Friday, August 14, 2015

Unhappy Trails to You

            Todd Trickle awoke one morning in the Happy Trails Nursing Home in a cold sweat. He had yet another nightmare in which he reflected on his past. When he first started having them he thought nothing of it. After all, everyone had nightmares. Or according to him it must have been the fact that he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and was given at least six months to live. Six months of which were almost up.
            Many years ago, Todd used to be your typical garden-variety schoolyard bully. They called him “The Satan of Herkimer.” He used to beat up other kids, take their lunch money, steal their lunches and did a variety of other nasty things that cannot be described here. His parents disowned him before he even got into high school and he was forced to live with a deadbeat uncle. And yet even after he dropped out of school, he had not changed his ways. He had been in and out of jail almost more times than he could count over the years to the point where the prison authorities practically gave him his own cell. No woman in their right mind would marry him so he harassed them too even though once in a while a woman who was not in her right mind would sleep with him because his antics turned her on. He was frequently fired from jobs because of his bullying ways not to mention that he was turned down from jobs because of his criminal record. And it would seem to everyone that he would never change.
            That was until he was diagnosed with the brain cancer. And the weird part of that was that Todd was not that old. He was pushing forty and was in reasonably good shape partly due to his frequent use of the gym during his many stints in jail. Normally a person with Todd’s history would have just been left to die because he was just a lousy pathetic excuse for a human being. However someone must have believed that Todd was still a human being and still deserving of some type of compassion so they put him in the nursing home.
            As he was getting ready to come down to breakfast that fateful morning, Todd collapsed suddenly. He was rushed to Utica General Hospital in Utica where he was told by the doctors in the Emergency Room that there was nothing they could do. So they hooked him up to a life support system and had a nurse come in to check on him periodically.
            The days passed and Todd’s condition showed no improvement. He lay there hooked up to the life support machines and had more recurring nightmares about his past. Was this God’s way of telling him to atone for his sins before he died? If it was, he was not buying it for a second. Not even when the nightmares became about the day he set fire to a local church. Ironically it was the last time he was put in jail. They blamed the arson on the cancer and since the authorities could not keep incarcerating Todd on account of his advancing age, they decided to have the nursing home take him in.
            Still Todd would not repent.
            Then one morning a pretty dark-haired nurse in her mid-thirties walked in to check on Todd. She was wearing hospital scrubs with images of Hello Kitty emblazoned on them. Todd may have been barely conscious but as far as he could tell, the nurse standing in front of him looked as though she were one of the girls that he would frequently hook up with in his youth whenever he damn well felt like. If he was not laid up in the hospital with the cancer, chances are he would be in bed with this woman right now.
            “Can I ask you something?,” the nurse asked.
            “Sure, toots,” Todd replied weakly.
            “Did you know a woman named Lucille Edgars?”
            Todd searched his fever-wracked brain for any recollection of a woman named Lucille Edgars. “I don’t remember, sweetheart,” Todd replied. “I’m an old man. I’ve known so many people over the years that I can’t keep track of them all.”
            I bet with all that time you spent in jail, the nurse almost said but stopped herself because she had to be civil no matter how much she hated it and how much this man’s reputation sickened her.
            “She was my grandmother,” the nurse replied. “She died about two weeks ago. She used to tell me stories about you.”
            “That so?” Todd asked. The life support monitor started to beep erratically.
            “Yeah,” the nurse replied. “She especially told me the story of how you used to pick on her for wearing granny glasses in school and stuff.”
            “Aw, come on,” Todd replied. “I was a kid then.”
            “And there was also the time that you let her pet gerbil out and fed it to a stray cat that was in the alley behind the school,” the nurse continued bitterly. “She never forgot that. And I can go on and on about all the other things you did to her.”
            Suddenly Todd started to convulse and the life support system started beeping excessively. The nurse lingered for a moment. Should she call a code blue or not? After all, she knew this guy was bad news and even on his deathbed it was clear that he would not change.
            However Todd was not about to go out into the cold dark night without one more for the road. He tried to grab her breasts but she was quick enough to dodge him.
            “What the hell are you doing?!,” the nurse screamed. Her mind was finally made up. He had to go.
            The nurse walked around the bed, even though she was not fast enough to avoid Todd smacking her ass, and walked over to the life support machine. She pulled the plug on it.
            “That’s for calling me toots, you evil old fart!,” the nurse screamed angrily.
            Todd gasped for air. “You… fucking… bitch…,” was all he was able to get out. It hurt him that much to say that without the life support machine to keep him alive.
            It took Todd a couple minutes to stop convulsing and then he fell back on the bed, dead as a doornail. She walked over cautiously and checked his pulse just to make sure he was dead. Once she was satisfied that he was genuinely dead and not faking it, she smiled wickedly and called a code blue. The doctors came in as quickly as they could as they attempted to revive him using the defibrillator to shock him repeatedly. There was no response at all.
            “What the hell just happened in here?” the head doctor demanded.
            “I don’t know, Doctor,” the nurse replied sheepishly. “He must have pulled the plug on himself.”
            “Then why didn’t you call a code blue sooner, Missy?,” the doctor replied angrily.
            “I don’t see what difference that would have made,” the nurse replied. “It all happened so fast. By the time I called it, he would have been dead anyway.”
            And with that, she walked out the door. However she turned back to the doctor. “Oh and by the way,” the nurse added. “My name is not ‘Missy.’ It’s Lyla.”
            And so Lyla Edgars walked out the door, not caring about the reaction the doctor was having at that moment. On the way out she whipped out her iPhone and updated her Facebook status with the simple message: “Did one last public service before I quit my job today. To Todd Trickle, unhappy trails to you, you rotten son of a bitch! LOL!”
            All she did was the one thing people should have done a long time ago: She put Todd out of everyone’s misery. So the way she saw it, it was a mercy killing and as far as she was concerned she did everyone a public service. And it was just like the old saying goes: “What goes around comes around.” That was karma to a T.

 And if you have been a bad person all your life and did not show any repentance for it, well at the end of the day, karma can be a real bitch.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Finding Paradise

            Summer has arrived at last. And with summer comes hot weather, trips to the beach, girls in bikinis and good times. Of course there was one year where summer sort of came early for me and it happened in the spring of 1996. I was in my junior year at Red Hook High School and for ten days in April I went with my Spanish class on a trip to Puerto Rico.
            It was a Thursday when we left Red Hook High School to go down to JFK International Airport in New York City. And also of note the trip to and from Puerto Rico marked the only times that I was on an airline flight to date. The flight down took about six hours and when we landed at San Juan International Airport, it was pouring rain.
            We checked into our hotel and got our room assignments. Since I was one of three guys (excluding my Spanish teacher’s husband) that were on the trip, we were assigned to one room while the girls were split up three to a room. As far as dinner goes, we were within walking distance of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and other assorted fast food restaurants. Since Puerto Rico is still U.S. territory as opposed to being a foreign country, it was very likely that they would have the same things that we do.
            Our first full day in Puerto Rico was a day of leisure. Most of the attractions in the area were closed that day due to it being Good Friday. We went out to breakfast at another hotel and took an afternoon trip to find the Hard Rock Café that was located in Old San Juan. After that, we went to the beach that was right across the street from our hotel and went for a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
            That night I got to roam the streets of San Juan by myself because there wasn’t really anything we could have done as a class, like go to a dance club because I would have been the only one that would have been able to get in. I was eighteen at the time, which to this day is still the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico and nearly all of my classmates were sixteen or seventeen.
            Later that night, four of my classmates didn’t come back on time and my Spanish teacher started to worry. So I went out looking for them with my Spanish teacher’s husband to look for them and lo and behold my missing classmates were on their way back and from the looks of them they were drunk. And while drinking on the trip was a no-no (and not just because of the law), that didn’t stop anyone from doing so.  
            The previous night’s activities behind us, we went to the Yunque Rain Forest which was about an hour away from San Juan. It was really humid that day but the forest was beautiful. We walked around and went for a dip in a stream they had there. It was nice but kind of rocky so we had to be careful that we didn’t get banged up on the rocks.
            After that we went to Luquillo Beach, one of the most famous beaches in Puerto Rico for a little while before we went back to San Juan. Apart from the fact that I had to hunt down a flower vendor to buy a flower for one classmate to give to a girl on the trip who obviously was not interested in him, that night passed by uneventfully.

           The next day was Easter and while my Spanish teacher went to church with her family, we stayed in the hotel until we went to an old Spanish fort while on our way to Old San Juan. And here’s where one of my adventures on the trip truly began.
            We were put into groups and we looked in the stores. We were planning to meet up at the Hard Rock Café afterwards. I went off to look at some stuff and next thing I knew everyone was gone. Since I was under the impression that they were planning to meet up at the Hard Rock Café, I decided to try and find my way there. I walked around for what seemed like hours and I kept asking for directions to the Hard Rock Café. I’m not sure if some of the people I came across understood me or not but the more I kept looking, the more I kept getting lost.
            In the end, I went to a Ponderosa Steakhouse that just happened to be there at the time and I had lunch there being that I still had some time left before I had to meet the rest of my group assuming I could find them.
            And as fate would have it, I eventually found our tour bus parked at the nearby park. I ended up waiting for everyone there and about twenty minutes later, the rest of my class came back and we went back to the hotel.
            Our last night in San Juan was capped off with another trip to the beach and then going out to a fancy restaurant before going home to pack up.
            The next morning we headed for our next stop: The city of Ponce, the other major city in Puerto Rico. We went sightseeing for a little while and went shopping as well. Shortly after that we went to our next hotel in nearby Parguera but not before we stopped off at a Spanish-American War memorial on the way. Parguera was pretty small compared from San Juan. It was a dock town and according to my Spanish teacher, Parguera was the Puerto Rican equivalent of Tivoli, a small town located within the township of Red Hook back in New York.
            Our hotel in Parguera was located right on the waterfront and was a lot bigger than the hotel we stayed at in San Juan. It had its own dock complete with boat tours and a gift shop located in the courtyard along with the pool. The only thing really of note that happened our first night was that my Spanish teacher had a birthday for her youngest daughter and wanted everyone to be there.
            The next morning, we went another beach which was on the Caribbean coast and we spent a few hours there swimming, walking around and having lunch there as well. Then when we got back to the hotel and were getting ready to charter a boat for a snorkeling trip we were going on that afternoon, I saw my Spanish teacher’s husband talking to this really beautiful girl. And at the time, I thought that she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was from North Carolina and was on vacation in Puerto Rico with a friend’s family and as much as I wanted to spend some time with her getting to know her, I had to go with my class and get my snorkeling gear for the trip. I would definitely see her later on that day.
            We made the boat and we headed out into the Caribbean. And I gotta tell you something. If I thought snorkeling was going to be easy, it actually isn’t. For one thing, whenever I went into the water I kept getting salt water in my mouth because my mouthpiece kept popping out on me. And then there was the fact that I almost didn’t get back in the boat. It took two people to pull me back on board. I guess I wasn’t in that good of shape back then. So I ended up spending the rest of the time on the boat.
            When we returned to the dock, we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant and then we went on another boat ride, this time to Phosphorescent Bay. Phosphorescent Bay is so called because it seems like it glows in the dark. It looked pretty cool, especially when you stuck your hand in the water and pulled it out it looked like it glowed in the dark too. It was amazing.
            Then sometime later after we got back from the Bay, we went to a pool hall in the center of town where everyone was playing pool. This was pretty much the only time I actually played pool. We were out until about midnight and pretty much everyone except for me was drinking and one of them was so under the influence that she went the wrong way to the hotel.
            The next morning we were set to leave for our last stop on the trip where we were to spend the last two days of the trip. I ran into the girl from North Carolina and I spent a little time with her before the class checked out of the hotel. We exchanged addresses and I said goodbye to her. And I found out that she would be leaving Puerto Rico the same day that we would be and that she would also be leaving from San Juan, which was their next stop. So there would be a very good chance that I would see her again before I left.
            Our next stop was the town of Aguadilla. This was more or less the only stop on the whole trip where not too much happened. The hotel we stayed at in Aguadilla was even bigger than the two previous hotels we stayed at.
            That night while everyone else was doing god-knows-what, I hung out in the lobby writing a letter until I tried to go back to my hotel room only to find that my roommate locked me out! Apparently ever since he got turned down by the one girl on the trip, he had still not resolved his issues and was sleeping a lot and it got to the point where everyone was not too happy with him. With great reluctance and since I couldn’t get a spare key to my room, I ended up spending the night in a hotel room with some of my female classmates. And before you ask, nothing happened. I slept on the floor.
            By the next morning everyone was pretty much beached-out and as it turned out, I was the only one who ended up going to Crashboat Beach with my Spanish teacher and her family. I remember Crashboat Beach for two reasons: 1) That there were a whole bunch of beach dogs there and 2) I ran into two beautiful girls on the beach that didn’t really understand English so that was kind of awkward especially since I was tripping over myself trying to practice my Spanish on them. And that was kind of ironic since Spanish was one of my best subjects in high school. Go figure. But I did manage to get their addresses so it wasn’t a total loss. Then there was also the fact that my Spanish teacher’s husband managed to talk me into buying a beer.
            The rest of that day was spent going to shopping centers in Aguadilla and then with me taking a walk up a hill to Little Caesar’s to get a pizza. The distance from my hotel to there was about the same as the distance from my house to the Little Caesar’s in Mohawk. And that was the first time I ever had Little Caesar’s. Then later everyone gathered in the bar for a celebration of our last night in Puerto Rico before we went home.
            The next morning was not good weather-wise. It was raining which kind of bookended the trip. We arrived in Puerto Rico when it was raining and now we were going to leave Puerto Rico and it was raining. We were supposed to go to a cavern on the way back to San Juan only to find that they cancelled the tour on account of the weather. So instead we stopped off at a shopping center and then we went to the Bacardi Rum Factory where once again the advantage of being the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico served me well because I was the only one who got to sample the rum. They mixed it with Coke so that was the only time that I had Rum and Coke. It wasn’t bad but I actually liked the factory tour.
            Then half an hour later it was off to the airport to board the flight back to New York. And true to my word I did run into the girl I met in Parguera who was waiting for a flight to Atlanta. So I talked to her again briefly while I was waiting for my flight. At that point I didn’t really want to leave Puerto Rico but then again if I did stay, I wouldn’t be here writing this story now. Unfortunately, we didn’t really keep in touch over the years. Story of my life. But I will never forget that girl as long as I live.
            And so the whole class got on the flight back to New York and life went on. So this is about as close to a coming-of-age story as you’re gonna get from me. My experience in Puerto Rico to this day is probably one of the best experiences of my life to date. I hope to go back someday when I can afford to but I can rest knowing that for those ten days in the spring of 1996, I had found paradise.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Ode to My Childhood

            At some point in their lives whenever one reaches adulthood, one does have a tendency to be a little nostalgic for their childhoods. They tend to reminisce about all the good times they had; of all the things they did as kids; of all the toys they had; movies they saw and so on. Well today I am going to be that person as I am feeling a bit nostalgic. Today we're going to talk about my childhood growing up in the 80's and 90's in Red Hook, New York, specifically some things I did and some things that were around when I was growing up. And even though it hasn't really shaped who I am today it still makes for a really good essay.
           I grew up during the 80's, which was the best time for movies, TV shows and music. There was no Internet; computers were not as everywhere as they are now and even if they were, they were too expensive; camcorders were a lot heavier and were VHS-based instead of digital and more compact like they are now; there were no reality shows polluting the airwaves; and video game systems were actually on the rise and not as sophisticated as your garden-variety PlayStation 3's and Xbox 360's, which meant you still had to go to the arcade to play video games. So due to the lack of the technological advances that we now have (meaning your iPhones and your Internets,) kids normally played outside and there were a lot of outdoor activities to do and places to go.
            Growing up in Red Hook, the one place where people went during the summer and still do is the Dutchess County Fair in Rhinebeck. It was a real staple of my childhood and I went there every year until I moved up to Central New York in 2002. It's one of the few things I miss about living downstate. Hopefully someday I'll be able to go back, although it might be a little more expensive now than it was when I was last down there. The last county fair I went to was back in 2005 and it was the Herkimer County Fair and it does not even hold a candle to the Dutchess County Fair.
            Another place I went to as a kid was the Catskill Game Farm. I'm pretty sure a lot of people downstate remembers that. I remember going there on field trips and sometimes with my family. I had been living in Central New York for several years when the Game Farm closed down in 2006. However, during its heyday, it was fun to see all the exotic animals without having to go to a faraway zoo like the Bronx Zoo, which I also went to when I was a kid. I have not been to the Utica Zoo yet, but it is on my to-do list. Then there was the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome which was a nod to airplanes that fought in World War I. They had shows every weekend during the summer where people flew replicas of planes to reenact World War I aerial battles. I even got to participate in one of the show one time where I got to shoot down the "Black Baron" which was a nod to the Red Baron and I'm not talking about Snoopy here. I'm talking about the real deal. I wouldn't mind seeing a movie about him someday.
            Let's see where else did I go as a kid?  I also went to the Jersey Shore a couple times as a kid. This was long before it was associated with Snooki, The Situation, and Pauly D. In fact, I didn't even go to Seaside Heights. I actually went to Wildwood and Cape May for the summer. Went swimming in the ocean, went out on the boardwalk. I also went up to the Thousand Islands a couple of times as well. It was also during my childhood that I traveled as far west as Missouri for a rabbit show. Yeah we raised rabbits when I was a kid. For class trips in school, one summer we went camping for the weekend as well as going on a class trip to the Museum of Natural History in New York City in fifth grade and one fond memory I had while being on the bus is having a whole bus full of fifth graders ogling the hot city chicks on their way to work.
            Then when we got into junior high, specifically in eighth grade, we went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1993. We didn't go in the White House or anything (this was during the Clinton era) but among other things we went to Ford's Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot and went inside the house where he died. I specifically remember the tour guide at Ford's Theater when we got to the house. I remember him saying "The bed! The pillow!" when he was pointing out the bed where Lincoln died and the pillow that still had his blood stains on it. Then, as we were leaving, he was saying "Remember, New York is number 1!" To which I replied sarcastically, "Yeah and don't you forget it."
            We also went to the Smithsonian, Union Station, Mount Vernon (George Washington's home), and a variety of other places too. All in all, those were fun trips that I went on. Well at least until I went to Puerto Rico for a class trip but that's for another time.
             I discovered my creative side very early on like when I first started going to school. That was where I first started getting into writing. Back then I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be a writer or an actor. If people could only see me now, especially since I am doing both on the Internet right now. In fifth grade I had done a series of filmstrips where I did public presentations to my classes. And look at me now, doing videos that are seen all over the web and writing stories that I published on three websites. So to this day my creative imagination is still in top form.
             Now let's move on to some other childhood memories like what I grew up with like favorite TV shows, movies, toys I played with and other stuff that I remember. Of course some of these are items that kids today probably will never grow up with. Let's start with TV shows. I watched cartoons just like everyone else. We had Saturday morning cartoons and we even had cartoons after school. Good times. It was always a fun time in a kid's life back then. Now the only cartoons we see on Saturday mornings are crappy educational cartoons on NBC or anime stuff on the CW. Like everyone else, I watched shows like He-Man, Transformers, Garfield, Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and basically any cartoon on Nickelodeon that was on during the 80's.
            I also watched She-Ra which actually got me lusting after girls. I'm sure at some point in some boy's lives they find themselves fantasizing about a female cartoon character. After all, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I always got turned on whenever Princess Adora transformed into She-Ra. Even though some people would still say April O'Neil of Ninja Turtles fame is still the hottest and I would agree she is. But I just put She-Ra (or more specifically Adora) a lot higher.
             But I didn't limit my TV watching to cartoons. I watched some TV shows in the prime-time hour as well and back then, TV shows weren't as gratuitous with the sex and violence as they are now, not that it's necessarily a bad thing. But there weren't any reality shows polluting the airwaves like there is now. Anyway, as far as grown-up shows go, I watched shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, ALF, the 60's Batman TV series, Star Trek (both the original and Star Trek: The Next Generation), The A-Team, T.J. Hooker (partly because being a Trekkie obligated me to watch William Shatner's cop show,) the original Battlestar Galactica (the cheesy one where Starbuck was a man and not a hot chick), and so many more to name that I would be here all day mentioned and I don't really want to do that.
             I am to this day a huge fan of 80's music and when I was growing up, 80's music was king. The radio stations I listened to at that time were WBPM- 94.3 FM in Kingston (it has long since abandoned the Top 40 format) and WSPK 104.7 FM in Poughkeepsie also known as K-104 which still plays Top 40 hits. Some of my favorites from that era were Madonna, Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson and so many others that I can't really think of them right off the bat. In later years, I found a new appreciation for 80's music and prefer that to a lot of the music that is out today.
             As far as movies go, I've quite a bit of the biggest movies to come out of the 80's. I saw my first movie when I was 2 years old and that was in the summer of 1980. Also like I said before, that movie was The Empire Strikes Back. Usually the theater of choice for me when I was growing up was the Lyceum Theater in Red Hook.
            When I first saw E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial there in 1982, it was a one-movie theater. It got an extension in the mid-80's so they can show two movies there. I also went to the Hudson Valley Mall (at the time it was a six-movie theater but has since evolved into a multiplex) even though it was a bit expensive and there were also drive-ins where you can go during the summer. I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the Sunset Drive-In in Hudson and I went to see several more movies there afterwards, including Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and the original Back to the Future before it closed down in the late 80's. The other drive-in I went to was the Hyde Park Drive-In and the first movie I saw there was Return of the Jedi and a few weeks after that I also saw Superman III there as well as the original Gremlins movie. The last time I was there was back in 1998 sometime after I graduated from high school and I saw the asteroid movie Deep Impact there. To this day, the Hyde Park Drive-In is one of the few remaining drive-in theaters still in operation.
              But anyway, back to the Lyceum. The original theater continued to be in operation until 1991 when it became a multiplex that showed six movies (It now shows eight movies and includes 3D movies. The last movie I saw in the original theater was Terminator 2: Judgment Day before it closed down and while the main theater became an antique store, the extra theater they had reopened as the Lyceum Annex some time afterward. But anyway, even then going to the movies was fun and exciting.
              And during my childhood, we were starting to come into the video age. If you're as old as I am, you'll definitely remember video discs. The video disc back in those days was a prototype that would become what DVD's are in today's world and the original video disc was basically the size of a record album that you have to play one side and then flip it over to watch a movie. The video disc was basically how I first saw the original Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then later we upgraded to video tape and VCRs. My family never owned a video camcorder even though they were popular as well so I never got to make videos growing up. So you won't see any embarrassing videos of me growing up on the Internet anytime soon.

             Okay, what other childhood memories are there? One memory recently came to me while I was watching a show on the web called 80's Dan where in one episode he buried a McDLT in a time capsule. For those of you who don't know what that is, McDonald's put out a sandwich that came in a Styrofoam container with two sides. One side had the top of the bun including the lettuce, tomato and cheese while the other side had the burger and the bottom part of the bun, hence the tagline: "The hot stays hot while the cool stays cool." I used to get the McDLT pretty much all the time during its heyday. McDonald's should really consider bringing the McDLT back.
              And I could go on forever as far as talking about my childhood, but I probably should call it a day. I'm not doing a movie here (well not yet anyway.) But if you grew up in the 80's and 90's and remember a lot of the stuff I mentioned here today, then your childhood was awesome. They say that as you get older and life gets harder, you start appreciating your childhood a bit more, but at the end of the day, you have to move forward. But there is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia every now and then.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Chester, Grace and Me: Revisiting a Murder That Won't Die




           It was just a typical July night in 2005 when I first learned of one of the most famous murder cases in New York State history.
            I was on break from my overnight job at Wal-Mart in Herkimer, New York when I stumbled upon a newspaper article from one of my area’s local newspapers, the Herkimer Telegram. On the front page of that particular paper was a photo of a small group standing in front of the old Herkimer County Courthouse and two of them were actors dressed in Victorian-era costumes. The headline above the photo announced the 100th anniversary commemoration of the murder of Grace Brown at the hands of her one-time lover Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake on a hot summer day in 1906. That infamous act inspired the classic Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy, the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, and a Metropolitan Opera production that debuted later that year.
            And for me, what started out as one newspaper article eventually turned into over two years of research (for a book that never materialized); active participation in the commemoration events; a blog site (which is the only surviving blog from when I started blogging in 2006); and even meeting descendants of participants in the case both online as well as off.
            Since the case is still researched and talked about all over the world, there really isn’t a need to recap the story but I will anyway.
            Chester, the son of Salvation Army missionaries spent most of his childhood traveling around the western part of the country at a time when the West was still for the most part untamed. Due to his family’s religious activities, Chester frequently moved around a lot and among some of the places he traveled to included Spokane, Washington, San Francisco, California and Hawaii. Unfortunately his family's religious ethics frequently put him at odds with the rest of the family and ultimately thanks to the assistance of an influential uncle, Chester was able to go to Oberlin Academy to help establish himself in a new career.
            His first year turned out to be a success but by the following year he lost his focus and dropped out due to poor grades because he was more interested in “having as good a time as possible” (his motto in life.) Between 1903 and 1905 he had a variety of odd jobs most notably as a railroad brakeman. That was until another successful uncle who owned a successful skirt factory business in Cortland, New York invited Chester to go and work for him.
            Chester arrived in Cortland in April 1905 and went to work in his uncle’s factory. Despite the fact that he was the nephew of the factory owner, Chester was shown no favoritism as he was hired to work in the stockroom for ten dollars a week. However outside the factory, he quickly became popular among the people of Cortland because of his athletic ability and he was a really good storyteller where he found that his past made for excellent conversation with some of the upper middle-class girls he became acquainted with.
            Right about the time he was getting settled into his new life, Chester became involved with Grace Brown, the daughter of a farmer in a rural town called South Otselic, about thirty miles away. She arrived in Cortland a year earlier to care for her older sister’s son and was hired at the factory as an inspector several months before Chester arrived. He called on her outside of work despite being told by his uncle not to fraternize with his fellow co-workers outside the factory. So they had to keep their relationship a secret. He rarely (if ever) took her out in public and their dates (if you can call it that) were more or less relegated to the parlor of her boarding house.
            Grace knew Chester had been seen in public with other women from the more prominent families in town but she was somewhat tolerant of this and holding on to the firm belief that he was only having fun with them while saving his real love for her (or so she thought.)
            Everything soon changed when Grace found out she was pregnant in the spring of 1906. And given the fact that she was not married, that was a major no-no in those days. There was clearly no question as to who the father was. However that “father” was unwilling to take responsibility for his actions because he didn’t want to give up on his good times. Finally, Grace agreed to give up her job and her boarding house in Cortland and returned to her family’s farm while waiting for Chester to get his affairs in order so he can arrive with a solution.
            For three weeks, the suspense rose. Grace wrote a series of letters to him urging him to do the right thing. However, Chester continued to stall and go about his business as though nothing was wrong. She was sick as a result of being pregnant and also sick from the stress of her burden. Her family noticed her ill demeanor but didn’t really think anything of it. After all, it was normal for a girl her age in those days to behave in a melodramatic way. Finally she called him at the factory threatening to return to Cortland and expose him. Fearing scandal that could tarnish his uncle’s family name, Chester finally agreed to meet her.
            On July 9, 1906, they embarked on their journey to the Adirondacks from the town of DeRuyter and after spending two nights in Utica and Tupper Lake under assumed names as a married couple from New York City, they arrived at Big Moose Lake. There Chester decided to drop the “married couple” act and signed the ledger using Grace’s real name and listed her hometown as South Otselic while using the assumed name of Carl Grahm of Albany. Then they rented a rowboat for the day and they rowed around the southern shore of the lake, stopping for a picnic at some point. Other people out on the lake and in camps along the shoreline saw them rowing around. They stood out because people who saw them found it odd that there was a suitcase with a tennis racket strapped to the side of the boat. They also noticed that Grace was not happy.
            What happened around 6 p.m. that afternoon may never be known but what we do know is that Grace ended up at the bottom of the lake with her head nearly split open; the rowboat overturned and adrift with Grace’s black cape draped over the bow and a straw hat floating nearby and Chester Gillette long gone.
            What happened was that when the boat overturned Chester went into the water and managed to swim to shore. Grace on the other hand could not swim and Chester knew that, primarily because she said so in one of her letters to him. Later, many took this as a sign that Chester took that fact into account while planning murder.
              After getting out of the water, Chester retrieved his suitcase that he left on shore and hit the road that led to Eagle Bay. While en route he stopped and hid the tennis racket under a log on the side of the road. By nightfall he managed to find his way to the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet which was right on Fourth Lake. There he signed the hotel ledger under his real name and location and proceeded to live the life of a typical Adirondack tourist which included a mountain climbing trip up Black Bear Mountain and meeting up with two society girls he was frequently seen with in Cortland.
            Unbeknownst to him, word of Grace’s death found its way to Herkimer where the district attorney George W. Ward began to suspect foul play and while en route to the crime scene he met a man from Cortland who worked in the factory with both Chester and Grace. The man was on his way to the Adirondacks in response to a request Chester made about sending money up to Eagle Bay, despite the fact that by then he was on Fourth Lake.
            Ward finally caught up to Chester at the Arrowhead on Saturday morning, July 14 and arrested him for Grace’s murder. While being interrogated, Chester told different stories about what happened, including the fact that he denied knowing the victim; that it was an accident; that she was suicidal because of her condition and so on. After being arraigned, Chester was taken to the 1834 Herkimer County Jail to be held for trial.
            Chester’s trial was held in the old Herkimer County Courthouse in Herkimer on November 12, 1906 and lasted about three weeks. It promised to be the trial of the century and the crowds as well as the press that converged on the small town were not disappointed. Hundreds of witnesses testified, telling the story of Chester and Grace’s relationship as well as their activities in the days leading to her death. However, the real attraction came when Ward read Grace’s letters to Chester (obtained without a search warrant) in open court and it caused an emotional sensation that left everyone, save for Chester himself, in tears.
            Herkimer was clearly not ready for the type of media circus that they hosted another sensational trial as well as execution some twenty years earlier: The trial of Roxalana Druse who was found guilty of murdering her abusive husband. Reporters from New York City were in Herkimer covering the trial, many of them were from the Hearst chain or the “yellow journalism” papers that dominated the media in that day and age. The city reporters tended to fabricate stories to sell papers and their time in Herkimer was no exception. At one point, they even dressed up in old clothes and pretended to be a lynch mob who wanted to gain access to the jail and hang Chester.
            The letters were not the only thing that attracted people to the trial. There were also reports of a love triangle and the media singled out one particular woman to be the “other woman”: Harriet Benedict, the daughter of a prominent Cortland attorney. Harriet went on the stand and testified that Chester was merely a friend and their only date was an outing on a local lake on the Fourth of July, the week before Grace’s death. Harriet would never be allowed to forget her role in the Gillette case.
            Chester himself also testified as the first witness for the defense. He told the court that Grace was depressed and after he suggested returning to her parents’ farm to confess all, she became frightened and jumped into the lake. Not many people believed him, especially after Ward’s ruthless cross-examination of him. When the trial was given to the jury, they convicted him of first-degree murder within five hours. In those days, if a criminal was convicted of first-degree murder it meant an automatic death sentence.
            On December 12, two days after receiving his death sentence, Chester was transferred to Auburn Prison. On the train, he was able to mingle with a traveling burlesque troupe who ironically were also headed for Auburn for a show. Enjoying the limelight for perhaps the last time, he signed autographs for the performers. After all, it wasn’t every day that people got to take a train ride with a convicted murderer, let alone one on his way to the electric chair.
            During the fifteen months he spent on Death Row, Chester’s attorneys filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals which was later denied and Chester’s parents attempted to appeal to the governor for executive clemency and get the sentence reduced to life in prison. They presented new evidence that included a claim that Grace suffered from epilepsy. The governor declined to intervene after a phone call from the warden of Auburn Prison reassured him that Chester had confessed.
            And so with all hope of appeals and reprieves exhausted, Chester was executed in the early morning hours of March 30, 1908. He was only twenty-four years old. However his story did not end in the death chamber of Auburn Prison.
            With the publication of An American Tragedy in 1925, the true story of the case became confused with what Dreiser wrote (he included Grace’s letters nearly word-for-word as well as the trial transcript and the city papers that were mainly fabricated anyway) and it remained that way until Craig Brandon published his book Murder in the Adirondacks in 1986. Since then, new theories have emerged about the case such as the theory that Chester and Grace were actually looking for an orphanage for Grace to stay in until her baby was born so that she could give it up and return to her regular life as though nothing had happened. Another theory that has surfaced was that her death was a result of a suicide pact she had with Chester that went wrong. And I am sure that there will be more that will emerge as time goes on.
            As far as my experiences go during the Centennial commemoration in 2006, I attended nearly all the events except for a few, namely a bus trip to the premiere of the American Tragedy opera at the Metropolitan Opera house and probably the most important event of the commemoration: Grace’s memorial at Big Moose Lake on the anniversary of the murder because I could not get out of work that day.
            From the events I did attend though, I was an usher for the Herkimer performances of the trial reenactment that was performed by the Ilion Little Theater Club, including a performance that was held in the same courtroom where the real trial took place. I also went on a bus trip sponsored by the Herkimer County Historical Society to the sites that related to the case in Cortland and South Otselic, including the factory building in Cortland which has been an appliance store for years, Grace’s home in South Otselic as well as her gravesite.
            And here’s where I have a little story to tell. Everyone knows the stories about the possibility of the existence of Grace’s ghost, right? Well as far as ghost stories go, I personally have not had many encounters with ghosts despite the fact that I would like to see one.

           Over the years, many people claimed to have seen Grace’s ghost on Big Moose Lake which was featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1996. Some claim that she was sighted in South Otselic as well as some claims that she was sighted in Herkimer, most notably in the 1834 Jail near Chester’s cell. How is that possible? Grace never saw Herkimer while she was alive. The answer to this would be something that I have learned about ghosts and that is if there is a place or event that has anything to do with them, then there is a good chance that their presence would be felt. For all we know, Grace’s ghost could have even witnessed Chester’s trial. Something to think about.
            I did not encounter Grace’s ghost when I went up to Big Moose Lake in August 2007 but the closest I came to seeing or feeling Grace’s presence was when I went to her farm in South Otselic during the bus trip the year before. As I was walking past an apple tree on the property, I suddenly got this feeling that she was there. At that point, I remembered a photo I saw in Murder in the Adirondacks of Grace standing in front of an apple tree. To this day, I still cannot explain it.
            I was also present when the historical marker was placed in front of the 1834 Jail that housed Chester. And it was also at that point where it was revealed that the great-granddaughter of Chester’s sister kept and preserved a diary that Chester wrote in during his last six months in Auburn awaiting execution. The diary showcased his transformation from a shallow self-absorbed boy into a mature thoughtful Christian man. The final entry was written about a few minutes before he was led to the chair. The diary was donated to Hamilton College where a majority of the artifacts from the Gillette case are stored including Grace’s letters and sure enough I was there for the donation ceremony. The diary has since been published in book form and is available at the Herkimer County Historical Society or online at sites like Amazon.com.

            In conclusion, we may never know for sure what happened at Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906 but interest in the case continues to this day. The Herkimer County Historical Society gets requests every year for information on the case, therefore reinforcing its status as “the murder that will never die. And for better or worse, I am proud to have taken part in this little piece of Central New York history.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Social Media Stranger

            Just another day in good ol’ H-town. Same routine day in and day out. I wake up, go to school, check my email, hang out on Facebook and go to work. Welcome to my life.
Somehow I got up thinking that this day would be different. However I did not know how wrong I was going to be. Life has a funny way of playing tricks on you like that. Should have picked up on that by now but I still haven’t.
My cell phone rings. I answer it. It’s a text reminding me I have something due for class that day. I texted my friend back that I have the project done and then I am out the door, not realizing what awaited me when I walked outside.
Something weird happened. It seemed like the whole town was deserted. That was completely out of the ordinary. I was used to seeing all the hustle and bustle whenever I left for school in the morning. Every so often someone would pass by and say hi to you. However today Herkimer was like a virtual ghost town that had been abandoned for years. It was as though I somehow got myself transported back to the Dark Ages.
Did someone slip something in my drink last night? This was impossible since I normally did not go out to parties or to the bars for that matter. I was not a party person and was not likely to become one in the near future. Those who had tried to drag me out to parties usually ended up sorely disappointed when I didn’t show up.
If it wasn’t that, it was something else.
I walked up to the nearest person I saw approaching me on the street. “Hey, fella,” I said. “How come it’s so quiet today?”
The man looked at me as though I was the first person he had seen in ages. “What do you mean it’s so quiet?,” the man replied. “It’s been quiet here for years. Who are you anyway?”
I apologized for bothering him and moved on. I still believed that the streets were not like this yesterday. I kept telling myself that this was a dream. Either that or somehow I became part of The Twilight Zone. But The Twilight Zone wasn’t real. That crap only existed on TV. So what the hell was this strange world I was walking into?
Suddenly it dawned on me. Was this what it means to be involved in the world of social media for so long that you forgot what the real world was like? Was this the world I was in now? A world where nobody knows or cares if you’re alive? I knew I was a loner by nature and by reputation and I knew I did not like dramatic entanglements that came with being involved in actual social interactions but if the price for that was to be confined to a world of absolute silence then I really did not want to be stuck in a world that was completely isolated.

Maybe it was time for me to change my ways. Maybe it was time for me to abandon everything I had known my whole life and try to be part of the world. After all, it can’t really be that bad can it?