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Unca Paul

For this blog there is no question; there are memories …

“It’s hot in here,” Eleven–Twelve-in-Four-Days mentions as we get into the car after an errand on one of the first really warm days in May.

“Yes,” I reply, waiting to turn the key and feeling the heat soak deep into my joints, “isn’t it wonderful?”

“Naoooow,” she draws out and shifts the vowel sounds, “let’s go, Mama, start the car!”

I welcome the heat, but we are off and running as usual, so I rev the engine and turn up the A/C.

I love getting into a sun-baked car, I always have, but never more than after my Uncle Paul stopped by for a visit on his way from a consulting gig in Florida. Uncle Paul, my father’s younger brother, was a doctor and a research scientist specializing in the heating and cooling of our bodies. He literally wrote the book on human calorimeters, the machine by which we can measure how the human body heats and cools and burns energy. He invented a space suit that doesn’t require pressurization and is still undergoing development and applied the technology to cool people living with MS. He conducted research in sleep studies, changing the understanding of how we sleep and why.

The army put Uncle Paul through med school, and after he finished his tour of duty and associated research stints, he and his bride settled in Yellow Springs, OH, where they raised their family and Paul opened his lab, Webb Associates, in 1959. They welcomed me to their home there, putting me up on my many long drives between Iowa and the East Coast, their house just about the half-way point.

In the mid-eighties Uncle Paul closed his lab to travel and work and teach worldwide, and my mother fearlessly picked up the table and chairs from the lab and drove our ancient pickup to my college apartment in Virginia. The chairs didn’t match each other, but they were designed for a work group to sit together for some time, and I hosted many wonderful dinner parties where people gathered around my table and lingered in those chairs.

The warm car information arrived with him after one of his consulting trips. I collected Uncle Paul from the airport, a DC stop-over on his way to the next gig. His tall frame folded neatly into the passenger seat, he told me about the work he had been doing.

An hour north of Tampa, FL, there’s a state park where natural springs feed a pool so deep no one has ever been to the bottom. In the forties, an enterprising mayor submerged a theater six feet below the surface so that dry viewers could watch a live mermaid show. The mermaids would swim through the water reaching out for oxygen hoses, performing their stories for captivated audiences. When my Uncle Paul was called in to consult, this unusual roadside attraction was having a terrible time keeping its mermaids healthy. Four or five shows a day left them bitterly chilled and since performances need performers, the management hoped my uncle could offer them a solution.

He told me about interviewing one of the mermaids who said that the best moment of her day came after her shift when she got to her car that had been parked all day in the hot Florida sun. She would open the door as quickly as she could, hop in, and then slam the door to trap the heat. In the warmth of her car she would begin to reverse the deep-seated chill of working for hours under water.

Paul’s solution for the management was to build the mermaids a between-show hot tub such that the performers could bring their body temperatures back to normal. When I asked him if they would take his advice he shrugged, “I hope so.”

If there is anything I associate with my Uncle Paul, it’s warmth. He was the Uncle who came and took my college self to dinner at the fanciest French restaurant in Maryland, La MIche, complimenting me for dipping my bread in my wine. He was the Uncle who came to Spain during my father’s sabbatical there, and together we celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He was the Uncle who found me in the very back row of the chapel at my grandmother’s funeral and brought me to the front with the rest of the family I had never met. He was the Uncle who could belt out a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan in a beautiful voice he honed all the way to the end of his life.

When I was very little, before I understood even a bit of the radical, intellectual mind of my Uncle, whom I called Unca, I used to sit on his lap and examine the moles and skin tags he had on his forehead. He never admonished me or even gently lifted me down; instead, he issued a kind of low chuckle that made his whole body shake. Sometime later he would have those blemishes removed, and while it might truly have improved his appearance not to mention eased a health risk for a man who spent several hours outdoors gardening and playing tennis each summer day, I missed them immensely.

Unca Paul Now, under the full June moon, I miss
Uncle Paul. I don’t know if he ever aspired
to go to the moon himself, but he certainly
intended for his space suit to make
traveling the universe easier. Each time I
saw him on earth, his warmth and big spirit
made my life easier, better. I am grateful to
have had him in this world.

 In loving memory, Rxo

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