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November 21. 2012 10:49PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Plenty to be thankful for

As I thought about Thanksgiving this week, I fantasized about Thanksgiving in an alternative universe. In my alternative universe, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not so devastated by disease and death in its first winter (only 47 of the 102 original Mayflower colonists survived the winter, according to Wikipedia).

So, in my alternative history, Plymouth Rock got crowded quickly. Leaders of the Mass. Bay Colony started levying taxes to build an ornate dock, fund a few cushy jobs for their brothers-in-law and pay for colony-wide schooling beyond the eighth grade.

That caused about half the colony (the ornery half) to say 'I'm out of here' and move north. They made camp at falls on the Merrimack River, where they thrived off the abundant game, made peace with the natives and celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast, all on granite-hugging soil.

My story may be fantastical, but as we city residents gather today with friends and family, we have much to be thankful for.

-- That Myles Webster is a lousy shot. Six years ago, Manchester grieved over the death of police officer Michael Briggs. We dodged that bullet this March when officer Daniel Doherty survived a shoot-out between himself and Webster. Webster fired 12 shots at Doherty, most when the 25-year-old officer was on his back returning fire. At times, Webster was as close as three feet from Doherty, according to court testimony.

Doherty, who was hit five times, remains very much alive, although out of work because of his injuries. Webster is scheduled to go on trial next month for attempted murder.

If pretrial hearings are any indication, his lawyers might raise what I call a good-man, good-shot defense: that Webster didn't really want to kill Doherty and is therefore a good shot. (Talk about alternative universes.)

Of course, the prosecution will argue that Webster, who has a history of gun-related crimes, is a bad man, and a bad shot to boot.

-- That Jim O'Connell likes a good fight. For the past 20 years or so, school funding in Manchester has basically come down to two goals - keep taxes low and keep teachers on the job. Any reformers have tended to be quiet types content to send out emails and hold workshops.

Enter O'Connell. He has the time on his hands and the determination to keep parents active in a fight for better schools. O'Connell, whose Irish brogue betrays a leprechaun's cunning, didn't mind calling the Fire Department on the first day of school to say that overcrowded classrooms were a fire hazard.

The father of four frequently appears before aldermen and the school board to demand better schools. And much to Mayor Ted Gatsas' dismay, his organization - Citizens for Manchester Schools - boasts a website, bumper stickers and, apparently, staying power.

(In the interests of full disclosure here, Jim is a neighbor. If you stop to say hello to him, beware. He will talk at length about schools, politics and Ireland.)

-- For patient voters. Earlier this month, 49,052 people voted in the Queen City, which works out to roughly 58 percent of the voting-age population. (I'm using a 2010 census estimate of 85,090 Manchester residents who are 18 or over). Throughout the day, polling places had lines I hadn't seen since this summer when the third movie of the Batman trilogy came out. They were patient and proud. Like the outcome or not, the turnout shows that many - in fact, most - Manchester residents still believe in democracy.

-- The the wobbly Jet Stream. Last month, that great turnpike of upper-air currents whipped Sandy south of New England, saving us from the winds and rains that struck New Jersey and New York. Now if it can just settle somewhere between New York and Philadelphia for the next four months. Keep the warm air south of us, the cold air over us and let those nor'easters ride its slope like a kid down a water slide.

Thanksgiving is over at midnight. It's time for some big snowstorms.

-- For Sister Angie Whidden. When I did my Thanksgiving grocery shopping Wednesday, a man came up and asked me for a couple of dollars. He had two children at home, he said, and no way to give them a Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, my generous streak wanted to help, but I'm wary of giving cash to strangers, not knowing what it will be used for.

Thanks to Sister Angie, who died last month at 86, I suggested he seek out New Horizons soup kitchen and pantry. When she started serving soup out of a Winnebago to the homeless on Christmas Eve 1979, there were no homeless shelters or soup kitchens in the city. Few - if any - existed in the state. But because of her hard work and example, shelters, soup kitchens and pantries exist throughout New Hampshire. Because of her, no one will go hungry today who doesn't want to. (Of course, she started it all; it's up to us to continue her work, so please remember the less fortunate today and write a check to your local shelter or soup kitchen.)

-- For happy doggies. Last year, some Manchester residents took it upon themselves to build a dog park in the city. It lacks the pizazz (running water, agility courses) of parks in Hooksett and Derry. But no city dollars were spent building it (although it is on unused city land).

Of course, this is Manchester: Patrons are bickering over how to improve the park. But they will eventually agree, egos will heal and the park will prosper. To put things in perspective, Bedford is so divided on a dog park that it looks like residents will have to vote on a park this spring.

-- Manchester water. Two weeks ago, I visited my hometown of Syracuse, N.Y. Turning on the faucet there is like opening the valve in a chemical plant. The water stinks of whatever is used to purify it, and it tastes about as bad. (Nonetheless, natives claim Syracuse water is some of the best in the country. The mass delusion makes me think they've put something in the water besides chlorine.) Here in Manchester, I can drink gallons of our vintage Lake Massabesic waters.

It's fresh, clear and tastes like a mid-December snowfall. The longtime director of Manchester Water Works retires in January after 42 years at the city-owned utility. Thanks Tom Bowen, for the drink.

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Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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