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More On Mom And Dad

Okay, last time, I had us in 2015, watching the estate sale at my parents’ house, shortly after my father’s death.

I meant to say something else today. I was going to get on with our story and get us back to 2023 and our most recent trip to New Mexico. But, then, I reread part of my own postings, and I felt kind of bad. I felt I made my parents a bit more eccentric than they actually were.

Well, no. They were that eccentric. And maybe more so. But, that wasn’t a bad thing. They was something wonderful about their oddness. They were full of energy and strange enthusiasms, and (particularly in my mother’s case) deathless antagonisms that went beyond mere “grudge” and into something kind of poetic, like a vendetta in a Mafia move. I think the term is Poliziotteschi.

Anyway, I guess I feel the need to revisit them a bit, and explain more about them. Maybe I won’t be able to provide a true portrait, and certainly not in the space available to me here, but I’ll do my best.

I will start with my Dad.

He was born in 1929. If circumstances had been even slightly different, his life would have been one of wealth and privilege. His grandfather (my great grandfather) owned an important ranch in Southern Kansas, and was actually considered rich. My father’s father (my grandfather) was banker in the same area, and had business dealings all the way up to Wichita and beyond.

But, then came the Crash, the same year my father was born. They were impoverished. And grandfather went to jail. I’ve heard various stories about what exactly happened, but the one I find the most compelling is that the bank got overextended as it tried to bail out its customers. Someone, or so I heard from my grandmother, “had to take the fall.” Supposedly the sons of the family, including my grandfather, drew straws to see who it would be. My granddad was the unlucky one, and so off he went for crimes against a bank.

True? False? Who knows? I certainly don’t.

My granddad was out of jail after a light sentence of a few years. I’m guessing that the authorities knew perfectly well he wasn’t really a criminal and played the game accordingly. But there was my dad as a boy, growing up with two older sisters in a family that had known affluence, and now didn’t.

I don’t know much about his boyhood, though I’m guessing it wasn’t easy. Certainly, he learned to work hard at an early age, and spent many of his younger days in the gas station that my grandfather selected as his new venture after the collapse of the bank.

Then, he went to college briefly, but dropped out to join the Navy, partly because he felt no connection to college at that time (ironic, given what he ended up doing later), and partly because he wanted to spare his parents the expense of putting him through school. He went off and served on shipboard--specifically on aircraft carriers where he discovered a great talent for technical work. He did things with some of the first remotely controlled aircraft in the post-war Navy.

Then he met my mom while he was assigned to a base on the east coast. The story goes that she was waitress at a drive-in. And he was a sailor on leave. They were both young, good looking, and lonely.

About the photos: Several today, all of my father in various stages of his life. First, my Dad and Granddad at some point in (I think) the 1940s. As Martha notes, he’s looking a bit like a wiseacre here, which I’m sure he’d enjoy. Second, Dad and our dog in our backyard about 1963. He seems very much the young tough guy here, but he was also an up-and-coming physicist at the time. Then, third, and jumping ahead several decades, here he is in the late 1980s, a grandfather, walking with my son, David, to the T-Stop back when we lived in Arlington, MA. And, finally, Dad and Martha out for a stroll in Silver City, New Mexico. This was a few months before his passing.

Rushing ahead in the story, they were married. He went to school on the GI bill and got a Master’s in physics. I was born. He got a job at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque. And...several decades went by.

He was an excellent physicist. I think he wanted to be the next Einstein, that is, the next person who would “de-familiarize” (one of his favorite words) the fundamentals of the field. Or, failing that, he wanted me to be that person. I’ve always been sorry that I disappointed him there. But, I just didn’t have the kind of brain required.

I think, though, that physics began to bore him before it was all done. I mean, he was very, very good at it...and maybe if he’d been at a University, doing pure would have retained its magic. But that’s not what he was employed to do. He was employed to work on projects which were often rather dull, or, if they weren’t dull, then they had to do with weapons.

What really cinched it, I think, was the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI), a.k.a., “Star Wars.” Remember that one? It came out of the 1980s, pushed by Ronald Reagan himself, and was a program meant to develop weapons to counter Russian and Chinese nuclear missiles.  Tons of money was spent on the program...and almost all of it was a waste.

My father, of course, got drawn into it. His employers were in search of SDI contracts, so he was set to work (along with countless others) on research. His particular field at that time was the explosive compression of magnetic fields. And, so his expertise was in demand for the parts of the program that were looking at “Hypervelocity Railguns,” -- in effect, magnetic guns meant to fire projectiles at enormous speeds and would blast incoming warheads before they could reach American cities.

My father knew that all of this was ridiculous--as were the attempts to build space-based laser cannons meant to do the same thing. Oh, yes, eventually, he told me, it would be possible to do such things. But, at the the 1980s...the technology was simply beyond anything available. Or, indeed, anything foreseeable.

I remember my Dad one time when he came to visit us when we still lived in Lynn, MA. He told me, disgustedly, about a meeting he’d been at. All the researchers and technical people in his department had been gathered together to receive a “direction statement” from the professional managers who were running things. The managers, bright and shinny and equipped with spreadsheets, MBAs, and overhead projectors, showed everyone a large flow chart detailing the status of the program now...and in the future.

“They had,” my father said, disgust radiating from every pour, “scheduled in when they expected breakthroughs to occur.” In other words, they thought they could say, in advance, when the researchers would overcome fundamental difficulties which, to date, had frustrated every other developmental effort. In fact, they could demand that the breakthroughs occur, because, after all, they were in charge, and scientists were mere employees.

And it was right then and there, I think, that my father decided to retire and seek a very different destiny in very different places.

More to come.

Copyright©2024 Michael Jay Tucker


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