A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Good Man Gone Too Soon

(This is a class notes column I wrote for the Yale Alumni Magazine on behalf of the Class of 1967, which I serve as corresponding secretary.)

If anyone ever doubted that our class listserv has become a real community, that question was settled once and for all on Jan. 25 when Philip Rosenthal posted this message:
"I bear the sad news of the passing of our dear classmate, Michael Snarskis. I just received an email from Lloyd Timberlake, who found out from someone who knew Michael. May Michael's memory be a blessing. He brought a unique presence to the listserv."
This news triggered a spasm of grief from our classmates, many of whom had never met Mike personally. But everyone felt like they knew him from his listserv postings about his adventures as an archaeologist in Costa Rica and his fight to prevent priceless artifacts from being looted and smuggled out of the country.
"I am still in shock," said Joseph Feit. "My wife and I spent some memorable time with Michael in Costa Rica. He was a fine man, a kind man, a mentsch."
"Mike introduced me to my wife, Nancy, who had gone to high school with him," said Ted Funk, who roomed with him for three years in Calhoun. "Nancy and I miss him and remember him as a kind person, a romantic, who profoundly loved and loved what he did."
"I didn't see things Mike's way in religion," said Rev. Bob Riedel. "But something in Mike moved me, and I liked him. I loved that he shared some of his unpublished discoveries with us. I responded to what seemed like a generous heart. I miss him already."
On Dec. 13 Mike made his final post on the listserv: "Richard Holbrooke dies at 69. My father died at 58. What to think, how much time does it give us? Does it matter? I am getting there fast."
His body was found in bed, with one hand on the book he was reading and the other on his heart. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered on the dirt where, as the Costa Rican newspaper Tico Times put it, "he discovered civilizations that had risen and returned to the soil thousands of years ago."
Mike first traveled to Costa Rica shortly after graduation as a member of the Peace Corps and innocently started collecting trinkets and heirlooms that he found. Only later did he realize that what he was doing was - by archaeology standards - more on a par with looting. (He immediately returned the artifacts, of course.)
"But he more than made up for his indiscretion," said the Tico Times. "For four decades, Snarskis' contributions were some of the most significant archaeological discoveries in Costa Rica's history."
Mike also worked with the U.S. State Department to fight the illicit trafficking in priceless cultural objects by publishing a "Red List" that describes several categories of objects that are particularly vulnerable to looting. This list has been invaluable to law enforcement in spotting these objects.
"We should celebrate how great a contribution he made to his profession and how it demonstrates the value of the broad liberal education Yale sought to provide us," said Cliff Allo. "For myself, however, I remember best his candor and descriptions of life in Costa Rica and very much appreciated having a 'foreign correspondent' amongst us."
"I didn't know Mike at Yale," said Tony Barclay. "But we became good friends in graduate school at Columbia. We lost touch until our 40th reunion, and I know that being able to attend meant a great deal to him."
Rick Luis and Jay Hines didn't know Mike at Yale, either. "I didn't meet him until our 40th reunion, and all too briefly then," said Rick. "But he was a real presence before and after that on the listserv. The timely themes, obvious passion and touching humanity of his postings made them compulsory reading for a lurker like me. He will be missed."
Jay added, "Michael was one of the many classmates I met for the first time at our last reunion. We had much in common - parents from Iowa, time spent in foreign countries, careers somewhat between government and academia - and we became instant friends. I will miss him greatly."
Chris Kule wrote, "Mike was a 'good ol' soul' (chanted loudly). He remembered me from his days as a waiter at the football training table. Says everything about his generosity of spirit. We are greatly diminished by his passing."
"We have lost a good friend and classmate," said Mike Orlansky. " I got to know Michael through the Yale Band (he was a fine trumpet player in both the football and concert bands), and in small Spanish literature classes. He was a bright, talented, and refreshingly direct and unpretentious person. His work was done not for personal gain or recognition, but rather in the very best spirit of Americans building partnerships and friendships in cooperation with people of other nations.
"At a time in his life when he was experiencing personal, financial and health difficulties, as any of us someday might, it clearly meant a great deal to Michael to know that he was remembered and valued by his classmates, regardless of whether you were an old friend from campus days or a new friend via the list, and to have this connection with Yale.
"Michael will be greatly missed and well remembered by many. Descanse en paz, mi amigo."
Don Pierce, Andy Delbaum, Bill Mace, Bert Rodriguez and Penn Glazier also shared their memories.
Since there was no funeral service, Peter Lee came up with an idea for memorializing Mike that I think would have pleased him greatly: creating a Wikipedia page for him.
And that's exactly what we did. Ed Cherlin took the lead, aided by Alan Burdick, John Roche, Peter Petkas, Jerry de Jaeger, Randy Alfred, Don Pierce, Jay Hines and Tom Devine. You can read the article by going to Wikipedia and typing in Mike's name.
Guys, I miss him, too. And I'm very proud to be in your company.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fish Story/Horse Story

(Above: Blackie's statue)

We're on the cusp of July and August, which means the annual Tiburon leopard shark convention is in full swing again.
A few leopard sharks can be found in the waters off Tiburon all year round, but at this time of year their numbers explode into the thousands. They swim so close to the shore you could reach out and touch them, although I wouldn't advise it.
You can identify them by their spots and three fins. At only a yard long, they're no danger to humans. But it's the closest you will ever get to a wild predator in its natural habitat.
I have no idea why there are so many. I talked to shark experts at the State Dept. of Fish & Game and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and all they could tell me is that nobody knows much about why leopard sharks do what they do.
"Maybe they're feeding, maybe they're mating, maybe they're pupping," said Sue Scott of NOAA. "If you notice them doing any of those things, let me know, OK?"
All I know is that watching them is way cool. Drive over the San Rafael Bridge and take 101 South to Tiburon Boulevard. Turn right on Blackie's Pasture Road and take it to the end, which is Blackie's Pasture. Then walk about 20 yards down to the water. Get there at high tide if you can because that's when they swim closest to shore.
Then, when you're finished watching the sharks, there's one more thing to do: visit Blackie's Pasture.
Blackie was a U.S. Army cavalry horse who lived from 1926 to 1966. He retired in 1938 at age 12, and that's when his real career began.
His new owner kept him in a pasture on the only road into town, so you couldn't pass by without seeing "Old Blackie."
It wasn't long before the locals decided that Blackie belonged to all of them. In spite of his swayback, which got more pronounced every year, they admired him for his pride and military air. People of all ages visited Blackie daily and gave him carrots, apples, sugar lumps and hay.
February 27, 1966, is a date that local residents have burned in their memory. That was the day Blackie collapsed and had to be put out of his misery.
After his death, residents searched for ways to express their grief. The Marin County Health Department granted them special permission to bury Blackie in his own pasture
Children from nearby homes spontaneously erected a makeshift cross to mark his resting place. Other kids wrote poems in his memory and planted flowers on his grave. And from grown-ups, wreaths and other floral tributes poured in for weeks.
Blackie's grave is still there, still covered with flowers and lovingly tended by a group of volunteers who call themselves "Blackie's Brigade." In 1995 a life-sized bronze statue of Blackie - swayback and all - was erected in the center of the pasture.
Blackie lived for 40 years. That's a long time for a horse. Local residents are convinced that it was love that sustained him. And that love obviously endures, 45 years after his death.
So after you see the sharks, check out Blackie's Pasture, too. Bring the kids and take their picture sitting on Blackie's statue.
And tell them Blackie's story so they'll understand that this is history, too, even if it isn't in the history books.