In Commemoration of My Father on the Date of His Birth

Dad would have been 71 today. My uncle’s been sharing some stories, like he does every year on this day. I’m sharing them here (as well as some of my own).

In the late 70s, dad was flying down to Tuscon a lot for work, and airline security was starting to become more of a thing.

DadIt was on one of these flights that, for the first time ever, a security agent asked him to open his briefcase. Completely unheard of up until that point in time, inconceivable. But open his briefcase dad did, revealing a lid of pot. The security agent gave him a stern look, but decided to confiscate the drugs instead of having dad arrested, so he got to Tuscon a free man but a bag of weed lighter.

From then on, whenever he flew he’d throw a copy of Screw in his briefcase, open to the most graphic beaver shot he could find. Whenever some security person opened his briefcase, they’d slam it shut immediately and wave him through.

When dad was in his teens, the family moved to Switzerland.

One of the first things his brother did was go out and buy a real-deal Stiletto switchblade. Which his mother immediately confiscated the first time it was brandished in awesomeness. My dad then went to where his mom hid all the contraband, grabbed the stiletto for himself, and was smart enough not to pull it out around any authority figures. He kept it for a very long time.

Some years later, while attending MIT, he got on an elevator to go to class, all the while with his nose in a book of poetry. Some knucklehead and his girlfriend got on, pushed the button for the top floor, and said “Sorry, man, this is a non-stop,” and loomed intimidatingly. Dad whipped open the switchblade, pushed the button for his floor with it, and went back to his poetry.

Dad did a lot of field work out in the desert – Induced Polarization surveying, something he was central to the creation of.

As technical as it sounds, the main gist of it was you’d run a bunch of wires out from a central point, attach them to some large ceramic pots (not like flower pots – sealed at the top and with a giant metal bolt running the length inside), and run current through the ground. The way the current flowed would tell you all kinds of things about what was below ground. The thing was, since the ceramic pots were transmitting current and had some chemicals inside, it was important to keep them cool and wet. Which was hard, since they were being used out in the desert, and usually had to be dragged from a truck out half a mile or so through brush. Finding a way to keep them cool and wet turned out to be a huge challenge. Plastic bags and ziplocks tore on the pointy metal bits, an ice chest was too difficult to carry through the brush, and resealable plastic containers were almost always the wrong size or wouldn’t seal or didn’t have enough insulation or some other intrinsic flaw.

All but one.

It turned out that Tupperware made a durable plastic container that fit these pots EXACTLY and sealed up securely – enough so that hungover ex-cons (the usual people staffing these crews) could haul them through the brush, tripping over roots and snakes and they’d still be sealed and wet when they got to where they were going. You couldn’t have designed a better fit, so problem solved. At the time, though, you could only buy tupperware from a local rep, and in order to buy some you had to host a tupperware party so that all of your (presumably housewife) friends would buy some as well. So when Dad called the local rep and tried to buy 10 dozen of these containers, she told him that wasn’t how it worked. She came by the house with all kinds of pamphlets about how to be a good hostess (how to glaze a store-bought ham, how to make deviled eggs, and how to chose the right moment to tactfully turn the conversation to how you were going to put all of this food in tupperware after everyone left because it is God’s Own Miracle in Plastic) to get Dad prepped on throwing a sales party.

She had no idea what she was getting herself in for. The thing was, Dad’s social set consisted mostly of bikers, skydivers, stoners, geophysicists, and other assorted burnouts. And if he was going to throw a party, it was going to be his kind of party. Considering that we lived in Salt Lake City, this was doubly out of the ordinary.

Everyone thought that this was a brilliant excuse for a party, and it ended up being one of the more wild ones in his life. The bathtub was filled with Dad’s homebrew (called “Willy Lowlife” as an homage to “Miller Highlife”). I distinctly remember one party goer (who later went on to be the mayor of a small rural town) swinging from a pole in the backyard with his lighter-fluid-soaked pants ablaze, trying to do a full 180 while on fire, hour after hour. A female guest fashioned a bra out of 2 tupperware containers and some electrical tape and around midnight was seen standing on the front porch singing at the top of her lungs (the neighbors didn’t care because they were all at the party).

The next morning there was tupperware melted into the grill in the back yard. The lawn twinkled with beer cans and broken glass. Everyone for a mile in any direction was debilitatingly hungover without a single regret. Even the tupperware lady had had a damn fine time.

There are all kinds of things that Dad did that could have gotten his kids taken away.

From taking me to see Animal House when it first came out (I was 7, he couldn’t get a babysitter), to bringing Near Beer into the locker room for my mighty mites hockey team when we won the regionals, or raising my sister and me almost exclusively on hotdogs, macaroni, and corn (for convenience all cooked in the same pot)… Etc – the list is long. Still, whenever there was a situation in which he should have gotten in trouble, he’d just flash ’em That Grin and get away with it. People always had the sense that he knew a little more than they did. And near as I can tell it turned out just fine.

dad2The most vivid memory I have of my Dad isn’t a pleasant one.

We were driving up to Missoula for Thanksgiving, during a particularly nasty storm. A semi coming the other direction lost control and hit us head on, knocking us 120 yards backwards on the black ice. I had been asleep in the back, but woke up when we went off the road into a snowbank. Dad wasn’t moving and I started screaming. Eventually, he came to, and turned around to say, “Don’t worry – everything’s going to be okay.” He had blood flooding down his face like fountain, soaking his shirt – an image that I can still draw up vividly.

Turned out he had a bad gash on his forehead, a dislocated shoulder, and a mild concussion. Which, considering we’d been hit by an out-of control semi, is not so bad. Volvos had steering columns that were design to crumple, which was good because any other car the steering column would have impaled him. Being an engineer, he considered this a huge triumph for insightful design and only bought Volvos for most of the rest of his life. On the drive back home he insisted that we stop at the scene and retrace the events, calculating where the impact was (we found a medalion from the side of the car that had been popped off by the force of the impact), estimating our rough speed, and how far we’d gone into the snowbank. the near death part of it was far less interesting to him than the factors that kept us from dieing.

**

So. Happy birthday, Dad. I wish you were 71 and not dead. I think I miss him more as time goes on, not less.

 

If I ever get a chance I’m going to punch cancer square in the nose.

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