It was Grady Jim Robinson who first alerted me to the power of childhood stories. He pointed out that as we grow older we become more and more aware of our differences: you are black and I am white, you are female and I am male, you are old and I am young, you are rich and I am poor, you are liberal and I am conservative....and so on. But there is one place where we all were the same...our childhood. We all share in that childhood heritage....when we were all young, innocent, vulnerable, excited about life and new things. We can all relate back to those days. And that is why childhood stories affect us so deeply...they bring us back to those times that we so vividly remember. Take the following story as an example....
Things sure are different today than they were when I was a child.
Well, take the cell phone for example. Everyone seems to have one these days. Back when I was a child of course they didn't have cell phones. Back then the rage was a transistor radio. Even though everyone on the block wanted one, few could afford them.
Looking back to those times it's unbelievable what technological advances we have made. Today I fly back and forth to Canada by airplane every few weeks. Back then planes were too expensive - we travel by train or by bus.
I remember one train trip we took in 1958. I was 10 years old then.
1958 was a big year in my life. Early in 1958 my father died. My mother and I spent the rest of that year adjusting to life without my father. It wasn't easy but by the end of that year my mother decided it was time for us to get away for a while. She decided to pack us up and take us on a train trip to New York.
The trip would take three days and two nights. We would have to travel clear across Canada on the Canadian National Railroad to Toronto and then catch the Amtrak from Toronto to New York.
I can't tell you how exciting it was for me to see the big long train at the station. I loved the porters standing with their freshly pressed white shirts and dark blue uniforms. I could hardly wait to hear the conductor shout out "All Aboard" and see the porters scramble to get on board and close up the doors to their cars. Slowly the train made its way along the track. Then it fell into its natural rhythm as the wheels rolled down the track - te te te te...te te te te...te te te te....te te te te.
I spent the next two days walking up and down the train - exploring the various cars. There were three classes of passengers on this train. The first class had private compartments. The second class, where we were, had bunk bed sleeping arrangements. The third class consisted of just seats. I loved to watch the porters preparing the sleeping compartments for the passengers. It was fascinating. But the most fun was to go to the restaurant car where they served drinks and sandwiches.
Back then we didn't have electronic game boys to entertain us. So we played games like checkers snakes and ladders. I soon made friends on board and we passed the time deeply engaged in these games.
When we arrived in Toronto we transferred over to the Amtrack Silver Liner train. This was my first impression of America. It was big, it was sleek, it was shiny it was, it was fast, it was clean, and it was silver - and I loved it!
On that train I met two black boys and we passed the time away together. It was the first time I ever met anyone who was black. We passed the time away playing games like Xs and Os, completing the squares, and my favorite: battleship. We loved watching the conductor go down the cars yelling out "tickets please" and then clipping each one with his hole puncher....chk chk...chk chk.
We arrived in New York at Grand Central station. This was a huge building - so big that I remember the announcements used to echo through the building. Announcing, announcing announcing the arrival, arrival arrival of the Amtrak train from Boston, Boston, Boston - the deep voice boomed through the building.
We caught a taxi and went to one of the nearest hotels, the Tudor hotel. It is still there on 42nd street near 2nd avenue. I remember my mother bargaining with the desk clerk over the price of our room, then the bellman closing the according gate as we entered the elevator and operating the manual controls to take us up to the 22nd floor. It was a huge building for a little guy from Edmonton...as were all the skyscrapers in New York.
Over the course of the next few days we walked all over New York City. We went to the top of the Empire State building, we traveled the subways, we ate in restaurants. One of my favorite restaurants was the Horn and Hardot automat restaurants. There they presented food in little compartments with windows in them. For example, a compartment might have a piece of apple pie on a plate. You would choose the food you wanted, pay by inserting coins into the slot and take what you purchased to the table to eat it. I was fascinated by all the food options and the mechanization involved. I regret they no longer have those restaurants in New York.
While staying in the hotel one day I decided to try my new invention....making a round cylinder out of a piece of paper that could house water and then serve as a water bomb. I filled the ball with water and opened the window at the stairway. I waited for the appropriate moment and then dropped the water bomb 20 flights just missing a man who was passing by. Boy was he mad. He looked up and just caught me looking down at him. I ran to our room and closed the door. I heard the elevator come up with the bell man and the other man looking for me. Somehow I survived without getting found out.
One of the highlights of our visit was seeing Broadway and Times Square. Anyone who has been on Broadway will know about the electronic stores there. The windows in those stores were filled with transistor radios. Well I resolved right then and there to persuade my mother it was time to buy me a transistor radio. And that Christmas, on December 24th, 1958, my mother finally bought me what I had been asking for - a brand new light blue colored transistor radio.
One of the happiest moments of my life came shortly after that purchase. It was on New Year's eve 1958 going into 1959. I remember sitting in the hotel room, my mother reading on her bed, me across the room listening to my new radio on mine. As we approached midnight in the distance I could hear the excitement of the roaring crowd in Times Square as it faintly entered through out hotel window. At the same time, I listened to the celebrations live on my transistor radio. It's a moment I will always cherish.
But there is another reason why stories like this one affect listeners the way they do. The reason is because most childhood stories have been sealed away in our memories by powerful emotions that accompanied the events involved. When we relate childhood stories we unlock those emotions and they in turn touch our audiences like no words ever could. That is because emotions are the currency of the most effective communication. All of us again, black or while, female or male, old or young, etc...understand and are touched by emotion.
So, to conclude, let me urge you to incorporate more stories, particularly childhood stories in your future presentations. You will be more effective and your audiences will be glad.