A Reluctant Adventurer

Ecole Alsacienn

Sometimes an adventure is thrust upon us willy-nilly. We have to go along with it whether we want to or not. The trick is to embrace it if we can’t avoid it.
(This is a chronological blog. I suggest that new readers start with post #1:  My Adventures in Software.)

In 8th grade a friend and I started a  “business” repairing appliances such as toasters. I don’t think we made much, if any, money, but I had hours of fun. I became interested in photography and spend a lot of time taking photos and developing and printing them in my darkroom. I also was interested in ham radio, and through this in electronics. I bought a copy of the American Radio Relay League “Radio Amateur’s Handbook,” which had chapters on electrical laws and circuits, vacuum-tube principles, and semiconductor devices. Just as I was getting serious about this, disaster (as I then thought) struck. My father decided to take a year’s sabbatical and take us all to Europe. This took me away from everything I was hoping to accomplish, just when my life was beginning to be fun.

My school agreed that I could skip ninth grade. My family and I spent five months in Paris, where I went to school at L’Ecole Alsacienne. even though my French was not good enough for me to keep up with most classes. The school agreed that I only had to participate in the classes in English (for French speaking students) and in French. French class was not too difficult. The main thing I had to do was memorize and recite two poems each week, in French of course. English was much more difficult because we had to translate French to English and English to French. The other students’ English was much better than my French.

After Paris we spent four months touring Europe. My father, an art historian, wanted to photograph architecture, so he would choose the subjects (usually cathedrals) and compose the shots and I would handle all the technical details of focus, exposure and flash (all this, of course, pre-automation). My biggest challenge was photographing the gold mosaic ceilings in St. Marks Basilica in Venice, using the largest flashbulb available. The hundreds of slides that we took during those four months became part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s slide collection.

Meanwhile, unable to build anything, I decided to learn electronics. I copied out in longhand all three relevant chapters from the ARRL handbook, complete with illustrations in color. By the time we returned I had a fairly firm grasp of vacuum-tube electronics, although transistors were still somewhat of a mystery to me. In Europe I earned enough money doing odd jobs for my parents to be able to buy, on our return, a Hallicrafters short-wave receiver, my pride and joy, and I had enough money left over to buy a Simpson multimeter. I still have the multimeter, along with the original sales receipt. The meter is “guaranteed for life.” I almost wish it would fail so I could find out if the Simpson company will honor the guarantee after 60 years.

While we were in Europe my father changed jobs, so as soon as we returned to the U.S. we moved to Philadelphia, where my father started his job as education director at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (hence the slides ending up there). Knowing that at that time the Philadelphia public schools were not good, he made as a condition of accepting the job that I would be enrolled in the best private school in Philadelphia, the Episcopal Academy. Strings were pulled, I was moved to the top of the long waiting list of applicants, and I got in. I was accepted to 10th grade even though I had skipped 9th grade. My two high school years in Philadelphia were an extraordinary time for me, as I discuss in my next post, Serendipity.

The European trip was not a happy time for me. I did not want to be there. I saw it as a disruption, taking me away from everything I wanted to do. In retrospect, though, it was a rich and valuable adventure. I learned a lot about other cultures and about myself. I felt a great sense of accomplishment in using my skills as a photographer. And, even though I felt ripped away from my budding interest in electronics, I gained a more thorough grounding in it than I would have had if I’d stayed home.

I never embraced my European trip, but I benefitted greatly from it none the less. Next time I find myself a reluctant adventurer, I hope I will embrace it instead of fight it. Sometimes the adventures that are thrust on us against our will turn out to be among the most valuable.

– Rudd Canaday (ruddcanaday.com)

– Previous post: My Adventures in Software
– Next post: How Good Luck Led to My Software Career

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