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Wise people have said that we learn from our mistakes. Yet mistakes are often embarrassing and we tend to suppress the memories of them, often keeping them to ourselves. Yet, if they are sources or learning shouldn’t we want to share them with others? The stories of these errors can be very funny in the telling.

In keeping with these thoughts I’d like to share a couple of adventures with photographic components (unfortunately not expensive camera attachments, but story components).

I need to take you back to the early 1970’s in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I had immigrated here about three years before the first of these events took place. I was still a ‘Landed Immigrant (with that status it’s no wonder some newbies feel like fish out of water – newly netted and landed). However, I was enjoying my new life and new adventures. I had changed jobs, leaving the historic Hudson’s Bay Company and joining the competition. I was recruited to join a division of a company that sold furniture and furnishings to commercial accounts. I worked in the Interior Design section as an Interior Designer specializing in offices, retail outlets and other industrial facilities.

The company heard about a great opportunity in the Canadian Armed Forces. Apparently there had been a national ‘mess’ fund. I think all armed forces should have one of these. It turned out the fund was from profits made by all the ‘messes’ in the forces bases around the country. For the uninitiated, a ‘mess’ is the place members of the armed forces socialize, eat, drink and make merry. It’s home for those who live on base.

Each of the major rank categories has its own mess. So there is the privates’ mess, the non-commissioned officers’ mess (sergeants etc) and the officers’ mess. Each base has these three distinct messes. I quite enjoy this messing around with the military.

Rumour had spread around the bases that the surplus funds were to be ‘granted’ to bases that applied for assistance in renovating their messes. To receive funding the ‘mess’ would need to submit a complete project proposal, with drawings and prices and signed off by the base commander.

One of our best account representatives (John) was assigned the military accounts in our region. He contacted the bases near us and we were invited to make proposals. I was assigned to be the interior designer on these projects. It would be my job to determine what the mess committees wanted, and to prepare design drawings, furniture and furnishings selections, and project costing. John told me our first project was the radar base near a place called Armstrong Station in North Western Ontario. This was part of the North American early warning system, in case our Russian friends decided to try a sneak attack. This was also the farthest north the Canadian Pacific Railway travelled, and a good distance from Winnipeg.

I got my kit together, drawing pads, note pads, large measuring tape, pencils and my pride and joy, the office camera. This was a much better camera than I had ever used before. It had interchangeable lenses, so I could take wide angle photographs of the interiors. Of course in those days it was a film camera. I purchased some 36 exposure, 400 ASA, colour film.

There were two ways cameras rolled the exposed film. One type, required stretching the film across the shutter area and winding it on to the empty spool winding in the same direction as the film was unwinding. This was the type I owned. The other type wound the exposed film inside-out. So it rolled the opposite way it had been stored in the canister. Our office camera was of this latter type.

Having got my kit together, I loaded the film, shut the cover and advanced the film three exposures. I wanted to make sure all my shots counted.

John and I set out for the station and the lengthy train-ride. The train initially travelled across the last of the eastern prairie and then entered the pre-cambrian shield country of eastern Manitoba and north western Ontario. This is endless evergreen trees, rocks and lakes country. The railway carves it’s way through huge outcroppings of granite. This was some of the most difficult terrain through which the east-west national railways travelled.

After a few hours of chatting in the carriage, John suggested we visit the lounge car. A pub on wheels! Now I was only about 24 and had never been a drinker. Going down to the pub had no appeal to me. The only time I had had too much to drink before this was when I was ‘encouraged’ to attend the annual company ‘do’ in London when I was sixteen (see Company Do for that story).

I decided to be sociable and joined John in the lounge car, where we met up with other business travellers headed for points east.

After consuming a couple of beers I was feeling relatively mellow and looking forward to our two days at Armstrong Station.

We were met at the train by one of the officers and a driver. We were whisked away to the base, shown into our accommodations and given our schedule. I believe the first call was on the officers’ mess. We would be eating with the officers as well as staying in their quarters. It seemed we were honoured guests.

John had coached me about our hosts during the railway journey. John’s view was that they took hospitality very seriously. They would want to treat us well. We shouldn’t deny them the opportunity. So if they offered us a drink, it would be inappropriate to refuse. I was young, and this was before my time doing the rounds of diplomatic receptions, when I learned how to nurse a drink for several hours. At 24 I thought the point of being given a drink was to drink it. Unfortunately, when I did this there was always someone ready to recharge my glass.

We started our work with me questioning the officers’ committee about their desires for the renovation of the mess. “We want an English Pub” they said. John had chosen his interior design partner well. What could be better than a designer who still had a strong limey accent and was only recently departed from ‘the smoke’. How were they to know they had probably been in more English pubs than I.

I made drawings of the mess – the dining area, servery, games area, and bar. Luckily I had my camera with me and I took lots of photographs, as with each recharging of the glass, my memory and observation capacity were diminishing, almost as fast as the glass was being refilled.

We had dinner. There were more drinks, lots of patting on the back and all good chums story telling. John was great at keeping them amused while I tried to concentrate on visualizing an English Pub in this worn out 1950’s barren hall of a place.

We were escorted over to meet the non-commissioned officers. They wouldn’t discuss business till we had been made properly welcome! The fact the Interior Designer was a little wobbly on his feet seemed to enhance rather than diminish the corporals’ and sergeants’ opinion of the young ‘limey’. What were they looking for, I enquired? “An English Pub!” Oh joy. More drawing and measuring, more notes and many more photographs. Thank goodness for the camera, I thought, I’d never be able to remember this place in this condition.

Eventually we were taken back to our quarters where John advised me to keep one foot on the floor as I slept, it would help stop the room from spinning. Only keeping my eyes wide open actually stopped the spinning. I felt awful. After a long night dealing with the merry-go-round of inebriation, it was good to be able to get up, shower dress and present myself, pale-faced for breakfast. An army runs on it’s stomach. This includes a substantial breakfast. The smell of the bacon, eggs and chips, and fried tomatoes and fried bread did nothing to settle my stomach. But John and I smiled through it all. Interior design is a tough business!

We then were taken over to the regular mess where those below the rank of corporal called home.

We were greeted by a great group enthusiastically looking forward to their turn with us. Of course, 9 am is a little early to entertain – so they waited till 10 am before pouring the first drinks!

We sat down to discuss their wants and desires for their mess. “We want something very special. This base is miles from anywhere, and we are posted here for several months before we get any leave. We may as well have joined the b****y navy”. Laughs all round, “Let’s have another”. “Come on Mr. Sprange, don’t let down the side”. “So, we want something really special – we want this to be like…” I chimed in, “Don’t tell me, I bet you want it to be like an English Pub!”
“Now there’s an interior designer knows his stuff! Get the limey another drink!”

I asked John to hold onto the other end of the tape as I measured their mess, and drew a rather shaky floor plan and took notes. I was really giving thanks for the office camera – how would I ever be able to keep these three spaces straight when I got back to the office.

After we had finished, they gave us a cheery goodbye and we were deposited back at the railway station for the long ride home.

I didn’t visit the lounge car on the way back – I just slept.

The next day I arrived at the office, unpacked my drawings and notes, and looked at the scribblings and barely discernible measurements. You could see the gradual deterioration of the drawings and notes as the time had gone on. Drinking does not make you smarter!

Thank goodness for the 35 mm camera. I had used up 35 of the 36 exposures. I decided to rewind the film and get it over for processing right away. these photographs were going to be critical to designing three unique English Pubs.

I pressed the rewind release button, turned the crank handle about three quarters of a turn, when I heard the distinct sound of the film coming lose from the rewind spool, and felt the winder turning freely.

“This can’t be right” I thought. It should take a lot of rewinding to rewind 35 exposures. I had a hollow feeling in my stomach – even more hollow than the awful feeling after two days of drinking!

It seems the office camera had this little quirk no one had bothered to tell me about. Sometimes the film would pop out of the rewind spool when the film was being wound on. It was recommended that you leave the rewind lever in the up position and watch it turn as you advanced the film the first two frames, to make sure the film was securely in its slot. Now this would have been excellent advise to be given BEFORE, I left for Ontario!. I had no photographs to use!

I did what I could with my notes and survey drawings of the existing spaces, prepared three proposals for unique English Pubs, and John and I put together three project estimates and submitted our proposal. John had discovered during our visit to Armstrong Station that our main local competition were sending their interior designer the next week.

We waited for the results of the competition. Finally we received word, we had been awarded all three projects. The base commander was now submitting our three proposals to the granting authority.

I am sure that part of the evaluation criteria included what they thought of the visitors. Our competition sent a very competent designer, who was a very nice man, but probably a bit straight-laced for this client. Neither did he have an English accent!

Next stop Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.