Grandmother Montana and Aunt Arizona

The other day I stumbled into a quest back in time and through my family history. This particular quest began with Ming the Merciless, always an indication of a truly bad-ass journey.

Specifically, I was watching some of the old Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming. As I was watching, I had this feeling I’d seen Charles Middleton in some other films and went to IMDB to check his list of credits. Sure enough, Charles Middleton appeared in a lot of films, I’d seen. Perhaps most notably was Jesse James. What makes Jesse James notable is that my grandfather was hired to cook for the cast and crew, which of course means my grandfather once cooked for Ming the Merciless. Cool!

Unfortunately, back in 1939, behind-the-scenes crew on movies didn’t get credit, but I was curious whether any documents on the web might discuss my grandfather’s involvement in the film. Alas, I didn’t find anything but I did find a photo of my grandfather’s tombstone on a rather ominous sounding, but very useful website called findagrave.com. I’d actually seen this site before, and I’ve found it helpful when tracking down some genealogical information.

What was new, since the last time I visited was that the site for my grandfather included a link to my mom. I clicked there, and sure enough, I found the tombstone she shares with my dad. This part of the quest was sad and I took a moment to pay my virtual respects. Before I moved on, I noticed that my dad’s parents weren’t linked, even though they’re buried in the same San Bernardino cemetery as my parents. Call this an action item when I have more time to research the site’s submission requirements.

This little side journey led me to wonder if any of my other Summers ancestors were listed at findagrave.com. I soon discovered listings for my great grandparents, James and Montana Summers. Much as it was interesting to find photos of their tombstones, the real treasure I discovered was that someone had posted their obituaries.

For me, the real magic of genealogy is not just learning who you’re descended from and where they came from, which is cool, but actually learning the stories behind the names and dates. These obituaries gave me one of the first real glimpses into the kinds of people my great grandparents were.

As it turns out, I have a transcript of a letter Montana’s father, Paul Teter, wrote to his hometown newspaper describing his time as a Confederate soldier in Missouri and his subsequent business career. James’s father, by the way, also fought in the Civil War, but as a Union soldier. I’ve always been a little curious to know why my great grandmother was named Montana, especially when her siblings had relatively ordinary names like Fred, Paul, and Sarah. It is true that my great grandmother was born just a few months after the founding of Montana Territory, but none of her other siblings were named after new territories—or so I thought.

It turns out, according to the website, my great grandmother had a half-sister named Arizona. No, the title of this post isn’t some clever metaphor, I actually have a great grandmother named Montana and discovered I have an aunt named Arizona. However, that’s not the end of the quest. Although Montana lived her entire life in Missouri, Arizona married a man who went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, the same company my dad worked for. They eventually moved to California and lived in Orange County, not far from where I grew up.

While it seems likely the founding of Montana territory inspired Montana’s name, I’m at a bit of a loss to know why her sister, born in 1885, was named Arizona. The seminal Arizona event of 1885 seems to have been the founding of the territory’s two major universities: The University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Perhaps my great great grandfather just liked the name!

You might note that Montana and Arizona were the daughters of Paul Teter. That line of the family inspired the name “Mike Teter” for the protagonist of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I was pleased to make a stronger connection to that part of my family.

As quests go, it might not have been Earthshaking. I didn’t destroy the Death Star, keep Mongo from conquering the Earth, or destroy the one ring, but I did learn a little more about myself—perhaps the best outcome from any great quest.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A little over a week ago, I took my daughters to see the movie Hidden Figures about three African American women whose work at NASA’s Langley Research Center was integral to getting the first American astronauts into orbit. I loved the film, it’s depiction of the early days of manned spaceflight, and the courage and determination Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson displayed in pursuing their personal and professional dreams. The movie reminded me how far we’ve come as a society in the last fifty years.

Concurrent with the events of the movie Hidden Figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for civil rights in the south. Martin Luther King Jr. Greeting Parishioners One of my favorite quotes by Dr. King is from a speech he gave at Iowa’s Cornell College in October 1962. During the speech, he said, “God grant that the people of good will will rise up with courage, take over the leadership, and open channels of communication between races, for I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

In this era in which political leaders talk of building walls, I find Dr. King’s words take on new relevance. What’s more, it’s become fashionable to decry “political correctness.” I agree to the extent that watching your words so carefully that you don’t say what you mean can be a barrier to communication. However, using your dislike of “political correctness” as an excuse to be a jerk and spew hateful rhetoric is just another way of closing off communication. Sometimes people should shut up for a while and let the other guy talk. That’s living in dialogue rather than monologue.

As a writer, I’m committed to showing people of different cultures living and working together. It’s not just a dream or a vision for me, but life as I prefer to experience it. I don’t want to be separated from people of other races and cultures. That communication and dialogue I experience enriches me and I often find people of different cultures are more alike than different. I find more security in good neighbors and friends than I ever have alone behind a wall.

It’s become apparent these last few years that we still have a long way to go in creating a society where everyone feels they have an equal chance to succeed. However, looking back to Dr. King, I see how far we’ve come and know that we can’t afford to go backwards.

San Bernardino

News of the December 2 attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California has been particularly sad for me to watch. I grew up there and still have friends in the area. A childhood friend even received treatment at the Inland Regional Center. No one I knew seems to be among the dead or wounded, but San Bernardino has been a town going through tough times for a while and I suspect this is going to make things even tougher as people associate the city with the incident.

My family moved to San Bernardino when I was 4. My dad was a General Locomotive Foreman for one of the city’s major industries, Santa Fe Railroad. The other two big employers in the area were Kaiser Steel and Norton Air Force Base. All of those were closed by the early 1990s. We lived in three different houses while we were there, but the house that sticks in my memory as “my” house is one my parents bought in the 1950s just a block away from the site of the original McDonalds. When my parents left San Bernardino for a time in the late 60s and early 70s, my grandmother moved into the house. So, it was a house I visited regularly from my earliest days. They moved back into the house when my grandmother passed away in 1974.

McDonalds Museum

I have a lot of good memories from my years in San Bernardino. It was where I discovered both my love for writing and for astronomy. I made my first attempt at writing The Solar Sea when I was in high school. That draft long since has vanished in time, but the novel that exists probably wouldn’t have been written if not for my early daydreams of riding a solar sail to the outer planets.

Those daydreams were no doubt inspired by a love of astronomy. I started by attending meetings of the San Bernardino Valley Amateur Astronomers when I was a freshman in high school. By the time I was a senior, I took an astronomy class at Cal State San Bernardino from Dr. Paul Heckert and went on to observe variable stars with him for several years.

Of the three times I had a chance to meet with and speak to Ray Bradbury, two of them were in San Bernardino. The first time was at Pacific High School when he came to speak to the students. I actually attended San Bernardino High School across town, but Pacific’s principal invited me to share lunch with Mr. Bradbury. I saw him a gain a few years later at Cal State. Not only did I get to meet Ray Bradbury, but I also got to meet Jerome Bixby, author of the short story “It’s a Good Life” which became a Twilight Zone episode starring Billy Mumy. Bixby also wrote several of my favorite Star Trek episodes including Mirror, Mirror and “Day of the Dove.”

Arrowhead

One of the things I really love about San Bernardino are the mountains. Above is Mt. Arrowhead and the arrowhead feature is a natural rock formation. The Arrowhead is on private land, but I had the rare privilege of being able to climb the mountain one Saturday during my high school years. As it turns out, the springs at the base of the mountain are where Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water gets its name. The nearby San Gorgonio wilderness area and Big Bear Lake provide even more breathtaking sights and I spent time hiking and camping with my family and friends in those areas as well.

My time thinking of San Bernardino as “home” largely came to an end in 1989 when Santa Fe closed their shops, my brother moved with the railroad to Topeka, Kansas. My dad had passed away in 1980, so my mom decided to move to Seattle. I went back to the house I lived in through my high school years, packed up all my belongings and moved them to Socorro, New Mexico. San Bernardino is a town on tough times and those times are even tougher now that such a tragedy has struck. The people of San Bernardino are very much in my heart this holiday season.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

The autumn of 1980 was perhaps one of the most difficult times of my life. My father died suddenly of a heart attack just about six weeks before my fourteenth birthday. One thing that helped pull me through that difficult time was Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. It fostered my love of astronomy and set me on a course that would eventually earn me a degree in physics. Thirty-five years later, I’m now sharing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s updated Cosmos with my daughters. My youngest is the same age I was when I discovered Sagan’s original.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey_titlecard

Overall, I’ve been impressed with the series. I can nitpick some places where they’ve sacrificed precision in how a particular astronomical object or phenomena is depicted in the name of dramatic effect, but for the most part Tyson gets the important things right. The show has allowed me to better explain the importance of spectra in my work at Kitt Peak. I was delighted to see an episode featuring Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. I was able to discuss how they influenced both my work and how people they worked with directly inspired teachers of mine such as Emilia Belserene at Maria Mitchell Observatory. I also appreciated the discussion about how neutrinos can precede supernova explosions, though I noticed they managed to leave out mention of Stirling Colgate’s important contributions to that work.

Perhaps the most important thing about the series is that I see the same wonder on the faces of my daughters that I had when I watched Carl Sagan’s original series. My oldest daughter has already set her sights on a degree in mathematics and computer science. My youngest still has options wide open. I hold no strict expectation she’ll pursue a career in science, but I do expect she’ll come to respect the process of science and hold an appreciation of it no matter what she does.

Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, I hold no Ph.D. My career in astronomy diverged from a strictly academic path into more of an engineering and support path. Despite that, I feel it’s important to convey my love of science in classrooms as well as science fiction and steampunk conventions. In fact, I think there’s value in showing that you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate, use, and act on scientific discovery. Because of my interest in communicating about science, I’ve been paying close attention to Tyson’s presentations. He is a good, clear communicator and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing how he introduces subjects such as stellar spectroscopy, supernovae, and black holes.

In the most recent episode I watched, Tyson presented the sobering evidence for climate change. There’s been a lot of debate about it, but as he notes there’s well over a century of solid evidence that carbon dioxide is increasing and global temperatures are warming. He notes that weather is hard to predict and there are lots of minute variations. He demonstrated this by walking a dog. The dog goes all over the place, attracted by different things. However, climate is like the man holding the leash. There may be random variations, but there’s also an overall path. Although climate change is a sobering reality, I appreciated that Tyson showed that there is hope. We have to work hard and make solar and wind energy a reality and we need to do it much faster than we have been.

Now some will say addressing climate change is just too big a problem to address. I watched this episode after visiting New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago, some people said rebuilding New Orleans was just too big a challenge, we should let the city go. Although Katrina still echoes in New Orleans, it’s returned to being a bright and vibrant city. Researchers at Tulane University are working on finding ways to restore the gulf coast and perhaps even find ways to make New Orleans much safer should another hurricane strike. We humans are amazing and we can solve the big problems when we set our minds to it.

I appreciate the effort Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane have put into bringing a new version of the show back. I hope it inspires a new generation to look at the world with wonder and to take the scientific process seriously.

Pluto and Las Cruces

This has been an exciting week as the New Horizons Probe has flown by Pluto. The views of this little world and its moon Charon have really made them come alive as places on the distant edge of our solar system. Although I’m not directly involved with the Pluto teams, I know several people who are, including one person on the imaging team who brought us the now famous image of the “heart” on Pluto and a person who was responsible for helping the craft navigate Pluto’s crowded system of five moons. However, perhaps the person connected with Pluto, I was most honored to know was Clyde Tombaugh, the man who made the initial discovery.

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

I can’t say I knew Clyde well. He had retired by the time I arrived at New Mexico State University in 1995. Still he regularly attended astronomy department colloquia and maintained an interest in the department’s activities—not surprising, since he founded the NMSU astronomy department. I attended Clyde’s 90th birthday party, hosted by the department and learned a lot about him from the department chair’s address. Sadly, I attended his funeral less than a year later. This week, as New Horizons flew by Pluto, the Albuquerque Journal interviewed me about my recollections of Clyde.

I maintained two of his telescopes—a small solar telescope used for department events and a larger telescope which was in Ecuador in the 1950s and used to search for small, undiscovered bodies orbiting the Earth. The negative result for that study had important ramifications for the next decade’s space program. Two years after Clyde passed away, I was asked to portray him at Las Cruces city events celebrating the 150th anniversary. This video shows a public service announcement which ran on KRWG TV where I portrayed Clyde:

As it turns out, discovering Pluto was only the beginning of Clyde’s career. Afterwards, he went to college and graduate school. That’s right, Clyde only had a high school diploma when he discovered Pluto! He discovered several asteroids. He was one of the first people to notice that the universe had a large scale structure. As I mentioned earlier, he looked for, but didn’t find, objects besides the moon orbiting the Earth, and he founded the astronomy department at New Mexico State University. He also founded the Unitarian Church in Las Cruces. Now, he’s also the first man whose ashes are being carried outside the solar system on the New Horizons probe.

SummersSolarSea

My own explorations of the solar system have been much more humble. I’ve helped look at asteroids that would pass near the Earth and I’ve also helped with programs looking for distant Kuiper Belt objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. Nevertheless, I find the whole process of exploring the solar system exciting and would jump at the chance to do so. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. You can learn more about the novel, watch a book trailer, read a sample chapter, and see some cool illustrations based on the novel at TheSolarSea.com

A Professor on Stage

This last week, I was surfing the internet when I came across references to a play called Oppenheimer put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. One of the characters in the play was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s young protégé, Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz. Thing is, Ross Lomanitz was one of my professors at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Here he is as I knew him.

Lomanitz

Huffington Post UK has a review of the play, which also includes a photo of actor Oliver Johnstone as Ross.

I took Modern Physics from Ross during my sophomore year. Not only that, but I met my wife in his class. A few years later, Ross’s wife Josephine would be one of the musicians at our wedding. Of course Ross was there as well. In addition to that Modern Physics class, I went on to take both undergraduate and graduate level quantum mechanics from Ross. I enjoyed his classes and got A’s in them.

As I mentioned, Ross himself was the student of J. Robert Oppenheimer. After World War II, he was summoned before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee to testify about his ties to the Communist Party. Ross stated his loyalty to the United States and also pleaded his fifth amendment rights. The upshot was that he was blacklisted and could not get a job as a physicist for many years until he was hired at New Mexico Tech in 1962.

The Pirates of Sufiro As it turns out, not only was Ross a beloved physics teacher, he and his wife were also members of the first writer’s group I belonged to. Ross worked on a memoir of his post-McCarthy days. In the meantime, I worked on a story called “A Quiet Burning in the Darkness” which would ultimately become the first chapter of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. Ross and Jo made comments that helped me shape the novel. What’s more, I’m sure the story of a pirate captain exiled from civilization and forming a society based on his own moral compass owes a lot to Ross.

Sadly, Ross passed away in 2003. I hope the play Oppenheimer will find its way over to the United States. It would be a chance to see Ross again, even if only through the lens of theater.

As for The Pirates of Sufiro, you can pick up a copy at Lachesis Publishing. The eBook is free, but if you want a real treat, pick up the paperback with its illustrations by Laura Givens.

Father’s Day Reflections

This weekend is Father’s Day in the United States. Several things have converged this year to make me feel especially reflective about fatherhood. My oldest daughter is leaving for college soon. In fact, she’s away for orientation and preregistration during Father’s Day itself. What’s more, I find that several of my peers are of an age that they’re starting to lose their fathers. Unfortunately, I lost my own father many years ago, when I was only thirteen.

Dad-and-David

The photo to the left shows me with my dad. My dad worked for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. He was proud of the locomotives he worked on and that instilled in me a love of machines and a solid work ethic. When vacation time came along, he loved to travel around the United States. That instilled in me pride in my country and a love of the land’s rich history. My dad loved to hike, which instilled in me a love of the outdoors. Although I never really thought of him as a fan, I remember watching my first horror movies with my dad. I knew my dad for less than a decade and a half, but I still see his influence in my work and the things I choose to write about.

I have tried to pay these lessons forward to my daughters. As my oldest heads off to college, she’ll be tested with new freedoms and responsibilities. At some level, so will I, anxiously watching to see how well she’s applied the life lessons she’s received so far, and being an adviser where needed from a distance.

There’s no doubt that losing my dad so early has influenced my writings on themes of immortality and vampires. In that sense, it’s perhaps fitting that the second edition of the flash fiction collection Blood Sampler has just been released. That said, the book, that I think of when I think of my dad is Heirs of the New Earth, where space pirate captain Ellison Firebrandt comes out of retirement to save the Earth that he loves.

One thing that stands out about my dad was that he always wore a tie to work at the railroad. As a kid, I hated ties, but as I’ve grown older and developed a love for Steampunk, I’ve come to enjoy a good tie. As it turns out, I’ve asked my kids for a tie this Father’s Day. If I get one, not only will I have a nice fashion accessory, it will remind me of my dad, whose lessons I treasure and who I miss to this day.