I biked alone in the park today. The weather was less than optimal, cold, gray, windy and wet. The rain had stopped by the time that I launched and I had fenders on the bike to protect me from puddle splashes, so I stayed dry. The park was empty. Only a couple of skaters waited at the railing, while the Zamboni squeegeed off the ice. There were a few runners, but not many. I saw so few fellow cyclists that I began to doubt my sanity. Fortunately, in the last mile, an influx of bikers allowed me to make quota. I got 15 miles.
I had turned for home, cutting through the planetarium’s parking lot when I came upon an unexpected sight, a Blue Angel’s F/A-18 fighter jet. It was parked in front of planetarium’s entrance. I asked what gives, of a passing docent. He explained that the jet had been trucked in this last week. It was so wide that the wings had to be completely detached and then reattached on site. In the coming weeks, it will be lifted onto a pylon. It will be situated where the outdoor playground once stood. Someday soon, I’ll be pedaling along on the bike path, up the rise to the planetarium, past the battling T-Rex and Triceratops and there it will be, hovering above them both, ready to pounce upon the survivor.
Locking the bike, I ventured inside. The lower level of the planetarium contains galleries devoted to Saint Louis’s contribution to flight and space exploration. This isn’t too surprising, since the building’s name is the James S. McDonnell Planetarium. McDonnell, or simply Mac as his teammates would call him, was the founder of McDonnell Aircraft, or similarly simply McAir. Mac and McAir started in business during WW II, building aircraft parts. After the war the company graduated to building whole airplanes. It’s single most successful product was the Vietnam era F-4 Phantom. Over 5,000 of these jets were made, enough that one was rolling off the assembly line every shift, three shifts a day. This was a heady time for McAir. Capitalizing on its success, Mac bought the troubled Douglas Aircraft, giving his company an interest in the commercial aircraft business and a new name, McDonnell Douglas.
When I first moved to Saint Louis and worked as a consultant to McAir, planes like the above pictured Blue Angel’s jet were rolling off the assembly line, maybe even this very one. I once heard Old Man Mac, as he came to be known, across the PA system. First there was a hiss of static, then an audibly old, but still resolute voice, “This is Mac addressing the team.” Younger McDonnell relatives took over the helm, but they lacked the wherewithal of the old man. Eventually, like Douglas fell to McAir, McDonnell Douglas was swallowed by Boeing. In the basement of the planetarium, is a gallery with the word prologue in its title. It is only a shadow of the real Prologue Room, a museum in the former McDonnell Douglas headquarters building. This planetarium gallery is populated mostly with reproductions, fake artifacts, small models and poster style blueprints that are all likely available for sale in the gift shop. Along the back wall, in a single glass case, in it, atop a wooden base is the microphone that Mac once used to address his team.
The adjoining gallery, has Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, real artifacts. Once the technological marvels of their day, they seem dark and dirty now. Getting burnt up upon reentry didn’t help their appearance any. There is a photo that shows Mac driving JFK through the factory in a little Cushman cart. Already an old man at the time, he looks positively gleeful as he sets about his task. When I first moved to Saint Louis, I worked with men that saw that picture being taken. They remembered that day. Engineers all, they admired the old man, and take pride when the products of their labor are honored.