Christopher L. Garvie - 5758 & 5859 - Johnstons House

sent in May, 2018

  • Robert V. Rowland was the Johnstons housemaster in 1959.
  • My housemaster's report for 1957 & 1958 was signed Mr Richardson.
  • J. Birtles was my physics teacher in 1959. 
  • All my English reports are signed TRB, but I can’t find anything on the archives site corresponding to those initials.
  • I don’t think I would be where I am now without "Toombs". He understood me, and I was chemistry mad at the time (as he was!): who in chemistry doesn’t remember him putting bits of metallic sodium down the drain! He even sometimes let me have the key to the chemistry lab and cupboards in my last year at school!

A few other memories that might perhaps strike a chord with some other OBs:

  • I was also quite friendly with an Austrian who was in my dorm room in 1958. We all looked up to him because he seemed so worldly and experienced.
  • Rugby! Horrible in winter when the ground was so hard. I remember a bunch of us asked the games teacher whether we could do something else instead. Well, he said (not thinking any of us would take it up), we could do a 7 mile cross-country run instead. We all said we would rather do that – the problem was the last field we had to cross before reaching the school again had a bull in it; scared the daylights out of us, but the bull never evinced the slightest interest  (that started a lifetime of running, and even now I run twice a week.)
  • There was an Army base not too far from the school and I remember several matches between their rugby team and ours. Very-one sided, as the army team were really solid guys. I have this memory of one of our team running straight into one of their fullbacks and the fullback not moving!
  • How many of us I wonder remember the Hungarian students that joined the school after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Most of them had harrowing escape stories. I think they only stayed some months before they were relocated elsewhere.
  • In those days, as long as we had behaved ourselves during the week, we could take the bus to Ipswich for Saturday afternoon, buy sweets at the local Tuck-shop and ogle the pretty girls on the streets. We had to be back for the evening meal though.
  • Once a year in the Christmas term the school would arrange a dance, so that we schoolboys would learn some manners! How to politely ask for a dance, etc. Mind you. most boys had not a clue how to dance anyway and there were very few girls. Those that were there came from the local villages and farms.
  • I’m sure all of us remember the desserts (afters!) produced by the school kitchen: in particular the hot steaming treacle sponge and the bread-and-butter pudding – served in those large rectangular aluminum baking trays. I’ve tried to get my wife to make me one or both of those deserts but she won’t; says it’s not good for me!
  • As regards the tree episode (SEE BELOW!), that same friend and I made 1/2 test tube of nitroglycerine in the lab one Sunday afternoon when no one was about. With great care, knowing how sensitive it is, we tried everything to make a drop or two explode and nothing would happen. Finally in disgust we threw it over the bushes at the side of the river and BOY, did it explode then! Gave us quite a shock. We were not the only people playing with Tooms’s chemicals in the lab. Another time they had to evacuate the whole building where the  lab was, and call in the HazChem crew  (or whatever they called them then) to dispose of whatever was made.

My Story
I was born in Aberdeen from a German mother (naturalized pre-war) and a Scottish father. As with many others, the war and its aftermath broke up my parents' marriage and I and my sister stayed with my grandparents in Hamburg for some years. From age 11 until ‘O’ levels I was in Marylebone Grammar School (long not a school any more) in London, and then was sent to Woolverstone Hall for safety because my stepfather had extremely violent episodes. 

I had a very bad stammer - which I’m sure some may remember - but which mostly went away by my early twenties.  I was very much a loner: I remember only having one or two friends (I wish I could remember their names) and was either bottom or second bottom of every class throughout my entire school life: so much so that all teachers – except the chemistry teacher Charles A. Thomas - had written me off as totally useless. I remember during my last year at school I told Mr. Thomas I could not learn at school, so would he give me permission to take my books and go to the nearby river bank and study there by myself – and he said "Yes". When the results came in, much to everybody’s surprise I had passed all my ‘A’ & ‘S’ levels. However, before the results  were officially announced, I was called into the Headmaster' office, where he and an examiner from the Cambridge Board were standing waiting, and I was accused of having cheated in the chemistry exam! I stammered, turned red as one would and denied it. The examiner said I must have copied out the paragraph of the Solway process for making sulphuric acid as my answer was word for word the same as in the textbook. Well, being chemistry mad, I had committed that section to memory, and so recited it to them as they stood there. The two were much taken aback, said "Sorry." and I was OK.

I was accepted by the University of Aberdeen to read chemistry, but changed course and got a mathematics degree instead. My first job was with Elliott Automation where I was seconded to the Dutch Air Force as a software engineer.  I then went to the USA, first with Boeing Aircraft and then to NASA as a space-shuttle engineer. I stayed in aerospace for the first half of my working life but never liked being controlled (aka school) so went out on my own as a consultant software engineer. I’ve not made a fortune as many software people do now, but have done OK. On the other hand, I have had a very varied career with lots of interesting and difficult problems to solve and have worked with many major firms such as IBM, McDonnell Douglas Corp., Messerschmidt and Johnson & Johnson to name but a few, with my work taking me to the UK, the US, Holland, France & Germany. My wife (also from Aberdeen)  and two boys have moved with me from pillar to post; it must have done them some good as they are both University Professors now, and we have seven grandchildren.

I am now retired but with a second career as a paleontologist (with several US national awards) and mathematician, and have written many peer-reviewed scientific papers. I am at present living in Austin, Texas, but am forming plans to finally return to the UK; unlike many expats I have not become an American citizen – am proudly British.

The Burning Tree
I had one particularly good friend at school, but I just can't remember his name. Perhaps this story will bring it to light! He and I would often roam near the nearby riverbank where there was a large tree, hollowed out due to a previous lightning strike.  Well, one day (1958?) the two of us filled the interior of the tree with brush and lit it, and in a short time there was an enormous flame shooting through the middle of the tree: so hot it would melt bits of iron we threw into it.  The fire got so large that we scarpered and the fire brigade was called. Next morning the headmaster called the whole school to assembly and asked that the perpetrators come forward otherwise the whole school would lose privileges for a month. Needless to say, neither I or my friend said anything ........

I just can't remember my friend's name - all I recall is that he read chemistry at Leeds or Sheffield .....