Years ago, when my son was a baby, my father gave me some great advice. He told me that he regretted that he hadn't spent more time with my brothers and I and told me to remember that you only get your children a tiny part of their lives.
Yesterday, my son Adam and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry. When I was a kid, it was free to get in, free to park-- it was a great place for a young electrician (i.e. my dad) to bring his three little boys. Though it is no longer free to park or get in, it's still a great place to bring a curious, smart 13-year-old son.
After spending 10 minutes driving around the underground parking lot looking for a parking space and 25 minutes in the enormous, snaking line to get in, we went up to the flight simulators and spent another 5 bucks and waited another 30 minutes so he could go on that. It was, of course, totally worth it. He had a blast.
We wandered through the exhibits, making our way to the U-505, a submarine the Allies captured during World War II. We discussed how the exhibit has changed over the years. When I was a kid, it was solely a novelty-- it's full story hadn't yet been revealed.
The captured sub was actually slated to be scrapped, and one of the sailors who had helped capture the boat, knew it's historical importance and had helped pursuade various political, cultural-- and financial-- powers to help him save the U-505 and have it shipped to the Museum in 1954. What he wasn't able to reveal at the time was that the capture of the sub was not just some lucky thing.
The Allies had been aware of a German cryptography (encoding) machine, which they dubbed the "Enigma" since the '30's. It was a complex, ingenious device that allowed the Germans to send secure-- or so they thought-- messages over the radio. Polish intelligence officers had become aware of these machines in the 1930's, and had figured out how they worked, even backwards-engineering some of them, enabling them to be aware of a lot of Germany's coded messages (though Poland lacked the military strength to do much about it). Fortunately for the Allies, Polish Intelligence officers saw the writing on the wall and managed to get two of the Polish Enigma doubles to French Intelligence agent Gustave Bertrand, who handed one over to British Intelligence agents.
Thus, the Allies were aware of many of the moves the German military was making through nearly the entire war. Adam and I discussed how during the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies generally were aware of where "Wolf-Packs" of German submarines were, and were wiring directions to convoys of Allied ships running supplies to Britain and the Soviet Union to avoid them-- but had to make it not look obvious that they knew where the Wolf-Packs were, for fear of tipping their hand that they knew every move the Germans were making. We talked about what a heavy weight it must have been on commanders-- knowing that there were ultimately going to have to sacrifice dozens of ships and thousands of lives in order to keep the secret that certainly cut years off of the war and saved millions of lives on both sides.
This secret, called "Ultra," was not de-classified until 1974, a year after Gustave Bertrand, the French agent who'd brought the Enigma machine to the British revealed the secret in the book Enigma.
As the war had gone on, the Germans had improved the Enigma machines. This meant that the Allies had to capture German ships to get ahold of the new, improved Enigma machines. In 1944, an Allied task force did such a thing, disabling the U-505. As the Germans tried to scuttle the submarine, two American sailors, risking being trapped in the sinking sub, ran in and managed to replace the scuttle-plug, which, fortunately, a German sailor sailor had thrown to the side, rather than overboard, as he'd been ordered to. Fortunately, the German sailors had also not destroyed or disposed of the Enigma machine as they'd been ordered, and the Allies captured it. The U-505, then, is not just a big war trophy, but a symbol of the sacrifices of thousands and thousands of men and women in defeating one of the most evil powers ever to be on this earth, and about making hard choices.
It was very cool just talking to my son about this all. We worked our way to the 727-- yes, a 727 jet!-- that the museum has. The museum brings in retired airline pilots to hang out in the airplane and talk to people, and today was no exception. Adam got to chat up a retired pilot and pump him for information, which he loved.
As I drove him to his mother's house yesterday evening, I knew that this was going to be a day he cherished.
My second field trip was today, a day later, with my stepdaughter, to Chicago's historic Graceland Cemetery, something I'd been promising her for a while.
I know-- a field trip to a cemetery-- it sounds funny. It was fun for her-- she's been reading up on ghosts and one of Chicago's most notorious ghosts, "The Girl Under the Glass" is there. She was thrilled to be able to see this thing she'd read about.
I also got to sneak a little history in to her. Graceland Cemetery was the place where many of Chicago's rich and famous were buried. The cemetery, which was once on the edge of Chicago, is a couple of blocks north of Wrigley Field. Four generations of the Field family-- the family that owned the Marshall Field store chain and the Chicago Sun-Times-- are buried there. Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper is buried there. George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman car, and one of the most hated figures in labor history is buried there. The manager of the cemetery confirmed to me that it was not just an urban legend that they'd poured tons of concrete over his grave in order to prevent angry former Pullman workers from digging up his grave and desecrating his body. Legendary architect Louis Sullivan, who was once Frank Lloyd Wright's boss, is there. And of course, Daniel Burnham, who in addition to designing a number of noted buildings like the Flatiron Building in New York and the Union Station in Washington, D.C., was also the man who'd helped assure that Chicago's beautiful lakefront was set aside for public use forever. His most famous quote was: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."
As much as I love the graves designed by some of the architects buried there, and the gothic and religiously-themed graves, one of my favorites is by a guy whose architecture style I'm not all that wild about-- Mies Van der Rohe, the father of Bauhaus architecture. He has, appropriately, a clean, crisp Bauhaus grave. My parents, BTW, both used to work in one of his most famous works, the IBM building, here in Chicago.
My very favorite grave in Graceland is that of photographer and historian Richard Nickel. In the 1960's and '70's, Chicago began demolishing buildings designed by Louis Sullivan and Prarie School architects. Nickel began lobbying for the preservation of these buildings, and when he couldn't save them, salvaged ornamentation from them and photographed them. He died on April 13, 1972 when a stairwell from the Chicago Stock Exchange building collapsed on him while he was in there taking pictures and retrieving artifacts. He was a visionary who literally died for what he was trying to preserve. There was a book published recently that has some of his pictures that had not been released before. Some of the artifacts that he preserved were sold to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and are on display there.
I love that not only was he buried just a couple of hundred feet from Louis Sullivan, but someone-- presumably family and/or friends-- took the love and care to have a Prarie-style headstone designed and created for him. His passion and sacrifice had enriched them, and they clearly appreciated it.
It occurred to me later that it reinforced the theme for the weekend that a big part of a parent's job is to encourage, feed and support the interests and passions of our children, and that in doing so, it makes our lives so much richer, and hopefully brings out the best in us. As Anonymous Blogger so beautifully stated, "The parent doesn't make the child-- the child makes the parent."
Early in the day today, I called my dad to talk about some news events of the day. The Chicago Tribune was sold to Chicago Real Estate magnate Sam Zell. To no one's surprise, later in the day, the Tribune put the Chicago Cubs up for sale.
Our conversation turned to one of my brothers, who's a year younger than me. My brother and I haven't spoken for over five years, since a Thanksgiving dinner that turned ugly. I've thought recently of trying to talk to him and bury the hatchet, but after today's conversation with my father, I don't know if I can do it.
My brother, like me, went through an ugly custody fight. I know him well enough to know that he probably gave his wife plenty of ammunition for her to gain full custody of their two daughters. And what my father told me today-- of my brother's increasing right-wing paranoia and belligerence-- didn't incline me to subject myself-- or my kids or wife-- to him. He's worn out my father's patience. My father, who nearly died of cancer last year, was hell-bent on reconciling with him. He is now ready to give up.
I've mentioned before about finally settling my custody fight with my ex-girlfriend with an agreement that wasn't particularly favorable. The moment I made the decision to sign the agreement came one day after picking up my son, who'd just turned 4, and he went to his room and didn't want to talk or do anything. He laid on his bed and stared at the wall. If you knew him-- what a sunny, bubbly, evervescent kid he is, you'd know how wrong that was. I suddenly realized that the anger and animosity involved in the custody fight had worn him down and were depressing him. At that moment, it hit me that it wasn't about me, my pride, saving face or anything else but what was best for him. I called my lawyer the next day and told him I would sign the custody agreement he'd sent me a couple of days before.
I've not regretted that decision. I've made a lot of decisions in my life that I've regretted, but I've not regretted the decisions that led me to be raising the two kids I'm raising. It's been the most rewarding thing I've ever done.
My brother's decisions have led to him having almost no part in his childrens' lives. And as angry as I am at him for what a dick he's become, there's a part of me that just feels sorry for him, that he can't let go of that part of him that's cost him so goddamned much. It's costing him the most important things in his life, and costing him the prime of his life-- the time he should be raising his kids.
It's not only about making the hard decisions, but making the hard decisions correctly. It's not all that fucking difficult, Dean. Really.