1970 – Philadelphia, PA
My father was talking to me in the living room as we watched what was happening with the Apollo 13 mission. They were going to land on the moon too. But on the way there they had some technical failures. They were losing oxygen. I asked my dad what was happening, thinking the astronauts and NASA were indestructible and infallible.
“If they don’t get this fixed son, they won’t make it back.”
Hearing those words drove home the reality of life and how fragile we all are.
What a terrifying moment for Jim Lovell and his crew. Happily, we’ve all seen Ron Howard’s film with Tom Hanks and it has a very happy ending.
January 1986 – Wildwood, NJ
I was working at Circle Liquor in Somer’s Point NJ. It’s one of the most profitable liquor stores on the east coast. It’s so big, you can drive your boat up to the place. I was pushing a shopping cart full of Canadian whiskey in the warehouse. I was about to go out into the store and stock the shelves. Another one of the guys came through the doors with his cart.
“Hey man, the space shuttle blew up.”
By the mid ’80s, the shuttle missions had become so commonplace no one really paid any attention to them anymore. America was accustomed to going into space. They thought it was getting boring so they let a school teacher go along for the ride.
“Yea, the Challenger blew up.”
“The one with the school teacher, Christa McAuliffe?”
I thought about it the rest of the day. I got home that night before my father. But when he did arrive, he went straight upstairs. I walked down the hall to his room and went to see him. I stood at the doorway and he was taking off his suit jacket. He saw me there and stopped. We just looked into each other’s eyes for a moment before we both started crying.
“Why do they keep showing it over and over on TV?”
“Because they want viewers, son.”
We hugged, and didn’t speak of it again after that. A terrible tragedy that didn’t need to happen. It was a heartbreaking day for the space program and most of all this country.
“The last man to be here was never heard from again.
He won’t be back this way till 2010.
Now I’m riding on a fountain of fire.
With my back to the earth, I go higher and higher.
Why me? Why me?” – Planet P
I was working at the Union Trust Bank as a Branch Manager. I had finally become a banker like my father. He was very proud of me. I cut my hair, put on a suit, and joined the ranks of humanity.
One morning my dad gave me an article he had enjoyed in the New York Times magazine. (Which was included in every Sunday edition back then.)
It was an article about a group of scientists that were working on a project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It was called SETI.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
We were both really into the idea of life on other planets and had discussed the prospects at length. We weren’t a religious family, and the notion that Earth was a solitary entity to support life in the universe was poppycock to us.
With billions of stars out there, life would have to exist somewhere else. It’s just good science. I loved the article so much, he let me keep the magazine.
By the time I read that article I was already well ensconced in every book I could find about alien life in the universe. The Roswell incident, Crash at Corona, Out There, and Communion. Any book I could find, I would read. I had even become a card-carrying member of MUFON. (The Mutual UFO Network) I just knew something was out there and was captivated by the scientists at the JPL making an effort to contact them.
I wrote to one of the scientists (Edward T. Olsen) on that project. I composed a heartfelt letter that described what I had experienced with my father growing up in regard to space. I remember closing my letter with this statement; “I would be happy to mop the floors at your facility just to be near something that you’re trying to accomplish.”
To my shock and awe, he actually got back to me. I was blown away. He had said he was so impressed by my letter, that he read it to the team at his weekly meeting. He wrote to me an extensive four-page letter that was wonderful. I was so excited I couldn’t wait to read it to my dad.
I remember sitting in his kitchen. Just the two of us as I read the whole letter aloud to him. He was ecstatic.
But the one thing I remember from that night was this; When I finished reading the letter, he had one question for me.
“Do you have a copy of your letter? I want to hear what you said to him.”
I get a four-page letter from a dude from NASA, and my dad is more interested in what my words were to that man to get him to write back to me.
Huge father and son moment.
I’ll dig out the magazine and the letter and publish them on the blog at some point.
Here’s an interesting point. I wrote to that scientist one other time after that. I didn’t tell anyone, but I had some ideas about how an actual flying saucer could navigate it was through space. My father always told me that nobody would come here because they were too far away. But he was thinking about what he learned in books. He only learned about linear flight from point A to point B on a traditional, solid rocket booster.
But I thought that if you could generate enough of a gravitational force, you could literally pull point B to point A in a short amount of time. It was a bunch of theories from a 24-year-old young man about exotic propulsion systems for interstellar travel.
I didn’t hear back from the scientist. Years later, I was scheduled to attend a business junket to California when I worked at a finance company. I called the scientist and actually got him on the phone. I remember sitting in my hotel room and talking to him. He remembered me and my first letter. I told him I wanted to take him up on his offer of visiting the JPL and taking the tour he had offered me in his letter.
But, he said that wouldn’t be a good idea. I asked him what he thought of my second letter, and he said he never got it.
I was working for a finance company, and I read in the paper about a book signing that was happening at a store that wasn’t too far from my office. I really wanted to slip out and attend it.
The year before, Howard Stern‘s book, Private Parts had published. He was syndicated in the Philadelphia market on rock radio WMMR each morning, and wildly popular.
When his book came out, I remember seeing people lined up around the block to buy it. Howard was, and probably still is, that popular! It was the fastest-selling book in the publisher’s history and sold a whopping 1.1 million copies by 1995. Pretty impressive numbers for a guy that talks about farts and sex all morning on the radio.
So, I didn’t know what to expect when I was going to this particular book signing. Were all book signings a manic line of fans lined up around the block to meet their hero? I only have a limited window to do this and get back to the office.
I get to the Barnes and Noble, or Borders bookstore in the next county. I see a sign on the window for what’s happening that day, and head in. I spoke to one of the employees and told her why I was there.
“Where do I get in line?”
“Yea, for the signing.”
“Just go right back there. He’s sitting right back there at that table.”
I walk back to where she told me to go. It felt like slow motion. Through the long aisle of books. I felt small. It was like being a kid again walking through the bookstore with my dad in Bradd Alan’s in Cheltenham, 25 years ago.
I come upon the man at the table. He’s an older gentleman with a kind face, and a sharpie in his hand. Stacks of his book Lost Moon are piled in front of him and in a box on the floor. There’s no line of people to meet this national hero. No line going out the door and around the block.
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir. I’m Charles.”
“Hello Charles, I’m Jim.”
The commander of Apollo 13 is sitting right in front of me in a bookstore on a rainy day in the suburbs of Pennsylvania.
He signs the book, “To Horace, Jim Lovell.”
My father said it was his favorite Christmas present that year.
What it really comes down to is this. My father wanted to be present in all of his kid’s lives because it mattered. It made a difference. He wanted to be there for us all because of his own father’s absence. He didn’t want to follow in the mistakes of the past. He and my mother helped my sisters and I evolve into the people we are today.
And for that I am eternally grateful.
Thanks for interstellar trip, dad! We stayed on Earth but we went around the sun 54 times together!
Here’s a cool commemorative stamp my dad got me that went to space!
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