Archive for the 'Memories' Category


As I mentioned in Balloon Memory, I first flew alone in 1971. Today’s Object At Hand is a memento of that trip. A pair of vintage tin TWA Junior Pilot wings.

Disclosure: This pair I now own stands in for the (lost) wings that were pinned on me in 1971. They are the same vintage and evocation, if not the precise provenance of that original pair.

I was sent alone to fly the friendly skies at the age of ten because my father had to remain behind to manage a minor crisis in a NASA project, instead of escorting me home. I was quite uneasy about flying alone. Probably petrified. My father proposed a wager: If I enjoyed the flight, he’d give me a whole dollar. This was serious money to me in 1971; 100 gumballs, or 10 big candy bars, or a box of Lego plus change.

I was reminded of this wager when I read this post by Dale McGowan encouraging his children to overcome their fear. Thus inspired to relay my own story, I sought my original wings (futile) and sought and found a matching tin pair. TWA had switched to plastic in the 1970’s.

Anyway, back in South Dakota, dad handed me off to a stewardess on the tarmac (this was before enclosed jet-ways) and I walked unsteadily up the stairs into the big 727. The uniformed pretty miss saw how terrified I was, and plied me with sweets there in the front seat of the cabin, and pinned the wings on my jacket.

She promised me that I could see the cockpit after the first leg of the flight, possibly implying a contingency on my good behavior. Now this interested me.

I don’t remember the flight from Sioux Falls to (I’m guessing) Chicago. But I do remember getting a tour of the cockpit. So many dials and switches in such a small room. In retrospect, the tour served as a distraction to have me wait as the other passengers deplaned, so they could escort me to the pilot’s lounge to wait for my next leg. So I idled there for about an hour, watching pilots have a completely conventional snack. It was somehow disillusioning. I suppose that I’d expected these Gods of the Airways to eat space food or something. Remember, this was the pinnacle of the space age.

Then another stewardess came for me. She had to persuade me that yes, she was going to take me to the plane home to Saint Louis. I’d expected that the escort appointed by my father would convey me personally all the way to my mother. But I adjusted to the change, and the rest of the flight was anti-climactic. I tried to score another visit to the cockpit, but this new stew took me off the plane first and handed me to my mother, who was waiting at the gate.

For Whom the Shutter Snaps

This post was inspired more by certain recent activities than by my grandfather’s camera itself. But first, the camera: This is the one that I first used to take pictures, around the age of 6. It was also the first camera that my mother learned to use in the early 1930’s. It was quite an effort for me to learn how to handle it, in spite of my mother’s patient tutelage.

The focus ring is calibrated in meters, the standard of measurement in all but three nations. But I was raised in one of those oddball nations, so had to be shown how to pace off meters. My tiny legs could barely span one, but I did learn to focus a camera by pacing before I could estimate by eye.

The external light meter was beyond me; I didn’t originally “get” how to adjust the f-stop and time based on a needle crossing half a dozen scales. But my mother patiently showed me that there really were only a few choices. Five speeds: Latch-open, hold-open, 1/25, 1/50, and 1/100.  The f-stop runs from 6.3 to 32. And keep in mind that film only went up to an ASA of about 100 when my maternal grandfather was using it. One had to hold quite still to get a clear shot in full sunlight.

When I was eight or nine I received a durable, cheap camera that used film cartridges. Then I got a “110” compact camera in the early 1970’s.  By the late 1970’s I switched to my first in a series of SLR’s. I went digital in 2001. But I last used my grandfather’s camera in 1980, just to develop such big film in my own darkroom. Currently I take over 7,000 shots a year, a few hundred of which I might share. Mostly online, as on FaceBook or my travel page.

But the impetus behind this post and my main point is, what’s the point? After each parent died, I took it upon myself to wade through pictures of them to create memorial service picture boards and websites (Joseph and Erika). You may have surmised above that my mother was the shutterbug. It was a periodic passion with her. Her darkroom days peaked in the 1950’s, and she finally donated her equipment to a school about 2 years before I seriously got into photography.

So I found boxes of disorganized pictures and partial albums and drawers and carousels of slides to wade through. Most of the pictures were of people I didn’t know, scenes I’d never seen, and other precious mementos without referent for anyone but the original taker. There was an abundance of baby pictures of my brother and me, but few of us siblings as we became individuals.

It was hard to find pictures of my parents doing anything characteristic. Not one shot of my mother cooking or gardening, or my father at the computer or reading. Most vacation pictures were of scenery or specific plants or mushrooms, with some rare shots containing family members. We all scoff at vacationers taking pictures of each other in front of Scenic Outlooks. But it occurs to me that this is the sort of thing I’d have liked to have, after my parents passed. My father climbing Ayers Rock or underground at CERN, or my mother in some ferny forest hunting mushrooms or among the redwoods. Even a snapshot of our family enjoying a typical Sunday brunch at home would be treasured at this point.

Pictures not taken: My father was a whiz with a slipstick and the Addiator. He smoked a pipe for a while, played the harmonica, recorder, guitar, and the pump organ. Before the war took his shoulder, he played the violin; I’d like see that. My mother literally sculpted many an artistic meal, and gardened literally like a pro. Yes, I am using “literally” literally. She climbed trees well into her 50’s, cut down other trees, dug deep flower beds, laid patios, knitted, wove chairs, and refinished furniture. There is not one picture of these activities since I was born.

So my suggestion to those of you who take pictures is, consider for whom the shutter snaps (or the capture encodes if you prefer). Plan for the people who may want to see you or yours in ordinary activities. One never knows what currently mundane thing may later be looked upon with nostalgia.

Dan, his camera by his side and his mustache in the breeze, at Dead Horse Point

Balloon Memory

This object has been in my possession for almost 40 years. And the memory that it stirs is of a balloon. A Mylar helium balloon.  You might say that they didn’t have Mylar balloons back when I was a kid. But NASA did, much like the one in this recent news report.

So, what is this object?

Ballast magnetically splayed on contemporary penny

Ballast BottleThese tiny iron black balls on a penny on a magnet are a pinch from this little plastic vial, into which I put the powder scooped up from a test of the ballast release mechanism of the payload from a NASA Cosmic Ray balloon mission to which my father took me in 1971.

I think my mother needed me out of her hair while dealing with my younger sibling during summer vacation. So at the age of 10 I flew up to Sioux Falls with my pop to see what I’d always heard called “a balloon flight.” I hoped to see this magnificent 300 foot diameter balloon, and maybe get to see what it was my father actually did on his summer travels for NASA. My father was involved in many such flights. He took a great picture of the inflating balloon that I show on his memorial pages, here.

I had a small, plastic camera with Instamatic film that 1971 summer, so I took several shots, like the payload held by the launch crane for testing. The payload is jacketed in 8″ of Styrofoam coated in orange plastic to make it easy to find when it comes down somewhere in Canada. The ballast container is the white thing below the Cosmic Ray detector housing. The half ton of ballast is released in controlled amounts by magnets. That’s why it consists of tiny iron balls.

1971 Balloon Flight Payload

Prior to launch, they laid out a long canvas runner to protect the huge and delicate balloon envelope. You can see the balloon as a lighter strip on the canvas in this shot of them arming the balloon release “cannon”. The cannon is a simple gunpowder-powered rope cutter that is triggered by radio when they want the package to come down.

Preparing the parachute and balloon for launch

They learned the hard way to also have a cannon to separate the parachute from the payload once it lands. My father once brought me a piece of the shattered guidance system from a payload that had been dragged by its parachute many miles across woods and fields, fences and rocks.

Anyway, you can see the twilight of dusk. This is typically the time of quiet air. Keep in mind that this was the era just before weather satellites and Doppler radar. Shortly after this last picture was taken, the ground crew got a frantic call from the control tower. A storm was on its way!

My father grabbed me and put me in the front seat of a truck, and ran out to help disarm the cannons, separate the “stages”, and to roll up the balloon and parachute. They had just hoisted the balloon back into its truck when the rain came, fierce and horizontal. A bearded grad student (most men still didn’t wear beards in 1971) followed my father into the truck, so I was against the door with pop on the hump. The grad student repeatedly yelled with apparent glee, or maybe relief, “We almost got screwed!”

I was moderately shocked at his language. But his sentiment was understandable. I knew the word as an expletive, but was yet innocent of its biological meaning. Had they been a half hour farther along, they would have (at best) lost the $100,000 balloon with nothing to show for it. At worst, it could have destroyed the even more expensive Cerenkov counters and data recording equipment. It was very exciting.

The next day, I was taken to the airport and sent home, traveling alone on a 727. My father remained for another week, to try again.

Cutting to My Core

ScissorsAny object can represent something entirely different than the thing itself. When I first moved into my own place, I bought these grade school scissors as the cheapest available tool for cutting things, like paper, facial hair, etc.  I have used them as a screwdriver, a bottle opener, and even an Allen wrench. I keep them sharpened well beyond their child-safe intention. Don’t let the rust fool you, they still serve me well after 29 years. But what these scissors evoke for me is the essence of lost opportunities.

Let me preface the story, for those who don’t know me intimately, by revealing that I was an asocial lad: Bookish and introverted. I failed to become socialized by the public schools that I attended, instead driven by taunts into my own world. In high school I was oblivious to the various cliques and clubs that media now reveal are so important to normal development. I didn’t even try to associate with others of my own kind; being largely unaware that they existed. I wasn’t unfriendly, nor anti-social; just clueless that such camaraderie was an option.

To the point: In my third year of college I lived alone in a one bedroom apartment in a six unit building,  a few blocks from campus. The apartment door to the stairwell had 6 glass panes, that I obscured with various arty images, including a Xerox of my face peering through a curtain. Thus my neighbors knew who lived there by face, as well by the titanium name plate I’d attached to the dilapidated brass mailbox by the front door. My living room at this time contained just a low table (made from 14″ legs and a Formica sink cut-out scrap) and a table lamp. I had yet to scrounge chairs. Very sparse.

Coy ScissorsOne evening I was sitting silently on the wood floor doing a series of sketches of a shoe for an art class assignment, when there was a knock on the door. This was curious, as I didn’t know anyone (besides my parents) who knew where I lived.

I opened the door, and there stood a slender woman of about my own age wearing just a bathrobe, and a towel around her head. She told me that she lived upstairs, and asked if I had a pair of scissors she could borrow. I went to go find my scissors as she explained that she and her roommate were going to spend the evening at home with a bottle of wine and cut each others hair.

I handed her these scissors, expecting her to just turn and leave. Instead, she smiled shyly and invited me to join them. What would you have done?

Not me. I was on a roll, drawing. I had no particular interest in watching a haircut, nor did I drink. I was also unaware of the “borrowing something from a neighbor” invitation gambit. I obliviously declined, and closed the door. In retrospect I can imagine the surprise and disappointment, and rejection she must have felt as she found herself standing with dinky scissors in the empty hallway.

No excuse: I was neither a virgin, nor in a relationship at the time. Had my social mind been awake, I’d not have missed this or many other such lost potential Penthouse moments surrounding my college years. It was only after I finally awakened in my thirties that poignant memories (such as this) bubble out of my subconscious mind, and haunt me. I’m actually bothered more by the realization of the disappointment I’ve caused in others than by what I missed. I’m sure that all the others involved had quickly put my unintentional rejections behind them. But my memory clings to my mistakes.

This episode is one of those of which I am sharply aware. The more incisive my self flagellation because I daily see a token from the moment: This simple pair of scissors.