Monday, October 18, 2010

The Rocket Man Crashed in Los Angeles

The Theme Building at LAX ca. 1960 and Paul R. Williams, one of the designers.

Went back to Los Angeles last week for a business conference. Greeting me was the striking mid-century modern Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, newly restored.  The futuristic structure was designed in 1959 to give Angelenos a sense of unbridled optimism. It inspired the cartoon sky-buildings in The Jetsons.  When I was a child my father, a space scientist, traveled often for work to D.C.  Every time we went to pick him up from the airport I'd gaze with wonder at that white and blue spaceship with legs like the Martian invader ships in War of the Worlds.  My childhood was all about space travel, the outer realms of imagination and the future.  I grew up in the 1960s, a time brimming with a sense of change and possibility.  We never missed seeing Star Trek, Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and Twilight Zone.  I loved the works of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury. I carefully pasted news clippings of the first moon landing in a scrapbook and the family together watched men walk on the moon with overwhelming pride.  Nothing was impossible. 

I truly believed that humans would live on other planets in my lifetime. My father nurtured that sense of embracing the future and readied us by giving us math problems to solve, instilling in us a love of literature and music, and also a sense of duty to him and my mother.  In his spare time he built complex abstract modern sculptures of wood and steel in sinuous, twisting shapes.  He came from India as a graduate student, met a beautiful, perceptive woman from Korea, had five children, moved to a big house with a swimming pool in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and lived, as so many Americans still do, on the edge of his means.  

But when I landed in Los Angeles last week, I gazed on the Theme Building with a sense of melancholy.  It had been over 35 years since I lived in L.A.  Sure, the spaceship structure looked shiny and new after millions of dollars of restoration, but its promise of the future looked dated -- a retro kind of impotence.  The well-worn freeways taking me from the airport were all too familiar.  No Jetsons hovercraft here, not even high-speed rail, just miles and miles of concrete, as far as the eye could see.

And my childhood home?  Thank you, but I prefer not to visit.  No one I know is home. The sixties gave way to the seventies.  Escalating costs of the Vietnam War drew funding away from the space program, and my father was out of a job.  Divorce and bankruptcy soon followed.  I recall combing the LA Times classifieds as a young teen for a first-ever job for my mom, who became a salesclerk at a high-end clothing store.  I also recall accompanying my father, who was always meticulously dressed and groomed, to the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard to pick up his mail and unemployment check.   

We didn't know if the space program would flourish again.  All we knew was that my father, a rocket scientist, could not find work.  And then, on the very day that the nation held its breath as Nixon resigned, my father, at the age of 50 -- in a serene act of what he believed was Hindu devotion, and because he thought he was worth more dead to his family than alive -- took his life.  It was August 9th, 1974, the day that the future darkened and changed course.  I was sixteen.  I left Los Angeles a year later for college and a lifetime of grappling with a deep, hidden sorrow.  My father left me with a final problem that could not be solved.

Today, the advances in science and technology would have delighted my father, not to mention the new Star Trek movie.  While his tragic, final act has haunted me to this day, it also pushed me to make the most of my one life.  I put myself through college and graduate schools, collected an array of degrees, found a wonderful husband late in life who respects me and makes me laugh every day, a dog who respects me some of the time and gives me unconditional love, and a dream job that keeps my mind sharp and spirits high. It's a happiness that focuses on day-to-day challenges and joys rather than on far-off galaxies.  

Would I have achieved all this if my father had lived?  I don't know.  All I know is that I did not care to linger in Los Angeles last week.  Too much sorrow was embedded in those freeways and swelled in the ever-returning waves of the Pacific Ocean.  I caught the first flight I could out of LAX after the conference and hurried home.


My father and mother, taken soon after they met in Chicago in the late 1940s.