I remember my father putting out his index finger and I would hold it with my entire hand as we walked together. He was tall and strong, not just to small me, but to everyone who knew him.
I think he could have done anything. He focused on a few things, and they were great.
The underground River Axe at Wookey Hole Cave
My Dad was a cave diver. In England, no less. He and his friends dove with Royal Navy World War II surplus gear, with improvements they created themselves, into dark cold water, where the visibility could go to zero at any moment, and a rock roof overhead meant they had to retrace their way back along the dive line in order to reach safety once again. A few times, my Dad explored through a sump into air-filled passage beyond, such as Sumps 4 and 5 in Swildon’s Hole. In other caves, such as Wookey Hole, the underground river just kept going, ever deeper, to the limits of his air supply or the maximum depth for his gas mix.
Once my Dad told me that he could disassemble and reassemble his dive kit in complete darkness. A pretty good skill for this activity.
While I’ll never be a cave diver, I think I got from him an appreciation for the art of doing dangerous things safely. There are many things in this word that are not objectively safe, but are so worth doing – provided you know how, and then do them with great care. Then, the risk is about on par with driving your car.
Inventor in the Lab
My Dad was an inventor. For his doctoral thesis, he built a scanning electron microscope. That would be a pretty big deal at any time, but get this – when he completed his project, I’m pretty sure that it was the only working SEM in the world. Not exactly the first one – there were one or two that had been built before, but they were not still in operation. The SEM became a huge field of research and even its own industry. My dad did SEM research for 50 years, making notable discoveries.
If you’ve ever seen those crazy super-magnified grey scale images of the eyes of a fly or something even tinier, that’s an SEM.
When I was a kid, I remember going into Dad’s research lab and there was this huge machine with a million knobs and switches, and he would point me to the two dials I was allowed to touch – they moved the specimen laterally or vertically, so I could zoom around. The zoom would take effect with each sweep of a bright green line going down the screen, wiping away the prior image and painting a new one.
Mum and Dad, November 27, 1958
My Dad was a father and a family man. The hard part for him was that he had been taught classic English reserve. You know, it’s all fine. Stiff upper lip. Let’s not talk about that dreadful thing.
But he was always in our corner. He was determined that we should go to good public schools, and should never under any circumstances be sent to anything resembling boarding school as he was. We didn’t even go to summer camp. Instead, we went camping.
He took a job as a part time ski instructor, which I think he enjoyed but a big reason was definitely so he could afford to take us all skiing. At 5:30 on each Saturday morning in the winter, he would pour all three kids into the back of the station wagon, where we would sleep in our nest as he drove us to the mountain.
Fast forward. In the fall of 1984, I had received the letter that you don’t want to get from your college, saying that you were welcome to reapply for admission if you explained why you were going to do better the next time around. I was a failure. I spent a few months washing dishes, which was very educational in learning why I really did want to make it through college.
In conversations, I found out some things that I hadn’t known. My Mum and Dad didn’t care if I went to the Ivy League. I had put that expectation on myself. Any school would do, if it had what I wanted to study, and the right environment (which for me at the time meant just a tad more supervision).
For the month of December that year, Dad took me to England for family visiting and lots of caving. In January, I restarted at state school (which was close to a lot of awesome caves), switched to geology, and proceeded to get straight A grades until graduation.
Somewhere in the years that followed, I must have decided that I was too grown up to have a Daddy, so I called him Dad or Pops. Somewhere in there, I decided I didn’t have to visit exactly every year.
My wife and I have lived in various places through the USA, now it’s Washington, three thousand miles from the house I grew up in. She works 2.5 jobs and I have a full time job in addition to activism and writing aspirations. We are raising a child. I go caving and ski mountaineering. I am grateful that we took that week last summer to visit together, although it seems so paltry in retrospect.
If there is a conversation that you wished you had had with your father, or something you wished you had done together, and if you are lucky enough that your father is still alive, then the time is now. To have that conversation, and make firm, short term plans to be together. On the other side of the equation, for your children, always make sure they know you are available, and eager, to share such times with them, no matter what are the current pressing circumstances of life.
Because on the day that you are talking across the miles to the doc in the ER, and he starts telling you the things that they tried, and you know where this is going because you’ve seen it on TV, over those few seconds you will realize that those moments you hoped for are never going to happen, and all the wishing in the world won’t change that.
Someday I hope that’s not what I remember first.
I remember my father putting out his index finger and I would hold it with my entire hand as we walked together.
I love you, Daddy.