Thursday, May 30, 2013

With the wind at his back and the concrete sidewalk beneath his feet

Randy sits in easy pose at the top of the Caroline Street hill. A warm, beef-laced wind blows out the duct of a restaurant and calms the chill in the late afternoon air.

"Didn't I have good idea," he says,  snuggling close to the silver duct. Randy is pleased with his position: the wind is at his back, the concrete ground beneath his feet

"This city is the second richest city in New York State.  The richest is...Westchester," he muses. "You want to see how much money is here?  Wait till you see the end of July, when we got the track here," he says, watching the dusk chase the sunlight across Broadway, and towards the city's west side. The light bulbs atop the Victorian style street lamps blink and sparkle, awakening for duty on a long spring night.

"I've been homeless for four months now. There are a lot of homeless people in Saratoga." Humanity strolls past his corner.  He watches them, with their smiling faces and distant gazes, their grimaces, their laughter, and their sunken tired eyes.  "Everybody is on a mission. You know what I mean? They're all going from one place to another place, instead of sitting down to say hi."

Two youngish men pass by and pause, mid-stroll. Mr. Blue Shirt mines the pockets of his pants and emerges with a fistful of coin. Mr. White Shirt offers a cigarette that he pulls from a box pack. "Hey - hope you guys have a nice day," Randy says, pocketing the change with one hand and pulling out a disposable lighter from inside the folds of a poncho that someone gave him with the other.

"Right now - it's been hard, but I have friends. People stop. They ask me if I have something to eat.  Out on the street you get to know people.  There are so many beautiful people here that it's unbelievable."

He runs his thumb across the igniter wheel of the lighter. It sparks, but does not light.

"I've been homeless for six weeks," he says, contradicting the amount of time he earlier said that he's been living on the streets. He continues his battle with the cranky lighter. It sparks and sparks, but will not light.

"Homeless? I don't understand it. I'm having such a hard time. What happened to me?" He finally sends the lighter careening down Caroline Street. The plastic skips across the pavement and echoes down the hill, a symphony of disgust.

He says there was a family dispute over a monthly check that he was supposed to be getting that caused him to be homeless. He talks about the bread delivery truck he drove for 24 years and how he retired at the age of 43. "I'm 55 now. I took care of my kids, sir, that's the one thing I did." He thinks about his three-year-old grandson, and how he spent his own formative years growing up on Long Island., on the Suffolk County side.

"I was 16 when I came up here. At the age of 17 I went to Vietnam. I came out of Vietnam at the age of 19 and then I played baseball for Glens Falls White Sox  - the farm team - at East Field. I was a shortstop. I never made it because the women and everything else got to me."

He says he won't go to a shelter because it cost him ten dollars to get in and scoffs when he is asked if he has looked into any military veteran programs that might help him get off the streets.  "Can I honestly say I'm a veteran when I'd only been there two and a half years?"  He is a man of contradictions. And the numbers don't always add up.

"There's some stuff around here that is not right.  The thing is, I don't know where to go, what to do."  Next week he hopes to be able to move himself off the street. "I get fifteen-hundred a month, because I'm a teamster." A labor union he said he belonged to dating to back to nearly a quarter century of driving his delivery truck.

"I'm looking to get an apartment. That's what I want. Even if I don't have a piece of furniture. At least I got an apartment." He buried his hands inside the folds of his poncho, and with the warm wind at his back, he watched the lights firing up Broadway and the sun disappearing over the city's west side.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Couple Remembers a Son Killed in the War

Denton Crocker recalled the first time he laid eyes on Jean-Marie. It was in a small seaside town 15 miles north of Boston.

"We were both living in Swampscott, Mass., a street apart from one another," remembered Crocker, as the couple sat on the green porch of a house with a pretty garden that the family has called home for more than 40 years. The house sits on a tree-lined street a few blocks from the Broadway parade route where two officers on horseback were leading a ceremony in honor of Memorial Day.

'When I first saw Jean-Marie, she was standing on the platform for the Boston & Maine Railroad. And that just did it,' he recalled, peeling back the years with the same kind of scrutiny with which he once explored the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines with his fellow scientists and students all those years ago.

From 1942 to 1945, Crocker served with the Medical Department in an Army unit that was sent to identify disease-carrying mosquitoes. When his war-time stint was over, Crocker returned to his studies in Ithaca, where he and his young bride welcomed their first-born child on June 3, 1947. They called him Denton Jr., but he quickly was tagged with the endearing nickname 'Mogie.'

'He was a colicky baby, so his dad said, 'Oh, he's a regular Mogo,' said Jean-Marie. The family relocated to Saratoga Springs, where Denton Sr. taught as a professor of biology at Skidmore College. He chaired the department for 18 years, and the academic surroundings rubbed off at home.

By the time Denton Jr. reached high school, he was scoring high grades -- the highest of any in his years at Saratoga High -- and fourth highest overall in the entire county on the Regents scholarship exam.

'He was just fascinated with history. He was brilliant in that regard,' said his dad. The 1964 school yearbook captures Denton Jr. with his junior class, a young man schooled with the tools and filled with the promise of a bright future.

A half world away, a war was escalating.

'For a good many people, there was a lot of idealism at the time about the war in Vietnam,' Jean-Marie said. 'It wasn't until years later that people began having a different perspective. Denton Jr. was one of those that were very idealistic about it. He was concerned about people. He wanted to help them,' she said.

It was October 1964, one month into his senior year, when the young man left home. He left behind a letter addressed to his parents that told of his desire to join the service. It was something that he knew they wouldn't approve of.

'Individual freedom is the most important thing in the world, and I am willing to die to defend that idea,' he wrote. He had already accumulated enough credits to earn his high school diploma, a guidance counselor informed Jean-Marie, although due to his young age, his parents had to sign for him joining the Army. It was something they did in respect of their son's wishes.

'He was so determined. At some point, you have to let your children go and do what they feel is so important to them,' said Jean-Marie, looking out over the family's green porch on the first sunny afternoon after so many days of rain, as the air filled with the sound of rotor blades chopping swaths of grass across nearby lawns.

Denton Jr. completed basic training June 3, 1965, the day of his 18th birthday and at a time when his classmates' thoughts were occupied by things like dances and parties. Over the next 12 months, he would join the 101st Airborne Division and see combat in Vietnam with an elite force of shock troops called the Gypsies. He provided security near Nhatrang, ran with patrols at Suoi Cat and helped in strengthening defenses in Phan Rang. In the times he was not standing on alert, he would read the novels of John Cheever and write letters home describing the country with the jungle-covered mountains, its acres of rice-growing plains and the white sandy beaches.

In Saratoga, on the afternoon of her son's 19th birthday, Jean-Marie was picking lilies in her garden and thinking of him. Ten thousand miles away, is company was given the mission of securing a position near Dak To, a village where the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. Denton Jr. and his platoon came under heavy automatic weapons fire. It was Friday, June 3, 1966.

The following afternoon, she watched as two Army men solemnly came across the tree-lined street, approaching the house with the pretty, green porch.

"It's just as fresh (today) as it was when it happened," she said.

Killed in action from hostile fire, he was the first in this city to die in that war. A scrapbook filled with photographs, newspaper clippings and awards for bravery sits on a table on the green porch marking the life of the young man.

His mother penned a memoir, 'Son of the Cold War,' about his life that she says was a therapy of sorts. His dad said the abilities and talents his son showed at such a young age could have better served mankind.

Recalling her visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Jean-Marie said, 'I know for some people, it's healing, But for us, at times it can be too much to take in. It is significant in our hearts, but it is a very emotional thing to see."

This story was originally published in 2006.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Murder, mayhem and a touch of madness: in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

LOUDONVILLE - The noises had been heard for decades, floating into the bedroom from a spot behind the wall.

At first, there was the eerie sound of giggling. Then, a woman's anguished cry would follow the startling cannon of a single gun shot, ripping into the darkness of night. Over the course of a half-century, and precisely at the stroke of midnight on April 14, residents would report seeing the ghostly image of a sad-eyed man creaking back and forth in his rocker. The man, they said, bore a resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
Abe Lincoln's artifacts on display at Saratoga Springs History Museum

There were four people seated in the State Box at Ford's Theatre that Good Friday evening in 1865. Another 1,700 theatergoers paid between 25 cents and $1 to watch the staging of the play 'Our American Cousin.' The president sat in his rocking chair at the right side of the box, next to his wife Mary Todd.

To their right, 28-year-old Maj. Henry Reed Rathbone sat with his fiancé Clara Harris, who had chosen a white satin dress to wear for the special occasion.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the third act of the comedy had begun. John Wilkes Booth crept ever closer to the entry door of the State Box.

Albany connection

Rathbone was born in Albany in 1837, where his father, Jared Rathbone, served as mayor from 1838 to 1841. A banker and merchant by trade, when the elder Rathbone died, he left young Henry sufficient money that would ensure he would never need to work a day in his life. The young man enrolled at Union College.

His widowed mother Pauline remarried. Ira Harris, himself a widower, was a prominent Albany judge who would soon become a New York state senator.

Harris owned a summer cottage just outside Albany, in the neighborhood of Loudonville. Loudon Cottage, as it came to be known, was built in the 1830s and served the Harris family through the 19th century.

Harris had two sons and four daughters, one of whom was named Clara. At the time of her father's marriage to Pauline Rathbone, Clara was either 10 or 20 years old -- depending on whose records you choose to believe. A decade later, Henry and Clara -- stepbrother and stepsister -- had designs on wedding plans of their own, as they sat alongside the Lincolns in the Ford Theater box.

Historic murder

It was about 10:15 p.m Friday, April 14, as Booth crept inside the door, gun in hand. The shot hit the president just behind his left ear. Rathbone rose to grab him, but he was too late. Booth dropped the gun and drew out a long knife, repeatedly stabbing Rathbone across his upper body.

Dazed and bloodied, Rathbone nonetheless tried to assist the president. He and fiancee Clara -- her white satin dress turning crimson as it saturated with blood -- helped escort the mortally wounded Lincoln to a boarding house across the street. The next morning, Lincoln was pronounced dead. Rathbone collapsed from his injuries, but survived the physical attack.

He and Clara retreated to the Harris summer house in Loudonville. She couldn't bear to dispose of the blood-stained, white satin dress. Instead, she hung it on a hanger out of sight. Exactly one year later, she first saw the ghostly image of Lincoln.

She had the closet sealed by a secret brick wall, the dress hang-ing inside the wall like it was in its own tomb, where it remained long after Harris moved away. Years later, guests would hear and see similar visions.

In July 1867, shortly after his 30th birthday and on the eve of his wedding, Rathbone resigned his position with the army, and the couple began traveling around the world. They had three children -- two boys and a girl. The circumstances of Lincoln's assassination however, continued to gnaw at Rathbone.

Friends who visited with the couple in Albany when they returned to spend the summer of 1882 at the Harris farm noticed Rathbone's increasingly violent temper, as well as his becoming noticeably morose and troubled. He suffered delusions and lived in constant state of fear.

His wife also noticed her husband had developed a strong jealousy toward her and fears that she would leave him.

More tragedy

A year and a half later, the family continued trekking around the world and spent Christmas Eve in Hanover, Germany. Early on Christmas morning, the sound of gun shots rang out in the home where the family was staying. The three children slept a bedroom away.

Moments later, Mrs. Rathbone was discovered on the bed, bleeding to death from multiple gun shot and stab wounds. Rathbone stood next to the bed and dropped his gun on the floor. Three chambers remained loaded. He picked up a dagger and proceeded to stab himself several times.

A few days later, Mrs. Rathbone was buried in Germany. The funeral was attended by many friends of the dignified family.

Her husband, much as he did when stabbed by Booth 18 years earlier, recovered from his wounds. As the couple's three children boarded a boat headed for Albany, where they would be raised by the Harris family, their father was committed to a German asylum for the insane, where he would spend the rest of his life. Rathbone lived until he was 73 years old.

Still, his wife's blood-stained, white satin dress continued to hang in a secret closet in Loudonville. And for visitors to the old home, which became an early 20th century boarding house, the ghostly visions and cries in the night continued.

Around the time of Rathbone's death in 1911, legend maintains that one of the Rathbone sons -- now fully into adulthood -- broke down the brick wall of the secret closet, took a flame to his mother's white satin dress and burned it to ashes.

Rathbone was buried in Germany next to his wife. By the early 1950s, there were no more visitors coming to the Rathbone graves. The couple's remains were dug up and disposed of.

According to the town of Colonie historian's office, the Loudon Cottage house was sold in the late 1920s. Its new owner moved the cottage 500 feet south to a location on Cherry Tree Road, where it remains to this day.

Friday, May 10, 2013

May Flowers

An explosion of purple bulbs on a May morning in Saratoga Springs.

Rising aross Broadway is the cream-and-cocoa colored Adelphi Hotel, with its three-story porch, slender columns and patterned arches.

Built in 1877, it is the last surviving example of the typical Saratoga Springs hotel of the Victorian Era.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Day the Bombs went off in Saratoga

It was shortly past the midnight hour and most reasonable people were already tucked in their beds when an explosion tore through the darkness of Congress Park.

Startled residents were jarred awake from their calm summer slumber and the rumor-mongering erupted just as suddenly: “Canfield’s has been dynamited!”

In those days Richard Canfield’s Casino was simply called Canfields – named for the owner of John Morrissey’s old Saratoga Club House – and the place where it stood was called Canfield Park. Barely a decade after the events of that crazy week in August 1905 occurred, the club house and the park would belong to Saratoga Springs, and the village and town of Saratoga Springs would be incorporated to form a city.

The explosion at Canfields that late Wednesday night had shattered windows and split an interior column, but was not the result of a purposeful act, an employee of the club house told newspapermen. The electric lights had failed, and to provide light Richard Canfield lit the gas jets and a cluster of burners. Gas had leaked through some rusty pipes, the employee explained, and the build-up of pressure caused the blast. Everyone seemed comfortable with the explanation and for the rest of the week life returned to the normalcy of a busy summer during which Saratoga would spend $80,000 on music alone for the entertainment of its guests.

At the Convention Hall opera singer Madame Rider-Kelsey wowed the crowd with her powerful, yet sympathetic voice. At Yaddo, Spencer Trask, “clad in corduroys and giving orders to a gardener near a clump of rhododendrons,” spent time in the summer heat with a writer from American Homes and Gardens, resulting in a large cover story in the magazine about the estate, two decades before it first began to welcome artists-in-residence. At Saratoga Race Course, the 17th day of the meet hosted six races and featured The Seneca – a six-furlong race won by Incantation, narrowly defeating second-place finisher Taxer, who came in at 40-1.

On Friday night, Victor Smith conducted Doring’s Orchestra of Troy at Congress Hall. And Louis Conterno directed The Fourteenth Regiment Band of Brooklyn in selections of the operetta “Babes in Toyland” on the piazza at the United states Hotel, leading them to their finale of “Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye .”
That night at 10:45, a loud explosion resonated on Woodlawn Avenue next to the United States Club. The blast shred the pieces of a shoeshine stand, broke the windows of the club and an adjacent garage, and badly chewed up the ground outside the club at 12 Woodlawn Ave.

Moments later, another blast was heard. This time it came from the park, near the window of one of the dining rooms at Canfields. Thousands of people gathered on the streets to try and find out the cause of the two explosions. No one was injured, but there was concern and curiosity. The fire department and police were called to both scenes, where crudely-made bombs were discovered to have been set off.

In the park, detectives found sheets of paper where a series of phrases had been printed with a rubber stamp: Canfield and Ullman to be dynamited; Ready to Go Off; Canfield says gas, I say dynamite; Twenty pounds of dynamite found at Canfield; Beware!

The police began their search for suspects and the event made headlines of both regional and national newspapers. “Two Saratoga Explosions,” said The New York Times. “Bombs for Gambling Houses,” said The Newtown Register, which began with the lede, “Saratoga is experiencing a reign of terror. Dynamite bombs have been thrown at two of the largest gambling houses in the country.”

Anti-gambling sentiment was high and consideration was given to the idea that the bomb-makers may have either been reformers, or pranksters, or potential robbers setting bombs as a distraction. Gambling was illegal, but authorities rarely enforced it, says current city Assistant Police Chief Greg Veitch. “Efforts to stop it were only made occasionally and only at certain locations.”
Joe Ullman, who operated the Bridge Whist Club on Phila Street, became extra-cautious after he was named as a target, in the rubber-stamped letter found outside the club house. Two days after the two explosions occurred, Ullman received a parcel in the mail and while carefully pulling it open noticed a coil of wire inside of the box. He called police who found that the package contained dynamite and a fuse and cap.

Newspaper reports say the contents were purposely not connected and would not have ignited, and therefore was meant as a warning. In his book “Such Was Saratoga,” published in 1940, author Hugh Bradley had another idea, however. “Only the fact that the caps were defective had prevented it from detonating,” writes Bradley, adding that a flyer similar to the one found near the park bomb two days earlier was found inside the box. Ullman said he was at a loss to account for the mayhem.

“It would seem to me that some foolish person has been trying to create a sensation wing to the unusual prosperity of the town,” Ullman told reporters. “The reformer always believes he is the only honest man in the world, and especially so when somebody else is making a success of which he is not capable.”

There is no record the bomb-maker was ever found and it is believed the person responsible for the events that occurred in August 1905 took the secret of his motivation with him to his grave.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Carousel Summer

The Carousel in Congress Park will celebrate its 103rd birthday today when it opens for the season in Saratoga Springs.

On a day that features the running of the Kentucky Derby and the Stanley Cup playoffs, some of the rules posted outside the carousel seem to be good rules to live by for any event.

Riders must remain on their horses for the entire ride.

Riders must face forward when riding and sit with one leg on each side of the horse.

The maximum weight limit on horses is 250 pounds.

Roughousing and abusive behavopr will not be tolerated.