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Historically Speaking: A kid’s memory of Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico The caption reads, "Dr. Robert H. Goddard posed with a rocket" — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special for the Daily

Record

Following is a fun, but insightful Clarence Adams story from our archives about Dr. Robert H. Goddard. This story was published in the Roswell Daily Record, March 12, 1999. It gives Clarence’s firsthand perspective, and memories of Dr. Robert H. Goddard, his time spent in Roswell and his true genius. Here is that story:

“‘Back during the ‘Dark Ages,’ 1936, when I was a teenager about 16, I usually enjoyed the privilege of having a job, a situation many other youngsters did not have. I have related several times in my ‘Vision’ columns that sometimes my father seemed to think, ‘We will find what we’re looking for just across the river.’ Well, we moved across the river and the grass would not be as green as he had thought. In other words, we moved around quite a bit.

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“But dad was always optimistic, and when a friend offered him a job, he didn’t hesitate to accept, although sometimes the particular situation ‘didn’t work out’ for long. But that was the way of the country at that time, for the Great Depression might be good for some one day, and good for others the next day.

“Anyway, one of our friends, Stanley Brown, had a good job delivering newspapers for the Roswell Daily Record — some 500 copies of them — every day except Sundays. And when Mr. Brown asked us if we’d like to move out to his farm and take care of his orchards, dad was quick to accept. Not only would my dad have a job, we’d also have a nice house to live in. In addition to being offered these ‘goodies,’ Stanley Brown asked me if I’d like to work with him on his Roswell Daily Record paper route. Needless to say, I accepted.

“I don’t recall what Mr. Brown offered to pay me to be his helper, but I do remember the particulars of the task. Every day we would drive up to the back door of the Daily Record shop downtown, load up 500 papers (more or fewer) and head out to the country. However, before we arrived at the first customer on our route, I had my lap full of papers, a number of which I’d already folded into small folds, which could be sailed down the driveway of our subscribers. And I thought this to be fun!

“Now the 1930s were pleasant times, notwithstanding the problems many suffered because of the Depression. And there were a lot of ‘weirdos’ running loose all over the country. For example, there was a lady, I think she hailed from the great state of Colorado — maybe Pueblo — who sent word to the good city fathers of Roswell (or someone,) that our town and all of its surroundings were going to fall in. Fall in what? Well, no one seemed to know. But life had to go on. I just kept delivering newspapers.

“I mentioned ‘weirdos’ didn’t I? Well, during the many trips of our traveling around the countryside in Stanley Brown’s stripped-down Model B Ford, we learned that we had a few peculiar people on our paper route, too. At least that’s what some folks thought. The man’s name was Goddard, and I suppose he was a pretty smart dude, as the address on our books read “Dr. Robert H. Goddard,” and from what we soon learned, was that he really was a scientist. Some of his neighbors even stated that he was a ‘rocket scientist.’

“As time went by, we learned much more about this strange man, who, by the way, lived at a place northeast of town in the Berrendo area, a place known as ‘Mescalero Ranch.’ I suppose that almost every day, when Stanley and I went by the ranch, and I sailed a paper over the high wall, we would spend the next few miles discussing the latest happenings of Dr. Goddard, as he performed scientific experiments in an isolated area some 18 miles north of Roswell.

“So we had a talk about when someone mentioned the man’s strange ways. ‘Do you know what some folks downtown are calling that fellow?’ Stanley asked one day. ‘Well, a lot of people are saying he’s a crackpot, you know, a guy who is just spending a lot of money shooting fireworks up in the sky. But I’ll tell you this: I think the old boy is smarter than they’re giving him credit for. And I’m going to find out what he’s done before he came to good ole Roswell town.’

“In a few days, we learned the ‘rest of the story,’ or at least part of it. We found that Robert Goddard had already made a name for himself back in the East — before he decided to come to New Mexico. Here’s a quote from past Daily Record columns: ‘On March 16, 1926, near Auburn, Massachusetts, a rocket roared to life, startling both animals and people. The event marked Dr. Robert H. Goddard’s first successful attempt at launching a liquid oxygen — gasoline rocket from a frame.’

“So this young man, Robert Hutchings Goddard, was really shooting fireworks up in the sky! I mean real rockets; he really was! We could hardly believe it!

“Needless to say, my paper route partner and I began to have second thoughts as we passed Mescalero Ranch each day. After hearing a few more rumors about Dr. Goddard, who, it seemed, had been sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, had been doing research for many years. We knew now that he was in serious business, for as a professor of physics at Clark University back in the 1920s, the young man had received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave him the means to further develop his rocketry program. Therefore, he began looking for a region with wide open spaces to do his experiments. And it didn’t take long for him to choose Roswell.

“Perhaps Dr. Goddard did not recognize the significance of his move West, in July 1930, as he and his wife Esther, along with their crew moved to Roswell. But because of the nature of Goddard’s experiments, as well as the isolation of where it was conducted, little news escaped from the ‘closed mouths’ of the team. Hence, it was several years before the public knew everything that was happening. If they did know, many of them had ‘tongue in cheek,’ as they gossiped about ‘Goddard’s Roman Candles.’

“But things began to happen. Some of those skeptics changed their tune. I thought it was really amusing that when the ‘prophet’ in Colorado made her infamous prediction that Roswell was going to disappear, the night it was supposed to happen, hundreds of people got in their cars and drove out of town, as they attempted to get out of the ‘danger zone.’

And as they ‘trickled’ back later, perhaps with embarrassment, as they found their town still above ground, I wondered if they were a little ‘red-faced.’ The next few days, you couldn’t find a person among all 11,000 of Roswell’s citizens who’d admit it, he or she had been scared, and had escaped to the foothills.

“(Note: I did not make a survey of those 11,000, so don’t put me down on this!) But do you know the same thing happened when Dr. Robert Goddard began shooting his rockets, I mean firing them a mile high — almost out of sight? You’d hear some of those former ‘skeptics’ say something like this, ‘See, I told you that old boy knew what he was doin’; he ain’t so dumb.’ You couldn’t find a soul in town who did admit that he has spoken out in opposition to Goddard’s experiments.

“And something else, little did the 11,000 people in Roswell know that this fellow, this scientist, Dr. Robert H. Goddard, would someday be known worldwide as the ‘Father of Rocketry.’ And he deserved all the recognition that was given him, for one of Goddard’s most important developments was the gyro-stabilized rocket, which reached an altitude of about 8,000 feet when it was propelled into the desert sky north of Roswell. Now that was before World War II, and the Germans were developing the U-2 rockets probably to ‘work us over,’ once they had the means of landing them on the East Coast.

“Now I didn’t know a gyro-stabilized rocket from a 12-gauge shotgun shell, (still don’t,) but I did know that when you poke a shell into the gun, hold it against your shoulder real tight, cock the gun and pull the trigger, the shot in that shell would take off to scare a cottontail rabbit half to death. Now I figured if the powder in that shell could do something like that, and Goddard had enough propulsion behind his rocket, the thing could go clean out to ‘sky-yonder!’

“Then when I heard the Germans were scaring the pants off their neighbors all over Europe, apparently developing something similar to our Dr. Goddard’s ‘thing-a-ma-jig,’ I began to wonder if our own government was making a big mistake by not putting the doctor to work for our upcoming war efforts. Well, finally some guys up in Washington got smart, (Smart guys in Washington? Ha!) and grabbed ole Goddard and began to make use of him. They were a little late, but the scientist was on the road to fame as the ‘Father of Rocketry.’

“Well, I suppose some of you are mad at me by now, but all I’ve done is tell the truth as to what was happening the way I saw it — during the 1920s and ’30s. But now I must tell you that the greatest innovations the world has ever known, began in the 1940s, and has been in development stages for 70 years. I mean now, instead of hearing about those ‘crackpots,’ you hear about the geniuses at White Sands Missile Range, or maybe about the doctors of physics at Los Alamos. It’s come to a place that whenever you get into a discussion, invariably someone will comment, ‘Well, I wonder what they’re going to come up with next?’

“But let’s keep this in perspective. In honoring the memory of Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, all you have to do is travel around Roswell, and you’ll see his ‘tracks.’ They’re in the most obvious places. Look at the colorful rockets standing like sentinels in front of Goddard High School. Now I wasn’t a student at GHS, but to me, those rockets tell a story, perhaps because I remember the particular things this man, this scientist, this genius, Dr. Robert Goddard, accomplished.

“If you’re a ‘newcomer,’ wondering about the significance of ‘Goddard’s’ inventions, you might visit the Roswell Museum and Art Center where you’ll find many ‘artifacts’ of early developments of Goddard’s experiments.

“I tell you it’s amazing how this man, during his lifetime, developed all those 200 ideas, which was patented and later used in various space-walking events.

“And today, it’s no wonder that bystanders (like me) might say something like this: ‘Well I wonder what’s gonna happen next?’”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.