To celebrate Thanksgiving 2022, my cousin John and his wife Gabe, who reside in southern California, rented an Airbnb in Tacoma, just south of Seattle. Bob & I and our dog Luna had been invited to join in the holiday dinner along with our good friend, Cindy. John has spent years cataloging his mother’s effects in an effort to settle her estate. As a candle burned, and the rest of us proceeded to drink and talk in the kitchen, John worked in the other room. We were celebrating and being thankful (ok, we were getting drunk), while John was scanning photos and papers. He would pop in every now and then to take a break and share some tidbit he’d found.
(The candle was lit for my dad. As Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” played in the background, we raised a toast. “On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound to nowhere, I met up with a gambler we were both too tired to sleep…”
Fred had passed away just before Thanksgiving the year before. There hadn’t been a memorial. My dad was an avid poker player. His game of choice, his shuffle ‘n bluff bromance, his poker passion was Texas Hold ‘Em. Throughout his 80s, he religiously drove to The Boat Bar on Bald Eagle Lake to play at least twice per week. He played the game at other cardrooms in southeast Michigan, but The Boat was his house, though he didn’t drink. He once won a stake in a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament in Las Vegas, but he didn’t go. I harped on him too! I wanted to accompany my 80-something year old dad to Vegas. What an opportunity for some crazy fun with my old man – not to mention the photo opps! He finally told me he had no plans to go and liked being a “big fish in a small pond.” My dreams were dashed.)
Earlier in the night, John mentioned that there were some specific pieces he wanted to share with me.
At one point in the evening, he plopped a short stack of prints and papers on the kitchen table and asked, “So, what do you know about our Uncle Bill?”
We talked about the stuff my mom had said about Bill. “You know he went to MIT?” Mmmmaybe. No, I don’t think I knew that. My cousin, Kate, is the family research whiz, not me.
With a sort of a “whadya make of it?” air, he handed me an honorable discharge certificate from the US Army for William Armstrong Scales, dated 1961. Bill was in the Army? The date of 1961 was a bit unsettling as he’d disappeared in 1958. Bob glanced at the certificate and noticed it read “USAR”. It was an honorable discharge from the US Army Reserve.
My cousin and I pondered how Bill got from MIT to the Army then to RCA missile tracking? He was only 25, he couldn’t have done any of these things for very long. Funny, in the past I’d focused so much on his death, I hadn’t given his life too much thought. There were a few more Bill pictures to share, but not very many. There were pictures Bill had taken of some damaged equipment at what appeared to be an airport. I’d seen these before, maybe in the pile I’d sent to my cousin Kate?
“These are the types of pictures that an engineer would take. These aren’t the photographs of a tourist.” John said.
“You know, Uncle Bill died the same year I was born.”
John has worked in the aerospace field for his entire career. I sometimes refer to him as my “rocket scientist” cousin but in actuality he has worked for a company that, among [many] other things, “Shapes the future of space”, or so it says on the company’s website. The home page states “COSMIC: Propelling ISAM from transformational to routine. Aerospace supported the Consortium for Space Mobility and ISAM Capabilities (COSMIC) in kicking off its endeavor in forging a whole-of-nation approach to in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing.” Of course. That’s what they do. That’s what I would’ve done. [I have no idea what any of that even means.]
John has always been infatuated with space. In fact, one of my first interactions with John happened in 1978. He was operating the Bubbleator – a spacey plexiglas bubble-like elevator installed at the Seattle Center during the 1962 World’s Fair. The Bubbleator was a focal point of the “Century 21″ exhibit. Upon entering the Bubbleator, a voice would say ,” Please step to the rear of the sphere …. Step off into the future…” It was removed in 1980. When I stopped by the Center in 1978, I didn’t really know John at all. In the Bubbleator, he simply sat on a stool and read a book while pushing a button, completely uninterested in the tourists who came and went. I think he was on a school break from Gonzaga University at the time. Based on a Space Age design, that Bubbleator was arguably John’s first space-related job.
In Bill’s pictures from home and pictures of Bill at home – I recognized Grandmother’s house in the background.
I can discern the distinct patina of vintage paper. It’s got a lot of dust specks as well – the bane of any darkroom printer. It’s a night shot of the sky. The streak, to me, could’ve been a shooting star? A one in a million catch? John knew it was a satellite. “We have no photos from Bill after June 28, 1958 [the date he disappeared].. …there were no other photographable earth-orbiting satellites prior to that date.” Sputnik.
We went through the pictures and some other miscellaneous papers that Thanksgiving. Over the next few months, we riffed off of each other, sharing little discoveries or questions regarding our Uncle Bill. The Sputnik thing… I wouldn’t have known that.
Was a collaboration beginning to form?
Who on earth was this enigmatic William Scales?