Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gramps and Apollo 11

Gramps loved to take photos of aircraft. In February 1937, he photographed the US Army's first three Lockheed Electra Y1-36 airplanes, of Amelia Earhart fame, and an autogyro.

The autogyro was an early rotorcraft analogous to the helicopter.

On June 5th, 1937, my grandfather's sister Augusta married my grandmother's brother Elmer in Dearborn County Indiana. Gramps and Grammy have been gone since 1981 and 2002, respectively, but Aunt "Gus" and Uncle Elmer are in their 90's and winter with their son Don and his wife Sharon in Maryland. In February 2010, my sisters Matthea and Jennifer and their families and I visited with them all for the first time since I was a child.

My grandfather served in the US Army Air Corps for over 20 years in the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s before working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s. My parents and brother  Mike and I lived with my grandparents in Cocoa, Florida for a few years after Gramps started working for NASA and while my dad attended college at the University of Miami.

When I was four years old, my parents gave me a plastic tool set that included a pliers and screwdriver, with which I successfully removed the baseboard moulding in our kitchen in Atlanta. My family took notice of my destructiveness, if not creativity, and so my grandfather began bringing Mike and me old lawnmower motors to take apart. It was the first time I used real tools, and it required no small amount of torque to remove all the parts, but I never had any interest in rebuilding the motors. 

Gramps retired from NASA in 1971 and moved to Central Florida and personally built his home at the edge of a little lake where I love to visit to this day. He was a fisherman and community handyman for his remaining years, and I had the opportunity to visit a few times as a teenager while he was still around. It was very rural and woodsy at the time, the streets weren't paved, and residents had to take their garbage to a "transfer station" --  a couple of dumpsters by the side of a two-lane highway about a mile and a half away. It was there that I learned the difference between "trash" and "garbage," at least where it referred to household refuse. "Garbage" couldn't be (easily) burned, which is what they did with their trash in a wire basket once a week about a hundred feet away from the house.

Mike and I weren't satisfied with the frequency of my grandparents' trash disposal system when we visited, as that would mean that we would at most see a single trash-burning. We would search the house and nearby woods each day for combustible trash and then fortunately the trash needed to be burned every day. Until the aerosol cans started going off a few days later, Gramps was genuinely surprised at the amount of trash, believing our large family merely went through more trash than he was used to, because he would check the "legitimate" trash before putting it in the basket. We had been by-passing quality control to achieve greater quantity and effect. 

Whenever we visited, Gramps would always be sure to have plenty of .22 ammunition for Mike and me to use. The supply lasted long after he was gone. We lived in a suburban community in New Jersey for many of those years and our only regular opportunity to shoot was during visits to my grandparents' house. We would shoot at paper targets nailed to a tree until being repeatedly summoned to the next meal, or less reluctantly, to go fishing with Gramps.

I don't remember ever being too concerned about actually catching fish over the years, except during our first couple of visits, when we were much younger and learned that Gramps not only liked to feed the fish, but that he had also trained them. Gramps kept a small piece of wood on the dock and every afternoon he would bring out a handful or two of bread crumbs, and knock on the dock with the wood and then toss in the crumbs. Of course, by the time he showed us the trick, he had conditioned the fish to see him coming and they would gather around the dock to be fed. They were mostly small to medium-sized bream, but we would occasionally see a good-sized bass or catfish cautiously come swimming around.

Mike and I found a fishing net attached to a long pole in Gramps' shed and early in the morning we would catch minnows by the side of the lake to use for bait. We would take a bucket to the edge of the lake and SLAM the net down on unsuspecting minnows several times at different locations around the dock at the edge of the lake, and pick through the seaweed for the squirming fishes.

After we had collected our bait, we would each hook a minnow onto one of Gramps' cane poles and walk out onto the dock and knock on the railing like Gramps did and reel 'em in. Well, not quite at first. The fish certainly came around in a hurry, but we soon realized that the bait was too big for most of them and the others were too smart to bite. When we switched to bread balls, fresh bread rolled up in small balls, we did reel them in. When Gramps saw our catch, he told us they weren't worth cleaning and eating, because they wouldn't provide any meat. I used one bream I caught as bait and caught a nice-sized bass, probably still my best ever freshwater catch. Gramps told us it took weeks to re-train his fish after we left.

If Gramps wasn't running his riding mower into the lake, he was always building something. To be fair, there was a significant dry downward slope to the lake during cycles of low rain, and his only two incidents occurred in non-consecutive years, but Mike and I liked to ask him, "Remember when you drove the lawnmower into the lake TWICE, Gramps?" 

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I can say that I was usually building something, but I had begun constructing things much earlier. A few people from whom I still hear might remember that in third grade, Mrs. Shaklee convinced me to play the Cowardly Lion in our class' production of the Wizard of Oz. I convinced Mrs. Shaklee to let me bring in various woodworking tools and materials to build several projects, including a lamp and burglar alarm. Some of the other kids worked with me, and one day Principal Ashley came to our class with a black and white Polaroid camera and took our photo.

My brother and I loved to play pranks on our grandparents, but mostly on Gramps. We short-sheeted their bed, we put minnows in his rain gauge, and when they would visit us, we set off a siren alarm in ordinary places, like when he opened doors or drawers, the magnet would pull off the switch and our split-level house would resound from the siren, while Gramps would loudly proclaim, "BOYS!"

I never washed dishes for fun except with Gramps. I only remember having to be asked to help with the dishes once. Mike and I would either bring dishes or dry them, while Gramps would wash them. We liked to spend time with Gramps, so we would as unobtrusively as possible send the cleaned dishes back into the dishwater after he washed them. Gramps would remark upon how many dirty dishes we all created when we visited, while Mike and I would bring him dirty and clean dishes until one of us would slip up and he would say something like, "Boys, I don't think we have this many thermos caps."

Some of my earliest memories are of watching space flight launches from my grandparents' back yard, especially at night, and looking at Gramps' many model rockets in his study. His Saturn V Apollo rocket dominated the room.

Area gas stations gave out space-related premiums for a fill-up. Shell had a bronze "Man in Space" coin collection commemorating Mercury through Apollo 11 missions and I collected them all. Gulf had something much less durable but far more interesting: a large heavy-duty sheet of paper with punch-out  pieces with tabs and slots with which one could build a lunar excursion module, and I remember Gramps making several with Mike and me.

I was living in Atlanta and was just old enough to remember those eight days in July 1969, when we landed on the moon. My parents made sure to tell me during the launch, "Your grandfather worked on that rocket."

Indeed, Gramps was a member of the Apollo 11 Space Craft Operations Launch team and knew the astronauts. I inherited a special gift to him from NASA in a nice case with his name on it.

Gramps also left me his army uniform.

I would meet Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin at a technology conference in Atlanta almost 30 years later. Buzz was the second man to walk on the moon, and at age 72 in 2002, physically defended himself against a filmmaker who refused to believe he had been to the moon. No charges were filed. I took this photo as Buzz signed my copy of "Encounter at Tiber."

Thanks to Gramps, and because of my Halloween costuming career, I am almost always designing or building a woodworking project, sometimes with unconventional tools. My four-year-old grandson Caleb often asks me, "Remember when I watched you build your fire truck last year?" and uses his Little Tikes plastic saw with great effect to cut cardboard like I do, but I prefer to use the serrated kitchen bread knife.

My grandmother's story is told in My Grandmother's Pennies.

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