Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Autobiographical Notes, Part 1: Childhood and Education

Dad and me, June 1958

I've been writing this blog for the last six years and for most of that time there has been nothing here about me other than my name and a photo. A couple of years ago I added an ”About Me" section that was only a few paragraphs long, and didn't go into much detail. I've long held that nurture is at least as important as nature, if not more so. I guess it stands to reason that a little more about my history might be interesting to those who may be wondering how I came to think the way I do.

So, what follows is a more complete autobiography.

My name is Irv Mills and I live in Kincardine, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada.

My parents got married late in their lives. That was in 1951 and by the time I was born in 1954, Mom was 35 and Dad was 44. I've noticed changes in my outlook as I've aged over the years since my children were born and I suspect that my folks we probably not a typical young couple when they had me, and five years later, my sister.

The story goes that they were standing together outside the nursery in the hospital, looking through the glass at me, and Dad asked, "Do you think we can raise him?" I don't recall what Mom was supposed to have said, but having been in Dad's position myself, I can certainly sympathize with him.

I was born in the hospital in Shelburne, Ontario and grew up on a farm about 15 miles north of there, half a mile south of the little hamlet of Honeywood. This is only about 70 miles north of Toronto, which is certainly a cosmopolitan city, but Honeywood was, and still is, a long way out in the boonies.

Rural electrification, which the company I used to work for (Ontario Hydro) was justifiably proud of, didn't happen on the township road where I grew up until the mid 1940s, only about 10 years before I was born. Dad had always farmed with horses, one of his great loves. After they were married Mom insisted (to hear her tell it, anyway) that he get a tractor. But don't be mistaken, Dad was all for progress and made it clear to me that the "good old days" were anything but. Powered machinery and electricity made farming not just easier, but safer in many ways.

One of the benefits of growing up on the farm was that I got to go to work with my Dad quite often, especially before I started school. Part of that was to give Mom a break and let her get something done other than taking care of me.

I suspect I was about 15 months old when she asked Dad to take me with him one day. He was in the middle of the spring planting, driving our seed drill up and down a field planting grain. This machine was still horse drawn and it took three horses, our two and one borrowed from one of my uncles. There was a board along the back of the seed drill, a few inches above ground level that you stood on with the lines from the team of horses in your hands to steer them. I was too small to stand beside him on the board, so Dad set me on top of the machine, on the lid of one of the bins full of seed grain and steadied me with one hand while driving the horses with the other.

For some reason this became a ritual that I took part in every spring-- even when I was a teenager and we weren't getting along too well. After I finished school and left home to go to work, if Dad was planting and I was home, I'd go for a ride with him. I have a memory (probably from when I was a year or two older than 15 months) of sitting on the seed drill worrying about what would happen if I fell forward under the machine. But I didn't, and soon I was old enough to stand beside Dad, which was safer and more fun. There are people these days who would like to stop kids from working with their parents on farms, but I don't agree. I'd say this is a privilege that farm kids enjoy and city kids miss out on. When my own children came along, I let them ride on their grandfather's knee on the tractor and in front of him on the back of a horse.

The old farm house wasn't in the best of shape and while it did have electricity, it didn't have indoor plumbing. So in the summer of 1956 we built a new house, and the following year Dad and his brothers tore down the old farm house which had been there since sometime in the latter half of the 1800s. I was there "helping" them and learned some new and very expressive words of which Mom did not approve. The lumber from the old house was stored away in a vacant building that Dad called the "sheep pen". Over the next thirty years this was used for various projects around the farm, and was available when I needed wood for whatever I was working on as well.

Possibly from watching all this activity with people using tools, I developed a love of tools very early in my life and by the time I was eight had a hammer, hand saw, axe, shovel and wheelbarrow of my own. Later I got an electric drill, a soldering gun, a multimeter and an assortment of pliers and screw drivers.

We were not rich by any means--barely middle class, I would say--but there was always food on the table, and I had enough clothes to wear. And there were always presents for my birthday and Christmas. In addition to tools, I liked sets of building blocks and science related stuff. When I was somewhat older I was given a chemistry set, a microscope and an electric motor kit.

Mom's mom lived with us when she wasn't staying with Mom's older brother in Alberta, and full time from the early 1960s on. When I was about 5 years old, she bought us a TV so that she could watch hockey on Saturday nights. We had a 50 foot antenna tower and, at the start, got just one channel, the CBC station in Barrie, about 35 miles to the east of us. I remember watching the Walt Disney show every Sunday night and being especially impressed with Davey Crockett.

There was also a science show on CBC called "The Nature of Things". According to Wikipedia, the first host was Donald Ivey, with Patterson Hume co-hosting many episodes. All I can remember is there were two guys talking about science, which I found extremely interesting. And they explained it well enough that it was not hard to follow.

Although she was 75 years old in 1960, Grandma took charge of our half acre garden. She also looked after me so Mom could help Dad with the farm work, and told me about her life and how things were done in the old days. But, like Dad, she never called them the good old days.

Mom read to me at bedtime when I was little, until I started reading to myself. One time she went on a bus trip with the local Women's Institute and came back with a copy of "Swiss Family Robinson", which she read to me. This book was full of people making things for themselves and very much caught my imagination.

Living where we did, there weren't a lot of other kids around to play with. The nearest, my friend Brian Baker, lived about three quarters of a mile down the road from us. We got together for play dates occassionally before starting school and were friends until he dropped out of school and went to work after grade 11. I have always pretty good at amusing myself and prefer having a few close friends to having a larger circle of more casual acquaintances.

Where I grew up little kids wandered around on their own whenever we felt like it and weren't seen as being in any sort of danger. Mom would send me outside and say down come back until suppertime. I had the whole farm to play in and sometimes went farther afield.

I started elementary school in the fall of 1960, at the school in Honeywood, a half mile walk from home (and not uphill in both directions). That was Grade One--there was no kindergarten. Most schools in the area were still of the one room type, but ours had a total of 4 rooms and included both elementary and high school. By the time I was in grade 4, the high school part was shut down and the older kids bussed to the high school in Shelburne.

When I was in Grade One I was in a room with Grades One to Four, and a total of 13 children. I always found these multi-grade rooms good, as you could listen when the teacher was instructing the older grades rather than being bored with whatever your where supposed to be doing at your own grade level.

At some point during my first week or two of school I was given a sheet of colouring to do. Now I had never had a colouring book before and staying inside the lines was a new concept for me. The teacher was less than impressed. I had encounter a blank sheet of paper before, though, and when given one I was able to draw quite well. I eventually got better at colouring, but throughout my life I've done better when winging it than when required to stay inside the lines--just no respect at all for arbitrary rules.

There was an arena with a skating rink in Honeywood, and every Friday afternoon we walked there from the school and had an hour or so of skating. I enjoyed skating, though I had, very little interest in hockey.

When the high school moved out of the school in Honeywood, the room I'd been in during the first three grades was converted into a library. There was even one or two science fiction books in it. I remember reading Les del Rey's Step to the Stars, about the building of the first space station, by lantern light during the big blackout in 1965.

Once a month, a trunk full of books would arrive at the school and I remember finding more science fiction in it on a couple of occasions, such as Del Rey's Outpost of Jupiter and Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky.

In Grade 2 we actually had science as a subject, with a science textbook that made a big impression on me.

During my first few years in school, the space race was heating up, culminating with the first moon landing the summer of 1969, when I was between grades 9 and 10. This made the science fiction I was reading seem pretty plausible and further stoked my interest in science and technology.

For the first few grades my teacher was dear old Mrs. MacLean who was very nice and especially good with the younger children. But then we switched over to Mrs. Rutledge who was anything but nice. I have since realized, though, that it was under her ungentle tutelage that I was forced to master spelling and arithmetic, skills that have surely come in handy since then.

Mom's brother was in the Signals Corps during WW II and Mom had help him study electricity and electronics. She got me interested in those subjects, which involved much experimentation and lots of blown fuses. To reduce the amount of smoke Mom got me subscriptions to Elementary Electronics and Popular Electronics.

Mom was also interested in history and geography and I picked up on that. She had a globe and one Christmas when I was pretty young I asked for and received an atlas. I still love maps and when I was in high school I did pretty well at orienteering even though I wasn't a great runner--just really good at finding my way around.

There were a number of historical fiction books in the public school library written to appeal to boys, usually involving some young fellow caught up in famous historical events. There were also some non-fiction book that I really enjoyed. I brought Thor Heyerdahl's Kontiki Expedition home when I was in grade 5 or 6, and stayed up half the night reading it.

Politics was a popular topic of discussion in my family and we were a fairly left wing bunch. Mom had grown up in a coal mining town in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and her father had been a miner. Both she and her mother were very much in favour of unions and not frightened by the ideas of communism. She had a couple of books which she read to me: Peoples of the USSR, a kind of propaganda-ish look at the native peoples of each of the Soviet Republics, and "Behind the Urals", a story about a welder from the USA who went to Russia in the 1930s and worked in Magnitigorsk, where Russia was struggling to set up its iron and steel industry.

Many farmers in Ontario are quite conservative and support the Conservative party, but not Dad. His political opinions fit in pretty well with Mom's.

My Dad's family were Anglicans. Mom had gone to the United Church of Canada before moving to Ontario but switched to the Anglican Church after getting married. Grandma's Dad had been a Mormon and that had somewhat turned her away from religion. But none of us were seriously religious and we rarely went to church. I was sent to Sunday school but by the time I was 9 declared myself officially an atheist.

I think it was in 1965 (Grade 6) that several of the one room schools in our township where closed and their students started to be bused to our school in Honeywood. That was when I met my friend Johnny Power.

I started high school in the fall of 1968, at Center Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. This gave me access to a larger library, more advanced science classes and shop class. Skills I picked up in shop class made a big difference when I later became an apprentice electrician.

For the first couple of years that I was in high school, a semi-trailer full of books for sale would show up every so often. I remember picking up books like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert's Dune and Samuel R. Delany's Nova. There was some science fiction in the high school library as well. I particularly remembers Asimov's Foundation series and I, Robot, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, and John Wyndham's Day of the Triffyds.

I had subscriptions to several science fiction magazines, including Fantastic Stories and Amazing Stories, which later change its name to Analog Scienice Ficiton/Science Fact.

I also read quite a few science books including, Asimov's New Intelligent Man's Guide to Science and Arthur Clarke's Promise of Space. I developed a real love for reading about science, the kind of stuff that I imagine many people find pretty dry.

This was long before the internet or even personal computers, and the only way to study up on a subject was books and magazines. Living where I did, a chance to go to a book store or a news stand was a rare treat. Being interested in the latest technological developments could be quite frustrating because it was so hard to find up to date reading material.

Part way through high school I became friends with Owen Atkinson, who lived on a farm just a few miles west of Honeywood. In the spring of 1972 he introduced me to the Baha'i Faith and I shortly became a member of that religion.

In the summer of 1972, my friend Johnnie Power was killed in a car accident. An event that left a lasting mark on me.

In Ontario at that time high school went all the way up to Grade 13 instead of just Grade 12 which is common most everywhere else. That extra year was necessary if you planned to go to university, which I did. I graduated from Grade 13 in 1973 and was accepted into the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto. I had done very well in our small high school, but after 2 weeks I dropped out of university and came home. I could say it was the culture shock of moving from the farm to downtown Toronto. But it would be closer to the truth to say that the first year programs at U of T were intended to weed out the weaker students, and that worked quite effectively on me.

Well, this seems like a good point to stop for now. Next time, I'll cover another chunk of my life.

Links to the rest of this series of posts:


Don Hayward said...

We could discuss Asimov and Heinlein's political outlooks (different) for hours. Ivey and Hume were physics professors at U of T and they were quite entertaining on TNOT. I remember a specific episode on frame of reference. I should have followed your route in 1965 At U of T but stuck it out for three frustrating years, partly a culture shock of a boy from the northern bush but more my own learning disabilities. The visits to the newsstand (Robinson's Rexall in Espanola) and a subscription to Scientific American (ordered through Robinson's) kept me sane in high school. Lets make sure we get together for a beer or an Orange Crush this summer.

Irv Mills said...

Funny, in the 60s, the Rexall on the main street of Shelburne was the closest thing that town had to a book store. I went through their wire rack of books every week to check if anything new had come in.
Yes, we do need to get together this summer. I am about half way through "After the last day" and enjoying it quite a bit.

Don Hayward said...

Glad you are enjoying it. We will make some concrete plans after April. I am writing what I call a "biografiction" as a letter to my family about my early years in High Falls on the Spanish River. I'm hoping it will be of interest to others who grew up there and perhaps more. For em, it is a necessary bit of work before I consider other stories, although I have two of those partly written and too many murder plots in my head. Looking forward to your next post.

Mike Monett said...

Hi, Irv.

Autobiography seems to be a rarity online. The fragmented Facebook style of communication seems to have crowded it out. Whenever I find memoirs and autobiography online, I really take notice.

Also, I am adrift as far as persons I follow online. I developed a list back about 12 years ago, when Peak Oil was a big issue with me.

Recently, I have abandoned almost all of that list, because our views of the world since then have drifted apart.

If you keep providing this kind of autobiography, I will read it and enjoy it.


Irv Mills said...

@ Mike Monett
Thank you, Mike. My plan is to write two more posts about my life, bringing us up to date. Then I'll combine all three post into a single "About Me" page to replace the very short "About Me" that I currently have. When I do that, I'll take the opportunity to put in all the autobiographic things that keep coming to mind after I've already published each post.
I find communications on Facebook to be very unsatisfactory, way to much "virtue signaling" and not enough real discussion. So I have pulled back from Facebook lately, except to post links when I publish posts to my blog.