Mister Wizard—a Father’s Day Story
My father’s name was Harvey Marsden Shein, and in hindsight he was as geeky a dad as one could imagine. As an undergraduate he studied Philosophy and Mathematics at Cornell. In the military he was assigned to be a JAG. When he was discharged, his first job was doing work on nuclear physics at Bell Labs. But what was perhaps most unusual for a man of his considerable talents was his personal interest in other people. He loved people, to talk to them and hear their stories. He paid attention. My mother, Elva, likes to tell the story of the evening she decided that he was “the one.” They were on a date in downtown Boston, walking on their way to an eatery where they had a reservation. Suddenly my father noticed something, stopped and taking my mother’s hand asked her to follow him across the street. Looking up and down the street in a confused manner stood an old woman in a housecoat with a scarf tied around her hair. My father asked her if she needed help. She responded that she could not find her way home. After a few moments he was able to determine that she was indeed lost and was able to get the phone number for a relative from her. He then led her through the revolving door of Copley Plaza—much to the raised eyebrows of the doorman there—called her relative and waited with her until they arrived to pick her up. This was typical dad. Utterly capable in some ways, utterly not in others.
Being an extraordinary listener, my father had all kinds of friends and acquaintances. I suppose that figured into why he decided to become a psychiatrist—despite the fact that psychiatrists in the 1960’s really were able to do fuck-all for their patients beyond house, restrain, sedate and electroshock them. But I like to think that he was good with the rather poor tools available to him. My dad worked very hard, and was really quite driven. When he passed away suddenly from hepatitis in 1974, he was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, and Director of Residency at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. On top of that he founded and ran his own neuroscience lab in a basement of one of the buildings at McLean, and he saw a full load of patients at the hospital. So when we had one-on-one time together, it was a big deal.
Like many brilliant folks, my dad was really horrible at doing anything manual. He could cook nothing beyond boiling an egg or making a tuna-fish sandwich. It was many years later that I realized why restaurants figured so large in our family time. Because he could cook nothing, he knew all the best places to eat in Boston: Elsie’s Delicatessen in Harvard Square, Simeone’s Italian-American Restaurant in Central Square, and Ken’s Restaurant in Cooper Square—to name a few.
Likewise my father could do little more mechanically than screw in a light bulb–I have no idea how he managed in his lab. So when we were together, instead of fixing a car or building a go kart, we would talk about “ideas,” about science and philosophy. So from an early age, I became familiar with concepts and ideas that were utterly alien to my peers: inertia, parthogenesis, apogee and perigee, metallic bonding, protons, antimatter, black holes, displacement, and philology. These were my father’s mental toys and tools, and as a young boy, they became mine as well.
I was eleven years old when my father died. It was in July, and unbeknownst to me, I was mere weeks away from puberty. After the initial shock I was profoundly sad and lonely for the better part of the next decade. There was simply no one who could step in and fill the void my father left—in no small part because what my father and I had had together really was rare and special. My school grades were poor that year, and I had little interest in school or much else. I spent every dime on candy, and to my mother’s horror, racked up thirteen cavities at my next dental visit.
But as sad as I was, I did, however, continue to go to Boy Scouts. In the spring of the following year, our Boy Scout Council had a guest speaker come and do a show for us—a nationally syndicated science-education performer whose stage name was Mister Wizard, (Don Herbert). Mr Wizard had been quite popular in the 1950’s, had had a national television show for fourteen years, and had been hired by the Council to be the guest speaker at the Boy Scout Banquet.
I remember the show was great fun: Mister Wizard did not disappoint, and I was utterly enraptured. Standing on stage Mister Wizard began showing me the things my father and I had only talked about. I remember crackling VanDeGraaf generators, objects seeming to roll uphill, and demonstrations of electromagnets and magnetism. The entertainer went smoothly from one demonstration to another explaining the science behind each spectacle. Then at one point Mister Wizard revealed what looked like an overlarge hair-blower pointed at the ceiling. He turned it on, and produced a large rubber ball from a box on stage. Carefully, the science-man held the ball above the stream of air, and let it go. Instead of blowing away or falling to the stage, the ball hung there in midair, quiveringly defying gravity. The hall full of boys “ooohed” and “ahhed” at the sight of it.
As the ball hung there, Mister Wizard turned and addressed us: “Does anyone know why this ball is hanging there in the air?”
For a moment the audience was silent, but I knew the answer.
As if unbidden, I found myself on my feet wildly waving my hands in the air. My friends sitting in our row of wooden fold-up chairs looked at me like I had lost my mind. I think someone–an adult even– told me to sit down.
“Bernouli’s Principle!” I shouted at him.
His head jerked around to look at me, his expression thunderstruck. The room was silent except for the whirr of the blower.
Hesitating as if he had been struck by a fish instead of an answer, he finally replied, “You’re right.”
A second later he asked, “How did you know that?”
“My father taught me,” I replied–I had asked my father once how airplane wings worked, and my dad’s explanation had included Bernouli’s Principles.
“Is he here?” he asked.
Not sure what to say, I said, “No, he’s not around.” I may have had tears on my cheeks at that moment.
“Well, I’ve been posing that question to audiences for fifteen years, and you are the first person to answer it. Your father must be a remarkable man.”
“I think so sir.” I said.
“Do you think you can explain Bernouli’s Principle to us?” he asked.
“Basically the movement of the air around the ball creates vortices that push it from behind and counteract some of the force applied to its face.”
“That’s right! The air forms little whirlpools that hold it aloft. Fifteen years I’ve been asking that question, and no one has ever answered it before. Audience let’s have a round of applause for—what’s your name son?”
“David Shein!” I replied.
“Let’s hear it for David Shein!” he said, and the auditorium full of uniformed and badged boys applauded, me. It was both a weird and very good feeling.
For boys in the 1960’s and 70’s, science was still an interest reserved for nerds and egg-heads. Geeks were not cool—they were targets for derision and abuse. In this climate I had always been instinctively cagey about sharing what I learned from my dad because very few of my friends could relate at all. When my father died, I felt like a complete weirdo, and I often wished that we could have had more “normal” conversations, like about football, or fishing, or girls. After his death, I had no one to talk about “ideas” with anymore. No one seemed to understand or care about the very things that had been at the center of my relationship with my father. So Mister Wizard was a big deal for me. That little acknowledgment, that round of applause, in the banquet hall of Temple BethEl made my father and our mutual interest in science, cool—not weirdos or geeks, but cool. And though I was still profoundly sad and lonely, at least I knew then that we were not weird.