Friday, June 25, 2010

Father's Day

I was born in a Texas Gulf Coast town during the Depression, right before the war. My grandmother was Italian and my grandfather was an Irish cop. My father was a bohunk from Pennsylvania who was in the Army when he met my mother.

When my father got out of the Army, he cut grass and delivered ice until my grandfather got him a job on the police force. My mother divorced him right after that.  He went back into the Army after Pearl Harbor and ended up fighting in the Philippines and occupying Japan.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents in a house down by the docks during the war. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.

I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf.

My father sent me a little vinyl record from the Philippines.  A scratchy and tinny sounding recording, reminding me to be a good boy.

When he came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.

He lost most of one lung to a fungus he contracted in the Philippines.  The army didn't know how to cure the fungus, so they just cut the infected part of his lung out. The surgery essentially ended his real life. He lived the next 50 years as an invalid, then died from cancer at the age of 85.  

He died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.

When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath.

We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.

I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.

For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place.

And he was a very ordinary man.

The End Is Near

Or maybe it's a couple of years away.

Today is the day the physicists at the Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border got up to speed.  Or at least the protons whizzing around the collider, some to the left, some to the right, got up to speed.
Protons are beginning to collide at speeds that produce enough energy to be interesting to physicists who hope to create and observe some natural events they haven't been able to observe before.  Like the creation of black holes.

Most news sources report on the possibility of black holes at Hadron with a reassuring blurb.  Something like the AP's:

"The experiments will come over the objections of some people who fear they could eventually imperil Earth by creating micro black holes — subatomic versions of collapsed stars whose gravity is so strong they can suck in planets and other stars.

"CERN and many scientists dismiss any threat to Earth or people on it, saying that any such holes would be so weak that they would vanish almost instantly without causing any damage."

Apparently, scientists are so convinced the black holes won't get out of hand that they have absolutely no plans to deal with that contingency. 

How long would we have, anyway?  If a black hole at Hadron grew, how long would it take for Michigan, say, to disappear?  Would I even know the black hole had happened?  Or would I simply disappear in mid-something or other.  One moment I'm here, and then I'm gone.

I remember reading about some fission experiments that led up to the atomic bomb. In one of the early ones, physicists constructed a guillotine device and took some plutonium, about the size of a critical mass, and divided it into three parts. What they did was rig the guillotine so the middle part of the mass fell down between the other two parts, creating close to a critical mass for a fraction of a second, while the middle piece slid through. Then they took the contraption down into a mine somewhere in New Mexico, turned on a gieger counter to measure the radiation emitted, dropped the guillotine, and fried themselves.

And I vaguely recall that physicists kept buckets of cobalt solution around to throw on a nuclear pile under Chicago's Soldiers field if the chain reaction got out of hand.

Sounds funny now, but the physicists at Hadron don't seem to be even that well prepared.

It strikes me that it takes a peculiar kind of individual to poke a hole in the universe.