NASA: for the love of Io

In front of me on a gray fold-up table was the mess I had created during my time working as a NASA teacher assigned to the Galileo Space Mission based at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Northridge, California. The Ute tribes of Southwestern Colorado and the Ignacio School District had nominated  me and several Ute students to participate in the Galilean mission to Jupiter.

With a model of the Galileo spacecraft on the right side of the table providing evidence that I was really here and really working on a space mission. I recognize the different papers as I shuffle them around, there were the prototypes of lessons I prepared for JPL’s education unit as well as an early set of pictures of Io, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter.

I saw two notes from Dr. Van, head of Mission Design to which I was assigned. Mission Design basically put together the timing of the set of events that were to occur during the exploration of Jupiter. Galileo was launched in 1989 and was mid-flight when we came on-board in 1993. The efforts were highly compounded when an umbrella-looking set of solar panels failed to open correctly. Now the electricity available was about the wattage of a small light bulb. Phone book-sized amounts of data would now have to be compressed into one page to be sent back to earth. There were 11 different data-gathering instruments and their space scientists on earth vying for use of the scant electricity. Each of the instrument departments met with Mission Design to schedule ahead two years for moments when they wanted to take pictures, measure electrical fields or whatever. Mission Control would then twist and turn the spacecraft for the best shot. This was all being done two years before Galileo even reached Jupiter.

No one wanted the fiasco of the Soviet Union’s last expeditionary spacecraft. When arriving at their destination, they took a spray of pictures only to find that a mistake on earth caused the set of pictures to be actually of the foot of their own spacecraft.

Most of the rest of the papers had to do with Dr. Widner , a researcher for Mission Design, and my friend/nemesis, Dr. Bergersen, the world authority on the Galilean moon Io.

Eventually the Galileo would do a drive-by of Io and every bit of information would be gathered and scoured for importance. That was Dr. Widner’s task, to gather and transcribe all into electronic data. And she hated Dr. Bergersen.

The first time I was sent to Dr. Bergersen’s office, he opened the door about six inches, turned his head sideways to better stare at this new intruder. His eyes were bulging, probably a thyroid condition. His glasses were thick, really thick, probably a thyroid condition. His bulbous nose was probably a genetic condition. He looked Jewish to me, from someone who did not know what a Jewish person should look like. Nevertheless, he looked Jewish to me.

“Do you have the packet for Dr, Widner ready?”

“Who are you?”, he squinted. ” I need a permit.”

“What kind of permit?”

“The permit!”

After receiving a embossed JPL note saying  ‘Let him in’  by Dr. Widner, an official permit that had never existed before. I returned to Dr. Bergersen’s door. Deja vu, but the opening was not quite as wide as before.

“Who are you?” he asked wondering.

” I’m from Dr. Widner’s office and I have the permit.”

“I don’t need any permit.” Anger warming, brain slowing. ” Your badge isn’t right.” and slammed the door. That was true, mine said ‘NASA teacher, JPL, unlike any others.

The next time I saw him was at the dining hall. He was alone at a large table.

“Mind if I sit here?” I sat the tray and began to sit. His body language had been evident, but It didn’t connect with me. His left arm and elbow nearly surrounded his tray. The fork in his right hand looked to be in a stabbing mode. His head at the same level as his plate, his face turned to me.

“This is my time,” he growled. This, maybe a Jewish guy, was not very polite, I gathered and tip-toed away.

My fourth trip to his office turned out to be another ‘ door shut in my face’, and a call to Dr, Van’s office suggesting that I might be a spy for the Soviet Union. A hand carried embossed note from Dr. Van began trip five. This story was beginning to have legs. The bet around the computer room was that I would never get in.

The note said that I was not a spy, in fact I was to be his afternoon ‘Aide-de-Camp’, an underling at his disposal. His office was a tiny warehouse full of boxes containing the story of Io. The room was filled with Io.

Io , along with Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto , are the four largest moons of Jupiter. They were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. In a manner of speaking, they were discovered by Hans Bergersen in 1943. Hans took to Io, the most volcanic world in the solar system. It’s breath of sulfur dioxide made it also the most vile. Ironically to a young Hans Bergersen, Io became his mistress and his best friend.

Each morning I wrote educational worksheets for the JPL education unit and each afternoon was a crap shoot in Dr. Bergersen’s office. Some days I had files to get or deliver. Other days, I just sat, no conversation, no nothing.

Finally I discovered the key to the situation. Second to Io, there was something about Dr.Bergersen and strudel. That morning before catching the Cal-Tech bus, I bought some strudel at the little bake shop on Colorado Avenue. That afternoon as I unwrapped my snack, Dr. B glanced over at the noisy unwrapping. Whatever event this strudel triggered, it was remarkable. He stood and just stared at the pastry, his mind watching a rerun of some other time and some other place.

“Would you like some fresh strudel?” I asked, surprised that Dr. Bergersen was showing such an emotional moment.

“I will make tea.”

As the afternoons of strudel and tea passed, Hans relived Nazi Germany and his escape with other German scientists just at the last moment. A portion of him could not leave those horrible times. Dementia was evident, probably the reason for his odd behavior. He wanted into the Galileo project so that his moon would get the respect it deserved, only to find that they wanted control of his only friend. Each time JPL requested information that only he knew,  it felt to him as if it was torn from his flesh. He knew he was losing the battle, he had nothing else.

My best memory of Hans was of the only joke he ever told, over and over.

” Since Io has very little atmosphere, The stench of Io’s volcanoes is blown all over the solar system,” he would say. “So if I am ever lost in outer space, I will take in a deep breathe of ‘ the absence of air’ and sniff out the sulfur dioxide trail all the way back to Io.” Then chuckling, ” then I would know where I was…”

He wished to be buried on Io…





The Strawberry Bus

When we moved to a small logging community in Northwest Oregon, we were introduced to a new lifestyle. The city swimming pool was a couple of logs damming the local stream. The pool even had a life guard. At 2:am every workday, the diesel motors of the many log trucks began idling . 50 or more trucks each day would find their way up the narrow roads to the landings where they were loaded with massive fir and hemlock.

The strawberry bus had also become a tradition among the young people of the town. Just picking strawberries two weeks in the early summer , a kid could make enough money for school clothes and then some.

For extra money in the summer while not teaching, I drove the strawberry bus. The first few days the trip down the hill to the berry farms was a noisy affair, noses painted white with sun screen, lunches that would feed armies, and over-sized hats. On the way home each afternoon, these rugged pickers were sprawled all over the seats asleep. Exposed faces and arms were fried red to medium rare.

Upon arrival to the farm each day, our platoon was assigned a field of berries and each eager money maker given a row of their own from which to pick. Some kids slid along in the dirt next to their row of berries, Others would spraddle the row and bend from the waist.

Everyone in the field was paid by the number of flats (2 feet by 3 feet by 4 inches) they filled. At the end of the day, their punch card gave evidence of the number of flats filled. Some students collected their pay daily while others collected at the end of the season.

The two week period was determined by the berries themselves. Everbearing strawberry plants produced all summer, but it was the June bearers that were in commercial production, the harvest time was about two weeks. Farmers had to have picking crews enlisted far in advance to make sure picking of their fields could get done.

So much could be read into each picker’s background. The best pickers came from families where each dollar mattered and each family member was expected to contribute. At the other end of the spectrum were kids that never worked before. They were soft, by noon in the shade somewhere.

Two teenage sisters were sent to the fields by the parents as a life lesson. Cute and made-up the first days, later that first week, they were waddling like old women out the bus door. Some of their golden hair made it into the pony tail, the rest flying around about them all day.. They would never again laugh at the pickers in the field as they drove by on the way to the mall.

One of the boys found love amongst the berry juice. Always aligning himself next to a cute little farm girl two years younger. He carried his heavy flats back down the row to the wagons, but also carried hers down to be punched. She knew what was going on and was willing to play the game. The second week , they were riding together.

Three memories come to mind.

One morning we were placed next to a Vietnamese crew. They were adults from California and good pickers. One of our boys stood like a statue for at least minute. I told him to get busy and he bent back to his work. The next time I looked out at my berry troops, he was again staring at the other crew. He saw me and ran across the rows to me with eyes wide. I thought snakes or something.

” Do you see that woman with the green shirt?” Before I had time to nod. ” She just took a dump in the row!”

He wanted an explanation and I would have if I could have. The thought that I sent with him to his berry row was , ” Well, stay out of that row.” He looked with squinted eyes as if sharing one of the truisms of life.

The last day was the biggest of the fields. It went up a rise and disappeared out of sight. The manager told me that a Mexican crew would be to our left. I suggested as we moved toward the starting place we might give them a real run for their money.

The Mexican field boss came over, shook my hand, and commented on my troops, we looked rough and ready. The picking began, we had never picked this well. That went on for 30 minutes or so, then we stopped. Every kid there that day would never forget the moment. The Mexicans were out of sight. These men, running back down the rows with the full flats, then running back up the rise with empties were amazing, We were stunned by their effort. Some time this winter in Hermosillo or Torreon, their  families would be fed with money made by running up and down this field.

Before going over the rise, the Mexican boss waved his big hat at me smiling, ” Adios, my friend.”

At the end of the final day, the accounts between the farmer and the kids resolved and I was shaking hands and the last goodbyes. Our bus was the last in the lot and not a picker could be seen. A bit preoccupied, I climbed into the bus and sat down in the driver’s seat. It was too quiet and the powerful smell of a certain jam was overwhelming. I glanced at the overhead mirror. Our two blond sisters were hidden by a layer of sticky, red strawberry pulp. The blond hair now had a spaghetti look to it, yellow strands showing through a red sauce.

When I spun around, it be came evident that the inside of the bus and all of it’s inhabitants had been overcome by this same dread disease.

“What in the heck is this?”

The older boy suppressing a smirk, ” We had some extra strawberries,” a coy smile broke out, ” we didn’t want them to go to waste.”



Working for NASA

I feel fortunate that I have nearly always been in the right place at the right time. That is for sure the reason for my stint with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab at Northridge.

The Southern Ute Tribe and the Ignacio School District together entered me as a possible NASA Teacher. Several Ute students were part of the package. We won and represented several states. The school gave us their brand new van and JPL gave us more than adequate funds and five days to go from Southwest Colorado to Southern California. Usually a ten to fourteen hour trip, we took three days with a layover in Las Vegas and Palm Springs.

I told the students that I would be working on the unmanned space satellite ‘Galileo’, Mission Design to be exact. I told the students with me that I suspected that they might spend a lot of time observing and maybe as a courier, probably nothing of significance., but a trip to California would be good anyway.

I knew my position required special clearances, I just hoped that the students would be allowed into some buildings. I was going to be busy, I didn’t want them bored.

Just prior to the first day, I told them I wouldn’t be able to talk much about my job or the day to day secret clearance data. We will just have to talk about other things when we were at the apartment.

The Galileo space program was based on the JPL campus, a seventh floor building sitting directly above the  San Andreas fault, sometimes on the top floors , you could feel the building sway. I was with the Mission Design team on the fourth floor having to be in the building an hour before the students. I did a lot of watching those first few days managing to be a gopher at times.

The kids said little at all about their tasks.

Then , one day everything came to light. The students and I all took the same elevator.

“I get off on the fourth floor, you guys?”

“Seventh.” The seventh floor, what the hell.

“I’ll ride up with you to see what you are doing.”  I thought it might be like an activities area for students during the day, waiting for their teachers to get off work.

The seventh floor door opened to a busy set of computers and the large towers that went with them. It was all business and it was busy. The kids checked through with their clearance cards, but I was stopped. THEY HAD A HIGHER CLEARANCE THAN I HAD. I found out later that the seventh floor was a floor-sized fault in which secret data concerning Galileo was gathered and stored.

So that night when I asked about their day’s work,

“Well, you know…” and they were off to get pizza.

It’s always been about me.

I thought that it was about my work in Mission Design that it little show was all about, the kids were an afterthought. BUT it was the other way around, I might be there just as a handsome chaperone caring for some budding rocket scientists.

What is this world coming to…





My Last Fight

It was a good job for a bad reason. About to start college, I landed a job as a entry level care giver at the State Home and Training School. The patients were mostly very low IQ, now wards of the state for a variety of reasons. The dormitory in which I worked was the wrecking  yard for older, mentally handicapped men. It looked very much like a prison of denims except in this prison, you could open the doors because the inhabitants would never find their way out. The care and feeding meant changing diapers and giving baths. The days were spent in a large day-room of cement and steel.

The reason for the fight was Billy Catpigs, think of a man 50 year old that acted and walked like a two year old. His dress of the day was always overalls to his chest with shoulder straps that hooked in front. He terrified visitors as he ‘hip-a-tied’ up to them being friendly and wanting to touch. About 200 pounds, missing teeth, and a large head with scars through his scalp, he wanted to be loved and appreciated, in your face with the balance of the two year old. Always helpful, running off to get a towel or diaper for one of us, only to get lost on the way.

My adversary was straight from the movie ‘Grease’, at least, his hair was. He was 35 going on 17. He carried rolls of pennies to clutch when he threw his next punch. He talked incessantly about his sexual prowess with the women and his success in his bar fights. Bob was complete in his ‘Grease’ dress, tight dark t-shirt, cigarette pack rolled in one sleeve. Six foot, 175 pounds, and not quite as good looking as he thought was.

The time was shift change in the afternoon, his day shift was ending and my swing shift was just beginning.

The location was the cement day room.

The cause was a yo-yo string. Bob had been snapping it much like a towel at the various old men. Billy Catpigs was standing with all of us as usual when Bob snapped him. Billy did not have the capability to even raise his hands in defense. Laughing, Bob snapped him again.

“Quit it Bob.” I said

“Acting a little tough are ya.” Then He snapped me.

I didn’t have a death wish or a second thought, I tackled at the waist and drove him onto the floor. He flailed three or four times with his hands, but with little effect. My head was tight against the side of his chest and my arms were terrified around his waist.

“What in the hell do you think you are doing?”. I said to myself. “He is going to kill you!”

Unable to do anything else, he sat up and grabbed me around the waist. Using brute strength, He threw my waist and body over his head.

My junior high wrestling coach always said, “Off your hips and on your knees.”

After the throw-over and my return to my knees, the rest of me was well tucked into his body, we were essentially in the same positions.

To move this story along, he did it again three more times…

Then, I won by default. Da fault of his cigarette smoking. He was gassed.

“Let me up, I can’t breathe!”

I was so scared that I didn’t.

He was now in full distress, twisting and turning, trying to get up. Finally, a couple of guys undid me from him. He was whipped, not caring who was watching. He was done as a bully at least in this arena.

The last time I saw him, I was leaving with my final check. I saw him leading some of the patients to the chow-hall, He waved.

“You had better wave,” I said to myself . “I will get out of this car and let you fling me around for a while until your COPD kicks in again. I will leave you breathless right there on the sidewalk”.

Thank God for cigarettes…


As our pickup slowly descended down the gravel road into the small canyon below, it was like passing into another time. The ranch took up all of the flat space in this magical valley. The 300 hundred acres were divided somewhat evenly between hay ground and horse pasture. The old red barn complimented the brown two-story ranch house with its full length front porch overlooking the fields. Everything was old and antique including the old soul waving to us from a seat on the porch. His wide-brimmed cowboy hat and the Hereford cowhide that covered his chair proved that he was legit.Thin and wispy. he walked us out to his little treasures,  a pasture of Shetland ponies.

My father had four Shetland mares in a plan to have a whole herd at some point of time. To say that you have a horse ranch. you have to have a stud. That is why we were there.

The stud he had for sale was a little bigger than the rest, white with three large brown spots. He had a wide chest and was thick through the withers. His head was large and masculine and his eyes were very alert. At this point it may sound like he was a keeper. Void that, he was the meanest piece of horse flesh that ever existed.

Shetlands have a saying that follows them around. If you are big enough to handle them, you are too big to ride them. If you are small enough to ride them, you are too small to handle them. There are hundreds of well-behaved Shetlands about that have been trained correctly, but there are the others.

I was in my teen years and had done a lot of riding of regular-sized horses. When I was on Chief, that was his name, my feet were about a foot off the ground on each side. It looked silly when I rode him. It was hilarious when I rode him with a saddle. The problem was that every time he was out of sight of my father, he would buck me off. The implication at this time was that I would re-train Chief for small children to ride.

Chief understood that my father was the key to the mares, therefore, when father was was watching, he would behave like a little gentleman. However, back at the barn, it was a different story. If I approached his front, he would try to bite me. If I approached his rear, he would try to kick me.

Once he escaped up into the timber, I prayed feverishly that he would get shot. Through all of this, my father loved him…

Like a normal stud, he would circle and try to prevent a person from getting to the mares. So when I was given orders to saddle or bridle or even brush any of the mares, it was a battle. One day when trying to gather the mares, he crow-hopped and tried to kick me with both feet. He flashed his tail, lowered his head,  flaring his nostrils, and seemingly going to attack. I’ve seen studs act this way with other studs, but never this.

To say there is a God would be an understatement at this time. This new pen that we were in had an electric wire around it. In this moment of rage, Chief’s tail became entangled in the electric wire. As he pulled his tail away, the wire came loose from its post. the wire snapped forward and stung him in the butt. The more he bucked and jumped, the more the wire and Chief connected, finally curled between his hind legs, still firing amp after amp. I was just about to the electric charger when the fence grounded its self out.

Chief was totally beaten and his body shook. I put my hand on his rump and removed the the wire from between his legs. I took hold of his halter and walked him to the barn.

In the old days, cowboys would break horses  to ride by achieving the same level of surrender from the  horse.

The good part was now I could handle him, the bad part was he would no longer service the mares and was totally listless.

I guess sympathy would be the order of the day, but he had been ruined before we got him and to be bitten and kicked the way I was left me flat emotionally.

I guess the moral of the story is that we bought him for the electricity between his legs and sold him because of the electricity that got between his legs…



Playing Doctor

I was premed, needed a job, and there was an up-scale nursing home right in the pathway from school to home. Connect the dots; Change a few bedpans, play dominos with the old guys and collect a paycheck. Easy enough.

The interview as a orderly was as intense as dealing with the CIA or Interpol. I have been looked at before, but not with this much intensity. The two viewers were staring at my long sleeved shirt wondering if they might find needle tracks or psychopathic tattoos. Deep whiffs were taken to see when I taken my last toke. This nursing home had never had a male nurse’s aide before and this clean-cut country boy wasn’t to be the first. A male infidel for crying out loud.

What saved the day was interviewer number two, a nurse, suggesting that having a man around might be helpful in lifting patients and handling troublesome men patients. So, I was not hired for my intellect or charisma, but rather for the load I could tote.

The first few days were not good. I was trained on one floor, but would actually work on another. I wore a white short-sleeved polo shirt and white pants. Taking care of the men was easy, but my approach with the old women was not working. Around 8 o’clock in the evening,  I would enter a woman patient’s room and ask her if I could help her off with her clothes and get her into bed. When I couldn’t get to first base with my female patients, I thought about it for a bit. Had I ever been successful with that line, whether it be the backseat of the Ford or anywhere for that matter. The answer was no, the story of my life.

I am a quick learner. Upon arrival for work at my new floor, I now wore a doctor’s coat with a lanyard and two plastic badges. Neither meant much, a picture of my driver’s license and the other my parking permit. The look implied that I was probably at least a neurosurgeon.

My approach or rather my bedside manner improved immensely. I would walk in with a bit of a frown, stare at the patient for a moment, take her pulse, and ask if they were treating her well, Any pain?

Soon, I was their favorite doctor, “You should get some rest now. Here,  let me help.” A charlatan if there ever was one.

Memory rides only if carried by emotion. Here are three memories.

Several weeks after my arrival, I heard a call for me to go to Mrs. Williamson’s room. When I arrived, I found two aides and a nurse in a physical commotion with the patient. Mrs. W was one that had been completely taken in by my pseudo-doctor routine. Instead of going in physically, I took my little charade on the road.

“Ladies, ladies. what is going on here?” Although it was very pompous, it worked. Everything stopped. The nurse surprised at my approach and holding on bravely said, “Mrs. Williamson needs this pneumonia vaccination and we are not having any luck.”

As I stepped through to hold the patient’s hand, the aides stared at this theatrical performance dumbfounded. I had been called to help wrestle an arm free for a vaccination. I have always been full of myself and here is a prime example.

“Mrs. Williamson,” I said with a touch of painful worry and a tad of consternation. ” They say that you haven’t taken your shot yet. That really worries me.” Holding her hand and  leaning over to whisper, ” If you were my grandmother, I would tell you to hold my hand and get this done.” She pursed her lips and held on to my arm. Done.

On the way out, one of the aides that was present at the shooting , leaned to me with a smirk”, ” That has to be the biggest piece of crap I ever saw.”

“I’ll bill you in the morning,” I said with a dorky smile.

Some weeks later, I was walking by the women’s showering room, I heard a cry of help. Not really inclined to enter just any woman’s shower room, I waited at the door for another invitation. Another cry of help came quickly. I rushed in to find Tory, a cute little nurse’s aide, pressed in an awkward position, trapped in the corner of the shower. The avalanche slowly sliding down on her was a slippery, obese Mrs. Johansson. Mrs. J as we will grow to know her, was bare naked and slick from the constant flow of water from the shower head. Her big bottom had slipped off the plastic showering chair.

I jumped in lifting, trying to stabilize the situation. I must say the three of us became quite familiar with one another as we tried to get the plastic chair with wheels to return to the scene of the crime. Every time I gathered up a large portion of Mrs. J’s slimy  pink body to lift, a bunch of the rest of her popped out somewhere else. By now both Tory and I were tangled up beneath this glob of humanity desperately trying to re-seat mama J . Finally we slid the chair beneath most of her.

The head nurse flew in with another aide, they stopped . In fact, time stopped. The picture in front of them was of a shower raining down on a naked and obese woman with a soaked orderly on his knees with his hands around her buttocks. Tory tucked in between the both of us. Tory’s hair soaked and stringy, her image was of a full-length wet T-shirt contestant. I guess you had to be there.

The nurse said quaintly, ” Do you three always shower together?” I turned to see her, but it was hard to see her with water droplets dripping freely from my eyelashes.

Mrs. Anderson had been a patient for four years, not able to care for herself all during this time. Also, she had been silent all four years., nearly catatonic. Her level of dementia was fairly severe. Since she never spoke, we were not sure how severe. She had a catheter that drained into a plastic container attached to her wheel chair. Each night as I emptied the container, I also poured a half a cup of urine into a paper cup. Since her blood sugar was fluctuating, we checked  for the amount of sugar in her urine, common in those days.

This night I set the cup on the corner of her wheel chair table and worked to re-attach  the plastic container near the base of the wheel chair. When I looked up, Mrs. Anderson was holding the cup out to me, ” yum good.” She had drunk the sample and was looking for more.

At the nurse’s station, “Did you check Mrs. Anderson’s sugar?” I thought a minute how Mrs. A enjoyed her fresh-squeezed urine.

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“High again?”

“I believe so…”



They cheered and the irony of it all

Unbeknownst to us, we were about to experience the greatest irony in sports. Our chance encounter was serendipity at it’s highest level. The fans immediately to our right, about thirty of them were in a state of absolute euphoria. The billboard on the outside of this huge sports venue said, ‘ High School State Championship Wrestling’.

This was my first such trip to this event as I was a first year varsity wrestling coach who was lucky enough to have two first year wrestlers qualify for state. We were assigned a particular place in the stands for us and our fans. By the luck of the draw, our team was  to sit next to the state deaf and blind school.

Our two wrestlers lost in the first round, therefore we became witness and participants to the greatest show on earth. The communication between the unsighted and the unhearing and their relationships drew them to us. Everything else in the tournament became landscape. The real story was how a deaf student could read the wrestling program and transmit that information to a blind student that could hear. An announcement over the loudspeaker was heard by the blind students and relayed at once to the deaf students. Trips to the bathroom or concession stand was a ballet of gestures and touches that had been choreographed years earlier by these students.

Then on Saturday night came the climax of this reality play that was set before us. A deaf wrestler representing his school has qualified for the state championship match.The energy and the transmission of that boys’s match is one of the greatest ironies that I have ever seen. There will never be a better last sentence to a sporting event than this next one. With tears in my eyes, I saw blind students clapping and cheering loudly for a champion wrestler who they couldn’t see and toward that same champion that couldn’t hear their exultations.  Regardless, the feeling between them was electric. When he won, the transmission lines were overloaded with excitement and pride. I will never forget that moment.