Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

Advertisements

Cold in the Heartland

The blast of Arctic air that has moved across the Heartland this week brings me memories of other winters. Growing up in the Heartland, I was accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was below zero degrees F. I was also accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was above one hundred degrees F. We learned to live with such extremes, although central heating and air conditioning made the living far easier.

When I was a boy, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they walked on the moon. When winter came, I chose to imitate their excursion in our back yard. The temperature was five degrees below zero, so it was important to leave no skin exposed; but that was just the point. I was dressing up as an astronaut, putting on double layers of shirt and pants, thick socks, black boots (which had five buckles each), mittens on my hands, a heavy coat with a hood, a stocking cap under the hood, and a scarf across my face. Dressed in that fashion, I went through the back door and backwards down the steps, making a giant leap for mankind. I observed the scenery, took samples of the snow, and played astronaut to my heart’s content. For the next couple of years, whenever the weather gave me the opportunity, I repeated the experience, leaving footprints that would never fade, since there is no atmosphere—and hence no wind or rain—on the moon.

It’s hard to describe the difference of a day below zero to people who are miserable when the temperature falls below forty degrees F. Snow has a different sound when you walk on it in the deep cold of winter—instead of crunching, it squeaks. Frozen fog is a sight to see—ice crystals hanging in the air, not falling as flakes. The coldest days come with clear skies, as the snow reflects the light and heat of the sun back into space. That sunlight glaring off the snow can almost blind a person, especially a person wearing glasses that have just become coated with frost when they hit the cold air.

Heartlanders in general, and Chicagoans in particular, are proud of our ability to face all kinds of weather calmly and stoically. We laugh at dwellers of the desert who come to visit in August and wilt, even though the temperature is only ninety degrees, because the relative humidity is also ninety. We laugh at the foreigners who bundle into their heaviest coats when the first snow falls in October and then take pictures of themselves and each other. We know how to drive in the snow, and we sneer at those who slide off the road. Harsh weather makes us strong, able to face any difficulty, unlikely to be overcome by adversity.

The story is told of a Heartlander who died a couple of years ago; he was sent to the devil’s prison for his sins. The devil knew this Heartlander to be a tough man, so he tried his best to make him miserable. He cranked the thermostat up high, but the Heartlander simply relaxed and said, “Feels like a July day back home.” Annoyed, the devil turned the temperature even higher, but all he heard was, “Feels like the middle of August back home.” The devil decided to try the opposite extreme and turned the air conditioner on full blast. Soon fog was swirling, icicles were forming, and even the devil himself begin to shiver. Satan smiled, though, as he heard the man running around in the fog shouting at the top of his voice. Strangely, though, the man did not sound unhappy. Satan lost his smile when he heard what the man was shouting: “The Cubs won the World Series! The Cubs won the World Series!” J.

Book report

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel; portions of it contained black comedy of a sort. In the plot, the United States has just emerged from a horrible and destructive war. The survivors of the war decide to find a new use for the technology that was developed to fight the war. After brief consideration, they decide to use this new technology to explore outer space.

Of course, if this novel had been written any time after 1960, the plot would be a retelling of current events. Rocket technology was developed by the Germans during World War II to bombard the United Kingdom. At the end of the war, Soviet forces and American forces both sought to capture the German scientists who had developed those rockets. At first the technology was improved only to prepare for another war, as the Cold War was intensifying. By the 1960s, though, both sides were seeing nonmilitary advantages to their respective space programs. In particular, the United States chose the challenge of bringing a man to the moon and returning him to the earth, aiming to achieve that goal before the 1960s ended. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made that historic journey, lifting off in their rocket from the Florida coast and traveling all the way to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin both walked on the moon, conducted scientific experiments, and commemorated their achievement. They even spoke with President Nixon, who joked about the longest long-distance phone call in history.

The novel I read, From the Earth to the Moon, was written and published by Jules Verne in 1865. The war in question was the Civil War, and the technology he described was an enormous and powerful cannon. The Baltimore Gun Club resolves to fire a giant cannon ball at the moon. As plans are made for the cannon and cannonball, a French poet volunteers to be a passenger inside the missile. In the end, three men encase themselves in the cannonball, which is gently lowered into a specially built cannon, located on the Florida coast, and the three of them are shot to the moon.

Jules Verse was one of science fiction’s earliest authors. He liked to write travel novels. (His best is Around the World in Eighty Days.) When considering voyages that had never been attempted, such as one to the moon, he carefully considered just how it could be done, down to the smallest details. He had no conception of liquid-fueled rockets like those that would be used by Soviet and American explorers. Verne’s giant cannon and cannonball would not have worked. In many other aspects of his story, though, Verne captured a historic event and described it well… one hundred years before it took place. J.

The anniversaries of space disasters

The anniversaries of America’s three major space disasters occur on the same week. That fact is disconcerting, to say the least. The Apollo I fire on the ground, the space shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after lift-off, and the space shuttle Columbia disintegration on its landing approach happened on January 26, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 (respectively).

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion brings back memories of that time. My first reaction to the news was disbelief; then I watched television coverage all afternoon. I saw replays of the explosion again and again, interspersed with speculation about what went wrong and reactions to the tragedy. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the nation that evening. I still feel it was one of his finer speeches. In the following days I wrote a song in tribute to the crew of seven, borrowing some of the phrases and expressions I found meaningful in the President’s speech.

My relationship with my guitar tends to run hot and cold. Sometimes I will practice every night in a row for several weeks, and sometimes the guitar will sit untouched for months. One time I failed to use the guitar for so long that it actually broke—the tension of the strings pulled apart the soundboard. A few months later the members of my family gathered enough money to give me cash for my birthday to buy a new guitar. Now I try to get it out and use it at least once a month.

When I bought my new guitar, I got out some of the songs I had written to relearn them. Generally all I had was a sheet of paper with the lyrics and the guitar chords. When I came to “Keep Flying High,” my tribute to the Challenger crew, I played the chords but couldn’t remember the tune. Disappointed in myself, I set the paper aside and worked on the other songs. One day the following week a tune sprang into my head. For a while I didn’t recognize it; suddenly I realized that it was the missing tune to “Keep Flying High.” I made sure then to practice the song so words and chords and tune would remain together in my memory.

The day my mother died, I was in the midst of a string of weeks during which I was practicing the guitar and singing my own music almost every evening. The morning of that day, “Keep Flying High” kept going through my head. Especially the bridge* kept repeating inside my head. Oddly enough, I was hearing the song not as I perform it, with voice and rhythm guitar, but with the words accompanied by arpeggios.* No doubt the words themselves were fitting—“When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face. Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” (The words were inspired by the President’s speech about the Challenger tragedy. He said, “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” Those words, in turn, were inspired by John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s poem “High Flight.”) The oddity was hearing my song in an arrangement I had never created. I still think of my mother every time I sing that song.

When I was a boy, I followed the space program fervently. I wish our country had some mission today that could lead to the same sort of triumph that Americans felt when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Seventeen astronauts died in America’s three space program disasters. Of course every human death is tragic. Every person is a hero or has the potential to become a hero. The shock of a sudden, violent, and public death makes the news and often the history books. In response, though, we remember the death that mattered most of all. We remember the death of God’s Son, the death that conquered death forever. “Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” J.

 

*BRIDGE: In a song that has verses and a repeated chorus, the bridge appears as a third theme that complements the other two themes. It can also be a second theme in a song with verses but no chorus. The “why she had to go…” part of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a good example of a bridge.

*ARPEGGIO: Sometimes called a “broken chord,” an arpeggio is a series of notes played one by one which could be combined as a chord. Harp music often is performed as a combination of chords and arpeggios.