Friday, December 31, 2010

PAIN IN THE BUTT!


I first met Jim Bishop, Sr. when I was in high school. The Bishop farm was located several miles south and east of town. Jim would hire groups of young guys for some chickin' pickin'. (No, this was not some type of guitar jam!) We showed up at the Bishop farm around midnight on the chosen night and, for several hours, stuff mostly live chickens into crates and load them onto semi trailers. We entered the pitch black barn and by crouching low and feeling for legs, we would gather 10 or 12 birds at a time depending on the size of the chicken, and head out to the truck, place them in a crate and return for more of the same. The Bishops provided a lunch about halfway through the night and then we worked until the wee hours of the morning when the job was complete and thousands of the white creatures were safely in their crates.

The job was quite horrible, even foul, as we sloshed around in a great deal of chicken poop, the strong smell of ammonia burning our nostrils. A lot of the guys wore gloves, but I never felt comfortable doing that as I couldn't feel how many legs were in my hands with gloves on. So barehanded I went and the resulting scratches, pecks and cuts would be a colorful reminder the next morning of the lengths we would go to earn some pocket money. The birds were never very comfortable with their impending destiny and fought and struggled for their freedom. In later years we were replaced by professional crews that would travel from farm to farm loading the trucks. I'm sure these crews were not only faster, but I guarantee the mortality rate of the fowl went up.

Jim was very involved in cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is the attempt to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from the clouds. This is commonly done by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud. The intent is to increase precipitation (rain or snow), but hail and fog suppression are also widely practiced at airports. As a farmer, Jim was very interested in the reduction of hail, as many an Alberta farmer has lost their crop to this menace of mother nature. From time to time his articles, extolling the virtues of this technology, would appear in the Three Hills Capital, our local paper.

In the summer of 1979 Jim decided it was time to build a new barn and hired several high school guys along with his sons, Jim, Jr., Frank and Roy to help with the construction of his new edifice. I spent several weeks working on the project and my brother Dave stayed on for the entire summer. The barn was sided with a heavy gauge metal siding. This was applied with a long ring nail delivered by power nailers. These nail guns were powered by .22 calibre gun ammunition and packed quite a punch.

One evening, our family was invited out for supper to the George McPherson's. This particular day, Mom had set the supper time a little later knowing that my brother would be coming home from work and would need to shower and clean up. Dave arrived home and Mom encouraged him to hurry as she wanted us to be on time. When Dave came up from his shower, he held in his hand one of the 3 inch ring nails. Most notably with this particular nail was that there was blood up its entire length. With a slight grin on his face, he explained to us that as he had gone to remove his jeans to take a shower, he couldn't get them pulled down. They were nailed on! Nailed right into his derriere. He had pulled out the offending object and continued on about his business. Mom, a little incredulous at this tale, questioned him as to what had happened. He said that earlier in the day, he had felt a slight bit of discomfort as one of the other workers had bumped into him with his nail gun while they were up on the scaffold. Evidently, the gun had fired a nail and it had found its target.

Dave has an incredibly high pain tolerance and I can assure you that if that had happened to me, I would have yelped to high heaven and been off to emergency in a New York minute. He thought the discomfort was just from being bumped by the gun and went on with his day. Mom freaked out. She insisted that he go next door immediately to our neighbor, Dr. Ying, and get a tetanus shot. Dave went over, was given the shot and suffered no after effects. Miraculously the nail had missed any bones.

Dave still has the offending nail in a clear plastic pill bottle - a reminder of the day it was a real pain in his butt.


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© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

IT CAME AS QUITE A SHOCK!

One of the perks upon entering junior high from grade six was the opportunity to take Shop class, or, as it is called now, Industrial Education. While the girls went to Home Ec, we boys ventured off to the old converted skate house behind the school. The building had been transformed into a wood working shop. A lathe, drill press, table saw and other power tools adorned the east wall. Along the west wall were a series of numbered boards, each with it's own set of hand tools all with matching numbers. Screw drivers, squares, chisels, hand drills, etc. were all neatly arranged. Below each tool board was a small work bench. The class, taught by Bud Kowalsky, embarked on various projects including a spice rack and a lamp to varying degrees of success. Toward the end of the year we were each allowed to build a project of our own choosing.

I chose to build a stereo cabinet. In my mind this was to be the stereo cabinet to end all stereo cabinets even though I didn't even own a stereo of my own, but that's where faith comes in. I drew up a little plan on graph paper and presented it to Mr. Kowalsky. He probably thought I was nuts but with that typical twinkle in his eye, he nodded his head giving me the green light to go ahead. To save costs, we decided that the "box" part of the cabinet would be Arborite laminated on plywood. The doors were constructed out of nice veneered oak plywood which I would stain to match the rest of the cabinet. I selected some good heavy hinges and door handles and set to work. constructing each shelf to be pulled out for easy access to my as yet to be acquired stereo. With some hard work, a lot of advice from Mr. Kowalsky and some trial and error, by the end of the school year I was the proud owner of a very large stereo cabinet. Valuable lessons were learned such as measure twice, cut once and a little about laminating, sanding and staining. My poor mother had yet to lay eyes on the behemoth, but I would be introducing it to her in short order. I wasn't sure where I would put it, but that seemed a rather minor concern at the time.

George Martin had been our next door neighbor for many years when I was growing up on Prairie Crescent. His wife, Avonelle and my Mom became life-long friends. Hailing from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where George had been in the automotive business, the Martins moved to Prairie in 1962. After enrolling as students, George became the foreman of the garage in 1962. Later he worked in the Stewardship Department and then the Post Office, retiring in 1974.

Not unlike the George Martin of Beatles fame, this George Martin loved electronic gadgets of all types. He would acquire all manner of radios, electronic clocks and tape players and resell them out of his little garage. I first became acquainted with George's shop when my Dad paid him a visit and purchased a small, light green, battery operated transistor radio. This little Sony radio, with the brown leather strap, sat on the kitchen table and brought the nightly CBC news and As It Happens into our little home. For some reason, Dad thought the back of that little radio would be a good billboard for the Chiquita banana stickers and adorned the back with a bunch of them.

I don't recall how I got the stereo cabinet home, but after seeing it, my Mother graciously suggested that maybe it could go in my bedroom. Maybe that was to insure that it didn't end up in her living room . . . I'm not sure. I cleaned up a corner of my rather small bedroom and proudly made a place for my latest piece of furniture. No stereo to put in it, but I sure thought it looked good sitting there. I had been saving my pennies and thought it was time to go and visit my friend George Martin and check on what he might have in stock. George who by now had moved out to Grantville where he had a bigger house and an even bigger garage.

I could have lived in his garage - shelves piled high, stuff hanging off the ceiling and piled high on the floor, really eclectic stuff. Weird colors, odd shapes, off beat brands. I loved it! After explaining what I was after, George rummaged around and came back smiling from ear to ear. In his hands he held a stereo receiver. A Lloyds 8-track stereo complete with AM and FM tuner and amplifier. He plugged it in and the dial glowed a soft orange color. The little black buttons along the bottom lit up with red lights when you pressed them in. WOW! This thing was calling my name. "How much?", I asked George. "Well, Stevie," (he had called me Stevie since I was knee high to a grasshopper), "There is just one slight problem."

"O no", I thought, "What now?". "There are no speakers," he continued. "Well", thought I, "Who needs speakers anyway? I can get those later . . . maybe I can build some . . . maybe Dad woudn't miss his if I borrowed the ones from the living room."

"No problem, that's fine", I said, "I'm sure I can work something out." George then said, "Well, I do have this really nice pair of headphones that I could sell you to go along with it". "Aha", I thought, "Of course, I would be needing a pair of headphones. They would be ideal for listening to rock music late into the night and I wouldn't disturb anyone."

He proceeded to produce the largest pair of headphones that you have ever seen. They were Quad phones, meaning they had two speakers in each earpiece and looked every bit like two gas masks stuck on either side of my head. Quad was a very short-lived attempt at surround sound and never really caught on. I thought those headphones were the coolest thing I had ever seen and struck up a package deal with George on both the stereo and the headphones and returned home a very happy camper!

Arriving with my new acquisition, I rushed into my room carefully placing it on the top of my stereo cabinet. Plugging in the monster headphones, it suddenly dawned on me that I had nothing to listen to as the unit only played 8-track tapes. Disappointed, I realized that I would have to fashion a makeshift antenna and be satisfied with listening to the radio until I could purchase some 8-track tapes. I began to collect a few 8-track tapes, but was never very happy with the sound. "Borrowing" Dad's new Sony turntable I recorded some of my LP's onto blank 8-track tapes, purchased from the Prairie Bookroom.

One of the very first LP's I bought was the brand new Olivia Newton John release, "Have You Never Been Mellow". This mega selling album had the song, "The Air That I Breathe" on it and I fell head over heels in love with the song . . . and with Olivia. Many hours were spent trying to figure out how to breathe some of her air. The song, initially written and recorded by Albert Hammond on his 1972 album, "It Never Rains In Southern California", was later covered by the Hollies in 1974 and became a smash hit for them. I had pretty broad taste, even in those days, and went through a big Irish Rovers and Peter, Paul and Mary phase as well. The summer of grade nine, I was out at Camp Homewood off the coast of Vancouver Island, where Olivia Newton John's yacht was docked in Gowlland Harbour. We could see the boat from the camp and visited with the crew one day. I never did meet Olivia.

Over the next few months, I built a set of speakers in rather crude boxes. They got the job done if Dad telling me to turn them down was any measure of success. Cassettes were just coming into fashion and I thought it would be really cool to be able to record some of my LP's onto cassettes to share with my friends. Again, there was a slight problem in that I didn't own a cassette player. After puzzling over this dilemma for a while, I remembered that in my Dad's office was a small mono Sanyo portable cassette deck. By portable, I mean only 20 pounds, not ipod portable. The origin of this cassette deck is a bit of a story in itself. Evidently some years previous, a Prairie college student had gone to our local drug store, owned at that time by a man named Austin Sawdon. He confessed to Mr. Sawdon that he had stolen the cassette machine in question from his store and was there to return it and make amends. After the student left, an inventory was taken, and there was no record that they had ever even carried such a model, let alone were missing one. Mr. Sawdon called on my father and brought the machine to his office explaining that perhaps the student had the wrong store. Dad made contact with several of the other stores in town, but the origin of the cassette recorder was never discovered. He saw no reason why I couldn't borrow it and so I added it to the growing collection of gadgetry in my room.

One evening just before supper, Mom and Dad were in the kitchen when I decided to make a couple of modifications to my rig. By then I had wires and cables going every which way in my room. I'm sure it looked like a complete rat's nest. I had seen David Hartt, one of the electricians at Prairie, wiring all manner of appliances in the electric shop and thought I could follow in his footsteps. On several occasions "Grandpa Hartt", as we called him, would grab a live electrical wire and as his hand would shake he would exclaim, "I think there's a little power there". In later years I would watch him as he would lick his finger and stick it in a light socket to check if it was live. I guess his skin was so dry that there was minimal conductivity occurring and he wasn't hurt.

The little Sanyo had a white electric cable with the plug that went into the wall on one end and a small rubber nub with two recessed holes that mated up with the two pins inside the case of the machine on the other. Trying to be as efficient as possible and utilizing all of my resources, I decided that as I was moving the little machine onto another shelf, I would hold the corresponding cable between my teeth for just a little bit. Now I was smart enough not to get my tongue in the way, but I forgot about the moisture equation. I had barely started to lift the cassette machine when there was a loud exploding sound followed by a WHOOOOSH! and a huge ball of blue flame shot right out of my mouth. I was facing my Dad who was sitting at the kitchen table and saw a look of great horror written all over his face. There was a black scorch mark on the end of the cable. I felt a tingle in my mouth and tongue and a strange aftertaste, but other than that I wasn't really hurt. I have however, never put another electrical cable in my mouth.

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© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved

Monday, December 20, 2010

SHARP AS NAILS

When I was growing up, the IDA drugstore in town was right up there on my list of favorite places. Not because of the toothpaste, deodorant, candy or even the drugs, it was because of the music. Before there was itunes, MP3's, Limewire, CD's, minidiscs, cassettes, or even 8 tracks, there were LP's. The store had a very large section of Long Play records and I knew exactly what they had, what they should have and what I thought I wanted.

Prairie Bookroom had extremely strict policies on what it would carry and by diligently guarding the flock from this type of worldly influence they provided no option for those interested in other types of music. John Toplensky, the proprietor of IDA, had carved out a very nice niche market in the selling of Contemporary Christian Music or CCM as it is called. John carried some secular music, but focused primarily on CCM as distributed by WORD Canada.

I saw no reason why the secular couldn't live in harmony with the sacred and so I would eagerly await the arrival of the latest releases. Albums by Love Song, Daniel Amos, Phil Keaggy, 2nd Chapter of Acts or Keith Green would quite happily co-exist in my collection alongside the Eagles, April Wine, Alan Parsons, Chilliwack, Joe Walsh and many other titles. I would be there waiting the day a new shipment arrived. John would let me special order LP's that he wasn't planning on stocking. He also began to bring in recording magazines of which I couldn't seem to get enough of. The WORD rep would come to town and hold "listening parties" of the latest music and hand out prize packs of singles, promo flats, etc. This effectively fueled my fire.

Back in the day, WORD ran a coupon program with stickers placed on all of their LP's and cassettes. If you bought 3, you would get one free, but later that program moved to buy 4 and then buy 5 and then eventually was done away with all together. The coupons were stuck to the outside of the shrink-wrap and on occasion WORD would "double coupon" in order to incentivize the buyer. I would carefully save up my coupons waiting to use them on just the right title. I always bought the vinyl, feeling that the cassettes were too low quality and thinking of myself as quite the little audiophile. I loved the LP jackets with all the liner notes, lyrics, pictures and large artwork. In my mind the absence of these extras is one of the great losses in the new digital delivery world we live in.

Over the years I became as familiar with the music inventory in the store as John himself or maybe even more so. I had started noticing that many of the LP's were missing their coupons. There were holes in the cellophane where they should have been. It looked like someone had taken a little exacto knife and just cut a neat square around each one. I talked to John about this and he didn't seem to have any idea where the missing stickers were wandering off to. This was before closed circuit TV became popular.

Several weeks later as I was perusing the stacks of LP's, I noticed a most curious sight. Right beside me was a middle aged woman from the community. This lady and her husband owned a business in town and were very upstanding citizens. As she would flip an album forward, I could see her take the nail of her index finger and jab it down into the cellophane behind the coupon. Quickly, she worked her long, sharpened fingernail all the way around the coupon, pocketing it and moving on to the next one. I was shocked to say the least! She was very focused and by the efficiency of the act, looked like she had done this a time or two before. To this day I am not sure why she didn't notice me or seem to care if anyone was watching her, but she was making quite a haul. I wasn't really sure what to do, being only 14 or 15 at the time. I should have said, "Hey, Mrs. so and so, what do you think you're doing?", or something to that effect, but I didn't. I walked to the back of the store and found John. After telling him what had happened, he assured me that he would keep an eye out for this woman. Some time later I was visiting with him and he mentioned that he had caught her doing exactly what I had described. He confronted the lady and the coupons stopped disappearing.

In later years, as I visited with many store owners, I was told that Bibles and Christian music are some of the most stolen items in stores. Since that time, I have never looked at long fingernails the same!




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© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WHILE SHEPHERDS WASHED THEIR SOCKS BY NIGHT . . .

Every fall when November rolled around, each class started practicing for the Annual Grade School Christmas program. Parts would be learned in individual classrooms and during the weekly music classes. I wouldn't term these particular exercises "fun" in the traditional sense, so we were often called on to create our own "fun".

You see, the standard for excellence for Christmas programs had been set very high by the college. The annual Christmas Music Night at Prairie drew people from all over the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Some brave folk even traveled up from Montana. The logistics of a small town and college putting on a such a grand production like this were mind boggling. A 180 voice choir, 60 piece orchestra, various small ensembles and soloists made up a two hour production of sacred music. Conservative . . . absolutely!, but well done, no argument there. The large tabernacle would be full to overflowing. In those days, the "tab" as we called it, sat close to 4500, making it the largest religious auditorium in Canada. In later years as fire codes were enforced, the bench seating was spread out, reducing the capacity.

Every two years the entire entourage would travel to both Edmonton and Calgary and perform the program in the Jubilee auditoriums. With seating for about 2600, these beautiful, acoustically correct concert halls were built to commemorate Alberta's 50th birthday in 1955. Both were filled to capacity when the Prairie Music Night came to town. When the school first started going to the "big cities", everyone would load up on the train and make the journey. The kitchen staff would go along to prepare meals for close to 400 people! As busses and vans became more readily available, they became the preferred mode of transportation. When I was in junior and senior high school, I was privileged to be be part of the sound and light crew, learning a great deal about working with various equipment, leaders and musicians.

Back to our lowly grade school program. After several weeks of practicing, it was time to start proper rehearsals in the tabernacle. Single file, we made our way, class by class, down 6th Avenue, for a number of practices before the big day. We sat by class and our teachers tried their best to maintain some modicum of law and order. With 300 kids, this was much easier said than done. A group of us would get particularly creative when it came to lyrical re-writes. All very childish, we would sing with gusto, "While shepherds washed their socks by night all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down and passed the soap around", and "We three kings of orient are; tried to smoke a rubber cigar; it was loaded; it exploded; now we are no more". And on it went . . . you get the point.

In kindergarten and grade one we participated in a "rhythm band". Having a rhythm band at Prairie was a complete anathema, but for some reason this was encouraged. Little did they know they were influencing a whole generation of rockers! We were all given instruments like triangles, wood blocks, shakers, bells, etc. and off we would go, accompanied on the piano by our music teacher. This auspicious group was led by Phil Callaway. He was given a small baton and instructed to wave said implement from side to side in time with the music. Phil, always the class comedian, determined early on that if he moved his derriere to the opposite side as the baton in a rhythmic fashion, he could elicit giggles from the girls and laughs from the parents! Wonder of wonders, on the night of the big performance, we actually knew the right words and the programs usually went off without a hitch. None of us had the guts to sing our version of the songs.

One of the highlights of the evening was the candy bags. These ample brown paper bags contained a mandarin orange, nuts of various kinds and a plastic bag full of candy and were handed out to every student and child at the end of the program. Older teenagers would meet in the butcher shop to help assemble the bags a few days before the big night. Mr. Butler would keep a wary eye out for any who dared sneak a candy or two!

There were always the odd wing-nuts that had some wacky, misguided idea that we shouldn't celebrate Christmas because of it's pagan origins, etc., and didn't allow their children to participate in the program. I remember even as a young child being angry with those parents and feeling so very sad for the children.

The Christmas program signaled that the holidays were about to begin and this notched up the excitement one more level. Christmas vacation was the best time as a kid growing up at Prairie. We boys pretty much lived at the outdoor rink and played hockey in every kind of weather from the melting ice of a chinook to the bitterly cold freezing temperatures of a blizzard. Revolving games of shinny would entertain us from morning to night, pausing only to duck into the skate house to warm up or to hurry home for some grub or a bathroom break. The big flood lights were turned on around 5 o'clock as it was getting dark. If we could enlist some of the lady folk, lively games of crack the whip, pom pom pull away or duck duck goose would ensue. At one time there were five rinks on campus alone. If the weather was warm enough and the snow would actually stick together, we would build snow forts and have snowball fights. Many times the packed drifts along the snow fences were so high we could walk up and over the fences. As we got older we would trek out to the Three Hills for some tubing. The annual Christmas basketball tournament would also be played. I usually had a couple of uncles who were involved in that, making for a lively discussion at Grandmas house. Both gyms would be utilized, ending in a big championship game on the final night. On really cold days we would go to the boys dorm and play ping pong.

It seemed like even the administration let down its austere legalistic guard to take part in the Christmas spirit. They would plan a number of activities for those on the campus and in the community over the holidays. In those days, many students stayed in the dorms for Christmas as travel was costly and dangerous in the tough Canadian winters. All of these students were invited into staff homes for meals and game nights.

One of the organized activities was a couple hours of movies, or films as they were called, in the afternoons. For a couple of weeks the High School auditorium was transformed into a movie theater and 16 millimeter films were rented in for our entertainment. The Sound of Music, Where The Red Fern Grows, Follow Me Boys, Laurel and Hardy films as well as more serious movies like The Drylanders and National Film Board of Canada documentaries were projected up on the screen. To us staff kids, who were not allowed to have televisions in our homes, this was a big deal. Never fear though, the high standards did not completely go out the window! One year, during the showing of Sound of Music, a hand quickly went up to cover the lens when the Baroness made her entry, as it was deemed the neckline of her blouse was too low.

For many years a "Boxing Day Program" was planned with zany skits and funny musical numbers. Hot chocolate and treats were served. I remember Vernon Charter playing a hand saw with a violin bow and George Bryant and Bert Shelton lip syncing to some funny song. At the ages of 4 and 6 my wife Cathy and her brother John Kirk made their acting debut in a parody of college students, alongside Mrs. Pulliam who played a young grade school girl in pigtails.

The Dining Hall was the scene of another highlight of the holidays. Every Christmas Day for decades, the school invited all staff, students and families for a formal dinner. A full course turkey meal with all of the trimmings was served. The Dining Hall was decorated with a large 20 foot Christmas tree at it's centre. The mounted deer heads were given red noses in honor of a missing Rudolf. The kitchen staff prepared for and fed close to 1000 people. For us kids this event was terribly exciting. We would dress up in our finest, every hair in place, often wearing new clothes we had just received that morning. Mom was from a large family of 12 children and many of my Aunts, Uncles and cousins travelled a great distance at considerable cost, braving perilous conditions to be in Three Hills for Christmas. It was exciting to see people we hadn't seen for a year or more. Staff kids that had grown up and left the nest would often be home for Christmas, accompanying their parents to the Christmas dinner. Tongues would wag about which girl's dress was the shortest, who wore the most makeup and jewelry, or which boys had their hair over the ears and collars. These "worldly" actions were the subject of great interest and gossip for weeks after the big event.

To say that my mother LOVED Christmas would be a huge understatement! Because she had endured some pretty bleak Christmases as a child, she did everything in her power to make them extra special for our family. The baking and decorating would start weeks before. Mom had the house decked out in festive lights and colors and would host parties, meals and game nights for various church groups as well friends and relatives. We boys helped pull taffy, make chocolates, decorate cookies and squares and wrap presents. Mom gave presents to everyone! At least it seemed like it to us kids. She gave presents to students she had gotten to know, people in the church, relatives, friends, neighbors and always had a few extra gifts wrapped, "just in case". She organized large food hampers and gifts for needy families and married students in the community. Mom had the "It's more blessed to give than to receive" thing down pretty good. We were made keenly aware of the less fortunate and were taught to be grateful and thankful for what we had.

Both Dad and Mom made a great effort and sacrifice to see that we were given nice gifts at Christmas. Usually, we received one "big" present like hockey equipment and several smaller gifts. They always included a book or two as reading was very important around our house. There was one family gift as well. I remember a toboggan one year. We would save up our allowances and do our best to get both Mom and Dad something we thought they would like. Dad would always try and determine what was in the package so we would go to great lengths to disguise the contents using rocks for extra weight and large boxes to keep him from guessing. It was fun watching them open their presents. Mom would use some of her creativity in making our Christmas stockings extra special. Along with the standard gum, candy and orange, she would include our favorite Archie comic book, jacks, a puzzle or two and maybe a small game. This gave her a great deal of pleasure and she was always delighted as we opened them. On Christmas morning, we were up at some crazy hour, bugging Mom and Dad to wake up. When we succeeded, Dad would read the Christmas story from Luke, chapter 2 and then we were allowed to open our presents. After Christmas dinner we would make the rounds to Grandpa and Grandma's, Uncle's and Aunt's to see what everyone had received for Christmas. Many were the hours spent around Grandma's kitchen table playing a lively game of Pit or Stock Ticker, consuming Grandma's special popcorn balls and other treats. By the end of the day we were tired out and ready to say with jolly old St. Nick, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!", and with Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!".

These are just a few of my memories of Christmas as a Prairie Boy . . . I wouldn't have wanted it any other way!

Thanks to Darrell Wilson for the pictures circa 1971

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© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.