Even though we were in the same room as each other, I never met C.D.B. Bryan. He was at Penn State with his mother, Katharine, the widow of John O’Hara, to dedicate the opening of the O’Hara study early in 1975, an event I covered for the Centre Daily Times. After all, O’Hara and I went way back, although I had never met him either, hadn’t even been in the same room with him.
Years later, after Bryan had published Friendly Fire, I caught up with him via the telephone and tried to lure him to Penn State. I was, at the time, in charge of getting judges for the Katey Lehman Writing Contest and I thought Bryan would make a good judge. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it work but it was then that I learned that he had been at the dedication of the O’Hara study.
I used the phone call to apologize for a mistake I had made with his name. Perhaps to some it would be a venial sin, but in the newsroom getting someone’s name wrong is a mortal sin and I had carried the burden of this sin long enough.
I confessed that I had cited him in a essay or a book somewhere (I can’t find it today) and referred to him as O’Bryan. Maybe it was the O’Hara connection that made me do it.
He laughed. He told me that his sister had gotten him personalized pencils as a gift and they bore the name C.D.B. O’BRYAN. She never noticed the error and so my mortal sin was instantly reduced to a venial sin, my penance done for confessing, erased from the Book of Sins.
I took notice of Bryan with the publication of Friendly Fire, a book about the skepticism of an Iowa mother after the death of her son in Vietnam. Friendly fire comes from your friends, not your enemy, and the soldier’s mother could not grasp how her son had died. She suspected foul play.
What held my attention was the way Bryan told the story. A mystery, the book is written in the conventional third person for the first two-thirds of the pages, as we follow the parents—and primarily the mother—dealing with the mystery of their son’s death and how the mother evolves into an anti-war advocate.
And then Bryan shifts—unwillingly, he says—to the first person because he has to tell us what he learned from his investigation of the soldier’s death. The shift is jarring, but as you read on, it works. The story is no longer about the soldier’s death, but what Bryan learned in his investigation. The shift makes sense.
Bryan wrote several books in his lifetime, but the author of his obituary in the New York Times last week said his career was distinguished by Friendly Fire. I would agree. I still have the book and would urge anyone interested in good nonfiction to read it and study Bryan’s methods. They’re still good today.
The most important thing I learned in the Navy’s radio school was not Morse Code. I could barely copy 20 words a minute when I graduated from radio school and was pretty much useless when I got to the fleet. It was a good thing most of what we did was done on a teletype machine. I can type.
No, the most important thing I learned was when something electrical didn’t work first make sure it’s plugged in. You laugh, I’m sure, but I’ve seen it time and again with others who didn’t do that simple step first and wasted a lot of time trying to make something work that wasn’t broken.
One of my radio school classmates was a guy named Fisher. I think he came from Buffalo. He was a really intelligent person and grasped most of what we were taught quite quickly. But there was one lesson that eluded him: the difference between current and voltage.
Current was easy to grasp. That’s what flows through electrical wires (when they’re plugged in). Fisher could not grasp voltage. The rest of us did because we took orders unquestionably. But Fisher, as I said, was intelligent and he needed a better understanding. In his mind, voltage flowed with current.
Turns out, voltage is a rather complex thing to explain, as I learned in doing research for this essay. But I remember what our instructor in radio school told Fisher: Voltage is a measurement taken at a certain point in the wire. It doesn’t flow. It can be found anywhere along a wire, but it doesn’t flow. It’s there and there and there, but it didn’t flow there.
Fisher could not understand that, and when we graduated, we marched to our ceremonies with our homemade class banner that proclaimed: THE FISH KNOWS THAT VOLTAGE FLOWS.
The same problem arises with the people on television who claim to be meteorologists. They don’t understand that temperature is a measurement of the air. It’s just like voltage. It’s there and there and there. It goes up and down.
But what temperature does not do is get colder or hotter. The air does, but the temperature is unfeeling. It just measures how hot or how cold the air is and leaves the rest to us. We’re the ones who decide if it’s hot or cold.
That’s why I cringe when I hear TV weather people say that temperatures will be warm or cold. Every time I hear it, it reminds me of Fisher and the flawed logic of flowing voltage.