Tonight is All Souls’ eve. The QBCPS tradition for this evening is to have our family dinner and, during dinner, we go around the table and tell stories about our loved ones who’ve died. But this year, we are all in different places. I’m at home with the creatures, the Goddess is at a sleepover, and Junglemonkey is hosting a celebration in another town. She’s got people and she’s got photos and I know she’s going to tell the stories for me there. But I still want to tell the stories myself, and the Internet is here. So I’m telling you, The Internet, and I’m telling the creatures.
Wallace Beitzel was my father. He was born in Washington, he lived briefly in Alaska, he went to high school in San Mateo, California, he lived and worked in California for all but a handful of years of his life. He died in August of this year. He was a mathematician. He was a priest. He loved to talk about ideas, but he was not very comfortable talking about his own emotions. He could change his mind about really fundamental emotional positions — accepting homosexuality, for instance — when presented with a compelling argument. Tonight, though, I want to tell a story about the one time he came home and talked about his work. This is a rare story, because my dad had a top secret clearance and he couldn’t really talk about what he did. He never talked about what he worked on. But this one time, he did.
It was the mid 1980s. Reagan had announced SDI a year or two earlier and I was still in regular high school, so it was probably the fall of 1984 or maybe the spring of 1985. I was sitting in my bedroom and my dad came home from work. It was daylight and I was sitting up, reading, or writing. I remember my dad coming in to my bedroom with diffident language, like he didn’t want to seem to be intruding. He sat down and said, “So I had this interesting problem at work.”
“Imagine you’ve got a cone and at the apex, instead of coming to a point, you’ve got a sphere,” he held his hands up, like he was holding a grapefruit in front of his face. “It’s in space, and it’s coming down to Earth. It gets to the atmosphere and the air is flowing over all the surfaces, and it’s not smooth, laminar flow. It’s turbulent. So the cone tumbles, and its trajectory isn’t a smooth parabola.” All of this is accompanied by hand gestures, showing the flow of the air and the gyration of our cone.
“Now, down on the surface of the Earth, you’ve got a radar antenna. Actually, several radar antennas, but that’s not important. The radar can ping the cone and tell you where it is and how fast it’s going and where it’s headed, but because of the tumbling there’s going to be some error. Up until now, it’s taken something like six pings to figure out where that cone was going to land. But I’ve figured out a way to cut that in half, and I’m one of three people in the world who know how to do it; the other two are my partners on this project.”
He was a smart guy, my dad. I am proud to have known him.
Russell Harter was my uncle, my mother’s little brother. His family called him Rusty. Might have been for his red hair, it might have been for his name, but it didn’t matter. I always think of him smiling. Even when he was lecturing, he sounded like there was a chuckle just barely suppressed. He died in September of this year.
He was a geologist, and he was particularly interested in lava tubes. I always thought this was kind of funny because he worked in Los Angeles. A geologist in Los Angeles mostly consults about oil or earthquakes, not volcanoes, but there’s paying the bills and there’s passion. He paid the bills, but his passion was lava.
When I was a senior in high school, I went to work at the geotechnical consulting firm he worked in. I did filing and couriered documents around, and they taught me some drafting and I did that, too. I liked the drafting, because I got to use the Rapidograph pens and it let me indulge my urge to draw tiny lines. They liked me to do drafting because I got paid the same whatever I did, and drafting billed to clients at three times the rate of filing.
One of the last times I saw my uncle, he took me out into his back yard to show me the bench he’d made out of a pine tree that had been growing there for years but had died. He was very pleased to have made it, and he had every reason to be proud. It was a fine piece of furniture.
His house, whether his boyhood room, his apartment as a newlywed, or the house where his family lives still, was always full of bookshelves which were full of books. Whenever I see a room where I can’t see the walls because of books, I think of him. It feels like family, and it feels good.
I’ve got other people to remember, and other stories to tell, but I’m going to do that with the dogs. The Internet, you can just know that I knew and loved Elsie Harter, Stuart Beitzel, Joseph Harter, and Edna Buker. Maybe I’ll tell you some of their stories another time.