Today is my father Dave’s 92nd birthday. Although I’m moored in a secluded bay of the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John USVI—a literal paradise, I so wish I could be transported to Pittsburgh for his birthday party.
Being away from home the past 43 days and sleeping every night on Hazel James has given me time to reflect on everything he has done for me and how the person that he is has helped make me the person I am. It’s also given me the time to think about the relationship that he and Colleen had. He dearly loved Colleen and she him.
Professionally my father was an engineer, a metallurgical engineer, educated at Carnegie-Tech (before it became Carnegie Mellon). More than being educated as an engineer, he had the mind of an engineer. He could, and did, fix most anything around the house, and was constantly tinkering with things and inventing things. As a for-instance, long, long before TV remotes (remember 13 channels plus UHF and VHF?), he became convinced that advertisers increased the volume just slightly during commercials—I think he was right. This incensed him. So, to my mom’s chagrin, he took apart our first color TV and found the wires to the TV’s speaker. He inserted a pull-chain switch in the positive wire to the speaker and mounted the pull-chain switch on the outside of the TV, upside down. He then ran a string from the pull-chain up to the ceiling and through a couple small pulleys and down to the head of the kitchen table. Whenever a commercial came on, we just pulled the string and muted the TV. Brilliant, just brilliant.
I so vividly remember Saturdays and Sundays working in our basement tool room on projects with him. On my passage from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands I was fixing and jury rigging a rather complex fitting that had broken and was essential to our continued sailing. While working through the problem, I thought of all he taught me from a mechanical perspective.
Ending the story right there would be more than enough. However, it’s not even half of it. He instilled the love of sailing in me. Although Hazel James is 31’ and displaces (weighs) approximately 12,000 pounds, the basics of sailing still apply and what he taught me about sailing small boats on inland lakes I use to this day. Growing up, combining sailing, engineering and not having a lot of disposable income—he and I built and re-built countless boats in our garage in the winter. On the weekends while working on our latest nautical project, we’d listen to classical music on the radio or tapes of poets reading their poetry (Robert Frost was dad’s favorite). A couple years ago, thanks to my sister and brother and brother-in-law and sister-in-law, we got him out sailing on Hazel James—the thrill of a lifetime.
The previous comment about music and poetry brings me to my next point about my dad. It’s one thing to be a great engineer. It’s another to be a great lover of the arts and amateur artist. However, how often to you see the combination of those two in a person? My dad was so rich and taught me so much about the power of combining science, technology and math with the beauty of art and the beauty of life. He introduced me to classical composers, and great authors and poets. When I went away to college and was questioned by school guidance counselors about my intended field of study, I replied “Engineering” as if there was no choice. However, through it all seeing the art in life and appreciating the beauty in life is more precious to me than all the formulas and equations in the world. He gave me that gift and opened my eyes to it.
I was born in 1964 so the picture below is probably from 1965, maybe 1966. My dad is playing the baritone ukulele and whistling—he whistles to this day. You can see what he’s giving me and how I’m soaking it up as only a child’s brain can soak-up experiences.
That’s my sister Amy in the photo as well. She died in 2013 at the age of 54 of cancer, one year after my mom, Ruth, died.
As a final note, it’s inspiring to me and to so many others just how positive my dad is to this day. To think that he has lost his wife of 60+ years, his daughter and his daughter-in-law and remains so upbeat is a testament to his outlook on life.
Happy birthday dad. I love you.