The first time I remember being proud of my father was in third grade.
I smelled Old Spice and saw him standing tall in his navy blazer and matching paisley tie. He had dark horn-rimmed glasses and red-tinged slicked back hair. His faint smile widened when I waved at him.
“Today, we have a special treat, Mrs. Leiman said, “Richie’s father, Mr. Smith is here to tell us all about our water: where it comes from and what happens when we’re done with it.”
My father spoke eloquently on the water wells of Long Island and the three major aquifers that supplied our drinking water. His talk segued into a 16-mm film featuring water plants and pipes and impressive machinery culminating in the generous flow of raw sewage. Oozing sludge. We eeked in disgusted delight.
He tried a simple experiment, to demonstrate the effect of pH on iron concentration in the effluent of a sand filter. Although my father later published his work in a prestigious sanitary engineering journal, he didn’t realize at the time that the rise in iron concentration was negligible until the pH dropped below 7.0. Erroneously, in his classroom model, my father started out with an effluent contaminated by sand containing too much calcium carbonite, hence a baseline pH as high as 9.0. Therefore the effect of his dilute nitric oxide on lowering the pH was negligible and the dissolved iron in his solution remained oxidized and at a persistently low level (well below 0.2 mg/L).
Although the experiment failed, my father shrugged it off with the smile of a good sport, whipping out instead, a pile of comic books featuring a cartoon mascot shaped like a water droplet; a superhero falling from the faucet.
We were all awed at my father’s preparation, at his command of the material. My classmates loved the comic books, which smelled like puppies—a combination of fresh newsprint and diarrhea.
“The man knows his water,” said the gym teacher in the back of the class room, “but why didn’t he start the experiment with a much lower pH?”
“Shmith knows his water and his shewage,” said Mr. Greenfield, the speech therapist. He had trouble pronouncing words beginning with the letter “S.”
“But shufficient detention time within the filters is necessary for the ferric oxide floc to form. Shmith’s classroom model doesn’t consider the filtration rate.”
“That’s a serious flaw,” said the gym teacher. “Well, the kids will never know the difference–all they care about is playing kickball.”
And, before I knew it, like a well gone dry, my father’s talk was over.
Mrs. Leiman had us all write thank you letters, and we did so, praising his classroom visit, especially his movie and comic book–excusing his failed experiment.
They were hilarious letters and I kept them in a folder to re-read with my parents repeatedly over the years. Most letters did, however, end with a suggestion to start the experiment at a pH of 7.4, and of course next time, to bring more comic books.
Now my widowed father sits at home wearing a bib. He’s rigid in a wheelchair, his head bowed, that once youthful expression shrouded with the permanent Halloween mask of Parkinsonism. He drools and stutters with speech much worse than Mr. Greenfield’s.
A Russian aide carries a basin for my father to brush his teeth and I prefer not to witness another of his awkward attempts at personal hygiene.
“Dad, I need to get back to work,” I say and I leave before I have the chance to tell my father I love him.
I promise myself I’ll come back soon, because I always believe there’s going to be a next time. I’ll come back to that old lonely house and pull out that folder, the one with the letters from Mrs. Leiman’s class and I’ll read them to my father, just as I did for my mother, a few years before in the same room.
My mother sat next to me on the couch, in her housecoat. I read the letters and she laughed at the glorious third-grade descriptions of free-flowing shit. And, she laughed at my classmates’ suggestions to remove iron from our water supply when the concentration was greater than 2 mg/L.
My mother laughed and she coughed. I held her hand, and a few nights later, she died.
At the funeral, my father sat rigid. A solitary tear welled in one of his pale blue eyes.
I watched the tear splash down like the superhero from his comic book.
The tear with a pH of 7.4.
It dripped down into his soiled lap and was lost with other forgotten superheroes; with my newly arriving mother, and with Mrs. Leiman, with the gym teacher and with Mr. Greenfield, the speech therapist.
Smith, SO. Iron occurrence in ground water correlated with dissolved oxygen. Public Works 1970;101:60-62.