Monday, February 27, 2012

Friendship 7: Confidence and adventure

John Glenn
(Courtesy of NASA)

On February 20, 1962, our fourth-grade classroom was abuzz with excitement. At 8:45 Central Time that morning, astronaut John Glenn had been launched into space aboard Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, destined to be the first American to orbit the earth.

How much more fun it would have been to stay home that cold winter day in central Illinois and watch the flight on TV. There were no TVs at school, and our classroom had only a radio to broadcast updates on Friendship 7’s more than four-hour adventure.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Wendley pulled down the world map above the chalkboard, and we took turns marking John Glenn’s journey, once, twice, three times around the globe. A team of boys—clearly unfair to us girls!—took turns huddling around the radio, reporting the progress of the mission as the day’s regular classroom lessons and activities proceeded.

Friendship 7's three orbits (Courtesy of NASA)

Sunset from space (Courtesy of NASA)
The first orbit was the most exciting. Enthralled, we listened as Glenn described the beautiful sunset from orbit over the Indian Ocean. In the black, black sky, a thin blue band hugged the earth’s horizon.

Travelling 17,544 miles per hour, Glenn was in for a short night—45 minutes—before describing the brilliant sunrise:

“I am in a big mass of some very small particles. They're brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it . . . They're coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they're all brilliantly lighted.”

For a few minutes, the sun had lit up ice crystals flowing off the spacecraft’s surface, a magical phenomenon we could only imagine.

How proud we were to be Americans! Our nation was meeting President Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade. At that moment, each of us shared in the possibilities that seemed endless—at least in that insular, bucolic world.

But the mission’s success was not guaranteed, as problems emerged:
  • A bolt was broken during installation of the capsule hatch, delaying the launch.
  • The capsule’s yaw attitude control jet jammed in the first orbit, and Glenn had to use manual controls to keep the craft on the proper trajectory.
  • And especially nerve-racking, indicators showed that the heat shield may have been compromised, which could mean a fiery reentry and the end to Freedom 7, and Glenn. 
But always the safe guards worked, the indicators proved false, or difficulties were overcome. Glenn emerged triumphant from the capsule after it plunged into the sea, 800 miles off of Bermuda.

The power and expertise of American engineering seemed to us unstoppable. Despite the Cold War, Kruschev’s ragings, and the arms race, and even as discord was growing in the land, the space program lent feelings of well-being, efficacy, and power. We had the know-how to make things right. We would be safe.

(What do you remember about the space program and its effect on you or the wider political and social attitudes?)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"There is no one alive who is Youer than You!" -Dr. Seuss

Stories are the stuff of life. And if you think you have none to tell, think again. Every life brims with effervescent joy, gut-wrenching sorrow, poignant moments, fortunate turns of fate, miscalculations, and the details that define a particular time and place. Consider the declaration of Dr. Seuss: "There is no one alive who is Youer than You!" And, let me add, there never will be. What's more, some day those who come after you just may puzzle over your name and wonder … 

Sometime ago, my uncle Charles Johnston produced a comprehensive genealogy of my mother's side of our family, the Johnstons. He uncovered and included details of these people's lives three and four generations removed, but beyond that, the pickings were few. Farther back, there are only names, dates for their lifespans, locations where they were born, married, died. 

Some of the stories are tantalizing:

  • William Johnston strung the first barbed wire in the area around Pilot Point, Texas;
  • the Younger brothers helped themselves to some fresh horses on the Johnston Texas ranch, but kindly strapped some cash to a post in payment; 
  • great-great-great uncle George Haley attempted, unsuccessfully, to get on the Dawes Rolls in 1902, based on his grandmother's claims that she was an Indian from Alabama; 
  • the family dogs decided they didn't like the territory when the family headed north across the Red River into Oklahoma, so they high-tailed it back to Texas in just four days, a trek that the wagons had taken twelve days to make. (I'm not so sure about the intelligence of those dogs!)
But as I study my uncle's well-drawn family tree, tracing the names back and back through time and place, I find pretty much everything is left to the imagination: 

Allathy Hale, Thomas Allen, Nancy Toliver, Coonrod Dick. 

Who were these people? How did they make a living? Why did they leave North Carolina and Virginia? What was life like on the Tennessee frontier? What were their aspirations? What were their great joys and sorrows? Genealogy is great, but what are the stories? We will never know. 

A talented storyteller, my aunt Geneva Hudson was determined to leave a legacy rather than speculations about her life. In her memoir about her "growing-up years,"  "Barefoot in an Oklahoma Sticker Patch," she tells about her life in Oklahoma City during the Great Depression, the daughter of proud, hard-working, and independent folks. 
Her stories are a treasure that acquaint me with a grandmother I hardly knew. With her book, Geneva has preserved family memories and given roots to subsequent generations of our family. And others, looking for a charming and poignant account of those years in that place, have enjoyed it, too.

You have stories to tell, and so do I. Big or small, they have value in the telling. In this space, I plan to share some of my stories that I hope will inspire you to write down a few of your own. 

It really doesn't matter whether you want to share your stories with only friends and family or whether you would like to offer them to perfect strangers in a memoir. Writing down your stories fills in the gaps between names and dates on a page. Your stories tack down your life and are a treasure to be shared for those who come after you. They are your personal history of the human being who is you and only you -- your legacy, evermore. 

Let's get started!