Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beyond confusion

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 12

There was something else in that big black basement cabinet. Boxes of ceramic chips, in every size and shape, that my father brought home from work. It was like living in a money vault, except the coins were worthless. Still, I used to plunge my hands into the boxes and let the chips slip through my fingers, like a Midas reveling in his wealth. All the ceramic bits in a particular box looked exactly alike to me, but to my father each one was different. To be acceptable, the differences had to fall within certain exceedingly narrow tolerances. The tools of his trade were micrometers and calipers, lovely stainless-steel instruments that could measure things to a thousandth of an inch. He taught me how to use the vernier scale on his calipers—a way of reading those thousandths of an inch—and told me it was named for its inventor, a 17th-century French mathematician named Pierre Vernier. The simplicity of the invention, and its usefulness for exact measurement, impressed me as terribly clever.

As my father measured, he plotted. When I think of him, I think of graphs plotted in his neat hand on tissue-thin paper printed with a grid of faint green or orange lines. “Hand me a sheet of K&E,” he’d say, which stood for the manufacturer of the paper, Keuffel and Esser.

Keuffel & Esser made his slide rule, too. And maybe some of the other tools in his kit. His three-sided architect’s rule. His dividers and protractor. His triangles and French curves. His colored pencils, sharpened to a fine point. His gum eraser. With these instruments, he made his graphs. Ordinates and abscissas. Dependent and independent variables. He was a man in love with Cartesian coordinates. He told me the story of how the philosopher Rene Descartes was lying in bed watching a fly buzzing in a corner of the room. It occurred to Descartes that the position of the fly at any instant could be defined by three numbers, the perpendicular distances from the three walls. And so was born the coordinate graph. I have no idea if the story is true, but it struck me as marvelous at the time, as did all of my father’s stories. His graphs were marvelous, too. Lovely bell curves. Parabolas. Hyperbolas. Crisscrossing lines. He plotted everything. The data from his work, of course. But also stock market prices vs. sunspot numbers. Sales figures vs. inflation rates. Gross national products vs. geographic latitudes. Who knows what it all meant. Some of it may have been significant; some of it merely silly. His graphs were a way of teasing out hidden causal connections, if they existed, showing that the world was not the higgledy-piggledy it sometimes appeared to be. He was a great believer in causality. Nothing happened without a cause; the cause just might not be obvious. He had no taste for miracles.

If anything influenced me to study science, it was the cumulative effect of those hundreds of graphs my father was always plotting, each one a little work of art in his fine engineer’s hand. The thin colored lines on the green or orange-gridded paper were like circuit diagrams of the universe, a glimpse of the hidden webs of causality that make the whole thing work. He never knew much physics, but he had a physicist’s interest in the plumbing of reality. When I went off to study physics, I suppose I was looking for the plumbing, too. In my very first physics lab, we rolled a marble down an inclined plane and plotted distances vs. times. A parabola! A perfect mathematical parabola. Nature revealing her hidden plan. My lab reports were perhaps more notable for their neat, colorful graphs than for the quality of the physics. That was my father’s influence. And as he lay dying, he was still plotting, the many data of his illness, graph after graph, as if somehow the relationships would become clear and the independent variables could be properly adjusted to save him from what appeared to be an inevitable fate. There were no miracles, of course. Nor was his decline mere higgledy-piggledy. The graphs moved toward their foregone conclusion. It was cause and effect, all right. It was just a different effect than the one he’d hoped to find.

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office, I came upon a box of graph paper that I inherited from Dad. That wonderful tissue-thin, green and orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper of various kinds. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one’s data, discover patterns, find the law. As I thumbed through those pristine sheets of paper, I experienced a certain visual and tactile pleasure, but also a philosophical insight, something that consciously or unconsciously guided my father’s life and death. Without a mark on them, those tissuey pieces of paper with the meticulously ruled lines suggested the fabric of the universe itself, which appears to be mathematical in a way beyond our comprehension. Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Our invention is subject to ever-greater precision, an ever-closer approach to the real. The grid of that pristine K&E paper seems to me now like the armature upon which the world is hung.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 11

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. Picket fences. There was that big black cabinet in his basement workshop, with the two voluminous drawers at the base full of discarded what nots—stuff that might come in handy. Where did that cabinet come from? I do not know, but I suspect from his father. His father would have needed a big black cabinet. Every handyman needs a big black cabinet.

He worked for a company that made ceramic insulators, tiny ones mostly, the kind of things you’d wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job as a quality control engineer to make sure that the parts of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father’s ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from just a handful of different kinds of parts—protons, neutrons, electrons. My father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence. The Ultimate Handyman.

On the shelves of the big black cabinet were piles of magazines, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the Holy Scriptures of handymen of his generation, the sources of my father’s prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A clever way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. Advice on the most efficient way to rotate the tires on the car. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry. To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, oceangoing hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn’t a bad place to get an education.

Recently, as I began writing down these memoirs of my father, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn’t read these magazines for more than half-a-century, not since my teens. Back then, I read them religiously. I suppose, they were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college. Now, as I peruse current issues, I’m delighted to see that not much, really, has changed. They still contain the ample mix of slick technology and serious science that inspired the teenager. Here too is the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed a teenager’s sense of optimism and wonder. And here too is the same eclectic mix of gimmicks, gadgets and practical hints for the handyman. A few of the items featured in recent issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics:

  • A Space Pen, guaranteed to write in freezing cold or boiling heat, under water or upside down.
  • A Rogue Wallet with curved edges, that fits stylishly into a side pocket, thwarting thieves who might slip your wallet off your hip.
  • A NASA-designed personal vertical takeoff aircraft that flies horizontally, with just room enough for you.
  • Advice on how to get rid of squirrels in the attic and cat urine on linoleum flooring.
  • A Popular Mechanics book of “MANCrafts”—leather tooling, fly tying, ax whittling and other cool things for a man to do.
  • How to build a mini-workbench charging station for your cordless tools.
  • A page of projects for Saturday afternoon.
  • Ads for FrogTape, Gorilla Glue, and suspenders with “patented no-slip clips.”

Popular Mechanics was founded in 1902. Popular Science goes back to 1872. The 30th Anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics, published in the depths of the Great Depression, contained articles on “Machines to Raise Wages” and “Luxuries for Everyone.” As far as I can tell, both magazines have maintained a clear sense of their mission since issue number one: praise the practical, exalt American ingenuity, and keep an upbeat attitude about the future. Yes, there is something vaguely jingoistic, middle-class and decidedly male about the magazines, but you won’t find politics in their pages, or racism, or macho-swagger. Just contrivances, contraptions, widgets, doohickeys and a hearty celebration of practical science and state-of-the-art technology. In my father’s deathbed journals he makes a note: “Dr. Brennen visited—will bring Popular Science magazines.” He lived by the handyman’s code to the very end. Happiness is unclogged gutters and spark plugs that are perfectly gapped.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 10

As I have been writing these recollections of my father, I find myself dreaming of him at night, strange dreams that incorporate places and events from my childhood that I would assume had been long forgotten, dredged up from those deep recesses of the brain where we hoard up memories of those we love. Researchers tell us that we spend about six years dreaming during a typical lifetime—about two hours a night—which means dreaming occupies as much of our time as eating and sex put together. We know as much about eating and sex as we’d want to know, scientifically speaking. About dreams we know next to nothing. We have no idea where in the brain dreams originate or how they are executed. There are dozens of theories for why we dream—what might be their biological or evolutionary purpose—none of which approaches consensus. Dreams represent six years of our lives about which science remains almost completely ignorant.

I dream in black-and-white, as most people did fifty years ago. Today, according to what I read in the science journals, the majority of people dream in color. Presumably, this has to do with the influence of color media. I recall that when I was a kid my dreams were framed with round corners, like the roll-down silver reflective screen upon which my father projected his 8 mm black-and-white home movies. Today my dreams expand to fill all available mental space. What all this suggests is that the very mechanism of dreaming is influenced by the conceptual and mental world in which we live.

I search the journals my father kept during his final weeks for records of dreams. What, I wonder, would an engineer dream about in the face of impending oblivion? Nothing, as it turns out, that you or I might not dream, but engineer that he was, he looked for the connections between his dreams and the data of his dying. In one of his recorded dreams, he was “a big ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase,” unrolling as he bounced from step to step. He passed two of his daughters Jinx and Peg going up. “They were puzzled as they watched me go by!” he wrote. “When I hit the bottom of the stairs, I woke up!” A poignant dream, to be sure—life as an unrolling ball of twine. He notes that the dream came just at the end of his “energy cycle,” and he draws the familiar diagram—UP-C, PLATEAU, DO-C, with an arrow pointing to the inflection where the down-cycle meets the horizontal. He notes that Jinx and Peg had visited during the day. But where did the spiral staircase come from? Or the ball of twine? Our memories, apparently, are like that “junk drawer” in his basement workshop, where everything went that did not have an immediate use. The unconscious puts the discarded bits and pieces of a life together in new and surprising ways.

The American social philosopher Lewis Mumford once noted: “If man had not encountered dragons and hippogriffs in dreams, he might never have conceived of the atom.” It is an extraordinary thought, that a scientific understanding of the world depends upon the dreaming mind. The dreamer, says Mumford, puts things together in ways never experienced in the awake world—joining the head, wings, and claws of a bird with the hind quarters of a horse—to make something fabulous and new: a hippogriff. Or fetching up from who-knows-where that ball of twine and spiral staircase. In the dream world, space and time dissolve; near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous, merge in novel ways.

Another of the dreams in my father’s deathbed journals: He is sleeping in a bedroom of the house he had grown up in on Baldwin Street in Chattanooga. A red brick building. In the dream, he wakes up screaming for his mother, who sleeps in another room. She comes and says, “It was probably your cancer hurting you.” He does not know he has cancer. He throws back the covers and sees that his scrotum is elongated and bleeding. His mother says, “Yes, you are dying.” At which point, he wakes up in the present—and records the dream in his journal.

The shifting sands of near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous. In science, too, we invent unseen worlds by combining familiar things in an unfamiliar fashion. We imagine atoms, for example, as combining characteristics of billiard balls and water waves, all on a scale that is invisibly small. According to Mumford, dreams taught us how to imagine the unseen world. In science we talk about “dreaming up” theories, and we move from the dreamed-up worlds of Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Oz to dreamed-up worlds that challenge the adult imagination. An asteroid hurtles out of space and lays waste a monster race of reptiles that has ruled the earth for 200 million years. A black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy swallows ten million stars. A universe begins in a blinding flash from a pinprick of infinite energy. How did we learn to imagine such things? Mumford believed that dreams released human imagination from bondage to the immediate environment and present moment. He imagined early humans pestered and tantalized by dreams, sometimes confusing the images of darkness and sleep with those of waking life, subject to misleading hallucinations, disordered memories, unaccountable impulses, but also animated now and then by images of joyous possibility or gruesome horror.

My father always believed there is more to reality than meets the eye. He was an engineer and a scientist. He loved the process of scientific imagination. He followed the latest scientific discoveries with unabashed enthusiasm. But he never dismissed the possibilities of taking the world apart and putting it back together in novel ways, as one does in a dream. He was unwilling to rule anything out absolutely, and he wanted to know how everything worked. Dreaming is like tinkering, like putting together the discarded bits and pieces of the domestic environment that he collected in the drawers of that big black cabinet in his basement workshop. Even the wild permutations of his deathbed dreams elicited his tinkerer’s analysis. They were part of the puzzle that might lead to a cure. He would tinker his body back to health.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The explorers

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 9

As early as the first of my father’s five deathbed journals it is clear that he is attended upon by a substantial army of doctors, nurses, and priests who are solicitous of his physical and spiritual well-being. He lists the doctors, with the particular province of each: general, cobalt, urologist, nerves, spine. The priests are faithful too, and appear often in the journals offering their blessings or sharing a prayer. If medical science or prayer could have saved him, he was well served. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he wrote in the journal, and it was his intention to help himself as much as he could. There is not much in the journals to suggest private prayer, although he did practice breathing exercises with the accompaniment of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes, a very Buddhist sort of practice that was suggested by my sister Anne. I like to imagine these prayers ascending to heaven on regular cloudlike puffs of breath. As for the science, he asked for instruments: yardstick, six-inch rule, protractor, thermometer, even a barometer. There, in his bed, on his back, partially paralyzed, he measured and recorded. If he thought he found a correlation between some datum and comfort, the correlation became an obligation, sometimes to the impatience of his caregivers. His head had to be four inches from the top of the bed, exactly. The door to the room had to be opened six inches, no more, no less. The temperature of the room must be maintained with the same quality-controlled precision as he had formerly insisted upon for his ceramic products at the American Lava Corporation. His wife and children indulged his fastidiousness stoically, but Lord knows how the nurses coped. And then there were the hospital orderlies, especially a big, generous man named Otis, who did the heavy lifting, in and out of bed for trips to the radiation lab, on and off the potty. Each motion had to be choreographed according to the patterns that emerged from his numbers.

If all of this sounds as if my father was “the patient from hell,” perhaps I have given the wrong impression. He was inherently cheerful, even in the midst of pain. He almost never grouses in the journals about the quality of his care. He often writes notes to remind himself to apprise his doctors of particularly solicitous nurses. To those of us who spent even a little time with him, it was clear that his quantitative preoccupations were a palliative that may in the end have given him more solace than all the pills and prayers.

The odds, of course, were against him. He was an amateur caught in the gulf between God and science, the two great poles of his life. He was an amateur, and day by day the professionals came to visit, the doctors and the priests, with their firm grip on what is important. He tried to convince them that he had found something in his mass of data that mattered. They humored him, as professionals are inclined to do with amateurs. What my father did not know, or what he chose not to believe, was that the day had passed when an amateur could bend God’s ear or determine the course of science. The God who cured the leper and raised Lazarus from the dead had long departed from this world of pain and glory. And science too was beyond his reach. The game belonged to highly trained specialists who kept amateurs at bay. Still, my father assiduously gathered his data, and soon there emerged what he called “the cycle of energy.”

Page after page of the journals show the characteristic graph, plotting his cycles of medication—a rising slope of well-being, a plateau, a downward slide. At first, each segment of the graph is an hour in duration, but slowly they evolve to forty-five minutes as his condition deteriorates and the rhythm of dying becomes more intense. He thought he had discovered a “unit of energy,” a sort of quantum of wellness, that in their accumulation would lead step by step to recovery. What he was looking for was a way to make his plateau-shaped graphs build one on the other, so that even with the up-and-down rhythm there would be a secular trend upwards, toward recovery.

He tried to convey this information to his doctors, and they humored him, kindly and sympathetically. They knew that the cobalt radiation and chemotherapy were merely stopgap treatments, that the cancer was spreading to every cell of his marrow, that his wasting body was now just a sackful of alien cells with a life of their own, a life that was not his, and that whatever secular trend might be relevant to his life was downward, inevitably, toward extinction. This last battle of my father’s life was to be fought out on the only field that was left to him, the field of sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. He would collect and record the data of the senses with the zeal of a scientist. What he made of these things would not save him, as the doctors and the priests were well aware, but for ten terrible weeks they gave him a sense of purpose and hope. He never lost faith in the world of the senses, even as it slipped away. He knew there was an order, a pattern, to his personal chaos, and on this point the doctors and priests agreed. It would be in making himself a part of that elusive and ultimately gracious order that he would wage—and win, he believed—his battle with mortality.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ghost story

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 8

My earliest memory of my father took place soon after we moved into the new house. I was five or six years old. He woke me in the dead of night to see a comet. He had heard on the radio that a comet would be visible in the eastern sky in the hours before the dawn. Slippered and jacketed, dragging sleep behind me like a comet’s tail, I followed my father into the backyard. Together we stood on the new badminton court surrounded by black pines and searched our little patch of starry sky. I am guessing now, in the frail light of memory, that my father did not know exactly what we were looking for or where in the sky we might find it. He imagined, I suppose, that the comet would announce itself, trumpeting like an angel, trailing a train of light. He expected a sky on fire, and he wanted me to see it. Or at least that is how I remember his advertisement for getting me out of bed.

He was born on March 27, 1909, the year Halley’s Comet was recovered telescopically for its 1910 apparition. He liked to say that he came in with Halley’s Comet and hoped to go out with it too; after all, the period of the comet, 76 years, is about the same as the expected life span of an American male of his generation. He didn’t make it. The comet returned in 1986, twelve years after he died. The connection between the most famous comet and his birth seems to have assured his lifelong interest in all things astronomical. The return of comets, so precisely calculable by astronomers, appealed to his engineer’s sense of how the universe should run.

As I recall, we did not see the comet that chilly morning in the backyard. It was probably one of those dozen-a-year comets of interest only to astronomers, visible with binoculars or telescope. Or perhaps it was a faint naked-eye comet hidden from us by the pines. As I recall, we stood in the cold morning air and searched the sky until dawn lighted the east. I carry from that morning my first memory of the stars, nameless, uncountable, beautiful and frightening.

One memorable Christmas of my childhood, perhaps that very same year, my father received a star book as a gift, A Primer for Star-Gazers by Henry Neely. The book, now long out of print, is still in my possession. A glance takes me back more than seventy years to evenings with Dad in the backyard of our new home, gazing upwards to a drapery of brilliant stars flung across sky. As he used the book to teach himself the stars and constellations, he included me in his activities. He told me stories of the constellations as he learned them. Of Orion and the deadly Scorpion. Of the lovers Andromeda and Perseus, and the monster Cetus. Of the wood nymph Callisto and her son Arcas, placed by Zeus in the heavens as the Big and Little Bears. No child ever had a better storybook than the ever-changing page of night above our badminton court. He taught me the names of stars: Sirius, Arcturus, Polaris, Betelgeuse, and other, stranger names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, the claws of the Scorpion. The words were like incantations that opened the enchanted cave of night. He was a man of insatiable curiosity. His stories of the stars were more than “connect the dots.” He wove into his lessons what he knew of history, science, poetry and myth. And, of course, religion. For my father, the stars were the sublime contrivance of the Great Engineer, their contemplation a sort of prayer.

That Christmas book of long ago was a satisfactory guide to star lore, but as I page through it today I see that it conveyed little of the intimacy I felt as I stood with my father under the canopy of stars. Nor do any of the more recent star guides that I have owned quite capture the feelings I had as a child of standing at the door of an enchanted universe, speaking incantations. What made the childhood experience so memorable was a total immersion in the mystery of the night—the singing of cicadas, the whisper of the wind in the pines, and, of course, my father’s seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of knowledge with which he embellished the stars. He taught me what to see; he also taught me what to imagine. Behind the patterns, behind the names, behind the sweet sensations of the night, there were truths to be intuited, if only one had the tools and the talents to see and hear.

What else do I remember of the stars? I remember evenings on the sleeping porch of my grandmother Dietzen’s house on Ninth Street during the early 1940s. A screened sleeping porch might be found attached to any southern home of a certain vintage and substance, usually on the second story at the back; on sultry summer nights you could move a cot or daybed there and take advantage of whatever breezes stirred the air. I slept there when I visited because it was the only place to find a spare bed. I was usually alone in that big spooky space, with only a thin wire mesh separating me from the many mysteries of the night. Far off in the house I could hear the muffled voice of the big Stromberg-Carlson radio in the parlor, where grown-ups listened to news of the war or the boogie-woogie tunes of the Hit Parade. Outside was another kind of music, nearer, louder, pressing against the screen, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, a million scratchy fiddles, out-of-key woodwinds, discordant timpani. These were the crickets, whippoorwills and tree frogs of the southern summer night, but to me at that time they were the sounds of the night itself, as if darkness had an audible element. Some nights the distant horizon would be lit with a silent, winking illumination called “heat lightnin’.” And closer, against the dark grass of the badminton court, the scintillations of fireflies—“lightnin’ bugs”—splashed into brightness. The constellations of fireflies were answered in the sky by stars, whose names and constellations my father had taught me, and which on those evenings when the city’s lights were blacked out for air-raid drills, multiplied alarmingly. I would lie in my cot, eyes glued to the spangled darkness, waiting to hear the drone of enemy aircraft or see the flash of ack-ack guns. No aircraft appeared, no ack-ack tracers pierced the night, but the stars were themselves like vast squadrons of alien rocket ships moving against the inky dark of Flash Gordon space. That’s when my father’s stories truly came to life. That’s when the names of stars exerted their fairy-tale magic. I could almost hear him reciting the names—Polaris, Betelgeuse, Zubenelgenubi, Zubeneschamali. Just as he had taught me, there was the Scorpion creeping westward, dragging its stinger along the horizon. There was the teapot of Sagittarius afloat in the white river of the Milky Way. There was Vega at the zenith and the kite of Cygnus. As the hours passed, the Big Dipper clocked around the Pole. And sometimes, in late summer, I would wake in the predawn hour to find Orion sneaking into the eastern sky, pursuing the teacup of the Pleiades, just as I had been taught to expect.

Neely’s A Primer for Star-Gazers was my father’s kind of book, and I’ve come across nothing like it since. It employed an elaborate system of star maps and horizons, dates and times, the sort of gizmo-ization of the sky that only an engineer could love. I have it here on my desk as I write. I can see its affinity with the journals Dad kept as he died, and even in a funny way with the account book of family finances his mother kept as he studied engineering—get the numbers right and an elusive but gracious plan of the universe will be made clear.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dream house

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 7

Somehow, during his first year at university, while working part-time in Chattanooga, my father found the time to construct a three-foot model of a Spanish galleon. As I was growing up it sat on a shelf above his basement workbench. A thousand tiny knots in the rigging. Shellacked billowing sails, painted with the symbols of Christian empire. Rows of gun ports with upswung covers and the mouths of cannons sticking out. And on the deck, tiny cannons on their carriages with ceramic wheels. Ladders to the forecastle and aft upper decks. A golden bear inscribed on the stern. It seemed to me a thing of preternatural accomplishment.

Chester T. Raymo—Chattanooga, 1927.

Why did he keep it in the basement? Why not in a place of honor, on the bookcase in the living room, for example. I never asked. I would never have dared to ask. But I had an intuition that it had something to do with my mother, perhaps her claim of priority in matters of domestic decoration.

They were married in September 1935, almost exactly a year before I was born. She was the girl from across the street in Chattanooga, the oldest of nine children, eight girls in a row, then a boy. She too had recently lost her father, to pneumonia. Of the Dietzen siblings, my mother was something of the intellectual prodigy, the only one of the girls to go to university, where she majored in English literature and graduated in three years. Her intellect and her independence were formidable, and it appears she had some difficulty adjusting to the sometimes dreary plod of wifery and motherhood. Perhaps banishing Dad’s model ship to the basement of our new house in the Chattanooga suburbs established a bit of territory she could claim as her own.

Their honeymoon photograph shows a handsome smiling couple. They went off to Schenectady, New York, where my father took a job as an X-ray technician with General Electric, and was most proud, he later told me, of inventing a new kind of versatile mount for the X-ray machine. The stay in New York did not last long. Was it the cold weather or homesickness that send the newlyweds scurrying south? I suspect it was the latter, on my mother’s part.

The best record I have of this part of their lives is a little account book kept by Dad’s mother. On the inside cover is written: “Chester, as you know, our rule was, one family fund for all income and all expenses, until each child reached his or her 21st birthday. Here you will find a strict account of all loans made to you, and all credits due you, from your 21st birthday to date. I have kept a similar account for Arthur, Roger and Charlotte. Love, Mum.” Most of the early entries are outgoing expenses to my father, mostly “Cash for school” and small regular amounts for life insurance. There’s $25 for Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honor society, and other advances for suits, shirts and shoe repair. In December 1932 his mother writes, “Finished school, Thank God!” Still, there follow four months of advances while my father was out of work due to the Great Depression. In June, 1933, he starts working again for American Lava Corporation and regular monthly payments of $5 or $10 start flowing back into the family account. Then, more advances as the wedding approaches in September of 1935, including $25 to Father Sullivan of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s Catholic Church in Chattanooga for performing the ceremony. The ledger is blank for the next three years, as the young married couple struggles to survive on their own, but in 1938, two years after I was born, Dad’s “Mum” is still paying her son’s laundry bills and advancing 50 cents for a blue shirt and $1.53 for a lost library book. The Second World War and the industrial needs of the military seems to have at last conferred financial independence on my engineer father. The account book records that he was advanced $960.19 more than he paid back.

In 1941, on the eve of the war, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the quintessential American dream house of the 1940s. A half-acre lot on a quiet street with a bus stop on the corner, white asbestos shingles, blue shutters, dormer windows upstairs, detached garage—what every middle-class American aspired to. In 1948, RKO released a popular comedy called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; our house was a more modest version of what Hollywood in the 1940s imagined to be ideal. My father even had a little room upstairs for his photography hobby (which would soon be taken over as a bedroom for his growing family). I dare say he would have liked to have built the house himself if he had had the time, which he didn’t. But he did have the big backyard that he could improve at his leisure.
The Raymo house—Chattanooga, 1941.

The backyard would also be the American dream. A white picket fence around the whole thing. A badminton court. Rose bushes. A barbecue pit. Brick pathways. A Victory garden. I remember the tools. A manual lawnmower (was there any other kind?). A roller for the badminton court that you filled with water. A hand-pushed plow for the garden. There were lots of odd bits of wood too, leftovers from the picket fence, from which I could bang together toy boats and airplanes. The backyard was, for the duration of the war at least, a handyman’s heaven, for father and son, with lots of projects going on at once. I’m puzzled at this late date how he managed to get the wood he needed for the picket fence. Wouldn’t that have been hard to come by during the war? The bricks for the paths were no problem; on the vacant property next door was “The Brick Pile.”

A rather substantial home once stood where building lots were now being sold by the family that had once owned all the land thereabouts. The house had been demolished before my parents’ arrival on the scene, and the materials stacked and stored in “The Brick Pile,” “The Wood Pile,” and “The Shed”—all of which lay just beyond our picket fence. There was no end of things to do with the bricks, but most of what I built with my neighborhood pals had to do with the war—pill boxes, forts, gun emplacements. “The Wood Pile” became a battleship or PT-boat. “The Shed” was supposed to be off-limits, but we found our way in, and snitched ex-banister posts to use as machine guns. If my father wanted to pass on to me his handyman skills, he could not have chosen a better place to build his house.

As a promotion for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, RKO built seventy-three full-scale replicas of the eponymous house in cities around the country and raffled them off. One of the replicas was just a few blocks from our home in Chattanooga. It was quite the hit when it opened, with half the city driving by to see. It was classy, all right, but it didn’t have a “Brick Pile” or a “Wood Pile” or a “Shed”. Or a workbench in the basement made from a dismantled coal bin. It’s hard for me to imagine Cary Grant as a handyman, although I’m sure he could have played one if the role required. He was just a bit too suave to do for himself what he could hire professional craftsmen to do. By the time the landscapers had finished with the Hollywood dream house around the corner, our backyard was already starting to show the first signs of a genteel decrepitude, a slight fraying of the American dream, but everything there—the brick paths, the picket fence, the badminton court, the Victory garden—was the product of a handyman’s hand.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 6

Is a handyman born or made? Nature or nurture? Are little boys born with an innate desire to take things apart and put them back together? Is tool wielding, like gun-toting seems to be, enshrined in the male genes?

My engineer father, like his two brothers, Arthur and Roger, one older, one younger, seem destined for engineering from the first glimpses we have of them in the family records—handy, deft, intrigued with toys that test mechanical skills. There was a sister too, Charlotte, who became a bookkeeper at the Chattanooga Public Library.

Nature and nurture are always tightly entwined, perhaps especially so for handymen of my father’s generation. Boys got Erector Sets for Christmas and girls got dolls. It was assumed that boys would go to college and study technical subjects, and girls stay home and learn domestic arts. But was culture responding to innate male and female predispositions, or was “the handyman” a purely cultural construction? In either case, the word “handywoman” wasn’t in the dictionary. Like all questions of nature and nurture, then or now, the threads are devilishly difficult to pick apart. My father’s propensity for engineering, and that of his brothers, could have come from their own father, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, by either corridor.

Arthur Elsworth was a self-made engineer who grew up on a farm in Nankin, Michigan. In 1905, he married Margaret Merrow, the daughter of a tugboat captain on the Great Lakes, and four children followed in quick succession. The earliest census records show my grandfather as a “farmer,” but by the time the second of his children came along he is listed as “bookkeeper.” He had no formal training in engineering, but somehow his innate technical skills were apparent enough to win him a job managing a phosphate mine in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, a typical small town of rural mid-America to which he brought his young family. Their snug, wood-framed home was not far from the mine, from which surface phosphate was extracted hydraulically. Photographs show the kids playing barefoot in the sluice water with the hustle and bustle of extraction going on in the background.
Chet's father, Chester (third from left) and siblings, Arthur, Charlotte, and Roger—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1915.

By all accounts, Arthur Elsworth was a consummate handyman. He made much of the family’s furniture—chests, dressers, tables and chairs—and play equipment for the children too—merry-go-round, seesaw, swings, climbing bars, doll houses, sleighs, kites and scooters. It would have been hard to grow up in that environment, I suppose, and not pick up some mechanical skills. Especially if you were a boy. Sister Charlotte had a role model too. My grandmother Margaret Merrow Raymo made all of the children’s cloths, from pajamas to Buster Brown suits for the boys and frilly dresses for Charlotte. Whenever she made a dress for Charlotte, she made one just like it for Charlotte’s doll. She was a good cook too, who always came up with special food and decorations for holidays. It would seem from the photographs that have come down to us that she was adept with a camera too, at a time when the Kodak Brownie era of personal photography was just beginning. Meanwhile, Arthur Elsworth proved he was not just a whiz with material things. He was a pretty good self-taught musician too, who entertained the family with violin, harmonica and organ. The family’s most cherished possession was an early Edison Phonograph, with cylindrical wax records and a diamond needle that never needed changing. Records cost 35 cents apiece or three for a dollar. The family bought six recordings each month, patriotic, humorous and musical. The kids learned from the recordings how to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. I have a photograph of Chester as a nine-year-old boy, spiffily attired in a homemade outfit, proudly displaying an airplane he has made from a construction kit supplied by his father, a young budding engineer no doubt hoping his mechanical skill will please the paternal critic. Nature or nurture? In that place and that time it was all part of being male.
Chester T. Raymo Sr.—Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1918.

With a father who made chests and chairs for the family home, doll houses and scooters for the kids, and blasted phosphate out of the ground with water, it was perhaps inevitable that the boys would grow up to be engineers, or at the very least to carry on the handyman tradition. But if nurture inculcated mechanical aptitudes, nature had an anti-mechanical surprise in store.

In the summer of 1917, Arthur Elsworth moved his family to Chattanooga, a bustling industrial railroad center on the Tennessee River, just where the river makes an improbable deviation from its south-tending course along the East Tennessee Valley and cuts a deep gash westward through the Cumberland Plateau. He was hired to help build and operate the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, which would manufacture ferrosilicon for use in the production of hydrogen for observation balloons during World War I. My father was seven years old.

Ten years later, Dad was a seventeen-year-old student at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga when his father, a farmer/bookkeeper now turned superintendent at the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, snagged the glove on his right hand under a moving conveyor belt. His body was thrown forcibly against a post and the arm ripped off at the shoulder. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. A blood transfusion was desperately required, but by the time a suitable donor was found the patient had died, at forty-six years of age. Was my father there at the deathbed when his father died? Did the seventeen-year-old boy rush from school (it was a Friday) with his brothers and sister to join his mother at the hospital? I try to imagine how this traumatic turn of events must have affected my father, a bright, handy high-schooler who lived admiringly in the shadow of his father’s many mechanical gifts. Now a machine had cruelly wrenched his father’s arm and life away. One might think this tragedy would cause the son to foreswear anything to do with machinery. But no, a year later, as a new high school graduate, he gave up the promise of a good job and rapid advancement at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company to go off, at his mother’s insistence, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study mechanical engineering.

Arthur Elsworth Raymo’s death came out of the blue. One moment he was a promising young man with a fine job, a loving wife, four bright, healthy children and a world of promise before him. Then—a slip, a patch of cloth caught in a whirring machine, he turned to look, his arm running away with the conveyor belt, his shoulder gushing his life’s blood. The accident occurred at 10:30 in the morning; by late afternoon he was dead. Presumably, throughout those few hours he was in a state of shock. What thoughts flashed through his mind? For whom did he call out? My grandmother was left to see four children into the world, three boys and a girl. All were bright students at Notre Dame Academy. It seems to have been a foregone conclusion that the boys would go on to the University of Tennessee to study engineering, the profession their father excelled at even though he had not had a university education. A poignant letter remains in our possession from my grandmother to a Mr. Walsh, a person of some importance at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company, where my father worked part-time while attending high school. Apparently, Walsh wanted to apprentice my father as an eventual replacement for his own job, and had made his wishes known to my grandmother. College was not in Walsh’s plan. In the letter, written not long after the death of my grandfather, my grandmother insists it was her late husband’s wish that his boys go to college, and she vows to spend whatever money her husband left to see that wish fulfilled.

All three brothers received engineering educations at the University of Tennessee, by taking cooperative courses—three months working, three months in class. Chester and Roger, the youngest boys and only a year or two apart, worked for the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company and the American Lava Corporation. They alternated on the job—one would work while the other went to school. In this way they were able to keep the same employment in Chattanooga and living quarters in Knoxville. Roads were bad in those days, and the 120-mile trip between the two cities in the family car took five or six hours. In spite of all the back and forth, my father was elected to the university’s honorary engineering society and served as editor of the Tennessee Engineer. If there was a mechanical gene in the family line, it expressed itself fully in the subsequent careers of the three Raymo boys. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte, the second oldest child, was required by her gender to forgo a college education to support her mother. She was bright, but there is no evidence I know of—and I remember her lovingly and well—that she possessed the boys’ mechanical aptitude. Nature? Nurture? Either way, theirs was the last generation bound so severely by convention. All of my own siblings—including four girls—went to college, and in recent months I have been watching my own scientifically-educated daughter building decks and remodeling her kitchen, expressing “handyman” skills that may or may not have flowed down to her in Arthur Elsworth’s genes.

Chet's grandfather, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, at the phosphate mine—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1914.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Imaginal cells

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.