As Houston conventiongoers crowded around one of his inventions, my dad was in his element.
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MY FATHER CAME INTO THIS WORLD A FULLY formed engineer, born with a slide rule in one hand and a tape measure in the other. Bluntly put, he is a nerd.
Until recently, Dad wore the nerd uniform: horn-rimmed glasses and short-sleeved dress shirts in white or off-white. Lately, however—perhaps afraid that he was becoming a parody of nerdiness—he’s branched out to wire-rimmed glasses and subtle plaid shirts. But for this vintage nerd, function always trumps fashion. He cuts his own hair—and it looks like it. Much to my stylish mother’s mortification, he still uses the Naugahyde suitcase he received when he graduated from high school in 1945, even though the clasps broke back in the seventies; he’d been roping it shut until a year ago, when he retrofitted it with a couple of old belt buckles. He doesn’t sport a pocket protector in his shirt pocket; instead, he uses an old eyeglass case he’s customized for the same purpose.
He’d rather tinker than breathe. Take the insulated plastic mug someone gave him last Christmas. The design bothered him, so he stuck the mug on the lathe at work and machined the handle off and modified the rim so it fit his lower lip better. Always mindful that something in this poorly engineered world might require a little adjustment, this man keeps four rolls of duct tape in his pickup. Still, the benefits of having a nerd for a father far outweigh the social drawbacks. While other kindergartners took birds’ nests to show-and-tell, I wowed my classmates with a Dynatrol, a device my dad invented that measures the viscosity and density of fluids from ketchup to gasoline via a vibrating paddle. And when at age six I proved too uncoordinated to ride a bike, he built me the coolest electric car.
My father, now 74 years old, still commutes 120 miles round-trip from his home outside Brenham to the Houston-based business he and his partner started in the fifties. (He loves the drive because “there’s trouble waiting on both ends.”) Last year, bucking their long-standing suspicion of trade shows, the partners decided to get the company a booth at the 2001 Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Conference and Exhibition at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Dad was agog at the exhibitors that would be there—NASA, Microsoft, Rockwell, Emerson Process Management (formerly Fisher-Rosemount), and hundreds more. He thought the convention would make a great story for Texas Monthly. “It will be ground zero for nerds,” he said.
On the first day of the show, I followed a herd of nerds into the mammoth convention center, which had been transformed into a widget-filled playground that both Einstein and Disney would have loved. While nerds disguised in business suits solemnly discussed harmonic mitigation at one booth, a fabulous Rube Goldberg contraption nearby moved Ping-Pong balls around to illustrate a company’s ability to “interface.” At a motormaker’s exhibit a few aisles away, I was mesmerized by two shining gears that spun at zillions of revolutions a minute, performing a synchronized ballet of mind-boggling precision. And in the midst of all this high-tech wizardry (not to mention Vanna White wannabes serving up complimentary cappuccino), a steady crush of conventiongoers crowded around Dad’s comparatively low-tech booth, fascinated by his prototype for the Interrogator, a deceptively simple instrument for measuring the level of solids—from chicken feathers to chicken feed—in a closed container. It was a day when technology was beautiful to behold and no problem seemed beyond solution.
That was September 10.
The next morning most of downtown Houston was evacuated, but the show went on. I wandered around the convention center as dazed as everyone else. Then I began to feel strangely comforted there among the nerds, those poster children for incurable optimism. For who but the most die-hard optimist could have ever dreamed that horseless carriages, men on the moon, and the Internet were possible? And who but nerds, nerds like my dad, will dare to dream of a way to make us safe again?