The Stink Fish bar, as Bobby called it, had no Devil. But it had smoked herring, one of the richer forms of bar nourishment, and he loved shocking his mother with the strong scent that remained on his hands when he came home.
Real life began years later, with the discovery of Algebra.
Yes: Algebra. It was a near-religious experience for Bobby. The idea that relationships could be symbolized and that mathematics was a language of symbols and operators changed almost everything. In one mystical moment, he realized that all of life was symbolization, all the way down.
It also got him into trouble.
Eager to demonstrate the uses of math, he presented a report to his ancient history class. History, he said, showed a clear progression as human beings went from a multitude of gods to a paucity of them. It wasn't clear whether the limit of the series was one or zero, he told the class. He pointed to the contemporary consolidation of belief in one god for some---and the complete absence of god for others. In fact, he had smiled at the class, he saw the zero or one dilemma another way. It was proof god had a sense of humor. After all, the entire universe could be reconstructed from binary code based on one or zero.
Bobby learned to keep his thoughts to himself.
A science fiction reader, he decided they would need more than a barnstorming pilot for a trip to the moon. They would need an engineer. He would be both. He learned to fly at 16, working a full day at the local airport for each 30 minutes flying time. For a while, he thought he could kill three birds with one stone by attending Annapolis, West Point, or the new Air Force Academy. He could do his service as a pilot and he wouldn't have to worry about the cost of college. He scratched that plan when he decided the military academies weren't strong enough in math and engineering.
He would need to go to M.I.T.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 his plan and timing seemed perfect. A humiliated country called for engineers. The space race was on!
Then his life blew up.
He had spent the summer between high school and college driving to a mental hospital to see his mother. With multiple suicide attempts, she had spent most of the year "away." But as summer ended she came home. Two days later the phone rang. A stranger told them Bobby's father was dead in Los Angeles, a possible homicide. He had been found in the street with severe damage to his skull. He had lived for a week in a coma, but died.
All Bobby knew was that his father was an alcoholic.
Bobby and his uncle were on a plane to Los Angeles the next afternoon, thanks to the generosity of his stepfather. When the plane landed, Bobby wondered why there were so many people--- a crowd--- gathered to watch the plane. Could they know his father was dead? How could it matter to them?
Moments later Elizabeth Taylor, who had been traveling in First Class, disembarked to applause and cheers.
Even today, Bobby can't tell you what the hardest part of that trip was. But the LA Morgue is a top contender. Just before entering the basement room he realized he didn't know which would be worse--- being able to identify his father, or not being able to identify his father. His uncle identified the body. Bobby never saw him.
A few days later Bobby was in his first physics class at M.I.T.
He didn't know why, but his careful plans no longer made sense. His mother, worried, sent him a random supply of drugs--- miltown, dexamil, Benzedrine. She even sent a little Thorazine.
Faced with a probable genetic destiny of substance abuse Bobby decided to be scientific: He'd take the route of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. He'd try them all. If any took, he'd know his fate and get on with it. If substance abuse wasn't his fate, well, he'd have to figure that out.
Four years of identity crisis and one Bachelor of Science degree later, Bobby jokes, he was certain of only a few things. At the price of becoming an unlikely candidate for the Supreme Court or the Oval office he knew he was a failure as a substance abuser. His drug was lucidity. Genetic destiny, he would later learn, had gone into remission for a generation.
He thought his grandmother, widowed and living alone in Arizona, would like to know her only grandchild had just graduated from college, so he sent her a postcard. He didn't dare write more because he didn't know her. He also believed she had never accepted his mother or his birth.
Real life, Bobby will tell you, is vastly stranger than fiction.
His postcard was found on the floor of his grandmother's tiny house in Arizona, delivered after she had died of a stroke. If there were no other heirs, he would inherit whatever she had owned. That turned out to be a small fortune. So Bobby declined a graduate fellowship. He made a pact with a friend from Harvard. They would apply to the Sorbonne. If they got in, they would live in Paris in the manner of Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
And what if they didn't get in? Well, they would join the Army together. Fortunately, they were admitted. It was 1962. Vietnam was warming up.
In 1963 Bobby returned to the states, having decided to enlist. "Don't forget to tell them your mother attempted suicide seven times!" she advised as he left for his physical. He did just that, including two known generations of alcoholism and his program of drug experimentation to the medical history form.
The army rejected him. When his new Selective Service card came in the mail it had a new classification at the bottom: "IV-F: Aviator." For years Bobby joked that he would be called if there was a need for Kamikaze pilots.
Bobby returned to Boston. He began working as collateral support for a brilliant physicist turned weapons consultant. He wrote reports on new communications technologies, the possible market for mini-missile submarines, hand held radar, etc. Most of his classmates were involved in similar efforts. One even worried about a "peace scare."
One night, riding the Budd liner back from Concord to Cambridge, passing Walden Pond, an escaped mental patient put his head across the railroad track and waited for the train. The engineer put on the brakes, hard, but the mental patient was decapitated before the train could stop. The conductor, clearly in shock, announced that "it was some nut from the nut factory."
When he got off the train, Bobby felt a need to correct the conductor. "You're wrong," he said, "The nut left the warehouse. This is the factory."
Bobby's life improved when he met his first wife. Her parents lived in a Boston townhouse. Her father collected art. Her sister had gone to Radcliffe. She had gone to a finishing school. And she could trace her family back to a famous massacre in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1676. With his history, he never dared inquire about mental illness in her family. Besides, love cures all.
Their first son was born a few years later, their second two years after that. For a few years everything was magnificent. Bobby bought a house across the street from his in-laws, traded stocks while working on projects, bought a summer cottage with his "winnings," and landed a job at a prestigious Cambridge consulting firm.
When he learned an estate property near his summer cottage might be available, he visited the owner, a man who had never been accepted by his Brahmin neighbors. He was delighted when Bobby told him his mothers' maiden name was Mahoney. He agreed to sell, eager to annoy his neighbors.
Bobby bought the property, borrowing every dime. He had figured out that owning real estate was good, particularly when inflation was greater than three percent. If the stock market went down, his equations told him, rising real estate prices would probably compensate: he was balancing his risks, using borrowed money.
There was only one problem: The market crash of 1973-74. It was way beyond anything Bobby anticipated. One of his neighbors had a heart attack and died, forcing his family to sell their house. A neighbor whose car collection had provided the yellow Rolls Royce used in filming "The Great Gatsby" was foreclosed on. His car collection was sold at auction. By early November, 1974, Bobby was wondering why his bank didn't liquidate his stocks to pay off his loans.
Then he read the New York Times.
Insurance companies, the paper reported, were being forced to sell stocks to meet their regulatory reserve requirements. It was, the Times said, "the equivalent of an institutional margin call." Bobby realized the only reason he wasn't liquidated is that others, including large institutions, were in worse shape than he. The bank knew that if it acted, it was all over.
The near depression that followed the first oil embargo was overshadowed by a personal event. One morning Bobby's older son disappeared. He and his wife searched the entire house. They finally found him hiding in the basement. He told them creatures were visiting his room. They had said he was not going to be able to grow up.
Years passed before there was any diagnosis of mental illness but that morning may have been his sons' first psychotic episode. The couple put their son in therapy and sent him to special schools.
Every effort had little effect, except on their net worth.
After Bobby's mother died his stepfather asked him to join the board of directors of his publicly traded company, then a $50 million collection of metal, plastic, and rubber factories. Ever the deal maker, George had put a small down payment on a plastics company, arranged a public offering, and had walked away with a major stake. He also had the chairman/CEO job and control of the proxy machinery.
If you want to be in the race, you have to have a horse," George said.
Unfortunately, George was better at borrowing money than at management. At the first board meeting the new director had to vote to close a rubber factory in Akron Ohio. The write-down put the company in violation of its bank agreements. The directors passed the hat and anteed up $250,000. Part of it came from Bobby, who was realizing that being a corporate director might not be a walk in the park.
A year later the rubber factories were still in the red. The company needed capital again. Although the factories were in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, the financing came from a far away city--- Dallas--- in the form of a $500,000 private placement.
Less than 60 days later the company announced a $1.3 million inventory adjustment. In short order the Dallas investors sued for rescission, the auditors gave a qualified opinion, and the stock was de-listed from NASDAQ. It was possible that his stepfather, having signed the due diligence papers, would go to jail.
In spite of all that, George failed to act. The directors were frozen with indecision. Bobby, shocked, wrote a letter to the board with an analysis of each division and its capital productivity, or lack of same. He urged them to act quickly to divest some divisions and pay down debt.
The letter put his stepfather in a rage. They had to meet, he said. They agreed to meet in Rockefeller Center, in the corporate attorney's library. Bobby arrived first. He sat close to the door, in case things got violent.
His stepfather arrived and sat on the opposite side of the table. "You can't write letters like that," he said. "I don't know whether I have five sons or six."
"I don't feel sorry for you. You're the only father I've got," Bobby answered.
The two men argued back and forth for nearly an hour and a half. George was cornered. But in the end he realized he had put himself there. Bobby hadn't.
As they went downstairs Bobby worried that his stepfather would never talk to him again. He was wrong.
"They do really nice sandwiches down here," George said, "Shall we break bread?" When they left Bobby had a better idea of what fatherhood was about. It was awkward. It was silent. But it was stunningly constant.
Three months later Bobby and George were sitting next to each other in the Rochester New York Eastern Airlines lounge, waiting for a flight. The worst had happened. Bobby had hoped his stepfather could retire quietly and there might be enough breathing space to turn the company around. Instead, the directors had learned George had borrowed money from the company without their knowledge. They also knew he had a second mortgage on his house and loans against his stock.
In a single meeting George was removed as a corporate officer and director. He became a non-person, on his way to being expunged.
At the airport, a tear rolled down Georges' face. He put his hand on Bobby's.
"That was some sandwich we had, wasn't it?"
Bobby was left with the task of explaining what had happened to his brothers. Explaining would have been awkward under any circumstance but George had led them all to believe his intention was to leave at least $1 million to each of his boys. It was 1983, when $1 million meant something.
Two years later a career opportunity brought Bobby to Dallas, famous as the home of J.R. Ewing. He left his family behind to finish the school year while he settled in to his new job and scouted the best school arrangements.
But the real move never happened. Two months later his wife went into a clinical depression. Within weeks she said they would probably be divorced. At the end of six months she filed for divorce. Two months after that she was in a mental hospital.
Bobby offered to pre-sign a completed divorce agreement that would assure long term alimony and split the marital estate. He offered it in the hope of bringing his wife to Texas and dealing with the issues as a couple, knowing that she feared--- as any woman would--- a Texas divorce.
She never moved to Texas. Instead, she made and broke promises for five years. Eventually, she wore Bobby out. The divorce was complete in 1990, five years and ten months after Bobby had moved to Dallas.
During this time the children had gone back and forth, dividing their time between parents. As they grew from boys to young men, they increasingly favored Dallas. Bobby would like to believe it was because he was such a good father but admits the more likely reason is Texas women.
Bobby, meanwhile, had to learn to date again. He wanted to avoid a replay of the venereal circus known as Harvard Square, so it wasn't easy. Fortunately, two friends finally introduced him to a woman they had been talking about for years. "You'd love her," they had said, "but she's married."
In Dallas marriage is a temporary condition, something expected to last longer than an apartment lease but not as long as a 7 year car loan. When her marriage ended, the two were introduced. In typical fashion, Bobby observed that relationships were a lot more difficult at 50 than at 25. "It's the hormone to identity ratio," he liked to say. "When you are 20 it's nearly infinite. Who you are and what you believe in hardly matters. What matters is finding a plausible excuse to get naked. But at 50 the hormone to identity ratio is less than one. You're actual people."
Difficult, is not the same as impossible. The two married in 1995. Bobby chose the Chapel at Loretto in Santa Fe for the service. He thought the Miraculous Staircase was a perfect metaphor for marriage after 50.
To their daily amazement, they have lived Happily Ever After. Both thank God for the miracle of maturity, for finding enough patience to experience true gentle love. They do this in spite of the continued pummeling of life events.
Much of that pummeling has been natural--- the death of both her parents, the death of Bobby's stepfather. These events have been balanced by the marriage of two children and the birth of five amazing grandchildren.
The hardest punch was learning that that the substance abuse remission was only for one generation. It returned for his older son. In spite of warnings from his doctor, in spite of experiencing the death of several friends from drug overdoses, Bobby's older son pursued life as a drug omnivore.
It would be nice to believe this is rare, but it is not. Among those diagnosed with serious mental illnesses--- as Bobby's son was--- fully 80 percent "self-medicate." They take drugs prescribed to alleviate their symptoms. And they take whatever comes along because many believe, as Bobby's son did, that they have a special capacity. They won't be hurt.
His older son died of an overdose of morphine pills on Christmas day, 1998. He was 30 years old.
Today "getting in the ring," as Bobby puts it, is harder some days than others. Neither our hearts nor our minds are prepared to survive our children. Quite simply, they would rather not. He thinks of his grandfather Charlie, often. He remembers being ashamed of him for being drunk and falling down.
And then he recalls an amazing day when he saw Charlie differently. He was proud at how many times he got up.
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