Sometimes I go talk with my Dad, just to catch up. I tell him how the kids are doing, and what they are up to, thank him again for things he did, and reflect on the state of the world – not good. We talk. He listens.
Former Navy, then NASA, then given to spending time in nature, he moved around a lot, enjoying rural Georgia. With too many ghosts and demons to wrestle, he left when I was nine, divorced, and then gone.
Oddly, those early years – contrary to popular imagination or misconception – were not all bad, not at least in ways a child remembers. My father had to travel a lot for NASA, but he was always Dad first. Trying to set the world right, in the thick of the fight, his range was enormous, but time passed fast.
He would go from work in DC, HQ or Goddard Space Flight Center, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, on to places like Guam, Australia, back through Houston, occasionally the Cape, then home.
Working on NASA’s tracking stations, he knew math, physics, and his way around the world. Of course, he would return with gifts for the four kids – maybe a conch shell, a model, or something unusual.
Always and without exception, before and after these trips, he would kneel beside my bed and scratch my back, telling a story. Sounds odd, but kids remember these things. They never forget. He never forgot.
Even in those days, Navy and a broken childhood behind him, he had relentless enthusiasm for life, for space, human space exploration, rocket ships, a lunar eclipse – but also a gurgling brook, the odd book.
On nights when there was a lunar eclipse, he would put a blanket out. We would watch the night sky and imagine it was watching us. He would explain. We would fall asleep listening, moon and stars glistening.
He was defined by a quest to expand his mind, moved by curiosity, an unremitting desire to test himself against the world and imagine what lay around the next corner before others saw the corner. His focus was S-band radar or earth-to-moon communications.
When I caught up with him decades later, NASA was far behind. He was his old self, in part. The anger was gone, seriousness there, but in place of the old challenges, a new one, aphasia. He had been hit by a truck – cycling, of all things. Communications – his core strength – was a challenge, but his memories were good.
In those days, a lot of catching up was done. Time is precious, and he had lost more than communication skills. He had lost the irretrievable and desperately tried to reel it back in. We got through that period fine, long reintroduction. Now, he taught a new lesson – patience with fate.
When talking got tough, communication links went down, putting him on the dark side of the moon. I would just take the con, reminding him how he scratched our backs and scratched his until he slept.
Humbled by things that came around corners he did not foresee, brought low by the elements of life we imagine will not find us, he was at times his old self and something new – all there, self-aware.
Sometimes, I just go outside – as I did last night – and look up at the moon, swaddled in clouds, or search for random constellations. After all, the wisdom of our fathers resides there.
Besides, he knew them all: moon’s craters by name, sky’s wide ambit, filled as it is with archers and bears, sea goats and water bearers, a bull, lion, Libra, and fish fins, crabs, and Greek twins.
He worked on Gemini, as well as on Apollo, and one regret is that we parted before the talk on those programs was shared, but even today, we share a lot. He reminds me to stop, to think, to wonder, to value the greatness of this nation, to value time with kids, time with people everywhere, and to value the goodness of time.
I remind him, on these occasional visits, that two of his grandchildren who majored in physics know their math and ponder space as he did. Like him, they love to communicate, are filled with enthusiasm for life, his flavor of wonder, ceaseless yearning to learn, depth and desire to inquire, hearts variously at peace and on fire – that they love nature too, and value that thing he knew so well of time’s inexorable passage.
Then, more or less done, we part ways again. I leave him with honored neighbors, no longer troubled as once he was, no heavy burdens to carry, resting there in Arlington cemetery. I will be back, he knows. He will be waiting, ready to listen. He knows we have a world to set right. He is with us, knows stakes and mission, knows the stars he studied still twinkle, watch us and glisten.
The wisdom of our fathers, somehow the love of those we have loved, resides there.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.
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