Stories Handed Down

I volunteer in a Grade 6 class. I read to the group and help individual kids with assignments. But what I love the most is telling stories from my life, in hopes that seeds will be planted in some of those kids.

Last week, I told them about meeting a Haida “watchman” in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago north of Vancouver Island. He told me about how “white men’s diseases” decimated the Haida population, and how hundreds of their children were stripped of their dignity in far away residential schools. I watched the kids’ faces. Many of them seemed to get the tragedy of it all.

This morning I had breakfast in the Belmont Diner. I sat at the counter with two local gentlemen, probably both of them in their 80’s. Stories were told, this time with me on the receiving end.

1. A young man walks along a plank suspended over a huge tub of molasses. He slips … and is instantly up to his neck in the stuff. Co-workers hauled and hauled and finally got him out of the tub. God only knows how he ever got cleaned up.

2. “Fred” lived right by the railway tracks. Before the world of lights and descending gates, he sat in his car and stopped traffic when he heard the train whistle. To while away the time, Fred drank beer. Apparently he polished off 24 bottles most days of his adult life … and lived to 90 or so.

3. Both of my companions had big run-ins with teachers. One got fed up with getting harassed for just having “a little fun”. One day in Grade 10 he walked out and never came back. A week later, he was working at the local hardware store.

The other chap went to a two-room school out in the country. His female teacher for Grades 5 to 8 was to be a woman who never smiled and appeared to hate boys. He was always being called out for something. Imagining three more years of this, my currently coffee-drinking friend went to his father and somehow got switched to another school. Future contact with the teacher was met with stony silence on both sides.

4. My little village of Belmont, many decades ago, had five gas stations! All this to serve a population of 500.

5. Then there was the story of an underaged guy getting into a bar in Detroit. The same fellow who was sitting beside me. I’ll spare you the heroic details.


While the tales were being spun with gusto, another fellow walked in and joined us at the counter. His first words:

The purple asters are covered with little yellow butterflies

So … old guys tell stories to a somewhat younger old guy who tells stories to 11-year-old kids. May it always be this way. It’s how we learn about life.

An Earlier Life

I love sitting at the counter of the Belmont Diner.  I get to joke with the regulars and meet some new folks too.  Separate tables are a part of life but you don’t get to know people that way.

The topics of conversation are all over the map: politics, sports, occupations, local gossip, philosophy, religion, travel … they all make an appearance.  The farmers have their own lingo, which I understand, sort of.  “Too wet to get into the field … Guess what I saw at the equipment show?”  And the hours needed to take care of all those cows.

This morning at breakfast, “Steve” ventured into the past.  He was a snowplow operator for decades.  Sometimes it was school parking lots and sometimes the open highway.  If there’d been a storm, Steve hopped on at 7:00 pm and hopped off at 8:00 am.  Just the concept of working all night boggles me.  I know what it’s like to be on the road when the snow blows the visibility away but having to concentrate like anything for 13 hours?  Whoa.  And maybe there wasn’t any chance to sleep during the daytime before.  Exhaustion and a whiteout.  “You just got used to it.”

I’m looking across the counter at a hero who doesn’t often talk about his escapades.  But once Steve gets going on the topic …

One night he was in the cab of the plow, coaching a new driver.  They could vaguely make out a car parked on the shoulder, and Steve thought he could see inside too easily.  The driver’s window was down!  “Get the blade up!”  Too late.  The snow piled in, filling the compartment nicely.  Later they found out that the driver was furious.  Somehow Steve omitted the part about what happened next.

Another time, a very small car (maybe a Volkswagen beetle) got caught up in the blade and was carted along for miles.  The visibility was so bad that Steve had no clue about his passenger until he slowed for an intersection.

Oh, I love these stories.  Now I have to figure out how to keep drawing out such tales from my counter companions.  I can do it.  I want to do it.  There are glowing moments hidden just under the surface of the bodies drinking coffee beside me.

At the Counter

I eat breakfast at the Belmont Diner about three times a week.  I love walking there.  And I love the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter.  Today “Bob” was across the way and “Ralph” was a few seats to my right.  I wondered what I’d learn from these guys.

As the three of us talked, the dishwasher was going full speed.  I know that my hearing has declined over the past few years but this morning was an extra challenge.  Ralph has just moved to Belmont and he was talking about his hometown of Windsor, Ontario.  But I was missing a word or two from every sentence.  I so much wanted to understand what he was telling me but the gaps were too big for me to fill in.  So I sat there and sighed.  It came through so vividly how deeply I want to be in communion with other human beings.  The pull was intense.  And then I realized that I could just “be with” Ralph and meet him in a place that didn’t require a complete story.  I knew that beside me sat a man who was grappling with the meaning of the word “home” … such a human thing to do.

On the other side of the counter, Bob was reminiscing about his days as a hockey referee.  I love hockey and I wanted to immerse myself in the life of an on-ice official.  Alas, his story was also hit-and-miss to my ears.  And again, once I saw how contracted I was, how tensed up, I let go into the sweet memories that are such a part of his life.

There seem to be different levels of listening and the limitations of my ears need not stop me from “getting” the people who come my way.  I’ll keep exploring new ways of sensing into the souls around me.


Here are two stories, as best as I can figure:

1.  Bob refereed for years, usually games with teenaged players and rabid fans.  In one particular rowdy arena, a bunch of well-lubricated fellows sat in the front row.  They delighted in blasting the “bad” calls uttered by said referee.  Bob noticed that their beers were propped on a narrow shelf on the other side of the protective glass.  He’d had enough of their bombast and casually smashed his arm on the glass, causing a vibration that toppled the cups onto their owners’ laps.  The reaction he got?  Howls of laughter.  Bob reffed many other games at that arena and each time those guys were sitting there, cups against the glass.  And each time Bob smashed, beers descended and howls commenced.  What a great story!

2.  Ralph knows Windsor like the back of his hand.  A new bridge is being built to link the city with Detroit across the river, and many of the approaching roads are done.  Recently Ralph got on one of those routes … and had no idea where he was.  Windsor was unrecognizable and Ralph was supremely disoriented.  I saw it in his face.  How strange to have the comfort of “home” jolted away.


Not hearing everything
Getting the truth of everything

Here and There

How strange that I haven’t felt like writing for a week.  Or maybe not strange at all.  Either way, here I am.

Lots of stuff has happened and I’ve vaguely said, “I should write about this tonight.”  And then tonight fades away in the rear view mirror.  After that, the topic seems stale.  I like writing fresh.

So what to do?  I think I’ll give you some snippets from the past seven days and then see what beckons me tomorrow.  Can I create “fresh” by doing this?  We’ll see.


I went to a brunch at the Belmont Diner today.  Near me at the lunch counter was a mom and her young daughter – maybe 5.  I enjoyed watching her colour and throw her hands at mom, all with a vibrant smile.  After we had eaten, “Brittany” sidles over to the chair beside me and eventually says, “You came into my classroom.”  And I guess I did, on a day a few weeks ago when I read Stanley At School to a whole bunch of classes.

My new friend bubbled away about the two plastic Easter eggs she had in front of her.  She shook the small one near my ear.  No sound.  “No surprises.”  Then the big one.  Something was rattling inside.  “Surprises!”  Opening it up, Brittany pointed out the chocolate yummies and the “hay” – little turquoise strings of plastic.  My job was to get the strings back inside so she could close the eggish lid.  I did okay, and together we got the job done, with just a few strands sticking out.  “Look!  The egg has a beard.”  So very cool.

Then Brittany launched into her counting skills.  After a bit, we were doing it in unison (70, 71, 72 …) with each of us watching the other person’s mouth form the words.  How wonderful that a short young person can create such joy in a taller, older one.


Thursday evening was momentous.  For the first time in at least ten years, I didn’t go to bed with a sleeping pill in my mouth.  With the help of my pharmacist, I’ve been weaning myself off the nasty little things.  Thursday was the beginning of a new two-week pattern – “Nothing, half, nothing, half …”  And I was scared.  What if I got no sleep at all?  How would I survive that?  Well of course I would, but I didn’t have to.  I awoke amazed after seven hours of shuteye.  How could that be?  Chemicals going into my body for maybe 4000 nights and then sleeping well without them.  Thank you, o powers of freedom.

Last night was the second “nothing” experience.  Surely it would be a piece of cake.  Surely the first night would be the worst.  But not so.  I struggled to get four hours.  After Thursday, I told myself to forget the schedule, that I was already free, with never a Trazodone to enter my body again.  But a wiser voice let me know that I needed to stick with the program, to be nice to my mysterious physical existence.  I’m glad I listened.


After school on Wednesday, I drove to New Sarum to see the Grade 6 girls play basketball.  I volunteer in their class.  I took a seat on the stage of the gym and waited for my friends to arrive.  And here they came.  Some of them saw me, smiled and came right over to sit in front of and beside me.  And there we chatted as two other teams took the floor for the first game.  It was special for me to sense that I was important to many of those young people.  Makes me wish I had kids.  I would have been a good dad.

The next day, at recess, some of the girls and boys wanted me to see the fort they’d built at the far corner of the schoolyard.  I was ushered into an airy wooden structure and offered a seat on their padded bench.  All seemed pleased that my weight didn’t collapse the thing.  I got to sit there and smile about the private space they’d created for themselves.  It was a privilege to be a guest.


On Good Friday, I went for a bike ride.  Sunny and warm.  Eight kilometres in, as I approached Harrietsville, I got a flat tire.  Boo.  I had to be back at 1:00 pm to go with my good neighbours Sharon and John to a gospel music concert in Kitchener.  As I stared at ta-pocketa’s plight, I realized that I’d forgotten how to change a tire, especially the more difficult back one.  “But Bruce, here you are preparing to cross Canada on your bike next year and you can’t even change a tire?”  Yep.  That’s true.  So humbling.

I started walking my bike and saw from the cycling computer that I was going 5 kph.  A quick calculation revealed that at this pace I’d return to my doorstep at 1:05 or so.  Good enough.  So on I went.

My trip home was sprinkled with sadness.  Probably 80 vehicles passed me.  Many no doubt thought it strange that here was a man walking his bicycle.  Did they wonder if I had a flat, or whether I was injured?  The net result was that no one stopped to see if I was okay, and maybe to offer me a lift home.  At least 15 pickup trucks came by.  Plus several vans, although I don’t know if they had room for ta-pocketa and me.  I felt sad that this particular slice of society didn’t respond to someone in need.  Oh, I wasn’t hurt, and with enough walking I would make it home just fine, but still …


Happily, I arrived home in time for my neighbours and me to join other folks on a bus leading to the Collingsworth family – mom, dad and four young adults (a son and three daughters).  Could they sing!  And the thousand of us in the audience were moving and grooving (some on the outside, some within).

The star of the show was mom Kim.  She sat at the black grand piano and blasted us with her virtuoso playing.  If only you could have heard “How Great Thou Art”.  During the fast parts, she was bouncing on the piano bench, head back in ecstasy as she belted out the words while her fingers flew.  And the best was watching her daughters nearby as Kim played.  Here was a mom expressing herself with every fibre of her being, and the girls were loving her for it.  They smiled, they nodded, they stared at their mother.  And all was well.


1100 words?  Cool.  Just a few more now:

The banquet is laid out every single day
How delightful to partake

Norman, The Kids And Me

I journeyed south from Williamstown to Stockbridge, Massachusetts this morning.  My destination was the Norman Rockwell Museum.  For decades, I’ve enjoyed his paintings of relationships and everyday life.  Norman saw the beauty in us all.

I wanted the Grade 6 kids near Belmont, Ontario to see some paintings, and perhaps to see themselves in them.  I texted some pics.

First up was “The Runaway”, featuring a little boy on a stool at the local diner, sitting beside a burly police officer.  A middle-aged cook leans forward on the counter, cigarette dangling from his lips.  I ran away once, from a summer camp on the shore of Lake Simcoe in Ontario.  I was scared and lonely.  One night, I walked to the shore, turned left and headed home to Toronto.  And there I was in a Rockwell painting.

Then there was a little girl, also sitting on a stool, gazing at herself in a large mirror.  A magazine was on her lap, flipped open to the image of a Hollywood starlet.  At her feet were a jar of makeup, lipstick and a hair brush.  Maybe those girls in Southern Ontario could relate.

A large painting was filled with people and apparel from across the world – young and old, male and female.  They all seemed to be gazing at the lower centre of the picture, where these words hovered:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you


Finally, a moving van has pulled up to a suburban home.  A black girl carries a white cat, and is accompanied by her brother.  Three white kids face the newcomers, with a black dog amidst them.  Baseball gloves reside on both sides of the painting.  The Canadian children’s response?  Here’s Tiffany, their teacher: “They think that regardless of the black and white contrast, their pets and sports will bring them together.”  Well said.

Google Maps tells me that the Grade 6 kids and I are 738 kilometres apart
(459 miles)

Not really