What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

A month after school let out, I learned that we were moving far away to a new home. Dad was being sent to be the pastor of a church in what was then considered the southernmost city in the world. It was time to get out the Atlas and the globe and try to imagine how it would be to live in Punta Arenas, 1000 miles from the next nearest city. First, everything had to be packed and shipped, leaving us with only our suitcases. So we moved to a hotel for the last week or so, then we boarded the train that would take us as far as the line would go.

A couple of days after boarding the train we made a stop at a city where Dad was to participate in some regional conference meetings. Even though it was still summer, we were experiencing very different weather, compared to sub-tropical Santiago: cool with quite a bit of rain. After being cooped up in a hotel room for most of a week with two small children, Mom decided she would never want to live in Temuco, with so much rain. Little did she know that our longest stay in one place was to be the three years we lived there, but that was some time in the future. For now, it was a relief to once again board the train and be on our way to Puerto Montt, the end of the line. I decided that I really liked train travel. You could get up and walk around, and sometimes when Dad wanted to stretch his legs, we would walk the whole length of the train.

Geography by land and by sea

I was fascinated with all that I saw. As we made our way through the cars to what was called Third Class, I noticed there were chickens with their legs tied together squawking in the racks overhead, and somebody had squeezed a pig under his seat. That evening back in the First Class section, our seats were turned into bunks and soon we were sleeping to the gentle rhythm of the wheels clicking on the tracks. In the morning we could see, through the mists, beautiful lakes and mountains, lush farmlands and quaint German immigrant settlements so typical of those southern regions.

Now came the part we were all anticipating. Having reached the end of the tracks, it was time to board the small steamship that would take us to Punta Arenas. The first morning we traversed the protected waters of the gulf of Corcovado, and then near noon we reached the open sea. By evening we were all confined to our bunks, as the waves tossed the ship to and fro in the aptly-named Golfo de Penas (gulf of pains).  Only Dad and I made it to breakfast the next morning, where about a dozen or so of the passengers bravely faced the menu. After a few more hours, we entered the quieter waters of the canals and everyone began to feel better.

The ship slowed its pace to wind its way through the narrows of the English Channel, and there we saw three or four canoes of native Alacalufes approaching. These people spent a large part of their lives in their canoes, and managed to keep warm by consuming large quantities of animal fat, as well as rubbing it on their mostly bare bodies. A man and one or two wives, along with a few children, their tools, supplies and cooking fire somehow found room on their fifteen-foot canoes made of a solid piece of oak bark. I listened as the captain explained that they even gave birth on their boats and only spent time on land during summer so they could gather roots and berries to supplement their diet of fish, mollusks and seals. Much later I learned that the following year the government established a town for these natives and put an end to their natural way of life by supplying them with homes and a “proper” school for their children.

We entered the famous Straights of Magellan with keen anticipation, as our voyage continued. However, my sister was not recovering from her “seasickness” as quickly as everyone else. In fact, she started scratching at the spots that were appearing all over her body: chicken pox! My mother once again had provided us with special toys—plastic doll furniture—to keep us entertained. But Carolyn was confined to her bed for the rest of the trip. I felt sorry for her.

It was a cool sunny morning when our ship pulled up alongside the dock in Punta Arenas, after a week-long voyage. I wondered how we would get our bags off the boat and where we would live, but Dad seemed not to worry. A tall, blond-haired man was standing head and shoulders above the crowd on the dock, and Dad was sure that he was our man. He helped load our luggage into his vehicle and, it being the Sabbath, we headed straight to church to meet our new congregation. There, I was introduced to the man’s thirteen-year-old son and we soon became friends. In fact, it was easy to make friends in this remote place; there seemed to be a feeling of being lost in space, and that we were all in this together and needed each other in order to survive the psychological rigors of such severe isolation.

Every day around noon, a small plane flew over the city and landed at the nearby airfield. Within twenty minutes, half the town seemed to have congregated at the post office to see what the mail plane had brought. Letters were our only connection with friends and relatives in those days, and magazines and newspapers arrived to satisfy our hunger for information about the rest of the world. An aunt kindly sent me a subscription to the Jack and Jill magazine, which I read avidly, along with the National Geographic and the Reader’s Digest. Sometimes I even peeked at the Time magazine that Dad subscribed to, along with various church papers.

Though Punta Arenas was the jumping-off place for going to Antarctica, it was not terribly cold. But it was windy. The wind could blow the spectacles off your face and when planes landed (only small DC-3’s in those days), they had to be lassoed and tied down to prevent them from cart-wheeling away. The wind whistled around the corrugated iron siding of the houses, and pushed the boys across the stretch of glass tiles that paved the sidewalk in front of the only tall office building in town, as they pretended to be skating on ice. That winter it did snow a few times, and our street-on-a-slope was closed so that children could go sledding. The days were very short, with sunset around 3:30 p.m. and sunrise was well after 9:00 a.m.

A taste of art and music, science and physics

By the time our home was ready and we could leave the hotel, school was well under way, so they let me stay home. This is when I really caught on to reading. We had a set of The Book of Knowledge, which had sections on history, science, literature, poetry and my favorites: Things to Do, and Questions and Answers. Dad took me down to the city library one day, where I was delighted to discover more biographies of musicians (Schubert and Beethoven) and also a book about Ferdinand Magellan for whom the canal was named. What fun!

My new friend was not in school that year either, so he came often to play at my house. Sometimes we would get out coloring books, and I noticed that his pictures looked so much better than mine. Instead of just filling in the colors, he would use shading techniques to enhance the effect. I watched how he did it, for instance making one side of a fold in a garment darker than the other, based on an imaginary light source. He also showed me how to draw a box (or building) to show perspective.

After my music conservatory experience, my mother feared that I had lost interest in music. Finding that the boy’s father was an excellent violinist, she suggested that I switch to violin lessons. So, for the next few months until they left town, I studied violin and soaked up a wealth of general information that the gentleman eagerly shared with me—about his travels to Spain and Majorca, about astronomy (teaching me to recognize various constellations in the starry sky), about diet and natural remedies (he too was a vegetarian), and much more. He even persuaded my parents to take us all to see our first movie, Bambi.

His boy was an ingenious kid, interested in science and especially physics . With a 10-centimeter ruler, a coffee-can lid, some string to hang the lid from one end of the ruler, and a bit of lead to make a weight, he made me a 10-gram scale. By weighing his pocketknife down at the corner store, he was able to use it to calibrate the ruler. He also bought a small amount of hard candy which we then had fun weighing with the little scale. I learned about fulcrums, and how to make a tin mold to hold the melted lead (solder) which we heated with a candle to make the sliding weight. Another day he brought an old camera lens and, with a cardboard box, proceeded to make a projector. We borrowed some of Dad’s slides, found a darkened room, and had a “show”.  In the process, I learned about focus length, light source and reflection (we hung a sheet for a screen when the wall didn’t work). I found it all very fascinating, awakening my own interest in science. I began looking in my books for other experiments we could try.

Social studies, anatomy and biology

My friend’s father announced their departure, which was to be the day before New Year, so my parents helped me pick out a gift, which we gave him a few days before Christmas. I was surprised when, with his father’s approval, he opened it on the spot. When I asked why he didn’t wait until Christmas, his father explained that they didn’t observe the holiday. Later I asked my Dad about it and he explained about different views and beliefs that people have. I was surprised and amazed to learn that not everyone saw things the same way!

One day, my father was invited to take part in a special service at a Catholic church. I was intrigued by all the ceremony and imagery—especially the little fountain of “holy water” which people dipped into as they entered the church. Part of my responsibilities at home was to wash the dishes. My younger sister was supposed to dry them but she hardly ever did, because I took so long to do the washing that my mother said she didn’t have to wait for me if I took more than half an hour. It usually took me two hours to finish washing because I was playing–and learning. For instance, I learned that you could pull an up-side-down glass almost out of the water and it would stay full (due to atmospheric pressure); that it was harder for soap bubbles to form when the water was cold; that if you forgot the detergent, the grease would coat everything; that if you rinsed the dishes in the drainer with a teakettle of boiling water, they dried themselves in a minute. And now I found myself baptizing each dish with a few drops of “holy” water from a crystal bowl. This was not the time to learn about promptness and efficiency; I learned those at another stage of my life. But the dishes got clean while I acted out the mysteries of life through my play.

There was a harmonium (pump organ) at church, which my mother played for services. Sometimes I would go up and play a little as the people were leaving. Once, a man came up behind me and watched for awhile, then asked, “What are those dots on the page?” I looked for dots: Those by the bass clef? No. Did he mean the dot beside the half note? No. I looked in vain for more dots on the page, but the man said there were many and finally pointed to one. It was a note! When I told my parents about it, they explained that the man was illiterate—could not read or write–and had probably never seen musical notation before. I wondered how a person could become an adult yet never have learned what to me seemed so basic.

We had a big yard but, though Mom loved to grow things, it was too far south to plant much of a garden. It wasn’t really because of the cold, but rather the lack of sunlight due to the earth’s angle. We learned to eat dandelion greens, which at that latitude were as tender as lettuce. In the spring, a little dog became part of the family and I named him Snowflake (actually “Copito”).  There was a butcher’s shop on the corner of our block and Mom sent me to ask for a few scraps for the dog from time to time. Sometimes the butcher would give me a big bone with a bit of meat still attached. As soon as I reached home I would “dissect” the meat, trying to identify what was muscle, tendon, blood vessels, etc. Then Mother would boil the scraps to kill any “germs”, which made an awful smell but the dog ate them anyway.

We had a coal-burning cook stove and it was my job to keep the coal box filled. The coal arrived in rather large chunks and I had to break them down to stove-size pieces with a large hammer, and load them into a box to carry indoors. Sometimes splinters would fly and embed themselves in my skin, but somehow I never got one in the eye, which now seems miraculous. I wondered at the different characteristics of the coal: some of it was smooth with sharp edges, other pieces were rough or veined. When I asked Dad about it, he showed me a book he was reading about geology and the Great Flood, and explained that coal was formed from trees buried, compressed and heated underground for many years.

Eventually Mom acquired a few chickens which had the run of the back yard.  One day while I was sitting up in my “thinking tree”, a medium-sized willow growing sidewise along the ground as did most trees in this windy place, I noticed some strange activity going on below and ran to tell my folks: “The chickens are fighting!” The rooster would peck the hens and then jump on top of them, and there was a lot of squawking and wing-flapping. I thought they had gone berserk, but Dad told me they were making babies. How strange! I couldn’t understand it and he didn’t want to elaborate. But I was nine, and curious.

When Christmas came, the days were very long and it was hard to see the little lights on the Christmas tree. In summer, the sunset was after 10 p.m. and sunrise, a little after 2 a.m. The sky was never completely dark and it was hard to go to bed with the sun still shining brightly. On Christmas morning we rushed to find our stockings hanging near the tree, but there was a third little stocking beside them, and we were mystified. Soon Santa showed up in his red suit, and as usual my sister cried in fright, while I laughed and said, “It’s just Dad”. Right away we asked who the third stocking was for, and they told us to guess. Was it for the dog? No. For the poor little girl that sometimes came to church? No. We simply could not guess, so finally they told us we were going to have a new baby brother or maybe another sister. It was inconceivable! And then I remembered the chickens…