Friday, December 22, 2006

Childhood Christmas

My life in the late 1940s and 50s was dominated by all things ‘Chapel’ – my father being the local Minister. As a child, the magic of Christmas was paramount to me. Christmas was consumed with endless ‘practices’ at the Chapel’s Vestry for the annual display of children who could not sing, playing and singing Angels and Three Wise Men. My parents had high hopes for me as a boy soprano. I was always one of the Three Wise Men. I must admit, coyly, I was good. But in musical terms, I was never in the class of my sisters. My downfall. Tom Jones I never was.

My memories of the annual display reminds me, that unfortunately, Baby Jesus was always a rather scruffy doll in a box of hay. But the congregation enjoyed our efforts.

This brings me to ‘three days before Christmas’. The Welsh language is rich in its ability to have words that are not present in the English language. The English have the words ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’. The Welsh have a word for ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, the day after ‘tomorrow’, and the day after that too!

So as a child, December 22nd was vital, because it was the day that I could use the words “dradwy mi fydd hi’n ddiwrnod Nadolig” – it will be Christmas in three days’ time! Somehow, this brought the event closer. I recall that as a four-year old, my mother found me in bed during the afternoon. To a child a ‘day’ constituted being in bed for some time, so I worked out that if I slept, Christmas Day would become sooner. There was logic in my brain even in those days.

One of my memories of these happy times was that on this day - three days before Christmas Day - it would be the annual pilgrimage to the local chemist shop (pharmacy). Mr. Griffiths (the pharmacist) was also a member of the chapel. His shop was a latter day version of Walgreens, but on a much smaller scale. Not only would he dispense medicinal compounds that would cure anything from coughs to a bee sting, his emporium had fragrances that would have little boys thinking they were in heaven with 30 vestal virgins - whatever they were.

I would first go in with my mother to buy a present for my father - usually a handkerchief - and then return to the Austin Seven for my father to escort me to buy a present for my mother. All in the strictest of secret, you understand. I remember well that I had saved my pennies all year for the event, and split my meager savings between both. The gift for my mother was always beyond my means, but Mr. Griffiths would always be able to get me a wonderful gift. I suspect that my father had almost always doubled (and more) my savings to buy a suitable gift for my mother.

The result was always wonderful. My mother and father were so surprised on Christmas Day when they opened their gifts - they were the best gifts they’d ever received.

So, Dear Readers, “dradwy mi fydd hi’n ddiwrnod Nadolig”.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

Monday, December 11, 2006

If I Was A Mechanic, But Then Again….

During another ‘Really Intelligent Serious Conversations’ with my son Rik, and his subsequent account of the purchase of his newly acquired Volvo, I pondered a little. Why is this lad so keen to buy an old car and do work on it? Well, Dear Reader, it is because in my youth, I was exactly the same, and monetary reasons also dictated such things. Trying to drag up two children in Sarf London was expensive! I suspect that this activity became de rigeur in Rik's young mind, and continues to this day. The word 'tinkering' comes to mind.

We lived in a pleasant house at the end of a cul-de-sac. That’s a posh term for a dead-end street. We even had a patch of lawn (posh term for weeds) outside the front, which was actually the ‘dead-end’ of the street. Outside our house, there was often a motley crew of vehicles belonging to the Hughes household. Most were two-tone in color – whatever Mr. Ford or Mr. Austin had originally chosen, and rust, the latter being quite prevalent. The road took on a wonderful hue when it rained. That'll happen when it rains on leaking oil. The vehicles of the 60s had a knack of doing this. I was also in the habit of assisting other neighbors with their cars, who, for monetary reasons would resort to using The Aled Hughes Guide To Fixing Cars. A very thin book, you understand. This all added to the desolate look outside the house.

One day, after the failure of a rather snazzy (but flawed) Triumph 2000, I had purchased a French car (I know I should have been shot!) complete with white flag. It was a Simca, later taken over by the Chrysler Corporation – the company, not the car. This was an Estate Car (Wagon over here). It had such a small engine that it took about 30 seconds to get to 60 mph. The driver’s floor was always wet, and upon examination, there was a hole big enough to escape through and perhaps wave the white flag. However, duct tape, and a piece of ply-wood saved the day. Some carpeting was put over it so that the annual road test would not give the game away. Silly me. It failed miserably. But it kept my feet dry.

A brief digression here, the UK is obsessed with testing cars annually (after the age of three – the car, not the driver) for road-worthiness and one of the major causes of failure used to be rust. Now in a country which has more rain than Noah ever had to cope with, who in their right mind would declare that rust is not going to pounce upon your hard-earned treasure! To add insult to injury, salt is freely sprinkled onto roads upon the mere mention of snow or ice coming - usually in August.

Back to the plot. After a serious welding job, and many ££, the Simca was back in action. Unfortunately, while driving home one evening, I smelled smoke. The car was actually on fire in the engine department. I was able to coast home, and then to extinguish it with some ingenuity – my jacket. The white flag remained intact though. For the princely sum of £50 (about $100 in real money), I was able to purchase another Simca, albeit a saloon. Unfortunately, the rear axle of the saloon was shot, but the other one was fine. What could be simpler, I thought? Exchange the dead axle with the one from the burnt car. This is where DIY and the Hughes family meet. And this is where I learnt the word 'oxymoronic'. DIY and Hughes.....

With Rik’s (enforced) help, I was able to place about four jacks under the original car. One of these was a bottle-jack, where pressure keeps it working - it's a mechanical thing, where E=MC to the power of two or something like that. I’ll never forget the hiss from that thing – worse than a snake. Every few minutes required another pumping. The axle was removed. There were mutterings from neighbors about how was I going to get rid of the original car. There’s always someone willing to complain isn’t there. The jacks were used for the ‘new’ car. This is where problems started. The road that the car was on was not exactly flat, and while I was under the car, the snake decided to give up, and the other three joined in sympathy. Rik spotted this situation first, and screamed at me to get out as the car fell to its doom. I’ve never moved so fast in my life. Rik was very obviously concerned for my safety and welfare. It took him 10 minutes to stop laughing.

The upshot of all this was that both cars were towed to the graveyard to rot away in peace. At the same time, an MG Midget and a Ford Capri were also removed, closely followed by a Renault 16 and a rusting caravan. Much to the relief of the neighbors, I might add. I acquired a little Austin which was fine for my needs. This was soon traded for another Renault, which my dear wife crashed - twice. But that’s another tale of woe. Both wife and car.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Worst Polluter In The World

Sometime, my son and I have Really Intelligent Serious Conversations. During a call today on Skype to divulge the news that he’s bought a new Volvo (new to him that is), we started discussing pollution. He came up with a snippet about pollution. After much research, a ham sandwich and a cold beer, here's something which I felt you, Dear Readers, would be dying to know about.

If you were asked who was the worst ever polluter in the world, some would no doubt mention one of the US Presidents for the country’s record on pollution. Or Rudolf Diesel who invented the dreaded diesel engine. But you would be wrong.

This accolade must surely be awarded to Thomas Midgley Jr. The historian J.R. McNeill commented that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.” Praise indeed. Although born in Pennsylvania in 1889, Midgley grew up in Ohio. After graduation from Cornell University, he ended up working at the Dayton Research Laboratories (part of General Motors). In December of 1921, Midgley discovered that the addition of tetra-ethyl lead (TEL or Lead to us mere mortals) to gasoline prevented
internal combustion engines from "knocking" or “pinking” as it’s known in other parts of the world. The company called the substance "Ethyl", avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising. Oil companies and car makers, especially GM which owned the patent, strenuously promoted leaded fuel as an alternative to ethanol or ethanol-blended fuels, on which they could make very little profit. (Remember, Dear Reader, this was in the 1920s. With all the chatter in the media about hydrogen and electric cars of the future, do you think the oil companies and car makers are going to change their 80 year old habits?)

The addition of lead to gasoline eventually resulted in the release of huge amounts of lead into the atmosphere, causing health problems around the world. Midgley himself had to take a prolonged break to cure him of
lead poisoning!

When he returned to Ohio, GM asked Midgley in 1930 to develop a non-toxic and safe refrigerant for household appliances. He discovered dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorinated fluorocarbon (
CFC) which he called Freon. CFCs replaced the various toxic or explosive substances previously used as the working fluid in heat pumps and refrigerators. CFCs were also used as propellants in aerosol spray cans, and metered dose inhalers (asthma inhalers). I suspect that anyone inhaling CFCs would have had asthma as a result!

In 1940, he contracted
polio which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his death when he was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation in 1944 at the age of 55. The same year D.D.T. was invented.

His inventions have caused more pollution than any other, but he died before anyone knew of it. I guess hindsight is 20/20 vision.

Here endeth today’s grave lesson.