Category Archives: Personal Letters

Money and True Treasures

Note: This is a comment I posted on a friend’s blog about money.

Good post, Manisha.

Here’s a quick story and it has a point or two about money.

I stayed out of debt and so, when my small business sold at a price I never expected when I was 53, I was able to leave commerce and live modestly. Since then, I’ve tried to make my life worthwhile in non-monetary ways.  I have learned the basics of investing and have held onto my money so far, but am resigned to the impermanence of money. There is no such thing as true financial security. Any of us could be wiped out in a bad time. Security comes from being able to provide a product or service or do work that people need or want and are willing and able to pay for voluntarily. True treasures are what can never be taken away from you.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“…we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
John of Salisbury in Metalogicon, 1159

Cleaning out the storage area of his basement in February 2010, he came across a large white flipchart he had used in the early 1980s. It was the sort used before powerpoint presentations and was only slightly yellowed by time. On the top page was written, in his own handwriting, the word “THE” in large capital letters. That was all – just the word “THE.” “The what?” he wondered.

He flipped the large first page over and smiled. In somebody else’s handwriting was written, “The Irresistible, Inescapable, Irrevocable Coming of Electronic Distribution of Newspapers.” That was his style for sure, to leave no doubt about his position and no wiggle room either. After writing the word “THE” he had decided to delegate the time-consuming task of copying his presentation onto the flip chart to an employee. Somehow, the original first page was never torn off and thrown away. Now it was a message from the past that symbolized his early days as a telecommunications consultant.

He swelled with pride, thinking of how farseeing he had been in predicting the coming of “electronic” newspapers. But as he flipped over page after page of the presentation he knew that was a crock. Only the title of the presentation was original to him. Following the bold pronouncement on page one were page after page of bullet points showing the results of his research of the literature which supported his thesis. He was not a technology scholar. Nor was he an inventor of technology. He was a consultant. His role had been to stay abreast of advances in telecommunications technology, to persuade clients to adopt new technology and then to help them justify its costs and implement it. To a large extent he was in the vision business.

Finding the old flip chart got him to thinking about one special person who had influenced him. He had met this person only briefly and only once.

A few days passed. Early on a Saturday morning, he impulsively typed the special person’s name into the Google search box: “Ralph Lee Smith”. He thought it was a waste of time because there must be a million Ralph Lee Smiths. And sure enough, Google’s first search result showed a “Ralph Lee Smith, The Dulcimer’s Number One Friend,” with a picture of an older man lovingly holding the musical instrument known as the dulcimer. No telecommunications connection here, he thought. And the photo brought no recollection of the Ralph Lee Smith he had met so long ago, so he paged back to the Google search results. That was when he noticed this Ralph Lee Smith also claimed to be an author.

He decided to return to the webpage and click on some of its links. First he clicked on a link titled “Books and Records.” All the books listed were about the dulcimer and folk music. Next he tried the link titled “Greenwich Village Days.” This time his persistence was rewarded. The book he was looking for was listed there.

At 8:14 A.M. on the same day he sent an email:

Dear Sir:

I was working for the old Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company in DC when I first read “The Wired Nation” back in 1971-72. It made quite an impression on me and I decided to go for a Master’s Degree in the University of Colorado’s then new Telecommunications Program. I was privileged to hear you speak when you visited Boulder. That was in the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973.

I just want to thank you very much for inspiring me and giving me a vision of the future which became largely true. I tell young people today about how you influenced me and gave me a vision that pointed me in a good direction. I tell them that they need to find such a vision also.

Warm regards and Deep Respect,
Gordon MacPherson

The vision had been the vision of broadband communications and digitization of information. These were the two interlocking advances in telecommunications that made possible the high speed networks and advanced communications services we have today. The idea that we would also wind up with a wireless nation had barely crossed anybody’s mind at the time, but the concept of broadband communications was inclusive.

He wondered if he would get a response. Ralph’s webpage said he was born in 1927 and that the website was designed by his granddaughter, Robin.

He was surprised and gratified, therefore, when he received this email 17 minutes later:

Dear Gordon,

Thank you so much for this very kind message! I think that the coming of new things inspired all of us in the days when The Wired Nation was published. I stand in awe of the many things that have been happening in the communications world in recent years and that are happening now.

In addition to writing and communications, I have had for many years an interest in folklore and folk music, and these days I write and teach in this field. You can see some of my writing in this area, on my website http:///www.ralphleesmith.com

Thank you again for writing!

Very best regards,

Ralph

But he wasn’t going to let it go at this. The matter of exactly when he had met Ralph Lee Smith still needed to be resolved. Was it 1972 or 1973? He just wanted to know, for no particular reason except that he was wired that way. He might find a clue in his copy of “The Wired Nation,” so he found the old book and opened it up. On the fly page was Ralph’s autograph:

For Gordon with very best personal regards.
Ralph Lee Smith
October 1972

He sent another email to Ralph informing him of this finding and received this in reply:

Dear Gordon,

Gosh! Amazing! Thank you!

Ralph

It appears that giants come in all shapes and sizes. And some of them play the dulcimer. Expertly. After all, if they were one-dimensional, they wouldn’t be giants.

Old Letter to My Nephew in the Service

October 28, 2009 – I got an email yesterday from a nephew who is in the Air National Guard. He was, he said, sitting in a terminal and in two hours he would be leaving for an airbase in Iraq.

SrA Daniel Kotler (on left)

His Facebook page still says “Delaware ’10” and lists his interests as “…guitar, da beach, eating, sleeping, talking, piano, drums, skydiving, doing backflips, wallflips, frontflips, and any other type of flips.” (Note: Google “wallflips” and be amazed…) Favorite music includes, to name just a few, “Making April, Amber Pacific, Something Corporate, Starting Line.” Under “Political Views” he says “Obama is my boss.” Boss, as in Commander in Chief.

This is his second deployment to the Middle East, his first to Iraq. He loads and unloads airplanes that transport troops and heavy military cargo and equipment. On his last deployment he worked as many as 14 hours a day in heat that often reached 115 degrees or higher. As part of US Air Forces Central Command his unit helped break records for moving troops and cargo during the Surge.

Now, Iraq. Now moving troops out. Now more heat and more sandstorms and more danger. As I write this I am listening to news on the radio about Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not good.

Five years ago, not long after he decided to enlist, I wrote him a letter. Here it is, with just a little edited out:

August 25, 2004

Dear Danny:

Last week Cory, your sister Maggie and I were walking on the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland. The temperature was in the high 80s and the sun was shining brightly. A teenage boy walked by us wearing a Darth Vader style ground length black coat. I asked Cory and Maggie what message they thought this guy was trying to send to the world and expressed my opinion that everything we choose to wear is intended as a message to others. At this point, Cory looked at me and asked, “What message are you sending, Daddy?” And I said, with no hesitation whatsoever, “I was in the Air Force once.”

The words came out of my mouth so quickly that I was startled. I am in my sixties. I went in the Air Force when I was 18. I wondered if it is possible that something that happened so long ago could have become such a dominant part of my self-identity, so much so that it influences how I wear my hat, what I wear, how I stand and walk, who I think I am, and how I think.

Here are my considered views on all this. Military service, in war or peace, changes your core. Permanently.

It starts when you raise your right hand to be sworn in, promising to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of the President of the United States and those who are appointed over you. Taking this oath, if you do so seriously, puts you far ahead of the responsibilities shouldered by the average 18 year old civilian. You will always have a sense of pride in having taken this oath. You will always have a sense of pride in knowing that you are permanently part of the long historical procession of those who have served in this country’s armed forces.

But it is an oath with such potentially serious consequences that it would be just plain foolish and naive to enlist just for the educational or other benefits. There has to be a sincere sense of duty to your country or it makes no sense at all. You are agreeing, for the period of your enlistment, to be placed in harm’s way if your country needs you. You are saying that, if in harm’s way, you will not surrender as long as you have the means to continue the fight. You are saying that you will give up your right to do whatever you please and will obey all lawful orders in order to serve your country. Danny, some people go their whole lives without developing the maturity and discipline to handle the “have-tos” which enter into every life. You will learn the needed maturity and discipline at a very early age in the service.

In basic training you are pushed to new levels of physical achievement that you could hardly have imagined possible. You learn to keep going in the face of calculated harassment that aims to find out if you’re made of the right stuff.

After basic training you will go on to training for your specialty. When you finish this training it is very likely that you will be given job responsibilities and experiences that are far greater than those held by people your age in the civilian world. You will not get the higher civilian pay, but you will get up every day and know that what you are doing really matters to your country, especially now. You will be guided by a sense of duty, even if you can’t wait to get out. It’s possible you will see the friends you left back home as immature and self-indulgent, but you will envy their less regimented lifestyles. When you do get out, your service to your country behind you, you will find that you are a member of the largest informal fellowship in the world – that of men and women who have served their country in the military.

There will be occasions in your life, probably on a Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, when you will be at church or in a restaurant or at a sports stadium and someone with a microphone will ask all who have served in our armed forces to stand to be recognized. You will be glad that you are among those standing.

For the rest of your life, you will look at things from the perspective of a young serviceman, because you will always be able to put yourself in their place. You will say to yourself, “I was one of them,” and your opinions will be influenced accordingly.

Danny, someday when I die, I will be put in a veterans cemetery where I will be with others who served in war and in peace. My stone or plaque will be the standard, showing my rank when I was a young enlisted man in the service, as though I never accomplished more in life. In my mind, thinking specifically of my own experience, I never did accomplish more or for a greater purpose.

God bless you and protect you. We are all proud of you.

Love,

Uncle Gordon

Senior Airman Daniel Kotler, to you and all of the young men and women who serve in this nation’s armed forces – come home to us safely.

What not to miss: Here is a link to a 9 minute and 45 second long YouTube video I shot of a planeload of our armed forces personnel returning to the USA through BWI Airport outside Baltimore, Maryland on June 6, 2008. Senior Airman Daniel Kotler is tagged and appears for nine seconds.

http://bit.ly/14pL87