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Father’s secret war notebook

Su Lum

World War II, which took place during my very long formative years of 5 to 9, dominates my childhood memories. Ration books, black windowshades, pasting 10-cent stamps into booklets to buy Liberty Bonds, collecting sacks of milkweed pods for life preservers, recycling every last scrap of metal and rubber and paper, no gasoline for anything but unavoidable travel, and my father having to work six days a week at his job at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City.Every evening my mother would pick my father up at the train station (unavoidable travel), followed immediately by rather sparse dinners consisting of things like kale (which I hate to this day) and salmon loaf made from canned salmon. Then my father would retire to his study with his slide rule and logarithm tables where he would work away, not to be disturbed, until early bedtime – 10 p.m. was considered the wee hours in my house.None of us had any idea what he was doing and wouldn’t have understood it if he’d tried to tell us. Sometimes over dinner my father would discuss an amusing incident at the labs – his co-worker Herbie was a master of malapropisms (“I saw a robin, the first harbinger of spring”), so he often had a Herbie anecdote, and for several weeks he regaled us with stories about a very unconventional chap from England who was visiting the labs and turned all the conservative, three-piece suited Bell Labs engineers upside down with his uninhibited observations about America. My father’s favorite story was that he asked this guy, who was supposed to be a wunderkind cryptologist, for help on a Herald Tribune cryptogram, and was told, “I never could figure those damned things out.”He didn’t tell us until after the war that the “British chap” was Alan Turing, who invented a decoding machine (early computer) that could unscramble German U-boat Enigma radio codes, a turning point in the war, and that his (my father’s) job had been working on the American side of the unscrambling effort. Years after my father died, I found a bound, lined Bell Labs-issued notebook in the attic stamped “SECRET.” In it, my father had recorded his daily work from Jan. 12, 1943, to May 1, 1946. What I love is that in those days if something was secret, it was stamped “SECRET” and you didn’t tell anybody. Now, “SECRET” means all kinds of forms to be signed and locked in file cabinets and then it comes out on the front pages of the newspapers.I have no idea what relevance it has to Turing’s later discoveries, but my father’s entry on Feb. 4, 1943, read, “As various proposals were being considered, it seemed proper to introduce Turing’s idea of decoding Bedford cypher by using the vocorder system with a resistance matrix between the outputs (rectified) of the analyzing filters and the inputs to the controlling modulators in the synthesizer. Both Potter and Gray seemed opposed to any such idea – mainly because there were no obviously simple explanations or reasons to see why it should work.” Do we detect a little dig at Potter and Gray? My father really liked Turing, was sad when he committed suicide in England in 1954 after being caught in a compromising homosexual situation. My father’s real love was historical research, and he was outraged when Turing’s mother rewrote history in her biography of her son by implying that Alan had ingested cyanide by accident. Su Lum is a longtime local who was reminded of Turing after seeing “Brokeback Mountain.” Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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