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.
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.