Uncle John's Books

by Harry T. Roman


The excitement of the mail delivery truck to our old Newark 4th Street address still looms large in my memory.


"Harry answer the door please."

"OK mom."

"Hi young fellow. Are you Harry Roman Jr."

"Yes sir."

"This here big package is for you."

"Holy cow Mom. Look at this!"

"It's from Uncle John out in Pittsburgh. I think it's the books he said he was going to send."

"Ma'am this box is very heavy. Maybe I should bring it inside for you?"

"Yes, please do. Harry, hold the door for the delivery man."

That old heavily taped fruit box full of books arrived when I was 9 years old; and today at 55, those books are still some of the most prized possessions of my childhood.


Uncle John was one of my father's many brothers, in fact the oldest one; and the only one who went to college. The family spoke of him in reverent and hushed tones, seeming to acknowledge his keen intellect while at the same time tolerant of his often reclusive, non-verbal nature.

According to Dad, he was involved somehow on the A-bomb project and consulted with the government in the early days of rocketry. Uncle John never dwelled much on the topics of his work. At the time the books were sent to me, he was teaching at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, the predecessor to powerful and highly scientific Carnegie Mellon University. He had mastered the tough Mid-western work ethic years ago. Hard study in school intermixed with hard work in the coalmines. He had earned his ticket the hard way.

It was common for family and friends not to hear from Uncle John for long periods of time. His work was often secret, filled with many special committee meetings all across the U.S. If his travel took him through Newark, Dad would get a call and Uncle John would be visiting with us. On one such occasion, Dad filled his ear with my interest in science, invention, and related activities. He then asked me a bunch of questions and promised to send some things I could read, maybe some books I might find useful.

Waiting patiently for the books, I began to think that maybe Uncle John had forgotten. So I wrote a letter reminding him of our conversation and asking if he would send me some books. I still remember Mom and Dad chuckling over my literary approach, but Dad mailed it nevertheless, I am sure with some funny postscripts included. About a week or so later, the box of books found its way from Pittsburgh to my front porch in Newark. That old box of books not only impressed me with its contents, but the process that brought it to my door is still magical to me-igniting a life-long love affair with the house mailbox....perhaps because of the surprise good feelings that box engendered.

I would read those books at night by the light of an old nautical lamp-you know the kind with the clear glass bottom that looked like a lighthouse light. Mine had several color sections making up the glass base--green, red, and white as I recall. That is how my science education started, from those old college books. Much of the math was way over my head, but the words were not and so I read and read, and marveled at another world.


My interactions with Uncle John over the years were equally sporadic; and then he moved to Florida in his later years. Just about everyone in the family lost touch with him.

Then one evening the phone rang and he was there. Unknown to me, he was on the short side of life, perhaps trying to tie loose ends……reaching out. He mentioned that Aunt Mary (his oldest sister) had given him my number and he thought he would see how things were. He wanted to know how the boy engineer had made out after all.

I brought him up to speed on my life and when he asked about pivotal moments in my life, I simply told him those old books had started it all. I could hear and feel the emotion at the other end, not an easy thing for Uncle John to deal with. In his voice, I could detect the weak, high-pitched sound of his father, my grandfather, in his last years of life. It was an equally emotional moment for me.

He was just so delighted to know he had influenced my life so completely. We talked for close to an hour.

A few months later, Aunt Mary called to say Uncle John had died.

I cannot tell you how many times I have used those old books, maybe as a reference to something I was designing, or as the basis for an article I often write for teachers and educational magazines. It's always the same. I open those books and I can smell my first home in Newark, reliving the day that deliveryman rang the doorbell back in 1958. How many times I had opened that box and lovingly removed the books and returned them after I was finished. The box took up almost the entire floor of my tiny room closet.

It still is a ritual for me look at the books, although the cardboard fruit box they came in met its fate long ago. The books now rest in a section of my home library shelves with all the other engineering and science books I mastered through college and graduate school.

Thanks Uncle John-for the memories-and the love, in your own way.


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: