To the outside world, I appear to belong to the Traditional White Nuclear Family culture, but my family included co-cultures and subcultures that were rare in the suburban south.
Both of my parents were raised in a tradition of noblesse oblige-inspired progressivism characterized by gallantry and service. Both were raised in families dominated by a co-culture of science that encouraged intellectual pursuits.
My family is strongly collectivist in nature.
My grandfather grew up as a poor orphan in New York City. He had a younger brother to care for and wanted to avoid the “orphan trains” of the day. As a child, he worked as a bicycle messenger and learned wood patternmaking as an apprentice. He eventually became a pioneering aeronautical engineer in the first decade of the 20th century, but contrary to the modern, individualistic self-made man who feels that because he has made himself he has no responsibility to anyone else, my grandfather retained the collectivist culture of street children and orphan of his childhood: The older children take care of the younger ones, the healthy take care of the sick, the strong take care of the weak. The orphans recognized that all of them were at one time or another young, sick, and weak. When they were older, healthy, and strong, they took care of other children. Later, he moved to the Florida Gulf Coast from New York City and married the wealthy and beautiful daughter of the city’s mayor, a free spirit who shattered and defied tradition. She once crashed an ambulance – sirens blazing – full of bootleg whiskey in the middle of downtown on Sunday morning, causing a local scandal.
My grandmother raised my father to believe that his standing in the community dictated that he had a responsibility to help those who had less. She taught him to love science and to value the pursuit of knowledge, and instilled in him the value of being a part of a group that gave him security in a tough world.
My father graduated from high school in 1939 and while driving with his parents to college that September, heard the news that Hitler was invading Poland. By the summer of 1940, Germany had conquered France, and in September that year The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 – the first peacetime conscription in United States history – was enacted requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register for the draft. My father registered for the draft and as an engineering student was given a deferment from active duty until after graduation.
As an engineering student during the war, he traveled with other chemists, code breakers, and physicists, to Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology as part of the war effort to develop jet and rocket technologies. He was strongly influenced by Charlie Parker and the “hetcat” jazz culture of the early 1940s that he encountered while he was there.
My mother was raised by her French grandmother who in the tradition of the salonnières of...