Archive » July 2020 » Columns

Have you heard this refrain recently? People complaining that no matter what subject they bring up, it gets political? Is that an exaggeration? Or have things gotten very political while we were all busy trying to stay healthy amid an unmanaged global pandemic?

See there? I got political. I called the COVID-19 pandemic unmanaged.

Certain people out there of a certain political bent would suggest that I was taking a shot at the current administration’s murderous efforts to manage a virus by lying about it, hiding statistics, holding equipment and money hostage, profiting illegally, and just generally doing a Keystone Cops level job of managing a public health crisis. But I have no strong feelings on that.

Meanwhile, other first-world nations have gotten things quickly under control by actually following the advice of experts, infectious-disease specialists, and practicing common courtesy. They do this by masking up, keeping their distance, and not throwing public hissy fits when someone suggests they wear a mask to help their fellow Earth people.

In mostly sane countries, wearing a mask is not political. Only here, in ’Murica has it been made political by a person who is happy for thousands to die as long as he keeps his job. And that, folks, is why everything has gotten political. The people currently in power will do anything to keep that power and so they have taken common-sense issues and made them political.

We’re told we need to cut public spending on food stamps, unemployment, Medicare, and Social Security because we’ve run up a huge budget deficit. Of course the deficit was hugely inflated due to a world record trillion-dollar giveaway to corporations and billionaires. So now the social safety net has become ever more politicized.

Education should be a pretty simple issue. People would like their children to receive a decent education at their local public schools. Right?

Well no. You see, rich folks like education secretary Betsy DeVos (who never attended a public school in her life) have a vested financial interest in private schools, charter schools, and defunding public education.

Right-wing ideologues want diminished public education because an educated populace is hard to control and harder to lie to. And of course, the religious right hates public education due to wavering but still mildly intact separation of church and state that prohibits religious education in public schools.

OK, so how about health care? Should be a no-brainer, right? All Americans want access to decent health care, at a reasonable price, and yet we pay more per capita than any other western nation and get far less.

Why? Money and politics.

Highly paid lobbyists have bought most members of Congress who now routinely pass or block legislation that only works for big pharma, health maintenance organizations, doctors, hospitals, and so on. We pay too much for medication because big pharma would lose profits if prices were controlled by the federal government as they are in most other nations.

And, while we can easily afford a military budget that dwarfs the next six countries put together, the idea of universal health care is fought by the GOP and big money with the same level of hatred and vengeance they once unleashed on the Nazis in World War II (the United States was the original antifa).

Hmm, we’re running out of issues. How about Social Security?

You pay in during your working life and then you get a steady, albeit small payback after you retire and until you die. Seems simple. But no, the GOP wants to do away with it, and hand it over to their buddies on Wall Street to “manage.”

Then they can plunder the remainder of the fund and line their pockets. This is why they keep lumping Social Security in with Medicare; Medicaid; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Home Energy Assistance Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; and other social programs funded by the government through our taxes.

They keep calling Social Security an entitlement when that’s an utter lie. An entitlement is not something you pay into your entire working life.

So when you get down to it, everything has become political because the folks holding power have no interest in helping the people they were elected to represent. Thanks to the Citizens United decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, unending amounts of dark money now flow into political coffers from shadowy places, and the pols who are being paid do as they’re told.

Our government is truly for sale to the highest bidder and the wealthy and powerful one-percenters who pull all these strings like it this way. They want us squabbling amongst ourselves, blaming anyone and everyone for our troubles while they sit back on their yachts and in their mansions and laugh at us.

The last time they got really nervous was during the Occupy Wall Street period back around 2008. People were really starting to pick up the message that our real and true enemy was the one percent and support was growing fast.

So what did they do? They started a media campaign, got the FBI to infiltrate the movement, treated it like a terrorist organization, and broke it up. And the proud sheeple of the U.S. just baahed and accepted it as dished out by the mainstream media.

I could go on and on, but the real issue is very clear. Things are political because we are being used, manipulated, lied to and killed off so a small group of people can hold onto power. It’s not a new story and has taken place over and over again down through history.

The real question now is what we’re going to do about it. Argue on Facebook or take to the streets and take our country back. Your choice.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he has been to more protests in the past three-and-a-half years than in the previous 50. He and his wife are not planning on stopping anytime soon, he says, unless of course they’re grabbed off the street by federal stormtroopers in unmarked uniforms.

Where to begin? As of late, there are a few of the OMOTM who are getting together at some of the restaurants. However, three or four are at one restaurant on one day, and a couple of OFs are at another restaurant on a different day.

One group sent this scribe an email on what they discussed; this message contained only one or two words. Their discussion was about motorcycles and (gasp) politics, and, it almost goes without saying — COVID-19.

Apparently, the sergeant at arms was not with this group, because to keep the assemblage from falling apart, religion and politics are usually left out. These two topics ruin any group.

In phone conversations with some other OFs, we hope those who are getting out take care of themselves with all the protocols in place; it was mentioned before: At our ages we don’t want to encounter this virus. We feel that six feet apart today is better than six feet under tomorrow.

There is now a prime example of how potent this disease is with the Fourth of July gathering in Albany, and all the havoc that has caused. Now we add to that the Florida Marlins baseball team. Thirteen or so out of 50 or so people is a startling number to test positive.

This scribe has forwarded a list of OFs attending breakfasts to those he knows who are venturing out here and there. If they all get together, it should be about seven guys keeping the home fires burning.

Mourning Mace

The Old Men of the Mountain has received some sad information. A long-standing member, Mace Porter, age 91, passed away in his sleep on July 28, 2020. Mace was a very kind man, active, and a good talker right up to the end. Mace will be missed by many.

Back to school

Digging up old conversations of the OFs at this point in time does not seem to be the thing to do. We are all hoping for a pill or vaccine to come along that will take care of this virus sooner rather than later.

A few of the conversations this scribe has had with other OMOTM was about the school problem coming up.

One OF put it rather succinctly, “When school is in session, every cough, sneeze, flu, pink-eye, or head lice, will come home with certain children. What makes anyone think COVID-19 will be any different?”

Then the question becomes, “How do you think everyone can stay home and teach their kids?”

Can’t be done. The OFs who have kids that have kids (OK, grandkids) are facing this problem, and this problem tain’t only here Magee. One OF suggested they (some OFs) are willing to try and help out by assisting in the teaching, only the OF said he has to be taught how to do it first.

Here is a good place for seniors and those retired to step up and help out.

Not like war

To those who are complaining about the quarantine period and curfews, just remember that your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix.

You can do this!

 

Location:

This scribe is beginning to run out of stories from days gone by. The virus is hanging in there longer than the scribe thought it would. The scribe had hoped it would have been under control by now.

The scribe assumed (and all that does it make an ass out of u and me) that a variation of one of the vaccines already in use on a particular flu could be altered to combat this COVID-19. I guess that is not the case right now, but how about some people we occasionally hear about who are small potatoes and just like Preston Tucker (with his automobile that was way ahead of its time) the big guys won’t let them in because of the (you guessed it) money.

The OFs think there might be more than one “Tucker” in the wings.

As things begin to open up, with each phase giving more places the chance to open, restaurants and other businesses are also beginning to open to customers — with restrictions. It may be soon and the OMOTM will be able to get out and enjoy each other’s company and listen to events and adventures the OFs have had in the past few months.

Some of the OFs are still playing it safe. They are being careful where they go, to what places, and for what items. Willy-nilly travel is out.

Some are still waiting for the virus to be wiped out, or at least a pill to cover you if you get it, or maybe a workable vaccine to keep the OF from ever getting it.

A few OMOTM do not want to play games with their ages, and medical pre-conditions, like pacemakers, bypasses, stints, diabetes, thyroid problems, and other similar problems, plus some of the OFs just plain hurt. The only ones that hear them complain are the wives.

One OF mentioned about spacing when out and about, and wearing masks and asked how long does the scribe think this will go on. This scribe doesn’t know but he thinks quite awhile.

The two OFs discussed how people look with the masks and all we have to go by are the eyes. People behind the mask could have a serious overbite but now no one knows.

This could be a good thing. We get to know their eyes and their personalities and not so much their appearance. Some people are pretty clever on how they decorate their masks.

Sometimes the OFs find themselves out in the rain, a good hard rain, and the mask gets soaked. No one told the OFs these things are not waterproof.

Another thing the OFs have mentioned to the scribe is, “If the OFs start again and we are tables of four and spread out, how do we eat with a mask on? All the OFs will have their masks off. Is this acceptable?”

The scribe tells the OFs he does not know of any mask with a flap that the wearer is able to lift up and slide food into the wearer’s mouth. Now what if it is spaghetti? What a mess that would be, and then the wearer might possibly have to go out in the rain. One saving grace is that the OFs hardly ever order spaghetti for breakfast.

What about hot coffee? Now that would be a trick. We need one hand to lift the flap and the other hand to hold the cup of hot coffee.

“Boy,” the OF said, “better not slip up on that one!”

Fibbers

The OFs have a rule — discuss no politics, but on occasion that rule slips. It is not politics that is discussed; it is politicians.

The OFs harken back to the days when politicians were after funding to build the Thruway (late forties early fifties) and to obtain the funding we were told this Thruway was going to be run by an authority and no state funds were to be used. All debt was to be paid by tolls and fees, and at that time we were told this road would be toll-free by at least 1996.

We all know how that worked out, and what fibbers the politicians were, and now the situation is getting worse according to many of the OFs.

One OF said he has recently driven the Thruway and it is beginning to look rather worn and old. It is rough; the signs look faded by the weather; and, where he traveled, much of it wasn’t mowed. Some sections were mowed so maybe others will be taken care of soon.

The OF wondered where the tolls were going. One OF said, when he was working in Syracuse it was faster to use Route 20 home to Albany than use the Thruway.

Another OF asked what about all the small-town speed limits, and the OF answered, even with all the small towns, Route 20 was faster.

“The only thing for me,” the OF said, “were the rest areas on the Thruway because I did not really like stopping in a diner just to use the restroom without getting a cup of coffee or something.”

The scribe offered, “There is always McDonalds; they have considerately placed an outside door by the restrooms so you don’t have to use the dining area.”

This scribe is at the bottom of the notes that were taken last week from a few of the OGs.

The wife just commented, “I’m at the ‘what can I make with green beans and cake mix’ stage of needing groceries. Once again it’s time to don the masks and practice social distancing at the market.

All of us are consumers of many different products and services. Companies spend tons of dollars trying to figure out what we’ll spend our hard-earned dough on. However, I think this is easier said than done, as the behaviors we consumers exhibit are often far from rational or predictable.

There is a blended whisky called Chivas Regal. It’s an OK product but not anything to go crazy over. When it first came out, sales languished since competition is stiff in the blended-whisky category.

Then its owners did something radical: They doubled the price. Once they did this, sales took off and have never looked back.

As a consumer you might ask yourself: How could doubling the price increase sales? This is the exact opposite of what they teach in any basic economics class.

Turns out a lot of people like to give a bottle of whisky as a gift. By doubling the price of Chivas Regal, the receiver of it as a gift knew instantly he had just been given one of the most expensive bottles in the store.

In fact, my wife and I have often noticed that many receivers of gifts in our family — and I’m sure yours too — have no idea of what we paid or went through to give certain gifts and don’t react accordingly. So by doubling the price, Chivas Regal solved that problem in one fell swoop. Brilliant for them, but not so good for those of us who actually buy whisky.

Back in the day, imagine you worked for a beverage company. One day, you walk into the bosses’ office and say, “I have an idea. Let’s sell water in bottles.”

You most likely would have been laughed at or simply brushed off. Think about it — people have potable water for free in their homes.

The bank won’t even loan you the money for a house if it doesn’t have clean, potable water. In fact, New York City where I grew up used to regularly win awards for the quality of its tap water.

But somewhere along the way some executive didn’t laugh, and now bottled water outsells soda in many cases, no pun intended. I know people who live in places with quality municipal water systems who nevertheless buy bottled water as a matter of course because they perceive it to be “better.” Talk about marketing!

Here’s one I’ve never understood. Somewhere along the way, denim jeans started to be sold that were already “faded” or, unbelievably, with holes already in them for “style,” and they ain’t cheap, either. Are you kidding me?

If you want your jeans faded or with holes in them, do what I and other hard-working men and women do: Use them! Between landscaping and woodworking and vehicle maintenance and everything else, I wear out jeans, starting in the knees and moving on, at an alarming rate.

In fact, I’ve been waiting for years for jeans to come with padded knees so it would take a little longer for me to cut my worn ones into shorts or have my wife try to sew them. The thought of paying extra for fading or holes in jeans is just something I’ll never be able to wrap my mind around.

Maybe my problem with understanding consumer behavior is just with me. For example, I made a comment to a female coworker one time that I had gotten a coupon from a local shoe store that promised me a credit after I spent $250 with them.

“This stinks,” I told her. “I’ll never spend that much on shoes by the time this coupon expires.”

“Frank,” she said, looking at me cross-eyed: “That’s what I pay for one pair of shoes.”

Ouch!

The engine in your car needs coolant to keep from overheating. Coolant is generally a fifty-fifty mixture of antifreeze and water. It used to be you bought a gallon of antifreeze and some distilled water from the drugstore when you needed to change it.

Then “pre-diluted” antifreeze started appearing on the shelves of the auto-parts store, often costing, I kid you not, more than the undiluted variety. Just think about that for a moment: Someone figured out they could cut their product in half with water, and then even get away with charging more for it!

No wonder companies pay huge bucks to try to figure out consumer behavior. Who would have ever believed they could get away with that?

Our Jewish friends have a great word for this kind of behavior: chutzpah.

I could go on. We all know a $10 Casio digital watch tells time as well as a Rolex, but that is irrelevant to the people who like to flash their “bling.”

There is a wonderful brand of wines called Charles Shaw that sells for, I’m not kidding, $1.99 a bottle, affectionately known as “Two Buck Chuck.” You can’t get it in Albany but, once you try it, you’ll wonder why you’ve ever paid more for wine.

And you know the majority of Range Rovers, those high-end SUVs that sell for six figures and are advertised crawling over rocks and fording streams, will never see that kind of use and abuse in the real world. But the thought that they can do that stuff — and the image that goes along with it — are apparently worth that premium price tag.

Let me leave you with this: I own a lot of tools but one tool I have not yet purchased is a miter saw, also known as a “chop saw.” At the local Chinese tool emporium, the one that issues those ubiquitous 20-percent off coupons all over the place, I can get not one, not two, but three, count ’em, three Chinese-made chop saws for the price of one good American-made one.

Now I’m not a professional woodworker; I only do it as a hobby and for home maintenance. So maybe the cheap one would be fine. But, if I buy the good one, it’ll last me the rest of my lifetime; I can leave it to my kids; and I can support jobs and industry in America.

Is that worth paying three times more? Tough call.

Predicting consumer behavior is incredibly difficult because the choices we make as consumers often don’t make a lot of rational sense. Just please promise me, whatever you do, don’t buy the 99-cent bottle of off-brand ketchup. Life is too short. Get Heinz and be happy.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Imagine the stereographic or magic-lantern views of the coming Robbins Circus shown on the piazza of the Knowersville House (later called the Altamont Hotel). What a way to stir up anticipation in 1885! This building was set beside the railroad tracks facing Main Street. Today, a gas station and convenience store is on the site.

News in the 1880s and ’90s that a traveling circus was stopping in town created an air of anticipation and excitement among all ages. Normally, the daily lives of that era’s country folks were monotonously routine, making the novelty and glamour of the circus’s arrival an event to remember.

Advance news in The Enterprise in July 1885 that Frank A. Robbins Circus and Menagerie was about to appear not only stirred up interest in Knowersville (after 1887, the name was changed to Altamont), but in the surrounding hamlets as well. Knowersville, conveniently located on the busy D&H rail line, was the perfect spot for a one-ring circus to set up and attract paying customers from a wide area.

Using what was advanced technology of the time, the event was promoted with stereopticon views of the coming circus from the piazza of the Knowersville House. The exact location where the circuses that visited Knowersville/Altamont set up their tents and menageries was never specifically identified, but there was certainly much open land adjacent to the village at that time.

When the big day arrived, the village was packed with circus-goers “from near and far” filling village streets to view the circus parade. Circus parades were an American tradition acting as free come-ons, but the cost of admission of this or any of the other circuses over the years was never publicized in The Enterprise.

Following the Robbins’s circus parade were two performances, afternoon and evening, attended by large audiences. In the next week’s edition, The Enterprise editor commented approvingly that “it was the first time in our experience with a show of this kind in town, the program as advertised was carried out.”

Again in 1889, Frank A. Robbins Circus made a stop in Altamont, now with additional attractions including a Wild West hippodrome and a museum in addition to his circus and menagerie. Enterprise readers were advised, “Do not fail to visit this wonderful show … a good circus and an extensive collection of wild animals.”

With the arrival of the Robbins Circus, the village was described as “being in a flutter of excitement” with small boys as well as many of mature years out in force. The next week’s edition noted that the circus had come and gone except for a mound of earth in the shape of a ring … .”

Apparently the day they were leaving town, mention was made by departing circus workers that some reptiles had escaped. No one took it too seriously until one of Mrs. Wm. M. Lainhart’s family members encountered, what The Enterprise described, an “immense snake coiled up near the Old Schoharie Plank Road.”

After being alerted about this discovery, Jacob Van Auken dispatched the unfortunate serpent with an ax. When stretched out full length, it measured eight feet long, attracting many curious onlookers over the next few days.

 

Sad tale

Circus life in the small one-ring circuses that crossed rural America was fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. The expenses of feeding and paying performers and other workers, feeding animals, covering transportation costs, keeping up the conditions of equipment and tent, and providing a profit for the owner had to be met from ticket sales.

The visit of Rice’s Circus to Altamont proved to be one of the last chapters in the sad tale of a circus down on its luck.

The visit was scheduled for July 1887. The Enterprise announced that the advance car of J.H. Rice’s Circus and Menagerie had arrived, making preparations for a show later that week. The editor claimed, “The show is highly endorsed by the press and we have no hesitancy in speaking in its favor.”

The arrival of the Rice circus caused a stir in the village. Although the outfit had many wagons and other material, the condition of their tent was “torn and dilapidated.” Circus officials brushed it off, claiming the conditions were “due to being hit by a cyclone,” but The Enterprise’s snide comment was, “That gave them away.”

The performers carried on like troupers with the paper admitting many of the acts were “quite meritorious,” but unfortunately the audience attendance was rather small. Rice’s Circus moved on to Albany “where it was reported it was sold to Jacobs & Proctor, who give outdoor 10 cent shows.”

“The Circus Again” was an article appearing the next week continuing the sad saga and fate of Rice’s Circus after leaving Altamont. Setting up in Albany, the circus first suffered disaster when its elephant “Empress” nearly killed a circus-goer.

The circus, which had been operating at a loss, had hoped to “retrieve their fortune” on reaching Albany, but no luck. Manager J.O. O’Brien ordered a quiet street parade, no band playing, moving south out of the city, intending to head for Philadelphia.

Skipping town, leaving behind unpaid and angry creditors, the circus arrived in Coxsackie where the troupe gave a performance. They then, apparently on foot and in wagons, made it to Jersey City.

Here an employee named Edward Welch, went to court, seeking his unpaid salary and also charged “cruelty to dumb animals,” claiming the horses, camels, elephant, lion, and bulls had not been fed since they left Albany and that one of the camels died of starvation.

An arrest warrant went out for O’Brien, but, seemingly an expert on skipping town, he was nowhere to be found. The remains of his circus was moved on to Philadelphia, perhaps where it had originated.

Huge numbers of animals, both domestic and exotic, traveled with these circuses, and at that time their treatment was not an issue except among a very few. In 1907, a short article appeared in The Enterprise, illustrating concern for the poor treatment of circus animals. 

“Trained By Cruelty” claimed that “animals as a rule were taught tricks through torture,” adding that some members of the circus community “speak with horror of the methods of some trainers.” Animal welfare was not an issue for most circus-goers and it was unusual to see reference to this topic in those years.

 

Circuses grow

One-ring circuses continued to stop in Altamont on and off for the next few years.1892 brought Chas. Lee’s Monster London Circus with acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze artists, a clown, and performing dogs and horses.

The circus was described as “strictly first class” with a “splendid street parade,” and as being “entirely free from fakirs, gamblers or other objectionable features.” Chas. Lee’s circus returned the next year with a show “better than many that charge twice the admission.”

Disreputable hangers-on or dishonest circus employees often used the honest and naïve circus-goers encountered at these rural stops as chickens ready to be plucked.

In 1908, after a visit by Frank A. Robbins Circus, an Enterprise article titled “Robbery and Flim-Flam Game” mentioned one “aged and respected citizen lost $200 to a “slick individual,” while a young man was flim-flammed out of $56 by the ticket seller.

Others were robbed of smaller amounts, making the promise of respectable behavior by circus employees in advance publicity a plus for potential customers.

In all the promotion of visiting circuses, there is never a mention of the cost of admission whether for one of the small one-ring circuses that visited Altamont or the really big shows that appeared in Albany. Certainly not everyone could afford to go to the circus, though the street parades were free for the public.

While in 1893 Sautelle & Ewer’s Circus set up in Altamont, playing to large crowds, a decade later Sautelle’s Circus was described as a “mammoth affair,” bypassing Altamont to set up in Albany. Now expanded into a two-ring circus and traveling on 26 railroad cars, there were the usual circus acts and menagerie.

New additions included the royal Roman hippodrome and a historical Wild West Show. The acts were “all new and novel and original,” many being described as “highly sensational.”

Not only was there a 63 horse and pony act, but the unique “earth’s only pony riding lion named Nero performing wonderful feats.” A mile-long street parade promised to be a brilliant pageant of lustrous chariots, dens of wild beasts, bands, a steam calliope and “more big things than ever was witnessed before in a street procession.”

Competition between the two huge circuses Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. that were traveling from one large city to another forced each of them to become more elaborate each year. In turn, their shows put pressure on smaller circuses to expand or like Rice’s, be pushed into bankruptcy.

Albany and occasionally Schenectady or Troy became the setting for an annual visit of one or both of these big circuses. Hoping to attract large audiences, the circuses put out detailed publicity notices describing their new and novel attractions for that year, inserted in all the newspapers while railroads put on special excursion trains for patrons to travel at reduced rates to attend the circus.

At this stage, smaller circuses were relegated to performing in more outlying rural areas.

Using the 1912 Barnum & Bailey Circus’s publicity announcing their appearance in Albany as an example, here are the details of their fabulous show for that year. Their performance was now expanded with a cast of 1,250 characters; a grand opera chorus of 100 voices; an orchestra of 100 musicians; a 350-dancing-girl ballet; 650 horses; five herds of elephants; caravans of camels; and an entire trainload of special scenery, costumes, and stage effects.

There was to be a lengthy parade and their spectacle “Cleopatra.” The circus traveled on a train more than a mile in length and would cover 14 acres when set up.

There were 110 cages in the menagerie and over 2,000 wagons and other vehicles. This circus has nearly 1,500 employees, 700 horses, and nearly two-thirds of all the elephants in America.

Barnum & Bailey promised what you saw in Albany would be the same as the performance the audience experienced in Madison Square Garden. They guaranteed, “This is the greatest spectacular theatrical and circus event in the history of amusements in America.”

Both Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. changed their spectacles annually plus added new exotic animals and acts to get audiences to return each year.

(Just an aside: With all those animals and all those people, can you imagine the unsanitary conditions left behind when the circus left town back in those days?)

 

Fair attractions

And what about the performers in the small fading or bankrupt circuses who didn’t have the talent or unusual act to be in the big-time circuses? By the turn of the 20 Century, county fairs were in their heyday and troupes of former circus performers found a new venue. 

In 1908, Altamont fair-goers could see several free attractions including the Ethiopian Black Birds, Bilyck’s Educated Sea Lions, The Trained Chimpanzee, The Four Famous Dieke Sisters, The Double Jointed Midget, and The Famous Gila Monsters. Each year, similar attractions traveled the county fair circuit, becoming part of each fair’s attractions.

Circus-going in the later 19th Century and during a large part of the 20th Century was a popular pastime for those who could afford admission. In those times, very few ever raised concerns about the treatment of the animals or the working conditions of performers and other workers employed setting up or breaking down the circus on arrival and departure.

The free and lengthy and elaborate street parades created a spectacle for everyone. With the excitement and glamour, is it any wonder so many kids wanted to run away to join the circus and a few adults secretly wished they had?

Location:

Tags:

— From John R. Williams

Ivan Baker, sketched by John R. Williams 18 years ago, founded the Old Men of the Mountain along with Herbie Wolford and Joe Farcas. Mike Willsey and Williams came shortly thereafter.

It has been asked: Who are the OMOTM? Well, they started out many, many years ago with just three guys.

They would meet at one of the OF’s homes until the wife would finally kick them out; they would then go to a restaurant and order something akin to a brunch because the wife would only let them hang around in the morning until about 9 a.m.

Also, one of the founding OF’s favorite saying was that 9 a.m. was a good time to hit the eating establishments because the morning crowd was gone and the afternoon crowd wasn’t there.

It wasn’t long before they asked the brother-in-law of one of the three, and a neighbor of the same OF if they wanted to join them and the OMOTM was underway.

For many years, the group was basically high school buddies from the three rival schools of Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Schoharie, and Middleburgh. The original group had one OF whose wife would send little reports to The Enterprise of where the OFs went to breakfast and a bit about what happened that week.

Then one year, the OF whose wife wrote the piece took a very long trip and asked this scribe if he would continue with the report. So the report continued, and continues. 

The title for the group came originally from those in the group who all lived on the Hill and for the most part were farmers. Occasionally there have been photographs of the group in The Enterprise, and at times photographs of their activities.

As the OMOTM progressed, some friends of the OFs retired; they were then asked if they wanted to join us for breakfast on Tuesday mornings. So the group grew and even included people from the valley, and now includes some flatlanders.

This scribe, in preparing this piece on how the OMOTM began, looked at the current roster and found about 40 names; in the summer months, we can generally expect 30 to 35 at breakfast. In the winter, there are about 20 to 25 people who regularly join us.

Last year, there were a few occasions where the attendance in the winter was over 25. A sad piece of information the scribe found out by looking at the roster — there are almost, or maybe even more, OFs dead than are on the current roster. We’re talking 30-plus years here.

At the end of each report, this scribe would make a small observation about the OFs and include the names of the OMOTM that made it that Tuesday to the breakfast. There were many reasons for this.

One reason was to supply alibis to the whereabouts of any particular OF who was in trouble with the law. Another reason was to assure that the wife who would be asking questions of a particular OF that he was where he said he was.

The column is also a week late and that is to prevent process servers from contacting OFs; that could be embarrassing. The OMOTM have no rules or plans to make rules; however, there are two unwritten rules. The conversations cannot contain any discussions on politics or religions. Those two topics cause the demise of many organizations.

The COVID-19 virus has caused quite a disruption in the OMOTM rotating among the restaurants and distributing a few bucks here and there. All the OFs’ eating destinations have been closed, but this scribe saw it as a good time to use some of his notes that did not make the first round. The virus has lasted longer than expected and in some states it looks like it is in for another round.

Now this scribe has to rely on old notes and phone calls. In Schoharie, some of the restaurants are open with restrictions. Some of the OFs are showing up for breakfast but many are not

 At 87 years old and with a few underlying conditions, this scribe is one who is sticking pretty close to home and traveling only when necessary. This scribe is waiting for a provable and workable vaccine, or a pill that will handle the virus effectively regardless of age.

This scribe (like many of the other OFs) feels pretty good, and would like to become an older OF. This scribe has the drawing board and easel to keep him busy —  oh, and a wife who has a lot of ideas of her own.

— National Archives and Records Administration

Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington. Four months earlier, he had written in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”

Anyone living in the United States who’s read a newspaper or been near a television in the past two months is well aware of the persistent and wide-scale chants for “systemic change” in American society, most recently instigated by the violence the American justice system has perpetrated against Black Americans.

A dozen years ago, people were calling for change in the way Washington worked; now, as biological and racial viruses eat at us, people are calling for fundamental changes in the way America works — systemic problems require systemic change.

I understand what people mean when they say “systemic” but I find the term too generic and linear so I use “structural.” Structural better gets at the depth of the problems at hand.

For example, we can talk about “structural violence,” that is, the violence that results from the way American institutions are structured whereby greater value is assigned to some while the needs of others are minimized or dismissed altogether. Whites are rated over Blacks, men over women, straights over gays, Christians over Muslims and Jews, and people over planet Earth.

And the system’s distribution outlets are set up to provide bounty for those assessed greater and to insure that the lesser get less: of pay, compensation, and all the goods and services that meet a person’s — to channel Abraham Maslow — “safety needs.”

We all know that the resources a person has available deeply affect his peace of mind. How sad then that a land of “amber waves of grain,” as Jordan Weissmann pointed out in a 2013 article in The Atlantic, is a system “Where the Poor Don’t Get Holidays Off.” Nor healthcare.

The ideology that underlies, and is used to justify, such a distribution is best described as “deservingness.” The rich say they deserve what they got because they worked hard for it, and those in power say they earned it — and most believe they did it on their own.

The Russian philosopher-geographer Peter Kropotkin found such a claim absurd. In his famed essay “Our Riches” he emphasized, “There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property”; everybody rises on the shoulders of others.

He said there were, “Thousands of inventors, known and unknown ... [who] died in poverty ... Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, [who] labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of a “desserts-based” economy is that it inflicts debilitating lifestyles on millions and produces a stream of poor who never get out from under misery.

What do we tell a woman — who takes three buses to work each morning and three back home after chipping the morning toast off the toilets of the rich — when she overhears her “client” talking about a four-million-dollar house she just bought in Malibu and the thousand dollars her husband spent on dinner the night before?

And what do we tell a farm worker, who gave his life to a farm for 40 years, and was sent to retire without a penny of pension?

These souls might not understand the subtleties of Keynesian economics but are well aware of the resentment they feel about division.

As we continue to wrangle over who America is and will be, the first thing we need to do is stop the indiscriminate, random, violation of the human rights of American citizens sanctioned by law enforcement’s “‘I Can’t Breathe’ Handbook.”

What is needed is not a defunding of police but a serious and intensely systematic re-evaluation of the meaning of “protect and serve.” John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy says cops need to take a Hippocratic Oath.

And those cops who suffocate, or shoot in the back, unarmed Black men, are not a few bad apples because the barrel has rotted. Conspiratorialists say the methods police use to screen out racist applicants are not designed to weed out bad apples but to screen them in so their violence can “teach a lesson” to those intent on challenging the system.

And it’s paramount to keep in mind that racists do not simply despise people of color, they denigrate all categories of people they deem less: They say women are inferior to men, they laugh at gays, they heap scorn on Jews.

Thus America’s Personal Value Index (PVI) not only defines Black people as less than whites but pays women on the job 81 cents for every dollar a man makes; it mocks LGBTQs who seek a seat at the table; and treats Jews like, well, what a sad night in American history it was when neo-Nazi sieg-heiling torch-carrying confederates in Charlottesville chanted “blut und boden” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Even the president of the United States got in on the act when he applied the PVI to the people of Mexico, calling them a band of drugged-up criminogenic rapists.

Any time we use words like “more” and “less,” “deserving” and “undeserving,” “value” and “worth,” we situate ourselves in the field of economics — which is essentially a science of human enjoyment. Economics measures the means we use to find enjoyment in life and who we allow to share in it.

Of course that a nation assigns value to people is not an oddity. We all do it in every relationship we have so we might get a better read on the “other.” You’re assessing me right now while you’re reading this.

But the ultimate purpose of assessment is to improve relationships, to relieve people of stress, and to allow the least to sit at table with the rest of us.

You can understand how all this turmoil is creating problems for “the American Dream.” James Truslow Adams was the first to use “American Dream” in the way we understand it today, in his 1931 “The Epic of America” where he describes America like a “city on a hill.”

Adams said the American Dream was a land “in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

He said a new car and a promotion at work are fine but the essence of the dream is when “each man and each woman [is] able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and [are] recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Sigmund Freud was a specialist in dreams; he said people dream to get something reality will not allow them during the day; dreams fulfill wishes.

Thus at 3 a.m. a slumbering soul needs to go to the bathroom but instead dreams of a waterfall flowing into a beautiful ravine, and feels relief — but soon awakens and has to run to the loo; the dream accomplished nothing.

Freud also saw there was another level of consciousness that, instead of supporting dreams being fulfilled, rises up against it like a confederate nation.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the findings of a study of how much Medicare and Medicaid spend on seniors who get sick with the virus. The data say: If you’re Black and poor, you get the virus faster, you go to the hospital sooner, you say hello to death long before your white and well-off comrades do.

How do we deal with a system that’s ambushing the American Dream for all? How you respond to those 14 words says how just a person you are.

The little event the Old Men of the Mountain had last week of course has gone by, so now this scribe is again stuck with researching his little black book. (Sometimes the book is red, sometimes green, but they all do the same thing — hold little pieces of white paper with blue lines on them, together with two dinky cardboard covers front and back.)

This scribe bets fortunes are made and lost inside these little dollar store pads. Five for a buck.

Another thing! There is so much going on right now that the fodder for the column (if the OMOTM were still having breakfast once a week at the circle of restaurants) would be ample. Then again, maybe not; it would only be what the OFs could glean from the paper, radio, and TV or personal contacts because most of the venues the OFs frequent are closed.

The few OFs spoken to say they take rides now and then to nowhere; the OFs don’t even get out of the car. (None of them mentioned bathroom problems; however, with this scribe, that would be a problem so maybe their trips are short). Anyway, it gets them out of the house.

One OF said that, on their little rides, they head away from the cities and drive into Delaware, Schoharie, or Montgomery counties. The OF said going into Albany or Schenectady or any of the environs like Colonie or Rotterdam make the OFs feel areas like these are no man’s land.

The virus is lurking on everything, or else a stray bullet will find your butt. The country needs a vaccine for the virus and this OF will be first in line for that poke or pill.

This scribe thinks all the OMOTM have to hang in there — no matter what their age is — until this laundry is washed. If the OFs pass away, the funerals will be a little on the vacant side for people to say goodbye, and that is not fair for an OF who has contributed more than 70 or 80 years to this planet.

The same goes for weddings, birthdays, graduations, and other happy family events. It made graduations, especially this year, very interesting or very tough. Signing yearbooks must be a challenge, but really meaningful.

The OFs can relate to this because looking at old yearbooks — high school, college, or even those units in the military that have prepared one — is a lot of fun and very nostalgic when all people become older, not just OFs.

To see what classmates wrote over 60 years ago is a real delight. When discussing this, one OF commented on who has passed away, who is sick, and then tried to think about where some are living now and how they are. Even how we dressed years ago is enjoyable, and sometimes worth a laugh, and remembering the teachers — that, too, is entertaining.

As usual, one OF mentioned how he wished he had the sense to keep the cars he once owned back in the day. He wished even more that he had sense enough to purchase one of the old International K9 school buses, and just store them in a barn somewhere until he was old enough to enjoy them as antiques and remember them as top-of-the-line when the OF was in school.

Everyone keeps telling the OFs how simple life was 50 or 60 years ago, and they are right. One OF thought it was because information on events was slow in coming, but today it is all real time and so many people want to get on TV and spout off, or on the internet, which to me, the OF continued, is a PITA (pain in etc., etc.). Too many radicals and crackpots on that thing.

This OF said, “If that thing (internet) shut down and information slowed down, people would have time to cool off and calm down.” There! OMOTM philosophy! Too soon old, too late smart.

Remember you never realize what you have until it’s gone. Toilet paper is a good example. This is from just a few of the OGs.

I was perusing the Enterprise website from Iraq in the fall of 2017 — one month after a solider in my unit had been killed by an enemy Improvised Explosive Device — when I encountered Rose Schneider’s Nov. 2, 2017 article about a Confederate flag flying in the yard of a Berne residence, per request of the teenager who lived there.

His mother had told the reporter that he’d “been upset about Confederate statues being torn down” in the wake of the Charlottesville fiasco earlier that year — acts that she depicted as “destroying history” — and had further characterized her son’s public display of the Confederate flag as his “right to say ‘heritage, not hate’.”

Writing as I am on the Fourth of July, overseas in a country in the midst of its own civil war, it seems important to acknowledge that America’s War of Independence secured that Berne teen’s right to say whatever he wants.

But it’s equally important to acknowledge that the significance of Independence Day — as breathtakingly portrayed in Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” — is subject to interpretation depending on the historical legacy that informs one’s American identity.

Like, I can understand harboring an embittered resentment if the heroes annually lionized on this day had similarly subjugated my ancestors to the nightmarish horrors of lifelong labor, torture, and chains. After all, it’s 2020, yet I still expect an apology from Egypt’s pharaohs. Can you imagine if, on Passover, someone told me to “get over it?”

Unsurprisingly, reactions to Schneider’s article in the following weeks indicted the Berne teenager for being racist. And, while I understood those sentiments, I suspected he’d simply been confused, however grossly. It was hard to imagine a neighbor’s heart harboring hate.

You can be insensitive, historically ignorant, and needlessly inflammatory without overtly hating someone for the color of their skin. And, in fairness, some people are simply unaware that the preservation of human slavery was identified as the justification for secession in each and every Declaration of Secession authored by the Confederate States. (That young Berne resident may be unclear as to what the Confederate flag represents, but Confederates in 1861 certainly weren’t.) 

 Some people may not know that the claim the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights” is a deliberate fraud; in fact, it was the Southern states that appealed to the federal government to enforce the return from the North of those desperate humans who’d escaped their bondage.  Many Northern states had passed state laws extending safety and refuge to escaped slaves (who awaited lashes and physical mutilation if returned to their owners), but the South adamantly opposed states’ rights when the benefits thereof didn’t inure to slavers.

And, some people haven’t taken time to consider that, in flying the Confederate flag, they share association with nearly every white supremacist militia in America. The Fourth of July is as good a time as any to take stock of the company you keep, and whether it says anything about you.

The online version of this column embeds links to West Point’s Colonel Ty Seidule’s irrebuttable explanation of whether the Civil War was fought over slavery (spoiler: it was) or John Oliver’s intimate look at slavery as the exclusive cause of secession.

Or, google the dates that the various Confederate statues were erected in America, and the identities of their proponents; it’s hard to straight-facedly argue that Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Monument — installed in 1924, fifty-nine years after his surrender — is intended to broadly honor Southern heritage, as opposed to that highly specific aspect of it which entailed the enslavement of human beings.

Yet that’s precisely what some people do argue, seduced as they are by the cynically self-serving architects of “Lost Cause” historical revisionism. And I therefore presume that lots of folks are mystified by: Mississippi’s decision to become the latest and final state to remove Confederate symbology from its state flag; or the decision by the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Forces Korea, and NASCAR to prohibit display of the Confederate flag; or the full-scale removal of Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia (former heart of the Confederacy).

So on this Independence Day — and just in case the intervening three years haven’t afforded that Berne teen (perhaps now in his early 20s) the wisdom to which he didn’t have access when he first flew the Confederate flag — I want to explain why Confederate symbols so offend me personally. Because there’s nothing more American than making it all about me.

To begin with, what’s known today as the “Confederate flag” is not, in fact, the official flag of the Confederacy. That flag — the “Stars and Bars” — is an unimaginative budget rip-off of Old Glory’s stars and stripes. Meanwhile, the flag that caused so much consternation in a Berne yard three years ago derives from the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, known today as the Confederate Battle Flag. It is, in short, the flag of General Robert E. Lee.

No discussion of the Confederate flag is complete without reference to Lee — the man complicit in the deaths of more U.S. soldiers than anyone else in human history. (And when I say “U.S. soldier,” I’m referencing those who fought for the United States, not against it; who fought to preserve the Union, as opposed to tear it asunder in order to maintain the right to rip apart Black families at the auction block.)

Indeed, there isn’t much that separates Robert E. Lee from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the Islamic State. They both caused the death of American soldiers; they both owned slaves; they both were vanquished by the United States; and they both had beards.

Yes, I’m being deliberately incendiary to make a point; of course there were stark differences between Lee and al-Baghdadi. For example, al-Baghdadi never swore an oath to defend the Constitution, his forces took longer than four years to defeat, and whereas al-Baghdadi was a foreign enemy against whom American soldiers swear to defend the Constitution, Robert E. Lee was a domestic one.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

That’s the oath of commissioned officers. Today, an Army officer who follows in Lee’s footsteps by breaking his or her oath to the Nation (and God) would be tried for mutiny and sedition — a violation of Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maximum punishment for which is death. The Army takes its oaths seriously.

Robert E. Lee, however, did not take his oaths seriously. He first swore an oath of allegiance upon graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829 and being commissioned as a second lieutenant; he then swore another oath of allegiance upon his appointment as lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry in 1855. 

Yet when the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Robert E. Lee flouted his oaths, turned his back on the United States, and applied his elite military training against even his former soldiers in a bid to keep his several slaves in bondage.

Those are the irrefutable facts; I serve my country in defense of your right to deny them. But spare us both the indignity of contorting logic and history to suggest that Robert E. Lee is worthy of memorialization. 

We don’t “remember history” by erecting monuments to that other notorious slaver, Adolf Hitler, and we need not expend oxygen discussing whether removal of Robert E. Lee statues erases history.

History happened; it can’t be destroyed. It can only be forgotten (by people who don’t read) or reinterpreted (by people who read Facebook).

If a statue really is the only way you can orient yourself in the linear progression of time, here’s a compromise: Let’s modify the offending “Emancipation Memorial” statue by substituting the Black slave on bended knee beneath Abraham Lincoln’s paternalistically outstretched hand with a subjugated Robert E. Lee in the same posture, evoking the latter’s gratitude to our 16th president for mercifully declining to court-martial him for treason.

Or we can replace the many statues of Robert E. Lee standing proud in military uniform with ones of him in a nightgown on his deathbed, contemplating the awkward conversation awaiting him when St. Peter scrutinizes the oaths he betrayed and the blood of four-hundred-thousand American soldiers still dripping from his hands.

Why subject Robert E. Lee to such dishonorable treatment? Because his Army service was, by literal definition, dishonorable. That’s the legal characterization of treason; the Confederate flag is its shorthand.

Given the American South’s rich and expansive history, it’s hard to understand why anyone would celebrate with Lee’s flag a heritage focused solely on a specific four-year period comprised of the South’s twin shames: slavery, and unqualified military defeat.

Treason-apologists claim the Confederate flag represents the “rebel spirit.” Nonsense.

A conductor on the Underground Railroad better typifies the rebel spirit than the sulking slavers who took up arms against their countrymen merely because they preferred not to plant their own crops. And don’t even get me started on how reverence for the antebellum South is an affront to all red-blooded American farmers whose soil is tilled with their own blood, sweat, and tears.

In 2017, my fellow soldier’s remains were draped in the same flag as were the remains of the two soldiers in my current unit who were killed this past February, just six weeks after we arrived in Afghanistan.

That flag was the American flag, which represents the freedom of all human beings; the fallen were American soldiers, like the ones Robert E. Lee martyred on a Gettysburg battlefield; my comrades’ remains were transported by C-130 back to an America that Robert E. Lee endeavored to destroy.

And the promise of today — Independence Day — means something uniquely special in spite of Robert E. Lee.

I said some pretty crazy [censored] when I was a teenager, so I can forgive a neighbor possessed of the attention-seeking contrarianism that defines adolescence. But what of the adults who would stand arm-in-arm with Lee beneath that Confederate flag? Do they lay claim to today’s fireworks?

True: That Berne teen has every right to personally redefine the Confederate flag’s significance, and to give it some personally-contrived meaning divorced from its origins as the flag that flew in triumph over the graves of real patriots.

But so, too, do I have every right to view that decision with disappointment. For there’s no defensible justification for flying colors that rallied traitors to the cause of killing United States soldiers.

I followed in the footsteps of those fallen young men — heroes who fulfilled their oaths to the Constitution, who gave their lives in defense of our country — so as to advance a cause that the Confederacy sought to deny: freedom.

Their uniforms were blue, whereas mine is camouflage — but both serve the colors of the only flag, for all the faults of its history, that’s worth saluting in the perennial struggle for liberty.

This is the second time I’ll return home with fewer soldiers in my unit than when we deployed.  Through their ultimate sacrifice, their names join a venerable roster of those who gave their lives for a star-spangled banner that yet waves o’er the land of the free, irrespective of creed or color.  Their memory is the everlasting legacy of Independence Day.

So God bless the American soldier who lays his life down for his country; it is your place in history that I honor. And may God have mercy on Robert E. Lee. He is not my heritage, and his is not my flag.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He welcomes your thoughts at jesse@altamontenterprise.com.

My wife and I had to go out the other day to pick up a couple of things. Nothing crazy, mind you, just groceries. We donned our masks, made sure we had a wallet, our phones, and car keys, and headed into the store. 

Right off, stores are less crowded on most days than they once were. Most of the folks I saw were doing the distancing thing to the best of their abilities and all were masked and some gloved. It was like a congregation of surgeons on the way to the O.R., but the spousal unit called in a shopping list.

We used to find shopping a very relaxing experience, but now we find it tense and disturbing. You now think about every surface and item you touch as a possible disease vector, though the experts are suggesting that’s less of a worry than they first thought. You would use a public bathroom these days, but only in an emergency. Shopping carts should have the handle wiped down before touching. Items on shelves are still a little suspect no matter how clean and shiny they look.

Dealing with people is now more fraught too. With everyone having their faces covered, it’s hard to know who and what you’re dealing with in terms of emotional states. In the old, pre-pandemic days, you could always tell if someone was having a rough day and either avoid them or try to help, depending on how crazed they looked.

Now everyone looks sad, scared, and furtive. We dodge around one another like kids playing Marco Polo in a dark room.

We try to be extra courteous since we’re all in this wonderful Dumpster fire together and yet you still see human nature’s darker side winning out at times. People can be short, angry, and touchy for no discernable reason.

Some folks look very scared, especially older folks. The young can be silly and arrogant as if none of this applies to them. And the kids all look a little shell-shocked and wary. The only ones who seem oblivious are babies, who just seem to float on through being babies.

I feel for the folks who are working in stores these days. My wife and I have always been very courteous to people in stores because we’re polite people. We try very hard to respect everyone no matter what job they hold.

Well, that’s not totally true. I have little or no respect for politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy people, trial lawyers (the type that sue for a living), stockbrokers, and bankers. But I digress.

When I do speak to folks who work in stores, I always try very hard to be pleasant and polite. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to go to work every day for minimum or barely-above-minimum wage, little or no benefits, and no sick pay or leave. And yet they do it because they have to, in order to pay the rent and feed their families.

When this is all over, I truly hope these folks unionize and can force their greedy masters to treat them with respect, pay them fairly, and give them the benefits that all working people deserve. After all, if we’re giving a piece of human waste like Mitch McConnell a six-figure salary, a lifetime pension, top quality health benefits, and endless perks and sick days, then people who do real work deserve exactly the same.

But back to shopping. I find wearing masks very difficult as I find it hard to breathe in them. It makes me even more tense and, when I finally get back to the car, I can’t wait to pull it off and breathe again. The gloves, when I do wear them, don’t really bother me as I’ve used them for years in my work as a bicycle mechanic and jeweler.

Certain very dirty jobs are really done better with gloves and so we always keep a box around. When we load up the car, return our cart and get ready to drive away, there’s the ritual removal of the gloves in the prescribed fashion and then the quick spritz of hand cleaner before firing up the car and heading home.

When we get home, unload the groceries, put them all away, plug in the car to charge, and re-stash the shopping bags back in the car for the next trip, it’s time for a final hand wash. We don’t wash the groceries since the experts we tend to listen to have deemed it unnecessary unless you have special circumstances.

Then we can finally sit down and take a deep breath. We have ventured out into the infected world, taken precautions to protect ourselves and others, and made it back, hopefully still healthy.

I know this won’t last forever. Testing will ramp up to what we truly need, contact tracking will go into practice, and better treatments and ultimately a vaccine will emerge. We will make it through this, but the world really won’t ever be the same.

I hope someday shopping becomes relaxing again for us and I hope the folks in the stores can get what they need too. I want us to emerge from this mess better people living in a better world. That would be nice.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he and his wife used to consider shopping a date-night type thing; they hope to get back to that some day.

Thank you, Class of 2020, for offering me the opportunity to speak to you on this most important day. You climbed a mountain, you reached the peak, and here you sit before me, victors all; I’m thrilled to share your joy.

Your next step will be to take a short breath and consider the mountains to come.   

That might involve school, a job, or blocking out extended time to ponder what you’re meant to do in life, to find your calling as they say. I do not mean to be exclusive but I have a special place in my heart for those called to be poets and contemplatives.

When I think of life as climbing mountains, the “Purgatorio” of Dante Alighieri comes to mind, the second part of the “Divine Comedy.”

In grand poetic style, Dante says the struggle a person faces to find his true self involves not one but seven mountains. And each mountain represents a type of suffering we must go through to rid ourselves of the sin, vices, peccadillos, the falsity that keeps us confined.

Like the Desert Fathers, he called those barriers-to-selfhood “seven deadly sins,” each an attitude-cum-behavior that turns us against ourselves.

Among them are: being envious of what other people have or do (envy); acting with rage in our interactions with others (wrath); seeking more than we need in life (greed); and using power like a god to protect our possessions (pride).

In his classic work “Fear and Trembling,” the Danish philosopher-poet Søren Kierkegaard says the purgatory experience involves a scrubbing away of the rust of falsity so a person can be “that self which one truly is.” Refusing to do so, he says, is a sign of despair.

The 20th-Century psychoanalyst Carl Rogers highlighted Kierkegaard’s assessment this way: (1) the most common form of despair is “not choosing,” that is, avoiding the risk “to be oneself;” and (2) the most deadly form of despair is to choose to become someone else.

Kierkegaard and Rogers both saw that scaling the mountains to become one’s true self is the greatest responsibility we have to ourselves.

And Dante said that, when a person faces up to the transformations purgatory exacts, he becomes a spiritual being, that is, he lives with an equanimity close to happiness.

And “spiritual” does not mean something wispy and ethereal but the life of a body grounded in purpose, a body in communion with others, when political and economic realities align with justice.

In the third part of his trilogy, the “Paradiso,” Dante says no one gets to heaven who’s at odds with himself; heaven is for those who answer their calling. Such people treat others like they want to be treated, what Christians call being “Christ-like.”

The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), forever interested in human growth, saw what Dante, Kierkegaard, and Rogers saw but through a different lens.

He said, as he walked down the street, he could see in people’s faces “unlived lines,” signs of emptiness.

In the 12th poem of Book II of “The Book of Hours,” he says every forfitter’s “true face never speaks” wrapped as it is in a mask, a mask that thickens as faces are put on and cast off like old clothes.

“Somewhere there must be storehouses,” Rilke says, “where all these lives are laid away/like suits of armor or old carriages/or clothes hanging limply on the walls./Maybe all the paths lead there/to the repository of unlived things.”

Lived things have no falsity because they reflect the realized dreams Sigmund Freud spoke of in “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

We hardly hear the word “calling” anymore because long ago the Catholic Church took it over and limited its meaning to when a person becomes a priest or a nun — and, of course, the only voice worth hearing is the voice of God. Thus, all the revelations that come from the conversations we have with ourselves, deep in consciousness, are written off.

And, when we say “having a conversation with ourselves,” who is that other voice? Who are we talking to? Whatever you say, it’s certain that that voice, at its deepest, offers radical insights into our destiny and, like an empathetic friend, encourages us to persevere.

In “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” the noted New York Times columnist David Brooks says he is well aware of the pains of purgatory, and that there’s always another mountain.

And he may have added a new sin to Dante’s list: that of being an abstracted person, living an unlived life in personal relationships with others.

Brooks says that, although he achieved great fame as a journalist and thinker, the climb up the mountain-of-success rendered him “aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life.” Sounding like Augustine of Hippo he confesses, “I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship.

Dear Graduates, I beg your pardon for raising such weighty issues as you, your family, and friends are aching to go out for a bite and hoist a glass in your honor.

Take your time, enjoy the day, these questions will be here tomorrow: Who will you be in public? Who will you be in private? Will you live an unlived life and sport a face of unlived lines?

And remember, only Walt Whitman-like candor can move a person from purgatory home.

The rock musician Eddie Money used to sing a line: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise.”

I’ve got two too, one for me and the other for, well, what are you doing for the rest of your life?

On Tuesday, June 23, the Old Men of the Mountain met. That is a cool opening and in a way true. The OMOTM and a few of their wives braved the COVID-19 and decided to get together. Some wore masks but eventually removed them.

The gathering was held outdoors and the group did sit most of the time more than six feet apart, and protocols were followed in serving, cooking, and using utensils. Those who were there felt reasonably safe from the virus.

Plus it was a beautiful day sitting under a century-old cedar tree while watching an eagle snake a fish from the lake. The breeze was stiff enough to blow any germs away.

One of the conversations mentioned blocking unwanted calls on the cell phones. There were different ways offered to handle this situation. The problem was why we are now getting back into these unwanted calls. There was a short period there that we did not get many “robo” calls; it seems now they have started up again.

One person said the ones making the calls have found a way to get around the restrictions put in place to stop them. The person making the statement said, “Those restrictions lasted about two months, and that was about it.”

Talking about phones and robo calls segued into scam calls and two of the ladies at the gathering said they have received those calls and both said the caller said he was their grandson. One of the ladies was astute enough to ask the caller’s name.

“Oh dear, which one are you? What is your name?” The caller replied, “Don’t you know my name? I am your grandson.” And she hung up.

Another one was, “This is your grandson calling and I need help.”

“Where are you?” the wife of the OF asked.

“In court” was the reply.

“Yes, but what city?” the wife of the OF asked.

“New York,” was the reply.

“Yes, but what city?” the wife of the OF said, and the calling party hung up. You gotta be old to be smart.

 

Warner Lake

A conversation started on the name of Warner(s) Lake, which does not have an “s” now. “Maybe at one time it did,” one OG said. How it lost its “s” — no one knew why.

And in talking about the lake, there is one OMOTM who is a warm-weather aficionado and he follows the sun to Florida in the winter and this OF is a pilot. However, he is not familiar with some members of the early OMOTM group and that group included another OF who was a pilot.

This preceding OF had his airport at the south end of the lake. Now the OFs don’t know if the OF had engine problems, or maybe, just maybe, he kinda missed the runway one day and landed his Piper J3 in the middle of the lake.

Thank goodness Warner Lake is more of a mill pond than a lake and is not too deep. The deepest part of the lake, and it is not much, is only 50 feet. The water where the OF plopped his plane into was about 30 feet. OF course the OF made it out OK, and natives got the plane out also.

 

Map mishap

One OF mentioned he read the column last week of Google calling Fox Creek, Cobleskill Creek, and he related how Google has his driveway listed as the continuation of a road right here in East Berne. Google maps show the road going up his driveway and hooking back on the road it turned off of and it even has a name.

The OF says he has contacted Google more than once and they haven’t done anything about it. This scribe checked it out and, sure enough, there it is, just like the OF says.

 

Boat ride

One case where the distancing was broken is when the host OF took the OFs that wanted to go on a boat ride around the lake. Those that made the trip said it was fun and they had the chance to see some of the houses on the west side of the lake.

This was an odd boat because the OFs had to bring their own chairs. One OF mentioned it was like riding in the back of the pickup truck to go to the street movies in the old days in Schoharie.

Another OF brought his snorkeling gear and went for a snorkel. Upon the OFs return, he reported how shallow the lake was, and how he saw about six or eight huge carp cleaning up the bottom of the lake.

The OF assumed their weight was approximately 40 to 50 pounds. Those are some large fish, the OFs thought, and should keep the lake pretty clean.

 

Surprise

In case we decide to have another gathering at the lake please remember: Old men think fast.

An elderly man in Florida had owned a large farm for several years. One evening the old farmer decided to go down to his pond, as he hadn't been there for a while, and look it over. He grabbed a five-gallon bucket to bring back some fruit. As he neared the pond, he heard voices shouting and laughing with glee.

As he came closer, he saw it was a bunch of young women skinny-dipping in his pond. He made the women aware of his presence and they all went to the deep end.

One of the women shouted to him, “We’re not coming out until you leave!”

The old man frowned, “I didn’t come down here to watch you ladies swim naked or make you get out of the pond naked.”

Holding the bucket up he said, “I'm here to feed the alligator.”