Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

For His Eighteenth Birthday – 5/16/05

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

For His Eighteenth Birthday – 5/16/05

The barrel is warmed by my hand’s reverent grip,
rounded edges looking improbably soft.
Its walnut stock, marred here and there,
each scratch a story I can never know.

This is my Grandfather’s gun.
A long ago present from a father to his son.

A harsh gift, some would say, viewed through the lens of today’s world.
Yet a tender and well reasoned one for so long ago.

The hours it has spent hanging over his young shoulder.
The woodland glades it has crossed, reflecting the autumn sun.
The ducks and pheasants that have fallen to it,
and the dinners and sandwiches they later became.

I am told it is a good gun. A collector’s piece, now.
I am told of its value, but I know its real worth and I am rich to have it.

This is not my gun.

I am but its steward.

It will be kept clean and dry,
oiled and shining,
just as he kept it.

This is my Grandfather’s gun,
and always shall be.

3/3/05 – Stories

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

Stories – 3/3/05

There is an old man out on the island with me.

You don’t see him in his yard much anymore, though he once was out all the time.

He’s mostly deaf, though he can still hear a little.
He’s mostly blind, though he can still see shadows.

Almost a century has passed in his life and I would love to know the stories,

but how do you ask?

Do you say, “You shall be gone soon, so let me know your secrets.”

How rude to ask, even in softer words.
How presumptuous to request for the keys to his life.

Still, bones tell no good yarns and then, it will be too late.

Some day, I too wish to be old.
I hope they will be braver than I.

Ask away.

Familiar Faces

And so, we bring to a close the winter holiday season, and I must say, I’m sad to see it pass. What’s been unusual and wonderful this year is that we’ve seen a lot of my parents over the last week and a half. They had come up on Christmas Eve and only departed for home today on the fifth. Making it even better, they didn’t have to stay with us in out dollhouse-esque abode. We can do visitors for a day or two, but anything more than that and things get decidedly cramped. I know families used to all live on top of each other just a few generations ago and I’m sure it provided good warmth in beds, but personally, I’ll happily let that aspect of the past go in favor of being able to live with some privacy.

Mom and Dad have a weekend place they stay at on the island, and though originally intended as a summer cottage when it was first purchased, I believe they have closed it down for the season only once. That was the year before Short Stack was born. Since then, my folks have sort of dragged their feet when it comes to draining the plumbing and removing all the freezables in preparation of letting the house go dark for the winter. Last year they talked about it a lot, but in the end, they put off the decision so long that it made no sense to finally go through with it. Personally, I blame adorable grandchildren, but then, I might be biased.

Even when they are not coming up for extended stays, they are, more often than not, here on the weekends. That means Short Stack and Lulu Belle get to spend a lot of time playing with my parents and that, for obvious reasons, makes me very happy. I have a very strong and good relationship with my folks and to see my son and daughter get to forge their own memorable relationship with them, well… that’s hard to beat. It’s a boon for my parents as well since I’m it as far as offspring go. My kids are their only grandchildren and they dote on them to a ridiculous level.

From Short Stack’s point of view, the best thing about visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house is the sleepover. As a child, for whatever reason, I had a very hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I just didn’t want to. I’m not sure if I was actually afraid or simply very uncomfortable, but the effect was the same. When it came to spending the night at a cousin’s or grandparent’s, the answer was always, “No, thank you.”

Not so, with Short Stack.

When he stays over, it’s with a huge smile plastered over his tiny, round face and if it is my unfortunate duty to tell him, “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I can just about bank on carrying a very sad and confused little boy up the stairs to his bedroom in our own house. I’ll also be peppered with questions right up until I tuck him in as to why he couldn’t stay at Gram and Gramp’s tonight and could he PLEASE stay tomorrow as well as promises of being a good boy. Personally, I’d rather get a stab in the arm rather than run this guilt gauntlet, as thrown down by a little red haired, blue eyed three year old.

Kid guilt to parents is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I’m meeeelllll-ting!”

This last week, I think Short Stack has spent more nights away than he has as home. It’s tough as a parent, but heaven for the other parties involved.

Action Girls folks are much loved by our kids as well and though it means a log drive to go and see them, the fun that they have is always worth the slog up north. Whether tromping off to the farm next door or simply running around the yard with my wife’s folks, the kids always look forward to the visit and hop in the car like eager riders on some unseen rollercoaster.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love their Grandparents, both sets, but more importantly, they know them, and know them well.

It was something that occurred to me last night as I pawed through the genealogy project that my Father has been working on for some time now. It started, for me anyway, when my Father’s Mother passed away. She was the youngest in her family and as such, was the holder of the family photo albums. In her little apartment attached to my aunt and uncle’s house, resided picture albums reaching far back into our own little slice of history. Faded black and white photos of half remembered people whose faces look familiar, but only in parts.

She didn’t have much to leave behind other than the photos and after the funeral service, we all wandered into her apartment with the idea of collecting a keepsake to bring back home to remember her by. As we entered, I brought up the idea of not touching the photo albums, but scanning them instead. Once digital, we could all have copies. It was agreed to by the lot of us and after a fashion, the complete set of family faces dating back to the turn of the last century had successfully entered the computerized world. For what ever reason, I never got a copy, but Dad did. Over the intervening years, my Father has been finding out exactly who is whom and making lots and lots of notes.

While Short Stack and Lulu Belle napped one day, I took a moment to look through the old photos with Dad. Some, I had seen. Others were of aunts and uncles whom I knew and could still talk with. The ones of my deceased grandparents furrowed my brow with sadness even as I smiled broadly at the memory of their voices, still echoing in my ears.

Then I found this.

To anyone outside our immediate circle of family and friends, this picture might look mildly interesting as a snapshot in history. There isn’t much to see here, honestly. At lest to the foreign eye. The cloths are for cold weather and the shadow of the tree shows bare branches, so we know it’s winter. The house behind them is large and windowless so we can guess that it might be an apartment building. The child has many holes in his obviously worn stockings, so you could also surmise that they were poor, and you’d be right. The man and the little boy could be anyone.

But they are not.

They are my Grandfather and his Father. The Father, is a man I never knew. A man, in fact, that my Grandfather barely knew, for he died when the little boy in the picture was only about ten.

What stopped me cold were the faces. My Great-Grandfather’s face looks identical to my father’s as I remember it from my own childhood. My Dad’s face has aged and changed now, but when I was a boy, this is what my Father looked like, exactly. In his arms, the child, no more than three, looks eerily like my own son. The same build. The same round face, even the haircut. It’s a very good match, indeed. To top it all off, there has been a long succession of men in the family with one of two names. It’s alternated, actually and both of these names have seen heavy use in a family that has, for four generations, hung onto its surname by a single thread. I was the end of the line before my own son was born. He is it now.

My parents, for reasons of their own, decided to break from tradition and gave me a first name that had not been used by our family since, (so far as we know) the sixteen hundreds. I’ve always been happy with it, but when it came time to name our own son, looking down at his pink face, I knew without doubt what his name would be. The family tradition was back on track.

When I look at the picture, I see my Father and my Son, and because of my parent’s choice, the names of those two long passed figures, match the names of the living. I must admit, it sort of unnerves me, but I can’t look away.

My Dad printed me a copy of the photo and I’ve already framed it up and hung it in the living room. Whenever I walk past, I stop and glance and it makes my heart beat a little harder. It’s funny to react so to the picture of a man whom I never met and the face of a child whom I know grew up to be the old man with the ubiquitous cigarette, thick glasses and thinning hair. But that is not who I see, after all. It’s far closer to home to my eyes.

As the kids wake up and come downstairs to join my parents and me in their home, I can’t help but feel happy for them. They will remember this now. They are old enough. Lulu Belle I still a munchkin, but she’s catching on fast. Short Stack, with his elephant like memory, will clearly recall these days with his beloved Grandparents, either here or at my in-law’s and for my part, I feel like a member of the work crew, forging the moments that link lives together so that they can be relayed to future grandchildren, yet unimagined.

My Mother’s Father lives not too far from us these days. Maybe only an hour away, though there always seem to be some reason why we can’t go today or the next.

I think it’s high time we pay him a visit and work on those links some more.

We only get one family.

2/27/05 – To Unlock

Monday poem, A Year and a Day

2/27/05 – To Unlock

How evocative a key can be.

We see them everywhere and they jingle in a familiar way which we know without ever having to guess.

It is something unique in all our lives.

But what are they and what have they been? Some flat, short, two sided or dimpled.

I look at the loop of keys on my desk and I can see the places they each unlock.

The standard, ubiquitous key to the front door at work. The diminutive brass keys to fit padlocks on sheds back home. A large, old fashioned skeleton key which turns the bolt on my front door. Even the keyless key that locks the car when I fish for the chapstick in my coat pocket.

“Ka-Click” Damn it!

It feels wrong to throw away a key. It is the thing that opens a special place. The thing that grants you privileges closed to others.

It seems that a key is the small piece of somewhere you can take with you.

It does so much more than turn a lock.

It is a reminder of privacy.

Dangerous Poems

Background:

There is a short, daily radio program hosted by author and entertainer, Garrison Keillor called “The Writer’s Almanac.” He starts off with some information pertinent to that day in history and then reads one poem. Here in Maine, the show is on at eight in the morning and I often heard it on my way to work as I drove along, alone with my own thoughts. Here is my take on that experience.

Dangerous Poems- 2/25/05

My car hums along the morning highway and the man with the laconic voice, the man from Minnesota, comes over the radio.

It is time for dangerous poetry.

This is always a moment of apprehension. This is a moment to hold the breath and be ready to snap the volume off or… pay close attention and let the vision develop.

My day has just begun and could be anything. My mind is open and uncluttered, waiting to find out how things will go.

Will it be drawn up in hope and humor?
Cast off in deep thoughts?
Or crushed in some previously unknowns personal misery?

Will it be:
“I met a funny man in a cap…”

Or,

“Cancer has gripped her body and hopes…”

Perhaps I’m a coward, but it seems that it’s too early this morning for cancer. The day is fresh. My smile is easy, but as the Minnesotan speaks the words, I listen with worry in my eyes.

On?

Off?

My hand hovers over the dial.

“I saw a woman with a bright blue hat today…”

Oh, thank goodness.

And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

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