Monday, April 04, 2011

Memoirs of a Rocket Kid & Fathers

Thinking about my father today, so I thought I'd post an excerpt from my memoir Rocket Lessons about growing up as a Rocket Kid.

Like the men who built the railroads, Dad was an adventurer. In space, what mattered was audacity, not polish. Manners were not part of the calculation set. But my father was not even as calm as other rocket engineers. He was blessed with a thundering voice and a quirky nervous system that did not permit him to sit down for more than half an hour, unless he was too depressed to get out of bed. His Depression-era childhood made him imagine he fit into working class San Pedro. He saw himself as similar to the Europeans who had come here in the 1900s to create what you could call a fish rush. But Dad was nothing like the slow-moving Slavs and Italians. Dad's voice preceded him by two rooms' length and he never stopped talking. He prided himself on being in the elite vanguard. He had received his top secret clearance, shaken Louis Dunn's hand and met Werner von Braun. The Russians were launching missiles that could put nuclear bombs in our back yards, and that gave everyone at STL a permanent headache. No wonder Dad's twitch was getting worse.

We had no idea how high the stakes were. No one yet envisioned men on the moon and satellite-deflected communication. We used rotary dial phones with cords. If you had to call France, you sent a telegram. There were three channels on our black and white television, and none came from farther than the transmission towers in Baldwin Hills. All we knew was that Dad was strung tighter than piano wire. When he came home from Florida he reverberated like the top-hat in a drum set.

"Dolph's got my ass in a sling. Ga-dam bean counters wouldn't reimburse me for the raincoat I lost. Next expense report, I'll say, okay, you sons-a-bitches, go ahead and cross off the raincoat – if you can find it. It's in there. Only it ain't called 'raincoat.' Geezacrist, if we don't get this payload into orbit, I can move to Rosarita Beach and fish all day."

He jumped up and wandered around the living room, inspecting the furniture as if to find fault. My mother smoothed her apron and rubbed her lips together to spread lipstick the way she did when guests arrived, but she did not have lipstick on. Dad repeated gleefully, "Move to Rosarita! Fish all day!"

She emptied the ashtray into the bowl of discarded peanut shells and took it to the kitchen, looking like she wanted to go on out the back door and never return. But she did come back to put the ashtray on the table. Her eyes seemed to have lost color. Dad's job was taking a toll on all of us. A different father came home from every trip. His gaze seemed more pointed, his hair shorter and twitch worse, his searchlight of criticism sweeping the room.

"Let's see that report card," he demanded of me one night. The martini glass was empty. We heard the clang of pot lids, Mom at the frenetic stage of making dinner. I ran to my room, got it and proudly handed it over. He scrutinized my straight A's. Raising his chin, he peered down at me as if he expected one of the A's to wiggle around and become an F.

"Aha, aha … okay. Okay, good." He gave me a look. "Now don't rest on your laurels."

I was in second grade. I just stared.

After the next launch, his face was the color of his cigarette ash. Settled on the couch, he slurped his drink in silence, spitting olive pits into the dish and often missing.

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Here's a great poem about a father by Theodore Roethke:

MY PAPA’S WALTZ

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

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