Thinking about being a rocket kid today, growing up in the mushroom shadow of the Cold War and with my father, the bipolar rocket scientist. He used to joke that he blew up rockets for a living. He blew up families, too. But he also created some fantastic art, taught me how to fish and how to be creative, and I still miss the pain-in-the-family factor of his explosive, active, restless, engaging, irritating, fascinating personality.
This essay, excerpted from my memoir, Rocket Lessons, first appeared in the online journal Small Spiral Notebook.
A Kick on the Apogee
In the 1950's, brash young men fired Thor missiles into the ozone layer. They split the sound barrier for the first time, making thunder over the Mojave Desert. No one yet knew how reach outer space – no one had even been to the stratosphere. Scientists and engineers were working on a fuel mix to give a rocket a big enough kick in the apogee to get into orbit. Anyone could try out his idea, as long as he had a photo badge, a crew cut and working knowledge of calculus. My father had them all.
Dad's first assignment at Space Technology Laboratories was to oversee the development of this fuel, to win the race to propel missiles farther and faster, lift top-secret payloads into orbit, and intimidate the Reds. In those pre-Space Shuttle days, he had to go to Cape Canaveral often, for launches that often turned out disasters. One rocket after another fizzled, exploded or did both while toppling over on the blockhouse. Dad and the other engineers were sometimes trapped for hours or even days while they extinguished the flaming wreckage.
He would leave with a suitcase and a jaunty nod and return a week later in the same gray suit, now rumpled. His narrow gray tie was loosened and the first button of his white plaid shirt open. His black frame glasses slid down his nose as he sank into the couch. It was an occasion when Dad came home. We gathered in the living room and tried to restrain ourselves from jumping on the couch next to him, which rarely had good results. He let my mother serve the first of his martinis without saying a thing. He could not talk much about his projects, but he found creative ways to complain.
"Bitch of a trip! I was surrounded by incompetents." He pushed the glasses back up; they slid down again on the sweat that perpetually beaded his sallow face. His large, green eyes looked watery and bloodshot, as though something in the air irritated him. Something was always irritating him. His nerves were so frayed he carped at anything or anyone: child, cat, chair, newspaper.
"Watch where you're going!" he said to the lamp, when he switched it on and it tipped over. "What's the matter with you?"
Mom reacted as if he had the measles. She offered nibbles and drew the curtains. She admonished us to cocoon him in tiptoe silence. He sat slack, unknotted tie ends splayed on his shirt. Even his crew cut seemed wilted. Holding the martini, he wove expletives into stories with no beginning or end, much of which we could not understand.
"You know what Ramo says to me? He says, 'Bert, you got six inches lift-off on that last Thor?' 'Yeah, Si,' I says, 'before it exploded, we did.' Then you know what he says?"
What was a Thor? Who was Ramo? We did not know, but we pretended. "What?"
"Ramo says, 'You didn't get much altitude.' 'At least it got off the stand.' Jeez, that guy bitches me off."
Then Dad remembered how much he could not say. He drank for awhile without speaking, head twitching in that over-the-shoulder jerk we had come to identify as "Don't go near Dad.' My mother smoothed her wavy brown hair as she stood in the kitchen, looking over the pass-through bar into the living room. She smoothed it again, though it was not messed. Her blue eyes blinked rapidly, as though smoothing and blinking would clear the picture and restore Dad to civility.
After returning from his next trip, Dad yelled at Mom even before putting down his suitcase. Davey and I listened through my bedroom door. Dad was like a Tuva throat singer; he could yell in two different pitches at the same time. For a man only five foot eight and a hundred and forty pounds, he had an amazing bullhorn baritone, which he abused liberally to startle and stun.
"Betty, I asked you to pay that bill three weeks ago. Now they're sending notices and I'm going to have to call them. I don't have time for this malarkey! Can't you do one simple thing while I'm busting my hump? Are you too dumb to understand that if you don't pay the bills, we'll end up in the street?"
Mom's voice did not penetrate steel like his. Her voice was as pale as her gaze, soft and indefinite like the rest of her, as though she were built not to intrude. We could only assume her smooth reply, the balm she poured over him when his gaskets started rattling. We could picture her undermining his blistering monologue by taking his briefcase and setting it down to help him shrug off his coat. It was her job to keep the rocket engineer from putting himself into orbit.
Like the men who built the railroads, the missile men were adventurers. In space, what mattered was audacity, not polish. Manners were not part of their calculation set. But my father was not like the other rocket engineers. Painter, jazz-lover and part-time bohemian, he was blessed not only with a thundering voice, but also with a nervous system that did not permit him to sit down for more than half an hour. Having been brought up in the Depression, he imagined he fit into working class San Pedro, among European fishermen who had come in the early 1900's with their fishing trades, to create what you could call a fish rush. Dad liked, but was not like, these burly, slow-moving Slavs and Italians. Their hands preceded them, while with Dad it was the voice that preceded him.
Today's frontier was the sky, and my father was in the vanguard. He had been recruited for his job by top brass. He had shaken Si Ramo's hand, met Werner von Braun and received his top-secret clearance. Aerospace was a small, friendly pond, but he had yet to prove his worth. The Russians had plans for a manned mission, and that gave everyone in the company a permanent headache. Every project might be the one that put us ahead. No wonder Dad had a bad twitch.
He began his next project – which we later found out was the world's first telecommunications satellite – under enormous pressure. He was at the nexus of an international venture. No one had any idea how high the stakes were; no one had envisioned global communication. It was a time when people used rotary dial phones with cords, and if someone was on the phone, all you got was a busy signal.
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, cussing in his own style of word jazz.
"Ramo'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 I 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, but he seemed pleased. Mom was nervous. She smoothed her apron and rubbed her lips together to spread lipstick the way she did when guests arrived, even though she did not have lipstick on. Dad repeated himself with glee.
"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 keep going on out of the house. But she came back and put the ashtray on the table. Her eyes seemed to have lost color.
A different father seemed to come home from every trip, each more intense and distracted. His gaze seemed more pointed, his hair shorter and his twitch worse. We saw less of him. No more tinkering in the garage making bookcases while he let us hold nails for him. Now he was all business.
"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 was at the frenetic stage of making dinner. We had a few minutes before dinner. This might be a good way to get his attention. I ran to my room, got the report card 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." That was all he said, giving me a cold look. "Now don't rest on your laurels."
I was in first grade. What were laurels, and how did you rest on them?
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.
It was August. Sunlight slanted into the living room from behind the yellow curtains, making a shaft on the couch where he sat, even though it was nearly eight o'clock. He complained that the light was hurting his eyes. Mom closed the curtains and made the mistake of asking, "How did it go?"
Dad lit a cigarette, took a drag so big the cigarette end flared red.
"Ramo sent me to D.C. while he stayed in the blockhouse. My rocket, and he's taking all the credit. I'm stuck in the Pentagon with the brass." He knocked ash off his cigarette. Missing the ashtray, it dropped onto the teak wood coffee table. He did not even swear, just scooped the ash into his palm and dropped it into the olive dish by mistake.
"You'll get the credit, I'm sure," my mother said soothingly. She was perched on the edge of the armless arm chair in her full-skirted tan sundress. She had put it on and carefully smeared on her lipstick before he was due to arrive.
Dad gave her a peculiar smile and drained the martini. He held up the glass and she poured him another.
"Have you seen the papers?" he asked me and my brother.
We shook our heads. Dad twitched twice, then appeared to change the subject.
"I'm sitting at the Pentagon when they light the candle. I call Kelsey and he says – mind you, I'm sitting there with the generals right next to me – and Kelsey says, 'What if I told you that meco was at 162.5?'"
He said this with dramatic flair, waiting for a reaction. We did not understand, so Dad paced around the room and explained that it meant main engine cutoff, the burnout or first stage of a missile. If it did not happen at just the right moment, the first stage could fall back to earth on the wrong spot – on, say, New York.
He grinned the way he did after bringing home a big yellowtail tuna. He sat down to grind out his cigarette and light another with the big Zippo that clacked open and shut, relishing a rapt audience. Then he sat back on the low-backed couch, his arms sprawled across it, and smiled as he continued the tale.
"So Kelsey's saying that it was supposed to go 164 seconds, but it was short. He says, 'The Able didn't get a big enough kick in the ass.'" He booted an imaginary rocket with his crossed leg.
"Bert!" My mother all but covered our ears, as though 'ass' were the worst word we had ever heard from Dad. Her lips were compressed now, not rubbing around like before. She did not seem to think there was anything amusing about the story.
"Let's just say we didn't throw the ball hard enough. 'It won't get over,' Kelsey says. 'Shit, Mabel!' He looked up at her for a reaction.
Mom was putting the remains of the appetizers onto the tray, along with Dad's empty martini glass. At the repetition of this word, she jerked upright and actually glared.
He smiled. "All right. So I say, 'Where's it going?' and for a few minutes all I hear is Kelsey working his slide rule – 'whissht, whissht' – and the generals are sitting there listening. Finally he says to me, 'Oh, shit, we hit Cuba!'"
There was quite a silence. Mom stood there, still holding the tray, only now it was tilting. The martini glass slid, but she hardly noticed. We all stared, mouths in O's.
I could see her stiffness, sensed her fear. Dad seemed to relish the effect. Something told me he was pumping this into a whopper, but Mom seemed to believe it. I watched him slumped down and popped an olive in his mouth. He spit the pit into his palm, then dropped it into the dish containing fresh olives, as though everything on the table were there just for him. Drawing it out, he waited for us to beg him to continue.
"So?" Mom was mono-syllabic. "And?"
"I says to Kelsey, 'Maybe we killed a cow in Cuba. Let's get back before they find out.' We snuck back to the hotel and got the hell out. No one knows yet, but it won't be long."
"My stars and garters!" said Mom. "Heavens to Betsy." Even she seemed aware of how odd were these expostulations.
"Did you see the cow, Dad?" asked my brother. "Was it squashed like a bug?" He was at the stage of treasuring the gory green goo of a squashed bug.
"No, dummy, I didn't see the cow. The missile hit Cuba, your father didn't hit it."
"Dodo!" I said. Davey went red. My mother was paler than usual.
There was a pause so intense you could hear the dust motes drifting. A breeze coming in the window smelled of ocean, signaling that it was getting dark and soon time for bed. I shivered suddenly.
Dad leaned forward, serious. "A Florida paper said our missile hit Cuba. The wire picked it up, Betts. It's going to come out that Castro's saying we attacked. There was a picture. That son of a bitch had them rig up our fuel tank with fins and a nose cone."
I thought my mother was going to faint, but Dad seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. He repeated the end of the story a couple of different ways before moving on to criticize the way Mom had cleaned the coffee table.
Oddly enough, there were no ramifications for Dad. In his business, praise and blame were about as predictable as a missile's trajectory. No one blamed the Cold War on my father, but I have always known that the first Cuban missile crisis was years before President Kennedy's.
The next trip brought Dad home in even worse shape. They had fired off another million dollar fireworks, as he called it. If he did not get the next one right, it was his job.
When he did get it right, two years and ten trips later, Dad was eating tranquilizers like peanuts and was as thin as his swizzle stick. Now when he came home, Mom no longer served elaborate martini-and-appetizer spreads. She was busy. She joined the Temple chorus and volunteered at the Assistance League. Dad still bulled his way around the living room of an evening, looking for things to complain about, but he got used to doing without much of an audience. We all had things to do, it seemed.
Mom started having little talks with us about how to behave when he came home from work at night. She collected us on the couch one afternoon and insisted on holding our hands, which made me suspicious.
"Your father is under a strain," she said. "It's very important that you don't agitate him. Don't ask questions when he comes in, just let him calm down."
I asked, "Why's Dad sad all the time? Is he losing his job?" I did not know what a job was, but I had heard them talking.
Mom was indignant. "Of course Dad's not losing his job. He's sad because sometimes his missiles don't have enough fuel."
"What's fuel?" Davey asked.
"It's like gas in your car. Dad's in charge of making it."
"Why doesn't he take his missile to Chuck's Station?" Davey offered.
I glared. "You're lucky Dad didn't hear that, dummy."
The little twerp must have said something stupid to Dad, because on Saturday Dad took us to a hangar to see the nose cone. It was twice as tall as our roof. The missile, he said, was taller than buildings on Miracle Mile. He wrote our names on the nose cone so they would orbit forever in space. We were famous! and back in Dad's good graces, even if Mom was not. Still, this was not the same old Dad. He cut short every outing, as though eager to get rid of us. He rarely did any scat-singing in the car, just drove, changing lanes and barking at us to shut up and let him drive.
Mom kept on giving us pep talks. They were fine, but when these talks began to be delivered in tears, it was not fine.
"Mom? What's the matter?" I asked when her Don't-annoy-your-father routine wobbled. Her blue eyes scrunched up and three fat tears slid out. We were sitting on my bed. She had come to soothe me after Dad yelled at me about leaving my skates around.
She suddenly seemed to have forgotten what she came in to say. She was staring straight ahead of her, as if looking into my closet, only the closet door was shut. I reached for her hand, but she pulled it away and looked at me as if I were a strange child who had just wandered in. Then she blinked and straightened.
"I'm fine, it's just that your father …"
That sentence never was finished in all the years I was growing up. Dad eventually got his communications satellite into outer space and it became the world's prototype medium for intercontinental telephoning. Our family exploded like a bad launch. Three years later, I went off to college at Berkeley, Mom and Dad divorced and Mom moved with Davey to Berkeley. Only Dad was left in San Pedro. He remarried and continued complaining to fresh ears.
Today I called him, the signal of my phone call bouncing off one of the satellites. I spent the entire twenty outer-space-deflected, long-distance minutes listening to him talk about how the company had passed him over for promotions, taken all his ideas and given other people the credit, then retired him and cheated him on his pension. I could hear the comfortable tone in his voice, and knew he was talking for fun, telling stories and into his second martini.
His voice was gruff, yet articulate. He was choosing his words for sound as much as what they conveyed. He liked the audience of my silence, punctuated as it was with appreciative murmurs. It could go on like this for a long time. As he talked on, shaping his story, I heard his third wife in the background complaining that he had eaten all the olives.
Labels: bipolar, Cold War, memoir, memoir essay, rocket, rocket scientist