The Gift of Failure

(At a riverside cabin 11 miles south of Black Mountain, NC - 11 June 2015:)

Today I drove over to Asheville School, where I first arrived fifty-six years ago, almost to the day, and from which I departed several months later, never (I thought) to return. I'm glad I went back today, because it illuminated a turning point in my life that I had never fully understood before.

That summer long ago I had just completed eighth grade at a public Junior High in Winter Park, Florida. My family had a traditional respect for quality education and it was evident that I was ill-prepared for same, so they sent me off to Asheville to be brought up to speed in summer school. I have no knowledge of the considerations that contributed to that choice; I only know that I was a redneck kid with no interest in having my mind expanded. I spent the summer avoiding work, building model airplanes surreptitiously in my dorm room and complaining about the lousy fishing in the lake down the hill. I couldn't wait to get back to the bass of Florida, and I soon got my wish.

When my uncle came to retrieve me at the end of the term, he was informed that I was not welcome back. In short, I flunked out. This was a little embarrassing, I recall, and even moreso when I reflexively called my uncle "Sir" thanks to a month or two of conditioning.

When I got home to Winter Haven, Florida I was duly enrolled in Denison Junior High, where I spent two weeks discovering the consequences of my impulsive choice. My home room teacher enforced discipline like a prison warden; my classmates were exactly what I had been at the beginning of the summer. It was Kafka's hell.

I begged my mother to give me a second chance. Miraculously, I got one from Harry D. Hoey, then Headmaster of Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where my mother was working on her Masters degree at the Art Academy. This time I cooperated, and learning took hold.

I graduated from Cranbrook in 1963, from Trinity College (in Hartford, CT) in 1967 and then from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Physics in 1972; thence to an academic career at the University of British Columbia. A lot has happened. I've had a great life with many successes and few failures since that critical one at Asheville School. But the long story of my life is not really relevant to the point I'd like to make here:

Turning points don't come easily, especially to willful adolescents. Sometimes the most generous gift you can give a child is to let them know in no uncertain terms that they have failed - failed to live up to your well-advertised standards, failed to live up to their own potential. "Cultivating self-esteem" has its place, but today it has become an obsession that does harm to those whose self-esteem comes only from others' praise.

Love is meaningless if it has to be deserved; respect is meaningless if it doesn't.

Paradise Lost and Found

1 Paradise

Stumbling barefoot in the sand, rod and tackle box in hand, I followed my mother down the rows of the old Hamlin block to where the path emerged from the dusty shade of the orange trees into the bright sunshine by Lake Otis.

"Watch your step," she said, "there's sandspurs in the weeds." We had both heard that if you run as fast as you can through a field of sandspurs, they won't stick you; but neither of us had the nerve to try it. So we picked our way carefully and our bare soles always found a few hidden in the sand.

Safely onto the old dock, we banged the grayed wood slats to scare away water moccasins and pulled the homemade pram out from under the dock. Potbellied grey minnows scattered as their shade and protection were removed.

"Can I catch some minnows for bait?" I asked. My mother looked unsure, but her face dissolved into permission as she remembered how I loved to let the minnows try to swallow a worm until I could pull them out of the water by their tiny, greedy mouths. I baited up and captured half a dozen while she put the oars and cushions in the boat and caught a few shiners on little balls of bread dough.

We climbed carefully into the pram and cast off into the lily pads. I sat in the stern and peered down into the transparent water as the boat passed over its denizens. I saw many small brim, shellcrackers, shiners and chubs, of course, and the occasional small warmouth or big turtle, but I was watching for bass and channel catfish, the most exciting game in Lake Otis. These rarely showed until we were beyond the lily pads and out in deep water.

Even in 15 feet I could see the bottom clearly as long as we sat very still -- as we always did, as bass would swim up to the boat and inspect this unfamiliar intruder into their world.

My mother put a shiner on my line with a cork, threw it out as far as she could, and we sat down to wait while the shiner slowly dragged the cork around. This went on until a bass approached, at which point the shiner pulled the cork faster and faster until it stopped, which meant the bass had caught the shiner. Then the cork plunged under and my mother told me to wait until the bass had a chance to swallow the bait ­ then it was time to set the hook. Fresh bass for dinner!

When we had our fish, we rowed quietly around the lake looking down into the clear green water where huge catfish cruised by on the bottom, or up at the shore where my pit bull Tuffy bounced through the tall grass watching for small game to flee in panic from his landings. Once he caught a moccasin and shook it like a rope until it was dead; my mother was frantic, but he knew what he was doing.

Around the lake from the big eucalyptus trees was a guava thicket where the perfume was overpowering. There we saw a huge alligator gar, motionless, sunning itself. When I told my uncle about it later, he came down with a .22 and shot it, saying, "Those damn gars will take over a lake if you give them a chance." He was right, as I was to learn later: at one point all the lakes in the Chain seemed to be populated only by gars. But that was after the ski boats came in and stirred up the lakes so that algae blooms killed off the ecosystem.

But that day it was all right. It was one of those perfect days that you think will be repeated every day forever, when you're 8. That may be the best thing about childhood: not knowing that paradise can't last.

My mother said, "Never forget this."

2 Loss

When I was old enough to take to the lakes on my own, I had a little aluminum boat with Styrofoam under the seats so it wouldn't quite sink. I would stand on the bow until it filled with water and headed down, then climb up to the stern and force it all the way under; when it resurfaced like a breaching whale, it would come to rest upside down with air trapped underneath. I'd do this in plain sight of the tourist courts with their ski boats, and then hide under the overturned boat until they came racing out to save me; then I'd pop out and say, "What's the problem?" I hated those ski boats; at the same time, I wished I had one of my own.

Later when I went off to school up North, other pursuits occupied my vacations, but I knew what had been happening to Florida ever since the tourists came with their money and the developers came to collect it. I eventually moved to Canada, where nature grew up tougher, but every time I came home to visit, Florida was missing another treasure.

When my son was five, I took him to see my grandparents' home. My uncle had abandoned it to the elements -- an old wood frame house in Florida is too expensive and too much work to keep up.

The wallpaper was peeling in sheets from the walls of the room where I watched my first television show. The front stairs where my mother posed for her wedding picture were collapsing; I took my son up the back stairs to the old storage room where I used to dig for treasures when I was a kid.

I still dream of that room. I expect my uncle's collection of Hardy Boys books was still in the closet there when a vagrant set a fire to keep warm on a cold December night and the place went up like a tinderbox. In a way I wish I had been there to watch. Sometimes it helps -- I'm glad I was able to hold my mother's hand as she died a few years later.

Soon after the fire, the family sold off the old homestead and the surrounding orange grove to developers, who bulldozed down the hill that the old house had stood on, to even out the property and make room for more houses. They are pretty nice houses, and the tamed lakefront makes Lake Otis more attractive than it was when it was a nursery for algae and gars; there are even some brim and perch and bass again now. But the ghosts of the guava thicket and the old dock and the eucalyptus trees continue to haunt the immaculate lawns and modern docks that took their place.

No one has seen a channel catfish in Lake Otis for a long time.

3 Come Again

I've recently given up half my salary to get four months free every year to write. My wife found us a nice rental in Bokeelia where the fishing is good, the atmosphere is relaxed, and I have little to do but enjoy myself. Unfortunately I don't seem to have a book in me waiting to burst out onto the page.

So we went to Bert's Bar and listened to the music and met some nice folks who invited us to a party. It was a good party, with roast pig and great music and friendly people....

"You come on out with me, I'll get you into some fine fishing!"

That was what he said at the party. I thought it was just the good times talking, but this morning his boat nosed up to our dock bright and early, and he called out, "Ready to go catch a big one?" Well okay, I thought, let's do it. I gathered up my tackle and hopped
aboard the weatherbeaten fiberglas hull of an old Boston Whaler.

"What's that for, you plan to fish for bait?" he asked, referring to my old fly rod, which does look a little skinny for "big ones".

"Don't worry, it'll do the job. I've landed a 30 inch snook on this rod."

He looked skeptical but was willing to give me enough rope to hang myself. We danced around the intersection of cultural conventions and male competition for a while until each was satisfied that the other's style and values were flexible enough to coexist, then settled into an amiable exchange of technical information, boasts and fish stories.

Later we were drifting on the tide through Boca Grande Pass, past the little spine of underwater structure on the tip of Cayo Costa. He was bumping a pinfish along the bottom while I cast a Deceiver pattern on a # 9 sink-tip line, covering the water around the structure.

Suddenly I heard his reel screech.

I brought my line in quickly and turned to watch him play a huge redfish, scrambling to the stern to keep his line clear of the prop, then to the bow as the fish headed for the open Gulf.

"Do you want to chase her?" I asked, my hand on the ignition key.

"Nah, she'll change her mind and head back this way before she cleans me." It's true, if big fish had the sense to just keep going in a straight line, they could always get away; but they don't.

A quarter of an hour later I slipped the net under a magnificent red drum with three tail spots. I leaned over the transom with my hæmostat and plucked the hook out of its rubbery lip while it rolled its eye to watch what I was doing. What a beautiful creature, I thought, as I handed the net to my new friend.

Gliders, Glasses and Guns

Jess H. Brewer & grandfather \

Once upon a time, I went flying model airplanes in a cornfield by the Connecticut River. It cost me $5K (in 1967 US$) and most of my respect for Lawn Ordure, but it was a good preparation for Berkeley in 1968. It started like this: I was a fresh graduate from College X in Hartford, CT, Physics major and captain of the track team, NCAA Scholar-Athlete postgraduate scholarship ($5K) for UC Berkeley, where I was headed in September 1967. Can you say "straight arrow"? I was the quintessential naive innocent, hardly suited for Berkeley, but that was soon to change.

I had a summer programming job with a big-name Research Center in Hartford, analyzing "air pollution" data to calculate areas and "dosages". By the middle of the summer I got curious about that latter term, and hunted up some references in the library; they were all Declassified docs on Army tests of atmospheric dispersal of chemicals. Hmmm... didn't quite match the story I'd been given about how we were going to help combat industrial air pollution. It hadn't occurred to me to ask who was footing the bill. Naive, remember? The good news is, by the end of the summer we had the answer to the question they were obviously asking: "Bad idea." You can't predict squat about the results from ambient weather conditions, not even which way the stuff will go. I'm glad they know that now. I hope they paid attention.

Anyway, to get on with the real story, I was sharing a nice house up in the Berkshires with a couple of other new Physics grads, one of whom was willing to be dragged along by my obsession with model airplanes on a trip to Rocky Hill, CT, with another new Physics grad model airplane nut. We drove the third guy's car. He lived in Hartford with his wife and kid.

We arrived in midafternoon at a cornfield by the Connecticut River, down a dirt road from a little kiosk where they sold tickets to a ferry across the River. It was a lovely, hot day, lots of thermals for my homebuilt-from-scratch handlaunched glider (a seat-of-the pants adaptation "by eye" from John Diebold's Nationals-winning design) and I got sweaty chucking the thing; my glasses kept slipping off my face, so I put 'em on top of the car while we flew. Naturally, when it came time to go I forgot all about them. They bounced off somewhere near the ferry kiosk, and some kind soul who found them beside (or on) the road picked them up and put them on the outside counter of the kiosk, which was closed at the time. Meanwhile, we drove home and, finally realizing I had lost my glasses, I moaned about it to my roommate who hadn't been with us. This was around 7 or 8 PM.

About 10 or 11 PM that night, three guys who looked a lot like us were seen breaking into the kiosk with a tire iron painted blue. They stole a small amount of cash. The Rocky Hill cops were called and among the evidence they collected were my glasses, a mold of the tool marks made by the tire iron, and a small sample of the Western Auto blue paint it was dipped in. Of course, I knew nothing of this until weeks later...

...when I got a call from the Detective Sergeant at the Rocky Hill Police Department (a large garage with a couple of offices in it -- this was not a big town).

Dick: "Did you lose your glasses?"

Me: "Yeah! How did you know?"

Dick: "I looked through 10,000 prescription cards at [the biggest store in Hartford, where I did happen to have bought the glasses]. Yours came up a match."

Me: "Wow, that's... amazing. Thanks! But why would you go to all that trouble?"

Dick: "Actually, this is part of an important investigation. Would you be willing to come down to Rocky Hill and talk about it?"

Me: "Sure, anything to help out law and order [, truth, justice and the American Way -- remember, naive...]."

So we made an appointment and I drove my VW bug down to his garage -- er, Department -- where he left me alone in his office for a while with a rifle on his desk. Being a gun nut, I naturally checked out the rifle while I waited, but didn't touch it, thank God. So he came in and asked me what I was doing on the night of whatever it was, and I told him the story of the gliders and glasses. He in turn told me the story of the kiosk breakin and appended the sequel:

It seems the same guys (one presumes) used the same tire iron about two weeks later to break into a private gun club where they stole a shipment of rifles that were Federal Government property. No doubt the one on his desk was a sample, though he never mentioned it. The dick knew this because the thieves dropped the tire iron while departing hurriedly, and they matched up the tool marks and paint (Western Auto blue, from the same batch) so they were pretty sure it was the same tire iron. At which point my glasses got a lot more interesting. Things began to make a twisted sort of sense.

"So," he says, "you were our prime suspect. But I see you drive a cream-colored Volkswagen, right? That's not the type of car we're looking for."

Me, stupid: "Yes, but we weren't driving my car that afternoon, we were driving my friend's car."

Dick, suddenly attentive: "Oh? What sort of car?"

Me, really stupid: "A grey 1957 Chevy."

Dick, salivating: "May I have a look at that car?"

Me, proudly wearing a "Shoot me!" sign: "Sure, if he's home."

Dick: "That won't matter. Where does he live?"

And so we set off in the dick's car for Hartford to have a look at my friend's car. On the way I asked if he didn't think this was sort of silly, I mean, why would I do such a thing? He replied, "You college kids get drunk, you'll do anything for kicks." Hmm, well... almost anything, but what's the kicks in stealing guns? I got plenty of my own. Cop logic. Ha.

Now, my friend whose car we're going to see is a crew coach for the local high school, and he carries a pram around on top of his car for sitting in to yell at the rowers. There is -- you guessed it -- Western Auto blue paint all over the top of his car from the pram. Which is not particularly damning, but of course the dick only wants to look in the trunk, where my friend kept the seat from the pram. The dick pulls the seat aside and scrapes up a sample of the blue paint in the trunk, all over everything. He admonishes me not to leave town. We all go home.

I think this is hilarious. I get drunk and call everyone I know to tell them the story. I even call my mother, who doesn't think it's funny. (No sense of humor, these parents.) Shortly afterward (like minutes) she calls back and instructs me to get a lawyer right now. She'll pay. OK, what the hell. Next day I go to the President of the College I just graduated from with all the accolades anyone could want, and asked his advice. What do I know about lawyers? I'm a Physicist (or, more properly, a science fiction writer masquerading as a Physicist so as to accumulate some credibility before I start my real career). Good ol' Pres suggests a lawyer.

Now, everyone in New England but me knows that said lawyer is the most notorious criminal lawyer in the region, that he is famous for getting crooks off on technicalities, and that he has never defended anyone who was actually innocent. Of course I didn't rate The Man himself, I got a guy whose name I'm trying to forget, presumably some sort of junior partner. My housemate and I go in to see Junior Lawyer [JL henceforth]; he tells us, "This is serious business," in response to our snickering at the whole silly scenario, and informs us that if things get bad he's going to stick it on our third friend (with the Chevy) who lives elsewhere.

"The hell you are," I say, "he's as innocent as we are."

JL: "How do you know that?"

Me, indignant: "Because I know him, and he wouldn't do anything like that."

JL, sneering: "It's time you grew up." [or something to that effect]

Now, needless to say, JL was sure we did it, and (at my expense) hired a couple of "detectives" (one an ex-FBI agent and the other a former New York Port Authority agent) to come 'round my place at 3:00 AM one night and give us the third degree, "Where did you hide the guns? If we turn them over we can make a deal." About this time I started getting pissed off.

He also hired a lie detector expert, who gave us all polygraph tests. Needless to say, I flunked. The routine is, they hook you up to all these electrodes, sit you next to the chart recorder where the needles are going scritch, scritch and start asking questions while you listen to the needles.

"Where do you live?" (scritch, scritch)

"What's your favourite color" (scritch, scritch)

"What kind of car do you drive?" (scritch, scritch)

Pregnant pause.

"'Where were you on the night of ... ?" (scritch scritch scritch scritch scritch)

Trust me, to pass a polygraph all you have to be is stupid and/or too stoned to care. All they measure is how uptight the questions make you. Just say No f*ing way.

So that didn't help. And about this time my mother and both my uncles flew up from Florida to check things out. Driving my mother back from the airport I stopped and told her to get out of the car when she asked me if I'd done it; by this time I'd had about enough of that sh*t. But I didn't actually kick her out. It was clear that my uncles were also suspicious, but they had enough sense not to reveal this explicitly.

It was now getting to be close to the time I had to leave for Berkeley if I wanted to get there in time for Preliminary Exams. I pointed out to JL that my third housemate (whom the eyewitnesses could never have mistaken for one of us) had sworn an affadavit saying I told him I lost my glasses at 7 or 8 PM whereas the first robbery was at 10 or 11 PM; did they think I'd intentionally left my glasses on the kiosk counter to be found after the robbery? I threatened a half million dollar lawsuit for false arrest if they tried it, and said housemate threatened likewise if they tried to include him on the basis of that affadavit. This convoluted logic would never have convinced a jury, but the DA was cautious and promised us he wouldn't swear out a warrant unless he saw new evidence. Yea! We could go. I flew to Florida for a short vacation before packing to head West in my VW.

The night I arrived in Florida we got a call from JL saying I had to show up for arraignment by the next morning or get nailed for interstate flight. So I hopped back on a plane [boy, that sounds a lot easier than it actually was] and headed back. It turns out that the sensible DA went on vacation too, without explaining the situation to the Assistant DA. So the dick lays his circumstantial evidence before the Assistant DA, who says, "Sounds reasonable to me," and swears out a warrant for each of us.

Now the $0.5M threats come into play, and we reach a stalemate; they know I have to leave for Berkeley within a week or two, so are hoping I'll "flee" and give them a good excuse. We make a deal: if I agree to a State lie detector test they won't serve the warrants. I agree (what choice do I have?) and start practicing inner calmness exercises. Nothing happens for a week. I'm starting to freak out. Then one day they say, "Ah, never mind. You can go." I hop in my VW and head for Berkeley. I arrive the day before Prelims and flunk. I take them again in Spring 1968 and all is well. I am ready for Berserkeley!

I heard they did catch the "real" thieves (who knows?) a few months later; presumably they let up on me when they got a lead. JL admitted he'd always assumed I was guilty. (I can't blame him; what else was he trained to assume?) For decades I entertained fantasies of sneaking radioisotopes into the dick's beer, but in the end I figured being Detective Sergeant of the Rocky Hill Police Department was punishment enough. Besides, he was just doing what he was supposed to do.

The most useful thing I took away from this experience was the certainty that I would have done hard time for sure if my case had ever gone to trial. There were just too many bits of circumstantial evidence to be a plausible coincidence. I got out of it by spending my NCAA scholarship on a fancy lawyer, not by being innocent. The criminal "justice" system is not about guilt or innocence; it's about whose lawyer is cleverer. I knew this long before OJ.

I like to end on a question: without indulging in wishful thinking or using the words "ought" or "should", can you suggest how it could be any different? What would it take to actually deliver "equal justice under the law"? I haven't a clue.