Monday, June 19, 2006

My Father's World, My World

In thinking about the death of my father last week, I have been comparing the world my father was born into (my grandfather's world) to the world I was born into (my father's world) and the one my daughter was born into (my world). Each of us as children enjoy and suffer from the decisions that our parents, and our parents' generations have made. And with the resulting "world order."

In 1938, the year my father was born, Hitler marched into Austria and declared that it was now part of the German Reich. Great Britian and France ceded Czechoslovakia to the Germans in a short-sighted attempt to avoid war. And on November 9th, in an event to be remembered as Kristallnacht, Nazis burned synagogues, destroyed Jewish shops, and killed Jews at random. 1938 was a dark year for the world.

The earliest years of my father's childhood were spent in an America fighting world war against governments unafraid of using their power to evil ends. In 1939 Hitler invaded both Czechoslavakia and Poland and entered into the axis agreement with Italy's Mussolini. In 1940 Paris falls and France surrenders to the Nazis. And in 1941, when my father was the age my daughter is today, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war.

My father was almost the age my step daughter is now when, in 1945, Germany officially surrendered and the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshimi and Nagasaki, accelerating Japan's surrender. At the age of 7, my father had lived his entire life in a world at war. Of course the coming years were dark as well, with the constant cloud of conflict with Stalin's Soviet Union hanging over the head's of his generation as they came into adulthood.

By 1966 when I was born, the pattern of proxy wars between the West and the Soviet Union had been established with a war in Korea mostly behind the US (well... it still isn't entirely behind us) but with war in Vietnam escalating. Despite continued hostility between the world powers, a half century of American dominance in business and technical innovation was well underway by then, making my childhood much different from my father's. Where America had been a relatively weak player in an enormously fragmented and dangerous world, my father came of age in a world where America became a world power.

After first getting a law degree from Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, my father entered the business world with an inheritence wrested away from his wealthy uncles and grandmother. His father had passed away while he was still a child and he had grown increasingly concerned that his grandmother and uncles would spend all of the money before he received any of it... so he spent it himself instead.

He created a company called Shopper's Plan - one of the first credit card companies in the country. Before we had Visa and Mastercard, stores had "charge plates" that were specific to a particular store or sometimes (rarely) a chain of stores. The 1960s idea of the credit card was a store-independent charge plate. Shopper's Plan could offer this innovation because of the power of this new-fangled invention, the computer.

It was an audacious business idea and it would have required incredible execution to succeed with the (relatively) limited financial resources my father had at his disposal - just a few million dollars (although that was 1960s dollars...). Unfortunately my father was not a terrific business person and the business was soon on the rocks. Complicating things my father got his secretary (my mother) pregnant.

He was already married, with two daughters. Yet he left his wife and began over again with my mother. Within four years he had left my mother and moved on to a string of girlfriends before settling down with his last partner, whom he stayed with until his death (almost 30 years).

to be continued...

1 comment:

dan said...

Hey, Ted:

1) You know, when I saw you last, I don't believe you mentioned your dad had died. Sorry to hear it, though I know his passing put an end to what sounded like a long, painful struggle.

2) I hope you do continue writing this piece. Very engaging, and I'm curious to see where you go with it.

Best,

Dan