Culture, Thank You

Now Where Did He Go?

I just received an inquiry about my health. I have not posted since April, (Birthday Buzz) and one of my readers suggested that I was not well.

Not so! Never been fitter!

The truth is, I last posted in April, shortly after our COVID attack, and then was busy finishing up the final pages of my third book, Norfolk Chronicles. It was published in May, and I am happy to report that it has sold out. I am waiting for my second bulk delivery to arrive on our doorstep soon.

Since then, I volunteered to help supply content for a very special website, NorfolkRemembers.Ca. The site is dedicated to memorializing the great expense of the many sons and daughters who fought for peace and freedom in World War 1, The Great War, and World War 2.

Norfolk County, scenically and prominently, takes its place on the north shore of Lake Erie, in Ontario. Between 1939-1945 the farms and towns of Norfolk gave up 153 soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who never came home to their families nearly 80 years ago. Today, their names may appear on a brass plaque in a park somewhere that we might pass by on our way to the variety store or the coffee shop.

RCAF Pilot Officer Donald George McLeod, age 21.

The website is fascinating and inspiring. It has numerous exhibits of stories, letters, photography and events. Our current effort is to research and write a more comprehensive story for each our fallen heroes. These stories speak to their youth, their families, plans, hobbies and loves, and how they lined up to enlist. The narratives will also reveal their final hours and how they were remembered some 75 years ago.

The statistics on the 153 are eye-opening and gut-wrenching, but cutting to the chase, the youngest I have encountered so far was 19, and the oldest was just over 33 years of age. Imagine the loss. Had they returned home, they may have been our parents, grand parents or great grandparents.

So, for the time being, I am pursuing the job given me with a group of others. I may not be posting much until done.

Be safe, and get on with the things you like to do.

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childhood, Culture, Entertainment

Down At The Rink – 3

The Delhi Arena: Home of the Ice Carnival

The Delhi arena was our community center. It housed our public skating in winter and summer, our hockey teams, our figure skaters, our bike races, wrestling matches and the odd magic show.  But chief among its attractions was the Ice Carnival, that happened every March.

Small towns like Delhi enjoy a trait you can’t find in a big city: togetherness.  The Ice Carnival brought together hundreds of parents, children, fans, performers, business leaders, round-the-corner store owners, and just as many more contributors who worked tirelessly in the background, unknown to many of us as they mobilized for this annual event.

Juniors in full clown get-up.

The Delhi Figure Skating Club put on the Ice Carnival. This was the capstone to four months of figure skating instruction.  Youngsters would show up every Wednesday afternoon to learn the basics of skating.  They scrabbled over weak ankles and catchy toe picks that tripped them every time they moved.  Yet four months later, they had mastered forwards, backwards, modest hops and skips, and skating hand in hand with their groups.   The Intermediate and Senior skaters appeared on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and had learned or polished their ability to execute spins and mid-air jumps, dances in pairs and precise figures.

Fulfilling the dream of being the next star on ice.

All of these accomplishments were the fulfillment of many parents’ dreams of one day seeing their child be the next Karen Magnussen or Toller Cranston.  But in the short term, they would be happy just to see them applauded as a star on ice, and that’s what the carnival promised.

The themes generated ideas for costumes and duets.

Every year the DFSC would choose a theme.  Maybe one time it was Peter Pan, or Wizard of Oz.  The musical Gypsy was nominated one year.  Other times it was Deep In The Heart of Texas, Nutcracker and Aladdin. The theme became the platform for choosing characters which might be Munchkins, or gum drops, Tinkerbell, scarecrows, clowns, broncos, cowgirls, roughnecks, roses, skunks, elephants, pink panthers, candy canes, Belles of The Ball, you name it.

It was a war effort of volunteerism, sewing 100’s of costumes.

The carnival ignited a war effort of volunteerism.  The juniors show would require possibly 200 costumes.  And for each of these, a mother would get a pattern which might be for a teddy bear, to be sewn in three segments.  If she couldn’t deliver, there were sewing dynamos who were skater mothers like Jackie Byron, Hazel Osborne, Yvonne Kelleher, Georgette Rapai, Marjorie Klein who would bang out ten teddy bear costumes, or fifteen skunks with stuffed tails, as long as you brought the material.

A milk maid with her charges.

The theme was rounded out with backdrop and props. Moms and dads would show up to staple 40-inch tin foil around the entire boards of the rink, and string electric lights.   Under the direction of Gord Franklin, sheets of plywood and lengths of 2x4s would appear, and were pounded into scenery walls across the back end of the rink.  Teams of painters would arrive with buckets of tempera to draw forests, and houses, and oil wells, windmills and whimsical street scenes.

Odd man out: boys were in high demand.

Truly, if there were 200 skaters in the carnival, there were 200 parents who helped sew, paint, build and deliver.  One year we required 30 tambourines for a big number.  With some ingenuity Cy Stapleton acquired enough steel pie plates into which he cut and welded flattened, perforated bottle caps that rattled raucously.  Not quite symphonic, but still impressive.

A Swiss Miss with smiling escort.

The music was key for the Ice Carnival.  Under the direction of Floyd Thomas, the Delhi Band would practise and perform perhaps 20 different tunes and bumper segments to bring our solos, dances and parades to life.

The Delhi Community Band delivered sound and rhythm to mobilize the acts.

Meanwhile at the business end of the production, every skater was assigned a group of tickets to sell. These challenges were as daunting as a walk to the principal’s office.  Neighbourhoods were canvassed door-to-door by mumbling, addled urchins with handfuls of card-sized tickets, going for $2,$3,$4 each.  We were exhorted to get them all sold, or don’t come home.

Elves waiting backstage for their cue.

As the day approached, dress rehearsals were convened, and under the stressful din of our instructors we were given our routines. The Juniors were herded in groups of ten or fifteen. Their performance consisting of a couple tours around the ice, perhaps a rotating ring or parade of bunny hops.  The more accomplished were picked to do solos.  The soloists usually got exclusive costumes with more colors or frills or trim.  They were stars.

The girls were dressed in sequins, gloves and tiaras.

The intermediates and seniors had more complex routines to maneuver and there were more opportunities for truly gifted skaters to create and perform solos and duets, showing off impressive turns, spins, jumps and speed. They looked special, and the crowds loved them.

There were always a few dance numbers.  A dozen or more seniors would waltz around the ice while the band played.  The Averys, a very senior and elegant visiting couple would skate the equivalent of a ballroom dance, dressed in tails and evening gown.   They glided around the rink, gracefully, classy, smiling and  wowing the audience with their apparent ease on ice.

The guys grabbed all the comedy routines, in ridiculous outfits.

Ice Carnivals also provided comic humour, and the few remaining senior guys, Paul and George Rapai, Skip Lumley, Mike Byron, Chris Brown, Rob Lammens, contributed. The crowds enjoyed their romps in weird cow costumes, throwing confetti into the bleachers, riding steel wash buckets, pedaling two-seated bicycles backwards on tacked tires, skipping rope and lassoing each other.

The Precision Line on ice was spectacular, and good.

One legacy of the Ice Carnival was its famous precision line.  While most of us at the time did not know of the Rockettes, it was certainly the model after which the senior girls and ladies were instructed. Thirty or more would appear in stunning short-skirted outfits, embellished with ruffles, ribbon, sequins and gloves to dazzle the crowd with powerful confident moves in unison, rocking and skating to the up tempo sounds from the band.  They circled, counter-circled, wiggled and swayed, and finally lined up to deliver a jaw-dropping kick line forwards and backwards.  The precision team became a show piece in the region for years after under the direction of Karen Haskins.

Wizard of Oz, in full dress.

All of these things are indelibly etched in my memory for the years that I participated.  The experience of putting on a show, the excitement and tension of huddling behind a backdrop, surrounded by giggling groups of pretty girls, goofy guys dressed in party gear and faces smeared in grease paint, lipstick and Nivea cold creme like Mardi Gras, waiting for a cue…and the music would start up, the lights dimmed, the spots went on, out we went, and the crowds would cheer… it was a special time.

Thanks for reading and sharing!  I hope you too remember a special time when you were down at the rink!

 

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink 2

The Delhi Arena, In An Uncommon Quiet Moment

Down at the rink there was a constant stream of guys from youngsters to teens who slogged in and out, all winter, with bags of equipment, tapes, pucks, pads, skates and sticks.  They came at all the hours of the day and night.

In this small hockey-crazy town, how did I end up in the figure-skating club?

Of all the gifts my parents bestowed, this was the one that took the longest to understand.  But whether it was their intention to produce a figure skater, or just to keep me occupied, I eventually saw the light.  And it was dazzling.

Barbara Ann Scott, 1948 Olympic Gold Medalist for Canada

My parents moved to Delhi in 1948 and in a short time took a lead role in starting the Delhi Figure Skating Club. It was the same year Canada’s Sweetheart, Barbara Ann Scott, won the Olympics. This may have been Dad’s idea, but Mom would have pushed him along, and with the help of those many post-war friends who landed in this small tobacco-growing community, the DFSC was born.  It drew widespread endorsement, especially by parents whose daughters couldn’t play hockey.   Within a couple of years there was a long list of members aged 7-70 who came to the rink on Wednesdays and Saturdays to cut figure 8s, do steps, spins and jumps and dance in wavy processions around the rink.  You might say it was a little Arthur Murray mixed up with some chilly ballet.

CCM skates, built tough for hockey.

While all my friends went the hockey route, I went figure skating, primarily because it was my ride home.  So, I owned a pair of black, shin-high laced skates with long, slim silver blades with chiseled picks on the toes.  My buds all had CCM hockey skates: black with brown trim, yellow laces, reinforced tendon guards, and wide, hard, puck-stopping steel blades riveted into the soles. Their scarred and dented toes resembled miners’ helmets. Mine shone like OPP boots.  There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two sports.

Or could there?

The girls came in numbers: a serendipitous awakening.

In fact, I discovered in figure skating that for every boy there were at least five girls. This may have been the unintended consequence of my membership, but it was a serendipitous awakening that I have never regretted, much less forgotten.

In the earliest of my stumbling skating career as a Junior, I wandered around crowds of other newbies on the ice, learning to push out for forward and butt-wiggle for reverse.  Once ice-friendly we graduated to Intermediates where we attempted three-turns and hops like little bunnies in the snow.  We raised our legs and arms for spirals, imitating clumsy birds landing on the feeder.  I perfected the nose-plant.

Paul Rapai, Marion Pitts, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley nailed it.

In the midst of my imperfect executions however, there were some real stars.  Paul Rapai, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley, Marion Pitts, Jack Kellum, Mary Ann Coyle, Nora Marie VanHove–these older kids were excellent skaters. Gifted with balance, strength and grace, they captivated their audience, both those of us on the fringes, and the adoring crowds on the benches.  They had nailed it.

But as a 12-year-old, I found the boy numbers had thinned, my skating buds had evaporated to the hockey track, and I was accompanied by a few guys who hung on, to witness like I did, that we were surrounded by girls. It was a stunning, magical, delirious moment for an addled kid who until then had been happiest with a pellet gun in the woods.

The girls always dressed up for figure skating.  They wore colourful toques, scarves, furry ear muffs, white gloves or mitts, smart tunics and on occasion, impossibly short skirts and tanned tights.  They had immaculate white skates with bows or jingle bells laced into the toes.  To a one, they had fresh rosy cheeks and bright eyes, lovely curls and some even sported earrings.  In the middle of a cold grey winter I had somehow stumbled into a warm, sunny bakeshop at Easter.

Chris Brown, Bunny Klein. Boys came at premium in the DFSC.

The task of serious figure skating still advanced however.  We were now instructed in drawing crisp, neat figure 8s on our outside and inside edges.  My 8s looked like shaky ampersands. We learned to launch into the air with 3-jumps.  Mine looked like 4s and scratchy 5s.  A simple cutback into a spin left me doodling aimlessly, slowing to a halt after one rotation.  In short, I was a figure skating klutz.

And I was treated that way, pretty much.  But still there were high points.  In the annual competitions I could draw a bronze medal for third place because there were only two other guys in the field.  But best of all, I was indispensable as a dance partner.  We needed boys to partner with girls to perform dances.  So I may have been a solo wash-out, but I truly learned to deliver a passable Dutch Waltz, a Swing Dance, or my favourite, the Canasta Tango.

These dances guaranteed a pairing, arm in arm, hand in hand, eye to eye, with some of the prettiest girls Delhi had.  We strode around the ice to orchestra tapes of Perfidia, Blue Moon, Wonderful Copenhagen… it was surreal, exciting and riveting all at once.  While I may not have ever shared a social word with these girls at school, on the ice it was a joint challenge to perform, and that seemed the winning ticket.

While my hockey friends were scrambling and whooping around the ice like scrappy junkyard dogs, slamming the boards and crossing sticks, I was gliding along smooth arcs, laughing and talking our way through a complicated foot-move in time to Andre Kostelanetz.  While the guys were groaning in the sweaty change rooms breathing the high-sulphur coal-heated air, I was enchanted by the occasional wafts of Breck shampoo, Noxzema and Juiceyfruit gum.   How bad was that?

The ice carnival, exciting, enchanting, memorable.

The climax of the skating season however was the Ice Carnival.  This was the DFSC’s presentation to the town.  It was a top-tier war effort, and in addition to its spectacular performance, the carnival was, to many of us, the most exciting and enchanting event of the season.

More, next week.

 

 

 

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink-1

The Delhi Arena, our sports center year round.

If it wasn’t for the Delhi Arena, most of our youth would have been spent watching TV. But as it turned out, the “rink” was the birthplace of our skaters, hockey players, and curlers. It was also the winter playground where we grew up, showed up, showed off, fought, danced, laughed, spectated, spat, scraped, yelled, screamed and inexorably, became self aware.

The building was the largest and tallest in Delhi, a cinder block fortress with a vast yawning wooden frame roof. Below were two rows of wooden-backed  spectator benches painted in bold reds and blues. Sitting in these, one could look up and wonder at the ceiling. Massive multi-ply planking formed the immense rafters in a parabolic curve that supported tons of shiplap and asphalt roofing tiles.

A modular wooden track is installed for bike races.

Under the rafters, there were hangers and struts arranged in geometric, weight-sharing designs.  These were bolted into the 120-foot wooden joists that stretched the width of the rink.   The walls were held together by penetrating steel rods that crossed the expanse twenty feet above our heads. One could only marvel at the steeple jacks that created this edifice.   And suspended in the middle, at center ice was a four-sided game clock and score box, sponsored by Players cigarettes, that was large enough to house a two-story chicken coop.  Fully automated, it could record Home and Visitor teams scores, count to twenty minutes, and blast a brash game-over siren that was unmistakable.

Here was every Delhi kid’s excuse to get out of the house.  We had a raucous, robust minor hockey league that was a rite of passage for boys.  Typically, we were up before 7am on a Saturday, grabbing a breakfast, and then hiking down to the rink.

For most of us, standard equipment included flimsy little shoulder pads, hardly more protective than a grilled cheese sandwich.  Plastic kneepads, held up by rubber Mason Jar rings, were worn under our jeans, or if we were devoted to the sport, inside Canadiennes or Maple Leaf socks. Most of us had huge sweaters,  hockey pants and suspenders.  We stuffed the whole kit with our skates into a burlap potato sack, and slinging that over our hockey stick, shouldered our gear along streets, alleys and wooded paths, over Big Creek, and down to the rink.

One of Delhi’s many All Star rep teams, courtesy of Vandenbussche Irrigation and The Knights of Columbus.

The rep teams, the All-Stars, had company-sponsored jerseys and played their games in the evenings and weekends, at home and away.   Our rink hosted future hockey royalty too, when a championship match included a young 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky.   He glided across our ice like a jet, maybe aware of what was to come.

But the rep game was far beyond my mediocre skills, intuition or strength, so I spent my hockey hours on Saturday mornings chasing runaway pucks, bouncing off the boards, picking myself up, with occasional wobbling shots aimed at scrambling goalies.

The highlight was Sunday at the rink when our Junior B team, the Rocket 88s would take on a visiting team from neighbouring towns, like Simcoe and Waterford and Tilsonburg, all within 10 miles of Delhi.  The 88s were named for their sponsor, Wills Motors which proudly sold Oldsmobiles.  These games were the quintessential celebration of small town spirit.  500-600 fans would fill the wooden seats and cheer the 88s for every goal, upset and penalty called.

Wills Motors named their team the Rocket 88s for the classic Oldsmobile.

As kids, we ran up and down the concrete aisles, popping empty paper Dixie Cups under our heels, razzing the visiting team behind their bench, banging the boards with broken hockey sticks, scarfing down hot chocolate and cups of salted french fries.  The fans roared for our hometown heroes like Rolly Thibault, Bob Sabatine, Tony Benko, Earl O’Neil, Dan Barrett and Joe Kelly, who was rumored to be Red Kelly’s cousin, but we never knew for sure.  And beside home bench, sat Dr. Ron McCallum, the team’s very own, who eyed every shot, and high stick for a possible injury.

Worthy of note, the ice hockey back then was different from today: no head gear, including the goalie, and no fights.

Between periods there was a solemn procession that never varied.  A cadre of older teen age guys had earned the right to shovel the ice.  This was in the pre-Zamboni era.  About ten of them split into two teams, and would push heavy steel shovels up and down the length of the rink in formation like Canada geese.  The shaved ice would flow off the first shovel onto the one beside and back a few paces, until it had cascaded across 5 or 6 blades.

Hockey the way it used to be: no helmets, masks or fights.

The shovelers had a uniform, too.  Not with stripes or corporate sponsoring, but just as important.  They were on display.  It would be a flight jacket or heavy windbreaker, zipped half way up the chest to reveal a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar displaying a white t-shirt.  The jacket collar was always turned up.  Their hair was slick and groomed to perfection. The uniform called for jeans that were draped into black rubber wellingtons with orange trim, folded down to reveal about 4 inches of the boot’s canvas lining.  An acceptable alternative was the zipped rubber boot which by consensus must be unzipped down to the toes so that the boots’ collars flapped open like Batman’s cape.

The game clock, courtesy of Imperial Tobacco’s Players cigarettes.

After circling the rink, the two shovel teams corralled all the shaved ice into the middle lane.  There, in the grande finale, they would cup the snow into one pile and all ten shovelers would push the shavings out the back door of the rink.   They didn’t return, but it’s likely they paused for a smoke out back as the crowds waited inside for the next act.

It was very special.   A small, quiet, older gentleman with silver hair, Ivan, would apply a new surface to the ice.  Before Zamboni, ice makers rigged up a 45-gallon drum filled with steaming hot water.  It was mounted on two black rubber tires, and had two 6-foot-pipe outriggers that oozed hot water through toweling onto the ice.  Ivan wore steel cleats.  He would carefully pull his contraption along the scarred and riddled surface, and opening the valves a tad, create a smooth satin sheen before us.  Ivan could resurface the entire rink in about ten minutes, under the watchful eyes of impatient ’88 fans who couldn’t help but notice the “Vandenbussche Irrigation” sign displayed on a tent over the drum.

The rink was the town’s sports center, in use all year.  It hosted bicycle races, wrestling matches, roller skating, a little curling – and hockey, for sure.  But that was only part of the program.  The rink had figure skating too, which was magical, and wildly exciting in another way I can’t begin to tell you now.  A weird place for a guy to show up, but there I was.

More to follow, next week.

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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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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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Culture, Music, Science

Then, There, That Song

On our Delhi FB site, my home town, I just saw a nearly ancient picture of Caffries Hardware store. Ancient, because I remember walking along its oiled hardwood floors, when all of a sudden someone turned up the radio, and the singer yelled out, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain…”. it was 1957.

My Dad stopped in his tracks, looking up, “Good Lord, what is that?”

Nobody responded, as they were all riveted listening to Jerry Lee Lewis pound out his iconic symptoms.  I too was transfixed, because I had never heard anything like it, and it changed my view and love for music forever.  Studying the floor, I noticed that Caffries had hammered straight lines of nails one foot apart from the back door to the front, for the purpose of measuring out lines and ropes.

While Lewis beat a bass line with his left hand and scampered on the high keys like a runaway flywheel, I stared at the ceiling, and back at the radio which was high up on a shelf, strategically placed there for audibility and security against moving the dial.

Why do I remember this so vividly?

There are reams of web pages with articles explaining the rush of dopamine, our reward hormone, Oxytocin a social/love brain spurt, and ramblings among different parts of the noggin, all feasting on music, a satisfying meal for memory.

They say that music may be a soothing and regenerative aid to dementia and Alzheimers sufferers.  I hope it is.  But on that day, Jerry Lee and Caffries were permanently bonded in my head.

I had a similar experience the first time I heard Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone.  1965, working on Monteyne’s farm, our kiln hanger, Rob Hewson had hung his mighty transistor radio on the side of the kiln.  Above the endless clatter of the tying machine, and the grind of the conveyor lifting the sticks up to Rob,  Dylan’s piano sadly rambles away among the guitars, all the while he asks the riveting question, over and over again, “how does it feel?”  I am taking sticks off the tying machine while smoking an Old Gold plain tip.  I had never bought Old Golds before, and never did again, but I remember on that day, listening to Dylan while I dragged on one from the corner of my mouth.  When I hear the song today, Old Golds still come to mind.

Where we grew up, radio was pretty tame and choices limited.  The parents listened to CFRB for news sports and gab.  CBL had Elwood Glover.  The kids listened to CHUM or CKEY.

For whatever reason, our house wouldn’t tune into 1050AM for CHUM, but late at night we could get CKEY–when it was 580AM on the dial.  Sitting at an elaborate study cabinet in my brother’s room, I would tune in quietly to CKEY, and Norm Perry as he ran the turn table.  There was a time when gimmick songs were profuse, but none more than Monster Mash.  That was 1962, and again pushed the listeners’ ears even further out of whack as the story unfolded, ‘working in the lab late one night’.

Monster Mash creates an indelible mark, a gauzy multi-sensory image of me sitting at a large gray study cabinet, designed by Popular Mechanics, and unstintingly assembled by my Dad.  It was modular, arriving from the basement in two pieces, painted battleship gray on the outside, and dark red on the inside.  Shelves to the left, it had a chained, drop down desk, and cabinets with locks to the right.  It smelled of paint and plywood, smooth at the sanded edges, with small pock marks from a student’s compass point jamming the grain endlessly.

But in the corner was a dandy little cream-colored plastic radio with two dialing knobs shaped like bullets that managed volume and tuning.  I surreptitiously listened to that radio every night while shuffling papers for homework, chewing the end off a pencil, and staring at a small fluorescent light in the cabinet.  I listened to hundreds of songs, but it’s Monster Mash that brings back the cabinet, every time.

Is there a time when the ‘music-evoked autobiographical memory’ goes away?  That’s what they call it: a MEAM.  I am not sure, but it has been years since I have experienced a new MEAM.  The last I remember was sitting in our 71 Chevelle  listening to a country station outside Port Hope on highway 401.  My parents were staring ahead, and randomly twirling the FM dial, probably looking for Elwood Glover.  Instead, they hit Loretta Lynn as she spun a tale about herself, “When You’re Looking At Me, You’re Looking At Country”.

That was my first intense audit of country music, in 1971, and I was hooked.  The Chevy was a Super Sports, two-door, racing green with a black vinyl roof, parabolic rear windows, and a beautiful chromed gear shift in the center with black bucket seats.  It drove like a dream, and drank gas like a demon.  It was the perfect vessel for delivering Loretta Lynn, which I remember vividly, crystal clear, today.

I have a soundtrack running in my head every waking and sleeping hour.  Tunes loop continuously.  I am thankful still, as a few songs come up, that I have those visual memories to accompany them; it’s good entertainment.

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Culture, Media, Thank You

The News Making The Rounds

  • I searched the hotel lobby where we were camped in Michigan for a USA Today. It used to be that this amazing newspaper was written, assembled, composed, printed locally across the country, and appeared for free in most hotels and inns next morning.

Not so much, any more.  Its lightweight reminder is now available for $2.00 on the newsstands, but faces heavyweight competition for readership, and thus, for advertising revenue.

The quest reminded me of my early days in Delhi, a small town in southern Ontario where newspapers abounded.  We enjoyed our weekly Delhi News Record which was mailed to us, rolled and sealed.  The Simcoe Reformer was another weekly that came by mail. And every morning there was a faithful, reliable delivery by news carriers on bikes of the London Free Press and Toronto’s Globe and Mail.  Those morning news boys were held in high regard.  Afternoons– citizens had a choice of the Brantford Expositor, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Telegram.

Nowadays, morning newspapers are delivered by slow prowling cars whose drivers steer from the passenger seat as they pitch bagged editions through the dark onto the driveway.  Newsboys, and newsgirls are history.

My parents drafted me when I was 10, and advised that I would be delivering the Expositor.  It had a circulation of about 30 subscribers across our little town of 3,000 souls.  Pretty quickly, a strong, steel-banded carrier basket was bolted to the front of my bike.  I was presented with a wrinkled, torn map of Delhi, and told to ‘dot’ the streets where I would be making a delivery.

The process of learning a job was uncomfortably strange.    My Dad drove me around the route the first time, taking me to little homes, back alleys, upstairs apartments, small mansions, businesses and eating places.  While I had seen most of town on my own, I had never identified, remembered or organized street names before.

More intimidating–the subscribers.  Delhi was a town of many backgrounds and nationalities.  Hungarians, Belgians, Ukrainians, Polish, Germans, English, Irish, Scottish, Italian…many newly arrived after World War II… all figured in the readership.  While I may have sat beside their children in school, or skated with them down at the rink, I had never seen their homes and yards so intimately or struggled with their accents and temperaments so regularly.  Knocking on their doors, and collecting ‘paper dues’ was mind-expanding.

The newspaper was 2 or 3 sections, and could lay flat on a doormat, or folded inside the screen door, or tucked between the door knob and the jam. Delivery was five days a week, no Saturdays or Sundays. Weekly fee: 40-cents.  I delivered the Expositor for a year, but I don’t recall ever reading beyond the headline.  My brain was just too small and overwhelmed, and less than curious about the world beyond our town.

Next year, I got to deliver the Toronto Telegram.  It competed handily against the Toronto Star.  I had 40 subscribers, a bright red Telegram newspaper bag, and a giant steel ring with green subscriber tickets on it, each punched ‘paid’ for the preceding two weeks.

The Telegram was big money for me, and opened my eyes and hands to the attractive feel of cash in my pocket.  I was getting a penny a paper.   Every two weeks I slid the funds across a magnificent marble counter at the post office and filled out a money order payable to the Telegram, at the corner of Bay & Adelaide Streets in Toronto.  My world was expanding to strange and exotic places in a city I had never visited.

But still, the adventure was the daily route.   The papers were dumped in a wire-bound lump at the town hall.   I broke them open using a notched steel washer.  One twist across the wire and the papers exploded with relief.  They filled the bag, heavily, and hoisting that onto my bike carrier, I wobbled to my first customer, Russ Christiansen, a jeweler at the corner of Main and Church.  Above his store was an apartment.  With care to fold the paper in its own sleeve, I learned to toss it to the top of the stairs where it would open flat at the door. This worked any day but Saturday when the extra sections could burst open five steps up, and that would require a major repair.

Up Main street, across King, I left a copy at the Delhi News Record offices and then headed east along King to the Belgian Bakery.  The breads and doughnuts there were not to my liking; they used granulated sugar and a lot of oil. But what they did offer, and I treasured, were aircraft cards.  These were trading cards, printed, black-and-white glossies of WWII fighter craft and bombers.  At a dime a pack, they were in my budget.

Several stops later, I dropped off at DorCliff Printers.  The owner, Cliff Whitehead, always smiled as I called him Mr. Dorcliff.  It wasn’t til years later that I learned the business was named for him and his wife Dorothy.   Crossing over James Street, which was Highway 3, I hauled up the Brantford Road to the top of Bell Street to leave a paper in a reader’s garage.  One snowy night in January I entered the garage and found a small cocker spaniel.  Stretching over to pet him, I pulled my hand back with a string of red streaming tooth marks as a reward for my gesture.

Across Delcrest, along Connaught, behind the high school and over the tracks, past Flemish Motors, I headed down to Pal Cleaners which was the southern corner of my route.  Mr. Bruder was a jovial man who always greeted me with a joke and a tease.  While the clothes hung in rows, the air was full of the hot smells of cleaning fluid and noises of driers and laundry.

Back behind Wills Motors and Smiths Lumber along Orchard street I had to pick up the bike speed to out-pedal an aggressive Boxer dog who looked forward to seeing me daily.  Twice I came home with a blue bruise on my thigh where he took a bite.  Why didn’t I take a different route?  Because it was the game we played.

Over on Imperial Street next to the tobacco factory I had two customers, and I can recall hiking up the stairs to one, finding their daughter wrist deep in flour, looking for newspaper money.  The aromas of vanilla, chocolate and warm cookies were tantalizing, and the event still remains vivid today, 60 years later.

Back along to Ann Street, and under the railway tunnel, my next stop was Dunn’s Variety.  They didn’t take the Telegram, but she sold ice cream.  There is nothing so exquisite as biting into a sugar-coned, peanut Drumstick in the middle of January.  With snow and slush covering the spokes of my bike, I pedaled, steering one-handed down William Street to Gilbert.  On the left was Maes Lane, where our customer was the Verspeetens.  Little did I guess then that this name would own probably a couple hundred tractor trailers that race along the 401 to Detroit every day 40 years later on.  I am proud of my association with Verspeeten, and tell my wife I knew them before they went big time.

Maes Lane opened up at the corner of Main and Spicers Bakery.   Spicers was the number one client on my list, and was also the source of the world’s best glazed doughnuts, expertly crafted by Mr. Palmatier.  Even today, in a crowded field of Tim Horton’s, Dunkin Doughnuts and Krispy Kreme, Mr. Palmatier’s touch remains unequaled.

North and east bound, I would head back, passing Luciani’s whose store was a robust vegetable display worthy of Rembrandt.  He is a plump, older gentleman with silvered brush cut hair and dark eyebrows.  He growls a friendly smile and places two apples into a used paper bag with strong, old, permanently tanned hands, and sends me up Main Street to the Kinsmen Hall.  Outside is a remarkable cherry tree that we would raid every summer.

My last delivery was on Queen Street to a house across from Mr. Hanselman.  He was a WWI vet who lost his arm in the war.   Across the street, I drop my last paper on the porch.  I won’t see this house again for many years until I get a job re-roofing.  On a rainy afternoon in the summer of ’69, I slide down their roof, grabbing the eaves trough on my way.  They find me on the porch, and pick me up, not realizing I had been there many times before.

Fast forward, 2019. Curious, I just checked the internet today, and find that The London Free Press, Brantford Expositor, Simcoe Reformer and Delhi News Record are all still in circulation, but owned by the same company, Postmedia Network.  The Toronto Star, and Globe and Mail continue to thrive.  Only my old employer, The Telegram, has hit the bin, being replaced by the Toronto Sun.   I wonder about USA Today and its future.

And the paper route? A youngster’s entree into life, society and work?  Truly a thing of the past.

Thanks for reading this Iliad.  Names like Doug Foster, Grant Smith, his brother Bob, Ken Antosuc and Barry Boughner come to mind as those news carriers who made the rounds, long ago!

 

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