Trilling on the Trail

An old friend stopped by to visit the other day. He appeared at my front door without warning, taking me back almost fifty years to the moment we first met. He is still quite the singer. His stride is supremely confident. Most annoyingly, he finds unqualified joy in every blasted thing he sees and hears. My friend is, after all, The Happy Wanderer.

If you’ve encountered The Happy Wanderer at some time in your life, you know exactly who I’m talking about.  He is Mr. “Val-deri, Val-dera”.  Those words alone should revive the sing-song tune fried into most brains since childhood.  “The Happy Wanderer” could’ve been quarantined within Germany were it not for its award-winning performance by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir (and subsequent radio broadcast by the BBC), in 1953.  Then, Mr. Wanderer went worldwide-viral and there was no turning back ever.

Oberkirchen coat of arms

According to his lyrics, The Happy Wanderer (we’ll just call him “Hap”) takes hikes into the mountains and alongside streams, his hat on his head; his knapsack on his back.  Hap points out blackbirds and skylarks along the way, and his journey brings him unbridled giddy happiness and laughter (as in, “Val-deri, Val-der-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”).  Our boy smiles the entire time and boldly invites YOU to join in the singing.  In his final verse, Hap wants to wander (and sing) until the day he dies.  That’s a little extreme for a children’s song, don’t you think?

Speaking of childhood, Hap and I first met way back then.  He entered the “UK Singles Chart” on January 22, 1954, eight-years-to-the-day before I was born.  Eight years after I was born, I henpecked Hap’s tune as I learned to play the piano.  “Chopsticks”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and “The Happy Wanderer” were almost assuredly the first three pieces I ever memorized.

Hap wandered into my life again in the Boy Scouts.  I recall a lot of singing on weekend hikes (not sure why – who’d be happy backpacking forty pounds towards some distant campsite?)  Besides “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Ants Go Marching…”, we Scouts unabashedly sang “The Happy Wanderer” through mountains and alongside streams.  Hap’s tune even made the official list of “Scout songs” (see here.)

I thought I was done with Hap years ago (it took me decades to forget his slaphappy song), but recently he resurfaced.  First, on a cruise down Germany’s Rhine River, at an outdoor dinner in the little town of Rüdesheim.  I was volunteered by my fellow travelers to play with the band.  I manned a big oom-pah-pah drum while another poor soul clanged the cymbals.  A band member played the clarinet.  And our one and only performance – naturally – was “The Happy Wanderer”.  To add shame to the silliness, we marched between the tables as we played.  I did my best to look “happy”.

Hap’s other revelation may be a little more prolonged.  On the same Rhine River cruise, in Bavaria, my wife and I bought a handmade cuckoo clock.  The clock was shipped and arrived in the States two weeks ago.  Imagine my delight when I wound the clock and the cuckoo bird busted through his little door, the dancers twirled, and the tiny music box played “Edelweiss”.  The “sound of music” every hour on the hour!  Er, every other hour on the hour.  Turns out our cuckoo clock has two songs.  Hello, Happy Wanderer.  If I choose to, I hear his gleeful melody twelve times a day.  Or, If I choose to, I can flip a switch and I don’t hear anything at all.  I expect I’ll be flipping the switch any day now.

If you’d like to add to my hap-aberration, go to 1-800-FLOWERS and have a hardenbergia violacea delivered to my door.  HV is a species of flowering plant from the pea family.  Some call it a lilac vine.  Others give it nicknames like “false sarsasparilla” or “purple coral”.  It’s also lovingly referred to as “The Happy Wanderer”.

Heaven help me.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Toasty of the Town

College and professional sports offer the perfect environment for several strange team mascots. Here in the U.S. of A, a bear or tiger or some other animal just doesn’t make the cut anymore. Instead, we have a wide assortment of weirdos: “The Tree” (Stanford University), “Blue Blob” (Xavier University), “The Phillie Phanatic” (Philadelphia pro baseball), and “Whatizit/Izzy” (Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics). If you prefer downright creepy, look no further than “King Cake Baby” (New Orleans pro basketball). The Pelicans just won the #1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. They should keep King Cake in the closet ’til they sign Zion Williamson.

       

   

I’m an avid sports fan, so coming up with these examples was a no-brainer. I could add another dozen without too much thought. But even the weirdest of these characters – take your pick – couldn’t prepare me for a local newcomer, debuting next month alongside our minor league baseball team, the Rocky Mountain Vibes. Meet “Toasty – the fun-loving S’more“. You heard that right – a dancing, cheering S’more.

“Toasty”

Salmon and maple syrup?  Incompatible.  Grounds for divorce?  Irreconcilable.  Oil and vinegar?  Immiscible.  But a S’more and baseball?  Super-duper immiscible!

The Rocky Mountain Vibes – formerly the Helena Montana Brewers – must have a twisted front office.  I’d like to meet one or two of their decision-makers.  Consider the five finalists in their “name-the-team” contest:

  1. Colorado Springs Happy Campers
  2. Colorado Springs Lamb Chops
  3. Colorado Springs Punchy Pikas
  4. Colorado Springs Throttle Jockeys
  5. Rocky Mountain Oysters

If these are the finalists, I don’t want to see the rest of the entries. Happy Campers and Lamb Chops?  What the heck is a Punchy Pika?  And for those of you unfamiliar with a Throttle Jockey or Rocky Mountain Oyster, click the links at your own risk.  I repeat, at your own risk.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

With a passing degree of intelligence, the Vibes nixed all five finalists and came up with their own choice.  They claimed “Vibes” was something of a spin on “Happy Campers”; that euphoric feeling experienced in the Colorado outdoors.  Whatever.  Even without the reference, it’s a pretty good name.

Otherwise, this baseball team goes off the rails.  The Vibes’ major-league affiliate is the distant Milwaukee Brewers (not the Colorado Rockies right up the road in Denver).  They have five team colors – can’t wait to see those perky uniforms – “rubine” red, navy, gold, sky blue, and tan.  They’ve never, ever won a minor league title.  And then there’s that mascot.  I can’t get past it; a dancing, cheering S’more?  And then you had to go and name him “Toasty”?

If we’re just talking S’mores as a dessert – remove the Vibes – we’d be having a whole different conversation.  I love a good S’more.  Er, qualify that; I love a good S’more for about ten minutes.  Then I’ve had enough for the next six months.  It’s like those plate-sized German apple pancakes you gorge on at carnivals and amusement parks.  They sound good and smell good, but you pay too much for one and you’re feeling sick after just a couple of bites.  Don’t forget to wipe all that powdered sugar off your face.

S’mores are a basic, fun dessert.  Like the wheel or the hamburger, the origin of the S’more is debatable.  The most credible story in my book: a recipe published by the Campfire Marshmallow company back in the 1920’s.  Since then S’mores have been a favorite of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (or just about anyone with graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate bars, and a nearby campfire).  You can order a S’mores Frappuccino at Starbucks. You can even purchase an “Electric S’mores Maker” on Amazon.

With no lack of embarrassing small-town flair, Colorado Springs has completely embraced Toasty’s upcoming debut.  A handful of local diners want you to “Vote for Your Favorite ‘S’more'”, with the following choices (restaurant names omitted in a desperate attempt to save their reputations):

  1. S’mores cheesecake bar (“healthier” with GF graham crackers!)
  2. “Sweet Victory” Tableside S’mores (including mini-campfire!)
  3. Smoky S’mores Cannoli (apologies to Italy)
  4. Savory S’mores Lamb Chops (no comment)
  5. S’mores Pancakes (i.e. dessert for breakfast)
  6. S’mores Florentina (with rum flambé, naturally)

Mark your calendar – August 10th is National S’mores Day.  You’ll probably get a free one if you’re watching the Vibes at the ballpark that day.  As for me, I’ll be sitting at home lamenting our former minor-league baseball team, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.  I’ve already forgotten the Sox mascot. Pretty sure it wasn’t a dessert.

 

Some content sourced from the Springs Magazine article, “Toasty S’mores Tasting Contest”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

It’s All in the Cards

Back in the Boy Scouts, my troop-mates and I memorized statements designed to make us better young men. The Boy Scout motto was, “Be Prepared”. The Scout slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily” (help others). The Scout oath – several sentences stated with a raised right hand (fingers forming the Scout sign) – included obedience to the twelve points of the Scout law. Recently I’ve been thinking about Point #2 of the Scout law, Loyalty; showing care for family, friends, and country.  But what about care for merchants?

Customer loyalty programs – those structured marketing ploys designed to tempt continued shopping at particular businesses – are standard retail procedure these days.  The use of plastic and punch cards, account numbers, or scanned apps is as common as pulling out your Visa.  I get suspicious when a merchant doesn’t have a loyalty program.  It’s all about the points, and the allure of discounts or freebies through accumulated spending.

American Airlines, credited with starting the first full-scale customer loyalty program in modern times (1981), had no idea its “frequent fliers” would become the trendsetters for countless programs to follow.  But the drive for customer loyalty started way before AA.  Anyone who remembers pasting S&H Green Stamps into collection books, clipping Betty Crocker coupons straight from the product box, fishing prizes from Cracker Jack caramel corn, or joining the Columbia House Record Club (“8 CD’s for a penny!”) has dipped their toe into the customer loyalty pool before.

I took a quick inventory of my own customer loyalty and the numbers surprised me.  I carry eight cards in my car.  I have another eleven apps on my phone and another ten on-line accounts.  That’s 29 unique programs, and over 30 if I include the couple of credit cards where my swipes eventually equal cash back.  For someone who rarely shops on impulse, that’s more attention to spending than I’d care to admit.

If I did a little spring cleaning, I’d likely reduce my loyalty programs by one-third.  Many sit gathering dust because I haven’t used the merchant or service in years.  Others accumulate points at a snail’s pace.  Fill my inbox with special sales alerts or saturate my voice mails with pleas to “buy now!”; it won’t matter.  I purchase on my own terms.

Here are two recent loyalty experiences; the reasons I chose this topic today.  Last September we took a weekend trip to Aspen, settling for a Westin hotel in nearby Snowmass (Aspen is over-the-top expensive to us commoners).  When I went to Westin’s website for the booking, I discovered their loyalty program (Starwood) was merging with Marriott Rewards (now Marriott Bonvoy).  Hallelujah – my Aspen getaway gets me points! But not so fast.  Logging into Marriott Rewards, the home page alerted me to the fact the program merge was still in progress, and a Westin stay might not result in Marriott points.  Long story short, I called the hotel, spoke to the front desk, and had them book the reservation for me instead.  Yep, you can still do it the old-fashioned way.  And you still get points.

My other recent loyalty experience involved Nicholas Mosse Pottery (Kilkenny, Ireland).  Mosse makes beautiful handmade plates and bowls and the like, and we’ve been collecting a few pieces at a time since visiting Ireland a few years ago.  Points for me (ha) for joining the Mosse loyalty program from the get-go.  Just this week they alerted me me to my quietly-amassed rewards.  I then purchased a $70 plate for virtually nothing.

My Mosse experience is the perfect example of my casual approach to customer loyalty.  I don’t keep track of points until they equate to something significant.  Sure, I favor certain products and services, but I’d still favor Marriott or Starbucks or Costco without their loyalty programs.  For someone who tracks every penny, there’s something very satisfying in the surprise of unexpected discounts.  That’s how it works best for me.

Here’s my advice.  Don’t let customer loyalty programs drive your spending habits.  If you do, the merchant “wins”, because you’re likely spending more along the way than whatever discount or freebie you end up getting.  Loyalty = showing care; yes, but with retail that should only mean preferring one store over another.  Despite what they’d have you believe, it’s not all in the cards.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from the Wall Street Journal article, “Inside the Marriott-Starwood Loyalty Program Turbulence”.