Wally Paton and the Space Program

Standard

“ Did you ever watch a rocket launch and observe that rocket as it’s taking off? It gets up, clears the tower, and then does a quarter of a turn. We make the unit that does that quarter of a turn, and that same unit was used in the Lem vehicle for the descent onto the moon. And again it was used as a homing device when the Lem capsule left the moon to home in on the mother ship orbiting the moon.  It was very satisfying to be part of that. You look up and you see one of them things glow and you know that you had your hands on some of the stuff that’s in there. At least with me, it gives me kind of a funny feeling to know that I actually worked on some of the stuff that goes in there.” ─Wally Paton (Excerpt from Journey Home by Bonnie Paton Moon)

My dad worked for Microwave Development Labs, and later a subsidiary called Fabraze Corporation, for 32 years.  MDL was known for its innovative microwave solutions and for designing and manufacturing parts for the NASA Apollo Moon Program in the 1960’s and other guided missile components.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of man landing on the Moon, I am reminded of my Dad’s pride in playing a small part in that amazing feat.  Even watching it today, I shake my head  in disbelief at the many nerve wracking moments – rockets self-destructing on the launch pad or shortly after –  astronauts calmly overcoming what seem like impossible hurtles and finally making their way back to Earth.

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957 my family took a personal interest in the space program. At Dad’s prompting, we often ventured outside after dinner to watch the tiny orb float through the evening sky. I don’t know if it was because Dad’s job was in the aerospace industry or because my brother was a science nerd, but during the years following the Sputnik launch, the Paton family developed our own “space” program. We crafted and launched hundreds of our own handmade matchstick rockets in the backyard. Made simply by rolling a piece of aluminum foil into a hollow tube, stuff with match heads and ignite. You could send those little missiles quite a distance, once you’ve perfected the technique. Not unlike NASA, however, there were always those unexpected explosions or total duds on the launch pad or rockets veering off course to unknown places.

match rocket (3)

Match rocket built with aluminum foil and match heads

When my brother was in high school he built a good size, professional looking aluminum rocket for his science fair project. Sleek and shiny it had all the right stuff for flight, or so we thought. My dad helped craft it, complete with a nose cone and fins. The intention was, of course, to launch it after the science fair was over. A site for launch was carefully chosen in our field across the street from our house. Ample space was needed for the unknown flight path, and big boulders and trees were needed to hide in case of a mishap.

It was exciting watching my dad and brother carry their creation up the road for launch, others of us following behind in anticipation. I don’t really remember if the launch was a success or even if the rocket got off the launch pad – I think it must have flown a little distance before crashing to the ground. But like NASA, we were not discouraged. The building and the thrill of the anticipated launch were more than worth the final outcome – at least for me.

For us and a number of neighborhood kids, the Paton’s “space” program provided hours of fun and many great memories. A couple of years ago I received an email from a childhood friend about his experience with the Paton family “space” program.

“Do you remember a young red head who used to come over to Ward Rd to hang out with your brothers? I have many wonderful memories of your family.

“Several days ago I was looking at the Southboro Historical Society website when I noticed a post about 5 Ward Rd. I saw your name and I knew it was you. Yes, the McCarthy’s moved to the West end of town in 1957 to the house on the hill at 14 Ward Rd. In 1962 we moved to 10 Bigalow Rd. I have so many memories of my childhood in that little neighborhood. I remember the barn on your property before your father had it taken down. I remember the collie dog you had. I remember when your sister was born. Most of all, I remember I could go find someone to hang out with at either the Wilson’s or the Paton’s. If I went to the Wilson’s it was sports, sports, sports. If I went to the Paton’s there was always something I enjoyed doing. I remember Red teaching me how to make rockets out of aluminum foil and match heads. I remember Sonny and I learning our first chords on guitars, so somehow I am not surprised to read about the Birder Haven from a family that was always involved in science and the arts.” – Southborough, MA childhood friend

In the early 1970’s, Fabraze decided to open a plant across the border in Sonora, Mexico. It necessitated a move to Arizona. My parents were in their late 40’s and not particularly anxious to move more than half way across the country and leave their beloved New England. But, it would be the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in their lives, culminating in the creation of their world famous backyard becoming their legacy called Paton’s Birder Haven and today known as Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds.

“But Dr. Riblet and Fabraze Corporation were building dreams of their own and they wanted my dad to be part of them. As labor costs in the States continued to rise, Dr. Riblet decided to open yet another plant across the border from Nogales, Arizona, in Sonora, Mexico. Again he asked Dad to head up the operations. He was charged with setting up this plant from the ground up— finding a building, purchasing equipment, and hiring and teaching the workers how to do the various jobs involved in the lost wax process. In 1974, they packed up the Blazer for the last time and made the trip across the country with my sister, Jackie, who was ten at the time. Dad’s right-hand man in setting up the new foundry was a Mexican citizen named Hector. Hector became a regular visitor to our home even before the move to Arizona. Hector spent months at our house learning the trade from Dad. In his off hours, Hector liked to cook and enjoyed teaching Mom the art of Mexican cooking. Hector made specialties never tasted before, cutting up tomatoes, onions and chilies in tiny pieces, making beans that were very different from Mom’s traditional homemade Boston baked ones; and it seemed like he added lime juice to everything. My parents were intrigued with this new culture. There were more dreams to come and perhaps the best was yet to be. It must have been a difficult decision, moving across the country at their age, leaving their “dream house” and their cottage in Maine for what, at the time, seemed like the road less traveled. But that decision did indeed make a difference not only in their lives, but in the lives of thousands.” (Excerpt from Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon)

Wally & Marion Farewell to Fabraze (5)

Wally & Marion Paton saying farewell to colleagues at Fabraze in New Hampshire as they head to Arizona. My Dad was very proud of his work with the space program.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s