Friday, June 17, 2022

2016 - The Summer I Never Used A Plate - Systems in Leadership

 


Typical Camp Dining Hall Melamine Plates

As many of you may know, I have spent 40 summers (since 1980) working and serving in various capacities at overnight camps in the United States. Officially I have worked at 6 different camps in that time period and several summers ago (2016 to be exact) I never used a plate, bowl or utensil in our dining hall; and yes, I did eat there at nearly every meal that summer.

Why is this important?

You can see by the photo below, that an orderly Dining Hall is emblematic of a good system. An orderly dining hall will feed dozens, if not hundreds of meals per day and up to three times a day. In 2016, we often had well over 5000 meals served in about 48 days of summer camp.

Being good stewards of our environment is part of the culture that many camps endeavor to teach. I know the word "Steward" may be an antiquated term and I wrote about it in a previous BLOG: Stewardship, Leadership Lessons on Investing.

John Maxwell states that, "The Value of Systems: 1) They Help Us Manage Time, 2) They Help Us Conserve Energy, 3) They Help Us to Multiply Creativity, 4) They Help Us to Maximize Progress."


Typical Camp Dining Hall

I am fond of saying that the folks who designed camps (some 130 years ago when the camping movement began in the United States) that these folks were quite genius at what they did. The fact of the matter is, that they were very deliberate about nearly every aspect of camp.

Time, energy, creativity, and progress are all aspects of our roles as leaders. Each of the camps that I served had systems in place; some good and some were extremely inefficient. Utilizing these to maximize your time and allow you to invest in others is one of your greatest assets.

The conservation of plates at the dining hall was a metaphor for how I was spending my time. I circumvented the system that was in place and conserved energy for myself and others (our dishwashers were very pleased about my choice that summer)

As you approach summer, take a look at what is eating your time up. Are there others that can take up those tasks? If you can delegate, than do so. Carve out time to do that tasks you do need to do in private. I would get up early and take care of email messages before our first activity each day, so I could focus on spending time at our Morning Watch chapel. It was this time each day that set the tone of how everything could flow and I felt it needed my undivided attention.

Allowing myself time to connect with others during meals  to check in, scan for emerging issues, and head off challenges was my main goal of attending meal times. Maxwell also shares that there are three ways to maximize your time.

While it became a bit of a game and folks made light of the fact that I would often use my coffee mug (see below). I would use it to hold chocolate pudding and chicken fingers (my favorite camp meal - you dip the chicken fingers in the chocolate pudding) as well as other items like tuna salad, or baked beans and hot dogs, etc.

I have had this coffee mug for about 12 years now

I took it upon myself to create a tiny system with in the larger system and I gained an entry to others when they would comment or intrigued by my practice. There was not a day that summer that I did not connect with our staff team or campers. 

Summer overnight camps are a a microcosm of our society. Those institutions run a full time hotel (as it were) that houses hundreds if not thousands full time for one week and up to 10 weeks. Camps have full time restaurants and meal service serving thousands of meals three times a day as well as snacks, desserts, and late night raids on the ice cream freezer. My first camp was powered by a generators system (BLOG story The Power of F-Sharp) That generator also powered our water well system. Those systems and so much more are effectively little towns that house hundreds and thousands each season.

You may think it's too late to start; and if that is the case, you will prove that it's true. I on the other hand would like to believe that systems are there to support us and when we need new ways to create efficiency, ask yourself, "How will this benefit the camper experience?" (or my customers experience)

Here are some measurable things that I saved by not using any dishes, bowls, plates or cups in our dinging hall in our outdoor education and summer season of 2016.

432 plates over 144 days or 27 trays of dishes.

The average dining hall Dishwasher (our was an industrial Hobart brand) utilizing 3 gallons per load or a savings of 81 gallons of water. The ratings guide on a brand new dishwasher is 6000 KW per load or 162,000 KW or $34.56 of electricity saved.

I also used some creativity, managed my time, conserved energy, and maximized my process to connect and serve others.


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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

2022 - Listening and Leadership - A Reminder For Summer's Leaders

 



Another summer is fast approaching and some of you may have already begun staff orientations or you may even be in your first few sessions of summer camp. I was inspired from the latest Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast about skills to utilize in listening.

As a camp leader for over 4 decades, I have found that listening is one of the most vital skills in leadership. As we prepare for the summer in all of our camp and leadership programs, I was recently reminded of how important it is to use your ears twice as much (or more) as your mouth.

The Maxwell podcast talked about “Why am I talking” or W.A.I.T. I had first learned this from a YMCA branch director nearly 35 years ago. He would write WAIT at the top of his notes during meetings. Sitting next to him, I asked why he would do so and he told me that he would always need to remind himself to WAIT before any response or action.


D. Brown's WAIT Chart


Curiosity is part of listening. John Maxwell reminds me often that he asks questions with such genuine curiosity that allows him to learn so much more from whoever he is speaking with. Good leaders ask great questions due to curiosity and attention to the speaker.

I had a team member one year who was asking about what items to bring to camp. He mentioned having a "FAN" and I told him that I would be his biggest FAN. It took him a moment to get the joke/pun and several years later he mentioned it again. It's a lesson that I have learned in leading others that John Maxwell talks about frequently. He talks about imagining a 10 on the forehead of every team member. A reminder that he thinks of them as the top in their game. 

I wrote about in a previous BLOG called "What Gift Is This Person Giving Me." I find that having this genuine curiousness and encouragement for the speaker to continue leads me to be a better listener. And the speaker see's and hears my attentiveness.

This leads to the next attribute and that is to listen for understanding and not for responding. I had an team members from our camp leadership team who always picked the first few words in any conversation and immediately began over talking the other person. I have been guilty of this as well. It is truly a gift to the other person when you are present enough to hear their points and to use this skill. And it is a skill that you can learn when applying some simple steps.

1) Pay Attention – give your undivided attention.

2) Physically show that you are listening. (Bob Ditter, once shared that just a relaxed on leaning stance with young people was a huge indicator that you are listening.

3) When giving Feedback.. start with “what I hear you saying is…”

4) Respond without judgment.

I ask more questions in trying to learn more about the other person’s point of view. I have been fortunate to lead others and have others lead me as well. I wrote about this in a previous BLOG, "Is It Time yet?Essentially, listening to understand and learn from the other person. I know that I learn something from everyone that I have met.

Having to be present when there are so many distractions for your attention and time. I schedule times for leadership check ins and more importantly, how we meet. Patrick Lencioni who wrote "Death By Meeting" suggested a Daily Check In that is a standing meeting. I have used it for well over 15 years and it is a great way to teach and lead the skills of listening and prioritizing. 

I prefer to use this after lunch and having the leadership team stand in a circle and go around and share their top three priorities that they are working on. Some might not have three and some might have more than three. Those who do, have to choose what their top three are. It forces them to determine what is the most important thing. The meeting is no longer than 10-12 minutes.

As folks go around the circle and share, it gives them each an opportunity to seek support and share where they may be struggling or where they can offer support to other team members.

My final suggestion is to "SHOW UP." Being present to other's is vital. What ever you have to do as a leader to show up every day; do those things. John Maxwell talks about The Law of Sacrifice: “A leader must give up to go up”. As the leader, you have to seek your support elsewhere. And you have to lead your folks and understand that there is a price to pay for your role as the leader. Listening and being present for others and often times having to expect that that is a one way skill as the leader. Yes, you have to get your team to hear you as well; however you may not be able to fill your bucket on the needs of your staff team.


Be Present - Be Here Now!


I know this BLOG has been very focused on Camp and my leadership has focused on those experiences. I wish all leaders a great summer season as well a success and influence throughout the year.

Please consider listening to the original Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast at 10 Tips for Improving Your Ability to Listen.

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Monday, April 11, 2022

2006 – Leadership and Creativity

 

(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

John Maxwell says, “You can’t have creativity if you don’t have a creative culture.”

I have had some great mentors who cultivated a creativity that I never knew I had. Growing up, I always thought that other folks were truly creative because they could draw, paint, sing, dance, and any other talent that I never achieved. (Due to my own mindset)

My mentors helped me spark in ways that I never thought I was capable. It led to many times in my career that I took risks in doing things that others never thought about. In a previous BLOG about my friend Wally, I mentioned that he had vision and it is a gift he has in everything.

The analogy about one of the few geometry formulas that I remember (V = (4 ⁄ 3) π r3 is the formula for the volume of a sphere) and looking at everything from all different directions. This is how I think of creativity.

 

Reminders that have sat on my desk for decades.

Perhaps it is the fact that in my not for profit career working for many organizations that always struggled financially. One of my coaches asked me why I was always drawn to underdog organizations. My answer then is still my answer today. “It just seems like they (the struggling organization) needs someone to care.”

From 2004 to 2009, I was at a camp that had many different activities areas that drew kids. Things like an indoor skate park, equestrian programs, ATVs, and paintball. All great activities that required a high degree of leadership and dollars to support.

When our team decided to add activities that would also be creative and perhaps appeal to other youth, we were limited and hampered by cost. And we met the occasion with a creative mindset.

The activities had to be fun, creative, and relatively cost free. Our arts and crafts area had a small amount of basket kits left over from previous summers. This camp which was located on a Spring system in Florida also had a great deal of afternoon activity centered around the year round 72 degree water temperature.

July days at Camp Indian Springs, Crawfordville Florida

The afternoons in a Florida camp are brutal and the water temperature was a great way to spend those long hot hours of the day. Since there has always been a myth around camps and college courses about “underwater basket weaving,” our team decided to make this an actual thing.

The basketry materials would soak overnight on the shore of the spring and participants could sit and weave either with their feet, legs or completely in the water. This was an expression of creativity that allowed campers to take home something intricate that they themselves had created.

Sample photo of underwater basket weaving

Our other spring centered activity relied on the actual issue that Florida is well known for; alligators. In fact, this was the only camp that I directed that the aquatics director’s job description included an item that stated, “Daily: check spring for gators.”

I quickly learned that in Florida there are people who are qualified by the State of Florida to remove alligators should they become a problem. The Nuisance Alligator Hotline was in the rol-o-dex in the camp office. (For those unfamiliar with a rol-o-dex, it’s what we used prior to saving numbers on a cell phone.)

 

Sample of Rol-O-Dex

After our first call to the “gator guy,” I learned from him that not all alligators are predatory. He said that if you have a “gator in your spring” just go down to the water and touch your toe on the bank. If the gator turns towards you, it is deemed predatory and should be removed. If it turns and swims away (over 90% did this); it is not considered a nuisance.

Now, please know that I am not an expert in alligators or their behaviors and should you have an actual issue with one of these creatures, please do call the Nuisance Hotline at 866-392-4286.

Our team decided to take the “gator” myth to the next level and allow campers to learn the basics of wrestling alligators. This was also conducted as part of the afternoon periods in and around the refreshing spring water. (I'll find the pictures of the activity later.)

We named our original alligator, “Stanley.” We actually ended up with two that summer because of the abusive nature of the activity. In the field leading up to the spring, rain water would often form puddles the warmed up in the sun shine of the afternoon. A perfect spot to learn about alligator wrestling.

Stanley and the activity leader would meet potential participants and go over the basics of wrestling maneuvers and take downs. Campers would often line up for an attempt to wrestle Stanley. In fact, most ended with successful take downs of the gator. It turned out to be a popular afternoon activity that was close enough that the underwater basket weavers would watch and cheer for as those young folks who would leg lock and scissor hold their opponent, Stanley.

 

Luther Gulick YMCA Triangle

Perhaps the best of the creativity was an activity area we called, “Spirit, Mind, and Body. This curriculum promised parents, the following, “Parents may observe an increase in self-confidence when faced with unfamiliar or challenging activities whether done individually and/or in a group. Growth in competence of one or more skills possessed or with new skill acquired. Participants take initiative for positive performance may also be noted.”

 

I thought this was as creative and inexpensive as a program might get; requiring just the instructors time and abilities. Each was designed with a basic daily formula of activity circles:

Activity Circle

Body Activity- Stretch/Aerobics

Mind Activity- Isotopes Team Building Challenge

Spirit Activity- Talking to God

 

As many of you might know, this was a YMCA Camp and the three sided triangle has existed for decades in the YMCA on how to best lead one’s life and find one’s best self. Thanks to Luther Gulick, the three sided symbolism was an expression of balance and harmony.

(In another amusing and creative note from Wally Wirick, he will sometimes go to a local YMCAs and asks for a tour. When they ask for his name, he says, "Luther Gulick)

The creativity of a two week participation in this program for an hour and fifteen minutes each day was amazing and fun to watch and listen to. There was music (Remember this was 2005- Superchick, Green Day, Hannah Montana songs and camp songs); there were tests of mindfulness (How Long is A Minute); Tae Bo introduction; and of course the YNC March chant (Y-M-C-A-C-A-M-P--M-C-A-C-A-M-P- YCamp - YCamp – yea YCamp)


And like most things occurring in our camp, service was emphasized. Since the program took place in and around the dining hall, many times the participants would be involved in the preparation and delivery of snacks to the rest of the camp. It brought about a great deal of collective and individual free thinking creativity in our campers and in our staff team.

I read recently that "if students have ideas but never put them into practice, they are practicing imagination, not creativity." Just like Mauricia Shiroma writes in that Cambridege.org BLOG, I have wanted to create that incubator in the work we do at camps to challenge team members to find creative answers when things go in unexpected ways. To look at the sphere from all the different angles.

I started this BLOG with one of my friend John Maxwell’s quotes about creativity. I have been so inspired by those moments and I cannot take credit for how each of these examples evolved. I do know that it was seeing that our lack of money was not a lack of ideas. Scarcity is such a mind numbing mind set. I believe that we can achieve and grow in abundance by framing things with that abundance mindset.

 Our team wanted to do new and fun things for our campers. We seldom said “No.” We embraced different things and we never kept sacred cows for “how things were always done.” John Maxwell offers fivesteps to sparking creativity. I happened upon these similar mindsets over the forty years of camp under the tutelage of so many amazing leaders that I have had the privilege of serving along side.


Stanley pictured below with one of our Staff team (Megan K.) who was featured in a previous BLOG post.

Stanley the Alligator from our program activity.


 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

2021 - Ceaser, Fonzie, Zoom and Social Media (Communication in the Post Pandemic World)

 Thumbs Up - A Reflection On 2020, 2021, and 2022

If you have been following my BLOG, you know that 2021 (besides the pandemic) my life turned upside down after a car accident that divinely revealed a case of Hairy Cell Leukemia (or as I call it, Harry Styles Leukemia - he's my favorite from 1D). I spent quite some time in doctor offices, cancer centers as well as physical therapy and chiropractic offices and a neurologist  or two.

We have all been or dozens and dozens of Zoom, Teams, and other virtual platforms. As we have become more adept and proficient on these platforms we have learned a "new" communication style.

Sitting in those Brady Bunch or Muppet Theater squares, on those different platforms, one of the things I noticed, is that we have increased our use of the thumbs up as an indicator that we can hear the speaker or in agreement with whatever was happening.

 



It is the historical significance of this and other items that have a negative beginning that intrigues me. It's like the term "drinking the kool-aid" that is used everywhere today as an indicator that someone has bought into whatever the hype may be. I heard someone at Disney World say "wow, that cast member has really drank the kool-aid." All in show for the fact that they were very much into their role/job.

Little do they know that the origins had such a dreadful and awful origin just back in 1978 during the "Jonestown mass-murder suicide." The term is used in so many connotations now, that most have little regard that it was meant for horrific examples.


Caesar (the emperor, not the salad) pictured above in the guise of Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 movie, Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott uses the thumbs up as a show to save someone in the fights to the death that took place in the Coliseum in Rome. 

The historical accuracy of this may or may not be linked to the 1872 painting "Pollice Verso" by Jean-Leon Gerome. There is some historical artifacts dating back to the first and second century that show a closed fist around a thumb indicating to save a gladiator.



More recently (1974 actually) Henry Winkler (seen above) portrayed Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli in the show Happy Days. Fonzie's cooler than cool late 1950's greaser became the run-a -star with his trademark saying "Sit on It" and the thumbs up to show his approval when other characters did the right thing.

In our fascinating modern world, the "thumbs up" has context in every social media category. Apple, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, and so many other versions of the thumb and even have developed an encyclopedia of emojis. (Emojipedia)

Pictured Apple Trade marked Thumb

I have found myself on those Zoom and Teams calls where someone asks, "can you hear me okay?" Or "Is my slide deck showing?" And folks in the various Brady squares either indicate agreement with the zoom Thumb emoji or just by raising their thumb (s) in view of the camera. I am not sure how I feel about all of it in a world where more and more folks seem to be split on having face to face conversations, interactions, and worse so, discussions that seem to divide so many.

I am grateful for my experiences at Camp and while we were in Florida (2004-2009) we worked with the three Deaf schools in to provide a week of summer camp for deaf, hearing impaired, siblings of deaf youth, and CODA. Sign language is amazing and as the camp director, the deaf staff assigned two hearing interpreters to me whenever I had anything to say to the campers. It felt like I was in the United Nations. The deaf director told me it was because when I spoke, I was exhausting to the interpreters. 

Signs and signing are a part of our lives. And have become even more so during the past few years.

At the onset of the pandemic, back in the Spring of 2020, Zoom and teams became a lifeline to so many. There were dozens of calls and that summer, my camp experiences went digital with "Camp In A Box" platform helping hundreds of Scouts across three states complete camp and merit badge activities via Zoom.

Again, I find it odd that something that began with such a negative connotation as life or death in an arena has become part of a lifeline to so many. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, my doctor visits have become numerous and I find myself at physical therapy a few times a week. One of my great pleasures became a traction device (and yes, I have a home version now as well) for my neck. The therapist would set me up for 15 minute sessions and often check back to see how I have been doing. My indicator to them...yes, you may have already guessed...a thumbs up.

Post Script:
Let me know your thoughts on the "thumbs up" and the impact of living digitally has had in your life. Share a comment and let me know that you too have drunk the kool-aid.

Monday, January 17, 2022

2007 - Leadership and Fire Drills

 

Jackie Pask and members of her fire department

(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

One of the best Aquatics leaders I have had the good fortune to work with was Jackie Pask. We were both with the YMCA in Tallahassee, Florida and our time at that YMCA was always one where we had deep financial issues and moving from crisis to crisis. (I wrote about some of this in another BLOG featuring Peggy Conklin’s leadership and those lessons as well.)

Jackie had a differing management or leadership style (Can you guess hers?) that has served her well and she incorporates a tenant of the Scout motto to “be prepared.”

“Treat everyday like a fire drill,” she said to me at one of our first meetings. Her theory was that it seemed things happened and went askew every day and followed what Bear Bryant (former coach of Alabama football) said, “In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”

I recently touched bases with Jackie and she is still following that tried and true method in her life at home and at work. In the current world of crisis after crisis, it seems that Jackie’s methodology has solid backing.

Eric J McNulty and Leonard Marcus on Crisis Management (Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020) wrote, You need to make immediate choices and allocate resources. The pace is fast, and actions are decisive.”  To Jackie’s perspective, it is about resiliency and the ability to get thru any crisis.

While McNulty and Marcus did point out, to my opinion and leadership style, that there was an inherent “risk and ambiguity during a crisis because so much is uncertain and volatile,” they also focused on the fact that the order meant subordinates knew what they were expected to do as well as what was expected of others. Jackie’s team gets what they always get from her management and leadership. There is no wavering.

Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I believe that resiliency is a skill that most young people display and that often times, it is driven out of by some of the mundane tasks of life. If we repeat often enough, there again is that danger of ambiguity.

“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.” Bob Feller, Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said and practiced this in his leadership as well.

My thinking on this always brings up the Bill Murray movie, Ground Hog Day. Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher singing on the alarm radio and he learns to expect the same results even when he goes off and tries to alter every situation. It is a conundrum to consider. I have felt somewhat like that character many times in the recent past.

The past two years has been a demonstration of a fire drill every day. (Or even more so) It has been an actual fire in different places and in so many different areas of our lives.

Jackie continues her good work and does two things exceptionally well. She has a great way to prioritize issues quickly. She sees the crisis and can change and (yes I am using the P word) and pivot to new priorities. The second thing is she communicates this to her team and those she serves with a great deal of clarity.

I am grateful for my time and work with Jackie and I look forward to hearing from her as she maintains the steadfast motto.

I know that whatever comes up, she will be consistent in her approach. For me, I continue to learn and grow in my own leadership style with her influence. And as former Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield said, “The crisis you have to worry about most is the one you don’t see coming.”

A reminder from Jackie that she has in her home and work.


In this New Year, let’s hope for fewer crisis that we don’t see coming.

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Sunday, January 16, 2022

STEPS to RENEWAL - 2021 Lessons

 


2021 has come and gone and yes, it is already over two weeks into the New Year. I have been slow to reflect on the past year and I am approaching an anniversary date in a few days, that stepped me into a different year; more so than I ever expected. (Sample run on sentence)

My word for this past year was “steps.” As 2020 ended and I reflected on all the things; I choose steps as it was my intention to take many of those different things in moving forward.

In the fall of 2020 I had lost 40 lbs over the past two years and was walking some 2 miles each day. I wanted to step into 2021 like everyone else with so much behind. I intended to walk more and take more steps in a healthy life.

Then January 20 happened and the car accident. It led to diagnosis of Hairy Cell Leukemia (or as I like to call it Harry Styles Leukemia – because he’s my favorite because of his attitude on kindness).

I spent over 300 hours with doctors and nurses for the treatments, tests, and infusions. Not too mention all the chiropractic, physical therapy, neurologist, and follow up visits for the car accident.

As I think back on the year, it was all about the steps.

At the time of the car accident (which I have very little memory) I recall being in the snow bank inside the car and want to step out of the car. My next memory was that of step forward and leaning on the front end of the car. And then my next memory was stepping into the front door of the house across the street from the accident. The person who lives in that house, happened to be a paramedic and wanted me to get warm and sit on his couch.

The next month or so was the steps to get a diagnosis. For example, the bone marrow biopsy has a series of steps that the nurse walked me through. He was very kind and explained everything as it happened.

The entire year has been small steps to every situation that has been laid out in front of me. There were so many steps to everything. As I look back on those days, I have learned a great deal about control.

There is a Jewish proverb, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” It seems that is my great lesson for 2021. No matter what I planned, the Grand Old Designer had a different direction.

It brings me to this NEW YEAR. I am getting ever so slowly better and I have a desire to find this year's word of focus.

My counselor, Ryan, suggested that I consider focus on what I have the energy to do instead of focusing on what has not been done. What am I showing up for? At the start or end of each day to ask, "Today, I have the energy for..."

He said it in his suggesting manner. Give your self time to renew. As, I wrote that down, it jumped out like their it was all the time.


I look to this to direct and influence myself and a new affection.


And with that, I wish you all a Happy New Year! (yes, I know its already the 16th of January.


Ezikiel 11:19


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Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas 2021 - Not A Christmas Story (Ferreira Family Stories Series)

 

Gas Truck (Circa 1930s Brazil)


Gas Truck - "Cascavel"

That’s what my grandfather (Jose) called his gas truck that he drove throughout the interior of Brazil dung the 1930s. That was his work. He delivered gas in a truck similar to the one pictured here.

At the end of 1930 (during the world wide depression) Getulio Vargas had lost a presidential election and several months later took over the government in Brazil (holding power off and on up until 1954). Power in Brazil was brutal and the economic devastation led many to find what they could in their lives and scour out an existence.

This is what my grandfather came to find as a young man of 30. He was able to obtain a used truck that he nicknamed “Cascavel.” (Means rattle snake in Portuguese)

I also thought, “if I named my car, would it be rattle snake?” What was the insinuation of the name. I wanted to think it meant it was something one should not mess with. In those later days of his life, he had found a rubber faux coiled rattle snake and he glued it to the rear deck of his car with a row of penny’s circling the snake.

When he told us stories about that truck when he was 70 years and older, they seemed to hearken to gone by days and a sentimentality that made us all think he truly missed that truck.

Perhaps this was emblematic of his state of mind. After all, the states in Brazil were vying with the federal government for power and control. There were violent bloody outbursts in bigger cities of those states that ultimately led Vargas to total control in the mid 30s resulting in a powerful central government. By the end of the 30s, that “New State” had worn away all trappings of any local power and shifted more power to the federal level.

Or perhaps it was symbolic of the Masons (my grandfather was a 33 degree Mason). Years later, I found that George Washington had inaugural buttons with a coiled snake with what appeared to be little round penny like circles surrounding it. I am told that it was a timeless design.

The truck (here on after I will refer to that as Cascavel) was his livelihood and he lived out of it for the long stretches that he would take in to the “mato” or interior of the country delivering fuel to service stations that ranchers used as a life line for equipment, supplies and of course, fuel.

I imagine two lane dirt roads that he described with long stretches of tropical growth that was often swamped with rain and wash outs. Sleeping in the cab of the truck with some gun he always alluded to but never wanted to say to the children. I remember him as strong and vibrant well into his 60s often picking my sister and me up with one arm as we dangled with our hands to hold as he lifted his arm into a brace.

This is what I believe the symbol of Cascavel meant to him. He was strong and survived on his own and carved out a rough hewn life in the central parts of Brazil. Just him and his Cascavel. Did I mention my grandmother?


Jose and "Santina"

After their married, she often travelled with him. My grandmother (Geralda) who was petite and somewhat demur. She had come out of a school convent that often prepared graduates to be a nun. In fact, my grandmother was nick named, “Santina.” Meaning little Saint. As newlyweds, they talked about traveling at night when the weather was tolerable. They would stop at service station for long periods during the day napping, playing cards or just chatting with the service station’s attendant. My grandfather liked to chat and tell stories.

The road to Mato Grosso was two lane and flat. In fact the rancher who had laid out the road some 70 plus years earlier had apprenticed with an engineer prior to acquiring the land and he worked diligently to have as straight a line to his property. The railway had only been available the last 20 years however; ranchers had settled portions since the late 1700s.

This particular stretch of road also had an average rain fall of over 50 inches a year. I believe that the term “Mato Grosso” means thick and wooded. The road was narrower than today’s roads and since it was late in the summer season, my grandparents were driving mostly from dusk till dawn.

They had been on the road for about 3.5 hours and my grandmother had fallen asleep with a rosary in her left hand. She said the rosary numerous times per day and as she was a passenger on the road, the time seemed well invested for her and my grandfather’s souls.

In driving hours at a time, my grandfather often talked and told stories of his encounters and mostly of his 16 brothers and sister growing up on his father’s ranch near Tres Rios, Brazil. He spoke most fondly of his brother, Alvaro, who had died tragically swimming in a river while in his teens.

He pulled his hair in a front to back motion that he had since adolescences. He had shared that he combed his hair in this manner so his parents couldn’t tell if he had been off swimming during the day when he was supposed to be working or at school. He thought again to his childhood and how he would swim. His older brother had taught him and was always thinking of ways to shorten the work day and head for the river. It was one of those days that his brother had drowned.

Having heard some stories multiple times; often times as he told those stories, my grandmother nodded off. The heat of that day had not yet worn out of the night and the sweat was just enough that he swept his hair back in his calming fashion.

Back on that road and in that truck, he would drive with a bit of intensity in his body. The angle of the steering wheel had him leaning forwards towards the wheel. It gave him a look of ferocity as he held on with both hands to control the truck and manage the dirt and gravel roads.

 He was watching the straight and narrow of the road and his head lights on Cascavel lit up the darkness directly ahead and the glow bounced a bit off the red hewn dirt and onto the thick growth on the sides of the road. It had been just a few days since a solar eclipse and the waxing moon had already shown its thin crescent before midnight.

1934 roads in that part of Brazil had no road lights and only had rancher’s rail borders in areas that had been cleared near the roads. The growth on either side often looked thick with no lights for hours at a time unless another truck heading in the opposite direction shown from some 20 miles out and until they passed.

When the glow of the light first appeared, my grandfather had to think if there was a full moon or not. He had not seen any truck lights approaching from behind that would have such a startling glow so directly near to his Cascavel.

He drove on with the light shining at the top of his rear mirrors on both sides of the truck. The small round mirror on the passenger side was high up above the door and there were moments when the light hit it just right that it seemed to flash back on the door window and into the truck on my grandmother.

Continuing on, he was beginning to be annoyed at the other trucker following so close behind and he knew it must be a new truck from the brightness of his head lamps. Perhaps it had come out of the previous ranch driveway that was some 50 kilometers back and my grandfather had just not noticed the trucker. My grandfather also knew that there were times he had succumbed to a bit of road hypnosis or what is commonly known in the United States as “white line fever.”

This form of hypnotic dissociation happens to many folks driving on long stretches of road or familiar parts that sometimes one suddenly realizes that they are nearly home and have little recollection of passing or even turning on roads. He knew that the 179 kilometers he wanted to travel to the next station would put him there just before 4:00 that morning. It was just after 2:25 am and he thought there was no way he would want this other truck traveling that close for that long.

His trusted Cascavel traveled well doing 45 kilometers per hour and he would often run it up over 60 kilometers when he felt a burst of energy. So, he did. As his odograph showed he had marched up past 60 as he thought about that metron in trucks. He knew that the word meant path in Greek and how silly that the speed was really a path as he moved on through the thick overgrowth on the sides of the road. He thought how it did look path like and as such he glanced up towards the sky that he could see to determine stars or if there was rain coming.

The sky above had a glow that he thought was unusual and he was having a tough time judging if he could in fact see any stars. He realized at the moment that the truck lights must somehow be beaming up higher than normal. The light seemed to be near the top of his Cascavel and obscuring his vision more than he wanted.

He did not notice that the road was heading downward on the road grade that allowed the truck and his lights to beam in such a manner. He had travelled this road several times in prior years and he was confident about the location of the service station ahead where he would deliver the fuel load. He thought about the drive back in the other direction and how they would stop at his sister’s home to have supper with her and her family that coming Sunday. He thought if he could make good time, they could be there so his “Santina” could attend mass and how pleased she would be with him.

“Santina” and Cascavel were his life. He would take care of both and wanted to make sure they were both tended for by his work. He knew that if he established these runs with Cascavel, eventually he would have a mapped pattern of service stations that would count on his deliveries and he would be able to save up to purchase their own property that he could also have some small harvest and animals that would sustain a family.

It was somewhere in these deep thoughts that he realized the truck lights behind him had not curtailed in the least bit. He swerved the steering wheel a bit to see if he could tell how close the other trucker was to him. The dually rear tires hit a patch of sandy dirt road and made the truck swerve enough to startle my grandmother awake.

He slowed by lifting his foot off the accelerator and was preparing to downshift if need be. He regained control quickly and glanced towards his wife with a smirking smile as if to say. “I got this.” My grandmother made an “hhmmpph” sound and closed her eyes again while crossing her arms and clutching her rosary just a bit more.

He paced down below 60 kilometers and once again tried to look back into the other truck lights. He thought if I slow enough, they would be able to perhaps pass him. For the next few kilometers, the other truck slowed their pace as well.

My grandmother at this point had closed her eyes and was wide awake from the shaking of the truck on the rough road. She kept her eyes closed since her brief awakening; she had the glow from the mirror right in her face. She peered he eyes in a squint and looked at my grandfather asking about the lights. He told her that he had been following from at least 15 minutes or longer and he did know when they had turned onto the road to follow so close.

As they slowed a bit more, my grandfather decided that he would in fact try and slow enough to allow for the other truck to pass. My grandmother started to look to her right on the passenger side and she told him that the light was very bright and she could see how close they were on the side of the road where the growth was extremely thick. She mentioned that she could see the curving branches of the thick overgrowth almost like it was early morning day light.

As Cascavel slowed, so did the truck lights behind them. My grandmother sensing that my grandfather was slowing to a stop said to him, “Jose, don’t stop, you need to keep moving.” As she said these words, she tightened her clutch and began a new decade on her rosary.

Those words were highly uncharacteristic of her and my grandfather knew it. He sensed a worrisome tone that alerted him in a way that he had felt when his brother was struggling in the middle of the river and sank below and was not seen again until hours later and the body was found several kilometers downstream.

It was a nervousness that he was not going to ignore and he decided to get back to his 45 kilometers an hour pace.

My grandmother at this point had rolled the window down a bit to try and catch a look behind her. The dust from the road made the light look disturbing and she noted that the glow came from well above Cascavel. The dust also began to come in waves through the window making her cough slightly and she quickly rolled up the window again.

As she thought about what she could see, she noted that the water containers that were strapped to the back right rear of Cascavel were covered in dust and she noted the ring near the top had a glow as well. The more she thought about the light, the harder she clutched her rosary. “Jose, how far until the next service station?” Her voice had a decisive and yet shaken tone that made him look at her again.

He shared that they were still just less than 100 kilometers away. “We could be there well before 4:00.” His anxiety rose again and he recalled how he felt that morning his brother had drown. It was the waiting that made him anxious and not the actual event itself. Knowing made it almost give him a sense of relief. It was the not knowing and the light from the truck behind them gave him that same feeling.

His foot also rested with a greater heaviness on the accelerator.

Some 10 kilometers passed in silence. And Santina had already completed the additional decade on her rosary. As the road pressed on, there was less dust from a recent rain in the area. My grandmother slowly rolled the window and noticed the light seemed to be on top as well as behind them.

My grandfather decided that he would slow down again and as he double clutched into a lower gear he stalled the engine. My grandmother immediately started another decade. “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary…”

“We’re not going to die!” He shouted at her. The Cascavel continued to slow and my grandmother once again rolled her window down and looked back…and up.

It was this time as Cascavel began to slow to a stop that she noticed the light nearly above them. She also noticed for the first time in between Jose’ attempts to restart the engine a low thrumming noise. It seemed to be all around them. “Hail Mary…”

Cascavel came to a near stop when on his 7th time trying to restart the engine that the engine caught and he slipped Cascavel into gear again and had a sudden lurch forward at the slowest pace. He moved on and began the shifting to the fourth gear where he could try and maximize Cascavel’s speed.

The light continued on them and they both realized that there was no other truck behind them. My grandfather said, “We will be at the service station soon.” My grandmother had already raised the door’s window for the last time that evening.

When they were about seven kilometers away from the station they were able to see the light in the distance. “…fruit of thy…” My grandmother prayed on. On any other moonless night, they would have seen the light over 15 kilometers away. With the light above them that seemed to glow at the same rate, the station lights were a bit obscured.

The closer to the station the increasing anxiety continued to grow and the more she prayed. My grandmother told me years later that she thought it was some sort of message from God. She had read about these in her bible. It was a Erich von Daniken book and subsequent movie that led to the conversations and re-telling of the story.

As they pulled closer and closer to the station, my grandfather said that he would pull in and they needed to hurry into the station building.

The road curved out slightly wider as they approached the service station. There were two lights on the outside wall facing the road and a faint light coming from inside the station. The back of the service station were the station attendant lived in these rural stations. Some had an entire home for a family of an attendant. The road expanded and a driveway of sorts went to the storage tank and the roll up door for vehicle repair. As was the case with many of these stations in Mato Grosso, the overgrowth was thicker than usual.

My grandfather had been planning in his head that he would pull Cascavel right up to the side of the building where the door had a light. He intended on pushing Santina out her door which would be closer to the entrance.

He thought through the motions of stopping, taking it out of gear, pulling the brake and then opening the passenger door from across the middle of the bench seat. The light above and behind never wavered other than the time sit hit his rear mirrors. He counted off time in his head as he got closer to his plan. He had hidden under the driver seat a wooden mallet that he carried if he encountered trouble. The trouble he anticipated was from those meaning to do him harm and perhaps take away one of his prized items.

Thinking each step and how many seconds that it would take. He would reach 42 seconds of time elapsed as each variable or in case Santina was slow or perhaps even tripped as they would emerge from Cascavel.

With less than two kilometers, the time seemed to slow to a crawl. Jose kept thinking he was not thinking clearly. He was sweating and pulling back on his hair in that calming front to rear manner. The lights on the building seemed softer and further as it juxtaposed form the light above and behind Cascavel. He felt himself drifting towards the side of the road a bit anticipating that the road would be widening. Again, he hit some dirt that mounded on the rut and Cascavel wavered on its rear duallies.

My grandmother looked at him again and he could tell she was still praying.

“When we pull up, I will open your door and we are both getting out and heading into the station door, okay?” She nodded enthusiastically glancing back and up over her right shoulder at the light.

The road finally opened up more than he anticipated and with a few hundred yards to go, he down shifted and applied the brake. There was some dust that started to come up behind them indicating that there had been no rain during the warmest part of the day in this area. The dust cloud lit up from the light and he shifted Cascavel towards the building in an attempt to judge how far the door would be. He came to a complete stop about 6 feet past the door.

He stopped and looked back with the dust lit up from above and how he had miscalculated the stop all while wiping his head in that familiar motion.

Reaching across Santina, he opened the door and said in a commanding voice, “Move now!”

Santina spilled out of the truck, rosary in hand and he was right behind her. He started to yell, “SERVICE” as was the custom at the rural stations for the attendant to come out. “Service, service!” He shoved Santina towards the door trying to see through the dust cloud. He reached for the door knob and it turned and he had sighed with relief that it was not locked. “Service!”

He closed the door quickly behind them and yelled into the hall of the station again saying, “Service.”

He heard a door open in the back and a young voice as if peering from a corner saying, “I’m up.”

My grandfather turned back towards the door and the transom window above the door was dark. No light at all.

“I’m up. I had dosed off for a bit.” The attendant looked like he had been sleeping a great deal with his wrinkled shirt and hair askew. My grandfather and grandmother must have had a crazed and fearful look in their faces. The attendant looked at them and relaxing his face, said, “come in, you look a fright.”

As they entered, further into the hall of the station my grandfather asked, “Did you see the light?” The attendant said, I told you I dozed off, I heard you knocking and shouting. They looked at each other and felt a small sense of relief that the light was gone. The attendant made coffee and slowly they eased up on their anxieties of the situation.

What I know now about the entire occurrence is what they told me and I imposed the emotion I would have felt into the situation. The historical context is from research of the era. As I grew and heard and reheard  this story told over and again, I was always amazed that they ventured out after that night; never to see those lights again.

Service Station Brazil (Circa 1930s)


POST SCRIPT: My father passed away this year, and I have been collecting stories about our family - this is just one of those stories. MERRY CHRISTMAS


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