January 06, 2007



Mike McIntyre writes:

Regarding your blog entry of June 26, 2006:

I can tell you some things about the neighborhood of the first owner of your Sears typewriter. In 1968, when Mr. William J. Thomas (of 3910 Telstar Circle) purchased that typewriter from Sears, I was ten years old and living with my parents and younger brother at 3902 Telstar Circle. So there were just two houses (and one cross street) between the Thomas house and ours. I wish I could say that I remember the Thomases, but I don't. I do vaguely recall the name, but that's about it. I asked my mom if she could recall them, but she couldn't either.

Your correspondent Patrick is correct to point out the anomalous nature of Huntsville, an old, sleepy southern town that was invaded by northerners and foreigners who helped design (and build) missiles and rockets. My family numbered itself among the northerners. My father, who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, was relocated to Huntsville in 1962. He was working for Boeing at the time. Two or three years later he was hired by NASA, at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). He is still working there. MSFC is located within Redstone Arsenal, which is a vast Army installation, the boundaries of which lie just a few hundred yards to the west and south of Telstar Circle.

Most of the grownups in the Telstar Circle neighborhood either worked on the Arsenal or were spouses of an Arsenal worker. The U.S. Army was also designing missiles in Huntsville, not just NASA. The two organizations were, of course, separate (von Braun and his German team of rocket scientists were transferred from the Army to NASA when NASA was organized in 1960). In fact, I don't remember any nearby neighbors whose parents also worked at NASA. All the ones I remember were in the Army, or had some Army connection. The father across the street from us did three or four tours in Vietnam. The father who lived next door to the east also did several tours in Vietnam. They were all enlisted men. Sergeants. The father of one of the two African-American families on the block was the resident golf pro at the Officers Club golf course.

It was an ordinary, hardworking, middle-class neighborhood. As Patrick said, Telstar Circle is undoubtedly named for the communications satellite, but I think he may be wrong about Teller (and it's Edward, not Edmund, by the way). I'm not aware that Teller ever lived or worked in Huntsville. Wernher von Braun did, of course, but he lived in a somewhat more upscale neighborhood than we did (on top of Monte Sano, as I recall). No saint he, I suppose. As Tom Lehrer once sang:

"Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown.
'Ha, Nazi Schmazi,' says Wernher von Braun.

Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Say rather that he's apolitical.
'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."

I don't know about all that. I do know that my father met von Braun, and once attended a meeting with him, and said of him that he was enormously charismatic and talented.

This photo was taken in the late 1950s, I believe. It's looking roughly north. The Telstar Circle neighborhood didn't (quite) exist yet. The development of it started in the next several years from when this photo was taken. The large open field to the right of the main road (that bisects the photo on the vertical diagonal) is where the Telstar Circle neighborhood would soon be, fairly close to the forested area in the lower right part of the photo. You can just make out the guard shack to get into/out of the arsenal in the center of the main road, towards the bottom. There is a line of cars going into the arsenal, so the photo was probably taken in the morning. There is a row of army buildings, of which two are visible at the extreme left. My house would have been on the extreme right, in the open field, but closer to the forested area. The house with your typewriter would probably be just out of frame to the right.

Of course, you can also use Google to see a satellite view of what it all looks like now.

Posted by Sasha at January 6, 2007 09:19 AM | TrackBack