The Newark Space Flight Center
He used to sit on the couch on Sunday afternoon and fiddle with the TV. The TV at the time was an RCA. It had a tiny, oval black and white screen, and it was in a huge, heavy oak case. It looked like furniture. Only it wasn't. He’d sit near it and click from channel 9, the Dodgers, snap, snap to channel 11, the Yankees, and then, snap, snap the Dodgers again, and snap snap, back and forth. The clicking made it so he probably wasn’t able to follow either game. No matter. He seemed to enjoy it, and best of all, it made him impenetrable to conversation, it made him out of bounds. “Pops,” I’d ask, “Can I have a soda?” "What?" "A soda?" “Ask your grandmother.” Snap, snap. The adults would make sure that he wasn’t disturbed while snapping.
He deserved these moments of peaceful, summer, Sunday afternoon isolation. After all, in addition to his job as a pharmacist, he was building a rocketship in the backyard out of a 1949 Dodge and several piles of strange, shiny metal he got at a dilapidated warehouse on Freylinghuysen Avenue. There were piles of wires in the yard. And welding equipment. And tools. And gauges. And aircraft rivets. And a high scaffold. He worked on the ship and smoked his cigars. He paced around the piles of material muttering to himself and gesturing. Clouds of smoke. Banging. Sparks.
Building a rocketship was an enormous, messy, time consuming task. But it wasn’t unusual in Newark. Not at all. Other people in the Weequahic Section were building their own rocketships, too. “This rocket,” he told me, “is going to be the best. It’s going to be really special. We alone are going to Mars. Why would anybody want to go to the moon like these other people? These moon people don’t have the right vision. I bet these moon people are Giants fans. Or Republicans.” Smoke from the cigar. Muttering. All of this made no sense to me, but he was quite convincing. “Well,” he asked, “Am I right about this? Of course I am.” That was the kind of question he liked.
When a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told her I wanted to be a scientist. What I meant was that I wanted to fly to Mars with my grandfather in the rocketship. I’m pretty sure that back then the word “astronaut” wasn’t yet in use. At least in Newark. She didn’t ask me to elaborate about my scientific aspirations. No. She gave me a weird look. Why didn’t I want to be a fireman or a cop like my classmates? Why indeed. I guess she didn’t know about the rocketship. Or that I was going to Mars. I didn’t need to concern myself with petty, terrestrial concerns. I was worried instead about how to navigate the rocket so that I’d be able to make the return trip safely. I was pretty sure that nobody wanted to get stuck on Mars, especially because they couldn’t figure out how to get back to Earth.
When the summer was coming to an end, Pops still hadn’t finished the rocketship. I thought it would be done by then, but it wasn’t. There were still enormous piles of sheet metal and wires and parts, and the frame from the Dodge in the yard. The rocketship was beginning to shape up, but it had a long, long way to go. “Pops,” I said, “I thought we’d be ready to take off by the end of summer. Looks like we’re not going to make it, are we?” “Oh,” he said. “You know, kid,” he said, “This project, overcoming gravity, going a long way off this planet, finishing a safe rocketship, that’s going to take a while longer. I’m going to keep working on it. Meanwhile, I think we should start watching the Giants, they have this kid named Willie Mays, who’s going to be one of the best ball players ever. Am I right about this? Of course I am.”