My earliest memories of life place me in a small radish patch in the sleepy Florida Panhandle around 1959. This, I recall, was a problem as the radish patch was off limits to me. I can remember the ever-present threat of a "switching" using the reeds that lived near our house, but never the actual event. My on-going love of my home state must trace its unconscious roots in a childhood of Florida pines, Spanish moss, fish fries near Apalachicola and life in a South that just barely lives into the Twenty-first Century. I have travelled and lived all over the world, but only the air of sultry Florida August afternoon smells of "home".
My earliest recollections of intellectual life place me at the dinner table far away on the Italian Riviera. My mother, within her the easy blend of four civilizations, was now enjoying the naive optimism of the Kennedy Era of the United States. Born in Japan, she was raised in her home in Kobe, English boarding schools and, finally, a German music conservatory. With ease only allowed to the pagan religions, she blended her mother’s Shinto and Buddhist roots with the Christianity of Luther, and, likewise, blended the best of the cultures and countries in which she lived. As the last step in her cultural life, she came to believe that American optimism in the unlimited elevation of peoples and cultures that accepted the notions of Democracy, Capitalism and science for humanity. This was all before 1968.
Facing her, my stepfather, an Italian architect still living in the Nineteenth Century, an actual, unapologetic Fascist and Italian nationalist, presented another world view. He was still fighting the Punic Wars, was galled by the pre-eminence of the United States and democracy and was a devout, militant, Roman Catholic. Generous, caring, chivalrous, he was still the product of his Old World moneyed heritage. He taught me that the people and thoughts we in America tend to vilify and demonize were, in the end, humans and the products of human thoughts and histories. I live today dealing with the visceral negative reaction to the subject of his nationalism, ultimately learning that there are limits everyone’s ability step beyond the roots from which they were created
I grew up watching Nineteenth Century Catholicism meet Paganism, European Imperialism meet American political and economic expansionism, Vivaldi meet Wagner, a scientific education in architecture meet training as a concert pianist over the dinner table. That interchange laid the foundation of my intellect. It colors my view of all my life's experiences.
Loss in Woodville
My father, a pilot, died when I was too young to remember him in an aviation accident. My war-bride mother remarried Thomas Vause. We lived in a small town outside of Tallahassee. It was the traditional southern home, white painted wood, tin roof, with a porch encompassing two sides facing the roads. The Vause clan would spend afternoons on those porches watching Woodville, if not the world go by. The cool sand underside the porch was forbidden to my explorations, so I rarely went. I am pretty sure I was switched at least once for trespassing there.
I had a dog named Lassie, unimaginatively named by his four year old owner. Lassie chased cars along the dirt road on the side of our house. One day, while the Vauses sat on the porch, he took off after a farm tractor. In my irritation, I yelled at him that I hoped he'd get hit. He was. My last image of him was lying on the side of the dirt road, blood trickling from his mouth.
I scrambled sobbing under the porch hiding my horror at what had happened and shame of my words that had preceded Lassie's death. The Vauses buried Lassie.
Forty years ago, I entered the trattoria across the road from our apartment on my daily errand to bring home wine for lunch and dinner in our quiet Italian town by the sea. My step father was an architect in semi-retirement with a home office. Mom schooled me at home to maintain my English language skills. I needed no prompting with my Italian. In my free time, I was half Italian street urchin, indistinguishable from my Italian chums. Our up-scale apartment overlooked the beautiful formal Italian park that exists to this day as an ornament to the town of Chiavari.
I liked my trips to the trattoria. Populated with rough-hewn Italian laborers, ship wrights and farmers, it was a popular mid-day lunch spot. Crime being non-existent, there was never any concern for my safety as I pursued my errand to purchase wine from the vineyards on the hills surrounding Chiavari. By local standards, we were wealthy. But my fellow patrons were hard working men of the local community. To them, I must have been an Italo-American curiosity, probably noted because of his pretty American mom. Each trip I made to the trattoria was rewarded by some treat from the delicatessen as I waited for my parents' wine.
The trattoria owner was a kind, fat, sweaty Italian who was friends with my parents and smelled of salami. His inn assaulted my nostrils with odors of spilled wine, wooden casks, cork, earth, and cooking. We paid him at the end of each month, for a month's supply of wine which I retrieved daily. Today, he had a stunned, saddened look on his face. In Italian, he told me someone had just killed Bobby Kennedy.
Far away America was involved in a quagmire war. The U.S. president was very unpopular in Italy as in all of Europe. Yet, my Italian hosts distinguished between mis-guided American foreign policy and the little American boy running an errand. Bobby Kennedy was very popular in Italy and in Europe.
While I had the nationalism of a 12 year old who knows no better, Bobby's radiant optimism, eloquence, and message that the U.S. could be a better nation was not lost on me. On the Italian news, I saw him speak and was grateful for the few times I could hear American English. While I was intellectually naive, his manner, eloquence, and positive message resonated with me. I remembered JFK. Despite having been only 6 in November, 1960, I had grilled mom on who she had voted for in the presidential election. As with John before him, I was 'for' Bobby. I went running home to deliver the message in sadness. John and Bobby are gone.
Now, once again, I am in the thrall of another idealistic visionary. As in 1968, America's moral authority in the world is in rapid decline. We are in another quagmire that is, as before, bankrupting us and destroying any chance we have to invest in improving our own country. We have another visionary who is telling us that we can be better than what we are.
While I was delighted when Clinton declared candidacy at the prospect of another eight years, the radiant optimism, eloquence, and message of a better America is not lost on me.
I am 'for' Obama.
I first arrived in Gainesville on a Greyhound bus after an over night trip from Coral Gables. We pulled into the station next to an “All-America City”. My girlfriend began to weep. It was 1973. We had arrived for freshman honors orientation at the University of Florida.
The University of Florida campus was a universe of intellectual exploration in an impossibly beautiful natural setting. At orientation, we took the first steps to independence from our parents, intellectual independence, and personal independence. Gainesville became my hometown.
Gainesville played a role in my life for just over three years at that stage of my life. Looking back through 35 years, it is difficult to remember the boy I was at 18. I came to the University of Florida with the ambition to step into the traditions of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Arnold Toynbee. Florida would give me the educational foundation to produce a general socio-economic-psychological model to explain the pattern and development of history. I accepted that it would take a lifetime to produce. My undergraduate education was to be the beginning of a long journey.
My first major was philosophy. In additions to my studies, I was reading the works of Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Timbergen, the great animal ethologists. My studies brought me to the realization that human behavioral evolution must have an influence in understanding ethics. I switched my major to zoology. Animal behavior led to ethology and genetics. My pursuit of an understanding of human history let me to genetics and biochemistry.
I was a student of zoology and philosophy, combining both into an analytic, scientific, but holistic world view. In those years, I learned to reduce concepts to their atomic parts, but could only understand them within their context. I was an extension of my boyhood in those years. It was the end of youth.
I was in Gainesville for just over three years. During these years, I learned that professional philosophy was mostly argumentative one-upsmanship at conferences and in papers. Working in a lab at the UF Department of Zoology, I learned that most top ranked scientific research is about the egos of the scientists doing the research. I was influenced by having just read “The Double Helix”.
In 1975, my parents moved back to Europe. My relationship with my fiancee ended. Philosophy and science were intellectual ego games rather than search for knowledge. I felt completely alone in the world. My youth was spent.
Life is the cumulative sum of one's life. Sometimes, we can walk away from that sum. In the summer of 1976, I walked away from everything I was. Persona, friends, life, they were all gone. In retrospect, I regret some of the contacts I lost. But life marches on. It can never be retrieved.
I came back to Gainesville a changed man. The Marines mixed with the Stoa and Nietzsche making me physical and admittedly harder. I had two mouths to feed, my wife and my daughter. I had seen in a recent Time magazine a starting salary ranking. Perennially on top were chemical electrical engineering. Computer science followed. My studies in zoology had aged and the desire for a higher starting salary induced me to attempt to change my major.
The bureaucrats in the administration at the College of Arts and Sciences could not understand that a student might want to change his major after being gone six years. The dean of the Department of Computer Sciences himself rejected my application for admission on the grounds that it was against college policy to allow seniors to change majors.
I felt completely backed into a corner. My wife and I had originally planned for me to attend North Carolina State University, since I had been stationed in North Carolina. I had even taken some preliminary work at one of the local community colleges. But I knew Gainesville. It was my genesis. So, I returned home.
Nothing in my past predisposed me for Electrical Engineering. I went to the admissions office and talked to the lady running undergraduate admissions. I wish I remembered her name. She oversaw admissions and played mentor to the undergraduate EE students. Looking up at me and smiling, she told me that Arts and Sciences policies did not apply in the School of Engineering. If I met the entrance requirements and provided her with my record, EE would admit me. She counseled me with a smile not to tell the UF Registrar why I was requesting a copy of my transcripts.
To gain admittance, I needed the two semesters of freshman physics using calculus and three semesters of calculus itself. The requisite cumulative grade average was 3.5. I enjoyed physics, but found it challenging. My mathematics, while adequate for zoology, never intimated the grades I needed in calculus and differential equations needed for admission.
The story of my academic journey to admission is for another time. My observations of how the UF student body went from Kerouac and Hesse to Reagan-Era Cars and Prince is also for another time.
Electrical engineering was the most challenging and satisfying course of study I have ever undertaken.
I was preoccupied by raising a daughter, being an engineering student, and maintaining my fitness during my second visit in Gainesville. We bought a beautiful home. We hoped that I would graduate, get a job, and spend our lives in that little oasis of knowledge in northern Florida. This was not to be.
I left UF as with a BSEE and a job at IBM.
In 1996, I returned to Gainesville with an 18 year old daughter searching for a university to attend. She had childhood memories of Gainesville before her struggle with culture shock to adjust to the materialism and conspicuous consumption of Montgomery County, Maryland. After the homecoming parade and football game, there was no talking her into going anywhere else.
My third time in Gainesville involved being preoccupied with shepherding a daughter through college. As I had before, she began in zoology and ended up with degrees in electrical and computer engineering. In the late 1990's, UF, flush with money, was changing rapidly. It was a backdrop to the more mercenary need to help our daughter succeed. Succeed she did, and she left with a BSEE/CE and a civilian job with the Navy.
I have entered my fourth phase at the University of Florida. Gainesville has changed so much that my affinity for it has greatly diminished. I ran around Lake Alice from the Holiday Inn, University Center, twice. In 1973 or 1976, even in 1996, running the far side of Lake Alice could bring mental images of running a desolate savanna or tropical prairie. There is no chance of that now, as one runs past the baseball diamond and the meditation center, despite its exquisite architecture.
Gainesville has become a place that entertains me and allows me to appreciate how far I have come in terms of material wealth. It retains a hint of nostalgia for the hyper-idealistic youth I was when I arrived at 18 and so deliberately killed off when I left at 21. After a lifetime, it is starting to mean less to me. The Gainesville of 1975, like the youth trying to find his place in life who loved it, are both gone.