I grew up in and near Portland, Oregon. I was the middle of three children, with an older sister and a brother some 14 months younger. The two of us, my brother and I, were quite close. My early years, ages four to 15, were during the Depression and my father died right in the middle of that, when I was nine. We moved to a rural area outside of Portland, in the woods with a creek. We had a lot of freedom and nature all around. I didn’t get involved in city activities, nor did I have much interaction with people outside my family. I had quite a bit of reflective time. I read a lot and roamed the woods with my brother.
I had to generate my own picture of the world. There wasn’t anything to drag me into reality except the things I tried to make or build that wouldn’t work. I didn’t develop the assumptions that many others did. I didn’t know what I couldn’t do. So, it didn’t seem to dismay me much if I failed. I had to try. Because my father was dead and it was the Depression, socio-economic status didn’t mean much. Our school district didn’t have its own high school. We had to commute into Portland five miles away. We’d hitchhike, get rides with neighbors, or walk. We lived on a one-acre plot. Our garden was important and we had a cow. I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning and milk the cow and light the fires for cooking and heating. We used wood stoves, but that was nothing unusual in those days. I’d been up some two or three hours by the time school started. I didn’t feel any terrible hardship. It was just the way things were.
My mother was very cheerful and supportive and our family was very close. We didn’t experience any great dark, gloomy periods. It was just a way of life. My mother was always positive about things, and never negative. The only demand she made on me was to do the chores correctly. I had a sense of freedom and also a sense that I really wasn’t like the other kids in school. I assumed they always knew what was going on all the time and I didn’t. I was very shy, even at 12, 13 years old. I can remember walking pathways to the country store and somebody coming along who knew our family very well, but I would be too shy to meet their eyes so I would look down at the path as they walked by. Girls frightened me terribly.
I had a dream once of making a balloon with a framework underneath so that I could mount bicycle-like pedals, and drive with a propeller to move around the sky. I actually tried to decide how I’d build it and how I’d get the hydrogen. I remember reading someplace that you could pass steam over red-hot iron and the interaction would create hydrogen. It would oxidize the iron and leave the hydrogen free. So I built a huge fire and put an iron pipe across it to generate steam. Those were all things that seemed possible. I had a proclivity to dream the picture and then say, “let’s go.” I also assumed that somehow I wasn’t like other people; I didn’t understand their clubs or the way they operated socially and I didn’t feel I had to try. It didn’t bother me if I was different. That’s still one of my characteristics and problems. It doesn’t bother me to think about something that I can not see any direct way to get to. If it is possible, why not think about it? That has been an underlying problem for decades now.
I often say, “Well, it’s just over on the other side of that canyon. So all we have to do is go.” It is always surprising to me that other people would expect me to tell them how we’re going to get there directly. That it is not enough to say, “Well, it would be important to get there and there is probably a way. Let’s go.” Years later, when I had to manage budgets, other people would come to me with ideas they would want to implement and I’d say, “My God, where’s this guy coming from?” And then I’d realize, “Boy, that’s just the way I often sound.”
When I was in the service I had time to think through a lot of things. I generated a sort of algorithm: the rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to how much embarrassment he can tolerate. And I realized that embarrassment didn’t seem to bother me very much, because of my upbringing and the perspective I had about the world. Something Benjamin Franklin wrote was so beautiful, “You wouldn’t worry half so much about what other people thought about you if you realized how seldom they did,” and I’d say, “Oh, that’s right.”
I seem to have a lot of intuitive capability. I just don’t mind at all not being able to explain to people how I reached something. It doesn’t bother me. Intuition is important to me and I have a pretty logical head, etc., but I’m not very good at budgets and figures and explicit plans. They get in the way. I always needed other people to come along. Then I’d say, “just on the other side of that canyon.” Then usually somebody would start a plan for some roads and get it together. I’ve always depended on that. Until they show up, there I am, floundering around, and pointing across the canyon.
I bought an old car I found in a barn when I was 13. It had a brass radiator and was 10 years older than I was, a 1916 Model T Ford. The parking lights were kerosene lamps and it had a brass radiator. The headlights were a couple of big bulbs tied to knobs, so the faster the motor ran, the brighter your lights were. The seat was way up high. There were no starters in those days. You had to crank it. I just loved that thing. It took me seven years to get it running. I’d ride my bicycle all over to find parts, spend a quarter here and a quarter there. But the car ran. The guy that ran the local garage about a mile away let me borrow a tool. I’d ride up there on my bike and borrow the tool I needed. And as soon as I finished, I took it back to him until I needed it again or needed another tool. That was the only way that I could possibly get that engine apart.