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When father doesn’t know best

Sun., June 17, 2007

WASHINGTON – Doug Hardy was barely inside the door of the National Air and Space Museum when he made up his first “fact.”

On a sunny morning a few days before Father’s Day, Hardy and his son Andrei were huddled under the Mercury capsule. Like countless dads before him, he was explaining rocket science to his boy, in this case how the mottled heat shield protected John Glenn from a fiery death as the craft plunged through the atmosphere.

Then Andrei, 12, asked: What are these dark disks made of?

Again, like countless dads before him, Hardy answered confidently – even though he didn’t have a clue.

“Steel,” he said.

(The shield is actually made from a plastic-fiberglass composite, said Michael Neufeld, chairman of the museum’s space history division. The disks are plugs left over from post-flight analysis.)

If it didn’t occur to Hardy to say, “I don’t know,” he’s not alone. The phenomenon of the “know-it-all dad” is a familiar one to the docents, curators and keepers of America’s museums and zoos.

“Just about every time I’m on the floor, I hear a father say something incorrect to his kids,” said Bobbe Dyke, who has been a docent and tour guide at Air and Space for 31 years. “You can’t butt in and correct them in front of the kids. You just have to cringe.”

Asked about the exchange a few minutes later, Hardy, a Boston-based writer, good-naturedly admitted his lack of metallurgical expertise. Further, he confessed to winging it factwise more than once during the museum-filled road trip with his son.

“Now that I think about it, I guess I make up stuff all the time,” he said. Only a few days earlier, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Andrei had asked how bronze statues were made. Hardy finessed an explanation based on half-remembered notions of wax molds and plaster.

“It was a total BS moment,” Hardy said. “But you’ve got to be the guy who has the answers, right? It’s a habit. What should I say, that I’m 51 years old and I used to know this 20 years ago? That’s not much of an answer.”

Standing in the museum’s entrance hall, Dyke can attach a bit of overheard blarney to just about every icon on display:

“The Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic. (He was the first to do it solo and nonstop.)

“Friendship 7: John Glenn flew the little capsule to the moon. (He was the first American to orbit the Earth.)

“Sputnik: The Russian satellite carried a dog into space. (The sphere – the one at the museum is a replica of the one that went into space – is less than 23 inches in diameter.)

“The Bell X-1: The sound-barrier-busting aircraft was built without landing gear to make it faster. (The wheels are just retracted.)

It isn’t just dads, of course. Mothers are perfectly capable of dispensing misinformation in response to their children’s nonstop queries about the world. But the howlers that get repeated with glee in museum break rooms seem to overwhelmingly feature dads getting it wrong.

“I think dads do it more because they don’t want to admit it when they don’t know something,” said Don Lopez, the museum’s deputy director. “And they make a lot of mistakes.”

The gaffes range from minor, such as Hardy’s misapplied steel, to epic whoppers, such as the forklift that went to the moon.

“That’s one we talk about a lot,” Lopez said.

Workers had put exhibit ropes around a forklift on the floor to keep kids from climbing on it. Sure enough, Lopez said, a boy was heard asking whether it was a piece of space equipment, and his father answered that it had been to the moon.

One area where kids often have an edge on their parents is wildlife biology, thanks to endless critter shows on cable TV and a steady stream of Internet-researched animal reports for school.

“I hear kids correcting their dads all the time on the difference between insects and spiders or great apes versus monkeys” said Alan Peters, curator of the National Zoo’s Invertebrate House. “As a parent, you have to keep yourself in check or you’ll get yourself in trouble.”

But probably no venue generates as much paternal misinformation as the museums, such as Air and Space, that specialize in machines, gadgets and technology.

“This is inherently macho stuff,” said Peter Golkin, Air and Space spokesman and father of two kids younger than 9. “Hey, I work here, and I know a lot about this stuff, and even I feel pressure to come up with an answer.”

Most of the know-it-all dads do start out with a baseline of accurate data, said Beth Wilson, a museum education specialist. They get tripped up when they try to go too deep.

“They have some working knowledge of a subject without fully grasping the details,” she said. “Sometimes we say that a little PBS is a dangerous thing.”


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