Thursday, January 31, 2008

Common Ground

When I was about four years old, my father became very ill with a disease which caused uncontrollable bleeding. For a period of about ten months, the path of his day was from home to hospital and back rather than to and from work. Platelet and Hemoglobin counts replaced manager's meetings and company shop talk. with G-d's help, my father joined a drug trial that was instrumental in giving him thirty years of life. Controlling his illness generated medical discoveries that facilitated organ transplants.
Years later, my father told me that the mental idleness of being bedridden caused him to fear losing his mind. He did two things to maintain his grip on sanity. One was to fix an old vacuum tube radio that was broken beyond repair. It was made of the old brittle early plastic of the 1940's and early 50's. Most would have thrown it out, but to my father, the challenge was worth more than the radio itself.
The second thing he did was to write a highly specialised textbook for use in the field of high vacuum
technology. By late first grade, when the finished book was printed, I could read the opening dedication to my mother, and nothing more. The book was dense with mathematical formulae and words I couln't even sound out. It faded from my mind as part of the terra incognita in my father's library. I shared my mother's reverence for the book and my father's ability to author and explain it.
By sixth grade, memories of my father's illness had been joined by recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our entire family of five had been mobilised to bring cinderblocks, cement and supplies to our basement for a fallout shelter. Worldly fourth graders at school talked in hushed tones about a bomb the Russians had that could blow up the whole world. I had dreams of the earth bouncing up and down like a basketball.
With time, my jarring dreams faded and the fallout shelter became a secret hideaway from which we would emerge coated in fine grey dust. The memory of collective fear had subsided. The instructions for a nuclear attack remained though at the top of the basement stairs.
One rainy summer afternoon, I was looking for something to read in the basement, and I found a cardboard box with about a dozen of my father's books. Only my sketchy knowledge of the existence of algebra rendered my father's equations less foriegn to me. with a bit more patience, I looked at the bibliography. There were citations in German as well as English, but what absolutely riveted me was credit given to books printed in the USSR. I was awed at my father's research dwarfing geographical and political boundaries. When he came home I asked him how he got books from Russia. He had gotten them fom a technical library.
"But they're Communist." I poined out. "And you still talk to each other".
" I just studied their research." replied my father. "And it's not about politics. We're working on the same problems".
The bibliography and the discussion with my father made a vivid impression on me. Having a German Jewish father and a Catholic mother of Croatian ancestry, I was accustomed to walking through social and cultural walls as though they didn't exist. When I later chose an Orthodox Judaism that differed markedly from the beliefs and practices of both my parents, I struggled to discover and maintain a pale of commonality with both of them through an interst in history , Croatian and German art and other fields of interest to both of my parents.
Talking with an Arab taxi driver about Yemenite food, talking with a Serbian about rock music from Jugoslavia, I enjoy the fleeting moments of commonality in a divided world. As walls rematerialise out of the ether, I think sadly of the sometimes necessary waste of human life in war time.
Once during the Gulf War, my baby son terminated my avid persuit of war news by smashing my shortwave. As news coverage continued on a humble clock radio, I lamented the loss of my prize receiver
Thinking about the reports of war dead, the words of an Israeli car service driver echoed in my mind
"It takes nine months to make a baby. But it takes eighteen years to make a soldier" At once, my sense of annoyance paled into insignificance when I compared it to the human loss of war.
I opened the back of the shortwave my son had destroyed. (It was on the table and he pulled its tail) Inside were components from Japan, China Malaysia and a few other countries. The radio itself had been assembled in Germany. I thought back to my father's bibliography and its lesson to me of a transcendant common purpose.
Somewhere in the splintered casing of my now silent Grundig receiver, my father's message was still playing

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