Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Monday, April 5, 2010

I watch an over-indulgent Polar Bear...

...and remember aspects of very effective
Early Educational Methods

It was past midnight on August 17, 1956, as the powerful Canadian Government icebreaker d’Iberville crushed through the ten-foot-thick sea-ice of the Arctic Archipelago.  But here, on the top of the world at north latitude 80 degrees, there was still enough light to see the huge polar bear.  He had obviously just finished eating a seal.  A very big seal by the look of the bloodstained surface of the ice hummock upon which he was lying.  And a big seal by the bear’s sleepy non-reaction to the loud screeching and scraping made by our ship’s two-and-a-half-inch-thick steel bow plates as they rasped aside hunks of ice as big as double-decker buses. 
That vividly-coloured, two-tone bear, still snow-white on top but now with blood-red underparts, was relaxing in exquisite post-prandial tranquillity.  So, as I saw Captain Caron reach over to the whistle handle to give a sudden blast to startle the Arctic stillness and get the bear up and moving, I raised my hand in polite protest and shook my head.  The captain, shrugged, smiled, and desisted from his usual practice upon seeing a bear and came over to the port side of the bridge next to me.  We were now within a few hundred feet of the somnolent bear and it looked as if we would pass within little more than thirty yards of him.  Yet still he didn’t move.  Just raised his head a little and looked at the ship’s massive bulk through glazed, uncomprehending eyes.  He must have eaten a giant of a seal.  
As we passed by, the captain and I engaged the bear in an eye-to-eye exchange through our binoculars.  We could make out every detail of the bear and his bloodstained coat and surroundings.  The staring contest went on for several long seconds.  We won.  He blinked first.  And for the second and third times, also.  That massive meal had left him totally bereft of any antagonism or interest in anything in his field of vision, direct or peripheral.
Even before the vessel’s midships had passed him by, his head had subsided back down onto the ice in the torpor left by overeating and he slept the confident sleep of a king in his own domain.  We strange, arrogant egoists were nothing to him.  No more than an absurd dream brought on by overindulgence.  A passing fantasy to be immediately forgotten.

As the sated bear was left behind, only a few yards from the lead of open water the d’Iberville’s massive hull  had created, I couldn’t help wondering what my twenty-man Iraqi crew of the Survey Ship El Ghar,  which I had commanded during the years from 1947 to 1952 at the head of the Persian Gulf, would think of the scene of which, as the d’Iberville’s  hydrographer, I was now a part.  I also thought of Able Seaman Albert of the Indian Navy, conscripted as my survey assistant and with whom, in 1952 while working for a London based engineering company, I had ventured into the terrible darkness of the Bombay sewers.  How he, Albert, would appreciate being here amid this snow-white, pristine and unblemished region of the world.  This in turn made my mind go back the dozen years to when I was a fighter pilot and I wondered what my closest friends, with whom I had flown in Royal Navy Fighter Squadron, No. 805 (Seafires), were presently about.
  In 1956, as I watched that slumbering polar bear recede from view in the ice-pack, I also thought of the two proceeding years that I had spent aboard the chartered sealer, Theron,  and the adventures and thrill I had experienced of personally discovering and naming new geographical features to be placed on the maps and charts of northern Canada.  
Then, in anticipation of the future, I wondered what it might bring.  Did I suspect and hope then, that the fickle finger of fate was to bring me back again to the High Arctic aboard other Canadian and United States Coast Guard vessels?  And that soon other assignments would take me up to the wild Yukon and later around the world.

Then, again, looking back, even farther in time, my mind went back a full twenty-five years to the year 1931, to when I had learned to read under the formidable Miss Bagg.  First by learning the alphabet, then short words like cat and dog, then longer words like lion, tiger and bear.  And then just not any old bear, but:  Polar Bear.  
 In my mind I could still picture the elderly Miss Bagg, the awesome head mistress of the crowded infants school, and the sketch of a polar bear on an ice floe that she pinned up on the board.  
Not too accurate a picture.  Probably drawn by some artist who had never been farther north than London’s Epping Forest.  But it had nevertheless fired my imagination and spawned a desire to travel and see things for myself.
At the age of five years, in 1931, I had already begun my travelling —  riding three miles each day on the top deck of London Passenger Transport double-decker buses, to SS. Peter & Paul’s elementary school in Ilford, northeast London.  There I was one of the new boys and girls who met face-to-face with Miss Bagg.
Miss Bagg was always dressed in black.  She was grey-haired, severe, and to us tender infants, a most fearsome figure.  This was mostly owing to Miss Bagg’s possession of a very effective learning aid:  a two-foot-long, solid wood, rock-hard, tapered-to-a-point, pointer stick.  This instrument of enlightenment was as unbending as was Miss Bagg.
Purportedly designed by its manufacturers for the primary task of pointing to the large ABCs printed on the blackboard, Miss Bagg’s secondary, but not very secondary, use of the pointer was to sometimes stand close to the currently selected student and repeatedly rap five-year-old finger knuckles until their owner had learned how to give a reasonably correct phonetic rendering of the particular letter of the alphabet that had been chosen at that particular moment for intense discussion.  Obviously, Miss Bagg thought some students’ poor pronunciation was more the result of defiance than ineptitude.
Looking back to this very effective educational method, now fallen largely into disuse, it is obvious that if used today by the Berlitz and other similar schools of languages, they could turn out polished speakers of Chinese, Swahili, Serbo-Croation and Urdu by the many thousands in very short order.

But all dark clouds eventually pay off with a silver lining.  And in the case of our weeks of enduring Miss Bagg’s persuasive tuition, the silver lining following closely on the healing of bruised knuckles eventually appeared as a magical flooding of enlightenment —we had learned to read. 
So already at the age of six most of us became members of the children’s section of the big public library attached to the Town Hall of the Ilford Borough Council.   And there we discovered the wondrous worlds of Dr. Dolittle and other infant stories that now opened up before us, to be followed later by the adventures of William Brown, Biggles, Arnold Adair, Grey Shadow Master Spy and others.  And of course, travel books like, With Rod and Gun in Canada, with actual photographs of far off things like grizzly bears.
A couple of years later, with our new found literacy, we invented a way to make dull, classroom reading-out-loud practice sessions into hilarious entertainment.  A dozen of us agreed that when following the text, we would mentally transpose all nouns beginning with a “c” into cabbages, all those beginning with “s” into sausages, and all those starting with “p” as puddings.  This made even the most morbid text of some life-of-a-saint a spluttering comedy.  The teachers took weeks to fathom out the cause of our uncontrollable mirth and when having pried out our secret even they would sometimes embarrass themselves by bursting out laughing at some particularly ludicrous passage.

Four or five years later, after graduating from Miss Bagg’s jurisdiction, another example of our school’s educational curriculum was provided by a young, athletic and dashing teacher named Mr Riley.  This rather likeable and personable teacher was, as much as Miss Bagg had been unbending, of quite opposite bent, being an almost daily proponent of bending.  That is, he kept discipline in his classes using the same teaching aid as Miss Bagg but using it on the backsides of presumed errant boys (never girls) whom he ordered to bend over to receive a couple of brisk strokes of his wooden pointer.
  It was also to the dapper blond Mr Riley that the younger women teachers, notably among them the stern-looking but very handsome and raven-haired Miss Harden, usually turned to for help when they decided one of the boys in their class was in need of official corporal punishment.  They would summon Mr Riley to perform the physical caning of the palms and fingers of upturned, outstretched hands.
  This ritual punishment began with the misbehaving boy being sent to the headmaster’s study to ask for the punishment book and a cane.  Kindly Mr Saurin who always seemed to regret having to comply to this request, would motion to the cabinet where the book and canes were kept and the victim would carefully select the cane of his choice (thick ones bruised and thin ones stung) according to his experience in such matters.
Back in the classroom, the lady teacher would send someone to ask for Mr Riley’s presence as executioner and the whole class would fall into silent fascination as the tableau personalities assembled for the real life play depicting crime and punishment.
The accused boy would be ordered to stretch out his arm to his utmost reach with the palm of his hand turned up.  Mr Riley would take three or four false strokes to measure the correct distance and then would administer the first energetic punishing stroke of two, four or six, whichever number had been decided upon by the instigating teacher.  Some boys would endure their ordeal stoically, perhaps even defiantly, refusing to utter a single whimper or protest to mask the loud swish of the cane through the air and the smack of wood against flesh.  
Then after receiving their due number of strokes on alternate hands, they would return quietly to their seats and regard the teachers with unblinking, silent disdain, sitting on their stinging hands as if they were but unconcerned witnesses quite remote from the incomprehensible scene and happenings that had just occurred.  Then the boy’s name, offence, number of cane strokes administered and the date would be entered in the large hardcover, crimson-coloured punishment book and the entry duly signed by the members of officialdom involved.
For other boys, poorer in spirit and of much leaner moral fortitude, there was often the fearful and futile last moment pulling back of hands as the cane descended.  This would often cause a titter from a few of the more callous student onlookers but would only increase the duration of agony for their poor weak classmate.  Because, even if the cane painfully only caught the outermost tips of the retreating hand, that stroke still did not count and it would be repeated.
Such scenes, perhaps repeated two or three times and often accompanied by tears, moans and even screams, clearly stimulated the two pretty girl teacher’s-pets who were seated together in the front row one school year.  With flushed faces, fleeting half smiles and nervous giggles, these two delicate eleven-year-olds brought to mind the carnival atmosphere of mediaeval public executions.  Of course, in those pre-World War II days, when television was only just being experimented with in Britain, there were very few programs at all and certainly none to entertain or excite with daily doses of sex, mayhem and violence as there are today.  And the drama movies of the time were quite innocuous and corny in comparison to the realism of modern horror dramas.

1 comment:

  1. I was a passenger on the d`Iberville from Resolute Bay to Eureka in 1956. A green 19-year old I failed to take many photos and the ones are have are very poor. You will recall the fog going through Hell Gate. Did you keep a log of the trip?