When I brought my father home from the hospital the last time, three and a half months after a fall, a missed diagnosis, and ignorant treatment left him a paraplegic, and left him only a week away from the infection caused by overuse of antibiotics to solve a non-existent problem, there was one thing he was clear that he wanted.
It was time to go through his technical writing again, to assemble another paper on special situations in jet engine dynamics, to be thrown up against the experts in the field who had long since decided he was a crackpot and no more from him would be allowed.
At 87 years old, long after most had given up the technical fight for golf or leisure, my Aspergers father wanted to make sure he could work on his technical papers again.
By this point, I was the only one who was engaging him, editing, arguing, challenging, clarifying and just giving him the counter force he needed to keep thinking, thinking, thinking about the experiences of a rich and idiosyncratic life in design engineering.
This ferocity, his inability to take “yes” for an answer was one of his defining characteristics. The other was his unconditional love, always coupled with an inability to understand emotion and nuance, that lead him to give and to serve, often without helping.
To his dying day, my father still wanted to be up against that coal face, smashing away at the wall of complacency that experts who never really tended a machine put up. He wanted to fight the academics who believed in their simplified computer models, never understanding how exceptional and quirky real systems can be in operation. One of his treasures was a copy of an 1854 article by Rankine on shaft vibration, an article misread by experts after his death, and then blamed for their own mistakes. Such a battle.
Writing into the void, challenging texts that seek to get to a deeper understanding of the eccentricity of the real world, where forces cannot easily be simplified, even as experts dismiss your work as that of a kook, well, seeing that means I see myself as my father’s child.
I slog against the same kind of coal face, my computer just feet away of where he did his work, set up so I can peek past my monitor to see how he is doing, where he needs assistance. The Avro Arrow soars when I look up as it never did in life, the engines he helped design burning only on paper.
The isolation and the persistence, the dogged work to explain, never giving up, well, it’s just a powerful family tradition, even if it is not one that was ever valued much outside this basement.
On Father’s Day 2000, 14 years ago, I gave him a website just to help him get his papers onto the internet. I was there, all the time. I’m not the first in my family to sit in this basement, railing away on the internet like a crackpot, but I suspect I will be the last.
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
— Calvin Coolidge
“Why God, why do you keep afflicting me?” I asked.
Her answer was simple.
“Do you have any idea how stubborn you are?”
I do know how stubborn my parents were, do know how they taught me the behaviours and choices of Aspergers, the best that they had to give. I got unbounded curiosity from my mother, stubborn thought from my father.
I have known many people who cared for me who wanted to know when, when, I would stop being persistent and stubborn, would just move on rather than pounding at the same damn coal face all my life.
I am awfully proud of my father the crackpot. He knew what he believed to be right and kept toiling away, trying to get that knowledge into the world.
That’s a family tradition that I valued.