Monday, July 01, 2013

Colored pencils


As I was growing up on Anderson Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there was a big wooden chest under the basement stairs full of "stuff" of my father's, including lab reports he had prepared for his courses in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee. I was fascinated. The reports were works of technical art, beautifully executed in my father's precise hand, filled with exquisite colored graphs. I didn't know what the reports were all about, but I knew they were something my father was proud of, and I was proud of him.

Proud enough to emulate him. When I was studying electrical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I modeled my lab reports on what I remembered of his. I wasn't the brightest student in those classes, but my lab reports were grade-A models of display and analysis. I didn't save them. As I graduated, I tossed them into the dormitory trash.

Two years later, I returned to the university as a graduate student in physics, and inevitably became a physics lab instructor for engineering undergrads. And discovered that I was famous.

Two years earlier, someone had rescued my lab reports from the trash, and they were now the common heritage of the current generation of students, on which they modeled their own reports. I won't take credit for so exalted (and dubious) an honor. My father gets the credit. I was just the boy sitting in the dust under the basement stairs wide-eyed with wonder that his dad could make things of such arcane delight.