Friday, October 31, 2014

The Franklin Expedition and HMS Erebus

Three years ago I began researching the Franklin Expedition as one of 12 new stories for the new edition of Canadian Disasters. I'd read about Franklin over the years but never studied him in detail. It would qualify because it was a total and serious peacetime waste of human lives, it happened in Canada, and I had a other Arctic stories to tell in this edition.
Franklin was famous in 1840's Britain as "the man who ate his boots" on his first attempt to find the Northwest Passage.  This much I recall being told by my friend Cody Poulton, as we walked to elementary school some 50 years ago. Cody was a history buff in Grade 5, obsessed with things Arctic and Antarctic.
Much more recently I read about Owen Beatty and his team who dug up three of Franklin's sailor's bodies on Beechy Island, so well preserved after 138 years. The photos were suitably gross enough to cause a youthful eye to stop and read and learn something.  Hopefully the art director would agree.

Thinking I could read two or three big fat books on the subject Franklin, and throw in those gruesome photos, I'd be done.

Not so fast.

Sir John Franklin was a much more elusive study than I realized.  One book I read claimed he was a putz who had no business going near the Arctic on any of his three journeys. Another book declared he was a wise and fearless leader and that his heroism and wisdom prevented a much worse fate than what happened to his first and second attempts at finding the Northwest Passage. Franklin's own journal, given to me by my brother Erik, gave some different insights altogether. I had to keep reading, peeling back layers of opinion or fact, finding new books on Franklin, because each author had a different take on what happened to kill off 129 adventurous men over a few wretched months, or years, wandering the Arctic.

The recent discovery of HMS Erebus off O'Reilly Island has brought this story back to front page news and vindicated our Prime Minister's investment of time, money and policy objectives in finding this wreck.  It's a great story, made all the more poignant because of Inuit oral histories were found to be dead-on accurate. The Inuit said one of the two great ships had been trapped in ice off O'Reilly Island and then sank there, after a hole was chopped in its hull by a treasure-seeking Inuk. Some experts dismissed this oral history, claiming because of sheet copper being found nearby, this wreck was an entirely different ship, a schooner lost decades later. But the Inuit had it right. Also according to their recall, a very large man was found dead in a locked room on the ship, smelling badly.  Had Franklin's body been preserved there? Kept frozen in winter, or pickled, and made ready for burial in Westminster Abbey or some noble place?  Maybe. Franklin died a year before the two ships were abandoned in what seems to be a mad decision to journey south, more than 1000 miles, in an attempt to reach a lonely Hudson's Bay outpost. Led by Captain Crozier, himself an intrepid adventurer who spent three winters with the Inuit and learned their ways of hunting and travel, the expedition came apart, fatally. Scattered groups of bodies, clothing, weapons and possible trade items were found dispersed over a large area of King William Island and the mainland near Back's Fish River (now Back River).    

  Lead poisoning certainly played a part in the demise of many, but I cannot believe, as one author did, that the entire mass of men went consistently bonkers and collectively made the same stupid mistake. Bad food in poorly soldered tins, improperly cooked by a merchant who was weeks late for a Royal Navy deadline, must have been a factor.  Getting a meal which wouldn't make one puking sick may have driven these men to the logical madness of trying to find and hunt caribou on King William Island when these beasts were still months away, or trying to trade all sorts of brik-a-brak to the Inuit, who also were elsewhere and in such small numbers these hundred or so men would have been impossible to feed anyway.  The Inuit told Dr. John Rae that forty starving white men met them by the Back River and traded for one small seal, all the Inuit had. Months later, the Inuit found only bodies, alone or in groups, and evidence of cannibalism.

The image in my head is one of all the wheels coming off, slowly, slowly, and painfully, for all these 129 men. What an awful way to go!

In the end after reading eleven fat books on the subject, each with its own bias, I had to quit and write the story.   The first version I gave the editor was about six times longer than what she had in mind.  We began a tug-of-war which I lost, because I had to keep making the story shorter, and shorter, and eventually many of the good parts had to be left out.  (The alternative would have been leave the story long and interesting and omit some of my earlier stories from being reprinted in the new edition. The editors wouldn't go for it.)
Lately I have been doing school presentations using all the good details and parts that had to be left out of the version in the book. So all that reading and research came in handy.
And it's still a great story!


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hold This Wire

Normally I don't post stuff like this.  I'd sooner try to sell it somewhere, but eventually I will probably send it out.

Mechanical Aptitude

“Just hold that wire,” insisted my oldest brother Erik. “Nothing will happen, I promise.”
            He and my other brother, Werner, were working on an old Sachs engine our dad had brought home for them.  Dad wanted them to learn something practical.
            “Why should I hold it?”
            “We need you to hold it so the engine will start.”
            “Are you going to shock me?” I asked. 
Their faces were creased with sincerity – masks of good intent.  “Honest. We would never do that to you, would we Werner?” 
“Just hold the wire so we can get this thing to work.”
“But I’ll get shocked…”
“Not if you hold the end of the wire tightly.”
“It just can’t happen.” 
“Not at all,” agreed Werner.
            “Oh, alright.”  I held the wire for them while Werner knelt and braced the big engine between his legs, staining his tan corduroy pants with engine grease. Erik balanced himself and kicked down on a big kick-start lever with a mighty tromp. A huge blast of electricity jolted through me. I leapt back and hit the wall. Erik and Werner burst out laughing, “You idiot!” Erik shouted, “Don’t you know better than to hold a spark plug wire?”
            My aptitude for mechanical things always seemed worse when my brothers were around. Like when Werner pointed out that my bicycle wheels didn’t spin very easily.  We had our bicycles upside down doing the maintenance my dad insisted was important for our maturity and development.
            “Spin it and see,” he said. I spun the front wheel and after a few turns it stopped. 
“Now spin mine.” I did and it spun like a top, on and on and on. “You have to loosen the bearings in the wheel hub.” He pointed out the slim little nuts in there and left me to it. 
            “Why’s your wheel wobbling like that?” Erik asked a few days later.  I was loaded with thirty copies of the Toronto Star for my paper route. The front wheel had been turning freely ever since the adjustment. Maybe too freely. 
            “Werner showed me how to loosen it.”
            “And you believed him?” Erik demanded. “You’ve got to tighten those,” he said, pointing to those nasty thin nuts I had spent an hour on.  They were losing their six-sided shape every time I wrenched them with the old adjustable wrench. I unloaded the bike, flipped it over, made the adjustment in the growing darkness and took off to deliver the papers. By the time I got back home there was a suspicious grinding sound coming from the wheel hub.  
            “You listened to Erik? No wonder you screwed it up,” observed Werner, “better do the back wheel now. Even them up.”
            By the end of the week Dad was really mad about me needing two new bicycle wheels. All that remained of the ball bearings were some bits of steely gravel. The bearing cups were full of cracks and unusable.     
            Things were always breaking down at our house.  My dad, who had plenty of mechanical aptitude was kept pretty busy,  fixing stuff.  
Like the night Werner cannon-balled onto our big old bed dozens of times and the thing began its death rattle.  Already one end was sagging.   
            “Werner you’re wrecking the bed!”
            “So?” He dived onto it again and it rattled more dramatically.  “It’s fun,” he pointed out. The low corner got even lower. He got off, took a run at it and cannon-balled into it again.  The bed shook like a wet dog. 
Another run.
This time a belly flop.
            “You’re wrecking it, stop!  Dad’ll kill you!”  Werner ignored me and dived onto it again.  The lower half collapsed onto the ground and the footboard crashed, leaving deep gouges in the wooden floor.
            “Oops!” grinned Werner.  We tried to fix it with a wrench but couldn’t. Needless to say I didn’t get to sleep well that night in a bed that was 18 inches lower on the end, like a ship sinking by the stern.  
Did I say we were always wrecking stuff? It’s true. Either that or chasing each other around the house with something sharp.  I’m not sure if mom and dad ever realized why I wanted to go out with them wherever they went, but it was safer than staying at home.   
For a long time I avoided working on my bicycle and mechanical things in general. Instead I devoted time to things like practicing shooting things with my slingshot or learning archery. If they’d had a rifleman’s badge at scouts I would have tried for that.  Just for self defense of course.
Dad bought us a Meccano set with all the little steel brackets and flanges and nuts and bolts, telling us, with some pride, how he had made Meccano displays of windmills and such for the toy shop where he grew up in the old country.  
“Let’s see vat you can make, boyss,” he said.  My brothers made simple little racing cars with moving wheels. He was disappointed: they should have been made to steer or had a differential. I made a gallows with a little steel Meccano man hanging from it by his neck.  It had no moving parts whatsoever. He shook his head in disgust and said something in Dutch about my mechanical aptitude.  
Fast forward about fifteen years. I was in University and needed a car.  I bought a 1967 Volkswagen station wagon for $400. It was reliable, free of rust and had been fastidiously maintained by a philosophy grad student who found truth in things like working on his car.  My dad would have liked a son like him. The car was great and I drove it for two years before my lack of mechanical aptitude confronted me. The car needed an engine job and I didn’t have money to pay a mechanic. 
Erik, who was visiting from out west, was reading on my couch. 
“Hey Erik, how about helping me fix this engine?”
“Do it yourself. You got two hands,” he said and turned a page in his magazine. A day later he tossed a book on my table: How to Fix Your Volkswagen, For the Compleat Idiot, by John Muir. “Read that,” he instructed. “It’s all you need to know.”
It had every kind of repair for every kind of VW ever built. From the Beetle to the Microbus and the station wagon model I had. It was illustrated with clear drawings of only what you needed to see, and the intro chapter, about people with no mechanical experience whatsoever, gave me confidence. The book was even ring-bound to stay open to any page. I discovered the book also had a running philosophical commentary about all sorts of other things in life.  
So I bought some tools and spent the better part of a weekend methodically removing and dismantling my VW engine. I labeled everything, read over every paragraph several times and worried every minute. When I had reassembled everything and put the engine back in there was great apprehension.
“Turn the key,” I told myself, but I was afraid of what might happen. A voice in my head was saying; “hold this wire”.  I walked around the parking lot.  I smoked a cigarette. I stared at the car from a distance and hummed a little tune. The key was waiting, dangling in the ignition.
Had I crossed some plug wires? 
Had I wrecked the duel carburetors or not attached the gas lines properly?  Would this little car erupt into a fire-bomb and immolate my human remains as a sacrifice to technology?  
Finally I turned the key and there was a pleasant grumble as the four little cylinders fired up. The engine idled happily. 
I was ecstatic like a new father. I had created life.
Over the years I worked on many Volkswagens and helped my friends fix theirs  as well. Werner had the same station-wagon model I did. We collaborated on dreaming up unusual paint jobs – he did a desert camouflage, and later a tree frog design. I painted my car plaid. First it was a Barclay tartan – just to create the painful visual assault of yellow on black and white – on a car.  It gave me a headache just to look at it.  Later I changed it to a more sedate Black Watch tartan.  Foot-wide stripes of blue and green on a black background.  
One weekend I was helping Werner wire some speakers into the back of his car. While he fiddled with the fuses I ran a secret wire from his distributor cap to the speaker wire. 
“You better show me where you want that wire to run,” I called.
“Under the trim,” he said.
“I can’t get it in there.”
“It’s simple.  Just stuff it under.”
“I don’t want to wreck it. You’d better do it.”  With a deep sigh Werner extricated himself from under the dashboard and came back to where I held the speaker wire.  He stuffed the wire under. I waited until he began attaching it to the screws on the speaker.
“Hey Werner,” I said.
“What?” he grunted.
“Hold that wire,” I said and turned the ignition key. The audible snap of the high-voltage spark was almost as satisfying as the shocked look on his face.
It took a while to learn mechanical aptitude but it was worth it.

Winter Wonderland

I didn't post this right away after writing it.  Not sure why.  But this is how our land looked this winter after several impressive snowfalls.
I have some other work I will post soon, but tonight I'm warming up to a good book and a fire.

January 3rd.  We had a nice fluffy snowfall last night.  I got the camera to capture a few shots before the warmer air melted all this away again.  The camera is a Fujifilm F550 and a very nice camera, given me by my brother Erik.  It is a great camera and does some amazing things, like panoramas. The blue hued one was done in low light, just as I was going out to warm up the tractor for some snow pushing.  

My iphone also does panorama.  I will compare them and see how they deliver the goods...

The bottom one is the iphone, which has you turn the image to vertical and then pan. The image is taller  and allows for a fatter profile.  When I zoom the images in my computer it is absolutely amazing what kind of detail has been pushed into these little images, all digitally matched and stitched together in a few microseconds inside a camera the size of which, in my past, would barely have been able to contain a simple roll of film and a mechanical shutter and maybe a few lenses...   I get annoyed when digital stuff doesn't digit properly (or at least in such a way as to work reliably and predictably in a way I've gotten used to them working)
The careful observer will notice how carefully I have cleaned (scraped off) my rear drive and entry to the garage.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thrice Presenting the New Book

The New Book gets out....
Many thanks to Marsha Skrypuch of Author's Booking Service for organizing a major event with 113 of the Durham Teacher / Librarians. What a great way for those of us who write to see so many librarians at one time.  Genius idea on Marsha's part.  
We each got a short time to present. Helaine Becker was hilarious as always and got the most laughs.  Later the T/L 's came to buy books or chat.  We writers had a great time there and appreciated getting a chance to talk business with each other when things slowed down. Some were first-time authors whose books had already been nominated for (or won) awards. Most of my better known compatriots had several books on the go and several more that had already earned awards. For me, I always feel a bit guilty when I think about the manuscripts I have sitting... waiting... Maybe I'll revise further... Maybe I'll send it out the way it is - but then I risk getting a bad reputation for sending out unfinished stuff... 

I'm at the back, as usual. With me, in no particular order, are prize-winning children's & young adult authors: Helaine Becker, (holding the underwear) J. Timothy Hunt, Pat Bourke, David Carroll, Lucy Falcone, Alma Fullerton, Wesley King, Karen Patkau, Karen Krossing, Shane Peacock, Richard Scarsbrook, Martin Springett, Ted Staunton, Bill Swan, J.Torres and Marsha Skrypuch. Also included are staff from the Durham School Board.  

Today, between bouts (tractor vs snow) I'm getting ready for the Ontario Librarian's Association Book Launch & Love Fest in Toronto next Monday January 31st. Many thanks to CANSCAIP  (Canadian Society of Children's Authors Illustrators and Publishers) and Scholastic Canada for including me in this event in Toronto.
This is another chance to meet librarians. they are always in the know about what kids like and their comments are helpful. My friends and former neighbors Kathryn and Dan will likely join me there.  The last time I went it was for the launch of Leaving Fletchville. This time I have a rhyme I will use as part of my presentation.  Wearing various hats to show the different characters I will read the following:

If I come to your classroom, be sure to leave some room

For the bevy of characters who will follow me there
For my stories and diction are from fact and not fiction
To appeal to readers liking who, what, and where

(Sou' wester)
And if I read Newfoundlandish, don’t be off-standish
For the Rock’s seen much more than it’s fair share of grief
Drilling rig sunk in ocean, or 77 sealers frozen
The disasters and rescues here beggar belief

(Russian hat)
And in your auditorium, I tell of Neshan Krekorian
Who yumped into lifeboat being lowered away
While many there panicked, Neshan survived the Titanic
This Canadian immigrant lived to grandfatherly days

Have your students any notion, that accidental explosion
Once leveled Halifax like a nuclear blast?
Or that bodies still moulder, buried deep under boulders
When a whole mountain covered a town in the past?

Who paid the awful price, of the Quebec bridge that fell twice
A cantilever design that collapsed being built
75 died in terror, from design and math error,
So the iron ring reminds engineers of that guilt

For every Canadian region, there’s tragedies legion
Arctic explorers gone missing, their ships frozen fast
But researchers there are desirous, to find Spanish flu virus
So that millions won’t die if it returns from the past

Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barrett’s privateers…
(I sing one of Stan's better-known choruses) 
How many tales linger, of Stan Rogers, folk singer
A big balding troubadour dying in a burning jet’s flame
Safety changes inspired, from that tragic jet’s fire
Has saved plenty lives from then, to this day

(Miner's hardhat)
As once a shaft miner, I’ll describe the points finer   
of places so deep where the dark is profound
If I attend on your school-day, I’ll tell you of Westray
or bumps in Springhill killing hundreds around  

Floods and jet crashes, disease, fire and ashes,
All these are part of the Canadian lore,
Though the topic ain’t tasteful, to forget history is wasteful,
Of the lives and the efforts from those of before

But since I hate restriction I also write fiction 
Stories for young adults made up in my head
Leaving Fletchville’s my tome of three kids and their home
Without parents to guide them – being both of them dead

Hear how they turned out before they were found out
And the lazy big thug who narrates the allegory
Read of problems tragic and solutions pragmatic
And an ending that critics call conciliatory

That’s all I have written but I hope you are smitten
To pick up a book of adventure or tragedy
It doesn’t have to be my book, just as long as you get hooked
On reading the habit that smartens you gradually

So that's my week to come. Everything comes in threes because I am also visiting Brighton Public School this coming Monday afternoon. I'll tell more about that in the next post.
But lately we've been battling the weather more than the usual issues.  
I fought the snow and the snow chilled
Friday night Shirley and I could not get the car up our driveway, even after successfully battling drifts & whiteouts from Brighton to Trenton on the unplowed back roads. Sure enough, our driveway was just one drift too far (sounds like a title...) and it took 2 hours of diesel-enhanced bucketing and shoving this morning to get the driveway clear enough to garage the car.
My plans on getting the Saturday Globe & Mail were futile.... As Robbe Burns would say; 
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, 
gang aft a-gley