When I became a scientist……
As I was opening another pocket museum, watched by a room full of K students, a boy put up his hand. “Are you a scientist?” he asked.
“I sure am,” I replied. He looked at me and said, “UM, do you have to be old to be a scientist?’
I smiled……….”Nope,” I said, “ I can, though, remember the day I became a scientist.”
And here’s my story on how and when it happened.
Me, Grandma Paull, Mum, Dad, and my two brothers, Jimmie and Charles, lived near the sea. Our small council house in Gwavas Estate overlooked Newlyn Harbour, Lariggan Beach, and the beautiful Mounts Bay.
Family walks, either to the country lanes or down the steep hill to the nearby seaside, in the spring, summer, and autumn, were the highlight of my childhood. Sometimes, after the Sunday meat and potato pasty dinner, washed down with a cup of hot, steaming tea, Mum would put a snack in her big bag and the family would put on its wellies and head for Lariggan Beach.
If the tide was out, we’d first look to see what had been washed up on the beach, then stare into the rock pools, hoping to see a tiny red and blue crab scuttling under the dark brown weed. Then, we’d collect some smooth pebbles.
We’d look for those shaped like a heart, or, even better, those with a vein of milky-white quartz running through them.
They were special. Mum said they were special because they were wishing rocks.
Finding a wishing rock made me feel good. I’d pick it up, hold it in my hand, and slowly wrap my fingers around it.
When the pebble felt warm, I closed my eyes and thought about someone very dear to me………… and then send that person a very special wish.
Then, slowly, with a smile, I uncurled my fingers, knowing that a special person, somewhere, suddenly felt a warm shiver down the spine, just as he or she got my loving thoughts.
Of course, I always sent my very best wishes to my mum and to my dad.
As we walked around the beach, we gave Mum the best wishing rocks we found and she put them in a tin in her big bag.
Later, when we were home tucking into bread and treacle sandwiches, Mum put the very, very best wishing rocks in a old, cracked green glass jar that stood on the mantlepiece. The others were to be taken back to the beach the next time we went for an afternoon walk.
On the day of my fifth birthday, Monday, July 14, 1947, a week before we broke up for the summer holiday, I was really surprised when my Dad, not my Grandma, met me at the end of the school day. Dad had never picked me up from school before. He was in his driver’s uniform so I knew he’d come straight from work. My stomach turned over – was something wrong? Was Grandma ill?
Standing by the iron fence, Dad smiled and said we were going hunting for pebbles on Lariggan Beach.
Just my Dad and me. Pebbling. On Lariggan Beach. After school. On my birthday. Could it get any better than that? I felt so special, and knew in my bones that something magical was about to happen. It was, after all, my very special 5th birthday treat.
And what a memorable lifetime treat it turned out to be.
The sky was bright blue, and the sun a shimmering yellow. St. Michael’s Mount, way off in the distance, looked very majestic, its fairy-tale castle catching the late afternoon sun setting behind the distant Mousehole granite cliffs. The tide was out and the smooth, black and grey and white pebbles were wet and shiny. As the greeny-blue water lapped back and forth, herring gulls squawked and squabbled as they looked for food scraps. We stepped over the pebbles, avoiding the slimy brown and yellow strips of seaweed. Dad reached in his pocket and brought out two of his OLD HOLBORN tobacco tins.
“Here,” he said, giving me one, “take this treasure tin and fill it. Just wishing rocks, mind you.” With a broad smile and a knowing twinkle in his eye, he said, “Bet I fill mine first.”
The competition was on. We walked along the seashore, stepping over the brown sticky seaweed, and we looked and we touched and we talked and we collected. The beach pebbles were so endearing, small, round, smooth, and warmed by the afternoon sun.
Soon my tin was full of wishing rocks and heart-shaped pebbles, and, yes, I beat my dad. My tin was filled before his! “OK, you win! Now it’s time to go, “ he said.
Just as we were leaving, I spotted something different. There, lying with all the other pebbles was a bright yellow object. It didn’t look like any of the other pebbles. It was so different, more like a small slice of pineapple.
Whatever was it? It stared up at me, wanting, I felt, badly to be picked up, wanting to be touched and admired. By me! And that’s what I did. I bent over, touched it, picked it up, and held it in the palm of my hand. It was lighter than a pebble. It was a magical moment. Wide-eyed, I showed my Dad. Because I knew he knew everything,
I asked:“What’s this, Dad?” He looked down at it, smiled, and then, half-closing his eyes, frowned. Dad had no idea what I’d found. “Dunno. Never seen that before. Good, though, in’t it?”
I thought that was really funny, because I knew he had seen everything there was to see. I couldn’t believe that Dad had never ever seen anything like the yellow stone before – and he’d been to the beach over a thousand times in his life. But Dad did know it was different, and, therefore, very, very special. “Take it home, “ he said, “and show your ma. She’ll know.”
I stared at my orangey-yellow, rock-like, magical find. It looked soft. Not wanting to scratch it, I wrapped it up in my white hanky and put it in the other pocket – it didn’t seem right to put such a special rock in the OLD HOLBORN tin with the other pebbles I’d found.
Dad took my hand and we made our way back up Chywoone Hill. As I walked up the very steep hill, I kept feeling the Old Holborn tin in one pocket, and checking the lumpy hanky in the other. I KNEW I’d found something very special. I KNEW it was lying on the beach waiting for me to come along and find it. It was something that I KNEW belonged just to me – and would, forever. I KNEW it was a special day. I was excited! My discovery made my head glow.
When we reached 17, Trevarveneth Crescent, I skipped up the back garden path, past the three gooseberry bushes (planted by Dad, one for Jimmie, one for Charles, and one for me), pushed opened the glass door, and ran straight into the kitchen. Mum and Grandma were standing by the white enameled cooker, waiting for the kettle to boil. Beside myself with excitement, I shouted, “Mum, Mum, Grandma, I beat Dad. Filled my tin first. And…….see what I found. It’s brilliant!”
I took out my OLD HOLBORN tin and showed them what I’d collected on the beach. ‘And look at this,” I said, as I unwrapped my hanky. I knew then by the look on Mum’s and Grandma’s faces that the yellow rock I had found was special. And I found it on my birthday, too.
“What a birthday surprise.” said Grandma. Mum looked at it again, sitting in the palm of my hand. “THAT beautiful yellow rock was waiting for you, Johnny,” she said, “just for you. I don’t know what it is……...but, it’s a treasure. A real treasure. Put it in one of your OXO treasure tins, Johnny, and keep it there, forever. Forever. You hear me? Forever and a day.”
I squeezed my treasure tightly in my hand and took it into the kitchen. I had never held such treasure before. I turned on the hot water tap and washed off the grainy sand with hand soap, dried my special rock with newspaper, stroked it, and looked at it again.
I put it on the dinner table, next to my birthday tea treats - the big blue and white plate of bread splits, a jar of jam, Cornish cream, and yellow saffron buns. When I went upstairs to bed, I put the treasure into an OXO tin which already had my favorite wishing rock inside, slipped it under my pillow, curled my fingers around it, and, slept with a smile on my face. I fell asleep. What a birthday it had been.
As I dressed in the morning, I put the small OXO tin inside my left-hand trouser pocket, next to my favorite small seashell, to take to school to show my teacher, Miss Harvey. Mum said she’d know what the rock was because teachers know everything!
Dad reminded me as I went out the door with Grandma. “Got your yellow rock for your teacher, Johnny? Don’t forget it. You know what your ma said. Got your dinner, them OXO cubes, too?”
I couldn’t wait to get to school to show Miss Harvey. Even before all the boys sat in their seats, I was standing by her tall desk, the OXO treasure tin in my hand, spluttering, “Miss Harvey, Miss Harvey, see what I found! I found it on the beach, after school, yesterday. You know, next to the harbor wall. Went there with my dad. You know, when the tide was out, when you can see what the tide brought in.” Every word came out in a rush.
As Miss Harvey looked inside my scratched OXO tin, her eyes widened when she saw the wishing rock and the yellow stone.!
Mum was right! Miss Harvey did know what I’d found!
It wasn’t, apparently a rock at all. It was ancient fossilized tree resin, and, she said, it was called amber. Miss Harvey knew that amber was millions of years old and came from the inside of trees.
Resin? Fossilized? Amber? Ancient? What beautiful words, I thought. I rolled the words around in my head. Resin. Fossilized. Amber, amber.
Miss Harvey held my beautiful amber in her hand, smiled, looked down at me through her glasses that balanced on the end of her sharp nose, and said loudly, so everyone in class could hear, that it had come from a far-off country. It had probably been washed ashore after a long, long trip in the sea. “And Johnny Paull was lucky enough to find it.”
Miss Harvey held my golden amber in her hand, smiled, looked down at me through her wire glasses that balanced on the end of her sharp nose, and said loudly, so everyone in class could hear, “THIS is amber…..it’s fossil tree sap………it’s been washed ashore after a long, long trip in the sea. Johnny Paull found it.”
Miss Harvey handed the amber back to me and then wrote the word A M B E R on the board. “Show it to everyone, pass it around.” Miss Harvey said. “Share it – that’s what scientists do. And, Johnny Paull, you’re a real scientist!”
What’s a scientist, I wondered? Is that something dead good? It sure made me feel good.
My head glowed. It was on fire. I was a scientist – whatever that meant!
But, that was it. I was hooked. I’ve been a scientist - and a treasure tin collector - ever since, thanks to my mum and dad and my super, duper teacher, Miss Harvey, who knew just about everything! She really set me on the right track!!
Thank you, thank you, Miss Harvey!
My, oh, my, what a difference a teacher makes!