Sunday, July 18, 2004

My Father's Birthday

My father, Edwin Frederick Cramer (usually just "Fred") was born today in 1910, in Port Townsend, Washington. A friend's father died recently. It's a day for taking stock, I suppose, and considering one's losses.

My father was one of those people who, had he been born in 1940, would have gone to college, and become a mechanical engineer. Had he been born in 1950, perhaps an aerospace engineer. He wasn't brilliant, but he was clever, funny, occasionally witty, with an excellent, near photographic memory, very determined--and very gentle. Perhaps had his parents not separated when he was young, he would have gone to college.

Unfortunately, his father was a cad--clever, in a shark-like way, but unfaithful to my grandmother--and I suspect that his mother discovered his infidelity the way that many women of that generation did, because my father's father was a frequenter of brothels. My father's fraternal twin Glenn finished eighth grade, and went off to sea; my father finished high school, and became a bookkeeper. At the start of World War II, welding was paying about three times as much as accounting, and he went to work building the ships that helped win the war. After the war, my father sold encyclopedias door-to-door, worked as welder, sometimes in remote places like Alaska.

As I was growing up, it seemed that he could build almost anything out of scrap parts. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, but when I wanted a telescope, he did some pretty amazing things to make do. C&H Sales in Pasadena, a surplus optics dealer, had a Coulter 8" f/7 parabolic mirror, new, but marked down to $50. Over the next few weeks, we went all over the Los Angeles basin, buying concrete forms for the tube, cutting old pots and pans into dust covers, and building a crude but useful telescope mount out of pipe fittings and a wheeled tripod we found in a scrap store in Venice. And when we were done, it looked like hippie artillery (due to the psychedlic paint job on the tube), but it showed the rings of Saturn, the satellites and cloud bands of Jupiter--and I learned what a craftsman my father was, and how far he was prepared to go for his kids.

I have lots of painful memories of car repair projects. He wasn't a hot rodder. We generally had older cars, because that's what we could afford. I think the 1964 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon was the first new car my parents had ever owned--the 1960s were a prosperous time, at least for my family. But there were always repairs that needed to be done, and he had the tools, the knowledge, and the time to do them. That meant that I had to help.

I wasn't happy about it, partly because I would rather have been reading, and I did the minimum I needed to keep him happy. In retrospect, I wish that I had recognized the opportunity to absorb decades of knowledge about the use of tools. At one point we rebuilt the transmission of my sister Marilyn's beat up Triumph. It was one of those reminders of why there used to be a bumper sticker that said, "The parts falling off of this car are of the finest British manufacture."

My father was a tinkerer, and mechanic, but also a really well-read man. He didn't go to college, but he read a variety of serious books about history, world affairs, philosophy, and animal behavior. He was an early opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam--although like many of his generation, he was very, very taken aback by the countercultural behavior that accreted onto the antiwar movement.

Education was important to both of my parents, and when we moved to the Los Angeles basin in the early 1960s, they picked Santa Monica because of the quality of its schools. This was, for me, the single best decision that they ever made. I am still astonished at the quality of education that I received there.

I was never entirely sure what his politics were. Like much of his generation who had grown up during the Depression, he seemed skeptical of highly ideological views of economics. I can remember a lot of conversations with him as I was growing up in which he would ask me questions that left me short of an comfortable answer.

When I was about 13 or 14, I think, I expressed the opinion that welfare recipients shouldn't have the vote, since they weren't paying taxes. I wasn't sufficiently knowledgeable at the time to understand exactly what welfare was, or why people ended up on it, or that even poor people pay all sorts of taxes other than income taxes, but I knew that my parents worked very, very hard, and had little to show for it. It didn't seem fair that others received money for doing nothing. My father's response was a simple question, "Does that mean that rich people should get more votes, because they pay more taxes?" He had a fairly strong respect for Ayn Rand and her ideas, although his general skepticism of strong ideologies tended to keep him back at a safe distance from them, I think.

I think in the entire time that I was growing up, I saw my father lose his temper once. He would swear under his breath while working in the garage on building stuff, but I never saw him throw a tool, pound his fist on a table, or yell at anyone (including me, when I often deserved), except once in a Sears store where a series of miscommunications had reached epidemic proportions on a car repair. He was a very even-tempered guy, confronting some terribly difficult times in which to to raise kids. I don't think I ever gave him any great struggles, but I know that some of my siblings more than made up for it!

My parents had moved to Barstow after my first year of college at USC, and bought a condemned house for $5000, and then brought it back up to code. It wasn't their first choice, and I regret that my reluctance to move off to college immediately after high school may have prevented them from going where they first planned, on the Oregon coast.

My father died in 1976 in Barstow, probably as a result of incompetence by the staff. He was diabetic, and had already had three heart attacks in previous years. They withheld some of his medication, and this may have contributed to his death. There wasn't really enough to pursue any sort of wrongful death claim--but I recall the hospital was shut down eventually (at least for a while) for failure to meet state standards.

A neat guy, held by a stack of problems not of his making.

I think this was taken when we lived on Berkeley Street in Santa Monica.

With my mother when we lived on Berkeley Street in Santa Monica.

UPDATE: Writing something like this stirs up memories. In my father's case, good memories. We needed a finderscope for the "hippie cannon." In a surplus store, my father found a right angle telescope that had originally come off of a tank. (As you might expect, it was also "built like a tank.") The reticle in the eyepiece had a series of horizontal lines, so my father disassembled the eyepiece, and used a diamond tipped tool to scratch another very precisely perpendicular to the horizontal lines. Now we had a crosshair eyepiece! Then he drilled a hole into the edge of the eyepiece housing. By putting a small red flashlight to the edge, we had an illuminated reticle as well.

My father introduced me to all sorts of amazing places in Los Angeles, a town that he had grown up in the 1920s. One example is the Angels Flight funicular railroad near downtown, disassembled in the 1960s, and now restored. Another was Acres of Books, which is still there in Long Beach, and claims to be "California's largest second-hand bookstore." I doubt that there is room for a larger one! When I needed a particular Russian grammar book, my father figured that they would have it--and they did!

There's a saying among historians that, "Every time a old man dies, a library burns down." It's true. My father was full of events that he had seen--a small town in Montana where the winter was so bitterly cold that a boy had leaned against a metal tank--and frozen his ear to the metal. They had go get coffee to free him.

Coffee grounds reused so many times during the Depression that the grounds were white. (You can imagine the quality of coffee it made.)

He worked on builing the Wheeler Ridge pumping station as part of the California aqueduct. One weekend we walked through these enormous, twelve foot pipes that run many miles up the north side of the Tehachapis.

One night we tried to take the "hippie cannon" up to our favorite dark sky site in Pacific Palisades--and a California Highway Patrolman told us we couldn't go up there. "The governor's home tonight." (Yes, we picked the hillside by Ronald Reagan's house.)

Like the character in Blade Runner says: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams ... glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost ... in time, like tears ... in rain. Time ... to die."