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.

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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)

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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.

GARDENING WITH DAD

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When my dad was a teenager he got a job at Gray’s Garden Center and Nursery in Wells, Maine. It was a quick bike ride from  his home at the Bald Hill Granite Quarry. By this time he’d had years of experience in gardening.  Having grown up during the Depression, he learned that a family’s vegetable garden could make a huge difference in the quality of life.

 “We lived in Maine. The Depression was very, very bad in that area, but we lived pretty good. This quarry was on an old farm and there was quite a bit – perhaps 40 or 50 acres of open field. We had a big garden – we raised all our own vegetables. We planted about an acre to an acre and a half.” – Wally Paton

Gray’s was a small family run business. They grew flowers, shrubs, and vegetables. Here Dad would learn about propagation, soil composition, and landscaping.  It would become a life-long passion.

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Wally Paton worked at Grays Garden Center & Nursery while in high school

Dad’s second job, following his discharge from the Air Force at the end of World War II, was at Wyman’s Nursery in Framingham, Massachusetts – a short distance from where he and Mom lived on Marion Street in Natick.  Just 22 years old, he had enlisted in pilot training school right out of high school so his work experience was limited. He thought about becoming a commercial airline pilot but, with the birth of their first child, Mom wasn’t crazy about that idea. He would soon find work, however, in an area that he knew something about – gardening. It was the beginning of a housing boom and a population explosion as the soldiers returned home and settled down in houses purchased with the help of the GI bill. My parents were no exception.

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2 Marion Street, Natick, Massachusetts

Wyman’s Nursery in Framingham, Massachusetts was no small operation. They had been around for decades and owned hundreds of acres just off Route 9. In the 1950’s they sold off a small portion of their vast acreage for the building of the first mall in America called Shopper’s World – one of my favorite hang outs as a teenager.

Wyman’s was well-known for the extensive stock they carried. A catalog from 1919 shows hundreds of different species of trees and shrubs listed alphabetically. The book includes directions to their nursery from all points in New England – there was even a train stop at Wyman’s. It would be here that Dad would gain extensive knowledge about trees, shrubs, flowers and landscaping. Richard M. Wyman, the owner was also an educator for the Massachusetts College of Agriculture. He would write several  books and catalogs over the decades, among them Beautiful Home Surroundings and Landscaping and Gardening: A Book of Landscaping Suggestions, Planting and After-care. Wyman’s was the perfect place for Dad to hone his skills in all things gardening.

 I remember as a young child my dad driving me and my brothers to Wyman’s – a field trip of sorts. This was after his career had taken a different path. He would go on to work as a machinist and later a manager for Microwave Development Labs in Natick which made parts for the aerospace industry. But on this day, while walking around Wyman’s,  as Dad pointed out the various trees and shrubs, I couldn’t help but feel his passion – even if, at the time, I didn’t quite get the intrigue.

After Natick, my parents moved to our farm in Southborough, Massachusetts where we lived for the next 18 years.  Here with 16 acres surrounding a farmhouse and a barn, Dad would have an opportunity to begin testing his own skills as a vegetable gardener.  He would experiment with soil PH and various additives until he developed the right mix and he produced remarkable results. We lived off that garden in the summer and, with canning and freezing, most of the rest of the year as well.

Following Wyman’s he spent the rest of his career working in an office, but that love of the land – that passion for nurturing the soil – never left him and continued to play a significant part in his life throughout his 78 years. In later years, that passion, and my mother’s passion for flowers,  would be the catalyst in transforming their Patagonia, Arizona yard into a green oasis attracting birds and then birders from all over the world to the mecca which became known as Paton’s Birder Haven. Now known as Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds, it would become their legacy.

Throughout his life, whenever the opportunity arose, Dad would share his knowledge with his children and grandchildren or just about anyone who expressed an interest.

When my husband and I bought our first house, one of our priorities was to plant a vegetable garden.  The thought of growing my own fresh vegetables on my very own land was exciting. That first spring, we planted 6 fruit trees (apples, peach, pear – 2 of each) and we started digging up the back yard for planting vegetables. My dad, who we knew was an expert in all things garden, offered advice. He even mailed us some asparagus crowns from his own garden in Arizona. The package arrived  with a handwritten note, one of only a few letters I ever received from him. Gardening was a way to connect with him – that and talking about the Boston Red Sox. I learned this early on and I used it many times to strike up conversations with him. In high school and college I worked for him during the summer at Fabraze Corp. Fabraze had recently opened a plant in Nashua, New Hampshire. My parents were still living in Southborough, awaiting the move to their new house in Londonderry, so the commute was long. On our way to work, Dad would always stop at Dick’s Spa in downtown Southborough to pick up the Boston Globe. Immediately he would turn to the sports pages. Then he would hand the paper over to me and I would do the same. I often read to him about the highlights of last night’s game. I knew talking about sports would hold his attention. Gardening had the same effect.

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Wally & Marion Paton in front of Mom’s rose garden – Dad with his Red Sox cap

I don’t remember our  garden at our first home being a huge success. We had a lot of tall trees surrounding our property and sun was not abundant. But really at that point it was more about the doing and the connection with Dad that made the whole project so special for me.

My niece, Emily, who grew up in Patagonia, Arizona, just down the road from my parents recalls lessons she learned from my dad in her own vegetable garden planted in their yard.

“I had hand tilled a 10×10 plot on the side of the grain room closest to the road for my first garden. If I remember correctly, I was seriously impressed and inspired when I saw a picture of grandpa’s garden. So mine, of course, needed to be in the same place as his! I later expanded that section, tilled up the entire section where their chicken coop once was and added a new 6x6ish plot right in the middle of the yard for corn. Grandma watered it all for me religiously on days I didn’t go over. Her favorite was corn. I think I may have grown the corn only one or two years, but the ears were small and almost every single ear got a worm. Grandma laughed and said she didn’t mind sharing.

By the last year I grew 3 varieties of tomatoes, yellow beans, green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, cucumber, bell peppers, 2 or 3 kinds of hot peppers, radishes. Grandpa always reminded me to plant veggies of different varieties far away from one another so they didn’t cross pollinate. He also instructed me on how to build mounds for squash and rows for corn. One year the grasshoppers ate every last leaf off of my beans, but didn’t touch the actual green beans. I was amazed the plants survived! I think I tried melon and pumpkins that year too.

Thanks to them I LOVE the idea of living off of our own land and being 100% familiar with the food I eat, including raising and hunting your own meat. To this day I try to only buy meat and veggies from farmers that I’ve met, whenever possible. I’ve had a garden more years than not since my time in Patagonia. And I even started a mini community garden with some coworkers in college.

In the pictures I saw of grandpa’s garden, I remember seeing lots of leafy greens. He and Dick Volts told me to grow peanuts or potatoes to replenish the soil. I also occasionally added vermiculite to the soil before planting. Grandma insisted it would keep moisture in the soil. But I remember that soil being so nice and rich, once I tilled it and kept it watered. Especially/obviously where the chicken coop once was!” – Emily Covey Wojtowicz, granddaughter of Wally & Marion Paton

Over the years I became more of a flower gardener, like my mom, but this year I decided to join our  Community Garden and grow vegetables again.  My dad would be proud to see my neatly aligned rows of lettuce and kale and the mounds for squash and pumpkins, all thriving in full sun without the offending deer, chipmunks and groundhog competing for my bounty. I take great pride and think of my dad each time I reach for the hoe to clear the weeds from among my rows, a job my dad insisted on and I resisted as a kid. I now pass on the joys of working in the soil to my grand kids and they take pride in watching the fruits of our labor grow. Gardening is in our blood and there is no doubt where that came from.

“Even merely to be in a garden – is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life…” – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Spring Migration and “The Paton Effect”

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During Spring migration, it’s standing room only at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center in Patagonia, Arizona.  Birders crowd under and around the beautiful new viewing pavilion much like they did years ago under the old canopy that my parents, Wally and Marion Paton, erected in their yard.  Back then there was an assortment of chairs scattered around- metal folding, plastic lawn, a bench or two and old kitchen chairs. They brought a sense of hominess to the place.

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“Claiming a seat on a metal folding chair at Patons’ back yard is, to birders, akin to grasping the Holy Grail.” (Excerpt from Los Angeles Times, 1998, Julie Cart)

On April 14, 2019, Tucson Audubon reported 40 different species of birds at the Paton Center, as well as 8 different hummingbird species, including the bird that put the place on the map – the Violet-crowned.  This is the draw – the ability to see so many different birds – perhaps a life bird – while sitting in the company of fellow birders sharing stories and recent birding news.

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Violet-crowned Hummingbird at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center (photo by John Hoffman)

A lot has changed since Tucson Audubon took over what was once known as Paton’s Birder Haven.  Now called the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, there are more feeders, a new Monarch Waystation, a pond and a meadow fill the area that was once our horse paddock, fruit trees have been planted to mirror my Dad’s former orchard.

But one thing has not changed and that is that people still come here by the thousands each year (last year from all 50 United States and 21 countries) not only to see the wide variety of birds, but to experience the intimacy of this rare and special place. I have often described it as the underlying essence of the place – a sense of spirit that is felt here. Recently, Tucson Audubon’s new Paton Center coordinator, Tina Hall, referred to it as “The Paton Effect.”

There are a lot of places to go and bird, but at the Patons’, it’s a real intimate feeling. People who don’t know each other sit down and make friends. We call it “The ‘Paton Effect.’” (Tina Hall, Homestead magazine article – “Sky Island Refuge” – Spring 2019)

An army of volunteers have replaced my parents –  two devoted and generous people who turned their back yard into a birding mecca. Wally & Marion Paton dedicated their later years to serving the birding community – committed to both the birds and the birders. The volunteers carry on their legacy showing up every day to keep the place going – feeding birds, digging trails and ponds, building fences, planting bushes and flowers. Each year during Spring migration I am reminded of all those who make their return journey to this paradise – a journey home of sorts for both the birds and the birders.

There are more improvements in store. Tucson Audubon recently wrapped up a successful fundraising campaign for improvements to the home. There is no doubt that improvements are needed, but it is my sincere hope that the essence of the place – the so called “Paton Effect” will never be lost. It is, I believe,  what keeps Patons on the map.

“For every person who appreciates nature and birds, this yard is a beloved home one visits to renew one’s spirit; to experience the joy of the beauty of a quick flash of metallic colors adorning these jewels of nature, and to hear a sweet courting song, a dazzling display flight, or thrill to the sight of a rare bird.

“Each and every time a birder visits this yard, they also marvel at the generosity and warmth of the lovely couple who opened their yard and welcomed birders to partake in the wonders of nature, and what my be the truly irreplaceable, priceless ingredient in the treasure that is Paton’s Birder Haven.”  – (Darlene Smyth, excerpt from Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy)

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Remembrance of Christmas Past – Baking with Mom

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Matthew Moon checks out an antique Ford pick up

My grandson Matthew wants me to put an antique pickup truck on my Christmas list this year − “preferably red,”  I say. He knows that for a long time I have coveted one these beauties.

I am not sure what I would do with it exactly, but for years I dreamed (or perhaps fantasized) about starting a business baking homemade pies and delivering them door to door in a truck like this one. What the intrigue is about this I don’t know, but every time I see a truck like this, I re-visit that vision.

I certainly don’t envision myself rolling endless rounds of pastry, cutting up apples, baking pumpkin and squash, or sorting through berries. I only envision the truck, piled high with boxes of various sweet, delicious pies, ready for me to jump into and begin my rounds. Perhaps one might see a flaw in my business plan and they would be right. But I will continue to bake pies and hold onto my fantasy of the antique red truck.

I do make a pretty good pie − apple is my specialty. I’ve been told by many that it is the best they have ever tasted. I once went to a pie tasting at our local Michelle Pies − a small business specializing in homemade pies. I tasted their apple − I think mine is better.

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My specialty − Apple Crumb pie

I learned to bake from my mother. People used to say that Marion Paton is always feeding someone and they were right. The kitchen is the place where my mother and I connected best − maybe because that is where you would find her most often. Growing up on a farm with an ample supply of milk, cream and eggs, we ate dessert every night.

“Saturday mornings were designated for baking dessert to last the week − pies, cookies and milk-based desserts: custards, grape nut and Indian puddings, cream puffs filled with custard and a holiday favorite called Lemon Snow Pudding. Our favorite cookies were New England standards: snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, and peanut butter. Snickerdoodles are basically a butter cookie rolled in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar before baking; creating the characteristic cracked top when baked. The origin of snickerdoodles remains a mystery. Some claim that it has German origins; others say it has Dutch origins. I like to believe the theory that they originated in New England and are just nonsense words with no particular meaning, following a local tradition of naming cookies whimsical names like “Cry Babies,” “Jumblies,” and “Plunkets.” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

The kitchen was my mother’s and mine alone every Saturday morning − for hours. Sometimes, perhaps when we were getting tired of filling the counter with pies, cakes and cookies, we would  get giddy. I remember one time in particular that the mixer went a little haywire throwing flour and chunks of butter all over the counter − we couldn’t stop laughing. It was really these moments of occasional, shared laughter that I loved most about this time together.

Every year that I have been married (almost 49 years now) I have made my mother’s Lemon Snow Pudding for Christmas. It was a tradition I started to honor my Mom, who used to make it every Christmas, and the special times we shared in the kitchen. It’s a simple recipe of lemon juice, sugar, beaten eggs whites in a gelatin base covered in thick, creamy custard sauce − delicious after a big holiday meal. The fact that the base is white and fluffy, reminiscent of snow, makes it the perfect Christmas treat.

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Mom and me in the kitchen at Paton’s Birder Haven

This year I have decided to make my Dad’s favorite bar cookies – Date Nut Squares. I will send them to the Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds in honor of the staff and volunteers who continue to keep Wally & Marion Paton’s legacy alive and thriving. They have recently built a small nook in the kitchen, right next to the old kitchen table, where we would sit for hours watching the birds in their now famous backyard. The nook is for the volunteers to help themselves to coffee and perhaps a light refreshment while they carry out the many chores of running a world-renowned birding sanctuary.

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Marion Paton’s Handwritten Recipe for Date Nut Squares −Wally Paton’s favorite

 

“Mom later went on to a career in the food industry, first working at Fay School in the cafeteria, then the local regional high school cafeteria; then as manager of the school lunch program in Patagonia, Arizona, until her retirement in 1990. Someone once remarked ‘Marion is always feeding someone − family, friends, strangers, animals − domestic and wild’” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness led to the Creation of a Living Legacy.