Tribute to Headmaster Charles Swan

 

When studying to become an ophthalmologist we students had a saying that we should try not to make a spectacle of ourselves in public. This I shall try to avoid.

In my day at Fern Hill, we had three different headmasters. The first was a Mr King with his wife and two boys. The boys were both older than I was. At that time, Fern Hill had a porch on the second floor. It had a very nice red terrazzo floor. Had they had these years later when Carl McManus was playing hide and seek, he would probably not have fallen to the cement in front of the kitchen and almost severed his left arm above the elbow. But this porch came to have a roof over it and was incorporated into the dormitory, so that nothing was left outside but a ledge about 1˝ foot wide. Hardly a substantial footing for a boy in full-blooded excitement and the game reached its zenith. Fortunately the civil surgeon at that time was a very clever surgeon, and managed to get the arm back together, and as far as I know Carl has been using it ever since.

There were the Archibalds with their son Herbert. Why he is not present tonight, I do not know. Herbert I know became a medical doctor and may still be practicing somewhere in the United States.

But then came Charles Swan, and before long, tiring of single life, he married Kathleen Doucette. They were really good substitute parents for us. Neither Mr King nor Mr Archibald played hockey with the boys. It may have been that they were too old for such strenuous sport. But Charles being just about ten years older than us and having played hockey from little on up, was quite an expert at the game. Also, for the first time in our lives, we got a glass of milk every morning and occasional eggs, and enough food so that we were not everlastingly hungry. We boys walked quite a bit, as we made the trip from Fern Hill to school at least four times a day, not to mention going back up to the top flat for hockey, football or cricket after school. So, at night, we were so tired that even the loud cries of the jackals could hardly awake us. Though one late night John Swan and I each got a scout’s staff, and went to the front window where below the jackals were marauding the garbage cans. We each flung down a stave at the jackals, and the resulting pandemonium among the jackals was so amusing it caused us both to laugh uncontrollably waking up most of the dormitory and, as we returned to our beds, I could still hear the stern voice of Mr Swan, telling Norman Ezekiel, then our monitor, to get the names of the miscreants for the next board meeting. But in the resulting commotion, both John and I slipped into bed, and Norman hardly being around, never got anybody’s name, so the event passed unpunished.

Charles also took an interest in scouting, and tried his best to encourage us to tie knots, swim, hike, light fires, cook, camp, sew or in other ways to earn the badges that were then available. He loved to hike so did we. Our hikes took us to such places as Sandakphu, Kalimpong, Kurseong, Ghoom and Tiger Hill, to mention a few. In fact, about once a year, the whole school would take a hike down to the Rangeet River. There we would swim in its chilly waters and have lunch. Then came the hard climb back up the hill. By the time we reached the school again, shoe soles and heels were coming un-glued. Teachers were usually able to hire two or three horses, and you could see exhausted students hanging on to the horses’ tails and literally being towed up the hill the last two or three harrowing miles. On reaching school though exhausted, most were happy at accomplishing this feat.

Another small hike we took with Charles was down to the landslide below the cottages to the south-west. Once Bert Garver, John Swan and I walked out on a large boulder at the top of the landslide. It quivered a bit, but we thought nothing of it, until our next visit to the slide a week later when we noticed that this rock had fallen from its lofty position, and hurtling end over end down the hill had ended up partly covered by tons of smaller rocks and debris. Then we thanked our lucky stars that it had held while we were standing on it.

Our scout troop always went to the parade grounds in Darjeeling for the King’s birthday. One year, we got a late start and then had to go at scout’s pace – that is 50 paces marching and 50 jogging. I was small then and was several years younger than the other scouts. Soon at this pace, I got the world’s worst stitch in my side, and I felt I simply could not continue at this pace. But Charles, seeing my plight, put me on his back and we went jogging along merrily, arriving at the parade grounds in plenty of time. There, I perceived that some others were having trouble when two soldiers from Lebong fell over in a dead faint, due to the heat and long standing in one position, while we waited for the Governor to finish his chota-hazri and take his position on the rostrum. Then each soldier in turn fired his rifle, and we all marched past the reviewing stand, dipping our colours and saluting as we went by to give the King his due.

We never won the Pliva Shield for consummate excellence in hockey when I was a student. Though in more recent years, I am given to understand that the student body had won just about every sporting event in the book. We did, however, win the shield for prowess in scouting while I was a member of the Bear Patrol, and we were a proud bunch of scouts that marched it back to school with scoutmaster, Charles Swan, leading us all the way.

To speak of all Charles’s attributes would be impossible in the short time we have here, so I have chosen only a few, and the first begins with the letter "S." "S" stands for Swan, and also for singer. Many is the night I drifted off to sleep with the sound of Charles singing as he accompanied himself at the piano. One of his favourites was "On the Road to Mandalay." I got to love that song, and still sometimes find myself singing the words, especially in the shower. Charles did at times sing in public, and I recall this is one of the songs he sang in Assembly Hall, and when he came to the part "where the Sun comes up like thunder from China cross the bay," it would send shiver up and down the spines of the young unmarried lady teachers, who hardly saw a man from one fortnight to the next. He was about the only one who could compete with the little old missionary lady who could play the musical saw and whistle so loudly that it seemed the very rafters would become unhinged!

But by far the gayest, the loudest almost shrieking, and the finest singing was done, we all came together in the school dining room, a few days before Going-Home Day. We would banquet, and then Charles would step to the piano and one-by-one we would sing the songs that he had composed. These songs which represented hours of painstaking composing at the piano united the student body as nothing else could do.

The few weeks before Going-Home Day, were marvellous days. Each class would draw a calendar on the board, and every morning someone would erase another day, making one less for the appointed hour when the whistle would blow, and the toy-train would finally start to move. Students feverishly worked on block paper, making names and addresses to go on their luggage, and some were very beautiful indeed. In later days, we sometimes abandoned the train for the swifter taxis, which was fine, but it did seem to take away some of the glamour of riding the toy-train.

Then "W," the second letter in his name spells writer. I know that he wrote and preached many sermons. I heard many, but somehow their content has slipped away from my memory. But the lyrics that he wrote for the Going-Home Day songs will live for aye in memory. The school spirit was welded together by them in an undying loyalty to good old Mount Hermon, and at least partly that is what brings us here together tonight.

"A" stands for Awareness. Charles, like us, had gone through all the vicissitudes of boarding school. He knew the gnawing pains of hunger. The periods of almost unbearable homesickness, when we would long to be at home, if only for a few minutes. He knew the fears that younger boys have for older ones, and saw to it that none suffered unduly. He knew how easy it was for the young chaps to just slide by in their studies and not apply themselves properly. He spent long periods explaining to young fellows how necessary it was to study and do the best classroom work of which we were capable. He was most often pleasant. I never saw him in a towering rage, although at times and not without good reason, he could be a bit out of sorts. One such time was when we threw rocks on the tin roof of Mr Earl’s house, just below Fern Hill. The reason we did this was because Mr Earl did not want us to enter the Pliva Shield’s hockey tournament, since for some reason he would be unable to play. It was our feeling that the team would be much better off without him. We were all required to appear before the principal, Mrs Engberg. We explained our side of the story, and were promptly enrolled in the hockey competition. But we did have to apologise to Mr Earl, who accepted the apology good-naturedly, and said down South, where he came from, they called that process "rocking the house."

I am sure he must have been out of sorts when he got the news on that winter day, that part of our school had been knocked down by the great Quetta earthquake. I remember feeling the effects of it as far away as M.P. where the ground definitely shook. The pinzer suspended from the ceiling, to keep out the ants, started swaying slowly back and forth, and the lock on the godown door rocked ominously. I can only imagine how our school must have been rocked on its foundations to cause such damage. But thanks to the swift and effective work of those in charge, which included the Board, Mrs Enberg and the Swans, and even Henry, was involved, school started on time, at least only a few days late. This time, the repair work was done with ferro-concrete in order to try and avoid a recurrence in case of another earthquake.

Then came a time when the little boys had grown up to be big boys, and we no longer appreciated telling our peers that we were going to Queen’s Hill School. It was then that a great debate was undertaken. David Francis debated forcefully that the name should be changed to Mount Hermon, to the loud cheers and applause of all the boys. The opposing debating was really so weak that there was no contest, and the name was duly changed to Mount Hermon. Mr Swan, I am sure, was very helpful with his suggestions to David during this successful period.

There were other very serious problems at times, as when the taxi driver tried to run away with Miss Ivy Bloud. Fortunately Miss Bloud very bravely jumped from the taxi just below the school, and suffered not much more than a severely wrenched ankle. Later several taxi drivers were brought to Fern Hill by police, and boys who had been near the scene at the time were questioned, and the proper villain was apprehended.

Although Charles was generally aware of everybody’s whereabouts, we were given a good deal of freedom in those days, and so one Saturday afternoon during Divali, a few of us, including Clarence Kilroy, Jack Sword and myself decided we should take a hike down to Tukvar Tea Estate to arrive there just at tea-time, and depend on the good mercies of the "Mrs Tea Planter" to supply us with tea and cakes. We made the trip down in record time. Clarence, who was a born actor, took the water in our flask and poured it under his arms and down his back, and we appeared a panting, exhausted bunch at the tea planter’s door, just as they were sitting down to tea. She immediately called the bearer and instructed him to set a table for us and to supply us with tea and cakes. We had a royal feast, though the bearer was a bit disgruntled by the number of cakes consumed, and the time passed so pleasantly that we did not notice how fast the Sun was approaching the horizon. Upon doing so however, we profusely thanked the lovely lady for her hospitality, and took our leave. Trying to take the short-cut by which we had come, we lost our way and darkness found us in the valley between Mount Hermon and Lebong. We finally found a pathway and wended our way upwards, coming to a village where there were thousands of lights and a considerable amount of celebrating and drinking was going on. It was then that two men with kukris started chasing us, and though we ran well it seemed that sooner or later they would catch up with us. Jack Sword declared that we would probably not see the light of another day, so we took counsel and decided to face up to these men and each offer to give them eight annas to guide us safely back to our school. This they consented to do, as two rupees eight annas was considerable amount of money in those days. They took us up to the main chukkar and past Singamari, bringing us safely back to school. They were then paid off and seemed well satisfied on receiving the money. Though we were several hours late for dinner, our meal had been saved by Mrs Swan, who was only too glad to see us back safe and sound. Unfortunately, I had a standing agreement with Norman Ezekiel that when we have jello he would get my dessert and when we had chocolate pudding, which he detested, I would get his. This night the dessert was jello, and sure enough Norman was waiting up for his due, which I then had to surrender, even though I was ravenously hungry after our harrowing experience.

Finally, "N" stands for Newly Inspired. I am sure that after Kay’s death, Charles spent many sad and lonely hours until he found Dorie. After a proper courtship, they were duly married and now newly inspired, they both travel, and Charles continues to write and speak, to sing and inspire all with whom he comes in contact. May God’s richest blessings continue to descend on this couple, and to make them a blessing to others wherever the pathways of life may lead them.

 

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