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News of Otsego County

terry berkson

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: An egg layer with a taste for egg eating

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson
An egg layer with a taste for egg eating

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.

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: A silo salesman striking with a sledgehammer

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson:
A silo salesman striking
with a sledgehammer

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.”

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: Swimming with the manatees leads to ideas
A manatee swims underwater in Homosassa Springs, in Florida. (Alice Berkson)


Life Sketches by
Terry Berkson:
Swimming with the manatees
leads to ideas

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.

Life Sketches: Bunker lived life like it was an adventure

Life Sketches
Bunker lived life like it was an adventure

Donald Hill was the first kid I met in Richfield. His family lived in an apartment in back of my aunt’s

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

“Okay,” Leo said exhausted.

BERKSON: Letting go of the past is a challenge at any age

Life Sketches

Letting go of the past
is a challenge at any age

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

BERKSON: Howling at the moon to help ‘the chickens’

Life Sketches

Howling at the moon
to help ‘the chickens’

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

BERKSON: Remembering the sad story of a Soviet Prisoner

Life Sketches

Remembering the sad
story of a Soviet Prisoner

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

Shipilov was released from a Soviet prison, but in some ways he never seemed to feel free.

BERKSON: Saying goodbye to Bert, man’s best friend

Life Sketches

Saying goodbye to
Bert, man’s best friend

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

BERKSON: Vivid memories were made working on the farm

Life Sketches

Vivid memories were
made working on the farm

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

‘Impetuous 30s’ led to Richfield Springs farm

Life Sketches

‘Impetuous 30s’ led to
Richfield Springs farm

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.life

In what my dad later referred to as his “impetuous 30s,” we left Brooklyn one summer and headed for Richfield Springs to stay with my father’s older brother William and his wife Ruta.

One afternoon, Dad returned to Uncle William’s house, his car steaming after a long trip.

“I’m buying a farm,” he announced as we all sat at a big round oak dinner table.

“A farm?” Uncle William said. He looked shocked. “You don’t know the first thing about running a farm!”

“I’ll learn,” Dad said.

BERKSON: The amazing mind-reading machine claims a victim

Life Sketches

The amazing mind-reading
machine claims a victim

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

Life Sketches: Whistling with my fingers, thinking of songs

Life Sketches

Whistling with my fingers, thinking of songs

By TERRY BERKSON • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

BERKSON: Raccoon in the hen house starts raucous battle

Life Sketches

Raccoon in the hen house
starts raucous battle

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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?”

BERKSON: Pen pal letters brought good news from France

Life Sketches

Pen pal letters brought
good news from France

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.”

BERKSON: In search of pigeons just like Marlon Brando’s birds

LIFE SKETCHES by TERRY BERKSON

In search of pigeons just
like Marlon Brando’s birds

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

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.

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