October 17th, 2017
Yesterday I was talking about the accumulation of junk mail in the house, and I got off on the subject of your photocopying habits. Let’s return to where the house was in November, 2015. You had stopped throwing away junk mail. Also newspapers. You had copies of the Washington Post dating back to 1989. Not every issue. We had had a purge in 2004, when Susan moved home after her divorce, and we had to eke out enough space for her to at least turn around. Mother and I shifted a lot of things, but couldn’t throw away much. You wouldn’t allow it. You did consent, however, to having newspapers recycled if they didn’t have “keep” written on the masthead in red ballpoint pen. That was your signal that you either had not fully read that issue, or that it contained an article you wanted to save.
It had all begun gradually, after you retired from the Air Force in 1982. Ostensibly, you were retiring to go into private contracting. You started a company, Research Applications Lab, Inc., for which we all worked. Mother was the Financial and Security officer, Charles and I were the manual labor, you were the talent. While you went to a lot of meetings and I know you did perform some research, being the talent also seemed to involve a lot of time spent scanning the newspaper. You clipped out articles and saved them, making 50 copies of the good ones, and saving them all in labeled envelopes.
Over the next twenty years, you began to fall behind. You didn’t have time to clip articles, so you labeled the masthead of the paper with page and column numbers, and notes about content. You kept whole papers then, in stacks. You bought storage boxes and bins to keep them in.
Somewhere in there, you started videotaping the news.
When the first VCRs had come down below $500 in the early 1980s, you had researched them. You really wanted one, and so did the rest of us. Your research told you that Sony had developed the superior format in the Betamax. Your research was correct. That didn’t help the Betamax stay in production, of course. And, as I type this in 2017, with a video collection larger than you ever owned stored on the hard drive of this laptop, and access to a much, much larger one via my Internet browser, it hardly seems to matter. But it did then. You bought the Betamax. You took it out of its box, read the manual, made several copies of the manual, then put it back in its box and taped the box shut.
“Aren’t we going to try it out?” I asked. I was a TV kid then. I wanted access to copies of my favorite shows, to watch over and over. (I have that access now. I barely ever watch TV. This is irony.)
“It’s Japanese,” you said.
“Of course it’s Japanese,” I said. “That’s why you bought it. They make the best electronics.”
You went on to explain that the Japanese didn’t use the same electrical power distribution systems that the United States does, that the voltages might be different, that the VCR might be designed for direct current instead of alternating current. If plugged into an American wall outlet, the device might burn up.
I didn’t know—and still don’t know—if Japan uses the same 110V AC power in its houses that is standard in the U.S., but I did know then that Sony, a company with a huge U.S. customer base, would not sell a device via its American division if that device was likely to be incompatible with the U.S. Electrical Code, much less to burst into flames upon being plugged in by a consumer.
Nevertheless, you left the VCR in its box for a period of days—possibly a week. On a Saturday night during this siege, I awoke from a nightmare, screaming. You came running upstairs to check on me. “What were you dreaming about?” You asked.
“I don’t remember,” I said. I didn’t. Dreams are funny that way.
You smiled and said, “Do you think you’re having bad dreams because your father’s being difficult about the VCR?”
I assured you that that was not it, and I went back to sleep. But now it seems touching to me that my having a bad dream prompted you to admit that you were being stubborn and eccentric. I believe you did unpack the VCR the next day. I never admitted it at the time, but I think the dream was spurred by a rerun of the 1956 classic film, Forbidden Planet. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, introduced by you during your late 1960s fascination with science fiction films. But, although I never told you before, it scared me. An invisible creature which kills with abandon and burns through two feet of solid steel to get at its victims? Terrifying. But, if I’d told you that as a kid, you wouldn’t have let me watch the movie again. And, even as a big, grown-up college student of 18, I think the imagery of the invisible beast burning through metal walls still shook a subconscious badly rattled by a frenzy of my freshman year of college.
Once the VCR was opened, you went on a movie-recording binge. That was in 1984. By the mid 2000s, you were recording four channels of news at a time, at least twelve hours a day.
Junk mail was not all you were drowning in.
The tale of that Thanksgiving will have to continue tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll get it told before Thanksgiving 2017 is upon us. (“Christmas will be upon us,” you and Mother used to say when you were hurrying us. Right now, I guess it’s true. Our first Christmas without you.)