Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Autobiographical Notes, Part 2: 1973 to 1992

Adriene, me and the foundation of our house, Spring 1982

If you missed the first part of this series, have a look at it here.

When I returned home after dropping out of University in the fall of 1973 Dad said I had to get a job and start paying room and board and helping him around the farm as well.

I got a job working for one of the neighbours who grew potatoes. During the harvest I drove truck (poorly) and following that I did a pretty good job of shoveling potatoes onto to one end of a grading machine and stacking the 75 pound bags of potatoes that came off the other end.

Mr. Anderson, my high school principal dropped by one day during the potato harvest to ask what had happened with university and what my plans were. He wasn't too impressed when I said I planned to help dad on the farm and wanted to know if there was anything else I was interested in. I said I would like to be an electrician. As it happened, he had connections with Ontario Hydro, the provincial power utility, and got me a meeting with the personnel guy at Hydro's Barrie regional office. I put in applications for operator and electrician, had an interview for the electrician job a few months later and actually got the job.

I thanked Mr. Anderson the next time I saw him—his help made a major difference in my life.

I started my apprenticeship with the Electrical Maintenance crew in Barrie on April 28, 1974. We worked on electrical equipment in generating, transformer and distribution stations—generators, transformers, switches, circuit breakers, batteries and battery chargers and the control systems for this equipment. A lot of this equipment was so large that the work was more mechanical than electrical. Because of the amount of insulating oil and compressed air involved, we did a lot of pipe fitting. Building and tearing apart wooden crates for shipping equipment required basic carpentry skills. It was a kind of "jack of all trades" trade, which suited me. My favourite part was trouble shooting control systems and electronics.

This job led me to rub elbows occasionally with engineers and gave me a much better idea of what an engineer really does. I soon concluded that I would be much happier as an electrician than I would have been as an engineer. At the same time, I was always interested in the more technical aspects of the trade.

In the fall on 1975 I got a room in Barrie to avoid the winter driving between there and Honeywood, which could be pretty nasty. Living by myself was not my favourite thing but fortunately the library was only a block away from my room and I was involved with the Baha'is in Barrie as well.

With both mom and grandma busy in the kitchen at home I'd had very little chance to cook for myself, but I soon learned, and both mom and grandma were glad to offer advice. I learned to make chili con carne, something that was not part of the rural southern Ontario food culture, and soon showed mom how to make it.

The crew a Barrie were good guys and taught me a lot. Working in a closed union shop at Ontario Hydro also affected my politics and showed me why unions really are necessary.

In the later grades of high school I had become something of a libertarian. That is, an anarchist but with little concern for the welfare of others, based on the idea that I'd always be able to take care of myself and so should everybody else. I probably picked this up from reading too much of Heinlein's science fiction, especially his book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Then becoming a Baha'i moved me firmly into the counterculture, making me what I would now call a "Crunchy", but even back then I was not comfortable with "woo"—stuff that is not supported by the scientific consensus. And unfortunately most of the Baha'is I met seemed to subscribe to rather a lot of woo. But the Baha'i faith did give my more sympathy and concern for my fellow man, leading my eventually to being what I would now call an anarcho-communist rather than a libertarian.

I had always enjoyed drawing and in the last couple of years of high school I took up landscape painting. In the fall of 1974 I signed up for a course in sculpture at Georgian Collage in Barrie. Only got a C, but it was a good exposure to many different techniques.

I spent the Victoria Day weekend in May 1975 with my friend Owen, canoeing in Algonquin Park.

It was the practice to move apprentices around to different location to expose them to different work and a wider variety of types of equipment. In August of 1975 I was moved to the Electrical Mtce. crew in Hanover. They were a different bunch and working there was not a particularly good time for me. The District Foreman was an old fellow with heart problems who was frequently off sick. The journeyman who was usually stepped up to fill his position was one of those guys who aren't really suited to managing people, which is hard enough even if you're good at it.

Thanksgiving weekend 1975 I camped out by myself in Algonquin Park, and did some landscape painting of the brilliant fall colours.

For the first few months in Hanover I boarded with another Hydro worker (not one of the guys I was working with). Early in the winter of 1976 I rented an apartment in Hanover. I was back to cooking for myself again and I took up bread baking, with pointers from my grandmother (don't use milk in bread, among other things). She also explained why she didn't like whole wheat bread—when she was little it was her job to crank the grain mill to make flour. Her family ate whole grain bread made from that flour, while those who were better off got store bought white bread.

In the fall of 1976, though still working at Hanover, I moved to Kincardine. This move was to support the Baha'is in Kincardine, who needed another body to make up the nine required for their Local Spiritual Assembly. I moved in with a family of Baha'is, since housing was hard to find in Kincardine at the time due to the influx of construction workers building the Bruce Nuclear Power Development.

The lady of the house had a younger sister named Carolynn. I started dating her and in a matter of a few weeks we were engaged. A lot of people thought this was way too quick and told us it would never last, but 40 years later we are still together. If I don't do anything too stupid I expect we'll be together for quite a while longer yet. Fortunately, after forty years with me Carolynn has quite a high tolerance for stupid stuff. And after forty years with her I am starting to smarten up a bit.

Driving from Kincardine to Hanover every day that winter was pretty brutal—as luck would have it, the winter of 1976/77 was one of the worst I've ever seen. So I requested a transfer to the Electrical Mtce. crew at Bruce. There was a fellow there who wanted to go to Hanover, and in June of 1977 we changed places. This was the start of my career at the Bruce, the largest nuclear power development in the world, where I spent the rest of my time with Ontario Hydro.

At the start of that time, I was not too keen on nuclear power—part of my crunchiness, I guess. But as I learned more about it, my opinion changed.

In the early summer of 1977 I moved from Kincardine to a rental mobile home in Tiverton, a small village a few miles north of Kincardine—much closer to the farm where Carolynn lived with her parents. Carolynn and I were married in August of 1977. Her father lent us his motor home for our honeymoon and we drove around southern Ontario, as far east as Ottawa and back through Algonquin Park.

On the way back we stopped at a book store in Barrie and I picked up some books, including The Limits to Growth, and Small is Beautiful. Small Is Beautiful made a lasting impression on me and affected my political, economic and business management thinking for the rest of my life. The Limits To Growth made less of a positive impression—being a technical guy, I was sure there would be a technological solution. In the 70s and 80s, I was reading a lot about solving our resource and energy problems off planet—orbiting solar power stations, asteroid mining and so forth.

I don't think I even finished reading The Limits to Growth on my initial encounter with it. It was well into the current century before I returned to that book with a more realistic idea of what technology can do. In the meantime, we settled down to living, and attempting to prosper in the "business as usual" world.

I had never really enjoyed living alone, so I found married life suited me well.

The trailer we were renting was on a big lot and I got a nearby farmer to plow the backyard. I bought a nice rear-tine rototiller and planted a big garden in the spring of 1978.

Also In the spring of 1978 I finished my apprenticeship, passed my final exam and became a journeyman "Power Maintenance Electrician".

In the spring of 1979 we moved to a rental house in the south end of Tiverton and planted a small garden in the backyard there. We were renting from a farmer and I arranged to plant a much larger garden in a corner of a field of his just south of town in 1980 and 1981.

Our daughter, Adriene, was born in the Kincardine hospital in the middle of a blizzard in January of 1980.

The thing about living in Tiverton was that rarely a day went by when we didn't have to drive to Kincardine, so we decided to move there. In the summer of 1981 we bought a building lot in Kincardine.

In the fall of 1981 I left the Baha'i Faith. The immediate cause was a squabble over my correcting another Baha'i on a minor issue of grammar/semantics. But I had been growing less satisfied with the Faith for some time, and this was just the straw that broke the camel's back. When the dust settled, so to speak, I was an atheist again and I still am.

Baha'is aren't supposed to drink alcohol or use mind altering drugs (except coffee) and I still don't. Living in Bruce County, where the use of alcohol is a key part of the local culture, I've taken a lot of flack for this, but I've no intention of changing. The Baha'i Faith also left me with an abiding distrust of hierarchy and patriarchy in particular, and an aversion to statements of absolute truth. Sometime not too long after this I came up with the smart-ass quip, "truth is what other people want you to believe." As time goes by, I think there is more to that than I originally though. Years later, after reading Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell", I absorbed his idea that what most people believe in is belief itself—that belief is a good thing. But I don't think it is.

I had had some limited exposure to computers in high school and university, but "personal computers" were exploding onto the scene in the early 80s. I bought a "pocket computer" from Radio Shack with a single line LCD display that allowed you to program it in BASIC. We also got a computer at work and I did some BASIC programming on it as well.

In the summer of 1982 I bought a Radio Shack Color Computer, and a program cartridge that allowed me to do assembly language programming. I had a lot of fun learning 6809 assembly language, writing a text editor, a compiler for a Forth-like language, and some programs to control a robot I was building.

In 1982 we built a house on that lot in Kincardine, doing all the work ourselves except for the foundation, the installation of the electric furnace and ductwork, putting up the drywall board and some of the flooring. Carolynn was my extremely valuable right hand "man", and we had help from my parents, all three of Carolynn's brothers and several local youths. In December of 82 we moved in. It was by no means finished and I spent a lot of time during the next few years finishing drywall, installing flooring, doors and trim, and building the kitchen cabinets. Carolynn did most of the painting. In the course of building that house Carolynn and I learned a lot about working together. It was a stressful experience from time to time and we've often said if we could get through that, we could get through anything.

In 1982 the "energy crises" in 1973 and 1979 were still on my mind, so we built a house with lots of insulation and south facing windows. Sadly, the lot was quite small and for many years I didn't think there was room for a garden and didn't do any gardening.

Ontario Hydro had sent me on a course on electronics in 1981. I was invited to come back and teach the course to apprentices and in January 1983 I sat in on an apprentice electronics course and did some of the teaching. Over the next few years I taught two of those two week courses each year, usually one in the fall and one in the winter, and later on taught the somewhat more advanced 3 week journeyman electronics course as well. All this took place at Ontario Hydro's Conference and Development Centre in the Hockley Valley, near Orangeville. That meant that I was away from home during the week while teaching. Being left at home with our small children was rather tough on Carolynn but, as always, she was a real trooper and managed very well.

Teaching added some welcome variety and new learning experiences to my career. I had been a journeyman for six years by 1983 and was feeling somewhat discontented. There was also some conflict with some of the crew members at Bruce who were adept at pushing my buttons just for laughs. Thinking back, I had had good people skills in high school, so it puzzles me why that ever became a problem, but it did. Eventually I learned to let it all roll off my back and teaching gave me some added confidence that helped. Eventually we all learned to get along, and it seemed to me that the other guys had changed more than I had.

For the first couple of years the electronics course consisted of my presenting the main content of the course in a series of lectures, some hands on projects and then troubleshooting the battery chargers we had in the classroom. But the training department had a mandate to switch everything over to "self paced learning", and that required writing down what we'd been lecturing. So myself and the other guy who'd be teaching the course did just that.

By this time computers had come far enough to run word processors, and fortunately I'd taken typing back in grade 9. I spent a few of months sitting at a computer, writing down what I'd been saying up at the front of the classroom. This was my first experience with writing professionally and of course it included being edited. This no doubt improved my writing while wearing some corners off my ego.

Once the text of the course was ready, I got involved in typesetting the manual, using Pagemaker on a Mac and drawing some of the illustrations using something called Cricket Draw, again on a Mac.

My grandmother passed away at age 97 early in the summer of 1983.

Michael-John, our son, was born in August of 1983, and Lidean, our youngest child was born in winter of 1986. It took them many years to realize, but Lidean finally came out as non-binary a few years ago.

Some of the engineering people in our part of Ontario Hydro (Georgian Bay Region) wrote a timesheet entry and management information program called "CALMIS" (Computer Aided Local Management Information System) in the mid 80s. This originally ran on the Radio Shack TRS80 computers, but was soon moved over to the IBM PC. Initially only the timesheet entry part of the system was ported and then I was offered the opportunity to move the rest of the system over to the IBM and do maintenance programming on the system until the mid 90s when our part of Hydro switched over to an entirely different system. The system was written in Fortran, which was the programming language that the engineers were familiar with. I untangled their spaghetti code and turned the system into something that was more structured and fairly easy to maintain.

We bought our first proper stereo system in early 1987, with a CD player, and I started collecting CDs. My musical interests were mainly classical, and I soon found that I especially enjoyed strings (violin, viola, cello) and chamber music.

A group called Chamber Music Kincardine (CMK) had started in Kincardine, bringing world class chamber music groups to perform in Kincardine, with the help of some grants from the Ontario Arts Council. We started attended the concerts and I got involved as publicity director in the fall of 1988.

I bought a violin at a pawn shop in Toronto late in 1988 and started lessons in early 1989. I had a good ear for pitch, but almost no sense of rhythm or timing. My sons started playing violin not long after that, as soon as they were big enough to hold a 1/8 size. For the first while, I taught them myself.

My parents sold the farm and moved to Orangeville in 1988.

In 1989 our union steward got another job and I volunteered to replace him.

In the spring of 1990 we bought a new computer, a PC clone laptop, and I started 8086 assembly language programming, as well as word processing and desktop publishing. For a couple of years after that, CMK's promotional posters were done on that little computer and a dot matrix printer.

In 1990 and 1991 I went to went to the summer music camp in Southampton with my son Michael.

1992 was a busy year.

We got our first desktop computer, a proper desktop PC clone with a 486 processor, a big Canon inkjet printer that could print on up to 11X17 paper and a scanner. This equipment was the basis of C&I Graphics, the desktop publishing/printing company that we started.

The summer music festival in Southampton didn't happen that year, so a group of us got together and started the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, which is still running 26 years later, though I haven't been involved since 2002.

In the spring of 92 one of the two crew foreman at work got a job elsewhere in Ontario Hydro. The other crew foreman encouraged me to apply for the job, mainly to prevent one of the other possible candidates from getting it. I agreed that his getting the job would not be a good outcome and so, in self defense, I applied for and got the job in the fall of 1992.

Both myself and that other guy were sent on a course called "Developing Potential Supervisors" before the interviewing for the job started. I found this very helpful, both in the interview and when I had to actually start being a supervisor.

This marked the end of my teaching the electronics course, the end of my time as Union Steward and the start of a new era in my career with Ontario Hydro. As such, this is probably a good place to stop for this time. Next time I'll bring this story of my life up to date.

Links to the rest of this series of posts:


Don Hayward said...

Thanks, Irv.

Reverse Engineer said...

You remember your life remarkably well year by yer with dates and everything. When I review my life in an autobiographical article, I'm lucky if I can pin down the decade events occured in, much less the year. lol.

Anyhow, I enjoy reading about the lives of my contemporaries living through the end of the Age of Oil. It was interesting times.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to know more about the people writing the blogs I read. Thanks Irv.

shastatodd said...

thanks for the personal history journey reminiscing irv.

we lived great lives in a time of unlimited growth, unending wealth and never ending optimism. i am grateful for that as it reflected the innocence and naivety of youth... and while i do not enjoy the reality of being "old" with increasingly limited remaining time, these are still great days and i am thankful for every one! :)

btw - what are these "&mdash:" characters?

Irv Mills said...

@ Don Hayward
You're welcome, Don. I am a little concerned that people will find this boring, particularly this episode. I think the next one will be more interesting, especially to collapse aware people.

Irv Mills said...

@ RE
Yes, my memory for dates is fairly good, although I find it is fading with age. A fair bit of head scratching was involved in writing this. And I am dismayed to find that some of the finer details of my career with Ontario Hydro are completely gone.
Anyway, I am glad to hear you are hanging in there and hope that continues for quite a while yet.

Irv Mills said...

@ foodnstuff
You're welcome, Bev.

Irv Mills said...

Growing old is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it beats the alternative. So far, I am happy to be on this side of the sod.
"&mdash:" should have been "—", which gives us an "em dash", a dash the length of the letter "m" in whatever font is being used. One could just use "--", but I spent a few years doing a lot of typesetting and trying to get it just right, so details like this are important to me. Sometime this kind of thing can trip one up though, and I thank you for catching my error in this case. Which has now be fixed.

Irv Mills said...

html tripped me up in that last paragraph about the em dash character. "&mdash:" was supposed to have a semicolon not a colon at the end. When I was typing my explanation of this just now, I wanted "ampersand"mdash; not to be converted to an em dash in a few places, but of course the computer did what I told it rather than what I meant.

Mike Monett said...

I enjoyed this addition. Thanks for writing it.

As for remembering the dates from our past, I am a visual, map-loving person, and I see my timeline like a map. Also, I am sentimental, so I think back frequently, which reinforces the memories and the dates.

Irv Mills said...

@ Mike Monett
I am a visual, map loving guy as well, and that does help with remembering things. And yes, thinking back over them helps as well. In writing this, I found that there were things I hadn't thought about in a long while and they are starting to fade pretty badly.
I wasn't sure anybody would be interested in this--I haven't led a very exciting life. But the response has been encouraging. I bumped into a friend on the main street of Kincardine last week and he said he'd been reading my blog and had never realized that I'd had such an interesting life. I nearly fell down...
I suspect most of the kollapsniks among my readers aren't too interested, though. But I'll be returning to subjects more interesting to them soon.