In my forthcoming memoir (second of a series), titled Ready, Fire, Aim! Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror, I describe encounters with various famous people. I hope you enjoyed the first two, “The Blonde-Haired Singer” and “The Little Educator,” and I hope you will like this one:
THE ROCKET SCIENTIST
My so-called “office” at Douglas Aircraft Company was actually a few square feet of space within an immense hangar-like building which resembled an enormous classroom. The chief of our section, Adrain O’Neil, sat at a desk in front of the room, facing row upon row of desks at which his minions, nearly a hundred engineers, analyzed the structural integrity of rockets and spacecraft. As one of the few “rookies” in the summer of 1960, I wielded my slide rule near the back of the room.
One morning, while eating breakfast prior to leaving home for work, I spotted an article on the second page of The Los Angeles Times. “Wernher Von Braun to Visit Southland,” read the headline. Reading further, I discovered that he would be visiting several of the area’s aerospace companies which were designing and building boosters and satellites that would constitute the genesis of America’s space program.
Soon after I settled in for a day of computing stresses and deformations, Adrain O’Neal walked to the center of the room and rapped on a desk.
“May I have your attention?” he requested. “We’re in for a special treat today. Around eleven o’clock this morning, the great Dr. Wernher von Braun will visit our Section. When he comes, I want all of you to stand and applaud and then come to the front of the room, where he will address us.”
I looked around and saw smiles on the faces of my colleagues. Clearly, they felt honored to have been selected for a meeting with the world-renown rocket scientist. I buried my head in my work, pretending to analyze the stresses in the engine section of the Thor Delta rocket – my ongoing project. Instead, I closed my eyes and thought about my life as a child hiding from our German occupiers during World War II. I imagined five hundred German V-2 rockets raining terror upon the citizens of London, while their chief architect, Von Braun, sat in his office in Peenemunde, Germany, surrounded by thousands of slaves working around the clock to complete the construction of 1,500 ballistic missiles designed to bring England to her knees. Now, this man and his German team of technicians were on our side, running the American space program out of Huntsville, Alabama.
I wanted to stand on top of my desk and to shout at my fellow engineers. But, I knew it would be futile. In my few years in the U.S., I had been shocked to discover that Americans, other than those who had personally fought so valiantly to liberate Europe, felt a strange kinship toward Germans. They seemed to hate the Japanese, their other major enemy in the war, but they appeared to have forgiven a nation which had killed millions of innocent people, as well as thousands of American GIs. I decided on my own silent protest.
At exactly 11 a.m., a group of a dozen dignitaries, including Donald Douglas, Jr., and some local politicians, appeared at the front of our bullpen. From the vantage point of my desk, some hundred feet away, I saw that the center of everyone’s attention was a tall, distinguished-looking man with graying hair matching the color of his suit. Like an Army company when a general enters, the Strength Section of the Douglas Missiles and Space Systems Division came to attention. Then they applauded. All but one “soldier.”
Pretending not to have noticed the commotion, I wrote nonsensical numbers and words on the quadrille pad in front of me. When my colleagues gathered around Von Braun and the visiting party, I pulled a brown bag out of the drawer of my desk and extracted a sandwich. While the leader of America’s space program gave my fellow engineers a pep talk in his German-accented English, I made a show of munching on a very European sandwich – hard salami and Swiss cheese with mustard, on rye bread. As I had hoped, I saw from the corner of my eye, heads turning toward me. On a couple of occasions, I thought that Von Braun spotted me over the heads of his audience.
After about twenty minutes, our visitors left and my colleagues returned to their respective desks. No one said a word to me, but my best friend, Don Griffin, smiled at me before he sat down in the row in front of me, indicating that he understood. Then, as I had expected, my boss approached.
“Charlie, can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure,” I replied and followed him out into the hallway.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked. “Don’t you realize that you just insulted the greatest rocket scientist in the world?”
“Adrain, do you know anything about my background?” I asked.
“Well, then, I hope you understand that I just insulted a goddamned Nazi murderer. I hope I didn’t cause you and Douglas any hardship, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand and applaud a bastard who killed or maimed nearly ten thousand Brits.”
With that, I walked back to my desk, where I finished my lunch.