Sunday, June 27, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.32: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 32

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Tri

Morse Code

"Granddaddy, let me pull your beard!" my son said.

"Daw dit, daw daw daw," my father replied. "Dit daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw. That means 'no way,' kid. No way."

He must have known he had no way to teach his grandchildren morse code. He brought up the code anyway, repeatedly. More than fifty years after Korea, he broke out into spoken code when he wanted to emphasize a point. He also tried to show his grandchildren simple ciphers. ROT-13 and ROT-5 were his favorites. He took his examples of ROT-13 from history. He liked to talk about how the system developed in ancient Rome.

As a child and as a parent, I noticed something odd about his ciphering and deciphering: he separated elements of any cipher into five-letter chunks. Several times, I tried to make him explain it.

"It's just convenient," he said.

That was frustrating to hear as a child but, in retrospect, it seems right. While he served in the Signal Corps, he used five-letter chunks. Those were the easiest form of transmission for telegraph operators. Our state of technology has moved beyond the telegraph, of course, but five-letter blocks are still a popular practice among cipher hobbyists.

In our home, my father didn't play with many other styles of cipher. He stuck with what the army had taught him. He knew about the playfair cipher, for instance, but he never used it.

"Granddaddy, do you have tootsie rolls?" my daughter asked one afternoon.

"Daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw, daw dit dit dit, dit."

"No!" she shouted as he started speaking in code. She put out her hand to try and stop him.

"What does that mean?" asked my oldest boy.

"What do you think it means?"

He gestured past the clutter of his living room to the dining room, kitchen, and beyond.

In defiance of his diabetes, he hid candy around his house. His grandchildren discovered his caches of treats now and then. They raided them, over his protests, until he moved them or until the stacks of Necco wafers or licorice or other candies or chocolates ran out. Usually, the sweets ran out before he could be bothered find a new hiding spot. Then the kids would complain to each other ("You took the last one!" "No, you!") and they went to look for another cache.

"It means," my daughter said thoughtfully, "that I can have one."

"Hah!" he laughed. "Maybe. If you can find one."

Philosophy Rocks

"Get up!" my daughter said. The kids ran up to their grandfather in his lounge chair. "We want to go to the park."

"I'm up," my father replied, his eyes closed. He didn't lift his hands from the padded armrests.

"You're sitting in a chair."

"How do you know that?" he said. His eyes opened. "How do you know this is a chair?"

Two generations after college, he still thought in terms platonic forms. He snuck them into conversations when the kids didn't know what he was getting at. Sometimes he was explicit and quoted Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. At other times, he introduced the concepts into his conversations simply because he continued to see the world through the lens of metaphysics. Asking how people understood the concept of a chair was, to him, an ordinary example. It was how the ancients questioned human thought and the limits of knowledge.

The family living room stayed rather dim during the day even with light spilling through the main window. The furnishings were blue and brown. My father kept stacks of videotapes on the end tables and also on his shelves next to the television. Above the tapes and DVDs, my mother kept her collection of knick-knacks from Germany and a row of ornamental boxes. On the top of the shelves sat photos of the grandchildren. Between the stacks and collections, my parents had long ago hung a watercolor painting, its protective glass darkened by thirty years of cigar smoke.

At the far west side of the room sat two lounge chairs, one of them ripped by cats and buttressed by black duct tape. The other was a recent acquisition, green-gray in color and not a scratching post. It was plush, comfortable, and my father's favorite.

The area was restful for him until there were grandchildren in it.

"Have you been reading that red book on philosophy?" he asked. He meant a title called Philosophy Rocks. He disapproved of it because it wasn't Plato or Aristotle. The paperback was meant for parents and children to read together.

What he did like about Philosophy Rocks, though, was that it started with Plato's story of the cave and moved on quickly through dozens of other foundational concepts. He liked to hear the kids creating counter-arguments. If philosophers wanted a god because they felt there had to be a prime mover, then who was the prime mover who created the god? If saving two lives were better than saving one, was saving two murderers really better than saving one doctor? He wanted to listen to them thinking.

"What makes this a chair?" he insisted, fully awake but not rising.

"It's got cushions." The youngest poked the cushion next to my father's leg.

"It's got legs." My daughter pointed to them.

"Well, a table has legs," he objected.

"We know it's a chair," said my oldest son, "because you're sitting in it."

He smiled. "Actually, that's a pretty good definition."

When he leaned forward, the kids shouted. "Come on!"

"I'm tired," he replied. "Who says we're going to the park?"


"Okay." He pushed on the arms of the chair and started to rise. "I guess we're going to the park."

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