Sunday, March 16, 2014

Space Ghost

When I was six years old, I fell in love with a man.  Whenever I was curious about about anything, concerned about some new thing, he was there with calm insurance and soothing tones.  And he had his own toys and he used all of them to explain the world to me. And what was even better, was I had toys, too.

He was probably the smartest man I ever knew. And every few months he'd show up to explain yet again to Frank Reynolds why we can't take an elevator to the moon.  They will never understand you like I do, the way your hair blew in the Florida wind, how you grabbed at your ear piece to hear something new, that smirk that told me you knew something nobody else did. 

Because I love you, Jules Bergman of ABC News.  

From the time that I was young boy, Jules Bergman was the American Space Program.  Jules came to ABC News in 1953.  He reported not only on the space race, but also aviation, defense, and energy issues. He was smart.  I wanted to be smart.

But all that really mattered was launch day.  My mother would be sure that her youngest would have a sore throat when something was being  blasted off from Cape Canaveral.  In my high school years, the sore throat ruse stopped working.   But be it a Mercury solo shot, or a Gemini two man shot on the mighty Titan II, or the Biggest Thing Ever, the Saturn V there on the launch pad, steaming liquid nitrogen into the Florida sky, daring them Russians to try and do it better. 

T-minus 10

For Christmas 1966 my parents gave me a G.I. Joe Space Capsule and Space Suit. My first G.I. Joe was the Original Fighting Man who had suffered a career ending injury when he was discovered under the Christmas tree by my dog who was under the misapprehension that she had a new chew toy.  But he fit fine into the space capsule, rehab completed.  I played the .45 record that had a man talking me through the launch, not Jules but anyway...and on the B side John Glenn's spaceflight! Awesome.

T-minus 9

Ed White was the first American to walk in space on Gemini IV.  I cut out a picture of Ed from a book and I've had in my wallet for over 40 years. You could do amazing stuff. You can.

T-minus 8

I told my parents that I wanted to be an astronaut. I wrote to NASA asking what to do, just like many other kids did.  The folks in Houston sent back a nice letter that I treasured.  At least until my father, in the throes of a household crisis, grabbed the only paper he could find (my NASA letter) to send me a last message in pen.  “Tom - change the goldfish water – Dad.”

T-minus seven

I don't recall crying much as a kid, but then... January 27 1967. The Apollo One Fire.  Gus Grissom (the second American in space), Roger Chaffee, and Ed (My Ed) White were gone. ABC just put a white card on the screen and Jules read the words.  Later, he tried to explain to me why those brave men had "died".  It did not help.  What is dying? Why are my heroes gone? What did I do? My mother held me a long time that night.  But Ed's picture is still in my wallet.

T-minus six
One Friday night my Mother walked into the our living room.  “Why aren't you watching Star Trek?” she asked.  What was Star Trek? I thought TV “space” was Lost in Space or Land of the Giants and I shrugged, went back to reading my book.  Mom turned on the TV and there was the episode “For the world is hollow, and I have touched the Sky”.  Wow. I was a confirmed nerd. I look up at the stars, and wanted to visit them all with those people.  One to beam up, Mr. Scott.

T-minus five
Christmas with Apollo 8The astronauts read from Genesis: “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth...”  It was going to happen. Look, we’re just a blue marble in a sea of black.  It’s all we have1 And why didn't everybody get it? It's on a stamp!

T-minus four
The Day. July 20 1969.  I was psyched by hours of news coverage from Jules, and now and then Walter  Cronkite before heading back to Jules with his Saturn V booster, command module, and lunar module, or LEM as those of who in the know called it.  Jules was explaining the descent of the LEM from it-

“Tom, look who's here,” my mother said.  This requires me to turn away from the screen and look behind me.  The groan from the whiny “what?” never got past the “wha-”

She was just about my mother's height, about 5'2". The hair, as dark as the space between the stars, hung down long past her shoulder,  Her eyes as blue as Neil Armstrong's. Her smile the white of a Saturn V booster before ignition.  Light colored blouse with hippie vest, dark pants and sandals. She was Karen, the little girl who had grown up next door to us but who had moved away with her family to Binghamton some years back.  I was crushed when she left.  But now, her family had stopped by on their way to New England and here she was. And here I was in t-shirt, jean shorts and no-sock-sneakers. 

What was Walter Cronkite talking about?

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed” July 20 1969 4:17 PM EDT

Walter rubs his hands in glee.

Should I tell Karen she's the most beautiful girl ever on Earth, and now on the moon? Why was I thinking about this?

Moon June Spoon Soon

“Karen -” I started. “I think you're -"

Three. Ignition sequence start.

“Well we gotta go,” said her Dad, as he rose. His wife and daughters followed.  Quick goodbyes. Karen just waved. It was so unfair now.  I had a few more hours while the astronauts rest.  We can get married while they're sleeping, and be back for the EVA.  I've got soda and Pop-tarts. 

But gone. I looked at the closed door for a while, or what I thought was a while but maybe it  wasn't because I heard that voice.


“I'm stepping off the LEM now.” July 21 1969 10:56 PM

President Nixon talked to the guys, and then my father came in from working the second shift at General Electric, grabbed a beer and I told him about the moon landing (with proper models, not toys).  My mother told him about the Lewis' visit.

We watched the TV. Just the three of us.  I can maybe count on one hand the times we did that, the three of us.  That was the 1960s.  The Apollo missions stopped because it had become like summer reruns, except for Apollo 13, which was like the first reality TV for nerds that people could understand or make a movie about.  We left the moon, and just went around and around our own planet.  We tried Skylab...but most people cared about it when it came crashing down out of space. I stood in the playground at 4th Avenue and 121st Street with my binoculars lifted to the stars, hoping to see Skylab burn on its re-entry. It went by in a streak.  My father, barely functional from his illnesses' attack modes, waved at me from the front porch.  I pointed to the sky, but he didn't get it.

The first shuttle, the pretend one, was named Enterprise to mollycoddle the Trekkies, we Trekkies. 

It was nice, but the shuttles just went up and down fine.  Jules faded from the scene.  The excitement had turned to humdrum.  As if putting people on a giant bomb and hoping it will take them to an airless place with no gravity is a walk in the park.  Well, it worked. Until Challenger. January 28 1986. Jules died later that year, heartbroken.


My wife and I sat holding hands on the couch in our apartment.  We'd seen President Reagan's speech, and were listening to the stories of the astronauts, especially Crista McAulliffe.  My wife touched my shoulder.

“Even with this, you'd still go, wouldn't you?”

“To slip the surly bonds of earth, and touch the face of God?”. Hell, yes, my love, in a New York minute. Come with me. We can still boldly go.”
Zero. All engines running.  The tower is cleared……. And Liftoff……We have liftoff!

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