Monday, July 28, 2014


The aircraft carrier USS Hornet was built during World War II, served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and recovered Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 from the South Pacific in 1969 before being decommissioned in 1970. She spent a couple of decades in mothballs before becoming a National Landmark and museum now floating in San Francisco Bay at the Alameda pier. As my six regular readers know, my daughter Laura is on the museum staff, and I never tire of telling people that my little girl has the keys to an aircraft carrier.

I think Laura had something to do with me being invited to speak and sign copies of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow at last Saturday's "Splashdown 45" event, marking the 45th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11. But it wasn't entirely nepotism; I believe that at least some Hornet board members independently knew about my book. Still, I think I owe the kid a lot.

Did I mention that the star of "Splashdown 45" was Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin?

That was sufficient motive to rise at the crack of dawn Saturday and leave Comic-Con for a flight to the Bay Area.

Got there on time, thanks to my daughter Robin's airport shuttle service.
Same clothes I wore at Comic-Con; I travel light.

The Hornet is a huge ship that usually swallows crowds with ease, but I've never seen it as packed as it was Saturday. I was talking with the museum CEO and he guessed more than 3500 attended. Buzz Aldrin was scheduled to speak on the big main stage in the Hangar Deck at 1:00. I was slated for the same stage at 11:30, asked to talk on the topic of Space Art and Illustration.

I widened that mandate to include a lot of the themes I worked into WHTTWOT: mainly the idea that the stories we tell about ourselves and our future are as important in shaping that future as the hardware we build. "Beat the Commies to the Moon" is as much an aspirational narrative as "Boldly go where no man has gone before." I focused mostly on art and illustration but also ventured into movies, TV, literature, and tried to tie them all together.

So I took the big stage and gave a 35- or 40-minute talk that in 162 fast-paced slides managed to name-check Galileo, Hevelius, Cassini, Maria Clara Eimmart, John W. Draper (who took the first photograph of the Moon), Gustav Dore, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Angus MacDonall, Scriven Bolton, Lucien Rudaux, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Frank Paul, Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, George Melies, Fritz Lang, George Pal, Chesley Bonestell (of course!), Wernher Von Braun, Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, Robert McCall, Ludek Pesek, Don Dixon, William Hartmann, and more.

Just reeling off names like that makes it looks like a random laundry list, but I think I was able to build a theme and make a point that people seemed to get and appreciate. The Hangar Deck was set up with several hundred chairs facing the stage, and projection screens and speakers hanging half the length of the deck. It was obviously rigged that way so that everyone throughout the ship could see and hear Buzz Aldrin, but it worked to my advantage as well!

At the Hornet's book sales tent. One of these things is not like the other. They had about 1000 of Aldrin's books and 50 of mine, plus maybe another dozen in the museum gift shop. I'm very happy with that ratio.
Blah blah blah blah. Why won't this guy shut up? We Want Buzz!
Pulling back a bit, my wife Karen took this shot from the first row of seats. The podium was not initially set up with a monitor for me to see my own slides, which would have been disastrous because a lot of my talk relied on a rapid-fire "bang bang bang" clicking through the pictures. The speaker before me resorted to standing at the back of the stage and watching the rear projection on the big screen. I griped enough to the audio-video team that before I spoke they rewired one of Buzz Aldrin's teleprompters to show me my slides instead. Saved the day. Hope they remembered to re-rewire it for Buzz.
Stepping farther back into the cavernous Hangar Bay to show one of the screens set up to broadcast presentations throughout the deck. There were three of these screens hanging from the ceiling. It's a big ship.

My view from the podium.

From the start I had a pretty big audience, which grew as my talk went on. For a little while I thought I must have been orating better than anyone had ever orated before: more and more people were coming to watch me! Slowly it dawned on me that no, they were just staking out good seats to see Aldrin, who was going on 45 minutes after I finished. Still, it also worked to my advantage. Captive audience or not, I was the only thing on the stage at that moment so they had no choice but to sit and listen.

After my talk I sat at a bank of tables with other speakers and presenters to sign books. That went splendidly! Not everyone who bought a book got it signed or even realized I was there, but I had a steady stream of really nice people come up to chat and get an inscription. Having just left Comic-Con, I couldn't help noticing that Space People are a lot like Comics People but generally brighter (no offense to Comics People but c'mon!).

My book signing set-up amidship.

From time to time I had a little line, but nothing unpleasant. People couldn't have been nicer.
That's my daughter Robin beside me. 

This whole family was terrific. Very enthusiastic about the book and posing for photos with its author.
That doesn't happen to me very often.
I think this guy was hired by the Hornet. I hope this guy was hired by the Hornet.

Aldrin was preceded by a short video highlighting the Apollo 11 mission. I was surprised. I've seen the same old footage so many times I thought I was relatively numb to it, but I got an honest-to-God lump in my throat and tears in my eyes watching that Saturn V blast off into the Florida sky. Man. Aldrin was introduced by astronaut Yvonne Cagle, with whom I once shared a pizza.

At 1 p.m., Buzz Aldrin took the stage. Topic One of every conversation the rest of the day: how does an 84-year-old man do it? He boarded the ship at 9 a.m., did press interviews for three hours, then gave a one-hour speech, then signed books for three hours, then appeared at a reception and dinner in his honor until probably 10 or 11 p.m. Could you do that? I couldn't do that. I guess once you have the Right Stuff, it never really goes away.

Buzz drew a bigger crowd than I did.

Buzz's talk touched on his Air Force and academic career before settling on Apollo 11. I'm sure he's told the same "magnificent desolation" stories 300,000 times before, but he tells them well. Then he segued to his current passion, drumming up popular support for manned exploration of Mars. I wouldn't presume to debate Aldrin on the wisdom of that, but will say that he makes his case convincingly and enthusiastically.

Buzz World
Preparing for "Splashdown," I jokingly told some people I'd be spending the day "hanging with Buzz Aldrin." In fact, one does not hang with Buzz Aldrin. He had a black-shirted security detail of about six persuasive men who kept the respectful mob at bay. He also had one handler whose main job was being the bad guy so Buzz didn't have to. No, you cannot have a private word with him. No, he will not shake your hand. No, he will not sign your photo.

Buzz's book signing was a rapid assembly-line process--necessarily, given the hundreds of people in line. I had no special access, just queued up with everyone else, wondering what I might say to the Great Man when I had the chance. What hasn't he already heard 30 million times before? What could I possibly say that he might chuckle at and remember at the end of the day? Maybe something smart and obscure, a question about orbital rendezvous (the subject of his Ph.D. thesis) or his Gemini 12 mission?

In the moment, I froze up tighter than little Ralphie meeting Santa Claus in "A Christmas Story."

Buzz Aldrin and me.

To be fair, I only had about two seconds to spin around for Karen to snap a photo and spit out my carefully crafted bon mot. I believe I said, "It's a great honor to meet you." He looked up and said, "Thank you." Yeah, I'm pretty sure he's still got that original insight rattling around his brain.

I should have asked him for a Red Ryder BB gun. 

After the day's main public event, Karen and I stayed for a VIP reception. Here, again, you get a unique perspective on spending time in the orbit of one of the most celebrated men in the world. Buzz came to the reception and seemed accessible--he was 10 feet away! Yet actual interaction with him was defined by invisible circles enforced by his polite but firm security team. Only certain people got inside the circles. I wasn't one of them.

Here's what I mean. It appears that I could just walk over to Buzz's table and share a nice drink with him. There he is! Right there! But if I'd taken one more step in his direction, a large man would've gently taken me by the elbow and steered me away.

This is no criticism of Aldrin. I'm sure it's what he has to do to manage the millions of people who "only want a minute of his time" and get through the day. I just found it a fascinating glimpse at what goes into being Buzz. It was impressive and a little sad. I imagine it gets very tiring.

As it was, this was a very special day for me. In addition to spending the day on the Hornet (always fun!) and making such a memorable impression on Buzz Aldrin, I think this was my most successful speaking/book-signing event ever. My talk went very well. The museum sold all of its WHTTWOTs, so that by the end of the day I was doing sketches for disappointed people who hadn't been able to buy my book. That never happens for me.

I opened my talk by saying that if I had a time machine and went back to tell 1969 Brian that someday he'd be standing in that spot, on that ship, speaking on the same stage that Buzz Aldrin would be taking in less than an hour, there's no way I could make him believe it. "Splashdown 45" pushed every emotional button I've cultivated for 45 years.

I was Buzz Aldrin's opening act. Lifetime achievement unlocked.


Anonymous said...

What a great experience. I feel like I was there, thanks to your description. Thanks for writing all the right words...

Brian Fies said...

You're welcome. Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

Neighbor Larry said...

Brian, Sorry I missed it. It sounds exactly like I thought it would be. Inspiring. I would have loved to hear your opening for Buss talk!

Yojimbo said...

I attended Splashdown 45 with my son and daughter and we all enjoyed you presentation very much. My daughter particularly liked the part about Walt Disney's role in popularizing space exploration. After your talk, my son went to get a copy of "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," as a birthday present for a friend of the family. In additon to signing the book, you gave him a sketch which made him very happy. He said that you were very nice and that he really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you for everthing!

Tim said...

Thanks for the write-up, Brian - your descriptions made it next best thing to being there. You need to get someone to record your presentations sometime. I'd love to watch them.

Brian Fies said...

Yojimbo, it's really nice of you to write, thanks! I remember your son; hope he and you had a great time exploring the Hornet.

Tim, always good to hear from you! I'd hate to record one of my presentations and have to resolve the conflict between the great job I imagine I did and the actual evidence on tape. Better for you to take my word for it, I think....