One man’s gift to his family

He offered more mentorship than advice.

I close my eyes and all of it comes back to me. Richard Nixon had just won the U.S. Presidency, for a second term. The family gathered – either later that fall of 1972, or the following summer – from Toronto, from Maryland, New Jersey and Florida. Then, usually after the first meal together, dessert was finished, a few drinks consumed, and it was time to talk. It wouldn’t take long before current events, politics and Nixon became the focus. Within minutes there was a storm brewing.

“How could he possibly get re-elected?” my father would say.

“He’s good for business,” a couple of my American relatives would say. “He’s gonna end the war in Vietnam.”

“He’s a crook!” my father would say, looking for a verbal fight.

“He’s our president,” came the retort.

And, well, it escalated from there.

Of men and machines

“Sentimental Journey” B-17 Flying Fortress on tarmac in Hamilton.

I was battling rush-hour traffic. Ironically, I was listening to a Toronto radio station’s traffic reporter tell me I was in gridlock. Then, my cell phone rang. I read the call identification. It was one of my teaching colleagues at Centennial College. And he was excited.

“She’s here!” he said, with more energy in his voice than usual.

“Who’s here?” I asked.

“Sentimental Journey. She’s going to be in Hamilton all this week,” he continued.

It was Malcolm Kelly on the phone. He’s the co-ordinator of Centennial’s sports journalism program. And second only to his love of sports is Malcolm’s love of airplanes.

Icon at a gas bar

It’s the sort of thing I do mindlessly. Pull up next to the pumps. Pop the gas tank cover lever next to my driver’s seat. Walk around to the pump. Pick up the nozzle. Press the self-serve request for gas. And fill my gas tank. Then, just as mindlessly, I walk into the gas bar booth to pay for my gas. Only this time, when I entered the booth, I was almost bowled over by the music blaring inside.

“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run,” an unmistakable voice was singing from the booth speakers.

And I nodded my head so the booth attendant would realize I heartily approved. And then I asked him why that music, why that loud?

“Because this month is Canada’s 150th,” he said with a pinch of patriotism. “And after all, it IS the greatest Canadian song ever.”

Canada proud

Final frames of Canada 67, the featured film at the Telephone Pavilion, Expo 67.

I stood in what seemed thunderous chaos. Horses galloped to the right of me, to the left of me. Lances appeared to whisk past my ears. The ground felt as if it were trembling beneath my feet. And I grabbed my dad’s arm, fearing if I didn’t I might topple over. Just audible above the din of the rhythmic panting of the horses and the pounding of their hooves, I could hear singing.

“O Canada. Our home and native land…”

Customer Service 101

Stormy weather on the customer service front.

Remember those threatening storm clouds that rolled over town last Saturday morning. They popped off some lightning bolts, rumbled with thunder and then, just as Canadian Tire was full of folks doing last-minute Father’s Day shopping, inside the store there was a momentary blackout.

Simultaneously there was an audible sigh as everybody in the store realized what it meant. The store’s entire electrical system – from lighting, to security alarms to cash registers – would have to reboot before things got back to normal. What was worse, with everything at a standstill, the line-up at the checkouts was growing fast.

Almost as quickly, with the temperature among impatient customers (and the store itself because the air conditioning also had to reboot), a guy in a blue Canadian Tire shirt slipped past the queue, grabbed an armful of bottled water and began handing out the bottles for free.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” Kevin the store manager said. “We should have things back to normal in a couple of minutes.”

Father’s Day gifts

My father Alex Barris at his Toronto newspaper office desk – writing to dealine.

My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.

“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”

I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.

Want to get things done?

Beginning my recent presentation in Burlington. Photo – Jeannie Woodcroft.

I paced slowly and quietly across the back of the ballroom, last Monday morning. Keeping to myself, I was reviewing a few thoughts about the presentation I was about to deliver as part of the keynote to a local business club in Burlington, Ontario. Then, I tuned in to what the person at the lectern at the front of the ballroom was saying about the agenda that the meeting had to go through before the keynote speaker (that would be me) was introduced.

“We’ve got committee reports and the financial statement to table and accept,” the chair indicated, “and, of course, we have to introduce the incoming executive.”

My head suddenly snapped to attention, as I focused on what the chair was saying. I realized the business part of the meeting that preceded me had a lot of content. “This is going to be a long wait,” I said to myself.

Call of spring

It’s been a while since we stopped to smell the roses, as it were. But a few weeks ago, just relaxing on our back porch, my wife and I sighed simultaneously. Aloud we recognized, despite the abundance of rain and the not-so-warm temperatures, and its rather clumsy entrance, that spring had finally, thankfully and delightfully arrived. But Jayne noted something I hadn’t noticed.

“It’s awfully quiet this year,” she said. “The sounds of birds aren’t there like usual.”

Sixth or seventh sense of Nature

Soothed here by his favourite toy, the household pet has always felt upset as a storm approaches.

Sometimes it’s as subtle as the songbirds in the backyard going silent. Other times in the house, the cats curl up together in a corner. In a more obvious example, my pet Kerry blue terrier pants as if he’s just completed a marathon run cross-country, and I know there’s a thunderstorm in the area.

I remember the story, a few years ago, about an earth tremor in the state of Maryland. And Mike Blanpied, a U.S. Geology Service expert, reported that just before the quake, animals responded because they were more sensitive to the slightest shaking.

“Animal earthquake prediction,” he called it.

The value of teaching music

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate band … with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

Most of the time I sat among the back seats in the rehearsal room. But that’s OK. As long as I kept one eye on the music charts in front of me and the other down front where conductor John Rutherford stood, I knew I’d stay in step with the rest of the group. I just had to wait for Mr. Rutherford’s downbeat and I was part of the performance. And that meant a lot to me. He’d often begin the rehearsal with the same words of encouragement.

“OK,” Rutherford would say. “Let’s make a little magic.”