Monday, 8 September 2014

E. H. Carr and the bat wing

E. H. Carr, 1892-1982, British Historian
Photo: Unknown
History is different when you have been part of it. I had been thinking of the time, in the early seventies, when I was working at Glenbow Museum in Calgary. I thought it might be interesting to share some memories of the time just before the museum moved into its current building across from the Calgary Tower.  Before that move, there had been a small museum downtown; an art gallery and offices several blocks away, and in the next block to the latter was an unmarked old brick building called "the warehouse" which contained all of the museum departments with their storage and cataloging facilities together with restoration, conservation and office areas. What was neither on display nor in the warehouse was stored, after a fashion, in a bat-infested abandoned ice-house and several Quonset  huts just outside of Calgary near Bowness Park. I was part of a team hired under a "Local Initiatives Project" to inventory everything. Later, I was hired as a cataloger in the military department and my companions went, also as catalogers or restorers, to other departments. It was a pivotal time in the history of  Glenbow Museum. It was changing from a dispersed and eccentric institution to a world-class museum noted for its catalog-system. The people who had trained our team were very interesting people so I thought that the first thing to do in sharing their stories would be to augment my own memories with what Glenbow Museum had to say about its own history.

So, E. H. Carr was someone who now seems quite postmodern in some aspects and modern in others: he stressed the ultimate subjectivity of history but had a devout belief in cause and effect. He also had very specific ideas about the difference between facts about the past and facts of history (ff).

In reading Glenbow's facts of history, the only personal connection I could make was with Eric Harvie. Other than his family members, his was the only name in their history. The people who I was thinking about were not mentioned at all. We all knew that Eric Harvie was coming to visit that day because we had to hide all of the ashtrays. He had recently quit smoking. When he did show up at the warehouse it was lunchtime and I was eating my sandwich with the receptionist who was not on lunch at the time. He was an old and frail -looking man surrounded by the curator together with several larger men in three-piece-suits. After being introduced to the warehouse reception office, he was whisked off to the next stop. Most of the staff were out having lunch or were in the lunch room. I was having lunch in the company of the receptionist because she was a good sport about being teased. Had she not been such a good sport, I would have probably have been eating my lunch elsewhere and would have missed meeting Eric Harvie on his only visit to the warehouse while I worked there. We all liked teasing her because her reactions were always so dramatic. I once took an instructional hand grenade from the military department down to the reception desk. As I was talking, I "accidentally" pulled the pin and exclaimed "Oh no!" She leaped to her feet, screamed, and fled the office. But her reaction was nothing compared to the one over the bat wing.

It was before I was a cataloger and we were taking inventory of the "lesser" objects at the old ice house. Most of everything was piled high in the dark, cold interior, and covered with the bat droppings that were everywhere. There were mountains of kitchen chairs and old washing machines, horse collars smelling not of leather and saddle soap, but of long-dead horses. The corners of the building were plied deep with the bat droppings and the bats, themselves, were nesting behind cardboard pinned hing on the walls. I took a pole once to see if I could pry some of the cardboard loose to see all of the bats behind it. Some of tore and the bats flew everywhere. For the next two days, one would suddenly flutter up as you moved something. One morning, we were listening to the news on the car radio as we were heading to the ice house and there was an item about people catching rabies from bat droppings. When we got to work we found dead bats all over the place. After our driver went to the nearest pay phone to report this alarming sight, we found out that poison had just been put out to kill the bats because of the rabies scare. Later that day, I found a young bat who must have eaten only a small amount of poison as it was just sluggish. I put it in a large matchbox and placed it on the receptionist's desk when we got back to the warehouse. She cautiously started to slide open the matchbox and the bat, sensing freedom, extended one wing from the box. She never got to see the rest of the bat. After she left, I put the bat wing back and released the recovering bat that night.

Histories can be terribly selective: Eric Harvie was failing to add to historical fact because a visit was not deemed important enough to mention, and the likelihood of any history-causing interactions had been lessened by removing the ashtrays and having his visit come at a time when there were little staff about. What was going on at the time was a small part of the world changing, but those acts and the people who performed them are not the things of history. History is the photo-ops, but most of them are not used either.

I found a few photographs with pictures and names of the "supporting characters" in Glenbow Archives, such as this one, the names given in the search page. I came to know a number of that group like Jack Rea (although his last name was always pronounced as "Rae"). He is the second on the left, standing in front of the notice board. He worked long after retirement age as he was supporting either his daughter or granddaughter who had been bedridden since a flubbed  operation. He was born around the turn of the century and had been something of a pioneer himself: he had been the blacksmith at the town of Cochrane but then lived in Banff in a house with the front fence made of welded horse shoes. During the week, though, he stayed in a trailer at the ice house property. He told me that when he first arrived in Alberta the only thing that farmers had got to grow was wheat, but it was still mainly cattle ranching here. At Glenbow, he was the wainwright, among other things. I remember when several of us helped him put a wheel back on a wagon. Four of us were holding up (with great effort) one corner as he lifted the other side by himself and popped  the wheel back on. He was seventy-two at the time. I always think of him serenely puffing on his pipe as he spoke about the past. Nothing ever ruffled him.

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