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Few Odd Fellows But Plenty of Weirdos

Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I blew into Ithaca just as the whole city was about to “stand up for peace.” Of course, we didn’t know they were going to do that. We’d just come down to catch the tail end of the three day music festival. But we hadn’t been in town more than half an hour before some counterculture type person urged us to get to Stewart Park where, at 3 PM, folks would congeal into a giant peace sign. They planned to photograph it from the air and submit it to the Guinness World Record organization. Instead, we risked being seen as warmongers and stayed in the Village Court section, where a cajun band called Bayou Road Krewewas playing.

For a quick mini-excursion, you can’t go wrong traipsing down to Ithaca. My wife and I do it a lot. Just 90 miles southeast of our Rochester home, Ithaca is a college town. SUNY (State University of New York) at Ithaca perches high on the hill to the south and Cornell University straddles the eastern one. The city proper is crammed on a shelf at the foot of Cayuga Lake, but it doesn’t really fit, so it flows up into the surrounding hills, climbing as if ivy. Up there, the streets…commendably gridlike on the shelf…throw off all restraint and writhe here, there, and every confusing where. Descending one of those hills on a snowy day is no job for an atheist.

Four or five creeks cascade from the heights into Cayuga Lake. “Ithaca is Gorges” say t-shirts and bumper stickers. It’s true. Gorges cut deep into the earth right through the heart of the city - two of them pass through Cornell itself. Students bustle on campus above while, two hundred feet down, others hike the gorge as if in a different world. Within ten miles of the city can be found over one hundred waterfalls…I’ve heard some say as high as 150 (Mrs Sheepandgoats and myself strive to find them all).….and some of them are truly spectacular. The local earth museum highlights the fossils and sedimentary layers thus exposed. Try visiting sometime, as I have, with Tom Pearlsandswine. Hear him muttering throughout about the “wiles of Satan,” and challenging museum staff at every exhibit. You’ll want to bury your own head in that sediment.

So alluring is Ithaca that some graduate from the colleges and stay put. They obtain four year or six year degrees, then they hole up in some commune on the hills growing organic food. Or work at the local bookstore. Or start an earth-friendly “green” business. According to this webmaster, Ithaca’s been called "One of America's Most Enlightened Communities" and one of "The Top 10 Places to Drop Out of Society." Perhaps the two titles aren’t as mutually exclusive as they at first appear.

An eclectic bunch….some of them. Generally quite pleasant, though you can’t be one who clucks his tongue at unusual characters. Opening day parade for the music festival consisted of “an automotive ballet composed of a procession of Volvos in synchronized driving formation. A group of burly He-Men toting chainsaws as if they were trombones…..A distinct absence of Odd Fellows, but no shortage of weirdos,” according to the Ithaca Journal. I’m told by the local congregation that these folks tend not to be real receptive to the Bible’s message, perceiving it as a ploy to restrict their freedom. I once worked with a young woman whose divorced father turned up years later as a nudist in Ithaca. So I’m not so sure I want to run down to Stewart Park and make a giant peace sign with them. Besides, what would Winged Migration Man (WMM) say? Were any of his old buddies among those who called the peace sign the "footprint of the American chicken?"

WMM is the retired fellow who spent 24 years on a nuclear submarine (see comment section) keeping the world safe, he maintains, by deterring Soviet attack. It sounds plausible enough to me. And if he plays the “Neville Chamberlain” card, I will absolutely acquiesce to him. Mr. Chamberlain was the British Prime Minister…there were several like him… who “stood for peace” just prior to WWII. He reached agreement after agreement with the tyrannical Nazis, each of which was broken, yet each time he was lauded to the heavens as a great peacemaker. But history judges him harshly. Had he and his peers stood up to Hitler early on, tens of millions might not have died. Unfortunately, hawks tend to see Hitler everywhere, and are ever ready to strike. Many say the current President is like that. Only in hindsight do we know which concerns were appropriate and which were overrated.

Besides, an aerial peace sign strikes me as a frivolous gesture…..appropriate for a music festival, okay - but for a serious political statement? What if it had rained that day instead of the picture perfect weather that was really had? Would even half of the participants have shown up? You must understand that I come from a people (Jehovah’s Witnesses) that have stood for peace when it cost them their freedom and, in some cases, their lives. Over 10,000 Witnesses were incarcerated in Nazi Germany for their neutral stand during the 1930‘s and 1940‘s. In the United States, 4300 were jailed for refusing military service. To this day, our draft-age people in certain countries are routinely incarcerated for their peaceful stand. So having seen people really stand for peace, I don't read too much into a human peace sign on a sunny day of leisure.

About 6000 people assembledfor the big sign. It will be a record if Guinness accepts it, since they’ve not yet kept track of peace signs. An organizer enthused that "we're not going to trash any weapons because of this, but if everybody has the same idea in their mind, that they are coming together in peace and unity, then there's a community started." Um….yeah….I guess....whatever that means.

Actually, there is one circumstance in which I gladly would have taken part. If I could have driven down with a busload of my friendsfrom the home. It would have been a win-win for all. My friends would have had a ball…..they’d each have gotten a peace sticker. Since about half are in wheelchairs, they'd take up more space when seen from above, a plus for the organizers. Civilians could easily be drafted to wheel them around, especially in Ithaca. And if Carolyn decided to indulge in her favorite ranch dressing and milk beverage, or if Jackie ate her peace sticker, no one would bat an eyelash. They’d chalk it all up to our beautiful diversity.


Wolfgang Kusserow, a 20 year old German executed by the Nazis for refusing to go to war, made this answer to the military tribunal:

“I was brought up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to God’s Word contained in the Holy Scriptures. The greatest and most holy law he gave mankind is: ‘You shall love your God above all else and your neighbor as yourself.’ Other commandments read: ‘You must not kill.’ Did our Creator have all this written down for the trees?


******  The bookstore

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'



Wonderful post Tom. It's easy to stand for peace when you have an easy life. Would those same counter- culture folks be steadfast for peace in the face of vicious persecution?

It's quite another matter to stand for peace when a war effort is at an all time high and your sanity and loyalties are called into question and your life, liberty and dignity depend on whether you will support a war or not.

tom sheepandgoats

Well said, Vargas. Thank you.


Yes, Tom, wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it. Ithaca came alive for me. I've never been there, am familiar with it only as "where Cornell University is located," and I believe it was Carl Sagan's haunts. On Bainbridge Island (a ferry ride west of downtown Seattle) recently, I met some people leaving that day to return from sabbatical to their home in Ithaca. They said they might be moving to Chapel Hill soon.

Did I read the part right where you seem to say that more than half of your friends are in wheelchairs? That of course suggests that there's something about your circumstances that puts you into contact with a LOT of folks in wheelchairs. Is it your wife's work in healthcare (and your close association with your wife's work)? Is it your own work? Are YOU in a wheelchair?

So, what would happen to me if I tried to do the job of descending one of Ithaca's hills on a snowy day? [smile]

tom sheepandgoats

Follow the link regarding friends in wheelchairs and all is explained. In fact, I still work there, and my wife is a student nurse in a nearby (unrelated) hospital....2nd careers for both of us.

Atheists descending the hills is not really a reference to you, though I guess our frequent discussions have served to plant atheists in many an otherwise irrelevant context. It's really just a play on that old saw about "no atheists in the foxhole." (BTW, is there any truth in that expression?) There was a humorous plaque in an Ithaca bookstore, written many years ago, describing in a nutshell life in the hilly town: descending such and such hill when you notice the brakes on your VW bus are fading.....mental note to take it to the shop.....a mile later the brakes are absolutely gone and you're careening here and there...desperately hoping to avoid mothers with baby carriages and so forth. It's all part of the Ithaca culture.

The peace sign actually had nothing to do with either college. That's the unique thing about Ithaca. The colleges and the natural beauty of the area have sprouted an intensely liberal atmosphere which has taken on a life of its own. The peace sign was the brainchild of a high school sophomore.....a cool project for a kid, really. But it says something about the town that the population enthusiastically climbs on board to enact the sign.

BTW, in the courtyard where the cajun band was playing was a retired fellow....I took him for a widowed professor (a very conspicuous wedding ring), who danced each song, each time with a different, much younger partner. He'd ask one after another to dance....never until right before the song....and they'd never say no. He seems to glide through every number with eyes expert dancer. Most of his partners were also very good, but a few of them were horses on the dance floor. It did not affect his composure in the slightest. He guided them along, and the only way you knew the women couldn't dance was that the footsteps didn't coincide, but the old fellow wasn't nonplussed in the least.

My wife remarked that many widowers continue to wear their wedding ring, but I joked to her "Oh, no....that's his wife right over there on the sidelines with steam coming from her ears."


Tom, I enjoyed reading about the dancing widower(?), imagining that I too might still be able to dance smoothly, coached as my wife and I were in ballroom dancing at a local Fred Astaire Dance Studio back in the early 1990's, even though we haven't done much dancing of late.

Ithaca sounds like a muy simpatico community indeed. My sense is that Chapel Hillians probably would NOT so enthusiastically climb on board for things like that.

I apologize for reading your post just a bit too quickly, apparently, to have noticed the link. All is now clear. ("All names have been changed of course, even that of the nephew. Only my own, Sheepandgoats, is rendered accurately." Humph!)

"Any truth" in the expression about no atheists in foxholes? Well, if there is at least one (which there surely is; after all, Ludwig Wittgenstein was in a foxhole during WWI--he wrote TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS there), then the statement is simply false. However, I know (or think I know) what you mean. Being in a situation where you may die at any minute (even deathly ill in a bed) can by all accounts make some very staunch unbelievers at least doubt their unbelief. (Wittgenstein may have been too occupied with his book to think about the peril he was in.)


Postscript to my previous comment, the part about Chapel Hill. Ithaca is liberal in a relatively liberal state; Chapel Hill in NORTH CAROLINA.

Chapel Hillians may not be as enthusiastic about political demonstrations as Ithacans, but I'll bet they're a lot more enthusiastic about basketball and the annual Halloween bacchanalia on a main street adjoining the campus....

tom sheepandgoats


Although I did not think of you when penning the comment about atheists descending the hills, I DID think of you in connection with the retired prof dancer vignette. I figured you might enjoy it.

Also, if, Ithaca is described as one of the top ten places to drop out of society, I can't help wondering what the other nine are. Apparently, Chapel Hill is not in the running.


If you do find out what the other nine are, do let us know. Might Boulder, Colorado be one of them?


The society that one wishes to drop out of is rating the places to drop out to....Perhaps that may be defeating the purpose?

The waterfalls and hiking interest me. I can imagine the green everywhere (I live in the Sonoran Desert, so pretty much everywhere but the Sahara is green to me), the wet rocks, hearing the running water as I attempt to climb and hold back my bladder at the same time...I may have to consider it for a vacation sometime.

tom sheepandgoats

People enjoy living vicariously, I guess....or feel that's their only option.


Just what I was thinking, that the very idea of rating places as locales for effectively "dropping out of society" is bogus, or at least highly suspect, especially when the raters are "society people." I'd think, for one thing, that the latter are mostly oblivious to the nameless small towns in out-of-the-way places in the continental United States that might well serve someone who wanted to be absorbed into anonymity, assuming that that's the main objective on one who is "dropping out of society."

Of course, that need not be the main objective. I myself have in some ways "dropped out," but I get some of my kicks from being an amateur critic of the things I've dropped out of. Would an anonymous person in a nameless small town proclaim himself by blogging? That doesn't seem quite consistent.

And Jehovah's Witnesses might accurately be described as people who have dropped out of a lot of mainsteam stuff. Heck, I guess it's hard not to have "dropped out" of something. Maybe we're just chasing our semantic tails?

Where did you see that thing about the "Top Ten Places" for dropping out, anyway? Was it in some adult comic book equivalent, like PEOPLE Magazine? [chortle]

tom sheepandgoats

That other website didn't identify his source, so I just said "according to so-and-so. Perhaps it was People magazine.

All very astute comments, I am sure. Nonetheless, if you had been I might well imagine someone saying "this is not a bad place to drop out of society."

Finally, unusual for a college town, you never hear any mention of sports. Probably they have them, but its kept in its place.

Maybe sports mania is among the things they're dropping out from.


If they're trying to drop out of sports mania, they did right by not settling in this area! Duke University ("The Blue Devils") is just next door, in Durham, you may know.

From your description of Ithaca, I got in mind a sort of laid-back 1960's hippie heaven, and I thought of Los Gatos, California. I lived there for a few months long ago. My girlfriend and I would even go up on the roof (of a house in the woods) to sun bathe in the nude....

But is "hippie heaven" a phrase that would come to YOUR mind from your visits to Ithaca?

tom sheepandgoats

It is the exact phrase I would use.


Aha! Ithaca has now clicked precisely into place in my lexicon of geographical place names.

I mentioned Boulder because my impression is that it, too, is such a haven. Hmm, I wonder if the small communities in Northern California that grew up in the 1960's, there in the redwood forests, are still such. No doubt they are, marijuana husbandmen and all. I attended a night-time conclave of long-haired dropouts around a fire outside White Thorn many years ago. The passed joints, the 1.5 liter bottles of cheap red wine, the ubiquitous guitar. (The girls looked easier than they were.)

tom sheepandgoats

That's because they all followed the Bible, no doubt.


Peut être, mais pas nécessairement.


I think that "dropping out" of society has become a clique unto itself, and therefore is another form of mainstream society.

Like the teenagers who rebel by dressing like their friends who dress like some musician, all in an attempt to be seperate from the corporate influences...Who sold them the music, clothes, and even the idea of that lifestyle. Amused me even at 17.

tom sheepandgoats

Screech: One of my all-time favorite quotations (and so true) is that of Nathanial Hawthorne, regarding Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter: "People who think the most bold of thoughts have no difficulty conforming to outward norms of society."

I often apply it to Jehovah's Witnesses. A more conformist-looking bunch you've never seen, yet their thoughts are anything but conformist. They take the most entrenched values of society....things absolutely everyone buys into....and dismiss them in favor of what is really important.

Moristotle: well.....maybe....but it sounds like french pressing to me.



Awake In Rochester

Unfortunately after 9-11 we lost a lot of peace loving people. Revenge was in the air. I was shocked to hear that Paul of the Beatles sang a song of war. I wounder what John would have thought had he been alive?

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