A Kick on the Apogee

Another excerpt from my memoir, Rocket Lessons.

Newton's First Law of Motion: An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Mitch's Corollary: Become an unbalanced force and beat the Reds into space.

Cutting off his finger at the age of twelve must have turned my father into a worrier, but as always, he turned it to good use when he became the project manager for rocket design projects. He worried his way into space with the world’s first functioning telecommunications satellite, though he did nearly set off World War III.

My father was a dazzle and a puzzle to me, from an early age. He is even now, when I am middle-aged and he in his dementia can recall none of his own remarkable history. The worry gene was passed down liberally to me and my brother, who are now bonafide rocket scientists of panic and alarm. He went far as a rocket engineer on Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will,” which speaks to the perceived perversity of the universe. Yet he made this catechism funny, as he twisted us into knots of his paranoid wisdom. By second grade, I not only knew Murphy’s Law, but also many of its corollaries, such as Finagle’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way.” Mitch found these laws hilarious, and thought it was hugely entertaining to train us to imagine every possible disaster, then find ways to engineer a course around it. He showed us how to graph and plot, to connive and use subterfuge. He was a font of deception, taught us to box, to shoot down any oncoming snipe with bigger firepower. He taught these things by wounding, maiming, and hobbling us, his neophytes, as he had been wounded, maimed, and hobbled by his father’s caustic tongue. 

It seems tragic that my father was so wrong about life. Not everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Not everyone you trust betrays you. Love does exist and can be depended on. He does not know these things, but he is learning to depend on people he has no cause to trust, but who do care for him although he has done little to deserve it. And although dementia is a pretty big hole in your boat, he is oddly the happiest and most content he has ever been, doing without his booby-trap intellect. My rocket scientist father can no longer work a simple telephone.

I do still have a healthy fear of knives. Thanks to Dad, loud noises, anything resembling his explosive shouting, can make my nerves quiver for an hour. I also have an acute organizational ability to wield like a samurai sword at my anxieties. I know we are doomed because my father made me repeat his creed of fear and contemptus mundi, but I have foiled him by falling in love with life and its unpredictability. To spite him, no doubt, I developed in childhood a thirst for God.

Perhaps it was a quest to best my manic, paranoid, competitive parent by aligning myself with a Higher Power. Nothing quite irks an atheistic Jew more than a fervently mystical, Catholic-leaning daughter. From age nine, I craved the Eucharist, mysteries and magic,  saints, and oh, yes, reincarnation, ancient Egypt, and eventual satori. Yeah, the Tao too, and haiku. I became an eclectic mystic, a yin-yang of philosophies blending into poetry, with a dash of mythology.

All this roils through my mind tonight as I weep. I just talked to a kindly social worker about placing my father in what they call a “secure unit.” That means you cannot escape, which is Dad’s worst fear. It means others will control his every movement. This makes me grieve for our entire past, the past which until this moment I have been ready to dump hog-tied off the nearest pier. This is a man I have wished dead so often it no longer shocks me. Now I grieve because he will go into a locked ward. He is no flight risk. His vascular issues, which have caused his dementia, are again diminishing him. They lopped off all the toes on his right foot because of poor circulation. My father is again disappearing by digits. Full circle, it would seem. Life is full of paradox. And Murphy has no law for this.

But I get ahead of myself. I should begin at the beginning. Rocket science and I were conceived at about the same time, four years after the A-bomb, the year my parents moved to Buffalo, New York, during one of the coldest winters on record. How I came to be growing up in San Pedro, California with the Vice President of Camping is a simple tale of opposites being attracted. My parents met in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Both were in Navy uniform after World War II. Dad was a brashly funny Russian-Hungarian Jew with a distaste for snobbish society and a taste for shiksas with good legs. My mother, Marybeth, was descended from a line of Episcopalians, Mayflower-proud and socially ambitious. Yet both my parents were classic products of their Depression and World War era, a simple and dutiful world of black and white choices. Mitch, my father, was helping to create our complexly technical world, with its quantum mechanics of decision-making, through his life's glorious passion: shooting things into outer space.

 Mitch had been sidelined from overseas duty in the Air Force by a deathly allergy to buckwheat. If not for a pancake, I might not have come to be, as the average lifespan of pilots was much shorter than that of aeronautical engineers. On a routine ferry flight, Mitch began chatting with "a knockout brunette." She was a control tower operator whose amusing idea of efficiency was to give the okay to two planes to take off at the same time from opposite ends of the runway. Marybeth's career in air traffic control was understandably brief, but it didn't matter. She had met the world's most exciting man on that airplane ride. They married as soon as Mom was discharged, and spent their first married year in his fifth-floor walk-up artist's studio. Her momentary doubts before marrying him had been quelled by a conversation with Mitch's Aunt Rivka, who told Marybeth she better get over her cold feet or Mitch might not survive being jilted a second time. Mitch and Marybeth married, at her mother's insistence, under the traditional crossed swords of a military ceremony – a prophetic touch, I always felt.

Soon Mitch grew tired of what he thought was to be his life's passion: painting portraits for picky, eyelash-counting rich people. He decided to capitalize on his chemical engineering degree and Air Force experience to get into this new rocket business. Rockets in those days were Rube Goldberg affairs, gigantic Roman candles put together with electrician's tape and rudimentary aerodynamics. They carried enough explosives to make a good crater. Engineers and scientists were shooting them off with no more than a few slide rule calculations, and as long as they didn't kill anyone on re-entry, everyone was happy. In those days, even rocket science was not exactly rocket science.

Mitch and Marybeth stayed in Buffalo one winter after my birth. Then Mitch was hired by a young Naval Lieutenant Commander, Robert Truax, who was famous as the protégé of Robert Goddard, the dean of American rocketry. Commander Truax asked Dad to manage the new Naval Air Rocket Test Center. Dad bought a house in Whippany and while he and Truax were inventing new and more powerful rockets, my infancy flowered in a farmland being divided up into housing tracts. I had a happy thundercloud-and-buttercup infancy, despite the invasion of a tubby little alien called Danny. My younger brother came one day from a hospital, was plunked into a teeter-totter and was – outrageously – made the center of our attention.

Mitch did well. He blew up one test laboratory and achieved a fuel efficiency so impressive that Dr. Louis Dunn, the head of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, asked him to come and work in Los Angeles. Because the JPL job didn't start soon enough for him, Dad wound up working instead for Dr. Simon Ramo and his partner Dean Wooldridge. Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation had just been awarded a contract to do  the systems engineering and technical direction of the Air Force's new Atlas ballistic missile. Dad had six weeks to pack up and get us to the West Coast. We flew out to join him in a rental house in Inglewood. It didn't take Dad long to find us a new, architect-designed house dramatically poised at the ocean's brink. Miraculously – even in 1955 – the ocean-front house was in our price range. Sale papers were prepared. My parents were ready to sign, but when the pens were poised, the realtor casually mentioned that of course a Jewish family could not expect to be invited to join the area's new country club.

Dad's face had turned five successive colors, from greenish-white to lobster. He choked out a few words, ripped up the sales contract and flung the pieces in the man's face. He then piled us back into the station wagon and drove furiously down the road. We knew better than to ask questions when Dad's head was twitching that hard, jerking back over his shoulder. Within forty minutes of leaving Portuguese Bend, my father had seen a "Houses for Sale" sign in San Pedro, port of Los Angeles and a town of Italian, Serb, Croat, Portuguese, Greek and Mexicans, where there were two canneries and the nation's largest commercial fishing fleet.

"Mom, do we have to go in?" I said, tired of traipsing through model homes.

Mom, fixing her lipstick, looked at me through the rearview mirror. "No, we don't. Your father wants a quick look. He'll be right back. Tomorrow we're going to look at the house in Brentwood again. That's when you'll need to be patient."

But I had to be patient today. We waited a long time. Dad finally came out, waving a piece of paper which he thrust through the open window at Mom.

"We got it!" he shouted.

My mother stared at him, mouth open and lipstick in hand. "What do you mean?"

"The house is ours. I bought it. There were two other couples in there, I had to move fast – why didn't you come in?"

"Mitchell!" she said, then slumped down to lay her head on the back of the seat. She did not say another word all the way back to Inglewood.

So the modern bungalow on Fourth Street became ours while my mother was still fixing her lipstick. We would live within sight of the sea, and near Dad's beloved fishing. I would learn to cross myself before I learned to say the Shma Israel. Through my father's impulsiveness, I was to spend my vaguely Jewish, middle class childhood in a blue collar Catholic town.

Dad's purchase was also an impulse of revenge, rewarded in cinematic, Biblical proportions. Two years later, the hillside shifted. Half the new houses slid into the ocean, along with the brand new, completely non-Jewish country club. Dad always went out of his way to drive past Portuguese Bend.

"Look at that!" he exclaimed, as though we had never before seen the block lettered signs: "Danger! Slide!"

He shook his dark head until the shaking became his twitch. "They've moved the road over again. Twenty more houses are going to go into the sea. Mazel Tov! What kind of crazy people would build here? Look at the cracks in that hill."

"I feel sorry for them, losing their homes," said my mother. "Imagine how you'd feel."

"Thank you, Lady Bountiful. Oh, I'm sorry for them. About as sorry as you can feel for snooty morons. Now they can have their country club parties on the beach, if they don't mind barbecuing up to their keisters in water."


"What? I can say 'keisters' in front of my own children."

"Children should be protected."

"Says you and Dr. Spock. What's the fuss? Raising kids isn't rocket science. Any numbskull can bring up kids."

This stunned my mother, with its deft combination of insult, insensitivity and the implication that she wasn't pulling her weight. The daughter of an Army colonel, a harsh disciplinarian, she was used to being chided as selfish, but she never got used to being called stupid. It was a rankle that oystered her genteel calm, a nit she could not slough off, no matter how many times she changed the subject. She had a great consolation, though, in the form of Southern California's beaches. Every summer day, she took us to Cabrillo Beach to encounter that vast, dark blue expanse that lay around every bend of San Pedro. Holding her hand, I summoned the courage to wade in, keeping in the shade of the pier. At every wave that luffed me up and down in its cold, cradling silk I felt a terror and a thrill. During that first year in San Pedro, I had constant nightmares about the ocean, a panic probably learned from my father. He approached the beach like an enemy, barking instructions to NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN.