Saturday, February 17, 2018

Death in the Afternoon

I had an unexpected day off work this week after my daughter fell ill as I was driving her to school the other day. Days like those can be a welcome respite from the everyday work-week. Sick as she was, I convinced my little girl to eat something and she began to perk up to the point where the two of us were able to have some quality time together. I was also able to take care of a few things I have a hard time accomplishing between work, family commitments and sleep. Despite all the great plans I had for the day, three o'clock rolled around and along with it, my body clock reminded me it was my low point of the day. So I took advantage of one more thing that I don't normally have the luxury of doing, taking an afternoon nap.

As I was planning on being quite useless for an hour or so, I decided to turn on the TV for that extra decadent edge. The plan to get some rest ended up being for naught as the local TV stations had pre-empted their regular programming due to a "breaking news" event. Today, those words don't have the same impact they once did. If you watch TV news at all these days, you're used to the words "breaking news" displayed across the bottom of the screen all the time. The problem is, news stories no matter how relevant, serious, or interesting, all have to break at some point. Flashing "breaking news" on the screen today is simply a way to draw attention to the story, the video equivalent an exclamation point. However, isn't the entire point of exclamation marks
lost if you use them at the end of every sentence?

On the other hand, breaking into non-news programming, as was the case the other day, is a different story. To this day I get chills whenever a program I'm watching is interrupted by a news report. It brings to mind words I heard for the first time over fifty years ago: "We interrupt this program to bring you a news bulletin." Those words are seldom followed by good news.

That was certainly the case the other day. Below the words "breaking news" on the screen, the bulletin was spelled out plain as day, a police officer was shot and killed in the middle of Chicago's Loop, in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. It seemed the two sets of words on the screen contradicted each other; the news was no longer breaking as the event had already concluded. The officer was shot, he died, and oh yes, not spelled out in the written bulletin, the shooter had been apprehended. The only thing breaking by the time I turned on the TV was the reporters filling in the details.

The most significant detail was the identity of the fallen officer. Mercifully, police officials were withholding his name pending notification of next of kin, and presumably allowing time for the immediate family to arrive at the hospital where he died. Sketchy reports trickled in that tactical officers from the Chicago Police Department had been pursuing a person of interest in a shooting that took place a few days before. A struggle ensued and the officer was shot. I had particular interest as I have a family member who is a member of a CPD tactical unit. When it was reported that the deceased was a district commander who joined in the pursuit, not a member of the tactical unit, I breathed a sigh of relief, followed by feeling tremendous guilt that my relief came at the expense of someone else's tragedy.

Despite no longer having a personal stake in the story, like the proverbial train wreck, I couldn't take my eyes off the continuous TV coverage. As the tragedy took place only one block from the studios of the particular station I was watching, there was more than ample news presence at the scene of the crime, with reporters tripping over one another to get their own angle on the story. By the time I tuned in, the massive Thompson Center had been evacuated of all but the most essential state employees. Its cavernous atrium was empty save for a handful of reporters and their crews with little to report other than how desolate the place felt. Another reporter out on the street didn't have much to report either, except at one point when a large group of plain clothes officers walked by. One of the anchors commented that, save for their badges which were prominently on display, they looked like ordinary citizens, which if I'm not mistaken, is exactly the point. Later, the same reporter managed to get an eye-witness to the event to speak to him. The witness said that the police apprehension of the suspect was remarkably calm and that the suspect was wearing a (bullet proof) vest, making the clear implication that the suspect may also have been a cop. Much to her credit, one of the news anchors made the observation that we shouldn't jump to conclusions by what was just said, what the man observed may not have been the apprehension but perhaps a normal exchange between officers on the scene. It turned out that what the man witnessed was indeed the actual apprehension of the suspect, yes he wore a vest, but no, he was not a police officer.

As there was so little to report at the scene, much of the coverage consisted of the voices of the talking anchors back at the studio reiterating the same points over and over again, accompanied by live shots from a stationary camera fixed on a neighboring building looking north on Dearborn past the Thompson Center showing a deserted street in the middle of what was soon to be rush hour, and another camera inside a news helicopter which hovered above the building showing more desolation.

The first meaningful contribution to the story came a little after 4PM when Chicago's Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson spoke to the press outside of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where the officer had been taken. A grief-stricken Johnson, close to tears, identified the policeman as 31 year CPD veteran Paul Bauer, who was commander of the 18th police district on Chicago's Near North Side. In his brief statement, Johnson said that while "any loss of life in this city is tragic, this one is (particularly) difficult."

Bauer's body was eventually taken to the medical examiner's office escorted by a convoy of several police and fire vehicles, a long-standing tradition of honoring fallen police and firemen and women similar to one I witnessed and wrote about almost eight years ago.

I have to say the continuous coverage of the story prior to Johnson's press conference did not serve the story well, nor did it make for particularly compelling TV.  Between turning the TV on where I learned all the significant facts of the story, until Superintendent Johnson gave his moving words to the press an hour later, I learned virtually nothing about the tragedy other than speculation about what might have happened, much of it turning out to be wrong.

Having just said that believe it or not, I don't mean this to be a criticism of the way the TV station covered the story. I have complete sympathy for the program director who was faced with a difficult decision: stay with a tragic, important story, even when there was nothing to report about it, or return to regularly scheduled programming, (and the ad revenue that goes along with it), which would have seemed trite and disrespectful, given the gravity of the situation.

They say that live TV news coverage was born with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the first time I heard the words "news" and "bulletin" used together. Walter Cronkite, one of the men who broke the news to a startled nation, said years later that back in those days, when news departments were the poor stepchildren of the TV networks, they didn't keep cameras "warm" in the studio. So when they needed to go on air immediately with an important story, all they could do was display a card with a graphic on the screen, while the voice of the reporter delivered the bulletin in the background. Hard to imagine today, but after those first bulletins that the president had been shot were delivered on the three networks, all of them went back to regularly scheduled programming until they had something new to report. I remember my kindergarten teacher furiously switching between channels to get more information, only to be frustrated when all she could find were the daytime soap operas. They finally got the tube-driven cameras warmed up and running by the time the news arrived that the president was dead and as far as I can recall, the news departments did not relinquish control of the networks until three days later after Kennedy was buried.

Since then it has become de-rigueur for TV news departments to take over the airwaves whenever a big story is breaking. Needless to say, technology has enabled the producers of news programming to get shots and to go places never thought possible back in 1963, but the essential ingredients of gathering news and getting the facts right before going on air with the story, haven't changed. It is, as we saw the other day a laborious, and frustrating process, fraught with many perils. As the German statesman  Otto von Bismark famously said: "Laws are like sausages, it's better not to see them being made." Perhaps we can add news gathering to that list.

Despite all that, with perfect twenty twenty hindsight, I think the TV station did the right thing by staying with the story, if for no other reason than out of respect for Commander Bauer and the police department.

I stopped watching after Superintendent Johnson's comments and got on with my day. As usual for me, I had the radio on in the background. I was only a little bit surprised that the radio station, our local NPR outlet, had a much different take on the story. It occurred to me that the radio was on all day and yet I had absolutely no idea of the shooting which took place at least one hour before the TV came on. After I switched back to the radio, the only mention of the tragedy was during the traffic reports, steering listeners away from the area where there had been a "police shooting". That choice of words made it impossible to determine if an officer had been shot, or did the shooting. Later when the procession to the medical examiner's office took place, the dispassionate voice of the traffic reporter told listeners to avoid the area of such and such because of a "procession of police vehicles." Little if any effort was made to connect the procession with the shooting. Later, a local news segment led off with the story of Commander Bauer's death, but it was immediately followed by an unrelated story about a corrupt policeman being acquitted of some charges. If you weren't paying close attention to the reports, you could have easily tied the two stories together, as my wife did.

One could easily say that the TV station over-played the story while the radio station under-played it. The takeaway from my experience of that day is that it's wrong to assume that one and only one news outlet has the key to all the facts, let alone the "truth." If we have any interest at all in being well informed, it's essential that we question everything we read, see and hear, and always remember to "touch that dial", better yet, crack open a book or a magazine on top of that.

In the end of course it hardly matters how the story was handled by the different news outlets in town. Without a doubt all that matters is the tragedy of a life cut too short, of a daughter losing her father, a wife her husband, neighbors, friends and acquaintances losing someone dear to them. It's the tragedy of the city losing someone who by all accounts was a dedicated professional, whose 31 years of experience in a difficult job was indispensable, and will be impossible to replace.

My thoughts are with Commander Bauer, his family and his brothers and sisters in the Chicago Police Department as he is being laid to rest today. May he rest in peace.

Mad as Hell

There are no easy answers to the outrage and tragedy of mass shootings in this country and I am not naive enough to believe that banning assault rifles alone will end them.

The gist of the argument against banning these weapons of mass destruction, which is precisely what they are, is why do honest, law abiding citizens have to give up their guns because of the criminal acts of others?

To that my answer is this:

I once enjoyed playing lawn darts, keeping my shoes on before getting on a plane, and the right to pee in a bathroom of a restaurant where I was not a customer. Unfortunately I can’t do any of that anymore because some assholes did stupid things making it bad for everyone else. 

You know what? I’m ok with that because if these small sacrifices contribute to the greater good of society, then so be it.

No, banning the guns alone is not going to solve the problem, not at this point in the United States where we now have more guns than people. But the least we can do in memory of all the lives lost so needlessly in the name of the right for people to own guns, is to not make it so goddamn easy for these killers to slaughter innocent people.

Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Senn High School, January 8

Silver Linings

Work for something that is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. 
- Vaclav Havel

The ongoing narrative you hear incessantly from the folks who support the current president come hell or high water, is that those of us on the other side are so upset that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, that we will not support Donald Trump no matter what he does. Now I certainly can't speak for everyone, but for me that assessment is balderdash.

For starters, despite the fact I still believe Hillary Clinton was unquestionably the most qualified candidate, I pledge no allegiance to her. I love this country and wishing a president to fail, no matter who he is, is tantamount to wishing the country to fail. I have two children whose future is far more important to me than wishing harm on a particular administration. That is of course, unless the administration is up to no good. For me the jury is still out on that one.

Can there be anything good we in the opposition can take away from the current administration? Well the economy is good. As the president keeps reminding us, the stock market continues to break all-time records and unemployment is currently at a record low, especially in the African American community. Having said that, how much the good economy at the moment is attributable to Trump is debatable. The American economy has been on the upswing since the Obama administration and what we are seeing today is very much a a continuation of that. The world economy is also thriving, in no small measure due to trade agreements that were forged by previous administrations, the same ones the current president has promised to re-negotiate. More importantly, bull markets do not necessary portend a sustained, healthy economy, as it is the nature of markets to fluctuate. Just as sure as the effects of gravity, markets go up and they go down taking the economy with them. All of us over twenty have seen the devastation of and overvalued market crashing. It happened most recently in 2008. I'm still underwater with my mortgage thanks to that recession.

The Obama administration with the help of Congress placed regulations on Wall Street to help avoid a recurrence of such an event. In its ongoing efforts to eliminate all regulations on business, and the president's insatiable desire to overturn everything his predecessor did, this administration is doing all it can to eliminate those regulations, practically inviting another devastating recession or worse. Could I be wrong about the economy and Trump be right? Well for my sake  and the sake of this country, I certainly hope so, but I have grave doubts.

Other than the good economy at the moment, I can't think of anything else remotely positive involving the current administration. This week my wife discovered the quote at the top of this post from the late playwright/President of the Czech Republic. Not that I needed reminding that Trump is no Vaclav Havel, it just made me yearn for something much better than what we have. Frankly I can't imagine Donald Trump even considering working for the common good, just for its own sake.

His tax cut is a glaring example. Now I'm happy to keep more money in my pocket, but it has been well established that that this tax plan disproportionately favors the wealthy who will continue to enjoy its benefits long after they dry up for the middle class and below. I also know that this tax cut promises to raise the federal debt by trillions of dollars, money that my children and their children and probably their children will be responsible for paying back. I also understand that Republicans in Congress plan on addressing the debt problem by slashing social programs like social security and medicare, while not taking away a penny from defense or immigration control. Not to mention its effects on universal health care coverage will be devastating. That may play well to the president's base, but how that amounts to the common good, I have no idea.

At this writing, Donald Trump is in the middle of delivering his State of the Union address, right now speaking about a horrific murder committed by illegal aliens. He is promising the victims' relatives sitting in the House Chamber that he will insure that such travesties will never happen again, certainly a nice gesture. By that he means he will crack down on immigration, legal and otherwise to accomplish that goal. What he fails to mention is that he is grossly exaggerating the problem of crime committed by illegal aliens, as there is no credible evidence to suggest that undocumented people in this country commit a disproportionate amount of crime compared to say, native born American citizens. Of course no one supports  criminal aliens but as Trump supporters are quick to point out, the Obama administration deported more criminal aliens than any other administration. Which to me begs the question, if Obama was doing such a good job deporting the bad guys, why are you folks so quick to point out what a disaster our immigration policy is? Tpically the answer to that qustion is crickets.

Anyway, as a result of Trump's efforts to stem immigration to this country, hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have called this country home, some for decades, people who have contributed in spades to this nation, will needlessly suffer. Once again, Trump is capitalising on irrational fear in order  to stimulate his base. That may be good for him politically, but how it translates to the common good, I'll never know.

Still these are policy disputes, the kind of things that people of good faith on both sides of the political spectrum have disagreed from time immemorial.

The real damage I believe that this administration is doing to this country, is the undermining of institutions that are the backbone of our democracy. In one short year this president has done his utmost to discredit the judiciary, the free press, the Central Intelligence Agency and most recently the FBI, all in an effort to cover up some shady if not outright illegal actions of his own.

The most egregious of these is his relationship with Russia. I have absolutely no idea to what extent Trump's dealings are with that country with whom we have an adversarial relationship. But charges of collusion with Russia and its hacking into our last presidential election are extremely serious. I can only imagine if I were president and suspected of involvement in an act that was detrimental to this nation at best, treasonous at worst, I would bend over backwards to not interfere with an investigation that meant the difference between clearing my name or sending me up the river. That is of course, if I were innocent. Trump may or may not be guilty of collusion with Putin Russia, but he certainly is acting guilty.

I could go on and on composing a laundry list of things that make me distrust Trump's intentions, but that list would go on for  hundreds of pages so I won't bother.

After Trump's SOTU address, Joe Kennedy, a congressman from Massachusetts, and grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, gave a stirring rebuttal. Speaking passionately about this administration's lack of compassion and humanity, he brought up something I've been thinking about for the past week, the next generations of Americans who may not be burdened with the same stupid fears, biases and prejudices of my own generation. In his speech, Kennedy mentioned a sign carried by a child attending one of the women's marches held last week all over the country. The sign said: "your generation may build the wall, but my generation will tear it down."

That reminded me of my ten year old daughter who is without question, the moral compass of our family. She and I were having a conversation about a family we all know, a member of whom is transgender. I pussyfooted around not knowing how to bring up the subject to my little girl who set me straight by saying "he's transgender isn't he?" She said it as nonchalantly as if she were describing someone who had blond hair and blue eyes. My daughter also has a friend who will be attending another child's "gender coming out party" this weekend.

The time's they are a changin' and  I'm convinced that child's sign is right, it will be my daughter's generation that will tear down that godforsaken wall, if it ever gets built in the first place.

The unescapable fact is that Trump is president and will be until he no longer is. One can only hope that our democratic institutions as proscribed by our constitution, are stronger than he is. As they say, if something doesn't kill you, it will only make you stronger. That may be a silver lining in itself.

On the other hand if the Trump administration does indeed kill us, or at least our democracy, then all bets will be off.

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 29, 2018


I’m honored to be a contributor to what promises to be an extraordinary documentary project. It’s called CPS Lives and it will explore the other side of the story of Chicago’s public schools. The goal is to give a voice to those most intimately involved with the system, namely the students and educators, thereby showing us in the words of the project’s mission statement: “the power of public education in Chicago.”

My contribution to the project will be Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood. I chose that particular school because, A) it is in my own community on the far north side of Chicago, B) it is essentially three schools in one. In addition to a neighborhood school with an open admission, there are two selective programs, an international baccalaureate and a fine arts program. There are actually four schools under the roof counting Rickover Naval Academy which shares the building but is not technically affiliated with Senn. C), the four schools under one roof drawing students from all over the city add tremendous diversity to a school that is already in the most diverse community of the city.

Passing period at Nicholas Senn High School

D), the school and its building both have a rich history. The story goes that one of the great American educators of the early twentieth century, Ella Flagg Young, never learned to swim. She resolved that no child under her watch would suffer the same fate. The first female school superintendent of a major U.S.  city, Young insisted that the new Senn High School would not only have two swimming pools, one for girls and another for boys, but would also have ample space for gymnasiums and other recreational activities, a revolutionary concept for 1913. It was a time of reform and Young, a protege of Jane Addams, was to education what Addams was to social change. Even the Neo-Classical architecture of the school designed by Arthur F. Hussander, an example of the “City Beautiful” movement, speaks to the community’s desire to transform dirty, crowded cities like Chicago, into centers of higher learning and civilization. You can read more on the architecture of Senn High School by checking out my friend Julia Bachrach’s article on Senn here in the Chicago Historic Schools website.

Last but far from least I chose Seen because E), so as not to embarrass them with my lurking about, neither of my children go there.

The project kicked off on January 8th with my photographs of Senn as the featured school of the week on the project’s Instagram site. Please follow our exploits on Instagram at CPSLives and here on their website.

Stay posted for further updates.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lest We Forget...

Before we know it, we'll be upon the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned lunar landing. Funny, it seems like just yesterday that I commemorated in this space, the fortieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's four hour stroll on the surface of the moon. No doubt there will be worldwide observances of that momentous event on the 20th of July next year.

There was an equally momentous event in the history of the race to the moon, whose half century anniversary went all but unnoticed last year. Small wonder, it was not the glorious culmination of President Kennedy's daring pledge in 1961 to land a man on the moon within the decade, not to mention thousands of years' worth of human dreams.  The event was in fact, not a triumph at all, but an unmitigated failure which ended in tragedy, the loss of three astronauts whose ill fated mission, Apollo I, never even got off the ground.

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee pose in front of the launchpad which surrounded the spacecraft
in which they perished on January 27, 1967. 
But most space historians agree that the lessons learned from the catastrophic accident that took place on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967 and took the lives of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger Chaffee, (names that are forever etched in my memory), were essential building blocks that paved the way for the moon landing that took place just two and one half years later.

Long after his crowning achievement, Neil Armstrong would reflect upon what it took to reach the Moon:
The rate of progress is proportional to the risk encountered, ...the public at large may well be more risk averse than the individuals in our business, but to limit the progress in the name of eliminating risk is no virtue.
There is perhaps no better account of the early days of the U.S. space program than Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff, which was followed in 1983 by an equally inspiring Phillip Kaufman film by the same name. Both open with the story of the engineers, technicians and most importantly the pilots chasing a "demon" known as the sound barrier. Before it was done successfully, no one knew if it was even possible to fly an aircraft faster than 750 mph, the speed of sound. That demon lived somewhere above that speed, "when air could no longer move out of the way" making flight impossible, or so it was thought.

The names of those folks who sacrificed everything to chase that demon, military test pilots who during their typically short careers, (about one in four did not to live to see retirement), were unknown to the general public as their missions were classified and their exploits kept top secret. To a man, those who risked their lives on a daily basis had what Wolfe described as, you guessed it, "the right stuff." He wrote:
It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life, any fool could do that. No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment - and then go up again the next day ...
The man who piloted the first plane to break the sound barrier was USAF test pilot, Captain Chuck Yeager who accomplished the feat it in an X-1 rocket plane on October 14, 1947, taking off from what would become Edwards Air Force Base in California. The legendary Yeager as Wolfe's ultimate possessor of the right stuff, plays a huge role in both the book and in the film where he makes an uncredited cameo appearance beside the actor who plays him in the movie, the late Sam Shepard. You can see the real Yeager (who is still with us at this writing) working behind the bar in this scene from the movie.

Another prominent figure in the movie is Gus Grissom, who along with fellow Edwards newbie, test pilot Gordon Cooper, serves as a comic foil to the somewhat aloof Yeager, of whom the two men grudgingly stood in awe. When Grissom amd Cooper arrive for the first time at the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the watering hole that served as the focus of social life at the base, the clown-like Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid, brags that one day his likeness will join all the other portraits of pilots that adorned the bar. Cooper is brought down to earth (so to speak) by the formidable proprietor of the bar, Pancho Barnes, herself a notable aviator, who informed the cocky young pilot that those portraits were all of pilots killed on the job.

Once word got out that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first object into space in 1957, a satellite called Sputnik, the U.S. Government scrambled desperately to make up for lost time, and the space race was on. While today it seems obvious that our first astronauts would be chosen from the ranks of military test pilots, that was not always the case. Unlike aircraft that were under total control of their pilots, the new spacecraft could be controlled exclusively from the ground. The real men behind the machines and their success, at least in their own eyes, were the jet propulsion guys, rocket scientists if you prefer, who bristled at the idea that pilots would make good, and by that I mean, obedient passengers aboard their spaceships. For their part, the headstrong test pilots bristled at the idea of not having full control over what they insisted on calling, their spacecraft. Despite objections from the rocket scientists, at least according to the film, it was President Eisenhower who insisted that military test pilots become the first astronauts.

The much decorated Yeager would have been a natural choice, but his lack of a college degree made him ineligible as far as the space program's PR people went. Ever conscious of image, they wanted only America's best and brightest to ride our rocket ships into destiny, and while Yeager may have been one of not the best we had to offer, he wasn't one of the brightest, at least not on paper.

From the Edwards Air Force test pilot group, Grissom and Cooper were selected along with Deke Slayton. From the Navy, aviators Walter Schirra and Alan Shepherd were chosen. Rounding out the group of seven men selected for project Mercury to be America's first astronauts, were U.S. Marine Corps pilots Scott Carpenter and John Glenn.

If I have one criticism of The Right Stuff, the film, it is the extreme lengths it went to contrast the exemplary, goody goody public image of the astronauts that NASA tried to paint, with the real men. This is especially true for its depiction of Gus Grissom as played by Fred Ward. While every description I've read describes Grissom as an exceptionally capable, hard worker as well as an equally hard partier, the movie emphasizes the latter but barely touches on the former. The truth is that Grissom, whom many considered to be the finest pilot of the seven Mercury astronauts, would not have been in the running for America's first man in space, (he ended up being the second), had it not been for his exceptional skill and dedication. Grissom was also selected commander of the first Gemini mission, as well as the ill-fated first Apollo mission. I read somewhere that were it not for his tragic death, Grissom may very well have been selected to be the first man to walk on the moon, instead of Neil Armstrong.

Grissom's career was the most star-crossed of all his peers. His first trip into space on July 21, 1961, the second Mercury sub-orbital mission, went off without a hitch until splashdown. The plan had it for Grissom to remain put inside his capsule until a rescue helicopter arrived on the scene to help stabilize the craft. But before the chopper arrived, an explosive charge that enabled the hatch to open went off, causing sea water to rush into the capsule. Grissom exited the sinking capsule to escape the possibility of a watery grave. The first helicopter crew to arrive on he scene made a valiant effort to save the capsule but it was for naught, the water logged capsule sank along with its valuable contents. Grissom himself barely escaped death as he had to fend for himself in the choppy water as the chopper crew worked on saving the capsule. Grissom claimed that the hatch blew on its own, an idea that was disputed by the rocket scientists who suggested that Grissom triggered the hatch himself as he panicked while bobbing around inside the capsule as he awaited the rescue helicopter.

That incident prompted the following exchange in the movie where Edwards test pilots not selected for the astronaut program scoffed at Grissom and his fellow astronauts:
Jack Ridley: Pull that stuff on flight test, it's all over for him. I say he screwed the pooch, pardner. Plain and simple.
Chuck Yeager: Yeah, well, sometimes you get a pooch that can't be screwed, ya know?
Liaison Man: [chuckling] Exactly! Right now the President's got his own problems with the Bay of Pigs, he doesn't want the astronauts' image tarnished. Nothing these guys do is gonna be called a failure... But you'd think the public'd know that they're just doing what monkeys have done...
(American's first living space traveler was indeed a chimpanzee by the name of Ham).
Chuck Yeager: Monkeys? Think a monkey knows he's sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you somethin' - it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did alright.
Perhaps it was sour grapes but Yeager and the liaison man in that exchange had a point. The race to beat the Russians to the moon was so intense that no obstacle, not even incompetence or the possible death of an astronaut, would have stood in the way of NASA's inexorable charge forward. In that vein, the public's perception of the astronauts had to be kept pure and no one, not even the press in those days would dare to openly suggest that Grissom might have "screwed the pooch."

Incidentally, Grissom's story about the hatch blowing on its own was corroborated by evidence unearthed years later.

As I mentioned above, NASA's opinion of Grissom was certainly high enough for him to be selected to command two subsequent missions, both of which were to be the inaugural flights of new programs.  Gemini, America's first two manned spacecraft would incorporate new techniques and maneuvers into the skill sets of the U.S. space program such as space walks, the rendezvous between two spacecraft, and extended time in space, and the Apollo program which would use those new skill sets to enable it land on the moon.

It was a quantum leap from Grissom's primitive first flight, which lasted only about fifteen minutes, to landing on the moon, which would happen almost exactly eight years later to the day. That fact was made tragically clear, 51 years ago today. Up to that point there had been sixteen NASA manned space missions with a few mishaps and partial failures, but no loss of life. The Gemini program had catapulted the United States ahead of the Soviet Union for the first time in the space race, and all systems were go, or so they seemed, for a trip to the moon. But Grissom and his crewmates on Apollo 1 knew better, they were skeptical that their spacecraft was ready. Design flaws were abundant and the crew knew that corners were being cut in the haste to get to the moon in a timely matter. Things got so bad that Grissom hung a lemon in the Apollo flight simulator.

In this picture, the crew posed in mock prayer with a model of their space capsule to illustrate their frustrations with the preparations for their trip, scheduled for February, 1967, the debut of the three man Apollo spacecraft. The picture was meant to be a joke, but it was a tragic harbinger for what in retrospect was the inevitable result of complacency and ill preparedness.

At 1PM EST on January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, the first American to walk in space, and Roger Chaffee a rookie astronaut, climbed into their spacecraft for what was intended to be a routine "plugs out" launch simulation to determine if the systems inside the craft were working normally on their own. The test was assumed to be without risk as the rocket sitting underneath the capsule was not loaded with fuel. The astronauts were sealed inside their capsule with full flight conditions in place, spacesuits connected to a steady stream of pure oxygen. Things began to go wrong almost immediately as the astronauts detected a foul odor emanating from their suits. Then a communication problem took place which caused a frustrated Grissom to blurt out: "how are we going to get to the moon if we can't communicate two or three buildings over?" Delay upon delay took place to troubleshoot the problems.

In all the astronauts remained strapped into their seats in the confinement of the capsule for five and one half hours before a spark, probably from faulty wiring ignited a fire that was fed by the pure oxygen environment inside the capsule and the scores of objects made of combustible materials. At 6:31 EST, Grissom could be heard over the communications system yelling "Fire". A few other scrambled voices and screams from the astronauts could be heard in the subsequent seconds. A desperate attempt was made by them to release the ridiculously complicated escape hatch, ironic given Gus Grissom's problems with the hatch on his first space flight. In normal circumstances, it would take about ninety seconds to open the hatch from the inside of the Apollo capsule, much longer from the outside. It was estimated that the astronauts were rendered unconscious from the noxious gasses produced by the fire in fifteen seconds. Despite the desperate efforts of the ground crew who risked their own lives trying to free the men, the astronauts never had a chance.

The tragedy may have been a real eye opener to the American public and especially to the powers that be who ran the space program, but not of course to the astronauts who knew all along that they were putting their lives on the line every time they stepped into a spacecraft. After all the investigations, out of necessity, heads rolled, layers of bureaucracy were eliminated, and most of the kinks in the process were worked out. The spacecraft was re-worked, including eliminating most of the combustible materials, a complete overhaul of the hatch system and most importantly replacing the all oxygen environment with one combining oxygen and nitrogen. On October 11th the following year, the backup crew for Apollo I, Walter Cunningham, Donn Eislie, and one of the Mercury 7, Walter Schirra, blasted off from the same launchpad, atop the same rocket, the Saturn 1B, as their predecessors hoped to twenty months earlier. Apollo VII as it was dubbed, orbited the earth 163 times and was the first successful manned mission of the Apollo program. On December 21, 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, sitting atop a much larger Saturn V rocket, blasted off from Cape Kennedy. That rocket's size was necessary to enable the spacecraft to leave the earth's orbit, which it did later that day. By Christmas Eve, the three were orbiting the moon. In doing so, they became the first human beings to set eyes on the earth from outer space. This is how it looked:

Earthrise from the moon, December 24, 1968.  Photograph by William Anders.
Here is a fascinating account of the Apollo VIII mission.

As the late Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon said:
We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth.
I don't think it would be hyperbolic to call this image, made by astronaut William Anders, the most important photograph ever made.  For the first time we saw our beautiful blue planet as it truly is, all alone, cast adrift in a sea of darkness and desolation. It certainly should come as no surprize that the publication of this and subsequent photographs of the earth made from the moon helped inspire the environmental movement and the idea that the resources of our lovely planet, abundant as they may be, are finite and worth preserving.

For a brief shining moment in the sixties, amidst all the turmoil of that decade, human beings undertook a seemingly impossible mission and accomplished it. Along the way we learned a lot, not only about space travel, but about ourselves. At that time it seemed that with hard work and sacrifice, anything might be possible.

Unfortunately, today we all know better.

Out of greed and convenience, the powers that be in our time, have all but rejected science and what we have learned about the fragility of our planet since we went to the moon almost fifty years ago. Some even go so far to say that the moon landing was fake news, that it was in fact, staged by Hollywood. The climate for ignorance and irrationality is so intense these days, there are even people who are proud to publicly proclaim that the earth is indeed flat.

We could go on and on about the merits of sending human beings into space. But given the current attacks, even from the very top on knowledge, science and even human intelligence itself, perhaps it's time to return to space, if only to awaken ourselves from the slumber of complacency, indifference  and ignorance. Because it wasn't slumber, indifference and ignorance that got us to the moon, it was hard work, sacrifice and perhaps above all, science.

Perhaps on this day, the anniversary of the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, we can honor them and their sacrifice* by re-confirming our commitment to hard work and sacrifice in the name of truth, knowledge and science, and the eradication of ignorance, be it self-imposed or not, especially where it concerns our beautiful planet, our one and only home.

I think they'd be OK with that.

* not to forget the last crew members of the space shuttle Challenger whom we lost on January 28, 1983:

Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist.
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher

and the last crew members of the space shuttle Columbia whom we lost on February 1, 2003:

Rick Husband, Commander
William C. McCool, Pilot
Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander/Mission Specialist 3 
David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1 
Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2 
Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4 
Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Wrong Place, Right Time

The photographer Arthur Fellig who is known for his brutal depictions of big city life, is said to have gotten his nickname, Weegee (the phonetic spelling of Ouija) from police officers who marvelled at his ability to arrive at crime scenes often before they did. While his uncanny talent for being in the right place at the right time, so to speak, Speed Graphic camera and bare bulb flash in hand, was more the result of sheer determination and the help of a police radio rather than any supernatural power, today the photographer, whose work resides in the collections of art museums all over the world, is officially known by his psychically inspired pseudonym.

Just blocks away, something newsworthy happened
exactly at the same time
these photographs were taken...
Needless to say, I am no Weegee, especially in regards to being in the right place and the right time. Sometimes I feel if I have any remarkable talent at all, it is for always, and I mean always, picking the wrong checkout line in a supermarket. So great is this talent, I've often thought of hiring myself out to grocery stores who could use me to inform other customers, suggesting they observe me to determine which checkout line NOT to enter.

Never has my un-Weegieness been more apparent than the other day when as I was making these rather mundane photographs of an L station. Unbeknownst to me, at the exact same moment one station away, a newsworthy incident was taking place aboard a train. Now I did notice that southbound trains were backed up and I saw the train where the incident was taking place, stopped at the station, but train backups such as these are hardly unusual occurrences. So I went about taking these pictures for my picture-of-the-day series, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

...Do you think I can sell them?
Then as I headed to my car, one police vehicle after another, sirens and flashing lights ablaze, headed south toward the station. Hmmm, I thought, something must be going on, I wonder what it is. Rather than following the trail of the sirens, as Weegie would have, I headed straight to my car, as I had a much more important task at hand, I had to pick up my daughter from school. You see my wife is out of town and this job was by far my most important one, in filling in for her. As is common with school children these days, my daughter is involved in different after school activities, and each day her schedule varies. To help me out, my wife prepared a very detailed calendar describing each day's events and what time to be there to collect her. She then read me the riot act about what would happen if I were to arrive late, and the fines we would accrue compounded upon each minute of tardiness. To me, the fear of fines is almost as dire as the fear of God, and getting to school on time took on an almost religious significance.

But I still was curious as to what was going on such a short distance away, so when I got in the car, I turned on the radio to the all news station. Like most of these urban incidents, the first mention of them usually occurs during a traffic report. Sure enough the traffic reporter said trains were backed up on that line due to police activity at that particular station. Obviously, nothing I didn't know already.

News of what had actually happened didn't make the airwaves until after I had picked up my daughter. It turned out that a man had set himself on fire while riding on the train, not at all a common occurrence, even in a big city like Chicago.

Naturally my daughter was dumbstruck. "Why would somebody do that?" she said. "And especially on a train?" I had no answer. Then she added rather comically: "Why wouldn't he do it in the snow?"
"Good point" I thought.

It turned out the man who ignited himself survived the ordeal. A police officer was slightly injured during the melee to put out the fire, as was a transit worker, the real hero of the story, who actually extinguished the fire.

And yes there were bystanders present who recorded the incident on their cellphones, although at least from what I saw, none of them got anything close to as compelling an image as Weegee would have captured.

Had I been there, I certainly would have done no better. My typical response in bad situations (never been in one this bad) is to see if I can be of assistance, or get out of the way if other people are handling the problem. Even though I'm a photographer, typically the last thing on my mind at a time like that would be to take a picture of someone else's misery.

But by far and away the most chilling thought on my mind as the incident unfolded behind me was what would have happened had that day I left work just slightly later. I most certainly would have stuck on a train for maybe an hour, and had been late to pick up my daughter.

That evening for one of the few times of my life, I kept thanking my lucky stars for having been at the wrong place at the right time.