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.


Tobacco, Gardening and Growing Up


Norfolk County tobacco in its prime.

Gardening is a passion for many.   It’s also an education.  Living in the suburbs today, I now realize my first summer jobs in tobacco were an education on a grand scale.

But when you are sweating it out along a sandy trail between endless rows of voluptuous green, you don’t recognize the perspective it gives to one’s view of the world from then on.

Let me tell you about growing this insidious, but historic, magnificent plant.

Norfolk County is a sandy-loam, verdant garden on the north shore of Lake Erie.   It’s recognizable on any map by the 22-mile spit of sandbar called Long Point that hooks into the center of the lake.  Flying from Chicago to Toronto, you can see the milky currents wrapping around it from the air.

Today tobacco is a small fraction of the agriculture in Norfolk, but from the 1920’s up to the ’70s, tobacco farms neatly patched the landscape, rich in wealth and long in work.


The Norfolk growers are proud of their neat and efficient farms.

A 100 acre tobacco farm could furnish a family nicely, provide for a new car every few years, fund college, build barns and also buy a trip off to Florida for a well earned vacation in the winter.  It would take a 1,000 acre wheat farm to deliver the same income.

But making that all come together required interminably long work, accented by brilliant sun on hot sandy fields.


In March the greenhouses are steamed to heat and humidify the rich soil for germinating seeds.

Tobacco Seedlings

By May, millions of shoots are ready for transplanting.

In late March the growers steam the greenhouses, getting them warm and moist to germinate microscopic tobacco seeds which are sprinkled across rich, black dirt like poppy seeds.   These grow to 12-inch shoots by May, ready to be pulled and planted.

The shoots are planted from behind a tractor.   Two workers, usually women, sit on a frame and feed plants into a steel wheel that parts the sandy soil into a furrow, drops the tobacco plant, and then closes the furrow behind.

You can plant more than 10,000 shoots in one acre.

Early June and school’s out, and summer jobs begin to blossom, just as the adolescent tobacco plants are spreading their first leaves, called “sand leaves”.   All manner of weeds try to overtake the tobacco. Our first serious job is to scrape a hoe between each plant, spaced roughly 18 inches apart.

hoeing tobacco

Hoeing: meticulous painstaking work.

It’s 7 in the morning, and we are at the edge of the field.   Mourning doves are cooing, off in the bordering woods, and the air is fresh with the scent of dew evaporating on the tobacco.

Hoeing is a walking activity.   Wearing a hat, shirtless, and in shorts, I shuffle along a row carefully carving out weeds between the tobacco.   There’s a million plants, shared by five workers: me and 4 women.

It’s painstaking work.  If careless, the hoe will cut the tobacco plant, which will cost the grower money, and that can be painful.

Most memorable along these interminable rows was the unceasing chatter among the workers, sharing stories from family fortune to family scandal.  As the youngest in the group, and as the only male, my role was to listen, and take the jibes from the women.


Do-over: the replanter dropped a new plant and a cup of water into the soil.

Then there’s replanting for dead and missing plants.   Toting a six-quart basket with new plants and a water tank strapped to my shoulder, a replanter punches a hole in the furrow, drops a plant down the chute, pulls a lever on the chute and a cup of water is dispensed.

Replanting is my punishment for hoeing a plant under, a week ago.

My recollection of this job is twofold: the rows are unending, and the cold water from the farm’s well, pumped by a windmill, is heavily laced with sulphur.   After 10 in the morning, the sun is high.   The body dries up pretty quickly, and water breaks were serious and necessary.  Gulping down a pint of icy sulphur water is a challenge.

By 3 in the afternoon, staring along the next row, the heat waves make the woodlot at the other end a shimmering green plasma.   No matter; we work until 4:30 or so.  After a few days of hoeing, the frigid sulphur water tastes sweet.

tractor (1)

Long straight lines at 2 miles per hour.

Next, we cultivate.   The tractor pulls a wheeled, steel frame manned with two guys, heads down, hands controlling little rakes, zigging and zagging between each plant, digging out a second round of weeds.  Great for building your pecs and ceps.

I drive the tractor.   This is hot work, roasting slowly over a 6-cylinder diesel Massey Ferguson.   So hot and monotonous that I fall asleep behind the wheel.   I have driven across three rows before I wake to the scowls and groans of the boss’s sons who are zig zagging behind me.

Stone age cultivator, left by the Tuscarora.

Stone age cultivator, left by the Tuscarora.

The upside of walking or driving down countless rows is finding a handful of ancient arrow heads and prehistoric farm tools along the way, remnants from the Tuscarora that long since have moved on.

Every day the tobacco continues to sprout new leaves as it shoots skyward.

Tobacco 1991 778

The flowers are lopped off to encourage leaf growth.

When the plants have mushroomed to shoulder high, we take a brisk walk down the rows topping off the flowers to encourage a fuller plant.

August brings heat and showers, and cooler nights.   The tobacco plant has about twenty broad leaves, stands a good 5-6 feet high, 3 feet across, and is rich green and aromatic.   The leaves are as large as tennis rackets, and along the stems, they sweat beads of juice which turns to black tar on the hands after a while.

The harvest begins.   On my first tobacco summer, 1965, we had 5 “primers”…pickers from South Carolina.   They walked the rows, hunched over, pulling leaves, starting with the sand leaves.  They earned this name as their bottom sides are coated with sand.   It’s seven-days-a-week work, because the crop is an unstoppable force, growing as fast as it can.

primers copy

Priming: picking the leaves is back breaking work. Nowadays primers ride picking machines.

The primers pull off the leaves, usually about three per plant, and tuck them under their arm until they have a bundle of 30-40 bunched up like stacks of green newspaper. Standing up, they bring the leaves over to a horse-drawn tobacco “boat” that follows in the row.

The boat was on wooden runners, and pulled by a tired horse who probably wondered daily how he ended up here sweating in the field.   The primers were sympathetic, but not kind, and pretty course  with their language for the old gentleman who didn’t need the work.

tobacco boat1

My first job was on a farm with horse drawn tobacco boats.

The priming crew will go through the hundreds of rows of tobacco 3 or 4 times to pick all the leaves as they mature.

When the boat is full, at the end of a row, it’s winched onto a trailer and tractored back to the tobacco kiln.   In Norfolk, we called them “kills”.


The tobacco kilns were a landmark of Norfolk County.

A typical tobacco kiln stands about 20 feet high, and 25 feet square.  Usually covered in green tar paper with red doors, these cube-like structures dot the landscape.   Every farm has at least 7 kilns, one for every day of curing required.

Tobacco Tying

Hand tying: a lost art. Each stick carried about 10 pounds of leaves.

But before the tobacco is placed in the kiln, the leaves are sewn onto sticks, each about 4 feet long.

It used to be that tobacco was hand-tied onto the stick.  About three tobacco leaves were half-hitched at a time by their stems, by a lady using a continuous string.   A good tier could tie about 10 pounds of leaves onto a stick in about a minute.

1990 183

The tobacco tying machine delivered speed and finished product faster.

Sometime in the 60s, someone invented the more contemporary tying machine.  This is a conveyor belt with an industrial stitcher.

Three ladies run the machine.   The first pulls a bed of 20 leaves, by their stems, onto the belt, and as the belt moves along, she grabs another set of leaves for the next bundle.  Lady #2 would lay down some more leaves, plus a tobacco stick, and pulls some more leaves on to cover the stick.   Lady #3 continues laying on leaves as the stick goes by, under a roller, and under the stitcher.   It delivers 10 pounds of leaves straddling the stick.  All to the rise and fall of a conversation that flows with the chatter of the stitching machine.

The ladies turn out 2-3 sticks a minute.


The kiln hanger strung up 2-3 sticks per minute, skipping across 20-foot-high beams.

These leafy sandwiches are sent up a second conveyor into the kiln.   The kiln hanger, who is me, waits at the other end, standing on a shaky row of 2 x 10 boards, loosely resting between two beams, 15 feet above the dirt floor.   I grab the stick by its middle, and suspend it in notches between two beams over my head.

There’s enough time to walk on the boards to the notches, place the stick, and get back for the next stick.

Occasionally I miss a notch, or a stick breaks, and it plummets to the ground, crashing on the beams below and landing in a pile of leaves like a great wounded bird, with green feathers everywhere.

When a row is finished, I move the 2 by 10s to another position, either below or above me, and climb into position.   The conveyor is moved, raised or lowered.   The conveyor jumps into motion.   One wrong step and I join the bird.

At the end of the day, all of the doors of the kiln have been closed snugly over the bulging sticks of tobacco.  1200 sticks, 6 tons of tobacco, wet.

A typical kiln holds 1200 sticks. We filled 40 kilns during harvest.

A typical kiln holds 1200 sticks. We filled 40 kilns during harvest.

Harvest takes about 5 weeks, finishing after Labor Day, unless we get frost early.

Standing in the doorway of the kiln and looking up, I see a mouse’s eye-view of a beautifully trimmed forest of leaves, in hundreds of orderly rows, hung like romaine lettuce, ready for baking.  Early in the harvest, those leaves drop millions of grains of sand, so an upward look usually ends up with watery eyes.

Kiln fires gave a frightening glow across the sky at night.

Kiln fires gave a frightening glow across the sky at night.

In the early days of tobacco curing, hot open flame oil burners were lit below the leaves.   This is flue-curing.   A harvest never went by without a dozen kilns going up in smoke and flames, a spectacular, punishing and frightening sight, all at the same time.

During the 60s someone got the idea to have forced air blown through an external furnace, and into the kiln, removing the threat of fire.   A local entrepreneur made a fortune manufacturing the blowers for all the kilns in Norfolk.

The tobacco is flue-cured in the kiln for about 7 days.    Warm, dry air is circulated bottom to top among the leaves.   By day seven, it is golden and smells sweet and peppery.  Each leaf has given up a cup of water, and has shrunk to the dimension of a tired dish towel.

1990 187

In the late 70s tobacco pickers rode a machine with baskets. No more stoop work, no more horses.

Late after supper on the 7th day, or early in the cool dark morning of the 8th day, a crew brings a wagon up to the kiln, and gingerly unloads the kiln.   They gently lay the sticks of tobacco down on the wagon bed, being careful not to damage the leaves.  The kiln is ready for a new batch.

I have personally touched, hung, or cultivated every one of the leaves in this kiln.   By summer’s end, I have loaded 40 kilns.

The harvest is pulled to the tobacco barn where it will remain until stripping, sometime in November.   The sticks and tobacco string are stripped from the leaves which are then bound into bales the size of a kitchen microwave.

I never saw the stripping process, but reportedly, it occurs in a hot, humid room which forces the strippers to shuck off their clothes after a while.   The event is aptly named, and there are tales of racy, raunchy humor surrounding it.

Tobacco Exchange

The auction house in winter. The product was bought, and exported to the far east.

Delhi Sign

Hometown Delhi, center of the Canadian tobacco industry.

Sometime in January, the growers take their bales to auction, and there they are sold to cigarette manufacturers like Imperial Tobacco, Rothman’s and MacDonald Stewart, whose Canadian customers prefer the Ontario flue-cured leaf, much different than the tobacco that comes from the southern states.   Today, that market has been dwarfed by the far east, where smoking is more popular, and less regulated.

The “dutch auction” is an unusual process.   A ceiling price is first established, and then the single hand of a clock spins slowly through descending prices.  The first buyer to hit their buy button wins the grower’s lot.

From the auction house the grower’s tobacco is trucked to the factory.   In my hometown of Delhi, the Imperial plant was on the south side.


Another planting.  The young crop absorbs sun and rain before its explosive growth.

By early February and March the plant was processing tobacco, and when a warm south wind blew across town, there was a pervasive, mildly exciting, sweet earthy fragrance that tickled the nose.   Unforgettable, 50 years later.

As I said at the outset, tobacco is a magnificent plant, and troubling too.  I have no use for it, and can’t recommend it.   Still, a good crop is a work of discipline, and there isn’t a day that those priceless memories of demanding, careful labor, delivering a harvest–a real summer job–don’t come to visit.

And I like to garden, too.



Thanks for reading! This was as long as some of those rows. It’s been years since my days in Norfolk. I can’t forget the smell and feel of the countryside. It’s sweet and distant, and I always like to go back to visit. Who says you can’t go home again?





Agriculture, Environment, Science, Wildlife

Something’s Rotten in Seattle


Spreading good everywhere.

My dad and I are driving down backroad south of Delhi on a warm spring morning.   In the air is the unmistakeable bouquet of fresh manure, wafting up from a newly treated acre just upwind.  “Smell that?” asked my Dad as he leaned his head out the window, “That’s the scent of profits!”


Gogo and Wembly consult Marjory on composting, Fraggle Rock.

Compost is one of nature’s small gifts to those of us who wish to take it.  Bagging up potato peels.   Separating lemon rinds from swizzle sticks.  Throwing eggshells and coffee grounds into a bucket under the sink.

And any kid has to wonder, “when are they going to ask me to take that outside?”

The Korsts, a Dallas, Oregon couple composted their entire consumable garbage for a year after removing all recyclables.  Turns out their actual “garbage” filled a shoebox.   For a year!  Meanwhile the compost heap quietly bubbled and burped in their back yard.  No newscast has yet reported that they have gone missing while detectives are following up some promising leads next to the tomato rows.  But we wait to see.

Today, composting is de rigeur.  Ask the virtuous and self-denying citizens of Seattle who just this week accepted a composting by-law.   Simply stated, compost-eligible items may not exceed 10% of their weekly garbage pick-up.  In other words, “if it rots, keep it.”

seattle council

Seattle City Council hash it out.

The city council opened up this can of worms in July with city ordinance 124313.  It requires the frugal and resourceful residents  to reduce recyclable contents in landfill garbage to less than 10%.

Two months later, still not satisfied with the purity of their garbage, city council expanded the 10% cap to compostable matter.  From now on, that leftover duck a l’orange goes under the Spiraea bush in the back yard.

The motive behind this cleansing is to reduce landfill waste.   It turns out that Seattle was shipping 300,000 tons of garbage to a site in eastern Oregon annually.   Remember the Korsts?


Bags to go: we love ’em but we hate ’em.

Today consumers are whipsawed by legislation over garbage.   Just east of us, Torontonians are thrilled that the 5-cent tax on grocery bags has been repealed by city council.

In this instance, the “single-use” plastic bag definition ran into a legal shredder.   Lawyers argued that once home, using the flimsy bag to hold garbage was a multiple use, and therefore acceptable.


The sweet smell of success!

You may remember Toronto has had its share of political low days.   One of its good days is the 2010 cessation of trucking over a million tons of garbage to a Michigan landfill site every year.

And farther east, in Ottawa, the citizenry of Canada’s capital were presented with a training video for folding their newspapers.  Why?   To line their wet garbage bin.  There’s government at work for ya.

Which brings me to my main interest: the business of composting.   In my world, if it’s vegetable, it’s compostable and… it’s profitable.


Modest contributions: raw materials.

To that end, I happily walk broccoli stems, corn husks and wilted flowers out to a pile in the side yard that is the resting place for last year’s Jack ‘o’ Lantern, the weekly grass clippings, and all of the neighborhood’s fallen leaves.

Within this melange of produce there hustles a busy community of worms, sow bugs and centipedes.  They are quietly chomping, digesting and extruding high grade fertilizer.   Behind them, a trail of microbes are further breaking the matter down to its fundamental parts.

Canadian Nightcrawler

A hard, loyal worker. His rings indicate seniority.

While they seemingly toil without cease, I have learned that the earthworm follows regular hours.   A New York State College environmental paper reveals that it takes 8 hours for a worm to digest a meal, head-to-toe as it were.   And the output?  Anywhere from 2%-44% of its weight.

The scientists who made this finding also report that the optimum population density for earthworms is about 8 one-ouncers per cubic meter.   I know that my compost heap does much better than that.   Judging by the cafeteria lineups, I have a high density worm farm in operation.  Don’t tell PETA.


Rich, dark goodure.

The compost pile delivers the richest, loamy soil every spring and fall.   In the spring, I transport bushels of the black mulch to our garden.  There, it caps the ground, surrounds the new flowers, stifles the weeds and holds the water.


Compost delivers!

In the summer, I used another 20 bushels of compost to plant 11 rose bushes.   They are bursting in bloom continuously.

In the fall, I’ll dump another load of compost to cover over the roses and the mums, keeping them insulated until next spring.

Total cost: zero.

My hat is off to the noble and frugal citizenry of Seattle.  But my thanks is to Dad making his point on that early spring morning.

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