Big Apple, Outer Space and Young Life Stories

My father and I were on the roof of our upper west side apartment in Manhattan in October of 1957, when I was 6 years old, gazing upwards at a what looked like a tiny star flying very slowly across the night sky, far above the heaven scraping gothic towers of Riverside Church. We were watching the Russian spacecraft Sputnik, the first man made orbiting satellite in the opening salvo of the Space Race between the USA and the USSR. 

Throughout my elementary school years, all class work would come to a sudden halt whenever there was an American rocket launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and we would listen to the drama of countdowns, liftoffs, orbits and splashdowns over the static plagued, crackling radio on PS 125’s public address system.

A few years later, after moving to California, we had an actual astronaut (Owen Garriot) as our next door neighbor for several years. Owen spent 59 days aboard Skylab, orbiting the earth and then returned to space 10 years later on a space shuttle mission. His son Richard later flew into orbit as a space tourist aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-13, the second son of an astronaut to follow in the cosmic arc of his father.

My father was a theologian, and as a child I hoped to ascend to Heaven and meet God with him, but that encounter will have to wait a little longer at this late date.

Sputnik

We’ll be watching you from space, Yankee Dog!

Owen Garriot, my astronaut neighbor

This was a poem written by Arondel Jones, the smartest and smallest boy in my 5th grade class at PS 125 in Harlem in New York city at the dawn of the atomic age. His black class mates called him “Big Little Pygmy.”

I had radioactive rods stuffed into both of my nostrils for 12 1/2 minutes per dosage several times in the late 1950’s while undergoing a new therapy to shrink children’s adenoids. The radium rods were about the same size and shape as 4th of July sparklers. They were thin wands which contained high potency radium at the tips. Unfortunately, many patients who under went this new atomic therapy developed thyroid cancer in later life.

Warning • Radiation

Anne G Ruddy, principal of PS 125 in the heart of Harlem in New York City, shouted this at me and my friend David Sallivery in front of my 5th grade class, denouncing us and our free paper, “The Early Morning Gossip.” We had just published an editorial commenting on the low quality of the food at the school lunchroom and the fact that students were forced to eat everything on their plates if they liked it or not while being yelled at by lunch monitors. We had interviewed many of our classmates who ate there every day and we were making their personal grievances known, in the hallowed American tradition of investigative journalism.

David and I wrote the stories, features and columns, and made the paper in his family’s apartment after school, and his mom typed and mimeographed it and stapled it together for us at her office. Once a week we handed out the paper early in the morning as school was starting. This browbeating and public humiliation from Anne G. Ruddy ended my journalism career and taught me that freedom of the press in America was a nebulous concept at best.

My 5th grade class at P.S. 125

The Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made this threat while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow in November of 1956. It was one of his often repeated bellicose threats aimed at the West during the dark days of the Cold War.

Later at a United Nations General Assembly meeting he took off his shoe and angrily banged on the dias with it during a speech to emphasize his serious intentions of world domination. Sadly, his Russian successor, Vladimir Putin, is still in world domination mode in Ukraine, using much more lethal weapons than his shoes.

Nikita Khrushchev and his angry shoe


Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin

I was touring the United Nations building in New York with my fifth grade class. We were looking at a huge rug, woven in Iran and hung vertically, that covered a wall in the lobby that was at least 50’ tall. It was my first philosophical introduction to some of the sacred principles of Islam. I asked the guide where the flaw was but she did not know, proving to me that only God is perfect and knows everything.

Persian Rug • 1900

United Nations Building, New York

At age 7, Johnny loudly sang “She can’t see! She can’t see!in a sing song voice to a blind woman at a bus stop on Riverside Drive in NYC. My mother was mortified and quickly silenced Johnny and apologized to the woman, saying “I’m so sorry – He’s not my child.”

Johnny had steel toed orthopedic corrective shoes that he liked to kick kids with. He once tried to drop a brick on a friend in an apartment stairwell. He once declared to me: “Fuck Yeah! I’m the cussingest, most foul mouthed Preacher’s Kid in the whole God Damned world! ”

He later climbed the Grand Teton with his father at age 14 and later became a mountain guide for the National Outdoor Leadership School, so his trajectory beyond childhood was forever upward toward the heavens.

Decades later, I was surprised to see him in my living room in Palo Alto. A friend had met him as a mountain guide in Montana and had become his friend or girlfriend. They had done the six degrees of separation synchronicity dance and somehow figured out that they both knew me from vastly different phases of my life. His name was now Waldo, and whatever demons had plagued him in his childhood had been fully exorcised, as he had become a sweet, smart, funny man and a strong and resourceful outdoor adventure wizard.

Grand Teton peak and barn

For a short time when I was a child I had several pretend friends who would accompany me everywhere and upon whose advice I often depended; they were Captain Bill, Mick, Joncum and the Three Indians. Many years later I found out that at about the same age my wife Karen had three pretend friends who were named Hopoke, Mocus and Pimpsa. I want all of them to meet at a pretend party and become real best friends.

Three Iroquois Indians

This was the ironclad rule throughout my childhood, enforced by everyone’s parents that I knew or ever swam with. It turned out there was there is no medical evidence to support this always stated, always enforced, post-picnic medical myth.

Ophelia drowning • Paul Steck

I was watching one of my best friends, Larry Cameron, receive his first communion in a black Catholic Church on 125th street in New York in 1962. Larry’s father was a sailor in the Merchant Marine and was almost never in his nautical home port of New York City, so I was there to help welcome Larry into the new refuge port of Jesus Land. Larry was tall and gentle, and looked very much like the saxophone great John Coltrane.

He lived in one of the 20 story tall project block towers that the neighborhood destroying city planner/monster Robert Moses had recently created. My mother later told me that his mother was very worried that Larry would get sucked into the omnipresent gang lifestyle of young black men there at that time, though his mom was doing her best to see that did not happen with the help of God and the Catholic church.

Being a nominal Presbyterian, I had never before been in a church with so many sculptures of Christ on the cross in mortal agony. The priest droned away in Latin for what seemed like eternity and finally gave Larry some sort of holy magic two fingered touch and placed a communion wafer on his tongue, welcoming him into the assembly of God.  An angelic gospel choir sang and when the ceremony was over it was Wednesday afternoon and we did not have to go back to P.S. 125, just across 125th street, having been given a Holy get out of jail free card for the afternoon, so we wandered around Harlem together, past the Apollo theater and the roller rink where we often skated after school, deeper uptown than I had ever been before.

I felt safe for the first time with him leading me around and through Harlem. We went into shops where everybody knew him and congratulated him on his spiritual progress and shook the hand of his little white friend. Hours later we made our way back to his apartment block to the 12th floor where his mother had prepared a southern feast of chitlins, fried chicken, beans, collard greens and yams for Larry, me and his younger brother. We watched cartoons on TV and went to bed and then made our way to P.S. 125 the next morning, wrapped up in the peaceful holy spirit of Jesus.

Communion

For the first several summers that we lived in rural Heath, Massachusetts there were two general stores, one in Heath Center next to the church and town hall and the other in North Heath two miles away. The downtown store also contained the post office, the social hub and source of all known daily news or gossip for the entire town. The postmistress was the smart, affable and proper Esther Dickinson, daughter of one of the premier farm families in Heath, and a distant cousin of the poet Emily Dickinson.

I always loved to read the wanted posters that were taped to the walls, detailing heinous crimes committed by the sorts of people who thankfully did not represent Heath’s more refined and morally grounded citizens. My mother liked to arrive early while Esther was sorting the mail to chat and to learn what was going on in people’s lives, hearts and minds. She often commented after our visits that the people of Heath hoped to learn as much as they could about their friends and neighbors while revealing as little as possible about themselves, in a typically New England, “cards close to the vest” fashion.

John William Anglin • Escaped fugitive and bank robber • Wanted by the FBI

Our cows are outstanding in their field • Black and White Heifer • Piet Mondrian

I was 11 years old when I first saw The Golden Spike, nestled inside of a red velvet lined safe behind a 5” thick glass window at the Stanford Museum. I had just driven across the USA for the first time and knew viscerally what an enormous country America was, and what an engineering feat it had been to create a transcontinental railroad system. 

The Golden spike was a ceremonial 17.6-carat gold final spike, driven by California’s governor, Leland Stanford, to join the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Stanford missed the spike on his first attempt to drive it into a pre drilled hole in a ceremonial laurel wood railroad tie, with a sledgehammer made of solid silver. The ceremony has come to be considered one of the first nationwide media events.

The Stanford Museum also had a gargantuan steam locomotive in the lobby named the Governor Stanford, which some of my friends were able to play on after hours, as their father was the dean of the Art Department and had unlimited access to the museum. Many years later I saw the same locomotive in a railroad museum in Sacramento, California where I also saw the same large green Lionel toy electric train set that my father had passed on to me from his childhood, which my mother had sold at a garage sale.

The Golden Spike

Governor Stanford prepares to drive the Golden Spike

Here’s a song by the English band Equation, on the subject of Communion:

Here’s Roseanne Cash singing about hearing train whistles 500 miles away: