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Memoir

Remembrances of things past, in my own life and those near to me

Halloween and Entropy

So another Halloween is now history. It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday in Colorado Springs, sunny and in the low 70s all afternoon and early evening. I kept a mental tally of how many groups of kids came to the door. Care to guess?

Nine.

Ahh, well. Nothing new there. Like entropy, Halloween is not what it used to be, and knowing what we now know about sugar, that may be for the best.

You don’t buy nine candy bars at a time, so Carol and I ate far too much chocolate for dessert this evening–and not great chocolate either. It was the Great Big Bag of Mega-Mass-Produced Miniature Candy Bars ‘n Things. I picked the bag clean of Rolos and Nestle’s Crunch. Carol grabbed the Reese’s peanut butter cups. Tomorrow the rest of the bag goes to the big candy bowl over at Canine Solutions. Every year it’s more or less the same: I remember how much I like Rolos, I eat a few too many of them, and then I won’t have them again until next Halloween.

Man, that’s a familiar routine.

This year’s Halloween brought to mind one of my favorite years: 1964. I was 12. It was the last full year before puberty’s hormone storms began washing over my gunwales, though I could already hear its distant thunder. I had discovered electronics–and the Beatles. My father was healthy. We had a summer place, on a lake. Better still, Halloween was on a Saturday…and it was warm! I could run around as a Barbary pirate without three sweaters under my costume.

I got together with a couple of my friends and we ranged all over the neighborhood, going blocks and blocks afield, and I ended up with a pretty fat bag of sugar. Diversity was the order of the day. There were lots more species of candy in the Halloween ecosphere back in ’64. Most of it was good. Some items I liked more than others. A few I wouldn’t touch, like the almost inexplicable Chicken Bones. I would have traded them to my friends for Smarties (which, alas, now give me headaches) except that they didn’t want them either. Ditto Mary Janes–wouldn’t touch ’em, though I remember getting a Turkish Taffy from my friend Art as swap for a handful. Individually wrapped Charms were about, if not common, though more common than the peculiar but compelling Choward’s Violets. And Snaps! Loved those, more for the not-quite-spicy coating than for the underlying licorice. The small red Snaps boxes all had “2c” printed in very big letters. Small boxes of Atomic Fireballs and Good’n’Plenty could be had here and there. I remember one house handing out very stale conversation hearts, from the previous February or possibly earlier. There used to be individually wrapped Chuckles, which I haven’t seen in a lot of years, as well as short rolls of Necco Wafers. I broke a tooth on a Necco wafer when I was in high school, and haven’t done them much since.

Every so often somebody would be passing out pennies. Meh–I got whole dimes rescuing returnable soda bottles tossed into empty lots. There was a house down on Hortense that was giving out flyers about Lutheranism along with Tootsie Pops. The nuns at our school were very hard on Luther, who was painted as the chief Protestant supervillain, though he got off easy compared to Arius, who according to Catholic legend was eaten alive by worms. And hey, nobody hands out fliers about Arianism, with or without Tootsie Pops.

I think you get the idea. We didn’t throw rolls of toilet paper into trees or anything like that, because it was a bad use of our time. We were in it for the sugar, and we all knew that Halloween on a Saturday was something we would not see again for seven years, and with summery weather, well, in Chicago probably never.

My sugar buzz is now almost gone, and it’s pretty much time to go to bed. I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and you’ve all seen my rants about how sugar is making us all fat. It’s not me being inconsistent. It’s about the notion of celebration, and how if we celebrate something for too long, that which we celebrate becomes ordinary, and loses its magic. If I ate Rolos all the time I’d get tired of them, and fat to boot. So I eat them once a year. Halloween is as good a time as any, and allows me to remember the buzz of being not-quite-grown at a time when kids could tear around for an afternoon without adult supervision, and no one would freak out. Like warm Halloweens on Chicago Saturdays, such will not be seen again for a long time, if ever.

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss

Frank&VickieDuntemann Bill Prendergast Wedding 11-21-1964-500 wide.jpg

Father’s Day. I’m not sure what I can say about my father that hasn’t been said already. If you’ve read this entry from 2009, you know most of his history. Maybe it’s time to lay out some more.

Frank W. Duntemann was, by his own definition, a successful man. He had a gift for aphorism, and he told me more than once: “Success means being at no one’s mercy but your own.” He wanted me to be successful as well, and did everything he knew how to urge me along. Straight As were a requirement at our house, and I delivered them. So were courtesy, respect, and correct English. He taught me how to teach myself things–good lord, it took me decades to appreciate the value of that lesson alone. He told me life was hard work, and so what? Successful people worked hard. They were also careful, and made smart choices. He summed it up with another aphorism: Kick ass. Just don’t miss.

In other words, weld enthusiasm to discernment. I had plenty of enthusiasm. Discernment came later.

And he worried about this. Much of my free time (at least free time that wasn’t spent reading) I spent banging on my grandmother Sade Duntemann’s cranky old Understood Standard #5, which she had given me when I was ten. I was writing science fiction stories. I showed him the ones I considered good, and he agreed. They were good. They were maybe a little too good, especially for a 14-year-old. My high school had teacher conference nights, and my parents always went. One of my English teachers told him something that made him proud, and evidently scared him (as he might have put it) shitless: “Jeff is an absolutely amazing writer. You should encourage him. I’ll bet he could make money with his stories!”

It was assumed that I would follow in his footsteps and become an engineer. And it’s true, I was always tinkering something up in the basement. But as my high school years passed, I spoke more and more of getting published, and not just writing, but being a writer.

He was gentle about it, but firm: Writing was not a good way to make a living. Trying to make a job out of writing was a good way to starve. Better to be an engineer, and write in your spare time…

The lessons stopped in the fall of 1968, when my father was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer caused by his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I was 16. My mother was completely devoted to caring for him, and my sister and I more or less grew up on automatic. I was accepted at engineering school, and bailed after a single semester. I didn’t fail out, exactly, but I could tell it wasn’t going to work.

Alas, I had no clue about what would.

I enrolled at DePaul University’s Department of English, figuring I could always be a teacher. After all, I was good at explaining things. Again, I got straight As, and in the fall of my senior year I sold my first SF story, to Harry Harrison’s anthology Nova 4. I got $195 for it. My father pointed out that it was a good start, but I really needed a backup career. I still had no idea what to do with my life. After I graduated I took a job as a Xerox machine repairman, continued to teach myself electronics, and continued to write. I taught myself programming, and built my own computer out of loose parts. On a whim I began writing articles about home-built computers, and sold them, mostly to Wayne Green but later to Byte, and much later to PC Tech Journal and others. The money was thin, but over time it began to add up.

Frank W. Duntemann died on January 11, 1978. I was 25. Very weirdly, when he died I was under general anaesthesia at Evanston Hospital, getting a hernia fixed. Even more weirdly, while I was under I had a dream: I stood alone in space, gazing at a titanic wall of books on shelves, thousands upon endless thousands of books, extending to infinity in every direction.

People don’t dream normally under general anaesthesia, which is, after all, an artificial coma. I was hallucinating, surely. Or had my father taken a quick detour on his way to the Beatific Vision, and, figuring he had time to stick only one image into my head, chose an image that his weird nerdy writer son would understand?

If so, I think I know what he was saying: Go for it, dammit!

I did. That day was what writers call my “dark moment.” It passed, as dark moments do, and my life began to fall into place. Within a year I’d gotten a huge promotion and a transfer to a programming job at Xerox HQ. Within two years I’d sold three more SF stories, and within three years I had two nominations on the final ballot of the Hugo Awards. Within five years I nailed a contract for my first technical book. Within ten years I was Editor-in-Chief of a technical magazine with 217,000 readers. Within twenty years I was co-owner of Arizona’s largest book publishing company, and had a quarter million books in ten languages kicking around the world with my name on them.

I kicked ass. I didn’t miss. The kickin’ just took a little longer than either of us expected.

I wobble between two extremes on Father’s Days. The sentimental, mystical part of me assumes that he’s somehow gotten word that his kid done good–and the hard-bitten, rationalist part wants to wring his neck for checking out before I could prove him wrong and rub his nose in it.

Here’s the moral, as I see it: Fathers, believe in your sons as they create their own futures. Sons, cut your fathers some slack. They couldn’t see your futures while you were creating them…

…or could they?

The Original Hard Disk

I know I have an original Bernoulli Box 10 MB cartridge somewhere. I saved one because I was sure that nobody would believe me when I waved this huge slab of plastic at them and said, “This holds 10 MB.” I think I was right. I won’t know until I find it. So I looked…

…and I found something else instead. See the photo above. Anybody recognize it? It’s part of one of the earliest hard drives in computer history. It’s such an old hard drive that it wasn’t even a hard drive. No. It was main memory.

I honestly don’t remember who manufactured it, though Sperry-Univac sounds familiar. (I threw out the case when we left Rochester in 1985.) I bought it at a hamfest for a couple of bucks just for curiosity’s sake; the old guy I bought it from said it was a hard disk, and I was skeptical. He was right, and it was probably fifteen years until Google allowed me to look for an explanation. I took the case apart and found a motor, a fairly heavy aluminum disk coated on one face with red iron oxide, and the assembly above, which has 160 magnetic heads in eight spiral groups. Roughly half the heads look like gray ferrite, and the other half like white ceramic. I’m guessing that the gray heads are write heads, and the white heads are read heads. (It could be the other way around.) The whole assembly is 9″ in diameter; the magnetic disk is 8″ with the outer 2 1/4″ coated with oxide.

So what we have here is a device that imposes 80 tracks on 2 1/4″ of oxide. The number of bits on each track remains a mystery. 1000? 2000? Somewhere in there, which suggests a total of 100,000 or perhaps 120,000 bits, which would provide about 16KB. This was RAM, not mass storage. The principle is basically the same as the magnetic drum memory systems that IBM sold with its vacuum tube machines like the 650. There were no moving parts other than the disk itself, and you can spin a disk faster than you can spin a drum. I’m guessing that the magnetic disk units like mine filled the (narrow) gap between magnetic drums and core memory. I’ve seen writeups indicating that magnetic disk storage was used for swap storage as late as the PDP 11/45 in 1972. The unit I have seemed a lot older than that.

One of the problems in researching a unit like this is that “hard disk” and “magnetic disk” have other, more modern meanings. So what needles may be are lost in the titanic haypile of newer technologies. If any of you know anything more about the technology send me a quick description or links, and I’ll post them in a future entry.

I had 8″ floppies in my first CP/M machine, and 5″ floppies in all my PCs until the 90s. I used SyQuest cartridge hard drives for years after my 1986-1992 romance with Bernoulli Box drives, which drove me nuts with their constant indexing of heads across the medium. (Tick…tick…tick…) The SyQuest cartridges spun fast and died young. There followed three generations of Zip drives, culminating in the monumentally awful Jaz. It was only in 2004 that I set aside moving parts in my removable storage, and began using thumb drives. I’ve had an SSD on my main system for eighteen months, and will be putting them in most of my lab machines as well, spurred by the need to get XP out of daily use here.

It’s sobering to remember: We’ve been spinning magnetic disks for what may well be sixty years now. We’re still spinning them, and we will be for another ten years or so at least. What other computer technology has been in wide use for that many years? Tape–maybe. That’s the end of my list.

Damn. That’s a lot of angular momentum. Will I miss spinning disks when they’re gona entirely?

Hah. Guess.

Wayne Green W2NSD, SK

It’s hard not to have an opinion about Wayne Green. Depending on whom you listen to, he was a visionary, a crank, delusional, eccentric, generous, lecherous, honest, optimistic, boundlessly energetic, or all of the above and maybe a few more. Someone wrote a bogglingly angry book once (I had it but have misplaced it) that spent its entire length trying to persuade us that he was a liar, a scoundrel, a thief, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of Byte Magazine. Anger that dense warps the fabric of truth. (Be careful with your anger. Let it get too dense and you will vanish into a black hole of lost credibility from which you may never emerge.) Don Lancaster put the lie to it without any trouble: When Don was writing for the extremely early Byte, Wayne was there, buying articles and signing checks.

That said, Wayne Green said a lot of peculiar things about a lot of things both mundane and peculiar. He said he was richer than (as best we know) he actually was. He said he was sexy and available. (One out of two ain’t bad.) He was constantly bitching and moaning about the FCC, the ARRL, and lord knows what else. He bragged about affairs he had had with his editorial staff. He published articles about homebrew radio gear that simply couldn’t work, or were such peculiar lashups of pipe fittings, power tubes, trash cans, glue, staples, beer bottles and copper tubing that nobody wanted to try. (I say this with some affection. Many of those articles were by the late Bill Hoisington K1CLL, who admitted…gasp!…that VHF/UHF circuits could be cranky. The crankiness of those circuits led him to try a lot of things that looked dicey, but to me their craziness indicated a certain honesty about how cranky VHF/UHF electronics actually are. Which is, of course…cranky.) There is a long list of things that Wayne Green did here. How many are true is hard to say. Did he really pilot a nuclear attack sub? Scary notion, if you’ve read his editorials. The truth, I suspect, is that he was a legend in both senses of the term.

Wayne Green, whether he was crazy or not, remains one of my heroes, for this reason: He bought the first piece of writing I ever sold, but not the first I ever had published. I guess I need to clarify: When the article appeared in the December 1974 issue of 73 Magazine, it was not my first publication. I had sold “Our Lady of the Endless Sky” to Harry Harrison for Nova 4 about a month later, but Wayne, as was his wont, paid me immediately and then sat on “All the World’s a Junkbox” for over a year before getting it into print. (“Our Lady” was in my hands in September.) And then he changed the title, to the inane “Zillions of Parts for Nothing.” (See page 36 of that issue.) Was I annoyed? A little. But heck, you only sell your first article once.

I subscribed to 73 for a lot of years, and have most of a full run of the mag on my shelves. Wayne was an editor of CQ for years before 73 appeared. Both magazines were lively and entertaining under his watch. The tech ran hot and cold, as it did almost everywhere but QST, which had paid techs on staff to build things and make sure that they were a) buildable and b) worked. But boy, when the late George Ewing WA8WTE and I got together on 40M, as often as not Wayne’s latest editorial was tops on our rag-chew agenda. Wayne published books, too, including George Ewing’s Living on a Shoestring, which George called “my scrounge book” and I consider a marvelous technical memoir. For a little while Wayne published a magazine called Cold Fusion Journal, which may have been the best fit of an editor with his niche that we will ever see.

Wayne died a few days ago, on the 13th. He was 91. His brief article on Wikipedia indicated that he was ready and eager to go off adventuring in the afterlife, an attitude I much admire. We speculate about what happens to good people after death, and what happens to bad people. What, then, happens to crazy people? Does God try to “fix” them, or do they just go on being crazy? “Crazy” is a debatable term, of course, but it seems to me that if Wayne Green weren’t his very particular brand of crazy, he wouldn’t be Wayne Green anymore. And that, my friends, would be a tragedy, whether here or in the afterlife.

TNX ES 73 OM DE K7JPD SK.

Pat Thurman K7KR, SK

I’m numb. This past Tuesday we lost Pat Thurman, K7KR. He had been struggling with multiple medical issues for a couple of months, and at some point they simply overwhelmed him. Flesh is fragile, even when the spirit is strong.

Like many people, Pat knew of me from my books and my magazine work, and when I announced in my DDJ column that Carol and I were moving to Arizona at the beginning of 1990, he sent me a note and told us to get in touch once we arrived. We did. Pat and his wife Sue became instant friends, and within a year, neighbors, out in the wild dirt-road country at the northern tip of Scottsdale.

Pat was a DXer and contester of formidable skill. While I watched in awe, he put up a 75′ winch-up tower with a highly engineered ground system and a couple of very large steerable beams. (I contented myself with a 200′ longwire and a 6M vertical.) His thunderous signal was heard around the world. His official DX count is 245 countries. (There are 340 right now.) Mine? 17.

We did a lot of offroading in the Tonto National Forest in his high-clearance Jimmy, and visited Sheep’s Bridge. On one of those early trips, Pat stopped the Jimmy for a tarantula in the road. We got out and gathered around the tarantula, which was the first (though it would not be the last) that I had seen in the wild. I wanted a picture, and for scale Pat tossed a quarter onto the road about a foot away from the spider. I worried that the quarter would scare it away. Not so: The tarantula pounced on the quarter so quickly we figured it just teleported. Then once it realized that quarters weren’t edible, it ambled slowly off into the brush.

Pat and Sue were early and eager beta readers for The Cunning Blood, and the inspiration for my Filer Fitzgerald character came from a character in one of Sue’s shows that promoted reading for grade schoolers. It was for that same show that I built The Head of R&D, as I mentioned here some time back. We ate a lot of dinners together, drank a lot of Dornfelder, laughed a great deal, and talked about all kinds of things.

If I can point to any single force that hauled me out of the spiritual mailaise I’d been in for twenty years back in the early 1990s, it was Pat and Sue, and their aptly named parish, Our Lady of Joy. My childhood religion was grim, Hell-centric, and focused on self-denial well beyond what I would call “a healthy discipline.” We originally attended the Sunday night “teen mass” with Pat because Pat and Sue had twin teen sons, and Sue was in the music group. I was astonished: The music they played and sang was downright exuberant: “Send Down the Fire,” “The Canticle of the Turning,” “One Is,” and many more. It made me wonder if there were more to Catholicism than a celebration of human and divine suffering. Our Lady of Joy allowed me to imagine a Catholic tradition that celebrates the physical world, and a God who will not settle for partial victories. Pat and Sue didn’t follow us to Old Catholicism, but without their influence, Carol and I would never have known the journey was even possible.

The older I get, the more I’m certain that friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit. Alas, the older I get, the more I see my friends leaving this world for other realms. I’m 61 now, and I know enough math to understand that that’s just how things work. Does friendship even have a point, if death can end it so easily?

But…maybe it does, because…maybe it doesn’t. If you get my drift.

K7KR DE K7JPD / TNKS GUD LK ES 73 CUL SK.

Taps

FWDuntemannII1942-255 wide.jpgOur house is on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, and our back deck looks down on Fort Carson. We hear bugle calls at 6:30, noon, and 5:00, accompanied by a cannon. Then every night at 10 PM, taps drifts up the mountain. If I’m still up and around, I go out on the back deck and remember three men. When the echoes die away among the mountain canyons, I salute, and whisper, “Thank you, gentlemen.”

All three served their country in World War II. Only two came back. One gave me life. One gave me his daughter’s hand in marriage. And one…he died for you, me, and everybody else who thinks that freedom matters critically in the history of our world.

SteveOstruska1945-550Wide.jpgFrank W. Duntemann was attached to the AACS (Army Airways Communications System) and served first in Italy and then Africa. He claims that he slept through the bombardment of Monte Cassino, and having seen him sleep through my puppy Smoker’s biting his ear and drawing blood, I can almost believe it. He sent Morse code on a Vibroplex bug, and could copy it in his head and pound it out on a typewriter as fast as anybody could send it. I could fill a book with the stories he told.

Steve Ostruszka was in the Navy, and served on the destroyer USS Woolsey (DD-437) until the War ended. Or so we think. Unlike my dad, Carol’s dad simply refused to talk about the War. Nearly all of what we know of his days as an engine mechanic on the Woolsey came from his brother Ed, who also served on the ship.

Then there was Robert Williams, Jr. of Necedah, Wisconsin. He graduated from Necedah High School in 1942, and enlisted in the Navy immediately. At some point in 1942, he kissed his best girl good-bye, and got on a train for California to ship out on the Pacific. I don’t know what ship he was on, but at some point it was attacked by the Japanese, and sunk.

His best girl was my mother.

Like millions of other men and women in WWII and since, Bobby Williams gave his life to help ensure that others could keep theirs, and it was true of me in a very weird way. Absent his sacrifice, I wouldn’t be writing this. I wouldn’t “be” at all, which is a strange thing to meditate on. Now, the chain of contingencies leading to any individual life is long, and doesn’t end until the moment the genetic die is cast. Nonetheless, I wish that he had come back. He loved my mother, and no one should die so horrible a death at 19 or 20.

I’ll go out and listen for taps tonight, and I will thank them again. I will thank countless others for what they gave and for the lives that were changed or lost altogether. We must go to war with the utmost reluctance, but having done so, we must honor those we send, in the hope that every war will be the last that our world will ever see.

The Lost Hobby of Microscopy

Carol found some very small insects crawling around on Dash’s neck yesterday while she was brushing him. She dropped several of them into a pill bottle followed by some alcohol. These were tiny bugs; I’m guessing the biggest one wasn’t quite two millimeters long, and most were at best a millimeter. We squinted and used the magnifying glass that I keep in my desk drawer, and the best we could say is, Yeah, that’s a bug.

I knew what I had to do next, and it took me way back. For Christmas when I was eight (the end of 1960), my father bought me a microscope. It was small and lacked a fine focus knob, but it had an iron frame and decent optics. For the next two years until I discovered electronics, looking at very small things was one of my main hobbies.

My father helped me get the hang of it. He had had a simple microscope himself in the early 1930s, and I still have it somewhere: A black crinkle-finish tube about five inches high, with an eyepiece at the top, a slot for inserting slides, and a tilting mirror in a large milled cutout toward the bottom. He bought me a book called Hunting with the Microscope, by Gaylord Johnson and Maurice Bleifield (1956) and I spent a couple of years hunting for all the microscopic things the authors had painstakingly drawn on its pages.

Many of the drawn microorganisms were said to be found in rivers and ponds, and my friends and I haunted the banks of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers in the summer with mayonnaise jars in hand, scooping up slimy water and the even slimier mud on the riverbottom beneath it. Holding up the jars against bright light showed them to be absolutely crawling with minuscule thingies in constant motion. I had a well slide and managed to corral some of the little monsters in it, but they didn’t slow down long enough for me to identify them. None followed the corkscrew path that paramecia were said to exhibit. We saw no volvoxes nor stentors, cool as that would have been. Water bears too were AWOL. Most heartbreakingly, we never cornered an amoeba, which we longed to see eat something by engulfing it, which would be akin to watching The Blob in miniature–always a draw for ten-year-olds.

No, most of the critters that moved slowly enough to identify were microscopic worms. When my mother heard us talking about worms from the corner of the family room when my friends and I were gazing into my microscope, she made us dump the mayonnaise jars into the toilet and wash our hands. My mother was an RN, and although we didn’t learn it first-hand until we were 13 (another story entirely, though a good one) both rivers were flood relief for Chicago’s and suburban sewers. After even a modest rain, runoff would cascade from overflowing sewer mains right into the rivers, carrying raw sewage with it. So these weren’t exactly earthworms we were watching.

I’m honestly not sure what became of my little microscope. The good news is that Carol received a much better one she when was fourteen (a Tasco 951 with a fine focus knob) and earlier today, I pulled her microscope down off the high shelf and set it up on the kitchen island where the light was good. I looked at a few of the pickled-in-alcohol bugs, but they had been picked off Dash with a tweezers and were not in good shape. We cornered Dash and hunted until we spotted a live one. I carefully snipped the little tuft of hair to which the bug was clinging, and with some prodding managed to tack the bug to the sticky strip on a white Post-It. (Gaylord Johnson would have been proud.) Under the microscope, it was unmistakable: Linognathus setosus, the dog louse. The tacky Post-It strip kept it from walking around, and we were able to see how it clung to a strand of dog hair with its hooked legs.

Dash got a prompt treatment with the usual doggie bug meds, and in a day or two whatever lice remain will be gone. In the meantime, I have to wonder what happened to the microscopy hobby. Astronomy and electronics are both big business, but beyond some Web sites (like this one) I don’t see much to indicate that anybody is digging through river mud looking for water fleas anymore. The instruments are cheap compared to good test equipment or telescopes. You can get used stereo microscopes on eBay for $250 or less, and used student microscopes like Carol’s for under $50. Rivers are a whole lot cleaner than they were fifty years ago, and I’m thinking that if I sampled the Chicago River today I might score a stentor or two, and maybe even an amoeba. Granting that Google is a much better way to identify the stuff you’re looking at, I might order a copy of Hunting with the Microscope, just for fun. No, I don’t really need another hobby, but I want to be ready the next time something really small comes calling, and I need to know what it is.

Eating Irish

ShamrockCrisps.jpgAs I passed the photo of my godmother, Kathleen Duntemann, on the bookcase earlier today, I quietly wished her a happy St. Patrick’s Day. (It might be customary to say, “Wherever she is” except that I know exactly where she is.) She and my grandmother Sade Prendergast Duntemann were excellent cooks, and on St. Patrick’s Day there would almost always be corned beef and cabbage, duck, or goose, all cooked using ancient Irish recipes. I’m not sure if it was a purely family eccentricity, but back when I was still living at home, a well-picked winter goose or duck carcass would be tied with some twine to a branch of the big sycamore tree by the back door. The birds feasted, and according to my mother, the fatty leftovers allowed the now-lean birds to survive the remainder of those nasty Chicago winters.

Of course, by May 1 there were half a dozen bird skeletons swinging in the breeze, which must have made the neighbors wonder.

As much as shamrocks entered into the spirit of Old St. Pattie’s Day at our house, I never once heard my aunt or grandmother suggest that the famous Trinitarian clover was itself food. Finally, at age 60, I realize that they were–and apparently still are. Dermot Dobson posted a photo on Facebook, of a bag of shamrock-flavored potato chips. (Or crisps, in UK/Irish parlance.) Although I initially suspected that the crisp makers were being metaphorical and perhaps having chives stand in for shamrocks, when Dermot posted a shot of the ingredients list, begorrah! Those little green things are actually pieces of genuine Irish shamrock.

Shamrock-Chips.jpg

Of course, this is not an ancient recipe; Keogh’s introduced the product only last year. A little research showed that the Irish evidently ate shamrock, though the implication was that they ate it in lean times when there wasn’t much else on the menu. Shamrock is, after all, a species of clover. (We’re still not entirely sure which species, of eight or nine contenders, St. Patrick used to convert all those pagan chieftans.) I barely eat vegetables at all; I can’t imagine eating what might as well be grass.

Whoops. Not only can I imagine it, I remember it: When we were eight or nine, the kids in my neighborhood would chew on what we called “sour clover,” which was a local weed that could be found under most bushes. Many years later, while doing some yardwork for my mother, I found a sprig, chomped one of the three-lobed leaves, and felt that sharp sour tang. This time I looked it up, and found that our sour clover was oxalis montana (wood sorrel) which looks precisely like the quintessential Irish shamrock. It’s sour because it contains oxalic acid. Eat enough of that, and you will not only be eating a metaphor of the Trinity, you may in fact get to meet the Trinity face-to-face.

Ok, that would be a lot of oxalis, and as best I know we all survived the adventure, Irish kids, Polish kids, Italian kids, and mongrel kids like me whom God stuck together from a box of odd ethnic parts. To us St. Patrick’s day meant that winter was almost over, that Bud’s Hardware Store had just gotten in its first shipment of Hi-Flier kites, and that the color green would soon return to the Chicago spectrum.

When Aunt Kathleen died in 1999, an Old Catholic woman priest sang the Irish Blessing before her casket at the cemetery chapel, and I smiled to think of all those goose carcasses, and how Aunt Kathleen would as likely as not be hanging with The Big Guy himself, driving snakes out of the neighborhood in her Pontiac, hoisting a glass of good Irish whisky, and keeping the kitchen warm for anyone who might stop by.

Live life in the active voice, this day and always. It’s the Irish way.

Delores Ostruska 1924-2013

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Carol’s mom has left us. She died quietly this past Saturday after a long illness, at a nursing facility near her Crystal Lake, Illinois home. Her daughter Kathy was by her bedside, and her two grandsons Brian and Matthew had visited her earlier that day. She was 88.

Most people in our time are lucky to have two loving parents. Somehow, incredibly, I had four. I met Delores on August 2, 1969, when I came by their house to pick up Carol for our first date. I was 17, a little scruffy, and undoubtedly, well, odd. No matter. Delores smiled and welcomed me, a welcome that never faded. Carol’s dad was a slightly harder sell, but I won his esteem by treating his daughter with respect and kindness. When I bought a lathe in 1977 he stabled it in his basement, and over time he taught me what he knew about its use, which (considering that he could grind a carbide die to a ten thousandth of an inch accuracy) was pretty much everything.

On many Sundays Delores prepared family dinners for which her sisters Marie and Bernice and her Aunt Marie and Uncle John drove up from the South Side. Pork roast, salad, vegetables, bread, dessert; a huge spread brought to the table hot and perfect in all ways. I had a place at that table, as later on Kathy’s boyfriend/fiance/husband Bob did as well. It was decades before I knew the term for the feeling that hovered all about us in Delores’ dining room, but when I found it, many things fell into place. It was unconditional love.

I had had that from my own parents, of course. And even my own father was a bit of a hard sell, since I bore little resemblance to the rowdy boy that he himself had been and expected his own son to be. All the more remarkable that Delores and Steve embraced me almost immediately as one of their own.

Delores was a child of Polish-American heritage, youngest daughter of a large family, who was born and grew up on the Near South Side of Chicago. She belonged to a group of very close teen girlfriends who called themselves The Comets. They were capable and confident girls, journeying around the city for fun, and even slept on the sand of Chicago’s 31st Street Beach. She quietly rejected the dour Polish pessimism of her own parish church, and far preferred the exuberant Catholic culture of an Irish parish a few blocks away. She believed all her life in an infinitely loving God and the goodness of all His creation. When I began struggling with my own life of faith at the dawn of middle age, it was her example that helped bring me to the unbounded and unshakable Catholic optimism that I hold today.

Delores worked at the US Treasury in downtown Chicago, where she helped trace lost and stolen US Savings Bonds. During WWII she met and in 1947 married Steve Ostruska, one of her brother Charlie’s Navy shipmates. After Carol was born the family moved to Niles, Illinois, where Delores lived for over forty years before moving in with her daughter Kathy in Crystal Lake.

Every summer while the girls were small the family vacationed along the lakes near Hayward, Wisconsin, where Steve fished for walleye and city girl Delores learned to love the outdoors. The photo at the head of this entry is from a vacation that she and Steve took to Clam Lake in July 1948. It’s not fair to picture her as an elderly woman when she has already broken the bonds of this Earth and risen triumphantly into the arms of the God she so strongly believed in. I prefer to recall her as the beautiful, vigorous person she was most of her life. In truth, all the time I knew her she glowed wth the quiet, invincible light of unconditional love, and if there’s anything closer than that to the ineffable light of God, I don’t expect to see it in this world.

The Head of R&D

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Among the people we miss most in Arizona are our then-neighbors Pat Thurman K7KR and his wife Sue “Starshine” Thurman. Back in 1998, Sue approached me about building her a sort of robotic ventriloquist’s dummy for a kid’s show she was working on (starring her character Starshine) to promote reading in grades 1-4. She wanted a character who looked like a robot, and suggested that Meccano might be just the thing. I’ve done a lot of Meccano work down the decades, and thought it was a great idea. I soon realized that a full-sized dummy would be mostly steel and weigh far too much to sit on anyone’s lap. As a counter proposal I suggested a disembodied robot head, which would be controlled by a puppeteer under a table. Sue loved it, and gave the character a name long before I finished designing and building him: The Head of R&D, aka “RAD.”

The show itself was no small production, and included a cameo by Jane Hull, then governor of Arizona. Sue worked fiendishly hard on it, and recruited many of her theater friends to play parts and generally help out. Carol played Madame LePinswick, a fortune-teller. I sat under the modified card table on which RAD was mounted, so that I could work the controls. RAD could turn his head from side to side, roll his eyes, move his bushy eyebrows independently, and work his jaw. All of this was done with a vertical control column running down from his neck, and with both hands on the controls (which resembled a movie-submarine periscope) I could do it all at once. Sure, it took some practice, but the range of expression RAD could display was surprising.

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The inside of RAD’s head was a ratsnest of gears, sprocket chains, levers and push rods, and took a great deal of fooling-with to get right. During performances I sat on a peculiar folding beach chair underneath the card table, and watched the stage on a 9″ portable color TV so that I could see where everybody else was on stage and make RAD interact with them. (There was a CCTV camera mounted on a seat in the front row of the grade school auditorium where the show was presented.) Two of Sue’s friends were voice actors, and provided RAD’s slightly British voice and the voice of TC, the Heathkit Hero robot who was Starshine’s sidekick. I basically lip-synced RAD to his voice actor, who was off-stage with a mic. I added as much additional facial expression as I could manage, given that moving his mouth was primary.

Earlier today, Sue posted a video of the full-half-hour show on YouTube. RAD first appears at about 15:30. Carol appears at several points in the video, including a brief close-up with RAD at 25:00 and again at 26:05 and 30:00. My book The Delphi Programming Explorer makes a cameo at 30:34. RAD himself was later featured in an article in Constructor Quarterly (the Meccano hobbyist magazine) in the September 2000 issue.

After the live presentation to the students at the school where the video was filmed, several of the boys came up on stage so I could show them how RAD worked. One earnest 8-year-old asked me, “What number Erector set do you need to build that!” (By my calculation, he should be just about through engineering school by this time. I hope I gave him a nudge.) All in all, it was terrific fun, and as his 15th birthday approaches RAD still sits on my workbench, fully functional if maybe a little out of adjustment. I’m guessing he will always rank as the single most peculiar mechanical thingamajig I have ever put together. Many thanks to Sue for letting me get involved. I hadn’t seen the video in over ten years, and it was terrific to see it again.