Remembering My Dad
by Michelle Evans
R. Bryce Evans
7 February 1928 to 27 December 2015
When my dad was in his early 20s, he suffered an accident that many people would find debilitating for the rest of their lives. Working for the telephone company he grabbed for a cable with his gloved hand, but the hand got caught. The glove and two of his fingers on his right hand were literally ripped away. I believe this was a defining moment in his life. Would he descend into depression or would he take it as a challenge? As you might guess, it was most certainly the latter. I truly believe he based so much of his attitude throughout the rest of his life on that incident, never allowing anything to deter him from what simply had to be done. If anyone could be said to be an eternal optimist, he was the personification of that concept.
When I came along many years later, he taught me self-reliance. An example is that when our old Honda 90 trail bike got a flat tire, he simply told me to go fix it. I figured he’d come out and guide me through how it was done, but instead he left me to my own devices to figure it out. That was a defining moment in my life, like the loss of his fingers were in his. From that time forward, no matter the problem, I was eventually able to reason it out, and find a way forward.
Dad worked in the aerospace industry at the height of the space program. I watched him head out to work at Convair in Pomona. He told me of what he did with concepts for their space station designs, and I saw people working in space as a natural thing that maybe someday I might do myself. He traveled a lot, and it was fun to go see him off on a commuter helicopter that flew from Pomona to Los Angeles International. When the bizarre new building went up at LAX that housed the Encounter restaurant, there was an observation deck on top where we went to watch the very first commercial jets land and takeoff.
When I was only in kindergarten, dad changed jobs and was working for a company called Sangamo Electric. He provided instrumentation tape recorders to military installations like Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Weapons Center. My life changed one day when he asked if I’d like to come along on a jaunt up to Edwards. He picked me up on the curb outside my school and we headed up into the desert. I immediately fell in love with Edwards, and all the excitement that transpired there. The big thing at the time was the X-15 rocket plane, which became my passion, so much so that I literally wrote the book on that amazing research program. Without my dad, that never would have happened.
My dad and I used to go on many trips together. A favorite place was Baja California, where we spent a lot of time at destinations like San Felipe and Ensenada. For him these places were great fishing spots, while I saw them more for the exotic adventure of being in a (nearby) foreign land. For a while, we actually leased some property an hour or so south of Mexicali on the Rio Hardy river. I worked with my dad on a design for an airboat, but we never got that far as my parents divorced when I was 13. Contrary to what happened with most kids in a divorce at that time, I chose to live with my dad. I looked on it as just another adventure!
On 20 July 1969, we were living in a tiny apartment in North Hollywood. I had a special blue plastic chair where I had removed the legs, so I could sit on the floor in front of the television. From that spot I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land and walk on the lunar surface; my dad, right behind me on the couch. We were both transfixed for the entire mission, although he held in his emotions much better than I did.
We often went back and forth to the San Francisco area. One trip, late at night, I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up I glanced over at the speedometer and noticed it sliding back down the scale from 100 mph! I looked at Dad and he had a big grin on his face. He told me he took my snooze as an opportunity to see what his ’68 Olds Cutlass could do on the open road of Interstate-5 up the Central Valley. I recall he said we hit 114 that night, and he did it while I slept so I wouldn’t be scared. Instead I berated him for not letting me be awake while he zipped along at high speed. That was the fastest I’d been in a car, and didn’t go faster until I was on my own later in life. His love of the road definitely rubbed off on me—as my wife, Cherie, will attest to this day. I love nothing better than knowing I’m getting in a car for a road trip, and will soon be over the horizon.
Dad built things. He didn’t just go out and buy a house, he helped build them before he moved in! Another example is that he loved old cars, and one day he towed an old Model A to our home in Upland to tinker on. He never got very far on it, so the junker lingered in the backyard for several years before it disappeared in the divorce. I used to love to play on it, and it sat right outside my window. Later, when he had a bit more time he decided to build a kit car, based on a Volkswagen chassis. Dad chose a 1923 Bugatti. It was a beautiful car, and I loved to drive it myself on occasion. My only problem was that it was a bit small for my 6-foot, 2-inch frame.
For him, the second time at love turned out much better than the first. After moving to Sunnyvale, he met an upstairs neighbor, Celee, and they hit it off, soon deciding to get married. I was all for it. She was a teacher and loved books. That was more than good enough for me! My favorite early memory of her was when we were fixing spaghetti for dinner one night in her apartment, and to test to see if the noodles were done she had heard that you should toss one at the kitchen wall to see if it stuck. It did—and it was still there when she moved out! She was, and still is, a wonderful stepmom, and her family is just amazing, especially her three sisters who have always been so kind to myself and Cherie.
When I first transitioned, I was very hesitant to let my dad know what was going on. Frankly, my mother, my wife, my therapist, all told me never to tell to my dad, that he would never understand. It eventually got to the point where I knew I had no choice. How could I possibly have a relationship with him and somehow keep this massive secret? I used to be able to walk three miles a day. For weeks before I made the phone call to break the news, I spent my entire walk going over and over the conversation in my head.
The day finally came when I picked up the phone. I truly believed this was going to be the last conversation I would ever have with my dad. I nearly panicked when he answered the phone, as I was hoping he might be out, and thus I would be safe for another day. But I forged ahead, and eventually got out the basics about the fact that I am transgender and was transitioning. There was a long silence, and I kept expecting a click and a dial tone. Instead, he finally spoke, saying, “My god, what hell you must have lived.”
I can never express what those words meant to me at that moment. My dad had never even heard the word transgender before I talked to him that day. He explained very simply that I was his child, and nothing would ever change his support for me in all things in my life. Within a day, he and Celee were back on the phone asking what my new name was. I can’t think of a time since where either of them screwed up the gender or the name. Not many trans people can say that about their parents. Conversely, with my mother, she didn’t want to talk about it, pretending it didn’t exist. When I first spoke to her about being trans, she said, “No, you’re not!” It took more than a year before she would even hear my proper name—and much longer before she would use it. Such a difference between one side of the family and the other.
To drive this fact home, my mother never spoke with any of her neighbors about me, and was afraid if I visited that they might ask questions. On the occasion of my dad’s 80th birthday, Cherie and I went up to Mariposa to be with dad and Celee before heading down to San Jose to be with her family for the celebration. One afternoon we all went downtown to grab a sandwich. Mariposa is a small, conservative town, and it struck me as I ordered my sandwich that maybe my presence might be detrimental and used against them by neighbors and friends. When I got to our table, I asked dad if my simply being there might cause him and Celee any problems. He didn’t hesitate for a second when he answered’ “Of course not! I’m proud of you, and I talk about you all the time.”
A few years later, after 30 years of research, I finally was able to settle down and write my book on the X-15. In the Introduction, I wrote about how my dad had been the first to instill in me that love for exploration, and how he had first taken me to Edwards where I got excited about the aircraft that would be a major focus in my life. I spoke to him on the phone one day after the book came out and told him about his influence on me. Dad told me how he truly hadn’t realized he had anything to do with my passion, and I actually heard a crack appear in his normally stoic voice. It was one of the very few times in my life he allowed his feelings to come to the surface.
One last comment having to do with my dad and his three fingers: When I was very young, I used to think how this was simply normal, and I wondered when I would lose those fingers on my hand as well. A weird thought to be sure, but this was also at a time when I though the television show Bonanza was real, and we could one day visit the Ponderosa! That’s what happens when you look up to your father the way I did. One day at a bowling alley, there was a kid and his father playing with my dad. The kid was fascinated by his lost fingers and asked him what had happened. Dad replied that he loved bowling so much that he decided to get rid of the extra fingers he didn’t need in order to hold the ball! That’s the type of guy he truly was.
My dad gave me a focus in my life. It took a very long time for me to figure that out, but it was there nonetheless, even when I took no notice of it. I hope he would pardon me for being somewhat slow on the uptake.
I wish I could ask him if he would still be as proud of me as I always had been of him. Thanks Dad for being my father. No one could have done it better.
Me and Dad.
Dad, showing off in his younger days.
Dad, holding court, on his 80th.