Monday, April 02, 2007

Field Trips

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.


Chris said...

Wonderful post! I used to love going to the Museum of Science and Industry. There was so much cool, hands-on stuff to do or try, more than most of the other Chicago museums. Do they still have the coal mine?

GETkristiLOVE said...

Yeah, c'mon Dean. Don't be a piehole you whole life. Look at all the wonderful things your brother did with his kids yesterday.

That's what matters.

Beth said...

Will you take me on a field trip next time I'm in Chicago?

Natalie said...

Trips like that will stay with you and the kids for a long time. I have always wanted to go to that cemetery. I look at it often from the train and it looks really cool. I've never been in a cemetery and that looks like an interesting place to start.

Bubs said...

Another excellent post. I haven't been to the Museum of Science and Industry in ages--we usually end up at the Art Institute or Field Museum when we head down there.

There is nothing strange about trips to cemeteries--both our girls love that! You remind me that I need to visit Graceland Cemetery with them. I'm sure they'll love it. Some of our best memories are of visiting graveyards, in New Orleans, Ireland, Key West and rural Iowa and Kentucky.

Sorry to hear about your bro. Middle age male anger and resentment is a sad and powerful force.

lulu said...

What a classic Chicago day. My favorite part of the MS&I when I was a kid was the Colleen Moore Dollhouse. How odd to have a dollhouse in a museum, but what a cool thing. I always imagined that it was mine. I also remember going to see the Christmas trees ever year.

Many members of my family are buried in Graceland, and it has always been one of my favorite places to go walking. I' like Bubs's girls, a cemetary is greatplace to go exploring. When I was in New England a few summers ago, most of my photos were taken in cemetaries.

Don't know what to say about your brother, there's only so much you can do before you have to move on. Good luck.

Skylers Dad said...

This was just great, I am so jealous of your ability to write!

I went to the Museum of Science and Industry many moons back and loved the U boat exhibit.

Skylers favorite thing to do with us is to tour news stations. Check it out sometime if you can, it's interesting to sit on the set and watch what goes on off camera.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Holy fucking shit that was a long-ass post, dude. But you write so well that it's a real pleasure to read.

I, too, have the paranoid crazy-ass relative that spreads unhappiness wherever she goes. You know, just because you're related to them, don't mean you have to like them.

deadspot said...

"All it takes is to not be a dick."

Johnny Yen said...

Thank you. They still have the coal mine. We didn't go Sunday, but we did go the time before that.

Hey, but he was right, man! And that's way more important than time with your kids.

Mrs. Yen and the kids would love to show you the museum.

Do check out Graceland. Stop at the little building at the entrance. They've got maps that show all the big names in there, and there's a nice book for 10 bucks that has little biographies of those people, and some pictures that'll help you find the gravestones.

Also, Rosehill, up around Western and Foster (the entrance is on Ravenswood Avenue) is supposed to be great-- lots of history there, too. It's Chicago's biggest cemetery. That's our next destination.

We thought about the Art Institute or Chicago Historical Society, but ran out of time.

Graveyards are fascinating places. When I'm in Oakland, my running route takes me through Oakland's biggest cemetery. It's fascinating to see the mix of names and how they reflect the history of the town.

Yeah, he's a dicktard. I'd like to say that this "victim" role is new, but he's done it all his life, and doesn't seem to be interested in dropping the act any time soon.

My kids love the Christmas trees. Adam particularly loves the airplanes hanging there (as did I when I was a kid). This summer we're trying to arrange a trip to the Smithsonian-- they've got an incredible aviation collection.

It's interesting to note the ethnicity of the names in cemeteries and how they show the history of the city. In Oakland, there are lots of Italian, Irish and Chinese names. More English and Irish in Graceland.

Yeah, I'm about done with him.

Skyler's Dad-
Thank you very much!

If you can, next time you and Skyler are in Chicago, check out the U-505 again. They've moved it indoors to protect it from the elements and put it in historical context in a much better way.

I'd never thought about that, about the news stations. Thanks for the suggestion!

"That's all it takes....."

I'm looking forward to the post.

Johnny Yen said...

Oops, sorry-- missed you.

Yeah, I'm a little wordy some days. Thought today's shorter post would make up for it. Thank you for the kind words.

I really would like to communicate with him at least for my son's sake-- my son is very family-oriented, and would really like to have a relationship with him, but I really don't want him to be around a bitter right-wing drunk with a houseful of guns.

Bats in the Belfry said...

Ya know I'm a docent for the Rem building on the IIT campus. That was Mies central. When I worked in a Mies building on campus I was astounded to see, when it rained, water bubbling up from the ground. I'd never seen that before. It rained upside down. What an innovator.

Love the Science and Industry. You should have told me. The boy and I could have tagged along. If you are planning the Field during break let me know. The boy loves the museums here.

SamuraiFrog said...

Oh, man, I haven't been to the museum in ages; the last few times I've been downtown I went to the Field Museum (had to check to make sure they're taking proper care of Sue and the rest of my dinosaurs). Still, I need to go and get in that space shuttle again. That's where my mom transferred her love of the space program to me.

deadspot said...

Hey, if you want a shorter trip, Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton has a pretty amazing aerospace museum. Zip down to Indianapolis and it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Dayton.

Hey, I hope everyone up there is doing OK. I found out Lex was in a hurry to leave Sunday because he was coming down with a case of the ick. He ended up staying home from school Monday and Tuesday, but he's back to day. I hope you guys didn't get it.

vikkitikkitavi said...

"I really don't want him to be around a bitter right-wing drunk with a houseful of guns."

Your brother is the PRESIDENT???

GETkristiLOVE said...

or VICE PRESIDENT... or both.

Anon. Blogger said...


Great post. Before we left Chicago for Connecticut my ex and I took the kids to the museum of sci and ind. They were too young to appreicate it, though. I hope to get back there this summer and give it another try.

You have so much knowledge! What wonderful field trips! It's great that your kids like them. My kids often don't appreciate them until later. Then again, sometimes they just look back and make fun of them - but at least they have a memory of something we did together!

Example: Garnet mining. Not a big hit, but funny to look back at.

Sorry about your brother, too. I was married to a bitter, angry right wing goofball. Oh, and he was soooo right about sooooo much, too. Still is. Always will be. Cause when you are right, you are right, damnit!

I think they are oblivious to the forest through the trees concept. Like you said, makes you feel pity. (then they open their mouths) :-)

Thanks again for the link. I'm flattered.