Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pre-School and Post-Retirement Timing

I must have been about five years old when we spent some time visiting my Mother's Aunt Fanny. Around many kitchens then you would find an hourglass shape mounted on a card. It was called an egg timer. I have no idea now how well boiled the eggs were to be, but they would certainly not have been boiled for that nominal hour. I am surprised now that the device was left within my reach, and that I was allowed to play with it. In the era it would have been made of glass, and fragile.

Play with it I did. Many many times I turned it up to start timing. Aunt Fanny would see me and make a remark about what I was cooking this time. What I actually had in mind on each occasion was that this time I was going to watch all the sand flowing through to the end. I never managed it. I do remember deciding that I really must see the end of the process as well as the begining. At least once I started it going and let it run briefly before turning it up the other way and watching a few moments at the end.

Some years later I was rude enough to describe an opponent in debate as having an attention span that was shorter than his reaction time. I should be more careful before being pejorative. More to the current point I suspect I should lock myself in the kitchen any time I start a process in which a pot can boil dry.


Monday, June 25, 2007

A Friend in Philadelphia

Within the area of the "City of Brotherly Love" there are several well known townships set up by "Friends"; sometimes better known as "Quakers". Swarthmore is best known for Swarthmore College, an undergraduate establishment whose alumni are highly regarded in graduate schools. It is set in Delaware County and forty years ago there was a research foundation located on the Campus. That was my destination one February day. They had found me lodgings for the night and so I came to 610 Walnut Avenue.

One night became several months. I was always the lodger but soon fitted somewhere in the extended family. I stayed in the extended family even when I moved out and away. The point of contact, somewhat unusual in the area, was the teapot in the kitchen. In the living room, the books were of more importance than the TV. Not too seriously, but always solemnly, we often dropped into "Quakerspeak". It was an accolade to earn "Thou speakest to my condition."
My landlady was an important member of "Meeting", the Friends Meeting House on Campus. Wherever she joined she became involved. Her three daughters all passed through the girl scout movement. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for her to be the parent who was on tap and working. The family were tightly connected to the Swarthmore Players and later she founded and edited a publication about all the local drama groups. These interests might be thought of as personal. The League of Women Voters, a pacifist viewpoint and lingering regrets that Prohibition was no longer the law were more part of her heritage, but certainly skin tight.
Her Quaker lineage was several generations deep, as was her commitment to education. I was warmed but not too surprised when she once remarked that she had been taken as a little girl to meet, long after the event, a slave who had been freed by The Civil War.
She saw the world through American eyes. That did not stop her from identifying with dramatic parts of old world and especially United Kingdom history. A tour when she turned seventy formed a highlight of that year.
Her political and social views were quite strong and I think predictable from her environment. They did not stop her , while I was on a later flying visit, driving me up to look around the cooling towers on Three Mile Island. That did not change her overarching views, but it made her more comfortable with some of the safety aspects. Over the teapot afterward I introduced the subject of the Johnstown Flood. She had maybe forgotten it, or even never heard it described as the largest disaster in Pennsylvanian history. I don't think either of us thought of or mentioned Gettysburgh.
Much of her life was built into 610 Walnut Avenue, and she ached afterwards with the pain of leaving it. The two cats and a dog that were part of the household in the early sixties paid little attention as we discussed their egos and agreed never to let them see that we might laugh at them.
Intimations of mortality included an operation that put a cancer into remission. She was therefore still around at the end of the 11th day of September 2001, and two members of the family were missing. One, a fireman, had been shunted onto a different team early in the day and was too busy to make contact later. The other got out of the tower in which she was working. She was calming down elsewhere, while someone emerged carrying her abandoned handbag and added her to the initial casualty list. Settling down afterward took effort, and time.
Early this year there was a special election that would have brought up 50 years of local voting, but illness kept the lady away. A few weeks later her heart went peacefully to rest.
Many people will go on saying "She still speaketh to my condition."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Thoughts and Afterthoughts

Niagara : The Fallout

Most WWI veterans in New Zealand who maintained their service connections were at best wary of the Labour Party between the wars. I did not pay attention but I am sure that I could have heard my elders and betters being scornful on the subject of what was being done about our local minefield. There were no purpose built minesweepers in place and a number of coastal traders were taken over and retrofitted for the task. As long as a mine stayed in place it was assumed to be dangerous. If a mine broke away from its mooring it was supposed to disarm itself.
It must have been less than two years after the sinking of the Niagara that I was shown the mechanism existing in each horn of the mine to produce an explosion, and also the way breaking the mooring disabled it. [Almost] everyone knew this and it was reinforced by an urban/rural/coastal myth. The story was that a mine had broken away and got washed up on a beach. Such things did happen. In the myth a local farmer had heard of a reward for finding a mine. He decided not to risk someone else claiming that reward. Once it was on his land he would feel secure about his reward so he got his horse(s) into harness to tow it a little way. There was a portion of the cable as a convenient place to hitch onto. Any reward he obtained was in another sphere. His demise is not in the official history.

Unfortunately there were casualties. The mines were brought to the surface and exploded by rifle fire. The explosions could be heard from a considerable distance. We heard several when there was no visible minesweeper. The casualties came on an occasion when a minesweeper struck a mine that had been spotted on or close to the surface, late on the evening before. It had moved in the meantime, so was obviously already detached from its mooring. The disabling mechanism did not work that time.

For whatever reason the authorities were soon confident that there was clear channel fairly close to the coast. Perhaps nobody thought a German ship would dare linger long within sight of land to lay more than had already been found there. The mines that surfaced or were swept possibly began to show the pattern associated with a fairly swift single passage across the mouth of the Hauraki Gulf. For the remainder of WWII the shipping lane hugged the coast until it had left the Gulf well behind it. Incoming shipping came on the same track. They came inside the boundaries of Bream Bay, between us and our accustomed set of islands on the horizon. I am not sure that knowing all shipping movements in and out of Auckland would have benefitted the Axis Powers too much, but our coast would have been the ideal spot for the spy to set up in business. We watched the arrival of the QEI, but I don't remember a departure. It could easily have been at night If there was a battleship HMS Howe, with 15 inch guns, afloat at that time, and if she visited Auckland, I did but see her passing by, and my memory has not slipped completely. I am prepared to be corrected about the name of the ship, but not the event.
When a war zone approaches a coastline some debris often comes first. From time to time during WWII penguins came ashore with oil on their feathers. That spoiled their swimming and in preening themselve they were likely to poison themselves. Some rationpacks must have been discarded occasionally somewhere. Some bits floated ashore. Most material was spoiled by the time it got there but occasionally a container of boiled lollies or something that floated and contained chocolate made the sea shore. Sugary things were in short supply and rationed. The tide came up and the beachcombers came down, to the beaches and the neighbouring rocks.

Curiosity is always at home in small boys. In that district people often cleared tree stumps and rocks. There was work involving explosives, including at least one working quarry. Small boys had to be warned about hazards. In my first school there was a display warning us not to play with detonators. From memory it was pretty graphic. Most schools of the time would, I think, have had their own copy of the display. We all knew on one level what at least one brand of the device called a detonator looked like. Likewise, that if we saw a detonator we did not even pick it up and that we called for adult backup.
It remains true that three small boys were not prepared for what they -- we -- did find. Where we found it I do not see that it could have come in from the sea Nor yet do I see it coming down to that point from the land. It is late to ask.

Imagine four large altar candles - not wax but looking vaguely waxy. Tie them together with some toughish string. Indent one end of each so that a copper structure will fit there. Two of them had the copper structures in place, and one of those had a further copper structure fitted into that. After doing several foolish things we took the collection home. We had enough sense between us not to interfere with that final small copper structure, which was indeed a detonator. The collection was eventually and casually transported to an army depot where it got much more respectful treatment - and was not returned.
We would probably claim that the war passed the three of us by at a safe distance. On final summation, make that a "sufficient" distance.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Niagara : The Mine and the Gold

Niagara - the Mine and the Gold

I think I knew the name RMS Niagara before she went out of circulation. June 19th 1940, just before the winter solstice, was a day that I remember as clear and sparkling. Don’t ask me about the weather on any other day in 1940. At the other end of the world the then current Republic of France was dying. Until I looked up the dates recently I did not connect the two. I don’t know how we found out that the ship was sinking just a little out of our view. I am sure that in wartime someone would have tried to keep the whole thing secret. Less than six hours after the event it was being discussed on our school bus. Before we got to school the whole coastline must have known that there had been an explosion and the ship was sinking, or had sunk. Speculation had wings. I remember quoting my older brother to two teachers. “He says it is Von Luckner again.” The almost legendary WWI sailor had visited NZ several years earlier. Hector must have started reading and connecting ideas from newspapers that early. The teachers would not buy the idea.

By nightfall I think the first supply of secrecy had mostly vanished. Boats sent to collect survivors were no longer congregated as a tempting target for somebody. The story took a while to emerge but a German vessel named Orion had laid a string of mines in and across the main shipping lane(s) out of Auckland via the Hauraki Gulf. There is a chart they recorded with an irregular string of mines marked at one end by the northern tip of the “Great Barrier Island”. This Island continues the general line of the Coromandel Peninsular on one side of the Hauraki Gulf. At the other end of the string of mines many were laid where the Orion must have been within sight of Bream Head , the northern end of Bream Bay. The Niagara hit one of these in the early hours of the day, and settled in calm seas. By the end of the day her depth under the ocean was about twice the height of Niagara Falls. All the passengers and crew were taken off safely, although the cat was missing for some days before it drifted ashore on some wreckage. There was considerable ‘human interest’ publicity about someone who was migrating on her honeymoon and how she had lost her trousseau.

At the time I was listed in adult terms as belonging to the tribe of the ‘little pigs with long ears’. I have the impression that nobody on the coast was supposed to know, as everybody apparently did, that a considerable amount of gold had been, and stayed, in the strongroom as the ship sank. Considerably later that year a local who had come to shear sheep for us assured us that the ship had been located and the gold would all be recovered in the next few weeks. “They have the wreck marked by a buoy. You can see it near Sail Rock”.

We had seen the buoy through binoculars from our location close to Bream Tail, which makes the southern end of Bream Bay, but we did not believe the story. On our horizon Bream Bay, named by Captain Cook, was enclosed by Islands also named by Captain Cook. A largish island was the Hen and scattered a bit north of it were the Chickens. On the other side of the Hen Captain Cook may have seen an isolated dissident and rocky Chicken. From some angles it looks like a spinnaker on a modern yacht. Locals see it as Sail Rock. Perspectives do change. I am almost used to the name Taranga for the Hen. In my later view it is neither. It looks, in a view that I saw most days for more than a decade, like a Jurassic dragon of some sort stretched flat with its head toward the main Chickens and tail curving away from Sail Rock.

It is a matter of history that the wreck was located early the following year. Well away from the event the chart on the Orion was marked with a supposed wreck site. That spot was on the line of the string of mines and hidden from us by the Chickens. Several nautical miles away, but still I think on the mine string, is the position now quoted for the wreck. That site is hidden from our vantage point by The Hen/Taranga. Further along much the same line was the buoy ‘near’ Sail Rock. I think that was a simple mistake.

Recovery of the gold followed in spasms. The technology of the time allowed an interesting feedback loop. There was a diver in a sealed observation chamber with a window to view the action. He was suspended from a crane on the deck of the aged coastal vessel Claymore. He directed by telephone what was done from the deck above by instruments suspended on a second cable. He had no mechanical linkage. He even had to be winched away from the action before explosives could be used in the process of breaking into the strongroom. There was likewise a distinct risk that explosive in the wrong place could disperse the contents as they were liberated. The reader can imagine doing all remote handling operations, sight unseen, from the deck above, as directed by telephone. The operations performed on the ship would then produce results over a hundred metres below. Delicate operations to retrieve gold bars involved mechanical grabs. Once again it is left to the reader to decide what to do when there is a swell travelling over the ocean. It is tempting to imagine a winch which pays out or hauls in the suspension line so that the load at the bottom stays at a constant depth below mean sea level. It is even easier to imagine the difficulties of control without your lap top. There should be admiration and possibly surprise that the first sequence of operations recovered a considerable majority of the gold bars that were the object of the exercise. Equally unsurprising will be the considerable number left behind at that time.

By the end of WWII equipment and control methods had improved enormously. The missing minority has now shrunk to five gold bars out of the original XXX.

There were other repercussions. They can wait for another story.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Rory Campbell

When you are in primary school, everyone from the generations older than your parents fits into the category of old. I have no idea just how old Rory was and I am even at a loss to say whether he was retired at the time. I know roughly where he lived, and he may have been farming on a small scale. The party line phone we used was connected to his home. I can say with near certainty that anyone who lived in the area for a year or two knew him and his wife, ‘Wee Betty’. She came up fairly close to his shoulder height. It was understood by everyone on our party line that she listened to all conversations to which that line gave her access. I don’t remember anyone accusing her of broadcasting information. She may well have decided that she did not want to provide evidence for those who might object if they could. Rory himself was tall and straight. I think he must have started out topped off with red hair as described by the Gaelic ‘Rory’. By the time I knew him I think the flame would have gone out up top. I have no memory about the extent of the fading remnant. What I do remember is what we always called a Busby, but I think is more properly called a Bearskin. For a considerable number in the area of the township of Waipu New Years Day was ‘The One Day of the Year’. For the first half of the day you could meet a lot of people in full highland regalia and possibly smelling of moth balls. Rory was always one of these. Wee Betty was not always by his side but they were visible together enough times during the day to allow strangers to be told about the long and the short of it in local marriage.

I dare say he was a feature in some of the word of mouth advertising for the festivities and the sports to start the New Year. If you meet anyone who ever heard of him there is at least one extra feature that is unique in my experience. In my memory he is the only person who carried an ear trumpet. Now of course in my turn I am a fading remnant of the urchins of the time who all just had to find and excuse to talk to him and can now say that they used an ear trumpet for real at least once.

Hearing aids were not all that common at the time, but if he had lived so long and you met him now he might still be using the trumpet. As a friend of mine remarks audibly occasionally “You do not get Scottish ancestry for nothing, but if you have it you are bound to try and get everything else for nearly nothing”.

The Auckland Star was one of two widely read papers and it was always searching for ways to increases its share of the reading populace. Rory in fact often called in to see his nephew just down the road about the time that the Star was delivered.

So it came about that he brought unintended fame to his locality and a lot of friendly amusement to his neighbours. A paragraph appeared in one of the regular columns of the Star – with a fictitious name, possibly to avoid any way it could be actionable.

‘McSqudgeon of Waipu has written our circulation editor a nice letter and we would like to quote from it. “Dear Sir, I have read of the offer of privileges you are making to your readers. Now I read your paper very regularly, but I never buy it. I am not able to use the standard entry form. Will the information I offer here be sufficient?”’

From memory the editor too was a skinflint, and none of the neighbours was moved to buy a subscription for Rory. Nobody I heard ever doubted the identification. I think his nephew, plus wife and family, were quite happy to continue to see him each day. Wee Betty was presumably too busy specialising in the local news, but they could compare notes when he got home.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thoughts and Afterthoughts

Thoughts and Afterthoughts

Donald “More” McKenzie

My first cousin Donald McKenzie scrambled his name a bit while learning to talk. He was known as “Dollar” for some of his youth. After a decade or so, when people were about ready to become more formal, two new “first cousin Donald”s arrived for him. My father and his mother were siblings. I was given the first name Donald. Not much later. on the other side of his family, his father’s sister called her first son Donald. A year or two after I helped confuse his life, I acquired a cousin on the other side. My mother’s sister had a son who was given the name Donald McLennan. Now that Donald McLennan already had a first cousin on his other side named Donald McLennan. For something like half a century my young cousin used his second name. In recent years he has migrated back from being Graham McLennan to being Don McLennan.

At Christmas certain fissures in the family were papered over. My Aunt Myra, another of Dad’s six sisters, dubbed me Donald “Beag” and Donald McKenzie became Donald “More”. If I had been able to spell at the time I would have written my extra name as ‘Beck’, but that last consonant sound in Gaelic is rather more complicated. Translated, I was “little Donald” and he was “big Donald”. My non English speaking background is sparse after two removes. Myra’s mother, my Grandma, spoke English to her parents, and they spoke Gaelic to her. A few words only were convenient for the next generation

I was about to remark that I did not know ‘Dollar’ - Donald More - properly, and I realised I did not know Aunt Myra either. Dad once pointed in passing to a person in a group photo of soldiers, taken a week or so before the Battle of Messines. The main topic was some other aspect of the photo. I gathered that if that man had survived that week, and a lot of other messy weeks in WWI, he might have married my Aunt Myra.
She had taken a northern hemisphere trek lasting some years between the wars. She took strong impulsive and dogmatic views which I would not be sure I could defend, e.g., late in a summer plagued by a polio epidemic: “They should not re-open any of the [~1000] schools in this education area if it puts one more child at risk of polio.”
She had by that time retired from the teaching service unexpectedly when her eyesight was badly damaged, as I understand it, by glaucoma. There could also have been simultaneous complications of cataracts.
In most other matters she was on the other side of any family fault lines.

Donald More was almost, but not quite, in my generation. At the outbreak of WWII he was already in the workforce. He was a handsome, and in my view then a large, young man. In our parents’ generation men who were not returned soldiers were rare. I suspect they were considerably outnumbered, by those who would have been returned service people, but who had not returned. Donald was bound to ‘join up’. Pennants from various Air Force training centres appeared on walls. I have hazy memories of him on “Final Leave”. Letters arrived from the Northern Hemisphere. Various elephantine hints escaped from or were ignored by the censor. He was “having nights out with Popeye’s friend”, and the word went round that he was doing night bombing in a Wellington Wimpy. I don’t know how he let his father know, but he did, that he could not expect to see the end of the war. He was right. He did not survive to fly Lancasters. I think it is 62 years ago later this month that our Aunt Hilda, another of Dad’s sisters, came over to a busy sheep yard with news of his death. On his last flight he almost got his badly damaged plane home. They crashed about ten miles from their field. The sole survivor was the tail gunner. That was a reversal of another frequent misfortune, where a bomber might stagger home, grateful for the work of a tail gunner who did not make it.

He is buried in England and members of the family have visited his grave. For many years we displayed two photos of him. One was a studio portrait of a solemn young man with flight sergeant stripes and those all important wings. The other was out doors, a bit older looking but more relaxed and with a friendly smile. Some years ago I realised that there were a few snaps of him in other places. I could pick him out of them but I had no feeling of the person that went with them. I do not know if the unfortunate disposition sometimes accorded to Aunt Myra was evidence that she was in some way a battle casualty. I do know that Donald “More” McKenzie was a casualty. I do not know if it is simply perverse to wish I had met the two people they might have become in a different history.

After WWII was long over I was given training to fit me to take part in land warfare. Few if any of those who trained with me went into harms way and saw shots fired in anger. My children have passed through a crucial age window without needing that training. I look at the next generation and I fear that they in turn could become vulnerable. I have spoken with historians who felt that both wars were inevitable in their time because of the way international politics played out. It is easy from here to picture sitting a number of the important leaders down together for a showing of newsreels that are now available, at times when the historians of today are now sure those wars were inevitable. Would simply showing them the consequences of their collective folly have stopped either lot in their tracks? Or just removed some of the hideous mistakes and made for greater and longer agony? On the whole, after considering what is visible in the current crop of talent, I would be pessimistic.

The actions are not available. It is too late for global regret. I can call to mind that serious young man and the smiling person in the photos and I am grateful again for this person whom now I will not ever know properly.

Monday, January 09, 2006

DONALD BEAG {Advance on Profile for now: Later the blog will be the profile}

I am a migrant from the first third of the 20th century, drawing on educational resources from the middle third, with value added in workshops a little further along the supply line, and reporting from a foothold on the threshold of the 21st.
My heraldic beast is a contrariwise chameleon. It takes a colour at odds with any current background.
Impassioned presentations often have holes that invite me to go through and look at the same material from the other side.
I still have my birthright: rampant “ ‘satiable curtiosity”.
My armourers include the sage of Ockham, demolition experts called Goedel and Karl Popper: plus a cheerful Mr Fred Daly advising
"If you have the numbers use them. If you haven't, get them." Facts as well I hope. I try to do both. As Orwell might never have said: “All facts are vital; accurate numerical facts are more vital than others.” I try with my armourers to give them all a fair go against my prejudices. I look to Fred for help when I present them.
I have a knee-jerk response in favour of high quality universal free secular and compulsory education. My immediate knee-jerk response in favour of child support gets tangled when it encounters the concept of an irresponsible parent. Where common knee-jerk responses to other issues exist I often know and enjoy the company of people on each side. I have even migrated across a few divides. I intend to stick around and watch myself do it.

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