Ben Muzzey’s life story begins with his birth in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1920 and Victorian upbringing by his three maiden aunts, and continues through his mid-nineties as an athlete and retired aerospace engineer.
In this memoir, he describes his struggles with nearsightedness and dyslexia, both undiagnosed during childhood. Although misunderstood, he overcame these obstacles to complete his degree at MIT in three years and go on to a successful career at General Motors and Boeing. He looks back at the events that shaped his character as well as those who doubted him and believed in him. He recalls living as a nearly penniless young man while working for and living in the barn of the landscape architect, Dan Kiley; his venture west with his second wife Nancy, living on wild blackberries and camping under bridges along the way; the colorful neighbors in the Renton, WA tenement that was their fi rst home; and how he met and married his current wife and marvelous skier, Ann.
He had many other adventures throughout his life, including moving his onceprimitive farmhouse to the beautiful Mercer Island waterfront property by tugboat, a scandal at Boeing, and outdoor thrills. He recollects these and more in Retrospect at 95.
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I was born on a rainy night in 1920 in late October at 1:40 a.m. I was not aware of the details at the time, but the inconvenience to the family was pointed out to me later, when I was old enough to accept the blame. There was some question in my mind as to what the "inconvenience" really was, as I was assured that the stork had brought me, and nothing carnal had happened. The only understanding I could grasp from all this was that I was bad.
Later events confirmed this. I couldn't read. To an aristocratic New England family in the pre-dyslexic era, not being able to read was a willfully-imposed stigma for the entire family. This was inexcusable, considering that I had one uncle from Harvard, who was Dean of History at Columbia University, and another uncle who was Dean of Mathematics at Cornell, and especially an aunt living in the house with me who was, of all things, a librarian! Later in life my infirmities became a fortuitous advantage – but more about that later. For now, much more evidence confirmed my badness. I was allergic to milk and howled with imminent starvation so much that the neighbors moved away. I grew only in length; not in diameter. I was so dysfunctionally near-sighted that I could not identify anything written on the blackboard at school. All bad!
School was a disaster. The first-grade teacher was new at teaching and feared for her job if she had students failing her course. She took the cowards way out, and promoted me to the second grade. A year followed - of looking out the window instead of at the mysterious blackboard from which the rest of the class could draw meaning. Again, the second grade teacher was afraid to endanger her record by producing a failed student. She too, graduated me into the next grade. The third grade teacher was an older, no-nonsense woman, whom I was told had probably taught my father. She said "No more – this boy's got to go back and learn the first two grades of school". Actually, they demoted me only one year and I could not handle that work, either. There was a meeting of the principal, the third grade teacher, and my parents. This meeting took place in the parlor at our house one night and I was able to hear the gist of what was being discussed by sneaking out of bed to the top of the stairs. It, the gist, was alarming. I imagined that I would probably have to be sent to a school for the retarded, which I interpreted as sort of a 24-hour lock-down prison, like a Dickens novel.
Then one day my mother took me to Boston to the eye doctor. I was dumbfounded leaving that office - the stairs had a regular pattern of treads and risers, the trees had individual leaves, and people's faces looked different from one another. The blackboard had visible patterns on it - I could see!
With a change of diet and fitted with glasses, I was able to see my childhood infirmities change into advantages. I got strong and never got fat. I was stronger than my classmates, partly because I had flunked a grade and was older than they were. I became captain of the track team, and after our real miler graduated, I became the county leader in distance races. Actually my best time for the mile, 4 minutes, 48 seconds, would probably not win a grade-school mile today, but the tracks then, were like sand pits, the track shoes heavy and slippery and the training was at best, casual. At out-of-town meets the runners were fed coleslaw while the football team ate steak with their cheer-leaders.
I took up skiing, essentially for life, and organized my friend's ski activities. I credit a long and healthy life to my lifelong interest in skiing and mountain climbing, which was then an integral part of skiing. But perhaps a bigger advantage had come from that first trip to the eye doctor. At the time I left the optometrist's office, I was so far behind my contemporaries in school that I had to work overtime to catch up. The work habit stuck, and by the time I graduated from high school I was pretty well ahead; enough so, that MIT accepted me without entrance exams. While many of my entering class at MIT flunked out that first year, MIT seemed to me simply an extension of high school and the hobbies I had enjoyed. From building and flying model airplanes I understood the dynamics of the stall and fugoide oscillation, and the blind flying trap that killed so many pilots, including members of the Kennedy family. Mechanical and electrical courses quantified effects I had already observed working on reasonably complicated electric trains. Inertial navigation seemed like an intuitive extension of some wild automobile driving that my friends and I had done. These understandings came to me from a different channel than "book learning." Things fit together, as I acquired a more formal education.
As I started to grow into adult life I had some intuitive understanding of the problems I would have to deal with throughout life – with one big exception – GIRLS. I had been taken to dancing school way too early and much against my will. The girls lined up on one side of the room and each boy had to go and stand in front of a girl and bow down to her to indicate that they were to then start dancing. I had no idea how to dance and was repulsed by the girl's cold, damp hands. My mother had had to pull me along the sidewalk to get me to dancing school. By the time I finally saw girls in a different light - that is, as the only thing that mattered, it was too late; I knew nothing about them. No girl had ever been in our house, with its pre-Victorian prudishness. I was ready to become a victim of total ignorance.
One of the first girls I met snared me with an unbeatable line: "if you think I'm bad, you ought to see the other girls." To avoid that tragedy I married her, to the delight of my family. My librarian aunt made things worse by telling her, "I hope you can do something with him, we couldn't." In fairness to my first wife, I think she was as ill prepared for marriage as I was. Adding to the disaster, my father appeared to have what is now known as "the hots" for her and could not understand my mixed feelings. After all, he had not had any contact with a young woman for the last 30 years, and was probably feeling it. My mother was good to him, but she was 10 years older than he was in actual years, and perhaps 30 years older in cultural years. He was as ill prepared to understand my problems as I was for marriage.
On our first Christmas of that disastrous marriage, she gave me a 700-page book on medieval philosophy and I gave her a pair of skis. Neither gift was ever used; or much less appreciated. We were divorced while I looked on without understanding or regret. She at least pretended rage to justify the act. She wrote me a ghastly letter; then took our son and gave him to her parents to start his upbringing. I did not like their nouveau riche and domineering philosophy, nor the way the upbringing was going, but I could do nothing about it. In the end, I think he may have well turned out better than if I had done the job myself; certainly than as if I had done it alone.
After the divorce I went back to MIT to work in the Draper Lab, which directed much of the process of putting a man on the moon. My job there took place in the early days of inertial navigation development. We understood navigation theory and the different forms in which that theory could be implemented. We knew the mechanical problems of building instruments precise enough to get the required system accuracy. I worked some of the instrument problems and made little progress. I doubted that the required accuracy could ever be achieved. I was dead wrong. In a very few years the state of the art had advanced beyond my belief. Military and commercial airplanes now all use some form of inertial navigation.
The work was interesting, but MIT was too far from my beloved New Hampshire Mountains. I moved to New Hampshire at half my MIT salary to work for the architect, Dan Kiley, who was known for his participation in designing the Nuremburg Courthouse where the Nazi war criminal trials were held, and later as one of the first modernist landscape architects. I lived in the hay in Dan's barn. He was primarily a landscape architect and was able to provide a vital part of the design for the St. Louis Arch project that was much later built, commemorating the "Gateway to the West". The world-famous architect Erro Saranon came to New Hampshire to get Dan's help in designing the landscape around the Arch, and I had the privilege of working with Erro Saranon on the competition for the Arch. Our team won that competition, but the money for construction did not materialize and the project was abandoned for several years. Later, the detail design for the whole thing was re-competed and the Arch was built, but this time we were not involved. I have flown over the Arch several times and it looks exactly like the design we submitted under Erro Saranon. Fame is illusive.
By this time I had been out of touch with my father longer than I had intended. I invited him to visit me in my beloved New Hampshire Mountains to re-establish the rapport we had had when I was a child - living, swimming and fishing in the mountains. We forgot the problems with my ex-wife and had a long-awaited reunion. One trivial event during that vacation stands out in my memory. We went out into the woods one night and cooked dinner. The details were a disaster, but memories were made. We were as incompetent in making that dinner as if we had tried to make an automobile in the woods. We were prepared to make dinner with matches, a jackknife, a frying pan, some salt, a can of soup, some coffee powder and a whole dead chicken. The first problem was the required fire. The jackknife bent cutting the firewood, which was pretty wet, anyway. We did get to the point of making some good smoke, but the chicken would probably have lived, if it had not been previously butchered. We chewed at the rubbery meat late that night and drank lukewarm powdered coffee from the empty soup can and loved the whole thing. Life can be good after all.CHAPTER 2
Skiing influenced much of my life. It presented a challenge, contributed to physical conditioning, and has been instrumental in interacting with people. I met three of my four wives skiing, and skiing figured heavily in the estrangement of my first wife. It played a significant role in the construction and management of two fairly large non-commercial ski lodges. And with the help of their mother, I introduced our four children to skiing. Three of the children and I became part-time ski instructors and amateur racers. Due to a serious bicycle accident involving a hit and run automobile my skiing has ended after 75 years of active participation.
I don't count as skiing the time I spent on little children's short pine skis held onto shoes with only leather toe straps. The real beginning was when I announced to my father that I was going to build a pair of skis. He assured me that I would not be able to do that. I never found out if he was right, because the next day he came home with pairs of skis for my brother and me. I realize I was lucky to lose that argument. The skis came from Sears & Roebuck, were crudely built out of solid hickory, and had no bindings or metal edges. The running surface was raw wood, so there was still plenty left to do before they could be used for skiing.
From some wide strap iron I hammered out toe irons and attached leather straps to hold the front of the boots in place. We had heard of devices called "Amstut" springs to hold the boot heels down. Our makeshift solution was screen door springs attached to the ankle with a leather strap and to the ski with a cup hook. We knew that there were such things as ski boots, but we could not afford them, so we used galoshes that we already owned. Support was not an issue because there wasn't any. We learned to ski down the lawn and make a crude turn at the bottom to avoid the woods. Little by little we improved the equipment by doing such things as graduating to used leather hiking boots that we eventually stiffened by fiber-glassing their sides and soles. The simple wooden skis were not up to all this support and they soon wore off the edges so they looked like rounded splintered logs on the bottom.
We had heard of metal edges made of steel or brass, but had never seen any, so we built and attached our own. My junior high school shop teacher helped me get some steel strap material roughly like what he had seen on racing skis. We actually tried to case-harden them in the house coal furnace, guided by the shop teacher's instructions. A friend of mine had a router and with it we were able to do a crude job of making a recess to accommodate the steel edges. Holes had to be drilled in both the skis and edges to attach them together.
Two designs were tried. I kept the steel edges in one long piece and my brother cut his into one-foot lengths because he had heard that that was how it was done. He was right. The first time I bent my skis in normal use, the edges stretched in each screw hole and then hung down between the screw holes like telephone wires between poles. I had to take off my edges, cut them into one-foot lengths, straighten them and then remount them. Even after all this, a lot more refinement was necessary. First, the rounded steel strap material had to be filed square, to bite into the typical New England hard snow. It was literally as hard as ice - you could see the rocks and occasional grass through it - although you could not touch the ground. The first major improvement was Army surplus equipment. Army surplus clothing and skis became our standard equipment. We bought several pairs of Army surplus skis which were pretty brittle from long storage, but they had metal edges. Any time we broke a ski, we took a new one from our large supply, not bothering to match them. Gradually we continued to upgrade our equipment.
By the time we had jobs and money we bought better equipment. It was a slow improvement from those crude beginnings to glass, graphite and metal skis, leather ski boots and finally plastic boots. Poles also went through a slow evolution – starting with homemade ones with bamboo sticks and one-foot diameter leather-laced baskets and lag screw tips supported by heavy brass ferrules. Fiberglass or carbon fiber had not yet been invented for either skis or poles.
Modern plastic boots called for better bindings than the ridged toe irons and screwed-down heel-springs. Even the interesting design of rubber straps that looked like sections cut from an automobile tire called Super-Diagonals, were inadequate. As an improvement, I built my own cable bindings from a discarded automobile steel brake cable I found in a junkyard (before hydraulic brakes were invented) and attached a spring to it to go around the heel of the boot sole. With hold-down clamps screwed onto the sides of the skis, these cable bindings could be made to provide any desired amount of heel support. These cable bindings had the potential to break a leg bone or joint or an Achilles tendon. Safety bindings had not yet been invented. Luckily, our homemade ones were de-facto safety bindings, because in a serious fall the rigid toe irons would bend and release the ski in a twisting fall, and the heel springs would permanently stretch out to relieve a bad forward fall. We were never seriously hurt using these bindings, but the parts had to be rebuilt after each major fall. Ultimately, commercial safety bindings of any make were much safer and more convenient; but expensive.
Our early days of skiing, even on some pretty big mountains, was done with this mostly home-made equipment. Our favorite ski area in our early days was Mt. Cardigan in Alexandria, N.H. It was very primitive, even for those early days of skiing. It had been an Appalachian mountain hut, built as a stopover for summertime hikers. There were no legitimate ski trails, and the hiking trails had seriously grown over. But we loved it as an adventure away from home, on our own.
We had breakfast one morning at the rough and ready lodge with a determined skier who was signed up for the big race that day. You had to climb to the top of the mountain and then race down the same narrow hiking trail. No sophisticated electronic timing was available in those days: simply, two race officials synchronized their watches at breakfast – one was then stationed at the starting point and the other at the finish, and the racer's times were then calculated later, at the lodge – (no fancy electronic measurements to a hundredth of a second).
Our breakfast friend was not concerned about the timing method, but was pretty worried about having the necessary strength to climb the mountain and then immediately ski down the narrow hiking trail after the long climb. We watched the race from the river bridge at the bottom of the course. Our friend eventually appeared, obviously exhausted and unable to slow down in the narrow trail which made a reasonably sharp turn onto the river bridge. It looked as though he would not be able to make that turn to finish the race on the other side of the river. Worse yet, he skied completely out of control directly into the river, which would have been frozen solid except that it was flowing too fast to freeze. Several of us were able to fish him out, as his clothes started to turn rigid with ice. The trip back to the lodge was at least half a mile, so a fair amount of thawing was required before we could get his clothes off to warm him up. New England winters are pretty severe – think minus thirty degrees F.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Retrospect at 95"
Copyright © 2016 Ben Muzzey.
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Table of Contents
The Beginning, 1,
Early Skiing, 7,
The River of Dubious Return, 17,
The Influence Of Small Events, 22,
The Rat, 29,
General Motors, 37,
Women and Other Women, 47,
A New Life, 53,
Strong Letter to Follow, 69,
Too Late, 71,
Ski Lodges, 73,
Building Our Own House, 95,
Doctor Scott, 102,
The Annoying Yard Light, 105,
Mt. Rainier, 108,
Mt. Rainier Sequel, 113,
The Rescue, 119,
Bicycle Riding, 129,
The Race, 134,
The Wedding Feast, 139,
Seattle Mountaineers Keen to Conquer Cook, 141,
Marriage on the Mountain, 148,
Learning from Disaster, 151,
About the Author, 163,