10 February 2010
I was about six months old when my parents moved to Foxboro, a sleepy Boston suburb known outside of southeastern Massachusetts mainly for having a professional football stadium. Dad had just taken a job at the Foxboro Company, where—quaint notion—he worked until he retired. He and Mom rented, for a few months, a cottage on Chestnut Street, a short walk from the Company and Foxboro State Hospital, the looming late-nineteenth-century brick insane asylum, now shuttered. I do not remember Mom and Dad plinking with their Daisy Targeteer at the mice running through the kitchen, nor in summer hearing the shrieks of the afflicted through the open windows, but I've assimilated these stories and treat them as my own.
Soon we moved to a larger and nicer apartment on Cocasset Street in Foxboro. Though we were out of earshot of the State Hospital, the insanity evidently did not end. It took on a perhaps less intense, but more personal form: the landlord's wife, who lived upstairs, heard voices from airplanes flying overhead, and believed Mom was trying to steal her husband—more purloined stories. But it was here that my own memory would take to its fledgling wings.
Cocasset Street was my home until I was four years old, and from that place and time I remember exactly seven things. I remember finding a nearly waist-high dandelion. I remember Beverly, the landlord's daughter, showing me an outboard motor clamped to a barrel in the back yard, filled with stagnant water in which the prop was immersed and on which floated crabapples. I remember walking down the sidewalk with my grandmother along a chest-high slab-topped stone wall, finding a marble someone had left in one of the quarry-drilled holes, and a brook that ran under the street. I remember a mountain of sturdy wooden storage boxes, discarded by the Foxboro Company, dumped in our driveway—I found a resistor in one of them. I remember sitting on the curb across the street with Paul Gegenheimer, hearing him explain how you could make some sort of lethal shooting weapon with a clothespin. I remember throwing a tantrum because I didn't want to go to bed; I wanted to play all night—and my parents let me. I remember picking at the plastered wall, and verging on hysteria as Mom and Dad teamed up to extract a mote of plaster from my eye.
Aldous Huxley observed that "Every man's memory is his private literature." This list exemplifies for me the extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature of memory. Perhaps pointing out an early manifestation of self-centeredness, I don't recollect my brother and sister at Cocasset Street, though they were born while we lived there. The objects I remember all seemed to have an innate magic, marvelous properties that were mine to discover if only I bent my naive curiosity to their contemplation and study. Together, these memories feel like a mildly bizarre dream sequence, and although I have no sense of their chronology, I'm struck by how nicely some of the incidents have run, thread-like, through my life.
That dandelion was the first wildflower I could identify and name, and to this day it is my favorite. It's the prototypical gorgeous sun-yellow composite, living signal that we've endured another winter and that spring is well and truly here. They and the violets deserve all the space they want in my yard, and I'm happy to give it to them, and to all their cousins—never-ending life forms to identify, name, classify, and study.
The resistor was a seed that sprouted while I was in sixth grade, when I built an audio oscillator—because I could, that's why. I assembled Heathkits (getting a shock from one that sent me to the floor), learned to etch printed circuit boards, and built other projects: amplifiers, a regulated power supply, a small transmitter. I spent inordinate time listening for distant AM radio stations, perhaps a harbinger of the vast time-wasting potential of the Internet. I read Popular Electronics and QST magazines; the Radio Amateur's Handbook and the GE Transistor Manual were my scripture. I was poised to make something useful of my life, but when I was in high school a vagabond mathematician changed everything. He spoke to the assembled student body about doing math (a unique, serendipitous event; there was no formal program to bring people in to talk about their work). He demonstrated that rotating a cube had certain correspondences with modular arithmetic. It was a revelation, a veritable epiphany, totally useless in the real world, and I was hooked. From that moment I was destined to be a math major. It was way too late when I realized I didn't have the talent to be a real mathematician.
Letting me attempt an all-nighter was a classic parenting stratagem. It worked exactly as planned, as sometimes happens. Knowing I would soon tire of playing alone, Mom and Dad readily agreed to let me stay up all night and left the room, stifling snickers behind their hands. The technique had lost its charm by the time I decided to bicycle a moonlit twenty miles to make an unexpected party appearance—and this was before alcohol. By then I had a much more mature understanding of my powers, and rode successfully. And I had also pulled a true all-nighter.
Character forms early. I find it interesting to reflect how curiosity about the natural and scientific worlds and our place therein, plus a reckless laissez-faire attitude toward behavior, have guided my life for as long as I remember. Further, contemplating the balance of nurture and genetics in the development of these long threads of memory, it's no stretch for me to see their qualities extend into generations before and after my own. That's a matter for gratitude.