Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Fifth Father's Day

We're approaching our fifth Father's Day now without Dad. Which seems impossible--impossible both that he's not here, and that it has been five years. So much happened during that span that it wasn't until this past spring that I was able to deliver on a promise we made to him in his last month--that we would take good care of his book collection and not just chuck it in the bin at a thrift store.

My dad was never without a stack of books to read. He consumed a steady supply of books about history, mathematics, and airplanes (he was an aerodynamics engineer) and also would fasten on to subjects that he'd pursue for months on end. Among the last ones were the Peloponnesian war and the building of the Panama Canal.

All those books would be carefully bookmarked with his favorite marker: a computer punch card from his early days at Grumman Aerospace. He had stacks of them, having retrieved them from the company when they were throwing them away after they were outmoded.

Often these cards bear a list of words my dad encountered in his reading and intended to look up, sometimes because he didn't know the meaning but more often because he wanted to learn more about the word's origins.

After his death, and our mom's subsequent move to a smaller home, the vast majority of the household's books were easily sorted: history and boating books mainly went to one brother's household, a lot of science books to mine, cooking ones to my sister and me, a handful of aircraft books to my nephews.

But finding a place for his aeronautical and engineering books, many of which were highly technical, would be hard--that is, if Boeing's own museum and library wasn't interested.

We didn't want to ask them point-blank if they just wanted boxes and boxes of books, so I set out to catalog the entire collection and gather it in one document so the librarians could pick and choose according to the needs of their library.

Sounds tedious, but it actually offered ample time to muse on the office--the "den" as we called it--where Dad kept his books when we were kids and worked late sometimes on special projects. It was a tiny room, rather dark, but we were always welcome even though now I know we were probably delaying his work by popping in to visit.

I recall gazing up in wonder at all those books, many of them somber-looking tomes from the 1940s and early 1950s, and whispering in awe, "Wow, Dad, you must be really smart!"

"Not really," he chuckled. (But he was.)

Sometimes as I flipped the pages of a book after gleaning the title, author, and publication date, a computer card or piece of paper would fall out, or I'd find a note written on a page. Because the mathematics involved are totally beyond my understanding, I could only marvel at the inscrutability of what was amazing to him.

One item in his library was a 4-inch-thick bound stack of papers with 7 or 8 columns of numbers on each page, just a river of data pouring through the volume. On one page, in one column, Dad had corrected a few digits in one number after the decimal point. How he could've spotted that error utterly escapes me.

I loved seeing the enthusiasm he had in acquiring a volume, and how the engineers kept a running history in a beloved book, as if it were a family Bible:

On a more down-to-earth level, I enjoyed seeing how his signature changed over the years: from a student's careful script...

to the firm hand of a graduate...

to the confident use of his nickname and purple ink of his later years. He preferred purple felt-tip pens and was dismayed when local stationers and office supply stores ceased carrying them. One of my last Christmas gifts to him was a big box of purple Papermate felt-tips. I was sure he'd have years more of using them.

It was also pretty cool to Google the house in  New Hyde Park where he lived as an older child; it's still standing. Not sure exactly where he lived as a little kid--I know it was an apartment building in Queens, that his dad and mom (German immigrants) were the caretakers of the building, and that due to their position they had access to the basement, which made Dad a king among his peers as they ran up and down alleys fighting endless world wars.

After cataloging everything from "Akin, J. E., Finite Elements for Analysis and Design" to "Watman, H., 'Assessment of the Unified Approach for Predicting the Hypersonic Characteristics of a High L/D Reentry Glider,'" I contacted the Boeing library, and fortunately they were interested in taking on most of the books; the old books were particularly welcome because historians and engineering students delved into them in their work. Plus there were my dad's own folders of writing and collected materials on the development of aircraft on which he worked.

I hauled them all up to Boeing's restoration center on a gray March morning. We know Dad would be really glad to think of his books in the hands of another generation of engineers.

I also know Dad would be very amused and slightly appalled (if you can be such a thing) at my saving bits and pieces like scribbles on paper. He'd probably make some jokes about relics and Oliver Plunkett's head. I don't really know why I hang on to them other than that it's all I've got left of him other than photos and what he's instilled in us kids. I feel sometimes like a bird on a nest, tucking every precious scrap around me.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Does a Bear Sit in our 'Hood?

There is a bear prowling in our Cottage Lake neighborhood.

A black bear.

A big black bear.

Well, actually, it's surely many black bears, but people tend to refer to it as The Bear. Much as Mount Rainier is simply called "The Mountain," and everybody knows you're talking about that one snowy peak among all the other many mountain peaks in the area.

These pictures aren't mine (all but the last one are from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's photo archive), but the only time I saw The Bear was when he galloped past me while I was on a walk, about a block and a half from my house. Even if I had had a camera ready, I daresay I'd probably have frozen in fright and forgotten how to use it if the bear had hung around to pose for a picture.

As it was, he ran past me so quickly I only had time to think "Big dog!" before (a) he was gone and (b) I realized, "That's no dog."

Anyway, local police departments and wildlife offices are doing their Rite of Spring, which is to send out information about how to deal with bears, avoid bears, prevent attracting bears, and what to do if you actually encounter a bear.

So I thought I'd post a humor piece I wrote on the topic a few years ago, and sent to a magazine and got a favorable reaction though not an acceptance. At least I hope it's humorous. I had fun writing it anyway. I hope you grin and bear it ;)

Beware the Bear

“Anyone who sees a bear in the city should call 911.” –The Seattle Times, p. B1, May 18, 2009.

"Here are tips should you come in close contact with a bear: Stop, remain calm, and assess the situation...If a bear walks toward you, identify yourself as a human by standing up, waving your hands above your head, and talking to the bear in a low voice. (Don’t use the word "bear" because a human-food-conditioned bear might associate “bear” with food . . . people feeding bears often say 'here bear.'" --Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, "Do's and Don'ts in Bear Country"

As if there weren’t already enough to worry about. The economy. War. 401(K)s becoming 200.5(K)s. Sick pigs. Bunions. Jagged edges on cans opened with rotary can openers. Now this: urban bears.

So. I may not be wise or deep. I may not be profound or insightful. But I am diligent. I am observant. I can keep my eyes open for bears. That I can do. I’m a good citizen. And I know that, no matter how cold my blood runs at the thought of meeting a bear in a dark alley, I must continue to go about my daily business. We all must. If we don’t, the bears win.

(Note to self: Does city contain dark alleys? Have I ever been in one? Are dark alleys dark all day or are they lit at high noon?)

Anyway, so far so good. No bear sightings yet. Then again, I haven’t yet left the house. Time will tell. I must gird my loins and step out boldly on daily rounds.

First stop: Starbucks. A quick glance reveals that there are no bears. No scat, no tracks. I check the coffee-condiments counter—the jar of honey is there, intact. A good sign. I breathe a sigh of relief and head for the counter. For a second, I consider joking with the barista about her being a “bear-ista” but decide that will just make me sound like a jerk—dozens of people may have already made the same joke, or—worse yet—she doesn’t know about the wayward mammal and will give me a patient, puzzled half-smile. So I simply order my usual, an iced double venti, 6 pumps vanilla, caramel sauce top and bottom, no ice, extra-whip mocha, with room. Decaf.

Drink in hand, I settle into a comfy chair. Just as I take my first sip, I raise my eyes to find a child staring at me. “Mommy!” it cries. “Somebody’s sitting in my chair!”

The child is summoned to a nearby table by its parents. It perches on its seat and slurps its drink. I turn my gaze back to my beverage, but because my senses are on high alert, I am still tuned in to this family—and so it is that I hear the father say, “My coffee is too cold.”

The mother responds, “My coffee is too hot.”

And the little one pipes up, “My cocoa is just right!”

My God. Carefully, without any sudden moves, I look up and study the trio. Lots of brown hair. Father particularly shaggy. Suspicious. But they lack inch-long, daggerlike claws, and the female does not appear to weigh the 150 pounds typical of a black-bear sow.

Still, I will not get between her and her young. My drink is in a to-go cup, so, ergo, I go.

I set out on my usual round of morning errands: a quick stop at the market (shelves fully stocked with food, salad bar not ravaged), the post office (long wait at counter as staff is apparently hibernating, but nothing else), and finally the bank (where I consider making a “bear market” joke to the teller, but again, show restraint).

I touch down briefly at home to put my groceries away and change into running clothes. As I lace up my shoes, I dimly remember that running sets off a predator’s instinct to pursue. Is this true of bears? I scroll a list of do’s and don’ts for bear encounters in my mind. I recall the sensible first piece of advice: “Do everything you can to avoid an encounter with any bear.”

Excellent. I’m doing well, then. My life thus far has been dedicated to avoiding bear encounters. I do not even read Reader’s Digest for fear of encountering a bear encounter in its pages. But now, with the bear at the door, so to speak, I must vigilantly maintain a Code Red level of awareness.

I close my eyes and concentrate on visualizing the cautionary measures I have committed to memory: Don’t throw things at the bear. Avoid eye contact during initial phase of encounter. Don’t climb a tree to escape. Don’t use the word “bear” when talking to an approaching bear (bears that have eaten human food can link this word with “treat” because people who feed bears often say “here, bear!” Two words that, I suppose, are among their last.)

Ah...there it is. Don’t run from the bear unless you know you can quickly reach a place of safety. Right. Much of my jogging will involve dashing through a park. Many trees, no bear-proof chambers. A walk, then. With pepper spray in hand instead of water bottle.

Nothing appears to be amiss as I stride down the sidewalk. True, I do spy several rather flat carcasses along the way: a squirrel here, an opossum there, even a raccoon. But no overturned logs, no torn-apart hollow trees, no “rejected bits of carrion or large prey, such as pieces of skin, often with head or feet attached,” as my Audubon field guide indicates would be the case if indeed a black bear were at large.

(Note to self: Find out what preys upon squirrels, opossums, and raccoons in city.)

It isn’t until I’m a block from the park that it happens.

I finally see it. Large as life and twice as ugly—Ursus americanus itself.

The beast lumbers toward me, swinging its ungainly head, jaws dripping, baleful eyes glaring malevolently.

I swore that I would be ready for this—forewarned is forearmed, and all that. Instead, I feel ice-cold panic flooding through me. I force myself to take a deep breath and call up the list again. As the instructions unspool once more, an eerie calm replaces the terror: I can handle this.

Quickly, I identify myself as a human. I stand tall and wave my arms around. I talk to the bear in a low voice. “Hey, b—Ursus. I am a human. Repeat: I am a human.”

But the damn thing keeps coming. It doesn’t even break stride.

I move on to more desperate measures. I clap my hands. I stamp my feet. I yell at the bear and stare it straight in the eyes.

It works. The dread creature stops. It growls. It says, “Hey, knock it off, what are you, an idiot?”

Only then do I notice that this bear is leashed and attached to a handler. I drop my arms to my sides and let the word “human” die on my lips. The handler is staring me straight in the eyes and is employing dominant body language. As there is no sure-fired place of safety nearby, I do not run away but merely walk briskly, my strides taking me into the leafy cool of the park.

(Note to self: Could handler be walking a dancing bear? Surely dancing bears are outlawed in U.S. Must check.)

Today, however, the park isn’t the balm to my soul that it usually is. Woods and bears, after all, are intrinsically linked. I ignore the erratically scampering children and their high-pitched squeals of delight (their parents really ought to warn them against such prey-like behavior) and focus on the trees, with particular attention to shadowy areas.

Fortunately, no trunks are scarred with tooth marks and claw slashes, the classic signs of a bear marking its territory.

It isn’t until I reach an open clearing that it happens. For real. This is not a chow-chow encounter.

It’s a bear encounter.

And this time, it’s not just one bear. It’s two bears. Unleashed. No handlers in sight. What’s more, these are no black bears. These are grizzly bears—two 1,496-pound examples of bruin pulchritude in their prime.

I know they are grizzlies. They have dished faces, not the straight muzzle of the black bear.

There’s no time to wave my arms, no time to utter words of warning in a low voice. I think of the children, of how the bears will hug them and then devour them. I do as the newspaper has bid me to do. I whip out my cell and call 911.

My screaming into the phone attracts many onlookers. The operator, meanwhile, seems confused by my repeated shouts of “Ursus arctos!” I lower my voice so the bears cannot hear me and utter, “Bears! Grizzly bears! Loose in the park!”

At first, the blood pounding in my ears makes it hard for me to hear clearly, but slowly it dawns on me that I keep hearing one phrase again and again.

“You are in the zoo,” says the operator. “You are in the zoo. The zoo. In the Northern Trail exhibit. They have grizzly bears there. Two of them.”

“The zoo?” I whisper. I look up. The people around me take a few steps back. They look suspicious. I wave my arms over my head to assure them that I am human.

I glance back at the bears. OK, now I see the fence. But they’ve done a clever job of hiding it from view. If I hadn’t made this mistake, somebody else would’ve, if they were watching out for the common good as I am.

It seems like an apt time to head home. I take a wandering dirt trail through the woods so as to avoid the gaze of the curious. I keep my eyes peeled for tracks that, according to my field guide, “look as if made by a flat-footed man in moccasins” but with the big and  little toes reversed and claw marks visible. Fortunately, I do not see any tracks that meet this description.

Once I am safely indoors, I feel relief settle upon me like a veil. (That is, after I have carefully checked in the closets and under the beds and have ascertained that my goldfish are still in their tank.) I crack open the back door just enough to determine that the sack of cat chow I leave out nightly for the local feral cat is still there. (I have never seen this elusive creature before, but it eats an entire bag of kibble every night and has even consumed entire haunches of venison; it must be the size of a cougar!)

I fire up the computer. My brushes with panic have unnerved me. Knowledge is power, so I will Google for more information about urban ursids to set my mind at ease. And while I’m at it, bear traps.