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Breakthroughs Yet to Come

AT the beginning of a new year, our attention turns to unfinished business. I can't help thinking of A.F. Nelson, the smug, wild-eyed man who owned the Starlight Motel next door to the restaurant my parents owned when I was a boy. Despite an enormous flaw in his attitude, to me he was the neighborhood Columbus, always ready for a voyage to any new world even if he drove an old, green Chevrolet station wagon loaded with 10 years' worth of debris.

Five or six projects of his were always in various stages of development, all of which were going to make him a millionaire. He believed hope was the palpable stuff of daily life, and only Republicans denied the future should change us.

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Standing in the clutter of his workshop, he was the first person who told me the future was ultimately disrespectful of the past because the past does not easily give up its hold on us.

Years before any of it happened he told me a man would someday walk on the moon (Earth giving up its hold on man), every home would have a computer, lenses in sunglasses would adjust themselves to light, and clothes someday wouldn't need ironing. He loved the word ``breakthrough,'' and gave out business cards proclaiming his intent: Breakthrough Enterprises.

With his high-pitched voice and laugh, and the speed with which he chewed gum, he lived what seemed to me an exciting, accelerated life. Then one weekend he sold the motel. He gave me some old science books and went off on a new voyage without a look back.

I thought of him again recently when I saw a copy of a Dec. 28, 1879 edition of The New York Times. In it, a professor named Henry Morton is quoted as saying that ``everyone acquainted'' with the results of Thomas Edison's experiments in electric lighting will recognize it as a ``conspicuous failure.''

Edison had invited Professor Morton to Menlo Park, N.J., to view his new light bulbs in operation, and the good professor had refused because he said he couldn't see how a visit would change his mind. Morton had done his own experiments in light and he was familiar with other experiments, all of which had failed.

I like to think that A.F. Nelson would have gone to Edison's laboratory in his old Chevy, full of questions, eager to learn, ready to embrace the future, and probably with sleeves rolled up to help if asked. I'd guess A.F. would have known what crude, rudimentary light bulbs would do for the world once they got a little more sophisticated.

What seems universal to me now in the A.F. Nelson approach to the world is the eagerness with which he forged ahead. Most of his character was defined by his conviction that nothing was finished. Nothing. Anything could be improved. Many breakthroughs in science and daily life were waiting just around the corner.

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But, as did many of his generation, he had one enormous flaw: racial prejudice. He was blind here, so clearly wrong that he was unknowingly instructive to me.

His old station wagon was forever shooting out of the motel driveway for yet another rattling trip to the lumber yard or the hardware store to get the last knob, piece of wire, electrical switch or gizmo to complete the job. Yet he was in the dark ages when it came to brotherhood.

So, when a new year rolls around, A.F. Nelson comes to mind like a metaphor for the United States: energetic and hopeful, but in need of some major breakthroughs in race relations.

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