My father was a commercial landscape architect. He was an independent architect/contractor, preferring not only to design a project, but also to do the actual contracting…the work of purchasing and planting and installing all the various supplies that go into a big landscape project. His way of work and life aren’t really possible anymore. As he reached the age of retirement in the 1970’s, jobs like his were being snapped up by larger firms; the ones that employed many architects and had big money to reach out and underbid men like my father.
His list of achievements was impressive. He won a couple of prestigious professional awards for his work. He landscaped Fordham University’s Law Library at Lincoln Center in New York City. He landscaped many of the corporate headquarter buildings in White Plains, New York, like IBM and ITT. His crowning achievement was to be invited by the Japanese government to landscape the Japanese pavilion at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York. Japanese gardens were my father’s specialty. He was invited to meet the top Japanese landscape architect when he came over from Japan to see my father’s work before the fair first opened. I remember my father being very nervous and very proud to have that honor.
To me, of course, he was just my father. When I was very young he would sometimes take me to see a construction site he had been hired to landscape. It seemed to be just a vast sea of muddy ground and trucks and construction equipment. Later he would take me to see the finished project, often a park-like setting of flowering trees and swirling seas of water-washed gravel winding among railroad-tie island walls that led invitingly up to the building doorway. It was pure magic in my eyes.
It wasn’t until I was in high school and took Geometry that I began to understand some of the nitty-gritty of my father’s work. He used to occasionally bring home blueprints of a project he was working on to double-check his lists of materials he would then have to go out and find. I don’t remember how we first started doing this together, but it was the late 1960’s and there was a clash between my father and me that involved “new math” vs. “old math.”
My father’s designs often incorporated large areas of something like gravel that curved around and among other areas of trees and plants. We had to figure out how much gravel it would take to fill the area, say a total of a half-acre in size, three inches deep in a particular kind of gravel. Once we had that geometric form figured out, we had to find the number of cubic yards of gravel that would fill it. Gravel was delivered in cubic yards only. Dump trucks carried a certain number of cubic yards, say 25 each. How many truckloads of gravel did he need?
It might sound boring to you, but it made the geometry I was learning suddenly about a hundred times more interesting. It had some practical use in the real world to me. Then we would move on to how much topsoil, or sand, or some other landscape material was needed to fill a specific geometric shape, like a box made of railroad ties that would be planted with trees and grass. Geometry became fun.
My father and I would, most of the time, arrive at exactly the same measurements. The only problem was when we compared notes as to how he and I had calculated the figures. Neither of us could comprehend the other’s mathematical methods. Such was the world of “new math,” (me) vs. “old math,” (him). It’s too bad, really, because I think I would have retained that thrill with mathematics if I had been able to see the practical applications of trigonometry and calculus, too.
It wasn’t that what I learned was beyond my father, it was more like two people who spoke different languages trying to communicate without a translator. So when I struggled with calculus, my father sent me to my teacher for after school tutoring. I did eventually get it, but math never seemed “fun” again.
I think I was very lucky to have had a special relationship to my father and such a personal understanding of what he actually did when I was a kid. Now children sometimes get to go to a parent’s office for “take your kid to work day.” I can’t imagine anything more boring, despite the thrill that missing a day of school might have entailed.
It must have been around Christmas time of 1963, since Christmas was the only time of year my mother’s parents came to stay with us for any protracted amount of time. I think I was 10. My father piled the five of us (my grandparents, my parents, and me) into his car. I suppose I got to go along because I was too young to leave at home alone. There was an air of excitement as we drove to what would be the future home of the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.
A block from the gate to the fairgrounds we pulled over and a discussion ensued about what to do with me. Children were not allowed on the work site and there were guards who stopped cars and talked to the occupants before they were allowed in. I was instructed to get down and curl up in the foot-well between the backseat and the driver’s seat. I was covered with a pile of winter coats.
It was hot and stuffy there. I heard voices discussing whether my father could bring people unrelated to his work on premises. I remember thinking those guards were pretty stupid for not wondering what was under that strange pile of coats. I wondered with a chill in my heart what I would do if they asked. It must have worked out because we were allowed in.
I don’t remember much except that it was cold and I got out of the car to see acres and acres of bleak looking landscape dotted here and there with buildings and machines and swarms of workers. The chill wind smelled of salt water and dirt. My father towered over the meticulously dressed Japanese man he was talking to.
I had plenty of time to wander a short distance away and watch the machines digging holes and the other people, including a policeman with a huge German Shepherd on a leash, before my father called me over to him. He introduced me to the Japanese man, who wasn’t much taller than I was. Turns out he was the famous architect my father told me about later. I didn’t have to stuff myself under the coats on the way out, either. My father seemed awfully happy as we drove home.
That’s what I call a cool “take your kid to work” day. How lucky was I?