My dad died this past weekend, of what was surely covid (though, since he wasn’t tested, he isn’t in the official statistics). Not surprisingly, this has me reflecting on a lot of things, including the time we spent together at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), when I was in grad school and he was my field assistant. My father was about as non-academic as they come, but he was so supportive of my academic pursuits. That time we got to spend together was a gift.
My father’s childhood was not easy — his mother died when he was 6, his father died shortly before he finished high school, and money was always very tight — but he still always approached life with a “glass half full” attitude.
After he finished high school, he was drafted into the Army. He wasn’t particularly excited about having been drafted, but the alternative was to go to college, so he went into the Army. He was lucky to be stationed in Germany, rather than Vietnam. (This led me to be very confused when I was younger. I knew he’d been in the Army and that he’d been in Germany during a war, so I was sure he’d been in WW2, despite my teacher’s insistence that he was not old enough for that to have been possible.)
After the Army, my father enrolled in college on the GI Bill. This, too, was a source of confusion for me, since it also seemed clear that he had no interest in college and he never mentioned anything about courses. I finally asked him about this a few years ago: it turns out he enrolled for one semester, but never actually attended any classes. School was never his thing.
Instead, he ended up becoming a NYC firefighter, spending over 30 years with FDNY. For the last part of his career, he drove the engine — officially, was the Engine Company Chauffeur. I’ve always been proud of him being a firefighter, and that he drove the engine made me extra proud. (I mean, driving the engine is super cool, right?) It also led to a running joke that “side view mirrors don’t count”. I doubt he actually took out that many mirrors in his years — I think he was very good at his job. But his point was, if he had to squeeze the rig through a tight spot and a car’s side view mirror was the only thing keeping him from getting through that spot and to the fire, that mirror was expendable. There’s a lesson in there about having one’s priorities straight.
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My dad was always incredibly supportive. He wasn’t someone who really pushed education — my drive to do well in school and go to college definitely came from my mother, who had not been allowed to go to college when she graduated high school. (She later went to college after having three kids and while working two jobs.) At first, his support took relatively unremarkable forms, such as shuttling me and my stuff back and forth to Ithaca. (He would always stand with his hands on his hips while surveying the amount of stuff I wanted to bring and the amount of space in the back of the car; he always declared it was never all going to fit, then somehow got it all in.)
When I got a job working as a technician in Antarctica between college & grad school, it was his turn to think my job was cool. He drove around with me as I bought some supplies — lots of film, a ton of fruit leathers, a good pair of sunglasses. He proudly announced to everyone in every store that we were buying them because I was going to Antarctica. He was the proudest papa there could be.
But the most notable and most memorable support of me, my education, and my career came when I was in grad school. He loved visiting me at KBS and, at some point (I can’t remember how or when), we hatched the idea that he should be my field assistant. So, he came for the summer and part of the fall, two years in a row. We’d go out sampling in the morning (or, sometimes, late at night if I was studying diel vertical migration or early in the morning if I needed to collect fish), then he’d help out a bit in the lab, then he’d go home and I’d stay in the lab counting samples. He was legendary at KBS, where everyone called him Fireman Bob. Not everyone could always understand him — he had a strong Brooklyn accent and tended to mumble — but everyone loved him.
As readers who’ve done field work will know, there is a special bond that comes from being in the field with someone else. We spent so much time together in the truck and the boat, having time to talk about all sorts of things. I remember a story about him being in a burning building during the 1970s oil crisis and opening a door to find a closet stocked full of homemade containers of gasoline. We also didn’t talk about some things. Most notably, we never discussed evolution. My father didn’t accept evolution, yet was selflessly and happily helping me with evolutionary studies. We never discussed that inconsistency — we all have our own inconsistencies, and it wasn’t worth the strife discussing it would cause.
It was so fun to share this other world I’d moved into with him. Academia is definitely not part of my family’s story, and ecology isn’t either. I remember very clearly the first time he was doing a temperature profile on a lake, starting at the surface and lowering the probe meter by meter. When he hit the thermocline (the layer where the water temperature drops very quickly), he was shocked at how much the temperature was changing and kept saying “Whoa, it’s really dropping!”, thinking something was wrong with the probe. I will never have such a careful field assistant — sometimes I would think it seemed like he was towing kind of fast, but then I’d time it and he was always spot on at 1 meter/second. He definitely took pride in a job well done.
In the end, I came out of those two years with lots of data, yes, but also with so much more. That time took what was already a strong bond and made it unbreakable. And it took something I already knew — that he supported me 100% — and took that to another level, too. It also provided perspective — getting up early to collect data on fish predation felt hard, but then my dad would be like, “You’re getting paid for this?!?!” If you want perspective on how hard your field season is, you should do it with someone who ran into burning buildings for a living.
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If we were in normal times, I would have flown to NY at the end of last week. But we’re not in normal times, and I’m stuck in Michigan. So, I took to looking through pictures, from when I was little, but also from our time together at KBS. I found this one, and texted it to my mom, asking her to share it with my dad:
By then, my dad was starting to get confused — the virus was just too much for his body to handle. But as soon as he saw it, he said “That’s grandpa!” I had forgotten, but he, even in his confusion, remembered the name we used for any of the larger bluegill that we caught. (I did remember that he’d been upset that the fish had spun for the photo, making it look smaller!)
Memories are interesting, including what we remember and what we forget. I may have forgotten our Grandpa joke, but I know that I will always remember that time we had together. Clearly he did, too. It was such a gift.
I miss you, dad. Rest in peace.