My father was a great admirer of the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who is famous for his outlandish and whimsically-elaborate eponymous machines for performing simple tasks, widely published in American newspapers between 1914 and 1964. For example, an automatic back-scratcher: Flame from lamp catches curtain on fire, causing fire department to send stream of water through window, causing small man with poor vision to think it’s raining and reach for umbrella, which pulls string tipping metal ball, which falls and pulls string swinging hammer, which breaks glass, waking pup in cradle, causing mother dog to rock cradle which moves hand-shaped scratcher up and down gentleman’s back. Ahhhh! Dad loved this sort of thing and would draw his own Rube Goldberg machines for us kids.
I recall too my father talking about the Yokyoks, another Goldberg invention, an army of tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves, who carry an assortment of tools and go about fouling the works—clogging holes in saltshakers, making pens and faucets leak, blowing fuses, letting the air out of tires. Rube Goldberg loved machinery, but he also knew that technology grows unwieldy because of our insatiable desire for the very latest inventions at whatever the cost in money or frustration. He warned against the “gadget strewn path of civilization,” and this much is certainly true: The more complicated our machines become, the more opportunities the Yokyoks have to drive us crazy. Dad had a grudging admiration for the Yokyoks, and loved chasing them about the house, rooting them out wherever he found them. In this day of electronic devices, we call them bugs, but there is no longer much we can do about them. They live deep inside our computer-driven devices, as muddled streams of 1s and 0s, and there’s not much a mechanically-minded tinkerer can do to get at them. The Yokyoks have gone underground, so to speak, and twiddling a screw or slightly bending a widget has no effect. The Yokyoks and the handyman parted company at about the time my father died.
In a sense, the cancer cells that were multiplying inside his body were like a host of Yokyoks deep inside a digital device. Like computer bugs, they were beyond his reach. But he was unwilling to admit his impotency. He was determined to track them down and root them out, as if they were leaky faucets or blown fuses. He was applying the Mr. Fix-it methods he had used all his life, the analytical skills of the quality control engineer. Two pages of notes in his journals might be devoted to getting ready for sleep. His notes read like the description of a Rube Goldberg back-scratcher:
- Pull legs into Yoga position.
- “Muscle” legs to 90º.
- Bed at about 10º.
- Pull legs up to 90º. Let fall prone on bed. Both feet in center.
- Pull up both cover sheets.
- Push body (shoulders) to right, full arm’s length.
- Make complete Log Roll to get on left side.
- Fix flash to spot light near base of #3, #2 bar of rail. Hook chain, third link from top of chain.
- Log Roll to left, push back to position where face will “fall” to sleeping position about 15” from left rail.
- Put waste basket under phone drawer.
- Put call & TV control in phone table drawer.
And, of course, to accompany the notes, there is a Goldbergesque drawing of his body on the bed, labeled and dimensioned. This might seem pathetically and pathologically compulsive, and I suppose in some ways it is. But none of us dissuaded him from his note-taking—which he called “research”—or refused to assist. Anyone who has worked in a scientific laboratory knows that keeping exact notes on process and results is a requirement of the job. My father was simply applying his professional discipline to his own sad predicament. Cancer cells are as single minded as Goldberg’s Yokyoks. They have their habits, their routines. What those routines were, my father hoped to discover. His battle against cancer was engineer versus the tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves.