My project for the new year is to write about my father, Peter Kilham, who was a great designer, inventor, and visionary. Through a compelling sense of purpose and perfection he invented bird feeders which brought millions of people happiness. I will share my conversations with him along the way. Everyone can draw inspiration from his story.
The book will be something like Tuesdays with Morrie and something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Posted below are drafts of the chapters as I write and rewrite them. I welcome your comments. Send them to Larry Kilham at email@example.com.
If you want to be alerted when the book is published, please note your name and email in "Comments" above.
It was a short walk from his kitchen to his combination shop and office. Along the way, we passed a large spreading tree from which hung a variety of bird feeders. It was getting dark and my father wanted to show me something in his inventor’s hideaway. I took a stool in an area surrounded by machinery, models of bird feeders, record jackets, office files, and an old typewriter.
He lit his ever-present corncob pipe and looked at me for a while with his still sparkling eyes. This eighty-five-year-old man picked through the files in the drawer. Then he found the one he was looking for. It was labeled “Annual Report” and he looked at it and then with searching eyes looked at me. He appeared to be looking for approval, which was quite often. Did he want me to comment on his company’s financial statements? Did he want to discuss family matters and possible disposition of the business?
I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. They were just sheets of paper with numbers on them being shown by a great inventor. He didn’t refer to his inventions, models or artwork. We fell silent and then slowly left for the kitchen and dinner.
Over the years, this scene has haunted me. The same questions have kept plaguing me: What was his purpose? Did he want me to take over the business? Was he disappointed in the way his life turned out? Did he think that the financial statements were all that I, a business school graduate and corporate manager, could understand?
Now the answer comes. The financial figures were the distillation of truth. It had taken half a lifetime, but the world at last had come to accept his creations and was willing to pay for them. Not only had he created useful and beautiful things of lasting worth, but they were highly valued in the marketplace. He had every reason to be proud.
Unknown to me, he knew this conversation in 1991 would be about our last. He was finishing up his life’s work at his beloved 1812 farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. He was saying, “Be guided by purpose, truth, and perfection and the rewards will come.”
Since then, I have often thought back and tried to piece together his story and our story. His was a long journey fueled by purpose and happiness whose lessons are even more relevant today.
My father was an independent inventor and manufacturer, and he had his company on a hill overlooking the farm. He received more than forty patents but rarely made money.
I remember him then when he was in the summer of life. He was self-assured and apparently unaware of the harsher seasons to come. His hair was mostly there but had turned white. He retained his bright eyes. My father, always known to everyone simply as Peter, had given up dressing for effect. In the summer he wore cotton shirts with paint stains and the sleeves cut off. In the winter, he switched to bright-red plaid woolen shirts. His pants for all seasons were basic tan khakis with his pipe stem secured behind his ageless dark leather belt.
His shirt pocket always held several Muffets cereal box separators. These were postcard-sized separators between the layers of round shredded wheat. Whenever he had new product ideas, he’d pull one of these out and make a careful drawing of the design concept. When describing something to me, he would sketch illustrations as he went along.
Sometime in the late 1950s when I was sitting with him in his small company building he said, “My best times were during the Great Depression.” He was reflective, puffing on his pipe, and looking out of his office picture window over his farm fields. “I was just starting out, cars were cheap, and wealthy people were buying my custom-designed furniture. I did special designs for the Rockefellers.”
He went on, “My furniture was modern design with interesting combinations of solid aluminum, brass, and Lucite. My company’s name, Tekton, reflected this design philosophy. My machine shop was in our home on Beacon Hill in Boston and included the South Bend lathe you see over there.”
“Well, why aren’t you making this furniture today?” I asked.
“The depression was the beginning of the end of Old Money. They had many faults, but they understood and were happy to pay for quality and craftsmanship.”
“I think your metal bending machines are great,” I said, trying to be encouraging about his current products made in the name of his company, Curvit Corporation.
“They are,” my father answered, “and I have important patents on them. Nobody seems to know about it, but my steel tubing bending machines were used at Pratt & Whitney to form jet engine parts. Other customers were Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler. All of Sears, Roebuck’s baby carriages had parts bent on my machines. But the business took so much time that there was none left for development.”
Then he handed me a brochure of a lawn chair made of aluminum tubing and colorful plastic webbing. He winced. “Now my machines are sold at about cost to manufacturers who produce cheap consumer goods like tubular lawn furniture, and I have no interest in that.”
That was the crux of it. Peter Kilham wanted to make the highest quality products. He had to create works of art that his customers would admire and would make them happy. He had to satisfy himself that he had achieved perfection.
Margie the bookkeeper appeared and asked if there was anything more for her to do. “No,” my father said. “There were no orders today. Save the bills until Monday. Take the mail to the post office and have a nice weekend.” Another slow day. He stood up, knocked out his pipe, and said, “Let’s lock this place up and go home for lunch.”
Home was a fifteen-minute walk across a few hilly fields. It was a hot August day and we walked through tall field grass that needed cutting. We passed an old orchard with wormy apples and a slowly collapsing weather-beaten shed. My ever-present dog Axle, a cross between a German shepherd and a Doberman, trotted along sniffing out mysterious spots of interest.
We went right to the kitchen where mother had lunch on the table. Warmed up leftovers from yesterday’s dinner.
“Did you get any orders today?” she asked with some edge in her voice. Silence. “No? Well, I guess I can sell some eggs tomorrow.” If the apocalypse ever came, mother would always have her chickens and eggs.
Mother had met my father at art school where she was a student and he an instructor. She always admired his art but was much more down to earth about financial matters. She had come from a wealthy western family and really wanted to enjoy a financially comfortable lifestyle. Her father was an inventor with over one hundred patents for oil burners used in home furnaces and other applications. My father came from a prosperous Boston family. His father was a prominent architect and his mother an accomplished artist. Nevertheless, he seemed to care little for the comforts that money brings to life.
“The farm,” as we called it, seemed to be my father’s dream. He had accumulated savings from design projects during the second world war. He bought the land after the war when it was cheap, and he could hire returning veterans at low pay to clear the fields, build fences, and make paths through the woods.
The farm was in Plainville, Massachusetts, between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. We had eighty acres of woods, ponds, and fields. To keep us busy, we also had a dozen or so sheep, about thirty chickens, and a few horses.
My sisters, brother, and I grew up in this wondrous outdoor existence. As children on a farm, we knew the totality of creation. We gazed at life in a pond and watched butterflies flapping over the meadows. I thought life is forever and we are happy to the end.
My father thought the farm would be perfect for my mother who loved to ride horses and who enjoyed the country life. My father saw it for himself as a recreation of his idyllic childhood often spent in rural New Hampshire.
My mother looked after the chickens and farm animals when she wasn’t working in the town library. I had a brother and two sisters. After it was sold, all of the family farm was turned into subdivisions, where people all get up at the same time and head off to Boston and Providence.
Much of my practical education took place at home. My father taught me the use of the metal-working tools in his shop. As I grew up I became skillful in working sheet metal, operating the lathe and milling machine, and making metal products. One of my first creations was a brass fishing lure that I sold to the local fishermen. It worked better than anything else on the market. I was proud of my accomplishment and thus motivated to venture into more evolved and complicated inventions.
Electronics became an obsession for me. I built small radios from mail-order kits and learned basic electronics on my own through trial and error. I began to design my own circuits and build my radio equipment from scratch. I connected to ham radio operators in the United States and many exotic places around the world. As the years passed, I accumulated a collection of strange-looking radio antennas, connected from tree to tree, pole to building, and even as tall towers. When the ionospheric conditions were right, I could talk all day to other ham radio operators all over the world.
After digging deeper into the mysteries of electronics, I decided to study electrical engineering. Among many projects that absorbed my time and energy, I rebuilt a radar set. I worked with an ultrasensitive radio receiver that listened to stars light-years away and I programmed computers. I researched electronics that might at some point assume human intelligence. I managed to cover most of my college costs by writing software for some of my professors, and felt assured that my future would be purposeful and perhaps brilliant.
My days were important to my success, however. My father instilled in me the spirit and basics of product design and entrepreneurship. My projects in electronics gave me a solid technical background. My mother encouraged me to think of other people and how to communicate with them, so I feel my home education was solid and balanced. She also said that I should start thinking about getting out of the small town environment and go to boarding school to prepare for college. I had never thought in those terms.
Despite the apparent utopia of his farm and workshop, my father harbored an inner tension that had his sense of perfection driving him forward while straining against a constant need for approval. I don’t know if mother provided the approval he craved. He remarked to me from time to time, “No one understands me.”
He was looking for perfection in everything he did and he would gladly point out that no one could do better what he did. On the other hand, he was constantly asking me—and I imagine other people—if I thought he was making the best things I had ever seen. You could think of it as a championship golfer constantly asking his caddy if his last drive was the best he had ever seen.
This routine was okay in small doses. It can build up a rapport and professional partnership. But I found it tiring at first and then exasperating.
In our walk back to the shop from the house, my father stopped to point out where a new fence post would be placed. Then he described in detail about the preparation and installation of the post. The diameter of the hole should be a precise ratio to the diameter of the post. He detailed several steps of filling in with large stones of a particular size, then smaller stones, then sand. The conversation wasn’t really about fenceposts or me. I saw it as a statement about him.
My father’s nemesis was the horses. He was constantly making fence gate latches that he intended to be horseproof. With his engineering and machining skills, he would devise latches where various levers and catches had to be actuated in a particular sequence in order to open the gate. Even though he had no fingers, our smartest horse, Harry, always found a way to open any horse-proof gate with his nose.
I was uncomfortable because I, the judge, always knew less about what I was supposed to be judging than did the Perfectionist. My father might say, apropos of nothing, “Lawrence, isn’t this a perfect drawing?” pointing to an India ink on vellum drawing he did of a machine part. A machinist would accept a less artful and perfect drawing in order to machine the part, but if the drawing was part of the process, in my father’s view, it too should be perfect.
I would try to be intelligently responsive, answering, “Well, couldn’t that curved surface have some more shading?”
But he wasn’t listening. He just wanted support for his creative ego.
I asked my father about education. He believed in it but not necessarily in the classical sense. He seemed unusually retrospective and moody. I paid rapt attention because this seemed like one of those special revelation moments.
“I was born left-handed,” he said—something, of course, I was well aware of—and he went on, “That was a very bad thing for my schooling. I don’t know about schools today but back then the writing part of the seat-desk was only available on the right side. The teachers were awful. I refused to write right-handed so they made me contort and write with my left hand on the right side.”
“Weren’t things better in college?” I asked.
“No,” he went on. “All through school and college, the teachers and professors were always trying to force me into uncomfortable and unproductive conformity. None of them except one lone high school teacher was interested in what interested me—art, geometry and creativity. I quit Harvard in my sophomore year.”
Years later, he admitted that he should have finished Harvard. Both his brothers did. One was an architect and the other a research doctor, and both were very successful.
My father never lost his interest in intellectual things that related to creativity, invention and design. These abilities were all embodied in his greatest hero, Leonardo da Vinci, another lefty. Left-handed people seem to be right-brained which matches the strengths of Leonardo who is one of the greatest thinkers and doers in art, mechanics, invention and probably all right-brain things. My father’s strengths were in the same areas.
Inevitable to this discussion is Leonardo’s “mirror writing.” He wrote right to left. You could read it if you understood Italian and if you looked at a mirror reflection of the writing showing the writing going the conventional left to right.
My father didn’t use mirror writing. He used a simple solution: print. It is awkward for a left-handed person to write script smoothly from left to right, and Leonardo and my father each developed his own solution. Viewed in this way, it seems unlikely that Leonardo wrote in mirror script to make it hard to read his notes and to hide his ideas as has been commonly proposed.
My father’s suspicion of over-reliance on higher education shows up in one of his favorite stories. A farmer was lamenting to his neighbor about his son going to the university. Somewhat taken aback, his neighbor asked, “Isn’t that good—won’t he be something?” “Maybe,” the farmer replied, “But the trouble is, he’s learning all there is to know, but he don’t realize nothin’.”
To be curious and inventive and to think outside the box of our formal education, we have to constantly strive to maintain our drive for independent reflection and thinking. We must thoroughly understand what we are talking about.
This issue becomes more serious in this age of the Internet and Google. We can log in and instantly generate heaps of data. Do we have the tools and discipline to develop insights from all the data, and do we know the truth when we see it?
In the mid-1950s mother took me around to interview at several New England boarding schools. She was serious about broadening my education. I was doing very well in our local public school, but it was a simplified basic curriculum. Almost all the boys joined the Army before high school graduation and the girls had long since been married. The audiovisual equipment in the schoolhouse was a windup 78 rpm record player. We boys took turns shoveling coal into the school's furnace.
Still, I could visualize settling down locally with a shop like my father’s, only making electronic products instead of machinery. Mother said, “No, you must learn how to write, you must meet people from many places and countries, you must learn behavior that important people will expect of you.”
I had an exceptionally good interview with the headmaster of Moses Brown, a highly selective Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. Their academic standards were very high, they had excellent athletic programs, and their students came from all over the country and abroad. Best of all, they offered me almost a full scholarship in return for some token work like waiting on tables in the boarding students’ dining room. Mother had a small inheritance put away which covered the remaining costs.
Moses Brown would provide my high school education and it is where I would form friendships with classmates who were very important to me in later life. The same thing happened to my father when instead of high school, he went to a private day school near Boston. We will learn more about the consequences for him later in my story.
Whether it’s quality high school or the military, you probably will be forced to learn subjects you didn’t think you needed to know or wanted to learn, and you meet people who become valuable lifetime friends. This is a key growing up phase that both my father and I had in common.
The first year of boarding school was tough because I had to change my study habits for real academic competition. By the second year, tenth grade, I was doing very well and began to think about getting a summer job in an industry where I might eventually work. Fortunately, there were many technology companies of interest nearby.
So while I was home in the summer of 1958 I sat down with my father as he was taking a coffee break at his drawing board. After a silence, while I was searching for words, I said, “I’m thinking I should do something better in the summers than doing odd jobs for neighbors. I’d like to work for an electronics company.”
“I think you’re on the right track,” he said, “but how can I help you?”
“Well, could you give me a recommendation letter to give to potential employers?”
He beamed with his wonderful warm smile which said, “I understand. I know what you’re feeling. Let me help.”
“Help your mother move the sheep, and I’ll work on this.”
He knew I didn’t like pushing the messy, stubborn, and dumb sheep around, but my dad clearly wanted some time alone to write something. He was not a prolific writer, and when he did write, he pecked it out on a clunky typewriter because of his left-handedness problem. The next day, he handed me a letter of introduction. It began:
I sometimes wish that people would be supplied with a card of information such as is provided with oil burners and other mechanical equipment. As I look at the card before me describing my oil burner, it lists the dos and don’ts, as well as the name of the serviceman to call and simple remedial measures that can be taken to correct faults. I am sure I could make out a set of directions for Lawrence Kilham that would be of assistance to anyone for whom or with whom he works. I trust the following will take the place of a set of directions.
Written over 60 years ago, his description of me is still right on target:
Lawrence is basically a theoretical person, more interested in abstract ideas than in the execution of them. If he carries an idea to completion in material form, it is the embodiment of an idea rather than a mechanical marvel. In carrying out an idea he does it in the most economical form and in the shortest time possible. Fortunately, this method is of great value in development work although, unfortunately, his finished work is seldom a pleasure to look upon. If he is required to do a good complete job, he will do so, but continual urging is necessary.
I believe Lawrence will be extremely valuable to the person who can realize what his abilities are and who has the problem to which Lawrence can be applied. I believe electronic circuits to be his major field, and would appreciate anything you can do to give him a steer in the right direction.
Peter Kilham, President
This letter shows that my father recognized that we came from the same mold but as design engineers, we chose separate paths. I preferred studying the relevant theory and then building something practical based on the theory and available resources. His limited education offered him no theory, and he approached design as a craftsman, always improving his art.
Leonardo da Vinci, my father’s greatest hero in art and design, believed that theory and empirical study should both be done in developing a machine or system. This is especially interesting because Leonardo had no formal education in the sciences. My father, however, remained a dedicated cut-and-try empiricist.
Soon he would confront his greatest challenge.
I would never see the farm again. It was like a mesmerizing movie was unexpectedly turned off. Mother and father had rented a 1800s colonial house in the historic College Hill section of Providence near Brown University and my school. They both had friends in Rhode Island including several neighbors. It seemed like they might be starting fresh with a new life together. My younger sister was in college and my older sister was working in town. My brother was institutionalized for his permanent mental disease. We were coming apart as a family unit.
I had completed my senior year in boarding school and had been accepted with a large scholarship at a good engineering college. I was surprised when my father said he would come to my graduation, not my mother, who always dropped me off and picked me up at school. She had gone to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to learn about the estate settlement of her father who lived there and died the month before.
My class of forty young men, all in suitably preppy suits and ties, gathered in the late May sun near rhododendron groves under the majestic spreading elms. Their families and sweethearts were all there with everyone seated on uncomfortable wooden folding chairs. The class valedictorian gave the address, and I received an award for an essay I wrote. My father, dressed in his only dress shirt and a twenty-year-old wool tie, was beaming with pride. He was ill at ease mixing with the parents and students, however, and after the ceremonies were over, he took me to a Chinese restaurant downtown called Luke's. They were open all day and were low cost.
I sensed that even this dinner was a splurge for him. The place was large and inviting. We sat down and split a beer.
I hadn’t followed events at home since I returned to school from Christmas break, so I asked, “What happened to the farm and your business?”
“I sold both of those. The farm sale barely covered our debts.”
The waiter took an order for both of us for a Sea Food Surprise that my father liked. He seemed anxious to tell me about recent events.
“I also sold Curvit,” he said tentatively. “I came to detest the machinery business—it was populated by junk dealers. I built the world’s best metal bending machines.”
He ordered another beer and went on, “I almost sold the company to Draper Corporation in Hopedale, Mass. They are the size of a small town and are world leaders in textile machinery. But they’re too big for Curvit. They’d move it into their plant, use only their workers, and quickly forget how to manufacture my machines.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said, thinking he might be rationalizing losing a large sale.
My father looked around the restaurant, vaguely eying the oriental decorations. He gathered his strength and said, “Unfortunately, practically all of the development in the mechanical field has been done by individuals rather than organizations. As has been said, no great picture was ever painted by a committee, and I believe the same goes for mechanical design.”
He hung his head, avoiding my gaze. I thought he was going to cry.
We finished dinner with few words spoken. I tried to tell my father about recent happenings at school, what my friends were doing, and my plans for college next year. But he wasn’t listening.
My mother returned from Santa Fe. We sat down in the living room with rolls and coffee. She was dressed in a southwest long pleated skirt, a colorful Mexican blouse, and silver and turquoise Indian jewelry. The house, however, so far was almost empty and undecorated. I could see that she wanted both of us to be at ease.
“It’s so sad. Your grandfather had a big estate and Florence, his last wife, got almost everything. My sisters, brother, and I—none of us have money, but that woman’s lawyer outmaneuvered us. I was counting on something substantial so your father and I could get on our feet again. We have some meager savings and I have taken a low-paying job in the library.”
Up to now, I hadn’t been informed about family finances although of course, I knew we were living on the edge.
Mother concluded, “But don’t worry. Focus on your studies. We’ll get you through college somehow.”
My father never was at home. I assumed he was out visiting local industrial companies looking for consulting and development projects. He was unlikely to settle for being a managed employee. Mother seemed to have forgotten about him altogether and consoled herself with the company of me and our dog, Axle.
She tried to get me to forget about family problems by taking me to the beach, walks in the woods, and visits with her friends. I think this was part of her constant concern about broadening my horizons and interests. She tried to give me some perspective about Peter: “Your father is an extraordinarily brilliant and skilled person, but he is hopelessly self-absorbed. Sometimes I think he doesn’t know that I exist.”
I nodded half-heartedly.
She went on, “You should build your life independently of what he does. You should broaden your social skills and meet as many people as possible who can help you as you progress.”
I agreed I would try.
Finally, she emphasized as she always would, “You must keep doing outdoor physical activities like hiking, swimming, and skiing. Avoid just sitting around drinking coffee like your father does.”
My father never was interested in exercise. Although he didn’t discourage me from sports and outdoor activities, he never took me to a ballgame either.
For the rest of the summer, I worked in a lodge of The Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire catering to hikers. It was a job my mother arranged and through it, I saved up badly needed money for college. When I returned home, my father was excited to show me his new workspace as soon as possible.
We drove down a lonely road to the docks in a commercial section of Providence harbor. Ahead loomed a two-story brick building with a sign identifying it as the Providence Steamboat Company, 1 India Street.
“I have prime downstairs space here now,” my father beamed. “They operate four tugboats here. Their operations center is out at the end of the wharf where they can observe the comings and goings. Upstairs is the Jaro Coffee Roasting Company which imports coffee from Tanganyika. I know everyone.”
“Quite a mixed bunch,” I commented.
“Actually the tugboat company and the coffee company are both owned by the Mauran family. A cousin, young William Mauran who grew up in Tanganyika, is managing things here. We became friends and he is helping me start again.”
Free rent, I thought.
My father’s space was a large, dark, long room. He had several elegant hardwood tables which he made in his depression-era contemporary furniture business. An Edison “record” player with its huge brass trumpet horn was in one corner. The records were wax cylinders and he had several from the late 1800s. His faithful percolator coffee pot that accompanied him everywhere was there. He always threw in eggshells to catch wayward coffee grounds. Next to the coffee pot was his drawing board where he made his beautiful mechanical drawings.
Along one wall was a black psychiatrist's couch. It was like a rugged daybed where a patient could relax and tell his story. My father loved this couch for his afternoon naps.
On the walls were some huge Currier & Ives engravings of passenger steamboats on the New England coast and the Hudson River. He had a lifelong love affair with any form of steam power. There were also some artistic photos he took of the seagulls that flapped around the wharf.
My father took me to the tugboat dispatcher’s office where two old salts were sipping coffee. One was constantly talking by radio to the tugs out on jobs and the other old-timer seemed to be there mainly to keep the dispatcher company. After my father proudly introduced me as his electronics genius son, the dispatcher, Capt. Leon Nickerson, said, “We’re going to do a recording. I’m going to tell stories of the bounding main and who knows? Maybe fair lassies, too.”
Everyone was watching for my reaction. I must have looked bewildered while they were looking for approval. Somehow this didn’t fit my image of Peter Kilham, machine designer. Perhaps he was just in a passing phase. When I mentioned the project to my mother, she rolled her eyes and assumed a distant look.
In early September my mother took me to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey to start my first year of college. I told myself I was on track to be a great engineer, and they attracted me with a large scholarship. I returned home for Thanksgiving break to face yet another surprise.
My parents were no longer in the house they rented. My mother was traveling out of state. My sisters were not around. My father met me at the bus station.
“I’ve moved,” he said.
Uh, oh, I thought. Again?
We headed right to Luke’s Chinese restaurant.
“This is your Thanksgiving dinner,” my father said. “Order whatever you please.” He smiled with great satisfaction. He probably repeated this scene several times in his mind before he picked me up. They didn’t have turkey—I understood that the Chinese don’t eat turkey—so I ordered the next best thing, Peking Duck with plum sauce. The horribly sweet wine that came with it was on the house for the holidays. I gobbled down the duck dinner as if I hadn’t eaten all day, which essentially was true.
“Why couldn’t we have Thanksgiving together?” I knew this was an insensitive question, but I had to ask.
“Mother walked out,” he said. “She’s gone out west again to see her family in Santa Fe.”
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s fine. We just ran out of money and I think it’s over.”
My father never spoke of her again.
And then I pressed on. “Where are we going to stay?”
“I have a nice new place to show you,” he said, trying to cheer me up.
After my father paid the bill by carefully counting out one dollar bills, we headed out to his green GMC pickup parked in front of the restaurant. My luggage was still there under the tarp. He drove about a mile to College Hill near the house they rented. We stopped in the parking area of a large brick apartment house. It was about three stories, with white trim and surrounded by lawns.
“I have a room here,” my father said. “Mrs. Parenti, who owns the building, rents me space on the top floor. There’s not much there, but I’ll make you comfortable.”
I was never sure why Mrs. Parenti rented to him at what must have been a pittance. I guessed she liked the intellectual environment of the university community and my father undoubtedly was his charming best. My father was probably rejuvenated by the thought of being a student again embarking on a new life voyage. He was 53.
We rode up in a rickety, clackety elevator and got out on the top floor.
I didn’t know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for this. His apartment was three small rooms that flowed from one to another. The far one, the kitchen, was essentially a campsite. The stove was a green Coleman camping stove with two burners. The sink was a pink rectangular plastic box under a leaking faucet. The tabletop refrigerator only had room for several quarts of milk, bacon, a six pack of beer and a carton of eggs.
As my father watched me take all this in, he said, “I’ll cook you a nice breakfast in the morning.”
“And where do we sleep?” I asked, thinking there might be a bedroom I hadn’t noticed.
“I found a nice cot for you,” he said with a tinge of pride.
It was an Army surplus canvas fold-out cot with a couple of threadbare blankets.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he added.
My father seemed proud of his little nest, so I decided to make the best of it and not complain. For dinner my father prepared fried Spam and warmed-up baked beans. He was more relaxed than in the restaurant, and he popped open cold Narragansett beers for both of us. He relaxed on the squishy couch and launched into his story.
“You know,” he started out, “in life as in the stock market, there must be a bottom somewhere. As I was scraping along it, Alan Bemis called, asking me to join him in telling New Hampshire yarns for a recording.”
I vaguely recalled Bemis as a prep school classmate of my father. Bemis loved antique cars and in the 1930s when my father was in his 20s he designed built a sleek aluminum and plexiglass body for Bemis’ Rolls Royce.
“I said to Bemis, ‘Come here and see my recording studio.’ It was really just the old Edison record machine you saw, but Alan would love to see it. Bemis flew down here in his beloved seaplane, and I had set up crackers, cheese, and Old Fashioned mix in my India Street studio. We had a lot of laughs about the old days and found that together we had dozens of stories that people could enjoy.”
“I wish I had been there,” I said as sort of an approval of the emerging idea.
“Well, by the time all the tugboat and coffee company people had left, we started making notes to start a company.”
“Exciting,” I commented, beginning to get swept up in the drama.
“I dropped Bemis off at a downtown hotel—the Biltmore, naturally—and sneaked back here. The next day I visited my lawyer, John Chafee, to draw up incorporation papers. I was lucky he was there and could talk. He’s in the legislature, you know.”
“I’d like to meet him one of these days,” I said.
“You will. He could be very helpful to you.” My father opened some of his Ritz crackers.
“Chafee said that the company needed starting capital, which I didn’t have,” my father continued, “so I called Bemis. He was having breakfast, but he had a hotel messenger bring over a check.”
We opened more beers to go with the crackers.
“’Under the circumstances, you should make Bemis president,’ Chafee advised, so I I readily agreed. Alan is a much better businessman. The three of us had lunch at Chafee’s club. We named him corporate secretary, and all corporate resolutions were read and approved.”
“’By the way, what are you calling your company?’ Chafee asked.
“’How about Droll Yankees, Inc.?’ I said. After a quick vote, that was settled. Nobody’s quite certain what Droll Yankees means, but everyone’s charmed and intrigued.”
In the frigid late November 1959 morning, my father and I headed down to One India Street. When we entered, I heard the steam radiators making sharp cracking noises as they heated up. My father fired up the coffee pot and fried bacon and eggs and toasted English muffins.
He’s was excited. He wanted to play me the tape of one of his first records, Capt. Nickerson and The Tug Gaspee. I listened in as Capt. Nickerson docked the Norwegian freighter Woodville. The tug crewmen barked back and forth in salty language. In the background I could hear the engine rumbling, buoys clanging, and seagulls cawing.
This will never hit the top of the popularity charts, I thought, but it’s a start. He’s put so much work into this recording. It’s almost perfection. That’s what he seeks.
My attention turned to the recording equipment. The centerpiece was a large old reel-to-reel tape recorder that appeared to be more for consumer use than serious professional work. He probably bought it second-hand at the university from a graduating student. The large wooden hi-fi speaker looked like it might have come from the same place. Tools, notes, and both wooden and corncob pipes were strewn across the table.
The next revelation was on the drawing board. He’s also doing the record jacket! Most of the cover was my father’s photo of the tug Gaspee churning across Narragansett Bay. The rest of the cover was just the title in his exquisitely detailed, hand-done Victorian lettering. The backside of the cover was a sea of his hand-lettered text which he must have taken hours or days to do. But he’s doing what he wants to do! Pulling everything together as a beautiful, unified whole.
My father broke up my reverie. “This isn’t exactly what Alan Bemis had in mind. He wanted old New England story-telling, so we recorded for three other records.”
He handed me a draft of a promotional flyer.
Caused by Rum and the Casket Sinkers – Yankee stories concerning drinking and grave digging
Swearing in the Bushes – Various old Yankee stories and jokes
Stories for Gentlemen – Two country boys swap stories while fishing
These will sink into the Yankee swamps without a trace, was my first reaction. That’s pretty much what happened. Perhaps a majority of the buyers were libraries and other collectors of cultural stories. That’s culturally satisfying but it is unlikely to provide a living.
My father was running into the same dilemma faced by his idols, the Renaissance artists. In the early stage of your career, you need a sponsor or patron, but the patron is bound to have different visions of what subjects should be addressed. This difference of visions and choices for subjects often is not apparent when the partnership begins. The same is true for investors in novel product designs.
Over the next two years, my father produced ten more records with themes ranging from old New England stories to Tyrolean songs heard in the Vermont ski lodges. The best known of his records of that period was A Graduation Address narrated by Francis Colburn, a colorful Vermont raconteur. He parodies a graduation address to a small rural high school in Vermont with such time-worn cliches including, “As you go out on the road of life,” and “Here’s the torch, hold it high.” Unfortunately, my father had to sell the rights to that record to raise capital for his fledgling company, Droll Yankees.
Meanwhile, in 1961 I had moved 2,000 miles west to Boulder, Colorado where I had transferred to the University of Colorado. I returned home two or three times a year by ride-sharing with several other students in someone’s beat-up car. I stayed with mother who still had her house in Providence for a while longer.
I spent most of the time with my father, however. I was twenty-two and he was fifty-eight. We would sit around his shop at One India Street until far into the night catching up on each other’s doings. I would help him with the engineering of his electronic sound systems.
If he received a lot of payments and they were cashed at the bank, we would go to the comfortable surroundings of Luke’s. On the way, we would stop at the main facility of the Providence post office which was near Luke’s. The people who worked there on the evening mail sorting shift took a liking to this struggling records artist who always had nice words for them. The post office was closed of course, but the routine was my father would go around back to the mail trucks loading platforms, and there he would hand over the day’s shipments of records.
Peter Kilham was living on the edge, but he seemed to be happy. He couldn’t go on forever living like this, however. Alan Bemis wasn’t inclined to put more money into the business, so without capital to invest in major new business ideas, my father had to think of a new direction for the record business.
In early 1962 when I returned home, my father could hardly contain himself. We didn’t even stop for the customary dinner at Luke's. We went directly to One India Street. He sat me down with a cup of coffee and a donut and gestured at equipment on his production table.
“I spent everything,” he said, his eyes twinkling with pride. “I’m down to my last dime”—one of his favorite expressions.
It took me a minute to realize to see what he spent his money on. Then, there it was! A shiny professional tape recorder. The case was anodized aluminum with machined aluminum controls. The design was clearly for professionals who need perfect recordings in any environment.
“This is the Nagra machine, crafted in Switzerland, used by all the Hollywood movie producers to record sound on set or in the field,” my father said proudly, not daring to mention the price. “It records frequencies above and below the human range and has many features for editing and for synchronizing with other equipment. It has a built-in battery power supply and weighs about fourteen pounds.”
There’s no way my father could have afforded the Nagra recorder on his own. Alan Bemis must have financed it.
And there was more. A slim black cable led from the Nagra to a long black tubular thing that must be a microphone. My father noticed my interest. “That’s a high fidelity microphone which has a sharp focus at a distance. You could record one person talking in a crowd. It’s made in Germany by Sennheiser. I will use it for recording sounds of nature.”
My father was fixated on quality. He was fond of saying that Americans couldn’t make quality cars anymore. This was when Ralph Nader had captured the public’s attention by proclaiming that American cars were “unsafe at any speed.” So he decided to avoid hassles with American electronic equipment and go with quality products from the Old World.
But he wasn’t being anti-American. He was being pro-Peter Kilham. He was investing in a new phase of his record business where all aspects of the product had to be perfect. After all, his program source, nature, was perfect and he wouldn’t be satisfied unless he portrayed nature’s sounds with perfection. In his mind, profits would naturally follow.
The purpose of the equipment began to sink in. “Recording sounds of nature?” I asked tentatively. I didn’t sense the business opportunity.
Nevertheless, I thought this would be a good time to donate my oscilloscope to the project. This monitoring instrument displays an image similar to an EKG. With a TV-like round screen about four inches in diameter, you could see the audio signals as waves. A violin could produce a pure bright green sinusoidal wave on a gray screen. You could determine the violin’s pitch or frequency. A noisy tone or several combined tones could produce a jumble of traces, often “grassy” and jittery, on the scope’s screen.The instrument itself was about eight inches wide, ten inches high, and twelve inches deep.
The scope would be very useful in analyzing bird songs on the tape and adjusting the compensating circuits for the best fidelity. A good new scope would cost more than the Nagra recorder. This one I bought second-hand some years ago for my now inactive ham radio station. It worked perfectly.
When we brought in the scope the next day, my father immediately saw its benefit, even though he also realized that with its ten controls, it would take days to fully understand and master. I was happy that I could finally make an electronic engineering contribution.
Naturally very curious and experimental, my father immediately started adjusting the scope and was excited about this new tool. After a while, he relaxed with a freshly perked cup of coffee and said, “I guess it’s time to show you what I’ve done so far.”
I put on headphones and was transported to the rocky New England shore. I heard the surf washing up and down on the sand and crashing on the rocks. I heard the gulls clamoring over food and I heard whistles and bells in the fog. I was fascinated by the sound of the triple expansion steam engine as a ship headed out to sea. The fidelity was perfect. I was listening to the yet not fully edited tape of what would become Droll Yankees’ first classic record, Sounds of the Sea. With Peter’s quest for perfection, he would edit and re-edit the tape and agonize over the record jacket artwork for months. It was issued late in 1962.
He said to me the next morning, “Come along while I do some recording of nature.” We went in his recently acquired International Harvester Scout. Introduced in 1961, this was the first American SUV and was designed to compete against the popular American army jeep and the Land Rover. It was rugged, uncomfortable (it didn’t seem to have springs or shock absorbers), and an interior as noisy as a tank. On the plus side, it was indestructible, had four-wheel drive and could go anywhere in the great outdoors.
After about ten miles, we took a gravel road to the bay’s shore. We arrived at a beach and turned around. My father lowered the tailgate where we sat while he put the tape recorder in his lap and pointed the microphone towards the gentle waves. All was fairly quiet until a motorboat sped by, turning away from the beach when it was in front of us. A sandpiper and mate scurried by on the wet sand, poking their long bills in the sand to snatch tiny morsels.
My father hadn’t recorded much of interest, and I could now appreciate why he would have to spend hours in the field to get usable material. On the way back, he said, “Let’s stop in the town forest. Maybe there are some good sounds there.” We drove in on a muddy road and stopped in an evergreen grove. “Shhh,” he cautioned, “let’s see if we can hear some birds.” After what seemed forever, some songs burst forth which my father identified as song sparrows and a wood thrush. They recorded well although there was traffic noise on a busy street about a half mile away.
“I’m hungry,” I said, which was my favorite way to get him to move on. We drove to a neighborhood lunch place and settled into a booth.
“Cheeseburger and cabinet?” the waitress asked.
“Yes, chocolate,” I answered. A cabinet is what a milkshake is called in Rhode Island. My father had the same, but a plain hamburger well-done.
After a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee, my father felt stimulated to share his new vision.
“You know, I grew up summers in the woods and fields of Tamworth, New Hampshire, so I have a natural appreciation of nature. Our whole family loved nature. My brother Lawrence is a bird watcher when he’s not doing his medical research. I guess he qualifies as a professional ornithologist (later he published two scholarly books about birds and two books about bird watching).
“Well, then you combine that with my interest in the fine arts—particularly the Renaissance—and I realized that I can paint the best pictures of nature’s sounds. Like Leonardo, I seek perfection in my portrayal of natural beauty.”
“Won’t that take years?” I asked.
“Perhaps it will,” my father said, lighting his pipe again, “but with this recording equipment, and oceans and forests and meadows all around, and friends like Alan Bemis and John Chafee, shouldn’t I seize this opportunity?”
“Of course,” I felt obliged to say, although I couldn’t help recalling his self-assessment back on the farm as having no aptitude for business.
I returned to the University of Colorado for my senior year. I was doing well in electrical engineering and physics. During the summer I worked at the radio telescope whose giant antennas monitored galaxies for interesting signals. During the school year, I taught electronics lab to physics students.
I was feeling, however, that I should combine business with my engineering studies, perhaps in reaction to my father’s business frustrations. High-tech companies like Xerox and IBM were booming and semiconductors were beginning to revolutionize the electronics industry. The age of computers was beginning. I wanted a top-level part of it.
I took courses in economics, accounting, and marketing in addition to science and engineering. I decided to shoot for the moon and apply to MIT for graduate school. They encourage study in a variety of areas, so I applied to the school of management with the intent of studying advanced engineering as well. My grades weren’t stellar, but I had an excellent letter of recommendation from my Colorado professor of economics.
Early in the spring of 1963, I informed my father that I should go to MIT to interview and hopefully get accepted for the fall semester. He said this was great news and he would drive me to Cambridge, Mass. His friend Alan Bemis, among his many other interests, was director of MIT’s Weather Radar Research Project. This was the beginning of the technology that TV stations use to illustrate their evening weather forecast. Bemis said he would be happy to meet me and see how he could help.
When we arrived at Bemis’ office, he welcomed us but apologized for not being able to give us a tour of his facilities. He called Paul Samuelson, an MIT professor of economics, to arrange an appointment with me. Samuelson later received a Nobel prize and I took his advanced course. As an aside, I should say to those applying to colleges and other institutions, find faculty and researchers there who will recommend you and introduce you to their colleagues. This is at least half the battle won.
As my father and Bemis were talking about the old days, I started looking out of the window to a flat roof below where I noticed a radar dish antenna. Bong! My bell was rung. That would be the perfect audio reflector for my father’s microphone.
Its effect would be to focus only on distant sounds from a very small area and virtually exclude all other sounds. The result is to greatly amplify the desired sound. You could focus on one bird singing in the forest.
This dish was about three feet in diameter, and several old cables dangled from it. As our conversation with Bemis seemed to be ending, and my father nudged me to indicate that it was time to leave, I popped the question: “Mr. Bemis, do you need that antenna out on the lower roof any more?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Why? Do you have a use for it?”
“Yes,” I said, “or I should say my father could use it as a microphone reflector for bird songs.”
“Well, Peter, of course you can have it.” He answered. “We’re not using it anymore and the Air Force will never miss it,” he said with a wink. “I’ll have it boxed up and shipped to you at One India Street.”
Alan Bemis had been a big help to both of us and continued to be my father’s best friend. Over the years I heard a lot more about him, but I never saw him again. I was accepted by MIT and received my master’s in management three years later.
I don’t think my father initially grasped the importance of this radar antenna for his project but he would soon learn. It was made of aluminum and was light and easily portable. He could carry it and his tape recorder in his Scout four-wheel drive and have an outstanding day of recording. He was ready to launch Droll Yankees sounds of nature.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.