As I sit down to write this little note for my dad’s 85th birthday, it is hard to wrap my head around all the ways he has influenced me. The fabric of his personality is such a part of me; it is difficult to extract the specific threads.
So I’ll pick two of them for now and see where they take me: love of technology and love of music.
Growing up, my dad was always tinkering with something. He could fix cars, but that wasn’t his main interest. Electricity was. He won two high school science fair awards his Senior year — Physics (“remote control device which allowed control of lights and the garage door in a doll house using a rotary telephone dial”) and Chemistry (“a Cotrell Precipitator using a very high voltage to remove smoke particles from the flowing gases in a chimney”). He was a geek before there was such a thing.
Some of my growing up memories are:
- A toy he built over fifty years ago that taught me my first phone number. A wood box, maybe a foot across. Painted red. The black rotary dial from a phone sat right in the middle. Not the rest of the phone, mind you, just the dial. Above the dial was a set of lights. Given the dial had ten digits, I presume there were ten lights. When you dialed it, the lights went on. There is a little semi-musical memory I have of saying the numbers in my head that is still here. 737-0199. The pauses matched the numbers. The sevens took longer than the three. The zero and nines took the longest.
- On my fifteenth birthday, he got me a multi-band radio. One of the most awesome gifts in my life at that point. It had AM, FM, Police, and Weather bands. And, much more importantly, it could get loud and I controlled the station. I kept that radio until into my thirties. I had long since gotten a nice stereo but had a strong sentimental attachment to that radio.
- A conversation in our dining room about np junctions in semiconductors. The fundamental physics behind computer chips. I was struggling to understand it as I was only six. Not really, I was in my teens, but it was still hard. I was barely grasping the concept with a few fingertips, and then he completely blew my mind with his ending statement. Paraphrasing, because c’mon it’s over forty years ago, he said “In the end it is all ones and zeros. And you can do anything with ones and zeros.” That phrase had a big influence in my decision to go into computers for my career.
I was continually exposed to his “gee whiz” approach to technology. His delight in figuring something out; in cleverly using some little piece of tech to make something useful. A lot of that rubbed off on me. I don’t have the “maker” gene to the degree he does. But my ability to learn about new tech and quickly see lots of different ways it could be useful is absolutely from my dad.
One result from his love of technology was a great stereo system. There was frequently music playing in the house. Most of my memories are the radio or the LP records playing on the turntable. The long sleek arm tracking slowly into the center of the black plastic disk. There were a lot of sixties folk songs, jazz, and others. I don’t remember the genres specifically, but I imagine that if you looked at my tastes in older music, it closely tracks with what I listened to growing up.
I have already mentioned the radio I got as a birthday present. He also built me a record player. No one built record players in the early 70s. No one ever built their own record player. You just bought one. Not my dad. He built one. Just for me. And it was even louder than the little black radio. Caribou, by Elton John, was my first album, and I also had a ton of 45s. I spent a lot of time in my room playing music.
There are two of his albums that made specific, but very different impressions. The album Through Children’s Eyes, by the Limeliters was worn out by all the plays it got. The Limeliters, a popular folk group in the 1960s, made an album with a children’s chorus. I still know all the words and own the album in CD and digital formats.
The second album was memorable for a very different reason. Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass put out an album called Whipped Cream & Other Delights. To a prepubescent boy in the pre-internet days, that album cover… oh boy… that album cover was something. I just went back and listened to a few songs and I remember some of the music. But I’m pretty sure I played the album just to look at the album cover.
My love of music continues to this day. Amazon tells me I have bits and pieces of over 1300 albums and close to 8000 songs in my digital collection. I was listening in shuffle mode the other day and Barbra Streisand, Ozzy Osbourne, Let It Go from Frozen, and the Beastie Boys played in succession. It was awesome. I have my music with me throughout the day, but I don’t have a fancy stereo system anymore and I miss that. My dad, of course, still sits on his ‘bridge of the Enterprise’ cubby with all his stereo controls right at his fingertips listening to far better sound quality than I have ever owned.
Oh, one more thing. He has given, at current count, 235 whole blood donations in his life. I’ve been trying to catch up (even “cheating” and doing apheresis — it counts as two donations) but I’m not even halfway. In 2012, he and I took my middle child for her first blood donation. Three generations giving blood at the same time. As he was very connected in the local TV scene (oh, I didn’t mention he was a TV and Radio Chief Engineer? Yeah, he was.), he managed to get the local news to show up.
A few other, um, interesting facts
- He talked his way into the control booth at a movie theatre when he was in 6th grade. On a military base. Where he learned to run the big movie projector. The Space Tower at the Minnesota State Fair? He talked his way into the control room. He has talked his way into the technical rooms in all sorts of places, but the statute of limitations hasn’t run out yet so I won’t say more.
- He re-plumbed his garbage disposal with an auto-water feed so he wouldn’t have to turn on the water when he turned on the disposal. If any building inspectors are reading this, I’m joking.
- To move a heavy water fountain into and out of winter storage, he built a level/pulley system that, I am convinced, he enjoys more than the fountain.
- He built a TV station in Dallas, TX.
- He built a radio station that ran for at least 300,000 hours without major changes or downtime.
A most impressive 85 years.