Peter and the Soviet university


Early in Peter's FBI file was a letter that he wrote to his parents (at least it seems to be to his parents), which someone had turned over to the FBI as evidence that Peter was a dangerous radical who needed to be investigated. (My strong impression from various bits of unredacted info in the FBI file is that it was specifically Peter's father who called in the FBI.) I don't have the original probably-handwritten letter, but here's the FBI's transcription of it.

A few preliminary notes:

  • In the below, the word “[REDACTED]” is a standin for the blank white redaction boxes the FBI used.
  • I'm guessing that the first redacted word was something like “folks,” and the second was something like “Pop.”
  • I mostly kept the FBI's formatting, including hyphenation, but presumably they didn't try to closely duplicate the original letter's formatting, except at the end.
  • The typos and misspellings were almost certainly introduced by the FBI; it wouldn't have been like Peter to make those kinds of mistakes.
  • The early paragraphs about Peter's friend aren't especially relevant; it's the rest of the letter that made me want to post this.
  • Peter was twenty years old when he wrote this. He had already flunked out of CalTech for drinking too much; he was living in Seattle (his parents were living in Ellensburg), but I'm not sure what he was doing at that point. He hadn't yet gone to Mexico.
  • This isn't the ten-page letter I mentioned in my first entry about the FBI file; that's still to come in a future installment. This is the letter before that one.
  • Thanks to Kathleen for scanning this document.

Here's the letter:

          This source furnished the following letters
which were received by the source from the subject during
the Spring of 1960:


     Sorry I didn't make it down to the Y the
next morning,[REDACTED]- I fell asleep.  Got the
suitcase & briefcase though - briefcase is ex-
tremely useful.
     Kind of bad thing happened which you
may have read in papers - [REDACTED] who
alternates shifts with me, was drinking two
or three glasses of beer the other night, and,
perhaps in part because of his recent split-up
with girl-friend, apparently went temporarily
berserk - stole taxi-cab, led police on 70-mph
chase through U.-district, rolled the cab, re-
sulting in totalling out of both patrol-car
and cab.
     He is in jail now, after having gotten
off active (reporting) parole only 1 month
ago (from burglary & term at Monroe - age 18).
Everyone is really sick about the whole thing -
he had been going so straight, doing so well;
hadn't missed a day of work, went to school
last quarter, was reading a lot, et al.
     Since I went to hear [REDACTED] I
have begun to take a real and increasing interest
in politics - am currently entering into Seattle
Young Socialist Club activities with much satis-
faction, anticipation.  Passed out leaflets
advertising rally tonight, attended rally, am
participating for next four weekends in protest
picketings of Woolworth's in connection with
segregated lunch-counters in South.
     Which subject laterally introduces main
topic of letter, namely, the Friendship Univer-
     You see, I have been receiving for about
a month, gratis, in order to get propaganda
slanted the other way than the American press,
the 'Soviet News Bulletin' from the Soviet em-
bassy in Toronto, Canada.  (By comparing this
and Hearst and taking an average, I believe I
come out somewhere in the vicinity of what
actually happens).
     At any rate, a recent issue introduced
me to the 'Friendship University'.  The main
fields of study are mathematico-physico-scienti-
fix realms, and politico-economic-philosophical
areas.  Students are accepted regardless of race,
nationality, citizenship, religion - i.e. anybody
     1.  is a junior or better in high
     school, in which case he goes to a
     secondary school for 2 years in Moscow,
     and then to the University for four
     years (U. is in Moscow).
     2.  has a high-school diploma, but no
     knowledge of Russian, in which case he
     goes to secondary school 1 year &
     U. 4 years. (me)
     3.  has high-school diploma and adequate
     knowledge of Russian, in which case
     he goes to the U. 4 years.

Now, the next things are:
     1.  they pay your way over and back (ha-ha)
     & pay your room, board, tuition, fees,
     books, and medical expenses while at-
     tending schools,
     2.  Russian mathematics occupies quite
     emminent position in academic ratings
     at present - i.e., about 1/2 of all math
     being published today is publ. in Russian,
     they are supposed to be 12 years ahead
     of us in linear partial differential
     equations, etc., etc.  Thus I think
     I could gain a mathematical education
     without equal anywhere else in world.
     3.  I have read so much Dostoiavsky,
     Gogal, Lermoutov, Tolsto: et al., that
     I would really like to read them in
     the original language; and, I am
     extremely desirous of examining at
     first hand the present day culture of
     4.  Travel is br-r-roadening; I would
     learn fluent, modern, idiomatic Russian;
     Eurasian colleges are (I believe)
     much better in general than American;
     I would get to actually see and live in
     this bugbear (bugaboo? bughear? bete
     noir?) economic-political system of
     Communism; actually see what the people
     are like; make fast friendships with a
     few of the students probably.......and
     on, and on, (I invite comment on 'Friend-
     ship U.')

So, I am anyways going to apply for admittance
to these schools (which are brand-new, just
starting this Sept.), though I doubt that I would
stand much of a chance, since my competition will
be world-wide.  But, oh well, it won't hurt to
try. A A Ay Ay Ah!?  fantastic idea - [REDACTED] ought
to apply too - take the whole family - live off
royalties from magazine articles - 'The Difficulties
of Raising American Children in Russia..' ech. oh,

So anyway, how's everything in E-burg?  Hope you
aren't patronizing Woolworth's or Kress',
just kidding - the only values these protest rallys
have are
     1.  symbolic (in number of senses)
     2.  a large-scale boycott can sometimes
          convince a manager that his prejudices
          are too expensive.

     Ah, I've shot off mouth enough for one letter
- write when anybody gets time - sorry to've missed
sending you birthday present,[REDACTED]: will make it
up to you.

See-what-I-told-you-dept. - I forgot to send in
income-tax --- never did find or get W2-forms
from Boeing, have forms for $25 from U. math
                    WHAT SHALL I DO?

                               E       have commenced
PS.  Oh, yeah -                 L      over-ambitious
I certainly hope that my         P     study-program for
newly-burgeoning political        !    self, really
interests (or rather                   reading a lot,
their socialistic tendencies)          both lit. & math.
are not disturbing to you - -
if so, I just become more
I guess -

                             [REDACTED]         never wrote
PPS:  current debts          should arrive      to Merit
                             any time

I owe               people owe me
$20? Tall's          $3.60 )
$??? Parents         $6.00 )  _________(illegible)
$1.45 friend         $4.60 )
$2.60 - "            $(illegible) total     great, huh?


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(Wrote this entry in August 2015, but apparently neglected to post it 'til now.)

Kathleen has finished removing soot from Peter's books, so I've done a quick culling pass on the mass-market paperbacks and put the ones I'm keeping on my bookcase.

(Climbing the library ladder with a hurt knee was a little bit scary, but ended up working out fine.)

These books are only the ones that I rescued from his house in 2005; probably no more than a third of all of his books. (The other two-thirds I left in the house; I imagine they got thrown away.) When I was going through his house, I just grabbed all the books that looked at all interesting to me, figuring I would sort them all later. I rescued about twenty boxes of books at the time, weighing about a thousand pounds total. Then the books sat in my cousin's garage for nine months; I flew up to Tacoma again that December to sort and repack and mail them. And then they sat in my garage at my old house for a year. I was thinking that they'd been in that garage for four years, but I just discovered that in fact I took them out in mid-November 2006 and started putting them on my bookcases (finished in late December); I have no memory of that. A few months later, I even catalogued them using Delicious Library, a book-cataloguing application. But in 2009, I guess I must have packed the books up again when I moved, and then they sat in the garage in my current house for another six years. An entry I posted in 2010 gives some more details.

But I don't seem to have written much about the authors and contents of the books.

Some things I noticed about the paperbacks:

  • He had certain favorite authors. For example (very rough counts):
    • About 10 books by Samuel R. Delany.
    • About 30 by Philip K. Dick.
    • Half a dozen by R. A. Lafferty.
    • About 20 by Keith Laumer.
    • Half a dozen by Fritz Leiber.
    • About 10 by Elmore Leonard.
    • Half a dozen by Larry Niven.
    • About 10 by Norman Spinrad
    • Half a dozen by Jack Vance.
    • About 10 by A. E. Van Vogt
  • He had a lot of short-story anthologies, both sf and non.
  • Speaking of which, Groff Conklin sure did edit a lot of anthologies. Peter had at least half a dozen of those.
  • He had very few books by women. I'm guessing no more than a dozen of these roughly 250 mass-market paperbacks are by women. A fair number of the books are anthologies, but the TOCs I've glanced at are typical of older sf anthologies in that they generally include nothing by women, or sometimes one story by a woman.

My selection mechanism has skewed some things slightly; for example, I think he probably owned most of the John D. MacDonald mysteries, but since I didn't want those, I didn't rescue them and they're not represented in the above list. However, I noticed the lack of female authors even at the time; I think I was less likely to leave behind a book by a woman than a book by a man, so I suspect that the ratio was even more skewed in his full collection.

Big Band music and electric organ

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Peter liked a variety of different kinds of music. My impression was that among his favorite performers were the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and several big-name jazz musicians. I know that he loved Pat Metheny; I went to a couple of Metheny concerts with him, and he owned at least a couple of the albums. He also liked Big Band music, including the Toshiko Akiyoshi–Lew Tabackin Big Band; he took me to one of their concerts once, probably in the early 1980s.

He had a couple of songbooks, but there was one Big Band songbook that I think he was particularly fond of. He had an electric organ—a portable electronic keyboard maybe three feet long and a foot deep, but I think designed specifically to sound like an organ rather than a piano—and he would regularly play songs from the songbook. He sometimes asked me to play along on my violin, which I was never much good at. Deep Purple, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Stardust, Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, Tangerine; I'm sure there were more, but those are the ones I remember most.

Another song just occurred to me, but now I can't recall whether he played it on the organ or just had a recording of it: "El Paso." It's not really much in keeping with the other kinds of music he tended to listen to, but I just learned that the Grateful Dead played it for many years; I wonder if their version was the one I heard as a kid. If I'm remembering right, Peter was the one who told me that Faleena's appearance to the dying cowboy at the end was just a hallucination, that she wasn't really there. But I may be mixing up all sorts of things. (And I always assumed her name was spelled "Felina" until now, which suggests that I may not have seen it written down in a songbook.)

...And now I wish that I had thought to tell him about the Cats & Jammers at some point. I bet he would've liked them.

The asparagus joke


I was eating some asparagus just now and it reminded me of a joke Peter used to tell. It went something like this:

This woman was at a dinner party, and there was a platter of asparagus being passed around the table. When it got to her, she very carefully cut off all of the tips of the asparagus and put them on her plate, then passed the platter along. The woman next to her said, “Excuse me, but you seem to have cut off all of the tips of the asparagus and kept them for yourself.” The first woman said, “I know—they're the best part.”

My recollection is that Peter found this joke endlessly entertaining. He told it regularly, and laughed every time he told it.

But I have a confession to make:

I don't get it.

(And thus I may've told it wrong! I went and looked for it online, but couldn't find it. If any of you know a better rendition, let me know.)

I think that the idea is that the first woman is so self-absorbed that she doesn't realize that it would be polite to leave some of the best part for other people. But if so, I never found that terribly funny. And I may've completely misunderstood the point of the joke anyway.

Million-dollar ideas

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Oddly, I don't seem to have written here about Peter's “million-dollar ideas.”

Every so often, he would come up with an idea that he was certain was amazing and never-before-thought-of. He always offered us these ideas for free, with the suggestion that if we were to implement one of them, it would make us a lot of money. It's possible that he was jokingly exaggerating, but I think he was always at least half-serious about these ideas and their potential value; he was always enthusiastic about them, and he often expressed concern that someone else might steal one of them.

There were dozens of million-dollar ideas over the years, but the only one that I specifically remember came at a time when there was a big push to pass a law banning the burning of an American flag. (I think this was in the mid-'90s or so.) His million-dollar idea on that topic was to use a slide projector to project an image of an American flag onto a piece of fabric, and then burn the fabric, thereby getting around the proposed law (by not actually burning a real flag per se). It was not at all clear how one might go about monetizing this idea, but he nonetheless didn't want me to talk with people about it, because that might jeopardize the million dollars.

I should note that most of his million-dollar ideas were more practical than that, in that they involved creating some sort of actual product or service that one could sell. None of them, though, ever sounded to me like something that there would be much demand for.

What brought all this to mind is that I was searching through my old email recently for something else, and came across the following note from Peter, from April 2000:

Hi again --
I realize that I didn't send you my BIG IDEA...

By the right-hand rule in physics, if you have magnetic lines of force at a
right angle to an electric current, motion results in the third direction.
This principle has been used for the last ten years or more to propel ocean

My BIG IDEA is to apply this principle to the area in which Ley & von Braun
were concerned...   Not to spell it out in too much detail for all the world
to eavesdrop on...

What do you think?


I'm not sure what he was talking about. Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun were concerned with rocketry in general, and apparently they wrote a book called The Exploration of Mars, so I assume that Peter was suggesting that rockets could be propelled using electromagnets. But there must have been more to it than that, because that doesn't sound like a remotely new idea to me. Railguns have been used in sf as spaceship-launch mechanisms for decades, and Peter would have been well aware of that.

Anyway, this was a rare instance of his not saying that one of his big ideas was worth a million dollars. But I'm sure it was.

Intoxicated phone calls

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I had always intended this blog to include some negative things about Peter as well as positive ones, but the time never seemed right, and then I mostly abandoned this blog.

But I was recently going through a bunch of old files, and found a letter that I wrote to Peter in 2001. I'm nearly certain that I never mailed this, and pretty sure that I never talked with him about the issue. I wish I had found a way to do that, because it was an issue for a long time, and it increased the distance between us, and I don't think he ever knew it was a problem, because I never told him.

Here's the letter, with one irrelevant piece edited out:

23 March, 2001

Dear Peter,

I have a request. I’m sorry to ask this in a letter rather than on the phone or in person, but I’ve never been able to come up with a way to say this directly. I’m hoping that writing it down will help me get the phrasing right.

The request is this: Please don’t call me when you’ve been drinking or are otherwise in an altered state of consciousness.

It upsets me a great deal when you call me in such a state, particularly when you’re drunk. I realize that there’s no particular reason that should upset me, but it does. It makes me angry and scared and tense, and makes it almost impossible for me to behave civilly toward you. Which leads me to not want to talk with you on the phone, because I can never tell in advance how coherent you’ll be.

And sometimes I can’t tell entirely even while we’re talking, and so I catch myself tensely waiting for certain telltale cues. Waiting for you to slur a word or stumble over one, for the difficulty getting a sentence out even after several tries. Waiting for you to have an extreme overreaction to something that happened to you recently, expressing emotion entirely out of proportion to whatever it was. Waiting for you to get maudlin and mopey. I can’t always tell, but I would guess that at least two-thirds of the time when you call the signs are there. I have a vague feeling that you’re more likely to call me when you’ve been drinking. I really wish you wouldn’t.

I enjoy talking with you when you’re sober, though I can’t always take the time for it. [...] I certainly don’t mind your being enthusiastic about something, or even being upset about something, when you’re sober. But when you’ve been drinking—and possibly when you’re high, too, I’m not sure whether you’re doing that these days—you get very emotional about things that don’t seem to be a big deal. It makes me wince. Sometimes it makes me cringe. It definitely makes me want to get off the phone with you as soon as possible.

I’ve felt this way for a long time, but I haven’t had the courage to tell you so—and it would clearly be a bad idea to tell you this when you’ve been drinking anyway. And then we go through periods in which we don’t talk much so I don’t think about it, or in which we talk now and then and you’re sober and things are fine, and I convince myself it’s not worth bringing up.

But it feels like you’ve been calling me a lot lately—a couple of times a week, which is quite a lot compared to the couple-times-a-year frequency of recent years—and if you’re going to continue to do so, I need you to be sober when you do. I’m just not willing to talk with you for long when you’re not—and sometimes it makes me so tense that it throws off the rest of my evening, because I can’t concentrate on other stuff.

I hope this doesn’t make you angry; I’ve always been scared of making you angry. But at this point I’m willing to risk it.

I can talk with you about this on the phone if you want. But only when you’re sober.

Having posted that, I feel like I need to elaborate on a couple of things:

  • I wasn't really objecting to his being emotional per se; I too can have strong emotional reactions to minor things. It was the way he sounded when he was drunk that was the problem for me: the near-operatic levels of melodrama, the volume of his voice, the over-the-top maudlin-on-the-verge-of-tears sound, the general too-muchness of it. It felt to me like a gigantic loud caricature of emotion, like the difference between smiling and putting on a clown face. I think it was mostly just an ordinary effect of alcohol; it's something I've seen in other drunk people as well. But when Peter did it, it particularly scared and upset me.
  • I have no idea why the signs of his being drunk upset me so much. He was never physically or emotionally abusive, and only once verbally that I can remember (and that was yelling at me through a closed door). And yet, I reacted to his drunkenness as if I were cringing away from a blow. I don't know where that came from.
  • That sentence near the end about being scared of making him angry is especially interesting to me. It was true, but here too I have no idea why. ...I think it would be easy to come away from reading this letter thinking that he must have mistreated me at some point for me to have that kind of reaction, but I honestly don't believe he did. I think part of what was going on (not all of it, but some of it) may have been that I was pretty sensitive to other people's emotions, and his sometimes just felt too big for me to cope with. I imagine there was also some of the Adult Children of Alcoholics “people-pleaser” thing going on, but ACOA is another topic for another time.


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I posted this in my main blog about five years ago, but it just occurred to me that I ought to repost it here:

Peter used to occasionally explain that various things worked by means of “FM.” I would ask, “What's that?” He would reply: “Fuckin' magic!"”


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A chance comment this evening reminded me that Peter used to refer to holding hands as "premarital interdigitation."

I see by a quick web search that he was not the only person to say that, but I think he was the only person I ever actually heard say it.

And that indirectly reminds me that he also, on at least one occasion in my childhood, referred to water as "rock juice."

Beer with meals


Peter used to say that drinking water with meals diluted the food while it was in your stomach, making it harder to digest.

When I pointed out that he often drank beer with meals, he said that was different—he said that beer contains yeast and is sort of like bread in a way, so it actually helps with digestion.

(In case anyone's wondering, five minutes of Internet quasi-research leads me to the conclusion that there isn't a lot of good data out there about the effects of beer on digestion; some sites say it aids digestion, some that it hinders it. Regarding water, a Mayo Clinic doctor says that "drinking water during or after a meal can actually improve digestion.")

Nose adjustment

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One of the semi-magic tricks Peter used to occasionally do:

He'd say that his nose was out of alignment or something, and needed an adjustment, like a chiropractic adjustment.

He would put his hands together palm to palm, as if praying, but with his nose between the index fingers.

Then he would bend his hands to one side a little several times, as if twisting his nose slightly around an invisible axis coming straight out of his face; he'd indicate that he was taking out the slack. Then, one last sudden sharp bend/twist, accompanied by a loud cracking sound.

The trick was that he had one thumb (hidden by the other fingers) in his mouth in such a way that the thumbnail was under an upper front tooth; at the moment of bending his hands, he would snap the thumbnail out from under the tooth, making a noise.

When done well—and Peter did it well—this trick can be remarkably effective, and Peter took great delight in performing it.

Pie-eyed emu


Peter once told me that when he was a kid, he left a note on a slip of paper in a library book for a future reader to find. The note said, "I'll be a pie-eyed emu," and added something like "If you understand this, contact me" and his address or possibly phone number.

He explained to me that he had at the time just discovered the equation

e + 1 = 0

which he was delighted by: it combined the numbers e, i, pi, 1, and 0 in one equation.

And he wanted to find other like-minded people. So he figured that anyone who understood that his note was a reference to that equation would be a like-minded person. Kind of a message in a bottle, tossed out to the world in hope of finding kindred spirits.

(It reminds me of the Wilmar Shiras stories "In Hiding" and "Opening Doors," which Peter introduced me to, in which at one point a super-bright boy posts a cryptic ad in hopes of finding others like him. In fact, it's possible Peter wrote the note after reading those stories; I'm not sure. He probably would've read them around age ten or eleven.)

But I never quite understood Peter's anecdote about leaving that note; in particular, although I could see the I and the pi and that the equals sign could be read as "be," I never understood why "e" would become "emu."

It turns out that the phrase comes from a 1942 Alfred Bester story, "The Push of a Finger." Peter must have been reading back issues of Astounding, because he was only two and a half years old when the story was published there.

I haven't read the story, but various people's vague online memories of it suggest that the equation in the story did contain the Greek letter μ, and thus was not the equation that Peter was referring to.

I don't know whether he was just conflating the memory of the phrase from the story with the equation he liked, or whether he misunderstood when he read the phrase as a kid, or what.

Tense yourself skinny

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Peter used to say that the way he stayed thin was to "tense myself skinny"—I think it had something to do with tensing his stomach muscles.

Then again, he had the pot belly that most Hartman males end up with, so I don't know that his approach actually worked.

I'm a little unclear on where the phrase came from. The phrase "Tense yourself skinny" appears on the cover of the Who album The Who Sell Out (which I'm pretty sure Peter owned) as part of a fake Charles Atlas ad; I'm not sure whether the line was originally from a real Charles Atlas ad or not.

(It's been three weeks since I last posted; I keep intending to stop by and post, but keep neglecting to do so. I do still have a bunch of stuff I want to post, but it may not be as regular as I'd intended.)

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