Monday, July 13, 2020

*****Reaching For The Stars-With The Apollo Moon Flights In Mind

*****Reaching For The Stars-With The Apollo Moon Flights In Mind 

By Bradley Maxwell

Several years ago, in a period when Larry Turner after years of studied denial and distain began to think about the matter both as a way to clear up his head on the issue and to satisfy a growing curiosity, he through the beauties of modern high-tech got in contact with some old classmates of his from Riverdale High. The fact of the matter was that he had been thinking about doing so for a number of years before that but somehow that studied denial and distain always got in the way. The impetus of an upcoming class reunion, or rather knowledge that it had been almost fifty years since he had graduated from high school with the Class of 1963, had sharpened his senses about clearing things up, getting some questions answered about why so many years ago he had as he called it “brushed the dust off his shoes” from any connection with the town, and those whom he had known there.

Despite the fact that so many years had passed and some questions would never be answered for the simple fact that some of those who would have known the answers to Larry’s inquiries, including his parents and a couple of his best friends who had died in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, he decided to “suck it up” and find out what he could find out about where the roads had gone awry on him. That said Larry was not thinking only about the dramatic and heavy burden of family misunderstanding and the like but about his youth, and about the days when he was in his way filled with wonder, filled with a desire to reach for the stars at a time when that was physically no longer out of the reach of humankind. Yeah, so Larry wanted to think about the days when if he had stuck with it he could have reached for the stars, gone on a different road.  

Getting in contact with old classmates these days from fifty years ago with all the modern social networking apparatuses to choose from is almost as simple as walking across the street in the old days to see if “Jimmy” was home and did he want to go to the courts and play a little hoop. In Larry’s case that was made easier by the simple expedient of Googling on the Internet for the Riverdale High School Class of 1963 and he came up with two quick possible sources of information. First a Facebook page put up by Nora Morris (nee Daley), who had been the Class secretary, had been a head cheerleader, and had been the chief social butterfly on all the committees that mattered in high school, the Fall and Spring dance, class day, prom, and Civic Pride committees. Moreover she still lived in town, still lived in Riverdale, and had a million connections that Larry would make some use of later. The second source which had been linked from the Facebook page was a website dedicated specifically to the upcoming class reunion. So Larry was in business.

Now Larry was not all of the following: a class officer, a sports player, a dance, Fall or Spring, class day, prom, or Civic pride committee member, or any school clubs. So he had not particular affinity with Nora Daley, and she probably did not even know he existed, but he nevertheless contacted her about joining the class website (he had seen nothing on Facebook that except some names, most of which he recognized if he did not know personally, and what they had been doing since high school, which would have helped him in his quest except that link to the class website). He sent her an e-mail via the website saying he wished to join the group.

Now the way this website stuff works, or the way it worked for the Class of 1963, was that all two hundred and seventy-three members of the class who graduated had their class photographs listed on the site (those who had not had their photographs taken for the yearbook simply had their names listed). If you wanted to join the site you just clicked on your name, provided some information, as much as you desired to tell a candid world, clicked on a “submit” icon and you were, pending webmaster Nora’s okay, a member of the site. Larry cleared all those low-bar hurdles and Nora sent him a personal e-mail via the site both to welcome him and to tell him that as he suspected she did not remember him from school.

And why should she have remembered him since in many ways he had been the angry young man, for lots of reasons including a hazardous home-life, had been as filled with teen angst and alienation as Johnny (Marlon Brando) in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel  Without A Cause  two films which he closely associated himself. Although when he was younger, when he was eleven or twelve, he had been as full as pipe dreams and good will as any kid at Danner Junior High.                            

Nora Daley in her role as class site webmaster, and probably just the way she was as a personality, in order to generate some on-going conversation would put up a bunch of questions on the homepage of the website. Silly things like-who did you have a secret “crush” on, who did you go to the prom with (Larry hadn’t), do you remember those great night before Thanksgiving rallies in support of the football team’s struggle against arch-rival Overton High in the gym (Larry did attend the one senior year), and who was your favorite teacher (Miss Soros, Larry’s  English teacher but she did not like him, or rather thought he was an underachiever, a bad sign in her book).

But Nora also posed more serious questions like how did it feel to live in the red scare Cold War night during school with all those crazy air raid drills which were worthless if you thought about it if the Russians decided to throw the big bomb at us. Like what was your attitude, if any, about the black civil rights movement down south that was filling up all the newspapers and televisions with its details. And like the question that Larry felt very comfortable with-what did you think about the exploration of space and what it would do for humankind (Nora used the more old-fashioned “mankind” reflecting perhaps an older learned ethos in her question).           

Larry was not sure whether Nora was asking these questions based on some rote recitation from some on-line time-line for the late 1950s and early 1960s when those events were current and came up with the questions that way or whether these were issues that she was interested in knowing the answers to for some other purpose. The way the thing worked was that if you had an opinion on a question you would write it up and submit it on that particular class opinion and comment page. Larry had briefly mentioned that he had attended the Thanksgiving football rally in senior year and had written a paragraph about it-mainly about how he was supposed to meet an unnamed girl who promised to be there who never showed up. And that was that.  

Larry did the same thing, or almost the same thing, wrote a couple of paragraphs on the question of space exploration, a subject that had fascinated him when he was in junior high when he fancied himself a budding rocket scientist like a million other kids, a million other guys mainly. He had also mentioned in that posting that he had recently gone down to Washington, D.C. on some business. After that conference was concluded on a whim, or not so much a whim as curiosity  since he was knee-deep in reading Norman Mailer’s literary account of the latter part of the “space race,” the struggle to put a man on the moon, Of A Fire On The Moon, he visited the Air and Space Museum just off the National Mall and noted that the old time thrill of wanting to be a rocket scientist (rather than his profession as a lawyer) came back, including memories about what it was like to have a sense of wonder back in those times. Stuff he had not thought about in many years.    

That little posting got Nora to response and ask him to expand on what he was talking about. About that sense of wonder and intrigue connected with space flight, with being part of, if only vicariously, the efforts to win the space race. Larry’s posting had also prompted several other classmates to tell of their interests, a couple who were actually as he remembered serious about science and were members of Mr. Roberts’ science club after school and who went on to have roles in the NASA programs. Larry wasn’t sure he wanted to expand on what he had written in that first posting but Nora had as the Noras of the world will do “pretty pleased” him into writing something. This is what Larry wrote:   

Space Wars, Circa 1960-by Larry Turner

Nora’s Question: In school in the early 1960s did you ever get caught up in the euphoria over the space program?

“We, all of us, are now old enough and presumably have seen enough of this sorry old world, to have become somewhat inured to the wonders of modern technology. Just witness the miracle of cyberspace that we are communicating through this very minute from all our diverse locations. My answer goes back to the mist of time when humankind had just developed the technology to reach for the stars, and we had the capacity to wonder.

For myself, I distinctly remember, as I am sure that you do as well, sitting in some Riverdale classroom as the Principal came over the P.A. system and hooked us up with the latest exploit in space. John Glenn's trip around the earth comes readily to mind. My friends, I will go back even further, back to junior high school, when we were just becoming conscious of the first explorations of space. The reaction to the news of Sputnik, the artificial satellite that the Russians had put up in 1957, drove many of us to extend our range of scientific knowledge.

I vividly remember trying to make rockets, in the basement of our family apartment, by soldering tin cans together fused with a funnel on top. I also remember taking some balsa wood, fashioning a rocket-type projectile, putting up wiring between two poles, inserting a CO2 cartridge and hammering away. Bang!!! Nothing.

After that failed experiment my scientific quest diminished. Moreover, I, a few years later became much more concerned about the fate of my fellow earthlings and trying to correct a few injustices in this world, but that is another story. Now that I think about it the question posed above really is aimed at those, unlike myself, who moved beyond boyish (or girlish) fantasies and used that youthful energy to get serious about science. Maybe you should tell us your stories.”

That little “dare” prompted William James Bradley, that is the moniker he uses now in his very successful car dealership in Overton, but back then, back when he was Larry’s best friend, or something like that, they never quite figured it all out, he was just Billy, to post the following “true” story about Larry’s early space exploits. This is a very different take on the meager offering that Larry provided. Here is what Billy had to say in his comment in response to Larry’s posting:  

Billy, William James Bradley, comment:

Yeah, I know I haven’t talked to most of you in too long a while like I told you I would when I came on this class website. But Larry Turner’s very somber post at Nora’s request about his youthful interest in space got to me. Got to me when he cut short a lot of the details that really happened back then. Guess who was with him all the way with his rocket science inventions. Yeah, me. 

So I am going to set you straight and tell you all about my best friend, Larry Turner, I always considered him my best friend so I don’t know where that “something like that” came from over at Danner Junior High, and his ill-fated attempts to single-handedly close the space gap they kept talking about once the commies put that Sputnik satellite up in orbit in 1957. Some of you who know me, knew me and my troubles back then at Danner, know that I was still kind of broken up about something around that time. Yeah, for you that don’t know I got caught up in some, well I might as well just come out with it, woman trouble, alright girl trouble, okay. So that colors the story a little, explains why I had time to spend with Larry and his foolish experiments. Just to let you know shortly after these space events I helped Larry with, once I discovered Elvis’ real take on the honeys, One Night Of Sin I got a new girlfriend, well, really an old girlfriend, an old stick girlfriend, Cool Donna O’Toole, that I had, as Larry always kidded me about, “discarded” when love Laura who had ditched me came into view. That isn’t getting us to the Larry space odyssey you’ve been waiting breathlessly to hear about so forward.

And I will get to that in just a second now that I think about it, or the heart of the story, but let me just take a minute to tell you this background story. It seems that Larry had had no objection, and shouldn’t have had, after all of Nora’s prodding, to having his space odyssey story told but he just wanted to tell the story himself. That is why we got that cock and bull whitewash  he posted but after I sent an e-mail and confronted him I said no way, no way on this good green earth are you going to get away with telling it that way. Hell, by the time he got done we were all to be weepy, girl weepy, or something about his tremendous contribution to space science rather than the simple truth- Larry should not be let with fifty miles, no, make that five hundred miles, no, let’s be on the safe side, five thousand miles from anything that could even be remotely used for launching rockets. Yeah, it’s that kind of story.

Besides, here is the real reason that Larry shouldn’t get away with his story, and I told him so. Larry, no question is a history guy, that’s probably why he wound up as a lawyer. He was crazy for people like Abigail Adams, and her husband and son, the guys who used to be Presidents, John and John Quincy, back in the Stone Age, and who Adamsville a few towns over is named after, one of them anyway. He also knows, although I have no clue why, about old times Egypt from going to the Thomas Cromwell Public Library branch at school and taking the Greyhound bus, taking the bus for that reason, can you believe this, over to Boston to the Museum of Fine Arts to check out their mummy stuff, and tombs and how they dressed and all that. Yawn.

Larry was also crazy for reading, not stuff that was required for school reading either, and writing about it, a book guy, no doubt. Get this, as an example that I have never forgotten whenever his name comes up, one time he told me about a book of short stories that he was reading about by a guy, an Irish guy, a chandelier Irish guy, Fitzgerald or something like that, who wrote stories about rich kids, very rich kids, rich guys with names like Basil mooning over rich girls. And rich girls with names like Josephine swooning over guys. Nothing big about that but like I told Larry at the time how was reading that stuff going to do anything for you, for us, trying, trying like crazy to get the hell, excuse my English, out of small town Riverdale. He’s was a cloudy guy see, even if he was my best friend.

But here is something funny, and maybe makes this reading stuff of some use sometimes. Larry read in the Foreword, who the hell, excuse my language again, in this good green earth reads the Foreword, that one of the stories, one of the Basil stories wasn’t published because the publishers didn’t believe back in the early part of the last century that ten and eleven year old boys and girls would be into “petting parties.” Jesus, and I make no excuse for saying that, where had those guys been, and what planet, not earth. Definitely not then in Riverdale with us poor small town boys and girls. So history and book reading that sums up Larry in those days. Does that sound like a guy who can tell a space story, a nuts and bolts space story? No, leave this one to old Billy, he’ll tell it true.

I don’t know about you but I was not all that hopped up about space exploration, space races, or Jules Verne although I will admit that I was a little excited about the idea of those space satellites going up in the sky, those that started with the Soviet Union’s first object in space, Sputnik. But when they started sending robots, monkeys, mice, and small dogs I lost interest. I figured how hard can it be to do the space thing if rodents can make the trip, unmolested. Besides I had my budding career as a rock star of the Elvis sort to worry about so other kinds of stars took a back seat.

Not so Larry. The minute he heard, or maybe it was a little later but pretty soon after, that Sputnik had gone up, that it had been the Russkies who were first in space, he was crazy to enlist in the space race. I swear I had to stop talking to him for a few days because all he wanted to talk about, with that certain demented look in his eye that told you that you were in for a lecture like at school, was how it was every red-blooded student’s, make that every red-blooded American student’s, duty to get moving in aid of the space front. It was so bad that he would not even heard me talk about the latest rock hit without saying, hey, that’s kid’s stuff I got no time for that. Bad, right.

Now this was not about money, you know going around the neighborhood collecting coins for the space program like we did to restore the U.S.S. Constitution when it was all water-logged or whatever happens to wooden ships when they get too old. And it was not about maybe going to the library to get some books to study up on science and maybe someday become a space engineer and go to Cape Canaveral or someplace like that. No this was about our duty, duty see, to go out in the back yard, go down in the cellar, go out in the garage (if you had a garage) and start to experiment making rockets that might be able to make it to space. See what I mean. Deep-end stuff, no question.

Now I already told you, but in case you might have forgotten, Larry was nothing but a books and history guy, and maybe a little music. I had never seen him put a hammer to a nail or anything like that, and I am not sure that he has those skills. I do know that when we were making papier mache dinosaurs in class one time his thing did not look like a dinosaur. Not close. But one day he got me to go with him up to Riverdale Center to the hardware store to get materials for making a rocket. Larry was nothing if not serious in his little projects, at first. At the store we got some balsa wood, nails, aluminum poles, guide wire, a knife built for carving stuff, and about ten CO2 cartridges. The idea was to build a model (or models) and see which ones have the contours to be space-worthy.

Over the next couple of weeks I saw Larry off and on but mainly off because he was spending his after-school time down in the cellar of the apartment house where his family lived working on those balsa wood models. Then one day, one Saturday I think, yeah, it was Saturday he came over to my house looking for help in setting up his launch pad. The idea was that he would put up two aluminum poles, stretch the guide wire between the two poles and demonstrate what he called the aerodynamic flow of his models by attaching his balsa wood models on the wire with a bent nail. Propulsion was by inserting a CO2 cartridge in a crevice in the rocket and hitting one end of the cartridge by lightly hitting it with a nail. I was to observe at the finish while he covered the start. After about half an hour everything was set to go and Dr. Von Turner was ready to set the explosion. Except moon man Larry hit the nail into the cartridge at the wrong place and, if it had not been for some quick leg work that I still chuckle over when I think about it (like now) my friend would have lost an eye. Scratch balsa wood models.

Oh, you thought that was the end of it. Christ no. After catching some hell from his mother (and a little from me) he was back on the trail blazing away. This time though he kept it very low. I didn’t even know about it until he asked me to help him get some materials from that same hardware store and the Rexall Drug Store uptown. So here is the brain-storm in a nut shell. He said he saw the error of his ways in the balsa wood fiasco- he had used the wrong fuel and the whole guide wire thing was awry. This time he intended to simulate (yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either until he told me it was like practically the same but not the real thing, or something like that) a launching like he had seen on television and in the Bell Laboratories Science films we saw at school. Okay, get this, he built, using his father’s soldering iron, a small rocket out of tin soup cans (Campbell’s, naturally, just kidding) with a tin funnel on top and flattened metal for wings. Hey, it really didn’t look bad. The fuel, I swear I do not know all the ingredients but they all came from either the hardware or drug store so that gives you an idea about something. Apparently he read about it somewhere.

So, again on black Saturday, we are off to the back field to launch the spaceship Billy (named after me, of course) into fame and fortune. We set the rocket on a small launch pad that he made; he put in the fuel from a can, and then closed it off with a fuse device at the end. I, as honoree, was to light the match for take-off. I lit the match alright except a funny thing happened- the rocket quickly, very quickly turned into an inferno, and almost me along with it, except I too did some fancy leg work. Christ, Larry enough. And the lesson to be learned- you had better be young, quick, and have your insurance paid up if you are going to hang out with maddened rocket scientists.

After that experiment I think old Larry lost heart. A few days later I saw him reading a book about Abraham Lincoln so I guess the coast was clear. Oh yeah, and at school a week or two later he asked me if I had heard Jerry Lee Lewis’ Breathless yet. Welcome back to Earth, Larry.

Larry laughed when he read Billy’s posting. Sent him an e-mail with one word-Touche. But here is the funny thing Billy’s little missive got him thinking about something he saw at the space museum down in Washington. They had on display for the whole world to see the actual vehicle, or a test model, of the landing craft which the Apollo 11, the first men to land on the moon, used. Larry was amazed by the sight and spent some time looking at all aspects of the vehicle.  What startled him was how amateurish the whole thing looked (as some of the other exhibit did as well). The thing with its odd-ball hooks, its off-center antennae, it patches of foil here, some misshapen boxes there, it funny landing pods looked like something he might have created in those halcyon days when he had enlisted himself in the space program when it counted. His conclusion; maybe he had given up too early on his rocket scientist dreams. Maybe he shouldn’t have been bullied by Billy to go back to reading books and listening to music.     

Thinking about Billy though and his posting Larry began to think about that F. Scott Fitzgerald reference that Billy mentioned. Not about Fitzgerald’s Basil and Josephine stories but about The Great Gatsby and that haunting last few paragraphs that kind of summed up something about humankind. Larry wondered if those Apollo astronauts when they landed on the moon had the same sense of wonder about the prospects for that place as those long ago Dutch sailors did as they saw the first “fresh green breast” of land as they hit Long Island Sound. He hoped so.    

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