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An Inconvenient 90 Years

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This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Elevations” by Max McCoy.

Where do you go with meandering rivers, one of water - sometimes - and another of thought? Journalist Max McCoy follows the track of the Arkansas River...

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Elevations” by Max McCoy.

Where do you go with meandering rivers, one of water - sometimes - and another of thought? Journalist Max McCoy follows the track of the Arkansas River, starting in water, then drying up, then reconstituting itself as McCoy kayaks wherever he can, driving by the dried riverbeds with ATV tracks and portaging past rapids that have just taken a life.

Along the way, Max McCoy reminds us of news stories and histories dredged up along the way, including a story which develops as he paddles through. At each recollection or history, I am taken back to stories I covered in the mid-1970’s on what was then The Geneva Times, in the Finger Lakes in the middle of New York State. An area whose water, high hills and woodlands are often compared to The Ozarks.

I’ll start with Tilly’s 109th birthday. As The Geneva Times’ area reporter for the south half of Seneca County, which included Willard State Hospital. On the 25th of May 1976 I was invited to a birthday party for residents of Willard, a huge facility and one of the oldest of the New York mental health system hospitals.

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Inspired by the Fall Read’s theme, Mike Strong meanders through memories about stories that occurred in his life in the 1970s near the finger lakes in New York State. He covered Tilly’s 109th birthday.

Most of Matilda (Tilly) Gugenberg’s records before 1945 in Brooklyn, had been lost. The staff thought she was 109 years old and had assigned a birthday for her. Tilly had been in New York asylums for 90 years at that point, as closely as the staff could nail down the dates. Committed for nearly a century, Tilly Gugenberg was, the staff believed, never insane.

The hospital chaplain made a point of telling me how, unlike many institutionalized persons, Tilly had a sharp sense of time and events around her. The chaplain told me that after a recent vacation he was on the ward when Tilly buttonholed him and wanted to know where he had been the previous two weeks. He let me in on something else too, a crime that was once all too common, and legal, if you had the money and means to get away with it.

Tilly was “inconvenient.” She had been brought over from Germany at the age of 18 or 19, as an indentured servant. The unknown man who brought her over was rich and must have tried to take advantage of her to which she must have objected. Inconvenient, this girl, who would not submit. He was able to get her committed to the Bronx asylum, as schizophrenic. Whatever he had done, was now out of sight, forever, or at least far too long to hold him accountable.

Mental facilities and jails have always had a fraught relationship. Ill people are jailed for lack of willingness to treat and in particular to just shove them out of sight while sane people are declared insane to suppress and permanently ruin their credibility.

Starting with the birthday party date of May 25th, 1976, and subtracting 90 years it means Tilly arrived in the US around 1886. While she was locked away cars and airplanes were invented and two world wars were fought, both involving her native Germany, the Spanish flu wiped out people around the world and antibiotics were invented. Had she remained in Germany she would have been 46 or 47 when WWI started and 50 when the Spanish flu got its start.

At 109 Tilly still had attitude. The nurses had prepared her hair flowing down to her shoulders. She preferred braids. Dressed in a nice green and white print dress with intense green eyes she looked right into the camera and beyond. I’ve always wondered what her world looked like if you could see into her eyes.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

A reference to my gallery site:
URL: http://www.mikestrongphoto.com/CV_Galleries/PhotoCV_Tilly.htm

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Fall 2021: RIVERS meandering meaning 2021 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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