A Salute to 2003 Readers

 

(This is an extended version of a column first published in the January 5, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)

 

This past year brought more letters, calls and e-mails than any previous year. Sadly, the two columns that drew most responses were those about the tragic death of John Sillick and the sorry stewardship of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

 

The outpouring of affection for John has indeed been both extraordinary and moving. Clearly his Jean Shepherd-like gifts were widely appreciated. Like his predecessor, Joyce Swan, his Sunday News columns could involve you in the details of country life, but John could further enrich his writing with creative musings about family and even daydreams. For many of us he brought old Lem to life.

 

He reached both young and old. A number of messages came to me from out-of-state grandparents to whom local men and women forwarded his weekly columns. And John's students organized a concert to honor his memory that celebrated still another of his talents: guitar playing.

 

For those who wrote seeking copies of his out-of-print book, Alps Road Journal, John's wife Kathleen tells me that she plans a reprint that should be available by April. She later hopes to publish a collection of all of his writing.

 

There were happier communications, however. Here is my favorite from Bonnie Martin of Buffalo. I hope that these selections will convey the charming character of her newsy letter, much of it about common urban birds.

 

"Just before you wrote of the disease that destroys the sight of the house finch I had the experience of holding one. It happened like this on a cold windy day. I went into the yard and a house finch was sitting on the feeder. I walked in that direction and was surprised to note that he did not fly away. As I got closer I spoke to him; yet he remained. Finally I was right up to the feeder. I touched his tail and he flew up into the air a little. I held up my hand and he landed on my fingertips. I talked to him for a few seconds. He looked at me and then flew away. Why he landed on my finger instead of flying away, I don't know. Possibly because of the wind when he flew up at my touch?

 

"The next experience was a house sparrow that got into my basement. I tried to catch him for quite some time. He flew back and forth, constantly out of reach. Finally he managed to land somewhere that I could not see.

 

"I put down water and birdseed and left him for the night. In the morning I spotted him sleeping on the floor near the furnace. I grabbed a sheer curtain and approached. He got himself between some old windows propped against the wall. I slowly dropped the curtain on him, picked him up and let him go outside.

 

"But that is not the end of the story. The next day when I went out to fill the feeder all the birds flew away, all but one. That one house sparrow sat there and looked at me. I believe it was the same bird thanking me for his freedom. I never saw him stay around after that."

 

One communication suggests the power of web search engines. Daniel Strong of Rochester wrote about the Wellman cemetery I visited and wrote about in 2001 (q.v.). It turns out that the Barnabas Wellman (1756-1847) I mentioned was his relative who fought in many Revolutionary War battles.

 

Here is what Mr. Strong had to say about his relatives:

 

"Gerry, tonight my genelogical research popped up your July 22,2001 Buffalo News article about your trip to Chautauqua county and Panama Rocks. Your last paragraph was very interesting to me, in that you ended up at the Wellman cemetary, and I thought you might like some answers to your last speculations.

 

"Barnabas and Lois are my great great great great grandparents. Homer, his son, is my great great great grandefather. Barnabas and his seven children worked their way across New York, from Killingworth CT, after his discharge from the Continental Army. They were among the original buyers of Holland Land Company holdings in the county around 1812.

 

"Barnabas's obituary from the Jamestown News of March 12, 1847 reads as follows: 'He was one of the remaining relicts of the American Revolution. Major Barnabas Wellman was born in Connecticut on August 15, 1756. At the age of 19 years, he entered the Continental Army in the state of Connecticut as a soldier in the regiment of Colonel Thomas Smith and in the company commanded by Captain Stevens in which service he continued two years when he received the appointment of drum major in the same regiment which corps was immediately under the command of General Washington of whom the deceased related many personal incidents. For three years he served as drum major and obtained an honorable discharge. The eventful struggles in which he participated were the battles of Long Island, Trenton, Germantown, the attack at Red Bank with General Washington, Valley Forge and the evacuation of Fort Independence. In erecting the fortifications of Dorchester Heights the first shovel of gravel was thrown up by him. He shared in the distress at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778 where he was compelled by hunger to boil and eat his cowhide shoes. He was also at the Battle of Freehold Courthouse, at the defeat of the Americans near Camden, at the Battle of the Cowpens and other minor campaigns. He was the father of a numerous circle of children and grandchildren. For the last twenty-two years he has lived with his son Captain Homer Wellman where his declining years have been soothed by constant care and attention.'"

 

Strong continues: "I believe Homer was in the War of 1812 in the Buffalo area, but have not been able to verify it. One interesting fact about the Wellmans was their propensity for longevity. Homer's son lived into his 90s and my great grandfather was in his 70s when he died. Strangely enough, there are very few in the county that retain the name, although there are several hundred descendents there. My maternal grandmother, a Wellman, was born on a Harmony family farm. I migrated to Rochester in the 1960s and teach Accounting at Nazareth College."

 

Thanks to all my correspondents and best wishes for 2004.-- Gerry Rising