News of Otsego County

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


Jim Atwell

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.

Front-Porch Perspective Avast, Maties!

Front-Porch Perspective

Avast, Maties!

Editor’s Note: Only a partial version of Front Porch Perspective was published March 12-13.  Here’s the full version.

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Nope, I’m still not sitting on my front porch, laptop frozen to my lap. Maybe after I spot a first crocus, I’ll try writing out there again. Hey, I’m old and a bit ditsy – but not nuts.

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

Meanwhile, last week some whimsical friends did find a way to distract themselves and me from the winter. They organized a pirate party and held it at our house.

And what, you ask, is that? Why it’s an indeterminate number of adults, middle-aged or (in my case) decrepit.  It centers on some slapdash costuming, eating and gulping ersatz piratical fare, singing appropriate chanties (“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest,” etc.) and, if adequately oiled, attempts to dance the hornpipe.

As to the ragged hornpipe dancing, quoth the Bard, “Oh, piteous spectacle!”

By luck, no clear photos survive, especially of the hornpipe. Several pirates might have to remain in disguise for years.

But the edibles that the invading pirates hauled into our house – well, they were gob-smackingly, lip-lickingly grand. Cheeses and cold meats, jumbo steamed shrimp, a smoking kettle of what its maker called “shipwreck stew.” For the last, I presumed to suggest a more piratical name. The cook humored me, and her splendid stew was renamed “slumgullion.” (You might look that up.)

My own contribution was a specialty from my home state, but one that sounded, I thought, suitably violent: Maryland beaten biscuits. And making them involved every pirate present.

After mixing a batter similar to pie pastry, though lard was an essential ingredient, one rolls the result into a flat sheet and then beats it with a mallet for twenty minutes – if the biscuits are just for home folks. But if company’s coming (or pirates), pound away for a half an hour.

What a rollicking, communal project that pounding became! When the most attractive of the marauders was taking her turn, she matched her malleting’s rhythm to dance steps – and that got the rest of us swaying and singing. ”Sweet Georgia Brown!”

To me, that will remain the highpoint of our pirate

partying. But the biscuits turned out as memorable, too.

A half hour of pounding gave the seeming pie pastry a soft, puckered texture. It was easily rolled into a long snake. Then pieces were pinched off the snake’s end, each about the size of a golf ball.

Each of these was rolled to a perfect sphere and added to those already placed on a jellyroll pan. The low sides, please note, will reflect heat and add something special to the baking. Don’t’ ask me how. It just does!

Oh, and when two dozen golf balls are arranged in rows of six, the tops of all are lightly pricked on with a household pattern as unique as a horse farm’s brand. Then into a hot oven for around 12 minutes. Watch closely! They should not brown, but only tan.

Now, take a hot biscuit and split it: a unique fragrance and a texture, not flakey, but at once firm and cushiony.

Lay across that open biscuit a thin slice of country ham. No! not cold and just out of the refrigerator! A paper-thin slice at room temperature. The biscuit’s heat will release the ham’s flavor.

If you should suggest that all the above somehow merges cookery with magic, any beaten biscuit cook will respond, “Damned right!”  Though if the responder is a family grandma, she’ll more likely just grin, wink, and click her tongue against her upper plate.

You’ll get no secrets out of her. Tight-lipped as a pirate, is she!

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

ATWELL: Avast, Maties!

Front Porch Perspective

Avast, Maties!

Jim Atwell

Nope, I’m still not sitting on my front porch, laptop frozen to my lap. After I spot a first crocus, maybe I’ll try writing out there again. I’m old and maybe a bit ditsy – but not nuts.

Meanwhile, last week some whimsical friends did find a way to distract themselves from the winter. They organized a pirate party and held it at our house.

And what, you ask, is that? Why it’s an indeterminate number of adults, middle-aged or (in my case) decrepit. It centers on some slapdash costuming, eating and gulping ersatz piratical fare, singing appropriate chanties (“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest,” etc.) and, if adequately oiled, attempts to dance the hornpipe.

As to the last-mentioned, let Shakespeare nail it: “Oh, piteous spectacle!”
By luck, no clear photos survive, especially of the hornpipe. Several pirates might have to remain in disguise for years.

But the comestibles that the invading pirates hauled into our house – well, they were gob-smackingly, lip-lickingly grand.

Jim Atwell, Quaker minister and

retired college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.

ATWELL: Seizing The Moment


Seizing The Moment

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

You know me. A synapse sparks inside my skull, and I’ve shot back 1,000 years to grab a good story. Sorry, but it’s an old habit. And after four-score years, I’m unlikely to break it.

And, besides, in this instance, this one’s not a 1,000-year leap, but only 954. That takes us back to 1066 AD, a date that’s been stuck to the inside of your skull since fifth grade.

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

In 1066, your teacher said, King William of Normandy controlled much of eastern France. On a clear day from the coastline there, he could gaze across only 20 miles of water at something very tempting to him: England.

William was sure he remembered a former English king, now dead, had made him a vague promise that William could succeed him on the English throne. But when that old boy died, nobody called William to tell him to pack his bags and paddle right across the Channel.

Instead, word came that they’d crowned somebody named Harold, not a kingly name at all. Further, according to William’s wholly objective spies, Harold was a ninny. He was too indecisive to run a village shop, much less a kingdom.

“Indecisive” had no place in William’s vocabulary. And so, absent invitation, he did pack his bags, plus 7,000 soldiers and lots of horses. Then he waited, but not for long.

For in late September 1066, the prevailing Channel winds swung westward. That’s when William stood on his lead ship’s quarterdeck and shouted, “Anchors aweigh!” which is to say, “Hoist anchors!”

Even so, his stalwarts couldn’t respond by singing “Anchors Aweigh,” (since it wouldn’t be composed till 1904 and first be sung at an Army-Navy game, where it inspired the Midshipmen to a 10-0 victory over the Cadets.)

But William’s seadogs could each reach up and tug their forelocks (origin of the military salute), and then bellow out, “Aye, my lord!” Then they began  cranking up anchors by the hundreds.

The westerly winds held steady, and in just a few hours, William’s own ship, first of his invasionary force, plowed into the shore to “quench its speed in the slushy sand.” (Somebody else wrote that phrase much later – and with steamy overtones that shocked Victorians. If you don’t believe me, look it up yourself.)

OK, I’m pausing just a moment, wondering if I’ve dropped the reins of free association, and the horses have run away with me. Well, tough taffy! I’m having too much fun to rein them in. . .

“Now,” as good old Paul Harvey used to say, “for the rest of the story.” Anxious to be the first ashore, William swung one armored foot over his landing boat’s side and planted it firmly in the sandy slush. (Sorry.) But then, alas and alack!

When he swung down the second foot, he must have caught his boot’s toe on an oarlock. And so what next plunged into the mud were his royal head and face, neck and shoulders, hands and forearms.

Horrified gasps from everybody clambering out of nearby boats.  Sancta Maria! The king on his hands and knees in the muddy water! If this is an omen, it’s a hell of a one for starting an invasion.

But wait! Just watch this how this canny guy saves that disastrous moment and spins it into a triumph!

William rears back on his knees and pauses, water squirting from every crack in his armor, eyes closed seemingly in prayer. (They are really stinging something fierce from grit and salt water.)

Then he slowly stands, but not before grabbing up two fistfuls of mud.  He holds these up in triumph. and he shouts. “See how I grasp this land as God has destined!”

In that one boffo instant, brilliant Will turns falling face-down in the mud into something solemn, God-intended: He’s kissed the coastline, then knelt in prayer, and then triumphantly raised up those symbolic clumps of mud. What a guy! No wonder they started calling him “The Conqueror”!

As you might imagine, I’ve always held that moment in William’s life as the very symbol for anybody’s rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s quick thinking that does the trick.

And for my many years as academic administrator, it worked for me more times than not. But not always, and not on my very first day as a dean when, in terms of appropriate dignity, I might as well have plunged headfirst into plashy mud.

No room to tell you about that in this column.

So now I’ll add only this: There’s a guy living in Hastings right now, in 2020, who’s profiting greatly by association with William, even though the latter’s been a-mouldering underground for nine hundred plus years.

This contemporary of ours is making a great living by constructing sidewalks all over East Sussex.

His ads all call him, “William the Concretor.”

ATWELL: Where Everybody Know Your Name…


Where Everybody

Know Your Name…

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

I’ll admit first off that I’m not writing this on my front porch.  It’s as cold as, well, January out there, for heaven’s sake! And so I’m settled on a comfortable couch back in the family room. Cassey the dog is with me, sprawled on her back, nose almost on my keyboard. Though her face is upside down, she is staring at me fixedly, intent on willing my fingers away from their silly drumming so they can be used to scratch her stomach.

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

I press on, pretending not to notice the tractor-beam pressure coming from her. It’s a battle of wills, and who wins? No contest. I couldn’t match that dogged determination.

All right, the scratching done, I’m back to giving you full attention. I think you’ll enjoy what I have to tell you. It’s about a recent visit to my old hometown and the special joy of seeing old friends. I don’t mean Annapolis, place of my birth. I’m talking about Fly Creek, the place that birthed me into life in Leatherstocking Country.

Early on a recent Sunday morning, Fly Creek General Store owner Tom Bouton showed up to take me out to breakfast. We’ve been friends for 25 years now, he having bought Aufmuth’s Store just about when I moved north.

Tom knew that my Anne was away just then and I was home alone, tending that determined dog and Gracie our cat, placid but as tough as the dog, any day.

As we left the house, Tom suggested we drive out to the “crick” and eat at his store. Great idea, I thought. I’d likely see some old friends.

Well, it turns out that two congregations meet in Fly Creek every Sunday morning. The first gathers at 11 in the handsome 19th Century Methodist church, its congregants well dressed and ready for prayer, fine music, and a good sermon.

But the second congregation gangs up earlier in Tom’s store. Usually all male and casually dressed, they show up for coffee, jokes and lots of bustin’ chops with one another. When Tom and I walked in, there were whoops and shouts of  “Hey, Jim! Welcome back!”

They’d saved my old seat by the front window – no one, one bozo said solemnly, had been allowed to sit in it since I was last there. It’s the “Atwell Chair of Distinguished Bull—-,” he continued, and no match for me had yet been found.

Tom and I sat with that wondrous, raucous crowd for close to two hours – and we did manage to eat breakfast, too. What a great time!

“Old times there are not forgotten.” And I’m not just whistling “Dixie.” Though I did just quote it.

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.

My Right Leg Always Had Bad Karma

A Front Porch Perspective

My Right Leg Has

Always Had Bad Karma

Jim Atwell

I’ve been on the porch this afternoon, enjoying one of the last days of sitting out there. A windy Halloween’s just past, and Delaware Street is full of fresh-fallen leaves spinning in whirlwind gusts of chill air from the northwest. Above me are repeated flights of honking geese, hell bent for the South and warmer climes.

My right leg’s propped on a second chair. Right foot and calf are still encased in a heavy leather boot fastened shut with a half-dozen Velcro straps.

That leg, now 81, has had a history of mishaps that eclipses the sum of those that have smitten all the rest of me.

Not counting the number of times that right ankle has been twisted, topped by a killer sprain incurred in a Fly Creek volleyball game. And the right femur got its turn when a heifer kicked sideways and knocked me clear across the barn. That broken bone had me laid up for weeks on the sofa, and that inactivity nearly cost me my gall bladder.

Inaction, you see, caused agonizing adhesions in my back – every drawn breath felt like a dagger’s stab. At the emergency room, a brand-new resident with more zeal than experience decided that I had a diseased gall bladder and lined me up for next-morning surgery. Thank goodness, he was reined in by an older doctor who ambled into the ER, glanced at my X-rays, and sent the resident to the showers.

I wish good luck to that resident but hope he’s back home now, maybe selling insurance in Cincinnati.

All jokes aside, for quite a while, the back pain was so bad that it would stop me from getting to sleep. After reading a useful guide on the bestmatress-brand website, I even considered investing in a mattress that had been specially designed for people with back pain. Which reminds me, I might have to buy a new mattress soon actually as our old one has certainly seen better days.

Anyway, during my lay about sofa days, lots of kind souls stopped by to wish me well. Invariably they’d ask, “Where’s the break?”

At that, my Anne would always say, “I can show you!” She’d head for the kitchen and return with a big dog biscuit shaped (you guessed it) like a bone. She’d hold this up before the guests (and before the dog, who’d understandably followed her) and say dramatically, “This is Jim’s femur.” Then she’d snap off one of its top two lobes, adding, “And this is the break.”

Snap! Anne would break off the lobe. Guests always laughed warmly, but it did make me wince a bit every time, especially if my Anne then tossed the piece to the happy dog.

But the chain of events after the heifer’s kick had a denouement, poignant in its own way. The heifer hadn’t been mine. I was only giving it temporary barn room after hauling it to Fly Creek from the Unadilla livestock auction, this for a neighbor who lived about a mile away.

Some months after the ninja heifer’s kick broke my femur, someone knocked on our back door. There stood the heifer’s owner, holding a bundle wrapped in white butcher’s paper. It contained, he said, a 10-pound rump roast from the now-late heifer, trimmed out of the top of the very leg that had broken mine.

With a weak smile, the neighbor said, “God knows you earned this! Hope you and Anne enjoy it.”

I know that I did. I asked Anne to let me do the roasting, and when it came to slicing and plating, I really took my time, recalling our last close encounter.

That was shameful of me, I know – what old morals texts called “morose delectation.” Psychologists redubbed it “sadistic pleasure.”

OK, I feel guilty. But not exactly repentant.

I am convinced, though, that all the negative karma that has dogged my right leg originated 65 years ago. Back then, a scrawny teen was sitting on a shaky table in the hall just outside his high-school gym. It was halftime, and he was there to sell candy to the crowd that would pour out of the humid gym
to gulp some fresh air. (We were selling candy, you see, to raise money for new uniforms.)

Well, here came the crowd, deferring to a young nun, my homeroom teacher, who ended up pressed backward, right against my table – and right against my bony right knee. Horrified, I kicked backward and collapsed the table’s right table leg. The table and I pitched forward, knocking down the nun on her face in the crowd. And I, oh, I fell after her, landing, scrawny butt first, right on her considerably softer one.

This took place in the 1950s, when for a boy to offer a nun his hand as she stepped up onto the school bus was a bold act, something that smacked of sacrilege. It would certainly set kids already on the bus to tittering.

That, of course, was just a kind of mild mishandling. Never mind knocking a nun down and then sitting on her!

More of this sad story next time. . .

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

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: Mother Steadfastly ‘True North’


Mother Steadfastly ‘True North’

Jim Atwell

I’ve just spent an hour upstairs in, so far, a fruitless search. The search was for an object about as round as a half dollar, and it weighs not much more. Olive drab, its metal case has a cracked glass face. Inside it, a needle trembles on a center post. The needle, as it has for over a century, points true north.

You can’t fool that needle by turning the case so that the printed face below it doesn’t match correct directions. That compass needle knows what it is supposed to do.

Of course it does, and the needle has been turning to true north, no matter how many times the case is turned. It’s behaved that way for over 100 years. The compass belonged to my mother, herself dead now a half-century. She first used it on Girl Scout hikes when she was 10.

That skinny little girl must have been enchanted by the compass – seen something in it that echoed a core value in herself. It was fidelity. Throughout her 67 years of life, that little girl would always first determine the right direction, and then unswervingly point herself towards it.

And then she would hold herself faithful to it.

As I write this, I glance across the room and above my desk. There hangs a grand picture of that skinny little girl, though at age 18. She looks calmly back at me from under the lacy brim of a hat as wide as a barrel lid. Oh, stylish! But nothing shallow about the steady eyes and quiet smile. This young lady still knew whom she is, where she is heading. It was, and always would be, true north.

And still somewhere in her possession was her Girl Scout compass! I’m sure it had become a talisman, a symbol that never ceased to speak to her. It may have been tucked away in her handkerchief drawer, but I’m betting she called it up in imagination at any time of deep decision.

As she surely did when saying yes to Pop’s proposal. The two had been working side by side as tellers in Annapolis’ State Capital Bank. Mr. Thompson, the gruff manager, knew he had two pleasant employees in them and noticed that customers gravitated toward their windows. “These two are comers,” he thought to himself. “They’ll be moving up here.”

But the two had developed plans of their own. They’d sensed a deep set of shared values that soon begot deep love as well. And, just as the Great Depression came crashing down, they threw caution to the wind, got married, and soon had a first child, my brother. No second child for six years, till the one Pop always called “Our surprise baby.” Me.

That phrase long ago convinced me that I was the product of mischance, of passion that overwhelmed prudence. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” said the two of them. And, bless their passion , they brought me to be.

Of course, Mother had to quit work then, cutting their joint income and her activities. But the change in no way turned her away from “seeking true north,” identifying, in any given situation, the apt and just, and aiming for it.

This approach became obvious to all Mother interacted, whether neighbors, friends, members of church or social groups. Women especially sensed her as a gifted confidant.

“Jimmy, you head upstairs and play while this nice lady and I visit.” I would sit on the landing near the top, just out of sight, and wonder at the sound of the visitor downstairs sobbing on my mother’s shoulder. Mother’s calm voice would be comforting her, but not quelling the sobs. She knew they needed
to come.

There were other, more direct ways she sought out true north. She took food to the ill, visited the elderly and housebound. And even as she herself aged, she kept on doing physical tasks that were now beyond doing by enfeebled relatives.

Now as grown man, I tried to discourage this work, but she smiled and said, “Now, you go on, boy!”
and would not be turned away from true north.

On the hot July day she died, she had spent the morning mowing grass for a hospitalized spinster great aunt. Then she’d been up and down a stepladder, taking down living room curtains long overdue for washing. They were down in our cellar, soaking in the stationary tub.

And so that dear woman lived out her life. My father put the Girl Scout compass into the safe deposit box where, for 10 years, it undoubtedly kept true to its mission, even in the silent, total darkness.

And when I surely find it again, I know exactly where its needle will point, as Mother’s life did. True north.

Jim Atwell, Quaker minister and retired college administrator,
observes Cooperstown from his
Delaware Street front porch.





By JIM ATWELL • Special to

I’ve been driven out of the house to the peaceful shade of the front porch by television news. The programs are crammed with vitriolic volleys between this faction and that, one candidate and another. Pushing the mute button wouldn’t quell the stridence. It would still be there in the images – puffed up pols and preachers and pundits, each mouthing their one and only truth.

There’s one old bozo who nearly makes me gag. On his way to dotage, he’s still devious and malicious, and still wields outrageous power over the Senate. His heavy-jawed face and glassy eyes, floating on my TV screen, brings to mind a big Atlantic mullet, smacking lips over a small fry it’s just swallowed.

And so I have pushed not “mute” but “off” and have fled to the porch. Out here, a cooling drink in hand, I’m thinking about humankind’s primal sin. I don’t mean Original Sin; I’ll leave that nut for others to crack. I mean humans’ original sociological sin, whence all other such have been spawned.

I mean tribalism. Early in our species’ history, this trait embedded itself in our developing brain, probably parking right next to the fight-or-flight impulse. And it’s with us still today. (Does “Stranger, danger!” sound familiar?)

In tribalism, your only true safety rests in your immediate and extended family, then in your tribe. And watch out for anyone who wanders into those circles who dresses differently, has different build or facial features, smells oddly or speaks a different guttural language. Or is of a different skin color. . .

Such an “unlike” one frightens, is immediately seen as a threat. Better, then, to throw stones and roar at him. Or, for real safety, to kill him.

The stranger (in present parlance, “the other”) still triggers uneasiness, a sense of threat, even rising anger. Watch any film in which an unknown person walks into the neighborhood bar. Sudden quiet. Stares. Even glares. A stranger. Maybe danger.

Or look instead into our own lives and the ways in which be find comfort by gathering into groups of the like-minded.  Even as we do this, we may quietly denigrate other similar groups. Rotarians, for instance, will speak kindly of Lions and Civitan members and even work with them on joint projects. But in their hearts, Rotary members (and Lions, and Civitaners and probably the Independent Order of Red Men) believe that their own is the best of civic or fraternal organizations.

Or consider nations. The history of every one is bloody with strife, for everyone has spent resources and lives trying to vaunt its essential superiority or expand its territory. Think of their colonial adventurism and pious belief in “manifest destiny” that justifies slaughter of all who block their way.

And never mind religions!  I wonder if dear Jesus wrings his hands over the destructive conflicts that smolder among – and even inside – faith communities that draw their name from the Prince of Peace.

My education in tribalism started early. For grades one through three, I attended tiny Holiday School, literally just beyond the fence of our back yard. And there, after pledging allegiance to the best of all nations, we tots would lustily pipe, “Oh, Holiday, we think you’re grand, the finest school in all the land!”

And later, after high school, I joined a Catholic religious order founded in the 17th century to educate the poor, whose education then was non-existent. For 16 years I wore the uniform (black habit, white collar) of the order and bore the name that was mine as a monk: Brother Denis Andrew.

“Hey, Andy!” Sixty years later, if someone behind me calls that out, I’ll turn right around! So are the abiding bonds of tribalism.  Some, like this one, are admittedly beautiful.

Others, like mindless racial tribalism, are fiercely destructive. The evidence for this is tragically all around us, and fomented, God help us, from the highest level of our blessed nation’s government.

More about that next time.

Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired college administrator, 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!

The Newspaper Roundabout



The Newspaper Roundabout

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Columnist Lidie Mackie passed the mantle to Jim Atwell in the 1990s.

I’m at a loss to find a good simile for my Cooperstown newspaper career. It’s been a bit like a ping-pong game, but played like a flow of molasses. OK, forget figures of speech:

Way back in the early ’90s, when I first moved north from Maryland, the redoubtable Lidie Mackie retired from her weekly Freeman’s Journal column about Fly Creek. She urged me to take on the job.

I had no hope of matching Lidie’s style. It was clear, factual, but sometimes carried a sly irony. For example: “Adolina Berger is just back from a week in Virginia, where her sister is losing ground to tuberculosis.” Then, in the very next sentence, “Addy has not been looking well herself.”

As I say, I could never match that well-honed subtlety! Of course people love to see their name in print, but I imagine they tried to keep on the right side of Lidie, too.

ATWELL: Accidents Will Happen…



Accidents Will Happen…

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

Well, of course they will, if you mean by accident a sudden, undesirable event – one that might have been prevented by closer attention.

“Damn, why didn’t I see that coming?” That’s our common reaction to a minor accident, a fender-bender, maybe. But if the accident’s a more serious one, our response may well be guilt, recriminations, fear of  consequences.

“You know kids play ball along this block! You’ve seen them run out from between parked cars! Why weren’t you on the watch for it?”

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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