Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fiftieth Anniversaries

2017 has three fiftieth anniversaries that are significant for me.

The first is the fiftieth anniversary of my graduating from Rutgers with a degree in physics. I was very glad to have accomplished this. My years at Rutgers were considerably more good than bad, but I and others (especially physics majors) saw problems at our wonderful school. This was early in the years since Rutgers had become The State University. In recent years I learned that Rutgers tripled the number of students since the 1950s. At a Rutgers Club of DC meeting a few years ago there were people who had graduated from Rutgers in the 1950s. One man had graduated in 1951, another in 1958. The man from the class of 1951 told us that 400 students had started Rutgers with him and 400 had graduated 4 years later. The man from the class of 1958 told us that 500 had started in his class and 500 had graduated. During my time at Rutgers 1700 started and only 1100 had graduated in 1967. I do remember that sometimes we physics majors expressed the thought that there were too many physics majors for the faculty to handle. Still, though, I did get a good education as a young man in physics and more.

What are some other memories I have of my time at Rutgers?

There was one extracurricular activity that has shaped my life in important ways.

In high school I went out for the track team to get an athletic credit for college. The people in high school made me team manager. I liked doing that and learned something about running and runners by doing so. I liked that volunteer activity so much that when I got to Rutgers I volunteered to help again as team manager. They welcomed me to that post. I have great memories of Coach Wallach and the track team. Yes, I learned even more about running and runners by doing so. But I did not become a runner.

On Friday, November 22, 1963 (first semester of my freshman year) I was sitting in the library doing some reading for my courses. A young man I did not know walked in and said to me “Did you hear? The President has been shot.” I thought “What?” Later that afternoon I walked into my last Friday freshman physics class and saw that Professor Barshay had written on the blackboard “President Assassinated. Class canceled.” I walked back to my dormitory and phoned my father. He picked me up on his way home. That Saturday evening at home Mom, Dad and me watched TV where we saw a Rutgers choral group singing a tribute to the now late President Kennedy. That tribute was very moving.

Attending classical music concerts was another good thing about attending Rutgers back then. Then there was the Episcopalian students group that I enjoyed attending. Then there were the Rutgers basketball team games. Basketball improved greatly when I was there.

What else do I remember? Having lunch with Dad at the Alumni Faculty Club. One special occasion was in January 1964. The previous night there had been a game at a fraternity at which the upperclassmen tried to get the freshman as drunk as possible as fast as possible. I was the first loser. Friends helped me back to the dormitory. The next day Dad and I had a serious talk about alcohol at lunch. A few weeks later I was in New York City with some friends. Back then it was legal for 18 year olds to drink in New York City. My friends all ordered beer. I remember Dad was a moderate scotch drinker. I ordered a scotch and liked it. I became a moderate scotch drinker. In California I became a moderate wine drinker. The next time I drank beer was during my first trip to England in 1987 for a world science fiction convention. My cousins Harry and Anita Lawton picked me at the airport. On the way up to their place in Nottingham we stopped at a British pub. Harry asked me if I would like to try one of their beers. I, thinking that these were not just relatives but friends of mine, said yes. Harry ordered best bitter all around. I enjoyed that drink. Back in the States I wound up trying a bottle of Sam Adams at a Mensa party. I liked that. I became a moderate drinker of really good beer. During my next trip to England (in 1989) I told this story to Harry as we were sitting in a pub drinking some good British beer. Harry cracked up laughing.

Before I graduated in 1967 I was offered a job by IBM working in one of the laboratories as a young physicist. IBM seemed impressed with both Rutgers and me. I was glad to get this good job. The laboratory specialized in reliability of computer electronics. I was very glad to be offered the position and accepted it. On graduation day I was looking forward to starting this wonderful work. On graduation day my parents, remembering how much fun I had had getting the photography merit badge in the Boy Scouts gave me a very nice 35 mm camera outfit. If you could take a time machine back to that day and tell people five years from now this young man will be the photography editor of the Vassar College yearbook and ten years from now the Princeton Ballet will be paying him for his ballet photography, you would have been telling us the absolute truth and surprised us all. Then if you told us what was going to happen to me and my family in that decade, you would have shocked us.

The second fiftieth anniversary is far more shocking. In August I was drafted into the Army. Young physicists were normally given critical skills exemptions from the draft. I was the only man drafted out of my IBM laboratory. People at IBM told me to enter the Army. They said I would be given a position in a laboratory in the United States and would not go to Vietnam. That turned out to be true. But my time in the Army began a life of conflict with over the top authority figures. Authority with the limits of free, democratic societies I can accept, possibly easily.

I have already written about my time in basic training. On my blog I titled the entry A Few Basic Training Stories Lots of people – whatever their current political leanings – like that post. Oh – the second story shows the beginning of my sense of humor. Yes, I got hundreds of people to laugh out loud at an arrogant 2nd lieutenant.

Remember what I said about helping the track team at Rutgers as team manager? Basic training also started turning me into a runner – a very serious runner eventually. Yes I have written about that as well. Read My Running Career to learn more about that side of me. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my high school track coach – Coach Marchand -- had noticed that I had some talent for running.

After being in basic training a month, we were given our post basic training assignments. Assignments were like “You are going to infantry training. You are going to cooking school.” And more along the lines of normal military assignments. My assignment was not. I not only had a physics degree, I also had the highest IQ of anybody at Fort Dix. That, apparently, got the attention of some people very high up the hierarchy. What was my assignment? I was going to be sent to the United States Army Corps of Engineers Nuclear Cratering Group at Lawrence Laboratory in Livermore, California. I was going to be given $300 to buy civilian clothes because people in my group were not allowed to wear military uniforms. I was also going to be given some money to live in an apartment with some other people in Livermore, California. This freaked out the leadership at Fort Dix. It got me another month and a half of “basic training.”

Oh – the Army group I was assigned to was stationed at Lawrence Livermore because there was a much larger civilian group called Project Plowshare that was trying to come up with technologies that would use things like nuclear weapons for civilian purposes. Think doing things like digging a canal using “nuclear explosives” instead of sending out thousands of people with earth moving equipment to do such things.

Yes, I was very happy to be given that assignment. I was not going to be shot at . I might even make some sort of valuable contribution to our country and world by doing this kind of work.

I finally got out of basic training with the help of a corporal who would be discharged in a few days. He passed me on my hand grenade tossing test. Anyway in December I was now released from basic training. I went back to my parents' home for a Christmas vacation before flying out to California. I, of course, enjoyed spending time with Mom, Dad and family and friends in general.

Here is my third fiftieth anniversary.

One afternoon I was visiting our local car mechanic to discuss with this good man things I should pay attention to regarding my car out there in California. That discussion was going well as I expected it would.

Then Diane Van Doren burst in. We had gone to high school together. The Diane I knew was a sweet, warm, caring, bright, energetic, wonderful human being. She had a smile on her face even bigger and more impressive than the one I remembered from high school. She had let her beautiful blonde hair grow out much longer. I thought she was even more beautiful. Then she turned her head to the right and saw me. She quickly realized I had been drafted. That smile changed to an expression of genuine worry for me.

I told this terrific young woman that I had been given an assignment in California. I would not be shot at by Communists in Vietnam. That got her to relax a bit. Still, though, I could see how worried about me she had been.

My career and life took me many places. By the time I was working at Goddard Space Flight Center I had thought I would be spending the rest of my career there doing good things for my fellow humans. In 1999 I was driven out by truly awful management. My last day at Goddard was Monday, July 12, 1999. I started my new job with much better people the next day. The next weekend I went up to New Jersey for a high school reunion. When I walked in carrying the medal I got for finishing the Marine Corps Marathon in 1996 and showed it to Lucille Romano, she broke out with a great smile and said “You've done a marathon?” She made me wear that medal for the rest of the evening.

Later that evening news about Diane circulated around. Lucille also told me that Diane had committed suicide. That news shocked us all.

I started remembering Diane's and I last encounter. I began wondering what would have happened had I said to her “Diane, I don't have to go to California for some days. Would you like to go out on a date?” If she had said yes and we had hit it off well and began a long distance dating relationship until I got out of the Army and then starting dating even more seriously. I could imagine us getting married and starting a wonderful family. I would have had the wonderful wife and family I needed. Diane would have been much happier, putting it mildly. Don't you just love British understatement?

That memory of Diane is the last of my fiftieth anniversaries.

I hope people appreciate these memories of mine.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Education in the Community I Grew Up In

I was born in 1945 -- lots of people are surprised to hear that -- and grew up in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, just outside of Trenton, New Jersey.

I remember going to Farmingdale and Greenwood Elementary Schools. I have good memories of the teachers I met there. They were very caring about their students. They encouraged my growing interests in things like space exploration, astronomy and science in general. My family was even more encouraging. I remember Mom and Dad buying me a telescope to look out into the heavens before I was a teenager. I think this was part of my getting the astronomy merit badge in the Boy Scouts.

I still have some interesting memories of that time in school.

One day in a high school history class I got into an informal debate with our teacher about what was more important -- the United States exploration of space or the various political changes that were happening in the Middle East (think United Arab Republic) at the same time. Oh -- I was on my high school's debate team. I obviously took the position that space exploration was most important. Our teacher claimed that the United Arab Republic was more important by far. He eventually kicked me out of class sending me to the principal's office. While I was waiting there, the vice principal came in and saw me sitting there. With a look of concern on his face he asked me what I was doing there. I told him. He relaxed and told me not to worry that he would take care of the problem.

One day also in high school when I was walking through our local bookstore I saw a book by a physicist named Eddington titled Mathematical Theory of Relativity. Since it was only $2.95 -- well within my allowance. I bought it. Soon I starting seeing mathematics that I had never seen before. I took the book into school and showed it to our math teacher -- a fine man named Mr. Rosen. I asked for his help. He with a friendly smile said "Why don't you wait until you are in college?" That's how I found out that my interests had gone far beyond what even a good high school back then could provide.

I also have a high school memory of my first grade teacher. How? One evening near the end of our class's senior year all of the teachers who had taught us as we were growing up were invited to a graduation oriented event. I ran into said first grade teacher there. She, with a big smile on her face, congratulated me on graduating from high school. She then asked quite friendlily what I would be doing after high school. I told her with a seventeen year old's enthusiasm that I would be going to Rutgers and majoring in physics. The expression on her face switched to something along the lines "You were bored in first grade!"

Lots of other people besides my family and my schools nurtured my growing interest in science. My parents were quite active in St. James Episcopal Church. They were part of the more well educated people there. All those people encouraged my interests. The Scopes Monkey Trial down in Tennessee decades earlier did get some attention -- particularly after the film Inherit the Wind came out. What did people at St. James think? They thought that kind of thinking was that of quite ignorant people who did not know what they were talking about.