I was disappointed that Bruce’s memorial was scheduled for a day when Gail and I were already committed to travel in Europe.
Bruce and I grew up together in Pittsburgh PA from around 1953, when we both must have been about eight or nine. That was his family moved to Maryland Street, near Third Presbyterian Church, where I think Elsie was working as a secretary, and where my father, Emerson Venable, a socialist-minded Unitarian chemist, was Cubmaster and later Scoutmaster of Scout troop 76.
Bruce joined me in the Cubs and at K-through 8 Liberty School in Shadyside. Like my mother, Elsie became a Den Mother. From then on, Bruce and I were friends and friendly rivals until we finished at Peabody High.
My parents immediately liked Bruce and Brent and deeply admired Elsie–a dedicated single mother who, like they, also took on community work. I always liked Elsie, too, and I enjoyed the free-wheeling atmosphere at their birthday parties and times when I’d stop by after school.
I think Bruce and I felt more compatible with each other than we did with other lower-to-middle-class agemates in grade school. In addition to academic purpose, we also shared-was a family-nurtured sense of the practical–as opposed to the fashionable–and a general attitude of goodwill toward and respect for other people.
And as much as I was tempted sometimes to offer to trade my own annoying little brother Tom for Brent–I don’t think Bruce would have taken the deal. Well, at least not even-Steven.
Academically, Bruce and I must have pushed each other in grade school, though neither of us was much driven by competition. We were two fairly straight-arrow, straight-and-narrow boys, brought up to value teamwork.
One after-school project we shared around eighth grade must have been inspired by the Sputnik craze and the sudden demand that everybody study physics. It was a club, “The Society of Birdbrains” that also included our egghead classmate Bobby Bornholz, in addition to Brent.
Beyond gathering to sing our theme song– “Up in the Air Junior Birdman” — our mission was to build a rocket. Mainly Bruce and I, as I remember, did the actual building, in my father’s basement workshop, adjoining his basement chemistry labs. From an old tin can, we cut out and soldered fins and a nose-cone onto an empty 8-ounce Donald Duck Concentrated Orange Juice can. As propellant, I think we settled on the solid jet fuel pellets one could buy at a hobby shop to power the little Jetex, jet-model-airplane engine I happened to have at the time. We had the fuse, as well. We were the practical side of the club. But being somewhat safety minded, we never quite got around to the launch.
In eighth grade we took evening dance lessons at the Unitarian Church, at which we were about suave (or not) and pursued the same handful of girls, with parallel disastrous results, I’m sure.
In all, we were Cub, Boy, and Explorer Scouts together through the end of high school. The height of our partnership in Scouts was the summer after 8th grade when, at my father’s suggestion, Bruce and I carried out a five- or six-day cross-country trek by ourselves from Pittsburgh south to West Virginia and the copperhead-infested Cheat River wilderness camp.
Each morning on topographical maps, we’d plot our hill-heavy course along trails and farm roads, then usually get lost somehow pretty early on, and stop, ideally, at a country store to lunch on powdered-sugar doughnuts and a quart of milk apiece. Then hike until dusk to camp and cook and sleep under the stars, just out of view of the road, if any.
Actually, after nearly a week of Bruce’s company along with my own, my nerves were pretty frayed by the night we reached Cheat Lake, the rain coming down in buckets, and crammed ourselves under a picnic bench for a wet and sleepless night.
Maybe five or six days together, just the two of us was asking a bit too much of thirteen-year-old. Or maybe I just became too aware that Bruce was stronger physically and had better sense than I, and was, well, more practical after all.
Later that summer we led a few other Scouts from our troop on a very hilly four-day back-road bicycle trip up north about 80 miles to a Camp on Lake Tionesta–up near Cook Forest. Through our teen years as Explorer Scouts we also, canoed the length of the Allegheny River, attended national Scout jamborees in Valley Forge and Colorado Springs, and trekked with burros about ten days in New Mexico, in the mountains of Philmont Scout Reservation. In all these experiences, when we needed to be able depend on someone, I think we turned first to each other.
As Western Pennsylvania teenage Explorers we also went spelunking–co-ed and otherwise–on weekends down in numerous caves; held dances with Senior Girl Scout groups, including some very exotically Catholic girls, and volunteered for co-ed work-weekends, to ready nearby Girl Scout camps for the summer camping season and to closing them down in the fall.
Around the start of high school, Elsie and the boys moved to the Highland Park neighborhood, probably to be nearer the settlement house that she administered for much of her career. Shadyside and Highland Park both fed into Peabody High, where students were shunted onto business, secretarial, industrial, and college-bound tracks. Bruce and I took the same four years of math and other accelerated academics. I studied French, he German in line with his interest in science.
In high school I went out for track. Though Bruce and I had fulfilled our Scout Lifeguard credentials together one summer at Camp Guyasuta, I was amazed when he joined the Peabody swim team. Amazed because the swimming coach was the dreaded “Wild Bill Evans,” –who’d spit tobacco juice at a drain, then swing his hawk eyes around and snarl, “Hell’s bells, boy, I said MOVE your ass!” He drove his swimmers proudly, mercilessly to the city title every year. I don’t think Bruce stood out on the team. I’m not sure how long he kept it up. But I was impressed.
Both of us sang in the Peabody senior choir and went on with music throughout our lives. Bruce and I also took part in a small Pittsburgh community of left-leaning, intellectual youth that I spent all the time I could with toward the end of high school: young leftist peacenik spawn of Jews, Unitarians, Quakers, and labor lawyers, with a sprinkling of radical Catholics, re-unredeemed Presbyterians, and Red-Diaper babies. Like me he was in and out of free-form Friday-night gatherings for singing and talk about peace, prejudice, bombs, kibbutzes, and the evils of capitalism. Many years later, one of our last long conversations was about shared interests in evolutionary science as a basis for present and future morality.
My parents were Cornell alumni. After corralling my two older brothers to go there, they also persuaded Bruce to apply, and wholeheartedly supported his admission and scholarship applications. They were proud and pleased to see head out into the world and achieve so much in his career.
Two last qualities of Bruce I’d like to mention. The first was pointed out to me by John Burchfield after our 60th high school reunion. John called it “an almost childish enthusiasm” that Bruce still showed for the joy of discovery through careful research.
The second was Bruce’s lifelong honesty–his openness to re-considering old conclusions in the interest of moving closer to truth. For me, he set a standard for consciously re-examining old overly comfortable ideas, in the light of new evidence and reason.
I hope this gives some sense of the richness of the childhood that Bruce and I shared, and why I continued to admire and respect him over the years.