A Soldier’s Letter

“We arrived in Kabul in early April of 2008.  Since then we have been to almost every part of the country.  I hold the rank of 1LT (First Lieutenant) and am a Platoon Leader for an Infantry Platoon of 17 Soldiers.  We are a heavy weapons company and our primary missions include base defense, rapid response force (RRF), convoy escorts and mounted combat patrols in and throughout the capital city of Kabul.  Our convoy escort missions take us throughout the entire country.  I have been to major cities including Jalalabad, Ghazni, Qalat, Kandahar, and Herat Province.
“I’ve found the country to be dramatically different in each region.  Kabul is a city of 3 million Afghans that has the infrastructure to support less than 500,000.  So, you can imagine the stench of garbage and sewage which flows directly from the mud huts into open trenches in the streets.  Kabul is relatively peaceful for the most part.  When you head down South, it is a totally different story.  The trips to Ghazni, Qalat and especially Kandahar are especially dangerous and often include small arms fire, RPG’s, and IED’s.
“Once in a while, we make trips to Jalalabad (J-Bad) which is a great trip.  Kabul is at an elevation of about 5,800 feet where as J-Bad is at about 1,700 feet.  We pass through large mountainous passes with a number of switch-backs that drop you hundreds of feet in a short distance.  The route follows the Kabul River which is black as mud in Kabul but turns to a teal color as you get closer to Surobi.  I believe it is from the glacial melt that runs from the towering mountains that makeup all of Northeastern Afghanistan.  J-Bad is a great city compared to the rest of the country.  It is much more humid than the higher elevations but is a little bit cooler.  Many people migrate between Kabul and J-Bad depending on the season.  Summers are spent in Kabul and Winters are spent in J-Bad to take advantage of the weather.
“As the Platoon Leader for 3rd Platoon, Delta Company 2-108 IN, I plan and execute all of the different missions my platoon is responsible for.  We spend a lot of time patrolling the city and talking with the local nationals.  We listen to their problems and concerns, treat wounded children, conduct village assessments and provide security for humanitarian aid missions where food, clothes, toys and medical supplies are distributed throughout the city.
“My platoon has essentially, for lack of a better term, “adopted”, a Kuchi village which we have named Garbage Village.  The Kuchi are a nomadic tribe that makes up a large percentage of the Afghan population.  They are one of the most oppressed groups in the country and are a very poor, desolate people.  We saw them from one of our routes living in an actual garbage dump. They burn the garbage for heat in the winter and live off of anything they can find.  Their goats eat the garbage and the people use the goats for dairy and meat products.  This group had never had any assistance until my Platoon entered the dump.  Since we first met this group, I’ve organized multiple humanitarian aid missions to include: food, water, and clothes drops; medical assistance for issues such as chemical burns, broken bones, cuts, and infections; veterinarian assistance for vaccinating and de-worming their livestock; and water sample testing.
“While we are a heavy weapons infantry company tasked to engage and destroy any enemy threat, we have run into very little threat in the Kabul area.  Part of our mission is winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and the humanitarian aid missions do help that goal and are part of our Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations.
“As much as I enjoy what we are doing here for the people of Kabul, I really look forward to coming home.  In my civilian life, I work as the Legislative Assistant for the Broome County Legislature responsible for the day to day operations of the legislature and the research and drafting of legislation.  I currently live in Endwell, NY.  My family still lives in Spencer.”
-Lieutenant Christopher Marion

Big Buddy

Soldier’s Story

by Jesse Disbrow

Lt. Christopher Marion had just graduated from Spencer-Van Etten High School in 2000 and enrolled into Binghamton University when he decided to enlist in the National Guard. While it wasn’t much of a big deal at the time, since then it has changed his life helping him become and officer and a humanitarian.
It was December of 2000 when a high school classmate contacted Marion and told him he was interested in enlisting at the Ithaca Armory. Marion decided to go with him to find out if the Guard would turn out to be as good as all the recruiting speeches he had heard.
“This was obviously prior to 9-11 and from what I saw, joining the Guard was a great way to pay for college, serve the country, help out around the state and be part of something that offered the camaraderie that I was missing since I was no longer a part of the high school football, track or wrestling teams,” said Marion.
Marion had first joined to help pay for college and to be part of a group as he had with high school sports. But when 9/11 occurred, the National Guard changed and with it so did Marion’s one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer service time.
Marion finished his basic training and was assigned to Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, NY in January 2003. After almost two years and a promotion to Specialist later, Marion returned home in December 2004 to pick up the second semester of his junior year at Binghamton.
Towards the end of his junior year he was once again approached by the military, but this time it was because he had been recommended for Officer Candidate School (OCS). Marion would earn his commission and the rank of Second Lieutenant from The Empire State Military during the summer of 2005.
After a short stint as site commander of two Long Island rail yards, Marion finished his college career at Binghamton graduating with a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Law in December 2005.
Marion decided that the military would be his course after college and attended officer training at Ft. Benning, GA and Ft. Leonardwood, MO, where he graduated as an honor graduate in July 2007.
In January 2008, Marion was mobilized for deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  After two months of training at Ft. Bragg, NC Marion and his unit arrived in Afghanistan in April.
Since arriving Marion has traveled all across the country as First Lieutenant and platoon leader of a heavy weapons and escort unit, though he has mostly been stationed in the capital of Kabul.

Get Small

Thirty years ago, the poet and philosopher Wendell Berry wrote “The Unsettling of America,” an extended protest against then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butt’s draconic dictum, “Get big or get out.”  Addressing the nation’s farmers, Butts was advocating not only the growth of the great agribusinesses, but firmly planting the government behind the big, and not the small farmer. A small farmer himself, Berry argued that farming by its very nature is local.  Each field or pasture, said Berry, responds best to the intimate knowledge of the farmer. Rainfall on the west side of a hill may be different than on the east; drainage is a matter of soil, elevation, and individual crops.  Berry argued further against the ever-increasing size of the machines being used to till the soil: the heavier the machine, the more it compacted the soil, and the larger the machine the less adaptable it was to uneven terrain.  Requiring farmers to purchase these huge machines to become “competitive,” Berry predicted, would only drive the farmers into debt.
In the more than quarter century that has passed since Berry wrote his book, the drastic decline of the family farm that he predicted has brought the percentage of actual farmers in the United States to somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent.  However powerful it may remain and however much market share it continues to rule, industrial-type agriculture has also suffered some blows.  Most recently, we have seen that the quality of the nation’s food supply is being compromised by the system of factory farming. Huge tracts of land being given over to monocultures have necessitated more and more powerful pesticides (now expanded to include genetically modified organisms, which increase the crop’s own genetic resistance to bugs). A nationwide threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has at least in part been brought on by the over-use of antibiotics to keep factory-raised animals from succumbing to the diseases their living conditions would otherwise create.  Vegetarianism has become fashionable.
The loss of the family farm has been felt not only in the grocery stores, but in the nation’s psyche. This is the inspiration behind FarmCity days, which invite the young people to come see the farms where their food is raised.  Farmers open their homes, their farms, to visitors from town, who may never otherwise have an opportunity to pet a cow, smell pigs, or feel the dirt from which their food is raised under their sneakers.
This year’s FarmCity days host in Groton/Lansing is not your typical dairy farm.  Rather than taking visitors through the barn to view swishing tails and rows of stanchions, the alpaca farm introduces them to a very special small farm. Raising alpacas for wool may never be as big as raising dairy cattle, but in many ways these small specialty farms seem to be the wave of the future. Farmland is being put back into use by organic farmers, by community supported agriculture groups, “hobby” farms, and people like a young woman from Downstate who stopped in the newspaper offices recently; she and her husband moved up here to  start a farm raising organic pork, and they can’t begin to keep up with the orders coming in.  Some of these farmers are the sons and daughters of farmers, but many others have little experience farming.  Often as not, they seem to be refugees from an urban way of life. Old timers might sit back and laugh at their naiveté, but their energy and inspiration (and yes, the money they bring in from other careers) work on the land like spring rain.
The cost of gas is not going to go down, and with the end of the era of cheap gasoline one of the supports for large agribusiness will also crumble.  A tomato grown in California can only be cheaper in local markets than one grown in Lansing if the cost of the gasoline used for transport stays low. As transportation becomes more costly, the price of food grown far away will no longer be competitive with food grown near to home, especially in as fertile a region as ours.  Further, people are beginning to worry about the safety and quality of food produced by agribusiness.  When salmonella or e.coli contamination becomes a real possibility, arguments that mass-produced food is cheaper just don’t seem as important.
Those of us watching for a revival of the agricultural sector can only hope Mr. Butts is rolling in his grave, and that all these little agricultural start-ups, like the CSA’s and specialty farms, continue to thrive and grow.  There’s still a lot more needed in terms of government support for small farms, but while we wait for the government to catch up it’s heartening to see that the new farmers, like the old farmers, aren’t waiting for a handout.  They’ve rolled up their sleeves and brought their shovels, and they’re doing it themselves: the old-fashioned American way.

Burning Questions

Burning Questions

Local officials recently showed two minds on public air quality.  While the Ovid Village Board made a move to ban outdoor heating devices in the village, the Town of Covert passed a resolution to oppose the State DEC ban on open burning.   Are Ovid folks that much different from Covert folks?   Not far away, Romulus officials are working on a permit system to regulate outdoor heating devices.
While most people understand the thinking behind the ban on heating devices, even with the cost of heating oil set to skyrocket this winter  – the Board was anticipating this  eventuality – it’s also true that  many folks think it’s okay to burn garbage in their own back yard.   One survey estimates that 25 – 50% of rural residents do backyard burning.  It’s easy to see why:  if you’re just burning paper or yard waste, what’s the difference between that and having a cookout fire?   And then there’s the high price of trash.  At three to five bucks a thirty-pound bag, not to mention pick-up fees, getting rid of your garbage is turning into a major household expense.  In spite of recycling, it seems we have more garbage than ever, and a good deal of it comes via the mailbox.  Small wonder that the easy way out involves chucking it in the burn barrel and stirring the weekly harvest of flyers, credit card offers, coupons, surveys, prayers-by-mail, duplicate billings, and so on.
The problem, according to NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, is that you can’t take the plastic out of the mail.  All those mailer windows, plastic wrapped coupons, wax and plastic coatings, and plastic sample gift cards emit dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances known to humankind.   If you can smell it, you’re breathing it.  There is no safe level.  If you’re burning it, and it drifts on the wind and settles in the woods, and six months later you eat a deer that grazed on those leaves, the dioxin the animal ingested passes right into you, where it stays.  It doesn’t break down, which is why it is so carcinogenic.
Country and city folk generally share a stereotype of country folk as being healthier than city folk.  There’s the outdoor lifestyle, farming, and, of course, breathing the fresh air.  Unfortunately, the outdoor lifestyle for many rural residents includes a good hour or two of commuting to work, if not more.  That’s just time spent on your butt in the car, and with just about everything out of walking distance, country folks may actually be exercising less than people who live in town.   While farming still involves a great deal of hard manual labor, every farmer knows his job is at least fifty percent tractor, truck, and small engine mechanic.  Fixing the baler for the third time in a week may not do much for your abs, but it sure is tiring; who wants to exercise after all that?
Added to that is the fact that the poorer and more out-of-the-way a rural district is, the more likely it will be targeted as a repository for some big city area’s wastes.  Industrial-type farming operations locate far out of town because town dwellers are numerous enough, and able to organize enough, to chase them out of their own backyards.  Polluted former industrial sites that would be cleaned up if they were close to, or in, a city, get left to fester because small town budgets either can’t foot the clean up or hire the lawyers to go after the responsible parties.  According to the Journal of Rural Health, residence in rural areas is a risk factor for cancer; while national studies of cancer incidence find rural folks at slightly less risk for getting  cancer it in the first place (when factors of race, age, and socioeconomic status are accounted for) when they do get it they’re more likely to die from it.
Therefore, even if your nearest neighbor is a mile away and nobody else could possibly be bothered by your burn barrel, you’re taking a risk with your own and your family’s health. Your risk of getting cancer (unless, of course, you’re poor, overweight, or elderly) might be lower, but your risk of it killing you is higher, so why stand there breathing dioxin? And if you’re harming no one but yourself, well, don’t harm yourself either.

Outlaw Heroes

Bob Dylan says somewhere, “You’ve got to be an honest man to live outside the law.” As the tide of out-of-towners for Trumansburg’s Grassroots festival runs out, leaving a fairgrounds full of discarded coolers, lost clothes, empty cans, and the detritus of one huge party for locals to clean up, the sheriffs, state troopers, and village police must all be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not only is the overtime budget for these agencies stretched by the demands of keeping up with the festival-goers, but the public’s goodwill, or lack thereof, toward police is displayed. Our society has an ambivalent relationship with law enforcement, as illustrated by our outlaw heroes as well as by the yearly conflict between welcoming the Grassroots visitors and containing the misbehavior of some of them. We look the other way for a certain amount of lawbreaking: there will be potsmoking and illegal camping, underage patrons mingling where they shouldn’t, and people without tickets sneaking in to the festival. Many people consider these things an inevitable part of the festival; with over 30,000 visitors in a single weekend, it would be a miracle if no one broke the rules.
For law enforcement, however, looking the other way isn’t their job. It’s their task to uphold the law and pursue those who break it without favoritism and without exception. Further, the law they are committed to uphold comes from us, the citizens; citizens who choose not to participate in the tedious work of maintaining a democracy are giving their tacit approval to the way things are—including laws they might, themselves, be in the habit of breaking.
It is, of course, not necessary to disagree with a law in order to break it. This is the point Henry David Thoreau was trying to make when he was jailed for not paying his taxes. The writer of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” resisted contributing his tax dollars to the war against Mexico, and was ungraciously annoyed when a friend paid the tax for him to get him out of the Concord jail. Thoreau insisted that, as a citizen, he was obligated to break a law his conscience resisted. Thousands of people every year, as in Thoreau’s day, fail to pay their taxes. When they are caught they submit to the legal penalties without resorting to the many avenues of resistance open to them, such as legal appeals and public protest. Their conscience accords with the law even if their actions do not. Because Thoreau’s conscience did not accord with the law, he resisted: publicly and civilly (and yes, I mean that both ways.)
Herein lies a great deal of the tension and difficulty for people in law enforcement: they never know, whether they are making a traffic stop for a blown headlight, searching a crowd for a lost teenager, or arresting a murder suspect, where on that continuum from the privacy of conscience to acquiescence to public law they will find their subject. A three-time felon may surrender with good grace, while a parent speeding to the daycare center may be verbally abusive and threatening. Seasoned cops often begin to feel they have more in common with career criminals, who at least play by the same rules as they do, than with the “law-abiding” folks who put up a stink when they’re caught for minor infractions, like illegal parking at Grassroots.
However, it is in that space outside the fences of law where conscience develops, and it is that relationship between conscience and law that so fascinates us in our outlaw superheroes. Hellboy, Batman, and Jesse James are all depicted as honest men outside the law. Thoreau’s fame derives from his morality: “I desire to be a good neighbor as much as I desire to be a bad subject,” he writes. What makes our outlaw superheroes so fascinating is not that they break the law, but that they do so within the strictures of their own morality. They are constantly tested with the temptation to cross over into real criminality and the true tension in each new movie is not whether they will win or lose their cataclysmic fistfights, but how they will handle that temptation to deafen themselves to the inner voice this time.
Thus in reflecting on Grassroots, as the last of the stragglers putter away, it is worth noting how really decent people were given the circumstances. After that, give a round of thanks to our sheriffs, police, troopers, and emergency services personnel, who deserve our appreciation most when they are not needed.

On Being Polite

In the course of working at the Finger Lakes Community Newspapers for two and a half years I have attended an inordinate number of public meetings. It has been fascinating and mostly heartening to see democracy at work on the local level. Government officials who are being paid next to nothing (or, in the case of school board members, nothing) come home from their regular jobs, maybe get some supper and then trundle off to go through paperwork, listen to the opinions of residents and hired experts, and make some decisions about what to do with our tax money.
Our newspapers attend the public meetings of eight school districts, 11 towns and nine villages. They are all very different. I suppose they have all always had their own peculiar character as they are the product of the personalities of the people who live there. However, over the last 30 years all the towns and villages within a 20-mile radius of Ithaca have been seeing a steady incursion of “outsiders” with quite different folkways than the ones that have evolved over the 230 years of European settlement in central New York.
Outsiders have always contributed to the evolution of our local small towns. I live in Trumansburg and know its history best, so my favorite example of an outsider who arrived and turned the town upside down is Colonel Hermon Camp. He arrived on foot, virtually penniless, having walked from Owego before the War of 1812. He served in the war and then proceeded to greatly expand the means of production in Trumansburg, including founding what is now Tompkins Trust Company.
He had plenty of company in the 19th century. With the expansion of the canal system through the first half of the century made central New York the frontier of the republic. Entrepreneurs poured in. The advent of the railroads continued the economic expansion in the second of the century. The opening of the West must have slowed the flow of newcomers into central New York. In the 20th century it has basically slowly emptied out.
So the new newcomers are a different breed. They are mostly seeking a rural idyll. They look at the abandoned agricultural landscape and see a picturesque ruin that they wish to preserve as “greenspace” and “viewsheds.” Their economy is an international economy dependent as it is on Cornell, Ithaca College, Borg Warner and a network of clients whose work comes to them from all over the world through the Internet. It is all a long way from farming, woolen mills, and glove factories.
So as I sat in my folding chair night after night I was regularly disheartened by the awkward clash between the folkway of the inhabitants of a declined (but not extinct) rural economy and the folkway of a post-modern service economy. The principles of the latter seemed ahistorical, to be ungrounded by a sense of place, to emphasize personal achievement and addicted to decisions made by committees. The former are basically … the opposite. And in this case opposites do not always attract.
It is the responsibility of newcomers to learn the history of these communities, to get a feel for the folkways of the region, and to proceed with their engagement in public life accordingly. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening as much as I would like. So many times I have had to sit through a meeting where someone who is just trying to be civically responsible comes across as boorish, condescending and insensitive. They are then baffled by the negative reception that they get immediately and the backlash the unfolds subsequently. It is basically the local equivalent of moving to France and trying to convince that they don’t know anything about food or wine and then being surprised when they get a little shirty with you.
This is my last week as managing editor of the Finger Lakes Community Newspapers. It has generally been an uplifting experience, except for karmic downer described above. I can now look forward to simply reading the paper like everyone else and going to public meetings and practicing what I have just preached.

Time to Go

In the aftermath of covering eight high school commencement ceremonies it is somewhat stunning to realize that all of them struck such similar themes. Three of valedictorians (or salutatorians) even quoted the same book: Dr. Suess’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” (one of them apparently reading it in its entirety from the podium).

Eerily, at “Suite101.com,” a Web site for writers, in the “psychology” section this book is touted as “a popular graduation gift for students. ‘Oh! The Places You’ll Go’ works whether students are graduating from high school or college or adults are embarking on a new stage of life! It’s about challenges and change.” The page goes on to explain in some detail what the protagonist deals with in the book, which is 48 pages long.

In 1957 Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Suess) wrote the “The Cat in the Hat” as a unruly remedy to the insipid primers featuring squeaky clean children called Dick and Jane; the books were boring kids so badly that they were dissuading them from reading. Thirty-three years later, instead of needing waking up, Geisel apparently believed that kids needed some assurance. The larger world, once portrayed in the media as stultifyingly conformist and predictable, had, after three decades of counter-cultural tumult, become bafflingly heterogeneous and daunting.

In the four decades since Geisel wrote “The Cat in the Hat” a generation of children have grown up and themselves had children, who are now graduating from high school (and have been doing so for years now). The Boomer kids who took the Cat in the Hat as a role model and had fun with their lives, wreaking havoc in various ways with their parents’ notions of propriety, inherited a society that they, in their vast numbers and consumerist frenzy, had helped to create.

After living through an adolescence and young adulthood during which their mantra was “take chances,” the Boomers have developed a culture, the primary guiding principle of which seems to be “promote safety.”

People moved from cities and suburbs to “ex-urbs,” stating unself-consciously that they were doing so “in order to raise their children in a safe environment.” These small towns probably are safer than the cities. There are drugs in small towns, but not, you know, as many and as hard … most of the time … we think. There aren’t any gangs in small towns; the bullies operate solo or in smaller groups, generally without firearms. There isn’t any violent crime in small towns … except among people who know each other and decide to get even for some reason.

When our staff wades into the bound volumes of these community newspapers (some of which have been around since the 19th century) to do our occasional “This Month in History” features, they often find that the headlines from 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago are alarmingly similar to the ones we put on top of stories the week before. There has been crime, bad behavior (including violence), drugs (especially if you count alcohol) and other hazards in these towns for as long as they have been here.

In fact, it seems obvious that their perceived safety is a function of the slow decline of their economies and the departure of young people for (figuratively) green pastures. Stories from the 1860s not uncommonly had the entire village of Trumansburg (for example) erupting in a post-election riot that was prompted by political ill will lubricated by consumption of hard liquor. By the 1960s that sort of thing just didn’t happen in Finger Lakes small towns. They are safe and sound.

Not a single salutatorian or valedictorian stood behind the podium and quoted the Clash classic:

“This indecision’s bugging me / If you don’t want me, set me free / Exactly whom I’m supposed to be / Don’t you know which clothes even fit me? / Come on and let me know / Should I cool it or should I blow?

“Should I stay or should I go now? / If I go there will be trouble / And if I stay it will be double / So you gotta let me know / Should I stay or should I go?”