Atlas Shrugged

Dad in the 60s.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where books were valued and cherished. My father had always been a voracious reader and he could read English, German, Danish, and French, and was working on Arabic and Uyghur. (Yes, Uyghur. I have no idea.)

When I was quite young, his library was not large and many of the books were technical volumes. I remember preparing a report for school when I was about 8, and using one of his books to read up about aluminum smelting, of all things. Another was called The Pugwash Monograph, a title that I found memorably hilarious. Only decades later did I learn that Pugwash is a place in Nova Scotia and the book related to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which, according to my friend Wiki, is “an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats.” Who knew?

One of the big atlases that mapped my childhood world.

Pride of place in this eclectic library was given to a very special set of atlases. They were the biggest books I’d ever seen, looming far above the lesser tomes: The Times Atlas of the World in five “royal folio”* volumes. When its individually cloth-bound pages were laid flat, you could pretty well land a small plane on the frozen lakes of northern Canada. It had gigantic fonts inside and enormous Roman numerals on the front pages, all of which delighted me.

Best, of course, were the coloured and detailed, large-scale maps inside. Other atlases showed Australia as a paltry thing, maybe 2 inches across. These devoted a full two-page spread to northeast Australia alone. I vividly recall poring over the Gulf of Carpentaria, wondering what was there. Could one paddle across it in a canoe? How long would it take to walk the shore line all the way around?

My favourites were the maps of the natural world showing climate, ocean currents, and topography. It was fascinating to see the Earth without political boundaries and more questions buzzed around my child’s brain: Why were there so many little nations in Europe when Australia was just one big country? And why were some borders straight lines imposed without regard for the natural terrain, while others clearly followed rivers and mountain ranges? One thing was very clear: all those manmade boundaries were completely arbitrary, so why were countries perpetually fighting over them?

When my father began travelling for his job, he would show us in the maps of the Middle East where he would be going: Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia.

Back in Germany, Dad had been a math teacher, but when he immigrated to Canada, he no longer had the credentials to teach, so he started working his way up from the bottom of the work ladder. His first jobs were in logging camps, doing hard physical labour on the “green chain.” Later, he worked as a surveyor on the Pacific Great Eastern railway near Porteau and Squamish, British Columbia. Eventually, he began to study for a degree in engineering, working full-time days and taking classes at night. Although I was too young at the time to know it, he must have felt like Atlas sometimes, carrying the weight of all that on his shoulders.

Dad with his model of the bulk-loading facility at Roberts Bank that he helped design.

When he finally graduated, he bought the Times atlases as a rare gift to himself, a quiet celebration of his new status and better salary. He now qualified to have his own official professional engineer stamp—the one that he would use to certify drawings and documents—and, in a proud yet whimsical gesture, used it to stamp the blank back of every page in the books.

Today, I can flip through these atlases and catch a glimpse of 50 years ago when a middle-aged family man enjoyed a hard-won victory over life and circumstances. He and his atlases set me to dreaming of far-away lands and I wish I could share with him stories of the places I’ve now travelled.

Thanks, Dad.

*Royal folio = 20” x 12 1/2”

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