Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 20, 2010

I AM Steve Douglas … Except for the Engineer Part

Readers write. We listen and respond.

In all honesty, I thought I’d explained why Steve Douglas, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson are recurring personalities here, but obviously not, since one of my fellow alums from The Yale of the Midwest had to ask. And if a Miami Man, a fellow student of Milton White, himself, has to ask, it’s just not as clear as it could be! As Dr. White would’ve said, “There has to be a STORY!” Here, then, is the story for the “Steve, Ward and Ozzie” posts.

When I was a kid, Dad went off to work every morning (in a now-legendary 1951 Chevy pickup). For long periods of time, with some interruptions, Mom went off to work every day, too, though her schedule was different, since she and Dad tried to juggle the schedules so that they could still make certain that we kids weren’t scavenging in the yard for food or anything when we got off the school bus. Anyway, I knew what my parents did. Dad built things, things you could see: houses, barns. Things. We’d go look at them after he built them. Mom was a nurse and worked sometimes in a hospital and sometimes in a doctor’s office, and what she did was pretty clear-cut, too. She’d tell us great stories about the most gory and atrocious things she’d seen in the emergency room. Elephantiasis? Thanks, Mom!

The mystery was: what did those Dads on TV do? They never did things like get into a pickup truck and build houses. Honestly, I couldn’t figure it out, not only when I was just a little kid, but as I got older, too. Where did Ward Cleaver go when he climbed into the Fury and pulled out of the driveway after kissing June? What did he do when he got there? Same with Steve Douglas, who always had some last-minute emergency with one of the Three Sons to deal with before he jumped into the Chevy and roared off — late, as usual — to work. Now, he, at least, we knew was an “aerospace engineer.” What in heck that consisted of was utterly unknown to me.  There were all those other Mystery Jobs held by all the other TV Fathers, too: Ricky Ricardo (he plays the congas in a band?), Bob Cummings (a photographer?), Father Knows Best (???) Danny Thomas (?!?!?!?!) I was clueless.

The Ultimate Man of Mystery was Ozzie: Ozzie Nelson.  It’s clear to me now that my parents and their generation and the generation before were all in on the joke. Ozzie had been the leader of a Big Band, which meant that he had a kind of Power Ranger persona that he could turn into any time he approached a microphone or a camera. They just accepted the fact that although there was a living human being with the name of “Ozzie Nelson,” the really important thing was the creature he became in his Other Life, the Ur-Ozzie. That’s why all he had to do was climb in the Chrysler every morning and roll back down the driveway out of sight. THEY knew he wasn’t going anywhere … he was just being the Ur-Ozzie. I had no clue. I thought a TV show was supposed to mimic reality, and that he ought to be going to some job, although I couldn’t picture it. The earlier generations, raised on radio, knew that Ozzie was one of the Radio People, who inhabited a land of pure imagination, and obeyed no rules. Once he slid out of sight, he was in the Other Realm. He’d be back eventually, but for now he was Gone.

But I digress.

Years passed. I matriculated from various institutions that were my “job” until I was 22 or so. Then I went to work with Dad and my granddad and my uncles and all. Building Things. Then came The Change. I got a job associated with a desk and I wore a suit and everything. I was 33 when I first did that. Before that, I had never really known what went on in office buildings, but I found out. I started making things slightly less substantial than houses and garages and barns, though, at least for the most part, I could still point to what I made on a page or on a TV screen. That job led to a couple more, and eventually a job in California, because The Counselor said she didn’t think she fancied moving to Ohio.

I do go on, don’t I? This’ll teach Pergande to ask any more questions.

Aviation at El Segundo

Aviation at El Segundo

Well, if you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that on occasion my morning commute puts me at the stop light at the intersection of Aviation Blvd. and El Segundo Blvd. in the South Bay of Los Angeles, not far from LAX. Well, make that every morning. I hit the light red every single blessed morning. If I flat-out accelerated to a hundred miles an hour from the previous light, I might catch the light green, but then there’d be other problems to deal with, so I’ve been stopping there every morning for a dozen years.

El Segundo looking East

El Segundo looking East

That is where everything condensed into a single thought one morning. One of those transcendent, crystallizing moments: I realized that after years of not having been able to imagine what Steve Douglas, aerospace engineer, did when he left Bub and Robbie and Mike and Chip each morning, I not only knew, but I was living his life. All around me were the descendants of Steve Douglas. These were the employees of Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Hughes Aircraft, Raytheon, the Aerospace Corp., SpaceX and the Los Angeles Air Force Base. Occasionally I still see the bumper sticker that sums it all up:

“As a matter of fact, I AM a rocket scientist!”

In the cars around me at the intersection every morning are the men and women who design, build, launch and control space missions and airplanes and satellites and the systems that control them all.  Their cars have bumper stickers and window stickers that bear witness to their contributions to Space Shuttle missions and APOLLO missions (fewer of those as the years go by)! They have license plate frames proudly showing that they were team members of various satellite launches. The buildings on the street have big radomes, dish antennae and standard mast antennae. Fifteen years ago, the men were more likely to be wearing white shirts and dark ties and pocket protectors than today, but, yes, they ARE Rocket Scientists.

That’s why the street is named “Aviation.”

My company does business with most of these firms, and that’s why my office is there. In just the past couple of weeks I’ve been at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to interview some of my colleagues who work on the Hubble Space Telescope, and I was up in Pasadena at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to interview another team of co-workers.

Yes, there was that singular morning that I realized that I finally knew where Steve Douglas was going when he pulled out of the driveway, and that, other than the fact that I’ll never learn calculus or be able to do more than multiply single-digit numbers with a slide rule, I’m Steve Douglas. And Ward. And Ozzie.


Maybe I can aspire to be Ozzie. Everything takes time.

The photo was taken at the intersection of El Segundo and Aviation, looking west.


  1. We are our own world. And sometimes, that is a world of imagination. Me? I’m not Ward or Ozzie in my mind.

    Think “Paris School,” 1920’s era Paris. Montparnasse quarter, home to immigrant artists (not French artists as you might think from the name of the so-called “movement” or “school”).

    So, when I’m in art school or at home doing a painting, I’m really in Paris, a bohemian artist mixing with the likes of Modigliani, Chagall, Man Ray, etc. Just call me “Modi” for short.

    Thanks for sharing. Great insight.


  2. Brad, I didn’t see your L.A. photos until after I sent my last reply. Love ’em!

    Have you heard of Ed Ruscha? An artist/photographer in I think the 1960’s who put a camera in the back of his truck and let it run click-click-click while he drove down non-descript L.A. streets. Then he developed and put those photos together in like a 10′ long strip. Art. So “L.A.” Preserved some history for eternity.


    • I have seen one series — I’m pretty certain it was Wilshire. Very interesting.


      • Yes, I saw that one, plus an updated “derivative” one in color by a contemporary L.A. artist about five years ago. Ed’s Wilshire series featured just the most ordinary of shop fronts. No glitz, no glam. Could have been almost any city of single story buildings along a boulevard. Strangely appealing to look at.


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