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Archive for October, 2015

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

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A Great Name

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:
“Budapest tram 3” by Siemar – originally posted to Flickr as El 2. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The motor coach cruised the French countryside through fields of dazzling yellow canola. I and about thirty other conferees from an internationals scientific conference were enjoying an excursion to the CRNS laboratory in Saclay. The young graduate student in the window seat turned to me and glanced at my name tag. His eyes widened slightly and he exclaimed, “Are you the Matteson?”

I laughed but inwardly was pleased at the recognition. In the relatively small community of scientists in my field of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, I was indeed the only “Matteson.” I, perhaps like many who strive to become distinguished in their disciplines, secretly craved recognition and the acquisition of a great name. I was happy to exult for a few moments in the wan glow of a qualified superlative: I was in fact, the Matteson who had dripped an arcane fact-drop into the vast ocean of knowledge. I was pleased that the ripples of that discovery had caught his attention. But all I had done was uncover a scientific detail that would take an hour to explain to a layman and who would, at last, be left scratching his head in puzzlement at its dubious significance.

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Over the years I had struggled with the desire to make something of myself which in the sciences consists of being the first to discover a phenomenon or to explain accurately a physical process. I had been trained well by my scientific mentor in my graduate student days to design and construct critical experiments. Dr. Powers had insisted that I become my most severe critic so that my work alone could answer any subsequent reviewer or reader. If anyone would read my published work, they could trust that the results were diligently obtained and the conclusions were trustworthy.

A Hungarian Sojourn

I recalled as we passed through the brilliant yellow kilometers how that years earlier for a few weeks in the summer and early autumn of 1978, I and my immediate colleagues were the sole trustees of the knowledge of the temperature dependence of a process called “ion mixing,” because we had completed a difficult but exciting experiment. I had been dispatched to Budapest by my post-doctoral mentors both to present the results at the biennial international conference and to remain in Hungary along with my family, consisting of a wife and three children, aged six, five, and four months.

After a few weeks of acculturation in Germany at the Max Planck Institut with my European collaborator and host, we had relocated to the east and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Buda the weekend before the conference. I stepped onto the Villamos, the electric tram, that ran to the city center. I was ready, clad in a dark suit and tie, my beard neatly trimmed but still full, my poster and the draft of my paper tucked securely in my brief case in my lap. As the tram neared the stop for the Institute for Science and Culture where the conference would be held, I pulled the cord that signaled my stop.

The dull yellow Villamos halted, the doors opened with a whoosh and I stepped down to the pavement, as inconspicuously as I could. I wanted to be mistaken for a Magyar, a Hungarian or at least a Német, a German from Munich, perhaps on holiday. An öregasszony clad in a black shawl, print dress and apron accosted me. From her crouched position, bent over with age, she looked up at me and began to berate me in Hungarian with a curled fist from which protruded an arthritic finger. Of course, I had no idea of what she was accusing me since my Hungarian consisted of only a few phrase book essentials, like please (kérem) and thank you (köszönöm). The pedestrians that coursed by on the busy street stared at the scene. When they looked at me, I only shrugged (as Hungarian-like as I could). Mercifully, the old granny moved off having relented briefly in her assault. She crossed the street while I headed in the opposite direction. I was relieved but felt guilty at my relief when I looked over my shoulder to see her addressing her harangue at another hapless man. “Not an auspicious beginning to my stay in Hungary,” I thought.

I was wrong. Fortunately, my work spoke for itself. Broken Hungarian was unnecessary. I was encouraged when one of the big names in the field acknowledged the significance of our results and also the typo of an erroneous minus sign in one of his published papers (that we had identified and he had previously corrected, but in an obscure errata). My post-doctoral mentors were pleased, as well, at the reception of the work. They were also delighted when their fears were put to rest at lunch that day. We dined with the Minister of Science for the nation of Hungary who was partially footing the bill for the exchange between the National Science Foundation of the US and his country. The future of the collaboration between Caltech, my academic home, and KFKI, the Hungarian National Institute for Physics hung upon his favorable impression. My Hungarian friend and host fidgeted with his white linen napkin as I told of my experiences over the weekend and my encounter with the old crone. I elaborated on my adventure at the meat market when I had held up five fingers and had tried to ask for öt szelet, five cutlets. The butcher, apparently very proud and protective of his Hungarian tongue, corrected my pronunciation. It seems I had learned to pronounce the difficult Hungarian short umlaut o from a southern Hungarian and those sounds offended his northern ears. I would later hear that I pronounced Hungarian words (since I did not actually speak Hungarian) with a Transdanubian, that is Austrian, accent. I do not think that it was a compliment.

The Butcher’s Friend

My host and my mentors all leaned back in their seats when the Minister remarked through his interpreter (although he spoke excellent English and understood every word I said as his immediate laughter revealed), ”It is clear who will be staying behind after the conference. He is the one who is making friends with the butcher.” We all laughed and relaxed a little. My mentors beamed at me, sensing the approval of this powerful man, when the his excellency patted me on the shoulder and said, ”You remind me of my son. I hope that you will have a productive and pleasant stay in our country.”  Then he lifted his glass for a toast to the collaboration.

It was indeed a grand adventure. Decades later I still remember those days with fondness and gratitude. That scientific paper (tudományos könyv) ultimately appeared in the scientific literature and has been cited many times. By it I began to achieve my childhood dream of becoming an explorer, not of geographical spaces, but of intellectual ones. Over the years, too, I have struggled with pride, wondering if it were unworthy to desire a great name. Then, I recently hear a sermon about Father Abraham and his call that liberated my heart at last.

Abram, as he was first called, heard the Almighty saying, “Go to a land that I will show you. . . . And I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Oh, how I identified with this call! I went to a far land when we sojourned in Hungary, where we dwelled as aliens and strangers. It was there I began to acquire a “great name,” at least among the small community to which I belonged. And the point of this “fame?” I learned finally to become a blessing. Ultimately as a professor, I was able to encourage thousands of students. One of my graduate assistants once even gave me a button that read, “Almost famous,” not quite world renown but important enough to a few. I pray that I have been and will continue to be a blessing to those who trail after me, that I will indeed be “The Matteson” who showed the way and the one that demonstrates that a great name can be earned even by a child sprung from the mud of the swamp of his youth.

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya Lisa (6), and nővére Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya (Mother) Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya (daughter) Lisa (6), and nővére (sister) Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

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John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

The world is filled with words, many of which I do not understand. In my European travels both made possible and necessitated by my career as a physicist in the international science community, I often found myself trying to be at least functional even though I definitely was illiterate in the local language and dialect. In one case, in particular, however, I experienced a strange sensation, something like that which the first century Jewish celebrants of Pentecost must have known in the New Testament when they heard the disciples speak, yet understood in their own language.

I was visiting Amsterdam on the weekend before the conference would begin in Eindhoven, up the train track and inland a little over a hundred kilometers. I had a Sunday free and decided that it would be fun to worship at a Baptist church in Amsterdam, since in 1608 John Smyth led a group of English Separatists to the tolerant nation of Holland and out of the reach of the oppression of King James I. I would later visit Bakkerstraat (Baker’s Street) where in the 1600s sat the Bake House where the Mennonite Congregation worshiped and shared their building with the English Separatists. There they also labored, baking hardtack for the sailors of the Dutch East India Company. It was there also that the first Baptist Church in history was founded according to many accounts. I resolved not to allow the chance to escape. Here was a rare opportunity to worship in the birthplace of the Separatist sect which my first American ancestor Henry Matteson would join in Rhode Island less than fifty years later. I felt a personal connection somehow to the history of the place.

A Problem

However, I encountered a big problem when I looked up “Kerken Baptisten” or searched for “Doopgezinde” (i.e. Baptist) in the telephone book in a vain attempt to find a Baptist Church. Apparently there were no “dunker” churches left in the great city of Amsterdam. Yet, as I surmised from the context and a quick check of my pocket dictionary, there was a listing for a “Tabitha,” a home for seniors managed by Dutch Baptists. I had found my opportunity! I deciphered the Dutch script to understand that there was a service at 10:00 am. A few trams stops later I arrived at the tall building and, directed by a sign in the lobby, I proceeded to the “lift” (pronounced “leeft”) and pushed the button for “vloer 10” (floor ten). When I arrived I smiled my most Dutch smile, and repeated the greeting that I had often heard: “Goedemorgen,” trying to sound as Low Country as I could even though it probably came out sounding much more like the German that I had studied in my undergraduate days. I accepted with a functional, if slightly stiff “Dank U,” the song sheet of hymns and choruses. I studied carefully the cipher on the page. I recognized every third word or so a cognate of an English word (even if slightly mangled in the spelling) and another third could have been German. I was relieved when I realized the first hymn, Een Vaste Burcht is Onze God, was Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The service began and I sang lustily along with my Dutch brothers and sisters, pronouncing phonetically the words printed on the page as closely as I could with my slightly defective understanding of Dutch diction. Frequently the English word appeared on the page in synchrony with my inward recitation of the hymn.

What an epiphany! How must it have been to have heard alien words and sounds yet understood them inwardly as one’s own tongue? It was a glorious experience. It was if I were transported back to Jerusalem of the first century and that miraculous Pentecost. But then came the sermon. There were no subtitles, nor prepared text to follow. The spell seemed broken.

The Sermon

The kind-faced pastor took the podium and began speaking. He mentioned “Paul en Silas in Philippi.” Of course it sounded to my ears as if he said “Pah-oul en See-lahss een Feelepee.” Fortunately, I had heard the story. In fact, it was one of my favorites. I settled in to absorb what I could by letting his beautiful musical words flow over me. But he kept using a word that jarred me with its unfamiliarity. He continually said something that sounded like “Khaht.” It is hard to transliterate because the first sound was a deep clearing of the throat unheard of in English. I was distracted for many minutes thinking about what this word could be. Then I remembered seeing the sign that inevitably hung above a bicycle chained to the sign post, “geen rad plaatsen”pronounced “kheen rad plahtzen” and meaning “to be placing a wheel (that is bicycle) [here is] forbidden!”

“Ah-ha! The G in Dutch is that strange guttural sound I hear. And the final d sounds like a t to my ears. So the preacher is speaking of the central character in every Bible story: G-o-d, God,” I shouted inside. “God of course you, domkop!” That is when I began to understand his point. For the last five minutes of the sermon I struggled to put into comprehensible Dutch what I had received: “In problems God is there.” Just as when Paul and Silas saw no way out while they were imprisoned, they sang praise to God anyway. What a blessed message for the elders around me who daily faced hardship and problems. I, at last, decided that I had a sentence that I could share with my “Pentecostal” Pastor to let him know that I had been blessed by his efforts, even if I could not follow every word.

The Final Word

After the service, standing at the door, he smiled and shook hands with all the congregation as they departed to enjoy the post-service coffee and petit-fours. My turn came and he shook my hand enthusiastically as if we were long separated brothers. I touched my chest and said, “Ik been Amerikaans.” He nodded. Then I shared my well-rehearsed line, “In problemen God is er.” I was careful to pronounce the divine appellation as correctly as I could.

The Pastor replied in words that every Christian understands, whether in the Netherlands or the Bayou or the Alps—words I shall never forget. He looked me in the eye and declared with a stout voice: “Amen! Amen! Hallelujah!”

To which I replied then as I still do, “Amen, indeed!”

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

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