E.J.D. M.D. P.h.D.

“Thoughts Are Rainbow Fish:

They Leap From Unthought Depths

To Prism the Summer Sun.”  EJD

Ernest J. DuPraw almost went to the moon. At least, he came much closer than most people. He was a zoologist out of UC Davis, a gymnast in fantastic shape, and overall an incredibly intelligent scientific mind. As he tells it, during the process of astronaut selection, he was asked what he expected to find when they landed on the moon. He answered with a joke - “I bet we’ll be knee-deep in grasshoppers.” He figures that didn’t land so well with the brass. They didn’t expect to find much life up there, so why bring a zoologist? He made it to the semifinals in NASA group 4 selection, but was eventually dropped from the program. 

Once, when I was 16 or 17, as my mother and I were leaving his house after a visit, he grabbed me very tightly by the wrist and pulled me aside. “I need to tell you something, give you some advice. Listen to me.” He spoke with alarming gruffness and didn’t let go of my wrist. “Women want to have babies. It’s their nature. They may say otherwise but it’s in their nature, they can’t help it. Watch out for them and be careful.” 

From the time I was 12 through my college years, and even after I graduated I would occasionally find a white 9”x12” USPS Priority Mail envelope sticking out of the mailbox. Inside would be issues of National Geographic, or photocopied articles from Nature, or books about space or biblical history. He would also include 3-5 photos that he had taken on his shitty little Canon Powershot camera. Everytime the pictures were almost identical: A close-up of a sunset colored rose that grew on the bush in his front yard. Sometimes his hand would be in the foreground, or gently cupping the rose. In a box somewhere I have dozens of these photos. About the photos he would say, “God made the rose, and God made this hand, but I made this photo.”

Ernie had his driver’s license revoked in his 70s after a police officer found him asleep behind the wheel in the parking lot of a liquor store. He was never one for beer or spirits. He made it through his youth without falling for either variety of alcohol, but in his middle age the wine got him good. I don’t know for sure if there’s a connection to his devout Christianity, but I’ve always sensed one. After his second wife left him, he lost his faith. I’m sure there was much wine after that. But somehow, he was exposed to the teachings of Sufism, that mystic brand of Islam whose celebrity is the poet Rumi. Through the poems and parables of that faith, he found his way back to Jesus - though not to the Catholic Church in which he was raised, but to the Greek Orthodox Church. I never quite understood that path, but he sent me three books of Sufi parables and I read each one of them devoutly.

For my 23rd birthday my grandfather sent me a card in which he expressed that he felt as if his whole family - all 6 of his children, both of his ex-wives, and presumably all of his grandchildren other than myself - had died in a car crash. They were dead to him. I don’t think he even wrote happy birthday.

Once on a long car ride, just the two of us headed to Sequoia National Park, he told me that he wasn’t even sure that my other mom was real. He had no recollection of her, despite the fact that he had stayed with us when I was a toddler, despite that she had once helped him pack and move out of a house on short notice, despite the fact that she had raised me, that there were pictures of her, and that she had been his daughter’s partner for over 20 years.

During a period of somewhat improved family relations, when I was maybe 7 or 8, all of my uncles and aunts, my mom, and Grandpa Ernie went camping in some state park in California. I had a cousin named Taliesin, who was the same age as me and we were always hanging out together. Grandpa Ernie presented us each with a gift; for me a pocket knife, the metal hilt pocked to resemble a gun barrel. For Taliesin a plain black casio watch. It was clear who was the favorite.

In the ‘60s at UC Davis Dr. DuPraw performed some of the world’s first research with the electron microscope. He then went on to Stanford University, where he published several textbooks on DNA and chromosomes, featuring some of the first images ever taken with the electron microscope. The books were translated into multiple languages and read and taught around the world. I think these books are what he was most proud of. In the days leading up to his death, my mother asked him what was bringing him happiness these days. He said, “The knowledge that my words changed the way the world thinks.” He told my mom that he wanted to dictate a letter for her to send to Stanford to be included with his texts. 

Dr. DuPraw would eventually get his MD from Standford (and PhD from Columbia), and practiced as a psychiatrist for the military. He once showed me a KA-BAR knife that he had received as a gift from a patient of his - a marine who had fought in Vietnam. On one side of the knife’s leather-wrapped handle were notches marking the number of Viet Cong the man had killed, on the other side were notches marking North Vietnamese who had met the same end. There were over 30 notches in total. After working with my grandfather, that marine was able to let go of that knife, and perhaps the ghosts it represented.

This morning at 10am, Dr. Ernest J. DuPraw died in the back of an ambulance in Bakersfield, California. I had not spoken to him in at least four years. But I did send him a letter a few months ago telling him that I loved him.

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