1929 was the US stock-market crash and the start of a world-wide depression. Jobs were scarce but my father had one at the Westinghouse plant in Bloomfield New Jersey. When I became aware of where I lived it was in a nice house in a nice suburb. I, Charles William (Billy), had a room of my own. That lasted until my brother Warner (Bud) came along. But first in 1931 two years after my birth, my sister Winifred (Winnie) arrived. Bright, differential, always amusing and occasionally hilarious, she became my closest friend for life.
Ups and downs
My father’s name was Charles so they called me Billy. When I was about two and a half, Daddy took me for a walk before breakfast in a public park under construction by the Works Progress Administration behind our house. Daddy said, “Billy, look at that,” a bulldozer. The wheels alone were bigger than Billy. And I was big. Everybody said I was big. But only a giant could play with the bulldozer.
When Daddy perched me in the driver’s seat, I shook. There was no cab, no little house for drivers. But the seat was firm if cold. Then I ceased trembling and grasped the steering wheel. Holding it made me feel secure. I could see grass and bushes and paths and benches, and streets with trees along sides, and houses, even my house, my own backyard beside other people’s backyards, even Happy’s dog house before he ran away.
A rush of confidence and I had giant thoughts. In those days I always seemed to need to find out something. But in the driver’s seat of a big bulldozer in Brookdale Park I knew know everything. I would have stayed high forever but Dad had to go to work. He pretended to walk away, testing my mettle. I let him go. I didn’t want ever to leave my great high seat. I didn’t need anyone or anything. I was on top of the world.
But my comedown was paradigmatic of future downers. Like it or not there’s always a downside. When I looked down instead of out, I was suddenly vulnerable, powerless, incapable of moving. In my self-confidence I forgot how I got up in the first place. I believed I’d done the ascending. Years later I still assumed accomplishment when the truth was grace.
Here’s another revealing moment, Age 4. We’d been to the grocer. Mother let me carry a watermelon into the house. It was heavy and round. I said, “Ball, Mommy!” Mommy said, “No, Billy, not ball!” I said, “Ball, Mommy”. She said, “No, Billy, NOT ball!” Only one way to find out, I did the research – splat. The lesson learned then was about melons. Ego/know-all splat lessons didn’t come until adulthood.
Not killing Bud
By age seven it was my duty and pleasure to organise all my sibs and friends, assess their talents, and assign them their roles to play in life. When my brother Bud, two years younger, decided to run his own show, I objected strongly – on one occasion with a hammer in my fist. Mother remonstrated, snatched the hammer away. But I couldn’t see the need for rebuke: I hadn’t killed Bud. I could see that, if I had killed him I would deserve reprimand but why was just menacing bad? Mother persisted until I got that point. Still the ego remained unchecked.
How I became a writer
At first I cruised along in primary school. Most teachers liked me. Kindergarten was such fun I wanted to marry Miss Bloom but on day one of First Grade, with nothing but desks in a row, I could tell First Grade was not going to be fun. By second grade mostly I’d got used to the work.
Third grade was exciting for Bob Sternburger and me. On each desk there was a book with a dinosaur on the dust jacket. The book was not as fun as it looked but Bob and I read it anyway. A week later Miss Espy told class to “Open our texts”. Had Bob and I done something wrong reading the book before being told? We were sent to Mrs Gardner for IQ tests and then we were put in Fourth Grade which was even less fun than Third. Bob knew some kids there but I didn’t. Everybody else could write good except me. It was no fun and I never “caught up” (I still have trouble reading my own shaky script). In Junior High typing was known as a girls’ subject but I was advised to take it. The mechanical typewriters were clunky and the keys got stuck a lot but writing became possible and I went for it in style, rewriting until it sentences sounded good. I wrote an article on my Remington at age 15 published in Liberty magazine – for five hundred dollars!
When I was in Fourth Grade two sixth graders with deep voices and hairy legs stalked me into a ditch behind Forest Avenue School threatening to “get” me. I was a perfect target: they didn’t have to lay a hand on me. Taunting alone brought me down and I cried like a baby. Courage became a memory. I clenched my fists and whimpered away while my enemies stepped back and laughed.
Observing my plight, a housepainter came down his ladder and shook his paintbrush at my tormentors. While they were distracted, I ran around the corner but they soon caught up and resumed ridiculing me all the way home. They rang my door bell and my mother answered, puzzled. She didn’t get it! They said, “We thought we’d better bring him home. There’s something wrong with him.” My mother offered them candy. I was too humiliated to speak. I went right to my room and wedged the door shut. Alone in the universe, I lay on my bed and solemnly vowed to devote my life if necessary to ensuring it, whatever it was, would not happen again. From then on, through constant vigilance, I became a wise guy. I acquired a smart mouth and a thick skin, what Wilhelm Reich called “character armour”. Adroit repartee and nimble defence were not easy to come by but I persisted. If I hadn’t become a psychologist, I might have made a good lawyer.
But in my youth I wanted to be an inventor. I grew up among engineers and scientists. In the 1930s, just across the Hudson from New York, New Jersey was a state of mind. One of its geniuses was Alan B. Dumont developer of the first television picture tube. Another Jersey genius was theoretician Albert Einstein in Princeton. But I opted for Thomas Edison whose greatest invention was not the electric light or the phonograph but actually the R&D (research and development) laboratory itself where workers did the inventing by tirelessly testing every possibility.
R&D labs helped rescue the Western World from the depression of the 1930s. Edison’s in nearby Orange N.J. was the model for others. Meanwhile a laboratory in Murray Hill N.J. named after Alexander Graham Bell was developing the transistor, precursor of the microchip which would eventually supplant the vacuum tubes (valves) developed at the Westinghouse laboratories in Bloomfield NJ where my father, Dr. Charles M. Slack, a physicist, was Director of Research.
In those days nearly all physicists knew each other. My father and Albert Einstein communicated frequently and cordially but experimentalists and theoreticians sometimes had to side-step personal issues to establish working relationships. Inventors were notoriously “temperamental” and theoreticians “difficult”. Drawing attention to ones’ self through unconventional dress and behaviour could be profitable. But in an era renowned for conformity, the ignorant public couldn’t distinguish genius from slob. At one point my father had to rescue Albert Einstein. Security guards had detained him at the gate thinking he might be the gardener having come on the wrong day.
When the US entered the war, cohorts of mathematicians, physicists, chemists and engineers were required to collaborate on the top secret Manhattan Project, the most extensive, secret and expensive R&D effort ever undertaken. Before the first nuclear bomb was exploded in July 1945, ignorant people ridiculed brainy “eggheads” and “boffins” for esoteric talk and absent-minded behaviour. A popular comic strip “Alley Oop” featured a dome-headed, time-travelling scientist named Dr. Elbert Wonmug (“one mug” being English for Ein Stein). School toughs laughed at my father. Public misunderstanding just tightened the insiders’ cohort-bonding.
Then after the first explosion, ridicule turned to awe. Nevertheless, my father and his friends had little respect for public opinion (and little for social psychology, which I studied against his advice. He would have been shocked at the thought that a mere actress like Jane Fonda could impede peacetime development of nuclear power.)
Dad did his PhD thesis on X-rays and one of his first projects at Westinghouse in the 1920s was an X-ray tube with inner parts of uranium, a metal so rare in those days that Westinghouse was its only effective refiner. From the start, both his X-ray photographs and his raw uranium production were crucial in developing the bomb. My uncle Francis, also an experimental physicist, worked on the Manhattan project as did many friends and acquaintances. Post-war, my father pioneered development of the reactor used in the Nautilus submarine and in atomic power plants today.
My father wasn’t famous but all through my adolescence it was obvious he was some kind of important person. But in my formative years I never knew what kind. Later on at Princeton and Harvard I got to know quite a few children of celebrities. Having an important, famous, unavailable father causes rebellion by having an important anonymous, unavailable father causes nothing but frustration. My whole future seemed to depend on my becoming extremely smart. With all other role-models at war, I had no one to show me how. I never learned how to study. My grades weren’t that good and I cheated to get by. Meanwhile, my father was busy.
Me: Mom, where’s dad?
Mother: Don’t bother your father!
Me: I need to ask him a question.
Mother: He’s having nervous difficulties.
Mother: He’s resting his mind. Keep OUT of his room.
I had to find my own way. At fourteen, I joined the brainiest youth organization I could find, Junior Achievement (JA), promoted by businessmen to teach capitalism to teenagers. The Young Communist League was across the street but “management” sounded more scientific than “labour”. The next best thing to being an inventor was managing a company. JA set teenagers up in little corporations that sold shares (50 cents per), manufactured and marketed a product and then declared a dividend if they could. One of Dad’s latent inventions was a simple home fire-alarm system. Unable to find a manufacturer, Dad stored all the tools and dies for making and installing the system in our garage. I talked Kenny Underwood’s JA Corporation into taking on the “Warner Home Fire Alarm”. Selling a fire alarm turned out to be almost impossible for teenagers. To compensate for our youth, I wrote sales and promotion literature. I was up nights banging away on my Remington while Kenny and the boys did the real work of marketing to family friends. Manufacturing involved using tools and dies to insert tiny fuses into double-strand wire. Installation required running the wire into fire-prone places and connecting to power and bell. Although couple of homes bought alarms, ultimately the company went broke. Meanwhile however, Liberty Magazine was on the lookout for a teenager to write about young people doing something besides going to school. The JA fundraisers suggested me. Before I could begin, I took up so much of the Editor’s time that he had to call a halt to my visits. But in the finish I surprised everyone by writing the whole thing without help and meeting the deadline. At age fifteen I was a published author – with a photo, a bi-line and check for five hundred dollars. (My mother took the check from my hand “for college tuition”.) A pattern was imprinted on my mind: have an unusual experience and write about it – hence psychological research – hence Psychology Today and Eye Magazine - hence Christian testimony – hence this book. My father, disappointed that the Warner Alarm hadn’t been more successful, was nevertheless proud of me. Like many inventors I knew, dad thought in Physics not in English, in formulas not in words. He complained he needed help from Kitty his secretary to write declarative sentences (“whatever they be”).
My father wins WWII
Unwilling to continue in the “nuclear game”, my father retired at 50. He had every reason to be depressed. Bureaucratic control bugged him. Mass death and destruction agonised him. An allergic lung disease caused by airborne molecular beryllium (used to make crucibles to contain molten uranium) killed hundreds of people including Kitty and several close friends. Eventually Dad too succumbed to beryllium poisoning.
But on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear device was exploded in the Jornada del Muerto desert about 35 miles (56 km) south-east of Socorro, New Mexico and the whole world, me included, became aware of just what these misunderstood masterminds had wrought. We didn’t know how they’d done it but the event was undeniable and the world would never be the same. Meanwhile Japan surrendered. My father and his strange friends had brought WWII to a close.
How I got into Princeton
Distrust of public opinion didn’t prevent my father from his using his brief renown to help others. He knew I’d had an unfortunate adolescence and he thought the prestige of an Ivy League University might help. In the spring of 1946 he phoned Professor Henry deWolfe Smyth in the Physics Department at Princeton. Smyth then phoned the admissions office, “Charlie Slack wants his boy to attend Princeton.” My grades and test scores weren’t good enough but I could write and I was Charlie Slack’s son. I was the last person admitted to the Class of 1950. Dormitories were full: I spent my freshman year boarding in town with Mrs. Loomis, widow of a physicist, and riding a bicycle to the campus.