GOING ‘HOME’

July 10, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     ANY VILLAGE, USA — Times change, people do, communities certainly. “You can’t go home again,” literally, as Thomas Wolfe put it. Yet, the pull of one’s childhood place is mighty strong, despite the “better” land you may now live in, some memories you might want to forget, the effect of the mind’s eye looking through rose-colored glasses and feeling alien in what was once your territory. Any village, any town where your being was formed is an extension of the womb, that particular place from that particular mother.

     So it was with some goosebumps that I recently drove through my old haunts, on a volunteer errand to install a coat rack for a non-profit. My childhood village, which was also my father’s and to which my grandfather came in young adulthood, has changed so very much, the combined and continuing effects of suburbia eating up downtowns as strip and mall shopping rises; no planning for renewal and growth; older housing neglected, turned into rentals that often gouge immigrants and the poor; a population increasingly of self-interest and exclusion; and a government proving dysfunctional and charging high taxes for the privilege.

     Actually, I am in my hometown every Tuesday, but my 2:30 a.m. entry to cook in a breakfast program is as focused on that task as a horse with blinders is on the race. So, I see little of the streets where I walked and rode my bike; the four schools I attended; my friends’ homes; and the country lanes where young adult emotions began to take hold. I do not see my grandparents going to work at the smoking pipe factory, or, if I had been there, my Dad running the 100-yard dash on the high school track. I cannot find my old teachers or grandparents, the hardware stores, the many druggists, the movie theater, the soda fountain. I do not grasp the sense of what was my shared community in the space of my time there.

     But when I came later in the week, in the daylight to install the coat rack, I saw life on the streets. I saw so many new buildings, encountered heavy traffic, recognized no one.  I saw change, and I felt alienated, though I had no right to be affected, for this was no longer the exact place where I grew up, where life literally formed for me and those around me.

     I then drove through the 1865 tunnel under the old Erie, the line that brought my grandfather to town and the tunnel through which my father took us to swim in a nearby town. I continued on this road and another, taking a route back to my present home 10 miles away that I had not used for  years. I passed this house or that, the remnant of a farm, a hill where I picked flowers for my mother’s birthday when I was 10. I saw my past.

     It was then that while I realized  you can never go home again, emotions set deeply inside always tug at your senses when you are close to your roots. It is like a mother’s reassurance to her child, no matter how old you become.

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

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THE REPUBLIC

July 4, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

      We eat picnic food, watch fireworks and chill out on July 4th in the national birthday celebration recognizing Independence Day, our 1776 Declaration of Independence from Great Britain over growing oppression and denial of human rights. The American experiment had begun. Our founders formed a republic and warned us that it would be so only “if we can keep it.”

     Before the candles are blown out this year, before we chow down and enjoy fireworks, before we take measured pride of accomplishment as year 247 begins in America, we must soberly ask how, as the great experiment unfolds, we are going to offer and protect liberties and rights for all, especially our children. Will we continue to fight the national challenges, the oppressions we took on after we won our freedom? Will we make America better for all, which should always be job #1? Remember, the founders only began the experiment, with the thoughts and tools of their time. Succeeding generations were charged with carrying the ball as times demanded.

     Challenges have been met with strong success, some mixed, some in failure. All this with great loss of life and suffering from so many. The Civil War, two world wars, numerous other conflicts; slavery; economic depressions; battles for civil rights, equal rights, women’s rights; natural catastrophes; economic inequality – all are part of the national fabric sewn from 1776, sometimes seriously rent.

     Sadly, there is enough reason in 2022 to question whether the republic can stand through the darkening night that has come with the unfolding, unbelievable story of a former president seeking a coup over a failed election; with the loss of 1950s-style compromise between the two major political parties that helped us survive, creating the new civil war of red against blue; with growing dislike, even hatred of our fellow humankind flourishing like choking weed in a field of ignorance, misinformation and prejudice; with a high court, once of great respect, now with a political, even “religious” agenda that threatens to destroy the republic.

     There is more than enough reason today to fly the nation’s flag, the great Stars & Stripes earned through blood and sacrifice, but upside down in distress, for the oppressions we have fostered and ignored cause our ship of state to toss and turn in stormy waters.

      Not one of us today, we Americans, should chomp on a hot dog, have a beer, take a nap or watch the night sky light up until we declare our national nightmare is here: We are losing the republic through ignored settled law already set as inviolate precedence; through suppressing women’s right to their bodies, setting them as modern slaves to the state; through sanctioning greed of profit over protected climate for our children; through not recognizing the wrong of a “president” who sought dictatorship and demanding he stand in the court of justice; through growing hate between sections of the nation, orchestrated by those who seek power over the individual and care not a whit about the ordinary person.

     No, this is not a joyous Fourth, secured by those who died and suffered physically and mentally in our wars; by Native Americans, slaves, the chronically poor who helped others succeed but who were – are – not given a piece of the pie; by those who have suffered indignity, pain and loss of life through inequality and prejudice. Until we again recognize the fragile value of the great experiment begun by the founders on July 4, 1776, we will not have a republic for all, safe, sound and promising. Indeed, we may lose it.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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BEGINNINGS

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     Not all essay writing comes in full paragraphs – sometimes the thought begins in shorthand. Perhaps a form of poetry, or if not to the expected quality level of such, a collection of thoughts worthy enough if the reader cares to nibble.

Some such fodder:

WOODS, solitude, wind whispering as nature writes a melody in a long, wonderful breath.

IN their season, at picking, the best apples first. Then the ones not noticed but still worthy. The poor ones gone begging, just ahead of the drops.

BEACH sand awaiting impression, particles of glass diffused until flesh compresses a life stamp before the next leaves a mark.

ASLEEP, dreams from the mind’s collected bits. On a journey of the fanciful. Alarm sounds, reality returns.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

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LAYERS OF HISTORY

June 19, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     You don’t have to dig into eons past to see history.

     A road beautification project in Pearl River, N.Y., a hamlet in the Gotham suburbs but in the country when I was young, has modern planners trying to “calm traffic,” as they put it. Islands of paving stones are being  placed in the middle of a road to reduce speed.

     The idea is to tame the hurly-burly of “progress” which could have been managed a lot more sensibly and cheaply if there hadn’t been overbuilding in the first place. Yet the “calming devices” may not actually tame but frustrate motorists hellbent in a rush. You must navigate carefully around the stone islands, especially in big vehicles.  And most “cars” are big today. Driving with care is sensible, of course, though it may compete with today’s rush living.

     Anyway, not to digress from discovering history locally. In the Pearl River project, decades of asphalt are being removed, down six inches or so, to allow for the traffic islands. The areas uncovered reveal the original concrete pavement, seemingly in great shape, so you wonder why “progress” required paving over. And over. And over.

     The concrete was in place for perhaps 50 years before asphalt covered history. The road in question, Middletown, once state highway Rt. 304 until a new one was built, is a principal route from Nanuet to New Jersey, with Pearl River the border community. The road was busy in the first half of the last century since Pearl River had industry, including Lederle, a leading pharmaceutical developer, a true downtown and neatly placed homes. The next decades, into present time, have seen Middletown Road an even busier route as super growth has hit Rockland County.

     The original concrete road went through a half century of just fine use, thank you, but ever-faster “progress” has required six inches or so of asphalt in the 50 years since.

     A lesson in archeological history. 

     The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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WE NEED A HOEDOWN

June 12, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     When in the course of human events these United States, still in experimentation, requires a reset, it is necessary to have a big do – a block party, a hoedown, a hayride under a strawberry moon. Everyone invited, especially the prejudiced.

     A personal recollection: Moons ago, in a quiet village, the one of my youth, my father’s time, my grandparents’ community, when we had long lost house keys, when the mailman on a hot day came in the back door and helped himself to cold refrigerator water, when teachers remembered instructing parents, when a deal was by handshake, when an elderly neighbor got the help she needed, when a tradesman was able to afford free estimates, the long-held quiet rhythm was stirred by a post-war population explosion, eventually quadrupling my village count. The new arrivals were mostly urban. They locked car doors. They installed burglar alarms. They began civic groups aimed at getting sidewalks on country lanes. They wanted shopping centers.

      To many of us hicks, certainly to me as a 17 year old, it was all too busy, too noisy with backyard parties, more traffic, other things that rankled. I was immediately prejudiced against urbanities. Who were they to disturb rural quiet, to live in houses where my beloved woods and trails used to be?

     I held this view in growing suspicion until one day an ex-urbanite befriended me, and after talking and thinking on many walks downtown, I came to see his point of view. He had left the city without choice. There was post-war decay and insufficient reinvestment. His father used the G.I. Bill to get a veteran’s mortgage and move his family to the “country for a better life,” or at least the chance at it. 

     But my new friend missed his pals on the block, the street stickball games, the excitement of urban life.

     I began to realize that he, too, gave up something to move out of the city, just as I and others lost some of our quiet and simpler ways. In our growing friendship, we each developed tolerance for differing perspective. We both lost some of our prejudices, and decades later he remains my best male friend.

     In the course of human events today it has become necessary for similar friendship on a national scale. For example, eastern people should try and understand Texans and Iowans and everyone who comes from other cultures and views and ways of living. We would all learn a thing or two, or many things. The nation’s toxicity and ignorance increasingly fueled by prejudice spread by the word bites of social media would lessen.

     We need a national hoedown.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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EDWARD HOPPER IN NYACK

June 5, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

     NYACK, N.Y. — Edward Hopper, famed painter of realism whose “Nighthawks” and other works articulate American solitude as mood, thought and destiny,  is ever-present in this village of his 1882 birth.

     Hopper House, operating as an art gallery, museum and study center for more than 50 years since volunteers rescued the dilapidated 82 North Broadway family home and renewed it through sweat, donation and some debt, continues to awaken us to the incredible Hudson River light that is everywhere. Young Edward, who began drawing at least at age 5, saw that illumination each morning as it shot up Second Avenue into his bedroom. Today at various times, you can almost touch the light as it also baths the parlor, now the principal gallery.

     The museum, which has the combined mission of preserving the home as well as detailing influences on the artist and advancing all manner of art, hopes visitors and villagers alike will observe as Edward did, taking in what contributed to his many paintings, watercolors, prints and sketches, produced almost to the day he died in 1967. 

    Hopper’s works often include someone in contemplation, say a man sitting on a wooden sidewalk in front of a store (probably his father, a Nyack dry goods merchant) or the “effect of sunlight on the wall of a house,” geometric patterns that seem to be windows inviting the viewer to interpret – the sort of lighting you see all over Nyack. 

      You spot the “snapshot effect” of his art, moments in time that have an obvious history and the future of which might well be guessed. Look about the Nyack of today, at the woman catching a bus at Cedar and Main, at the couple leaning on a porch rail, at an upstairs window framing humanity. Always a story – here in Nyack, and elsewhere, too. These are Hopper-articulated moments.

     Today Edward Hopper is iconic, his “Nighthawks” and other works recognizable worldwide. Exhibitions in Boston, Washington, New York City and Europe have drawn many thousands in reverent communication with an artist who said so little by speech but who in his paintings expressed deeply and extensively facets native to the American being. Hopper offered as much in this quote: “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint. The whole answer is there on the canvas.” 

      The artist’s boyhood home is part of that “canvas,” a source of the light, real and figurative, that was Hopper’s painting harmony. Nyack helped form the vision of an artist who celebrated American solitude and the great quiet, the self-reliance, even the genius within.

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

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THE FALLEN SPEAK

May 30, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

      No Memorial Day, USA or elsewhere, is without heartfelt words and tribute, parades, wreaths, re-mourning. What is always missing, though, are the voices of the fallen. Would that we could hear them. What would they say?

     “Mom, I was as scared as you, but I could not show that with you there. So I never really said ‘goodbye’. …”

     “Dad, you told me about your ‘war stories,’ and I figured we’d swap them when I came back. …”

     “Mary (any sweetheart’s name), I was crying inside when you were showing tears, and we both felt that we had been pulled from our door to the future so that I could enter another, for a time. …”

     “Mr. Singer (any teacher’s name), I know you expected me to be the same distracted fellow day-dreaming in the back row, but I was really awake that final day, and I remembered you telling me to pay attention. It helped my pals in the squad, the ones who survived. …”

     “Mayor Jones (any public official), I know there are speeches every Memorial Day, and parades and gun salutes and tears and then the barbecues, fireworks,  leisure. Understand that all this is fine with me. I’d be there, too, if I could. But also believe that the man who fell next to me, the ‘enemy,’  isn’t one for me any longer, and he has mourners, too. …”

     “I read the ‘Red Badge of Courage’ in Miss Rouy’s literature course and could not understand then the fine line between courage, the chance of it, the millisecond for choice, and the instant when cowardice could win. I thought it was black and white but now understand it is not really so, that military training and society’s expectation may of necessity set it up as clear choice, but in the moment of decision, there is fear, opportunity and the possibility of both heroism and cowardice. There is much more humanity to it. …”

     And it is for humanity that I am ‘gone,’ the hope of it anyway. I am not truly ‘gone,’ of course, since I have not died in vain. The sacrifices of any of us, dead or living, is for betterment, for that continual ‘thirst’ for the world’s life and its great possibilities. Otherwise, why did you all lose me? …”

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

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A SIMPLE (OR NOT) REPAIR

May 22, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     We live in an age of power tools, big-box home improvement centers and a throwaway culture, so when a leaning fence gate needs fixing, the modus operandi may well be to (1) buy a super-duper, lithium-powered hammer drill from the big box store to drive in high-tech fasteners, or (2) kick the gate down with non-battery powered feet and throw it away in favor of a new one, also purchased from the giant, warehouse-like outfit.

     In either case, the relatively simple repair becomes involved, expensive and even frustrating as the trip to the home  improvement center always means traffic and then long lines as you check yourself out (and so you pay the store for your own labor).

    What would my grandfather have done? Well, if he really needed a new, hand-powered screwdriver, which is doubtful since he was still using his Prussian grandfather’s tools, he would have taken a walk to downtown Spring Valley, N.Y., where he would have bought one from the hardware stores owned by K&A, Beckerle, DeBaun,  Scharf and others, all in one village.

     Then, whether he needed a replacement tool or not, he would have looked carefully at the leaning fence gate, sized it up from every angle and without fanfare decided that he would brace it with rocks from his property, hammered in with a small sledge.

     Iced lemonade would await his finish, made by my grandmother and enjoyed on a porch with some slight breeze.

     That day, he would never get in a car, instead perhaps take a good walk that was also exercise, probably greet his neighbors along the way, say hello to others in the hardware store. No traffic, no checking himself out of the store.

    Ah, progress, isn’t it grand?

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

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PLUMS IN SEASON

May 15, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

Once upon a time – this seems a fairy tale of sorts – a 14-year-old youngster with a huge quarter in his pocket – more money than he touched in an average year – found himself in a sudden heavy June downpour on a village street, under the awning of a storefront A&P.

Now – and I told you this is a bit of a fairy tale – storefront supermarkets are today’s memories, as are a lot of village downtowns. And a quarter isn’t much to most kids now. But this story is circa 1957, and plums cost about 14 cents per pound. A quarter brought you perhaps five luscious red ones, so sweetly juicy that you were beyond even candy heaven when you bit into them. Good ‘N’ Plenty or a Mars bar might rush Grandma’s admonition into your head – “You’re going to get cavities” – but she was always telling you to eat fruit.

The awning under which the 14-year-old huddled with other walkers in the downpour made the dim incandescent bulbs in the A&P shine more directly inside and tempt a youngster to look within. The quarter that had been a pocket buddy for a week now, made shiny by much fingering, caused an ever bigger bulb to go off in the youngster’s head. He went into the market, saw the plums, read the sign, “14 cents per pound,” and picked up a few, moving over to the weighing scale his dad used when they went to the market.

The scale didn’t seem difficult, though the young man had never used one, nor had he ever bought plums, nor had he ever purchased anything in a supermarket.

A day-dreamer in the eighth and other grades, he nevertheless had absorbed enough basic knowledge and arithmetic to know how many ounces were in a pound and that at 14 cents per pound, he could get nearly two pounds of plums for his 25 cents.

He weighed the fruit, determined how much he could buy and took it to a sales clerk in a brown paper bag – no plastic ones yet. The woman at the hand-operated register put the plums on her own scale and used that calculation plus the figures she had in her head for the daily produce charges to arrive at the total cost, after hitting a succession of keys. No tax, and that is no fairy tale.

The cost was 23 cents, and the young fellow took his bag of plums, feeling awfully grown up in the process. The summer rain was kept away by the awning long enough to stand in front of the storefront A&P and devour the fruit in rapid order. The boy then continued his journey home, now with two pennies in his pocket, soon to be made as shiny as was the quarter. The money would eventually buy one Bachman straight pretzel.

More than fruit was digested that day in a long-ago time, in what seems like a fairy tale but which was not.

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

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EDUCATOR

May 8, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

thecolumnrule.com

ahgunther@yahoo.com

     In the Spring Valley, N.Y., breakfast program, those volunteers retired come from every former vocation – professional, blue-collar, high-finance, the trades, at home, etc. And we bring our workplace habits with us.

     For example, the late Bob Drennen, once longtime principal at the newer Cherry Lane School in Tallman, could be spotted a mile away as an educator. I had never met him before he became involved in the breakfast program though as a former Rockland Journal-News photographer, I was in most schools on assignment and came to know many teachers and administrators.

It was quickly apparent in the breakfast kitchen at the old Dutch Reformed Church that Bob was a teacher and more. 

     He was quick on his feet, making rounds with participants, talking to people in the kitchen, checking on the guys and gals he would ferry in a van to various places as a volunteer driver.

     You see, Bob, though retired, was still an educator, a principal looking after “students and staff” as it were in his post-professional life, in that moment as an orchestrator of good deeds.

     From all reports, Bob Drennen gave of his time in other ways, too, as an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, at Habitat for Humanity and with the Helping Hands coalition for the homeless and poor. It was with Helping Hands that Bob connected with the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program. 

     But you need not know all this to realize he had been an educator. The tip-off was the moment Bob walked into the kitchen. Before he quickly scanned us all, he looked at the wall clock. It was a reference stare: “Where are we at the moment?”

Teachers, principals always look at clocks.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

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