Back to The Future

The recent passing of John Glenn at the age of 95 opened my memory to a time when heroes loomed large in my life. I was six years old on February 20, 1962, when an Atlas rocket carried John Glenn and the hopes of an entire nation into orbit. It was the mission that ushered in a new era of space travel and led to Americans walking on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Glenn was soon followed intaao orbit by other Mercury astronauts like Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper.  Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom had flown earlier suborbital flights.

Shepard, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper. The names still resonate in my memory more than a half-century later. They are synonymous with “Hero” in my mind, having been placed there at a time when my little boy thoughts were overwhelmed by the glorious dream of one day becoming an astronaut.

It’s been decades since those dreams began to be replaced by more practical matters, but it’s amazing how the mere thought of the names takes me back to a time when the future was paramount in my mind.

It was during that same winter of 1962 that my Grandpa Nielson came to visit us for several days, almost exactly a year before he died in February of 1963. Grandpa was an old cowboy with a gruff voice and his health was failing. He lived in Blanding, in San Juan County where winters could be harsh. My mom hoped that a few days of Dixie sunshine would do him good.

Though I had not yet learned to read, I was aware enough of the world around me to idolize the man. He spent much of his stay lying on the couch with a towel smelling of Vicks Vapo-Rub wrapped around his neck. I don’t remember the things he said, although I do recall him reciting nursery rhymes to me in his sing-song delivery. And I remember the brightness of his smile and the sincerity in his eyes as he looked at me. What I remember most was his reaction to the events of February 20, 1962, the day John Glen rode a rocket into space and became the first man to orbit the earth.

I remember it because Grandpa sat me down next to him on the couch and circled his arm around me and held me in place as if it were his mission to make sure his grandson was a witness to history. I recall it now as a long and tedious affair. Delay after delay. And how hard it was to stay focused until finally – finally — the final countdown occurred and the fuzzy black and white screen of our TV exploded in a flash of light as the rocket lifted off the launch pad.

I don’t remember what my grandpa uttered at the sight of blastoff, I only remember a release of unmitigated joy and elation and pride. And I still feel it ricocheting down through my heart more than a 50 years later. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew it was profoundly significant, wonderfully important, to the old man sitting next to me. Whatever it was he felt that day, I felt a portion of it too. And it has always stayed with me.

Looking back at it now, I realize my grandpa, who was born in Bluff, Utah in 1885, completed the crossing of a wide divide that day as he sat on the couch next to me in the winter of 1962. His father and grandfather had crossed from Iron County in southwestern Utah, to what would become San Juan County in Southeastern Utah, as part of the legendary Hole-in-the-Rock company of 1879. It was one of the most amazing feats of travel ever completed, a six month ordeal across Utah’s roughest and deepest canyon country. Terrain that even today is considered impassable. Grandpa grew up horseback in that harsh and jumbled country where his family settled after miraculously crossing a sea of slickrock. Under the most difficult of circumstances his family became prosperous in the cattle business, finding ways to make things work with the most meager of resources and looking to the future with nothing but hope and a belief that they would not only survive, but build a better life for their children.

It is amazing to me now to think that the man who tucked me under his arm to watch the launch of the first manned orbiting spacecraft was born in a two-room log cabin along the San Juan River. There, beneath the magisterial bluffs on the boarders of the Navajo and Ute nations, he grew up in a horse and wagon world, where you ate what you could grow, and survived with only those resources within you physical reach.

I would later learn that he loved nothing more than to be on the range, tending the cattle. And that as a young man he had been in the crossfire of some of the last armed skirmishes between native Americans and the Anglo settlers who displaced them. He was a hard worker. Night herding under the stars.  Always the first one up in the morning, making the fires and out wrangling the horses.

Their family’s summer range was on Elk Mountain, up around the Bear’s Ears. In the fall they’d move the cows down off the mountain into the vast reaches of the San Juan slickrock. To places called Bullet, Toadie Flat, and Slick Horn Cave. He loved nothing more than to chase wild cows on horses named Red Cloud, Moonie, Coolie, Flax, Sunday and Hornet. At market time they’d trail the cattle down into Montezuma Creek and over into Colorado to sell.

By the time I came to know my grandpa he had grown feeble and frail and I could not have imagined, nor did he ever tell me, that he was once a brave cowboy who carried a gun on the range. I knew him only as a stooped and rough-throated old man with a twinkle in his eye, who was very kind to me.

But I can look back now and see what was actually happening on that February day in 1962. I see an old man who bridged the most amazing span of time in the world’s history. A man who grew up in the days of cowboys and Indians, who saw the first automobile drive through Bluff, Utah, who saw the first airplane fly over the majestic mesas of the San Juan, who listened to the first radio broadcast received in slickrock country, and on and on, right up to that chilly winter’s day in 1962, when he tucked his grandson under his arm and watch the first man to orbit the earth take off in a flash that nearly exploded the TV screen in our St. George living room.

Last summer I took my youngest son to Bluff to show him where his great grandpa was born. When we got out of the car he didn’t even look up. His eyes were locked on the electronic device in the palm of his hand. I started to tell him stories about his great grandpa and the place where we stood. It struck me how my grandfather was never distracted by the petty concerns represented by today’s pervasive social media. He knew only what he had learned from the past. The present was a time for doing, for going about the daily tasks of survival, and his mind was free and ignited to dream into the future and imagine all its possibilities.

As I continued with the stories, my son’s electronic device soon disappeared into his pocket and he listened and looked intently.  He was free now of the present, and getting lost in the past, and I knew if he possessed the same kind of spirit as his great grandfather, the past would fire his dreams for the future.

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