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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Eagle Soars

Air Date: Week of November 26, 2010

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Jay O'Callahan (Beverly Hall Photography)

At the age of five, J.C. High Eagle had a vision - he would someday help Americans travel to the moon. Against great odds, the Oklahoma Cherokee Indian's vision came true and J.C. High Eagle became an engineer for Apollo missions at NASA, the nation's space agency. Renowned storyteller Jay O'Callahan tells the story of J.C. High Eagle. It's part of Jay's larger work, commissioned by NASA for its 50th anniversary, called Forged in the Stars.

Transcript

[MAN AT APOLLO 11 LIFT-OFF: Three, two, one, zero—all engines running—lift off! We have a lift off!]

GELLERMAN: When NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it handed storyteller Jay O’Callahan a mission: write a love letter to the space agency. Well, it took 18 months, 30 books, 40 interviews, a course in Astronomy, and a thousand pages of emails and transcripts. The result is perhaps the most researched love letter ever written. Jay O’Callahan calls it “Forged in the Stars.” He told that story last year on Living on Earth – and by popular listener demand here it is again: Jay O’Callahan with our own Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: So, what got you interested in space exploration to begin with?

O’CALLAHAN: I’ve grown up with it as much of my generation, but I’ve also lost a deep interest like much of my generation and when I got the commission and began to take this course in Astronomy so I can see…I can see Saturn. I talked to a professor at Harvard, he said, ‘I’m so excited we can see the rings of Saturn as clearly as the grooves in a record!’ It kind of let me expand and realize, we as a human race are expanding. And we haven’t caught up with it. I’m so intrigued that when Armstrong and Aldrin went around the Earth after landing on the moon, people would run up and they’d never say ‘you did it’- ‘We did it! We did it!’ This sense of this is humanity’s achievement, and perhaps it can help pull us together.

CURWOOD: You get the commission. How do you go about doing the research for this story?

O’CALLAHAN: NASA was very helpful. My boss Ed Hockman we went down to Huston together and interviews were set up- a lot of interviews with very different people, people responsible for food, people responsible for the chairs the astronauts sit in, for engineering…so a lot of interviews. And then we’re going off to jet propulsion laboratory, and I thought, “This is going to be boring. These people are responsible for robots, un-manned space.” They were fascinating! They were passionate. It was one of things that struck me. These people were passionate. Almost every person said ‘I love working here. I’m so lucky to have this job, I dreamed about this as a kid.’ So, that passion I think helped me become passionate about their work and wanting to tell their story.

CURWOOD: Well I understand that you’re now going to perform an excerpt from “Forged in the Stars” for us, what are we going to hear?

O’CALLAHAN: You’re going to hear about a young man who had a vision. And, I love that he had a vision, because, for thousands of years there’s been this vision of… ‘maybe we could go there, maybe we could go to the moon, maybe beyond.’ And, this is a five year old boy and he has a vision, and you’ll see in the story he’s encouraged. He’s not written off, go out and play- he’s listened to- and he pursues the vision.

[MUSIC: Llewellyn “Peace” from Reiki (New World Music 1999)]

O’CALLAHAN: In 1948, in a working-class neighborhood in Oklahoma City, a five-year-old boy ran into the kitchen, he said, ‘Mom, I heard a voice.’

‘A voice?’

‘Yes, it was coming from way up by the sun, it said I was going to have something to do with getting people to the Moon!’

And she said, ‘That’s a vision.’ And she said that because they were Cherokee, Osage. She said, ‘You’re going to have to work for the vision.’ Working meant being good at mathematics and physics.

His name was J. C. High Eagle-- that was his Cherokee name. His name in the white world was Jerry Elliot. He did well in high school.

Then, J.C. High Eagle, 1961, went to the University of Oklahoma, 18, excited – physics, mathematics! And, he found a lot of students didn’t want him there.

‘What’s the Indian kid doin’ here?’

A lot of professors didn’t want him.

‘You’re a fine young man, but see nature hands out gifts indiscriminately, and your people don’t have, well, the mental wherewithal to be engineers, scientists. You’re wasting your time.’

He was hurt, but he had the vision and he stayed with it. He did very well. In 1966, J.C. High Eagle decided to go to graduate school – physics, mathematics! But, there was no money. Stepfather had died, his mother was working.

So, this young man, J.C. High Eagle went down – this is Norman, Oklahoma – to the police station. ‘I want to be a policeman.’ They gave him a test. He scored as high as anyone has ever scored. He became a full-time policeman and a deputy sheriff. That meant he could take two courses a semester. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock was Electrical Engineering. He wore his uniform with a loaded gun to class. But, it was Oklahoma.
One day, his mother called and said, ‘There’s a telegram.’

‘Open it, Mom.’

‘It’s from the army – you have to report for your draft physical.’ He passed. She called again.

‘Another telegram for you.’

‘Open it.’

‘You’ve got to report to boot camp in 15 days –Vietnam. Ca—call your grandfather.’ J.C. called his grandfather – wise old man. Called him at his wheat farm.

‘Granddad, J.C. I’m going to boot camp in 15 days.’

‘They won’t take you.’

‘Oh, no. I got the piece of paper.’

‘I don’t believe in paper. They won’t take you. Had a hard time getting the calf born last night. [Laughs] I had to hitch the tractor up!’

‘Granddad, I’m going to boot camp.’

‘They won’t take you. Let me tell you about last night! [Laughs]’ His granddad went on and on, J.C. was furious. Hung up, called his mom: ‘He didn’t listen to me, said they wouldn’t take me. Went on and on about a calf.’

‘He’s my – my father. I’m with him.’ J.C. was furious; the two people he trusted didn’t listen to him! 15 days, 14, 13,12, 11, 10. On the tenth day, there was an angry drunk. He got a backpack, they arrested the drunk, and the drunk said to J.C. High Eagle, ‘Arrest me, I will kill you.’ They arrested him.


Jay O'Callahan (Beverly Hall Photography)

They found out the drunk had been released from Macalister after serving 30 years for killing a man. The drunk paid his fine, he was off.

Nine days, eight days. On the eighth day a letter came to the police station. The drunk was going to get J.C. High Eagle. So, J.C. is looking over his shoulder.

Seven days, six days. The sixth day he finished class, 11 o’clock, Electrical Engineering – walked down the corridor, several students are waiting outside the Dean’s office. And there on the bulletin board – NASA interviewing today! J.C. got in line, said to the student, ‘What do you got?’

‘You got to have a NASA application, a government application, and your resume. They won’t talk to you if you don’t.’ There’s no time to get that. The line melts down, J.C. steps in. The NASA man is packing his briefcase.

He looks at this cop, ‘What can I do for you, officer?’

‘I want to put people on the moon.’ He looks at this cop. ‘I’m working my way through graduate school.’

‘Well, listen; I got a plane to catch. Write down your phone number there, your name. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ The NASA man is off.

Five days, four days. His mother calls.

‘J.C., a man, Bernie Goodwin, from NASA, he said he talked to you. You ought to call him right now. Here’s the phone number.’

He calls, ‘Mr. Goodwin, J.C. High Eagle.’

‘You’re a bright young man. I checked on your record, you’re brilliant. You got fire, we need people like you. In fact, we want you to work for us. Monday morning, Manned Space Center, Houston.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why? The draft?’

‘Yes, sir, the draft.’

‘Well, you’re a policeman; you know possession is nine tenths of the law. You come, we possess you. Who runs the draft there?’

‘We have a colonel.’

‘Well, we have a general. Our general will talk to your colonel. Monday morning, Manned Space Center.’

‘Yes, sir!’ J.C. High Eagle, goes home, tells his mother.

She says, ‘Call your grandfather.’ He calls his grandfather. ‘Granddad –’

‘I told you they wouldn’t take you.’ J.C. High Eagle gets his guitar, borrows his mom’s car and he heads to Houston. And he’s thinking, ‘Granddad must have negotiated a different fate for me with the Creator.’

Nine o’clock Monday morning he is hired as an engineer at NASA. A few weeks go by. Chris Craft, who becomes the famed flight director, comes over with a big cigar and says to J.C., ‘How do you like it here, son?’

‘I love it! I love the responsibility, but one thing, sir…’

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m used to reading books to learn what I should – what should I read?’

‘Son, we don’t read books here, we write them.’

Soon enough, J.C. High Eagle is writing the Aegena Systems Handbook. J.C. High Eagle is an engineer in Flight Control Center for all the Apollo missions, for astronauts landing on the moon. He has achieved his vision. And there’s a coda. Apollo 13 is about to lift off, and J.C. High Eagle gets another paper. This is for jury duty in Houston. He goes down to Houston. Nobody gets out of jury duty with Judge Singleton.

There’s a pregnant woman saying, ‘Your honor, I’m pregnant.’

‘The baby will wait. And what’s your excuse?’

‘It’s not an excuse, your honor. I’m the lead – the lead retrofire officer for Apollo 13.’

‘What’s a retrofire officer?’

‘I calculate the reentry of the command module. If it’s too steep, they burn up. If it’s too shallow, they flip off, they do not come back.’

‘I don’t usually make exceptions. I’ll make an exception in this case if you do me a favor.’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Bring them back alive.’

‘Yes, sir!’

Apollo 13 lifts off. It goes up and up, it’s two hundred thousand miles up. All is fine. J.C. High Eagle finishes his shift at Flight Control Center, goes out, gets in his car, turns on the radio. There’s been an accident in space.

Turns the car around, runs into Flight Control Center. Men are running around, some men are crying, something very serious has happened. They’re not sure what. And somebody says, ‘They’ve got to abort.’

‘No!’ said J.C. ‘No! Don’t abort!’ He’s afraid the engine may be damaged. And if they do a u-turn in the command module, he’s afraid the engine won’t get them back.

He says, ‘No, you’ve got to slingshot them around the moon! Use the gravity of the moon to help slingshot them back to the earth.’ J.C. High Eagle helps get people to the moon and helps them get back to Earth. He’s achieved his vision.

[MUSIC: NASA “Voice OF Earth” from NASA Voyager Space Sounds (NASA 2009)]

CURWOOD: Wow, Jay, that was great! I never heard of J.C. High Eagle before. What was he like when you interviewed him?

O’CALLAHAN: He was very warm and looked very young to me. Of course, he was in his early 20s when he was hired, and he worked 40 years as an engineer there. He was very warm. He was cleaning out his mother’s house in Oklahoma City – she had died.

And we had a wonderful time together. He told me this story that I’ve told you as we were driving downtown. Then we got back, I said, ‘I’d better record this. Tell this again, J.C.!’ And every since, I’ve been emailing about this detail, that detail. And just recently he told me how hard it was at the University when people didn’t want him. So, we’ve become old friends.

CURWOOD: So, how did doing the background research for this story, and putting it together, change your views about space exploration?

O’CALLAHAN: Changed my views in a number of ways. February 14th, 1990, Voyager II was beyond Pluto and took a photo of our solar system. And in that solar system, Earth is a speck. And I was fascinated that we are so small and so precious.

And I, like many of the astronauts, was struck by the fact that we can see Earth from a distance. And perhaps, if that sinks down deep into all of us, we’ll begin to realize it’s finite, it’s precious. And we’ve got to – we’ve got act to take care of it. So, that was a huge change. Another one was the beauty – the beauty of the solar system.

CURWOOD: I understand you’ve taken your storytelling about NASA, you call it “Forged in the Stars” – you’ve taken it on the road, and recently your performed it for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. You’ve been out to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. What’s been the response to your show?

O’CALLAHAN: The most exciting response was Jet Propulsion Laboratory because it was the first official. And there was standing room only, and they listened well. And I finished, and then they stood up. They stood up applauding. I got to talk to some of them and said, ‘You listened so well.’

And one woman said, ‘Listen, I’ve been here 30 years, and of course, we listen well, we’re intelligent. And when something captures us, we listen well, and you told our story.’ And that – that meant the world to me, that’s what I want to do. These people are proud of their work, and NASA is not greeted by this culture the way it was in the ‘60s. And yet, the work goes on and they’re proud of what they’re doing.

CURWOOD: Jay O’Callahan’s a storyteller based in Massachusetts. His new work is a love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars”. Thanks for joining us, Jay.

O’CALLAHAN: Thank you so much, I’ve loved it Steve.

[MUSIC: Various Artists: “Us And Them” from Vitamin Piano Series Plays Pink Floyd (Vitamin records 2005)]

GELLERMAN: Jay O'Callahan with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood. You can hear the entire live studio performance of “Forged in the Stars” later in December on your favorite public radio station.

 

Links

Storyteller Jay O'Callahan's website

JC High Eagle (aka Jerry Elliott) NASA notes and other materials on blog from Oklahoma History Center

After JC High Eagle retired from NASA, he became an entertainer. Here’s his website

 

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