First Posted 11-Jan-2015
It was a pattern repeated. Wells would have an idea. It would be the one. This idea would pay big. He just needed funding. Not much, maybe a hundred grand or so. So he’d set about finding an investor. He was usually able to find one. Then it was back into the toolshed to build this great thing that would pay big. For a while, work would get done, the project would be on track. Then, and it was different things each time, something would put a delay in the project and the slow dissolve to failure would begin.
We who lived through these schemes tell with great passion our reasons why his schemes never came to fruition. Our story of him is of an unfilled promise. He died still hopeful that this project, the one he was working on, would be the one that would pay big and he could be rich and make his family rich. We don’t tell his success much. According to us, he had a pathological aversion to being done. He loved the build process, the drawing, and design, the prototyping and modeling. He couldn’t finish because then the thing he loved most–design, would be done. He also drank and in the ethics of the early ‘80’s, anybody that drank was either a drunk or a drunk in denial. We cast him as a drunk. One explanation of why he died a failure had it that he liked being drunk more than he liked being done with a project.
I used to tell a story about him that I thought was descriptive. It was that Wells wanted three things. He wanted a woman who wasn’t too much trouble, left alone to tinker, and he didn’t want to be hassled about how much/what he drank. In my younger, more self-righteous, authentically Webb days, I said this as if it explained his failures.
I know a lot of guys who could live long, happy lives drinking socially, in a relationship with a docile woman, and free to burn time tinkering in a shed. I could be happy with that life. No deadlines, no particular demands to produce an end product or make a release date. Just an endless string of days wrenching, welding, drawing and building something punctuated by time with a woman who didn’t give me much trouble and the odd next day recovery from last night’s debauchery.
Wells was very ordinary in some ways. He’s not alone in wanting time to tinker, bourbon and a docile woman. Those by themselves are not bad wishes. It is his own narration of his life, that none of his projects ever succeeded, that narration that has become his legacy, that makes him sadly special and sadly ordinary. He’s one of the faceless many who made a small impact on the history of this country and died believing he’d failed because his one greatest wish never came true. The pattern repeated until he died believing he’d failed.
The pattern, though, was a lie. He did succeed. He succeeded four times that I am aware of. He patented a faster way to produce heavy water using simple equipment found in most homes. He also worked on improved rocket fuels for RPG’s when he was at Lockheed. C. His vacuum-puffed fruit idea. 4. His method of picking, cooling & packing lettuce is the basis for processing lettuce still used today.
His heavy water production method was secretly used by early nuclear researchers like Ernest Lawrence and Robert Openheimer to help build the first atomic bomb. His research into rocket fuels helped soldiers in WWII beat back Axis forces. The vacuum-puffed fruit thing eventually made its way into breakfast cereals. The lettuce picking ideas are the reason lettuce growers in California’s Central Valley can sell lettuce to stores on the East Coast. That’s four ideas that had an impact. How many of us can claim that four of our ideas affected the course of history? I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed. That isn’t the story that is told of him.
His legacy is of a brilliant drunk who was abusive to some of his family and died with an unfulfilled dream. That’s what we say about him. We don’t talk about his wins. We tell repeatedly the tales of his losses, his failures. That’s our story of my grandfather. And, if there is a conclusion, it is that our narrative says as much about us, about his kin, as it does about him. We still carry the bitter pattern in the stories we tell about ourselves and about him.