I have tried several times to put together a small autobiography. But for some reason I always abandon the task before it is complete and then I lose my notes or the work I have already done before I start it again. So I decided to do it bit by bit adding little sets of memories and notes from time to time and keep adding them to the web site. I will also keep a copy on a memory stick. So if I can do this long enough I will have a complete and perhaps interesting record.
I was born May 2, 1941 and many years later found out more about the courtship and early days of my parents marriage. But I am going to write this as the mood takes me I will jump about in time and then later on, if I get that far, organize it into sections or chapters perhaps on different web pages so that when I have added photos it will not take too long to download each section.
First entry: December 8, 2007
My early memories
One of my first, if not my first, memory is of Christmas in England when I was three or four. It was at my Shawcross grandparent's house in Timperley Cheshire, England. I woke up to find a model airplane at the end of my bed, a gift from “Father Christmas”. I was staying at “the White House” on Thorley Lane with my mother (Ivy) I called her “Mummy”, my grandparents, Edith and Fred, “Gran and Granddad” and my father's sister Barbara, my Aunty Barbara. It was wartime and the airplane was a Spitfire, a single engine fighter that at the time of my birth was saving Britain from Nazi German invasion during the Battle of Britain. Barbara's husband, my Uncle Jim, was a RAF pilot. So, to find a Spitfire at the end of my bed in my little room over the stairs was such a vivid memory that I can still bring it back more than sixty years later!
Added December 9, 2007
Another Christmas memory from those early days, a year or two later, (I am writing this two weeks before Christmas 2007) was after my father had returned from the War. My mother and I had moved to Tenby in South Wales where my father was stationed prior to demobilization. They has rented a house on a hill outside of the town, rather drafty and cold as best I can recall and also home to at least one large rat, but a place where my parents could be together again after such a long time (and with such a short period of marriage before Kenneth (I called him Daddy) went away to serve in the Army mostly in India. My parents made Christmas a great event for me, although so little was available in the shops. They found a Christmas tree, and my father and a friend from the base hospital dyed cotton wool ( using iodine and other medical dyes) to decorate the tree, and we had little colored candles (real ones) to clip on the tree for the lights. I cannot imagine how great a fire hazard that was, but I guess with care and lighting them for just a short time it was OK. I do not remember what presents I got that year but I do remember that the colored cotton wool remained part of the Christmas tree decorations for many, many years even after silver tinsel and other decorations were available again. I guess it was just one happy memory that my parents did not want to lose.
Added December 17, 2007
So what other memories do I have of living in my grandfather's house before my father returned from the war? Here are five:
The road in front of the house was resurfaced. A group of workmen had a little camp where they took their tea breaks. I remember going outside the house and sitting with them by the fire as they brewed up their kettle. I also can recall, and still enjoy the smell of hot tar from the road works. Did this influence my ultimate decision to become a civil engineer. Probably not, I tell you about that later.
Gypsies used to come around door-to-door selling wooden clothing pegs for hanging out the washing on the washing line (of course this was before the days of clothes dryers). It was said that gypsies left marks by the gate to tell other gypsies what kind of reception they received at the door and that they would curse those who failed to give them money. So we hid under the table in the front room with my mother and grandmother as the gypsies came to the door so they would not know we were there. I think this was a relatively regular routine!
Towards the end of the war the Germans decided to bomb the machine tool factory in Broadheath, maybe three or four miles from our house. (Metro-Vickers (or Metroviks as we called it) I think was the name of one of the factories.) I recall hearing the bombing at night, being frightened and creeping into my mother's bed.
I remember my father returning from the war. We were all waiting for him in the front room of the White House and I remember his taxi pulling up and seeing him get out. Of course there must have been much anticipation and excitement. But I just recall seeing him for the first time that I can remember.
The fifth memory may have been when I was a little older, after we left the White House, but my grandfather who was a veterinary surgeon conducted a post mortem on a hen owned by my great aunts Lucy and Lilly (my grandfathers sisters). The operation was conducted in a wooden shed behind the house, I don't have any idea what the hen died of but I remember being amazed seeing all the eggs lined up ready to be laid from quite large to extremely small. I also have no idea why I was invited to observe the operation. Perhaps I was just interested or perhaps Granddad hoped I might follow in his footsteps.
Added December 30, 2007
My Dad's first car was a Morris 8, the 8 was the horsepower! The registration number was HND 879. He was a junior partner to Dr. Jim Brown who had a medical practice in Timperley just across the road from the Hare and Hounds public house on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Stockport Road and near the Timperley Cricket ground. Jim Brown had a Morris 10 as befitted the senior partner. Both cars were black and had doors that opened towards the front. Easier to get in and out of, but you better not open them while the car was moving! I was sent to Altrincham Preparatory School a private boys school my Dad had gone to which was supposed to prepare boys to go grammar school or win a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School or Davy Hulme both prestigious private schools. In the early days I used to car pool to school in either Dads car or Jim Browns car. But it was not too long before I was taking the bus from near our house a couple of miles to the main bus station in Altrincham and walking from there to school probably another mile and a half. The bus station was a busy place with maybe 20-40 buses coming and going and maybe a dozen buses at the station at any one time. I did not realize at first that there were two buses that made the circle that passed my home, one in each direction. One day early on in my bus riding I got on the wrong bus and was in tears when I realized I was going far from the usual route. Of course the conductor soon explained to me and a just stayed on until we got back to my stop. A few years later I was riding my bicycle to school and back each day. One of things I liked to do was to free wheel from school down into Altrincham, through the town and then as far as I could go towards home without pedaling. That was before the put the bridge over the railway line, that would have stopped me. It is amazing to me now that my parents allowed me at the age 7 onwards to ride through a busy town on a bicycle. Of course we never wore helmets (nobody did). I fell off my bike now and again but like all my friends I was very comfortable on a bike as we took them everywhere.
My first adventure on a bike was when I was still living in Flixton (so I would be 5 or 6). Some friends decided to cycle over the Manchester Ship Canal to see a ship. I went with them not thinking to tell my parents where I was going. Several hours later when we returned they were quite upset. I also remember going to my school in Flixton on a bike. Along the way was a big D shaped road pattern. Some older boys used to hang out and try to bully me as I passed them on my way home from school. I recall trying to figure out which side of the D they were on and go the other way. Of course sometimes they spotted me and ran across to intercept me. Another memory of that school was in the winter of 1947 when the outside toilets froze and we got the day off school! The snow was several inches deep, it came over the tops of my rubber Wellington boots. This was extreme weather for England!
Flixton was where my Dad got his first job after he was demobbed from the Army. He worked at the hospital and we lived in Flixton. When Linda was born in 1946, and was christened at the Flixton church. I remember noticing that the gravestones I was standing on outside the church had the name John Shawcross. Dad told me that the family moved from Flixton and that the John Shawcross in the grave was probably a relative of mine. More on that later (genealogy is something that usually interests the middle aged and old, not the young.)
Coming to America
Added January 6, 2008 and slightly edited in July 2011 with the pawn shop story.
One of the questions I am asked in the US is, “What brought you to the United States?” or “Why did you leave England”. It would take too long to explain so I joked, “It was a Boeing 707, or was it a VC10? Or, “I was trying to escape religious persecution”.
In fact, it was a decision that was arrived at slowly and even after we came to the US I was prepared to return to Britain if it did not work out well. I recall my father asking me in 1969, just before I left for the US, “ Do you think you will stay there, and I answered, “Yes, I think so”, although I was not so sure I would.
So why did we move from Britain that had given us a good home, a good education, where we both had good families, where our first two children had been born, and where, with steady work, we would achieve a reasonably good standard of living?
The years after WWII were generally speaking not easy years in England. Not that my parents or I were poor, or hungry or deprived. But the society was recovering from the war and those were hardworking years for my parents. In Timperley near Manchester the winters had dirty foggy air made worse by everyone burning coal. Fogs could last for days and some times you could not see the hand in front of your face. The newspapers were always full of the threat of nuclear war, of the retreat from Empire. Britain gave up one colony after another. It seemed like we were always on the losing side whether it was at Suez or in colonial skirmishes in Africa or at cricket with Australia. We never seemed to win. I was “a dreamer” as my mother called me. I used to look at the maps of the World with all the red and pink showing the British Empire and Commonwealth. As a teenager I used try to predict the long-term future. I used to read statistics in my Encyclopedia of industrial production and resources and the like and soon learned that the US led in many of those categories. I began to feel that England was small and restrictive. I was also aware the class structure and grew to dislike it. After I had made a few trips to Europe I was excited by the concept of the European Community and was extremely disheartened when General DeGaulle of France closed the door on British membership of the EC. I think that door closing was the single biggest factor that made me want to leave Britain. Also I grew to hate the long dark days of November, December and January. In Manchester we seemed to say goodbye to the sun in November for months of gloom and drizzle. Summer could be nice but some years it was a great disappointment. When we moved up to Tyneside the weather just got colder and the winters longer. Is it any surprise I became interested in somewhere where the sun shone more and where you could count on a warm summer?
In those years in the 50's and 60's emigration to Australia, New Zealand and Canada and even South Africa was a not unusual event. It was in all the newspapers and Australia had its £10 assisted passage to “qualified” emigrants. And there were plenty of jobs for people like me with a degree in Civil Engineering. While I was at Birmingham University I looked into emigration to Australia and considered emigration to Queensland. I would become a “10 pound Pom” as the Aussies would have called us. But I was in love, getting married and quite soon having children. Later on when we lived in Northumberland after I had worked in Britain a few years I applied for overseas work. Interviewing for jobs in Qatar, New York and with the British Ministry of Overseas Development for work in Africa. I got the MOD job and that is how we came to go to Tanzania.
If you look at the Shawcross family over the centuries they did not move much. As far as I can determine the family got its “Shacklecross” name in Taxal, Derbyshire area, stayed there a century or two, until my ancestors moved a few miles Northwest to Flixton, Lancashire and then, after a couple of centuries in Flixton, my Shawcross ancestors moved a few more miles South to Timperley Cheshire, where we stayed until my generation came along. Charles, Linda and I moved away perhaps because our education made it possible for us to do that, or perhaps because my mothers London origins gave us a different view on England and the World. It was most likely a combination of these factors with ease of transportation and ease of work portability thorough education a key factor.
I had a gradual weaning away from home. First the years a University, then the years working in different locations in England, then two years in Tanzania. This dislocated me from family and friends and made it less difficult to move away. There was no great hardship in England, although we were somewhat low on money in my early working days. I made about £1000 pounds a year in 1963 when I started work and about £1500 a year when we left in 1967. This was not poverty but it was not a lot of money either. My motives for moving to the US included a sense of wanting to see the World and also by the time I had children a feeling that they might have a better short and long term future in the US than in England.
In Dar es Salaam Tanzania a few things happened. First, I found myself working not only with Africans but also quite closely with people from a lot of different countries in the Middle East and the US, and in Europe from both sides of the “Iron Curtain”. Then the US changed its immigration policy and it became more difficult for Britons to move to the US and I heard the waiting list might be several years. Losing the chance to go to the US upset me as I had wanted to see the US and working there was the only economically viable way I could imagine.
In Tanzania I was responsible for the urban water supplies in one third of Tanzania. The other two thirds were managed by an Egyptian (Saleh Ahmed) and an American (Lloyd Belz) and the capital city Dar es Salaam was managed by a Swede (Lars Rasmusson). In my view, I was doing the best job of the four of us. I was earning twice what the Egyptian was earning, the Swede was making twice what I was making and the American was making twice what the Swede was making. This gave me the confidence to know that I could compete with people from anywhere and the knowledge that pay depended on who paid you not how hard you worked.
I used to look at Lloyd Belz's American Waterworks Association journals, I would read the job advertisements at the back and saw that there were lots of jobs for people with my qualifications at two or three times as much money as I was making in Tanzania.
So now let's put it together. I said to myself. “The US is a great country, the French won't let Britain into Europe, if I go back to England I will not well paid. Where you live and whom you work for has more to do with how much money you make than how hard you work. I can get a job in the US. The weather in Britain is lousy. I can do as good a job if not better than at least some Americans I know. The US has changed the rules that make it harder to get a visa. The future is not likely to get better relative to visas, the world population is growing the immigration barriers are likely to get tougher. So now would be a good time to apply for a visa and when it is approved, which may not be for several years, I can decide at that time whether to go to the US or not”.
Dar es Salaam was the capital city of Tanzania, so there was a US embassy not far from my office, so getting the paperwork to apply for a US immigrant visa was easy. Frances and I applied for a visa for the family in 1968. I had planned and quite expected to be in Tanzania for two “two year tours of duty”. But due to Tanzania breaking of diplomatic relations with Britain over Rhodesia Sanctions, the British Government decided not to continue the Tanzanian aid project that paid half my salary in Tanzania. So my first tour came to an end in the early months of 1969, at about the same time that I heard that my US Visa was approved.
One amusing episode in retrospect was when I applied for my US immigrant visa I applied under a category of shortages of skills on a state by state basis. Apparently each state said what skills it would like in immigrants and how many in that skill or profession it needed. So I had to say which state I wanted to go to. I don't think I had previously thought about States. So my first question when asked what State I wanted to apply to was "Well what States are there?". So they showed me a map of the US with all the States marked and suggested I try for one of the larger States. So I looked at the map and my eye fell on Pennsylvania and the old popular song "There's a pawn shop on the corner in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania" came to mind and so I said "I want to apply to Pennsylvania". And in due course the visa was approved and I was told I did not actually have to go to Pennsylvania. So there we were with one job coming to an end in Tanzania, a lump sum gratuity of a couple of thousand pounds and the ability to move my family. We decided that I would come to the US, look around and see what chances there were. Frances had just had Lucy and so she would stay in Britain until I had found a job in the US. But all the same, back in Britain in the early summer, with my US visa in one pocket I asked the Ministry of Overseas Development what other overseas posting they could offer me and if, they had come up with a non African one say Hong Kong (they offered Botswana), I might have accepted. Botswana was a step backwards so I came to the US.
Why we came to Boston, getting my first job in the US, the problem we had getting the entry visa for Frances and the children, buying our first car, living in Hull and then buying a house in Scituate will be part of the story. I will deal with that later.
Added July 2011:
So why did we come to Boston? Well when my visa number came up I was asked whether I wanted to bring my family with me right away or whether I would like to come over by myself and get a job and then bring the family later. One catch was that before they would actually issue the visa I had to prove that I would not be a drag on the US economy either by having a job to go to or by having enough money to show I could survive without a job for a while until I got one. Since I did not have a job I asked how much was enough to show I had enough resources. The would not tell me; but hinted that if I came by myself it would be quite a bit less than if I brought may family right away. So I asked if I come by myself and then when I have a job get my family brought over will that be a problem for them to get a visa. "Oh no they said the visas will be issued for your family right away once you can show you have a job." OK I said that seems reasonable; it did not make sense to bring the family if things did nto work out>
So that was decided. I just needed to get a job. Well I had a few copies of the American Water Works Association Journal from Lloyd Belz my friend and coworker in Dar es Salaam. In their were the name of various consulting engineering companies in the US working in water supply, my speciality. So I went through those magazines and noticed that a lot of those companies were based in Boston. So back in England I got my Aunt Barbara on her old type writer to type up a few letters of application to some of the firms in the Boston area. I think I sent out five letters and I know I got three letters back saying something like. If you are in the Boston area come in for an interview. So that was all I needed. I bought a one way plane ticket to Boston and when I got there called up the HR person and asked when I should come in for my interview. So within a week of landing I had interviewed with Camp Dresser and McKee; Metcalf & Eddy and I think Coffin & Richardson. Threee fine firms in the area. Amazingly they all offered me a job! The M&E offer was $10 per week more than CDM so I took that job. For the first few days I had stayed in the Bradford Hotel on Tremont St. but that was too expensive to stay for long so quite soon I moved to the YMCA on Huntingdon Avenue. One interesting coincidence is that my arrival in the US coincided with the first moon landing. I can remember watching the old black and white TVs of that landing and feeling quite excited to be in the US the country that was landing on the moon.
Soon as I had a job I went over to the Federal Building in Boston and went to the Immigration and Naturalization Dept; (I also had to register with the Selective Service Administration and could theoretically been sent to Vietnam but at my age 28 and married with three kids I was exempt) At the I&N office I was in for a rude awakening. Yes my wife would be able to come but they would have to process the application and first they had to find my paperwork. I won't go into all the details but instead of being happily reunited with the family in few weeks as I had expected, it took until jus a few days before Christmas, four months before the family could join me. Frances has here own tale of going into the London US embassy and basically refusing to leave until she had the visas in her hand. Seemed like a very long time for all of us. Howver, during this time I was getting into my job with M&E based in the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston and also set about finding a car and a place for us all to live. The car was funny. Where can I buy a used car I asked some people at work. Oh there are lots of dealerships out along Commonwealth Avenue they told me . So on a very hot summer day I started to walk out along Commonwealth Avenue starting at the Public Garden. Well I think it was four or five miles to the first car dealership. Absolutely exhausted I slumped into the sales room and told them I wanted a good reliable car for not much money. Salesman took me out to look at a white Plymouth Valiant with an air conditioner; the AC was what sold it to me that and it was the largest car I had ever driven and it only cost me $800. Not a lot but a good chunk of the $2000 that I started with . Now to find a home for the family . In the home rentals of the Boston Globe I found a Winter home rental in Hull 53 G Street. The house had been used for years a a summer home but in the Winter the owner made a few extra dollars by renting it out if she could find somebody who wanted to live in a beach house out of season. So I took it. When Frances came she quite liked it particularly some of the features like the fridge and freezer and quick heating system (forced hot air). It had a little garden at the back and was mid way between both the Atlantic Nantasket Beach side of the peninsula and the Bay side. A few hundred yards in each direction. Once I had Frances and the family there we stayed until we bought our first home in Scituate. Frances got pregnant in that house but unfortunately our fourth baby was never born as she miscarried. This happened while Michael and Telise were visiting. I took Frances a long time to get over that loss. I will write more about commuting across Boston Harbor and buying the Scituate house another time.
Added October 19 2008.
I began to play chess when I was about 11 or 12 at Sale Grammar School. That is rather late to become good at chess and I certainly was never particularly good. But I grew to love the game and and at various times it has been a great pastime for me.
At school I really only played for a couple of years during lunch breaks in Winter when the weather was too unpleasant to go outside. We did not have any chess lessons so I learned from other kids who knew no more chess than I did.
But I did read a bit about chess and it was enough of a thing in my life that France gave me a travelling chess set when I was about 18 as a birthday present. We still have the set, somewhat battered but recently repaired and painted by Frances!
The next time I played any chess was in 1973 when we went to Dacca Bangaldesh. There were some Russians staying in the Intercontinental Hotel (the Intercon) who played and I remember playing with them around the pool and one memorable event when they insisted that whoever won the game had to drink a shot of vodka). Also while in Dacca (now Dhaka) my boss with CDM, Jim Arbuthnot was a quite good chess player and he invited me to play with a group of expats from time to time.
When we came to the live in the Boston area in 1987 I went over to the Middlesex Chess Club and played with them but did not find them very welcoming so did not play there more than a couple of times. I also once on an assignment in Rangoon took my chess board and set and a chess book or two and then studied the game. In 1992, Connie Stolow started the Winchester Chess Club and since she did not play chess soon had me and Tom Richardson helping run it. From that time until the present I have been involved in the chess club and become reasonably proficient (but certainly not good) at the game. I played chess when Frances was working at Wellesley and spending a lot of time grading papers with David Plantamura who also had time to kill and Jim Herbert (who's wife Jean also had a teaching job that took a lot of her time at Tufts University).
In 2002, after I retired from the MWRA, on a walk by the Mystic late I met and I started playing a bit with Ken Dudley and Dan Sullivan. They played thousands of games by the Mystic Lake on sunny afternoons and I jointd them when I was not working (by now I was part time working for Metcalf and Eddy again). Later on I started playing at the Woburn and Reading Senior Centers.
So between one thing and another I play quite a lot of chess.
I wrote an article for the Winchester Star in October 2008 which is appended below that talks about a rare chess triumph and has quite a nice photograph. See photo below and article after that.
Chess, baseball, dreams and beating a Grandmaster
Chess! After 10,000 games, I have to admit that I don't have what it takes to be a very good player. I love the game. I read chess books; I study chess games and I spend more time looking at a chessboard than is good for my waistline. But I just don't see the good moves as often or as fast as the experts do.
Did you see that wonderful chess film, “Waiting for Bobby Fischer”? If so, you may recall the young chess prodigy (Josh Waitzkin) shouting out the moves, sight unseen, from another room while his Dad sits hunched over the chessboard. When I run up against a really good chess player, I am like the Dad in that movie.
Chess Grandmaster, Larry Christiansen once visited the Winchester Chess Club. Larry won the US National High School Championship at age 15 and was a Grandmaster at age 21. When he came to Winchester, Larry played a blindfold exhibition against Nick Troisi. Of course Larry won, but we were all awed by his ability to play great chess without looking at the board.
For 16 years I have helped run the Winchester Chess Club. My game has improved a little over the years, but I will never beat a really good player unless he or she happens to fall asleep and run out of time. But even chess prodigies have to learn the game. In the year or so before their steep learning curve crosses my flat line even I can win. Kids who will be good players can beat me by the age of ten; the best may beat me at the age of six.
Noah Pang recently described himself as “sort of a failed chess prodigy”. Noah started playing chess when he was five and had almost retired from chess, with an “expert” rating, when he was 12. I played him in a Massachusetts State tournament when he was six. Standing, his eyes were level with the pieces. Not that he needed to look at the board for long. Noah would make his move then wander off to watch a friend's game while I pondered my response. Then he would come back, glance at the position, move a piece and then wander off again. I got a draw in that game and I am still proud of it.
Jared Turkowitz and Jake Garbarino played at Winchester Chess Club from grade school through high school. The first time I played Jared I caught him with a particularly tricky opening sometimes known as the “chopped liver”. I got a win then, before he learned how to respond to that opening, but after that I only won a couple of games in the next ten years. Jake Garbarino always wanted to play five-minute games, I think that was because he knew he was going to win long before I knew I was going to lose, and so he got bored. Now Jake can take a knight or even a rook off his side of the board and still beat me.
Winchester Chess Club plays at the beautiful Griffin Museum on Friday evenings. On October the 10th I had reached the final round of a tournament having won all three games. Arnav Ghosh of Winchester, aged nine, also unbeaten was to be my opponent. Arnav is able do something I can only dream about. Like Larry Christiansen, Arnav can play chess blindfolded! So I needed to play my very best, most careful, chess.
Chess players seek any advantage they can get. A tournament player may arrive early just so he can use his own chess set. It's the chess version of having the home field advantage. I did not want lose to a nine year old so the gamesmanship started early. Arnav said, “let's play at this board”. Well I knew that was the seat where he won his game in the previous round. So I said, “Oh no that table is too crowded, let's play at this board”. Which just happened to be where I won my last game. .
Arnav had white and so the first move. After his second move I realized the position would allow me to try an opening I had been studying recently “the Latvian Gambit”. That was not the careful game I planned to play. Black's crazy second move gives away a pawn and seems to ruin your position, but it really is not as bad as it looks and only gives a small advantage to white. Playing a fast game against a young player, I hoped, if a mistake were made it would not be mine. So I played the crazy move. (The sequence is 1, e4, e5; 2 Nf3, f5).
By the sixth move we were playing a different game from any opening I had studied. By the fifteenth move Arnav was beginning to win. But then he made a small mistake, soon I was a piece up and trading piece for piece until eventually he had to lay down his king in resignation. Arnav, you will get plenty of trophies in the years to come, let me have this one small win.
In the photograph, young Arnav Ghosh is in the front row and I am at the back. Chris Kuang is on the left and Arvan Sahakian is on the right. Chris and Arvan pulled even with Arnav after the final game to make a three-way tie for second. Every one of them is, or will be, a better chess player than I am. But none of us is likely to ever beat a Chess Grandmaster.
But, at 9 or 69, we can all dream: about hitting a ball over the Green Monster for the Red Sox, or throwing a 120 mph fastball in the World Series or, even less likely, we can dream of beating a Grandmaster at Chess!
Added in March 2017 re Chess: So after I retired from AECOM in 2011, I decided to reduce some of my responsibilities knowing that we might move or go away in the winter. So I resigned from my role at the Winchester Chess Club and stopped going except on rare visits. (But kept up my membership). But I did'nt give up chess. I continued to play with Danny and Kenny and later Nicky by the Mystic Lake during the warmer months. And I had got into playing chess at the Woburn and Arlington Senior Centers from about 2004. These became my main chess playing locations although I did go to the Squae One Mall in Saugus for a few games from time to time. Our membership is getting older so I am not sure how much longer this group will keep on playing. If we fold I will perhaps go back to the Winchester Chess Club again if it is still operating.
About Cars: added December 31, 2010 (Later perhaps I will add some photos of these cars)
Cars I have owned and some I have loved.
Someone once said: “A man always remembers his first love with special tenderness, but after that he begins to bunch them.” If my experience with cars is a guide, he was right.
My first car was a 1949 “Ford Prefect”. My father bought it for 100 pounds (~$250 at the time) in 1959 when I was a first year Civil Engineering student at Birmingham University. When new, a Ford Prefect could reach 60 mph and accelerate from zero to fifty in 23 seconds. My Ford Prefect, I called her GAM, (British car registration number GAM 884), was not new and with the pedal to the metal, downhill with the wind behind, she never got to 60 mph. But GAM opened new worlds for me. ( Not as many as the alien character Ford Prefect did for Arthur Dent in a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), but opened all the worlds that an 18 to 19 year old boy cared about anyway. I was a first year student a Birmingham University. From being a cyclist and knowing nothing about cars, within a year with the help of Marcus, a fellow student who lived in the same "digs" at Yardley Wood Road in Birmingham and who owned a 1930 M type MG, I became a grease covered mechanic. I think it was the grease that was a factor in my landlady suggesting I find new accomodation for my second year at Birmingham University!
I learned to park GAM on a hill so that if the starter or hand crank failed I could let her roll in first or second gear with the foot on the clutch and when the speed was right to let it out and hope the engine caught. It usually did. I also learned how to play with the carburetor mixtures to tune it; how to change plugs or set the gaps on the plugs or distributor; how to clean off the oil and check for shorts and, from my friend with the M type MG, how to de-carbonize and rebuild an engine. Honesty forces me to admit that the rebuild of his engine was only partly successful as after about a hundred yards the engine seized up solid as the piston rings expanded. But at least I could understand what went wrong, if only engines were as easy to understand and tinker with now as they were then. But it was being able to drive up to Stafford to see Frances, drive around the city and at the end of the University academic year to drive into the Welsh mountains to rest and lick my wounds after a bruising exam period. During that retreat I took out the front passenger seat so that I could sleep in the car. Somewhere I have a photo I took, with my toes, lying in the back seat of the car.
Of course an old car has rust and is in the process of falling apart. So I spent a fair amount of time scraping out rust and replacing it with fiberglass fillers. Then of course the car needed a complete repaint which I was happy to do with a regular paint brush and paint. So from an original light green GAM became electric blue!
One time I was driving down to the south coast with my parents in one car and me in mine. Dad was driving a relatively powerful and modern car and I in GAM. Of course I had to try to race him and by taking risks that only a teenager will take managed to keep up if not ahead. At one point I could have passed on a bend but held back for some reason; and of course a truck came around and we would have been in a head on collision. Another time at a University of Birmingham Geology field camp I was the only person with a car. So when we went to a pub in the evening I had to drive. At that time the phrase designated driver had not yet been heard. So I recall spending quite some time trying to get the key into first the car door and then the ignition before driving home.
Alas, GAM lasted less than two years succumbing to all the misuse and was diagnosed by my Dads mechanic as having a terminal failure of the main transmission. Dad, generous man that he was no doubt egged on by my mother, and knowing that my marriage was coming and I would soon be earning my way in the world in 1961 bought me a new Austin A35 van for 400 pounds. The deal with the van was that under British law at the time it was judged to be a commercial vehicle and so did not need to pay purchase tax, a considerable saving. Also as a commercial vehicle it was supposed not to be driven faster than 30 mph. A law I did my best to ignore. At the time, before radar speed guns, the police had to tail you for a quarter mile before they could get you for speeding. So my theory was if you drove fast enough they were not likely to come up behind you. And if you kept a sharp eye out not to pass a police car and another eye on the rear view mirror you would be OK. The theory worked, for the most part. The A35 came as a blue car. But having so successfully painted GAM it was not long before I had my paint brushes out and redid it in cream and red!
The A35 lasted until we left England in 1967. We drove many miles as my job took us up to the Northeast of England. With it we explored York, Durham, Newcastle upon Tyne, and the Northumberland coast including parts of Hadrian's Wall. First Clare and then Paul were transported in a little carry cot slotted into the back of the van. When old enough the kids had little restraining harnesses fixed to the car seat. Enough to hold them in place under normal circumstances but probably not much good in a crash; but nobody had seat belts at that time.
My next car in 1967 was after we had landed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I bought a green “second hand” Vauxhall Viva. I don't remember exactly what I paid for it but probably around the equivalent of $1000, but in Tanzanian shillings (Shillingi). It was not a great car but it allowed me to get to work and we even drove up to Arusha, Moshi , Kilimanjaro and into some of the game parks although with a clanging sump guard plate in one game park we scared off most of the animals before we arrived. One time my brother Charles came to visit and we met him up at Arusha and we toured the game parks; when it came time to drive back the several hundred miles to Dar on mostly unpaved roads, we arranged to have Charles put on a plane while we drove back. Along the way one of my retread tires began to come apart with first a large bulge and then with flaps of rubber slapping on the road. Somehow we made it to Dar in time to meet Charles off the plane. I have no idea what he or we would have done if the car had broken down and hew was stranded at the airport with nobody to contact or to know where to go. I don't know how much I sold the Viva for but I do recall that the African I sold it to had second thoughts and tried to get me to refund his money even getting some Government Minister to come to my office and pressure me. But we were all set to leave on a plane and so I was not able to do that.
So then when I came to the US in the summer of 1969 we bought a white used Plymouth Valiant with red upholstery . I tell the story of asking people a work in Boston where I could buy a car. Out along Commonwealth Avenue they told me. So starting at the Public Garden I started to walk in the heat of a Boston Summer out along Commonwealth Avenue until I came to the first car dealer about four miles out. So hot and exhausted was I that selling me a car for $800 with an AC was easyl! We drove in that car out to visit Michael and Telise in Wisconsin, before the 55 mph speed limit travelling at 80 mph most of the way. On our way back from Madison we stopped off at Niagara Falls and then drove starting late afternoon and driving through the night to arrive back in Scituate MA just as the sun was rising.
So the Valiant lasted until in 1972 when we headed off for four years to Dacca Bangladesh. Thanks to our friend Jim DeYoung from Tanzania who had recruited me to CDM to work on the project in Dacca I was able to buy a new VW Beetle from tax free cars of Amsterdam to be shipped to Chittagong. Part of the US AID funded contract allowed me to ship out a car at no cost and the folks at CDM had figured out that this was the best way to do it as I could get the car in Amsterdam without any added taxes. The "Bug" cost me $1200 and it lasted until we left Bangladesh in 1976; I sold it for about what I paid for it. The VW when it arrived caused quite a stir because after a two year hiatus it was the first new car into the country since the war that created Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Crowds would gather round to admire it. One of the first things we had to do was to handpaint the registration number in Bengali script on the hood (bonnet) of the VW. I got my Bengali "bearer" (butler) to show me the letters and to outline them on the car and then I painted them in. I was quite proud of the work.
Back in the US in the Summer of 1976, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, I bought a usedbronze colored Chevy Nova for about $2000 for what I thought, might be the one year we would be in the US. (We had plans to rejoin UNICEF or take some other overseas posting). The Chevy turned out to be a lot more than a student car. When we moved down to Boston we drove in it and it was our only car until 1985 and my kids learned to drive on it. They will remember the steering column mounted gear shift.
Eventually the Chevy became very unreliable including an engine fire one time when Frances was driving; 1985 was a recession period and a out of work guy in Winchester was selling his dark red 1983 Volvo 242 for about $8000 I think. The Chevy was junked.
You know how a the beginning I said after a while things begin to blur well it is about at this time that the blur starts! We managed with the one car because I commuted into Boston by train so Frances could use the car to get to work and the rest of the time we shared. But eventually M&E moved out to Wakefield and offered loans to buy cars. So in 1985 I bought a new grey Mercury Marquis for $10,000 and Frances got the red Volvo. The Marquis was a very comfortable car but eventually failed at less than 100K miles. I had all of its maintenance done at the dealership (Sentry Lincoln Mercury) in Medford, and when the car eventually failed (failed emissions tests) they told me the car had been poorly maintained! I got very little on the trade in which was for a new 1995 Mercury Topaz for about $10,000 (from the same dealer; it was a busy week Frances tells me including our dog Fudge dying). And I got the old red Volvo for a while until in 1996 I traded it in for a used 1993 Black Volvo 940 for about $12000. That Volvo was a very reliable car; it lasted until I finally got tired of the rattles and failed air conditioner was the last straw and so got my current gold 2007 Volvo S 80 V8 in 2009 for about $25K after taxes. I bought that car when we were in a severe recession and people were worried about gas prices. Always the Contrarian I think, at this time anyway, it was a good buy. It is without a doubt the best, and most fun to drive, car I have owened.
In the meantime in Frances traded in the Marquis for a new Forest Green Ford Focus ZX3; a pleasant quite sporty car which she drove until in 2010 that was replaced by a new silver VW Golf for $18K.
So that briefly covers the cars I and Frances have owned.
Yes, they have got a lot better over the years. The comfort of my current Volvo and Frances VW is a tremendous advancement on the early days of driving. But the difference between no car and my Ford Prefect is a lot greater than between GAM and the latest Volvo. Perhaps in years to come cars will seem as old fashioned as riding a horse seems to me. But no doubt about it I have been living during a time when cars have been essential to my life. Perhaps some time I will write about my Dad's first car a Morris 8 registration HND 879. Also I have a photo of my grandfather in a three wheeled Clyno (see my Dad's recollections) Since Grandad was a Vetinarian with the cavalry in the First World War and I also have photos of him on a horse I guess it was his generation that truly saw the switch from the horse to the car.
December 31, 2010 (added to and edited January 7, 2011)
Some hodge podge additions January 2, 2011
I was cleaning up some files on my old computer and came across a few items that I thought would be fun to add to this site:
The first three are letters I wrote in late 2003 and early 2004 to various newspapers on getting some kind of life off planet. Unfortunately I don't believe any of them were printed and space policy was not changed. However, given Paul's job it is probably just as well none of these were printed in case co workers think that he have similar ideas to those of his clearly "nutty" Dad!
NASA is off course and needs a new mission.
Apparently, NASA wants to prevent life getting onto other planets. They have a “planetary protection officer” to stop bacteria from Earth causing “forward contamination” of the solar system. (“NASA to crash Galileo to halt microbes”. Boston Globe September 15, 2003.)
Establishing life on another planet would be an epic achievement. A colony of people on Mars may not be possible. But it is possible to get something living and reproducing on another planet. In my view, getting even a unicellular plant to live on Jupiter's moon Europa would be far more significant than putting Armstrong's footprints on our Moon.
NASA should act while it can. Many things could put an end to space flight. Asteroid impact, solar instability, climate change, economic disruptions, wars or just a change in priorities and budgets could put an end to Earth's only credible chance to move life off planet. Most people see life on Earth as a miracle. That there has been enough time between planetary catastrophes for mankind to develop space flight is another miracle.
NASA should determine what creatures have the best chance of surviving and reproducing on other planets and then do everything it can to get life established there before it is too late. It is possible that the only life in the solar system is here on Earth. Rather than looking for alien species that may not exist, we should do something positive. Our gift to the solar system, and possibly the Universe is life. We are squandering our big, and perhaps our only, opportunity. If alien life does already exist on another planet, it will be better adapted to its environment than Earth life and has nothing to fear from us. Our DNA experts can figure out which life originated on this planet and which elsewhere. So let's not pretend that if we export Earth life it will confuse the data set!
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that NASA is off course and needs a new mission. When next we have a spacecraft near to a planet, let's give life a chance and not cremate it.
John F. Shawcross
To the Editor of the Boston Globe, December 5, 2003
I was pleased to see in the December 5, 2003 article by Bryan Bender “US looks to push space exploration”, that the Bush Administration is taking a fresh look at manned missions to the Moon and Mars. But I did not see any mention of correcting NASA's misguided policy of preventing any life from Earth, other than humans, from gaining a foothold on another planet.
As a keen follower of U.S space policy and exploration since the 1960's I know that in the early days, NASA was anxious to avoid any organisms from Earth getting onto the Moon or elsewhere in Space. It did not want to confuse the database in the search for extra terrestrial life. But the bio-probes came up blank, and today through DNA identification we would have no problem telling any life from Space, if it exists, from life from Earth. After 40 years not having one living cell on another planet is a cosmic failure.
From Darwin to Dawkins, from evolution to socio-biology, the truth of the old saw about not putting all your eggs in one basket, should be clear. If we are ever to amount to anything in the Universe we need to move some of our eggs onto another planet, before this basket gets dropped. Once we have some life from Earth established in a self sustaining colony off the Earth we will have, in my view, an epic, epic achievement.
The new White House policy may establish a group of people on the Moon or on Mars. If I am still able, I will be the first to cheer. But what if the Space program comes to an end before we achieve a self sustaining colony? We might give up Space without leaving an enduring mark. We should look for some quick wins. We should use some of the Earth's existing genetic diversity to move life off planet. I'll settle for seaweed in the oceans of Europa or cacti on the deserts of Mars. Anything is better than nothing. Let's start with what we can do, Star-Trek can follow in time.
To the Editor The New York Times
229 West 43 rd Street
New York, NY 10036-3959
February 27, 2004
“When to Post “Watch for Falling Asteroid” Sign”, Kenneth Chang, A16, February 26.
The sky is falling. We will be snuffed out in an instant. Your story told of how in January it looked as if an asteroid might crash into the Earth. The current New Yorker magazine in its Chicxulab story, tells of fate and the fragility of existence and how a large asteroid hitting the Earth could bring life to an end. Truth or fiction the message is the same.
All our eggs have been in one basket for too long. NASA and the space program, represent humanity's best hope of ultimate survival. Let's get life off planet. Not just people, but fish and seaweed and grass and anything that might live or we could modify to live somewhere in our solar system. Noah had the right idea.
John F. Shawcross
Added January 2011, I like this quotation and feel it says an awful lot:
''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators.
We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."
- Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'
Added March 29, 2014:
Looks like I have got stuck again with this. Actually right now I am looking into a problem with updating web pages and ussing this as a test.
Wow three years since my last entry!
Excuses for lack of entries: Had some computer problems with the web site. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, had hormone treatment and radiation for about a year. Then my right hip needed to be replaced and was done in 2016. Then we finally decided to move to a smaller house and so we had to go through the hassle of doing up the old house, getting finances to buy a new one (in Woburn) and selling the old house. Moving and settling in.Frances had a few health issues too! Which brings me to today!! Not going to do anything now except perhaps update my Chess career above! But I will get back to writing this, whatever it us, sooner or later. After my health issues it better not be too much later! But I think the old brain is still working OK.
Here are a few topics I might work on in the future.
Childhood (written March 4, 2017)
So now at the age of 75, I'm looking back on my childhood. What do I remember. Well I've already mentioned the early days of living with my grandfather and mother in Timperley, visiting my great aunts just around the corner on Thorley Lane opposite Timperley Parish Church. Working in the garden with those aunts, picking berries, raking grass and burning it. Gathering eggs from the hens. My first school. Dad coming home. Having my tonsils removed. Falling off my tricycle into the brook near the duck pond! Moving to Flixton, the winter of 1947 when the snow came over the top of my little wellington boots and the school toilets froze so school was cancelled. Then the move back to Timperley and the happy days at 1 Marsden Drive with my friend David Whitehead and a bunch of other boys who roamed the neighborhood with us. The wonderful November 5 bonfires and gathering wood for that fire and getting fireworks. Burning the fire in the middle of the street on Guy Fawkes night and roasting potatoes in the embers.My dog Skip who of course I loved very much. Very happy days when after school we headed straight out to play until our mothers called us in for our evening meal. A rare moment of ectasy one day lying on the grass in a field when everything seemed wonderful. Also I started reading Superman comics and would stop by the newsagent shop on my way back from Altrincham Prep and buy Superman comics. We also had Wizard and Hotspur delivered to our house and we had Beano and Dandy for the younger family. Some of my friends go the Eagle but I was not into that so much.
Then our family moved to Wellington Road Number 20. Not such happy days. In fact the worst of my life. I was lonely and bored. Cut off from friends from Marsden Drive and also going to a school Sale Grammer which was not near my home so no nearby friends. Not happy days. I think my parents were very busy with work and a new child (Charles). But by the time we moved to Moss Lane I was getting out of it. I had been going to cub scouts and then scouts and so scouting was an interest and I stuck with it until I went to University. My sister Linda had a good friend Diana Holt and her older sister Jean was about my age and we were aware of each other and some flirtation took place. I'm not sure either of us were interested in the other but some advances, and retreats took place. Never go serious as I moved away while still young. These were the years I got interested in science fiction and read everything I could lay my hands on. Also on the radio Dick Barton Special Agent was my favorite.
Once we moved to Moss Lane, Phillip Brownhill was a friend I played tennis with and ran around with on the Timperley Cricket Club grounds just up the road from my house. Me and my friends at Sale Grammar got into the Goon Show. After each episode we would do the silly jokes and talking that the Goons did. Thoe guys were geniuses to us and of course all went on to varying degrees of Stardom the best being Peter Sellers. The goons morphed into Monty Python with similar kinds of humour on TV as on the radio.
We usually had good holidays. Two weeks away at a seaside resort each year. And I got to go to Scout camp for another two weeks; scout camps were in Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man and Ireland. Also when I was at Altrincham Prep we had a summer camp in the South of England. So some years I got six weeks of holidays away which just about covered the entire summer holiday!
School days (written March 6, 2017)
I think I went to some kind of a kindergarten in Timperley before Dad came home from the war. But the first school I remember was Tenby in South Wales. My father was stationed there for a time after he returned from India but before he was released from the military (demobbed). All I can remember is learning my doh, ray me's first forwards and then backards and drawing trees and boats. What I remember most is insisting to the teacher that all boats must be grey and all trees must be brown becaue they were made of wood! Well I guess at 4 years old that wasn't too crazy. The other think I recall from those times was collecting conkers from the horse chestnut trees I walked under on my way to school and my father showing me how to play conkers and also how to make them hard by soaking them in vinegar and then drying them in an oven!
My first real school was Altrincham Preparatory School with a fine badge on the blazer APS which kids who didn't go there called Altrincham Pig Sty! It was a private school for kids 5 through 11. The intent was to make sure you passed the 11+ examination (so called because it was intended for students eleven years old or more) so you would go to a Grammar School and not the Technical School or Comprehensive school where the people who "failed" the 11 plus would go. That exam no longer exists and that's good as it put a lot of stress on young kids and since only 30% or less of kids passed the 11 plus meant that almost three quarters of the population was made to feel a failure at age 11!
At the time I had no basis of comparison but having watched my children and grandchilden go through schools in the US, I feel that my primary education was generally poor except that, as they say in the US, they taught to the test. So in the things we were going to be tested on they were very good. The tests were in three parts; English, Maths and "Intelligence". The English included a lot of what today we would call culturally biased stuff such as knowing the correct words to describe groups of things. e.g A school of fish, A pack of wolves; A brace of partridges etc.It also included "comprehension", that is reading a paragraph or two and then answering questions on the paragraph. Maths was really arithmetic and it was essential that you know all the times tables up to 12 times. Intelligence testing required solving problems with numbers, shapes, logic etc. So we were taught and then we practiced and practiced. We even go lessons on skills for taking tests. Checking your answers. Not spending too long on questions you couldn't figure out; but if you had time at the end going back and trying them again then. The top schools to get into were Manchester Grammar School and Davy Hulme which had there own entrance exams. When the time came to take the 11 plus and the MGS and DH entrance exams I was able to get into a local Grammar School but didn't succeed in winning a scholarship to the exam schools. Probably I was just not smart enough but also I was more interested in wrestling any chance I got with any other boy in the school. (Oh I forgot to mention APS as a boys school, no girls). By the time we were in the top form I was able to beat every other kid in the school except Sam Cox, and Sam was a year older than me. So the main result of my primary school days is that I managed to get into a Grammar School and got very good at wrestling. Perhaps the most userful skill was learning how to take tests and pass exams because for the next ten years it was necessary to do that consistently.
Of the two Grammar Schools in my area, Altrincham Grammar School was nearest to my home and Sale Grammar School was about three miles away. For some reason I went to Sale Grammar School and everyong else I knew went to Altrincham Grammar School. I think my parents had something to do with it. My father was a snob and I think he had some reason to not want me to go to the same school as his patients childen. Perhaps he was worried I would not do well and he would lose some kind of status as a result. (By the time Charles came along ten years later, Dad sent Charles to the State Primary School rather than the Private school and Charles went to Altrincham Grammar School; but then Charles was a better student than I was and Dad would be confident Charles would keep up the family good name. (Perhaps I am being unfair to may parents on this, but I never understood why I went to Sale) My parents came up with some story about how Sale played Rugby which was more a gentlemens game whereas Altrincham played football (soccer) which was much lower class! (You have to remember that class was important in those days and my parents cared about this kind of thing).
So I went to Sale Grammar School and from the first day until the last in all seasons and all weathers I went to school on my bicycle. I can still plot out the route. from my house on Wellington Road I cycled to the nearby Secondary Modern School (where the failed kids went to learn woodwork, and metal work and useful trade skills) cut through a right of way behind the school to Moss Lane (when we moved to Moss Lane my journey was a little shorter)
Work and career
Family and growing up
Metcalf and Eddy / AECOM
Sports and pastimes
Becoming a grandfather
Deciding to retire
Sickness and aging
Hopes for the future
Wow that will be great if I cover that