We celebrated my father-in-law’s 90th birthday this weekend. (The actual day was last Wednesday.)
Bob was born in February 24, 1920, just three and a half months before my own father was. There were odd near-intersections that followed that coincidence of birth years: they were classmates — but did not know each other — at Harvard, class of ’41. Still, they must have passed close by — both men counted among their acquaintences/friends the historian of technology/American Studies Leo Marx, for example.
They both had plans after graduation — my dad signed up for graduate school in Chinese history, which he ultimately completed, to good effect, (and yes, I’m inordinately proud of him, and have not begun to pay the full measure of my filial duties to him, but that’s for another time), and as for Bob…
…Well Bob was and is much smarter than your average bear. (See this if you aren’t old enough to catch the reference.)
He planned to become a teacher, and in October, 1941 enrolled at the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka, Illinois (as he wrote later to his kids, a school “known to a very select few as “the Harvard of Winnetka, Illinois”). But he grasped the reality beyond the ocean barriers that muffled American senses of urgency, and so, just before heading west, he took the examination for an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard (then a unit in the Navy)
Why did he do this? Especially given his politics, which were and are on the left, and as anti-war in a general sense as you can get? Because, he told his daughter, my wife, once, it was already obvious to him that someone had to be prepared to kill Germans.
He was salty as hell — he’d been sailing since more or less the time he could walk, and was an excellent offshore navigator — and he passed, but did not receive word of a commission by December 7. So he decided to head to the local Navy recruiting office to sign up any way he could. Facing the crush of eager volunteers, the recruiters told him to check with the Coast Guard to see what was up — and he found that his commission had arrived from DC literally ten minutes earlier. He was sworn in on the spot, and proceeded to have a real war.
Bob, the gentlest of men as I know him, served on the North Atlantic convey runs — on his first trip to Reykjavik to meet up with his ship, he sailed on a convey that hit a wolf pack, and arrived safely on one of seven vessels of the thirty four that left the US, and he helped shepherd three more convoys through wolf pack attacks on that duty.
Then, in 1944, he took over command of LST 767, which he led through several island invasions in the Pacific, the great typhoon of ’45, the kamikaze threat, and VJ day. In that duty, he had another near miss with my dad, at the battle of Leyte Gulf — my dad was a Japanese-language officer on Admiral Kincaid’s staff on the flagship; Bob was landing troops on Leyte Island; and, as an added coincidental bonus, the father of one of our closest friends was flying a torpedo bomber of the decks of one off the jeep carriers in the action that saved my dad and Bob from the Japanese battleship task force that aimed to blow the landing group out of the water.
Along the way, Bob saw all he needed of violent death, death by drowning, by exposure, by blunt trauma or overpressure. He came back from the war with a renewed, or never-flagged urgency for social justice, along with a temporary surcease to any wanderlust. He married Ann (Wilcox) Seidman, his sweetheart from before the war, started a family, went to law school, and started a conventional law practice in CT, whilst co-founding an unconventional interracial co-housing community on Long Island Sound.
Boredom with the law side of things led to unwary conversation at a cocktail party in the early ’60s, which led to a career first teaching law in Africa sponsored by the Ford Foundation, then, with his economist wife, Ann, an intellectual passion for the use of law as an instrument of development and social change, and finally, the creation of an approach to legal drafting aimed at giving developing nations the tools with which to make laws that could do what those enacting them sought to achieve.
That idea turned into a UN and USAID sponsored third or fourth career travelling the world in partnership with Ann to new and emerging democracies (and anyone else that cared to listen) helping them think about the nuts and bolts of making law. Their travels ranged across Asia and Africa; Bob only stopped showing up in the Vietnams, Khazakistans, Bhutans and South Africas — and the one Bagdad –of the world in the last three or four years. (Ann, a mere 84, still takes the show on the road.) The both of them are teaching BU law students right now and more from around the world via a distance program — when Bob shows up in class on Tuesday, he will be 90 years and 6 days old.
All of which is to say, this is a man who has seen if not the worst we can do to each other, acts much closer to that worst than I have, or hope I ever shall…and has spent many decades of a long life trying to help folks not to repeat the error. I should do half as well…
Not to mention that he’s been a heck of a father in law, and a proud (if occasionally somewhat stunned) grandfather to the last of his grandchildren, my son, whom Bob first met a few weeks after his 80th birthday. Not to mention the fact that he has proved extremely tolerant of his mostly land-bound and power-tool impaired son-in-law who, for all his patient attempts to instruct him, still cannot reliably tie a bowline when called upon.
So, happy birthday, Bob Seidman. You are an emblem and an exemplar. (And congratulations to you, Ann, without whose intellectual and emotional partnership there is no doubt that Bob could not have come up with a fraction of what he and you have done together.)
And on that note: I’m not going to start my week thinking how gruesome our politics are, how bankrupt and morally contemptible so many of our GOP-aligned friends have become (and I’m not even going to rehearse the conversations I’ve been having in my head with the too-numerous folks like these, to whom I merely want to echo Army Secretary Joseph N. Welch’s question to Joe McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”).
Instead, I’m going to think of Bob’s life, his work, still ongoing, the work to be done yet, and the pleasures of family of which I was reminded when I broke bread (actually, boneless leg of lamb stuffed with a ground veal and prune pate) with twenty people, just last night, three generations, starting and ending the evening with champagne, with eighty years of experience separating and joining Bob to my own kid, a grand evening in celebration of a life that evokes all the fabric of astonishing history, but is present, and lived, and in which, right here, a wife and children and spouses, and their children may share and share alike.
So, to that thought I offer this bit of music which, for all its associations of pain and struggle, and wrongs overcome, if not always righted, remains for me as sweet and hopeful as it ever could be.