The second of several previews of my upcoming book, Ready, Fire, Aim! A Survivor’s Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror, this is a portion of Chapter 3, titled “Space Race.” Additional vignettes from the book will follow in upcoming weeks. Thanks for your interest in my latest book!
The last part of my college career at Oklahoma State University coincided with the start of the space race, which began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. A year later, the United States answered by launching its first orbiter, Explorer I. Then, during my senior year, the USSR shocked the world by crashing the Luna 2 probe onto the moon’s surface. The race was on, and Americans were energized. I was no exception. Instead of applying my recently-learned skills to designing traditional civil engineering structures such as bridges and buildings, I was drawn toward the excitement, glamour—and money—of space. During the fall of 1959, I interviewed with two aerospace companies, Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, and McDonnell Corporation in St. Louis. Because I wanted to see California at someone else’s expense, I also accepted a trip to interview for a non-aerospace job with Kaiser Steel in Fontana. The job did not interest me, and inland, sweltering Fontana was hardly the Southern California I had admired in magazine photos and the movies.
I extended my stay and spent a couple of days with my OSU fraternity brother, Bob Larkin, and his wife Peggy, who lived in Long Beach. They gave me a tour of the California I had read and dreamed about—Laguna Beach, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Palos Verdes, Muscle Beach. I was in love, particularly with Santa Monica with her stately palms, beautiful people, and sparkling white beaches. This is where I wanted to live, and I was sure that Sue would agree. But I needed a job—although not one with Kaiser Steel in Fontana. Bob was working for Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, doing structural analysis of airplanes. When I informed him that I wanted to get involved in the space program, he told me about Douglas’ Missiles and Space Division located in, of all places, Santa Monica.
“Lark,” I said to Bob. “You can’t imagine what a dream come true this would be! A lot of times in school, while you guys were studying, I was sitting in my room reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Alfred Bester, imagining myself traveling through space to another planet. Now, I could be designing those spaceships, and to do it in Santa Monica! That would be like dying and going to heaven.”
Bob and I thumbed through his Douglas phone directory and came up with the name of Adrain O’Neal, the guy in charge of all structural analysis on the space side. When I returned to Stillwater, I told Sue about my discovery and she became as enthusiastic as I about trying to get to Santa Monica. I wrote a letter to O’Neal, enclosed my resume, and requested a job interview. I was incredulous when, instead of an invitation to come out for a look-see, I received a job offer in the mail. At $660 per month, it was less money than I had been offered by Boeing, but I accepted without hesitation or negotiation.
When the semester ended at the end of January 1960, and I had completed my Master’s degree requirements, we packed our meager belongings into our VW bug and headed west. We celebrated the start of our new life by sightseeing in New Mexico and Arizona, stopping at the Grand Canyon, the Meteor Crater, and Indian cave dwellings, never straying far from Route 66, which carried us—just like those Okies of the 1930s—toward the Golden State.
Eventually, we arrived at the western terminus of the famous highway, where it dead-ended at the most beautiful street in the world, Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The next morning, we set out in search of an apartment to rent. We drove north on Ocean Avenue, along palisades which towered above endless beaches. Beyond, the blue Pacific stretched westward to the horizon. We looked at one another. Neither one of us needed to say what each was thinking: if this isn’t paradise on earth, I don’t know what is.
A few minutes later, we turned east onto San Vicente Boulevard, a wide street with a grass median, and a combination of new apartment houses and large, stately, old mansions on both sides. A couple of hundred yards up from Ocean Avenue, on the right side, we spotted a “For Rent” sign in front of an older, two-story, tan-colored, stucco house surrounded by immaculately-kept flowerbeds resplendent with red blossoms. There, we found our new home: a fully furnished, one-bedroom apartment, for $125 per month, on the ground floor of 220 San Vicente Boulevard. The rent included all utilities and the use of a carport in the back. We were thrilled. Most of what little money we had, we put up as our advance rent payment and moved in. Being down to our last few dollars would be no problem because I would start work the next day, and I knew from Bob Larkin that every Friday was payday at Douglas.
The next morning, after arriving at the company, adjacent to Santa Monica’s municipal airport, I was put through the normal drill of a first-day employee. I filled out a variety of forms, applied for a security clearance, and had my photo taken.
“No smiles; no profiles,” instructed the crabby woman who took pictures for the company badge.
Finally, in the late morning, I submitted all my completed paperwork to the personnel department, and I was anxious to meet my boss and co-workers.
“I see that you’re a naturalized citizen,” said the woman behind the desk.
“Yes, I am.”
“May I see your naturalization papers, please?” she asked.
I explained to her that my naturalization certificate was in a safe deposit box in a New Jersey bank, and that no one had told me I would need it at Douglas. I asked if I could begin work while the certificate was en route to me from my parents.
“Absolutely not,” she hissed. “You can’t work in the space program without at least a temporary Confidential security clearance, and we can’t give it to you until we have a copy of your naturalization certificate on file.”
I was devastated because we were broke. There was no FedEx or UPS, and fax machines had not yet been invented. I would have to call my parents, who would need to go to the bank in Morristown, and then they would have to air-mail the paper to me. We were looking at a delay of four or five days. Sue and I had twenty dollars to our name, and the first credit card had only recently been invented. We did not qualify for one. Besides, I had been taught that debt is bad, and there was no way that I would ever buy anything on credit.
The thrill of having arrived in paradise was on hold as the waiting began. In the meantime, we ate bread and little Vienna sausages out of a can, and we got ourselves invited to a couple of dinners by the Larkins. It took a week for my papers to travel from the east coast to the west and, finally, I began work as an aerospace engineer.
At Douglas, I discovered why I was offered a job so quickly, without an interview. In 1960, advanced technical degrees were rare, and the company was trying to make itself more competitive by hiring as many engineers with Master’s degrees as it could find. In the Strength (structural analysis) Section to which I was assigned, I was one of only two people out of nearly a hundred with an advanced degree. The other was the Section Chief, Adrain O’Neil, a graduate of Mississippi State University. Yet, despite my glorified academic standing, I was given tedious, dreadfully boring, assignments. My initial work consisted of checking the calculations of others. Whenever I found an error, I marked it with a red circle. When the calculation was correct, I placed a red dot above the result. So much for the glamour of designing spaceships. The only excitement each day at the office was a lunchtime game of hearts.
One incident which could be considered exciting did take place and broke up the monotony. While eating breakfast prior to leaving home for work one day, 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. Douglas would be one of them.
“May I have your attention?” O’Neil called out as soon as we settled in at our desks. “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. Instead, I closed my eyes and flashed back to 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 fifteen hundred 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 these facts at my fellow engineers. But, I knew it would be futile. In my few years in the U.S., I had discovered that, shockingly, Americans, except for 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 Germany, a nation which had killed millions of innocent people, as well as thousands of American GIs.
I decided on a personal silent protest.
At exactly 11 a.m., a group of a dozen dignitaries, including CEO 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. While 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. As 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. From the corner of my eye, I saw heads turning toward me, just as I had hoped. 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?” O’Neil 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.
“Yeah, I heard.”
“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 and finished my lunch.