We get to go inside a rocket launch blockhouse filled with 1960s technology!
We are now passing Hanger “S.” Hanger “S” is where the Mercury astronauts prepped for launch, Dave tells us. I don’t really care that much about astronauts, although it’s fun to see a famous building we watched on TV. I think my father met a couple of astronauts, officially at work, that is, but I’m not sure.
What I am most excited to learn, though, is that we are going to—and into—the Launch Complex 26 Blockhouse! I know not everyone can say this, but I have always wanted to go inside a blockhouse, especially one my father might have worked in. They have turned this one and the surrounding area into part of the Air Force Space & Missile Museum, the part that can only be accessed by this very special, security-cleared tour we are on. Nearby it are Launch Complex 5/6 from where Alan Shepard and later Gus Grissom were launched on Redstone rockets.
I’m sure this has something to do with my father. I know he spent time in launch blockhouses. I know, or am pretty sure, he worked on Redstones, at least on the unmanned suborbital missions. Or test firings. Yes, I think he was a test engineer or maybe that was before he was at the Cape when he worked for Sperry Gyroscopes in Virginia. Oh, it’s all so confusing, the numbers and names and places and dates and jargon attached to someone’s life, especially someone in the space industry, but I think my father was actually here in this blockhouse, or one very like it.
The tour bus stops in front and we are told we can wander at will or follow a docent-led tour. In any case, we’ll meet back at the bus in a half hour. And, by the way, this is the last bathroom on the tour. I leap up to get off but am still beat by a line in the aisle. Ric is calmly waiting for everyone else to go ahead. He has learned some kind of Zen acceptance somewhere along the way that I missed out on.
The Russians are chattering among themselves excitedly as they stoop to peer out the bus windows at the white squat cement building with the slight igloo hump for a roof, also cement. We have already learned that the walls are two-feet thick while the roof varies between five and eight feet. The sun hits me in the face as I make the final step off the bus; I forget how forceful and ubiquitous it is here.
The docent swings open one side of the double blast-doors, a heavily plated gateway to a twentieth century fortress. Like the entrance to a cave, the narrow entry-way opens into a small chamber, large enough for a dozen or so people to stand comfortably and now decorated with rocket “cheesecake” photos. On either side, doors lead into the two firing rooms, the control rooms from where the rockets were launched, where the buttons were actually pushed to fire up the engines, I’m excited to note.
We learn that everything in the firing rooms—control panels, equipment, lighting fixtures, wiring paths, paint schemes—are original. The buttons and control handles are cute, looking almost like toys with their rounded braised metal edges, shaped and sized for mere twentieth century humans just cutting their first space baby teeth. The black buttons stamped with numbers look like the keys on an old-fashion typewriter. On the front of the control panels are tiny pullout ashtrays like the one in my father’s 1954 Chevy. Inside are cigarette butts—original cigarette butts, the docent tells us. Like a child, I imagine that maybe one is my father’s, but then I see it is a Lucky Strike, not a Chesterfield.
Two blue-green slits like reptile eyes look out at the launch pads only four hundred feet away. The window glass is comprised of forty-two layers of quarter-inch glass. Forty-two layers of mica-thin glass, laid one on top of the other very carefully, then heat-fused into a solid block. Even though you can see through it, the view is fuzzy and only the big outlined shape of, say, a rocket, or a palm tree, or a man’s life with the hot fiery blastoff of anger obscuring everything else, can be seen before the shape slowly rises.
Then I see the Burroughs guidance computer. This one is identical to the two that were installed in the Radio Guidance Center. I associate the words “radio” and “guidance” and “test” with my father; he was a radioman on the Navy plane, after all, a test engineer at another point. I’ve heard the word “Burroughs” sometime in the past, the way children hear those grownup words without knowing their meaning and then repeat them knowingly.
I read that these computers were used to control the rockets’ flight, using five receiving dishes and transmitting guidance commands back to the rocket. In later years, my father mentioned that he had used some of the first computers back in the day, the big clunky kind. Indeed, the docent tells us, “The processing computers on board a Mercury mission are now available in a thirty dollar wristwatch.” I stare at the long brown metal machine, vaguely rusting, but receive no messages from it.
I wander outside, another sleepy Florida afternoon. It’s well past a half hour that we have been here, but no one seems concerned. Some of the other tourists are still inside asking questions; others are sitting at the benches overlooking this Rocket Garden; the tour guide and bus driver are jawing with a couple of the docents. I walk out into the St. Augustine grass, carefully watching for sticker burrs, and sit down on a chunk of cement. Some kind of bird calls from the palmettos in the late afternoon light.
I try to make up a story, a story not about what was, but composed of “what ifs” and “as ifs,” a story that makes my father something other than a minor engineer on a big project who drank his way out of a Security Clearance. In this story he is not the father who didn’t come home at night. Instead, he is the kind of father who brought us out here on one of those Saturdays in the 1960s when they briefly opened the Cape so the families could see daddy’s rockets, a father like one of those on TV who dispensed loving guidance to his kids after work.
Too sappy, I think. It can just be an ordinary story. My father would be a regular guy who does his job well, maybe singled out from time to time for his good work. Still the hail-good-fellow kind of guy who others greet in the hall and he always has a joke or a story for. Buck, a great guy, a four-square guy, who maybe in later years the younger men call Mr. Buckmaster until he tells them to just call him Buck. And at home, he really plays the mandolin, not just a few chords then stopping with a “hee-hee” when he messes up. And turns his quirky creative mind into witty columns for the Orlando Sentinel every month . . .
“What are you doing?” My brother is suddenly beside me.
“Nothing.” I realize this is an answer I have given before in my family when interrupted in the middle of one of my stories. “So what’s up with all the knives?” I ask.
“My knives? It’s just my pocket knife. And the Leatherman has a little knife on it.”
A Leatherman, a pocket multi-purpose tool in case he has to fix something along the way, like our father would have.
We rejoin the tour group. Dave winds up again. A jackrabbit dashes across the crumbling, nearly abandoned road. We are headed toward the launch pad of the disastrous Apollo 1.
“The next stop, folks,” Dave says, “is hallowed ground.” Fini
Copyright, 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster