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This Old Man

by Julia Sneden

June 20th was the first Fathers Day since my father died. I had expected to be a bit shaky, but oddly enough, I was okay: not a sniffle. Perhaps Fathers Day is too general, too much a day for every father, for it to have particular meaning. Or perhaps the fact that we were at the beach with children and grandchildren just provided welcome distraction. In any event, it has been my experience that attacks of grief cant be anticipated.  They come during those odd little moments on perfectly ordinary days when the sense of loss sneaks around a corner and grabs you by the ankle. It bites pretty hard.
     For instance, when Time Magazine ran a nice little sidebar mention of this website, I found myself thinking: Wont Daddy enjoy that! He subscribed to the magazine from its very first issue, and for something that I was connected to, to garner a mention in Time, wow! 
     Or, when a son took a picture of me that actually looks something like the real me, and I said: I must remember to get a print for Daddy. And promptly burst into tears.
     When the end of July came around, I had a fleeting moment of recognition that I should get a birthday card for August 19th and then with an ache, remembered that I wouldnt need it. 
     A couple of months ago, when a scientist announced that shed found a way to slow down the speed of light, I found myself really angry that my father was not here to read about it. Back in 1984, he developed a theory he called the Fast Waves theory, in which he claimed that the speed of light is not immutable. Several of his scientific chums evaluated it at his request, and all seemed to be fascinated by it even as they pointed out what they perceived to be its flaws. The arguments and proofs are too complex to go into here, but at the heart of the theory was his belief that the speed of light can be changed. That was a big jump, and its a credit to his friends respect for him that no one laughed even as they disagreed with him. 
     His theory didnt involve slowing light down from its heretofore-constant speed of 186,000 miles per second. It involved speeding it up. Perhaps someday someone will discover a way to do so. The fact that he was still pondering such mysteries in his 80s, at a time when his life was filled with heavy cares, is amazing. 
     Unfortunately, just as he was in high gear, my stepmothers Alzheimers Disease took a dramatic turn for the worse, and for the next five years, he was on duty as sole caregiver twenty-four hours per day. He managed to see her through to the end with utmost diligence and love, but by the time she died, his own health was beginning to weaken. Just coping with daily needs wore him out, and he never had the energy to pursue his theory. 
     He did keep inventing. For instance, he developed a nifty little keyboard whereby a friend who had had a laryngectomy and lost her voice could type what she wanted to say. The machine translated her words into Morse code, which my father, old radio ham that he was, could read as fast as print. The two of them garnered many a curious stare in restaurants: She would type something, and as the machine beeped, my father would burst out laughing, and say something like: Thats a good one! 
      My father was a really nice man. In fact, he was probably too nice. He was generous to a fault, and gave away ideas as easily as a smile.
      One of my earliest memories is of looking out through the bars of a crib into a small room directly across the hallway. There I could see my fathers back as he sat in front of his ham radio rig, the big, bulky earphones jutting out on the sides of his head. There was a small red light on the console, and lots of dials that hed twist from time to time. I think I knew his call letters, W6HB, before I had any idea of the alphabet.
      The mans whole heart and soul were in radio. He quit college at the age of 20, because, he once told me, there was nobody in the electrical engineering department who could teach him and his friends anything about radio. Those young boys were the ones who were discovering it as they went along.
      When he aimed his signal at the moon and recognized its echo bouncing back, he didnt rush to the newspapers with a big story. He shared his discovery with the other teenagers in his radio club, and together they figured out why the frequency changed as the signal returned to earth. 
     I have many childhood memories of his radio clubs Field Days, when he and a group of buddies would go back up into the hills around San Francisco and set up a transmitter, to see which group could broadcast farthest.  Or perhaps theyd participate in a hare and hound event where one bunch set up a transmitter and all the rest raced to find it by triangulation. Along the way, those young men discovered all sorts of shortcuts and invented all sorts of new gear, without much thought to ownership. They were making discoveries for mankind!
     Eventually, the need to earn a living took him down other paths, into the budding electronics industry. He never stopped fiddling with his ham rig, but his growing family plus a divorce and remarriage kept him working in the business side of electronics. Even then, he found time to partake in some exciting firsts. He was the driving force behind the first Oscar satellite (put up by and for amateur radio operators, piggy-backed on an Air Force rocket shot off from Vandenberg Air Base). He was project engineer for the first EME (earth/moon/earth) real time transcontinental transmission. He was president and founder of WESCON, the West Coast electronics association. But all during his long and successful career, he looked forward to retirement as a time when he could tinker with his radio and his theories to his hearts content. It didnt happen that way. A series of reverses, physical and financial, demanded his attention and his energy.
     I think he had regret, but not bitterness. He was absolutely the most optimistic man I ever knew. His love of life and his sense of humor kept him afloat until the very last months of his life. At that point, anger took over, because his body had stopped working while his mind still had keen edges (and an agenda). In the end, he died because he was unwilling to compromise his standards. If he couldnt live independently and productively, he simply didnt want to live. 
     I didnt always understand him. I didnt always approve of him. But then, he didnt always understand me, or approve of me. I never doubted that he loved me, although he rarely mentioned the fact. He was of a generation that expressed deep emotions with a joke, and perhaps a pat and a shake of the head as he said: You really are something! That was the ultimate compliment from my father, and he was happiest if we avoided sentimentality by replying with something flippant like: Thanks. Back atcha. 
     Im told that I have his smile, which is good because it was a beaut. I hope that in some ways I do take after my old man. He really was something.


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