Scott Burns' own story


Dryer sheet aficionado
Mar 17, 2005
Scott Burns is doing a series using individuals to talk about changes (and the future) in the US. This particular story is his own (see the note at the end about "Bobby"). Interesting and moving to see where a favorite columnist "comes from."

Social upheaval has factored into economic expansion
11:17 AM CDT on Sunday, October 2, 2005

By SCOTT BURNS / The Dallas Morning News

One of his first memories is recorded in a scrapbook picture. The boy, nearly 7, is barely tall enough for his chin to touch the bar. He is drinking soda from a short beer glass. Father, drinking the harder stuff, snapped the photo.

It was either the Devil Bar or the Stink Fish Bar. The Devil Bar, as Bobby called it, had a large bronze bust of the devil at one end, its eyes illuminated with dim red lights and head slowly swiveling.

If you stayed at the bar long enough, as Bobby and his father did, there would be a recurring moment, about once an hour, when the devil stared straight at them.

The Stink Fish Bar had smoked herring, one of the richer forms of bar nourishment. Bobby loved shocking his mother with the scent on his hands when his father finally dropped him off.

The year was 1947. America had emerged from Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. It was beginning the biggest economic expansion in its history, a technological revolution and a baby boom.

Bobby knew none of this from his perch on the barstool. But he and his generation would be the beneficiaries.

For Bobby, real life began with the discovery of algebra.

It was a near-religious experience. The idea that relationships could be symbolized and that mathematics was a language of symbols and operators changed almost everything.

In one mystical moment, Bobby saw that all of life was symbolization, all the way down.

A science fiction reader, he decided mankind would need more than a barnstorming pilot for a trip to the moon. It also would require an engineer. He would be both.

He learned to fly at 16, working a full day at the local airport for each 30 minutes' flying time.

For a while, he thought he could kill three birds with one stone by attending Annapolis, West Point or the new Air Force Academy. He could do his service as a pilot and study engineering without having to pay for college.

He scratched that plan when he decided the military academies weren't strong enough in math and engineering.

He would need to go to MIT.

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Bobby's plan and timing seemed perfect. A humiliated country called for engineers. The space race was on!


In 1940, when Bobby was born, America had been nominally at peace. But it would soon be at war, in one form or another, for nearly half a century.

Bobby was born as the Battle of Britain raged in Europe. The Japanese had invaded China and sacked Nanking. The attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II were only a year away.

By the end, America's war dead numbered a blissfully small 400,000, compared with the 50 million people killed worldwide in the struggle against fascism.

The aftershocks of World War II, by contrast, will remain with us well into the current century, in the form of the baby boom and America's failing system of retirement funding.

Mind-boggling technological advances were another byproduct.

Ask most Americans to name the biggest (and most frightening) advance to come out of World War II, and you're likely to hear about the atomic bomb. In fact, the war massively accelerated other developments.

Managing the flow of men and equipment on two vast fronts required new tools. Operations research was one result, now often recognized as "supply chain management."

Similarly, work on decoding encrypted messages by Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner and others led to modern information theory. Its applications are now fundamental in telecommunications, networks, linguistics and genetics.

Communications issues also drove the creation of the transistor by Robert Shockley in 1948, and that, in turn, led to the creation of the first integrated circuit by Jack Kilby at Dallas' Texas Instruments in 1958. (It is also credited to Robert Noyce, working separately, at Fairchild Semiconductor.)

By the early 1970s, Intel had developed the integrated circuit into a computer on a chip – the brains behind micro-computers, high-definition televisions, robot vacuum cleaners and the Internet.

We take the ubiquity of these inventions for granted today. We routinely underestimate the impact of their continuing development on the future.

Possible homicide

In 1958, with this brave future ahead of him, Bobby's life blew up.

He had spent the summer between high school and college driving to a mental hospital to see his mother. After multiple suicide attempts, she had spent most of the year "away." But as summer ended, she came home.

Two days later, the phone rang. A woman said Bobby's father was dead in Los Angeles, a possible homicide. He had been found in the street with severe damage to his skull. He had lived for a week in a coma.

Bobby knew little about his father, despite the bar time they'd shared and exchanges of letters since. He knew his father was an alcoholic, that he had an ironic sense of humor and that women seemed to like him a lot, lack of employment notwithstanding.

One unsolicited letter had advised Bobby to appreciate the miracles that women could perform, such as talk, listen to the radio and put on makeup at the same time. It would be years before Bobby understood.

Bobby and his uncle were on a plane to Los Angeles the next afternoon, thanks to the generosity of his stepfather, George.

Even today, Bobby can't tell you the hardest part of that trip. But the L.A. morgue is a top contender. Just before entering, he realized he didn't know which would be worse – being able to identify his father or not being able to.

His uncle identified the body.

Coping skills

A few days later, Bobby, still 17, was in his first physics class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He had returned from L.A. with a box of machinist tools, a hoard of photos and a list of 21 women's names he had found among his father's papers. His mother was No. 3; the woman who'd called was No. 21.

His careful plans no longer made sense. His mother, worried, sent him a random supply of drugs – Miltown, Dexamil, Benzedrine. She even sent a little Thorazine.

Faced with a probable genetic destiny of substance abuse, Bobby decided to be scientific: He'd try them all. If any took, he'd know his fate and get on with it.

If substance abuse wasn't his fate, well, he'd have to figure that out.

On the road

American society was changing quickly.

When Bobby's mother, Joanne, was born in 1920, radios weren't widely available. Airplanes were for thrill-seekers.

By her 40th birthday, in 1960, nearly every household had a television set, and the next generation of thrill seekers was planning rocket trips to the moon.

Technology was also changing social attitudes.

In the 1940s, families gathered in the living room to listen to the radio, a floor model stuffed with vacuum tubes that amplified the signal. The programs kids listened to were the ones Father wanted to hear.

Before the integrated circuit, in 1954, another product came out of Texas Instruments that would change the world: the pocket radio. Now kids could walk around and listen to what they wanted to hear. Their new role models were rock 'n' roll stars and disc jockeys.

They read Jack Kerouac, watched Marlon Brando and imagined new social structures.

Fortunately, sex, the early alternative to television, was becoming much safer.

Venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, scourges of the 19th and early 20th centuries, could be cured with a few shots of Alexander Fleming's penicillin.

Infections plummeted in the 1930s, reflecting widespread improvements in public health.

The change was the first pillar of a global sexual cornucopia.

The second pillar was the introduction, in 1960, of the first birth control bill. The third was changing attitudes.

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll – let the '60s begin.

IV-F: Aviator

In 1962, after four years of identity crisis and armed with a degree from MIT, Bobby was sure of little.

He knew he was an unlikely candidate for the Supreme Court or the Oval Office.

And he was a dismal failure as a substance abuser. His drug was lucidity. Genetic destiny, he would later learn, had gone into remission for a generation.

Bobby believed that his paternal grandmother, widowed in Arizona, had never accepted his mother or his birth.

The postcard he sent announcing his graduation was found on the floor of her house, delivered after she had died of a stroke.

With no will and no other heirs, her estate went to Bobby by default. It was a small fortune.

So Bobby declined a graduate fellowship and made a pact with a friend. They would apply to the Sorbonne. If they got in, they would live in Paris in the manner of Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

And what if they didn't get in? Well, they would join the Army. It was 1962 – the Cuba missile crisis was about to become history, and Vietnam was warming up. Fortunately, the Sorbonne sent letters of acceptance.

In 1963, Bobby returned to the States to enlist.

"Don't forget to tell them your mother attempted suicide seven times!" she called out as he left for his physical. He did just that, also including on the medical history form two known generations of alcoholics and his program of drug experimentation.

The Army rejected him. When his new Selective Service card arrived, it inexplicably listed a new classification: "IV-F: Aviator." For years Bobby joked he would be called when there was a need for kamikaze pilots.

Ironically, thousands of Bobby's contemporaries returned from Vietnam with the drug experience that probably kept him from going.

Bobby returned to Boston. He began working as an assistant to a weapons consultant and wrote reports on communications technologies, the market for mini-missile submarines, hand-held radar, etc.

Most of his classmates were involved in similar efforts. In the midst of the Cold War, one even worried about a "peace scare."

America invests

The GI Bill of Rights, better known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, helped 2.4 million veterans attend colleges and universities, provided school training for 3.5 million more and supported on-the-job training for an additional 3.4 million in a period of seven years.

Although intended only to help returning veterans find jobs and adjust to peacetime, it may have been the largest single investment in "human capital" in history.

The GI Bill educated the generation of scientists, including Jack Kilby, who helped send man to the moon and create the Internet and the generation of lawyers who argued the civil rights cases of the 1960s.

With the high-paying jobs they couldn't have imagined before the war, the veterans bought homes in the suburbs, gave birth to a baby boom and gave their children transistor radios for Christmas.

It was an amazing turnaround from 1940, when Bobby was born.

Then, people were suffering from the loss of their savings in the bank failures of the Depression. Many had also lost their homes. Only 43.6 percent of households owned a home in 1940, down from 45.6 percent 20 years earlier.

Today, by every measure, we are richer, more secure and better educated than we were in 1940. Incredibly, though, few Americans believe they are secure.

Today, as during the Depression, it is possible for the rich to become not rich or even poor.

It is possible for educated, middle-class people to become jobless and poor – it just happens in different ways.
Continued, too long for one post . . .

Movin' on up

Bobby's life improved when he met his first wife.

Her parents lived in a Boston townhouse. Her father collected art. Her sister had gone to Radcliffe. She could trace her family back to a famous 1676 massacre in Framingham, Mass.

He never dared inquire about mental illness in her family. Besides, love cures all.

They were married in 1965. Their first son was born a few years later, their second two years after that. For a few years, everything was magnificent.

Bobby bought a house across the street from his in-laws, traded stocks while working on projects, bought a summer cottage with his trading profits and landed a job at a prestigious Cambridge consulting firm.

He even bought an estate near the cottage, borrowing against his stock holdings.

He had figured out that owning real estate was good, particularly when inflation was greater than 3 percent. If the stock market went down, his equations told him, rising real estate prices would probably compensate.

Home wealth

The year 1940 had begun what may be the greatest redistribution of wealth in history, some of it by intention, some by accident.

The shock of the Depression (and the fear of communists) had brought the New Deal and the creation of safeguards that simply didn't exist in 1920.

Savings were insured. Home mortgages were lengthened to 30 years and insured by government. Down payments were reduced.

Working Americans soon learned that almost every dollar spent on a home mortgage was magically transmuted into home equity. They took money out of one pocket for a mortgage payment, but it magically reappeared in another pocket as rising home value.

By 1960, nearly 62 percent of all households owned their homes. The combination of inflation, regulated savings institutions and homeownership had created a safe way to build wealth.


There was one problem: The market crash of 1973-74. It was way beyond anything Bobby had anticipated. It nearly put him down for the count.

A neighbor whose car collection had provided the yellow Rolls-Royce for the film The Great Gatsby was foreclosed on. His cars were sold at auction.

Bobby realized that the only reason his bank didn't liquidate his fallen stocks was that many others, including large institutions, were in worse shape than he. The bank knew that if it acted, it was all over.

But the financial drama was overshadowed by a personal event.

Bobby's older son, nearly 6, disappeared one morning.

He and his wife searched the entire house. They finally found him hiding in the basement. He told them creatures were visiting his room and telling him he was not going to be able to grow up.

That may have been his son's first psychotic episode.

Bobby and his wife got the boy into therapy and special-needs programs.

Meanwhile, after Bobby's mother died, his stepfather asked him to join the board of directors of his publicly traded company, a $50 million collection of metal, plastic and rubber factories.

Ever the deal maker, George had arranged a public offering for a small plastics company and had walked away with a major stake, the chairmanship and control of the proxy machinery.

"If you want to be in the race, you have to have a horse," George said.

Unfortunately, George was better at borrowing money than at management.

At the first board meeting, Bobby had to vote to close a rubber factory in Ohio. The write-down put the company in violation of its bank agreements. The directors anted up $250,000 in new equity.

Some of the money came from Bobby, who was realizing that being a corporate director might not be a walk in the park.

A year later, the rubber factories were still in the red. The company needed capital again. Although the factories were in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia, the financing came from Dallas – in the form of a $500,000 private placement.

Less than 60 days later, the company announced a $1.3 million inventory adjustment. In short order, the Dallas investors sued for rescission, the auditors gave a qualified opinion, and the stock was delisted from the Nasdaq. His stepfather might go to jail.

In spite of all that, George failed to act. The directors were frozen with indecision. Bobby wrote a letter to the board with an analysis of each division and its capital productivity, or lack of same.

The letter enraged his stepfather. They agreed to meet at Rockefeller Center, in the corporate attorney's law library. Bobby arrived first. He sat close to the door, in case things got violent.

High noon

His stepfather arrived and sat on the opposite side of the table.

"You can't write letters like that," he said. "I don't know whether I have five sons or six."

"I don't feel sorry for you. You're the only father I've got," Bobby answered.

The two men argued for nearly an hour and a half. George was cornered. But in the end, he realized he had put himself there. Bobby hadn't.

As they went downstairs, Bobby worried that his stepfather would never talk to him again. He was wrong.

"They do really nice sandwiches down here," George said. "Shall we break bread?"

When they left, Bobby had a better idea of what fatherhood was about. At times it could be awkward and silent. But it was stunningly constant.

Three months later, Bobby's hopes of seeing his stepfather retire quietly were dashed. George had borrowed from the company without the directors' knowledge and had loans against his stock. He was removed as an officer and director.

At an airport departure gate, a tear rolled down George's face. He put his hand on Bobby's.

"That was some sandwich we had, wasn't it?"

Bobby was left with the task of explaining to his brothers what had happened. It would have been awkward under any circumstance, but George had announced his intention to leave at least $1 million to each of his boys. It wasn't going to happen.

Go west

Two years later, in 1985, a career opportunity brought Bobby to Dallas. He left his family behind while he settled in to his new job and scouted the best school arrangements.

But the full move never happened. Two months later, his wife was clinically depressed. At the end of six months, she filed for divorce. Two months after that, she was in a mental hospital.

Bobby offered to pre-sign a completed divorce agreement that would assure long-term alimony and split the marital estate. He offered it in the hope of bringing his wife to Texas and dealing with the issues as a couple. He knew that she feared – as any woman would – a Texas divorce.

She never moved to Texas. The divorce was complete in late 1990, the process having lasted longer than some marriages.

Bobby had to learn to date again. He wanted to avoid a replay of the venereal circus of Harvard Square, so it wasn't easy.

Relationships at 50 are a lot more difficult than at 25, Bobby realized.

"It's the hormone-to-identity ratio," the algebra lover liked to say. "When you're 20, it's nearly infinite. Who you are hardly matters. What matters is finding a plausible excuse to get naked. But at 50, the hormone-to-identity ratio is less than 1. You're actual people."

Aging well

In January 1940, the year Bobby was born, a woman named Ida May Fuller received the first Social Security retirement check. It was for $22.54.

The check launched the receiving end of a desperately needed retirement system. Without it, the combination of Depression losses and vast improvements in public health and life expectancies would have littered the country with indigent people who could no longer work.

Other social supports were created as unintended consequences of World War II.

Competing for a limited number of workers but constrained by wage controls, wartime employers had increased benefits. Pension plans and health insurance, rarities in the 1930s, became common by the late '40s.

The life expectancy of a newborn male in 1940 was only 60.8 years. That's less than the 65 years required to qualify for Social Security at the time.

This meant that more than half of all newborns were not expected to live long enough to collect their first Social Security check.

Men who survived to 65 could expect to live another 12.7 years.

Today a newborn male has a life expectancy of 74.1 years at birth, and a 65-year-old man can expect to live an additional 16.3 years. These are enormous, wonderful changes.

But they aren't free. If people live longer in retirement, they will all need more money.

The money comes from higher employment taxes. In 1940, the combined employer/employee payroll tax was 2 percent of earnings up to $3,000 a year. That's a maximum of $60 a year, of which $30 came from the employee.

Today the tax, including 2.9 percent for Medicare, is 15.3 percent of earnings up to $90,000. That's a total of $13,770.

It's not enough because our life expectancy continues to lengthen. The realities endanger the support system that was forged in the Depression and World War II.

Second chances

Longer life expectancies also mean second chances.

Two friends of Bobby's had been talking for years about a woman they knew. "You'd love her," they'd said, "but she's married."

Finally, when her marriage ended, the two were introduced.

Relationships may be difficult at 50, but that's not the same as impossible. The couple married in 1995.

To their daily amazement, they have lived Happily Ever After. Both thank God for the miracle of maturity, for finding enough patience to experience true and gentle love.

They have also learned that two earning adults can do amazing things, including create economic security in only a decade, without the benefit of a public offering.

They did this in spite of continued pummeling from life events. Much of that pummeling has been natural – the deaths of her parents, Bobby's stepfather and a stepbrother. These events have been balanced by the marriage of two children and the birth of five remarkable grandchildren.

The hardest punch was learning that the substance abuse remission was only for one generation. It returned for Bobby's older son. Despite seeing several friends die from drug overdoses, the son pursued life as a drug omnivore.

It would be nice to believe this is rare, but it is not. Among those diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, fully 80 percent "self-medicate." They take whatever comes along because many believe, as Bobby's son did, that they have a special capacity.

His older son died of an overdose of morphine pills on Christmas Day 1998. He was 30.

In the ring

Now "getting in the ring," as Bobby puts it, is harder some days than others. Neither our hearts nor our minds are prepared to survive our children. Quite simply, they would rather not.

Bobby thinks of his grandfather Charlie often. He remembers being ashamed of him for being drunk and falling down.

Then he recalls a day when he saw Charlie differently. He was proud at how many times his grandfather got up.

He feels blessed by the kindness of memory. He knows that everyone – his grandfather, his father, his mother, his stepfather, his son – did the best they could. They didn't get to choose their weaknesses. They didn't get to select their fears or pick their battles.

They led turbulent and faulted lives in America, where it is said that some of the streets are paved in gold – but the real treasure is freedom.

Scott Burns is the pen name of Robert Milton Burns Jr., who was known to his mother as Bobby.

About this series
American Generations tells the story of four family members in an ever-changing America.

They are real people with real struggles, joys and tragedies.

Their stories illustrate the hastening changes in American life in the 85 years since 1920, amid our unwavering quest for personal security.

SEPT. 18: Joanne's Story, Lost Child to American Princess

Born in 1920 – World War I is over. Women get the vote. Automobiles have become affordable. The nation is poised for amazing improvements in public health and life expectancies. But the Depression is just ahead.

SEPT. 25: Bobby Stays in the Ring

Born in 1940 – World War II is starting, and companies compete to offer better pensions and health benefits. Social Security pays its first check. After the war, the GI Bill ushers in an age of unprecedented prosperity and a baby boom. Fueled by rock 'n' roll played on transistor radios, social attitudes begin to change.

OCT. 2: Steve Reaches for the Sky

Born in 1963 – The Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Generation Gap, protests, a stagnating economy, high divorce rates and a growing media culture contribute to the Great Negativity. Yet we are wealthier than we've ever been and stand on the verge of decades of peace.

OCT. 9: Shelby's World

Born in 1997 – America is even wealthier and more powerful, but a threat of global terrorism is emerging. Meanwhile, the country has largely worked through its social upheavals. But seniors' health and retirement benefits threaten to bankrupt the country.
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