Don Green: Scenes from a Life
“World War II started for me in September 1939,” Don says. “The British government evacuated 800,000 children to the countryside from cities that were possible targets of German bombers. I was one those children.”
Don, eight years old, said goodbye to his parents at the Liverpool train station. He was sent to live on a farm for an unspecified amount of time. On his first day there, the crusty farmer killed a kitten right before his eyes, a brutal awakening for a city kid.
Don tried to make the best of his relocation, but he missed his home and family. Soon he broke out in a rash that covered his body. Six weeks after his arrival his parents came for a visit; his mother took one look at her afflicted son and announced that he was coming home. “We will all live together or die together,” she said.
* * *
For two years during the war, Don had no school to attend. Needing an outlet for his love of learning, he turned to the family's collection of Children's Encyclopedias. Those 800-page tomes became his constant companions. His favorite section in each volume was “The Book of Wonder,” in which the so-called Wise Man answered questions from children. It was there that Don found answers to puzzlers such as: How do fish live in a frozen pond? Why is it dark at night? and What are eyebrows for?
“The Book of Wonder section fed my natural curiosity about how and why things work,” Don says. “While that section quenched my curiosity, it also fueled my imagination, generating a hunger in me to use science to create something new. This would eventually have a direct bearing on my career choices."
Even in his own neighborhood, Don could not miss the signs of war. Windows were blacked out, and at night air raid wardens inspected every house for light leakage. There were shortages of every kind, and a black market developed for “luxury goods.” What had once been considered ordinary food items—meat, tea, eggs, butter, milk, canned and dried fruit—became luxury items.
“Rationing became an inescapable part of war and a way of life for all Brits, including us,” Don says. “I remember the day it hit home. It was a Sunday evening. We had always had roast beef for Sunday dinner, until one day it was replaced by beans on toast. When I complained, Mum sat me down for a lesson in the meaning of shared sacrifice.”
On the streets of Liverpool, he watched tank traps built and installed, blocking all roads leading to the nearby docks. “Those tank traps, two-foot-high concrete pyramids, never had to block any actual tanks,” he remembers, "but they were ideal for small boys playing cowboys and Indians.”
He listened to war news on the radio, eavesdropped on adults speaking of the war, and on several occasions had to retreat with his family and neighbors to the nearest bomb shelter.
One crisp spring day his friend John told him about a British ship that had torpedoed and sunk a German submarine. “It was brilliant!” John exclaimed.
Don remained silent. He could think only of the men trapped in that sub sent to the bottom of the sea, the sheer horror of it. “I felt small bubbles of anxiety rising in my chest and, despite the cold, sweat on my brow.”
* * *
Soon after moving from Liverpool to London, Don joined a Boy Scout troop. One of his fellow Scouts had an older sister, and one day she walked into the hall during a Scout meeting. Don couldn't take his eyes off her. “She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen.”
Her name was Maureen and she was seventeen, two years older than Don. For the next year he saw her only at Scout fundraising events. Then one day she joined the drama group Don belonged to. He'd recently been given the lead in a Thornton Wilde play, “Our Town.”
“I hadn't been nervous until Maureen showed up,” he says. “Casting appraising looks at her during rehearsal, I repeatedly fumbled my lines.”
Don assumed Maureen barely knew who he was until one day he received an invitation to her birthday party. As soon as he stepped through her front door, she greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. “I'm glad you could come,” she whispered.
As the party was winding down, Maureen took Don by the hand, led him into an empty bedroom, and kissed him on the lips. They began going out. Don was smitten. “Only six months after we began dating, I had it fixed in my mind that no other would be the mother of my children.”
One cold November day they were strolling through King Edwards Park. Don suddenly stopped, took her hand in his and blurted, “Will you marry me?” She stood on her tiptoes and he lifted her off the ground. “Yes,” she said. This time it was no whisper.
* * *
At age sixteen, Don went to work for the British phone service (GPO). He knew he wanted more and eventually came to believe that his ambitions could not be realized in Britain. He applied for and accepted a job in Montreal, Canada.
Don traveled to Montreal by ship, then sent for Maureen and their two children, David and Rebecca. It was 1956. For the next four years, Don worked as a engineer for the Canadian branch of RCA. For a time, his work demanded that he be on call, ready to drop everything and travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, to repair faulty telephone equipment in the hinterlands of Canada.
One evening, as Don drove home after yet another three-day absence from his family, he had an epiphany. “I realized that my job was putting stress on my family. In the last month I’d missed both children’s birthdays. I was constantly away from home, leaving Maureen to raise the children alone. My kids were growing up without me . . . I was in danger of losing emotional contact with them.”
It was time to look for a new job. This time, in June 1960, he imposed no geographical limitations. He and Maureen had discussed it, and she agreed that if he found a job with better career opportunities in another country, they would relocate.
Don conducted an extensive job search, then applied for the most promising positions. He interviewed for four of them—and received four offers.
The most attractive offer came from a small company in San Francisco. “I knew that the Bay Area was a hotbed of new technologies, and the idea of living and working amidst it all was exciting. San Francisco just sweetened the pot. I'd heard it described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”
When I told Maureen, she just smiled. “No more Canadian winters.”