May 23, 2013
Look Homeward, Angels: California and the Rise and Fall of America’s Space Program
Posted on Jul 30, 2011
In 1954, Gonzalez quit high school and joined the Air Force. He was sent to tech school to learn all about aerospace. Soon he was stationed in England, where he met the woman he would marry. They returned to the States and were transferred from base to base as Gonzalez rose through the ranks. In 1969 he was sent to Vietnam, where he worked as an aircraft engine superintendent at a base in Saigon. As the war raged, his wife, Sheila, was living at a trailer park in Rosamond, raising their four children. After his one-year tour, Gonzalez was sent back to the States. He retired on July 1, 1974, after 20 years of service with a deep knowledge of how airplanes worked, how to keep them running and how to manage the teams of people who made them fly. One week later, he got a job at the General Electric plant on Edwards Air Force Base. He was hired to work on the B-1 bomber.
Then Gonzalez bought a house in Lancaster, where some of the area’s early tracts had just been built. There were two tracts called Larwin. “We found a wonderful house in the second one,” Sheila recalled in a conversation on her porch. “It cost $30,000 and we got financing through a VA loan.” Its most alluring feature was that it was “all-electric”—which meant that bills for the water heater and furnace would be kept to a minimum, just as the famous and now very quaint “live better electrically” General Electric ads of the era promised. “There were only six houses in our tract then,” Gonzalez recalled. “The tumbleweeds would pile up at the door. Everybody was proud of their lawns.”
As it happened, Gonzalez never worked on the B-1 bomber. Instead he worked on other classified programs, going back to school to study airplane design and engineering and ultimately working on some of the country’s premier aircraft. He was at Edwards for 19 years, until 1993 when he and many other employees were laid off during an “RIF”—a reduction in force, also known as “We’ll farm it out,” Gonzalez said. By then, there were 200 homes in his tract and the main drag that ran parallel to his lot was called Challenger Way, renamed in tribute to the space program that had flourished at Edwards. Yet it was a time of economic downturn and an Antelope Valley that depended heavily on the aerospace industry was hit hard. Solid working-class neighborhoods like Larwin began to change; some houses were foreclosed on, empty dwellings filled up with squatters, and absentee landlords began renting out to welfare refugees who received Section 8 housing aid.
But Bob Gonzalez wasn’t going anywhere; he had sunk roots in Lancaster and there he and his family would stay, through all the boom and bust cycles, because for him he is a short distance but a very long way from the fruit fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Today, he is a great-grandfather who spends his days fishing, traveling and tinkering in his garage as sonic booms thunder across the big skies of the Antelope Valley. He likes the sound of the passing jets, and he always marvels at the contrails in the skies. Although his humble demeanor would never betray such a thing, he’s proud of having worked on the very thing that made America what it is today, a quiet accomplishment that helped his family flourish in a time when hard work was valued. In the Antelope Valley there are thousands of people just like Bob Gonzalez, and they are all one of a kind.
On any given day in the Mojave, when wind conditions are right, and often enough even when they are not, you can see boys setting off rockets at a dry lake bed. Sometimes they are with their fathers and sometimes with their friends. Sometimes they are by themselves, lonely not at all, putting the final touches on a flying vessel that they made. Carefully they insert the fuel, tenderly they fold the parachute so the rocket can return. They arrange it just so on the launching pad and then proffer a flame, stepping clear of the blastoff and watching the vessel rise, lost and found in that delirious moment when it leaves the Earth, slices through the air, pauses as the second stage engages, regaining speed and picking up some more, racing toward the heavens.
“Look at it go, Homer,” a friend says to the boy as they launch a homemade rocket in “October Sky.” “This one’s gonna go for miles.”
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