Joyriding on manifest 403 north of Toronto

While researching background for a new mini-eBook in my Canadian Branchline steam series, I came across a newspaper story from 1953. Two boys, aged 13 and 11, were on their way to school in Toronto on the morning of Friday, February 20, 1953. The temperature was around the freezing point, with a mix of snow and rain falling.

These two lads, on their way to St. Ann’s Catholic School, stopped by the CNR’s Don station. On the railway, that’s just north of the junction with the Oshawa Subdivision (I’m speaking in present tense for 1953). The Don station is on the Bala Subdivision, which leads to northern Ontario via Washago.

When thZephyr.1953-02-20.train_403e boys got to Don station, manifest freight train 403 was stopped for a terminal clearance. On the head end were a pair of relatively-new F7 diesels. They had been assigned to this hot freight, and its southbound counterpart 404, since mid-1951.

Playing tag with each other, the boys climbed on the stopped freight train and started leaping from car to car! Not quite as stupid as the recent group of marathon runners in Columbus, Indiana, but close.

So, naturally, number 403 starts up. Given that the train began standing still, and reached the station at Zephyr 45 minutes later, it reached speeds in the range of 70 m.p.h. And these two lads were still aboard, hopping from car to car!

Some 14 miles north of Don station, around Thornhill, someone spotted the boys and called the police. Understandably, the police were unable to catch the train. The next train order office, some five miles beyond at Richmond Hill, the agent noticed the boys on the train. He advised the operator at Zephyr, another 24 bone-chilling miles to the north, of the boys’ plight. The Zephyr operator “put the board on” and the manifest freight stopped. The grainy photograph shows the diesel-hauled train at Zephyr. The accompanying map (click on it for greater detail) shows the arrangement of buildings, including the small train order office in the picture. The 1961 view of Northern 6167 also shows the train order office.


As a writer and researcher, I have to admit that incidents such as the joyride taken by the two Toronto boys provide a lot of background information which otherwise might have been lost to the sands of time. In this case, it’s clear that number 403 was leaving Don station a couple of hours ahead of its normal time (10:30 to 11:15 a.m.). The newspaper story reveals the approximate speed of the train, and the fact that it didn’t normally stop until Washago (a register station some 89 miles north of Toronto). And, number 403, on this occasion, was carrying at least one empty gondola car–near the caboose–which was probably added to fill out the tonnage.

How to infuse public speaking with the power of storytelling—Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic, we covered my basic approach—that of creating story speeches. This installment deals with the all-important inspiration behind the talk.

You and Your Audience

The premises behind delivering a speech are (i) that you have something of substance to communicate, and (ii) that there is a reason for a particular audience to receive it. There can be no point in merely inventing a topic for the sake of talking.

Now, take a look at your audience. Identify their background. What do you perceive that they will find valuable in your speech? What are their ranges of interest in the topic? Develop, for your purposes, a profile of your audience.

Now consider yourself. What expertise are you bringing to your audience? How could they benefit from hearing you speak? Why is it important for them to hear you speak?

Developing a Core Theme

It is not good enough to only have a topic on which to speak. Topics are general categories. Before you have any hope of making a successful speech, you must have a fundamental overall statement, a core theme within the topic. Until you zero in on this core theme and are able to express it in one declarative sentence, you are going nowhere.

Clear thoughts produce clear expression. Muddy thinking yields nothing of interest or substance. Work hard on finding your statement, for this is your responsibility, and your success or failure will depend on whether you accomplish this.

There are more “don’ts” associated with the initial developing of material for a speech that “dos”. Essentially, at the early stage you don’t want to inhibit your creative mind with your all-powerful censoring mind. Namely:

  • Don’t inhibit your flow of ideas by judging their worth
  • Don’t worry about how all the elements will tie together
  • Don’t discard ideas that appeal to you even if you can’t see their relevance at an early stage


Creating material on which to base a speech is an exercise in free association, lateral thinking, and random doodling. Having chose or been assigned a topic, with or without a clearly stated core theme, proceed to let your mind roll freely. Make a list. Don’t worry about being organized at this stage. Don’t judge the worth of a given idea. That will come later. Focus on the following:

  • What images come to mind regarding this topic?
  • What symbols do you associate with this topic?
  • What settings does your mind conjure up?
  • What elements pop into your head?
  • What quotes, articles, stories, famous people spring to mind?

Pouring onto paper the related elements of your topic is in itself a way of discovering a core theme. In many cases, the fundamental point of your presentation will not be clear until you have a large pile of ideas, thoughts and images in front of you. Or, your core theme may change or sharpen after this stage. That is fine.

Next time around, we’ll cover how to organize the scattered ideas and inspirations into a core message.

Stuck on June 25, 1954

Freak trips back in time always start with some kind of incident—a crack on the head that sends a guy into a coma, like on the TV show Life On Mars. Or maybe the guy steps through some kind of portal, like Stephen King’s character in 11/22/63. Other times, it’s just an ordinary dream, a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Owen Wilson stepped into a car every night in Midnight in Paris, whereby he visited Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald in the Roaring Twenties. For me, it was none of those things, and that makes the whole experience maddening.

My name is Radford Harris. I’m 33 years old with a degree in civil engineering. I’m unmarried, because I’ve spent most of my spare time on hobbies. I like reading about history. I especially like building railway models. Matter of fact, this whole escapade started this morning for that reason—my interest in scale models. I decided to call in sick at work because I wanted to explore a setting that Ian Wilson describes in two of his books on Ontario steam railway operations. All of his books are set on the day of June 25, 1954. Today, being the 60th anniversary of that date, was too good to pass up. The place I wanted to visit was called Wyevale, which is about halfway between Barrie and Midland. Wilson describes a neat old railway bridge that crosses the Wye River. The tracks are long gone, but the bridge is now part of a recreational trail. I headed up there this morning to take in the scene with the interest of constructing a scale diorama.

I didn’t get away from my home in North York until past ten o’clock in the morning. That was okay. Better to wait out the traffic. I stopped for lunch south of Barrie, then checked out the restored railway station at Allandale. It was nice. The tower was back on, as it shows in the earlier pictures in Wilson’s books. I followed the old right-of-way of the Penetang Subdivision northward from a place called Colwell. It crossed Highway 26 at Minesing. I visited a trail pavilion there. I picked up the line again where it crossed Horseshoe Valley Road at Anten Mills. Phelpston was a nice little village, with a Roman Catholic church. After grabbing a coffee at the McDonald’s in Elmvale, I finally approached the place that interested me most. And that’s where the trouble happened.

Not too far north of Elmvale, to the right of Simcoe County Road 6, was the scene that interested me. That is where the rails of the branchline to Penetang crossed the Wye River on a girder and truss bridge. I parked my car, consulted Wilson’s books for pictures of a train crossing that bridge in 1958, then walked over to have a look. I’m not a camera guy. I take all my pictures on my Smartphone. I positioned myself in about the same place as the photographers in 1958, and snapped a couple of views.

Then I sat down in the grass, even though it was still damp from a recent rain, to relax and soak up the atmosphere. It was so peaceful that I leaned back against an old tree stump and closed my eyes. It was cloudy and there were a couple of mosquitoes about, so I didn’t expect to stay long. Every little gust of wind that shook the leaves of nearby trees scattered droplets of water on me. The chickadees were raising a racket, maybe over me being there. I remember contemplating how nice it was to be out of the Toronto rat race. I’d grown up in Barrie, and the little communities in the vicinity had appeal. The main reason I’d stayed in the big city was because I wanted to meet women. There were a number of them in my life, none in a serious vein, mostly those I’d met in theatre classes I’d taken to relieve the boredom of consulting engineering. There were probably women in the small towns around Barrie. My friend Trish from the States recommended that I find a farm girl. Maybe, someday. For now, it was enough to enjoy a respite in the tranquility of nature.

I can’t say what happened after I closed my eyes. I remember no great experience of passing through a time portal, like the crew of the USS Nimitz in Final Countdown. Sometime after listening to the distant drumming of a pileated woodpecker, a voice jostled me out of my reverie. I looked to my right at a girl, or young woman.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

I stood up. Before I responded, two discoveries shook my little world. Over my head were the lush green leaves of an elm tree. They were attached to the trunk against which I was leaning. Only, when I sat down it had been a rotted stump. The second sensory detail to rattle my mind was the unmistakeable sound of a steam whistle.

“I’m fine,” I responded to the girl.

“That’s good to know.” She stood and smiled at me. In one hand, she held a fishing rod. It was an old bait casting affair, like the ones stuffed in a corner at our old family cottage. The last time they’d been used was probably in the 1960s, by various relatives. The one she held had a shiny metal rod and a polished reel with ceramic handles. Now you may know why I don’t have a wife, or a girlfriend for that matter. The first thing I studied was not this gal’s eyes, her clothing, her face—but her fishing rod. That’s what an engineering degree will do for you.

Anyway, the girl wore a light blouse with a flowery pattern. She had a dark skirt with a white leather belt. On her head was a white hat, like those I wore as a kid on summer vacations in the Maritimes. Locks of somewhat curly brown hair protruded from the hat. She had a pair of red earrings and wore matching lipstick. Her brown eyes were friendly, her smile enchanting.

“Going fishing?” I asked, pointing to the creek. I carried on the conversation outwardly, while inwardly I tried to figure out what was happening. A mirage, maybe? A dream?

“Bass season just opened.” She shook a coffee tin. “I picked some night crawlers last night.”

A chuffing sound became louder. “That’s…” I just pointed down the tracks, in the direction of Elmvale. Tracks. “That’s—”

“That’s our little train.” The girl laughed. “Now I’ve got some fishing to do.” She stepped down the slope toward the river. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, but my main gaze was on the wisps of black smoke and steam curling around the trees on the approach to the bridge. The girl turned and looked at me. “Haven’t you seen that train before?”

“No.” I stood transfixed as the pilot of a steam locomotive came into view. “It’s number 1322.” I heard myself shouting at the girl. “It’s at the museum.”

“What museum?” She stepped back toward me.

“Oh, somewhere near Barrie. But I’m mistaken.” I watched the steam engine as it crept over the bridge spanning the Wye River. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. This locomotive, as I had known it, was a rusted museum piece in a place outside Barrie called Midhurst. But here it was, shining and black, moving, breathing, pulling a train. The fireman and brakeman smiled and waved at the girl and me. The tender was piled high with coal, steam drifted from the dynamo in front of the cab. The panel emblazoned with the lettering CANADIAN NATIONAL shone bright red in the sunlight. That sunlight was another issue. It had been cloudy when I’d sat down against that tree stump which was now a live and thriving elm tree.

“You like trains, don’t you?” The girl looked at me as I watched the drive rods of that little engine moving over the bridge. “My name’s Annaliese.”

“Radford,” I said, still mesmerized.

“How did you get here? I didn’t see a car.”

I looked around. Sure enough, no car. I patted my pockets. No wallet, either. But I had a set of keys for a Mazda that hadn’t been built, and a Smartphone with a number that hadn’t been issued. Aside from that, I wore jeans and black walking shoes, and a Toronto Blue Jays T-shirt with the name Adam Lind on the back. I looked at the girl.

“This may sound strange, but what day is it?”

“Friday. Don’t you know that?”

“I do now. And it’s June 25, right?”

“I sure hope so.” Her face clouded. “You’re not with Lands and Forests, are you?” I shook my head. “Good.” She pointed to the river. “Bass season opens tomorrow, but I wanted to get an early start. I’m going to throw back whatever I catch.”

I laughed. “It’s okay with me.” I watched the two green passenger cars of the mixed train disappear into the grove of trees north of the bridge. A car drove by on the gravel road—which had been paved when I parked. It was a small British one, called a Morris Minor I think. The driver beeped the horn as he went by, and the girl waved. “Is that one of the newer ones?” I pointed to the car.

“You mean a 1954?”

I nodded. So it was as I thought.

“I think so. Mr. Williams down the road just bought it.”

“Can I ask you one more question?”

Annaliese tilted her head and smiled. “Yes?”

“Can I come fishing with you?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” She beckoned with her head. “Hurry up. We have a couple of hours before that train comes back. The one you like so much.”

I followed her down the slope. “How old are you, anyway?”

“I turn 20 in August.”

“Not married?”

“Not yet.” She laughed. “Is that a proposal?”

“No. I’ll have to see if you’re any good at catching fish first.”

And that’s how that day went for me, Radford Harris. I spent the afternoon fishing with Annaliese. We caught several largemouth bass. Toward suppertime, the train with locomotive 1322 came back down the branchline. I studied every boxcar and the wooden passenger cars intently, making mental notes of their numbers and types. I convinced Annaliese that my car had been stolen—which wasn’t altogether a lie—and her parents were good enough to put me up for the night in the room that her elder brother, now in the navy, had occupied. I fully expected to wake up the next morning in the year 2014, but that’s not what happened. That’s a story I’ll tell in a few day’s time.


How to infuse public speaking with the power of storytelling—Part 1

Before I wrote my first article, and years before I published my first book, I developed a methodology for captivating an audience with what I called “story speeches”. The process of crafting an engaging presentation is no different than that of creating a compelling story on paper. In several installments, I will lay out my process.


As a speaker in front of an audience, you have an obligation to entertain your listeners and captivate their imaginations. The acid test will be thus—if no one in the room is looking down at something in front of them, fiddling with their device, or chatting with a neighbour, then you have accomplished that objective.

This approach does not come from traditional manuals on public speaking and presentation skills. It does not come from a study of formal rhetoric or logic. It is not advanced by Toastmasters or other groups devoted to developing communication skills. Rather, it derives from the ingredients of successful theatrical performances, feature length films, and compelling stories—namely, the power of drama.

The greatest way to engage the attention of a group of listeners is to give their minds something to work on. Audience members are captivated when a speaker paints a vivid picture in their minds with carefully chosen words and attention to details. With an exciting and compelling sequence of such pictures, the audience is taken on a wondrous ride through the speech. Each audience member, in his or her own way, will complete the pictures. They will be busy, engaged actively with the speaker. Their attention will be riveted.

The key for a speaker is not to simply talk, but to put his/her listeners into a setting, give them an experience, and allow them to make their own discoveries. By presenting the audience with a scene-by-scene journey to live through their senses, and more importantly their imaginations, you will be engaging the most potent communication tool of all—their emotions. People learn most effectively when there is an emotional component to an experience. The proper arrangement of descriptive scenes will arouse emotion in listeners through their personal investment in the process. A vivid and entertaining presentation is the most effective way of informing an audience. An entertaining presentation, laden with emotional appeal, will embed itself in the listeners’ memories for a long time.

Spoken words, attending to sensory details, create a sensory experience for the listener through the power of his or her imagination. Imagined experiences in turn arouse emotions. In arousing the emotions of audience members, you—the speaker—captivate them. That is the power of delivering sensory-descriptive words, or painting word pictures.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the subject of inspiration.

On becoming a writer—keeping a journal


People have asked me how long I’ve been a writer, how I got started, etc. The apparent answer is when I published my first article, back in 1996. But the true answer is when I made the decision to document my life with a journal, sometime in the summer of 1978.

If you keep a journal—or a diary—in any form, you are a writer.

By documenting your life, you are giving it meaning. At the end of the day, when you pen your thoughts, you are accounting to yourself for how the hours since sunrise were spent.

School boards who have phased out handwriting (penmanship) have it wrong—and they’re starting to realize that. They think that because we spend most of our time communicating via keypads and devices that handwriting is antiquated and unnecessary.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As Andrew Coyne points out, the act of writing by hand draws on a different part of the brain—the creative part—than that demanded by typing (i.e. motor skills). He points out that the brain needs the restraint imposed by handwriting. We also learn to compose thoughts in sentences, then paragraphs, in writing them by hand. Without the spell-check, cut-and-paste, and easy editing tools provided by the computer, we learn to think efficiently and clearly.

Therefore, to record your thoughts and experiences in a journal is to impose order and meaning upon your life. I think keeping a journal raises you to a higher plane—where you are seeking the meaning in every encounter. Conversely, in penning out your day-to-day experiences, it becomes easy to identify the things and people that waste one’s precious time.

If you are not in the habit of keeping a journal, try this—sit down tonight for 5 minutes and scratch out on a piece of paper an account of the worthwhile things you did today. When you close your eyes to sleep, imagine doing the same thing tomorrow night. In so doing, I think your day will have a different shape to it.

I’ve skimmed all kinds of how-to articles on keeping a journal. There are any number of different means. Over the years, I’ve documented my life in handwriting, audio, video, and sketches. We each will find our own way to document our lives. The important thing is to do it.

I write on three-ring binder paper every night. Sometimes, it’s a simple account of what I did that day. Other times, I explore feelings. I also use my journal as a means of working out decisions. If you can state a problem simply, then you are halfway to solving it. That is the power of a journal.

We homeschool our two sons, Spencer and Duncan. Aside from the Three Rs, I have insisted that they learn three skills—swimming, martial arts, and keeping a journal. My wife and I kept one for each boy, every day of their lives, until they were around 10 or 12. Thereafter, each son keeps his own. Filling a page per day in their little spiral-bound journals is as essential as mathematics, grammar, and science.

It’s fun, and enlightening, to read back through one’s journal. It’s also a poignant reminder of how short life is, and how precious every single day is. What gets written about in one’s journal tends to be the big-picture items of life. The longer the habit of keeping a journal is instilled, the more apt one is to focus on those big-picture priorities.

If you have never published anything as a writer, but kept a diary or journal, then you will find that you’re already well on the way. You don’t need a fine arts course in creative writing. You just need to have experienced life and had the desire to document it and extract meaning from it.

Interviewing people for historical fiction? Talk to them NOW

I wrote this article almost 14 years ago. Although almost of the men who helped me on both Allandale books are gone, the principles are as true as ever for authors and researchers. Thank you to Keith Hopkin for taking the photographs (except the one with him shaking my hand!).


Two years ago today, on August 31, 1998, we released Steam at Allandale in an elaborate ceremony at the old locomotive foreman’s building at the division point (now a community centre).


There were ten Allandale railwaymen present who were honoured for not only their contributions to the book, but in representing their departed mates in making sure the story of the steam era at Allandale was told.


One of those ten gentlemen present was Ernie Morrison, who is no longer with us today. This month’s column is respectfully dedicated to him.


Ernie started work for the Canadian National Railways (CNR) in Meaford, Ontario as an assistant agent, better known as a “shed man”, on August 1, 1944. In those days, the local station agent held a position of prestige in a town, and to work for the railway was the dream of many a boy visiting such branchline points at a thousand locations across the country. Meaford at the time was still very much a railway town, with coal dealers, stock pens, industries, a freight shed, engine servicing facilities and a lovely turreted station right down at the harbour. A shed man’s duties were to sweep floors and load freight whenever necessary, and to make the daily yard check for freight cars six mornings a week.


Instead of “learning the key” (as his brother Harold would later do), Ernie chose to work directly with the public in the stations and express departments. Early in his career, typical of all junior men on the railway in steam days, he made a whirlwind tour of duty on his home division. He relieved the local agent in Penetang, another terminus at a Georgian Bay port, for a week. During that time he unloaded half a boxcar of beer for the local store! On the Milton Subdivision, he spent two weeks at Inglewood and two months at Milton. At Barrie, across Kempenfeldt Bay from the division point, he worked the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at the station, handling billing for the deliveries to local industries (including six coal yards, two tanneries and a large freight shed) and unloading express from number 47. He experienced the madhouse and drama that was Gravenhurst in 1946: interchange point and locomotive and crew change for freight trains, and hot paper trains for New York City from Iroquois Falls and Kapuskasing. Closer to home, he consigned reefers of apples out of Thornbury and Collingwood.

Ernie watched the branchline railway scene deteriorate from a system requiring a number of employees at each station (and section of track) to the lonely days of the 1960s, when Meaford was down to one man. He closed out Collingwood in 1975, when the CNR shut down the freight shed for lack of business. Indeed, our paths crossed in the summer of 1984, when, fresh out of Queen’s University with a civil engineering degree in hand, I chose to work as a shipping clerk with CN Trucking (the successor to the railways’ l.c.l. and express departments) for a few weeks before pursuing a position more suited to my training. Amid the telephone calls and sound of computer printers, I listened to Ernie and the other four steam era freight and express men reminisce about former days on the railway. When I asked one of Ernie’s colleagues about the branchline trains that ran on the Allandale Division behind steam power, he summed up the feeling of the men in the office: ‘it was too long ago’.

Yes, it was indeed a long time ago; a frighteningly long time ago for researchers who desire firsthand accounts of the era which fascinates us so much. In addition to numerous telephone conversations with Ernie while in search of information for my Allandale book, I spent a full day with him touring his old haunts along the Meaford Subdivision. We visited the site of every former industrial siding and track in Meaford. We scouted out Thornbury, and he patiently pointed out where every building had stood. Down at Collingwood, he reconstructed the scene of activity for me, with trains arriving from Allandale and Beeton under the sky scape dominated by huge grain elevators and a ship yard. That day was memorable, and a luxury. Readers of Steam at Allandale (and Steam Scenes of Allandale) are as indebted to Ernie and his colleagues as I am, for reaching back half a century to scour aging memory banks for information useful to us.

It frightens me how helpless as researchers we will be without the likes of Ernie Morrison. Two months ago, while planning a model railway based on the Meaford Subdivision circa 1952, I decided to give Ernie a telephone call and arrange to speak with him at length about details of the apple loading at Thornbury. This was in reaction to a visit to the local library in that community, which in common with most public secondary sources for researchers of the intricacies of railway and industrial operations, had little to offer. I had come up short of my needs, and Ernie was the fellow to turn to. Then I received my copy of the CNR Allandale Pensioners newsletter, and read of his passing at the age of 71 on May 12 after a short battle with cancer. Instead of telephoning Ernie to discuss his memories of the Meaford Subdivision, I placed a call to his brother Harold to offer my condolences.

While I shudder now to read each monthly newsletter from the CNR Pensioners, even at this late day there are still dozens of railwaymen in our very midst who worked in the steam days. Like the old photographer’s adage of ‘take a picture today, it might be gone tomorrow’, talk to these fellows now. Talk to them while there is still time. In a few short years, we modellers and railway historians will be left with nothing but inference, conjecture and speculation to substitute for real live people to tell us how it really was. It will be a very poor substitute.

Ian Wilson
August 31, 2000


P.S. Here’s that picture of Keith and I. He’s the basis for the character “Hookah Hopkin” in The Secret of the Old Swing Bridge.

“So, tell me about this Convict Conditioning,” says Russ…

… when he flagged me down in the parking lot the other night after my elder son Spencer’s baseball game. It’s a father-and-sons project in the Wilson household. We began in early February of this year. After 4-1/2 months, we’re seeing results in the way both Spencer (aged 14) and Duncan (11-1/2) are hitting the baseball.


Convict Conditioning (supplemented by Convict Conditioning 2) is the name of the bestselling bodyweight training manual written by Paul “Coach” Wade. Bodyweight training is done without the aid of a gym, weights, machines, or any type of equipment. The author spent almost 30 years behind bars, training thousands of prison athletes who had nothing but a cot and a sink on hand (and both of these things he utilized).

As a personal training program, Convict Conditioning appealed to me for two reasons. Firstly, I have no interest in joining a gym, because it costs too much money and time in travelling, changing, waiting for others on workstations (not to mention listening to horrid music, and watching inane television, the alternative being to plug yourself in to a personal isolation device via ear buds). And secondly, I don’t care to invest in any kind of gym equipment at home.

The author and publisher of Convict Conditioning have found a way to connect with millions of other guys like me. Coach Wade doesn’t miss an opportunity to discredit the bodybuilding industry, along with the supplements industry, the personal training industry, and the like. Fine with me. He explains the rationale behind bodyweight training and traces its history from ancient times. Along the way, he establishes that the strongest men in history had no gym equipment like exists today.

Wade bases his whole program on six basic exercises, which he calls the “Big Six”. They are the pushup, the squat, the pullup (a.k.a. chinup), the leg raise, the bridge (for the spine), and the handstand pushup. The last two are advanced exercises. He recommends that beginners (which is everyone new to the program) start with just the first four and stick with those for a long time.

I laid out a program based upon Coach Wade’s “New Blood” routine. He sets various objectives for his Ten Steps within each exercise. The man (boy) who completes these ten steps will possess what Wade calls “superhuman strength”. Based upon what the program delivers at that stage, I am in accord with Wade. Anyone who can do a handstand pushup, unsupported, one ONE HAND, possesses superhuman strength. Ditto for one-armed pullups. By the way, ladies—Wade makes no mistake of the fact that this is a male-centred program. I’m no expert on human physiology, so I’ll leave it at that. Your mileage may vary.

The program I organized for my sons and I will see us taking between 3 and 6 months per step. The beauty of Convict Conditioning is that it is a creature of slow growth. You only do the exercises once a week. That’s right—once a week. Any more than that causes muscle strain, which inhibits growth and leads to injury (which inevitably causes you to quit the program).

The Step One level exercises are easy, but essential for developing good form (here I am, doing Step One of the pullup, against a vertical support post).


Step two is a little harder—me doing a horizontal pullup under the kitchen table…


… and Spencer doing an incline pushup, scaring the betta fish in their bowls.


A side benefit to Convict Conditioning is weight loss. Coach Wade points out that, because you are working against your own body weight, you will subconsciously program yourself to lose weight. He doesn’t care whether you believe him or not—he says that it automatically happens, based upon the thousands of men he has trained.

Convict Conditioning is a bonding exercise for my sons and I, in addition to a fitness program. We do the exercises religiously (two on Mondays, two on Fridays) every week. We’ve even devised a “convict handshake” among the three of us, to congratulate each other (it involves one guy holding his arms up like two vertical jail cell bars, the other two shaking hands between them). Where I’m really happy about the program is in my vantage point in the bleachers at baseball games, when one of the boys connects with the ball for a multi-base hit.


If you’re interested in getting started on Convict Conditioning, I’d be happy to share with you the Excel spreadsheet I laid out for my sons and I. Kindly email me at

How I travelled back in time to the steam era—and took thousands of readers with me

The power of creative nonfiction is awesome. It’s a relatively new, and rarely used, genre of literature. Essentially, it’s applying the principles of fiction writing to nonfiction. Some people call it narrative nonfiction. More than a literary genre, I found it to be the vehicle by which I could realize my fondest dream—to travel back in time to the middle of the 20th century and witness steam locomotives operating in daily service.

Everyone seems to have a place they want to visit—a dream vacation spot, a nature preserve in Africa, the place where Uncle Teddy was wounded during the war. The exotic, the primitive, the urban, the rural. The place where they speak other languages, eat other food, practise other customs. None of that mattered to me, though. The locale I wanted to visit was so near, but yet so far. It was somewhere between a ten-minute walk and half a day’s drive away, geographically speaking. The kicker was that the distance—linear, spatial distance—wasn’t an issue. The problem was that I wanted to travel back in time.

Are you like me in some ways, where you subconsciously set an objective that you can’t possibly achieve, perhaps as a way of incurring self-defeat? My desire to visit the steam era of the 1950s in my own backyard seemed to be that very phenomenon at work. It couldn’t be done. You cannot physically travel back in time. You can look at old pictures, read old accounts, talk to people who were there. But you have to be content with that.

If that had been the end of my dream, I would have been a depressed boy (and man). Fortunately, though, once I acknowledged that I could not travel back in time in reality, a new possibility presented itself. What if I could do so in my imagination? Better still, what if I could recount the experience to other unlucky persons such as me, who longed to take the same journey but faced the same impossible reality? And suppose you, dear reader, contemplated the same possibilities?

Enter the genre of literature known as creative nonfiction. For that matter, enter the profession known as writing.

In my improvisational comedy classes at Second City in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s, we practised an exercise in imagining. It went something like this. We all laid down on the floor, on our backs, and closed our eyes. Then we pictured and imagined specific things in sensory detail. It could be anything—a carnival, a quiet evening by the lake at a cottage, a walk around the block. The phenomenon of self-hypnosis works this way.

For us in that improv comedy class, it was a discovery exercise. Observe something in your imagination (say, the Ferris wheel at the carnival). Go closer (in your mind’s eye). Hear, see, smell, feel the environment. Notice a popcorn vendor. Go closer. Taste the popcorn. Hear someone’s voice calling you. Turn your head to see who it is. Notice that it’s a clown, beckoning you closer. Go closer. Notice that the clown’s face is someone you know. Look into that face.

And so on. The process can become scary, in a hurry. It can become exhilarating, exciting. It can become sad. It can become a lot of things. The point of the exercise is to explore. The point of the exercise is also to realize that you can create anything in your imagination. And, while you can safely or regrettably pull yourself away from the experience, while you are there it is as real as reality. Subconsciously, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real and an imagined experience.

Some years later, I connected the dots between the improvisational comedy workshop exercise and my dream to travel back in time and see the steam locomotives in my hometown of Barrie, Ontario. That desire—to travel back in time—led to my becoming a writer. The degree to which I imagined the experience of travelling back in time was the degree to which I realized my dream. And the degree to which I documented that imaginary experience and applied the principles of writing creative nonfiction was the degree to which I achieved success as an author.