Children often wonder why it was that their parents led the life they did, when no one is left to answer. I was never able to persuade my father to talk much about his life. He would say only that he "didn't have a normal childhood". I don't know if I did. However, my mother wrote about her childhood, so I'm luckier than most.
My parents' lives revolved around each other and around us, they did everything for us they felt they could. They gave us not just life, but a life that had far more experiences and stability than most. That is the rock upon which my being is built. But, as I write of what formed my approach to life, I write of the turning points, the events that changed the direction of my life and thought. Shakespeare considered that "the evil that men do lives after them; the good oft lies interred with their bones". In whatever framework it is viewed, the exceptional negative dominates the average positive in our memory. I have tried to allow for this in writing what follows.
Few realize the extent of the fallibility of human memory. For examples, read "Eyewitness Testimony" by Elizabeth Loftus. Many of the memory errors described seem to be produced during REM sleep, in order to increase the useful capacity of our memory. Human brains have evolved not just to extract, but to form concordance from dissonance; not just to forget, but to modify that which is inconsistent with previous experience, to preserve the existence of a single consciousness. There appears to be little distinction between our existing knowledge and the way in which we extract additional knowledge from our surroundings. Your understanding, and mine, is dependent as much upon each of our previous experiences as upon what actually happened.
And, I have an additional problem remembering things: I seem to not have a conventional short-term memory. I can remember a telephone number (the behaviorists' 7±2 item memory) only if I can make it form an audible rhythm. Worse, if I am told several different things in succession, I can remember only the last, unless I take notes (the 'conscious' working memory). Lawyers love this problem of mine. Just try taking a piece of paper and pencil to a divorce stand where lawyers make the rules.
What I do remember are logical relationships between things that I have had time to ponder (including time as part of physics). But, perceptual time is not logical to my mind. For example, when keeping bird-watching records, I find it necessary to keep a list in my pocket, updated at the time I make each observation. If, as others do, I make up my record at the end of a day, I have detailed memories of many birds that I have seen at any time over the past few months, and am unable to distinguish in my mind those that I have actually seen on the day in question.
And so, my children, be forewarned that time sequences and dates in what follows can be trusted solely insofar as I have been able to verify them from written sources. Still, I have been astonished, while writing this, at the extent and detail of the memories I have, particularly of apparently-eidetic memories. Unselected to concentrate on what shaped me, they would be hundreds of times the length of those you hold.
In nothing of what follows do I wish in the slightest degree to mislead, exaggerate, excuse or blame. But, my world can never be the same as yours. Please, don't interpret it that way.
My family tree is more extensive than most. The descendants of Peter Sankey of Shropshire have managed for half a millennium to retain sufficient solvency to own land, the prerequisite to being recorded in historical annals, but have never owned so much that anyone killed them off for it. Other ancestors include a Henry Williams of 16th century Wales, United Empire Loyalists Joseph Baker and Mollie Stevens, and Isaac Wallace and Mary Scholick who carved a farm from the forests of Canada East on which my mother was born. But most of all, one of my Ponton ancestors was a mistress of Scottish royalty. The resulting list is far too long for anything but a computer tabulation.
My mother was born in Milton East, Quebec, a fifth generation resident of a dairy farm. Graduating from high school, she left for Montreal to qualify as a school teacher at MacDonald College. She taught at Rosemont school for eight years, then married Ted King, a theology student. Since married women were then forbidden to be school teachers, she had to stop teaching. Not long after my older brother George was born, his father died of bleeding from a duodenal ulcer. Mom returned to teaching - as a supply teacher; having been married, she was untouchable for a permanent position. Her mother helped look after George. She began to take courses for a B.A. in the evenings.
My father was born in Waskada, Manitoba. His mother was a Ponton, many of whom served in the Canadian Army militia. Dad's father was born in Ireland. He was indentured as an apprentice on the Cutty Sark, by far the fastest of all clipper ships on the Australian wool run, and beaten by the Thermopylae on the top status tea run to India only after losing her rudder enroute. Although grandfather was at sea when his mother left Ireland, he eventually joined her at Turtle Mountain, and ended up at Waskada. A few years later he returned to Belleville, to take Anna Josephine Ponton back by the route travelled by his mother through pioneer Manitoba.
Josephine died of childbed fever 3 weeks after dad's birth, so dad was taken back to Belleville, to be brought up by his Aunt Grace in her brother William Ponton's home. With his veterinarian father's advice, he was fed during the journey east on 1/3 cream for the coffee mixed with 2/3 water from melted ice cubes (the safest water then in Canada).
He was brought up as an only child; there were no Pontons there within a decade of his age. In concert with all the Pontons, he considered that his father was responsible for his mother's death. (In fact Grace Ponton was responsible, when she called in a midwife carrying scarlet fever because of her distrust of grandfather, who as a veterinarian had undoubtedly delivered more babies than any midwife.) When grandfather remarried, his wife asked the Pontons to allow dad to return to Waskada - they refused, and offered the full force of their law office to stop it.
one of the photos in dad's drawer: his mother with one of her school classes
Thanks to his Aunt Grace's expert tutelage, dad was too young to be allowed to attend university when he completed high school. So, he was sent to Upper Canada College to repeat his final high school year. (All the time I grew up, he attended the local Ridley College whenever UCC played cricket there.) He took chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, then his Ph.D. at McGill as one of the first students of what is now the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada. Later, he wrote its official history, "PAPRICAN: The first fifty years". After five years working at the Price Brothers' paper mill in Quebec City, he became the one-man research department for Ontario Paper in Thorold, Ontario. He also qualified for the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite, and attempted, but considered that he had failed, to reach cosmic consciousness. A friend of Ted King, he originally called on my mother to offer his condolences, quickly decided that she was the woman to wean him from homosexuality, and brought her to the Niagara Peninsula.
And so it was that I was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, a few meters from where Laura Secord walked to warn of a major attack by the Americans in June of 1813. Just after I was a year old, we moved from 16 Lisgar Street, across the old Welland Canal to a 2½ story house at 46 Ontario Street South. A short time later, at my mother's suggestion, it was renamed South Drive to stop our mail being delivered to 46 Ontario Street.
Our house backed onto Belton's farm, where horses, cows and chickens were kept until after I left home. Their pasture had several wet spots that resounded to the sexual endearments of toads for a month each spring, a sound I still instinctively associate with home.
At that time, the posh area in St. Catharines was Yates Street, above the shipyards which originally drew residents to Shipman's Corners, as the place was known until the completion of the first Welland Canal. The instigator of the canal, William Hamilton Merritt, was knighted, Merritton named after him and St. Catharines after his wife, whence the spelling of Catharines with an "a", which continues to confuse many. Incredibly, Merritt simply fabricated the map of the most expensive section, the "Deep Cut", with all heights reduced by a factor of two so the cost would not look prohibitive. He then totally bungled the planning and management of the project. Despite this, the government of the day repaid his losses and honoured him. (Later, he persuaded the government to let him mulct the Grand River 6 Nations people of a huge portion of their lands and endowment; Google Caledonia for the effects of this chicanery that resound to the present day.) John By, as honest as he was capable, fared appallingly differently with the canal I live near in Ottawa (no longer Bytown). By should have been knighted, and Merritt hauled up for fraud.
Anyway, next in status to Yates came Hillcrest, on the south bank opposite the shipyards. The status area ended at the highway to Welland, known there as Glenridge Avenue. Ontario Street South was the first road south of the highway. There was one more street then, Highland, which backed onto a golf course, and had small inexpensive houses.
A last look: the docks are gone, but the hydro station, original poles, and a 2nd-canal lock remain
I also grew up not counting on electricity. The earliest transmission lines from the Niagara Falls generating stations ran right along the top edge of the escarpment. That meant that every lightning bolt within miles hit them. And, switchgear then couldn't handle lightning strokes. I doubt that a week went by that we didn't lose power for half an hour or so during the 40's. We kept candles in holders with a pack of matches beside them in every room in the house. Our furnace was powered by coal, our stove by manufactured gas. I still remember one frantic Christmas morning when a power outage hit, after both neighbours had been converted to the "live better electrically" slogan of Ontario Hydro. My brother George was assigned the task of fitting three turkeys into our oven; the hams were switched to steamers on top of the stove. When, two decades later, I moved to a farm house in rural Cumberland, the first thing I did was to ensure that the house could stay running without electricity if need be.
Until the 1950's, few of the farms in the area had electricity. Almost all had a windmill to pump water from a well to a storage tank on the 2nd level of their barn. It was a good use of wind power - when the wind blew, the tank was topped up, when it didn't, the tank still provided water for all. But, maintenance of them was very high - once rural electricity arrived, those windmills were destroyed by winds within a few years, and then not repaired. By the 1980's, I was unable to find the tower of even one still standing anywhere on the Niagara Peninsula. It was a very useful reminder to me, when wind power became the guru's future source of unlimited energy, that a wind of 100 km/hr packs a thousand times the energy of one at 10 km/hr. If you want to use average winds, it's a major engineering challenge to keep a wind engine intact at the wind speeds common in storms.
When I was born, the Niagara peninsula was almost entirely agricultural. Some General Motors auto part plants were in St. Catharines along the railway, some paper mills in Merritton and Thorold along the Welland canals, and there was a clump of bed and breakfast houses around the Niagara falls. Then came the end of the war. Several square miles of uniform houses were quickly built. (As of Y2K, you could still see a few of them, just north of the QEW east of Niagara St. - 300 sq.ft. bungalows. In all other areas, they've been expanded or replaced.) The population of St. Catharines doubled almost overnight. Most of the newcomers I came to know were Polish and Hungarian, but a substantial portion of Latvia, a large contingent of Ukrainians, and many of the Dutch farmers displaced by the flooding of their farms, also came. Most got right down to ensuring that their children would be successful in their new country. They must have been selected carefully, so many of them were cultured; musicians, artists and thespians abounded. When, in the 1960's, I moved to Ottawa, over three times the size of the St. Catharines I left, but where war immigration had had slight effect, I felt culturally as deprived as if I had been returned to a one room school.
Our house cleaning was for many years done by a Hungarian, Mrs. Bandi. She was an ever-cheerful person who could be firm enough if we children tried anything dangerous, but who laughingly let us get away with murder otherwise. I am told that, as a terrible two, my favourite stunt for getting her attention was to crawl under the piano and unplug the vacuum cleaner she was using. She would shake her finger at me in mock seriousness, eyes twinkling, before crawling under the piano to plug it back in again. I have often remembered her example on occasions when I otherwise might have been tempted to be exasperated with my own children. She was also stronger than most men. I remember once my trunk full of university books arriving at the house. The driver, alone in the truck, had to ask for help in unloading it. Mrs. Bandi simply picked it up and carried it in as if it were a feather, while the not unsubstantial truck driver gaped in astonishment.
Our carpentry work was done by a Dutchman, Mr. Bakker. We also housed two 'maids', Dzidra from Latvia and Stephania from Poland, under the program designed to acclimatize newcomers to Canadian ways. The programs would never pass human rights examination today! Women had to spend a year as housemaids; men a year as labourers, mostly on farms. I have heard that in some areas of Canada the term DP, for deported person, was used in a derogatory way. In the St. Catharines I knew, if the term was used at all, it was as a compliment and deservedly so there. But, with dad's Ponton upbringing, both Dzidra and Stephania ate their meals in the kitchen. I could never treat anyone that way now.
A searing memory dates from Dzidra's time. On the national holiday of Latvia, she carved a magnificent lion, the symbol of proud Latvia, out of butter and, when she served dinner, placed it on the table center. As soon as she was back in the kitchen, Mom reached out with her knife, cut off a chunk and spread it on her potato. To the horrified gasps of us children, she remarked, "It's just food." I pray, my children, that I have helped you to respect other people more than that.
My mother started me on the piano at age 3. I learned to read music before English, even though mom taught us all to read before kindergarten age. I first attended Glenridge school, a kilometer away. It had four rooms then; a five-room extension was added a year or so before I left. Kindergarten, age 5, was downstairs with its own entrance, while grades 1 and 2 were in one upstairs room, 3 and 4 in the other. Grades 5 to 7 were in the other downstairs room under the principal, Miss Moote. As was normal in those days, boys were permitted to play only on one half of the yard, girls the other half. Same in class: girls on the right, boys on the left. We each had to line up and enter the school through our "own" doors. The center door was reserved for teachers and parents.
a knitting lesson with grandmother
Another early memory is of the record player in the attic in St.Catharines. It had a large crank on the side to wind the spring mechanism for the platter. The playing head used steel needles, a new one for each record the head was so heavy, coupled to a 5 cm radially corrugated steel diaphragm, in turn coupled to a hinged pipe that led down to an exponential horn almost a meter square. I remember in particular sitting on a small chair in front of the horn listening to the Beethoven symphonies whenever I could persuade dad to put them on. Although I could reach the crank to keep the mechanism wound up, even George then was not tall enough to reach in to the turntable. Later, I think just at the end of the war, mom gave dad one of the newest marvels, an electronic record player. It was a tradition that the birthday person could have breakfast in bed. I can still remember us all sitting on dad's bed as the first record was being played. The concept of a knob to vary volume made a particular impression on me, since nothing I had encountered up to then had one.
Unfortunately, I have another early memory, of seemingly endless thrashings. The first that I specifically remember, it was certainly not the first, occurred when I was about four. I was shy as usual for the age, was introduced by mom to the woman who lived in the house just across the street from Reid's store and, instead of answering, hid behind my mother's legs. This being reported to dad, it was time again for "spare the rod and spoil the child" as it was known then. It was up to the attic, then one hard swat, wait until the pain had just begun to subside, then another. And, another ... I can no longer remember how many. Each thrashing was followed by a ritual: at bedtime I would be formally reminded by dad, occasionally by mom, that it had been done because they loved me. I did not understand then, and still do not, how you can deliberately hurt someone you love. So if, my children, you ever in later years feel that I should have disciplined your siblings more, rather than just hugging you and doing everything I could to share life with you, please forgive me. I did my best to help you to grow up free of violence.
My sister Grace remembers that most of the time she didn't even know what she had done wrong. "Why couldn't they have just told me?", she asked.
If I needed any other reinforcement of an aversion to violence, it came when I was about seven. Across the street lived the Bell family. Mr. Bell was a likeable but totally impractical man, always inventing things like instant tea that was barely drinkable, and the like. Mrs. Bell earned the family income, bought and cooked the food, and kept the house in repair only when there was time left over, for it was always in the worst state of any on the street. She must have been bitter at the lot life had dealt her, for their youngest, Richard, my age, often took out his frustrations on other children, occasionally me. Finally, my brother George, five years older than I, decided to put a stop to it. Richard was starting to swing his fists at me one winter day on our front yard, so George egged me on to fight back. "Don't be a sissy ... punch his tongue ... stuff his neck full of snow ... now his mouth", I remember. That Richard ran home crying, thoroughly beaten, without anyone but me having laid a finger on him. And, that I decided that that was not the kind of person I wanted ever again to be.
My best childhood friend was Roy Lampard. His father had found someone he preferred to his wife when he came back forever changed by the war. His mother, who became music critic for the St. Catharines Standard, and his older sister Judy, lived on Scarth Road a block away. We regularly chased each other with water guns, ran his electric train around, thought up wild things to do on Hallowe'en, biked to the rocky stream beds of the escarpment to play tag, and later played the Bach oboe&violin concerto together.
Hallowe'en still sticks in my mind, for it is so different today when every mishap in a city of half a million is known to all, to engender an unreasoning fear of those around. How many people have been hurt by trick-or-treating, compared to those maimed or killed on Ottawa's roads? And, how many people are paranoid about getting into a car as a result? The streets of Glenridge were covered then with children exploring their community, cooperating in planning tricks, lugging pillow cases around to be filled with home baking (I once filled mine 3 times), passing the word as to who had baked the best cookies that year, and swapping parts of costumes to try to get a second helping from the best. Parents had such fun outfitting the youngest with elaborate costumes, then trying to recognize the neighbouring children under their disguises. And, we children discussed wild ideas for tricks for weeks in advance; the hyperbole was as much an art form as the final trick. (We didn't discuss these with mom - she claimed to remember a time when a crew managed to get not just a buggy, but a horse as well, up on top of a barn without alerting the neighbours. Nothing we could think of would beat that one.)
The favourite trick in my group was for one of us to attract the adults to the back of the house with suspicious noises at the back door, while a co-conspirator tried to complete a message on a front window with a bar of wet soap before they returned. Another was to fill a water gun with cheap perfume from Kresgie's 5&10 store, and squirt some through a back key hole. It was traditional then to have a good Yale lock on the front door, but to have a cheap one on the back with a straight-through symmetrical key, always removed for Hallowe'en because it was so easy to open a door with key in place.
By the end of Hallowe'en there would be three large containers of goodies in the kitchen. One of fruit, mostly apples, mom used for cooking. A second was of a traditional candy called Hallowe'en kisses; sold only at Hallowe'en, it usually dried too hard to eat before we got around to it. All the choice things went into the third, to be divided among the four of us; home made fudge and cookies were prized the most.
I was once nabbed by the police on Hallowe'en rounds. The officer claimed I had hit him with my water gun. It wasn't true! My gun was loaded with Kresgie's perfume, and we could have smelled him a block away if I'd hit him. Both Roy and I got the usual 'heck', but Roy admitted after that mine was undeserved, but his in the terms of those times was.
I could have had another friend. Mona Sams lived just around the corner with her mother, a physiotherapist. Mona studied music and elocution, was just as interested and skilled at doing things with her hands as Grace and I were, recited long poems in full blown British thespian style with a most un-British twinkle in her eye, also studied the violin, and later worked as hard at figure skating as I did at the piano. Her mother and mine were loyal friends, and the Sams were always invited for the otherwise totally family portion of Christmas Day, the opening of the presents under the tree. But, the first time I remember inviting Mona up to my room, always awash in books and things I was building, to see some ship models I was working on, years before either of us were mature, mom marched up and firmly announced that, because Mona was a girl, the door was to stay open. She then pointedly walked by the door every couple of minutes until Mona left for home. A childhood sweetheart had no place in mom's scheme of things. Girls were not like other people.
I understood later that girls, but not boys, were told at that time that no boy would ever respect them if they were so 'bold' as to show the slightest interest in him. Mona had broken the 'rules' just by being herself.
a picnic at Ball's Falls
I remember almost nothing of school except boredom, until grade 5 when I entered Miss Moote's class. She was an enthusiast of local history, collecting photos of old-time St. Catharines to show us, and browbeating the school board into providing a bus for us to visit local historical sites whenever she could. By this time, I was reading adult books on archaeology and anthropology, of which there were many at home. C.W.Ceram's "Gods Graves and Scholars", Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki", and Heinrich Harrer's "Seven years in Tibet" still come to mind. Once assigned work was done in class, we were allowed to collect a book from the hundred or so at the back of the classroom. Most were far below my interest level. But, up in a corner, there was a thick tome on the conquest of Mexico by Cortes, with detailed descriptions of the country, pyramids, bloodthirsty sacrifices, and murderous behaviour of the Spaniards that were definitely not intended for a ten year old! I read the whole thing through over a couple of months. Now, whenever we read a book, we entered it on a form, for we had to meet a quota of reading for the year. When Miss Moote read that entry, she accused me of lying. And, although mom suggested that she ask me some questions on the book so I could show that I had read it, she never did.
Miss Moote was the first to comment on my short term memory problem, and was frustrated and angry that I could 'pretend' to be unable to remember even four digits in a row. Like other teachers, she never accepted how slowly I answered when a question was really new to me, nor how quickly I could spout a mountain of facts on something on which I had read and thought extensively. Many times more, I was accused of lying; almost all resulted in trips to the attic. It just never occurred to her, or to mom or dad, that there could be more than the way of thinking that was taught in Canadian schools. After all, the immense differences between relational and linear thinking are not common knowledge even today.
Because so much of what has happened later is a consequence of the way my brain seems to work, I should expand on this point. Most people seem to think as though their knowledge is strung out in a line, from A to Z. The connection between A and B is tight and close, and most people almost instantly relate such "adjacent" pieces of knowledge, with high accuracy. However, I am unable to do this. All 26 letters of the alphabet are related through what I view as layers of subterranean connections; I analyze each down to basic principles, then synthesize my way up to the next. When thinking of A, I am just as likely to next think of R (topologists will understand!) as of B. Or of Y, the closest vowel in a circular alphabet (the French call it the Greek I, more accurate than my childhood teachers who always insisted that AEIOU were the only vowels). After all, they are all letters. My mind is actually quite fast, but it still takes me much longer to move between two letters than it takes most people to move from A to B, because I have to think of so much more. And, in what is for most people a trivial step of logic, I am relatively prone to make mistakes, which many despise as carelessness.
But, what gets people really mad is that I move from A to Z in the same time as from A to B. And, since I am following practised paths of logic, and they are taking 25 steps in a row in the rote ABC song, I am much more likely to be correct than most people are with what is to them an unsupported leap of logic. While I so easily think of many things at once while synthesizing my world view, my lack of short term memory limits me to dealing only with one thing at a time in the external world. Yet, because I relate so many things to so many other things internally during normal thinking, people rapidly assume that I either know everything or think that I do. And, they assume that I am far more intellectually brilliant than I really am.
A clear example of this arose early on at my NRC coffee club, when a colleague accused me up front of believing that I was right about everything, that I could never accept "losing" an argument. It is true enough that I have never agreed with something that I am certain is wrong. But, I simply don't relate to a discussion in terms of winning or losing - I try to get things right, not to be right. So, I kept notes during the next week. Although my notes are gone, I remember the numbers closely enough. Over a hundred subjects were discussed by the twenty or so people in the group. I commented on only about a quarter - the quarter I knew something about - for the rest, I listened. George Murdock was a generous and reasonable person, and he accepted that I had, by my actions, admitted that I knew next to nothing about most of what was discussed that week. Unfortunately, many people are neither so generous nor so reasonable.
The truth is that I have always felt about my knowledge of the universe as Newton did when he wrote that, in all his life he had been able only to grasp a few grains of sand on a beach, while the limitless ocean of knowledge spread before him. As I have learned to my cost, some can never accept this, either because they don't believe it of me, or because they feel threatened by such a thought of themselves.
Part of the problem is undoubtedly me. Mom, in her words, "loved a good argument", and would take a devil's advocate position on anything. Unfortunately, she was particularly prone to do this on subjects about which we children had ever expressed feelings. And, if we left the room because we didn't want to have our feelings demolished, she would follow us from room to room until her combative instinct was dissipated. Most of our friends who encountered this behaviour considered mom just domineering, although of course she didn't think she was. So, I know that I have difficulty putting my feelings into words. In fact, even with a lifetime's practise in trying to overcome it, I still often hit a total mental block; my mind simply goes around in an unproductive circle.
At the age of seven, I began violin lessons with Bill Hose, concertmaster of Murray Morton's pops orchestra. I always felt uncomfortable with Hose, and, it turned out, with reason - a few years later he was convicted of child molesting. Mom, probably sensing the same thing as I did, did everything she could to find me another teacher, even trying the brilliant but impractical Jon Wolanek, conductor of the St. Catharines Symphony Orchestra, in which I began playing when I was nine. His first lesson consisted in suggesting that I work at putting my fingers absolutely anywhere I wanted on the fiddle. Start with the low F on the E string, then alternately play it with G, A,... right to the top of the fingerboard. Then, G ... Pure Wieniawski! However, when he showed up almost at midnight for a lesson, having driven a friend in need a few hundred miles away from the direct route to our home, mom and dad started looking again.
Besides, neither of my parents had any concept of exploring sounds, which was the essence of Wolanek's approach, and of course required of any real musician. That was just "fooling around" to them. One example I still remember with regret was when, after exposure to CAMMAC, I jokingly began the introduction to the 2nd Wieniawski violin concerto in gypsy style, with sister Janet and her friend Tania Rudensky who later studied violin at the Juilliard. Tania had brought the music, and was well on her way to playing it - I would have loved to see her working on it. Mom arrived from the kitchen in seconds, to order a stop to such nonsense. The music went unused.
a year's haul from the festival - all blue except the cup
I still was not commanded by sound - that had to wait until my 20's and Fenton House. But once, for a brief moment, I was. Garami was considering the purchase of an Amati fiddle - he asked me to play it for him while he walked around the room listening. I remember Mom being so nervous, she held her hand under it for fear I would drop it. (I've never dropped a fiddle in my life!) I will never and can never forget that sound - contralto to the point of being incredible, it lifted itself in my hands as I played. Garami decided he wanted a sweeter sound. If dad had wanted me to become irretrievably a fiddler, that was the moment, when that instrument was available; I could never have stopped playing it. But, to mom it was just money (as most things were that involved emotions) and dad never heard it.
A few years later dad did consider a Vuillaume violin. Its sound post must have been out of adjustment, for although it was good in the lower registers its sound died the higher it went. All it probably needed was a competent adjustment and perhaps a better matched bridge. But, none of us knew then. (Today, listen to Hillary Hahn to hear what a well cared for Vuillaume can sound like.)
Being small for my age, I was a natural for the part of a child prodigy, except for one problem: my sense of pitch. Most people have relative pitch; they keep the notes of intervals and harmonies in tune with each other in sequence, but it does not concern them what note they start on. But a few people, of whom I am one, hear each note separately with reference to an absolute scale of pitch, not in sequence relative to each other. (I note that there are two kinds of absolute pitch. I have the commoner kind - I am instantly aware of which note of the scale is being played, but can be confused as to which octave the note is in, especially if the sound has an unusual harmonic structure.) When I try to play on or with a piano that, to save restringing expense, has been tuned a semitone below standard pitch, I find it absolutely impossible, for my eyes and fingers are telling me I am playing one note, while my ear yells that I am playing another. Music is about sound, after all, so my ears always won.
After a few sallies on the service club circuit, almost all of which resulted in finding that their piano was tuned so far off pitch I couldn't play with it at all, any notion of me as a prodigy vanished, not to mention my self confidence with it. To make matters worse, the clubs always insisted that mom and I have the meal with them anyway, so I had to sit there for an hour knowing that most of those present probably didn't believe me. My parents never understand how much this affected me, and I couldn't get through to them. Feelings just didn't work. On one occasion they even threatened to stop music lessons altogether because I felt too uncertain of myself to play for a visitor. I still remember sitting on the piano bench in tears. When mom and dad weren't around, of course.
Today, I know the answer: play unaccompanied. But in the 1940's in a farm town, that was inconceivable: violins played with pianos. Period.
We visited the Ponton cottage on Balsam Lake for a week or two several summers, the last in 1948. Starting in 1949, we instead rented accommodation on Long Beach of Lake Erie for a week. Our favourite was an old house on the west point. It was isolated somewhat from the tourist hustle and bustle because the beach was smoother in the bay. But, the point featured fissured flat rocky ledges full of painted turtles, crayfish, and many small fish of various sorts. Lake Erie often has wind tides of 20 cm or more, so a maze of channels between exposed rocks would extend for a hundred meters or so beyond the beach at 'low tide', concentrating the water life. Home was always filled with pets of various sorts; for a number of years some painted turtles brought back from Lake Erie were among them.
Our "Cousin Judy" (actually great-aunt Julia Ponton) often came to visit, for long talks with mom especially. She had worked in China for the League of Nations for its entire existence, and introduced us to mahjong, which is still my favourite game. (A kong of dragons doesn't interest me a bit - the game I remember was when I broke a hidden triplet with a pickup for two sequences and an embedded pair instead of for a hidden kong. I love sequences, especially waiting for any of a dozen different tiles for an embedded pair or added ends in a pair of overlapping ones.)
In 1950, we made a trip to Waskada Manitoba, for the only visit I ever had with my paternal grandfather. On the way there, we took a cruise boat to Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay; the rest of the trip was by train. We stopped at Winnipeg on the way to visit my uncle Clarence Tillenius, who was just beginning to build his national reputation as a wildlife artist and diaramist. I remember his incredible smoothness in drawing, and the streets full of pianos hopelessly warped by the floods that year.
As soon as I was allowed to have a bicycle (age 11), I began spending quiet times in the woods of the Niagara escarpment, observing the habitat of woodland plants, and recreating their environment in the shadiest corner around our home. The escarpment then was still a truly wild place where the tracks of cougars were occasionally spotted, and oak musket balls from 1812 could be unearthed around Queenstown Heights. It combined overhanging dolomite ledges with steep wet slopes, and still had the muddy thickly-forested lower stretches where Laura Secord lost her shoes on her way to DeCew House. In fact one of my two favourite spots was very close to her route, although it is now covered by Brock University and houses. I used to sit there and wonder what gave a person such a kind of bravery. Today, read chapter 5 of Pierre Berton's "The Invasion of Canada" if you would understand the feelings of anyone, let alone an unarmed woman, approaching an Iroquois-controlled area at the time, and chapter 5 of Ruth McKenzie's "Laura Secord" for the details of her encounter. My other favourite spot was the glen between the upper and lower DeCew falls next to the city waterworks. I could sit there all day without seeing any human, but skunks, rabbits, and birds by the score.
I wanted to get a paper route, the standard way at that time for a boy to get spending money. My allowance at the time was 25¢ a week; an hour-a-day paper route could earn ten times that amount. But, dad considered that incompatible with his image as a provider. I was occasionally allowed to 'help' someone who was sick with a route, but that was all. Mom was limited to volunteer work by this stricture too.
Things were so different then, in so many ways, that I feel I risk your disbelief in describing them. There were 1600 students at the local high school. Almost all of us rode bikes to school. So did many of the teachers. Bicycles were not cheap then - even the most basic CCM like mine cost $55 in 1950 - almost $500 in Y2K money. I never had mine stolen. Nor did I know anyone else whose bike was stolen. None of us ever used locks, anywhere.
Dad was a champion rose grower - I once counted a thousand blooms, each 4" or more in diameter, on a single spring-blooming White Dawn that covered the garage. He knew every good nurseryman in the area and I learned a great deal from them, as well as from the gardening school of the Niagara Parks Commission once I developed the muscles to bike there and back. I had noted that the agricultural immigrants were the ones who had settled in most easily after losing everything they had in the war, while it was the professional people, doctors in particular, who never recovered. (Nearby lived the one-time #1 surgeon at the Riga Latvia hospital and professor at the national university. The OMA wouldn't even let him take a qualifying exam in Canada, but required that he sit through Canadian undergraduate medical school in its entirety before they would allow him to practice. Of course, he never did - his skills were lost to Canada.) Clearly, if all else failed, horticulture seemed a useful skill to have in reserve - nobody required certificates in that. But, I already had sensed enough of my parents' biases toward intellectual pursuits that I never discussed this thought with them.
About this time, Wallace Laughton began organizing summer music 'camps' at the local high school. I was well aware that many musicians ended up as conductors, and I wanted to understand the sound of orchestral instruments. That was fine with mom&dad, so for half a dozen summers, I tried out a new instrument - flute, oboe, cello, bass, clarinet, tuba ... I couldn't play the B-flat tuba, the mouthpiece was larger than the distance between my nose and my chin! So, it was the 'concert' size E-flat for me. I even ended up playing it in the festival. After the giggles when a tuba with two small legs under it walked up on the stage, and I played a ridiculous "Elephant's Dance", I won the only useful thing I ever got from the festival - a pen/pencil set. (I never saw the cash prizes - they were "scholarships", so Dad collected them.)
Central School, an ancient old firetrap of a building with steep wood stairs, served for grade 8. It was there that I first met Tommy Houston, who subsequently moved in next door, but who died in grade 10 of cystic fibrosis. It was about this time that I was sent to take dancing lessons, with a society curmudgeon who rented a room for the purpose on Yates Street no less. With Mrs. Rankin, boys and girls were two kinds of objects. Everything was done by the role book. I have always felt an instinctive aversion to pretending that I am anything but what I am. And so, the attitude that girls were not to be considered as friends was reinforced.
Then came the St. Catharines Collegiate Institute&Vocational School, the only high school in town then. I had been discouraged from any sports that might injure my violin-playing hands, so was already socially inexperienced. And, for my first two years of high school, I was not just the shortest boy in the 1600+ student body, there was only one girl shorter than I. When the school put on a version of Snow White, I played Dumpy. (I'm 6'4" now!) For boys, height is associated with maturity, and it is they who have the edge in popularity, with boys and with girls. Not only that, but I had inherited my mother's low blood pressure, and had a slight blood-iron deficiency. As soon as compulsory cadet parade started, I was not just a shrimp, but a wimp who couldn't stand motionless for more than five minutes without fainting. It wasn't until grade 12 that someone had the sense to put me in the first aid corps, who don't have to stand at attention, but can move around with stretchers etc.
And, it seemed so sensible, when selecting the subjects I would study, to take advantage of the fact that I was attending a full-blown technical school, not just an academic institution. Latin seemed so useless, especially to dad, when there were courses on electrical wiring, machine shop, welding, and motor mechanics. Only for boys, of course; there were stenographic courses for the girls. However, students were grouped in classes according to the courses they took. The brightest children were almost all in the class that took Latin, just as they tend to be in French immersion today. Average students were in the other academic classes; the least academically inclined were put in the vocational classes. Having picked one vocational course each term, I was put in a vocational class. It got the lowest status teachers in the school. See "Pygmalion in the Classroom", by Rosenthal&Jacobson, for what low expectations like that do to students. The only classmate with whom I had any interests in common was Rose Filipuik, who has been a professional singer for many years. But, she was already mature, so I felt the runt of the litter. Mom knew that Rose had a crush on me by grade 11, but never mentioned it to me until years later. Neither did Rose.
I never learned how to work in a concentrated way, because I never had to to keep up with those around me. Even in grade 13, I never did any homework except in French. It was not until almost Christmas that my geometry teacher Mr. Loft discovered this, since when I was selected at random to write a homework problem up on one of the seven chalk boards, I had solved it as fast as the others could copy it. He looked at the piece of paper in my hand - it was homework from the first class of the year. He marched back to look at my binder, the usual zippered three-ring with dividers for each subject that was de rigeur then - the section for geometry was now empty. Exploding in frustration, he announced "You could be a genius, Sankey, if only you weren't so damned lazy!", then selected me to write up the most difficult problem every class from then on. However, he was generous enough to apologize a few months later when, as practise for my ARCT exam, I performed for the school assembly. He realized then that whatever my other weaknesses, I wasn't lazy. (He was a good teacher, though. I still had to write up a 'homework' problem every class until the end of the year.)
So, I ended up assuming that all interesting things were outside of school, and had to be done in isolation from other people. This meant music in particular, but also poring over my father's extensive library which included science books of the level of Millikan's "The Electron", history books such as the entire proceedings of the Champlain Society, art books on Picasso, Michelangelo, Raphael.... And, given my interest in the natural world, books such as Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us" appeared, to take their place alongside the Ponton's multi-volume natural history tomes which have been passed on to me. I did have two good high school friends, Joe Kos, later professor of physics at the University of Saskatchewan, and Paul Makowy, with whom I was involved in several escapades involving home made rockets and the like, but, until grade 13, when ARCT practising occupied all my spare time, we were in different classes.
To step back a bit, Garami left for Montreal when I was in school grade 9, and the only adequate violin teachers left were in Buffalo and Toronto. A weekly drive to Toronto was financially out of the question, Buffalo fees were far too expensive, and, I suppose especially considering my small size, mom and dad did not consider letting me take the bus to Toronto by myself, even though the Toronto bus stop was far closer to the Conservatory than my home was to high school. It is true, though, that they thought that anyone was a failure who wasn't a soloist, also true that it was almost a necessity then to be Jewish to get on the North American concert stage. We children were always compared only to the very best, explicitly by dad, implicitly and implacably by mom. Virtually all the soloists they met were on the low rungs of the Columbia Artists' Management treadmill and wished they could get off.
But, I think that most of all they were taken in by Glen Gould's mother, who insisted that her boy did all his practising without prompting, that she had to beg him to take time off to eat. It was only after Gould died that I found that his mother had used every technique known to a Jewish mama to push him whenever no one was looking. Not to mention that he was 7 years older than me. Anyway, to mom&dad, I just didn't measure up. They did try a local violin teacher, but she proved incapable of helping me. I had, to tell the truth, felt somewhat constrained by Garami's methodical approach, had fallen in love with the Bruch G minor as so many others have, and would have worked my heart out on any technique required to play it well. She refused to consider that, insisting that I study a dry-as-dust Viotti piece that didn't stretch me a bit. No meant No. I still remember every note of the Bruch, but couldn't bear to hear it until Christmas 2014, when the CBC unexpectedly broadcast Pinchas Zuckerman and our NACO playing it in Salisbury Cathedral. I was in tears the whole time. Fifty years.
It was over twenty years before I felt emotionally free to fall in love with music again. I recorded Domenico Scarlatti on a home-made keyboard linked to an 8088 PC that was so limited in speed it couldn't keep up to 32nd notes unless I turned the sound reproduction off and played solely by feel. But, listen to it - it's what love sounds like.
Reginald Godden directed the Hamilton Conservatory; he'd been half of the internationally-known Malcolm&Godden duo-piano team until arthritis forced him to curtail his playing. He'd heard me playing the piano, and tried to persuade dad to let me continue lessons with him on piano as soon as he knew Garami was leaving. He gave me a free lesson with dad looking on - touch, touch, and more touch. Sadly, dad was not impressed, but I still remember every minute.
Anyway, I decided to get my ARCT in piano instead of violin (as did sister Janet), although I continued to play violin with the St. Catharines Symphony, and with Murray Morton's orchestra where Bill Hose was still concertmaster, that performed at St. Catharines' Montebello Park and overlooking the falls at Niagara. I learned so many things with Morton! In those days, US copyright law allowed absolutely anything to be copied if it was copied by hand. So, during the depression, the musicians' union had paid out-of-work members to copy music by the ream. They were paid by the bar, so every conceivable abbreviation was used to speed the process. A 'dit-dit-dah' bar would be followed by a repeat symbol with a number written over it, there were nested dal signos with numbers over them enclosed in nested repeat signs, none of which matched adjacent parts... And as junior, left seat (opposite in meaning to pilots!), it was up to me to hold the music stand down with my feet on windy days, to unclip clothespins from all around the music, turn the page, re-attach the clothespins, then join back in as though nothing had happened. Once, a windstorm dumped the conductor's stand in the lap of the trumpet soloist in full swing! We kept swinging. To this day, start a Cole Porter and I bet I can continue without missing a beat for the next hour.
There was an excellent piano teacher in St. Catharines at the time, Louise Hattey, several of whose pupils have become successful soloists. But, she told dad that piano playing was a full-time job - I would have to give up the violin. Dad refused without ever asking me; he wanted me to be a fiddler. (Like Jascha Heifetz, of course. The fact that my personal idol was the earthy power of Oistrakh was irrelevant to him.) But there was another factor involved. Heifetz used to say that to be a soloist, one needed the hide of a rhinoceros, the nerve of a high wire walker, and the street smarts of a madam. Hattey knew that, and the emotional commitment required of a true musician. Neither of my parents could have accepted any of it, especially the emotions, in us children.
Mom did later tell me that they were getting conflicting opinions as to whether I was better suited to keyboard or violin. In retrospect, I don't understand that. For example, there was my ARCT-time appearance at the music festival, where I had almost never played piano. It was a Bach open competition, any age. I faced off against Joyce Redekop, later known internationally as a harpsichordist, and Anahid Alexanian, surely the finest pianist St. Catharines ever produced (although 4 years younger than me). The adjudicator sat for an interminable time, then gave Joyce 1st place, tied me with Anahid for 2nd one mark behind, and dumped the rest 10 marks down. I could never have come close to meeting competition like that on the violin. It's true I was musical and could sight read anything I could play on the fiddle thanks to my time with the Symphony, but the only time I ever faced significant competition, at the Hamilton festival, I got slaughtered.
My parents' acceptable keyboard guide was our church organist, Eric Dowling, who could extemporize on the organ the way J.S.Bach must have, and who made all the theory exams seem easy. But, his instrument was electric action - no such thing as touch. So, my piano technique mostly came from pictures of the young Horowitz in Etude magazine, from me asking Dowling if my scales were good enough yet, and him answering "no". But, listen to my later playing of Domenico Scarlatti - maybe I wasn't totally dreaming in technicolor by aspiring to be like Horowitz.
From perhaps Grade 4 Toronto Conservatory level piano, I squeaked through my Grade 8 exam the next year, passed Grade 10 solidly a year later, then took the solo performer ARCT a year after that. A ridiculous pace: 4 to ARCT was supposed to take 12 years minimum! Dowling was finally proven right, though. I didn't quite pass the scales portion of the ARCT exam the first try, passing it only on supplemental that June along with my Grade 13 school exams.
It was at the ARCT exam that, for the first time, my memory posed a really serious problem. For one portion of all the Toronto exams, the examiner played a close-to-nonsense sequence of notes, and required that the student play them back by ear. And, I couldn't do it, any more than with telephone numbers. For the earlier exams this had been overlooked, but for the ARCT a 60% mark had to be achieved in every portion of the exam, even a 5 mark portion. I still don't understand why neither of my parents nor Mr. Dowling ever took this point seriously, but fortunately I had. And, I had planned the response I would make if challenged, which I was. I pointed out that I had never been able to do that, but that if musical memory was required to be demonstrated, I knew pretty well all the Beethoven piano sonatas and the Bach 48 by heart. Would he accept that? Dad had collected the complete Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven, about fifty pounds of 78's then, and a set by Fisher of the Bach. I had listened to them often enough that I could recompose them in my head as Dowling did. I got the required 3 marks.
Mom's insistence that girls be thought of only as special objects did not apply to sisters. In grade 10, one of my closest friends, Tommy Houston, died. He was an only child; his parents gave me his electric train set. It was installed in the attic, all our old blocks were pressed into service as houses for it to run past, then Grace began crocheting clothes for suitable sized dolls, 2 cm high, I started experimenting with building a Ferris wheel out of toothpicks, then powering it with a battery-powered motor. Very soon, sisters Grace, Janet and I, in all possible combinations, were spending so many hours with it that I installed a buzzer in the attic, with a push button next to the kitchen, so that mom could let us know when meals were ready. When, as a graduate engineer, I found the transformer that I had fashioned out of waxed-cotton-insulated bell wire, iron fence wire, and flammable electric friction tape, then plugged into the 115 volt outlet, I determined that I would supervise the safety of my children's toys better!
the airplane we flew in to Europe
It is hard now for me to remember as many details of England then as would be the case if I had not returned there later. But, I will have all my life many pictures in my mind that I know are from the trip because I didn't return there later: of the banks of the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the paintings in the Louvre, the Rhone glacier, the Swiss inclined railway cars with staircases for aisles, the railway up the Jungfrau, the prim houses of the Grindelwald, the incredibly skinny Super Connies at Reykjavik... No, I don't just remember them from the photos we took. My real visual memories are in three dimensions, I can walk around in them.
I remember no discussion whatsoever about whether or not I would go to university, nor about where I would go, nor about what I would study. I had never thought of myself as anything but a musician, but Dad was an engineer, and had wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and his Uncle Willie, as soon as possible. He remembered the University of Toronto as an undergraduate, and McGill as Otto Maass. To mom, McGill was where her brother George chaired Electrical Engineering, and Montreal was a home town. And, this was the 50's. Sons, especially eldest sons, were expected to succeed, at something conventional too. Only my youngest sister Janet was allowed to study something as impractical as music. So, both George and I were sent far away from home, to McGill to study engineering. George always had a steady mind and a near genius for mechanical things, and became a very successful mechanical engineer. I had fooled around a bit with basic electrical wiring of our electric train, people were judging me as an academic brain, so I was expected to take engineering physics, the achiever's electrical engineering. The fact is that only one of my high school grade 13 marks, a 91 in physics, was higher than classmate Donna Youngblut's average of 90½. I was no academic brain.
First came the "as soon as possible". My first job ever, arranged by dad, was in the research lab of the Quebec North Shore Paper Co. at Baie Comeau. It was dad's company, but a thousand kilometers away from dad, and everyone else I knew. There was no road on the north shore then, so, for the first significant unaccompanied trip in my life, I took the train to Montreal, the bus to Dorval, then one of the incredibly noisy TCA North Stars to Baie Comeau. Due to my inexperience, I failed to hear the boarding call on the loudspeaker, so missed the plane. I still remember the disgusted look of the boarding agent as he wrote a large "No Show" across my ticket, then made out another for the next flight, later in the day.
The next day, I found my way to the mill, with no difficulty for it then occupied half the town and was twice the height of any other building, then to the research lab to be introduced to Ian Pye and his micarta grinding machine. The idea was that you set up a miniature Fourdrinier wire, a flat belt made of copper screening; water full of to-be-paper fibers pour down on it, the fibers stay on top and the water that carries them is sucked by various contrivances down through it, and ran it at much higher pressures than on the real paper machines across simulated water removal boxes and vanes, in an attempt to quickly predict how long various materials and contrivances would last if they were installed on the real machines. Linear paradigms die hard with we humans - I faced their flaws all too often later in cancer studies.
But first it was time for coffee break. Ian flipped me a dime and said "go get a coffee". So I did. When, after drinking it and returning from the cafeteria, it did not take long for me to deduce that his meaning had been somewhat different! And, that was about how the summer went - I sure had a lot to learn.
Outside of work hours, I mostly played tennis. The smack of the ball was frequently drowned out by the roar of one of the DC-3's that seemingly continuously sprayed DDT over the town and surrounding forest to kill black flies. With what I know today, I'd never dare submit to a fat test. But, I had one glorious weekend trip out in the bush to one of the logging camps. Dad's colleague went to fish for brook trout, but I remember the log houses, designed to be easily reassembled after bears attracted by food smells disassembled them each summer, the stark glacier-rounded granite cliffs rising sheer out of transparent lakes, the quivering aspen leaves, and the all-night grunting of bears carefully drawn across the stream well away from our tents by a heap of all the sunfish we hooked. Then came a boat trip across the St. Lawrence to Rimouski, a train back to St. Catharines for a brief visit, then the return by train to Montreal.
I cannot now recall whether the high school graduation ceremony was in early September, just before leaving for Montreal, or at Christmas, although the former seems more sensible. But I have no difficulty remembering the day. Not having been in town until just prior to the event, the first two girls I phoned up for the dance were already spoken for. The third, a quiet girl whose father was a minister, accepted happily, whereupon I blurted "Oh, I'm so glad I've found someone!" To this day, I don't know why she didn't either slam the phone in my ear or burst out in tears. She did neither, meekly accepting her corsage on the night, and going with me to the dance. I only know that it was my first formal date, and that I have wished for years that I could undo that remark.
It was in Montreal that I developed my distaste for sectarian religion. My mother had been a devout Anglican, I had sung for years in St. George's choir, my father co-founded the Unitarian Fellowship in St. Catharines, and there were many Anglican ministers among his relatives. But, I had never experienced racism or bigotry until I arrived in Montreal, to find that the most important thing to know there was whether a person was English Protestant, French Catholic, or Jew. (Each religion had a derogatory epithet for the other two.) I visited every Anglican congregation, and most United, within reasonable distance of McGill. Virtually every sermon in every one took appalling verbal swipes at other people. I remember in particular one sonorous reference to Catholic girls, who then all wore a small gold crucifix on a necklace, as "those harlots who wear the symbol of Christ's sacrifice around their necks as a bauble"! There were routine references to Jews as the murderers of Christ, to the evil scourge of the Papists... I eventually played Bach cantatas regularly with George Little at the Erskine and American United Church. But, I sat out in the church hall with the Catholics until evensong was over, the Catholics were allowed to enter the church, and the cantata began. The church authorities tried to screw things up with a loudspeaker in the hall, to force us to listen to the service. It didn't take long for me to work out how to disconnect it at the start of the service, and reconnect it as if nothing had happened just before we went in to play.
I had many friends the first year at McGill - all male. The three girls, all Hungarian, had the pick of three hundred other classmates. I was given the once over by a fraternity to which one of dad's colleagues had belonged, but clearly needing some instruction in social graces was not accepted. Perhaps, some day, schools will understand that human relational skills differ from, say, mathematical skills, in that people who are weak in them benefit the most, not the least, from instruction. Those who are already socially confident rarely need the organized experience that frats provided then. Every student ought to take a test like Judith Hall's "Profile Of Nonverbal Sensitivity", then be offered appropriate remedial courses.
So, most of my friends were Chinese or Hungarian, both excluded as I was from frats. The accent of the Hungarians was familiar from home, I made the effort to decode the language logic of the Chinese, and they could both understand my clear if unusual accent. I had none of the prejudice with which both were viewed in Montreal, and in some quarters of McGill although not as far as I was aware in engineering. And so, I came in very handy to translate Chinese English to and from the Hungarian variety.
The Chinese mostly came in groups of up to ten boys, together with the sister of one of them. Each group found an inexpensive apartment with a bed-sitting room and a kitchen. The sister did the cooking and mending and slept in the kitchen, the boys studied day and night and slept in the other room. One night a week would be sister's night off. The boys would then walk down en masse along The Main (St. Laurent Blvd; one did not walk there alone even in broad daylight then) to the Chinese district, to sit at long board tables each enclosed in its own cubicle, to discuss the merits of all the possible dishes on the menu. These weren't Canadian-Chinese restaurants, but were patronized totally by Chinese, so there were hundreds of marvellous dishes to choose from. The ones selected were spread out the length of the table on candle warmers so they stayed hot for hours, a touch I have never seen elsewhere. I'll skip the games they played to prove mastery of fai'zi (chopsticks); I always lost! Then, it was back to the pad, to get out the mahjong sets and play a couple of games, 16 sets each at lightning speed where I could hold my own, before getting back to the books. (Hong Kong mahjong, at least then, was an intellectual game, with hundreds of limit hands and elaborate doubles, if you knew them, not like today's dumbed-down internet versions.) I remember Cousin Judy's delight that her training had proven so useful.
The Hungarians had just arrived as refugees from their crushed revolution. Most could speak little English, having had only a crash course for a month prior to jumping straight into McGill classes at the level they had left in Hungary. Understandably, a lot failed to make the switch, despite solid support from the small, but cohesive and prosperous Hungarian community in Montreal. One who did succeed was Tony Dienes, who had been studying cello in Hungary. His father was an intelligentsia, so Tony was not allowed into any prized university course such as engineering in Hungary. After discovering and using a flaw in one of the Russian tanks by which a Molotov cocktail could disable them, he got out by tying himself under a freight train car with a price on his head. He once commented that "there wasn't room for a cello". Once here, however, he ended up with top marks in electrical engineering and a full scholarship for postgraduate study - he was at CalTech the last I heard.
I had practise rights on a grand piano at the McGill Faculty of Music (then on Drummond St.) thanks to my ARCT, and played in the McGill Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Brott. Dad had arranged that I stay the year at the YMCA between Drummond and Stanley streets, where I qualified with their table tennis team. So the year of introductory general engineering passed with lots of new experiences, although few in class. As in high school, I didn't do any studying worth mentioning, but made the dean's list anyway.
After two weeks learning field surveying with the civil engineers, the next summer was spent at the quality control lab of dad's company in Thorold, living at home. I managed a bit better than the previous summer, actually becoming useful to calculate the volume of incoming wood which arrived from the company's woodlots by boat. Each crane bucket of wood was immersed in water, then a water level meter recorded the height to which the water rose. Suitable samples of logs were selected, piled in the traditional manner into cords, and the water volumes converted into cords using the sampled conversion factor. Government cutting fees and taxes were all on the basis of the traditional cord. All the calculating was done on mechanical calculators, with a keyboard that I played like a piano to keep the machine running without wasting time with idle cycles. However, the Friden calculator company refused to supply motors designed for such service, only for five minutes on, ten minutes off. After it was found out why three motors in the lab had burned out in the course of as many days, and that better motors were unobtainable, I was ordered to take frequent breaks. I became sufficiently proficient at taking square roots by odd-integer subtraction that I had to take breaks with them too.
the equipment that pulled in most of North America on AM
Second year at McGill was very different from the first. Now, for the first time, my courses were engineering physics, rather than general engineering. McGill considered engineering physics, and combined honours in mathematics and physics, to be the top academic courses in the whole university. I was totally unprepared for the number of concepts presented at such a pace, particularly by having mathematics presented by a pure mathematician who was unintelligible until you could hack his ways of thinking, and who couldn't be bothered with you until you did. For the first time, I was not able to simulate linear thinking fast enough to get by. Of course, I had never developed even the most basic study habits. And, I had got into Douglas Hall, the best of the McGill men's residences, and was for the first time in my life living with a large group of intellectually-compatible people. I designed an antenna that successfully coupled the AM stations of the Caribbean to a $25 Heathkit radio receiver (a 1000 foot long-wire from my window to a tree at the right orientation, coupled to a high Q pi-network, 400 feet above the surrounding city), and so added most of the West Indians in residence to my list of Hungarian and Chinese friends. In fact, I won the Montreal contest that year for the maximum number of AM radio stations received within a 24 hour period. The guy who expected to coast to first place, having assembled equipment worth a hundred times mine, was unilingual. I could not only identify French stations, but had a Spanish-speaking friend beside me. And, to rub it in, I'd recorded them all.
Since that year, I have come to the conclusion that many great mathematicians think relationally too. But, none of my professors seemed to. I spent so much time absorbing the concepts of calculus into my way of thinking that I succeeded in passing the exam on it, but as a result spent insufficient time on several courses I would normally have passed. I failed most of them.
Dad had often enough told us that he didn't pay for failures. But, mom wouldn't accept one. My suggestion that I might be better off in music after all fell on deaf ears. That would make me a "quitter". Mom prevailed. I was ordered to repeat my year, but in ordinary electrical engineering.
But, first came a summer job again. I spent two weeks as an instructor at the McGill survey school (they'd hired me before they knew I'd failed my year), then joined the Physics section of the Ontario Research Foundation on Queen's Park. The failure rate of transformers was the project I helped with. Fifty were enclosed in a heated box, and run under rated current and voltage until most had failed. The failure rate having been shown to be exponentially related to temperature, I devised a simple circuit that could be attached to a transformer to indicate what portion of its thermal lifetime had passed. It was thought sufficiently original that the ORF attempted to patent it, but the US patent office found a precedent buried in its files. As a result, I was invited back for the next summer, an honour that helped lift my self confidence at least a little bit off the floor. Cousin Judy lived within walking distance, and I visited often both summers, trying without success to improve her TV reception through the noise of a local generating station, and just talking. She took me to the first visit of the Chinese Opera to Canada, and I still remember the banner dance, in which incredible lengths of fine red silk cloth were kept aloft right to the top of the stage curtains by the dancers.
the count rate system inside
It was with Dave that I first developed study strategies. Dave could, I swear, photographically recall any formula he had ever seen. But, I could only work from basic principles. So, homework problems became a race. I had to sort out the principles involved, derive the operative formulae, and only then start getting numbers out. By then, Dave would be several problems ahead. My main chance was to get a different answer from his on one, for it would take him longer to look through the books to check if by chance he had made a minuscule formula copying error than it did for me to check my arithmetic. Another technique I developed was to take a moment to look at his formulae to see if, by any chance, the dimensions of the terms of one of them didn't match. It didn't happen often, but then I would have the confidence to say, "that one can't be right", leave him to figure out why, and shift into overdrive. At the end of the year, I came second in the class, with Dave&Andy tight behind. The reason was my mark in Geology. I had read everything there was to read at home on theories of the formation of the solar system, and the final exam ended with an invitation to write an essay on that subject. I simply kept writing until the three hours were up. The professor was one of those who normalized his marks, he considered that the top mark each year should be 100, and I got it.
Back at the ORF, I designed and built a leading-edge 3-channel count rate system for an X-ray spectrometer, a kind you couldn't buy. It had to subtract one count rate from another for input to one axis of an X-Y recorder, while a third count rate fed the other axis, and survive overloads from 30 kV arcovers while not passing them on to the recorder. 1% of full scale was the target accuracy, far from trivial over a three decade range in the days of vacuum tubes, especially since up to a 30 second integration time constant was required, it had to drive slide-wire recorders in inverse-ratio mode, and the lab was within the near field of the most powerful radio transmitter in Toronto. It met specs; I'm still proud of it. Mind you, by the time I donated my primary reference book, the MIT Radiation Lab "Vacuum Tube Amplifiers", to the NRC library, I truly felt like an old fogey!
A lab session: I'm in front, Andy on the floor, Dave next
Little memorable occurred at McGill during my fourth year; all I can recall are class details. Life was just 9 am-1 pm lectures five days a week, 2 pm-5 pm labs four days a week, with the fifth afternoon required to repeat labs when equipment broke down or data proved inadequate after analysis. And, studying for the rest. I spent a few hours a week printing posters for student activities at the students' union. Again, I managed to come second in the class.
But, I got back into music, playing with George Little's Bach cantata orchestra and with the CAMMAC string quartet group, all of whom were in Montreal. And it was with George Little that I began to feel my emotional kinship to J.S.Bach. Bach was considered in his time the greatest harpsichordist and organist there was. He was also no slouch on the violin, as any fiddler knows who plays his music. He was sought after by nobility all his life, and offered huge sums as inducements, a hundred gold louis for the Goldberg Variations for example. But, as he began to raise his many children, he took a small post as music director of a church in Leipzig, to take charge of the musical development of all the children in their choir school and of his own children, most of whom became musicians too. Children rather than adults were the center of his life, I think. And so it is that, just as a young child feels most secure with an ear next to the heart of a loved parent, a calm steady heart beat always exists in Bach's music. His music is never upsetting, rather expressive of love of player and listener. And, even in his most intellectually demanding violin works, one can still hear the dancing feet of his children. If you, my children, some day feel that of my life, that will be enough.
For the summer of 1961, I wound up my courage and asked Mr. Jones for a summer job in the research lab at CIL in McMasterville, which he directed. He accepted, and so I measured the dielectric constants of plastics like polyethylene in various liquids, roomed with a Polish family in St. Hilaire Station, and visited the Jones' home in nearby Beloeil to see Helen whenever I could. She was just too young to have an interest in boys, and I was far too awkward to awaken it, but I still remember her. I also went back to CAMMAC for a week with Jim McKergow, biking there and back from St. Hilaire.
a lab session, sliderule in hand
Then, Jim and I loaded up our bicycles with food and a tent, and spent two weeks riding through the Eastern Townships and Vermont's Green mountains. Unfortunately, we decided one rainy night to stay at a YMCA, and I caught such a nasty bug from someone that George had to drive out from Montreal to rescue me.
During this summer, before the start of the fellowship, I worked in the electrical standards section of the National Research Council with Andy Dunn, testing one of the new seven-decade inductive dividers, observing the initial testing of a calculable capacitor, and various other high precision electrical measurements. Wonderful stuff! It eventually became my life's work. I had to wait for Paul Dirac at Cambridge to fully convert to the world of physics. But, it was at NRC that I met Alison Asbury, who was working in biophysics. And, it is there that my early years ended.
I love you, my children.
other notes on family history