Wally Paton and the Space Program

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“ 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.

Journeying Home Again

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I hadn’t journeyed home to Patagonia in awhile, but this trip was a celebration I would not miss – the three-year reunion of Paton supporters who had been instrumental in “saving” Paton’s Birder Haven. The weekend also marked Tucson Audubon’s Capital Campaign Kick-off to fund improvements to the house. While there, I had the great honor of sharing from my book, Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy” — the story about my parents, Wally & Marion Paton and the creation of their world-renowned birdwatching backyard.

Entering the yard, so familiar, yet different now, I was immediately struck by all the improvements completed by Tucson Audubon Society since my last visit two years ago. My first stop – the Paton Legacy Sign erected in the front yard. What a thrill to see my parents honored for creating this birding mecca that still attracts thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the globe. While reading the sign, a couple from British Columbia approached — their first visit to Paton’s. “Where do we pay?” was their first question to me. “There is no entrance fee,” I replied — a tradition my parents established decades ago and continues today. The “sugar fund,” originally an old coffee can hung on the fence,  now a spiffy donation box, remains strictly voluntary.

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Paton Legacy Sign, Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds, April 2017

After three glorious days during which Paton supporters were treated to some fabulous spring migration birding, tours of the property by various Tucson Audubon staff involved in improvement projects, talks by hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson, of Southern Arizona Birding Observatory (SABO) and Jesus Garcia, Director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, it was time to say goodbye once again.

As I wandered the property on that last day, I spent a few moments in the yard reflecting at some special spots. My Dad’s pecan tree still thrives in the back yard, bigger and more robust than ever, still producing a good amount of pecans each year. I sat a good while on my parents’ memorial bench and reflected on the beauty and peacefulness of this place — the land they had nurtured for decades, still loved and nurtured. The bench had been positioned near to the site of my Dad’s former orchard in the front yard. Plans to re-establish an orchard here are underway. Jonathan Horst, Restoration Ecologist, is heading up that project.

10- Dad's Pecan Tree Thriving

Wally Paton’s pecan tree, still thriving

I stopped to remember my Mom’s rose garden in the front yard, ready to pop with bloom — her passion. I sat on a bench in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol and Paul Lamberger, long-time Paton supporters. We sat for a good while at this peaceful spot overlooking the newly created pond — all possible because of the kindness and generosity of Marcia Grand and the hard work of Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers.

11-Mom's Rose Garden Ready to Bloom

Marion Paton’s Rose Garden in the background ready to bloom

Then a very special moment happened. As I was getting in the car to leave,  Carol Lamberger inquired if the rose bushes in the front yard were my mothers. “Yes,” I answered, “she loved roses. We would always gift one or several at Mother’s Day.” Carol smiled and then promised to take special care of them for me. And in that moment I was reminded of the special magic that surrounds Patons — it seems to bring out the very best in people — it always did and continues to do so. It is the underlying essence of the place and that spirit of kindness and generosity that my parents exemplified that will continue in perpetuity. In addition, of course, to remaining one of the top birding sites in the world.

12- Bonnie with the Lambergers

Sitting in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow (former Paton horse paddock) with the Lambergers

Watch a short video of how Paton’s began: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L_dheYoQBQ

 

 

I Got “Geeked” Today

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Geek Photo

Bonnie Paton Moon holding a copy of her new book, Journey Home

Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy, the story behind the creation of her parents’ birding mecca, Paton’s Birder Haven in Patagonia, AZ

Available now  at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Journey-Home-Simple-Kindness-Creation/dp/0997831405

Available directly from the author: https://www.createspace.com/6425627

The word “geek” derived from English dialect, which means “fool” or “freak,” took on new meaning when it returned to popularity in the mid-1990’s during the dot.com bubble of 1995-2000. The definition has changed over time and today there is no definitive meaning. I kind of like the meaning that the Urban Dictionary uses to describe “geeking” — “overly excited about a single thing” or the Merriam-Webster definition of “Geek” – “a person who is very interested in a particular field or activity.” There are many different categories of geeks from science geeks, math geeks, computer geeks and now — after the latest campaign at the Westport Public Library, in Westport, CT — even “hummingbird geeks.”

When our local library first announced in their monthly newsletter that they were embarking on a campaign to promote the Library with a series of “geek” photos I filed it away in the back of my mind and forgot about it.  As the weeks passed, I noticed more and more pictures being posted on the Library website of people with items that they “geek”. All kinds of subjects appeared on the Library website “geek” page. Patrons were geeked with their favorite animal – many dogs of different breeds, and cats, Earthplace was geeked with their resident owl, grandparents  geeked their grandkids, siblings and lovers geeked each other, sports enthusiasts showed up with skis, tennis rackets, soccer balls. Even some notable patrons like David Pogue, former New York Times Technology Writer and Tech Correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning showed up to “geek” technology and music.  Pogue who has filmed four specials for Nova and currently writes his “TechnoFiles” column for Scientific American also geeks music.

As the Library “Geek” campaign continued, the proof of my book Journey Home arrived on my doorstep — the story about my parents, Wally and Marion Paton, who over the course of several decades created a world-renowned birding “mecca” in their back yard. I had spent the prior 2 1/2 years in efforts to preserve and protect their tiny 1-acre parcel of birding paradise in Patagonia, Arizona which became known as Paton’s Birder Haven and is now called Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Visited by thousands each year from all corners of the world, it all started because of a rare and unusual hummingbird species, the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. These flying jewels showed up at my parents’ feeders creating quite a stir in the birding world. Such a stir that well-known wildlife photographer, Arthur Morris from NYC came knocking at my parents’ door one day in 1992 with his camera equipment wanting to take some photos. He took lots of photos and when he returned to New York, Mr. Morris wrote an article entitled “Hummingbird Hosts” which appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest. That encounter and the decision that it sparked in my parents’ minds would change the course of their lives and the lives of thousands of birders and wildlife enthusiasts forever.

bird-watchers-digest-may-june-1992

Arthur Morris’ article entitled “Hummingbird Hosts” appeared in the May/June 1992 Issue (cover above)

What better subject for me to “Geek” than hummingbirds along with my newly completed book, Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy. So I made a note in my weekly calendar to go to the next “Geek” photo session to have my picture taken with the single thing that I am overly excited about these days.  Five hundred and nine library patrons were “Geeked” — I was proud to be among them and to share my parents’ story.

Read more about what’s going on at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds: http://tucsonaudubon.org/go-birding/tucson-audubons-paton-center-for-hummingbirds/