``Would you ever like to see a dead body?'' Dad asked Vicky when she was six, after affectionately throwing her around for awhile. Vicky clasped her hands, breathing hard. ``More than anything else in the world!'' she prayed, enraptured at the very thought of seeing a human corpse. Dad laughed, and bragged about her answer to his friends--though he didn't show Vicky a whole dead body until years later.
Dad often hurled Vicky around rather violently, tossing her high into the air, and she loved it. Only once did her head hit the ceiling and begin to bleed profusely. The only person at all perturbed by this was the woman whose house we were visiting. ``I was wiping up blood, and wiping up blood,'' she later described it at a party, to everyone's amusement.
Dad always remained amazingly calm and logical in situations that would drive any other parent (especially Mom) into a frenzy. ``Don't get your shirt in a knot,'' he admonished Mom when she got upset about something he considered to be trivial. He never lost his cool--or at least almost never.
Vicky and I loved going to his lab, a dreary old building at the medical school. The large ancient elevator had no walls, only a wire cage through which you could see the dusty cables creaking past as you rode up into the gloom. Invariably Dad scared us by jumping up and down in the elevator; the contraption would rattle and shake alarmingly. He also liked to scare us in the laboratory cold room, a freezer the size of a small kitchen where chemicals and dry ice and often interesting portions of dead animals were kept. While we were examining them, Dad would suddenly step outside and slam the heavy metal door, which could not be opened from the inside. We never knew how long he'd leave us locked up in there, shivering happily.
One of the other scientists on the same floor kept several large boa constrictors in cages in his lab. It was a treat to watch the snake stretch its jaws at an impossible angle to swallow a whole egg--and then day by day observe the slow progress of the egg down through the snake's sleeping body.
Even more wonderful was to be there when live mice were put into the cage. We would watch enthralled as the three mice sat on a dead tree limb, seemingly unaware of the snake's silent gradual approach. Then, so quickly we could barely see it happening, one of the mice would be wrapped in the boa's skillful, deadly embrace. The jaws would gape and the mouse would be gone. The remaining mice never seemed to be troubled by this; they would just go on sitting there on the limb as though nothing were the matter. Their apparent dopey placidity only increased our excitement as the boa's graceful upper body moved languidly toward them again. Soon the snake was swollen in three places.
We never visited Dad's lab without begging him to drink helium. He usually obliged, breathing the gas from a large metal cylinder. Helium has a peculiar effect on the vocal cords, making them vibrate more quickly than they do in an atmosphere of oxygen. When Dad started to speak after inhaling the gas, he sounded exactly like Donald Duck. Our shrieks of laughter echoed down the long dim corridor.
Once at Dad's lab, Danny, who was prodigiously mechanical but had problems learning to read, deciphered the word ``pull'' on a red object on the wall and followed this instruction, setting off the fire alarm. Dad handled the resulting uproar with unruffled efficiency. He was not the least bit angry; more than anything else he was gratified by this indication that Danny might turn out to be literate after all.
One summer afternoon, my friend Angela and I arrived at the lab with a bag of balloons. We went to the sixth floor of the new addition, (far from where Dad was working in the old building), where there was a water fountain next to a balcony directly above the main entrance. We filled a balloon with water, leaned over the balcony and waited until someone was just walking into the building. Then we let the balloon fall. It wasn't a direct hit, but close enough so that the person leapt aside and dropped all his books and papers. We did this again and again, never actually dousing anybody, but still laughing hysterically at the startled--and furious--reactions we produced. It was at least half an hour before Dad got to us. He didn't raise his voice, he just firmly told us to stop, and made us mop up the muddy footprints on the floor. His red face was the only sign of emotion he displayed, and that was involuntary.
Often on summer weekends our family went on float trips on a beautiful secluded river in the Ozarks. We had a canvas boat with a collapsible wooden frame, something like a kayak. After we unpacked upstream, a local garage mechanic would drive our car to a point far down the river and leave it parked there overnight. We spent the next two days drifting down the river, pausing to swim in the clear water whenever we came to a good deep pool. Dad steered through the frequent rapids, shouting instructions at Mom who would paddle frantically at the front of the boat. Sometimes Mom, who was not particularly skillful at this, maneuvered the boat into a rock, which would slash a hole in the canvas. Dad would curse briefly at Mom and then patiently dry and patch the boat.
When it began to get dark and the cicadas started their gentle scratchy song (``That noise makes the sun go down,'' Tycho once said), we stopped and camped at some nice woodsy place on the shore. Dad cooked steaks over an open fire and Mom heated up canned baked beans, which were always delicious in that situation, watching the stars come out and listening to the rushing water as we ate.
Once a medical student of Dad's and his wife came with us on an weekend camping trip at a spectacular swimming hole. You could ride down a series of small waterfalls, which led to a beautiful deep pool surrounded by high granite cliffs from which you could dive into the water. The young couple applauded when Vicky recited a limerick Dad had taught her:
There was a young fellow named Chris Who stood on a precipice to piss. As soon as he started He violently farted, And blew himself into the abyss.
The student's wife had brought fried chicken for Sunday lunch, wrapped in waxed paper in a wicker picnic basket. Everyone was enjoying the chicken, which was nicely crisp on the outside and moist within--until Dad, who ate slowly, smiled and held up a little white grub on his finger for us to see. He had noticed it crawling around the interior of the drumstick he was eating. We all shrieked when we took a closer look at our own pieces of chicken and saw identical white grubs slithering around inside them too. Enjoying our reaction, Dad explained that flies had easily made their way through the wicker and the loosely wrapped waxed paper to lay eggs inside the chicken the day before, and now the little larvae had hatched. He pointed out, amused, that they were probably harmless, nothing but protein. But the rest of us (even Vicky) felt sick and didn't eat another bite--which left more chicken for Dad to consume with his usual leisurely gusto.
On weekends when we didn't go to the country Dad would sometimes entertain his children (when we were ten and under) by blindfolding us and driving us by a circuitous route to some point in the city which he knew was unfamiliar to us. We would then take off our blindfolds and get out of the car and Dad would drive away, leaving us to find our own way home. He never worried, no matter how long it took us. He made sure we had one dime, so that we could call home if we were still lost when it got dark. Vicky and I had fun finding our way back together, feeling like Hansel and Gretel.
The only time we used the dime was when two of our friends came along. These kids got scared when we found no recognizable landmarks after several hours of wandering. Vicky and I weren't worried, but we let our friends use the dime to call their parents from a pay phone. Their parents were hysterical--and though we described our surroundings they couldn't figure out where we were. We didn't have another dime. The parents told us not to move--and not to talk to strangers.
Then they called Dad, who had just started eating his lunch. ``Where are they?'' they furiously demanded.
``Beats me,'' Dad said. ``I left them in that warehouse district over on the other side of the highway--but that was a couple of hours ago.''
``The warehouse district!'' they gasped. ``We're driving over there this instant--and you better start looking too!''
``Sure,'' Dad said agreeably. ``But I'd suggest that one of you stay at home so that--''
They hung up before listening to Dad's advice, called the police, and frantically set out to find us.
Dad went back to his lunch, meticulously peeling and slicing an apple, toasting pieces of cheese on buttered bread, sipping from a glass of red wine while reading the paper with his usual thoroughness. Then he got in the car and located us in ten minutes.
Our friends' parents had been too hysterical to listen to Dad's rational advice and had both rushed out to search for us, leaving no one at home to answer the phone. There was no way to tell them their kids were okay. They didn't get back for hours. The police went on looking for us the whole time as well; none of us knew the cops had been called so no one informed them we had been found. After that, Vicky and I saw these friends only at their house.
In high school, when Vicky and I became the center of our circle of oddball friends, we always had a special celebration on the Fourth of July in honor of Vicky's birthday, which was actually July 15. Dozens of kids brought food for a potluck supper at our house. One reason this party was particularly festive was that we all sat and ate and drank at one tremendously long table in the backyard, which gave the event the feeling of a royal banquet. Dad helped us make this table out of the many old doors he collected and saved in the basement.
(On these occasions we benefitted--as we rarely did at any other times--from one of Dad's most extreme peculiarities: he never throws anything away. Our basement was jammed with burned-out lightbulbs, used fanbelts, dead batteries, and piles of decades-old magazines and newspapers that he refused to part with, no matter how much Mom complained. One entire room in the basement was taken up by fifty army surplus mine-detector kits--he had seen them advertised somewhere and quickly snapped up every one of them. I don't remember what the mine-detectors themselves were like, but they were packed in sturdy wooden crates, which was Dad's reason for buying them for a dollar apiece. Most of this stuff he kept forever and never used. One notable exception was the treasured melted telephone he discovered while poking around the ruins of a recently burned-down office building. The body of the phone and the dial were very warped and lopsided where the plastic had been softened by the heat. Dad liked it because it looked like something from a Salvador Dali painting. When Danny was in college he found the melted telephone and actually got it to work. Danny proudly displayed the cartoonlike phone on his desk when he was a scientist at Bell Laboratories, and he uses it to this day. The doors for our banquet table were the other exception.)
Another reason Vicky's birthday celebrations were particularly festive was that Mom and Dad went out, leaving us and our friends to party without adult supervision. Most of the time, of course, it was an advantage not to be restric-ted by parents. But on Vicky's seventeenth birthday it was not an advantage that no adults were around when the police showed up with a warrant for Vicky's arrest. The cops wouldn't explain what they were arresting her for. They just sternly flashed their badges and I.D.'s, thrust legal documents at Vicky, whose long blonde hair was in its usual disarray, and actually snapped a pair of handcuffs on her. ``But you can't do this!'' Vicky protested as they led her away. ``It's my birthday party--and it's the Fourth of July!''
``Crime doesn't take a holiday,'' one of the cops grimly remarked.
Mom and Dad were at someone's cottage out in the country; we didn't have the phone number and it took us quite a while to find it. By the time they got to the police station Vicky had been there for several hours. They had rudely strip-searched her and then locked her up in a cell, still refusing to tell her what her crime was supposed to be. Only when Mom and Dad arrived did they reveal that she had been arrested for writing hundreds of dollars worth of bad checks.
Vicky was not the most obedient teenager, but writing bad checks was not in her repertoire. Mom was furious at the police. ``Shut up, darling,'' Dad said, and calmly explained that Vicky had lost her wallet, with her driver's license in it, at a downtown movie theater several weeks before. She had already applied for a new license. In the meantime, someone who resembled Vicky's photo on the old license had clearly used it as an I.D. to pass bad checks in her name--Vicky didn't have a checking account.
The cops didn't buy it. ``Shut up, darling,'' Dad told Mom, and called a friend who was a civil rights lawyer. He couldn't take the case, since it wasn't in his field, but he gave Dad the name of a criminal lawyer who knew what to do to get the police to release Vicky on bail. She would still have to undergo criminal proceedings.
As frightening as it had been for Vicky to be locked up without explanation, she made the most of it once she was released. She was the only person any of us knew who had been in jail, and everyone was terribly curious and impressed. Vicky did a hilarious impersonation of the matron who had searched her, right down to her drawl and her particularly disgusting way of chewing gum.
The criminal lawyer was not so amusing. He was a smooth type, who wore a jazzy suit and very expensive pointed shoes. Mom wanted to fire him during his first consultation with Vicky, when he told Vicky it was okay for her to admit to him that she had really written the checks. Dad pulled Mom out of the room and explained to her that criminal lawyers always asked questions like that. But Vicky was upset and worried when he left; she found it horribly frustrating that he complacently refused to believe her repeated insistence that she was innocent.
Later, Dad told the lawyer in private that Vicky wouldn't have written bad checks--she didn't have a checking account, and they gave her money whenever she asked for it. The lawyer said that all middle class teenagers were the same, they cared only about money, and clothes, and being just like everybody else. The lawyer knew Vicky had done it, but he would still take the case. Dad knew Vicky hadn't done it, but since this guy had been highly recommended to him by a trusted friend, he kept him on.
Dad also maintained control during the lineup. The store clerk who had accepted one of the bad checks was summoned to the police station to see if she could identify the criminal. Vicky stood on a sort of stage at the front of the room in a line with several other females chosen by the police from their secretarial staff. All the other women in the lineup were decades older than Vicky and had short dark hair.
The clerk studied them for awhile, then murmured that Vicky was wearing earrings like the girl who had passed the check and declared that Vicky was the culprit.
``Shut up, darling,'' Dad said, when Mom started to protest, and then quietly pointed out the obvious to the lawyer, who explained it to the police. The girl who had passed the checks must have looked something like Vicky or else she couldn't have gotten away with using Vicky's license, with her photo on it, as an I.D. Naturally the clerk had identified Vicky, who was the only blonde and the only teenager in the lineup.
Now Vicky and Mom were both tense and afraid, and therefore sullen and quarrelsome at home, eating little, snapping at each other more than usual. Dad did not let this distract him, losing himself in the paper, practicing the violin, relishing his food.
The lawyer told him it was really a tough case--despite the complete illogic of the lineup, the police and the lawyer both felt the clerk's identification of Vicky was very incriminating. Dad suggested a handwriting sample. ``They have copies of the checks,'' he told the lawyer. ``All we have to do is have the handwriting analyzed and prove it's not the same as Vicky's.''
The lawyer, believing Vicky to be guilty, was against this. Dad insisted on getting a copy of one of the checks from the D.A.'s office, and showing it to a police handwriting expert along with an example of Vicky's handwriting. The expert stated unequivocally that Vicky could not have written the checks. On that basis she was declared innocent, her name cleared of any criminal record.
At the party afterwards, Mom made it clear to everyone that the successful outcome was the result of Dad's shrewdness and clear thinking, in spite of the obnoxious lawyer, who had done nothing constructive and probably still believed Vicky was guilty. Now that she was cleared, Vicky felt free to add a scatching version of the lawyer to her repertoire of characters.
When I was a senior in high school I was accepted at Harvard, as an early admission, in January. This acceptance was not based on my grades--I was 87th in a class of 530. What got me in was high scores on the standardized SAT and National Merit Tests, and my many creative extra-curricular activities. The rave recommendation from Mr. Evans probably helped too. Also, I had snowed the Harvard Dean of Admissions, who had come to interview people at our school in the fall--I told him I had gone to the Yale interview in order to get out of gym, which he found highly amusing. (I also told the Yale guy I went to the Harvard interview to get out of gym, but I don't know if that worked as well since I didn't apply to Yale.) Of course Mom was thrilled that I had been accepted by Harvard, and told everyone. I was happy about it too.
April 15 was the day that students were normally notified by colleges. (``April is the cruelest month,'' Matilda was fond of quoting.) I, like many others, was called to the office for a phone call on that day. I blithely assumed it was Mom informing me that Harvard had granted me a scholarship. But Mom's voice on the phone was hoarse with misery. ``They changed their minds and rejected you because of your grades,'' she moaned.
I was somewhat downcast by this, and felt guilty about my grades, but did not consider it a tragedy, since Chicago had accepted me. But when I got home from school that day Mom was in a woeful state; it was the only time in my life I ever saw her drinking at 3:30 in the afternoon. As truly unconventional as Mom was, as genuinely unconcerned with other peoples' opinions, she was not totally immune to certain forms of status, academic status in particular. She was a lot more unhappy about the rejection than I was.
Mom hadn't been able to reach Dad at work. When he got home that evening he took the news with his usual distant, non-committal ``Huh,'' and sat down with the paper. ``That Evans jerk must have written some nasty lie to Harvard about Billy, you know what he did before,'' Mom railed. ``He's obviously a pathological sadist--I'd love to tell the Harvard dean about it myself!''
I tried to tell Mom that I knew Mr. Evans had written me a good recommendation. Just because he had played a trick on me didn't mean he would do something really serious like trying to get me rejected from college. But Mom didn't listen; she kept wanting to tell the Harvard dean about him.
Dad looked briefly up from the paper. ``Better let me handle this,'' he said. Only then did Mom calm down a little.
Eventually Dad made a few phone calls. He spoke to the Dean of the medical school where he worked and other department heads at his university, several of them with Ph.D.'s from Harvard and all of them widely-recognized academics. They were more than willing to write letters to the Harvard Dean of admissions, pointing out that his treatment of me was lacking in professional ethics. Mom wanted to write to him too. Dad advised her not to. Instead, he waited until his colleagues' letters had arrived in Cambridge, and phoned the Harvard Dean himself.
Dad was very polite, and calm and reasonable as always. He even managed to be jocular. In a pleasant conversational voice he pointed out that it was really not the best policy to unconditionally accept someone--influencing him to turn down offers from other schools--and then reject him without warning three months later. The Harvard dean could hardly dispute this impeccable logic, especially since Dad was not the least bit emotional or argumentative, as almost any other parent would have been.
It was almost certainly on the basis of Dad's phone call that Harvard decided to accept me after all--where I went on to spend the four most miserable years of my life.
Dad did have occasional lapses. He made snide remarks to Mom when she did something stupid like overcooking a roast. He raised his voice when Mom complained about all the useless junk taking up space in the basement, or when she tried to insist that he get his income taxes done on time. Unlike everyone else in the family, he spoke rather slowly, always precise about choosing exactly the right word, and would express his irritation if we impatiently tried to interrupt him. Some of our friends were a little afraid of him, misinterpreting his detached demeanor as critical, even menacing. But for the most part we all came to learn that we could go to Dad with any problem--even the most humiliating situations that had resulted from our own ineptitude or selfishness or gross bad judgement--and instead of getting angry he would try to come up with the most efficient solution. This is still true today.
I can remember only one instance when he seriously lost his cool--the time we went to the Florida hotel.