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One man’s legacy

July 11, 2012

At first my uncle Hal was just the one my aunt was marrying—essential, almost peripheral, enigmatic. No one could match her in beauty, so he matched her in intellect. An intellect of physics, an appreciation of ballet and opera to match her yen for Yeats and Jung. But I didn’t know any of that at five years of age, when they married. To me, he was the husband. I didn’t know why she needed him, but I got that it was important. He was awkward and mostly silent, not glib like the rest of our family. He wore thick glasses and his hair in a brush cut. I almost didn’t see him in the glare of the rest of our family—raucous and laughing, well-oiled. But by the time my step-father had disappeared, he was still there and now a father himself. His whole being seemed to swell with the creation of his family.

By the time I was 10, my aunt and uncle had the two children that would make their family unit and lived in Greenwich Village. Even then, I knew that was cool. Hal wore turtlenecks and his hair was no longer military-style. But he couldn’t shake the image of an intellectual. Maybe he didn’t try. I don’t think he ever tried to be anything. He was just Hal, a true iconoclast. No one talked about the work he had done in the war. Later I learned that as his unit moved to the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge, his commanding officer had assigned Hal to stay behind to guard a bridge. As the company’s most skilled typist, he was too valuable to be lost in the blood-bath of that battle. When his son Michael was in high school, he insisted that he take a typing class, knowing it was a skill that could save your life in a difficult time.

After the war, Hal had studied physics at Cornell at a time when that branch of science was revered for its role in the war as much as celebrity is revered today. The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman was a professor. With a Ph.D. from Cornell, Hal was hired by Pratt & Whitney and put in charge of a project to develop a nuclear-powered airplane that could keep nuclear bombers aloft for months on end, protected from a potential first-strike. Hal didn’t think it was such a great idea to have nuclear bombs flying around all over the place so he was relieved when he determined that the plan was not feasible. As his son Michael said recently, “A lot of people poke fun at their accomplishments and belittle their skills by saying, “Well, it’s not rocket science.” Dad couldn’t do that because what he did was rocket science.”