Ernest Baldini started out as a bullied kid in Detroit, and he could have easily slipped into a life of mediocrity. Instead, he chose a different path—making careful decisions and working hard to eventually become a rocket scientist. Along the way, he survived World War II and learned that money is not the key to fulfilling dreams; instead, it’s only another tool to use in building dreams.
Over the course of eighty years and a series of carefully considered choices, he set the bar high in a bid to reach the heavens. Although he rubbed elbows and collaborated with some of the century’s greatest scientists and engineers, his life parallels the lives of millions of other Americans whose years have been clouded by wars, disasters, booms, and busts.
Take a trip through history, enjoy modest adventures, and relish the tales of a man with a romantic heart whose love for life never wavered in A Twentieth-Century Argonaut.
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A Twentieth-Century Argonaut
One Man's Quest for an American Dream
By Ernest Baldini
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Ernest Baldini
All rights reserved.
To be Bullied or Better?
It was 1934 and I was eight years old and taking my first elevator ride. My mother, father and I were in the Penobscot Building in Detroit headed for the upper-floor offices of an ophthalmologist. The reason: to have my crossed eye "straightened" in an in-office procedure. The starts and stops of our ascent were slightly nauseating me, and I clutched my parents' hands tightly as I pondered the impending operation. We arrived at our floor and walked into the dark wood-paneled offices of the eye doctor. As they led me to the operating table, the window view from the height of the skyscraper added to my nausea. I was scared and trembling as they collectively prepared me for the surgery.
The concept of this procedure was to correct this strabismus by pulling the side muscle of the crossed eye into straightness. This action was to be performed concurrent with my observations of an eye chart. I look back on that 1934 medical science as the best available for the time and a loving action by my parents, who had spent hard-earned money in the middle of the Great Depression. The procedure was not a complete success and for the rest of my life I never told my mother and father of the failings.
In the weeks that followed, my eye healed and I was fitted for glasses. The frames were of steel and the lenses were thick but I could see and read very well. To an eight year old, that was OK. But soon, I began to experience the down side. "Hey, four eyes, catch the ball, dummy!" was the taunt as other kids would test my young athleticism by throwing a very fast baseball at me. The same was true when I was at bat. Still deeper were the feelings when there was a scrub game forming and players were being chosen. As one would expect, I was always one of the last to be chosen by reluctant captains.
I did not realize at the time that building inside my brain was the idea that I would find some way to show these bullies what I could do well. I did turn to my parents, and to my close friends, for some counsel on these matters, and their help bonded me to them for life. Dad pitched many a ball to me, Mom counseled me after incidents of rejection, and my close childhood friends shared their similar experiences with me.
One of the ways I found to cope with this social sadness was, obviously, to study hard and get good grades. Still, my effort had its downside when I was called the hackneyed term "teachers pet". I learned quickly that the taunters were covering their failures. Good grades made teachers notice me, and so in the remaining years in grade school I was often picked to lead whatever class program was happening. I was usually reluctant and not happy with the extra work of leading but I accepted it, knowing my parents would not approve of me being shy and reticent. It was the beginning of a trait of accepting leadership, reluctantly, and then performing well.
Since baseball was a sport that always reminded me of the taunts, I usually just watched the games. Meanwhile I found basketball when I got my first summer job at a YMCA. My task was to keep the gym equipment in order and repair. I began to shoot baskets whenever I had time. I realized that "four-eyes" was making swish shots from the corner. One of my teacher-counselors in Hi-Y coached me along in dribbling and passing. While I never made the junior or senior high school varsities, I slowly shed, among my peers, the taunts and bullying, and was often picked early for scrub basketball teams. I always watched for other "four-eyed" kids and helped build their self-esteem.
At this period in my young teen life I was undergoing another learning experience of which I was unaware. Saturday afternoon movies that I frequently attended were a set of morality plays about the bad guys, the heroes, the rescuing forces coming over the hill, and the protection of the damsel in distress.
Great Depression kids were used to receiving only one present for Christmas, and one year mine was a chemistry set. I became enthralled with science and Buck Rogers in space. I experimented with chemicals that were dangerous and burned holes in our back yard concrete driveway. Fascinated with such power, I began to draw rocket ships, read every space ship comic book that I could find, and yearned to get to high school and take science classes. Yet I had no idea I would someday be a rocket scientist.
I was fortunate that my father, who had become an auto production line wizard, kept his job through the depressed years. He was a great engineer, without a degree, who learned through correspondence schools. He tutored me well in many fundamentals of good design, cost control, quality assurance, and, most of important of all, critical thinking.
We young ones in the neighborhood did not, at the time, know the dreaded Mafia was so close, next door. My mother and father, proud law-abiding Italian-American parents, did not allow us to mix with the children from that house. I recall the big, black sedans and touring cars in which the bosses would come and go. Later in my army days, while wielding a submachine gun, I realized why they always wore large, long overcoats.
As I grew, my mother's family of sisters and their families had migrated together in Detroit. We would have Sunday dinners together with discussions about politics, war, religion, and people. I learned much from my elders at those events. The stereotype of an Italian family had emerged in our society and I realized how ours was in juxtaposition to those other Italian-Americans. Our family's men were honest, dedicated men: a lawyer, an accountant, a civil engineer, and my Dad. I remembered all my life my father saying, "Son, it will take a lot of Baldinis to counter what those bastards (the Mafia) have done."CHAPTER 2
It was a gloomy and overcast day, and our bunker was damp with humidity and sweat. I was assigned sniper duty at the rim trench, to watch for the enemy to raise their heads. Then, terrified, I saw and centered one of them in my gunsight, and pulled the trigger.... POW!.... the rubber gun shot its energy at my neighbor buddy, just as my mother called me for lunch from the vacant lot that separated our house from the one next door. My friends and I were beginning to emulate the armies battling with the Nazis in faraway Europe. Soldiers yes, but we were careful to not imitate gangsters.
That summer while in New York with my parents, I witnessed the reality of the Nazi logo. I was with some cousins and hearing a loud, steady drone, everyone began to look up, pointing at a giant dirigible slowly crossing the area. It was the transoceanic German zeppelin Hindenburg heading toward the U. S. Navy airbase at Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was startling to see an actual Nazi swastika on a giant German airship. I was not old enough to realize the airship used hydrogen for lift, or to have any idea that someday I, and my son, would be in the forefront of flight using that same element in rockets, and that I would know, in the first person, the immigrant Germans who would lead the launch of a giant rocket to the moon.
I remember the anguish and horror of the radio broadcast when, on one of its next visits, May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg exploded at Lakehurst as it moored. I thought of the dangers my father experienced when, as a young mechanic in 1919, he served on the ground crew at Roosevelt Field, New York, for the mooring of the hydrogen-filled British dirigible R-34.
As time passed, leadership opportunities in school coupled with discipline by my parents, and bolstered by films from Hollywood, were continuing to contribute to the formation of my character. The movie industry was slowly motivating America toward action in the war in Europe. Every film had a message, honor and integrity were highlights, and fairness and democracy were evident in every portrayal of a citizen meeting. Filthy four letter words did not yet emanate from Hollywood.
My parents took me to the 1939 New York World's Fair. The theme structure was the Trylon and Perisphere. The Trylon resembled the present day TransAmerica building in San Francisco and the Perisphere had a Walt Disney World Epcot earth look. What so impressed me was that inside the Perisphere was a world of the future in miniature. Visitors were presented with a panoramic view of an American landscape, complete with superhighways, and modernistic buildings. Every time I look down on present day America while in flight, I see that same fair view. Perhaps President Eisenhower did also, and later, so ordered the Interstate Highway System into being. It was a vision of my dream America that was still to come but also a harbinger of an automotive stampede that would dissect cities and towns.
My paternal grandfather was with us that day. He had participated in some of the startling beginnings of the twentieth century, amongst them, flight. As a cabinetmaker apprentice, in Italy, he had helped produce wooden propellers for Louis Bleriot's planes, one of which was the first to fly the English Channel. The specter of war hung over that World's Fair, especially the German and Italian participation. When we went into the Italian building, there stood a larger-than-life statute of Mussolini. My grandfather, a lifelong student of Italian republican politics, raised his cane in anger at the figure, and was frowned upon by two Fascist black-shirted guards. We had to pull him away as he hurled curses at the black marble statute. The passion he had for his politics impressed me that day and I took on some of his character. In visits to see him later in my life, I learned, through his broken English, of his pride in his work, and his sense of ethics.
One other event involving the fair, that I recalled with amazement years later, was visiting the AT&T exhibit. A voice encoder with a keyboard was demonstrated by a young woman. She asked my name and then I heard it called out in low, baritone mechanical speech from the machine. This invention was the forerunner of a secret cryptographic device that would greatly aid the winning of World War II.
At my grade school, which was built to resemble Independence Hall in Philadelphia, my history teacher, Mr. Freeman, a kind Jewish man, was periodically bringing us stories about his relatives escaping from persecution in Germany. His tales kept us aware of the menace building in Europe, and our young minds wondered why America didn't react to that.
As the coming war rumbled in the distance across the sea, the echoes of the previous one were still evident in our neighborhood. One of my girl friends, a Heidi-like Teutonic beauty of German parents, went home each day to a father who was a veteran of the Kaiser's German army. I didn't realize at the time that this German immigrant, and my father, were part of the automobile industry that grew and the war effort that emerged as part of a great migration from Europe. It was composed of machinists and tool-and-die makers. They came from Bohemia, Bavaria, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. While their agricultural brethren settled the great plains, they settled Detroit, Dayton, Toledo, and the other industrial cities.
In the growing conflicts of 1939 and on, Dad was busy with engineering development of the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber belly turret, and with other weapons manufacturing, supplying the allied nations efforts in Europe in the war against the Nazis. Mom was dutifully collecting scrap aluminum, cans, and other commodities important to a war effort, and cooking meals with rationed foods. I knew America would be in a war over there within a year or two. As youths in junior and senior high school, the war loomed large in our lives and throttled the usual teen-age carefree life style. The boys of my generation began to focus on what they would do in the military.
Living near the Canadian border, we were aware that the U. S. Coast Guard had been busy chasing smugglers during the Prohibition era but by 1939 it was organizing for war. It had to form an auxiliary to help with its duties. Dad had a friend who owned a thirty-foot boat moored at one of the Detroit River marinas, and he would often take me to it. I remembered that his friend was a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The idea took root in my brain to emerge twenty years later with significant consequences.
Dad bought a 1941 DeSoto car and it became part of a life-long memory when one of my buddies and I were driving it on Cadieux Road in east Detroit on Sunday afternoon, December 7th, 1941. We were listening to Glenn Miller big band swing music on the car radio. The station broke the show, and an announcer reported that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I pulled over to the curb. We both were stunned, and suddenly aware our lives were going to change, and quickly.
Congress declared war immediately. We, as a nation, seemed to me to be so unprepared in the early forties and I remember the pride we all took in Jimmy Doolittle's air raid on Tokyo in 1942. I would meet him personally twenty-some years later and would so tell him.
As history unfolded, my December 7th pal was badly wounded on Iwo Jima as a Marine, pinned down for three days with legs full of shrapnel, and Glenn Miller died in an airplane crash in Europe over the English Channel. We were at war, as I had imagined we'd be.
My father had a strong work ethic and decreed that I get a part time job to help with home expenses and wartime prices. He wanted me to experience the thrill of receiving wages for work done. The first job I had was at a prototype of the modern supermarket. My task was stock clerk, moving groceries from cartons in the store rear to shelves out front. I learned merchandising and learned why vendors position their products so carefully. My second job was pumping gas at the corner station. It was a hot and dirty job but gave me skills in dealing with customers, minor repairs to cars, and watching the owner run his business. When I fuel up at our modern stations I often think about those days.
I wanted a job with a cooler and cleaner environment and I found one working at a haberdashery. I helped customers pick out shirts and ties, and even got good at selling fedoras, and my skill using the cash register had been noticed by the manager. One afternoon, he told me he had a medical appointment and said I was ready to close the store that night. I was so proud. It is still one of my fondest memories. As time progressed, my high school extracurricular activities increased, and my time for after-school work waned.CHAPTER 3
Big Man on Campus?
Having navigated with As and Bs through the grades up to the tenth, at age fifteen I found myself as a freshman in a 4500 student high school, suddenly surrounded with scholars and laboratories. I joined clubs and activities, reluctantly accepting leadership roles, and studied hard in order to qualify if and when I had to go into the service of my country, in hopes for an officer commission.
Our homeroom, or study hall, was one of a set of three for boys. Ours had the unusual name of "House of the Twentieth Century Argonauts". We often wondered if someday a student named Jason would be one of us. The Golden Fleece seemed too ancient and mythical to matter to our young minds.
I enrolled in journalism class, an elective, and acquired an editorship on the school newspaper. At that early age, I learned the power of the written word, format of a good news story, the duty of a free press, the skills of headline writing, page layout, and most of all, the prevention of ambiguity in written and spoken language. The prevention of ambiguity was to become vital to my career later in my life as an aerospace launch operations engineer
In 1943, I was chosen by the student council to attend Wolverine Boys State at Michigan State College for a week of mock state government and there I was appointed editor of the daily newspaper published for the attendees. A graduate student advisor was assigned to give us guidance. His name was Jerry terHorst. Later in life he became press secretary to President Ford, then resigned that post in protest when Ford pardoned President Nixon after the Watergate debacle. Having been under his guidance for that week, I was not surprised at his action so many years later. At the end of the Boys State week when we arrived back in downtown Detroit we found the National Guard on full weapons alert, and a machine gun nest in Grand Circus Park. It was because of a race riot. It was hard for my idealistic young mind to comprehend.
Commensurate with my scholarliness, I realized my resume was lacking athletics, and after a short time as swim team student manager, I ran cross-country in an intramural track meet and was noticed by the varsity coach. My dream of being a jock became reality, and soon I was wearing the coveted varsity letter on a cardigan sweater with two-year arm stripes. That began my running and, like Forrest Gump, it never stopped, as I jogged well into my sixties. That action along with hiking and mountaineering built in me a heart, and lungs, that would carry me into my, at this writing, late eighties.
Excerpted from A Twentieth-Century Argonaut by Ernest Baldini. Copyright © 2013 Ernest Baldini. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 To be Bullied or Better?, 1,
Chapter 2 War Clouds, 5,
Chapter 3 Big Man on Campus?, 10,
Chapter 4 You're in the Army Now, 13,
Chapter 5 Chicago, Chicago, 19,
Chapter 6 Love Lost and Found, 23,
Chapter 7 See the USA, 29,
Chapter 8 And The Rockets Red Glare, 34,
Chapter 9 Prelude to Space, 42,
Chapter 10 Console to Desk, 52,
Chapter 11 Time and Space for God and Family, 59,
Chapter 12 How High the Moon?, 63,
Chapter 13 Volunteer is a Verb, 66,
Chapter 14 The Ascent of Man, 71,
Chapter 15 Integrate, Transfer & Launch (ITL), 78,
Chapter 16 The Descent of Man, 82,
Chapter 17 Forty-Nine Out of Fifty, 86,
Chapter 18 Hurricane Andrew, 91,
Chapter 19 Cancer!, 95,
Chapter 20 Last Tourist to Alaska, 98,
Chapter 21 No Place Like Home, 106,
Chapter 22 Subdivisions and Country Clubs, 109,
Chapter 23 End of Life is an Industry, 113,