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Larry And Paul



Larry And Paul are my cousins, Paul being my age, Larry two years older. Paul's best friend in grade school and high school was ... George Petaki ... who later became governor of the State of New York. (I must have met George many times because I spent as many weekends at my cousins' place as I could, but I'm drawing a complete blank.)


My cousins' father was George, a Vienna-trained Ear, Nose and Throat doctor who fled his native Hungary during the late 30s, came to this country, and ended up marrying my mother's sister. Till the day of his death forty years later George spoke rapid fire English with an accent as thick as that of his countryman Edward Teller.


Yet by the early fifties George spoke good colloquial English. And by the early sixties he had become the equivalent of a native speaker, making up jokes like the following ... "I've invented two new prescription drugs for Catholic priests" he said to me one day. "Really, Uncle George? What are they?"







Larry and Paul were born into that happy house. Larry became a ham radio equipment builder and operator at the age of nine, as I recall. To this day, having spent many hours in his room listening to him on the air, I know his call letters as well as I know my own name -- K2TIO. (A ham friend recently looked it up and found that his license is still active.)


Larry was a good kid but Paul was always getting him in trouble ...


Like the time they took my Aunt Ruth's zinc laundry tub out onto the back lawn, filled it with water, strapped an M-80 to a brick, lit the fuse, and dropped the brick into the tub. When the M-80 went off, there was a huge gusher of water, and the tub split its sides not just along the main seam but also somewhere else. I know this story is true because I was there.


But here's something I only heard about, because I was at home in NYC when it happened ...


Larry had purchased a used US Army mortar shell from a war surplus store. The shell had, of course, been emptied of its explosives, and the primer had been removed, and the back of the cavity had been plugged with lead.


No problem, not for my cousins. Egged on by Paul, Larry drilled out the lead plug. Then, working cooperatively, they filled the mortar shell with the heads of wooden matches -- from many boxes of matches -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of match heads.


Then they build a simple X-frame launcher, stuck an M-80 fuze into the back of the drilled-out hole, leaned the mortar shell against the X-frame, and aimed it toward downtown Peekskill, about half a mile away and three hundred feet lower. And then they lit the fuse ...


Well, by some miracle the mortar shell did not explode. Instead it rocketed up off the launcher and was last seen flying a beautiful parabolic arc toward downtown, with the stabilization fins doing a perfect job. The odd thing is, nothing was reported either on the radio or in the newspaper. As far as the good people of Peekskill were concerned, nothing at all had happened.


Today I'm horrified by what they did, yet as I write this the incident has me snickering and chortling just as much as when I first heard the story.

Edited by xxmikexx


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My cousins were very smart. One day they decided to memorize pi and e to 120 decimal places, and they insisted that I learn pi to at least twenty places. To this day I believe I can recite it ...


3.1415926535897932384628 ...


Okay, let's go out on the net and see how I did ...


3.1415926535897932384626 ...


OMG, I got it wrong, at the end a 6 instead of an 8. But evidently I did 23 places here so I'm correct through 20th place after all.


(Aside: Folks, I am not making this up. Who could? Trust me, if I were able I'd be a wealthy author courtesy of a good agent and a good editor.)


Anyway, for their next miracle Larry and Paul decided to express the speed of light in as obscure a unit of measurement as they could contrive. They concluded that it should be (drum roll) ...


Leagues per fortnight.


(snare hits, cymbals crash)




Now, this is a story about my cousins, not about me. I will allow that I was just as wacky, just as creative, but they had their own style and I was enormously impressed with it, so much so that ...


I insisted that Paul and I swear a blood oath never to grow up. I mean an honest-to-goodness true Plains-Indian-Slice-Open-Your-Thumbs-And-Mingle-The-Blood oath such as you might witness in a cowboys and Indians movie with lines like this one ...


"White man not speak straight. White man speak with forked tongue."


Aside: All you politically correct people out there, don't get your britches in an uproar. My daughter-in-law is genetically half Sioux -- 50% original genes -- and she too laughs at that line which I did not make up, though I certainly wish I had.


But I digress. This is all by way of leading up to the following story, which cannot be appreciated unless you know my cousin Paul, which you now do ...




It came to pass that Paul got a degree in Electrical Engineering and went to work immediately at Johns Hopkins University, where he remained for the next forty years. One of his early professional assignments was as the project engineer for the TV system for the Ranger spacecraft series.


Remember Ranger? Of course you do. Ranger One sent, from the vicinity of the moon, a dramatic series of photos, each with a target reticle showing ... well ... I'm not sure what, but it certainly wasn't the point of impact, which was always above and to the right of the reticle's center.


This probably was some kind of spacecraft pointing error. Trust me, if that had been Paul's subsystem, the reticle would have been steered onto the point of impact and would have stayed there upon pain of ... never mind, the rest of the story needs telling right now.




Ranger One had been sterilized, because nobody knew what the consequences of bringing live germs to the moon might be. Well, in fashion typical for him Paul decided to find out.


That's right, folks. At one point while he was alone with the machine in its pre-launch clean room, Paul deliberately coughed on the spacecraft, ensuring that millions of tiny citizens of earth would be immortalized in the wreckage of Ranger after it crashed into the near side of the moon.


Destroyer Of Worlds! you might shout in anger. No, not at all. Paul was simply making a semi-scientific statement about all the nonsense associated with the space program. There is no life on the moon, and Paul's germs are dead too. Based on everything we know today and knew back then, there CAN'T be any life on the moon. (I have a minor in biochemistry, folks. The moon as a harbor for life is simply out of the question, just as silicon as the basis for metabolic life is out of the question.)




Yes, I know, I know ...


Even if there is just the tiniest chance of germs surviving, Ranger MUST be sterilized. However ... Get 999 scientists together who say "No life on the moon." Then find one kooky scientist who says "Sterilize Ranger because the moon might be friendly to life". The press will then report a "split in the scientific community", and by the Laws of Public Relations, Ranger WILL be sterilized.


Of course, it's actually impossible to sterilize an object like that. After all, "sterile" is an industrial process with a definition something like "Two hundred degrees Fahrenheit at four atmospheres in 100% humidity for twenty minutes." (And you thought the term meant "free of germs", didn't you.)


Even if you dared to put the assembled spacecraft through that procedure (are you nuts?), it's going to become unsterile the moment you take it out of the clean room. If that's not enough to contaminate it, just wait till the technicians get it mated with the launch vehicle. And so on.


No way to sterilize it. None. And do you know what we call it when something completely absurd is done in the name of public relations? ... (Drum roll) ... ...


That's right, folks. Even in those long ago days of the mid-60s the doctrine of Political Correctness was alive and well, and the politicians and press had somehow been appointed to make science decisions. And that was what Paul was protesting.

Edited by xxmikexx
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Postscript ...


I said earlier that Paul and I had sworn a blood oath never to grow up. I have been true to my oath. Paul has not.


No, Paul grew up very quickly when he realized that he had made two or three million dollars in the stock market while he wasn't watching, and that his soon-to-be-ex wife would get some of this money if he didn't do something about the situation.


To make a long story short, Paul spent north of $200,000 on attorneys, making sure that his wife, the mother of his children, would not collect a single nickel from him in their divorce case. That's what he told me the next-to-last time I spoke with him.


The last time was when he called to tell me that my Aunt Ruth had passed away. I declined to come to the funeral because I did not and do not want to see Paul ever again. He is not the crazy, fun-loving Paul I grew up with. No, he has become instead a mean-sprited money-obsessed person who I don't know and don't want to know.




Now for something that is going to make the blood of all politically correct people boil.


When he was ten I took my son out onto our front lawn along with a bow and arrow set we had picked up somewhere, sometime.


We stood side by side as I fired arrows directly up into the air. We then stood there unflinching, and unwounded, living proof that the laws of probability would, with better than 99% confidence, ensure that neither of us would get hit by a falling arrow.


You see, folks, all men need a rite of passage of some kind -- a ceremonial entree to the world of warriors that only men are genetically capable of understanding. Women like babies, men like weapons. It has ever been so.


But couldn't my son have been severely injured, or even killed? Yes, of course. That's the whole point. You expose yourself to danger, and when nothing happens you are a better person, and it's worth the risk. And I shared the risk with him. After all, such a day is a Good Day To Die.




The Sioux and other tribes of the Great Plains had some very interesting military customs. The young men would go on the warpath meaning that they intended to steal horses from folks they didn't like, and that they would kill anybody who forced them to kill, a much higher honor being to simply strike the enemy with a coup stick, as in "See? My medicine is much stronger than yours. I don't need to kill you, and now you will be so humiliated that you will wish I had."


But old retired warriors had the greatest medicine of all provided they became bannermen.


A bannerman was a warrior who was too old to fight, worthless in combat. Yet they could and did go on the warpath with the young hotheads. And when the raiding party reached the outskirts of the enemy village, the bannermen would dismount, wind long sashes around their necks, and then stake the other end of the sashes into the ground using a lance that they would hold at an angle in their right hands. Then they would wait, unarmed, for the enemy to come to them, whereupon they would do absolutely nothing but glare at the enemy warriors in Clint Eastwood fasion. (What we would call today "Putting on their war faces", or "Mean mugging.")


It was their way of saying "My medicine is so strong that you won't dare to kill me. You won't dare to count coup on me. You are beneath contempt because I am (Yellowtail, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Standing Bear, Eagle Bone, ..., Whoever.) I am a man of legend, and you are a woman-man. You know who I am from the stories that your fathers and grandfathers told around your campfires. I am not afraid of you, or your arrows, or your lances, or your rifles, or your war clubs. And if you DO kill me, well, it is a Good Day To Die."


If a bannerman exhibited real courage he was usually spared by even the most hated enemy. The ones who broke and showed fear, their medicine gone after all, would be killed on the spot.

Edited by xxmikexx
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