Riding the Elevator with Neil Armstrong

July 20, 2012

Forty-three years ago today, a painfully shy fellow from Wapakoneta, Ohio stepped down from a short ladder onto an alien landscape, and into the pages of history…..

When I was barely eighteen years old, I started my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering. I chose the school for several practical reasons and one very emotional one. From a practical standpoint, the school made sense: UC had recently built a huge engineering research center, investing millions of dollars in computer equipment. I had been offered a scholarship in chemical engineering that would cover about 50% of my total costs, and since the school was close to home, my travel back and forth would also be inexpensive. But the one fact about the University of Cincinnati that really got my blood flowing was this: Neil Armstrong had recently accepted a professorship at the college.

This all took place in 1974, only five short years after “one small step.” If you’re much younger than fifty, I doubt you can appreciate the degree to which I wanted to meet the commander of Apollo 11. I’d been a fan of the U.S. manned space program since I could remember, and Neil represented the pinnacle of our achievements in that endeavor. So, of course, I enrolled at UC and awaited my brush with greatness.

It was with great dismay that, upon my arrival at Dabney Hall, the freshman dorm, I found a slip of paper in my mailbox that addressed the very thoughts that had been coursing through my brain. It was a notice to all students that Professor Armstrong, a “very private individual,” had specifically requested not to be approached for any reasons not directly related to classroom work. I was crestfallen! I discussed the note with my newfound friends in the dorm, and we were puzzled, to say the least.  I quickly found that I was only one of many who’d come there with the hope of meeting the first man to walk on the moon. A few of the freshmen were  already placing bets on who’d be the first to speak to him, but the notice had put a damper on this activity.

I simply tried not to think about it, and got serious about preparing for the first day of class.  On Sunday, I walked from the dorm to Rhodes Hall, the site of my 8 am chemistry class. That class would be over at  9 am, after which I had Professor McDonough’s engineering drawing class. Getting there required me to sprint down two floors of stairs, exit Rhodes Hall onto the plaza, cross the plaza, down another flight of stairs, cross underneath the plaza, enter the new engineering complex, and ride the elevator up six floors to my destination. I had ten minutes to accomplish this. Not a problem.  I was ready.

On the first day of class, I sat through Chem 101 with no surprises.  The class was my favorite, and I felt confident about getting a good grade. I had pretty much cleared my mind of any expectations about meeting Neil – after all, he didn’t want to be bothered, and I had important things to think about.

Then, class was over, and I was taking the stairs at top speed, booking across the plaza, down the steps, and into the elevator – and coming to a dead stop.

As I stepped into the elevator, I saw a tall, lanky, well-dressed man facing the wall near the bank of buttons. It was him. As I reached for the panel to push “6”, he turned very briefly to face me.  “Excuse me, sir,” I said as I pressed the button. He responded only with a nod, then turned back to face the wall.

Wednesday was the next day that I had to follow that route to class, and as I rounded the bend into the elevator, there he was again. This time, he looked up, nodded, and remained facing forward. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to spook him at this point. He nodded again as I left the elevator.

Friday, as I headed toward that elevator again, I was highly doubtful of seeing Professor Armstrong again. The chances of my timing being that good were just too slim.  But sure enough, there he was, and this time, I spoke. “Good morning, Professor Armstrong.” He looked a little uncomfortable, but then he responded with that voice I’d heard on TV from 240,000 miles away: “Good morning, are you an engineering student here?”  “Yes sir, I’m a freshman in chemical engineering.”  “Well, I guess you won’t be in any of my classes, but I hope you enjoy it here.  All the engineering programs here are well-respected.” “Thank you, sir.”

At that moment, I was about as tongue-tied as Ralphie standing before Santa in “The Christmas Story.” I wanted to tell him how much I believed in the space program, and how much his personal exploits had affected my attitude, fueled my own efforts to be the best student in my class, and helped me to get right where I was at that moment. But I couldn’t. Between his shyness, my shyness and hero-worship, and that damned slip of paper, I never got those words out. So here they are, Neil.  I hope you get a chance to read them, and to appreciate the effect you had on tens of thousands of young engineers in those days.

Interestingly enough, I got to ride the elevator with Neil a lot of times over the following ten weeks.  He never said much after that.  But he always remembered my floor and pressed “6” when I got on.


Eagles in the Crosshairs – of My Telescope

April 16, 2010

Here's one way to get a close-up view - use a telescope!

The C-6 with telextender provides a 3000mm f/20 telephoto

I arrived at the viewing site just after 8 a.m. this morning.  The light was glorious, but a look at the Accuweather website assured me that it wouldn’t last, nor would the perfect weather.  Rain was expected around 9:00, accompanied by high winds and a precipitous drop in temperature.  But for the moment, everything was perfect.  I dragged out my largest Manfrotto tripod, equipped with a fluid head designed for large camcorders, and mounted my Celestron C-6 astronomical telescope.  I attached my Nikon N60 35mm film camera to a T-adapter and screwed it in place on the telescope.  This gave me an f/10 1500mm telephoto lens – lots of magnification, but limited to bright conditions.  I figured on having about 45 minutes of light, if I was lucky.

Just as I got the camera mounted, the female eagle (I think) came flying toward the nest.  I had taken a couple of pictures of the male inside the nest, but only his head was visible.   Over the next 45 seconds, I got a couple of usable shots.  Then it was over.  The female dropped a large stick into the nest, hopped up onto the edge, and flew off.

For the next hour and 15 minutes, I waited for the eagle’s return, expecting the clouds, wind, and rain to descend upon us at any minute.  While waiting, I mounted a 2x telextender between the scope and the camera body, providing a few shots at a 3000mm focal length in which the frame couldn’t hold the entire image of the nest.

These shots aren’t the best, but they do show more detail than any I’ve taken at this site before.  Eventually, the female eagle arrived again, this time with food.  I got a few more shots, and as the rain held off, I was able to stay at the site until nearly 10:00 a.m.  By this time, the clouds were descending, and I got packed up just in time to beat the rain.  Here are a few of the photos:

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Eagle-Watching on Mentor Marsh

April 11, 2010

Mama's taking a rest before embarking on a hunt for food

An eagle’s nest is still a rare thing to see in this day and age, so when we heard that there was a mated pair of eagles nesting in the Mentor Marsh, Sally and I decided to see if we could get a few photos.  We found the location of the nest easily – it’s quite visible from Rt. 44 near Headlands Beach State Park.  The Mentor Marsh is home to numerous wildlife species, but this pair of eagles are recent residents.  They first nested here last year, according to a local photographer that I met today at the site.   Approaching an eagle’s nest is highly illegal, as they are still endangered, so I want to stress that these photos were taken from FAR away.  As a result, the digital shots are pretty low quality – I had to use a digital zoom factor of 48x to get them.

I also took a few film photos with my old Nikon and a 300mm zoom with a 2x telextender, providing an effective focal length of 600mm.  I haven’t got these photos scanned yet, but I’ll add them to this post when I get them.

It’s really quite moving to see our national symbol in the wild.  Let’s hope that bald eagles are around for a long time!

Out and about

Dad is doing much of the babysitting

Here's a closer shot of the female eagle

Preparing for takeoff!

A Winter Photo Gallery

February 28, 2010

Gulls fly over the open water at the power plant discharge

At least once during the dead of each winter, Sally and I take an urban safari: a sojourn into the icy wilderness of the Cleveland  lakeshore.   Lake Erie is always home to a variety of wildlife, and trudging through the snow is a good way to see it in the wintertime.  The gallery below is a small sampling of what we saw.  Click on the thumbnails to see the enlarged photos.

Our trip was quite short, only a few hours in total, but in that short time we encountered several uncommon sights:

The power plant discharge downtown is a great place to watch waterfowl in the wintertime, and this was a great day to watch ducks, gulls, mergansers, scaup, and geese as they competed for the fish swarming about in the warm water.  I’m not very experienced as a birdwatcher, so I couldn’t begin to identify the wide variety of birds we saw.  Only a short distance away from this warm water oasis, the gulls were walking about on the frozen lake.

A short hop away, the Wildwood Marina was a frozen wonderland.  The shoreline was bordered by huge ice dunes, formed by frozen spray blown up on the sand to accumulate in large piles.  These dunes are more commonly found around Presque Isle State Park, near Erie, PA.  I’ve never seen them here before.

A truly strange sight on this winter’s day was a couple of ultralight pilots flying over the marina – I hope they were heavily dressed, because it was pretty cold even at ground level.

Our little jaunt outdoors was a real cure for cabin fever.  Try it sometime, you may be very pleasantly surprised!

Christmas Toys for Boys in the 60’s

December 19, 2009

Christmas in the 60’s was a great time for toys.  The “space race” was upon us and toys for little boys were often geared toward military and space exploration themes.  And of course, there were toys based on TV series just as there are today.  So, for you oldsters out there, how many of you lusted after one or more of these great toys:

 Remco Products (see the full list on Wikipedia)

  •  1960 Whirlybird Helicopter
  • 1961 Johnny Reb Cannon
  • 1961 Mighty Matilda Aircraft Carrier
  • 1961 Shark Remote Control Race Car
  • 1963 Barracuda Submarine
  • 1963 USMC Bazooka
  • 1963 Super Car
  • 1964 Hamilton Invaders
  • 1964 Munsters
  • 1966 Batman Wrist Radios
  • 1965 Bulldog Army Tank
  • 1965 Duffy’s Daredevils
  • 1965 Kennedy Airport Air Traffic Control Center
  • 1965 Screaming Mee Mee-e Rifle
  • 1966 Lost in Space Robot
  • 1967 Mighty Mike Motorized Trucks
  • 1967 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Sub sets

 I had the bazooka and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea playset.  I also remember the Sgt. Saunders Tommy Gun from the Combat! TV series as a real favorite of mine – many imaginary Nazis bit the dust in our playtime patrols down on Second Street in Greenfield.  

 Three other toys still shine bright in my memory:

 Fireball XL5 – the space ship flown by Steve Zodiac and his ship’s doctor and love interest, Dr. Venus.  His co-pilot was a robot named Robert, and their commander at headquarters was Mike Mercury.  The series ran on TV every Saturday starting in 1962.  The show was produced entirely through puppetry (called Supermarionation) by the husband and wife team of Gerry and   Sylvia Anderson, best remembered for Thunderbirds and Space 1999.   The playset from 1963 featured the ship and all the main characters – I got two of them the on same Christmas! 

One of two XL5 playsets I received for Christmas in 1963

For those of you who remember the series, check out this link for a real hoot! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXGGuqXB8h4&feature=PlayList&p=0B90F3E9064A759E&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=20

And of course, there was the famous Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army), released in 1964.  The Johnny Seven was a multi-function weapon that worked as a grenade launcher, Anti-tank rocket, Armor-piercing shell/Anti-bunker missile, Repeating rifle, Tommy gun, Automatic pistol, and Bipod-mounted rifle.  This was the toy that Myron the postal worker (played by Sinbad) lamented in the movie Jingle All the Way.  Myron blamed all his problems on the fact that he didn’t get a Johnny Seven O.M.A. for Christmas when he was a child.  Honestly, I remember the toy, but I didn’t know anyone who actually got one for Christmas.  Here’s a link to the TV commercial.

And way back in 1961, there was Jimmy Jet – Although I didn’t own one of these, a friend did, and I remember it well.  A jet cockpit, with steering wheel and lighted control panel, the central screen had a backlighted scrolling landscape with the figure of a jet superimposed.  You steered to move the jet from side to side onscreen as the landscape rolled past.  Actually, it’s easier to show it than to describe it – here’s the commercial.   To kids back then, it was exciting….today, not so much.

 So, when you’re out shopping for your kids, looking at Nintendo DSi’s and iPods, just imagine what it was like in the days when you could bring a child’s Christmas dreams to life for less than ten bucks!  Merry Christmas to all, and I hope Santa brings you that Johnny Seven O.M.A.!!

Gone with the Wind’s Most Controversial Performance

December 16, 2009

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” an unforgettable movie based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell.   Having seen the movie many times in my life, I watched it again last night with no expectations whatsoever.  I have become ashamed to enjoy this film, for it is clearly racist in practically every scene and characterization.  And yet, watching the film for the umpteenth time, I became fascinated with a truly moving performance: Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of the servant Mammy.

Hattie took amazing amounts of flak for accepting the role, both before and after the film’s release.  Chief among her tormentors was the NAACP, whose president urged her to turn the role down while simultaneously lobbying David O. Selznick to hire an African American cultural advisor to the film.   Cast member Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) called her a sellout.  Practically all of Hattie’s roles were maids or servants of some sort.  Her response to criticism: “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.”  At least part of her willingness to play Mammy had to come from the fact that she was paid $450 a week to do so.   That was a lot of money for anyone to earn in 1939.

The role of Mammy was criticised as degrading by many, including the NAACP

And yet, her performance in the role brought a humanity, a depth, a strength to the character that no scriptwriter could have envisioned.  Her character is a very strong woman, despite the fact that, having nowhere to go after the war, she opts to stay with her white “family” in the same capacity she held as a slave.  Her monologue about the death of Bonnie Butler and its aftermath, delivered to Melanie upon the stairs to Rhett’s bedroom, is heart-rending to the extreme.  When I heard it last night, I finally understood why Hattie won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  When she accepted that award, she became not only the first African American to win an Academy Award; she became the first African American ever to attend the awards banquet.  Perhaps this was some consolation for her having been barred from attending the premiere of the film in Atlanta, where the theatres were segregated.  And yet even then, when Clark Gable announced that if the black actors couldn’t attend the premiere, then neither would he, it was Hattie McDaniel who persuaded him to attend “for the good of the film.” 

Hattie never entirely lived down the criticism that rained down after “Gone with the Wind,” and her movie roles became fewer and further between throughout the 1940’s.  She returned to her radio roots as “Beulah” (the first African American woman in a leading role on a radio show intended for a wide audience) shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1952.

Hattie was protrayed on a postage stamp in 2006 as part of the Black Heritage Series

Think what you will about her acceptance of “degrading” roles, her “selling out” for money over principle, or whatever else her critics have called it.  She was a pioneer, a great actress who not only went where none of her peers had gone before, but who made the rest of us feel joy and pain right along with her.   She blazed the trail for many who came later.

Targus Compact Lap Desk Review

December 2, 2009

One of the aggravations of business travel is the sheer inconvenience of having to place your laptop computer on, um, your lap.  Laptops really don’t lend themselves to being propped up on your thighs while you simultaneously attempt to balance the laptop, type coherently, and avoid knocking over that Starbuck’s cup that’s sitting on the floor between your feet. 

Solutions to this problem abound.  Not good ones, but solutions nonetheless:  laptop stands with telescoping legs that fold up to fit inside your briefcase (barely leaving room for your computer);   hunks of masonite with padding on the bottom that are so bulky they can barely fit into your carry-on luggage; books (too small); clipboards (slippery and too small to boot); and all sorts of other nonsensical and nonfunctional ideas that you can find on any day at any airport in the country.  In addition to being impractical, most of these things have no place to put a mouse, and I’m not that fond of touchpads, even after years of using them.  My little wireless Microsoft mouse needs a place to run!

This little annoyance reared its ugly head again when I began to write this blog.  I generally try to write in the evenings, when I’m comfortably ensconced in my recliner in front of the TV.  I definitely need a lap desk, and it has to be easy to set aside when I leap up during commercials for a quick trip to the loo.   Well, when we returned from our Thanksgiving travels, there was a package sitting in front of the door.   It was from Targus, a company that specializes in bags, computer gadgets and other gear for road warriors.  I’d hate to think how many dollars I’ve spent on their stuff over the years, and with good reason, because it’s useful, sturdy, and worth the price.  The last time I filled out a registration card for a product of theirs, I checked the box to indicate an interest in evaluating future products.  In response, they sent me a Targus Compact Lap Desk for review.  For the last several days, I’ve been using it regularly, so here are my impressions.  The photos below were swiped from the Targus website:

Fig. 1 - Targus Compact Lap Desk

Fig. 2 - The Lap Desk folded for use as a stand


I was admittedly skeptical when I removed the lap desk from its package.  It is extremely light, so light that you might be concerned about its ability to support the weight of a laptop.  The card in the package says, “Fits laptops up to 17”, which would seem to be a tall order given that this thing is folded in the middle.  In fact, it’s quite sturdy and flexes very little in use.  My laptop weighs 5-1/2 pounds, and when centered on the lap desk, is perfectly supported.  It also stays nicely in place, thanks to the eight non-skid rubber pads around the periphery of the desk.  These pads also serve another important purpose: when your mouse is on one of the mouse pad areas to the left or right of the laptop, the rubber pads “trap” the mouse at the top and bottom to keep it from sliding off of the lap desk.  Everything stays in place with little effort.  The corner pads also serve as protection, to keep the rigid platform edges from digging into your wrist as you use the mouse. 

The mouse pad areas are a bit small, but I’ve found them generally adequate for my needs.  One small complaint:  the mouse pad itself is nicely matte finished, but it’s bounded by glossy black, so if you slip past the boundaries of the matte area, your mouse may go haywire as it passes over the glossy surface.  My cursor shot all over the screen when this happened.  But after a couple of occurrences, I became accustomed to staying inside the lines, and it ceased to be a problem.

Folding the lap desk in half allows you to use it as a stand to support your laptop at an angle on a desk or table (Fig. 2).  There is a brace with adjustable stops to set the keyboard angle, and the vent slots improve cooling by promoting air circulation around the computer.  These slots are also helpful when the unit is on your lap in unfolded mode.    When folded flat, the lap desk is less than 5/8” thick, and weighs about nineteen ounces.  It fits easily in a computer bag, and the weight, though not inconsequential, is worth carrying.

All in all, the engineering of this simple device has to be experienced to be appreciated.  I’ve found it to be very useful, with very few quirks.  But one question still comes to mind: is this chunk of plastic worth thirty bucks?   In my opinion, it is.  One issue that has always been raised about Targus products is that they are expensive, and I can’t argue with that.  But as a long-time road warrior myself, I can only say that their products typically don’t break, and that makes them worth more than the flimsy junk with which they compete in the marketplace.  Targus understands that a travel product has to stand up to hard use without failing in service, so they invest extra engineering time and put premium materials in their products.   They earn the extra bucks that they charge, and their success is a result of that effort.

The Targus Compact Lap Desk sells for $29.95.  Check it out at http://www.targus.com/us/product_details.aspx?sku=AWE56US

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