Underwear revealed Nelson man’s knack for poetry

Gordon Fleming went back to school to become a shop teacher. To his surprise, he discovered he was also a poet.

Gordon Fleming

Eighth in a series of pioneer profiles

In 1971, Gordon Fleming wrote a poem for his University of BC English class about underwear. The opening lines were an homage to a similarly-themed work by American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I didn’t sleep last night much thinking about underwear

My own underwear

I had to go home last weekend so I brought my underwear with me

I mean I wore the usual amount and brought the last eight days in a plain brown paper bag

However, after forgetting to take it back with him, he ends up washing his lone remaining pair in the sink, and hanging it out the window to dry — which makes him reflect on what a labour of love it must be to wash someone else’s underwear. He also wonders if anyone can tell he doesn’t have any on.

In the meantime, what I am wearing — no underwear — is hard to forget

I think about it and make mistakes in my work …

But really, underwear is a very private matter. It is a secret between me and my trousers.

“That was the beginning,” recalls Fleming, 84. “I didn’t think it was anything very special. I just turned it over to the instructor, who wrote on it ‘Terrific.’ I had no idea that it was. So that gave me the idea to send it to Ferlinghetti.”

Ferlinghetti sent back a handwritten note: “Dear Fleming — Thanks for your underwear.”

Ever since, Fleming has been a prolific writer.

“He’s an amazing poet,” says his daughter-in-law Barb. “Anything coming up — could be a birthday or a wedding — he would sit down and write. Christmas letters would be two pages of verse of what had happened the previous year.”

When Parkinson’s disease reduced his voice to a whisper, he wrote a poem entitled Speech Therapy.

He’s also written memoirs about being a scout leader, building his Bealby Road house, and growing up in Nelson as the seventh of Ross and Minnie Fleming’s eight children.

For decades, his father was among the city’s most prominent figures, as an alderman, band leader, and proprietor of Fleming’s Grocery (later turned into an apartment building and then demolished in 1996 when Safeway expanded).

Gordon’s memoir also discusses his fondness for motorcycles — which is how he met wife Lorraine.

After a dance one night, he and some friends “let it be known if any of the girls would like a ride, our bikes were available. Lorraine was the only one brave enough to take us up on it.”

He took her home, but she got off a block from where she was staying with her aunt and uncle, afraid they would see her on the bike. Even so, the next morning her uncle, a police sergeant, asked: “Did you come home on that motorcycle?”

The couple was already building their home when they married in 1950.

“I don’t think of it so much as building this house as creating it,” Lorraine says. “It got changed and added onto so many times.”

Gordon, the archetypal fix-it guy, did much of the work himself.

“He was always building, reinventing, and improving things,” says youngest son John. “It’s just a talent he has.”

After many years as a machinist, Gordon trained in industrial education (during which time he composed his famous poem), then returned to Nelson to teach at L.V. Rogers.

In retirement, he indulged his passion for woodworking, turning out beautiful toys, furniture, and jewelry boxes. For years, foreign exchange students coming here have each received a little handcrafted box with a Canadian flag painted on the lid. Gordon’s handiwork has literally spread around the world.

Previous installments in this series:

Jake Conkin

Walt Laurie

Eric and Peggy Denny

Ray Kosiancic

Lois Arnesen

Cameron Mah

Fran Horan

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