He Rockets Into the Past

Mike Royko

Chicago Daily News, 17th July 1969

The color TV flickered in the corner of the Bethany Nursing Home recreation room. A silver spaceship shone on the screen.

A very old man sat and stared. The TV voice said the rocket would leave for the moon in 30 minutes.

"I would never have dreamed of such a thing when I was a boy. It was so different then."

When he, George Parkinson, was a boy, things were different. The year he was born, 1875, Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House. Mark Twain was writing "Tom Sawyer". General Custer would soon ride to his death. There were 37 states in the Union. Alexander Graham Bell made a telephone.

The TV voice said that former President Johnson was at Cape Kennedy, watching.

"Johnson," the old man said, falling silent for a moment. "I was born in Springfield, you know, and my mother was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. She always felt that Abe didn't treat Mary Todd as well as he should have. My mother knew Abe, too. Not well, of course. She knew Mary Todd much better."

The spaceship was on the screen and the TV voice was talking about thrust, speed, power. The old man leaned forward, but that hurt, so he sighed and sat back.

"I was about five when my father took the family west in a covered wagon. My mother, four brothers and I. We settled in Wichita. It was a frontier town then, mud streets, cowboys. It was just on the fringes of civilization."

Barely on the fringes. Just beyond, Billy the Kid was still shooting people. Jesse James was alive and in hiding. The Apaches and Sioux were fighting us furiously. Texans drove their longhorn herds to Kansas.

"I didn't see any of the famous badmen myself, but they were there. Five of them rode into a town nearby and left their horses in front of the bank. A lawyer across the street could see that they were robbing it. He took his rifle and shot all five of them as they came out. I don't remember who they were. Maybe the Daltons or somebody like that. They left their bodies in the street all day, as a warning."

The countdown reached ten minutes, and the TV voice was dwelling on the magnitude of the scientific achievement.

"There was not much talk of science when I was a boy," the old man said. "People were most concerned about their health and their cattle's health."

Science. The year Mr. Parkinson was born, Louis Pasteur was on the brink of his discovery. He was 22 when Roentgen discovered the X-ray, and 25 when the Curies isolated radium. Now he was looking at a spaceship on a color television set, in an air-conditioned room, sitting in a plastic chair.

The vapors poured from the bottom of the ship. It would be soon. The TV voice talked of the enormous speed of the thing.

The old man shook his head in disbelief. "I find it hard to comprehend such things. You know, I became a preacher right after I finished high school, and I went to Oklahoma territory and rode a pony on a four-church circuit. It took so long to get around.

"Why, when my wife and I hitched up the horses to visit a ranch, a ten-mile trip would take us all day."

When Mr. Parkinson was riding his circuit, a man named Francis Train set a world speed record. He circled the globe in 67 days, 13 hours. The astronauts would do it in an hour and a half.

The TV voice mentioned the hundreds of thousands of people at Cape Kennedy, and the enormous traffic jam.

"So many cars," the old man said. "I didn't see a car until I was a grown man. It was when I came east to study at Harvard's divinity school. I went back west, of course. I was a minister for many years, many years."

The early car came into production when he was 26. A couple of years later he read about someone named Orville Wright, flying a thing with wings, for a few brief moments.

They were counting tense seconds now. The old man clutched his brown-flecked hands tighter and leaned his chin on them.

Then it came. The colors blazed. The giant thing screamed and strained. The old man sucked in his breath.

It heaved and then jumped toward the sky, and the voice said: "We have a liftoff."

"The moon," Mr. Parkinson said, a hint of delight in his voice. "The moon."