Friday, January 31, 2014

Pucks, Toys, and Growing Old

Did you know we have professional hockey in West Virginia? I made a trip to Wheeling recently to watch their minor league hockey team, the Wheeling Nailers. I saw my first game at the Wheeling Civic Center back in the ‘90s, and have made numerous return trips over the years to get a hockey fix. The team’s nickname was the winner of a contest among their fans, and is a tribute to the long history of nail manufacturers in the Wheeling area.

I think Nailers games are a fun and inexpensive form of entertainment, even if you aren’t extremely knowledgeable about the sport of hockey. Plus, the hallways of the Wheeling Civic Center serve as a sports museum for the region, with interesting photo displays of a multitude of athletes from over the years. It may surprise you how many professional athletes are from this area.

I had extra time before the game, so I explored the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum in the Elm Grove neighborhood east of downtown Wheeling, and just off I-70. This large two-story brick building had served as a school for about a hundred years. It reminded me of some of the older elementary schools in Wood County (such as the old Park School that I once attended, which was torn down in the ‘90s). Fortunately, this historic building has been nicely repurposed as a toy museum. The interior woodwork and tin ceilings are beautifully restored.

The classrooms now serve as exhibition rooms for different topics. I skipped the doll room and headed for the rooms that most interested me. There was a game room dedicated to board games over the years, such as Monopoly, Battleship, Candyland, Sorry, Trouble, Life, Mousetrap, Stratego, Risk, and even Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em, Robots. I didn’t have all these games, but I was familiar with them through cousins, neighbors, or school friends.

There was a transportation room with all types of toy cars, trucks, planes, rockets, etc. There were separate rooms dedicated to train layouts and slot car tracks (it was fun to grasp a controller and race again). Another room was for toy soldiers and other miniatures. One room was filled with an elaborate display made from K’nex blocks. There is also a nice display on the history of the Wheeling area, and one former classroom serves as a gift shop.

I must admit that it made me feel old to see many of the toys I played with treated as objects to be observed in a museum. Has it really been that long ago that the original “Hot Wheels” cars or the game “Operation” debuted? How did my childhood become a suitable topic to be curated in a museum for current (and future) generations to marvel?

Another sign of my “old age” is the number of newer toys that originated after my childhood but are also treated as historic treasures from a long ago age. For example, the Marx Toy Company (which was based in nearby Moundsville) built the famous “Big Wheel” tricycle, but I was riding bicycles by the time it came out. Cabbage Patch dolls came out after I had graduated from college.

Despite the surprise of confronting my advancing age, the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum was an interesting place to explore in Wheeling. It would be a good place to take today’s “video game” generation of youngsters to show them how we used to play. I may be biased, but I think we had it better!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

R.I.P. Challenger

January 28, 1986 is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. I am reposting my eyewitness account of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, which I originally wrote just a few years after the tragedy.

[After graduating from law school and deciding I didn't want to be a lawyer, I got accepted into the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program (now known as the Presidential Management Fellowship program), which brings recent graduates with advanced degrees into the federal government. Having always been interested in the space program, I sought a job at NASA, and successfully began my career at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, during the summer of 1985. Although I was not in Florida, I did see the Challenger disaster happen before my eyes on January 28, 1986, and a few years later, I wrote a summary of what happened that day.]

On the day that the shuttle was to be launched, I called Karen P., my fellow PMI in Code M (the Space Shuttle office within NASA), several times to see if they were going to launch and when. It was very cold at the Cape and there were concerns about whether to try or not, even though the original launch date had been scrubbed already. Later in the morning, Karen called to tell me the launch was on. I went down one flight of stairs to Code M's large conference room, which was set up with about three big screen TVs.

I had taken a particular interest in this flight because of the teacher in space program. I had been sending NASA materials back to the Wood County School System (in great numbers) and was already scheduled (during the upcoming President's Day long weekend) to speak to the Edison Jr. High science classes about NASA and also at the University of Charleston. I had a large official Teacher in Space poster on my wall in my office, a recent addition to all my smaller NASA pictures.

I got down there earlier than usual and watched the last 5 minutes of the countdown. I was able to sit next to Betsy C., a PMI from the class ahead of me that I knew through Gwen Y, a Space Station co-worker. I saved a seat for Karen but she never made it. Betsy was the only other person I really knew in the room, the rest were just familiar faces from the hallways.

I remember watching the launch and there was a general air of excitement. Some man sitting up front at a table made a rocket with his index finger and followed the shuttle into the sky. As it gained altitude and was getting smaller, the video crew switched to a more powerful camera. This new camera view was very tight on the shuttle, and soon after the switch, there were flashes of haze around the ET (external tank) and SRBs (solid rocket boosters), and then everything turned white. The camera was so tight that we could not tell at first that an explosion had occurred.

As the cameras strained to decipher what had happened, everyone knew something had gone wrong. I remember several "Oh my God!"s and I remember one woman pulling a rosary out of her purse and praying. One or two people dashed from the room to head to their desks. Most everyone else sat there stunned. Some eventually started crying. I remember my first thought was a positive one. I had hoped that the haze I saw was caused by a premature separation of the SRBs and that somehow the orbiter had been able to get away from the explosion and would be gliding back to the runway for an emergency abort landing.

Maybe the camera crew thought the same thing because after showing us a long range shot of the smoke from the explosion, they suddenly cut to a gray spot against the blue sky. Someone said "there they are" but as the camera zoomed closer and focused in, someone said what was apparent --"that's not them because that is tumbling." What the camera had picked up was one of the large pieces of debris during its free fall to the sea. Indeed, another camera shot came up that showed one of the SRB recovery boats alone in the ocean, with pieces of debris making white splashes in the water all around it. Another camera change showed a parachute deployed, but someone was quick to squelch any hopes by pointing out that it wasn't the astronauts because they didn't have chutes. It turned out to be from one of the aborted SRBs.

The capcom had been about as stunned as we were. I remember that he announced that the range radar officer had confirmed that he had lost all contact with the orbiter. The capcom later admitted that there apparently had been a "major anomaly."

Most everyone hung around for a good while, hoping to find something out. I remember that the only interaction I had with anyone else there was when Betsy and I turned to each other in saddened disbelief. The shuttle had blown up before our eyes! We didn't say any words, but I'll never forget the look in her eyes or the way I felt inside.

Finally, with no immediate forthcoming news from the Cape, I decided that I needed to get back upstairs to the Space Station office. When I arrived, my supervisor and co-workers knew that I had gone down to see the launch live. John Sheahan, my division director, insisted that I come sit down in his office. He later said that I was white with shock. By the time I had got up there, everyone had already found out, but I was able to give them an eyewitness account of what had happened. Everyone was stunned.

I remember that I had a meeting on a procurement issue I was working on in the afternoon, and there was a decision at some point to go on with everyday business. I sat in the meeting with Billie W. but my mind wasn't really on it. Either before or after that meeting, I had gone to the telecommunications conference room on our floor to watch NASA Select (NASA’s internal closed circuit television). I remember that they were only showing a calm beach scene from the Cape, with the waves rolling in serving as a memorial.

I remember that later in the afternoon (like 3:00 or so) Space Station had a group meeting to anticipate the impact on the program. Everyone was trying to decide answers to possible press questions, such as effect on the construction, is it necessary for a four shuttle fleet, what about reliance on shuttle for astronauts, what if space station was up there now. I think all of us thought that we would probably be flying again by the end of the year. I remember Space Station deputy administrator John H. telling me that he always knew that the ascent was the most dangerous time and that the descent was a piece of cake. I stayed at work late, and spent the later hours in the Space Station administrator Andy S's office watching the network news coverage. I eventually stayed until the President's eloquent address was over. Then I went up to Capitol Hill for a West Virginia Association meeting and talked with numerous people about what I had seen, including Mike F., whom I knew best. It was quite a day!

In the days following, I found out that Karen had decided to watch it on a TV in someone's office. She and I (as well as others) have often commented to each other about how those of us who saw it happen live were more strongly affected by what happened. Nothing is like that initial period of wondering what has happened. It will stay with you forever.

R.I.P. Challenger

Monday, January 20, 2014

My Favorite TV Shows

Recently, a friend posed some questions on Facebook about our favorite TV shows when we were growing up. Many friends responded with popular classics like “Gilligan’s Island” (especially since the Professor died at about the same time), “I Love Lucy,” “Andy Griffith,” “Gomer Pyle,” “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Batman,” “My Three Sons,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” etc.

I can agree with all of those mentioned above, but I must admit that I have a special place in my heart for “The Brady Bunch.” I remember seeing the very first episode the night it debuted, and immediately falling in love with Marcia Brady (as did many other boys of my age, whether they admit it or not). It was great to watch a show about kids who were in my approximate age group. [However, I don’t recommend falling for unattainable leading ladies!]

Another series that was very important to me was “Leave it to Beaver.” I primarily remember it in syndicated reruns since it was a bit before my time, but I learned a lot about ethics, integrity, and responsibility from the Cleaver family. Shows back then tried to make a point—something you don’t see much on TV today.

There was another show that tried to make a philosophical point with each episode—the stop-motion style children’s show “Davy and Goliath.” Probably because I shared the same first name as the protagonist, this was one of my favorites. Like Beaver, it helped to teach me some of the moral guideposts for life.

Speaking of children’s shows, I’d probably rate “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” as my favorite animated cartoon (with “Roadrunner” coming in a close second, and the “Jetsons” probably in third place). I especially enjoyed Professor Peabody and his Wayback Machine. As a child, I didn’t know enough to fully appreciate all the humor woven into this Cold War era cartoon, but it was still my favorite.

Saturday mornings were dedicated to network cartoons and children’s shows, but local television stations often had their own shows for kids in the late afternoons on weekdays. I remember watching Uncle Willie as the host of WCHS Channel 8’s cartoon show, as well as Mr. Cartoon on WSAZ Channel 3. It is a shame that there are very few locally produced shows today.

There were not many dramas that caught my interest. However, my favorite in this genre was far too short-lived. “Then Came Bronson” was the story of a guy and traveling around the country on his motorcycle, often doing good deeds for the folks he met along the way. I think this show had a profound impact on my interest in motorcycles and my desire to travel (plus I can still sing the theme song!). The better known spy show “Mission Impossible” was probably second, and a lesser known Western “Alias Smith and Jones” would be third (the only Western that appealed to me, and it only a couple of seasons because one of the stars died unexpectedly).

Crime shows were dramas, but because they were so prevalent, I am counting them as their own category. “The FBI” was always a favorite, especially with the closing segment profiling a real life criminal they were looking to find. Other favorites were “Dragnet,” “Mannix,” and “The Rockford Files.”

With regard to TV sports, I’ve previously written an essay about the importance of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” when I was growing up (

Variety shows were still in vogue during my youth. I was a big fan of the “Carol Burnett Show,” but my favorite was the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” My family probably didn’t fully comprehend the political statements that the Smothers Brothers were putting into their shows—we just liked both Tom and Dick Smothers and their hilarious interactions. Plus, Dick Smothers was a car guy, and the show was sponsoring race cars, so that made it even cooler!

Like the Smothers Brothers, there were other TV shows that were helping to enlighten our world view. “I Spy” (starring Bill Cosby as a serious actor, not a comic), “Flip Wilson,” and “Julia” had helped to blur the color lines, while “All in the Family,” “MASH,” the “Mod Squad,” and sometimes even “Laugh-In” shed new light on complicated issues. People would talk around the water cooler about the shows they watched the night before. The shared experiences from watching these shows were often a catalyst for reflection and introspection. Today’s audiences are far too fragmented for meaningful discussions.

I feel like I was fortunate to grow up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We may have only had three channels to choose from, but the overall programming seems to me to have been better than what I see listed for hundreds of channels today. That’s not to say that you could always find something you wanted to watch. If the three channels were not offering something you liked, you could turn it off and read a book or go outside (something kids today would be better off doing more often).

Finally, if I am writing an essay about television shows, I must use this opportunity to talk about some of my all-time favorites. Before I list my top three, I must say that I am a huge PBS fan, as nearly all of my favorite shows have appeared there. For example, even though it didn’t quite make my top three list, I loved Ken Burns’ mini-series on “The Civil War” because I was interested in the topic. Then he did similar mini-series on the topics of jazz music, baseball, prohibition, and more, and none of them are among my interests—but I loved learning about those topics through his engaging documentaries. I feel the same way about the “American Experience” series—especially when author David McCulloch is the narrator. And finally, I must acknowledge the wonderful science programming I have enjoyed on PBS, such as shown on the long running series entitled “NOVA.”

Now it is time to list my ALL-TIME TOP THREE TV SHOWS:

• My bronze medal goes to James Burke’s “Connections.” This fascinating series combined history with technology to trace how we got to where we are today, often through a series of unexpected coincidences.
• My silver medal goes to the documentary series “Vietnam.” I watched every episode of this show when it debuted in the fall of 1983, while concurrently taking a law school class on International Law. I learned an incredible amount about the war that had haunted my childhood from that show. For probably the only time during my law school career, I was elated when I sat down for my final exam in that International Law class and found that the essay topic was to discuss International Law and its relationship to the Vietnam War. Thanks to watching the entire documentary series, I had plenty to write about!
• My gold medal for outstanding television goes to “Cosmos.” Debuting in 1980, astrophysicist Carl Sagan took viewers on a thought-provoking journey. His explanations made some of the complexities of science more easily understood. [I’m glad I got to see him while I worked at NASA.]

I think everyone who watched them learned something new from these three shows. If you aren’t familiar with them, you should check them out. They raised our intelligence—rather than diminishing our intelligence as Honey Boo Boo and other shows today seem determined to do.