Sunday, December 30, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

BEYOND GOTHAM -- You would not expect a county named Rockland to have mere pebbles or such small stone that you could call it a mud flat or a hayfield or desert. This glacial age area, the smallest such New York State jurisdiction geographically, is so full of rock, many of which are unmovable, that it well deserves the name.

And some cursing. If you could unbottle all the collected utterings of fruit and truck crop farmers since the 1700s and of suburban homeowners and now commercial landscapers since the end of World War II, you would have one rather deafening obscenity yell. The old joke among our once many farmers was that each early spring, cleared fields from the previous seasons would be dotted with new stones, which seemingly managed to work their way to the surface and had to be removed by muscle power and maybe a horse or oxen or mule.

For decades, the farmers would follow the Native American tradition and pile the field rock onto walls, which conveniently became boundaries for property and to divide crops. As children who scrambled along these walls, we heard that the Indians had buried their long-ago dead in these walls and that the spirits must not be disturbed by tearing them apart.

Of course, suburban “progress” has done just that -- bulldozed many of these walls, and the woods have obscured the walls that once defined  cropland. Yet if you look for them, you will find rock walls, mostly intact and held together by gravity. Since there is no mortar, the rocks move with freeze and thaw, and our native snakes find them homey.

One such wall exists in old south Spring Valley, which later in the 20th century became the Village of Chestnut Ridge, taking its name from the road and elevation  that climbs into Montvale, N.J. (In New York, the road is Route 45). This area was old Dutch and early American farmland into the last century and is now largely residential with some commercial in New York and lots of that in Montvale.  

The rock wall I cite is alongside the Talman family cemetery that began on land owned in the late 1700s by Douwe H. Talman. While the greater parcel has changed hands over the years,  eventually owned by the Edwin Gould Foundation, the graves of a number of Talmans lie in a 30 by 30-foot place, including the ashes of Wilfred Blanch Talman, the well-known Rockland Leader newspaper columnist. Descended from three centuries of Dutch and Huguenot ancestry in Rockland and northern Bergen County, he was a foremost chronicler of local history, as reporter, photographer and columnist with the Sherwood Newspapers of Spring Valley. One of his premier books is “How Things Began in Rockland County and Places Nearby” (The Historical Society of Rockland County). 

The Talman family is worried that major housing construction is surely headed for the old Gould site, which has just been sold to a Brooklyn/Monsey land development corporation and that such use would disturb the burial grounds. Not so, a media report indicates, citing a land-use attorney for the new owners as saying it would be respected.

Certainly it must be. Back in the 1980s, a similar family cemetery off Route 45 in Pomona was disturbed as office development took place. The Talman gravesite is hardly a dot on the full 145-acre grounds. Not difficult to protect. 

Yet the post-war history of Rockland is one that is much more of quicksand promise than rock guarantee. Many developers have said they would protect history, but so many old homes are now gone; floodplains were to be left as natural drain for storms, and that has not happened; growth was to be gradual, allowing time for infrastructure to be acquired and paid for without major taxes, but government has failed us there; and quality of life was to be enhanced, yet housing density and too many shopping strips have done us in.

In all that “progress,” many old rock walls have fallen in my county. I hope that as the Gould site is developed, that not only does the Talman family gravesite and its wall remain intact but that those walls in the extensive wetlands are protected as well. The potential for explosive growth, especially if there is predictable downzoning, is a thought almost as overwhelming as the rocks old Rockland farmers dug up each year. They cursed then; who among us now is willing to shout an epithet against too much development?

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

The flowering of life for 20 precious youngsters in Newtown, Conn., stopped blooming with their dreadful passing Friday, but already we feel their effect as angels for all of us:

  • A father whose 6-year-old daughter is never to be seen or heard again takes time from grieving to express sympathy for the gunman’s family.
  • A president tears in eloquence beyond his worded statement.
  • The media reports small acts of kindness worldwide. (They were always there, but not always highlighted.)
  • Queens, prime ministers, an entire world react with sympathy, political persuasion aside.
  • Even as the shooting was taking place and some youngsters were already gone, one 6 year old told his teacher: “It’s all right. I know karate,” offering proof of children’s resilience and perspective. 
  • Kaitlin Roig, a first-grade Newtown teacher, tells the media how she rushed 15 small, terrified kids into a tiny bathroom, making them all fit and pulling a bookcase in front of the door. She kept the kids calm and told them over and over “I love you,” acting as surrogate parent and remembering later that she said those words because if they were to die, she did not want gunfire to be the last worldly statement.
  • We are reminded once again, through Kaitlin Roig, through others at Newtown and in so many places, of the daily dedication and caring of our teachers, some of whom were heroes Friday.
  • Community spirit, coming at Christmas and Hanukkah, too, brings Newtown together, and that expands quickly to others in Connecticut, to all the states, to all nations. The earth is now Newtown. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, renewed debate has already begun on gun control, school security is being readdressed, parents are hugging their children more and great eloquence will be offered in the many eulogies, including those for the heroic staff who died along with the school children. But the most enduring of this forever time after is and will be the healing by angels who just Friday were little boys and girls with worldly future. The angels will not let us forget.

The writer is  a retired newspaperman.

Monday, December 10, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

    Suffern, N.Y. -- In a flash-by moment when suburbia was knocking but there were few housing development doors yet ready to open, my dad hustled a 1939 gray Dodge west on Route 59 in what was then rural Tallman, on the way to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern. I recall looking at the hamlet firehouse and not seeing many other buildings except the Polo Inn restaurant and what is now the Tallman Bible Church. Traffic perhaps included one other car on this late December 1949 day.

     I was just past age 7, in the second  grade at the Airmont School, and I was heading for a free tonsillectomy at Good Sam because my father knew the doc (Dad was, among his 26 jobs, a licensed practical nurse). I needed the procedure because I kept getting colds, the whooping cough and other respiratory infections, and in those days they yanked the natural germ filters out of your throat.

I was thinking, as the lumbering car rolled down a two-lane, deserted highway, that I would rather be in school, not exactly the normal wish, except that this moment was not normal anyway. I was scared, though so very ignorant of what was to take place that my focus was on the ice cream (vanilla) that was promised and a peacoat my grandmother was to give me. And since this was just after Christmas, well, an extra gift or two maybe were worth the tonsillectomy.

In those pre-suburban days, Good Sam was just one building, big enough, but no wings added to more wings, as the facility has since morphed. Sister Miriam Thomas was in charge, and just as tough as her assistant, Sister Joseph Rita. But both were smiling at this frightened young fellow.

I remember getting my own room and asked to take off my clothes, which was confusing since I had just put them on. But what did I know of operations? I also did not know how to tie the hospital gown, which was way too big. 

Off we went to the operating room, where everyone, including my father, were in white. They would not let me walk in, but rolled me on a cart, cool enough. So was the anesthesia, which was administered through a mask. I was asked to count to ten, and I thought, gee, I am in first grade, and I can do more than that. I got to just three and then I seemed to wake up instantly, as if nothing had happened. Confused, I tried to ask when the doctor would make his move, but I could not talk. There was some pain and much soreness. 

My father had expected to take me home after an hour’s recovery, but since the tonsils were greatly inflamed and I also had an enlarged adenoid cut out, I began to hemorrhage. I was to stay the night. Which I did, in a room by myself, in the half-dark, half-light that is a hospital, amid sounds of talking staff and scurrying people. 

I had trouble getting to full sleep, with a kindly nurse coming in every hour or so to take my temperature and sometimes give me a derriere shot. As I once again tried to sleep with a really sore throat, I heard “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” being sung by Gene Autry. The Johnny Marks tune, originated by Harry Brannon, had just hit #1 for the “Singing Cowboy.” (Gene Autry was my favorite cowboy in 1949, a year when youngsters called them heroes.) 

With “Rudolph” on, I must have quickly fallen away, for I soon was awake and getting dressed, headed home to ice cream and a peacoat. Today I can never hear Autry’s rendition of “Rudolph” without thinking of a long-ago experience made easier in country time by kind nurses.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, December 3, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Billions are being sought for Hurricane Sandy reconstruction by the governors of New York and New Jersey and New York City’s mayor. The full dollars may not come given the federal budget deficit, the “fiscal cliff” stalemate and traditional congressional reluctance to assist the Northeast, but whatever funds do arrive, the worry is that the greedy already see cash in their big eyes.  

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York State needs $42 million, Gotham’s mayor wants $15 billion and Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks $37 billion will do. How these astounding figures are arrived at is anyone’s guess, though I suppose aides add up destroyed infrastructure, private housing, lost wages, etc., so that the politicians have “ballpark” figures to lobby the president, Congress and the federal Office of Management and Budget. Let’s hope some serious bean counters step in to reassess the billions requested. In fact, add about a million dollars for a independent clerk of the works and staff who can challenge every predicted expense. 

Anyone with a flicker of humanity knows people who lost their homes and possessions, who even today are without the comfort of ordinary routine, must be assisted, and sooner rather than later. And there are roads, tunnels, train equipment, etc., that must be repaired for the general good. All very expensive  work, though jobs will be created, and that will help the struggling economy.

What will not help the nation’s finances is to go whole hog on Hurricane Sandy cleanup and restoration without checking the figures in the beginning, during the rebuilding and after. Some concerns:

  • Will the contracts for repair/replacement be reasonable, will the opportunity to grossly inflate amounts be checked?
  • Who will check the credentials of the potential contractors, their reliability? How many will have political connections?
  • Will the costs of materials be exorbitant?
  • Should some of the shoreline homes not be rebuilt because they could again lie in harm’s way in this time of ever-worse “100-year” storms that come every few seasons?  Can some of the residents be relocated inland?
  • Similarly, should all boardwalk areas be restored if they will be damaged in future storms? Will new construction be such that it can withstand  surges?
  • Will a dollar limit be placed on assistance for wealthy residents who lost expensive shore homes? The ordinary taxpayer should not be helping the rich. Basic home reconstruction, yes, but additional expense for big-bucks homes should come from the homeowner.
•  Will priority be given to such devastated areas as the Rockaways in New York, where bungalows were destroyed? These people need assistance first.
  • Will infrastructure be replaced with better design and material, or will the same-old be rebuilt and again damaged in new storms?
  • Will there be a timetable for the money spent and to assure well-paced reconstruction?
  • Finally, will government just dole out billions and then walk away, leaving the details and ultimate cost overruns to the bureaucracy, to the greedy who see this as big opportunity?

An ombudsman is required, a National Storm Rebuilding Overseer, a clerk of the works who can filter all costs. If that person and team are not appointed, if there is no gatekeeper, the national deficit will again balloon in continued lack of accountability.  

The writer is a retired newspaperman.