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Serving Otsego County, NY, through the combined reporting of Cooperstown's Freeman's Journal and the Hometown Oneonta newspapers.


Front Porch Perspective

ATWELL: If Not For A Buttonhook


If Not For

A Buttonhook

Jim Atwell and his grandmother, who as a little girl narrowly survived falling down a well – prospectively allowing her grandson to live among us today.

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Some years ago, I had dinner at Great-Grandpa’s house down in tidewater Maryland. It’s a handsome brick house with dormers, and it used to face a clear view across the fields to broad West River.

But realtors overran the area, and the fields filled up with houses for commuters to Washington.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

And Great-Grandpa’s house is now a restaurant – a high-toned French one, mind you, down there in Shady Side, a hamlet once home only to truck farmers and to men who fished, dredged oysters and hauled enraged blue crabs from the Chesapeake’s tidewater.

We ate our dinners in an expansive, open-beamed addition to the house. It had been built out over the old backyard. It was tasteless of me, but I couldn’t describe the backyard as it once was.

“You know, the privy would have stood right over there, between the hat rack and the waiter’s station.” My fellow diners grimaced and went back to their goat’s cheese and endive vinaigrette.

But I sat fascinated. “And this table,” I added, “is probably just about over the old well.” If we were above that
well, I was at a spot crucial to my life.

For about 1880, a toddler, Great-Grandpa’s youngest daughter, fell down the family well. My grandmother.

As little boys, my brother and I would sit open-mouthed as she told the story – which she only knew from adults who repeated it later, shaking their heads. She’d been playing in the sunny back yard with another little girl and perhaps meant only to look curiously down into the well’s darkness. But she tumbled in, head first.

The other tot came into the busy kitchen, pulled at her own mother’s dress. “Annie Owings is down the well,” she lisped. The women ran shrieking into the yard. Neighbors’ doors banged open and a half dozen people rushed to stand around the well hole, peering down in horror.

The little girl was almost completely submerged. Only one foot jutted above the water in a tiny, high-button shoe. Men bent themselves over the well rim, stretching, clawing down toward the water.

But the shoe was just out of reach, even for the tallest of them.

Then a quiet voice said, “Lemme try, cap’ns.”

And a tall black waterman stepped to the well, drawing from his pocket a buttonhook. Lying down on his stomach, he leaned over the well rim, bent his torso down into the darkness. He reached down with the hook, stretched himself even farther, snagged the shoe’s topmost button. And drew Annie Owings out of the darkness, back from death.

“They rolled me on a barrel to get the water out,” Grandma would say, “and finally I coughed and started to cry.”

I told Grandma’s story to my table companions, and we sat silent. Then we toasted her and that buttonhook. And the tall black man, name unknown, who saved her life. And also opened life to my father, my brother and me.

I’ve thought of that distant day often since our meal at Great-Grandpa’s. An event 60 years before my birth almost meant I wasn’t. No big loss for the world, I know; but a considerable one for me.

How many other near misses, I wonder, were there for me, back across the generations? Beyond forebears who might have been snuffed by wars, plagues and falls down wells, what were my chances that all the right conceptions would take place, across all those endless generations? It’s dizzying, strikes me wordless.

And makes me wonder about a human’s value. Maybe each of us should say, “What am I worth? I’m only here by sheer blind luck.” Or maybe the opposite: “I must mean something since, despite unthinkable odds, here I am.”
Here we are, headed for a second darkness, gifted for a bit with life.

By that fact, maybe we owe something to all those faceless ghosts – humans who could have been. But never were.

ATWELL: On Thanksgiving, Remembering Blue

Front Porch Perspective

On Thanksgiving,

Remembering Blue

Jim Atwell

Four years ago on a snowy winter day, Dr. Fran Fassett came to our house and released our good old Blue from his failed body. It was amazingly peaceful, even blessed time.

Anne and I had had Blue for about 10 years. He was a rescue dog who’d been picked up along Route 88 near Oneonta. Thank God, he was brought to our own animal shelter. A friend on staff there contacted Anne; she knew we’d recently lost our dear old Zach.

From the get-go, we knew we had a challenge on our hands. Blue was perhaps 6, a lean, muscular dog with great strength and stamina. And no wonder. Though between Blue and his forebears, a number of gentler breeds had entered his bloodline, he was at heart still a Catahoula Spotted Leopard Dog. That breed was developed in the Louisiana swampland – to hunt wild boar.

The dogs were trained to work in packs of three, with two grappling with a boar’s back hocks while the third (who’d perhaps drawn the short straw) went for the snout, There, and in spite of long, slashing tusks, the dog struggled to hang on till the human hunters arrived at the fray.

I’m guessing that Blue’s ancestors were mostly back-hock dogs. The snout-grabbers likely didn’t last to do much begetting.

It’s to Anne’s enormous credit that Blue transmuted from a strong young dog wracked by separation anxiety to a gentle-hearted hound loved by hundreds around here.

That first stage, though, took a great toll on the two of us – and on our Fly Creek house. If we both left the place at the same time, Blue panicked and damned near tore apart the downstairs, trying to get outside. Mind you, he wasn’t trying to escape; he was trying to get to us. He was ours, we were his, and he wasn’t going to be alone in the world again.

Of course he was not a perfect pet. Deep in him there still lurked a stealthy hunter, an opportunist who watched for chances to snatch at food. In our absence, he once pried open the freezer’s door and wiped out an entire two-pound frozen pork roast – thinking of it, I guess, as a sort of porksicle, he chomped his way through the whole thing, plastic wrap and all. It was a boneless roast, and the only evidence he left behind was the freezer door, slightly ajar, and, of course, the missing roast.

After that, we tried a child-proof lock on the freezer; that was child’s play to Blue. Finally we thwarted him with a hasp and a padlock.

As noted, plastic wrap was no deterrent to Blue. Once, for a charity sale, we’d baked and individually wrapped 18 large chocolate brownies and, in cosmic madness, left them on a tray on the kitchen counter. We came home to find Blue, tail wagging and all innocence, sitting on the floor next to the empty tray.
Anne and I rushed him to the vet, since all that plastic, tangled in the gut, could have been the end of him.

Later, Dr. Fassett’s assistant told us of her part in saving him. Rubber-gloved, poor girl had had to pick through a bombshell laxative’s explosion, using chopsticks to separate and count those eighteen large squares of bemired plastic.

With a sly grin, she’d offered to return them to us, proof that all systems were now clear. We demurred.

Blue had come to love his new home in Cooperstown, and last summer, as an elderly dog, he enjoyed afternoons on our Delaware Street front porch, greeting passing neighbors who stopped by to visit. He became a celebrity with local children, whose comment on first petting him was always the same: “He’s so soft!” And indeed he was.

By early that March, however, Blue had weakened greatly. On the morning of the 9th, it was evident that he could barely keep on his feet, and he hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. And, for the first time, he seemed unable to wag his tail.

I had had a half-dozen Quaker friends coming for a meeting at our house that afternoon at 2. They were still there when Dr. Fassett arrived. The Friends sat quietly, holding us all in the Light as Anne and I knelt by Blue.

Before the vet arrived, and as we had sat in silent prayer, Blue had dragged himself up from his place by the back door and limped around the circle of us, saying goodbye, I’m sure. He knew all those Friends, and each patted him and scratched his ears. Then he asked to go out the back door.

Down to the yard he went and slowly walked the circular furrow we’d kept open for him in the deep snow. When he got back to the steps, he looked up at me steadily for a long minute, and then turned to make a final circuit of his yard. Satisfied, I guess, that he was leaving all in order, he labored up the steps and lay down on his bed. That’s when the vet arrived, another old friend, to put him gently at ease.

What a fine dog he was, and what a blessed companion to both of us! We two will always be grateful for the gift he was. And for his joyful, unqualified love.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown

ATWELL: Priest Gave Me A Different Take On Life



Angst At Age 15

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Last time we talked, I described the start of a major teenage crisis: when I knocked a nun flat on on her face, and then sat on her.

To summarize: During halftime of our high school’s basketball team, I was selling candy and gum in the hallway just outside the gym to raise money for new uniforms. I was sitting on the edge of rickety table, and a young nun (my homeroom teacher!) was standing by me to keep order as I sold my goods.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

As someone always says after a mishap, “It all happened so quickly!” Blare of a horn signaled that second quarter had ended. Gym doors burst outward, and a roiling teenage crowd poured into the hallway, most of them turning right and toward our table.

That table was in poor shape, shaky, and I shouldn’t have been sitting on its edge. But I was a young smart aleck, showing off. Sister Mary Aphasia (I’m cloaking her real name) stepped backward as the crowd surged toward us, and (dare I say it?) through all the black serge, a buttock pressed into my bony knee.

Something like electric shock struck me. My bony knee kicked backward and took out the table leg. I was dumped forward, knocking Sister Aphasia face-down in the horrified crowd. And I, limbs flailing, came to rest, cushioned on what I’d first contacted only seconds before.

At first the shocked crowd fell back, as if what lay on the floor was a bomb about to explode. Then two classmates grabbed my arms and yanked me up. I blundered into the crowd, praying to be suddenly cockroach size so I could skitter away through the scuffling white bucks and sneakers.

Meanwhile, two red-faced senior girls uprighted Sister Aphasia, who, who hadn’t been hurt and, by all reports, was laughing heartily. Oh, bless that dear nun, long in retirement and now in her nineties! I wonder if she has any recollection of that day?

I do, and of the days that followed, ones racked with guilt for me. “You knocked down and sat on a nun! Sacrilege!” I couldn’t stop shouting that in my mind.

I knew what I had to do. Confession. That would free me of the horror. But I couldn’t risk presenting my sacrilege in the confessional. The priests in our parish all belonged to a tough, German-founded order; and some of them were given to bawling out loudly those confessing to them.

I could easily imagine one reacting to what I spilled out:

“What? You did what?” At that, the line outside that confessional would scatter into the pews like startled hens. I could, however, betake myself to another member of that order, a man who was, to my mind, a true saint.

Father Joe Turner was too old  and arthritic to handle hours in a stuffy confessional. Instead, he hobbled down the corridor from his room and directly into the empty choir loft high over the back of the church.

There he eased himself onto a pew, took out his rosary, and sat in the shadows, waiting to receive anyone who should come. He had a small purple stole around his neck, a sign that he was open for business.

And business came, though all male. For at that time a priest could not hear a woman’s confession unless a screen was between him and the penitent. But the males came, and one of them, me – 15, shaking, as I blurted out an account of the sacrilege I had committed.

As I blurted, Father Joe leaned forward, head in hands, shaking as much as I was. Then I realized the old man was suppressing laughter. And I felt hurt, disappointed, even insulted.

Sitting upright again, Father Joe wiped away tears; and then, as he found his voice, he waved his open hand slowly back and forth before him. When he could speak, he said something I have remembered for 65 years.

“Son, I’d gladly hear your confession, but you have no sins to tell me. But I have something to tell you that explains what happened. God has wondrous ways of opening up our lives to us. And at times like this, I’m sure that He also has a fine sense of humor as he nudges us along in our lives.” He paused a moment, looking calmly at me. And in that moment, I sensed a great blessing was being offered me.

“Now, here is how to read this strange, zany thing that befell you.” He chuckled at the aptness of befell.

“The jolt you suffered, and that continues in you, awoke something that will rejoice and vex you all your days, even if you live to my age.” Another chuckle and a slow shake of his head.

“I mean your human sexuality. I don’t know why it should have been sparked by a madcap happening — unless it’s because God is a bit of a jokester.” He smiled warmly. “I like to think so.”

He slapped his own knees, meaning a discussion done.

“Now, young man, you need some time to think. But make sure that it is fear-free thought! Thinking of God shouldn’t scare you, but invite love and trust. Do you understand?”

Yes, I do. And better every year.

ATWELL: She Would Have Loved That Smile


She Would Have

Loved That Smile

Editor’s Note: Jim Atwell penned this column on Aug. 30, 2001, when he and Anne were still living in Fly Creek.

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

I can’t do justice in words to an incident last Saturday. It was too rich with meaning. But the moment was so wondrous that I’ll still try to tell you.  Read the words, please; then make up for their shortfall from your own life’s experience.

The Olde English Musical Cottage lives on.

      Last Saturday was a great day for our hamlet; our annual community yard sale brought hundreds to Fly Creek.  Many started the morning with our Fire Department Auxiliary’s breakfast (the best such meal around, I think.) Afterward, the big crowds moved among some three dozen family yard sales, and then they gathered back at the Grange for the Historical Society’s lunch of barbecue, salads, and homemade desserts.

       Like many Fly Creekers, Anne and I had rummaged through attic and basement, barn and garage, thinning out our stuff.  Before moving to Fly Creek, each of us had closed down a house in Annapolis, and so there was plenty of stuff to cull.

A widower, I had moved up here alone almost 10  years ago. Before the move, I had had to empty the house my late wife and I had shared for 18 years.  Gwen had made it a beautiful home; and, to a grieving husband, dismantling her decorating felt like treason. But what else could be done? I held a half-dozen sales down there, selling off elements of share shared life.

A lot of stuff, however, ended up traveling north with me – either because I ran out of time or just couldn’t part with it. And in Fly Creek, much of it stayed in boxes stowed in attic or basement.

Then, after I’d been alone in Fly Creek for five years, Anne and I married; and that poor girl had to wedge her own extra goods into those already stuffed spaces.  But she did it, as you’d expect, with good grace and humor.  And now, four years later, we were plunging into the combined piles, sort for the yard sale.  To use the great local expression, we’d taken on “hoeing out.”

As we hoed, I came across items I hadn’t seen since I’d packed them, down south.  Many were decorative items that Gwen had once chosen with great care, or items so closely associated with her that, back then, I just couldn’t let them go.

If you know my Anne, you won’t wonder for a moment how she reacted to those relics of my life before our shared life.  As I turned them up, I explained each to her; and that fine woman listened and understood.  And she comforted me with something she’d said many times before: She’s glad for my past happy marriage; it bodes well for ours.

I don’t know how I lucked out, getting a second wonderful woman in my life.  But I’m very grateful.

Anyway, a lot of items rich in personal history went into the yard sale. I was now ready to let them go.

We set up the sale on the shady lawn outside Anne’s office. While I spent most of the morning down at the Grange, helping with sales there, Anne handled the customers who tramped up our driveway to appraise the wares.

Around lunchtime I dropped home to find that Anne, predictably, had been doing a great job. Lots of stuff, hers and mind, had been sold and was gone.

As I sat down with her behind the tables, though, one remaining item caught my eye.  Still there was a simple oblong jewel case made to look like a thatched cottage.  When one raised the hinged roof, a mechanism played, “An English Country Garden.”

A dear friend had given Gwen the box on her last birthday, her 47th, three months before her death.  Gwen loved it, kept it at her bedside. And as I sat by her through the last desolate days and nights after coma seemed to have smothered all consciousness, I’d sometimes open the box, hoping that somehow she’d heard that delicate refrain. . .

Well, last Saturday, a family came up our driveway – young parents, a happy baby boy, and his big sister. The little girl, about 5, was beautiful: perfect features, honey-blonde curls, eyes of purest blue.

I looked at her and then at the music box and knew at once what must happen. I beckoned the little girl over to the thatched cottage and raised its lid. When the lilting melody began, her eyes widened. Her face glowed with wonder.

I caught Anne’s eye. She understood (of course) and nodded slightly. Then I spoke to the little girl.

“Would you like to have this special box?”

“Oh, yes,” she whispered.

“Then it’s yours, as a gift.  Keep your treasures in it, won’t you?”

“I will,” she said. And cupping the little cottage in both hands, she held it to her ear, the better to the melody.  Her distant, luminous smile just then – well, you’ll have to imagine it, friends. I don’t have words for it.

That box, as my dearest Anne understood, could not be sold. It had to be given.

And that girl’s smile – how Gwen would have loved it!

Jim Atwell, retired college administrator and Quaker minister, lives in Cooperstown.

ATWELL: But What’s Her Name?


But What’s Her Name?

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

I’m at ease on my front porch on a beautiful afternoon, admiring the perspective up tree-lined Delaware Avenue. As the long last block heads toward Chestnut Street, curbs and sidewalks seem to draw together, trees conspire more closely over the street, and the two rows of handsome house fronts, bedecked with flags and hanging planters, draw closer till the last ones opposite each other almost block sight of traffic flashing by on Chestnut.

But now, heading toward me down the sidewalk, is an old friend of my own age. She’s being led along by her leashed dog, Bijou, who, spotting me on the porch, speeds up, tail wagging. The old friend also sees me and waves. Defying perspective, she and Bijou grow larger and clearer as they approach.

I wave back, smiling. How good to see her!

ATWELL: To Sell, First,  Sell Yourself



To Sell, First, 

Sell Yourself

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

COOPERSTOWN – Many years ago, when Earth was still cooling, I was a young professor teaching rhetoric. That study had been greatly advanced by Aristotle. He was not long dead then, so the topic was still fresh.

Aristotle said that rhetoric is “the art of effective, persuasive speech.” The crassest form is used by the used-car salesman who scuttles across the lot with wide eyes and lockjaw grin, as if his best friend had just shown up.

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