Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Retired scientist recalls life as boy in Brooklyn

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on August 5, 2008 and in the Valley Times a few days later.

Albert Rothman still has a faint indentation on his right index knuckle from when a picket fence tore open his thumb during a skirmish when he was four years old. He’d called a neighbor boy fat and took a beating for it.

“I’d developed a taste for danger,” said Rothman, 84, of Livermore.

Born in 1924 during the Coolidge administration, Rothman grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His parents moved many times, so the young Albert often felt isolated as he moved from one public school to the next.

At one point, though, his parents settled down long enough to own a store. “The place had rats,” said Rothman, who remembers watching a large rat behind the counter in a corner while a customer was in the store. “My folks calmly helped the customer, then as soon as the door closed, they chased away the rat.”

When it came time to sell the store, relatives pretended to be customers when prospective buyers visited. “They wanted it to look like business was booming,” he said.

Rothman, who retired in 1986 from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, earned his doctorate in chemistry and chemical engineering from the U.C. Berkeley in 1954. He has lived in the Bay Area since 1948.

But it’s his childhood that prompted him to write his memoir: “A Brooklyn Odyssey—Travails and Joys of a Boy’s Early Life.” The book portrays a young Jewish boy during the Great Depression on his journey toward adulthood.

One passage describes two gifts Rothman received from his Aunt Sina, gifts that became the catalyst for his career in science. “She gave me a microscope and a chemistry set,” he said. “I spent hours inspecting tiny things, especially wiggly protozoans from nearby ponds.”

Rothman’s aunts and uncles had wonderful personalities that populate his memoir. His British-born uncle Moe, for example, was a successful businessman and the only Republican in the family. “We all adored Roosevelt,” Rothman said, “but not Uncle Moe. He wasn’t shy about his hatred for our president.”

Moe had a great sense of humor: “He was completely bald, and I remember him calling out to my Aunt Sina to come quick and get him a toothpick,” Rothman said. “She asked ‘what’s the matter, what’s the matter?’ and he said ‘I need to comb my hair.’”

Another uncle, Sam, had entered the United States illegally from Russia as a stowaway. “He never applied for citizenship,” Rothman said, “although he did pay into Social Security.”

When Sam reached 65, he got a Social Security check for $600. He returned it because he didn’t believe a non-citizen deserved the money. “They sent that check back to him twice,” Rothman said, “and twice he returned it.” After the third time, Sam gave up and distributed the money to his children. “Sam had admirable integrity,” he said.

Other episodes in the memoir include tasting Coca Cola for the first time at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, attending a workshop with baseball legend Lou Gehrig, and being invited to a Benny Goodman concert where Rothman encountered a young Peggy Lee.

Today, Rothman still embraces life with a youthful sense of wonder. He loves nature and frequently hikes alone. A safety patrol volunteer with the East Bay Regional Park District, Rothman has hiked in Northern California, Washington State, Utah, Canada, and other locations. In fact, in1987 he made a solo ten-week journey in his truck-camper and hiked every day in every national park from Nebraska to the west coast.

A survivor of both non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a heart attack, Rothman stays fit through his hiking and a healthy diet. He enjoys classical music and, by his own admission, tries to read too many books.

His memoir is the latest work in a long line of writings. He has published and won prizes for his poetry, short stories, and essays in a number of venues, including the Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Contest, The Poets' Edge Magazine, Northwoods Journal, Dan River Anthology, Bristol Banner Books Awards, and the Las Positas College Anthology.

Rothman is contemplating writing a travel memoir about his hiking trips. But in the meantime, Wingspan Press has published “A Brooklyn Odyssey.” Readers are encouraged to pick up a copy by visiting www.wingspanpress.com.


1 comment:

she said...

hey! i know albert!

he's wonderful! i've been listening over the years (months?) as this memoir has unfolded,

pieces of it read at open mics..
4th street salons in livermore..

very fun! must have an autographed copy

and share my "congratulations!"

(no secret i have a soft spot for scientists

and writers

and hikers

and poets

there it is all wrapped up in one person/one book)

and i heard it first write here

thanks ren man! love, ~s.