of Rockland history.

November 21, 2006

On this Thanksgiving

It’s nearing Turkey Time in our part of the world, but this year’s event will be far removed from the October 1641, three-day affair that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians staged after our nation’s early immigrants survived a harsh New England winter. Today, there are peoples of so many ethnic and even religious traditions in America that what happens on the fourth Thursday of each November is, like this land, a blend of cultural offerings.

Yet there are the givens, which quickly become common to even new participants who never enjoyed a Thanksgiving Day in their native country.

One given is that most of us gather willingly and gratefully in houses a bit overheated by the cooking turkey, a reminder of the wildfowl served at the Pilgrims’ celebration. The rooms in which we meet are filled for days afterward with the welcoming aroma of many foods. Even the most empty of homes can absorb enough company and delicious smells and memories to last a year.

Despite the changing world, and that surely includes ever fast-paced America, families are still happy to see each other, to sit for long periods in filled dining rooms, to hear Uncle Harold or Cousin Louis expound on national politics between burps while mothers, grandmas, aunts, daughters and, today, even men, bring on the serving courses.

There will be time later for naps, walks, more talk on politics and this and that, football games and grandparents playing with their grandchildren or anyone’s kids.
Soon, famous desserts will be brought to the table — ancient, coveted family recipes and store-bought spectaculars that we don’t ordinarily see.

There will be more wine, beer, cider, seltzer, coffee, tea, brandy. More burps, more belt expanding.

Some will have gone to religious services, or the family reunion might actually serve as the restorer and reaffirmation of faith in goodness and gratefulness.

While the notion of giving thanks after a year’s survival began with the Pilgrims, it was a loose American custom thereafter and not always celebrated with feasting, sometimes more with prayer. “Thanksgiving Days” were linked to national and state proclamations of thanks for moving ahead in progress and prosperity.

The first national Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed by President George Washington, was Nov. 26, 1789, and the Episcopal Church began celebrating an annual day of thanksgiving on the first Thursday in November. Some states established a regular Thanksgiving Day, but there was no annual national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln declared one in 1863, setting the date as the last Thursday of November.

To boost Great Depression store sales in 1939, 1940 and 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Thanksgiving on the next-to-the-last Thursday in November. But many state governors complained, and in 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution decreeing that Thanksgiving should fall on the fourth Thursday.

That’s the official side of the holiday. In these United States of America, it is what is in hearth and home, in heart and soul, in conviviality, in strangers helping the hungry, in your religious prayers, in the great and wonderful gratefulness of it all that is the real Thanksgiving.

A happy day for everyone.

November 14, 2006

A take on the Red Maple

Charlie DiMaria’s morning wake-up call in Closter, N.J., is the sound of home fries gathering flavor on an old luncheonette grill heated to the touch only experience can give it. He does his daily dance in front of that hot iron, adding eggs, pancakes, bacon, ham and whatever – all on order, shouted back by his waitresses Mercedes, Linda and Deidre in a symphony of fire engine-like delivery.

It’s the place, this Red Maple Luncheonette, where you feel at home on any given morning, the wonderful combined smells of a mixed grill and coffee plus the equally mixed company of blue collar and professional tucked into an old diner-style, shotgun-shaped room, long counter with stools and several tables against the opposite wall for the elites.

The regular customers and Charlie set the Red Maple scene. A modest and so trusted fellow, Charlie offers the right sense of humor necessary in running an eatery where you work long hours in full view of the clientele, many like family, and talk to them every day.

One recent morning, the ordinary scene did not unfold. Instead, the place was the set for filming an episode of the TV show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Seems that not long ago, a scout from the show came by and asked if the Red Maple could be used for the set of an Oregon diner, where actress Mariska Hargitay (aka “Det. Olivia Benson”) was on special assignment with the FBI rather than in her usual New York City balliwick.

The shoot took place to the fascination of everyone watching, and now Charlie has a picture of him on the wall with Mickey, daughter of Jayne Mansfield. He’s in his workaday whites, and both look as comfortable with each other as if Mariska had been coming for a Red Maple breakfast and morning banter for years.

There is also a poster signed by the crew and a letter of thanks. The poster and photo are joined on the wall by a New York Times restaurant review and a column I once about Charlie’s old-style cash register.

Celebrity status has again come to Closter’s Red Maple, to Charlie and his crew, but the day after the filming, as on the day before, and many days before that and for many days in the future, we hope, Charlie Di Maria, Mercedes, Linda and Deidre were and will be there so early that the roosters have not yet crowed.

The sounds and smells of comfort food will be the true alarm clock for Red Maple’s customers, and later in the day, at lunch time, middle school students will add to their charge accounts, twisting on the same stools some of their parents dreamed on, too.

The Red Maple, Charlie and the gals are not unique to New Jersey, to the Northeast, to any state in the Union. But they are as special as any such crew anywhere else.

Charlie DiMaria’s favorite haunt.

November 7, 2006

In the mood

No matter where you leave your shoes at night, the place has moods. Whether it’s California, New York, Paris, Colorado, wherever, given the fact that there are the offerings of nature — land and/or water, a light tailored to the area, weather too, and perhaps indigenous people — you have the ingredients for a particular stew, a flavor pot that can interest your senses of smell and taste, even touch. And like grandmother’s cooking, an area’s moods can bring you home again.

Try that. Return yourself to some part of yesteryear’s territory and recall what you felt then in the seasons, in the early morning or the evening, in rain or full sun. Or in the dark.

I do that sometimes thinking back about car rides along the Seven Lakes Drive, a scenic road through the woods of the Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks in Rockland and Orange counties, lower New York State.

This area of many mountains and lakes, formed in the Glacial Age and rescued from growth more than a century ago by such benefactors as the Harriman Family, would still be recognizable by the itinerant Native Americans who came and went with the hunting, fishing and winter seasons hundreds of years back. The waters are kept clear by mountain-fed streams, and the woods are deep enough that despite some (a few, not most) careless, littering visitors, Henry David Thoreau would be at home.

In the early driving years of my youth, in a very old car that probably should not have been taken on fate-tempting, solitary tours of Seven Lakes Drive, I would come to the park region in the evening, usually as the only motorist for miles.

To reach the Drive, which is wide, having been rebuilt and added onto in the 1940s and ’50s, you can take approach roads, like Tiorati, which are winding, steep, dipping trails forged by the Indians and early wagons. If you want to get to the relatively straight run of the Drive, you earn a rite of passage by maneuvering along Tiorati.

Fresh from the accomplished challenge, you almost put the car on autopilot as you motor along west to Sloatsburg or east to Bear Mountain State Park. The Drive gently curves, almost like an interstate but without the traffic.

You see deer along the way, a now common sight on suburban streets as well, the deer having been driven from so many developed woods. You spot the moonlight reflection on the lakes (and there are more than “seven”).

In the rain, there is an insular peace, a cocoon surrounding your car, and with the soft and constant hum of the motor, you move the 12 miles or so from Route 17 in Sloatsburg to the Bear Mountain traffic circle — effortlessly, no traffic lights, no horns, dropping the day’s baggage through your tailpipe’s exhaust.

Soon, but not too soon, you leave the therapy, hitting Route 9W or the Palisades Interstate Parkway, joining traffic and the minions who did not get their relaxing moment on the Drive.

You returned to a place’s moods, and it was your secret.
Shh.

*****************

What follows is a bit of “poetic” exercise,
coupled with a foliage photograph..
Thanks for the indulgence.
(More old columns follow)

Nature in the acts

Woods set for fall
Nature in stage design
Early sun lit on cue
Foliage as scenery
ACT I

Director calls for players
Enter three walkers
One the companion of another
The third never seen
ACT II

On the traveled autumn path
A road taken by most
The side path natural to one
A difference for all seasons
ACT III

October 30, 2006

The common class

No matter where you live, no matter what year your high school class was graduated, there are themes common to us all. Recently, I was privileged to note some of those memories, those well-driven pilings upon which we build adult lives.
The occasion was the reunion of the Class of 1951, Spring Valley High School, Rockland County, New York. Here’s what I said to the alumni:

“While I am not a member of your Spring Valley High School class – I am from the 1961 crop – we shared so many of the same teachers and certainly the almost exact small-town atmosphere, that I can relate to you. Actually, so could my father, who in the late 1930s also had as instructors some of the same staff we enjoyed.

“Some anecdotes from your time and mine:

“Who here does not know the Seymour Weiss story? The one in which this history teacher, himself a Valley grad, encouraged the football guys he paled around with to hang him upside down outside the window of the old high school on Route 45?

“I have my own Mr. Weiss saga. He was adviser to the Projection Club when I was at SVHS, and one day Judith Dismukes, the famed French teacher, was to show a movie. Seymour came because he could not find a student to run the projector. But as he sat in the back of the room and ran the film, he would not stop talking to the students. Miss Dismukes put her foot down and proclaimed that the projectionist would have to serve detention. Mr. Weiss and the rest of us could not stop laughing.

“On Miss Dismukes, or as we all fondly called her, “Dizzy,” she once drove my friend and I home from after-school activities, and the windshield wipers ran all the way, on a bright, sunny day.
One time in French class, we had a unit on food words and about hot dogs. One of the students got up and mentioned his “chaud chien,” or in less-than-accurate idiomatic phrasing, “hot dog.” He walked this imaginary animal around the classroom, and we all took turns petting it. Then the student said he had to leave because the dog needed to relieve itself outdoors. Poor Miss Dismukes did not know what to do.

“Who will ever forget Principal Leland-Rickard-Meyer, our beloved leader, who would watch you from his Route 45 office window and tell you later if you walked on the beautifully kept grass. Now that building, that wonderful home to so many generations of students from 1928 to the mid-1950s, is a shambles, an insult to Mr. Meyer and all SVHS grads.

“In my own time, Mr. Meyer would sub as the server in the cafeteria if one of our truly great ladies was not there. School lunches were made almost from scratch, and the spaghetti was the best I’ve ever tasted.

“So were the cakes and pies made for the PTA bake sales.

“And the custodians looked after you, too.

“Remember when Elma Bird would give you two points toward detention or an appearance before the hang-’em-high student court if your library book was overdue?
“Or Ethel Remsen proclaiming, “You are not the only pebble on the beach!” and “I have four eyes to watch you, two the good Lord gave me and two I paid hard-earned money for.”

“Then there was Amy Rouy, our English teacher, sister to third-grade teacher Helen from the South Main Street School, both of whom were so dignified, and each of which was said to have pined for Mr. Meyer, as did Margaret Ruth Thomas and Dora Roberts.

“Will any of us ever forget W. Francis Scott, the thespian and speech teacher, who enabled us in our adult years to get up before groups when we had to?

“Once, Miss Graesser, the serious but warm German teacher, stopped me in the hall and asked if I were of German heritage, which I am. She seemed upset that I was not taking German.

“But I had French for four wonderful seasons with Dizzy. And while I tell you these anecdotes about her and our other teachers, I note them with the greatest of reverence. Yes, our teachers were characters, but thank God for that. They cared about us, from our coaches like Moe Adrian and Mr. Thompson, to our study hall staff. They knew our moms and dads and taught some of our children. They made so little money that some worked in the small A&P downtown after school, and we knew their school attire by sight, so limited was the wardrobe.

“These were good people, in a good town, in a wonderful pot of human chemistry called Spring Valley High School.

“No matter where we go, where we have gone, no matter what the difficulty or the failure or the achievement or the loss, we from that special place have an anchor.

“We were lucky to grow up when and where we did.”

October 23, 2006

No stamp of approval

When you wrote your first letter, no matter how old you were, or sent away a quarter with three box tops to a cereal company to get a baking soda-powered plastic toy submarine that you could throw in the bath water, you took what became a familiar journey: the walk to the street corner mailbox.

My first trip to what seemed a place of magic was in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth, in the 1940s. The mailboxes in those days were small and olive colored, decorative cast-iron affairs attached to sculpted concrete stanchions or to lampposts. They offered a bit of elegance to government.

My grandfather took me to the mailbox at the corner of Ternure and Summit avenues and had to lift me up so that I could open the mailbox lid, which swung on heavy bolts, and then drop the letter in. He told me to reopen it to make sure the letter had fallen in and for good luck, too. The lid came down with a clank, a solid sound, twice.

As we walked back home, I could not help wondering how my mail would arrive where I sent it, in this case, Battle Creek, Mich. Was there a huge underground pipe with air in it that sucked the mail all the way to the post office?

When the battleship arrived five or six weeks later at Box 74 in the Spring Valley Post Office, where my father got his home mail, I was amazed and assured that government worked.

This mailing of the letter, the curiosity about how it got where it supposed to go and the return mail with the treasured item I requested as a 10 year old was a wonderful moment of freedom, of opportunity, of growing up, of success, and it encouraged me to use the mailbox — any mailbox — on the corner again and again.

It also instilled trust in government.

Over the decades since, those small mailboxes that introduced youngsters to the mail service’s possibilities, those cast-iron portals of mystery on street corner America where moms and sweethearts posted letters to men and women at war, those durable metal boxes which seemed as strong and dependable as our nation, have disappeared, replaced with larger and fewer mailboxes with rounded tops, a now patented design.

Fewer boxes made pickup easier and cheaper for the renamed and redefined U.S. Postal Service, but you could still walk to a corner, though maybe another street or two was added to the hike. Still a satisfying stroll.

In the later 1950s, the olive look gave way to red, white and blue, a design encouraged by a citizen’s suggestion. Around 1971, that appropriate, even patriotic, look was changed, unfortunately, to the all-blue, cheaper to paint design that we now see. And soon enough, we may not see that many blue street-corner boxes either.

Citing reduced letter writing, an overall decline in first-class mail, use of the Internet to write messages and pay bills and, I assume, the ever higher cost of running the Postal Service, the guys in charge will further reduce the number of street mailboxes

The Postal Service, it is reported, has already removed more than 42,000 collection boxes in the past six or seven years, with about 295,000 remaining in use. That number will continue to decline.

In my own community of Blauvelt, N.Y., in Rockland County in lower New York State, there are no street-corner mailboxes where once there were four or five. You can drop mail in the one box that exists, and not on a street corner but in front of the post office. You can also leave it with the “rural free delivery” mailman, who actually serves built-up suburbia on a motor route that once would have been converted to door-to-door walking delivery given the number of people who now live here. But ever-higher costs prevented that changeover.

I applaud the mailman who still comes no matter the sleet, the snow, the rain, the hail, on his or her appointed rounds, and it is a no-brainer that the Internet will likely change all that we now recognize as traditional mail delivery, still a tremendous, efficient service for a 39-cent stamp.

But gone, too, will be the walk with your grandfather to mail three cereal box tops for a toy submarine.

Guess Gramps can now sit next to his grandchild at the computer, but both could use the walk and the priceless opportunity to go off together on an important life journey.

October 16, 2006

This column was part of remarks prepared for the annual past-presidents dinner of the Rockland County Volunteer Firemen’s Association in Nanuet, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 14.

The volunteer fire service

When I was a boy in Spring Valley, my grandfather, who had been a firefighter as a young man in Franklyn Square, L.I., could not wait until the village departments held their annual parade. We would go down, he and I and my brother Craig, to West Street and Alturas Road and sit outside the Schmidt mansion next to the Consolidated Pipe company.

Arthur Sr. always enjoyed the antics that came with a parade in those days of the 1940s, such as the fellow who would sit at the rear of a pumper on an old toilet, always a hit with us kids.

Gramps would laugh with us but suddenly straighten sharply when he saw the men and the ladies auxiliaries marching, not always sharply, as in the military, not always in step, some with a limp from arthritis or the effects of a tough day job. But they marched with real pride.

My grandfather understood the source of that pride, civilian volunteering that helped the community, sometimes untold sacrifice that could never have a monetary price put on it. He knew the four a.m., out-of-bed alarms, the race to the firehouse or the working fire in icy and snowy weather, the first seconds after arrival at a blaze when he and his fellow vamps were not sure of the fire’s origin, how it was spreading and, most of all, who was in the structure.

Was there a child trapped in an upstairs bedroom, a boy or girl like their own? Was it an elderly woman like their mothers or grandmothers?

The buttons on my grandfather’s sweater vest as he watched that fall parade loosened their hold-down thread each and every time, for he understood. He had been there.

His father Henry had been a firehouse regular in his later years when he could no longer jump on the early motor trucks and, before that, the horse-drawn wagons. He became the unofficial house custodian, the fellow who makes sure all is in place, the greeter for other volunteers, and above all, a source of advice for the younger fellows. Is there a firehouse in Rockland that does not have such a man today?

Hugh Bonner of Brooklyn, my great-grandfather, was not a volunteer firefighter, though he began his firefighting days as part of the then half-paid, half-volunteer competitive brigades that attempted to begin a fire service in what would become the boroughs of New York City. When Brooklyn merged with Manhattan to become New York in 1898, Hugh Bonner became the first chief of department for the first New York City Fire Department and saw to the installation of such advances as the fire alarm “telegraph” system, those red boxes on stanchions and telephone poles once so common.

Now, firefighting, the ever-more modern service, is so much more complex, developing into a science that requires training and constant retraining for the men and women volunteers.

That sort of added dedication would make my grandfather Arthur’s buttons pop at the Valley parade these days. Henry would learn a thing or two from the younger fellows, and Hugh would be jumping right in with the new technology, ordering BlackBerry pagers instead of fire alarm telegraphs.

But all three would be as humble as the fire service volunteers in Rockland County and elsewhere are to be part of work that saves lives and invests in a community. These good people bring a bit of heaven’s compassion and intercession to an often damaged earth.

Thank you.

October 9, 2006

The slower time clock

CAMDEN, Maine – The afternoon was already mellow, we two travelers having forsaken the interstate highways with their incessant treadmill traffic, look-a-like roads that were meant to zoom you somewhere in life’s ever-quicker pace but which now are more often than not linear parking lots. We left all that on I-95 and took the original Atlantic Coast routes our great-grandparents did, 1 and I-A. That brought us through many lights and 35 mph speed zones and added time to a New England trip, but the quaintness, the essential spirit of American small towns, was our reward. It quieted us down.

And when we motored, not zoomed, up to the Whitehall Inn off High Street in Camden, which began life more than 100 years ago, we were reluctant to give up the mood. In fact, it was enhanced.

It is a grand, old home, which has hosted a king, a U.S. president, movie stars and other notables and also is where famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was “discovered.”
Even if you took the interstates and were more frazzled than we, parking in front of the elegant Whitehall, walking up the steps to its wonderful, old porch and then stepping into the quiet greeting area of old and proper foyer architecture would calm you down.

There was 1930s music wafting softly from the ceiling speakers, though you thought it was coming from the old Clarion radio console near the piano that Millay played for summer guests when her sister worked at the inn in the 1920s.

The elegant wood stairways, the upstairs rooms without TV and the clawfoot tub in the bathroom instructed the inner clock to slow down. Soon, you were in the area downstairs reading a newspaper or sitting on the front porch, and the clock’s hands did not seem to spin as quickly.

You felt the spirit of the poet, whose first public readings of an undiscovered writer took place here before World War I, arranged for then summer-long, well-connected guests by Edna’s sister. Millay, the Pulizer Prize winner whose life was sometimes tortured by death and alcohol, was the gifted voice of female affirmation, with themes such as change that cannot be avoided, love that is bittersweet, sadness and the forces and rebirth of nature’s cycles.

As a fellow writer who could at least stand in the corner of Millay’s room, I gave a bow to the fellow pensmith who gave her life’s blood, drip by drip, in her brilliance, for all to share.

A short walk from the Whitehall to the downtown historic district brings you to Main Street, USA, this one called the “Jewel of the Maine Coast.” Old buildings that once were the commerce center here, as in most parts of the United States before strip malls and indoor shopping centers hit — those that housed haberdasheries, groceries, hardware stores, etc. — are now mostly set as restaurants and curio shops for the tourists. Seasonal hawkers necessary to revive and keep going what was once essential Americana.

The harbor is delightful, especially with the northern light that Maine enjoys.

It was on to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor from the Whitehall Inn and Camden, and having left one chain hotel before that and soon to arrive at another, it was refreshing, reassuring and pulse lowering to step into a slower time.

A room at the old Whitehall Inn.

October 2, 2006

Downsizing doughnuts, too

Bought a doughnut the other day; not supposed to be eating doughnuts, but I wanted one badly, so I got a powdered jelly. It wasn’t a hole-in-one, and the doughnut shop played me for a ringer.

The doughnut, fresh enough, with tasty strawberry jelly, was 80 cents plus tax, a reasonable enough amount these costly days, some would say. Trouble is, when I bought the same type of doughnut a few years back from the same outlet, it cost less and was, it seemed, 30 percent to 50 percent bigger.

Now, I do mind paying 60 cents for what amounts to two quick gulps, though the cost would not bother me if the doughnut were the same size as in yore. Raise the price if you must, but don’t shrink the commodity. Soon they will be so small that the leftover doughnut “hole” material, once thrown away and now sold as bite-sized morsels, will be offered as ‘‘marble-ettes. ’’ This is logical, since if you shrink a doughnut, you also shrink the hole.
Some years back, the candy companies did the same disappearing act. Instead of raising prices — or in some cases, in addition to raising prices — they shrunk the candy bars. Bad move, since people buy candy bars not only to eat them, but to anticipate eating them. That means letting your mouth water as you walk to the candy machine, waiting with childhood-like impatience as the coins drop, and then taking what should be a meaty-sized chocolate or other candy back to your desk to eat.

Eating, like other pleasures in life, is never just the act of doing it; it’s half, maybe more, in the pleasure of leading up to it, of anticipation, the foreplay. Cut the anticipation and you reduce the pleasure. You also may sell fewer candy bars or doughnuts or whatever is the anticipated offering.

That’s why I was let down after my recent trip to the doughnut store. I expected more, not less. Sure, I could have bought two doughnuts, at an astronomical price of $1.60, and gotten something closer to what I used to buy. But that would have doubled my guilt as I sat somewhere eating two powdered jellies instead of one.

Or, I could have gone to my local bakery, where the doughnuts are the same size they always have been, and, for my money, better tasting. But local bakeries are increasingly difficult to find today, put out of business by fast-food places where the offering is not half as good.

Ah, the American drive-through culture.

This is the era of downsizing, so I guess we should not be surprised that even our doughnuts are shrinking. We now get less coffee in what used to a one-pound can, with the advertising gimmick that “super concentration” of the coffee beans means you can use less of the grind to make the java. Yeah, if you also use less water.

Or, what about dish detergent? You now can buy bottles of ‘‘concentrate ’’ that supposedly allow you to use less. OK, but once you put that bottle of detergent on the sink top, you and all to follow will forget to just drop a bit and instead will squeeze out the amount we are used to squeezing. Consequently, our wallets get squeezed.

And, be sure the gurus at product development headquarters know this. They are psychologists extraordinaire. They understand that we creatures have habits and that a sucker is born every minute.

Ah, such depressing thought. Now I really do need a doughnut. And forget the anticipation this time.

September 25, 2006

In the observation room

Novelists, short story writers, even columnists are people observers, and it is the nuances of ordinary life that they see and then explain to the reader which make us say, “Aha, I know that feeling.” Or, “I’ve done that.” But writers don’t own the franchise alone.

Sales people are keen people watchers as well, sort of pre-med psychiatry students

For example, I watched the other day as a couple bought an area rug in a local department store. The salesman, a young fellow, was ensconced in the corner at the usual elegant cast-off desk that never sold. He was surrounded by piles of colorful rugs and some hanging on the wall, with prices from $300 to thousands. The salesman seemed bored, or maybe it was that his job was idling at the moment, sort of in neutral, a survival must for work that requires stretches of time where not much happens.

He glanced up to note that the couple was moseying by but let them go into the lair without a pounce. It was only after they were in the rug chamber that the friendly fellow, quite polite and easy-mannered, appeared and offered the menu starter: “Anything I can help you with, folks?”

The fellow with the lady looked like he’d like a beer, but the woman wanted a rug, and this was serious business. In age-old, time-tested body psychology, the man moved ever so quickly and surely away from the lady, whistling to himself almost, as the salesman took his place.

Now the woman and the clerk were the team, and the talk turned to rugs, colors, sizes, prices. It was a common language, this man the rug sales fellow and this woman the buyer.

It was only after the rather nice lady had decided what she wanted that she looked up, almost without really focusing, laser beamed on the man who turned out to be her husband and asked, “What do you think about this color?”

The guy knew nothing from rugs, still wanted a beer but did know his colors. So he answered, “It’s red. You wanted red, right?”

The salesman laughed, knowing a man when he saw one, being one himself.

The deal was sealed, with no help from the lady’s mate, thank you. He better never criticize the rug.

Like I said, a sales person knows how it works, this people observation business.

September 18, 2006

The traveling suitcase

A very long time ago, an already old valise – that’s what my family called a suitcase – took a journey from Franklin Square, Long Island, to Spring Valley, in what was then lower-upstate New York. In 1932, the scene was still rural and country in Rockland County.

A new family just arriving in Rockland, where three more generations so far would thrive, had arrived to live with my grandfather, Arthur Sr., who became a foreman at the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory in the Valley. He was lucky to have a job during the Great Depression, and his family was equally lucky to move to a place they came to love.

For decades the valise was put to use — on the few trips the Gunther family took to relatives in Pennsylvania or Brooklyn; by a young Marine (my father) just before World War II; and on the post-war trains of the later 1940s.

Eventually, it made its way to Hillcrest where I stored this and that in it as a youngster. When we moved to Pearl River, it went along, not because it was really usable any longer — it became tattered, old-fashioned, heavy — but because no one in the family was yet ready to part with it.
Now, some 42 years after the move to Pearl River and 74 seasons since its arrival in Spring Valley, the house cleaning of retirement days has emptied its contents.

The suitcase was last used in the early 1970s, in the company Volkswagen owned by The Journal News, and I kept it in the front trunk to hold photographic equipment and other accumulated paraphernalia. When I left JN photo work to move to the city desk and then the Editorial Page, I put the suitcase in the basement of a home in Westwood, N.J., and then my present one in Blauvelt, N.Y., occasionally opening it and seeing old film boxes, assignment slips, etc.

Now, in housecleaning, I have thrown t away most of the old contents, placing the valise into my car for a trip to the dumpster.
But a strange thing has happened. En route to the dumpster, I found myself on the very same road the suitcase took in December 1932, on the snowstormy night when the moving van carried my grandmother Maud and her two sons Arthur Jr. and Winfield north.

The dumpster where I planned to give the suitcase a heave ho had been taken away, and the valise remained in the car. Later that day, I had to go Spring Valley, and wouldn’t you know it, by chance past the 14 Ternure Ave. home where my grandparents lived with their sons in the 1930s, the house where the valise sat for years in the attic awaiting its next trip.

There’s a sign here, I guess. I will not discard the old suitcase. It is now in my attic.

‘Hopper’s Light,” taken inside
Edward Hopper’s Nyack, N.Y., home.

September 11, 2006

Glimpsing the light

NYACK, N.Y. — Edward Hopper, the realist painter, was born and raised in this Hudson River village north of New York City and is buried up the hill from his boyhood home, in Oak Hill Cemetery. It is in the quiet, almost empty Broadway house that his grandfather built where you feel his presence most.

Light was everything for Hopper (1882-1967), who excelled in creating realistic paintings of sunlit streets and buildings, mostly without figures, and moody, darkened interiors, often with a solitary woman who seems suspended in the churning, energy-producing, gritty city-industrial mode of the 1920s-’40s.

There is a clear distinction between day and night, which may have been two worlds of light for Edward Hopper. But I’ll leave deeper understanding and analysis to art historians and critics and just walk around the well on my own comment.

As a member of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, I volunteer a few hours a year. I usually pull desk duty, which means I get the keys from the real estate fellow next door and open the old homestead, pull out the cash box for any possible sale and make sure the bathroom is properly stocked. Then I await the visitors.

There is always a mix — urban types with intellectual overcoats; the upstaters who seem bemused by the Gothamites; and the townies, who these days are a great combination of Rockland County diversity: suburbanites, immigrants, every ethnic group imaginable.

There are artists among these people, discovered and not. You can see it in their eyes when they look at the various exhibits that Hopper House offers voluminously throughout the year. There are those who seem ill at ease, perhaps dragged to a “museum,” and eager to look the part of viewer but just as ready to move on. Some of them, though, will be forever affected by the windows Hopper’s paintings open in his works on exhibit, at his home or in museums, especially the Whitney in New York City, which was bequeated a permanent collection.

Others will be touched by the paintings, sculpture, etchings and photography by other artists that are displayed in the many Hopper House exhibits.

It was in the quiet of my time in the house, when there was a lull in visitors walking about, that I heard the house creaks Hopper did as a young man, looked at the drawn lines of the walls, ceilings and door trim as he did, discovered his initials under a mantle in the front room, and, most of all, for a short time saw light as perhaps the great realist saw it, not in his gifted person, of course, but in appreciation of those stirrings that form a young person and set him or her on a life’s path.

The light I saw became the photograph, “Hopper’s Light,” shown above.

So, the few hours of Hopper House service were rendered, but I would have paid for the experience.

Dennis, Cape Cod, just before 6 a.m.

September 4, 2006

The magnificent tree

I’ve been fascinated by trees for as long as I have been a photographer, since that first exploring summer of 1964 when a beautiful, majestic oak met me in the woods of South Mountain, between Haverstraw and Clarkstown in Rockland County, N.Y. My handshake was the shutter click of a Yashica 2.5 x 2.5 120 film camera.

Before I saw — really saw — this tree and the many, many others I have photographed, I barely noticed their overall look, their canopies, trunks, branches. I began to know how they give way to wind, rain and snow and also resist the elements. Especially noted was how solitary one tree can be.

I think there was observation of some of this, from childhood on, but it was all stored in the subconscious. Once the camera was on hand, once the magic of photography had enticed, a film record could be taken home. The floodgates opened to this exhibition.

Nature provides its awesomeness to us, in every part of the world — in rivers, waterfalls, oceans, mountains, valleys, snowscapes, rain forests — in almost endless geographical surprise. Trees are part of that but stand out in a unique way since each rises on its own, a particular offering in shape and character.

Light dresses such form, of course, as in that first Yashica shot, taken while lying on the ground looking up, as a child to a father. Inquisitiveness. Wonder.

Of the many landscapes rendered by this photographer most are trees or include them, in all weather, in all light, with contrast and drama added (or is it rediscovered?), in the old chemical darkroom or the newer computer-driven digital one.

Once, as a child of about 8, I came upon a large oak atop a ridge in a peach and apple orchard in a community called Tallman, fittingly enough off Cherry Lane Road. Surrounded by rows of fruit specimen, this oak, while not of their species, was a tree nonetheless, and with its space not crowded by the others and with its height, it looked like the schoolmarm at the head of the country class, offering stability and dignity and assurance and instruction in how to reach for the light and grow.

That tree could not be photographed at age 8 by someone who noticed it only enough to store it in the subconscious, the mind’s eye acting as the shutter. It would take years of growing — the tree and the person, roots and all — before it could be seen as a great photographic subject. By then, though, it was too late for recording, for high ranches had taken the place of fruit trees, and the ridge where the oak stood had been bulldozed for top soil.

Such is life. Yet as the camera puts image on film and now computer card for evidence and documentation and art, so can the mind reach back for images taken in memory.

Tallman State Park, Rockland County, N.Y.

August 28, 2006

Awaiting seasonal ‘love’

A peach in season is like long-sought-after love that suddenly makes connection. The heavens appear, but as in many a novel and short story, consumption does you in, spoils you for the ordinary. You can love no more past this time.

Until the next season.

It isn’t Adam and Eve here, forbidden taste of the fruit that brings guilt and addiction. The peach in season, freshly picked at maturity, never ripened as a green orb by gas in a truck or rail car from this place or that, is like the magical confluence of things out of this world when the tingle, heart patter and goose pimples of human bonding strike as lightning.

You are hooked for the moment. You do not question why this peach is so full of nature’s best taste, why the skin has a snap never arrived in the supermarket variety, picked two weeks ago. You simply savor rich sweetness that almost makes you cry, humbles you so in the process that you thank your god or your lucky stars. You are filled with satisfaction, and that keeps the tank supplying until the next year.

Once, in this region called Rockland, the smallest New York county geographically outside Gotham’s five boroughs, tree-ripened peaches were the norm. But post-World War II development took most farms and some of the greatest fruit ever grown, given our particular climate and glacially derived rocky soil. Now, there are but a few farms, like the Concklins, the Davies family, the Van Houtens. In their place is what is an insult: supermarkets in shopping strips on old farm land that sell peaches from states far away, perhaps wonderfully tasting in their own element, had they ripened there, but not in Rockland as gassed creatures that are so grainy inside that you must throw them away, even after you have paid $2.29 a pound in “season.” You had hoped, but. …

No, I await the homegrown, larger fruit that like the lover you recognize in the dark, has its own scent. For a few weeks there is this love affair that has you coming back and back for more, even moving you to tears, for no man-made sweetness is comparable to a fresh peach, the skin of which produces a snap at first bite that is exquisite foreplay.

Once your time is finished, you will have to move on, for the fresh peaches are no more. But that is just fine, thank you. As with the deepest of love affairs, the sort that can be revisited in its season but never sustained in ordinary time, day after day, week after week, you are satisfied so deeply that routine will never do.
You await the next rendezvous. It is worth suspended time.

August 21, 2006

Along the freedom trail

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Once upon a time not very long ago, the main post road of this famed military academy was really just another route to the old Storm King Highway and Newburgh. You sailed through the Highland Falls gate at about 15 mph, waved on by a regular Army military policeman who more often than not saluted, for you could be an officer in civilian clothes.

That was ego-feeding, especially for a younger driver. It was also remarkable, this ease with which you entered what is also a regular Army base besides being home to cadets and their college and officer training. It made a deep impression on you that anyone could visit these beautiful grounds along the Hudson River where so many famous soldiers began military life. You were reminded through the practiced eloquence of the white-gloved MP’s waving hand that there is necessary freedom of movement in a democracy, that there is trust, that you as a citizen are part owner of government. You were visiting commonly held property.

You recalled in those pre-terrorist days the great example of Dwight Eisenhower, the likable Ike who was the best military choice to lead the D-day invasion and the European Theatre of war during World War II but who was also a most civilian, unmilitary-like president. Like Harry Truman, he understood that there are things military and there are things civilian. A democracy, to be a democracy, knows which is which. And never forgets.

George Washington was another great general who understood that key distinction, and though he was given the title commander in chief of all military forces of the United States, he knew that was by honor and necessity in a young nation that could still develop state militias. Most important, there had to be civilian control of all things military.

Ike would have been the first to recognize the importance of a breezy, though cautious entrance to West Point or any people-derived government installation, for it is in lockdown that rights can wither. The good general knew that as president he was a civilian like the rest of us. He did not ceremoniously (and thus lightly) assume the weight of the commander in chief title to salute White House military guards, for he well understood that such a bridge must not be crossed lightly.

We are not a military nation; we are a civilian one, and the greatest of our armies and navies have come from civilians who joined or were drafted, then served, protected each other’s butt, did the job for the nation and went right back — as quickly as they could — to civilian life. That ensured the democracy as much as their military service did.

Now, entering West Point in these post-Sept. 11th days means showing the photo ID of everyone in the car; having your trunk and maybe engine hood opened; driving up a ramp to have the underside of the car inspected; and showing your IDs all over again after that.

No one much complains about this, of course. West Point is a terrorist target as are the American people, and inconveniences like this are a necessity.
They are of such necessity at West Point that it takes more people to operate the checkpoint than the military can spare, so the service is contracted to others. To civilians like us, given a temporary mantle of authority.

West Point is always enjoyable, even if you can no longer breeze in like the days of yore. You soak up the great historical intensity of this place, hear the strains of military music on the plain, see the magnificence of the Hudson from Trophy Point.

You want to thank your lucky stars for the visit, for those who train here and for civilian presidents who were also great generals but who knew when to wear a uniform. And never to pretend they were in one.

I wonder what Ike or Harry Truman or George Washington would say about today’s world, the necessity to be on alert but also to be most careful that in guarding the hen house from the fox that you don’t starve the hens of the light and air they need to be ordinary, relatively free hens doing their thing.

August 14, 2006

Life lengthened by shorts

It’s taken me 43 years, but I’m in shorts again all this summer. Last time that happened was in 1963 when I was not yet working for a newspaper, The Journal News, in Rockland County, N.Y., and I could take on the entire hot season without long trousers. No socks, either. It feels liberating.

My coming of age coincided with the Bermuda shorts craze of the 1950s, and so, while many in my father’s generation would not be seen alive in shortened pants beyond the knickers they were required to wear in their youth and which they could not wait to grow out of, we later fellows craved them. Since just about all of us wore Bermudas — and we didn’t call them anything else — it was cool. The girls joined in with their own versions, and they looked far better, in my opinion.

(One female “short shorts” model caused a stir in Spring Valley, N.Y, in 1958 when a police officer issued the teen beauty a ticket for public indecency. Today she might be overdressed. Her phone never stopped ringing.)

I can’t recall our Bermudas being anything but plaid. Khakis would have been too much like the regulation British Army uniform for the warmer areas of the Empire. Today there are so many types that there is probably a Miss Manners’ rule on when to wear what.

My father has never donned shortened pants, but his dad, driven to it by the summer heat, tore off the legs of an old pair of work trousers and those were his cooler wear. It isn’t that my father thinks Bermuda-type pants are undignified; it’s just that he hails from the dressed-up days when men went to church in suits and the theatre, too. He made his own stab, though, on leaving his dad’s generation by refusing to wear a fedora.

Yet if youthful summers are to be carefree, why shouldn’t the last day of school — or the first days of retirement — be a step into less restriction and an easier, more casual lifestyle?

Even in casualness, however, there are rules. In the breakfast food program where I volunteer, the number one cook (I am number two, the sous chef) is an 84 year old who could be 60. He has defied his generation and wears Bermudas. If he truly were six decades old, though, he would make sure he accessorized with white socks and sneakers, not blue socks and brown shoes. The good fellow looks like he should be in Miami.

I recall the last vestiges of summer as a teenager and the first day when I had to give up the shorts and pull on long pants to return to school. It felt odd, maybe like a noble jungle native having to suit up for a trip to London. It signaled more rules, responsibility, a regimen, the orderliness of school and, later, the work environment.

But I am out of school now, out of the workplace, and though this body cannot pick up where it left off in Bermudas in the summer of 1963, the mind, the spirit can dream. Shorts somehow help.

August 8, 2006

Out of rail mist, history, the future

GARRETT PARK, Md. — You would and you would not expect traditional Americana in the traffic- and development-congested near hub of the nation’s capital. Just commuting distance from the White House, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial and a precious mile or two from ever busy Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in Maryland is this Twilight Zone of an old-fashioned train station.

On a visit here last week to see family and in between the carpentry, electrical, plumbing and human reinforcing an elder does for a son, there was time for an early morning walk from Randolph Hills, an early 1960s housing development of brick expandable ranches in Rockville. Neatly set row upon row, they have weathered the decades well and, surprisingly, have not been so enlarged or otherwise modified that they look as if not one but 300 builders had constructed them.

The walk took me down Troy Road in Randolph Hills to one of the many nature parks in the area, also buffers against the 24-7 of the big streets and the big towns. Through the park I went, over a streambed that this summer lost its upper walls to the ravages of early floods, proof that here, as in Rockland, upstream development affects those who live below.

Over the wooden bridge I went, to the limited-run commuter train that stops at Garrett Park and arrives at famous Union Station in the capital. Here at this small stop, renewed a few years back by local historians and other volunteers with the help of a donated waiting area given to Garrett Park by Landover, Md., a lean-to of traditional bead board seems to have been there forever, close by an 1800s house, ancient oaks and gravel drives.

Diesel trains in this section of the nation, at least on this line, offer horn noise less shrill as they approach stations than those in Rockland County, N.Y., where there is constant complaints. And the walker’s crossing has what I thought had long ago disappeared from modern Americana: a clanging bell, once companion to the “X” railroad sign and flashing red lights.

Rockland — all America — had such rail crossing warning signals, and the bell’s clang was for some the morning, evening and dinner clock, so accurate was the train schedule, so much a song for living tasks was the clanging bell.

Into the serene quiet of the Garrett Park station came the 7:13, first as a far-off whistle in the town just southwest, then the locomotive light, then the rumble, then the clanging bell the engineer set off.

In days past, the train, here as everywhere in America, would pull to a stop at the station platform, great bursts of steam from the black polished engine sweeping the platform, calling passengers from the waiting room, and like a Hollywood movie, engulf lives, the momentary close ups of their faces in a break in the mist revealing timeless emotions — worries, fears, hope.

Today, in this 2006 where so much has changed but some things remain quite the same, in the midst of a nation still building, at a small, quaint railroad station near a great seat of power where the balance of lives is considered daily, is an anchor of Americana that remains a touchstone.

As long as such stops as Garrett Park are on the line, these United States will survive.

July 31, 2006

The circle now complete

They say that retirement is both bitter and sweet, the other side of one’s life journey. I am just beginning the voyage, not sure where I will travel, what conveyance will take me and the company I’ll keep. The one thing I am certain of is that the cart will be full of emotions.
I am newly retired as a newspaperman, though one in such a profession is never put to pasture, much like a physician or other careerist whose work gets so deeply under the fingernails, in the muscled sinew, in the bloodstream and in the heart and mind that no divorce is possible. You have been draped with an experience, and, like the trade societies of the Middle Ages, you never leave. You are a journeyman for life.
I spent more than 42 years with The Journal News, a daily paper owned by the worldwide Gannett Co., based in Nyack, New York, in Rockland County 20 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. I held almost every position there – in circulation, printing, photography, editing, writing and in the last decades editor of the editorial pages and a weekly essayist.
I penned the Column Rule from 1981 to 2006 and now continue it online, apart from the paper, on this, my website.
It is here because (1) I like to write; (2) I do it as a paean for Torger Gram, my sixth-grade English teacher, who gave me my love of the craft; (3) and because some have asked for continued musings.
I hope you like the writings and comment on them, critically and otherwise. And remember, please: With newsprint, you can use what you have read or don’t want to read as wrapping for the trash. On the Internet, there’s the delete button or the next website, one of millions.
On the day back in July 1965 when I told my father Arthur Jr. that I would have a full-time job with the newspaper after serving part time for a year and a half in circulation and as a copy boy and apprentice photographer, he was standing next to his dining room table in his Pearl River, N.Y., home. We had not communicated well since I was in my teens, and my failure at age 23 to have finished college was a great disappointment. I would have been the first to attend and graduate from college in a family that came through the Great Depression by the grit of their teeth, the strength of their backs and sheer survival skills, as so many others did as well.
My father did not have a pleasant look on his face that day, and because of that, my voice rose in strength. For me this job offer, based on my part-time performance and what editors saw as potential (or at least it was worth giving the guy a chance), was the first bright light in my life for a number of years. I had hope, and already photography and writing seemed a fit for me. I knew instinctively that my disappointed father would some day think otherwise.
Although I later earned a college degree while working full time, my real “college” would prove to be way beyond that. My instruction came as a newspaperman on the beat, in the office, surrounded by some of the most gifted, irascible, hot-tempered, sentimental, endearing, frustrating, ink-stained geniuses of the written and edited word and the photographic print.
A few weeks ago, I went to my elderly father, in that same Pearl River house, facing that same dining room table. My mother, gone now, is among his precious memories, as are his physical abilities. Hobbled over by arthritis, he can no longer stand for long at the dining room table, that same 1965 table, so it was while he was seated next to it that I told him, some 41 years later, that I was retiring from the job that he thought would keep me from college and the family pride. This time, there was a smile.
A local weekly, Our Town, had rendered a tribute to my years and work, and my father read that when the paper came in the mail. He told me that his father, my grandfather, the first Arthur, would be proud. That is one way dads give their sons a nod of approval, referring to revered elders. I appreciated that.
So, the circle was complete. The doubts that my dad had back in July 1965 about a college dropout taking an $85-a-week job long ago disappeared, and the words of congratulation he had wanted to utter in what he hoped 41 years ago would be a college degree turned to transmitted language from father to son in 2006: “You did OK.”
That was the best reward for a working life now completed.

July 24, 2006

Reflections of a life on a passing face

There comes a day when you see a certain face, on a relative, friend or former acquaintance, and you realize time has passed, that age has added lines, that days of happiness, difficulty, excitement, boredom and the sometime ordinariness of living have left telltale trails on a visage that is unique to that person.
Maybe it’s because we don’t look at each other all the time, or at least notice how each other looks on a regular basis, that we don’t see the individual collecting his years (nor, perhaps, do we see our own aging). Every once in a while, though, we seem to leave the close proximity of it all and step back to suddenly notice the person (even ourselves) in a detached way, almost as an unbiased observer.
It is in that moment that a relative or friend or acquaintance appears to us changed, and that is usually for the better. For we all age, we all have our ups and downs, we all move on, whether it is on the treadmill of life or making the heady climb to whatever is our summit. We are then, at the end, the sum of our experiences, and at any point before that the total of all that has happened so far.
Except for the most hard luck-driven individual, or the person who seems unable or unwilling to obtain some good days for himself, people move toward that summit on relatively clear trails, even if some are unmarked, the many experiences etching the face like so many notches on a Bowie knife. Your childhood. School. Romance. Work. Marriage. Hobbies. Hard times. Good times. They all make their mark on our faces, and it is other people who see the road map most clearly.
Yet nature or your god provides those detached moments when you suddenly get an update on the individual (or yourself). One day you spot this person and note the changes, or you get up in the morning and acutely see yourself in the mirror.
Such moments seem so true in their depth of insight, in their perspective that time has gone by, that things have happened, that you or he or she is still there, that the journey continues. There can be grand glory in all this, a small smile at noting how well someone is doing, or even that the person has simply survived his or her travails.
It is a reaffirmation of life, surely, of our own, that we see such change, note it and store the information in the computer that is the mind (logic) and add to the mass of feelings that is the spirit. This brings a reality check that shows we all live sometimes challenging lives, that we are all climbing a mountain of some sort.
Imagine if we were not able to step back and take that detached look, at ourselves or someone else? We might all live in the past, in a time when we were 16 and the face was without wrinkles, just the oiled blemishes of puberty and all the wonder that that promised. No, even as we write the chapters in our lives, or have some lines written for us, we are given a chance to sit down and read the proofs of what so far is written. In that, we might still alter the ending, and in that we can appreciate, even savor, what’s been put down so far.

(Originally 1997)

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