Earlier this year I wrote about my mother-in-law. Today is the day I will always associate with my father-in-law. Some thoughts on him, adapted from a piece I wrote a dozen years ago.
It’s July 20. Those of us old enough remember it as the day of one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. We can tell you where we were, who we were with, how we rejoiced. We celebrated Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins. Their voyage to the moon and back is legendary, the stuff of American heroes. Much has been written and spoken about them in the years since. They are the heroes of the the Space Race, the Cold War, and any other capitalize the two words phrase from the era between WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That’s all well and good, but I’d like to talk about another American. His name was Jim Freshour and he didn’t go to the moon. Instead in the mid 1960’s he got to pack up and move from Sunnyvale California to Huntsville Alabama. The mid 1960’s. Huntsville Alabama. He didn’t go to the moon, he went to a whole new planet. And he took his family along with him.
Those of you my age or older may recall that Huntsville Alabama was dubbed “Rocket City USA” back then. From all over the country came young engineers and scientists to work on the absurd challenge a martyred president had put forth; to put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade. And as if it weren’t crazy enough that all these over-educated, underpaid, slide rule gunslingers were plopped down in the middle of the segregated South, they ludicrously were led by a group of former Nazi bomb makers who had just a few years earlier been trying their best to bury London under a blitz of V2 rockets. The whole lot of them were met by a welcome wagon of race baiting, fifteen year olds in the sixth grade, tobacco chewing, George Wallace loving, reddest of redneck natives.
The Cold War meets Jim Crow. What a sight that must have been.
Jim did his job. Every morning he went off to work and every afternoon the ground around Huntsville would shake with the testing of the thunder he had created. Every evening he would come home and play with his children and avoid talking about what he had done at work all day. Like everyone else imported to Huntsville, Jim couldn’t talk about what he did. The constraints of national security made the merest whisper of what was said or done in the buildings behind the fencing on “that side” of town not simply local gossip, but a matter of national security, even treason.
Everyone knew what those rockets with their red glare were really about. Oh getting a man to the moon was the exciting tale to sell the public, but what we were really saying to our vodka swilling competitors across the ocean was “Don’t mess with us. If we can put one of these on the moon we can sure as hell land one in Moscow packed with a multiple kiloton nuclear surprise.”
It’s a beautiful day in Dr. Strangelove’s neighborhood.
So secrecy ruled the day. Scientists and engineers are not by nature communicative types. The guise of the absent minded professor is a socially acceptable way to avoid human interaction and they like it that way. It’s easier to appear to be lost in the clouds thinking great thoughts than to have to hold a conversation with the next door neighbor. However deep down inside even the professor needs to reach out to other humans; being unable to can make for a difficult life.
When life turns difficult there are any number of coping mechanisms that we humans have. Some find comfort in religion. Back then it was hard for Jim to adhere to the Baptist upbringing he was used to. Back then Baptist in the deep South equaled black and though god loves all his children there were no churches in town that allowed blacks and whites to worship together. Add to that he had a Catholic wife, a non local accent, and an IQ north of 120 and the locals in the pointed hoods made a note about him. He and his wife compromised on Presbyterian as did most of the imported brain power of Huntsville but for Jim it didn’t seem to do the trick.
Alcohol is another coping mechanism. The history of the space program (on both sides) is filled with a roster of Bill W.’s friends and unfortunately many who should have been but never made it to the meetings. Jim fell into that vat and it took many years, a divorce, and many tears for him to finally crawl out again. Still he never talked about what he did. And as the years passed and his kids wanted to know just what it was he did for a living, the simple answer was “I work for (insert name of military contractor)” followed by silence. Asking what he did for (insert name of military contractor) would elicit no further communication. When asked who built the ships that made it possible for men to scramble across the surface of the moon the answer was always (insert name of military contractor).
So while the fly-boys got the cover of Life Magazine and the visits to the White House, Jim and all the thousands of other Jims just like him sunk into the anonymity of the corporate structure and national security. They never got the recognition for their accomplishments. They didn’t get to ride the rocket. They didn’t get the parade. Their names weren’t household; their faces didn’t adorn the front pages. Yet without them Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins wouldn’t have made it to Sea World let alone the Sea of Tranquility. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families, needs to be remembered today. They are the heroes too.
Here’s to my father-in-law Jim Freshour. Fifty-two years ago today he put a man on the moon and returned him safely to the earth.