Thursday, April 30, 2009
Timing the Speed of Sound when things were slow
As Peace Corps volunteers there was a significant amount of down time - and for some this was a stressor. In those days there were no cell phones (no telephones in our area except a non-public one for the postmaster at the Kenema post office), there were no ipods. Radio was our source of news with the USIS being one source of info about what was happening elsewhere or at home with their amusing "World News in Special English" always a source of joking for us - as they delivered the news in a deliberate but very slow cadence to non-English speaking world. They would come on saying, "This.......is.......the......Voice.......of.......America .......in........Special .........English" on our short wave radio that we bought at one of the Indian Stores (I think it was Chellarams) down town. The pace of these newscasts rivaled to some degree the pace of life where we lived. However listening to their news was sometimes of marginal reliability and thus we tended, if anything to listen to the BBC and their portrayal of the world news. In 1968 we voted by absentee ballot for President, etc but somehow we learned that our ballots were not counted as it took 3 months for them to get to the States. We learned of the election of Richard Nixon via the radio. On radio we learned in 1969 of the Kent State Massacre of young students by misled National Guard members. But news of home seemed far away. From time to time, on our short wave radio we would listen to Radio Sierra Leone and get local news. This tended - just like the USIS to be controlled but when it was broadcast in English it did help us keep abreast of local happenings. There was no local TV in those days in Kenema. I think there may have been a government controlled TV station in Freetown. So at night we would finish supper, and turn on the radio to get anything from the outside. On occasion I would listen to Radio Guinea - a station that played music of their area that I liked. We could also pull in on our radio music from Senegal and Mali, and once in a while from Liberia. While we prepared classes for the following day we might listen to the radio. Nights tended to be long. Many nights would be filled with apprehension as most nights we would head to bed by about 10 pm. closed up all the doors and leave only our bedroom windows open. The apprehension was directed toward whether we would be visited by prowlers. Although there may have been only 3 or 4 occasions in our two years in which we were visited by thieves we became nightly ready for their possible visits. Usually when they came it would result in petty theft. We had been robbed (a tape recorder, some other items, but not my cameras) on one of our first few days in Kenema. That was the only time when someone actually made it into our house and I was awoken seeing a shadow of a man backing out of our bedroom. He and I ended up in a pushing match at one point, but he scattered soon thereafter. From then on there was always a concern about thieves and as a result I obtained a starting pistol from the HRSS school store (it was used to start running events in track) to scare away anyone who might be prowling, and slept with my cutlass by my side. Perhaps this was a bit much and I realized that it was, but we also developed a neighborhood type watch since thieves did not only come to us but also to our neighbors. When our neighbors confronted thieves they were less kind then we were in their dealings with them. So night time was always a bit anxiety provoking. There was one time that I did hear someone breaking in to our kitchen and fired my starting pistol. The thief did get away with a bag of flower that we had - but I heard him scream as he was frightened by the shot, and the next morning I was able to follow his trail for a while - as he ran away with the bag open and leaking on the ground behind him as he ran away. Downtime during a given day was common. Our weekdays would be taken up by school and activities surrounding school such as netball or track and field practice or in Susan's case with teaching sewing or other school activities. Sports practice once or twice weekly would get over by 4 pm or so. Weekends could be slow. Sure there were times when we traveled to visit other areas or occasionally to visit other volunteers. But most of the time we stayed around, and if we did not have plans to hike to a local village, or travel with a friend - the weekends could be slow. Saturday morning we might walk to Kenema (about 1.5 miles) a deposit our Peace Corps check - this could take all morning. We might do some shopping downtown for food. We might head to the Peace Corps office in Kenema (was it on Conbema Road?). But if you finished a Kenema trip by noon, had lunch, and had no plans for the afternoon then if you didn't read, you really had to be clever at planning the rest of your day. Susan and I were lucky to have each other. There were other volunteers who were isolated in small villages. Many volunteers traveled each weekend. For me - I was never bored. From my picture taking, to visiting with neighbors, to my treks in the local area - I could always find something to keep my mind active. I did have a small darkroom and with all my black and white photography this was a source of both pictures for my friends, and on a slow day might help in passing the time. The equipment had been bought from Mark Davis - a Peace Corps volunteer who had taught at the Holy Trinity Boys Secondary School from 1967-69. I developed my own negatives and made small prints for neighbors. When I traveled to villages and took pictures - I would return later and give them copies. Of course dark room work is dependent on electricity which was somewhat unreliable in our area. The other issue was having to blacken the window to make it light proof in my dark room. Susan and I got some black cloth to put on the windows and although there was some light leak it was not enough to spoil a picture being printed. Most of the dark room work would be done at night when there was no problem in this regard. Susan jokes of one time when things must have been really slow. This was a time when there had been political fighting in our area and most of the people who were our neighbors scattered to the bush villages to escape the fighting. We were alone and it was too risky to go downtown, and we had no neighbors to visit. Susan reminds me of one afternoon when I had my stop watch ( I was track coach at our school) and was attempting to see if I could determine with my primitive means if I could record the speed of sound. I made a loud noise, bounced this noise off our neighbors house, and then waited until the echo would return to my ear. I would time this, then measured the distance the sound had to travel, then computed the speed of sound. I was surprisingly close in my calculations - things could get pretty slow in those days.
Posted by sl 68-70 at 9:10 AM