By George Templeton
The mystic symbolism of the book of Daniel describes King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. Then and now, as revealed in Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, the power of the dream lies not in superstition or divine prescience, but in us. My dreams came out of placid decade culture and congealed during the age of anxiety. A great America once had and now needs a dream. It is as Rudyard Kipling wrote: “Now this is the Law of the Jungle as old and as true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper girdles the tree trunk the Law runneth forward and back. For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
I was born in the midst of WWII while my father fought in Italy. It was a time before antibiotics that might have saved my mother. She died at birth, leaving my care to my grandparents. Combined, our lives would span 1875 to the present. So, my upbringing, my values and my roots went back to a time before electricity, cars, airplanes, radio, nuclear bombs, and world wars.
My grandfather served in the Philippines in the Spanish American War as a military policeman. When he got out he worked as a railroad detective. My grandparents came to Arizona in 1902 while my grandfather interviewed with the Texas Rangers, but my grandmother did not like the Wild West of those days.
Grandmother was only five foot two, but ruled the household with an iron hand, having grown up in a law enforcement family with six male siblings. She told stories of cooking meals for criminals my grandfather had apprehended and brought to their home in handcuffs and stories of crooks pounding on the door in the middle of the night, pleading with my grandfather to protect them from the mob.
My grandmother was deeply religious. She never gossiped about others even when they had earned it. Compare that with the Fox News ladies who called Hillary Clinton “evil” and a “murderer”.
My grandmother’s health was the motivation that finally led us to Arizona in 1948. Those were the days before television and refrigeration. The ice man delivered blocks of ice to keep our food from spoiling. We slept outside in the summers. Indians tethered their horse and buckboard at the grocery store when they came off the reservation to go shopping.
I walked to and from school. My path took me past homes with high, cool ceilings and porches where people sat hoping to encounter a neighbor they could associate with. I stopped and talked whenever I saw them. I visited with the old folks in the nursing home with the talking parrot. I would go through town, stopping at the newsstand to get a comic book or candy bar, and visited the drug stores where my grandparents’ adult friends worked.
I discovered everything in the third grade. It was facilitated by a teacher whom I suspect did not adhere strictly to the lesson plan. We spent recess collecting insects. She left her college books in the classroom. Much of my spare time was spent reading her textbooks, dreaming in curious fascination about bugs, plants, rocks, and science.
Paperback books and science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still were not allowed for me, but the newspaper was filled with stories about flying saucers that my fancy devoured. Comic strips featured Flash Gordon. My ambition was to be part of that dream.
My first electrical experiment was to attempt making an electromagnet. It did not work because I used bare copper wire bought at the local hardware store. In our town, there was a nearby motor rewinding shop. The men who worked there seemed to appreciate the interest of a nosey kid. They provided free enamel insulated magnet wire that solved that problem.
It was not long until I discovered fascinating things discarded in the town alleys for the garbage man. My favorite stuff included vacuum tubes, automobile voltage regulators, spark plugs, and discarded car parts. I used these along with cardboard boxes from the grocery store to make toy spaceships.
I was a bored grade school kid who completed assignments ahead of time. I was allowed to read the encyclopedia set that my teacher kept. I decided I would try to make gunpowder according to the recipe given in it. The required chemicals were on the shelf at the local drugstore.
My best friend financed our experiments. I had an old baton with one end plugged and welded shut. It looked like a gun barrel. We drilled a small hole at the plugged end, and made a gun. Pressure, volume, temperature, and burning rate were not part of our studies, so my friend insisted that we fill the whole thing with gunpowder.
We had a 150 foot deep dirt yard with a gazebo. My friend and I decided we would prop our gun between a wooden wheelbarrow and stepladder. We lit the fuse and ran behind the gazebo.
There was a huge blast that shook everything. That was followed by echoes across town, kaboom, kaboom, kaboom, rumble, silence, and then the sound of debris falling on the neighbors’ roofs. A huge cloud of smoke making it impossible to hide rose. As I watched, my friend ran out trying to fan it away with his coat, to no avail. The wheelbarrow and ladder had ceased to exist and there was a large circle on the ground where the blast had picked up loose rock propelling it skyward. We got in trouble on that one, but deep inside we knew that our experiment was a success.
Misbehavior was a prerequisite for acceptance in junior high culture. My cohorts had discovered that radio B batteries could be used to administer a painful shock to the unsuspecting. My solution used a small capacitor that would take ten times its rated voltage. Teachers would exclaim, "Who set off the bomb?" when I discharged it against the metal blackboard rail while no one was looking.
Manhood is an important thing to junior high students. I devised an electric device to measure that. It consisted of a pulsed transformer and a voltage divider connected along brass contacts on a box. To measure manliness, one grasped a pair of brazing rods tightly, and climbed as high as they could stand along the divider. Without great effort, the device would throw you off the board.
Shop class helped me to build a noisy spark-gap Tesla coil and a Van de Graff generator. The coil would set fire to paper and light a fluorescent bulb with a spark that flowed through one’s body. The generator’s discharge was a foot or two depending on humidity and the electrodes used. I could not persuade my distrustful classmates to participate.
My shocking junior high experiences would eventually lead to managing an industrial laboratory jokingly called the department of arcs and sparks. Besides customer projects, we tested lightening arrestor components. Some of the apparatus I designed and built pulsed thousands of volts and amperes simultaneously.
High School and College
My grandmother had an eighth grade education. My grandfather stopped at the fourth grade. Perhaps this was the reason they believed in education. They could foresee that they would not be around to help me with my dream.
The curriculum in our high school included band and orchestra, full periods in accelerated physics, chemistry, biology, English, calculus, electronics, civics, history, and even released time Bible school. More than one half of our students intended to go on to study engineering. The 1957 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracey movie, Desk Set, informed us about the coming computerized world. Portable radios were a sign that everyone would convert from vacuum tubes to transistors. We didn’t realize that duck and cover would not be an adequate deterrent for nuclear war. I didn’t realize that what “God said” was revealed in the laws of physics.
Mutual Assured Destruction, the power of fear and the nightmare of mass extinction, made the lives of the two kids who played with gunpowder. We didn’t invent the solid state revolution or madness, but by participating we helped to create them and they created us. My friend tracked MIRV’s (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) while I played a small role in the transistors that would steer them. They were part of unseen and unappreciated government projects greater than all of the world’s seven wonders combined. The dream that could not be seen was ultimately microscopic. It used new science, and required new technology. It continues to change the world even though, at its root, it is uncertain and incompletely understood.
In the mid-seventies, project managers, commissioned to move jobs overseas, met in a room. The discussion turned to a unanimous conviction that we had seen the peak of America’s greatness. America would not become a super-industrialized nation making products for the rest of the world as we had dreamed. The world would make things for us and do it more cheaply.
I visited two huge factories in Korea employing near 500,000 employees each. They were bigger than many towns. Their skyscrapers receded into the far away distance. A car was needed to travel inside their fenced plant. A third in China did not exist in my day. Added up, it is at least 1.5 million manufacturing jobs that would have been in America had the world not changed.
Dreams are more than winning until you are sick of it. The Donald Trump nightmare punishes foreign countries for accepting the jobs that we gave to them. When he offers to bring the jobs back, what does he mean? Can we still remember those high tech jobs or will we have to ask foreigners to train us as we did them?
Technology is the connection between the present and the possible. Science does not seem to be a holy place, but the war on science is a war on the spirituality in which dreams emerge. Our individual but different dreams are equally transcendent. They can be broad, yet not constrained by groupthink. Truth is beyond facts. It is only when facts are assembled that a dream emerges.
What will be the meaning and purpose of America? Will we be trapped between an imagined yesterday and an open but uncertain future? Why will we create new jobs and for what internal values? Is it for nostalgia, the good of humanity, or just profit and survival? Will our jobs help us to understand who we are and what we will be? We must remember Rudyard Kipling’s admonition. We belong to the world but are separate. The answer is in the dream that is more spirit than mind.