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In the Middle Ages, alchemists sought to transmute base metals—iron and nickel—into something far more valuable: gold and silver. They failed, of course.
My dad, on the other hand, made it look easy.
One of my favorite childhood memories: Small town, upstate New York. It’s early morning. Outside, a foot of snow on the ground. I’m burrowed deep beneath warm blankets heaped on my bed. From downstairs I can hear my dad stirring milk into his coffee, the metal spoon softly ringing against his stoneware mug. He grabs his leather briefcase and puts on his favorite fedora—still standard issue for businessmen in the 1960s. I hear the garage door roll up, and the old Mercury turn over in protest against the freezing temperature. The tires crunch across the new snow, and I hear his car drive off down the street.
It was the sound of constancy. Steadfast, reliable, faithful, enduring. And I knew I would hear again the next morning. And the next.
My father took the base materials of ordinary life and—day by day, year after year—transformed them into something far more valuable: A family. A home. A sense of abiding security for six young kids.
He never complained, never got drunk, never filed for divorce or walked out on his many considerable responsibilities.
On Saturdays, he mowed the lawn.
Dad was the second son of a Polish immigrant. His father fled Krakow ahead of the Russian army, which was sweeping across the countryside, forcing all young men into service. As a seventeen year-old boy, grandpa sailed into Boston harbor with a work visa in his hand, and never saw home again.
My dad grew up on a farm, and after serving in the Army, he went to work for IBM on early versions of the computer—vacuum tubed, magnetic tape-spinning, punch card-munching behemoths that filled entire rooms at the time. At Hughes Aircraft, he helped develop the Intel Sat VI communications satellite. Today, a model of that craft is on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
I often wondered if, every now and then on his way home from work, my dad ever daydreamed of the “what ifs” or “might have beens” of his life, like Walter Mitty asleep at the wheel. If he did, he never let it show.
On a new moon night you could probably make out the faint light of his satellite still making its orbit high overhead. Constant. Reliable. Faithful. But that is not his life’s achievement. He built an amazing world for another kind of satellite—those who would fly higher and venture out farther. First six. Then eleven. Tomorrow...who knows?
Out of the ordinary: Gold.