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The Strange Effect of the "Bridge on the River Kwai"
During the time that I was dealing with all of the challenging scientific problems that kept me busy (and learning something new from each one), I had not failed to notice the presence of the very attractive secretary to the superintendent of the place who had her office next to his, and not far down the hall from mine. I did not spend much time in my office actually because I was always wrestling with some technical problem (like the ultrasonic void detection system). If I did happen to be there around coffee time I would make a point of being in the canteen at the time I knew she would be there too and would do a little of what would now be called "networking", to strike up a conversation without being too obvious.
Her name was Lucille Lafond and she was fluently bilingual, having spent a year or so as the secretary to the superintendent of the Toronto General Hospital before returning home to look after her Mother and taking up her present position. We had similar interests but obviously very different backgrounds, which is probably partly responsible for the mutual attraction. She was a better than average tennis and badminton player and introduced me to badminton at a local club. We also did some nine-pin bowling in a league with people at the Range and (of all things) darts at a local "armoury", the focal point of the local militia (the equivalent of the territorials in the U.K.).
We both had bicycles and on one sunny sunday we decided to go for a picnic. She provided the food and when we opened it up, there were chicken legs and a bottle of wine. I was fascinated at the whole idea of wine with a picnic. Where I came from a picnic meant some watercress sandwiches and a thermos flask of tea; viva la difference. We went to the only English language cinema a few times and for some reason it was after going to see "The Bridge on the River Kwai", the David Lean epic drama with Alec Guiness and Jack Hawkins, that I popped the question.
The Attitude of the Roman Catholic Church to a "Mixed Marriage"
Lucille came from a Roman Catholic family, she was not that committed to the faith and they were not zealots, but naturally they would have been disappointed if their daughter had not been married in a Catholic ceremony. I was brought up as an Anglican, even confirmed by the archbishop of Canterbury (but only because Croydon parish church where it took place happened to be in his diocese). As far as I was concerned both religions were virtually identical, it was just that one was more assertive and had a more organised propaganda and marketing arm than the other when it came to maintaining brand loyalty among its clientele. Proof positive of that came when arrangements for the wedding got underway. It seemed that in order for the "mixed marriage" to be approved, the heathen party (me) would have to undergo some "guidance" in a series of sessions with a priest, during which certain basic non-negotiable demands would be made of me. The most important was that any children of the marriage must be brought up as good little Roman Catholics.
I went along with all of this and a priest was duly appointed to conduct these "guidance" sessions. He was a pleasant chap, about forty or so and he handled me with kid gloves, especially when we got into sticky areas like why did Pope Pius IX bless the armies of the German-Italian axis in 1939 as they started on their totally immoral rampage across Europe (I doubt if he even knew that this had in fact occurred and certainly he could not come up with an even remotely convincing defence off the top of his head). At one point when he was out of the room I glanced at the little book he always had on the table during these sessions, it turned out to be as I had suspected, a summary of guidelines for dealing with the heathen and I was highly amused to see a cryptic comment to the effect that: "...on no account should the prospective spouse be antagonised, as this could lead to a civil, or even a protestant marriage..." (my italics). After two or three sessions he realised that he was not cutting much ice and we shook hands and parted on excellent terms - by mutual consent.
We were married on an unusually cold December day in 1958 and for the first time in my life I felt that I was no longer a loner struggling to survive; either as a schoolboy struggling to pass "O" and "A" level exams at school, or as a student struggling to make it out of university with a degree, or as a newly minted graduate struggling to get and keep a good job and go easy on the expenses to save a few dollars because that was the thing to do. I realised then that about the last one third of my short life until that point had been totally dedicated to achieving the current objective (whatever it happened to be) at whatever cost, e.g. social life.
A Vignette of life in prewar Quebec.
My parents in law spoke no English, which meant that I had to work hard to establish communication with them. They had spent the first decade of their married lives in the great depression trying to make ends meet and raise two children. Lucille's Father had finally managed to get a job with the local textile company, Canadian Celanese, a subsidiary of British Celanese. This company I discovered had been launched in Drummondville in the 1920's, with a cadre of managers imported from Yorkshire and Lancashire to hire and train a local workforce and bring it into operation. Their modus operandi had done absolutely nothing to change the negative stereotype that the Quebecois had of the British as arrogant imperialists who regarded the local people as backward colonials.
The company built about half a dozen or so rather opulent English style two-storey brick houses for these managers around a square (actually named "Celanese Square" by a master stroke of insular ineptitude) separated from the surrounding community by high hedges, which survives to this day. This served to reinforce the "them and us" image which typified every other aspect of the operation at that time. It was a familiar story in Quebec, a community having to swallow its pride and accept yet another incursion by a former colonial power in order to reap the very real and vital economic benefits from the technology which came with it, and which Quebec by then should have developed on its own, but (largely for the reasons mentioned earlier) had not been able to do.
Setting a Mouse Trap to catch a Thief
We had a tiny second floor apartment, freshly painted and heated, for $35.00 per month. Milk was delivered to the door each day in a good old fashioned glass bottle, but only if money was placed in the empty bottle from the previous day. It was not long before a milk-money thief disrupted this arrangement and our milk (and that of a number of other tenants) was not left at the door because no money was found in the empty bottles. It was not so much the loss of the milk-money as the inconvenience and sense of impotence that got to me, and I resolved to do something about it. What was needed was a thief-scaring device, Lucille's big white fluffy Samoyed dog "Anouk" was a suitable candidate. She was large, and friendly - most of the time, but she did not like surprises and could be reasonably fierce when roused.
I remembered an ingenious arrangement which my Father had invented (years before I was born) for turning on an electric tea kettle. He wanted the kettle to be turned on at a predetermined time before he got up, so that by the time he was ready for morning tea, the kettle would be boiling (electric kettles were slower than the second-coming in those days). Part of the contraption was a common or garden alarm clock of that time which had two winding keys at the back, one for the time of day and a second one for the bell ringing mechanism. When the preset time arrived the bell would ring and that key would then start to unwind. The trick was to connect something to that unwinding key which would have the power to actuate the heavy duty switch needed to turn on the kettle, the key alone was not enough to do it. His stunningly simple and elegant solution was - a mouse trap. One piece of string connected the alarm clock key to the little piece of wire where the cheese went, the slightest movement of it of course released the powerful spring designed to assassinate the mouse. A second piece of string connected this spring to the lever of the switch that turned on the kettle and - voila, instant and positive actuation of the heavy switch at the appointed time.
I resurrected this idea with modifications. A piece of thread, taped discreetly to the empty milk bottle with the money in it and running under the door and into the apartment, was connected to the cheese-wire of a mouse trap and the spring loaded business end was arranged to hit a metal screw and thereby complete a circuit to sound a loud buzzer when it was triggered. I rigged this up each night, taking care to "defuse" it each morning before the milkman himself arrived (putting the fear of God into him would definitely have been counter productive) and one morning at about 6.00 a.m. the thing went off, it was enough to rouse me into automatic pilot mode and I flailed around trying to turn off the alarm radio which I assumed was the source of the noise.
Anouk was taken completely by surprise, exactly as I had hoped she would be, and reacted with gratifying hostility, hurling herself at the door with a menacing and deep throated growl and then barking furiously. By this time I had come up to full alert and dashed to the door, but before I could even get it open I heard the satisfying sounds of a heavy body going base- over-apex down the stairs, to the accompaniment of furious curses and breaking glass as the milk bottle disintegrated en route. Game, set and match to the mouse trap - there were no more attempts to purloin the milk money after that.
Living as a Quebecois in the late 1950's
A few months later we moved to a bigger apartment with a separate living and dinging room and three bedrooms. It was $55.00 per month, not including heat. There were some preconditions; the TV antenna installed by the previous tenants was on offer for $30.00, the linoleum floor in the kitchen laid down by them was also on offer for the special price of $50.00. I agreed to buy the TV antenna but indicated that they should remove the linoleum before we moved in as we did not want it.
The reaction was one of stunned surprise and consternation that I should even look such a gift horse in the mouth, "...how could the outgoing tenants make use of used linoleum..it would not fit anywhere else..". In short, how could I be so heartless as to turn down the opportunity to buy the linoleum, the laying of which had taken so much of their lives, etc., etc. When I indicated as gently as I could that I had come to rent the place - not to buy it, the lady who was the outgoing tenant and the landlady were both incensed at my hard-headed and grasping attitude. In the end of course I bought the damned linoleum because I knew that if I didn't I would have a totally uncooperative landlady from day one and aside from the linoleum the apartment and the price suited us admirably.
As indicated above, the place was not heated. The method of doing this was pretty basic - a "Quebec stove". This device was basically a cylindrical chamber about 18" in diameter mounted vertically on small legs with a small door in it for introducing a lighted spill. The top was connected to a duct which led to a chimney and there was a thin copper tube which connected it to a forty five gallon drum of heating oil, mounted horizontally on a stand made of welded angle iron. The heating oil was introduced by gravity feed (no aspirators or other devices requiring electrical power) through a drip-feed nozzle into the combustion chamber. Once the little spigot on the forty five gallon drum had been turned on to set the oil flowing, all one had to do was to light the oil dripping into the combustion chamber with a long wooden spill lighted at one end, and the thing started to produce heat.
We bought one of these at a local second hand furniture store, along with some other necessary bits and pieces and my Father-in- law and I refurbished it, using aluminium paint and automobile engine enamel (designed specifically for high temperatures).
It was surprisingly reliable and efficient for such a crude arrangement and it never ceased to amaze me that the entire apartment was always warm and comfortable with this single source of heat, even when the temperature outside was -25 F. There was however one flaw in the system; you never knew when the drum was close to empty. I introduced the concept of visual display into the business by buying a piece of glass tube and modifying the stopcock on the forty five gallon drum using a rubber bung so that the glass tube could be inserted into it. This allowed the oil to rise to the same level in the tube as it was in the drum, thus making it visible without having to poke a stick or whatever down into the drum through the filler cap to find out what the level was.
This was a major breakthrough in oil gauge technology for the domestic consumer and my Father-in-law was duly impressed. Later when we moved I bequeathed it to him, unfortunately I did not know that the rubber bung was being slowly dissolved by the oil and one day it gave way and the entire contents of the drum spilled onto his basement floor. He was not amused and did not pursue the idea any further, a trivial but mildly interesting example of the concept being condemned because the materials for the implementation were not up to snuff as has happened countless times in human history, C'est la vie.
Lucille's parents attended mass every Sunday and we went with them, to one of the nearby churches. I did not understand much of what went on but the chants and the responses were mildly soothing. I was surprised that there were no hymns sung by the entire congregation as was the case in the Anglican church and I was absolutely mystified then and still am now, by the "entrance fee" of 25c per person, with change being given as required. At that time some form of head covering for women was absolutely mandatory, although it was difficult to imagine what would have happened to any female who insisted on transgressing this rule, would she have been frog-marched out of the place between two priests and excommunicated? Who knows.
All of this changed quite dramatically some years later after the "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec, following the death of Maurice Duplessis and the demise of his Union Nationale Government. The Roman Catholic Church was no longer in the drivers seat and it went to unprecedented lengths to hang on to its market share. It was no longer mandatory to attend mass on a Sunday, efforts were made to accommodate busy people by holding masses on other days and at different times. The dress code was relaxed to the point where no woman attending mass would be seen dead in a hat, and the watch word was "come as you are and come when you can, but be sure to come". There were all of a sudden "Folk masses", involving young people in blue jeans strumming guitars to try and attract rather than indoctrinate the younger element. What a sea change from the straight jacket that was the norm at the time that I arrived.
I had already been through one winter in Ottawa, but it is not in the "snow belt" of the Eastern Townships that Drummondville is in and the amount of snow that can accumulate there in a short time is remarkable. Our daily forty mile commute to the Range by bus was often something of an ordeal in the winter. If a storm blew up during the day we would often get stuck in drifts created by blowing snow in wind swept open stretches along the route. Then we would all have to get out and push the bus. I was amazed that thirty or so people could actually do that and that it would work. It did not always work however and several times we were stranded until late in the evening before a snow plough passed by and cleared the road.
Spring came at last and a trip home to England. We flew of course, no time for a leisurely steamer voyage. Montreal's Dorval airport was a collection of temporary buildings, as the new terminal buildings were then under construction. We went with dear old Trans Canada Airlines in a DC-7C, a plane with four propellers powered by piston engines, the last of that breed before the introduction of the jets in the following year, 1960. The flight was one of the most trying endurance tests that I can remember. We took off and climbed slowly to altitude in the gathering dusk. The engines of course were at full throttle and the noise and vibration were unbelievable.
Through the window I saw the exhausts of the engines glowing red hot in the night sky, small wonder I thought, that fire is the greatest hazard in aircraft mishaps, when all that highly inflammable fuel is so close to all that heat. It was thirteen hours before we touched down at Heathrow, thirteen hours of grinding vibration and deafening noise which left us both limp and grey by the end of it. I was in better shape than Lucille, who was by then three months pregnant. When I look back on that flight I am absolutely amazed that the cabin and flight deck crews who flew on those things for a living, week in an week out, were able to cope with that sort of environment as a modus vivendi.
Gun pressure measurement
I spent just two years as Range Scientific Officer and thoroughly enjoyed the job, learning a great deal about measurement instrumentation in the process. A problem of particular interest to me was trying to come up with a way to measure the rapid pressure transients in small arms weapons which occur in the chambers (the part of the barrel where the round is inserted) when the round is fired. The measurement of peak pressures in guns both big and small was a matter of fundamental importance in the weapons testing business, because if the maximum or peak pressure which developed inside the gun barrel as the propellant burnt with near explosive speed was too high, bad things could happen. In the case of small arms rifles one of the bad things was that the bolt which closed the chamber where the round was inserted could be blown backwards if the retaining latch failed, causing serious injury to the soldier using it.
At that time the standard method of measuring the pressure used a device known as a "copper crusher gauge". A small "calibrated" copper cylinder made from copper of known hardness was inserted in the cartridge case along with the propellant, where it would be subjected to the full pressure that drove the bullet out of the barrel when the round was fired. the length of the copper cylinder was measured before it was put in and again after the round was fired. The difference was then related by means of a table to the peak pressure which it had encountered. In reality as everyone knew, it measured not the peak pressure but a sort of average pressure over the time for the entire event, which for the standard military rifle of the day (the Belgian designed FN-7.62mm semi-automatic rifle) took about ten thousandths of a second, or ten milliseconds.
It could not detect the occurrence of a dangerously high peak in the pressure and there was increasing evidence that these were happening and causing tell-tale signs of over-stress on rifle components. It was therefore a matter of some concern that a method be developed which would provide a complete picture of the evolution of the pressure from the beginning to the end of the event. Only then would it be possible to conduct meaningful assessments of the safety of the different production lots of ammunition submitted for testing by the arsenals.
The ultimate solution to this problem would be to devise a technique which used modern pressure transducers to provide a picture of the pressure variation with time as it built up to a peak and then fell as the bullet started to move down the barrel; essentially the same technique that was used to record pressure- time graphs from the 2.75" rockets, except that the whole event would be over in less than ten thousandths of a second rather than two seconds. Arthur Heard had done some initial work to locate suitable pressure measurement equipment and had found some miniature pressure sensors which worked on the piezo-electric principle.
Piezo-electric pressure gauges were (and still are) used in all sorts of industrial applications, the trick was to find one that was small enough and would cover the very high pressure range which would be needed (up to 60,000 psi.). It turned out that the Kistler Instrument Corp in N.Tonawanda N.Y. made some that would probably be suitable and Arthur bought some for me to experiment with down at the Range. It was some time however before that happened because He decided quite suddenly to go back to the U.K. and take a job there to look after his ageing parents. This was a totally unexpected turn of events which caught both me and Leslie Barnes completely by surprise.
Back to Ottawa June 1960
By this time Our daughter Krista had been born, (on the last day of January 1960). Lucille had continued to work until Christmas and there was much speculation as to whether the baby would be born on the bus as we were stuck somewhere along the route (it could well have happened and I was pretty apprehensive on more than one occasion). I was settling into the routine as an Englishman-cum-Quebecois and was not really prepared for another major shift, nevertheless I was once again lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I had been in the job just long enough to learn enough that I could reasonably claim to be qualified for the position of Senior Scientific Officer which had been vacated by Arthur Heard. A competition was held and I got the job. On paper it was a considerable leg up, moving from a Technical Officer grade three to grade six in one fell swoop, something which was pretty much unprecedented in those days, my salary also rocketed from $5300 to $6700 p.a.
For a while I divided my time between both jobs, spending one week per month or so at the Ottawa HQ. One of the more comical aspects was that I would write memoranda from the Range to my boss in Ottawa, wearing my Range Scientific Officer hat, and then go to Ottawa and answer them wearing my Senior Scientific Officer hat.
Finally the time came to move permanently to Ottawa. Our infant daughter remained with her Grandmother while Lucille and I found somewhere to live in Ottawa. On the day of the move I had to go to the Valcartier small arms range near Quebec city and I remember reflecting rather ruefully that my little family could hardly have been more dispersed. Krista was in Drummondville, Lucille was in an Ottawa hotel, I was in a Quebec City hotel, and our worldly possessions were in a moving van somewhere in between. We had shipped our bicycles on the train with us and used them to scour Ottawa for suitable accommodation. We eventually found a semi-detached house for rent which was about the same size as the apartment we had just left, but was exactly twice the price, one hundred and ten dollars a month.
Lucille was able to have her position transferred to the Ottawa headquarters of Inspection Services because there was a dearth of bilingual secretaries in the organisation at that time. Bilingualism was a very minor fact of life in the Federal Civil Service in those days, there were no formal language requirements and no deliberate policy initiatives to ensure that francophone representation reflected the national average. In short it was not the fetish that it has now become. Nevertheless there was, as I discovered, a lot of not-so-covert discrimination against francophones and Lucille was not made to feel particularly welcome by the other predominantly anglophone girls, who saw her as a threat to their own positions.
I was quite surprised at this but she was not and at one stage it reached the point that I felt compelled to do something. Fortunately for us the man who was in charge of the agency was an ex-Colonel who had served with distinction in the Canadian army during world war two and ran a very tight operation indeed. He was an anglophone but he was fully aware of the problems that francophones faced and cracked down hard on discrimination wherever he found it. He was an ideal manager and always made it his business to make sure that his orders were carried out to the letter, there was no such platitude as "communications breakdown" in his vocabulary. He was a fair-minded benevolent autocrat and operated with a degree of autonomy that would not be tolerated now. I got an audience with him and explained the situation, he heard me out and said "O.K. thank you, that'll be all." I was not sure that I had done the right thing, but as I turned and headed for the door, I saw out of the corner of my eye a bony hand reaching for the telephone. There were no more problems after that.
One could argue that that sort of autocracy is preferable to democracy; things get done, no red tape worth mentioning, no interminable committee meetings, the only outcome of which is to agree on the time and place for another meeting, and no bureaucratic gridlock over trivial issues. Of course it is preferable - just as long as the benevolent autocrat remains benevolent and does not degenerate into a paranoid or otherwise malevolent autocrat. The old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is strictly applicable. In Canada one need look no further than the example of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis. In the 1930's he was an idealist and totally committed to the welfare of his province. By the 1950's he was virtually a dictator and totally committed to his party and its continuation as the ruling class, with himself as the unchallenged leader.
In many ways the legislative cure for ills like discrimination has been worse than the disease. We now have a Federal Public Service more devoted to meeting bilingual, gender, multicultural and other "employment equity" targets, than in delivering the programs that it was set up to do. This is utterly demoralising for the bright competent people who have given it an enviable reputation for excellence over the years and who now find themselves trapped in a mediocracy where "commitment to excellence" is alleged to be the watchword, but which in practice has been subordinated to the social engineering goals of successive governments.
It was not long ago that a minister for the status of women declared that since it was clearly unrealistic to expect to bring the number of women in the professional and scientific category up to the target quota, the only solution was to get rid of the category! The pendulum has now swung so far in the other direction that the "relative merit" principle, whereby the best qualified applicant gets the job, has now been replaced by the "absolute merit" principle, whereby any one of a number of qualified applicants may be offered the job, thereby ensuring that there is always room for manoeuvre to keep quotas for "targeted groups" front and centre in the staffing of public service positions.
Promotion meant double duty - and wider horizons
One of my first tasks as the new Senior Scientific Officer was to find a replacement for myself at the Nicolet Proof Establishment. It took quite a while to find someone suitable and I journeyed up a number of blind alleys in the process. One such was an application received from Winnipeg which looked promising. I went there to do the interview and took the train, a two day journey through some scenic parts of Northern Ontario and across the achingly flat prairies. I arrived in Winnipeg and went to the Civil Service Commission office only to discover that the candidate had withdrawn his application the day before! Those four days actually turned out to be very beneficial for me, because I finally got around to reading a book on the theory of transistors and their applications which I had bought some months earlier but never had time to read.
I had kept up with some of the advances through the technical literature but was totally preoccupied with vacuum tube design techniques, which by now I knew pretty thoroughly. The book convinced me that transistors were now serious contenders for replacing vacuum tubes in many (but by no means all) future designs. One of the key factors was the advent of silicon NPN transistors, with high gains and far less temperature sensitivity than their germanium based counterparts. Things had come a long way since the time at University College London, when a chap in my year who had spent the summer at Rolls Royce research labs, related in great excitement how he had worked on an experimental power transistor that had reached sustained levels of two watts without frying itself into oblivion.
I continued to spend quite a bit of time at Nicolet and since at that time we had no car, I always went by train, which in those days was a totally satisfactory experience. The service from Ottawa to Montreal and the connection to Drummondville was excellent in both directions. I would leave Ottawa on a Sunday afternoon taking daughter Krista to stay with me at her Grandparents house. In my brief case would be the papers I needed, plus a bottle of milk, an apple cut in small pieces, and some fresh diapers. Krista would consume the apple in unblinking silence all the way to Montreal CN station, where there was a ladies room with a "pouponnerie" which had facilities for changing babies diapers. I often wondered what the reaction must have been at seeing a young man with a brief case in one hand and a baby over his shoulder marching into a ladies room without so much as a by-your-leave.
Life in Ottawa was a good deal more salubrious than it had been in Drummondville, where there were essentially no recreational facilities apart from a few tennis courts. We caused something of a sensation by cycling to and from work at the old printing bureau, not far from the Parliament buildings, which was considered an absolutely insane thing to do in those days. Even more insane was the little seat which I had found (with some difficulty) to put on the back of my bike for Krista, so that we could drop her off at the babysitters place and pick her up again in the evening. I was told that it was illegal by some people, but when I checked with the Ottawa police department, they said that although they had never heard of anyone doing this, as far as they could tell it was not actually illegal. What a difference thirty odd years makes, now there are bike paths everywhere and child seats come in every conceivable variety of colours, shapes and styles.
The place we had rented was a stone's throw from the mosquito-ridden marsh that was then being drained and prepared for the new Carleton University campus. The buildings rose up more or less one by one as money was available presumably and within a few years it was a thriving community with all the amenities of a modern university, with physical facilities that were light years ahead of the ones where I had spent my university career. About twenty five years later both Krista and I wound up doing part-time postgraduate degrees there at the same time, she an M.A. in psychlogy and me a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
Not long after I had got my new job, the job of my opposite number, the Senior Ballistics Officer, became vacant. It was filled by a very capable ex-British army officer, Colonel White, known to one and all as Chalky, whom I had met on the Proof Officers course two years earlier. He had a degree in chemistry from Cambridge and had spent world war two in India in charge of a propellant manufacturing plant. He had forgotten more about artillery ballistics than I would ever know and had been one of the participants on the course who had given lectures on that subject. We were very much on the same wavelength despite the difference in age.
Lesage and 'Le revolution tranquil'- The politics of change
in 1960 the unexpected death of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis precipitated a sea-change in the province. He was replaced by Jean Sauve who also died within six months and he in turn was replaced by Daniel Johnson. A provincial election was held and the Union Nationale was swept from office and off the political stage altogether in a complete rout, to be replaced by a Liberal administration with Jean Lesage as the new Premier. It must have seemed to many of the rank and file that there was a curse on the party, and from that point on it was effectively eliminated as a factor in Quebec politics, apart from a brief return to power in the mid 1960's.
The Lesage administration ushered in what has since become known as the "quiet revolution" in Quebec and indeed it was. The most significant part of it in my judgement was the establishment of the "CEGEP" colleges. They are almost an exact analogue of the Polytechnics in Britain and concentrated on providing the training and work skills that were appropriate for the technological age, something which the Roman Catholic Church educational system had signally failed to do. As a result of this and many other overdue reforms (not the least of which was the elimination of the rampant corruption for which the Duplessis regime had an unenviable reputation), the province was seen as a good place for investment by the predominantly anglophone business community. I well remember the spontaneous euphoria which was so evident everywhere during one of my routine visits down there following the election.
That year there was of course another political upheaval as the U.S. presidential election campaign inched towards the November deadline. President Eisenhower, hero of the second world war, and the natural choice in 1952, was by now little more than a figure head who from all accounts spent more time playing golf than being president. The candidates to succeed him were vice- president Nixon, hard-nosed, hard-headed and republican down to the soles of his expensive shoes, and the forty three year old Senator Kennedy, the choice of the Democratic party. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and by the standards of his time, much too young to be a credible alternative to the suave and experienced vice-president.
Initially it appeared that the result would be a foregone conclusion, after all a Roman Catholic had never been elected to the highest office and quite apart from that aspect, the chances that a young senator would topple an incumbent vice-president seemed remote. The difference was that a new factor in election campaigns was being fully exploited for the first time and that was television. The photogenic Kennedy came across as serious and honest, and despite his youth, presidential. Nixon projected a completely different image, aggressive, slightly shifty and ruthless to a degree.
One of the most effective Kennedy campaign ads was "...would you buy a used car from this man...?" As all politicians are now aware, TV is merciless in revealing the personality of its subjects and it was not long before Nixon became lumbered with the epithet "Tricky Dick". It was the TV debates, the first ever held between presidential candidates, which really tipped the balance and made people think that after all the impossible might happen and that the young senator could come from behind and snatch a victory from the powerful and well connected vice-president. I remembered the McCarthy era and the sleazy part that Nixon had played in it and I was sufficiently apprehensive about how he might bully Canada into marching to his ultra-conservative drum that I said to Lucille that if Nixon won, we should seriously consider going back to the U.K.
The outcome was of course a narrow victory for Kennedy and he lost no time in placing his stamp on the presidency. His impressive and statesmanlike "...ask not what your country can do for you.." acceptance speech revealed a depth and breadth of vision which struck a chord in the American psyche. He succeeded in galvanising his countrymen into take a fresh look at themselves and their history and invited them to look at what they could collectively achieve for their country, and ultimately all of humankind, as the richest nation on earth.
The "Deep South" before de-segregation
In the fall of 1962 I attended a conference on the testing of rocket motors which was held in Waco Texas. I had never been to the "Deep South" before and it was quite an eye opener. The itinerary was from Toronto to Chicago, St. Louis Missouri, Kansas City and Dallas, by Braniff airline with an overnight stop in Dallas and from there by train to Waco, a small town in the heart of Texas, which until the drama of the Davidian Cultists tragedy in 1993, few people had heard of. The aircraft was a Lockheed Electra, the U.S. aircraft industry's belated competition for the Viscount. The Electra had been plagued with mechanical problems (particularly hydraulics) from the beginning, and my first experience on an American carrier did nothing to boost my confidence.
The cabin crew did not wear uniforms and the pilot and co-pilot seemed altogether too relaxed, not to say slovenly. We landed at St. Louis where there was to be a one hour stop- over. As the passengers filed back in again it was obvious that all was not well. The door to the cockpit was open and a gum- chewing captain could be seen casually pressing buttons and asking someone on the tarmac what the effect was. This went on for some time, before it was decided that there was nothing radically wrong and that the flight could continue. We made it to Dallas without incident, but every time the plane landed it seemed that the nose was about to plough into the runway which I found most disconcerting. I just hoped that it was not going to be a case of "Mourning become Electra".
For some reason which I never understood I was booked in to the Dallas Hilton hotel, which was of course incredibly palatial and incredibly expensive. There was a debutante's ball or something of the sort going on at the time and I felt very much the poor trans-atlantic cousin as I surveyed the Southern Belles, dripping with expensive jewellery, dancing under the chandeliers with their expensively and impeccably suited escorts. Needless to say there were only white faces to be seen there except for the waiters and bar tenders. The price of a steak in the hotel eatery was a wallet-flattening $11.00, about four times the price it would have been in an expensive restaurant in Ottawa.
The next morning I was at the station to catch the train to Waco. People were lined up on the platform, the train drew in and I moved to get on when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked round and the owner of the hand, a large Texan, drawled: "Jest ho-o-old yo hosses young fella, ara-a-and he-eah we jen-rally let the niggers git on fe-e-erst". The blacks meekly trooped on to their part of the train and then the whites boarded their section. That was my first experience of the institutionalised segregation in the South as it had existed for more than a hundred years, virtually unchanged since the abolition of slavery following the American civil war. The standoff between George Wallis and Federal Marshalls at the University of Birmingham in Alabama, was still to come, although the "freedom rider" buses, part of the militant civil rights movement, were just starting to make an impact at that time.
Waco was a sort of museum of the old west, with houses dating from that period which could have been brought in from a hollywood film set, but were obviously authentic. I had breakfast in a diner sitting next to a sherriff's deputy with his star on his shirt, a ten gallon hat and (I could hardly believe it) pearl-handled six-shooters.
The conference was interesting and included a visit to the facilities of the Thiokol Corporation at McGregor Texas, incredibly well equipped as were all U.S. defence contractors. I was constantly aware of the segregation issue which everyone, including the black population, seemed to take for granted. There were separate facilities for just about everything, including of course schools. I saw several signs "Whites only", but never saw any marked "Blacks only", presumably because white people would never go out of their way to encroach areas designated for Blacks.
On the way back to Ottawa there was a stop-over of about three hours in Chicago. The air traffic was pretty bad and the much needed O'Hare airport, which was going to solve all the congestion problems, was then under construction. [Predictably it did not solve those problems; recently (1991) I had occasion to change planes in Chicago on another journey and I found that the congestion was far worse than it had been thirty years earlier, with only the much smaller airport to handle it.] I took a bus into the city and did some quick sight seeing, including the view from the top of the Prudential building which was certainly impressive. The ground level vista by contrast was one of grim, grey and unrelieved concrete and I was so glad that I did not have to live there. I was also more than happy to climb aboard a Viscount for the leg to Toronto, with a brisk and business-like TCA crew in charge, wearing those familiar and very reassuring uniforms.
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