Friday, July 22, 2016

"Security Clearance" Part 2

Previously -- my brother Ric and I begin a tour of the Kennedy Space Center.
We pass through the mysteriously darkened Information Center and wander out into the blazing sunlight of the Rocket Garden. The space music follows. Here, a dozen or so famous missiles, or replicas thereof, stand at attention on cement pads or lie on their sides, each with a little plaque detailing its merits and other little plaques with factoids about rocket science for those of us who haven’t studied rocket science. Mercury, Atlas, Titian, Gemini, Apollo, Saturn,  Agena—the  names were designed to evoke the grandeur of gods and timelessness. 
These missiles are all “old-timers” from the early days of the space industry, the ones launched from the launch pads at the “Old Cape” that we will be visiting. At the Space Center, anything before the beginning of the Space Shuttle program in 1981 is considered ancient history. Some of the rockets have been drawn and quartered to reveal their insides and “stages.” Stages, as any Space Coast schoolchild would know, fall off one by one after liftoff when the missile reaches a specific altitude until only the main capsule is left.
I wander over to one of the smaller rockets and read it’s the Redstone. Ah—the Redstone, a name I haven’t heard in thirty-five years. The little plaque tells me that the sturdy Redstone, the workhorse of the 1950s, was drafted into Project Mercury, NASA’s first manned space program in 1958; this was the year we moved to the area so my father could work at the Cape. Project Mercury—how these names come back.  Alan Shepherd rode the Mercury 7 as the first American in space, my brother reminds me.
“Oh, right,” I say.
“And remember that jump-rope thing you and your friends did?” he asks.
“What ‘jump-rope thing’?”
“You know, with the names of the seven astronauts.”
I don’t remember that because I am trying to remember which ones of these corpses my father might have been a part of, or rather I am trying to imagine which because I don’t think I ever knew, and now there is no one left to ask. I think he was part of the Mercury project and so I look for those with that identification. How could a kid not know what rocket her daddy worked on? Isn’t that the kind of thing you’d talk about at the dinner table? Wouldn’t you actually get kind of sick of hearing about it every night—assuming he was home every night?
I suddenly remember my father worked in guidance; he was a guidance engineer. Of course, how could I forget? What an ironic job title for him.
I thought I came to visit this tourist site to learn more about the space industry for my writing project. Now I realize I’m in search for my father. I am looking for some signs of him that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. He has been dead for almost thirty years. I know nothing about his work life, nothing about what he spent his professional career doing —while it lasted— and what he did all day after he drove the Chevrolet coupe and later the VW Bug to join the morning traffic jam on that narrow strip of asphalt out to the Cape. I asked him once what he did at work. “Draw pictures,” he said with characteristic joking. I figured out later it had some connection to drafting, in this case, drafting a missile flight plan. He was always the go-to guy at home for math and science projects. He once explained to me “the rule of thumb” about electrical current, but I don’t remember what it is.
As an inheritance, he left me a cardboard, twenty-four-can Schlitz beer box, a nice sturdy one with top flaps that tuck in. He presented it to me rather ceremoniously after alluding to it for years. Like most drunks, he was famous for repeating himself, but he was also savvy enough to realize the tragedy and irony that the legacy of a cardboard box represents. “That’s what you’re getting,” he would say. As the oldest and the daughter, I would be the keeper of the family heirlooms.
Inside the box were two slide rules in leather cases that he had from this student years, his Navy metals and black leather journal from his days as a flight navigator on an aircraft carrier plane during the war, a diploma in electrical engineering from the University of Miami, and a report card from Thomas Junior High in South Philadelphia. There was a collection of the postcards, two letters, and greeting cards I sent after I left home, maybe fifteen years worth, although I didn’t write much.  For a guy who made his career tracking missile courses, his was conspicuously untrackable. Running out for a pack of Chesterfields when I was a kid could mean two or three days with no sign of his whereabouts.
A couple of tourist kids are dashing down the mock gangplank to the mock Apollo capsule, where they can try out the seats. It was this same kind of gangplank that the crew of the Apollo 1 walked down for the launch dress rehearsal, which ended in an accidental flash fire in 1967, killing the three men. My father wasn’t there, I know. By then, he was out of the industry, never to work at the Cape again. One too many drunk driving arrests and petty misdemeanors meant he lost his all-important, government-issued Security Clearance. Without it, he could no longer drive past the checkpoint gate to get into the Cape. When did that happen, I try to remember. Sometime in the mid-sixties, sometime when I was in high school. I do some quick math and am shocked to realize that my father was a rocket engineer for maybe only ten years.
I appraise the rockets again, this time by launch dates. My brother gives me information, more details than I want to know, about how the missiles work or the peculiarities of some of the components, information he’s gleaned from his prodigious reading and watching the Discovery channel. He takes a professional interest in the welded joints. The only other visitors in the Rocket Garden besides the kids and their parents are a young couple with shiny new wedding bands, who are taking an inordinate amount of photos of each other in front of the rockets.
Why are those other people here, I wonder. What can be their interest in these relics? Why would they care that the two things a rocket needs are thrust and guidance? Thrust gets it into the air, and guidance keeps it on its all-important track until it slots into its orbit above the atmosphere. To be continued . . . 
Copyright, 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster

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