Fifty years. Half a century. So long ago? It was just yesterday in my mind that the late morning sun broiled the energy out of all exposed to it, save for three boys wandering out near the water’s edge. To my twelve year old’s eyes, the sandy tidal flats went on forever. It seemed we could have walked all the way from Parksville to the mainland.
Our parents took us up to Canada every summer. Mother had local family, who we never saw, but I know she was always hopeful. Father simply wanted to be well away from his telephone and staff. As for Jackie and I, missing the last month of school was never an issue. The Keeper brothers, like their Morton, Case, Simpson and laCroix cousins, were straight-A students, and then some.
That year things started with two intense weeks at the Puget Assembly Complex in Everett. With orientation, technical documentation and crating, we still arrived in time for the June 26 Dominion Day parade in Vancouver. We would vacation on Vancouver Island, fly back to San Francisco on the first Tuesday in August, then drive to Modesto a couple of days later. Father said eight weeks was just long enough to make him miss the denizens of the Design Office. But even on vacation, he was always thinking about work, about automatons.
We never called them robots, slang being inconsistent with the Keeper’s 3P’s: proper, productive and progressive. To Alain and Rowan Keeper, progressive meant something very different from what most people thought. It referred to moving forward in a ruthlessly logical sequence, building on what was done before and providing a sound basis for what came next. It was all about process, and our cog-like place within it. Progressive politics? That was something to keep the proles out of the way of those who were actually doing something worthwhile.
Some mornings, Father and I walked twenty minutes to the Parksville Junction Cafe for hot chocolate and cinnamon toast. Often he pulled a graph paper notebook out to jot down a question, a line of investigation or a snippet of command code. He did that at the beach, the dinner table, once in the middle of a board meeting. Sometimes, I heard him pacing the cottage deck in the middle of the night. Both his mind and the notebook were constantly open. Even the locals recognized the import of the notebook when it came out at the cafe.
I was burning my tongue on hot chocolate while watching Father scribble a line in what became the Probability Parsing routine – which eventually accelerated machine learning by 90 percent. It was nebulous theory in 1969 to everyone except Father. For him, it was simply another item on his ‘to do’ list.
“Morning professor, where’s Mary Ann?” Two locals slouched over coffee cups and empty oval plates. Sections of a Vancouver daily lay scattered on the counter between them. These two were around enough that I knew one was Mick and the other was Harl (“Short for Harold, eh.”). Father finished the line, closed the book before looking up.
The man continued “Aww Mick, don’t give me the stink eye. I got it right, ain’t I.”
“Ain’t at all. Ginger’s the hot number. B’sides, Doc here does bots, not botany.”
“Automaton, Mick. The ejumaicated word is automaton.”
Father looked blankly at the men. He asked if they were done with the finance section. Harl pushed the whole newspaper over. Father said thank you before opening it to an article on emerging technology markets. And that was that. It could have been the perfect putdown, but it wasn’t. Not only was he not playing their game, I didn’t think he was even aware of it. How wrong I was.
On the way back, he was silent until we reached the gravel path to our cottage. “Nathaniel, do what you can to avoid engaging yokels. Their lot in life can not be improved, and their chatter is a distraction from important work. Resist engaging at their level, even for short periods. It is a long climb back up.” That done, he asked if we were going out on the beach. Funny question, since the three Keeper brothers were assigned to spent every hour on the sand that we could. As we did that day.
When the tide went out, countless shallow pools and channels were ours to explore. Seaweed, snails and sand dollars competed for our attention with tiny scuttling crabs and darting bullheads. We explored them all, built sand castles and dug crumbly little moats.
That day, we moved further and further out, until the cabins above the gravelly shelf of high tide became indistinct blobs, shimmering in heat. That heat was, in fact, not as fierce as what we lived with in the Central Valley.
We finally neared the retreating water line. Jackie and Percy and I stood in the sun, feeling the heat, smelling the hot damp sand, and hearing little but the wind. Twenty feet from the water, Percy stopped and stared at nothing in particular. A routine was running, looping until he achieved a solution.
He stood like a stone for another minute. Processing done, he looked around, as if taking a panorama picture, slow and steady for a hundred-eighty degrees. When done, he turned and slowly trudged back towards the barely visible gravelly slope that marked the edge of the sand flats.
Percy had had problems with that slope at first. But his terrain variability module functioned so well that by the third day he was moving around just like any human kid. Father’s absolute prohibition about going closer to the waterline was out of concern that the saturated sand would give way under Percy’s weight and he would topple over. Even though about my size, he weighted at least forty pounds more than Father.
Jackie’s face was a study in heartfelt hurt as Percy seemed to abandon us. I explained that there were things that Percy just could not do, like our slow cousin Maurice. “Then, we should only do things that Percy can join in. It’s inconsiderate to let him feel hurt.” That was the kind of boy Jackie was, the kind of man he grew up to be.
We spent every decent day on the sand. After dinner, Percy was set to recharge mode. Father would debrief our activities that day and our observations on Percy’s learning processes. He would then speak to any deviations from the trial activities binder. The bulgy four-inch D-ring was labelled “Experiential Learning of Automaton ‘Percy’, Employing Typical Recreational Beach Activities: June-August 1969”. Even though only twelve and ten, Jackie and I easily qualified for ‘Trial Assistant, Level II’ certification. Deviations of our making were very few and very far between.
In the meantime, Mother replayed the daily magnetic tapes in order to continue her project narrative on the development of Percy’s neural lattice. Any other person on the planet who relied on interpretive field material without collaborating lab data would be laughed out of the room. Rowan Keeper (nee Morton), however, was THE undisputed leading expert on machine learning. Any inquiry, however carefully phrased, regarding the veracity of her methods or conclusions was greeted with unreserved scorn from both industrial and academic communities.
That summer, we were a particularly busy SFRP – Single-Family-Research-Project, an acronym Jackie and I used only between us. Our parents would never approve of such frivolity. Near the end of our stay, the crush of the annual “Sun-Sea-Sand Festival” became unbearable. Public spaces were full to overflowing with concessions and open air concerts and sand sculptures and fat men sipping beer from paper cups. The beach became so crowded as to disrupt learning activities with Percy. Besides Jackie still felt bad that Percy was restricted in ways that we were not.
Mother and Father may not have felt the crowding the way we were, but they were also beginning to show study fatigue. After a brief, quiet discussion, our parents piled us into the rental station wagon, and took off for the cool of the big trees at Englishman River Falls. Mother was almost bouncy. Not far from the park, she pointed out a log cabin store/post office. Her black sheep cousin Verity had married the man who ran it. Father hmm’ed, but didn’t slow down. She was rather quiet for the remainder of the drive.
The provincial park was exactly what we needed. Underlying the scent of hot pine trees was that dank dark smell associated with moss and crumbly-rotten stumps. More importantly, there were no more than a dozen or so locals doing the same as us. I saw the old man, Mick, from the coffee shop with a couple of little boys. One peeled off and started running with Jackie. Percy and I were left to explore on our own. We hiked down to below the lower falls, always careful to keep back from the river. Percy negotiated the trail with expert ease. I was proud of how much he had learned during our Canadian stay.
We explored downstream until the trail overhung the river, then turned back. Just as we neared the falls, I thought I heard someone calling my name. After looking around, I finally looked up. Jackie and his friend (Donnie I recall Mick calling him) were hanging onto a cedar branch as they leaned out to laugh and wave at us. I don’t know how the two of them managed to hold on when the matted moss covering the slanting rock sloughed away. But there they were, clutching a too-slender trunk, feet dangling thirty feet above the frothing water. If they dropped directly into the water, they would likely get beat against the rocks, then drown. If they hit any of the tangled mess of trunks and branches down there, they would be impaled before getting beat against the rocks, then drowning.
After assessing the scene for twenty seconds, Percy seemed to transform into someone, or something, else. He walked away without a word, to appear minutes later near the tree they hung on. Percy inched along a tiny ledge until he reached the trunk. I know he was holding tight to the rocks because I saw some crumble from the pressure of his grip. When he started to step on the trunk, it gave slightly. The way kids do, I had forgotten Percy weighed in at nearly two hundred fifty pounds.
Percy stepped back, still with that vacant look that said someone was home, just not him. He turned to look directly at Father. “Doctor. A line please.” And Father got someone to bring a coil of heavy poly line. Funny how I remember it was blue, but have a lot of blanks for other things that day.
Percy quickly tied a series of loops in the line, then made sure Jackie and Donnie knew to slide their arms through when they had hold of it. Percy carefully shuffled back to grab an exposed cedar root for balance. He tossed the poly line exactly where Jackie could grab it. The two boys did so, and were immediately pulled upward by a group of adults who were holding the other end like a tug of war team.
The tiny forward momentum of the toss took Percy slightly off balance. For a few seconds, he was poised on the knife edge of recover or fall forward. As ever on Planet Earth, gravity reigns. Percy fell forward. I knew from the binder that a little water would not cause critical short circuits, but that outright immersion could result in severe damage. When he fell on to one of the trunks, I thought he was safe. I wish.
Percy had landed on a trunk with several long stubs of branches sticking out. One of them pierced his chest and came out his back. I didn’t see that part, because it was just enough that his hoodie didn’t even tear, just tented out a few inches. The log shifted slightly from the impact and Percy gently rolled off and into the water. The sound of machinery failing and the pungent smell of shorting electricals told us a tale of disaster and doom. Despite the strong circular current, he sank straight down, and was out of sight in seconds. I tried to keep eye contact for as long as I could, but don’t think I did a very good job. I was crying too hard.