I’m not going to pretend, friends, that America in the year 2018 and The Spirit of Christmas are subjects easily corralled into the same article, except for the intervention of a truly weird coincidence. For in describing to you the enigma of the recently deceased Bud Sife we’ll be catapulted into a zone where a civilization in near collapse and A Merry Christmas can and do absolutely exist, side by side.
I first re-encountered a 91 year old Bud Sife at Jeremy Wilber’s memorial, where he gloomily complained of not being asked to speak. (In fairness, Bud was as close to a loving father as our town’s future leader would ever know.) Buddy didn’t remember seeing me at that event, however, when eight months ago I finally succumbed to his telephone pleadings and took the 40-minute drive up to Fleischmanns.
“Oh my God,” he effused, shaking my hand, “…Last time I saw you, you were…” he motioned to his first rib, “— Dave Ballantine’s step-son. And now look at you. White hair. You almost look old as me!” It was a joke, complete with stinger.
Bud called the very next night and fast lowered the guns: “Well, you became like a son to David and now that he’s gone, I was hoping you could maybe be something like a son to me.” It was a heart-stopping declaration of what at first seemed frustrated paternal love. (Bud’s daughters both lived busy, out of state lives.) Although what he actually voiced, I now realize, was a dire longing for human communion I couldn’t possibly fulfill. Yet from the moment I hung up the phone to the present day I’ve often asked myself: what would this world be like if grown men shared their most ridiculous hopes as transparently as Bud Sife? How much violence could be averted? How many stewing resentments peacefully if painfully purged? We’ll never know, for it’s like asking, “What if neighbors car-pooled for all their needs, and reducing our carbon footprint became a national obsession?”
The answer is blowing in the wind.
In any case, less than a year after that conversation Bud Sife was dead. And I had returned to visit him exactly twice.
He was important to Woodstock primarily for creating (along with his investor, Buddy’s brother, Wally Sife) The Sled Hill Café: that late 60’s vulcanization of musical styles unrivalled by either its forerunner The Café Espresso, or its briefly contemporaneous Purple Elephant. Even the big daddy of Woodstock nightclubs, The Joyous Lake, failed to compare in several important ways. Why? Because these hotspots were on the main drag, well-maintained, basically legal, hygienic, and known to all. Whereas The Sled Hill was a backstreet bar in what was left of a backwater art colony. It was raw, “ripe” in the rain, and actually was downright dangerous during a downpour when electrocution from the flooded floor became more a likelihood than a hazard.
The Sled Hill was straight out of the Wild, Wild West (Luke Klementis and Al Sylvester indeed once led their horses to the bar). Except that it was more the epitome of the Wild, Wild East, before law and order doled out by record companies established divisions between various sects of American music. The reason for this was simple. Among Sife’s earliest and most loyal bar customers were The Band, heroes — not of Rock n Roll, per se — but of a music they half-invented and half-curated, though more than 20 years would pass before it became known as Americana.
Naturally, Sife came to the attention of The Band’s manager, Albert Grossman, who had yet to build Bearsville Studios. Albert would call up and say, “I have a certain talent in town I need to hear…tonight.” And Bud — we might assume for a certain favor or gratuity — would comply. He also specialized in advertising any number of ridiculously named bands under which better known musicians anonymously performed.
This pension for wild-card acts in turn allowed the philanthropic flip side of Bud Sife —otherwise an infamous miser — to unabashedly emerge. Struggling new-comers were guaranteed food, a few bucks, even a place to crash if they were really hard up.
Now came the period Frank Spinelli recalls, when Bud insisted seven acts would play (and eat) a night. He thus became something of a savior to various orphans of the storm which, as we’ll see, was a deceptively important characteristic in his own vision of himself.
The Sled Hill became a much-needed meal ticket for “Eve and her folk harp” and for Peter Walker and his multi-stringed seventh cousin to the guitar (both players and instruments: still with us.) Swami Omashananda played his Om drum, Billy Faier played ragas on the banjo; Billy Batson assassinated the competition, Dwaine Story’s flatpicking became local legend, as did Martha Velez’s voice. Although Ellen McIlwaine summonsing the forces while fronting “Fear Itself,” was comparable only to Janis Joplin, herself. But perhaps the most talented of the lot was the 18-year-old guitarist Buzzy Feiten, with a style as distinctive as Hendrix (who indeed listened if he didn’t actually play.)
Suffice it to say there was more than a whiff of weirdness to this hole in the wall where the famous and the merely gifted rubbed up against each other like velvet and eager flesh; where “DWI” was some code from a foreign land, and where even Dylan showed up later than late once or twice, until some frenzied female fans hurried him home and forever barred his return.
And how did this all this begin?
Sheldon Sife, who came to be known as ‘Buddy,’ grew up the son of a Jewish rag monger on Canal Street, who was himself the rebellious son of a famous uptown surgeon. Buddy’s father married a very young and poor immigrant. The union proved an unhappy one and the Sife’s money problems were constant. On his 17th birthday in 1943, Bud convinced his parents to allow him to join the Navy, where, on the strength of his knack with machinery, he was made a flight mechanic aboard the USS Bunker Hill.
This out of focus profile of Bud Sife (whether chronologically accurate or not) aptly represent Buddy as Woodstock first new him in the later 1940s. PTSD was then called “shell-shock” and “battle fatigue.” Buddy’s case was likely as severe as anyone in these parts ever witnessed. His voice rang with the harangue of Canal Street and something else, never mentioned.
A decade and a wrecked marriage later, that same voice could turn mellifluously sweet as he recited speeches of Shakespeare from memory to his two, then, adoring little girls. For if adored, he was adorable. Otherwise, Bud was usually a griping grouch.
Bud was also something of a perfect fit for Woodstock, since, as he often said, “smoking grass is the only thing that’s prevented me from being locked up somewhere.” But as he neared what proved to be the end of a 92 year journey on Earth, Bud began periodically to open up to a trusted confidante or two, and unabashedly sob while relating his personal nightmare in graphic detail. The late Jay Wenk performed something of a similar exorcism in his memoirs, leaving us to conclude that any evolved survivor of the crime-against-humanity known as “war,” eventually awakens to both a need and a responsibility to describe its horrors, so that the purge of the victim might prove the preventative for the listener. That said, if Buddy’s confessions hadn’t appeared in The Catskill Mountain News, you certainly wouldn’t find them outlined here.
But wait a minute…Nightmares and exorcisms in a Christmas Story? Certainly, you’re wondering: how could one possibly involve the other? The answer is simple. This particular survivor of the last World War would become a misanthrope who espoused the teachings of Christ. (Who, you may recall, was said to be born on the day known as “Christmas.”) Our disillusioned drop-out from mainstream hypocrisy would furthermore describe himself as an atheist — this man who’d complain ceaselessly about almost everything except those rare instances of reflexive charity he noticed about him, and would on occasion, enact himself. Yes, though Bud all the while insisted he was and always would be an atheist, for better and worse, my investigations suggest that a far more painful pilgrimage awaited Sheldon aka “Buddy” Sife, here pictured with Father Francis at an unknown date when the deeply distressed survivor of war was simply known as “Brother Bernard” on the top of Meads Mountain.
Sife’s war time confession came in two stages. In the first he is at sea in the southern Pacific, on the deck of the USS Bunker Hill, the top-o-the-line U.S. aircraft carrier. It’s a sunny day with only a few clouds in the sky. Buddy notices that a plane, flying high and far off, circles back. At first he thinks it’s “one of ours” only to realize, “It’s a Benny!” [A Japanese torpedo plane.] Soldered to the spot, he feels the ship beneath his feet accelerate and begin its exasperatingly slow turn. Unable to move or speak he watches, transfixed, as the plane “drops its fish [torpedo].” This he studies as it speeds towards The Bunker Hill, ever-so-slowly turning to evade annihilation. “It misses us by…nothing! A few feet! I realize I’ve pissed my pants for the first time since I was a baby. My heart is pounding so hard I can barely stand. But as I recover from this…unravelling — I experience a vision of the calm, green Catskills. Then and there I vow to go back there to live — if I survive the war.”
So that’s what returned Bud Sife to Shandaken, where his family summered when he was a kid. And where, after being released from a psychiatric ward and financially compensated for “battle fatigue,” he suffered near constant flashbacks described in Stage Two of his confession — when the Bunker Hill sustains the most catastrophic bombardment of any American vessel that didn’t sink in our nation’s history.
The Bunker Hill was in open water, prepared for a dawn attack that didn’t come. Until, that is, the two Japanese suicide bombers evaded radar detection by following closely behind U.S. planes heading back to the carrier, then to wing straight into its hull. Only few of the hundreds below deck escaped death by smoke inhalation, explosion, or fire. Bud was among those fighting the fires on deck. Once they were extinguished, because of his slight frame, he was chosen to look for survivors and lowered down on a rope four entire levels through the gaping hole left by the second kamikaze’s steep attack. But there were no survivors among the hundreds of bodies piled atop one another — though these mass graves would never exit his mind. Bud never mentions the Bronze Star or Purple Heart he received for enduring the unendurable. Some months later he was camped out in Shandaken and heard the end of the war announced over the radio.
Woodstock was where the party was wildest, where artists were thoughtful, and the women among them most free. So it was to Woodstock, with plenty of cheap buildings in need of repair, that Bud Sife gravitated in hopes of pulling his life together. But before he became a builder famous for rescuing nails from rotten boards, Bud under went a therapy neither friendship, nor sex, nor romance, nor booze, and no, not even marijuana could supply.
I only learned about it because a childhood friend, his younger daughter, Betsy, once joked about Bud serving as a monk under the very priest who’d baptized me when I was five. Though at thirteen I couldn’t imagine Buddy — the owner/builder of The Sled Hill Café — as a monk living up at Church on The Mount.
But 40 years later, he seemed more than willing to discuss this secret chapter in his life when I finally called him in Fleischmans (while researching Father Francis for this paper last year). I now realize he probably wasn’t completely candid with me. Though why should he have been? Why was his tortured odyssey any of business mine? Why, indeed…
No, Buddy didn’t tell me about his days as “Brother Bernard,” although he did admit that Father William Henry Francis, the renegade clergyman, who presided over the Church on the Mount atop Meads Mountain from the 1930s until 1979, who enchanted Woodstockers, married many and guided the spiritual needs of an unruly community, had been in love with him. According to our telephone interview this didn’t seem to interfere with what Buddy learned from Father Francis, in that period between 1948 and 1950. Of it he explained, “I served as his driver and took Father Francis on many trips to varying diocese churches in Philadelphia and New York…He was always preaching and teaching to his clergy. He was a teacher first and foremost. And — although he knew I was an atheist — I admired him for the most part. And his church.” Bud explained that Father Francis spoke about “Christ the man” and the principles laid down by this human being known as Jesus of Nazareth. Buddy insisted, “Father Francis was a humanist as much as he was as a Christian with little or no distinction between the two. They were simultaneous in him.”
Furthermore, Betsy recently recalled that while still a very little girl, Bud took her and her older sister, Mimi, to Father Francis’ Easter celebration at The Church of The Mount. And that Buddy spoke only with the utmost respect for the legendary clergyman. Yet the question remains, was “Brother Bernard” really an atheist acolyte? Would that have been possible? Or was Bernard disappointed and disillusioned by his mentor’s admirations? And if so, did Bernard fall from that healing leap of faith back to merely being “Bud Sife, atheist,” and from there return to the reasoned position of viewing Jesus as a perfect human teacher, without identifying Him any longer or ever again as the Son of God?
This would find Bud Sife to have survived not only a dangling man’s view of four floors of corpse-piled hell unmatched in our naval history, but also a prolonged infatuation with Christian faith, it would have ended with another deep wound, though his theorized embrace of God the Father and the Son might at least have temporarily staunched the first, far more terrible devastation. Such a scenario would find Bud coming down off of Meads Mountain and walking back into the world of bars and women and swinging a hammer for a living. He’d marry Phyllis Silverman in 1950, who’d bear him Mimi and Betsy, in 1952 and 1955, respectively. He’d eventually teach young men to be carpenters, as he taught a teen-age Jeremy Wilber, while assisting him in climbing out of his own unhappy youth.
If the photo including the two speaks as volubly as it seems, we imagine Bud teaching such young men as Jeremy about life and hardship and the supreme power of kindness and love.
Soon, on a whim after his marriage went south, he turned his workshop into a coffee shop. Next, with his brother’s backing, that nook was soon transformed into a bar of legend. But when The Sled Hill Café finally succeeded in a big way, he conceded, “I wasn’t needed anymore. I felt lost.”
Bud developed a heart condition around the time he cut off a drunk named Lazarus who knocked several teeth down his throat; he was embezzled by an accountant desperately in need of a job, who pocketed what Bud thought were the Café’s state taxes, which in turn caused him to lose his liquor license. However, the coup de grace came when the overflowing septic system of the Joyous Lake (just uphill) contributed to the stench of the Sled Hill Café’s own facilities, whereupon the Board of Health shut it down.
In 1978, Buddy fled to a warehouse he purchased in Fleischmanns because, “tourists had flooded and ruined Woodstock,” and he wanted no part of it. Buddy would eventually design and build a home and restaurant (with largely recycled materials) without charging his Hispanic neighbors a dime. He would also all but adopt their toddler son, so the boy’s mother could return to work, this being the most dramatic of many good deeds performed in his final home.
In happy times his Woodstock friends had included Mutzi and Jane Axel, David and Eva Ballantine, Bud and Gladys Plate, Holly Cantine, Dean Schambach, Pia Alexander, Sylvia and Larry Weinberg — Larry, remaining a loyal friend to the end, as did Goia Timpanelli. Above all he remained close with Jeremy Wilber and Fran Azouz, the woman who helped transform that kid bartender at The Sled Hill Café into something akin to Woodstock’s own Lincoln. Bud also stayed close with Frank Spinelli, whose camera shot to the heart of the pain-in-the-ass apostle. Selfishly, I haven’t spoken with any surviving friends of Buddy’s, except Frank, since — as usual, I’m too busy saying what I want to say.
“Communion” — “human communion!” That’s what Buddy wanted from me when he asked (after I’d spent hours and hours touring his 2500 square feet of packed-to-the-rafters tools, artifacts, memorabilia, and junk) if I could be something like a son to him. If I could show him enough faith, hope, or charity to undertake such a withering task. Unfortunately, this eulogy is as close as I could get. So? Let’s outdo my vain effort, shall we?
On Christmas, go out of your way for someone. Grant them that secret request few even have the audacity to ask for. Give it to them, anyway. Just…do! Just…at Christmas. If only before returning on Boxing Day to our reflexive position of, “Oh, but I don’t have time for…t-h-a-t!”
The fact is, the world as we know it is…no — I won’t say it. Not on Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanza — because it’s never doomed on these days since “war is over…if you want it.” Right? And so is this president — if we really want and work for it. And so is global warming, if we really decide to, at least…Oh, I don’t know…slow it down? Yes, and on August 29, 2018 the earthly life of Buddy Sife was over. And he indeed taught me something. He taught me that heartbreak will make us irritable and angry and ill-mannered and gruff, but — at least in his particular case — those scars grew on a heart filled with warring emotions, crowned by love. So if we can see beyond the pathology of the Grinch, we also hold the key to its Grinchly redemption. Yes, Hell is over…if you want it. And so too, friends, is this weird-assed sermon. On Christmas.