Culture, Sports

Real Grit

Justify proudly, majestically pounds the dirt.

We watched the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and came away with a shiver as Justify fiercely and powerfully pounded across the finish line one and three quarter lengths ahead of his closest opponent.

Why the shiver?

Was it because the 3 year old just won the Triple Crown?  Because he proudly stands 16.3 hands high and weighs in at an amazing 1,380 pounds?  The $1,500,000 purse? Because he’s a fifth generation descendant of Triple Crown Winners Omaha, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Count Fleet and War Admiral?  His $3,798,000 winnings history?  Because he was loudly and jubilantly bestowed the laudable praise of immortal?

No.  We came away with a shiver because he almost lost to Gronkowski.

If you watched the race you may have lost track of Gronk as the race unfolded, and that is excusable, because absent the use of a wide angle lens, you would not see the trailing horse in the same frame as the 9 others.  He barely made it out of the gate.

At the gate, Gronkowski, ridden by Ortiz in white is delayed.

Gronkowski is a lesson in accidental fortune.  With a meager $79,496 in winnings to date, he did not inspire much confidence as a good bet.  12-1 on race day.  Nevertheless, on a whim, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski recently bought a share in the horse, solely because they shared the same name.  Ah, the joys of personal disposable income!  The football player weighs 265; the horse is over 1,200.

Barely 10 seconds into the race Gronk falls back.

As the race begins, Gronkowski the horse breaks out of the gate dead last.  Only a length behind, he is now eyeing 9 horses’ butts in front of him as he appears to awaken from an afternoon’s equine slumber.  This would be the moment to double back, and check if he is in the right race.

Instead, Gronkowski shuffles into a gallop, no doubt looking to see what the kerfuffle is up ahead.  For the next minute he meanders in the dirt backfield waiting for a sign from his rider, Jose Ortiz.

The gap widens. Can we point the camera elsewhere?

At the first quarter mile, Gronk is in 10th place, 14-3/4 lengths behind you know who.

Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, with intrepid speed and power Justify stretches his lead, thundering ahead of some hopeful contenders.  All the while Justify and Mike Smith, his 52-year-old rider, soar around the bend, never looking back, confident of their win.  They are truly a remarkable, thrilling sight.

“This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.”

At one mile, Gronk is in 9th place, 8-1/2 lengths behind Justify.

Still, there is a change coming.  The message somehow got through to the colt that this was a horse race, and there are terrific upsides to winning versus heading back to the stable.  It is amazing to watch as one by one, Gronkowski slips into the middle of the pack, and nudges his way up the rail like an impatient Target shopper on the way to self-check out.

At mile one, Gronk creeps up on the inside.

 

As the mob of horses approach the final bend, there is a quarter mile to go.  Gronk has smoothly worked up to 3rd place, 2-1/2 lengths behind.

Then in the final straightaway, the crowds are on their feet, the announcer is screaming into the mike, and Justify stretches forward like a wild dragon on fire, closing on the finish.  While horse and rider don’t look back, they surely can hear amid the crowd’s roar the fierce pounding of another set of hooves.

The finish, hot on Justify’s tail.

Alas, Justify crosses the line, victorious, and doesn’t know who crept up behind him in the last few seconds. It was Gronkowski, who came in second, a third of a second behind Justify’s 2:28:18.

“What the..where did you come from??”

True, it’s a horse race that astounds: it is loud, hot, wet, dirty, fast, scary and dangerous.  Justify completed his race with a time speed of 36 miles per hour.  53 feet per second.  But Gronkowski only woke up half way through the race, so he actually sprinted faster than Justify through the last half mile.

These horses love to run, and some even love to win.

Gronkowski in socks, at a quieter moment.

Talk about grit.

 

 

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childhood, Culture, Environment, Wildlife

The Treetops Club

The white pine is the tallest in the woods.

Driving through the country the other day I spied a tall white pine on the edge of a woods, and it reminded me of the pine woods at home, in Delhi, Ontario. We spent many weekends.. in the woods, under the woods, and on top of the woods, building forts, huts, tunnels and abodes.

The pine woods framed the southeast corner of our wanderings around town.  Just south of the CNR tracks, and a few blocks east of Delhi Industries, and Delhi Metal Products, the 10-acre plot was our outdoor workbench as kids.

Soft green needles when on the branch, they fall rusty brown to the forest floor.

As the name implies, the woodlot was predominantly white pine, intermingled with some beech, birch, and the odd maple.  The floor was a soft pad of rust-colored pine needles.  If you dug down 2 or 3 inches you were into soft, black, sandy loam, the product of years and years of quiet decomposition.

White pines are majestic. They are permanently wind-blown like carefree flirts in a park, constantly getting the attention of every eye.  They were frequent subjects of Canada’s Group of Seven painters.

On any given weekend, the odds were good that we were in the woods, digging or climbing.  Our quest was the construction of a hut, or a fort, and occasionally a tree fort.

An adult attempt at reclaiming youth, somewhere on Kauai.

The huts were lean-tos.  We scavenged dead branches for ridgepoles and then layered quantities of pine bows over the structure until it blocked out the sun.  We never knew if it would stop rain, but if it did, it was on a day we preferred to rampage in someone’s basement instead.

Those huts were our headquarters on fair weather days, and absent the real thing, we consumed pine needle and newspaper smokes like little chimneys on fire.

The huts were also big enough to dig pits for small campfires, and if a lost hiker strolled by the lean-to, they were as likely as not to smell the pungent fumes of our home-rolled cigarettes as the smoke curled through the needles of the roof.

Rupert’s folly on Survivor 7. Caves don’t work.

On one series of weekends we ventured to build a cave.  This entailed equipment: shovels, smuggled out of the garage avoiding the scrutiny of our parents.  We learned years later that they were oblivious to the whole escapade.  Digging into the soft cool dirt, we dug down a good three feet, piling the proceeds around the sides of the pit.  When the resulting cavity was about 4 feet in height, we laid down the required logs and poles to hold up the roof, which again was a frilly knit of pine bows and other bracken.  Before long, the cave was satisfactorily complete, and smoke ventilated through the canopy to be blown into the woods.

The pine is majestic: a frequent subject for The Group of Seven painters.

This cave was pretty impressive, having shelving inside for a small inventory of consumables like Cokes and smokes, and also a side for a small fire.  We even had it stress-tested when a local teen drove his motorcycle over the roof to prove its strength.  Bikes were lighter then.  Today’s Harley would be stuffed into one of the shelves in an instant.

The first 10 feet were the challenge.

What we did find, and this is precursor of what the hapless Saboga Tribe found in CBS TV series Survivor, Season 7 on Pearl Islands– when it rains, water collects in the pit.  We could have jumped into the future, 2003, and told Rupert, the witless architect that it was a bad plan.  But sometimes, history needs to repeat itself.

Our best, and highest accomplishment remains however, when we built the tree fort.  The tree was an elegant and aging white pine, probably  among the tallest in the woods.  Easily 60 feet high, and climbable to the very top.

The challenge was the first ten feet, over which there were no branches to leg up on.  As a solution, we pilfered various 2x4s and 1x4s and fists full of 4 inch nails to build a ladder up to the branch-climbing level.  When the handholds and steps were in place, we were on our way.

A pine woods, ready for building.

Pine trees are distinguished by their regular frequency of branches.  Every year sprouts a new level, so that we could climb up the tree with relative ease.  As we only weighed about 60-70 pounds, we had the freedom to climb and swing our way to the top, high enough that only another 10 feet of tree was above us.  Standing on broomstick-like branches, hanging onto the trunk, staring into the breeze on a sunny afternoon, the world was ours.

Google Maps finds our woods, untouched 60 years later!

Over to the west we could see the Barrel Restaurant, Wills Motors, Smith Lumber and the factories on the highway.  To the northwest, there was Beselaere’s Fuels, and the German Hall.  Just north of us was the CNR track, and if we timed it right, we could see the locomotives lumbering down the track towards Simcoe.  Beyond was the tobacco exchange and then the high school. To the northeast was the dump, and way off to the east was the fertilizer factory. Twisting around the tree and facing south was a vista of treetops and woods, edging up to a tobacco field, already green with young plants dotting the endless rows.

I think now about the tree as our finest moment.  It invited us to climb, and regardless of our real position, we felt entirely safe and secure, high above the ground, surrounded by a nest of soft green needles on a web of black branches.  There we hoisted up more boards and nails, and made a platform big enough for 2 or 3 kids, happy to be out of sight, but able to see for miles.

Google provides a beautiful view of the pine woods today.  Miraculously, it is still there, somehow protected from development.  I wonder if kids still climb trees, and I wonder, is ours still there?

Thanks for reading!  Please share this with your tree-climbing friends!

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childhood, Culture, Education, Wildlife

Big Creek

For the past couple of weeks I have been enchanted by a Facebook site whose entire focus is looking back at my old hometown, Delhi Ontario.

Young fishers on the bank, waiting hopefully for that first tug.

It has been a treat, viewing grade school pictures and tagging names to people I haven’t seen in 60 years.  There have been renewed conversations with these long lost friends.  While the site’s members are asking others to remember their shared experiences, it has also rekindled some memories of my own that I clearly had forgotten.   Running central through these experiences is Big Creek.

The creek drains west Norfolk, like a vast willowy exotic plant.

Big Creek is about 40 miles long from its smallest tributary running into Windham township, at the northern border of Norfolk County. As it heads south towards Lake Erie it gains volume and girth, first with the addition of Brondy Creek north of town, then Cranberry Creek, from the west, in Middleton, then Trout Creek and Silver Creek come from the east, in Charlotteville.  Further south it expands as Venison Creek flows in from the west of Walsingham.

Two youngsters head into the edge of the Carolynian forest.

It drains west Norfolk through a valleyed web of locally named brooks, streams, rivulets, freshets and runs that on a map looks like the willowy profile of a vast, exotic plant.  Through its valleys grow a robust Carolinian forest, distinguished by towering beech, hickory, walnut, sassafras, butternut and tulip trees.  The woods are alive with rich scents and sounds, modified by the steady gurgle of flowing water.  Underfoot we find marsh marigolds and vast spreads of skunk cabbage.

Along every bank there is a path, both sides, worn deep by the feet of literally centuries of generations of natives, settlers, small animals and small people.  They are there to walk, fish, camp, trap, hunt, swim, wade and stare deep into  the current’s constant pushing of sand and silt towards the lake.

Green pools hide the fish on a sunny afternoon.

Fighting the flow are small fish– trout: brook, brown, and occasional suckers which vacuum the river bed.  They are scurrying against the riffles to sink deep into the green pools under fallen trees and trapped logs.  Every elbow in the river is the occasional site of fishers dangling a monofilament line over the pool, waiting for a tug.

The creek offered new events at every turn, especially after the spring floods.

As a boy, no more than 8 or 9, I accepted the waterway as open territory for discovery, as did all of my friends.  Big Creek was as accessible as the school yard and main street.  But more inviting, as it constantly delivered new events at every turn.

At the north end of town, a half mile pedal, racing down swimming pool road, a driveway took us into Deerlick, a rustic retreat.  Some church owned it, and sent their meditating members off to think, and maybe relax.  We wheeled in there on our bikes, and stopping in the woods, a few hundred yards, dumped our clothes, and jumped into a clear, shallow stream that flowed into the mother creek.

Icy water, 12 inches deep!  We hung in long enough to claim a short rebellion against our parents’ warnings to stay out of trouble.  Somewhere back towards the road we could hear the occasional rumble of cars over a steel bailey bridge paved with heavy, loose, oak timbers, and a pounding reminder that civilization wasn’t too far off.

The old swimming hole: fun, sand and noisy with shouts and splashes at a bend in the creek.

The little stream poured into a larger current, and a few minutes back to Delhi, past the horseshoe, which was an abandoned oxbow in the creek, and one could see the old swimming hole.  A sturdy wire bridge was suspended over the creek to reach the other side.

This was a service club’s effort to offer some fun for the youth of Delhi.  At a gentle bend in the creek, the water deepens as it wraps around a sandy beach, grossly out of place in the woods.  Were it not for Norfolk’s sandy composition, there would be no beach.  Nevertheless, there is a place to suntan, a change house, and every weekend the screams and chatters of a host of jubilant kids spread across the creek waters as they drift slowly by.

The dark water streamed by keeping us cool and moving.

The swimming hole is just that.  Shallow on the beach side, the creek bed drops off immediately into a dark, murky green pool.  The big kids jump off a diving board into the dark waters.  On the beach side, I walk out to the end of a small dock and jump in, expecting to hit bottom, waist deep.  There is no bottom, to my surprise, and am shocked enough to inhale two lungs full of water.  My last memory is a stream of yellow bubbles rising before my eyes.

I woke up in the change house some time later.  Luckily, I had been missed by a lifeguard who jumped in and pulled me out.  She must have been terrified as they pumped me and shook me in the change house.  I awoke under the eyes of a group of concerned kids.  I had a horrific case of the hiccups which lasted all the way home as my brother escorted me.  When I met my parents, I said I had taken a mouthful.  A couple years ago, I sent that lifeguard a note with a picture of my family and grand kids.  I pointed out they were her doing, and thanks.

The site was eventually downgraded to a camp for out-of-work transient tobacco workers, and the service club built a new pool up by the rink. Today the area is entirely unrecognizable, and the bridge is gone.

Skunk cabbage: big, voluptuous and odiferous.

The creek flows south, just behind a cliff.  At the top is Talbot Street, and that is the address of the Anglican church, St. Albans, then St Casimir’s the Lithuanian church, and St John Brebuf school.  It is one of the oldest streets in town, and is named after John Talbot who mapped southwestern Ontario, earning himself a throughway called the Talbot Road.  More currently it is Highway 3.

Highway 3 bridge on the west side. Upstream we played hockey in the winter.

Just before Big Creek curves under the bridge, there is a slow spot.  In the winter the ice forms easily, and we often went down to play hockey on the grey skin of ice in the winters.  One had to be careful as open water drifted close by, and our mutual responsibility was to stop the puck from sliding into the icy black that bubbled and melted the edges of our rink.

After the bridge, the creek has a run of a couple hundred yards in shallow waters before it hits Quances Dam.  There are stacks of rough cut wood there, six feet high, air-curing.  I have climbed on those boards and waited for hours to spot the groundhogs coming out on a spring day to catch some noon sun.  The brownie camera I hold takes vague, grey pictures, but they are gold to me, better than Disney, actually.

Big Creek jams up at the dam.  The dam is old, originally placed there in 1830, and powered the lumber mill and feed mill owned by the Quances, one of Delhi’s earlier families.

Quance’s Dam: a concrete pillbox was our watching station for fish jumping.

In my younger years there, I never sensed that lumber was a business. The dam was for our entertainment entirely.  Water cascaded over the concrete, separated by a ten-foot-high pill box between two spillways.  We would jump into the pillbox to stare up into the lip of the dam that was under a steel bailey bridge.  We looked for whatever was coming down, and occasionally for some hardy fish that thought they could jump up into the water above.

Quance’s Mill, creekside.

In the pool below there were small retention ponds built out of stones put there by fishers who wanted to keep their catch alive but captive, until they went home.  One day we played in the pond looking for crayfish and found a nest of lamprey eel.  They were just babies, about six inches long, flashing silver in our hands as we grabbed for them.  They would grow eventually to attach themselves to the game fish in the stream, and in Lake Erie.  Evil little slitherers.

Around the corner, there once was a hanging bridge that crossed the creek.  I never saw it, but it was a convenience for folks who didn’t want to walk around Western Avenue to get to the dam, which was a rendezvous for many purposes.  Farther down, the creek flows under the road, and past Stapleton’s stone welding and metal fabricating shop that is a landmark. When we built a go-kart, he built us an axle for the wheels.

Perhaps the loneliest, most foreboding building in town, our sewage plant.

Further south, the pungent odor of sulphur fouls the air.  We have frequently walked down the dirt road to the town’s sewage plant.  There, we would pass by a one-story cinder block building, lonely, unattractive and foreboding.  Beside it, a fenced off water distribution system carouseled around a 60-foot-wide circle, dripping treated water into a bed of rocks.  There was an intrepid group of truants who climbed the fence and rode the pipes one afternoon, reportedly.  There was mention of a police visit.  It was during school hours, so we missed that.  Nevertheless, we were in awe of their bravado.

Beside the sewage plant springs a bubbling fountain of sulphur water.  It boils out of the ground, exuding its trademark stench, and leaves a milky film over the rocks as it flows down to the creek.  Like a saviour, Big Creek takes both the sulphur water and the treated sewage water away, cleansing the town of its trespasses.

A couple more bends in the creek and it curves past a reforested pine woods.  There were many Saturdays when we sat in those woods, loaded up with a giant bottle of Coca Cola and a pack of cigarettes and solved the problems of our world, mostly school, teachers, parents and girls.  The meandering creek took our troubles away with it.

The new Lehman’s Dam, equipped with fish ladder forms a magnificent small lake extending to highway 3.

Just before it hits another bridge, the waters are joined by the North branch as it is called locally, and Lehman’s dam traps a small lake of water further upstream.  If one ventures up North creek, it eventually cuts under highway 3.  Just around the corner we camped up there for a night in a small canvas wall tent.  Fire, food, smokes, our friendly companion dog for company, and the calls of mourning doves made for a pleasant vacation in the woods.  We were 11 years old, and living the good life.

The early Grand Trunk steam engines blew their whistle on the trestle coming into town.

Back down at Big Creek proper, it travels south under the railway trestle.  Grand Trunk used to run trains over it, and then the CNR.  The trestle still stands today, black and rusted, out of use, and it is a monument to the energy and will of a bygone business generation.   50-year-old trees are growing among its foundations.  When I was very young that same rail line had steam engines pounding over the rails, and I can remember their flute-like whistles, nothing like today’s diesels with their air horns.

The trestle today, unused but picturesque. Credit: Randy Goudeseune.

This patch of creek is a highway for foot traffic.  We often came here, walking down from William street, over the tracks, and into the woods.  On any given Saturday this was a destination hike, punctuated by a campfire, and a sizzling frying pan of hamburger, potatoes and onions.

There was a particular elbow that we would camp on, where the creek rushed by in six inches of rapids.  Wandering out into the water, I fetched a peculiar rock that stuck out among the froth.  Picking it up, it looked like a brick, but very smooth and scarred with shallow scallops like someone had scraped the sides with a spoon.  It was block of flint.

Not knowing this, but still intrigued, I hefted the brick into my knapsack and took it home.  There, I chipped away at it with my dad’s hammer, and amid the sparks, broke off sharp thin wafers of flint.  Before long, I was failing,  but enjoying the attempts at making flint arrowheads.  Just another gift from the creek.  I still have the rock today.

Dicks Hill bridge under horse and carriage.

On Saturdays we went for bike rides beyond the tobacco factory.  The gravel road led to the long sloping Dick’s Hill intersected again by Big Creek.  The steel bridge there was a bailey construction with rumbling timbers that shook with every car that crossed over.  From that bridge you could fish, spit, drop stones and apples to the smoothly passing water below.  The town council closed that bridge in the 70s, and cut off the neighbours to the west of the creek.

The bridge in 1984.

A couple hundred yards in, at another elbow we camped in a grassy clearing over a 24th of May weekend: wall tent, food, fire and our same faithful dog.  It was a delicious, sunny warm afternoon followed by a quiet star-lit night.  Totally inspired, we rigged up a large tripod, and boiled a 5-gallon drum full of water and took showers, then turned in to bed, wet heads on a mattress of pine bows.  The dog wouldn’t enter the tent and slept outside, no doubt looking for varmints.  Next morning we woke under a heavy chill, with horrendous, thick, throaty coughs.  Outside, the dog slept, covered in a heavy coat of frost.

Croton Dam generated 60-cycle hydro to Quance’s Mill. It couldn’t hold the water back in 1937.

A couple miles down from Dicks Hill are the remains of Croton Dam.  We got there by gravel road and bike.  This structure was built over 50 years earlier in 1907, and blew out in 1937.  By the time we discovered Croton it had a young forest of trees growing out of its foundations.  The portions of the dam still standing are worthy of climbing and walking, all the time staring up the steep hill on the other side of the creek.  Looking upstream, it’s easy, and stunning to visualize what the mill pond used to look like, stretching back perhaps half a mile.  Croton provided Quances Mill with 60 cycle hydro, long before Ontario Hydro.

Our furthest bike pursuit of Big Creek was Lynedoch.  This little hamlet is poised in a valley around the bridge over the creek.  Just south is an orderly grove of walnut trees planted decades before: probably thirty or forty 50-foot trees in neat rows across the flats.

A few tools from the fields south of Lynedoch.

As the creek wanders past Lynedoch to another elbow, you can still walk up to the field above where there are arrow heads and tools left behind by an Indian village centuries ago.  Just another find by the water’s edge if you care to look.

Having unloaded my memories of Big Creek, it comes to mind just how lucky we were as kids to live in an unfettered, free-range world, to wander for miles, away from home.  By today’s urban standards, our parents would all be in court facing child abandonment charges.  Thanks to their trust, and maybe to their post-war sense of relief, we were launched optimistically to explore and learn, full time.

All the while, Big Creek was our playground and classroom.

Thanks for hanging in there and getting this far.  This was a long essay, but so is the creek.  Please like and share this one!  Thanks also to John Waite, Randy Goudeseune , James Bertling, and Alice DeGeyter whose Facebook posts supplied some of the images.

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Culture, Thank You

Spare The Rod

Fifth grade: Our town’s future mayors, teachers, nurses and milkmen.

Recently I was encouraged to retrieve my old class pictures from Delhi Public School, the grade school where we got our first taste of reality.

You see, on Facebook, there is the group site opportunity to tag your old home town, and to ping all those folks from long ago. The operative phrase is, “…do you remember when?”

Pulling out the 1957-58 5th grade class picture stirred up a tsunami of remembers, not the least of which was the lady who was our teacher that year. Call her Pearl.

A feisty woman, she ruled the class with an iron hand, attached to a wrestler’s arm, driven by the righteous morality of a battalion of angels and archangels which were in immortal combat for the possession of our souls. For a 9-year-old, the stakes were not so much salvation, as merely ducking her swing with her hickory stick.

Pearl’s encourager of choice. She avoided the knuckles in deference to the Nuns’ territorial imperative.

Pearl was a motivating force that kept us in our seats, eyes in our books, when not furtively glancing about like dogs listening for the sound of a rolled up news paper.

A classmate just wrote me, “She tried to put the fear of God into all of us, but I had much more fear of Pearl, than I did of all the gods put together. She was a holy terror with the pointer and the strap.”

Indeed for the smallest infraction, Pearl would swoop down the aisle, stick raised into a ballplayer’s grand slam swing, and bring it down smartly across an arm or a back. She had a knack for avoiding the knuckles, probably deferring to the nuns’ specialty at St Francis School across town.

But she had her good humor too. Daily we would submit our workbooks to her for marking, and next day, she would stand at the front of the class, and lob them, frisbee-style across 7 columns of school desks to our waiting hands. Those were light moments, in contrast to the darker ones.

Listening to a strapping session glued us to our chairs.

Of course, the most feared instrument was the strap. She never threatened with it, but on the one occasion that she committed to use it, we were transfixed in our seats as she marched “Ben & Jerry”, not their real names, out of the class and into the hallway. Out there, out of sight, under the supervision of the principal, she administered numerous swings of scholarly rectitude down on the calloused hands of the two boys.

For us, inside the class room, it was like seeing the lights dim for a moment when the voltage was turned on.

Then moments later, Ben and Jerry returned. Ben was sniffling a bit, but not crying. Jerry, who was the older by 3 years, was white in the face, but stern and disgusted. From that day on he was my hero. He embodied true moxie, a guy’s guy, even if he was a chronic trouble maker. I admired his guts.  I bet he’d gotten worse at home.

Pearl’s Plan B. Long, slender, but no match for hickory. The rubber tip shot like a bullet across the room.

For me, pushing 60 pounds soaking wet, I was constantly in fear of Pearl’s stick. One day, after she had wound up a little too tight, she broke her cudgel over a boy’s back. After the shock of it wore off, we nervously stifled a laugh while she picked up the broken weapon. “Hurray! No more stick!”

Wrong. Pearl reached into her closet, and extracted a new pointer. A little more slender, but 36 inches long, with a black rubber tip for pointing.

Within a day, the pointer was out in the air, flailing some poor sap for his writing, or arithmetic. After that, the rubber tip popped off, and shot across the room like a bullet.

Laughable pointers for cartoon teaching. We should have party hats, too.

The kid is wheezing, staring bug-eyed at his work book waiting for the next flogging. Behind him, not missing the opportunity, the smallest, most obsequious guy in the room, smart, but not canny, stutters out helpfully, “Mrs. Pearl, ah aha,ah,ah, your rubber tip f-f-fflew off your your pointer.” We all groaned.

Pearl would not be impressed with today’s teaching aids.  Pointers, for one.  The wooden stick is pretty much gone, though you can pick up little one-footers with cartoon fingers on the ends, much like tiny back scratchers.  Pearl may have gravitated to the new laser pointers.  Good up to a hundred feet, she could cauterize the retinas of any truant in a nano second.

The Logitech R800: green laser, accurate up to 100 feet.

Grade 5 was the year that we studied grammar in earnest.  “Using Our Language” was the name of the text.  It was a dreary book that drilled us on adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions, compound sentences and subordinate clauses that modified God-knows-what.  Every day Pearl assigned us homework from the text with 10 problem sentences identified as A. through J.

I will die with the memory that the tenth letter of the alphabet is a J.

J for me however, was a bridge too far.  I hated the homework, didn’t understand it, and invariably, would grind to a halt around F.  For days I had submitted my homework book, and every day, Pearl would frisbee the book back to me.  No words were spoken, no warnings or admonishments.

In a moment of thought, checking the cotton batten.

I knew that my days were numbered.  I cringed in fear of that pointer, or worse yet, the strap.  I wouldn’t be the brave kid like Ben & Jerry.  I would be a miserable little suck, I knew it.  So, I practiced.  At night I would strap my hand with my belt.  Didn’t really put my heart into it, but I tried.  Heck, it hurt!  Every morning, I carefully padded my arms with cotton batten, held in place with rubber bands.  If she came at me, they would cushion the blow, I hoped.

And like time, tide and taxes, that day did come.

“Philip!  Come here!”

She sat at her desk at the back of the room, like the eagle’s nest, where she could stare at the backs of the bobbing heads and noggins of the town’s future mayors, teachers, nurses and milkmen.  I scurried up to the side of her desk.

“Yes?”  She had my workbook open, staring at a scrawl of jumbled thoughts, terminating around E or F .

“Look at this, Philip!  What do you see?  Here!  Right here!”  I came in closer to the desk, and stared at her lacquered fingernail, pointing like a sharpened dagger at a smudge in the lined book.  “Look at it !!  What do you see?  Look closer!”

I knew this was it, and for an electric moment, I thought about those protective cotton battens on my arms, and how I was going down.  I bent in closer to look at her finger.   It is angrily pulsing pink and white from pressing the page.

I am bent almost double from the waist, squinting at the page whose blue lines are shimmering before me, and then– “WHACK-WHACK-WHACK!”

She got me, right across the butt.  Like a new sergeant, I went back to my desk with three fresh stripes.

I laugh at the time now, but it was a major event back then.  In fact, not only do I laugh, but honestly, I am thankful.  I never submitted a shoddy workbook again.  I accepted A through J.  What’s more, I went after the entire alphabet after that, upper and lower case.

Thankfully, she did teach me to read, and to write.

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Culture, direct mail, Marketing

Feel-Felt-Found

A Tough Customer?

Have you ever found yourself searching for the right way to win over a person who resists an idea?  You know you are right, but you don’t need to pound the table to prove it.  I recalled this tactic from years ago in the infancy of my sales career.  It works.

I decided to include Feel-Felt-Found in my book Many Happy Returns, which is all about writing and designing good direct mail.  Feel-felt-found is an excellent tool for a testimonial, and even an opening statement.   It can be a third party insert to disarm the most resistant buyers of their reservations.

‘Feel-felt-found’ is a logical progression that brings a reader around to a positive point of view. The seller is identifying with the potential buyer: “Look, I know how you feel…” and continues to list the potential negatives of the offer. This concession aligns the buyer and seller on the same side of the issue.

Continuing, “I felt the same way myself…” describes the suspicions and reservations in some detail. And then turns the tables, “But here is what I found…” and concludes by cashing the objections for a happy discovery that it’s a good deal after all.

He delivers perfectly.

Tom Selleck, best known for his convincing portrayal of the gruff, conservative, New York Police Commissioner on CBS “Bluebloods”, delivers a perfect ‘feel-felt-found’ for American Advisors Group which markets reverse mortgages for seniors.

He sticks close to script:

“I know what you’re thinking. I thought what you thought. Some things are just too good to be true. Just like you, I thought that reverse mortgages had to have some kinda catch –just a way for banks to get your house…right?
Well then I did some homework and I found out that it’s not any of that – it’s not another way for the bank to get your house and it’s also not too good to be true!

The script continues to explain the financing procedures and the benefits. Selleck concludes:

“I know what you were thinking – I did too. I felt the same way. But I checked it out and I found out a lot more. It’s pretty simple, a reverse mortgage from AAG can give you the retirement stability you’re looking for. Maybe you want to check it out.”

The script goes on to offer a free brochure and video for interested viewers.

‘Feel-felt-found’ is a powerful sales tool and delivered in the voice of a satisfied customer, or a company employee, makes a great testimonial for the reader to re-assess an offer.

I hope you liked this.  I have never used this blog for promotion, but in this case, I felt compelled.  It’s part of a life story, so I included it.  There’s plenty more for direct marketers who are on a quest for success.  You will find uniquely helpful clues in Many Happy Returns–Rules, Reckonings and Tales Told From The Mailbox.  It’s available now!

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Culture, direct mail, Media, Science, Thank You, USPS

You Are Still On My List

A written card, delivered by mail. Old fashioned, and meaningful.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly featured the story of a father in Valdosta, Georgia who has sent over 20,000 post cards to his kids since 1995. The kids have saved every one, and their bookshelves are packed with volumes of fatherly words to his children.

As a devout postal fan, I was intrigued and pleased that there was a fellow writer who still believed in sending cards and letters.  Indeed a while back I wrote about the beauty of the written thank you note.

It drove me to look at the latest USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report that measures the postal pulse of the nation. What I found was both disturbing, and a little puzzling.

Direct mail surrendered some market share to the web.

We know that mail volumes have conceded their dominance to email and online transactions. Even direct mail, which is a vibrant, robust medium has also given up share to the web.

But what was revealing about our culture are the declining totals of personal mail for the last three months, from October to December, 2017.

Simply put, we stopped writing.

Year over year, the Q4 volume of “single” letters slipped 5.9%. A blip? No, because single letters had dropped 5.1% the previous Q4 as well.  A single letter is typically a bill payment, a business letter, or a personal letter.  Or perhaps a greeting card.

The Greeting Card Association reports 7 billion cards are produced every year.

Percentages don’t really tell the story though. This past quarter, the single letter volume dropped 313,044,000 pieces.

To put that into terms we understand, I remind you that every Q4 we celebrate Halloween, Remembrance or Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and approximately 75,000,000 birthdays.

The USPS counter selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The Greeting Card Association reports that we purchase over 7 billion greeting cards every year.  And it turns out that the USPS delivered 17.5 billion single letters in 2017.   Maybe the remaining 10.5 billion single letters are just business and bill payments.  So, did we stop sending personal letters, or did we stop paying our bills?

The answer again pops up in the USPS reports.  In 2017, Presort First Class letters, aka, bulk business letters dropped over 5%: 787 million fewer bills and statements going out; fewer checks coming back.

It further develops, according to the USPS 2016 Householder Diary that Americans sent 3.6 billion letters “household to household”.

Conclusion: consumers are doing their business online, receiving and paying their bills electronically.

This is a huge relief to me, because it means that we are still writing personal cards and letters…I think.

For certain, the volume will never drop to zero, because of the persistent efforts of a father in Valdosta who still writes his kids every day.

How often do you?

Thanks for sharing!  If you would like to see the USPS reports for yourself, click here!

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Culture, direct mail, Environment, Government, Marketing

Don’t Leave The Lights On

Got a light?

Just a few days ago we received a handy tool from ComEd, our power supplier. We have a light bulb guide.

ComEd’s 3 steps to lighting your home.

What seems like 10 years back, somebody governmental decided unilaterally that we should do away with those high-energy-consuming incandescent bulbs which we have been using since Edison. No longer would we squint in the warm glow of a 60-watt bulb while reading the newspaper.

This was because someone, probably in Shanghai Xiangshan, thought we were better off screwing mini-helical fluorescent bulbs into our light sockets. Touted as energy-saving devices, the ‘cool light’ replacements would use less electricity, and last 5 times longer. Incandescents all but left the market, unless you looked in an old variety store off a back road.

So we were prodded into changing out all the old bulbs.

The bright idea: mercury infused fluorescence!

Once all the houses in America were transitioned over to the helix models, then the mercury sleuths woke up, and said we could not dispose of the bulbs. Because after all, they do burn out eventually, and to my disappointment, faster than claimed. But who’s going to China to file a complaint?

Terrific!

So now the incandescents have returned, like swallows to Capistrano.

From watts to lumens. At the speed of light.

But at the same time, another Edison protege has risen, to suggest disposing again of all incandescents in favor of LED bulbs.  The light-emitting-diode bulbs are very efficient indeed.  Not only do they use less power, but they are also blindingly brilliant.

ComEd has taken the initiative in nudging the switch along by mailing us a helpful little card.  On one side, it converts incandescent strengths to LED, which is like shrinking a bagel to a Cheerio.

It goes from watts… remember him? ..to lumens, which is like from energy consumed to instead, brightness delivered.

A Canadian bookmark for the 1970s, still in use today.

But before I go any further, I just want you to consider a similar transition from ancient Canadian history.  Back in 1973 the federal government, of course, decided to change from Imperial measure…remember the Queen?… to metric.   This was purportedly to rationalize and expand Canadian exports to the non-U.S. metric world of commerce.

I think the real reason was to hoodwink the car-owning public.  We shifted gas prices from 45 cents a gallon to 15 cents a liter overnight– without a shred of understanding.  To further bamboozle the public, the government then commanded that car fuel efficiency should shift from mpg, miles per gallon to… kilometers per liter?….no wait for it,  liters per 100 kilometers!

What the heck is that?

Lenticular: lighting your home, as Kelvin would like it.

Not un-coincidentally, while this huge shell game was in process, the Feds decided to start a government-owned company called Petrocan to sell us gas for our cars!  They bought up all the Sunoco stations, changed the signs, and raised the prices like great Caesar’s ghost.  We didn’t have a clue.

So back to ComEd, which so far is not a government entity.

Lord Kelvin

The other side of the ComEd lightbulb card is a lenticular lens which shows you what your home will look like using LED lighting.  It’s pretty clever, and a great device for direct mailers to use.  When you wiggle the card, it changes the brightness of the living room pictured on the card.

You have three exposures: DAYLIGHT, SOFT LIGHT and BRIGHT WHITE.  Below each setting a number tells you what the bulb’s color temperature is, in…Kelvin?…remember him?

Of course you do.  Water freezes at 32′ Fahrenheit, or 0′ Celsius, or 273Kelvin.

Anyway, we now have a card to buy the right bulbs, defined by lumens and Kelvins.

The only remaining question, how many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?

 

Thanks for reading!  Please illuminate your friends by sharing!

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