Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Heroes still

Ours is not a time that rests easy with the idea of having heroes, except perhaps in the aggregate, as in 'the American soldier' or in the absurd, as with today's luminescent celebrity. Perhaps this is due in large measure because we know too much about individuals today -- or think we do. Clay feet seem to support the most magnificent bronze statues, wobbling under the strain and fissuring in advance of the inevitable collapse.

But that's as it should be, for none of those bronzes ever captured a true, flawed human being to begin with. At best, they represented a moment in time or an expression of the supposed pinnacle of a person's achievement (raising the flag on Iwo Jima or, for another generation and at a further remove from non-cinematic reality, Rocky Balboa) rather than the inescapable shortcomings and limitations which add the true piquancy to the heroic expressions of our species.

As I write this it's the 35th anniversary of the founding of Tranquility Base...the landing of the Eagle....Man's first known steps upon another world (with the great age of the Earth, the ever lengthening estimates of our species' age and the miniscule possibilities of artifact preservation, I remain open to the possibility that we've been this way before). Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins -- along with the other pioneers of space exploration -- certainly stand in my personal pantheon of heroic players. In the heat of the space race with the Soviet Union, there were many unknowns facing NASA, and these three explorers in particular. The courage that it took to ride to the Moon's surface in a tissue-thin spacecraft, land on a 'surface' that might engulf one's conveyance beneath 12 feet of 'moon dust' (still an unknown factor, seriously discussed at the time) and leave those footprint impressions while jogging through an airless void, all the time knowing that a small, relatively untested rocket engine had to fire perfectly the first time, was only matched by a similar courage faced by Collins, alone and locked in orbit around a satellite a quarter-million miles from home.

I was 13 years old on that night, locked in a bodycast from recent surgery, and perhaps never as excited before or since. Those first grainy images were some of the most spectacular sights ever witnessed by the world-at-large. I had my Saturn V model -- which I had constructed in the days immediately prior to the landing -- at my bedside, ready to serve should any of the adults present require my instruction in the mission particulars of staging or Lunar Module extraction (although my Saturn V had suffered the near-fatal accident of crashing to the floor at the paws of my cat Guru, only days before). I felt such pride in being part of the human family that night...and nothing seemed beyond reach at that point. When Armstrong started reading the message on the plaque affixed to the leg of the lander, I think we all felt a kinship that's rarely experienced except in extremis, such as immediately following September 11th:

HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON

JULY 1969 A.D.
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND

Another commemoration took place this month that bears on a personal exemplar. The U.S. Postal Service released a stamp on July 12th (his birthday) honoring the life and contribution of R. Buckminster Fuller, or Bucky, as he was affectionately known to the 'Me' generation of the 60's and 70's. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fuller's patent for the geodesic dome. Although my philatelic interest has been quite limited thus far in life, this was a first-day-of-issue stamp that was a must.



Fuller was a true renaissance man. Designer, inventer, mathematician, poet, architect, engineer, cosmologist and 'comprehensivist'. Through his 'World Game', which inventoried all of the renewable, sustainable resources of 'Spaceship Earth' (a term he coined), he determined that if there was the political will:
“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”
After reading many of his published works, and being inspired by his personal story (the following paragraph is taken from Who Is Buckminster Fuller? on the Buckminster Fuller Institute website), I came to think of him as the 'mind of the planet':
In 1927, at the age of 32, Buckminster Fuller stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, prepared to throw himself into the freezing waters. His first child had died. He was bankrupt, discredited and jobless, and he had a wife and new-born daughter. On the verge of suicide, it suddenly struck him that his life belonged, not to himself, but to the universe. He chose at that moment to embark on what he called “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” Over the next fifty-four years, he proved, time and again, that his most controversial ideas were practical and workable.
In the late '70s I had the great pleasure of spending the better part of 2 days with him at a symposium he held at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge. My assessment of him changed a bit after that experience, as I came to additionally regard him as the 'heart of the planet'. Already in his 80s, he exuded a personal power and energy that was startling. His pixyish demeanor was magnified by coke-bottle lenses, which made readily apparent the twinkle in his eyes as he took pity on us every few hours and allowed us a break from his rapid-fire speech.

I remember his emphasis on the importance of making 'mistakes', as that's where real learning occurs (echoing perhaps Edison's quote about his supposed failures prior to creating a sustainable, long-lasting lightbulb, "We now know a thousand ways not to build a lightbulb"). Rarely is the achievement of success a straight line, Fuller averred, but more like a sailboat which tacks around an approximate course...first this way, then with a slight correction that way. It's often during those slight detours that the most important insights and discoveries manifest.

Earlier in his life Fuller ceased speaking for almost 2 years, the self-imposed moritorium enacted until he could reach a state of mind where he would be able to communicate exactly what he meant. When he did begin to verbalize again, it was with a very idiosyncratic -- but very precise -- vocabulary of self-created terms. He more than made up for his silence over the remaining course of his life...delivering thousands of lectures as he, by his own calculation, encircled the globe at least 57 times. His greatest speaking engagement took place in 1975 however, when he was asked to submit to a videotaping. Basically, the ground-rules where that he should extemporaneously 'think out loud', not repeat himself, and share everything he thought important that he had learned in his life. Forty-two hours later he completed the task! We now have access to that extraordinary gift, thanks to the Fuller Institute, free-of-charge through the Internet. Entitled Everything I Know, it's his final gift to all of his fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth, and well worth multiple viewings (I strongly suggest accessing it in video, rather than just audio or text, as he makes use of a number of visual aids, especially when delving into his treatise on Synergetics and geometry).

It's a challenge at times to set aside cynicism and acknowledge that we can still have heroes, although neither the Apollo astronauts nor Bucky Fuller ever comfortably assumed that mantle (Armstrong withdrew almost entirely from public attention; Aldrin suffered a classic 'nervous breakdown' and retreated for a time to alchoholism largely because of the adulation; Collins went on to head the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but the light of public fame never shown as brightly on him, as he did not walk on the Moon; and Fuller would never accept the moniker of 'genius', always stating that he was just an average man who placed himself in service to 'Universe').

These are a few of the individuals who did inspire me however, and a little hero-worship never hurt anyone .

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