Wednesday, March 09, 2016

My father and Alan Turing

The U.S.S. Abnaki, towing the captured U505, June 1944

This is a first draft of a poem I was moved to write after finally seeing "The Imitation Game" last night.  My father played a small part in the work that Turing and his team did. As a sonar operator on an ocean-going tug in the US Navy, my father was part of the salvage team that secretly towed the U505 after it had been successfully captured, intact, along with its enigma code books and machine. I grew up hearing about the sub and my father's time on it and was able to get aboard in 1989 when we lived in Chicago, where it is a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

I can't really describe what it felt like to be stepping aboard a submarine where my father had been so many decades before. I know that I felt the weight of history on my shoulders.

I look at the photo above and know that my father was somewhere in the frame. And I am comforted by his presence.

My Father and Alan Turing

There was almost nothing you shared. Alan,
the polymath prodigy, born eleven years earlier,
eldest son of gentry from two different lands. You,
stuck in the middle of six. Brooklyn boy. Smart enough

to trail your big brothers to the vacant lot where they played
stickball. Smart enough to know why your mother
crossed the street to save a penny on potatoes. Smart
enough to save every penny you earned. Alan was smart, too.
School smart. The kind of smart teachers secretly fear

and desire. He understood those well; kept secrets better:
his own and a war's worth. The two of you did share a piece
of that war, even if neither of you realized. The year you enlisted
at eighteen, he was thirty and already fighting, Bletchley Park

his battlefield. They gave you a test and sent you to Scotland—New
York kid away from home for the first time. Your clever brain
and agile hands were worth more to the world on a sonar array
than a tank or a gun. For years, you kept secrets, too, familiar
lies in letters home. Always in harm's way, you swept the world's

oceans with sound while Alan listened for the click of a wheel,
the scrape of pencil across paper. The mission you helped hide
provided clues to a crossword he struggled to solve. He never knew
your name. The world knows his, now, and his story. I know yours.
                                                                          —LJ Cohen, March 2016


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