Passports 15: Good-bye England [I Want You]

We sat in an Irish Pub, O’Neills, in the west end of London.  It is my last night in England.  I can see Bushmills Irish Whiskey etched into the glass of the large window.  The letters are backwards.

Two singers–one on an acoustic and the other on an electric guitar.  They are playing a Beatles tune when we enter.  Then they switch to a Dylan song as we sit.  The singer says the next one was penned by Robert Zimmerman.  They play I Want You.

Through the window and across the street is the massive and glorious St. Pancras Station.

It is my last night in England–until the next time.  But, then there will be another last night…and another.

I recall the hills I walked, the rocks where I rested and the hedges where I conquered my fear.  I think of my British friends, people I’ve known for thirty years.  People who have aged and matured and moved homes and raised children.  I am thankful for the friendship these people have shown me.  I think of Tim, Jo and their family in North Dorset.  I think of Marion and Bill in Purbeck.  Bill, the old quarryman who cut Purbeck marble since his youth.  I think of Alex and Janice in Hampshire.

They are the best of mates…all of them.

Tomorrow, I will climb the steps of the Basillique du Sacre-Coeur in the Montmartre section of Paris.  I will climb to the last step and turn around to look at the magnificent City of Light.

There, I will celebrate my 67th birthday.

I will ache when I climb those steps.  The ache that comes with age, old bones and unused muscles.

But, I’ll be happy…happy just to be alive.

Then I will descend the steps, one by one.

I will reach the bottom step a year older, but a thousand years wiser.

 

Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.  

–Edith Piaf

 

 

 

 

Passports 14: The Sad Life & Lonely Death of Kitty Gray

The Tors and heathland of Dartmoor is a landscape that breeds legends.  Legends, myths, mysteries and ghosts.

The guidebooks tell you not to go out onto the moors when the weather is foul.  When the fog descends, as it often does, and when the misty rain falls on the gorse, and on the matted shag of the unshorn sheep that graze the Tors, shapes can appear to move where rock piles sit.  In the sunlight, the Tors are rocky pointed hills.  In the fog, they are feral wolves and wild beasts.

This is the world at Hound Tor.  The rocks, from nearly any angle, can resemble the most hellish shapes.  It is little wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle found his dark inspiration here for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

But it’s not these rocks and shifting shapes that is the story I will tell you.

No, this is a brief narrative of a lonely place beside the road.  A tale told a thousand times, in a thousand places about thousands of men and the unfortunate women who believe false promises in exchange for their virtue.

Mary Gray was born somewhere in Devonshire in the late 18th century.  She was born into poverty and, because of the status of women in those days, she was destined to die in poverty.  (This is still true today–some things never change.)  She was sent, as a young teenager to work as a domestic on one of the farms near Hound Tor.  She washed the floors and cooked the food for the farmer, his wife and son.  She also was pretty enough to catch the lustful eye of the son.  They met–behind the stone barn, behind the hedges and in the woods.  One place they did not meet was in the open sunlight sky and where others could see affection.

Mary gradually lost her real given name and became known as Kitty.  Perhaps a snide reference to “loose morals”.  The son promised her an honest life–if she would give herself to him when he felt the urge.

She gave herself to him.  He lied to her.

She became pregnant and the farmer, fearing the shame, had her put out.  The son turned his back on her.  He had gotten what he wanted from her.  Kitty was labelled a slut.

Knowing she could never find work in the region again–not as a ‘soiled dove’, she made a decision.  A final decision.  A terrible decision.

Kitty Gray hanged herself.  Her child died soon after.

The local deacons of the church refused to bury her in consecrated ground.  She was Eve.  She tempted the farmer’s son.  She sinned with gravity.

She was buried, at night, in the fog, at the cross-roads.

There she lay, in a lonely and forgotten grave by a lonely forgotten lane.

Decades later, a couple of farm workers were digging in the area.  A small white object–thin–then another.  A doctor was called and identified the remains as that of a young woman and child.  The old folks of the tiny village recalled the story of Kitty Gray.  A man, an honest man with a kind heart had her bones placed in a box and reburied in her grave.  This time with a small stone to mark Kitty’s last rest.

Stories soon began to be told about strange occurrences at the grave site.  Fresh flowers were always seen near the headstone, but no one ever saw anyone put them there.

And, at night, some say they have glimpsed a hooded figure bent over the grave–as if in prayer.

Who places the flowers?  Who is the hooded figure?  Some say it’s the spirit of the farmer’s son who is cursed to keep vigil over the woman he betrayed.  Or, is it Kitty, praying for her own soul and the soul of her unbaptized child?

If you were at the grave site six days ago, you would have seen someone place a wildflower on the stone.

It was me.

I looked around.  I saw Hound Tor behind me.  The moors around me.  A light mist began to fall–but blue patches of sky peeked through the cloud cover.

It didn’t take much of an imagination to picture the grave on a day of lead-colored skies, soaking rain, chilling winds and fog.

Or, when the full moon lit the nearby fields with the magic and mysterious light that only the Goddess Luna can provide and a breeze rustles through the gorse and hedges, anyone who holds their breath, will surely hear the soft cry of a young woman named Kitty.

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Passports 13: Getting a Leg Up–An Introduction to the Footpath Stiles of England

Footpaths are as common in England as salt grains on a Big Mac.  (I’m not sure that metaphor works here, but I’ve been wanting to use it for decades.)  Unlike the States, the lines between private property and the pubic right-of-way are a bit foggy, like the desolate and lonely landscapes of Dartmoor and the Yorkshire Dales.  But, it’s not a free-for-all, by any means.  There are rules.

First, there is the obvious and gentle–always latch the gate you pass through.  That way, the sheep, cows and goats stay where they belong.  However, in Devon, that hypothesis doesn’t apply.  The sheep, ponies and cows are often found in the middle of the roads, causing you to slow down from 20 mph to 4 mph.  (An aside: Boy, are those sheep looking fat!  I wondered if it was the 345 lbs of heather and grass they chew 24/7 or because of all that wool?  I know when I wear my wool trousers, my butt looks fat, so maybe that’s it.

Another rule is to make haste when crossing a field that has been signed: Bull Present In Next Pasture.  When I’m in that situation, I do the only correct thing–I send my wife ahead when she has her bright red Helly Hansen parka on.

If you’re with your dog, King, there is a sign that carries a severe warning: Dogs Found Worrying Sheep Will Be Shot! This is for real and it’s happened.  Nuff said.

Onto the stiles.  Sooner or later, you have to cross from one field to the next.  The cattle gates are often locked so a stile is provided.  This is usually made of wood, but stone stiles are not uncommon.  Their design is simple and functional.

First there is the single-step stile.  [See example shown below]  It’s very simple to navigate.  Just get a leg up and over.  If it’s mossy or wet (it usually is–it never stops raining in England), then take extra care.  Otherwise, you’ll end up in a sordid and fetid mix of mud and cow dung.  That stuff will really do a number on your $400.00 Burbury jacket.  If there’s a rock hidden in the muck and you lose your footing, expect to spend at least two hours in a coma.

 

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If you have a particularly high gate to cross, there may be a double-step stile.  [See below]  Stone stiles are simply rock versions of the above.  You’ll have to imagine what these look like because I can’t locate the photos in my picture file.  These, again, if slippery, can make an omlette out of your kneecap.

 

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But the coolest stile by far, is the famous “Kissing Gate”.  These are designed to allow only the first person to pass through (or rather around) a swinging gate.  The first person, once through, waits for the next person–and before person number 2 can get through, person 1 must kiss them.  This works really, really well if you’re walking with Miss Ohio or the Prom Queen.  But, if you’re with your mother-in-law, brother, father, mother, sister or a blind date from hell, things can get dicey.

Behold, the Kissing Gate!

Kissing Gate

There has been some talk among the modernists who think that these gates are a tad too quaint for the 21st century.  I say: Let them stay.

If, by any misinformed action, the kissing gates are removed, I predict that the birth rate of England will see a significant decline.

Passports 12: The Legendary Hedges of Devonshire

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Hedges.

In most standard dictionaries, “hedge” will be defined as a row of shrubs to separate lawns, fields or pastures.  In Devon, they can also separate your sense of self-confidence and driving skill from your very soul.  If you drive seven miles along a “two-lane” road with these hedges, the fear you will feel is not unlike what you would feel if you stood before the very Gates of Hell and cursed Satan at his own doorway.  You enter the seven mile stretch, easy of mind, free at the wheel, confident, joyously celebrating the astonishing landscape and geography of this fabled west country county.  They you emerge at the far end, a mere seven miles of driving–you emerge gaunt, pale, perspiring, white fingers gripping the wheel like a death choke, unable to speak or formulate a coherent sentence.  You are breathing fast.  Your pulse rate is up around 375 beats per minute.  Your eyes are glazed over.  You try to speak.  The only sounds from your larynx is something that resembles the gibberish of a Neanderthal.  Your lips and tongue cannot form the simplest syllable or even articulate a vowel.  You attempt to say: “There, that wasn’t so bad”, but what comes out sounds like “Nnneeeyayayabaaa”.  Your brain functions are fried like a bad sausage at a county fair that has been cited for Botulism.  In rapid succession, you have calculated the cost of two side-view mirrors, the door handles, the paint job, tires, windshield and radiator.  And the car isn’t even yours.

The road, or more accurately, the lane, is wide enough for 1 1/3 car widths.  You don’t have to be a German mathematician to see that the numbers don’t work.  So, the road builders have put in “lay-bys”.  In theory, it works like this: You drive until you see an oncoming vehicle.  There should be a pull-over (lay-by) for you to edge over or the other car to edge over.  Sometimes, you have to back up a bit.  But, somehow, it works (most of the time).  And, God help you if you meet an oncoming milk truck… At some point, your mind, your soul begins to separate from your body and you are floating–high above the hedges.  You’re looking down at two cars passing each other within the width of a spider’s thread.  You cease to care about the cars because you’re nearer to God now and the trip to Paradise is going to be shorter.

Don’t forget to recall that the steering wheel is on the right, you’re driving on the left and you are shirting gears with your left hand.  You are so close to the opposing driver that you can estimate what time he shaved this morning.  If it’s a woman, you can count the curls of her ebony hair tucked behind her right ear.

But you do emerge.  Your faith in God is enhanced.  But, the promises you made to the Almighty for a safe seven mile passage is going to cost you.  You have to build an orphanage in Bolivia and a leper colony in Patagonia.  Somewhere, way back in your brain, you hope there are no lepers in Patagonia.

No wonder my father hated trimming the two hedges that bordered our lawn.

But enough about my twelve ‘out-of-body’ experiences.  Let’s take a closer look at the hedges of the most hedged county in all of England.

If you find yourself walking along a lane with hedges, they are, without question, astounding in many ways.  The use of hedges to enclose small fields has been found to date back to the Neolithic Age (4,000 – 6,000 years ago).  Many, if not most of the counties in the British Isles, have hedges as part of their characteristic landscape.  In the Lake District, to the north, the hedges are mostly stone.  But in Devon, that are whole plant communities.  I was astounded to learn that Devon has over 33,000 miles of hedges!  The reason for this is that county has held onto its traditional agriculture practices the longest.  In other parts of Britain, the hedges have been torn down to make way for larger field systems.  Many of these hedges are being replanted.

The typical Devon hedge is made of an earth or stone bank that is topped with the shrubs.  A full 25% of this counties hedges have been dated to 800 years or more in age.

A typical hedge is made of up 600 species of flowering plants, 1,500 species of insects, 65 species of birds and 20 species of mammals (perhaps the most famous being the “hedgehog”).

How can one estimate the age of a hedge, you may ask?  Well, a fellow named Hooper has come up with a formula.  If you count the number of woody species in 30 yards and multiply that by 110, you will get the age of the hedge (within a range, of course).

In the end, I offer two bits of advice: If you travel to Devonshire, either let a bus take you around and let the tour company worry about the damages, or, get a Hummer and become the Mad Max of southwest England.

Be a hedgehog.

[For more information: http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk]

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Passports 11: Morris Dancing: Another Way for the English to be Silly or an Ancient Cultural Tradition?

I had my hand on the door handle of the Antiquarian Book Store in Moretonhampstead village.  In a moment, I would be lost among my dear friends, the arcane tomes and dusty volumes of local history and regional literature.  My thumb was on the latch.  I pressed down.  It gave way under my pressure.  The place was open (a rarity, I was told).  The door cracked open.  The books awaited my gentle touch and curious eye.

I was stopped by someone standing in the Town Square, yelling.

“They’re here!”

“The Morris Dancers have arrived.”

I pulled the door shut and went to join my wife.  We were actually waiting for the dancers, but we told they might be late…or not show up at all.  That was when I headed to the bookstore to spend some precious moments browsing.

Please, those of you who are aware of this type of dancing, don’t leave now.  I need to explain a few things to the others who may  not be aware of this…this unique type of very entertainment.

At some vague date in British history, a couple of Englishmen decided to tie bells around their ankles, put on odd outfits, take some sticks or handkerchiefs and hop around to the accompaniment of an according or concertina or perhaps even a trombone and fiddle.  They must have enjoyed themselves, because the tradition lives on to this day.  There are hundreds of Morris Dancing troupes throughout the British Isles.

A fair question to ask at this point is exactly how old is this tradition?  Well, like nearly everything in British history, it can be traced back to either the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age or sometime in 1972.  The fog of history shrouds so many important aspects of the history of this wonderful island.  Who would have guessed that the bones of Richard III would be unearthed under a car park in Leister in 2012?

See what I mean?

Well, from what I’ve been able to piece together from Wikipedia, what follows is the essential facts relating to Morris Dancing.  I hope I make your day.

Morris dancing has been linked to similar activities practiced by the Spanish Moors–Moorish Dancing–forms of which are still practiced in the Basque country of Spain.

Henry VIII was said to be an avid fan of the dance and could put his own spin on the hops.  The first mention of the dance was made in 1448.  In 1600, a Shakespearean actor, one William Kempe, danced his way from London to Norwich.  Apparently the authorities in Norwich actually determined the guy was sane and he was allowed to go free after he arrived.

I have found references to six different styles of Morris Dancing.  I’m sure there are Morris Dancing scholars out there could cite much more information than I.  Happy Googling.

  • Cotswold style–heavy use of wooden sticks and handkerchiefs (wavers).
  • North West Morris–somewhat more military and processional in practice.
  • Border Morris–a simpler and looser style (of hopping) and use of blackface to represent coal miners.
  • Longsword/Yorkshire–use of long wood or metal swords.
  • Rappa–don in Northumberland using sticks and swords.
  • Molly Dancing–where one dancer dresses up as a woman (Molly).  This dance is usually performed for the first time each year on Plough Monday.  This is the start of the English agricultural season.  It’s the 1st Monday after Twelfth Day (Epiphany).

So, there it is.  I must say this: watching the dancers and listening to the concertina and hearing the bells go giggle-gangle, I find it soothing and compelling.

One can get drawn into the movement and the music and this, coupled with the ancient buildings and the take-your-breath-away beauty of Dartmoor, or the Cotswolds or Dorset, you are taken to a different time.

And who doesn’t relish a different time?  I do.

By the way, when the dancers withdrew into the local pub, I went back to the Antiquarian Book Store.

It was closed.

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A Morris Dancer.

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She danced just for me. (I wish).

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The “Leader”.

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Dorset style.

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Arriving.

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Hopping.

 

Passports 9: Guests and Ghosts in an English Hotel

We chose to be guests at the George & Pilgrim Hotel in Glastonbury, England.  What we did not choose was that a few other guests were quite dead.  Yes, there were a fair number of living travelers that night but occupying the same space and the same time, were the resident ghosts.

What else would you expect from a hotel that was many centuries old?  A hotel that was probably once a wayside inn for pilgrims, wanderers, holy men and holy women.

Thirty years ago, I lived in England for a year as an exchange teacher.  On my frequent weekend wanderings, I tried to see as many interesting places that were within a reasonable drive from my temporary home in south Dorset.  Glastonbury was an obvious choice.  It was a short drive and it had a long and storied history.  Here was Glastonbury Abbey.  I first laid eyes on the Abbey when I would leaf through the Britain volume of Stoddard’s “Lectures,” a now out-of-print series of books written by John L. Stoddard, a traveler/lecturer, that was published in 1897.  The photographs of the Abbey captured my imagination like few other things did when I was a young teen (except girls).  I knew then, in 1961, that I simply had to see this Abbey.  There was something about the stark remnants of this once beautiful church that spoke to me.  It spoke to me and called my name and told me that I had to come and see these stones for myself.  I had to put my hands on the polished limestone, already rubbed smooth by reverent hands centuries ago.  I had to sit on the stone seat along the wall of the nave, and rest my back against the wall…like many a weary monk.

So, there I was, in 1984, paying a few pounds to visit the grounds of the Abbey.  There, were the stone walls…just like I had seen in the books.  As I rounded the corner of what once was the front entrance, I came upon a scene that had slipped my mind somehow.  There in the nave (now a grassy lawn) was the site of King Arthur’s Tomb…and that of his great love, Guinevere.  The bones were discovered by a monk centuries ago and removed to another site.  Since then, the cross and bones have disappeared.  History does not tell us much about Arthur, but here, at my feet, was the traditional resting place of his mortal remains.

This all hinges on whether or not one believes he is really dead.

Which brings us to another important site in Glastonbury…the Tor.  Long revered as a pilgrim’s destination, it is also thought by some to be where Arthur and Guinevere are asleep…inside the Tor…with his warriors.  Legends say that when England is in peril, Arthur will return and lead his warriors and knights to save the country.

It’s all pretty heady stuff if you’re into Arthurian Legends and mystic folklore.  What I have just written is just a tiny fraction of why Glastonbury is vital to a vast spectrum of spiritual people.

I climbed the Tor at night, alone, in 1984 and sat, waiting for an appearance of a guardian or spirit guide.  Instead, I watched the moon bathe Somerset in a soft glow of pale light that would have put me into a trance…had I not decided to head back into town before the last call at the pub in the George & Pilgrim hotel, where I was staying.

At the bar, I picked up a leaflet issued by the Town Council tourist agency.  It mentioned the hotel.  It also said that “maybe you’ll find yourself in Room 1, the ‘Monk’s Cell’, said to be haunted by a monk who hanged himself several hundred years ago.”  I read it with amusement…how interesting, I thought…then I realized that several hours ago I had put my overnight bag…into Room 1.  I was sleeping that night in the Monk’s Cell.

I spent some of the night half hoping I would be allowed to talk things over with the long-dead monk, and half not wanting to see the spirit of a suicide.  The life of someone who takes their own life must, by definition, be unbearably painful.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what such a soul would look like 600 years after death.  I watched the dark corners of the room for shadows that moved.  I took in deep breaths hoping to catch a whisper of incense.  Nothing.

I also spent some of the night asleep.  So if he was at my bedside, I snored my way through his visit.  This made me feel bad in a way, after all, I wasn’t awake to help him find the peace he may be seeking.

Which brings us to last Thursday night.  My wife and I did not have Room 1, we were given Room 10.  Another floor and around the corner from my monk.  In the course of talking with the young woman at the registration desk as well as the bartender, I discovered that the hotel was allegedly haunted by several cats, a dog or two, a child, a man and a woman…and, of course, the monk.  The woman who registered us said she was in Room 1 cleaning when a screw was thrown at her.  She had no explanation.  The cook said she saw the form of a short person along the wall of another room.  She was later told that a child haunted that room.  It’s only at night, she said, was she fearful of some of the shadowy corners and dark hallways.

Before my wife and I went downstairs to have dinner, I stopped on the first floor and looked at the door of the Monk’s Cell.  The room I occupied thirty years ago.  I turned around and saw that the room just across the narrow hall was called the Nun’s Cell.  Monk’s Cell…Nun’s Cell???  It got me thinking, if you catch my drift.

Alas, we did not see an apparition during our one night stay.  I am of many minds about ghosts.  I want to believe, I really do.  But something, the rational side of me, thinks that if there is indeed life after death (I have so many doubts about so many things as I grow older), the souls would probably have better things to do, or more spiritual existences to occupy them.

But, I do love a good ghost story.  I hope someday to write and publish a great ghost story, one that has all the elements a tale of the dead should have.

I do know one thing for sure.  It has been said that one should write about what one knows.

That’s why I want to meet a ghost and have some quality time with him or her.

I want to meet a ghost someday…or, better yet…some night.

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The George & Pilgrim Hotel.

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The stairway from the second floor.

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The hallway with the Monk’s Cell on the left.

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Room 1–The Monk’s Cell

 

Passports 10: A Letter to My Son Regarding Advertising

gas nozzle

From: Moorcote House, Moretonhampstead, Devon, England

To: Brian, Astoria, Queens, New York

My Dear Boy,

I hope this post finds you well and in good stead.  Has your golf game improved somewhat?  I do hope so, because remember the reward I promised last Christmas?  In case you have forgotten: if your game improves to within ten strokes of my own modest handicap, then I shall allow you to caddy for me at the next tourney.  Is everything else just chipper with you? I hope the package I put in the post ten days ago will reach you in time for the Big Party you often spoke about.  I chose the knickers myself.  I know how you admired the plaid ones that I sport.  And, I think the orange socks will compliment them to a tee.  I bought the box at the Post Office and found it was too large for the knickers and socks, so I included a few bags of Hedgehog flavored chips.  Reminds me of the joke: What can’t the hedgehogs share?  Good one, that.  I must ask after that darling lady friend of yours.  She’s such a dear.  Has she had any success getting the purple/orange dye out of her hair?  And, tell her that a Mohawk ‘do’ will, in time, grow out.  Between you and me, I hope she ditched the dog collar.  Also, she had asked our opinion about her recent purchase of stocks.  We thought about it and have come around to seeing her point.  We also feel that double-bonding silicon caulk is, indeed, a sound investment.  Personally, I think it was a much better choice than variable speed drills and double-basin stainless steel sinks.

Our rent car is a Fiat.  It’s smaller than most American cars…in fact, it is smaller than most cars in general.  Even with the back seat folded down, we could barely fit our two trunks and still have room for the laptop and Irish tweed cap that I so proudly wear when the evening gets a bit nippy.  Actually, it’s a good thing that the car is so small because the roads here in the West Country of England are so narrow, one can barely fit past another car.  When I’m pressed against the hedgerow on the passenger side and a lorry is approaching from the opposite direction, Mariam tightens and cringes.  I, on the other hand, am very relaxed.  I simply close my eyes as the lorry passes and wait for the sound of a side view mirror getting smashed off or the paint on my side of the car getting scraped clean.  Metal against metal has a pleasing sound, once you get used to it.  So, to the point of this letter, my boy.  I know you live in Astoria, Queens and have a nice job in advertising in Manhattan.  Your life sounds like something out of a Doris Day & Rock Hudson movie.  Yes, you went to a chi-chi New York City Business College but I feel, as a father, that I should give you some man-to-man advice on your career path.  You keep insisting that there is money in those massive billboards in and around Times Square that are placed by your company.  Hey, neon has it’s place, but the world doesn’t revolve around mid-town Manhattan (actually, on second thought, it does).  But, because you’re my son, I feel compelled to let you in on a little secret that I have picked up while touring England. I stopped on the M5 Motorway just this afternoon to fill the tank with what these Brits call ‘Petrol’, you know, gas.  Something caught my eye whilst I was pumping and I am now passing it on to you, my boy. On the top part of the pump was a sticker.  It read:

Not only has fuel nozzle advertising brought in new customers, but local awareness has gone through the roof. 

Now, I know a good bit of advice when I see it.  So, for what it’s worth, I’m passing this onto you, my boy.  You can step up to the plate, put the ball on the tee and take the ball and run with it or you can can take the bull by the horns and get caught in mid-stream without a Pope. Write soon and call your mother, Love, Dad