Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sniper takes aim at schoolyard

The view today from the school yard to the sniper's second floor window.
It was 11:30 on a Friday morning in December and the children were in the school playground making believe they were monsters, or earth men, or chasing each other in a game of tag.

In the apartment complex across the street from the playground at St. Peter’s Elementary School, building super Jim Rodgers visited George McCode in his second floor apartment to discuss a $102 rent bill that was due. Seventy first- and- second –grade students were across the street playing their outdoor games.

The stores on Broadway and inside the Pyramid Mall were preparing for the holiday season. For residents in and around the city there was a lot going on. There was a local screening premier of Diana Ross’ “Mahogany” at the Saratoga Cinema at 7pm and Louis and Sally Killen were staging their style of British folk-singing downtown at Lena’s cafĂ©. Some simply decided to cash their paychecks and set the four bucks aside it would take to purchase the tickets to see Asleep at the Wheel at the Great Saratoga Music Hall later in the month.

McCode told the super he thought his wife had already paid the bill, paid it before she left with the couple’s young daughter and headed for Georgia. She had not, the super informed the 32-year-old McCode, who a month earlier received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy after serving at the Kesselring site in West Milton. As McCode called his wife on the telephone from his residence inside the Gaslight apartment complex, third- grade teacher Lillian Pratt led 40 more students to the playground outside, where they joined their younger elementary schoolmates shortly before noon.

It could happen here, city police officials in Saratoga Springs said 38 years later at a recent public meeting in the echo of the Sandy Hook school shootings, held to discuss the department’s readiness in dealing with active shooters. Last week in Albany, police staged a simulated hostage rescue at vacant apartments at a public housing complex, conducting training, they say, to save lives. And a few days ago Saratoga Springs Police announced a new partnership with the city school district to increase security and provide public elementary schools with an increased police presence that will go into effect on April 2.

In the late morning on the first Friday in December 1975, McCode hung up the telephone after talking with his wife. A demolition crew tore through the Empire and Brooklyn hotels north of his apartment on Hamilton Street. The Saratoga Springs Urban Renewal Spring Valley North Project was leveling land to make way for a city center. On South Broadway, Natale American hosted a used car sale in a lot parked with Camaros and Gremlins, Hornets and Torinos. A ’69 Volkswagen Bus could be got for $1,595. Realtors offered four-bedroom Victorian-style colonial homes fitted with fireplaces for $29,900, financing available. At City Hall, the council voted to cut $7,500 in appropriations to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, sending venue general manager Craig Hankenson to embark on a grass-roots fundraising drive to meet budget demands.

Shortly before noon, in the playground on St. Peter’s, third-grade teacher Lillian Pratt heard what she thought were fireworks, coming from the Gaslight Apartments across the street. Second-grade teacher Judy Vetrano heard four pops. When she looked across the schoolyard, she saw a little girl lying down in the corner of the playground, blood streaming from her foot. Daniel Insetta, the school guard on duty, heard the pops – first one, then another, then two quick shots - and called police. The children were hustled back inside the classrooms of the elementary school building. Some were crying. Two 7-year-old girls were injured. Kim Bemis was brought to Saratoga Hospital to remove the bullet from the heel of her foot. Moira D’Andrea returned to her classroom with a slight wound from a ricochet bullet which caught her in one of her feet.

When police arrived and sealed off the area, they headed for the housing complex that overlooked the schoolyard across the street. Forcing their way through the barricaded door of McCode’s second-floor apartment, police found four spent 22-cal. shells next to an open living room window. A fifth shell was located next to the 32-year-old man, who was discovered lying on his bedroom floor, bleeding from his head. He died early the next morning at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady.

“Every time somebody acts like, hey, it can’t happen in Saratoga Springs, I say, it already has happened in Saratoga Springs,” city Assistant Police Chief Greg Veitch said, 38 years later.

Forty-five minutes after the shooting the building superintendent received a money-telegram from the man’s wife with payment for the rent bill that was due. Kimberly Bemis recovered from the bullet wound, graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 1987 and later relocated to Stillwater. Moira D’Andrea became a three-time Olympian speed skater in the 1980s and 90s. She relocated to Canada, where today she instructs others in the sport.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Flying birds, excellent birds

No, it's not a scene of suspense culled from Hitchcock's  thriller "The Birds," but when a flock of fowl suddenly take to flight, the experience can provide a momentary shock to unsuspecting passersby, as in this image captured in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs.    

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Widow's Walk

The widow's walk, a railed rooftop platform upon which it is said the wives of mariners would watch and await their husband's return from the sea, often in vain.

This particular rooftop rail, in Saratoga, overlooks the Hudson River but does remind me of a terrifying tale I'd heard as a child about the Greek son Theseus, who had set sail to do battle with The Minotaur. Before Theseus got on the boat with the black sail, his father, King Aegeus, told the son when he returned to change the sail to white, so the father would know he had returned alive.

Theseus did eventually return alive, but had forgotten to change the sail. His father, when seeing the black flag flying atop the ship in the distance, assumed his son had been killed and plunged into the water, drowning himself.

What bedtime stories were you read when you were a child?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Keeper of the flame

Minnie Clark Bolster sank comfortably into a big cushioned chair atop the platform in the Saratoga Springs Public Library where 150 people showed up to hear her speak.

A silver water pitcher, from which guests at the Grand Central Hotel were once served, sat on a nearby table. Next to it rested a white slab of marble rescued from the demolished sidewalk that fronted the Grand Union hotel.

"The springs are what brought them here," she said, flanked by drawings of bemonocled men beneath top hats and well-dressed ladies pinched at the waist, their hair bowed in elaborate curls. A glass-framed illustration to her left depicted Victorian throngs emerging from horse-drawn carts and chauffeured motor cars approaching Saratoga - the world’s biggest gambling joint - where the entry gates are constructed from playing cards, poker chips, and roulette wheels. "And the hotels and the racing is what kept them coming," she said.

Minnie Bolster, Class of 1938 Saratoga High School graduate, and whose brother-in-law George Bolster amassed a collection of photographs now housed in the city history museum, has grown her own legacy as a collector of Spa City artifacts. It began innocently enough for the one-time legal secretary and antique dealer. While spending a day "out in the country" she asked about some postcards that were for sale. She ended up coming home with the entire collection.

"I got 10,000 postcards," she said, with a laugh. "I’m ashamed to say there was only one of Saratoga." It took off from there.

Today, inside the "museum" which is her home, vintage paintings line the hallway walls and entire rooms are dedicated to specific eras. An image of the United States Hotel covers nearly an entire wall of her house, and a chair once housed in the hotel sits nearby, in all its floral-decorated glory.

There is a game table and chair from the casino and a red rug imprinted with horseshoes that was part of the flooring inside the old Worden Hotel. There is a lamp that once lighted early 20th-century basketball games and dances at Convention Hall, and a spatula used to make early Saratoga chips dating to the 1890s. There are 82 spoons – each one inscribed "Saratoga" – 300 paperweights, an assortment of miniature cups engraved with designs of the old city, and room keys that opened doors to hotel rooms that are no longer here. Her eye for collecting knows no bounds.

"When I got married we went up to Maine and went into a junk shop and I asked if they had anything from Saratoga," she said at the library gathering.

"You went looking while you were on your honeymoon?" a woman asked her, incredulously. That led to the securing of a wood rocker that was used in Union Hall in the 1830s, Bolster explained with a shrug.

Bolster has authored numerous books documenting her collection and heralding some of the lesser-known characters of the city, and amassed 800 books that are about, or at the very least mention her native city. When the foundations of the Victorian City were eventually toppled and the scrapbooks of history were being tossed aside, Bolster has been there to gather the pieces of the city’s past and present a jigsaw of what once was. She is perhaps the last keeper of the city’s history, and sharing a legacy of what is forever gone.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When a child with Ice Cream ruled the day

The building stood vacant on Division Street for the longest time, sealed tight in its red brick frame and dwarfed by the 21st-century skyline of million-dollar condominiums nearby.  A silver bowl that once caught the cigarettes of all who entered clung to a wall near the entry door - a reminder of the layers of lives that passed through. Now the building no longer stands.

Kathy LeRoux was 7 years old when she moved to the city's West Side, across the street from the building. It was 1951, and she said she can remember skipping into the place with a dime and strolling out with a chocolate ice cream cone. She would then find a patch of grass out front, where she would be joined by other children from the community who were doing the same thing. It was a neighborhood routine that would last until she became an adult and left for secretarial school in Albany.

April 29 would mark the anniversary of the day Ralph and Floyd Ellsworth sold their first order of ice cream at the Division Street plant that bore their family's name.

A few years ago, the entire operation suddenly closed up one day, and its employees, who had numbered 125 five years earlier, were laid off. Company CEO and third-generation owner Gerald Ellsworth initially expressed hope of re-opening in a matter of weeks, but his hopefulness was soon followed by attorneys talking about possible foreclosure.

The Ellsworth Ice Cream Company grew from humble beginnings in 1933 to branding its own ice cream and transporting the flavors on delivery trucks to dozens of grocery stores and pharmacies across the region.
A small retail store was part of the factory. Michael Wilcox worked his way through high school during the early 1960s by muscling scoops of ice cream into cones on the retail end, as well as handling endless molds of frozen pops that would come tumbling down conveyer belts in the factory.

"In the back we had a crew of seven or eight guys, and we could do 16,000 to 18,000 dozen popsicles in an eight-hour shift," said Wilcox, a touch of marvel in his voice. "The retail part - it was kind of an inconvenient convenience store for the neighborhood. It was good if you wanted eggs, ice cream and milk. If you wanted other items, it was not so good," he laughed.

Wilcox is in his 60s today, and on Thursday afternoon, after disposing of the past, he thought about what the ice cream plant meant to the city in the present. "You know, they ran that business for a long, long time," he said. "It was very sad when it closed."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A new dawn rising

Wyatt Burky, 1-1/2 years old and topped by a flock of blond hair sat, mostly silently, next to the towering sculpture, far from the eyes of the firefighters and police officers and residents, amused by the magical powers of a single strand of string which he turned over in his small hands.

When his hands grow larger, they will hold history books that will teach him about the day the towers fell on a blue sky morning, before he was born. They will show images of fires that burned through the night, and explain the sound of hundreds of emergency locators that chirped beneath the ruins. They will tell him how the photographs of the missing clung to storefront windows in Lower Manhattan several months after the buildings fell, and he will learn of the candlelight vigils, the eerily silent skies, the loss of nearly 3,000 people on a single day and the countless more who were lost across the world when the country fought the long war.

He will be told by his mother, Anna Burky, a psychiatrist who worked on that day at the veterans hospital in Albany what a difficult day it was for those who fought in the country’s other wars, and how they knew what the ramifications of the events of that day would mean. "And we’ll tell him what it is to be part of this community, to not forget" she said, watching her young son at play in the shadow of the memorial, when all the world’s magic in a young mind can be delivered by a single piece of string.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rainy Day Friday at Yaddo

A cool April drizzle sprinkles the lower ponds at the Yaddo arts colony on Friday
afternoon, where writers write, musicians de-compose and literary poachers search for Poe's ghost in the neon gloom.

Heavy Metal

The clang and strum of workers and their machines fill Broadway in the early Spring, depicting a city in a flux of activity: a new bookstore and a multi-screen cinema, luxury condos that poke the sky, businesses and people on the move, and jockeying for position in advance of the summer season.    

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Saratoga 1937

The unfinished love story: Saratoga, 1937. Featuring Jean Harlow, Clarke Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Walter Pidgeon in a "romantic, screwball comedy" that offered people an excape during a difficult era, says the Los Angeles Times. 

Harlow died at the age of 26, before the film could be finished. At the insistence of her fans, the movie was posthumously released, using an actress as Harlow's stand-in to complete the making of the film.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walking through Old Saratoga

Kind of quirky.
Kind of creepy.
Great place for used books, though, with tens of thousands of titles lining the shelves of the bookstore with vintage, creaky wood floors - just the way it's supposed to be.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

People Have the Power

Regardless of religious affiliation or political persuasion, the power that emanates from an alliance of like-minded souls is undeniable.  

This scene was captured inside the Presbyterian – New England Congregational Church, on Circular Street, January 2013.  

The secret labyrinth beneath the Saratoga Spa State Park

In the darkness of night and under police escort 27,000 rare books, prints and manuscripts were moved from the library in Manhattan to the labyrinth-like basement beneath The Hall of Springs.

The attack on Pearl Harbor had occured a few months earlier, and that spring German U-boats roamed the Atlantic Coast.

President Roosevelt, serving his second term in The White House, grew increasingly concerned for the safety of some of the country's greatest historical possessions.

In May 1942 he ordered them moved to a secret location in the Spa State Park in Saratoga, where FDR was instrumental in creating a European-style spa, with which he had become familiar several years earlier while serving as senator and governor of New York.

Among the collection: the original, handwritten manuscript of George Washington's Farewell Address, a 15th century Gutenberg Bible, an assortment of documents from signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a letter from Christopher Columbus dated 1493, announcing the discovery of the New World.

The documents were secured in two locked vaults located beneath The Hall of Springs where they would safely remain for the next 2- 1/2 years, before they were returned to Manhattan at the end of the war. The vaults still exist in the labyrinth-like basement in the Spa State Park, a few dozen yards from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and are currently used as storage areas for things like dishes and silverware for weddings and fundraising events staged in the hall upstairs.

The View

Saratoga Race Course from the infield: Summer, 2012.