Sunday, January 17, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.10: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 10

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Crazy Roommates

When they returned to Maryland in the fall of 1958, my father went to work for IBM. He was still taking classes at the university. My mother had at least a year and a half left to get her bachelor's degree. Under the circumstances, they needed roommates in their rented house.

One of their roommates was a woman named Valerie Solanas. She was a student who had tried to stab several men on campus in arguments with them, so she needed to move out of the dorms. She talked my parents into letting her have the upstairs room. However, Solanas got into fights with their guests.

My father warned one of them, Arno Wasserman, a fellow graduate student who lived a few houses down on Calvert Road. Arno stopped by once or twice per week to eat their food and chat.

"Help yourself," my father said. "But don't tease Valerie."

It was the wrong thing to say. A few weeks later, Arno met Valerie coming through the living room. He couldn't resist talking to her. It got political.

Teasingly, he asked her, "What, don't you think men are superior to women?"

Valerie spit on him. She turned and ran into the kitchen. Arno could see she was opening and closing drawers. She pulled out a carving knife. Suddenly, Arno realized that my father had been serious and he tried to bolt out of the house. Solanis blocked him and chased him around the ground floor a few times before he locked himself in a room and escaped out a window. Even on the street, she followed. Valerie chased Arno all the way to his house. He had to lock everything on his first floor. His own roomates were not amused.

Arno stayed friends with my parents. Thereafter, though, he met them for lunch at the student union. He never again visited them in their Calvert Street home.

Valerie never actually paid rent. She promised and promised. My parents finally had to ask her to leave. Valerie moved to California. She wrote a book, the SCUM Manifesto, which my father owned and I read fron his library when I was an adolescent. Then, less than ten years after being their roommate, Valerie shot Andy Warhol. In her brief interactions with Warhol, she came to the opinion that he was sexist. What she did in response seems consistent with her character. In fact, after shooting Warhal, she turned the gun on another man. The gun jammed. Valerie walked out of the building, found a police officer, and gave herself up.

At that point, my parents stopped trying to keep up with Valerie.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.9: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 9

Robert Gallagher, Wake

A Visit to Europe

In the summer of 1958, while still enrolled at the University of Maryland, my mother and father decided they should visit Europe. They were both working all-out for their degrees and my father had jobs besides but he quit them for the summer. They didn't have money for airplane tickets. Instead, they took a cargo freighter for forty bucks and brought their bicycles and backpacks as cargo. When they reached land, they traveled by bike and stayed in youth hostels for two dollars to ten dollars a night. If they couldn't find a hostel nearby, they camped for free.

"Bicycling made me fat," my father would tell me later, many times. What he meant was that his habits on a bike weren't sustainable when he stopped. He got in the habit of eating candy bars as he biked.

In Great Britain, my parents averaged between 40 and 90 miles per travel day. (And presumably my father ate a lot of candy bars.) They knew the mileages from their maps and the marked distances between youth hostels. They didn't consider the cycling to be difficult except for once. The 90 mile ride was their longest and it was through a cold and lonely stretch of Scotland. When they got to their hostel, which turned out to be unfriendly, they pretty much collapsed in the beds assigned to them. The worst part was bicycling most of the day through the rain.

Despite the occasional unhelpful hostel keeper or shop owner, they found most people to be friendly no matter what the country or circumstance. There was always someone willing to talk, to advise them on the best or cheapest food and drink, or to hoist their bikes onto a flatbed and drive them for a while.

In Denmark, they tried hitchhiking and got a ride right away.

"I don't normally pick up hitchhikers," warned the truck driver. "No one does. But I noticed you are American."

He told them the little things he'd noticed about them that made them different. Those were the clothes, the Schwinn bicycles, a backpack patch with American style English on it. "Don't change," he advised. "No one likes our hitchhikers. But you, well, people like to have pity on Americans."

He went on to describe the various things that were wrong with all the various peoples and cultures of Europe and why he would (mostly) not give any of them a ride anywhere.

My parents logged their travels that summer, over 2,000 miles in total. They saw a score of different countries and cultures. What's more, biking together suited their marriage. Even though they were working hard and living cheaply, they were figuring out how to do it together.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.8: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 8

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Getting Into College

When Robert Roberts walked down the stairs of the US Army discharge facility, he stepped onto the dirt of Monterey, California. He held a severance check in his hand. He didn't know where he could stay but he had a little time to find a room and a job.

Without any particular sense of direction, he worked as a floor referee in a roller rink where he learned to skate backwards and dance on skates, as a grocery clerk, as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, and in other occupations, each for a few weeks or a few months. He liked moving from place to place. He changed jobs and towns in quick succession until a high school friend got married. Doris asked him to be an usher in her wedding back in Baltimore, which is when he headed back east.

After her wedding, he tried being a real estate broker in a Baltimore bank, a clerk for a law firm, and a stockbroker for Baker and Watts. He hired on as a pressman for a printer, a day laborer for a construction company, and as a cement mixer for roads and buildings. (Once, as we drove out of the way on a camping trip, we passed over a bridge my father help build. He shrugged to my mom and admitted it was ugly but he was happy to see it in use.)

One of his friends told him that a college might accept him as a veteran even though he hadn't finished high school. He was eligible for the GI Bill. So he put in applications at Georgetown University and Maryland University. Georgetown asked for more paperwork. He sent it to them but he didn't hear back. In contrast, he skipped his orientation meeting for Maryland but they sent him an acceptance package. He figured, "Well, this is where I'm going."

Two weeks into the fall semester, he got a letter from Georgetown saying, "Why didn't you show for your orientation?" It turned out they had admitted him, too, but they hadn't sent a notice.

Undergraduate Remembrance

Unlike the younger students, my father had never graduated from high school. He felt underqualified and self-conscious about it. He stood out in other ways, too. As a freshman, he was older than the college seniors. In his class picture of nine hundred, there were two men with beards. One of them was my father. The other was a professor. Those were reasons he knew he had to work harder. In fact, he took so many classes and did so well that he realized he could get his bachelor's degree in three years. That would leave him room on his GI Bill eligibility to get a master's degree.

Unbeknownst to my father, a young woman from Annapolis had won a double-handful of academic scholarships to University of Maryland - my mother, Elizabeth Ann Stockett.

Ann had gotten straight As in her high school. Her level of achievement plus an essay and an interview won her a Senatorial Scholarship, one of two given each year. She won other scholarships to cover her books and living expenses. In fact, she qualified for so many financial awards that she had to give some of them away.

My parents were both interested in languages, psychology, and philosophy, so they ended up in some of the same social circles. Also, for the first time in his life besides the signal corps school, my father was studying hard. Or so he thought until he compared himself to Ann.

Ann had suitors and flatterers around her. Some drove from military bases to see her. Others bought her gifts. Some tried to get her drunk. One tried to climb into her dormitory room. My father watched from a distance for weeks and listened to her laugh about them.

They hung out in their large, loosely-knit circle of friends with John Palmeroy, Betsy Friedman, Bob and Sybil Sampson, and Dick Spotswood. Some of their friends gained local prominence, later. (Dick Spotswood hosted a radio show.) Two years ahead of them in the same disjointed crowd was "the puppet guy" who went on to create commercials, local television shows, and eventually The Muppets. (His name was Jim Henson.)

Note: my parents were sure that although Henson was nice enough, he was destined for obscurity. He was playing with puppets, after all. That's why, in 1962, they agreed on two possible names for me: Kermit and Eric. I'm grateful they chose Eric, since The Muppets ended up not being so obscure and also because I administered to the Kermit network protocol in grad school, which would have been extra weird if that was my name.

For a while, my parents merely hung out in each other's general vicinity. My father clued in, eventually, that "Ann didn't like any of her suitors." Somehow, possibly with her help, he asked her out.

"We went on one date and suddenly we were a couple," is how he put it later. "What I didn't know is that your mother had already made up her mind about me."

Pretty soon, they started plans to live together and marry. It didn't slow down their advancements through school. They shared a group house off campus. My father worked as a librarian for the university, then for the American Philosophical Society. He took more philosophy and psychology courses, plenty of english and history, and learned from my mother's study habits that he had been taking it easier than he'd realized.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.7: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 7

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The End of Black Jack

When my father sent American messages, he walked from the radio room down the hall to the next room. There, on a bench, sat a machine with five wheels. He used an algorithm supplied by his duty officer to decide how to start. It was always a calculation that began with the first five or ten letters of the plaintext message. Then he enciphered the message and transmitted it.

For deciphering duty, my father intercepted Chinese and Korean radio signals in which every part of the message came to him in five letter chunks. There seemed to be hardly any attempts by the enemy to hide their war communications. Their operators transmitted over a known range of bands. Radiomen of the 126th Signal Service Company took the captured transmissions to an officer who sat nearby.

Often, the officer could put my father's message through the machine, make a few adjustments, and decode the message on the spot. Then the lieutenant, since it was almost always a lieutenant, gave the decoded text to my father to enter in the daily log book.

When there was time, the officers would discuss cipher schemes with my father. During the early months of the Korean War, the lieutenants tried to elevate the skills of their enlisted troops. When the week was too busy or everyone was too tired, as happened more often after the arrival of Captain Black Jack, no one spoke. An enciphered message came in. A plain text message left for the logs and for overnight transmission to the headquarters in Washington, DC.

The overnight transmission was the main way that the U.S. military leadership knew about the Signal Corps. The radiomen on night duty enciphered the Korean messages with American codes and sent them to the relay station in the Philippines. Other radiomen re-transmitted them to California. Finally, at around four o'clock in the morning, the messages reached army headquarters.

Black Jack took the overnight work for granted.

He had continued, as a tough-minded captain, to drill the enlisted men as if they were front line troops. At one point when North Korean forces threatened to overrun the position of the 126th Signal Service Company, Black Jack told his men they would not be following the usual pack-up-and-run procedure.

"If those bastards come for us, we'll burn the code books and fight." The captain made the announcement on his own authority to his assembled soldiers. "We'll fight to the end."

"We only have rifles," hissed a corporeal.

"And you're no damned good with them," said a sergeant.

Late that night, the veteran enlisted men held an emergency session. Could they complain to the colonel? Would other officers impose sanity on Black Jack?

"Listen, Roberts, if the place gets overrun," an older enlisted man took my father aside. "Just stay away from the captain."

"What do you mean?"

"You talk too much with the officers." He meant my father liked learning the cipher methods. "Stay away from them for a few days. If Black Jack tells us to get our rifles, you go get yours but don't come back."


"Wait until you're at the back of the line, get it? Don't get near Black Jack."

My father had just turned eighteen. He didn't understand what they were telling him. An older, more worldly private had to pull him aside later and explain.

"If Black Jack really tries to make us charge the Chinese tanks with our rifles, the sergeants are going to accidentally shoot the captain."


"The lieutenants, too, if they give us any grief about it. And then we're going to pack up the equipment and run just like we should."

As the front approached, the troops didn't see any sign of Black Jack giving up his resolve to fight. He marched his men. He drilled them with rifles. He ran scenarios for defense of the base. He forgot about the overnight block transmissions. For a few days, the radiomen working overtime sent them to Washington headquarters late. Then, after a long all-day march, the captain cancelled night shift. No radioman put in extra hours to send the batch of deciphered Korean messages.

That was too much. Washington called California. California called Guam. Guam radioed the Philippines. The base colonel picked up the phone and swore to his superiors that it would never happen again. He called Black Jack into his office. 

At long last, he shipped Black Jack out.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.6: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 6

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Arrival of Black Jack

Although the signal corps continued strong for months, one of their captains rotated out. The army brought in a replacement. The new man called the other officers 'eggheads.' He said the signal corps looked weak. He saw that the enlisted men didn't go on marches. No one did their morning calisthenics. Since the transcribers worked different shifts around the clock, they didn't meet together as a corps.

The new captain decided to change all of that. He re-instituted regular weapons training. He made the sergeants lead the troops in calisthenics. He took entire squads on marches.

"He thinks he's a fucking marine!" The older men in the corps complained.

"It's worse than that. Black Jack thinks we're all marines." Within a few days, they had assigned him a nickname. My father, still seventeen, thought it was pretty funny.

Even the officers, all of them specialists, were angered by how the captain treated them. They didn't know what to do about it, though, so all they did was complain to each other.

"He can't decode anything!" a lieutenant said and then added the bad news that Black Jack had misplaced the previous captain's reference materials. Those were essential at times. But Black Jack hadn't understood them, so he had decided they were unnecessary. He might have burned them. "He doesn't even know what we do."

The captain started passing out demerits based on improperly worn uniforms, poorly made beds, towels left out to dry in the wrong place, and not using enough boot polish. He punished enlisted men immediately before their transcription shifts, so that more of them made mistakes that resulted in unreadable codes. He took the corps on a march together so that some of the men missed shifts. Others fell asleep during their transcription sessions.

The marches tired my father out more than anything. They could start at dawn and if you had just listened to coded radio all night, it didn't matter. You had to go. He watched the older men and learned from them. He reported to work on time. He turned in correct translations of the radio code signals he'd picked up although it was a struggle.

The junior officers appealed to the colonel about Black Jack hurting the signal corps. He told them to be patient. Black Jack, he thought, was doing what new captains did. Then the colonel called the captain into his office for a talk. Lieutenants and enlisted men put their ears to the wall. The colonel shouted a bit but nothing much came of it. Black Jack was quieter for a couple days. Soon, he returned to his usual tactics.

The privates, corporals, and sergeants started to retaliate against Black Jack's inspections. One of his favorite tricks during those was to have the men stand in parade formation. He'd walk along for a minute, turn, and snatch a rifle from a private's hands. If he could snatch it away, he would give a demerit for holding the gun too lightly.

After a few more parade inspections, the enlisted men saw it coming. One of them in the line ahead of my father clutched his gun. The captain struggled with it and had to resort to ordering the private to let go. He returned that rifle and turned to the next man. He gave the gun a firm yank, expecting resistance. The private let go so suddenly that Black Jack nearly bayoneted himself in the head. For my father, it was easy not to laugh. It would have meant demerits. But the event got funnier and funnier in memory as the enlisted men retold it forever after.

Black Jack stopped using that particular trick. But he kept penalizing the privates and interfering with their code transcriptions while not actually barring them from their jobs. The enlisted men wanted to go on strike but, of course, they were in the army. They couldn't. Any real attempt at a work stoppage would land them in the stockade.

Just hearing the men talk about it made my father nervous. Fortunately, most of the corps regarded him as a kid. He was definitely the youngest radioman and they didn't expect him to do anything except stay out of their way.

The soldiers started their resistance movement in the mess hall. Organizers among them passed out word about what to eat. Sometimes it was, "nobody eat the eggs." Each time an order came, it meant a bunch of something left over. It looked bad on company reports but it didn't seem to bother the captain. So the entire corps skipped lunch, my father too. The soldiers ate double at dinner to create shortages in the ingredients. Finally, an inspector happened by when the troops skipped a meal. He saw the leftover food get thrown out. He checked the books and saw the excessive waste.

The Inspector General called in the colonel, who called in the captain. They wanted to talk about the reasons the men would skip meals. Finally, the troops had succeeded in getting Black Jack into trouble. The problem was, it wasn't enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.5: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 5

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Simple Codes

For months, my father and the other enlisted men of the 126th Signal Service Company intercepted Korean and Chinese radio communications. They transcribed them, broke the ciphers - when there were any, since both sides sometimes sent in plain text - and transmitted them in batches each night to Washington, DC.

Off shift, the squad mates played cribbage, poker, and other games for money. My father was still seventeen and although he was no longer in danger of being discharged (back in the US, his mother has signed an agreement saying that he could serve), he was rightly regarded as in need of guidance. Older men taught him to play poker well enough to win money from them. They made him play cribbage so they could win it all back.

For most of the year, the intelligence corps made steady progress. The Koreans and Chinese scrambled their codebooks but continued to use substitution ciphers that the enlisted troops or their codebreaking officers could crack. My father learned to identify each telegraph operator by her 'hand.' When the operators in China got rotated or purged, the Americans could tell. The Chinese knew it, too. Some of the women cursed, in their transmissions, about or directly at the U.S. intelligence crew.

At least once, the cursing paid off for the American side. It was a day after the Chinese had switched cipher methods. That was a laborious thing to do since it involved sending North Korean and Chinese operators new code books. It was worth it to keep the Americans from reading the messages on the same day, though. The fact that the Koreans had insisted on new ciphers meant they were planning an offensive. The Americans wanted the details. However, this time the Chinese were keeping their transmissions brief. The U.S. decoders couldn't assemble a big enough sample size to figure out the new cipher method.

"Hey, look at this one." One of the enlisted men brought his message to a decoder at the same time as my father brought his transcriptions. The other operator had written down a coded message. "This is from that woman who changed cities. She curses at us all the time. Her message is the only one that's long."

"So it's got her cursing in it," the officer sat up with a smile. This was making his day. "What does she usually say about us?"

The operator and my father described the types of curses that the Chinese telegraph operator used. In less than half an hour, the code breaker iterated through his math and employed guesses about the words used to break the new code.

"Got it! Complete with cursing!'

The commanding officer passed on his congratulations. The team had done it. They'd beaten the new codebook on their first day against it.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.4: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 4

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: As a Soldier

At seventeen, my father reported to boot camp. He'd lied about his age to sign up. Naturally he feared being caught. As tough as the training and hazing was, his exhaustion faded each time he received a written summons to see a sergeant or lieutenant. Every encounter had the potential to expose his lie. He knew he could be sent to the stockade, or discharged, or both.

He finished camp. At the end, he took a series of exams that were meant to discover his potential best fit for active duty. He really had no preference but older recruits gave him lots of advice.

"You hate KP. You'll hate cooking."

"Rangers parachute behind the lines. If you join them, you're as good as dead."

"Don't be a clerk. I'm at a desk typing all day and it's awful. Just awful."

Most of the advice seemed well meant but he knew that sometimes it didn't apply to him. His choices would be limited. He had no connections. He might be offered a chance to change his assignment. But probably not. A lot of times, there was no wriggling out of a written command, which had to be done by soliciting another command from someone higher up. When he got his official order to report to the Army Intelligence training school in California, he shared it with his camp buddies, about a third of whom were waiting for their assignments, too. Their response was, 'What the hell is that?' No one had an opinion about whether it was a bad job or not. The travel order included a free go-anywhere train ticket.

Two days later, my father hadn't responded to the order but he received a different one, also in writing: report to the colonel in charge of his army base on the next day, noon.

My father realized there wasn't much that a colonel would want to see him about. Yelling at him for being seventeen was probably at the top of a short list.

So the next morning, as early as he could manage, my father packed up his kit. They were all the possession he had anyway. Then he hiked down to the train station. That was how he joined SIGINT.

126th Signal Service Company

When I was six, my father said, "The army taught me Russian, then sent me to spy on the Chinese." He proceeded to say it again when I was seven, eight, and pretty much constantly for the next forty-five years. So he really meant it.

After World War II, the U.S. needed to downsize its military. That freed up money needed to re-commercialize the economy. It also meant that by the time of the Korean War, the 7th Fleet had one intelligence officer in the Far East Command. Hardly anyone in any branch of service knew Chinese, Russian, or Korean. Also, as my father pointed out, the U.S. mistakenly assumed that the Russians were controlling North Korea. They trained Robert Roberts, among their other intelligence recruits, to understand Russian communications. As soon as he started reading and decrypting the telegraph signals, my father saw that the Koreans were talking among themselves and with the Chinese. They weren't talking to the Russians.

The Armed Forces Security Agency, which was the umbrella Signals Intelligence organization of the time, had no Korean linguists, no Korean language typewriters, nor did it have Korean-English dictionaries at the start of the war. By the time my father arrived, the fighting had been going on for ten months. The AFSA had repaired most of their basic deficiencies. They hadn't fixed them all, though, and they didn't understand all of their problems.

When he arrived, my father trained with the best, fastest telegraph signal reader at the intelligence base. This was a man who could not only read the Chinese signal morse code but could hold sentences or entire paragraphs of it in his head. He only wrote his transcription down when he was sure he had heard the signals correctly. My father saw him listen to an entire coded transmission, pause to think, and then write out the entire text.

"If you want to be good, you've got to do the same," the best transcriber challenged my father. "If you try to translate the message character by character, you'll never make it. You'll get thirty characters in, realize that you heard something wrong at the start, and you won't have time to go back and fix it or you'll miss the rest of the incoming message. Your intelligence won't mean anything, if you're bad. You've got to hold at least a sentence at a time. The more you can hold in your head, the better."

No one had ever caught this particular transcriber in a mistake, not even when he held an entire telegraph message in his head. My father got good but he always said with a wry smile that he never got to the top. He learned to hold a few lines of code in his head and to transcribe them well. His work got the nod first from the code breakers, then from the officer in charge.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.3: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 3

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: His Childhood

He was born as Robert Earl Gallagher in Elmira, New York, in 1934. His older sister and his younger brother were both born with different last names.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that his family registered him as Gallagher, his father's family name. For the most part, the family avoided using their Irish name and took on English names for the sake of employment. My grandma June was mostly English and she went by Light, Pond, or Roberts.

When my father was two years old, his father died. As a consequence (one of many effects, of course), my father grew up as Bobby Roberts, a step-child and sometimes a homeless one. His mother June worked as a maid. She picked up more side jobs after she became the breadwinner but she had two children already and this was during the Great Depression. Even for part-time maid jobs, June had competition to undercut her. And sometimes her employers didn't pay up.

When June remarried, her new husband was out of work. Despite pooling their money, they couldn't make rent. Their landlord evicted them. June had learned a lesson, though, from her previous evictions. She knew that she couldn't pay enough, so she saved her money. By the third or fourth eviction, she had developed self-preservation habits. She saved enough to move into another apartment with the first month of rent and a security deposit. She never paid the next landlord more than that if she could help it. She knew she didn't have the income to pay a steady rent anywhere and often she couldn't pay the utilities. Instead, she fed her family and saved what she could. Usually by the time she was thrown out, she had enough saved for the first month of rent and a security deposit on their next place.

On the days they were thrown out of their home, my father returned from school to find everything on the curb. Part of that time, he discovered that his toys and clothes had been stolen or given away.

Each time, June told my father that he could take nothing but his clothes. She was more sentimental about his sister, Jenny, so Jenny got to take a few dolls. His little brother Jack still had a father living with them, so Jack got to take nearly all of his things. His father packed them for him. Jack was the baby of the family and Jenny was the girl. My father felt caught in the middle.

He told me later that it was always clear that his parents didn't like him. They often told him so. With each eviction came a reminder of what that meant. His brother and sister took boxes with them, usually carried by June or her husband. My father carried his clothes by himself.

Elmira is not a big town. After June's second husband died, too, it got harder to find a place to live. Some landlords would not rent to a woman. Many of them knew about her schemes by that point anyway. Her brother, Jack Light, drove up from Baltimore in a rented car. This was a big deal. It changed all of their lives. Because Jack had come to take his sister's family back home with him.

When I grew up, my father kept telling me what a great city Baltimore was. I accepted that as a simple statement of fact. My trips to Lexington Market in Baltimore felt exciting because it was apparently the best food market in the best city in the world.

(Lexington Market in its heyday had an amazing variety of local, craft foods. Most butchers in the city had a stall in the market and they brought their freshest meats. They cut them in front of their customers, sometimes a scary process for kids but often not. The vegetables, the milk, the cheese, and even the pickles were unique. In the late 1960s, I could reliably start from an entrance door and run two blocks through a crowd of a few thousand people to a particular pickle vendor that I found by the mouthwatering smell of the barrels. Even in the mid-1970s when Lexington was losing ground to supermarkets, the freshness of the food was impossible to match. Nowadays, that's still true. The close-to-the-farm distribution style no longer exists. Once, when I was fourteen, I helped pack and then unpack sandwich steaks that a butcher had cut extra thin for my father. Three of the steaks never made it to the freezer. The smell had been driving me crazy. I ate them raw on the way into the house. My father was basically right about Lexington Market. It kicked ass.)

The market aside, my father's sentiments for Baltimore didn't make sense to me even as I accepted them. Only later did I realize what the city had meant. His uncle Jack had taken him from sometimes-homelessness to a brick rowhouse with his own half-room, from being told by his parents that they didn't like him to being told by his uncle that he was fine, from having his comic books thrown out every few months to being able to collect things, even coins, without someone stealing them. (Well, except for his brother Jack, who, as younger siblings sometimes do, helped himself to the collections and spent the coins when my father was in Korea.)

Before Baltimore, my father's attendance at schools had been haphazard. Fortunately, he had turned to reading to escape the realities of his life. His self-teaching proved to be just barely enough to make it into City College. (City College, despite its name, was and is a prestigious public high school.) He ran on the high school track team, idolized the football players and decathletes, traveled after school on foot with other boys to stare in awe at the local bouncer who played for the Baltimore Colts, and mostly enjoyed himself except for the long-running feud with his mother. A few months before he turned seventeen, North Korea invaded South Korea. My father responded by walking into his local recruiting station.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.2: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 2

Robert Gallagher, Wake


When I was three and living in Germany, my parents insisted that we start meals with a prayer. Often I led the prayer. My father listened to me in my sing-song voice for about half a year of our occasional ritual before he figured out that my final words at the end of each prayer were, "come in." Apparently, I couldn't make any other sense out of what grown-ups were saying at the end.

He tried to correct me. He told me it was "amen" even I though, at the age of three, that didn't make any sense. My mother pointed out that "come in" was nice. She actually defended it! That let to my father regarding the whole situation, including my mother's rationalization, as funny. So he did what he did best. He told that story about me for the next fifty-one years.

He told some good stories. He told a lot, good, bad, and just plain interesting.  He wasn't shy about re-telling his classics.

Now, an old friend of mine once said that I showed a great strength for misrepresenting the classics. In light of that strength, I will now misrepresent you The Book of Common Prayer, verse 1928, and an inappropriate passage from the Book of John.

We have in our hands our merciful father and we commit his ashes to this cigar box in the spirit of his Scots-Irish sensibilities, earth to earth, cigar ashes to ashes, wood chipper to mulch.

Let not your heart be troubled. 

In my father's house, there are many newspapers. If it were not so, we would not be such a long time cleaning up. Whatever comes next, we are preparing.

We will go and prepare a place for all and we will receive you all. Wherever we are, you may be also. And if you have known us, you have known our father also, even if you have never met him. If you have seen us, you have seen him. Do you not believe that we are in our father and our father lives in us? Our father dwells in our bodies. At times, he speaks from our mouths and we do his works.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, the works that we do, he does also. The better we are, the more to his glory.

Our father, in this cigar box, hallowed be thy name. We've read your will. Your will be done. Here, as it hardly ever was in life. You gave to us our daily bread. We forgave one another our trespasses. We mostly forgave those who trespassed against us. You didn't quite resist temptation. But you delivered us to where we are now, in a good place. Come in.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.1: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 1

Robert Gallagher, Wake


My father must have had a hundred jokes. That sounds good but actually there are three hundred sixty five days in a year. And he told more than one joke per day.

Humor Crusader

When I was ten, I spent a lot of time in the math lab and the teacher's lounge at Northwood High School, where my father worked. He was the Math Resource Teacher by that time. The position gave him a bit of extra money and responsibility. He got to plan the math class schedules, hire teachers, and assign them to classes.

One day, a medium-tall black man walked into the lab. He had on a suit jacket and glasses. He asked me who I was and then ignored me while I played. When my dad walked in a few minutes later, the man greeted my father with a big handshake and a smile.

"I got the transfer," he said. "I'm already teaching history."

"Good," said my father. "How do you like it?"

"Way better than math." They both got a big laugh out of that.

I asked why the man didn't like math. At ten, I thought it was fine enough. My father responded with some sort of joke. He would never have explained it, I guess, not to a ten year old. It was the black man who spoke up.

"No one in the county would hire me," he said. "But a friend of mine told me about your dad. Your dad got me in the system. I had to teach math for a year. But I always wanted to be a history teacher. Once I was in the system, I transferred. See, I could even transfer to where they didn't want me."

"They need history teachers there, too," said my dad.

"Your father is doing a good thing."

By this point, I sensed an adult-world sort of mystery. There was something going on that they hadn't explained. I kept asking. It took them a few minutes more to fully reveal my father's method. It wasn't something my father would have told me on his own. But the other man thought it was important. He insisted. In fact, he did most of the telling.

At the time, the county teacher hiring forms went through one woman in the central office. It wasn't that this woman controlled the decisions, really, just that the paperwork all went through her. She refused to process the hiring of black teachers for any place that she didn't consider a black school. That meant there were hardly any black teachers hired each year, sometimes none.

My father didn't have the ability to hire black History teachers or English teachers or foreign language teachers. However, the county had made an exception for math teachers. As usual, no school could get enough of them. So the local principals and math resource teachers were allowed to hire candidates 'on the spot.' My father's principal had given him the freedom to hire anyone who he wanted. The word got out. Robert Gallagher was hiring blacks at Northwood High School.

Yes, you had to teach math in your first year. After that, you were expected to transfer out to the job you really wanted. Then my father would hire another black teacher and the cycle would start again. It was their way of beating the county hiring system, which was one that wasn't admitting more than the minimum quota of African Americans.

It wasn't a major rebellion on my father's part, I think. He felt that he was doing the right thing and it was nothing more than that. He never said anything more about it aside from that one conversation. He was committing a series of small acts that, by necessity, flew under the radar of everyone except his principal and a few fellow teachers. For a while, one of those teachers he hired, Regina Skyles, did socialize with us and we got to know her family until she transferred. Other than that, the teachers remained co-workers who we, in the rest of the family, never thought about.

For less than a decade in the late sixties and early seventies, my father found it necessary to trick the system a little. Tricks like those were his strength. And mostly, he did them with a laugh.