To the Moon, Alaska!

(The following commentary first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 20, 2019.)

I met two of the Apollo 11 astronauts — Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — on their inaugural trip to Alaska in July 2001, a thrilling and meaningful encounter.

 

Their primary mission was to fish for king salmon on the Kenai River. But the astronauts were also here as VIP guests to commemorate the first anniversary of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, our state’s only space science education center for children. Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, himself a former World War II pilot and a tireless advocate for Alaska aviation, secured the bulk of the necessary construction funds via a special one-time federal appropriation.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of humankind’s most miraculous, awe-inspiring feats of history — Apollo 11. Under massive constraints of time, money and risk on every level, we developed the ingenuity, technology and teamwork to safely launch Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back.

 

The cosmic endeavor cost billions of dollars and took hundreds of thousands of people from all across the country working in sync to make the epic journey happen. And yes, it was rocket science — the best and brightest rocket scientists. And the ranks included the top engineers, computer technicians, metallurgists, test pilots, satellite inventors and MIT graduates.

 

But the people working behind the scenes at NASA — excellent administrators, data entry clerks, secretaries, accountants — also exemplified the kind of resolve and dedication that the star test pilots oozed in their DNA.

 

Scientifically informed politicians, well-trained journalists and enthusiastic classroom teachers all played a visionary part in boosting the space program.

 

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin looks back at Tranquility Base during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. (Nasa)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin looks back at Tranquility Base during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. (NASA)
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke to students at UAA's ANSEP building on Friday, January 15, 2013. Students from Mat-Su middle schools, Bethel and Nome high schools and UAF in Fairbanks are in Anchorage for the program. Aldrin is the special guest at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program celebration at the Dena'ina Center Friday evening. Aldrin was the second person to walk on the Moon. The Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian dance group performed at the talk.
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke to students at UAA’s ANSEP building on Friday, January 15, 2013. Students from Mat-Su middle schools, Bethel and Nome high schools and UAF in Fairbanks are in Anchorage for the program. Aldrin is the special guest at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program celebration at the Dena’ina Center Friday evening. Aldrin was the second person to walk on the Moon. The Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian dance group performed at the talk.

 

If we pause to take an evolutionary look back, our species, Homo sapiens, has survived thanks to superb capacities for cooperation between groups, as the Israeli anthropologist, Yuval Noah Harrari points out in his bestseller, “Sapiens.”

Historically, something else has bound Homo sapiens together, Harrari says, while paradoxically, also tearing us apart: our fictions. The whole array of communal beliefs, myths, stories and imagined realities we choose to believe in have also led us to undertake monumental, risky explorations into the unknown.

These astounding moments of convergence and alignment, such as the Apollo program, are something to think about as we face the most vexing and monumental issues of our day, i.e., global climate change, how to repair the Earth’s biosystems, how to save the oceans, how to feed the world’s population.

 

Michael Collins, who was also a member of the Gemini 10 crew, told reporters it wasn’t circling the moon that dramatically changed him, it was seeing the Earth from 239,000 miles away. “It’s not just a rock. It’s a fragile place,” he said, “and we need to do a better job of protecting it.”

 

What’s troubling in our current political atmosphere, though, and what can cause a sense of despair to sink in, is that due to the modern breakdown in community values, in family and in our unifying myths, we have forgotten how to bridge the gulf of differences that separate us. Alaska right now is the perfect example of rancor and splintering.

 

As a society, we have become more scientifically polarized and less likely to read in-depth. We resort to emotionalism, stereotyping and name-calling. Fostering real dialogue between opposing groups is an ideal often promoted by elected officials, voters and party members. In reality, however, there isn’t much evidence to prove that fostering real dialogue as a way to get from A to Z has been implemented in practice. Cooperation goes up in smoke.

 

In the volatile decade of the 1960s, not everyone believed America should prove its superiority against the USSR by spending astronomical amounts of taxpayer dollars on space program stunts. Many critics viewed space travel as a total waste of precious resources while important social programs languished.

 

Yet the naysayers at the time were a real part of authentic public dialogue. They kept NASA sharply focused on goals and objectives. NASA had to be truthful. They had to answer the controversy in the language of numbers, cost overrides, balance sheets and budgets.

 

But in the heyday of the U.S. space program, the bottom line wasn’t the bottom line.

NASA also spoke to the public and Congress in inspiring terms, not only in dollars and cents. They used brilliant public relations tactics, no doubt, by using various members of the astronaut corps to ignite passion and imaginations, to appeal to humanity’s sense of awe and wonder.

 

Instead of concentrating on whatever commercial products might result from Apollo 11, NASA appealed to a belief in something far greater to rally Americans. To probe the universe. To answer an insatiable hunger to gain more knowledge. To foster a “can-do” problem-solving spirit. To push forward into the future against insurmountable odds (which also produces uncharted consequences).

 

Most importantly, instead of continuously bashing and humiliating the opposition — those evil Soviets — through hateful Cold War rhetoric, NASA actually mentioned future cooperation as a possibility. After Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong traveled on a kind of diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union. Armstrong was warmly received as a hero by our “enemy.” Both superpowers extended a hand to one another through the International Space Station and other shared scientific efforts.

 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their indelible footprints on the moon’s bleak surface, in its “magnificent desolation,” as Aldrin described it. Col. Michael Collins, the lunar command module pilot, is the least well-known of the three elite astronauts. Humble and self-effacing, he’s the astronaut I most closely follow. Collins, age 88, has remained 100% satisfied to be, metaphorically speaking, in the moon’s shadow. A member of a distinguished military family, he has always viewed himself as an equal member of the Apollo 11 team. He hasn’t cared in the least that no action figures were ever created in his image.

 

Once he left NASA, Collins, a United States Military Academy graduate, became the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and later, a trustee for the National Geographic Society. He’s been inducted into many halls of fame. He still enjoys fishing and has become a visual artist.

We all know that Alaska and the country have greatly changed since Apollo 11 and joy was shared on everyone’s faces at the ticker-tape parades.

 

At a South Anchorage park recently, I struck up a conversation with a retired military man who was having fun flying his expensive Maverick Air drone in the skies above me. The high-tech drone supports his photography hobby. There are probably more aircraft flying around Alaska today than ever before, he said. More than 50 new F-35 fighter jets will be based at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, as Alaska has not lost its strategic importance.

We are now living in an era of unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones are here to stay. Rovers send back mind-boggling images from the surface of Mars. Nobody knows whether Homo sapiens will ever make it to Mars. I’m not sure if the Red Planet, 140 million miles away, really generates any excitement in the public’s eye.

 

The souvenir snapshots of Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins I took 18 years ago in Kenai will now be passed on to my four-year old grandson. One of his bedroom walls is decorated with painted renditions of the planets. Together, we often dash outside to count the numbers of airplanes we hear soaring over his house. He doesn’t yet understand who Michael Collins is, but soon enough, he will.

Psychic Impacts from Anchorage’s Magnitude 7 Earthquake

Kathleen W. Tarr

If, during childhood, I had experienced anything like the unforgettable phenomenon and terror of a major earthquake, I might have grown up with the inspiration to become a geologist. When the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, however, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh with no knowledge of the natural laws of geology.

Anchorage’s recent M7 earthquake—on November 30, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.—was also unforgettable. And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since that I was nowhere near Alaska for the much greater one of 1964.

I’m not sure if neuroscientists have written much about the lingering psychological effects caused by major earthquakes. (I’m writing this from Southeast Alaska after gladly accepting an invitation from friends to get away from the shakes and rolls. Only trouble is, I’m situated on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, where the Yakutat block is…

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Psychic Impacts from Anchorage’s Magnitude 7 Earthquake

If, during childhood, I had experienced anything like the unforgettable phenomenon and terror of a major earthquake, I might have grown up with the inspiration to become a geologist. When the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, however, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh with no knowledge of the natural laws of geology.

Anchorage’s recent M7 earthquake—on November 30, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.—was also unforgettable. And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since that I was nowhere near Alaska for the much greater one of 1964.

I’m not sure if neuroscientists have written much about the lingering psychological effects caused by major earthquakes. (I’m writing this from Southeast Alaska after gladly accepting an invitation from friends to get away from the shakes and rolls. Only trouble is, I’m situated on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, where the Yakutat block is thrust into the Fairweather Fault, one of the fastest moving terranes on the planet.)

I’ve been thinking about the mental and physical changes I immediately felt as the earthquake hit.

That morning, I was alone in my small, one-story ranch house on very flat ground, sitting at my laptop working. The entire structure, violently jerked and swayed, wall to wall. The power instantly went out. My coffee sloshed completely out of the cup and onto the floor.

Within the inner recesses of the mind, in its substrata, a major transition occurred. I can only describe it as a kind of cognitive liquefaction.

In that harrowing moment in the midst of the pitch blackness, my rational faculties went slip-sliding away, too, and my brain—as I have tried explaining it to my friends—turned into a glob of goo. And when that happened, another part surfaced, some long-hidden, primal instincts temporarily took control.

My whole body trembled, convulsed. This is it. On a Richter Scale of Fear, I registered an 11.

I ran screaming to the front door and stood frozen with indecision, then collapsed onto the doorstep. With both hands shaking, I called anybody I could think of who might come over, crying through very jumbled words. The M7 unleashed 90 percent of the total energy, far more power than all the subsequent aftershocks combined, a fact I later learned from the hard-working seismologists—and something to frequently remind myself about.

Within 15 minutes after the M7,  a male friend who happened to be driving nearby (he thought the wheels were coming off the axle of his Suburban) came to my rescue. This is what he found: a helpless, disoriented creature, a woman curled into a heap, barely able to speak or stand up straight. And yet, by extraordinary good fortune I hadn’t sustained a single cut or bruise and my five-year old house was still standing. I gazed up at him, hugged him, and then in my desperate, semi-delirious state with my arms locked around his neck, I practically strangled him.

A reluctant confession from my independently-minded self. The more primitive part of the brain the brain responded: “It’s good to have a man with me.”

I was not able to sleep a wink that first night, as most everybody I know in the Anchorage area has admitted—men, too. All night long, I sat in a chair positioned close to the front door, fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, with my car keys, winter coat, boots, hat, gloves, and fully-charged cell phone.

To help counter my fears, I searched for the blue Rosary beads that once belonged to my now deceased mother. I found them in a small jewelry box, took them out and muttered a few prayers. Not a rational gesture by any means.

For days, my legs felt as if I had been on a Bering Sea crab boat; it was hard to stay balanced while working in my kitchen, especially if another aftershock hit. I jumped with every loud or unexpected sound I heard, every creak or vibration, whether it came from the refrigerator’s ice maker, wind rattling a vent, a freight truck rumbling down Lake Otis Parkway, the furnace kicking on—even the ding from an incoming text message would set me off.

In my quest to relieve some of the psychological stress, it has helped to review the history of North America’s most powerful earthquake.

After the epic M9.2 earthquake in 1964, teams of geophysicists, geologists, and engineers immediately swarmed into Southcentral Alaska.

“Hundreds of foot soldiers of science, in pursuit of the secrets of the inner earth, roamed around,” as Time-Life Books reported in their popular Planet Earth series from 1982. Our young state was turned into a “a full-scale laboratory experiment.”

During the data-collecting frenzy of the 1960s—and it must be happening now, as well—scientists and engineers studied aerial photos and soils maps, they measured landslides and fault scarps, looked at groundwater movements, and scrutinized buildings and other structures.

Those passionate scientists did anything and everything possible to fully analyze the physical mechanisms involved. The total energy output of the 1964 event was estimated to be the incomprehensible equivalent of 240 million tons of TNT, as one report said. And that unfathomable energy and force pulsed through 100,000 square miles of land, either heaving it up or dropping it downward.

After years of study, the much-anticipated professional papers were produced summarizing crucial scientific findings of M9.2.

USGS’s final report, Professional Paper 546, “The Alaskan Earthquake—Lessons & Conclusion” stated that M9.2. generated more scientific study from all scientific disciplines than any single previous national disasters in U.S. history up until that time.

Six hundred miles of fault ruptured at once and moved up to 60 feet, releasing about 500 years of stress buildup.

Over 130 people were killed, most by tsunamis—including 16 deaths on Oregon and California shorelines. The earthquake lasted almost five minutes and the aftershocks continued for a psychologically damaging 18 months.

One side of Fourth Avenue, as we all know from the iconic earthquake photos, buckled and cracked wide open and dropped over six feet. Seward, Valdez, and Chenega—to name a few locations—were decimated. Some areas near Kodiak were permanently raised by 30 feet, and over 60 fishing vessels were sunk or severely damaged in Kodiak harbor.

For further comparisons, I recently watched a 46-minute documentary film. “Though the Earth Be Moved,” produced by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense, reported that one million gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Anchorage airport in 1964. The film showed the one-year-old, JC Penny store in downtown Anchorage, demolished. Slabs of falling concrete killed two people.

Another important fact must be noted: I am done with aftershocks, though lately, they have grown much weaker.

Anchorage residents, as the Anchorage Daily News not long ago reported, still suffer from anxiety. The M7 epicenter was too close (less than 15 miles away) to simply forget it happened. Since the main shock, 40 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater have frayed nerves, disturbed and frightened children and pets. Being home alone is probably not the best thing, counselors have advised.

Even though I’ve lived in this seismic land for decades and have been in plenty of other earthquakes and tremors, I had not yet gotten around to the serious business of reviewing and filling the “survival checklist.”

However, the M7 (which sounds like a galaxy) has jolted me and my friends into a new reality. We have acquired a heightened state of awareness about where exits are in public places, and where the highest elevation points are if we live in coastal areas. In the city, we are worried about the Port of Anchorage’s further structural deterioration and our overall food security.

We are tallying water jugs, battery supplies, and headlamps. We are investing in propane camp stoves and securing any heavy household objects that could topple over and cause injury. We are storing more cans of sardines and dried beans in our pantry. We’ve made a plan about whose house, if still standing, will be “earthquake central” next time.

A few months have gone by and I have made a conscientious effort to suppress the emotional outbursts, the fears, and to focus more rationally on what I should have done and need to do. (Writing about it has also been a kind of therapy!)

But honestly, one day of unprecedented terror is enough, thank you very much. So says the emotional self, loud and clear. Never again. Woman, you are a weakling and need to toughen up, comes the more commonsense internal response. But it does seem that female friends reported experiencing more lingering side-effects such as nausea, dizziness, and stronger desires to jump on the next plane to Seattle.

One local geophysicist I know, a Stanford graduate who worked on the Earthscope project installing seismometers throughout Alaska, tried consoling me: “The magnitude and frequency of aftershocks, will, over time, diminish,” he said. “So when one occurs, please be happy.”

M7 has also reminded me—or maybe emotionally pummeled me—into remembering what is real and what is abstract. This is the earth. The earth and its powerful forces are real. You more fully comprehend these titanic geophysical changes when you live through them, when you have felt your whole body physically react.

In our 21st century society of technological advancement, global inter-connectivity, and physical comforts with mostly reliable sources of heat, fuel, food, and water, rarely do we think about the consequences of any of that being taken away, with absolutely no notice.

The fact is, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center, Alaska had 55,000 earthquakes in 2018, a new record. And that is an astoundingly real number. Seismically, we are North America’s big daddy. It’s impossible to walk around Alaska geologically numb or indifferent to the dynamism of the ground beneath our feet.

The psychic rebuilding is going to take a while. Those fissures of fear run deep. Alaskans of yesteryear showed grit and resiliency. They bravely stayed put and rebuilt.

Geologists have done remarkable work in the past 50 years to better understand tectonic plates. But with improved mathematical modeling, better instrumentation and satellite observations, many mysteries remain to ignite the scientific curiosities of our species.

Our precious planet, forever in-motion, commands utmost respect and rapt attention. If we are to read its messages–whether geological or climactic–maybe what we are each called to do is to listen more closely to the earth around us.  Listening also involves occasionally studying and learning on one’s own.

It is beyond our current scientific capability to predict what kind of earthquake will happen and in what exact location or time frame. We operate on the laws of probability and statistics. Next time, perhaps, I will be better prepared and a little less anxious. But I’ve decided to keep my mother’s prayer beads on the mantle. That way, I can easily grab them in my mad run to the door.

News & Events

Upcoming

January 16, 2019    Barnes & Noble, Anchorage, book signing, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

February 13, 2019   Author Presentation, OLE Program (UAA); 9:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

March 9, 2019          Author Reading, The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe

March 27-20, 2019   Associated Writing Programs conference, Portland, Oregon

April 27, 2019 —       Featured speaker, New York City, Corpus Christi Chapter of the                                                 International Thomas Merton Society.

June 27-30, 2019 — Presenter, International Thomas Merton Society, 16th General Meeting, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California.


Recent

November 10, 2018, Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh, noon to 2:00 p.m., Featured speaker—informal book talk.

November 1, Kenai Peninsula College, Kenai/Soldotna, Alaska….McLane Commons, 6:30 p.m., Presentation and reading for KPC’s Showcase:  “From the Inner Frontier to the Last Frontier: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska.”

October 14, 2018, Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, guest speaker at Sunday Forum, 9:00 a.m. to 10:15, 2824 East 18th Avenue, Anchorage. “Reflections on Thomas Merton’s 1968 Alaska Journey.”

October 15-18, 2018  Yakutat, Alaska, presentations to book club and community on We Are All Poets Here.

October 4, 2018
Alaska Professional Communicators, luncheon guest speaker. Kinley’s Restaurant (3230 Seward Highway, Anchorage), 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

September 28-29, 2018
“Thomas Merton in Alaska” Conference, St. Elizabeth Anne Seton’s, Anchorage, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Merton’s 1968 sojourn to Alaska. Conference speaker & book signing.

September 12-15, 2018
Alaska Historical Society Annual Conference – Tundra & Ice: History in Alaska’s Arctic. Conference Speaker. Nome, Alaska.

August 26, 2018  Book Signing, St. Paul’s Corner, Holy Family Cathedral, Bookstore, 5th Avenue, Anchorage.

Other appearances:

UKConference
Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain & Ireland (TMSGB&I) Oakham Conference. Left to right: Gary Hall (TMSGB&I), Stephen Dunhill (TMSGB&I), Kathleen Tarr, and Dr. Paul Pearson (Director, Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University).
KT 49W Talk March 1
Kathleen signs books at 49 Writers Craft Talk, March 2018.aWe Are All Poets Here, author reading. April 26, 2018. Homer City Library.

Alaska Writer’s Guild Monthly Program: Author & Publisher Presentation. The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe (3956 Spenard Rd, Anchorage, AK 99517), 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m., May 8, 2018.

Homer City Library Book Club, June Book: We Are All Poets Here Author Reading. Homer City Library (500 Hazel Ave, Homer, AK 99603), 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., June 26, 2018.

Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain & Ireland Oakham Conference. Panel presenter, “Showcasing Contemporary Merton Work,” April 6-8, 2018. United Kingdom.

49 Writers Craft Talk. “On the Literary Road with Thomas Merton: Writing as a Pilgrimage,” March 1, 2018. Indigo Tea Lounge, Anchorage.

UAA Campus Bookstore We Are All Poets Here Presentation and Discussion. “On the Frontiers of an Inner Life: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska”, February 6, 2018.Book Launch Party, We Are All Poets Here, January 27, 2018. The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe, Anchorage.

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Kathleen presents a copy of We Are All Poets Here to Alaska’s former Lt. Governor, Byron I. Mallot.  The two shared stories about Yakutat, Alaska–the Lt. Governor’s ancestral home, a predominantly Tlingit community on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, and an important part of of Kathleen’s book. (February 23, 2018)

Kodiak Island, July 20-27, 2017.

The 15th General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society, St. Bonaventure University, Olean, New York, June 15-18, 2017. (participant)

Panelist, Notre Dame University.  “Trying to Say ‘God’ : Re-Enchanting the Catholic Literary Imagination,” Conference, South Bend, Indiana, June 22-24, 2017. Panel topic: “Thomas Merton and Writing as an Act of Resistance.”