The Night Buckminster Fuller Came to Dinner

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(I posted this for the first time last year on Dec. 23rd. There’s a lot of truth in it. Whatever else, it is a memory of my childhood: Christmas, my father, the Ford Rotunda and things that mattered and still do. I wish you a most wonderful holiday, filled with the magic and mystery of childhood. I wish for us all the quality of life that Buckminster Fuller envisioned.)

R. Buckminster Fuller was friends with Boston artist Pietro Pezzati, singer John Denver and also, my father. Even though my father was but half his age.
Bucky came into my life at Christmas time, in 1953. I was three years and three months old. Do I remember him? Yes, I do.

Although we lived in a Pete Seeger ticky-tacky post war house and not a Dymaxion House, he came to dinner one night in early December. And he pet our giant gray and white cat, Ike. As in, “I Like Ike.”

It was a Friday night and that was fortunate because on all the other nights of the week we ate tuna noodle casserole, spam with brown sugar and New England boiled dinner. On Fridays we dined on fish and chips from Suzie Q’s, located at the corner of Woodward and 8 Mile Rd. It came in yellow cardboard pie-plates stapled together to form a dome of sorts, although not geodesic. The fish was sole and there were crinkle cut french fries and a giant blueberry muffin. Food fit for a king and also Bucky.

My father and Buckminster had been working together on a project for Ford Motor Company for over a year and they were nearing the end of their joint effort, the Ford Rotunda. An architectural wonder originally built for the Century of Progress Exposition (aka, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair), the building was moved to Dearborn, Michigan in 1936 and closed to the public during WWII. Described as “ultra-modern”, the Rotunda reopened as part of Ford’s 50th anniversary celebration on June 16, 1953. A radioactive wand (the tip contained a small amount of radium), said to be symbolic of the arrival of industry at the threshold of the atomic age, turned on golden floodlights and lighted 50 huge birthday candles around the rim of the Rotunda. The wand bombarded a Geiger tube with 44,890,832 gamma ray impulses in 15 seconds. The final impulse (the number signified the number of vehicles produced by Ford since 1903) was said to trigger the electrical system. But most people would come to associate the Rotunda with an annual Christmas display called the Christmas Fantasy, which first opened on Dec. 15, 1953. In the last two weeks of that December over 500,000 people would visit the Christmas Fantasy at the Rotunda.

Back at our ticky tacky little house my mother and father were in the kitchen unpacking Susie Q’s fish and chips. My brother was in the den, watching the 10 inch diameter black and white TV screen housed in the 38 inch console. It was Howdy Doody Time. Bucky sat on the sofa petting Ike and I sat on the floor staring up at him through 1/2 inch thick eyeglasses which didn’t really fit a 3 year old all that well. Blind in one eye, my world was blurry, to say the least. And then Bucky (Mr. Fuller, to me) said something quite odd.

“Listen, little billionaire, have you considered the benefits of polyphasic sleep? You may not remember when this was second nature to you, but you should practice this all throughout your life. You’ll get more done.” Then he said, “Excuse me momentarily” and he stretched out on the sofa, without removing his shoes, and instantly fell asleep. Ike and I watched him until my father came in about seven minutes later and announced that dinner was out of the bag. Bucky sat up, blinked and said, “Better now!” and we all went into the kitchen (for want of a dining room) and sat down to Susie Q’s.

I only saw R. Buckminster Fuller one more time and that was a couple weeks later when we went to the opening of A Christmas Fantasy. I was dressed in my best dress and leggings, patent leather shoes, a wool coat, matching hat, a rabbit fur muff and those ridiculous glasses.

I should take a moment to note that my father was not a distinguished architect, a man of radical philosophical beliefs or a great visionary. He was an Ohio farm boy who grew up, went to war, married young and formulated plans to sell Ford tractors. It’s true that he was exceptionally good at coming up with ideas to sell tractors. My father and Buckminster Fuller were an unlikely pair and yet in some fashion, they became a pair around the building and promotion of the Ford Rotunda.

And so, we were among the first in line. We arrived in the late afternoon while it was graying but still light and stood in a cluster of VIPs and their children. A red and white bow, far larger than I, was tied across the winged entrance and someone, while my feet grew colder and colder in those patent leather shoes, said some things about the wonders we would see and cut the bow with a flourish and a giant pair of scissors. We filed in and the magic began. It was snowing inside! Inside the biggest igloo of a building you could ever imagine- it was snowing! In the center of the igloo stood a Christmas tree 4 stories high with thousands upon thousands of lights and shiny ornaments.

I slTree_1ipped my mother’s grasp. You can see that her attention is elsewhere; that’s little me, the smallest child, in the dark coat and cap (too bad you can’t see the disproportionately large eyeglasses). And I ran to the tree: I needed to touch it and smell it, to feel the bright hot colored lights, to brush snow from the limbs. I stood transfixed and then, from inside the branches of the tree, I heard a familiar voice.

“Ah, my little billionaire! What do you think of my tensegrity structure?”

“It’s very nice, Mr. Fuller.”

“Yes, in here, there is no sunsight or sunclipse, but only the endless recycling of sustainable snow. Oh, and be sure to stop by Santa’s workshop. The elves are building toy Ford tractors on the assembly line.”

My mother came then and reclaimed me. I’m certain she was unaware of Mr. Fuller sitting on a branch inside the tree. We moved on and saw all that there was to see.

There was ‘The Night Before Christmas’, an almost lifesize house with Rudolf snorting puffs of steam impatiently on the rooftop while Santa emptied his sack under the tree. Story Book Land came to life, with Hansel and Gretel, Little Boy Blue, Puss in Boots, Little Bo Peep and Humpty Dumpty animated by machines performing around a vast Santa Claus castle. The best was a 15,000-piece miniature circus with a parade, a 10-piece band on a wagon pulled by a 10-horse team, a steam calliope and 800 tiny animals, 30 tents, 435 performers and a full audience, all in a scale of 1/2 inch to the foot. In addition to the circus, we saw a rustic barn dance, a shopping center with a doll beauty shop, animated dolls representing children of all nations, and woodland creatures frolicking in the snow. The blur of partial blindness only enhanced the wondrous effect.

The Nativity included a life-size manger scene set in a lean-to built into the side of a hill, with a huge star glowing in the heavens. (In 1958 Ford would receive a commendation from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the spirit of Christmas with what the Council determined was “the largest and finest Nativity scene in the United States.”)

In the end, all roads led to Santa, but I was tired and tiny and shy when it came time to sit on his lap. My father said, “Hop up, Tadpole” and so I did.
And here is what Santa said to me, speaking ever so softly and near enough to my ear that his beard tickled:

“And what would you like for Christmas, my little billionaire?”

I thought ‘how strange’, at least in the sense that a three year old can think ‘how strange’ but I answered, “Santa, a bride doll, please.”

And Santa responded, “Well, little B, you would be wiser to want an Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth. It will teach you that through ephemeralization and synergetics we can waste not and want not and the worldaround will be populated by 4 billion billionaires, each able to enjoy Susie Q’s fish and chips whenever they wish. You will come to understand that less is more and cooperation is the optimal survival strategy. This manual explains how selfishness is unnecessary and irrational, and war is obsolete. It explains how we can recycle both our knowledge and our materials to live ever more fulfilling lives. Wouldn’t you rather have that for Christmas instead?”

I considered a minute, as much as a three year old can consider, and said, “Ummm, no thank you, Santa. I think my brother wants a spaceship but I would like a bride doll.”

And then my father was there and said, “Hop down, Tadpole.” And I did and we held hands and walked out of that fantastical place with the never-ending warm snow and I fell asleep in the car on the way home.

That Christmas Santa brought me precisely the bride doll I wished for. She was as tall as I was and had eyes that opened and closed and the most beautiful of bride’s dresses. Bruce got a model tractor rather than a spaceship.

I don’t recall what became of that bride doll after her hair tangled and I lost interest and now I often wish I had accepted the Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth. But that is hindsight rather than foresight and hindsight is usually the path not taken, yes? (This is the end of my Christmas story)

____________________________________________________________

Buckminster Fuller died at the age of 88, a decade before my father did. He was a guru of design, architecture, and ‘alternative’ communities. He was (hopelessly) optimistic that if we carefully, conscientiously and thoughtfully managed our resources there could be high quality life for all the creatures of the earth.
When his wife was comatose and dying of cancer he visited her in the hospital. At some point he exclaimed: “She is squeezing my hand!”. When he stood up, he suffered a massive heart attack and died within the hour. His wife died 36 hours later. John Denver wrote the song “What One Man Can Do” for Fuller. A new allotrope of carbon (fullerene) and a particular molecule of that allotrope (buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs) have been named after him.

If you want to know more about Fuller, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, His Life and Work by Lloyd Sieden (ISBN 0738203793), explores Fuller’s personal life, his beliefs and important contributions to society.
_____________________________________________________
Rotunda1933_3Designed to be the showcase of the auto industry, the Ford Rotunda was opened to the public on May 14, 1936. The original steel framework was covered with Indiana limestone, forming a design representing a stack of gears, decreasing in size towards the top. Located on Schaefer Road, across from the Ford Administration building, the circular structure had an open courtyard 92 feet in diameter and a wing on either side.Huge murals on the walls depicted the manufacture of the Ford automobile. Exhibits were changed regularly, but Ford products always took center stage.1958_edsel_exhibit_at_rotunda

The grounds contained reproductions of 19 historic Roads of the World: the Appian Way from Italy, the Tokaido Road in Japan, the Grand Trunk Road in India, a Mayan road from the Yucatan, the Oregon Trail and a wooden plank section of Woodward Avenue from the earliest days of that thoroughfare.

Besides its own attractions, the Rotunda served as the gateway for tours of the Rouge Plant. In 1960, the Rotunda ranked behind only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution and the Lincoln Memorial as a national tourist destination. It was more popular than Yellowstone National Park, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

The building was closed to the public during World War II, and following the war underwent a massive remodeling in 1952, in which the courtyard was covered with an 18,000 pound dome. The weight of a conventional dome, 320,000 pounds, would have crushed the structure, so Ford turned to R. Buckminster Fuller, who came up with the design, the first commercial application of his experimental geodesic dome. Later, Buckminster Fuller would perfect his concept of tensegrity to the degree that he could cover the same 92 foot diameter area with a permanent, secure dome weighing less than 3,000 pounds.

1961_ford_rotunda_christmas_display3
The preparations for the 1962 Christmas display were well under way when disaster struck on Nov. 9. While workers applied tar to the dome as weatherproofing, they kept it warm with an infrared heater. The tar caught fire. Shortly after 1 p.m., an employee saw flames on the ceiling of the main floor, and gave the alarm as workmen raced down from the roof. Sheets of flames shot 50 feet high. The black smoke was visible for miles.

In less than an hour the Rotunda lay in ruins. The Christmas Fantasy was completely lost to the flames. All that was saved were the Christmas tree, which had not been put in place, the 2,500 Goodfellow dolls shown yearly which had not been delivered, and the miniature circus, which had been packed into trunks and was ready to move in.1962_nov_rotunda_burns_1

My father did, in fact, work with Buckminster Fuller on the geodesic dome aspect of the Rotunda and they became friends. A Christmas Fantasy was an integral part of the Christmases of my childhood.

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28 responses to “The Night Buckminster Fuller Came to Dinner

  1. Vicki, what a wonderful story, and how nice for you to have been connected with B. Fuller in your childhood. I sure wish I had seen that Rotunda and all the scenery; it sounds like a child’s view of Christmas Heaven. Thanks for reminding me the story ws up. Once again, have a very Merry Christmas, full of love and happiness!

  2. A clarification: Uncle Buck is NOT named for the aforementioned Guru of spaceship Earth, but rather, I’m afraid, for the well-intentioned, but naive and bumbling self-indulgent character made famous by the late John Candy. I’ll just say that when I play racquetball, it’s never with a cooler on court, or cigarette dangling from lips.

    Now, let’s travel back to circa 1959, where Uncle Buck gets to meet, albeit briefly, the Great Man. I didn’t go to work with my Dad very often; none of us did. His duties as young marketing whiz included lots of schmoozing with suppliers and clients, and he worked long hours, often right through the dinner Mom had prepared at home.

    I had last been out to Ford Tractor headquarters three years earlier, during the height of the Davy Crockett craze, to pose astride a new model tractor, wearing the requisite coonskin cap. Amazingly, the tractor, transmogrified by plaster of paris into a terrifying non-likeness of Fess Parker, also wore a coonskin cap, large enough for me to nap in, had I been allowed. One photo from the session ended up on the cover of that month’s “Ford Times Magazine”, and though copies of that have long since disappeared, Vicki tells me one can still see the “Davey Tractor”, with me atop, as part of an endless mural of Ford-Americana at Greenfield Village.

    Jump forward three years, and I’m next out to the Tractor campus to watch an afterwork softball game, or so I thought. I remember parts of the game itself-mostly because my Uncle Jim, a burly little dynamo of an ex-marine, had been brought in as a ringer for my Dad’s squad, and proceeded to tear leather from ball with every at bat-but I also remember a serious sideshow to the softball.

    Some of these men would also be going on the road, as part of a post-modern gang of roustabouts, erecting a geodisic dome nightly, and then tearing it down again to travel to the next town on tour, all to introduce the “New Ford Tractor” to midwestern farmers. This travelling “Cavalcade” offered free admission to come see dancing girls, a minstrel band, and whichever third string Luminary could be seduced by modest cash, I’m sure, to show up in Des Moine to drive the new tractor around the ring. “Ladies and Gentlemen…put your hands together for the new Ford 400, and Bud Abbott!”

    But I digress. Before the show could hit the road, these softballers had to master the concept of “the Dome.” My very fuzzy memory recalls a tiny, tweedy man, grossly overdressed and out of place among all these noisy, tee-shirted tractor men. Those not on the playing field would study these simple triangular modules, scratching their heads at the mystery of it all, while Mr. Fuller offered quiet encouragement.

    Somehow, this Ford Cavalcade did hit the road, and was a memorable success, despite white men, my Dad included, donning shoe polish at this late date, to become a “minstrel band.” Our family saw the show just once, when it came back to Michigan, and it passed for a pretty good European styled circus, even with the tractor-motif. Most of all, I remember the magic of being inside this wonderful igloo.

  3. Vicki, those are exquisite memories. Thank you for remembering and articulating and therefore preserving the thoughts and visions of people who care enough about this beautiful planet to want to preserve it for future generations of tadpoles (and even billionaires….)
    Love, P.

  4. Thank you, Vicki. Thank you.

    That was like an early Christmas present. These sort of stories aren’t in the history books.

    Oh, and thank you for your other present, too. You are a creative, artistic soul, aren’t you?

  5. Oh Vicki, that was WONDERFUL!!!!!!

  6. Truly, a classic Christmas story. I’m always amazed by people who remember incidents from their childhood with such clarity and detail, especially with details of conversations. You have a such an ear for a story, Vicki, and you are such a great writer. When are you going to publish this stuff? Oh wait, you publish it every day. God, I love blogs.

  7. And you quit the writing in November because?????????
    Love the story and all the memories it brings back…Howdy Doody, the ticky-tacky song (I thought I had imagined it for a long time), and the bride doll, how I remember wanting one of those. What an unusual and extraordinary man and what an honor to have known him (and shared fish and chips with him).

    Looking back doesn’t it strike you that while times seemed to be simpler, some things were even more complex. I hope there are still places for children to experience such wonder and magesty.

    Is there a post script to the story? What did they do with the shell of the rotunda after the fire? I hope they didn’t just scrap it and build something else there.

    OK, now I can go and dream of the miniature circus and the room with continuous snow. Good-night.

  8. That Nativity scene sounds as wonderful as your Christmas story. Nice job! Merry Christmas.

  9. I vote… smashing success!

    Merry Christmas!

  10. What a charmed life – to have met one of my lifelong heroes! I’m envious!

    Here’s hoping you’re having a wonderful Christmas.

  11. All I Want For Christmas

    Vicki’s story:

    And here is what Santa said to me, speaking ever so softly and near enough to my ear that his beard tickled:

  12. Merry Christmas Vicki…and thanks for the gift. ^j^

  13. What a lovely, lyrical story, Vicki! Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  14. Thank you for that memory. I’m amazed you can remember words with that kind of message at that age! A photographic ear (whatever that is called)? I’ve been intrigued by his ideas but have not delved enough into them. Perhaps a year ago I’d been googling for some of his writing. Here is the URL to the Buckminster Fuller Institute – http://www.bfi.org/ Your story has been a reminder to go looking for those writings again. The essential question he tackles has been like a zen koan to me. I so agree that everything has to eventually work by cooperation (and I think it actually does work by cooperation all the time, we just believe a different story and so can’t see it) I just don’t get how the vast structure of mechanization and technology can be kept functioning on global scale without the greed factor. That is the little snag in the logic that so far stays hidden from my grasp – but I keep searching, it must be there.

  15. A Christmas present for the world wide web, indeed! Listen up, Vicki: You must publish this wonderful entry as a children’s book. I hereby preorder the first 11 copies. I read it to my dearies and they loved it. But, now they’re getting out the toothpicks and stealing the gumdrops from the gingerbread house – buckyballs rock!

    And, if I hadn’t nearly kicked the blog addiction, I would have to race off to read Catinka, of course!

    WHERE IS HOSS?!

  16. No wonder you’re a billionaire, with a memory (and a writing touch) like that. I can’t remember when I fell in love with Bucky, but it was a long, long time ago. I only fell in love with you this year, Tadpole. You got the gift. Keep ’em coming.

  17. This is one of my favorite posts. Ever. Written by anyone. You are AMAZING!!! What a great memory! You should write a book, Vicki.

  18. Oh, Vicki, what a wonderful story. You have such a wonderful memory and the ability to put it on paper. Thank you.

  19. Ah, yes, I remember it well. Thanks for posting it again, Vicki, as it is worth a second read! Merry Christmas.

  20. Great story and great storytelling, vicki. What a treasure that memory is.

  21. This was as magical as the first time I read it last year. Thank you for your gift of words.

  22. What a fine storyteller you are! Thank you for sharing this and the merriest of holidays to you and yours.

  23. Merry Christmas! Great story.

    I was equally excited about the idea of you knowing Wing’s daughter… then the idea that it was a trick was even better. 🙂 (Wing was on South Park, you know!)

  24. Less is more? Now you tell me!

  25. What a great story!

    Blessings on your holiday and New Year, Vicki! Thank you for all the amazing stories and your visits to my blog. (You made IZ’s day!) I feel fortunate to have found you this year!

  26. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Vicky. I hope your time with your family has been wonderful and blessed.

  27. err “Vicki” (I do that nearly every time!)

  28. Even though it’s a reprise, it is still a fascinating story and a lesson in history, for which I tenkyouberrymudge.

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