Today, some thoughts of a media child. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
During the 1920s -- before
TV, talking movies, or decent recordings -- my
mother ran her own radio program. A sheet-music
store hired her to play the piano and sing the
latest songs so people would buy the music. She
started her brother in radio by letting him sing
"On The Road to Mandalay." That didn't lead to
musical stardom, but he went on to become a noted
broadcast journalist in the 30s and '40s. Finally,
my father was a newspaperman and editor through the
'20s, '30s, and 40s.
I was, in short, a child of the media -- raised to
understand that clear, honest, entertaining
communication was a virtue on roughly the same
level as avoiding theft and murder.
But the family trade was not for me. I suffered
from what, today, is swept under the confusing
label of dyslexia. I could neither read nor write
acceptably, and I was beleaguered by a severe
stammer. I looked for fulfillment -- not on any
public stage -- but in the workshop. I built model
airplanes, tree houses, many of my own toys, and
anything else I could think of.
My parents seemed content with this alternative,
although I seriously challenged their patience one
spring afternoon in the waning days of WW-II. The
Japanese, in a kind of 11th-hour desperation, had
balloons into the westerlies that blew across
the northern United States. Each one carried a
small incendiary bomb. Luckily, America was less
flammable than the Japanese had hoped. This first
assault on the American mainland did no damage, but
it created enormous media interest.
So I set about to launch my latest construction. It
was a six-foot-tall hot-air balloon made of white
tissue paper and painted with my concept of
Japanese characters. I'd built a small oil-fired
heater to buoy it into the sky.
I was puzzled and hurt when my father saw what I
was doing and told me to quit it right away. A
media child I may have been, but I hadn't learned
that neither media people nor their children were
allowed to manufacture news.
All that came back to me during a recent chat with
a visiting Russian scientist. What could I say to
him when he insisted that the American media were
under government control! He had no way of
understanding the burden of responsibility that
vests in people who enjoy genuine freedom of
expression. There was no easy way to explain the
power of the values I'd seen daily as a child --
the values of free speech that we see at their best
today in public radio.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds