Saturday, April 22, 2017

March for Science/Earth Day: Remembering Paul Pittman - September 23, 1955 - January 8, 2017

Fierce. That’s the word I use to describe my old friend, Paul. And smart. Very smart. Never the arrogant kind of smart looking down on others who perhaps had no idea what he was talking about when he would begin to unravel the mysteries of science and the universe, but a matter-of-fact smart that shared his knowledge with all who would care to listen. When his listener’s eyes would begin to glaze over, he’d laugh and his eyes would twinkle even more than usual, which could be somewhat disarming given the fact that his eyes didn’t exactly match aiming in the same direction - one of those pairs of eyes where you never quite know where to look in order to look the person in the eye.

Yesterday I attempted to find him. It had been a few years since our last contact and I wasn't even sure where he might be, so I entered his name in google, found his photo looking like his impish self - only now an older imp. Hitting the link I was shocked to find out just three months ago he was snatched away in a flash while riding his bicycle - killed by a Ford Explorer crossing his path in a split second of inattentiveness, something he wasn’t prone to being. Right behind the shock of hearing the news was being impressed that he was still commuting by bicycle at age 61. I was reminded how he always had a bicycle as his primary transportation when we were younger, and apparently still did. It was a way of his maintaining physical strength and health while saving on gas. I'm sure he probably had calculated his carbon footprint of every mile he drove and tried to keep that to a minimum.

Paul was an innate, instinctive teacher - a man of knowledge, philosophy, and extreme curiosity that was relentless in its search. When Paul had a question he researched the answer - and that was long before any of us could appear to be an expert by googling answers. He would do serious research - from the micro-biology of nutrition, to in-depth chemistry, to the workings of the nervous system or the solar system, to saving the diminishing rain forests. He grounded the information he found in hours, weeks, years of serious work. It was just how he was wired - a curious geek with lots of humor and lots to share. A good man. I wish I’d had the chance to tell him that one last time.

We knew each other over a lifetime - going all the way back to being young bucks fumbling our way into adulthood as we discovered our worlds unfolding.

To me, Paul’s brilliance was his outstanding feature. For the average person meeting him for the first time it was more his physical appearance - the limp when he walked; the steel prosthetic hook that replaced his right hand, hung by leather straps around his shoulder and chest allowing him to control opening and closing the pincer hook like a crab claw; and his remaining left hand and arm, a reconstruction that left him with a thumb and two fingers. What he could do with his two upper appendages and their limitations was impressive and amazing - both in ability and in educating others quietly — long before any such things as disability awareness. His road was simply ‘awareness’ - and disability was a part of his package.

Back in the day, I knew Paul and his hook very well. To know Paul well meant confronting your own discomfort, get past pretending not to notice — and get real. Paul lived on Planet Real. That was a gift he gave freely.

He taught me how gentle a metal hook could be as I watched how he cradled our baby boy in his arms over 35 years ago.

He also showed me the fierce, ‘I can do anything’ side of himself as I rode ‘shotgun’ next to him in his little sports car as he drove like a wild man down a curvy country road letting his reckless spirit fly. He grabbed the stick-shift with his hook as he showed me his speeding driving chops as he wove our way through the winding countryside - a favorite pastime of his until one night he drank too much alone and crashed the car down a hillside, stopping just short of going into the river. He escaped without a scratch - the next day taking me down there to find the scene he couldn’t quite clearly remember.

Okay, just because you’re smart in some areas doesn’t mean you’ve got it covered in all areas! But he learned. And I learned. And we got older.

A few years later, another questionable choice of both of ours was when he offered to create a fireworks display for a 4th of July party we were having.

“Wow! Sure! Sounds cool!” I said.

The night of the party Paul set his fireworks up. About 50 kids and adults gathered around. His fireworks were homemade, but the fact that he was a chemist and seemed to know what he was doing — coupled with his saying “these are just tiny little fireworks for the kids” led us naively into what quickly became one of the wildest, most out of control, kids and parents screaming and running from fireworks randomly shooting sideways and raining down displays I’ve seen — all in our yard. 

Lesson learned: no more homemade fireworks. Even if your most brilliant chemist friend is involved.

Yes, he could be both brilliant and dangerous - not an unusual combination at all.

But then I also remember him many times sitting with curious children in conversation. He enjoyed kids, and kids being kids and forthright as they are, he always found refreshing. They’d ask him straight out things most adults wouldn’t dare, like asking about the obvious - his hook and his damaged arms. He’d suddenly turn it into ‘Show and Tell’ demonstrating how the leather straps over his shoulder allowed him to control the gripping grasp of his hook - which always led to being asked, “How’d you get this way?” and he’d give a variation of the story depending on the age of the crowd.

It takes little imagination to consider what kind of a boy Paul was. I’m sure his inquisitiveness could drive a parent mad on occasion in trying to keep up, protect, and keep him safe. It’s a relentless job when you have a relentless kid with relentless drive. And somehow they managed to survive all that, but just barely.

The story as Paul told me was that as a young teenager he brought home chemicals from a school chemistry lab. He was down in the basement doing experiments, mixing chemicals, crouched down on the floor over a container when it exploded, blowing off his right arm, parts of his left and parts of muscle of his lower legs that were close to the explosion.

The fact he went onto study and earn a masters in biochemistry says volumes about him. He became a chemist and mastered the world of chemistry that altered his very being.

His road of recovery was long. Life-long and relentless. And with good humor and grace - right up to his end riding his beloved bicycle.

I learned his most recent area of research was about the diminishing rainforest. His life’s work ending on a global note. As the organization ‘Rainforest Partnership’ said in memoriam: “Paul hoped that his findings would contribute to the conservation of tropical rainforests. It is our sincere hope that by publishing his work it might reach a broader audience and raise awareness of an issue that was close to his heart.”

He was a good man. I wish I’d had one last chance to say that to him — and for all that he taught me, “Thank you.”

1 comment:

  1. Nice tribute; sounds like an amazing man. Your description suggests that, despite dying too soon, he lived his life to the fullest. I think that's the best epitaph a person can have.