Dad with me, probably 1945, Long Branch, N.J.
On Father’s Day I’m recalling a few more stories about my dad, Nathan Daniel. They’re mostly “short takes,” so I’m presenting them in bullet form.
- One day, when I was about eight, Dad brought home a chunk of dry ice, something I’d never seen or heard of till then. He explained that it was frozen carbon dioxide, much colder than frozen water, and cautioned me not to touch it because even though it was cold it would “burn” my fingers. He then wowed me by dropping it into the toilet. Of course, the much warmer water caused it to bubble vigorously — boil — releasing gas (distinctively smoky-white when cold) which, heavier than air, soon filled the bowl and spilled over the rim, cascading onto the floor. A memorable “science lesson” for a small boy!
Mom & Dad, 1940s
- This was not my first science lesson from Dad. That happened even a little earlier when he gave me a pretty big magnet and showed me the “magic” of magnetism by holding it under a table and sliding a handful of paper clips across the table top by moving the magnet underneath.
- Then, when I was in the second grade (age seven, 1951), he brought home a phonograph record with a story about space travel. The only things I specifically remember about the information he gave me, to complement what I was learning from the record, was the distance from Earth to the sun (93 million miles), moon (a quarter of a million miles) and the next-closest star, Alpha Centauri (four light years, a concept he also explained, or about six trillion — six million million, 6,000,000,000,000 – miles). I remember then also giving, a few days later, what we’d today call a brief “show-and-tell” presentation to my class about all those “astronomical” distances.
Nat & Mollie, 1940s
- When I was in seventh or eighth grade, Dad also bought me a hand-held telescope, small, but powerful enough to magnify things 40 times. This was shortly before a lunar eclipse, and my mom then threw an “eclipse party” for me and my friends. Yes, we played spin-the-bottle and danced the jitterbug, but we also took turns going outside to watch the eclipse through the telescope.
Test-driving my tricycle
- Dad certainly appreciated science, but he was also aware of its limits in everyday situations. As aging took its toll on his health, he’d see doctors more frequently. When they told him something he agreed with, he’d say, “The guy’s a genius.” But he’d cast a skeptical eye on advice he didn’t like. “What does he know?” he’d grumble. “Medicine is not an exact science!”
Photographic evidence of Dad’s sense of humor — standing on a balcony in the early 1940s mocking Hitler and Mussolini. He may have been inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal of The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. Or by Mussolini himself, who loved to harangue crowds from a balcony.
- Dad had a great sense of humor. One of the many, sometimes offbeat, ways this manifested itself was in something he’d often tease me about when I was small. When Mom served roast chicken for dinner, he’d tell me that this particular chicken’s pupik,* a “delicacy” he knew I didn’t like, tasted different. This one, he’d say, “tastes like watermelon.” After the first time or two, I grew skeptical of this claim, but I’d still occasionally taste it to see if maybe, just maybe, this time he wasn’t pulling my leg. For other examples of his sense of humor, check out this link — and this one.
Clowning around with Mom while visiting me in Brazil, 1973 (This shot was taken in Recife.)
- Dad enjoyed saying things that would catch listeners off guard. One of his favorite lines at the dinner table, when encouraging guests to help themselves to some more food, was “Don’t be polite. Be yourself!”
- As he grew older, Dad would sometimes suffer from “irregularity.” So he took to eating a couple of dried figs every morning. He liked to tell people that figs were a great laxative not only due to their high fiber content, but also — and particularly — thanks to something you could see when you bit into one: hundreds of seeds. Tongue in cheek, he called them “ball bearings,” claiming they help roll “material” more easily through the bowels.
At 80+ years, still clowning around with champagne cork cages at a birthday party
- When I was in high school, the principal was a big, strapping man whose generally unimpressive thoughts contrasted strikingly with the volume of his booming voice. One evening Mom and Dad returned home from a PTA meeting he had addressed. The principal’s presentation had set Dad to thinking about the etymology of the word “auditorium,” the room in which the meeting had taken place. Dad shared his linguistic insight with me. “Auditorium,” he said, “comes from two Latinate roots: audio, ‘I hear,’ and toro, ‘bull.’”
* Pupik is Yiddish for belly button, a body part that birds lack since they come into the world from eggs rather than wombs. However, many Jews of East European background jokingly use the word to describe the chewy gizzard, the avian organ that holds bits of gravel or sand to grind up their food.