Archive » August 2019 » Columns

Sometimes this scribe has a tendency to schedule too much in one day and Tuesday, Aug. 20, was such a day. It started at the Chuck Wagon Diner in Princetown and continued from there. The Old Men of the Mountain found their way to Princetown and the Chuck Wagon all in good fashion.

The first discussion was on fencing, not the type where a couple of people don a specific uniform for the sport of swordplay, but fencing to keep animals in or out, whichever the case may be.

The OFs were again talking about bison (remembering the ones that escaped from their Schoharie County farm). The discussion centered around how a fence should be built to keep that type of animal in.

One OF said that on the farm cows were kept in with just a simple fence; some used electric fencing to do the job. That, also, is just one strand of wire.

Another OF, who has had horses, said they were kept in with a strand of wire with flags on it. The OF said the horses honored that type of fencing and they never had a problem with them getting out. This OF imagined the buffalo were the same, maintaining that some of their draft horses were larger than the buffalo.

Yet another OF said that, if any animals like cows or horses wanted to challenge any fence, it wouldn’t stop them, i.e., barbed, electric, little white flags or not. One OF said that a high enough, and solid, stone wall would — something high enough the animal couldn’t jump over.

An OF said he knows how cows trained the young calves to respect the fence, but how do the animals know what is their territory?

A smart OF said that, when they were on the farm and an animal got out, his father always said: Let the dumb thing go; don’t break you neck trying to catch it. Cows are homing animals and they will come back at milking time and wait to get in the barn.

Camping the old-fashioned way

The OFs discussed how they used to go camping all over with the family. Load everything into the station wagon, tent and all, and head out.

What prompted this was a discussion on one side of an OF’s family doing just that, and how the OFs said they could no more sleep on the ground in a tent now than they could flap their arms and fly.

The OF reflected that it was a lot of work and arguing when putting up the tent. Once the tent was up, and all the cussing and shouting was done, it was all forgotten. Camping was a lot of fun.

One OF said, “This type of camping was where we met a lot of nice people.” The OF further said that one family they met while camping years ago are still their friends today.

Another OF pondered how many people still tent, use a Coleman stove, and eat on a picnic table under a flap today? “Not many,” an OF supposed.

How about sleeping in sleeping bags on the ground? If you look at even small motorhomes, or tow-behind trailers, it is like not even leaving the house. What fun is there in that?

Another OF said when they tent-camped, they hauled bicycles, canoes, and everything else they thought they would need. This stuff all went in their station wagon.

The kids did all sorts of crafts, learned to swim, boat, and make friends quickly. The OF saw these same kids he raised leave in a camper the same way.

However, he noticed their kids (his grandkids) did not help load the camper or anything like that. All the grandkids did was stare at that little screen all kids have nowadays. The OF said he did not want to interfere but he was really frustrated as they left.

License tax

The OFs talked about the newest tax put on New Yorkers. That would be the new license plates.

One OF said, “This, once again, is upstate taking care of downstate. The people in the city, (those five boroughs in New York City) many don’t drive, or even own cars, and, if they have to go someplace, they rent a car.”

This OF deduced that all of us upstaters have to drive just to go shopping, or to the doctor’s ,and we are the ones who have to own cars.

One OF said, “Well, if we don’t like it, we can move out, or move downstate, but 20 bucks for the freedom to move around is OK by me.”

“There is always two sides to everything, but it isn’t easy,” another OF said, “To have something shoved down your throat and you don’t have anything to say about it.”

Animals predict weather

The OFs continued their conversation from last week about dogs, and animals seeming to know ahead of time when a storm is coming.

One OF added to that saying, “With cows, it doesn’t even have to be a storm.” The OF said, “Cows know when it is just going to be a steady rain. They will all lie down ahead of the rain to keep the ground under them dry, so if you see all the cows lying down in the pasture you can be pretty sure it is going to rain.”

(Spoiler alert) This led to a discussion by the OFs on the paranormal, which will carry over next week, if the OFs don’t have too much to say next week.

The OFs who made it to the Chuck Wagon Diner in Princetown and are all pretty normal, except for maybe this scribe, were: Miner Stevens, Roger Chapman, Bill Lichliter, Josh Buck, George Washburn, Robie Osterman, Wally Guest, John Rossmann, Harold Guest, Roger Shafer, Jamie Dairah, Peter Whitbeck, Art Frament, Bob Benac, Ray Kennedy, Rich Donnelly, Chuck Aelesio, Richard Frank, Wayne Gaul, Ted Feurer, Joe Rack, Otis Lawyer, Glenn Patterson, Mark Traver, Lou Schenck, Jack Norray, Herb Bahrmann, Mace Porter, Mike Willsey, Gerry Chartier, Rev. Jay Francis, Duncan Bellinger, John Dabrvalskas, Elwood Vanderbilt, Harold Grippen, and me.


Aldous Huxley in 1954


On Oct. 18, 1958, “The Saturday Evening Post” published an article by the late British-American philosopher and novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) called “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.”

From the title, readers might have thought they were getting something on the Salk vaccine or some other elixir that changed their lives.

But that was not so. It was Huxley telling the public that in the past several years he had taken — on and off — psychedelic drugs and that the experience had changed his life.

He said he saw into, as I read the text, the core of his being where all the pettiness that keeps human beings at odds with each other is miniaturized to nil.

He spoke in the language of mysticism, the way enlightened souls describe their commitment to the All, God, the Universe, replicating the bliss the first human beings felt when they were born.

Fans of Huxley knew what he was talking about. They had read “Doors of Perception” when it appeared in 1954 and deemed it a classic.

There Huxley described his experience on mescaline, a psychedelic drug derived from varieties of cactus which Native Americans in Mexico had known for thousands of years, often in connection with religious celebrations.

Huxley was a low-key and deliberative man but in “Doors” he said in bold print that the images produced after ingesting mescaline (and since then LSD), had rearranged his mind almost primordially. He took a dose and fell into the lap of God or maybe God had fallen into his.

He said he experienced what the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers were after in third century Egypt when they went into the wilderness to strip themselves of every jot that stood in the way of reaching God (the All, the Universe, Collective Consciousness).

I’m not sure what anybody’s view is on things like psychedelics, the experience of God, eternal life, and living purposefully but, when you hear Huxley talk, you wonder if there are rules for such things.

And I’m not talking about the fact that psychedelics have been criminalized in the United States for decades; what the law says, Huxley asserted, is irrelevant to what he was doing — finding God without harming a flea.

But you might ask: What do the doctors say? We do know that under a doctor’s care the actor Cary Grant took close to 100 doses of LSD, saying it made him the Cary Grant cineastes know and love. He was sharing the bliss.

Sometimes the Xanax crowd, when they hear “psychedelic,” get superciliously huffy: You can’t be serious that a drug can produce God. Or the bliss before the Fall. A pill? A tab? No discipline or rules? Call me an Uber!

It’s not funny. A lot of those who read Huxley’s words in “The Saturday Evening Post” got bent out of shape, some hot under the collar.

One of those had been a fan of Huxley for decades, the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton; he considered Huxley a guru.

When Merton entered the monastery 17 years before, he adopted a lifestyle that scheduled each monk’s actions down to the hour, day in and day out, not even a break on Christmas. The Trappist horarium was contemplative to the core.

Merton wrote about his experiences and, because he wrote with the soul of a poet, became the most important spiritual writer of the 20th century. Many consider him a mystic.

So when Merton read Huxley’s prose, his id sorta went whacko: WHAT! God in a PILL! Has Huxley gone nuts! I’ve been on the purgative path for decades: There is no shortcut — chemical or otherwise.

Merton had not come upon the piece on his own. The monastery did not subscribe to things of “the world” like the “The Saturday Evening Post.” A woman friend of Merton’s sent it, thinking he should know. (An act of instigation.)

Merton says in the Nov. 18 entry in his journal, “Aldous Huxley’s article on drugs that produce visions and ecstasies has reached me with the protests of various Catholic women (sensible ones). I wrote to him about it yesterday and the article is on the notice board in the Novitiate conference rooms.”

Merton was the monastery novice master and he wanted his neophyte spiritual-seeking charges to see up close the foolishness that some, even exceedingly intelligent souls, can succumb to.

In a Nov. 27 letter to Huxley, Merton told his mentor that he was puzzled by all the drug stuff and that, maybe before he weighed in, he ought to experiment himself.

But then he offered a Thomistic, hair-splitting argument telling Huxley his experiences on mescaline and LSD were “natural” and “aesthetic,” flash-in-the-pan ignitions of enlightenment, not reality. And he’d better watch it; he might become an addict!

Merton said the true experience of God is “mystical” and “supernatural” beyond the power of men’s minds. All Huxley got was a Red Bull shot-in-the-arm blink of eternity.

Huxley wrote back telling Merton he knew what he meant. He said at first his experiences were “aesthetic” but they soon morphed into serious foundation-shaking agents.

The full exchange is priceless to read: two giant minds addressing the proper means to a worry-free heaven on earth.

But keep in mind that long before the mescaline, Huxley had written, in1931, “Brave New World,” a depiction of society where people have consigned their lives to imperialist usurpers. Seventeen years later, Orwell followed with “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and the world had two great 20th-Century dystopias to ponder.

With respect to people consigning their lives to imperialist usurpers and becoming social automatons, Neil Postman said in his 1985 “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that “Orwell feared ... those who would ban books ... Huxley feared ... there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” In other words, why explore a mind that’s dead?

Postman added, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.” Orwell feared that “truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

When I read those words, I think of America today, hordes of people taking as their best friend: Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, heroin, morphine, fentanyl, chemicals that delete the mind — let’s not forget Xanax and the hourly vape pen at work — resulting in a loss of purpose in life.

The late sociologist David Matza said in his classic “Delinquency and Drift” (Wiley, 1964) that people who live life without purpose become delinquent actors; purposelessness affects stability, they become drifters.

Which is what the United States is today: a nation of drifters, we’re a nation adrift. Nature abhors this kind of vacuum but fascism loves it, imperialist usurpers grifting the drifter.


With the nice sleeping weather, this scribe is finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning.   The scribe is still awake but wants to just lie there — nothing hurts, and the day looks fine, and there are no disasters (yet).

However, duty calls because it is Tuesday, Aug. 13, and it is time for the Old Men of the Mountain to gather at the Duanesburg Diner in Duanesburg.

In order to find our way to Duanesburg, almost all of the OMOTM have to travel west on either Route 88, or Route 7, or the Schoharie Turnpike. Those of us who traveled on the Schoharie Turnpike noticed the bright red sun; it looked like you could reach out and touch it, or drive right into it. The OMOTM noticed this because on routes 7 or 88, the red sun appeared in the heavens like it should. This was quite an optical illusion that caught the attention of the OFs on the turnpike.

The OFs also noticed that this year the sides of the roads are like bouquets with asters, trefoil, Queen Anne’s lace, and whatever other weeds are mixed in, and the OFs wonder if it is the salt on the highway that produced this proliferation of splendor because most fields are not like this. There was a very wet spring this year and some of the OFs thought that might have brought forth the beautiful flora, and also hastened the growth of the trees.

Watching the OFs order their breakfast was interesting on Tuesday morning. For some reason, this scribe tuned into a few of the OFs as they ordered breakfast. Not all the OFs, because pretty soon the collection of OGs becomes rather noisy as more and more show up.

But this clan is a fussy bunch of old guys. Each breakfast had its own little twist. The waitress must have her own style of shorthand to get all this down and get it right.

Pent-up energy was released through work

The OFs’ talk drifted back to the forties and fifties and early mornings on the farm, and the radio playing in the barn. Most of the farmers back then found that cows enjoyed listening to music and produced better.

This scribe has mentioned before WGY and the early morning farm show with the Chanticleer, John Charles Stevenson. The OFs were drifting back into a quieter, more peaceful time.

This brought up all that is going on currently with the young people and how they are behaving. The OFs pinned it down to basically two things:

— The advent of the internet with constant news and constant shoot-em-ups; and,

— Pent-up energy that has to go someplace.

In the locale of the mountains, the OFs said, we were no different. We had the pent-up energy, only it had a release and it was called work. The OFs got into farm-boy trouble but it was nothing like today. An OF said we all had guns, many had more than one, but would never think about shooting another person.

What’s wrong with this picture?

An OF who lives on the water and has a few boats said that, over the weekend, he had house company. The OF said he was having breakfast and the OF kept looking out the window and finally said to his company, “Something is not right out there.”

There was a deer on the lawn but that wasn’t the problem; deer appear quite often. The more the OF looked, it finally occurred to him! A boat was missing.

He went out to check and, sure enough, a boat was missing. Well, that would dampen your day. Now what? The OF didn’t say.

Smart fish

Speaking of boats, the OFs queried another OF who is a fisherman, and wanted to know how he was doing. The reply was “not well” because he was fishing for a particular type of fish.

The OFs said the fish are there; the OF should be catching them. The  OF (who fishes) said the fish are smarter than he is and know what is going on.

Then the OFs started talking about different lures; the OF said he has tried them but claimed the fish are not that dumb. This OF says, as soon as his boat is in the water, the word gets out among the fish that he is on the water trying to catch them.

Another OF said it is not only fish but he thinks rabbits and deer do the same thing. This OF says he can walk in the woods by his place with a stick and the deer come so close he could tap them on the butt with the stick.

“Let me go in the woods with a gun,” the OF continued, “and I think there is not a deer within miles.”

One more OF then advised the fisherman to leave his poles and tackle box on the dock and the fish might just jump in the boat.

No one will ever accuse the OFs of having deep, tedious, meaningful discussions.

Canine companions

The animal vein chit chat continued but this time it was all about dogs some of the OFs had. Combining all the conversations, one would think some dogs were people and part of the family. Sleeping on the bed. Special diets.

Nothing happens for the start of the day until the mutt is taken care of, nothing even for the kids — the dog comes first. This scribe wonders if the dogs know all this.

The OFs insist that dogs, and even cats, can tell the weather before the weatherman comes on the radio or TV and tells listeners the area where the weather is going to happen. One OF said his dog heads to the bedroom before there is even a sound of thunder off in the distance.

A few of the OFs said their animals act peculiarly before a thunderstorm and the OFs say they have learned the dog’s signals.  Who is training whom?

Those OFs who made it to the Duanesburg Diner in Duanesburg, and all their animals were behaving normally, were: Roger Chapman, Miner Stevens, Robie Osterman, George Washburn, Bill Lichliter, Josh Buck, Dave Williams, Bill Bartholomew, Art Williams, John Rossmann, Harold Guest, Wally Guest, Roger Shafer, Marty Herzog, Peter Whitbeck, Russ Pokorny, Warren Willsey, Glenn Patterson, Mark Traver, Joe Rack, Gerry Chartier, Rev. Jay Francis, Mike Willsey, Jamie Dairah, Gerry Irwin, Ted Feurer, Jack Norray, Mace Porter, Lou Schenck, Herb Bahrmann, and me.


— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Fullers with a smaller population than Guilderland Center had a much larger depot due to the business acumen of Aaron Fuller. The little community called itself Fullers Station from the time the station was built until 1897 when the name was shortened to Fullers.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Guilderland Center’s modest railroad station was small for the size of the community. Edmond Witherwax, whose father was the station agent at the time this postcard view was made, posed for the photographer. Hurst’s Feed Mill is in the background across the street.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A West Shore train approaches the Cobblestone Crossing, now called Stone Road. Probably because of the low volume of traffic there in the 1920s, the Public Service Commission decided against building an overpass there. Today it is still a grade-level crossing with gates and warning lights. The 1920s’ overpasses over the tracks at Old State Road and Frenchs Mills Road are now unsafe and closed to traffic.

Numerous lengthy freight trains rumble through daily, unnoticed by drivers using Guilderland Center’s Route 146 overpass, although a few may spot the trains crossing above Route 20 on the trestles at Fullers. Only a railroad buff would realize that for over 170 years trains have been passing over the same route through Guilderland.

The 1860s railroad boom brought significant adjustments to the lives of Guilderland residents when the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad was laid down through Guilderland Station (later called Meadowdale) and Knowersville (renamed Altamont) in 1863. Two years later, the Saratoga & Hudson Railroad was built through Fullers and Guilderland Center.

The Albany & Susquehanna became the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, a very busy and profitable line. In contrast, bankruptcy quickly put an end to the Saratoga & Hudson.

Robber Baron chicanery brought about the construction of a line called the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, a parallel route to rival William H. Vanderbilt’s profitable New York Central. Originating in Weehawken, New Jersey, it then ran along the west shore of the Hudson and west to Buffalo, having the potential to deliver a severe economic blow to Vanderbilt.

The old Saratoga & Hudson roadbed through Guilderland Center and Fullers became part of this new rail line.

The first train traveled through in 1883, and the line went into official operation on Jan. 1, 1884. Soon after operation began, fares were slashed in a rate war with the New York Central, duly noted by the Fullers correspondent of The Altamont Enterprise.

Fares were back to normal by August, but the fledgling railroad had gone into receivership. When the owner of the Pennsylvania Railroad was rumored to be interested in acquiring the bankrupt line, giving him the potential to undercut the New York Central, the threat forced Vanderbilt to acquire it. After becoming a division of the New York Central, the line was then simply known as the West Shore Railroad.

When new depots were constructed, Aaron Fuller was supposed to have convinced management to erect an elaborate station at Fullers, reputedly costing $6,000. There was certainly a noticeable difference between that depot and Guilderland Center’s, whose residents considered it “inadequate for the business that is done there.”

In 1887, the old track of the Saratoga & Hudson from South Schenectady to Fullers was improved to connect the New York Central main line with the West Shore to draw off freight. The tracks crossed what is now Carman Road and the Western Turnpike to connect with the West Shore, giving Fullers two separate railroad crossings. 

A single track crossed the Western Turnpike just east of Fullers Station Road while the double-track West Shore crossed at grade level where the trestles are today. Fullers Station got a freight house a year later. The building was once used as a depot in Voorheesville; it was taken apart, hauled over to Fullers Station, and re-erected by station hands the same day.

New switches and additional sidings were installed at both Fullers and Guilderland Center. At first, a wooden trestle crossed the Normanskill at Frenchs Hollow, but that was rebuilt as a sturdier metal trestle to handle the increased rail traffic. The New York Central invested a great deal of money in operating this division, which also included Hudson River ferries necessary to transport passengers from Weehawken, New Jersey to New York City.

Economy boosted

Once regular rail service was established, the economy of the two hamlets and nearby farms was boosted. Working on the railroad provided new job opportunities for engineers, conductors, brakemen, firemen, station masters, and telegraphers.

Local columns in The Altamont Enterprise often mentioned the names of men who worked for the West Shore. Occasionally, men were hired on a temporary basis, such as the local men who earned $1.50 a day shoveling huge snow drifts left by the Blizzard of ’88 off the West Shore tracks.

The nameless, poorly compensated railroad workers were gangs of Italians from nearby cities who were hired to do the backbreaking pick-and-shovel jobs of maintaining tracks and roadbeds.

The West Shore benefited farmers by providing a way for them to market their oats, hay, and rye straw. Middlemen at the depots paid them for wagon loads of hay and straw, pressed it into bales, and arranged to have it loaded into freight cars and shipped to market to supply the thousands of horses in nearby cities.

October 1888 saw Aaron Fuller loading 33 cars at his Fullers Station hay barn while Clute and Tygert received 40 tons to be shipped. W.T. DeFriest advertised that he would pay $16 per ton of rye straw delivered at Guilderland Center or Fullers Station. In later years, tons of apples were shipped out.

New businesses and commercial development occurred near each depot. In both places, hay barns were erected near sidings. At Guilderland Center, a new hotel, feed mill, and coal house were erected near the depot.

For decades, the West Shore ran ads in The Altamont Enterprise, requesting information from local hotels, boarding houses, and farm families anxious to host summer boarders from the city, offering free listings in special booklets or brochures called “Summer Homes,” which could be perused by patrons seeking vacation accommodations to fit their budgets.

These summer visitors contributed much extra income to Guilderland’s farmers and hotel keepers from the 1880s to the 1920s with the railroad hoping summer visitors would board a West Shore train to get to these vacation destinations.

Wide horizons

If the coming of the West Shore had a major economic impact on Fullers and Guilderland Center, it also broadened the horizons of their inhabitants, or at least those with the cash to take advantage of the opportunities offered. Excitement and adventure beckoned when almost immediately the railroad began advertising one-day excursions.

The first excursion in September 1885 was to Saratoga over the old line into South Schenectady, arriving in Saratoga at noon, returning in the early evening. A year later, there was an excursion south down the Hudson to Iona Island near Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands, which was so popular that 75 tickets were sold in Guilderland Center alone and the train hauled 11 coaches for the day’s outing.

As time went on, longer and more expensive excursions were available to destinations such as Washington, D.C. or New York City. Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition attracted numerous visitors from Fullers and Guilderland Center traveling there with an agent provided by the railroad to point out interesting sights along the way.

Because Ravena had a high school, it became possible for students from Guilderland Center and Fullers and other communities along the West Shore to commute daily to high school. In those days students had to pay for their own commute. Early in the 20th Century, the cost of the round-trip commute to Ravena from Fullers was $7.50 a month.


Having the West Shore in their midst brought problems as well as advantages to the area. Almost immediately, it was found to be fatally dangerous.

As soon as trains began running over the new rail line, Fullers’ farmer Jacob Pangburn opined to a neighbor that one of these days someone is going to get killed by a train. Shortly after that, the unfortunate farmer was trying to get his cow off the track as a train approached. He was instantly killed when seven cars passed over him.

As the years went by, this was the first of many graphic, gory reports of deaths on both the West Shore and D & H tracks. Often at crossings someone may have been inattentive or their horse was spooked at the sight and sound of a train leading to fatal results.

Guilderland Center was a particularly dangerous crossing because of limited visibility. Sometimes pedestrians walking the tracks as a shortcut or if intoxicated were fatally hit. Many a sad tale appeared in local Enterprise columns over the years of deaths along the tracks, sometimes sadly including railroad employees. One Guilderland Center trackman was killed by a train in reverse.

A sporadic nuisance often caused by trains during the dry season were the brush fires caused by sparks given off by the locomotives. When farmer Volkert Jacobsen’s woods near Fullers burned, he lost valuable timber and nearly lost his outbuildings. Really tragic was the burning of Lorenzo Cornick’s uninsured home near Fullers “consumed by flames probably caused by sparks of a West Shore engine.”

All of these generalizations would have also been true of the communities of Meadowdale and Altamont along the D & H line, except that the D & H was a very busy and successful rail line so that, by the end of the 19th Century, 10 local trains ran back and forth between Albany and Altamont daily.

By contrast, the West Shore was not nearly so successful and provided inadequate service. Its route bypassed Albany and it was only years later that the line leased tracks from the D & H, allowing it to get in and out of that city.

In 1893, about 500 residents of several local towns along the West Shore signed a petition protesting cutbacks in the number of trains, chiefly because of curtailed mail delivery. By 1906, residents of Guilderland Center, spearheading an effort to improve service, set up a committee headed by W.B. Mynderse to appeal to the Public Service Commission to do something about the single daily local train each way that was not scheduled to make any kind of connection to reach Albany or Schenectady.

Apparently the committee was successful because schedule changes were announced by connecting a few passenger cars to regularly-scheduled freight trains, enabling passengers to make connections.

Autos replace trains

The headline of a 1916 Altamont Enterprise article, “Auto Travel Hurts Railroads,” sounded the death knell of local passenger service. The proliferation of automobiles, autobuses, and improved roads led to a major decline in passenger traffic, while trucks affected freight hauling. By the mid-1920s, local passenger service in this area was ended on the West Shore.

With increased automobile traffic, grade-level collisions with oncoming trains became a serious problem with much loss of life. One of Guilderland’s worst accidents occurred in 1919 when an out-of-town driver pulled directly in front of two coupled locomotives at the Guilderland Center grade-level crossing, resulting in demolition of the car and deaths of the driver and passenger.

Soon New York State began to force railroads to build overpasses or underpasses to end these fatalities. In 1927, the West Shore built the overpass in Guilderland Center and the underpass on the Western Turnpike at Fullers where two trestles carried trains overhead. The two depots were removed at the same time. The gravel used to raise the level of the tracks in Fullers came from Guilderland Center, loaded on rail cars and hauled to Fullers.

The New York Central fell on hard times after World War II, eventually merging with the Pennsylvania Railroad to become the PennCentral, causing the West Shore to lose its identity. Later, the old West Shore route through Guilderland Center and Fullers became part of Conrail and is now CSX.

Ironically, years ago, the D & H had far more passenger service and was a much busier freight line than the West Shore. Today, only a very few freight cars pass through Altamont weekly while endless freights pass over the old West Shore tracks through Guilderland Center and Fullers.


Again, a morning mist greeted the Old Men of the Mountain as they left the comfort of their beds on Tuesday, Aug. 6, and headed to the Your Way Café in Schoharie.

The opening conversation was a little unusual. A couple of the OFs were talking about comments the minister made in church Sunday.

The OFs were surprised the minister mentioned downsizing because he has been retired for some years, but one of the items he has to downsize (and is having trouble doing) is the five motorcycles he has in his garage. Now that is downsizing, and with that kind of hobby this minister would fit right in with the OMOTM.

Our Texas traveler is back. However, this time he didn’t ride his motorcycle all the way from San Antonio, Texas to upstate New York in the rain like he did last time.

This time he flew, and took the train.

Discussing motorcycles with the OFs is a diverse issue. The OMOTM motorcycle riders are like artists, meaning they are a slightly different breed of people and are dedicated to their passion for riding the road on these machines.

Self-care, the old-fashioned way

Again, the OFs had a conversation that took us back to when the OFs were young. The topic was the most common way of taking care of yourself on the farm.

Showers were not on the country farm. For the most part, it was the clawfoot tub, or a round tub purchased along with the same tub used for watering cattle.

Water was boiled on the stove, and lye soap was plentiful and used frequently. Lye soap. Yikes! Needless to say with scalding hot water, and soap made from lye, the OFs were clean.

The rest of the duties that today we perform in the bathroom were found elsewhere. On a number of farms, there was no special room for this routine — it was done in the kitchen although some farms did have a laundry room where the bath was taken.

The bodily function that was extremely necessary did have its own room, and its name was “The Outhouse.”

Stories were told of using this detached room from the house. One story told of cows poking their heads through the door when it was in use to see what was going on, to a night-time visit to the house in the woods at 12 midnight by another curious animal.

Only this wasn’t an OF, but a person on the distaff side of the OF, and the animal was a bear. This outhouse experience did not happen on a particular farm but a cabin on a log pond with the name “The Goodnow Flow” in Newcomb, New York.

All the screaming in the world did not reach any ears but the ears of the bear. It is assumed that this noise startled the bear, and the bear decided it was best to get out of there. The OF did not relate if the business intended for the outhouse was accomplished or not, but one OF was greeted by a frightened, exasperated lady tumbling through the door, out of breath and at a loss for words.

The buzz

Time-jumping to the present, one OF said he had a bunch, swarm, or definitely a mess of bees going into his house through a small hole at the end of the house’s soffit vent. The OF is perplexed by this because everything is aluminum, and this is a very small space where the edge of the soffit and the flashing meet.

These are honey bees and the OF does not want to kill them so he went to the bee man of the group. (This OF has been mentioned before in this column because he is an expert.)

The advice from this expert OMOTM follows: Because it is so late in the season that the bees started building the hive in the soffit, you have to leave them be. The bees will never make enough honey to carry them through the winter and they will all die. In the spring, plug up the hole. The bees will eat all the honey they have made during the winter, and the dry crumbs won’t cause any problems.

Better than Abby

As this scribe keeps reporting: If an OF has a question or needs advice, just ask around the table — you got it. This is not saying all the advice is good advice but it is advice anyway.

Do not ask about politics or your love-life because you are likely to get in really big trouble. This advice is generally always wrong.

Hole in the universe

As anyone becomes older (not only the OFs), there are some things that happen that are not pleasant. One example is: A lot of times, the OFs outlive many of their friends and even family members.

When the OF finally passes on, there are not many left to go to his funeral, or even plan it, or even know much about the old goat.

The OFs were talking about doing a family history and having someone know your wishes and where your paperwork is, and this someone should be the family member you can trust to pass that information along.

Even though some of the OFs think that doing this paperwork might not mean much in the scheme of things, one OF said, “We really do mean a lot. If we weren’t who we are or where we are, there would be one heck of a hole in the universe, and believe it or not the universe would collapse in on itself if we were not here.”

Maybe it is who the OFs hang out with, but the OFs seem to think there is more white hair around now than there used to be. Some of the OFs said they haven’t noticed.

One OF thought it was the stress of living now that has people getting gray hair earlier, so even though we see white hair, the ones running around with the crop of white on the top of their heads are not that old.

The OFs who arrived at the Your Way Café in Schoharie at one time or another, and left full and ready to go home and take a nap were: Miner Stevens, Roger Chapman, Robie Osterman, George Washburn, Bill Lichliter, Josh Buck, Wally Guest, John Rossmann, Harold Guest, Pete Whitbeck, Richard Frank, Chuck Aelesio, Roger Shafer, Art Frament, Bob Benac, Rich Donnelly, Mark Traver, Glenn Patterson, Joe Rack, Otis Lawyer, Bill Bartholomew, Dave Williams, Lou Schenck, Mace Porter, Jack Norray, Jake Lederman, Wayne Gaul, Ted Feurer, Russ Pokorny, Warren Willsey, Mike Willsey, Elwood Vanderbilt, Richard Vanderbilt, Allen DeFazio, Ray Kennedy, Harold Grippen, and me.

I always have a bunch of random thoughts just bouncing around in my head, so today I thought I’d share some of them with you, in no particular order:

— Renewable and nuclear energy are the way forward. Fossil fuels have had a good run but their time has passed. The sooner we get behind this the better it will be for us and our planet;

— Inner city light rail — trolleys that bring you safely and efficiently from perimeter lots to the places where all the action is — is long overdue;

— Hugs really are better than drugs, except when you need a root canal. Then you need drugs. Trust me as I’ve had eight, count ’em, eight, root canals;

— Poaching of endangered species and deforestation of the rain forest don’t make the collective consciousness in this country, but they should. Every time we lose more of either of them, our whole world suffers;

— High-speed rail, like the “bullet trains” in Japan that have no grade crossings, are expensive but are what we need to reduce vehicle congestion and excessive air travel. We need forward-thinking politicians who are willing to push for this;

— Being polite to one another, sometimes that’s all it takes;

— I love that you have principles, but after the 20th bumper sticker, you lose me;

— I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I watch reruns — “Abbott and Costello,” “Dark Shadows,” “Ed Sullivan,” “Laugh In,” etc. Nothing made today even comes close;

— There is no reason religion and science can’t coexist;

— Some of these hot sauces are just ridiculous. Might as well just stick your tongue under a propane torch;

— Looking at beautiful women never gets old;

— The book is always better than the movie. I say this all the time because it’s true;

— You don’t need to eat a pound of steak at one sitting;

— Try not to think about all the bacteria and germs on the gas pump, door knob, hand rail, etc., or you’ll never be able to go anywhere.

— If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that eating out is an act of faith.

— Please don’t hand me another rewards card. Just lower the prices.

— Every time another huge housing development goes in, a little more of the soul of the planet goes away.

— Don’t even get me started about mile high condos in resort areas. Just don’t.

— I cannot believe how much I enjoy my new grandson. They’re so much more fun when you’re not the one walking them in the middle of the night and changing their diapers.

— If canned soup is so good, and it must be because we all keep buying it, how come no one ever serves it to company?

— Empathy appears to be the hardest thing far too many of us are capable of;

— What Ralph Nader did for vehicle safety by starting the impetus for air-bags, someone else must now do for having some kind of an alarm to sound when kids are left in hot cars. Way too many precious little ones are dying from this;

— Conventional wisdom is that MSNBC is left, Fox is right, and CNN is in the middle, but in reality it’s all corporate media. Seek out “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman to get the truth;

— I’m a sports fan, yet even I realize the attention and resources devoted to sports is way out of proportion. We need to get our priorities straight;

— Put the phone down and look around you. There is actually a world out there. It’s called reality. Be a part of it;

— Even if your car didn't come with an ashtray, throwing your butts out of the window is still wrong;

— How is it possible that everyone’s macaroni and cheese is so different?;

— I know they are considered the most desirable properties, but you could not pay me to live on the shore. Mother Nature has her own rules;

— As a guy who grew up with flooded carburetors and fouled spark plugs, I simply cannot believe how reliable modern cars are. Kudos to all the engineers whose hard work has made this possible;

— Growing up, I paid $5 for a double-header at Shea stadium. There is no way now I’m going to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to watch a ball game. At these prices, they can keep it;

— Walking, running, swimming, skiing — whatever you have to do to get your blood pumping, do;

— The secret to success? Try, fail, and try again. That is all there is to it;

— A good teacher will affect your entire life. If you have one, let him or her know how much you appreciate them;

— Probably forcing your wife to watch all three “Godfather” movies one after the other is not a good idea (don’t ask me how I know this);

— Don’t you hate it when every size but yours is on the clearance rack?;

— There should be a gas tax of at least a quarter a gallon to be used solely for roads and bridges. Those of us who drive should be willing to help pay to improve the infrastructure that supports it;

— Is it possible to love and hate at the same time? One word: squirrels;

— There should be a law for how many pets one person can own; 

— Though she’s not been gone all that long, I sorely miss the lovely and talented Elisa Streeter. Enjoy your retirement;

— For something that is so conceptually simple, meditation is very hard to do;

— There’s nothing so great as hooking up with a good DJ on a long road trip, then nothing so frustrating as having him fade out as you drive out of range;

— They should all be Mother of the Year;

— The fact that less than 50 percent of us vote in presidential elections explains a lot about the state of this country;

— Make a good Caesar salad and you’ll have me as a customer for life;

— Even though I average reading about a book a week, there will still be so many great books left unread when I die. This saddens me to no end;

— There has to be a way to serve a fast-food meal without so much single-use environmental waste;

— When it comes to ice-cream places, the ambiance is as important, if not more so, than the ice cream;

— And finally: Do not take local independent print journalism for granted. We are very privileged to have The Enterprise. Buy some gift subscriptions for Christmas this year. We need — we must — keep this lifeline going.


— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Into the precipitous tufa cliffs of the Puye mesa, ancient people carved shallow caves as dwelling places with staircases and walkways to connect them.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Atop the mesa, free-standing buildings of Puye Pueblo have survived for centuries due to their durable construction and the dry climate. Thousand-year-old timbers support ceilings and upper floors and their shadows form intricate patterns on the ruined walls.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The ground at Puye is littered with obsidian fragments and with thousands of fragments of pottery from different time periods in the pueblo’s history.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The unearthly landscape around Acoma Pueblo is studded with mesas, buttes, and pinnacles eroded over millennia from thick layers of sandstone.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

From a distance, the adobe dwellings of Acoma look like jagged boulders piled atop the mesa.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

The beautiful church of St. Estaban is a masterpiece of adobe architecture.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

In the Acoma visitors’ center are cases displaying the intricately-painted pottery for which the pueblo has long been famous.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Traditional dwellings in Acoma has upper levels accessed by ladders. The ones on the right are topped with struts carved to represent thunderbolts.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Reservoirs like this one supplied ancient residents with water from rain and snowmelt. Next to it is the only tree that grows on the mesa.

Northern New Mexico and the “Four Corners” area of the Southwest are dotted with ruins of the ancient pueblo people whose sudden evacuation of their traditional villages some 800 years ago constitutes a major mystery in the archeology of pre-Columbian America.

Modern pueblo people have oral traditions that connect their ancestors, often grouped under the term “Anasazi,” to many of these ruins. These ancients occupied thousands of settlements, extensive or miniscule, in the high desert, many remnants of which are surprisingly well-preserved in the intensely dry climate.

The majority are cliff dwellings but a great number are freestanding buildings sometimes of three or four stories, all constructed from the local bedrock. Many clues seem to point to the fact that they were abandoned with stunning suddenness.

To enter a dilapidated dwelling in one of the crumbling ruins with a guide or on an unaccompanied hike and find household goods such as smashed pottery, broken corn grinders, and even remnants of last meals is to be confronted with a situation suggesting very sudden abandonment coupled with actions intended to prevent any future occupants from making use of the contents.

The Anasazi did not have a written language and only the ruins and the thousands of enigmatic paintings and carvings on rock — known respectively as pictographs and petroglyphs — offer scientific clues to the sudden abandonment.

Timbers of ancient tree trunks incorporated into the ruins indicate that around 1200 A.D. the Southwest was hit by a devastating century-long drought that might have provoked widespread conflict among the pueblos.

Archeological digs in the last 50 years have begun to uncover evidence not only of terrifyingly brutal raids but of cannibalism as well. These discoveries are jarring compared to the politically-correct image of the ancestral people of the Southwest living peaceful, harmonious lives — but as the author of a National Geographic article on the Anasazi wrote some years ago, the ancient people did not live their lives for the approval of 21st-Century sensibilities.

And yet in some quarters — particularly among the Navajo people — the very word “Anasazi” has come to be politically charged. A term with Navajo origin, it is said that it can be translated as either “ancient ancestors” or “ancient enemy.”

The latter rendering offers support to the oral traditions among some pueblo people that the predecessors of the Navajo descending from their ancient home in Canada drove them from their homes and villages.

But the actual events are far in the past and archeological evidence is ambiguous. In any event, whatever the cause of the sudden and mysterious migration, the inhabitants of the prehistoric stone dwellings seem to have fled mainly to the south of their traditional homelands to become the ancestors of today’s pueblo people.

Puye Cliff Dwellings

One of the more impressive abandoned ancient sites lies an hour’s drive northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is known as the Puye Cliff Dwellings which the people of the modern Santa Clara Pueblo identify as their ancestral home.

Pronounced “POO-yay,” the ruins are situated on a lofty mesa just east of a gigantic volcanic crater known as the Valles Caldera that resulted from a devastating eruption around 1.2 million years ago. The eruption formed vast layered beds of soft rock known as pumice and tufa as well as the black volcanic glass obsidian, which have eroded into hills and mesas.

The softness of the pumice and tufa made it easy to carve shallow caves and stairways into the strata while the obsidian could be worked into knives, spear points, and arrowheads.

In addition, the base of the cliffs and the top of the mesa were deeply littered with shattered angular rocks that could be stacked into walls and mortared with mud to produce free-standing single- or two-story dwellings or used to line the partially-underground sacred spaces called kivas. Their geometric shapes and the shadows that fall on them in the harsh desert sunlight create a curiously contemporary look suggestive of cubist and minimalist art.

The top of the mesa is littered with fragments of pottery from different eras, many of them showing complex, colorful designs, as well as flakes of obsidian left from cleaving arrowheads and knives from larger chunks of the rock. Since these materials were used by their ancient forebears, modern pueblo people regard them as worthy of respect and visitors are urged not to remove them.

But contemporary pueblos have different explanations for why the fragments are there. Some claim that, since they came from the earth in the first place, the respectful thing is to allow them to return to the ground, while others will insist that the ancient inhabitants smashed their household items upon deserting their ancestral homes to prevent invaders from making use of them, just as many archeologists have argued.

Native American guides at Puye tell visitors that the ancient builders chose the location because its steep surrounding cliffs made it easily defensible, a site that would be abandoned only under great pressure — seeming to support the latter interpretation of the ubiquitous fragments.

Puye today is a barren place — parched, and exposed to the unforgiving New Mexican sun. As with many other ancient sites in the Southwest, the nearest water source is a small stream at some distance from the base of the mesa.

The thought of the women of Puye hauling water in jugs up steep steps and ladders to reach the top while the men trudged into the far green hills of the caldera in search of game rapidly destroys any romantic notion of the lives these people led, which from all archeological evidence was, as the cliché goes, “brutish and short.”

And yet, the stark elegance of the ruins and the intricate designs on the pottery fragments speak of a creative sensibility that even the harshness of daily life in Puye could not squelch.

Acoma Pueblo

An hour’s drive west of the city of Albuquerque on Route 40 is Acoma, another pueblo with an ancient history. Where the side road leading to it departs from Route 40, it first passes clusters of modern houses with air-conditioning units and satellite TV dishes — signs of the affluence brought to the contemporary Acoman people by the presence of a casino.

The road next traverses miles of evocative New Mexican scenery: steep, rolling, sandy hills fragrant with wild sage, dotted with junipers, pinyon pines, and the beautiful but poisonous datura; but it then passes into an almost unearthly world of jagged buttes, pinnacles, and mesas eroded from great strata of red and tan sandstone deriving their tints from oxides of iron.

Acoma Pueblo — known as “Sky City” — emerges slowly from the landscape, first appearing to be a scattering of enormous cubical and rectangular blocks of the sandstone scattered across the top of a mesa above precipitous cliffs. Closer, the blocks acquire tiny windows and what appear to be spindly ladders climbing to smaller blocks perched atop larger ones.

From the Acoma Visitor Center, a modern paved road ascends the mesa in a series of broad curves.  Unlike Puye and the thousands of other prehistoric sites scattered across the Southwest, Acoma Pueblo is still occupied.

The people of Acoma have a long history that begins — as with the stories of so many of the pueblos — in times cloaked in legend and mystery. East of the mesa on which Acoma sits is another rocky citadel known as “Haika” and, according to tribal legend, it is the ancestral home of the people of Acoma.  Regarded as sacred, Haika is off-limits to everyone, including — and perhaps especially — to archeologists and hikers.

At some point in the past, according to oral tradition, the Acomans left their legendary ancient home for reasons mysterious and moved to their present home in the sky on which they have dwelt for at least 1,000 years. There followed times of both peace and turmoil, climaxing in the revolt against their Spanish conquerors known as the Pueblo Rebellion.

Incensed by the Spaniards’ enslavement of their people and by forced conversion to Catholicism, the people of Acoma and other pueblos rose up and drove the Spaniards from their lands. And yet — paradoxically — the proud Acomans and the citizens of many modern-day pueblos are intensely religious, mixing fervent Catholicism with elements of their traditional religions in ways that — like Haika — are off-limits and mysterious to non-pueblo people often known collectively as “Anglos.”

The beautiful church dedicated to Saint Estaban (Saint Steven) is proudly displayed as the spiritual center of Acoma Pueblo. The church is constructed of the local sandstone and mortar, is fitted with wooden supports and railings carried from many miles away, and is covered in adobe formed from mud mixed with wild grasses; hence, it echoes the Biblical “bricks with straw” of the captive Hebrews in Egypt.

Acoma has been famous for centuries for its intricately-decorated, thin-walled pottery that is still sold by individual craftspeople and in the galleries of Santa Fe. The pottery is molded from a deposit of clay reputed to be over five miles from Acoma, and, like the artisans of all of the pueblos, these artisans keep the sources of the clays carefully guarded secrets.

A large sampling of traditional Acoman pieces is displayed in a museum in the pueblo’s visitors’ center. From there, guided tours ascend the mesa, with travelers riding in air-conditioned vans that seem to move through time as well as space, for atop the mesa the traditional dwellings have changed little over a thousand years and give a clear idea of what the great citadels of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly must have looked like before their sudden abandonment.

The adobe dwellings climb to two or three stories, accessed by sturdy ladders joined at their tops by beams carved to evoke thunderbolts symbolically.

Some of the individual houses of “Sky City” are hundreds of years old, and none have electricity, central heating, air-conditioning, or indoor plumbing. Several shallow reservoirs carved into the largely impermeable sandstone were used by the ancient occupants to hold rainwater and snowmelt.

However, concessions to basic necessities have been made: vans transport water for drinking, cooking, and washing to the inhabitants, space heaters and wood stoves provide heat for cooking and warmth, and a series of porta-potties are maintained by the pueblo.

The thick adobe-covered walls of the residences hold in heat in winter and keep the interiors relatively cool in the sometimes fierce summer heat — and then, the high elevation of the pueblo frequently provides a cooling breeze. But in other ways those Acomans who have not left the mesa for modern comforts — numbering today only about 15 — are indeed living the ways of their ancient predecessors. 

On the other hand, on the occasion of major religious feasts and tribal celebrations, hundreds of Acoman people return to their ancestral homes on the mesa and also live for a time as their ancestors lived and keep alive tribal traditions.

Unlike the guides at Puye who readily assert that the mesa top was selected for purposes of defense, docents at Acoma explain that their high mesa was chosen because it brought the inhabitants above the rugged surroundings and closer to the sky and to the stars that were such a source of wonder and mystery to the ancient people.

Perhaps both explanations are correct. The view from “Sky City” reveals an ancient landscape sculpted from thick strata of colorful sandstone eroded into bewitching shapes by the agents of water, wind, and ice, the subject of many tribal stories that are closely guarded from “Anglos.”

But the proud people of Acoma are happy to share much of their heritage with the outside world during times of major feasts and celebrations.

Acoma on Christmas Eve is legendary throughout central and northern New Mexico. Hundreds of the pueblo people gather on the mesa for midnight Mass at St. Estaban and for visits with friends and family — and the night echoes with ancient songs.

Then the road ascending to the top of the mesa and the roofs of family dwellings are lit with many thousands of “farolitos,” the iconic Southwestern Christmas decorations made from small paper bags lit by candles within, and the twinkling lights of the farolitos mingle with the stars in the clear New Mexican night.

And then, even Anglos understand why Acoma is called “Sky City.”


— Photo by John R. Williams

Early morning in Schoharie: “Around 6:30, the sun was shining through a light mist. It was quiet, calm, and the aroma was clear. Small-town atmosphere all around,” writes John R. Williams of this scene. “Some of the OMOTM were outside of the Country Café, watching what was a sample of the old lamplighter putting out the lights coming up the walk, only this was the workman that waters the plants coming with his wagon of water, watering the plants as he drove along.”

The Old Men of the Mountain made the trek to the Country Café in Schoharie on a beautiful Tuesday morning on July 30. The Farmers Almanac has our area down for a cool summer. Can’t prove it by the OMOTM and the 90-degree days.

As usual, the OMOTM talked about their health, and the health of others. Tuesday morning, the chatter was on one very bad habit — that of smoking.

There is one OF who is going through the process of trying to get rid of lung cancer. Tuesday morning, he and a few others admitted, at one time, they were heavy smokers. This brought about OFs who had family members or friends who were heavy smokers and how many of them have managed to quit. 

The OFs discussed some who had passed away from the habit. 

The problem is that, when the OFs were YFs, there was no stigma attached to smoking. The Army used to pass cigarettes out for free and even, to some extent, encouraged smoking

At the age the OFs started smoking, it wasn’t but a few years of puffing on these white nails and the OFs, along with everyone else, were hooked on the nicotine. The OFs did not know what we know today and how dangerous the cigarettes, or cigars, or pipes were.

The OFs were unsuspecting guinea pigs, because, as suggested, the OFs think tobacco companies knew from Day One that nicotine was addictive.

One OF said he thought the medical profession also had hints, but the doctors themselves kept on smoking, especially cigars. Another OF said his doctor scolded him about smoking while he was smoking a cigar.

Duh! The message here, the OFs guess, is, if you smoke — quit! Throw those things away! They know it is hard but some have done it that way.

One OF said his father woke up one morning, hacking and coughing his head off. The OF said his dad stared at that pack of cigarettes for awhile, walked out on the front porch, and heaved that pack of cigarettes as far as he could; it landed on the edge of a hay field

The OF said his father never lit another cigarette, but he was a miserable old coot for some time. He still died young, but maybe he lived longer than if he had kept on smoking. The best thing, the OFs say, is never start.

Applejack is potent

The OFs went from smoking to drinking; this time it was the making of a special brew called applejack.

This was made right in the farmer’s basement or outdoors in a wooden keg. This stuff was lethal. 

Applejack was clear as water, smooth as silk, and was easy going down. Some OFs reported the inexperienced would not know what was happening to them because it appeared nothing was.

About three-eights to half of an inch in the bottom of a water glass was all you wanted of this stuff. The uninitiated would fill the glass half full.

The OFs said they warned them beforehand that was way too much but, being as the applejack was so smooth, the drinkers had no idea, until they went to stand up and found they couldn’t. A great “I told you so” event for the OFs. 

Smoking and drinking were great topics for the OFs from the school of hard knocks because they have found neither one is worth the effort.

The trials of meds

Another rehash the OFs talked about was what it was like when they were in school. This time, the discussion disclosed how little we knew about medicine, and what few medicines we had.

After World War II, the medical profession took off as all kinds of antibiotics were coming out, all kinds of procedures were being done, and new medicines were being developed.

According to one OF, that might not have been a good thing. This OF said that he has to take a medicine that tastes so awful that he studies the glass for a long time before he gathers the courage to bring it to his mouth and drink it.

Another OF added that one of the pills he takes (which is like a horse pill) sometimes becomes stuck crosswise in his esophagus and doesn’t go down but starts to dissolve; the taste is horrendous.

The OF says he drinks another gulp of water as quick as he can, but it doesn’t help, and that awful taste hangs around for a good half hour.

Another OF questioned, “What is in this stuff?”

Bygone diseases

When the OFs were in school, there was such a thing as a quarantine (isolation of people or animals out of a certain area to prevent the spread of disease).

These diseases are rare now and, because of vaccinations, many people have never heard of them. A couple of OFs said they missed a whole year of school because of the mumps.

If mumps was in your household, none of the other kids in the house could go to school until they had them. Measles was the same way; whooping cough was another winner. Measles, when the OFs were young, could develop into rheumatic fever, and from there it was singing in the angel choir. 

It is much different today. Polio now is almost extinct, and the OMOTM are very familiar with that one. When the OFs were in school some of these diseases, when caught, put the OF back one whole grade.

Escaped bison

The OFs started singing: 

“Oh give me a home

where the Buffalo roam,

Where the dee

and the antelope play.

Where seldom is heard

 a discouraging word, 

And the skies

are not cloudy all day.” 

The Old Men of the Mountain who were at the Country Café in Schoharie, discussed the escaped bison roaming somewhere in the hills of Schoharie and Otsego counties. The members of the Old Men of the Mountain choir singing about the buffalo were: Dave Williams, George Washburn, Robie Osterman, Bill Lichliter, Harold Guest, Otis Lawyer, Miner Stevens, Roger Chapman, Pete Whitbeck, Wally Guest, Bill Bartholomew, John Rossmann, Paul Nelson, Jim Heiser, Art Frament, Bob Benac, Rich Donnelly, Chuck Aelesio, Richard Frank, Warren Willsey, Russ Pokorny, Lou Schenck, Herb Bahrmann, Jack Norray, Gerry Irwin, Jake Lederman, Ted Feurer, Marty Herzog, Glenn Patterson, Mark Traver, Joe Rack, Gerry Chartier, Mike Willsey, Rich Vanderbilt, Elwood Vanderbilt, Harold Grippen, and me.

This choir was as flat as a pancake.


On the 1st of March, 2018, I sat atop the collapsing roof of Saddam Hussein’s former Guesthouse Palace, gazing across the ravaged cityscape of war-torn Mosul in northern Iraq. The city had fallen to the Islamic State in a matter of days in early June 2014, and the resulting nine-month campaign of round-the-clock artillery bombardment by United States and Iraqi forces in 2017 had left thousands dead, reducing much of the ancient city to rubble.

I was on mission to one of my brigade’s infantry battalions, which had fortified its position inside the palace despite the massive shelling that had destabilized every floor with jagged craters and immovable debris. Horrified by the devastation I’d seen while flying in low over the city — and cognizant of the region’s historical significance — I grabbed a Bible and ascended several flights toward the gaping hole in the ceiling, to experience a moment of spiritual significance.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, the same Nineveh that serves as the backdrop for the biblical story of Jonah. Jonah’s account comes from the last book of the Nevi’im in the Tanakh, but is also a critical fixture in both the Old Testament and the Quran.

The details are largely the same in each depiction: God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh to preach against the wickedness therein; he refuses, is caught in a massive storm while fleeing by ship, and is then cast overboard and swallowed by a giant fish (mistranslated as “whale”) in whose belly he spends three days and nights. Jonah finally throws himself upon God’s mercy, who then commands the fish to regurgitate him so he can travel to Nineveh in fulfilment of God’s will.

Reading those ancient verses in the wreckage of the very city from which they derived was powerful.  Yet when I later recounted the experience to one of my soldiers, he merely shrugged, noting that Jonah wasn’t the only person ever to have survived being swallowed by a whale.

“In fact,” he continued — indifferent to my moment — “150 years ago, a fisherman was swallowed by a whale and had to be cut out of its stomach a week later.”

As it happened, I was already familiar with the fraudulent account of a supposed James Bartley, which had appeared as an anonymous article published in American newspapers at the turn of the 20th Century.  Rendering a quick google search with our unit’s spotty internet service, I confirmed that the story had indeed been discredited as a hoax.

But in a rebuttal search of his own, the young man quickly found a dubious blog post detailing the harrowing experience of a Spanish fisherman named Luigi Marquez, who claimed to have survived 72 hours in a whale’s stomach after having being swallowed by one in — wait for it — 2016.

“Hold up,” I said. “Are you trying to prove that Jonah was swallowed by a whale by citing Luigi, or are you trying to prove that Luigi was swallowed by a whale by citing Jonah?”  

“Both,” he said.  “The accounts prove each other.”


This column decries society’s departure from a shared objective reality, and the discord which erupts where conflicting realities meet. As I prepare for another deployment to an entirely different country where a reconstituted ISIS once again menaces a population that disputes its particular version of divine history, I’m hyper-sensitive to the religious arguments that often stress our own national community.

For many, rather than asking, “What is it saying?” the Bible instead compels a different question: “Is it true?”

Yet, with a planet heating up, an economy slowing down, and societies the world over splintering into tribes, we have neither the time nor might to impose a universal truth. At best, we must coexist — each of us equipped with a different sense of what may have happened in the past, but united in executing the mission to secure our future.

So let me audaciously propose a compromise: Everything in the Bible is true, but any effort to prove as much is blasphemy.

With that settled, can we please finally work together to warrant salvation?


In 2016, biblical literalist Ken Ham opened the Creationist theme park “Ark Encounter,” the centerpiece of which is a replica of Noah’s Ark — a construction 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 5 stories high. The project took half a decade, over a thousand craftsmen, and more than $100 million to complete.

But what, exactly, had he shown? That you can put a price tag on God’s miracles? That you can replicate God’s work with enough men and minutes and money? Would Mr. Ham also endeavor to rebuild the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 5-8), blaspheming the word of God merely to prove it?

While I can’t personally say that God parted the Red Sea to allow the Jews safe passage in their flight from Egyptian slavery, the Bible (or Torah or Quran) can, and does so in Exodus 14:22-28. That’s what makes Ron Wyatt’s now fully discredited claim to have found an Egyptian chariot at the bottom of the Red Sea so viciously blasphemous; in deciding that God’s own words weren’t sufficiently convincing, he manufactured evidence to corroborate them.

These holy shams sew the seeds of broader strife, and risk surrendering the late Senator Moynihan’s “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts” to the more recently fashionable “alternative facts.”

Recall Job in Job 13:7-10: “Are you defending God with lies? Do you make your dishonest arguments for His sake? You will be in trouble with Him if you slant your testimony in His favor.”

There is nothing righteous about proving the word of God if you rely on specious whispers to do so.

Interpreting literally the biblical account of Jonah requires recognition that his journey through a fish’s digestive tract illustrates God’s irreplicable signature. Thus, citing provably baseless evidence that some jerk recently spent a weekend in a whale minimizes the magnitude of God’s past interventions.

Those who believe that the Bible is the word of God bear no burden to “prove” it.  Indeed, the search for extra-biblical corroboration is the point at which believers veer from the path of faith.

In Joshua 10:13, the sun is recorded as having “stood still ... in the middle of the sky” for a whole day.  Yet believers and non-believers alike should condemn the legions of websites falsely claiming that “NASA computers” once detected proof of that so-called “missing day” in the celestial calendar.

No such detection ever occurred, of course, and that’s as it should be. For if God is the author of the physical laws governing our universe, then God can also suspend them.

It’s therefore not inconsistent to believe both that the Earth always and unalterably rotates on its axis, but that there was also a miraculous and indiscernible instant where, for a day, it didn’t. That’s why it’s a miracle, operating outside the normal laws of physics and immune to probative testing. If the world stopped turning every second Tuesday of March, Joshua wouldn’t have thought to record it.

Contorting the laws governing our existence to devise bogus “scientific” explanations for how Seth lived to the age of 912 (Genesis 5:8), for example, is the core of blasphemy — an attempt to prove that which is designed to be unprovable.

And it is through this practice of conjuring false evidence in the service of a partisan belief that people come to trust fake news and conspiracy theories, to become untethered from reality, to be rendered vulnerable to the hucksters on cable news.

These are not just religious concerns; they are political ones. Our clergy and politicians should be equally committed to fostering the critical reasoning skills among congregants and voters alike so that they can identify both devil and dictator.

The ramifications of not doing so are dire. A citizenry that denigrates the process of rational inquiry cannot maintain the very institutions which accommodate, for example, freedom of religion.

Yet there’s an even more pressing reason to unite in identifying and denouncing the “Deceitists” who traffic in deception, who manufacture fake blood stains on the shroud of Turin, or who — most devastatingly — attribute to God’s divine will the irreparable harm our species is inflicting on the global climate.

And that is this: Earth is our Ark. It’s damaged, and we need to repair it.

The world God has bequeathed unto us to taste and touch, to smell and see, should be embraced for the miracle it is on the terms God has constructed for us to witness. It’s a world worth saving.

But it’s a world we can save only if all humankind agrees on what it is that we taste and touch and smell and see. Rather than prove what was, we have to recognize what is, so we can jointly salvage what can be.

The Christian’s belief in Jesus’s resurrection may contrast sharply with the atheist’s perspective on the physical viability of post-mortem levitation, but surely both Christians and atheists can agree that the extinction of over 500 vertebrate species in the last 100 years isn’t ideal. Aren’t these beings, too, worthy of rescue? Two-by-two is better than none.

The account of Noah’s Ark can be true even if reports of ancient wooden beams discovered atop a mountain are not. It can be true even without Mr. Ham contriving tourist attractions out of “miracles” made achievable solely through the ample application of municipal tax incentives.

And it can be true even if, this time, God isn’t the reason that the waters are rising. Though God may have once sent the flood in response to human wickedness, human wickedness now invites the flood all on its own.

In short, those who endeavor to prove that a fish can swallow a man are focused on the wrong miracle.  Now, it’s the miracle of life on this planet which humanity must endeavor to prove. The choice before us is stark: Will the rising tide lift all boats, or will battle-scarred cities disappear beneath the sea?


Back at the top of Saddam’s palace — from my vantage point above the vast stretches of pockmarked edifices crumbling into rubble — I wondered what Jonah would say if he were summoned once more to preach in Nineveh. The deathly silence bespoke lessons unlearned from his prior ministry.

Looking one last time at the blackened landscape, it occurred to me then that the essential fact in the Book of Jonah is not that a man was swallowed by a whale, but that humanity has a heartbreaking tendency to turn its back on God.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.