My father died last week. He was just short of 91 years old.
Born in the summer of 1930, he was the son of a tool and die maker for the Waltham Watch company, the finest grade of machinist there is. He grew up in New England, and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Mathematics from Boston University. He found employment with the Mitre Corporation, working on early computers like the Whirlwind and on intercept radar systems. On a trip to the Smithsonian we saw parts of the Whirlwind on display, and told me about how it worked (Did you know that ferrite core memory is destructive read?). He told me about those early days in radar as well. On a beach in Massachusetts they set up their first system. And the first time they turned it on, the antenna started moving and tracking, but the test aircraft weren’t anywhere near yet. It turned out the system was tracking a seagull. When they did conduct the test, they gave vectors to the pursuit aircraft, and when they should have intercepted, the pilot couldn’t see the target aircraft, until they suddenly realized it was a mere 20 feet below him. Their vectors were just a trifle too accurate.
He was doing pretty well for himself, and met a pretty young woman named Cynthia who worked as a bank teller. He had a brand new DeSoto, and had insisted the dealer install seat belts, which were not standard in 1959. It was around Christmas, and the roads were wet and snowy as he drove to see her the night he planned to propose. But there was a disabled car hidden under an unlit underpass. Had it not been for the decision to install those seat belts, this story would be a whole lot shorter. The proposal was delayed a few days, but accepted, and their marriage lasted nearly sixty years, until cancer finally took her after its fourth try in 2017.
Together, they had four children. I’m the third, and the only son. The vagaries of his career sent him to Polaroid and IBM (I have one of the original IBM think pads, a leather-bound pad of paper with the word THINK embossed on the cover), but in 1972, a job with RCA Missile and Surface Radar working on the AEGIS system uprooted the family and landed us in Cherry Hill, NJ, where they remained until all of us children had left for college.
Growing up in 1970’s suburbia was not a horrible thing, not at all the hell some millennial might imagine. True, we didn’t have cable TV, and only about 7 channels between VHF and UHF. There was no internet. And when you used the phone, you called a place and asked if a person was there, rather than calling a person directly on their electronic leash. We played outside and came in when the streetlights turned on, and there were “The Creek” and “The Trails”, where development would take another couple of decades to encroach, where we could play, and build and re-build a tree fort with scrounged scrap wood from construction sites in that one tree that everyone seemed to pick (until some idiot sawed off the lowest branch). The Creek is in a culvert now, and half of the Trails is a retirement village, and the other half is a hiking park with marked and paved walking routes, and I’m sure the rusted hulks of abandoned cars with trees growing through them that we used as landmarks, which dated back to the time it was all farmland, have been cleared out. But back then, that’s where you went for independence and adventure, where you jumped your bikes and explored the banks.
But at home, my dad was always there for me. “Daddy”, actually, although eventually I outgrew that. He always had time for me, and gave me so much. When I was 8, he gave me my first camera, which had been his first camera. It was a Kodak Retina I, and I still have it, and the Leica III-G he upgraded to. He taught me how to develop black and white film and print pictures, and he built a special folding table to set up in the bathroom to use as a darkroom. He taught me woodworking, and built a workbench for me right next to his in the basement. He had an amazing ability to build furniture from his head, with little in the way of written drawings – at best a few notes or a sketch. I still have two end tables and a bookcase he built. When I was 11, he got me into the Boy Scouts. Troop 147 was a very active, year-round camping troop. And as a family, we took camping vacations every summer, so it was a natural fit. But as a father and son activity, he was always there. Not necessarily hovering over me, like some of today’s helicopter parents, but supporting me. And as I moved up the ranks and moved into more responsibility, he built a loft in the garage to store the troop’s equipment when I became Troop Quartermaster, and designed some seriously tough kitchen boxes for all the patrols, and built a few Klondike Derby sleds as well. He kept up his support until I finally earned my Eagle Scout badge at 18.
In High School, I was on the Stage Crew. But this was no mere Drama Club level crew. Our stage was the second largest in the state, so we had some actual professional level work to do. Some of us even got paid. Aside from some major school productions, and all the concerts, we had all the recitals from the local dance schools, and even the Miss New Jersey pageant. And he supported me in this, maybe because it helped build a work ethic, or perhaps because it was a social outlet. If I was at a cast party after a show, and it was really late, I could call and he’d pick me up, no questions asked (although usually I could get a ride home, and once I started driving, that was no longer an issue.)
Because of his position at RCA, when I scored well on the PSAT, I qualified for a National Merit Scholarship sponsored by them. And since Drexel had a Co-op program where you spent half a year studying, and half the year in internships, I worked two internships at at RCA-M&SR. But when my grades came crashing down, he was there at the other end of the phone to console me, and even though I had to change majors, I still ended up in the software industry. (Until the software industry crashed in 2000-2001). Alas, the one thing he wasn’t able to pass on to me was his mastery of Math.
He taught me to be ethical, and to tell the truth. “I’m very disappointed in you,” could be a harsher punishment than any spanking, and then he’d set me on course to make things right. I learned camping and canoeing and fishing (We took trips, just the two of us sometimes). I did inherit his amazing ability to pack a huge amount of gear into a tiny space.
But perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was a love of reading, and science fiction and fantasy were at the core of it. Perhaps my fondest memory of my dad was when he was reading me The Lord of the Rings as a bedtime story, and I would be leaning my head against his chest and hear his voice rumbling in there as he read to me about Tom Bombadil. I had a map of Middle Earth tacked to the wall in my bedroom, and another of Narnia. We were not particularly religious, so when I read the Chronicles of Narnia, the Christian allegory was wasted on me, but they were a fine adventure. There was always money when they brought out the Scholastic Book Club catalog at school. I think the earliest one of those I remember was The Forgotten Door. And then when I was 8 or 9, I started on Heinlein’s juveniles. Orphans of the Sky was the first. When I was that young, I only read it as a straight adventure. When I re-read it at 21, I saw a whole lot more about what was going on. I re-read it again on my Kindle a few years ago and saw even more aspects of it that I had missed. Then there was Niven’s “Known Space”, and Pohl’s “Heechee”, Piper’s “Little Fuzzies.” All these books he had waiting for me on the shelves. I read voraciously. The library at my elementary school had a good run of Tom Swift Jr. And I even made my way through all the Hardy Boys books, and even Nancy Drew (and these were the older editions too, although I don’t think the rewriting had been too severe in the 60’s when those editions must have been published).
Our summer camping trips often ended up with the whole family sitting around the campsite reading. Alas, the lack of available alternatives forced me to make my way through all 6 Thomas Covenant books. It was a dark time….
With all the children grown, and all of their daughters married, they retired to a small house in Audubon, NJ. They spent a lot of time traveling and camping, although as they got older, they gave up the tents for trailers, and then conversion vans and bigger trailers, and then a full-blown motor home. But eventually that was too much for them. Mom’s health was failing, and alas, Dad’s mind was being claimed by time. Living on the other side of the country, there was little I could do beyond the occasional phone call. The one exception being their 50th anniversary, when my oldest sister arranged a trip for them to the Jersey shore (Mom loved the beach), and surprised them by having all the rest of us in a rented Condo next door, show up in their room just as they settled in. It was probably the last time I saw my dad while he was recognizable as the man he was.
The last time I saw him was a few years ago. I visited my youngest sister over the Christmas break, and we drove up to see him in the home he’d been moved to after mom died. Senile Dementia had left him barely a shadow of the man who had figured so prominently in my life. His not remembering me during our phone calls had not prepared me for seeing him that way, bent and shrunken, repeating the names of his children as a litany as if to remember them, but not knowing that two of them were standing right there before him. It broke my heart. And even as much as I thought I was prepared for this day, it’s bringing me to tears trying to write this now.
I was named after him, after a fashion. He didn’t want me to be Al Jr. so they swapped his given names. One of my greatest regrets is that I wasn’t able to give him a grandson. I would have started one of those horrible family traditions and swapped the names back. In my writing, I used my full name just to honor him, even if by that point, he was no longer able to read.
I guess while I was so far away, I could imagine everything was okay, but now he’s gone and the illusion will no longer stand. I miss my dad.