Nerds Before Their Time
by R. Pelley

Sure we all had lots of fun "clinging" and playing hockey in the winter, making bonfires in the autumn, fishing in Cobbs Pond in the spring and being generally creative in the summer. This might include playing at the aircraft dump on the Airforce side (safer than the one on the Canadian side because it wasn’t piled so high), making rings out of aircraft tubing fittings, playing baseball or cowboys-and-Indians, even learning how to smoke - just like an adult - in the woods out behind the steam plant.

But what is a little known fact  about life in Gander was the existence of a hard-core group of young fellows who today would be called the nerds.  This was the « chemistry set gang » who were into science, physics and electronics.  The interest in science started in « old » Gander  and continued on to the new town site.

 It is hard to figure out what got us going in that direction but I suspect a number of things. One was the fact that we all got our hair cut at Lilly’s barber shop where we could read and wonder about modern science from the magazines we found there, in particular Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. We learned more about chemistry, astronomy, aeronautics, combustion engines and the like from the barber shop than we ever learned in school!

 Another thng that got us started was probably « sugar-crystal experiment » we used to do.  In this experiment we would dissolve as much sugar as we could in warm water in a  tumbler. We would put a piece wood across the top of the tumbler and hang a string from it into the water and put it away for a day or two.  When we came back – if we were lucky – we would find that the sugar had formed a hugh  crystal on the string.  Great licking if anyone was around to see the results of your great scientific knowledge – but really tasted awful after very short time...roughly like eating pure sugar.

 The crystals were good for one thing though.  Do you remember eating milk-and-sugar sandwiches where we would coat a slice of white bread with butter and sugar and  pour a  bit of Carnation milk over it?  The sugar crystal variant was when you did the sandwich like a hot dog with the crystal rolled up in the middle – had to be careful though not eat the string.  Can’t figure our how we didn’t all die of diabetes by age 8.

 My own worst recollection of a chemistry experiment gone wrong was when I was grade 6 or 7 and got something ontoward in my hair... with the resultat that I had to go around in public with half a dozen bald spots about the size a quarter or 50 cent piece until - thank God - it finally grew back in.  John Sutherland was one of the best in science but at least he was careful enough to wash his hands before scratching his head  while revising the theory of relativity.

 But the real hardcore nerdiness  was found with the electroncs gang.  We were lucky because of a number of things.  Firstly, Gander had a very powerful AM radio station which was great when we made crystal radios.   These radios were a work of miniaturisation before the time. In fact, the container of choice was a matchbox.  Because we had CBG at close quarters, we didn’t need a tuning device so the crystal radio could be very simply made. Basically it needed a wire for an antenna,  another wire for the ground (a wire fence, a radiator or the center screw of a electrical outlet would do fine), a simple earphone and a crystal diode.  The diode was usually a 1N34A  (and if anyone wants one for free  plus the instructions to make a crystal radio for a grandson or grand-daughter,  I still have ½ dozen so let me know by email) . 

 These little radios needed no batteries and were in great demand during the Stanley cup playoffs – especially by the fellows were  wise enough to  wangle a seat by the radiator at the start of school year.  The antenna was a couple of turns of wire hidden under the belt,  the ground wire went down the arm closest to the rad while the airphone went down the other arm with the earphone concealed in the hand.  It was therefore very easy to look earnest and concentrated while listening to the sports news.

 Another good thing was that we were in the postwar period which gave us access to a lot of surplus gear – and that the airways were not as regulated as they are today. I had  a great transmitter known as an ART-13 which covered a very large band including aircraft frequencies.  We would listen to the aircraft out over the Atlantic on an old Halicrafters receiver, get the frequency and then try to contact them with the ART-13.  We would invent a new call sign each time so we wouldn’t get caught. We gave up calling airplanes when someone said it might cause a problem if ever an aircraft was in trouble and needed to make an emergency call. 

 Taking about airplanes, we  were very pleased when EPA  decided to update its avionics.  The easiest thing to do when they pulled their old sets was to simply give them away . The adults got the really good stuff but  us wee folk managed to get a fair amount just the same... and the trickle-down effect got us more later, as the adults found the money to replace the EPA stuff.  Maybe some of the nerd gang will remember the radio numbers such as ARC-5 or BC-459,    Seems to me that Alex Chisohm had a complete no. 19 set with the dials written in English and Russian because many of them were used in Sherman tanks sent to Russia in World War ll.  (A complete  no. 19 set  in good condition with all the trimmings now goes for maybe 1000$ to 1500$.)

 I must say that the radio technicians from EPA aways seemed to find time to give us advice.  Too bad that EPA - and I suppose most of the technicians - are no longer around.

 But the JACKPOT was when they extended the runway out  south of Deadman's Pond towards the lake.  To do so, they had to take out the old transmitter site with its very high antenna towers.  It looks like they had the choice of emptying out the warehouses  and taking out the transmitting equipment, crating it all up and shipping it to some place like Montreal or Toronto for resale or just leaving it there.  The cost of dismantling and shipping would have been very high and not really worth it because  much better equipment was coming on the market.  So they just left it there. 

 The word went out that it was off-limits government property and anybody caught there would be skinned, quartered and feed to crows in the dump on Burner Road.  But it was also well understood that  nobody really had time to check to see if the equipment  and stores were still there. Being bright kids growing up in Gander, we rapidly two and two  together and came up with many cardboard boxes full. But it always seem to rain when we went there, so the cardboard boxes often got soaked and the bottoms fell out.  I imagine the woods just south of the old cemetary is shrewn with radio tubes - some archeologist in the future  will have quite a puzzle figuring out how radio tubes can grow in a forest.

 Another thing that helped the nerd gang was that  there were many  young amateur guitar players in Gander - and they all needed a guitar amp. So fixing or making up a guitar amp was maybe not so nerdy after all.