Crawdad expert to engineer in 2 weeks

In 1995, I walked into my son’s third-grade open house, and nearly tripped into a kid’s swimming pool teeming with crawdads — specimens for the class’s wildly popular lesson in the lifestyle of crustaceans. Rocket nabbed one of the largest fellows, and gave me a mom’s-eye view as it squirmed a couple inches from my nose.

“See, Mom,” Rocket instructed with the seriousness of a pint-sized zoologist, “this is called a cephalothorax, and this is the abdomen. Its claws tear up food and defend against danger.”

The crawdad’s tiny black eyeballs wiggled this way and that, and claw-like pincers clacked away as though they were playing castanets, seeking to settle a score with its human intruders. I ooh’d and ahh’d with great enthusiasm, fascinated by my 9-year-old’s impressive grasp of crustacean facts.

Last week I watched that same son, who had somehow turned 26 in the span of about two weeks, defend a thesis titled “Predicting Vehicle Dynamics for Roadside Safety Using Multibody Systems Simulations,” a 185-page document he authored as a requirement for his master of science in mechanical engineering degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Rocket stood before an audience that included learned-looking professors, several high-IQ students decked out in stereotypical mismatched genius garb, Hunka Burnin’ Hubby, and me. Slides bearing complicated charts and illustrations flipped on Rocket’s Power Point presentation, and my ears heard one thing while my heart heard something else entirely.

“Multibody systems software such as Adams assume rigid body motion and cannot simulate component deformations,” Rocket explained. “Thus, it should only be used to predict suspension dynamics and vehicle trajectories through shallow ditches where bumper contact with the ground will not be significant.”

As far as I was concerned, he may as well have been speaking Swahili. I abandoned trying to understand the lingo, and focused on the man who was once a kid waving a crawdad. Visions of mileposts danced in my head: first bikes and fishing poles, fast cars and prom dates, big amps and loud guitars, graduation cake and college dorms. I remembered the image of father and son bent over an ailing engine, conferring a diagnosis with the hushed tones of surgeons. I recalled pairs of blue-jeaned legs poking out from under a jacked-up Mustang, and tools scattered across the garage floor.

“Hand me that 11/16 socket, will ya, Mom,” he’d say, with greasy outstretched hand.
And all of a sudden time lurches forward, and you’re sitting in a room full of academics, listening to your son speak a learned man’s language. The slides in my mind’s presentation were filled with the equations of marriage and family, babies, toddlers, teenagers, and young adults; of triumphs and worries, suspicious silence and hair-raising noise — the flotsam of a gear-headed family’s life on the plains of Nebraska.

Rocket’s classroom and lecture hall days, which have swung from castanet-playing crustaceans to multibody systems simulations, and everything in between, will wrap up in fine and impressive style when he receives his master’s degree later this month. My days of watching him present his findings to parents and professors will come to an end, too. It’s been a pretty great run.

Hunka Burnin’ Hubby and I will be in the crowd, wearing the expressions of proud parents who have watched our son grow into a fine young man.

Tamera Schlueter

Tam Schlueter adopts a "strike-fast-and-keep-them-laughing" approach to writing. Her column appears every Thursday in the Hastings Tribune, and showcases the wonder of family, dogs, muscle cars, and folks with blue collars and no-nonsense attitudes.

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