Today I thought I’d use my quasi-public forum here to recognized the three of the four most important men in my life- two of them were born on July 27 and the other passed away on the same day. I’m going to start with the dapper gentleman to the left, my dear old Dad. Today is his 70th birthday. My father is, I think, one of the last men of his kind- a Renaissance Man of the highest order. My dad shrugged off a pretty bad home life as a young man, put himself through school, and became a good enough classical and jazz musician to play for this guy and with this guy, among others. While he continued with music as a side job, he spent the remaining thirty years of his life as a teacher of American Literature (Twain and the Transcendentalists were his favorites). No content with intellectual pursuits, Dad kept a large garden, a small orchard of dwarf fruit trees, he could bait a hook, put up wall paper, fix a car, and is the single funniest person I’ve ever met. To say I won the “Dad Lottery” is an understatement.
And then there’s this guy- who also has a birthday today. We’ve been best friends since 1986 when he was a junior in high school and I was a senior. I don’t know if you’re any good at math, but that was a lonnnnng time ago. Speaking of being good at math, Dan laughs at math (while math laughs at me). Dan laughs at math because he his brilliant. No, really, doctorate in fluid dynamics brilliant. Works for frickin’ NASA brilliant. So smart that when he explains what he does to people they just smile and nod. Here, I’ll show you: Dan is part of NASA’s “Mechanical Systems Analysis and Simulation Branch: Structural Mechanics Group” his group conducts
Structural analysis utilizing NASTRAN or other advanced programs in support of the design and qualification of flight structures. This includes finite-element math modeling and detailed stress analysis. The section provides GSFC managed Projects with lead and support structural analysts.
Yeah. It’s all science-y and what not. Basically, if he doesn’t do his job right satellites- or at least pieces of them- fall out of the sky. No pressure.
Dan is ont a one-trick pony, however. He has two beautiful children and the story of how he ended up married to his wife would be not-even-in-a-rom-com laughable if it were not true. His wife is great and lets me borrow him for one long weekend a year (we live about seven hours from each other) so we can go on a long distance hike, do the blues, BBQ, and rockabilly thing like we did in Memphis last year, and this year he’s doing this with me in September. More than anything, however, he’s a decent a human being as you will ever encounter. He’s supportive, he’s always honest with me (even when I don’t want him to be), and he loves the Ramones. Game, set, match.
Finally, on this day in 1999, my maternal grandfather passed away at the age of 78. He lived a life that still boggles my mind. “Poppy” (as his grandchildren called him) was one of nine children born in Kingsland, Arkansas- the birthplace of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Johnny Cash (Poppy was in the same, very small, graduating class as Johnny’s oldest brother Roy). Poppy played on the basketball team in high school- they played outside, on a gravel court- he also played a little semi-pro baseball with his older brothers. Poppy graduated from high school in 1940 and joined the Civil Conservation Corps in 1941 where he cut timber in the Bitter Root Mountains of northern Idaho. The C.C.C. lumber camps were known to be rough and tumble places were the main distractions were fighting and drinking. My grandfather claimed to have never been involved in either. I half believed him- he was never much for drinking. Unfortunately, the only picture he could ever produce of his time in Idaho shows him in a leather jacket with his fists up and smiling friends to both sides. A year or so later, in June of 1942, he joined the United States Navy, having never seen the ocean before.
After basic training and radio school he was shipped out on the USS Hambleton as a Radioman 3rd class. After crossing the Atlantic he participated in the invasion of North Africa and hunted submarines as part of the Hunter-Killer Task Force in the Mediterranean. He was then sent back to the States to wait for his new ship- the USS Newcomb (DD-586)- to be launched and sent to the Pacific with him as its Senior Radioman. In between, he went on a blind date in Boston- his date never showed. My grandmother went on a blind date the same night- her date stood her up as well. My grandparents met on the T, shared their stories, and decided to go out to dinner together. They were married for more than 55 years- a farm boy from rural Arkansas and a girl who came to the States when she was six because the Scottish slate mines were closing and her father couldn’t find work.
In December of 1943 the USS Newcomb was assigned to the Bombardment Group of the Third Fleet under the command of Admiral “Bull” Hullsey. From that point on the Newcomb was involved in continuous action for more than a year, starting in the Marshall Islands and ending in the Philippines. The culmination came was during the Battle of the Philippine Sea when his ship made a suicide torpedo attack on the Japanese fleet in the Saigaro Strait. They succeeded in sinking the Japanese battleship Yamashiro before retiring. Within hours, however, they’d returned to the fray in order to tow the disabled USS Grant from the battle.
My grandfather spent another four months in the Pacific, but was lucky enough to be sent home before becoming involved in the battle for Iwo Jima. Since joining the USS Newcomb he and the rest of its original crew had seen combat at Saipan, Tinian, Garapan, Palau, and the Leyte Gulf. At that point the United States Navy decided they needed some rest. My grandfather was on a shakedown cruise on the USS Charles R. Ware in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba when the Japanese surrendered. In fact, it happened on his watch, and as Senior Radioman he was fortunate enough to get to broadcast the news to the rest of the ship.
After the war, Poppy worked at a tannery for fifteen years- he was the foreman for the last twelve of those years. During this time he also went to night school to become a radio and television repairman. In 1958 he started working at the National Radio Company while getting his electrical engineering degree at Northeastern University at night. By the time he left NRC he’d become an electronics engineer. Starting in 1970 he worked at Alpha Industries- Alpha manufactured high frequency solid state communications devices and my grandfather worked on a project to create galium arsenide diodes. From 1975 until he retired in 1987 he worked for Arthur D. Little, Inc.- the foremost research company in the world. My grandfather was a senior engineer who worked on a team that designed a tritium separation system for the Atomic Energy Commission that separated atomic waste into its component elements so that it could be more safely disposed of. Later he worked on a refrigeration system to allow whole blood to be used in space laboratories. My grandfather wore a coat and tie to this job every day. He wore a short-sleeved dress shirt as well- he was an engineer after all.
Every day after work, and all day, every day, after he retired, he was working on a project. Plumbing, gardening, carpentry, wiring, or masonry, he could do it all. A few years later he began building a patio in the back yard- maybe the one truly beautiful thing he’d ever built- walls made of large round stones, topped with square pink paving stones, with built-in flower pots. It was on that patio, drinking that tea, that I saw Poppy alive for the last time.
He died two months later while on his morning walk at our family’s camp on Moosehead Lake in Maine. Moosehead Lake is about as far away as you can get from Kingsland, Arkansas and still be in America. I wasn’t there, but I can guarantee you that as he started out on his walk he still had the taste of black coffee and buttered toast in his mouth- I never saw him eat anything else for breakfast. My father and my sister performed CPR on him for forty-five minutes while they waited for the paramedics to arrive.
There were so many people waiting outside when the funeral home closed after his memorial service that they had to have additional calling hours again the next day. When I approached the casket I slipped a stack of ticket stubs into his suit pocket- one each from all of the Red Sox games he had taken me to as a boy. I still have the other stubs. We saw them all- Yastrzemski, Lynn, Evans, Rice, Fisk, and many more. There were two hundred people at his funeral. I held things together pretty well until, out of sight of the mourners, a lone piper began to play “Amazing Grace”. I suspect my grandmother was behind that- I know she was behind the brass anchor on the lid of his casket. After the funeral my grandmother gave me a plain brown shopping bag and said simply, “I think you should have these.” In the bag was my grandfather’s tam and the flag that had draped his coffin.
To this day when I think of my grandfather I think of people like Johnny Cash, Ted Williams, and John Wayne. He was that kind of man- he had that kind of presence.
So, Happy Birthday, Dad. Happy Birthday, Dan. Miss you, Poppy.