Although my earliest recollection is at age three, pushing a
button-hook (If you remember those, you are dated!) back and
forth across the front porch on a string pulled tight and
horizontal like a clothes-line. I am told that at that point I
was already a seasoned traveler. In the company of my parents
and older brother Nelson (5 years my senior), they say, I had
traversed the country between Bay City, Michigan where I was born
(1910), and the Pacific Coast region, three times, --- winding up
in Portland, Oregon.
In these times that doesn't sound like much; but in the days before the Model T Ford had appeared in any numbers, and roads were likely to be mud, or "corduroy", that much travel spelled days and days on a train. It was to be along time before I would take any more journeys of more that a hundred miles or so. Mostly we went on week-end fishing or picnic trips, thirty, fifty, a hundred miles -- but to me those trips were enormous adventures.
Thanks to a happy choice of parents and guardian angels, I managed to survive the problems, perils and pleasures (sometimes the most dangerous) of childhood in pretty good shape. I earned a succinct rating of "disgustingly healthy"; and with a few notable exceptions of Scarlet Fever, World War I-type flu, double-sided mumps and a handful of common colds, I was.
Fairly early in life I showed an interest in mechanical things- boats, airplanes, clocks, gas engines, locomotives - any kind of device that did something. I fell heir to my brother's tremendous Meccano set (Erector set is the closest modern analogy), and spent long hours whomping up gadgets for its tiny electric motor to drive. These things intrigued me far more than school work, so I was an indifferent student until I entered high school. There, a smart mathematics teacher tied my mechanical interests to what high school had to teach me, and I finally slipped my brain into high gear. It was the same story as my athletic endeavors. I became a competent student but never won any honors beyond the honor roll.
As I entered my junior year, I still had no clear idea what I wanted to be. I was interested in astronomy and optics, had made some telescopes of indifferent optical quality because the family purse was not the fattest and I had to make do with simple lenses. I was good at chemistry, but it was not an all-consuming interest. At this juncture, the family moved into an upstairs flat in east Portland, near the Washington High School, and my career goal was crystallized for me. A widow and two sons moved in downstairs, the older one was a genius. He knew tat by hook or crook, he was going to Reed College and major in physics.
Johnnie impressed me on a number of counts. His grades in school were far worse than mine, but at home he played concertos on the piano, worked out precise problems about the motions of the moon, and was teaching himself integral calculus -- AND he was grinding an eight-inch telescope mirror.
I decided Johnnie Backus was my kind of guy, and I could do worse than to go where he went; so when the time came, we matriculated in Reed College, majoring in physics together, roomed together in our last two years, rivalled each other on the horizontal bar and at swimming. In the middle of our senior year, we formed the male half of a double wedding. (married Hilda Lontina Funk, December 10, 1931)
He graduated with the highest scholastic record in physics in the history of the college. I was just in there somewhere, not a squeak-thru, but no raging ball of fire either. That was in June, 1932, just about the bottom of the Big Depression.
It was nearly a year before I had work above the level of motel roustabout and service station attendant, and felt lucky to have that. I knew a PhD who was driving a truck for Coca Cola. I have my father to thank for seeing me thru that year on top of footing the bill for my college, and for making the contact that got be into the gear department of the Iron Fireman Mfg. Co. in the Spring of 1934.
A Civil Service examination netted me a job in the National Bureau of Standards lab at Seattle, at the munificent sum of $1620 a year in September 1935. Our son, Stanley, was on the way. He arrived without undue fuss on February 25, 1936, with a blase' expression that said quite plainly: "Well, here I am. So what?" There was none of that pinched look of protest one commonly associates with a newborn. Just "Ho Hum."
My work with NBS was entirely with the testing and inspection of cement for the Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia River; but for two years I worked in the Seattle laboratory and cement plants within 100 miles, and never once saw the dam itself - - until 14 years later!
About ten o'clock one night, after our dinner-quest, a master zither-player who had just given us a two-hour concert, left the house, Hilda started to cough up blood and went into shock. After some agonizing delays on the phone, I finally raised the nearest doctor who came from 25 miles away over road under construction. He made her comfortable but could not diagnose; and I took her that night to a Seattle hospital, with Stanley in the back seat sleeping soundly thru it all like the healthy baby he was. There we learned his mother had developed a lung abscess, requiring absolute bed-rest, repeated collapsing of the left lung by injection of air into the pleural cavity, and two years of convalescence. Just finding quarters for an invalid wife and babe in arms became a well-nigh insoluble problem - and solutions had a distressing way of becoming temporary. I have long since lost count of the places we lived in those two years; but near the end we moved to San Francisco, and once Hilda was back on her feet we bought a house in Berkeley.
We were there when the Japs lowered the boom on Pearl Harbor. Living costs began to soar, ant there was no evidence that a laggard Congress was going to help the Country's civil service employees meet them. I quit the NBS and went to work as an outside machinist in the shipyards. The Maritime Commission crooked its finger at me, offered a jump in grade, and I became an inspector of ships' materials, equipment and instruments.
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