Mark King

Edward Hyde Clarke

Much ink will soon be spilled on the United States presidential election and its fallout. So before that cacophony drowns out the local concerns that more directly impact our lives, I’d like to recognize two leaders of a more apolitical sort — a King and a president — to thank them for their selfless service to our collective hometown.

Now join me in a deep breath, Albanites! No matter what, if you’re reading this column, you’re a critical member of the oft-contentious, oft-colorful family of Enterprise subscribers. And if we pledge to follow the examples of Mark King and Edward Hyde Clarke, we’ll be OK.

Without further ado:

Mark King is no stranger to these pages, which last year reported on his role in establishing the Helderberg Conservation Corridor. As the executive director (and one of the founders) of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Mark is directly responsible for the environmental conservation of over 12,500 acres of natural, agricultural, and cultural landscapes throughout Albany, Schenectady, and Montgomery counties.

For nearly thirty years, MHLC has protected (and erected) wildlife preserves, sustainable recreational spaces, scenic vistas, and educational programs, all the while shoring up the Capital Region’s natural resources, clean water, clean air, and working landscapes for both farming and forestry. “If my dream came true,” Mark told the Enterprise in May 2019, “I’d like to see a protected path from the Catskills to the Adirondacks.”

Just how many thousands are unwittingly advantaged by his vision and initiative? Always eager to keep tabs on his projects, I emailed Mark when I returned from an overseas deployment. Stressing no urgency to respond, I asked if he’d be so kind “as to clue me in as to where efforts stand vis-à-vis the campaign to save/conserve the Picard property, the Heldeberg Workshop property, and the Bender Melon Farm.”  He replied promptly.

“Picard is in its final stages,” he wrote. “We have prevailed in court and now have the exclusive right to purchase the property as [long] as 80% is conserved ... we should have things finalized in the next couple of weeks if things go as planned. Bender is at an exciting point. Right now we need 162k to close, but only have until Oct. 29th.”

In regards to the historic Bender Melon Farm, The Enterprise reported four weeks ago that MHLC was “$90,000 short of its $1.2 million goal” to buy it; an Oct. 19 post on the MHLC website then announced that it was in need of just $57,000 more. By the time this column goes to press, we’ll have a nail-biting verdict on what Mark called a “make or break month.”

Though I rarely impose on a G-d with more pressing concerns, I make exception now to pray that our town has rallied to manifest this unparalleled community asset — comprised of the Hilton Barn, the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, and the Bender Melon Farm — which intends to “link communities, history, recreation, and conservation.”

(As an aside, it was the proposed commercial development of the Bender Melon Farm a dozen years ago which first triggered my own penchant for community activism. I’m grateful to MHLC for its stewardship of this issue long after life nudged me towards other pursuits.)

No less impressive are Mark’s efforts pertaining to the 87-acre Picard Grove property, which runs along the base of the Helderberg escarpment in the midst of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor.  After intrepid Enterprise reporting and a rousing editorial raised awareness of the Grove’s recklessly hasty impending below-market-value sale to a developer, the public sprang into action; MHLC gave agency to its voice.

“The deal is not yet sealed,” Mark told the Enterprise in its Sept. 23 edition. “It’s a little bit of a cliffhanger beneath the cliff.” Yet Mark’s team is working steadily towards an outcome that will preserve acreage as integral to our hometown’s identity as the name “New Scotland” itself.

And what of that blissfully serene 250-acre Heldeberg (still inexplicably containing no “R”) Workshop wetland forest where I spent so many of my childhood summers? Something about Board Chairman Alvin Breisch’s announcement that Heldeberg Workshop had “entered into a  partnership with MHLC to permanently protect [its] lands from development” permitted a sigh of relief. As in: “Phew! King is on the case.”

Granted, my praise for Mark is shorthand for the eternally grateful compliments due the other MHLC members who work tirelessly on these endeavors, not to mention the legion of Good Samaritans who open their wallets to fund fulfillment of shared dreams. To borrow a sentiment from news anchor Tom Brokaw’s farewell on Dec. 1, 2004, Mark is “simply the most conspicuous part” of an all-encompassing communal ambition. I wish I could personally thank every spoke in that wheel right now, but Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer gets rather testy when I approach 2,000 words.

Which is why my commendations to E. Hyde Clarke must be interpreted through the lens of broader praise. For as president of the Upper Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association (UWANA) in the City of Albany’s Twelfth Ward, his role is primarily organizational — representing the will of his community by channeling its energy, aptitudes, and demands in a manner that augments its legal power.

Don’t be fooled by Clarke’s unassuming demeanor; beneath a signature smile and soft-spoken timbre is a tenacious community advocate with a strategic grasp of the legal process. I met Hyde in 2012, at the dawn of his career as a local land-use attorney. As with every recent law-school graduate, I asked him how on earth he could’ve been so masochistically stupid as to become a lawyer.

“I wanted to serve my community,” he said, shrugging.

…. Um, what?

The last eight years offer concrete proof that what might’ve been a cliché is in fact his ethos. Hyde sees the law not as a profession, but as a tool — or, better, one of many arrows in the quiver of community muscle. Nowhere is this more evident than in his role in effectuating UWANA’s firm commitment to its character.

Late last year, Stewart’s Shops Inc., proposed to demolish the abandoned former KeyBank on the corner of Washington and Colvin Avenues, along with two existing multi-family homes, so as to construct a two-story convenience store with gas pumps.

Neighbors opposed to suddenly residing next to a gas station — which would sit directly across the street from a rival gas station and just one block down the road from another — were aghast. Others rather liked the prospect of being within walking distance of award-winning ice cream and milk. As UWANA president, Hyde had the unenviable task of identifying, and then reconciling, many competing interests.

When this process ultimately revealed that most neighbors demanded changes in Stewarts’s application — less demolition, implementation of traffic safety precautions, fewer gas pumps, more accessibility from the sidewalk — Hyde leveraged his legal background to engage at the planning-board level, working to secure his neighbors’ desires while concurrently accommodating the commercial objectives of an interested applicant.

As has repeatedly been the case — from Altamont to Voorheesville to, eventually, the remotest regions of the solar system — Stewarts proved unwilling to make any of the requested changes. This compelled Hyde to articulate the fraught decision that a conditional use permit be denied; on Aug. 25, 2020, the planning board voted down Stewarts’s application.

Hyde was able to influence this process only because so many passionate and knowledgeable advocates lent their voices to pushing back on Stewarts’s application; their activism empowered Hyde to argue for solutions agreeable to all parties.

As Hyde told me, change often forces communities into a position of opposition; their gut reaction is to oppose any variation to an existing way of life. But Hyde saw his role as that of a broker — looking at all sides to extract mutual interests, thereby deriving a balance between permitting development and safeguarding a neighborhood ecosystem.

Yet in the face of Stewarts’s unrelenting and serial intransigence, Hyde realized that the community’s opposition would be vulnerable if expressed as merely that: community opposition. He therefore cleverly pivoted to a different tactic, one that would give his neighbors’ voices the authority of law.

In 2017, the city of Albany passed the Unified Sustainable Development Ordinance (USDO), which zoned the said residential apartments on Washington Avenue as “Mixed Use Neighborhood Commercial” (MU-NC). Arguing that these properties (which had always been residences) were zoned incorrectly — and therefore seemingly permitted a use not in accordance with the character of the neighborhood — Hyde drafted a lengthy “zone change” petition to have the properties rezoned residentially (to wit: R-2).

As Hyde stated: “This is not a Stewart’s issue. It’s a land-use issue. The obstacle to [Stewarts’s] commercial imperative shouldn’t be seen as knee-jerk NIMBY [Not-In-My-Backyard] opposition, but rather as a result of a properly-devised law which would never have permitted such a massive operation in the middle of a close-knit community comprised of young families and seniors.”

In short, Hyde went about endowing the community’s voice with legal legitimacy.

“I don’t want developers to feel that they have to pass some litmus test every time construction is proposed,” Hyde explained in an email. “I want them to adhere to a law that defines how to be a good neighbor, and which then grants them commercial predictability and an easier path to approval. If a non-residential structure is proposed, it should comply with a standard that protects existing property owners. That’ll also ensure [the business] is well-received and supported by its intended patrons.”

I noted that his approach recalled 20th-Century Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s concept of a “lawyer for the situation,” and asked if that was how he perceived his role.

“Sort of,” he wrote back. “We all want to see abandoned buildings reused or redeveloped. But that can’t be the objective in and of itself. Commercial progress has to ‘fit,’ has to enhance a community, not degrade it. I’m ready to help any entrepreneur meet that threshold, if they’re ready to join our neighborhood in good faith.”

I told neither Mr. King nor Mr. Clarke that I’d be highlighting them in my monthly column; they’re both likely mortified that I’ve done so. They don’t seek the limelight, and generally slip into the media’s pages, posts, spots, segments, and broadcasts incident only to their organizational missions.

But that’s precisely the point. They selflessly dedicate themselves to advancing communal causes, representing community concerns, and bettering the lives of both their neighbors and future generations that will unknowingly enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Thank you, guys. You’re two of the many reasons that turning off cable news is so refreshing.  Because in that silence, we have space to note that behind all the competing lawn signs are scores of people who advance our common destinies, bind our families together, and ensure that someone is in charge of serving the robust and delicious Thanksgiving feast over which our beloved yet crazy uncles can spout off.

I sign-off by once more adapting Tom Brokaw’s words to honor these hometown heroes whose examples we’d do well to bear in mind on the eve of a tragically polarizing presidential election. Like Mark and Hyde, may we work together to advance that “vital legacy of common effort to find common ground ... on which to solve our most vexing problems.”

For “they did not give up on the idea that we’re all in this together.”

Captain Jesse Sommer is an Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County.  His father, Dean Sommer, is a senior partner at Young/Sommer LLC, the law firm where Edward Hyde Clarke works.  Jesse welcomes your thoughts at .

Editor’s Note:  The Enterprise reported earlier this week that Picard’s Grove is now successfully under a conservation easement

 

Location:

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 Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County. 
He welcomes your thoughts at .

 

Maximilien Robespierre and his supporters were executed by guillotine on 28 July 1794.

Are you asking if I support the death penalty, or if I believe in the sovereign state’s right to kill?  Those questions operate in altogether different universes, and I counsel caution in conflating philosophy with procedure.

But you’re right to ask, now that the federal government has resumed executions of federal death row inmates (three last month) previously suspended since 2003. So far this year, the United States and its component states have put 10 people to death; another five will be executed by the end of 2020.

I support state-sanctioned slaying — it’s the foundational premise of my job. Be it the clandestine raid on bin Laden’s compound or the righteous annihilation of those who opposed America’s unyielding advance up Normandy’s banks in 1944, I accept our government’s inherent right to employ deadly force as among the most justifiably self-evident of all societal truths.

But every right is wedded to its own abuse, and eventually breeds excess. That’s why any defense of state lethality is fundamentally tested when applied to the mode of American capital punishment. And since my dad has cornered the market on debating America’s post-Vietnam foreign policy, I’ll focus this discussion on the domestic context, and explain why I don’t support the death penalty — yet.

What proceeds is the perspective of a veterinarian’s son, who was raised vegetarian because “it’s wrong to take innocent life” but who simultaneously learned that there was no injustice in “putting to sleep” a German shepherd after she ripped apart the family goat a second time. (Of the German shepherd, ’twas said: “This world is inconsistent with her nature.”)

And the thesis of this column is that those who seek to abolish the death penalty are as misguided as those who support its current form.

First, on “justification”:  Our essential imperative must be a shared philosophical agreement that, if done justly, the state should have (and reserve unto itself) the right to kill. If you don’t agree with that, then here we must part ways — for my acceptance of state legitimacy requires that it function as an adequate arbiter of justice, and satisfactory dispute resolution necessitates the full array of options.

Because, if the menu of equitable recourses is lacking, vigilantes will just handle it themselves.  Illustrated: It’s not hard to imagine aggrieved parents resorting to their own ingenuity and enterprise to rectify a perceived deficit in justice if a court’s post-conviction treatment of their child’s murderer is too soft.

(Let’s pause to offer the sanctimonious a chance to pronounce that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Now let’s together note the wholesale failing of that cliché’s basic arithmetic, since “an eye for an eye” leads not to blindness, but rather just to poor depth perception.)

Second, on “rationales”: Capital punishment is generally rationalized pursuant to theories of public security and deterrence, punishment and retribution, or — to a tragically lesser extent — “utilitarian mercy.”

My dad likes to say that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent unless applied to jaywalking. What he means is that the threat of execution won’t dissuade someone from committing a violent crime out of passion, despair, callous disregard, fury, or evil. But, if crossing the street could fetch a death sentence, you’d likely be a tad more conscientious about where you stepped off the curb.

Meanwhile, I’ve always been troubled by vengeance as a rationale, as I presume there’s something intrinsically wrong with people who perpetrate wanton violence. Whether it’s rage or hate or desperation or run-of-the-mill-sociopathy, only the maladjusted, abused, or insane generally act on the capacity to commit violent crime — and something about wreaking fatal revenge on such innately broken people seems unsavory.

That discomfort with revenge informs my adherence to the final theory: utilitarian mercy.  Remind me to tell you about the time I contracted COVID-19 in a war zone. For six dreadful days, the coronavirus ravaged my fever-wracked body, yet it was the resulting mandatory quarantine in a tiny windowless room that truly sucked.

By day nine, I was firm in my belief that life in a barren cage with no hope of escape is a greater violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment than a swift and painless execution. So, while I sympathize with those who oppose the death penalty because “rotting in prison is worse,” there’s likely a better use of limited state resources than accommodating retributive sadism. To my mind, utilitarian mercy is the only moral and practical rationale for the death penalty.

But if that’s the death penalty’s ethical framework, is there an ethical defense of the alternative, i.e., forever imprisoning a German shepherd who’s exposed her nature as inconsistent with this world, when “elimination” would serve a just punishment while also freeing up cage space? I’ll give you two.

The first acknowledges that the racial inequality of America’s death penalty is so unacceptably heinous that it fails outright the “this is why we can’t have nice things” test.  Roughly 42 percent of the faces on America’s death row are Black — more than three times their proportion of the U.S. population.

The disproportionate tendency of prosecutors to seek — and of juries to impose — the death penalty against black defendants for comparable criminality smacks of ethnic cleansing. (Yeah, I said it.)

What right have we to remove imperfect people from an imperfect world? If you want an impartial capital-punishment regime, roll up your sleeves and fix every other social ill first, starting with socioeconomic and environmental disparities as well as biases in law enforcement. 

The second ethical defense of a life sentence over a death sentence is that forever caging a dangerous German shepherd equips that veterinarian to rectify her mistake if forensic testing later reveals Lily Goat to have been viciously attacked by a different dog.

Earlier, I noted as self-evident that the state should have the right to kill if doing so could be done justly. But putting into practice that abstract philosophical precept is a complex proposition. 

This is where things break down. Because since 1973, 170 prisoners have been fully exonerated of the wrongful convictions that landed them on death row. For perspective, that’s one person spared the ultimate miscarriage of justice for every 10 people who have been executed (1,522 in total) since America’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Are you kidding me?

“Existential Proposition 1” must surely be that state execution of the innocent is humankind’s most egregious social sin. “Existential Proposition 2” follows that a single such instance is worse in moral magnitude than a thousand acquittals of the guilty.

Armed with these companion propositions, I thus bequeath unto tomorrow’s legislators five guiding principles with which to erect a just regime for capital punishment:  

FIRST, none shall be executed for nonviolent crimes.

There’s a lot of socially destabilizing behavior out there, but a con man who preys on old women’s bank accounts is best imprisoned, not destroyed. This principle ensures that the (capital) punishment fits the crime, i.e., that one should be denied life only where it intentionally operated to deny another’s.

(Is a co-conspirator who helps devise the fatal plan but doesn’t actually pull the trigger nonetheless guilty of a violent crime? In the interest of time and limited column space: sure.)
 

SECOND, none shall be executed for crimes absent a genuine and knowing admission of guilt — one freely made and restated in court, free from coercion or duress, upon advice by legal counsel.

Whether it’s the notoriety-seeking serial killer who wants attribution for his misdeeds or the genuinely remorseful boyfriend who allowed his murderous jealousy to consume him, this principle is a safeguard guarantee that a perpetrator rationally acknowledges why he’s to be subjected to that most extreme application of state power.

Lacking this awareness or acceptance, the alternative of a (life)long prison sentence will afford plenty of time to come to terms with what’s been done. 
 

— THIRD, none shall be executed for crimes absent corroboration by deoxyribonucleic acid AND the existence of sight-based indicia of unassailable reliability.

This “poison pill” insists on an evidentiary threshold which is, by design, nearly unattainable. If the justice system is to put a dude to death, his culpability must be assured to a mathematical 100 percent.

Fortunately, few violent crimes leave no DNA behind, and much of the recent high-profile violence has been accompanied by that requisite “sight-based indicia or reliability” (e.g., unbiased eyewitness accounts, high-resolution surveillance footage, the first-person camera-phone video with which the perpetrator live-streams his rampage).

If prosecutors can meet this most implausible of evidentiary burdens, perhaps capital punishment is the only proper recourse.
 

— FOURTH, none shall be executed for a crime where there exists a credible rationale for its perpetration.

The wife who kills her husband to spare herself another 15 years of horrific physical abuse, the father who kills his pre-adolescent daughter’s rapist, the sister who kills her brother’s murderer — I mean, there’s murder and then there’s murder, am I right? 

“A Time to Kill” wouldn’t have made the bestseller lists as “A Time to Await Judicial Determination on Defendant’s Third Appeal of the Motion to Stay Proceedings in the Matter of Defendant’s Plea for Rehearing of the Sentencing Case.” 
 

— FIFTH, none shall be put to death except for by well-oiled and industrial-scale guillotine. 

That’s right.  If our society can’t come to grips with the appallingly gruesome messiness of capital execution, then we have no business being in the business. The gas chamber, the electric chair, lethal injection — these are modernity’s innovations to sanitize the experience of punitive state killing, leaving serenely intact the body from which the state has just separated a soul.

And each of these methods has at one time or another gone horrifically awry, presenting a traumatizing spectacle of nightmarishly unconstitutional torment as the dead-man-walked convulses in pain because the toxins missed the vein, or the voltage was wrong, or the nervous system only partially responded to the gas. 

The 21st Century guillotine permits no such mistakes. Advances in machining can independently assemble a self-piloting tractor-trailer without even a millimeter’s deviation in how tightly a rivet is screwed on; if the same technical efficiency is applied to a technologically-perfected guillotine with a blade crafted of the finest Tungsten-Titanium alloy, then the only drawback to this executionary method is society’s “pleasant company” hang-ups.

Quick. Painless. Guaranteed. Theatrical. Certainly, your jaywalking epidemic would be solved.

For the death penalty’s die-hard (pun) supporters, this five-prong approach affords a just and certain resolution to the most egregious violations. And its restrictions don’t limit the broader application of justice; where the death penalty is unavailable because these criteria aren’t met, there still exists a whole slew of draconian measures by which to punish offenders (e.g., life imprisonment). 

For capital punishment’s bleeding-heart (pun) opponents, my approach resolves the core concerns of systemic failure and irreversible mistake; capital punishment would be applied sparingly, rarely, and only when guilt was corroborated, acknowledged, and indefensible.

True: faulty science, biased testimony, false accusations, and — that most monstrous of sins — prosecutorial misconduct will always present the peril of a wrongful conviction, but a death sentence for a crime “beyond all doubt” won’t be an option for convictions attained merely “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Yes: There are scores of moving accounts of redemption, where the embittered and testosterone-fueled former victim of child abuse kills in his 20s, only to embark post-conviction on a journey of self-discovery through the prison library, emerging as a remorseful pacifist who even obtained his law degree.

So? A silenced victim deserves better than to serve as her killer’s ticket to enlightenment; her life was worth more than that anecdotal reference in the feel-good Dateline special on her murderer’s rehabilitation.

I don’t care what wisdom Nidal Hasan learns behind bars, or what penitence Timothy McVeigh might’ve shown had that meal not been his last. Neither Dylan Roof’s nor Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt is in doubt.

I’m unpersuaded that the Golden State Killer is too old for death (like, what?). When it comes to avowed monsters like these, I’m less Samuel Jackson’s “yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell,” and more “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Except that: My philosophical commitment to capital punishment withers before ever-present societal injustice and the inescapable Truth that every one of us is complicit if the state takes an innocent life. Ergo, I ferociously oppose the death penalty until we as a species are mature enough to handle it. 

But someday, those Five Principles could sustain a system where the death penalty isn’t a recourse at all unless it’s the first recourse. And in that far away future, where an accused (1) acknowledges his guilt of (2) a violent crime that’s (3) beyond any doubt by virtue of irrefutably corroborative evidence and (4) for which there’s no reasonable justification, I’ll support the (5) expedient option that delivers both justice and the mercy of instantaneous escape from a world inconsistent with his nature. 

For a capital punishment that spares the wrongfully accused while delivering the quick and painless passing of the rightfully accused, let’s turn for inspiration to that other lady of justice — the Queen of Hearts — as she triumphantly bellows “off with his” etc. etc. and all that.

Does that answer your question? 
****

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 .

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.

— Photo from Jesse Sommer

Lather lesson: Jesse and his dad.

Thirteen months ago, The Enterprise published a column I’d dedicated to my mum on the occasion of Mother’s Day. And when I didn’t follow it up in June with a Father’s Day column, a reader emailed to express disappointment. “I hoped you might share some of your dad’s influence as well,” she wrote. 

It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. Father’s Day always struck me as the obligatory counterpart to its May-based companion, and that’s how lots of Americans viewed the holiday throughout the first half of the 20th Century’s efforts to formally establish it. The parental roles are just eminently different in the recognition they warrant; motherhood is something to celebrate, while fatherhood is something to expect. Right?

That attitude probably derives from the language itself. After all, the infinitive verb “to mother” means “to nurture” and “care for,” while “to father” means, well, something else entirely. It’s that borderline unprintable definition unsuitable for a family newspaper that for most of recorded history encapsulated a father’s primary role. No wonder that so many, for so long, conceived of fatherhood as a duty to be performed rather than a sacrifice worthy of admiration.

But in observing the influence of my brothers-in-law on the development of my nieces and nephews over the past year, I’ve had occasion to reconsider my own dad’s role in my life. And on this Father’s Day, I’d like to reinterpret what “to father” means to my sisters and me.    

Because it’s probably most accurate to say that “to father” is to make the world’s best sandwiches, and its best soups, from what you’ve grown in its best garden. It means building your kids a tree fort that operates as both a castle and a pirate ship, and then telling tall tales of the heroes who sword fight on its ramparts and rafters.

It’s to inexhaustibly demand that your children turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, and turn the other cheek in the face of schoolyard bullies. But it also means telling your 10-year-old son to toughen up, to “mentally adjust yourself,” and to “put up your dukes” when there are no cheeks left to turn.

“To father” means racing home from work and changing into the team jersey so you can coach your son’s Kiwanis sports teams, even when he isn’t any good on baseball or soccer fields — just as it means taking it in stride when he knocks out your front tooth in a notorious wrestling match because his proper place is on the mats.

It means sitting with your 6-year-old son on the first day of summer camp when he’s shy to the point of terror, telling him it’s OK to cry, and waiting with him while he does. And it means intuiting when it’s time to leave after you drop him off at college 12 years later, as the confidence you’ve instilled in him over the intervening decade fuels him forth into a new social unknown without even a backwards glance.

Recently, I asked my sisters what “to father” meant to them. Ever the narcissist, I was surprised to learn about all the custom-tailored parenting of which I’d been oblivious. For example, it turns out that “to father” means holding your daughter’s hand and squeezing it three times to silently say “I love you” when she’s a sad little 5-year-old. And it means editing her work product 29 years later when, at 34, she still asks for feedback before a big presentation. 

“To father” means helping your daughter calm her debilitating childhood migraines with gentle visualization exercises, and coaxing her through panic attacks by massaging her back and asking her to describe which birds she hears singing until the calm returns. It means teaching your daughters the “Girl Power!” rallying cry, and supporting them in becoming archaeologists, lawyers, doctors, and eventually mothers. Then, when life doesn’t go according to plan, “to father” means reaching out to catch your daughter when her dreams fall apart and life crashes down all around her.  

“When I felt stupid in math, Dad told me it was OK to be smart about other things,” Caitlin told me. “He introduced me to an entire library of philosophy, history, and English, all of which shaped my understanding of the cosmos.”

“He supported my decision to go to law school and encouraged me to stick with it when I questioned why I went,” Robin said. “He’s my biggest champion and best friend. He loves my baby girls and protects them so fiercely.” 

“Mom made the idea of becoming a doctor attainable,” Brenna wrote me, “but Dad was my motivation for being the best at it. He’s proof that, if you dedicate yourself to making the world around you just a teeny bit better, you can find the space to be your weird little self.” Word. 

There are other definitions of “to father” that bespeak phenomena of which my sisters and I were once unaware amidst the illusion of safety and stability that Dad so fervently guarded. He might not even realize that my sisters and I know that “to father” means having always dreamt of opening a little bookstore in Vermont, only to wake up one day to realize that you’re sharing a home with four babies under the age of 6, and thus dutifully trudging through three decades of 60-hour workweeks driven by a frantic desperation to provide for your kids.

He may not be aware that my sisters and I know that “to father” is to lie awake in bed after you’ve lost your job and don’t know how you’ll ever support that family of six, only to take a monumental risk — and ultimately build a thriving business which now, in turn, supports the livelihoods of coworkers he regards as his second family.

But, at its core, “to father” probably most closely means “to teach” — to teach your children how to laugh at themselves and enjoy life’s inexorable nonsense. It’s to teach them how to fire a gun, to chop firewood, and to shake hands like you mean it. “To father” is to teach your son how to ride a bike, and then some years later how to drive a car — twice equipping him with the freedom to set out on his own even when Mom wants to keep her baby right at home.  

An aside: Soon after I learned to drive, I deemed it my duty as a big brother to pass that precious knowledge onto my 12-year-old sister. Taking advantage of our rural backcountry roads and a late afternoon when Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found, I adjusted the driver’s seat so Brenna’s tiny legs could reach the pedals. Her command of the clutch was impressively innate.  But as she piloted us back into the driveway, we realized we’d been caught. There was Dad, at the fence, watching his pre-adolescent daughter shift into neutral. From shotgun, I pulled the emergency brake and prepared to face the music. We took a deep breath and, exiting the car, confronted Dad’s raised eyebrow.

“I’m not sure your mom would approve of that,” he said, clearly unsure of what proper parenting protocol now dictated. Then he walked off, and my sister and I were silent. She turned to me.  “Ever get the sense that Dad’s just winging it?” she asked.

Yup. All the time. You know who else did? Dad. As we were growing up, he would so often proclaim, “I have no idea what I’m doing” that it practically became his battle cry, accompanied as it was by helpless flailing whenever Mom’s out-of-town trips stranded him with the kids. Yet it was in those moments that Dad bequeathed unto us the ancient arts of subversion and stealth, as together we would all seditiously devour illicit sugar cereals and the contraband Nintendo gaming system he rented from Blockbuster. 

Because Dad was skeptical of any authority, even his own. That’s an ethos he wears on his shoulders (literally, as his fiery red shoulder-length mane enters its fifth unabashed decade). And while “mothering” may entail imparting unparalleled literary skills through a robust regime of bedtime stories, “fathering” is to spin your children into a frenzy of giggles by taking extreme artistic license with the children’s books you deem in need of narrator intervention. Where else does a child develop the absurdist sense of humor necessary to endure life’s unrelenting tragedies? 

My father’s politics were the most unique and defining aspect of his parenthood. Seemingly divergent perspectives weren’t contradictory — they were just Dad. For example, he viewed paying taxes as the highest of patriotic privileges, but was leery of a strong central government.  He believed the posted speed limit was sacrosanct, but that the proper scheduling of certain controlled substances was up for debate.

He taught my sisters and me to honor the police, despite a worldview forged by the civil rights movement. He’s been an avowed conscientious objector since his Vietnam-era antiwar activism, but was never prouder of me than when I commissioned in the Army. He staunchly supported Obamacare, but largely out of a principled conservative ethos that everyone should have to pay their fair share (“why should I foot the ER bill for someone too irresponsible to carry health insurance?”). Vegetarianism was his core moral philosophy, and something he made cool before it was cool.  

While it’s true that whatever intellect I possess is likely an inheritance from my mother, it’s the charm, wit, and work ethic I get from Dad that ever gave it any agency. Yet despite his limitless charisma, he’s always been intensely private. Which is why the accompanying photo prominently featuring his nipple likely embarrasses him, as did my school suspensions and adolescent run-ins with law enforcement. Have I mentioned that “to father” is to forgive?

Of the many undeserved societal privileges that Providence afforded me, the most fundamental was that my dad was always around. I never had to question it. He might’ve worked long hours and on weekends, yet somehow, even now, Dad’s always just there.

Morbid though it may be, I often contemplate life when he’s gone. Like, even as a child, I knew that Dad just didn’t have a sufficiently refined taste for macaroni art; only Mom could properly appreciate the nuanced subtlety of finger-paintings worthy of the fridge. But nowadays, I can’t help but wonder: If Dad isn’t around to witness all that he’s set me up to accomplish, what’s the point? 

I guess the answer can be divined from yet another definition: “To father” is to instill in your kids a robust ethical framework that guides them long after you’re gone. And though Dad has never cared much about legacy, being a legacy of which he’d be proud is one way to ensure he remains forever present in my life.   

In the last half-decade, the phrase “to father” has taken on a new connotation — expanding to encompass what it means “to grandfather.” Yet notwithstanding that evolution, there’s one meaning that remains the same as it ever was: “To father” is to be my single biggest inspiration for who and what I am. 

Despite my dad’s nearly infinite supply of daily mistakes, perhaps one reason I’ve shied away from having kids myself is the fact that I couldn’t possibly be half the father my father was. No child deserves anything less. So Happy Father’s Day, Deano. Thanks for literally everything.

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 .

 

Dear Caitlin, Robin, and Brenna:

The news from home is too surreal to comprehend. Though the global pandemic finally reached us in Afghanistan — compelling a whole series of base quarantines and countermeasures — what my unit now confronts is nothing like the havoc you’re enduring. We’ve no emptied supermarket aisles, no forced school and business closures, no social and economic hardships beyond the order to thoroughly wash our hands and vigilantly police the gates. 

I’m publishing this letter to you three here in The Enterprise because its readers are our extended family. You may be my sisters, but they are our neighbors. They’ve lived and loved the same sunsets, seasons, and back-country roads that we have; they’re the ones to whom we’ve turned time and again, who’ve always supported our family’s businesses, and who genuinely care what happens to us.  But while I want Enterprise readers to have situational awareness of this letter, it’s not for them — for they’re already in Albany County. This is a letter about facilitating safe passage back home.

I can’t imagine how stressed and anxious you feel; I’m sure it’s cold comfort to note that a microscopic parasite has finally united all of humanity in a worldwide shared experience. It’s a curious circumstance: Closer than ever, yet still keeping six feet away.

But the good news is that this will not be the crisis that ends it all, the one that changes everything, that tears our way of life asunder and rips everyone we love from our arms. Yes, life is still to get a lot harder for a while, and the virus will leave terrible loss in its wake. But like all things, COVID-19 will pass. And though much will be different, much will be the same: Schools and businesses will reopen, public spaces will come alive, a sense of normalcy will return, and we’ll find society right where we left it.     

Still, now’s as good a time as any to plan for “The Big One.” Whether it’s a solar storm that fries the electric grid, or an EMP blast that annihilates our communications networks, or those first hours after the machines gain consciousness, or an asteroid that darkens the sky with Earth’s own mantle, or a mutated descendent of today’s coronavirus that spreads even faster and more lethally through the species, your shared and exclusive imperative remains the same:  

Come home.

So let’s get to it. First, don’t bother stockpiling; leave those taller-order preparations to Albany.  There’s no point in amassing supplies you’ll ultimately abandon, and I promise you’ll have access to all the most critical things if you can just make it back home. For now, you need assemble only the items I beseech you to pack in your ready-to-go rucksacks, along with whatever your vehicle can fit.  That said, don’t plan on being lucky enough to drive all the way from origin to destination ….

Second, invest in two sets of printed roadmaps (you’ll want the backup). Your map set should consist of however many state editions are required to pilot you and your babies to Albany County. While two maps are sufficient to navigate from Massachusetts, a start point in California will require several. And though your trip will demand these resources only once, be sure to familiarize yourselves with the technology they contain in advance. 

Once every four months, travel an unfamiliar route using nothing but a roadmap to guide you. Put down your phone, turn off the GPS; these may not be available to you when the journey home becomes necessary. If you leave soon enough after The Big One, you’ll still have road signs to guide you. But take the time now to learn to dead reckon, following the contours of the road and recognizing terrain features. 

With your significant others, spend a quiet quarantined evening plotting a few routes back to Albany.  Avoid the highways; they may look like the most direct route home, but you’ll want to dodge high-density routes where traffic jams afford no means of escape. In making your way to Albany, the family car will be your single most important source of transit and security, so plan ahead to steer clear of that which might compel you to abandon it. Identify now how many gallons of gas it’ll take you and your kids to make the drive, and then keep a few gas cans filled in the garage. Use and replace their contents every few months so the fuel doesn’t grow stale. If the last journey home becomes necessary, gas stations may not be available either.

Third, buy a couple quality compasses and some durable wristwatches. Invest in a multi-tool. Make sure you have at least one sturdy flathead and Phillips screwdriver apiece, since vehicle license plates bearing the names of the states through which you’ll pass will be valuable commodities if cohesion fractures and state authorities close down the borders. (I’m not saying this is likely to happen, so much as I’m saying that it already did.) 

I say again: Long-term preparations exist at your destination — your supplies need only support your movement home. And on that note, there’s a common misconception that what separates us from animals is humanity’s capacity for speech. Of course that’s nonsense, and a blindness to the means by which our sentient furry counterparts communicate. But there is one thing that truly does make us distinct: toilet paper. We’re feral beasts without it.

So fine, go ahead and stock up on some portably-encased toilet paper. But don’t overdo it.  Throughout countless field-training rotations and deployments, I’ve come to learn — to my once abject horror — that toilet paper is an unnecessary luxury which takes up too much space in your rucksack. When The Big One comes, we’ll learn that we, too, are animals — as I’ve been repeatedly reminded when the basic hygiene of spartan environments has been reduced to leaves and the chance puddles I encounter. It was in those vulnerable and exposed moments that introspection revealed the only thing that really matters: family. So come home. In return, I promise to have toilet paper in Albany.

Fourth, if you must ditch the car, make sure you have sunscreen. Have comfortable hiking boots and an extra pair of shoes. You’ll want hand sanitizer and facemasks (in case that’s what The Big One dictates), baby wipes for dry-bathing, several lighters, and a couple canteens or water bottles. But since water is heavy, you’ll also need a portable filtration system. Know where the rivers and streams are; your state maps will contain the most obvious water routes, and you’ll want to handrail them as long as you can. 

Water will always be your most critical concern, and one you need to anticipate in all its forms and functions. For example, if the bridges are overtaken or guarded by whomever moves to occupy them, you’d better have two inflatable rafts (and a hand pump) strapped to your roof-rack for night passage across the river — one raft for you and your little ones, the other for the rucksacks and whatever else you can carry. (Bring a set of inflatable arm-floaties for each tyke, too, just in case.) And: Pack ponchos or a tarp, for rain will quickly illustrate how fickle a god is water.

Fifth, carry some cash for use in the few lingering days before people realize it never really had any value. Bring one first-aid kit for each member of your family. Extra socks. Prescriptions. Jackets.  Anti-chafing ointment. Knives. Sunglasses, since looking stylish will always be paramount no matter what crisis befalls us. Flashlights and batteries. Toothbrush and paste. Energy chews for mom and dad, candy for the kids. IBUPROFEN. It’s my firmest hope that you’ll recognize The Big One in time to drive the whole way back to Albany, but I want to make sure you’re equipped for worst-case scenarios, to best leverage the persevering tenacity I’ve always associated with each of you. 

Beyond that, you’re probably good. Matches and candles and soap and medicine, canned vittles, meals-ready-to-eat, potable water, pen-and-paper, seeds and shoes and clothes and tools and toys —  leave these to me. Leave to me the installation of renewable energy sources — microturbines and solar panels — and water purification and sustainable sanitation. These are the purview of a big brother and uncle, I guess. You need only equip yourselves for the journey back home. Bring my nieces and nephews safely back to where they belong, in Albany.  Return to the farmhouse in which we grew up, where we’ll regroup, reset, and reestablish networks with the friends and neighbors who molded us into the people we’ve become.

Sure, the winters are cold in Albany. But as any Russian will tell you, there exist few strategic defenses more effective than snow and ice. With the escarpment to our west, the Hudson to our east, and railroad tracks leading to communities beyond our county borders, we’re both protected and connected in Albany. Albany isn’t a last stand — Albany is the first step. 

Besides, Moo Moo and Pop Pop’s house has lots of books — more than I’ve ever read, more than most ever will. If the web goes dark and the grid can’t support computing, your children will still be able to get a world-class education from those dusty old books that served primarily as decoration for most of their existence. And in their waning years, can you imagine a wisdom more powerful than that which mum and dad yet have to offer? Best of all, when they get to be too senile, you needn’t worry: I’ll make sure we’re equipped with plenty of alcohol, so we can drink together until they make sense again.

On the day the world stands still and the phones go silent, I will begin my count. At 90 days, I’ll come find you. So don’t delay; there’ll be lots of things to attend to at the farm, and I’d rather not chase after you because you were dawdling (Brenna). If the time arrives, you’ll know it. Be ready. 

On that note — sixth — be sure to bring spare batteries to power your radio. I’ll give you the frequency and, every hour on the hour, discipline yourselves to conduct a five-minute comms check.  If you stay within 20 miles to the north and south of your latitudinal route, I will find you. I promise. 

But first — I need to get back from overseas, where I’ve seen firsthand how fragile a society can be.  This deployment has clarified my role as your brother, and as the uncle of your children. The arrangement I propose is simple: You bring your families to Albany; I’ll do my best to protect them.  And if The Big One never comes: Good! We’ll have plenty of dried food at family Thanksgivings henceforth.   

I love you, beautiful sisters. Never forget that Albany will be here to receive you when it’s time to rebuild. Only Albany. Always Albany. Where it’s easy to love the people who will join us in gazing out upon a different world. Where home will always be home. 

By car or by foot, over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we’ll go. 

Editor's note: 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 .

Location:

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“That festering asbestos fiesta,” Albany’s Central Warehouse, dwarfs the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building at left.

“Eyesore.” That’s how Albany’s journalistic community has referenced the century-old Central Warehouse in each and every depiction of it, in any form and every medium, over the last decade and a half. For good reason; take a gander at this Art Deco homage to structural decay and you’ll agree that “eyesore” epitomizes honesty in reporting.   

But bizarrely — and despite decades’ worth of developers proving relentlessly incapable of manifesting their visions — virtually every outlet in Albany County’s rich media landscape remains united in the persistent fantasy that there’s some solution to The Eyesore other than wholesale demolition.

There isn’t. No matter how many ideas abound, The Eyesore’s interminable dilapidation compels only one practical course of action: It’s time to knock down the old Central Warehouse. 

Constructed in 1927 and inimitable at 143 Montgomery Street, Albany’s 11-story, 508,000-square-foot Central Warehouse originally served as a refrigerated food-storage facility — ironically perfect for the post-apocalyptic world its current state suggests has already arrived.

Four years ago — after it had become abundantly clear that no one else was going to address the infected pus-filled pimple in the middle of Albany’s face — I took matters into my own hands, initiating a quixotic citizen’s campaign to rescue our city’s horizon from the repugnant atrocity holding it hostage.   

Over the course of several weeks, I contacted (and was politely dismissed by) a legion of both city and county officials, cold-calling every conceivably-applicable municipal agency until I was finally introduced to Albany-based Sunmark Federal Credit Union.

Before I get to Sunmark, it’s worth consolidating a record of the building’s owners. Concurrent with my forays through local government’s phone-tree labyrinths, I also began piecing together the puzzle of past proprietors in a gambit to figure out who deserved blame for the appalling hulk of concrete polluting our I-787 corridor.

Relying on dated local media and calls to former owners, I discovered that the building had changed hands four times in the preceding 12 years alone, and that each purchase had been plagued by plummeting asking prices in a cascading series of increasingly ludicrous transactions.   

In the early 1980s, it was owned by the eccentric Richard Gerrity, whom the City sued for ordinance violations posed by the massive biblical messaging with which he’d adorned The Eyesore’s walls. 

It stood vacant and disintegrating throughout the 1990s until, in 2002, a company known as Albany Assets bought it for $800,000. Northeast Realty Holdings owned it for a time, and then, in 2007, it was sold to CW Montgomery LLC for $1.4 million

I spoke with the owner of CW Montgomery back then; his ill-fated mixed-use ambitions were particularly awkward, in that they were so plainly impracticable. In a video business pitch he’d assembled, soaring drone footage of the building is interspersed with computer-rendered modeling evoking a lush and window-lit mall, complete with towering ceilings, an amphitheater, and even rooftop vegetation.

Reference to photos from a successful renovation of a dissimilar sister-building in Toronto was somehow designed to make the pipedream seem reasonable.

Inexplicably, the video boasts of the building’s acquisition for only $175,000 — substantially less than the reported $1.4 million. But — spoiler alert — that’s still $174,999 more than the current buyer deemed it worth.

Back to Sunmark Federal Credit Union, which purchased the property in September 2011 for $500K — a tenth of CW Montgomery’s original asking price — only to then turn around and re-list it for a still-too-inflated $199,000. 

When I spoke with Sunmark representative Glen Stacey in July 2016, he confirmed that the bank had finally executed an agreement in December 2015 to unload the property. But he dutifully refused to reveal the prospective buyer’s name. (That supposed transaction fell through, anyway.)

And that was it; I’d reached the end of the line. The trail went cold in the face of Sunmark’s intransigent unwillingness to disclose the buyer’s identity. Like so many before me, I, too, had failed to rid Albany of its preeminent physical disgrace. And thus did the Central Warehouse continue its plodding limp through history, sullying Albany’s opinion pages with all manner of unfeasible fiction as to its possible use.

But hark! There yet cometh news! 

In August 2017, a New York City-based artist operating an “architectural salvage business” purchased The Eyesore from Sunmark. Albany’s business and political classes were instantly seduced by Evan Blum’s flourishing promise “to do something for the community as opposed to counting beans,” by his depiction of the Central Warehouse as both “a blank canvas” and “a diamond in the rough,” and by his intended beautification of the building’s exterior and interior (which Enterprise readers accessing this column online can examine for themselves courtesy of a 2018 video tour filmed by an adventurous trespasser).

 

 

Unfortunately, though, Mr. Blum’s innovative approach to implementing his grand designs took the form of doing absolutely nothing. At all. For 30 months. And counting

Aside from repeatedly pledging to commence renovation, Mr. Blum’s only tangible momentum has been the mounting debt (over $400,000) he owes in unpaid city and county taxes dating back to at least 2011.      

Mr. Blum reportedly bought the long-vacant, long-crumbling warehouse for $1.  For $1, I, too, could have failed to register its address, failed to invest any money in its interior renovation or structural integrity, failed to file any applications for work permits or repairs, constantly misrepresented my intentions to government officials, and run up a half-million dollar tax bill. Indeed, I would’ve done all that for free.

Now, in a vicious cycle of rot, “Blum’s Blight” (please can we make that a thing?) drags down the neighborhood’s potential as it renders unrealistic any commercially viable use of the structure. Impressively, his proposed innovation of wrapping the building in banner advertisements would actually make the building even less attractive — a feat in its own right, I’ll concede — and I thus preemptively call for a boycott of any business that enables such lunacy.

This state of affairs isn’t new. In October 2010, Blum’s Blight caught fire and proceeded to burn for six days. Six days, ladies and gentlemen. The response?  TO LET IT BURN. Because even prior to the fire, the building looked as though it had spent most of the 20th Century consumed by a blazing inferno. 

But lest you deem indestructible an edifice capable of surviving a weeklong uncontrolled conflagration, take heart: Demolition of the building has been projected to cost a mere $1.5 million. And if that sounds like a lot to you, consider that Albany County will soon spend $1.9 million to replace a footbridge on the Albany Rail Trail in deference to the powerful “nature jogging” lobby. 

I support that decision, just as I support assembling community stakeholders to confront the challenges inherent to Blum’s Blighted Eyesore. What about a #KnockItDown GoFund me page? Or a community bake-sale carwash telethon dance-off?  Or maybe we could contact Miley Cyrus’s people? A public-private partnership committed to “KnockItDown” and the reimagination of 143 Montgomery Street would enhance both the value of the undeveloped parcel and our city vistas. 

At the very least, the status quo demands a feasibility study addressing detonation and remediation.  Surely there exist sources of financing (city, county, state, federal) or institutional grants we could apply towards demolishing that festering asbestos fiesta.

“Well since you mention it,” the chorus of contrarian devil’s advocates will no doubt righteously snort, “what’s your plan for environmental contamination? Blowing up that building could be dangerous.”

Got ya covered. In August 2016, Toni Galluzzo — Freedom of Information Law Coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for Region 4 — responded to my languishing FOIL request. The responsive records suggest that, as determined pursuant to a DEC inspection in 2008, environmental remediation in the aftermath of demolition might not be all that problematic or cost prohibitive, thanks to Clean Harbors Environmental Services, Inc., a local hazardous waste management firm that cleared the building of its major toxic concerns in 2008 pursuant to a $52,000 contract. 

As Mr. Blum is presumably discovering in tandem with his long line of predecessors, there’s nothing to be redeemed from this irredeemable property; those who fail to acknowledge such are complicit in preventing local government from imposing the warranted tax liens and coming to terms with what needs to be done. 

Yes, knocking down the old Central Warehouse will be challenging, it will be expensive, it will present environmental hazards that we will have to address. But for how much longer will we endure the alternative? Another decade? A century? 

Let’s stop talking about the obstacles posed by reinforced concrete walls and toxic insulation. Such concerns are the day-to-day purview of engineers and regulators who stand ready to assist as soon as we amass the social will necessary to make honest use of that property. 

Accept it, Albanites: The Central Warehouse has no retrofitted future. Forty years of catastrophically failed commercial prospects is enough.   

Nostalgia?  Knock it off. Then knock it down. For it’ll never be condos. It’ll never be mixed-use housing.  It’ll never be a mall, art gallery, skate park, or antiques showroom. It’ll never sport a rooftop bar, or make use of the bottom two floors, or be a rock-climbing gym, or serve as a breathtakingly beautiful graffiti canvas welcoming tourists to the Capital District.

Indeed, it’ll never again even be a warehouse. It will persist only as a malignant eyesore until we convert it into the only thing it was ever destined to be: a crater. 

In closing, contemplate the possibility that Mr. Blum is trolling us. He owns the Central Warehouse through the auspices of a New York limited liability company operating as “The Phoenix of Albany LLC” — and a phoenix first needs ashes from which to rise. 

He’s daring us to do it. It’s time we dispense with delusion and knock down the old Central Warehouse.

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.

Location:

Last month, The Greenwich Journal and Salem Press — published just a stone’s throw to our northeast in Washington County — celebrated its 177th anniversary as one of America’s oldest continuously published newspapers.  

Last week, in the wake of the heartbreaking death of its 44-year-old owner, that historic local publication locked its doors and shuttered the windows, retiring a voice that for nearly two centuries informed Washington County’s citizens, expressed their ambitions, and chronicled their colorful lives.   

Heavy sigh.  2019 has offered too many occasions to note that all good things must come to an end.

By this point, you’re no doubt sufficiently familiar with my neuroses to be unsurprised that this news sent me into a full-blown panic.  Ergo, I hereby DEMAND answers of Enterprise co-publisher Melissa Hale-Spencer, and have thus assembled the following list of seven questions, presented with as much hysteria as the typeface will permit:

1. WHAT IS THE ALTAMONT ENTERPRISE’S CONTINGENCY PLAN IN THE EVENT OF CATASTROPHIC CATACLYSM?!?!  

2. HAS THE MANAGERIAL STAFF CODIFIED THE EDITORIAL LINE OF SUCCESSION?!?!?!

3. HOW DOES THE ENTERPRISE INTEND TO PERMANENTLY PRESERVE AND MAKE PUBLICLY ACCESSIBLE ITS VAST DIGITAL ARCHIVES?!?!?!

4. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOUR QUARTERLY BUSINESS PROJECTIONS DON’T EXTEND TWO CENTURIES INTO THE FUTURE?!?!?  Relatedly: WHO WILL CARRY FORTH THE ENTERPRISE’S BANNER AND MASTHEAD IN THE YEAR 2219?!?!  

5. DID SOMEONE WRITE DOWN THE WEBSITE’S ADMIN PASSWORD JUST IN CASE?!?!?!

6. WHERE IS THE ACCOUNT INFORMATION FOR THE DAMN ELECTRICITY BILL, AND HAS IT BEEN PAID OR NOT?!?!?!

7. IS ANYBODY LISTENINGGGGGGG?????

While the probability that Ms. Hale-Spencer will soon be abducted by extraterrestrials is admittedly slim, denying that possibility is statistically irresponsible.  It’s simple math, folks: 2 + 2 = 4.

Sure, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Ms. Hale-Spencer is mortal.  At the helm of the Altamont Enterprise since 1994, she’s become an award-winning institution in her own right, breathing new life into this vibrant and venerable local publication.  (It’s a stupendous feat at a time when the carcasses of celebrated print publications line the morgues of local counties and nationwide markets alike.)  

But nothing lasts forever.  And almost by design, the new media which has emerged to fill the void left by the loss of regional news outlets like The Greenwich Journal and Salem Press usually lack the journalistic standards, credible research, and diligent reporting which — at its best — define the local print media industry.  

In an age where Instagram influencers unabashedly manipulate their photos, “deep fake” videos look more real than reality, and paid advertisements masquerade as factual reporting, the Altamont Enterprise nonetheless remains an unassailable staple of objective truth and dignified integrity.  It’s our shared imperative to preserve this hometown newspaper. 

To be clear, I’m not just referencing the Enterprise’s physical manifestation; the “paper” component isn’t the essential product, so much as the classic vehicle by which that essential product is delivered.  

The essential product, of course, is the information that the Enterprise contains.  And information never grows stale; the Altamont Enterprise is as vital and useful now as it was in 1884 when its first issue tumbled off the presses.  

Today, the Enterprise emerges from more than just presses. I’m routinely impressed by the diligence of Enterprise staff as they leverage the power of podcasting, Facebook Live, email newsletters, digital newsfeed announcements, Instagram stories, and one of the internet’s most navigable websites to reach us wherever we may be, whenever we need the update.

But my exalted congratulations for this weekly publication have less to do with its form than its function, for there’s an even more critical observation about media outlets, generally, that is truest about the Enterprise, specifically.  

And that is this:  The Altamont Enterprise is a mirror — a reflection of us, an opportunity to take stock of who we are and what our locality deems important.  

It’s the core legacy bequeathed unto us by those who inhabited Home before we arrived.  It was in its pages that a conception of “place” first came into being, in a manner that could be reported, recounted, and recalled.

Even now, it’s through the Enterprise and its letters to the editor that we develop a sense of “us”.  As communities grow increasingly transient and individuals slip into more isolated existences, exploring the Enterprise cover-to-cover affords readers a chance to peek into the lives of the genuine neighbors who share a connection to this little corner of the planet.  By listening or contributing to that ongoing conversation, we develop an identity that binds us together, instilling significance into the municipal boundaries which unite us in the first place.  

Take a second to consider what you’re reading right now.  Have you taken for granted that our letters to the editor are written by neighbors, edited by neighbors, and then published by neighbors for the benefit of neighbors?  

What you’re holding in your hands isn’t managed by some far-off corporation with only the remotest of passing concerns for local affairs, driven by a bottom-line commercial imperative that cheapens and determines coverage.

Nor is it the chaotically unconstrained emotional slugfest of social media, as illustrated by the hilarious Oct. 30 Facebook comment thread on which our community’s worst impulses amassed in response to the Village of Voorheesville’s cautiously tentative proposal to move Halloween to Saturday on account of rain.  (I’ve never before witnessed angry-face emojis weaponized with such elegant precision.)

Not everyone has access to such a robust independent press.  It’s no hyperbole to claim that the Enterprise embodies that most sacred of Constitutional ideals in our American experiment.  For what else is freedom but the right to have a thought, and to then publicly express it? Can it even be called “democracy” if voting citizens are nonetheless uninformed, and unconcerned with each other’s welfare?     

As it happens, I’m writing this op-ed on Veteran’s Day, and am thus reminded of what I actually defend in my capacity as a Servicemember.  (To that end: Thank you for your service, Enterprise!) 

In January, I deploy to fight in a distant war in an even more distant land far away from home, in service to a country whose freedom affords Americans the space to continually renew themselves.  The best part of our country is its promise, its encapsulation of ideals, and the fact that it contains the people I care about most. From the other side of the world, the Enterprise will keep me connected to it all.

Less a Voorheesvillager, or a New Yorker, or even an American, it’s most accurate to define me as:  “A reader of the Altamont Enterprise & Albany County Post”. Because no matter where the Army takes me, I can always claim a place in that demographic — among the people of the Hilltowns, the New Scots and Albanites, the Guilderlish and Bethlhemites — where the issues on which the Enterprise reports remain the ones for which I feel the most direct responsibility, the ones I’m most able to influence, the ones that are most worth influencing.

This Thanksgiving, take a moment to think of the people of Washington County, whose stories just became a bit harder to tell.  Then offer either silent or raucous thanks, as suits you, to the heroes of local journalism: To the Sean Mulkerrins of the world, and the Elizabeth Floyd Mairs and Noah Zweifels, the Michael Koffs and Carol Coogans, the Ellen Schreibsteins and Holly Busches, the Jo E. Prouts and Cherie Lussiers, the Marcello Iaias and myriad local columnists.  

And then, lend your indignant voice to my righteous fury as though we’re posting on Facebook: “WHAT’S THE PLAN, HALE-SPENCER?!?!”  Your flock demands answers, and your heroes deserve a permanent home. For as long as there exist Old Men of the Mountain — the ranks of whom I’ll one day join — there must always be an Enterprise to chronicle their exploits.  

Since penning my inaugural column last January, I’ve been honored to be a part of this 135-year-old organization, addressing those whose perspectives have been similarly shaped by the view of a sun setting over ancient Helderbergs.  In high school twenty years ago, the Enterprise published my adolescent musings via the Helderbarker insert; it’s a privilege to speak to that same audience from the Enterprise’s opinion pages now.   

And in exchange for your collective indulgence — for tolerating my monthly trespass on these opinion pages — I offer the following verses so that you might join me in toasting our own beloved Gray Lady.  Ahem:  

By newsstand (and by newsfeed), on Thursday the Enterprise comes!

It contains a collection of articles covering all of the things that we've done.

The faces inside look familiar, for we’ve seen all these faces before—

some more weathered than in the past, but still faces of those we adore.

A PTA meeting makes excellent reading when it’s written up in the news;

the zoning board… local sports scores… an assortment of your neighbors’ views.

And what could be better for letters to editor than a citizen who reads?

You don’t always get the news that you want; you get the news that you need.

We know all these names—these names are the same as the names of our children and friends.

That’s what makes this news so important: it’s news of the Home we defend.  

So to all my neighbors and ne’er-do-wells, let’s raise our glass for a toast:

“Three cheers to the Altamont Enterprise and the Albany County Post!”

#SayonaraStewarts

****

Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper in the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).  He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.

Editor’s response: Of course, The Enterprise will rely on its subscribers in years to come, when this editor is long gone, to support the journalism vital to democracy, whatever form that takes.

Location:

Three months ago, as late June recessed into full-blown summer, a grainy video shared by WNYT News Channel 13’s Facebook account alighted on my newsfeed. My gut recognized “the Big Gym” of the Voorheesville Elementary School before I did, so I was already smiling in the millisecond it took to click “play” on the cell phone footage recorded by an attendee of the district’s fifth-grade graduation.

The video depicts a familiar scene: Children arrayed in a semi-circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, on three ascending levels of risers before a mass audience of gleeful parents seated in row after row of portably stackable chairs atop the hard gymnasium floor, with an overflow crowd spilling into the cheap seats of the Big Gym’s second-floor twin balconies.

And standing at the center of the action — as she has so many times before — is Dr. Mary Teresa Morgan, a beloved local institution in her own right after 30 years of teaching, poised to deliver her final performance as the retiring head of the Voorheesville Music Department.

The suspenseful silence is suddenly punctured by the inaugural notes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” — released a year before I was born but as relevant today as it was in 1981. And now Dr. Morgan is overexaggerating the rhythmic thrust of her arms. And now she’s playfully donning sunglasses. And now she’s tossing an action cue to the parents in the audience, who rise obediently pursuant to some previously rehearsed stage direction. And now everyone is laughing, together.

Either in person or in the pages of The Enterprise — where Rebecca Tillou’s October 2018 letter to the editor movingly recounted the ovarian cancer Dr. Morgan vanquished a decade ago — thousands of us have become intimately familiar with Dr. Morgan’s heroics, “radiant curly hair,” and sparkling blue eyes.

And here, as always, the production is quintessential Dr. Morgan. (I @#$%&*ing love Dr. Morgan.)  Executing pitch-perfect satirical silliness over the responsive giggles of the fifth-graders and Journey’s unselfconscious blare, Dr. Morgan’s choreography is as much a signature of her charm now as it was more than 25 years ago when I was blessed to sit cross-legged in her music class.

Eventually, the audience floods forth into the space in front of the risers, and two generations’ worth of dance routines merge into one. In this moment, from the balcony above, the amateur videographer catches that elusive and infinitesimally short stage of life just before children realize, correctly, that they’re supposed to be humiliated by their parents.

Even more notable, though, is the video’s living proof that there yet exist people who can peaceably assemble in the service of enlivening their children’s graduation, even though they may harbor drastically different political perspectives. For what most caught my eye was a flutter at the top left of the screen.

Sitting in the balcony rafters is a man futilely combatting the stifling heat by waving a makeshift fan (maybe the ceremony’s program?) back and forth in front of his face. I literally laughed aloud when I saw it, feeling a rush of solidarity with that poor stranger’s recognizable misery. If ever there were a symbol of what it means to be a New Scot, this was it.

I salute you, Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy; your powerful example couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt so connected to someone.  

****

I’m not doing well, folks; I grow more and more distressed at how mean everyone’s being to each other.  And it’s not just me; even retired Four-Star General and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis bemoans the tenor of our time.  Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 28, Secretary Mattis noted that:

“[O]ur own commons seems to be breaking apart ... We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions. All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment — and one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”

“[W]e need to get our own country’s act together first,” he writes, “especially if we are to help others.”   He’s right: The challenges we face as a species are insurmountable unless we confront them as Americans.

Our social media is spying on us. Our food is poisoning us. The bees are dying, the ice caps are melting, the seas are rising, the Amazon is on fire, and the hurricanes are all Category 5s, now.

Next year, my nephew will conduct his first live-shooter training drills as he begins his elementary education. Our unprecedented national debt is fueled by even more unprecedented deficits.

Anti-Semitism has returned — like clockwork — and our social norms are being tested and frayed by a national discourse that renders us more polarized than ever.

It’s getting easier and easier to lose myself in the din of so much social discord and indictment right when I so desperately need to feel like I’m part of something larger than myself.

Because what are we fighting for if not for each other? What was the point of this outrageous American experiment if *non* e pluribus unum?  If from many exotic backgrounds and many opposing perspectives and many differing experiences we can’t come together to declare ourselves an indivisible whole committed to the welfare of even the most ill-informed and obnoxious uncle spouting off at Thanksgiving?

I rise to declare that I don’t think you’re racist if you want to build the Wall, and I don’t think you’re a fascist if you want to ban my guns. I don’t think you’re a bigot if gender-neutral public restrooms make you uncomfortable, and I don’t think you’re a murderer if you support a woman’s right to choose.

I don’t perceive your concern about immigration policy to imply that you want children to die in cages, and I don’t believe your support for the public option means you’re actively fomenting a Bolshevik revolution.  Rather, I presume that your beliefs are held in good-faith, and formed by some personal experience about which I’ve yet to learn. And I’ll listen to you — even if I’m not thrilled by what I hear.

Your stance on global warming, on Israel, on the #MeToo movement, on tax policy, on the societal value of television drivel like “Ghost Hunters” may fundamentally differ from mine, but — if it does — that merely means we’re perfectly positioned to engage one another in lively discussion while waving makeshift fans together amid the sweltering heat of the Big Gym as our children file onto the risers.

We are all New Scots, and it doesn’t matter whether we reside on opposite sides of Voorheesville’s tracks or tune in to different cable news networks.

A collection of individuals whose opinions differ is “a community.” A collection of individuals whose opinions don’t differ is “a cult.” That’s the lesson of Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy.

More than once, I was a graduating student on those risers: first as a kindergartener proudly armed with colorful kazoo, and later as a pre-adolescent embarking on the rigorous rite of passage to high school.

And more than once did I then serve my time in that audience, enduring the stifling heat as I watched younger sisters follow in my footsteps. There’s perhaps only a handful of the Big Gym’s square inches that I didn’t once inhabit.

Seeing such hallowed ground filled with families and old friends instantly injected into my chaotic world a moment of peace that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

For we are Voorheesvillagers, all of us. And I would do anything for you, Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy, to include extending you my deepest respect for a differing opinion that I’ll do my best to understand.

And although the classmate who sat beside me as we sang along to the latest Disney musicals during early morning chorus rehearsals may have grown up to possess an opposing worldview, our shared experience of the magic emanating from Dr. Morgan’s incomparable upright piano binds us forever.

Dr. Morgan brought us together; she was one of the true pillars of our community. Let’s seize the opportunity of her retirement to fill her shoes and emulate her lifetime of public service, to ourselves become pillars of the largest communities of which we can conceive.

Dr. Morgan was neither movement leader nor fiery partisan advocate. She was, instead, a shepherd tending to a flock that spanned and united multiple generations. This era demands more shepherds — those who tend to our many opposing viewpoints, but who nonetheless move us together as one.

It’s a privilege to have myself once embodied the anonymous man waving a makeshift fan back-and-forth at a Voorheesville chorus recital, in solidarity with the people who made suffering the heat so worth it. And it’s a greater privilege to have served as one of the many students who over the years perched atop those risers to contribute a youthful soprano to the choruses Dr. Morgan led, where from many high-pitched voices emerged a single song.

One in particular was Dr. Morgan’s favorite. As such, and with apologies to the original authorship, I’ve adapted it to close out this column:

Dr. Morgan, Voorheesville’s still calling

from years ago, by alumni far and wide. 

The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying …

’tis you (’tis you) must go and we must bide.
 

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,

or when the village is hushed and white with snow.

’Tis we’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow —

Dr. Morgan, Voorheesville still loves you so.

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

Location:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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