Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real people and balls on the moon

Wallace and Gromit on the moon. Never got the ball back. Picture from Aardman Animation.
It feels like we went and kicked all of our balls into the air. On the moon. And they haven't come back down yet; we're kind of standing around looking up and waiting around for them to come back down. No new jobs yet. No new money yet. Everything feels like a held breath. Or a ball kicked on the moon.

Casey wrote a paper for school this week about Alan Shepard, the second man into space, the one who hit golf balls on the moon during the Apollo 14 lunar mission. He smuggled some golf balls and the head of a nine-iron up to the moon, then attached the driver to the end of the handle of the tool they used to collect rocks and things on the moon. He managed to hit 2 balls, but he had to do it one handed and awkwardly because of the bulky space suit.
"Miles and miles and miles..." Picture from the NASA archives.
Wonder if they ever figured out where the golf balls ended up? Some people got incensed (and still do) at the utter frivolity of hitting golf balls on the moon when it cost so much to send men to the moon. But here all these years later, what is it that people remember about that lunar mission, or Alan Shepard? Test pilots today still use what's called 'the Shepard's prayer' when they're about to go out: "Dear lord, don't let me &*$! up." Well, maybe they know a little more if they watched the movie 'The Right Stuff'. Casey hasn't seen it yet, but now he wants to see it because of his research about Alan Shepard. Why is he interested in finding out more? Because Alan Shepard had a sense of humor. That comes through in even the driest accounts about the man, and that made him human and interesting and fun to this not-quite 11 year old kid who's never cared a whole lot about space travel.

Casey had to write an essay last week about a person he'd like to meet, and he wrote about Abraham Lincoln. He had to research him a bit to be able to talk about him; he already knew the usual historical facts that everyone knows, like Lincoln was the 12th President, he freed the slaves, he was a great man, all those little factoids that the kids get fed at school in small easily remembered bites. But as Casey researched deeper this time, he found out other things that made the man more human, more approachable. I have a number of books about Lincoln since I've always admired him, and so we looked through the books and talked about things that happened to Lincoln and what his life was like. Somehow talking together while looking at photographs made it all much more real to Casey, like looking at family pictures while your mom tells you stories about your relatives. He discovered that Lincoln had crazy unruly hair, much like himself; that Lincoln was reputed to be shy, but managed to overcome it. I told him stories of what I'd read and what things had touched me, in a sort of an oral and visual storytelling approach, and that led Casey into learning more about him.
A younger Lincoln, before he became President
He had 4 sons with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. 2 of them died young, the third after Lincoln himself had died; only one of the four sons lived into adulthood. Willie died while they were in the White House during the Civil War. He most likely died because the water in the White House was seriously polluted and he became sick with what was probably dysentery. Mary Todd must have had some serious mental illnesses; she had serious problems even when she was young but her mental problems became completely debilitating after losing her sons and her husband. Lincoln himself probably suffered from depression but in light of all that he went through with his family and the war it might have been more surprising if he hadn't been depressed. He apparently loved folk music, and especially liked humorous songs, though he was roundly criticized by the press for listening to funny songs on a few occasions while the war was on. Apparently public figures are not supposed to have a sense of humor or do anything light-hearted, if media reactions to Alan Shepard's golf balls and Lincoln's goofy sense of humor are anything to go by.

Those little glimpses into a sense of humor, the family lives of those men, was what Casey found most fascinating. He pondered over the notion that even very famous people, no matter what time period they lived in, liked funny little things, that they had tragic things happen in their families that they could not control. He wondered about what he would say to them if he could have had a conversation with them, and what they might say to him. He wondered if Mr. Lincoln might have felt sad looking at him because he'd be reminded of his son Willy, who died when he was 11 and looks a bit like Casey in the photos that exist. He pondered that they seemed like regular people, and if these men had done amazing things, then maybe anybody could go and do amazing things and become famous. I'm not sure if it was a new notion, that ordinary real folks are the ones who go on and become famous, but I think the idea hit deep this time. And just today, Casey brought home his essay on Lincoln with an 'A' on it. Somehow I suspect that the conversational tone of his paper made it more fun and interesting for his teacher to read, too.

So we are going on, looking up and wondering when the balls will fall back to the ground, but meanwhile we're going on about the business of school and basketball games and gymnastics meets and other stuff. And we are really glad that we're not leading a fractured country in the middle of a bloody civil war, living in a big white house with polluted water that causes a terrible, tragic loss. Rest in peace, Mr. Lincoln, and thank you for trying your best to lead the country through a terrible time, being a good man and living your values as best you could under unthinkable conditions.


  1. I think the sense you get about Wallace and Grommit--and those guys with a sense of humor--is the absolutely best mood in which to approach boinging silly bolls when they do come down. (Yes, I did a typo where that was spelled "bills".)

  2. I always found the personal tidbits the most interesting part of history, the individual stories and how many people, stuck int he middle of weird and usually harrowing situations, were just like me. Irreverent, silly and trying hard to keep sane in the midst of insanity.

    I've always thought Lincoln would be a lot like people in our family, too.