by Bill Monson


About a hundred miles east of Buffalo, southeast of Rochester, are the Finger Lakes--narrow, glacier- carved bodies of water left behind by the last ice age. The longest of these is Cayuga at whose southern tip lies Ithaca, where Ezra Cornell founded a university in 1865.

My wife Polly and I were there on Memorial Day weekend to see Polly's niece Jennifer Shirk graduate with a BS in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. (And she already has a job lined up in New York City!)

Ithaca is a town of 28,775 built on the steep hills of the old glacier moraine. The university has 20,225 students, and Ithaca uses Commencement Weekend as its big money-maker. Our motel was vastly over-priced and had to be booked one year in advance!

Complicating the situation was the speaker for the Senior Convocation on Saturday, May 29--former U.S. President Bill Clinton. His speech was open to the public as well as Cornell students and their families. A large crowd turned out to hear him talk about the interdependence of nations and peoples in the 21st century. The weather was windy and cold, so I chose to watch the Convocation on local cable TV snug and warm in our over-priced room while Polly shivered with Jenn and her family at Cornell's Schoellkopf Field. The next day, however, was sunny and warm; and we had down-front seats in the stands as more than five-thousand men and women received degrees and listened to a commencement address by Cornell President Jeffrey S. Lehman built around works by Jean Paul Sartre and Kurt Vonnegut. Despite its complexity, the students were generally attentive and well-behaved. (One beach ball did make an appearance.) Cell phones played a special part in the weekend as students and parents used them to keep each other informed--especially for getting together in the crowds which thronged the large campus. For example, Jenn Shirk actually received her "piece of paper" in Sage Chapel in a separate ceremony after commencement; we needed our phones to get the family back together for the ceremony and the reception afterward. To end our visit, the clan gathered at Renee's Restaurant, reputed to be one of Ithaca's best. Although we'd had reservations for weeks, we still had to wait over an hour to be seated, another 30 minutes to be waited on, and did not finish our meal (which was good but expensive) until after 11 p.m. when we said our goodbye to Jenn and her family. I was disgusted and never wanted to hear the name "Renee" again--but I would, and very soon! Memorial Day Monday proved to be rainy, so Polly and I spent most of it inside, visiting Corning New York's Museum of Glass. I had low expectations--but was I wrong! The Museum is a fascinating place with an outstanding collection of glass dating back to ancient Egypt. There are interactive exhibits--some especially for children, glass-blowing demonstrations, a walk-in workshop where visitors can make their own glassware, and seven shops which sell glass products from around the world. (I bought a Siberian tiger made in Russia.) A cafe and coffee shop provide moderately-priced meals.

Adult admission is $12 while kids get in free, and there are discounts for seniors and AAA. What's more, it's open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day from 9 to 5 (9 to 8 in July and August).

Another tourist treasure in the area is the National Warplane Museum located just down the road at the Regional Airport in Horseheads. Its collection contains everything from trainers to a Tomcat F-14, from the Twenties to Desert Storm. There is also a restoration hanger where technicians labor to restore old fighters and bombers. You can arrange a flight on one of their vintage aircraft like a B-17G Flying Fortress. Admission is reasonable ($4 to $7) and experienced docents lead regular tours and answer questions. There is a cafe on-site for lunch, and the museum is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. (Hours vary.) We spent over three hours seeing everything, then fled southeast to avoid rainstorms moving into the area. Our next stop was Binghamton, which calls itself the Carousel City. Unfortunately, none of its eight merry-go-rounds was open, so we drove 17E through the Catskills to Newburgh on the Hudson River. Our goal was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Located on the west bank of the river south of Newburgh, West Point is the nation's oldest military post in continuous operation. You can't enter the post or Academy on your own these days, but there are regular bus tours for visitors ($8). We spent over two hours touring the West Point Museum (free) which has four floors of displays, ranging from swords and muskets to cannons, a World War I tank, and a non-explosive example of the Nagasaki A-bomb. The Academy's school year was over, so West Point was quiet--so quiet we could hear an Amtrak whistle on the other side of the Hudson echo along the entire valley. However, thunderheads were gathering over Storm King Mountain just to the north, so with regret, we headed back to Newburgh for the night.