Saturday, November 23, 2013

Greater Love: a Tale of the Underground Railroad in Little Falls, New York

Greater love than this, no man has
     -John, 15:13

Greater Love, available for $.99 on Kindle, is a new short story about the Underground Railroad in Little Falls, New York. The historical record of he activities of the Underground Railroad in that immediate area is very limited, but Richard Buckley has found evidence that there was a station at Little Falls, centered on the African Methodist Episcopal church which stood– as far as I can determine - on West Main near Furnace Street.  A leader in that congregation, Enoch Moore, was himself an escaped slave and a chief organizer of the town’s branch of the secret network that guided fugitives from the slave states all the way to freedom

Southern Exiles on their Way North by Thomas Nast, Harpers Weekly 1858

Enoch Moore appears in the story, which is set in 1853 when the Fugitive Slave Act, passed a year earlier, had unleashed legions of southern slave-catchers armed with the legal authority to pursue fugitives  anywhere in the U.S. and to deputize free citizens in the North to aid in their manhunts.  Under the Act, anyone aiding a fugitive would face a $1000 fine (at the time an enormous sum) and a six month jail sentence.  

Richard Buckley’s research makes it clear that the anti-slavery efforts in Little Falls were not confined to African Americans.  In Greater Love, two leading white citizens of the town are active in aiding fugitives:  Judge Nathaniel Benton and former congressman and attorney Arphaxad Loomis.  Loomis, who had liberated the town from the death grip of the Ellice Estate twenty years earlier,  was clearly a man of strong ideals and I believe that it corresponds with his character to imagine him as an ardent member of the Underground Railroad.

Much of the drama is set in an actual cavern which extends for an unknown distance in the vicinity of West Monroe Street and Topnotch Road.  The cavern, whose very existence has been almost completely forgotten, was known in the 19th century as Hinman’s Hole and evidently resembles Howe Caverns in its geology, consisting of a series of tunnels and an underground stream.  It appears that the only time it was explored was in the 1840s when a group of students from the Fairfield Academy descended into its dangerous depths. (The cave also probably resembles Schroeders Pants Cave in Dolgeville where cave explorer James Mitchell lost his life in 1965)
Hinman’s Hole is depicted in the story as a refuge for a family of fugitives who are being closely pursued by a band of southern slave-catchers. The possibility that the cave was actually used as such a hiding place is in the category of myth.
What is very true is that the East-West route from Troy to Rochester was an important branch of the Underground Railroad during the 1840s and 50s. Frederick Douglass in Rochester and Harriet Tubman in Auburn played a major part in the final stage of moving thousands to Canada.  Another, less well-known former slave and anti-slavery leader was the Rev. JermainWesley Loguen, who was educated at the Oneida Institute near Utica and centered his activities in Syracuse. According to Richard Buckley, Rev. Loguen had visited the AME Zion church in Little Falls. 

          Jermain Wesley Loguen                

Louguen, who escaped slavery in Tennessee. spoke eloquently against the Fugitive Slave Act and had been helping fugitives for many years. In his memoir he describes an 1839 escape in Syracuse when a slavemaster named Davenport came north with what appeared to be his wife, infant child, and older daughter Harriet. The older daughter was a slave, despite her white appearance, and Davenport’s intent was to sell her for $2500 to a local man “for the worst of purposes.”  The citizens of Syracuse sprang into action and spirited her off to Canada and the city remained strong in the anti-slavery cause through  the next two decades.


Stephen and Harriet Myers House , Livingston Ave. Albany

 Anti-slavery feeling also ran high in the Capital District where Stephen Myers assisted in setting the fugitives on the east-west route.  Troy was the scene of a famous and successful effort to forcibly free a runaway, Charles Nalle, from the custody of slave-catchers.  Harriet Tubman, who happened to be in the area, took a leading role in breaking Nalle out of jail in an 1860 episode which gained national attention and inflamed secessionist sentiment just before the Civil War.

Plaque Commemorating the 1860 rescue   of Charles Nalle on State Street in Troy

Amsterdam was also an active center, with shoemaker Chandler Barrett providing refuge. People in a number of very rural Mongomery County hamlets, including Ford’s Bush, Fonda’s Bush and Ames, are said to have sheltered fugitives and helped them on their way.

 Engraving of the Erie Canal at Little Falls, 1839

The fugitives probably made most of the journey on foot. The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was possibly used but canal boats were mule-drawn and proceeded at no more than a walking pace. 
The world’s first regularly scheduled steam railroad had opened between Schenectady and Albany in  1831 and within ten years it was possible to travel all the way to Niagara by train, and many fugitives seem to have used the railroad.  However, the influx of southern slave-catchers after 1852 probably drove many  fugitives back to foot travel, possibly through rural regions far from the main travel routes of the Mohawk Valley. Buckley mentions the role of Zenas Brockett, whose farm was in Manheim, and that farm becomes a destination in mentioned in the story.
It is certainly safe to assume that many tense moments occurred in and near Little Falls as fugitives were secretly moved from one refuge to another.  Resisting slavery in this way became a federal felony in 1852 and the risks to liberty and reputation were high; it is not surprising that little to no record of such resistance has been passed down.  The feelings of Northern whites about slavery were divided, with abolitionism a minority view throughout the 1850s.  The Ladies Aid Society of Little Falls might organize an ice cream social to benefit the AME Zion church, as they did according to Buckley, but if leading citizens like Arphaxad Loomis directly assisted in hiding fugitives, they might well have concealed their violations of  law.

Arphaxad Loomis in later life

And if slave-catchers from the South mysteriously vanished in Little Falls, as they do in this story, their disappearance might well have been concealed by the strongly anti-slavery political leaders of the village.
Recommended reading:
Unique Place, Diverse People; The Social and Political History of Little Falls, New York by Richard Buckley:
Available at the Little Falls Historical Society, 39 South Ann Street, Little Falls NY 13365

The Rev. J.W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman, a Narrative of Real Life by Jermain Wesley Loguen

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If I were a terrorist, I'd go shopping for a prepaid cellphone

 A more concise version of this essay was published in today's Albany Times Union as A Huge Gap in Our Security

Returning from a visit to Texas last month, I was called aside for some further attention at the Austin-Bergstrom airport. Perhaps the scanner revealed some anomaly of which I was unaware or maybe a mysterious algorithm randomly selects those to be singled out for more intensive scrutiny. Whatever the reason, I was patted down and my hands were tested for explosive residue.  

I am not complaining. I was in Manhattan on 9/11 and have no problem with TSA agents looking at every airline passenger, no matter how innocent he or she appears, as a possible terrorist.  But the experience got me thinking. If I were actually a terrorist, wouldn’t I know enough not to smuggle a weapon onto a plane at this point in history? Would I really be walking into a security checkpoint laden down with guns and bombs?
I certainly wouldn’t think I could show up at an airport with four friends carrying boxcutters and buy first class tickets with cash.  And I wouldn’t think I could conceal a bomb in my shoe like Richard Reid did on a Paris-Miami flight in 2001 nor in my underwear like Umar Abdulmutallab did on Christmas Day, 2009.  

Another thing I would not do is to plot any attacks with fast-talking strangers who promise to fix me up with a bomb or a missile.  Even if I am not the smartest would-be terrorist here in the Hudson Valley, I would have heard about the FBI schemes that entrapped an Albany imam in 2004 and four Newburgh muslims in 2009. Whatever the strength of these cases, (and both have been called into doubt) at the very least such obvious stings mean that serious terrorists are not going to take a chance on working with people who just show up out of nowhere.
I would want to talk and text with people I can really trust, either here in the US or overseas, who could help me to come up with a plot so horrific that the FBI hasn’t even imagined it. I’d need to talk with experts in this field, people whom I could completely trust. These might be relatives or friends I grew up with. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to contact such people with the Sprint phone for which I just signed a new two year contract. Nor would I use my own laptop to exchange friendly emails with well-known terrorist supporters like Anwar Al-Awlaki, as Major Nidal Hasan did before massacring 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. 
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I would now know with absolute certainty that any electronic communication will be visible to my enemies at the NSA and CIA.  But of course, I was already 99% certain of this. 

 Jax and Clay rely on their prepaids

So there would be only one safe way for me and my America-hating friends to plan our next attack. We’d go to any one of several stores and check out the selection of prepaid cell phones. We’ve seen Law & Order and The Wire so we know that prepaids are ideal for any criminal enterprise. To be extra safe, we’ll buy a batch and throw them away after a single use. That way, even if the NSA picks up our terrorist chatter, they won’t be able to pin us down. 

The only problem is deciding which phones to buy.  The $59 Verizon at Walmart looks good and has the best network. We also like the AT&T GoPhone at Best Buy. That one offers a $10 International Feature package which gives each of us 250 minutes of international calling for 30 days. That should cover any last minute coordination with allies dodging drones over in Yemen or Pakistan.

No need to attract attention with multiple purchases. The smart move would be to buy a variety of brands in several stores: a BoostMobile and a TracPhone in a nearby mall, a couple of T-mobiles at a 7-11udsonHudsponH, a Verizon 4G LTE Mobile Hotpsot and a few more Netphones at a Walmart Supercenter on the other side of town.

By now I’ve convinced myself that real terrorists will have no trouble evading the multi-billion dollar US surveillance industry. But if that’s true, why haven’t our elected leaders done something about it? 

The Times Square bomber used a prepaid

Well, it turns out that Senator Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn did do something right after the 2010 arrest of Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad.  I was not surprised that it was Schumer who first took such action. He is my senator and I have long been impressed by his unflagging energy and attention to in-state needs, even if I have differed with him on other issues. And the fact that he partnered with one of the Senate’s most conservative members is also in keeping with his very pragmatic style.

  Senator Schumer had the right idea in 2010

On May 26, 2010 the two senators proposed the first-ever federal law requiring that buyers’ identities be recorded for all prepaid phones and SIM cards. In their press release Schumer and Cornyn pointed out that drug dealers, financial criminals and the 9-11 hijackers had all used prepaids, and that countries ranging from Germany to Indonesia already required registration for such phones. 

The linking of Shazad to a prepaid was a lucky break. He used a prepaid to buy the vehicle he tried to blow up in Times Square and evidently used the same phone to call family in Pakistan. If he had thrown away the phone after a single use, as Jax and Clay do on Sons of Anarchy, this link could not have been made. Even so, the bill addressed a real weakness in the fight against terrorism. 

But Schumer and Cornyn’s Senate Bill 3427 died quietly in the obscure Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee and never came to a vote. And three years later, prepaids are selling better than ever.

Why that happened I leave to your imagination. An unwillingness to inconvenience innocent people who rely on prepaid phones? A respect for journalists who use such phones to communicate with sources? A sympathy with secret lovers who want to avoid discovery?

A more likely reason for the quiet death of Senate Bill 3427 can be found in the corporate logos found on the array of prepaids at Walmart and other outlets. Prepaid cellphones and internet devices are a major growth sector for Verizon, AT&T and other companies as people’s income and credit ratings fall, and as pay phones vanish from our public places. And as a helpful clerk at Walmart told me, they are a real bargain and do away with the nuisance of signing up for long term contracts. She told me she was going to switch to a prepaid as soon as her Verizon contract expired.

If such phones are a major growth sector, does this mean that Verizon or AT&T lobbyists would oppose such a bill? Did they, in fact, make sure that SB 3427 never even came to a vote in committee? Would such minimal record-keeping be a significant enough expense for the corporations to block the bill? Well, I have made  inquiries to Senator Schumer’s office trying to find out why the bill died and look forward to their response. 

If SB3427 were ever meant to be taken seriously, it is odd that no companion bill was introduced in the House. Rep. Peter King, for one, would probably be happy to do a similar bipartisan sponsorship with any number of Democrats, and he’s on good terms with Senator Schumer. Our local congressmen Republican  Chris Gibson and Democrat Paul Tonko are also very good on bipartisan initiatives.But I can find no evidence that Schumer and Cornyn ever tried to promote such a House bill on prepaids. 

And why, after the fanfare of an announcement and joint press release by Schumer and Cornyn on May 10, 2010 was 3427 sent to such an obscure committee as Commerce, Science and Transportation? Both Cornyn and Schumer are on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security where they could have argued for their bill and neither are on the committee where it was sent.

As to Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber whose arrest prompted Schumer’s and Cornyn’s call to arms – He is still referenced on Schumer’s site but only as the motivation for other initiatives by the senator which I support, such as a more reasonable allotment of Homeland Security funds to NYC and additional funding for port security. His only action on phones since 3427 died, however, was a May 2012 bill making it a federal crime to tamper with the registry of stolen phones. Admirable, but why is this more critical than depriving terrorists of an essential communications tool?

Senator Cornyn has also done good work along similar lines: more funding for port security in Texas, better training for first responders. Nothing on prepaid cellphones, though, or other easy ways to avoid attention from the NSA.

And after three years, the sale of prepaids may be on the verge of overtaking traditional contract-based phones. Prices are dropping and services increasing. Verizon’s 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot is selling well and offers an excellent option for making connections with foreign terrorists far from prying eyes and ears. And if you can afford to throw away the $99 device after a single use, so much the better.

As I said earlier, I am quite willing to accept a loss of privacy, as at airports, when it has a real chance of keeping us safer. What I fail to understand is why our elected leaders do not close this obvious gap in our national security. And, in fact, seem to be running as fast as possible away from any attempt to deal with the problem.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

You Don't Need a Weatherman

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.
                                                     -Bob Dylan

It’s getting hotter.  But here in our corner of the upper Hudson Valley, it really doesn’t seem that bad this year. The apple crop has not been destroyed by erratic  heat waves and frosts, as it was last year, and the harvest promises to be especially good. The Mohawk and the Schoharie have been running high and boat traffic did have to be suspended last month on the Erie Canal but so far there’s been nothing quite as bad as the huge floods that followed Hurricane Irene in 2011.  And the tornado that ripped through Rotterdam and Schenectady a couple weeks ago may have been an anomaly, though some Assemblymen are worried by increasing tornado activity in the state and have called for an improved public warning system.

We all know that it’s a lot worse this year elsewhere in America.  Waves of tornados have crashed into Oklahoma. Wildfires are out of control in Colorado. Not that we’re immune around here. Last October Superstorm Sandy swept out of the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded off our coasts to cause the kind of damage none of us imagined possible.
But the mass media tell us that we’re rebuilding. Republican Chris Christie and Democrat Barack Obama toured the Jersey shore last month in a heartening display of bipartisanship.  One reporter did nag the governor about whether New Jersey should have prepared for the future with climate change in mind. “No,” said Mr. Christie, “cause I don’t think there’s been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change.” President Obama, who from time to time admits that the climate is changing, stood next to him on the boardwalk but did not express any embarrassing disagreement with his host.

People want to be positive. “The storm can’t beat us,” as more than one New Yorker has said. Thus far,  I haven’t heard anyone say, “We’re New Yorkers and we’re a  lot tougher than carbon dioxide” but it seems many of us might feel that way. If not, why would people be buying up Rockaway beach front like crazy, barely eight months after nearby Breezy Point was obliterated?  True, they won’t be getting the same deals on federal flood insurance but these frantic buyers don’t seem that worried.

People who take the long view, of course, like insurance companies and farmers can’t afford to deny what’s right in front of their eyes. New York City Mayor Bloomberg, as a prime example, is not one to underestimate risks or he would never have become the billionaire that he is.  On June 11 he called for a $20 billion investment in flood barriers to protect New York City from whatever comes roaring out of the Atlantic in coming years. He quoted environmental scientists who predict sea levels rising as much as 31 inches by 2050, accompanied by severe storms and prolonged spells of extreme heat and cold But Mayor Bloomberg is leaving office this year and the odds against building such barriers may be as great as those against the gun control laws he’s also been fighting for. 

We’re nearing a point where not even the most avid denialists, like Texas Governor Rick Perry or Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, will be able to keep saying that everything is just fine and dandy, just the way God always wanted to be. (After all, 2012 was the hottest ever recorded in this country.)

Those who want to do nothing, however, will keep questioning why it’s all happening. They will be at great pains to point out that no one event, no matter how horrific, can be linked to a changing climate. And my guess is that they will keep expressing such doubts and keep advocating the burning of fossil fuel, no matter what the evidence.

The question the doubters and denialists won't want us to ponder is:  Do the droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, wild fires and floods have anything at all to do with how much carbon dioxide our cars, our air conditioners, our furnaces, our airplanes, our use of electricity sends into the atmosphere?

 And since we don’t agree on whether we ourselves are responsible, trains full of  Dakota crude oil still come through Albany every day for the past year as if burning all that fuel will have no effect on the rising temperature of the globe. Governor Cuomo, who was so forthright about the reality of climate change right after Superstorm Sandy, has not commented on all those tanker cars lined up along I-787. (Click on image for earlier story on this)

The national government still sends its fleets and armies across the planet as if obscure tribesmen and angry fanatics were anything but a minor threat when compared against devastating climate change. The federal legislature is still dead-locked  over abstract financial numbers as if Washington itself may not be covered by the sea before they ever reach an agreement. And as each region of the country faces the impact of forces the federal government chooses to ignore, who is to say what the future will bring?

To answer this question is to enter the realm of fiction, or science fiction. And that is what led to my latest story, now available on Kindle for 99 cents - Just click on the cover image at the top or bottom of this post.

Imagine a retired couple enjoying their golden years in a time after New York, Boston and Washington have vanished beneath rising seas. Imagine a time of rainy and dry seasons, of wildfires that take out entire states, and of powerful regional regimes that have assumed the power that an obsolete and archaic national government refused to wield.

How would such confederations of the old states survive in an era when the climate causes repeated waves of destruction? A time when no more oil can be imported?  Would such a confederation of northeastern states turn to back to coal? Would steam-driven locomotives become the most reliable means of transportation in such a time? Would the leaders of such a society still be denying that burning fossil fuel is making the planet ever hotter and more threatening to human survival?

Now, imagine that the grandson of this elderly couple is a weatherman for WMHT radio in a time when television and the internet are distant memories. Now that the satellites are gone, young Ray’s respect for old-school methods wins him a devoted following in the regional capital at Albany.

Then, one rainy Monday Ray takes to the air waves to become the most dangerous kind of whistle-blower any society can imagine: the man who claims that everything that has gone wrong with the world is our own fault.

Excerpt from the opening of You Don’t Need a Weatherman:

We used to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, corn, you name it, but with all the rain we’ve been having lately, we finally switched to damp-resistant potatoes and turnips. Marge and I both like to putter around in the garden so when the rain finally tapered off on Monday, we went out to pull a few weeds. I ran an extension cord so we could bring the radio with us and catch the noon weather report. 

To be honest, we just like to hear Ray’s voice. He always starts out saying “Stay tuned for the official North East Regional Authority ten day weather forecast.” Then he reads a commercial, say, for a special railroad excursion to Whiteface Mountain. After that, he might read another commercial for canning jars or mosquito netting. And then he reads the forecast. There was nothing unexpected in what Ray read on Monday.  Just rain today and tomorrow, followed by partly rainy, cloudy, more cloudy, more rain and a flood warning for the end of the week. 

Unlike a lot of those guys who pass for weathermen on the radio, Ray has a double degree in meteorology and geology from Union Siena and really knows what he’s talking about. The Weather Bureau experts at NERA even consult with him on some of the trickier predictions. Of course, there’s no sure way to foretell the weather that isn’t tricky, unlike years ago when the satellites were still up. You might say it’s all guesswork now although Ray would disagree. He’s a great one for checking wind speed, barometric pressure and all that, and he even talks on the telephone with weather men in the Central and Southern Regional Authorities. He told me that he got in some trouble for that once, around the time of those border incidents in Kentucky.

And did I mention that Ray Rogers, the weatherman at WMHT Schenectady, is our very own grandson?

 Ray’s feature program is our favorite, a fifteen minute slot billed as “Ray’s Rainy Day” broadcast every Monday and Wednesday from 2:15 to 2:30.  His angle is to tell uplifting weather stories, like the little girl who survived for a month in a collapsed building after the Great Boston Tornado or the boy who warned his village when Superstorm Sammy surged all the way to Harpers Ferry. 

Unfortunately, we both dozed off after lunch and missed the show. Marge says that retirement can make you really lazy.

We went over that evening to play cards with the Feldmans.  Bob retired from NERA Rail the same time I did and has been a pal for years. As she dealt the first hand, his wife Jane relayed some gossip about dead bodies floating in the Estuary that she heard from Mary Hotaling, whose brother is a Hudson Riverwatcher

“Makes me think of the time you and me were working the Scranton Line,” observed Bob.

“Do you mean when the Chesapeake Bay moved way up into the Susquehanna?”

“Yeah, all the bridges had been wiped out and there were bodies floating everywhere.”

“Funny, we came through a year later and the Susquehanna was bone dry.”

“That was the summer of the big wildfires, wasn’t it?”

“It was a son of a bitch getting the coal train through that mess, wasn’t it?” Looking at my pair of fives and three queens, I winked at Marge and said, “I call.”

“We nearly choked to death,” laughed Bob, laying down his aces and tens. “Full house!”

“What a bastard!” I was laughing along with Bob. We don’t play for serious money, just fun. 

Shuffling the cards, I started to deal. “That fire was no joke. It burned out most of Maryland before the hurricanes came.”

“You remember those walls of fire on both sides of the tracks in Hagerstown? A couple of boxcars burst into flames before we could disconnect them.”

“Hagerstown? Don’t you mean New Washington?”

“I keep forgetting they’d moved the federal government up there before they went to Charlottesville.”

“Ever since old D.C. was engulfed, the Feds keep looking for a perfect spot for the new capital.”

“I don’t know why they even bother to keep it all going, the President, Congress, Supreme Court, that whole circus. It isn’t like they have any serious work to do since the Regional Authorities stepped up.”

“The USA is an important symbol, like the flag,” I reminded Bob. “It stands for our freedom.”


Read the rest of You Don't Need a Weatherman on your Kindle reader for 99 cents. The Kindle version can  also be read on tablets, smartphones and PCs by downloading the free Kindle app. Amazon Prime members may borrow the story through the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Click on cover image for details.