“‘Is this your first time?’ Seriously?” Amit was vastly amused as I recounted my experience with the Kreugers. Leave it to Amit to note the possible sexual connotation. I felt mortified. Hopefully if I’d missed it, the Kreugers would have as well. Amit continued, interrupting my reverie. “That was slick. And right in front of her dad, too. No wonder she was flustered.” Argh. He might have a point. Eva may have noticed it, although her English wasn’t the best. I hoped that she was just confused, and had missed it like I did. “Way to go,” Amit added. “Did you get her number?”
“In front of her father? Are you crazy? And she’s only fourteen.”
“Hey, lots of the wildest girls have daddy issues,” Amit opined as if he were an actual expert instead of a compulsive reader of pick-up artist blogs. “You set yourself up as the bad-boy rival to his authority and she’ll swoon for you.”
“I seriously doubt she has any ‘daddy issues,’” I said. This was getting tiresome. “She seemed like a very well-adjusted girl.”
“I bet there will be daddy issues when he finds a sixteen-year-old boy chasing after his fourteen-year-old daughter,” Amit observed with excessive enthusiasm. “That’s mathematically out of bounds. He’ll overreact for sure.”
“I am not chasing, merely being friendly,” I said insistently. “And you mean to tell me there’s a mathematical formula?” Now Amit had to be pulling my leg.
“Half your age plus seven,” he assured me. “You’re still sixteen, right? So fourteen-year-old girls are out of bounds for you. But when you’re seventeen in September and she’s turned fifteen, then she’s fair game.”
Yes, his math worked out but was there actually some exact rule? “That’s got to be general social guidance, not a fundamental law of nature,” I countered. I’d had enough of his insinuations, so before he could dispute me, I added, “Why have you become an anti-suffragette?”
“Oh you heard that?” he looked smug. “Just keeping Emma off balance.”
“You know,” I observed, “if you like the girl, you might consider being nice to her.”
“Of course,” he acknowledged. “But you have to mix it up some. If you’re nice all the time, a girl won’t respect you.”
I didn’t get it. Amit had one of the most attractive girls from school as his girlfriend. Emma certainly had other options. I was surprised she put up with his antics. But then, I found Amit annoying at times too, and I put up with him.
Amit and I continued our search throughout July, but progress was scarce. In a couple of additional weeks of searching, we’d only found one more possible omitted mention of Heaviside – this one in Sir Edmund Whittaker’s A History of the Theories of Aether & Electricity, printed in 1910. It, too, was frustratingly vague. Those couple of sentences from William Suddards Franklin about bouncing waves remained our best hope of understanding what was going on.
With the lack of progress in finding new clues, I spent more effort understanding the history and personalities behind the evolution of Maxwell’s theory. I read Hunt’s The Maxwellians and Nahin’s book on Heaviside. Dad had managed to acquire a copy of the Nahin book for me on a visit to McKay’s, a used bookstore in Knoxville. Maxwell’s premature death, in 1879, left the field in some disarray. Many of his contemporaries doubted there was an electromagnetic basis to light. FitzGerald wrote a paper “On the Impossibility of Electromagnetic Waves,” in the early 1880s. He was only barely persuaded at the last minute to strike out the “Im” and retitle his paper “On the Possibility of Electromagnetic Waves.” This skepticism deterred many who were following in Maxwell’s footsteps.
My physics textbook made everything seem so simple, clean, and inevitable: Maxwell came up with his equations, Hertz discovered radio waves, and then on to atomic theory. Reality was much messier.
While professional physicists skeptically toyed with Maxwell’s theories, an unemployed telegrapher put them to immediate practical use. Heaviside applied Maxwell’s ideas to telegraphy, deriving the equations that describe how signals propagate on transmission lines. He showed that you have to have a balance of electric and magnetic energy to send a signal without distortion. Most telegraph lines of the period didn’t have enough magnetic energy. Heaviside demonstrated that telephone lines needed more inductance – circuit elements to increase the magnetic energy in the right amount to carry signals without distortion. As Mr. Burleson pointed out, AT&T paid Michael Pupin a fortune for his “invention” of this solution, and Heaviside never saw a dime.
Heaviside’s contributions aided theory as well as practice. He came up with the compact vector notation that transformed Maxwell’s ill-expressed concepts into the simpler and easier-to-use form that scientists and engineers still use today. What we call “Maxwell’s Equations” are actually Heaviside’s successful attempt to make sense of Maxwell’s ideas.
While ivory tower thinkers debated, Heaviside continued demonstrating the worth of Maxwell’s ideas by putting them into practice. He joined forces with a professor, Oliver Lodge, to develop much of the theory behind alternating current and high frequency electronics. Establishment figures tried their best to crush them and their ideas. The chief engineer of the British Postal System, William Henry Preece, despised Heaviside and Lodge, mocking and belittling them. Heaviside returned the favor with some brilliant and vicious sarcasm. When Oliver Heaviside tried to publish a joint paper with his telegrapher brother, Arthur, Preece refused permission for them to publish their results and analysis. I was looking for clues to a conspiracy of some sort to cover up hidden truths in electromagnetics. Was Preece’s attempt to silence Heaviside and suppress his ideas a part of the same cover up?
This epic feud was soon overshadowed by reports from Germany that a young and previously unknown physicist, Heinrich Hertz, had succeeded in generating and detecting electromagnetic waves. He demonstrated that electromagnetic waves behaved as Maxwell predicted – propagating at the speed of light and bending, reflecting, and behaving just like light, once allowances were made for the much longer wavelengths.
By then, it appeared to be too late to suppress the truth.
Hertz’s premature death in 1894 hardly slowed down the progress of electromagnetics at all. Marconi and others were quick to grasp the commercial implications of Hertz’s electric waves. Fundamental research continued. At the turn of the century, Heaviside, FitzGerald, and a Dutch physicist named Hendrik Lorentz were poised on the cusp of some great breakthroughs. Michaelson and Morley had demonstrated that the speed of light appeared constant no matter what the orientation of their experiment or time of day or time of the year. This negative result was strong evidence against the æther theory – the notion that electromagnetic waves were conveyed by undulations in some physical medium that pervades the universe.
Heaviside, FitzGerald, and Lorentz had pieced together various aspects of how this all worked from a bottom-up, fundamental study of electromagnetics. For instance, they showed how apparent length contracts and how the mass of objects increase with velocity. FitzGerald died prematurely in 1901. Lorentz explicitly worked out how electromagnetics required transformations to adjust measured length and time depending on the velocity of an observer.
Just as all these discoveries positioned electromagnetics to go to the next level, along came Albert Einstein: a 26-year-old who had not yet completed his doctorate and was working in a patent office. In 1905, he published five papers, each of which was a profound and fundamental breakthrough in physics. It was as if Einstein had all of a sudden figured out most every outstanding problem in the physics of his day, from atomic to quantum theory, including an explanation of electromagnetics he called “special relativity.” They called 1905 his “annus mirabilis,” his “miraculous year,” with good justification. It certainly looked like a miracle. It seemed too good to be true. Maybe it was.
The bottom-up approach of Heaviside, FitzGerald, and Lorentz was swept away. In its place, Einstein offered a top-down approach starting from two axioms – first that the speed of light must be constant with respect to the observer, and second that physical laws do not depend upon the inertial frame within which one makes a measurement. To me, his axioms looked like conclusions disguised as starting points that begged the question of why these things held true. Lorentz’s æther theory agreed with Einstein’s special relativity, but the æther concept seemed superfluous, so special relativity came to rule the day. Lorentz continued in physics for a time, but soon he was sucked into administration. He even invested the last part of his life in planning flood control dams that were so critical to the safety of his Dutch homeland. By all accounts, it was great work, but it distracted him from further progress on his æther theory.
Was it the electromagnetic villain at work? Did someone aid or influence Einstein? I found some suggestion that Einstein may have been helped by his wife, Mileva Maric, a fellow student from whom he was soon separated. The suggestions I found, though, were not well supported. Most historians concluded she did not make substantive contributions to his work. There didn’t seem to be anyone else close enough to Einstein to have influenced or contributed to his work.
What better way to derail technical progress than to jump to the conclusion and skip over the details of how and why something works? Show someone the answer, but don’t explain how it works or where it comes from, and you guarantee they can only calculate and will be unable to make further progress. Hand a first-grader a calculator. Show them how to key in their arithmetic problems. Let them use it exclusively. How likely is it they will ever truly understand what they are doing? Einstein passed out the magic calculator that solved the problem, and the result was that everyone stopped trying to figure out how and why it worked and what it did. Heaviside, FitzGerald, Lorentz, and all their efforts to work out why electromagnetics led to special relativity were largely neglected and forgotten.
I suggested this to Dad, and he pointed out the glaring error with my hypothesis. Suppose Einstein’s remarkable discoveries actually were too good to be true. Then, whoever was manipulating Einstein and feeding him results would have to be even further ahead. It simply wasn’t credible. He had a point. I put aside my electromagnetic conspiracy theories while I looked for more clues.
Amit and I were both tiring of the search and the lack of results. A big part of the problem was that – contrary to our expectations – a good number of the books simply weren’t available online. Or if they were available, it was in an earlier or a later edition so no direct comparison with the Tolliver Library copy could be made. Absent a scan to compare against the book, we’d never be able to tell if there were any suspicious omissions or edits. The fundamental question that still stumped us was, “When were the edits and omissions made?” Were these recent changes implemented as the books were scanned into Omnitia or Project Gutenberg, like Dad thought? Or where these truthful and accurate scans of actual hardcopy books that had already been edited and modified a century ago, long before Omnitia and Project Gutenberg got to them? That was my suspicion. The solution was to seek out more copies of the books and find out.
The University of Tennessee library in Knoxville did not have the editions we needed. Amit found an online listing: a copy of Fleming’s Principles of Wireless Telegraphy was available at Vanderbilt University. It looked like the right edition, too. I thought of asking Kira to check, but I decided to bide my time until I could check in person, rather than risk a phone call or email. I’d make a point of stopping by the library at Vanderbilt when we were in Nashville on our vacation.
Amit also found a number of leads to used books online. But they tended to be snapped up quickly. Our thought that we could drive to Cleveland or Chicago, let alone Portland or Providence, to buy a book anonymously was simply not workable. The books would be gone by the time we got there. Someone was snapping them up faster than Dad or Uncle Rob could arrange the logistics for a friend to buy them for us. And we could hardly ask one of bookstores to hold the books for cash payment and pick-up, because that would be announcing our presence to whoever was also buying the books. They might be waiting for us when we got there! I know Dad discounted my thinking, but I remained convinced that there was some century-old conspiracy at work. I didn’t buy into all of Dad and Amit’s paranoia about Omnitia. There was simply no way so many people could keep a secret.
While I researched the history and personalities of electromagnetics, and planned how I was going to get hold of more books, Amit was busy on his software project. His presentation went so well that he’d been invited to install his network administration application at three additional branches of the Berkshire Inn, two in Knoxville and one in Oak Ridge. He’d been busy testing it out and training the managers there how to use it. He’d also convinced Berkshire management that he needed access to the company’s guest database, so he could assign the MAC address of the guest’s wireless devices to the guest and room number. The side effect of this was that he could impersonate any guest, sending his own Internet traffic and making it appear as though it came from any arbitrary guest. He hadn’t exploited the ability yet – explaining that four hotels didn’t make a big enough haystack within which to hide his spoofing. Besides, Amit didn’t want to tip his hand and jeopardize a large-scale deployment. He wanted to get his network administration utility adopted throughout the Berkshire Inn chain before beginning to exploit it to disguise our traffic.
In whatever spare time we had, we continued researching alternative energy sources for debate. I was confident my case on Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generation was a winner. Amit and I also had a dozen negative rebuttals prepared for the various alternative energy schemes our affirmative opposition might throw at us.
My physics class ended with my acing the final exam. With my reading of Maxwell’s Matter and Motion, not to mention Dad’s patient tutoring, I had a firm grasp of the basics.
* * *
At the end of July, Dad rented a sedan, and we were off on our family road trip. Our first stop was Vanderbilt University in Nashville to pick up Kira. “Damn pricey finishing school,” Dad muttered until Mom hushed him up.
When we picked up Kira, I explained that I needed her assistance to examine a book at the library. Visiting a library on a vacation? She thought I was pulling a joke of some kind. Mom and Dad had to assure her that it was no joke. I truly did need to see the book, and it had to be secret. I went into the library with her, only to discover that the Fleming book wasn’t there – it was stored in the library annex. Kira was about to whip out her ID, when I preempted her, telling the librarian we forgot our IDs and didn’t need to check it out anyway, only check a couple of references in it. Kira noticed my cue and asked pretty please if the nice librarian couldn’t recall the book from the annex, so we could just take a look at it tomorrow? That cute and sweet act never worked on Mom and Dad, but the librarian clearly wasn’t made of such stern stuff. Or maybe Mom and Dad were immune through repeated exposure, like I was. In any event, the librarian told us we could check with her tomorrow morning and it would be there.
We toured many of the nostalgic destinations we’d all visited when Kira and I were kids, like the Parthenon, the Grassmere Zoo, and the Cumberland Science Museum – although now they were calling it the Adventure Science Center. I persuaded the rest of the family to swing by some of the local bookstores, including McKay’s. None of them had any of the old technical books I wanted.
We stayed at Kira’s apartment near campus. The next morning we all ate breakfast at the Pancake Pantry across the street from yet another used bookstore near the Vanderbilt campus – BookManBookWoman – a quaint place, but not much of a selection of old technical books. Then Kira and I swung by the library. The librarian handed Kira The Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy. I restrained the urge to rip the book out of her hands and fling it open. Good thing. It was in bad shape. I could see why it was no longer shelved with the regular books. It wasn’t aging well. It had an off, musty smell and the binding was starting to separate the cover from the text.
I gently opened the dark green book and looked at page 640. There was no mention of Heaviside, and the Lodge reference had large spaces in it and “p. 72” dropped to the following line. It matched the Omnitia scan exactly. I took a closer look at the paper. Page 640 seemed to be printed on the same paper as any other page. It had the same faint gray fog from a century of the opposing page’s ink being rubbed against the page. I made a photocopy of page 640 as well as the title page. Either I was holding a masterful forgery or the alterations to the text had been made in conjunction with the original printing. It looked as though Omnitia had scanned an actual book, not concocted a digital fake. That meant there were two kinds of old books in circulation: some with the Heaviside reference, and some without.
Kira and I returned the book and walked back to her place. As we walked, my mind whirled with the implications. I had to be careful, since this was only one data point, but it looked like an old conspiracy to modify the books not long after they were printed. A more recent forgery? It could be. Even in the case Dad mentioned, though, the forged historic documents were a page or two of old letters or documents, not an entire book, and the forger was selling them for large sums of money, not leaving them to gather dust in a university book storage facility. The forgery theory didn’t make sense. Someone must have pressured the printer to withdraw the books probably as soon as the electromagnetic villains noted the disclosure of Heaviside’s bouncing waves concept. They must have leaned on the authors and publishers alike to be quiet. Threats? Bribes? Appeals to patriotism? Hard to say. Whatever they did was effective to have kept their secret for so long. Mostly. But, a few copies of the suppressed book escaped into the wild, and Tolliver Library just happened to get some of them.
We continued on to Memphis for more family touring. We visited Mud Island and enjoyed barbeque and blues on Beale Street. Each stop in the tour, I spent at least a couple hours looking through the local booksellers. Finally, in Houston, at Half Price Books near the Rice University campus, I hit the motherlode.
I was browsing the science section and coming up empty again, when I noticed a cute clerk walking by. Amit’s influence had been rubbing off on me, and I decided to try an approach. “Hi there.”
“Hi,” she said, “May I help you find something?”
“I was looking for Franklin’s Electric Waves,” I replied.
“Oh!” She said excitedly. “I think we have that, but it’s a special order for another customer.” My heart rose and then sank between beats. I followed her to the service desk, where I spotted the plain, blueish book on the shelf behind the desk. Yes, that was definitely a copy of Franklin’s Electric Waves. So close, yet the prize was tantalizingly out of reach. My mind raced, trying to figure out how to handle this while she continued looking. Eventually she found the book I’d already spotted. By then, inspiration had struck.
“May I take a look? I’ll be careful.”
“I suppose so,” she said. I picked up Electric Waves. She continued, “Please be extra careful. This is a very special book because it has a particular printing flaw.”
A what? Really? I struggled to maintain an even tone. “Oh, what kind of printing flaw? I don’t see anything wrong with it.” I leafed casually through the Franklin text, pausing just a moment to glance at page 115. There was the extra Heaviside text about the bouncing waves, just like the Tolliver Library copy! I casually kept on leafing as if I saw nothing special. There was a packing slip in the back of the book: Xueshu Quan with an address in Arlington, Virginia. I silently repeated the name and address repeatedly, willing it into my memory.
“I’m not sure exactly about the printing flaw,” the clerk said. “Our customer had us scan and fax one of the pages to him so he could look at it.”
“Oh, which page?” I asked.
“Page 115,” she said. Oh my. I casually opened the book to page 115.
In his forthcoming third volume, Heaviside will elaborate on his remarkable theory of wave interference whereby electric waves bounce off each other. This ingenious discovery promises to unlock similar valuable insights.
Yup. There was the ‘printing flaw,’ all right. “Gee, that’s funny,” I said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that page.”
“I know,” she said, “It’s so crazy! Apparently that page makes this a $1000 dollar book!”
“Wow!” I said in honest amazement. I stole another sneak peek at my new friend, Xueshu Quan from Arlington, Virginia. This time I worked on his cell phone number and e-mail address. “It must be so cool to work in a place where any day, you might uncover a secret treasure!”
“I never thought of it that way,” she said with a bright smile, “but I guess you’re right. Only, this is the first time I found a book that’s so valuable.”
I handed the book back to her. I think I had Xueshu Quan’s contact information memorized, but I’d need to write it all down soon before I forgot any of it.
“Well surely there are other treasures like this one waiting to be found here,” I offered.
“Well, that’s true,” the clerk said. “There’s a whole list of books with printing defects our customer wants.” Yee hah! I hadn’t felt this giddy since I was a kid on Christmas morning! Calm. Control. Focus.
“You know,” I heard myself saying as if from a distance, “I visit lots of other used book stores. I could keep my eyes open for you. If you can give me a copy of that list, and your phone number…”
“You just want my number!” she said with a smile.
“Well,” I condensed all the confidence I could muster into a smug grin, “you can’t blame me, even if it weren’t for the money I could make for us. You know, if I contact you directly, couldn’t you just go straight to your customer and pocket the money?” She probably did have a responsibility to take deals like that to her boss here at the store. She looked uncertain – good, she was cute and honest. “You should probably think it over and figure out the right thing to do.” I added quickly.
“I suppose so. Hold on a sec.” She stepped away from the counter and vanished in the back. She reappeared with the list. The top part was truncated as if she’d folded over the original with the customer’s contact information. On the top, she had written her number and “Call me! Nicole.” She handed it to me with a grin that just melted me inside. Then, she looked around and said softly, “Don’t let anyone see this list, OK? I’m not even supposed to have it myself.”
“Glad to meet you Nicole. I’ll take good care of it.” I felt like a heel. The first time I’d actually “number closed” a girl, to use Amit’s phrase, and there was no way I could call her. “My name’s Dan,” I compounded my sins further with a lie. “Oh, by the way, did any other books come in with the Franklin book? Maybe there’s something else I’d like to get.”
“I think so, she said. I’ll check,” she stepped into the back.
While she was away, I casually walked past Dad as if checking out the shelf next to him and said, “Jackpot! Make sure no one buys anything here with credit cards. Leave no trace.” He nodded in affirmation. He slowly moved off. By the time Nicole was back, I saw him whispering to Mom and Kira.
“Come with me,” Nicole said. I followed her to the science section. I saw Mom and Kira leave the store. Dad continued browsing, but he’d worked his way over to where he had a line of sight to me. Nicole pulled out Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science by Weyl. Princeton was apparently the publisher, and there was a label that said “Bk-82” on the spine. I opened the cover. Bingo! There was what I presumed to be a former owner’s name on what looked like an address label – Kenneth A. Norton, 4623 Kenmore Drive, N.W. WASHINGTON, D.C. Just below it in pencil was scribbled $8 and some illegible text. “That’s the only other book,” she said.
“Great! You sold me.” I handed her a ten-dollar bill. “You can keep the change.”
“You want your receipt or a bag for that?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Well, you at least need a bag or they’re going to think you’re shoplifting. Back in a sec.”
She brought me back the book in a bag. “Your receipt is in the bag.”
“I gotta run.” She looked disappointed. “When are you off?” I added.
“My shift ends at eight,” she said.
“I’ll see if I can make it.” That wasn’t exactly a lie, but it sure felt like one. I already knew there was no way I’d be back to see her. I’d be checked into my hotel for the night with my family before she got off work. Alas.
I met Mom and Kira at the car.
“What’s with all the cloak and dagger, Little Buddy?” Kira asked. She knew I didn’t like her calling me Little Buddy, particularly now that I was taller than she was.
“Hold on a sec,” I said. “Let’s wait for Dad.” I pulled it out. There was the list. I had it. It was in my hands. Next to Nicole’s name, I began to scribble: “Xueshu Quan.” I wrote his address in Arlington, Virginia. I’d ignored the zip since I figured I could work it out later. I added the cell phone and email. Gotcha, Xueshu Quan!
Dad hopped in and we drove off. “Okay, son. Spill it. What did you get?”
For Kira’s benefit, I started from the beginning. For months, I had been scratching away with Amit, closely examining straw after straw in search of a few needles. Now instead of a painstaking search for the puzzle pieces, I had them all, or at least a list of them. I reviewed the list aloud.
“This is incredible! Look, here’s the Franklin book listed for $1000, ‘send p. 115 to confirm.’ That’s the first reference I found. The list has the Fleming reference for $500, ‘send p. 640 to confirm.’ It has the Whittaker reference we found a couple of weeks ago also listed at $500. There are several other references at the $500 level. Another $1000 reference. And here’s Oliver Lodge, Modern Views of Electricity, third edition revised, 1907, ‘send pages 302-303 to confirm,’ $5000! This really is like a treasure map!”
“So, if you can find this book,” Kira asked, “you’ll be able to sell it for $5000?”
“Not exactly,” I replied. At that point, I decided to explain it all to her. By the time we got to the San Jacinto Monument, Kira was up to speed. “So, we don’t know exactly who was responsible,” I summarized, “but someone apparently suppressed a discovery by Heaviside – something about wave interaction that got described as electric waves bouncing off each other.”
“It can’t be the same person as this Xueshu Quan,” Kira observed. “He’d… maybe she? …would have to be a hundred fifty years old.”
“This Quan is probably just someone, like us, interested in understanding what happened,” Dad offered. “The lesson we learned here today is even if you are discrete, when you go out in the world seeking information, you leave traces.”
“I can’t believe how lucky I was to stumble across this list,” I said.
“‘Luck comes to the well-prepared,’” Dad opined. That always was one of his favorite sayings. “You were looking in the same sort of places for the same sort of things as this Quan. Quan had to expose a bit of his secret, putting it at risk in the hope of the greater reward of being the first to identify and secure these old books. Most anyone who came across the list would think nothing of it. Only because you had already identified the significance of some of the items on the list, were you able to work out Quan’s secret.”
“I think you’re missing the implication of your father’s point,” Mom said to me. “As you’ve gone out searching for these secrets, you’ve left traces. Someone who knows the secrets would also realize that you know a part of the same secret, and you’re actively looking for more. You and your father are both amateurs at this, yet you’re playing a very dangerous game. I think you should stop.”
“Even now, I don’t see much risk,” Dad assured Mom. “Suppose this Quan came asking, wondering why you were so interested in the list. Quan is offering a lot of money for these books, and all you’re trying to do is keep your eyes open, find the books, and offer them to Quan. Of course your interest is in the suppressed discovery, but you could explain it away by saying you were only interested in finding and selling potentially valuable books, not in any secrets.”
“Still,” Mom insisted, “I’d feel much better if we didn’t stay the night in Houston. Hotels mean IDs and credit cards and a huge red flag announcing we were there. I’d like to put more distance between us and the bookstore to make it all the less likely anyone could connect us to it if they started looking seriously. We were planning on staying here and driving to Huntsville in the morning. Why don’t we just head on up there?”
Dad countered, “I was planning on stopping by the big contractors’ tradeshow in the morning, and meeting up with Jim Burleson and some of my other professional colleagues. That lets me treat a big part of the trip as a professional expense.”
“You’ll be seeing most of them back up around Knoxville, anyway,” Mom noted. “It’s not as though this trip was so expensive we can’t afford to pay for it as a personal expense. I know you don’t like having your plans disrupted, but I’d appreciate it if you’d take my concerns seriously and just get us as far away from here as possible.”
“I think that’s an over-reaction on your part,” Dad countered levelly. “Also, I’m tired from driving all day. You’re talking about another ten-hour drive. I’m not comfortable trying to pull an all-nighter.”
It was rare for Mom and Dad to argue like this in front of Kira and me. I felt bad about it, because I’d been more or less ignoring Mom’s concerns from the beginning. “I could drive,” I offered.
“I’ll drive,” Mom said. She turned and looked at me. “You can sit in the front seat, talk to me, and help keep me awake.”
Dad clearly didn’t want to dispute the issue further. “OK,” he acquiesced, “but, at some point, you will need to pull over and check us into a hotel, so we can at least get some sleep in a real bed. Maybe around Tuscaloosa or Birmingham?”
We cut short our visit to San Jacinto and skipped our tour of the Battleship Texas. Dad got us to Beaumont, where we topped off our gas and bought dinner at a McDonald’s. Dad paid cash. Mom and I got some coffee. Mom took the wheel, and I sat in the passenger seat.
Well after midnight, we pulled in to a truck stop somewhere on I-59 near Hattiesburg. Dad had a wad of cash that he’d been planning to spend at the Huntsville Hamfest – sort of a combination amateur radio convention and flea market. He’d handed it over to Mom for gas and the hotel, saying he’d just visit an ATM in Huntsville. She peeled off a few bills for me. I paid cash inside and pumped the gas for Mom, while she visited the restroom and got us coffee. Then, it was my turn. When I got out, Mom was waiting with the car. I hopped in and we continued.
Before long, Dad and Kira were sound asleep in the back seat. I’d been meaning to ask Mom about the “unpleasantness” she’d mentioned at Robber Dell on Independence Day: the reason why she’d practiced and become such a good shot. I took the opportunity to do so now.
“Why ever do you want to know about all that?” she asked.
“Because you’ve never told me much about the time when you and Dad got married. I pick up hints and teases about there being big trouble about it here and there around town. How scandalous it all was. Half the town must know the details. I’d rather hear the truth from you, so I don’t have to wonder how much of what I hear is exaggerations or lies.”
“What have you heard?” Mom asked.
“Frustratingly few actual details,” I explained. “I mean I know you and Dad got married in Atlanta, and I know Kira was born six months later. And I understand your family was not happy.”
Mom was quiet, thoughtful. “This is very personal.”
“I understand,” I said. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. It’s just awkward for me when folks talk about you or Dad and I’m clearly missing the context.”
She weighed my words. “The town only has the vaguest idea of what actually happened. What I am about to tell you needs to be a secret. The reason you need to keep this secret is it would be profoundly embarrassing to my family, particularly to my brothers, your Uncle Lawrence and Uncle Michael. Not that they don’t deserve whatever measure of embarrassment that might come to them, but we’ve had a truce for two decades now, and I don’t want to give them cause to throw their weight around at the expense of you or your sister. Also, I know your father still feels bad about it. He shouldn’t, but he does, and I won’t have you bringing this up with him. I suppose, though, if you’re old enough to ask, you’re probably old enough to know. With this frolic you and your father have undertaken, you’re clearly good at keeping secrets. You understand and give me your word that all this is in confidence between you and me?”
I did and I did.
“Very well,” Mom began. “I went to Princeton as an undergraduate. I was supposed to be getting my MRS degree while studying art or music or some other major appropriate for my gender and class.”
“MRS degree?” I interposed. “Master of what, Rocket Science?”
Her face broke into a bright smile. “No, dear. MRS as in ‘missus.’ My job was to look pretty, socialize with the most elite scions of the country’s aristocracy, and land a suitable husband. My parents expected me to make an appropriate match, to marry up into another elite family. To form a strategic alliance between the Tollivers and another great family, maybe even break the Tollivers into the power elite who run the country, the offspring of someone on the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderbergers, the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve, or maybe even someone in the Civic Circle.”
“I haven’t even heard of most of those?”
“Yes, and that’s the way they like it. They are associations of the most powerful and influential people in the country. The people who are in charge behind the scenes. Some, like the board members on the Federal Reserve, the Stock Exchange, or major corporations have actual power. The other groups’ power lies in the ability of members to network and coordinate among and between the captains of industry and government. It’s all about the connections, trading favors among the power brokers, setting and enforcing what will become the accepted wisdom.
“In any event,” Mom continued. “I might well have taken the path of least resistance, except that Father, Grandpa Jack, was too pushy. I became resentful. And, art appreciation was boring. I loved chemistry. It was just like cooking – putting together precise recipes, keeping all the glassware spotless to avoid contamination – and the results were endlessly fascinating. It was all directly relevant to the Tolliver Corporation’s business, too, of course.
“And then, my senior year when I should have been planning June nuptials with my Prince Charming, instead I was planning my admission to graduate school. Father was furious. He had just come to accept the fact that I was going to come home and work in the family business as a junior chemist, and he was going to have to settle for pairing me with some rising young Tolliver star deserving of marrying the boss’s daughter. Instead, I was off for a Ph.D. in chemistry that might take six years or more.
“But, you never finished,” I pointed out. “You got married instead. What happened?”
“I started graduate work in chemistry and began working as a research assistant for a professor at Georgia Tech on chemical fertilizers. It’s a big part of the Tolliver business, and I liked the idea of putting my chemical knowledge to work figuring out how to feed people.
“You have to understand a bit of what was happening at the time,” Mom explained. “A famous biologist, Paul Ehrlich, convinced many people that mass famine was just around the corner and hundreds of millions of people were going to starve. The press had stories every week about hunger in America and how the heartless Reagan administration wasn’t feeding the poor. I was idealistic, and I wanted to do what I could to help fend off the pending starvation.
“As I started studying and researching, however, I began to realize that the apocalyptic scenarios were grossly exaggerated, and that we weren’t truly on the brink of famine, starvation, and disaster. An economist named Julian Simon wrote a book called The Ultimate Resource that explained how shortages in physical resources were overcome historically by human imagination and creativity. When a resource becomes scarce, people go out and find more of it, they recycle and use it more wisely, or they find substitutes.
“Simon and Ehrlich made a bet back in 1980. Ehrlich selected a group of metals: copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. He bet Simon that they would become scarcer over the next decade. They bet $1000 with Simon to pay Ehrlich the difference if the metals became less available and more expensive, and Ehrlich to pay Simon the difference if the metals became more available and less expensive.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“The $1000 selection of metals from 1980 became something like $400 in 1990. Instead of the metals becoming more rare and expensive due to the shortages Ehrlich predicted, they become more plentiful, like Simon had expected. Ehrlich paid Simon the difference. That was after I already left graduate school, though,” Mom explained.
“So, why did you leave then?” I asked her.
“I learned about a man named Norman Borlaug. He did some pioneering work in plant breeding that created amazingly hardy and productive variants of common food crops. At the same time Ehrlich was pontificating about how India would never be able to feed itself, Borlaug was introducing better, more productive varieties of wheat that solved the problem. While Ehrlich was whining about how we were all doomed, Borlaug was already solving the problem.
“Here I’d been thinking the world was in crisis and I had to do my part to fight as hard as I could to keep humanity from starving, and it turned out to simply not be the case. There was no great danger, just a bunch of academics who should have known better who were puffing themselves up to gain notoriety and power through their dire predictions.
“And then I met your father.”
“So it was love at first sight?” I asked.
“No,” Mom laughed. “I thought he was an arrogant… well, I thought he was arrogant and full of himself.”
“Really,” Mom assured me. “He came up to me at a club where my friends had dragged me for drinks and dancing, and he asked me what I was drinking. “I told him I wasn’t interested in him, and I started to turn my back on him, but he stopped me, saying ‘That’s not what I asked you. I asked what you were drinking.’ I told him I was drinking a fuzzy navel – that’s orange juice and peach schnapps. He asked me if it was any good. I told him it was. Then, before I could do anything, he took my drink, took a sip of it, set it back down, and said, ‘Your judgment in drinks is every bit as poor as your judgment in men.’ Then, he turned his back on me and just walked away!”
That did sound awfully arrogant, although I had to chuckle at his brashness. “How did you two get together, then?”
“I kept my eye on him. He didn’t seem to have any particular dance partner. He’d dance with one girl for a while, then another. He was very good at it, too. The more I watched him, the angrier I got at him blowing me off, turning around, and having a good time. It was silly of me, I suppose. I finally got angry enough that I went over to tell him off. I caught him between dances, and I told him he was the rudest man I’d ever met.
“He just laughed and said, ‘Now on that subject, your judgement is somewhat better, given your own expertise.’
“I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’
“He explained, ‘I came over to make small talk and perhaps introduce myself and get to know you better, and all you could do was cut me off and tell me you’re not interested? Who was rude to whom?’
“I thought about that a bit, and I realized that he might have a point. What’s more, he’d even used ‘whom’ correctly, so he wasn’t your run-of-the mill womanizer. So, I said, ‘I’m sorry if I were rude to you.’
“He said, ‘No ‘if’ about it. You were. But, we can call it even if you’d like to join me for a late dinner at Waffle House.’ That was our first date. He and I went out dancing a lot. He was such a great dancer, and he loved dancing even more than I did.” Mom had quite a smile on her face.
“So, you left grad school to marry Dad?” I asked.
“More or less,” Mom answered. “Once I realized that humanity wasn’t doomed and calamity wasn’t just around the corner, I lost most of my motivation. Without a great deal of motivation, it’s tough to get through a Ph.D. program. I just wanted to be happy, and being with your Dad made me happy in a way I’d never felt before.”
“It wasn’t a tough decision to just walk away from a career like that? After all the time and effort you’d invested to get there?”
“Not really,” Mom said matter-of-factly. “I had been lured to graduate school under false premises. Not only was I not going to save the world, the world didn’t need saving, after all. It wasn’t my professors’ fault, I suppose, although they ought to have known better. When you’ve built a career landing grants to figure out how to save the world, it’s difficult to be honest with yourself, and realize you’ve been living a lie and contributing to a fraud. Your whole livelihood becomes bound up in the lie, and you’d overlook almost anything to protect it. But I felt I was being pushed and controlled and used to meet other people’s agendas. I’d thrown off my father’s control only to fall under the control of professional pessimists and fear mongers, feeding me their lies and trying to use me as a tool to build their own little empires in a phony crusade that wasn’t worthy of my time and energy to fight.
“You see by that point, I had a good idea who was actually saving the world. It was men like Borlaug coming up with ways to feed billions and men like Simon pointing out the fallacies of the doomsayers. I saw how I stood in the hierarchy. I was top of my class in high school, and still one of the top students in chemistry at Princeton. But by the time I got to Georgia Tech, I was in with all the other top chemistry students from all the other top schools. Perhaps I was a bit above average – I’d like to think so – but there were other students there who were absolute geniuses. It rubbed my nose in the fact that I was nothing special. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Perhaps if I worked very hard, I could carve out a little niche for myself, some small backwater area overlooked by the geniuses, where I could build my own career and make my own mark, but that’s not nearly as exciting as saving the world.
“A century from now, the people who know and care about who we are and where we came from will still speak of heroes like Borlaug and Simon with respect and reverence. They’ll even remember a great villain like Ehrlich for the harm he caused and laugh at his ridiculous misconceptions. Making a great difference for good or for evil, building a lasting monument out of your career and life and performing work that actually has an impact on the course of humanity for better or worse – that’s extraordinarily rare.
“A century from now your grandchildren will be telling their children about you and me and your father and our lives. They will be sharing family tales like this one. If you’ve raised them right and taught them well, just as your father and I have tried to do with you and your sister, then your grandchildren will have raised their children right and taught them well. And all of them will be going out to make their own marks on the world. That is a monument far more impressive and far more worthwhile than any modest contribution I might have made to the world of chemistry.”
We drove in silence for a while, the hum of the road, the wind rushing past the car, the sound of Dad’s heaving breathing in the back of the car, and the lights of the reflectors zipping past. I sat doing nothing more and nothing less than just experiencing a moment in life’s great journey.
“How did you and Dad decide to settle in Sherman?”
“My father forbade the marriage, so your father and I eloped. I thought it made sense to stay in Atlanta, but your father had family in Sherman – his Aunt Molly had left Robber Dell by that point and was living in town. Your father was already working on a job in Chattanooga by then, so it wasn’t much different from commuting from Atlanta. I did want to be near my mother when Kira was born. I had concerns about my father, your Grandpa Jack, but your father insisted we should move to Sherman. It was a mistake. Your Grandpa Jack was used to getting his way. Always. Seeing me there with your father just set him off. Grandpa Jack was used to controlling everything, but he couldn’t control me, and he couldn’t control your father.
“Your father and I were renting a small house off of Maple Street when the harassment started in earnest. Someone slashed the tires of his truck. A dead animal left in our front yard. A trash can upended in the bed of your father’s pick up. A rock through the window. I don’t know what Grandpa Jack was thinking. I suppose he thought he could scare off your father and have his daughter back. Somehow, he thought he could make everyone forget that I had defied him. I was pregnant and married to a man he’d forbidden to me. Bringing me back to Sherman – I suppose Grandpa Jack saw that as your father taunting him. Your father had to keep working to support us, but we were both afraid what might happen if the violence escalated further. That’s when your father and I both got pistols. When Rob had some leave, he stayed with me while your father was out working. Rob took me out to a range, and we practiced for hours on end. I simply couldn’t handle larger guns, but with a .22, I got proficient.
“Then, one night your father and I were at home when we heard a noise on the front porch. We both got our guns. He walked to the door, to look through the peephole when BAM the door was kicked open in his face, knocking him down and sending his gun flying across the floor. Three men burst into the room: my brothers, Larry and Mike, and a big, burly Tolliver foreman. They grabbed your father. And then, in stepped Grandpa Jack. ‘You don’t seem to take hints very well,’ he said to your dad, ‘so we’re running you out of town. You don’t belong here.’
“None of them noticed I was armed – they were too preoccupied with your father. The foreman and Mike held your father while Larry punched him. They discounted an obviously pregnant woman as a threat. I raised my gun and sighted between my father’s eyes. ‘Get out of my house now and leave my man alone or so help me I will shoot you.’
“‘You put that toy…’ Grandpa Jack started to say, when I shifted my aim a bit to the side and interrupted him, BANG.
He flinched as I shifted to cover the others. ‘Let my husband go.’ They did. Your dad retrieved his gun and fell back covering the others while I sighted down the barrel again right between my father’s eyes.
“‘That last shot was three quarters of an inch from your right ear. This may be a toy, and I know you have a thick skull, Daddy,’ I told him, ‘but do you truly want to risk a .22 slug between the eyes? Get out now, don’t come back, and if you, Larry, Mike, or any of your thugs lay a hand on my man again, I swear I will end you.”
The look of astonishment and disbelief on my face must have been evident when Mom glanced over at me.
“Well,” she said with a modest smile, “or words to that effect.”
“So Grandpa Jack, Uncle Larry, Uncle Mike, and the foreman left?”
“Not exactly,” Mom clarified. “Because some neighbor must have heard the commotion and the gunshot and called the police. I heard someone bark ‘What’s going on here?’ through the open door behind Grandpa Jack. It was Sheriff Gunn. Only, he was Deputy Gunn back then. It didn’t take him long to figure out what happened.
“I told him ‘My father and his… associates were just leaving and have no intention of returning.’ I assured him there would be no further trouble.
“Gunn looked at my father and asked him, ‘Is that so, sir?’
“Grandpa Jack agreed. ‘You OK?’ he asked your father. ‘Our guests have overstayed their welcome,’ your father told Gunn, wiping the blood from his nose. ‘If they’re not coming back, and if they agree there will be no more trouble, I suppose there’s no need to press charges.’
“Gunn said, ‘Well, if there’s no trouble, and if there’s not going to be any more trouble, I guess I don’t have to report this.’ So far as I know, Gunn never breathed a word of it.”
“And that was the end of the harassment?” I asked.
“Grandpa Jack, Larry, and Mike had been shamed in front of his foreman, me, your father, and Gunn,” Mom explained. “If they made any further trouble, there was Gunn as a witness to the standoff. That was the last time I ever saw my father. Even when he was dying he refused to see me, but he kept the peace. Larry has kept the peace as well. He’s not friendly, but he’s at least civil and there’s been no other harassment. And Gunn… that man blusters about like some dumb hick. It’s an act. He’s clever, devious, and ambitious. I swear he parlayed his knowledge of that incident into getting my father’s support when he ran for sheriff a few years later.”
“You think Sheriff Gunn blackmailed Grandpa Jack?” I asked.
“I doubt he was that explicit,” Mom explained. “Grandpa Jack would never have stood for outright blackmail. I’m sure it was a matter of him pointing out how trustworthy he’d been and how Daddy needed a sheriff he could trust to keep his secrets, or something to that effect. I’m confident Larry and Mike don’t want to cross Gunn either. Mark my words. Sheriff Gunn knows all the local secrets and uses them to help himself. Never trust the man.”
“I still have trouble imagining you staring down anyone with a gun,” I noted.
Mom smiled. “You’ll find it easier to imagine when you have a family of your own to protect. When I was a girl, I’d hear news stories, like ‘Girl drowns at beach as she’s swept out to sea, parents try to save her despite not being able to swim, drown as well.’ And I thought to myself, ‘How stupid. Why would you drown yourself if you know there’s nothing you can do?’ But that was before I had children of my own.
“You know, your father dragged me down to Alabama for the Huntsville Hamfest when Kira was a little girl. This was before you were born – Kira must have been two years old. They have a nice park there – Big Spring Park – with a sidewalk along the gently flowing water and brightly colored carp swimming in the water. The three of us were walking along side. Kira was fascinated by the fish swimming there. She stopped right on the edge and leaned over to get a better look. I remember your father saying, ‘Kira, step back…’ I guess that startled her because she lost her balance and went face first over the side. Before Kira could even hit the water, I was in motion, jumping in after her.
“You pulled her out? Was she OK?”
“She was fine, just wet and a little scared. But I didn’t pull her out.”
“What?” I was confused.
“I landed almost on top of your father,” Mom explained. “He’d been paying closer attention, I suppose, and he got in the water just a split second before me. He already had had Kira in one hand and was helping me get my balance with the other before I could do anything. It turned out the water was only waist deep, although it was so murky, I had no idea until my feet had touched bottom. Your father got Kira up on the bank. She just looked at us both, soaked, standing waist deep in the water and started giggling at us. And we joined in, too.
“That’s just how it works when you’re a parent. You don’t stop to think, ‘What’s going on?’, ‘Will someone else do something?’, or ‘How deep is the water?’ You don’t always plan methodically what you’re going to do. You act. You do the best you can right then and right there and you do whatever it takes to save your family. In retrospect, it may not be the smartest thing you could have done. But you act. ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome, and drive on,’ your Uncle Rob is fond of saying.”
By then, we were nearing Birmingham. We stayed the night at a Berkshire Inn, and we got a late start the next morning visiting the McWane Science Center, the Vulcan statue, and other sites around Birmingham. Friday afternoon, we stopped by the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville before checking into our hotel. On Saturday, Mom and Kira visited the Huntsville Botanical Garden and Burritt on the Mountain, an outdoor historical museum on a mountain just east of town. Dad and I hung out at the Huntsville Hamfest – browsing the vendor tables and sitting in on some interesting talks. I passed the test to upgrade my Technician Class Amateur Radio license to a General Class ticket. In a slow moment, I asked Dad about meeting Mom, to get his perspective. “So, was it love at first sight?”
“No,” he snorted with a chuckle. “I thought she was an arrogant… well, I thought she was arrogant and full of herself.”
“Really,” he assured me. “I was at this club where a lot of the girls I danced with tended to go. I saw her, not particularly enjoying herself, abandoned by her friends at the bar. I’d had my eye on her for a while, saw her turn away a bunch of guys, and thought I’d give it a try. I went over to hit on her, and she completely blew me off. So I helped myself to her drink – some fruity girly drink – and returned the favor by blowing her off.
“How’d she take it?” I asked.
“I think it wounded her pride a bit,” Dad speculated. “Of course, I didn’t realize at the time she was some sort of heiress. She was used to boys walking on eggshells around her. The fact I was a man who wouldn’t take nonsense from her, well I’m not sure if it bothered her or made me more attractive to her – probably a combination of the two. Then, I made a point of dancing with every cute girl I could, right in front of where she was. Half the girls in that bar I knew from the Dance Club on campus, and they all knew I was good for a whirl around the floor. All the while, I studiously ignored her. Finally, she came over to complain to me about how rude I was. I pointed out she’d started it and suggested we go out to dinner to make amends.”
“So, that was your first date?” I asked.
“It was almost our last date,” he said with a rueful smile. “I took her to the Varsity for a late dinner. It was only after we ordered that I caught her full name and realized she was one of those Tollivers. I nearly walked out on her. If she’d been a guy, I might have punched her then and there.”
“Why?” That didn’t make sense to me. “I thought the running feud with the Tollivers came after you defied Grandpa Jack and married her.”
There was a long pause as Dad appeared to be mulling something over. “I haven’t ever told you the whole story,” he began. “By the time you were old enough for me to tell you, Jack Tolliver died. Your mother was eager to try to mend fences with her mother. I didn’t want to rock the boat. It’s never just been about me marrying Mom. No, our family feud with the Tollivers goes way back – nearly a hundred years – long before I was born. For generations, my father’s family carved a farm and a living out of the wilderness up in the Great Smokies. They fought, bled, and died, some of them, to defend it from Cherokee, and later, from Confederate raiders during the Civil War. And then ol’Tom Tolliver and his cronies came along, stole our land, and kicked us off it to starve in the middle of the Great Depression.
“You see, back in the 1920s, folks began to recognize the scenic beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains was in danger. Huge tracts were being deforested or burned out. A movement started up to preserve that natural beauty by creating what would come to be known as Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The backers of the park included the Tollivers and other important Knoxville area business leaders. They thought – correctly – that a tourist destination like the Great Smokies would be a boon to the Knoxville economy. They brought congressmen, senators, and financial backers to lobby them to support the park idea. But, they didn’t show them the burned out and deforested slopes owned by the logging companies. No, they brought them right up to the Cove to show them our beautiful farm and the farms of our neighbors with our painstakingly cleared pastures and fields nestled up to the mountains.
“It wasn’t just a local effort. Tom Tolliver was joined by outsiders like the Rockefellers and Civic Circle heavyweights who contributed a fortune toward the idea. They lobbied the state of Tennessee to assemble the land needed for the park and donate it to the federal government to manage.
“The backers of the scheme up to and including the governor and our senator all swore up and down that no one’s property would be taken away from them. Cove folk were naïve enough to believe them. Then, the state started condemning and seizing farms using eminent domain. They tried to take Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Townsend, all the small towns on the slopes, but there were enough folks there to raise a stink and make them back down. But our Cove? Nestled right in the heart of the most beautiful part of the Smokies with just a few hundred folks living there? Some folks fought as best they could through the courts, but they never stood a chance. The lumber companies like the Tolliver Corporation made out all right. They had the political pull to get paid well for their land. Small farmers and landowners? They got maybe 50 to 75 cents on the dollar. A whole community that had stood together against the worst that man and nature could throw at them was dispersed to the winds, just when a man and his neighbors most needed to help each other out. Because that was right as the Great Depression was starting.
“Soon the rest of the country learned for themselves what it meant to trust the word of the elite. Most of the folks in the Cove banked in Maryville, so when the banks there failed, they lost what little they got for their land. To add insult to injury the federal government forbade “hoarding” of gold. What little real gold money people had stashed away, they were made to turn in under penalty of prison and given $20 in paper money for every ounce. Then, overnight that gold was revalued at $35 an ounce, so effectively, the government stole nearly half of whatever was left.
“Poor folks everywhere suffered, but they could lean on their neighbors, their church, and their community for help. Cove folks had none of that. Many of the older folks who thought they could live out their remaining decades on the rent from their fields simply died under the stress of the eviction. Our family was devastated. Farming was all my grandfather knew and he couldn’t so much as find work as a sharecropper. Finally, he got enough together to put a down payment on a small spread west of Knoxville.
“My pa was in school there one day a few years later when the principal called all the students together. ‘I just got a call from Senator McKellar,’ the principal told my pa and the rest of the students. ‘He wants me to tell you to go home and tell your parents: you’re all going to need to find a new place to live. The government’s going to take your property for the war effort.’ The Tollivers and their cronies saw the economic advantage of a huge federal facility in their backyard, so they offered up other people’s land to make it happen.
“Sure enough, a few days later pa and his folks came home to find an eviction notice pinned to their door and flapping in the wind. They had three weeks to get off the property – not even enough time to finish harvesting the crops. That was in 1942 when the government seized all the land for the Oak Ridge lab. Grandpa was wiped out a second time. It was months before he saw any money, and when the check arrived, it was just barely enough to pay off the mortgage. It broke the man. Grandpa took to drink.
“My pa was born in the Cove but didn’t remember much of it. He had vague memories of playing in the fields in the beautiful mountains. But his childhood was a hardscrabble existence – homeless, never enough food, never a toy or present.
“Pa took me into the Great Smoky Mountain Park once, and up into the Cove. It was springtime. He brought me to the pasture where the family farm once stood. It wasn’t one of those historic log cabins, so the park service people had razed his family’s home to the ground. There in the open field, where the house once stood was a sprinkling of beautiful jonquils – the last remnants of his mother’s flower garden, still hanging on tenaciously, years later. My father was a strong man. But somehow, those flowers broke something inside him. He cried. I think that was the only time I ever saw him cry.
“My father suffered tremendous hardships growing up. He did his best to insulate me and Rob and your Grandnana from it all. He succeeded, mostly. But it came at a cost. He was short in stature because he never got enough food while he was growing. And all the hard work and stress took a huge toll on his health – he never made it to retirement.
“And all that happened because the Tollivers and their Civic Circle buddies bulldozed our family farm to make a playground for hikers and picnickers. And then they wiped out the family a second time to profit from a bomb factory. They are brutal, vicious thugs willing to trample the weak and powerless to achieve their ends. That is why I despise the Tollivers, your mother excepted of course, with a burning passion.”
Wow. “How did you and Mom ever get together with all that between you?”
Dad looked a bit guilty. “When I figured out who she was, I decided to get back at her family through her. But, the more I came to know her, the more I came to realize an important truth – just because you are in a family, or any other group for that matter, doesn’t mean you agree or endorse everything they do. When I finally confronted her and explained how our family histories were related, she was appalled at what her family had done. She had her own issues with them as well, but my story was what convinced her to break with them entirely. So, ultimately, I did achieve a measure of the revenge I had been seeking, but only because your mother became my ally instead of my enemy.”
This was all a bit much for me. I changed the subject. “I’m still having trouble imagining you and Mom out dating and dancing,” I explained. “I didn’t know you liked to dance so much.”
“Dancing’s not much of a sport,” he said. “Mediocre exercise compared to running or swimming. I only danced because it was such a great way to meet girls. You get into their personal space. You break down inhibitions. I met many attractive women dancing. You should consider getting into it.”
“I may at that.” My parents’ different perspectives were fascinating. “Have you taken Mom dancing any time lately?”
“We haven’t been dancing in years,” he said. “Too busy with work and family.”
“Now that I’m about to leave home and go to college and your business is winding down,” I suggested, “you might want to take Mom out dancing somewhere. I bet she’d enjoy it.”
He looked at me with one of those strange looks. “That’s a good idea,” he acknowledged. “Thanks for the suggestion.”
My suggestion helped ease my conscience for getting Dad to corroborate Mom’s story without either knowing I’d been speaking to the other. Since I’d given my word to Mom, I couldn’t go any further with Dad about goings-on in Sherman.
Looking back, I still have trouble thinking of my parents as real human beings with passions and interests, struggles and adventures of their own. Even today, my parents feel like a primal force lurking in the background, still guiding my actions through the force of their teaching and example. They just are. The nature of the relationship dominates my mental picture of them. It’s tough to keep in mind the fact that they too were real people with real problems, who did as best they could to do right for themselves and their family. I’m sad now to recall, but that weekend was the first time I began to understand my parents as real people. I saw my mother as a girl rebelling against her over-controlling father, a young woman setting out to save the world, a disillusioned chemist turning her back on fraud and deceit, choosing to break away from her profession and her family and make a new life for herself with my father. I saw my father as a young man dancing his way into girls’ hearts, burning to right the wrong committed against his family, allying with my mother to put the Tollivers behind them and make a new life and a new family together. They both worked so hard and overcame so much to give me a good start in life. Soon I would be facing even greater challenges, and I would have to do my best to live up to their example.
On Friday, May 13, look for Chapter 6 Notes: On Doomsayers and Eminent Domain, and
On Wednesday, May 18, look for Chapter 7: Summer’s End.
New chapters post on Wednesdays, notes post on Fridays.
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