The Job Nobody Wants

Nobody joins a volunteer fire department to be the bookkeeper.

To fight fires? Of course. Drive the fire trucks? Absolutely. Help people in trouble? You bet. Keep track of the finances? No, no thanks.

So, when you have somebody who’s good with numbers and willing to be in charge of the money, that’s a big win. The problem is that some people see this as an opportunity to steal.

Several times a year, you read about treasurers at volunteer fire departments being arrested or convicted on charges of looting cash from their organizations. Just last week, the treasurer of a downstate volunteer fire department pleaded guilty to pilfering more than $300,000 from his organization.

That sounds like a lot of money, but a few years ago the treasurer of a fire department on little Charlton, NY went to prison for stealing half a million dollars. Charlton Fire District’s pretty small, yet nobody noticed that hundreds of thousands of dollars went missing.

But like I said, you don’t join up to balance the checkbook, you join up to do the cool stuff. Let somebody else worry about paying the bills.

My old fire department had strict internal controls and an independent audit conducted every year by an outside firm. We couldn’t get reimbursed for a can of kidney beans without a receipt. Some of these fire departments are not so stringent — and when only one person is handling the books, anything can happen.

Fortunately, a lot of people who do this get caught, but you have to wonder how many get away with it.

The Depot

Drive out Route 7 and you’ll come across the Rotterdam Corporate Park. It’s a sprawling complex of warehouses that are home to all sorts of businesses, and if big space is what you need, big space is what they’ve got.

It may not be an inspiring spot these days, but 75 years ago, it was bustling. Known then as the Schenectady General Depot, it was a key part of the massive war effort, a link in the supply chain that supported the most powerful army the world had ever seen.

Day and night, trains would arrive and disgorge the endless supplies of war, everything from trucks and tanks to the most mundane bits of equipment. Then, it would all be sorted and stuffed onto different trains that would speed their cargo to waiting ships at East Coast ports.

But after the war the trains started coming back from the ports with a more precious cargo: the remains of service members on their last trip home.

In 1946, the government gave families the option to have the their fallen loved ones returned to America, rather than remaining buried in the region where they died. Today we’re accustomed to war dead being shipped home; that was not always the case.

The Schenectady General Depot was one of 15 distribution points across America that handled this task. They would receive remains that arrived from either the Brooklyn Army Terminal or Oakland Army Terminal in specially built rail cars. From there, the deceased service members were sent to their final destination. Shorter trips were accomplished with custom built hearses; longer journeys saw the remains, in their flag draped caskets, loaded aboard trains.

On the last leg of the journey, each of the deceased was escorted by a member of the same branch in which they served. These escorts oversaw the final details of transportation and often met with families. When aboard passenger trains, the escorts carried two tickets — one for themselves and one the soldier, sailor or Marine in their charge.

In the years after the war, more that 170,000 servicemen and women came home this way. Schenectady served most of the Northeast, so it had to be a busy place. Many were local boys, like Edward Kalinowski of Hoosick Falls.

Today it’s just another industrial park, but with a little imagination you might conjure up an image of what it was like in World War II. So long ago, when we packed off the tools of war — and then a few years later when its tragic byproduct came rolling on home.

Read more here about the work of repatriating World War II dead.

View the complete records of Edward Kalinowski’s long journey home. This includes documents pertaining to the return of his personal effects, burial and disinterment, and paperwork related to his transit back to Schenectady.

Wolfe Island Wave

It was a busy summer, but we found time for a few days on Wolfe Island, Ontario.

Things have changed since I first visited, decades ago. The island is now dotted with wind turbines, the only gas station is closed, and the quiet little road to the cottage isn’t so quiet any more. In the old days, it was a place where time stood still and the cows outnumbered the people.

But it brought me great pleasure to find that something I always liked has stayed the same: the Wolfe Island Wave.

The Wave goes like this: when you’re driving and you pass a pedestrian or another car, you acknowledge them by raising your fingers off the steering wheel. It’s a low-key salute, to be sure. There is no wild gesturing or swinging of arms on Wolfe Island and none is needed.

Islanders always wave, as do visitors who know what’s-what. People not familiar with the ways of the island may be confused at first when they’re waved at, but they catch on. There are some people — and they usually have US license plates — who never wave. I quietly judge them as they drive on by.

It’s a small thing, this Wolfe Island Wave, but it’s meaningful. In my old neighborhood, in Glenmont, people drove through our neighborhood and never acknowledged one another. On my dead end street in Voorhesville, we wave. A dead end street is more like an island than Bethlehem’s sprawling subdivisions.

So, here’s the thing: next time you’re driving around, how about you give a little Wolfe Island Wave to a stranger. Yes, they might drive away deeply confused — but you never know; your little gesture could warm up someone’s day.

Cable Guy

Spectrum News keeps running a radio commercial for their weather that goes something like this:

“Weather in the Capital Region changes every minute — that’s why you’re lucky Spectrum news has weather every ten minutes.”

Hold up, there — I’m not Mr. Math, but aren’t you saying that the weather may change ten times before we hear about it on Spectrum News?

That’s some terrible copy.

These days, most of the weather you need is available every second, on the smart phone in your pocket. But TV weather remains popular, to the point that news stories almost seem like an afterthought. “An alien spacecraft blew up The Egg today — but first, we’re in for another hot one. Here’s Bob with the forecast…”

Weather is just one example of how all these digital platforms, streaming, and cord cutting can’t completely change stubborn viewer behaviors. If you don’t believe it, take a stroll thorough the cable world tonight. People will still sit and watch Fast & Furious 6 even when if it’s chock full of commercials — 50 minutes of commercials, to be exact. Shawshank Redemption, anyone?

Old-style, remote-in-hand TV viewing is far from dead, and that’s a good thing. What sort of world would this be if you didn’t have to wait through a commercial break to see who’s been Chopped?

Mr. Private Sector

Paul Vandenburgh of Talk 1300 claims to be a champion of the private sector, and an enemy of the tax and spend left.

But the truth is that his hands are deep in your pockets.

His radio station is located in the Times Union Center, a building that was built with our money and is still being paid for by Albany County taxpayers.

One of his biggest advertisers, CDTA, gets most of its funding from taxpayer money. To put it in context, their 2017 annual report says CDTA collects about $18 million of its revenue in fares — but nearly $70 million from government and taxes. No wonder Carm wants you back on the bus.

Last but not least, his station holds a license from the federal government to broadcast on the airwaves that we own. The licensing fees are negligible compared to the money an FCC license allows you to earn. It’s a form of corporate welfare, something Vandenburgh rails about on a daily basis.

So, does he hate taxes? Absolutely — except when the taxes benefit him. I guess he’s just like us after all.

Mr. Fix It

What’s the best thing about the internet? The bottomless pit of news? The endless shopping? Porno for every taste, no matter how obscure and perverse? Yes, those are all wonderful, but for my money, the best thing about the internet might be how-to videos.

It used to be that if you wanted to fix something you needed some special knowledge or training, but today you just need YouTube.

An example: Over the weekend our clothes dryer crapped out. The drum was spinning just fine and it was getting warm, but there was no air blowing out the vent and the clothes wouldn’t dry. What to do? Consult the internet.

My search results brought a flood of answers that pointed to a single problem: an issue with the blower belt. After watching several videos, I learned how to take the front panel off the machine and what to look for. As promised in one of the videos, the belt was laying loose and next to it was a pulley which had come free. Replace and tighten the pulley, re-attach the belt, put it all back together and we were in business.

What would it have cost to pay someone to do this job? Even for a minor repair, you’re looking at a minimum fee just to have the guy show up, so I’m guessing $150 or more for the whole thing.

I spent more time watching videos than actually doing the work. Some of these are slick productions — sometimes posted by companies who sell parts — but more often it’s just Joe Handyman. There might be some money in these videos considering how popular they are. Here’s a low-end example; it’s rough, but helpful:

The bottom line? Instead of picking up the phone to call someone, pick up the phone and watch a few videos. You might be surprised at how simple and easy it is to fix a problem yourself. It feels good to repair something and will impress your loved ones. If the Maytag repairman was bored thirty years ago, today he’d absolutely lose his mind.

The Inspector Calls

In Ballston Spa, a seven-year-old ran afoul of state regulators by operating a lemonade stand without a permit. An overzealous state health inspector made him close up shop after alleged complaints by fair vendors — and America erupted in outrage.

Years ago, I myself had a brush with the the food police.

I was in charge of the hot dog stand at our Cub Scout pack’s annual pinewood derby race. It was nothing fancy: dirty water dogs, potato chips, slices of pizza — you’ve seen these ad hoc food concessions at youth sports and school events. You’ve probably eaten a lot of that food, too.

A woman approached. “Do you have a permit?”

Excuse me, for what?

“I do food inspections at the health department. Most people don’t know this, but you need a permit to serve food —  and if you don’t have a permit, I could shut you down.”

I laughed. Her son was one of the scouts and I figured she was just pulling my leg.

“I suppose we should be wearing gloves, too, right?”

She looked around. “Yes, actually, you should.”

OK, this woman’s not kidding. For a moment I considered trying to bribe her with a free hot dog, but thought better.

I thanked her and said we’d look into getting a permit next year. We never did.

Even though we were not sanctioned by the county or state to serve food, we managed not to kill anyone with our cheap hot dogs. And thank god for that. Poisoning an entire Cub Scout pack is not something you’d get over easily.

Rules are rules, and stupid rules are still rules. But it seems like the one rule we really need is the one about common sense. There’s no regulating that.

It’s Raining Yogurt

Who doesn’t enjoy a little Greek yogurt in the morning? Great stuff — unless it’s plunging out of the sky.

I was walking from my car recently and I heard something land behind me with a loud splat. I turned to see a container of Greek yogurt had burst open on the sidewalk, close enough to spray my pants leg with flecks of delicious yogurty goodness.

There wasn’t a car or person in sight, and only one place it could have come from: the overpass above.

It’s astounding that someone would recklessly hurl this yogurt bomb from their car. Any object thrown from that height could hurt someone, even something so soft and creamy. I suppose it also could have been an accident, maybe a container of yogurt absentmindedly left on the roof the car. In case you lost your yogurt Monday morning, mystery solved.

I was in Price Chopper last month and a man began ranting out loud in the yogurt section to nobody in particular. “Greek yogurt! Greek yogurt! What happened to regular yogurt? All I need is some regular plain yogurt for a recipe.”

I pointed him to the case with Stonyfield Farms products. He would not have been surprised to learn that Greek yogurt was literally falling from the sky, that something that’s supposed to be healthy could come sailing out of the blue and crack you in the noggin.

The Capitol Steps

On these beautiful summer days, spending lunch in East Capitol Park is a pleasure. This is the side with the Philip Sheridan statue, not the food truck side, so it’s relatively peaceful, and there are always tourists stopping for pictures in front of the Capitol.

It’s nice to see visitors so interested in the Capitol — but not so nice to see the barriers that keep people off the staircase.

Known as the “Eastern Approach,” the 77 steps are among of the most inmpressive things about the Capitol’s grand exterior. It’s said that Teddy Roosevelt would race up them in the morning, offering interviews to any reporters who could beat him to the top. Today, they’d also have to vault the steel fences that blockade the stairs and ruin the view.

I’d like to know what this is all about. Are the steps unsafe — or is this some sort of security precaution? Either way, it’s a shame. The steps should be open so we can all make that climb and take in the view. I’ve been up there, and it’s an impressive sight.

The barricades send a message, too. Look don’t touch — you’re not worthy to come up here with us. And even if we let you climb the stairs, the doors at the top will be locked, anyway.