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October 30, 2004

My Father

My Dad was one of the smartest people I ever knew. I don't say that out of an inflated sense of family pride. You can ask anyone who knew him and you would get the same observation. He was just that good, and he had a knack for going right to the crux of any issue or problem that made his advice a most sought after commodity. He was also a kind, gentle, and caring soul, but with a bit of steel in him that you would be well advised not to test. He was a small man; just 5' 6," but had the heart of a lion.

When I was a boy he told me the story of how he had dealt with the school bully in Brooklyn when he was young. It seems that one of the big kids had formed a dislike of Dad, and had taken to following him home from school and harassing him or beating him up. My father endured this for a while, but soon decided he must do something. In those days, there were no designer backpacks, but kids had schoolbooks, and plenty of homework, so they carried their texts back and forth just as they do today. In the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn the custom was to stack the books and cinch them together with a strap (an old leather belt) so that one could carry them conveniently.

On the way home from school Dad noticed that the Bully was following him as usual. He took a short cut through an alley and found a discarded brick on the ground, which he strapped between the books in his pack. He then waited behind a stoop until the Bully went by, and leveled him. As I understand it, that was the end of the tormenting behavior.

I am not certain what lesson my father intended me to take away from this anecdote, but here is what I learned:

Some playing fields (and some bullies) require leveling.
Surprise is an indispensable ally when seeking to overcome a larger, stronger adversary.
A man must take care of himself, for it is unlikely that anyone else will.
When the time for action is at hand, move swiftly and decisively (Shock & Awe).
Even the most peace-loving of men (and nations) have limits, beyond which you push at your own risk.

This latter point was reinforced by an incident involving my brother Bob and one of the neighborhood kids that took place a few years later. Bob inherited my father's intelligence and his gentle nature in spades, and to this day remains one of the most civilized human beings that I have ever encountered. He always seemed in control of himself, even as a child, and his actions were ever characterized by reason and logic instead of raw emotion. If I did not know better, I would suspect that one of his parents was a native of the Planet Vulcan.

Anyway, one sunny afternoon Bob, Leland, and I were playing baseball on our front lawn on Emory Street. Leland was a kid who lived across the street and a few houses down. He was in Bob's grade at school but was considerably bigger than my brother, who he loved to tease. This afternoon, Leland was particularly unrelenting in his teasing and began to push Bob and taunt him, obviously trying to pick a fight. Several times Bob warned Leland that he should desist, (in the measured and careful way that my brother even then had of speaking). Leland was not to be deterred, and escalated his assaults. There was a surreal quality to the scene that followed. As if in slow motion Bob calmly reached down for the baseball bat that was lying on the lawn and with classic form, (and even though it was well out of the strike zone), he broke Leland's nose. It seems that Bob had also paid attention when our father talked to us about growing up in Brooklyn.

One more story and then I must stop. I had gone away to school at the University of Chicago with a $1,000 annual scholarship that in today's terms sounds like the fifth honorable mention. In the mid-'50s however that paid for my tuition and books in full, with a substantial amount left over for room and board. I arrived in the big city at the tender age of 17, still flushed with a successful high school career and prepared to pursue a degree in Physics. Over a year later, badly shaken by the knowledge that I wasn't half as smart as I had thought I was, and now a reluctant Biology major, I found myself writing home to explain my latest academic setback in what was becoming an all too familiar sequence.

In my letter to the parents I tried to communicate the difficulty I was experiencing in making the transition from big frog in little pond to water skimmer on a lake with hungry predators in residence. I had the grades to prove it too. In a foolish and feeble attempt at erudition, I ended the letter with the Latin phrase, "Sic transit gloria mundi." The reply to my letter arrived by return post. It was written in my father's fine hand (he had been schooled in a time when students were still graded on penmanship, and his handwriting was like calligraphy). The first sentence of his letter was, "Sic transit gloria phooey!" It was all downhill from there. In the balance of that missive he systematically dismantled all the excuses that I had proffered for my failures, and then worked his way through an inventory of my personal shortcomings to conclude with a catalog of my better-known character defects. One did not break a lance lightly with Dad.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that the old man was cruel to his kids. On the contrary, he was loving and affectionate, and fiercely protective of us. There was never any doubt or any condition attached to his love. It was clear, however, that he had high expectations for all of us, and it was not easy to let him down. I spent a long time coming to grips with the knowledge that I had probably succeeded in disappointing him, and an even longer time forgiving myself for having fallen a bit short of my expectations for myself. Even now I occasionally catch myself about to measure some act or some contemplated action by the yardstick that I imagine to be in my father's hand. It is then that I pause, and smile, and say, "Wait a minute, Dad, this is my life and you had yours." He just smiles back, and nods, and I know that he understands.

He always did.

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