Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.

“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.

Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

Jack Frost: Preserving a Mini-Masterpiece!

Although this is not the “appropriate” season, it is finally time that a family treasure, a mini-masterpiece, be properly preserved, displayed, and enjoyed. The item in question is a watercolor done by my father, Alfred Kubitz, as a young man. He created this artwork in or around 1935. He would have been nineteen years of age in 1935.

This original painting on stiff paper stock was handed down to me by my dad. It had knocked-about for a number of years in my dresser drawer until finally being tucked in a folder and stored in a file cabinet for still more years. A few light creases are clearly visible in the piece, the result of years of casual handling and storage.

I had long been aware that the original theme of Jack Frost with his palette at work adorning the leaves with brilliant fall colors came from a famous old depiction by the illustrator, John T. McCutcheon. For decades, the piece was reprinted annually each fall by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. My family and I have Chicago roots, so my father would have been very familiar with McCutcheon’s picture. I myself had never actually seen that original rendition until very recently.


I was very surprised to see that my father’s interpretation of McCutcheon’s theme was quite different from the original artwork, contrary to my long-held supposition. In fact, I was quite blown away by the creative and colorful artistic embellishments my father supplied in his rendering.

It was then that I fully realized what a shame it was that this mini-masterpiece by my father was hidden away for so many decades. With the expert help of our local framer, Jo-Ellen, who always helps us get it “just right,” this little gem now hangs proudly on the wall directly above my bedroom dresser where I can see and enjoy it every single day, morning and night! I love that Dad signed the piece and that he painted it (and other wonderful art) at a time in his young life when he had little leisure time and no money for fancy art supplies. Whatever took me so long to get this properly done?

Memories of Knott’s Berry Farm

Some images and recollections stay with us for a very long time. Among my favorites are the memories of a family trip to southern California and Knott’s Berry Farm in 1954. I was a young lad of fourteen at the time. My younger sister and I both sat for on-the-fly charcoal portraits, rendered by two of the park’s resident “sidewalk artists.” We, thankfully, have kept these unique likenesses which are still in their original natural wood frames – even after decades of knocking about and sitting patiently in storage.

Last Thursday, after years of good intentions, I finally took mine into our favorite local framing shop for some TLC. Jo-Ellen, who always takes good care of our framing needs, will touch-up scratches in the original frame (important to keep). She will also replace the original cheap paper mat with a fine archival mat and seal it all behind special, non-reflective museum plexiglass. This effort to preserve and properly display what, to me, is now an important keepsake is way past due. I always thought that the artist, Liz, who created it, signed it, and dated it ’54 did a very good job! That was me – white T-shirt, cowlick and all in 1954!

Our family of four was in southern California visiting Uncle Gil, Aunt Virgie, and young cousin Craig at the time, and Knott’s Berry Farm was on our list of things to do.

Although the theme park remains alive and well, today, in Anaheim, California, nearby Disneyland corners more publicity. Knott’s has grown considerably since 1954, annually catering to throngs of visitors from across the globe. Back in 1954, the crowds were smaller, the park was simpler, and the overall texture of the experience was most pleasing for the very reasons stated. I will also add that a family vacation trip like ours to southern California via United Airlines on a DC-6B Mainliner from San Francisco was a very rare treat, indeed. Money was scarce, and we kids were decidedly unspoiled. In 1954, Disneyland was a year away from opening nearby in Anaheim, so Knott’s Berry Farm was still the place to go in the region.

I recall panning for gold in real sluice boxes with sand and running water – like an active creek. The three of us kids each came away with a little glass vial filled with water and containing a dozen or so small flakes of real gold. A small cork sealed the vial – much like a miniature time capsule! I was long fascinated by my little vial of real gold. It was not until many years later that I finally decided to get rid of it, so I did. I now wish I had kept it, being a tangible memory of boyhood enthusiasm and joy.

I also recall riding the full-size train around the park and enjoying the interesting items and “scenery” installed by the park for the enjoyment of the passengers. About two-thirds of the way along the journey, three masked desperados on horseback suddenly burst from a grove of trees and headed for the train at full gallop. Whooping and hollering and firing pistol blanks in the air, they chased down the train and proceeded to stage a holdup. When the shooting and commotion first broke out, young cousin Craig, who was about six at the time, cried out, “Are they gonna kill us?” After the initial burst of surprised laughter from the rest of us at my cousin’s honest reaction, it took some dedicated reassuring before young Craig could accept that the action was all in fun. It was one of those wonderful incidents that remain etched in one’s memory for a very long time.

Those were wonderful times and memories for us in southern California. The sun-drenched, uncrowded paradise that was southern California in the twenties and thirties could still be occasionally glimpsed in the nineteen-fifties. My re-framed charcoal portrait by “Liz” of Knott’s Berry Farm will soon be prominently displayed on our wall, a constant visual reminder of the fun we had. Thanks, Liz, for the memories.


Nothing defines who we are as individuals more than the essence of our natural mothers and fathers. We each come into this world preceded by one father, one mother and two grandfathers and two grandmothers who also influence our being. The lucky ones among us descended from men and women of fine character and ability. Those of us fortunate enough to have truly known and experienced all six of these key individuals while maturing into adulthood are additionally blessed. A few weeks ago, I was combing though some family photographs and came upon this one, a scarce image of my paternal grandmother, Martha Koss Kubitz. I possess few images of her and this is the most personal of those, taken late in life.

I “knew” and remember both sets of grandparents, but only through the gauzy veil of childhood memory given that our family of four left its Chicago roots in 1948 when we moved to California. I was then eight years old. Gazing at my grandmother’s image both fortified my distant memory of her and caused me to contemplate, yet again, the fleeting nature of our existence on this earth. Our own four young grandchildren have no real knowledge of Martha and her husband, Elmer, my grandfather. Nor are they likely ever to express the degree of curiosity which cares to know what kind of people their great-great grandparents were. It seems almost certain that today’s third generation removed will not be interested in their family roots beyond their own grandparents – and that seems such a shame. The connection between one’s own grandparents and grandchildren, a separation of four generations, seems palpable and significant to many of us in the middle of that generation span who are now in the later stages of life. I can see personality traits and physical resemblances that are recognizable across those four generations, but I know that once my time is up, those connections could easily be lost forever unless recorded somewhere. Martha and Elmer Kubitz would typically become merely names on census rolls and other archived documents in the years ahead. This written blog post about my grandmother Martha is my humble and personal attempt keep her memory alive in a medium separate from the vanishing recollections of her descendants. It was only within the last twenty years that I learned the bulk of what I know about Martha. Nancy, my childhood Chicago cousin, furnished much of that information via her handwritten letters from the East Coast.

I had earlier heard conjecture that Martha Koss emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany which turned out to be partly true. Once here, she eventually found her way to the Chicago area where she met my grandfather, Elmer Chester Kubitz. Through internet perseverance, I was able to locate the immigration paper documenting her family’s arrival in New York aboard the ship Moravia on March 10, 1890. The ship’s ledger lists her father Anton Koss, her mother Marie, sisters Mathilde and Pauline, and brothers Auguste and Franz. Martha is the middle child at age 4. This document lists her hometown in Germany as Bolchau, not Hamburg, but the Moravia’s port of embarkation is noted as Hamburg/Kerre.

A 1910 U.S. census report from Chicago shows Elmer and Martha Kubitz residing with four-month old first child, Elmer Junior, and living next door to Martha’s parents and her brother Frank (formerly Franz). I have a photo-copy of Martha’s certificate of marriage to Elmer C. Kubitz in Michigan, dated July 17, 1909 – courtesy of my cousin Nancy.

Such documents gleaned from the internet that illuminate the family’s history are very special to me. There are no letters, original documents, or mementos of any kind in my possession that relate to my paternal grandparents save a few notes from my grandmother sent to me from Chicago in the 1960’s, long after my father was transferred to California by United Air Lines in 1948. Even during a time when sentimentality, a sense of personal history, and the luxury of introspection and perspective often played second fiddle to the urgencies of getting on with daily life and living, the dearth of things-saved with respect to both sets of my grandparents is sadly unusual.

My grandmother Martha was a dutiful wife and mother, raising four sons and one daughter while eking out a living in a small West Chicago storefront which was divided into a candy/toy store run by Martha and Grandpa Elmer’s radio repair shop. My grandparents lived in the back of the same building, just behind the storefront curtains, in spartan quarters quite devoid of natural light as I recall. It was only last year that I came upon a photo of that Diversey Avenue storefront circa 1950 with Uncle Elmer Kubitz Junior standing out-front, thanks to second cousin Mary.

I wish I had known my grandmother and grandfather better. There are so many things I would like to know. Throughout my youth, my father always spoke well of them both given the underlying tone that life was not easy for the family of seven. My grandfather was reportedly an intelligent, amiable man with a great sense of humor and an innate honesty. Despite his amiability, Grandpa Elmer believed in discipline when appropriate for his children. My father, and consequently I, both were raised to respect adult authority. My grandmother was a stoutly-built, caring woman who stood by her husband’s side through thick and thin during some very hard financial times. Doctor’s visits to the Kubitz household were virtually unknown due to the lack of money: Home remedies were the order of the day for any ills. Warm Castor oil in the ear was administered by Martha when my father had one of his frequent severe ear-aches. One of these bouts left him with a punctured ear-drum. I recall that my grandparents often retired to a local tavern after the day’s work was done, their way of dealing with life’s demands. I can picture the scene with Elmer calling out to Martha: “Hey Mart (he called her that), let’s go down for a beer!”

My dad, Alfred, attended only one year of high school at Chicago’s Austin High in order to work and contribute to the family’s support during the lean depression years. Despite Dad’s meager early education, he became the quintessential life-long learner who studied his way to a long and successful career in mechanical engineering at United Air Lines.

Dad’s mother was barely literate in the written English vernacular as evidenced by the few letters I received from her during my college years and after graduation. This language challenge was palpable despite her life-long residence in the United States after coming to America at age four. Nevertheless, my grandmother’s offspring all did well for themselves as career-oriented adults with families. Somehow, my grandparents managed to pass the torch of opportunity and achievement to their children despite their own humble beginnings. While writing this blog post, I retrieved from my files the cache of four items sent to me by my grandmother which I have fortunately retained. This excerpt from one of the letters she wrote to me in 1966 sums up my fondness and respect for my grandmother. Using some license in translation, page three reads:

“…that sweetheart of yours [my young wife, Linda] sure is pretty. You sure know how to pick them. I am glad that you like her…Linda looks to be a very nice girl. You bet she is pretty. So you had a good time together [in Hawaii]. This place here [probably her daughter’s house] was so dry – no beer, only Nehi Root Beer. Well, you can keep sober with that. Your Mother-Dad-Karen sure is a family to be proud of. I have four daughter-in-laws. I like them all: They’re are all good to me and they’re all good-looking. My sons know how to pick ‘em. Well, Alan, a simple letter: Really isn’t very much, but when it’s so sincerely said, it has a special touch and when it goes to someone who’s very dear to me.”

Grandma Kubitz
who loves you
and always will

What can I say? Thank goodness that I have a few such letters in my possession which shed light on the earthy and perceptive lady who was my grandmother. They, my dim recollections, and letters from cousins who knew Martha well are my sole substitute for all the years of isolation from my grandparents and other Chicago roots.

Despite my grandmother’s limited ability with written English, her son Alfred, my father, was surprisingly fluent with the written word given his truncated early schooling. This ability of self-expression was complemented by his fine aptitude for engineering and things mechanical. I still retain several tautly written letters by my father eloquently expressing displeasure over poor service or unreliable products he had encountered as an adult. One of these was addressed directly to Roger Smith, the past CEO of General Motors, expressing displeasure over some negative aspect of Dad’s Oldsmobile that was not adequately addressed by previous letters to GM’s lower management. Dad was very good at going right to the heart of the matter at hand and succinctly stating his case, reminiscent of an experienced attorney but without the legalese! Alas – predictably, Dad never heard from Mr. Smith… which frustrated him no end! I still marvel at his ability with the written word, and I wonder where in the world it came from and just how it blossomed in him as he matured. I wonder about that and so many other things connected with my grandparents and ancestors. As I write this, there is currently much discussion in the United States about “merit-based” immigration into this country – a policy which would give heavy preference to those applicants who already have resources and a solid education. While the proposal has some merit, I cannot help thinking that so many multi-generation success stories in the United States had their roots in seemingly unexceptional immigrants who came to America in crowded shipboard steerage with little to their name. Most likely, that was the case with Martha’s father, Anton Koss, who is listed in the 1910 U.S. Chicago census as a “hod-carrier” working on “new buildings.”

I sum up my feelings about my grandmother, who I barely knew, as follows: Martha, you and Elmer did good – real good – in passing the torch of opportunity to your offspring despite the great difficulties you both faced along the way. This is my acknowledgement of same and my personal tribute to you. Rest in peace…you are loved and remembered.

The Lawrence Welk Show: Forever Young – “Wunnerful, Wunnerful”

Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.

Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.

I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?


Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.

Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.

Even the Great Harry James?

Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.

Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota

I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.

Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.

Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!

Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.

Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.

Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!

Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.