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My Son, The What?

A father's dream comes true when his son makes a fishy-sounding choice

My mind was made up. I'd finally chosen a career. But how to break the news to Dad?

My father was practical. Sending me to college was more than an investment: He viewed me as an extension of himself. If Sam Engel had wanted a bum, he could have done it more cheaply.

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During the Great Depression, my father sold watches for the Avalon Watch Company, partly owned by his half-brother Nathan Engel, and attended New York University Law School at night. He studied on the subway between home, work, and classes (that left weekends to court my mother). It took him six years to graduate with an LLD in 1934, nut only two years to marry Roslyn Cahn.

For most of his life, Dad regretted not having practiced law. Back then, lawyers were a dime a dozen, but everyone wanted a wristwatch. My uncle Thaxton Hammock, in a similar way, trained as an architect at Northwestern University, only to find occasional work as a draftsman. But Dad kept alive his dream of a career - any career - if not for himself, then for his children.

That's why Dad was flexible as well as practical. If I didn't want to become a medical doctor, surely a dentist would do. "My son, the Doctor!" was valid whether my name ended with MD or DDS. But would my father accept a PhD? That would depend. Who would hire me? For how much?

Still, I had to tell my father.

May 1967 was a difficult time. The country was at war, and student unrest was brewing on college campuses. Cities braced for a long, hot summer that would include race riots in Milwaukee and other cities.

With my college exams over and the Indy 500 just a week away, I boarded a Greyhound bus for the hour's ride from Bloomington to Indianapolis and home. My thoughts during that trip turned from relief in completing my master's degree in zoology to worry that my 24 years of age and unemployment would add up to military draft and Vietnam. The nation might have been in turmoil, but I had to face my father.

It happened a few days later. Sensing my growing anxiety, my father casually asked me how things were going and when I would start my summer job at the Indianapolis Children's Zoo. Then he came right to the point.

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"Sandy," he demanded, "what are you going to do with yourself this fall?"

"Dad," I stammered, "I've decided to become a ... a limnologist."

"A what?" he gasped.

"A limnologist."

I could have told him that a limnologist was a scientist who studies lakes and streams, including their biology, chemistry, and physics. I could have reminded my father that water, both fresh and marine, covers 71 percent of the earth's surface. But no mind. All I could blurt out was "someone who studies fish."

"Fish?" he echoed.

In a flash, I read my father's thoughts: those long nights in law school, those hour-long rides on the subway, those dashed hopes and aspirations. At least selling watches was a cut above peddling fish.

We both fell silent, he shaking his head and I staring through the bedroom window to the freedom beyond. (Howdy, our black cocker-poodle, hid under the bed.)

At last, I explained that the University of Wisconsin had accepted my application to study lakes at the renowned Laboratory of Limnology. This would culminate in a doctor of philosophy degree and a productive career as a professor or researcher.

That did the trick.

WE made plans for a July visit to Expo 67 - the world's fair along the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal. Our summer ended in the Badger State, where we toured the university campus in Madison, learned about water fleas and yellow perch on Lake Mendota, and watched the Hoofer sailboats from the student union terrace. We also met faculty and students at the university's Lake Lab and realized a lot of people cared about lakes. The trip ended at Witte Hall, a 10-story graduate-student dormitory, with a kiss for my mother, a hug for my sister, and a handshake for my father.

The limnology program at Wisconsin meant nearly five years of courses, student teaching, and lake research. It also meant passing the dreaded oral prelims that admitted me to graduate school. and nearly (because I lost so much weight in six weeks of study) to pants with a central back pocket.

Finally, it meant a scholarly thesis on how dissolved oxygen and water temperature segregate warm-water and cool-water fish in a deep glacial lake.

Before I completed graduate school, my parents and younger sister, Pam, spent a few days with me and my bride-to-be in northern Wisconsin. (Unlike Dad, I had only to study and court.) Here my father learned about glaciers and walleyes, viewed sonar charts of cisco migrations, and became so enthused about lakes that he would later send me fish articles clipped from newspapers. Dad, through his son, had found a career.

My final exam - an oral defense of my thesis before three distinguished professors - came in May 1972. Graduation followed a month later. As the only fish doctor in the Engel family, I am proud that my father would one day clamp his arm around my shoulder and announce, "My son, the Limnologist!"

Each Father's Day, I think of that bus ride home, that stare into space, that handshake by the dorm. When I spoke with my father in April 1979, for the last time, I sensed he was just as proud of his fish doctor as I was of my watch salesman. Every limnologist should have a father like that.

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