Two months ago, a friend’s elderly father passed away. I sent a note to express my condolences, and I told him I could still hear my father’s voice in my head, 40 years after his death in 1977 when I was 24 years old.
And then a week or two later, something totally unexpected happened. My sister called because she had come across a letter our father had written to his mother in late 1945. I don’t know where the letter had been hiding all these years. I had never seen it before.
She also found two other letters that I had seen before, both written just a few weeks before my dad left this world. Taken together, the three letters were like the climax of an unannounced fireworks display.
The two letters I’d seen before both were composed on a vintage Royal Quiet Deluxe manual typewriter, a machine that imposed a care and reflection on one’s writing that was as characteristic as the smell of its blue-black ribbon. Correcting a typo was labor and time-intensive, and spelling and grammar weren’t auto-corrected. In other words, you had to be a good writer.
The two typewritten letters, from early ’77, were typical of my dad’s trenchant, expressive style. One was written to my oldest brother, and it basically raked him over the coals for being less than ambitious. “We all get lost and stagger around in the dark occasionally. I think my motive in writing this to you is an inner urge to pass on some convictions I have after having made 55 years of good and bad decisions.”
And a month later, to the day, he dropped dead on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, right in front of my mother, when he walked in the front door after a few laps around the track at Oak Ridge High School.
The other typewritten letter is a little spookier. It was Dad’s Christmas 1976 message to us, his seven children, written exactly three months before he died. Its prescience about getting to know Jesus is otherworldly.
“I have really only begun this adventure, and there are many things to learn and unlearn, but I am looking forward to becoming a very close friend of His in 1977. When that happens, I’ll know it, and so will you. What better time for each of us to examine our own feelings and beliefs, just to see if we are where we really want to be.”
The letter Dad had written to his mother, from Thanksgiving 1945, was in the elegant cursive handwriting that was the personal half of his otherwise machine-like graphic style. He was an engineer through and through, and his printing, in the endless flow of drafting documents and blueprints he produced, was stencil-like in its perfection and uniformity. It was a skill at the heart of American productivity from the late 1930s through the ‘60s.
Dad’s cursive style, which isn’t even taught in schools anymore, was a thing of beauty and joy, in both the act of writing and in the lines left on paper. The flourish in the uppercase G and J of his signature, George Job, were like watching a drummer in a military band who twirls the drumsticks in his fingers between beats on the drum.
He was a man of few words, so holding this handwritten letter to his mother made me feel short of breath. When he wrote it, it was at the end of the secret three years he had spent in Oak Ridge helping to design, build and operate the unprecedented complexity of the gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant.
But now, suddenly, everyone on Earth knew about the bomb and Oak Ridge’s existence. The war was over. And my oldest brother, 32 years before getting raked over the coals for lack of ambition, was only three months old.
“Dearest Mom,” he writes. My Dad’s parents lived outside Cleveland, Ohio. His father, also George Job, was from Cornwall. His mother, Rene, was from Wales, and they were as prim and proper as could be. “The dishes are done, everyone’s full, and Pat is cooking cranberries. She has a spoon in one hand and a cookbook in the other.
“The ox cart arrived today with the cookies and candy you sent, Mom. The cookies really tasted good. We’re going to save the candy for Thanksgiving. I guess we’re having a chicken and all the trimmings.” Oak Ridge was a sea of mud at the end of 1945, and there may have been ox carts for mail delivery for all I know. Or it may just have been a figure of speech.
“I wish you could see our Davey. He’s the cutest thing, Mom. He and I play after I get home from work. He laughs and tells me the funniest stories. And he’s getting so big.”
These are the observations of a first-time father. Before the end of 1959, there would be six more of us. My parents had someone in diapers over the course of 16 years in a relatively tiny Manhattan Project C-house with one bathroom.
“Well, I gotta crush graham crackers and squeeze cranberries, Mom, so I’ll say good night. I’m awful anxious to hear from you, and I sure hope you’ve been feeling pretty good. Love, George”
My dad was 23 years old writing this letter, with a wife, a baby boy and immigrant parents who already were feeling the challenges of age. But the war, which had threatened everything they knew and had killed millions of innocent human beings … the war was over because my dad and tens of thousands of other young physicists, chemists and engineers in the United States answered the call to go to a mesa in New Mexico and to come to a secret town in East Tennessee, to look beyond what was known, to see beyond what could be seen and to make something that had never existed before.
My dad wasn’t crushing graham crackers and squeezing cranberries. He was crushing, squeezing and concentrating uranium hexafluoride.