Culture, Government, Legal, Marketing, Media

When Your Number Comes Up

You know that funny feeling when the cell phone vibrates in your tight jeans pocket, and you struggle to extract it before the caller hangs up. Sitting in a movie theater is tougher because you know to leave it alone. But, it continues to zing—zing—zing, vibrating like a terrified june bug caught in your pants.

A couple days ago, my phone wouldn’t stop zinging. Starting at 10:30 in the morning, I got a call from San Antonio, TX. I know no one there. It’s hot, dusty, and except for the Alamo and the acclaimed Riverwalk, San Antonio doesn’t figure on my list of destinations, let alone origins. But the phone zings insistently.

It’s an unrecognizable number. Area code 210. I skip it.

A few minutes later, another call. San Antonio again. Flush it.

Two more calls after that, and I decide to pick up.

“This is to inform you that your Social Security Number has been suspended, and that there is a warrant for arrest under your name. Please call back immediately…”

I give high marks for originality on this call. It turns out that so does the caller, because they continue to zing in my pocket until a little after noon. 13 calls in total. 13 spoofs: each number changed, but the origin and area code remained San Antonio, Texas.

Next to our annual plague of stink bugs, I think the robo call is the most obnoxious–and noxious–element in our midwest existence. What amazes me is that nothing much is ever done about it.

The telemarketing channel has been a constant irritant to me, and to probably 99% of the adult American public.  In fact, it was the subject of my very first post in 2013: Let Me Get This Call.

In a typical day, we will receive at least 5 calls.  I am thankful for these, as:

  1.  They force me to get up and walk to the phone, providing necessary joint movement;
  2. They frequently remind me that I am eating dinner when they call;
  3. The calls provide a fleeting moment of excitement thinking a family member is calling.

We’ve nearly reached the tipping point to give up our land line, which was the main robo conduit into our normally quiet existence.  And then the cell phone becomes the new target.  What to do?

I looked up the Do Not Call registry, and confirmed that all three of our phones have been registered since 2005.  Fat lot of good that has done.

Checking the FCC page, I read some business-like claims by the department head that multi-million dollar fines have been handed out recently.  $80 million.  $40 million. Serious money, but the zinging doesn’t stop.

The government site points to the measures that phone companies are taking.  AT&T, my server, offers a Call Protect App for the zinging cell phone.  It’s free, and I install it.  Then quickly and effortlessly the app reports I have had no robo calls in the last 30 days!  What about the last three hours?

A Facebook friend has suggested I take a third party anti-robo app.  I may do so. We’ll see how AT&T performs over the next few weeks.

Surely AT&T wants us to keep all of our phones, right?  But mean time, I have this nagging concern.    AT&T is now HQ-ed in Dallas, Texas, area code 210.

Could it be possible?   No, don’t even think of it.

 

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Cars, childhood, Culture, Thank You

Gus’s Coffee Shop

Mobs of students crossed Hwy #3 every day to Gus’s.

Gus Vander Elst was a genius. He was a father, uncle, pump jockey, counter clerk, cop, teacher and short order cook. But most of all, he was a genius who bought the Cities Service gas station directly across from Delhi District Secondary School.

Can one grow wealthy selling burgers and 10-cent coffee?  Yes.

My first memorable experience with a diner hamburger was Gus’s, and like 800 other high schoolers, I reveled in the unshakeable aromas of grilled hamburgers served up under chopped raw onions, and spiced with the intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke that floated across the tables of this busy, bustling hangout.

Gus’s was our off-property school cafeteria. Like the M*A*S*H Rosie’s Bar, Gus’s attracted a majority of kids, just for its noise, warmth, foggy windows, forbidden foods, back room and unstoppable traffic.  The coffee shop was a magnet, a cash cow, and Gus was king.

So it was that every lunch hour we exited the school driveway to the eastern curb of highway #3 and strode across to the center line in crowds, intimidating the stream of drivers going to and from town. With a break in the oncoming, our hungry mob would cross over the second lane to the white, two-story concrete block building, occasionally pounding on the bell wire by the pumps, and enter ground zero, our family teen haunt.

Lunch counter, or teen haunt, prepared for the daily rush at noon time.

Inside Gus’s was a lunch counter with six red, swivel stools. Diners could face the cook’s window, or turn to the two large picture windows that looked out onto the gas pumps. But more likely they faced two banquettes separated by a Wurlitzer juke box. The banquettes were perennial turf of the seniors–that’s high school seniors– and pretty much filled with bubbling squads of girls who laughed, screamed, rolled their eyes, primped, gushed and stared dismissively at the guys shuffling in front of them, the guys who studiously ignored their looks as if the table was circled by bags of oats.

At the south side of the small diner were two more tables where a junior or soph may get lucky to be invited to sit, but space was limited, so most visitors took their lunch standing up, the whole time, bumping shoulders and elbows while they downed their burger.

Gus managed the crowd like the Music Man. He was loud, smiling and all business, hustling orders to the cook’s window, spinning burgers onto buns, and dressing the patties as they appeared, “what’ll you have, mustard, relish? Onions with that? Cheese?” He bantered with his young eaters flipping on the extras.  He knew everyone’s name.  When an order was built he’d smack a bun top onto the mountain of condiments with a cupped hand like he was slapping down a set of dice on a sponge. We took our food happily, while his wife Jeanie took our coins in payment.

Wurlitzer: the heart beat of Gus’s Coffee Shop

The jukebox was a powerhouse.   It was always in motion, pounding a super bass speaker that shook around our ankles.  Sounds of Freddy Cannon, Little Eva, Gene Chandler, Chubby Checker, and Dion moved pairs of girls to dance in the crowd.  The guys would swagger and slouch as Dion would tell his story of The Wanderer.

The back room was where Gus stored the empty pop cases: stacks of large worn wooden crates that nested four 6-packs of empty Coke, Canada Dry and Wishing Well bottles.  These were lined along the walls, and leaning up against them was a cadre of guys, staring at each other through the haze, smoking, and telling impossible, implausible, and richly impressive stories about girls, cars and teachers.

Out front were the cars.  Old Fords and Chevys mostly, but always with doors and windows open for more conversation and music.  These were driven by seniors, all in grade 13, ready and restless to escape, off to university, off to work, back to the farm, off to the lake.  One drove a beautiful plum-coloured Volkswagen, and with help from four of his buddies, would rev up the engine, spinning the wheels while they lifted the rear of the Beetle a foot off the ground.  As the engine whined its loudest, they would let go of the bumper, and the car came down on those tires that screamed as he scooted across the pavement.

When Gus couldn’t reach the pumps in time, the guys would get their own gas.

Jeanie and Gus fed us from 1951-1969.

Gus looked after his customers like a parent.  On a wintry January day, a silly joke nearly turned violent until Gus walked out to settle the score.  It was cold, and the frozen, Brylcremed hair of a young student looked like it might repel water.  Experimenting with a bottle of Coke, a second student poured a couple drops on his head, and indeed, the Coke did bead up and roll off.  Moments later, a third student decided to pour a whole bottle of Coke down the neck of the second in retaliation.  That was enough to enrage student #2 who then smashed his bottle against #3’s bottle.  The tense exchange was viewed through those picture windows as the two kids faced each other with broken Coke bottles raised towards each other.   Gus suddenly appeared between the two, and with a few words took their weapons and shut them down.  I was thankful he showed up when he did.

Everyone who went to DDSS has a story about Gus, and the student body loved him and Jeanie for the place they took in our youth: steady, reliable, hard-working, dependable and non-judgmental, they were the older couple who parented us for an hour every day as we journeyed through our high school career.  He watched over us for nearly 20 years.

The last time I saw Gus, he was a much older man.  He lived in the Delrose Retirement home at the south end of town.  Always the spark plug in a crowd, Gus led a daily exercise and work out routine for the residents who lived with him there.  They loved him too.  He was wealthy in the best way.

Thanks for reading and sharing!   You can add your Gus memories below, too!

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Agriculture, childhood, Culture, Thanks

History Lessons

 

A swing bridge over Big Creek, long ago.

My hometown of Delhi has a Facebook group site exclusively purposed to recall the days of our youth. Growing up in Canada’s most unique farming community, the premier source of flue-cured virginia tobacco for nearly a hundred years, the Facebook members post daily about their early experiences. They also remind us of what our parents and grandparents did to get us here in the first place. A couple world wars and a hostile political environment in Europe pushed our ancestors to Canada’s open doors, and Delhi was where they landed.

It struck me this past June, as I read the many stories emerging from the 75th anniversary of D-Day that we, as its beneficiaries, have an awakened reverence for what our parents did for us.

RCAF’s finest, off to Europe.

Is it just a function of getting older that we spend more time remembering, or is there a sense of responsibility to our predecessors of not letting them be forgotten?

Lest We Forget

But to my point: we now look back with respect. There is a lady in Delhi who is daily researching and compiling a history and narrative to describe the little town and its inhabitants from decades ago.

Kilnwork: our main stock in trade.

Another gentleman posts documents, clippings, ads, pictures, bills of sale and civic events, clearly from materials he has sought after and kept for posterity.

When my parents passed, we inherited a library of photography and letters, some dating back to the 1890’s. The pictures are eloquent, in their black and white motif, depicting the youth of a different time. Vacations, school, romance, marriage, kids.

1914: Canadian Expeditionary Force

They also include military poses: those ‘before’ shots, getting ready to ship off to some unknown and dangerous place, dressed in perfect uniforms, spotless, neat fitting and inspiring.

The hand-written letters dig below the pictures though, and reveal what’s really going on. I photo-scanned them all for sharing with our family.  Unlike Facebook, where our lives are generally perfect, the letters from 50, 75, 90 years ago talk of privations and scarcities. Life in its rawest forms was much more daunting back then, than we would know it today: lining up for rations…looking for materials to sew a dress… finding a place to live… battling an illness…waiting for news of a loved one.

A 16th birthday.

Yet there was a confidence, a resilience and persistence like moss stuck to a wave-washed rock in the shoreline that these ancestors of ours would grin and bear it, and get through it.

We have a neighbor who is writing a book about her father’s service during the war. Her source is the collection of papers and manuscripts which he had written 50 years ago. Within these letters are the details which are news to us today. Who knew? It may be half a century ago, but the revelations are still mind boggling.

My conclusion is that for the Baby Boomers, who are now enjoying retirement, or looking forward to it shortly, we have an obligation to use our spare time to dig up the past.

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An expressive lesson in lighting a coal fire.

Our kids need to know the table that was set for us and for them.  In today’s digital environment, where every piece of history is accessible, it’s really only there for background, a general context of the times, and only if you have a user-name and a password to see it. What we find in our attics and closet shelves is much more telling.  We owe that to our parents, now long gone.

The Diary

My young grandson reinforced in me once of the value of writing it down: “Don’t put it in an email.  That’s technology, and it will just disappear.  You’ll never find it again.”  Out of the mouths of babes…

As an experiment, I started a small diary. This is a 2-1/2 x 4″ moleskin which I keep in my pocket, with pen. Originally I used the book to write down things I didn’t want to forget: passwords, shopping lists, names of bartenders, song titles, movies, plumbing fixtures–you name it. But starting in July, I wrote about my day. Not long windy stuff, but a factual account of my travels. At first it seemed a self-praising pastime. But about six weeks later, I paused to read what was in the diary. The surprise was that I had forgotten most of what I had done, and there it was, in print. Multiply that awakening by 12 months, and you start to realize how much we experience in a year, and then forget forever.  It’s like a beige mush of time spent, and little retained.

As a business manager, I regularly advised my staff to write down their accomplishments for the month. “You are going to need this one day. I won’t always be here.  Someone will come to you, and ask what you are contributing, and your mind will go blank. Your job security is in the balance. So make a list!”

Thankfully, they did this, and their accomplishments rolled into mine, and we always had a resource to explain our worth to the company.

So I am keeping the diary going, not to explain my worth, but at least as a hard copy reminder for me, or for whomever follows, that this is how life was today.

Thanks for reading and sharing, and thanks too, to Dave Rusnak Sr. and Doug Foster for the images! 

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Culture

Saving The Malek Adhel

3.5 Power Specs To Do The Job

Five years ago I wrote about the coming surge of property transfers as the Baby Boomer generation haltingly succumbed to the problem of having too much stuff. As The Greatest Generation leaves us, we have inherited not only our parents’ things, and their legacy of accomplishment, but also their survival instinct for saving.

My post of December 2014 “What’s Coming Next” was prescient, and we are living it daily.

We have personally taken ownership of art, photography, china, silverware, correspondence and numerous pieces of furniture. A few of these items have passed immediately to our children, but some pieces are beyond their desires, or capacities. In our case, we are the latest owners of three antique clocks and a ship model that defies the march of time.

The Malek Adhel 

Grandad and Mom at the beach, 1937.

My grandfather, Dr. James Harrar, lived in New York for many years where he was an obstetrician. Sometime in his early 50s, around 1937, he started building ship models. These were works of discipline: intricate, incredibly complex recreations of planking, masts, yards and rigging. We had two of his creations.

The Malek Adhel was in my childhood home in Delhi, placed on the piano well above my head as I practiced in vain below.  Still, I marveled at the wooden ship model, and visualized tiny crew members scurrying across the decks, securing fly away halyards or rolling miniature cannons into position.

Popular Science Magazine, 1937.

The Malek Adhel, named after a Turkish sultan, was a brig that sailed the Caribbean around 1840. The ‘Molly Coddle’ as we called it, had some history attached to it, being the subject of a piracy charge, under the direction of its Captain Nunez. It was notorious enough that in 1937 Popular Science Magazine published the building plans over 5 issues. Apparently in those pre-war years, ship modeling was a popular pastime.

Hull blueprints of the Malek Adhel

My grandfather wrote for the detailed blue prints. He went to work and recreated the ship. He wasn’t alone. If you Google the ship’s name with ‘model’, you will find numerous images.

This is a treasured and obscure art object. When we emptied our parents’ house, it was kept under wrap until a brief display in my brother’s home for a few years. But he too was looking for downsizing, and the Malek Adhel was shunted from one resting place to another before finally repatriating to the U.S. in the back of our car.

Everything I touched disintegrated.

The journey, and exposure and time have not been kind. The spars were dislodged. The rigging made of 80-year-old cotton thread had disintegrated. The joints which were once glued, freely dissembled with every bump in the road. Its sorry condition reminded us of the sunken ghost ship from Pirates of the Caribbean.

The task of re-rigging, 80 years later.

Still, there was an obligation to restore the Malek Adhel. On my workshop bench I uncovered a little box of tools that my mother had given to me thirty years ago. “Here, keep these,” she instructed, “these are the tools your grandfather used to make his models.” I opened it up to look at small tweezers, drills, snips and a spool of golden thread.

Nearly microscopic turnbuckle and belaying pin.

I placed these on the bench beside the ship.   On close inspection, I concluded that pretty much all of the rigging would need to be replaced. Not only did that include 50-60 halyards arcing from the gunwales to the masts, but also a host of little coils carefully wrapped around microscopically small belaying pins.  Oh, the care grandad had taken.

Intricate web of rigging.

My first reaction  was to order a pair of magnifying spectacles.  These are what stamp dealers, jewelers and dentists use.  After fitting them I ventured into the works, and owing to my clumsiness, broke every halyard my fingers approached.  While the glasses were 3.5 strong, I was more than 10 strong, and thrashed through the rigging like a banshee.   So I struggled with every re-do, sans spectacles.

A month later, I performed the final act of hanging a new stars and stripes on the rear gaff.  It has 26 stars, which totaled the history of our nation in 1837, 182 years ago.

The finished product, with 26-Star Spangled Banner

Today, the Malek Adhel resides inside a glass case in my office.  It is at nose level for small people.

 

 

Thanks for reading and sharing!  I’ll tell you next what we did with a grandfather clock from the early 1800s.

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Cars, Culture

Gone But Never Forgotten, Ever

Blue opened the door to travel across Norfolk county, and across Ontario.

The Volkswagen folks announced the last run of the Beetle is rolling off the line, to be placed in museums around the world. Can it be? Viewed as the ‘peoples car’ of the 30s, it was re-instated after the war, in Germany, under the Marshall Plan. By the 60s, there were over 300,000 in the U.S. and Canada.

Ours was Blue.

Blue was a 1964 Volks which was our first car. A hand-me-down from the family garage, Blue transported us from school to summer jobs, from carefree excursions across Ontario on brilliant summer afternoons, to riveting, ice-rutted winter traverses along highway 401 through the snowbelt to Delhi. It trundled over two-wheel dirt paths along the tobacco fields, and parked in the breezes of Lake Erie at Long Point.  Blue was our getaway car when we waved goodbye to all the good folks on our wedding day. He delivered me to a thousand businesses in my first job, a reporter at Dun & Bradstreet.

A labor of love, I scrubbed and polished, even in the rain.

The first car for everyone is really the first adult responsibility that involves the threatening combination of technology, heavy machinery, rules of the road, and expense. Blue was my teacher, a frustrating, whimsical, joyous, moody partner in this journey into adulthood.

Thanks to the creative genius of the New York ad agency Doyle, Dane Bernbach, I was smitten with the Volkswagen ethic.  Homeliness, parsimony, modesty and minimalist statements conceal the rugged individualism of a Volkswagen owner.  “Four on the floor, dual exhaust, slowest fastback in America” was one headline that has stuck with me ever since I saw that first ad in a New Yorker magazine back in the 60s.  Branding at its finest.

I thought they could float, thanks to DD&B’s ads.

Another ad pictured the VW floating in a swimming pool, demonstrating its air tight body.  I took this message quite literally.  True, when you slammed the door shut with the windows closed, your ears popped.

What I did not know was that the exterior was not immune to water. Once, facing a flooded intersection in Kitchener, I chose to drive through the knee deep waters under the illusion that the car would be dry.  As I drove in, the car slowed, and gearing down with the stick, I stalled the car.  No water entered.  However, the engine was deep in a muddy wash, and cracked the cylinder heads.  Ouch.

Blue had an occasional leak.  Not oil, but water.  Every time we drove in the rain, water shot up through the pedals.  When we braked to a stop, a small wave would rush forward soaking our heels.  I solved that problem by punching a couple holes in the floor to let the water drain out.

Traveling companion and occasional VW pusher.

Blue was the training tool for automotive repair 101. Way back then, there was the universal belief that one could fix their automobile just as easily, and more economically, than the local mechanic.  To that end, I stripped off its rusty running boards–a vestige from the 30s–and repainted its doors and hood with Canadian Tire spray cans.  Back then paint colors were limited and easily matched.  Don’t try it today.

Canadian Tire aided my descent into the mysteries of automotive technology, selling a book entitled: ‘Fix Your Volkswagen’.  For $4.95, I had a manual to delve into the intricacies of oil changes, plug changes, setting points and timing.

Minimalist, modest and self-effacing DD&B ads built a solid brand.

I did all of these mechanic specialties, once. I changed the oil, emptying Blue’s lifeblood into a bed pan.  But what to do with the oil?  I put in new spark plugs, once.  The plugs at the back of the rear-mounted engine are almost impossible to reach.  Once I installed new ignition points in the distributor.  Following instructions, I set the fan belt wheel to 7 degrees off ‘top dead center’.  Little did I know I had re-installed the distributor cap wrong, and the pistons fired out of sequence.  That little escapade took about 3 hours to correct under dim light in our parking garage.  My knees still hurt from crawling around the cold concrete.

After the wedding reception, our getaway car.

The book did help on one recurring problem however.  Being nearly 8 years old, its ignition system sometimes did not work, which was a disturbing phenomenon.  Our brains and muscles develop patterns for repetitive actions.  One is sitting in the driver’s seat, inserting the key, turning, and listening to the engine start up.  But after several thousand repeats, it comes as a surprise, a speechless awakening, when the car does not respond.  Nothing. No sound.  No whine. No lights.  Similar to stepping onto an escalator that’s not moving.  You are off balance.

Turns out, according to the book, that underneath the rear left wheel well, there is a little cylindrical electrical device called a solenoid.  About the size of a can of beans, it has wires stuck to it and to the 6-volt battery that hides under the rear seat, just above.  The solenoid jumps when you turn the ignition key, and engages the starting motor.  But after 60,000 miles of water-laden travel, the device corrodes, and sometimes is not up for the challenge of jumping.

Pitstop.

I could have replaced the solenoid. But the book advised, that I could start the engine by rolling the car, with stick in third gear and dis-engaging the clutch.  It worked!  Thereafter I always looked for a hill to park the car on, in case the solenoid was on the lam.

This however was one bridge too far for my better half, Jane, who was designated car pusher.  So the book also instructed that connecting a jumper cable to the hidden battery, and then zotting the solenoid could also free it up.  I bought some cables, and thereafter lay on my back, regardless of weather and local environments and poked the jumper up into the nether regions of the car to give it a little jolt.  Reportedly this is also a known torture treatment used in some dastardly countries to extract information.  I still have the cables.

This book: the road to perdition.

Blue’s odometer eventually stopped counting.  It fell asleep finally. That forced me to falsely report my daily mileage at work.  This was a concern because the good folks at D&B occasionally scanned our odometers to seek out miscreants like me.  So, concerned, I went to a mechanic and asked if they could spin the odometer forward a few thousand miles.  I did not fully understand his alarm and puzzlement.  Usually people asked to have miles taken off, not added.

Sentimentality and wishful thinking.

As you can expect, Blue was entering the final stage of his time with us.  For me, the affair was over, like the weight of a fading romance that was wearing down.  More cost: valve jobs, gas heater repairs, cold weather complaints–do cars get chilblains?– I eventually was guided by my brother to purchase a new car.

The VW shield, a friendly reminder of Blue.

The salesman was Kassam Barwanni.  That was 1974, and I remember his name to this day  because in his kindest, most sympathetic voice, he offered me $50 trade-in on Blue. I needed $100.  After some writhing body moves that would have impressed Houdini, he winced his approval, and took Blue away.  And that ended our early education on cars, points, plugs, oil and water.  Our travails were over.

Valentine: our new ride.

In exchange, we took home a nice Datsun 510.  It was red and white, so we called her Valentine.

 

 

 

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Culture, Entertainment, Music, Thank You

Stones: They Gather No Moss

63,000 showed up for night two of the #nofilter tour

Two hours, 25 songs, superbly prepared and shared.

The Rolling Stones visited Soldier Field last night. 63,000 showed up to welcome them. Someone remarked that they had been together for 55 years..crazy!

Actually, based on the details I read off the back of a worn tour shirt two rows down in front of me, they have been making music for 57 years.

It is not surprising that they are here, despite their frenetic flight path. The secret is, they make good music.  Music that lasts and spans generations of fans.

I know this by their choice of “support” band that played for 40 minutes before the Stones. The warm up band, which will remain anonymous, came from a different generation.

Brought up from Texas, they are labeled as a southern rock band. They served up about 8 songs which were excruciating. Loud, atonal, angry, scowling and screeching, viciously hammering their guitars, they daisy-cut the audience.   Not that the audience mattered, because they never noticed we were there. Even their soft song was strident and angry.   When they strode off the stage the applause was one of acknowledgement of the effort, and thanks…for getting off the stage.

But back to the Stones. Lest we forget, they have been an item since 1962, so they are audience-tested, and found worthy.  Last night they packaged the evening with a controlled energy that never quit.

The Stones packaged the evening with a controlled energy that never quit.

They played for two hours, delivering 25 songs.  The sound system was the same as the warm up band, but the product was superbly better, which might be the genius of the Stones.  They showed us how good rock and roll can be, with considerably less effort and volumes more goodwill.

Keith Richards subtly picked his iconic riffs.

The music was real music: recognizable melodies obviously, but prepared so elegantly.

Keith Richards subtly picked his iconic riffs without raising a sweat.  Ronnie Woods rippled across the frets, and smiled to the audience like a proud chef building a plate. Charlie Watts at the age of 78 worked the drums for two straight hours without pause. You would expect he had forearms like Popeye, but no, he is a smaller, diminuitive man who executes with precision and focus, but not brute force.

And of course, Sir Mick danced across all of our heads smiling, exhorting, cheering us and the band on.  We were his pets for the evening.  It’s amazing what a heart valve tune-up can do for the soul.

It’s every rocker’s wish that the Stones will keep on delivering.  Maybe for the concerts, the community, the culture, but mostly because they have continued to produce good, clever, memorable music–a formidable and treasured body of work over 57 years.   It’s loud, but not abusive, rhythmic but not staccato, well played, and best of all, you can sing along, which we all did.

 

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Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks, USPS

Will You Write Me?

Back in Delhi, my home town, everyone got their mail at the post office.   Built in the 40s, this was the largest civic building in a small tobacco town of 3,000.  We climbed, what seemed at the time, a grand set of concrete steps, and entered by a glass and steel door into the lobby which held a vault of perhaps a thousand burnished steel postal boxes, secured by brass key locks.  The vault had a permanent pungent fragrance of paper, and marble floor cleaner.

I took those steps two at a time for several years through my early teens, hopefully opening our PO box #580 in search of letters for me.  The trick was to get them before the folks got there, because these letters were my first tentative steps into romance, and I couldn’t stand the investigatory barrage I would endure, had someone else seen them before me.  Worst of all, my brother, who might be on a letter quest of his own.

What’s the power manifested in these testaments of our youth?  To clutch the page that had been in the hands of someone special, reading over the words they had written bravely, carefully, giddily, for our entertainment and contentment.  I treasured every one.  And I wrote back in kind.

I just reviewed the latest report from the United States Postal Service wherein it reports that ‘single-piece first-class letter mail’ is down 7.3% from a year ago and 48% since 2009.  Now granted, the category includes small business invoices, bill payments and volumes of responses to direct mail. But among that steadily disappearing tide of mail, swept out to the depths of a dark, unforgiving and wordless ocean, there is a loss too profound to ignore, and that is the personal letter.

The post office reported that post cards are down 11.4% from a year ago. 67% since 2009. What clearer evidence can there be that we no longer send picture post cards from a remote station at the edge of Grand Canyon, or outside a cabana in Puerto Vallarta?  Maybe off a log boom in Vancouver?  Now, it’s Facebook, Instagram, IMs and Twitter all the way.

The reality we are ignoring is that hard copy has staying power.   Despite the pervasiveness of social media imagery, if we want to leave a trail for others to study years from now, we will have to rely upon the impulsive selfies we posted as the core sample of our achievements. There will be no words to explain.

Wise beyond his ten years, my grandson cautioned me not to commit stories to email. “That’s technology. It’s gonna disappear. You need to write it out, so that it’s saved.”

Smart kid.  Long live the printed book.

But more than the written word is lost. We received a letter from a long-missed friend a few weeks ago. In it, she recounted the routine of her days, the status of her children,  and their families, her health, the current politics of their village, and what to wear to a party.

While the news touched many levels of importance and substance–both high and low– it was the actual writing of these items that made the impact. Putting it all down on paper was a commitment to her personal history. Had she merely emailed, the missive would be digested and eliminated. Instead, her letter is saved, rubber-banded with others.

All our parents wrote, and frequently.  Last summer I took the time to read and absorb about 100 letters that my mother wrote to her dad in New York City. From 1943-1945, she was a newly married war bride, making a home in England while the war continued.  By 1948 she had moved to Delhi, and to a new world.  Her tale is all on paper.

Thank goodness she hadn’t emailed her stories, or they would not exist.  I learned more from those letters than I would have otherwise, even if she had told me face to face.

Letter writing isn’t difficult.  Once you start, it just flows.  The challenge is getting paper, stamps and envelope, and time.

Time is the premium resource.  It takes time to sit and consider what to say.  Why?  Because you know that your written word will be received, read, re-read and pondered upon.  Unlike a text, a two-line email, a photographic burst on Instagram or a re-post of someone’s pithy life motto, your written letter is a physical fact, and it will be read carefully.

It’s a shame really we squander our thoughts on slippery social media choices, only to find they are misinterpreted at the receiver’s end.  ‘Would to God I never wrote that!’ is a common remorseful statement following a late-night email that really did not come out right.

If you do consider taking up the pen, a good place to start is with a simple thanks. We keep an inventory of greeting cards–blank inside– which we use simply to thank people.  Thanks for the gift, the visit, the letter, the phone call, the gesture.  Thanks for just being there.

Some would call this just good etiquette.  And old fashioned.  But that again shows how much we have fallen when even ‘thanks’ is relegated to a text.

Meanwhile I still recall the adrenalin, the blush, the quiet excitement of opening that mailbox and seeing an envelope for me.  Irreplaceable, even today.

I hope you find the time to write!

“Well I got my mail, late last night, a letter from my girl who found the time to write…”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Big Steel Rail Blues”

“I read again between the lines upon the page, the words of love you sent me,”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Song For A Winter’s Night”

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