I met a man in the mid-1980s who had no idea the Second World War was being fought between 1939 and 1945. He didn’t know the skies above Europe had been filled with bombers and cities were burning from Birmingham, England to Dresden, Germany. He didn’t know that battles were being waged in the Pacific region and there were times when the world was coming apart at the seams. He had missed this epic 20th-century human tragedy completely. The only lights he saw in the sky ablaze above him were the aurora borealis, a spectacle of nature he enjoyed in complete solitude.
His name was Ragnar Jonnson, a Swede who came to Canada in 1927 and spent his life trapping and living off the land in Canada’s far North. As he huddled to keep warm in his teepee, he had no satellite telephone to stay in touch with civilization. He had no TV and certainly no Internet. And trips to human settlements were few and far between. In this remote environment and time of fledgling communications technologies, the world was a very large, large place indeed. And Ragnar was contentedly lost in its vastness, living an isolated life hard to imagine today.
Ragnar visited our house one night for dinner while spending a few days in Thompson, Manitoba for a medical appointment. He was brought to our home by legendary Winnipeg Free Press reporter Bob Lowery, a Canadian journalist whose “northern beat” had to be one of the largest in all of Canada. In fact, dear Bob included Ragnar in his 1984 book The Unbeatable Breed, a tome about the remarkable men and women who overcame northern challenges to live successful, albeit unconventional lives. Ragnar Jonsson certainly fit into that picture as a remarkable northern personality.
I thought of Ragnar when I heard that British astronaut Tim Peake was running the London Marathon on a treadmill in the International Space Station. And while close to 40,000 sneaker-wearing runners were about to pound the carriageways from Blackheath to The Mall, Tim officially started the race from 200 miles above the earth. It all made me realize how far we have come in getting linked together by modern technologies and how, in 2016, we live in a world that is getting even smaller.
We are certainly discovering that reality here in England. In many ways, Canada seems like it’s just next door. Consider that we get a signal on our iPhones if someone tries to break into our house. With cameras we can even view people who step on our property. We watch our driveway being plowed, our electric meter being read. We have watched our neighbours driving past our house and our grandson Caleb’s scrunched up face as he clowns in front of an unseen window security camera. And here we are watching all this from 2,000 miles away across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not quite as dramatic as starting a race from the international space station, but it sure makes the world seem smaller.
Before I left for the U.K., a friend told me about trying to keep in touch with her husband who in the early 1970s was on an extended business trip to France. This was long before cell phones and the Internet – and calling overseas could be both challenging and costly. Because of the “rarity” of such calls back then, she told me he was alarmed at being summoned to take the call from home – worrying that there must have been a family emergency to prompt such a call. With today’s communications technology, she just might text or e-mail him, perhaps several times daily. And he most likely would be available for messages no matter where he was travelling or working. Interestingly enough, we communicated with these friends last night. All it took was a Facetime hookup – and it was if we were in the same room. And then a few minutes later, we chatted with our daughter Jennifer and watched grandkids Oliver and Jack show us their new toys in a living room 4,000 miles away.
Transportation too has improved dramatically. We are a mere five hours’ flight from Halifax in a jet that travels over 500 miles an hour. We are able to leave London in the morning and touch down in Nova Scotia by early afternoon, the same amount of time from Halifax to Calgary, Alberta. And in a few years, new aircraft that travel at even greater speeds than the Concorde might make it possible to cross the Atlantic in a fraction of that time. And even on land, there is talk of developing “vacuum trains” that will travel at speeds of 2,500 miles an hour through airless tubes. Some even suggest these tubes might be burrowed underneath the oceans for transcontinental travel.
I perhaps first understood the potential of new communications and transportation technology to make the world smaller when the Russians launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik in October 1957. For 21 days, we all looked up at the night heavens as this little 23-inch diameter metal ball streaked across the night sky at more than 18,000 miles an hour. It didn’t really provide much information but it was the catalyst for advancing both space and communications technology. And then a few years later along came Telstar – a communications satellite relaying the first television pictures in space, telephone calls and facsimile images. It was “the little satellite that created the modern world.” And from Telstar on, communications has grown exponentially.
Ragnar Jonsson passed on more than a quarter of a century ago. I still picture him though looking up at the northern lights in the sky above Canada’s far North. I have a hunch he wouldn’t embrace all the new technology that has evolved over the years. I bet, though, he would love to savour views of the Blue Planet from the International Space Station, just like the rest of us, whether we embrace technology or not. And while I admire Tim Peake for running the marathon on a space ship treadmill, at my age I might just walk the race and leisurely take breaks to look down on the big blue world below. Then perhaps, I must accept my chances of travelling on the space station are about as likely as having an interest to live like Ragnar in a teepee in the Great White North. Neither are gonna happen!
Dan McSweeney, a Halifax native, first worked as a reporter at the old Halifax Herald, then got a taste of public relations work at Canadian National Railway in Moncton, before coming to Thompson in 1980 to work for Inco. He retired back home to Bridgewater on Nova Scotia’s south shore in June 2007 after 27½ years with Inco here. He blogs at mcsweeneysdiversion.wordpress.com.