When I was a bit younger

They say that eventually all you’re left with is memories. Perhaps it would be a good idea to jot a few of mine down. It could even be the start of a book if I really get going.

Bright ideas

I like to solve problems, and in the process I usually Google for other people’s solutions. However, in the days before the world became dominated by the internet, I was more likely to come up with ideas that I don’t think anyone else had tried before. Here are two examples.

When I was doing water quality surveys for the (long-gone) Ministry of Works, I had to write all my reports on a typewriter. It was a real nuisance (and looked ugly) having to fiddle with the shift key trying to get acceptable superscripts for cubic centimetres (cm³) and square metres (m²). I noticed that the typewriter had keys for ¾ and ⅔, which I couldn’t see any possible use for, so I filed off part of each to produce ³ and ². Much neater, and more efficient to type; I was so chuffed that I put in an official suggestion. In reply I got a stern warning that if I were ever to actually deface government property in such a way there would be severe repercussions. Oops!

Later, in the same organisation, I introduced an automatic sampler to take water samples from a stream in an experimental catchment near Nelson. The machine was designed for a different purpose, and took samples at fixed intervals. This meant that I nearly always missed storm events, in which the water levels rose and fell quite quickly. What I needed in order to calibrate the sediment output of the catchment was a series of samples taken at different water levels, not fixed times. So I hooked up a magnetic reed switch to the test circuitry of the sampler, and I glued slivers of fridge magnet at intervals on the steel tape that connected the float to the water-level recorder. As the water level rose, each magnet triggered the taking of a sample. This arrangement worked perfectly, and it felt good to be able produce something that was new.

Special moments

Some old memories are just snapshots. I’ve already written about one such memory below. Here are three more that get triggered occasionally:

  • In the 1940s there was only one way to travel between Sydney and Wellington, and that was on the MS Wanganella. In January 1947 (when I was four) the ship hit Barrett’s Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, and was stuck there for two and a half weeks. Nearly everyone in the city travelled out to the suburb of Seatoun to see it, and our family was among them. My memory is of coming over the Pass of Branda and suddenly seeing the big passenger liner looking quite out of place on the rocks. I remember thinking at the time that I was probably seeing something pretty exceptional.
  • At a parent-teacher meeting when I was in the Fourth Form at school (‘year 10’ in modern terms), one of the teachers mentioned to Mum that she should think of having my eyes tested because I didn’t seem to be able to read the blackboard properly when I sat down the back of the class. She did, and to my surprise I needed glasses. The memory that has stayed with me is of seeing stars in focus for the first time. It was magic.
  • When I was living in the Wellington suburb of Newlands in the early 1970s, I was standing at our living room window one day when I saw an earthquake coming. I was looking towards what was then the farmland of Paparangi, and what appeared to be a ripple in the ground was coming rapidly towards me. The telephone poles each tilted forward then back as the wave passed them. It wasn’t until the house shook that I really understood what I was seeing. Despite all the earthquakes I’ve experienced over the years, I’ve never seen anything like that again.

In some ways memory is like a photo album, and the pictures aren’t always labelled or stuck down properly, but those three are firmly in place.

The trike with the wooden wheel

My Dad was a tool-steel expert from Sheffield. He spent the First World War as a naval Artificer (a skilled mechanic), and he spent the Second World War in charge of the Army workshops, which repaired equipment used in the Pacific war.

One year I was taken to their Christmas party. I can’t remember how old I was; somewhere between two and four years old. I can, however, remember watching a Punch & Judy show, being given a monkey on a stick, and … getting a ride on a tank!

I can also remember my Dad taking me to the workshop one weekend in a khaki Army staff car. I had to hide under the seat when we passed the sentry box, which was exciting enough, but when we got inside I was in for a real treat. As I watched him, Dad made me a tricycle. He took steel tube, heated it, bent it into shape, and welded it together. There was a vat of water, and it was fun when he plunged the hot metal in to quench it.

The one thing he couldn’t do was make a spoked front wheel, so he turned a wheel on a lathe from solid wood, and used a rubber hose as a tyre. (A few years later, just as I was growing out of it, the wheel split.)

I thought my Dad was really special, and I wonder what happened to that tricycle.

Unexpected magic

There have been a few times in my life that I’ll remember clearly forever. Here’s one:

In 1986, I attended a conference in America. It was my first overseas experience, apart from a brief trip across the Tasman a decade before, and it was very exciting.

I was working for a government department, so of course I had to pay for everything out of my own pocket (I had no luck applying for grants). This meant a week’s travel on Greyhound buses from San Francisco to North Carolina and another week back again, staying en route in Youth Hostels or YMCAs or with anyone I had managed to persuade to put me up for the night. One kind host was a professor at a university in Illinois whom I had met when he visited New Zealand a few years before.

So, there we were, sitting out on the back lawn at dusk, cooking on the barbecue, when I saw little twinkly lights flashing on and off all over the garden. They were fireflies, and what a wonderful and unexpected sight they were. I had vaguely known about fireflies from drawings in American kids’ books, but I had expected them to light up like glow worms — I certainly hadn’t expected them to flash so brilliantly.

I can’t remember what the food was like, but I can certainly remember the sight of those twinkling fireflies.

Poisons I have known

Sometimes I wonder how I’ve managed to live as long as I have. Hindsight can be scary, particularly when I look back on my youth when I typically thought I was bulletproof. A few examples:

  • I’ve carefully kept the mounted herbarium specimens from when I was studying botany, but I haven’t looked at them for years, because I remember that I treated them against insects. With mercuric chloride solution.
  • When I was measuring suspended sediment in rivers, I introduced the use of glass-fibre filters, because they were more consistent and a lot less messy than the previous method. Up until then we had to mix up a slurry of asbestos powder, and I was sick of breathing in clouds of the stuff.
  • Studying organic chemistry, we used pipettes with no suction bulb. We were careful not suck up mouthfuls of the various obviously nasty chemicals, but we were less careful with the acetone we used to dry the pipette after washing.
  • From the same period, I remember the almond smell of hydrogen cyanide gas every time someone forgot and poured waste cyanide solution down the sink. (Another smell was the aroma of singeing flesh during a glassblowing course — I kept forgetting that glass is still very hot long after it stops glowing red.)

These incidents were more a matter of ignorance than stupidity, but each could very well have done me in. I’m glad they didn’t.

Mastering the Mirror Maze

I’ve been travelling again, and again I had to learn a new environment, a new city. I can do it by gradually working outwards from a base until I can find my way back from anywhere within a steadily increasing radius.

It reminds me of the annual Winter Shows of the 50s — in particular one year when I was about 11 or 12. The Winter Shows were held in the school holidays in a big building in John Street, and were a sort of trade fair (with exciting new gadgets), combined with the usual sideshows that you would see at an A&P show. It was near to where I lived, so I would sometimes spend whole days there, often with friends from school.

This year for the first and only time one of the side shows was a ‘Mirror Maze’. It was a very disconcerting experience at first, but I stayed in it until I had it thoroughly sussed. I tried every option of the maze until I had a complete mental picture of the layout, and from then on for the next few hours I had a great time being the resident ghost, popping out from nowhere and disappearing again.

It was worth it to see people’s reactions. Sometimes they were priceless.

Up in the air

I’ve always been interested in aircraft. I don’t quite know why; it may have been the influence of toy aeroplanes and early picture books, and Biggles stories later on. Anyway, the result is a collection of memories around various airshows, none more memorable than the opening of Wellington Airport in 1959.

To build the airport at Rongotai, a hill suburb was flattened and used to reclaim land in Evans Bay. When finished, it was opened with an international airshow, and I was there: a 16-year-old schoolboy in my ATC uniform, saluting the top brass as an usher on the VIP stand. I had a great view of what was to come.

The first bit of unintended excitement was a low pass from a Sunderland flying boat, so low that there was a show of sparks and then a trail of bilge-water from a hole in the hull. But the star of the show was an RAF Vulcan that attempted a landing. As he approached the Moa Point end, trying use the maximum length of runway, a wind gust made him touch down short on the grass embankment before the tarmac. This drove the port undercarriage up into the wing, breaking the leg and punching a hole in a fuel tank. With the wingtip mere centimetres from the ground and disaster looming, the pilot slammed on full power and climbed away with a dangling undercarriage and a trail of jet fuel.

I’ll certainly never forget the sound of four Olympus engines suddenly going to full emergency power. And in retrospect, I won’t forget how close it all was to ending very badly.

Getting lost

When I was very young, I was often accused of ‘getting lost’. But that was the adult point of view, not mine. I knew where I was — I was having an adventure. As an adult, I can now see what I didn’t at the time: the anguish of not knowing where your kid has gone.

An early instance was when I was taken by an aunt to stay with a relative in Auckland. I thought it would be good to go down the road to the beach and watch the seagulls. My aunt was practically having hysterics by the time they found me. I thought I was being told off because I got my socks wet paddling in the surf.

And then there was the time when the family went across the harbour on the ferry Cobar for a picnic at Day’s Bay. I climbed a macrocarpa to a hollow fork where I could be alone above the crowd. Not a good idea. No one thought to look up. That was the end of tree climbing for a while.

Probably the worst episode, and one where I perhaps began to understand the problem I was causing, was at a swimming hole just north of Taupo. There was a small waterfall there, and I found that if I swam through it there was a ledge behind where I could sit and watch the falling water from the other side. I probably stayed there too long, because when I swam back there was quite a panic going on.

Our daughter was like that as a toddler, to the point where we had a routine for doing a systematic search (you go left, I’ll go right). I teased her about it in a speech at her wedding (in Australia), saying that she still had a tendency to head for the horizon. She’s living in New York at the moment.

Remembering memories

When I think back on my early memories, I’m aware of two things. The first is that the memories aren’t stories, they’re snapshots, involving something new, something different, revelations or trauma. Secondly, and importantly, where they are coherent memories, they are memories of the last time time I remembered that memory — sort of like the last time I backed it up. And it’s at that point that they often get explained, rationalised, and mixed in with other people’s explanations.

Let me explain. I can often date my earliest memories by whether my sister had been born, or whether they involved my father and what he was doing at the time. Here’s an example, with later interpolations. A long car trip north up the island. The car was black, square, noisy. [It was the old Morris Ten.] Mum was driving and my sister was in nappies. [It was therefore in 1948 and I was four, nearly five.] The baby’s cot was disassembled and tied on the back of the car. [It didn’t have much of a boot, only a luggage rack.] The road was very dusty. [The Desert Road over the central volcanic plateau was unsealed pumice in those days.] When we stopped at a tearooms, some men came in with a bundle of stuff and gave it to Mum. [They had been following behind us, and every time a another bit of the cot dropped off they would stop and pick it up.]

That last insight came from hearing Mum tell someone else about it. In time, every disaster makes a good story.

Mystery object

In the 50s I had a fascinating time going through an old army footlocker belonging to my father. It contained all sorts of bits and pieces, souvenirs and papers. One of the objects had me really puzzled. It was a heavy thing in a black cloth bag, about the size of a fist, with a connector at one end and a metal grill at the other. Through the grill you could see a shiny membrane that looked almost iridescent. I had no idea what it was, and neither did my school friends. The general opinion was that it had something to do with atomic radiation (there was also a map of Nagasaki, which Dad visited in 1948).

Over half a century later I attended a social event in which people took turns to show an object and talk about it. I decided to dig out the old mystery as my object. When I did, I immediately had a feeling that I knew what it was. A clue was a part number stamped in the metal, so I did a Google search and confirmed my guess — it was a 1940s-vintage studio microphone! I felt deflated, relieved and disappointed all at the same time.

The remaining mystery is: what the hell was Dad doing with a microphone?

City smells

It’s amazing how a smell can sometimes bring memories flooding back. For me it’s the smell of coffee being roasted.

As a teenager, I had various jobs during the school holidays; they were all in the city and they all started at 8am. As I walked to work past the shops, the city was just waking up.

I remember the scent of fruit and vegetables as the greengrocer laid out his stock, the warm soapy smell as shopkeepers washed their windows then emptied the bucket onto the footpath and swept the suds to the kerb. And most of all the smell of coffee and salami as I passed the delicatessen.

In the morning, before the bustle of the 9 o’clock office workers, everything seemed fresh and full of promise.

© 2017 Tony Pritchard