A Poem for Dick Voloshen

Several Sundays ago, after my first hike up Overlook Mountain in ages, whom I did run into upstairs at Joshua’s where I’d gone for my latte and chocolate chip cookie reward for my exercise, but Dick Voloshen , who has led the volunteer program to open the Overlook fire tower for visitors on weekends for the past fourteen years. For three summers, I was such a volunteer, donning my khaki shirt with official patches on my sleeves and spending a few days each year hanging out by the fire tower, answering questions from hikers, or, during lulls, sitting in beach chairs to chat with fellow volunteers and share snack food. Those days were reminders that the Overlook summit is the Grand Central Station of the Catskills, the crossroads where anyone and everyone may eventually show up, from a young man from Louisiana fascinated to see his first chipmunks to a blind Boy Scout from Massachusetts to a veteran Woodstocker who has somehow in all his years in town never climbed the mountain before. Those sunny days as a fire tower volunteer inspired several chapters in Walking Woodstock, a book that Dick Voloshen enjoyed, for he knew the pleasures of welcoming visitors to the Overlook summit, which has some of the most spectacular views in the Hudson Valley. At Joshua’s he introduced me to his son and daughter-in-law, who was quickly called away by the young grandchildren. Then came the good news/bad news. Dick and his wife would soon be leaving Woodstock to live near their younger ones in Pennsylvania.

Life has its passages. One that I didn’t learn about until my late forties and early fifties was being invited to serve on boards. The causes were worthwhile—the Catskills 3500 Club, the Woodstock Land Conservancy, Hudsonia, and finally the Woodstock Library, a position for which I actually had to run in a public election—yet I found myself increasingly frustrated by board meetings. Everything bugged me: the wayward discussions, the friendly consensus that always led to unanimous votes on trivial matters, the gnawing frustration that these meetings were a substitute for the real work that needed to be done. In the end, which came sooner and sooner with each board, I felt that my only real accomplishment was to quit in a huff. Now, it would be unfair to accuse anyone of actually enjoying board meetings, but others could tolerate them to enjoy what was unquestionably good about boards: their members and the organizations they supported. But not me. I seethed until I finally broke out into the role of renegade reporter, digging with questions until I got to the bottom of some murky matter. Or I sat in silence, wondering what the hell was I, as a guy who spent his days in long johns and bathrobe at the computer writing poetry, doing trying to understand an organization’s budget? No, I was in the wrong place, the antithesis of the casual creative gatherings where I flourished. Not only did I sour on boards, but I grew skeptical of volunteering itself, that supposedly saintly activity that to me seemed like just another arena for egos and posturing, albeit one without pay. That’s when I began to appreciate Dick Voloshen.

I doubt that Dick saw himself as a masterful volunteer coordinator. He sounded sheepish in saying that the program seemed to run itself. But he was what I needed. Low key, hands off, quick to say yes to an idea he liked, no to one he didn’t. There were no meetings, subcommittees, approval processes, or any other group demands, save for an annual campfire picnic at the end of the season that was lots of fun. We had a simple mission—open up the fire tower and ranger’s cottage, answer questions for the day, close up the fire tower and cottage—and we did it. In the mornings I picked up the zip lock bag with the keys and the cell phone from the bench on Dick’s front porch in town. In the evenings I returned the bag now stuffed with dollar bills from the donations jar to the same spot. He trusted me—he trusted dozens of us—to be able emissaries for the fire tower, each in our own way. Looking back, I see that volunteering wasn’t my problem, board meetings were. During my years at the fire tower, I helped arrange for nature walks led by Michael Kudish, the Catskills forest historian, and by Robert Titus, the Catskills geologist. We also held poetry salons at the cottage. Dick was delighted by the successes we had with events that drew crowds, unperturbed by those that didn’t. He made made volunteering fun again. And only once did he ask me to attend a meeting. There were only four us for what proved to be a very productive discussion. Who knows? But, no, I’m never joining another board!

Among my ideas that Dick immediately said yes to was my framing a copy of my poem “Fire Tower” in birch bark to be hung in the cottage, where, thanks to him, it still hangs to this day. Now I’m posting the poem on my blog in Dick’s honor. Before he arrived with his volunteers to repair and maintain the fire tower, it had been closed to the public for years. Dick helped make the experience described in this poem possible for thousands of people, including me. Now let me say thanks.

Fire Tower

Never mind your replacement, the airplane.
You’ve pulled lightning from the sky,
tickled your legs blue with St. Elmo’s fire.
You’ve bathed in cold fog, shed icicles
like thousands of earrings. You’ve whistled
through hurricanes, watched meteors
scratch the black dome in every direction
without leaving a trace. You’ve ignored
wars. You couldn’t name a president.
You’ve chaperoned two generations of trees.
You’ve tolerated thousands of visitors
climbing the zig-zag of your spine
to stand inside your empty square head
& believe they see what gods see.

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