Sunday, February 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.16: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 16



Robert Gallagher, Wake


Remembrance as a Teacher - Inside the Union

My father spoke Russian. That's why he was able to teach it. However, holding actual conversations with Russian speakers of various ethnicities and accents gave him different results than in class.

"Was she even Russian?" he wondered aloud when someone gave him directions in Moscow. He had said the same thing in Leningrad about the street directions he'd received there. "That sounded like a different slavic language."

At one point, he had a brief conversation with a Polish man who spoke Russian. That man had been lost and asked my father for directions. Naturally, my father couldn't help. They lingered to talk for a moment and shared common exasperations about the language they were using.

"He had a terrible accent. I guess I do, too," my father said as we got on our tour bus. He repeated the phrase again years later. "I think we understood each other better than anyone else we talked to."

Despite the relative innocence of our tour with high school teachers and their students, the Soviets restricted our itinerary sharply. They made only two cities available to visit, Leningrad and Moscow, with parts of them off limits. They assigned handlers to travel with the groups of students. They brought in KGB agents to trail after us and make sure we didn't engage in spycraft. My father once or twice suspected that the agents might be casually helping the tour. Certainly, there seemed to be plenty of kind Soviet citizens who helped students who got lost or who berated Russians when they were were rude to the students. There were helpful strangers to make sure everyone got on the bus or to stop the tourists from trying to buy snacks in the subway station and prompt them to run, quick, and get on the train with everyone else.

When we had breaks between tours of statues and basilicas, my father struggled with the Soviet transportation systems like everyone else. He had always loved the trolley cars in Baltimore, so at one point he decided we should take the trolley in Moscow as sort of a comparison. He lined us up at the stop after taking us on a walking trip for ice cream. It was going to be a straight ride back to the hotel.

The trolley arrived. I leapt aboard and pulled my brother with me, his hand in mine. Behind, I heard a shout. To my father's surprise, the crowd would not let him follow. They pushed him out of the way and boarded the trolley until men were hanging off the outside. There truly was no room. Finally, one Russian man saw what had happened and that my father was struggling to get on the already full car. He grabbed my father by the arm and pulled him in. A wrestling match ensued between the man and the other passengers. The fellow barked something at the others. Although some of them barked back, they allowed him to pull my father inside the trolley car. He gave my father a push into the aisle in the general direction where I'd been carried by the crowd.

"Sometimes I do wonder about that guy," my father said later. "Was he an agent we hadn't noticed or was just a helpful person? Well, anyway, I'm glad he was there."

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.15: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 15


Robert Gallagher, Wake


Remembrance as a Teacher - To Moscow, With Love

In 1973, politics spilled over into teaching, this time for the better. The Nixon administration began a series of discussions with the Soviets. The leaders of both countries made peace offerings to ease the Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union offered to allow tourists. The United States offered to send some.

That, in a compacted telling, is how the US decided to send its first high school trip to Communist Russia. It was a package deal that included four high schools from around the country all traveling together. Students taking Russian language courses qualified. There weren't many of those, of course, but my father taught two levels of Russian at Northwood High plus an option for independent study. He and his students applied and got picked.

The slightly odd part is that my father elected to take his family.

"When will we ever have this chance again?" he asked.

My two-year-old youngest brother wasn't allowed. My mother didn't want to leave him behind and pointed out, "What would I do, really? I don't speak any Russian. I don't know any of your students."

That left my middle brother and I as the ones to pack bags and trundle onto the 747 bound for Helsinki, Finland.

There were no flights between the US the USSR. The Soviets wouldn't allow Americans to fly through their airspace. For the trip, the high schools had to take a FinAir jet from DC to NYC to Helsinki. Then they drove by chartered bus to the Soviet border.

At the border, the Soviet guards gave everyone a hard time. They alternated between stern commands and bureaucratic lectures. Everyone stood in eight lines with two customs agents at the front of each line. After a while, my father got his turn. The Soviets spent a while making sure the passport picture was his. He spoke Russian, so he insisted that it was. They laughed at his young, beardless visage from 1960 and held it up next to him to show the difference between it and his bearded, middle-aged face. After that, they searched his bag and felt satisfied. My father ushered me forward. The guards chuckled. Behind me and to my left stepped my younger brother. They noticed him and, for the first time, they started to laugh.

At this point, the guards made a big show of not inspecting our bags. They opened mine but they waved their arms over the contents as if casting a magic spell. When my younger brother tried to give them his bag, a smaller version of mine, they brushed it off. One of the men returned the bag to my brother and tried to pinch his cheek. He saw it coming. With a shout, he dodged it.

For whatever reason, that made the guards laugh even harder. They waved us through like we were comedian celebrities. In less than a minute, as our group took our positions beyond the border, the two border guards got back to shouting sternly at tourists and demanding to feel their toothpaste tubes.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.14: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 14


Robert Gallagher, Wake


Remembrance as a Teacher - Buying In

The first few years as a teacher are usually tough. But by the time my father started in Montgomery County, he had six years of experience. After a year on the faculty at Northwood High, they offered him the math resource teacher position, equivalent to being the dean.

"Well, no one else wanted it," he told other grown-ups when I was a child. "I think they offered it to everybody before me. It's extra work. And the extra pay isn't much, a lot less than my hourly rate. But it's not so bad. My principal asked me to do it. The type of work suits me. I get a budget. I get to make the class schedules. If things work out, I give myself classes I want to teach. Even if things don't work out, I can make sure I get a class that's fun."

This was probably the year that he started hiring minority teachers to get them into the county system.

"I found that I had to go back to the University of Maryland," he told me later. "Math was just something I hadn't studied much. Suddenly, I was teaching it."

By the time I was aware of him as a teacher, around 1971, I could tell that he was good. It was a strange realization. Even in elementary school, you get a sense for the good teachers wherever you meet them. You notice how everyone reacts to them. I could see how his students got excited by his ideas. They liked to talk with him. The other teachers found him intruiging. It was weird, as a child, to realize that he was very good at what he did.

He was starting to realize it, too. Although he was the head of the math department, he taught psychology, philosophy, and Russian language classes. He enjoyed himself enough that he studied the math for the teacher retirement system like he was going to spend his career in the classroom. He found that it made sense to "buy in" his years as a federal teacher for the army. So he did.

Besides heading his department, teaching other subjects, and buying extra seniority, he allowed other teachers to nominate him as their union representative.

"What's wrong with these people?" he asked about the union. The union job meant extra work, too. He had to go to teacher conventions in summer. He engaged in unpaid battles with county or state administrators. That much, he'd expected. But he had to fight battles within the union, too, and those were the ones that dispirited him. He didn't mind the struggle for better work conditions but he felt that the petty fights over prestige within the union or even within the teaching system were a waste of time.

In two years, he convinced another teacher to take the union representative job. My father settled back into teaching four subjects. That was enough.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.13: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 13


Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - Overseas

When we were growing up, my father built a photo collage about six feet tall, three feet wide. I helped him put together the frame, the cardboard backing, and the photo pasting. That is, I was often in the same room. Since I was five years old, my help amounted to staying within sight and not stepping on the photographs as he pasted them. I'm not sure I succeeded entirely.

For years, I felt in awe of the collage. It was twice my height and wider than I could stretch my arms. My father hung it on the wall next to the stairwell.

On most days as I galumphed up and down the stairs beside it, I saw pictures of myself in Germany or of my parents on bicycles in Europe. There were pictures with relatives and others with friends. Oddly, there were also photographs without any of my family or relatives. They were small, square shots with rows of colored people in them, often colored and white people walking arm in arm together. Even when I was eight and had acquired a bit of context, I didn't understand those pictures of civil rights marches. My parents had gone to be in them. My father, as always, tried to document what was happening.

Even now, those poorly-exposed photos, fond memories for my parents, are blurry partial-recollections for me. Young black women in white dresses; four or five men seen from behind, one taller than others, his hair cut short to the shape of his head; a man in a suit raising his left arm with a small crowd in front of him.

The collage didn't survive moving between houses. My parents sorted the prints into cardboard boxes. They misplaced the boxes, or threw them out, or left them in forgotten corners of our basement where rescue cats peed on them. For my part, I didn't understand how the photos marked the end of an era for our family. After I was born, the civil rights marches continued, of course, but they went on without my parents.

Sometimes that's the reality of having children. I can understand that my mother may not have wanted to risk getting hit or hosed down by police while she had an infant in her care. In any case, my parents had started spending time overseas with their teaching jobs. The presence of children put an end to that too, in time.

At first, my parents kept their careers as civilian, federal employees of the US Army. Only my mother flew to Maryland for my birth. A few months later, she returned to my father in Germany, this time to his posting in Hamburg.

"I did start to like teaching," my father said of his time at the army bases. "You could get up in front of a class and tell jokes and everyone felt compelled to laugh."

His students enjoyed his lectures. They talked to him at length after classes. He got to explore subjects he liked: philosophy, psychology, and the Russian language. The head of the faculty pressed him into teaching math as well. He hadn't paid much attention to the subject in college, only enough to get through calculus, but he found that he enjoyed talking about it. It felt to him like philosophy but more rigorous.

Meanwhile, my mother started pressing for a return to the United States. She was lining up better paying jobs in Maryland, ones with union benefits like parental leave. She was tired of moving from post to post. In Maryland, they had bought a home in 1961. But they barely lived in it before they accepted jobs in Europe. Their realtor had offered to rent it out for them, so the mortgage kept getting paid, and it was still theirs.

They returned to that house in College Park in the summer of 1966. That gave them a month to decide on their new teaching jobs.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.12: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 12

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Jobs and More Jobs

The position at IBM wasn't the only one that didn't last. After college, my father signed up to be a social worker for the City of Baltimore. Soon he left social work to join Eagle Patrol as a security officer for construction sites. His security job led to an offer from a construction company that was building the Baltimore Tunnel. The company wanted him to sell their equipment to other construction companies as soon they had finished with it. When the tunnel project wrapped up, he sold the last of the equipment and put himself out of a job.

Next, the NSA recruited him. They were looking for translators. They knew he had been trained by the Army Signal Corps. However, for this job they had him sit in an office. He spent his time translating maps.

"There couldn't be anything in the world more boring," he told me later. "I wasn't the only one who quit."

Apparently, the NSA couldn't keep map translators. Even when they lowered their standards from the college degree requirement and stopped asking for language training in advance, they couldn't keep the positions filled. In time, they learned to give the jobs more variety. They also found value in hiring workers who were desperate. But that wasn't my father.

My mother, though, was growing intense about seeing my father stay with a job for longer than a few months.

My father spent the remainder of his year selling things door to door until my mother graduated. At that point, they both signed up for teaching jobs overseas. Teaching is what my mother wanted to do for her career. The overseas posting reminded my father of bicycling through Europe, so it was a welcome compromise.

"Your mother really wanted me to find something and stick with it," he admitted later. "She needed me to make some kind of a living."

Pranks for the Memories

Just as troops get moved around from post to post, my parents discovered that the US Army moved its teachers, too. The army stationed them at a school in Heidelberg, then moved them to Bitburg. As they prepared to move out of Heidelberg in the spring, my father got the idea for a practical joke.

In Germany, April Fool's Day is a big deal. The year before my parents were stationed, the local German newspapers printed a front page article about the opening of a new subway line. They included pictures of the subway stops and a map that showed stairways down. That was the April 1 edition of the newspaper, of course. Local citizens spent a lot of time tracing the maps and finding the stops only to discover that they were only staircases to underground tunnels or to bridges across highway traffic. Americans thought it was hilarious and shared old copies of the newspaper with my father.

My parents also watched a German television re-broadcast of a documentary on the spaghetti trees of Italy. It came complete with the harvesting and drying of a spaghetti crop in Switzerland, north of the great spaghetti plantations. My father couldn't resist. He had his great idea for the army base. The best part is, his superiors had already given him official military letterhead for it.

The Heidelberg base, like other German military bases, had to prepare for spies from East Germany and for a possible Russian invasion. The possibility of nuclear war over the tensions of a divided Germany was on the minds of the officers. In the midst of such tensions, army schools struggled to secure classrooms and resources from the army. There was a rumor in Heidelberg that the army was going to move their headquarters and, as a consequence, move the schools and classrooms.

It wasn't hard to imagine the domino effects of moving the local headquarters. Lots of others had imagined it. There weren't many logical choices for buildings, either. Given that, my father made his guesses to stir up the most trouble. He wrote and re-wrote his prank until he felt it looked sufficiently official. Then he typed it on US Army School letterhead and ran off a bunch of copies.

At the top, in all capital letters, he wrote the date: APRIL 1, 1961. He typed in a lot of clues that the announcement was a joke, just in case. After he posted it on a bulletin board near the teacher lounge, he watched as people stopped by to read it. Lots of them chuckled. Obviously, he had a hit.

He posted it everywhere. All over campus, he announced the fake reorganization. Unfortunately and to his bewilderment, he saw that some people seemed to be taking the notice seriously. It was obviously a joke. The notice had all sorts of indicators including a made-up committee acronym, Federally Offensive Office Location Specialists (FOOLS) that anyone had to understand was tied to the April 1 announcement date at the top. Nevertheless, there were some people who read the notice and stomped away.

"Bob, uh, I was just in a meeting. They were pretty mad." One of his friends approached him a few days later, worried. "I didn't say anything. But Berlin is sending an army investigator."

My father had done what you can do for a harmless prank ... but what you can't do if you want to deny it. He'd told his friends in the faculty.

"The inspectors are on their way," said another teacher when he approached. "Bob, they'll be on campus tomorrow."

"What do you think I should do?" he asked the other teachers.

"We think you should volunteer to meet with them. Confess. Heck, it was a good prank."

My father waited a bit, just in case his teammates were pranking him back (a real possibility, after all) and sure enough, there did seem to be a new captain at the base on the next day. That man marched from classroom to classroom in the school. He had the same, somewhat brief conversation with every teacher. At that point, my father realized he really should volunteer. But he was teaching. He couldn't bring himself to walk out on his class. What's more, although he searched in the halls for the fellow between sessions, he couldn't find him. The officer showed up at the end of his next session.

"Mr. Gallagher," he said, "we're looking for the man who posted this notice."

He held up my father's prank announcement.

"That was me," my father admitted.

The captain raised his eyebrows. After he glanced around, he went to the door and closed it.

When he returned, he asked, "Where did you get this official stationary?"

"I typed our last edition of the faculty newsletter. I had some left over."

"Oh, that makes sense. Well, we need to sit down and talk for a minute. You'll have to get someone to watch your next class."

They made arrangements for another, somewhat flustered instructor to teach psychology. ("But I don't know anything about it." "Ask them to talk about the reading.") The captain sat down in a small office. He invited my father to do the same.

"How did you know about the buildings?" he began.

That was how my father learned that his guesses had been too right. Also, the rumors about the re-organization were true. A committee of officers in Berlin (not using the acronym FOOLS) had laid out a program of building changes. The sites they had chosen were almost identical to the ones my father had picked. All of this made it look, in fact, as if he had some sort of advance information.

"I didn't," he explained. "Look at the date on the announcement. Look at who it's from."

"That's sort of funny." The captain nodded his head over the acronym.

"Look who signed it."

"I don't recognize that officer." At the bottom, the order read 'I.N. Convenientz.' Okay, wait, I get it. That is funny."

After a few minutes more of discussion and inspection of the notice, my father pleaded again that he didn't have any connections to Berlin. He didn't know more than the concerns of the rest of the faculty. Those were the people he had been targeting.

"All right," the captain agreed. He folded his hands over the document. "I'm convinced. This was a prank."

"But I got the buildings right?"

"No, no more discussion. And no more pranks, Mr. Gallagher."

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.11: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 11

Robert Gallagher, Wake

After College

My father's job with IBM started while he was taking classes. It didn't even last the school year. As with his other positions, he grew dissatisfied. Eventually, he decided to re-grow his beard. Since he could could grow a pretty full beard in about four days, it didn't take long for his IBM boss to realize this was trouble. IBM did not permit beards.

There was a long list of what the company did not permit. This was an age in which businessmen scolded one another for not wearing sock garters. At IBM, business suits were required. So were shirts with starched colors, and thin, one-color ties. Socks had to match. Haircuts were standard length. Men had to be clean-shaven. All of these things were well-known.

Every day, my father came to work in a beard. He worked well. Every day, his boss insisted that he shave. He refused. Finally, a vice-president passed through the offices and saw him. Word got passed down through the layers of management to "fix the situation." His boss called him in and issued an ultimatum: shave right now or get fired.

My father didn't shave. In fact, since he was incensed by the dress code and by the ultimatum, he wrote a two-page letter to the president of the company. He defended his work and said the company was going to lose other good men by insisting on such a strict code. Of course, he never heard back.

Years later, my uncle Clinton, then a manager at IBM, got called to a training session. At a large conference hall in Lexington, Kentucky, the speakers got up and, one after another, address the need for conformity to the high standards of IBM. At one point just before lunch, the president of the company got up and gave his speech. On the overhead projector, he pointed to a letter he had received. Clinton squinted. The letter looked familiar. The speech by the president sounded as if he might be talking about someone Clinton knew. The president had his assistant flip to the next overhead. At the bottom of the page was the signature, "Robert Gallagher."

"I couldn't believe it was the same, damn letter!" Clinton said at a Thanksgiving dinner. "Bob's famous."

"What was the speech about?"

"Well, the president said your boss made a mistake in firing you."

"Really? He said that?"

"He said he should have persuaded you to shave your beard. Then he outlined all of the ways a manager should persuade staff to conform to the IBM way."

My father shrugged. "Oh well, then."

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 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 a few weeks and listened to her tell stories and laugh about them.

They hung out in their large, loosely-knit circle of friends with John Palmeroy, Betsy Friedman, Bob and Sybil Sampson, Dick Spotswood, and many others. 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 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 as a librarian and clerk 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."

"Never?"

"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."

"Accidentally."

"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.