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 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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Agriculture, Culture

A Change In The Clouds

Fall is a month away. It doesn’t seem like long ago that we were pouring fertilizer on a robust lawn before May was half done, satisfied with a green, grassy, house apron devoid of even one dandelion.

Back then, summer was still a month away pretty much, and we had a full agenda of activity including play and travel, romps with the kids, and some quiet moments by a large body of water, soothed by a clement breeze sent from the northwest.  The sun was up by 5:14am, the weather folks pointed to clear skies, and to the occasional fluffy batt of clouds, high up and benevolent as they shaded the lawns, fairways, fields and lakes for a moment before moving along.

Driving to Door County in Wisconsin today, I looked at the limestone cliffs which are the mirror image of the Niagara escarpment, running from The Falls north through Tobermory to Sault Ste. Marie and then south to Green Bay.  From the road, you see a 100-foot-high cliff, a sandwich of million-year-old seashells, blanketed with a hard-earned topsoil.  Above that, the trees, orchards, soy and cornfields richly, generously, spread in every direction.

And above that, are the clouds.  Lots of them. Hung against August’s blue sky, they are more intent on passing.  Their bases are grey, and the furls are silver, with a blown effect that signals that they are in a hurry to be somewhere else.

That’s when I sense the shift.  Our planet, perched on a permanent tilt, has moved along its perpetual path around the sun, and in the process, has changed its shadow settings.  The sun rose at 6:07 this morning.

Back here on earth, we are sensing the change, despite all our denials.

As a kid, I didn’t really sense seasonal change.  But when I was working age, the bells started to ring.

Back then, early in the morning, in the third week of August, standing at the bottom of a tobacco conveyor belt, there was a wet fog lifting across the cold, grey, sandy fields, revealing countless rows of tobacco stalks stripped to their top leaves. Only a couple more rounds to go.

Last night’s boat was left beside the kiln, ready to sew and hang first thing.  As we pulled back the dew-wet canvas, the leaves are warm from their own combustibility, and exude a sweet peppery scent.  Their steam escapes into the cool morning air nuzzling my face. Lifting them limp out of the boat, they beg to be hung out to dry, and quickly.

The tying machine folks aren’t the first up.  The primers and the boss’s family were out hours before, unloading the neighboring kiln in the dark, gently lifting out 1200 sticks of cured tobacco, placing these on a wagon to be towed off to the barn for storage.

The emptying of a tobacco kiln is a ritual as disciplined as doing your laundry.  After a week of careful curing, the heavy, wet, green layers of tennis rackets have baked to a light bouquet of stiff, golden dish cloths carefully stitched to three-foot-long sticks.  They rustle, and breathe a moist, musky perfume in the early morning. The grower has to evacuate the kiln promptly, as a new harvest will be hung tomorrow.

As the pickers ride off to the field, our tying team revs up the machine table and the sticks are placed into the moving chain by womens’ hands which moments before were finishing thermos mugs of coffee.   They pull in handfuls of tobacco like romaine lettuce for a gourmet chef’s banquet salad.

Off across the yard, the cool dew gives a fuzz to the grass while it drenches my feet, padding back and forth between the tyer and the conveyor.  Up above, our kiln hanger has cranked up his radio which he has hung on the red door of the kiln.  Sonny and Cher beg us, “Baby Don’t Go”.

It’s late August, and we all feel the harvest coming to an end.  Ten more kilns at most.  Ten more days.

Finishing up a harvest is a sobering experience.  The work started four weeks ago, roughly, the result of four months of careful planning and cultivation.  Our clothes are worn and washed out, hands tough, muscles built, our tans are faded, our pockets are full.  But as the coolness pervades the fields, and the sun retreats from its July intensity, everyone senses that the job is just about done.

It was numbing, repetitive, demanding, important work, racking up numbers in the thousands, and millions, if you cared to count. Despite its physical demands, tobacco harvest was a time of freedom, too. Just get the product safely packaged; don’t worry about tomorrow.

Now, decision time.

Some of us go back to school.  Others will stay on the farm, emptying the kilns. There are jobs in town. There’s canning to do.  Still others will go to the next harvest, moving on to pick apples, pumpkins and cabbage.

Overhead, the sun smiles on us, warming our days around noon, and then the clouds move in.

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childhood, Culture

The Summer of ’61

July

Is there any event in our lives which doesn’t come back to remind us later? As I dressed yesterday morning, I recalled an evening in my youth, back in Delhi, my hometown when I was 12. It started at summer camp, but ended up at the Delhi rink.

Leading up to the moment, we had just burst out of 8th grade for the summer, and were headed off to our various pursuits. For some, it was the pool, for others, baseball, yet still others would go to the fields to hoe tobacco or run chains for the marketing board.  These days of promise were interrupted by sunny visits to Long Point and Turkey Point on Lake Erie for a stretch of beach and hours of breathless, soaking fun in the waves.

For me, I was packed into a bus, and sent to a YMCA summer camp on Georgian Bay. Many Delhi kids went there, so it was a familiar setting. My counselor was from town as well.

Every year the camp hosted a World Service Day where we chose to portray a United Nations country which would qualify as less than fortunate on the world stage. We dressed up like natives of the country, and prepared an exhibit for all the campers to visit. We charged admission, and all the money was sent to the YMCA to contribute to the World Service program, Canada-wide.

Charcoal for World Service; getting into the role.

I can’t remember the country chosen, but our cabin of 12 campers elected to strip down to our skivvies and cover our bodies in charcoal. We were attempting the native look.   We coated up in black, grimy wet fireplace ashes.

The day went well, and money was raised, just another activity for a community of young guys, followed by a serious wash up to remove the charcoal.

Obviously, the underwear never came clean.  And it went back into the suitcase, and came home in August to our laundry where it hung on to its coal black tones despite many washings.

August

Home from the forest.  The summer was in full force, and while tobacco harvest was underway, we looked for diversion, knowing school was just a month away.

“Let’s go roller skating at the rink,” offered my creative friend.  “It’s open every weekend. You can rent skates, there’s plenty of music, and girls too.”

Neat!  The rink was a booming business in the winter with hockey, curling and figure skating.  In the summer when the ice was out, the smooth, polished concrete floor was a platform for boxing and wrestling matches, magic shows, even bike races.  But the big draw was roller skating.

The prospect of an evening out at the rink was exciting.  Even more, was the opportunity to see girls again, after four weeks of boys camp.  I excused myself from dinner, and went to shower and dress for the evening ahead.

Prepping for an evening out was pretty much unknown territory for me, but basically, I wanted to look sharp.  I pulled out my favourite patterned, cotton short sleeve with button down collar, and placing it beside my slickest pair of khakis on my bed, it looked swell.  No t-shirt required, but yep, I need “gotchies” all right, and I pulled the next in rotation out of the drawer, which was the same grotty pair I wore on World Service Day a month before.

Holding them up, I inspected the dingey grey briefs.  Clean, no question, but not the “tighty-whitey” white one would expect.  I mumbled to myself, “what the heck, nobody’s seeing ’em,” so I stepped in, and completed the outfit.

A little Brylcream, Right Guard, teeth brushed and a fresh stick of Doublemint and I was out the door, hopes high, and to the rink.

Every weekend hundreds of teens and wannabes like me would swarm the rink and course counter-clockwise around the immense, dry, warm, barn-like enclosure to the broadcast beat of rock and roll  ’45s played by a pimpled DJ in the corner.  The rink sounded like a large dance hall submerged by the steady, grey drone of thousands of plastic wheels rolling on pavement.

Seeing the groups speed by–some laughing, others with serious, non-communicative expressions studiously ignoring the onlookers, but privately inviting the stares and furtive glances of others in their pathway–my heart revved up with the thoughts of what might come next.

I stepped off the doorway, and strode into the current of skaters, tentatively rolling on the clip-on rentals.  It was easy, and before long, I was rounding the circuit, feeling the wind on my face, and the crazy buzz through the soles of my shoes, all the while to the tunes of Ricky Nelson, Del Shannon, Patsy Cline and Gene Pitney.

There are girls everywhere.  Not a well-practiced pursuer, I am focused on a pretty, smiling blue-jeaned skater, her pony tail swaying behind her as she swung around the rink. She had beautiful white roller skates, tied above the ankle, just where the rolled up cuffs revealed an inch of exquisitely tanned shin.  I am conquered.

The best I can do is come up from behind, draft in front of her and keep ahead. Oh nerve, where are you when I need you?

Gene Kelly of the roller rink.

Meanwhile, there is a lone skater who stands out in the crowd. He is tall, pompadoured, and twirling about like Gene Kelly on fancy black lace-ups with red toe brakes. He’s big and muscular, with his short sleeves rolled up an inch to show off his biceps. Throughout a Dee Clark number, “Rain Drops”, he is tangoing and swinging through the moving groups, spinning, skating forwards and backwards, cutting a crazy path. Everyone moves on as he navigates the openings for a pirouette on one skate.

I have just completed another “fly-by” in front of the attractive miss who has captured and numbed my thoughts. She seems oblivious, but I have to keep at it.

Then, Boom! Out of nowhere, I am crushed by a jumble of legs and skates as Gene Kelly backs into me. Down we go onto the unforgiving concrete, and he lands on top.

“Jeezuz! Watch where you’re going creep! Ya little wiss! Get off the (**$%^&#$) floor. Ya wanna fist??”

Looking up, I stare at his hair which has come undone like a wilted bouquet of dead flowers. He sneers at me while he combs it back, and with a final dismissive hand signal, he is on his way again, spinning through the crowd.

Rolling over onto all fours, I push myself back onto my feet. I have a sore butt, but otherwise intact. I skate on to continue my approach to pony tail who seems to have missed my floor event. She smoothly circles the floor as I catch up from behind.

I am intent on coming up and saying hi, but at the last moment I chicken out, and pass by, crossing in front of her. I have serious, craven doubts about taking the final step in greeting her. In a moment she is off again and I am left to cruise around in my desperation.

A couple more circuits around the floor, and I have now glided in front of her yet again. Somewhere in the middle of “Calendar Girl” I slow down, turn my head and say, “Hunh.” Or “Hi”. Or, “Oh”.  It’s stupid, and dumb and I’m speechless. Looking at her, my head spins in a mixture of emotions: delirious, mindless, giddy panic.

Miraculously, she responds. “Hi.” She has a grin on her face and giggles as she looks at me.

“Yeah, hi,” I counter.   Idiot. Twit. Moron. I can’t talk. My mind is a tub of Jello. My tongue is towel dry.

“Are you hot?” She asks. Odd question, but here goes.

“No. Yes. Not really. It’s hot, no.  What?”   Why don’t I just shoot myself right now? And then she responds, laughing.

“It must be hot if you don’t need pants.”

“What?”

“Your pants. The seat’s gone.”

At this moment, the bottom drops out of my world as I feel back there, and find nothing but shreds. The neat khakis have atomized into a collection of torn scraps like a ragged, tattered old flag. Then the realization hits me, just like Gene Kelly did when he took me down onto the treacherous concrete.

Busted!

I look at her, with my mouth open big enough to chomp a Tootsie Roll. And then she makes another comment.

“Nice underwear. Seeya.”

And with that, she skated away on those spinning wheels, ponytail swinging behind her, as I peeled off to the exit, heading straight for the men’s room.

I never saw her again.

In time, like by the next day, the whole event was behind me, just another fateful insult in the long education of growing up.

But it’s the one lesson I have learned, and it still holds, whenever I get dressed: if I am ever hit by the proverbial bus, I am prepared.

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childhood, Culture, Environment, Wildlife

The Treetops Club

The white pine is the tallest in the woods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An adult attempt at reclaiming youth, somewhere on Kauai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first 10 feet were the challenge.

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

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

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

A pine woods, ready for building.

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

Google Maps finds our woods, untouched 60 years later!

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

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

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

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

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childhood, Culture, Education, Wildlife

Big Creek

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

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

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

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

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

Two youngsters head into the edge of the Carolynian forest.

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

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

Green pools hide the fish on a sunny afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dark water streamed by keeping us cool and moving.

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

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

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

Skunk cabbage: big, voluptuous and odiferous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quance’s Mill, creekside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dicks Hill bridge under horse and carriage.

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

The bridge in 1984.

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

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

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

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

A few tools from the fields south of Lynedoch.

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

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

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

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

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Culture, Thank You

Spare The Rod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to a strapping session glued us to our chairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a moment of thought, checking the cotton batten.

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

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

“Philip!  Come here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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