Sunday, May 16, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.26: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 26

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Advanced Degrees of Support

My father didn’t just want me to go to college. He also wanted me to get a job that wasn’t tending bar. He didn’t believe a BA in writing would open that door for me. Neither did I.

When I casually applied to graduate school in linguistics, he smiled and told me it was the smart thing. Later, when I had second thoughts about the finances and turned down my acceptance letter, he got angry.

After a half-year of temporary gigs, I landed a job as a writer for University Publications. My parents were amazed by the fact that I had a regular job, even if it was in writing and it paid poorly. In my fathers view, which was a correct one, pay for writers had been declining for a hundred years. The value of editors was going down, too, as computer software for checking grammar got better and better. Likewise, he didn’t see much future in entertainment writing. Novels would not sell when everyone in our society was too busy playing video games to read them.

My parents both kept teaching, of course. They kept raising my brothers. My father started picking up adjunct professor classes at the local college. All of them involved computer science. It was the hot thing again. (Computers had been hot - slightly above room temperature, anyway - after the introduction of modems. Modems allowed schools to have terminals. This time around, schools were discovering that personal computers were better than modems. You could program on them constantly. The academic enthusiasm for programming reached a higher level.)

My father and I met to talk about my brothers or about computers or writing. I had been writing on computers for years. With a friend and my father, I put together a personal computer from parts.

We also continued our conversations about sports, including the CFL team that had come to Baltimore. First it was the CFL Colts, a name that evoked the past, but then the CFL owners lost a trademark battle over it and the team became the Stallions. We rooted for the Colts/Stallions for a couple of seasons. To everyone's surprise, in their second season they won the Grey Cup. Baltimore had a world champion again, albeit in Canadian Football.

The CFL football team in Baltimore averaged over 30,000 fans in the seats each game on the way to the title. Naturally, the NFL noticed. The next year, the NFL gave Baltimore a franchise and, despite the CFL having the stadium lease, the NFL kicked out the Stallions. It was reminiscent of 1953 when Baltimore hosted the International League World Series, which was the minor leagues championship. They outdrew the major leagues' World Series. The majors noticed. In 1954, they gave Baltimore its second Orioles franchise.

My father didn't talk only about sports, naturally. Our conversations rambled through Boolean logic, Godel's incompleteness theorems, the limits of logical proofs, and his latest hobbies. He had always loved radio dramas. He kept collecting them in reel to reel copies, cassette copies, even in compact disc format. The 1930s and 1940s were his favorite eras for drama and comedy.

That love for his childhood stories extended into his love of movies. The best comedians of all time? Abbot and Costello. The best dancer? Gene Kelley. The best singers? The Mills Brothers. The top musician? Probably Glen Miller. The greatest pitcher? Satchel Paige.

My father could consider other greats from that era, like Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, or Bob Feller, but if most of your achievements came after 1950, you were probably "not as great" as the names he knew from his childhood.

One exception was British humor. He and my mother watched Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, the Good Life, and more via the BBC reruns on PBS. After an afternoon that we'd spent talking about technology, he pulled me into the living room to watch an episode of Black Adder on PBS. As usual, I refused to look at it.

Even without my face in the direction of the screen, I could hear the dialogue. This one sounded different. My parents kept laughing. Eventually, I sat down.

"Are there more?" I asked when it was over.

"Of course, I've taped them all. Every episode."

"Where are they?"

"Downstairs. I don't know if I've labeled them yet."

My shoulders slumped as I envisioned the basement. He had easily a thousand VHS tapes there that weren't labeled. They flopped against the wall in stacks. They hid in and, just as often, rested under boxes of other tapes. Some of them served as bookends or paperweights.

"That was pretty funny, though," I told myself as I headed down the stairs.

My father tried to help. There was a reason he didn't label most of his tapes, though. He found it tedious. Soon enough, he gave up. I embarked on a two-month-long project of finding and labeling the Black Adder episodes. Eventually, I made a master copy in a VHS tape-to-tape machine. This made my version a copy of a copy of a public broadcast, so the quality was grainy at best. But I had assembled the episodes all together. Already, as a result of the collection process, I knew that season three was the best. 

All the while, my father checked my progress through his collection. He reminded me that British humor was the superior to any other, that no one danced like Gene Kelly, and that the Orioles were headed for the playoffs. Also, computers were going to take over the workplace, so I might as well learn something about them.

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