The idea of becoming a writer had come to me off and on since my childhood in Belleville, but it wasn't until my third year in high school that the possibility took hold. Until then I'd been bored by everything associated with English courses. I found English grammar dull and difficult. I hated the assignments to turn out long, lifeless paragraphs that were agony for teachers to read and for me to write.
When our class was assigned to Mr. Fleagle for third-year English I anticipated another cheerless year in that most tedious of subjects. Mr. Fleagle had a reputation among students for dullness and inability to inspire. He was said to be very formal, rigid and hopelessly out of date. To me he looked to be sixty or seventy and excessively prim. He wore primly severe eyeglasses, his wavy hair was primly cut and primly combed. He wore prim suits with neckties set primly against the collar buttons of his white shirts. He had a primly pointed jaw, a primly straight nose, and a prim manner of speaking that was so correct, so gentlemanly, that he seemed a comic antique.
I prepared for an unfruitful year with Mr. Fleagle and for a long time was not disappointed. Late in the year we tackled the
informal essay. Mr. Fleagle distributed a homework sheet offering us a choice of topics. None was quite so simple-minded as "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," but most seemed to be almost as dull. I took the list home and did nothing until the night before the essay was due. Lying on the sofa, I finally faced up to the unwelcome task, took the list out of my notebook, and scanned it. The topic on which my eye stopped was "The Art of Eating Spaghetti."
This title produced an extraordinary sequence of mental images. Vivid memories came flooding back of a night in Belleville when all of us were seated around the supper table —Uncle Allen, my mother, Uncle Charlie, Doris, Uncle Hal — and Aunt Pat served spaghetti for supper. Spaghetti was still a little known foreign dish in those days. Neither Doris nor I had ever eaten spaghetti, and none of the adults had enough experience to be good at it. All the good humor of Uncle Allen's house reawoke in my mind as I recalled the laughing arguments we had that night about the socially respectable method for moving spaghetti from plate to mouth.
Suddenly I wanted to write about that, about the warmth and good feeling of it, but I wanted to put it down simply for my own joy, not for Mr. Fleagle. It was a moment I wanted to
recapture and hold for myself. I wanted to relive the pleasure of that evening. To write it as I wanted, however, would violate all the rules of formal composition I'd learned in school, and Mr. Fleagle would surely give it a failing grade. Never mind. I would write something else for Mr. Fleagle after I had written this thing for myself.
When I finished it the night was half gone and there was no time left to compose a proper, respectable essay for Mr. Fleagle. There was no choice next morning but to turn in my tale of the Belleville supper. Two days passed before Mr. Fleagle returned the graded papers, and he returned everyone's but mine. I was preparing myself for a command to report to Mr. Fleagle immediately after school for discipline when I saw him lift my paper from his desk and knock for the class's attention. "Now, boys," he said. "I want to read you an essay. This is titled, 'The Art of Eating Spaghetti.'"
And he started to read. My words! He was reading my words out loud to the entire class. What's more, the entire class was listening. Listening attentively. Then somebody laughed, then the entire class was laughing, and not in contempt and ridicule, but with open-hearted enjoyment. Even Mr. Fleagle stopped two or three times to hold back a small prim smile.
I did my best to avoid showing pleasure, but what I was feeling was pure delight at this demonstration that my words had the power to make people laugh. In the eleventh grade, at the eleventh hour as it were, I had discovered a calling. It was the happiest moment of my entire school career. When Mr. Fleagle finished he put the final seal on my happiness by saying, "Now that, boys, is an essay, don't you see. It's — don't you see — it's of the very essence of the essay, don't you see. Congratulations, Mr. Baker."
He must have been completely lost in something he was reading because I had to tap on the windshield to get his attention.
"Is your cab available?" I asked when he finally looked up at me. He nodded, then said apologetically as I settled into the back seat, "I'm sorry, but I was reading a letter." He sounded as if he had a cold or something.
"I'm in no hurry," I told him. "Go ahead and finish your letter." He shook his head. "I've read it several times already. I guess I almost know it by heart."
"Letters from home always mean a lot," I said. "At least they do with me because I'm on the road so much." Then, estimating that
he was 60 or 70 years old, I guessed: "From a child or maybe a grandchild?"
"This isn't family," he replied. "Although," he went on, "come to think of it", it might just as well have been family. Old Ed was my oldest friend. In fact, we used to call each other 'Old Friend' — when we'd meet, that is. I'm not much of a hand at writing." "I don't think any of us keep up our correspondence too well," I said. "I know I don't. But I take it he's someone you've known quite a while?"
"All my life, practically. We were kids together, so we go way back."
"Went to school together?"
"All the way through high school. We were in the same class, in fact, through both grade and high school."
"There are not too many people who've had such a long friendship," I said.
"Actually," the driver went on, "I hadn't seen him more than once or twice a year over the past 25 or 30 years because I moved away from the old neighborhood and you kind of lose touch even though you never forget. He was a great guy." "You said 'was'. Does that mean —?"
He nodded. "Died a couple of weeks ago."
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's no fun to lose any friend — and losing a real old one is even tougher."
He didn't reply to that, and we rode on in silence for a few minutes. But I realized that Old Ed was still on his mind when he spoke again, almost more to himself than to me: "I should have kept in touch. Yes," he repeated, "I should have kept in touch."
"Well," I agreed, "we should all keep in touch with old friends more than we do. But things come up and we just don't seem to find the time."
He shrugged. "We used to find the time," he said. "That's even mentioned in the letter." He handed it over to me. "Take a look." "Thanks," I said, "but I don't want to read your mail. That's pretty personal."
The driver shrugged. "Old Ed's dead. There's nothing personal now. Go ahead," he urged me.
The letter was written in pencil. It began with the greeting "Old Friend," and the first sentence reminded me of myself. I've been meaning to write for some time, but I've always postponed it. It then went on to say that he often thought about the good times they had had together when they both lived in the same
neighborhood. It had references to things that probably meant something to the driver, such as the time Tim Shea broke the window, the Halloween that we tied Old Mr. Parker's gate, and when Mrs. Culver used to keep us after school.
"You must have spent a lot of time together," I said to him. "Like it says there," he answered, "about all we had to spend in those days was time." He shook his head: "Time."
I thought the next paragraph of the letter was a little sad: I began the letter with "Old Friend" because that's what we've become over the years — old friends. And there aren't many of us left. "You know," I said to him, "when it says here that there aren't many of us left, that's absolutely right. Every time I go to a class reunion, for example, there are fewer and fewer still around." "Time goes by," the driver said.
"Did you two work at the same place?" I asked him.
"No, but we hung out on the same corner when we were single. And then, when we were married, we used to go to each other's house every now and then. But for the last 20 or 30 years it's been mostly just Christmas cards. Of course there'd be always a note we'd each add to the cards — usually some news about our families, you know, what the kids were doing, who moved where, a new grandchild, things like that —but never a real
letter or anything like that."
"This is a good part here," I said. "Where it says Your friendship over the years has meant an awful lot to me, more than I can say because I'm not good at saying things like that. " I found myself nodding in agreement. "That must have made you feel good, didn't it?"
The driver said something that I couldn't understand because he seemed to be all choked up, so I continued: "I know I'd like to receive a letter like that from my oldest friend."
We were getting close to our destination so I skipped to the last paragraph. So I thought you'd like to know that I was thinking of you. And it was signed，Your Old Friend, Tom.
I handed back the letter as we stopped at my hotel. "Enjoyed talking with you," I said as I took my suitcase out of the cab. Tom? The letter was signed Tom?
"I thought your friend's name was Ed," I said. "Why did he sign it Tom?"
"The letter was not from Ed to me," he explained. "I'm Tom. It's a letter I wrote to him before I knew he'd died. So I never mailed it."
He looked sort of sorrowful, or as if he were trying to see something in the distance. "I guess I should have written it
When I got to my hotel room I didn't unpack right away. First I had to write a letter — and mail it.
Whether we like it or not, the world we live in has changed a great deal in the last hundred years, and it is likely to change even more in the next hundred. Some people would like to stop these changes and go back to what they see as a purer and simpler age. But as history shows, the past was not that wonderful. It was not so bad for a privileged minority, though even they had to do without modern medicine, and childbirth was highly risky for women. But for the vast majority of the population, life was nasty, brutish, and short.
Anyway, even if one wanted to, one couldn't put the clock back to an earlier age. Knowledge and techniques can't just be forgotten. Nor can one prevent further advances in the future. Even if all government money for research were cut off (and the present government is doing its best), the force of competition would still bring about advances in technology. Moreover, one cannot stop inquiring minds from thinking about basic science, whether or not they are paid for it. The only way to prevent
further developments would be a global state that suppressed anything new, and human initiative and inventiveness are such that even this wouldn't succeed. All it would do is slow down the rate of change.
If we accept that we cannot prevent science and technology from changing our world, we can at least try to ensure that the changes they make are in the right directions. In a democratic society, this means that the public needs to have a basic understanding of science, so that it can make informed decisions and not leave them in the hands of experts. At the moment, the public is in two minds about science. It has come to expect the steady increase in the standard of living that new developments in science and technology have brought to continue, but it also distrusts science because it doesn't understand it. This distrust is evident in the cartoon figure of the mad scientist working in his laboratory to produce a Frankenstein. It is also an important element behind support for the Green parties. But the public also has a great interest in science, particularly astronomy, as is shown by the large audiences for television series such as The Sky at Night and for science fiction.
What can be done to harness this interest and give the public the scientific background it needs to make informed decisions on
subjects like acid rain, the greenhouse effect, nuclear weapons, and genetic engineering? Clearly, the basis must lie in what is taught in schools. But in schools science is often presented in a dry and uninteresting manner. Children learn it by rote to pass examinations, and they don't see its relevance to the world around them. Moreover, science is often taught in terms of equations. Although equations are a brief and accurate way of describing mathematical ideas, they frighten most people. When I wrote a popular book recently, I was advised that each equation I included would halve the sales. I included one equation, Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. Maybe I would have sold twice as many copies without it.
Scientists and engineers tend to express their ideas in the form of equations because they need to know the precise values of quantities. But for the rest of us, a qualitative grasp of scientific concepts is sufficient, and this can be conveyed by words and diagrams, without the use of equations.
The science people learn in school can provide the basic framework. But the rate of scientific progress is now so rapid that there are always new developments that have occurred since one was at school or university. I never learned about molecular biology or transistors at school, but genetic engineering and
computers are two of the developments most likely to change the way we live in the future. Popular books and magazine articles about science can help to put across new developments, but even the most successful popular book is read by only a small proportion of the population. Only television can reach a truly mass audience. There are some very good science programmes on TV, but others present scientific wonders simply as magic, without explaining them or showing how they fit into the framework of scientific ideas. Producers of television science programmes should realize that they have a responsibility to educate the public, not just entertain it.
The world today is filled with dangers, hence the sick joke that the reason we have not been contacted by an alien civilization is that civilizations tend to destroy themselves when they reach our stage. But I have sufficient faith in the good sense of the public to believe that we might prove this wrong.
He came from a rocky farm in Italy, somewhere south of Rome. How or when he got to America, I don't know. But one evening I found him standing in the driveway, behind my garage. He was about five-foot-seven or eight, and thin.
"I mow your lawn," he said. It was hard to comprehend his broken English.
I asked him his name. "Tony Trivisonno," he replied. "I mow your lawn." I told Tony that I couldn't afford a gardener.
"I mow your lawn," he said again, then walked away. I went into my house unhappy. Yes, these Depression days were difficult, but how could I to turn away a person who had come to me for help?
When I got home from work the next evening, the lawn had been mowed, the garden weeded, and the walks swept. I asked my wife what had happened.
"A man got the lawn mower out of the garage and worked on the yard," she answered. "I assumed you had hired him."
I told her of my experience the night before. We thought it strange that he had not asked for pay.
The next two days were busy, and I forgot about Tony. We were trying to rebuild our business and bring some of our workers back to the plants. But on Friday, returning home a little early, I saw Tony again, behind the garage. I complimented him on the work he had done.
"I mow your lawn," he said.
I managed to work out some kind of small weekly pay, and each
day Tony cleaned up the yard and took care of any little tasks. My wife said he was very helpful whenever there were any heavy objects to lift or things to fix.
Summer passed into fall, and winds blew cold. "Mr. Craw, snow pretty soon," Tony told me one evening. "When winter come, you give me job clearing snow at the factory."
Well, what do you do with such determination and hope? Of course, Tony got his job at the factory.
The months passed. I asked the personnel department for a report. They said Tony was a very good worker.
One day I found Tony at our meeting place behind the garage. "I want to be 'prentice," he said.
We had a pretty good apprentice school that trained laborers. But I doubted whether Tony had the capacity to read blueprints and micrometers or do precision work. Still, how could I turn him down?
Tony took a cut in pay to become an apprentice. Months later, I got a report that he had graduated as a skilled grinder. He had learned to read the millionths of an inch on the micrometer and to shape the grinding wheel with an instrument set with a diamond. My wife and I were delighted with what we felt was a satisfying end of the story.
A year or two passed, and again I found Tony in his usual waiting place. We talked about his work, and I asked him what he wanted.
"Mr. Craw," he said, "I like a buy a house." On the edge of town, he had found a house for sale, a complete wreck.
I called on a banker friend. "Do you ever loan money on character?" I asked. "No," he said. "We can't afford to. No sale." "Now, wait a minute," I replied. "Here is a hard-working man, a man of character, I can promise you that. He's got a good job. You're not getting a damn thing from your lot. It will stay there for years. At least he will pay your interest."
Reluctantly, the banker wrote a mortgage for $2,000 and gave Tony the house with no down payment. Tony was delighted. From then on, it was interesting to see that any discarded odds and ends around our place — a broken screen, a bit of hardware, boards from packing — Tony would gather and take home. After about two years, I found Tony in our familiar meeting spot. He seemed to stand a little straighter. He was heavier. He had a look of confidence.
"Mr. Craw, I sell my house!" he said with pride. "I got $8,000."
I was amazed. "But, Tony, where are you going to live without a house?"
"Mr. Craw, I buy a farm."
We sat down and talked. Tony told me that to own a farm was his dream. He loved the tomatoes and peppers and all the other vegetables important to his Italian diet. He had sent for his wife and son and daughter back in Italy. He had hunted around the edge of town until he found a small, abandoned piece of property with a house and shed. Now he was moving his family to his farm.
Sometime later. Tony arrived on a Sunday afternoon, neatly dressed. He had another Italian man with him. He told me that he had persuaded his childhood friend to move to America. Tony was sponsoring him. With an amused look in his eye, he told me that when they approached the little farm he now operated, his friend stood in amazement and said, "Tony, you are a millionaire!"
Then, during the war, a message came from my company. Tony had passed away.
I asked our people to check on his family and see that everything was properly handled. They found the farm green with vegetables, the little house livable and homey. There was a tractor and a good car in the yard. The children were educated and working, and Tony didn't owe a cent.
After he passed away, I thought more and more about Tony's career. He grew in stature in my mind. In the end, I think he stood as tall, and as proud, as the greatest American industrialists.
They had all reached their success by the same route and by the same values and principles: vision, determination, self-control, optimism, self-respect and, above all, integrity.
Tony did not begin on the bottom rung of the ladder. He began in the basement. Tony's affairs were tiny; the greatest industrialists' affairs were giant. But, after all, the balance sheets were exactly the same. The only difference was where you put the decimal point.
Tony Trivisonno came to America seeking the American Dream. But he didn't find it — he created it for himself. All he had were 24 precious hours a day, and he wasted none of them.