Archive » September 2020 » Columns

This evening we sit on the banks of a something;
the sunset is jealous of the show we perform.
For a thousand years every night have we been here,
a lifetime together only God could have granted
for some charitable act we performed in a past life
when our souls were fused together as one —
before being split so we could search for each other.

You used the right code word, your smile familiar,
I instantly recognized you from afar.
But that terrible journey — behind me at last —
was a habit I knew while this love is so frightening.
For what if I lose you?  Must I find you all over again?
What if in clutching so tight[ly] you slip right through my fingers?

This is the drama that suffocátes me every second,
each moment a blessing that brings me closer to doom.
“Don’t leave me, darling”; is that too much to ask?
Can’t you stop being so selfish and just be immortal?
I had nothing to lose before the day that I met you
but now you’re the one thing I [just] can’t live without.

Thus you’re the death séntence that makes life worth living
and the sweet kiss of death that breathes life into my being.
You tell me not to worry — to enjoy what we have —
while conspiring to steal all the beats of my heart.
You smile and laugh, caress the back of my neck…
I’m just a crime scene covered in your fine fingerprints. 

We gaze across something, to that far off horizon,
the sun setting serenely as it has so many times in our past.
I’ve lived a life by your side — fingérs interlaced,
legs interwoven, arms wrapped together —
and with each step that we take my breath’s drawing quicker
as we approach your inevitable departure.

Love is willing self-torture filled with fearfúl ánticipation 
that one day it’ll be gone, that you’ll not come around,
your absence a weight that’s mortally crushing.
Like that storied tree in the woods, does a sunset exist 
if you’re not by my side to enjoy ít along with me?
An interminable nightmare of loss and nostalgia.

The joy of possession is a paradoxical curse…
for one day it’ll all be surrendered back to the cosmos
and the pain of that cápitulation, of that fateful release,
can barely be worth all that for which I’ll be left yearning.
Infinity’s fleeting, and though love may last forever,
it’s you that I want, always right here beside me.

I say: “Will I be an old man, heart shattered open
on my deathbed, my last breath whispers ‘here we go again’?”
You laugh and you answer: “It’s a privilege to chase me
forever and ever and ever again.”
Infinity’s weary, but I’ve nothing better to do,
yet which part is sadder: the search or the finding?

How dare you make me love you? How dare you make me care?  
How dare you make me vulnerable to all of life’s questions?
I was just minding my business watching shows on TV
until you came along and made each second precious.
Ok, fine, one day I’ll f--- up, or maybe you’ll die,
either way I know I’ll have tó say goodbye.

So I guess I’ll give up — just laugh right along with you 
and just squeeze you tighter, commit each heartbeat to memory.
I’m grateful yet guarded, jealous of my past self
for all of the kisses he received from your lips.
I might as well bask in the moments I’ll miss so insanely
and besides, there’s a sunset that looks pretty tonight.
You say: “The least we can do is give ít a good show.”

September 2016 

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at .


We all wish, hope, pray for this “pandemic” to be over. The disruption is getting to be a real pain. Pretty soon it will become commonplace; however, the OMOTM are still around and waiting.

It is getting close to hunting season. This is one thing that people can do and social distancing is almost automatic. Most of the time, the hunter is out there alone with his gun. Some of the OMOTM are hunters. The scribe knows this from all the stories told by the OFs and their conquests bantered around the table many times from previous years.

Out hunting with these guys must be an experience. Handling a cane and a gun at the same time is not the easiest thing to do. So one OF may be out with another OF in the woods, one has one eye, and the other has arthritis and both are carrying loaded shotguns. Now this is a combination anyone else in the woods would not want to run into because both of the OFs have hearing aids and a tendency to fire at whatever rustles.

The other eventuality that could happen and often does happen, according to the OMOTM: They do manage to bag what they are hunting for. Now comes the problem of getting the prey out of the woods. This is a real huff-and-puff situation, with many stops to let the heart get back into rhythm or catch their breath. At least with all this work it gives the OFs something to talk about at the next Tuesday’s breakfast. At times, there have been some nice show-and-tells of exploits completed with a trophy.



Fishing is better; this is another activity many of the OFs partake in and now it can be done with no worries about social distancing because in most cases again it is automatic. This is unless the OF decides to go to Pulaski and the Salmon River when the salmon are running. There, this river becomes shoulder-to-shoulder with anglers at this sport so distancing is out of the question, because any vacant spot is soon filled in with another fisherperson with their poles ready to go.

But going to a creek, or taking your boat out on the lake or pond with maybe another OF having a grand time, singing the great Johnny Russell song “There is no place I’d rather be than right here, with my rednecks, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.”

OK, now substitute “old friend” for redneck, add a beat up ole rowboat with a little 10-horsepower mercury on the stern, a full can of worms, a packed cooler, and go out on the Vlaie Pond (note: a tributary of Catskill Creek in Schoharie County. Vlaie or vly is a term brought to us from the Dutch and its meaning is swamp).

Fishing any of the local lakes or ponds for whatever would bite would be a great way to spend the day while practicing social distancing.



Some of the OFs hike, and many would like to go for a long walk in the woods, but the OFs’ hearts, legs, lungs, or feet won’t let them do it.

One OF explained, before all this started, that he was really discouraged because he was a hiker, and even maintained some of the local trails but his body won’t let him do it anymore. Now his eyes won’t even let him work in the shop.



This OF has led quite a life, and he should begin to write it down, if not for everyone else, at least for his kids. It might be a good suggestion for many OFs especially while all the faculties are still there, and the kids are still around to help out.

The problem is where and how to start. 

How about: “The first thing I can remember without help is” and go from there, backward and forward. 

Well, I just changed my password to “incorrect” so that, whenever I forget what it is, the computer will say, “Your password is incorrect.”


Every now and then you hear someone say something like: “He’s been a bachelor so long, he’ll never get married.” When I hear this, I think of some poor sap missing out on the joys of marriage and family life. I really do. There are many things I now know about myself that I would never have known if I hadn’t been living with my family all these years.

For example, I know that, at 6 a.m. in a dead-quiet house on a weekday morning, I can be heard at the kitchen table, “chewing,” way upstairs in a second-floor bedroom. Who would have ever thought eating a bowl of cereal while reading the newspaper would be anything but a solitary activity? Only someone married with children would know that.

I’ve also been told I should close the door when I go to the bathroom. Yikes. Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of Metamucil, I don’t have that problem anymore.

Apparently I close doors “too hard.” You probably think you just grab a door by the handle and close it. Not if you’re living with a family, you don’t.

The “correct” way to do it is to grab the handle, move the door to just before the closed position, then slow way down, turn the handle, gently move the door into the closed position, and then let go of the door knob very carefully so that the spring-loaded latch gently engages into the hole in the door jamb.

Got all that? Now how would a bachelor ever know that? You single guys are missing out on quite a bit, I think.

I never, ever knew that I walk up and down stairs “heavy,” but I do know now. Forget that I weigh a little more than 200 pounds. When it comes to stairs, I have to mentally imagine myself as male dancer effortlessly flitting about the stage.

But Frank, you ask, what if you’re carrying a bunch of tools up the stairs to fix a leak under an upstairs sink? No matter — don’t be “heavy” on the stairs. I’d never have known this was even a thing if I weren’t married with kids. Lucky me!

I’ve known for a long time now that I “get out of bed wrong.” Here’s the thing: You have to get out of bed in such a way that you don’t move the covers or shake the mattress or make a squeak, so that anyone else in the bed doesn’t even know you are trying to get up.

You bachelors, I feel very bad for you, since this is a skill that requires practice and dexterity. I’m still working on this one.

Let’s say you discover a new musical artist, for example, the simply wonderful Tamaryn, a young lady from New Zealand, who’s song “I’m Gone” is a swirling, ethereal performance filled with color and moods such that you are transformed into a trance-like state whenever it comes on.

If you were a bachelor or living alone, you might be tempted to turn up the old Victrola and blast that thing until you bask in all it’s avant-garde glory. But do you even consider that loud music can damage your ears?

When you live with a family like I do, loud music is not allowed under any circumstances. My ears are protected whether I want them to be or not. Safety first!

I’ve been told by family members that I don’t “wear my pants straight.” I can honestly tell you, if it weren’t for my loving and caring family members telling me this on more than one occasion, I would not even have known that there was a straightness involved in pants-wearing, even though I’ve been wearing pants my whole life.

Yes, the pants and belt need to be straight — belt centered under the belly button, seam in the rear going straight vertically down. Now, if I see a guy with “crooked” pants, I just assume he must be a bachelor. Poor sap!

Living with a family is healthy as well. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen something in the freezer like a gourmet ice-cream pop. Then I open the box and it’s empty.

Just think about that for a minute. Someone took the last ice-cream pop and left the empty box in there. Turns out that’s a good way to cut down on calories, so there you go. Think family, think health.

One day, I had finished painting something, but I knew I’d need to do a second coat, so I went for the aluminum foil so I could wrap the wet brush for the night rather than clean it. The aluminum foil has been in the same spot in my house forever, but it wasn’t that day.

Turns out the aluminum foil had been moved to a different location and no one told me. So a bachelor would never have found out that wax paper works almost as well as aluminum foil to store a wet paint brush overnight. You really do learn a lot from the family you live with. No way a bachelor ever would have found out that interesting fact.

Now just to be clear, I am loud by nature and I tend to run around like a bull in a china shop, trying to get my tasks done. Plus several in my family work odd shifts, which means they are trying to sleep during the day while I’m often running around like a maniac trying to get things done.

Believe me, if I could achieve “stealth mode” I would, but there’s only so much I can do to be invisible and unhearable. In the meantime, I’m glad I have so many loving family members watching and listening to everything I say and do.

You poor bachelors, I don't know how you get by.

Some of the Old Men of the Mountain are taking chances and are going out to a few restaurants; however, this scribe is not one of them nor are many others. As ancient as we may be, many of the OMOTM are learning to be “virtual.” This is really no fun because there is nothing like person to person, eyeball to eyeball, heinie to heinie, or any other of those people-connecting terms.

One thing about virtual ability is, if the conversation becomes a little testy and one of the ones in the virtual group says something the others don’t agree with, the OF that uttered the offensive or wrong words can’t be slugged, whereas in a real group situation the OF might have to defend himself.

This has never happened in the OMOTM for two reasons. The OFs are too old to get their arms up to slug somebody, plus most of them can’t hear anyway and sometimes disparaging remarks go right over their heads or they just hear them wrong.

We all say age is just a number and that may be so, but our bodies react differently. In many discussions, the OFs say they can’t do this or that anymore and they still try, but a few things get in the way. Arthritis is one of these things, and depth perception is another (few people realize how important this depth perception is). One can hurt like crazy (the arthritis), and the other is painless and creeps in without the OFs knowing it.


When everyday life is too much like work

Another item is, for some reason, the OFs become tired easier and earlier. Of course the other ailments let the OFs know they are around, and sometimes the OFs fail to acknowledge their existence, but the body doesn’t.

In conversations with the OGs, the indication that some of the above is taking hold, and in some cases not slowing the OFs down, but it is just the words used. For instance, one OF complained about how long it takes him to get showered and dressed.

According to this OF, he thought it was just part of the daily routine. The OF would do both, go down have breakfast and go about his business. Recently he noticed that the shower took more time and, when he got out, it was like he had just finished some work.

Then, the OF continued, he rested a bit before he got dressed, and it was just until recently he was able to do that without much complaining. Then, suddenly, getting dressed was a form of work, and he just recently realized that also.

To add to this (and again it was a recent add to the morning routine), he sat down to put on his socks. His question was: When did all this happen? He feels just the same, and he does pretty much the same thing but now this bit of everyday life is getting to be too much like work.

Some of the OFs agreed with this guy and a few of those admitted having the same thing begin to happen to them. An OF said he was checking the clock just the other day because he thought he was having breakfast later, and the OF found that he was a whole half-hour later.  

One OF added to the conversation: “Just wait until one day you begin to notice the ache in your hands doesn’t go away. What you thought was because you bumped your hand is not what is hurting,” the OF said. “It is the beginning of arthritis. Welcome to getting old.”

This was the term the other OFs did not want to accept. They insisted they would continue to do what they were doing. The OFs agreed this was the thing to do, and so most of them try to keep on keeping on.


The thick of things 

As this scribe keeps reporting on the OFs activities, the OGs for the most part, are still in the thick of things. A few have had to slow down because the ailments and doctor appointments get in the way. One OF said, if you looked at his calendar, it looks like the OF is a pretty busy guy, but most of the dates are doctors’ appointments, or physical-therapy appointments, mixed in with a few birthdays and social events, and church work. 

Today, this scribe wonders what the calendar would look like minus the social events and church work. This scribe knows it is becoming rather boring hunkering down and not seeing all the OMOTM, the table laughter, and the discussions. The scribe keeps mentioning the hobbies of the OMOTM, but as with this scribe, the human connection is very important; soon the hobbies become more like work and not as much fun.


Flying high

We have one OF who really knows about social distancing and he is keeping the other OFs that are joined on Facebook with him interested in what will be his next local aerial presentation. As long as the weather is good, this OF takes his plane, flies over the area, and on Facebook posts his latest shot.

If the OFs who get his pictures and then save them to photos and then enlarge them, it’s fun to see what the OF is able to pick out. Like we mentioned above, some hobbies do keep us occupied.


OFs’ texting decoded

And another thing. We hear that some senior citizens have taken to texting with gusto. Texting keeps them in touch with their friends and even their grandchildren. These OFs have their own vocabulary:

— BFF: Best Friend Fainted;

— BYOT: Bring Your Own Teeth;

— CBM: Covered by Medicare;

— FWB: Friend with Beta-blockers;

— LMDO: Laughing My Dentures Out; and

— GGPBL: Gotta Go, Pacemaker Battery Low!

The one thing you can say about 2020 is that it’s been an unusual year in almost all ways. From a global pandemic to an impeachment trial and the most unusual and unprecedented presidential campaign in the history of this country.

But on a more mundane level, things have been odd too. For instance, discarded masks and gloves now litter the landscape instead of candy wrappers and beer cans. The garage-sales season, of all things, was impacted to such a degree that people have resorted to giving things away on an almost daily basis. It’s become the year of the freebie.

Starting in late March and early April, folks began to leave stuff at the curb with “free” signs. It ranged from single items to whole tables and piles of things. Clothes, toys, houseware, electronics, books, movies, bikes, you name it; and somebody was giving it away.

As serious garage-sale folks, my wife and I took a keen interest in this phenomenon. We have discussed it quite a bit and have theorized that the reason for all this sudden largesse was due to several factors.

The biggest issue was the fact that people were stuck at home for almost two months and so had more than enough time to notice how cluttered their homes were. That led to a gathering phase that left them feeling better with neater spaces but then left them with things that needed to find new homes.

With garage sales a non-starter until late April or May, when the governor approved them, folks began to take to social media to announce the availability of their unwanted stuff. Some, of course, was up for sale, but many things were free.

We found ourselves wandering the village and sometimes further afield and finding things for the house, the grand babies, the kids, family, and friends. And we’ve also dabbled ourselves, getting rid of bikes, a couch, magazines, books, DVDs, and other stuff I’ve already forgotten.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Once garage sales started up again, the freebies didn’t stop. In fact, we were at one garage sale where everything, but one pile of clothes, was totally free.

I think that many people have found that amid the Dumpster fire that is 2020, there have been many opportunities to help others. And, surprise, that makes most people feel pretty good.

While you can’t do much about being laid off, having to teach your kids from home, or having to work from home, you can make your space feel better. There’s nothing like that lightness you get from clearing up a previously cluttered space.

Then add to that, the pleasure you get giving your formerly useless stuff to someone who really can use it. It’s the ultimate win-win scenario.

Plus, just to add a bit of environmentalism, you’ve kept a bunch of stuff out of the waste stream. It also adds to the message that things do not create happiness, no matter what the marketers keep telling you. Ironically, owning fewer things seems to have that effect.

I have no idea where we’ll be at this point next year. Neither does anyone else except maybe the space aliens who are orbiting in stealth mode and watching us flail around like it’s a weekly sitcom.

By this time next year, we may have a new president, a COVID vaccine, and an overall improvement in the basic situation we all find ourselves in. Or not.

But whatever happens, 2020 can be thought of as the year of the freebie. Not just the year of COVID, or the collapse of the world economy, or the end of democracy in the United States, or the death of the restaurant.

I hope 2021 is better than 2020 in all ways. And if the freebies continue, that would be really cool too. Less is more, folks.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he and his wife have been avid garage-sale goers, beachcombers, and users of found objects for decades; it’ll take more than a pandemic to stop that.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci
The view south from the trail to The Snow Hole shows Berlin Mountain rising in the center, the highest point in Rensselaer County.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci
The shady, moss-lined Snow Hole resembles a limestone sink hole. Except during mid-summer, its floor never receives sunlight and traps winter's cold air.

— Photo by Mike Nardacci
Research assistant Devin Delevan holds an ice ball made from snow compressed at the bottom of the fissure.

"Fat Man's Misery" in Thacher Park

This archival photo of "Fat Man's Misery" in Thacher Park shows how weathering agents have separated a huge section of the cliff from the bedrock; the force of gravity will someday cause it to crash down to the talus slope beneath it.

To cross the Hudson River and head east on routes 43 or 2 or 7 onto the Rensselaer Plateau is to enter a landscape vastly different both geologically and topographically from that west of the river.

The Mohawk-Hudson lowlands stretching from Albany north to the shores of Lake George are composed of sand deposited on the shore of glacial Lake Albany, which formed over 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age and feature low, rolling hills and scattered lakes formed from glacial meltwater. 

To the west and south of Albany rises the northernmost section of the Appalachian Plateau — called “the Helderberg Plateau” or simply “the Helderbergs” locally — consisting of mostly flat layers of sedimentary rock: sandstone, shale, and limestone deposited in the late Silurian and Devonian Periods of geologic history. Famous throughout the world to geologists, the layers — or “strata” — contain a vast collection of fossils of ancient species and have been called “the key to the geology of North America.” 

The strata that once lay under the sea were elevated by plate tectonic movements during the “Appalachian Orogeny” some 290 million years ago when the land masses that would eventually be known as Europe and North America crashed together in the formation of the super-continent we call Pangaea. East of the river, Ordovician-age rocks took the full force of the collision, and were compressed, folded, and elevated much as the hoods of two colliding cars would be; to the west the Appalachian Plateau was elevated but little deformed — much, say, as the rear parts of the crashing cars might be pushed up above the chassis. 

There was a time far earlier — some 475 million years ago — when the east coast of what would eventually become North America was located somewhere near what is today the Hudson Valley.  It collided with another land mass consisting of volcanic islands in the great event called the Taconian Orogeny, pushing up mountains that may once have been as high as the Himalaya. Imagine today looking east from Troy and Albany and seeing a range of jagged, snow-capped peaks over 20,000 feet high!

Deep within these mountains, pressures were unimaginable and the rocks there were twisted and distorted and the resultant heat cooked the rocks in the process known as “metamorphism,” forming new minerals and rock types: slate, phyllite, gneiss, and schist, often laced with thick veins of milky quartz. Excellent displays are visible in Petersburg Pass on Route 2 not far from Williamstown.

But the inexorable forces of weathering and erosion — rain, wind, and sculpting glaciers — tore away at the peaks over millions of years. Their remnants in our part of the world — a series of much lower, often steep-sided knobs and ridges — are often called “the Berkshire Hills,” though Berlin Mountain above Petersburg Pass is a very respectable 2,818 feet in elevation, the highest point in Rensselaer County. 

Examine the bedrock that is exposed in the pass — or bordering the ski trails on the summit of its neighbor to the south, Jiminy Peak — and you will find twisted and distorted cliffs and ravine walls of heavily fractured phyllite, a metamorphosed form of shale.

Both Jiminy Peak and Berlin Mountain are features of the Taconic Crest Trail, a 37-mile-long hiking path stretching from south to north, weaving in and out of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Extending 60 miles or more on clear days, views from it are often stunning, especially in the fall when the hardwood trees that cover the surrounding slopes put on their spectacular colors.


The hike

From a parking lot on the high point of Route 2 at Petersburg Pass near where the borders of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont come together, one segment of the Taconic Crest Trail leads south to Berlin Mountain. Another moderately challenging portion of the trail begins on the north side of the highway, leading to the curious feature known as “The Snow Hole”; it can be done as part of a much longer day hike starting farther south or as a 5-mile round trip from the parking lot.

Its ups and downs are for the most part not particularly steep — but as a friend of mine remarked, “It’s just that there are an awful lot of them!” In other words, good hiking shoes and perhaps a walking stick along with water and trail snacks are necessities and, given the often changeable weather, a rain slick is a good idea in warmer months. In winter, the trail is a superb and challenging snowshoe hike, but winds on the Taconic Crest Trail can be fierce and mandate a warm parka.

A steep but short pitch at the start of the trail soon begins to level out and offers an impressive view of the summit of Berlin Mountain and of the eastern and western slopes of Petersburg Pass. Though today the slopes are thickly overgrown with hardwoods, sporadically from 1962 until around 1980 there were trails here for downhill skiing at what was called Petersburg Pass Ski Center. 

On clear days, the ski trails of Jiminy Peak and Bousquet may be visible, as well as the rhythmically rising and falling Berkshires to the east and the Helderberg Plateau to the west. A glance at a topographic map of the area shows that the trail runs first along the side of and then on top of a narrow, steep-sided ridge geologists call an arete.

Aretes form in areas previously glaciated when glaciers descend from opposite sides of a mountain, creating the feature that is also sometimes called a “knife edge.” The knife edge on Maine’s Mount Katahdin is undoubtedly the best-known in the east and has long been a heart-pounding challenge for climbers.

But the arete en route to The Snow Hole is far more user-friendly; it is broader and that fact and the thick forests of maple, oak, and paper-birch that cover the slopes bordering this trail prevent any dangerous exposure. There are occasional herd paths that wander from the trail, but the main route is wide and well-marked.

A hard-to-find side path departs from the trail at one point, leading upwards to a feature called “Jim Smith Hill.” This is supposedly named for the “James Smith Club” the main requirement for joining this national social organization is to be named “James Smith” (variant spellings of the names are allowed). Why this bump on the ridge was so named is as obscure as the feature itself.

The trail subsequently passes through a constantly changing variety of meadows and forests with occasional long views to the southern stretch of the Berkshires and west to Albany before reaching a loop trail marked by a sign directing hikers to “The Snow Hole.” After a few hundred feet, the trail begins to descend the north side of the ridge leading to a feature that looks for all the world like one of the sinkholes in the limestone karst areas of Albany or Schoharie counties.


The Snow Hole

The Snow Hole is a vertical fissure in the bedrock lined with mosses and other moisture-loving plants.  One end offers a fairly easy descent to the bottom while the other end is a precipitous 60-foot drop. But the fissure is narrow enough and deep enough that its bottom never gets direct sunlight — and that leads to the conditions from which it gets its name.

Well into summer and occasionally into early fall, the bottom of The Snow Hole has a thick deposit of ice formed from pressure exerted by the deep snows that accumulate on the higher summits of the Berkshires during their long winters.

Sinkholes form commonly in carbonate bedrock such as limestone and marble when mildly acidic water from rainfall or runoff percolates through fissures and dissolves the rock, often feeding cave systems below. But The Snow Hole is what is known as a tectonic feature, formed by physical forces.

The steep slope of the ridge contains extensive cracks in its bedrock known as joints that run parallel to the ridge line. Over millennia, water and ice have eroded this fissure and, because it is located on the very steep north slope of the ridge, it has widened and deepened under the pull of gravity. Several much narrower fissures are found between The Snow Hole and the main ridge trail.

Another result of these same processes can be found in Thacher Park at the narrow cleft in the rock known for a century as “Fat Man’s Misery,” which offers access to the trail leading to Hailes Cave though it does not collect lingering snow. A massive section of the limestone has separated from the cliff and gravity has pulled it away sufficiently to allow slender hikers to traverse it. Someday it will tumble from the cliff and crash onto the talus slope below as have many such masses before it.

And this is the fate that ultimately awaits The Snow Hole of Petersburg Pass. Over time, the accumulating snows within it will continue to be compressed into ice, which will further deepen and enlarge the fissure; as the steep hillside is carved away by the agents of erosion the outer wall will collapse and become part of the talus slope that falls away into Vermont.

But there is another fissure between The Snow Hole and the top of the ridge that will also continue to deepen and widen — and some millennia from now it may become the next Snow Hole as the forces of weathering and erosion continue their relentless assault on the ancient bedrock of the Berkshires.



— Painting by John R. Williams

 Jacob Van Aernam, Revolutionary war hero, and his barn, still standing on Brandle Road, just outside of Altamont, was painted by John R. Williams of Knox for a Van Aernam descendant. The Van Aernam cemetery is still there, too. Jacob Van Aernam is waving to Sam, an enslaved person whom, family lore has it, saved Van Aernam’s life.

Most New Yorkers know that slavery once existed here, but few are aware that not only the wealthy, but a large number of ordinary New Yorkers benefited from the labor of enslaved men and women.  For two centuries or longer, slaves were toiling on many of Guilderland’s farms or in local taverns, their names and labors long forgotten.

Within a short time after the Dutch established the Colony of New Netherland in the 1600s, Africans were imported, beginning a history of slavery in New York that lasted until 1827. In the colony, and after 1776 the State of New York, slaves were more numerous than in any of the other northern states in the new republic.

In 1771, shortly before the American Revolution, Albany County counted 3,877 Blacks, almost all of whom would have been slaves.

A glimpse of slavery and the contemporary attitudes of Albany’s white citizens were provided by Mrs. Anne Grant in her 1808 “Memoirs of An American Lady.” Having resided in Albany for many years in the last decades of the 18th Century, she had ample opportunity to observe life there, concluding that local slaves were “happy in servitude, being generally hardworking and loyal to their masters.”

According to her portrayal, physical punishments were rare, but for the few who were really wayward slaves, neglecting their duties, stealing, being disloyal or partial to alcohol, the threat of being shipped to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations kept most of them in line, she wrote.

Slave ownership did not seem immoral or to have bothered the consciences of Albany County slave owners. In their view, religious beliefs did not preclude people from slave ownership and, since mention of slavery had appeared in the Bible, slave owners “had not the smallest scruple of conscience with regard to the right by which they held them in subjection,” Mrs. Grant wrote.

Her conclusion that “the slaves were usually faithful and true to their masters and mistresses, as aside from their being bond slaves and chattels, their lot was comparatively happy” was an opinion that would have been typical of most New York slave owners of the time.

By the mid-1700s, early settlers had begun to establish homes in the area of Albany County that eventually became the town of Guilderland. Arthur Gregg, our late town historian wrote, “The old settlers seemed to have easily absorbed the idea of slavery and took pride in the rapidity with which they could afford them.”

Jacob Van Aernam was a colonial settler known to have owned at least one slave at the time of the Revolutionary War. Van Aernam family tradition claimed that, while an enslaved person named Sam — only his first name is given — was working with Jacob Van Aernam in one of his fields, Sam became aware of a rustling sound in the brush and immediately alerted his master. Van Aernam quickly seized the gun he always carried with him in those troubled times and, thanks to Sam’s warning, managed to rout a stealthily approaching band of Tories.

With the ratification of the Constitution, the extent of slavery in Guilderland becomes more carefully documented by the decennial censuses beginning in 1790. With 3,929 enslaved persons and 170 free Blacks, Albany County had more slaves than any other county in the state except New York City.

While at that time Gulderland was still part of the town of Watervliet, familiar Guilderland names stand out among a much longer list of Watervliet’s population. Henry Appel, owner of the Appel Inn, owned one slave; Jacob Van Aernam owned three, and Barent Mynderse owned four.

The 1800 census enumerated 412 enslaved persons living in the town of Watervliet. At this time, Henry Appel, Frederick Crounse, and Jacob Van Aernam each possessed five slaves, while Lucas Veeder and Barent Mynderse each owned four. Many others owned one or two.

Barent Mynderse, like Jacob Van Aernam, had been a local patriot who played an important part in the Revolutionary War. He was born and lived as an adult in the Freeman House, owning a sizable piece of land there.

His son was Nicholas V. Mynderse, who built the tavern that is now called the Mynderse-Frederick House in 1802 and a year later was elected first town supervisor when Guilderland officially became a separate town.

In the 1790 and 1800 censuses, Nicholas Mynderse does not show up in the records, probably because he was still part of his father’s household. Only the names of heads of households were listed in early United States census records; other family members were listed by sex, age, and race. By the time of the 1810 census, he had died. The question of whether his father’s slaves helped to construct or serve in his tavern cannot be answered without further documentation.

The northern antislavery movement became stronger in the years after the Revolutionary War, leading to the other northern states abolishing slavery one by one. In New York after the Revolutionary War, the number of enslaved persons actually increased with 21,000 slaves in servitude in the late 18th Century.

Although some New York citizens were in favor of emancipation, freedom for the slaves came slowly with much opposition especially from rural areas. Manumission — an owner freeing his slaves — became a major divisive political issue of the day.


Gradual emancipation

Finally, in 1799, the New York State Legislature passed an act gradually freeing slaves. The complicated law stated slaves born before July 4, 1799 would remain as lifelong slaves unless freed by their owner. However, a male born after that date remained a slave until his 28th birthday while a female remained a slave until her 25th birthday, both serving their mother’s master.

Included in the 1799 slave legislation was the provision that babies born of slaves after this time must be registered with the state. Also included was a clause allowing masters to collect a stipend if slave babies were freed within a year of their birth.

As a result, these children were paupers, allowing the overseer of the poor to make them bond servants of the masters who were then paid a monthly fee of $3.50 for each. This explains why in our early town records the following notices are quoted in the Howell and Tenney 1886 “History of Albany County, NY”:

“I do hereby give notice that my Negro wench Dianna was, on the 20th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1802, delivered of a male child named Simon, and that I shall abandon the said child agreeable to the act in that case made and provided. Dated this 28th day of April 1803. Frederick Crounse”

Similar notices were given by Peter Veeder, abandoning his slave Susan’s female child named Gin, and John Howard, abandoning his slave Gin’s male child named Yeat. Henry Appel abandoned three babies, all children of his slave Maria, born between 1801 and 1803, two boys named Jan and Joe and a girl named Gin. And James LaGrange abandoned a male child named Jock, son of Phoebe.

This law was so popular with slave owners that by 1804 the state had paid out over $20,000, a huge sum at that time. The legislature quickly revoked that clause of the law.

Slaves continued to be legally bought and sold in the state until the final emancipation law of 1827. In the Guilderland Historical Society Archives may be seen a 1793 sales contract between Casper M. Halenbeek of Coxsackie who was selling a “certain Negro wench named Zann (Fann?) aged twenty two years together with her child named Maria nearly two years old soundly without any ailments or old disorder” to Hendrick Shavier (Henry Shave?) of the Town of Watervliet for 65 pounds (Americans frequently continued to use English denominations in the years shortly after the Revolution).

George Severson operated a tavern at the base of the escarpment on the Old Schoharie Road (now the site of Altamont’s Stewart’s Shop) with the help of slaves. A Severson family member remembered a story told of an enslaved woman named “old Gin,” spinning before the fire in the late 1700s in the basement of the tavern.

When George Severson died in 1814, all of his worldly goods were inventoried in preparation for a public auction. Listed between 6 brooms with an estimated worth of $.75 and 7 feather beds estimated to be worth $70 was “1 Negro wench estimated to be worth $70 and l Negro girl $40.”

A year earlier, Severson had purchased the approximately 37-year-old Nan for $100 from a Schoharie man; the bill of sale and complete inventory are found in Chapter XXVII of Arthur Gregg’s “Old Hellebergh.” At the auction, both Nan and the nameless girl were purchased by one-time town Supervisor Peter Van Patten for $191, higher than the inventory estimate. Being that he paid a higher price than the estimate, it is likely one or more persons also bid against him to own these two women.

Although it was illegal to do so, in the years just before the end of slavery in New York, slaves were often sold South where they were in great demand. It is not known if any slaves in Guilderland suffered this fate.



As chattel or personal property, enslaved people were part of a deceased person’s estate and were very often passed down to heirs. Jacob Van Aernam’s 1812 will left his slave Sam, his protector during the Revolution, to his sons, John and Thomas, and to his single daughter, Nancy, while to his daughter, Lany, “my young female slave named Chris” and to his daughter Nancy “my youngest Negro slave named Gannet.”

When enslaved African Americans died, finally finding rest and peace, their bodies were interred in the individual family burial grounds on their owners’ farms that existed before large cemeteries were established.

Arthur Gregg mentions the Severson family cemetery where “the graves of slaves are marked with simple fieldstones.” As for the Crounses, “south of their own graveyard may be seen that reserved for the Crounse slaves after their toil was over.”

William Brinkman, an earlier Guilderland town historian, wrote that on the Lainhart farm “colored people are buried in the southeast corner of the plot.” Since the 1810 census lists 37 Guilderland residents owning 66 slaves, there were certainly many other family plots where slaves had been laid to rest over the decades that slavery existed in Guilderland.


Finally, freedom

The 1810 census shows that, in addition to the 66 slaves in Guilderland, there were 54 “free Negroes,” the term used to describe Blacks at that time. Many households had a combination of slave and free Blacks.

Matthew Frederick’s household had one slave and two free Negroes while Barent Mynderse had three slaves and one free Negro. A few residents, such as innkeeper William McKown and John Fryer, each had one free Black person in their households.

Slowly, slavery was dying out. In 1820, the number of slaves had dropped to 47 with 25 free Negroes in town.

Political agitation to totally end slavery continued with strong dissention between the Federalist and Republican parties until finally, under pressure from Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, in 1817, the New York State Legislature passed a law freeing all slaves including those born before 1799 on July 4, 1827.

As sort of a postscript to slavery in Guilderland, in May 1894, an announcement of the death of “old aunt Dinah Wilda, colored,” appeared in the Guilderland column of The Altamont Enterprise. It explained she had been born in 1800 and purchased as a 6-year-old by a grandfather of Dr. Abram DeGraff, Guilderland’s well known doctor.

She remained with the family after the abolition of slavery for three generations and, according to the writer, “was much respected by all who knew her and was always treated as one of the family.” She wasn’t living in Guilderland at the time of her death, but her body was returned to her original home, where her funeral took place at Hamilton Presbyterian Church and burial followed in the DeGraff family plot in Prospect Cemetery.

Later in the 19th Century, as descendants of the original slave owners looked back, their attitude would have been much the same as Mrs. Grant’s. Their ancestors’ slaves were treated kindly and were happy with their lot in life, they maintained.

Howell and Tenney described the institution as “mild” in Guilderland. We know better.

Just imagine yourself being in the situation of the enslaved, overworked Sam or Maria or Nan. Imagine the fear for her future of the unnamed young girl who was auctioned off or of that terrified little 6-year-old Dinah purchased by Dr. DeGraff’s grandfather — and judge for yourself.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ward’s Store on Route 20 in Guilderland was one of many stores in operation during the Great Depression. Not only did it offer food, but served as the post office and had gas pumps as well. Note the WGY sign about the entry. In recent years, the building was taken down for Guilderland Fire Department expansion.  ​

Imagine a family of four seated at their dinner table, sharing one or two frankfurters sliced into a bowl of macaroni covered with a tomato soup sauce accompanied by a side dish of a can of green beans or corn. Sound far-fetched?

During the 1930s, such a meal would not have been unusual for a family headed by an unemployed breadwinner or one whose wages and hours had been cut. While not every family in Guilderland was so impoverished, there were others who were suffering.

The following notice appeared in the Village Notes column in the Nov. 4, 1932 Enterprise: “While the thoughts of many of our residents are on unemployment relief, it might be well to remind ourselves that there are many others in need of help at this time of the year. The Enterprise knows of one case, not far from Altamont, where a middle-aged woman, who is caring for her little nephew, is almost destitute.

“She has been unable to obtain work of any kind. If this notice strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of those who read it, the Enterprise will be glad to furnish the name of the person needing help — or the Enterprise will receive and dispense gifts received from our readers. The need for help is urgent.”

By 1932, the unemployment rate in the United States had risen to 23.6 percent and a year later hit an all-time high of 24.9 percent.

Examples of local charity for the truly destitute made its way into the pages of The Enterprise at times, often involving young people. A Dec. 1, 1933 headline read, “Local High School Pupils Bring Thanksgiving Cheer.” The story described the efforts of Altamont High School students who raised $30, allowing them to fill 11 baskets with chickens, vegetables, and fruit to be distributed to needy families.

The committee for the 1932 Sunday School and congregational Christmas party at St John’s Lutheran Church requested that attendees bring a donation to be given to the needy. Earlier, the church’s primary Bible Classes had run a food sale with proceeds dedicated to purchasing Christmas gifts and food for the needy.

The public was urged to “buy and help encourage the young folks in well doing.” A tremendous amount of charity was done quietly over those Depression years, much of the time individuals helping to assist friends or family members who were in dire financial straits.

Even for those steadily employed, average wages were low. Workers such as farm hands, waiters, and dressmakers earned under $1,000 each year at a time when the average annual wage was estimated to be $1,368. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents.

Even though the 1933 dollar had the buying power of $19.61 in 2020 dollars, enabling the fortunate few who had high wages or salaries to live well, the average American found it challenging to meet everyday expenses, especially putting food on the table.


Home grown

Family farms, still very common in 1930s Guilderland, could easily supply their owners much of their own food. Even townspeople in local hamlets and the village of Altamont often had large backyard gardens and fruit trees.

For anyone without a garden, some local farmers, themselves trying to earn some income, opened farm stands. William Hartmann set up opposite the McKownville Methodist Church; his stand was open six days a week — even evenings. In Altamont, Charles H. Britton, a Parkers Corners’ farmer, offered his “full line of fresh vegetables each day” and at “very reasonable prices.”

Other farmers such as Oakley V. Crounse sold fruit, dairy products, chickens, and eggs from their own farms. Kolenska Dairy Farm in Guilderland offered both raw and pasteurized milk and would deliver.

Come winter, fresh fruits and vegetables were a rarity, forcing everyone to turn to canned foods, either grocery-store brands or for the lucky ones, home-canned fruits and vegetables. By mid- to late summer home-canning supplies were a common feature in supermarket ads running in The Enterprise.

The Super Market offered Ball quart jars at 62 cents per dozen and pints at 52 cents per dozen, while at Central Markets prices were 4 cents for one dozen jar rubbers, 21 cents for one dozen Mason jar tops, 9 cents for a large package of parowax, 23 cents for Certo and 62 cents for one dozen quart Mason jars.

If canning pickles were on the agenda, pure cider vinegar was 17 cents (plus jug deposit) and cans of spices were 10 cents each. In 1938, The Enterprise writer from Guilderland Center noted in her column, “Vlasta Drahos is again champion canner of this vicinity. She was awarded first prize in the 4-H department of the Altamont Fair for canned fruit, for tomatoes and tomato juice and second prize for vegetables.”


“These days of thrift”

Deciding what to feed the family was made easier for housewives who could turn on their radios for food programs that offered recipes and suggestions. On WGY, there was Food Talk with Col. Goodbody, WGY Household Chats, the Radio Household Institute or the A & P program. For years, the United States Bureau of Home Economics sponsored a radio show where “Aunt Sammy” discussed housekeeping and feeding the family.

By the early 1930s, the U.S. Printing Office had produced several hundred thousand copies of Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, available free to help housewives through what the government called, “these perilous times,” “these days of thrift,” “this frugal period.”

Appearing periodically in The Enterprise were menu suggestions from Ann Page, “spokeswoman” for the A & P supermarket chain. Tactfully appealing to all levels of income, here is a sample of “her” suggestions: For a low-cost dinner, serve braised lamb shanks, potatoes, mashed yellow turnip, bread and butter, vanilla pudding with preserves, tea or coffee, and milk while for a medium cost dinner the housewife could serve chicken fricassee, boiled rice, carrots and peas, bread and butter, chocolate cream pie, tea or coffee or milk. A very special dinner suggestion was cranberry and orange-juice cocktail, chicken pie, browned sweet potatoes, creamed onions, green salad, French dressing, hot rolls and butter, jelly roll, tea or coffee or milk.

Even the most self-sufficient housewife or farm wife was forced at least some of the time to shop at a local grocery store or supermarket.

Both Empie’s Market in Guilderland Center and Ward’s Store in Guilderland were affiliated with the WGY buying network, actually named after the radio station, but not connected with it. The increased buying power of this large group of independently owned stores allowed the local WGY grocers to offer weekly specials and regularly advertise in The Enterprise.

Altamont had independently-owned stores such as Hudson Food Store, Altamont Cash Market, and Pangburn’s Food Store, although they may not have all operated during the same years. Altamont Cash Market offered a pound of soup bones for 5 cents, stew beef  for10 cents per pound, stew veal for 10 cents per pound, lamb stew for 10 cents per pound, and butt or shank ham ends for 22 cents per pound.

Cash Store butcher Charles Ricci was selling a pound of shoulder veal for 25 cents or a pound of veal chops for 28 cents to those who could afford prime meat. These small stores faced stiff competition from two national chain super markets, the A & P and the Grand Union, both of which had expanded their chains into Altamont

Compared to modern supermarkets, these were relatively small stores but had great buying power and were able to offer lower prices than local independently-owned markets. To their advantage, the locally-owned markets offered credit to customers who didn’t always have ready cash and they would make deliveries. Neither the Grand Union nor the A & P advertised regularly in The Enterprise.

Two Schenectady-based supermarkets did seek to attract Guilderland customers, possibly because a certain number of local people worked at General Electric or other jobs in the Schenectady area and traveled back and forth. Advertising regularly in The Enterprise were The Super Market with two Schenectady stores on Broadway and Central Market, and the two local Golub stores that grew to become the Market 32/Price Chopper chain today.

Closest to Guilderland was their store at 2600 Guilderland Avenue, touted in their ads as “most convenient if you live in or near Altamont.” “Shop the easy basket way” meant serving yourself but, if you didn’t mind traveling a few miles and had cash to pay, a budget-minded customer could snag some real bargains.

Central Market’s clever merchandising included staying open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and assuring shoppers there were plenty of parking spaces. Quoted in one of its 1934 ads was, “For the past year my friends have talked about nothing but Central Market and their easy prices. Now I’m talking Central, too.”

A three-store Albany chain called Trading Port also appeared in The Enterprise, appealing to McKownville folks with the slogan, “Every day a bargain day, shop and save the basket way.” Its location was 1237 Western Ave. at the city line.

Unlike the local independent stores, both Schenectady supermarkets offered prices with half cents. Central Market was selling cans of fancy pumpkin for seven-and-a -half cents, a pound of Maxwell House coffee for twenty-four-and-a-half cents and genuine Long Island ducklings for nineteen-and-a-half cents per pound.

Some samples from The Super Market were pork loin roast for eighteen-and-a-half cents per pound, a package of Grape Nuts Flakes for nine-and-a-half cents and California sardines for seven-and-a-half cents.


Dining out

Dining out was another option that families could enjoy, although restaurant dining seemed rare and few restaurant ads ever appeared during those years. Scanning the local columns of The Enterprise shows a tremendous amount of visiting among friends and relatives, often with dinner or luncheon mentioned.

For families with some spare cash, church suppers offered the dual opportunity to socialize, and to dine out at a reasonable cost. In 1932, when the Ladies’ Aid Society of St. John’s Lutheran Church put on its annual chicken and waffle supper, approximately 200 attended.

The Village Notes column pointed out, “…while the patronage fell off fully a third from last year due to current conditions, the supper was reported a success and a considerable sum of money raised.”

The coming-events columns frequently mentioned church dinners. McKownville Methodist Church, Hamilton Presbyterian Church, Parkers Corners Methodist Church, and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church all had dinners or food sales of some sort.

For 75 cents in early October 1935, you could stop by the Hamilton Presbyterian Church for a chicken dinner with chicken, biscuits, dressing, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, cabbage salad, jello, rolls, apple and pumpkin pies, and coffee on the menu.

A few weeks earlier, the Parkers Corners Methodist Church was charging adults 50 cents and children under 12 could eat for 25 cents. The Harvest Home Supper menu: roast lamb, mashed potatoes, corn, pickles, rolls, coffee, and jello.

At times, other groups such as the 4-H and Altamont Businessmen’s Bowling League also offered suppers as well.

Like the rest of America, some of Guilderland’s families sailed through the Great Depression easily and could take advantage of the depressed prices to live very well.

Most were forced to be very thrifty to manage to eat, pay the rent or property taxes, run their car and heat their house, while there were others in our town who suffered poverty, deprivation, and sometimes malnutrition.

For most Americans, the Great Depression years were a very trying time.

The OMOTM will continue with some of what the OGs did 30 or 40 years ago — maybe even longer. When the group was just beginning (before the OMOTM ever dreamed they would be a larger group of old guys) we, at that time, did not consider the group as old. The assemblage would all fit in one car and we took turns being the chauffeur.

No one minded the others driving until we had an OF join the group that everyone knew. He was a nice enough OG even though he was a hay dealer, as well as a farmer. Farmers were really OK guys until they had the distinction of being a hay dealer added to their résumés. The hay dealer bought and sold hay from farmer to farmer.

Herbie Wolford sold his own excess hay. That was a big difference. This particular OMOTM, who is being remembered here (name withheld) purchased hay from other farmers and re-sold it to still other farmers. A lot of this OF’s business was in Canada; the OG did cart it all over the place.

Most of the time he hauled it himself, so he was gone a lot from the farm. This may be one of the reasons his wife ran off with the hired hand. That is another story.

One would think the thousands of miles he put behind the wheel of a hay truck would make him a good driver, and he did have to know what he was doing because, as far as the OMOTM know, this OF never had an accident, or a citation. Nevertheless his driving with the OFs was atrocious.

When it was his turn to drive, everyone one shuddered; some did not want to go if they had to ride with him. No one wanted to sit up front. It was not speed that was a factor; it was the fact that he considered both sides of the road to be his. The solid yellow line meant nothing; neither did stop signs, sharp turns, or slow-moving tractors.

One day, it was this OF’s turn to drive and the restaurant that particular Tuesday happened to be the Hilltown Café in Rensselaerville. At that time, a young couple was just getting the restaurant started and the OMOTM wanted to help. That the young lady getting it going was sociable and pretty didn’t hurt.

The OFs were in no hurry to leave Herbie’s residence and the last one out had to sit up front. The route the OFs took to Rensselaerville was (anyone familiar with the Hilltowns will be able to follow this, the others will have to use their imaginations) Pleasant Valley Road to Rock Road, Rock Road to Switzkill Road (County Route 1).

From Rock Road to County Route 1 there is a little connector road about 1,000 feet and it crosses Helderberg Trail, State Route 443, by the cemetery on the hill outside of Berne. Going toward Rensselaerville there is a blind curve coming from Gallupville that goes around the cemetery. This intersection crosses Route 443 at this point.

The driver that morning for the OMOTM took that route and approached this intersection on the connector road at full speed. He did not slow down or stop or even look right or left, but zipped right through the intersection crossing Route 443 like it wasn’t even there.

One could hear a pin drop in that car for the next five miles. The first words spoken came from Herbie in the back seat. “Anybody got dry pants?” he asked.

The final incident that had the OFs request that this OF save the gas, plus wear and tear of his vehicle and asked not to drive any more was on Old Stage Road just outside of Altamont on top of the hill. Again, anyone that knows the road knows that there is a section that is very steep, and winds up as part of the escarpment that is Thacher Park.

The OF who is being talked about was the driver for the day and he was dropping off riders as they headed back to Herbie’s home after breakfast. The OF was headed up Old Stage Road when he quickly approached a pickup truck that was overloaded with plywood as it was making its way up into the first turn.

Per usual, this OG approached the truck at full bore when all the sheets of plywood started sliding off the back of the truck (the load was not tied down in any fashion) onto the road right in front of the OFs who were holding on for dear life.

This driver whipped right around the mess and truck with no regard to any traffic coming down the hill and proceeded up the hill on the wrong side of the road. This time there were comments!

The riders wanted to know if he wasn’t going to stop so the OFs could help out by putting the plywood back on the truck and clearing the road, or at least stop traffic coming down the hill or going up, because after the driver losing the plywood realized it was no longer on the back of the truck he was quite a ways up the hill.

The OF’s driver’s comment was “H--- no; if he is stupid enough not to tie that kind of load down, let him pick it up himself,” and he kept right on going.

That was the last straw. The OMOTM gathered enough courage to suggest to him that he did not have to drive anymore.

This driver has long since passed away, but those who witnessed these shenanigans have long remembered these early OMOTM days and it gives us something else to talk about.

The scribe, from past experience, can pass on to you these words of reality. Enjoy yourself. These are the good old days you’re going to miss in the years ahead.

— Photo by Brian McMillen

Willie Dixon at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1981.

Let’s start with a short culture quiz.

The first question is: Which is the greater work of art: Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964) or Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)?

You have until the Final Jeopardy! song ends to give your answer.

And the second question is: Which is a greater song? Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (written in 1825), or Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” which Howlin’ Wolf premiered in 1961? 

With respect to the first question everybody of a certain age knows who Warhol and Picasso are, so their choice of painting might be more or less à chacun son gout.

In terms of the two composers, Schubert is 99 times better known than Dixon and his song has been played in practically every church on Earth. With Willie Dixon people ask: You sure you don’t mean Willie Mays?

How a person responds to both questions is a measure of that person’s view of “the sacred” and “the profane,” a division that derives from the value a person puts on people and things when constructing a vision of the world. Despite the denial of many, it’s a primary category of thinking.

When those in the “sacred” camp hierarchize, they use metaphors like holy, God, divine grace, and virgin birth. The images are so powerful that sometimes people forget they’re economic variables reflecting the price put on something. Concepts like value, worth, compensation, payoff, and “equity” are part of it.

Incidentally, when ordering their world, some people decide to reject hierarchy altogether — the basis of anarchist thinking — which means a person is equal to God. Holy God is holy Me and holy Me is holy All — what Allen Ginsberg announced in his footnote to “Howl.”

The major problem with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is not that it’s soppy with emotion but that, exegetically speaking, it does not reflect the story that happened: the story of an angel appearing to a young woman telling her she will have a child, not only that but the child will be a god, and not just any god but the savior the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures longed for for centuries.  

Even taking into account à chacun son gout — how many people can say that “Ave Maria” changed their lives or shook up the way they think?

On the other hand, Willie Dixon is not just one of the great songwriters of all time but a man who penned words that allowed Black men to speak about their identity in direct and truthful ways. He said, men, we have a need to express our love just like white men.   

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Willie 51st on its best-ever-songwriter list — Dylan is 1, McCartney 2, Lennon 3, and Chuck Berry 4 — but Willie deserves to be right there with them because he helped restructure identity.

As a performer, Willie — all six foot, six of him — could put a song across, but the singing of his songs is most associated with Muddy Waters, the greatest blues artist of all time. He’s as good as Sinatra.  

In January 1954, Chess Records came out with a forty-five with “Hoochie Coochie Man” on Side A — Muddy singing and on guitar; Willie is billed as Songwriter/Composer.

The song starts with a stop-and-go bump-and-grind heavy bass rhythm and then words flow, telling Black men they no longer have to hide their manhood. It’s an anthem of liberation.  

On YouTube, you will see Muddy proclaiming the message, not strutting up and down the walk like a banty rooster but laying out the facts of Black identity as if making a presentation before a Fortune 500 company — but is in no way matter of fact.

Muddy begins:

The gypsy woman told my mother

Before I was born

I got a boy child’s coming

He’s gonna be a son of a gun

He gonna make pretty womens

Jump and shout

Then the world wanna know

What this all about

And who’s that son of a gun?

Muddy says:

But you know I’m him

Everybody knows I’m him

Well, you know I’m a Man

Yeah, everybody knows I’m him

And when you hear his emphasis on eev-ree-body, you realize Mr. McKinley Morganfield — Muddy’s birth name — is not singing “Hoochie Coochie Man” he is Hoochie Coochie Man. 

Dixon wrote more than 500 songs. Two others he gave to Waters are “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’m a Natural Born Lover,” and to Wolf he gave “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones shared with the white world in November 1964 — introducing that world to Willie Dixon and the electric blues of Chicago. 

By saying how a little red rooster handles the barnyard Willie was giving all men a context to explore their sexuality.

The world is a strange place though for, as “Hoochie Coochie Man” was making the rounds at Chicago’s radio stations, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from that city was visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi — 100 miles north of Lynchburg where Dixon was born — and, while there, was beaten, shot, and submerged in a river tied to the fan of a cotton gin to keep him down.

The facts reveal that, when Emmett went into town to buy a pack of gum one day, the 21-year old owner of the store, Carolyn Bryant, said the boy got sassy, he whistled, and on the way out shot back, “Bye baby!” Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, showed up and took the story from there.

Sixty-two years later, the lady-judge storekeeper whose words sentenced Emmett to death, said she made it up; there was no sex-stuff. It was her white supremacy speaking, her repressed-sexual libido was pining for a Hoochie Coochie Man.

When the United States established a draft in World War II, Willie got messages to come get fitted for an army hat but he threw them in the trash, forcing officials to come to one of his gigs and arrest him. 

Willie told the draft board it was nothing personal; he couldn’t serve because he was a conscientious objector — 30 years before Muhammad Ali!

Willie said that American society said he was a non-person and a non-person can’t fight in war because there ain’t no one there!

He was put in jail but raised such a ruckus that the draft board classified him 5-F and set him free; the whole story is in Willie’s riveting, and disarming, autobiography (with Don Snowden), “I Am the Blues.”

How can a person, Willie kept saying, help a system stay afloat while it’s dragging him down tied to a piece of a cotton gin?  

Toward the end of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ma Rainey declares, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

And that’s what Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was trying to figure out last week, speaking about America’s treatment of Black men: “We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”

— Photo from John R. Williams

Herbie Wolford, right, shares a smile with John Williams.

The Old Men of the Mountain are going back in time with stories from their youth. Some will include one of the OMOTM’s founding members. Unfortunately, the founding member has passed away but we can use his name, and his name is necessary for these stories.

Herbie Wolford was a man that enjoyed life and was not easily rattled. Herbie would go to the — at that time — “landfill” which was really the “dump” and recycling was not even thought of yet, so everything went.

This was all to the chagrin of Barbara (Herbie’s wife) because quite often Herbie brought more home from this “dump” than what he brought there to dispose of. He justified this by remarking, “All of these things could be used some day.” Since Herbie passed, it seems that much of what was brought home to be used someday, well, the someday still isn’t here.

Herbie had many belts hanging in his milk house; some were new, and some not so new. Herbie’s philosophy was someday he would become a certain size and then they all would fit. This was odd thinking because the young OFs at that time who knew Herbie never saw him wear a belt. He always held his pants up with a piece of rope.

One day, following this same philosophy, Herbie brought home one brand new shoe, and Barbara said Herbie told her that it fit perfectly and one day there might be another shoe for the other foot left at the dump.

Herbie not only had a good-sized productive farm but he also cut and sold hay, especially for the horse farms downstate. He trucked this hay down on a K9 International. In the farm next to Herbie’s, just past Line Road in Schoharie County, lived three young boys. (One of these “boys” is now a member of the OMOTM). At this time the now-OMOTM member was about 15 years old, he was helping Herbie load the K9 in the field with baled hay ready to head downstate.

The load was not tied down and Herbie told the now-member of the OMOTM and another lad that they would tie it down when they loaded up on Line Road. He also told the neighbor lad to take the truck out of the field and out on the road.

Even at age 15, the neighbor kid sort of questioned this maneuver because the field road to get the truck out had quite a tip to it as it approached Line Road, but Herbie insisted so the neighbor kid went to the truck and headed out of the field.

When the lad started up this field road the truck started to tip, and slowly, slowly, the truck tipped over on its side spilling the whole hay load back onto the field. When the neighbor kid crawled out of the rider’s side door, Herbie and the other hired hand were laughing their heads off.

As was reported earlier, nothing much bothered Herbie, even after it took tons of work to get the truck back on its wheels, load the hay onto wagons, and haul them to the truck and reload it while it now sat on the road. According to the 15-year-old, this is the way it should have been done in the first place. All this didn’t bother Herbie in the least.

Quite often Herbie would have the neighbor kid ride with him while he took the hay downstate. As qualified sources reported, the kid did not ride, he drove while Herbie slept. The neighbor kid did not have a license — he wasn’t even old enough to apply for one.

One day, Herbie and others were working on a barn he was building. They were working on the rafters when Herbie accidentally drove a nail through his shoe, just nicking his toe. Herbie slid his foot out of the shoe, and drove a couple more nails through the shoe nailing it into the rafter.

He finished the rest of the day with a shoe on one foot and a sock on the other. Herbie told those working with him that he guessed he would have to go to the dump and find another shoe.

Those are just a few of the stories gleaned from one of the three founding members of the Old Men of the Mountain and, as far as the OMOTM know, that shoe is still part of the barn.

In these stressful times, it helps us to have had friends and remember the good times. Friends are like bras — close to your heart and there for support.