September 17, 2015
When I was in my teens, I worked for a while for Fred Webster, a scientist who studied bats. Fred's lab was a large Quonset hut in the back yard of his house (which was, appropriately, right next to the Mount Auburn Cemetery). His yard was large enough to also contain a huge, professional quality trampoline in its own building. Fred was proud of the fact that, at the time, it was the largest trampoline east of the the Mississippi. My job included helping to photograph bat flight patterns, develop and print the results and take care of the animals. I still have a small scar on my arm from the subcutaneous anti-rabies shots I had to have in order to work there. I worked with the little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus) and one of my favorite tasks was defrosting them. They hibernate well and if you keep them in the freezer compartment of the lab's refrigerator, all you have to do is take them out and let them thaw for a while. I'd go to the lab refrigerator and open the freezer to take out an ice crusted lump and place it in the bottom of a cage. A short while later with the frost melted into a pool around it you could see that it was furry, curled up on itself and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Later in the day it would shake itself awake and climb the wires of the cage to hang upside-down. As I remember we gave them a couple of days to acclimate before flying them. On one side of the hangar was an expanse of black velvet to provide a non-reflective surface to photograph against. Positioned in front of that backdrop was an electronic cannon that let us fire mealworms into the air to a relatively predictable height. High on the opposite wall was a "gun camera,” a repurposed piece of military hardware that was intended to track and confirm air combat hits. We used a Graflex 4x5 plate film back. We'd release the bat and, as it flew circles around the hangar, we’d load the little mealworm cannon. Firing the cannon simultaneously started the camera. The bat would dive for the treat and the camera would fire about six sequential exposures in about a second. When the plate was developed we'd have a record of the swoop, loop and capture all on a single plate. I used to have examples of the photos, but they are lost somewhere.
September 15, 2015
Summer ~1964 When I was a teenager (just after the flood), I used to hang out in a musical intrument store in Harvard Square called Folk City USA. The owner put up with me by putting a chair out on the street and letting me practice there in hopes that it would bring in customers. I liked to go there because I could not afford a 12-string guitar and had a serious lust for one. I never paid a lot of attention to who went into the shop. One day the owner came out of the shop and asked me if I'd like to do someone a favor. I said I would and he took me back into the shop. A slender black man was standing at the counter. "This guy knows all the music shops in the area," said the owner, waving at me. "I'm sure he can find you what you need." The old man explained that he had arrived in Boston that morning and someone had stolen his guitar. "She was custom-built for me," he said. "I won't be able to replace her." Then he told me that he didn't much care about sound quality, but that by that evening he needed a 12-string guitar. The primary criterion was that the tuning pegs had to be at right angles to the head. "I've got me some arthritis," he told me, "and I can't twist my wrist around too much." We must have hit at least 10 stores, and the best we could find was a Stella. Gaaahhh, talk about cheap. But it was okay with him. He was very grateful. In the process of testing the various guitars, I had played a few of them. I played a lot of traditional blues back then. The old man complimented me on my skills and then offered me a job. "You come out to San Francisco," he said. "You can help at the shoeshine during the day, and we'll play some blues after-hours." I was 15, shy and not very brave. I told him that I would think about it. "You just turn up there someday," he said. "We'll find you a place to stay." But I never did. It bubbles up from memory now and then. One of my handful of missed opportunities. I passed up a chance to learn blues from the composer of 'The San Francisco Bay Blues,' Jesse Fuller.
It was a bright clear fall day as I drove over the Tobin Bridge and into Boston. I commuted in the early morning to avoid rush hour. I was in a good mood. I had some Doo-wop on the radio and a four-shot Americano in the cup holder. I drove through the maze of twisty downtown streets, pulled into my space in the parking garage, grabbed my coffee and my Land's End briefcase and took the elevator up to my office. I managed the documentation department for a large software company. I booted my computers, adjusted the blinds against the glare of the early morning sun, turned on some music (Bela Fleck this time), sat down, and got to work. I answered the overnight crop of email and checked my schedule for meetings and approaching deadlines. I was just settling into a rat's nest of verbosity disguised as a chapter of a software manual for automated backups on enterprise networks, when there was a knock on the door and Kate from Quality Assurance opened it and stuck her head in. "Got a radio?" she asked. "No just a CD player." "Okay." It was an unusual request, so I called after her, "What's up?" "Just wanted to listen to the news," she said turning back. "There's a weird story I heard on the car radio, something about a plane hitting a building in New York." "One of those little private planes?" "Must be." "Let's find out." She came back while I accessed a streaming news feed. As we listened, the door opened and someone else came in. I waved them to a seat without turning. "Be with you in a minute," I said. But of course it wasn't a minute ... it was September 11th. We sat quietly listening as things progressed getting worse and worse. Finally over-saturated I turned down the volume and turned from my computer. My office was full of people, and there were more people grouped outside the door in the corridor. Friends and rivals among my co-workers were sitting on the floor or had pulled chairs from neighboring offices. Many were crying, some were hugging each other for support, but all of them wanted the volume back up. For a couple of hours we listened in silence, until security came and told us that the office building was closing and we had to leave. We were in a tall office building in downtown Boston, and paranoia had begun to emerge. The streets were jammed. I called my wife to let her know what was going on and that it would take me some time to get home. She was shaken and asked me to detour to Mission Hill to pick up my daughter and bring her home. On the way up Huntington Avenue. I watched crowds of students, brightly-plumed, or raven-moody Massachusetts College of Art students, somewhat more preppily garbed Northeastern students, piling off the trolleys and flowing across the street. None of them seemed to notice the increased traffic around them. None of them noticed as a plane flew overhead and drivers ducked. My daughter wasn't at home, so I drove to where she worked to pick her up. It took hours to get through the clogged streets and back up to the North Shore. We didn't talk much during the ride. Just listened to the news on the radio, switching back and forth between WBUR's NPR coverage, and WBZ's CBS feed. At some point during the drive something occurred to me. Among the people sitting in and around my office, aghast and horrified and frightened and angry, had been a veritable UN. There were people from every corner of the earth ... people of every religion; Moslems, Sikhs, Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, even an eccentric who claimed to be a Jedi practitioner. And there we all were, sitting side by side in shared disbelief, horror, and communal sympathy, rivalries forgotten, failures unimportant, and, in my microcosm of an office, peace reigned. It's an image that I keep with me, an image that lets me hope. All these years later, I still feel deep affection and a surge of pride in my fellow geeks and nerds who, in a work environment that prized logic and scientific thought, spontaneously formed an emotional community that ignored differences of culture and spirituality. And I guess what makes me proudest is that I wasn't surprised, that I knew that there was a commonality, that respect for others' work, understanding of common goals, can lead to an environment where differences are less important than humanity.