Before I start this section, I want to go back to the series, Death in the Arctic. I know that this sort of topic may not be pleasant, but my life was not always butterflies and rainbows and I want you to try to understand the things that make up “me.”
We were at the annual Doctor’s Dinner last year, hosted by one of the investigators with whom I have worked for many years. Robbie McLeod, a brilliant engineer and his wife treat their physicians to a wonderful catered dinner, five courses, served with fine wines and lively conversation. We got onto the topic of the Panarctic accident and Robbie reminded me of an interesting aspect of that hostile environment in the high arctic:
I have described how the little arctic foxes at the site, unafraid of us human interlopers, would wander around, sometimes almost underfoot. The reason that they were drawn to the scene was there had been about a thousand pounds of chocolate chip cookies among the supplies for the camp. At impact the cookies were scattered all over the ice and the foxes absolutely loved eating these delicious morsels. However, they were like the proverbial canary in the coal mine – when they disappeared, we knew that a polar bear was nearby and that we had to be extremely vigilant, because we were next on the menu! I actually witnessed polar bears chasing these little critters and man, could those bears ever run! Just like a snow white freight train, their huge paws leaving ginormous tracks, as they attempted to chase down their prey.
Now, on to the Three R’s, that is “Reading, WRiting and ARithmatic” (it would appear on the surface that spelling was not important, but it certainly was in reality) “taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”
I stayed with my grandparents in the ‘Hat for some months before starting school as I had been quite ill (from a black widow spider bite, no less) and the doctor recommended that I be close at hand after being released from the hospital. So my schooling began at a kindergarten run by a Mrs. Flagg. That was OK but I was more interested in airplanes than coloring flowers and making paper butterflies.
My very first flight followed later that winter when I flew back to Bindloss in a chartered airplane – I told you about that earlier. I had two little friends the same age as me: Billy Herman and Harvey Stoltz (the one who may still be in China after plunging into the slough). We were too young to start Grade One, so we found other ways of passing the time and getting into mischief. But one of the things that I liked to do was sneak up and peer into the window of the one room school house, curious about what the different grades were learning.
Finally, I was old enough to start Grade One. What a proud day that was as I trundled along the dusty path leading to the white and green school house and then going home clutching my “Dick and Jane” reader walking along kicking puff balls to see the spores taking off like a little cloud of brown smoke.
I only hope that those teachers were well rewarded – there were seven grades in one room and they had to balance their attention among all of those kids! One of the advantages of this system was that we could hurry through whatever exercise was assigned and then listen in on the more senior grades. In fact, we were learning so fast that the teacher approached our parents and suggested that we could complete the first three grades in two years. Discipline was, of necessity, strictly enforced so that we quietly paid attention to our lessons. Those miscreants who broke the rules, for example putting snakes or frogs in the teacher’s desk drawer, suffered the indignity of being strapped in front of the class and/or standing in the corner while the erstwhile pupils suppressed their mirth.
Requiring medical attention, I did spend some time at Alexandra School in Medicine Hat, again living with my grandparents and Aunty Jean. That was a culture shock to be sure – moving from a one room country school to a three floor brick building. The first three grades and high school were in the same building and I can remember how big those grade twelve boys looked. Like many schools at that time, there was a separate entrance for boys and girls. The first time I went into the boy’s washroom, I was initially puzzled by the rows of white porcelain objects that looked like bathtubs, but standing vertically against the wall and towering over my head. Quite a change from the two holer outhouses at the Bindloss school!
After a few months, I returned to the familiar bucolic surroundings of Bindloss and resumed my country schooling. I was surprised to find that the old schoolhouse was being demolished and a new facility was under construction. We spent a few months using the town hall as a class room and then moved into the new building with beautiful freshly painted rooms, new desks and even electricity.
Speaking of desks, do you remember or are you familiar with those old school desks with a built in seat with a drawer underneath and a top that tilted up so supplies could be stowed? How about the ink wells and the nib pens that we used to practice hand writing and the teacher coming around from time to time and refilling the ink wells? Do you recall cleaning the blackboard and dusting the brushes?
When I was in Grade Three, my father decided to leave Modern Service and take a job as a cat skinner (caterpillar operator) with a company in Medicine Hat, F.R. Gibbs, so we moved back to the city. Once more, a new culture shock as I adapted to a large school with large classes at Connaught School where I stayed until Grade Eight, moving once more to Alexandra.
I guess that I thought that I knew everything by Grade Nine as my previously impeccable grades rapidly diminished and I entered the world of the rebellious teen. The saving grace, I suppose, was that I started to play the trumpet, which I adored after seeing the movie “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. From my music teacher and bandmaster I learned a lot about discipline, concentration, perseverance, teamwork and perfection, factors that carried me through my career.
High school started off OK, but again I slipped into mediocrity or worse. I think that I may have been bored. In Grade Eleven, I actually failed science (!) and French. However, during the summer two things happened that made me smarten up: One – I met Pat and Two – I worked on a pipeline for the summer. When the school year began, I asked the principal of the school if I could take Grade Twelve chemistry and physics while repeating Grade Eleven science. With not inconsiderable persuasion, he finally relented and I was off to the races! I worked really hard – I was very busy with music, playing in the city band, South Alberta Light Horse band, Med Hatters big band, the symphony and my own jazz quartet as well as teaching music on Saturdays. The big band played gigs on the weekends and I used to prop the chemistry text on the music stand with the sheet music and study between sets. Consequently, my marks soared and the future was secured! I do owe a great deal to those teachers who believed in me enough to give me a second chance. They are long gone, but I hope that they were satisfied with their careers – it was a great pleasure to meet them after I was convocated with an M.D.
The day after I finished high school I went downtown to the RCAF recruiter who had rented a room in one of the hotels, hoping to enlist to become a pilot. He informed me that the air force was reducing the number of pilots and that the only chance was for me to get a university degree. Since I couldn’t afford to go on to secondary education, he suggested that I enrol in ROTP (Regular Officer’s Training Plan) and I would be sent to military college. I hitched a ride to Calgary to enrol, but I was a day late!
What to do?