Growing up as the eldest son of a mechanical engineer had certain challenges unknown to the progeny of say carpenters or businessmen. In the rarefied world of 1960’s aerospace design an idea for improvement of one component or another was welcomed enthusiastically I am sure but in the everyday realm of bicycles and little league football, straying from the traditional ways had the sort of unintended consequences that tended to make an eight year old boy suspect in the eyes of his peers.
In 1965 in the months of autumn, boys played football. Soccer was still considered an exotic sport played by foreigners who apparently had lost the use of their arms and was frowned upon. The gridiron was king and it was in this atmosphere that I had my first lessons in the conformity inherent in team sports and in the realization that engineers, while important and valuable members of society, are a bit different than the rest of us.
The football helmets of this era had just started to change from the old style square buckets to the rounder sleeker models we are used to seeing today. During little league tryouts selection of the helmets was first come first serve and being boys we instictively adhered to that age old factor in determining social status known as the pecking order. With the 25% or so of the helmets that were of the new style taken by the young Alpha males, the remaining rable fought over the rest that were of varying age and quality. Being inexperienced in the ways of the herd and a rather shy young man I ended up with an ancient helmet of fifties vintage with an elaborate canvas suspension system and possesing huge protruding ear cavities. These were derisively referred to by the other players as “Monkey Helmets”. Belatedly realizing that my lack of awareness had dropped me into the lower social ranks, I took my monkey helmet home determined to prove myself on the field and take my rightful place in the upper tier.
Upon arriving home and seeing my obvious disappointment in choice of headgear, my father determined to exercise his god given talents and “improve” my inferior equipment and present it to me as a surprise at my first practice. It is a practice that will live forever in my memory as an example of what can happen to a person when they stray to far from the accepted order.
On the day of my first practice I had suited up and presented myself to my dad for inspection when he presented to me my “re-engineered” helmet. These older helmets tended to sit high on the head giving a rather top heavy appearance to the wearer. My new and improved model, after having the old cotton strap suspension system removed and replaced with some sort of space-age foam that pop had acquired at work now sat so high above my shoulders as to make my head look like a distant orbiting object in relation to the rest of me. In addition he had sanded off all the old scuffs and scrapes the helmet had gathered over years of battle, highly regarded among the players, and spray painted it bright gloss white. As a final touch he added three wide grass green stripes down the middle of the helmet and a large block W of the same color on each side. Upon arrival at practice this was viewed as a major breech in etiquette and was not received well by my teammates who all sported helmets without such garish graphics. The young Alpha’s with their new style helmets saw my flashy headgear as a direct challenge to their dominance and took it out on me in tackling drills in a most savage manner. Meanwhile, the monkey helmeted Beta’s had interpreted this as an unwarranted attempt to advance in status without going through the proper channels. They showed their displeasure not with extra hard hits in practice but in the time honored Beta method of a whispering campaign of disinformation regarding what an uppity dip-shit I was. It took weeks but I eventually regained the respect of my teammates once the offending helmet had been beaten back into its original appearance. What a season it was.
This pattern repeated itself in a number of arenas during the course of my childhood from the purchase of leather Austrian lederhosen for my first skiing lesson to a hostile takeover of my Cub Scout pinewood derby project. My highly detailed entry may as well have been powered by a particle beam accelerator by the looks it got from my fellow competitors with their “inferior engineered” products. Dad wasn’t always successful in his quest to improve everything that he laid eyes on but like engineers everywhere he never ceased in his attempts to reinvent what seemed to be working just fine as is to the rest of us. When he did hit on a better idea however it was often spectacular. Where would we be without them.
My entry lost by the way.