08 December 2016

Historical shorts

Source: NASA documentary Friendship 7.  
I was honestly surprised by my reaction to the news that John Glenn died today.

Along with the sorrow of the moment, the news instantly transported me back to my third grade classroom at Miller School in Evanston, Illinois, on a cold February morning in 1962. A television on a large A/V cart had been wheeled into our classroom that morning so that we could watch the launch of Friendship 7. It was the first time I realized that the adults around us were not just interested -- they were nervous and were not even trying to hide it. This wasn't like one of those science films that were welcome interruptions in classroom routine -- this was history, and the excitement was infectious.

Later that morning, after the launch, things returned more or less to normal in our classroom, but when Glenn's three orbits were completed, once again we all gathered around the television to hear news of a safe landing. Only later did I learn more about the context of the adults' nervousness -- the very public Vanguard disasters a few years earlier, and Gus Grissom's near-drowning at the end of his suborbital flight. And I can't now remember how long it took for us to find out that Glenn's own flight was complicated by a defective sensor that seemed to indicate that his craft's heat shield was not secure.

We third-graders were also not terribly concerned about the Cold-War dimension of the U.S. space flight program. We enjoyed following John Glenn's adventures with an innocent wholeheartedness that still gives me joy to recall.

Three months later, the next Mercury flight, Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7, was launched earlier in the morning, before the start of the school day, but we were at school when he landed far from the original target point. I think we left school that afternoon still not knowing when Carpenter would be picked up from the ocean. The risk and romance of human spaceflight made a deep impression on me that continues to this day.

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Of course, I have no personal memory of that event -- my arrival on the planet was eleven years later -- but I had a stake in the events that unfolded after that fateful day. My mother's parents lived in Osaka, Japan, where my grandfather Paul Schmitz was a consulting engineer and a collector of Japanese art. During some of those years, my mother went to boarding school in Tokyo. Had the war not intervened, it's likely that the family would have remained in Japan for the rest of their lives. It was home.

As it turned out, three years after the war ended, my grandparents Paul and Emma Schmitz and their only daughter Erika were evicted from their home by the U.S. Army, and were put on a ship to Germany. Apparently this was the fate of most of the resident Germans in Japan -- all except those who were charged with war crimes. They had a different fate awaiting them. My mother finished high school in Stuttgart and began university in Heidelberg, but for some reason she never explained to me, she decided to transfer to a university in the USA. Her destination: Northwestern University in Evanston, which is where she met her future husband -- my father. His parents, having endured five long years of German occupation of their country, Norway, found it very hard to understand why their son would choose to marry a German, but they didn't stand in the way. As for my German grandparents, they were the ones who gave me the first book of history that still remains vivid in my memory: William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

I now wish I had talked more about World War II with both sets of grandparents. My parents managed to find each other and fall in love despite their families' wartime experiences, but those dramatically different experiences were not forgotten. I remember overhearing their heated arguments about which side had been more cruel, with my mother dramatically recounting the American bombing of her school in Tokyo, and my father recalling the British bombing of the beautiful Victoria Terrasse building (used by the Gestapo at the time) which killed and wounded a number of Norwegian civilians. My parents actually argued about which of them had seen more corpses during the war. They couldn't have realized that a future pacifist was listening.

My mother was always sure that U.S. President Roosevelt deliberately allowed the Pearl Harbor attack, in order to gain an excuse to enter the war. This now seems extremely unlikely, but we know that history can be like putty in the hands of skilled propagandists. A recent possible example from here: the 28 Pamfilovtsy controversy. (And the physical sciences are also not immune. Don't get smug, USA; there is no guarantee that climate science won't be sabotaged by politics.)

March of the billionaires: Trump assembles his team.

Breaking and entering...
I keep asking how one goes about becoming a Quaker, and people keep telling me that I just declare myself one. I think the lack of real process here has something to do with not recognizing hierarchy. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not very helpful.
Hispanic evangelicals and politics today: Ed Stetzer interviews Gabriel Saguero.

In historic appearance, Palestinian offers one-state vision to a New York temple.

Time to go to bed!


Chris Nicholson said...

Your schoolroom look at John Glenn's flight was quite a contrast to the immediacy of the Challenger disaster which was a part of the early space education for classroom where I was teaching.

Johan Maurer said...

We watched those early launches with our hearts in our mouths, fully aware of the risks. (The Atlas booster had a terrible failure rate!) By the time of the first Space Shuttle disaster, we took success for granted.