Jonathan Ferrini was born and raised in Southern California and lives in San Diego. He's a graduate of the MFA Program in Film and Television at UCLA.
The Unlikely Protégé
It’s the first day of the fall term and I’m sprinting across the faculty parking lot on my way to teach another class of wide eyed college physics freshman. Every year, the entering class is getting smarter and I know that one day, I will be unable to answer their questions or keep up with them because they are brilliant and have a love for science that I never had. Nonetheless, I can’t be late because I’m their professor! Just as I’m about to clear the parking lot and race across the quad to the lecture hall named in honor of my mentor, I spot Dick Drummond in the corner of my eye attempting to replace a flat tire on the old beat up Peugeot I’ve always despised because of its ugly chocolate brown color! The old distinguished professor of chemistry is struggling with the lug wrench. I’d like to stop and help him but I can’t be late for class. Screw Drummond, I say to myself. He can call the auto club. I hear the lug wrench slip and fall to the ground. Drummond shouts “God Damn it” and sounds distressed. What the hell, I think to myself. The students can wait in suspense for a lecture in particle physics. As I approach Drummond, the old man is sweating and breathing heavily. “Oh, hello Professor Stein, this lug bolt is as stubborn as me and just won’t give”. Let me help you, Drummond, I assure him. I place the lug wrench on the lug bolt and give it my best pull. The rusted bolt just won’t budge. Then I recall the principles of “torque” and “leverage” which I utilized about thirty years ago at this very spot and set me on the path to my unlikely career. I was reminded again of my contribution to Dick Feinberg’s theory that the universe, space, and time may be elliptical and this phenomenon which we all experience has returned me to where I started my career many years before. It would be no coincidence that evidence of space time ecliptics would be discovered in such an unglamorous fashion. That’s science. I find a metal rod to which a plant has been tethered and pull it from the ground. This will do, I assure Drummond and I place the thin metal rod within the open end of the lug wrench and with one firm pull, loosen the lug bolt. Drummond exclaims “well done”. I hand the lug wrench to Drummond and say you can finish the job chemist and race to class.
My name is Mickey Stein and I was born on November 27, 1958 at a Catholic hospital in Pasadena California to Rose and Ira Stein who owned a struggling piano bar in town. I’ve often speculated that my parent’s choice of hospital was the root cause of the academic malaise I exhibited in my youth. It didn’t matter because my parents weren’t religious. The fact that I was born on Thanksgiving Day never resulted in much to be “thankful” for but this was going to change as my journey along the “paperclip” and “motorcycle trail” of the universe began in 1958. My earliest moments of life were spent atop the piano bar in my bassinet because my parents couldn’t afford a baby sitter. Much of my childhood was also spent sitting alone in a restaurant booth with my coloring books, pillow, blanket, expensive dinner house food and exotic kid drinks until closing time when I was fast asleep and my parents would take me home. One evening on our way home from the bar, we passed the prestigious California Institute of Technology and my parents pointed and remarked “that’s where the geniuses go to college”. This made a lasting impression on me and I knew even as a child that I didn’t belong there.
I grew up in a small town situated at the foot of the Angeles National Forest about forty minutes outside of Los Angeles. I spent my teenage years riding my motorcycle in the foothills above our neighborhood which enabled me to escape the chaos of our tumultuous family life. My parents were alcoholics and the alcohol fueled horrendous arguments between my parents. I preferred to ride alone and have remained alone most of my entire life with the exception of one special girl. In less than ten minutes from our house, I would be deep into the forest traversing the dirt roads lined with ancient Oak trees. I rode to the top of the hill which afforded a panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley below me. I’d turn off the motor, remove my helmet, and take in the natural beauty around me. A gentle breeze would release the fragrances of the forest and cause the trees and chaparral to dance. I often saw coyote, deer, and black bear that never bothered me. I always wondered how this beauty came together and what it all meant. During these moments, I was able to forget the tumult at home and these times alone in the forest were “Zen like” for me and I have never been able to replicate them. My return home would involve a drive down Gold Hills Road which was our equivalent of famous Lombard Street in San Francisco. As I reached the bottom of the twisting road and stopped at the intersection, my eyes made contact with a beautiful teenage girl pushing her bike up the twisting road. Her black hair was long, wavy, and she was graceful and elegant. Our eyes made contact for a split second in time before we each resumed our journeys along Dick Feinberg’s space/time ellipse. Neither of us realized that we would soon meet again becoming high school sweethearts and fall in love.
My time in the forest provided the inspiration for the creative writing papers I excelled at in high school. My papers were always returned with a large red letter “A” with a highly complementary comment from the teacher. It never occurred to me that I had a vivid imagination and knack for observation of the world around me which fueled my writing. I lacked the mentors who could influence me to pursue writing as a career and avoid the unnecessary anguish and dishonest life I would soon embark upon. I wouldn’t have listened to them anyways. My father and mother wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer. I was never good with numbers. Mathematics didn’t come easy for me and I was too lazy to buckle down and devote the necessary study to master the subject which was the foundation for other science courses required to gain admittance to the colleges of my dreams. Medicine required the study of science and was too hard so I became determined to become a lawyer and deal maker just like the characters in the old movies I watched on weekends in the privacy of my bedroom. I marveled at the Park Avenue lifestyle of these people and wanted to emulate them but was never told how. My father was a high school graduate and my mother never finished high school.
While more fortunate classmates were instructed in the art of study and college preparation by their college educated parents, I was simply told to get “good marks”.
My parents met in the 1950’s while working in a Pasadena dinner house where my father was the bartender and my mother was the hostess. My mother was about twenty and a former beauty pageant contestant. My dad was in his forties, single, and lived a carefree life before meeting and marrying my mother. Mom had many successful suitors but each soon discovered her profound unhappiness and chose to abandon a future with her. Although my mother never confided in me about her past, I speculated that my mother’s unhappiness was related to emotional or physical abuse she experienced as a child. My parents married and saved enough money to open a piano bar they named “Guys and Dolls” after the fifties musical. It was a success and favorite “watering hole” of the Pasadena elite which included politicians, doctors, lawyers, and fellow restaurateurs. It was my father’s lively personality and my mother’s charm which made the bar a success. As the bar flourished financially, the income enabled my parents to travel, blow through their savings, and spend less time at the bar. I was born soon after. Business dropped quickly without my parents to greet their customers and it wasn’t long before the bar was closed and my parents declared bankruptcy. Because of their previous restaurant experience and many former restaurateur clients, they quickly found employment as bartender and hostess at a flourishing local dinner house.
I never wanted for food or material possessions because it was important to my parents that they provide me with the best possible home life they could afford. I believe my parents compensated for their business failures and drinking with material possessions they bestowed upon me. My mother was an excellent cook and we ate well from the many high quality restaurant provisions my parents took home from the restaurant. We lived above our means in a beautiful ranch home in the suburbs at the foot of the Angeles National Forest. A series of bicycles preceded a series of motorcycles which afforded me independence and freedom the kids in my neighborhood couldn’t dream of. I was a capable baseball player and brought great pride to my parents. I often saw one or both of my parents out of the corner of my eye cheering as I made a great catch or hit but they would quickly disappear from view choosing to leave the game and return home or to work.
I was bored in school and always looked for a short cut to complete my assignments quickly so I could goof off. The material wasn’t difficult for me just laborious. I was assessed at a reading level above my grade level and expected to perform well in school. My boredom led to becoming a disruption in class and on several occasions was sent to the Principal’s office for counseling. My grades were average and the reports from the Principal disappointed my parents. I was never punished by my parents but told to get “better marks”. They never understood that their alcoholic arguments were undermining my performance and couldn’t understand that I was a candidate for therapeutic intervention in order to maximize my potential.
Throughout elementary school, my mother was a functioning alcoholic like my father. The fights between my parents were ugly and although I didn’t witness physical violence, the language was vile and made me insecure about my future. In junior high school, I was befriended by both the physical education coach and my mathematics teacher. The PE coach just returned from Vietnam and was a former Army officer settling down to civilian life. He was a tough Brooklyn Jewish kid who learned many life lessons on the streets of Brooklyn. He took a liking to me because he worked part time in the evenings as a novice bartender and was always inquiring if my father was “hiring”. He allowed me to spend the PE class in his office watching TV while my classmates ran laps and did pushups to his cadences barked like a drill instructor. He told me that I could become whatever I wanted to be in life and “never quit”! The mathematics teacher offered me “tough love” often exclaiming “think, Mickey, think”. He was Italian American and a World War II veteran. One day he saw my history report on Italy lying on my classroom table. He picked it up, glanced through the pages, and said “I landed at Anzio”. Both of these teachers saw my promise and did their best to motivate me.
As Junior High ended and I started high school, I knew it was time to get serious about my school work if I was to make my parents proud and fulfill their college dreams for me. As a freshman, I enrolled in the most rigorous college preparatory courses my public high school offered. I excelled in English and history but struggled in mathematics. My sophomore year would include physics, chemistry, advanced algebra and geometry all of which would be extremely difficult for me. I managed to maintain a “B” average my freshman year but I didn’t want to attend an average college. I wanted to attend Harvard or Yale just like the characters in the old movies I watched. I worried about my academic performance the following year.
My mother’s drinking caused her to be fired as a hostess and she remained at home as my father worked double shifts to make ends meet. My mom’s alcoholism reached the point that she was often drunk by Noon and comatose for the remainder of the day. She would often emerge from the shower drunk and fall into bed still wet. She contracted pneumonia at the commencement of my sophomore year and was hospitalized. I never visited her at the hospital despite her falling into a coma. I was angry with her for embarrassing the family and afraid to see her in a comatose state. I was awoken one morning at 3am by the telephone ringing. I answered the phone on the night stand adjacent to my bed just as my father was answering. I remained silent and heard the doctor inform my father that his wife and my mother died from complications relating to her pneumonia. The doctor reported that she could have survived but “lacked the will to fight”. My father calmly thanked the doctor for the call and hung up the phone without any emotion as if he had been expecting the call for many years. I cried myself to sleep but was awoken later in the morning by my father saying “time to get ready for school”. My father had already “moved on” with his life but couldn’t comprehend his son’s need to grieve and expected me to “move on” as well. All that I remember of the school day was looking up at the clock on the classroom wall which read Noon and feeling emotionally numb inside. I guess that I had “moved on” like my father. I’m convinced that I have carried the emotional numbness throughout my life which sabotaged relationships with women who loved me.
In the summer before my sophomore year, I would accompany my father to the restaurant in the morning where he would order the spirits and wines for the day. The mornings were warm, the birds sang and the dew on the grass created a fragrance I will never forget as we left home for the restaurant. We often stopped at the corner donut stand and took hot coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls with us to the restaurant. My father would enter a closet size office just off the kitchen, stand behind a podium, pick up the telephone and dial the alcohol distributors and place the orders of the day. He offered no greetings or salutations to the person on the other end of the phone line, just a staccato of various brands and quantities of booze. My father was like a General commanding his troops and I was impressed by his knowledge of the many brands of wine and spirits he intimately knew by heart. The chefs, waiters, and bus boys respected and loved my father who always proudly introduced his boy Mickey as the “baseball player” who wants to be a corporate lawyer. I wanted to make my father proud of me and live up to his expectations but I knew that my science grades would keep my grade point average and test scores out of reach of the top colleges I would have to attend to become the big shot my father expected.
One morning after my father completed his orders at the restaurant; we headed home and passed the impressive Caltech campus. I remembered driving by the campus with my parents earlier in my life and their remarks about Caltech. It angered me that Caltech students excelled at science and I didn’t. I was also jealous that Caltech students had their pick of any college or university because of their brilliance manifesting itself in top grades and College Board scores. My father hired hitting coaches who helped me improve my swing as a baseball player. It was at that moment that I understood that if I could have baseball tutors, why not hire science tutors and where better to find the best science tutors than at Caltech? When we arrived home, I made a phone call to Caltech and said I wanted to hire a tutor. I was told to visit the student employment office and place my inquiry on the bulletin board and expect replies closer to the start of the fall term as it was summer break. The next day, I walked on to the Caltech campus for the first time. There was an intellectual energy on campus which I have never forgotten or experienced on another elite college campus. As the students and faculty passed me, I sensed they were highly focused and engrossed in their pursuit of science. It felt like I was amongst the intellectual equivalent of royalty or Hollywood stars. I found the student employment office and I placed a 4”x 6” card reading “Tutor Wanted by High School Student. All Science Subjects Required. Great Hourly Cash Pay” along with my phone number on the job board. As I left the student employment office, I found the bookstore and browsed the many science textbooks with titles I couldn’t understand. There was an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to various styles of graph paper and mechanical pens. This wasn’t a typical college bookstore with mascot’s and memorabilia but I managed to find a lone rack of sweaters emblazoned with “Caltech” and purchased one.
I spent the summer riding my motorcycle and watching old movies. The summers of my youth passed slowly and were care free. I was earning good tip money working as a part time waiter at a coffee shop and my mother’s monthly social security death benefit enabled me to offer top pay to a tutor. As summer was nearing an end, my phone began to ring and I met several tutors. They were all brilliant Caltech undergraduate or graduate students. I marveled at their grasp of the scientific material I struggled with but came so easy to them. As the fall high school semester commenced and the physics, chemistry, geometry, and advanced algebra assignments were piling up, I hired two tutors so as not to overwhelm a single tutor. To their credit, they wanted to help me learn the material but I simply wanted the homework assignments completed quickly so I could hand them in and get top grades on the assignments. They would capitulate and complete the assignment for me believing they were teaching me the material. The high hourly pay was definitely an incentive to the tutors to give me what I wanted. I was able to maintain an “A” average in all of my science courses due to the perfect marks I was receiving on the homework papers. Unfortunately, both of my tutors’ schedules prevented further employment with me and quit. I panicked and quickly posted my 4”x 6” card again at the student employment office.
I was contacted by another tutor and we made an appointment to meet at his home. I arrived at an old Pasadena mansion and knocked on the door. I was impressed that my tutor lived in such an opulent home. An old lady answered the door and invited me inside. The interior of the mansion smelled musty and hadn’t been upgraded for a half a century or more. She introduced herself as Mildred and said “I’m so happy Klark has a visitor. He is lonely and works so hard”. She led me to Klark’s bedroom announcing “Klark, your visitor is here”. Klark was no more than twenty and there was something dark and brooding about him. His room was Spartan except for a metal desk with a draftsman’s lamp and a single bed. His text books, calculator, rulers, and assortment of pencils, pens, and erasers were neatly placed on top of the desk. Klark told me he was an undergraduate physics major from Chicago and could assist me with any of my science courses. Klark was smart, quick, and serious. He was able to speed through the homework making occasional comments about the concepts but Klark wanted his money fast and I wanted the work completed quickly without explanation so we were a good match. I paid in cash which Klark appreciated. My assignments were always returned with an “A” and sometimes a remark from the teacher reading “nice solution to this problem” or “thanks for showing me another method“.
It never dawned on my teachers that somebody who had a greater understanding of the material than themselves was completing my assignments for me.
Klark didn’t talk much. I could tell Klark was a serious student and I wondered how many hours of the day he spent inside the bedroom at that desk. The drapes were always closed and it was difficult to discern whether it was night or day outside. It was creepy visiting the old mansion and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was reminded of Gloria Swanson in the movie “Sunset Boulevard”. Mildred always greeted me at the door muttering about her long deceased surgeon husband and she smelled of booze. She was lonely and waiting to die inside the brick and mortar testament to her marriage to a doctor. I’m certain Mildred was grateful to have Klark living with her but I often speculated about their rental “arrangements”.
Klark and I were meeting once weekly and he appeared more tense and anxious with each meeting. I speculated he was worried about his own school work. At the conclusion of one of our sessions, Klark leaned back in his chair and asked me about my plans for college. This was uncharacteristic of Klark to ask me a personal question. I told him I wanted to get into one of the prestigious Ivy League colleges. Klark asked “have you taken the SAT’s and Achievement tests yet?” I said no but planned to take them in my junior year. “You’ll need at least a 90th percentile in order to get into those schools. Do you think you can do well enough on the tests”? Klark asked. I knew the answer was “no” but speculated that high grades might balance out lousy College Board results. Klark stared at me without blinking and asked “did you take the PSAT?” and I said no. The PSAT was the precursor or “warm up” to the SAT and a reliable predictor of one’s performance on the SAT. Klark made a proposal which would change my life forever and said “I can take the tests for you but it will cost you”. I was flabbergasted by the proposition and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded not considering for a moment the ramifications of getting caught. How would we do it, Klark? “Since you haven’t taken the PSAT, there is no baseline from which to compare your SAT and Achievement test scores and arouse suspicion within the College Board or your high school. The only challenge is convincing the examination proctor that I’m you”. How do we do that, Klark? “Find one of those “Free Press” newspapers. In the classified section of the paper, you’ll find ads for fake ID’s. Pick one in downtown LA who caters to illegal immigrants and won’t ask questions. Tell them you need a California Driver license and your high school ID replaced with my photograph”. Klark reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of his high school yearbook photo and handed them to me. “They can use one of these photographs. I’ll charge you $500 for the SAT and three Achievement tests. I recommend you take the Mathematics II, Physics, and the Chemistry Achievement tests in addition to the SAT. When I took the tests, I earned a 98th percentile on all of the examinations and won a National Merit Scholarship which means I likely missed just one or two questions on each examination. In your case, I recommend we shoot for a score closer to the 90th percentile so as not to trigger any scrutiny. After the scores are reported, the colleges you dream about will contact you!”
I raced to the nearest “Free Press” newspaper rack, removed a paper, and found “Cal’s-ID’s Discretion Assured”. Cal’s was located on Grand Avenue in the skid row section of downtown Los Angeles. It was a single room office with a vintage ceiling fan on the second floor of an old building. Cal was sixtyish, arms covered with tattoos, and a cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth. “One hundred bucks kid”, Cal exclaimed and I handed him the money, my Driver’s license and high school ID. Cal opened a closet door revealing a small draftsman table, assortment of precision pen knives, magnification lens, and a high quality stationary camera. Despite his gruff appearance and demeanor, he approached the cutting and photography like a surgeon working quickly and silently. Within an hour, Cal handed me back a California driver license and high school ID exactly similar to my own but with Klark’s photograph. “You’re as good as gold, kid. Good luck”, Cal exclaimed as I left with my new identity.
The SAT and achievement tests were offered throughout the year on Saturdays but I wanted to complete them as early as possible. I selected October 11th for the SAT and November 1st for the three Achievement tests, confirmed the dates with Klark, and paid him in advance as an incentive because I trusted him. Klark was appreciative and assured me he would be ready. I finished my chemistry, physics, geometry, and algebra courses with A’s thanks to the high scores on the homework assignments Klark completed for me. It always puzzled me why the teachers never connected the high scores I was achieving on the homework assignments with my lousy test performance. I suspect they were too busy to notice or simply didn’t care.
It was a hot and lazy summer. I was enrolled in a summer archaeology class which met five mornings per week and was dismissed at noon. It was an easy “A” and I impressed the teacher to such a degree she made me her teaching assistant. It was in this class that I met the beautiful girl with the bike. It wouldn’t be long before I discovered this type of occurrence isn’t luck or déjà vu but simply my travel along the elliptical plane of the universe. Like most high school boys, I was shy and couldn’t work up the nerve to introduce myself. Our class would take field trips to local archaeological dig sites. It was on one fateful field trip that I was introduced to Rene. I was assigned to a pit with Rene and our job was to use a spade to carefully remove what looked to be artifacts and make notations within our journals of where inside the pit we found the artifact. Rene and I remembered our meeting on the street earlier but we were both shy and diligently worked the pit without speaking. During the dig, Rene found an artifact but her spade wouldn’t penetrate the earth to extract it. I knew the gentlemanly thing to do was to assist her and I said “let me help you”, and beautiful Rene said, “thank you, Mickey”. She knew my name and never in my life did my name sound so beautiful! I showed ingenuity and grabbed my hammer and gently tapped the handle of her spade which quickly penetrated the earth. I handed the spade back to Rene who was hot, dusty, and tired. I reached into my back pack and removed a Coke, opened it, and handed it to Rene who said “thank you” as she took the bottle and gracefully sipped on the Coke handing it back to me. I raised the Coke to my lips, drank, and handed it back to Rene suggesting she finish it. We shared our DNA that hot afternoon, fell in love, and exchanged phone numbers.
Throughout the summer, I laid in bed at night thinking about Rene and how great it would be to get those high scores and get into the colleges of my dreams. I often awoke in the middle of the night frightened that I made a “Faustian Bargain”. What if Klark got caught? He would certainly “rat me out” and my scores would be invalidated, or he could be barred from the examination center if the proctor questioned his identification. Either way, I would be expelled from school and never admitted to any college! The conclusion I always reached before drifting back to sleep was that it was too late. Klark was paid and could “rat me out” regardless. On the other hand, Klark could be expelled if Caltech found out. Klark had “skin in the game”.
The summer passed and the test dates were quickly upon us. I sweated both Saturday’s examination dates. The exams began at 9:00 am and would finish by early afternoon. Klark was taking the SAT examination on October 11th and the three Achievement examinations on November 1st. On both Saturdays, I anxiously awaited Klark’s phone call. A friend or two would call me and I would angrily tell them to call back later because I needed the phone line free. The phone rang around 3:00 pm on both Saturdays, and Klark pronounced “All done. I deliberately missed a couple of the hardest questions on each examination but you’ll be at least 90% on all of them. Let me know the results when you get them”. Klark hung up and I pondered the future. It didn’t occur to me until later what Klark did with the fake ID’s?
Rene and I were speaking nightly by telephone and dating regularly. I was her first boyfriend and I could already sense that I was quickly becoming the most important man in her young life. Rene was of mixed heritage, half Dutch and half Indonesian. Aside from her beautiful black hair, she looked European. She was of average height, thin, and wore no makeup. Rene didn’t require any makeup. Rene was soft spoken, a very good student, played the violin, and her parents were cordial but very strict. Between my mom’s monthly Social Security death benefit and my tips at the coffee shop, I could afford to take Rene to fine restaurants, museums, and concerts. It also helped that I owned a Ford Mustang in addition to the motorcycle. The Mustang was one of the final gifts from my mother before she died. I earned the trust of Rene’s strict Indonesian father by bringing an expensive bottle of German white wine provided by my father to a Sunday dinner with Rene’s family. Her father loved the wine and often asked for more bottles. I was often invited to spend the night on their living room couch and Rene would sneak into the living room after everyone was asleep to engage in foreplay with me. It was glorious to probe, feel, and taste her young body. When my father was away from home, Rene would visit my bedroom and we consummated our relationship. We never practiced “safe sex” and eventually statistics would catch up with us.
The College Board examination results came in the mail just before the Christmas holiday break. My hands trembled as I hurriedly opened the letter with the official results. The reported percentile scores included *SAT 94%, Math II 95%, Physics 95%, and Chemistry 94%! An asterisk next to the SAT score indicated that I achieved National Merit Scholarship qualification and would expect notification through subsequent communication. My heart raced, and I screamed at the top of my lungs with happiness. I felt like the smartest guy on the planet. Within a few weeks, my mail box began to fill with invitations to visit the most prestigious colleges in the United States including Harvard and Yale! Each letter suggested that my admission was assured and congratulated me on my test performance. I was faced with a conundrum, however. I didn’t have the money to visit either of these colleges and the visit was a prerequisite for admission. Both offered a stipend towards travel costs but the out of pocket was too much. To make matters worse, I had never flown in an airplane before and I was frightened to fly and beginning to feel the specter of being homesick. Our family never travelled and the furthest I had ever been away from home was a three hour drive from home!
I was summoned to my guidance counselor’s office shortly before the end of my junior year. I trembled suspecting that the truth about my College Board exam results had been revealed. I waited outside her office. A number of administrative staff greeted me and congratulated me on my test performance. The door to the guidance counselor’s office opened, and she motioned me inside. A suited gentleman rose from a chair, extended his hand, and introduced himself as Associate Dean of Admissions at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Brown. I shook the man’s hand and we all sat. The guidance counselor spoke up and said “Mickey, you’ve brought great honor to your high school by achieving extraordinary performance on the College Board’s. Dr. Brown spoke up and said “we’re impressed with your abilities, Mickey. I’m here to offer you early admission to Caltech. Between your National Merit Scholarship and our scholarship sources, you will receive a full scholarship and monthly living stipend. Essentially, Mickey, Caltech will pay you to attend and graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. This is my first stop of the day and I have several high schools to visit and extend the same offer of early admission but only one seat is available and it’s yours if you want it”. My mind raced. Caltech is close to home, it won’t cost me anything, I don’t have to fly, and I don’t even have to apply, but Caltech? I’m not a scientist! How can I become a corporate deal making lawyer by graduating from Caltech? I could sense that my hesitation was beginning to wear on Dr. Brown so I seized the moment, thought “what the hell” to myself, and said, I accept! Dr. Brown rose from his chair, extended his hand, and appeared thankful that I shortened his day. “Welcome to Caltech, Mickey. You’ve made a fine decision. The admissions packet will be mailed to your home in a few days”.
It was a glorious summer. I dated Rene and we made beautiful love. My future was set. Rene was proud of me as was my father. As the senior year unfolded, word spread throughout high school that I had already been accepted to Caltech. The smartest kids in my class were miffed which gave me great pleasure. I was “walking on air” but the possibility of being caught always caused me concern and it would be uncomfortable to attend the same college as Klark who shared my secret.
I arrived home from school one afternoon to find an unmarked police car parked outside. I entered the house and found a suited detective sitting with my father. He was about my father’s age with gray hair and the two of them were discussing Pasadena restaurants which had come and gone over the years. They appeared to know each other. The detective had a beer in his hand because my father was no fool. I prepared for the worst case scenario. I was caught and might be arrested in front of my father. The detective introduced himself as Detective Jack Sullivan from the Pasadena Police Department. My father sat silently as Detective Sullivan spoke and my father gazed at me disapprovingly. “Mickey, I understand you know a Klark Kalman at Caltech”? That’s funny I thought to myself, I never knew Klark’s last name. Yes, detective, Klark was my science tutor. “So Klark was your tutor and not your buddy?” Yes, sir. “His landlady Mrs. Mildred Krieger said you were friends”. So the old lady’s last name was Krieger, I thought to myself. I never bothered to ask. No detective, I paid Klark to tutor me in science courses. We never hung out, Sir. The detective rose and said, “thank you, Mickey and Mr. Stein. I won’t take up any more of your time.” The detective headed for the door and I asked what the reason was for the visit. “Klark committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Chicago and we’re following up on any additional explanation for the suicide but it appears the motive for the suicide was his was flunking out of Caltech and expulsion. By the way, Mr. Stein, I was sorry to see your piano bar go out of business”. I was stunned but not surprised by Klark’s suicide. If Klark couldn’t handle the intense competition at Caltech, how could I? I was still cocky enough to conclude that if I could figure out how to get into Caltech, I certainly could figure out a way to graduate from Caltech. Most of all, I breathed a sigh of relief that my “secret” died with Klark but I remained anxious about the whereabouts of the forged ID’s.
This summer raced by and it was the first summer which wasn’t carefree and easy. Something was bothering me and it was Caltech. An invitation from Caltech marked “Caltech Orientation 1976” arrived in the mail and my attendance was mandatory. I knew my first term at Caltech was rapidly approaching and the “rubber would meet the road”. I made the best of it by working hard at the coffee shop and making love to Rene who tried her best to cheer me up and feel grateful for the opportunity to attend Caltech. I was thankful to have her love, affection, understanding, and I relied heavily upon her to give me the courage to attend Caltech as I seriously considered withdrawing before classes began.
The day long Caltech orientation consisted of a tour of the beautiful campus and sophisticated research laboratories. As I met new classmates, I knew that I had made a mistake by choosing Caltech because I didn’t belong here. My classmates were the academic elite from throughout the world who were fulfilling the dream of their lives to pursue a scientific education at the world’s top institution. Many hailed from university towns throughout the United States and were the offspring of academics. They were an interesting mix of intense intellectuals, Autistic savants and a smattering of scholar athletes. The common denominator of each of my classmates was an intellectual intensity and competitive spirit. I knew that my courses would be difficult but I was now convinced that my classmates wouldn’t be comrades but fierce competitors. I didn’t stand a chance of completing my courses with passing grades let alone graduating from Caltech. Throughout the day, we attended introductory lectures by distinguished faculty and the final lecture of the Orientation was from a member of the Physics Department who approached the podium hesitantly. I heard whispers from my classmates that the speaker was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. I couldn’t wait to hear what this professor would tell us. The Professor introduced himself as Richard Feinberg and reached into his pocket fumbling for the misplaced notes for the speech he had prepared. It was an uncomfortable moment and the lecture hall remained silent awaiting the professor’s speech. The professor chuckled, and said “what the hell, I don’t need any notes to tell you what you need to know about Caltech”. The lecture hall burst into laughter but grew silent as the Professor grasped both sides of the podium and faced the audience. “Keep your ears, eyes, and heart open while you’re here at Caltech. You’ll never know what you may discover about the world around you but more importantly, what you may learn about yourself”. That was it. The entire speech. Richard Feinberg left the podium to a standing ovation. I left orientation at Caltech with a sense of doom and waited out the remainder of summer and commencement of classes at Caltech like a prisoner awaits his death sentence.
My father moved us into a comfortable apartment which was across the street from the restaurant where he worked and a block from the Caltech campus. Just after the start of classes, I slept in one morning and was certain to be late for my “Introduction to Mechanics” physics class. I ran down San Pasqual Street and into the professor’s parking lot and tripped over a stack of iron rebar being used for the construction of a wall. As I regained my composure, dusted myself off, and resumed my trek, I noticed a professor attempting to change a tire on a beat up Saab automobile. He had the rear driver side of the car hoisted by a jack and was struggling to remove the lug nuts from the wheel with an L shaped jack handle. He strained and cursed but couldn’t get the lug bolts to loosen. He was in his sixties, tall, thin, and looked very intellectual and familiar. His hair was uncombed, clothes rumpled and sported a plastic pocket protector filled with pens, pencils, and a miniature slide rule. It appeared to me that the jack handle didn’t afford enough torque and leverage to loosen the lug nuts but at the end of the jack handle there was an opening of about ½”. I had just tripped over a stack of ¼” rebar which was cut into 4’ strips. I grabbed one of the bars and approached the professor. “God damn tire”, he exclaimed and I inserted the rebar into the hole at the end of the jack handle which provided the increased torque and leverage to easily loosen the lug nuts with one swift pull. The professor remained quiet and watched with interest and bemusement as I quickly loosened each of the lug nuts, replaced the tire with the spare, tightened the lug nuts and placed the flat tire in the trunk.
My hands were greasy from the tire change and the professor grabbed me by the arm and said “it’s amazing how difficult it is to find ingenuity in this place. You can wash up in my office. I’m Dick Feinberg”. I’m Mickey Stein, Professor. “You look young enough to be an undergraduate, Mickey”. Yes sir, I’m a freshman. “What’s your major field of study, Mickey?” I haven’t declared yet, Professor. “Smart decision, Mickey. Drink in and get drunk on everything this place has to offer then decide on a major. You can consult me anytime”. My life changed forever at that moment. Dick Feinberg was a theoretical physicist but I had never heard of him. He walked quickly through the campus and towards his office explaining quantum mechanics to me as if I was capable of comprehending it. Dick was greeted by professors and students alike as we hurriedly made our way to his office and I could tell that he was a “big shot” professor on campus.
Dick’s office was in the physics building. It was about the size of a bedroom with a large window looking out onto the quad. Bookcases lined each of the walls and papers and periodicals were stacked throughout the office. Dick wasn’t into neatness but instinctively knew where to find anything. He motioned to his private bathroom, saying “you can wash up in there, Mickey”. He sat as three doctoral candidates entered the office and sat. I could hear Dick tear apart each of the theories and conclusions the brilliant doctoral students put forward and they were nervous when answering. Dick cross examined each of them like a trial attorney and I could tell he was unimpressed with their work. I cleaned up and left the bathroom. As I was leaving the office, Dick said “You’re welcome to stay, Mickey. Feel free to jump in” and he motioned towards a chair alongside his. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting with Dick Feinberg and his doctoral candidates but was grateful to miss my class. The door to Dick’s office was open and I could catch passer by’s peek into the office as if watching a Hollywood star in their dressing room. On the desk was a gold circular emblem emblazoned with the image of “Alfred Nobel” being used as a paperweight! Dick rose from his chair and exclaimed “none of you can see the forest from the trees and have failed to proffer a single original thought! I’ll rely on Mickey the freshman to make the big connections for the three of you! I suggest you hop to it if you expect to earn a doctorate from Caltech. Now get out of my sight”. The three doctoral students hurriedly left the room and I could tell they were uncertain about their futures. “Do you think I was too tough on them, Mickey?” Imagine a Nobel Laureate asking me such a question, I thought to myself. Before I could answer, Dick said “Call me Dick, Mickey. What’s your father’s name?” Ira Stein, Dick. “Did he own the “Guys and Dolls” piano bar on Foothill?” Yes, he did, Dick. “It’s a shame it closed, Mickey. I did some of my best work there over a whiskey sour and my note pad”. Your parents must be very proud of your accomplishments, Mickey. How are you doing in your coursework?” I’m struggling Dick and frankly I don’t think I belong at Caltech. Dick Feinberg was a brilliant theoretical physicist and from the first moment he met me in the parking lot, he sized me up as being cut from a different cord of wood than the rest of the freshman class but my ingenuity and piano bar “pedigree” impressed Dick. “I want you to come by my office each Friday at 4pm. We’ll discuss your assignments for an hour. Agreed?” I was flabbergasted. A Nobel Prize winner was offering to be my mentor, tutor, and friend. “Now get out of here, I have to work to do. See you Friday. By the way, say hello to your father from Dickey. He’ll know who you’re referring to”. As I exited the office and entered the hallway, I heard Dick pick up the phone and request my class schedule from the registrar.
I looked forward to weekends with Rene. She was a senior in high school and was accepted to USC in order to be close to me and home. She wanted to be a physician. We enjoyed visiting Lacy Park which was nestled amongst the mansions of San Marino not far from campus. As we drove past the pristine San Marino mansions, we pointed to those we each liked and fantasized about raising our family in one of them. We spent our days walking through the park or laying under a favorite tree and sneaking a kiss. Since I lived at home and not far from campus, my bedroom and fathers work scheduled provided us ample opportunity to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. I long for the days of my youth which provided me the stamina and rapid recovery to engage in intercourse with Rene for hours.
A “Santa Ana” weather condition unique to Southern California created a particularly summer like November. Rene packed a picnic lunch and suggested we visit Lacy Park and eat under our favorite tree. After laying out the table cloth and removing the flatware and silverware she carefully packed, we enjoyed the cheese, crackers, fried chicken, potato salad, and fruit Rene lovingly prepared. After our fill, I held her close and whispered I love you in her ear. At that moment, Rene began to cry. I looked deep into her eyes and asked what’s the matter baby? “Mickey, I think I’m pregnant”. My heart skipped a beat and fear overcame me. I rose and began to pace knowing that my future would be derailed if she had a baby. How do you know, I exclaimed. Rene wiped the tears from her eyes and summoned the composure to say “I’ve missed two of my periods, Mickey”. How do you know for sure, Rene? “We need to find a doctor to check my urine, Mickey but I can’t tell my parents and don’t know a doctor and can’t afford to pay for one”. I knew that we had to be certain before jumping to any conclusions and also knew that her parents would be furious and likely demand that we marry and have the baby which would screw up my career plans. Don’t worry, Rene. I have a plan. We gathered the picnic supplies and headed back to my apartment. We were scared.
I remembered the name of my mother’s ob/gyn physician who delivered me and was surprised to see that Dr. Lass was still practicing medicine in Pasadena. I phoned and was told by the receptionist that we could make an appointment for the urine test and the results would be available within a couple of days. The receptionist confirmed that the results would remain confidential. Thanks to my mother’s social security death benefit and generous scholarship funds, the cost of the medical appointment was of no concern. Later in the week, Rene and I entered the plush office of Dr. Lass. I sat in the comfortable waiting room while Rene was examined. The Doctor asked me to join Rene and him in the examination room. Rene was weeping. “Mickey, although we won’t have the urine tests for a couple of days, my examination of Rene confirms she is about ten weeks pregnant. Your options are to have the baby or an abortion”. We were faced with the most important decision either of us was forced to make in our lives and stark reality was staring each of us directly in the face. “If you choose to have the child, I’m pleased to be your physician but if you choose an abortion, I’ll have to refer you to a clinic as I don’t perform abortions.” Rene began crying harder but Dr. Lass spoke calmly and soothingly. “Take some time to think, it over. There is no hurry but if you choose an abortion, it’s better to complete it sooner rather than later. The receptionist will provide you with the closest clinic which provides abortions”. I placed my arm around Rene as we walked to my car. I opened her door and held her hand as she sat. As I reached for the ignition, Rene grabbed my hand and said, “Mickey, I want the abortion”. Even though I was only eighteen years old, I know it was a difficult decision for Rene and she unselfishly had arrived at the decision so as not to interrupt my career. Rene also believed we would eventually be married with opportunities for children when we were settled later in life.
We arrived at the abortion clinic on a Saturday morning. It was located in an industrial neighborhood and was a far cry from the plush medical office building of Dr. Lass. I could feel Rene’s fear as I escorted her into the crowded waiting room filled to capacity with women of all races and many much further along than Rene. I was taken aback at how calm each of these women were suggesting they had abortions previously. I registered Rene and wrote a check for the procedure which apparently impressed many of the other patients who were indigent. The receptionist quietly told me “I’ll see that she gets right in young man”. Within minutes, a nurse came for Rene and led her into the procedure room. Our eyes locked and my eyes began to fill with tears just like Rene’s. “You can wait here young man or I’ll bring her to your car”. I thanked the kind nurse and hurriedly left the terrible reception room. Within an hour, Rene was wheeled to the Mustang by the nurse and carefully lifted from the wheel chair and placed within the front seat. She was ashen gray and shivering. I had never seen Rene so exhausted and emotionally drained. “Young man, there may be some minor bleeding but if it increases in severity, take her to the nearest ER.” The nurse handed me a post procedure instruction paper and a tiny envelope with pain pills. “Good luck to both of you”. As I drove out of the parking lot, the nurse gazed at my Mustang with the Caltech insignia proudly displayed within the back window. I drove Rene home and her plan was to tell her parents she had the flu and needed to stay off her feet for a few days. I sweated the next few days realizing that a trip to the ER would reveal the abortion. Three days came and went and life resumed its normal hue but I knew that Rene would carry the experience like baggage for the rest of her life. At eighteen, I couldn’t possibly have fully understood the range of emotions Rene must have undergone and the humiliation and disappointment which accompanied her abortion. Rene and I continued to date but it was never the same. Our conversations were strained and Rene had a faraway look in her eyes. Our dating became less frequent and within a few months, I received the “Dear John” letter. Rene told me that she needed to devote all of her energy to her school work and that I should do the same. She wished me luck. Today, I can appreciate her pain and harbor guilt and misgivings that I wasn’t emotionally available to her in that awful time of need. At times, I also regret the fateful decision we made together and wonder about the family we never had. I will never forget Rene as long as I live.
I was flunking out of Caltech. My fellow freshmen divided themselves into study groups and I bounced from one to another finding myself woefully unprepared for the rigor of Caltech and its curriculum. More importantly, I lacked the passion for science that my fellow freshman demonstrated. Despite my earnest attempts to prepare for the examinations, the examinations were written by the best scientific minds in the world and designed to test the classroom curriculum in real world everyday applications. It’s the only way the professors at Caltech can test the best scientific minds in the world. Some of my classmates would finish the exam early, and I could hear them discuss their answers in the hallway while I struggled to put something of an answer down on the paper.
Friday afternoon’s with Dick were well intentioned but resulted in a lot of BS and goofing off. Dick never discussed his personal life nor did he invite me to his home. Despite our close association, Dick kept our relationship professional with a healthy dose of laughter, mutual respect and friendship. Dick’s approach to tutoring me was to make generalizations about the subject matter of each of my classes and I believe he was attempting to fuel my inquisitiveness and self discovery. It wasn’t helpful to me. After all, Dick’s approach to explaining my courses was that of a genius and Nobel Laureate to a student who cheated to gain admission. The old rotary phone in Dick’s office rang one day and I could hear the voice on the other end. Dick motioned for me to remain silent. “Richard, this is Dave Goodman, how are you?” I knew Dave Goodman was also an eminent professor of physics and one of the physics departments Vice Chairman. “What do you want, David, I’m busy at the moment” Dick curtly mumbled into the phone while scribbling equations on his yellow pad. “I know you have taken a liking to one of our students, Mickey Stein but I have to make a decision to give him the boot”. I knew this day was coming and was humiliated that it happened in front of my friend and mentor. I felt a wave of sadness overcome me but also a sense of relief that I would no longer have to pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. To my surprise, Dick shouted into the phone “leave him alone, he’s a good kid and working hard at his subjects”. “So you vouch for him, Richard” Goodman asked. “Yes, David, I do. He’ll get his grades up”. Dick hung up the phone, finished his scribbling, leaned back in his chair and looked at me like a disappointed father. “Mickey, I just received a call from the head of the Physics Department. They don’t think you’re cutting the mustard and want your ass. You need to get your grades up to get them off our backs. Finals are coming up and I spoke with Professor Simon and got some inside information on his final for you”.
Professor Simon’s physics course was tough and I was certain to fail it. I couldn’t believe that Dick was going to give me the answers or likely a copy of the test? “Focus on a bicycle wheel and a baseball both moving through space and time simultaneously. Imagine the physics involved and you’ll be fine”. This was a typical Dick Feinberg tutorial session and I left it more confused than when I arrived! I knew that I had “dodged a bullet” with Dr. Goodman but sooner rather than later he would pay me another visit and perhaps Dick couldn’t protect me.
During one of our Friday tutorial sessions, we were discussing motorcycles. I told Dick about a trail head with two entrances and two exits in the mountains where I rode. I told him that regardless of which of the two entrances I choose, a second rider would arrive at the exit of the trail at the same time as me despite the trails being completely dissimilar including length. Dick scoffed at the idea suggesting that the trails although different, may be longer or shorter in length and that the ability of the rider and capability of his motorcycle must be accounted for. He brushed the phenomenon off as coincidence and suggested we were naively validating our hoped for conclusions with sloppy testing. Although I had ridden these two trails many times before with a variety of second riders of varying skill, I knew instinctively that I was correct because we had measured the distance on many occasions but I couldn’t explain it scientifically. Furthermore, I wasn’t about to question Dick Feinberg’s conclusion. Dick sat there and stared at me silently waiting for a well reasoned reply. He had become my friend and like an uncle to me and I couldn’t disappoint him because he was intellectually challenging me in the traditional scientific way of things. I was going to give Dick an answer even if it was full of BS. I was a capable writer and always borrowed from my surroundings for the subject matter of my fiction. I hurriedly glanced about the room looking for inspiration, my heart racing, and my palms growing moist with perspiration. Dick was twirling a paperclip with his fingers which was distracting me. My life was about to change forever. There was something about the paperclip which fascinated me and drew me to a closer examination. I looked for another paperclip that I could use to spin my fiction and provide Dick with an answer. On the floor beneath my chair was the most beautiful specimen of a paperclip you can ever imagine. I have carried the same paperclip in my shirt pocket every day of my life since then. I held the paperclip in front of Dick’s face and said my riding experience is “elliptical” like this paperclip. Dick took notice when I said elliptical and the expression on his face was unfamiliar to me. He had the inquisitiveness of a student again and I realized that he had studied ellipses at sometime in his career. I felt like a “snake oil” salesman attempting to sell a line of BS to a Nobel Laureate but I owed Dick something of an explanation so I continued. At that moment, I heard the reassuring voices of my Junior High PE and mathematics teachers encouraging me to take my best shot. “Think, Mickey, Think”. “Don’t give up, never quit”. Notice that the clip has two pointed ends which are alongside each other. Dick stared intently at my paperclip. Notice that regardless of which pointed end you choose, you will continue along an elliptical path which leads you out the end of the other point and this will always be the case regardless of which pointed end of the clip you embark upon. I knew Dick well enough to know that I had his attention but hadn’t “sold him” on anything yet. My mind gravitated to my last lovemaking session with Rene. It was intense and exhausted both of us. In particular, I remembered the mattress on my bed wasn’t firm. When we were on top of one another, we made a significant depression within the soft mattress which rose up around us as if enveloping us. When we left the bed, the mattress regained its original flat composure. I enjoyed the softness of the mattress because it permitted me greater agility and maneuverability during intercourse with Rene. I was inspired and continued to sell my snake oil. What the hell, I could only embarrass myself and be wrong. I continued. I pulled the paperclip apart and said this is the universe as a flat plain, Dick. Notice the two pointed ends of the clip are now at opposite ends and one can only enter and exit at one point. Imagine Dick a depression on this flat plane which bends the paperclip back into its original manufactured state with both ends of the pointed clip alongside each other. You see, Dick, it’s like a mattress which is soft and becomes depressed when one lies atop it. The paperclip may explain Déjà vu because we always come back again. At that point, Dick rose from his chair and I witnessed intensity about him I had never seen before. I was frightened and expected him to throw me out of the office. “It’s not a mattress, Mickey. It’s the plane of the universe and the depression which occurs upon it is often a dying star growing so small that it ultimately becomes a black hole. The mass of the star doesn’t disappear but becomes concentrated as it shrinks and creates a depression within the plane or fabric of the universe”. Dick picked up his old rotary phone, dialed and waited for an answer. I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end state, “Chief Librarian, how may I help you”. Dick was scribbling feverishly on a yellow notepad. “This is Dick Feinberg. I’m sending my Research Assistant over to the library with instructions to wait for you to pull the following publications”. To this day, I can’t recall which specific publications he wanted except that they were scholarly publications, textbooks, and research papers concerning ellipses which Dick said over and over. He hung up the phone and his passion for intellectual pursuit engulfed him. I had never seen Dick like this before. He was hungry for knowledge and excited to pursue it. “Mickey, get over to the library and tell them Dick Feinberg sent you with orders to wait. Bring everything back to the office. Here’s a key to the door if I’m not here. Put the stack of publications behind my desk and out of sight”. There is a great deal of competition at Caltech. Despite the genius of the professors and student body, original, innovative, world changing ideas are difficult to come by and everybody is looking for an edge and the opportunity to discover the next big thing. David Goodman was an example of such competition. He was a brilliant physicist but lost his edge with each graying hair over time. He seemed angry about it. Instead of retiring with honor, he chose to stay on and assume the administrative duties of Vice Chairman of the Physics Department. In David’s mind, it was better to be part of the action then not at all. He developed a reputation of being nosey and always eves dropping on others conversations within the department as he was seeking his edge! Although David was no longer a research scientist, David had great power within Caltech.
Word spread about my work with Feinberg and my professors cut me slack on classroom attendance and my final grades. In addition, Dick sponsored me in several independent study courses and awarded me with top grades which bolstered my GPA. For Dick Feinberg, my observation about the entry and exit points of a motorcycle trail or paperclip were the foundations about the emergence, disappearance, and return of light, matter, and energy in the form of subatomic particles. It was Dick Feinberg’s unique ability and passion to describe this phenomenon in the language of his peers, mathematics and physics which brought my hunch to life. Dick began to calculate, postulate, and theorize in mathematical and physics terms the phenomenon I developed. I was expected to assist Dick in the collection of publications to bolster his theories and critique his mathematical and physics conclusions regardless of the fact that I couldn’t understand any of it. I will never forget the graciousness of Dick’s invitation to assist him and was humbled when he awarded me a co-author credit on all of the publications which changed my life forever. I was watching a genius at work from a front row seat!
I was summoned to David Goodman’s office one afternoon. I was ushered into the large, well appointed office David occupied as Vice Chair of the Physics Department and was in stark contrast to the bedroom size cluttered office Dick maintained. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the size of the office which made the reputation of its occupant but the volume and quality of the physics produced inside the office. Testaments to David’s former illustrious career in Physics adorned the walls with many awards, citations, and photographs with important scientists and politicians. David was close to Dick’s age but lacked the child like sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around him. David’s demeanor was cold, aloof, distant, and calculating. I sat in a leather chair with the legs cut off so the chairs occupant was at a lower eye level than David’s. David kept me waiting while he finished a scientific journal and sipped his afternoon tea from a tea cup with saucer. David placed the journal down on the desk, sighed, and said “Mr. Stein you’re failing at Caltech”. He picked up a folder with my name on it, opened the dossier which contained by Caltech and high school records and began to read from it. “Mr. Stein, I see that you graduated from an undistinguished local public high school without a history of sending any students to Caltech. I further see that neither your parents were college graduates. I must congratulate you on your stellar performance on the College Boards. You defeated the odds which were stacked against you”! I sat motionless and was growing angry by David’s suggestion that I might not be good enough to be at Caltech due to the high school I attended, and most importantly, my parentage. David placed the dossier down on his desk, took a sip of tea, carefully placed the tea cup within the saucer and said “even more remarkable is your association with one of Caltech’s preeminent professors. Tell me, Mr. Stein, what are you and Dick Feinberg up to concerning ellipticals?” David stared at me coldly like a shark staring at its prey just before devouring it. I hesitated but David’s peering eyes penetrated me and he was determined to wait as long as necessary to get his answer. I don’t know what you mean by “up to”, Dean Goodman. I’m Professor Feinberg’s research assistant and Professor Feinberg tutors me once per week. I could see that my answer irritated David who sat up in his leather chair. He leaned in so close to me I could smell the tea on his breath. “Listen to me, Mr. Stein. Your grades at Caltech are well below academic probation levels and with one stroke of my pen, I can have you dismissed from Caltech and there is nothing Dick Feinberg can do about it. You see Mr. Stein, Dick Feinberg is a warm hearted and generous man but at the end of the day, I control the budget for the Physics Department and I’m charged with allocating a generous amount of federal and private monies to the faculty. Dick Feinberg is a pragmatist and he wouldn’t jeopardize his funding over the likes of you. Now, once more, what are the two of you up to in your research concerning ellipticals?” For the second time in my life, I faced a decision with life changing consequences. I had both everything to gain and everything to lose depending upon my answer. I could divulge the results of Dick’s research and possibly remain in school or honor my friendship and fidelity to Dick and keep his work confidential. I reached down deep into my soul and without hesitation told Dean Goodman I had nothing further to say about the matter and I was willing to accept the consequences. David Goodman was noticeably upset, red faced, and had his bluff called by a nineteen year old kid who was his intellectual inferior. David picked up the journal and raised it to his face saying “that’s all for now, Mr. Stein. I’ll take your predicament here at Caltech under advisement”. I left the office certain that I would find a notice of dismissal from Caltech arrive in the mail but I also felt a new found belief in myself that for the first time in my life, I had made the correct moral decision. I faced down a more powerful foe than myself with the ability to terminate my career in favor of defending one of the kindest and most thoughtful men I had ever met, Dick Feinberg. I had made the correct decision and was ready to accept the consequences.
Dean Goodman never contacted me. Dick and I worked together on a daily basis throughout my undergraduate career. I would graduate from Caltech with a BS degree in Physics barely squeaking by with a C- average. On a beautiful spring day, I graduated much to the joy of my father who was joined by my PE and mathematics Junior High School teachers and Rene who was attending medical school. Rene moved on with her life but chose to attend my graduation as a friend. All during the commencement ceremony, I heard the voice of my mother in better times and I felt her loving presence. In non-mathematical and physics terms, I knew my paperclip and motorcycle trail theory had merit and it was possible for everyone to return again at some time just like my mom, mentors, and former girlfriend. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain the phenomenon with physics or math. What matters is that I knew it’s real. I cried like a baby behind my gown pulled up to cover my face.
Despite four years of intensive study, Dick’s work wasn’t completed. By this time, the physics world was abuzz with Dick’s theory of an elliptical universe. It wasn’t uncommon to release the theory and begin accepting criticism from the best physics minds throughout the world. Dick and I travelled thorough the world and I was able to go places and meet people which would have never been possible but for my meeting Dick Feinberg in the faculty parking lot. I was able to fly with the aid of valium prescribed by the campus medical office. To my surprise, the worldwide physics community associated me closely with Dick Feinberg’s theory and I was courted to complete graduate studies in Physics by the most prestigious universities in the world. Dick arranged for my admission to the doctoral program in Physics at Caltech with a full scholarship. It would result in my being awarded both a MS in Science and a PhD within 5 years. I accepted without hesitation. It was ironic that Dean Goodman approved my admission to the graduate program in Physics because even the Vice Chairman of the Physics Department at Caltech wouldn’t stand in the way of a second Nobel Prize awarded to Dick Feinberg and the resulting funding and international prestige which would accompany the Prize. In later years, David Goodman was asked to accept early retirement by the President of Caltech when it came to the President’s attention that rumors of plagiarism surrounded David’s recent scientific research. To the day David Goodman retired from Caltech and despite my appointment to the faculty, he would never speak a word to me. As David traversed the path of the paperclip and motorcycle trail, he chose to create divots and conflict upon an otherwise smooth plane of space and time. Like all of us, David’s past was also traversing the paperclip and motorcycle trail simultaneously and wasn’t far behind him. David’s past caught up with him and David was ejected out the end of the paperclip and trail ungracefully. I always muttered the phrase “what goes around, comes around” after encountering David Goodman.
That was the toughest first lecture to the freshman physics class I ever experienced. The eager young student’s questions are becoming harder for me to answer. I find it hard to believe that the office I now occupy was formerly the office of the late, great Dick Feinberg who died about a decade ago. Dick didn’t win a second Nobel Prize but our theory remains intact and the subject of continuous exploration by the world’s greatest physicists. I’m unable to make the mathematical and physics contributions necessary for the furtherance of Dick’s work but I’m happy to remain on the sidelines and watch those more capable of advancing the theory. Dick remained my friend and colleague up until the last days of his life which had become ravaged by cancer. I was introduced to Dick’s personal life when I met his two former wives and grown children at his funeral. I was touched when they said in unison “we’re so happy to finally meet the student Dick so often talked about”. It doesn’t surprise me that I often feel his presence and cajoling to do my very best. Richard Feinberg and Mickey Stein’s friendship was forged by a mutual appreciation of the world around us and a sense of awe and wonder as to how and why it was put together. Richard chose mathematics and physics to share his wonder. I chose words. We each use a “toolkit” the universe bestows upon us and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a slide rule, lug wrench, or chainsaw. What matters is that you use the tools given to you as you move along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Dick’s the ellipse. I’ve learned over time that people like Richard Feinberg make the choice to move through space and time with grace and humility and end up leaving the largest footprint on the fabric of the universe. Their spirit continues to motivate and inspire long after they pass. We all have that choice. My father’s death from Alzheimer’s complications followed shortly after Dick’s death and I remain proud of both my father and mother for choosing the same loving and inspiring path along the ellipse that Dick choose. Both my parents and Richard Feinberg shaped my life and I will remain forever grateful to them. I never saw Rene again after graduation. I presume she is a physician and I hope she is happy. I was fortunate to have known her love, kindness, and inspiration. I’ve dated many fine women, had good and bad relationships, but remain alone. Perhaps one day, I’ll discover the answer to this puzzle. Like those warm summer nights of my youth, I often find myself laying awake in bed and pondering my fate. My College Board scores gained my admission to the colleges of my dreams and I could have easily accepted their offers of admission and embarked upon a career as a corporate deal making lawyer. But why did I choose Caltech and the more difficult path it entailed? I’ll never know the answer but my late night conclusion is always the same. It’s the path I was destined to take as I moved along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Richard’s space time ellipse. It was Mickey Stein’s destiny to cheat his way into Caltech, meet Richard Feinberg, and set in motion a theory of the universe which may someday change the way mankind sees their role in the universe. If I’m lucky, it may change the way mankind chooses to move through space and time. I hope so, roll over, and fall asleep.
I see a large envelope arrived with my other mail with the return address of a Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr., PhD, Evanston, Illinois. My heart skips a beat. Was this my Klark returning from the grave? Did he fake his suicide? Could this be the end of my career? I take a deep breath and regain my composure when I see “Sr.” and conclude it might be Klark’s father. I tear open the large envelope which contains a weathered sealed envelope with 1970’s postage and addressed to me at my high school home. The return address is that of Klark Kalman at the old Pasadena mansion. A handwritten note is “paper clipped” to the old sealed envelope and reads:
“Dear Dr. Stein: I came across this envelope amongst my son’s belongings recently and it appears to have never been mailed. (Better late than never). My son spoke of your friendship and was impressed by your enterprising nature. I am also impressed with your career, Dr. Stein and wished the same for Klark. Best wishes, Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr. PhD. Dept. of Physics.
I open the weathered envelope which includes the fake ID’s Klark had used to take my tests. I sit back in my chair and feel an overwhelming sense of relief and melancholy. I didn’t know Klark and frankly didn’t care about him other than what he could accomplish for me. I was touched that despite his own genius, he was impressed by my “enterprise” and I was saddened to hear that he considered me his friend. I can now appreciate the profound sadness, loneliness, and the despair he must have felt failing his subjects and not living up to his professor father’s expectations while entombed within the old lady’s mansion. Klark made his journey along the paperclip and motorcycle trail and returned to say hello to me. My hunch born during a Friday afternoon tutorial which later became Dicks attempt at a second Nobel Prize in Physics was vindicated again!
My opening lecture to the freshman physics students is always the same: “Remember my motorcycle trail and paperclip theories which became the foundation of Dick’s elliptical universe postulate. Tread lightly as you progress through life and always try and leave a positive impression upon the fabric of space and time because you never know who may return to greet you along the way. Most of all be careful of what you wish for. It may come true.”