Monday, October 20, 2014

RETURNING TO EARTH


By Arthur H. Gunther III
      Whether it is worry about family finances, or county government, the state of the nation or the world, the realization that we are but specks in time can put things in perspective. Quickly, the headache that comes with self-absorption is gone, and life can exist in the greater scope of existence.   
     No, this is not day-dreaming gone wild or too much pre-bedtime wine but the effects of the Internet, that remarkable portal to information, which has shrunk the world and perhaps the universe, too. Another way of expanding our limited outlook.
     Working the Net recently, a teaser appeared on a story about the NASA's onboard Mars rover Curiosity Mastcam recording of what looks like a petroglyph, the stick figure which has appeared since cave days all over the world. And now on a planet far away.     
     Of course, it could be coincidence that the rock on Mars has an indentation which  simply looks like a petroglyph, but is it also coincidence that stick figures from continent to continent, thousands of years apart, are so very similar? 
     In those times, despite what 2014 smart phone users might believe, there was no Internet to spread the message, to promote copy-catting.  Not even newspapers or books or TV. No Facebook or Twitter.
     So, was civilization more advanced than now? Or were we (are we still) visited by others not of this world, who left (leave) their mark? Or did we advance and then horribly put the world into a dark age from which we are still emerging, rebuilding technological greatness? 
     Ah, perspective. It can bring you back to earth. Or is it the other way around?
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

A POLICE OFFICER'S RESPONSE


 On Aug. 18, I offered an essay, "It's a two-way street," which argued that policing is a super tough job, and the officers deserve respect while being trained to know the community. It also  expressed concern about using military equipment and what I described as para-military clothing. Joe Badalamente, a retired New York City police officer, writes an articulate response in my space today.
 
By JOE BADALAMENTE
Thank you for your recent column about the police. Although I have been retired for nine years, your words struck a chord. Even after all that time, I still feel very much a part of “the police” in general, and the NYPD, specifically.
I spent twenty years with the NYPD, from 1985 to 2005. My field training took place in Brooklyn before I was transferred to the Central Park Precinct in July '85, a little more than a month prior to the murder of Jennifer Levin by Robert Chambers.
Although I agree with the spirit of your argument, and again, very much appreciate any support of police, I must take issue with a couple of points. Regarding salaries, I'm not sure how you define the Northeast, but I'm pretty sure outside of the immediate New York metro area, cops aren’t pulling down anywhere near Orangetown and Clarkstown money. I'm currently working as a financial investigator at a large bank, and my 29-year-old team lead is making roughly 125k after only two years, with only an undergraduate degree from SUNY. A 20-year veteran of the NYPD at the rank of Police Officer can’t come close to this without putting in a ton of overtime; not to mention cops in hundreds of small towns from  Boston to DC. It seems living in places such as Rockland, Westchester, Bergen, Nassau and Suffolk counties skew the public's perception of police salaries.
Perception is a great lead in for my second point: Your opinion of cop’s uniforms. In 1995, the once and future NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton brought back the department’s original dark blue uniform shirts and issued us nine-millimeter handguns. The confidence that one-two punch instilled in the rank and file was exponential. We no longer looked like bus drivers (not that I have anything against them!), nor felt so outgunned. The nine millimeter’s 16-round capacity afforded us a better chance in any potential gun battle -- reloading a fresh magazine into a semi-automatic weapon takes much less time than fumbling with a speed loader, the “fast” way to reload a revolver. Numerous cops over the years and around the world have been killed while reloading during firefights.
As for the combat-style boots you mentioned, on patrol, support is the most important thing, whether trying to catch a perp or fighting with one. As for uniform pants, I’ve never seen camouflage on a city or Rockland cop, so I can’t speak to that. However, the paratrooper/cargo type pants are utilitarian, containing many more pockets than standard uniform trousers. Having spent most of my career on patrol, pockets are important; it is quite difficult to reach into the front pockets of regular uniform trousers while wearing a gun belt; the cargo-style pants’ leg pockets come in very handy for the average patrol officer to stuff their memo book, extra pens, flashlight or what have you. (I know it’s leading with my chin to those who think all cops are corrupt to go on about the importance of pockets for police, but I’ll take that chance!)
The “demilitarization” of the police is something I keep hearing and reading in wake of Ferguson. Yet, at least in the NYPD, it is the Emergency Services Unit that utilizes such equipment, and they are called in when appropriate, such as when people are rioting and looting. Patrol cops are ill equipped to deal with rock and bottles being thrown at them. Helmets are needed, as are armored vehicles when the rocks suddenly turn into Molotov cocktails. Or would people prefer numerous police officers going on sick leave with injuries caused by these projectiles?
I find it difficult not to devolve into sarcasm here, but it amazes me how everyone is an expert on police tactics now because they watch “Law & Order" and “Blue Bloods,” or the latest ill-researched blockbuster churned out by Hollywood.
You seem to imply that civilians “feel” a certain way in reaction to how a cop might be outfitted; frightened, intimidated -- perhaps non-verbally bullied? Yet, society tells us how one “feels” when walking towards a group of kids whose pants are hanging below their asses, baseball caps turned sideways, toothpicks in their mouths and cursing up a storm, or seeing a bunch of bikers with ZZ Top-type beards outside a bar, or a couple of want-to-be Tony Soprano-types hanging in front of a social club in Bensonhurst is “profiling?” Aren’t you or your theoretical law-abiding citizen profiling any particular officer because he or she prefers to wear boots and paratrooper/cargo pants? Isn’t it more about your perception than about what a particular officer may or may not be trying to project?
A historical note; in the late ‘70s, leather jackets were taken from the NYPD because some felt it made them look like the Gestapo. The city even went so far as to change the names of groups of precincts from Divisions to Areas in an attempt at demilitarization. Yet crime continued to soar in and around the five boroughs through the ‘80s into the early ‘90s, until the aforementioned Bratton was brought in. Of course, the improving economy and Roe vs. Wade’s 20th anniversary dovetailed in with CompStat and the new weapons and uniform changes, all of which may or may not have had something to do with crime stats falling off a cliff. (And let us not forget how Rudy Giuliani took the credit for it all!) Lest I digress,  my main point is that the  confidence created by our being outfitted with more stylish uniforms and modern weaponry created a much more professional and potent police department, which played a major role in the drop in crime, in my not so humble opinion.
I know first-hand that no department, no officer is perfect. There are many problems in policing, including blatant racism, that interfere with how the public should be serviced. But like any other group on the planet, it is a small percentage of cops who tarnish the image of the rest. All I ask is for people to keep this in mind while consuming and digesting the so-called news.

Monday, October 6, 2014

BACK TO THE EARTH


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Home heating systems may have kicked on to deal with lower temperatures in the USA's Northeast and wherever there is seasonal change, but for me, the change involves more than a turn of the thermostat dial. There is  a memory journey as well.
     Back when I didn’t worry about such things as heating, when the cocoon of early childhood had others taking care of room and board, my only assignment was to watch for the coal man.
     In that time, before there was a massive bridge connecting interstate carpets on both sides of the mighty Hudson River, before the hustle-bustle age, we lived in a sleepy community, Spring Valley, population perhaps 4,500, though summer tripled, maybe quadrupled that since there were seasonal bungalow colonies.
     Our cherished quiet time returned in September, and the assuring hum of small-town life as well, with its Main Street shops, two elementary schools, one high school, a few doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals whose family names had long been known by residents, and the village regulars all communities have and without which there is no small town, USA.
     One regular was the coal delivery man, from Comfort Coal or the other outfits which received their anthracite and bituminous lumps by Erie rail car. Living at 14 Ternure Ave., corner of Summit, at age 5, I watched for him.
     I would sit on the mound of grass and small Mountain Pink flowers, day-dreaming as a past time and an obsession, one ear cocked for the sound of truck gears changing as the coal man’s rig climbed Ternure’s hill.
     The delivery fellow would pull into the gravel driveway and stop next to the Mountain Pinks. I would run and tell my grandfather or grandmother, and they would open the coal chute door above the basement bin. Then the deliveryman would connect a metal chute to his truck and begin shoveling supply into the chute and down into the bin. The bin would always reach the same level, as the man had done his job for so long and was quite good at it, another community constant. 
     When the fellow was finished and had his chute  back on the truck, but before he hopped in his cab and left, he would come over to me, give me a lump of shiny coal and tell me to bury it for a day when I might need it as a big boy or an adult, probably when I had to provide my own room and board.
     I did what he said, and if anyone cares to dig into the dirt behind the Mountain Pinks at 14 Ternure, the east side of the house, they surely would find my stash of coal, buried there numerous times.
     That home, long gone from the family, now has natural gas for heating, not coal, and there are no such delivery men in what is no longer a small village, nor a small county. Progress relentlessly has  been on the march, but if it ever stops, I know where my rainy day savings account lies.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.
      

Monday, September 29, 2014

FALL'S IN THE HOUSE




By Arthur H. Gunther IIII
     Autumn arrives as a state of mind, prompted by the foliage change to wonderful hues, or by memories of fall’s past that tug at your senses and nudge you to “do it again.” But for both those who can see traditional seasonal change, and especially for those who cannot, there is the color switch inside your home or any place with a window.
     The light is different, incrementally as the weeks and months pass, but soon the imperceptibility becomes noticeable, and sitting in your living room chair or at a kitchen table, your mind wanders, you look at the incoming window light, and there it is, fall.
    Somehow, that signals body change -- mental surely, as you begin to think of coming winter and the fortification that will require, physically as you get ready for warmer garments carried on your frame. That is all natural to all, since the cave days.
     But then there is the emotional switching of gears. You have come down the pike either hellbent in a fast-paced summer or you have had the cruise control set at 20 mph for a lazy, hazy, hot season, relieved by the beach. Now you see color, beautiful color, as you near the bend, and you get a whiff of cool air, not quite winter’s breath, but enough that you know where you are headed.
      The journey is made all the easier by the appearance of nature’s tapestry, a light show outside, overflowing to the innards of both your home and yourself.
     Fortification, there she comes, this autumnal change, this brilliance of light in hues meant to tell you that though the heat of summer is gone and the cold of winter is approaching, fall’s color will be your cloak into the change. Nature’s mental protection, as it were.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, September 15, 2014

IGNORING OUR DIGNITY


Arthur H. Gunther III
    
ahgunther@yahoo.com




       I won’t vote for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the popular New Yorker seeking re-election. Nor would I for President Obama, if he were able to run anew, though I supported him twice. And I will be pleased when Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, steps down. Why no support for these three? Not because of their abilities or accomplishment, though each man in each category is subject to grades ranging from A-plus down. Both have been electable and applaudable for service. Yet these officials fail my confidence test, a right of my citizenship. And, I suspect they are the tip of the iceberg in a society that offers systemic indifference to the ordinary person.
     It is a little thing, my motivation that drops these three from the nice list, but it was small things becoming bigger that led us to our American Revolution and changes for the better, or at least the hope of those, hope still being chased.
     Each of these men are in highly visible, important, powerful positions where the expectation of good and full service to the citizenry is a given. The president and the New York governor ran for office as approachable people who empathized with the growing concerns of Americans without jobs, or long-lasting ones, or decently paid ones or ones that will put and keep them in the bulwark middle class that marks stable democracy.
     They were cheered on, these two, and sent off to do their work. But then the doors slammed behind them, locking out the people. Handlers came in, pros they are in security, in media control, in distancing the “men of the people” from, well the people. The ordinary men and women of these great United States are held back by these handlers, who would lock down the universe to keep their man away from humanity, from regular concerns, hopes, heartache, the yin and yang of living.
     How real is it for a president, a governor in office? Their lifestyle is not like most people. Yes, they see the death-bringing results of war, of natural disaster, but then they return to comfortable quarters after the handlers have arranged a trip or two.
     When you write these leaders, as I did several times to Obama, Cuomo and to the appointed but still-in-the-trust-of-the-people Bharara, snail-mail letters even, as I sent off  to the governor and the U.S. attorney, cogent, well-thought-out argument that required answers from those in our employ, in our trust, the answers never came. Acknowledgment of the letters never came. And the president, whose office bragged that it would be the first to set up an e-mail response system, failed mightily, with no replies, no acknowledgement of missives.
     That is bad form. It is not democratic form. It is rude and insensitive and snubbing behavior. It matters not that my questions may have been relatively small ones, not so imperative as foreign affairs and state budget woes. Communication with the people is never un-important. Little things add up and become symbolic of high-and-mighty affront that ignores the people and their concerns, their needs, most of all their dignity.
     The system no longer works, and if the snubbing of the common man and woman continues, democracy is in trouble. We cannot elect high-placed people nor see grand poohbahs in important positions who are then shut behind doors and kept from public discourse.
So, I would not vote for Obama, Cuomo, Bharara or anyone who ignores we, the people, even if it is their staffs doing the insulting deed. That makes it even worse, adding to their distance from the citizenry.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com 

Monday, September 8, 2014

STILL, A BRIDGE TOO FAR


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     HUDSON RIVER, N.Y. -- This mighty waterway, not a western route to Asia through the Northwest Passage as Hendrick Hudson hoped it would be in 1609, but to the great port of Albany and so through canals, lakes and on land to the American frontier and all the greatness and achievement of that, remains as beautiful as the explorer found it. Once assaulted by industrial discharge, its waters are these days enjoyed by boaters and those who live in expensive housing along the shore. Visitors can view the wonderful landscape, from New York City sights to the Palisades escarpment to Hook and Bear mountains, to West Point and on to Albany, enjoying many of nature’s gifts on both the eastern and western shores.
     Last week, I was privileged to take a boat ride on the Hudson from Haverstraw south to the Tappan Zee Bridge at South Nyack  and back, courtesy of the Historical Society of Rockland County. I was the principal speaker on the history of the bridge, which was constructed in 1955 and which will give way to two new crossings in a few years. I offer some of that talk here for anyone interested in how a bridge was built and how that brought “progress,” not always a cherished effort.
FROM THE BOAT TRIP:
“I said at the beginning of this talk that there were two principal players in the decades-long buildup of the Tappan Zee Bridge: the “progress” people, including land speculators, and those who sought to keep Rockland quiet relief from Gotham. The preservationists lost, and many of the old ways and more than 100 other homes and the village downtown in South Nyack are gone. But the “progress” people did not win, either, since the great and continuing cost of hurried, barely planned development has brought drainage, traffic, infrastructure and quality-of-life problems. And now there is the “graying of Rockland,” with an older population, development homes needing renovation and not enough tax money for truly good living going forward. No one knows what the future will bring, especially with the continuing decline of the middle class. Who will step up to rebuild and reinvigorate Rockland?
     Yet interstate travel, especially trucks, the real winner in the building of the Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge, will continue, and even a shiny new set of crossings across the Dutch sea from South Nyack to Tarrytown will not solve Rockland’s woes nor the growing traffic concerns and the utter need to rebuild the Thruway in Rockland. The new spans may well prove to be bridges "too far."
    The Tappan Zee Bridge is part of the New York State Thruway and now also belongs to the I-87, I-287 interstate network that leads upstate, to the west and to New England. It is the longest bridge in the State of New York, with total length of the crossing and approaches at 16,013 feet. The cantilever span is 1,212 feet, providing a maximum clearance of 138 feet  over the water. The bridge is about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan. The bridge is one of the primary crossings of the Hudson north of NYC. It carries much of the traffic between southern New England and points west of the Hudson.
      Work on the $80 million Tappan Zee -- $668 million in today’s dollars -- hit peak intensity by 1953. It opened to traffic on Dec. 15, 1955, and is part of what was once called the Dwight D. Eisenhower Defense Highway network. It can be used in the event of war for materiel and troop transport.
     The bridge came to be because in the later 1940s New York Gov. Thomas Dewey  proposed a super highway in the German “Autobahn” style, from Suffern, at the New Jersey border, to upstate New York, to foster commerce. But it soon became apparent that the Thruway bond holders could not be paid off without a big revenue source, and so the idea of extending the road to New York City via a Hudson River crossing at South Nyack was quickly adopted, thus providing a nicely ringing “cash register.” 
     Trouble was that non-quality materials and a cheap design were used to construct the Tappan Zee. Since 1955, overuse has put the bridge in danger of major failure, and in October 2011, at the direction of Gov. Andrew  Cuomo, the Thruway Authority and the New York State Department of Transportation jointly proposed a replacement structure, the “Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing.” The two new spans, which will include pedestrian and biking lanes and lookouts for viewers, are now being constructed.
     The “progress” legacy of the first crossing has not proven as grand as first advertised, since rapid suburban growth overtaxed local planners, zoners and the infrastructure. The new crossings will bring even more interstate travelers through geographically small Rockland, and there seems no benefit to them. The interstate network will still have major flaws in the lower Hudson Valley region, and though a poorly planned and built 1955 crossing will be replaced by wonderfully engineered safe structures, they will still connect to ill-advised interstates on both sides of the Hudson.
     The first Tappan Zee was built as a “cash register,” not as a well-planned conduit for progress.” It will transfer that legacy to the new spans.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE TWO-WAY STREET


By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

     Police exist by the people’s command, and only by that direction,  because we cannot secure ourselves. Theirs is a dangerous, usually thankless job, and the officer’s whole being is often in the sewer of humanity. So, it takes an extraordinary individual to do the work, to be invested with such power, to always remember how it is derived, to constantly understand that it is temporary and that it should not be misused. 
     In return for the job's difficulty, especially the wear and tear that accumulates mentally and physically, officers must be properly compensated, and in the Northeast anyway, they surely are, though that was not always the case. Officers also deserve the respect of the citizenry on a blanket basis. Individually, that is up to the officer. There can be no arrogance, no expletives, especially no attitude, all of which may be difficult for an officer used to being in the trenches, his/her senses assaulted by domestic incidents and difficult situations that can warp your head.
    Yet that is the job, and, yes, it requires extraordinary self-control from extraordinary officers. Otherwise, don’t apply. The men and women in blue must show respect and always, always allow others their dignity. That is Job. 1.
     A case in point: Bill Bratton, the New York City police commissioner,  tells citizens not to resist arrest. That sounds right if you recite from a  Police Academy training manual. But then there’s the real, mean streets where over-stressed cops see and feel the full range of human emotion so overwhelmingly each day that they need a shrink at shift’s end but also where too many citizens think they must wear ID on their backs in 2-inch type because they feel they are in the Third Reich. On the streets, the interplay is not Academy textbook, and police must show dignity and respect.   Citizens, for their part, must calm down, accept police respect when given, and just go with the flow. Hopefully, the courts will bring justice in the individual case. So, respect, yes, but it must be mutual.
    Truth is, NYC police, all police,  must be respectful of each and every person, as difficult as that may be day-in, day-out. The people hire the police and grant them special temporary powers because they cannot police themselves. Security is not gestapo. The cops must, hard as that may prove in their environment, remember that they work for the people. That must be key in their training. They must not be allowed to lapse into a protective fraternity of “them against us.” 
       In the recent New York attempted arrest of an individual said to be selling loose cigarettes, a man with obvious physical disability who died as police pinned him down, common sense should have brought not an arrest, but an appearance ticket. If this had been 1950 NYC, a beat officer walking the streets, as is so rarely done now, would have known the man, understood the community. The situation would not have happened, at least not the way it went down. But police have disappeared from the streets, and both they and the people no longer trust each other sufficiently, at times not at all.
     Commissioner Bratton would do all a great service by taking more cops off desk jobs and certainly out of darkened-glass patrol cars and put them on street patrol. If the police get to know the neighborhood and interact with the people, the way it used to be, they would realize that most citizens are decent and law-abiding.  The Berlin Wall of distrust that has risen so high would come down. 
    The nation must also “de-militarize” the police. They are not military, not even para-military in everyday life.  Officers should look like they always have: dressed in standard, ordinary blue, gray or brown uniforms, with regular shoes. No paratrooper boots or camouflage pants. Those outfits make police feel more powerful than they have a right to be. Bring all this post-9/11 out-of-balance security down to earth.
     Policing is a super tough job, and the officers deserve respect. But only if they earn that. That sort of training must be in the manual at the Academy and reinforced every morning at patrol shape-up. And we citizens ought to shape-up each day as well, approach an officer, even in a darkened patrol car, and say hello. There is a failure to communicate.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.