For the last few years I’ve used my quasi-public forum here to recognized the three of the most important men in my life (the “fourth” and “fifth” know who they are) by posting this piece with updates and alterations as needed Two of the three men I’m writing about were born on July 27 and the other passed away on the same day. I’m going to start with the gentleman to the left, my dear old Dad. Today would have been his 75th birthday. My father was, I think, one of the last men of his kind- a Renaissance Man of the highest order. My dad shrugged off some pretty lousy breaks 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). To say that my father was a great teacher doesn’t do him justice. If he had any singular gift it was to quietly sneak in “life lessons” among the novels, stories, and poems. The kind of things one wouldn’t appreciate for years, or even decades. He would have been pleased by the number of former students and colleagues who attended his memorial service and spoke of how much they had learned from him without ever feeling the need to mention The Red Badge of Courage or Walden. Not content with intellectual pursuits, Dad kept a large garden, a small orchard of dwarf fruit trees, he could bait a hook, put up wallpaper, fix a car, played “catch” with me well into adulthood, and is the single funniest person I’ve ever met. A lot of my friends think I’m funny, and I think so to, but Dad was on a different level. To say I won the “Dad Lottery” is an understatement.
And then there’s this guy- who also has a birthday today. We’ve known each other since elementary school and 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 long damn 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 one a one-trick pony, though. He has two beautiful children and the story of how he ended up married to his wife (whom I’ve also known since high school) 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 hikes, race in off-road duathlons (cross country running and mountain biking), compete in adventure races (in Canada!), and explore some of America’s more interesting cities- we’ve been to Memphis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, and in September we’re going to to Nashville to compete in a Spartan Sprint race More than anything, however, he’s as 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, eighteen year ago today my grandfather passed away at the age of 78. “Poppy,” as we 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 graduating class as Johnny’s oldest brother Roy). 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. While he was in Idaho World War II began, and in June of 1942 he joined the United States Navy, having never seen the ocean before.
As a Radioman 3rd class on the USS Hambleton he participated in the invasion of North Africa and hunted submarines 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. While waiting in Boston he met my grandmother on the subway after they’d both been stood-up on blind dates. They were married for more than 55 years. A farm boy from rural Arkansas and a girl who came to the States from Scotland with her family when she was only six years old. Somehow they found each other…
Starting in December of 1943 the USS 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 (the largest naval battle in history). 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 got to broadcast the news to the rest of the ship.
After the war, Poppy worked as the foreman in tannery, as a radio and television repairman, to a degree in electrical engineering through the G.I. Bill, and in 1958 started working at the National Radio Company. After leaving NRC he worked at Alpha Industries, who manufactured high frequency solid state communications devices. 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.
Poppy was always working on a “project.” His greatest achievement was the patio in his back yard- walls made of large round stones, topped with square pink paving stones, with built-in flower pots. It was on that patio, drinking iced 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 is about as far away as you can get from Kingsland and still be in America.
The number of people who came to his memorial service was a testament to the of life he led. When I approached his casket I slipped a stack of ticket stubs into his pocket- one for each 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. I held things together pretty well at his funeral until, out of sight of the mourners, a lone piper began to play “Amazing Grace.” That was my grandmother’s doing, as was 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, I miss you. Happy Birthday, Dan. Miss you, Poppy.