Rocket Fall to Earth/a work in progress
I moved back to Southern California from New York because I needed to get out of my apartment and help take care of my father, a great and famous scientist, as he sickened and aged and died.
If you have ever lived in New York, you can understand what it means to need to leave there. But I also needed to try to come to terms as an adult with my brilliant charismatic alcoholic father, elusive and more happily married to my piquant stepmother than he had ever been to my sad and angry mother who had killed herself when I was 15 years old.
My father was of that crew who created the United States space program: he did the fundamental mathematics for the first American satellites and was the voice of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He had been chief of JPL's Research and Analysis Section and Space Sciences Division. He had also been the system designer for the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1.
The book he cowrote in the 1960s with his PhD advisor Richard Feynman, "Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals", has grown in scientific stature and use since its publication. And, he was the first of those mathematically-minded fellows who was able to beat the odds at Las Vegas:
in his case, in the late 1940s, he and his Cal Tech college roommate Roy Walford figured out that roulette wheels weren't entirely level and were able to take advantage of that fact. Walford went on to become the well-known UCLA gerontologist, Biosphere-2 resident, and champion of life-extension through borderline starvation.
But before either of these dashing young men began their high-flying career trajectories, their gambling escapades became the subject of an article in "Life" magazine. And with their earnings they bought a sailboat and cruised for months around the Caribbean.
As my father later wrote "I wanted to conquer space and my roommate, Roy Walford, decided he would conquer death. Together we would then conquer time."
My father's professional life arced from the very beginnings of JPL (it was he who made the argument for interplanetary exploration) through the Apollo missions unto the 1980s where, for example, he was having an ongoing debate with a Cambridge astronomer about the mass of the planet Mercury. Leonard Nimoy (yes, that Leonard Nimoy), while sharing the stage with my father on an episode of the "Joey Bishop" show (a "Tonight"
show-competitor of the era), told him that the "Star Trek" cast and crew loved his work (my father hosted an Emmy-nominated/Peabody-award-winning
children's science program on NBC for many years, "Exploring") --- and so gave him a plastic model of the original Starship Enterprise for his children.
That model remained in my bedroom throughout high school.
His story --- and mine with him --- is the story of the rise and fall of an American scientific era where Southern California and Cal Tech and JPL could do no wrong, created wonders, and changed the character of Los Angeles and the United States.
It is also the story of the private flawed life of a remarkable public figure; the experiences of the children of such a figure; of coping with a blended family, a first wife gladly forgotten, and a stepmother so wildly different from my mother that I have been stuck wondering all my life why my father married my so-troubled mother and what he made of me, so clearly her offspring. It's the story of what it has been like all my life to be overshadowed by my hawkish mercurial saturnine charmer of a father.
Unlike my father I never completed my graduate work in theoretical mathematics although the work was easy for me. And I had to move 3,000 miles away to come into myself and grow into the person I wanted to be and others wanted to be around.
I admired my father; I survived my father; I cowered from my father; I never accomplished what my father did; and I was probably not what he wanted in a child.
I returned to that magnificent Arts+Crafts house by the Arroyo shortly after the Twin Towers came down. The move back to Pasadena had been delayed for a few weeks because of 9/11: moving vans had been limited in their ability to get onto the island of Manhattan.
I wouldn't move back to New York until the re-election campaign of Barack Obama; the move couldn't happen until after both my father and stepmother finally died.
As for Paulina, with whom I share this byline, she is my oldest friend. We have known each other since we were two; like the housekeeper in "Wuthering Heights", she has been observing my father and our family all along. When she approached me with the idea of writing this story from my point of view, I agreed. She's a writer (and is working on an art project); I'm a math and science tutor (and an artist). And so here we are.
How it was
My father was -at play- in the fields of what used to be called the American Century, that short period after World War II of reflexive thoughtless U.S confidence and hegemony. A souvenir print program in the archives of Al's papers that I donated to the Huntington Library was from an early 1960s NASA dinner in DC honoring three important contributors to the U.S. space program. Named were Werner Von Braun, James Van Allen (discoverer of the radiation belts that circle the earth) --- and Al Hibbs.
According to his "Times of London" obituary, Al's first job at JPL was to use probability to determine optimum burn-rates for rockets in horizontal flight. He later found out these equations had been needed for cruise-missile development. While the U.S. Army gave the contract to Caltech to administer JPL, Al hadn't known to what military ends his work might be applied.
In fact, my father participated in the 1963 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. Pugwash is the invite-only off-the-record select annual meeting of 250 science and policy people globally committed to disarmament. Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Pugwash is subject to the totalizing conspiracy theories that also surround the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Bohemian Grove.
For my father did spend five years in the mid-1960s on loan as staff scientist to the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, studying how arms control treaties could be monitored from space. There were senate testimonies and frequent flights to Washington DC. When I asked him over the dinner table what he was doing, he told me twice that it was classified and that was that --- although I later heard he ran into a fellow there named Henry Kissinger.
So how else was it around our dinner table?
In a word, dismal. And terrifying. There were always arguments and alcohol and my father scared me with his meanness. There were threats made to my mother about his infidelities (potential or actual, I never really could tell); bitter fights about ridiculous things like my mother's refusal to iron my father's shirts.
It may very well have been a time and a culture when men valued their work lives more than their home lives. But for my father it must have been no
contest: his working life where his endless inventiveness and being the radio and television voice of the Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager missions made use of both his broad and vast scientific abilities on top of his charm --- or coming home to my mother, the angry depressive who, when I came home from school, would be sitting in their darkened bedroom reading by one lamp with barely a greeting.
And neither my brother nor I were inheiritors of Al's famous winning ways or lanky good looks; show-pony children we were not. My grades were bad and my social life non-existent: I was the paradigmatic difficult kid enduring a Rotten Childhood, as is so often the lot of the offspring of meteorically accomplished narcissists.
A marker for how bad things were:
I saw a notice at the Pasadena Free Clinic of two women living in Hollywood advertising for an au pair. I was too young to drive and it didn't matter how skeevy the situation: running away from home to provide childcare while the associated mothers were out attempting to bed every African-American celebrity (blame them for their racist fetishizing) in Los Angeles (special focus on the Lakers) was better than being at home. I took the job.
No surprise, when my parents separated in 1969, it was with a maximum of mess. Initially my father moved out and I refused to visit him on
weekends: I was just that frightened of him.
When he moved back in and my mother moved out, she rented a small place in Venice, worked for six months for her pharmacist uncle --- and killed herself with vodka and pills stolen from the pharmacy, locking herself in her car in the Mojave where hunters ultimately found her.
How I received news of her death was by my father knocking on my door and saying "She's done it".
The letters she wrote to her brother and to Al's sister Agnes I was never allowed to read --- but basically I heard she blamed Al for everything.
Within five months the woman who would become my stepmother attended my high-school graduation with my father. Within a year she and my father had married and my mother was consigned to that dustbin of history where we can pretend bad relationships and difficult people never existed.
How it became
Al was a premature Burner. The gorgeous house off Orange Grove, purchased with both his and my stepmother's resources, was a never-ending sand-free playa for us kids in the blended family, our friends, and interesting other people (students and artists and JPL staffers) who drifted in. The house was the place to be when someone (Carl Sagan? Oranguntang conservator Birut Galdikas?) needed entertaining or funds raised. The annual costume parties were -famous- and written up by "Los Angeles Times"
columnist Jack Smith. Just as people today spend months getting their Burning Man gear together for their stay at Black Rock Desert, so did the costume-party attendees: Al spent a month making his Anubis God of the Dead jackal mask, copied from a book. And of course, Feynman came as God.
That house, and that life he created with my stepmother, was truly a festival gift economy.
And the creativity kept on coming: after he retired, he invented an underwater photography system involving multiple projectors.
How to sort this all out? I had been dismayed that my father so quickly after my mother's death gave my stepmother my mother's jewelry. My gamine strawberry blond stepmother, a bit in the mode of Nora Charles crossed with Molly Ivins, was so entirely different from my mother --- and me --- that I was in a perpetual state of armed truce. It wasn't at all clear I was -either- of their kind of person, not my father's nor my stepmother's.
Yet he was the only father I had, just as my mother, such as she had been, had been my only mother.
It was difficult to watch my stepmother's easy affectionate generous relationship with her son and daughter. Not only did I no longer have a mother, I had never had a mother who had that sort of bond with her children.
My step-siblings were popular golden Southern California kids; I was the sort of troubled young woman who threw (and broke) one of my stepmother's heirloom vases when yet another young man I was interested yet again chose my step-sister over me.
Yet even more perplexing, the household was now a so much more joyous, fun, and relaxed place because of my father's second marriage. But admitting that felt in some ways a betrayal of my fractious, bedeviled
--- and almost never spoken of again --- mother.
When I moved to New York for my undergraduate theater degree from NYU, I was sent home after a semester: I was considered too young, too vulnerable, and too troubled.
I did eventually return and graduate and then stay on to live in New York City. But ever after, whenever I came back home, I noticed the drinking more and more.
I timed my phone calls back home to arrive before 4pm Pasadena time because the person later on in the day was unpredictable, bombastic, and belligerent. The person earlier in the day was nice, gentle, and easy to talk to.
When, on a visit years later, I was starting to consider moving back to Pasadena to live with my father and stepmother (eldercare and personal despair were the two drivers) I remember watching them at the dining room table and observing how frail they had become.
Al had hit his head while staying at their place in Kauai and hadn't gotten it looked at until after his return to the mainland; at that point there had been several day's worth of bleeding on the brain and he would never be the same again. Forever after, he could have at most three back-and-forths in a conversation but then would lose the thread in impotent rage. So this brilliant guy, who was even better at fixing things around the house than most hired repair people, had only the mental and physical abilities that lent themselves to watching lots of television, in particular the "Law and Order" reruns ordinary mortals find refuge in when life is just too much. Only Al couldn't really understand even those any more.
I wondered: "Can I live with these two? Can I handle the responsibilty of being alone with these two fragile old people?" But it seemed like I was obliged to. My life in New York had spiraled in through too many years in too dark and cramped an apartment on top of too many failed relationships.
I had no family in New York and family was what I realized I had been needing. Al's head injury accelerated my move to Pasadena by a year and I was, as often the case with families dealing with eldercare, the best/only/logical family member to move in. I would become the person to supervise the household over and above the personal caregivers, the bookkeeper, and all the other staff required to keep sick old people in their large old high-maintenance home.
Managing eldercare is the quandary so many people of my generation are facing --- and old age and chronic illness come to everyone, even someone as distinguished as Al who, no, conquered neither time nor death.
How it ended
There's a lot to say about those 11 years I spent back in my hometown of Pasadena. But start here: the manner of my father's passing was in keeping with his life as a scientist. He chose the scientific yet risky path. He had become more and more impaired by his failing heart; he was told that he would die for sure without surgery but the surgery itself was risky. He had the operation --- and never came home from the hospital.
As I stood around at his memorial service, weepy like everyone else at all the great and wonderful things all the great and wonderful people were saying --- I also felt relief (and of course, guilt at that relief).
There can be all kinds of strange effects when you lose a parent of Al's intensity and impact. How your life changes after the death of such an overshadowing and powerful parent makes you realize how much you had been standing in that parent's penumbra. My sweet shy brother, who had previously only been on a handful of dates, was able to connect with the woman who would become his wife within two years after Al's death.
Adhering to a similar and as unconscious a timetable, I, too, entered into the best and longest-standing relationship of my life around two years after Al's death. At the age of 50, for the first time in my life, I began cohabiting with a partner.
My father would have been pleased with both of these developments but somehow they couldn't seem to have happened during his lifetime.
While my father had applied to be an astronaut he never became one. So when former astronaut Buzz Aldrin was famously quoted on the front cover of a 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review "You promised me Mars colonies.
Instead I got Facebook." I have to consider how lucky Al was to have lived when he did -- and also, to have died when he did.
Victoria Hibbs serves on the board of the Art Students League in New York City, where she paints and maintains a math and science tutorial practice.
Paulina Borsook is a Northern California writer whose other work-in-progress is "My Life as a Ghost", a mixed-media art project about certain aspects of Traumatic Brain Injury.