The Wonder of it All part I

©Fernando Caracena 2014

Life, a magnificent opportunity, is very open-ended and rewarding. At each stage of it, I have followed the promptings of my spirit to take me along the next line of development, and it never gets old. As a child, I wondered if green pond scum could really turn into toads.I did not know my full potential then, and I still do not know it now. I have continued to develop during my entire life, especially as a scientist, and I see no end. I could have majored in any of the sciences, since I did well in all of them. I received the Bausch and Lomb Science medal for being the top science student in my graduating high school class. A close look at the pattern of my grades, would have revealed to me that I should major in physics. However, I was not analytically developed enough then to see the clear pattern. I made As in all the sciences, but physics was definitely my best subject. In it I earned straight A+ s. Nevertheless, when I entered college. I declared ma major in chemistry. Apart from my thinking that chemistry was a real profession that I could use to earn a good living, I chose that subject because of my father's dreams.


My father's experience

By a twist of fate, my father was deprived of his ambition to study chemistry in college. The Great Depression was in full swing when he graduated from high school. However, when his father, a top-level manager of a company branch that provided commissary for the railroad had learned that they had gone back on some promises they made him, my grandfather resigned on the spot, and went out to start his own business. All available cash went into that new venture, and my father was unable to go to college. My grandfather succeeded well in his endeavor, but my father was thrown to the wiles of fate. He did do well financially, however. Working for himself, because potential employers laughed at him when he went around looking for work, he made a good income. Succeeding financially, he regretted being unable to study chemistry.


My father's Library

A byproduct of my father's dream was that he had accumulated a small library in the physical sciences for self-study. His interests were broader than chemistry. He had a multi-volume series of books that contained complete introductory courses to the physical sciences at college level. There he read not only about chemistry, but about astronomy, which he also found fascinating. I remember that as a boy in junior high school, I poured over those books, reading in the different sciences. I was enthralled by color pictures contained therein, of galaxies, stars and planets taken with the big telescopes. They really stirred my imagination and whetted my appetite for science. In high school, I was overjoyed to find that what I loved to do on my own, were subjects to be taken for credit. I could have coasted in science courses, just on accumulated self study, but since I was really interested in the sciences, I also put in extra effort, and excelled.


Don't Work for Money

On Summer vacations, a lot of my fellow students worked summer jobs for extra spending money. I was not working. Instead, I spent hours at the library researching various subjects. At home, I grew a vegetable garden for exercise, and did a lot of climbing in the nearby mountain ridge. I also experimented in several areas of science: electricity and magnetism, chemistry and in electronics. One experiment produced a dense, green smoke that sank and poured like a liquid. I was never again able to reproduce these results. I also dabbled in pyrotechnics, solving problems such as: how do you make a firecracker different from a rocket? When I needed any money, I just hopped on my bike and collected bottles along the side of the road, which I turned in for their deposit. Another gambit, was to go out knocking on doors to see who in the neighborhood was willing to pay to have their lawn mowed. That was the day before power mowers were common, and I used the ordinary push activated mowers. I also did a lot of art work, some oils, some water colors and charcoal and pen and ink.


I asked my father if I should get a summer job. He saw that I kept myself quite busy. He advised me against getting a summer job. He, as I did, valued leisure, which we both used productively.


I Worked for Money

I did work for money, when I absolutely had to. After graduating from high school, I was at loose ends because I did not have a cent saved for college, which I intended to enter that academic year. My mother’s cousin knew the owner of a motel, where the owners, three brothers, were looking for a guy to help around the place. I got the job and spent a hot Summer in the blazing sun at that motel, emptying trash barrels, sweeping, cleaning up, raking leaves, digging in the gardens and delivering food to guests in their motel rooms. I saved every penny that I made, except what I spent for bus fare. By the end of Summer, I had saved enough money to pay for almost the whole year of tuition and books at the local college. That was good enough; it would get my foot in the academic door.


At Summer's end, I gave my two weeks notice. The owners of the motel tried to talk me out of going to college, and stay on instead on with this dead-end, menial job. I had taken the job with only one objective in mind. Having accomplished that, there was no way that I was going to continue on that track. I marveled over how willing people are to exploit others for their own advantage. The owners of the motel did not even try to tempt me to stay by increasing my salary, or offering me a better job. They tried to convince me with words, trying to convince me from a position of authority and respect for successful businessmen. People that are not really bad, may at the same time not be good either, and they can damage you if you do not pay attention to that. In this world, you should be inner-directed, rather than other-directed, if you want to achieve personal growth in spirit.

Later, in college I did well enough that the professors decided to hire me a a student assistant, to grade papers, etc. Summers, my father found part-time work for me at a lumber yard and construction firm where he worked.

I first Enrolled in college as a Chemistry Major

The local college I enrolled in (Texas Western College, TWC), had recently changed from being a mining school (Texas College of Mines, TCM) to a more generalized, arts and science curriculum. The die-hard engineers had painted a line across the street connecting the engineering part of the college with all the other buildings. Their side of the line was labelled, "TCM", and the other side, "TWC". Later the college was upgraded by the state to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

I was an enthusiastic student, taking the absolute maximum allowable course load, sometimes over the admonitions of advisors.

See the blog “College in Four Years and no Student Loans, Part I” for more details.

I began college as a chemistry major; but in the following Summer, I took a beginning course in physics along with a course in philosophy, and economics to eliminate that requirement.

I Added a Physics Major and later, Dropped Chemistry

Much preferring physics, I declared a double major in both physics and chemistry with a minor in maths. At the end of the second academic year, based on experience, I narrowed the dual majors to just one, physics, and kept the same minor, maths. I found the big difference between studying a subject and actually doing it. I had gotten tired of doing long, involved chemistry experiments, but I never tired of doing physics both experimentally and theoretically.

My switch to physics also happened along with some friends, with whom I had attended American Chemistry Society meetings. My best friends then became almost entirely physicist students. We often discussed physics between bouts of ping pong or shuffle board at the student center. Also hanging out socially together outside of school, we read and discussed a lot of the popular physics books such as those by George Gamov, the famous physicist, as well as science fiction.

A Monk-like Life

Surrounded by beautiful coeds, I did not go out on a single date. I had a laser-like focus on study and work. There were girls that flirted with me, one of them had a very jealous boyfriend. We were fellow students in a conversational French class. She wanted me to help her with her French pronunciation. While we were having our discussions alone, in a class room, she had her friend be her look-out to warn her of the approach of her jealous boyfriend. However, I never became romantically involved with anyone. I was too serious of a student.

You should have graduated last year”

After four years of taking courses that constituted the maximum, allowed load of credit hours, I applied for graduation. On reviewing my academic record, the dean remarked, "You should have graduated last year. Why didn't you?" I explained to the dean that some advanced physics courses were offered only every other year, and if I had graduated when I was eligible, I would have missed taking them. I really wanted to pick up those advanced courses. What I had had in the back of my mind was to go to the main university as a graduate student, where the advanced courses I had picked up the last two years would be accepted for graduate credit. Then I would be on a fast track for a master's degree in physics, the highest degree that I was aiming for. An unintended consequence of this over-ambitious approach was that at the end of four years in college, I was ready for a break. I responded to that impulse by casually looking around for a job, perhaps for a year's break before going on to higher education.

Working at White Sands Missile Range

The biggest employer of physicists when I graduated from college was the U S Federal Government. Around graduation time, a group of five us friends, after hiking in the mountains, dropped by the personnel office to see what were the job opportunities at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). We were all dressed in grubby clothes and hiking boots. The secretary looked at us with an icy stare and said that there was a hiring freeze at White Sands. They were not hiring. We were about to leave the office, the personnel director passed by and asked what we wanted. Apparently, he saw us in a different way than the secretary. He immediately begin to call various division chiefs. The first one he spoke to, asked about our grade point averages and majors. We were all better than B+ students. He was well enough impressed that he offered to hire all of us sight unseen.

Snatched by the Draft

I very rapidly recovered my enthusiasm for higher education as I found out how boring were the challenges offered to a beginning physicist at a new bachelor's degree level. The work would not have challenged a bright high school graduate.

In less than a year, I was inducted into the military, because unlike private industry, Federal employees st WSMR were not offered exemption from the military draft. I was suddenly yanked into the Army Signal Corps. After, boot camp I was assigned as a scientific programmer at Aberdeen Proving Ground. See the blog entry, “My early years as a scientific programmerfor details.

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, I had been able to solve a problem that one of their senior programming staff was unable to to resolve. Before I was discharged, I was offered a programming position there at a GS-12 level. Unwisely, I turned down the job offer in favor of going back home and finishing the job at WSMR. All the time that I was in the Eastern States, I longed to be back home, where every thing was not clouds, dampness and mould. I grew up in a land of plentiful sunshine and dry weather, which because it was high desert did experience a semblance of the four seasons of the year.

Returning to WSMR

On returning to WSMR, I was shocked to learn that they would offer me job re-entry at the same level, from which I was drafted, not allowing for any increase increase in experience obtained in the military. My friend, who was not drafted, but remained at WSMR during my term in the Army, had been promoted several times to a much higher level. Outraged over this obvious insult, I simply walked away from WSMR and went back home. It was not about the money. It was about the callous, casual mistreatment. Shortly afterwards, the director of the laboratory called on me personally at home, and offered me the most that he could, given bureaucratic constraints. The offer was still offensive, because the rules had changed after I was hired at WSMR, and I could have been hired at that level to begin with, given my grade point average and physics major. Even though I felt terribly mistreated, I decided to go back to WSMR, while applying to various graduate schools.

Attending Case Western Reserve University

I visited the physics department at my alma mater. The head of the physics department suggested that I should consider going to Western Reserve University (WRU), where he had done his graduate work in physics, and from which he received his doctorate. He would put in a good word for me, as he and the rest of the faculty were impressed by my strength as a physics student. Based on this advice and other considerations, I decided to make Western Reserve University (WRU) my main target, making sure that I filled out all application papers properly, and had all the letters of recommendation sent by my professors. On second thought, I decided to insure that I would increase my chances of getting into graduate school by applying to other universities. I sent out a couple of other quick applications to schools having lower standards than WRU.

I was quickly accepted to Western Reserve, with a full assistantship, and I went back to my alma mater to tell my professors the good news. One of them asked me, “What were the other schools you wanted me to send letters of recommendation to?” I told him to forget it, since I had already been accepted by my first choice. The interesting thing was that although the other schools did not receive a complete application package from me, they offered to accept me in their graduate program conditionally, but without an assistantship, which they offered as a possibility, conditional upon how well I did in the first year of study.

The University Circle—A great Setting

I had the cab from the airport drop me off at the WRU physics building, where stashed my bags temporarily. From there, I walked to the nearest area of houses that advertised rooms for rent, just two blocks away on Cornell Road, which was on the edge of the area called, University Circle. Little Italy was just a block away. There I settled for the entire period of my graduate work, moving distances of only a fraction of a block along Cornell Road.

The University Circle had everything that I valued in a location, all within walking distance. Across Euclid street from twin institutions that would soon merge, Case Institute of Technology and WRU, stood Severance Hall, where the Cleveland Symphony performed a new concert every week. The director was George Szell, whom I sometimes ran across in some of the stores of the area. Also featured at Severance Hall, were periodic concerts by the Cleveland Chamber Music Group. On the same side of Euclid street, but across a side street that put Severance hall on a corner, was a formal garden surrounding a large goldfish pond. Further back from this park was the Cleveland Museum of Arts, which I would periodically cruise through, to view the collection of paintings. On Sundays, they would feature a concert played by a master organist on their beautiful Holtkamp Pipe Organ, located in the Interior Garden Court. Behind Severance hall, along the side street, was located the Cleveland Institute of Music, which also featured, free concerts and recitals. Behind the Cleveland Museum of Arts, across another park, was located the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Not far from the University Circle, a scattering of theaters of various sizes offered a variety of plays with live actors. Not only was the area cerebrally stimulating, but in Little Italy, a short walk from my place, I could go buy fresh Italian bread and pizza.I also attended local events there, such as the annual wine festival.

The only downside to the area for me, were the harsh winters featuring lake effect snows. The area experiences more cloudy days than Seattle Washington. Winter typically descended there as a gray pall that extended across the margins of Lake Erie in the Fall for about fifteen miles inland.Low clouds and daily snow showers moved inland over that small area, spreading winter misery. Every morning a fresh dusting of white, covered the dingy gray at the end of of yesterday. The icy weather lasted well into Spring. This was a climatic shock for someone like me coming from a land of warmer and sunny winters. But the intellectual challenge, the amenities of the area, the coeds that I dated, and friendships of an international set of graduate physics students made the whole experience quite bearable.

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