John R. Kelly Column: Of fathers, sons and the 'why' chromosome

Dennis Noone/Nevada AppealNevada Appeal Nevada Appeal news editor John Kelly, son of a Bell Labs scientist, is still trying to figure out why he nearly failed algebra - twice - in high school.

Dennis Noone/Nevada AppealNevada Appeal Nevada Appeal news editor John Kelly, son of a Bell Labs scientist, is still trying to figure out why he nearly failed algebra - twice - in high school.

The scientist sat by the side of the small lake, obsessively working out the mysteries of string theory, which on this early-spring day meant attempting to unsnarl the line from his young son's fishing pole.

As always, the math guy was trying to solve for "y" - or given this current conundrum, "Why?"

Why did he give up a Mets preseason game on TV to bring the boy here to learn how to fish with an open-face reel?

Why didn't he just get the kid one of those push-button Zebco reels that any lad can learn to use?

In the late '60s, father and son fished in the shadow of Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., which was a mere slide-rule's throw from where proof of the Big Bang Theory was stumbled upon with a radio device right out of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Bell Labs workers produced the transistor, but this Labs laborer produced a kid who had just single-handedly produced a non-stellar nebula.

Tangled line in hand, the man rigorously applied his impressive logical mind to the "Why?" question, but each reasoned calculation and every tantalizing potential breakthrough met with the same frustrating conclusion: Why?

Why did he miscalculate his 7-year-old's hand-eye progression?

The skinny little guy really did look good throwing a baseball, and the man had analyzed all the geometric angles and arcs of his son's motion.

So why was he now sitting here, with a self-disorganizing tumbleweed of light-test fishing line in his lap, searching for solutions?

His brain hurt.

And it wasn't even Monday morning, when he'd be back at work, trying to keep up with the other geniuses.

Why didn't the man just drop this silly string version of a Rubik's Cube, grab the pliers from the tackle box, cut the line, rehook, attach another bobber and be home in time for extra innings?

The boy, circling like an electron, knew the answer: The man could never say no to problem-solving. And the more formidable, the more compulsively inviting on an nerdy level. The man wasn't always aware of this trait. How could he be?

Nope, there would be no cutting and running. He would test all possible string paths until, eureka, he had it!

The man began to whistle. This was a good sign, the boy knew: Whistling signaled an engaged yet relaxed working state. Calm snatched from the jaws of humiliation. The boy was never quite sure what tunes the man was whistling, just that they all sounded good. They were, for the most part, soft and smooth, comforting and often hypnotic, but the sonic mood could also turn jaunty faster than the boy could say Hoagy Carmichael. This was Bing Crosby talent, the Nat King Cole of whistlers. And since there was never a time when whistling equaled "You're in big trouble," the boy logically concluded all was OK.

But then it was said, and the unemotional nonchalance of the delivery couldn't mitigate the damage: "I bet Gil Hodges never had these problems," the man lamented, still mesmerized by the string nebula while tangled up in blues. The innocuous-sounding quip clipped the boy like a Tom Seaver fastball. Nothing meant more to the lad at that time than the Miracle Mets, and manager Gil Hodges was the rock.

"Why not just beat me with a Louisville Slugger?" the kid sulked. "It'd hurt less."

The boy wholly knew the implications of the man's statement, and he brooded: "I'll never be like him; never, ever, nev... Hey, look, I can see the Labs' water tower from here."

He needed a diversion while the human supercomputer with the crewcut was still tackling the fishing-line conundrum.

It isn't important whether the problem was solved completely. What mattered to the boy was that it had seemed like an eternity and that the exercise was another total buzz kill. He swore he would never be like that. Never. He wouldn't hyperfocus; he would always see the big picture and consider others' feelings.

On their 20-minute trip home, "Leaving on a Jet Plane" came on the radio. The boy's mind locked onto Peter Yarrow's serpentine high harmony as it darted and coiled around Mary Travers' intimate-conversation vocals. The child found Paul Stookey's harmony a bit easier to understand but also continued to work on that part in his head simultaneously.

This was really neat, trying to figure each part out and then putting them together. Math is music, they say. It was just a matter of total concentration and blocking everything else out.

Wait a second! Why are we pulling into the driveway already?

Why are we home so fast?

Solving for "why" = math + music squared.

Happy Father's Day, fellas. You've earned it, and I'm not just whistling Dixie.

• Nevada Appeal night news editor John R. Kelly can be reached at


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