Most of the people in my life today were not born on July 20, 1969, the day the world watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. For me, it was a huge event because it was a huge event for my dad. So it’s with fond memories that I look back now to those events 40 years ago and 5 years after Dad’s death.
Becoming A Physicist
My dad was a research physicist who worked in solid state physics for the government his entire career. Regular people don’t have a clue what that means, and I only have a vague idea. In fact, I once told the nosy neighbors that my dad was a physicist, and that was a fancy name for a janitor. I had been baited by my parents to repeat that story, and it turned out to have a very personal meaning that I only understood much later in life.
David Kingston studied physics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, the college just outside his home town of Haslett. He was working on his master’s degree when he was drafted for the Korean War. Being a student, he was able to delay his service temporarily, but ended up with a 4-year Air Force commitment. He married my mom, his childhood sweetheart, in 1954, and the Air Force sent them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Obsession With Space
Everything Dad worked on was top secret. In the early 60′s, he was part of a team that published significant work on growing crystals. His team received the first computer on WFAFB that was used to monitor their experiments growing crystals. He went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to learn how to run the computer. I remember him taking me inside the lab on the weekends when he had to check on the progress. A real science lab! I was young enough to be totally impressed with this experience, and vowed that I would become a scientist one day. I also thought it was very cool that he had research published in the boring green physics journal he received every month, and that he traveled to present papers at the annual American Physical Society meetings.
It turns out, most of what Dad worked on was for the space program, and specifically for NASA. Their computer ran experiments that were the basic science research behind the development of cadmium batteries for capturing solar energy in space.
Some of my earliest memories of time with Dad were spent outside staring through his telescope. He instilled in me a love the stars that I carry with me today. One Saturday morning, he proved to me that there was no dark side of the moon (sorry, Pink Floyd) using cereal bowls for the sun, earth, and moon around the kitchen table. In those minutes, he taught me the basic orbital mechanics of these bodies. I was about 7 years old, and suddenly the mysteries of the night sky were reduced to things I could understand.
Heathkit Color TV
In the countdown to the Apollo 11 mission, Dad decided that we needed a color TV to watch this momentous event. But typical of his style and frugality, he didn’t rush out to buy one. Instead, he used the last days of his G.I. Bill benefits to take a television repair course through the mail. In the course, they built a Heathkit color TV. He was obsessed with building that TV. And months before the moon landing, it was finished.
My parents invited the entire neighborhood over to watch the mission on TV. The night of the moon landing and the first walk were the busiest in our house. I was the oldest of three, just 10 and ready to start 5th grade. The neighborhood was an interesting mix of people, a cement company chemist, a police officer, a psychologist, a truck driver, a golf course greens keeper, an electrician, a retired couple, and a beautician were all there in our living room watching history on our new Heathkit color TV. It was all of the adults and kids watching history being made.
That’s One Small Step For Man…
I will never forget the oldest man in the room, Gene, couldn’t believe it was real. He insisted that it was a trick, that there was no way a man was walking on the moon. He seemed ancient to my young eyes, and he was probably 70 years old. Looking back, he was alive for the first flight of Dayton natives, Wilber and Orville Wright. He watched the demise of the trains, and the spread of car culture and the interstate highway system. At the time, I thought he was an idiot, but now, I can see his incredulity with a bit more compassion.
Dad’s obsession with space flight didn’t end with this. When the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum opened in Armstrong’s home town of Wakaponeta, just an hour away, the entire family made the pilgrimage. I was the only girl in my junior high and high school to have a charm of the lunar landing module on her charm bracelet I purchased at that museum. I also built a model of it in junior high. My geek came out very early in life.
I just found my old charm bracelet in a jewelry box. I’ll post a picture of the lunar landing module and a commemorative charm for Apollo 11 later this afternoon. (Camera recharging)
What This Taught Me
As a child, it seemed totally magical that men were walking on the moon, but Dad made it seem real. I remember watching the famous Kennedy speech where he challenged us to reach for the moon, and I was amazed to see that it happened within his time frame. The greater view of humanity expanding our boundaries to include the moon was a huge formative event in my life. The fact that it happend at the time when I was looking around to see how the world worked made it even more significant to me. It left me with the sense that humanity can accomplish anything we set our minds to, individually and collectively.
I also learned that some people will never believe the things right in front of their eyes, and not to waste a single minute of my time trying to convince them otherwise.
Dad could have made more money in the public sector, but money wasn’t as important to him as the immense pride he felt being in service to his country. His life taught me that a life spent in pursuit of passion was a better life than one spent in pursuit of money.
Back to that janitor story. It turns out, my grandfather was a mechanic for the physics department at MSU and worked on the first cyclotron built there (replaced in 1963 with the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory) . When Dad started college, his dad got him a job as a janitor in the physics building. He kept that job until the day he started teaching physics classes as a graduate assistant. He started as a janitor and ended up teaching classes in the same building.
You can do anything you set your mind to do.
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