[Author’s note: This is the first post of a multi-part essay.]
Growing up in the Space Age
I was born at the dawn of the Space Age. In the span of time from kindergarten to high school, I had a front row seat to mankind’s first steps to the stars. In elementary school we listened to live coverage of Project Mercury – America’s fledgling steps of putting a one-man capsule into space. In junior high we listened as two-man Gemini capsules practiced the rendezvous and docking maneuvers critical to the upcoming Moon missions. In high school, after class, I sat glued to our television as the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon. Despite the fact that all of these events were televised, we mostly listened to the events as they unfolded, because it wasn’t until the Apollo flights that TV cameras became small enough to carry into space. We didn’t see the spectacular photos that are now so famous until after the astronauts returned to Earth and the photos were displayed in LIFE or National Geographic.
I watched the live broadcast and heard Neil Armstrong’s immortal words “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” as he put the first footprint on the surface of the Moon. I watched as he and Buzz Aldrin read the words on the plaque attached to the leg of the lunar lander. “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” The image was grainy and blurred, but it all unfolded on the TV right in front of me … and it was real … and it was the first time anyone had seen anything like this.
In 1968, a year before Neil and Buzz first frolicked on the Moon, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001 A Space Odyssey. I begged and pleaded with my dad to take me to the Miami showing which debuted in 70mm ultra-widescreen Cinerama – the IMAX of its day. The 142 minute long movie was unique in its realistic depiction of space flight, with ground breaking special effects and a powerful musical score. It was equally unique in its use of long periods of silence to portray the vast distances and length of time required to travel to Jupiter. The original showing even had an intermission. 2001 opened to mixed reviews. My dad and I mirrored the critical and public sentiment. He thought it was long and boring. I thought – and still do – that it was the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. If you have seen 2001 A Space Odyssey you know what I am talking about, if not Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, and numerous fan sites do a much better job of describing it than I ever could. If you like science-fiction and have never seen 2001 you really owe it to yourself to see this film.
Recall that in the ’60s and ’70s there was no such thing as VHS tapes, DVDs, or digital downloads. If you wanted to see a movie you either went to the theater to see it, or hoped it would be shown – cut and commercial-filled – on TV. Fortunately 2001 enjoyed frequent returns to theaters after its 1968 release, albeit in 35mm format on a much smaller screen. It enjoyed a cult following in part due to the spectacular light show at the end of the movie, that (I am told) was best enjoyed under the influence of various mind enhancing substances. I saw 2001 A Space Odyssey every time it came back to the theater, often multiple days in a row, often multiple showings in a row. I lost count of the number of times I had seen it after my twenty-second viewing. My dream was to someday be rich enough to have my own home theater and a film copy of 2001 that I could watch whenever I wanted.
Growing up in the Cold War
I was also born at the height of the Cold War. When I was eight years old, the Russians decided to put short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, four hundred miles away from my home in South Florida. At a cruising speed of six thousand miles per hour, they would take less than four minutes to reach us. I was in the third grade at the time and didn’t fully appreciate the fact that four minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to “Duck and Cover”. I distinctly remember driving with my dad past one of the horse racing tracks that had been commandeered by the military as a staging area for a planned invasion of Cuba. I just thought it was cool to see all the tents and trucks and jeeps and tanks. Only now do I appreciate how scared shitless our parents must have been at the time. Although the storage and launch facilities were built, the missiles had yet to be delivered. For thirteen days in October of 1962 the US and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war as the US established and maintained an aerial and naval blockade of Cuba to keep the Russians from delivering the missiles. My eight year old self grasped none of this. I just knew that the Russians were the “bad guys”.
The Russian space missions never got television coverage. Perhaps it was because the Russians were the bad guys or because they spoke a language we didn’t understand or because the Russians never televised their activities. Consequently I never really knew that much about Russian space accomplishments as a kid. As I got older I knew that they beat us into space with both the first satellite and the first cosmonaut. They had the first woman in space and the first space walk. They also seemed to have men and women in space both more frequently and much longer than we had men in space. In many ways the Russians were both better at and more committed to space exploration than we were. Which is why the US was so determined to beat the Russians to the Moon. The manned space race was primarily political and technological, any science was purely incidental.
By high school I was fascinated by the Russians (being the bad guys and all). I discovered that the small local library near our home had a Berlitz “Teach Yourself Russian” book. I spent the summer trying to teach myself Russian. Imagine my excitement when it dawned on me that the “CCCP” so prominent on Russian space suit helmets was actually “SSSR”‘ where the first “S” stood for “Soyuz” (Союз) or “Union.” CCCP stood for USSR. The Russian space capsule first used in 1967, and still used today to ferry cosmonauts and astronauts to the International Space Station, is called Soyuz.
Growing up Geek
Bing Dictionary defines geek (n) as:
1) awkward person: somebody regarded as unattractive and socially awkward
2) obsessive computer user: somebody who is a proud or enthusiastic user of computers or other technology, sometimes to an excessive degree
Roger that. Guilty as charged.
“Awkward and unattractive” I certainly thought I was unattractive. I was also very shy, lacked self confidence and was definitely socially awkward. But I was also smart, interested in science and learning, and probably a bit ADD. I got harassed a lot by the “cool” guys.
“User of computers or other technology” As a kid growing up in the ’60s, I had access to none of this. It didn’t exist. Try to imagine (if you can):
- No HD television, no color television; I grew up with black & white TV
- No satellite, cable, or digital television; just the standard analog network VHF channels 2 – 13 and the occasional independent UHF channel
- No on-demand, no Roku, no Apple TV, no Netflix, no Hulu, no DVR, no DVD, no VHS; you watched what was on at the time or you waited for what you wanted to see to come on
- No cell phone cameras, no digital cameras, no webcams, no camcorders; both still and movie cameras used film that needed to be developed before you could see the results
- No Internet, satellite, or digital radio, no FM radio; only AM radio
- No iTunes, no iPods, no MP3 players, no play lists, no CD players, no cassette decks; I had a record player that played vinyl 33 1/3 RPM Long Play albums or 45 RPM singles
- No FaceTime, no Skype, no video conferencing, no iMessage, no instant messaging, no email; you talked on the phone, met in person, or wrote and mailed paper letters
- No Facebook, no LinkedIn, no Twitter, no blogs; “networking” involved cocktail parties, golf games, business lunches, and other actual “face time”
- No Meeting Place, no WebEx, no GoToMeeting, no Live Meeting; meetings required a physical presence somewhere
- No smart phones, no cell phones, no satellite phones, no pagers, no texting, no answering machines; only land-line phones at home and if you needed to make a call away from home there were coin-operated “pay phones”
- No Google/Bing/Apple/MapQuest Maps, no Google Earth, no Google Street View, no Waze, no turn-by-turn directions, no car navigation systems, no GPS; we had paper maps
- No Google, no Bing, no Yahoo, no YouTube, no Yelp, no Siri; if you wanted to find out about something or how to do something or where something was located, you went to the library to look it up in an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, almanac, or other reference book
- No Internet, no iPads, no laptop computers, no desktop computers, no graphing calculators, no scientific calculators, no business calculators, no basic “+ – x ÷” four-function calculators; only mechanical adding machines, slide rules, and pencil & paper
None of what we take for granted today existed during my K-12 school years. Yet the science-fiction community gave hints of what was to come. Literature, movies, and TV shows were replete with voice responsive, talking computers and robots. Star Trek debuted in the fall of 1966 when I was in junior high. It presaged video conferencing, data tablets, flip phone communicators, and verbal computers among other modern technologies. Also in 1966, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress introduced the concept of a sentient networked computer named “Mike”, whose memory and cognitive processes were distributed across various locations in and around the Moon. 2001 A Space Odyssey debuted two years later and depicted the video phone, video tablets, and the quintessential sentient computer, HAL 9000. The technology may not have existed yet when I was a kid, but the ideas did and I wanted all of it. I dreamed of video phones and personal communicators. I dreamed of having my own computer that could answer any question I posed of it. I dreamed of the future.
When I go back and reread the above section I realize that I must come across as one of those grizzled old coots who go on and on about how easy the kids of today have it and how hard it was back in the day. “You durn kids have it too easy today with your microwave ovens and your meals ready to eat and such. Why when I was growing up and we wanted a hot meal, we had to run down a pig on foot and then find us a lava flow to cook it over. Golly Bob Howdy you durn kids just don’t know how easy you’ve got it now.”
I turn sixty later this year and I just don’t feel that old. Yet when you stop to think about it, it is truly mind boggling to realize what has changed in just the last forty years especially when you consider that we put man on the Moon without any of the technology we take for granted today. Sadly, the last footprint was also left on the Moon forty years ago. No one has been back since.
Growing up Scared
As a kid I was scared. My mother was a worrier. She worried about anything and everything. She worried so much she had ulcers (ignoring the fact the no one knew about H. pylori back then). Her worrying rubbed off on me. I identified strongly with Charlie Brown who was the main character of the popular cartoon strip Peanuts by Charles Schultz. Charlie Brown was the poster child for worry. One of my favorite quotes was “I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.”
It’s not as if there wasn’t already plenty of stuff for a kid to be scared of. Every year I became more and more aware of the potential for and consequences of nuclear war. I may not have appreciated the Cuban Missile Crisis when it occurred, but by the time junior high rolled around I had a pretty good understanding the dangers of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Then there was the War in Vietnam, which came into our homes every evening at dinner time on the network news. Due to the draft, every male child grew up with the certain knowledge of being sent off to kill or be killed once he finished high school or, if deferred, college. It should be no surprise to anyone if I remind you that Vietnam was an extremely unpopular war. So not only were we treated to nightly scenes of maimed and murdered soldiers, but also nightly scenes of the bloody clashes between riot police and protesters. My entire K-12 TV news experience was filled with, to quote Arlo Guthrie, “blood and gore and guts.” The music scene wasn’t any cheerier. Much of the best music of the late ’60s focused on war and death and anger and sadness. Happy days?
I was a lower-middle income white kid of Norwegian-Italian parents. I lived a sheltered, segregated life with white neighbors and white classmates. I am not sure how it happened – my parents, if alive today, would vehemently deny they were racist – but I developed a fear of black people, Negrophobia. I never knew any black people personally as a kid. All I knew about them was what I saw and heard on the news. Black people were angry. Very angry. They were angry at white people. They were angry at my mom and dad. They were angry at me!
Why were they so angry? According to my parents and the evening news it was because Communist inspired agitators were inciting racial hatred (I didn’t learn the truth until later in life). These Communist agitators had names like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They were leading marches to Selma, and Birmingham, and Washington D.C. Tens of thousands of angry white-hating black people. To make matters worse there was talk of forced integration. I was going to be put in class with big angry white-hating black kids.
To be fair I was also afraid of big angry geek-hating jocks. I faced the worst of all possible scenarios, being put in class with big angry geek-hating black jocks. Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it. (Not to be confused with Christopher Brian Bridges, whose music and acting I enjoy.) As an adult, I would discover that my childhood fears were baseless and that forced integration was perhaps the best solution to the evil of segregation. Segregation leads to ignorance and ignorance leads to fear. To quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune: “Fear is the mind killer.”
As much as my mother worried about anything, she worried about me. Like everyone else at the time, both of my parents “smoked like chimneys.” Whether I was a premie or just low birth weight, I was small. To make matters worse, I was born with congenital double inguinal hernias (I will spare you the details – that is what the Internet is for). Eventually my intestines became strangulated. I nearly died. I was only a few months old and was one of the youngest and smallest patients to have this kind of corrective surgery. As a result, my parents became overly protective of me. I wasn’t always allowed to do things other kids did. This made me fearful and insecure. I feared failure because I rarely was put in a position to experience it and learn to get over it. I worried about everything. I over analyzed every social situation trying to predict the outcome before I did anything. I was a poster child for “Analysis Paralysis.” Did I mention I was socially awkward?
Despite the fact that my parents love for me caused them to be overly protective, my dad did something equally amazing for me. I have always loved thunderstorms. I love the lightning and I love the thunder. I think that thunderstorms are one of the most exhilarating of all natural phenomenon. There is a reason for this. My dad grew up in an orphanage. It was not uncommon at the time for single mothers who could not care for their children to abandon them at an orphanage. Summertime in Florida produces severe afternoon thunderstorms. The nuns at the orphanage were afraid that lightening would hit the building and set fire to it. Rather than face the possibility of an orphanage full of trapped children burning to the ground, whenever a thunderstorm approached, the nuns would make the children go outside and lie facedown in the grass until the storm passed. Needless to say, my dad was terrified of thunderstorms; shaking, vomiting, fetal position terrified of thunderstorms. Dad swore to himself that I was never going to be afraid of lightning and thunder like he was. From my earliest days my dad would pick me up and bounce me on his knee during storms. “See the lightning,” he would say, “now wait, here it comes … BADDA BOOM.” I would giggle and laugh. He showed no fear, why should I. Of course, I remember none of this. I was too young. But I do know that I love lightning and thunder. Whenever my dad told this story he would add one more thing … by making sure that I was never afraid of thunderstorms he had cured his own fear too.
Look around it’s all so clear. Wherever we were going, well we’re here.
So many things I never thought I’d see – happening right in front of me.
Brad Paisley – Welcome to the Future
Even if you have heard this song before, please take few minutes to click on the link above and watch the video. It is a link to the official whitehouse.gov YouTube video of Brad Paisley singing at the White House. Please listen. It is the soundtrack for the rest of this essay.