Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chapter 10 - Oh! Petawawa: Part 2 - Where One Hears the Noise of the Water

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

The Canadian Army base and proving ground was adjacent to the tiny village of Petawawa. A few miles southeast on the Ottawa River was the slightly larger village of Pembroke, which contained nothing much of interest to Alfred—just a few stores, a movie house, and a church. The Canadian capital of Ottawa was a two-hour trip further east, with Montreal only a few hours further by train. The proving ground stood on the edge of the white pine forests of the Algonquin Provincial Park. The name “Petawawa” came from the Algonquin Indian word for “where one hears the noise of the water”.(3) By the time Alfred arrived there—on December 30, 1915—he more likely heard the noise of artillery fire. 

Alfred had been exiled there because he didn’t want to take any part in graft. He had the official title of "Junior Inspector of the Commission for the Acceptance of the Orders of the [Russian] Imperial Artillery Department in North America”. He knew almost nothing about artillery, except what it felt like to be on the receiving end. Yet he was expected to be in charge of a battery of Russian Q.F. (Quick Firing) three-inch field guns used to test shells the Canada Car and Foundry Company had begun to manufacture for the Russian government. He spoke little or no English but was expected to work with British “Tommies” and Canadian soldiers on the base. In spite of these obstacles, his exile felt heavenly to him.

1918 Camp Petawawa ON Entrance | by R Orville Lyttle
His nerves needed a rest. On the Eastern Front, he had begun to suspect his superiors in Second Army Headquarters Intelligence of using him as a subject for an efficiency study on how to work under the constant threat of death. He had gotten used  to the continuous noise of shooting at the front and had only recently begun to sleep soundly without the sound of artillery bombardment, having realized this indicated greater—not less—safety. Over the last year and a half, he had developed the habit of sleeping with his arms folded over his chest to protect precious papers he carried. Now he still found himself waking up clutching his chest with both arms, a habit he no longer needed and worked to break.

Yes, Petawawa seemed in many ways like bliss. He had a Ford car and a comfortable furnished and heated cabin provided by the Canadian Car and Foundry Company. He had a decent salary and minimal expenses. He had only three or four hours of work per day—or at night when testing shrapnel—firing and maintaining the field guns with a crew made up of British Tommies. Otherwise, his time was his own. Any lag in getting a shipment of artillery from the manufacturer would give him a few days free, which he used to visit Ottawa or Montreal. He made such trips as often as he could.

One of Alfred's first main tasks was to learn decent English. He needed it for his work and, as a multi-lingual person, he also knew learning the language of a place provided the key to feeling at home there. He got his first few words of English from the Tommies who worked on his gun crew: “Yes”, “No”, and “God Damn!”(4) They soon helped him learn even more ‘colorful’ terms. He also studied English on his own. He had known and loved Shakespeare and Byron in translation. He now began to read the originals with an English grammar in hand. But he realized he could use still more help. For one thing, he knew he had lousy pronunciation. He needed a tutor. A Canadian customs official named Gilchrest lived at the camp. A military man, Gilchrest’s health had deteriorated from overwork and he had been sent to Petawawa by kindhearted superiors in order to get a good rest. His perfunctory job of signing off on train deliveries of ammunition to the Russians took him about an hour a day—if there was a delivery. Soon enough, he began to feel lonely and bored. Both he and Korzybski found a mutual solution to their problems. Gilchrest studied French with Alfred, while Alfred worked on his English with Gilchrest. Soon Korzybski was speaking fluent Canadian-British English with the Polish accent he never lost. In later years, his U.S.-born wife helped him, and he made an effort to Americanize his English as much as he could.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 

4. Korzybski 1947, p. 472.

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