Albert Clark Reed – Disappearing Scientist

A continuation of: The Road To Happiness: A Series

From the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s:

In an old photograph, Albert Clark Reed looks like just another balding man in a coat and tie, a 45-year-old husband and father from the 1950s. He has a thin mustache and a pleasant half-smile that looks as if he were being coached by some portrait photographer.

His wife, Florence, called him a “cool, levelheaded scientist and test pilot.”

He graduated from Caltech in 1929 and returned for more studies in 1932. During World War II, he was a flier and worked on classified military projects, The Times said in 1954. After the war, he and Florence lived in Seattle, where he tested and designed aircraft for Boeing.

Albert and Florence moved from Seattle to Pasadena in 1944 and bought a home near the Rose Bowl. A few years later, they had a son, Timothy James. There had been some arguments between Albert and Florence, but apparently there was nothing more seriously amiss. And maybe they had some money problems.

“He loved to bet the horses,” Florence said after he disappeared. “Bet them heavily. Even owned two horses once. I don’t know. He may have been having financial troubles. He never mentioned finances to me. I know he made a good deal of money. As much as $3,000 or more a month. But he never discussed such things with me.”

In early 1952, Albert finished work on Project Vista, a controversial program stemming from the Korean War that also evaluated how existing technology — including nuclear weapons on the battlefield — could be used by NATO countries to repel an attack by superior forces of the Soviet Union.

That summer, he was scheduled to meet with military officials in Washington about some classified matter; it’s not clear what it was.

On Monday, July 7, 1952, Albert got in his 1941 sedan with his briefcase and bag of clothing and headed for Caltech, according to The Times.

But he never arrived on campus.

The years passed — years of waiting and wondering and investigation by police and the FBI. Years of crackpot calls and crushed expectations.

Until she died in December 1955 at the age of 39, Florence never gave up hope that Albert would return.

“I want Al to know that if it’s a matter of pride, if he’s ashamed to come back, if … well, no matter what he’s done, I want him to know we want him back. No matter what he’s done,” she told The Times in July 1954.

Florence couldn’t keep up the house payments, and without proof that Albert was dead, she couldn’t claim any money on his large insurance policies, so she let them lapse.

She and Timmy moved to South Pasadena and she got a job selling welding rods and did public relations until she had a nervous breakdown. Albert’s disappearance was especially hard on their son, who had a heart ailment, The Times said.

When Florence died, Timmy went to live with relatives back East and changed his last name to theirs.

Police turned up a few leads: Albert sold his sedan to a Pasadena car dealer for $106. He sent Florence his driver’s license and a handwritten will in an envelope postmarked San Bernardino. The day after he vanished, a woman called Florence and said, “Your husband is being held for information” and “the plans are in the den.”

In 1955, an acquaintance ran into Albert in San Gabriel and they had a few drinks. Albert said he was going to go home and clear up his family affairs. But he never did.

In June 1958, Alfred Cole Reese appears in news photos. He’s 51, lanky and muscular, tough and wiry and completely bald. He’s wearing jeans and a heavy denim work shirt with sleeves rolled up, exposing muscular arms. Alfred looks like a hardened endurance runner. His face is lean and his eyes are tired and sad, The Times said.

Alfred could fill in his life — what he did after he disappeared — but he couldn’t explain why:

After selling the car that morning, he took a bus to Phoenix, where he got a job through the Teamsters moving freight.  He bought a motorcycle.  Eventually, he wound up working with horses and became a racetrack groom, migrating from Del Mar to Santa Anita to Hollywood Park, wherever there was a job.

Horses, he said, are “wonderful, intelligent, sensible creatures. I enjoy working with them.”

No one suspected he had ever been a leading scientist, The Times said. In fact, nobody around the racetracks ever showed much interest in what he had done with his life. All they knew is that Alfred had a good way with horses. “One of the best grooms I ever had,” his employer told The Times. If it hadn’t been for a new law that racetrack employees had to be fingerprinted, Alfred’s earlier life might have remained a secret forever.

At first, Albert said he intended to keep on working with horses. He had a warm reunion with Timmy, but decided that his son was better off with relatives.

By 1959, with some refresher classes at UCLA, Albert was once again in the aerospace industry, at Del Mar Engineering Laboratories, which made weapons training systems for interceptor pilots. He was living with a family in Brentwood and had bought a horse. “It seemed to me that maybe I could contribute something to our national security,” he said.

An anonymous reporter asked whether he thought he might someday return to the stables.

“You can never tell,” he said.

And with that, Albert disappeared from the pages of The Times.


He just grew bored with his life.

Albert Reed gave all the normal indications of being perfectly willing to follow the accepted pattern of behavior–hit the ball hard; make as much money as possible; climb as far and as fast as possible and try not to step too hard on the faces of others as you rise; join the right organizations and live it up for progress and conformity; keep your affairs in order; make a will and be ready to lean quietly forward over your desk and expire from either a heart attack or a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 52.

And some men really do enjoy their lives of responsibility and find purpose and meaning in their wives, their mortgages, rising up the ranks at their job, raising their children, mowing their lawns on Sundays…

For other men though this life is like a noose around their neck that grows tighter year after year.  Finally, to avoid suffocation, they strike out on their own.  Sometimes they disappear themselves like Albert Clark Reed did.  Or they die.  Inside.  Their soul dies.

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