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Oh, those Lions ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2023 -- It was a very gratifying Thanksgiving, except for the part where the Detroit Lions lost to the Green Bay Packers.
I had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner on the day before at the home of friends in Alpine, and then another one on Thanksgiving Day up at the Burdett fire station -- in both cases filling myself with delicious food. No wonder I gain an inch of girth at this time of year.
It was a weekend, too, of low-keying it while I shook the last vestiges of the Shingles that settled in on me several weeks ago. There was lots of football -- way to go, Michigan -- and a helping of Hallmark Christmas movies, sandwiched around a serious and rather remarkable film I picked up on DVD: Oppenheimer.
It was an oddly emotional weekend for all of my couch potatoism -- from anger at the way J. Robert Oppenheimer was dealt dirty by Washington politics (some things, like the D.C. power brokers, never change), to tears at the drop of a hanky from a trio of Hallmark films -- for those of you equally afflicted by such sweetness, try A Christmas in Notting Hill and A Biltmore Christmas -- to utter frustration on the football front, starting with those Lions and culminating with the Buffalo Bills, who have found new and ingenious ways to stumble this season, most recently in overtime to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Bills' misadventures are familiar to anyone who has followed them and rooted for them for any period of time.
But the Lions perhaps require a little more explanation.
Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on a hill overlooking a small lake, I was an enthusiastic fan of three Detroit-based professional sports teams, Detroit being down the road about 20 miles.
I loved the Tigers (Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Denny McLain and a personal friend, Bubba Phillips), the Red Wings (Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk), and the Lions (Alex Karras, Nick Pietrosante, Gail Cogdill, Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary and so on). I didn't care much about the basketball Pistons, because they weren't very good.
Each Thanksgiving through the '50s and early '60s, the Lions played a Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers, who I admired. But hey, I was a Lions guy, so my allegiance was clear when the two teams met.
As I wrote here about five years ago:
"The Pack, under Vince Lombardi and featuring such stars as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer, was the better team, although the Lions were pretty good in the halcyon days of the early '60s.
"We had a TV that picked up some Lions games through an antenna that would reach a signal in Lansing. As I recall, that sidestepped local football broadcasts that were often blacked out, though I can’t recall specifically why. Economics, I suppose.
"Anyway, on Nov. 22, 1962-- exactly one year before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- the Lions rose up and defeated the unbeaten (10-0) Packers 26-14. The Lions (9-2 after the win) built a 26-0 lead through three quarters -- on two Gail Cogdill touchdown passes from Milt Plum, a fumble return for a TD, a safety and a field goal --before Green Bay scored twice down the stretch. It was a victory that surprised many, and was a very pleasing result in our house.
"Really, after they had won the championship five years earlier, the Lions had receded -- were still pretty good, but no world beaters. Despite the victory on Nov. 22, they didn’t catch the Packers in the standings that year (the Pack going 13-1 and then beating the New York Giants 16-7 in the championship, and the Lions going 11-3). And it only got worse after that, with losing seasons not far ahead.
"But the Thanksgiving Day game was always part of our annual celebration."
The Lions had played on Thanksgiving Day annually starting in 1945, and the Packers became their opponent on that day starting in 1951 and running through 1963. Then the Lions' holiday opponent changed each succeeding season, and they didn't face the Packers again on Turkey Day until 1984 (and again in 1986). They met again on Thanksgiving a half-dozen times between 2001 and 2013, and then not again until this year.
The Lions continued to play Thanksgiving Day games across all those years, but to me it wasn't a true Thanksgiving unless the opponent was the Pack. That's why I found this year's matchup so appealing, in a season in which the Lions have been excelling. Alas, I found the outcome (a 29-22 Green Bay victory) quite unsatisfying.
For the record, the Lions have lost more often than not on Thanksgiving (37-44-2), including a 10-9-1 mark against the Packers.
Funny, isn't it, how childhood habits (and fandom) can carry across the years.
And speaking of fandom (of the local variety), the winter high school sports season is upon us, with a lot of Schuyler County question marks needing answers. From an early perspective, it looks like the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity basketball team, the combined Watkins/Odessa-Montour wrestling squad and the combined WG/OM boys swim team have the best chance of success. But surprises could pop up.
I heard from WGHS and Bucknell swim legend Courtney Warren in an e-mail thanking me for whatever role I might have played in her selection to the WGHS Sports Hall of Fame, yet to be announced. She was notified of her induction by WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden.
For the record, my call (in a recent column) for her inclusion was buttressed by the verbal advocacy of former AD Craig Cheplick, who, like me, well remembers Courtney's achievements. Chep and I devised an All-Decade team of Schuyler County athletes back in 2011, a listing split into three levels, the highest being the Solar Division. Each level (the others were Lunar and Comet) was influenced by whether a selectee had carried a successful high school career through college, into college, or was not yet of an age to attend college.
Courtney Warren was on that topmost team, along with Odessa-Montour's Stefanie Collins and WGHS's Olivia Coffey, Molly Schamel, Todd Lincoln, Julie Miller, Phil Brown, Cathy Brown and Alicia Learn.
Congratulations on your Hall of Fame induction, Courtney. It is well-earned and long overdue.
Of shingles ... and legends
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 13, 2023 -- I have a roofing disease.
That's how I recall its name: shingles.
It's a fun little malady, which started with what felt like a pulled muscle beneath my left ribs, and then announced it was something else with a band of rash on my back's left side.
Anti-virals followed, and then some pain meds, although the pain really hasn't been bad. It's the fatigue; I seem to need a nap every few hours or so.
I had shingles once before, about 50 years ago, and as I recall it, a doctor treated it with a shot through a needle that, in my memory, was about five feet long. Now, they give you a week's worth of pills that could choke a horse. I prefer the pills.
That's how I entered November, which isn't my favorite time of year -- a bias based on the month's first two days. November 1st is the anniversary of the deaths of both my father (in 1994) and my wife (in 2004). And November 2nd is the anniversary of my first marriage, a failed union that started 55 years ago and ended eight years later.
Yikes. What a combination of dates. I try to ignore their symbolism -- try to imagine I've leapfrogged from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, but it doesn't work. My memory, despite my years, does not seem frayed to that extent yet.
Nonetheless, I figured that by focusing on an upcoming event, I might roll right by the 1st and 2nd this year without the usual emotional turbulence. And there was a promising day upcoming: the 4th. So perhaps I could just look ahead to that.
That was the day of two sports events of importance. First, the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team -- fresh from winning its second straight Section IV, Class C title -- was playing a regional contest against Sauquoit Valley, the Section III champion. And second, the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team -- a combined squad of WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School athletes -- was going for its seventh straight Section IV, Class C title. In fact, the Storm squad was a shoo-in after a Preliminary round on, yes, Nov. 1, in which they dominated.
Alas, Nov. 4th proved to be a physical challenge. I was planning to go to Herkimer to watch -- and photograph -- the WGHS girls soccer game. I got up that morning, showered, intended to drive the nearly three hours to the game site, but first sat down to check my emails -- and that shingles fatigue hit me. I didn't want to get up, except to move to another, more comfortable chair, where I promptly fell asleep for one of those many recent naps.
And so I missed that trip -- and the photography from it. Instead, I slept until 15 minutes before 11 a.m., awakening to realize that my home-based sports option -- the swim meet -- was almost ready to start. I hustled out of my house and reached the pool just as the National Anthem was playing.
The swim meet, as optional coverage choices go, was amazing, with the Storm winning 10 of the day's 11 events and cruising to the championship.
Which brings me to this.
I was, in a portion of my shingles-induced down time, watching a movie called Before Sunrise starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, made in the mid-1990s. It's about a young couple who meet on a train and spend a night walking the streets of Vienna. When they part at the end, they agree to meet back there in six months.
Nine years later, a sequel was released, Before Sunset, in which we learn that they never did link up those six months later, but now they do, when Hawke's character, Jesse, is touring Europe, promoting a book he has written about that night. And Delpy's character, Celine, who lives in Paris, drops in on him while he is promoting his novel at a bookstore there.
Anyway, Jesse, in talking to a gathering of fans in that bookstore, says this: "Happiness is in the doing, not in the getting what you want." Interestingly, what he truly wanted, Celine, is ultimately what he ends up with, as we find in a second sequel released another nine years later.
Which got me thinking: What do I want? Do I have it already, or is the doing enough without it?
And which yielded this: I once had what I wanted, and lost it. Or rather her: my wife Susan. Which sent me into a tailspin. And the only thing that kept me sane was my work, which meant stories and photos I produced on The Odessa File.
I stopped tailspinning a long time ago, but rather than allow another such episode, I pulled into a shell -- a shell largely buttressed by the stories and photos I continued (and continue) to produce.
So ... life changes, and with those changes our goals are altered -- as are, I suppose, the ways we counter sorrow with joy, and angst with serenity.
Do I have what I want? Yeah, I do, at the same time that I don't. But I will take what I have: the interaction I have with the world around me; the seeming importance (at least to some people) of what I offer through this website.
There is a certain satisfaction that comes with that, and it usually circles back around to the teen athletes I cover -- and have covered for two decades.
I harken back to a moment in time that came when I was just coming out of chemotherapy treatment a couple of years ago. I was bald, and emaciated, and kind of pasty looking -- changed enough, physically, that a number of people who knew me didn't recognize me, wondering "Who's that guy with the camera?" I was, I imagine in the minds of some, on the way to my demise. Cancer has earned that fearsome reputation.
It was the beginning of the fall sports season, before the start of the school year, and I ventured up to Odessa-Montour High School to witness a girls soccer scrimmage there. I was wearing a ball cap, which I guess further obscured my features, and so for several minutes after I reached the O-M bench, nobody recognized me or acknowledged my presence. And these were girls I had covered, in some cases, for years.
Then one of them, glancing my way, did a double-take, smiled and came over to me, giving me a wordless hug. Others, seeing this, realized who I was and lined up, five deep, for their own hugs. And lastly, one came up to my side, leaned on my right shoulder, and smiled.
"So ..." she said. "The legend returns."
I liked the moment, and the idea that anyone would consider my plebeian efforts as rising to such a level.
It was nice to be referred to in that way, in that moment, whether it was heartfelt or merely the overactive imagination of the young.
There is a great line in the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which a reporter -- having heard the truth about how Jimmy Stewart's character, Senator Ransom Stoddard, ascended to power through a Western myth (that he shot and killed a notorious outlaw) -- shredded and burned his notes.
"You're not going to use the story?" Stoddard asked. To which the reporter replied:
"No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
In other words (conceding that this line is heavily debated), go with the sensational -- the kind of story that sells newspapers.
Or, put another way -- and this was actually said by a former newspaper editor of mine: "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story." Which I generously attributed to a philosophy advocating the presentation of a story (using available facts) in the most vivid, attention-grabbing way.
Maybe someone someday will study what has happened here at this little venture, this Odessa File, that I churn out mere feet from my living room. And maybe he or she will write about it.
In the telling, I would hope that the author might stick to the facts.
Or perhaps I should tackle such a project myself. To make sure there is a truth telling.
And yet ... being a trained journalist, there is something in me that is drawn to the "print the legend" dictum.
Accordingly -- if swayed to that dark side -- I might start from the beginning, like this:
"A long time ago, in a village far, far away ..."
If I adhered to that theme, I wonder who would be my Luke, my Han, or my Chewbacca.
Or for that matter, who might be a suitable Schuyler County Darth Vader?
The art around us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 24, 2023 -- The definition of art is, I suspect, as gossamer as art itself; as finely honed; as many tiered; as impossible to pigeonhole.
Oh, there's the usual: "The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance."
Or there's this: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination."
Or maybe it can be just this (from me): "Art: as in Garfunkel -- his genius vocals, channeling the genius songwriting of Paul Simon."
Yet art, I maintain, is much broader -- to be found in every aspect of life.
There is writing, of course. I encountered a gentleman the other day who asked if I have written any books (I have), and who commented what a good writer I am. Nice to hear, but I found my novel writing lacking, and so turned to shorter efforts, like this one. There is an art to novel writing that I don't possess, and a different art to essay, or column, writing. So I suppose I can claim some limited artistry.
I see art far beyond the written word, though. My thoughts turn at this juncture to the soccer field, where artists like Watkins Glen High School student-athletes Michael Purpura and Skye Honrath have been performing an artistry of motion and nimble-footedness in seasons past and present.
To take one of the two: Honrath is poetry in motion out on that soccer field, twisting, turning and evading oncoming defenders in search of a shot, either left-footed or right. When she does find an opening, her efforts are either rockets or well placed arcing shots -- frequently for a goal. As of now, she has 29 goals in this her junior season, and 66 in her three-year varsity career. She is small in height compared to many competitors, but has a large, self-sustaining drive, and finds success with remarkable frequency -- using the field of play as the figurative canvas for her art.
If art is, as the one quote says, an "application of human creative skill and imagination," I can point to creative efforts designed to benefit fellow humans. I refer -- for credible example -- to the Spirit of Schuyler, a non-profit that helps Schuyler County residents with funding in emergency situations. It grew out of an annual party in the garage up at Tony Vickio's home along Route 329 above Watkins Glen -- a party turned to vision, turned to long-running charity, turned to art of the heart.
The Spirit of Schuyler -- led by the Vickios -- just had its annual fund-raising "Gathering," which long ago outgrew that garage and is held in the Hidden Valley Lodge. That event, in itself, is a work of art, with hors d'oeuvres, a catered dinner, raffles, music, prizes, and a sense throughout of an effort well worth doing.
I like to think that the operation of any endeavor that helps people -- that provides a service or encouragement -- is, at its base, steeped in art: the art of compassion and compromise and concerted effort. I think, for instance, of the Seneca Santa gift-giving effort and the Schuyler County United Way -- both run by the ever-giving Peggy Scott of Burdett. These are examples of the art of humanity and the soul.
And from a personal standpoint, I think of the medical fraternity, or at least its most dedicated researchers and servants, as true artists. Having been assaulted by cancer and having lived to fight another day or two thanks to the application of their unsettling magic potions (chemo and radiation, in my case), I see art as extending to the limits of our curative imagination. And each year, it seems, new discoveries lead to more lives saved. Medicine, like Seneca Santa, the United Way and any successful artistic endeavor, is a living, breathing, evolving entity.
Which brings me to -- not a criticism, but rather an encouragement of -- organizations that were designed to honor the best and brightest among us, the best and brightest being those people who exhibit an artistry on the playing fields or in the game of life. The organizations are generally known as Halls of Fame.
This particular subject arose with the realization -- looking at the impressive Sports Hall of Fame display in the lobby of the Watkins Glen High School Field House -- that not only has there been no inductee there since 2017, but that the name of Courtney Warren is not up there.
How is this possible? I asked myself.
When I started this website more than 20 years ago, I was covering sports at just the Odessa-Montour High School, but one name I heard from down the hill at Watkins Glen was that of swimmer Courtney Warren. When I was recruited by the WGHS Athletic Director, Craig Cheplick, to cover sports at his school, I finally got to see Courtney in action.
And she never disappointed. That was in the 2003-04 school year, her sophomore year. She was a state-level swimmer who, to my eyes, was not anywhere near the image I had had of such an accomplished athlete. She wasn't trim, nor of broad shoulders. What she had was the art of technique, along with heart and the will to win. And win she did: time and time and time again.
She also won this website's WGHS Athlete of the Year Award in 2004-05, edging out Megan Matthews Thrasher, a superb athlete who is on that Hall of Fame wall in the Field House. When a Decade of Stars team was compiled on this website (covering 2001-2011, considered by many to be the school's golden era of sports), the first name on the first-team list was Courtney Warren.
And, even though she sustained an ACL injury in her senior year at WGHS while playing basketball, Courtney went on to an All-American swim career at Bucknell University, ranking in the top 10 in program history in four different events. She was an All-Patriot League pick four times, a First Team selection two times -- twice winning the Patriot League and ECAC 100 Yard Backstroke titles -- and recipient of the school's Christy Mathewson Award presented to its outstanding senior female athlete. Beyond that, she earned the Patriot League Swimming and Diving Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award in that senior year.
Finding her missing from that WGHS honor board -- and noticing the lengthy dearth of any inductions -- got me to wondering about our Halls of Fame in general.
When operating at peak efficiency, such Halls are works of art -- for operating one successfully requires dedication, attention to detail, and a finger on the pulse of the community it serves and reflects -- whether that community is a county or a school.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, or any Hall devoted to a professional sport, holds annual inductions, or maintains an induction schedule close to it. Alas, we have seemingly ignored such schedules here in Schuyler County -- years elapsing without inductions in the Sports Halls in our two school districts (since 2019 at O-M, and since 2017 at WGHS). And the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, seemingly stuck at 48 honorees (40 men and 8 women), hasn't added anyone since 2018, although I have heard encouraging reports of a new selection process underway. There are indications, too, of movement in the direction of inductions at WGHS.
As a fan of the art of life -- and as keeper of The Essentials, a Hall of Recognition (I guess you might call it) of 36 Schuyler County individuals picked since the county Hall made its last selections -- I hope those reports are accurate. I hope they yield fruit.
It's long past time.
The appeal of our heroes ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 4, 2023 -- I recently received a note from Steve Rondinaro, long associated with The Squires Drum & Bugle Corps and an announcer of note who sent me a link to his website, where he published an account of his long friendship with baseball legend Brooks Robinson, who passed away on Sept. 26 at the age of 86. Steve hero-worshipped Brooks in childhood, and became friends with him in adulthood.
It's a touching account, well worth the read for anyone, whether or not a fan of Robinson -- the greatest fielding third baseman in baseball history and a member of the sport's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
I personally never met Brooks, but saw him on a couple of occasions in Cooperstown -- at induction ceremonies in the late 1990s. I include a photo here that I snapped of him back in 1998, at the induction of (among others) Don Sutton and Larry Doby. I don't recall how I secured credentials to get as close to the dais as I did, but Brooks was one of many returning Hall members there. (I was also there in 1987, when Catfish Hunter, Billy Williams and Negro League legend Ray Dandridge were inducted, and in 1997, when the honorees included Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda and the late Nellie Fox.)
I provide you with the link here to Steve's account of Brooks Robinson. I will also direct you to three stories that I wrote years ago, before The Odessa File, when I was the resident "expert" regarding sports memorabilia at a website called baseballguru.com. I see that the website still exists, and while my stories are no longer there, a bunch of my photos are on the site's Hall of Fame Page.
Those three stories are about my friendship with a baseball hero named Bubba Phillips (here), about a wintry night upon which I visited an eerily vacant Cooperstown (here), and about an exchange I had with the aforementioned Ray Dandridge upon his induction to the Hall of Fame (here).
The Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team continues unbeaten as I write this, 12 games into the season. The defending Section IV, Class C champions, the Lake Hawks are led by a trio of ballhawks -- Skye Honrath (22 goals after four straight games with three goals in each), her sister Sasha (15 goals), and Ava Kelly (16 goals) -- and by senior goalkeeper Lillian Ameigh and a stalwart group of midfielders and backs, any one of whom you could point to as producing some special games.
The team is scheduled to play Newfield at home Friday night before hosting what will be its toughest test to date on Saturday: Bath Haverling, ranked No. 1 among Class B schools by the New York State Sportswriters Association, although Bath lost to Livonia the day after the latest rankings were published, leaving its record at 9-1. The Sportswriters got around to listing Watkins Glen at No. 8 in Class C this week after ignoring the Hawks entirely in its first posting last week. Since it is likely nobody with the Sportwriters group has ventured to any of the Watkins games, its rankings must be taken with a grain of salt. They amount to guesswork.
I asked Watkins Glen girls soccer coach Scott Morse if he had been the person responsible for scheduling in the Section V powerhouse Bath (which through its first 10 games outscored its opponents 40-4, compared to Watkins Glen's 67-7 advantage through 12 contests). Morse laughed and answered: "I did it, and I like it." The idea, of course, is that the tough Bath squad will get the Hawks ready for a challenging postseason of Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Section IV, Class C tournament competition.
The Bath game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at WGHS's Alumni Field. It would be great if the Lake Hawks' fans turned out in force to cheer on their team.
Apart from sports, I often attend meetings of one sort or another -- often ones where nothing I deem particularly newsworthy takes place, but where I learn something extra about the goings-on in Schuyler County, and gain some insight into the role played by various village and county officials.
There is, on the one hand, great patience required when something like the placement of stop signs on side streets and other traffic regulations is discussed, as was the case at a recent Watkins Glen Village Board meeting. My eyes glazed over and I fought fatigue as detail after detail was examined, and after an hour or so I rose to depart. "Leaving so soon?" I was asked by one official. "I'm going to go home and take a nap," I replied.
Another meeting was one involving a Public Safety Committee of the Schuyler County Legislature, where heavy hitters in county roles like District Attorney and Sheriff and Emergency Management Director were on hand to meet with legislators. There was some dissatisfaction expressed at that meeting by one legislator regarding communication among various facets of law enforcement whenever an overdose case occurs, and further dissatisfaction by another legislator regarding the handling of a case involving a man described as "a not nice person" who had run afoul of the law on different levels.
It was all complex and -- well, more involving than traffic and road regulations. It showed me that men and women we generally look up to and depend upon to keep our community safe are not without their own bureaucratic challenges beyond the walls of their offices. I don't think we look closely enough at the challenges they face daily -- the tightrope they must walk above waters occupied by, if not alligators, by barbed regulations that can carry their own particular bite.
And I have to think, in reviewing those meetings, that we're pretty damned lucky to have people who want to serve us ... despite the tedium, the challenges, the criticism and what, in the overall scheme of things, must seem to them like a cacophony of sound, a kaleidoscope of competing and demanding interests.
I turn 75 in less than a week. Anyone planning a birthday present might consider a donation to The Odessa File cause. I suppose 75 cents would be about right, although $7.50 and $75.00 donations would be welcome. I'm guessing that $750 would be a bit of a stretch. Anyway, I'm at P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869 if the spirit moves you.
In the meantime, let's enjoy the warm weather we're experiencing this week.
Photo in text: Brooks Robinson at the 1998 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He was elected to the Hall in 1983.
Looking up ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 19, 2023 -- When I was a lad -- I think in 1963, in my teenage years -- I was thrilled in a "Boy, this is cool!" way as a total eclipse of the sun was approaching during what back then was always a magical time: summer, when there was no school.
As near as I can figure, looking at the record of eclipses from the 1960s, the specific date was July 20, 1963. And I can say that what I remember most was the cautionary note that looking directly at the eclipse could damage the eyes -- with the solution being to look at it through a cardboard box device with a pinhole in it (a box pinhole projector) that would transmit the image of the sun safely inside the device while its holder was actually facing away from the sun.
Nowadays, the solution is more in the line of solar filters on your glasses or telescope, although I suspect the pinhole idea still holds. In any event, the cautionary note remains: looking directly at the sun during the eclipse (except, one site says, during the two to four minutes of total eclipse) can lead to solar retinopathy, more commonly called retinal burns. Not that it would particularly hurt, since (as another site warns) "the retina has no sensitivity to pain." But there could be damage.
Anyway, I bring this up to compare yesteryear, 1963, to next year, 2024, when a total eclipse in this region -- well, apparently from Texas to Maine -- is expected on April 8th.
Back in 1963, the approaching phenomenon was touted in newspapers and occasionally on the news, which was offered basically at midday and in the evening on three networks (there were no cable stations), although the morning Today Show probably featured it, too.
Today, we have 24/7 news on TV, and an unending number of websites that can offer their own take on events, not to mention Facebook and Twitter (X) and so on. Word spreads instantly, and we're all -- if we have broadband and want to spend time online -- connected in ways that weren't possible (or really imaginable) those 60 years ago.
When I started receiving emails recently that were touting area gatherings next April designed specifically to view the eclipse, I asked myself: "What's the big deal?" My memory tells me it was a really cool phenomenon back in 1963, but somewhat more of a private affair, or at least one that wasn't calling for large groups of curiosity (or thrill?) seekers. My family, as I recall, was visiting in Ontario, Canada at the cottage of old friends atop a bluff overlooking Lake Huron.
That was all: a gathering of family and friends, not unlike other visits we had made to that same vacation getaway. But what is this mania today? I suppose it's totally in keeping with the breakneck pace of the modern world -- the need to always do something new and interesting -- but that certainly doesn't make it better than the pace of yesteryear.
Well, the matter of the eclipse came up at a recent meeting of the Watkins Glen School Board, because evidently so many visitors are expected in our county on April 8th that it could well impact school transportation. Not to mention that a normal release time would coincide with the eclipse, which is supposed to start at around 2 p.m. and end around 4:30 p.m.
The School Board in its discussion noted that "everything is sold out" locally that day -- meaning lodging of any kind -- and that the State Park is considering opening on April 1st, earlier than usual, to accommodate an expected influx of eclipse watchers. Of course, the impact of the whole thing could be significantly mitigated by, say, an April snowstorm.
The board bounced around the idea of early release that day, but recognizing that traffic could be significantly impacted by what Board member Keith Caslin said could be many, many thousands of visitors, easily outstripping the traffic created by the annual NASCAR race at Watkins Glen International, the thought was voiced that maybe April 8th could instead be a remote learning day for Watkins Glen students. That was, of course, a method of education utilized during the pandemic; thus the district is well versed in its parameters.
So ... not wanting kids on buses stuck in gridlock, and facing the uncertainty, really, of just how bad the traffic will be (with Caslin cautioning that with a huge turnout of visitors, "we could be in trouble"), the board decided to seriously look at that voiced thought -- at that potential remote-learning solution. Superintendent Kai D'Alleva told board members he would look into it. And there is the possibility, it was suggested, that Governor Hochul might declare a state of emergency that day in New York -- which would presumably mean a set of directions and regulations as yet unknown.
Good grief. That day sounds like a mess; and potentially a perfect storm of circumstances leading to a wholly negative consequence.
Not to sound like an old traditionalist, but it's not like back in 1963. That was no storm. Not at all.
It was, to my rose-colored memory, a time of family, of wonder, and of a curious peace that settled upon me as I looked at the eclipse through that box pinhole projector.
It was quiet bliss.
On another matter, I have been duly impressed with two of our high school sports teams -- both defending Section IV, Class C champions: the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team and the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team. The latter is composed of athletes from both WGHS and Odessa-Montour High School.
The soccer team, as of this writing, has won all six of its games by a combined score of 33-2, with Sasha Honrath leading in goals with 11. Her sister Skye has eight, and Ava Kelly seven. The team is young and deep, and of course carries the knowledge and confidence that comes with a sectional championship. This should prove interesting.
And the swim team, which has won the sectional title stretching back several years, has a wealth of talent -- particularly in seniors such as Thalia Marquez, Alannah Klemann, and Malina Butler, and underclass athletes like Kendra Fish, Emily Melveney and Cara Reynolds. The fact that this squad defeated a Class A school like Ithaca last weekend was an attention-grabber. Good luck the rest of the way, girls.
About that gravity ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 4, 2023 -- This whole thing with ESPN being blacked out over a dispute involving ... what else ... money prompted me to start hearing, unbidden in my head, that song from "Wicked" titled "Defying Gravity."
I could almost hear my TV singing it to me:
"Something has changed within me;
Something is not the same ..."
The ensuing lyrics show Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, moving forward with renewed resolve: "I'm through with playing by the rules/Of someone else's game/Too late for second guessing/Too late to go back to sleep/It's time to trust my instincts/Close my eyes and leap!/It's time to try defying gravity..."
I feel, every time I check to see if one of the ESPN or Disney channels has come back on the air (and instead I find that annoying note saying the blackout mess is all being done for us), that the world really is beyond our control. We are dependent on push buttons and software and electricity that can disappear without warning.
I suppose, if we are to defy gravity in this case, we can go to streaming services that carry the sporting events we are missing, or simply do what I was forced to do when my last TV died recently: wander the computer in search of news and entertaining clips or movies, play DVDs, or better yet: read.
Not enough of us remember books -- you know, those things some lawmakers in decidedly disturbing states are trying to ban with increasing frequency.
I talked to Chris Wood, former Odessa-Montour School District superintendent who resigned last December and took a job after that as principal in the Bradford school. Our conversation took place after Chris was appointed Dundee School District superintendent by the Dundee School Board on Sept. 1. His contract is for three years.
He said he was helped in deciding to apply for the position by Kelly Houck, former Dundee and BOCES superintendent who is now the superintendent in the Bath district. She assured him it would be a good fit for him. And Jim Frame, former O-M and BOCES superintendent who served as interim superintendent this summer at Dundee, provided similar encouragement. Frame was also part of the group conducting a superintendent search for Dundee and other districts in the state.
Chris is slated to start at Dundee on Sept. 28th. "I have some obligations to finish up at Bradford," he said, including "making sure they find a replacement for me." If a replacement is found before that date, he might move over to the Dundee job sooner.
We talked about this website's Essentials -- people whose contributions to life in Schuyler County have proven invaluable -- and he had a nominee in mind. And we talked about this website's annual Tribute Awards that go to outstanding student-athletes (and he again had a couple of nominees). Finally, we talked about Grace Vondracek, the subject of the column preceding this one (see below). Chris was the O-M superintendent when Grace attended there, and watched her excel in academics as well as soccer, basketball and softball.
He said he "ran into her recently at Barnes & Noble," where Grace was working before heading off to a Division II college, Caldwell University in New Jersey. She will play softball there after a career at Corning Community College that netted her two straight national Player of the Year honors "She's a great girl," he said, adding that he was sure she would "do well at Caldwell."
We hope the same for Chris Wood as he enters this new chapter at Dundee.
The high school sports season is off and running, and while it's too early to make reasonable predictions on the performances that might come, it is evident that the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team is deep in talent and strong on the field, its success (defending the Section IV, Class C title) dependent on desire, hustle and teamwork. All three elements were evident in the team's opening 6-0 victory over Groton, which it had defeated in double overtime last season for the IAC Small Schools title.
The combined WGHS and O-M football team (the Schuyler Storm) moved the ball well in its opener against Spencer-Van Etten/Candor, but misfired at key moments -- two interceptions near the SVEC end zone, a blocked field goal, and a botched extra-point snap -- in losing 12-6. Time will tell if the team can regroup effectively from that disappointment.
Girls swimming gets underway soon, and expectations for that Storm squad are high after a string of Section IV, Class C championships. This year's roster is deep, too, with plenty of experience and past individual successes.
As for teams in other sports, we'll wait and see. Some haven't started yet, and those that have played have either sustained defeat or -- in one case -- failed to notify The Odessa File as to the outcome of a game.
Please, coaches, contact this website after each event, win or lose. The kids deserve notice for their efforts, and the more we know here about their performances, the greater the chance they will have to make The Odessa File All-Sports All-Star Teams that follow each season. Either call 607-742-2772 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And finally, thanks to all who voted for me in the balloting for the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce Schuyler Samaritan Award. The fact that I won came as quite a shock ... but a pleasant one.
Reaching great heights ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 25, 2023 -- I had remembered her as being slighter of build; never lacking in muscle or energy; just not this ... I don't know ... powerful.
Maybe it had to do with her quiet yet friendly exchanges; her soft but firm demeanor. When I first met her, when she was in the 8th grade at Odessa-Montour Junior-Senior High School, she was shy; could hardly look me in the eye. She did all of her speaking, figuratively, on the softball field.
Grace Vondracek was, back then, the pitcher for the O-M Indians varsity softball team, and a very good one. Over her four seasons on varsity (she missed her fifth, in her senior year, when the pandemic canceled out that spring sports schedule) she struck out more than 700 batters.
But it was always her performance at the plate, batting, that impressed me the most. The right-handed throwing, left-handed hitting Grace batted at or above .700 in her junior O-M season, which was just a bit above her previous performances. And if memory serves, she did that despite a slump that had lowered her from .800. And she did it with power, registering 10 home runs.
I was on occasion asked where I thought she might pitch in college, and I said I didn't know if she would; that her hitting (and base running, at which she excels) might well serve her better.
And, as it turns out, I was right.
I sat down with Grace one recent day at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Big Flats Consumer Square shopping plaza. She was working there prior to her departure to Caldwell University in New Jersey, where she will study and play softball for the next two years after a magnificent run at SUNY Corning Community College. She played softball at CCC for three years (one year of eligibility added due to the pandemic), and earned the ultimate in awards the past two seasons: the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Player of the Year.
A shortstop on defense, she batted .609 last season, with a .687 on-base percentage, and a .974 slugging percentage. She led the nation in hits (95), walks (38) and runs scored (91), and had 20 doubles and 11 home runs. She was a First Team All-America selection, and on the DIII World Series All-Tournament Team.
"Grace Vondracek," said her CCC coach, Stacy Johnson, in a press release, "is the most decorated student-athlete in SUNY Corning history. To be named a two-time National Player of the Year is a tribute to her abilities. Offensively Grace can beat you with her bat or her feet. She is one of the toughest outs in the nation because of her ability to drop a bunt or hit the ball out of the park. On the basepath, she is a threat to steal any base at any time. Defensively, she has been an anchor up the middle with her speed coupled with her strong arm."
I asked Grace what it was like, being singled out twice as the best in the country.
"Awkward," she said, ducking her head. A touch of the old shyness was there, I thought; but then I reconsidered. It was humility.
Grace had gone to CCC expecting to pitch, but was slotted at shortstop after another pitcher transferred there in that first, pandemic year. So instead of leading from the pitcher's rubber, Grace led from her new position of shortstop -- led her team to the finals of the NJCAA World Series finals repeatedly, the last time to a championshp game that was almost in hand -- before the opposition wiped out a Corning five-run lead in the final inning to overtake CCC.
"How did that happen? I asked.
Grace smiled ruefully and shrugged. "I don't know," she said. And after some thought, she recounted how a combination of opposition hits, walks and hit batters started harmlessly enough but then built an unstoppable momentum. She said the fact of the defeat is "still tender," but that her coach, the aforementioned Stacy Johnson, told her it was best to be philosophical about it -- to accept that the championship "wasn't meant to be."
"There's nothing that could have been done differently, really," said Grace. Despite "all the what ifs ... we just can't think about it anymore. Because it's done and over with ... unless somebody magically brings in a time machine."
Grace, whose awards have included a golden shoe for her baserunning prowess, and a SUNY Scholar Athlete of the Year honor, takes her academic and athletic abilities to New Jersey now, her first time residing such a distance from her Cayuta home for such a prolonged period. She says it has her "excited, nervous," but that she has relatives -- two aunts -- within two hours of that school. And her parents will be going to Jersey to watch as many of her games as they can, she noted.
Caldwell's softball team, led by a newly hired head coach, Lindsay Mayer, following the retirement of longtime coach Dean Johnson, plays in the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC). Grace said the school is aware of her pitching, but that that's not what they recruited her for. She will be expected to do what she did best at Corning Community College: hit the ball, run the bases, and make things happen on offense.
She said she was looking forward to the challenge, but the thought of what happens later -- after college -- brought a worried look to her face. She said she was not sure what she would pursue in the area of employment, but what bothered her more was the thought that her softball career would be over -- something that has been a large part of her life for so many years.
After graduation from Caldwell, she said, "I'll cry for like the next few years" because "I'll never play again."
When I suggested that there were adult leagues around the area, she almost imperceptibly shook her head. "Beer leagues," she said softly, and let it pass.
That's easy to understand. When you've been to the heights, and there are no more such pinnacles to reach, the alternatives can wane. But I have no doubt that Grace Vondracek will adapt, and will excel in whatever she chooses.
Personally speaking, looking back, I believe that what Grace has achieved (and, I suspect, will continue to achieve at Caldwell University) is the stuff of legend, and worthy, if nothing else, of a parade.
And failing that, we should let her know of our profound admiration, not only for her proficiency on the softball diamond (and in the classroom), but also for the way she has represented our Schuyler County community. We can, after all, bask in her glory, a glory borne by her with dignity and, yes, with grace.
Photo in text: Grace Vondracek seated in the Barnes & Noble bookstore cafe.
To an absent friend ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 17, 2023 -- When you approach the age of 75 -- and I’m less than two months away -- you tend to take stock of where you are and where you’ve been.
And stock of who you are, and who you’ve been.
Yes, it all gets a little esoteric.
Anyway, you find -- or at least I found -- that my life, at least in my younger years, was by and large somewhat wanting. I was, despite trying to wear the mantle of rebel, too wary of putting myself out there as an active one -- immobilized by fear and a sense of vulnerability.
Rebel, you say? The mild-mannered photographer? You’ve got to be kidding.
Well, I could go into the fact -- and fantasy -- of it, but I prefer instead to put forth the point that even with the passage of years and the challenges that growing older have presented me, the times past and present blend together. I am as much 18 as I am almost 75.
I am still very much at home with memories of, say, my college years -- at small Albion College in Michigan -- as I am with those of, say, the recent Italian-American Festival in Watkins Glen.
I am, in other words, roughly what I was -- in all my configurations, whether rebel or not.
As I started writing this, and mentioned college, I thought back to those days and to someone who meant so very much to me: Richard Scott DeVos, a classmate who pledged the same fraternity as I did: Sigma Chi. He was half of an attractive couple after linking up during our sophomore year with a freshman from Niles, Michigan named Amy Kelly. I remember the night they first got together, when he danced with her at a social gathering in the school’s Kresge Gymnasium.
Dick and I were close during those years. I found him, and for that matter Amy, both intelligent and blessed with a lively sense of humor -- with a joie de vivre. And like me, he was a dreamer. We talked on more than one occasion about traveling the world in a sailboat -- but of course life got in the way. After graduation, our worlds diverged, with Dick and Amy staying in Michigan while I headed to Upstate New York. They had married along the way, and settled down after graduate school in Amy’s hometown of Niles, in the state’s southwestern-most corner.
I reconnected with them on occasion, the last time about 20 years ago -- when I stayed with them for a night and caught up on our past. We even phoned and met with another Niles resident and Albion alum named Kathy Kaiser, who I had dated, and been pinned to, back in my sophomore year. It was a reunion that has resonated over the years, but was never repeated.
But Dick and Amy were always in my heart, and so, after starting this column, I decided to google them to see what they might be up to -- and ran smack dab into Dick’s obituary, by now four years in the past. There it was, with a picture of him in his elderly years: Dick DeVos -- bright, tall, charismatic Dick DeVos, who went on to a career in economics, serving as a business manager for various organizations -- gone at the age of 71.
I sat there, stunned, though in truth I have handled hundreds of obituaries on this website and am somewhat inured to feelings of sadness that they might elicit. But this time ... this time it hurt.
Dick had passed, and I hadn’t even known it. I sat there, wounded, thinking about it, and memories flooded back of our times together at Albion -- where we were, in truth, part of a small coterie of like-minded students (which is to say idealistic at the time).
I loved the guy like a brother, and still feel his presence, just as I feel the presence of the others in the group. I’m afraid to google them, although one, named John Williams, dropped off everybody’s radar a long time ago. Last I knew, Carl Hall, Ed Maynard, Joe Fisher and Harry Boyce were all still with us, although Ed and Joe had faced down some serious health challenges.
At my age, and recognizing that a lot of the obituaries that are published on The Odessa File are about people younger than me, I shouldn’t be shocked by the death of anyone my age or near it.
But I was, in this case, indeed shocked. But my reaction went beyond the surprise of it.
It went deeper, to an understanding that Dick’s passing meant the death of a small piece of me -- of my past, and yet very much a part of my present. It was a small piece of the complex quilt of my human psyche and emotion.
After discovering the sad fact of his passing, I reacted by saying “No, no, no, no, no!” aloud, and then sat and pondered, and offered a better-late-than-never prayer for Dick, and -- finally -- took a deep calming breath. This might have knocked me back a bit, but it wouldn't derail me. No ... in fact I conjured up a vision of Dick handing me a track baton, telling me to "keep going."
I might be nearing an unsettling age milestone, but I’m damned if I’m giving up yet. Even with health setbacks that come with the “golden years,” and despite the inevitable sadness that comes with life’s many losses, I’m mentally preparing for what could yet be a long haul: the final quarter of my life.
Wish me luck.
The Underground Man ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 29, 2023 -- They come to me unbidden, usually when I’m at rest -- thoughts of the trip.
And in particular of Mike Oehler.
Who? you ask.
Mike Oehler (pronounced Eh-ler) was emblematic, I suppose, of my youthful tendency toward idealism -- toward a sort of rebelliousness, though I never acted it out in any extreme way.
I was, at an early age, appalled by the lies of Richard Nixon. Oh, nobody was saying he was lying -- he was a respected (sort of) politician. But when I'd see him on the news and he’d open his mouth and say something that to me seemed so blatantly opposed to reality, I would complain to the TV: ”But he’s lying!”
My mother, seated nearby watching the same thing, would admonish me. “Hush. How can you say such a thing? He’s the President of the United States.” (Or, depending on the time of the Nixon utterance, the Vice President or a candidate for the Presidency.)
Part of my problem was the reverence with which I held the office of the President, pretty much shattered by Nixon. I was a history buff, and could, at an early age, recite in order who had been President and when. Those and baseball statistics, embodied on and through baseball cards, were my jam.
Anyway -- whether I was right or not in the given moment notwithstanding (and Nixon showed his true colors before too many years passed) -- I was inclined, as I grew to young adulthood, to like anyone who offered a different approach to traditional life; who proffered a philosophy that rankled those in power or challenged the status quo.
I admired Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and population control activist Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb) and, yes, Mike Oehler.
My new bride Susan and I, living in Watertown, New York back in 1979, decided -- after saving some money -- to leave our jobs and head out for a trip around the country. We wanted an adventure; to see new places; to meet people across the nation. We were young, and short on planning, but youthful enthusiasm often cannot be contained.
We bought a camper for the trip, and a couple of mopeds that we strapped to the vehicle’s front, and headed out with my son Bill from my first marriage and his cousin Rob as traveling companions. We would be on the road for weeks, hitting a majority of the states along the way.
We stayed in the northern half of the country while heading west, stopping off in Chicago before visiting Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and, up in Montana, Glacier National Park. Eventually we entered Idaho and headed up into the hills in search of Mike Oehler.
I discovered Oehler’s book, “The $50 and Up Underground House Book,” in a Watertown book store, and spent the $6 required for it -- a 112-page, large-format paperback subtitled “How to Design and Build Underground.” It told the how and why, and in Oehler’s case the where of constructing an underground home on the cheap. He had built one out there in the Idaho hills for $50, later expanding it at a cost of $500.
Boy, I thought, this guy is really off the grid, living a life whereby he thumbs his nose at traditional above-ground structures -- at society. It fit perfectly with my desire to do something ... different. (In my college days, I -- along with some friends, thought sailing around the world held great promise, great allure. Of course, none of us could afford it, and we eased into lives where paychecks were an essential ingredient of survival.)
When Susan and I decided we might grab a piece of that non-traditional life -- this came a decade after my college days -- the Oehler book, written that same year, fit beautifully, for we could swing up into Idaho during our journey west and find the man and see exactly what he was doing to pursue his dream. Accordingly, I wrote him, and received a reply. It came from Bonners Ferry, Idaho -- a handwritten note from the author. I still have it, yellowing around the edges, tucked into the Oehler book, which has sat on a shelf in my bedroom for lo, these many years.
“Charles,” he wrote, “There are five U homes in our county alone. Minn. and Okla. are leading states. Probably 300 to 1,000 U houses in the U.S. now. Earth Shelter Digest lists a number each issue. You may visit, but I probably will not be able to give you much time. If you hang around for any length, you will find yourselves with shovels in your hands.”
And so it was that we headed west on our journey, with Idaho and Mike Oehler’s underground home firmly in our figurative sights.
We arrived in Bonners Ferry, a quaint little city (population 2,500), on a Sunday, and after asking around, got directions to where we might find Oehler. His land was mostly on a hill adjoining a farm owned by the Hubbell clan, a family with eight children. The farm was beside a dirt track miles outside of Bonners Ferry. We missed Oehler on that Sunday -- he had gone off somewhere to a party -- but caught up with him the next day.
I kept a diary throughout our weeks on the road, and at some point in the intervening years used that diary to construct a chapter on our visit to Oehler. It was to be part of a book titled “Summer Song,” but I never got around to writing it. The chapter survives, though. I had forgotten writing it, but found it after I started this column, when I turned to my diary for details. The chapter, its pages paper-clipped together, was sitting there with the diary, just waiting for me.
I described Oehler -- referred to by one local resident as “a hippie” -- in that chapter like this:
“As I got out of the rig, I spotted him as he trudged into sight -- a man five-foot-ten or so, 40ish, and wearing nondescript clothes, no shoes or socks, a light, almost wispy mustache, a heavy beard with left and right points to it, dark-framed glasses and a dark elfish hat that shaded most of his face, keeping the sun and prying eyes out. A large black dog was at his heels, obediently following him.” (This was at the Hubbell farm, a homestead where he was clearly welcome -- almost part of the family.)
Our conversation, at first awkward, warmed when Susan and I invited him to join the two of us and the boys -- Bill and Rob -- for a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, and by meal’s end he agreed to lead us up the nearby hill to his underground home. It was a steep climb, 200 feet high, on a hot day, but we made it to our goal.
What we found was a functional living quarters carved into the hillside, traditional in that it had doors and windows, but very spartan in its furnishings, and without electricity or running water. It had an earth- and brush-covered roof with supporting beams, wooden-planked walls backed by polyethylene, and carpeted floors in open but defined areas: a kitchen, a dining area, and a den/library, each a step up from the adjoining one. Oehler had designed it near the top of the rise, in such a fashion that moisture rolled away instead of into the structure, which was -- on that hot day -- quite cool.
The state of the home -- shadowed, basic and essentially somber -- was not unexpected. It hewed, in fact, closely to what Oehler had described in words, drawings and photos in his book. While we had wanted very much to see the house, to include it as part of our journey around the country, Susan and I were -- I think from the beginning -- of a like mind that the factors we liked most were its reduction from the norm in exterior maintenance and in interior heating and cooling bills. But while not expecting to fall in love with the place (and we didn't), we had headed to Idaho because of the sheer newness of seeing that part of the country, and with the idea that visiting Oehler’s home might (as I wrote in that chapter) “help us formulate our own plans.”
Perhaps the most memorable part of that visit, though, came after we had seen the house and worked our way back down toward our starting point: the Hubbells’ home.
On the way, Oehler opened up verbally -- telling how he liked to make “a dandy home brew” that sometimes affected visitors who would then stumble and tumble their way down the hill; how we were walking on what he called “the Thanksgiving Path” because he had installed it “my first year here,” on Thanksgiving in 1968; how he had looked for land in the region for three months before finding this realm; how he had originated in Chicago and lived in Southern California for two years, with stays in Mexico and Hawaii before relocating to Idaho; and how moving there “was one of maybe two good things I’ve done in this life.”
As we neared the hill’s base (I wrote in that chapter) “at a spot overlooking the hills in the distance, I saw what I thought was smoke, to the east of Bonners Ferry.”
And now I turn the narrative over to that chapter, which recounted:
“That a forest fire?”
“Yeah, that’s one,” Oehler said.
“Get a lot around here?”
At the bottom of the hill, he watered his horse, Nelly, giving the boys a ride on her as he led her across the field where she’d been grazing and over to a water bucket. He turned off a sprinkler watering his garden, looked in his tool shed for something, showed us a greenhouse -- part underground and part not -- that he had built in the flats, and started heading over toward the Hubbells’ house, his dog at his heels and us behind.
As we neared the house, he excused himself and headed around the side toward the rear door, dropping his knapsack on the front porch as he passed by. We walked toward the porch, where we could see a young girl seated on the steps, feeding an animal on the lawn in front of her. As we drew into the shadows of the yard’s trees, and our eyes adjusted, we realized that she was feeding a young deer.
“My God,” I said, reaching for my camera -- which I had slung around a shoulder for the trip up the hill -- and snapping off a shot. I was sure the animal would bolt at any moment.
But he didn’t. He continued to take the vegetables the girl held out, and then he approached me and licked my hand. Finding no food, he returned to the girl.
“Where’d you ever get that?” I asked her.
“Oh, someone gave him to us,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked, and she replied “Julie Hubbell.” She was, I figured, about 12.
“So someone gave him to you, eh? How’d they ever come by him?”
“They saw him standing alone in a field,” she said. “The momma deer often leaves her young in a field for a while, has them stay there while she goes off into the woods, and then she comes back for them. Our friends didn’t know that, and picked this one up, and then didn’t know what to do with him, so they gave him to us.”
“He’s your pet, then?” The deer was moving away from her, toward Bill and Rob.
“No, not really,” she said. “The game warden said we could keep him as long as he stays outside and can roam around and we don’t pet him up. But he’s always around here looking for food.”
“What do you call him?”
“We don’t really have a name. We just call him ‘deer.’ Whenever we want him to come, we just call, ‘Here, deer, deer, deer. Come on, deer.’”
The deer, busy licking Rob’s bare leg, turned back at the sound of his name and went to Julie.
“See?” she said.
At that point Oehler came out the front door.
“Welcome to stay on my land,” he said to us, pointing toward the flats at the base of his hill.
Susan and I looked at each other, and with a slight shake of our heads agreed it was time to leave.
“No, thanks,” I said to Oehler. “Think we’ll head for Washington.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. He picked up the knapsack, put something in it that he’d just brought outside, and hoisted it to his back. As he did so, his hat fell from his head, and it bounced on the ground a few feet away, near Julie.
She rose from her seat on the steps, took a couple of strides, reached over and picked it up.
“Here, you forgot your pointy hat,” she said.
“You mean ‘pointy head,’ don’t you, girl?” he asked.
“Yes,” she giggled. “Pointy head.”
Mike Oehler put his hat back on and walked down the porch steps. He turned and headed away from us, his dog, which had been waiting patiently for him outside, following at his heels.
“Goodbye, people,” he said, glancing our way and waving a quick wave. And he was gone.
If you look up Mike Oehler online, you can find a Wikipedia entry that says “David Michael Oehler was an American environmentalist and author. He was a proponent and designer of affordable and sustainable alternative forms of housing.”
He wrote other books besides the one that had drawn us to Idaho. He wrote “One Mexican Sunday” in 1981 -- two years after our visit -- and “The Hippie Survival Guide to Y2K” in 1999 before completing “The Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book” in 2007.
He died in 2016 at the age of 78 in Boundary County, Idaho -- home of Bonners Ferry and of the Hubbells’ farm and of his underground house atop a hill.
I like to think he met his end peacefully, elfish hat nearby, an obedient dog by his side -- and maybe a partial jug of homemade brew within reach.
Above all, I like to think he passed while in the soft embrace of the land he so loved.
A housing community plan; that leave; & other matters
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 12, 2023 -- Playing catch-up with some news items:
Of possible future interest -- certainly worth keeping an eye on -- is a proposed housing development on 16 1/2 acres of land behind and to the east of the Walmart store in Watkins Glen. Developer David Wilcox has presented a concept plan that would involve construction of 62 single-family homes and a restaurant -- a residential community he calls the Waterside on Seneca Development.
Watkins Glen Planning Board member Tom Fitzgerald (pictured at right) expressed some concern about the scope of the project at Tuesday’s Watkins Glen Village Board session, suggesting that he couldn’t envision that many homes packed into such a tight space. Maybe half of that number, he said. He was concerned, too, whether the land -- “not completely flat” -- would require a great deal of fill, and how fire trucks could exit after entering, because the concept plan doesn’t provide an adequate turn-around or exit route.
County Planning Director Kristin VanHorn discussed the issues with him, agreeing that there are a number of questions that need to be answered, but saying that Wilcox will need some assurance by the Planning Board and Village Board that the project can be built before committing to engineering and related costs. Next day, she said the project is in the very early stages, with negotiation likely ahead as to the number of dwellings and other issues. She said such a project has been possible under the Village Zoning Law for years, but that “nothing like this has been done before.” The concept was presented to the Village Planning Board, she said, “to start the discussion.” The process ahead, she added, “will be methodical.” And she added: “We need the housing.”
Mayor Laurie DeNardo suggested at Tuesday’s meeting that Mr. Fitzgerald seemed to be pre-judging the project, but agreed that more information is needed. She wants the project to proceed, though, saying the next day (like VanHorn) that “We need the housing” and adding: “Maybe not 60 houses, but we can work on that. We’ve got to go through the process” -- which would include hiring a consultant.
I piqued the interest of other news organizations (and quite a few local folks) with my short piece on the decision Monday by Schuyler County government to place its Administrator, Fonda Chronis (pictured at right), on administrative leave.
The county has been super tight-lipped on the “why” behind the move, ducking questions about it, with one county employee saying she had been told to say “No comment” to any inquiries.
The TV stations got on the case the next day, with WETM going so far as to knock on the doors at the Chronis house along Fourth Street in Watkins Glen. Nobody answered. So WETM turned to County Attorney Steven Getman, who hewed to the county line, giving nary a hint as to the cause of the leave-taking.
The same day, a check of the county website showed that the name Fonda Chronis had been removed as County Administrator. In its place was “Vacant.” Which begs the question: What exactly does that mean? Has he been terminated?
So ... will we ever get the full story? One part of me says it seems like we should, considering we, the taxpayers, were helping to pony up this Administrator’s $130,000 salary, and will do the same for any successor.
But part of me -- and this has been voiced by a couple of people well versed in area politics and proud of the Schuyler brand -- recognizes the black eye this leaves on the county. Maybe the questions that remain unanswered are better left in the rearview as the county moves on to what will hopefully be a more fruitful future.
But the journalist in me will keep watching, and listening, and I suppose asking: What happened?
Grace Vondracek (pictured at right), an Odessa-Montour grad and a standout through three seasons at Corning Community College, recently secured her second straight National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national softball Player of the Year award. She was also -- among other honors -- named the 2023 SUNY Student-Athlete of the Year in the sport of softball.
How long has it been since O-M had so much to applaud in one of its alumni?
Grace is heading next to Caldwell University, a Division II school in New Jersey with a long and successful softball history.
Grace, some hopefully remember, was an amazing O-M pitcher in the pre-COVID years (she lost her senior season to the pandemic), but even more amazing as a batter, hitting around .700, with power and speed. That was her forte at CCC, where she played infield, but not pitcher.
It will be interesting to follow her progress as she ascends to this next level of competition.
Recent O-M graduate Trinity Trojanowski (left in photo) and recent Watkins Glen High School graduate Ava Barber (right in photo) excelled out in Denver earlier this month at a National Leadership Conference of the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), which describes itself as “a national Career and Technical Student Organization for students through grade 12 in Family and Consumer Sciences education.”
The two had teamed to win a statewide competition during the school year -- earning a gold medal in the New York State FCCLA competition for a New Visions project, "Slaying Hunger in Schuyler." That conference and competition, in Callicoon, NY, qualified them for the Denver conference, where they took a silver medal against some stiff competition.
After winning the state competition, Trinity had explained that she and Ava, who both hosted a food drive with an eye toward establishing a food pantry at each of the two schools, credited the New Visions program for their success.
"Ava and I wouldn't have this opportunity," she said, without the GST BOCES-based New Visions program, which provides courses designed "for motivated, accelerated, college-bound seniors." New Visions officials, Trinity said, "were the ones who enrolled us in FCCLA.”
I’ve been asked repeatedly whether I’ll be going out to northern Michigan this summer, to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac -- a destination I visited annually for 25 years (after several childhood summers there) before the pandemic arrived.
But with no travel companion or Island companion (my eldest brother, with whom I shared lodging and expenses, no longer makes the trek), and with my son Jon urging me to stay home (arguing that it’s gotten too dangerous out there to travel alone), I’ve scrapped such a journey.
I’m tempted to go, but I’m afraid I’d be bored once I got there, anyway. I love the place, but have found that companionship -- a shared experience -- is a key to vacation enjoyment. Besides, let's face it: Hanging out in Schuyler County is considered by many folks in this world to be a vacation.
A musical interlude ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 7, 2023 -- I spotted a notice recently saying Gerard Burke would be performing at the Seneca Cheese Company in Watkins Glen at 3 p.m. It was then well past 2 p.m., so I cleaned up, rushed from the house and drove down the hill into the gridlock that marks Watkins Glen on a summer weekend.
I pulled into the Seneca Cheese lot shortly after 3 p.m., and found Gerard Burke singing on the far side of the building. He was seated there, his back to the building’s north wall, entertaining a small group of listeners on a covered patio.
I walked onto the patio and over to a wooden table positioned not far in front of Burke. He glanced up from his guitar as I passed in front of him, but there was no reaction there, just a quick glance. That concerned me, because he should have shown some recognition; perhaps a nod. But there was nothing.
I was concerned because I had known Gerard Burke years ago, working with him for several years at the Elmira Star-Gazette, where he was a reporter whose byline carried his real name: Jeffrey Aaron.
I sat and listened there on the patio -- and marveled at how good he was -- and applauded at the end of the first, second, and third songs. The patio was beginning to fill up with folks carrying food and drink out from the Seneca Cheese interior; and so the applause slowly grew, too.
After about 45 minutes, Burke announced he was going to take a break after his next song. He glanced around the patio, his eyes flickering only briefly onto mine, and then performed that final pre-break song.
I had begun thinking that this would be an embarrassing incident in the same vein as those on three other occasions, when people I had known failed to remember me. The first time it happened was at a high school class reunion forty years ago, when a young woman I had once known had no idea now, a decade later, who I was; the second occurred about a dozen years ago on a visit to the Watertown Daily Times, where a reporter drew a blank when I greeted him even though we had worked together there years earlier; and the third came five or so years ago at a reunion party in Elmira for Star-Gazette alums, when a former business writer I had known for the better part of the 1980s professed not to have known me at all.
Gerard Burke was another such alum, so the memory of that last slight came washing over me as though it had happened the day before. The only thing that had mitigated the sting in all three previous instances was the presence of other people who did, indeed, remember me. But there was no one else present on that Seneca Cheese Company patio who I knew, so this cut might run deeper than the others.
When he was finished with that last song, I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, and approached Burke to tell him how much I enjoyed his performance. If there was still no recognition, I thought I might just turn and leave. I just wasn’t sure.
As I neared him, Burke was facing away, taking a swig from a cup of soda. After setting it down, he turned to me, smiled, held out his hand to shake mine, and said: “Hey, Charlie, good to see you.”
Relieved, I answered: “Good to see you, too, Jeff.”
And so it was that I was reunited with an old friend.
Jeff Aaron and I worked in the Star-Gazette newsroom through much of the 1980s, during the same period in which that forgetful business writer had been employed there. After I left, Jeff continued with the paper for years, leaving at one point but returning to close out a career that ended when the newspaper was downsizing.
“I worked there 25 years,” he told me as he took his break and we chatted at my table. “Not all together. I left for awhile, then went back part-time.”
He has performed for the past couple of decades out of Elmira as Gerard Burke. His specialty music: the Delta blues, which originated in the Mississippi Delta. It is a genre considered a cousin of country blues.
While we talked, the rain threatening that day started falling in earnest -- close to a downpour, but it didn’t bother us there under the patio covering. We talked as old friends do, referring to old colleagues simply by their first names, comparing maladies that each of us have faced over the years, and discussing contacts we still maintain with a handful of former Star-Gazette employees.
In other words, catching up.
At an age when I have, alas, lost friends and acquaintances to death, relocation or a simple change of heart or lifestyle, this reconnection with Jeff Aaron warmed me on an otherwise depressingly gray day.
The joy he wears, the music he generates, the history we share from a bygone era, and our joint passion for the craft of journalism, made whole my aging soul on a day when, for whatever reason, I needed such a spiritual balm.
Some times, all it takes to achieve a measure of peace is a friendly, familiar face -- one with a smile.
It helps, of course, if the person behind that face remembers you.
Photo in text: Gerard Burke (Jeff Aaron) performing at the Seneca Cheese Company.
A personal connection ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 27, 2023 -- I was talking the other day to my son about favorite movies -- as opposed, I guess, to great movies.
I mean, great movies are easy to pick. They are on best-ever lists, for one thing. And greatness jumps from the screen, in most cases.
I’m thinking of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago and Star Wars and Casablanca. Movies like that.
Sometimes they double on my favorites list, which is topped by Casablanca. I would include in my top 12 both Doctor Zhivago and Star Wars. After that? It turns a little quirky.
Why does any of this matter?
Because film has been a staple of art for more than a century now -- and has helped shape the world in which we now live.
From a personal standpoint, film calls to mind how I raised my sons -- taking them often to action adventure films starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis. And it calls to mind an instance when my wife -- not much of a movie buff -- showed up at the theater to join me in a showing of Sleepless in Seattle. It was a surprise to see her there, for she had initially vetoed the idea.
The movie was marvelous, heightened by the presence of the woman whose hand I held throughout the showing; the woman who has now, due to her untimely passing, been beyond my touch for more than 18 years.
That’s one reason Sleepless is on my list. The feeling it engenders is what makes it special. And isn’t that, really, how each of us builds such a list of favorites? Isn’t there almost always a personal connection?
After Casablanca (I get chills when the French sing La Marseillaise), Doctor Zhivago (that mustache on Omar Sharif inspired me to grow my own), Star Wars (I was wowed when it first came out and still love it) and Sleepless, personal connection continues to rule my choices -- often dictated by the actor or actress at the center of each one.
Ever hear of Streets of Fire? It stars Michael Paré, who I started following when he was the title character in Eddie and The Cruisers. He also starred in the time-tripping Philadelphia Experiment and the sequel to the Cruisers movie: Eddie Lives. But Streets of Fire, a mix of futuristic myth, mist and music, is the most stunning of the Paré quartet, and on my Top 12 list.
Another of my favorite screen presences was Ginger Rogers. I’d take any of her films with Fred Astaire, but my favorite was one without him: The Major and the Minor, which gave Ginger a chance to flex her comedic chops. A rewatchable delight, and another of my choices.
And then there was John Wayne. Two of his films make my top-12 list, and in each one he’s a curmudgeonly cuss. One is The Searchers, generally considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and the other is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- where he calls Jimmy Stewart’s character “Pilgrim” about 30 times. I don’t know what there was about Wayne that struck such a chord. But to me, he was the West.
That leaves four slots. One goes to The Best Years of Our Lives, a post-World War II study of the effects of war on returning servicemen. I’m hooked there not only by the story, but by some of my favorite actors: Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright.
The second goes to The Apartment, a socially sharp look at the insurance world and the pressures brought to bear therein on a lovable bachelor played by Jack Lemmon. A young Shirley MacLaine is gold, too.
The third and fourth go to films written by the great William Goldman: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride. Love ‘em both, partly because I revere Goldman.
I notice, looking back over those 12 selections, that they are heavily skewed toward romance -- either as a central theme or as a weighty subplot. I’m not sure what that says about me, other than I was raised by loving parents and longed for a loving relationship growing up -- which I found in my 20s.
Even now, with that relationship relegated to my memory bank, I look favorably on any strong union. There’s a certain magic there. So ... color me a hopeless romantic.
Yes, personal attachments play a role in the kind of movies we like, and in choosing lists like the one above. The same can be said of other art forms, I suppose, but films are a medium that can affect us in various ways: by texture and music and the truth in a story’s telling. We can be affected by direction, and editing, and by something as basic as the beauty of a scene. (I think of the haunting marsh of Where the Crawdads Sing -- not my favorite film, although its source material -- a novel -- is among my favorite books.)
In my case, movies inspire feelings of how things used to be, things that I liked or loved, usually connected to family. With my wife gone and my sons so grown that the youngest has now turned 40, those memories and feelings have become increasingly distant and increasingly valuable -- even priceless -- to me.
So thank you, movie makers. Thank you, directors John Ford and William Wyler and Billy Wilder and the like. Thanks to the writers and editors and costume departments and cinematographers -- to all those involved in the many moving parts required to produce such a work of art.
That complexity, I maintain, is reflective of life itself. Life: that amalgam of bone and blood and skin and organs .... and the power to appreciate.
It comes down to this: I think that any movie well made is something of a miracle -- as are we all.
A remarkable year ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 14, 2023 -- Most of us look back over the preceding year only when the New Year approaches and arrives.
I’m more inclined to look back at the end of each school year. That’s when my body -- stretched sometimes to the breaking point covering the high school sports crescendo of postseason, tournament action -- suddenly relaxes, a balloon with its air, its energy, released.
I sit here on a night barely removed from a remarkable spring sports postseason, looking ahead to an occasional meeting, or ribbon cutting, or festival, until the annual rite of graduations occurs at the Odessa-Montour High School (on a Friday night) and at the Watkins Glen High School (the next morning).
After that, well --- it’s summer, and I on occasion have been known to sneak away to some far-flung destination to recharge my batteries, perhaps see old friends, and ponder both past and future. For a quarter of a century, that destination was “my” island, Bois Blanc Island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, right about where Lakes Michigan and Huron touch. That string of annual visits ended with the pandemic, and my absence from the island’s woods and dirt roads and shoreline was extended by my bout with cancer two years ago, and then by a need last year to spend that vacation money on repairs for my very old (it dates back to 1865) home in Odessa.
I’ve given thought to making the long drive out there to northern Michigan this summer, but might choose someplace closer to home. With my brother -- with whom I had shared my Island visits since the passing of my wife back in 2004 -- and his wife no longer making the long drive north from Florida, I have nobody to share the experience with me. And since I, when left alone, often find boredom, it’s probably not a great idea to undertake such a journey of such distance.
Anyway, back to the end of school -- to the looking back part. The highlights provided by our county’s high school sports teams were pretty high:
--Back in the fall, a sectional title for the WGHS girls varsity soccer team, led on offense by the nimble and high-scoring Skye Honrath and on defense by the speedy and oh-so-effective Carly Arnold -- both All-State selections.
--School records for O-M varsity soccer standout Hannah Nolan in a winning season. She scored a single-season school record of 27 goals (edging Jocelyn Garrison’s old mark of 26) and finished her career with a school record 86 goals.
--An Independent Sectional Championship for the varsity football team, the Storm, shared by WGHS and O-M student athletes. The squad -- led by O-M’s Male Athlete of the Year, quarterback Daniel Lewis -- and some sure-handed receivers lost just once in 10 games.
--A sectional title -- the sixth in a row -- for the Storm girls varsity swim team (another combined WG/OM squad), led by the WGHS Female Athlete of the Year, Faye Mooney, with other State Tournament qualifiers Alannah Klemann and Thalia Marquez.
--An IAC championship and a sectional tournament second-place finish for the resurgent Storm varsity boys swim team, led by Liam Smith, Jon Spencer, Ryan Dean and Vinnie Ocasio.
--An individual sectional title for WGHS freshman Maddie Tuttle in the Racewalk, a remarkable fact punctuated by her time: a school record. Tuttle, recovering from an ACL tear sustained in 8th grade, was not cleared to run, so had taken up the nearest thing to it: racewalking.
--A winning season by the WGHS boys varsity basketball team, led by Male Athlete of the Year Jacob Yontz, who had a pair of triple doubles and 10 double doubles.
--An IAC divisional title for the O-M girls varsity basketball team, led by offensive and defensive dynamo Hannah Nolan and sharpshooter Gina Gavich.
--A victory in the OM Duals for the Storm (Odessa-Montour/Watkins Glen) varsity wrestling team (which went 5-0 in the six-team meet), followed days later by an IAC Division II championship.
--A sectional title for the Storm varsity baseball team. The combined OM/WG squad lost its last six regular-season games after an 8-3 start, then -- with Alex Holmes and the aforementioned Daniel Lewis leading the way on the mound -- dispatched the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in the Section IV, Class C tournament before defeating Bainbridge-Guilford in the finale.
--IAC division titles for the O-M boys and girls varsity track-and-field teams. The boys saw a school record in the 3200 by Ben Campbell and the rise of David Patterson in the Triple Jump and Pentathlon. The girls’ squad saw two of its members -- Athletes of the Year Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster -- set multiple school records and qualify for the State Tournament, where Brewster placed 6th in the 100 Meter Dash, and Nolan 7th in the Pentathlon.
There were other successes -- a winning season for the WGHS tennis team (O-M didn’t field one); a resurgence in the fortunes of the WGHS softball team (which welcomed several members from O-M when that school’s varsity softball team folded); and individual standout performances (like Nick D’Alleva in WGHS lacrosse, and Rachel Vickio in WGHS basketball and track-and-field).
In retrospect, that was a lot to cover. Hundreds of photos and thousands of words. Quite a few late nights. That’s when I have my doubts. I start wondering whether I can -- before fatigue overtakes me -- finish writing the stories and processing the photos and laying it all out on pages that all too often throw technological glitches in my way.
That’s when I turn to the cat that lives with me and my son Jon. The cat’s name is Leon. So I ask him, in the dead of those nights: What do you think, Leon? Can I do it?
And he always answers with an inscrutable stare, sometimes punctuated by a demanding meow that probably says Forget your work. Give me some more food.
Which would make sense, I guess. He’s primarily a nocturnal creature, unaccustomed to midnight yawns ... and he loves to eat. He wouldn’t understand -- nor care about -- my fatigue at such a juncture.
But I don’t take offense. In fact, I admire his seeming self-assuredness, the comfort with which he seems to rule the household.
Next life, I think I'll come back as a cat.
The road to a title ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 30, 2023 -- It was the equivalent, I suppose, of a hundred paper cuts -- each leading, as it turned out, to an ultimate demise.
The Corning Community College softball team, runner-up the previous two years at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series in Syracuse, was on the verge Saturday of finally claiming that elusive crown.
The Red Barons were up 12-7 against the top-seeded North Dakota State College of Science, which was down to its last out in the bottom of the 7th inning.
And then all hell broke loose.
I was watching, after a fashion, following the written updates on the NJCAA website. I was waiting to see “finally” happen; a championship for a snake-bitten team. But it never happened. The score on the website adjusted from 12-7 to 12-9, and then 12-10 and 12-11, and then straight to 12-13. The Red Barons had, figuratively, struck out.
A cursory exam later of the run-producing plays by North Dakota showed a triple to right that drove in two runs; then an RBI single; then, with the bases loaded, an infield error allowing in the 11th run; then another single scoring the tying and winning runs. From a 12-7 lead to a 13-12 loss -- an excruciating turn of events, the kind (if you are a player on the losing end) that never leaves you.
I bring this up to contrast it with the Schuyler Storm varsity baseball team, which went from the depths of a six-game losing streak at the end of the regular season to what would seem an improbable turnaround, this one of a positive nature. As the 6th seed, the Storm dispatched the No. 3 and No. 2 seeded teams before meeting another upstart, the No. 9 seeded Bainbridge-Guilford, in the Section IV, Class C championship game, played at a neutral site, the Union-Endicott High School baseball field.
Whereas the CCC goal this year was clearly that tournament title, the pinnacle that the Storm would have aimed for (and I wouldn’t have bet on it) was a sectional title. That was, in itself, a long shot. History was against it. Watkins Glen High School -- which shares the Storm roster with Odessa-Montour High School athletes -- had never won a baseball sectional championship before. O-M had once, back in 2007. Also, a lack of depth (11 players at the season’s outset) seemed to pose a possible problem.
Now, of course, with that title hurdle cleared, the team (with a couple of former JV players now among its ranks) is hoping for more, as are its fans.
Down early 2-0 against Bainbridge-Guilford, these Storm Bounce-Back Boys did what they had against Edison (the No. 2 seed) two days earlier: they rallied. The fact that B-G was serving up most of the rally runs through errant pitches (and a wild pickoff throw) does not diminish the feat: good teams take advantage of opportunity. And make no mistake: the Schuyler Storm is both a good team and an advantageous (not to mention resilient) one -- a team that found its mojo at just the right time; that came together when it really mattered.
It’s a team whose members pick each other up. The support between the players, and between the coaches and the players, is palpable.
It is easy to took at the regular season record of 8-9 and think “yeah, well.” But I prefer to look at that 8-3 start. Losing streaks, like slumps, can be a temporary detour. Such was the case here. Three wins when it counted -- a sectional playoff shutout and then two bounce-back wins and a resultant championship -- pretty much say it all.
And like any good team, this one is not dependent on any one star. There are, in fact, four IAC All-Stars -- Daniel Lewis, Alex Holmes, Ben Heichel and Brady Cannon -- and a supporting cast that has shown a timeliness in its productivity.
Sometimes that productivity doesn’t show up in the scorebook. For instance, the team was flailing early against Bainbridge-Guilford, with only an infield single and a walk to show for the first three innings. But down at the bottom of the order, Gunner Herrmann and Mike Hines tattooed a couple of B-G pitches to center field for outs in that third inning -- outs that showed the B-G pitcher could be hit.
Did that trigger something? I think so. That, and the fact that the entire Storm lineup had gotten a look at -- and a feel for -- that pitcher in those first three innings. That all led to a run the 4th ... and five in the succeeding 5th inning.
Confidence can play a major role in any performance; and certainly finding that mojo can shift a game’s momentum and outcome. And it doesn't hurt that the team has coaches with experience, including a head coach, Jason Westervelt, who this year alone has coached a girls swimming sectional championship team, a boys swimming sectional runnerup team ... and now has led this group to a sectional baseball title.
There was a Little League team a few years ago -- okay, a lot of years ago -- called the Tigers, in a community north of Detroit. I was on it, and it was a disjointed bunch. One of the kids, named Robin, had a chip on his shoulder, and that was emblematic of the team’s relationship. We looked askance at one another, and we struggled early.
But somewhere along the line -- when I and a couple of other players started hitting line drives with consistency and Robin, somehow, found a way to smile and bond with the rest of us -- that team came together and won the league title.
On the flip side, I made the varsity baseball team in my junior year in high school, which seemed almost impossible, given that the team makeup appeared foreordained -- a group of athletes who were, on the face of it, of a like mind ... a tight clique, really, that thought highly of itself and was far beyond my normally non-athletic world. (Oh, I liked to ski, and played neighborhood basketball and baseball, but I was a dweeb, scorned by the “true” athletes.) I made the varsity only after getting a last-minute turn in the batter’s box at a key preseason tryout, and managed to line the first pitch from the coach past his left ear, getting his attention. And then I sprayed line drives all over the place ... and made the squad.
Alas, one of the clique members got displaced as a result, and played JV ball. And so, in subsequent post-game laps that the coach imposed on the varsity, I found myself hit by the occasional stone hurled from behind me by that displaced player’s friends.
But here's the thing: For being so tightly bound, those guys weren’t really a team, for a clique does not a team make. Shared effort and sacrifice, not to mention the ability to rise to an occasion, do. And that long-ago high school team -- a group of individuals who lacked the sharing and sacrifice -- never did rise to the occasion, and so remained unsuccessful.
So I speak from personal experience. I know what struggle and success from a team standpoint looks like, and feels like. And I know when those elements are missing; when self-satisfaction and a resulting turgidity prevail.
In comparing this year to those years so many decades ago, I can say that this team, this Storm, looks and feels (though a good deal older) like my Little League Tigers of old. No stone throwing here.
I believe that no matter what happens in the coming postseason (unless, I suppose, the Storm makes it to the state title game and relinquishes a five-run lead in the bottom of the 7th), this team has earned its place in Schuyler lore as a representative to hold in high regard -- for there can be little better, looking back from the perspective of years yet to come, than a high school sectional title.
Yes, this team is something. It came together, overcame adversity, and rose to the occasion.
It is, now and forevermore, not just a champion of Section IV, but a champion for Schuyler County.
The name game ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 19, 2023 -- What is in a name?
Well, quite a bit, actually. Like the ego inherent in self-identification. Like tradition.
I was saddled by my parents with the first name of Augustus, the sixth in a line dating way back. First there were three named Augustus Carl, and then three named Augustus Charles.
I tried to keep that name hidden growing up. A moniker like that was just embarrassing, the youthful me not appreciating tradition.
In fact, the first girl I dated -- my junior year in high school -- wanted to know what the “A.” stood for. That’s how I signed my name (and still do, for the most part): A. Charles Haeffner.
I wouldn’t tell her, so she tried guessing, with me saying “no” to her repeated efforts: Anthony, Alfred, Arthur and so on, until -- growing tired of the queries -- I ducked my head with some discomfiture when she tried “Andrew.”
She bought the act. So that’s what she would call me -- that and “Andy” -- when she wished to annoy me or kid me. And I played along; actually got to like the name Andrew, and sort of adopted it.
Then we broke up, and a year and a half passed, and it was time for me to graduate. She was a year behind me, but present at the graduation ceremony since her sister was in my class. And so she heard the principal, in announcing my name as a graduate, intone “Augustus Charles Haeffner.”
After the ceremony, the girl -- from whom I had basically become estranged -- walked up to me, looked me in the face, and said, rather exasperatedly: “Augustus?”
And she shook her head, and walked away. And that’s the last thing she ever said to me, for I never saw her after that.
I later -- in college -- was called “Augie” by friends (after being called “Chuck” for the most part growing up) but adopted “Charlie” as my go-to name. And so it’s been ever since.
When my son Jon was born, my wife Susan and I decided to sidestep the “Augustus” tag, and so he became Jonathan Charles Haeffner. I still, at that point, lacked an appreciation of tradition, I guess. Were I to be naming him today, I might very well go with “Augustus,” the seventh in a line.
That whole matter of names and tradition has been raised with the politically correct movement away from Indian names and motifs in sports franchises and high school sports teams. Gone are the Redskins and Indians, while the Braves and Chiefs carry on as before. But that’s on the national level.
The state is another matter, where the order has gone forth: divest thyself of Indians and Redskins and, yes, Senecas.
Accordingly, the Odessa-Montour school district adopted “Grizzlies” as its nickname and mascot after years of being "Indians" -- and other schools with “Indians” as their alter ego are under the gun to change, including Candor and Groton.
Watkins Glen is about to retire “Senecas,” which has led to some teeth gnashing by traditionalist alumni, and I understand their frustration. But when the state, which controls so much in the way of school district purse strings, says “Jump,” districts pretty much have to say “How high?”
In the process now under way to find a name to replace “Senecas,” the district has winnowed down something like 200 names in 700 survey responses to 29 names picked by the School Board to pass along to students for a ranking by preference. Totals are still being tabulated.
Among the 29 names are the following: Athletics, Blue Birds, Blue Wave, Bobcats, Clippers, Coyotes, Cyclones, Ducks, Eagles, Falcons, Fighters, Fishers, Fighting Fishers, Flyers, Glaciers, Gladiators, Hawks, Lakers, Lake Hawks, Lake Serpents, Lightning, Pacers, Racers, Ravens, Thunder, Tidal Waves, Tides, Waves and White Caps.
From those, anywhere from four to 10, in the estimation of Superintendent Kai D’Alleva, will advance to a final selection process.
And eventually -- perhaps soon -- a new name will be selected, and with it a new mascot. That mascot might well be dictated by the name selected. “Coyotes” would obviously feature a Coyote, for instance. But what if it’s something generic like Lakers? What mascot associated with Seneca Lake might be selected? Ship captain? Serpent? Perch? Trout? Bass? Vacationer?
Ah, the questions associated with a change like this are many, and the chances of satisfying everyone, traditionalists and not, are seemingly remote.
I’m glad I’m not tasked with the selection.
Personally, I’m not really enamored of any of the proposals -- although I've thought for months that Thunder (or Lightning) would have worked well with the combined WGHS-OM teams, the Storm, if O-M had opted for Lightning (or Thunder) instead of going with Grizzlies.
But that didn't happen. So I'm left with this: The only name I’ve really liked over the years, and it wasn’t really mine, is Andrew. The name given to me by that girl friend. It comes, interestingly enough, from a Greek word meaning "manly."
I just don't think it would work as a team name or mascot, would it?
The Manly Andrews?
Good things happening ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 28, 2023 -- I happened upon this photo the other day. It was from the moments after Watkins Glen’s Zade Gomez Fitzsimmons scored an overtime goal against Groton back in October to give her WGHS girls varsity soccer team the IAC championship, on the way to a sectional title. For Groton, the shock of the goal -- and the frustration it created -- is clear on the face of the girl in the foreground.
I decided, back then, to not run the photo; to focus on the positive aspect -- the winning shot as it left Zade’s foot, the celebration that ensued. But it’s a pretty good photo, showing the flip side of that celebration: the agony as opposed to the ecstasy.
I present it now because I think -- having happened upon it again -- the remarkable season the WGHS girls soccer team had is worth revisiting, and to note that it is a young team. Just two seniors are leaving, although both of them, Katrina Ricca and Carly Arnold, are talented athletes, and Arnold was All-State.
But it’s a deep team, and one that responded (and will presumably continue to respond) beautifully to the coaching of Scott Morse and Ralph Diliberto. And, as we wend our way through the spring sports season -- much more successful than last year’s at WGHS (let’s not forget, by comparison, that Odessa-Montour has no tennis, no boys golf and no softball teams) -- the act of looking back also, at least in the case of the girls soccer team, prompts thoughts of a bright future.
And while in a positive mood (remarkable, really, given upcoming hernia surgery), I visited recently with the WGHS principal, Kyle Colunio, who was filling me in on some remarkable things going on in his school. I have to say I’m impressed, as the current administrative regime under Kai D’Alleva and the attentive School Board have altered the direction of the district in helpful, hopeful and challenging directions.
Where (a couple of administrations ago) the district seemed hell-bent on virtual education and a fairly vague stab at a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) curriculum (complete with a STEM room addition on the school’s north side), the old hands-on with real tools philosophy is back.
The old STEM room has been used from time to time over the ensuing years for curricula related to the tenets of the STEM program, but this year the room’s primary tenant is an Agriculture class -- yes, Agriculture, a lifeblood of New York and U.S. living, brought to life at WGHS through the growing of plants in a classroom. This is a first-year project -- one of several the district has undertaken.
The hands-on use of real tools -- as opposed to virtual welding and other virtual pursuits that supplanted tools that were jettisoned for pennies on the dollar -- is back in a variety of ways in the old shop classroom, whose main occupant, from a project standpoint, is a Cobra kit car being built by students through a regional program called The Winners Circle Project with an eye toward running it in a Vintage Race at Watkins Glen International in September.
That same shop classroom -- now really a metalworking classroom -- houses several car engines long since broken and discarded, but being used under the tutelage of teacher Bob Hogan to educate students as to the hows and whys of internal combustion engine repair and operation. Real welding takes place here, although virtual welding can be used as a steppingstone now to the real thing.
But there are other equally encouraging happenings in other rooms off of the school’s hallways. For instance, there is an advertising and marketing class that is tied into the Kit Cobra construction. That course, taught by Angela Morse, will turn its attention next year to work with the Chamber of Commerce and local industry experts.
And there is something quite apart from engines: a Master Chef class devised by teacher Charity Couch at the behest of the administration -- a sort of Home Economics on steroids, eschewing most of the random subjects of that traditional class and concentrating on the making of varied meals from pasta to meats to signature restaurant fare ... things learned that students can try at home to great effect. In its first year at WGHS, it has drawn 50 interested students. (Couch is also spearheading an Early Childhood Education course, to debut in 2024-25.)
That’s not the only food-related project in the school, either. Students under the tutelage of teacher Kaz Popovich have opened a Snack Shack in a room across from the main office where students can stop by (though not during lunch hour, in order to avoid conflict with the cafeteria) for food and drink -- a sort of pick-me-up in the course of a long day.
Even more important is a project undertaken at both WGHS and now at Odessa-Montour: a project aiming to combat hunger in Schuyler County. The project was kick-started by Ava Barber, a WGHS senior enrolled in BOCES’ New Visions program, who started a food drive when faced with statistics showing many county students lack the security of a food source. She enlisted the aid of a New Visions friend, Odessa-Montour High School senior Trinity Trojanowski, to do the same at O-M.
Key to the effort, said Barber, is anonymity -- something other food programs like reduced-price lunches and a backpack program lack. Barber’s efforts have resulted in a food pantry up and running at WGHS, catering to students as the need arises. Also recently acquired: a $5,000 grant to upgrade the facility with installation of a refrigerator, allowing the collection of perishables. Both students hope to pass the effort along -- Barber through the National Honor Society -- so it will continue and grow after they graduate.
Elective classes in the usually staid curriculum of Social Studies are offering students a chance to deep dive into areas that led to today’s current world mess -- courses that can provide a greater understanding of how we have ended up in a world so seemingly on the brink of disaster in so many ways. Those new courses are The Fifties and Foreign Policy.
But my favorite change -- a creative addition to the school this year -- has got to be the Learning Lab.
This is a room in the high school devoted to reclamation -- to credit recovery for students who have, for whatever reasons (family strife, difficulty transitioning from the pandemic, and so on) fallen behind; find themselves in an academic hole from which the route to graduation is daunting.
The room caters to the individual needs of the students who populate it -- about 20 total now, with perhaps up to seven or so in there at any one time, some in need of the lab for an hour, and others for the majority of the day. It is run by longtime teachers Amy Planty and Cathy Mangus, with assists from Ward Brower,.
The room has four study carousels and other desk space, and is computer based. It can be used by students other than those in need of recovery -- perhaps looking to research a subject for a paper -- but it has been visited mostly by students who need a little help ... a leg up out of that hole. Included in the itinerary are field trips to sites that connect the students to possibilities; that show them work sites and other locales that allow them to experience what paths they might pursue, rather than struggle without a vision.
The Learning Lab was the brainchild of the aforementioned principal, Kyle Colunio, who said it offers a sort of alternative education.
In fact, the new efforts in various classrooms -- the Cobra kit car and the metalworking, the agriculture, the Master Chef course -- offer something that perhaps a student could find on a different scale at BOCES, but without the commitment of time that that organization’s programs might entail.
These new offerings are an alternative, of sorts, to BOCES’ alternative education -- not the be-all and end-all answer to the services it provides, but an insight into what it represents, and in some cases a steppingstone to its programs.
Photos in text:
Top: The reaction of a Groton player after her team lost to Watkins Glen in the IAC soccer championship game.
Middle: WGHS students at work around the Cobra kit car.
Bottom: Teacher Amy Planty at her desk in the Learning Lab.
To talk, or not to talk ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 11, 2023 -- My last column seemed to strike a chord in some folks -- more so than my musings usually elicit.
The subject was the shrinking high school sports scene here in Schuyler, a topic triggered by the absence this spring of tennis, softball and boys golf at Odessa-Montour. Other roster-challenged spring sports include lacrosse and girls track at Watkins Glen.
I suggested a general merger of sports, since it’s worked well on a growing number of joint teams -- in wrestling, baseball, football, and boys and girls swimming. And I threw out the thought that overall merger has worked well for other schools.
That led to a discussion at the last Watkins Glen School Board meeting about sports and, yes, about merger -- with the board asking Superintendent Kai D’Alleva to reach out to the Odessa-Montour school officials about perhaps initiating merger discussions.
I received an email the next morning from the O-M interim Superintendent, Tracy Marchionda. We had, a couple of weeks earlier, agreed to get together for a talk sometime soon, and now seemed right. She had been contacted that morning by D’Alleva, who told her I had been at the Watkins School Board meeting and would be writing a story about it.
Anyway, I agreed to meet later that day with her and O-M School Board member Jen Mosher. As it turned out, School Board member Dana Sgrecci was also present when I arrived at Marchionda’s office.
The meeting lasted for more than an hour, and while I wasn’t treating it as a news story -- but rather a feeling-out session -- there are a couple of impressions I carried with me when I left.
First, the people running the O-M district are doing a good job in many regards, and are justifiably proud of it. Without getting into personalities, that was not always the case there -- not early on in the 20-plus years I’ve been covering the district.
Second, while the current administration has shown a willingness to merge sports with Watkins Glen on a case-by-case basis -- and I think was professing at that meeting in Marchionda's office a willingness to hold a dialogue with Watkins on perhaps a larger scale of cooperative ventures -- there seems to be no way it intends to entertain a joining of the two districts into one.
But ... and this point needs to be addressed: The full range of opportunities afforded to the kids on the playing fields and courts aren’t being met, especially this spring at O-M. There are varying reasons, but uppermost in my mind is a shortfall in recruiting. I’ve seen coaches who know how to recruit -- and put together sizable, contending teams -- and those who don’t know how.
O-M students reportedly showed no interest last year in tennis, with only a couple of inquiries about it this year. Down the hill, WGHS drew more than 20 kids combined for varsity and modified tennis this spring. Why the huge difference? I have to think recruiting -- which, once instituted, can trigger word of mouth and peer enthusiasm.
And -- back to the impressions I carried with me from the meeting at O-M: Part of that district's reluctance to merge comes from pride ... from an independence embraced across the decades. That independence takes the shape of ... well, if not isolationism, then insulation. I personally encountered that when I started covering the O-M district. I was kept at an arm’s distance, as though I were invading its practitioners’ space. I found at the outset that my presence elicited only lukewarm acceptance by the student athletes, coaches and administrators I was covering. (This insulated, arms length reception has been tempered over the years. Longevity on my part has played a role, but so has O-M’s willingness to open up some; to accept, for instance, the need for targeted sports mergers.)
In contrast to the early reception accorded me at O-M, there was this: When I was convinced back in 2003 by the Watkins Glen High School Athletic Director at the time, Craig Cheplick, to start covering his district’s sporting events (something I didn’t do for most of my first year at the helm of The Odessa File), I was greeted by the Watkins students with smiles and hugs -- quite literally with open arms.
Which points up, I guess, that we are dealing with two very different districts with very different philosophies -- in communities that are quite different from one another. Watkins Glen is a village very dependent on outside visitors; Odessa is definitely not a tourist haven.
And -- back to O-M’s resistance to merge -- part of it is fiscal logic. Taxes have been kept pretty tight there, especially under the current board led by attorney Rob Halpin. The board can also point to a recent uptick in district enrollment, to a total of 796, just barely 100 less than Watkins Glen’s 898. (Both totals are fluid, what with arrivals, departures, and home schoolers who aren’t part of those numbers. But you get the idea: There isn’t that much difference between the two in terms of student population.) And while the current O-M graduating class is numbers challenged, larger classes will follow.
The O-M administrators, to hear Mosher, Sgrecci and Marchionda tell it, were surprised by the Watkins board’s sudden veer in the direction of merger. It really hasn’t been raised as a proposal in years, and then (obviously) without success -- and not, really, with any traction.
So ... what is my feeling about merger?
Well, I don’t think what I think really matters. From a practical standpoint, I have no sway. I did push back a little at that meeting in Marchionda’s office, responding to a comment that O-M didn’t need to be saved. I said Watkins wasn’t trying to save them, but was talking instead about what is best for the students in the future.
And what of Watkins Glen School Board member Keith Caslin's assertion that Schuyler County can't continue to support two school districts? That might require a longer look. I don’t have a crystal ball, and have no feel for that particular subject.
I do know, though, that I have not been subjected to any sort of sticker shock when it comes to taxes here in the O-M district (well, not in a quarter century or so, but that long-past era is a different story), and I recognize the school spirit that still exists here among student athletes, particularly palpable when they are playing a Watkins Glen team.
That would seem to fly in the face of common sense, given that the two schools share a growing number of teams. But there you have it.
If fiscal responsibility and school spirit count for anything (and I think they do), then a marriage in this case -- a merger of the two districts -- might seem an unnecessary shotgun device.
But I don’t have all the answers, and I don't think that any individual person among either district's leadership does.
So the two should talk. A lot more comes out of brainstorming than from not.
A shrinking sports scene ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 28, 2023 -- I find it inordinately sad, not to mention concerning.
Our two school districts have long been numbers challenged, with enrollments on a decline over the years. Where once sharing between the two was anathema to either school, now it has become increasingly commonplace.
In the past few years, athletes from both schools have shared the rosters on the baseball, football, wrestling, and girls and boys swimming teams. And it’s worked well. (In each case, merger helped alleviate dwindling participation levels.)
But declining numbers have been exacerbated -- in part, possibly, by a psychic malaise left behind by the pandemic, but I have to think there are other factors: the cultural shift toward the Internet and hand-held devices; a dearth of area feeder programs outside of football and soccer; an occasional absence of proper recruitment of student-athletes (kids sometimes need a little push, a little incentive); the presence of apathy and the absence of vision on various levels; and fallen school enrollment numbers.
You can, in fact, point all over the place: at the students, at the coaches, at the district, at society, and at the whims of nature (or the Chinese). Nothing, when it comes to analysis of life, is simple.
But the fact remains: Now, like an Incredible Shrinking Man (or Woman), the size of participation in spring high school sports in Schuyler County (not to mention in cross country and volleyball earlier in the school year) is shriveling. The traditional structure of programs like softball, tennis and golf at Odessa-Montour High School, and lacrosse, baseball and track at Watkins Glen High School are being altered -- at least in the short term, and perhaps beyond.
As practices were underway and the start of the season (this week) approached, word came down that there is neither varsity nor junior varsity softball at O-M this year, with four of the varsity players opting to join the WGHS team, which was starting with 11 players. The O-Mers have been practicing with the Senecas’ varsity while awaiting approval to be merged into that squad. The team will not operate, as other merged sports have, as The Storm, but initially will be simply the Watkins Glen Senecas -- Senecas being a nickname good, evidently, until the end of the school year, after which a new one (so sayeth the state) must be adopted.
But softball -- and this should be the trigger to permanent merger of that sport -- is not alone.
There is no one playing boys golf at O-M this year, while the girls have but three players. And as with last year (and 2020 and 2021), there is no O-M tennis team. "We had a couple of students ask about tennis," said O-M Athletic Manager Greg Gavich, "but not enough interest to form a team." No softball, no boys golf, no tennis. That leaves baseball and track.
Baseball is bordering on thin this year, too, at least at the varsity level, with the large majority (9) of the combined (OM and WG) team coming from the Odessa school. The roster, which requires nine players on the field, topped out at 11. Junior Varsity and Modified participation is higher, with 14 on the JV (8 from O-M and 6 from Watkins), and 25 on the Modified (11 from O-M and 14 from Watkins).
It could be perceived as particularly galling that softball and baseball numbers are falling despite relatively cushy facilities -- where a lot of money was spent on installing artificial turf in the infields.
Meanwhile, lacrosse at WGHS -- a venture going back more than a half-dozen years -- has not yielded any results approximating competitive success, but is back again this year, with 17 players on the varsity. But there is no Modified squad since, as Athletic Director Rod Weeden explained, “Not enough signed up to complete a team.” (So some of the varsity members are would-have-been Modified players, had there been such a squad). O-M, meanwhile, has never tried lacrosse, nor attempted to merge with the WGHS program -- although Watkins should, I suggest, offer spots on the Watkins roster.
Watkins Glen has also struggled in recent years with recruiting athletes to the boys and girls varsity track teams, and that continues to be the new normal -- although the boys number is steady this year at 15. (The girls, alas, are at 8; and the Modified numbers are alarmingly low: 6 boys and 0 girls.) O-M’s numbers are encouraging: the boys track team has 25 members, while the girls have 17 -- totals that are an anomaly in a sea of struggle.
Watkins Glen, unlike O-M, has boys golf, with 6 participants, while the girls team has 5. Tennis is healthy there, with 18 members on the mixed boys and girls varsity tennis team.
Also healthy: the newly formed (last year) co-ed Clay Trap Shooting club, with 34 student-athletes between the two schools -- 19 boys and 6 girls from WGHS, and 7 boys and 2 girls from O-M. “Trap is still a club sport for NYSPHSAA (NYS Public High School Athletic Association) purposes,” said Weeden. “However, we are giving varsity letters and pins to those who compete in the sport at the local level.”
(The overall problem of shrinkage is present in the arts, as well. The recently concluded WGHS musical, The Wizard of Oz -- which attracted sizable audiences to all three performances -- drew a smaller than expected turnout of participants, so the directors turned to 5th and 6th graders to fill the roles of the Munchkins. And flexibility in costume changes became the norm as several thespians embraced multiple roles. One 8th grader had a half-dozen different roles, including a solo in one of the play’s musical numbers.)
(And another tradition, the youth basketball league run by Jim Scott at Watkins Glen for decades -- a rite of passage for many up-and-coming boys and girls over the years -- has seen a sharp drop in participation numbers.)
If there is any consolation, it is in the Modified numbers of some sports. O-M 's Gavich says there “seems to be more interest in the current Modified sports, as well as a larger enrollment in those grades as a whole.” So the numbers picture might brighten a little going forward, but time will tell the truth of that -- and in fact I have my doubts.
As a longtime advocate of youth sports culminating in the high school competitive experience, this stark drop-off has me thinking “merger, merger.” And not only of the sports teams (though more than that seems unlikely).
Look to Elmira or Corning. They merged schools (Southside and Elmira Free Academy in the one instance and Corning East and West in the other) in 2014, and aren’t facing such dismal sports numbers. But of course they have many more bodies -- which is the point when I say merger of (at least) sports should be advanced here to include cross country (not offered at O-M, but maybe there are some interested runners), lacrosse (again, not yet offered at O-M), indoor track (ditto), volleyball, golf, tennis and softball. Now would seem a good time to embrace such moves.
Without softball, tennis or boys golf at O-M, and with weak numbers in baseball, softball, girls track and lacrosse at Watkins Glen -- not to mention in cross country and volleyball -- the odds of a meaningful, competitive experience on the playing fields and courts are diminished, robbing the kids of worthwhile experiences; of opportunity.
To the point, if this spring is anything like the last (when those dwindling numbers started surfacing in earnest), there will be an unavoidable dip in the level of play. Last spring, this website -- which just recently named an All-Star winter squad with First, Second and Third Teams -- had to limit its All-Stars to a single First Team.
This season, alas, is not looking any better. Perhaps worse, in fact.
I've noticed that Dick's Sporting Goods has an ad whose theme is "Sports Change Lives."
They can, but not if they've evaporated.
I, for one, mourn the past of Schuyler sports, and fear for their future, and by extension the future of our kids.
Picking through the facts ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 22, 2023 -- Not to be morbid -- I’m really not trying to be -- but:
Every time I receive an obituary to run on this website regarding the passing of somebody younger than me, I take a moment to reflect on the fate we each face, and wonder when my time might come -- and who, if I’m still operating this website up to that point, will do the honors of posting an account of my life.
I imagine that my exit will come when I look up and see my late wife, Susan, smiling and beckoning. “It’s time,” she will say, and -- knowing I’ll be reunited with her -- I will willingly go.
Where to? The light, I suppose, although what comes next cannot be determined definitively until we are there. Will I just cease to be, and blend in with nature? Or is there more?
And who will write about me? I can only imagine the effort that will go into trying to list my contributions. (Well, actually, that wouldn’t be very long.) For what it’s worth, here’s some helpful facts to build around.
-- I was a procrastinator as a youth, and one of those so cowed by the classroom that I feigned sickness on occasion and stayed home from school in order to sidestep the ignominy of being called upon without a ready answer to whatever the teacher was asking. (This was part shyness, and part and parcel with that procrastination. I was all too often woefully unprepared. But it also reached back to the third grade, when my teacher -- an unpleasant, elderly woman -- chastised a kid in our class by holding him upside down by his feet. He was small, and so the effort did not take Herculean effort; but the effect was Herculean on me.)
-- I had a crush on a girl named Patty in nursery school, and on a girl named Dee Dee in fifth grade. Dee Dee was reputed to give out kisses at recess -- out among the sheltering cover of a stand of fir trees. I may have gotten a buss from her once; or maybe I just fantasized about it.
-- I was seriously in the throes of love thrice in my life -- first with a first-cousin who, until we gathered as a family one summer for a reunion, I had thought I hated. By the time that vacation was over, I was totally smitten with her, prompting my mother to wag her finger at me and utter “No!” The next two times I tumbled, it was with the two women I married. The love in the first such instance faded; the second never has.
-- I was a bit of a smart-ass through my teens and 20s -- a defense mechanism shielding my insecurities. An example came on my first day in journalism class in college, a course that proved a steppingstone, as it turned out, to a career. The professor, Robert Gildart (who ultimately became a proponent of mine), asked -- in a discussion of headline writing -- what word might be used in place of “fisherman” in order fit it into the limited space allowed. I raised my hand and answered (despite knowing the answer was “angler”) this way: “That would be ‘hooker,’ sir.” Mr. Gildart held me back after class to warn me that he wouldn’t put up with such affrontery.
-- My first career job was during my college years, at the Pontiac Press north of Detroit as a summer intern, where I was awed by the editors, save one who delighted in harassing and belittling me. Fortunately, I had to work in his department only part of the time, and mostly secreted myself in a separate room housing the sports department and its marvelous editor, Bruno Kearns -- a legend in that part of Michigan. Bruno taught me a lot about sports coverage; the other editor (the belittler) showed me how not to oversee a news team.
-- I followed that with about nine years at the Watertown (NY) Daily Times, situated in my first wife’s hometown. I took the better part of a year off after two years there -- with the avowed purpose of writing a novel, but mostly to rid myself of a case of ulcers that prompted a diet designed to mollycoddle my digestive system. I was, it seemed, not yet ready for the tug of war that daily life in the workaday world proved to be.
-- I eventually ended the first marriage and embarked, the next year, on a second one with Susan, who was living in Watertown while teaching in nearby Copenhagen. She was one of two roommates of a woman with whom I worked at the Watertown Times, and I met her through that connection. After a couple of years together, Susan and I traveled the country in a motorhome for about three months, ending up in the Ithaca area, where we resided for a year. Then came Odessa, in a house whose purchase was lined up by her father, Oakley Bauman, a prison guard operating a gun shop in Odessa next door to his wife’s Country Cards business, located little more than a stone’s throw from the house he found for us.
-- Then came the Elmira Star Gazette, where I secured an editing job literally hours after interviewing, against my better judgment, for a telemarketing post in Ithaca. I left that telemarketing interview almost running: it was not remotely my cup of tea, and the woman in charge seemed a bit too Genghis Khan-like for my taste.
-- Eight years later, after stints at the Star Gazette as an Assistant Regional Editor, Assistant Sports Editor and Sports Editor (and after four months on loan from that paper to USA Today), I left journalism and entered into the financially shaky territory of sports memorabilia -- setting up at shows along the eastern seaboard from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, and closer to home.
-- The Corning Leader came next in 1996, and lasted three years until I could no longer stomach a souring relationship with the publisher (a business-side guy with whom I -- being on the news-side operation as Assistant Managing Editor -- couldn't really find a meeting of the minds); and then, after spending a couple of years writing (primarily The Maiden of Mackinac, a fantasy novel about a reputed 700-year-old Ojibwe woman), I embarked on something called The Odessa File. Along the way after that, I lost my wife, my mother, my father- and mother-in-law, and assorted other relatives.
And here we are. Have at it, whoever writes my obit when the time eventually comes. Pick and choose. Need more help? There are other signposts, I suppose -- the difficulties I encountered along the way from less than cooperative news subjects (a couple of former school superintendents come immediately to mind), and, on a more positive note, the success of the Top Drawer 24 program that honored high school students in the area under my auspices and the direction of former Watkins Glen High School Athletic Director Craig Cheplick. We ran that for 15 years. And there is, it's worth mentioning, a program I started called The Essentials -- a compendium of folks honored on this website who have in the past been, or continue to be, important to life in Schuyler County.
So ... anyway ... by my judgment, there are some nuggets there, but not much for so many years on Earth.
More to my credit, I think, are the facts that I’ve stayed out of jail and resisted an urge to enter the cesspool of Washington politics in an effort to fulfill a childhood dream to become a U.S. Senator.
Those two things alone should earn me a couple of gold stars at the Pearly Gates.
Forever friend, forever hero
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 6, 2023 -- I was glancing through some of my sports memorabilia the other day when I happened upon a 5x7-inch photo of John Melvin “Bubba” Phillips in his Chicago White Sox uniform, with the date noted on the reverse: 1959. It was signed “Best Wishes. Bubba Phillips.”
It is not, as such memorabilia goes, of significant monetary value. But as one of the rare physical links that I have to Bubba, it is basically priceless to me.
Bubba Phillips, out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was a major league baseball player for a decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, a .255 career hitter for the White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, predominantly playing a solid, dependable third base. He played in one World Series, in 1959 with the White Sox, going 3-for-10 with a double as Chicago lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.
It was during his stint with the Tigers in 1963 and 1964 that I came to know him.
I’ve written about Bubba before -- as part of an introduction for a book I never published -- for he impacted a growing boy in a way that only a hero/friend can. I admired him, and thanked God for the attention he paid to the pimply-faced teenager I was. After finding that 5x7 photo and studying Bubba’s friendly face, I dug out that book introduction, which I condense here, just to give you a sense of the man and what he meant -- what one man can mean.
Bubba died in 1993, felled by a heart attack. I wept when I read about it, and I mourn him to this day -- a day in which I now am older than he lived to be.
What follows seems -- at least in part -- to be quaint now, as major league baseball adopts a pitch clock and hastens the flow of its games. But the sentiment remains.
For a young boy like me growing up in the 1960s, Bubba Phillips was perhaps an unlikely hero -- a journeyman ballplayer of average height and modest batting average. He did little in the realm of extraordinary, but I -- we -- embraced him nonetheless.
I say "we" because he belonged to all the neighborhood kids from the moment he first came to my house in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to visit.
"Hey, Rich (or Chris or whichever friend I called with the news)! You'll never guess who's over here. Bubba Phillips!"
"Yeah, right. And I'm Rocky Colavito."
The Rock -- a Detroit Tiger outfielder and noted home-run hitter -- was our hero up to that moment.
"No, no. Really. Honest. My folks met him down South, on a trip, right after the Tigers got him. They're like friends ... and he's over here now. Wanna meet him?"
And of course they all did.
Right after Bubba’s trade to Detroit from Cleveland in '63, my parents -- while visiting old friends in Laurel, Mississippi (where they had once lived in post-World War II days) -- were introduced at a party to Bubba and his wife, Martha, residents of nearby Hattiesburg.
In retrospect, I suspect that knowing someone near his new base of operations meant something substantial to Bubba. It gave him a point of reference outside of the game itself -- a haven from the rigors of diamond warfare. And since he was living out of a hotel, it gave him the semblance of a home away from home.
At the time, though, I thought not in terms of his needs -- only in terms of his presence. He was 33, I realize now, though such calculations never entered my head back then. He was so many things: he was a Tiger and a hero, yes, but also a play companion when we swam in our small, crater-shaped lake north of Detroit; a foe to be reckoned with when we played ball tag on the neighbor's dock; and the source of free tickets to Tigers home games whenever my brother and I wanted them.
Bubba was also my mentor that first summer, teaching me the finer points of batting, fielding and throwing -- an effort crowned by a scheduling quirk that allowed him a night off and a chance to visit on an evening in which my Babe Ruth League baseball team (for which I patrolled left field) was playing a game. As fate would have it, none of the team's handful of pitchers showed up for the game, forcing our manager to turn elsewhere.
"Hey," said a helpful teammate. "Haeffner's pitched before. I caught him a few times in Little League."
"Is that right?" asked the manager, turning toward me with a pleading look. And indeed I had, and with some success -- but it was a role I had gladly left behind.
You see, the difference between Little League and Babe Ruth pitching was multi-faceted. Increases in the distance from the mound to home plate and in the elevation of the mound itself were only part of the problem. The intervening years had also added wisdom and knowledge to my limited repertoire of pitches -- and hence increased my awareness that there were significant forces (starting with batters and bench jockeys and concluding with my own teen-frail nerves) allied against me.
But circumstance warranted I take the mound that night. I would not have been a true team player if I had refused. Alas, I knew as the first pitch sailed behind the batter's head that I really wasn't meant to toe the pitcher's rubber.
My sense of doom was heightened by the arrival of Bubba just as the game was about to start. Seated along the sidelines, disguised by sunglasses and the anonymity that comes with being a merely average major leaguer, he puffed and then -- extinguishing it -- chewed on a cigar with increasing agitation as I tried mightily to find the strike zone. The harder I tried, the more I validated the hopelessness of performing for my hero.
"Come on, Chuck baby," he yelled a couple of times, for that was my teenage moniker. "Hum it, baby. This guy's all yours."
But none of the batters were mine.
The first walked on four pitches.
The second walked on four pitches.
The third walked on four pitches.
I paced, dried my pitching hand on a resin bag, turned 360 degrees to the left for luck, sniffed the leather of my glove for inspiration, looked skyward to the gods, and glanced at Bubba for reassurance.
By that point, though, he was not a reassuring sight. Chewing more and more violently on his cigar, he had worked it down to the final inch; seated on the ground, his arms wrapped around his bent knees, he had started a swaying motion that, with each increasing thrust forward, seemed to be pushing the cigar farther and farther into his mouth.
"Ball!" yelled the umpire as my 13th pitch sailed high and wide. Bubba's head bobbed downward. He was no longer watching.
"Ball!" bellowed the umpire again as the catcher blocked one in the dirt. Bubba's rocking was picking up in tempo.
"Ball!" came the cry again as the batter dove out of the way. This time I didn't look Bubba's way. Concentrate, I told myself. Focus. For Pete's sake, get a strike.
I looked in as though the catcher's sign would make a difference, stretched to hold the runners on, and cut loose with my 16th pitch.
I didn't move from my follow-through position for several seconds, staring at the ground, wondering how I had arrived at this pinpoint of misfortune in a universe full of promise. And why. Especially now, in front of Bubba.
I looked over at him. He had stood, and removed his sunglasses. His head was bowed, but as I watched he lifted it and took a deep breath.
He looks green, I thought, but then dismissed it as a trick of early evening light and the distance between us. But my initial instinct was correct. That last pitch had not only forced in a run, it had forced Bubba into a convulsive gasp that pulled the remainder of his cigar down his throat. He was fighting nausea.
But even as he struggled to regain his composure, Bubba's eyes sought -- and found -- mine.
And he shrugged. And smiled.
The manager found another body to replace mine on the mound, and I moved to the outfield, atoning at least partially with an assist and a couple of hits. We lost, though, and if there is a scorecard of the game surviving somewhere, it will show me as the pitcher of record.
I seldom replay that game in my mind, however. An 0-1 Babe Ruth League career pitching record is hardly something to haunt me. If anything, I find it amusing. Very few people can miss the plate 16 straight times.
What stays with me is Bubba. I often think of the cigar, and of the shrug, and of the smile.
I had performed poorly, and it had upset Bubba's nerves. But in the end, the performance was of little significance. He held it against me no more than I would hold an 0-for-4 or a throwing error against him. It was part of the game. It was worth a shrug.
But beyond that -- beyond the vagaries of a game played by young boys and grown boys, beyond the balls and strikes and wins and losses -- Bubba and I had struck a chord … had forged a friendship.
My hero was my friend, a man who could see past my ignominy, and his own nausea, and salve my wounded pride with a shrug and a smile.
By 1993, in an age of fast food joints, video games, action films and cable TV, there were few heroes left. And Bubba was about to leave the stage of life.
"Do I have a hero?" my son Jonathan asked that year in answer to my question. "Nah. I don't think so."
"What about Billy Joel?" his younger brother David prompted helpfully.
"Billy Joel?" said Jonathan, then a budding singer himself at 12. "No. He's not a hero. He's a favorite."
Yes, hero-worship requires more than well-grounded practicality. It requires blind faith, a commodity in short supply.
I don't think there is a youngster of my acquaintance who would, in this era of haste, look to a journeyman baseball player as a hero. To do so requires an appreciation of time measured in pop flies and ground balls and bunt signs and pickoff attempts and stolen bases.
It requires both an appreciation of brief but illustrious individual feats -- say a Willie Mays catch of a Vic Wertz drive -- and a knowledge of historical footnotes and pennant winners and players' season and career statistics.
Its requires knowing a Dale Long from a Dale Murphy, a Hank Sauer from a Hank Aaron.
It requires an appreciation of the flow of time, and of the natural ease with which baseball's measured and modulated pace mirrors it.
Bubba Phillips returned to his beloved South after baseball, and we lost touch with each other, though I heard that he had joined the athletic department at his alma mater, Southern Mississippi.
We did by chance talk once more -- on the phone, years later -- but little stands out other than the joy I felt in finding that everything was going well for him and Martha. It was the warmth one person feels in the good fortune of a friend.
And so when I read in 1993 that Bubba had collapsed and died while loading wood onto his pickup truck outside his home in Hattiesburg, I immediately did two things.
First, I gasped.
It was a gut reaction to the shock and, I realized with great fondness, the kind of thing that might have forced a cigar butt down my throat had I been chewing one.
And the second thing I did was, I cried.
Familiarity counts ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 17, 2023 -- I was sitting there in the waiting room when the thought came unbidden to me.
“Damn,” I thought, and maybe muttered it aloud.
This, I realized with sudden clarity, was the same hospital where my wife had died 18 years ago.
And the thought momentarily unnerved me.
It’s not like I hadn’t had a smidge of trepidation nearing the hospital. I was transporting my son Jon, who was to undergo a gall-bladder removal. But I hadn’t allowed my mind to fixate on what, in retrospect, seems obvious: this was a place I had no desire to revisit, and hadn’t since my wife’s demise there 18 years ago.
I was at the Arnot Ogden Medical Center, waiting while the staff there worked to take out an organ that had been causing my son all sorts of problems. As surgeries go, it ranks low on the risk list. But as a necessity? Well, it seemed a no-brainer.
The doctor, in approaching me in that waiting room after the surgery, said something about the gall bladder containing “big stones” and that all had, indeed, gone well.
Which drew a sigh of relief from me, because considering what had happened to my wife there -- a fatal pulmonary embolism that came after she had begun radiation treatments for a rare form of cancer -- my nerves were taking a bit of a hit.
Anyway, the doctor said Jon was in recovery, and then would be wheeled back down to the day surgery cubicle in which he had started the process. I was told I could wait there, and was doing so when a familiar face and voice came down the hall.
“I thought it was you,” the female voice said. “I saw the name for your son, and I figured there can’t be too many of those.” The spelling -- Haeffner -- is not unique, but pretty close.
Oddly enough, my nerves settled as the woman -- in nurse scrubs -- entered the cubicle and signed in on a board on the wall: Michelle.
I had to smile. My son's nurse was Michelle Thorpe Lynch.
I covered Michelle Thorpe’s athletic exploits at Watkins Glen High School early in my tenure running The Odessa File. She graduated in 2006. Now married, in her 30s, and the mother of three, she is a registered nurse.
I was friends with her back then -- back in the day -- the way I am friends with kids from any generation that comes through the WGHS or Odessa-Montour hallways.
Nowadays, it’s people such as Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster at O-M, and Carly Arnold and Maddie Tuttle at WGHS. All of them and their classmates were just about being born, or (in freshman Maddie’s case) would be in the coming years while Michelle Thorpe -- and Courtney Warren, Molly Murphy, Molly Oates and others -- were holding forth on the fields and courts for the Seneca Nation.
The bottom line from my son’s recovery was this: Michelle brought a professionalism and personalism to the experience that relaxed Jon, not to mention his old father. And helped dispel the ghosts that had begun to haunt me in that waiting room.
Most nurses I’ve encountered are quite good, but I don’t generally encounter one at a family trauma moment who I’ve known for the better part of two decades.
Familiarity counts. And in this case was a blessing.
And it all got me to thinking. Michelle Thorpe Lynch has carved out an admirable career; but there are so many students from the Schuyler past whose post-graduate paths have eluded me. Michelle was on the first Top Drawer 24 team of outstanding student-athlete-citizens sponsored by this website. I was involved with the program for 15 years, which means a lot of kids got honored not only for their high school achievements, but for what I and program co-founder Craig Cheplick thought they might accomplish in the coming years, based on their young track records.
One of the key people in that program’s early years was Brian O’Donnell, who served as the WGHS principal and later on the School Board. He published a spiral-bound book that serves as an outstanding history of the Watkins School District, covering the years 1853-2008. Among the many gems in there is a photo of that first Top Drawer team, along with lists of honorees for the program's first three years.
Among the first 24, for instance, was Katey Cheplick, the only freshman on the squad ever (and the only four-time honoree). She is having a stellar administrative career at Keuka College. But I’m really not up to speed (except in some piecemeal ways) on the others. Michelle Thorpe, yes, and I believe Molly Oates is teaching in Ithaca, but not the aforementioned Warren and Murphy, nor the following:
WGHS -- Sophie Peters, Jaclyn Conklin, Jon Fazzary, Alan McIlroy, Steven Combs, John Michael Bianco, Jeff Kellogg, Phil Brown, Natasha Evans, and Ashley Evans.
O-M -- Sherry Benedict, Ryan Goossen, Matt Thomason, Katie Taber, Brad Stephens, Shannon Westlake, Pat Barnes, Melissa Shutter and Jordan Janke.
From O’Donnell’s succeeding 2007 Top Drawer list we can also add WGHS honorees Ellie Fausold, Jaimie Sedlack, Andrea Witiaz, Sunnie Smith, Ariana Marmora, Ben Stamp and Tom Blake, and O-M honorees Cassie Fitch, John Blaha, Michele Kenney, Jesse Johnson, Kassie Taylor, Amanda Wager and Justin Hall.
From the third year, 2008, I know that WGHS’s Nick Phoenix is doing IT work for a company in the Pensacola, Florida area; that Joe Stansfield is now a member of the Watkins Glen School Board; and that Molly Bilinski is a published author (“Lady of Sherwood”) and working in the chemistry field while living over in the Buffalo area. But among other first-time honorees on that list are Abby Stamp, Ernie Brennan, Erik Dahl, Ben Quigley and Ashley Savard.
If anyone wants to send along updates, please do.
All of which leads to the Tribute Awards, honoring high school student-athletes in those two schools for their outstanding academics, athletics, citizenship and character -- much like Top Drawer aspired to do in its early, two-school years. That program grew to a dozen schools around the region over the years, and now -- since I and co-founder Craig Cheplick bowed out and it fell under the auspices of WENY -- is on track (I’m told) to cite 50 kids after honoring 64 last year. I’m not sure how many school districts WENY has extended to.
The Tribute Awards -- with input from school administrators and anyone who wants to submit a nomination -- will be announced in May. This is what has evolved from an Odessa File program two years ago in which seven students from each school were honored (thus The Magnificent Sevens) and from last year’s Roll Call of Excellence (which was a bland and unwieldy title).
Plans call for each honoree to receive certificates of commendation from State Senator Tom O’Mara and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, and maybe from Congressman Nick Langworthy. I’m looking for a way to finance plaques, and talks are underway regarding a possible dinner. This would not -- like we used to do with the Top Drawer 24 -- be at the State Park, but rather indoors.
From all appearances, The Tributes program will likely involve 16 students -- eight from each school.
So ... if you have anyone you would like to tout, now is the time. Tributes await.
A matter of time ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 17, 2023 -- Past, present, future.
The first of those, the past, paid me a visit the other day. Or perhaps I visited it.
I refer to a gathering of 15 bowlers at Harborside Lanes in Watkins Glen -- 15 bowlers who once upon a time bowled for Watkins Glen High School in Interscholastic Athletic Conference competitions at that very alley. This was the first annual Watkins Glen Alumni Bowling Tournament, organized by various alums.
When I walked in, I felt a little overwhelmed by deja vu, the first bowler I spotted (because he was dressed, as he has long tended to, in bright colors) being H. Nathaniel Rose.
Our greeting was simple.
“Hey, H,” I said to him.
“Hi, Charlie,” he answered back.
He last bowled for WGHS in 2019. He’s in college now at RIT, and still involved -- as he was in high school -- in stage productions.
Then I spotted Christian Thompson, still as lanky as he was when he bowled for the Senecas back in 2000-2006. He works (I believe he said) in the asphalt trade now. He is an archer and angler, and looks even fitter than years ago. He hadn’t bowled in two years, but rolled a 198 his first game on the way to teaming with Natasha Evans for first place in the tourney.
And there was Natasha’s twin sister, Ashley Evans Richtmyer, with her toddler, Aurora, and Hayley Cornish with her daughter, Evelynn. Gads. I used to cover these mothers of children when they were kids themselves.
Down a few lanes was Erika Rhodes. I once wrote a story about her and her art back in her high school days, which ended in 2014. She still produces drawings and paintings, although she works not as an artist, but at Pathways, which caters to individuals and families with a host of services.
She remembered that article I wrote those years ago, and said that now she doesn’t think her artwork back then was very good -- although I disagree. She was, in fact, working during the tourney, between turns on the lanes, creating a logo for Ward Brower, the WGHS bowling coach who, way back when, purchased one of Erika’s paintings. I believe it had been on display at the school with other students’ work, and I had put in a bid for it -- too late.
I include the logo here, personifying a term Brower uses to describe the bowlers on his WGHS girls’ bowling team this year: Ladies of the Lake.
And there were another 10 people bowling at the Alumni Tourney, although with thinner threads to my past. I knew the names, but not always the faces.
All told, though, it was a bit disorienting -- while at the same time gratifying. There can be something rather warming about revisiting the past like that.
And there is the present.
I refer here primarily to the current high school sports season. I’ve rather immersed myself in it, and along with everyone was flabbergasted that 16-year-old Keyonna Garrison -- a fit and talented student athlete -- could be victimized by a stroke.
That she has come home -- and that she was starting rehab this week; and that the prognosis is good, according to her parents -- is welcome news, as welcome as that involving the fallen Buffalo Bill, Damar Hamlin, who is by all accounts well on his way to recovery.
And thoughts of Keyonna swing to the challenges her teammates face this week -- against a resurgent Watkins Glen team on Wednesday, and against a tough Moravia team on Friday. It could be a rocky week for the O-M girls, but as they say, nothing is foreordained -- or more colloquially, that’s why they play the games.
The Watkins girls basketball team is seemingly coalescing into a winning squad, with scoring contributions from several quarters -- normally senior Jenna Solomon and freshman Rachel Vickio, but recently senior Chelsea Parsons, too.
The Watkins boys basketball team is having intermittent success, with some eye-popping stats from Jacob Yontz, while the O-M boys have struggled, but have rebounded from a nightmarish start to claim four victories thus far.
Wrestling and boys swimming -- both combined squads of WGHS and O-M athletes -- have found some successes, too, although the bowlers -- fairly low in numbers -- have been (with limited exceptions) struggling. (Is merger of that sport in the near future?)
All in all, there will be plenty of All-Star selections ahead in the All-Schuyler, All-Sports team this website publishes at season’s end.
The fact is, I enjoy these high school competitions -- and am repeatedly, year after year, impressed by the student athletes who populate them.
Come May, I’ll be honoring more than a dozen Schuyler students beyond All-Star performances. This website will, as it did for years with the Top Drawer 24, be honoring those who stand out for athleticism, sportsmanship, academics and citizenship.
This will be the third year of such (post Top Drawer) honors. Two years ago, there were 14 honorees -- seven each from O-M and WGHS. I called them, in rather uninspired fashion, the Magnificent Sevens. Last year there were 15 total from the two schools, and I called their honor the Roll Call of Excellence. But that struck me in retrospect as a bland title. It needed more punch -- something easily indentifiable.
I’ve decided finally (I hope) on The Tribute Awards -- or simply The Tributes.
Anyone you want to nominate? Send me the name or names and a little bit of biographical information.
And there is the future.
There was the presentation at a recent Odessa-Montour School Board meeting by GST BOCES Superintendent Kelly Houck. She told the board that a mandated move to an electric-bus fleet was coming -- that any assumption that it wouldn’t come to pass would be misguided.
“It will happen,” she said, noting in information distributed to the board that “districts will be required to purchase or lease only zero-emission school buses starting on July 1, 2027.” And this: “Districts will be required to only use zero-emission buses, commencing July 1, 2035.”
And not just buses, said Houck. Any district vehicle that carries students, meaning vans, will have to be electric.
Think about it. A fleet of buses, each constructed for zero emissions, means electric charges administered through charging stations. Since the mileage available from one charge won’t get buses as far as current diesel engines do, there are built-in challenges in a rural, hilly environment like Schuyler County with cold, battery-sapping winters. Each bus will cost about $350,000, up from the current $150,000 or so. Houck indicated the first fleet will have funding available through a grant program. But after that? Who knows? There seems an awful lot of unknowns about this.
One fairly knowledgeable source, empirecenter.org, questioned the wisdom of the movement in an article late last year titled “Charging Forward: New York’s Costly Rush to Electrify School Buses.”
There was this telling paragraph in a very long, detailed study:
“With more than 50,000 school buses, New York has ten percent of the national fleet. With purchase prices of $150,000 to $275,000 more than diesel buses, plus infrastructure upgrade costs of $10,000 to $30,000 per bus, the upfront cost to electrify New York’s entire school bus fleet will be between $8 billion and $15.25 billion more than replacing them all with new diesel buses. At that price even the combined outside funding sources – which add up to less than $800 million – won‘t go far toward helping New York school districts pay for the switch to zero-emission buses.”
The empirecenter.org's conclusion? "While electric school buses can improve the health of students, the negative health impacts of diesel buses are more cost-effectively mitigated by purchasing newer models or retrofitting older buses with more advanced technology."
And the whole issue is compounded, in the words of Houck, by “so much gray and ambiguity so far.”
That zero-emission program, combined with noises from the state’s Climate Action Council, is giving a lot of people pause. The CAC has a plan that, State Senator Tom O’Mara has relayed, calls for:
"--No natural gas within newly constructed buildings, beginning in 2025;
--No new gas service to existing buildings, beginning in 2030;
--No replacement natural gas appliances for home heating, cooking, water heating, clothes drying beginning in 2035;
--No gasoline-automobile sales by 2035; and
--Installing onsite solar or joining a community renewables program by 2040."
O’Mara has been decrying this direction rather loudly, saying the cost to homeowners down the road will be prohibitive.
“Governor Hochul’s ambition to impose far-reaching clean energy mandates on all New Yorkers keeps moving forward,” O’Mara wrote in a column published on this website last month, “yet her unwillingness to explain how much it will cost or how the state intends to pay for it remains shocking. Consumers have no idea what’s coming. The Climate Action Council’s plan has never been accompanied by any cost-benefit analysis of the impact of these actions on energy affordability, reliability, or sustainability.”
It’s a bleak picture he paints, and if remotely accurate ... well, lordy!
And they think the exodus from the state is in high gear now ....
The past, present and future.
I look back fondly at the first.
I enjoy the second (an enjoyment enhanced, I suppose, by having fought off cancer).
And, finally, I look to the future with trepidation -- not for me, necessarily, but for my children and grandchildren, and for all those of their generations.
20 years and beyond ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 29, 2022 -- Well, we’re at the 20-year mark.
Twenty years since I started this website back on Dec. 29, 2002.
Seems like a lot of years ... and I guess it is. Over a quarter of my life: roughly 27%. More than 7,300 days. God knows how many stories I’ve published. Certainly more than 20,000 of them. And way more photos than that.
I’ve covered close to a couple of thousand kids competing on the high school athletic fields, courts and courses. Befriended some; honored a good many through weekly, seasonal and annual honors.
I’ve covered various government, educational and business stories, written hundreds of columns, and provided space for many, many Public Service Announcements.
It hasn’t always been easy, what with technological hiccups, a reluctance by some officials to be the subjects of news stories, and a reluctance by some coaches who were less than forthcoming with game results.
But most of that pushback came early on. Longevity -- and I suppose the familiarity that comes with it -- has seemingly smoothed the rough edges of acceptance. And for that I am grateful.
The decision came early to avoid a pay wall -- access to this website through subscriptions. I was told by an acquaintance at a newspaper that does charge that it was the only way to run a business. My philosophy is the opposite. I wanted readers; I needed them above all else. Then I could justify charging for advertisements. And that hasn’t changed. (I thought naively at first that donations would be a substantive part of my operating income, but that never came to pass.)
Very little in the way of change is envisioned for Year 21, although I might expand some coverages. One idea I’ve mentioned before is a podcast run by my son Jon, I suppose with my participation, as well.
This has -- up to now and embracing selective amnesia; forgetting the occasional nasty email or irate phone call; and shrugging off some slightly offensive opinions regarding the quality of my work -- been an absolute blast (if you also discount the struggle to produce while I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in the latter half of 2021).
The Odessa File has proved to be the best professional decision of my life -- of what is now a lengthy career in journalism dating back to my college days in the late 1960s.
I have given thought from time to time about writing in detail of the ups and downs -- the achievements and setbacks -- in running a newspaper. Or in this case, an online publication designed (with personal touches) to emulate the kind of print media at which I worked in Pontiac (my first newspaper stop, in Michigan), and then in Watertown, Elmira and Corning, New York, with a stint at USA Today.
But I doubt I will tackle it; or if I do, it won’t be a tell-all, but more the conveyance of the importance and difficulty in providing such a public accounting. I would demonstrate it through specific coverage instances -- or, to put it more simply -- through anecdotes; through stories. But I won’t belabor any of them here.
No, I will simply say it’s been an honor to provide a service like this, and despite the occasional thought of retirement, I hope I can continue to provide it for a reasonable time in the future. At my age, I don’t know what reasonable is. But the fact remains that I’m a good deal younger than our president, and younger than the man who preceded him, and practically a child next to, say, the senior senator from Iowa, Mr. Grassley, who was recently re-elected at the age of 89.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, actor/director Clint Eastwood has been productive into his 90s.
So ... I rule out nothing. I’ve never been a long-term planner, nor an adherent to some of our established rules and norms regarding the elderly.
So ... age be damned, and let it fly. Full speed ahead into a future that is, for all of us (regardless of how long we’ve been here) a great unknown.
A passion restored ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 17, 2022 -- I can read again.
Well, to be more specific, I can read fine print again. And that includes in particular the print in novels.
See ... the thing is, I had gone about a dozen years since getting my eyes checked. They seemed fine until I was coming out of my cancer treatment a little over a year ago. Then I noticed I wasn’t seeing those words on the printed page with much acuity. Each word seemed to challenge me, as though I was reaching for it through a very precise overlay of distorted glass.
For whatever reason, I delayed in securing an optometry appointment. Just getting old, I thought. I figured that diminished eyesight was among the shortcomings of the golden years that I would just have to endure. (I'd have thought that letting cancer sneak up on me, and with it the need for dental repair work, would have been hint enough of the need to take care of my body, but wisdom does not necessarily come with age.)
But common sense eventually prevailed, and I got an appointment -- where I learned my eyes had shifted from nearsighted to farsighted. An optometric adjustment would fix the reading problem, I was assured.
There was a delay in getting the new glasses, but when I did ... boy oh boy. Everything snapped into focus. The words, clear now, were jumping off the page and into my interpretive brain. A novel I had struggled with the previous month I was now devouring, my passion for reading stories restored.
The simple message: Don’t delay. If your eyes aren’t what they used to be, modern optometry can very likely fix it. It’s worth a try, anyway.
It's less than two weeks now until I reach the 20th anniversary of operating this website -- of essentially providing a service that I think Schuyler County needs and deserves.
Communication is a cornerstone of any society.
The first day I published was on Dec. 29, 2002. I had started the process just after Thanksgiving upon the advice of my youngest son, who knew of my love for writing and journalism, my dislike of bosses, and the cost inherent in any startup involving paper, ink and distribution across any geographical area. Online was the answer.
That first night I had three visitors, and I was two of them. The other was a friend. I think I had, at that point, placed two stories on the website. There were no ads, other than a couple of in-house ads involving possible donations (if there were to be any) from the readership.
There have been some donations over the years, but few and far between. The only thing keeping this going has been the cooperation and generosity of advertisers. So I suggest that anytime you encounter any of them, you thank them for their help in keeping this venture operational. (If you want to contribute, too, you can send a check or money order to The Odessa File, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.)
Now, as I get ready to celebrate 20 years (probably with a glass of eggnog or something) and turn toward year 21, I am looking at trying a new thing or two. Among them: a podcast, which I hope to see developed and operated by my son Jon. At three score and fourteen years (and after that cancer bout last year) I have to start thinking about a transition. Not even I can last forever.
So the podcast could be a start in that direction. The whole process of transition, though, will (I hope) take a long time. Years in the making.
So ... that should answer the occasional question engendered by an earlier column in which I suggested that retirement was gaining appeal. As I also said in that column, I might pull a Clint Eastwood and pursue this creative passion of mine until I’m 90 or more.
And yes, in the meantime, setting up for a transition won’t hurt, and might enhance the entire effort.
Meanwhile, if I don’t see you at one of the sporting events or other events I’m out there covering with my camera, I hope you have a Merry Christmas.
I received a message a few days ago from Trevor Holland, Watkins Glen teacher and coach of the Schuyler Storm varsity football team -- a combined squad of Watkins and Odessa-Montour high school athletes.
With the message -- about the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 10, won by Army in double overtime -- came a photo.
The message and photo are well worth passing along to you here. Trevor wrote the following:
“I wanted to share with you a great picture. Daphne & I and our boys, along with family and friends, go every year to the annual Army-Navy football game held in Philadelphia. We have met up with my father for the past 14 years at the game. He is a retired Navy captain of 38 years.
“This year we had two WG graduates in attendance. This is Bryce Kelly's first year at Annapolis (Navy) and Joe Chedzoy's final year at West Point (Army). Teammates for 364 days a year, except for the 2nd Saturday in December when Army & Navy meet on the football field.
“A salute to their service, and representing Schuyler County proudly!”
To all those who commented on my last column about the pickup basketball game at the old Middle School involving female basketball greats from Watkins Glen High School’s past, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing it -- but even more so revisiting with these women who meant so much to my past. They were remarkable way back when -- in the era in which I reported on their court achievements -- and they’re remarkable now. The bonus has been getting to know some of those women whose high school days preceded The Odessa File. I think they’re terrific, too.
Photo in text: Bryce Kelly, left, and Joe Chedzoy (Photo provided)
Molly Oates drives the ball upcourt in traffic.
Echoes of a kindness ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 28, 2022 -- Sometimes I get stuck in the past.
Sometimes it’s in childhood -- say on a walk to the Wesley’s Drug Store several blocks distant from my family’s Birmingham, Michigan home to buy a pack or two of baseball cards with my allowance. I lived for baseball cards, and so sometimes I find myself mentally retracing that route.
Sometimes it’s the hot, drought-ridden summer of 1988, when I worked in Washington, D.C. at USA Today, a national Gannett company paper. I was on loan there for several months from the Gannett paper in Elmira, New York.
That was a period of intense satisfaction both personally (with my family happy there) and professionally (I excelled, winning numerous in-house awards). And yet it was a watershed, for despite efforts to get me on staff there full-time, I was (in the words of one official) “too old, too white and too male” for the politically correct Gannett. I was also temporarily spoiled for small-town journalism, and so left it at that point for several years.
Sometimes it’s a moment, as the one when I first saw my wife Susan, and felt as if I had known what she looked like, and what she was about, before that first meeting had come. Call it love, call it serendipity, call it magic. But that instant often comes around to visit me, and is always welcome.
Sometimes, on the far end of that spectrum, is the moment on November 1, 2004 in which a social worker found me waiting on the lawn outside the hospital after Susan’s embolism, nodded when I asked if we had lost her, and watched as I collapsed to the ground, felled by grief. I try not to let that one come around very often.
And sometimes I harken back, with unending gratitude, to the reaction of the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity basketball team after my wife’s passing.
Ten days after her death, I finally came out of solitude, looking for some human interaction; nothing substantial, just a place where there were other people I might observe to lessen my painful introspection. I opted for the WGHS Field House, where I knew both the boys and girls varsity basketball teams were practicing. I stood apart, up on the track overlooking the court, partially obscured by shadows.
But one of the girls spotted me, and gently waved. Then she and another climbed the stairs to the track, and each gave me a silent hug and a pat on the back. They were followed by others, one at a time. And so I was brought back, in a sense, to the community of operational humanity.
That team, which I had covered the previous year for the first time, then did something remarkable: It organized and held a spaghetti fund-raising dinner for me. I was destitute, financially and emotionally, and they rode to my rescue, providing me with $2,000 -- two thousand very badly needed dollars. I have never forgotten that.
In fact, a lot of who I am today -- and what I do, which is continue to run The Odessa File -- dates back to that kindness, for it kept me going: encouraged me, helped me bridge the gap from despair to hope. I could, if space and time permitted, relate tales about a lot of the girls from that team and its immediate successors, for they were not only my friends, but the source of some rich sports stories.
Which brings me to this:
Sometimes, the past can be visited not in memory alone, but in sheer physical presence -- such as at a gathering of those self-same young Watkins Glen women, along with some of their predecessors, at a recent pickup basketball game in the old Watkins Glen Middle School gymnasium.
This is a periodic occurrence, this pickup gathering, and one I attended after hearing that more than the usual number of players would be on hand, the extra numbers home to visit on a holiday weekend. These women -- whose names and faces are so very familiar to me -- are long past their high school careers, but still harbor a love of the game and thoroughly enjoy squaring off against one another.
When I walked in to the room housing the court, the first woman I spotted was Olivia Coffey, who had tipped me to the gathering when I encountered her days earlier at Walmart. She only played at WGHS through her freshman year before transferring to a prep school, but could still (on this day) put up some delicate and accurate shots -- not surprising, I suppose, in an athlete who excelled in other sports such as hockey and rowing, the latter earning her three world championships and a spot in the recent Olympics. She spends part of her time now in Burdett when she isn’t working down in New York City.
Olivia was a student at WGHS almost two decades ago, during my first year covering the Lady Senecas basketball team -- the season of 2003-04, when the squad reached the Section IV final before falling in the closing moments to Candor.
Also present at the Middle School from that era -- and I include a five- or six-year period, for all of the players I covered during that period seem to be of one team in my fractured memory, indebted as I feel to all of them for somehow, through their accomplishments, buoying my spirit in a dark time -- were Megan Matthews, back home to visit; Molly Oates, now a teacher in Ithaca who lives in Watkins; Jennifer Conklin (from Washington, D.C.) and her younger sister Jaclyn (who lives in the Adirondacks); and Michelle Thorpe Lynch, who works in the health-care field while raising a family locally.
There were also several athletes present who were on the WGHS playing stage before The Odessa File happened along. Among them: Alicia Learn, who has carved out a niche as the current day’s WGHS girls coach, with a state title and state runnerup finish on her resume, along with several sectional championships; and Amy Chaffee, who went on to play standout basketball at Keuka College. She was at this modern-day gathering with her sister Nikki. And competing with them on the court were Coveney Fitzsimmons -- a doctor now -- along with Melanie (Barnes) Caslin and Emily Byers. I've met them all, and hold them in high regard -- as socially conscious individuals and, from what I saw out on that court, as athletes.
“We all miss it,” said one of the players about the game, the sport of basketball. “It is a great outlet.”
This group included people important not just to me in that long-ago past; I believe all of them were important in their playing capacity to a community that takes pride in the achievements of its offspring and in how they represent the village and region. The players may have faded from the public consciousness as the years have worn on, but they have not faded from mine.
When you owe as much to a group -- to a team -- as I owe to the girls of the Watkins Glen High School basketball program of those early years, the debt doesn’t fade.
I was, and am, beholden to them -- to these friends of my past, to these beacons of my darkest days.
So it was a joy for me to reconnect, even for a short time, there at the Middle School -- to meet with them a half a lifetime removed from their glory days of high school.
They are far from kids now, but they are, in a sense, children of my mind; forever frozen as caring teenagers.
And to see on their faces the joy of playing basketball again so many years later, and competing against longtime friends, was a blessed bonus that I can now add to my memory bank.
Photos in text:
Top: Jaclyn Conklin, left, defends against Megan Matthews.
Second: Olivia Coffey, foreground, prepares to pass to Matthews.
Bottom: Michelle Thorpe Lynch.
Note: One of the players present, Melanie Caslin, said that while the group does not wish to be overrun by numbers, anyone interested in competing at one of the group’s periodic pickup games can contact her.
Around the area ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 21, 2022 -- A few things have popped up.
For instance, the state is saying it will bring the hammer down on school districts that still have a Native American mascot or imagery at the end of the current school year.
This won’t affect Odessa-Montour -- which this year jettisoned “Indians” for its sports teams and adopted “Grizzlies,” who are not likely to object.
Nor should it affect the Watkins Glen school district, which eliminated all Native American imagery from its walls and merchandising. They are still the Senecas, but Superintendent Kai D’Alleva has said this now refers to the geographic body of water, not any tribe.
And both schools got rid of “Seneca Indians” for its joint sports teams, going with “Schuyler Storm” instead.
But -- and this is perhaps alarmist -- there has been no final word, nothing in writing, from the State giving its blessing to Watkins Glen for the use of "Senecas."
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said D’Alleva, who believes “we’re okay, but we are awaiting more guidance from the state. That will probably come near the holidays in December.”
And what if -- despite the current informal word working its way down the pipeline -- a decision on “Senecas” goes against Watkins?
Well, that would be a bit of a mess.
But maybe nothing comes of it. After all (and I say this lovingly), it’s not like the state bureaucracy to do anything annoying.
Congratulations to Faye Mooney (pictured at right), WGHS senior and standout member of The Storm varsity swim team, for her selection as recipient of the Section IV Good Sport Award. The honor, given to one swimmer in each section, was presented during the State Swim Meet last weekend up in Webster, NY.
Mooney earned a spot in States in two different races, the 100 Breaststroke and 100 Freestyle. But her achievements have gone far beyond victories in the pool. She has been an effective leader through example, encouragement and kindness.
Of course, Faye wasn’t the only member of the Storm to reach States. Teammates Thalia Marquez and Alannah Klemann were there, too -- like Faye in two events apiece, Marquez in the 200 and 500, and Klemann in the 200 IM and the 100 Backstroke.
It was a great season for this trio -- and for that matter for the whole swim team, which won its sixth straight Section IV, Class C championship.
The Odessa Fire Department is back with its live, on-site, Santa-in-its-midst Christmas Party, this year on Dec. 4th up in the Odessa Municipal Building community room on Main Street in the village.
This party, for kids 12 and under in the Odessa fire district, has been a popular event -- or was before Covid, and likely will be again. A party without a party atmosphere (thanks, pandemic) is almost impossible to pull off with any great satisfaction -- although the Fire Department gave out presents last year in the driveway outside the fire bays.
This time, it’s all back to normal.
The high school winter sports season is almost upon us. Bowling is kicking off, with basketball scrimmages part of the landscape this week. The hoops season starts just after the first of December. There will also be wrestling (a combined O-M and WG) squad, as well as boys swimming (also combined). Not to mention indoor track, which Watkins has been running for quite a few years now, although O-M hasn’t followed suit.
Kudos to the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club for its continuing Student of the Month Award given to seniors at Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high schools. Quite often an honoree is so very deserving, but is the kind of person who flies under the radar by nature (say, shyness) or circumstance. A good example was the last honoree from O-M, Sarah Barr. She’s a great girl, but not flashy. A leader, but not loud. A varsity athlete in more than one sport. Smart, and heading quietly toward a nursing career. Congratulations, Sarah, and thanks, Rotary.
Back from my travels ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 15, 2022 -- I’m back at my desk after almost six days away, half of that without a computer -- which meant I simply couldn’t add anything to this website for a while.
My old computer was dying -- had what my expert (IT) son Dave called a “bulging battery,” with a “catastrophic” end awaiting it.
This pronouncement came down in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside the Washington D.C. boundary, while I was visiting Dave and his family late last week. It was a rare chance for me to see my two granddaughters, Marley (6 years old) and Noa (who is 3).
It was the first stop of two on my itinerary, the other being Sarasota, Florida, where a niece was getting married on the weekend. So I had driven down to D.C. before Dave and I, along with little Marley, boarded a plane for Sarasota, departing from Dulles International Airport.
The ensuing Florida reunion entailed the presence of family members from Colorado, Texas, New Orleans and Sarasota. Suffice it to say that several of them had suffered various maladies since our last get-together a decade ago, ranging from cancer to PTSD to memory loss -- to a dizzy spell and ultimate diagnosis of Covid on this particular weekend for the father of the bride, my eldest brother. He ended up in the hospital for a couple of days instead of walking his daughter down the aisle. Beyond all of that, there were lots of folks I didn’t know (disorienting in itself), my niece and her groom having a wide range of friends.
While in Florida we visited the beach on Siesta Key, which really only managed to spoil me -- for the temperature was significantly lower upon the return north.
Anyway, once back in Takoma Park (after a 6 a.m. flight out of Sarasota the morning after the wedding), the matter of my computer was still unresolved. We had left it at Dave’s house, old machine connected to a new one I had secured, trying to get the contents of the first to migrate to the second through the available WiFi. Alas, it hadn’t completed the process upon our return. Fortunately, Dave had ordered a high-speed transfer wire and necessary adaptor before we had departed for Florida, and it was waiting for us upon our return.
Long story short: my IT son -- through that new connector -- managed to move everything on the old machine to the new, and (thanks to his knowledge of all things computer) get the framework I use on my website’s pages to coordinate with the new machine’s system ... a system greatly advanced from its predecessor.
And so I came through a long weekend with renewed contact with relatives, invitations to visit those in Colorado and New Orleans, and a new operational computer.
I also learned that flying -- anathema to me after 9/11 -- didn’t really bother me. In fact, it fascinated me how quickly (1 hour, 46 minutes) we could travel from Sarasota to D.C. with a tailwind. I had, since 9/11, probably made a half-dozen trips to Florida by car, which as anyone who has journeyed there on four wheels knows is interminable.
I only had one email query about the absence of any new Odessa File stories those weekend days, but that was more to find out if I was okay rather than to find out if I was being lazy or, worse, if I had simply walked away into the sunset of retirement.
But that wouldn’t happen with the 20-year mark of this website within sight. That happens on Dec. 29th -- at which point I will start my second 20 years.
Congratulations to the Watkins Glen High School girls varsity soccer team for a fabulous season, culminating in the Section IV, Class C championship. I know that the 1-0 loss in the Intersectional game was a disappointment, but the girls were great all season long, and should feel a euphoric sense of achievement.
And kudos to the Schuyler Storm varsity football team, which avenged its only loss (to Dryden) in a postseason playoff that gave it a 9-1 record and a newly devised Section IV Independent title.
And finally, further congrats to the Schuyler Storm girls varsity swim team -- Section IV, Class C champs for the sixth straight year -- and to its trio of state-tournament-bound standouts: Faye Mooney, Thalia Marquez and Alannah Klemann.
It was quite an autumn around here, sports-wise.
More about the Glen girls, now champs of Section IV
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 1, 2022 -- I’m still reeling from the soccer game emotionally. Actually, I would be reeling physically if the ball that I ducked -- the product of an errant kick --had found my head.
I was on the sideline, photographing the game, trying to hold my emotions in check -- for I’ve bonded with this team, and accordingly worry for them -- when the ball came flying in my direction. I ducked left as it went right.
“Good reflexes,” someone nearby observed.
Yeah, that would have hurt.
I’m not as tough as the girls on this Watkins Glen High School varsity soccer team.
They are the Section IV, Class C champions after the game where that ball narrowly missed my head. It was Friday, Oct. 28 over in Johnson City. Watkins Glen prevailed 3-0 over Trumansburg.
The fact is, these Senecas are often using their heads to move the ball along, hands being verboten. Chief among such practitioners is Sasha Honrath. For example, she tries to meet incoming corner kicks from her sister Skye. Sasha gets set in the goal mouth and tries to knock the ball in the net with her head.
That ball is moving fast because Skye has a powerful kick. I wince every time I see Sasha do that.
And yes, it worked once in that title game. Sasha got the middle of her team’s three goals in just that fashion. Skye got the other two, one from so far out I didn’t photograph her kicking it; I didn’t think it would amount to much.
After the ball soared past the Trumansburg goalkeeper and into the net, I shook my head.
“I stand corrected,” I muttered.
Then she got the game’s third and final goal, moving in from the right and cutting loose with a shot off her left foot. That, folks, is nimble, not to mention talented. I thought, watching from the sideline, that she would kick it with her right foot; in fact I thought she had until I looked at a sequence of photos that I had shot of it.
Really good players, I suspect, don’t have to think about which foot they’re shooting with; they just do it. Skye just did it.
She maneuvered past a defender by stopping on a dime, dancing up, and moving the ball from right foot to left. Then, before another defender could close in, she cut loose with her left foot, sending the ball high to the left, just past the outstretched arms of the leaping goalkeeper and into the netting beyond.
That was her 26th goal of the year. And while she’s been amazing, and such a big reason for the team’s success, her sister deserves plenty of credit too; the two mesh extremely well on offense. And so does Ava Kelly, whose speed -- even while limping a bit from a leg injury in that last game -- adds an element to the offense that makes it a multifaceted one.
But ... and I can’t stress this enough ... the defense is equally key, with Lillian Ameigh having a stellar season in goal, and back Carly Arnold coming to the rescue time and again, clearing the ball with her strong leg, and just anticipating where, exactly, she needs to be. Her coach, Scott Morse, said she was everywhere in that title game, and she was.
The supporting cast is strong, too. Here are a few who have stepped up: Rachel Vickio, Olivia VanSkiver, Brenna Pierce, Olivia King, Katrina Ricca, and Maisie Robertson. But that doesn’t really cover it all. Everyone on this squad has played a contributing role: Erin Snow, Zade Gomez-Fitzsimmons, Molly O’Connell-Campbell, Jennifer Gublo, Natalee Oliver, Michaela Wheaton, Gillian D’Alleva, Brianna Hatch, Madaline Bryerton, and -- though injured -- the irrepressible Maddie Tuttle.
What a great group. A team that -- parenthetically -- has several members who learned the basics of soccer years ago in the Schuyler Strikers youth program.
Will they advance from here? Maybe. They next play a team, Sauquoit Valley, that has gone 16-2-1 and was ranked 8th in the state among Class C teams by the New York State Sportswriters Association on Oct. 25, back before they won the Section III title game 5-0 against Watertown’s Immaculate Heart Central. Watkins Glen was ranked 20th in the same poll, but has won the Section IV semifinal (4-1 over Elmira Notre Dame) and title game since then.
Regional games are hard to gauge; all we know is these are two really good teams. What’s true for one is true for both: if you don’t bring your "A" game -- if you’re not being aggressive, beating the other team to the ball -- chances are you won’t reach the next goal: the state Final Four.
And even if both bring their "A" game, a freaky bounce or a brief mental lapse can prove costly: a moment of vast importance in an 80-minute span.
But at this point, I don’t doubt the ability or possibilities of this group of girls, this Watkins Glen title team.
Good Lord, what they’ve done so far is -- dare I say? -- heady stuff.
Storm Watch: And speaking of outstanding student-athletes, this website’s practice of honoring the best and the brightest from our local school districts in the spring each year is on track for another round.
For years I was part of -- actually co-founder and chief publicist of -- the Top Drawer 24, which honored two-dozen such students each year with a party at the Watkins Glen State Park pavilion.
After co-founder and chairman Craig Cheplick and I bowed out back in the pandemic after 15 years running the program (which had grown far outside the boundaries of Schuyler County), I decided to scale down and bring an awards program back home -- to the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour high schools -- with certificates to the honorees from our State Senator and Assemblyman. The Top Drawer name is still being utlized by those educators and TV officials who took over that program, and so I have foundered looking for a name equally recognizable.
The first year, I called my program Magnificent Sevens, since there were seven students from Watkins Glen High School and seven from Odessa-Montour. Then, when the breakdown was eight and six last year, I changed it to Roll Call of Excellence, but I’m not crazy about that either.
So I’m temporarily calling it Storm Watch -- since the two schools' nickname is The Storm in those sports in which they have merged. (The forecast, I hope, for each honoree is clear sailing to success in the future.)
Anyway, I’m looking for suggestions -- nominations, if you will -- for those to be honored this year, from 10th grade on up. And if anyone has a catchy name for it all, feel free to let me know. The goal is to honor 14 or 15, or maybe even 16 students if it’s warranted.
That range seems about right for the kind of well-rounded individuals we’re watching: outstanding in academics, athletics, leadership and citizenship. You can contact me at email@example.com
About those Glen girls ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 26, 2022 -- The season started with some promise.
Conventional wisdom said either the Watkins Glen or Odessa-Montour High School girls varsity soccer team would win the IAC division in which they both competed.
Before long, it became apparent that Watkins Glen might be a little deeper. While O-M had the dandy tandem of Hannah Nolan and Tori Brewster, and a solid supporting cast, Watkins had the Honrath sisters, Skye and Sasha, speedster Ava Kelly, and a host of midfielders and backs -- including seasoned goalkeeper Lillian Ameigh -- who were very effective.
Now, looking back, it all seems so predictable. While O-M’s Nolan was setting a school single-season goal-scoring record of 27, Watkins’ Skye Honrath was building up a head of steam that carried her past 20 goals, to 24 now, mixed with a slew of assists.
When the two teams first met, O-M pulled out a victory in overtime, 2-1, on two Brewster goals. When they met the second time, it was for the division title, and Watkins prevailed, 3-1, with Skye Honrath scoring twice and Kelly once.
Then came the IAC Small School title game against Groton, won by Watkins 2-1 in overtime. Sasha Honrath scored the first goal, assisted by Skye, while freshman Zade Gomez-Fitzsimmons netted the game winner.
A quarterfinal game in the Section IV, Class C Tournament was next -- a 4-0 win over Unadilla Valley on goals by the Honrath sisters, Ava Kelly and Olivia VanSkiver. In the semifinal -- played on Elmira Notre Dame’s home turf -- Skye erupted for three goals (with another by Ava) as the Senecas won 4-1.
And now they play for the sectional title against Trumansburg.
This whole experience, this season of seasons, has been not only special -- but I think emblematic of a resurgence in excellence and school pride and community pride after the pandemic and a desultory spring.
This has been about a great group of girls, yes -- quite young, considering the team has just two seniors -- but also about all those people behind the scenes. You can point to the coaches at the Modified level, led by Ralph Diliberto, who obviously are teaching the right stuff. And you can point to the school administrators who not only support, but actively participate in, the school’s sports programs.
The Athletic Director, Rod Weeden, logs many miles behind the wheel going to, and getting kids to, sporting events. He coaches when necessary. He wears a lot of hats, but among them is effectively coordinating everything that goes into a sporting event: travel, officials, support staff and so on.
The Superintendent, Kai D'Alleva, helps coach the lacrosse team, took the booth as announcer at a recent football game, and is constantly visible at events involving the school’s various sports teams. He has offspring of his own involved in those programs.
You’ve got the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who show up to populate the bleachers at these events. At the Notre Dame game, the pro-Watkins cheers coming from the stands equaled those of the ND fans.
And it’s coaches like Scott Morse, who runs the varsity squad -- a fairly mild-mannered fellow who has shown time and again his ability to connect with the younger generation. He has been a successful junior varsity girls basketball coach, and soon takes the floor as the boys varsity basketball coach.
On the sidelines of soccer games, you can see his connection with the kids. It’s been there for years -- back before the days when his daughter, Hannah, was setting school scoring records out on that field. And it’s there now more than ever. These kids respond to his entreaties, his shouts, his gentle instructions.
But ultimately, it’s these kids. Morse says they all contribute, and they do. It’s not easy to organize a successful sports program, and even harder to carry it through to the point where the Watkins Glen girls have. From Skye Honrath to the sub on the bench who doesn’t see much action (yet, for this team is young, with an eighth grader, nine ninth graders, five 10th graders, four juniors and those two seniors, Carly Arnold and Katrina Ricca), they have all contributed, through athletic prowess, camaraderie, friendship, support and a shared goal: to be the best they can be.
Skye Honrath says the success comes from communication out there on the field; and, I suspect, off it as well. There are friendships there, and obvious respect for one another. They have, in the pressure cooker of competition, been enjoying themselves.
When Notre Dame tied the game early in the second half in the sectional semifinal, the Senecas didn’t visibly sag; nobody's head was down. They were all on full alert, looking for that next opportunity, which came in the form of a Skye Honrath goal. Followed by a Kelly goal. Followed by another Honrath goal.
“Maybe it’s because they’re so young,” one observer surmised of this unwavering positivity. “Maybe they just don’t know enough to be nervous in that situation.”
Maybe. Or maybe it’s because they know, better than most, that it’s just a game. And that games are supposed to be fun.
And this ... this has been fun.
A time to ponder ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 10, 2022 -- Today I have decided to celebrate my 99th birthday -- 25 years early.
On this, the 74th anniversary of my entry into the world, I figure it’s a good time to celebrate a milestone that -- let’s face it -- I might not ever reach.
We all need goals, and 99 seems a worthy one, but after battling cancer, and with the various aches, pains and other challenges that aging has already brought, I have to harbor doubts.
Yes, on this, my 74th birthday, I am pondering time.
The time left to be productive; the time left to enjoy loved ones; the time left in which to breathe.
Beyond that, I find myself considering the time already expended, with an analytical eye toward whether it has been well used.
I have to think the last 20 years have been. That’s how long I’ve been running this website, this online newspaper. Well -- it will be 20 years near the end of December: the 29th to be exact.
The 54 years I lived before that? I don’t know. A childhood of neuroses. A failed first marriage (though a successful second one). Jobs for no longer than eight years at a stretch. Poor planning for an uncertain future.
I’m blessed, now, to do what I do every day, and have since 2002. I thank my lucky stars, or God, or whatever or whoever directed me to this particular path.
The rewards thus far have been substantial. Friendships. A sense of belonging. A sense of worth. A joy in the work: in the photography, in the writing.
So ... when I reach 20 years, do I hang it all up? It seems like it could be a worthy jumping-off point.
It calls to mind the recent encounter I had with a couple from out of state, here visiting family. The wife was from here originally. We talked while out on separate, intersecting walks on Odessa’s streets. The gentleman knew me from this website, which he said he and his wife read regularly.
He asked if I was getting close to retirement, and I said that my planning has been basically annual, from the first of one year to the first of the next, but that I had promised a couple of standout Odessa-Montour athletes -- the two most accomplished female athletes in the school -- that I would continue to cover them through their senior sports seasons, which we are currently witnessing.
“You mean Tori Brewster and Hannah Nolan?” he asked, and I smiled.
“Wow. You do read The Odessa File, don’t you?” I said.
So, yes, I’ve promised to continue past the 20-year anniversary, and on through the school year.
Then what? Retirement?
That’s not remotely in my plans, but it’s not an empty question. We all have to pack it in some time. I was recently interviewed by a young woman studying journalism at Ithaca College. She asked me what would happen when I retired. Who would take it over?
“Maybe you will,” I responded.
Maybe. And then again, maybe I’ll be like Clint Eastwood, who has been cranking out movies into his 90s.
Let’s see. My 90s. That’s 16 more years, which would make 36 years total with The Odessa File.
Or how about back to that first number I mentioned: 99?
Now wouldn’t that be something?
But for now, come December 29th, I think I’ll simply take a deep breath, set my sights firmly ahead to the meetings and sporting events and business news of Schuyler County, and keep on reporting indefinitely, keeping in mind that for a workaholic like me, “retirement” is tantamount to a four-letter word.
And I will trust that the powers that be -- the journalistic gods, perhaps -- will sort it all out.
Good news from the doctor
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Sept. 15, 2022 -- Back a year ago, when I had lost my hair and was undergoing radiation treatments, I encountered a young lady I had first met several years before, during her high school days.
She expressed alarm at the sight of me, asking what was wrong. I explained that I had been invaded by cancer.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “How long do they give you?”
I smiled and said, perhaps a little optimistically, “Oh, about 20 years, I guess.”
A couple of weeks ago, I visited my oncologist for a three-month checkup, and everything appeared to be fine: no sign of my cancer returning. In fact, he recommended six months between appointments and removal of the port that had been installed in my chest last year to handle all of the incoming chemicals they pumped into me to fight the disease.
“I don’t think you’ll need it again,” the doctor said. “Worst case, it can always be reinstalled.”
Good news, indeed.
One thing about cancer. Once you’ve experienced it and are lucky enough to have fought it off, it is nevertheless part of you, in a mental, psychological sense. The thought is always there that it might come back.
As I liked to say while battling my cancer -- a non-Hodgkins lymphoma -- I wasn’t particularly worried about it killing me. Something will, and cancer is only one of about a thousand possibilities.
My wife Susan was a cancer survivor, at least for a little while. Her cancer was a rare sarcoma, though, compared to my rather run-of-the-mill variety. We were told upon her diagnosis that nobody had survived her kind of cancer for more than two years. She managed, through herbal treatments and a successful hysterectomy, to shake it off for a while, but it snuck back, its tendrils reaching out and wrapping around her spine. Then came treatments and a pulmonary embolism -- and she was gone just inside that two-year mark.
But I prefer to dwell not on the past, not on what has been lost; that can just lead to depression and inaction -- a sort of uselessness.
Which brings me back to my doctor. While giving me a clean bill of health, he thanked me for what I do, for running this website. “It’s the glue,” he said. A nice thought.
I thanked him back, and said I loved doing it, and looked for inspiration toward the career of moviemaker Clint Eastwood, who at last look was still producing quality films in his 90s.
“That’s my goal,” I said. To go as long as I can, as effectively as I can.
It gets a little harder every year, as the body keeps rebelling in one fashion or another. We all slow down.
The doctor nodded. I was, he said, good for fifteen years.
And he smiled.
Since only God knows.
One possible offshoot of all of this is on the horizon. I’ve been contacted by Cayuga Health for a planned video of me doing my journalism thing and extolling the virtues of my medical care. I volunteered for the tribute. The care I underwent at Cayuga was both beautifully administered and personally educational. Nobody can understand the world of oncology until they are thrust into it by circumstance.
I recall my wife being opposed to such treatments, but I knew they suited me from the moment I first heard the words last year: “It’s cancer.”
Powerful words, and in my case unsettling enough that I did not feel secure pursuing an alternative remedy, such as Susan had. We all must follow the path we think not only most effective, but which offers a comfort level to help fight the fear.
So Cayuga Health might soon come knocking on my door, quite literally, leading to that video and maybe even a billboard. I told them I had to draw the line, though, at running an ad on this website with my face front and center.
It’s quite enough that I have to see it looking back at me each morning in the bathroom mirror.
A glass-shattering event ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Aug. 21, 2022 -- First, some random thoughts:
--Decency is a commodity woefully lacking in today’s politics, whether on the national or state level -- or for that matter, on some of the local.
I just wish the civility that used to dominate politics (perhaps I’m putting an unwarranted sheen on it) and, for the most part, life in general, were more a thing of the present. But I’m afraid the internet -- which has made communication a growing Wild West (gun ‘em down with unkindness) show -- won’t permit that to happen.
--Here come high school sports. Practices will go on for a couple of weeks, and then formal contests. Odessa-Montour enters the competition with a new nickname -- the Grizzlies -- and logos. The logos are being developed, although Athletic Manager Greg Gavich sent along an email with one of them attached. It is at right.
There is a lot of chatter among O-M fans at the choice of Grizzlies as the mascot to succeed the Indians -- which had fallen under criticism as part of a national resetting of team nicknames considered inappropriate in this ever-changing day and age. Gone are the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) and Washington Redskins (now Commanders). Others are undoubtedly following. The move in Odessa wasn't mandated; while such an action has been proposed on the state level, it hasn't (at last word) been voted on. In fact, we still have Indians as the motif at Groton and Candor.
Watkins Glen is still the Senecas, but with native American imagery eliminated. The nickname is now a geographical reference -- Seneca Lake being at hand.
Personally, since the combined O-M/Watkins teams will be the Storm (replacing the Seneca Indians), I liked the idea someone floated that would have called Watkins the Thunder and O-M the Lightning, or vice versa. C'est la vie.
Now ... on to something quite apart from politics or nicknames.
It's like this:
Sometimes we make a decision in the heat of battle that can be called into question later -- like failing to notify a loved one of an accident involving personal injury. Such an accident happened to me, prompting the decision not to call my wife, Susan -- this was many years before her passing -- at work to let her know I was hospital bound.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, it’s funny how a conversation on one topic -- a general discussion between me and my son on a skype call this past week from his vacation at Virginia Beach -- can trigger a long-buried memory ... which is to say the accident in question, which happened in the late 1980s.
I was commenting in the talk with my son about on how much fun kids are at the age of his two daughters -- my only grandchildren, Marley and Noa. "How old?" I asked, though I should know that by heart. Five and almost three, said Dave -- with Marley entering kindergarten this fall.
"No kidding," I said, a little surprised, for they grow up so quickly ...
“I remember kindergarten,” Dave said, almost wistfully.
“Do you even remember your teacher’s name?” I asked.
He did. Mrs. Spotts.
“You helped out in class a couple of times,” he said to me. "Don't you remember?"
I had forgotten, but now I recalled it -- I was a volunteer aide in that class. And that triggered the memory of one day in particular when I failed to show up at the class as scheduled.
“Ohmigod,” I said. “That was when I had the accident, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” was all he said.
I was driving that day toward that class, located in the B.C. Cate Elementary School in Montour Falls, traveling from my home in Odessa, and nearing the long hill between the two communities. Suddenly, a blur appeared from the left side of the road, coming toward me. I flinched, and the blur impacted with my car, turning the windshield into a spider web and shattering the driver side window, showering me with glass.
The blur had been a deer, racing in evident fear, up from a field beside the road while being chased by dogs. He had tried to leap over my car, and failed in the effort, dying there as he bounced from my windshield to the side of the road. For my part, I was in shock, but managed somehow to bring the car to a stop at the right side of the road without veering into a ditch.
I sat, gathering my wits, considering my options. This was, as I said, in the late 1980s, well before cell phones, so that option -- a call for help -- was not available. I decided to retreat to my home, back a couple of miles. The car was still operating, so -- despite a windshield that distorted the scene in front of me, at best; and thus leaning out the hole where the side window had been -- I managed a U-turn without further incident, and nursed the car back to Odessa and my driveway.
I parked, turned off the vehicle’s engine, opened the door and stepped out -- and immediately fell to the ground. I was in such shock that I had very little strength in my legs. I sat there, on my side lawn, concentrating, willing the strength to return. I noticed then, too, that blood was dripping from my face. I touched my left cheek, which seemed heated, and felt bits of glass imbedded there. The glass extended up into my hair.
Finally I stood, and rather than head for the back door of my house, I staggered to the sidewalk and up the street to the Country Cards business run by my mother-in-law, Margaret Bauman. I have no idea why I didn’t just enter my house and phone her -- but I was not thinking clearly; and besides, the walk uptown wasn’t a long one. The store was within sight of my residence, maybe two stone throws to the east.
When I reached the store door, I pulled it open and -- not wishing to go inside while dripping blood; not wanting to soil the floor -- tried to call out to my mother-in-law, who was not visible from where I stood. My voice came out a feeble croak, and I gathered myself for a second effort when the door to the storeroom in the back opened and she appeared. It took a few moments for her to spot me, and when she did, she saw the blood and called out: “My God! Have you been shot?”
She approached and, despite my protestations, helped me inside to a chair, where I rested while she called for an ambulance -- which arrived in short order. I considered calling my wife -- who was at work in Ithaca -- but decided not to, fearing that she would rush home in a panic, possibly procuring a speeding ticket or, worse, getting in her own accident. My condition wasn’t dire; I just looked bad.
That was the reasoning, right or wrong. My mind wasn't at its sharpest; nor were my emotions steady. And now, from the perspective of more than 30 years, I suppose my mother-in-law agreed, since she didn't place the call, either. Or maybe she was conflicted, but honored my wishes. I don't know. Anyway, my decision was based on what I thought was a caring concern, and on the wish that a day that had spun out of control would not go further awry.
The paramedics, shortly after their arrival, put me on a gurney, covered my eyes with gauze to prevent glass from getting into them, and rushed me to the hospital, where I was treated -- the treatment consisting mainly of health practitioners picking small bits of shattered glass from the left side of my face, my forehead, and my hair. There were no serious lacerations; and the shock eventually wore off.
Now, talking to my then-kindergarten and now late-30s son from his vacation at Virginia Beach, he recalled that day -- the day I failed to show up in his class as scheduled.
“I remember that when I got home, I was adamant that you were going to take me to the mall,” he said. “I was adamant, but you just shook your head and said: ‘Well, that’s not going to happen.’
“I asked why," he added, "and you pointed out to the car. It was sitting there in plain view -- hiding in plain sight, I guess -- and I hadn’t even noticed.” It was dented, minus a window, with a spider-webbed windshield, and glass strewn about inside. There was also blood where the windshield met the car roof, left behind by the dying deer.
I laughed now at my son’s recollection, and told him his mother hadn’t noticed the car either. I had returned home that day -- transported by a brother-in-law from the hospital -- by the time she arrived in the late afternoon, after her workday was over. She asked me how my day had gone, and I said: “Fine, aside from hitting a deer, totaling the car, cutting up my face and being transported by ambulance to the hospital.”
She shook her head, perhaps puzzled at my humor. “Very funny,” she said. “Seriously, how was your visit to David’s class?”
“Well,” I said, and guided her to a window that looked out upon the car. I pointed, and she looked, gasped, and headed out the back door and across the side lawn to get a closer view of the vehicle. I followed her.
“My God,” she said, and turned to me, “Are you okay?” And she reached out to touch my face, where small indentations were still visible.
I assured her I was, and she drew me close, hugging tightly.
Then, pulling back, she looked me in the eyes.
“We’ll discuss later why you didn’t call me ..."
And oh, we did. My ears are still burning from that talk these many years later.
Which I guess goes to show this:
When something seems like a good idea at the time, it doesn't always seem that way later, when the proverbial bill comes due.
Moments that define us ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, July 21, 2022 -- The shed was crying out for help. The siding on the north side was curling at its base, offering the weather a way inside to dampen and ruin the interior’s contents.
The east wall was wobbly, age and the subtle movements of the earth loosening its once-firm seams, opening tiny fissures.
The doors were warping, age taking its toll.
It was time to call in some help. So a couple of men who have done a lot of work on my old house started working their construction magic on my shed while I tended to the chore of cleaning it out to make room for their efforts.
And oh, my. What a chore. It’s amazing how much stuff can be accumulated in a 12x20 structure across a span of 30 years. Stuff I’d forgotten I had. Knickknacks, old papers, books, record albums, trading cards, posters, games, a bike rack, magazines, scrapbooks, and photos.
It is in that last category, photos, that the biggest surprise surfaced. Tucked in to the southeast corner of the shed, facing the wall and buried behind boxes, was a large framed photograph on canvas taken on my wedding day -- showing my late wife Susan with me at a table at our reception following the marriage ceremony. We were married in the old Baptist Church in Odessa, and partied at the Glen Motor Inn. It was Sept. 18, 1977.
The sheer joy of the moment bursts out of that photo, and in seeing it for the first time in I don’t know how many years -- in truth, I don’t even remember receiving it, although I think it arrived on our 25th anniversary, a gift from a brother-in-law adept at photography and poster-sized pictures -- I was newly amazed that such a lovely and loving female would agree to share her life with a drudge like me.
“Beauty and the Beast,” I commented upon seeing it.
But above all, I marveled at the sheer exhilaration on those young faces. And I thought about that, and realized how rare the moment was -- for in truth, how many moments of sheer joy are we given?
The shed project -- shoring up its stability and blocking off some leakable gaps -- was being done, as I said, by two gentlemen, a pair of hard laborers who have put in a lot of work on my homestead. The house, like me, is getting old and a little more wobbly than it used to be.
Other projects in the past year: the house has been scraped, primed, caulked and painted; the kitchen has a new mold-free floor and a new sink, counter and splash guard; an enclosed pantry has been built; and the foundation has been shored up and the basement cleared of 30 or more years worth of clutter.
And all of that came after -- actually overlapped with the latter portion of -- my cancer treatments. I accordingly had no energy to help on anything last year, but have been doing a lot of lifting and lugging of shed-based boxes this summer. So I guess it could be said that the house and my old body have both undergone treatment aimed at greater longevity.
So .... what have I learned from all of this? Well, the obvious: don’t let things go untended for too long.
Another is to enjoy what I have, in this new and improved form -- whether referring to the house or to my body. (I must have looked like hell last year, because I’ve had many people tell me this year how good I look. That never happened before the cancer.)
And there is this: When I wake up in the morning, I marvel at the miracle of life itself.
Ah, life. It seems arrogant to try and define it, for how much do we really understand about it?
Nonetheless, I want to say this -- one man's simplified, narrowed look at it:
Life is a huge, ongoing process of moments -- most (almost all) of which we take for granted, inured as we are to their passage while we're busy with this chore or that, or passing portions of the day in placid thought.
But when we look backward, we look at moments that stand out. I have a shocking few -- a couple of dozen, I would say, including my wedding day and, naturally, the days upon which each of my three sons were born -- that hold court in my mind with any regularity. When combined, they are the footings of the structure of my life ... my story.
--My family took a ski trip when I was a teen to a resort in northern Michigan. I recall my father (himself a neophyte snow skier) enthralled by a group of foreign young ski-clad men racing repeatedly down the main hill in front of the lodge.
“Must be a family,” said my father. “European. They call themselves the Benzini’s.”
Turns out they were not a family, but a ski team in training. And their call to one another, to reinforce the proper form needed when attacking a hill, was to “bend the knees.”
Ben zee nees.
My family laughed a lot at my Dad's folly, but if nothing else, it pointed up the confusing overlap of culture, dialect and the varying levels of expertise in the world -- in this case on a ski slope. (Hell, I should talk about folly; I've had a lifelong disaffinity with languages. For instance, I once thought the French word "beaucoup" was spelled "boku" -- even including it in a news story I turned in to the copy desk at my first full-time paper, the Watertown Daily Times. The city editor laughed and corrected it.)
--I learned something about solitude on a New Year’s Eve. This was in Michigan, when I was in my later teens. I don’t recall where I had been, but I was on my way home, alone, and stopped at a red light, when the New Year rolled in.
“Happy New Year,” I mumbled to myself, thinking some rather dark thoughts about the solitude of the moment and a radio celebration that seemed to mock me.
That moment has stayed with me. And (I suspect accordingly) I have never been a fan of our annual January 1st rite since then. But it also taught me about solitude, which I have on occasion embraced as an old, familar acquaintance.
--In college, I spearheaded an advertising campaign to promote a party my dorm was throwing. Rather than plaster the campus with posters or other signs, I gathered shorn hair from a couple of barber shops and glued it (in the middle of the night) to a big rock that was a landmark on the main quad, front and center in front of two lecture halls. And on the hair, we (for I had co-conspirators) spray-painted the time and place of the party.
Our gathering was a great success, but the school administration was less than amused, and had to order the hair burned off in order to get rid of it.
What a stench. Black smoke curling to the sky. And I never was held accountable.
The criminal sliver of my psyche loved it.
--When Bill Buckner of the Red Sox let a grounder from Mookie Wilson roll through his legs, the Mets pulled off a miracle finish in Game Six of the 1986 World Series that propelled them to Game Seven and, ultimately, the title.
I was there, sitting in a press section of left field, under a tent that kept the night’s misting rain off my head. I had gained access with my credentials (covering the game for the Elmira Star-Gazette, where I was Sports Editor) onto the field before the game, and so saw my Mets heroes close-up. After the game, I went to a press conference in the bowels of Shea Stadium.
The whole massive structure was reverberating with the stomping of the 50,000 or so souls still in the stands celebrating ... and it is that which I remember most: the feel of that throng rejoicing; the noise and the vibration and the sheer overwhelmingness of having witnessed -- with all of those tens of thousands -- one of the greatest games in baseball history.
It made me feel physically small but spiritually large, which is about the best we can hope for..
--Sometimes a memory covers much more than a moment or an evening. In 1988, it covered four months -- the amount of time I worked as an editor and headline writer at USA Today as part of a loan program from the Star-Gazette. Gannett papers did that to help USA Today’s bottom line: sent a reporter or editor every four months to Washington (actually Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river), and paid their salaries while the national paper reaped the benefits. It was a period in which I excelled on that national footing, winning numerous in-house awards and gaining a belief in my ability -- although an attempt to stay there on a permanent basis failed because, I was told unofficially, I was too male, too white and too old. That was 34 years ago, begging the question: If I was too old then, what am I now?
Bottom line is this: had I stayed down there for the rest of my career, there would in all likelihood have been no Odessa File. Not unless I started it after retirement, which is highly doubtful. So, from a personal viewpoint, it all turned out as it should have.
--More recently, and of much briefer duration, was a July 5th meeting of the Village Board at the Village Hall in Watkins Glen, when a situation involving the mayor -- accused by a woman at the meeting of sexual harassment in a bar -- came front and center. Whether the meeting will weather the test of time and be on my memory list a few years from now remains to be seen; but its short-term impact has been telling. It was a scene that hasn't faded.
The confrontation led to a verbal confrontation between the woman and the mayor. (I initially said here that she and the mayor were screaming, but the wild nature of the session has affected my short-term memory. A review of the Wet Couch Radio video from that meeting shows that she was not doing any such thing; she was steadfast and determined, which led in turn to raised voices from supporters upset that she was being asked to leave.) Then came a shouting match between another mayoral accuser and both the mayor and deputy mayor, and then between a third woman and the mayor -- all of which led, seemingly directly, to the mayor’s resignation two days later.
The meeting, raw and raucous, had a surreal feel to it, unlike any I have attended over my many years in journalism. It also had an air of fate about it, as though the village's personal pride and angst had descended to this one place for all to see; and for a kind of celestial judgment. Perhaps that's fanciful. Perhaps it was all a lot simpler than that; more basic. But whatever it was ... it was jaw-dropping.
Memories. The foundations of our personal stories. There are more from my own bank, but those I’ve advanced at least give a glance at who I am, warts and all.
From all of our moments, our memories, those structural foundations, we develop philosophies. They are often multi-layered, intersecting, and impossible to distill into a single, coherent idea.
I have one such representative thought, though. One philosophy.
What is it?
It boils down to this:
When I worked at the Watertown Daily Times back in the 1970s, I wrote a feature story on a newly elected sheriff -- a story that a recently formed weekly paper soon plagiarized, lifting it word for word, attributing it to another writer.
I was incensed, and took my complaint to my newspaper’s publisher, a distinctive, white-haired, suspender-wearing gentleman named John B. Johnson. I wanted something done -- perhaps a lawsuit, or at least a complaint lodged with the offending publication.
But Mr. Johnson just smiled, nodding his head.
“No, Charles” he said, in his peculiar sing-song-y voice. “You don’t want to do that. Can I give you a bit of advice?”
“Sure,” I responded.
“Never get into a pissing match with a skunk,” he said.
I smiled in turn, and still smile when it comes to mind.
It was so succinct, so unexpected -- coming as it did from a mannered, soft-spoken gentleman I always considered of Northern New York nobility. A patrician, if you will.
But beyond that, it struck me as true -- a commodity all too rare today.
Photo in text: Susan and Charlie Haefffner on their wedding day, 1977.
Of poetry and 911 ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 30, 2022 -- I was down at Lafayette Park the other night for a literary reading by poet Michael Czarnecki, courtesy of the Watkins Writers Group.
I went because I hadn’t seen Czarnecki -- author of numerous chapbooks and books of poetry -- for quite a few years. I remembered meeting him on a number of occasions years ago, but couldn’t recall the first time or the last. I figured I hadn’t seen him in 15 years or so.
I arrived at Lafayette Park in the middle of his reading; he was presenting various poems from his book “before poetry there was music” -- an ode to musical heroes of his past, such as The Dave Clark Five back in the ‘60s.
I listened, fascinated by the ease with which he conveyed his words and thoughts. He glanced at me when I arrived, and a couple of times after that. It was easy to pick me out, since there were only about a dozen folks on hand there on the park's bandstand, and they were seated. I, like Michael, was standing.
When he had read his last poem for the evening, he put his hands together, fingers pointed out, looked carefully at me and, angling those hands in my direction, said: “I know you. ... Don’t I?”
I had set off a memory, although he seemed to confuse me with another journalist, Jim Pfiffer of Elmira, who has devoted years to the ecological care of the Chemung River. “You work with the river, right?” asked Michael. I said no, a friend of mine did (Pfiffer and I both once worked at the Elmira Star-Gazette), and when I outlined what I do, that I'm a journalist who used to work at the Corning Leader and who now operates an online newspaper ... he remembered.
And the odd thing was this: a memory -- actually a feeling involving muted lights and soft background music and a warm, inviting atmosphere and the very presence of my late wife -- had flooded back to me as I had stood there watching and listening to him read.
I remembered now that I had first encountered Michael Czarnecki when my late wife Susan and I attended another such reading by him, but indoors in that warm, accepting atmosphere, in Montour Falls back in the late ‘90s, when I worked at the Leader. If memory serves, I wrote something for the newspaper about that evening. But it was the memory, or the feeling of it, that just about knocked me over now. Anyone who has lost a spouse and rediscovered in their mind a special shared moment will understand.
Anyway, Michael and I chatted for a few minutes, and I secured a signed copy of the book from which he had been reading, and told him about that night long ago, and how it meant so much to me -- in part, I suspect, because it had meant a lot to Susan.
“She was a fan,” I told Michael, to which he nodded and replied: “Well, thank you.”
And with that we said our goodbyes, and I left as the session swung into an open mic, a chance for those in the audience to offer their own readings.
Yes, memories are great, but they are tricky things. Michael Czarnecki remembered me, but only after mis-remembering me. And I can’t be sure what I wrote about him those years ago, but I have a renewed sense of a late '90s literary evening of enduring charm -- of lighting and mood and emotional warmth.
In this age of politically motivated lies upon lies -- of alternate reality -- the facts of simple faulty memories or misperception often get lost in the noise.
I bring this up to point to the recent move by the Schuyler County Administrator and Emergency Management Director toward possible establishment of a county-run ambulance service -- ostensibly to replace or at least challenge the Schuyler County Volunteer Ambulance Association, Inc., an independent operation with which those county leaders seem dissatisfied.
The Schuyler County Legislature’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, meeting the other day, heard a one-sided account regarding the Association.
For instance, the following was asserted by county officials:
The Association’s average response time to emergency calls is way too high. An attempt by the county to form a partnership with the Association resulted in a “money grab” by the latter at a meeting last week. The Association was averse to oversight built into the offer. The Association refused the county offer and walked away from the table. The Association has been inhabiting a building provided by the county for $1 a year “because they're supposedly providing service to our residents.” The county could do better with an ambulance service of its own, built from scratch. That could lead to the “demise” of the Association.
I wrote all or most of that in an article about that committee meeting, and it only took a couple of hours for me to hear from Matthew Chapman, president of the Association’s board of directors. He wanted to talk.
We met in a conference room at the Association’s building on Decatur Street, a building that Chapman said is owned by the Association on property it leases from the county for $1 a year -- an arrangement under contract through 2075. It had been 2025, he said, but was extended a few years ago.
Chapman also said the building, the front half of which was built back in 1969 (and the back half around 1991), is owned by and thus the responsibility of the Association, which has invested $300,000 in it since 2019 -- in repairs, upgrades and renovations. Plans also call for a new blacktopped parking area, which is showing its age.
Chapman doesn’t know how the county figured the Association’s average response time, but his figures came in much, much, much lower. He explained that the Association, which has mostly paid personnel operating on 24-hour shifts, must answer a 911 dispatch within a minute. Since most calls are in Watkins and Montour, it doesn’t take long to get to the designated spot after that. The time in which to answer at night is three minutes, since chances are the staff is sleeping in the headquarters bunk room.
As for oversight in a partnership? No problem, he said, if structured right. And walking away from the negotiations? Not so, he said. He said the proposal put forth by the county was not economically “sustainable,” in the eyes of the board of directors, and that when he delivered that news to the county, he hoped to discuss alternatives -- but was cut short, the meeting ended abruptly by the county. The Association is amenable to a partnership, he said, but negotiations require give and take on both sides.
As for any new county-run service leading to the demise of the Association, Chapman shook his head. His organization has reserves, and contracts, and the ability to shift its services to outlying areas (say in Yates County) that are in need of them.
So ... not wanting to get in the middle of this, but seemingly there anyway -- and as a citizen who (like many Schuyler residents) has benefitted (and can benefit again) from the efforts of our ambulance service, I say this:
It sounds to me as though divergent perceptions exist that reasonable negotiations could bring into line with one another..
It’s like this:
Michael Czarnecki and I reconnected despite some initial confusion, and a total uncertainty as to when we had first met or had last encountered one another. Now, having talked, we better understand the past, and where each of us fit into the other’s history.
Perception being a byproduct of perspective -- and talking things out in a reasoned and methodical manner often proving fruitful -- maybe the county and Schuyler Ambulance can figure out their relationship to each other’s satisfaction, too.
It seems like it would be worth the effort.
Photos in text: Michael Czarnecki (top) at the literary reading, and Matthew Chapman at the Schuyler County Volunteer Ambulance Association headquarters.
About leave-takings ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 12, 2022 -- There are leave-takings of various kinds.
There is the leave-taking that comes when we graduate -- leaving high school for college, or college for the working world. We leave behind friends we never forget, but quite often never see again -- class reunions excepted.
There is the leave-taking that comes at the end of an interpersonal relationship, no matter the cause. And the leave-taking that comes from moving from one job to another, or from one state to another, or from the working world into that of retirement.
And there is the departure from life itself -- which we have seen far too often locally of late. As I related last time I wrote a column, we had recently lost my mother-in-law, Margaret Bauman, and Fred Scott, Doug Hagin, Don Romeo and Tony Fraboni. After I wrote that, I found that a cousin -- one to whom I was close in childhood -- had died. His name: Dr. Charles Black, a brilliant fellow who practiced in Sweden and then France. Cancer claimed him.
Then we lost Mike D’Aloisio, a longtime coach at Elmira Notre Dame High School -- a wonderful friend who was an inspiration to many student-athletes. He authored a book about one of those athletes, Joel Stephens, who died far too young. The book, “5 C Hero,” focused on the 5 C’s that marked Stephens’ life: Christianity, Courage, Compassion, Character, and Commitment. Mike was claimed by ALS -- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Then we lost a couple of other folks known fairly well: Kay Fraboni (Tony’s mom, who passed away not many days after he did) and Richard Scuteri, a long-familiar figure in Watkins Glen in both politics and the food business. And there was Joan Oates, mother of an old friend of mine, Molly Oates.
When I get inundated with so much death, I tend to start becoming philosophical about it. That’s a defense mechanism, I suppose, but it tends to mitigate the sting that comes with the passing of each acquaintance who falls by the wayside.
And then that philosophy got eviscerated upon the slaughter of children. Uvalde served as a wake-up call to the growing menace of the American arsenal of private assault-style weapons. We are jaded by the sheer number of these shootings, but Uvalde brought with it such a shock value that we at least discussed gun safety a little more than usual.
That talk is fading again, though, as it always does -- although it appears some measured gun-safety rules might make their way through Congress.
Since that slaughter in Uvalde, I’ve felt a little bit overwhelmed by world events, and by the state of the Union.
I listened recently to a person who embraced a different kind of leave-taking: former Congressman Tom Reed, who had planned to leave Congress at the end of his latest term after being snared in a sexual-misconduct scandal -- and then resigned early to take another job, in a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm. I heard him when he was guest speaker at a meeting of the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club, where he spoke of a grim set of circumstances here and abroad -- from a China-Russia collusion to an economy rocked by inflation to the sharp political division in this country and all of its attendant problems: gun violence, Congressional gridlock, and a tribal mentality that makes vocal allegiance to either side -- or any of several offshoots of those sides -- a proposition fraught with pitfalls.
So ... pardon me while I turn instead to what I like most about this time of the year: the awards season that accompanies the closing month of the school year.
That’s a heck of a lot brighter than national and world news.
As one of the co-founders of the Top Drawer 24 program that honored two dozen outstanding student-athlete-citizens annually for 15 years before I bowed out last year -- and as a photojournalist who has been running this website for almost 20 years -- I feel uniquely positioned to honor Schuyler students.
Accordingly, I have continued to do so with the Roll Call of Excellence, which in its second year (earlier this month) honored eight Watkins Glen High School students and six from Odessa-Montour. As with the Top Drawer program, it looked not only at athletics, but at academics and character.
The WGHS Roll Call honorees were Cameron Holland, Daniel Ely, Owen Scholtisek, Faye Mooney, Melanie Wysocki, Adam Pastore, Jenna Solomon and Katrina Ricca.
The O-M honorees were Hannah Nolan, Tori Brewster, Camille Sgrecci, Daniel Lewis, Mackenzie Cannon and Katie Adams.
I’ll be announcing The Odessa File Athletes of the Year at both schools in the near future -- an award sponsored by E.C. Cooper Insurance -- as well as the 18th annual Susan Award winner. That's a sportsmanship award named after my late wife.
The first winner of the Susan Award, coincidentally, was a guest speaker this past week at the annual Schuyler Scholars dinner that honors seniors in the top 10% of their class academically at the Watkins Glen, Odessa-Montour and Bradford high schools. That dinner was held at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
I refer to Sally Wilcox Homolka, who was an outstanding basketball player and a key member of the O-M track team back in her high school days. She won the Susan Award in her senior year of 2004-05. She was tough, and yet had a core of kindness: traits of Susan Bauman Haeffner, who passed away earlier that school year, on Nov. 1, 2004.
Beyond those awards, I recently unveiled a spring sports All-Schuyler All-Star team of 14 athletes at the two schools, and named track standout Tori Brewster of O-M as the Schuyler Spring MVP. That followed seasonal MVPs awarded to O-M’s Hannah Nolan (soccer) and Watkins Glen’s Faye Mooney (swimming) in the fall, and to Watkins swimmer Liam Smith in the winter.
Mine aren’t the only awards, of course. WETM issues some, as does ESPN-Ithaca, as does WENY, which partnered with The Odessa File on the Top Drawer program in the past and is now key to publicizing the Top Drawer honorees, which this year totaled 64 across 20 school districts. (The program started with just the Watkins and Odessa districts, so the growth has been remarkable, reaching into Pennsylvania.)
WENY just came out with its Top Drawer list, in fact. It includes three students from WGHS (Cameron Holland, Daniel Ely and Faye Mooney) and two from O-M (Camille Sgrecci and Tori Brewster).
WGHS has its own sports award presentations, as well, as does O-M.
So there are a lot of awards presented each year -- well, each year again, now that the pandemic strictures have waned.
It all does my heart good -- as do the actual games and matches throughout the school year that ultimately lead to the awards. They tend to counterbalance for me the negativity of a period of history in which it would be very easy to become overly cynical, or uncompromisingly angry, or just depressed by world events.
So thanks, kids.
I love your competitive fire.
I love your achievements.
And I love that you can thrive here despite a pandemic and despite the threat -- seemingly hanging over every school in this gun-laden country -- of a horror like the ones visited upon youngsters at Sandy Hook and Uvalde.
I pray all of our young -- the youth of Schuyler County, present and future (not to mention the young across the country) -- never have to experience anything like that again.
I pray that their leave-takings are of the graduation kind -- and of the kind that populate long and fruitful and rewarding lives.
Of absent friends ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 20, 2022 -- Anxiety has been visiting me with increasing frequency.
It’s not so much a concern about my own health -- it seems to be checking out okay as I visit general practitioners, radiologists and oncologists -- but rather that of other people and, for that matter, of a non-living entity.
I have lost friends and long-time acquaintances in alarming numbers -- my mother-in-law Margaret Bauman, Fred Scott, Doug Hagin, Don Romeo ... and most recently Tony Fraboni.
Of those men mentioned, I was closest to Tony, who is a member of this website’s Essentials: area citizens who have been key players in the ongoing Schuyler County story. He is described there as follows:
“Long dedicated to public service, he served as treasurer for the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, on the Tri-County Housing Board, and on the Watkins Glen Library Board. A former village Planning Board member, he was -- as a trustee on the Watkins Glen Village Board -- instrumental as a member of the Joint Project Committee in the construction of a regional water treatment plant along the canal between Watkins and Montour Falls. A longtime VP and branch manager of Community Bank in Watkins, he retired in 2021. He was an active Rotarian, having served as its president, and was the moving force behind a successful annual fund-raising auction there.”
I pray for Tony and for those other friends and acquaintances who have passed, and for those still fighting the good fight.
The non-living entity I mentioned is this website, which recently (and hopefully not again) was suffering for several days from technical glitches that limited access to it. The problem was on the server end, where the faceless voices of technicians weighed in with varying theories as to the cause, until finally one hit upon a solution and instituted a fix.
The whole thing was causing me unmitigated agitation. So ... fingers crossed.
And yet. And yet.
There is always, if I look hard enough, an upside to life.
I usually find it in the young people I cover in sports and arts in our local schools.
Even in those instances where victories are hard to come by -- or completely elusive -- our local athletes (at least those still pursuing athletics) have shown a camaraderie and love of the challenge ... even this spring, which was a season of less-than-stellar success if measured in wins and losses.
As for the arts, I was wowed by the enthusiasm and skill exhibited on-stage this year at both schools in their annual spring plays: Cinderella at Watkins Glen High School, and Once Upon a Mattress at Odessa-Montour.
The leads in both were really good, and the supporting cast strong. Costumes and set design and lighting were appealing. An uplifting experience in each case.
High and lows. Sadness at loss tempered by joy in the achievements of young people.
It’s not surprising that amid all of that, I have turned introspective. And in doing so, I’ve looked to the past, and for some reason wondered what happened to two men from my long-ago past: a ragtime piano player and a hotshot young journalist fresh (when I knew him) out of the hallowed halls of Columbia Journalism School.
The piano player’s name: Steve Spracklen. He performed for a while up in Watertown in the late 1970s when I worked at the Watertown Daily Times as a reporter and editor. Months after Steve had moved on, I took a trip to Michigan when I heard he was playing at a place called Render’s Restaurant in that state’s northern woods.
The restaurant was owned by a fellow named Tom Render, who was an alum from my high school, Bloomfield Hills High north of Detroit. Tom, who was a few years ahead of me, had had a sister who was my classmate; I’d heard along the way that she had been murdered. After expressing my condolences upon my arrival at his restaurant, he plied me with more booze than I had ever ingested; which was saying something, for those were serious drinking days. (I went essentially dry a decade or so later.)
Spracklen played his wonderful ragtime music while I was there, and I retreated home the next morning -- for some reason a cushioned, gaudy toilet seat in hand, a gift from Tom Render.
Anyway, in recent days I searched the Internet for Spracklen, wondering whatever had become of him -- and found he is still performing ragtime, or at least has been until recently. I even enjoyed a couple of video performances recorded in the last few years.
Talk about a balm for the soul ...
The other figure was the Columbia J School graduate, Rob Burton, who I thought a little full of himself back then in the 1970s -- perhaps understandable considering he was the lone Columbia grad on our staff, and was thus treated by the administration like a young god. I think he was still there in Watertown when I left to travel the country with my wife, Susan -- a journey that led us, ultimately, to settle in the Southern Tier of New York.
For whatever reason, I googled Rob a couple of weeks ago and found a gray-haired guy looking back at me who I did not at first recognize -- but it was him, for the attendant biographical information confirmed he attended Columbia and worked first for the Watertown Daily Times in a career that has included journalism, business and politics. He has, among other things, been the mayor of Oakville, Ontario for a few years.
Turning again to his picture, I looked hard for the young fellow I had known -- and I finally saw him. No longer sporting a wild, bushy hair-do emblematic of that earlier era, but still wearing wire-rimmed glasses, he was clearly there, a great deal older but with the same overtly confident look.
Huh, I thought. Well, good for him. But how come everybody else is aging, and not me?
Ahhh, self-delusion. It can be so comforting.
Of sports & a bygone age ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, May 4, 2022 -- Kudos to Odessa-Montour alum Grace Vondracek, whose Corning Community College softball team is having another banner year, including four wins last weekend. After losing five of their first seven games, the 27-5 Red Barons have run off 25 wins in a row.
To date, Vondracek -- an outstanding pitcher, hitter and base runner at O-M a few years ago who was on the verge of some career records there before her senior season was wiped out by the pandemic -- is hitting .660 with 8 homers and 30 stolen bases.
Well done, Grace. And good luck in future games.
It's nice to see a local girl having success in a sport. It’s becoming all too rare around here. For the record, my last column has generated more feedback than usual. It detailed the downward spiral of spring sports -- and of most sports in general -- on the high school level, where participation numbers are way down.
(I’ve even heard from Florida, where one reader sent me a long newspaper article on the same subject. The fall-off is not a local phenomenon, and not solely attributable to the pandemic.)
If I wasn’t direct enough last time, try this: The two schools -- O-M and Watkins Glen -- should seriously consider merging their spring sports: softball, tennis, track, and probably golf. And while they're at it, they could follow suit with soccer, volleyball, bowling and basketball. (They've already joined their football, wrestling, baseball and swim programs, with some notable successes.) As for lacrosse, it can be found only at one of the schools, WGHS, but there might be students from Odessa interested in it, too -- although that sport's multi-year record at Watkins might warrant another look at its value.
Thus far, lacrosse has one win this season, while neither the O-M nor WGHS softball team had a win until Odessa defeated Watkins this week. WGHS tennis has three wins out of seven tries, and there is no tennis team at all this year at O-M. In track, O-M has been holding its own, but the numbers really warrant a merger of the teams. Even if they had merged this year, the girls' combined track squad would only have something like 15 members.
If we want more consistent quality on our playing fields, we have to look to mergers.
I had the rare privilege recently of revisiting faces from my past. Not just faces, but full bodies with familiar voices and with familiar stories to tell.
It was a gathering at the home of former Elmira Star-Gazette reporter and columnist Jim Pfiffer in West Elmira. It came a couple of weeks after I had met with Jim, two other Star-Gazette alums (Bob Jamieson and Glenda Gephart) and a friend that Jim and Bob brought along.
We met at the Bucket Bar & Grill in Odessa after Jim, Bob and their friend had visited Glenda at the Schuyler County Historical Society Brick Tavern Museum, which she oversees. We had a great time at lunch, reconnecting, so maybe that prompted the subsequent S-G reunion. Or maybe it was already in the planning stage; I don't recall.
The point is that the reunion at Jim's reassured me, at least for now, of the solidity of my existence. Memories of my years at that newspaper, from 1980-88, are vivid, but on one occasion -- at an S-G reunion several years ago --- a former reporter I had known fairly well over a period of years simply failed to remember me. As if I hadn't existed.
Talk about deflating. So it helps that two people at this most recent reunion knew me right away after many years apart.
This time, there was a former S-G reporter named Craig Scott who I hadn’t seen since he left the paper in 1986. I recognized him right away upon entering the Pfiffer household, and was relieved when he spotted me, came right over and shook my hand in recognition. Present by Skype was another alum, former reporter Tim Dougherty, who also recognized me quickly.
Also present was a woman who worked at the paper after me, but who I had encountered over the years -- although not in the recent past. Her name is Maria Strinni Gill, a photographer of significant talent working now, she said, for Corning Inc. With her was a daughter, Madeline, soon to graduate high school and head off to Niagara University where she has signed a letter of intent to play Division 1 lacrosse. Considering that the girl was born after the time in which my path and her mother’s had crossed those years ago, I was feeling in her presence that I was, if no longer forgettable, at least quite old.
But the gray hairs and facial creasing in the room aside, it was a gathering full of joy as we Star-Gazette survivors recounted and thus relived some of the highlights of our collective years at the paper, touching along the way upon a number of colleagues who have since perished.
One of the attendees suggested we should write a book about that era -- when journalism filled the building on Baldwin Street in Elmira with an endless energy generated by scores of employees in various departments. Our focus back then was, of course, on the newsroom itself, and on the cavalcade of characters who worked there before moving on to other jobs, or retirement, or to the great beyond.
Some of the names are probably familiar to those folks who have been around here long enough to have had the opportunity to read such reporters’ words. Of those who have passed away, there was Al Mallette, long the S-G sports editor; Jimmy O’Hara, a political writer who typed rapid-fire with two fingers; Garth Wade, a features writer of note; reporter Peg Gallagher; and Bill Morgan, a reporter in the newsroom and in bureaus. On the editing side, there were the late Mike Walker, Dick Wich and Jon Gastineau. In management, there was Rick Tuttle, Executive Editor when I was hired, and then Publisher before cancer claimed him.
Among the guests at Pfiffer's were Glenda and Bob from our lunch meeting at The Bucket, and reporter Jeff Aaron, editor Pat Foster Richards and her husband, photographer Jeff Richards, and longtime S-G librarian Peg Ridosh.
They all impacted me in one way or another in that world of the long ago -- a world changed forever by the internet. The old S-G building is empty, and the handful of employees still in the Elmira area are, I'm told, working mostly remotely.
Yes, all of these folks impacted me, mostly in a positive way, although the very nature of newspaper publication -- run on deadlines that had to be met -- created tensions and the occasional confrontation.
The pressure of those deadlines could be excruciating.
In fact, I used to say to my kids: “What do I hate more than anything?”
And they would respond: “Deadlines, Daddy.”
And they were so right. I still, to this day, have the occasional dream in which I seem to be moving in slow motion as the clock ticks down closer and closer to deadline.
And I wake up sweating.
And yet ... and yet, in my waking hours, I look back on that time with a degree of fondness and gratefulness.
The downward slide ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, April 12, 2022 -- The Watkins Glen high school varsity tennis team is playing shorter meets this year, with five matches each instead of the former seven. That means that instead of four singles matches and three doubles, there are now three singles matches and two doubles.
Why? Well, as one coach put it, it’s because schools in general are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit players.
A minor point? No, a symptom. At the extreme end, the Odessa-Montour High School tennis team is nonexistent this year.
That’s right: no team. While WGHS has managed to continue with its tennis program (it has 15 participants), O-M doesn’t have one tennis player this year. There was “zero interest,” said O-M Athletic chief Greg Gavich. “Literally, zero kids signed up.”
And tennis isn’t alone among sports troubled by depleted numbers. The WGHS varsity lacrosse team has some kids who would normally be on a modified team -- raised up because there wasn’t enough interest to fill both squads.
The O-M girls junior varsity basketball team ended its season this past winter when it came up short of players early in the season. The remaining roster was promoted to varsity, with the exception of one player who returned to the modified program.
The O-M girls varsity track team is down to 9 members this year, from highs in the not-too-distant past in the 20s. And the WGHS girls track team has only seven on the roster, with one of them injured for most, if not all, of the season. The O-M boys track team has 15 competitors, with WGHS counting the same number.
In recent years, the O-M girls swim program thinned down to almost nothing, so its remaining competitors joined forces with one-time intracounty adversary Watkins Glen. Both the girls and boys swim programs at the two schools are now merged -- as is the wrestling program. WGHS wrestling participation dropped precipitously three or four years ago, and O-M brought the remaining few on-board to provide an ongoing competitive outlet. At first it appeared to be an informal arrangement, but has now solidified.
Football at the two schools merged several years ago, after both districts were challenged to meet the minimum number of active players after injuries thinned their ranks. Baseball merged as well.
The numbers across the local high school sports scene have continued downward in the wake of the pandemic. It seems, though nobody in authority can say for sure, that the enforced elimination of sports and -- for many -- the decision to home school during that down time has changed the psyche and drive and general perspective of a significant number of our students.
At least that’s one theory. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to know for sure. I imagine falling enrollment has been a factor, as has the obsession many youth have with the alternate universe provided by the internet.
“The numbers in all sports have gone down statewide,” says WGHS Athletic Director Rod Weeden, “but so has the population of students attending schools.”
He pointed to statistics collected by the state that shows, for instance, that participation statewide in track has diminished from 67,978 students in 2009-10 to 46,645 in 2020-21. And in tennis, the number shrank from 24,145 in 2009-10 to 17,657 in 2020-21.
During that same period, baseball participation slimmed from 36,367 to 29,436, golf from 10,087 to 5,216, and softball from 31,969 to 23,113. (Among fall sports, football has seen a dive from roughly 59,000 participants to 39,000, split between 11-man and an increasing number of 8-man squads.)
“Hopefully some numbers will bounce back a little now that Covid is not affecting sports as much,” says Weeden, “but our population is still declining regardless of Covid.”
According to available data for K-12, the Watkins district has fallen below 1,000 students (983 in 2019-20), while Odessa-Montour was at 733 that same year. The downward trend has been long-term.
The bottom line, though, seems to be this: mergers of WGHS and O-M teams-- relatively successful thus far -- could be extended locally to include all spring sports. Greater numbers could bode well in track, softball, tennis and -- if any O-M athletes wanted to play -- in lacrosse, too.
But it’s not just numbers. A direct effect of dwindling rosters is reduced success. This year, the only team out of the gate with a winning record at O-M and WGHS is the WGHS tennis squad. The softball teams are foundering. So is the WGHS lacrosse squad. (O-M has never formed such a squad.) And the golf teams, while expected to see some good individual performances, will not likely see much team success. And the track teams need an infusion of bodies.
In terms of victories, there was success last fall with O-M girls soccer and with football and girls swimming (both merged), and in the winter the WGHS boys varsity basketball team excelled -- as did, to a lesser extent, the O-M girls basketball squad.
I’ve never adversely judged the two schools’ programs, but let’s face it: It’s a lot more fun, and rewarding, to win.
If spring sports has become (as I’ve heard postulated) a recreational endeavor, then something is awry. In the face of the clearly shrinking interest (and associated talent level), let’s circle the wagons and look closely at merger across the athletic board.
That’s not to say a merger of the two districts themselves should be attempted. I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that point. But sports mergers continue to offer a favorable outcome -- one where competition trumps participation ... and where success as measured in the satisfaction of victories just might beckon.
Squares of a quilt ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 23, 2022 -- “Come on. It’ll be an adventure.”
That line from the concluding episode of the famed TV series “The West Wing” -- which I was watching recently -- brought an almost visceral reaction from me.
That's because it’s exactly what I said to my wife Susan on two different occasions -- before we took a trip around the country in a camper in 1979, and again before I accepted a temporary post in 1988 with USA Today, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper.
And what followed was, in each case, indeed an adventure -- mostly because it was something two people devoted to one another were able to share.
In the first case, Susan agreed readily to the long trip, which kept us on the road, basically, for about three months.
In the second case, we had long since settled in an Odessa house we were buying, and she had given birth to our two boys, and a move to Washington seemed a bit much -- although it was by design for just four months, part of a loaner program from the Elmira Star Gazette, which like USA Today was a Gannett newspaper. But daunting move or not, Susan finally relented, agreed to join me in D.C. after the school year concluded (I was away from May into September), and ended up loving the whole experience.
In the 16 years left of her life after the D.C. adventure, she sometimes talked of both experiences -- our three-month trip and our time in Washington -- as highlights of that life.
There were many stops on our 1979 journey -- at campgrounds, in cities, in national parks, at various homes, journeying most of the way with two adolescents -- my son Bill (from my first marriage) and his cousin Robbie. We saw a lot, but one stop stands out, not for excitement, but for the kindness of a simple act.
A middle-aged gentleman we had only just met bestowed us with a couple of dozen grunion (small sardine-sized fish) that he had plucked from the sand of a beach near where we, he, and a score of other campers had pulled in for the night -- in a dirt parking lot alongside Route 101 midway down the coast of California. This came after Sue, the boys and I had toured such states as South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
The man was a minister named Josiah -- we, in the informality of the setting, only learned each other's first names -- who was actually from the area, an hour or so away. He was a widower, he noted -- "married to the church now, devoted to God." He had discovered this pull-off and frequented it whenever he could during the grunion runs in the warm months. The grunion females run up onto a beach with the tide, deposit eggs, mate with males, and swim out again a couple of hours later -- but while they are beached become easy pickings for folks who like a tasty treat.
“See the road over there?” Josiah said, pointing back to Route 101 as we talked shortly after arriving late one August afternoon. “That’s a state highway, and from there over to here is state highway land they’re not otherwise using, so they let folks camp here as long as things stay picked up. It sure beats spending the night in a trailer park, ’cause you’re not only paying there, you end up a mile-and-a-half or so from the ocean. Here, you get the ocean, and it’s free.
“Besides,” he said, “it’s a great place to come to catch some surf fish, the grunion, if that’s what you like. Actually, they're very tasty.” He motioned to the beach, where a number of campers were congregating, buckets and cans in hand that they would soon start to fill with grunion -- which they were allowed to catch, by law, only by hand. The sun was rapidly sinking out over the Pacific. Night was coming.
Later, after dark had descended, Josiah was knocking at our camper door. In his hand was a bucket with grunion he had caught. He explained the finer points of grunion preparation, which Susan and I followed -- cleaning the little fellows, rolling them in egg and flour, and cooking them in a skillet on our camper stove. It all led to a delicious meal.
Next morning, after most of the campers had departed for other points -- perhaps to return later; perhaps not -- we approached our benefactor as he was preparing to leave.
“Thanks,” I said. “That was a first. And it was very kind of you.”
Josiah smiled, looked down to the beach, where a few people were wandering about, gathering stones. The grunion were gone -- either grabbed for dinner or returned on their own to deeper water.
“That’s what folks do,” he said. “Or at least what they should. I’m a firm believer in kindness. Comes with the territory.”
He held out his hand, and I shook it.
“Glad to know you,” I said, for indeed I was. It was uncommon, in my experience at that point, to encounter a stranger as willing to not only impart kindness, but to embrace it.
"And I you," he said. He smiled at Susan and me. "Be good to one another. Only through shared experience can you maximize your time on Earth."
There was a sadness there; a wistfulness -- an unspoken reference to a past he hadn't shared with us. I could only wonder what it might have entailed; how long and fruitful his marriage might have been; how long before and under what circumstances his wife had passed; and what regrets he might still be harboring.
But my thoughts were fleeting, and we parted, Sue and I and the boys heading south, and Josiah disappearing into our personal history.
And he has stayed with me in memory all of these years -- a guidepost of sorts, a man whose core of kindness, tinged with sadness, has rung down through the ages.
It was a weird sort of timing, that "West Wing" line about adventure. It got me thinking about that 1979 trip, and about Washington, D.C., and inevitably about Susan. And it coincided with the passing in the same week (this past March 15) of the woman who gave birth to Susan -- Margaret Pound Bauman, the grandmother of my two youngest sons, and a sort of surrogate mother to me after the death of my own Mom eleven years ago.
And that, of course, prompted reminiscence about Susan and her folks, and about how, at the end of that 1979 journey, Sue and I ended up settling -- at her parents' urging -- in the Southern Tier.
Grandma, as my boys and I called her, was a wise woman -- sweet, but with a knowing edge. She was nearing 91, the last 15-plus years alone after the passing of her husband Oakley. She was, in fact, the first person to whom Susan introduced me the first time I cruised into Odessa in a yellow MG on an Easter weekend back in 1977.
Susan and I had been seeing each other up in Watertown, where we both lived -- she in an apartment with two females, and me in an apartment with some cockroaches after my first marriage had ended.
She hadn’t explained my existence to her parents, and my visit was a bit of a surprise to her, and so she introduced me to her mother like this: “Mom, this is Charlie. He’s crazy.” This took place in the old Country Cards store on Main Street in Odessa, a business owned and operated by Grandma for nearly three decades.
I might have been introduced as “crazy,” but Sue’s Mom seemed to like me anyway, and so put me at ease, and invited me to dinner, and ... well .. that’s how my eventual assimilation into Schuyler County life began.
And across the years, she was unfailingly fair. If riled, she responded firmly; but it took a lot to rile her. She, like Josiah of the California coast, had a core of kindness.
So ... assimilation into her family preceded my entrance into life within Schuyler. That latter came about three years after my first visit to Odessa -- after a couple more years in Watertown, then the trip around the country, then a year outside Ithaca.
Then we moved to Odessa, settling in a house within sight of the Country Cards store.
I'm not absolutely sure what Grandma thought of our 1979 and D.C. adventures. But I strongly suspect, judging by her own life and by my long association with her as her son-in-law, that she saw the raising of a family -- the digging of roots into a firm and stable and nurturing environment -- to be the best of adventures. And that any other experiences -- like trips or temporary moves -- were simply pieces of the whole; squares in a quilt, so to speak.
If that was indeed her belief, I don't think I could argue the point. Whether we each have achieved something of lasting duration is all a matter of personal perspective, and perhaps satisfaction. In my own case, there was nothing of more importance than marriage to Susan, the birth of my sons, and the development of a loving environment where our children could thrive.
Yes, that was all an adventure, my greatest. But it is in the past now -- the boys now grown, Susan long since passed, and now her mother gone, too. My last parental guiding hand ... gone.
I'm sure that living in that past is not the smartest or healthiest thing to do. I tend to exist day to day; to focus on the present. But that can be wearing. So I've been thinking that maybe I am good for one more adventure -- one more square of my life's quilt -- before it is too late.
What shape that experience might take, I don’t know, although I suspect travel would be part of it.
I could try another journey around the country, targeting some old favorite stops -- like that parking lot overlooking the beach in California -- and some new ones. Or maybe a train trip across western Canada is in order, or a visit to Alaska.
It’s food for a great deal of thought. And very tempting, no matter which direction I might choose.
Life lessons we learn ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, March 6, 2022 -- As I write this, I mourn the loss of a loved one.
She’s been gone for more than 17 years now, but every time I reach March 6 -- her birthday -- I mourn anew all that she lost, and all that we lost, with her passing.
Susan Bauman Haeffner, my wife of 27 years, died of a pulmonary embolism related to cancer treatment on Nov. 1, 2004, at the age of 52. If she had lived to the present day, she would now have reached 70.
I don’t know how we might have celebrated that milestone. When I reached 70, I just kind of blanched at the very idea of reaching such an advanced age. I mean, I still felt young.
I don’t know how we would have celebrated, but God, if only we had had the chance to do so.
We have all lost loved ones along the way, but the loss of a spouse who is your best friend is a particularly harsh life lesson to absorb.
I often wished, in the early days after her passing, that it had been me instead. I basically felt like stepping in front of a moving truck.
But reversing the order of our departure from this flying orb we call Earth would just have saddled her with the pain instead.
In time, I learned to accept what is, and simply look forward to the day -- whenever God chooses -- when we meet again.
And I adjusted back to daily life, and continued on in what I think -- I hope -- was a productive, meaningful way. And I, somehow, once again thrived.
Happy birthday, Susan.
And speaking of loss, one kind of a lesser degree -- but nonetheless delivering a life lesson -- came when the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team fell in the Section IV, Class C semifinals to Newfield. The Newfield Trojans went on to defeat Moravia for its second consecutive Class C championship.
Watkins Glen’s Senecas had a spectacular year. After a season-opening loss when they were missing three starters thanks to Covid-19, Watkins won 19 straight games before encountering a talented and determined Newfield squad in that semifinal at SUNY Cortland.
The players were visibly emotional in the game’s immediate aftermath. Understandable, but in retrospect I’m hoping they remember their comeback against Dryden to capture the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School championship, and their resilience in the face of injury -- winning and winning some more after having lost their top scorer for several weeks. They won most of their games handily, and when the other contests among those 19 got close, they found a way to dig deep and prevail.
That they didn’t prevail on their final day detracts, but to me only a little. Every team except one tastes defeat in the postseason.
I could point to a few factors contributing to the outcome of that last game -- one in which they trailed almost the entire time -- but that seems pointless. The bottom line is this: on that day, in that place, the Senecas had simply met their match.
As we all do, at some point in life.
Sometimes, too, a loss doesn’t really seem like a loss -- when a sports team, for instance, is on the rise or ascends to a point higher than observers anticipate.
Or when an illness that we’ve come to associate with death ends up as something life affirming.
On the sports front, I point to this year’s Odessa-Montour girls varsity basketball team, which -- despite a six-game losing streak in the first half of the season -- ended up reaching the semifinals of the Section IV, Class D tournament. Or the Watkins Glen High School boys varsity swim team, which in recent years had too few swimmers to fill all of the races, but this year was second in the IAC Championships and third at the Section IV, Class C meet.
Personally, I point -- thanks to the steady hands at Cayuga Medical Center -- to a remission of the cancer that sent me through chemotherapy and radiation last year. When you’re told you have cancer, you tend immediately to confront mortality. My sons and I discussed an orderly transition if my end was at hand, and one of my boys even cut the distance between my house and his by moving all the way from Asheville, North Carolina, to Takoma Park, Maryland.
But my cancer was chased away, and my hair -- I had gone quite bald -- gradually returned, and my energy level increased. If not for a nagging ankle injury, I would have had the mobility and drive of Odessa File years past -- 19 of them now, and counting.
Will the cancer return? It might, but I don’t dwell on it. I concentrate on living, and on working, and on loving all those who matter so very much to me. In going through a difficult patch, I came out with a greater appreciation of what I have.
Recently I encountered an acquaintance -- a man of substance in Schuyler County, now retired -- who spotted me lunching at a local restaurant. He hadn’t seen me in months, and seemed surprised by my physical appearance compared to the last time he had seen me, when I was bald and a bit gaunt.
“My gosh, Charlie, you’re back!” he enthused.
Well, yes, I am.
For now, anyway. And happy for it.
And ... well ... in no hurry to be reunited with Susan anytime soon.
The Legacy ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 25, 2022 -- The area basketball postseason is upon us, and an important transitional game leading into sectionals paid dividends. The Watkins Glen High School boys varsity squad rallied with a 21-4 fourth quarter -- including an 18-0 run -- to defeat Dryden 64-50 in the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School title game.
That contest, at Tompkins-Cortland Community College, prompted the following poem -- both in appreciation and perhaps as a sort of incentive, or perhaps propulsion, for the Senecas in the Section IV, Class C Tournament. Watkins Glen, which is the top seed and accordingly had a first-round bye, opens Saturday at 6 p.m. against No. 9-seeded Tioga in the WGHS Field House.
The poem -- a form of communication that comes to me at unscheduled and sometimes odd times (but in this case understandably inspired) -- reads as follows.
The wheels were spinning, coming off
The outcome looking dire.
But then the team applied the press,
And raced clear of the fire.
Eighteen straight points they scored that day,
A rally to be prized.
The cheers from Dryden’s faithful
Stilled as Watkins cheers did rise.
When finally the dust did clear
The Senecas had won it.
Triumphal legacy secured,
The Ball Hawks, yes, had done it.
Had won the IAC again,
The third time in a line.
Had prospered in a time of woe
The world in decline.
Thus in an era full of fear
They gave fans such a ride.
In Covid times, they soared up high,
Imbued the Glen with pride.
Watkins Glen is not the only local team in basketball tournament play. Although the Odessa-Montour boys bowed out in the first round of the Class D Tournament, the O-M girls won their opener against Edmeston and next face Schenevus, a school located far to the east, beyond Oneonta. Fortunately, with the No. 4 seed in hand, O-M avoids the drive east by playing host to the No. 5-seeded Dragons at 3:45 p.m. Saturday.
Most eyes, though, are on the WGHS boys squad, which has won 18 straight games after a season-opening loss to the Dryden squad it ultimately defeated for the IAC crown. Coach John Fazzary has a long and storied history at Watkins -- including a state title as coach of the cross-country team -- and has a lot of folks cheering for him to claim his first sectional basketball title in this, his final season before retirement.
Count me in that corner. Go, Senecas!
Coming soon: The Odessa File winter sports All-Stars. The selectees come from all of the sports, mixed together. There will also be a Schuyler Winter Sports MVP.
Farther down the road: our pick of seven outstanding student-athletes from each of the two schools covered: Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen. Last year we called each group a Magnificent 7, or simply The 7. Selection is based on a combination of academics, athletics and character, with recommendations from school officials playing a significant role.
Any suggestions on possible selectees? Let me know.
About those ball hawks ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Feb. 10, 2022 -- I encountered Aaron Thomson the other night up in the Odessa-Montour High School gym. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and wasn’t sure he’d remember me.
He lives outside Odessa now; has a tree service business. He is also coach of the O-M boys junior varsity basketball team.
After his team had defeated Candor that night, he came out of his post-game meeting with his players, and sat in the stands with family behind the O-M bench.
I got his attention, pointed at him, and he pointed back -- and then climbed down from the bleachers to where I was, on the sideline of the court. And we shook hands.
“Long time,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed.
I smiled. “The Wild Bunch,” I said.
And he smiled in turn, and laughed gently. “Yes,” he said. “those were some great days.”
The Wild Bunch was a nickname affixed to the 2005-06 Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team -- a squad, including Aaron Thomson, that went 18-0 in the regular season.
I was so inspired by the joie de vivre and seeming invincibility of that team that I wrote a poem about it after it had won its first seven games. As I wrote in an account called “Schuyler and Me,” which appears elsewhere on this website:
“The poem I wrote envisioned them going unbeaten through the season — they in fact went 18-0 before losing in the postseason — and was titled “The Wild Bunch.” I remember one player’s parent a little upset with that title, thinking it disrespectful, but it wasn’t long before the team had embraced the name, and “Wild Bunch” T-shirts were making the rounds.
“The roster included Conor Flahive, Joe Westervelt, Sam Schimizzi, Brandon Marvin, Tim Rentschler and his twin brother Brian, Jeff Meehan, Steven Combs, Aaron Thomson, Travis Phoenix, Jon Fazzary, John Michael Bianco and Pat Suits.
“The poem went in part like this:
“This grouping -- a basketball team it was called --
Did something quite daring, it losing forestalled.
It won and it won and it won once again,
Until there were no games to lose for these men.
“The names they were given, their tombs will be carved in
A Flahive, a Westervelt, Schimizzi and Marvin.
The things they accomplished, all writ in our tomes
Were done by the Rentschlers and Meehan and Combs.
“The names of the other players were all worked in, and then it concluded:
“The pressure they’d bring, the quick hands and the picks
In the year of our Lord, it was two thousand six.”
The fact that the team went on to lose in the post-season, falling just short of a sectional title, doesn’t diminish from that 18-0. It seemed to be one of those untouchable marks. And maybe it is.
Which brings us to the WGHS boys varsity basketball team of this year, 2021-22. It has gone 17-1 -- its only loss in the season opener, when it played without three starters (Owen Scholtisek, Cameron Holland and Joe Sutterby) due to Covid-19 protocols.
It seems -- seemed then, in fact -- that the game shouldn’t have been played, but hindsight in the Covid era is fruitless, and I suppose pointless. In any event, it was played, and Watkins lost to Dryden, 61-50.
That’s a stark score, for the Senecas almost never give up that many points; and rarely more than 40. You take away three starters before you’ve even gained your sea legs, and bad things can happen.
Since then, the team -- and I stress team, for this is a group that works very well together -- has run off 17 straight victories, some close, and some in runaway fashion, and won the Interscholatic Athletic Conference Large School South Division title. That puts the Senecas in the IAC Large School title game at 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17 at Tompkins-Cortland Community College.
Along the way, they weathered the absence of their top scorer, Adam Pastore, sidelined with an ankle injury from the middle of the regular season to almost its end.
Even without him, they excelled, one player and then another stepping up when needed: Scholtisek, Holland, Sutterby, Mitchell Pike, Jacob Yontz, Luke Spahalski. Beyond them, they have a deep bench with some sharpshooters who have seen limited action: Ryan Bauchle-Willett, Bryce Cady, Gavin Smith and David Kelly III.
This team, by its record, reminds me of The Wild Bunch -- but their demeanor is different. The Wild Bunch seemed looser, a bit irreverant, but always able to bear down when a game was in the balance.
This Bunch -- well, they’re normally off and running, fast break after fast break, steal after steal, from the opening tipoff. They’re quick, and on most nights they’re accurate from long and short range.
Their defense is the key. They’re so determined, so in-the-face of their opponents, that it's hard to tell whether poor shooting by the other team is a matter of a cold night or intimidation -- rushing shots by a fraction enough to throw off the trajectory or aim.
Maybe another poem, or at least a brief verse, might find this team’s gist. We’ll call it The Ball Hawks.
On the road to TC3,
They lost one game, and that a fluke.
Once on the court, their muscles tense,
they race and steal and juke.
Their names ring loud, there's Mitch and Luke,
and Adam, Jake, Cam, Joe and Owen.
In all they do, one fact stands out:
Their rivals are things they like mowing.
They race from the outset, no mercy they show.
They top their foes game after game.
These Watkins Glen Senecas, basketball kings,
Keep running and gunning to fame.
Okay, maybe not a great effort. But in truth, these guys aren’t flashy, except on the court. They possess a seriousness that seems to translate to crisp passes and true shooting and a relentless confidence that helps carry them to wins.
They are not the Wild Bunch. They are their own Bunch. Call them ball hawks. Call them runners. Call them gunners. And call them a pleasure for any fan to watch.
That they haven’t been drawing full houses to the WGHS Field House speaks not of them, but of a downward turn in school spirit in this pandemic era. Games in the Wild Bunch days drew large, gym-packing, enthusiastic crowds. No longer.
The Senecas drew a pretty good-sized crowd recently when they dispatched Waverly, breaking a tie atop their division. But it wasn’t like the old days. The attendance was significantly lower, and so was the decible level. And that’s a shame.
This Bunch deserves the same level of support, of encouragement, that the Wild Bunch received.
But even without it, they win. Seventeen in a row.
I mentioned to Aaron Thomson, that long-ago member of the Wild Bunch, how the first game this season had been played with Watkins Glen shorthanded by three starters due to Covid protocols, and he shook his head.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “It sounds like they should have gone 18-0.”
Which would have equalled The Wild Bunch in record, if not in temperament.
But hey: 17-1 speaks for itself. And greater glory looms -- is out there for the possible plucking by this special group of athletes.
Let’s hope they seize it.
Chapel, coach & creature ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 25, 2022 -- I took particular notice of the press release the other day announcing that the Schuyler County Historical Society had acquired Lawrence Chapel.
That’s an historic little structure out on Route 228 near the Fontainebleau Inn that my wife and I had scouted as a potential site for our wedding back in 1977. It had, alas, been unavailable on the date we needed, so we ended up holding our marriage vows in the old Odessa Baptist Church, which is now a private residence.
But despite the failure to attain the Lawrence Chapel site, it remains part of the lore of Haeffner wedding history, as everything that went into our preparations were special to us and remain special to me to this day.
I’m glad the chapel, deeded in 1972 to the Chemung County Historical Society, is now in the hands of the Schuyler Historical Society, since I have devoted my attention for the past 19-plus years to Schuyler County. It holds center place in my journalistic attention.
And, somehow, the professional and the highly personal have a way of melding, each becoming of import to the other.
Having left the last meeting of the Watkins Glen School Board while its members were in Executive Session -- they have this habit of starting the public meeting and then disappearing for a half-hour or more into a closed room while those others in attendance are left to cool their heels -- I missed the board’s approval of the coming retirement of John Fazzary, a longtime teacher and coach extraordinaire in the school district.
Fazzary will retire at the end of the school year, ending his reign as coach of the boys varsity basketball team, a tenure dating back to 1999-2000. Before that, he coached at Spencer-Van Etten and then as the JV girls coach and JV boys coach at WGHS before assuming the varsity mantle. He has also overseen the cross country program at the school, an effort that has included a state championship.
His basketball tenure has been a run of consistently winning seasons, and this year’s team is among the best he has had, going 12-1 as of this writing despite the loss several games ago of the team’s leading scorer, Adam Pastore, to an ankle injury. The team is deep, with several players capable of stepping up when needed on any given night.
Will this be the year Fazzary snags that sectional basketball title that has been eluding him? Maybe. I certainly hope so.
After that, what comes next for the coach? Will he stay busy?
“Oh, yes,” he said, ticking off days on the golf course and attendance at college basketball games among his interests, along with travel.
Good luck to you, coach. I’ll miss our late-night phone chats we’ve been holding for years after your games. It’s been fun.
The Cleveland Indians are no more. They’re the Guardians. The Washington Redskins are no more. They’re the Washington Football Club.
There is a movement afoot nationally and in our state to eradicate the use of Native American nicknames, mascots and symbols by sports teams -- deemed by their opponents as offensive; as culturally insensitive. That movement applies locally to our two school districts, where Watkins Glen feeds off the heritage of the Seneca Indians, and Odessa-Montour simply feeds off the generic Indians. Together, as in combined football and baseball teams, they have been the Seneca Indians in recent years.
Some of that is apparently going to change. Will have to, really, with pressure coming down from the state.
There have been local discussions about it -- involving administrators, students, and school boards -- across the past couple of years, but the pandemic seemed to slow the effort, putting as it did a crimp in meetings and discussion of non-pandemic-related issues.
The Watkins Glen district has moved noticeably forward in recent weeks, with Superintendent Kai D’Alleva discussing the issue in open session with the School Board. What I took from those talks was this: the district feels it can still be the Senecas by tying into the Seneca Lake culture, jettisoning any Native American mascots, imagery and the like.
D’Alleva thought there could be a tie-in, for example, to an old Seneca Lake legend involving a Loch Ness-like monster that plumbs the lake’s 600-foot depths, but he might have been spitballing on that one. (Nonetheless, the combined Watkins/O-M teams could, I suppose, be the Seneca Serpents.)
Maybe the lake tie-in will work for the Watkins school district; let it keep its Senecas. Maybe not. Up the hill, though, O-M has no such ready-made tie-in. It would seem something more strikingly creative is needed -- a Guardians-like name change.
In the meantime, there are still the Braves in Major League Baseball and the Chiefs in the NFL, and I suspect some minor-league baseball teams that will have to deal with this movement.
I am not judging either way. Since my late Aunt Jean, our family genealogist, said years ago that there was evidence of an Ojibwe Indian in our lineage, I tilt by potential heritage and longstanding sympathy to those who were on this land before the Europeans arrived. (If that Ojibwe heritage is true, it would make me something like 1/64th Native American; a suggestion that prompted me to create a whole new historical perspective in a novel titled The Maiden of Mackinac, about a 700-year-old female Ojibwe figure. So no, this whole debate does not waft softly past my radar. I await local name, imagery and mascot developments with great interest.)
More to the point, if anyone has any suggestions as to what names and mascots the Watkins Glen and Odessa-Montour sports teams might carry, let the districts or this website know.
The passing parade ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Jan. 10, 2022 -- When you run an online newspaper that includes obituaries, you are keenly aware of the passing parade -- of those figures, both significant and little known, who leave the stage of life.
When you’re my age and some of those obituaries pertain to people younger than you are, mortality keeps reminding you that you might be next.
It hits home a little harder when the obituary you are running is of someone you knew and respected.
Of late, that has included a 63-year-old named Craig Lattin (a decade younger than me) and Jim Wilson, a 77-year-old Schuyler County Hall of Famer.
I had known them both for years.
I knew Craig first through our shared love of card collecting: baseball, football, basketball, hockey and golf trading cards. He ran a card shop in Elmira Heights for years; I visited it from time to time, and we always chatted.
I also knew him through his role in the Watkins Glen School District, primarily in his latter years as its high school Dean of Students -- where he was popular among the students, being an empathetic fellow who played life fairly. The students responded to that.
And so did I, stopping in his office from time to time to talk and admire the sports memorabilia displayed on the walls there.
I saw him several times over the past year when we both set up as dealers at sports-card shows near Rochester, and we took the opportunity for further conversations. Again, it came down to our shared love of sports and its related collecting hobby.
When I heard he had died, I was stunned. I didn’t want to believe it, and held out faint hope until his obituary crossed my desk.
I knew Jim Wilson because of his long tenure as the first Executive Director of The Arc of Schuyler. The Arc provided services to my eldest son over the years, so I felt beholden to Jim and all that he had helped create to provide aid to people with developmental disabilities.
Jim’s significance was recognized with his election to the Schuyler County Hall of Fame several years ago. At the time of his induction ceremony, an introduction speech was presented by Margaret Cook, who had worked with him in the past. She said he was a man for whom “good is never good enough.”
He was “innovative, politically intuitive ... reserved, and even shy,” she said, noting that he was known by some as The Hawk “because he never misses a trick.” He also had “tremendous energy, never gives up, but knows when to say when.”
I personally knew Jim in a sort of laid-back, friendly way. I always found him approachable, and kind, and modest considering all he had accomplished in establishing and shepherding The Arc to a position of success and prominence.
When I spotted his obituary, I took a deep breath, and uttered an expletive reflecting my shock and disappointment at losing yet another good person I had known and respected across the years.
At the same time, I had to digest the passing of Betty White, a show business personality of long standing; Sidney Poitier, an actor of great achievement and note, and of comedian Bob Saget. White was almost 100 and Poitier was in his mid-90s, so their deaths were not surprising. Saget was in his 60s -- another passing of someone younger than me.
I never met any of the three, but like so many of us felt as if I knew them.
And then word came of the passing of Michael Lang, the famed Woodstock promoter who made waves around here in the recent past when he tried to establish a Woodstock-styled concert at Watkins Glen International. The effort failed, but along the way I met and interviewed Lang.
Now, he too is gone.
It occurred to me amid all of this that perhaps I should pull up the bedcovers, hide underneath, and in that way avoid the passing parade -- and the mortality that lurks out there.
Then again, I thought: Why bother? We can't stop life and its end result. All any of us can do, upon the death of a Craig Lattin or a Jim Wilson, or anyone else we know, is nod in their direction, recognize that they were significant to us and likely to others, and give them a nod.
A thank you, if you will, for sharing with us, in some meaningful way, the ride on this globe called Earth through time and the cosmos.
And a prayer never hurts.
Photos in text: Craig Lattin (top) and Jim Wilson.
When you least expect it ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 27, 2021 -- In my somewhat jaded old age, I find inspiration to be a fleeting -- well, mostly unattainable -- thing.
I haven’t felt inspired to love in that all-encompassing, nothing-else-matters way in many years.
I haven’t felt the hero-worship of my younger days since, well ... since those younger days. Back then, at home near Detroit, there were the Tigers’ Al Kaline and the Lions’ Bobby Layne and the Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay and ... well, mostly sports figures. The last of those was Catfish Hunter, after I had moved to New York and he had signed with the Yankees. I managed to meet him fleetingly during his Hall of Fame induction weekend.
With all-out love and hero-worship in my past, what I’ve been reduced to is the occasional rare and prized friendship, and an admiration for those people who contribute in manifestly positive ways to society (which rules out all of Congress) or who rise to an occasion.
Sticking with the athletics theme (I also admire writers, musicians and other artists), we have in recent months seen some remarkable risings on the national stage. There was the Milwaukee Bucks’ center, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who rose to stunning heights in leading his team to last season’s NBA championship. Or the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, who was his team’s best pitcher while also hitting 46 home runs last baseball season. Amazing.
On the local stage, we have the occasional high school standout. The Watkins Glen High School boys varsity basketball team -- overall very good -- has among its stalwarts Adam Pastore, who recently poured in 34 points in a game in which he didn’t even play the fourth quarter. And he has followed that up with other impressive games. In fact, he seems to be a consistent force. But in being consistent, he is no longer a surprise.
And this is about a surprise.
I like surprises -- at least those of a positive nature. And one occurred in a recent WGHS girls varsity basketball game, when the Senecas, who had struggled in their first two games, trailed Dryden in their third game by 10 points after scoring just 15 points through the game’s first three quarters.
I was sitting with a friend -- this was in the WGHS Field House -- having taken a number of photographs, and figured the game was essentially over. The shots weren’t falling for the home team, and all seemed hopeless.
Then Jenna Solomon happened. The Watkins junior, a basketball veteran, suddenly (figuratively) donned a cloak normally reserved for fictional superheroes -- and carried her team to the cusp of victory, scoring 13 fourth-quarter points and putting her team -- which had trailed 25-15 entering the period -- ahead by two points, 31-29, with 1:25 to go.
It was a remarkable show of determination, especially after the desultory three periods that had preceded it. Up to that final quarter, Solomon had connected on one lone 3-pointer as the entire team struggled to find the net. In those closing minutes, though, she hit another long-distance shot, put up strong inside shots, and converted several free throws.
To look at the scorebook’s fourth quarter is striking. The Senecas scored 16 points in the period, more than equalling their total of the first three periods. But most noticeable was the mass of points in the Solomon column. Only two other players on her team scored in the quarter, one on two free throws, and one on one free throw.
The rest was all Solomon -- a 3, a trio of 2’s and four free throws.
Yes, I’ve seen the equal in terms of a single period’s worth of points from time to time, but I can’t recall one person carrying a team in such stunning fashion from the doldrums to the edge of victory.
That her team actually lost 32-31 -- Dryden tied the game with a field goal a minute from the end, and won it on a free throw with just 11 seconds left -- does not diminish for me the impact of what I watched; the surprise and pleasure I experienced in witnessing it.
The loss that after three quarters had appeared inevitable did, indeed, come to pass, but the circumstance of the defeat had changed so remarkably. It was disappointing, in the end, but not depressing.
It was a loss amid resilience, determination, and, yes, heroics.
And as a fan, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.
As of Dec. 29, I will have been operating this website -- this online newspaper -- for 19 years. I’ve told my sons I should ask every reader out there to send along $1 for each of those years -- at least those who have yet to donate to the cause. But of course I was kidding. Just wait until next year, when I reach 20. Then we’ll talk ....
And here’s hoping that next year is better than the one just concluding. Between my last surviving aunt’s passing, the loss and replacement of one of my crowns, and then cancer and chemo ... well, it was a personally challenging year. As it was for all of us, beset as we have been with the rise and fall and rise of Covid.
Let’s hope for something better in 2022.
Happy New Year.
Masking up is hard to do ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Dec. 8, 2021 -- As I walked into a junior varsity basketball game last week at Odessa-Montour High School, I encountered the varsity coach, Greg Gavich, whose team would be opening its season against Trumansburg there in the O-M gym as soon as the JV game was concluded.
I looked around, and saw people in the bleachers on both sides of the court. The bleachers weren’t full, by any means, and the size of the crowd was nothing like a good home football game brought. But it was significant, and Gavich put it in perspective.
“This is the first basketball game with spectators here in 645 days,” he said.
My head snapped up to look at him. I had forgotten. Last year, no spectators were allowed in the gyms for any games anywhere around here. Those gyms were oddly quiet, with only the calls of the players and the coaches and the officials in the air -- all taken in by me and my camera, located at one end of the court, the rare non-athlete or non-coach allowed to view what traditionally is designed for the applause and calls of encouragement from a faithful fandom.
“Six hundred forty-five,” I repeated.
“Yep,” he said.
And I smiled, marveling at how we -- despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic -- have adjusted; have decided to venture out where once we were essentially in lockdown. Not that all evidence of our caution has been thrown to the wind, for everyone in that gym was wearing a face-mask. Was required to by school officials.
Yes, that’s certainly an impediment to performance, what with ballplayers and officials running back and forth, up and down the court, their lungs reaching for air as the pace intensifies.
The parents of one player noted how their daughter, a member of one of the two varsity teams that night, found it difficult to maintain proper breathing while playing with a mask on -- how she would work up a sweat that would induce the mask to more than cover her face; it would adhere tightly to it, sweat to sweat, causing her to slow and, on occasion, pull the mask free of skin.
Perhaps she changed masks -- a dry one for the wet one -- during the competition; I don’t know.
But there was no arguing the rule, for coverings are considered by the schools to be essential -- if not in other places where the public might gather. (A point of order here: while almost all of the basketball players follow the rule, on occasion one might be wearing the mask like a chin strap, with mouth and nose unobstructed. If there is a rule, it seems as though the referees should enforce it. A technical foul on a chin-strapper might go a long way toward that enforcement.)
Anyway, impediment or not, I have to consider such a rule a good thing, especially when considering the long-term and stubborn nature of the various mutating bacteria that have altered our way of life -- and which, judging from the most recent numbers, are on the definite rise in Schuyler County: 91 cases in a five-day period, with the 19th and 20th related deaths.
Go into any big store, though, and you’re likely to see an easy majority of folks not bothering with a mask. Not that I should judge, because I find myself running quick errands maskless at the nearby post office or Dandy store. I do mask up, though, when going into a larger establishment, where I encounter more people and a likely enhanced chance to contract Covid.
So even I, a masker, violate this basic safety precaution. Depending on who you talk to, a mask is either pointless or essential; I err on the side, most of the time, of caution. Maybe my lapses in masking up are holdovers from my long-ago teen years, when I thought myself impervious to serious illness -- a notion that should have been dispelled by now, considering my recent bout with cancer.
(And for those who haven’t been keeping track on that front, I was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma -- discovered in my upper right gum in the spring. The summer -- normally a time for travel to my beloved Michigan Island, Bois Blanc -- was instead a period of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The end result is this: my hair, which disappeared, has regrown, and the cancer has gone into remission -- hopefully on a permanent basis. The only notable shortcoming remaining is a fatigue that strikes periodically. But part of that is probably age, since I am far beyond being a spring chicken.)
But back to masks.
Considering the circumstances, and the possible consequence (illness or death) of going around bare-faced, it seems prudent to wear one in public.
I, for one, will try to do better.
Even at the post office and small stores.
I won't have to think about doing it, though, at indoor high school sporting events. That's one little corner of our world where the decision has been made for us.
The house-color game ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Nov. 13, 2021 -- Color can soothe the soul.
Well ... the right color can. Which in my case -- it turns out -- is light slate gray, with a modest blue overtone.
That’s the color my son Jon and I decided on, finally, in the painting of our house in Odessa.
The house, for as long as I can recall -- which means since I moved in some forty years ago -- was white with maroon shutters. It has a whole different personality now.
But getting there was a challenge.
That’s because colors are tricky. You look at photos online of other houses painted in colors you think you might like, and you get hold of some swatches of colors and pick ones you think might reflect what those pictures showed ... and disappointment and even mortification can set in.
We started with a sky blue that was just not right, once we got it and saw it in its gallonage. Then we tried going darker, and the painters applied the new mix to the front of the house ... and it looked like a clown show, or at least a cautionary tale about trusting color swatches. It was bright and loud and ... well ... practically neon, when compared to the rest of the houses in the village.
That night, I encountered a woman who said she liked the color on the house, to which I replied: “You do? I don’t.” Which I suppose both surprised her and confused her -- for why would it be painted that way if I didn’t like it? (In retrospect, I think she was just being polite in complimenting it.)
The next day, I approached the painters and asked if anyone whose house they had painted had ever changed their mind after the first coat was applied, and wanted it covered with a second coat of a different color.
“Once,” was the answer.
“Well,” I said, “it’s about to happen a second time.”
Before choosing a new color, we got a couple of different samples and put them on small areas of a side wall ... and chose the light slate gray with the blue overtone that covers the house now.
We were determined to continue following those online photos, though, and decided on a dark blue for trim. But as soon as it was applied to our four front windows, I blanched again. This time it looked like four mouths with really bad dark-blue lipstick. And we asked again that it be painted over.
My son and I finally decided to forgo any trim other than white. And we decided to jettison any shutters, since now I wasn’t at all sure what color they should be. Besides, the shutters we had had on the house in the past were starting to rot out, and would have required some repair work beyond the painting. If I decide on any in the future, I’ll buy them new.
So ... finally ... simplicity ruled the day. And the house does not look like a clown show or bad lipstick.
It looks pretty cool. And beyond that, the painters used roughly a boatload of caulking and repaired a facia board and applied new shingling where it was needed.
And so, in the end, the missteps were worth it.
I, for one, don’t want to live in a clown show. And I’m not big on bad-blue lipstick.
No, in the end we all take a certain pride in our living environment ... or should. The fact that I waited so long to upgrade the exterior of mine is a mystery I haven’t consciously mined.
I’m just glad that something triggered it. Maybe it was the obvious need for scraping and priming -- not to mention painting -- on the weather sides of the house: the north and west. Maybe it was a newfound perspective brought on by my experience with cancer. That shook things up.
The paint job will, I suspect, lead to other upgrades.
And why not? It seems to have yielded positive results.
For now, though, the bottom line is this:
You can color me pleased.
A cast of characters ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 28, 2021 -- The persistent rain the other day and night kept me inside most of the time. Oh, I went out to get a few pictures, but for the most part I hunkered down. Being stalked by a low-grade illness, staying put seemed the most prudent course, anyway.
And being hunkered down, I turned ruminative. And being ruminative, I looked backward many years to an era very important to my development as a journalist: a near-decade working for the Watertown (NY) Daily Times -- my first job out of college.
I graduated from Albion College in the south central part of Michigan, but ended up in Watertown because that was the hometown of my first wife. It was also but a half-hour from Canada, which I had been considering -- in my youthful, idealistic, revolutionary phase -- relocating to.
I stayed put in Watertown, though, and was influenced along the way by a cast of characters whose lessons have stayed with me across these many years. I began work there in 1970, and concluded it in 1979.
There were gentlemen there who had made journalism their lifelong vocation, and were nearing the end of their careers. Some were reporters --such as John Pepp, who was in charge of obituaries, preparing many well in advance of the demise of notable people, so that detailed accounts of their lives would be ready at a moment’s notice when the time came. I always thought that was a little creepy, John spending most of his time anticipating death.
There was an elderly business writer, a middle-aged (leaning toward elderly) county government reporter, an elderly general assignment reporter, and so on. Outside of the family that owned the paper, the Johnsons, there was a man at the top who was the Executive Editor -- a cigar-chewing, craggy, intimidating presence named Gordon Bryant who joined the Daily Times while still in high school and had one role or another, including consultant, until his passing at the age of 94. When I worked there, he was closing in on 80.
As I arrived, the newspaper was in the midst of evolving -- of shedding some of the old guard and bringing on the new, which included folks of my generation. One of the youth brigade was the education writer, one covered city hall, one was the police reporter, and a handful occupied bureaus in nearby communities like Carthage, Canton, Potsdam, Massena and Ogdensburg.
I started out in Carthage, covering that village and West Carthage, which was just across the Black River from it. I was in Carthage for a year before being installed in the main newsroom. Despite the presence of the very elderly Bryant, it was in essence run by a courtly, less elderly (but nearing retirement age) gentleman named Fred Kimball, the City Editor. Fred was easy to work for -- an understanding fellow who tolerated the growing pains of the new guard.
Nothing ruffled his feathers -- but there was one telling story about him that indicated the steel in the man.
The story goes that an irate reader of importance invaded the newsroom to complain loudly about some news coverage -- directing his wrath at Fred, who as City Editor controlled the news flow. Fred listened quietly until finally, cutting the man off, he patiently explained that his hand, curled under the edge of his desk, was primed to pull a lever that would open a trap door underneath the man. “If you don’t leave right now,” he said, “I’ll pull the lever and you will drop to the first floor.” The loud complainer backed up, stunned, and stormed off. And Fred received a standing ovation from staff members who had observed the confrontation.
But it was Fred’s underling who fascinated -- and still fascinates -- me: a man named G. Robert “Bobby” Farmer.
Bobby was, when I arrived, the Assistant City Editor, although it was my understanding that he was not paid commensurate with the title. He was happy to be acknowledged as Assistant; had lobbied for the use of that appellation. In any event, Bobby was a short -- I think 5 feet 6 might have been an exaggeration -- and cherubic looking fellow with a bright disposition. He was a kindly soul, but you could sense the steel in him, too; and you could visually see the stress of the job in the little tics around his mouth and in his excessive blinks.
When Fred Kimball finally retired during my tenure there, Bobby -- who had started at the paper as a reporter in 1951 -- got the title he had long coveted, City Editor, and the salary to go with it. I worked near the man, all told, for a couple thousand days, and learned to respect his editing skills and his ability to pressure reporters at deadline without setting them off. As deadline neared and a reporter was still pecking at his typewriter -- this was just before the advent of the computer in the newsroom -- Bobby would walk by as the writer completed a paragraph, pull the paper out, carry it back to his desk and edit it. He would then repeat the maneuver from paragraph to paragraph until time was up and the copy in its entirety had to be sent out to the composing room.
Deadlines were sacred things: nerve tingling, stress inducing, and wholly necessary to the multi-faceted production of a newspaper from newsroom to composing room to the press, and from there out the door to the men and women entrusted with delivering it around the region.
Bobby, being a generation ahead of me, was not part of the clique to which I gravitated. He was often delivered to work by his wife, Jean, and at day’s end, she would pick him up. If memory serves, he lived in Cape Vincent, outside the city; or else was from there originally; or perhaps both.
When I left the paper to travel the country and ultimately relocate to the Southern Tier in 1979, one person whose guidance and example I knew I would miss would be Bobby Farmer’s. And I did. Whenever I thought of the Watertown Times, his was the first face that would pop up in my mind.
As the years passed, I worked for nearly a decade at the Elmira Star-Gazette, and then moved on to writing novels and dabbling in the sports memorabilia market. Then, in mid-January of 1994, I received word: Bobby Farmer had left work the day before, traveling down the small elevator near the front of the building from the second-floor newsroom to the ground-floor business office, where he sat in a visitor’s chair near the reception desk to await the arrival of his wife.
And there he was stricken. A stroke felled him and, as I heard it, killed him almost instantly. He was 64.
I had not been back to Watertown for several years, but felt compelled to make the trip for Bobby’s funeral.
At calling hours, I stood over his open casket and just stared at him, finally saying: “Oh, Bobby. We’ve come to this.” And I wept.
I hesitated to approach his wife, thinking that we had never been close and that, in any event, I had not resided in Watertown for 15 years and she might not even remember me. But when I approached her to introduce myself and express my condolences, she spotted me before I reached her and said, almost in a wail: “Oh, Charlie. What a terrible week I’m having!”
And she gave me a bear hug.
As we go through life, we are impacted by people who might not achieve greatness on a regional or world stage. But their importance to us -- to how we develop and see the world -- can be great in and of itself.
Bobby Farmer was one such person. Small in physical stature, he looms large in memory. Unassuming as he was, the force of his kindness lives on in my mind. And as a man who achieved his dream job -- his goal in life -- he was a rousing success.
I see some of Bobby in myself, especially where the job is concerned. I always wanted to work for myself, and to write, and to be able to survive in the doing. The Odessa File, while starting out as an experiment, has provided that dream job and kept me writing for nearly 19 years.
I did not become the big league baseball player I envisioned as a child; nor the successful novelist I thought would be an achievement at the top of the world.
But what I have done in my journalism career -- a good deal like Bobby Farmer did -- puts me, I think, somewhere in the success category.
And that isn’t bad.
Graduating here & there ...
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, Oct. 11, 2021 -- Every birthday feels like a graduation.
If they issued them, I would have been given a diploma Sunday, Oct. 10 for making it through another in a growing number of years.
Sunday was my 73rd such milestone -- marked by an unbelievable number of well-wishers on Facebook and through Messenger.
Thanks to all who thought of me. I appreciate it.
Now, to segue:
Speaking of graduations, I received a diploma last week from the Radiology Department at Cayuga Medical Center for completing my 20 rounds of radiation treatments.
Now, with chemo and radiation in my rearview, I get a few weeks off before returning for scans and tests and, on the side, some dental work. All fun stuff.
With any luck the lymphoma won’t return, but if there’s one thing I learned from my wife’s passing, it’s this: cancer is unpredictable.
Not that I particularly fear it; I think I’m a little more leery of Covid. It has, after all, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Anyway, one of the remnants of my radiation was a mesh mask that was used to lock my head down on a gurney during each treatment, so I couldn’t move. It’s a creepy, Halloween-style mask that deserves my thanks, but at the same time is so freaky that I feel like imparting a little violence its way.
They told me at Radiology that most patients feel that way, and that some have been known to burn their masks, or blow them up, or run over them with a car, or shoot them.
I haven’t decided its fate yet.
Kudos to the Stegner and Schubmehl kids, who raised $1,001 for the Spirit of Schuyler through the sale of cookies and lemonade at the Grand Prix Festival.
What a marvelous thing to do.
It gives me hope that the upcoming generations might do better than the older ones have.
This coming Friday night’s football game between the once-beaten Seneca Indians and unbeaten Waverly is, in the words of SI Coach Trevor Holland, “huge.”
The 4-1 Seneca Indians -- a combined team of Odessa-Montour and Watkins Glen high school athletes -- has lost only to powerful Tioga, and won its last game 47-13 against a state Honorable Mention team, Cobleskill-Richmondville. State-ranked Waverly (6-0) swamped Dryden in its last game, 46-7.
Both the Seneca Indians and Waverly are in Section IV Division 5, along with Dryden (0-5) and Chenango Valley (1-4). Whoever wins this one should win the division.
It will be played on O-M’s Charles Martin Field as part of the Odessa-Montour Homecoming. The following week, the Seneca Indians will host Dryden on Watkins Glen High School’s Alumni Field as part of the WGHS Homecoming.
You might or might not have noticed that two more people have been added to The Essentials (Essentials), a group of Schuyler residents or former residents who have impacted life here in a positive way. None of them are in the Schuyler County Hall of Fame, but might someday be there.
The latest two are Olympian rower Olivia Coffey and the late Nelson Beebe, who was an outstanding and influential teacher at Odessa-Montour High School.
There are now 30 Essentials, evenly divided between men and women.
Nominations for inclusion in the group are always welcome. Just send me the name and some background information on the individual in question, and he or she will be considered by the selection committee. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail mail me at The Odessa File, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.
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