Oral History Transcript — Dr. Thomas Aitken
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Interview with Dr. Thomas Aitken
Thomas Aitken; March 21, 1997
ABSTRACT: Born April 8, 1934 in Punxsutawney, PA; recalls family life and childhood. Pursued undergraduate education at Dartmouth, but dropped out after fatherís death. Drafted into Army Signal Corps in 1955; entered Columbia University School of General Studies after his active duty. Began position at Lamont on November 20, 1961 and worked there until retirement in 1994. Recalls his first cruise aboard the Vema; became chief scientist onboard in 1965. Comments on the change of big block grants for Lamont projects; discusses his role as mediator between Heezen and Ewing. Explains his tacit knowledge of the ship and its equipment; comments on the change in Lamont leadership when Ewing left. Describes the women computers at Lamont and their work; describe the data recording equipment and processes at Lamont. Reflects on his forced retirement and his long career of service at Lamont.
Session I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Thomas Aitken. Weíre recording this on the twenty-first of March 1997 at Palisades, New York at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. And I do know that you were born on April 8, 1934 at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. But I donít know much about your parents or your family. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Aitken:Well, my father was a civil engineer who was born in New York City but raised in New England. And came into Punxsy in the twenties working for the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, and met my mother whose family had been in Pennsylvania since the Revolutionary War times. They were — used to say those families had gotten in the woods in Pennsylvania and never gotten out yet. And her maiden name which nobody had ever heard of until recently was Depp, D-E-P-P. Johnny Depp has the same name. Nobody had ever heard of that name before. It was an old German name. And Rea, R-E-A, a family name, and Fye, F-Y-E, was a family name. And she was — she became a school teacher and always lived in the Punxsutawney area. My father had met my mother there and then he went down and worked for United Fruit Company in Central America.
Doel:That was a powerful company. What nation was he working in? Was that —
Aitken:Well, I donít — he worked in Guatemala and I know heíd been in Jamaica and I donít know what other countries. He was doing — they were doing survey for plantations out in the wilderness back then in the twenties. And then he came back, got married in the depression, 1932. I was born in Ď34. Because there were no jobs and everything, he moved with friends to the Adirondacks and they were trapping foxes at the time I was born. I spent my first winter actually living in a trunk in a tent in the Adirondacks.
Doel:Is that right? And where was your mother at the time? She was there too?
Aitken:We were living in that. All the other men lived in the cabin, we did everything in the cabin, except sleep in the cabin. And then came — that was just one year — then came back to Punxsutawney and stayed there, and my father worked around anything as civil engineer. Then during the World War II he tried to enlist in the Seabees; he was too old. He had actually been in the army in the First World War. He then got jobs; he went up and worked in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Then he came back and went up, then he got a job working in [?] building an air force base. They used to transport planes across for six months or so. Then came back. Then we moved to the Buffalo area where he worked for Curtis-Wright to the end of the war. And then we moved back to Punxsutawney, and he worked along the East Coast. But my mother being an only child, my father being an only child, and I was an only child —
Doel:I was just going to ask you about that, yes.
Aitken:So she didnít want to leave there. So I stayed there and went through high school, and graduated from Punxsutawney Area High School in 1952, and I went off to Dartmouth College.
Doel:I want — we certainly need to cover your career at Dartmouth in depth, but Iím curious when you came back after that, what sounds like an extraordinary first year of your life.
Aitken:I remember nothing.
Doel:Of course, you remember nothing of that. What did your parents tell you about it? What that experience was like for them?
Aitken:Never talked about it.
Doel:Is that right? How did you know? Did they tell you or did other family or —?
Aitken:No, they told me. Had pictures of it up in there. And even my fatherís mother and his stepfather had come up and visited. Pictures of them up there. And so, but, you know, never really talked about in the family. You know, what happened.
Doel:Itís not that untypical certainly for things that occurred in the Great Depression. You mentioned, during the time that he was in — your father was working for United Fruit, did you and your mother do any of the traveling that he did —
Doel:— outside of the country? Or that was —?
Aitken:No, they were not married at that time.
Doel:I see. That was prior, youíre right — you said that was prior to the time of their marriage. But then youíre — on those various positions that your father had — the whole family was with him during those times?
Aitken:No. He worked, well, first he was working on flood control in Punxsutawney and then went — a little company. Went with a — they were subcontracting, went to somebody, went up to the Franklin area of Pennsylvania. Then they were extending the Pennsylvania Turnpike and he went down, was working around the Harrisburg [Pa.] area. And then he worked on the New Jersey Turnpike with one of the companies, I remember the name, Parsons, Brickenhoff, Hall and McDonald. And from there, I remember when I graduated from high school and went to college, he flew back from Jacksonville, Florida. He was working down there. He had worked in and around Savannah, Georgia for a while. And then he was working on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
Aitken:And my mother went down and spent a summer with him, and he actually got sick. This was 1953 and he came home at the end of the summer to the hospital and died in December, 1953, when I was a sophomore in college.
Doel:You were at Dartmouth then? Right. Do you recall going out with your father on some of the jobs that he did? Did he explain to you the sorts of things —
Doel:— that he was working on?
Aitken:No, never. Never went out on any of them. Saw what when he was working in Punxy, I remember going looking at that. But, no, never, you know, never went to any of the jobs or anything. They werenít close by and I was a kid, so —
Doel:Right. When you were younger, were there books that you remember reading? Were there particular interests that you felt pretty strongly?
Aitken:I remember in junior high school I was very interested about the Roman Empire and the gladiators and everything. I remember I read a lot. I remember reading as a kid even younger than that. My father got the old Saturday Evening Post. I used to read all the stories in that. I remember reading that magazine. I read books, but nothing sticks out in my mind. I never read the classics. I always keep saying Iím going to go back and read the classics some day.
Doel:It sounds as if you were reading fairly broadly. You mention the gladiators and that part of history. Did you have an interest in science when you were growing up?
Aitken:Not really. No. I mean I grew up in an area where — I lived outside Clo, a small village outside of Punxsutawney, where almost everybodyís parents worked on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, including my grandfather who was a car man on the railroad. In the yards, the big yards between Buffalo and Pittsburgh. So everybody — the railroad was — and people didnít think about anything like that. And even in those days, in my high school class, only ten percent of the class probably went on to higher education of any sort. Which is not true even in that area now, a much higher percentage goes. Mostly went to — brighter ones went to Pennsylvania State University. Most of them went to — used to be — itís now Indiana, used to be Pennsylvania, used to be Indiana Normal School, where my mother went, and Indiana State Teachers College.
Doel:Indeed, out in the central portion of Pennsylvania. Iím curious when you mention your grandfather working on the railroad, did you take you out? Was that something that — did you see?
Aitken:No. We used to go down and do lots of crazy, illegal things on the railroad. We used to get on the railroad cars and climb all over the coal cars and everything and play in them — kids and everything. But everybodyís parents usually worked down there so you saw what they did. He [grandfather] had actually gone to the — worked for the railroad because heíd worked in the mines for a while and they were working under a local creek, a small river type body of water and decided that wasnít safe. So he left the mines to go work on the railroad.
Aitken:And my grandmother, his wife, had three brothers who retired miners, coal miners. I knew [inaudible] soft coal in that area. So, and kids, you know — there were two sports. There were baseball and football. No other sports existed. I didnít know soccer existed until I went to college.
Doel:Thatís perfectly, that was a very common experience for people, particularly in that age.
Aitken:And that area.
Doel:Were you playing both baseball and football?
Aitken:Oh everybody played them.
Doel:Yes. Were there any organized sports of that sort that as a youth you were involved in, or was it mostly sandlot?
Aitken:It was mostly sandlot. Actually I would just kind of — behind me, they had Little League, Punxsutawney won the state championship of Little League the first year they had it. But I was too old for that and then they moved up to Teener League and I was just past that. And then American Legion and theyíve continued since. There was adult leagues. I played in one adult league there. But there were like three different leagues. One was a very high powered one. The others were about the same, depending on what town played in which league. If you went sort of north or south from Punxy, Punxyís short for Punxsutawney.
Doel:Right. Iím curious too, were there teachers that, as you think back, were particularly memorable for you either in junior high school or high school or even elementary school for that matter?
Aitken:Funny story was when we lived in Buffalo, my mother was substituting for the teacher, and substituted in the school district we were in. Which we were in an auxiliary school which had been built out in this development which had been built during the war. But the second year I was there one of my friends that we were now in two different classes came to me and said he felt so sorry for me for having a mother like that. So I had to run home and tell my mother. And she said what happened. Sheíd come in to substitute in this class and some kid threw a piece of chalk at the board. She just turned around and sent him to the principal and discovered heíd been warned if he got sent to the principal once more he was going be expelled from school. So the first day there she got a kid expelled. So and I thought it was hilarious and she thought it was hilarious.
Doel:She got a very quick reputation.
Doel:Did your mother talk to you about teaching? Did you get a real feeling for how she was as a teacher?
Aitken:Yes I did. I mean shed gone to Indiana Normal School and everything. And her first teaching job was in Ferndago which doesnít exist anymore. It was a little mining town. And she said, you know, some of the — one through eighth grade, and some of the eighth graders were bigger than she was. And she kept a poker nearby if she needed to settle anything with them. But even in Clo, I went to a one-room school, first through — We were a big one-room school, we only had four grades in our two schools, one through four, and fifth through eighth. But then we were the first junior high people in the town, so by seventh and eighth grade I was, we were bused into Punxsutawney. We were the only non-Punxsutawney kids that were there so we didnít fight like weíd fought earlier among ourselves. In fact, one of my classmates was Delbert Dunmeyer whoís a self-made millionaire. Or he was. Maybe not now. He treated his high school class to an all-paid class reunion trip from Punxsutawney to Pittsburgh, flew them to Miami, three day cruise, the Bahamas and back, and flew them back to Pittsburgh and then bused back to the high school in Punxsutawney.
Doel:That must have been memorable.
Aitken:Yes. Cost him about four hundred, four hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Doel:Thatís really interesting! Do you stay in touch with others from your —
Doel:— over the years?
Aitken:Semi-touch. Every five years we have a class reunion. I didnít make my — first one was a ten. I didnít make that. I was in the middle of the Indian Ocean on the ship. The one five years ago I didnít make because I was on the ship down south off of Barbados. So — but Iíve made most of them. And a lot of people didnít leave so you see them when theyíre around town. When my mother lived, was alive, I used to go home fairly often there. And even in high school exam period, I used to ride my bike out to where she taught school and visit the first graders that she was teaching.
Doel:I meant to ask how — what sort of man was your father? Did he encourage the sort of interests that you had, that you were developing?
Aitken:Well, he wasnít around that much. He didnít.
Doel:Iím realizing from what youíre saying he was really away a lot of the time.
Aitken:You know, he didnít encourage, disencourage. He was a Dartmouth graduate. He was the one that sort of forced me to apply to Dartmouth. And I agreed if I got in, I would go. Otherwise, I would have gone to Washington [University] and Jefferson, the only two schools I applied to, which is in Washington, Pa., which Iíve never visited yet in my life.
Doel:How did you know of it when you were thinking of applying?
Aitken:At that time in 1952, I wanted to apply to an all-male school, small one, and it had not to be in the south because of segregation and things. So I did not want to go Washington and Jefferson which is, I mean Washington and Lee, which is one I would have considered.
Doel:Had it not been in the fifties with segregation and so forth.
Aitken:And, you know, I didnít — at that time kids didnít worry about getting into schools. I mean I didnít expect to get into Dartmouth, but I did. Probably being from an area where they never even got applications.
Doel:Iím curious by the time you got to high school, what sort of things, in general, were you interested in? You mentioned history-reading earlier. Were there other subjects that had come to really intrigue you in your high school years?
Aitken:No. I enjoyed most of them except English because Iím a terrible writer. For me to write is like getting blood out of a stone. But, no, I — and there wasnít pressure on the school. You didnít have to do homework and you didnít, especially if you were a bright kid. You could slip through and do your own thing. I played in the band. I didnít play football. I went out in junior high school. A hundred and thirty-two kids went out and they kept twenty-seven, got cut, the last cut for weight. I was, you know, a hundred pounds. Football was king in that area, even then, especially then.
Doel:You came very close then to being on the team.
Aitken:Came very close. Even those twenty-seven players, only fifteen played in junior high. But all the people on that team went on and played varsity high school. Most of them didnít go to college. Only a couple of them.
Doel:Were you doing much — how was the training that was offered in the sciences as you recall from high school? Was there —?
Aitken:Well, we took — best course had general science in freshman year, sophomore year had biology which was really a very good course. Junior year, physics and senior year, chemistry. And they were just sort of okay. The math was terrible. And I — that hurt me when I got into college. I discovered I had to — I was studying a lot of math on my own, just solid geometry just to do my calculus. I had taken all the math. I really loved math. That was a subject, but the gap between the highest taught in my high school and the lowest taught at Dartmouth was a broad one.
Doel:Iím sure. Iím sure. Math came pretty easily to you.
Aitken:Yes. That was the best. And I knew when I went to college, I would major in a science or math. I started off as a chemistry major.
Doel:Iím curious too were there any — was there anyone who became a kind of mentor in terms of talking to you about college career and what?
Doel:There really wasnít.
Aitken:Never talked to anybody.
Doel:What did your father tell you about Dartmouth? What did you know even before you began there?
Aitken:I really donít know. You know, some things — when my grandfather died when I was fourteen, in Ď48, his parents were buried in Woodstock, Vermont so we went up there. And then we went over to the — so Iíd visited the college when I was fourteen, gone around. So Iíd seen the campus that time.
Doel:How did that settle in your mind? Were there particular memories from seeing that campus?
Aitken:No. I mean, the only other campus I really remember seeing was Indiana University because when my father was actually in Brazil was during the summer, my mother went to summer school there and we lived with friends over in Indiana. So I actually went to a summer school program that they had there.
Doel:Thatís interesting. What was the summer school?
Aitken:I donít — just a summer —
Doel:Just a kind of summer program.
Aitken:—program at Indiana University.
Doel:Was religion important to your parents or to you?
Aitken:It wasnít to my father. It was more to my mother. We belonged to a small Presbyterian church in Clo which actually I went back when it was closed last year. My father was not religious. His mother was a French Canadian and as — he was probably raised as a Catholic instead of a Congregationalist. And when he was home, heíd go to church with us sometimes. Not normally. When he was dying, he actually joined the Episcopal Church in Punxsutawney. But he was not a religious man. My mother was. But her parents were Baptist.
Aitken:Not the southern Baptist, hut the — thereís a southern Baptist church in town too. That was at the time when they came up here, Jimmy [President James] Carter at the time was up in Loch Haven, and there were other people in Punxsutawney.
Doel:You said something quite interesting earlier that you didnít want to go to the south because of what you perceived about the racial prejudice. How did you come to understand the issues —
Aitken:I donít really know.
Doel:— because that wasnít necessarily —
Aitken:I donít really know because Punxsutawney, actually the whole county was all Caucasian.
Doel:Thatís what I was thinking about.
Aitken:Now there were blacks in Indiana and also over in Clearfield and I guess maybe some in DuBois which were [baseball] teams we played [against]. And actually Indiana was our section, but we used to play at Clearfield. And I ran track in high school, junior and senior years. And actually one of the — used to high jump, so you spend a lot of time talking to people. And one of the fellows there, a black fellow, went to Franklin and Marshall, and I just a few years ago discovered heís a doctor and professor at Howard University.
Aitken:Wiggins is his last name. I donít remember his first name. But I — probably just reading or feelings, religion. I donít know why.
Doel:Clearly, though, it made a strong impression on you.
Aitken:An impression. I really didnít want to go south to school.
Doel:Do you remember reading about public affairs and issues of the day? You mentioned the Saturday Evening Post that you were reading.
Aitken:I — you know, I donít really remember. I mean —
Doel:The McCarthy era was really peaking also at the time that you graduated.
Aitken:Well, yes. We didnít have — we didnít get a television set until after I went away to college. So I didnít watch television. I remember listening — especially when I was kid — listening to all the fifteen minute serials programs, like Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger and all those from four to five oíclock in the afternoon. Mutual Network and whatever the other networks were.
Doel:Did other friends at the time have TV sets in their homes?
Aitken:Not that I know of. I mean, actually I can remember when we got indoor plumbing in our house. We were the first in the neighborhood. 1940.
Aitken:Six years old. And even the outhouse still stands. We sold the property years ago and its still on the property there.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Thatís interesting. Were there any friends that you were particularly close to who shared your interests as you were growing up?
Aitken:No. Well, my best friend lived next door whose father worked on the railroad. He — when he graduated from high school, joined the Navy and actually got a discharge, just when the Korean War broke out because when he was a youngster he had both hips replaced, had some bone disease, and they didnít keep him. And he went — became apprenticed and he went to work for — up to Rochester where a lot of people from Punxsutawney went to work for a small company, and I think itís Halogen something. But then they changed their name while he worked there to Xerox, and he was — I never kept in touch with him after that, but I knew last time we were both home at the same time, twenty years ago or something, he was like the senior machinist for them.
Aitken:But he was three grades ahead of me, but two years older than I was. And then after, later on I became friends with kids a little bit younger than me that were around. Because there wasnít very many in my age group outside of Punxsutawney in the area I grew up.
Doel:You mentioned at the time, that maybe only ten percent of the class went on to college.
Aitken:Yes, or nursing school or technical school.
Doel:Anything of that sort. Iím wondering as you think back, what was it that left you with the feeling that the sciences were the direction that you wanted to go in?
Aitken:Oh well, because thatís what I was good at. There wasnít anything that required writing, you didnít — if I could write, I would have. History, I always enjoyed history. I always liked history. American history particularly.
Doel:Sounds like you were doing a lot of reading in that when you were growing up too.
Aitken:And also my grandmother lived in Massachusetts so we would go up to Groton, Massachusetts and go into Boston and around that. So I was really — liked reading and studying about the Revolutionary War. Not so much of the Revolutionary War as at Gettysburg. I mean the Civil War, Iím sorry.
Doel:Right. Of course, you had — in the Civil War you had some relatively local scenes.
Aitken:Yes. Had relatives that had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. My, these two of my grandmotherís uncles. We used to have a picture of them in their Union uniforms as privates.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Did you get to do much traveling when you were growing up besides the trips with the family to various relatives?
Aitken:No, not only to relatives. But where — got up to New England, drove up and back. And, yes, well, much more so than anybody I knew in Punxsutawney did. But not by way people travel now.
Doel:Certainly not, but thatís important for that time that you saw more than, say, most of the others.
Aitken:And my father had, you know, worked overseas on several different occasions and traveled much more. And was not a local. I mean growing up the whole time the only interesting thing, nobody could ever spell my name.
Doel:Is that right?
Aitken:Thatís right because itís not a local name.
Doel:What was it like for you when you arrived at Dartmouth?
Aitken:Well, it was overwhelming. I wasnít — academically was not prepared. I had shortcomings in sort of all the subjects. Iíd never even heard of calculus till I was taking it as a freshman year as the lowest math taught.
Doel:Is that right? That was the lowest math that was offered?
Aitken:And people had had it in high school. You know, some good high school in Denver or in Cincinnati, or the Bronx School of Science-type high schools. And, you know, made another mistake. I started German. Had to take a foreign language. Iíd taken two years of Latin in high school, required. Required foreign language. Well science, what do you take, you take German. I learned a lot of English, English grammar studying German grammar.
Doel:The German grammar being so different from English grammar too, and one really sees the contrasts. The language structures.
Aitken:I used to deal with my favorite — the plus-perfect tense is my favorite tense. It will have had been done.
Doel:Prepositions are always, always fun. Did you actually get to use German? Did you get to travel to Europe? At any point?
Aitken:No. And actually, the teacher I had did not teach spoken.
Doel:This was written?
Aitken:Comprehension. Written and had to learn the old script.
Aitken:Yes. Whatever itís called. I remember, because the first day we got a little bit called Parsifal and I couldnít tell the difference between the Sís and Fís.
Aitken:The Sís and things, but that was sort of — And again, there were kids in the class whoíd had German in high school.
Doel:Yes. That must have been difficult for you realizing that others had had much more exposure to preparation.
Doel:What did you find the most interesting for students to do or take at Dartmouth?
Aitken:I enjoyed the chemistry lab. I was very good in the lab. I used to get the highest grades in the labs which used to help me because the tests and things would pull it down. Especially when not all the — everyone wanted to be doctors, so all the pre-meds in the curve-end stood out, and you got down and there were only ten juniors majoring in chemistry. You were in trouble.
Doel:You found it particularly easy to handle the tactile things, the kind of experiments that were called on?
Aitken:Well, yes. It was just being careful, measuring, making accurate — look at the color, do the density, anything like that, heat and weigh something, and then weight your sample very carefully — precision. In fact, especially after everything else, that was a sort of pleasure from having to write papers.
Doel:Was the curriculum fairly set in the first few years, or did you have a lot of electives?
Aitken:Well, you had to take certain courses, but had electives. Like, again, first semester I made a mistake. I took economics the first semester which I got a D in, which was a pure gift. I mean, he could have given me a Z minus as the accurate grade for what I knew in that course. Iíve never had any more of a gift in any course.
Doel:Was there an advisor who you found particularly helpful in those early years —
Aitken:Well, there was an advisor, but I never —
Doel:— or did you pretty much make your own?
Aitken:I spoke to him once. It was — he was no one that reached out, so —
Doel:Yes. Pretty much you were on your own —
Aitken:Pretty much on my own.
Doel:— in making those choices.
Aitken:And having trouble in school. I remember they had a whole group of us in to test, you know, if we were having trouble in school and test us on reading and what you could — how fast you could read and answer the questions and everything. That was great. I could read, I could read at fourteen hundred words a minute and answer the questions. That was not my problem. It was that I was just answering things set down and write and spell. Still cannot spell. Spell better now than then. But scribbled so I didnít have to — nobody can tell whether itís spelled right or not, including myself.
Doel:Did you take courses in geology when you were at Dartmouth?
Aitken:No. I actually — my father died in my sophomore year. I didnít want to go back for my junior year. My mother talked me into it, but it was really a mistake, and I didnít care that much. And then the second semester I got injured playing intramural basketball, was in the infirmary for a week. And thatís when I said the heck with it. So I flunked out.
Doel:Of that year.
Aitken:At the end of my junior year.
Doel:Iím sure that was a difficult period for you.
Aitken:Yes. Look back, and Iíd say, yes, there are things you should do, but youíre twenty-one years old, you donít think about that. So I went back home and got drafted into the Army.
Doel:Yes. What was the Army experience that you had? Thatís when you were —
Aitken:Well, drafted 1955, which was post-Korean War, long before the Vietnam war.
Doel:And I should say you were in the Signal Corps.
Aitken:I was in the Signal Corps. But, you know, from Pennsylvania we did our basic in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And took basic training there on Tank Hill as it was called. And from there — had friends who had been drafted up before, and the company they were basic training in, everybody went to infantry. In my company, four people went to infantry. There was a big group of us who went to the Signal Corps. These were draftees. And I actually was supposed to be in cryptology, but in filling out forms for security clearance, I obviously screwed up some place, exhausted, so they wouldnít give me a quick clearance so I ended up in some teletype school for the Army. The Army learned me to type. The Army does not teach you, they learn you. You sit down and practice typing, and if you donít type fast enough, you went back to school in evening and typed some more. So, one thing I got out of it, I learned how to type. And then, after that, I went over by ship in the middle of February to Bremerhaven, Germany. Got on a train to Paris, France, to my station in Chinon, France, outside of Tours.
Doel:When you look back on it, do you have an idea of why you didnít get — pardon me — the security clearance, that —
Aitken:Yes. Because I got a clearance when I was overseas, filled it out again. I realized that I just was tired and was writing. I think I wrote things in the wrong column. Because they had so many — that if you had any relatives who were born overseas or anything like that, they just looked at it and theyíre getting a hundred thousand and they only need ten thousand. And you can get rid of —
Doel:It was very easy to use something like that to weed people out. What was that experience like for you in —?
Aitken:I was in Paris, in Chinon.
Doel:In Chinon, rather, you went through —
Aitken:Tours. Halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, you know, the wine country, the Loire valley. It was, probably, it was in the post signal, and we had our own little barracks, our own work space. So we were — it was in a company which was made up of all the funny people on the base. The people who ran the officers club and the sergeants club and the enlisted club and the PX, and the movies and maintained generators. So it was a strange little organization. And we were a group of eighteen people, with one sergeant, one lieutenant, everybody else privates or privates first class. We lived together in a barracks and we worked in the same building. Had the same office. People did the line work and the switchboard, with French operators, but with the switching mechanism, the radio operators, the teletype crypto operators.
Doel:When you think back on it, did you learn skills then that you found relevant even later in the scientific community?
Doel:The typing you mentioned.
Aitken:Typing. Also, maybe youíd hurry back to college after dealing with sergeants who didnít know how to march. Left over from the World War II or the Korean War. A lot of dumb sergeants.
Doel:A lot of just practical, human experience.
Aitken:Also, fifty percent of the sergeants were either from Pennsylvania, North Carolina or Texas.
Doel:So some of them were certainly quite familiar [inaudible]. And it was 1957 that you were mustered out?
Doel:Was that before or after the launch of Sputnik [Russian space mission]?
Aitken:That was before. It was in August I got out, July I quit working and took a while to get back, until the second of August. But I was caught under the new law that I had to do a total of six years, of which four years had to be between active duty and active reserves. So I joined the local artillery reserve unit, had friends in it and everything. And then I finally applied — got into Columbia [University] School of General Studies, we used to call it the school of goof-offs. All — everybody — all the people that flunked out of various schools: MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Yale [University], and friends like those. And one of the smart things I did was I got myself taken into the inactive reserves because during the Berlin crisis, my reserve unit was called up, and they sat for a year down in Virginia, an artillery unit doing nothing, but —
Aitken:And I, I knew somebody here at Lamont[-Doherty Earth Observatory] that was caught the same way. And he could have been working a job, that if heíd never been drafted, he could have stayed out the Army because he was in reserves, his unit was called up, had to go.
Doel:That was wise on your part to have gotten that status.
Aitken:Well, one of the reasons I had done that, when I was in high school in 1950 during the Korean War, they activated the Pennsylvania National Guard. And the kids that were in high school who had joined, pulled right out of high school. They — no deferment, couldnít say yes, youíd go to active duty soon as you graduated high school. They pulled them out.
Doel:And they were just two years ahead of you, that you were seeing this.
Aitken:Yes. One year sometimes. One, one or two years. And it was the thing you did. Everybody joined the National Guard or the Army Reserve when they turned seventeen. Well, I sure didnít when I turned seventeen. The Korean War was still going on at the time.
Doel:What Iím curious about is how you came to know about the Columbia School in the first place? I gather you didnít find a way of getting back to Dartmouth?
Aitken:No. No and I applied to a couple of schools that I always thought I should have letters that should say this, yes, go back to Dartmouth and then try transferring here. And my thought was if I could get back to Dartmouth, I wouldnít even consider your school.
Doel:You wouldnít transfer.
Aitken:I wouldnít consider your school. My mother — I think there was an article in Time Magazine about the School of General Studies, in some magazine I came across that. And so I applied there, and I also got into Youngstown University, now itís Youngstown State University. So, those were my two acceptances. University of Maryland didnít take me. Couple small schools in west Pennsylvania — Waynesburg College where Mark [Marcus] Langseth graduated from. A lot of friends had gone there. Geneva College was another one. Those are the only ones I remember applying to actually and getting turned down. But Youngstown took me and Columbia took me on probation. So have your choice between the two. Which one do you take?
Doel:Thatís a fairly clear choice. I meant to ask you before, what were you doing during the summers during the years when you were back at Dartmouth?
Doel:Baseball? Did you stay in Vermont or were you back?
Aitken:No, we were in Punxsutawney.
Doel:Or in New Hampshire.
Aitken:In Punxsutawney. In Punxsutawney.
Doel:Did you have a fellowship, was there a fellowship that Dartmouth was offering? I was just curious how your family were able to afford to put you through both — initially Dartmouth, and then at Columbia.
Aitken:Well, remember tuition was not that high compared to salaries at the time.
Aitken:My family paid full fare there. When I went to Columbia, paid it by the — my fathers insurance money paid my tuition at Columbia.
Doel:You were there from — that was Ď57 through —
Aitken:No, I didnít go — it was Ď59.
Doel:— Ď59 rather. There were a few years then after to put together.
Aitken:Yes. I goofed around and I worked in — I was in the Army Reserves and worked in a Ford garage. Big Army sergeant in the Army Reserves screamed at me for wasting myself washing cars in a garage. But it was sort of getting used to — deciding what you want to do, and then I went. And then when I was at Columbia, I also took courses in the summer.
Doel:What kind of courses were you taking in the summers?
Aitken:Well, I made the mistake — Columbia required three years of language, and I started off in German and discovered I didnít know enough. So I started at the beginning, so I made up some of the during the summer, winter. I started in the spring semester. And so I didnít — I knew better than to take a language course then. So I think I started — I didnít start my course until the next fall. And so to get it in, I then went through the next summer too.
Doel:The fall, and the spring and the —
Doel:— the summer. That makes sense. Let me just — Resuming after just a little trouble with the recorder. What were your impressions of Columbia? How did it compare to the —
Doel:Go ahead, please.
Aitken:Columbia, when I was in the Army — one of the people wasnít in the Signal Corps, but I met there a graduate of Western Reserves, now Case Western —
Aitken:— was a geology major and taut, you know, but decided. That used the part of chemistry I liked, working outdoors. I knew I didnít want to work in an office, and so I decided, well, geology was what I wanted to really look into. I went back to school. At any rate, Columbia had geology, Youngstown did not have geology. Was another factor in that. So I came here planning to major — in Columbia, majoring in geology.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. That really was the first time you began thinking about geology as a subject.
Aitken:Yes. As versus chemistry.
Doel:Yes. What was this friend telling you, the person? What sort of things did he share with you?
Aitken:Well, just about being in the field and things. And he was just a college graduate too. I mean, he hadnít worked as a geologist. So it just sounded like — it used the part of science that I liked. And you werenít in an office, and you were out in the field.
Doel:So when you came to Columbia, that was the springtime of 1959, did you start taking geology classes then?
Aitken:No, actually I didnít. I took a geology — it was a geography, geology course. It was taught by Warren Yasso who was teaching, maybe heís just retired from teaching at Teachers College now. And then Nicholas Timinoff was an assistant who was up at Binghamton, I saw. But that was the only one I could take. So that first summer I took, thatís it, in that first summer I took Geology I and II during the summer so I could take the next courses in the fall.
Doel:Who had taught those classes in the summer? Do you remember?
Aitken:I donít remember. He was a visiting professor from California, and I have no idea what his name was.
Doel:What were your impressions of — what do you recall at least from those courses? Was it what you expected in terms of the subject?
Aitken:Well, I donít know what I ever expected. I found them very enjoyable. I really liked them. I mean, I did well in them. Because I was taking I and II together, there was another fellow, and I blanked out his name — grew up in Nyack and was actually — his brother-in-law works here. Got his Ph.D. at Penn State [Pennsylvania State University]. Iíll think of his name later.
Doel:Itís okay. We can always add that to the transcript.
Aitken:Later on, we were in the second course together and everything, and afterwards we found out we both got Bs. We both thought the other person got an A, and so the guy obviously didnít give any Bs, and Iím sure it was because we were taking them together. We, you know, we were much better than the other students in that class.
Doel:It was demanding.
Aitken:It wasnít demanding, but you just had to read and understand and enjoy. I mean, most people were taking it to make up a science course with a liberal arts background. We were taking it because this was what we were interested in. Which makes a big difference.
Doel:Indeed. Indeed. And then the following semester and then you had more expert —
Aitken:Yes. Took geology. And I donít remember. I looked at my transcript sometimes and I donít remember taking structural [geology] from Fred Donath. But at that time, the Lamont people only taught graduate school and the geology, geophysics people and the downtown were two separate universities. They had no real contact with one another.
Doel:Thatís entirely right. I was wondering when —
Aitken:I had [Ralph] Holmes for four courses. I took Ralph Holmes. He was a gemologist for Tiffany [Tiffany and Company, jeweler] as a side line. And for mineralogy, petrology, they were the key courses. And then I took a course which was sort of a gut course — took an interest in gemology, which was really interesting.
Doel:Were there any that were particularly memorable for you when you look back?
Aitken:Holmes was, I thought, was a good teacher. Learned a lot from him. Demanding, more demanding that I was willing to put out, but that was not him, that was me. I always thought Donath — we graduate students and the undergraduates took the same course and I always thought he graded the undergraduates much harder than he did the graduates. Because anything below a B for a graduate student is a failing grade, effectively. The undergraduates — he gave us like a C, and for graduate students same way might get a B.
Doel:Interesting. It sounds like you got to know some of the other people in class pretty well.
Aitken:Yes. Because it was — again, they were small classes. And geology majors, there werenít very many. And once you got after the elementary course, it was all General Studies, the College, and Barnard students all had this — were all in the same classes. So you knew all the majors in all of them. In total only about thirty, and that would be spread over a couple years. And some would drop out because there were no jobs in geology at that time, again. And I was determined that was what I was going major in. And went looking for a job. The year before, I remember one of the fellows sent out over a hundred resumes, only got replies back from about half of them, thanking him and none of them offered him a job. I remember wondering what happened to him, but —
Doel:Itís the very early 1960s where the market, of course — certain larger entities like the [United States] Geological Survey [USGS] had suffered because the Atomic Energy Commission had cut back on its major contracts. So generally you were finding that it was a very difficult climate.
Aitken:Yes. They all say, you know — you go to these things, ďWhereíd you get your Ph.D.?Ē ďWell, I donít have a Ph.D.Ē ďWhereíd you get your masterís?Ē ďWell, I donít have a masterís.Ē ďWell come back and talk to us when you do.Ē
Doel:So they really wanted people with much higher levels — They werenít interested in the entry-level geologists.
Aitken:Werenít interested in entry ones.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Did any of those —? Please, go ahead.
Aitken:And also, ďWhat experience do you have?Ē Of course, that happened to the other fellow, saying if I had any experience then I would be all right. But how do you get the first job to get the experience?
Doel:Yes. Did you have —? What were the jobs that you had during —? You had the summer of 59 and 60 then.
Aitken:Well, I went to summer school.
Doel:Thatís right. You were in summer school.
Aitken:I went to summer school. And the next summer I went the main six weeks. The next summer I remember I took a three-week German class, and then I took, I think, German in the six weeks, along with an anthropology course, and German again the next class. So I went to really the next summer. So I lost a credit, but I didnít have it. I actually ended up getting my degree. I was really interested in the economic part of it. And the economic geology course I found very interesting, and I canít remember the professorís name. But — and so I was taking all the geography courses too. And actually I took a — I guess in the spring of Ď61, I took a graduate course in economic geography of Russia where I was the only undergraduate in the course. And half the class were from the Russian Institute. And I found that a very interesting course.
Doel:What was that inclined you towards economic geology?
Aitken:I have no idea. But thatís just what I found interesting.
Doel:Did you have field geology? Did you actually take a —
Aitken:Yes. One summer, I took a Columbia — well, yes, there was a summer course which was seven or eight of us there, which two of which were graduate students from geochemistry. And the professor, and his assistant was Andy [Andrew] McIntyre, whoís here at Lamont.
Doel:Who was the professor?
Aitken:I donít remember who he was. He just was here for a couple of years, a lecturer, he was — From the University of Delaware to here. McIntyre might remember.
Doel:Where did you go on that field trip? What sort of issues —
Aitken:We went to Delaware Water Gap. And that — Interstate 80 was just a cut, road cut. Have you ever been on Interstate 80?
Doel:I sure have.
Aitken:Okay. That was a fresh road cut at the time, and on 80 was a lot of traffic. We mapped that syncline in the whole area around there. And we stayed in a cabin group which is long gone. Thatís now the National Park — it was included our room and breakfast and supper. And we ate as a family group at the two meals.
Doel:How much instruction did you have in terms of what to look for and how to do the mapping? Were you on your own or was it much more structured?
Aitken:Well, no, pretty much on our own. And weíd talk about in the — when we came back in the evening, talked and went over everything. And we talked, talk to myself, talk to them. And you didnít go partying or anything, just stayed around there and talked and went over everything for the day, what to look for. And we were taken to the various places to point out and look — letís say this is this, but look at this road cut, look at this area, study this. You know, looking at the different rocks.
Doel:When you look back generally over the training that you were getting from Columbia, did you feel that you were getting exposed to the most up-to-date ideas and developments or did you feel that there were things lacking?
Aitken:Well, I had no idea one way or the other. And I mean I still, even looking back, have no idea. I mean it was just basic geology which hasnít changed. A rock is rock. You know, what type it is, the way you test them and everything. So it was just the basic geology courses that I had. Oh, the structural course actually was a very good course.
Doel:I was curious which ones as you look back you found to be particularly helpful in your later career?
Aitken:Well, really none of them, say none of them were related to what I did at Lamont, but it was just the geology and understanding part of, you know, part of minerals and everything. The worse course — [John] Imbrie, which Imbrie taught, for me, I didnít like paleontology, and thatís what made me end up getting my degree in geography and not geology. And I was the only one because the comprehensive — at the time, the geology was written and geography one was oral because I was the only major. One-on-one with the professor. [Laughter]
Aitken:And oral exams I found much better than written exams.
Doel:Did you actually take the course with Imbrie or —
Aitken:Yes, I took the course. Which also had graduate students in it. It was a pretty good size course, maybe forty people or something like that.
Doel:Sounds unusually large from experience that youíve had here. I was curious about — did you know what Lamont was during the time that you were going through —?
Aitken:Never heard of it. Never heard of Lamont!
Doel:I was curious if youíd even heard —
Aitken:Never heard of Lamont! Was never mentioned in any geology course that I had.
Doel:Did any of the professors talk about geophysical ideas —
Doel:— that there were other —?
Doel:Thatís very interesting. When did you first come to hear about Lamont?
Aitken:Well, Charlie [Charles] Windisch, whoís now at the University of Texas, was here. He was — heíd gotten the job the year before going on the Vema, Vema 17. I knew him from the class and his girlfriend, who is now his wife, Louise Windisch. Louise Winslow Windisch. And so, called him up and then heard — and then I went to see Dr. Jack [John E.] Nafe, who said, no, he wasnít hiring anybody, but he would get me an application. Come on Sunday. And he got me one, I filled it out, sent it to John Ewing. And in a typical Lamont — never heard anything, called them up, and called them up. And borrowed somebodyís car and came up here one day and things —
Doel:So you met Jack Nafe on the campus?
Aitken:I looked him up. Yes. And I made a point of going, and waiting for after class to talk to him. It was a very interesting conversation with him. He asked, you know, about my experience and background, and the thing he stressed: did I have any medical training and everything which —? This was the year — just after the year of Vema 17 they had the accident where the chief scientist was blown up and —
Doel:Jack [John] Hennion. Aitken — and was killed and things. Yes. So you have a choice between two technicians, and oneís got medical experience. Youíll take him first.
Doel:Sure. Did you have any medical —?
Aitken:Knowledge? No, no medical experience. But then finally I heard from John Ewing who offered me a position. So I was hired on the twentieth of November, 1961. I remember the date very carefully. Came up here, filled out — Well I first walked in, you know.
Doel:Thatís when you borrowed the car?
Aitken:No, no, Iíd come up earlier.
Doel:You had already come up earlier.
Aitken:Came up probably on the bus, the Red and Tan bus, it ran then. Came up here to see him, then you walk in, and people were dressed like you and I. Whoís who.
Doel:Which is to say more casually than one would do at Columbia?
Aitken:Yes, very much more. And is he a doctor, what? Anyway, I talked to him. Went down to personnel which was up here on the second floor.
Doel:In the Butler Building?
Aitken:No, no, no, it wasnít. Iím sorry. He was on the second floor. It was over in part of the library, and —
Doel:Still back at Lamont Hall?
Aitken:Lamont Hall. And filled out all these forms and everything, and then the next day Clyde Buchanan took me, we went down to the ship. The Verna — worked with the group, people and work on the ship in Staten Island. And he [Buchanan] started to question me, do I have a passport? No, nobody told me to get a passport. So I came and got the form needed for the thing. So I called my mother at home to get my birth certificate out. And got it sent quickly. Because at that time the ship was supposed to sail at the twenty-seventh of November.
Doel:So you had just a week once you heard that.
Aitken:And it was over Thanksgiving too.
Aitken:So I got the stuff, I got a quick passport and everything. And I gave away most of my possessions and I gave all my geology books to a girl I was dating at the time who was a geology major from Barnard. And gave things — [inaudible] ship, put a few things here, loaned — left my toaster I remember with Clyde Buchanan, who was going on the ship, but he was coming back. So Iíd get it back sooner or later. And went to sail. We sailed the first of December out of Piermont.
Doel:Very interesting. Yes, this — alas, since we need to break soon this might be a good time to break, and weíll resume with that first voyage. But Iím glad we got you at least up to this phase. So let me thank you very much on tape for the first interview. You will be getting the transcript that we spoke about so far.
Session I | Session II