When red lights start flashing

On a recent warm evening, as I walked through downtown, I noticed all the fire trucks and assorted other vehicles out in front of the fire hall. I decided to check it out. On the other side of the hall, I found the chief conducting a demonstration on car air bags. I stood in the back row as about 20 or 25 volunteer firefighters watched and listened. When the chief had finished his talk he asked for questions. None came.

“I have a question,” I piped up. “And it has nothing to do with air bags. What’re we going to do with people who don’t stop for fire trucks?”

Cornerstone of service

I must tell you about a recent stop at a gas station. It was a station I encountered during our recent trip south of the border for that family reunion I wrote about last week. I pulled up to a self-serve pump in Maryland. I unhitched the nozzle, flipped the fill switch and waited for the read-out to zero. It didn’t. I tried again, but then went inside to talk to the cashier.

“You gotta pay first,” the woman said rather brusquely.

Guests at a family reunion

As family get-togethers go, this one held a lot of promise.

My immediate family – uncles, aunts, cousins and assorted other characters – is pretty much spread across North America. Some live as far south as Florida. Others reside within a few hours drive of Washington, D.C. And then there’s the branch of the family that stretches into Canada. That’s us. As a consequence, family reunions occur, at best, once a year – generally at Christmas time or for special occasions. So, when both our daughters had announcements – one a coming marriage, the other a coming birth – the results were inevitable.

“Why not have a reunion this summer at the half-way point?” suggested one daughter. “Let’s all get together in Baltimore.”

Sting of victory

At 87, Richard Opitz still walks erect. The infirmities of age make him less spry. But he still has a full head of hair and eyes that show intensity when he recalls his role at the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during the Second World War. While other Allied troops had failed to dislodge German troops atop this apparently insurmountable height, he and his 2nd Polish Corps comrades broke through and seized the mountain in May of 1944.

“The engineers managed to make us a pathway up the mountain,” he told me. “We attacked in the night when they didn’t expect us. It was a bloody affair, but our Polish troops won the day.”

Business words of wisdom?

I really owe Helene Kremer an apology, first of all.

Monday morning, a couple of minutes before the Credit Union opened, she and I stood in the airlock waiting for one of the tellers to unlock the entrance to let us in. Ms. Kremer carried a brief case and clearly had an appointment with the C.U. manager. I asked what she did. She explained she was in the insurance business, specializing in protecting home owners from identity fraud. She began to explain and got a few sentences in, when I mentioned I worked in the media and said how frustrating reporters find insurance brokers, bankers and stock market analysts. She looked at me quizzically.

“It’s the jargon,” I said. “Why can’t people in business speak in plain English?”

Hogwarts versus Hogtown

Harry Potter proved to be a great summertime elixir. Just when downtown Uxbridge needed an economic and morale boost the most, last Friday night, there were Snape, Dumbledore and Platform 9 and 3/4 to get us downtown into a wild and wonderful mid-summer’s street social. Merchants on main street revelled in the business. Councillors I met applauded the local initiative. Reaction was upbeat and positive.

But the Deathly Hallows weren’t the only thing I heard out on the street. Among other things, I heard some smugness about Toronto’s financial woes. Nobody said it outright, but the sentiment was clear:

“We’re OK. No tears for you, Hogtown.”

That long-distance feeling? No thanks.

At the beginning of the lawn cutting season, I needed my mower maintained. So, I took my mower to its usual tune-up clinic – Uxbridge Small Engines. When I arrived, the place was humming with activity. In the workshop, mechanics were busy tearing apart boat motors. On the sales floor, the staff informed customers about everything from chain saws to ATVs. I rolled in my tired, little old lawn mower and was told it might be a few days before they could get to it. I winced and went home expecting to see my lawn grow to baling length. Next day, I got a call.

“Mr. Barris,” said Tania at the shop, “your lawn mower’s ready.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I knew had no excuses left. With the mower up and running I’d have to tackle the lawn that day. But I truly was surprised that the shop had completed the work so quickly. I really had witnessed how busy they were the day before, so when I picked up the mower I commented on its speedy return. Tania just smiled as if to say “it’s just a matter of customer service” and she was right. It’s not something we encounter often enough these days.

I might be considered ancient for saying so, but I really miss the good old days when the personal touch was included in the price of things. Remember when gas stations used to be called “service” stations? When receiving mail meant hand delivery to your door? When sales staff seemed to be waiting around every corner in your favourite store? Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather wait in line for a cashier than deal with an automated self-cashier system. I like being sold a pair of shoes, not trying on samples down an empty, clerk-less, box store aisle. And though I’ve adapted to Internet banking, I still prefer making deposits and withdrawals face-to-face with a teller.

That said, I know my preference for hands-on customer service is hopeless. In a world more focused on building profits than on maintaining relationships, when corporations often care more about satisfying shareholders than customers, and where globalized business means it’s most important to deliver products and service by the cheapest means possible, I realize my desire for a friendly smile, a human voice and a personal touch when I go shopping is fast going out of fashion. My experience just last week illustrates the point.

A good friend of mine has recently helped me build a website. It’s not necessarily the way I’d prefer to make contact with a public that might want to know more about my writing, broadcasting and teaching, but more and more there are people – in distant places – wishing to use the Internet as a means of introduction.

At any rate, with the site assembled, I approached the same company that handles my telephone service, you know, the one whose namesake is reported to have said, “Mr. Watson, come here I need you” on his original communications invention. Armed with all the computer programs, user names and passwords I thought I needed, I called said company for assistance (it took me several attempts, the lines were too busy).

“Thank you for calling, sir,” said the woman with a east-Indian accent (when I asked, she said she was indeed in Delhi, India, but I thought, if she didn’t mind being awake in the middle of the night, that was fine with me). “This call may be recorded and monitored for quality control purposes,” she added. No problem, I said.

Then, when I indicated I wanted to launch a new website, she went off the line once, then again, and again. When, after I had repeated the problem several times, it became clear that my telephone company’s customer service department wasn’t that at all, I tried using the Internet Q-and-A method. Same result. What proved most offensive in the conversations, however, was that my request might be an attempt to breach their corporate security, they said, and worse, that ultimately neither she nor any of her customer service colleagues had been trained to remedy such a problem.

You mean, I’m the only customer who ever asked to launch a website on the biggest telecommunications company’s server in Canada? I felt privileged, momentarily, then entirely flabbergasted. Needless to say, I have since contacted a service provider closer to home, with a human spokesperson, and with service almost as close as my lawn mower maintenance clinic.

I only wish Tania, at Uxbridge Small Engines, knew how to launch websites.

Everybody’s Uncle Monti

When I first saw him, he was reading a newspaper. Not one I recognized.

But that’s OK. Canada is not his home. English is not his first language. And we were, after all, staying at his home – the Hotel Levante, in Rimini, Italy. My wife Jayne and I had arrived there to meet the man known in those parts as “the adopted Canadian.” When he emerged from behind the newspaper and approached us, it seemed as if his entire body smiled.

“Signore Monti?” we asked in our best tourist Italian.

“Uncle Monti,” he responded. “Everybody calls me ‘Uncle’ Monti.”

Canada Day and disaster

Ninety-five years ago this week Canada suffered unexpected disaster.

It was June 30, 1912. Every street and every building in Regina, Saskatchewan, was festooned with bunting and patriotic flags. Two weeks of intense heat and humidity hadn’t dampened Reginans’ anticipation of the national anniversary (then called Dominion Day) the next day. Then catastrophe struck. The sky darkened in the middle of the afternoon. Winds rose to more than 500 miles per hour and the resulting cyclone sliced right through the centre of the city. In twenty minutes the storm killed 28 people, destroyed 400 buildings and caused $5 million damage. One resident described the blocking out of the sun that summer afternoon.

“It was as dark as the inside of your hat,” he said.

First day of summer

Today is the anniversary of my favourite first day of summer.

One spring night on my way home from delivering newspaper copy to the Star Phoenix, (I was freelance writing in Saskatoon then), I walked across one of the massive bridges spanning the Saskatchewan River. I stopped half way across and stared upward. There from north to south from horizon to horizon, danced the Northern Lights. Shimmering, sparkling and awe-inspiring, the rainbow of colours and patterns of aurora borealis lit up the nighttime sky like a three-D movie.