|I'm a little
teapot, short and stout.
Here is my handle, here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up, then I shout,
Just tip me over, pour me out!
-- Recorded by Paul Niquette, ca. 1938
Depression deprived my father of an opportunity for a
college education. "I never got my 'sheepskin',"
he would tell people. During the thirties, he
operated a 'direct-positive' photography kiosk on the
Pike in Long Beach. He studied library books on
science and mathematics while developing technical
know-how repairing radios and record players.
In the thirties, my parents owned the only record-maker in the neighborhood. My father took delight in showing off the technology at parties, making magical recordings of talking and laughing and singing. All sounds were captured, including my mother's mistakes on the piano, accompanied by her whispered epithets.
The record-maker occupied a mahogany cabinet with a hinged lid on top. The mechanisms inside seemed always to be in need of expert tweaking by my father. There was this cutting blade on an arm driven by a screw. The arm moved slowly across a smooth bakelite disk. Oh right, and there was an extra hole near the center of the disk. A matching spring-loaded pin prevented slippage of the disk on the turn-table. The blade vibrated by electrical signals from a bulky microphone, carving my song into a groove while spinning out a black thread that tangled around the center post. More than seven decades have flashed by, but the image of that contraption remains unblurred in my memories.
During the war, my father's technical knowledge took on vital importance supporting the necessities of aviation, most notably gyroscopic instruments and bombsights. In the evenings, on his workbench at home, my father's projects included intercoms, shortwave radios, and the mandatory code-practice oscillators of the time. All his life, it seems, my father's work was also his hobby. Inspired by his devotion to technology, I never doubted what my future would be.
ngineering in the early fifties was all tabulations and formulas. On campus, engineering students were marked by -- and mocked for -- the sliderules on their belts. Meanwhile, engineering itself was struggling to achieve a professional ranking alongside other fields of applied science. In my first semester at El Camino College, I came under the influence of a profoundly dedicated physics instructor, Thomas Wilson. He fostered respect for scientific analysis while heaping scorn upon the empiricism that characterized "the engineering trade."
Not only would I become an engineer, but I forewent any extracurricular activities that might interfere with achieving the highest academic goals. Meanwhile, my chemistry instructor, William Mooney, who served also as the faculty advisor for intramural sports, had no patience for my reclusive excesses and hounded me into playing softball for the Engineer's Club.
"Bring your mit," he said.
Right field was where I had hoped to hide. Late in our first game, though, someone on the Thespian's squad actually hit a fly ball in my general direction. I took a few steps forward then ran backwards. Reaching up, I knocked my glasses off and stumbled. Thwap! The ball stuck in my glove. The school paper reported my athletic heroics. I took a razzing from teammates. Some became lifelong chums. Intramurals, including flag football and badminton, would serve as my social ballast through graduation from junior college.
One day in 1953, the mail brought notice that I had been accepted to the upper division in UCLA's College of Engineering. That week my father left home. My sister and two brothers were not yet teenagers. No more intramurals. I found a job lubing cars in a service station over on Pacific Coast Highway.
ore than a half-century later, during a recent residential move, I came across that home-made recording in a box of memorabilia. Nobody I know has a record player anymore -- certainly not one with a turn-table capable of playing an old '78'. Never mind. Just holding that bakelite disk in my hands makes me think back to my father and all the wondrous technologies he introduced me to. And one more thing...
Hardly a day went by in my youth when I was not reminded of the fact that my father was not an engineer.
"Without a sheepskin," my father would holler into his beer, "they won't let you be an engineer -- no matter how smart you are. Practical experience means nothing. No goddam sheepskin and you can't ever amount to anything but a technician like me."
His words returned often to my mind
while I was at UCLA. I renewed my determination
to finish what Tom Wilson and Bill Mooney had
started. Like so many other young men, I did not
want to be like my father. I got a sheepskin in
1955, but I never call it that.