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Scientist disappears

June 20, 2008 | 11:24 am


Albert_clark_reed_1954_0707_crop Dropcap_a_1952_vadis_2lbert and Alfred... Before and after... Lost and found... Found but still missing ... still haunted by something and still walking in a dream. 

I pulled the photos of Albert and Alfred from their old-fashioned paper envelope, slightly tattered and crumbling--the kind The Times used before the library switched to manila folders.

Albert is just another middle-aged man in a coat and tie. He's losing his hair and has a thin mustache, with a pleasant half-smile that looks like he was being coached by some portrait photographer. Albert Clark Reed, 45, looks like any other husband and father from the 1950s. His wife 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 says. After the war, he and his wife, Florence, lived in Seattle, where he tested and designed aircraft for Boeing. The Times says he was a consultant and test pilot on the Stratocruiser, a problematic aircraft with a troubling record, like the Romance of the Skies, which crashed at sea in November 1957.

1957_1110_plane Albert and Florence moved from Seattle to Pasadena in 1944 and bought a home near the Rose Bowl at 475 Bellmore Way. A few years later, they had a son, Timothy James. There were some arguments, but apparently nothing serious. And maybe 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 ($23,706.89 USD 2007) or more a month. But he never discussed such things with me."

On Monday, July 7, 1952, Albert got in his 1941 sedan with his briefcase and bag of clothing and headed for Caltech. He was preparing to meet with military officials in Washington about some classified matter; it's not clear what it was. He had recently 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. (More about Project Vista here).

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 false hopes. Until the day she died in 1955, 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."

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 for a manufacturer until she had a nervous breakdown. The disappearance was especially hard on their son, who had a heart ailment, The Times said. When his mother died, Timmy went to live with relatives back East and took their family name.

Police turned up a few leads: Albert sold his 1941 sedan to a Pasadena car dealer for $100. He sent Florence his driver's license and a handwritten will in an envelope postmarked San Bernardino leaving all his possessions to her with instructions that Timmy was to get everything in the event of her death. The day after he vanished, a woman called Florence and said, "Your husband is being held for information" and added "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.

Albert_clark_reed_1958__0619_crop Photograph by Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times

Albert Clark Reed, photographed at his mother's Glendale home in 1958.

Dropcap_a_1952_vadis_2nd here's where we meet Alfred Cole Reese in 1958. He's 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 some of the missing pages of 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. 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. 

In looking at Albert's story, some people saw a rebel courageously abandoning the 1950s rat race run by the men in the gray flannel suits.

A Times op-ed piece by Al Thrasher said: "Albert 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 mount; join the right organization and whoop 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.

"But one day Albert Clark Reed looked around him and said: 'Nuts.' "

A reader replied:

"Any major change we make in life, especially a drastic one, takes courage... but to abandon one's family, to run away from any responsibility or obligation can hardly be classed or praised as wise and courageous."

The only man who could actually explain his behavior was at a total loss for why he vanished.

Albert_clark_reed_1959_0707"Time and time again, he closed his eyes for long seconds after a question, his facial muscles working, his tired mind focusing futilely on blurred pictures," The Times said.

"And time and time again, he answered softly:

" 'I can't recall ...

" 'I don't know ...

" 'I'm so confused.' "

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.

He still couldn't provide an answer to the eternal question of why he vanished.

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.

Postcript: After Florence died, an attorney handling her estate discovered that she had a secret life as well. Using the name Florence Green, she had hidden $17,500 ($133,571.50 USD 2007) in cash and jewelry in five Pasadena banks.

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