I was seven years old when I began thinking about the universe and my own role in it. Staring at the ceiling in the Stanford Convalescent Home, in Palo Alto, I asked myself why I had such a weak body and such a strong mind.
It’s terrifying when you can’t breathe, thinking you are about to die; panic only makes it worse. My father turned away from me during times when I was loaded into an ambulance and which headed for the emergency room. It reminded him too much, I think, of his own suffering from the same problem, asthma as a child. My father was not yet thirty years old. Maybe he felt guilty about having passed it on to me. My father and my mother fought all the time–they screamed at and hit each other regularly. I worried if their rage would spill over and they were going to hurt me. This would often trigger an asthma attack, and off to the hospital, I would go. Finally, the doctors thought I needed to go to a convalescence home probably just to get me away from my parents. It was called the Stanford Convalescent Home, and it was to be my home for almost a year. My parents hardly ever visited me there. I was alone. This meant I had plenty of time to engage myself in many conversations in my head. It is now the Ronald McDonald House.
Like most kids, Superman was my hero, but I think it was Clark Kent I really admired — nerdy on the outside, superhero on the inside. Einstein was my other favorite hero. I liked the fact that he was a misfit and rebel as much as I was in awe of his genius. My mother had introduced me to the figure of Einstein who was very popular in the 50s. When I had difficulties tying my shoes, she told me that Einstein could not tie his shoes either. I am sure she just made that up, but it made me feel better about myself.
Even though I was sick, I still found the world to be a fantastic place. I was deeply curious about everything, especially physics, and I very much wanted to be able to continue to live even in the imperfect combination of discovery, laughter, sickness, and fear that characterized my life.
I believed in God, but I did not blame him for my sickness. Frankly, I did not think God was even aware of me or my plight. I decided it was my challenge to overcome pneumonia and chronic asthma that kept landing me in the hospital and to use my mind to improve the universe. If I could improve the universe, I reasoned, God would make sure I lived, but if I failed, I would die. I came to believe that my survival would depend on my actions and contributions. Over time I developed four principles to guide me: Appreciate Creation; add to it; be funny and playful; love and care for others. To do these things, I needed my body to become stronger.
I did my best to be funny for the nurses knowing they took better care of me if they liked me. It was all about survival. It was at this place that I discovered the principles on which I would base everything I would do. It was there that I began to think about how I would use my life. As a child, I accepted illness as part of who I was, but I didn’t believe that I was destined to be killed by it. I thought I had the potential to change the outcome and I did.
Forty years later, I was a-washed in these memories as I realized I was standing in the one place I had felt safe as a child, the Stanford Convalesce Home which was now called the Lucie Packard Children’s Hospital. Steven Spielberg had invited me to participate in an event for his Starlight Foundation for chronically and terminally ill children which is why I was there. The actual Convalesce Home was in a different building close by. It had been turned into the Ronald McDonald House. It is there, where I had spent hours alone in my mind, repainting, rearranging, reimagining my room. I would play with the dimensions of the room and rotate it in my mind so the ceiling would become one of the walls. I would change the colors of the walls. It is where I discovered my intuition and learn to trust it.
Failed Student but Gifted Child
Sometime in the autumn of 1952, I returned to my home in San Francisco. I remember vividly going to the Soda Fountain across the street and ordering a Root Beer Float. The Soda Fountain had been on our street before I went away to the convalescence home, but now they had installed a jukebox. I listen to a lot of different singers. I don’t think we ever listen to music at my home so listening to the jukebox was a unique experience for me.
I was enrolled in the Francis Scott Key School which was about four blocks from our home. I was put in the third grade although I was not yet eight years old. My birthday was in January. That is when the trouble started. I could not relate to the other students especially to the boys who seemed rough to me. I also started to get interested in politics. The 1952 election was between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stephenson. There was a lot of campaigning going on, and this even crept into the schoolyard. Many students wore pins with their candidate on them. For reasons I can no longer understand, I was for Eisenhower who was the republican. Maybe it was because my father was a Republican. But I was also against saying the pledge of allegiance which was required in those days. I got into a lot of arguments with the other kids, and many times I was beaten up. After all, I was a very skinny and sickly kid. Two of my teachers took an interest in me and my situation. One was Mr. Zimmerman, and the other a wonderful woman, but I can no longer remember her name. She had actually been my father’s teacher when he was a boy. It was decided that instead of taking the regular classes, I would sit in the school library and they would have me read different books and occasionally discuss them with me. I had been reading books from an early age and was very comfortable spending my days in the arms of books. One of the most important books I read was A Short History of the World by H. G Wells. I must have read that book more than ten times. I also began to read science books and poetry. I discovered the work of Margret Mead, the well-known anthropologist. I loved reading about indigenous culture like Samoa.
I was very interested in nuclear physics. I wonder how an eight-year-old could have become interested in nuclear physics. I remember listening to a science program every Saturday morning. There was a lot of discussion, I am sure about nuclear physics, but I also realized that in 1952 there was a great deal of discussion ab the possibility of nuclear war between the former USSR and United States. All over there were posts for shelters at school. We have been taught how to duck and cover as if that was going to help us. So perhaps the constant discussion of nuclear war caused me to want to understand more about atomic energy. I remember learning about U238 uranium and U235 but what age was I when I began to think about the question of Nuclear Fission. I am pretty sure I had a chemistry set by the time I was eight and certainly by the time I was nine I would experiment, but only with chemistry, electricity. I would also use electricity via batteries to try to affect the chemical properties. I must have been some strange little guy.
I was also the subject of a study myself. My IQ was off the charts, and I mean really off the charts. So I was sent to be studied by people at the department of education. All I remember is taking test after test. Eventually, I found out my IQ, and I can understand why they were so interested. I was what was termed a “Gifted Child.” It was not such a wonderful gift at least at that time. That is for sure.
The only classes I remember at Francis Scott Key was math, and it was an awful experience. I was able to solve the problems but seemed to do it differently especially if I was doing multiplication and division. It was a problem that continued to follow me through my life. I was able to come up with the right answer and even the best answer, but I had to do it my way. I those days, I could look at a page of numbers that had to be added up, and I would know the answer but not have any idea how I got there. Later in life, I could look at financial statements and immediately recognize any errors. This ability along with many others faded with time.
I think I was at Francis Scott Key for about two years before we moved to South San Francisco, a superb of San Francisco. I remember that period pretty well but have almost no memory of going to school. We were there for a few years and then moved back to San Francisco. After one year we moved again to the Sunset District, and I attended Herbert Hoover Middle School. The principle of that school was Mr. Zimmerman, the same person that helped me at Francis Scott Key. By that time, I was pretty much failing in all my classes except Office where I helped out at the school office. I was eventually held back one semester.
During this period that I was asked to participate in a special two-week session at State College of San Francisco for as you may guess, Gifted Children. It was a two-week course in Physics, but I think the purpose was just to observe the weird gifted kids.
Many years later, in my late 30s, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s home. I asked one of the other guests that I did not know, what she did. She said that she studied Gifted Children. I wanted to scream at her. My emotions were surprising to me. But I just looked at her and said: “do you know what happens to gifted children when they grow up”? I don’t remember her answer.