Bortrum Bio - Origins
I finally decided to bite the bullet and start my memoirs, biography or whatever you call it. What follows is a crude first draft of a preface and a first chapter. As you will see, in the midst of this bio I got sidetracked by a couple of articles I encountered and there's some science included that obviously might better be removed in any future version of this material. Although I reveal my true name below, I will continue to write these columns under my nom de plume of Dr. Bortrum. For my regular readers, I reserve the right to either continue these memoirs in later columns or revert back to my usual columns on science or whatever else I wish to consider.
A Life Owed to TB, Shaped by Smallpox and Saved by Breyer's Ice Cream
I began writing this preface in January 2010, the start of a new decade. Perhaps it's a testament to old age (I'm 83) that this second sentence is being written in August of 2010! Let me introduce myself. My given name is Forrest Allen Trumbore. For more than a decade, I have been writing columns on science and technology for the Web site StocksandNews.com, a site originated and run by my son Brian Trumbore. Brian not only allowed me to write about any topic I so desired, even if not related to science, but he also let me use a pen name - Dr. Allen F. Bortrum a thinly disguised permutation of my real name.
Why should I presume to write a biography? Of course, there's the usual belief that the details of one's life might be of at least passing interest to one's children and grandchildren. To me, this seems especially true given the truly phenomenal changes in life and lifestyle over a lifetime that's spanned such developments as space travel and exploration, television and computers, polio vaccines and the MRI, DNA and a host of other scientific advances too numerous to mention.
Those longtime readers of my Dr. Bortrum columns will know that I sometimes chose to write about theatrical or musical performances, taking on the role of a completely unqualified critic. In my lifetime I've had the good fortune to have seen and heard performers ranging from Jack Benny to Lang Lang. I've also written about being close to a lynching, the last in the state of Maryland, and have lived to see the election of an African American president.
I hope, should you decide to read further, that you find my life as interesting as I have and that you may learn about, or possibly recall fondly, a period in history that was in many respects a much simpler time that was sowing the seeds of the revolutionary era of today. Inasmuch as a major portion of my life was spent at what was a preeminent research laboratory, Bell Labs, I will inadvertently bring in various scientific topics, hopefully in a manner that will be understandable to both you and to me. As I often said in my columns, one reason I wrote about many topics was to con myself into believing that I actually understood some of the more difficult subjects.
CHAPTER 1 - ORIGINS AND EARLY CHILDHOOD
I don't know if it's the aging process or just my own peculiar nature, but I never had any substantial interest in my origins until I turned seventy. Perhaps, because my mother and her three siblings (sisters) all died at the age of 69, I was prepared for my own demise at that age, thinking I resembled my mother more than my father, who lived to be ninety. Was the shock of living beyond that expected lifespan that spurred me to question my origins? While writing my Dr. Bortrum columns, I became obsessed with origins in general, all the way back to the origin of our universe in the Big Bang.
When, a few years ago, National Geographic offered the chance to trace my human ancestry back tens of thousands of years with its ambitious Genographic project, I quickly sent in my $100 and a DNA sample. The Genographic project traced back the male side of my family to my earliest grandfather, who lived in northeast Africa, probably in the Rift Valley area, sometime between 30 and 79 thousand years ago, most likely about 50 thousand years ago. Actually, if you're a non-African male it seems that he was also your grandfather! I admit the pinning down of my earliest male relative wasn't as precisely dated as I might have liked, but it's impressive that the Genographic people could tell me this based on some scrapings from the inside of my mouth! They also traced the path of my later paternal ancestors' wanderings out of Africa into what is now Europe.
I had planned to get down to my own immediate origin at this point but I came across a rather disturbing article by Kathleen McAuliffe in the September 2010 issue of Discover magazine. One of the things that distinguishes us humans from our other primate cousins such as the chimpanzee is the fact that we modern humans have larger brains. Indeed, the course of evolution of brain size from our early hominid ancestors up to us homo sapiens has always been upward and onward. At least that's what I thought. But wait, the Discover article," The Incredible Shrinking Brain", reports the work of various researchers who are finding that my and your ancestors of more recent vintage, say the last 20,000 years, have been experiencing a quite significant shrinking of that glob of stuff that makes us human.
Homo erectus, who lived about a half million years ago, had a brain size of about 1,100 cc (cubic centimeters). About 20,000 years ago, the average human male brain measured about 1,500 cc. Since then, however, the human male brain has been shrinking until today our male brains average only about 1,350 cc. According to the Discover article, that's a loss of a volume of about the size of a tennis ball, according to the Discover article!
There seem to be various ideas as to what our diminishing brain size means. One suggestion is simply that we aren't as smart as our early ancestors. The Neandertals had bigger brains and recently we've found that many, perhaps most(?) of us have a few percent Neandertal genes in us, thanks to some sexual hanky panky involving our homo sapiens ancestors as they wandered out of Africa. Another possible explanation of our smaller brains is that we simply don't need as big brains as we used to, not having to worry as much about escaping wild predators etc. But wait, it now seems that since colonial times our brains have begun a reversal and are again growing somewhat larger. Who knows what the effect of all these electronic devices will be on the size of our brains over the long haul?
At this point, I was ready to talk about my own personal origins but I've just read an article by Zahi Hawass titled "King Tut's Family Secrets" in the September 2010 National Geographic. I realize that there are some similarities between the Egyptian king's origins and my own, more specifically, my origins on my mother's side of the family. First, let's talk about Tutankhamen (spelled Tutankamun in the article). Hawass describes the work of himself and colleagues from various countries who managed to take DNA samples from a number of mummies, including King Tut's, in an effort to determine who his father and mother were. The results are in and the conclusion is that Tut's father was Akhenaten and his mother was the "Younger Lady", known in the trade as mummy KV35YL. If you're at all interested in the palace intrigues of the Egyptian dynasties you must read the Geographic article. The most interesting aspect of the parents of King Tut is that the younger Lady is Akhenaten's sister! The article goes on to mention that incest is not uncommon in royalty circles of various countries. If not brother and sister, the marriage of cousins was not uncommon among European royal families.
So, what does this have to do with my mother, Lola Pusey? My knowledge of her ancestors is of quite a different nature than the lineage of my father, Harry Trumbore. Although, as mentioned above, I know that his (and my) earliest paternal relative dates back to roughly 50,000 years ago in Africa, I only know of his more recent lineages back to his mother's parent and I know of nothing further back beyond his father, my paternal grandfather. On the other hand, thanks to my late cousin Phyllis and her researching genealogical records, we can follow my mother's Pusey lineage all the way back to William Pusey, an officer in the service of Danish King Canute. In 1016 William was given the title to what is still known as the Pusey Manor in Berkshire, England.
To cut a long story short the manor passed through Pusey hands down the centuries, with some of the Puseys coming to Pennsylvania in the 1600s. One Caleb Pusey was a friend of William Penn. It's a stretch probably but the Pusey males were Lords of the Manor and hey, isn't that sort of royalty? And doesn't royalty often marry in the family? Well, my maternal grandmother was Ida Pusey and she married Baldwin Pusey, a second cousin. Baldwin's parents were second cousins. You're right , it's a stretch to make the connection to King Tut but it was worth a try.
So, finally, down to my own more immediate origin, my birth in Denver, Colorado on December 28, 1927. By the time I came along with only a few days remaining in 1927, the year had celebrated the famed flight of Charles Lindberg across the Atlantic Ocean, the hitting of 60 homeruns by Babe Ruth and a fellow named Heisenberg had put forth his uncertainty principle. Although the uncertainty principle arose in the field of quantum mechanics, it had a deeper, more profound generality in regard to the unpredictability of life itself.
For example, who could have predicted that my mother, born and raised in Princess Anne, Maryland, would meet and marry my father, born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania? And in Denver, Colorado to boot? I had known since childhood that my dad and his parents moved to Denver when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In those early years of the 20th century, it was a common view that with TB it was best to move out west where the climate was purportedly more conducive to recovery from the affliction.
I am ashamed of myself for not having had the curiosity to ask the obvious question - why was my mother in Denver? It was not until I was in my 70s that I thought to ask that question of my late cousin Ruth. She told me that my mother went to Denver to accompany her sister, my Aunt Vola, who also had TB! So, as indicated in the subtitle of these memoirs, without TB I would not exist.
In the intervening years from then until today, TB has gone through a cycle of sorts. With developments in the medical field, successful treatments for TB were found and the disease could be controlled without any need, perceived or otherwise, to travel out west for a cure. More recently, however, as with some other diseases, drug-resistant forms of TB have emerged and, notably in Russia and in Africa, TB has become once again a killer with a yearly death toll worldwide in the millions. The combination of TB and HIV/AIDS is especially deadly.
But let's get back to Denver and my early roots. My father had various jobs ranging from reading meters and selling aluminum ware to his most recent one in Denver, that of a Fuller Brush salesman. Today, I find it amazing that he actually made a living selling Fuller brushes. As we shall see, the Fuller Brush job carried on and made a big difference in my later life. I don't have many memories of Denver. Those that survive include such trivia as my grandparents' apricot tree in their backyard and a long narrow board with tracks in it; I would lean the board up against the apricot tree and place a little wooden car on it and watch the car ride down to the bottom. Quite a difference compared to today's youngsters playing with their computers.
I also remember Clarence McComas, an older neighbor who had an iron rod and one night he showed me how sparks would fly when he struck a rock with the rod. I like to think that that experience first provoked my interest in things scientific. Another vivid memory is of Clarence pouring boiling water down into the anthills housing red ants that could cause painful bites when provoked.
I also remember my dad driving us into the mountains, where I would feed nuts to the chipmunks. In the mountains, another memory is of my dad standing in precarious positions on the edge of cliffs taking pictures. He was a good photographer and one of his photos was published in a Denver newspaper. He was also a good actor and received favorable reviews in various church productions. I have a photo of him in drag in one of his roles! Although apparently quite active in the church, my impression is that after I was born my parents stopped going to church until I left home for graduate school. They then became Unitarians. (My favorite radio personality, Garrison Keillor, often makes humorous remarks on the characteristics of Unitarians as compared to Lutherans or Catholics in Lake Wobegone.)
Other memories of Denver include the birth of my brother Conrad, three years younger than I. I'm told that I knocked him out of his highchair but have no memory of that incident. I vaguely remember going to kindergarten in Denver but that pretty much exhausts my brain's store of memories until age 5 or 6. We had spent some brief amount of time in California , where I was bitten by a dog, but it must have been before I started my feeble brain working.
Sometime around my kindergarten years, we moved from Denver to Philadelphia, where my life was shaped for the first major time by my mother. As you might suspect from the fact that she was brave enough to accompany her sister from Maryland to Denver, a daunting trip in those days, that she was a fairly self confident and aggressive person. She also seems to have had some sort of training or experience in the teaching field. At any rate, she put that teaching ability to use when I was scheduled to enter first grade in the Philadelphia school system.
It turned out that I had some sort of reaction to the smallpox vaccine that was standard in those days and my mother kept me out of school for the first half of that school year. At home, she took it upon herself to teach me what I should have been learning in first grade. In the middle of the year she took me to school, where I was given a test to see if I was qualified to complete the first grade. Surprisingly, they decided that my mother had done such a good job that I was placed in the second half of the second grade, thus skipping one and a half grades. With a December birthday, that made me at least a year and in some cases nearly two years younger than my classmates. This pattern of having to deal with older compatriots in the academic arena continued in spades for the rest of my academic life.
I had an interesting life in Philadelphia. It was there that I saw my first celebrity. I remember my mother taking me to a theater where we saw Jack Benny and Rochester on stage in person. It was on a street in Philadelphia that, probably at the age of 7 or 8, I smoked my first and last cigarette. I found a lit cigarette on the street and smoked it, later becoming quite sick and I never smoked again. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I also got to see the more disturbing aspects of life in a depression. There was an alley in back of our house where garbage cans were placed. I remember watching a destitute man regularly walk the alley opening the cans looking for food.
We also had bread and milk delivered by horse-drawn wagons. It was either a breadman or milkman who came to our door one day in August 1935 to announce that he had just heard that Wiley Post and Will Rogers had died in a plane crash in Alaska. As I write this, it was on this computer that I learned a few days ago about the death of Senator Ted Stevens and others in another plane crash in Alaska. My wife and I will never forget our own experience with an Alaska plane flight. One of the optional side trips on our Alaskan cruise was a canal trip to Sitka, with the return by air, which we anticipated would be on a plane of fairly substantial dimensions. We found ourselves being helped into a three-seater craft by a lady in an apron who turned out to be our pilot! As we approached the Juneau airport we were sure there was a whiteout and couldn't see a thing. We were never so relieved when our gal brought us in on a perfect landing but we vowed never again to take a small plane ride!
In Philadelphia, my father was still a Fuller Brush salesman, with the downtown office section being his territory. For just a few months, we lived in Atlantic City, where he also sold brushes. Back in Philly, he happened to enter the Philadelphia office of Brown & Bigelow, the largest calendar company in the world. My dad made such a good sales pitch for his brushes that Brown and Bigelow offered him the opportunity to start up a new 6-county territory in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania region. My father accepted the offer and we moved to the small town of Mechanicsburg situated some 10 miles either way between Harrisburg and Carlisle, where Jim Thorpe spent time at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was there that famed coach "Pop" Warner first recognized Thorpe's athletic prowess. I was to remain living in Mechanicsburg until graduation from Dickinson College, also located in Carlisle. I've already talked about how my life itself is due to TB and how the smallpox vaccine shaped my life. In the next chapter, I'll talk about how Breyer's ice cream literally saved my life.
Well, so much for a first draft of my bio, chapter 1. Hopefully, things will perk up in Chapter2, if that's what I write about next month. Hopefully, I'll have something to say, either on myself or on science, by September 30 or before.
NOTE ADDED 10/2/10: I see in today's Star-Ledger that a new test for TB has been announced. The test reportedly not only is very accurate in detecting TB but also reveals whether or not the TB is drug-resistant. This is apparently a major breakthrough that could have worlwide consequences.