Story 4 – Childhood Influence

When I was a teenager, I discovered the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, written by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning American physicist. I immediately took a liking to him.

In the book, Feynman wrote stories about his adventures at Los Alamos National Laboratory, getting a job playing drums for a dance troupe (even though he was woefully unqualified), and experimenting with his own sense of smell. Feynman loved learning. Learning was playtime to him. At the time, not only could I relate to him, but he encouraged me. A few years later, I found the book What Do You Care What Other People Think? which is another memoir, as told to Feynman’s friend Ralph Leighton. The quote is from Feynman’s first wife. While she was in the hospital dying, she wanted barbecue, and suggested that Richard set up a grill on the hospital grounds. He protested. He said something like, “What would people think?” She said, “What do you care what other people think?” As is true for many creative people, Feynman’s wife had more insight into his character than he did.

The same year that last memoir was published, I was working in a Pharmacy. One of my duties was to take the unsold newspapers, cut out the headers to be given back to the newspaper office so we would be reimbursed, and discard the rest of the newspaper. This is how I learned on Wednesday, the seventeenth of February 1988, that Richard Feynman had passed away the Monday before from abdominal cancer. I cut out his obituary. I still have it in my copy of What Do You Care What Other People Think?

For me, his absence was palpable.

I think it was later that year that I found a PBS documentary about Feynman. It was the first time that I heard Feynman’s voice and saw his mannerisms. He was friendly and happy, and had what I, coming from Vermont, thought was a pretty nasty Long Island accent. But I saw my hero talk. And it was inspiring.

Towards the end of the program, Ralph Leighton, friend of Feynman’s and son of a colleague of Feynman, spoke. Some years before he had taken a position as a geography teacher. Feynman asked him, “What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?” The question became a sort of joke between the two. I knew about Tannu Tuva, a former Soviet protectorate located between Russia and Mongolia, because I had been a stamp collector and I owned some Tuvan stamps.

Eventually, however, it actually became a project- to develop a relationship with the territory of Tannu Tuva. They planned a cultural exchange that ultimately resulted in the creation of Friends of Tuva, a non-profit group run by Leighton. One of their goals was to visit the country. However, February 1988 arrived, and Feynman died before they were able to arrive in Kyzyl, the capital. Their trip never happened. When asked in the PBS show if he would still make the trip, Leighton said that no, it had been an adventure with a friend, and that now it was just a trip.

At the end of the show, there was information about how to purchase a CD of Feynman telling stories and playing the drums. This was organized by Leighton, and the proceeds would benefit his charity. I wrote a letter with my order telling Leighton that Feynman had been my hero, and how sad I was to learn of his passing. I didn’t expect a response, but I thought it appropriate to express my appreciation of the man. I was surprised when my CD arrived with a short note signed by Leighton, “Thank you for your kind note,” it said.

As an adult, I find I have to remind myself to play like Feynman did, that ‘acting like an adult’ often only means being boring. However, after changing careers and moving into industrial design, where play is required, I am slowly learning that my playtime projects are as or more valid than the boring Adult facets of my life. Also, when I wrote to Ralph Leighton, it was out of sincerity, but also naivety. That he responded with a kind note of his own showed me that I could behave as myself, rather than following the rules, and certain people would appreciate it. It has taken a long time, but I think I am beginning to learn both of these lessons.

– JB


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