Houston, We Have a Problem

Go ahead, name ‘em.  I’ll wait.  The original seven Mercury astronauts.  You should know this.  Come on, you can do it.  And while you’re at it, give me the names of the Russian Five from the ’97 Detroit Red Wings.  And no, Vladimir Sputnik was not one of the defensemen.

The 1960s.  Ahh, that decade that just keeps giving (alas).  But there was also the Space Race, and of that generation I am an injection molded product.  Coming of age with Geritol, powdered coffee creamer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and Herman’s Hermits.  And yes, I assembled a bunch of plastic models and sniffed a lot of airplane glue, which of course explains a great deal.

My old friend Wernher von Braun would be pleased to hear about the model rockets that I assembled from paper tubes and balsa wood.  Gorgeous vehicles.  A lot of work.  But, live and learn.  There was the one that was unstable — bright white, with gleaming yellow fins, which I apparently placed a bit too far forward on the body.  It came off the launch pad, hollered “wait a minute, something’s terribly wrong!”, and immediately did a U-Turn and started smacking itself on the ground repeatedly.  I dove for cover, like Wile E. Coyote about to be charred by an ACME missile, while the rocket flailed around until the engine was spent, it spun on the ground, and fell silent.  Then…  “pfooot!”…   out came the Looney Tunes parachute.  A failed mission that we chalked up to R&D.

Which leads me to a second failed experiment and some advice.  Whatever you do, don’t be a knucklehead and paint your model rocket sky blue and white.  It will get ten feet off the pad and that will be it, you’ll never see it again.  Unless you get lucky and it takes down a Cessna or you see the parachute pop out.  You’ll be left there staring up into the sky like you’re attending the Ascension.  You can kiss it goodbye, just like those high altitude dreams of this young boy, with his low altitude eyesight and black plastic-rimmed glasses.

But, as with most of my astronaut training I have Maytag to thank.  In particular, the boxes — the large cartons the washing machines come in, which can be retrofitted to create a fine land-based Gemini simulator which easily installs in your basement and can be used for endurance experiments and COG (center of gravity) tests.

For the latter, place the empty Maytag box on its side at the top of your stairs and release it.  Notice how it floats effortlessly down the steps and gently deposits itself in the living room.  Now, return the box to the top of the stairs and place your little brother in the box.  Once again release it down the steps.  You may notice, as our experiments revealed, that the ensuing COG shift will destabilize the carton in such a manner as to promote catching the front corner of the box on the steps, which then initiates an end-over-end movement, what we call in the space business an uncontrolled orbital roll.  And really, all you can do is let gravity take charge and be grateful that little brothers are pliable and probably won’t hold it against you that the test somersaulted and plastered him against the Baldwin Acrosonic organ.  And all of that for a glass of Tang.

The Mercury flights of Shepard and Glenn… the Gemini missions, with Ed White and his space walk…  the Apollo missions…   the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in which we lost Grissom, White, and Chaffee…   the Apollo 8 Genesis reading…  the Apollo 10 “dress rehearsal” that took the lunar module achingly close to landing on the surface of the moon…   and Apollo 11, with the “one giant leap for mankind” broadcast from the surface of the moon on live black & white TV.  And Walter Cronkite there to hold our hand through it all.

Did you know, that in terms of overall performance, your iPhone 6 is 120,000,000 times faster than the computer used aboard the Apollo spacecraft?  And that therefore, theoretically, your iPhone 6 could guide 120 million Apollo rockets at the same time?  Amazing, huh?  And yet, why does it sometimes feel like we’re going backwards?  

I’m not questioning the desires or resolve of modern space explorers, nor am I suggesting that present day space exploration is uninteresting or unimpressive from a technical standpoint.  I only ask why it is that I am left unmoved by it.  The talk of Martian soil and evidence of water.  The dream of human colonies on our moon or on other planets in our solar system.  Why the pursuit?  Is it something that we long for?  Is it that as a “species” we somehow need to push out into space?  For what purpose and to what end?  Has it become an obligatory exploration of the unknown that now rarely inspires us, having become a thinly technical human exploit?   Why does the adventure in it seem oddly played out?  Can it have anything to do with the fractured nature of contemporary human life, with our seemingly irresolvable human problems?  Will we pin our hopes on colonizing the lunar landscape, or moving to Mars and growing broccoli in our own waste?  Will we explore the universe even as we fail to (my beef) explore the human heart?  Will we just take our problems with us to another planet?  But, listen to me…  I’ve shuffled off the raw spirit of youth and have too soon become a curmudgeon.  And yet, whence the wistful?  Can you tell me, young man?

Certainly we have jettisoned any inclinations or attributions demonstrated in the Apollo 8 Genesis reading.  I’ll hear that again when I see them erect another statue of a Puritan on the Cambridge Common.  We’ve moved on.  But to where?  Probes and dyes and radioactive tracers that reveal particular brain activities on scanners, and yet before us remains the Hard Problem of human consciousness.  Our own in particular.

Maybe my problem is the simple contrast between ambitions outward and those inward.  Or, as Walker Percy noted in Lost in the Cosmos, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?”

Why preserve and extend the human story onto other spheres?  We know that one day our sun will become a red giant and we’ll all perish anyway.  The end of the human drama, full stop.  And the encore, only vast emptiness.  Are you telling me it’s that scenario that gets you out of bed in the morning?  And yet we speak of love and meaning and purpose.  Do we mean chemicals in the brain that create love and meaning and purpose, or is there possibly more going on?  We say we’re made to explore.  But made by what?  Made by whom?

Curious that as I write this it is Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter.  The Gospel reading for the day is from John 3, and includes: 

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,

but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light,

so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,

so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

I love space travel.  Through various spaces.  Even through the hidden considerations of thought.  Moving out into the darkness and into the light.  Space travel whose genesis is a journey through the human experience and maybe even the human soul.  Unless the scanners can’t trace that.  Supernova grand adventures, inches and light years away.  

And perhaps, as Walter said, “that’s the way it is”…

Marvin A. Wigdahl

‘A’ for Augustine.  Although Dad told me one time he thought Augustine was a character in the Bible.  But I'll cut him some slack on that one, as we Lutherans didn't hang out with the Saints much.  Years later when I entered the Catholic Church I took Augustine as my confirmation name.  And if Dad were still around, and wasn’t entirely miffed that I’d swum the Tiber, I think he would smile at that.  Not sure though if he would smile about my other new name, “Jimmy Confirmande”, which was given to me by my friend and sponsor, Anthony.  “Hey Jim, this is great!  Not only are you becoming a Catholic, you’re becoming an Italian!”  (Spoken with proper Italian-American inflection.  And yes, he talks with his hands.)

Twice in my life I saw my dad cry.  The first time was when my brother Dave died.  We were in Valley City, North Dakota, where Dave had lived for many years, and we were meeting with the local pastor about the funeral service.  Dave had said one time that his friends there in North Dakota were like family to him, and while we were sitting with the pastor that somehow slammed into my dad.  And he cried there at the table, wondering out loud if we had not been enough of a family for Dave.  The second time I saw Dad cry was when he was dying.  He was in the local nursing home and he knew his time was short.  We were sitting together, and at one point his good friend and Marine Corps buddy Rod came to mind, and with tears running down his face all he said was, “Semper Fi, Rod…   Semper Fi”… 

Dad was the guy in my hometown you would call if you didn’t know what else to do.  He had this gift for receiving and stabilizing the tumultuous moment.  He could absorb the fear and uncertainty of the situation, and then parcel out the necessary constructive steps to go forward.  Always with tact, and never without compassion.  He was by blood and tradition a stoic, being of fine Norwegian stock.

Definition of a Norwegian:  

A Norwegian is a shy, generous, and thoughtful person, who will kick your ass on skis.

Dad would always cut to the chase, after all he was a hardware store guy, but had also been a mortician, and wasn’t keen on beating around the bush.  I remember one day our distant relative Lenora dropped dead, up on the north side of town.  And whoever it was who found her called my dad at the store, which was my town’s version of dialing 911.  People liked and respected my dad.  Fair to say he was the unofficial mayor of Ruthven.  And as I said, he always knew what to do, whether your furnace had gone out, your Maytag wasn’t being so dependable after all, or you just found a dead person on your porch.  “Better call Marv.”  

Anyway, back to Lenora…   Dad got the news and shortly after that picked up the phone to call Lenora’s brother to let him know.  “Hi Ron, it’s Marv Wigdahl.  Yeah, Ron, Lenora’s dead…      yeah, we just found her on the porch.   Yeah…   I’m sorry, Ron…        Yeah, why don’t you give me a call later.”  Dad was thoughtful and caring, while not really emotional or sentimental.  He was very strong and direct, and people appreciated that and leaned on it.

And just to continue the death and dying theme, there was the time when Dad was a funeral director and he and his partner Bud drove a long distance to make a “delivery.”  Dad drove over and Bud drove back, so on the return trip Dad rolled a sleeping bag out in the back of the hearse to take a nap.  Then at some point he woke up, realizing the hearse had come to a stop.  So he reached over and pulled back the curtain on the side of the hearse to see where they were.  And there was this guy, standing there pumping the gas.  Dad said later they almost had to make another delivery.     Classic.

(Viewer Alert…   you might want to skip this).  And years later when Dad died at the nursing home in Ruthven I stayed in his room when the guys from the funeral home arrived to pick him up.  They kindly asked me, “Jim, are you ok with being in here for this?”  And I said, “I am, thanks.  Dad would want me to be here.”  So they lifted him off the bed and slipped him into a body bag right there in front of me.  Zipped it up, and off he went.  

My siblings and I discuss the many ways our parents should have done things differently.  And maybe they should have.  I certainly should have.  But they also played the cards they were dealt, and did the best they could.  And so shall we.  The baton has been passed.  I go forward with the stoicism of my father and the tears of my mother.  And for these twin gifts I am eternally grateful.

Equestrian Lite

Let’s get one thing straight from the start, we were urban cowboys.  Not to be accused of knowing what we were doing.  We lived deep within the city of seven hundred people, and it was our uncle’s acreage on the edge of town.  I’ve never repaired a fence, never baled hay in my life, and I wouldn’t really know tack from tic.  Yet somehow by the grace of God we live to recount our adventures.  And of those we had a few.

We knew Joker Peterson would be trouble when we found out he studied geometry.  Joker was Bill’s horse, clearly with a higher IQ than our collective.  Who knows, he probably sketched this out on a white board in the barn while chowing down on oats.  He calculated that if he ran to one corner of the pasture and waited, we would get close enough to him that he could then bolt for the diagonal corner and wait us out again to avoid the bridle.  Rinse and repeat.  So it took a while to get him ready to ride.  And second, we needed to remember that Joker had a keen eye for partially open dutch barn doors, because he knew that if only the bottom half was open he could shear you off on the top half.  And he never hesitated to look for that opportunity.  

He had a glass eye too, so you always wondered where he was looking and what he was thinking.  He was an ornery cuss.  And rode like a barrel of oil.  Joker had dedicated his life to never galloping.  And I’m sure that in the history of horseback riding there had never been a pony that could delay the trot to gallop transition longer than he did.  The heaviest, most pounding, most enduring and debilitating trot you’ve ever subjected yourself to.  A day’s ride could liquify your organs.  But if you ever inspired him to break into a stride you would suddenly hear music coming from some elvish place in another realm.  (Think John Williams at the Iowa State Fair).  And in slow motion there you would be, in Middle-Earth, aboard Joker Peterson, trampling orcs in The Ride of The Rohirrim.  When really you were just approaching Kunz’s gas station to get a soft serve.  But it didn’t matter.  You had been granted the moment and you embraced it.  And at least he didn’t have Sox’s backbone.

Sox was Jeff C’s horse.  Sox was leggy and Palomino in color, with a backbone like two-inch iron pipe.  Mind you, we almost always rode bareback.  You had to “adjust” how you sat on him, or you wouldn’t go riding the next day, if you could even get out of bed.  I mean, try riding bareback on that your entire adolescence and give me the odds that you’ll father a foal.  Somehow Jeff made it work though, as he apparently developed calluses in all the right places and bagged a lot of ice.  Beyond that, I remember Sox being dependable but otherwise unremarkable.  A Chevy Malibu with 115K miles.

Wish was Nick’s horse.  Like black lightning.  Glossy.  Also leggy, but in an Olympic athlete kinda way.  He had a “bring it” attitude.  And not really a team player, he never shied away from competition.  Wish was light on his hooves, like a welterweight at the first bell.  He twitched his head and snorted a lot, and was both lithe and angular.  He was always anxious and eager to be somewhere else, especially at the starting gate, which was located behind Nick’s house, at the end of an alley which stretched for maybe a hundred yards.  And the horse knew that’s where we were going.  So he would get into the zone.  Fidgety and focused, he would paw the ground at the starting line, as beneath you he filled with oxygen and jet fuel.  And all Nick had to do was ease the reins, and make that side-mouth sucking “jhik” sound, and the kerosene under him would ignite and explode.  Good luck beating that horse on his home track.

Our horse Sue was never accused of being ambitious.  She exhibited a “sure, why not” attitude toward going for a ride.  Maybe slightly more interested as we approached the lake, yet easily distracted by tasty grass and philosophical ruminations.  She also wasn’t much for a schedule.  And our horse…   maybe all horses…   have that way of staring off into the distance, contemplating the horizon, as they cultivate a life completely separate from our own.  As everyone knows, horses don’t like to be looked in the eye, and I imagine that’s partly because they’re looking through you to behold profound vistas and would just rather you didn’t get in the way.  Demonstrating not exactly contempt, but a blend of introspection and disregard.  “Can we go back to the barn now?”

Pastoral scenes punctuated by moments of bareback riding terror.  We were probably idiots, but it crackled with life.  We loved it, and we didn’t know any better.  Then we grew up and left it behind.  And off-ramped ourselves into protected adventures.  Especially the internal ones.  Measured doses.  Gentle slopes.  Lots of paperwork and no offense. 

I miss the old days.  And our Four Horses of the Apocalypse.