My Rocket Scientist Brother

Perhaps it is not common knowledge but my brother can validly be awarded the sobriquet of “rocket scientist.” Certainly as regards intelligence it was indubitably true but definitely not in the nerdish dilettantish sense. What was it like to have a brother who was four years younger than one oneself yet who was nonetheless intellectually one’s superior?

Main picture: This is a huge drawing that Blaine did on his bedroom wall. It was so perfect that I always wondered why he did not do more sketches or drawings

The School Years

The fact that Blaine was bright first came to the fore when I was in Sub B, as it was called in those days; now called Grade 2. While I was still grappling with adding 8 plus 5, I recall that my father asked Blaine who was no older than 4 or five at the time to add 25 plus 8. I could not comprehend now Blaine knew the answer but he did.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was four years older than Blaine but I never felt intimidated by his intelligence as it never bothered me. As I recall our childhood, it was carefree with no major emotional upheavals to detract from our innocence.

L to R - Cheryl, Dean and Blaine in back garden at 57 Mowbray Street, Newton Park, PE in 1958

L to R – Cheryl, Dean and Blaine in back garden at 57 Mowbray Street, Newton Park, PE in 1958

When I went to High School, Blaine went into Standard Three. In spite of the huge gap in Standards, Blaine was fascinated with what I was doing at school. Blaine would eagerly await my return from school so that I could teach him what I had learnt at school that day. Ironically I found nothing wrong with the fact that Blaine was advancing his schooling at the same Standard that I was in despite the huge age difference.

For me Blaine was my brother. Hence he SHOULD be at my level.

The next episode that I can still vividly recall of Blaine demonstrating his acumen was when he was in Standard Five. This was the year in which one’s abilities were tested in a special way. Instead of the spoon-feeding that one was subjected to, one had to use one’s own initiative to complete a Theme. Most youngsters chose topics such as Animals, Pets or Dinosaurs. In keeping with my mental development I chose Birds. I spent weeks meticulously drawing them and then making some arbitrary comments beside them. For my efforts I was awarded with an A.

L to R - Blaine, Cheryl and Dean in Dec 1967

L to R – Blaine, Cheryl and Dean in Dec 1967

When Blaine reached Standard Five, he also had to endure the same rite of passage. Not for Blaine, the mundane such as Birds or Planes, rather it was the esoteric: The Theory of Relativity. When my mother received a phone call from Blaine’s Class Teacher, Mr Saayman that he had he had to come and see her, she was in a state of shock. What misdeed had Blaine committed which had such grave consequences that the School Teacher had to make an appointment to meet her at home!!!

Was Blaine going to be expelled from Herbert Hurd Primary School?

As the doorbell rang, we were banished to our rooms. In trepidation, my mother answered the door. At the door stood Mr Saayman, all professional with his tie and jacket, clutching a Croxley Book. In his sober analytic manner, he explained to her what Blaine’s offence was. His Theme was entitled The Theory of Relativity. It was a rude awakening for everybody. At the age of 14, Blaine has expounded on am concept which even today, I battle to comprehend.

L to R - Cheryl, Dean & Blaine

L to R – Cheryl, Dean & Blaine

Amazingly our congenial relationship took a turn for the worse. Blaine started disputing what I was saying. Before that it had always been a case of “Yes Dean.” Now he was mentally superior to me. My dominance and with it my authority was in jeopardy. While Blaine might have been brighter than me, I was 4 years older and hence stronger than him.

Every afternoon I would come home and teach him who was in charge. Every day I followed the same routine. I would beat the cr*p out of Blaine. I would pin him down on the grass in the back garden, and beat him mercilessly. This continued for some time until I tired of the ritual and we became best friends again.

The final memory that I have of Blaine’s intellectual ability was when I was in Matric. Being in the A stream, I was forced to study science, chemistry, mathematics and Latin. I vaguely recall Newton’s Laws of Motion and Faraday’s electromechanical theory or was that James Clerk Maxwell. In chemistry I understood valances in principle, but I had some difficulty understanding the various levels. Of course Blaine came in handy. It was easy. As he slept on the bed parallel to mine, I just asked him. Out came a varsity textbook. If my text book was incomprehensible, this was inscrutable.

Cheryl at 5.5 yrs and Blaine at 3yrs 4 mnths

Cheryl at 5.5 yrs and Blaine at 3yrs 4 mnths

University

For me it was off to the Army and then to work. Unlike Blaine who would get a bursary, I signed five year articles.

With R 100 that I had saved from working at Solly Kramers as a Packer on Saturdays and the money from working as a chimney sweeper at the Carbon Black factory in Deal Party, I purchased a 1959 Beetle. It required a little TLC – well maybe a lot. More than I realised or bargained for. My father was aghast. He declined my sweet offer to assist me in getting it mobile again.

Then without threats or pressure Blaine stepped into the breach. Even though he had never reconditioned a car before – being only in Standard 8 at the time – he had to be a fast learner. As I was working during the day and studying at UPE at night, he would have to do it unsupervised. Everything he touched did not work or maybe it just broke. But he sorted it out and I had my first set of wheels courtesy of Blaine’s hard work.

Blaine, mom & Cheryl at 57 Mowbray Street

Blaine, mom & Cheryl at 57 Mowbray Street

While I was doing my articles in Auditing with my head, Blaine was doing his apprenticeship in motor vehicles with his hands. Even I had to learn how to set a Beetle’s timing and how to bleed the brakes. [Please do not tell Janine that I do know what a spanner is used for & which end is up]

I cannot recall how Blaine could afford a bike but he purchased one; a 175cc Yamaha off-road bike.

Blaine did get his bursary. It was from Ford in Port Elizabeth. As a quid pro quo, Blaine had to work for them during the December vacation. His first project was assisting with the installation of a new paint plant. Blaine was not enamoured. He wanted to do REAL engineering and not just install some plant. Design is what he wanted and what he would get.

He switched his bursary to Armscor, left UPE – die hoer skool by the see ­- as us souties pejoratively referred to it – and went to UCT.

Blaine on his way out to a date

Blaine on his way out to a date

In the interim I had completed my articles and moved to Joburg. This suited Blaine because when he had to eventually work, he could stay with Cathy – my ex-wife –  & I in our townhouse in Windsor Park.

I cannot recall how he got to Armscor on his first day in 1981 – but it probably in my old 1959 VW Beetle. That night over a drink Blaine laconically informed us that he could not work for Armscor! The reason was that they wanted him to calculate the dispersion of a grenade. He wanted to DESIGN stuff and not work out some stupid calculation!

On my instigation, he agreed to go to HR – or was it called Personnel in those days – to explain his predicament. It was simple. How could a 24 year old with no practical experience apart from keeping a 20 year old Beetle operational be expected to be allocated such a menial job? Instead of being fired and forced to refund his bursary with immediate effect, he was promoted.

The irony is that even today Blaine believes that I am bright. For many years, I used to travel to Cape Town in order to run the Two Oceans. Obviously my friends and I would always stay with Blaine. It was during these discussions that Blaine would enlighten me on his latest engineering projects.

Dad and Blaine circa 1979

Dad and Blaine circa 1979

I was overawed. Instead of boring Accounting, Blaine was doing some real work in creating the future albeit how to kill people more effectively.

Overall the fact that Blaine was on my intellectual level in spite of the age gap, was a bonus especially after Standard Four when my interest in history, especially Military History took root. Blaine and I would discuss tactics and battles endlessly. I could not wait for Friday when the latest edition of Purnell’s part work entitled the History of WW2 would be available at the CAN. Once I had read it from cover to cover, I would bore Blaine with the facts.

Back home I conceded that each was in his niche, Blaine as a cocky Engineer with a never-say-die attitude and always wanting to be leading edge engineering in a supposedly third world backwater.

175cc Yamaha - Blaine's pride and joy

175cc Yamaha – Blaine’s pride and joy

Unfortunately many of these projects are top secret and may never be disclosed. More’s the pity. Each has an interesting story to tell but those stories might possibly die like the old South Africa, unwanted and vilified.

Right of reply

I found this trip down Memory Lane both peculiar and revealing. After 50 to 60 years, much of detail has vanished with the patina of age. Some are like the dark inscrutable undergrowth with streams of light highlighting some memories. Others are so dark or blurry that detail can no longer be discerned.

I first encountered that problem when I wrote a series of four blogs of my experiences on the Border. The incident with a rogue hyena is still vividly etched in my memory whereas the incident late at night being attacked by lions and elephants en route to attack a terrorist base is too faint to determine the vivid details anymore. In fact I might even have been incorrect regarding some of the details especially that regarding what happened to the advanced patrol.

Blaine & Jessica

Blaine & Jessica

Like all ethical bloggists, I have afforded Blaine the Right of Reply. He has set to right certain issues which we both recall differently.

I think you are exaggerating a little bit and I have some memories of what you say and some that are completely different or in fact absent.

I know I had certain aptitudes and abilities but I would never say I was brilliant.  At best, I was just bright.  I know I blew a lot of chances as I wouldn’t stay focused on any one area.  I had an insatiable appetite (a lot of that learnt from you) for knowledge, but more importantly, not just the facts but why.  Still today I cannot stand not knowing the reason for something.  It’s a good thing but a hard taskmaster.  I can’t look at anything in the world around me, and that includes the human side, and I want to formulate a theory or a model as too why it is so and then how can one improve it.  But I don’t want to read about it, I want to work it out for myself and preferably fuse a number of different strands together in a novel way.  The ordinary and mundane bores me.  It’s not that I seek the outlandish and wacky.  On the contrary, I’m well-grounded to reality so my solutions tend to be outwardly conventional but with certain interesting solutions or approaches that solve a lot of problems.**  You have that in you too.  Unfortunately, once I have a good grasp of something then I tend to drop it and move on.  I was given 3 major opportunities at Alex and I am mortified that I blew them.  They were Latin in standard 6, Maths in standard 7 and physics in 9 & 10.

Blaine Farrington McCleland

Blaine Farrington McCleland

 

When you went into 6, you started boasting that you were now doing Latin, nah, nahnah, nah nah.  Well that was a red rag to a bull.  One day you bet me that I couldn’t translate some stuff.  So I took the book and worked the exercise of about 5 sentences.  It was all 1st declension stuff, mensa, mensa, mensum, mensae.  It’s very easy once you realised that it was just code and the rules are quite straight forward.  It was actually my competitiveness rather than intelligence.  Another kid would just not have been bothered.  I didn’t quite keep up with you but I had a firm grasp of the standard 6 syllabus.  When my standard 6 started, I told Mr Wright [The Latin Teacher] that I already knew it so he gave me a brief test.  I think he thought he had a prodigy.  He put me in the back of the class and told me to get on with it.  I did, sort of.  Bad habits crept in and I used the time to do other homework that I hadn’t completed.  So slowly I lost ground until matric when I couldn’t even manage the Latin prize. 

In Standard 7 my maths teacher gave me a 1st year varsity textbook and told me to get cracking on the calculus.  I struggled to get over the whole basis of calculus, namely what happens in the limit when something tends to zero without it becoming zero in fact.  If she had helped me make that conceptual leap I would have been on my way.  It was not to be and I was too proud to ask for help. So I quietly dropped that. A pity, but I only would have been a good mathematician and not a brilliant one.

 

L to R - Cheryl, Blaine and me in 1958

L to R – Cheryl, Blaine and me in 1958

I suppose the school still had hope for me.  When I went into Standard 9, Mr Simms [The Science Teacher] said that I shouldn’t attend class, but instead sit in his office and work ahead.  I well and truly blew that.  By now my testosterone had kicked and I just wanted girls, alcohol and to hang out.

 If I was bright, I sure as hell didn’t know for the first 3 years of school.  I remember feeling a bit lost.  Standard 2 galvanised me.  I was surprised to be given 3rd place and I suddenly realised that things like that were achievable and that there was a point to life other than my hobbies and own interests.  I worked harder the next year and was awarded 2nd place.  The rest was history until I unravelled in Standard 9.  Apart from the aforementioned puberty issues, I can tell you that the pressure and the automatic expectation that I would walk off with the bulk of the prizes was eventually overwhelming.  Perhaps it was a good thing.  I saw a Maths Olympiad prize winner from Andrew Rabie [an Afrikaans High School near Alex] fail first year science at UPE.

 

Father Xmas at OK Bazaars 1962

Father Xmas at OK Bazaars 1962

You were an extremely important influence for me.  I suppose early on it was just the normal competiveness between brothers such as running races and so on.  And like a good older brother I presume that you let me win sometimes.  You were an early developer in terms of your external intellectual pursuits, reading extensively and taking an interest in newspapers and issues when most kids just wanted to do play.  Essentially I just followed you but instead of running races I wanted to do what you were intellectually doing.  Except for specific things, I followed in a general way as our interests were slightly divergent.  For instance, your interest in war was more historically based whereas mine was about their weapons and technologies.  I am grateful that your serious approach to the world around you allowed me to get an even earlier handle on it.  I enjoyed our discussions and even arguments and I think you must have shown a lot of forbearance.

Blaine 

I’ll tell you one thing – I was in awe of your beautiful bird drawings and the amount of work that you put into that project.  I hope that you’ve still got it.

 Blaine in wheelbarrow

To put the record straight.  In standard 3 my interest was aircraft and I remember doing a project on all the early pioneers.  That transformed into rockets and space travel and apart from the conventional rockets I was interested in ion drives, nuclear propulsion and solar sails.  My astronomy interests started about standard 4 and I might have come across Einstein about then and learnt the basics of atomic bombs and relativity.  I also know that I was caught in standard 4 class summarizing a book about the early chemists and their experiments instead of doing some classwork.  A short lived interest in electronics started in standard 4.  Somewhere in standard 4/5 I started getting into the realm of subatomic particles and nuclear physics.  I know I used to borrow a lot of science books from the main PE library and used to spend a lot of money at Alfred’s Bookshop.

I am not sure about the incident where you reckon a teacher visited the house as I have no recollection of that.  I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t remember. [I vividly recall it because mom was so impressed by we were not allowed to tell you what he had said]

My theme [in Standard Five] was on The Astronomers.  Einstein featured and his main points summarized but I think you’re overplaying my hand there. [Mr Saayman was impressed that you even knew what the theory of relativity was]

 


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