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Did I Ever Work for a Living?

Mervin F. Roberts – October 2015   

Now, in my 94th year, I am occasionally asked just what I worked at for a living. Repeatedly, I rethink it, and each time I conclude that to date I’ve done little or no work for a living. Yes, I certainly did work, but I did not work for a living.

I worked to put out fires, both literally and figuratively. I worked to satisfy my curiosity, to solve problems, and to answer my own or other people’s questions. I worked to create new products or to improve something. I worked to expose scams.

So, yes I worked, but I didn’t work for a living. I worked mostly for a challenge or for fun. Frequently, there was someone who paid me for what I did or tried to do. Did I always succeed? Not always but often enough. I attempted taxidermy and failed, also failed with painting, dance, music and the typewriter. Did I cheat or fake it or steal someone’s ideas? No. Did I plagiarize? No. Did I spend my life in the field of my formal education? No. I did get jobs from three employers because of my degree, but rarely did I actually apply my special training in glass technology. Soon after I started to repeat something, I found another challenge.

I was never employed to manufacture anything. So then what did I do? I invented a color sorter to recycle glass bottles. I helped govern a town. I taught school. I monitored two nuclear power plants cooling water intakes for fish, consulted in aquaculture, wrote about 40 books and booklets about tidemarshes and pet care, did feasibility studies for benevolences in Ecuador, Brazil, India and elsewhere, improved electric switches, pioneered in the development of frameless aquariums, invented a water pump, experimented with perfect binding, photographed pets, aquarium fishes, jumping frogs, shot strings and bumble bees in flight. I rebarrelled shotguns and fixed mantle, pendulum clocks.

I did spend a couple of years experimenting with the phenomenon of oxygen as a “wetting agent” affecting the surface tension of molten glass, and I also helped develop a plasma for melting porcelain enamel, all funded by the U.S. Navy (Bu. Ships) and by the Office of Naval Research. This work was the one rare direct application of my college training in Glass Technology.

I designed and built photoflash equipment. I served the U.S. Navy as an officer during WW2 in the Pacific, and I earned two combat stars. I was a licensed Third Mate in the Merchant Marines, any gross tons, any ocean, steam. I navigated a ship across the Atlantic. In college, I kept two or three horses, shod, rode and drove a buggy before I could drive an auto.

I chaired the Connecticut Marine Resources Council and was president of the Connecticut Association of Conservation Commissions. I also founded the Old Lyme Conservation Commission and the Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Commission. I am, and have been for over 30 years, the Old Lyme Shellfish Commission Chair. I’ve been awarded “Citizen of the Year” by the Town of Old Lyme. I’ve been recognized by American Men of Science.

 I owned and navigated the 68 foot, 45 ton motor yacht Shell-Fish for about ten years and cruised between the St. Lawrence and the Carolina mangroves.

I’ve hunted ducks, fished commercially, and served actively in the Old Lyme Fire Department since 1968, first as an attack truck driver, and now as Chaplain.

I’ve been a church trustee and property chair, and have married about 100 couples as a Justice of the Peace. Together with my wife, we parented six children.

Even today, I don’t work for a living, but I do work, and it’s still fun.

There is in Kerala, a state in southwest India, a Catholic Bishop with whom I cooperate to alleviate poverty. He addresses me as “Reverend”. I think because he learned that my middle name is Francis.

Battle Stations – A Wartime Blog

Of the four years I spent in the U.S. Navy, only a few hours were actually spent in situations where I was involved directly with killing people or in avoiding being killed.  The remainder of all that time was spent eating, sleeping, dreaming, training sailors, taking liberty, being trained, standing watch, reading, writing, sailoring, romancing, visiting exotic places or watching the same movies over and over again until we could trade them with another ship.

The incidents I recount in my wartime blog entries are but the punctuation marks in about 1500 days of relative inactivity seventy or so years ago.

Now as I write this in my 93rd year, now and then I’m beset by doubts about the accuracy of my reporting.  So, I applied a test by comparing my account with the official records of the Navy Department.  I reviewed for example; official U.S. Marine Corps account of activities in China on the Shantung Peninsula with what I wrote and they are in accord.  Also, the U.S. Army officers on my ship wrote in April 1945 about the Kamikaze attacks at Okinawa.  Again, they agreed with mine.  Thus I feel confident that I am still telling it “like it was”.

After that long preamble I’ll here and now recount what stuck with me since one day in April 1945.  I was in charge of the midships starboard twin Bofors 40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun.  The diameter of a projectile from this weapon is about an one and one-half inches.  This gun was served by a crew of about a dozen sailors. Some from the deck divisions, and some were stewards who rarely came on deck except to train on the gun or to reach the ladder for liberty.

Radio and radar confirmed an imminent air attack.  “General Quarters” was sounded and all guns were manned.  Nearby, destroyers began a barrage of anti-aircraft fire.  Soon we could see Japanese planes evading that gunfire and coming at us.  Most sailors who have experienced this have remarked, “That plane was flying directly at me.”  I’m sure it was.

My gun was firing; actually it was a twin gun – two barrels firing alternately.  We were shooting clips of H.E.I.T. from one barrel.  Those letters stood for High Explosive Incendiary Tracer.  From the other barrel the projectiles were armor-piercing.  The tracer shells permitted us to confirm that we were on target.

On this occasion, an ammunition passer, a big man in that crowded iron tub surrounding the gun moat, saw the oncoming plane, aimed, I’m sure, at him and he froze, immobile at his station.  Not only was he not passing the clips of ammunition, but in the crowded tub no one else could get around him to do his job.

As the officer in charge, I reached over the edge of the tub, it was about three or four feet high, and with the flat of my hand I slapped the side of his head hard.  He came out of his trance immediately and resumed the passing of ammunition.

The action was concluded when our shells hit the Japanese plane and it crashed into the sea only a few hundred feet from where we were standing.

A few Japanese airmen were dead, a shipboard of American seamen were elated, and I reported immediately to the Captain.  “Sir, I struck an enlisted man.”  I said nothing about us shooting down a plane, nothing.  What I was telling him was that I had committed a court martial offense which could be punishable by a term in a Naval prison.  The Captain promptly responded “Did the sailor say anything?”  I said, “No.”  He then said, “Forget it.”  But I didn’t.

 

Wartime Plumbing – A Wartime Blog

I began my career in the Navy as an eager young officer ready to serve my nation and the stars and stripes with competence, and fervor, and loyalty.  Soon the bloom faded from the rose and a full blown hatred evolved.

First to go was the Captain of our ship.  Apparently he suffered from bleeding piles and he persisted in flushing large bloodied cotton wads into his toilet.  I should mention that my duties were as an assistant to the First Lieutenant.  I was the Construction and Repair Division Officer.  As such, I commanded the deck forces not involved with gunnery or navigation.  We were the electricians, mechanics, carpenters, welders, masters-of-arms, and the plumbers. Ah yes, the plumbers.

There were frequent calls from the navigation bridge with the boatswain blowing loudly in his pipe over the Public Address System.  He would announce to the entire crew that “The presence of Mr. Roberts was requested in the Captain’s head.”  For those readers who don’t know, a head is a room with a toilet.

Of course I would show up with a plumber and his paraphernalia to clear the mess.  A discreet telephone call would have gotten the same response, but no, it had to be heard shipboard over the P.A. complete with the  shrill boatswain’s piping whistle – almost like “all hands to general quarters” or “battle stations”.

Eventually,  by the proverbial light of the moon, I modified the ship without notifying the Bureau of Ships in Washington.  I enlarged the discharge overboard from the Captain’s head.  A court martial offense if I was found out. Fortunate for me, the ship was scrapped some twenty years later with its violation intact.

Ichthyology – A Wartime Blog

The war had barely ended when my ship was ordered to the Port of Hakodate on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  I guess we went there mostly to convince the Japanese that their war was over and that they had lost.  Apparently the populace had already gotten the word, and we had no trouble coming ashore.  So we did.

My first visit was, naturally, to the local museum.  It was open, but there was no one about – not a soul.  So I wandered through the corridor and halls. I came upon their collection of preserved local fishes.  Sealed bottles and jars contained sea creatures preserved in alcohol along with labels written in Japanese, except for their Latin names.  I was intrigued because I already knew that their revered God-Emperor Hirohito was an amateur Ichthyologist.  Sure enough, I soon found a shelf of small, pocket-size bottles and no one was in the museum.  I left all of them on the shelf.  I’m still kicking myself, still, seventy years later.

How I Learned to Drive – A Wartime Blog

My ship was off Okinawa with troops to put ashore.  We were on high alert.  There was a real war going on about a mile or two inland from those very beaches.

My little flotilla of a half dozen LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) were busy doing what we did best.  We were putting troops on the beach.  A boat would sidle up alongside the ship and soldiers would climb down the landing nets from the ship and into our boats.  The army company commander was assigned to my boat along with his staff and his jeep.  This was a dicey business.  On one hand we wanted the boat to be close to the boarding net.  On the other hand, with the boat and the ship both rocking, we didn’t want to crush a soldier between boat and ship.

Millions of men managed.  Rarely was one killed or even hurt.  So it was on this occasion.   Then the Army officer said to me on his arrival in my boat, “I’ve shot myself in the foot while climbing down off the ship, take me back on shipboard.”  I said, “No, the Army will care for you ashore.”

Since I was in command, I had my way and off we went to Okinawa.  Having got there, all his soldiers scrambled ashore. He limped but made it.  I suddenly realized that I was stuck with his jeep in my boat.  My crew were all busy and there was no one but me available to get the jeep off the boat.  I forgot to mention earlier – I didn’t know how to drive. I could drive a horse and buggy.  I could navigate a ship across a vast ocean, but I never learned to drive a car.  My crew members instructed me, and so on a beach at Okinawa I first learned to drive.  It was easy!

Beginnings – A Wartime Blog

My adult life started when I enlisted in the Navy.  This start took place in early 1942, long before I was required to register for the draft, so of course, selective service had no record of me on file.

The Navy soon put me in bell bottom trousers and a coat of navy blue and paid me the lordly sum of $18 per month from which a little was deducted for life insurance.  Later my wage was raised to $21 per month.

I soon learned that a Springfield Rifle with bayonet weighed about twice as much a a pair of cymbals.   So I became a cymbalist in a Navy band, and eventually a Midshipman, and finally a Commission was awarded me, and I wore the gold of a newly minted Ensign.  Assigned to a ship, just built by the Kaiser Yards in Marin County California, I went to sea.  The vast, so vast, Pacific was to be my haunt for up to four years, or the duration, according to the terms of my enlistment.  My future was cut out for me, but my past left something to be desired.  I had never registered for the draft.

Back home my proud parents displayed my photo on their living room mantle with the gold star and that half-inch of gold around each sleeve.  My father had been a Lieutenant in the Army in the first World War ,and he was glad I could continue in his tradition.

Eventually, my dad wrote to me that the long arm of the FBI and / or the Selective Service caught up and several men visited my parents home to inquire in two parts why had I not registered for the draft and where was I?  My father answered that he truly didn’t know why to the first part or where to the second part.  The government people had the bit between their teeth and handcuffs at the ready, but somehow I wasn’t there.  Perhaps my parents had hidden me in the basement, or in a closet, or with relatives in Canada, except I didn’t have any relatives in Canada, and our beach cottage didn’t have a basement.

The people from the government were determined to have someone, those handcuffs were dangling unfilled when one of the officials finally asked my father when he last saw me, and Dad said, “When he departed for his ship, the USS Mountrail, now on the high seas, I know not where, and if I knew,I wouldn’t tell you because “loose lips sink ships.”  Then he pointed to that photo on the mantle, the one with the gold on my sleeves.  The visitors went away and they never came back.

On Being Remembered

April 26, 2012

Whose names do we remember? Pythagoras – a2 + b2 = c2, Einstein – E = mc2, Theodore Roosevelt – River of Doubt, Napoleon – Waterloo, Nelson – Trafalgar, Shakespeare – Hamlet, Schmidt – Anguilla, or better still James C. Brevaort (1818-1887), who had a genus of herrings named after him. Wow! Maybe this is how it comes to pass that the grizzly bear has so many varieties described. Perhaps it’s not the bear but the taxonomist we need to look at.

Once upon a time, I too came close, so I thought, I aspired, I wildly dreamt. Recently graduated form a midshipmen’s school as Ensign in the U.S. Navy, I was assigned, after Amphibious training at Coronodo, California, to a ship in San Francisco. My first stop there, naturally, when I arrived in “Frisco” was not in the office of the Naval Port Director or the sip but to the Steinhart Aquarium where I introduced myself and old them that until the Japanese were defeated I would be potting around in the Pacific. Further, that I would command a small group of Amphibious boats and further that I had grown up on the water. Perhaps I could collect fishes for them from those remote shores?

“Oh, yes, that would be great,” was the response. I should dip them in formalin and bottle them in alcohol with labels printed with India ink. The tags and the India ink and the bottles were no problem but the ship’s pharmacy did not stock formalin, so I skipped that step. The alcohol was the same stuff that the Navy used in its shipboard compasses and so again for me there was no problem.

I crisscrossed the Pacific a dozen times, stopping at Eniwetock, Ulithi, Guam, Okinawa and Keramo Retto, the Philippines. Everywhere we stopped, I had the opportunity to take my landing boats to pick up the mil, trade movies, and exercise my landing boat crews. This was often accomplished with hook and line, otter trawl, bait seine, cast net and occasionally with a small charge of dynamite.

Even with my extra-curricular project, the war against Japan progressed quite nicely. Eventually, we got back to San Francisco and the Steinhart. The ichthyologists there greeted me very warmly. I could tell from the welcome that surely I had sent them something new to science, a new species that would be described and perhaps might even bear my name in the Linnean taxonomy or binomial pantheon.

But this dream was not to be. All the preserved material I sent to them was already well-known to science, but…

The alcohol, pure, 190 proof, grain neutral spirits was much desired. Especially, since it contained no formalin, it needed only extract of juniper, some straining through cheesecloth to catch the occasional scale, and the addition of water to bring the alcohol content don to beverage strength of 80 or 90 proof (40% or 45 %). This is gin. Remember, it was wartime and hard liquor was not easy to come by. So, yes I was a hero but not the hero of my dream.

Now the war is over, the boats are gone, the ship is gone, but the memory lingers on and now I drink gin on the rocks with three small pickled onions.

 

The Night I Disrupted a Danish Airliner Schedule

May 29, 2012

The Night I Disrupted a Danish Airliner Schedule

In the mid-1960’s I was dabbling in aquarium fishes and my then boss, Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod, sent me to Denmark on some related business. A final task on that trip was to visit Colonel Jorgen Scheel to pick up some African cyprinodonts for Dr. Axelrod. The colonel had collected them in the Congo and was breeding them in his Copenhagen home.

On the eve of my scheduled departure from Denmark I was to be the guest of the colonel and his wife. I arrived in time for dinner and it was delicious. Then there were sweets and cigars but all I could see was the ticking clock. Then he showed me his extensive collection of rare African fundulus and other killifishes but I by now I was hearing the airport announcer calling the number of my flight. Then the Colonel netted the various pairs of fishes for Dr. Axelrod and put them in Thermos jars but all I could envision was that airplane on the taxiway aimed at America with me not on it. Then there was a leisurely goodbye drink of Aquavit but I was already making plans to get a hotel for the night and another flight on another day.

The Colonel and his wife did eventually bid me a fond farewell and only then I saw, pulled up at his front porch, a sedan with Danish Army markings on it. A soldier jumped out, took my luggage, helped me in, and we drove off to the airport. We drove to a guarded gate. Two soldiers promptly opened the gate and we drove right across the airport runways to a lighted plane with its loading ramp down and its cabin door open. The other passengers were all settled in. Soldiers helped me on board with my luggage. No luggage was checked. No one ever asked to see what was in my Thermos jars or my ticket or visa or passport, I was not frisked or x-rayed, I didn’t even take off my shoes. The soldiers just helped me board the plane and then saluted and departed.

The aircraft door closed as a stewardess showed me to my seat and the plane immediately took off albeit delayed about a half-hour.

I later mentioned the Colonel’s name and was told that he was not only a Danish Colonel but he (or his wife) was also a member of the Danish Royal Family. The plane quickly made up the half-hour delay and I got home on schedule. And that’s the way it was with Ichthyology back in the good old days.

 

 

Looking Back

I’m an old man, and so I can afford to pause and look back.  My parents loved me and influenced me, I’m sure – but I remember no rules except not to play cards with strangers on the train.  I had no discipline, no long-term plans, no hopes and no inspirations.  I was never told that I could or should be the President of the United States or a lawyer or a doctor or even a candlestick maker.

I didn’t seem to be interested in school.  My mother was a teacher, and I never ever went to kindergarten, nor did I enter first grade on time, perhaps never.  In the only essay that I remember I wrote, I stated that “I liked school, but not all the teachers.”  By second grade I was firmly in the New York City School system, and remained there until I completed high school.  By the time I was 10 years old, I discovered that I had not taken my books home – ever!  This was not a deliberate, conscious effort on my part.  It just evolved, and eventually I realized it.  My grades were better than just passing, but I did not do any homework.

In high school I was very active in the Theatre Club and was usually the stage manager.  I joined no other clubs save theatre.  I did nothing in any athletics or student government.  Nothing.

After school, except for the stage, all time was mine.  I probably read all of the twenty or so volumes of the Book of Knowledge and would sometimes dip into my father’s set of the Eleventh Edition of Britannica Encyclopedia.  I read travel, exploration, natural history, a few novels, no poetry, no foreign language and no religion.  I did visit zoos and museums.

During the daylight hours, I looked, listened, walked, cycled, rowed, collected small creatures, fished and mucked about on mud flats in Jamaica Bay and on Atlantic beaches.  I almost always had a boat.

When I came near to graduating high school, my father asked me what I wanted to study in college.  I responded that I would prefer to go into the fishery and he said that fishing was for Sunday afternoon.  He was in the glass business, so I ended up in the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University.  There I earned a degree in Glass Technology and learned to shoe a horse, milk a cow, poach deer and run a stage.  I took post graduate courses in liberal arts subjects.  In biology, the professor told me that in a year he could have me at the Medical School of Strong Memorial, Rochester, New York preparing for a career in medicine.  I thanked him with a “No, I don’t want to work for a living.”  As a matter of fact, I quit working for others when I was about forty-five years old.

How did I manage without taking books home, without doing homework?  Simple – in class I listened carefully and I watched intently.  I paid strict attention, not only to what the teachers said, but to them as people.  I didn’t just know the periodic table, I understood it.  Also I never did the same thing in the same way twice.  Whatever it was, whatever I did, it was not the same the second time.  I never repeated what I had done – perhaps I forgot?  Generally the change was an improvement.  Someone else could make an exact copy.  Not I.  For me a prototype was obsolete the day it worked.  I photographed a shot string, a jumping frog and invented a water pump – just one and then I went on to something else.  It worked.  Obviously this is not the way to manufacture, and by and large invention governed the choices I made and things I achieved.