Late one afternoon several Christmases ago at the height of a driving snowstorm, I left my typewriter and looked out the kitchen window. There was a large bird roosting in our cherry tree. It wasn’t a crow or a pigeon or a morning dove. I knew those Brooklyn birds well. This was something much bigger.
The tree stood at the back of the yard against the fence, which was about fifty feet from the house. With the failing light and blowing snow, it was difficult to make out just what kind of bird it was. I didn’t have binoculars, but someone had once left a pair of pearl-covered opera glasses in my father’s taxi, and with those I could make out that the big bird in the tree looked like a chicken, one with those dark black and gray feathers.
My pregnant wife hadn’t talked to me for two days. Something I said or did had aroused her temper. It looked like it was going to be a heavy Christmas. I called, “Hey Alice, there’s a chicken in our cherry tree!”
“Yeah, sure,” she said from the next room. “And a partridge in our pear.”
Several years ago, two friends from Richfield, Tiger Goodale and Rootie Marriot, came up the drive with what they thought was a good story for me to write.
They had been in the Genesee, one of the local watering holes, when this guy came in and told how he or some other one-legged man — they didn’t make it clear — was up in a tree, building a stand for hunting, when his prosthetic leg fell off and landed on the ground right under the nose of his Saint Bernard.
It sounded like a good story. It reminded me, in fact, of celebrated writer Flannery O’Connor’s tale where a man romances a woman in a hay mow just so he can run off with her wooden leg. When I pressed them for details, they told me I had better get them straight from the horse’s mouth and gave me a phone number to call, which I did, but there was no answer, so I just left my name and number on the answering machine.
The hens I finally found in late spring last year were now laying prolifically. I was feeding them mash but they were scattering it around the coop and yard so I switched to pellets that for the most part stay in the feed pail. Good egg production continued but I noticed that feathers were missing from the necks, breasts and rear ends of some of the birds. It wasn’t Romeo the rooster. He had been a gentle sweetheart. The girls seemed to be pulling each others feathers out — not all of them, just a few. One in particular was missing more feathers than the others. I assumed she was at the bottom of the proverbial pecking order. I didn’t think the feather-pulling was due to a lack of protein because the feed I was using had a high protein content. Also, allowed to free range, the birds had access to worms, bugs and greens that aid in providing them with a well balanced diet.
Back around 1960, I religiously watched the television show “Route 66.” A fine formula: two guys traveling across the country, meeting all kinds of people, trying to leave things in better shape than they found them before moving on. Martin Milner was the collegiate type; George Maharis was streetwise and a little crusty. Their Corvette, not the most practical car to go cross-country in, was a symbol of freedom and mobility with little room for emotional-type baggage or for that matter Samsonite-type either.
These days, such heroes would travel down the road in a Jeep or a four-wheel-drive pickup. That way they’d be able to take on hitchhikers or lost dogs or whatever any particular episode’s script threw at them. But not Milner and Maharis. During one show, they found themselves in an Oklahoma oil field.
For lack of an alternative, they used their Corvette to power a drilling rig. They removed a rear tire from its rim and then used the mounted rim to drive a belt that was attached to the oilrig. Simple, here was the Corvette, justifying itself, serving mankind as well as an imaginative story line.
Years later, I lived out my own “Route 66” fantasy when I got my ’63 roadster. Friends and relatives criticized the car for being so impractical, which pressured me to prove the car could be as useful as a four-door sedan. One time I drove home from the lumberyard with a couple of bags of cement on the front fenders. Another time I put the top down and loaded three ten-foot Lombardy poplars onto the jack storage cover behind the seats. Each burlap ball around the trees’ roots weighed over forty pounds.
This evidence notwithstanding, my cousin Charlie said when I got married, “Well, I guess you’ll get rid of the Corvette.”
That was more than five decades ago. One time, when my elderly but high-spirited Aunt Ruta came to Brooklyn from Richfield Springs for one of her week-long visits, I took her for a ride in the roadster.
“It’s a snazzy car,” she said, “but this seat is like sitting in a hole. My aunt liked to read Star magazine and always had her eyes peeled for Burt Reynolds. She had read an article in Star telling how Doris Day managed to look so young.
“She put Vaseline all over her face before she went to sleep,” my aunt explained.
Aunt Ruta tried the Vaseline treatment for several months. The pores of her skin eventually clogged, leaving unsightly, oily blemishes her old eyes couldn’t see. Alice and I told Aunt Ruta what she was doing to her complexion and urged her to discontinue Doris Day’s magic formula.
“Maybe I’ll switch to Jergen’s lotion,” she replied.
“Let’s give you a facial first,” Alice suggested.
Aunt Ruta’s pride kicked in, “I don’t need …”
“Would you want Burt Reynolds to see you now?” That won her over.
My aunt sat on a stool as my wife began steaming and scrubbing her face. “We need some sort of suction,” Alice said, discouraged. She was about to give up when I thought of the t-junction on the vacuum advance line feeding the distributor on the Corvette. It would surely do the job.
“Let’s go out to the garage,” I said with my aunt in tow.
“What for?” she said holding back. “Is this going to hurt?”
“Trust me,” I said as I seated her in a chair next to my car. I cleaned a long piece of rubber vacuum hose with alcohol and throttled the Corvette’s engine up to a fast idle. At about 800-rpm the manifold produced about 22 inches of vacuum which created a suction that could be regulated.
“Are you crazy?” Alice whispered when she came out to the garage and saw my set-up.
“I know what I’m doing,” I said pressing the hose into her hand.
Alice, in a huff, grabbed it and reluctantly went to work on Aunt Ruta who seemed to shrink in the chair. The contraption worked like a charm.
I took in the scene: Garage doors wide open. My frail aunt leaning far back in the chair as the Corvette’s engine cooked. My wife busily vacuuming Aunt Ruta’s deeply wrinkled face. A dream come true. Just like “Route 66.” My car had become one of life’s essential daily tools. Now, Milner and Maharis weren’t the only guys to have used a Corvette in an oil field.
“What do you think Charlie would say about the Corvette now?” I asked my wife.
Aunt Ruta’s leg kicked as though she were having a tooth pulled.
Then Alice declared, “He’d say you can get just as much suction from a station wagon!”
I watched the movie “Shane” the other night and the shootout at the end brought back memories of a local shootout that used to take place every year in the middle of August:
“Hold it,” Teddy Dziadik Jr. said quietly as he shouldered his shotgun. Chuckie Crist let his hand drop to his side. Dziadik swept his gun across the horizon several times. Then he said, “okay!” and Crist lifted his hand and pulled on the rope that released the spring that sent a clay bird climbing into the sky. The barrel of Dziadik’s gun followed the bird’s path until suddenly there was a blast and all that remained in the air was powder. The shooter had connected again, preventing the next man in line from getting a shot at the same clay bird. That’s the way the competition, called a shootout, worked. Several men, usually six or eight, lined up in anticipation of the clay pigeon’s release. Then the bird was launched and the first man in line, the one who was nearest the release, would shoot. If he hit the bird, he was in the clear, but if he missed, the next man in line could shoot, and if that man connected the first man would get an “O” and so on until the shooter was O U T of the competition. There were other details to the game but what I’ve described should give the reader a general idea.
In December 1965, I and 1,400 other soldiers set sail from Brooklyn on the USS Darby, the last troop ship ferrying our soldiers over to Germany.
After that, the military used planes and an eight-day voyage was reduced to an eight-hour flight. During the frigid crossing, there was little to do and we were shown a lot of frivolous movies. Looking back I see this would have been an excellent time to educate the new troops about the people whose land we were about to “invade.”
Around that time President Charles De Gaulle was in the process of kicking American troops, who had
been there since World War II, out of France. It appeared to be an ungrateful act, given the help we gave to that country during the war. Still, I was stationed in Germany, and I observed how young American soldiers, lonely from being away from home and ignorant of manner and customs, could misbehave, could get into fights, could harass women and own the label of “the ugly American.”
While we were crossing the Atlantic there could have been something said, by way of a documentary, about being a representative of your country and to put your best foot forward and thus win the hearts and minds of our hosts. But the opportunity to get this across was lost and instead a lot of “bad boys” were unleashed in Germany as well as in France. I don’t mean the majority. It just took a few to spoil it for the rest.
German nationals called my base in Ludwigsburg, “Gangster Barracks.” I’m sure the same dynamics were afoot in France.
I already knew they didn’t like American soldiers in Germany but I didn’t encounter unfriendly vibes from the French until attending the running of the bulls in July of 1966 in Pamplona, Spain. I am a Francophile, because of my maternal grand-mother’s origin being the French mountain town of Auvergne. People can tell when you like them, and so, at that time, rather than being abusive, the French sitting at my table at Pension Mendoza were merely condescending. They teased me about President Kennedy’s widow cavorting with the shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. They thought it was inappropriate and disgraceful. The conversation boiled down to, “You Americans don’t know how to behave. No wonder De Gaulle is kicking you out.”
How could I defend myself, the former first lady and my country? How could I come back at them? The solution: a little fabrication. I told these sophisticates I had read in the newspaper that because France was kicking us out, we were sending back the Statue of Liberty. All mouths at the table dropped open. One guy choked on the hearty red wine he was drinking. I kept a straight face. They had nothing to say. Now we were kicking them — in the form of their lady — out of America.
I had them! Even if they found out an hour later that my story was untrue, for a time this naïve American was on top and out maneuvering the smart Europeans.
As a civilian several years later, I was returning to Paris from the south of France with my wife, Alice. We had been visiting friends I had made back in the Pamplona of ’66. They were actually two of the people who had been teasing me about Jacquelyn Kennedy. Our arrival was early in the morning and the banks were still closed. We wanted to have breakfast but for some reason no one would accept American Express travelers’ checks. We had tried several places.
There was a kiosk back at the train station where lots of souvenirs were for sale. I studied the display for a while trying to decide what I could buy with a check, and hopefully get change in francs, so we could have breakfast. I kept asking the woman behind the counter questions in broken French about different items. Finally, the woman impatiently said something that amounted to, “What do you really want?”
I told her that we needed cash to buy something to eat. She looked at me for a long time, pulled out 20 francs and said, “Here, go have breakfast.” We did, and later we went to the bank to exchange our money. When I returned to the kiosk to reimburse the woman and buy her combination letter-scale and pencil sharpener, she announced for all to hear, “Look at this crazy American. I give him 20 francs for something to eat and he returns to pay me back!” It seemed at the time that the French, following De Gaulle, had removed the idea of payback from their code of ethics.
I think the reason I had some degree of success in dealing with the French is because I made an attempt to understand them and speak their language. Americans tend to think that, “since we are the greatest country in the world,” everyone should speak English. For many of us a trip to a foreign country is like a trip to the zoo. I once heard an American tourist in Germany say, “Hey Gladys, look at this guy! He’s wearing those leather pants!”
My aunt Rose made a trip to France to visit her daughter Francine. When she shopped at a grocery and they didn’t give her a bag for the items she bought, she made a big stink. “What’s the matter with these people?” she wanted to know. “Mother,” my cousin said. “In France you bring your own bag.” That’s the way they do it to avoid wasting plastic and paper.
Wouldn’t it be great if we got to know something about a country before we started to deal with its people? “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” is really a good idea. Armed with a little experience, I’d like to borrow and bend a phrase coined by the great humorist, Will Rogers, who almost said, “I never met a foreigner I didn’t like.”
I have a problem with at least one of my chickens. She’s been eating eggs out of the laying boxes. It’s hard to determine which one is the culprit, but if left unchecked, the habit will be contagious. Egg eaters are aggravating. I’ve already consulted local experts, Vaughn and McNulty, who told me the problem is likely because of a calcium deficiency. “If you don’t have oyster shells,” Vaughn said, “you could give them some Tums which are loaded with calcium.” After taking a Tums myself, I broke up the rest of the roll and mixed it in the feed.
Over the years, Paul Sarafin had come to believe that silos were like barometers. “When the economic weather for farming was good they went up” he says. “And when it was bad, they often came down, sold secondhand to someone looking for a buy.”
Sarafin, 78, lives near Richfield Springs, and had been in the silo business for almost 50 years.
At first, he built them for the now terminated Harder Silo Company out of Glens Falls, but after several years of wrestling with the heavy hoops and staves, he was promoted to salesman. In past years, because of hard times, it had become more and more difficult for Sarafin to make a sale. He said a farmer who already had the bill collectors on his back was more than reluctant to go into hock for an average $25,000 concrete stave silo.
But back then a silo was the only solution for a rainy summer when a farmer couldn’t string a couple of sunny days together to dry out hay to be stored in the mow. Bailed and stored too wet, hay can heat up from evaporation, resulting in spontaneous combustion and a barn fire. Similar to a canning jar, a silo would preserve grass or corn even when they were not pre-dried, thus enabling a farmer to deal with a wet summer like the one we are experiencing this year.
For several years, the sales competition had been so fierce Sarafin considered it a near miracle when he sold one of his silos, which could be distinguished from other brands by the alternating red to plain blocks at the top. His sales pitch was that he had no pitch, just a homespun, direct but patient approach. “Sometimes I’d visit a farm six or seven times thinking I was softening a farmer up only to find a competitor’s silo standing against the barn the next time I’d show,” Sarafin said. To make matters worse, the handsome cylindrical structures were now being replaced by bunkers covered with tarps and old tires or silage bags laid upon the land in aesthetic compromise.
Years ago, with one son in college and the other about to be married, Sarafin was under extra financial pressure. Often, to ensure a sale, he’d offer perks like free hardware or repairs to another existing silo. It was late in the season and he thought he was going to lose a sale outside of Sharon Springs, so he offered to demolish John Burr’s old, worn-out 50-foot silo for free. That sealed the deal.
Normally the demolition would incur some out-of-pocket expenses to purchase dynamite or to rent a bulldozer, but to cut costs, Sarafin used a unique approach which required one simple tool, a sledgehammer.
“I knew how to build them strong and I knew how to make them weak,” he says. But silos don’t fall like trees and even though the salesman had done this job several times before, the outcome was still unpredictable and dangerous. The many tons of concrete could fall back onto the barn, or worse, catch and crush him as he scrambled to get clear. “Unlike trees that creak and groan before they fall,” Sarafin says, “silos let loose all at once.”
So, with his sons’ tuition and wedding bells in the back of his mind and a flimsy cable anchoring the top of the silo to a tractor, Sarafin went to work loosening the bottom support hoops. Then he began to break out the concrete staves with the sledgehammer as Burr and his family looked on. When Sarafin had broken out more than an 8-foot hole in the silo wall, it didn’t even quiver. He was banking on the whole thing falling towards the section he was demolishing. After several minutes of hammering he stopped to look up at the top. He seemed a little nervous. There was no sign of movement.
Sarafin began ham-mering again, the heavy blows echoing inside the silo. He broke out several more feet of staves and then suddenly threw the hammer to the side. The immense structure leaned towards the cut, pulverizing concrete and making it explode under the shifting weight. Sarafin bolted as the silo let loose and fell in a thunderous heap.
When the dust cleared, it revealed a benign pile of rubble.
“How’d you know it was going to fall just then?” Burr asked.
“Tuition,” Sarafin said as sweat ran down his face.
“You mean intuition,” Burr replied.
“Yeah, that, too.”
10Later, the silo slayer said this was the last silo he would demolish with a sledgehammer, but then he had said the same thing two silos before and new expenses were bound to be coming soon.
After Harder went out of business, Sarafin worked at a foam packing plant in Fort Plain and freelanced at silo repair and supply during off-time and on weekends. When asked if he saw himself as some kind of modern day hero, Sarafin, now retired and wintering in Florida, smiled and said simply, “I put bread on the table.”
Homosassa Springs is one of the stops we always make when visiting Florida. It has great fishing, though
I only catch and release, because Alice doesn’t like to cook while on vacation. Luckily, there are some great restaurants that, especially for this year, had open, outdoor accommodations. Motorboats, paddle boards and kayaks are readily available for rent if you want to swim with the manatees, which is one of the attractions for which the place is famous.
It’s thrilling to be able to get into the water with these elephant-like gentle giants and actually be able to pet them. Alice and I rent a kayak for exercise and economy but we haven’t gotten the coordination with the paddles down pat and often wind up splashing each other — deliberately. Good thing the water in the Homosassa River is a constant 70 degrees year-round. Also, getting back into the kayak after a swim with the manatees is kind of tricky.
Donald Hill was the first kid I met in Richfield. His family lived in an apartment in back of my aunt’s
house on Lake Street.
It was in late August of 1950 and my dad had brought me and my cousin Leo up from Brooklyn for a stay in the country. Donald and Leo were about 12- or 13-years old and I was a seven-year old kid who insisted on tagging along wherever they went. We had some great adventures. At the dump we collected junk, scores of two-cent deposit bottles and loads of free pumpkins that were there for the picking. Donald had an old gray bearded dog, Rump, who followed us everywhere.
One afternoon, we walked down to the lake where Donald had access to a dried out flat bottom boat and we rowed out to the island. My hefty cousin Leo hogged the oars until Donald discreetly grabbed onto some tall weeds we were moving through and stopped the boat, making my cousin think we ran aground. Leo kept rowing hard but we weren’t getting anywhere. “Let me have a go at it,” Donald suggested. He was much smaller than my cousin.
My son Jonathan called me the other night to tell me he missed the old house in Brooklyn. He had lived there his whole life, as I did mine, except for the Army and my longest winter in Richfield Springs.
I told him I missed the house, too, and described my last days there. We had sold to a builder, so I knew the old Victorian was going to be demolished. In the meantime, we rented a one-room studio apartment only a block from the school where my wife Alice was finishing up her last year as a teacher. Both our kids were away working or at school. All of the furniture had been moved into the studio or up to the recently purchased farm, but I was still holding out at the house, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and using cardboard boxes to replace tables and such. Alice stayed at the apartment, but old Rufus, our yellow lab, was an outside dog all his life and I didn’t think he’d do well in the confines of our temporary digs, so I stayed at the house for as long as I could. It was late December, a few days before the closing date, when I had the gas, electric and telephone turned off. The main water valve, I could close myself.
During a cold snap several years ago, night temperatures up on our hill on the west side of Canadarago Lake were hovering around 22 below zero. Worried about my chickens freezing their gizzards off, I hung a 100-watt bulb on a wire in our small coop inside the barn and let it burn 24 hours a day.
I’m sure it raised the temperature a bit, but it also increased egg production. In fact, after a few days of continuous light, my chickens started laying eggs like crazy. Concerned that they might burn themselves out, I consulted neighbor Jim McNulty, who had attended Cornell University and now lived at the foot of nearby Panther Mountain. He agreed the hens could become exhausted, but warned that if I suddenly cut off the light, I could drive my chickens into a molt, which was bound to kill them in this cold weather. At the same time, to keep the water in the coop from freezing, I installed a heater in the water bucket. Between the light and the heater, I was worried about causing a fire.
Again, McNulty advised me to do away with the water heater and put snow in the bucket, which would quench the chickens’ thirst and wouldn’t freeze like water. I was impressed. He also informed me chickens in a draft-free coop didn’t need the 100-watt bulb. Removing it was no small step because beloved Pee Wee, a chick I had saved by performing a virtual Caesarian on an egg in water, was among the flock I was about to pull the plug on.
He sat under the apple trees at Holy Trinity Monastery outside of Jordanville as the warm breeze lifted the thin pages of the book he was holding. Lush foliage seemed to exude an abundance of life. Church bells marked the time of day, but he didn’t appear to notice as his thin, intent face strained to absorb the words. The thick book he was reading was nearly turned to its end, giving the impression that many afternoons had been spent like this with many books before, but this was not the case.
Sixty-two year old Vasili Shipilov had spent most of his life behind Soviet prison bars.
His crime, officials said, was not carrying proper identification papers, for which he received two years hard labor. From information obtained from men who had served time with Vasili, it was believed that he was a priest who had gotten his early education from monks who had taught him to read. Free world newsletters about religious prisoners in Russia said that Shipilov had suffered greatly in the prison camps. He was reputed to have performed baptisms as a prisoner, and for this he was beaten and his sentence increased. When he got hold of a bible he copied it over by hand so that others could share it. To side track his efforts, in 1958, he was sent to a mental institution and detained there indefinitely. He had no living relatives, no one to remind the world of his existence.
Bert always watched me, even though he didn’t let on. He was an Irish setter and thought his only purpose was to hunt birds. I’d come home from work and peek through the fence to see him lounging upside down in the grass. Then I’d enter the yard and as soon as he’d see me he’d jump to his feet, his old bones grinding and start hunting up the mourning doves that often light below our hedges. I know it took great effort for him to make this display of vigor as if to say, “You see, boss, I still have it.” Later, he’d swagger up to me for a rewarding pat on the head.
When he was younger, I used to take him down to Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach so that he could work the ducks that stay in the tall grass or on the water down there. He’d never catch any, just keep them on their toes while venting some of his limitless energy. Often he’d swim out in the water after them. One time, while driving to the beach, we were coming off the exit from the parkway when Bert spotted a plane flying low towards Kennedy Airport. He got so excited he jumped out the window while the car was going about forty miles per hour. Luckily he wasn’t run over and only suffered some bone deep abrasions on his legs and chin.
Of all the farms I worked on as a boy, the most memorable was the old Borden Farm, which was on the east side of Canadarago Lake outside of Richfield Springs.
By the time I came along, it had recently been sold to Bill and Shirley Weingates. Back then, they were milking about 200 cows on one of the biggest operations in the area. The first job I had was leveling chopped grass as it was being blown into a silo. I foolishly knocked myself out trying to level it as fast as it was coming in, so that when I climbed out of the silo I was so dehydrated that I must have drunk a gallon of water from a spigot in the milk house. I would later clean the barn and when the spreader was full, I mounted a tractor for the first time and gloriously towed it up Rocky’s Road to give nourishment to the land—not without some mishaps that let the manure to hit the fan.
I enjoyed all kinds of jobs, even cleaning calf pens, because at the time, I was kind of standing outside of myself, watching this kid from Brooklyn doing these country boy things. I had recently read Thomas Hardy and at times I was seeing all that I was doing through the great writer’s eyes. I never enjoyed the country more than at that time of very hard work.