Chapter 4. Factories and Fictions

It’s a solemn thing to see most of your earthly treasures disappear into the depths of a moving van. On the journey they could all be destroyed in some grand smash-up. The furniture could be replaced, but photographs, manuscripts, notes, letters and keepsakes are irreplaceable. Moving is a risky business. No wonder they emphasize insurance!

When the men closed the back door of the van, we saw there a symbolic representation of the Mayflower, that tiny ship on which the Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers) had braved the Atlantic’s perils to sail to America. They arrived. That was hopeful! Remembering those people’s bravery gave us a timely shot of heroism and good courage as the van picked up speed down the street and disappeared into the afternoon heat-haze of August. “Bon voyage, truck driver! God be with you! And be very, very careful!”

Now for the last cleanup in the old house. And the car must be loaded. Oh no! Look at all that stuff they didn’t take away in the van. That whole heap has to go into our car? There’s no way!

Nevertheless, the pile gradually disappeared from the walk. Our big cartop carrier was far too small. Its tarpaulin bulged ominously. Inside the station wagon every inch we could spare was packed full, with far too little thought about how we would ever get at anything we might need later. When I didn’t dare to cram in anything more, still more things had to go! The springs were sagging mighty low when I roped the last boxes onto the rear bumper. Baby Karen was stowed away in her car bed. Just after sunset the rest of us piled in. I pushed the doors shut and the locks clicked with finality.

We sat there quietly, each thinking our own thoughts. This was it—the moment of departure and the moment of beginning again. Every present moment lies at the end of what came before and at the beginning of what will happen next. But while some moments follow mere single words in our life, others end long sentences or even large paragraphs. This moment ended a whole chapter for all six of us and began a whole new section of the story.

We bowed our heads and prayed that God would be with us on our journey. As I turned the key and started the car, I chuckled to myself. What a useless prayer! Why, certainly God will be with us. If he weren’t with us we wouldn’t exist. And God isn’t an immovable Easterner! And hadn’t I heard the people out in B.C. refer to their province as “God’s country”?

The car began to inch slowly forward. It actually moved with such a heavy load!

The kids waved goodbye to the curtainless old house. They waved goodbye to our church on the way past, and to their deserted school. Soon we were out on the open road. The lights of town after town appeared ahead of us, then slipped into the darkness behind.

We had departed on the right date, but it was far too late to go a long distance that night. When we found a hospitable park, we began to set up our first camp. It was very dark, and we were very tired. If only I could remember where I had put the things I had stowed away in the station wagon! I soon found the gas lantern and the camp stove, but where were the matches? While I was rummaging around hunting for things, the mosquitoes were having their supper. The matches turned up in the “special place” I had put them so I’d be sure to find them. I remembered just after I found them.

Kay somehow got us all something to eat. I set up the tent and fixed beds for everybody. When we were all settled in, I closed the mosquito netting over the tent opening and subsided into bed. Nobody talked very much that night. I voiced a few prayers of thankfulness for getting started and for safety so far in traveling. But I didn’t hear every voice continue right through to the end of the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread . . . deliver us from evil . . . Amen.”

Before I too dropped off to sleep, one thing became very clear. We’d have to get organized in the morning. We’d have to have places for things so we could find them quickly, or we’d be spending more time making and breaking camp than out on the road.

The dozen other camps which we set up on the way west blur into one another. I retain a general impression of a line of diapers hanging through every campsite in which we touched down. How Kay managed to look after the two little ones and still feed us all regularly, I’ll never know.

Our overnight camps eventually became fun as we developed a routine. Robin and Dawn took over jobs they could do and lightened our load a little. Soon everything went as smoothly as clockwork when we pulled in somewhere for the night or packed up.

Unfortunately throughout every day the kids also “went” like clockwork. We visited an unusually large number of American service stations, with very little discrimination between the various companies. A vague background of liquid sound—a sort of “water music”—accompanied our daily journeys: running toilets, drinks of pop and water, gurgling gasoline, and the occasional cool stream where we stopped in the shade to soak our burning feet. Somebody inevitably got wet clothes as well as wet feet.

On the whole, our family of six got along remarkably well with so few conveniences and in such a small space. No refrigerator, washing machine or dryer—none of the familiar mechanical domestic servants to which we had become accustomed. Yet back in that big house in Ontario we’d had four floors full of things! I resolved that in the future we should go camping as much as possible. To rediscover how few things we really need for living would always be good for our souls. We’d be majoring in relations with our family instead of tending a whole kit and caboodle of goods and appliances.

Robin and Dawn had never been to the United States. They were quite thrilled when we passed the white lines painted at the midpoint of the Ambassador Bridge over the river between Windsor and Detroit. Having passed the small national flags, they were in another country—on the far side of an international boundary. We noted that nobody had tried to paint a white line up the middle of the river. The boundary between the two countries was utterly ignored by water currents and winds, by flying gulls and fish. Only human beings knew about the political and economic barrier that was supposed to run up the middle of the river. Although neither officials nor immigrants nor visitors could see any line out in the water, nevertheless they were all entirely convinced that a boundary was really out there. The authorities would certainly frown on anyone who questioned the nature and validity of the very boundary they are obliged to enforce. We proceeded on our way without pausing to ask them about their imaginary line.

Technological awakening

At Dearborn, Michigan, we took a morning to visit the Ford Museum. What an impressive exhibition of mechanical devices! Rows and rows of the first motorcars. I had no idea that motors could be powered in so many ways: compressed air, steam, electricity, gasoline and oil. So many ways to build a car, a bicycle, a phonograph, a typewriter. How ingenious the inventors had been! What a torrent of machines they had poured out! I began to realize that behind the present forms of all the familiar devices which until now I had been taking for granted, there lay a fascinating and revolution-making story of technical development.

For half my life I had gone to school. My teachers presumed they had produced an “educated” man. Yet I could not remember any of them or any of my books saying a word about the influence of new technical devices on the development of world history.

By new means of transportation and communication, European and American culture had penetrated the world’s ancient cultures. Navigational aids, such as the magnetic compass, the sextant and the chronometer, enabled the first fast sailing ships, then steamers and gunboats, to visit shores around the world. To long-isolated peoples those vessels brought views of life and the world which were formerly unheard of in those lands. Foreign books, tools and technical knowledge encouraged these peoples to abandon their traditional cultures and adopt totally different, “modernized” life-styles. Western technical know-how gave foreigners an overwhelming advantage over the “natives” and allowed the unscrupulous to exploit them, imposing upon them humiliating indignities.

Back in Ireland, my great-grandfather had been a peasant farmer. His way of life and his expectations had been drastically upset and redirected by inventions and agricultural machines such as those I was viewing in the Ford Museum. The development of factories had drawn rural people away from the fields and packed them into fast-growing cities. Single women waiting for marriage once had to put in dreary hours at spinning wheels in their family homes. They were called “spinsters.” Entirely new occupational opportunities were first provided for women by the invention of the typewriter and the telephone.

Because of technical developments, the whole world had entered a time of upheaval. Because ways had been found to get at the resources of remote British Columbia, an economic boom would provide the financing for the new institution I was heading west to serve. My family and I would not be standing there in the museum, thus far in our trip by car, if certain great technical developments had not occurred. Everybody everywhere could probably say something similar. While teachers had spoken with pride about our “progress,” they had never mentioned or recognized the extent of the social revolution that everywhere follows technical change.

Coming upon that concentration of thought-starters at Dearborn filled me with excitement. My mind was darting off in a dozen different directions all at once. Charles Darwin’s voyage on The Beagle enabled him to observe unfamiliar species of creatures in many distant parts of the globe. He contemplated all those variations and varieties until he came up with his exciting theory of the evolution of species by natural selection. The same kind of awakening happened to me at the Ford Museum.

As I looked down the lineup of cars from the first ungainly horseless carriage to the sleek modern limousines, I saw that I was tracing out the historical stages of a process of nonbiological evolution.

But no cells from “parent” cars ever developed into “offspring” cars. No four-cylinder Ford in that museum had ever given birth to a six-cylinder Fordling, let alone another four-cylinder unit. “The car” is not an actual “species” in the same sense as “the crow.” After making a certain car, its inventor-designer-mechanic may have conceived of ways in which he could improve on its performance, convenience or appearance. His next model would incorporate something toward these goals. The continuity between the first car and its successor lay only in the fact that both sprang from the mind of the same person, or from a continuous succession of persons with related experience.

Maybe the various kinds of plants and animals appeared in geographically separated parts of the world whenever the Creator had thought up new models. Maybe the brand-new ideas which bubble up in the minds of inventors, apparently “out of nowhere,” arise from the same Source.

Later that afternoon we visited the Ford steel mill. The vastness of that sprawling plant! The inconceivable power of the forces at work in it! The frightful speeds of the traveling steel! The uncanny know-how of the machines! And the nonchalant skill of the men in control of it all! A great red-hot ingot of steel would be entering the rolling mill. Seconds later it was being spewed out as a dully glowing long sheet ready to be rolled up like black tar paper. Or over there, a swiftly traveling red rod would come spitting out like an unending javelin, to be deftly chopped at once into standard lengths. We learned that those steel ingots which were being reshaped depended upon a vast organization that we didn’t ever see—mammoth mining operations, a whole fleet of ore-carrying ships, endless trainloads of coal, great smelters, and . . . Inconceivable!

From the steel mill we went to see the Ford assembly line where cars were being put together. A never-ending chain brought unit after unit past the various work stations. As the chassis was moving along to the next work station, a crew would quickly make some installations. Hanging from an overhead track we could see, say, a bright yellow body approaching. Doors and fenders were coming in on other tracks. I was amazed that yellow doors arrived at just the right time to be fitted into the yellow body. The next set could be green, and then maybe some red ones. At the end of the assembly line, a new car was being started up and driven away every few seconds.

What a mind-boggling human achievement this whole organization was! It was voraciously consuming parts at a fantastic rate. The ends of the earth had to be mined for ore to supply the manufacturing plants. Rigorous standards of production ensured that parts made separately and elsewhere would all fit exactly when they were brought together for assembly. Designing and planning for all this had to be done years ahead. A torrent of work orders, reports, invoices and paychecks was always flowing through the offices. Day after day new cars and replacement parts were being distributed in every direction to the dealers who had ordered them.

Though it was undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world, as far as I could see this conspicuous human achievement had somehow escaped the notice of the world’s philosophers. No concepts that I had ever learned gave me any handles that would deal with it. The whole complex altogether eluded my mind’s clumsy fingers. In this I was intellectually helpless, unable to assimilate modern technical prowess into my understanding of things.

When we came back to our station wagon, it seemed to glow in a way I had never noticed before. I slapped its loyal blue hood affectionately. An incredible, creative technical organization had chewed chunks of rock out of the earth here and there and shaped what came out of them into the form of our car. Sheer magic! Sheer magic!

Since our visit to Dearborn, I have treated our cars with much greater respect. They have come from a long line, not of venerable ancestors, but of ingenious inventors and clever organizers. For me, a car now has an indefinable mystique. Although hardly anyone writes poems about cars or paints them into masterpieces, nearly everybody wants one and the streets are full of them. The “great thinkers” of the human race nevertheless utterly neglect them, even despise and reject them on principle as unworthy of serious thought.

Cars have come to be associated with materialism, commercialism, the rape of the environment, the pollution of the atmosphere, and all that asphalt pavement which threatens to entomb the good earth under armor plating. Only advertising copy writers see cars as means of making many of our personal dreams come true. But even the advertisers never really mention the car’s technical history or go into its manufacture, distribution and maintenance.

Until recent times, poetic minds were intrigued by the barbaric splendors of camel caravans bringing spices, silks and jewels from the East. Many a writer romanticized the sailing vessels that probed the farthest reaches of earth’s oceans and brought back exotic cargoes of rarest beauty and value. My generation’s imagination was caught by great railway locomotives driving on through prairie nights. Their lonesome whistles were sometimes the only contact isolated settlers had with folks back home. But, despite its absence from poetry and art, the common motorcar has done more to maintain human relationships, to take families on memorable expeditions, to bring home the ingredients of comfortable, enriched living, than all the caravans that ever plodded, all the ships that ever sailed or all the trains that ever turned a wheel.

The Creator’s technology

It was a big thrill to arrive in Chicago. In 1925 when I was just learning to read, my big brother was dabbling in primitive radio. The newspapers had begun to list about a dozen radio stations and some of their programming. Plodding through the schedule, I remember sounding out the name of one station—”CHICK-ago.” That name had always fascinated me.

Here at last I actually found myself in Chick-ago. The size and importance of the place took my breath away. We saw a showing at the Adler Planetarium, and swooshed through the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Natural History and the zoo. Nevertheless, our swift survey of the displays of minerals, plants, fish, animals and the starry heavens reminded us of the incalculable number of kinds of things that interact in the kaleidoscope of the universe. Fifteen years earlier, beneath Stagg Field at the University of Chicago within a great pile of graphite blocks, the first controlled nuclear reaction had been achieved. This was an epoch-making stage, not only in the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy, but in the investigation of the micro-universe—a new frontier for science.

Wonderful as the automobile and the organization that manufactured it may be, any nonmanufactured creature in either the macro- or the micro-universe is by far more complex and inconceivable. The process of producing motorcars had left me in wonderment. Yet most of us take for granted all these incredible “natural” molecules, crystals, cells, plants and animals. These more amazing things too often get the old ho-hum!

Where is the planning department that designed the horse? Who organizes all the arrangements for its hidden manufacture? How is it assembled? How does it grow in one whole togetherness as it does, all the parts quietly growing at once? Where are the smelters and refineries for its materials? Whence its sources of energy, its repairs and maintenance? How much does it cost to produce a horse “naturally,” compared with what it would cost to try to produce one from scratch in a laboratory? Who pays whom for all this creating? Where is the accounting department? Where is the vast filing system that keeps track of it all? What are the profits?

I have difficulty understanding how people with any sense can say that these complex, incredible creatures appeared in the world “by mere chance.” If organisms appeared merely by accident, then brains and thinking and opinions about the origins of things are also the incidental products of happenstance. If so, should I take either these people or their superficial opinions very seriously? When I consider how much human effort is required, in terms of labor, preparation and knowledge, for the production of one car, how can I withhold my awed admiration for the arrangements that daily produce so quietly and efficiently so many kinds of things that are far more wonderful than any machines the human race ever built?

In the planetarium we were reminded of the celestial systems which are scattered like dust throughout the far reaches of space. After the projector in the pit had spread images of the stars across the great dome, it superimposed lines of light over them, like the lines you see on maps of the globe. Dawn leaned over and whispered to me, “Daddy, I never saw lines like that in the sky.”

“Sh-h!” I said. “Neither have I! I’ll explain to you later.”

That night at camp, with the help of a candle, some wire and a big cardboard carton, I showed Robin and Dawn the usefulness of those astronomical grid lines all around the earth. They hold fixed positions with respect to Greenwich, England, and the plane of the earth’s annual journey around the sun. By those imaginary lines the whole surface of the earth and the spread of the skies has been systematically divided up, so that anyone who knows the system and has the right instruments for measuring angles and time, can tell the location of any object on earth or in the sky.

In school Dawn and Robin had heard something about longitude and latitude, but they had never connected all that with anything in their own personal experience. Now they came to realize that the people who made our road maps had been able to put everything there, each in its own particular place, only because of that great celestial grid. And through that ingenious imaginary structure every crossroads, every town, every mountain and lake was linked with the daily rotation of the earth as it journeyed among the stars. In a way, our car was a space vehicle, and we were space travelers. From that night on, the highway became our pathway among the stars.