Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thoughts of Thanksgiving

Though I’m "only" 59 years of age, I seem to have collected a lot of reasons to be thankful. So many reasons, in fact, that it is difficult to choose which are the most significant to my continued existence as a multi-celled organism. Here are just a few reminiscences, in no particular order of importance.

Smallpox and diphtheria were pretty much wiped out by the time that I was born, but I still have that "badge" on my right upper arm proclaiming that those two diseases were still fresh in the minds of public health officials and parents of the early nineteen-fifties.

Apart from being nuked by the big, bad Russians, polio was the major scare when I was a kid. Although nobody was quite sure where the dreaded bug lay in wait for its next victim, we were not allowed to swim in the filthy Richelieu River or go to the public swimming pools for fear of contracting the disease. The swimming pool was out anyway, since we kids had been banned for life for tossing a three-foot garter snake in the water on a busy Sunday afternoon. Luckily, our extended family included a childless aunt and uncle who had a lakeside cottage in the Laurentians north of Montreal where my cousins and I spent glorious summers learning to swim in a pristine (and presumably polio-free) spring-fed lake. I remember getting the polio booster on a sugar-cube at school, and I escaped the dreaded iron lung that so terrified all parents of that time.

When I was eight years old I broke my arm badly at school and spent over a month in traction at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. As a reminder of my own stupidity, I still get a twinge in that elbow to this day, but I escaped none the worse for wear and managed in the process to con my parents into a very expensive ($49) three-speed bike from Eaton’s. The thing I remember most about that hospital stay, aside from the food-fights, wheel-chair races and learning to write thank-you letters with my left hand, was the Jewish kid in the bed opposite mine. A school window had fallen on his head and he had lost an eye. I think that was the first time in my life I understood the concept of thankfulness, and I realized that my shattered arm wasn’t a big deal by comparison.

I recall one summer day playing by the lakeside at the cottage with my brother who, at eight, was a year younger than I. Rick fell in the water and couldn’t swim. Figuring that as a mere trainee-adult, saving my brother’s life wasn’t in my job description, I shouted to my father, who was drinking beer and playing crib with my uncle in the cottage. My father, who was a strong swimmer, ran to the water’s edge, dove from the retaining wall and rescued my water-logged brother. In the process of this heroism, my chain-smoking father soaked his last pack of Sweet Caps and, this being a Sunday in 1957 Quebec, could not score another nicotine hit for 24-hours. My brother’s life was saved that day but he probably wished he had drowned!

My father was a good but fast driver. He also had hay fever, and in those days there were no effective medications to combat that ailment. I recall sitting in the front seat, going 80 miles per hour, inches from on-coming traffic, in a car with no seat belts or air bags, with big radio knobs sticking out of the solid steel dashboard of the ’55 Pontiac and my watery-eyed father deep in the throes of a sneezing fit. And we were worried about the atomic bomb?

A friend and I were always looking for new and exciting ways to inflict serious bodily harm on ourselves. We once built a "diving helmet" out of a five-gallon varnish can. With the bottom cut out, straps installed under our arms and a plexiglass window in the front, the theory was that we would wear this contraption over our head while an accomplice pumped air into the can from the surface using a bicycle pump. We soon learned that five-gallons of air has a lot of buoyancy and you needed to have about 18 bricks roped around your waist in order to submerge. Although testing of the prototype never got to the fatal stage, it’s a good guess that the varnish can would have slipped off a lot more easily than the bricks!

A later and more sophisticated attempt at underwater suicide involved the construction of a scuba tank made of two soldered-together coffee cans painted yellow. A tire valve was installed in the top, along with a hose and mouth piece from a dime-store snorkel. We hadn’t heard of a device called a "regulator". Luckily, the gas station air pump only got 10-pounds of air into the "tank" before the solder let go, thus saving at least one of us from exploded lungs.

I recall getting electrified a few times during my early ham radio career. In those days we built our own equipment using discarded TV parts. Typically, the transmitter power supply produced about 600-volts which, under the "right" conditions could give one a nasty jolt – or worse. I demanded so much power from the relatively tiny transformer that it got hot enough to require that it be immersed in a bucket of oil outside my bedroom window and the high-voltage wiring run indoors from there. I think a few neighbourhood cats got toasted but, to my knowledge, no small children.

We learned to ski on old wooden contraptions someone found in an attic. It’s probably fortunate that we couldn’t find any poles upon which to skewer ourselves. The bear-trap bindings on the skis were designed in such a way that the leg would release from the torso, thus saving the remainder of the corpse intact for the ride to the morgue. We’d take the rope-tow to the top of Mont St. Hilaire and then, since we had not yet learned the fine art of turning, would come straight down. The toque would depart our heads at about the point where we reached the speed of sound. And yet we survived!

The major expense incurred in those early years was for fireworks, available at any corner store in Quebec. We built "zip-guns" that fired a lethal glass marble or ball-bearing, propelled by a five-cent "block-buster". One of those babies, inserted in one end of a bicycle handlebar, would fire a marble rolled down the other handlebar half-way across the river. I recall vividly the effect of a big fire cracker shoved into the back pocket of my jeans by a "friend". He had a good laugh and I didn’t sit down for a week – but we lived!

We used to toboggan in the damnedest places! The best spot was at the local train station, where a long stairway led from the top of the embankment and emptied out onto a busy street. Timing was everything! Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried tobboganing down an ice-covered wooden stairway, but I’ll bet the speeds we reached would have scared the crap out of Chuck Yeager.

When one thinks of all the things that can "get" you, and the chances that we take as ignorant children, it’s amazing that any of us lived past the age of eleven. I’m sure that the life expectancy figure of 74-years for a male does not apply to idiots like me or my friends. In our case, I think they got the decimal point in the wrong place.

At any rate, as Elton John says, "I’m still standing", even if I don’t deserve to be. And that’s good enough for me!


Photo: Lunch Time! How’s that for a drumstick?

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