Tag Archives: history

469. Joe Engle, Astronaut

Joe Engle missed his chance to go to the moon when he was bumped from Apollo 17 by Harrison Schmitt. It made sense. Schmitt was a geologist turned astronaut, and became the only one of the scientist-astronauts to get to the moon. He was, in fact, the only scientist to fly in space before the space shuttle program.

Joe Engle never became a household name like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, but fighter jet crazy and space crazy kids of my generation were already aware of him before Apollo began. Not through the internet, which was decades away, nor from books in the library which were always two generations out of date, but from Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. That was where my generation went to read about what was newer, faster, shinier, and cooler.

Iven Kincheloe, Mel Apt, Chuck Yaeger, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker — if those names don’t stir your blood, you missed out. They were test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who flew the newest and the best, especially the X-1, X-2, and most especially the X-15.

Joe Engle was one of them. By the way, so was that other guy, Neil Armstrong.

Engle decided to be a test pilot while in college, where he was in Air Force ROTC. Chuck Yeager recommended him for USAF test pilot school, and he subsequently attended Aerospace Research Pilot School. This was pre-NASA when the Air Force planned to put a man in space in a project called MISS (Man in Space Soonest). MISS morphed into Mercury after NASA took over the space program from the Air Force.

Engle served as a jet test pilot at Edwards and applied to NASA to be an astronaut. Instead, the Air Force chose him for the X-15 program. There he made sixteen flights; the fastest speed he recorded was 3887 mph. His highest altitude was 53.1 miles.

FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) in Switzerland maintains world records for human space flight. They set the limit of space at 100 kilometers. That’s 62.1 miles in the measurements Americans still use. In the days of the X-15, the Air Force set 50 miles as the edge of space and awarded an astronaut’s wings to any pilot exceeding that altitude. Engle exceeded fifty miles three times in the X-15.

(Fellow test pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 above 100 kilometers twice, becoming the eighth American in space by the FAI’s more difficult criterion.)

Joe Engle applied to NASA again and was accepted. He was backup Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 14, and would have landed on the moon in Apollo 17. Engle then elected to transfer to the Space Shuttle program. He commanded one of the crews which flew multiple flight on the unpowered Enterprise. This near-shuttle was carried aloft on a Boeing 747 and dropped for a dead stick landing to evaluate its aerodynamic characteristics. NASA had to determine if the shuttle could land before it would launch it into space.

Engle was backup for the first Space Shuttle flight, and commander of the second flight. He later commanded STS-51-1.

Joe Engle is the only man to have flown two different types of winged vehicle into space. He is also the only remaining pilot of the twelve who flew the X-15, which he still calls his favorite aircraft.


468. Astronauts Left Behind

These poor guys got left behind when Apollo 17 went to the moon, and then I left them behind as well. This and the following post were originally planned for January but life got in the way.

When Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, ten astronauts lost their chance at the moon. They were:

joe Engle who was scheduled for Apollo 17, but was replaced on that mission by Harrison Schmitt. (see 444. Last Men on the Moon) He will get his own post on Wednesday.

Richard Gordon and Vance Brand, who were scheduled for Apollo 18 along with Schmitt.

Fred Haise, William Pogue, and Gerald Carr who were scheduled for Apollo 19.

Stuart Roosa, Paul Weitz, Jack Lousma, and Don Lind who were on the short list for Apollo 20, although the final choice of three had not been made at the time of cancellation.

Here are their individual stories:

Stuart Roosa had been the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 14, the third moon landing. It was his only mission in space. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Richard Gordon flew first on Gemini 11 where he and Pete Conrad set a record for the highest apogee earth orbit, while Gordon performed two space walks. He was Command Module Pilot of Apollo 12, the second moon landing. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Vance Brand was on the backup crew of Apollo 15 and scheduled for the cancelled Apollo 18. He was then backup on Skylabs 3 and 4, and was on the rescue team held in reserve for a possible Skylab disaster. He finally flew on space on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and later commanded the first fully operational Space Shuttle mission on the Columbia. He commanded Challenger on the tenth Space Shuttle flight and Columbia again on the thirty-eighth shuttle flight.

Fred Haise had gone around the moon on the ill-fated Apollo 13. On Apollo 19 he would have landed on the moon. He subsequently was a pilot on the ALT program (full title, Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests), where he piloted the unpowered Enterprise to three successful landings, after being dropped from a 747. He was scheduled to fly the second Space Shuttle mission to boost Skylab to a higher orbit, but that was cancelled when delays in the shuttle program allowed Skylab to fall.

Skylab plays a role in the stories of several of these astronauts. For details, go to posts 297   298  and  299.

William Pogue and Gerald Carr both shifted from Apollo to Skylab after the cancellation of Apollo 19. They were part of the Skylab 4 crew which spent 84 days in space.

Paul Weitz also shifted to the Skylab project, where he was on the crew of Skylab 2, the first manned mission. Skylab was badly damaged during its unmanned launch, a mission that was called Skylab 1. Weitz along with Pete Conrad and Joseph Kerwin spent much of their mission doing repairs.  Weitz retired from NASA, then returned to fly the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Jack Lousma was on the crew of Skylab 3, where he spent 60 days in space. He subsequently was commander of STS-3, the third orbital test flight of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Don Lind once said he was “in the right place at the wrong time.” He was one of the scientist-astronauts brought into Apollo and would most likely have followed Schmitt in rotation had Apollo 20 not been cancelled. He moved to Skylab, where he was backup for Skylabs 3 and 4, on standby for a rescue mission that didn’t happen, and was scheduled for Skylab 5 mission, which also didn’t happen. He was under consideration for Skylab B, a second Skylab space station that was cancelled. He was under consideration for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, but was not chosen. He finally flew on STS-51-B in 1985 aboard Spacelab-3. Spacelab was a space lab, in module form, carried in the payload bay of a space shuttle. Lind had served nineteen years as an astronaut before his first and only spaceflight.

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.Labor Day).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.


*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.


466. Nothing But White

The first African slaves arrived in America in 1619. That’s 399 years ago. If we count twenty-five years as a generation, that’s 16 generations.

Now, lets look at you and your ancestors. Chances are, they haven’t been in America for 16 generations. In fact, this being the internet, chances are you aren’t even in America, so let me explain.

Here in America, whether you are white or black is a big deal.

If you are from India, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or just about any place else in the world, you are likely to have your own racial and ethnic issues. Your tangle may be different from our tangle, but it’s probably just as tangled.

Being black or white in America isn’t as big a deal as when I was a kid, but it’s still big. And that is true even though there is probably no American black who is actually, fully, and truly black. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Langston Hughes, negro poet,  said in his autobiography:

You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. 

Being white in America is a big deal too, in the other direction. And that is true even though very few whites are actually, fully, and truly white. Don’t take my word for it. In 1895, speaking against defining whiteness in the new South Carolina constitution, Congressman George Tillman said:

It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood…It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood.

A generation later, several southern states did define race, declaring that one black ancestor, however distant, was enough to turn a white man black. It was a sad day for those perceived to be black, and a bad day for truth.

Back to your ancestors. You had two parents (we’re speaking biologically here) and they had four parents and they had eight parents . . .; up the line 16 generations, that’s just under 33,000 ancestors sending their DNA down the line.

Can that be right? Let’s look. The first generation is you, alone, and for the rest we will need a chart.

generation     number of ancestors

               2                     2
               3                     4
               4                     8
               5                    16
               6                    32
               7                    64
               8                  128
               9                  256
               10                512
               11                1024
               12                2048
               13                4096
               14                8192
               15                16384
               16                32768

You have 32,768 great . . . great grand parents. If you are a “white” person in America, what are the chances that not one of them was out of Africa?

If you are just of the plane from rural Norway with ancestors going back unbroken into antiquity, as soon as you have a child with an American who has been here, that child’s number becomes 16384. You can run scenarios to lower the number, but it will never drop below BIG.

All right, let’s say you are a member of the Aryan Nation, and your father and his father were Klansmen all the way back to Appomattox Courthouse. You only marry white girls, and only natural blondes at that. What are the chances that her thirteenth great grandmother wasn’t partly black and passing for white?

You don’t think so? Your ancestors knew better back in the 1800s.

Let’s go at this from the other direction. Suppose one black woman was made pregnant by her master in the first generation. How many of her descendants would carry at least a trace of African DNA? All of them. How many would that be?

Historically, women bore many children, and many of them died while young. Let’s say that the average woman had four children who lived long enough to have children of their own. That original black woman would have one billion, seventy three million, seven hundred forty one thousand, eight hundred twenty four descendants.

You don’t believe me? Get out your calculator. No, better make it a spreadsheet. You don’t think I did that math with pencil and paper, do you?

What are the chances than none of those children passed for white, and begat a line of offspring who are convinced that they are actually, fully, and truly white?

Let me put it another way —

Donald Trump is partly black. David Duke is partly black. Steve Bannon is partly black. You’re partly black. I’m partly black.

And my relatives just disowned me. That’s mighty white of them!


465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.


464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.


463. Shooters

The University of Texas Tower
photo by Larry D. Moore


Today in Serial, a school shooting occurs in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key. Here in A Writing Life I have explained why it was there.

Yesterday in the world we all inhabit, another school shooting took place in Florida. Since the post below was written a week or so ago, this makes an unexpected and jarring contrast.

I could say, “What are the chances of such a coincidence?”, but the chances of a school shooting on any given day have increased dramatically since I was forced to include one in my novel thirty years ago. As always, I feel for the victims and the survivors, and like everyone else, I have no answers.

I am adding this note of explanation about an hour after the original post appeared.


The original post.

Most American’s alive today have grown up in an era of mass shootings. We had not yet reached that point in 1966.

I was working on the home farm that summer. I had graduated from high school and was waiting to enter college in the fall.

On August first, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother, then took weapons to the observation deck of the main tower at the University of Texas. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he shot and killed thirteen people on the ground below and wounded another thirty-one; two of his victims died later. He was eventually killed by police.

Like the rest of America, I heard about it on the news. It was a shock. It was something that had not happened before.

Whitman’s position on top of the tower made it hard for the police to get to him. That was not an accident; Whitman was a former Marine sharpshooter. He knew his business.

There are several talking points in this incident for people on both sides of the gun control controversy. None of his weapons would be called an assault rifle by modern use of that term. Several civilians joined the police in returning fire. They probably helped, but did not prevent the tragedy.

It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, at the time. Today it ranks eighth.

Twenty-three years later, the Texas Tower shooting still ranked seventh. I was teaching school and writing Symphony in a Minor Key in the evenings. I had set myself the task of writing events in my imaginary middle school in exact correspondence to what was happening in the real world.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five students at a school in a nearby town, and wounded thirty others, including a teacher. I was faced with the decision of whether or not to include this tragedy in the novel I was writing.

I chose to write it in. That is why today’s post in Serial appears as it does.