4 Aug 2017, 2pm
Bill Dickson — A Rush of Recollections
Bill and I, while well known to each through a mutual friend (Dave Dewey), only first meet at David’s memorial service following a hiking accident. Those two were fellow Miramonte High classmates in Moraga (Orinda) in the East Bay Area.
Two boyhood scientists with a shared love of electronics. Both also enjoyed the great outdoors. (Bill could not speak of winter climbing in Sequoia or of the John Muir Trail without becoming animated). As troop-mates both were working toward their Eagle Scout rank. Based upon their empirical observations of the universe, both were atheists.
Bill took exception to the Scout’s motto which concluded “thrifty, brave, clean and REVERENT” as he could not be completely certain of God’s existence, neither could he lie. Unwavering and consistent, he (unlike his close friend) would refuse the oath and with this rare honor being otherwise fully qualified. “Just ANY kind of God-being!” his scoutmaster implored, but Bill was unmoved.
I have yet to meet anyone with a greater sense of personal integrity.
In late 1980 I hoped to leave Xerox Pasadena (first job out of Caltech) and advance to Xerox Palo Alto Research. I interviewed, with trepidation, Halloween 1980. It was Bill who provided both a place to stay and entree to that city. I had no Stanford contacts but quickly learned that along University Ave. I could watch movies at the Varsity, enjoy ice cream at Liddicoats (gelato would come later), and read SciFi at The Printer’s Inc. Bill was a colleague and contemporary but also, without any condescension, an older brother helping me navigate both an unfamiliar city and also an unfamiliar time in my early adult life. Both my job and my new lodgings came through splendidly and were nearby: Work was at 3333 Coyote Hill; two miles NE at 3340 Middlefield Ave. was home. At “Middlefield Manor” five young Christian men (Bill D, Bruce, Bill K, David, Alan) lived out the words of Psalm 133. Bill enjoyed my grasp of German and began answering our phones (we had two!) as “Schloss Mittefeld”.
Bill’s resourcefulness and interrelated helpfulness were boundless. Two prime examples follow. In late March 1981 I moved north from LA. On my first Sunday I confided to Bill that after a crushing breakup coincident with my father’s death, both in 1980, I was ready to be a hermit and enjoy the hammock I’d set up amid the pines of our “manor”. He would not have it, I now realize, but raised no visible objections. Instead, he responded “Hey, I’ve got an idea! I’m throwing a full-on pancake breakfast for ‘Zwischenfolk’ next Sunday.” These “between people” were a few dozen 20s-30s single professionals, all attending Menlo Press, a church of thousands. I was now part of Z-folk and needed to be introduced. “Ladies especially welcome. And you WILL be there”. How could I not? My bedroom was just down the hall.
At brunches’ second seating the last lovely lady introduced to me was a very striking brunette and Stanford violinist with an MA in education. I offered that I was from a musical family, earning an unconscious eye-roll at what was a far too often repeated cliche. “I’m sunk”, I thought. We wed two years later.
As a second example of resourcefulness: In that first year we both worked high tech jobs. He commuted to “the City” (SF) and at our Sunday eve clan gatherings would agonize over the corners being cut in the engineering of the new Moscone Center. I, by contrast, biked to work and was enjoying a desktop with mouse and PC networked to a laser printer. But Xerox PARCs vision of the future ended at my lab’s door — our secretaries still lived in an 80’s medium-tech world which had no e-mail; the telephones had hold buttons and rotary dials.
One day my group secretary lamented “I NEVER get FUN messages on my answering machine!”. That night after dinner I told Bill to be quiet with the dishes as I intended to play the entire album side of Alice’s Restaurant onto her machine. I was trying to stretch the ultra-long coiled cord of the kitchen phone’s receiver all the way to the stereo by the study. “Not the right way to do it”, Bill offered, “You need to couple directly to local loop, not air coupled”. I objected: “I can’t wire directly to the loop! Telephones run on 48 volts!”. He: “by ‘couple’ I mean an audio transformer”. Me: “but who has one? And what impedance?”. He: “I have one: 600 ohms. Standard for PA work. I’ll go get it”. (Insert gratuitous “Be Prepared!” motto here).
Within a minute he’d produced not only the transformer but a suitable wall jack with clip leads; a veritable telephone linesman. One minute later Arlo’s LP was spinning and I was serenading the secretary’s answering machine. Me: “Bill! You are amazing! Lucky coincidence that Public Address systems and the Bell System both employ 600 ohms. Him: “Well, actually not. You see, when audio standards were first set up…” And loveably and very characteristically, a technical torrent followed, describing vacuum tube plate impedances, the virtue of reused standards, research within the Bell Labs, how and why he just happened to have such a transformer on hand…and so on and so on. Note: Do Not Ask or he will Very Helpfully Break It Down Even Further For You.
Encyclopedic. While Google might be fast at finding factoids, Bill understood them in their entirety. One big integrated, interrelated comprehensive whole. A “Gestalt”. And then would break it down. And then some more! Bill’s world was always wonderfully consistent. And when at last his boyhood friend found God (or rather, Jesus found Dave) and shared his discovery with Bill, it was a done deal. God is good. God is real. God interacts with His creation. Let me share.
In my imagination I see Bill, back in California, advancing again down the road of life, wondering just what the next highest peak might be. I’m a bit envious that his life-passage proved brief and seamless. One moment northbound on 101. A juncture! A life crossroads. “Off belay!” A gentle loosening of the wheel, the piloting of his earthy conveyance of fading importance. “Belay on!” as a nail-torn Hand takes in the slack, a tug to say all is safe and secure. The Boy Scout’s fabled and unattainable “sky-hook” now anchored to a place beyond the clouds, tethering Earth to Heaven. “Climbing!” Bill calls upward to his Belayer. And with great intent and expectation, William, now both fully clean and fully reverent, ascends beyond the ranks of eagles. He summits and reaches out to touch the Hand of God.
Well done, dear Friend. Enter Thy rest.
PS – And pass along my greetings to David D., to Cathy P. and to Ernie D.
Thank you for the earthly introductions.
PPS – Take care. We will all join you, bye and bye.