Life As A Meteorologist
When my job at Flin Flon ended, I drove back to Vancouver in my trusty Morris Minor convertible. It was a knee-jerk reaction. I hadn’t completed my last practice teaching session so I just automatically went back to Vancouver without thinking about it.
When I got there, I realized I didn’t want to finish my Faculty of Education. I remembered what it had been like and if that represented what teaching was all about, I wanted no part of it. So, I went to the ‘jobs available’ bulletin board and found an interesting job in Toronto for the university’s meteorology program. I fired off my application and, after I had mailed it, noticed the position opened at the beginning of January. And here it was September, so I could have a bit of a holiday. That would be nice.
Al needed a car to elope (in a hurry) so I sold him my Morris Minor at a fair market value (one dollar). It was a good car in that we never even had to consider the thought it might not be up to the 24-hour trip. It had just traveled from Flin Flon and all it asked was a new tire and it was ready to go back to Winnipeg. I’ve had expensive new cars since then that required a lot more checking over before daring to venture on a trip of that magnitude. I bought an old Plymouth coupe for a few hundred dollars and drove it around in Vancouver. My friends said—publicly and loudly—that I was an accident going somewhere to happen because I kept forgetting the Plymouth was three times the size of the Morris and didn’t handle well. It generally felt like it was traveling twice as fast as it actually was, and this made for a scary ride. After a couple of weeks, I began to feel lost. My friends were all doing something useful and I was doing nothing except spending the hard-earned money I had saved. That is just an expression. After I got out of the underground work, which was hard, sweaty work, I didn’t do more than 2 hours a day of anything that required me to be more than half awake.
Then I got an inspiration. I might as well be heading to Toronto for my new job. It never occurred to me that I might not get the job. As far as I was concerned, I had applied, was qualified, and so of course I would get the job. I packed my oversized metal suitcase, which had been traveling around the country with me for a few years now, and my trusty euphonium in its traveling case and headed for Toronto via the United States. I had always traveled at full throttle in the Morris, so I automatically did the same in the Plymouth until the motor dissolved in clouds of steam, hot oil and atrociously nasty metal noises. The Morris would never have behaved in such a rude manner. I sold the car for parts and hopped on a Greyhound bus to finish the trip.
When I arrived in Toronto I initially stayed with a relative until I found a place of my own. It was a half-hour subway ride (45 minutes in rush hour) from the Meteorological Offices at the university, but I appreciated having a place to stay. I ventured downtown and enquired as to the progress of my application. When I told the fellow in charge I was there from Vancouver and had nothing to do with my life until my job started, he suggested that they could use an assistant for some research they were doing and I might like to do that. It was an easy job, organizing weather data, and doing some office work. The pay was good so I agreed and started the next morning.
Although the subway was fast and efficient, it was still a big waste of time. I found a nice little rooming place with meals very near the Meteorological Office. It was operated by a formal Chinese couple who ran it like a restaurant except without any menu or choices. It was spotlessly clean, antiseptic and the meals repetitious. There would be a bowl of soup with one cellophane wrapped soda cracker. Condiments were all in small, individual sealed containers. There were no extras or flexibility. There were four other people staying there, but they appeared only at mealtime (as I guess I did, too) and conversation with the meal seemed to be an intrusion. I stayed only a couple of weeks before searching out a different place.
I found a place in a German section of the city. It was near where I was happily working and the people seemed nice. They spoke no English and I spoke little German, but even so we had more conversation than in my previous place. There was lots of variety in the food and it was always well prepared with typical German enthusiasm. I thought I had found the ideal place until one dinner when we had ribs with sauerkraut. The ribs were small and thin, but bigger than rabbit. I had eaten rabbit stew on the farm, and I knew they weren’t rabbit. I had eaten sheep, but they were smaller and thinner than the sheep I had eaten. We did some of our usual informal sign language discussion and eliminated a lot of things they might have been. The ribs were delicious, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do more than taste them, knowing what they weren’t, and suspecting what they were.
My new job presented me with one big problem. It would be another month before I would get a pay cheque. My summer savings, such as they had been, were fast running out. I bid auf Wiedersehen to my German friends, and got a tiny, cheap room close to the university with no meals. The last couple of weeks before I got my first pay cheque I was living on peanut butter and bread. I couldn’t even afford a bottle of coke. Toward the end of the month I was finding bread to be a luxury. That’s how broke I was.
I was just doing miscellaneous jobs until my real job started in January, so I was available when they suddenly needed a relief person for the International Geophysical Year (1957–58) project on measuring the thickness of the upper air ozone layer. The equipment was set up at Moosonee, north of Toronto, on the tip of James Bay, which is available only by train from Toronto. The person who was operating it was suffering from the isolation and was badly in need of some R&R. I was a good fit for the job because of my Physics and Math background and I was ready and willing to go on moment’s notice.
My pay would be the same as in Toronto, but with a northern allowance, isolation bonus, and included room and board. My cheques were deposited directly into a Toronto bank because I had no need for money. The only commercial venture in Moosonee was a Hudson Bay trading post for the half dozen local residents and the Eskimo/Aboriginal people living within dog sled range. The ‘store’ was full of tied and stacked bales of the hides, which were used by the residents for any purchases more expensive than a candy bar. I really felt like a one of the early explorers. Anything the store didn’t stock—which was pretty well everything—had to be ordered from the town of Kapuskasing and shipped in by train. I quickly learned things about ordering liquor; order twice as much as you wanted because half of it would mysteriously disappear on the train trip, and have them pack it well or the rest of it would get broken. Kapuskasing had a bakery that specialized in the insertion of a bottle of whisky into a fresh loaf of bread for shipment.
I learned why there was an isolation bonus. From the observation tower, which was used for taking weather observations, I took photos in all four compass directions to send home. They showed nothing but ice and snow as far as the eye could see—no trees, no nothing. However, listening to the Northern Lights was a surprising experience because scientifically, they cannot produce sound (oh, yes, and scientifically, a bumblebee can’t fly, either). Also called the aurora borealis, they occur at an altitude of over 100 kilometers, which is almost a vacuum, and hence (scientifically) cannot transmit sound to the earth. They are visible in most of Canada as streaks of moving colors in the northern sky. In Moosonee, they regularly filled the sky with shimmering sheets of changing colors accompanied by crackling sounds as if the entire sky were having a short-circuit. Maybe the Northern Lights weren’t making the sounds, but something certainly was, and they seemed to be the most likely cause. Or maybe, whatever causes the light display also causes other electro-magnetic disturbances closer to ground level which we can hear but don’t see. Either way, it was delightfully impressive.
I was back into sharing my sleeping quarters with a roommate. It was a hulking, overweight, shiny white chunk of metal sitting in the center of the room and spreading out to occupy most of the room. Its sole purpose was to encase a rectangular prism the size of a single section of a Kit Kat chocolate bar, hold it very steady and allow the light to be dispersed onto a soot blackened disc. Its name was, ‘Dobson Ozone Spectrophotometer’. We called it, ‘it,’ for short. At least, it was quiet and well behaved, although rather demanding. I slept on a cot huddled on one side of the room near the heater.
There was a predawn reading to be taken before sunrise if the sky was clear. So as a minimum, I had to wake up two hours before dawn to cast a bleary eye skywards to see if I needed to make the dreaded ‘Umkehr’ reading. If it was cloudy I could go back to sleep. Sometimes the clouds I saw may have been more in my eye than in the sky. Isn’t there a saying something like, ‘clouds are in the eye of the beholder’?
There was enough to do to keep busy: calibrate the machine, take hourly readings, use a candle to coat the reading disks evenly with a layer of carbon soot, record the information on the carbon disks, and sleep. Also, there were weather observations to take twice a day and send to Toronto for compiling weather maps. I assisted in releasing balloons with equipment to record barometric pressure and temperature, and recording cloud types, size and height. I also used alcohol to polished the glass domes containing radiation sensors and discovered how cold alcohol is on a bare hand when the temperature is approaching minus forty. It was in recording cloud heights that I discovered I was deficient in depth perception. The person with whom I worked could just look up and say how high the cloud was. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t guess the height of a cloud. I had known that I couldn’t estimate the distance of any object from me unless I had some other objects to use as reference points, such as telephone poles on a highway. It had just never occurred to me that most people could just look at an object and estimate its distance. I later learned it has to do with the brain interpreting muscle tension of the eyes as distance when they focus on an object.
It was weird having no use for money. A few of the people (including the local RCMP officer) played poker using paper chits in place of money to make atrociously high bets. When the officer was rotated back to civilization (possibly owing tens of thousands of dollars) it was assumed the chits were null and void. I didn’t play poker at the best of times and I wasn’t going to start losing money to a police officer on the assumption he understood it was only play-money.
When I returned to Toronto, I had more money in my bank account than it had ever had before at one time. And by then, I was getting a regular monthly cheque so I felt free to spend it foolishly, which I did for a couple of weeks until financial sanity set in, which it did, thanks to my Scottish heritage. We had a picture of one of my grandfathers, with his piecing eyes, clenched jaw and muttonchop sideburns staring down at us from a wall in our living room. I can still see him clearly in my mind whenever I get reckless with my money.
Living for a month without needing money had made it lose all sense of value to me. Looking back at my bankbook later I saw regular hundred dollar withdrawals every day—and
that was in 1958 dollars—until I had my bank balance back to its usual manageable amount. The only significant purchase I made at that time was to buy another Morris Minor Convertible.
I also worked for several weeks at the Air Force base in Trenton, Ontario as meteorologist. We were given an honorary rank (Flight Lieutenant, I think) so that our statements about flying conditions could be taken as a significant order. It also entitled us to eat in the Officers’ Mess and enjoy Friday lobster feasts with all the trimmings, including exotic liquids. No matter how much I tried to count stripes and bars I could never figure out the assorted ranks and who outranked whom. I became an equal opportunity saluter. I saluted anyone in uniform. I got a few confused looks, and a lot of smiles, but generally people just returned the salute.
One aspect of our training was to become familiar with the up and down drafts in the atmosphere. A group of us went up in a big cargo plane that was deliberately flown through thunderclouds during a storm. It was unnerving to observe the plane’s wings flapping as it alternated between falling and rising air currents. They did assure us that the lightning flashing around us was harmless. It did help me to remember that in a hollow metal container the charge is on the outside, and we were on the inside. Who says having a knowledge of Physics isn’t useful?
Back at the university, while learning how to draw weather maps, I came to the realization that anyone, or even an exceptionally bright monkey, could do this as well or better than I could. This revelation occurred in August, just as everyone was gearing up for the opening of public school classes and purchasing school supplies. I resigned from the program, packed my metal suitcase and euphonium, sold my Morris Minor to my current roommate ($1), and hopped a Greyhound Bus back to Winnipeg.
I had a bank balance over $1000. As usual, I was at a crossroad in my life. The Mexican peso was low compared to the Canadian dollar. A bit of mental arithmetic convinced me I could live in Mexico for a year on the money I had in the bank if I lived on the beach. I knew nothing else about Mexico, but it was all very appealing and romantic.
I knew I liked teaching, but it wasn’t as easy as living on a beach in Mexico drinking Tequila. At that time I had never tasted Tequila, but the name had a nice ring to it and it got good press in movies. If I knew then what I know now about Tequila I probably wouldn’t have been considering Mexico.
Be that as it may, I spent a day and a night wandering up and down Portage Avenue trying to make a decision between teaching and Mexico. It was that donkey with the two bales of hay situation again. I was never any good with choices, so I did the only mature thing under the circumstances. I flipped a coin. Teaching won.
It was now only a week before school was scheduled to open. There were very few schools that did not have their staff in place, and there was usually some good reason for that.