My Father’s Secrets

Stationed on a remote pacific atoll, a father and son discover that picking up signals from space can be easier than communicating with the people closest to us

WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN AND FIFTEEN, I lived with my family on a small island called Kwajalein, part of an atoll with the same name, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was, and still is, a top-secret missile test site for the US Army. Now called the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, the atoll possesses one of the largest arrays of radar antennas in the world. One of them, called the ALTAIR, is as big as a baseball diamond and looms from the equatorial jungle like something from a James Bond movie—a giant laser that’s capable, say, of blowing up the moon. It is, in fact, sensitive enough to track a wrench floating from a space shuttle. My father worked at the ALTAIR site, on an island near Kwajalein.

He called himself an “electrical engineer,” but this wasn’t entirely accurate. You have to have top-level security clearance to work at facilities like ALTAIR. That’s why my father never answered the question What do you do for work, Daddy? He was sworn to secrecy. By the time our family moved to Kwajalein, I had given up asking him such questions. At first, it seemed he wasn’t articulate enough to explain his work—he was a shy man—but then, as I kept asking over the years, it became clear he was hiding something. He wasn’t a dishonest man—I knew that much—but I wondered why he quietly refused to give me what most fathers would have happily offered.

The sum total I knew of my father’s history I could have written on a postcard. He was the only child of a feckless, alcoholic father and a tough Appalachian mother, both of whom labored in California’s orange groves and packing houses. In 1942, at age seventeen, he joined the Navy and then saw three years of fighting in the Pacific. As a child, I often dug through his steamer trunks in our basement and pored over the artifacts that told of his life as a young man. There was a Japanese officer’s sword, a hara-kiri knife, Navy medals, old foreign coins, mothballed uniforms, old photos, a couple of high school yearbooks, even artwork he’d done as a schoolboy. I found several yellowed photos of him in his Navy whites, always smiling. He had a great smile, which my mother says I inherited. One snapshot showed him grinning with a grass-skirted hula dancer in Honolulu. He was a radio operator on a Navy cruiser. By the time he sailed west toward Japan, his ship would have been in contact with the top-secret long-range radio facility (constructed in 1943) in the Koolau Mountains on the island of Oahu, not far from Pearl Harbor. That is to say, his life of secrets began early—six years before he met the young woman who would become my mother.

Although my father had an obvious aptitude for electronics, he really wanted to be a farmer, and, in fact, he tried his hand at raising cucumbers in California after the war. The crop failed, and he never ate another cucumber for the rest of his life. Four years later, after earning a degree in engineering, he was recruited by Western Electric, a company that worked with Bell Laboratories to do research and development for the US military. My mother told me he helped test one of the first nuclear-powered submarines, though it was an assignment I could never verify since it was shrouded in secrecy. Years later, while at work on other secret projects, my father wore a wallet-sized badge that measured the level of radiation he was exposed to. My mother told me his badge was tested every month to make sure he wasn’t overexposed. “It was bullshit,” she says now of this precaution. “He was so irradiated, he should have glowed in the dark.” When he died of stomach cancer at forty-nine, she blamed over-exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

But I knew none of this when I was a teenager living on that secret missile base in the middle of the Pacific. It would be decades before I learned that my father’s specialty was radars and their antennas. One afternoon, out of boredom—of which there was an abundance on our island—I decided to climb an antenna at the south end of Kwajalein. The antenna was a semicircular steel grid forty feet high. I was good at climbing, and the structure’s fretwork made it easy. Within a short time, I was twenty feet off the ground. That’s when a security guard showed up.

“Get down from there,” he called. “You’ll kill yourself.”

I looked down at him, a middle-aged man with few prospects. “It’s my life,” I called. “What do you care?”

“You get down from there right now!” he shouted, swiping his fist at the air. I didn’t understand why he was so upset. When I touched ground, he dragged me to his pickup truck and drove me to the police station. It just so happened that my mother was at the sergeant’s desk, renewing her bicycle license. Even though I was often getting dragged to the police station, my mother, who retained an astoundingly resilient naïveté, was surprised to see me.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why aren’t you in school?”

It occurs to me now that had I reached the top of the antenna, I might have been too weary to climb down. Fatigued, I might have lost my grip and fallen. How ironic would that have been, to have accidentally killed myself on the very thing to which my father had dedicated his life?

I was often getting into trouble on Kwajalein. Mostly, I’d sneak out to drink beer with friends. Beer was easy to get. If you didn’t steal it, as my best friend Spud did, you could buy it from vending machines at Bachelor’s Beach for a quarter a can. In the tropics, it was summer year round, and we wayward teens had a blast running through Kwajalein’s leafy alleys after curfew, when the grown-ups were sleeping. We did this nearly every weekend. One night, Spud downed sixteen beers and got so drunk I nearly had to carry him home.

His arm slung over my shoulder, I struggled to keep him upright and moving.

It seemed he could say nothing more than, “Fucking-A, man!”

Fortunately, we didn’t have far to walk because it was such a small island, but we had to be mindful of Security, the civilian rent-a-cops who acted as our police force. We teens despised Security. They drove slowly through the neighborhoods in white pickups, their spotlights scanning the nooks and crannies, roofs, and patios for curfew breakers.

Dogs were prohibited on Kwajalein, so it was quiet but for the clatter of palm fronds in the breeze overhead and the distant wash of waves. I was dizzy from my beers, but I wasn’t drunk. Spud’s house was a little larger than mine because his father was higher up in the hierarchy, but his furniture was made of Japanese bamboo like ours—like everybody’s. Inside, I could smell the stink of the cigars Spud’s father smoked. Spud stumbled then fell to the linoleum floor. He started cursing. I motioned for him to be quiet.

Then he looked up at me, grinned, and said, “Fucking-A!”

Suddenly, the room brightened. Someone had flicked on the overhead light. Spud’s father, wearing a bathrobe and slippers, stood in the hallway that led to the house’s three small bedrooms. I expected him to have a cigar in one hand, as it seemed he always did. He was a pugnacious little man, with an underbite and small eyes. I saw something of Spud in his face. He said, “What’re you boys doing?”

I winced at the light and said, “I brought Spud home.” “What’d you do to him?” He stared in disbelief at his son, who was still sprawled on the floor. “You been drinking?”

“Dad?” Spud propped himself on one elbow and looked up at his father. He could hardly talk. “Dad?”

It sounded like he was asking for something—sympathy? help? forgiveness?

Spud’s father stared at his boy in pained disbelief. Then he glared at me. I wanted to protest: I’ve brought my friend home. I’ve looked after him. I did not get Spud drunk! But I was not practiced at talking back, and I felt bad about Spud.

His father said, “You get out of here.”

My face burning, I walked out. When I stepped into my house minutes later, our cat pushed between my ankles and squeaked a greeting. Spud was going to be OK, I told myself. And we had escaped Security, hadn’t we? That was something to be proud of. And I had handled my liquor, hadn’t I? I was growing up, I decided. I made myself a ham sandwich. Then the phone rang, startling me. I answered quickly, thinking it would be Spud. Or his father.

The caller identified himself as a Security officer. He asked if I’d been out drinking. I hesitated to answer. He said, “Come on, I know you have. Just tell me the truth.”

“If I tell you the truth,” I said, “will you tell my parents?”

“I just want to know if you’ve been out tonight.” He spoke casually, like a friend.

“You won’t tell my parents?” I asked.

“No,” he said easily, “just tell me if you’ve been out.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve been out.”



After a pause, he said, just as easily as before, “Let me speak to your father.”


“I just want to talk to him for a minute.”

“He’s sleeping,” I said.

“That’s all right. You can wake him up.”

Again, I hesitated, then asked, “Are you going to tell him what I said?”

“No, I’m not. Just let me speak to him.”

I padded upstairs. I was barefoot, as always. I eased open the door of my parents’ bedroom. I seldom entered their room. The grown-up smells—Dad’s spice cologne, Mom’s perfume, the warm bed-clothes-heated otherness of their bodies—I found interesting and intimidating.

When I touched my father’s shoulder, he rose slightly and said, “What’s wrong?” as if he were ready to take my temperature or get me medicine. It occurred to me that I was not far removed from being a little boy.

“Someone’s on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” My father was tall and lanky, a good-looking man. He had started taking scuba lessons and was suntanned and sinewy. As he followed me downstairs, he asked, “Who?” He was wearing boxers and a white T-shirt.

“It’s a Security officer. He wants to talk to you.” My heart was pulsing at the back of my tongue. But I was safe, I reminded myself. The officer had given me his promise.

Now, my mother was behind us. “What is it?” She was wearing a full slip.

Downstairs, the three of us stood in our small kitchen. I watched my father, receiver to his ear, listening intently to the Security officer. Then my father looked down at me and said, “Did you sneak out tonight? This man says you went drinking.”

“Drinking!” my mother echoed.

I shook my head in firm denial. “No, I didn’t!”

My father nodded his satisfaction then said into the phone, “My son tells me he didn’t go out tonight. You must be mistaken.”

My father listened some more. He looked perplexed. Then he held the receiver away from his ear as if it was suddenly very hot. He narrowed his eyes at me. “He says you told him you did go out. Did you?”

I felt my face burning. I saw my mother watching as if she had just witnessed a car crash. I said, “Yeah, I did.”

Then something happened to my father’s face. He paled and almost winced. It was like watching an avalanche, like seeing some part of him fall into himself, and I knew I had betrayed him, had hurt him in ways I couldn’t begin to undo.

I would spend years trying to make this up to him, even as I continued to hurt and disappoint him. 

AFTER WE MOVED BACK to the States, my father attached a massive motorized antenna to the side of our house. It extended ten feet above the roof. A brown plastic dial atop our television set, in the den, allowed us to direct the antenna to any point on the compass and thus receive good reception. When I was growing up in the 1960s, an antenna—whether on the head of a cartoon robot, the rear of an automobile, or the barrel of a toy ray gun—was considered a cool thing. An antenna put you “out there,” connecting you to something beyond yourself; it was about power and reach. That’s what made antennas scary when Martians sprouted them. That’s what made them sexy when extended from portable radios. And that’s why it was a point of pride for men like my father to talk about TV antennas—how good theirs were, how many channels theirs pulled in. An antenna was a metallic finger held up to the electromagnetic wind. It gave you a read on the world. If you didn’t have one, you were, literally, “out of it.”

When TV went digital in 2009, I refused to get cable and, instead, decided to plant an antenna on our roof. A profound dislike of the cable company’s monopoly informed my decision, but so did a sentimental attraction to the old technology that had been central to my father’s life.

An antenna is nothing more than a crude metal net erected to catch the messy wash of electromagnetic waves spilling over the earth’s surface—signals generated by cell phones, computers, radios, televisions, electric garage doors, virtually any electrical apparatus, but most especially remote-control devices, and, of course, the ever-flaring sun. Sometimes, in this soup of radio waves, a rogue signal will cause an automated garage door to open seemingly by itself. Such a sight may surprise or even startle us, but really it shouldn’t. We are immersed in radio waves every minute of our lives: they saturate the air we breathe.

It may occur to you, as it has to many, that this random, profligate wash of radio waves should be cause for worry, if not alarm. The International Conference on Cell Tower Siting expressed concern about potentially carcinogenic cell phone radiation as early as 2000. Four years before that, the FCC established a radiation limit for phones. To test radio wave penetration, technicians immerse a probe inside a liquid-filled dummy that replicates a human’s aqueous body. The probe measures how the waves of a nearby cell phone resonate through the dummy. As it happens, our bodies make marvelous antennas. If the thought of radio waves roiling through your inner sea gives you pause, then you are not alone. Surely my father considered the risks involved in his work, surrounded by machines that sliced and diced his body with their rays. Electrical engineers of his caliber were more than aware of these things.

The word antenna was used first in Latin, as a nautical term to signify “that which goes before,” specifically the “sail yard” of a ship. The Greek equivalent of this term describes the appendages at the forefront of an insect, generally referred to as “horns.” Whether on a ship or an insect, they are “foremost”—the thing we see first, which is why we associate antennas with sentinel duty and warning, even alarm.

SCR-270, a mobile radar that was supposed to guard Pearl Harbor in 1941, was a fairly simple device, though advanced for its time. It sent short bursts of high-frequency signals into the atmosphere. If any of these hit a metallic object within a hundred and fifty miles, that signal would bounce back to the radar’s antenna. The radar technician could determine the position of the interfering object by calculating the duration of the signal’s return. The more signals that bounced back, the more cause there was for concern. On December 7, 1941, the antenna was stationed at the northernmost tip of Oahu, thirty miles from Pearl Harbor.

At 7:02 that morning, shortly before shutting down the antenna per orders (since there was apparently nothing to watch), the primary technician, Private Joseph L. Lockard, was showing his trainee, Private George Elliott, how to improve his abilities to read the radar screen. Elliott recounts, “Suddenly there appeared the largest blip either of us had seen on an oscilloscope.” They checked the scope and determined it was working properly. The mass of interference was 137 miles northeast and growing nearer.

When Elliott and Lockard phoned their base to report the massive reading on their oscilloscope, the commanding lieutenant told them that it was, without question, a dozen B-17 Flying Fortresses scheduled to arrive that morning from San Francisco. (We may wonder now: did the Japanese know of the expected B-17s and dummy an early arrival?) Assured that theirs was a false alarm, Elliott and Lockard continued their watch—now as recreation. They tracked the oncoming planes until they were only twenty-two miles away, at which point nearby mountains obscured their approach to Pearl Harbor.

Less than a year later, Lockard and Elliot were called to the steps of the US Capitol to receive medals for having done their duty on that infamous day. Lockard received the Distinguished Service Medal. Elliot was to be given the Legion of Merit but refused it, insisting he should get no less than Lockard. Elliot died at eighty-five of a stroke in 2003; the Los Angeles Times obit focused on the missed opportunity that haunted him till the end of his life. His son said, “He had a feeling of frustration that if the warning had been heeded, they could have at least got planes in the air and lives could have been saved.”

IN 2009, the television antenna setup my wife and I bought at a retro electronics store was surprisingly complicated. I had envisioned nothing more than a modest metallic sprout planted on the roof, but it demanded strapping the antenna to the chimney, running a line into the house, and running a cable to a lightning rod in the backyard. No wonder the cable companies were immediately and immensely popular when they offered an affordable alternative in the 1970s. Suddenly, the antenna was uncool—a kitschy throwback, the kind of thing you’d see on grandma’s house. Even car manufacturers started hiding them. The irony of the cable revolution was that it made us think our antennas were obsolete when they weren’t. The truth is, we simply moved the antennas to the cable companies, and the cable companies, in turn, sent us the transmissions via their cables.

Our new antenna came in a big cardboard box that reminded me of a construction set I had gotten for Christmas long ago. Made of aluminum, it was folded up like a logic puzzle—a bristly array of aluminum rods and fins that must be turned and snapped into place—and immediately I was anxious I might not figure it out. When I finally had the thing put together, it extended six feet across and looked like the Voyager I space probe. Then I recalled that Voyager I, launched in 1977, is still “out there.” It takes NASA eighteen hours to contact this now-crude but remarkable space probe, which was supposed to function for only four years but has continued transmitting and has recently left our solar system, from whose misty borders our sun looks 1/10,000 as bright as it does here on Earth.

If I hooked a powerful radio receiver to our new antenna, I could hear transmissions from deep space. There is plenty to hear, apparently, though mostly it’s just the static of the stars. So far, there’s nothing “artificial”—that is, nothing created by sentient beings. Still, scientists say it’s only a matter of time, because given that there are hundreds of billions of planets in the inner galactic plane to survey, it’s likely that there’s a planet or two of thinking creatures who are sending signals of some sort. As for earthlings who think the deliberate messages we send into outer space only invite our own destruction—starting with the record made of gold on Voyager 1, which includes whale songs and the sound of the wind, as well as Navajo night chants and samples of Bach concertos—it’s too late. “The fact is, for better or for worse, we have already announced our presence and location to the universe, and continue to do so every day,” astronomer Carl Sagan reminded us decades ago. “There is a sphere of radio transmission about thirty light years thick expanding outward at the speed of light, announcing to every star it envelops that the earth is full of people. Our television programs flood space with signals detectable at enormous distances by instruments not much greater than our own. It is a sobering thought that the first news of us may be the outcome of the Super Bowl.”

AFTER MY ARREST for drinking and breaking curfew on yet another night on Kwajalein, my father came to pick me up at the police station. He was now used to this routine. I was fifteen, and it wasn’t clear to either of us what might become of me. When he walked into the station, he looked neither disappointed nor angry. He simply said, “Let’s go,” and I followed him outside to his bicycle. There was no bicycle for me, so I had to run behind him. “Keep up,” he said.

Half-drunk and barefoot, I ran, grateful for this modest humiliation—it was a message I could easily understand. Once we got home, my father said, “Go to bed.” And that was all he said about the incident. The next morning, as I held my aching head and stared at my breakfast cereal, my mother told me I was grounded for a month. My father had long gone to work. When he returned that night, wearing the uniform of his geeky tribe (Bermuda shorts, black knee socks, dress shoes, and a crisp short-sleeved shirt), he offered no lectures, no tirades. I was disappointed because if he had nothing to say now—about his feelings, about his hopes for me—he would never have anything to say.

I hold many memories of my father as a role model, and I understand that, absent his ability to talk to me, this was how he showed his love. One night when I was five, my mother beckoned my brother and me to follow her—quietly—down the hallway of our modest ranch house. There, at the darkened doorway of my parents’ bedroom, we peered in and saw my father on his knees, hands folded, eyes closed, praying by the bed he shared with my mother. For years, I prayed like that, too, every night.

My father seemed to know everything about everything. He showed my brother and me how to scavenge through tide pools and low-tide reefs on Kwajalein. He made sure to instruct us to replace the rocks we overturned so we would not harm the habitat (the sun would kill sea life exposed on the bottom of overturned rocks). “Reefing” became my favorite hobby on Kwajalein. I was amazed at the things I came across. One day, I brought home a bomb casing the size of a boot, a relic of World War II. I’d been pounding it clean with a reef rock. When I showed it to my father, he examined it carefully. “See that?” He pointed to the welt in the bull’s-eye of the casing bottom. “That’s a blasting cap,” he said. “You could have blown your hand off.”

In our second year on Kwajalein, my mother suggested I accompany my father when he went snorkeling. He was an avid snorkeler and had started an extensive shell collection. One Saturday, in a gesture of camaraderie, I went out with Dad in a Boston Whaler, a tiny motorboat. I didn’t much like the water, and that day, I didn’t feel like going in, so I waited in the boat while my father dove. At the time, I wasn’t yet aware of my sensitivity to motion, but, as the hot day wore on and I sat in the bobbing boat, smelling the fishy reek of coral my father had uprooted and thrown at my feet, I realized with alarm that I was seasick. I didn’t want to make a scene or whine to go home, so I toughed it out. But when we got back to Kwajalein, I all but ran home for relief, leaving my father far behind without an explanation. I felt terrible about it and, even then, wished I could have explained myself. My father may have imagined I couldn’t wait to get away from him. I doubt he supposed I was incapable of communicating with him because of his unwitting example.

The last time I saw my father, I was a senior in college. It was winter. We were meeting my brother and grandmother to spend a week at a beach house. When I picked my parents up at the airport, I was stunned not only by how ill my father looked—his complexion was gray, he had lost thirty pounds, and he was wearing a hairpiece to hide the effects of chemotherapy—but also by the way he embraced me fervently. He had never done that, and I realized there was more emotion than I knew in this man whom I’d never seen cry. That week, I watched my father trying hard to be a regular guy, going so far as to ignore his medical restrictions so he could have a glass of wine with my brother and me.

Because I strived to be as stoic and self-contained as my father, I sought no counseling and solicited no help from family or friends when he died later that year. As a result, it took me fifteen years to come to terms with my loss. Early on, I kept thinking I saw him passing in a crowd. Once, I nearly chased down a man who looked like my father, but when the stranger turned around to find me behind him, I reared back, suddenly aware he could not possibly be the man my father had been. For years, night after night, I dreamed of searching for my father—often lost in a crowd. When I was lucky enough to find him, we embraced as I wept into his shoulder. I’d wake exhausted, having spent hours in my dream weeping.

My father seemed lost to me, like a satellite spiraling into the deep time of space. I recalled the mysteries of his basement workshop: the handfuls of diodes and transistors, which looked to my childish eyes like penny candy, and the electronic gizmos he used to test distance, sound, and the trajectories of airborne objects. There was an oscilloscope, whose porthole-sized screen showed a bright green, bouncing line that zigged and zagged as magically as an illuminated sprite. Now, in the penumbra of his death, I wondered: had he been a necromancer, a demi-wizard, or just one of so many hapless grunts toiling in the toxic bowels of the military industrial complex? My mother could offer no answers. He had shared with her nearly nothing of his work. I had to wait two decades—until his work was no longer classified—for an answer. Then I phoned one of his former colleagues, now retired. This man knew me and welcomed my call and understood my need to ask so many questions.

I said, “Dad worked on missiles that shot down other missiles. That’s all I know.”

“In your father’s day, we had more time to shoot down an incoming missile than they do now,” Mr. Reiger said over the phone. “As much as forty minutes.”

I’d first met Mr. Reiger on Kwajalein. Like so many of my father’s colleagues, he was smart and a little geeky. I remembered him mostly for his irreverent humor, his eyes glinting with mischief. I was grateful he was willing to talk with me.

“It was like a video game,” he continued, “except high stakes. Every missile has a distinct ‘signature’ we’re trying to assess in that time. Well, now the time is down to ten minutes.” This made him laugh.

“Ten minutes,” I exclaimed. “Jesus.”

I was sitting at my desk in my home office. Through my window, a gray scrim of snow made my historic neighborhood look faded, like an old photograph.

“Your father was a systems analyst,” he said. “His job involved reentry physics. He came up with algorithms to detect signatures and mass-to-drag ratios—all of the things that help us identify and target the incoming missile.”

“In ten minutes.”

“That’s where the formulas come in. He had to find out if the software was telling the hardware the right things to do. The Roi [ALTAIR] facility collected the data, and we analyzed it.”

“In ten minutes.”

“Well, we had twenty. The missiles [we fire] have gotten faster, but they haven’t gotten much smarter,” he said.

“Why not smarter?”

“It’s not worth the investment,” he said, “given what these missiles do.”

“Blow things to smithereens.”

“If they can find their targets.”

“Do they find the targets?” I asked. “Are they going to find their targets?”

“We’ve been working on this for over forty years with mixed results.”

He said this without judgment or emotion, as a scientist might. Maybe that’s the attitude these engineers had worked hard to cultivate. They were the best minds in the world, working on one of the most impossible projects. Who could blame them if, ultimately, the challenge was beyond their means?

Outside, I heard a car revving in the icy street, its wheels spinning for traction.

“So the whole Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative is a failure?” I asked.

“Well, Ron, we’re nowhere near developing HEDIs, High Endoatmospheric Defense Interceptors, or even the MSX, Midcourse Space Experiment, and you can forget about the SBI, space-based interceptor. If NASA can barely keep its stations in orbit, how long do you think it’s going to take us to perfect satellite warfare?”

Out of respect, I didn’t ask the most obvious question, which my mother had been asking ever since my father’s death: then why bother?

I recalled my father’s basement workshop, all the tools he had arrayed neatly on pegboards, and his arcane instruments—electronics testing equipment, black boxes brimming with dials and knobs.

“So,” I said, summarizing, “in ten minutes, you’ve got to find the missile, determine its ‘assets,’ target it, then shoot it down.”

“Don’t forget about the decoys,” he added.

“There are decoys?”

“Lots of them,” he said. “Fired with the real missiles. That’s where asset and signature analysis comes in. When your father and I were working on Roi, the shots came at us from the Air Force at Vandenberg, which is about the range that any enemy missile would fire from: nearly five thousand miles. ”

“Radar is key, obviously.”

“That’s right, Ron. Radar is key.”

RECENTLY, I SPENT SOME TIME in Maine, where I saw many falling stars. One of them was a large blue-green streak, whose abrupt burst blanched the night sky like sheet lightning. It made me yelp in surprised awe. As wondrous and beautiful as they are—or perhaps because they are so wondrous and beautiful—the sight of falling meteors makes me a little sad. Almost always, they remind me of my father, the secretive antenna expert. The irony of his life was that he was a communication specialist who communicated so very little with his sons. He was a good father in all the traditional ways, but a large part of him was, and remains, as mysterious as a falling star. And so whenever I behold a star-stunned night sky, I want to believe that by staring into space, I might somehow reach him or channel something of him back to me. I know this makes no sense.

But that’s how our species is. Even if we had proof that it would be madness to send our signals into space, we would probably do it anyway. Hardwired to communicate, we are irrevocably, impulsively communal. I would like to think that even those who seem most uncommunicative, like my father, communicate nevertheless. It’s just that they do so in ways we can’t quite catch. We attempt to read them the way we attempt to read signals from deep space. To accept this is to accept limits most of us would rather not acknowledge. That’s why many people surveying the now-naked rooftops of my neighborhood would see the lone antenna atop our house and scoff, assuming it’s as obsolete as the Model T. Perhaps they would change their minds and think more deeply about this—and every—form of communication, if they understood that our lowly aerial is cousin to the Voyager space probe, which even now is hurtling through the outer reaches of our solar system and still dutifully, regularly, sending signals home.

About the Author

Ron Tanner

Ron Tanner is a professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland, where he directs the Marshall Islands Story Project. His novel, Missile Paradise, will be published in 2016. Find him at

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