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Memoir

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

Bringing the 10″ Scope Back to Life

Joe Lill and 10 Inch Newt - 3-8-1970 - Cropped.jpg

When I was 14, I took an opportunity and started out on a very large project: A friend of mine bought an Edmund Scientific mirror-making kit, decided he didn’t have the time to pursue it, and sold it to me. The kit included a 10″ Pyrex mirror blank, a plate glass tool blank, and all the abrasives needed to grind and polish it. I did most of the grinding in my basement, using a defunct round wringer washer as a grinding station. I followed the instructions in the kit, along with whatever I could find in the library, and though it took a couple of months, in time I had a Pyrex blank with a smooth curve, focusing at about 67 inches. My goal was 70, so I came pretty close, and in truth, 67″ would make for a shorter and somewhat lighter tube.

Now, grinding is only half the job. Polishing the ground mirror surface took sophisticated methods to gauge the accuracy of the curve, which has to be a parabola to focus items at infinity (like stars) to a sharp image. I decided I was over my head, and did the sensible thing: I enrolled in a class at the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront, which took up most of the summer that I turned 15. They had an optical shop in the basement that included the required Focault tester, plus a superb teacher, Ken Wolf, who helped me get the polishing done and mirror curve accurate. They were also able to aluminize it, and by that fall, I had a 10″ F6.7 parabolic telescope mirror accurate to 1/25 wave, which was bogglingly accurate for a first shot by a 15-year-old.

The rest of the scope took another two years and change to complete. A friend’s father made me a tube out of sheet aluminum. I built a tube saddle out of scrap wood and hardware-store aluminum stock. I had no tools more sophisticated than my dad’s circular saw and saber saw. And that was for woodworking–for metal I did it all with a hacksaw and files. I had some help from my high school machine shop teacher, who dug up a piece of iron that he said was hull metal from a scrapped battleship. He cut it to size on the big bandsaw for me. I spent many study hall hours in his shop on one of the lathes, boring out 2″ pipe fittings and making numerous small parts. I owe Mr. Brinkmann a huge debt of gratitude. Without his help and the use of his machines, I could not have finished the scope.

It was going to be a big scope, and a much heavier one than the 8″ Newtonian I had built from a Sam Brown book the summer I turned 14. I turned my attention to building a base. There was a lot of scrap lumber in the crawlspace. I had the notion of building a cement form out of scrap lumber and pouring a solid triangular concrete shape 36″ on a side with bolts embedded in the top for the battleship-metal mount.

So I built me a cement form.

Whoops. Doing some math and library research showed me that the concrete base would weigh at least 400 pounds. Yes, I could make it–but once I made it, I had no idea how I would move it. So I was left with a scrap lumber cement form…

I.D.E.A!

FirstDateSketchTelescope - 325 Wide.jpgThe form was made entirely from 2″ dimensional lumber, from 2X4s to a scrap of 2X12. I could carry it around with only a little puffing. So I would use the cement form as the telescope base.

A lot more work and allowance money would go into the telescope before I finished it–more or less–in the fall of 1969. On an early date with a pretty 16-year-old girl I had met in church, I told her about the project and drew a picture of it on her little spiral notebook. (See left. She enjoyed talking about science. So did I. She married me in October 1976, and our flag still flies.)

I used that scope a lot, even though it was bulky and heavy and awkward to cart around. In 2000, I (finally!) poured a concrete base for it at our house at the north end of Scottsdale. (See below.) I bought a large plastic trash can to put over the scope to keep the weather off it, and enjoyed it tremendously. Well, we moved to Colorado in 2003. When I went behind the garage to fetch out the now-retired wood base, I discovered that the local termites had been feasting for a couple of years, and there was nothing much left.

I haven’t had the 10″ assembled since. And it’s now about damned time to get to work.

10 inch with Michael Abrash - 2001 - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve spent a couple of weekends messing with it. Yesterday I bolted the aluminum tang to the base, and although there will be some refinements, what you see below is pretty much what you’ll see when it’s in service.

New 10 inch wood base 1- 500 Wide.jpg

The equatorial head is still workable, though tremendously heavy. I hope to build a new one out of aluminum. In the meantime, I see no reason why I can’t have it up and working by the time of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. The two giant planets will appear just 6.1 arc-minutes apart, close enough to see in the same eyepiece field, and closer in the sky than they’ve been since 1623. A conjunction of this sort is said by some to be the Christmas Star that the Three Wise men followed to Bethlehem. Miss that? No way!

More on the 10″ scope project as it happens.

The Odd Lots Project

Every so often someone sends me an email to ask, “Is there any place I could find your story ‘Our Lady of the Endless Sky’? I read it years ago and it was a really good story. I’d like to read it again.” Swap in the title of any of several other stories or idea pieces that I published in PC Techniques / Visual Developer what seems now like decades ago–because it is. Some of my idea pieces and humor from the magazine are already up, linked in an archive page that you can find here.

Still, it’s only a few of them, mostly because for those few I still had the original word processor files. Most of those files have been lost. All that remains are the magazines themselves.

Five or six years ago I sketched out an idea for a book containing some of the old BEGIN / END / The Vision Thing / Breakpoint pieces, plus some of my better Contra entries. For almost four years I was occupied with my new novel Dreamhealer. (The paperback edition is now for sale on Amazon, so that project is finally complete.) With Dreamhealer out of the way, a week or so ago I started building a TOC and searching out files for as many pieces as I still have. Some had to be scanned and OCRed from the magazines. Some were buried in odd folders in my data drive. All of them needed cleaning up. Quite a few I have only in WordPerfect format. Fortunately I can convert these using a handy utility called QuickView Plus. The Contra entries are copy’n’paste.

I work on it when time permits. I now have 45,000 words in the master Word file. My target is 75,000 words. There’s still plenty of scanning and OCRing to do, plus introductions to put all this ancient stuff in context.

The book will have seven sections:

  1. Essays and Editorials
  2. From Contrapositive Diary
  3. Poetry (maybe)
  4. Parody
  5. Memoir
  6. None of the Above.

The Poetry section may not happen. I’ve only written three poems in my life that I would show to the general public. Two of them are e.e.cummings pastiche and one Robert Frost pastiche. When God was handing out poetry genes I was standing in the Whimsical Tutorials line. (Fortunately, it was a short line.)

One thing that won’t be included in Odd Lots is “STORMY vs. the Tornadoes,” which appears in my AI SF collection Souls in Silicon . There are a few items that fall in the forbidden zone between fiction and nonfiction, which is what the “None of the Above” section will capture.

I will publish it in both Kindle ebook format and trade paperback. I don’t have a timetable yet, but in nice round numbers I’d like to see it laid out and ready to publish by the end of the year. When I flesh out the TOC a little more, I’ll post it here, and if you remember something that you liked but don’t see in the TOC, let me know in the comments.

The biggest task for now is simply reviewing Contra to remind myself what I’ve done. This is a challenge, as I’ve been publishing Contra now for 22 years and have about 5,000 entries. I’m working on that. So stay tuned. This will be fun. I don’t expect to sell thousands of copies. Mostly what I want to do is put a lot of my mostly-forgotten work back in the public eye. This’ll do it.

Flashback: Getting Past Nagasaki

I ran the first Contrapositive Diary Flashback in February, and I’m doing it again. I won’t do it a lot, but with August being the 75th Anniversary of the end of WWII, I want to re-post a few pertinent things I wrote fifteen years ago that bear saying again. Some of you have seen this before, back in 2005. Many of you haven’t. This entry is a particularly grim one, but human history hands us grim sometimes. We don’t get the history we want. We have to deal with the history we get.


We’re approaching the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of the end of World War II. I have something odd and upbeat to post on VJ-Day, assuming I can find the files. [I did. You’ll see them.] If not, I have some scanning and OCRing to do again, sigh.

Sigh, indeed. Yesterday was the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of our dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. Many or even most people who are not completely ignorant of the history of WWII or totally wigged out by nuclear weapons understand the necessity of Hiroshima. The world stood stunned as the smoke cleared, and against a threat like that, Imperial Japan would have caved in days. Then there was August 9. Why did we have to do it again?

First of all, avoid the temptation to second guess and judge the people who lived the era and bore the responsibility. People were dying across the world, not by hundreds or thousands, but by millions. Whole nations and peoples were virtually wiped off the planet. How well would you have handled it?

I’ve been boning up on my 20th century history lately, through several books like The Great Influenza, The Fall of the Dynasties, and The War Against the Weak, along with a quick flip through the marvelous 1966 American Heritage Picture History of WWII, though I wept when I read my father’s notes in the margins. Good God, he was there, in the thick of all that hell, dust, and death. He, at least, got back alive, as a man named Robert Williams, who might otherwise have been my father, did not.

I think I understand Nagasaki. I don’t like the understanding I have, but I understand: WWI ended scarcely twenty years before WWII began. The death-stink of Verdun remained vivid in the memories of those who survived it. (They are still digging unexploded ordnance from those now-peaceful fields!) The world seemed to be recognizing a pattern: Every generation, a strange psychosis reached some sort of critical mass, and erupted in increasingly deadly conflicts between nation-states that (by 1945) should long have known better. Even as Nazi Germany collapsed, I think that forward-looking people were charting the line between 1870, 1914, and 1939, and did not like the shadow they saw ahead. The points were growing closer, and the death toll higher, each time that the world went to war. Patton knew what Stalin was, and although he was forbidden his plan to take Moscow, I think his superiors came to understand Patton’s insight. I’m almost certain that the next European war would have come by 1955, and a nuclear-powered Soviet Union would have reduced much of Europe to sizzling ash.

Instead, we took Nagasaki. One might have been a fluke, or good luck. Two in four days was a statement that could not be ignored. In a sense, the American leadership was telling the rest of the world, Stalin and every other emerging nationalist psychopath who might be watching: This..nonsense..will..stop…now.

I mourn for Nagasaki, as I mourn for the Jews, and the Russians, and the Ukraine, and my mother’s high-school sweetheart. It’s been quiet now for sixty years. There has never been another nuclear attack. In my view, there has never actually been another war. (Those who consider Iraq I or II or even Vietnam a “war” need to read more history.) The world turned a corner in 1945. We stopped connecting the dots, and there is some hope that the horrible line between 1870, 1914, and 1939 will not be drawn again. 75,000 people died at Nagasaki, but had they not died, 100,000,000 would almost certainly have perished the next time the world erupted.

Remember: There is no such thing as pacifism. Doing nothing is doing something. There is no escaping responsibility. There are no good choices. All we can do is bless our dead for what their lives have purchased, and move on.

Delphi Turns 25

Today (or maybe tomorrow, depending on who you talk to) is the 25th anniversary of Borland’s introduction of the Delphi RAD environment for Object Pascal. Delphi changed my life as a programmer forever. It also changed my life as a book publisher for awhile. The Delphi Programming Explorer, a contrarian tutorial book I wrote with Jim Mischel and Don Taylor and published with Coriolis, was the company’s biggest seller in 1995. We did a number of other Delphi books, including a second edition of the Explorer for 32-bit Windows, Ray Konopka’s seminal Developing Custom Delphi 3 Components, and others, including Delphi 2 Multimedia Adventure Set, High Performance Delphi Programming, and the ill-fated and much-mocked Kick-Ass Delphi. We made money on those books. A lot of money, in fact, which helped us expand our book publishing program in the crucial years 1995-1998.

It took OOP to make Windows programming something other than miserable. I was interested in Windows programming from the outset, but didn’t even attempt it while it was a C monopoly that involved gigantic switch statements and horrendous resource files. With OOP, you don’t have to build that stuff. You inherit it, and build on it.

There is an asterisk to the above: Visual Basic had no OOP features in its early releases, and I did quite a bit of Windows BASIC work in it. Microsoft flew a team out to demo it at the PC Techniques offices in late 1990 or early 1991. A lot of Windows foolishness was exiled to its runtime P-code interpreter, and while a lot of people hate P-code, I was used to it from UCSD Pascal and its descendents. What actually threw me back in my chair during the Thunder demo (Thunder being VB’s codename) was the GUI builder. That was unlike anything I’d seen before. Microsoft bought the GUI builder from Tripod’s Alan Cooper, and it was a beautiful and almost entirely new thing. It was Visual Basic’s GUI builder that hammered home my conviction that visual software development was the future. Delphi based its GUI builder on OOP, to the extent that Delphi components were objects written within the VCL framework. I enjoyed VB, but it took Object Pascal within Delphi to make drag-and-drop Windows development object-oriented from top to bottom.

People who came to OOP for the first time with Delphi often think that Delphi was the first Borland compiler to support OOP. Not so: Turbo Pascal 5.5 introduced OOP for Pascal in 1989. Although I wasn’t working for Borland at the time, I was still in Scotts Valley writing documentation for them freelance. I wrote about two thirds of the Turbo Pascal OOP Guide, a slender book that introduced OOP ideas and Object Pascal specifics to Turbo Pascal 5.5 users. A little later I wrote a mortgage calculator product using BP7’s OOP features, especially a confounding but useful text-mode OOP framework called Turbo Vision. I licensed Mortgage Vision to a kioskware vendor, and in doing so anticipated today’s app market, where apps are low-cost but sold in large numbers. I cleared $17,000 on it, and heard from users as late as the mid-oughts. (Most were asking me when I was going to start selling a Windows version. I apologized but indicated I had gone on to other challenges.)

I mention all this history because, after 25 years, a lot of it has simply been forgotten. Granted, Delphi changed the shape of Windows development radically. It did not, however, come out of nowhere.

One of the wondrous things about Delphi development in the late 90s and early oughts (and to this day, as best I know) was the robust third-party market for Delphi VCL components. I used to wander around Torry’s Delphi Pages, marveling at what you could buy or simply download and plug into Delphi’s component palette. I have all of TurboPower’s Delphi VCL products and have made heavy use of them down the years. (They’re free now, in case you hadn’t heard. Some but not all have been ported to the Lazarus LCL framework.) I’ve also used Elevate’s DBISAM for simple database apps, and Raize Software’s DropMaster for drag-and-drop data transfers across the Windows desktop. Those are simply the ones I remember the best. There were many others.

I don’t use Delphi much anymore. I still have Delphi 7, and still use it now and then. The newer versions, no. It’s not because I don’t like the newer versions. It’s because what I do these days is teach “intro to programming” via books and seminars, and I can’t do that with a $1,000 product. Well, what about the Delphi Community Edition? I tried to install that in 2018. The binary installed fine. But the registration process is insanely complex, and failed for me three times for reasons I never understood. Sorry, but that kind of nonsense gets three strikes and it’s out. On the other hand, if I were actively developing software beyond teaching demos, I’d probably buy the current version of Delphi and go back to it. I’m willing to deal with a certain amount of registration kafeuthering, but I won’t put my students through it, especially when Lazarus and FreePascal can teach the essentials of programming just as well.

Nonetheless, Delphi kept me programming when I might otherwise have given it up for lack of time. It allowed me to focus on the heart of what I was doing, not on writing code for user interface elements and other mundane things that are mostly the same in all applications. Back when Delphi was still a beta product, Project Manager Gary Whizin called Delphi OOP programming “inheriting the wheel”. That’s where the magic is, and Delphi is strong magic indeed.

Green Grow the Russians, Oh!

A song got stuck in my head the other day, but I had forgotten the words. No, wait: I never entirely knew them to begin with. They made no sense, but that didn’t matter, as for the most part they were unintelligible. About all I could clearly recall at first was the line:

I’ll sing you five-oh; green grow the Russians, oh!

And with that, a whole dumpster of brain sludge emptied out into my forebrain. It is a tale (probably) worth telling.

Ok. In the summer of 1963, I went to Boy Scout Camp for the first time. I was 11. It was at Camp Owassipe, the big Scout reservation inland of Muskegon, Michigan. The camp at that point was 11,000 acres huge, and that first year we were at Camp West, one of several camp centers within Owassipe. Camp West was for tent camping (no cabins) and was a CCC project from the ’30s that had not been well-maintained and after thirty years was falling apart. But it was right on a lake and we loved it.

Part of the Camp West experience was eating three meals a day in a big log-lodge mess hall that must have held two hundred tweener boys. The food was hot dogs and hamburgers. We didn’t care; we were lower-middle-class upstarts and had no issues with hot dogs and hamburgers. I don’t remember there being any green vegetables, and I was good with that.

But one thing none of us had ever experienced before was singing songs after meals. There were several college-age junior scoutmasters at Camp West, and they led the digesting masses in several rousing pieces before sending us on our way. I remember only two of the songs, and only one clearly: Rise and Shine. One of the mess hall song leaders was a junior scoutmaster named Jory, so as you can imagine, most of us sang:

Rise and shine and give God your glory, Jory!

Being tweener boys, it was funny even after singing it seventeen hundred times. Fortunately for us, Jory was a good sort, a little overweight and very much the showman. For all we could tell, he was singing it too.

Now, the other song. Our Scout troop was based at our Catholic church, and what we sang at school were either Catholic hymns or odd little songs in songbooks published by the Sisters of Providence, which were more or less junior Catholic hymnals with some kid stuff tossed in for seasoning. (Gregorian chant wasn’t the sort of thing you sang at Scout camp.) I’m guessing that most of the other kids were Protestants, because they knew the songs and we didn’t. The song leaders assumed that we all knew the songs, and didn’t take time to teach them. We learned them by listening to the other kids. Except this time, the lyrics were nowhere near as clear–especially with half the boys horsing around and generating plenty of QRM. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the weirdest kid song ever. This has “Baby Shark” beat all cold: Meet Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

It was a counting song, like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which gave us some clues, at least. It started out with a grammar puzzle:

I’ll sing you one, oh; green grow the rushes oh!

What is your one-oh?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be it so.

First of all…rushes? This was pre-Vatican II, and although we were taught Bible stories, we did not read them from the Bible, even baby Moses in the rushes. (This was a Catholic peccadillo that ended with the Council.) The word “rushes” was not in our working vocabulary. We knew them as “cat tails.” However, the Russians loomed large in almost every part of life in that era. They were the emblematic Bad Guys of my grade school ’60s, who we were sure would first beat us to the Moon and then kill us all with nuclear missiles. So we insulted them at every opportunity. Swapping in “Russians” for “rushes” made no objective sense, but it made perfect sense to Cold War era tweener boys.

Alas, we couldn’t quite parse the clause “evermore shall be it so.” Sister Marie Bernard would have circled that in red and taken points off. So we sang “and evermore shall be a stone.” It was a good guess, and better still, we could diagram it if we had to.

Some of the others were obvious, like “Twelve for the Twelve Apostles.” Which made this a God song, just like “Rise and Shine.” Ditto “Ten for the Ten Commandments.” “Eleven for the Eleven Who Went to Heaven” was also obvious, in part because not much rhymes with “eleven” but “seven” and “heaven.” (The word “leaven” was not yet in our vocabulary books.) Were there only eleven people in Heaven? Kind of a lonely place. Our Mass books were crusty with saints, and we had to wonder where they all ended up.

After ten it got a little freaky. “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners?” What were they? God’s baseball team? “Eight for the April Rainers?” I remember singing this as “April Rangers.” Maybe the April Rainers were God’s farm team. Farmers like rain, no?

“Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky.” As with the saints in Heaven, this figure seemed a little short, especially since you could see every star there was in rural Michigan night skies in 1963. Maybe the songwriter lived in Chicago, where you might see seven, if you were lucky and had good eyes.

“Six for the Six Proud Walkers.” I believe I heard this one correctly, but that didn’t prevent us from singing “Six for the Six Loud Talkers.” Given that talking in class was a sort of secular mortal sin, we assumed these guys were not among the eleven in Heaven. Besides, Pride was a Capital Sin.

“Five for the symbols at your door.” Hmmm. I heard that word as “sinfuls” which while wholeheartedly Catholic seemed off somehow. Maybe it accounted for the semiregular visits by the Jehovah Witnesses, who much annoyed my very pious mother.

“Four for the Gospel makers.” I’m pretty sure everyone was singing “Gospel Writers,” which at least made sense numerically, and we were back to God territory. (Every writeup admits that some of the lines came in multiple versions.)

“Three, three, arrivals.” Huh? I swear, the first time we sang the song, this came to me as “Please clean the rifles.” “Three, three survivors” was what we ended up singing, lacking any strong clue as to who had survived, nor what trials they had undergone. Without being able to name them, I recalled the three guys who got thrown in a furnace by the Babylonians but survived because Jesus was in there with them, and you did not mess with Jesus.

“Two, two little white boys, dressed in all their green-oh.” I’m also pretty sure this is what everybody was singing, even though the definitive version is “lily-white boys.” Supposedly this is about the two main stars in Gemini, which on bad nights might well be the only stars you could see in Chicago. As for dressing a star in anything, well, you dress the star of your choice. I’ll watch–from a hundred million miles or so.

One, as mentioned earlier, was a stone. If it was all alone, it should have ducked down a Chicago alley, which in 1963 were gravel-paved and where most of our stones came from.

My following two years at Boy Scout Camp were at a much newer campground, which did not have a mess hall. They delivered hot food in giant thermos bottles from a jeep, and we ate at picnic tables. We sang some songs around the central campfire in the evenings, but beyond a somber item about Chief Owassipe none of them have stuck even a little.

Considering “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh”‘s cloudy origins and multitude of verse variations and interpretations, I can’t say we did it much violence. After all, see this, from the song’s entry on Wikipedia:

“The musicologist Cecil Sharp, influential in the folklore revival in England, noted in his 1916 One Hundred English Folksongs that the words are “so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning”.

We were from Chicago. Corruption there was so ubiquitous that most people didn’t even notice it. As for guessing, well, we guessed, and our guesses were as good as anybody’s. If it came back to me fifty-five years later, I’d say its evolution as an earworm was very robust. Plus, it propelled me to a long and motley career of writing silly lyrics to well-known songs.

As for the Russians, they were the wrong color, unless they were like bell peppers. You never can tell with Russians.

Flashback: Synchronicity and the Combinatorially Exploding Penny

Heads-up: I’ve never done a Contra flashback before, but given my post yesterday about pennies, this seemed to be a good time to republish a Contra entry I wrote back in 2005. I could have posted a link, I guess, but I wanted as many people to see it as I could manage, as it is just the…damndest…thing. Fifteen-ish years later, I’ve not encountered synchronicity anything like this boggling. I may do flashbacks again with older entries that I consider significant, especially if I’m in the middle of a dry period time/energy wise. Oh, to be 50 again…


penny1923.jpgSynchronicity (meaningful coincidences of preposterous unlikelihood) is something that doesn’t interest people very much until such a coincidence happens to them. I can point to three instances of synchonicity in my life: One marginal, one peculiar, and one that just floored me. The marginal one was the Exuberant Cross, which is an excellent example of seeing symbolism in the ordinary, though there is some peculiarity in seeing it the first morning I was living in Colorado. The peculiar one we’ll leave for another time. But then there’s the big one…

Back in 1996 I went down the road aways from the office to get a sandwich. This was unusual to begin with; I usually ate lunch with Carol, but she wasn’t at work that day. I was in a bad mood, a little depressed from thinking too much about my father. As I’ve said too often here, he died young and in a gruesome fashion, and there was unfinished business between us. I was only beginning to work through the issues in the mid-1990s. Now and then I rage at his memory; most of the time I just miss him. I turned on the car radio and the oldies station was playing something obnoxious, so I hit the country button. After the concluding seconds of some cowboy song and a few seconds of DJ chatter, another song started up.

I’d heard it before: It was Colin Raye’s “Love, Me”, an otherwise unremarkable country tearjerker thing about a boy whose grandma dies. Carol always turned the radio off when it came on. There are times when I can listen and times when I just punch another button. This time I listened, and boy, the song worked as designed. Read the lyrics; they’re clever. (Ignore the sappy formatting.) The first line is significant:

“I read a note my grandma wrote, back in 1923…”

I had failed out of engineering school while my father was dying, and I felt for many years like I had let him down, just like I did when I had failed to love baseball as a ten-year-old. He could not imagine how a writer could make a living, and I could not imagine how an engineer could smoke himself to death. As a young man, I often wanted to say, Don’t give up on me. And all my life it was a private point of honor for me not to let him down. (I didn’t.) So there were some connections there, in that stupid song.

It wasn’t that far to the sandwich place. When I parked I mopped my eyes and turned the radio off in exasperation, feeling like it had suckered me in to an unnecessary sentimental tate. Shaking my head, I went into the shop and ordered my usual ham and swiss. The soda-and-sandwich lunch special came out to $4.99. I handed the guy a fiver. He dug in the drawer and pulled out a penny, which he slid across the counter to me. It looked pretty beat up, and when I picked it up I flipped it over and took a closer look.

The date on the penny was 1923.

Hoo-boy.

So. What are the chances? I got one coin in change. I hadn’t seen a penny that old in change in probably twenty years. I didn’t listen to country music all that often. And it was maybe a five-minute ride to the sandwich place, during which that one song alone had begun and played to completion. How could all those things line up so perfectly, on a day when I was already depressed from ruminating about losing my father? A New Ager would say “It’s a Sign. He’s there. He knows you didn’t let him down.”

A part of me wanted to think of it as a Sign. (Another little part still does.) On the other hand, I’m not a New Ager, and the incident forced me to think a little bit about about outrageous coincidences. Here are the major points that come out of the exercise:

  • In 45 years of living, a human being experiences an enormous number of identifiable things, from country songs to birds on the lawn to oddly shaped clouds and everything else that we notice during the 16-odd hours we’re awake every day.
  • Human beings are complex things, with a great many thoughts, memories, cravings, articles of faith, and emotional flashpoints.
  • Something in our mental machinery tries very hard to find meaning in everyday life.

In rolling those three points together I come up with an interesting conclusion: It would be remarkable for someone to live 45 years and not run into a coincidence like that at least once. (My other two experiences of synchronicity are pikers by comparison.) In each life there is a combinatorial explosion of possible alignments of thoughts, feelings, and objective experiences so large as to be beyond expressing. Little alignments happen now and then. (“Just as I pulled into the packed parking lot, somebody was pulling out right in front of me!”) Every so often, an alignment happens that makes us shake our heads in wonder. (I’ll tell you about the “I love you” stone someday.) But sooner or later, everybody is going to run into a whopper.

Keep your eyes open. You wouldn’t want to miss it!

Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald’s to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that’s $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except…the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I’m not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I’ve only begun to see in the last few years. I’ve coined the term “parking-lot penny” for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry’s parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I’ll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don’t represent value much anymore. They’ve become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry’s with a lot of mint luster for a penny that’s been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They’ve been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I’m seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn’t fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn’t do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day’s minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents’ houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald’s, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and…penny for your thoughts?

Fifty Years of Love and Friendship

HA Cruise March 2018--500 Wide.jpg

What does it take to love a person for fifty years? Now that I’ve done it, maybe I can provide some insights.

Most of you who’ve been reading Contra for any length of time know the story: I met Carol at a Teen Club event in our church basement on July 31, 1969. I asked her out to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, but since it wasn’t playing anywhere convenient anymore, we settled on Yellow Submarine. No matter. We clicked, and date followed upon date and months became years. I asked her to marry me in July 1975. We married in October 1976. And here we are, fifty years on from that fateful night, having lived in six states, every bit as much in love as ever, and then some. We’ve learned a few things about relationships along the way. Let me throw out some of the most important ones:

1. It helps to want the same things.

This is part luck and part persistence. I had three (and maybe four, depending on your definitions) failed relationships before I met Carol, and they all failed because the girls involved didn’t want the same things I did. Fersure, a good part of that is just being young, and in truth (in my case, at least) dating worked as designed. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted when I was 17. My hunch was that I wanted a friend who would become a girlfriend and then a best friend. My father told me this when I was 15: “If you’re lucky and smart, you’ll marry your best friend.” I wasn’t thinking about marriage by any means, but I wanted the same sort of warm friendship my parents had. When I met Carol I hit the jackpot: She wanted a friend who would be good company and good conversation. We were both interested in science, although she leaned toward biology and I leaned toward astronomy and electronics. We had a lot to talk about, and our relationship was founded on fascinating conversation. When I remember our early years, that’s what I most clearly recall.

2. Allow yourself to be changed.

This is easier at 17 than at 27 or 37, fersure. Over our early years, Carol gently pulled me away from my borderline manic eccentricity. I helped her get past her shyness. She taught me to dance. (More or less; lacking a strong sence of rhythm, I’ve never been good at it.) In countless ways we adapted to one another, on the one hand looking past each other’s quirks, and on the other minimizing our quirks so that over time there was less to look past.

3. Give each other time and room to grow.

This is the other half of allowing yourself to be changed: giving your loved one time and space to integrate those changes. Not being posessive is part of this. We both dated other people here and there for the first few years we knew one another. We were smart enough to understand that love is not the same as infatuation. We allowed our physical relationship to grow at its own pace. Social relationships with other people illuminated what we already had, and helped us put the forces that bear on a relationship into perspective.

4. Learn apology and forgiveness.

We had arguments here and there, and it’s telling that I now barely remember what most of them were about. We learned to ask forgiveness, and we learned to forgive. Our skills in conversation here helped a great deal: Being able to talk from the heart helps to heal hearts that are aching.

5. Want, offer, and appreciate committment.

Finally, commit to one another. Love powers committment; committment shapes love. It took a number of years for us to become absolutely certain that we both wanted a lifetime committment. It should take that long, because infatuation has to burn out, and the relationship has to have time to grow strong enough to last a lifetime. I grant that this is a hard thing to gauge without previous experience. Sometimes relationships fail, and those who value love at all will learn from their failed relationships. Although I know a lot of people in successful second marriages, I know very few in third or fourth marriages. Divorce is a hard lesson.

Ours didn’t fail. In fact, it has succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings. We wanted warmth, and found it in one another. When we were old enough to harness the fire that emerges from the primal differences between boy and girl, that fire happened. When we understood what lifetime promises actually meant, we made those promises.

And here we are. Fifty years. Yes, we were lucky, but hard work is the best luck amplifier going. Friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit. We built a lifetime on that cornerstone.

And we are by no means done yet!

The first picture ever taken of Jeff & Carol together: Labor day 1969

Above: The first photo ever taken of us together, Labor Day 1969.

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

The Man (Always) Behind the Camera

Orchard Place Group Circa 1933-500 Wide.jpg

Father’s Day. I find it a little startling, riffling through my photobase of scanned images going back to the 1880s, how few photos I have of my father. The reason is no mystery: Photography was one of his hobbies, so when family photos were taken, he was invariably the man behind the camera. My mother wouldn’t touch that camera, as it was fancy and (for its era) expensive. (It was a Graflex medium-format twin-lens reflex.) So there are plenty of excellent pictures of my mother, my sister, and me. What we don’t have are many photos of Frank W. Duntemann II. (II? Not Jr.? No. Stay tuned.)

The ones we have, alas, are so-so. The photo above is a good example. My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann (1892-1956) took it. I don’t know what sort of camera he had. A lot of the photos are ever so slightly out of focus. Age has faded most of them. (I touched up the one shown above.) I’m guessing it was a Brownie or something similar. Harry golfed, and fished. Photography was not any passion of his.

As best I can tell, the undated photo was taken in 1931 or 1932, at Orchard Place, Illinois. From left to right: Kathleen Duntemann (1920-1999), my aunt and godmother. She’s holding up the family dog, Sugar Boy. Sade G. Duntemann (1892-1965), my grandmother. My father, Frank W. Duntemann II (1922-1978), Martha Winkelmann Duntemann (1871-1967), my great-grandmother, and Frank W. Duntemann I (1867-1936) my great-grandfather. I use “I” and “II” in my genealogy research to differentiate between my father and his grandfather, after whom he had been named.

I’ve said this before and will say it again: If you have a stash of old photos, identify their subjects and write them on the back, or in some kind of database. Do it while those who know the people, places, and things in the photos are still alive. There is a photo of my father as a buck private about to go off to war in 1942, with his arm around a girl. By the time I found the photo in 2000, no one who knew the girl’s name was still alive. There were many more photos of people in the same box, most of whom I cannot identify. Every picture of a locomotive or an aircraft, however, was minutely described on the back.

Evidently girls were not my father’s passion in his youth. This changed in 1946, when one of his childhood friends introduced him to my mother, who was a friend of his girlfriend. I honor my father on this day, and on most days, when some of his mannerisms and turns of phrase cross my mind. His expression “Kick ass; just don’t miss” is the working title of my memoirs. He died young, but he lived long enough to see me grow up. I have lots of excellent pictures of me growing up. Alas, I have more of his excellent photos of steam locomotives than I have of him.

Sheesh.