Web Exclusives: PawPlus

March 21 , 2007:
‘To meet your father when you’re 82 …’
A son is touched by a Class of 1907 alumnus, after 75 years

By Richard Schwarzchild

I haven’t had any contact with my father for more than 75 years, and the truth is I
never wanted it. Why would I, when he died when I was 7 and left me alone to deal with a mother and older sister who excluded me from their naturally cliquish relationship? No one told me that he had a kidney problem or that he had been hospitalized, so when he suddenly died in the hospital, I had no inkling of why he abandoned me.

To get even, my mind erected an impenetrable barrier to prevent any memory of him from ever passing through. “You abandon me, I’ll abandon you” was the perfectly balanced equation. But in spite of my irrational anger and all of the years that have
intervened, a few week ago my father and I met – and I couldn’t be more happy that
we finally did. However, it couldn’t have occurred unless my father, a Princeton graduate (Class of 1907) and attorney, hadn’t been a prolific writer.

Although I’m not really sure how it happened, I believe that as I was emptying out my mother’s apartment after she died in 1980, I came across a six-inch pile of my father’s writings. Noting the contents, I took the pile home with me, but, with all that I was involved with at the time, immediately forgot about it. Seventeen years later (while my wife and I were traveling in Asia), the furnace in our home mysteriously shut down, causing the pipes in our attic to freeze and rupture. According to the bill we received from the water company after the pipes thawed, 64,000 gallons of water poured down into the house. Although it was impossible to remove any of the swollen volumes from the bookcases in our den, somehow my father’s writings escaped being damaged by the deluge. Along with whatever else we salvaged from the disaster, his creative efforts, still unread, eventually found their way to our new home.

Unread, that is, until a few weeks ago, when I happened to come across the well-traveled pile on the bottom shelf of an upstairs bookcase. At the precise moment that I began to read the first page of a “Nonsense Operetta” he had written, I met my father. Not only did we meet, but as my hands slowly turned the pages that his hands had pulled from his typewriter so many years ago, we literally touched each other.

Aside from the incredible number of years involved, which certainly can’t be minimized, what else made our meeting so memorable? Along with being amazed by the spectrum of interests, I was stunned by the clarity of a mind that had the ability to reduce human problems to their most basic elements. For example, in a 34-page essay on “Logic” (that predates by 70 or 80 years Time Magazine’s recent cover story on “God vs. Science”), my father had this to say: “The theologian had a difficult struggle before him in preaching man’s creation in the image of God to the same ear which was listening to man’s creation in the image of a monkey.”

Tackling the subject of “equal representation,” in the early 1920s, my father analyzed the complexity of the problem in a letter mailed to the editor of The Standard. “The
social-groups system must therefore deal with organized groups, but with which? With the cubist group of artists or with the impressionists?With the cotton farmer of the South, or the cattle raiser of the West? With the coal miner of Pennsylvania or with the copper miner of Nevada? With the teacher of athletics or the teacher of ethics? Whatever the final choice, the representation will not be of teachers, or miners, but of a definite SET of teachers and miners, which may or may not represent the ideals of the social group, and which is furthermore in such constant flux that representation becomes a physical impossibility.”

Concerned that his convoluted logic was confusing the readers of a long scholarly treatise on “The Truth,” two-thirds of the way through his analysis, in an action most unusual for any author, he interrupted his presentation to openly discuss the problem with them.

"By this time, the outraged reader who has been patient enough to follow me to this point is ready to slam down this book in disgust. ‘The idea!’ I can hear him exclaim. ‘Here is an author starting out with fine phrases of showing me a glimpse of the Truth, and after I take him at his word and wade through the first chapter I find that he turns around and deliberately calls himself five different kinds of liar, and then has the presumption, in addition, to carefully analyze each lie and to give it a queer name. Eccentricity is a mild name for this author. He should thank his stars that we are not living in the dark ages of the Inquisition, or in the more enlightened days of the future, where Literary Perjury will mean a long prison sentence. I wash my hands of him.’ ”

In addition to his more erudite writings, I also came across two books for children.

In “What Makes Grown-Ups Behave – or – Law for the Little,” he concluded his
introduction by explaining, “Jack was wrong – the grown-ups may not do what they like any more than children, and as a matter of fact there are a great many more ways a grown-up can get into trouble than a child. This is a thing that very few children know, and here we will explain just how and why this is so; in other words, we will study law.”

However, it was his second book for youngsters, titled “The Wonder Story of the Earth – A History for Very Little Men and Women,” that appealed to me more than anything else in the pile. In it his broad knowledge of history, his humor, his sense of ethics and morality, and his ability to translate and express the thought-process of his far-ranging mind into words and ideas that any youngster could easily understand were all on display. For example (and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who never conceived of this), in it he pointed out that the Crusades could be most easily explained by realizing that they took place solely because of the difference between two books, the Koran and the Christian Bible.

Obviously, the true measure of anyone’s father is not to found in just a six-inch pile of his writings. But to meet your father unexpectedly when you’re 82 and suddenly hold in your hands evidence of his genetic contribution to the manner in which you’ve approached life – to your personality, your logic, your humor, morality, sensitivity, and interests – is a concept so remote that it’s almost impossible to conceive of. For me, especially at my age, it was more than enough to make me mourn for the momentous loss it was not to have known him … as well as for not having been able to express my love to the incredible human being that he most certainly was.

Since he referred to Tennyson in his essay on logic, I can imagine how pleased he would when I, who hadn’t met him until a few weeks ago, follow his lead. Tennyson wrote, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and of course he was right. I am a part of all that I’ve met – and most fortunately, without the remotest possibility of it ever happening, I just met my father. END

Richard Schwarzchild lives in Manhasset, N.Y.