Falcon Heavy, Dad, and the Kid

18 02 2018

 

It was 3 AM on a clear, crisp October morning in 1957 when Dad gently shook me awake and said simply, “It’s time.”

I was instantly alert, and dressing quickly, moved quietly through the house so as not to disturb Mom or my brother and sister, and met Dad in the kitchen of our home in Queens. He poured hot chocolate into matching thermoses, picked up yesterday’s New York Daily News with its stunning story, and we walked into the predawn darkness.

There was a baseball field just a block from the house, and we didn’t say a word till we stood in the middle of the outfield under a star-studded sky.

“Where will we find it, Dad?”  I asked. “How will we know which one it is?”

It was Sputnik, the world’s first man-made moon which had been launched a few days earlier from a Russian cosmodrome. In those Cold War days with duck and cover drills in my elementary school, the notion of a Soviet satellite cruising overhead – and possibly bombing us – was at first terrifying. It dominated the news and triggered scary atomic bomb drills in public schools throughout the country.

It was frightening to everyone except Dad.

To him it was an opportunity one that was not tainted by the racism and discrimination which hung like a cloud over every other occupation in America. Dad said there will be a space race to the moon and the stars, and America will need every smart person it could find to conquer space before the Russians did. If you were good in math and the sciences, he said, the sky was literally the limit.

This was the year after he had “passed” the NY Bar exam on his 5th try. New York had a rule that only the top two blacks who passed the bar could be admitted to the bar. The third time he took the exam he “failed” with a score of 92 – though passage for whites was 65 – but he was 4th among the blacks who took the exam. But he persisted until he couldn’t be denied.

To Dad, space was an untainted field, an arena with no good ole boys blocking the gates. Space was the future for those who were prepared. So there we were in the pre-dawn hours, looking at a story in the Daily News about Sputnik which said it would be passing over NY sometime between 3:30 AM and 4 AM and look like a slow-moving star. And there was a picture of the sky over the Empire State Building with an arrow showing the projected path of this new thing in the sky.

We thought we saw it right about 3:30, though it was headed in the wrong direction. But then Dad said no, that’s a plane and before long we could hear the drone of the propellers as it came in for a landing at LaGuardia Airport. Dad killed the time by asking questions: what kinds of skills were needed to put a rocket with people into space? Who designs it? What kind of wind machine do you need to test the design? How big is it? What do you do for fuel? How do you carry something that burns, like oil, and oxygen without blowing yourself up? Who makes that, a chemist or a pharmacist?

Whenever Dad wanted to me to consider something he’d start with a train of questions, each intended to lead my eight-year-old brain through a logical train till I was able to draw and support a conclusion. In this case, he wanted me to see possibilities in something that didn’t exist outside the pages of Analog, the science fiction magazine.

And then, suddenly, Dad pointed and said: “isn’t that one moving?”

And I followed his arm to a spot low on the horizon and there, in a cluster of stars, one was out of place. It was moving. There was no drone from an engine, no blinking landing lights. Just a slow moving star crossing the Fonda Avenue neighborhood ballfield where a black man and his son stood transfixed at this glimpse of the future till it disappeared on its solitary journey around the globe.

Then we dove into Dad’s question game during the short walk back home. What would it cost and who could keep track of the money and all the parts? Would they need accountants like Mom? Wouldn’t they have to allow black accountants? Dad thought they would – that space was a new frontier and jim crow wasn’t invited.

I wanted to continue but Dad insisted I get a couple of hours sleep before school. I headed towards the stairs and then stopped, turned and said “Dad, I’m going to be a rocket scientist.”

Sleep was impossible, of course. The excitement of stepping into a whole new world, and getting in on the ground floor where you make the rules as you go along had my brain ablaze with possibilities and the determination to succeed.  It was still with me a decade later in the aeronautical engineering program at the University of Michigan. But there I was introduced to journalism, and found I liked writing about the impact of technological development on society more than making that technology.

So the notion of being a rocket scientist was shelved. But the feeling of excitement from that October morning was reawakened when I covered the first Space Shuttle flight from NASA headquarters in Houston. And during a lull in the activities, I called Dad to reminisce. And then the memory of that special morning on the baseball field went back on the shelf, and I went on to spend 50 years in journalism.

And on the shelf it remained. Until this week.

I watched, transfixed, as the booster engines from Falcon Heavy separated and made their precision turn and choreographed double landing at the Cape. 60 years dropped away and I was again that eight-year-old under a long-gone sky watching the future slowly open across the predawn darkness. I was again looking at the limitless possibilities opening up with space travel through the limitless heavens.

And I realized I was crying, and wishing Dad was alive to see this with me.

 





Good Night, Kids: Good Night, Gill

9 06 2011


 

“Was there a touch of spring

in the air?

And did she have a pink dress on?

Wasn’t your first love

A very precious time?

 

            It was predictable that the accolades to the late poet and singer, Gill Scott-Heron, focused on his political commentary and searing insight to the tenor of America’s transitional era of 1960-80. His “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the partial meltdown at the Fermi nuclear power plant was as valid then as it was prescient, 12 nuclear meltdowns later, in this year of Fukushima Daiichi.

But there were two Gill Scott-Herons: the social commentator, and the romantic poet.

And for a single father raising two young girls, the overlooked romantic was an integral part of their upbringing. One of the advantages of being a poet is that no one criticizes you for lacking a singing voice. And to two young girls, the raspy, earnest, off-key, note-breaking Scott-Heron was just another Dad, but one who had a backup band. Which meant he was the perfect musician for me to join in the nightly ritual of singing them to sleep.

His ballad, “A Precious Time,” from his Winter in America album was all about the wonder of first love. But Brie, my youngest, and Kir, four years her senior, were too young to know that.  But they did have pretty pink dresses they pulled out for Easter, in a spring ritual that accompanied the blossoming of the dogwood and cherry trees.


“And when she smiled

Her shy smile

Could you almost

Touch the warm?”

 

            A closing line which would inevitably prompt a “you like our smiles and dresses, don’t you Daddy?”

“Yes Dear. You have pretty smiles.  Now close your eyes.”

Scott-Heron had a ballad for all occasions; something to fit the stories of Blacks in America as told by me or their elders. Their Great Grandfather, Walker Smith – or GG-Pop – gave them several books on  Black Cowboys and regaled them with tales of how his grandfather, the first Walker Smith, wielded a rifle and sword, rode with the Pennsylvania Cavalry, and pretty much won the Battle of Gettysburg single handedly. So when Gill’s gunpowder-rough voice intoned:

“Brother Man run to Nebraska

After the Civil War was through…

Rootin’ tootin’ Wild West shootin’ up Brothers!

Though his-story don’t teach us none…”

 

they would pipe up from the covers about GG-Pop’s cowboy books and how much they liked riding horses. And if it was a scorcher in August, or the holiday season after Thanksgiving, they wanted to hear me and Gill in a duet on “Winter in America” which, to adults, dealt with the Republican push-back against civil rights but to the kids brought cheerful images of snowy days and family gatherings at Christmas.

And the concerts always ended the same way, with two melodies that signified all was well: “A Lovely Day,” and “Your Daddy Loves You.” The first one said look to the bright side for all would be well, regardless of what happened during the day:

“On a clear spring morning

There’s not a cloud in the sky

…when I see that old sun shining

Makes me think that I can make it through

Yes. And all I really want to say

Is that the problems come and go

But the sunshine seems to stay.

Just look around. I think we found

A lovely day. 

          And the latter, with its refrain: “Your Daddy loves you. Your Daddy loves his girls,” simply meant all was right in the world and Daddy would fix whatever was broken. For years, if they woke up in the middle of the night shaking from a terrible nightmare, a brief concert of just those two songs would chase the looming monsters away. “A Lovely Day” would erase the shakes, and they would be asleep by the end of “Your Daddy Loves You.”

The nightly concerts faded away as they became “big girls.” But growing up does not eliminate nightmares – especially the real ones.  At age 15 Brie needed cancer surgery – a prospect that would scare an adult and terrified a 10th grader. Kir, then a college freshman, missed coming home for the surgery because she was in intensive care in a California hospital, where doctors tried to reduce the swelling of her brain stem from meningitis. Brie cried that she wouldn’t live to graduate from New Jersey’s Teaneck High School. Kir cried over the phone that the pain was unbearable and she wouldn’t live to see tomorrow.

          A day after the surgery, Brie was in bed and Kir came home on a medical flight.  As I prepared to leave their room, Kir said softly:

“Daddy, would you sing to us?”

So I got out the records, and began the familiar duet of Gill and Me till they were resting comfortably and I could ease out the door.

A decade later, Kir is married and raising a family in Virginia while Brie is one of many civilian engineers working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. It’s after 10 P.M. on a Friday night this past February, and my wife and I are at a reception for Jeff Johnson, a sculptor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., whose latest show opened to critical acclaim. My cell phone rang. It was from Brie, and she did not sound good.

I found a quiet corner in Johnson’s wood working studio and asked what the problem was.

“We’re in Code Black,” Brie said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s when we have to grab our Kevlar and run for the bunker and wait till the Marines say it’s all clear.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“A bomb went off under my window.  Do you have time to chat?”

She had gone to Afghanistan just before Christmas and this was an ongoing nightmare she had no control over. So I sat on the floor and we talked about stuff: Kir’s pregnancy, my writing, the antics of her three cats now ensconced in my library till she returns.  Then, from an underground bunker a half a  world away:

“Daddy, will you sing to me?”

So I sat on floor, amidst the sawdust, leaned against the sturdy legs of Johnson’s workbench and, going without the aid of Scott-Heron’s raspy voice and tight music to keep me somewhere near tune, sang “A Lovely Day” followed by “Your Daddy Loves You.”

Brie was silent for a moment.

Then: “Thank you Daddy. Enjoy the party.”

And with that, she was gone.

 








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