How Things Work

I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed observing and wondering about how things work. Well, adjacent to the small waterfall that is near the main dirt road that leads to the three villages which are nestled higher up the mountain, is where I was confronted with a great technical puzzle that kindled my interest in science and more specifically in engineering. This leads me to a new chapter of how things work and in this chapter I will detail the puzzle.

For as long as I can remember I was fascinated by things that moved, whether they were animals, birds or machines, I wanted to know how things worked, I actually wanted to find out for myself how things worked rather than being told by someone else. I kind of knew that our teachers weren't able to provide the detailed explanation that I was seeking, an explanation that I felt was right and kind of tied in with my experience I had of that particular thing. I have a firsthand example of such a half-baked explanation by a teacher of why we have earthquakes for example. Our region is prone to earthquakes. I experienced one such earthquake while I was at school. The teacher's attempt to explain the reason for the earthquake was not convincing enough for me. He said that the underground water erodes the soil until the soil above it is thin enough not to be able to support itself and thus collapses causing the nearby houses to collapse around it. The teacher's explanation did not satisfactorily explain the shaking of the ground that went on for minutes before and after the ground collapsed. Besides in that particular case the ground did not collapse at all. My grandmother's explanation of what causes thunderstorms was another example that was even less convincing. She said that God was angry at us and was shouting in a grumpy voice. If God is capable of creating everything and knowing everything then surely he can express his anger in our language, I thought to myself. I preferred my grandfathers' explanation. They simply said that they did not know what causes thunder or other natural phenomena. By the way, both of my grandfathers reputably have never been in church. When asked why they have never been in church, Dedo Pavle replied thus: "I was in desperate need of help one day. I asked St Nicholas for help, but he didn't turn up, so now I don't go to him in his church." There are many things that my grandparents, parents and adults knew such as farming, shearing sheep, making cheese, making wine: the list goes on. They made virtually everything including spinning their own wool and then knitting jumpers and socks. We had lots of tools and basic machines to keep us self-sufficient. The only things that we bought on a regular basis were olive oil, kerosene, rice, preserved (in salt) fish called "Ranga", and very rarely we bought linen for sewing frocks and shirts. But there were many things they could not explain to me. As far as I knew none of the people in our village knew how cars, trucks and tractors worked, for example. I was fascinated by such machines and when and where I had the opportunity to see any of these machines at close range I would run there, observe and ask questions. One day, fortunately for me but unfortunate for the driver of a large truck, the opportunity to see a truck at close range came about. The truck became bogged down in the wet and slippery road near the above mentioned small waterfall. The truck's rear right wheel started to spin in the slippery mud and the truck stopped moving forward. The other wheel was not spinning, indicating that it was driven by the right wheel only, something I believed had to be the case as only in this way powered vehicles can go around corners covering the different distance of the inner and outer curves of the road while the inner wheel was not spinning on the inner side of the road. Well my inner joy of proving to myself that I was correct in my assumption didn't last long as I stood there and watched the driver jamming rocks and dirt under the spinning wheel that eventually stopped the right rear wheel from spinning but now made the left rear wheel spin. Well, this was an unexpected puzzle that made me more determined to solve. I wasn't embarrassed by my wrong assumption; it just made me more resolute to investigate that puzzle further. One could say this was the moment that sparked my interest in engineering. A second and more interesting event is described below.

Our village being at the base of the rugged mountain range was often used as the base camp for military exercises. There, near the neighbour's house was a military truck parked across a ditch, with running water in the ditch. A young soldier was looking at the engine bay. This scene has a lovely connection with my future experience in Australia and my interest in chemistry. That military truck spanning the ditch had its bonnet open. The young soldier scooped water from the ditch and began to pour water in what I now know is the radiator. I had not seen anything more intriguing before. I could hear that the engine was running. There was something interesting going on inside that complicated looking machine. I was privileged to walk around and examine the truck at my leisure. I observed steam and a few drops of water coming out from a pipe at the back of the truck. I felt like an amateur scientist observing an experiment in progress, and like a budding scientist wanting to know more I asked the soldier two direct questions.

"Is that water that is coming out of the pipe from the back of the truck"?

The answer was yes.

"Is that the same water that you are pouring in the radiator"?
The second answer was no.

How can this not excite you? Now I had to learn what was going on inside that engine.

There are no straight forward answers in science, I thought to myself.

Seven or eight years later I was driving the exact same model of that military truck (it was a Studebaker, six wheel drive) in Australia, as part of my military service. By that time I had learned how trucks and cars worked and how petrol combines with oxygen from the air to produce carbon dioxide and how that water that I saw coming out of the truck's exhaust pipe was produced by the combination of hydrogen which is an element found in petrol and oxygen from the air.

It wasn't just cars and trucks that I was interested in looking at. I was interested in almost anything that involved forces and movement. For example, I wanted to know how snakes moved without having legs, or did they have legs? One day our group of young kids were speculating whether snakes had hidden legs, tiny legs that only appeared whilst the snake was moving. Even Kole the young snake catcher didn't know for sure. One of us suggested that if we catch a snake and put it into a hot fire it will expand and reveal its legs. Well, one day we caught a snake and threw it into a hot fire, a fire that we had going most of the day whilst we were looking after the sheep, but no legs appeared. This was another puzzle that needed to be unravelled.

I had observed many different types of birds flying and I was always intrigued by the various ways they used their wings. I still have an image in my head of a medium sized brown bird flapping its wings very quickly in an odd way that made it stay stationary in the air. Its head was absolutely still and its eyes were focused on something on the ground. The vultures on the other hand with their huge wings stretched out would circle gently high up in the sky without moving their huge wings and not losing height. On closer examination I noticed they had four or five finger-like feathers protruding from the ends of their wing tips. These separate feathers were sticking out in the direction of the wing span and could be seen to swivel independently from one another as the vultures soared above. Those finger-like feathers had to be instrumental with the vultures' gliding ability, but how?

There were many different species of birds in our region and I recognised several of them by sight. There were storks that build their nests on chimneys, vultures that fed on carcasses, swallows that appeared at the start of spring and then proceeded to build their nest out of mud at the vertices of the cornices inside houses and other buildings. Starlings, black and chubby birds that would line up on telephone wires at the end of autumn in preparation for their long migration south. We also had hawks and eagles, but they were rare. One day, in late spring when the lambs had grown big enough to be able to graze, I saw an eagle at close range. It was late in the afternoon, our sheep together with their lambs were grazing in our livada (hay field) when all of sudden an eagle swooped on the back of one of our lambs. I watched as the eagle worked his claws into the lamb's woolly back and secured a good grip. I was privileged to see an eagle in action. He stretched his wings fully and covered the lamb, then proceeded to bring his wings towards his body bending them at three places, then with one almighty downward thrust of the wings the eagle attempted a lift off. There was no lift off. After two more unsuccessful attempts the eagle realized the lamb was too heavy for it to lift, he gave up, untangled his claws and flew away. The sheep and even the lamb didn't seem to notice anything unusual. I enjoyed the performance. The action of the eagle resembled a person partially opening an umbrella and then yanking it downwards by the handle and noticing the resistance by the air.

Our property had the land, the animals, the tools, the equipment and the men and women for a sustainable way of life. The village extended this theme further by having two water-powered flour mills, two distilleries, a café and a blacksmith's workshop as well as the two churches, the cemetery and the school, making the whole village into a self-sustaining community. The Rimpus (Rimpapovie) family operated the flour mill in the middle of the village which was powered by the creek water that was running through the middle of the village. We had our wheat and corn milled by the Rimpus family, except we along with all the other Macedonians in the village called them vodanitsari (millers). For every five bags of grain that they milled, they would keep one for themselves. That is how they made their living. At the end of the village was the second mill which was owned by Mum's family, but it was not operated on a regular basis due to lack of man power. Dedo Stefo, Mum's father, was sick and unable to work it due to the beatings he received from the police during the Civil War. Dedo Stefo died young from those beatings. Dedo Stefo's first son, my Vuiko Stoyan (Uncle Stan), who was in his early twenties used the mill to grind their own grain only. Vuiko Stoyan was an amazing young man, smart, inquisitive, energetic and friendly. He too liked making things and taught himself about how things work. For example Stoyan made a spring powered rifle out of abandoned military parts. Another more useful skill that he learned was how to diffuse land mines. He used this skill to clear a lot of farming land from land mines around the village. It was he who gave me an informative and an entertaining tour of his mill one day.

I had seen the conical, metal pipe that swallowed the water from the creek and directed it into the mill many times before, every time I visited my Mum's parents in fact. The rest of the mill was not visible from the road. The working parts of the mill were dug in underground beside the house. The house and the mill beside it were built on a steep block of land, allowing about two metres of drop before the water was discharged through a channel under the mill into the main river. The inner working bits of the mill were visible only when one went through a small wooden door that led underground into the heart of the mill. The first thing that caught my eye as I walked through that wooden door was a pair of large round stones, one on top of the other. The top stone had a hole in it like that of a doughnut with a wooden shaft passing through the hole. The second stone, under the first stone, was fixed to the shaft. My Vuiko said to me "Let me see how strong you are Manoli, try and move the stone." Well I symbolically tried to move one of the stones, knowing very well that I couldn't. Then, my Vuiko placed his hand on the bottom stone and with his foot pressed a lever at the same time which allowed water to flow on to the impeller that was fixed on to the shaft going through the lower stone. The lower stone separated slightly from the top stone and began to rotate. Then a whole orchestra of hand-made wooden parts held together with ropes and levers began to move, discharging grains of wheat into the hole of the upper stone. By skilfully controlling the gap between the stones and controlling the rotation of the lower stone my Uncle could grind the wheat into fine flour and make it fling into a catcher at the circumference of the rotating stone. Seeing something in action, followed by a timely demonstration and a clear explanation gave me a good understanding of how this mainly hand-made flour mill worked.

I enjoyed learning about everything, not only about machines. I liked listening to adults talking about other countries and about history. They spoke slowly and in great detail. I can go on talking forever about simple farm machinery, about farming, about domestic and wild animals, but I'd like to move on and talk about the seasons, about friends and about feelings.

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