Four Words

Harry Drabik

I was recently reminded of something from my time working out of a northern archaeology lab. As an independent grant holder I came and went on my own schedule. At one end of the lab was a chalkboard I never saw used except to carry four words that didn’t seem to make any sense. It had to be a third of more time with weeks between before I asked about those words.

But before I get to them my recollections of lab days reminded me of the cameras we used to photograph outdoor sites and artifacts with ID numbers indoors. Photography was of interest  to me since high school when a sixteen year old could feel cocky having a focal plane instead of an ordinary blade shutter camera; that is if he’d accidentally come into possession of the American version of the Leica and thereby entered into the mysteries beyond those of a fixed-focus Kodak. A quality, and often quite husky, camera required focus and f-stop settings to get a crisp image. Get sloppy or ignore the depth-of-field rule and the result showed. Once you got the hang of the connect between f-stop and field you were off and running. I remember being bowled over in love at the delights of small aperture.

But not only were cameras themselves much different than today’s automatic picture takers they required film and time before the image was known. Even the early “instant” Polaroid took some minutes before there was a still-damp result to look at. I lugged the school Polaroid in its brown leather suitcase for several years to get candid shots of activities for the Annual aka Yearbook. I did not have a high opinion of Polaroid quality. It was a handy camera, but expensive to use and not very flexible. For winter activity shots it was useless when the necessary chemicals froze into a gel. Severe cold impacted regular film, too, but not devastating as with Polaroid.

Aside from selecting a camera by pixel potential and then using an after-the-fact editing program a contemporary pic taker doesn’t have the choice or problems sorting out grain and color value in various films. I was a big fan of High Speed Extachrome for most things done outdoors until autumn when Agfa was better at bringing out warm colors. A serious picture taker knew the characteristics of different films. If you travelled there was the added thrill of Prepaid Processing mailers that with luck meant your photos might arrive home before you did.

Yes, there was a lot to it just as in earlier time photographers such as Brady mixed chemicals for photographic plates in the field. I’m not saying this is better. Vagaries in heat, humidity, and handling could easily ruin work because the components were not uniform and standard. It took much time plus trial and error for a Kodak to appear. Some things are improvements. There was a day when a pharmacist was known as a chemist because they mixed drugs from ingredients. You can imagine the issues with freshness of contents and errors in measurement that make modern drug companies a better choice. But we also have to acknowledge that selling or taking an aspirin does not make one a chemist or leave any of us with a clue as to how we’d go about making our own aspirin if we had to.

As things got simpler to use the overall quality stayed OK or got better. By this I mean a digital camera doesn’t produce failed photos at the pace of film cameras. Duds and spoiled shots were common. The digital age puts us awash in pics of grandbabies, friends, and the pets we love so that most are truly happy with the result. But, I suspect there are a few old and new who feel a skip of heart seeing a pristine Pentax or holding in hand an early Exakta. There is a difference in using a device that does much of the process for you versus one that must be mastered. We might not see much difference in the image produced, but other results can be quite marked.

I do think on some levels a society falls victim to simplification and ease. It used to be (don’t take this wrong, but if you do that’s OK too) a singer had more skills than an ability to yell and project more than a stage presence. I find vocalizing I’d  term yowling heard in a background theme in many movies and programs to be quite annoying and without meaning other than an attempt at suggesting an emotion through wailing that might be better expressed in something more coherent than loud moaning. But, that’s just me and of no commercial value.

Now, back to the four words that reawakened me to a game I’d once played with innocent and easy enjoyment. On the chalkboard were these words write large and bold.
WHALE OIL BEEF HOOKED
Not making sense of the words, I asked the projects supervisor, “Bill, what’s that up on the board?” He nodded knowingly; “Words of the old sea captain.” He saw the explanation shoot over my head like a rifle bullet but he only smiled and said no more as if it should be all too obvious. Sea captain and whale oil were a form, but whaling was never an Ontario activity as beef production was. As to whether beef was ever hooked as part of whaling I was in the dark utterly. Sometime later when the meaning hit I said exactly the words of the old captain. I’d been had, also reminded of youthful word play. “Aisle bay riot tar” was something to holler down the stairs when called, and I knew “High deed nit dew hit” as a profession of innocence.

You should see the light dawn. If not think in terms of Kwityerbellyakin as a clue where spelling correctly cow tents knot OR co ten fur Lee tall. (You just muttered what the captain said, deed in chew?)