LaRC, and what my father did there

My dad spent more than 30 years, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, at NASA Langley Research Center, which turns 100 this year. During that time he worked on Apollo-adjacent technologies, atmospheric and environmental satellite based sensors, and diagnostic equipment for hypersonic jet engines.

That’s a grossly inadequate description of what he worked on. I got to know his work on coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy and its applications to high temperature sensors pretty well, because that’s what he was working on when I was in high school. And I’m old enough to remember his overnight or weekend trips to Wallops Island to fly missions to measure ocean environmental characteristics with lasers in the late 1970s, before funding for NASA environmental research was cut during the Reagan years. But he was also at the center when it was a hotspot of research for the Apollo program. I’ve driven by the huge concrete pad dwarfed by towering girders above where Neil Armstrong practiced manually steering the Apollo landing craft to a safe touchdown—skills he ended up using for Apollo XI.

Looking forward to watching this documentary about the center (narrated by none other than William Shatner) with my kids, if I can just get them to sit still long enough.

More on my grandfather and World War I

As expected, when I started posted family history, I started getting clarifications and corrections from my family. (Thanks, Dad!) Following my post about my grandfather’s close brush with World War I, my dad emailed me to say that Papa Olin had actually been in Officer Candidate School at Tusculum College. As a newly minted second lieutenant, he would have been sent off to the front lines. Fortunately the war ended before that could happen.

I’m now hunting for documentary evidence of his time at Tusculum. Unfortunately I can’t find any online records from that period—no issues of the Tusculana, no records of OCS participation, nothing in Ancestry.com’s military databases. If anyone can recommend a place to look, I’d appreciate it.

My grandfather, enlisted man

Olin Jarrett circa 1918, photo scanned by Esta

As mentioned, we know (thanks to photos like this and a uniform folded away in an attic for seventy years) that my grandfather (Papa Olin) was going to be called up for a war that, mercifully, ended before he could see service. Unfortunately that’s about all we know.

His name doesn’t show up in the military records I can see on Ancestry.com. It’s possible he was only called up locally and then his records were destroyed before the Army got them. I don’t know.

But the pictures of this scientific farmer in his World War I uniform remain a little bit of a mystery.

Papa Olin in his uniform, from 1918

The Colors of My Rainbow

When I was a little kid—I mean, probably seven or eight years old—we were visiting my grandparents in Paradise, PA. My Pop-Pop liked to play music for us, generally the radio but often a tape that he had gotten from his work at Spectrum Fidelity Magnetics. And this time he had a kid’s album, “The Colors of My Rainbow.”

That album, by a kid’s musician named Joe Wayman, squirmed its way into my psyche through repeated listenings in cassette players at home, Pop-Pop’s, and in our car on long trips between Newport News and Paradise. Having grown up on a diet of my mom’s kid’s music, much of which dated to her days as a music teacher in the 1950s and 1960s (think “Tubby the Tuba”), the smart-assery around the edges of “Recipe for Red” and “Mellow Yellow Coot” appealed to me. But maybe most of all, the melancholy in “Brown’s the Saddest Color” hit the bullseye of my soul. I still remember the lyrics to many of the songs.

Other than half remembered snatches of the songs floating through my head, I wasn’t able to find the music. But then this morning I decided to Google the lyrics I remembered. And there was a full playlist of the album on YouTube (misattributed to “Joe Hayman”). And a Creative Commons archive of the album on the Internet Archive. And now I’m happily listening to the dated production and less-good-than-remembered singing and refreshing my memory.

The long wait

Boom boom boom boom. Ten seconds’ wait, then: boom boom boom boom.

That is the opening of “Sarah was ninety years old,” one of Arvo Pärt’s most austere musical works. A drum beat, then silence, repeated over twenty-five minutes. Subtle variations in the times repay mathematical scrutiny, but only yield the pattern, not the meaning. But the drums are interrupted: once with a song of prophecy, once with an ecstatic cry of revelation, when Sarah learns that with God, all things are possible.

I think of “Sarah” often, but was most recently prompted to think of the work when I was in church on Sunday, listening to the faith story of a member of our congregation. (This is about as close to speaking in tongues as Congregationalists get, which is to say, not close at all.) And I reflected that, since returning to church a few years after college, my faith story has been like the drums and the waiting.

My practice of faith is ritualized. I sing in the choir, I observe the practices of communion and prayer. But often I feel as though I too am performing an activity with pattern, but not with meaning. I am waiting. Waiting for the prophecy, the revelation.

But there are occasionally moments of prophecy for me too. One came almost ten year ago, as I undertook a project of research to try to better understand my grandfather’s life in the wake of his passing (at ninety years old). (The Brackbill Wiki I was creating has moved since I started, by the way.) Searching for traces of my grandfather’s life, I was amazed to find this one, in an anthology of writing about experiences of boyhood:

The only man in my life who came close to resembling [Richard Chamberlain] was a gentle farmer who taught me Sunday school. Herman Brackbill was a large, soft-spoken, clean-shaven man who talked of love, even though it was God’s. His face was kind, his eyes warm and inviting. His hands were nicked, rough, large and comforting. On Sunday mornings he smelled of soap, Aqua Velva aftershave and a mothballed suit. I felt safe and relaxed just sitting next to him on the hard wooden pew. After church, I often went to the farm where Herman and his family lived. He never raised his voice to his wife or kids. He was fair. The farmhouse was peaceful inside and out. Once or twice I spent the night and imagined being part of his family.

The story: a young boy grows up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and learns that he is gay. And somehow he learned life lessons from my grandfather, and had moments of peace and safety in the middle of a childhood that otherwise taught him fear and shame.

As I think about how my grandfather changed this man’s life for the better, just through those routine Sunday mornings of Sunday school classes and church attendance, I feel that flicker of revelation. Sometimes the bolt from above is not necessary to feel the presence of God—or share it. Sometimes it’s enough to honor the ancient drumbeat of daily Sundays, and wait.

NASA Langley Research Center at 50

I’m going to double up on posts today since I’ve missed a few this week. I want to start by sharing this cool artifact from NASA Langley Research Center in 1967, commemorating the center’s 50th anniversary.

This was released while my dad (happy birthday!) was working at the center; he went there straight out of his undergraduate degree at NC State. He doesn’t talk a lot about those days, but it’s fun to think he might have been in the background of some of those shots.

It’s also thought provoking to reflect on the vision of future aviation that is shared in the video. Supersonic and VTOL “flying cars” never really happened, victims of a collision with environmental concerns and the energy crisis.

The weight of history

the_girl_and_dictionary

You don’t realize how long ago your childhood was until you confront the obsolescence of some of its key artifacts head-on.

The Girl asked me about looking a word up in the dictionary. I looked at Lisa and she said, “Oh, daddy has a dictionary you can use.” So I took her down to the basement library, opened the door to the bookcase, and brought out My Dictionary: a 10 pound Webster’s Unabridged from the 1980s. The Girl’s eyes went wide.

“Is that the one you won?”

We’ve been talking about standardized tests in the house. Last week was The Girl’s first bout with MCAS, and so I talked to her about some of the “bubble tests” I remember taking as an elementary school student—apparently Virginia did some sort of standard testing, but whether for calibration purposes or what it was never quite clear; I certainly never remember receiving a grade.

And then Lisa put in, “And your daddy was the best, and they gave him a prize.”

Oh yes. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I took the PSAT as a seventh grader and had the second highest score in the mid-Atlantic. And they gave me a dictionary. This dictionary.

Honestly, I didn’t use it that much when I was a kid. I had already gotten to the point where my spelling skills were pretty good, and if I wanted more information about a word I usually went to an encyclopedia. But I brought it with me to college after my first year, and then to Northern Virginia, Cambridge, Boston, Kirkland, and back to Arlington.

Now The Girl is simultaneously thrilled that it’s available and awed at how heavy it is. And she doesn’t know that she has a dictionary on her iPad that’s more comprehensive and up to date. I don’t have the nerve to tell her yet.

It’s about Sorry

I’ve been making more of an effort to write about music and recently accepted a challenge to post an 80s song a day on Facebook. This post (which I’m posting a day late, but which was actually written on the 23rd) comes from that effort.

I was listening to this track with The Boy today. He asked, “What’s this song about?”

I replied, “Well, I’m not sure. He sings about waiting for a call, and about choices, and says he’s sorry. But he lets us make up our own minds about what the song is about.”

The Boy said firmly, “It’s about Sorry.”

I said, “Yes, it’s about Sorry.”

And then we talked about apologies, and what it means to accept an apology.

Thanks for that, Michael Stipe.

Missed-a-day-cause-I-was-in-Magic-Kingdom blogging

Yesterday was our first day in the Magic Kingdom’s parks, and of course I didn’t blog.

One of the things this exercise in daily blogging has taught me is the importance of carving out time to write, which is impossible when sharing a room with three other humans, two under the age of 10. So I’m writing this while the kids bounce off the walls.

We learned some important things yesterday at Animal Kingdom:

  1. Timely breakfast is important for everyone’s happiness.
  2. The five year old was not ready for Expedition: Everest or for the time traveling Dinosaur ride.
  3. Neither was his nine year old sister. Or his mom.
  4. In fact, I’m probably the only scary ride aficionado in the family.
  5. Even a nine year old gets tired of chicken nuggets. That doesn’t make her want to try new foods though.
  6. It’s nothing short of a miracle to find good beer in a big amusement park. Thank you, Victory Golden Monkey.

It’ll be interesting to see what today brings.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre

Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.
Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.

The ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon reminds me of other breakdowns in law and order. With the fundamental question of private property vs. the federal government, it’s not quite as dramatic as the American Civil War, but it’s a dramatic standoff nonetheless.

But the Civil War seems to lurk everywhere I look. The photo above showed up on my Flickr home page today and sent me off to learn about the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a Confederate Colonel, Lawrence Allen, from my dad’s home town of Marshall, North Carolina and his lieutenant colonel James A. Keith went hunting for Unionist sympathizers in Shelton Laurel Valley. After torturing local women, including the 85 year old Mrs. Unus Riddle, and burning houses and slaughtering livestock, they rounded up fifteen suspected sympathizers, all related and most with the last name Shelton, and began to march them toward East Tennessee where the Confederate army lay. Along the way two escaped, so Keith ordered the remaining thirteen captives shot, including three boys aged 13, 14 and 17. Keith evaded the law after the war but eventually was tried for the massacre after the war in civilian court, and would have been vindicated by the state superior court had he not escaped two days before the verdict was returned; he was never recaptured.

Learning about the massacre hits home. My great-great-grandfather was a Confederate army deserter who only wanted to plow his fields; it’s likely, had he been in Shelton Laurel rather than in the caves in the hills above Marshall, that he would have been rounded up by Keith’s soldiers as well.

Some more resources on the massacres: a letter by Col. William R. Shelton giving an oral history perspective on the incident; a 2013 blog post in the New York Times providing some historical and legal perspective on the issue; an essay discussing some of the deep divisions in the mountains; an essay by a novelist and a descendant of a possible participant in the massacre; and a recent article discussing other accounts that cast doubt on Keith’s responsibility for the massacre and suggesting that he may have been framed by Augustus Merrimon, who wrote the report on the massacre for Governor Zebulon Vance.

Runs in the family

The Internet Archive has all four of my dad’s college yearbooks digitized and available for viewing on line. The N.C. State Agromech of 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962 may not make for the most engrossing reading, but they definitely have the best blackmail photos.

And they carry a good reminder that I come by my Glee Club obsession honestly: Dad sang in the NC State Glee Club all four years, and was in the quartet for the last two, as this image proves:

NC State Glee Club Quartet, 1962 (Olin Jarrett on the left)

A special bonus for me was seeing my Dad’s four yearbook “headshots.” It’s amazing how much the 1959 Olin looks like photos of his brother from the same era, and how much the 1962 one looks like the dad I remember from ten years later.

Olin Jarrett, 1959-1962

North Carolina oral history…from my uncle

My uncle got a pretty good distinction yesterday–he has his own page in the Special Collections Library website for UNC-Asheville. The page hosts oral history information from him about the family, and western North Carolina generally, along with photos.

The first piece to go up is an interview with Uncle Forrest that my sister conducted back in 2006, which has now been transcribed and illustrated. It’s a pretty great read, covering the Chunn house legend and local family history, including the first story that I ever learned about the family, about how my great-great-grandfather was almost shot for deserting from the Confederacy:

And then there was Obadiah, the great-grandfather. He lived over on the Blowhole Road and the Civil War had come along and he had already married Polly O’Dell and they didn’t have any slaves. Their hearts were not in the War. And the Confederates had already come along and took all their stock – left ‘em one old mare that didn’t have any teeth. And they had to grind the corn to make a crop with. He had a big family of children. Obadiah would desert in the spring of every year and come home to put in a crop.

…And Polly would set at the end of the field and act like she was knitting or crocheting, and she would watch while Obadiah plowed the corn and cut the wheat and all. She would wave whatever she was crocheting or sewing on if she saw the Confederates coming to capture him. He’d run for the brush. There was caves in the brush, one big cave still…the reason the road was named Blowhole Road, they called it the Blowhole Cave. I’ve been there many a time. Put milk in it in the summertime, the cool air comes out and we’d be down there fishing.

But anyway, he would run for the caves, and get away! But the third time, they knew his tricks, and so they surrounded the field. He took off for the bluff, and there was a Confederate soldier, he had his rifle laying up on the rail fence. He spotted him along and were fixing to kill him. So Obadiah, great-grandpa Obadiah, he threw up his hands and surrendered. They was a whole bunch of western North Carolina boys…the Redmons, and the Paynes, and the Jarretts, and whoever else…the Buckners…and they had all deserted and they had all been captured and they were all in the penitentiary waiting to be shot off their caskets in Raleigh.

And Gov. Zebulon B. Vance was the Governor of North Carolina at that time. He was from Western NC. He went down to see the Western NC boys who were in the penitentiary for desertion. And he said, “What can I do for you boys?”

And they said, “Give us a 90-day stay, and let us live for 90 more days.”

And the Redmon boys, and maybe some more of them, said, “Aahhh, they’re gonna kill us anyway, just go ahead and shoot us.”

And they set the Redmon boys up on their caskets and shot ’em off their caskets for desertion.

Well, before the 90 days was up, the Civil War looks as it’s going…drawing to a close in the south, and the Confederacy, they see that they are defeated. They put out instructions not to kill anybody else. So, lo and behold, Obadiah is released some little time after that, and in about 12, 13 months, Zebulon B. Vance Jarrett is born. Our grandfather.

I took a picture at the entrance to Blowhole Road a few summers ago, and we drove down it once, but without a guide it’s not really possible to find the old cave any more. A shame.

At any rate, not only is Uncle Forrest’s oral history now accessible online, but the Asheville Citizen-Times has done a nice feature on him too.

Remembering Angelo F. Lucadamo

My father-in-law died late on Wednesday night. He was 90 and lived every one of those years with passion. I remember meeting him for the first time 15 years ago, and being struck initially by his age but also by his energy and drive. The man could charm anyone: I remember him deep in conversation with my Uncle Forrest, swapping stories, and being struck by how natural it was for this son of Italian immigrants from Pennsylvania coal country to converse with my very Southern uncle.

Al always engaged everything he came across with curiosity and humor. I remember hearing the story about his first drive through the south–it was the middle of World War II, and he, as a petroleum engineer, was heading to the Gulf to contribute to the war effort by working at a refinery. He stopped somewhere in the deep south for breakfast and placed an order. The waitress asked if he wanted grits. Of course, he had no idea what grits were, but didn’t want to be impolite, so said, “Yeah, I guess I’ll have one or two.” There were many stories that he told over and over again, but I never tired of that one–it said a lot about his sense of adventure.

Most of all, I remember sitting around a lot of tables with him. Even to the end, he loved food and drink, and would always ask for his wine glass to be refilled– “Poco, poco“–look and wink, and say, “Quando festa, festa.” I think those are some pretty good words to live by.

The online condolences book is here.

Father’s Day 2010

I’m a relatively new father; my daughter is 3 and a half. So I can perhaps be forgiven my surprise at enjoying Father’s Day as much as I did this year.

When I was growing up, I didn’t really understand what Father’s Day was all about. I always felt lame with the poor excuses for gifts or cards I would find for my dad. After all, how do you put “you made me who I am” in a card and have it mean something? And how do you provide a gift that acknowledges the magnitude of that debt, even slightly?

Based on my experience yesterday, I guess the answer is: you just relax and enjoy it. I think the best parts of yesterday were the dedicated hours I spent with my daughter as she helped me sort through the pieces of her gift to me and put it together. Or sweating together at the playground until we made the happy mutual discovery that the ice cream truck sold bottled water. Or having her ask for a bite of my steak at dinner.

The nice thing about Father’s Day is that, when it’s good, you don’t have to do anything to make it a happy Father’s Day. You just have to be.

The family church, in more ways than one

leacock_cropped

I should really just retitle this blog “Tim’s Adventures in Historical Documents.” I keep finding really interesting stuff when I dig.

Today’s interesting find is probably only interesting to my Lancaster County family, but here goes: the Leacock Presbyterian Church in Paradise, PA, which was my mother’s family’s church since at least the early part of the 20th century, has a deeper connection to the family than we knew.

I was looking through deeds, as lately I seem wont to do, when I decided to stop checking out property sold by Abraham Hershey and look for what was sold by his father and mother, Christian and Susanna. And, though I still didn’t find who sold the barn, I found something more interesting: a deed, on pp. 459 and 460 of the old deed book Z7, dated June 12, 1840, recording the sale of land in what was then Strasburg to the trustees of the old Leacock Presbyterian Church, so that they could “erect and build… a house or place of worship, for the use of the members of the Presbyterian Church…”

If you look closely at the photo above, at its maximum resolution on the Flickr page, you’ll see a dedication stone listing the beginning of the building in 1840. The land that Christian and Susanna Hershey sold the trustees for the princely sum of $286.87 became the home of the “new” Leacock Presbyterian Church, the church that my great-grandfather and his family then attended, in which my parents got married, in whose graveyard now resides a fair number of my kin. It gave me a bit of a shiver knowing that my connection to that church goes back even further.