Sometimes my father would sit in his chair, lost in thought, for hours.
I’d often wonder what he was thinking about. Maybe it was about my mother who had a nervous breakdown several years before and was still in the hospital.
He used to take me in his yellow taxi to country auctions, where he’d buy things that we would need on the farm he would buy some day. Even as a kid, I saw the impracticality of some of his acquisitions. He bought a barrel full of canning jars, huge spools of copper lightning-rod cable, a two-man crosscut saw, a pedal organ, dishes, rat traps and more. The only thing he bought that I got some use out of right away was a little oaken box that had a beautiful red velvet-lined interior. It also had a big horseshoe magnet and something that looked like a sawed-off propeller. Two wires with metal, jump rope-sized handles came out of opposite ends of the box. There was a crank in the front that made the gears and the sawed-off propeller turn. The box produced an electrical shock that could knock you to Canarsie.
These days, much more than ever, there seems to be music playing in the background of almost every dramatic television program.
Years ago an experimental show called Cop Rock was aired for a while. It blended the drama with musical numbers. The songs were about what was happening in the story.
I thought it was a great idea but at that time it didn’t catch on. I was thinking of writing a story for several weeks but I wasn’t sure where to send it. In the meantime, a spontaneous score for the story kept playing in my mind. In fact, there’s always some kind of music going through my head — depending on the mood and situation I’m in. This was true of the title character in the movie “The English Patient” and I was wondering if this phenomenon was what jump-started the recent trend of music once again prominently being blended into a story. Again, unlike scores for cinema, this type of musical background also has words and the words reflect what’s going on in the plot.
The other day I finished weeding the garden and walked out to the chicken coop to water and feed my birds and collect their eggs. Disappointment hit me when I opened the door and found a dead chicken sprawled out on the floor with a leg half chewed off.
I had left the chute leading to the yard open overnight as I had been doing for the last several days. Obviously, some critter had taken advantage of my carelessness. It’s been about three years since a weasel had decapitated one of my hens and made off with the head. I say weasel, not because I saw it, but because the crime fits that animal’s M.O.
Anyway, I drew a chalk line around the murdered chicken, picked it up with a shovel and headed for one of several vacant woodchuck holes in the hedgerow in back of the barn. The holes are unoccupied due to the efforts of my neighbor’s son who picked off seven unwelcome diggers last year. I was thinking of how to mount an investigation to find the animal that had committed henicide.
Back in the coop, I lifted the outside door to the laying box and was about to reach in when I noticed that there was something in there, apparently sitting on the eggs, a chicken, I thought. I bent to look inside and came face to face with a raccoon. He had a matter of fact expression on his face as if he were asking, “What, I can’t hang out for a while?”
For several years my friend Charlie ran an international pen pal business that he had inherited from his father. When I expressed some interest in the many countries people were writing from Charlie asked if I’d like a free subscription for my daughter and I accepted.
“You pick out the country and the pen pal,” Charlie said.
I’ve always been a Francophile so I chose France and a girl named Alessi Geoffrey. To my surprise my normally contrary teen-aged daughter, Elizabeth, went for the idea and almost immediately drafted a letter and even took it to the post office so that it would be sent out ASAP. In less than ten days a letter from Alessi arrived. To my worried surprise Alessi turned out to be a boy whose name if Americanized would be something like Jeff Alessi. I told my friend Charlie about the mix up and he responded with, “Don’t look at me. You’re the one who picked out the name.”
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.
About 15 years ago, after having read several of his books, I heard that Jim Harrison, the writer and poet, was giving a reading and a talk at Barnes & Noble on Union Square in Manhattan.
Several months before at a barbeque on Canadarago Lake outside of Richfield Springs, I had talked at length about Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall,” and several of his other works, with friend and artist Brendon Pulver who, like me, was an enthusiastic fan of the esteemed writer.
When I arrived at the lecture hall, to be sure I was in the right room, I asked a man who appeared to be surveying the seating arrangement, “Is this the Harrison reading?”
To my surprise, it was Brendan Pulver who had come, I thought, all the way from Richfield Springs. We found seats towards the front of an audience of about a hundred.
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.
Before the advent of COVID-19, to celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary, Alice and I drove down to Key West, and were lucky enough to get a room at The Grand Guest House in Old Town.
It’s a great place if you like to share a breakfast table with fellow tourists. This time during our brief stay we met a couple from Brussels, three people from Germany and an ex prize fighter named Joe from New Jersey.
People seem to be at their best when traveling, and all were good company and had interesting life stories to tell.
John, the Guest House manager, must have overheard us telling our story because when we returned to our room later in the day we found a basket loaded with chips, cheese, crackers, Ferrero Rocher chocolates and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon wine.
There was even a card that read Happy Anniversary! Compliments of the House.
The next day we took an ice bucket and much of what was in the basket to the beach at Fort Zackery. The swimming there is great and it’s another place to meet people from all over the world.
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 Brooklyn morning many Decembers past, I heard a scratching behind the wall of my work place in the attic. I glanced out the window and spotted a squirrel emerging from a hole between the rain gutter and the shingles on the roof.
He looked at me with a smug expression as if to say, “I moved in and I’m stayin’.” The intruder jumped to the leafless maple in back of the house and was gone.
I’d heard stories about squirrels destroying houses as they chewed through walls and lead plumbing and electric lines. The thought of a critter storing his acorns under my rafters was too distracting. I shut the computer and descended to the kitchen for coffee.
On the phone an exterminator quoted a painful price to set a Havahart trap that would catch the animal for transport to Prospect Park. “It’s time consuming,” the man explained. “We’re not allowed to kill them.”
When I didn’t jump at his services he offered to sell me a trap for $75, but I thought a bird cage we had in the cellar would serve just as well.
Walter Haskel, my editor, had called the day before to remind me about a deadline on a story. I felt I’d do a better job if I didn’t have that squirrel to think about. Peanut butter for bait worked well for mice, so why not for this guy? In my yard he was a squirrel but in my house he was a big rat.
I used a chopstick with twine attached to it to hold the cage door open and a Ford accelerator spring to slam it shut. I placed the cage near the base of the maple and ran the twine to the door of our back pantry.
The advantage of using the exterminator’s trap was that it would catch the squirrel automatically. But it was expensive and I was sure my bird cage would get this rodent without losing too much time.
When my irascibly pregnant wife Alice came home from work and saw my set-up she asked, “Get much writing done today?”
I explained the gravity of the invasion.
“Should’ve hired the exterminator,” Alice said.
Late the next day the squirrel made his way down the tree and jumped to the ground. He approached the cage and when near pressed against the bars to smell the peanut butter. Then he stuck his head through the door and I was about to pull the string, but a stray cat appeared and frightened him off.
The next day Alice arrived home and was getting out of the car with her arms full of Christmas packages when she spotted me idling at the window. “Told you to get the exterminator!” she called. I obliterated her from view by fogging the glass with my breath.
In the morning, I spotted the squirrel slowly creeping down the maple. I ran down and out to the pantry and took hold of the line as he once again poked his head into the cage – but not his whole body. I wasn’t wearing a jacket and soon began to shiver.
Inside the house the phone on the wall rang. It continued to ring as I shook from the cold. Through the glass in the back door the caller I.D. showed that it was my editor Haskel. I was supposed to be working.
The squirrel entered the cage cautiously, his hind legs holding on to the outside of the bars. I waited as he scooped paws full of peanut butter out of a birdseed cup. The more he ate the more his body advanced. I looked in at the phone which was still ringing. “Remove all distractions,” Haskel had said on another pressing assignment.
When I turned back, the squirrel was completely inside so I yanked on the twine and the door snapped shut. I had him! He was circling his cell in a frenzy. To calm him I covered the cage with an old blanket that Alice had draped over an antique chair in the cellar. Soon fat snowflakes began to fall.
After drinking a celebratory eggnog, I went upstairs and flipped on the computer. My heart sank when the screen came up blank. I checked a backup file but it too was empty. The deadline! How could I face Haskel – or Alice?
My wife showed up just before dark and followed me out to the cage in the backyard. When I removed the snow and lifted the blanket to show her my prisoner, she said, “So, now you’re going to let him loose in the park without his acorns – that he’s been gathering all year. How would you like it if somebody separated you from your work?” The squirrel sat there looking pathetic.
“Yeah,” my wife continued. “He’ll be panhandling, getting chased off by other squirrels.”
“After all this work,” I protested. “You want me to turn him loose?”
“It is Christmas Eve,” she said matter-of-factly.
Later that evening as Alice prodded me on, I walked out to my prisoner with some walnuts and water. Then I replaced the cover. I had a restless night thinking of editor Haskel’s advice, my computer problem, and the squirrel panhandling in the park.
On Christmas morning, I awoke to a cranked up rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Alice was curious to see how the squirrel had fared, so before opening presents I dressed and waded through a snowdrift to the cage.
When I lifted the blanket it was empty. The door was shut tight and there were no breaks in the bars. Two faint snow blown tracks were nearby.
“Well?” my wife called from the window.
“Did you let him loose?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” she said shaking her head.
That evening, after pushing aside plum pudding, I grabbed my coat and gloves and went outside to shovel the sidewalk. Later, I crawled up to the attic and once again heard rustling behind the wall. That squirrel was back. To add insult, the task of resurrecting my lost work looked impossible.
When I turned on the computer, the mouse seemed curiously warm in my hand. Then the screen lit up and there to my joy and amazement appeared my story! I could hear Alice laboring up the stairs.
“How’s the work going?” she asked as she reached the top step.
“Fine,” I answered suspiciously. There was some chatter behind the wall.
“Well,” Alice said looking towards the noise. “He’s home for Christmas.”
“A good ending,” I imagined editor Haskel saying.
“At least he won’t be panhandling in the park,” Alice murmured while putting her arms around me.”
“I met her embrace and realized, “And neither will I!”
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.