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June 5, 2012

Francis Slakey on Sharing Stories with his Father

Francis Slakey is the Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy at Georgetown University and the Associate Director of Public Affairs at the American Physical Society. He is the founder and co-director of the Program on Science in the Public Interest, a Lemelson Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, and a MacArthur Scholar. In recognition of his adventures, he carried the Olympic Torch from the steps of the U.S. Capitol as part of the 2002 Olympic Games. In July of 2009, he became the first person to summit the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean. Here, he talks about sharing stories with his father.

My dad never held a surfboard under his arm and he never strapped a crampon on his boots to scale a wall of ice.  You would think we couldn’t be more different.

Occasionally, as I criss-crossed the globe over the last two decades, I would tell him about the last ocean I surfed or mountain I climbed.  His palms sweated when I told him about surviving a blizzard on the summit ridge of Everest.  He beamed at my tales of riding the waves of the Arctic Ocean.  And he saw my transformation from a nail-pounding mallet who swore off marriage and kids, to a married father of twin girls and a physicist dedicated to addressing global problems.

After I would spin him a tale, he would share a story of his own, and he had plenty to tell.  He was raised during the Great Depression, surviving undulant fever, flat on his back, battling delirium for weeks.   He turned screws in the hangers of B-25s during WW II and hitchhiked across the country in his late twenties.  His life was filled with challenge and adventure --- his own mountains and waves.

And sometimes we talked about the eventful days, after my mother died when he raised me and my two brothers on his own.   I was rebellious then --- some might say reckless --- while he provided stability, a meal and a bed for me to return home to every night.

And now all of my tales are contained in a book --- a book that he can’t read.  His mind drifts, his focus is short, and  words on a page no longer hold his attention.  He faces his final challenge, one that I will face with him, beside him.  It will be steeper than any mountain either of us has ever faced, and through it all we will find out just how much we are the same.