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.

Standard
Agriculture

Tobacco, Gardening and Growing Up

IMG_2651

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.

IMG_2653

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.

Greenhouse

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.

replanter

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”.

IMG_2654

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.

kilnhanger-2-Lance

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.

IMG_3249

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?

 

 

 

 

Standard