Sunday 6 August 2017

sew on a button

It's a Bank Holiday weekend in Ireland and there are events all over. It's rather hot on the community history in Dunmore East the weekend and on Friday I showed up by invitation for two commemorative events.  Last year, along the coast in Tramore, they had the bunting out for the bicentennial of the wreck of the Sea Horse. In Dunmore this weekend is the centennial of the loss of the u-boat UC-44 and the miraculous rescue of  Kapitan Kurt Tebbenjohanns [looking self-consciously casual for his folks R]. UC-44 was a mine-laying submarine which had the misfortune to contact one of its own deadly spawn in the middle of the night of 4th August 1917 and sink to the bottom with almost all hands. Kapitan Tebbenjohanns was in the conning tower and bobbed to the surface alive but 2 miles from shore. There was a big bang and three young Dunmore men, Jack McGrath and brothers Tom & Patsy Power, decided to row out on the dark mine-bobbing waves to see what they could find . . . and pulled the Kapitan from the drink. I'm sure he was as surprised and delighted to be rescued as my father-in-law Pat the Salt who was torpedoed off Halifax almost exactly 25 years later. I have my own, extremely modest, experience of delivering flotsam to Dunmore.  From rubbing shoulders with local historians all Friday evening, I gather that the celebrations over the 1917 rescue were also rather muted - because the British Admiralty soon salvaged the wreck and its code-books and didn't want the Kriegsmarine to know that their ciphers were compromised. There an informative essay on mines and minesweeping on the Russianside blog this week. Where I was guest-blogging last week, and here's another essay on WWI u-boats

Organising local commemorative events is enormously time- and energy-consuming. It's not too difficult to get the German [UC-44] or British [Seahorse] ambassador down, or have the Mayor of Waterford appear with his chain of office: that's what they do.The local difficulties and sensibilities are what usually consume the most emotional energy. You can't invite everyone to lunch with the Ambassador and the organising committee has to listen to old Bob Bitterroot telling them how to run the event while relentless dissing their efforts in the pub. I was invited to the opening of the [excellent, informative and interesting - it will be on-line soon] commemorative exhibition ex-officio being grandson of the harbourmaster at the time of sinking / rescue. They couldn't un-invite me when I confessed that the The Major started his long incumbency five years after the events of 1917. Albeit under a false flag, I was delighted to chat to the great and the good of the maritime world of Waterford Harbour.

I had an interesting conversation with Tony Bab RN retd, who was invited to Dunmore to talk about the salvage of the UC-44. Roy Stokes the author of U-boat Alley: The U-boat War in the Irish Channel During World War 1 was also there and getting such an on-message author was a bit of a coup by the Dunmore committee. Bab rose to be Chief Petty Officer, a rank which is the absolute back-bone of the navy. Naval officers, like my father and grandfather, come and go but the CPOs provide the organisational continuity and actually implement the orders that percolate down from the bridge. Bab started life as a naval artificer. I've written with breathless admiration about Tiffies before. In the 1930s, my father acquired a great education - history, geography and geopolitics, languages and knots, navigation, sailing - in the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was really good at pub-quizzes. In the 1960s, Bab was getting his training as a good pair of hands: electrical and mechanical engineering, damage control, plumbing, communications, radar, ventilation. There is nothing that tiffies cannot do. 

Another event last week was IGGNITE an international jamboree for Girl Guides. A number of teenage girls were interviewed to talk up a storm about the Guides.
Q. Why did you join the Guides and what's so good about it?
A. My pal was in so I said I'd give it a go; you learn to sew, like, and stuff like cooking.
But, duh, well before I was old enough to join the Guides in my cross-dressing phase, my Mum taught me to sew on a button and hem up a trouser leg because she wasn't going to be always available to do it for me. She also taught me how to make flapjacks and fry an egg. CPO Babb and my father both had a housewife and were also taught how to sew on a button or fix a torn shirt . . . and splice a rope or trice up some shear-legs to lift a load. You shouldn't need to join the Guides to get these basic life-skills.

In science, you can do a higher degree PhD or MSc to build on the fundamental information that you acquired in college. What you get from that is a deep knowledge about something often relatively obscure. For a few weeks at graduation, you know more about your field than anyone walking on the planet. But that deep knowledge won't get you a job. You become an asset in the outside world because you've been trained in resilience; resourcefulness, critical thinking; inter-personal relationships; obeying instructions and making your own decisions; organising your data, your ideas and analyses; presenting your findings to the boss, to other scientists and Joe Public. 

The exhibition in Dunmore was formally opened by Richard McCormick, President of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, who gave a long and passionate speech about how such commemorative events, although attended disproportionately by old buffers, should really be for the youth-of-today. He learned his trade as a fisherman, than which there is no harder or more dangerous way of making a living. His point was that the training he got at sea; which today's youth would get if there were any maritime jobs out there on the great rolling ocean; was an education of much more general applicability: resilience, resourcefulness, critical thinking; inter-personal relationships; obeying instructions and making your own decisions. The difference between me doing a PhD on human genetics and migration patterns in New England and the Canadian Maritimes and Pat the Salt running away to sea at the age of 14 for his education in the University of Life is that, at no time was I in danger of bobbing about in the Atlantic with only a floating spar between me and Davy Jones.

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