Monday, November 29, 2010


     Had a conversation with a young fellow at a train station in chilly, windy weather when the topic turned to hiccups since that was what the 3.5-year-old was using for punctuation in what otherwise was rapid-fire language. We were waiting for his mom and dad, my son and his wife, to return from an anniversary trip to New York City, and I figured he would like to see the Metro-North local arrive. It isn’t every day that a kid looks at a train these days – it’s still a thrilling sight, as it has been since the first Erie ran in my parts in the late 1840s.

But keeping a youngster occupied at a busy station, even for the 10 minutes I figured were left before the train pulled in, is challenging. I don’t know his world, and he doesn’t know mine. What are Sam’s day dreams? His fears? His concept of time, space? How does he look at people? What does he think of his old codger grandfather, an odd-enough fellow?

Discussing hiccups seemed an excellent way to keep him occupied. We had a conversation, parts of which, maybe even the whole, might seem silly, but then again, pondering the universe in any which way led us to the electric light and other good things, too. In the least, it can be entertaining.

I asked Sam where he got his hiccups. Did his mom put them in his breakfast cereal? Did his teacher give a Thanksgiving treat? Since, I, too, wanted hiccups so as to not be left out, I asked Sam where I could buy them.

He answered with a bunch of “no’s” and “I don’t know.” He did so quite seriously, as if we were professors pondering quantum physics. Sam thought it quite natural that his grandfather and he would be having such a conversation, and he pondered every answer. At no point did he think the questions silly. Perhaps in a few years he will see nonsense, but not now.

Now is still time for Sam to have an awfully broad imagination, an unlimited field of dreams where he can race this way and that, chasing this thought or another. Why not? He has not yet been told to limit his thinking, to set boundaries. Sam -- any youngster his age --  can be what Tom Edison always was, a thinker without qualification  whose imagination is without limits.

Soon, thanks to a conversation about hiccups, including asking Sam what color his were, whether he saved a few in his pocket for an after-lunch treat, and whether he could see them on his computer, the train with mom and dad pulled in.

The very sight of his parents made Sam lose his hiccups and eagerly embrace his favorite people. Wonderful. Gramps moseyed on.

Hope Sam had some hiccups later, though.

Monday, November 22, 2010


     Forty-seven years ago this was a Friday, and about 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professionally but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial. 

So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone,  Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.

And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.

Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched.

Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.

Monday, November 15, 2010


     SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – It is another moment now for my classmates and me, Spring Valley High School 1961, a season so very far removed from senior year autumn 50 years ago when “fall madness” brought the football team to its new playing field and General Organization President Fred Yatto Jr. stood at half-time with Gerd Bitten Andersen, our Danish exchange student.

In  a few weeks’ time, the rush of giddy feeling from knowing that in just months we would graduate and move to adulthood and its freedom would be tempered with  loss and sadness, too.
On Nov. 19, 1960, Fred, 17, passed away after very difficult, even impossible, heart surgery. A routine school sports physical the previous spring had detected an unusual sound in his heart. Further investigation revealed a hole. This meant open-heart surgery, then in its infancy and far, far riskier than today.
Fred knew his operation was coming up in early November 1960, but he tried to make light of it, hoping not to worry his classmates. Most of us were too immature and inexperienced to know the very grave danger he faced. Fred understood that and continued to be everyone’s friend. His ability to get along with people proclaimed great promise.

On Nov. 12, he presided over a pre-game ceremony on the new field off Route 59 in which Bitten was officially recognized. And about two weeks before his surgery, he went to a party in nearby Pomona with some friends, this writer included. The small amount of alcohol he had there, in his condition, caused him to pass out. We carried him onto a bed in a spare room at Joan Prescott’s Pomona Road home so he could recover. It was a prescient moment.

Just a few weeks later, some of us would again carry Fred Yatto, this time to his final resting place on this Earth, the West New Hempstead Cemetery, only two  miles from the Prescott house. Fred died Nov. 19, after the open-heart operation revealed a hole the size of a half-dollar, and in those days it could not be successfully repaired.

When our classmate passed away, so ended the innocence of school life for the Class of ’61. We have had other classmates leave us too soon in later years, 15 by my count from a class of 201, but Fred was the first, and the sobering it cast will never be forgotten.

Good times eventually returned to SVHS, but the black fact that death comes to us all, including the young, was forever imprinted on our psyche. It changed us, some for life. The journeys each of us have taken since Nov. 19, 1960, have been set by it.

While I know that, in an earthly view, Fred  was denied the right, the joys, even the sorrows of life beyond high school, the journey into middle and old age, and into the season that is now, it must be said that the spirit of Fred Yatto Jr. has lived a life.

The spirit continues to live  in Fred’s friends and former classmates, who, once in a while, reflect on the young man who was and the man who should have been.

I recall his eagerness, his humor, his sense of responsibility, his deep love for living. What were to be his hopes, his aspirations, his ups and downs, have been experienced in some way or another by the Class of ’61. Some of us have thought … what would Fred have said about this or that, or what would he have done in such and such a moment?

The realization that 50 years later, a 17-year-old fellow has not been forgotten is proof that a life did not finish on this earth on Nov. 19, 1960.

Monday, November 8, 2010


     NEW HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – History isn’t always rescued. Sometimes it costs too much. Sometimes “progress” is a big bully and wins. Sometimes no one cares. Sometimes there are priorities. The given, though, is that all history lost is heritage gone, memories set to fade mode, to hazy recollection such as “Wasn’t there a barn over there?”

New Hempstead, in the Spring Valley Postal District, is a smallish village carved out of the Town of Ramapo several decades ago, in part to slow the development bulldozer, protect quality of life a bit and perhaps save this or that part of history. Yet now a big piece of the past is gone. It is a sad story, one that almost anyone, anywhere can relate to since change, while often beneficial, also is like a wake.

On a recent Sunday, the volunteers of the Moleston Fire District, Hillcrest Fire Company, held a training exercise at the long-standing Woodside Dairy barn off Brick Church Road. The barn, not used for many years, had become dilapidated, and it was determined it had to go. So it was put to the torch, doing one last bit of good for the community it long served, training hardworking volunteer firefighters.

Perhaps it was fitting, too, that Hillcrest would bring the barn down since the Moleston District’s first commissioner was Enoch Erickson, predecessor of those Ericksons who worked the dairy farm.

According to Marty Erickson, wife of Gene, daughter-in-law of Clarence (Pete), the Woodside Dairy Barn and Milk House began on purchased Smith farmland. Woodside was a working dairy farm until the 1960s. During World War II, says Marty, “The family made sure local children had dairy products, often at no cost. When the Rockland Leader (a Spring Valley weekly newspaper) burned in the 1960s, the barn stored rescued editions.”

As Rockland County moved from pre-war rural to post-war New York City suburb,  local dairies and other farms were sold for housing developments and strip shopping centers, “progress” paving over a long-practiced way of life. Soon enough, people began buying milk from large companies in convenience stores and supermarkets, and home delivery died out.

Woodside was sold “for a token amount, in a spirit of patriotism, for a county veterans cemetery … In recent years, the buildings have been vandalized, the barn roof succumbed to the weather … and the silo was covered with vines,” writes Marty.

The Woodside barn has not been rescued. If it could have been restored, perhaps Rockland schoolchildren could see demonstrations of old-time milking, smell the hayloft straw and the old barn timbers, get away from the hustle and bustle and step back in time to a moment of American history when independence, hard work, self-sufficiency, community spirit and service and pure survival were parts of ingrained country character.

Saved from Woodside are a few milk bottles and fading memories. Yet there must be a repository for all the emotions this farm witnessed over so many years. Somewhere, somehow, some time, they may emerge in realization and enlightenment that progress doesn’t mean just building the new but securing the past as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010


     Election Day this year is more important than in many seasons. If this nation (1) does not show up at the polls and (2) does not elect those willing to forgo special interests and secret money, America will not progress. The economy will stagnate and taxes will rise. Major issues – true health care reform, job creation, fair trade, education reform, immigration, security and the rescue of the dwindling yet vital middle class – will not be addressed.

According to national newspaper reports, in the 2006 mid-term elections, outside groups not connected to political parties spent $51.6 million. So far in 2010, courtesy of a high court decision guaranteeing “free speech” to big-moneyed interests that can bully with unlimited cash, such groups have spent $280 million, 60 percent from undisclosed donors.

It is power and greed, hiding behind political philosophy and jingoistic, simplistic  slogans that are behind large secret donations. Continual war makes money for all too many, as Ike warned us in far less involved times. Health care is not about human needs but about profit. Manufacturing, once and for a long time made successful for companies and the nation by hard-working blue collars, has left the USA for other countries, a slap in the face to those still owed for building these companies. But money rules, even if only for the short term since without income, Americans won’t buy products and so keep the economic stream replenished.

If God’s lighting could strike Tuesday, it might bring us a full turnout of thinking voters; it might cause the special interests to wither; it might see the election of thousands of “Mr. (Miss/Mrs.) Smiths, who go to Washington or to state capitols or to town and village halls as disconnects from the almighty dollar, who seek only to do right by their fellow man, woman and child.

Such equality of purpose has not been seen in the Founders’ Land for decades.