I was working with a crew high on a hill overlooking the rolling vistas of Simi Valley
when my cell
phone rang. It was Dan, an old friend that I hadn't talked to for 5 years. He
called to tell me Roger Arrington had died. Behind me generators hummed. Our crew had
long range cameras mounted on the lift gate of a truck: we were tracking moving
vehicles along a highway miles off in the haze, field-testing the way the computers
recalculated the positions of cars as their outlines passed from bright
sunlight into deep shade As I talked to Dan over the wind and the noise, I
couldn't help thinking that this was just the kind of thing Roger would have
Roger had been my mentor when I first started working at Hughes Aircraft Company.
He was about my height and a bit younger than me, and he was the smartest
person I had ever met. We worked with cameras and lasers and telescopes, and Roger
knew all the theory of all of that, and all the practical details too. But he
also knew all there was to know about aircraft flight, and shipboard radar, and
a thousand other things. We would play a game: pick a subject - and Roger could
tell us the basic equations, the primary mathematical laws that governed that
For years, every Friday lunchtime Roger held what the intellectuals
would call a salon
He and a bunch of us would go to a Mexican restaurant on. It was invitation
only, and if you were invited it meant that you had been judged to be one who
truly appreciated science and engineering in its many dimensions. We stirred
rice into cheap enchilada sauce around a large table in the dim light, and
discussed Roger’s latest “thought experiment.” These thought experiments were
concepts where all the details were explored: was the concept feasible, what
were the engineering challenges, how would the project be built.
They would go on for weeks. But after awhile, most of them were set aside and
replaced with the next challenge. But Roger also had challenges of a different
sort. Although he couldn’t really comprehend it, he was in love. He was in love
with Donna, a woman that we all thought was about the nicest lady in the
building. She liked him a lot. They were in their thirties, and it was marrying
time. But for Roger everything was a thought experiment, and he couldn’t tie
down all the logic involved in this situation. How does one know for sure? And
if things don’t work out, should he protect - how would he protect his modest
The last Friday lunch that I remember - we were eating the same enchiladas,
mixing the same rice, trying to help Roger understand that love was something
he was never going to be able to figure out. The leap of faith eluded him; he
was confused and defeated. And after that, none of us were really interested in
going out for Mexican food on Friday afternoon.
Up on the hill, looking out over Simi
, I had a hard time hearing Dan over the wind.
He was telling me that Roger had died of a degenerative brain disorder. As we
talked, a bit of dark humor that drifted uninvited into my mind– he had died from an overworked brain
quickly filed that thought away as completely inappropriate.
On the phone, I heard Dan pause.
“You know,” he said, “I just thought of something that I am almost ashamed to
I smiled to myself - and told him “I know exactly
what it is.”
© 2014 Frank Kearns