Saturday 31 August 2013

Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline

Ambassador Bridge courtesy

In 1967, my Dad worked on the Windsor territory for the Ford Motor Company.  With Detroit right across the river, my Dad, a jazz musician, would often drive over the Ambassador Bridge to visit his jazz buddies, all of whom were Black.  He would park his car, and have one of the musicians escort him into the all Black neighbourhood where the jazz club was located.  The musicians were very welcoming.  All, that is, but one who refused to shake my Dad's hand because he was White.  

My Dad made several trips to the Motor City.  He was there a week before all hell broke loose in July of 1967.  Police raided an after hours club on 12th Street which lead to one of the deadliest race riots in America's history.  Window after window was broken.  House after house was torched.  Business after business was looted.  When the Detroit Police became overwhelmed, the Michigan National Guard was called him as well as the U.S. Army.  When the smoke cleared five days later, 42 people were killed, 467 were injured, 7200 were arrested and 5,000 were left homeless.  Two thousand buildings were destroyed.  

Detroit Riot in July of 1967 courtesy

The media paid close attention to the riot.  The Detroit Free Press even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage. Author John Hersey wrote a book about a case of police brutality during the riot called The Algiers Motel Incident where three Blacks were murdered.   Musicians even wrote songs about the riot including "Black Day in July" by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot and "The Motor City is Burning" by American John Lee Hooker. 


The glorious Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church courtesy 

In the 18 months following the riot, thousands of businesses closed or relocated.  And 140,000 Whites fled the city for the suburbs in a phenomenon called White Flight.  A city which, in 1970, had 54% Whites and 44% Blacks, by 1990 had only 20% Whites and 78% Blacks.


Michigan Central Station, where many Black migrants from the Deep South would have arrived in the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's and 1950's, now sits vacant.

What happened to the Detroit of old?  At its peak in 1950, Detroit's population hit almost 2 million.  Many Blacks had migrated from the Deep South in the decades after the First World War filling the Motor City's factories.  Tourists could stay at beautiful hotels; locals could shop at Hudson's Department Store; movie-goers could attend the Spanish Gothic style United Artists Theater; residents lived in elegant Victorian style homes.


William LIvingstone House formerly an elegant mansion in the Brush Park neighbourhood.

But there was always a great divide between the Whites and the Blacks in Detroit.  A wall actually separated the two communities.  Racial tensions ran high in the 1960's.  By the 1970's, crime escalated as drug gangs took over city streets.  The 1980's saw economic tension rise as the motor companies laid off employees. 

'The Wall': While the separation between the black and white communities no longer exists, the wall still stands in Detroit

Detroit's "race wall" built in 1940 courtesy

All the while, Detroit kept shrinking.  As my Dad pointed out, while a city like Toronto annexed its surrounding suburbs, Detroit did no such thing.  So as Toronto's tax base widened, Detroit's narrowed.  No wonder Toronto started shipping its garbage to Michigan!  

In 2011, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre immortalized the city in their photo essay "Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline".  Images of abandonned factories with cracked windows, vandalized schools and crumbling mansions fill the pages of Time magazine.


The Lee Plaza Hotel abandonned in the 1990's.

As of 2012, Detroit's population has plummeted to under 700,000.  It's poverty level sits at 36.2%, but it's murder rate has skyrocketed to 11 times that of New York City.  Forbes magazine calls it America's most dangerous city.  Forty-seven percent of its home owners did not pay property tax this year, one man arguing that he does not get any services anyway.  A third of the city lies derelict and abandonned.  In June of 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy.  

To hear Gordon's Lightfoot's song "Black Day in July", visit

Friday 30 August 2013

From Slavery to the Supreme Court

Thurgood Marshall's parents courtesy

The grandson of a Black slave, Thurgood Marshall attended a segregated elementary and high school.  The son of parents who valued education, when he was in trouble, he had to memorize sections of the U.S. Constitution.  The knowledge would serve him well as a lawyer:  he would win 29 out of the 32 cases he argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908.  His parents made a modest living:  his father worked as a railroad porter while his mother was a Kindergarten teacher.  When young Thoroughgood reached Grade 2, he did not like spelling his long name and therefore shortened it to Thurgood.

University of Maryland courtesy

Upon graduating from high school, Thurgood applied to the University of Maryland but was turned down due to his race.  He reluctantly applied to Pennsylvania's Lincoln University where his classmate, the poet Langston Hughes, called him "rough and ready, loud and wrong".  His personality served him well as he became a star debater on campus.  There, Thurgood graduated with honours majoring in American Literature and philosophy.  

Short on money, Mrs. Marshall pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for her son's tuition at Howard University Law School.  Thurgood made her proud, graduating at the top of his class.  The academic still found time to participate in a sit-in at the local movie theatre.

In the meantime, the young law student married Vivien "Buster" Burey in 1929 and they settled in Maryland.  Never forgetting being barred from the University of Maryland, Thurgood helped a young student sue the university for their racist policy in first case, Murray vs. Pearson.  

Thurgood Marshall circa 1936 courtesy

With the success of his early cases, Thurgood was hired by the NAACP in 1936, at which time he and his wife relocated to New York City.  Thurgood worked his fingers to the bone arguing cases during the day and then enjoyed the Harlem cultural life at night.

Mr. Marshall's cases with the NAACP read like a who's who of the Black Civil Rights Movement.  In 1940, Thurgood won Chambers vs. Florida, a case which pitted four Black men who were coereced in a murder confession by corrupt law officials.  In 1947, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the colour barrier in professional baseball, he hired Thurgood to represent the young Black athlete.  In 1954, Mr. Marshall argued Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, paving the way for Black children to attend White schools in America.  In 1956, the lawyer struck down segregation on city busses, a movement sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus a year earlier.  In 1958, Mr. Marshall prepared legal documents securing the safety of the Little Rock Nine as they enrolled at a White High School in Arkansas.  And the list goes on and on.

Brown vs. Board of Education circa 1954 courtesy

In his personal life, things were not going as well.  Thurgood and his wife longed to become parents but Buster suffered several miscarriages.  In 1955 she succumbed to cancer.  Thurgood remarried a year later and with his second wife he had two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John, the former becoming a top aide to President Clinton.

Marshall's wins in the courthouse lead President John F. Kennedy to appoint him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1961.  In the same vein, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, the first Black Supreme Court Justice -- not bad for the grandson of a slave.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Hurricane Katrina

It was eight years ago today that Anderson Cooper braved 175 mile per hour winds and driving rain to cover the third most powerful hurricane in America's history, coverage that would win him a Peabody Award. Anderson brought us images of New Orleans:  of a swirling cloud with a dot in the middle, of frothy waves crashing against the Gulf of Mexico, of bumper to bumper traffic crossing the bridge to escape Katrina's path, of boarded up buildings ready for the onslaught.

After Katrina had vented her wrath, Anderson showed us images of a plethora of palm trees peaking out from above the water line, of residents stranded on their rooftops holding signs crying for help, of rowboats making their way through water at times 20 feet deep where roads once stood.

Stranded residents courtesy

Anderson showed us the bridges snapped in two, the tossed aside vehicles, the houses crushed like tinderboxes, the trees twisted like pretzels.  He showed us debris strewn all over the city, debris that would pile 10 miles high if placed in a football field.

The anchorman held his head in his hands as he talked about all of the 1836 dead bodies and the 705 still missing.  And he brought us images of the 26,000 refugees who filled the Louisiana Superdome.  He shook his head when a certain Senator said he could do nothing to help.  While in many ways, it would be the start of celebrity status for Anderson Cooper, it would be the end of a way of life for many New Orleans residents who moved into FEMA trailers.  The CNN newsman would remain in the city for over a month, covering a story that would not go away.  Slowly, the waters receded and the clean up began.

Today, 90% of the refugees have returned to the city.  However, in the low-income Ninth Ward, only 30% have returned.  While Anderson Cooper has gone on to cover other stories, the haunting images of Hurricane Katrina will never be forgotten.  

Wednesday 28 August 2013

In the Glaring Light of Television

"We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners.  We're going to make them do it in the glaring light of television." (Martin Luther King Jr. upon a sheriff's posse's beating of peaceful protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965)

Time coverage of Selma to Montgomery March courtesy

In the modern novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, white housewives shielded their black domestics from the television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.  Upon further inspection, I discovered that some Southern networks blacked out these news telecasts to keep Blacks in the dark.  In the era before television, it was much easier to pull the wool over America's eyes.

The Help courtesy

Newspapers often only reached a local audience.  Magazines were also limited in their scope, although the picture magazines Life and Look had a national audience.  But it was the advent of television in the late 1940's and the proliference of television sets in American homes (90%) in the early 1960's, that brought the Civil Rights Movement into America's living rooms.  Now, not only would Southern Blacks be informed, but also Northern Whites.  Television brought graphic evidence of the violence perpetrated by Whites against Blacks (and sometimes White protesters) to an international audience.  Even the citizens of Europe were privy to what was going on in the Deep South.

Photo taken by Charles Moore, Life Magazine, courtesy

Decisions in the courts like Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 angered racist Whites.  The images of empty busses in Montgomery made Whites scratch their heads.  The lunch counter sit-ins made their blood boil.  Citizens' Councils were on the rise.  And with them, the rise of violence. With every stride made by Blacks, racist Whites dug their heals in deeper and deeper.

Lunch counter sit-in courtesy

Television was at the front and centre fifty years ago today when 200,000 protesters converged at the Washington Monument, lining both sides of the Reflecting Pool, as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream Speech".

March on Washington, August 28, 1963 courtesy

Television helped America wake up to the inequality in its midst.  In fact, while ABC was airing the movie "Judgment at Nuremburg" about the trials of several Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, they decided to interrupt the showing with a news bulletin showing the nightsticks and tear gas aimed at peaceful protesters on the Selma to Montgomery March.  According to one writer, the contrast between the two stories "struck like psychological lightning in American homes".

Former Freedom Rider John Lewis being beaten by a State Trooper on Bloody Sunday, during the Selma to Montgomery March circa 1965 courtesy

Television not only informed America about the Civil Rights Movement, but it also united Black communities, making them more determined than ever to break the chains of segregation.  No longer relegated to the "dark corners" of America, they were now on television screens for all the world to see.  Whites could no longer deny what was happening.  President Kennedy, initially on the fence but embarrassed at the airing of his country's dirty laundry, was now forced to confront the problem head on.

JFK's Civil Rights speech on June 11, 1963, courtesy

Tuesday 27 August 2013


An 1888 lithograph courtesy

It was on this day in 1883 that Krakatoa, an island in the Pacific between Java and Sumatra, blew its top. Four explosions were heard from as far away as Perth, Australia, at a distance of 28,000 miles.  Shock waves circled the planet seven times, the eruption's force equaling 200 megatons of TNT.  Lava flowed at 72 miles per hour.  The Captain of the German warship Elizabeth recounted that a cloud of dust spewed out of the crater, estimated at 6 miles in height.  Thirty-six thousand people were killed by the lava, the smoke, or the 120 foot high wall of water which rose out of the ocean after the eruption.  Over two-thirds of the island were destroyed.  Eleven cubic tons of debris flew into the atmosphere, separating the earth from the sun's rays.  Local residents had no dawn for three days.  Spectacular sunsets painted the sky all over the world for months afterwards. Weathermen recorded average temperatures at 1.2 degrees lower than normal.


For more information, see my post "Sunset Over the Ice" at

Monday 26 August 2013

Maple Cappuccino Peach Pie

This is a fabulous combination of Maple Cappuccino Sauce, sour cream, peaches and pastry. 

1/2 Cup Maple Cappuccino Sauce 
1/3 Cup Flour - all purpose 
1/4 Cup Sugar - white, granulated 
1 Cup Sour Cream - 14%mf 
9 – 10 Peaches - fresh, peeled, sliced (or 2-28oz canned peach slices) 
1 9” pie shell-unbaked, with no prick marks 
4Tbsp Maple Cappuccino Sauce 

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. 
2. In a bowl mix the Maple Cappuccino Sauce, flour, sugar, and sour cream together. 
3. Arrange two layers of peach slices in the pie shell. Pour the Maple Cappuccino mixture 
over the peaches. 
4. Bake, on the lowest rack, at 450°F, for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F and bake 
another 30 minutes (or until the filling is set.) 
5. Remove from oven and drizzle 4 Tbsp of Maple Cappuccino Sauce over the pie. Broil for 
1-2 minutes or until the sauce bubbles. 
Serve warm.

Sunday 25 August 2013

The Mystery of the Missing Train

Nine railroad cars travelled 1600 miles over six states watched by millions of spectators.  Their destination? Springfield, Illinois.  Their cargo?  The sixteenth President of the United States.  

Engine of Lincoln's funeral train courteys

The year 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.  Grieving Americans filed through the rotunda at the Capitol to view the slain President's body lying in state.  Then, Lincoln's body was placed on a train, along with the body of his young son Willie who had died of typhoid fever in 1862, and sent across the country to his home state.  

To mark the occasion, one American has been given the task of rebuilding Lincoln's funeral car.  A full-size replica of the funeral train will re-trace the original route.  Historians know the train consisted of nine cars:  a funeral car, an officers' car, a baggage car and six passenger cars.  However, they can't agree on the colour of the cars since no colour photograph, lithograph or painting exists -- only black and white pictures. 

Funeral train courtesy

Chemist Wayne Wesolowski searched through newspapers and other writing from the time period and came up with various colours:  chocolate brown, claret and wine-coloured.  Given there were no chocolate bars in the Civil War era, he assumed that chocolate brown referred to Dutch chocolate, a reddish brown.

The original car was sold at an auction after the Civil War, and was destroyed by fire in 1911.  However, a Minnesota man inherited a window frame from the car, tracked down by Mr. Wesolowski.  Studied under a microscope, it was determined that the original paint colour was a dark maroon, a disappointing discovery to Wesolowski who had painted his small model red.  Now that the mystery is solved, the replica car can be painted.

It won't be long now before the new train winds its way through Maryland, rolls up and down the hills of Pennsylvania, crosses New Jersey, dips through New York States Hudson Valley, hugs the south shore of Ohio's Lake Erie, crosses the rolling farmland of Northern Indiana and steams to a stop in Illinois.  Just listen for its whistle.

Funeral train route from April to May 1865 courtesy

For more information on the 2015 Funeral Train, visit‎.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Sunflowers in a Field


Sunflowers in a field.
Goldfinches everywhere.
They gorge on seed.  They rise
To rest along the powerline, then fall
Like drizzled lemon drops, like lozenges
Of candied yellow light.
Two weeks a year goldfinches
Gather on sunflowers here.
These evenings after supper,
You see them in the honey-soft glow
As if they'd trapped and somehow stored
The rapture of September's sun.
You see goldfinches flicker
Among sunflower lanes,
Through mortal tides of light,
Through streams of apricot and chardonnay,
And you resolve to live
Your life with greater sympathy.
Sunflowers bowing their char black dials,
Their petals twist and writhe
Like fires, like silk coronas blazing west.
How inconceivable, then,
The pewter cold front clouds,
The shabby settlement of crow and wren.
Though no one hears the oath,
You shall, you tell yourself,
Forego deceit, increase the tithe.
Atone,  Forgive.  Embrace.  You watch
Gold finches and sunflowers both
Begin to fade by subtle green degrees
They shed that bullion luster of the sun
Until the finches ricochet
Like flints among the drowsing flowerheads.
Perhaps, as I have done,
You'll pace the darkling half mile home
Intent on picking up the telephone
To reconcile with long lost friends.
You will apologize, concede.
You'll vow to never, ever, ever let
Such distance grow again.
But then you reach your door and find
The day diminished to a thin blue rind
Of light above the township silhouette.
How nice a hot bath sounds.
Dessert.  An herbal tea.
Perhaps you'll read the Arts
And Leisure pages of The Daily News.
With every stair you climb
Sleep settles just a little more behind
The knees, beneath the shoulder blades.
The calls, you tell yourself,
Perhaps some other time.

Daniel Anderson

Thursday 22 August 2013

Sandcastles in the Sky

I see dreams in the clouds,
Not just illusions,
but perspectives,
I touch sandcastles in the sky
and let my eyes
look for me inside the walls.
I sink my feet into the sand
where the water draws
that which it erases.
I hold myself in common
prayer moments.
Sending my words to
Jesus, who promised
always to listen.
I hear his reply
in the thousand points
of light that shiver
through my prayers.
I trust in what He promises,
though I fail to
capture His wisdom.
I watch the pictures
in my fingers moving with
the passion of living.
I see the dreams in the clouds.
Not just illusions,
but perspectives,
I touch sandcastles in the sky
and let my eyes
look for me inside the walls.

Chris Vaillancourt

Wednesday 21 August 2013

The Nine Nanas

It all started with a card game thirty five years ago.  Nine Tennessee women, sitting at a table playing Bridge, posed one question to each other:  If we had one million dollars, how would we give back to our community?  Their answer?  Poundcakes.  They started a secret baking operation that would bring happiness to hundreds of people, a secret that would not be revealed for 30 years.

Decades ago, four of the Nanas lost their parents and were taken in by their grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw.  A fifth, Pearl, joined them when her parents were down and out.  A kind woman, Mamaw would read death notices in the paper, bake one of her famous lemon pound cakes, and deliver it to the grieving family.  The Bridge ladies took a cue from Mamaw and decided to start a charity bakery in one of their homes.

But how would they get the money to finance their venture?  The women, who were in the habit of sending to a laundry service, decided to do their own laundry and pocket the savings -- $400 a month.  The money went a long way to purchasing flour, sugar and eggs for their poundcakes.  Next, the Bridge ladies became expert coupon clippers, saving a dime here and a quarter there to fill their stock their shelves.  They also developped the habit of using green stamps.

Where did they find their clientele?  The Nine Nanas started eavesdropping in the local beauty parlour and supermarket.  They found out who had passed away, who was a single mom, and they would send a package with a poundcake and a note "Somebody cares fro you".  The ladies also packed into a car and completed "drive-bys", stopping at houses with fans in the windows (no air conditioning) or homes in complete darkness at night (no hydro).

Just as some Tennessee homes were in the dark, so too were the Tennessee husbands of the Nine Nanas, unaware their wives were baking up a storm in the wee hours of the morning.  That is, until Mary Ellen's husband discovered the mileage on their vehicle rising at a rapid rate and their bank account dwindling just as quickly.  After 30 years, Mary Ellen was forced to come clean to the fact that she and her "sisters" were doing much more than just playing Bridge.

Once the secret was out, the Nine Nana's baking charity became a booming business.  The husbands, most of whom were retired, joined their wives in the drive-by's.  Their children got in on the act, recommending that their mothers sell the poundcakes online to make more money for their charity.  In no time, the ladies were selling 100 cakes per day.  Outgrowing the small kitchen, one of their sons offered the use of his professional restaurant for their venture.  The ladies were in and out of the kitchen before the regular staff arrived each day.  They even hired a "happiness co-ordinator" to eavesdrop in local establishments for their cause.  

With their profits, they donated 5000 pillows and linens to a local domestic abuse shelter.  On occasion, the ladies would open the phone book, pick a random name, and send a poundcake to that person.  They would frequent grocery stores, pick a patron's cart, and start filling it with items.  To celebrate "Happiness Happens Month" in August, they also chose one person from each state who had made a significant contribution to helping others, and sent them a poundcake.

When all the flour dust had cleared, the bottles of lemon flavouring were stored on the shelf, and the last cake pan washed, the Nine Nanas had made $900,000 worth of happiness, just $100,000 shy of their original dream. The Tennessee women, almost half of whom were orphans, had made lemon pound cake out of lemons. And, with every poundcake, the happiness continues to rise.

Note:  To purchase a pound cake, visit


Monday 19 August 2013

Kissing the Bricks, Guzzling the Buttermilk

It is the biggest sporting event in the United States.  The crowd numbers 400,000.  The race runs 200 laps. The average speed clocks 187 miles per hour.  The purse totals $2.5 million.  It is the Indianapolis 500.

Racers at the Starting Line

Indianapolis Motor Speedway circa 1909 courtesy

On 328 acres of farmland 5 miles northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, a 2 1/2 mile track was built.  On August 19, 1909, 12,000 spectators gathered, garbed in their Sunday best, to watch a 5-mile race.  Roadsters lined up to compete, the flag was raised, and off they went in a cloud of dust.  With caps and goggles, the racers dodged each other as they raced down the straightway and negotiated the tight turns.  Averaging a speed of 57.4 miles per hour, tragedy struck when a driver spun out of control on the crushed rock-and-tar track.  When the dust cleared, two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators were dead.  Despite the tragedy, the race was completed with Austrian Louis Schwitzer claiming the prize.

The rock and tar track was immediately replaced with 3.2 million bricks later that year, earning it the nickname, The Brickyard.  Low attendance hampered the 1911 races and therefore the owner decided to hold one big race the following year:  it would consist of 500 miles run counterclockwise along the track. Fifteen thousand paying spectators lined the stands in 1912.  Ray Haroun, averaging 74. 59 miles per hour, and clocking a 6 hour 42 minute race, claimed the $14,250 prize that first year.  For the first time, the press widely covered the sporting event.

The Indianapolis 500 crowds continued to grow each year, with the exception of the First World War, when the event was cancelled.  The Roaring Twenties were ushered in by a race won by Swiss-American auto manufacturer Gaston Chevrolet. Sadly the racer was killed on the Beverly Hills Speedway later that year.

The Dirty Thirties saw more changes at the racetrack.  By 1936, the brickyard's rough spots were covered in asphalt.  The same year, victor Louis Meyer was photographed drinking a bottle of buttermilk and holding up three fingers to indicate his third win.  a local diary owner offered the next year's winner a bottle of milk -- the tradition stuck.  Louis Meyer was the first racer to be awarded the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Louis Meyer circa 1928 courtesy

He was also the first winner of a car, the same model as the official pace car which led the pack at the beginning of each race.  The pace car of 1953 would be a white Ford, now located in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Fighting Forties saw the sporting event cancelled due to the Second World War.  However, in 1946, with the re-running of the Indy 500, more traditions were introduced including the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" right before the sounding of the gun.  The original singer, James Melton, hailed from the New York Metropolitan Opera.  Jim Nabors has sung the song since 1972 (with a few exceptions).

The following year, hundreds of balloons were released into the Indiana sky immediately following the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana", a tradition which has also stood the test of time.  Military planes joined the balloons to signal the start of the sporting event.


The Fabulous Fifties saw the introduction of "Gentlemen start your engines" announcing the start of the race, replacing "Gentlemen start your motors" from 1948.  The 500 Festival Parade was introduced in 1957.

The first live radio broadcast premiered in 1953.  The first television broadcast too place in 1949, but the event was not regularly telecast until 1965 by ABC.

The Swinging Sixties saw the brickyard completely paved, with the exception of a 36 inch section of bricks located at Victory Lane.  It was winner Dale Jarrett who first "kissed the bricks" in 1966, another tradition which stuck.

Today, spectators at the Indy 500 wear shorts, tank tops and sun visors.  Sunscreen protects their skin and ear plugs help to drown out the drone of the engines over the gruelling 3 hour event.  They drink gallons of beer and munch on Brickyard Burgers and Indy Dogs.  Tony Kanaan, this year's winner, kissed the bricks and drank the trademark bottle of milk.

Saturday 17 August 2013

The Seagull Movie Theatre

Dozens of seagulls soar over the lake, their wings spread wide.  On occasion one swoops down to scoop up a fish from the lake, the air pierced by its squawk.  Other seagulls hop on the beach, their footprints peppering the sand.  A loan seagull perches on a sandcastle abandoned by its maker.  While they’re not the prettiest bird, there is something beautiful about them.  Up and down the beach they fly against the backdrop of the azure sky.  As the sun approaches the horizon, the sandcastle starts to crumble.  The school of fish retreat to the bottom of the lake.  And, one by one, the seagulls congregate on a large patch of flattened sand further down the beach.  My daughter Jacqueline calls it the “Seagull Movie Theatre”.   The moon, full and harvest-like, fills the sky as the seagulls settle in for tonight’s feature.  And when the movie ends, the seagulls will spread their wings and fly over the lake once again.

Friday 16 August 2013

Helen, Annie & Alec


"Helen, Annie & Alec" performed on the steps of Brantford's Bell Homestead courtesy storage

On the banks of the Grand River sits the Bell Homestead where Alexander Graham Bell conceived the idea for his telephone.  Everybody knows Bell's connection to the telephone, but how many know his connection to Helen Keller?  That was the purpose of the play we came to see, Helen, Annie & Alec mounted on the front steps of the Homestead.

Sitting on lawn chairs with dozens of other spectators, the sun setting over the trees to the west, the crickets humming in the trees along the Grand, we watched the performance unfold.  Alexander Graham Bell appears in the first scene when Helen's father, Captain Keller, seeks his help in educating his blind, deaf and mute daughter, given Bell's work with the deaf.  Bell immediately directs Captain Keller to the Perkins Institute for the Blind where Helen is matched up with Annie Sullivan.

Helen with "Teacher" courtesy

The trademark water scene ensues with Annie pumping water into Helen's hand and furiously signing the word W-A-T-E-R.  A dinner scene follows where Helen teaches Annie how to use a F-O-R-K and
K-N-I-F-E, two foreign objects to a girl who has always used her fingers to eat.  The early tension between Annie and Captain Keller is resolved once he sees how much Helen has learned in such a short period of time.  And that all happens within the first day.  Within a month, Annie has taught Helen a staggering 400 words!

Not only Annie Sullivan but also Dr. Bell are both amazed by her rapid progress.  The inventor keeps close tabs on Helen through letter writing.  One day, he suggests that Helen and Annie accompany him to the World's Fair in Rochester where he will be presenting his new photophone.  The women are thrilled with the invitation and eagerly oblige.  Helen thrives with all of the stimulation.

Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan & Alexander Graham Bell courtesy

Helen becomes a budding author and enters a writing contest with a story called "The Frost King".  Annie is so proud of her young pupil and reads it for her on contest day.  However, the Perkins Institute professor judging the contest accuses Helen of plagiarism comparing it to "The Frost Fairy".  Annie is disgusted with the accusation and speaks her mind only to be thrown out of the judging room.  She contacts Alexander Graham Bell who immediately seeks support for Helen's cause.  None other than Mark Twain writes a letter lending his support to the young author.  Helen excels as a student and not only completes elementary and high school, but also college, graduating with honours from Radcliffe.

Helen Keller circa 1904 courtesy

A late scene in the play shows Helen, a young lady by now, dancing with Dr. Bell.  He tells her that if she should find love one day, to follow her heart.  She reminds him that she is deaf and blind.  She asks him:  "Who would want a 'statue?'"  Always the gentleman, Bell reminds her that she is a beautiful, intelligent woman who has a lot to offer a man.  After all, he did not let the fact that Mabel Hubbard was deaf stop him from marrying her.

The second to last scene shows Alexander Graham Bell accepting a phone call in his study to say Annie Sullivan has passed away.  He is devastated.  A lifelong friendship has come to an end.  But our happiness turns to joy when we see Helen reunited with Annie in Heaven in the final scene, her sight and hearing restored.

As darkness falls over the Bell Homestead, Helen, Annie and Alec take their bows and we rise to our feet. It is an educational evening.  Who knew that Dr. Bell's kindness could equal his genius?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Behind the Sheet

"It would be harder for man to stand nearer to God than he does here."  (Charles Dickens)

Today I stood under 739,682 gallons of water, its thunder pounding in my ears, its mist soaking my feet.  I am one of over 8 million tourists who visit Table Rock each year to experience the rush of Niagara Falls. While I have been to the Falls many times, I have never "journeyed under the Falls".  Today, I took the plunge.

Niagara Falls courtesy

People have been visiting Niagara Falls for centuries.  In their Sunday best, they would climb over huge boulders and up the steep bank, then perch themselves on Terrapin Point.

In 1818, only six years after General Brock had perished at the Battle of Queenston Heights down the river, a set of enclosed stairs was built from the brink of Niagara Falls down to the gorge.  By 1827, businessman Thomas Barnett offered a tour beneath the Falls called "Sheet of Falling Water" or "Behind the Sheet".  In 1832, a spiral staircase replaced the original one.  The mid-1800's saw the building of Table Rock House where tourists would flock to view the Falls.  By 1887, a hydraulic lift was installed which could carry 10 passengers.  

(Thumbnail) Horse Drawn Carriage in front of Table Rock House and entrance to Scenic Tunnels (image/jpeg)

Table Rock House circa 1928 courtesy

The first tunnel was carved out of the rock in 1889.  Lantern-carrying guides would escort tourists through the tunnel.  It was the same year that a rock fall at Horseshoe Falls forced the "Behind the Sheet" tour to close.  In 1902, the Ontario Power Company built a new tunnel, 244 kilometres in length.  The Table Rock House was closed to the public during World War I to be used as a military headquarters.

(Thumbnail) Coat & Boot Change Room of the Table Rock Scenic Tunnels (image/jpeg)

A new Table Rock House was built in 1925 to replace the old one.  It was here that tourists would don heavy rubber rain coast and boots before venturing under the Falls.  With the advent of the Second World War, the scenic tunnels were closed to the public as well as Queen Victoria Park.  However, after D-Day, within the end of the war in sight, a new tunnel was built and opened to the public in 1944, 18 metres behind the original one (due to the recession of the rock).  This tunnel had electricity eliminating the need for lanterns.  In 1951, an observation plaza was built at the base of the Falls.  

Two years later, actress Marilyn Monroe filmed the movie Niagara in town, bringing even more tourists to the border town.  In 1960, another soon to be famous American visited Niagara Falls, Senator John F. Kennedy.  And an unknown local boy, Roger Woodward, fell over the brink of the Falls wearing nothing but a life jacket and swim trunks.  Miraculously, he survived and was picked up by the Maid of the Mist, as people watched from the lookout under the Falls.  Famous people continued to flock to the Falls and tour its tunnels including Princess Diana and her two boys in 1991.

Today, tourists don bright yellow rain ponchos to tour the tunnels.  Plaques line the walls of the tunnels with information on the Falls and the tunnels.  But the best part of the tour is the stop at the observation deck, where tourists are doused by some of the 700,000 plus gallons of water.  It's worth the journey!

Journey Behind the Falls Observation Platform (image/jpeg)

Observation Deck courtesy

For more information, read my post "Frozen Falls" at or "Roger's Ride" at or "Blondin's Bravery, Wallenda's Will" at