Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Better, stronger, faster

With the passing of Neil Armstrong this week, scores of people are reminiscing about the beginnings of the space program and of course, that electrifying moment when the first moonwalk was televised for the world to see. In my own family, we were talking about this but also about my grandfather, who was the Director of Flight Operations for NASA when Armstrong was a test pilot, prior to his time in Florida and eventually, space. Notably, they ran tests on the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft that set speed and altitude records in the early 1960s. In fact, the X-15 still holds the official world record for the fastest speed ever achieved by a manned aircraft. Here’s a story about a test flight gone slightly wrong: “Neil Armstrong’s X-15 flight over Pasadena.”

I grew up in Lancaster, California, where many families are associated with aircrafts in one way or another. Edwards Air Force base, where my grandfather worked, is located beside Rogers Dry Lake, a clearing amidst the desert terrain that provides a natural extension to the man-made runways. Because of this large, pre-existing landing area and the mostly clear weather year-round, the base is ideal for flight testing.

My grandpa died when I was eight years old. I remember him as a well-dressed, serious man with a tough veneer. He seemed to withdraw into the house whenever all of us were gathered—me, my siblings and cousins, 10 kids close in age; my mother says he would turn his hearing aid down so as not to hear us. (He had sustained hearing loss as a pilot). I remember that he took some satisfaction from his vehicles. They had a silver-bullet-shaped camper and a truck. They had a small, cart-like motorcycle they called the Tote Goat, a name that for some reason became attached to my youngest sister Theresa for many years.

We knew that he worked at the base with airplanes, but it wasn’t until his death that we began to understand the importance of his work. He knew local heroes like Joe Walker and national ones like John Glenn. On a wall in her spare room, my grandmother displayed a letter from President Ford, thanking her for his service. But there was one character from this cast that loomed larger than the rest: Bruce Peterson.

I’m sure you’ve never heard this name, but maybe you know another: Lee Majors. In 1974, The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on ABC with Majors as its star. The story centered around the character Steve Austin, an astronaut who had been injured in a crash and rebuilt with assorted bionic parts which made him “better, stronger, faster.” What many people don’t know is that the grainy footage at the start of each episode was actual NASA footage of a crash involving a Northrop M2-F2 “lifting body” craft and a pilot named Bruce Peterson. Unlike Steve Austin, Peterson did not have any bionic parts. He eventually recovered from his extensive injuries but lost the sight in one eye due to an infection. He passed away in 2006 in Laguna Niguel, which is very close to where I live now. Read Mr. Peterson's obituary here.

But my brother and I sort of believed that maybe he had bionic parts, and when he came to my grandpa’s funeral wearing a black eye patch, we were awestruck. For many years, we bragged about shaking the “Bionic Man’s” hand.

I think Mr. Peterson, at least the way we thought of him, bridged the world of my grandfather’s work with ours. We were eight and ten, a time when television, stories, and real life seem to jumble together. A time when men were important and tall and did exciting things. So as the world mourns for that exuberant period where mankind reached beyond earth and built machines that would take them faster, higher, farther, I mourn for that, and for my grandpa, wishing he was here and could tell me all about it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What I learned on my summer vacation

Most writers tend to be solitary, introverted types and even if you’re not, the work inherently requires long periods without contact from the outside world. We write and we spend our free time with family and friends, many of whom may share our habits, experiences and views of the world. Every life can become somewhat sheltered and there are dangers to staying in your homogeneous group, never forcing yourself to confront “the other.”

I just spent seven days on a cruise ship with 2500 others. We were crammed into the long hallways, queued up in the buffet line, streamed into an Egyptian-designed theater for a musical tribute to New Orleans. And there are some things I learned about people (or at least was reminded of), and the ways we’re different and the ways we’re the same. Here are a few:

1)      Some people like to get up early and go to bed early. Some like to stay up late and sleep late. Some people sleep too much; some sleep too little.
2)      Some people are able to eat sweet n’ sour chicken and egg rolls at 10:30 in the morning and swallow it down with a mug of hot chocolate.
3)      Some people haven’t put on a swim suit in a very, very long time.
4)      Some people prefer to whisper, hunched over a table. Some people are more comfortable hollering across a crowded dining room to let their husband know they will be out by the dome pool.
5)      Everyone thinks their child/children are the funniest, cutest in the world.
6)      Most people are indulgent of other people’s children, to a point.
7)      Some people dance like they don’t care if anyone’s watching.
8)      Most people stare and wish they were dancing.
9)      Most people are long overdue for a good laugh.
10)  Some people will talk about anything that occurs to them, uninterrupted, in a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness fashion, if you let them.
11)  Most people have a hard time saying no to dessert (myself included).
12)  Some people are very anxious to put on a full body snowsuit, even for just a day of glacier viewing, even when it’s only in the forties or fifties outside, even when they won’t actually be coming into contact with snow.
13)  Some people have very attractive feet. Or hands. Or figures. Or hair. Some people don’t.
14)  Everyone appreciates a stunning view (except children).
15)  Some people like wet, cold climates where other people can’t imagine living.
16)  Most people are afraid to speak up.
17)  Everyone is willing to help, if you ask them.
18)  Some people will give up their seat for an elderly person. An elderly gentleman will give up his seat for a woman.
19)  Most people probably aren’t entirely themselves on a vacation.
20)  Most people are very happy to return to their homes after being away.

I found it alternately comforting and daunting, the variety within our species. But as a writer who enjoys, first and foremost, writing about people, the experience provided fertile ground for character farming. The woman who threw a fit because she had to remove her silver bangle bracelet for security. The man with the long ponytail who danced alone to a Michael Jackson medley. The older man who stared at the rugged mountains and green-blue water, jotting things down in a notebook and mumbling to himself. Watch for them. You never know when they may appear again.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka