David Lindorff Sr. Dies: Radar Pioneer, Engineering Professor, Jungian Analyst and TCBH! Contributor

David Plimpton Lindorff, an occasional contributor to ThisCantBeHappening! and one of the last surviving members of the Radiation Lab, a top-secret World War II project in Cambridge, MA that led to the placing of radar on aircraft, died March 15 in Storrs, CT at the age of 89 as a result of complications from ataxia.

Lindorff, a native of Flushing, NY, and my father,  was a polymath — an artist/writer/scientist/philosopher/analyst who, after writing an acclaimed book, Theory of Sampled Data Control Systems (Wiley, 1965), which addressed some fundamental challenges posed in analog computing, and working in his chosen field of engineering and computer science, took early retirement from the University of Connecticut at the age of 57. With his new freedom and the help of his full retirement benefits, he began seeing a psychoanalyst out of curiousity and after a year or so, at that analyst’s suggestion,  decided to remake himself as a licensed Jungian analyst and scholar.

It was a second career he pursued for another 28 years, and it led to his writing a second book. Pauli and Jung: A Meeting of Two Great Minds (Quest Books, 2004). This volume, which is based on two decades of letters of correspondence between Jung and a famous patient of his, the enigmatic, brilliant Nobel Laureate theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, explores the issues of genius, creativity, and these two men’s discourses and debates over such concepts of quantum theory, synchronicity and the controversial notion of mind over matter.

Dad’s leap from engineering to a study of the psyche came in 1979. As he recounted the tale to me, he was in the UConn faculty club dining hall having a weekly lunch with an informal group of professors who liked to practice their German, when the topic turned to a court decision, just in the news, in which several male state employees had won a lawsuit claiming discrimination because, at the time, female state workers could retire at 60, while men had to wait until they were 65. Dad, “With my three years’ military credit, I could retire now!”

A colleague promptly advised him, “If you’re going to do that, you better do it right away, because this decision is going to be so expensive it’s bound to be overturned on appeal.” Dad said he stood up , pushed back his chair, left the lunch and walked across the campus to the personnel office where he filed for retirement. “I didn’t even call mom to discuss it!” he said. Shortly after this impulsive act, the court ruling was overturned on appeal as predicted, but Dad and a few other state workers who had already filed their papers were allowed to remain retired.

D.P. Lindorff, Sr., electrical engineer to Jungian analyst, wartime researcher to pacifist, 1922-2012

D.P. Lindorff, Sr., electrical engineer to Jungian analyst, wartime researcher to pacifist, 1922-2012 (photo by Dave Lindorff, Jr.)

Dad began his first career as a working engineer very early. Towards the end of his freshman year as an engineering student at MIT, he learned that his father had advanced colon cancer. William Lindorff’s untimely death forced his son to withdraw from school and seek work to support his mother and younger brother Bill who was still only 8. Dad once recounted to me how, on the way out of MIT’s main building for the last time after just filing for a hardship leave of absence, came to a hallway he had often used as a subterranean shortcut to the MTA Red Line subway , only to find the doors locked. Two signs were posted. One read: “No Entry. Top Secret.” The other read: “Wanted: Technical Assistant.” He knocked on the door and was greeted by an elderly-looking  man who invited him in. The man, whom he learned later was the Nobel physicist Isador Isaac Rabi, asked him what experience he had.

“I told him I’d just finished the freshman engineering program,” Lindorff recalled, “but that didn’t impress him. ‘Any other experience?’ he asked me.”

My father told his eminent job interviewer about his childhood experiments constructing a ham radio, and of designing his own ‘half-wavelength” antenna so that he could better reach far-flung ham operators around the world. “So you know how to work with soldering circuits and things?” the man asked. Dad said he did, and he was hired on the spot. It turned out the top secret activity was the Radiation Lab, a highly classified project that involved the bringing together of a number of the smartest physicists and engineers in the country in a crash program to figure out how to shrink the size of the newly invented British radar so that instead of covering acres of land with antennas, it could be fit onto airplanes. The project, on which Dad was apparently the first hire, quickly grew to an operation involving hundreds of top-flight engineers and scientists and became the model for the subsequent much larger Manhattan Project that designed and built the atom bomb, and which employed many of the same scientists (including Rabi).

Dad, after receiving a draft notice from the Navy, enlisted in the Marines. (He explained that on his way to his induction, dismayed by  the Navy uniforms with their ovrsized back flap collars and bell-bottom trousers, decided on the spur of the moment to enter  a Marine recruiting office he was passing, with a poster in the window showing a Marine in uniform, which looked to him much more spiffy.)  In the end, instead of being shipped off to the Pacific War with the rest of his platoon after basic training, he spent much of the global conflict posted at Vero Beach, FL. At the Naval Air Station there he was involved in flight-testing and hardening the Radiation Lab’s vulnerable vacuum-tube-b based radar systems for use on Navy dive-bombers.

After being decommissioned, Dad  returned in 1945 to MIT on the GI Bill, graduating with a BS in Electrical Engineering in 1949. He earned a masters degree in the same field from the University of Pennsylvania and two decades later  a PhD from the Darmstadt Technische Hochschule in Germany.

Following graduation from U. of Penn, and a brief posting at Purdue University, he was hired in 1951 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where he rose to the rank of professor in the Engineering School. Besides his teaching, he worked as a researcher on projects for Electric Boat and Hamilton Standard, including helping to devise a computerized control system to allow smaller crews to fly the B-52 strategic bombers that for years were the core of the US nuclear strike force. He also had a series of research contracts with NASA.

The Cuban missile crisis was a turning point for him.  At the height of that crisis I recall his taking the the family to a company a few miles from our home that was selling family bomb shelters made from converted steel  oil and septic tanks. Climbing into one of the display models and then back out afew minutes later, he informed Mom and his three young children that he’d rather go out and face the fallout of a nuclear war than spend months “trapped in a steel tank with three squabbling youngsters,”  He concluded  the only answer was avoiding a nuclear war.

By the late 1960s he had become a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and indeed all war, and no longer sought consulting work on military projects, limiting himself to NASA grants, the results of which he tried unsuccessfully to have restricted in his contracts to civilian use and unavailable to the military.

Always intrigued by the psyche and the workings of the mind, after Dad retired from UConn, he began visiting a Jungian analyst and found himself increasingly drawn to the work of Carl Jung, which led him to enroll in the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. After earning a diploma there in 1982, he returned to Connecticut and hung up his shingle as an analyst.

For several decades he saw patients in an small one-room shed adjacent to the log cabin home in the town of Eastford, in northeastern Connecticut, where he lived with his wife, my mother, Dorothy Park Lindorff (who herself received training as a sand-tray therapist in Zurich and set up a small practice of her own during this period.). In 2004 they moved back to Storrs.

A nature lover and avid and skilled sailor since childhood, when his family spent summers on Cape Cod, he was also a talented artist and a skilled carpenter.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years and their three children, David Lindorff, Jr., Gary Lindorff and Elizabeth Lindorff, their respective spouses, Joyce Zankel Lindorff, Shirley Oskamp, and Edward Adelman, as well as his five grandchildren, Ariel and Jed Lindorff, Samuel and Daniel Adelman and Evan Lindorff-Ellery.

A memorial service will be held in a few weeks in Mansfield at a time and place to be announced later.

A Personal Note:

Dad’s passing was a life experience I’ll never forget.

When he entered the rehab facility, and was placed in the care of a hospice nurse, knowing it would be where his life would end, he told us, surprisingly, “This is going to be a real experience!” It was vintage Dad.  He was visited by friends and a few former engineering colleagues, and then began to decline. At one point, I brought in a joke book and read him one in which Winston Churchill was told by a woman political critic, “Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband I’d put poison in your tea.”  to which Churchill  was said to have replied, ‘Madam, if you were my wife I’d drink it!.” Dad, who had seemed inattentive, bust out in a guffaw,.

I was there from Saturday, when as his living will proxies, my brother, sister and I had to make the decision to turn off all support. He had contracted a third bout of pneumonia, and his doctor was certain that there was no way he would recover the ability to swallow or even to speak, as a result of his fall and his head injury. So I told dad I was instructing the doctor, per his wishes, to stop antibiotics. As he had requested in his living will, we also pulled out his feeding tube, and stopped the hydration, too. So that would be it. Dad was conscious and on board with the process.

Over the next few days, he gradually weakened, and his periods of lucidity grew shorter. He met my daughter Ariel, gave her a hug, and managed to tell her he loved her. He also met a couple of friends. My sister and brother and I were always there, often with guitars and harmonica and spoons too, playing and singing folksongs of all kinds, or just talking with/to him and each other. He was getting a low dose of oral morphine to ease his breathing, but not really dulling his mind.

On his last day, Thursday, he was semi-comatose. I told the nurse that since the doctor had written on his chart to provide the morphine every four hours, but had said it could be as given as often as once an hour in case of respiratory distress, I wanted her to just make it every hour on the hour, and screw the explanations. She agreed.  It was something Dad had said he would want done at the end.

As the day progressed, dad’s breathing, which was labored, also slowed. He’d do one gasp every five seconds, then 10, then 15, and so on. By 8 pm, he was at one small gasp every 30 seconds. I said we all needed a drink, and went out with my sister’s son to the liquor store to buy a magnum of white wine. When I got back, it was 8:30 and dad was at one breath every 50 seconds or so. I poured the wine for everyone. We were about to drink it, when I realized dad should join us. I wet a throat sponge and went over to him. “Dad, we’re all here and we’re having a drink of wine, and wanted you to join us, so I’m going to wet your tongue with a sponge of wine,” I said.  I waited for him to take his next breath, and then put the sponge to his tongue. His mouth moved a bit wihen the wine was on it, so it obviously was tasted on some level.

Then my brother Gary, TCBH!’s resident poet, raised his cup and said, “To your journey, Dad!”  We all joined in, saying, “To your journey!”

We all drained our cups and then watched dad for his next breath.

It never came. He exited with our toast, which he joined us in.

At that point, we all started laughing (albeit with wet eyes). It was such incredible timing, and knowing my dad, just what he would have done on purpose if he could have plotted it.

The nurse came in and asked what was going on. We told her, “Our father just died.”  She looked at us like we were nuts, but then, when we explained what had happened, she said, “You know, I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and this is the most beautiful death I’ve ever seen.”

So that’s it. Dad’s dead, and while I miss him, I somehow don’t feel any need to mourn. I’m actually feeling kind of elated.