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.



  1. This is lovely auntie Chris. Such care went into making sure his treasured books went to the right homes. hold on to the little scraps, the handwriting of the ones we love is as unique and precious as their voice. xxx