ON THE ROOFTOPS

September 25, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com
ahgunther@yahoo.com

 In the early Gotham years of the 1900s, and into that century until about the time of the great post-war escape to the country, a Sunday gathering of women on tenement rooftops to hang washing was more than ritual. It was social. It was cathartic.
     There are "Ash Can School" paintings of this, the wash whitened by bleach and red-hand scrubbing in sinks used for cooking, too, or in shared hallway baths. 
     Women, hard-worked day-in, day-out, gathered in sympathy and short weekly escape on the rooftops, breezes from the East River, the Hudson or the Battery drying not only wash but long hair let loose like the women's emotions. 
     There was understanding among them on these Sundays for a time apart from husbands, children and dark, sometimes windowless rooms. The rhythm of the week, dreary enough, was broken in common with other women.
     Conversations had, secrets shared, words only spoken in this Sunday society.  Laughter at absurdity.
     It was city life in a moment of time, an encounter group of sorts, reaffirmation of sisterhood.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

                           -30-

‘WE WALK TOGETHER’

September 18, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     In a September-near-fall when colored leaves drop in nostalgic scent, some of us can forget the crazy world of war, death, climate, challenged democracy. Some don’t have the luxury since they are caught up in what is not working, what is frightening.

     It has been so every just-pass-summertime throughout history, of course, even worse than in 2022. So there is hope.

     The autumns of my own life are now many, and there is luxury in that, for there is  memory of getting apples and peaches and cider from the old farm stands, the long-gathered scent of aged beams inside, the free apple barrel, the fill-it-yourself cider that must be drank before it hardens. Or not.

     In youth, there is chasing fallen leaves on sidewalks after the high school football games. A bit later in life, if you are lucky, there is the trip in the early evening chill to your girlfriend or boyfriend and sitting together warmly on a couch wondering what the future holds. If it does.

     There is the restart of school and the rush to grow up, the latter regretted in later life. Why the speed of youth? We wish we were there again.

     Lovers of the warm, the heat of summer, regret the move to fall, and some relocate to states where there is nothing but the hot season. As is their choice.

     Not among them, I choose to grab the flannel shirt hanging too long in closet, seeing breath on chilly mornings, no longer looking forward to snow and its danger but instead thankful that in a crazy world there still is – for some – the briskness of an autumn day. It’s a visit with an old friend. We walk together.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

                           -30-   

TO NEVER FORGET

September 11, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

There is rhythm to our lives, and when it is seriously interrupted, the beat changes forever. And so it was with September 11, 2001.

When  9/11 hit in terroristic horror 21 years ago, I was in the West Nyack newsroom of the former Rockland Journal-News, just 20 miles from the World Trade Center. As Editorial Page Editor, I had been at my desk since 4 a.m., getting advance pages and copy ready. My day, like any of us then, quickly changed. So did thousands of lives. Forever.

The newspaper, as all media, scrambled at 8:45 a.m., even as we shook our heads and kept glancing at the TV images of the Twin Towers ablaze, the tragedy at the Pentagon, the smoking field in Pennsylvania when United Flight 93 crashed after courageous passengers diverted the plane from its D.C. target.

Later that Tuesday, there would be much crying in Rockland County over the loss of area civilians, New York City firefighters and NYPD and Port Authority police officers who were among the dead in the attacks.

About 3,000 individuals of all race and creed, economic and immigrant background and political persuasion were killed in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In death, we are all the same, a lesson not easily learned among the living.

Funerals after funerals followed, many for those whose bodies could not be found, and they continue today for the 9/11 responders and others who developed cancer from building debris.

Communities noted hometown heroes like Welles Remy Crowther, an equity trader and “The Man in the Red Bandana,” who selflessly rescued people in the Twin Towers and died as the Upper Nyack, N.Y., volunteer firefighter he proudly was.

Area municipalities now have annual memorials.

The War on Terror began, and trillions have been spent on the battle, not all of it accounted for.  Sadly, some have profited either financially or by using this long moment of national, human tragedy to push the prejudice of painting all of one kind with a single brush.

Too few have noted that hatred, which is endemic to humankind, helped bring on 9/11, and that such crop is fertilized if democracies lose their moral compass and encourage neglect of the citizenry by supporting dictators or oligarchs when that is convenient and if countries do not speak up for decency and act according to their stated creed. Hate grows then, with the hungry easily persuaded through false promise.

At my old newspaper on that fateful day, we did what we were trained to do – present the who, what, when, where, how, why of the terrorist attacks. We wrote the stories, including the sad but uplifting reports of heroism and humanity, presented graphic images and offered commentary.

The Journal-News, and much media, had done this before, of course, covering world wars, natural disasters, death and destruction. That is the beat of information delivery. *What we in the newsroom of my time did not expect was that our heartbeats would change, our rhythm would be different after Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The newsroom of December 7, 1941, had its own blips on the world timeline oscilloscope, and now we of succeeding generations understood, too, about the horror of sudden attack on a nation but also the reaffirming heroism of so many of its people.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

                              – 30-

LABOR DAY EXAMPLE

September 4, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

On this Labor Day of late sleeping, barbecues, beach trips and general laziness for many but the same-old, same-old for those who are not “honored” but must toil, a memory trip back 123 years ago recalls a man, Hugh Bonner, who created an example of the best of any who do “labor.”

Bonner, the ever-demanding New York City fire commissioner who docked two subordinates’ pay for being a few minutes’ late, established standards and a sense of responsibility in the FDNY.

An immigrant who survived the notorious Five Points hellhole in Manhattan to become the first Irish-born chief of department and whose fire prevention writings, still in the Library of Congress, include “Tenement House Fire Escapes in New York and Brooklyn,” Bonner demanded and got excellence in meeting fire safety standards. His modus operandi was to prevent fires, not just fight them. Firefighting was an ever-growing science, and he preached it by example.

He and fellow immigrant John Bresnan were firefighter heroes, each having saved lives on several occasions, according to the excellent work, “So Others Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest” (Terry Golway, Basic Books 2002). They were inventors and perfectors of equipment still in use today, such as the sliding pole, water tower and the life-saving net. Bonner formed the first true training school for firefighters.

These two never missed a major blaze, directing individually at the scene and setting an example for the ranks. Most of all, they emphasized the necessity of establishing a more scientific firefighting force, the need for building design changes and the use of ever-more sophisticated fire response apparatus and on-site water supply, such as standpipes.

Day after day, and more accurately night after night, Bonner would review what happened at a fire scene so as to learn from the experience. He noted how light and air shafts in tenements served as treacherous flues in terrible blazes and pushed legislation to require changes in design.

On March 17, 1899, St. Patrick’s Day, a very holy one for an Irishman, he and fellow firefighters left the line of march after a blaze began at the seven-story Hotel Windsor. The Fifth Avenue scene quickly became one of great disaster as guests jumped from windows, though some used safety ropes, a requirement pushed by the likes of Chief Bonner. He took “personal command of the fire at an early stage,” as Golway puts it, Bonner noting later, “There was not a fire-proof thing in the place, and absolutely nothing to check the spread of flames all over the building once they gained a certain amount of headway.” The chief blamed outdated construction and was quick to incorporate that message in his dealings with the city and Albany.

Bonner, as chief of department, as fire academy leader, as fire commissioner, would fight a never-ending battle with politicians and profit-oriented developers to secure better fire safety in buildings. His political fight would cost him his job as department chief, with President Theodore Roosevelt sending him to Manila to set up that city’s fire department.

When Bonner returned to become the sixth NYC fire commissioner in 1908, he had a clear agenda in mind: fire safety, no ifs, ands or buts. That in these 100 years since there have been tragic fires caused by poor building design and shoddy construction; that the great FDNY itself has not always kept to standards insisted upon by such pioneers as Bonner and Bresnan; that the best equipment (radios, ropes, GPS locators) has been denied the Bravest cannot be tied to Bonner’s legacy.

If he were alive today, Bonner would personally look out for his men. He would know what dangers any building presented, since he made a habit of watching their construction. And there is no way a standpipe would have been severed, as happened in the Deutsche Bank fire that claimed two firefighter’s lives in 2007 as the 9/11–damaged building was being torn down.

Bonner held to personal, on-the-job responsibility to the end, succumbing to pneumonia, “the result of exposure at his post, while devising new methods and establishing new standards of efficiency demanded by the city’s increasing fire hazards,” as a March 14, 1908, New York Times editorial put it.

Chief/Commissioner Bonner demanded accountability and learned from experience, perfecting the art of firefighting so that both civilians and the Bravest even today are less likely to be slaughtered by irresponsibility and neglect. That makes the man one to be well respected on this Labor Day 2008.

The writer, a retired newspaperman, is a descendant of Hugh Bonner.

This essay is adapted from an earlier version.

-30-

CUPCAKES: ‘ANTIDOTE’?

August 28, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     There are in this life moments when you need a cupcake. Down day, low energy or maybe you just want to celebrate breathing. Back in the day, my father, who did the grocery shopping in a two-worker family, usually bought a weekly supply of Ann Page delights from the A&P, or, occasionally, the full deal from Tancos Bake Shop.

     It was with mouth watering and visions of those old cupcakes that I recently headed for a local place offering the 2022 version of chocolate with white icing. Not sure if the top was buttercream, as it once was, but the bottom was round as a cupcake is supposed to be. Otherwise, it was difficult to recognize.

     The cupcake was half the size of an Ann Page or Tancos variety, shrunk by the ravages of inflation though the cost was $3.50, a lot more than the 10-15 cents back when I was young. Traditionally, cupcakes are teacup sized, hence the name.  

     The initial savoring of my downsized version was the same as in my youth despite shrinkage and topping. Fresh, satisfying in the moment, but just not a long-enough moment. I wasn’t going to fork over another $3.50 to bring myself back to halcyon days of yore when cupcakes were full-size, so in the end I was left unfulfilled. You should have time to think over your cupcake. 

     These are difficult days for the world – war, viruses, failed politics, climate change, greed. There aren’t enough cupcakes for all in the moment, and the truth is that in good times and bad, too many have never had the pleasure of adequate food, let alone dessert, given continuing world poverty.

     American politicians in the 1920s used to promise a “chicken in every pot.” Maybe they should have required standards for cupcake dimensions that would never change. And the Federal Reserve should have moved against the delight’s inflation.

     Who knows? A cupcake a day, full size, might just be an antidote to it all.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman.

                  -30-

RED LIGHT FOR ALL

 

August 21, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     For many decades, from the very first automobiles, when horse-drawn wagons and carriages were still about, there was a right-turn path at a stoplight intersection in a little hamlet not far from me. It seemed to offend no one; I can recall no newspaper reports in my time as a journalist of accidents at the intersection. 

     Yet now, as “progress” continues in what is now suburbia approaching an urban-suburban existence, the “free-to-go” right-turn path has been removed in favor of a corner planting, which may go to weed if there isn’t a regular municipal work order for same.

     Now, in the great scheme of things – Covid, greed, war, democracy threatened – who should care that some motorists now must wait in line at a stoplight rather than slide to the right and take the path, subject only to a “Yield” sign?

       Why care? Because the path was “free,” taking it reminded you that sometimes in this hectic world you can get a pass, not have to wait in a traffic line, just be careful and yield. Small thing, but sort of like having a school snow day or, as a child, staying up late.  

     We all need a breather. Can’t always have the rules ruling us.

     I imagine that the intersection has been converted to a four-way traffic-light stop and the right-turn path eliminated so as to meet federal/state funding rules, or to reduce liability to municipalities in this over-litigated world.

     Whatever. I will miss the path no longer to be taken at Middletown Road and Central Avenue, Pearl River, N.Y.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman.

                               -30-

THE STASH

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

    With recent early-morning temperatures hitting numbers not seen in months and with – hopefully – no more awful heat waves in sight, our house furnaces and boilers will soon be ready to kick in. For me, the change involves more than a turn of the thermostat dial. There is a memory journey as well.

     Back when I didn’t worry about such things as heating, when the cocoon of early childhood had others taking care of room and board, my only assignment was to watch for the coal man.

     In that time, before there was a massive bridge connecting interstate carpets on both sides of the mighty Hudson River in my lower New York State region, before the hustle-bustle age, we lived in a sleepy community –  Spring Valley – population perhaps 4,500, though summer saw that tripled, maybe quadrupled, since there were seasonal bungalow colonies.

     Our cherished quiet time returned in September, and the assuring hum of small-town life as well, with its Main Street shops, two small public elementary schools, a few small religious schools, one high school, a collection of doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals whose family names had long been known by residents, and the village regulars all communities have and without which there is no small town, USA.

     One regular was the coal delivery man, from Comfort Coal, Beckerle Lumber or the other outfits that received their anthracite and bituminous lumps by Erie rail car. Living at 14 Ternure Ave., corner of Summit, at age 5, I watched for him.

    I would sit on the mound of grass near  small Mountain Pink flowers, day-dreaming as a past time and always an obsession, one ear cocked for the sound of truck gears changing as the coal man’s rig climbed Ternure’s hill.

     The delivery fellow would pull into the gravel driveway and stop next to the Mountain Pinks. I would run and tell my grandfather or grandmother, and they would open the coal chute door above the basement bin. Then the deliveryman would connect a metal chute to his truck and begin shoveling supply into the chute and down into the cellar. The bin would always reach the same level, as the man had done his job for so long and was quite good at it, another community constant.

     When the fellow was finished and had his chute back on the truck, but before he hopped in his cab and left, he would come over to me, give me a lump of shiny coal and tell me to bury it for a day when I might need it as a big boy or an adult, probably when I had to provide my own room and board.

     I did what he said, and if anyone cares to dig into the dirt on that little hill at 14 Ternure, the east side of the house, they surely would find my stash of coal, buried there numerous times.

    That home, long gone from the family, now has natural gas for heating, not coal, and there are no such delivery men in what is no longer a small village, nor a small county. “Progress” relentlessly has been on the march, but if it ever stops, I know where my rainy day savings account lies.

    The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier piece.

                             -30-

THE HEAT

August 7, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

The rule of thumb is that the dog days of August are to be endured, that autumn will bring relief along with the wondrous color of falling leaves. But all this is hooey if August is also June and July, September too. At least in the Northeast where we have been baking with so little rainfall that drought may soon be an unwelcome visitor.

Call it climate change because that’s what it is, naysayers aside. They bake, too, and if they want to attribute dog days – months – to fake news, they’re still gonna be hot.

The idiocy of it all is that addressing climate change would not only make more people more comfortable – save lives, really – but it would provide jobs, a rising standard of living, a renewal of the declining middle class.

Green energy, green space, green rooftop gardens to absorb the sun, as well as solar fields, would reduce the heat sink and protect the ozone layer.

Common sense. The roadblock is greed, those who profit off climate change denial and resuscitation of our earth.

A special hot hell for them.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

                     -30-

‘IRISH PHILOSOPHY’

July 31, 2022

By Arthur H.Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     The Irish lady from North County Dublin looked less than chipper, unusual for this get-it-done woman with a sharp sense of right and wrong and a non-nonsense approach to living. She was in the later years, not “old” yet by her definition but past the trials and tribulations of marriage and raising children. Now the day was gone through with the smaller routine of housework for one, with the tea drinking set in its regularity, and in the damp the fire set too.

      So, I wondered without leaping at a question as to why Mary was not quite up to the usual wit and a disapproving eye at the ready. Leaping with that question might  be intrusive, you see.

    Instead, at my regular visit, I waited for the call to sit by the fire, tea at the ready. I have a number of acquaintances, all of whom have their habits, and I find comfort in joining in. I am not a constant tea drinker, but I do so with Mary. My buddy Ginny and I used to have wine, also not a favorite, but it sure fit the occasion and the conversation. 

     It’s nice to have variety.

     Mary took her tea – milk, sugar, the pot in a cozy, the fire grossly inefficient but in this setting as comforting as a good, long conversation during an uncomplicated drive on rural roads. There are few stop signs, hardly any lights to interrupt the flow.

I waited for Mary to speak, and that she did 10 or so minutes into the sitting. “Now, Arthur,” she said, “Sadness is upon me.” I asked her why since she had opened the door to the now, not-intrusive question. “Well, I don’t quite know the why of it. It could be the slowing of my rhythm as I am getting on,” Mary spoke.

     “So what do you do about this sadness that is, as you describe, “upon you?,” I asked.

     “Oh, it will leave, just as an arthritis ache goes after its unwelcome visit. That is why I do not say “I am sad.” If I were so, that would be a condition. Mine is not. Sadness is upon me, but will go.

     Irish philosophy, that.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman.

                              -30-

A ‘SOUND’ MEMORY

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     If you are fortunate before you grow up, you’ll get to spend a few years with a patient, somewhat quiet, a bit odd grandfather like I did, who had a knack for fixing almost anything with a pocketknife or a squirt of oil from the old-style cans, made of metal with a long spout. You pressed the bottom, which was made of spring steel, and out came the oil. My grandfather could handle so many household problems with basic tools that it became a metaphor for building confidence.

     To this day, the sound of the popped oil can brings me to a place where I did not pay bills, where I was fed without cooking for myself, where I was chauffered in my parents’ car, where I was tucked in at night, where the sunrise and chilled air of spring promised a good day of day-dreaming and hope for the future.

     My grandfather did not say much, perhaps because he was raised in a time when you sat at the table with parents and simply ate, speaking only when spoken too. That he came from a Prussian family probably enforced the discipline. Yet he talked a bit at his own table, and certainly went beyond his usual word-thrifty ways when he took time to explain carpentry to me, or a fix for a leaking faucet or to tell me my bike needed oiling. Even if it did not, I would ask him to do so, having ridden the three miles from my home to his for that reason and others.

     Out to the garage he would go, an old, wooden structure with “novelty-style” siding the floorboards of which had absorbed so many car leakings that the warming sun produced a woodsy, oil smell which in time would no longer be an odor but a tug at great and warm memory whenever I come upon a similar scent.

     So out to the garage my grandfather went, grabbing the copper oiling can from a shelf in the corner, just below markings my father made in the garage when he was my age. The bike would be oiled,  as my  dad’s bicycle had been, and I would be off on the same streets he rode upon.

     That ride home would mostly include a look for friends, or a stop at the small downtown A&P for a plum or two or three at 19 cents a pound, or some thoughts about where I would be in a few years, driving a car, not a bike.

    I did not usually think about my grandfather on that ride  because I foolishly took him, my grandmother, their fine home and everything then existing for granted. I never thought that all could go away.

     Now I know better, which is not a better thing. It is simply reality,  so nicely interrupted when I again hear the spring sound from my own oiling can.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is based on an earlier one.

                                       -30-