In search of pigeons just
like Marlon Brando’s birds
The other night I watched a rerun of “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlin Brando. I had forgotten that the character he played was named Terry, like me.
When I was about 13 and saw the movie for the first time, I was so impressed with Brando that I had to own pigeons, like the character he played. His coop was on a flat roof. Mine had to be in my yard because back in Brooklyn I lived in a steep-roofed Victorian.
In the late 50s, flying pigeons was very popular. The guys who were into it weren’t exactly candidates for Ivy League schools. Raising and flying pigeons seemed to attract tough guys.
They liked to capture a competitor’s bird and hold it for ransom or keep it for good. What they did was hijack each other’s birds by sending up their flocks that flew in great circular paths above the buildings on which the coops were perched. They hoped that some of the other guy’s pigeons would mingle with theirs and then come in for a landing. Capturing birds was considered a sport but some guys would stop at nothing to obtain more pigeons.
In Brooklyn vernacular, they would “tap you off” which meant rob you.
John L. Cunningham became a New York State Trooper in 1917. He was among the 232 selected men who made up the first wave of the newly formed organization that would serve to uphold the law in rural areas under the leadership of Major George Fletcher Chandler.
Up until that time Cunningham, who was originally from Glens Falls, worked as a shirt cutter for 18 years. No doubt the newly formed force appealed to a now stationary 35 year old “man-with-scissors” who still loved to swim and had once been a high school basketball and track star.
He was a natural for equestrian and law enforcement training and excelled as a State Trooper. Within four years he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to an outpost in Cooperstown which was a substation of Troop C that was located in Sidney.
In Leatherstocking country he was provided a place in the village to live, conduct his police activities and board a horse upon which he patrolled Cooperstown and other environs in and out of Otsego and neighboring Counties. Because of his style and strict but fair enforcement of the law, he was already a local celebrity, by the time he married Elizabeth Lukas in 1931. They continued to live in various outposts in the village that were provided by The State Police.
I had it all planned. We’d fly to Florida on a Saturday, settle into the motel and then head for the flea market where, if lucky, I’d find a used bike to ride for the rest of our vacation. “What are you going to do when it’s time to go home?” my wife, Alice, asked.
“I don’t care,” I said, “as long as I have use of a bike while we’re down here.”
“Well, I’m glad I brought my paints along – to keep busy while you’re riding around.”
“If you didn’t have a bad knee, you’d get a bike too.”
The thing I miss most since we left Brooklyn and moved to a house on a hill outside of Richfield Springs is bike riding. On the farm it’s easy to leave but hard to pedal home.
Brooklyn was flat like Holland, where everybody rides a bike. Before we moved I’d use mine daily, often riding five miles to the seashore at Coney Island. To me, riding along a quiet side street without the assistance of a noisy internal combustion engine felt like flying. Many stories had been conceived along the way.
Unfortunately, the car we rented in Tampa was a Kia hatchback. I always ask for a smaller car and most of the time they’re out of them and we get bumped up to a larger vehicle for no extra cost.
This time they did have a compact, so besides a bike I’d be needing a bike rack.
I heard about Lady Ostapeck about 20 years ago at my friend Buddy Crist’s house on Angel Hill outside of Schuyler Lake.
There was a picture hanging on his living room wall. It was of a man dressed in a Tolstoy-like shirt standing in the doorway of a weathered cabin.
When I took a closer look I realized it was Buddy, appearing very authentic in clothes I never saw him wear before. “Who took the picture?” I asked.
“Her name is Lady Ostapeck,” Buddy answered. “I was gassing up in Richfield Springs. She was filling her tank on the other side of the pump and kept looking at me. I mean really looking – for a long time. Finally she comes around the pump and says, ‘Are you finish?’”
“I’m still pumping,” I answered.
“No, are you Finnish – from Scandinavia?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“That may be, but I’d like to take your picture.”
It turned out that the woman who was then in her seventies was a famous photographer of Finnish descent. She wanted Buddy, who had the “right look,” to pose for pictures she planned to use for Independence Day in Finland.
They made an appointment, and a week later my friend spent an entire day trying on clothes in a costume – and prop-cluttered house while talking with Lady Ostapeck as she tried to bring to the surface a certain spirit she saw in him.
Got a call the other day from my friend Charlie in Brooklyn. He said that he was thinking of getting a couple of chickens to keep in his apartment so that he could get really fresh eggs. I got on my high horse and asked, “What do you know about raising chickens?”
“I’m good with birds,” Charlie countered.
“Remember how I taught my parrot to stand on his head for money?”
It was true. I don’t know how he did it, but when he’d pull a dollar bill from his pocket and wave it in the air, Webster – that’s what he named the bird – would invariably hold onto the cage bars and stand on his head. Maybe the fact that Charlie’s an obsessive-compulsive provided the repetition needed to teach his pet such a trick.
I had just cleaned out the coop and warned Charlie that chickens were a lot messier than his little Webster. “Also,” I continued, “hens can be noisy. You ought to hear them scold me when I try to slip an egg out from under them.”
“They don’t crow like roosters,” Charlie said.
“No, but they argue over a spot in the laying box. Your neighbors would never stand for their clucking.”
“I guess you’re right,” my friend said of his shot-down idea.
I felt bad because Charlie is the biggest fan of eggs and chickens I know. I always bring him some on trips to Brooklyn and he invariably raves about how much better my free-range, naturally fed, browns are.
In response to his parrot story, I told him about a trick my favorite chicken, Danielle, does.
Early this spring, my reigning rooster, Geezbrook, who fathered almost all of this year’s egg-laying rookies, was challenged and defeated by one of his sons.
When I arrived on the scene, the old man was cowering in a corner with his back facing his attacker.
I scooted them out into the yard and they went at it again, Geezbrook seeming to have new heart against his son, who got down like an alligator coming through a fan of feathers.
They both drew blood with the old man losing the fight until I slapped them both several times with my red plastic shovel.
Distracted, they headed for cover in a hedgerow.
When I went back to the coop to gather eggs, I noticed that several of the hens had bald spots on their backs caused, no doubt, by the roosters practicing their dominance.
Luckily, Pee Wee, my favorite chicken, hadn’t suffered any damage or I would have gone after the bullies with hatchet in hand. Instead, I tried to catch them, which was no easy task after they had had a taste of the shovel.
One cold and leafless November morning about 40 years ago, I was deer hunting on Panther Mountain outside of Richfield Springs with my friend Paul O’Connor.
After a long climb, we came into an area that was covered with hardwood trees that stood in gentle depressions and on top of small hummocks. The rolling terrain repeated itself over and over in a nondescript fashion so that it was easy to get lost and difficult to determine exactly where we were.
Obviously, for a deer, it was a great place to hide out.
At one point we came upon an old shack that had collapsed under the weight of age and heavy snow.
“This was Honey Joe’s shack,” Paul told me. “He used to make hooch out of honey during prohibition.”
“Booze out of honey?” I asked.
“Yeah, Paul said. “I think they called it metheglin.”
I was fascinated by the thought of a man hiding away deep in the forest making a forbidden brew and I asked a lot of questions for which Paul had no answers.
Over the years, on deer hunts, Honey Joe’s name would come up but no one seemed to know very much about him. Rumor had it that he lived in the Fly Creek Valley near Panther Mountain and that he was a hermit.
Eventually, I got in touch with John Stucin, a farmer, whose family lived not far from where the Micklavzinas lived. That was Honey Joe’s last name, Micklavzina.
Stucin’s memories of the old bootlegger were very clear.
“He was a big man, almost as broad as he was tall. He must have weighed close to 300 pounds. He was friendly and liked to talk a lot, and he always came around in his old pickup when it was time to do chores and the men, he and my father, would get so deep into politics that us kids would wind up having to do the work!”
Stucin remembered that state troopers came around many times looking for Honey Joe’s still, but they never found it. That is all the farmer remembered, but he told me that his mother, Mary, had known Honey Joe very well and might give me more information.
Mary Stucin turned out to be a very clear-minded 92-year-old woman with vivid memories.
She recalled that, in the mid-’20s, when Honey Joe first came to his 140-acre farm in the Fly Creek Valley, “Bees weren’t his only business.” She said he and his wife Antonia used to sell strawberries, plums and apples and that he butchered farm animals as well as deer.
Mary said that he was an intelligent man and that he read a lot. Originally a farmer from Slovenia, near Austria, he was well versed in home remedies for people as well as for animals.
In spite of his weight, he was a lively man with a big round face and pale green/blue eyes. He loved to dance, especially the polka, and according to Mary, “for a man his size he was very light on his feet.”
I learned that his making metheglin out of honey and grain was a lot more casual than the label, bootlegger, would suggest.
“He didn’t charge much for the stuff,” she said. “Maybe a dollar a gallon. But all kinds of high-ranking people, doctors, lawyers etc. would come to buy it because he made good stuff and because of Prohibition.”
Mary said that even the locally famous state trooper, Sergeant Cunningham, who had an office in Cooperstown, used to come to Honey Joe for metheglin.
The rough and tumble Cunningham, who used to put on demonstrations of great horsemanship, couldn’t drive a car and would have one of his men ferry him to the farm to get some home brew.
Honey Joe wasn’t only big, he was strong. At fairs in Cooperstown, Richfield Springs, Oneonta and elsewhere, he’d enter dead-weight-lifting competitions, where he’d frequently walk away with the prize.
Once he and his son, Frank, were bogged down in mud in an old pickup truck. He got out and easily lifted the rear wheel so that Frank could slide a plank under it.
Whether he was cutting timber or shearing sheep, he always kept up with his colony of bees and the harvesting of their produce.
Years later, when his wife Antonia left the farm and headed for Cleveland to open a restaurant, Honey Joe could not bring himself to leave his beloved land.
They parted amicably but the split left the work weary farmer to enter his senior years alone and eventually in poor health.
“We used to worry about him,” Mary Stucin said. Every couple of days I’d send someone over to check.” One day our hired hand found that the old man had passed on in his sleep.
Time tends to bury and distort. While hunting deer, we came upon the ruins of a “bootlegging hermit” and found a husband, a father, a political thinker, a strong competitor, a maker of mead and a light-footed dancer. Not a bad go at life.
Recently, a friend brought some spruce saplings up to the farm for planting.
Luckily, my son was up for the weekend to lend a hand with the digging. We placed some near the house and then headed for the woods, which are thin on evergreens.
No sooner did I open a hole for the first seedling than I was back to the spring of 1966, in the forest near Rothenberg, Germany, where it looks a lot like the countryside around Richfield Springs. We were medics attached to the Seventh Army and out on maneuvers.
I pitched my pup tent with a guy named Hailey from Niagara Falls. He had already been in Germany for a year and could speak a bit of the language.
It was sunny and warm and after testing our unit’s drinking water I sat in front of our tent, reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea”:
“Santiago was sitting in his boat with his palms raw and bleeding from the big fish that had raced the line through them at a cutting speed. He was thinking about the great DiMaggio and how he continued to play ball in spite of a painful spur on his heel.”
Then a cuckoo bird let out a call and I was back in the woods. I had thought the ridiculous sound only came from clocks made in the Black Forest – but here was a live bird in a nearby tree.
There was a dirt road at the edge of the woods and across the road in a field a farmer was plowing with horses. Occasionally the breeze blew his voice in my direction and I could hear that he used different words for giddy-up and whoa.
It must have been around lunchtime because in the distance a woman approached across the furrows with a lunch basket for her man. They greeted each other happily and I could hear their harmony of laughter. Even at the brash age of 22 I saw the beauty in the scene.
Hailey came by and asked me if I wanted to do some reconnaissance, which meant we’d be looking for a beer hall in a nearby village at the end of the dirt road. We would later sneak off to it after Sarge turned in that night.
Now, as we made our way through the woods we came upon some German farmers who were planting trees and we exchanged some pleasant conversation by way of Hailey’s knowledge of Deutsche.
I was already aware that after more than a decade of occupation, American soldiers weren’t exactly welcome guests in Germany. On this maneuver, which included armored tanks and huge trucks with trailers, the Army would have to pay $50 for every sapling we destroyed.
At one point, one of the farmers who was holding a shovel said, “Amerikanisch soldaten arbeit nicht,” which Hailey translated into, “American soldiers don’t work.”
Eager to show the man that he was wrong, I grabbed a shovel and a tree and started digging. Hailey captured the scene with his camera.
Now in my woods, I savor this moment of working alongside my wife and son. She captures the scene with her camera. These trees will be here long after I’m gone.
With the passage of time I’ve grown to be nearly as old as the fisherman Santiago – and hopefully, fruit of the farmers’ efforts will have fared better than the Old Man’s ravaged fish.
By now, those trees planted back in Germany must be 40 feet tall.