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My School Years



In my early school years the burgh of Earlsferry didn't have a school for the elementary grades so all the Earlsferry children went to the school that did at the neighboring burgh of Elie.  My school years were a wonderful time in my life.  That is, except for the first week.  On the first day my parents had dressed me up in a complete new outfit.  New black leather boots, heavy knee length woolen stockings, knee length cotton under garment "combies", woolen trousers, new flannel shirt, a tie that strangled me and a heavy woolen jacket.  As each stiff new garment went on I became greatly alarmed as my temperature and my temper rose.  By the time I was outfitted I was terrified.  All my life I'd roamed free.  Free as the wind.  All summer long I ran barefoot.  I'd no need or use for shoes.  At low tide I could run over the slippery tangles, the seaweeds and the barnacle covered rocks.  And I don't mean slowly.  I was so sure footed in my bare feet that in this element I was a gazelle and I never felt cold.  Even when I got soaking wet from the sea.  And now this, dressed up to kill like a mannequin in a tailor's shop window.  No, I wasn't going to school.  If this is what it took, I wanted none of it.  School must be an awful and terrible place if this is what it took to go there.  Nobody was going to do this to me.  I started to remove the stiff new clothes that I was wearing. Then my parents laid down the law.  "You're going to school and you're going respectable."  It became a tug of war.  I remember the second day was almost a repeat of the first. Slowly, I gave in.  I give full credit for that to Miss Mowat.  My liking school didn't happen all at once but within three months I was eagerly running to get to her classroom.  As a young boy and right in to my teen years I never walked.  Everywhere I went, I ran.  Soon, each day, I was running two, two mile, round trips between home and school in record time.


I remember Miss Mowat's amazement when she discovered that I knew how to count and knew intervals of time.  This was all due to the Elie Lighthouse.  Each night I went to sleep counting the flashes of the lighthouse as the rotating beam of light reflected on to the ceiling of my bedroom.  I was sorry when my two years with Miss Mowat ended as she'd won me over to the point that I'd become teacher's pet, the chosen one who got to clean her white chalk blackboard.


After Miss Mowat came Annie Don.  She was a different proposition.  She ruled with an iron rod.  None of this lovey-dovey dangling the carrot stuff for her.  She believed in the hammer. No boy or girl was going to get away from her without everything she taught being thoroughly pounded in. By the fifth grade she had us singing the multiplication tables up to twelve times twelve--and liking it.


In addition to the scholastic subjects, Mr. Harrison, who was the headmaster, (and succeeding him Mr. Beveridge) taught and gave us a love for gardening. In the thirties the Elie School had quite a large piece of garden ground where a stone wall separated the school from the golf course. All children participated in the making and the upkeep of the garden. A wooden shed housed all of our garden tools. On the walls we espaliered fruit trees and each of the school year classes had its rectangular vegetable garden plot.  We drew a diagram of the plot  on paper and voted on what we would  grow. We calculated how many rows of this and that we'd  grow and how many seeds we'd  need.  As well as being great fun it was a valuable learning experience. At the end of the school year we harvested, divided up and took home the fruits of our labors.


The end of each school year was marked by Prize Giving Day. Right behind the school, on the golf course, a table was set up which got loaded with the many beautiful books that were to be presented for this or that scholastic achievement.  Chairs were set out on the grass to seat all from the village who came for the event.  The last and final prize that I won was the Moncrieff Prize.  It was for the boy most likely to --- . Helen Greig, who'd been my counterpart and main competitor all these years at Elie School, won the prize as the girl most likely to ----.

And so it was on to The Waid Academy


   Waid Academy Jacket Badge

Each day going to the Waid Academy was a great adventure as to get there we traveled from Elie to Anstruther on the LNER, East of Fife coastal railway.  A great belch of smoke signaled the arrival of the steam engine train as it emerged from the tunnel to stop at the Elie railway platform where it puffed and panted when not in motion. The train had a driver and a fireman, whose job it was to shovel coal into the boiler's firebox.   These pair understood boys.  Each day from a different village along the way two boys were invited to ride the footplate and be firemen for the day. Sometimes we got to start the engine in motion as we got to pull the lever that caused steam to flow from the boiler to the driving cylinder of the engine.  Often our clean shirts were coal smudged by the time the train, which made stops at St. Monans and Pittenweem, arrived at Anstruther. 


Some times we arrived late at the station to find that the train was in the process of leaving without us. When this happened there was just time enough to sprint back up to the coastal road to hopefully catch the Alexander  bus that arrived at Anstruther at about the same time as the train. The conductress on this scheduled bus was usually a rosy cheek and red haired, born and bred, "Siminins" young lady. She was a no nonsense "clippie" who wasn't about to tolerate the youthful exuberance of boys and/or the copying of homework on her bus. No sir, that bus was her domain and in no uncertain terms she let us know it. She knew what made boys tick and reigned with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes. When the bus arrived at Anstruther, in a loud, enthusiastic voice she'd call out, "Enster, Enster. Aw them that's here for there get aff for this is it."    


At Waid, Tom Croal was gym teacher.  Miss Nisbet (Nizzy), who bestowed on me the classroom name of Pierrot, (P err O) taught beginning and medium level French. Next room to her was Miss (granny) Sangster, who preferred to be thought of as an 'unclaimed blessing', taught higher French and German.  Mr. (Bully) Allen taught Math in general.   Next came Jackie Whyte, who  taught higher Math.  Jack (Chuck) Liston and George Napier  both taught Physics, Science and Chemistry.  These were my favorite classes, especially on the days that we pulled apart Magdeburg hemispheres to demonstrate the pressure of the atmosphere on a vessel when the contained air was evacuated or fired up Bunsen burners to make and calibrate  glass tube thermometers and thirty two inch long, Admiral Fitzroy style, mercury filled and open to the atmosphere, glass J tube barometers.  Mr. (Tempus Fugit) Tammy  Young, at the top of the stairway, taught Latin.  Mr. Gourdie taught Geography. Mr. Sutherland taught Art, Miss (Annie) Duncan taught History. Alistair Crichton taught English as also did  Mr. (Bill)  Ferrier. Mr. (Danny) Blair taught us the meaning of and to sing Gaudeamus igitur and music in general and was responsible for the first thing in the morning prayer session. Danny Blair was Master of his Art when it came to multitasking and while piano/Handel was his forte, all at once and without us realizing it, in one fell swoop as well as poetry he would be teaching us singing, voice control, diction, elocution, Shakespeare, you name it!  Mr. (Cocky) Robin taught mechanical drawing and woodworking.  Mr. William Wishart Thompson (aka Sharky), was the Rector (principal) of the school. Our use of first names and nicknames were truly all words of endearment.


Bill Ferrier was definitely a disciple of Omar with his tent and his flask of wine, his loaf of bread and his book of verse.  His literary bible was Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Bill Ferrier was every bit an artist as was Vermeer only instead of using paint brush and canvas to preserve his creativity and artistry Bill Ferrier used words.  His pupils were his canvas. A picture is worth a thousand words but not when it applies to Bill Ferrier's artistry.  The four years that I had the privilege to be tutored by him are just as alive in me today at 90 as when I was 15.  The visuality and pathos he put into Burns' observation of, the wee cowrin timrous beastie;  the gleam in the  eyes of the parents in, the Cotters Saturday night;  the solitude of Wordsworth's, I wandered lonely as a cloud; the life long search for each other in Acadia  of Evangeline and Gabriel;  the wailing of the wind across the mere in The Death of King Arthur;  Portia's, The quality of mercy is not strain'd---;  the shivering cold that we actually felt as he intoned,

"St. Agnes' Eve,  Ah, bitter chill it was!

The owl for all its feathers was a-cold;

The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,

And silent was the flock in woolly fold :

Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told

His rosary, and while his frosted breath,

Like pious incense from a censor old

Seemed taking flight for heaven, without a death,

Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith". 

I defy any artist's painting to come anywhere close to the mystique of the invisible portraits that Bill Ferrier painted with his use of poetic words.  Mr Ferrier involved and enlightened us as he painted his word portraits of many hundreds of such passages.  Like me I'm sure that all of his pupils who are now in their 80's and 90's  still remember him vividly and see him as he adjusted and looked over the top of his glasses as he exposed us to yet another of his pearls of wisdom. 


Bill Ferrier constantly gave of himself as he projected  his brain cells to live on and grow in the brains of every one of us who were his pupils. The transfer of brain cells from one person to another creates an everlasting chain which certainly has caused me to believe that no one ever dies, that we all are immortal.  Like Bill Ferrier there are numerous persons in our lives  who are all living on and growing  inside of our brains to make us the composite hosts that we all become. From day one, without the input of our mothers and fathers, our teachers and others too numerous to count, we could not be and would not be who we are today. With the passage of time our body parts wear out and finally cease  to function but the "who we are"  keeps fanning out and growing in the brains of the thousands of individual others whose paths have crossed ours,

endlessly----forever----ad infinitum.


Today 5-22-09, by coincidence, I was standing in a check-out line. I looked at the man standing in line next to me and said to him, "You're Chuck Gibson. (he was). In 1973, 36 years ago, you were the leader of a group of five aspiring climbers that included me, my 17 year old son Mark and my 15 year old daughter Heather that you successfully trained and led  to the summit of Mt. Hood.  You made a big impact on our lives."  

Mt. Hood at 11,239 feet high is the highest mountain in the State of Oregon. I don't know if Chuck Gibson is "still around" but the Chuck Gibson component that lives on in us has been climbing up mountains and scrambling up hills ever since.)


When we made this 1973 Mt. Hood climb we arrived on the mountain the night before where we  slept for a few hours in sleeping bags in the Wy'east mountain climber's hut. Outfitted with ice axes, heavy climbing boots, crampons, carabineers, ropes, warm clothing, dark goggles, water, food, compass, survival gear etc. we set off by the light of the moon at 2 o'clock in the morning. We climbed by way of Illumination Rock and the Hog's Back Ridge on the south side of the mountain, traversed the glacier and the deep crevasse that is just above this narrow ridge, held our noses to get past the smoking sulphur fumaroles, roped up when conditions were such that we should do so and by 10 we were standing on the top of the mountain where we recorded our names and the date in a ledger that's kept there for this purpose in the Mazama's waterproof iron lock box. 



11,239 feet. On the summit of Mt. Hood 1973


Mr. Liston  our science teacher was also our rugby coach. He knew just how to get the most and the best out of us.  I never made the first fifteen but several times I was good enough to captain the second team.


1941  Waid Rugby Team  First XV

The captain is Bill Cunningham.

Lower right is Sydney Ferguson and lower left is Sydney Gowans, both from St. Monans.

Second from the right in the back row is Elie's Bert Stewart. 

A few of the others whose names I think I remember-----

Next to Chuck Liston, David Robertson. Then Butch and Gus Sleeman. (Yankee brothers)

Middle row, far left, XXX Stevenson. Middle row far right, George Wilson from Colinsburgh and next to him, Andrew Peddie from the Coal Farm, St. Monans. (His younger sister Mary Peddie and I were in the same class year)

(After 75 years don't hold me to being right on any of these who I have named.)


I really loved all of my years at the Waid. They were great.  I can't say enough about these great teachers.  They brought to life the poets of the past and the authors of the classics.  They gave meaning to the teachings, the values and the wisdom of our predecessors. They instilled relevance to all of their subject specialties.  To this day I remember most of what I was taught.  The one thing that I most got from the Waid is that black is black and white is white. Shades of gray  are the domain of thinking, speculating and believing and should be kept in perspective.  When all's said and done you either know or you do not know.  You can speculate, believe and think all you want to but a skyscraper or the process of thought must be built from bedrock on up upon a solid series of steps of factual information.  The organization of knowledge  BIF  (Basis In Fact). 


Many years later on behalf of Tektronix I was reminded of BIF when I was invited to visit the Boeing Airplane Plant at Everett Washington.  At that time the 747 was just a number.  There on the runway sat the, as yet not flown, prototype.  My host graciously and proudly gave me a personal tour of it's inner workings. It dwarfed every other airplane I'd ever seen. I was awestruck. For its day it was monstrous. How could such a many tons of weight behemoth get off the ground?  I asked my host, "Do you really think it will fly? Do you really believe it will ever get off the ground?"  He looked me straight in the eye and with a somewhat jaundiced look he gave me an emphatic, NO.  I don't think it will fly.  However, when the day comes that we align it up with the runway for its first take-off,  we advance the throttles and the engines spool up to full power, we release the brakes and it accelerates along the runway, we at Boeing know precisely how many feet it will travel before it lifts off. We know the lift coefficient of the airfoil so we know how much lift is generated from each square foot of wing and surface that generates lift. We know its weight.  We know the thrust of the engines.  We know  what the drag is. Thinking, speculating, hoping and believing are bottom rungs on our ladder.  At Boeing we get to the top rung. We know exactly why we do what we do.


In all seriousness, he asked, "Would you want to fly on anyone's airplane whose engineers merely thought or believed it would fly?"  He made his point.  BIF -  one of the many things that  Waid Academy taught me.


As events turned out the Boeing 747 became the airplane that would change the entire world.