My first job: Submarine Captain

An old resume includes:

Captain in the world’s 13th largest submarine fleet. Led “voyage of exploration through liquid space,” including a course beneath the polar icecap. Demonstrated conspicuous bravery and sound judgment in rescuing 32 civilians from surface storms, the Graveyard of Lost Ships, and attacks by giant squid. Spearheaded underwater archaeological expedition; located the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.

For Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary

I grew up watching Star Trek with my parents, and it played a particular role in bonding with my father. A 10th-grade dropout, a mechanic, a contractor and engineer with little regard for standards, measurements, or straight lines–nonetheless, my father was fascinated by the ideas in the show. Long after we’d watch a rerun of the original series, he’d want to talk about the Big Ideas coded into the adventure of the week. Working under a car, he’d muse how unlikely it was that we were alone in the universe, or urge that humanity needed to get out there, if only so we spread out and increased our chance of survival. The show made a philosopher out of a high school dropout who never read a book in his adult life.

christopher-pike

This is Captain Christopher Pike, confined to a wheelchair after being horribly burned by radiation. He’s only able to communicate by beeping: once for ‘yes’, twice for ‘no’. (I know–oddly retarded technology for 300 years in the future, but whatever).

My father and I watched Pike, in the first-season episode The Menagerie, reduced to cryptic yes/no signals. Beep. Beeeep Beeeeeeep.

I clearly remember my father turning to me and saying, “If I ever get like that, if I can’t live without being plugged into a bunch of machines, pull the plug. Don’t hesitate. Pull the plug.”

Thirty years later, a doctor called to tell me they’d tried everything they could think of, but my father wasn’t coming out of the coma they’d induced. Ever. It should have been routine, like waking from sleep, I was told. Which is why I’d left his side. Which is why I was three thousand miles away when things went inexplicably and permanently bad.

The doctor wanted instructions. In the background, I heard the life support machines. Beep. Beeeep Beeeeeeep. I didn’t hesitate. The doctor was kind enough to put the phone to my father’s ear, and I spoke to him while the tones of the machinery lengthened, became steady, then were shut off.

Sometimes Star Trek gets things wrong. There *are* no-win scenarios. But because of the show and its ability to fire imagination, I knew exactly what to do, and was equipped with the resolve needed in that moment. I couldn’t turn death into a fighting chance to live, but I could honor a final request and do it without flinching.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nerd

playing tron game comic-con 2009Rank on Tron machine at Comic-Con: 1

Drew a small crowd at the recreation of Flynn’s Arcade from the movie. In 1982 I was world champion at Tron for about 2 weeks…name printed in Electronic Games magazine, etc. My score still ranks #15 or #16 in history.

Later, this image appeared on CNN in an article about “Top 10 things we saw at Comic-Con this year.” The back of my head is famous.

Fourth of July: Ground Bloom Flowers

Ground Bloom Flowers

This was the core of our annual firework arsenal. We’d often have a brick of these things, leading to a steady course of them over the evening, punctuated by fountain cones or other more exotic (expensive) devices. As the night wore on and we got bored with lighting them one at a time, we tried them in clusters, discovering new and novel principles of thermodynamics. You could braid the fuses of several together. Sometimes this would form a larger, combined Voltron of hissing, skipping, colored flames. Sometimes they wouldn’t stay together, and the spinning fireball would eject a few offspring into new orbits, usually toward watching children. Kept us on our toes. Amazingly we kept all our toes, too.

The pinnacle of Ground Bloom Flower art was amphibious operations. Once the Flower got up to speed, spinning and skipping crazily on the concrete, someone wondered how it would do on water. The families of redneck scientists adjourned to the laboratory: our backyard pool. For a delivery system, a 6″ square piece of plywood was found and floated in the pool. Light the Ground Bloom Flower, nudge the wood out into the pool as the fuse burned down, and…amazement. The Flower whirled to life and danced across the surface of the water. Some of them would fizzle and drown immediately. Some skittered around and burst just as they would on land. But a few…a few of them fought to live. My favorites were the ones that started to slow down, bubbled, then found their second wind and found a way to keep going.

Bonus: the morning of July 5th, the kids on the block were ordered into the pool (hours earlier than normally permitted) to dive and recover the spent Ground Bloom Flowers from the bottom.

Fourth of July: Suburban Antiaircraft

1942_02_26_NY_Times_Battle of Los Angeles_largeSome years would see a block party with neighbors combining firework arsenals. The Dagnalls never kicked in the large boxed assortments. In part because I was particular about the fireworks I liked and the ones I didn’t at the local Red Devil/Freedom/Wildcat stands. I preferred to handpick my fireworks. I swore by Piccolo Petes and Ground Bloom Flowers, maybe cunningly constructed pyramids of Black Snakes that left cool scorch patterns like Maori facial tattoos on the concrete for the rest of summer. Why pay extra for boxed sets that cost more yet were larded down with impotent Sprinklers?

Also, in part, because of a streak of rebellion. Others would bring the retail fireworks and play within the bounds of “safe and sane”. Others might mishandle things and suffer burns or cause structure fires, earning our scorn as well as a trip to the hospital. We refused to be bound by rules meant for these other sorts of people. What could be more American, right?

So my father would use his trucking connections to get the Good Stuff: illegal fireworks “up from the border”. A few bricks of tiny, firecracker-on-a-stick bottle rockets, which were more fascinating because they were contraband than because of the results they delivered. They weren’t much better than sparklers, honestly. But there were always a few of their larger cousins, as well: bona fide rockets on thick guide rods with rocketish plastic fixtures–nosecones and fins and such. These looked serious. Aeronautical, even.

Some of the other dads would set down a fountain, light it with their Bic, and scurry back to watch fifteen seconds of sparks. When this petered out, we’d unlimber our family artillery: a man-high length of black PVC pipe, square hole cut in the side down at one end. Scarred and scorched at the muzzle from Fourths of July past.

You know the old movies where they make a big deal out of loading a cannon or a musket? Wadding, powder, shot, whatever, tamp it down, aim, fire? That’s how this felt to me. A throwback to an earlier, more revolutionary era. Less safe and sane, no warning labels.

We boys would stand at the ready with buckets of water, in case an errant round went into a neighbor’s landscaping. My father would drop a rocket down the pipe. The fuse would appear where the notch was cut in the PVC (good design, that). Light, tilt in the direction you want it to go, wait…and foomp! Worked like a charm, trailing sparks to burst fifty feet up.

One year the police helicopter was around, and we kids were in mortal fear that we’d all get swept up for the illegal fireworks. Some of the dumber adults, my father included, decided to use the rocket tube for suburban antiaircraft instead. Larger rocket in the tube, wait ’til Angel One wanders by, don’t fire ’til you see the whites of the searchlight…foomp! No, the rockets didn’t come anywhere near the helo, but it’s the thought that counts. The lingering thought of “WTF, Dad?”