A Catskill Catalog: March 28, 2012

A Sunday morning, summer of 1975 or so, in New Kingston. My neighbor had taken a morning snort or two and was feeling emotional. He motioned toward my three- or four-year-old son, running willy-nilly through the yard. “See that little shit,” he said to me, “He’s Catholic and I’m Protestant, but I love him like he was my own.”

Wow! On what level of wow shall I start? My neighbor was an older guy I had come to love like an uncle. I was a bit shocked -wow- by his recognition of a distinction that seemed to me so out of date, so archaic, particularly in the egalitarian ’70s. But the bigger wow was the immediate and absolute bridging of that difference, a bridging built on tolerance, acceptance, and, my neighbor said it, love.

“I know he is a veteran.” That was The Daily Star quote by the same guy, day after the state police conducted a major, all-night operation in the village, one that led to the midnight evacuation of all of us to the safer homes of friends and family outside the projected line of fire. The Star’s reporter had asked for a comment about the New Kingston resident whose resistance to the state police caused all the trouble.

Earlier that afternoon, state police had tried, unsuccessfully, to serve a court order. The subject resisted. The police persisted. A long, tense, armed confrontation was broken by a couple of skilled police negotiators and a psychiatrist. The subject surrendered. We all returned home. No one was hurt.

“I know he is a veteran.” That’s what my neighbor told the reporter. That, to me, was another wow. This was an opportunity to shovel a little dirt. The reporter wanted a little dirt, But, the subject of the police action was a neighbor, and, at least in print, one did not speak ill of one’s neighbors.

That’s the kind of stuff I learned when I moved to the Catskills. I learned it from the people of the Catskills. I was all ears. In the late ’60s and early ’70s the mainstream thing didn’t seem to be working very well. The country’s divisions were in the streets. Trusted authority seemed untrustworthy. Values and authenticity were in short supply.

Here, in the mountains, were people who had been living pretty close to the land for generations. Surely, they had something to teach, something to pass on. So, I tried to listen.

New to the Catskills, I had several close friends who grew up here. “Be careful who you talk about,” they told me, “You never know who’s related to who.” It’s a small town wherever we live in the mountains, and small towns require a certain restraint of pen and tongue. We all have to live here, after the smoke has cleared from our squabbles.

Ivan Miller and Dan Morse taught me country politics. They told me the story of the over-exuberant Democrats who celebrated Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election with an improvised parade. They propped an outhouse on a hay-wagon, put signs on it degrading Republicans, and paraded it up Margaretville’s Main Street. Democrats paid for that piece of negativity for four decades!

Stanley Bussy was a prominent Democrat in town. Many people blamed him. His grocery store faced a partial boycott and lost customers, I was told, forever.

The incident hardened resistance to the Democratic Party, among many locals, for decades.
If an outhouse on a hay-wagon can do that, imagine a Facebook® page.

Old-fashioned? I suppose so. But with all we gain, we also give up a lot to live in the mountains. I drove a 150-mile, round-trip, this morning, to deliver a computer for repair. When we decide to live here we give up convenience.

Used to be one of the things we gained was neighborliness.

Workplace politics can be as rancorous as the electoral kind. Mildred Jenson was in the last years of her school-teaching career as I began mine. She and I were on the same Middle School teaching team, and I always felt that I could do little right in Mrs. Jenson’s view. She was old school, trained in the old State Normal School, a veteran of the one-room common schools. She seemed to bristle at my newfangled ideas.

Yet when my first-born arrived, there was Mildred, on the front porch of the house, can’t come in, but, here, she’s offering me a hand-crocheted baby blanket, for the little one.
I still have that blanket. It reminds me of what I learned about the Catskills from Mildred and all the other mountain folk who’ve shaped my education.
billbirns@gmail.com